What is the music of Jesus?
Sermon for West Mersea Patronal Festival 2017

I had planned to make these remarks at our AGM this year, but for many good and varied reasons there were very few of us at that meeting, so I have kept them back for a more popular occasion.

When I was on retreat last December I read Amanda Palmer’s fascinating book ‘The Art of Asking’. In amongst other things she discusses her accommodation in New York when she was just starting out. The landlord was clearly a remarkable character, who was concerned as much to establish an artistic haven as to maximise his rent. He saw his role as one of enabling others to flourish creatively, rather than to do so himself.

That struck me as being very close to the role of incumbent within a parish. “In the beginning was the Word” and that applies to each of us individually, we each have a word from God that we need to speak. We often call this our ‘vocation’ – the word that God spoke which gives us life.

You are each marvellous and amazing and miraculous and wonderful – my job is to help you become all that you were originally created to be.

How might that be done?

I want to share with you an ecological term of art, which is legibility. If we think of an old growth forest then we are considering something complex that has been built up over time. Comparing that to a modern commercial tree plantation it is easy to see how that is more ‘legible’ than the first – much more efficient, much more capable of being exploited by the landowners. Similarly, if we compared the City of London with all its small streets and byways with a modern city, say Milton Keynes or an American city, the latter are much more ‘legible’ than the former.

St Peter and St Paul’s is an old growth forest, a medieval city. My role is to curate that variety, sometimes pruning, sometimes fertilising, but always with a view to preserving the breadth of life that is possible in this place. What I believe we need to avoid is an emphasis upon what is legible, able to be controlled from above, which sees human beings as resources to be extracted in favour of a different agenda. This may mean that not everything we do will make coherent sense; it means that we will have to live with frustrations and contradictions.

For this to happen, however, one thing is essential. In our common life together lots of decisions need to be made, small and large. We need to respect and affirm our differences from each other. As St Paul puts it, the head cannot say to the foot we don’t need you. We need each other! But we can only do this if we love each other more than we love our own preferences. Our unity is in Christ alone.

To that end, the PCC have supported me in developing what we have called the “Big Sing”. This is an informal and relaxed service which is designed to reach those who haven’t been reached, or who have been put off, by what we do as a church. One remark that has always stayed with me from the priest of my sponsoring parish, where I began my own journey to fulfilling my vocation, was “the empty seats also have a voice”. I believe that it is essential that we reach out to those who are not part of our fellowship. The Big Sing will not be for everyone – there will be more emphasis upon modern styles of music for a start – but I would ask you to please support it, please invite a friend if you think they might enjoy it.

Which brings me to a point about our church more generally, at a wider, perhaps a national level. I am a fan of Game of Thrones, both the books and the television series. It is a fantasy sequence, a sort of cross between The Wars of the Roses and Lord of the Rings. The foreground conflict is about the struggle between various noble houses for control of the throne of the kingdom, hence the title ‘Game of Thrones’. Yet overshadowing that conflict is the looming reality of an army of ice zombies that are about to march south upon humanity, who represent the real danger.

I rather think that this describes our own beloved Church of England. We squabble simply because we are not spiritually serious. We have taken our eyes away from the most fundamental concerns, and now we waste our time bickering about secondary questions – adiaphora.

What would it look like if we were spiritually serious? I recently had a conversation with Ian (organist) which I have been thinking a great deal about. Ian pointed out that if he wanted to learn about Mozart, he might read all sorts of good books about Mozart’s life, be taught lots of interesting things about his relationships, his context, his life and death – but if he never heard Mozart’s music then the most essential element of who Mozart was – his vocation, his ‘word of God’ – would be missed.

So the question becomes: what is the music of Jesus?

My answer is a work in progress, but at the moment it looks something like this: Jesus was a teacher, yet to say that ‘the music of Jesus’ was his teaching would, I believe, remove the most essential thing. For Jesus’ teaching was almost always embedded in the whole of a life. Jesus spent his ministry performing signs, acts of power which were often healing or exorcisms. It is these ‘signs and wonders’ that I believe to be the music of Jesus, and I believe they culminate in the events of the great three days, that is, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

More particularly, I don’t believe that we can capture the music of Jesus simply by considering his works as ‘doing good’. Please don’t misunderstand my point here. I do believe that it is the work of the church to ‘do good’. I have been struck by the accounts of the Grenfell Tower blaze, and the way in which the local churches became community hubs of service and aid. As Giles Fraser put it, the churches did the most essential things right: they opened their doors and turned their lights on, and the community was able to use them.

