What’s really wrong with the House of Bishops

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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?

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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.

It’s because we don’t believe in God

I am more and more persuaded that the problems that we face in the Church of England stem from a collapse of faith. We no longer believe in God, we no longer know what we do believe in, and so we chase desperately after idols, hoping that one or other of them can fill the gap.

This will never happen. Between the idol and the Living God is an incommensurable distance.

Which idols am I thinking of? Here are some.

The idol of public acceptability, leading the Church to marry the spirit of the age, leading to inevitable widowhood.

The idol of ‘family’ as if the worth of the church can be measured by how far it can compete with Go Bananas.

The idol of intellectual respectability, as if conformity to Modernist rationalism is the acme of faith.

The idol of Herbertism, as if priesthood could be reduced to the niceness of middle class mores.

The idol of bureaucratic managerialism, as if ministry can be reduced to the manipulation of numbers and financial returns.

Let us not be naive. The worship of idols requires sacrifice – not the sacrifice of thanksgiving but the sacrifice of human flesh: burnt out pastors, spiritually impoverished congregations, human misery in myriad forms. Idol worship makes the church sick, and the sickness then infects the wider body of society.

We no longer know what we are here for. The old has definitely passed, and because we worshipped a particular cultural role, and enjoyed the importance that flowed from it, we didn’t notice when God left the building. We are reduced to more and more frantic efforts to rekindle flames but the world can see the difference between orange paper and that which burns.

The Living God is taking away all the things which we valued, in order that we might concentrate once again upon the one thing needful. This is an act of love, and it is only painful in so far as we fight it.

We need to let go – of all of it. All our inherited expectations of what church looks like, of what ministry looks like, of what worship looks like, of what Scripture and teaching looks like. We need to go out into the desert without looking behind at Egypt and Babylon. We need to trust much more joyously in the provision of the Living God.

We need to have our hearts broken open, so that the rocks might be replaced with flesh.

Woe to us. Woe to us. Come let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us and will heal us. I just think we need more tearing before we are ready for the healing.