About Sam Charles Norton

Rector of West Mersea

The tightrope we must walk

tightropeI write this article a few days after the latest terrorist atrocity in Manchester, and I wonder what is the right word to describe what has happened. Clearly there is a link between this barbarity and previous barbarities in Stockholm and Paris and Nice and Westminster and Florida and the rest. Should they be called ‘Islamic terrorist acts’? I would say that there is a lot of justification for doing so, for such acts draw upon a long tradition within Islamic thought going back to Muhammed himself.

To do so, would, however, open myself up to all sorts of problems that might make my main points irrelevant; or, if not irrelevant, at least unheard. For as soon as the word ‘Islamic’ is deployed in this context, then the clouds of politically-correct opprobrium descend, accusations of Islamophobia and fascism are made, and all rational considerations depart.

Yet this is also why the police force in Rotherham turned a blind eye to the systematic child abuse perpetrated by those of a particular community in that town. They were afraid of being called racist. As a result thousands of girls suffered horror. Perhaps the only courageous path is also the only honest path – we have to start using the most accurate language to describe the problems that we face. In Manchester, as with Westminster and all the other atrocities, what we face is a form of Islam.

How might we engage with and overcome such a problem? There is a tightrope here that we must walk across with great care.

The recent election in France, to my mind, portrayed the two sides of the tightrope, each one representing a fall into the abyss, two equal and opposite catastrophes. The first catastrophe is Macron, representing an unfettered globalism, where nation states are simply inefficiencies to be overcome by technocratic capitalism. Human beings, both individually and as persons bearing particular cultures, are simply resources to be deployed in the great march towards making more money. Such an approach is both dehumanising and ecocidal, a last flourish for the 1% before the deluge.

Yet Le Pen also offered a catastrophe, one of dehumanising nationalism coupled with a near-imbecilic economic policy. Human beings, when threatened, have a long-studied tendency to scapegoat others when confronted with challenges to their well-being and their world-view. When all that has been held sacred by a community is laid waste, and insult is added to such injury by the suppression of truthful discussion, then the subsequent anger seizes upon the closest available victims on which to vent their furies.

The Macron catastrophe leads to an abolition of meaning, where all are dehumanised in order to worship Mammon. The Le Pen catastrophe leads to a moral collapse, where all are dehumanised in order to worship a reactionary fantasy.

There is a tightrope to be walked between these two options, and we cannot walk upon that tightrope without an honest and truthful account of what is actually happening in our society.

Which means, to my mind, that we have to speak openly about several things. The first is that we have to say that there is a problem with the Islamic community. It does not affect the whole community but it does represent a significant part – a part which is convinced of the inferiority of Western ways of life, and the need to attack such ways using violence. There needs to be an honest conversation about the roots of such attitudes within broader Islamic patterns of thought. Without this discussion, without this ‘bringing to light things now hidden in darkness’, the control of this conversation simply passes to the most extreme voices, and that serves nobody’s best interests.

We also, however, need to talk honestly about the nations, about England and Britain, and about what it means to become a part of such a nation. Much of the contemporary secular mentality is premised on the notion that nations are, as such, obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of a better life. This doesn’t just apply to economics, where the expansion of ‘single markets’ reduces the role for national governments in order to maximise profits. Rather, the nation as a source of stability and identity, a focus for loyalty and thereby a ground for community cohesion, needs to be affirmed explicitly and confidently by the whole range of our leadership.

Lastly, we need to talk about religion. Most especially we need to understand the way in which discussion of religious issues in our society are bedevilled by our own peculiar history. We need to understand that our professed ‘enlightenment’ and release from traditional religious beliefs has served merely to blindfold and handcuff us in this present crisis. Without a coherent understanding of the role of religion within our national life, and most especially within the life of those who wish to destroy our culture, we will forever be compelled to robotically reiterate moronic mantras like ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’ and we shall suffer the inevitable consequences.

We are so much better than this. We need to avoid such politically correct platitudes that avoid addressing our crisis; we also need to avoid all forms of scapegoating and victimising that pretend to wash our hands of any role in what has gone wrong.

Rather we must engage forthrightly, honestly and courageously with our present predicaments, naming truthfully what is presently happening and yet not collapsing into a reactionary fantasy seeking a restoration of what has been.

We have a tightrope to walk. It is a tightrope made of truth, a tightrope that leads to a hopeful future for all who live in this land, where all give their active consent to a form of life that preserves the peace between all our communities, where we no longer fear to wake up to headlines announcing yet another slaughter of the innocents.

May our political leaders find their proper balance as they seek to carry us across the abyss.