Yet I believe that the church can become distracted by thoughts of ‘doing good’, because it is in fact much easier (and more socially approved of) than the harder spiritual tasks that we are in fact called to. The feeding of the five thousand was not a proto-food bank; rather, it was a highly political event which had, amongst other things, a dismantling of social divisions at its heart.

Put simply, the music of Jesus is both more political and more spiritual than ‘doing good’ can capture. This is why our worship is more important than anything else, why we need to root our lives in the sacraments which shape us spiritually. Politics and spiritual warfare fit together like hands and gloves – it is not an accident that Jesus was executed by the state. I believe that it is only through a concentration on the spiritual essentials that we will gain the spiritual maturity that we need to cope with our differences.

I believe that there is a particular genius to the Church of England, to being a broad church, pursuing a via media between different extremes, within which a large variety of people can find spiritual nourishment and healing. I have been influenced greatly by the Tractarian movement, what is now called ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ which has a three-fold emphasis: the claim that God became physical flesh; that we can meet God through the physical substance in the Eucharist; and that we are called to serve the physical flesh of Christ in our neighbours. There is one comment from a key leader of the Tractarian movement that has served for me as something of an aim and guide, not as an achievement(!), and it is this: “Even if the Church of England were to fail, it would still be found in my parish.” (John Keble)

May we show forth something of the spiritual power of Christ as we find our own vocations here on this wonderful island of Mersea; may we hear the music of Jesus, and play it for others to hear as well. Amen.

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?

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.

What’s really wrong with the House of Bishops

house-bishops
I found Martyn Percy’s article of some interest.There are many points that I sympathise with, but a more honest title for it would be ‘a handful of thoughts stretched out in order to justify a link with Martin Luther’. Please also see Ian Paul’s response, which – in the words of my pantomime character – is “harsh, but fair”.

To my mind, however, neither Percy nor Paul come close to fully engaging with the problems in the House of Bishops, and as I have just enough ego to think I have a contribution to make on this question, here follow my thoughts.

The most obvious problem is that the House of Bishops is obsessed with things that are ‘less than God’. To the popular mind those things are all related to the gender and sexual revolutions of the last few decades, matters about which Jesus spoke very little. To me, what the House of Bishops seems most obsessed with at the moment is ‘growth’, an obsession which is rooted in fear, and which does nothing to communicate the nature of God to our world.

Yet this obsession with things which are ‘less than God’ is rooted in a more profound malaise – the House of Bishops is not spiritually serious. By this I mean to say that they don’t seem to believe that the substance of Christianity is a matter of eternal life and death. The House of Bishops seems to be filled with just the same sort of social justice pleading that a liberal atheist would be perfectly at home with, with the consequence that the Bishops sound just like every other well-meaning middle class worrier.

Why would anyone put up with all the manifold nonsenses of the Church of England if there wasn’t some sense of ultimate importance embedded within?

The Bishops, in other words, seem to embody the cultural cringe that most Christians in England suffer from – that feeling when you are a reasonably intelligent and committed believer, but in mixed company refrain from mentioning anything to do with Christian faith for fear of causing offence, or, worse, being mistaken for a fundamentalist. The trouble is that the Bishops are there precisely to articulate the Christian faith in the public sphere and – surely! – to run the risk of offending when they do.

What the Bishops have failed to do is articulate a coherent narrative, not about what Christianity is in general and as a whole, but what Christianity means for the English people at this point in our national life. There is, perhaps, less of a need to talk about Jesus and more a need to talk about the implications of Jesus for the problems that we face as a single community. The Bishops of the Church of England are embedded through their establishment at the heart of the national polity – and they need to make use of this to engage with the life of the nation.

I would like to see the Bishops make some arguments in particular: that Christianity is Truth with a capital T; that Christianity is where all the benefits of our civilisation derive from (including the benefits of science and technology); that the rapid growth and displacement of Christianity imperils all those benefits; and that all religions are not of equal value.

I would particularly like to hear a bishop say unequivocally that Islam is a false religion (not without any redeeming merits, but substantially falling short of the glory of God). Should that ever happen I would start to feel that the Church of England might possibly have a long-term future in this country.

