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.

The contours of an Unafraid Anglicanism

What might it look like if the Church of England stopped being afraid of death, held captive by the principalities and powers, and simply allowed the gospel ‘as the Church of England has received it’ to animate its life?

It would start from the glory of the resurrection, through which all the powers of death have been defeated, and would proceed with the assurance that death has no dominion over us, and is therefore an object of pity or ridicule, not a source of fear.

Therefore, all actions which have as their premise the need to grow the church, or face up to the decline of the church, or seek to enable the ship to sink in good and orderly fashion – these are all beside the point. They are the ministrations of the death cult. They have no value.

The premise of an Unafraid Anglicanism is, rather, the unbounded joy and freedom from fear that is the authentic mark of Christian witness. We are called to be so caught up in the exuberant Spirit that we see the bleatings about ‘growth’ as the diabolically destructive distractions that they are.

If we are animated by the conquering of death, then all the structures and patterns that shape our common institutional life can be assessed from that standpoint. How far does this institutional arrangement serve the sharing of joy, and how far does it simply subsist in its own inertia? The inertia is not neutral, of course, and it can be assessed by its fruits. Does this institutional inertia lead to a spirit of compassion and enthusiasm, of healing and hallelujahs, of laments and laughter? Or does it instead lead to a deadening of the soul, a letting out of the air from the balloon, a crowding out of the heavenly chorus in favour of the bureaucratic bathos? What is the definition of a Deanery Synod? A collection of Anglicans waiting to go home.

What of unity, that bugbear of our time? Is this not also, if not primarily at least substantially, yet one more sacrifice offered up to death? For if we do not have unity, then we shall die, and the rumour of Anglicanism shall fade from this world… Is the unity for which Christ successfully prayed (how could his prayer not be successful?) captured by an institutional form? Is not the friendship between brother and sister Christians across denominational divides precisely the unity for which he prayed, and about which he taught? Is not the Good Samaritan, who exercised compassion across sectarian division, held up as the very model of love of neighbour?

Why not set our manifold Anglicanisms free? Why not have an Anglicanism that preserves the catholic and orthodox understanding of women’s ministry? Why not have an Anglicanism that preserves the Reformed understanding of Scripture? Why not have an Anglicanism that is oriented towards social justice, that seeks out the lost and the marginalised and assures them that Christ’s love is for them just as much as for those who are so certain that they have it right?

As free and unafraid Anglicans, sharing a parentage of faith and rejoicing in a friendly sibling diversity, recognising that what holds us in common in Christ so far surpasses what separates us – then we can cooperate together on unmasking the death cult that animates our wider society, the systems that reduce human beings to units of economic value, the cultivation of systematic blasphemy as the image of God is so routinely effaced. Would we not then be properly obedient to our Lord’s commands, bearing the fruits which he promised, and finally and freely pursuing the fidelity which is our vocation as his disciples?

Surely, were we to be so unafraid, the marks of the Spirit will anoint the different Anglicanisms according to their distinctive gifts, so that by being all things to all people we might indeed help to save some. We would do this for the sake of the gospel, not for the sake of the institution, that we might then share in its blessings.

The worldly widowhood of the Church of England

Sorry, bit of a rant coming…
As I am on lots of ‘green’ mailing lists, it hasn’t escaped my notice that the General Synod is about to debate climate change. This is, on a generous reading, about twenty years too late. If we had done this in the mid-1990s it would have been a timely move. Doing it now, however, is catching a bus just after the engine has failed. People are now getting off this particular bus.

Which of course is no problem at all if it is the right thing to do. We are – as the Gospel reading set for tomorrow tells us – to be salt and light in the world. We are to be distinctive, not following worldly values.

Yet this General Synod actually seems to me to be doing precisely the opposite of what we are called to. The aphorism is that ‘a church that marries the spirit of the age will be a widow in the next’. This time around it seems that the church is actually deciding to marry a dead body straight off, without getting the benefits of a living period first.

The worst thing is that the Church is missing the more important issues. If we look at environmental questions and social justice questions then we need to pay attention to the issue of the Limits to Growth more generally, recognise that we are crashing into them at great speed, and start taking steps to prepare people for coping with what is taking place. Most of all – and here I have an interest of course – we need to ground it in a much broader spiritual vision. To narrow down our attention to the one element of the green perspective that is increasingly (and rightly) being seen as profoundly mistaken seems doubly unfortunate. Yet again the Church hands over its thinking function to worldly authority, forgetting that ‘love God with your mind’ is in the first commandment, not the second. It’s not quite fiddling whilst Rome burns, more like knitting blankets when the house is on fire.