Seeking an obedient via media

In the light of what is happening in Newcastle, I have started longing for a clearly articulated and authoritative Anglicanism – an obedient via media.

What I am thinking is that the con-evangelical position on the Bible is not sustainably Anglican (as it denies the present authority of the church) and the trad-catholic position on women in ministry is not sustainably Anglican (as it also denies the present authority of the church).

We won’t get anywhere until we understand what the authority of the church both is and is for.

If we believe – as I believe – that Christ granted authority to the church in many matters, and that the Church of England truly bears witness to the gospel (which is what clergy stand up and say in public before they get started in any ministry) then a key part of bearing witness to the gospel within the context of the Church of England involves offering due obedience to church authorities – on matters of interpretation of Scripture, the ordination of women, and indeed anything else that they may choose.

The situation in Jesmond could not be more egotistical if it tried. It is pride, with all that that implies, including the consequences both temporal and spiritual.

I rather think we need a restoration of classical Anglicanism. Hmm – where do I go to find that?

Living with illusions

juncker maySo Juncker has said of May that she is living within an illusion.

He may be right. It may well be that the British government has not yet fully appreciated the sheer technical difficulties involved in trying to remove ourselves from the EU whilst simultaneously trying to form a decent trade deal (decent for both sides).

And yet… I rather think that there are illusions on the EU side too, the largest being the very idea that a nation can flourish outside of the EU, that such a nation might be, not just politically and spiritually but materially better off – this cuts at the very heart of the EU’s raison d’etre.

What was it Mark Twain said about not being able to convince a man of something if he is paid not to believe it? And who pays Juncker?

Catholic order is now optional for the Church of England

By way of further thoughts…

Forward in Faith see a distinction between order and office. That is, someone can carry out (truly and legally) the office of a Bishop even if she is not – because cannot – be a member of the order of Bishops.

This means, at present, under the five guiding principles, the Church of England envisages Diocesan Bishops not sharing in the shared sacramental life of all their clergy.

I do not understand how the more Catholic members of the church can accept this.

Making Catholic order optional paves the way for lay presidency. It also radically undermines those for whom Catholic order is important but who accept the decision of the Church of England on women’s ministry.

There is, as Martyn Percy originally argued, no integrity here. It’s taken me a while to fully catch up with the implications of his argument. I don’t like what they are.

Yet another voice in my mind simply says ‘whatever’. Are we simply arguing over custody of a corpse?

We need to plan for the hardest Brexit

gib eu

So the EU have thrown the future of Gibraltar into the Brexit negotiations. What a googly (curve ball for readers from across the pond). I trust that the British government will not give any ground on Gibraltar’s sovereignty – how to revive UKIP in one easy move!

If there is a mutually satisfactory and fully agreed settlement between the EU and Britain within the next two years then I will see it as a contender for the greatest diplomatic triumph in human history. Theresa May would deserve any and all accolades that would come her way.

Which is another way of saying – this is very unlikely to happen. To agree a trade deal with the EU – who don’t have a good track record of agreeing free trade deals – alongside settlement of bills and agreements on defence co-operation and all the rest of it – and then to get that deal agreed in each of the 27 nations (including sub-nation elements like Wallonia) – and to get the substance agreed within the next 18 months (so that there is time to get it legally ratified before the deadline kicks in) – I can’t see it happening.

Which means we need to start actively planning and preparing to shift to trading with the EU on the basis of WTO rules (which is what the United States does, for example).

This doesn’t actually worry me. I see this as being a much greater shock in the short-term, but probably much better for our national future, and economy, in the long term. Let’s get on with agreeing trade deals with the Anglophone community, India and Africa – there’s a very big world out there that we can now start playing in.

It will also add to the pile of burdens on the existing EU. Will it cause a final collapse? Probably not – but at some point there will be a straw added to the camel’s back. Britain is, at least, getting a head start on learning to live without the EU which will hold us in good stead and help us help other nations pick up the pieces when the collapse comes.

Let my people go

There are three theological concepts which hold together indissolubly from an Anglo-Catholic point of view. The first is the incarnation, in which human flesh became divine. The second is the sacramental life, in which creatures of bread and wine become bearers of the divine. The third is social justice, in which we commit ourselves to work for the revealing of the divine in the human.

These are all aspects of what it means to talk about the Body of Christ – Jesus, the host, the church as a whole – working in the world.

For the Anglo-Catholic, the way in which we gain some assurance on these things is by talking about proper order within the church – so, valid ordination of priests for example, and also a prohibition on lay presidency. These things are not abstract and arcane, however much they may appear to be so to outsiders. Rather, an acceptance of proper order is how those three theological concepts are given practical effect – right doctrine, right worship, right behaviour.