What is not understood in the secular realm – which would seem to include the House of Bishops – is that religion is the principal glue that binds together a community. The atomisation and anomie of our society stem directly from the breakdown of a shared Christian faith. If the English people are to survive in a form that has recognisable continuity with what has gone before then it will do so through a renewal of its commitment to the Christian faith – albeit one that may be Anglicanism 2.0 We do have a lot of spiritual work to do.

I should make clear that I am criticising the House of Bishops as a corporate body (a principality), and I do not wish to criticise any single Bishop – the ones I have known personally all seem very impressive to me, and doing a job that I could not do. Archbishop Justin Welby especially is making a lot of the right noises – then again, he’s also wholly in favour of the managerialism that Percy (rightly) is so critical of. There have been others who seem to have been spiritually substantial, and I don’t see it as an accident that one of them, sadly soon to retire, presided over the strongest growth in a Diocese over the last twenty or so years.

Percy quotes Evelyn Underhill as saying that the people are hungry for God. This is more true than ever, as is the critique that follows implying that the Church does not provide proper food for its flock, which means that the sheep either leave or die. Yet there is another Underhill quotation of which I am fond: “The real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice [...] her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life.”

The real problem with the House of Bishops is that they are not spiritually serious. The people intuit this, and thus ignore them. Would that we had a proper prophet – not the social-justice facsimile of prophecy which so many liberal thinkers champion – but one who insists on the priority of the first commandment over all else, and works out, in fear and trembling, the implications for the decisions that we face as a nation today.

Such a person could never get through the selection process to become a Bishop of course. Such is the nature of the problem we face.

What future for faith?

What is the future of Christianity in this country?

The received narrative of secularism – which is the dominant form of understanding in our media and academies – argues that Christianity is simply the local example of the general form of irrationality known as ‘religion’, and that as the world progresses into a brighter future, so the levels of attachment to religious forms of belief will diminish, until all that is left is a memory to be investigated by historians.

That myth of secular progress is now only argued for by those who are ignorant of the true state of affairs. The idea that we all are marching – or being dragged – towards a faith-free future is now recognised to be itself a form of faith, in the sense of something for which there is no evidence but which provides great emotional relief to those who accept it!

The trouble with this narrative is that the contradictions of atheism are all around us, and the atheist/secular world-view is being comprehensively disproven with the headlines each and every day. We are faced with so many challenges that cannot be engaged with at a shallow level, but only at a level that takes religious belief seriously on its own terms, and which sees the religious impulse in human beings as worthy of respect.

This is why it is so essential for schools to teach religious studies – and, I would argue, if we are to preserve our historic culture, with all its benefits, we need to ensure that those studies are principally of Christianity. Without this we will not know who we are.

So I do not see the future as one that belongs to the atheist/secularist point of view. It lacks the capacity to fully engage human beings in a project of shared endeavour, and this is most seen by the correlation with the rate of reproduction of more atheistic societies. Put simply, the future belongs to those who turn up for it – and it’s the religious who are having children.

So if atheism is not the future, what about Islam? After all, if the future belongs to those who are having children now, aren’t we destined to be a much more Muslim nation in the coming decades? I suspect not.

The trouble with Islam is that it cannot cope with modernity. The principal root of Islamic terrorism today, which is the Saudi-based Salafi or Wahhabi form of Islam, has its roots in a reaction to the development of modernity in the West, to which it set itself in opposition. That opposition is what has led to the terrorist atrocities of today, as the fanatics seek to accomplish by terror what they could not accomplish by reason or invention.

Sadly, this form of Islam is inherently self-destructive, and will simply ensure that the Middle East descends into a vortex of violence from which Islamic culture will find it ever more difficult to emerge. The West is already moving away from its dependence upon oil, which is what has propped up the prosperity of the Muslim world for so long (such as it is) and it is unclear to me that there are the intellectual and mercantile resources available upon which an alternative economy might be made to stand. No, I think it much more likely that Islam will suffer an existential crisis and begin a long slow death after its homelands have been destroyed.

So the future for faith lies almost certainly with a form of Christianity. I have no doubt that Christianity will become the majority world faith some time in the next thirty or forty years – I regard that as already ‘baked in’ due to demography and the rapid growth of churches in Asia, especially China (where there are more committed Christians already than in Western Europe).
Where I am more unclear is what that Christianity might look like in this country, for we are far more steeped in secularist thinking that almost anywhere else in the world (Scandinavia might be the only place that ‘beats’ us).

