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.

Seeking an obedient via media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Understanding the problem of immigration requires spiritual intelligence

The most successful movie ever made is a story about resistance to immigration. The movie in question is Avatar, a movie that does not have a particularly original story. In large part it mimics Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, simply with the location shifted from the 19th Century American West, with American Indians, to the far future, when we have colonised other planets.

The core story runs like this: there is a native population, which carries on its distinctive life with all the joys and sorrows that intelligent life is usually suspect to. Into this settled environment comes an invasive force which is aggressive and disruptive, and which threatens the existing order. Through a process of struggle and growth the native community comes together in order to resist the invaders and repel them. The status quo ante is restored, leaving behind a strong residue of community cohesion, identity and integrity.

net migration to june 2016

It is unarguable that the native population of Britain has experienced a huge influx of migration, with an especial acceleration of immigration following the election of Tony Blair in 1997 (see chart). It is therefore unsurprising that this has caused a great deal of concern, and that this concern has been expressed in both healthy and unhealthy ways. My question would be – is the situation in Britain analogous to the one portrayed in Avatar, and all the other great stories about indigenous resistance?

After all, whenever indigenous resistance is seen anywhere else around the globe, it is portrayed by our media as heroic. When we read of tribes in the Amazon seeking to preserve their environment from developers we cheer them on.

The only native tribe that is never cheered on is that of the white Anglo-Saxons. As with Avatar, the white Anglo-Saxon tribe is always the villain doing the immigrating and disrupting other cultures, it is never the one being disrupted.

Historically this is perfectly accurate. Despite the liberal shibboleths about Britain always having been a nation of immigrants, we are far more accurately characterised as an emigrant culture. Stories which portray the invaders as white males are simply describing what has so often happened.

So are we simply now getting our ‘come-uppance’? Having invaded so many areas around the world, is it simply now our turn to be invaded by others? Perhaps.

What I wonder is whether there is anything left worth saving in our indigenous culture; first and foremost I wonder whether any sense of the British inheritance of Christianity can be salvaged.

In Avatar, the invading culture is driven by economic interests. There is a substance called ‘unobtainium’ which is ridiculously named and ridiculously valuable. Economic interests have also been the principal driver behind immigration into Britain (alongside, if Andrew Neather is to be believed, some deeply cynical electoral manipulations by the Blair administration).

Essentially, lower cost workers have been imported into this country in order to drive down the wages (and therefore the costs) of those employing them. The upper and middle classes have enjoyed cheaper services whilst the lower classes have been pushed to one side to live on welfare. This was clearly one of the major factors behind Brexit, when the lower classes came together to say ‘enough!’

I cannot help but see this reaction as a healthy one, and a spiritual one – which again links in with stories like Avatar. The resistance to the invading forces can only ever work when there is a spiritual element involved; that is, when the resisting culture is able to call upon a greater power to aid their purposes.
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So how might such a spiritual element apply in the present British context?

In Avatar, the hinge of the story is the conversion of someone from the invading culture to the native culture. The invader comes to see the higher quality of the host culture, that it provides a richer and more fulfilling path for their life. Most especially, the spiritual dimensions of life are a key element driving the conversion – the invader comes to see that their own culture is explicitly lacking in a vital aspect of life.

At present, in Britain, the domestic ‘host’ culture could not fairly be described as a spiritual one. Our cynical society, knowing prices but not values, offers very little that might appeal to the deeper parts of human nature. We offer an environment which makes it fairly straightforward to make money, if you have the luck or the advantages to develop such opportunities, but we offer little else.

Our cultural elite are blind to such considerations, and have been so for many decades. As such, it is not simply that they cannot develop appropriate and relevant solutions to the immigration crisis, it is that they would not be able to recognise such an appropriate solution even if one were to be presented to them already formed.

Unless spiritual aspects are taken seriously by our government, all those elements which depend upon such spiritual aspects will pass by unseen. Those elements are community cohesion, the practice of particular virtues, all that makes a common life harmonious and viable. Without the spiritual glue that binds a community together there is no basis for resistance to an invading community. The unobtainium is therefore easily obtained.