Ah well. The floods that are coming may well wash the CofE away. That too may be God’s will. Rant over.

The sharing of joy, not the shouting of jargon

This morning I gave a talk to members of West Mersea church about the nature of outreach, in preparation for the Diocesan centenary next year. These are my written-up notes, not a pure transcript of what was said.

There is something a little dispiriting when someone in authority tries to ginger up activity on behalf of the Church of England by declaiming that ‘the Church will be dead in a generation!’. Frankly, who cares? My concern with such language is that it is speaking from a place of fear rather than faith, and that, as such, it can never be good news, it can never be gospel. This is precisely what I believe we must avoid.

It calls to mind something which I have been exploring with my house group recently. We have been steadily working our way through Olivier Clement’s ‘The Roots of Christian Mysticism’, and we came across this extremely striking passage, extracted from the Shepherd of Hermas:

Clothe yourself then in joy where God delights to be. Make it your delight. For every joyful person acts well, thinks rightly, and tramples sadness underfoot. The gloomy person on the other hand always acts badly. In the first place such a one does wrong by grieving the Holy Spirit who is given to us as joy. Then … the gloomy person is guilty of impiety in not praying to the Lord … for prayer offered in sadness lacks the strength to ascend to the altar of God . . . Sadness mingled with prayer prevents it from rising, just as vinegar mingled with wine robs it of its flavour . . . Purify your heart then of the sadness that is evil, and you will be living for God. And all those who have stripped themselves of sadness in order to put on joy will likewise be living for God.

Now here, as with the archetypal mad professor handling fuming test tubes with tongs, we need to be very careful, if we are not simply to add greater burdens to our backs. I take the point of this passage to be that when we are in touch with the gospel, that is, when we are in touch with the good news that has given us joy, then we are enabled and strengthened to act rightly. This does not mean that, for example, our sufferings are caused by a lack of faith. It is to insist that if we are to act fully, and act from a basis of faith, then we also need to act from the basis of joy.

Consider the poor ladies recently released from thirty years of captivity in South London. Imagine what they felt in becoming free, the total transformation of their lives, and imagine what sort of language might come close to expressing their emotions. This is how we are to understand someone like St Paul, and, most especially, this is how we are to understand the grounds for his writings. Consider the passage that we had last week from Colossians – the famous passage about Christ, which is very philosophical. What needs to be kept in mind is the context that comes first, when Paul writes about being drawn out of darkness into the Kingdom of the Son. It is this experience which comes first, and all the metaphysics comes later. Unless we are able to retain a connection with the liberating joy which is the fuel for that philosophical reflection then we become ‘resounding gongs, or clashing cymbals’.

People will doubtless be aware that I find Russell Brand quite interesting at the moment. Have a watch of this video, where he is interviewing members of Westboro Baptist Church:

I find this remarkable, but also quite chilling. I wonder how many people see a vaster array of similarities between my church and the Westboro Baptists, rather than the differences. Whilst I don’t see Brand as orthodox, he is much closer to my own centre of spiritual gravity.

What we have here, I believe, is a perfect example of bad evangelism. It is one that emphasises a particular metaphysical framework, and uses particular jargon. If we say to someone outside the Christian conversation ‘Jesus died to save you from your sins’ it invites various responses: What sin? What IS sin? Why would a loving God set things up in this way anyway? In other words, the language is baroque and meaningless. It is because we know that this is how such words are likely to be received that so many hearts sink when evangelism is discussed.

What we need to pay attention to is the pattern of life which gives the language its context, and therefore meaning. It is the pattern of life and only the pattern of life that can make such language intelligible. I worry that much use of such traditional language is simply the echo of a faithful pattern of life that has now passed away. It is only when we are able to act in loving ways to each other that those who see us talk about love so much can begin to understand what we mean by it. If we continue to use such language, but act in hateful ways, then the words fall to the floor, fruitless.

If we are to engage with the world, and share good news, then we need to be rooted in our joys and not in our fears. We need to be on the path of becoming the people that God has created and called us to be. It is when we do this, when we are helping each other pursue our passions, that God can work his way through us, and we do not hinder Him.