What is increasingly concerning me is that this entire understanding of the faith has been quietly set aside in order to pursue unity between different factions of our church. Sadly, the political compromise that has been reached – the five guiding principles – destroys this understanding not simply for those who are opposed to women’s ministry, but for those who support it.

The Church of England, as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church has, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, the authority to ordain priests. The Roman Catholic church, for one, denies that the Church of England has such authority which is why I (and many others) could never become Roman Catholics – to do so would mean accepting that the sacraments that we have celebrated have not had validity. I cannot fathom the internal anguish that would enable a priest to accept such a verdict.

At the moment the Church of England is processing questions about women’s ordination and consecration. I believe that the Church of England has authority to make a decision in these matters. That is, when the Church of England says that women can be priests, and puts that decision into effect, it is acting in a way that does not jeopardise proper order. Women priests ordained after such a decision are validly ordained and so on.

There are those within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion who disagree with this, for various reasons, including questions of proper order. However, those who do not believe that the Church of England has authority to make this decision are committed to an alternative path of church order. We have seen the implications of this with regard to Philip North’s prospective ministry in Sheffield. A crucial question has been whether, as a Diocesan Bishop, Philip North could accept the ministry of women priests in the Sheffield Diocese (and by ‘accept’ I mean be sacramentally efficacious, ie act within the ‘proper order’ outlined above).

I do not see how this is possible. That is, I do not see how a Diocesan who rejects the authority of the Church of England on this question can then exercise a Diocesan ministry within that same Church. This is, of course, the point that Martyn Percy has made so forcibly. I am starting to believe that the only way forward for those who reject the decision made by the Church of England on this matter is to walk separately in some way – more on this below.

The House of Bishops has been concerned to prevent such a separation, in order to preserve some form of unity. I have my suspicions that this is driven by several unholy reasons as well as – or possibly instead of – the more respectable desire for unity. I am quite certain that there are elements within the House of Bishops which are simply playing a long game and hoping for the Forward in Faith group to die out.

Yet my concern now is as much for those who take an Anglo-Catholic perspective who have accepted (on good Anglo-Catholic grounds) the authority of the Church on this question, and who choose to remain. The political compromise of the five Guiding Principles does not just place Forward in Faith into an impossible position; it also undermines those Anglo-Catholics who remain. It does this because it does not take sacramental life seriously. This is why I believe that it paves the way for lay presidency at some point in the future. If the proper order of the church can be set aside in this situation, if it becomes simply another part of the political negotiations, then from an Anglo-Catholic perspective that proper order no longer exists. It can only exist if it is taken as of the essence of the church; that is, where it is absent, there the apostolic church has also been removed.

(This is not to put boundaries around God’s grace, or even to say that this is the wrong development – it is simply to say that, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, it is impossible to hold on to proper order whilst at the same time accepting the five Guiding Principles. They contradict each other.)

The House of Bishops has become a house of low virtue, possibly because it has become animated by a fear of death in the form of numerical decline and financial ruin. I do not believe that the five Guiding Principles can in any way provide a way forward for the church. What is most important is that the House begins to cultivate some stronger virtues.

The first one is simply honour. Beneath all the theological gloss we need to accept that this has been a long and bruising political fight and as with all genuine fights there are winners and losers. What is essential now is for the victors to act with honour and magnanimity, and not succumb to a desire to force ‘scorched earth’ upon those who have lost the debate.

This could take the form of a generous dispensation for those who are opposed, not in the form of individual payments to individual clergy that object (how we have fallen for that modern idolatry!) but rather that the Church of England should divest itself of those parishes and properties associated with Forward in Faith; that is, to recognise that in this divorce, some of the marital assets belong to each partner.

The Church of England has too many churches and following an honourable path might allow for two things to happen – far friendlier relations with those who would then leave, who would not then see themselves in a fight to the death with those who simply wish to exterminate them, and also an opening for the Gamaliel principle to operate – that is, if the rejection of women’s ordained and consecrated ministry is against the will of God, then time will tell.

In order for this to work, the second virtue that the House needs to cultivate is honesty. Bishops need to be set free to speak clearly and openly and honestly with each other and with the wider church over which they exercise oversight. The burial of dissent has led simply to monstrosities and we need to bring things out into the open. Most especially the integrity of the church as a decision making body has been embarrassingly compromised and the church has brought itself into disrepute. We need to remove the bandage from the infected wound in order to properly cleanse it and heal.