All that will happen is that the invading spirituality, showing itself to be stronger than the native spirituality, will supplant that native spirituality. To many minds this will seem unconcerning. If the economic processes could continue, what would it matter if the idols in the corner of the living room are named one thing rather than another, that the holy books are written in one language rather than another? Who cares?

That is the voice of the blind, one that cannot contemplate the consequences of their own myopia.

In the end, to be concerned about immigration is to be concerned with spiritual issues; ultimately, our concerns are with what is ultimate, what is of most value. Any culture coheres around a common awareness and appreciation of what is held to be most important; in this society we have historically called that God, and we have developed the language for understanding those ultimate values through our Christian inheritance. It is not wrong to be concerned about immigration; on the contrary, to be concerned about immigration is to be concerned about the most important human issues that there are.

Now it may well be that our culture has decayed too far to be rescued, that all is lost. That would be a different story to the one told in Avatar, and so many like it. I rather think that there is still some spiritual life in our nation, and it is beginning to wake up. For my part I shall do my very best to assist that process!

Of lust and the Bishops

The notes from my sermon on Matthew 5 21-37

St Paul – fed with milk not with solid food – you’re going to get some solid food this morning – I’m going to talk for about 20 minutes, and it may raise lots of questions that you may wish to discuss with me privately – please do so
Jesus in St John – there are some things that you cannot cope with yet; the Spirit will guide us into all truth – well, we in the church are on that journey with the Spirit

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Jesus says that to look at people lustfully is already committing adultery in the heart
lust is a deadly sin – remember, sin is anything which breaches relationships, either horizontally with other people or vertically with God
so lust is essentially a corruption of love – it still looks outwards from the self, but it treats others only for what they can provide for our own bodily appetites; rather than giving other people their own dignity, other people simply become means to our own ends
this runs completely counter to everything that Jesus teaches and embodies

having said that lust is a deadly sin, it is worth pointing out that on the scale of sin – lust is the least dangerous of the deadly sins as it is misplaced love, not an absence of love – need to tackle the pride which is the most deadly sin, as that is when a person has become completely curved in upon themselves

everything that Jesus teaches and embodies, which is all about recognising the human significance of all those who are not seen as worthy by the religious establishment of his time, such as the Samaritan woman at the well
his is a movement of inclusion, to bring into a relationship with God all those who had been excluded, the Samaritans and the tax collectors, and lets not forget that he teaches that the prostitutes get to Kingdom ahead of the priests – which is why priests can find Jesus unsettling

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so let me say something about the priests – and before I go on I should say that I am very conscious of the other elements that Jesus teaches in this passage, especially that those who call other people fools are liable to the fires of hell

so with that in mind I would like to talk about the House of Bishops of the CofE

they have recently released a document about same sex marriage in which they have reaffirmed the traditional teaching that marriage is a union of one man with one woman for life, and that any expression of sexuality outside of that context is sinful

in saying this, they are drawing on a perspective about what is the true end or purpose of sexuality, that is, what sex is for. The tradition, derived in part from Aristotle the Greek philosopher, says that the purpose of sexuality is procreation, and any form of sexuality that is not open to the possibility of procreation is therefore deficient and more or less sinful, dependent on how far it is driven by lust

this is why the Roman Catholic church does not accept contraception – and I can understand why they do so, for the implications of accepting contraception are quite profound, and would undermine a large part of the RC teaching on sexuality

however, the Church of England has a different perspective, and in the teaching of this church, marriage is instituted of God for three reasons, not just one – for the procreation of children, for the right ordering of our passions, and for the mutual society and help between a couple

this is, in part, why the Church of England some eighty years ago accepted the use of contraception by married couples – that is, the Church accepted that there was an expression of sexuality that was not open to procreation but was nevertheless not sinful, for it served the wider purpose of enhancing the love between a couple – the right ordering of the passions fostering the mutual society within the marriage

[a brief aside: to my mind there are still question marks around how we are to understand marriage, as the traditional core of marriage – around providing a structure for procreation – has now been almost entirely eclipsed, and I believe that we need to do some serious theological work specifically focussed on procreation, and establishing a parental covenant or something like that, because we need to take parenting more seriously]

the trouble for the church is that, once this step has been taken, there isn’t a coherent place to stand from which to reject same sex relationships. Let me explain that a little further – if we accept that it’s OK to have sexual expression when it is not open to procreation, then it means that we accept that non-procreative sex is valid when placed in the context of the right ordering of our passions and the mutual society of the couple concerned. There is then the possibility of what we might call holy passions amongst those who are not both fertile and straight