When Rome was breaking down and starting to decay as a culture, it was a small and marginal sect on the edges of that Empire that ended up providing the religious belief structure for the next several centuries. Nobody at the centre of Rome would have predicted it, and it may well be that something similar happens in Western society over the coming decades.

My suspicion is that the faith of the future will be the one that is most able to help people navigate a highly technological and urban society in such a way that their deepest human needs are still met. This will undoubtedly still involve meaningful human (face to face) contact for that is how we have been made, and if we do not participate in such things then we will suffer from an unfulfilled longing all our lives.

People will still need guidance on how to live their lives, and helped to navigate the emotional storms of human living in a way that enables proper integrity and fulfilment. It is because the Western church in general, and the Church of England in particular, has lost sight of this part of religious faith that we have been pushed to the margins and reduced to emotionalism and navel-gazing. This too will pass.

Of one thing I am certain. In a hundred years time there will still be people worshipping at St Peter and St Paul’s, sharing bread and wine and telling the greatest story ever told – simply because it’s true. We have, after all, been there doing it for 1500 years or so thus far, despite all that the world has thrown at us.

On a more personal note I have been writing this Rector’s Reckoning almost without interruption since March 2010, and like all good things it needs to come to an end, so this is the last one. My aim has always been to make people think, in which task I hope I have had some success. Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Following a crucified God

crucifixionGrunewaldWe live in a broken world. We want our world to make sense, but sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes the brokenness of the world can overwhelm us, and our desperate desire is to have a way of making sense of what happens, a way to put the brokenness right.

Christians have lots of words to use in such situations; most of them are called prayers. The trouble is that I know from my own life that there are particular times, such as a sudden bereavement, when the words run out, when begging doesn’t seem to be answered, and there is just silence. There are only a certain number of times that you can put your whole heart into praying such words.

The process of saying those words so often, though, and in such a heartfelt manner, changes us. It burns off the dross that we so often fill our minds and hearts with. We get more in touch with the things that we truly value – the clutter gets swept aside, and the central building blocks of our life – our love for our nearest and dearest, a husband or father, a brother or child or friend – these come into focus. And we realise just how very precious they are. For we each bear the image of Christ within us, we are each made in the image of God, and we are each so very, very precious. I think that is how God sees us. One thing that I take away from my own place of bereavement is this sense of the richness, the value, the sheer beauty of a human being, another soul. It is not easy to let something like that go.

There is often still a sense, in me, that if only we do things the right way, then the brokenness of our world can be fended off. That our bereavements and breakdowns can be set aside. If we could only say the right words in the right way then the world can go back to what it was before. This is a type of magical thinking, it is not Christian thinking. Magical thinking in this sense is about controlling the world for our own purposes, using occult means. This is one of the main reasons for Christian missionary success – if the God of these incomers can heal the sick, give people back their sight, or knit bones back together then their magic must be the most powerful magic, their God must be the most powerful God, so let us convert to their rituals. Traces of this can still be found in the Old Testament by the way – and we can trace within the Old Testament a growth in understanding of God, from being the magical figure who was under Israel’s control, to the Creator of the universe.

The central reality that is brought home to me so clearly in my own difficult days is simply this – that we are not in control. God is in control. God will make the creation in a way of his choosing. This seems an obvious thing, a trivial truth, and yet I do believe it is one that we have almost forgotten in the structure of our lives. It is certainly a hidden truth in our culture. We have become accustomed to getting our own way with most things. If we break a leg, we expect to be able to recover, and return to our previous normal life – when that is something astonishing in human history. We are accustomed to being able to see during the dark winter hours, and be kept warm and well fed. Yet, within all the insulation that we surround ourselves with, all the comforts that chloroform the soul, God is still the fundamental ground of our being, the support on which we sit. We are utterly and irreducibly dependent upon God.

Which brings me back to prayer. The heart of prayer is love; that if we bring love to the centre of our awareness, then God is able to work through us. And what is the Christian response to living in a broken world? We follow Christ crucified. In other words, we declare that God is not separate from our own suffering, He is alongside us. That through what happened on the cross, God himself takes on the burden of our suffering and starts the process of putting it right.

The cross is foolishness to a rational mind because it does not represent a complete or fulfilled life. The philosophers of Ancient Greece sought a way to live that avoided suffering, a way that would lead to a fulfilled life of great wisdom and old age. So to hold up as wisdom a way of life that leads to being executed in the prime of life is folly. Worse, the cross is a stumbling block to a religious mind because it is a scandal, an offence to a system of belief. It is a sign of disfavour by God, a sign that God hates the person to whom this is done. For God clearly acts through the crowd, and blessing in this world is the most prominent sign of God’s approval.