The third virtue is humility. The Church of England as such is not an eternal institution. It had a particular worldly birth and it may yet have a particular worldly death. It may well be that this process of divestment is how the Church of England should come to an end – setting out many different lifeboats and leaving behind a sinking shell for the state to continue to manage.

If this happens, the chances are that the conservative evangelicals may well follow Forward in Faith out of the door. After all, what trust can they possibly have in the processes of the Church of England now, especially with one eye towards the ongoing argument around equal marriage?

The truth is that there are many different Anglicanisms that are presently sharing the structure of the inherited, established church. Is there anything which binds them together beyond institutional inertia, is there any place of theological integrity, congruent with our inheritance, on which we might all stand? I rather hope that there is such a place, and the the house of Anglicanism can keep many rooms. I have learnt a great deal from those whose expression of faith is not Anglo-Catholic, and I remain of the view that there is a distinct vocation for the Anglican theological vision.

Yet in order to find out what binds us together it is imperative that we cast out the spirit of timidity from the House of Bishops. In this as in so many other areas we act like a vessel that has been holed below the waterline but the officers on deck act like a people who do not know how we have been struck – let alone what to do about it! I reiterate that in making these criticisms of the House of Bishops I am not criticising particular individuals but rather the culture has embedded itself within it – it is a fallen principality that stands in need of redemption.

We need to recognise that unity as such can become a false idol, and that it can become opposed to the truth that sets us free. We need to risk dying, for only by doing so might we also be born again – and renewed to preach the gospel effectively in this time and in this nation.

Do the five guiding principles commit the Church of England to lay presidency?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Philip North and the situation in Sheffield. One thought in particular is simply this: if the five guiding principles (5GP) are accepted, then the Church of England has abandoned the theology that makes objecting to lay presidency coherent. In other words, if we accept the 5GP, then the Church of England will end up accepting lay presidency. I think that this is a facet of the discussion that has been missed, so I shall try and spell out what my thinking is.

There are two grounds to the theology that cannot recognise women bishops as legitimate. The first rests upon the authority of Scripture, viz all the language about headship and the need for teaching in church, for example, to be male. My concern here is not with this first ground.

The second ground, however, rests upon the notion of apostolic succession, and the sense that, in order to properly exercise a priestly authority, that authority needs to have been granted by a church authority which is itself properly constituted and derivative from the apostles themselves. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are generally recognised to have such authority; the Church of England claims a similar authority for itself (hence the third principle states that the CofE “continues to share the historic episcopate with other Churches”).

This language of historic episcopacy carries with it a particular understanding of what it means to carry out the ‘cure of souls’, and the relationship between an individual priest and the bishop under whose episcope that priest serves. It is, at heart, a shared ministry; that is, the link between the priest in a diocese and the bishop of that diocese is not simply an administrative matter. Crucially, it is this link between the priest and the bishop that establishes the legitimacy of the priest presiding at Holy Communion.

Now the 5GP are intended to bridge a theological gulf between those who can accept women as bishops and those who cannot. This may be of the Holy Spirit; disunity is a sin after all. However, I do believe that we need to fully understand what it is that we are committing ourselves to in order to achieve such unity.

Martyn Percy did highlight this problem in the questions he raised for Philip North. I believe that the issue is more far-reaching. In order to ensure unity between those with different views on the question of women bishops the 5GP are teaching in practice that the classic Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) understanding of holy orders is not a first-order question. That is, it is saying that it is perfectly possible to be a Diocesan Bishop whilst at the same time believing that a proportion of those clergy over whom that Bishop exercises oversight are not true priests.

From a Protestant point of view this is a simple pragmatic compromise. From an Anglo-Catholic point of view, the most essential element is now lost: the link with a wider church is now sundered.

Once this has been accepted and established – what possible bar is there against lay presidency? (Which is, of course, already practiced in parts of the Anglican Communion.) If there is no longer any necessity for an apostolic link in those who are to work as priests in a Diocese, why not open up presidency at the Eucharist to all? Clearly the apostolic link is no longer of the esse of the church, if it can be laid aside in this way. (I have to say, I’m rather astonished that the leaders of the Society have gone along with the 5GP. It may well be that there are aspects to this that I do not see, or there is information that I am unaware of.)

The 5GP may, as I say, be of the Holy Spirit. It may well be that the Anglo-Catholic emphasis, shared with the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches, is simply no longer capable of bearing divine grace in our present context and milieu. Alternatively, it may be that it is the Church of England itself which fits that description.