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to reject the validity of same sex relationships must then rest upon a more spiritual argument, which is what our House of Bishops needs to be concerned with

now one line of argument is simply to say ‘Scripture says…’ It is undoubtedly the case that Scripture is uniformly negative about the sexual expression of homosexual relationships. However, to rest the argument at that point is, at best, sub-Christian. We are not a community that does without rules, so long as those rules are rightly understood as being based upon grace and serving a higher purpose.

Furthermore, the church has the authority to change the rules that we live by – this is an authority explicitly given by Jesus himself to the disciples, to Peter in particular – that what we bound on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

We are given a worked example of how the church is to change the rules in the description of the council of Jerusalem in Acts, when there was an argument over whether the gentiles had to be circumcised in order to enter the Kingdom. Scripture was very clear that if a man wasn’t circumcised then he couldn’t join the community – but ‘it seemed good to the spirit and to the [disciples]‘ that this rule should be discarded.

So the question isn’t about what scripture says in terms of a rule for us to follow, but what is the deeper spiritual question at issue. So, to go back to what Jesus says in our reading this morning, the spiritual argument has to be something along the lines that a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is necessarily characterised by lust rather than love. That a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is not pure.

That position is at least a coherent one, and it is one that has the benefit of being shared by the tradition, and by the majority of Christians in the world.

Yet I do not agree with it, and on this issue I would align myself (with the caveat about marriage I mentioned earlier) on the progressive side of the church debate. Whilst the church hierarchy is still arguing about this, our wider society, including the majority of those in our congregations, has quite clearly come to the conclusion that gay relationships are simply human – yes, open to lustful exploitation, but also vessels for the amazing grace of god – that within a committed relationship it is for the couple themselves to determine the right ordering of their passions to foster the mutual society, help and comfort appropriate to their relationship. In this they are treating homosexual relationships on the same level as heterosexual relationships – they are including all within the covenant community – and this seems to me deeply in tune with what Jesus was pushing for.

This seems to me to be what the Roman Catholics call the ‘sensus fidelium’ – the mind of the faithful. We are not there yet, but that seems to be the way that, at least in this country, we are being led, and I do see that as a movement of the spirit.

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Our Bishops, however, are in the almost impossible position of trying to reconcile two sides that have become more and more opposed, and the dominant impression that I have is that they are acting from fear – that they are terrified of causing disunity both within the Church of England and between the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. I am not without sympathy for that – it seems like an impossible job to me

but there is one area where I would want to raise a criticism against our Bishops, and it is this: within the report, indeed within all the ways in which our Bishops discuss this issue, the gay and lesbian community are seen as ‘other’ – not seen as within the church, but seen as a problem amongst those who are outside, to be touched only at a distance

I don’t believe that we as a church community will be able to make progress on this question until we accept that we are talking about a part of ourselves, part of our own body, when we talk about the differences between the homosexual and the heterosexual, and the right ordering of our passions.

Those who are baptised are a new creation, and their identity is found first and foremost in Christ. That must be the starting point for our conversations – we have to take our baptism seriously, and consequently, we have to listen to what the Spirit is saying through that part of our body which is gay.

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Christ did not come to lay a burden upon us that we cannot bear; rather, Christ came that we might have life and have it in all its fullness. That fullness of life does not come when we surrender to our passions and allow them to dominate us; nor does it come when we needlessly tear out pieces of ourselves out of a misguided quest for spiritual purity.

We need to start from the love of God, that Christ came not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. We need to begin from a place of rest, resting in God’s love for us, and allowing that love to lead us into all truth. We will not get to God by making ourselves pure; no, it is by allowing God’s love to lead us that we will become pure in heart.

May God give us the strength and the grace to remove all lust from our hearts and minds, that we might truly be vessels for his inclusive love. Amen.

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.