Christians belong with Christ crucified. We declare that God is not on the side of those who seek a worldly wisdom that gives worldly satisfactions, nor on the side of those who equate the approval of the world with the approval of God. No, we say that God is to be found with those who are broken and shattered, those who are on the edges, who do not enjoy the favour of the world. These are the ones to whom Christ came.

We live in a broken world. We each carry wounds that have been carved into our flesh, engraved upon our hearts. I believe that the only way through our brokenness is to follow Christ crucified, for Christ crucified tells us the truth about the world, and the truth about God. Yet we Christians do not simply follow Christ crucified. If our story ended there it would surely be scandalous foolishness. Our story ends with the resurrection, but notice that when doubting Thomas meets Jesus, it is through placing his hands in his wounds that he is finally convinced. The wounds are the anchor point of reality for Thomas. They show that Christ has suffered alongside us. And there is a deeper mystery here, for the way of Christ’s resurrection is to demonstrate redemption, not restoration. It is not as though the crucifixion did not happen. It is not as though Christ has been returned to the state that he was in before it happened. No, Christ bears his wounds, they define who he is – and yet, whilst wounded, he is the source of life and light and peace to all who can see him. So we follow Christ crucified, yes – but Christians follow Christ crucified because we know Christ risen, and so we have grounds for hope, and for trust, and these things give us the strength to carry on, day by day, hour by hour, as we navigate our way through our broken world.

Why bother with a church that isn’t spiritually serious?

unamused
One of the long themes in Scripture is the divide between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Each of them expresses something of the divine purpose and each has a particular besetting sin to which they succumb when they lose touch with a living faith.

The priestly class upholds the form and ritual that has been mandated and commanded for worship. The prophetic class demands that the life of the nation must honour God through establishing social justice. When Jesus attacks the traders in the Temple he is acting prophetically. When he attends synagogue ‘as was his custom’ he is conforming to the priestly pattern.

By mentioning these things I merely wish to say that I am aware that an over-emphasis upon the priestly responsibilities at the expense of wider questions of justice is a temptation of the religious professional. My concern with regard to what has happened at St John’s Waterloo is that the priestly element to worship has been completely forgotten. That is, it’s not so much that Canon Goddard has done something wrong, it’s that he didn’t have any awareness that it was wrong. It is that absence of awareness that concerns me most.

After all, one of the most essential parts of a spiritually serious faith is the notion of the sacred. That there are some things which are more important than others, some places that are more important than others, and that these more important things are marked out as distinct and different in the life of the faithful. They are, indeed, named as sacred. Do not treat these things in the way that you treat other more mundane things. It is this difference in value between the sacred and the mundane that is the principal means by which a wider sense of value is inculcated. It is impossible to have a Christian virtue tradition, in MacIntyre’s terms, without some sense of the holy and the sacred.

In the life of the Church of England, this has included land – certain land, and certain buildings erected on that land, have been consecrated. That is, they have been dedicated to the worship of the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have been set apart for that purpose. They have gained a quality of holiness. It would be fitting for us to take off our shoes before entering into the holy space, as Muslims do before entering into a Mosque, and as Moses did before the burning bush.

With the consecration, certain acts become prohibited – and those prohibited acts are those that profane the sacredness of the space. Specifically, any act of worship which is not of a Christian character would count as such, whether that service be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or Mormon. The sacred space has been consecrated to Christian worship – any other form of worship that takes place in that space is a breach of that consecration. This is not to say anything whatsoever about those other forms of worship, whether good or bad, it is simply to say that if such worship takes place in a place that has been made sacred for Christian worship then this is profanity, sacrilege and blasphemy. It must not be done, on pain of self-undoing.

(Now there are some exceptions to this blanket prohibition when it comes to ecumenical co-operation with other Christian denominations, when, as I understand it, it is possible to gain approval from the relevant Bishop to allow, eg, a Methodist service within an Anglican church. These points also do not apply to other non-consecrated spaces within a church complex, such as a church hall.)

Now there may well be times when, as a prophetic act, it is necessary to act against such a consecration, yet surely such an act would need to be done with a full awareness of the nature of the intended act, and a fully prayed through understanding of the likely consequences. I see Jesus in the Temple precincts as the paradigm form, and I see that as the specific reason why he was executed.