I believe that this is part of the emphasis of the new Pope – as with his latest encyclical, but consider this:

“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements. The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

The work of evangelism is not a sales pitch. We do not have to distort ourselves in order to appeal to the world. That, in fact, is a blasphemy. We are made in the image of God, and we each have a vocation to reveal a particular facet of that image to the world. If we allow the world to determine what is revealed and what isn’t, then we deface that image.

This applies to worship too. Worship is not oriented around evangelism – which isn’t to say that worship of itself cannot bring someone to faith, obviously it can. No, worship has to be oriented around God alone, else it ceases to be worship and becomes a golden calf, a source of poison for the community. That doesn’t mean that worship never changes, it means that the grounds for the change have to be internal – ‘what will enable this community to worship God more fully?’ – rather than external – ‘what will appeal to the outsider?’

Evangelism understood as a burden is a falsehood. As if the cry is
“what can we do to make ourselves loved again?” Evangelism will arise naturally and spontaneously, as a direct consequence of pursuing our vocations – and finding joy in doing so – or not at all. Isn’t this what we mean by being led by the Spirit? As we consider how and where to reach out to the community, I believe that our joys will help us discern our answers. Let us get to know our joys and we can then build from there.

I believe that the church does have something to offer the wider world, and I do have confidence in the faith. I watched the film Gravity recently, and I believe it is a wonderful picture of much modern life.

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A human being, surrounded by the highest and most effective forms of technology available, yet utterly isolated and longing for home. I believe that this describes a great many people in our world, in our community.

What we can offer is a forgiving community, a place where people can be accepted as beings not doings. After all joy is a being not a doing. How can you ‘do’ joy? Joy comes when we experience that peace which the world cannot give, when we are at home in the world, when we are finding our purpose and point. This, in turn, gives rise to engagement in social justice – for how can we stand idly by when the opportunities for others to pursue their vocation are denied or worse? The heart of evangelism is outwardly focussed – on the welfare and service of the other – not inwardly focussed, on what might best serve the welfare of the church. In doing so, the church stands over against the world, especially a world that sees human beings as interchangeable commodities, to be used and abused as economic exigencies dictate.

We need to be about the business of sharing joy, not shouting jargon. If our inherited language retains sense then that will be shown by our lives. We need to be a blessing to the world, as salt and yeast and light, not a drain. We need to act on the assumption that God has gone ahead of us in all of our work and his gracious activity is already bearing fruit. In other words, we need to be able to join in and celebrate with the joys of the world – and it may just be that we discover and affirm our own joys in the process.

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The Diocesan material followed.

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Today is simply a beginning, to help people begin thinking about the process of outreach. There is a lot of more detailed work to be done. Further dates:
Saturday 1st March – study morning (10am!!) to plan the big weekend
Pentecost Sunday – a commissioning and releasing for the work
28th/29th June – the big weekend (to be confirmed)
21st September – gathering in for Harvest

“For a blunder, that’s too big” – some brief musings on the death of the Church of England

The title of this post is one of my (many) favourite Wittgenstein quotations. It comes from his Lecture on Religious Belief, when he is pointing out that religious belief is not the same sort of thing as a scientific belief; that is, it isn’t something that proceeds in steady and cautious steps from evidence to conclusion. Those that think in these terms simply demonstrate their intellectual captivity to post-Enlightenment nostrums about rationality. Their time has passed; that intellectual battle has been lost; they are simply the intellectual equivalent of Japanese soldiers still occupying tiny islands long after the end of the Second World War. So, no more about that.

I most tend to think of Wittgenstein’s aphorism when pondering the huge cultural changes that we have gone through, where we haven’t yet worked out all the implications of what is happening, or whether they are desirable or not. Most especially, it comes to mind when I think about the Church of England, and what God might actually be seeking from us in this time that we have been given.

Consider George Carey’s fearful remarks, the tired old trope that the church is only one generation from extinction. I shouldn’t let it, but such language always irritates me. Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, and I for one believe Him. So let us not get too hung up about whether it falls upon our poor mortal shoulders to save the church – or even the Church of England – for there are legions of angels working for God’s will to be accomplished. Let us, instead, work out what God is seeking to do and then try and cooperate with it.