The important thing is to vote

I write this the morning after a very lively and well attended General Election Hustings at West Mersea Parish Church. It was good to be involved and to become better acquainted with what the options are for us here on Mersea. If it happens again I will be much stricter about time-keeping, so that we could have more questions – there were several excellent questions that we didn’t have time to take. The character of the candidates became very clear, however, and this helps people to make their decision on who to vote for. That, after all, is the very purpose of hustings. I am convinced that we need a much greater involvement with politics at all levels of our society. It matters not only how we vote, but much more crucially, it matters that we vote.

Somewhere in one of my boxes at home I have a picture of me at secondary school in 1987 campaigning in a mock school election (confession – I was sporting a blue rosette with “I ♥ Maggie” on it). I have always been fascinated by politics and for a long time I had thought about a political career. After university I joined the Civil Service in Whitehall in order to become more fully acquainted with the political process. The role that I had involved changing jobs each year in order to be exposed to the different parts of the Department – I was in the Department of the Environment – and one of my jobs was ‘Radioactive Substances’. That is, I worked closely on the monitoring of nuclear power stations, and learned a very great deal about the science involved. One particular job I had – in 1993 if memory serves – was running a public consultation about the THORP processing plant in Sellafield, which was, at the time, extremely controversial. We knew that any decision reached by the government would immediately be taken through the judicial review process by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so we had to be note perfect in describing the how and why behind the eventual decision. When it came before Parliament I wrote the briefing for John Major, and I have a very fond memory of his hand-written comments thanking me for a ‘perfect’ preparation (please forgive the boast!). What I came away from the Civil Service with was a full appreciation of how politics is just like making sausages, you don’t really want to get too exposed to the detail of how it is done!

It is possible – perhaps it is inevitable – that a cynicism about politics develops. The nature of the political process is such that it is extremely rare for a clear principle to be argued for and then carried out by someone who has not had to make all sorts of compromises along the way. In order to achieve anything in politics it is important to be alert to what is possible at any particular moment in time. In political theory this is called the ‘Overton window’ which describes the range of policies that the public are willing to accept. An average politician will work within that range and seek to advance his cause in incremental fashion, making deals and agreements along the way. A great politician will seek to change the nature of the window itself; that is, they would seek to ‘change the political weather’ in order that what had previously seemed impossible to implement later becomes accepted wisdom. In my lifetime the only politician who might be classed in that category is Margaret Thatcher, who clearly changed the terms of the political debate in this country. Even Thatcher, however, was very willing to compromise and make deals along the way, making tactical retreats on issues when it served her larger purpose.

So the great majority of politicians are average, and they are obliged by the very structure of our politics to make compromises, to accept that their ideals will have to be watered down if they are to make any progress at all. This is a recipe for cynicism. If you approach politics with a sense of idealism, a feel for how things might conceivably be, then it can seem a very brutal environment. More than this, when people on the ground suffer at the hands of a bureaucratic state, when decisions seem to be made without any respect for the human context – something which happens more and more these days – then it is easy to become disillusioned about the whole process and say ‘to hell with the lot of them’, and then disengage completely.

All that happens at that point is that the Overton window becomes much smaller, and the possibility of significant change recedes even further away. The saying goes, “all that is required for bad men to triumph is that good men do nothing” and that applies even to each of us, as we exercise our right to vote. If those of us who are dreamers and idealists, who are unhappy with the existing state of affairs, who are shocked or disgusted by the shabby compromises of the political class – if we disengage and do not vote then the process will only become worse. On the other hand, if all the dreamers and idealists do turn out and vote, then the political class will see that what is possible in this country is greater than they had realised, and the possibility of genuine progress comes that much closer.

To put that in religious terms, cynicism is a sin. To give in to a cynicism about the political process, to argue along the lines that Russell Brand does and think that voting makes no difference in the end, is to give greater power to the established and vested interests. It simply makes things worse. The answer is to follow the advice ‘be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. In other words, do not be under any illusion about the political process, recognise the nature of the beast – but hold on to idealism, hold on to hope, hold on to the sense that things may change – and let that guide your choice as you vote. Whoever it is that we choose to cast our ballot for, it is important that we each exercise that hard-won right. We’d certainly miss it if it was taken away from us.