Now I have no desire to add fuel to the pyre on which a witch-hunt can find a conflagratory fulfilment. I think Canon Goddard might simply apologise and promise not to do it again, and that would be the end of it. What most appalls me about this episode is, as I say, the seeming unawareness that there is any issue here, and the way in which the discussion has been presented in terms of ‘hospitality’. If such language is to retain any sense then it must involve some level of respect to the host; most especially it must involve offering respect to those things which are considered by the host to be of utmost value, those things which are considered holy. The language of hospitality is simply inadequate as the governing description for what has happened. There is a barren and atheistic secularity to such reasoning that I find shocking amongst clergy, and it is this that makes me wonder – what is the point of a church that isn’t spiritually serious? That does not treat holy things as holy but rather, as simply incidental details to be discarded at the behest of any passing good idea?

I think a church that no longer has a sense of the sacred, and therefore of the boundaries of behaviour by which to police the sacred, has failed the Ichabod test, and the Glory of the Lord has departed from it. The consecrated space has become just another building, and then it doesn’t matter what happens within its walls one way or the other. God has left the building.

The Church of England is an institutionally abusive church

In the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Metropolitan Police were criticised for being ‘institutionally racist’. I have for some time now believed that the Church of England is institutionally abusive, and I would like to spell out what I mean by that.

Institutional racism (from Wiki): “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. It is the ‘institutional’ part that is key; in other words the emphasis is not so much that individual members of an organisation are in themselves racist – they may or may not be – rather, it is simply that, in being obedient servants to the institution, those individuals cannot but help to act in a racist manner.

In a similar way, my claim is not that members of the Church of England are in themselves personally abusive – they may or may not be – my claim is that, in being obedient servants to the institution, the individuals within it cannot help but act in an abusive fashion to those in their care.

Let me give some examples of what I mean.

The first is Jeffrey John, and the question of whether this man was fit to become the Bishop of Reading. Views on that question are split. What is alleged, however, is that the decisions about whether he is to be a Bishop or not are being made, not on the grounds of his own personal merits but rather on whether it would lead to adverse financial and political consequences for the Church as a whole. So this example has two elements: firstly, is it the case that financial considerations are determining the appointment of Bishops (and if so, what are they)? Secondly, why is this not publicly confirmed information? I have written before about the way in which it seems that Bishops are simply incapable of telling the truth about a situation. This is profoundly unhealthy.

The second case is Jonathan Hagger, aka the MadPriest. Here we have someone who once suffered from depression and received medical treatment for it, so that it has not recurred. He is also a faithful local pastor and someone with a clear gift for sharing the faith through social media. One would have thought that such a person would be cherished by the institution, and encouraged to deploy their gifts more effectively. On the contrary, because Jonathan was a whistleblower about a specific case of abuse he has been completely frozen out of the church establishment.

Finally I would mention the hierarchical defence of the Green report (see here). This might seem trivial compared to the previous two, but I think it illuminates the attitude that I am seeking to highlight – and it is what has triggered this post. The needs of the institution – and the need to protect those in high ranking and established positions in the institution – are leading to a closing of ranks and a suppression of dissent. This is, once again, profoundly unhealthy.

There are many other examples that I could refer to (see here for an earlier form of this rant) as I know very few clergy in the Church of England who are in a place of peace with regard to the institution. There are, of course, also many positive stories of good care and consideration – but these are where someone gets ‘a good one’. It is wrong that the avoidance of abuse by the hierarchy is such a lottery.

My point is that, pervading the institutional atmosphere of the Church of England is an unhealthy mix of fear and denial of the truth. This leads to directly abusive consequences whenever the needs of the institution are placed ahead of the needs of the particular persons involved in doing the work of the gospel. The Church is a fallen principality – that is not news – but this needs to be taken very much more seriously.

I believe that faithful Anglicans must more and more operate on the basis of a division between “the gospel as the Church of England has received it”, and the workings of the institution which at the present time instantiates that understanding. We need to actively and radically foster the former, and keep a wary distance from the latter. To use my more hackneyed analogy, we need to spend much more time on our lifeboats than on how we run the ship.

If we continue to allow the Anglican gospel only to be expressed through the institutional forms then I see no grounds for believing that any thing will change. The institution will continue to devour its own children and then it shall die a sad and lonely death, for the Glory of the Lord will have departed from it.