I just think that the church needs to be aware of what it is signing up to in the 5GP; a little more theological leadership and a little less management.

The dilemma facing British Muslims after Westminster

isis barbarity
I write these words the day after the horrific terrorist atrocity in Westminster. Khalid Masood was a person who subscribed to a militant form of Islamic thought. As such, the attack on the civilians walking along Westminster Bridge fits with the pattern of other recent ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ in Berlin and Nice.

The British Council of Muslims released a statement saying “We are shocked and saddened by the incident at Westminster. We condemn this attack and while it is still too early to speculate on the motives, our thoughts and prayers are for the victims and those affected. We pay tribute too to the police and emergency services who handled this with bravery. The Palace of Westminster is the centre of our democracy and we must all ensure that it continues to serve our country and its people with safety and security.” The head of the Council, Harun Khan, said: “This attack was cowardly and depraved. There is no justification for this act whatsoever.”

There are no grounds for doubting the sincerity of these words. From the earliest times of Islamic military conquest there have been clear guidelines prohibiting the use of force against non-combatants. The companion of Mohammed and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, taught the Muslim army “You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man.”

Even more than this, surprise attacks – which the attack in Westminster certainly was – are explicitly forbidden. Does this mean, then, that we can share in the liberal consensus as articulated by Western leaders like George W Bush and trust that Islam is a religion of peace? That those who commit ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ simply do not understand what it is that they are claiming to protect?

I believe that the situation is more complex than this and that British Muslims are slowly being impaled upon a painful dilemma.

In August 1996, Osama bin Laden was careful to issue a declaration of war against the United States, which was published in the London newspaper Al Quds al Arabi; bin Laden knew his theology! This fatwa (religious proclamation) can be seen as initiating our present experience of ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’. It was followed two years later by a further fatwa issued by bin Laden and co-signed by several others, amplifying and expanding the declaration of war, and including the following sentence: “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…”

Given that bin Laden was scrupulously trying to keep to Islamic law and theology, how could he come up with such a conclusion? His answer, when pressed on this, was to say that killing of innocent lives was legitimate if it was understood as retaliation for the killing of innocents by the United States. The Koran is quite clear that proportionate retaliation is fully acceptable, surah 2.178 stating “O believers! retaliation for bloodshedding is prescribed to you: the free man for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the woman for the woman”.

There is therefore a debate within Islam about whether bin Laden and those who have followed in his footsteps are in fact theologically justified to apply the rule of retaliation to the question of murdering innocent civilians. It is surely beyond dispute that the United States and its allies (including the United Kingdom) have been killing innocent people across the Middle East, most recently through the extensive use of drones. Where this situation obtains, what is the response of a faithful Muslim to be?

Some Muslims believe that bin Laden is not justified in applying the rule of retaliation in this situation, some do. Within Britain, according to the most thorough recent survey (ICM for Channel 4, April-May 2015) some 4% of British Muslims believe that it is acceptable to use terrorism for political ends, including suicide bombing. This works out to around 100,000 people.

Khalid Masood was one of them.

The dilemma that British Muslims face is that the theological debate is not some abstract matter without practical consequence; rather it is one that will govern their relationship with the wider British society. Moreover, the need for that community to make a very clear decision and act on it will only become stronger over time, as more and more terrorist atrocities take place.

When the ICM poll results were announced, Trevor Phillips, former head of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, wrote this: “There is a life-and-death struggle for the soul of British Islam — and this is not a battle that the rest of us can afford to sit out. We need to take sides… There is one truly terrifying finding [of the ICM poll]. Muslims who have separatist views about how they want to live in Britain are far more likely to support terrorism than those who do not. And there are far too many of the former for us to feel that we can gradually defeat the threat… Muslims want to be part of Britain — but many do not accept the values and behaviors that make Britain what it is; they believe that Islam offers a better future. And a small number feel that these sincerely held beliefs justify attempts to destroy our democracy. Britain’s liberal Muslims are crying out for this challenge to be confronted. The complacency we’ve displayed so far is leaving them to fight alone, and putting our society in danger. We cannot continue to sit on the fence in the hope that the problem will go away.”

If we wish to fully address the problem of our home-grown terrorism we need to be much more robust in the assertion of our values. That will mean saying that some values are better than others, and therefore some belief systems – those systems through which values are taught and embodied – are better than others. We cannot combat terrorism without a vigorous reassertion of our own inherited beliefs and values. Ultimately, that means Christianity. It is a sign of the painful nature of the dilemma facing British Muslims that the peaceful majority will only be able to root out the violent minority if the wider community becomes much more devoted to a non-Islamic faith.