Which is…? Well, ‘for a blunder, that’s too big’. Might it not be the case that, rather than a story about the long, melancholy withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith – and therefore a sad story of decline and death – what we have in the religious history of England over the last 150 years is, in fact, the direct working out of God’s will? In other words, that the Church of England, as a centralised and established form of Christianity, intimately bound together with the legal and constitutional arrangements of the country, that this glorious old lady has in fact achieved all that God wanted her to achieve (quite possibly the worldwide transmission of the via media approach to the faith) and that, now this task has been accomplished, what God actually wants is for her to enter her rest, and hear those most gracious words ‘well done thou good and faithful servant’?

After all, what is it that is actually ‘dying’? It isn’t the gospel itself; it isn’t Christianity in this country; it isn’t even the local church, which is often in robust good health. No, it is simply the place that a particular form of Christianity held within the national life of England. England has moved away from it, and all of the ways in which being an Anglican were tied in to the old cultural forms are now dying. What is wrong with that?

I want to stick with my deckchairs and lifeboats image, however hackneyed. I believe that we most need to recognise that the good ship of Establishment is sinking, and trying to prevent that from taking place is not simply a wasted effort on our part, it is actually a blasphemous and misguided attempt to thwart God’s will. The decline of the Church of England is not a blunder.

What we are called to do is the same as what all Christians are called to do, every where and at every time – to be faithful, to hold on to Christ alone and to be willing to let go of everything else. The centralised Church of England is sinking – what strikes me now as being worthy of theological interest is the multitude of Anglicanisms that shall follow – a flotilla of lifeboats floating away from the wreckage, seeking a new shore on which to embark on new adventures. Which is, after all, a more exciting and more inspiring prospect.

Of deckchairs and lifeboats

Hackneyed images become so because they contain a truth, and so I beg your indulgence as I deploy the Titanic metaphor to think about the ministry of the Church of England.

The Church of England in the form that it has taken, certainly from the late nineteenth-century, and largely since the Reformation, is sinking. It is spiritually moribund. The decline is of very long-standing; it has been lamented for at least two generations; and I find the challenge of trying to reverse that decline dispiriting in the extreme. (Follow the categories for more of my thinking on this).

We need to distinguish between several things. There is the universal church, against which Hades shall not succeed. I have great optimism that some time this century Christianity shall become the majority world faith. There is the local church, of which there are many varieties, and much rude health. There is the faith as the Church of England has received it, via media Christianity, to which I remain a committed and convinced believer. Then, as of one untimely born, there is the particular institutional arrangement that goes by the name ‘The Church of England’, which is really an archipelago of thousands of different legal entities. It is this latter which I believe to be sinking.

So, in this situation, what is the priest to do? And by priest, I really mean a stipendiary cleric. The Dioceses gather millions of pounds each year and spend most of it on paying for clergy. I want to ask the question: given the death of the institution, what is the best use of those funds? In other words, I want to ask – what is it that the clergy do that can be classed as shuffling deckchairs, and what can be classed as preparing eternal life-boats?

There is, after all, an immense paraphernalia of institutional wheel-turning that takes up the time of a stipendiary priest. Everything to do with buildings and churchyards qualifies; all that comes under the rubric of ‘establishment’, including the majority of occasional offices; much that is concerned with finance and so on. Most spectacularly at the moment, the question of whether the captain of the Titanic requires testicles is most certainly a deckchair question. I am not persuaded that any of this is a productive use of the resources that stipendiary clergy represent. It is not what they are trained for or called to. Almost all of it could be taken forward by a suitably qualified Christian lay person – and would be better done thereby.

So if that is the deckchair removal business, what is the proper work of the priest? As I have discussed several times previously, it is the cure of souls. This is what clergy are trained for; this is why they are formed through Word and Sacrament; this is what makes them tick. The care and – ultimately – the salvation of souls. This is the proper priestly work, the pastoral care of the sheep.

Now, as I understand it, the model of ministry in other countries – but still within the Anglican Communion – has much more lifeboat building done by clergy, and much less deckchair removal. I believe that the Church of England only has a future in so far as it begins to change to resemble its own children. There will be many different lifeboats, of many different stripes – the more the merrier in my view. Yet I believe that each will need its own priest. That is what we need to spend our time on. I shall, over time, seek to reduce my time spent on deckchairs to an absolute minimum, and pray that the Lord will prosper the work of my hands as I seek to build lifeboats.