Archbishops should stick to theology

It is not uncommon for religious leaders to come under criticism when they decide to venture into contentious areas of political dispute. There have been many headlines recently about Archbishop Justin Welby, who has been recommending certain changes to our economic arrangements. My politics and those of the Archbishop are distinct but, to channel the remark often attributed to Voltaire, I disagree with what he says but would defend to the death his right to say it.

The desire to silence religious voices on political questions has many aspects, one of which is distinct to our own society. In general, those in power do not wish to be criticised so, when those in positions of religious leadership offer up criticism, they will undoubtedly be attacked for doing so by those who are either in positions of power themselves or who benefit from the status quo in other ways.

This flags up the most common form of political engagement by religious leaders in the Jewish and Christian traditions, which is that undertaken by the religious prophets. Prophecy in Scripture is often misunderstood as being centrally about predictions of a dire future. Such predictions do exist – even Jesus employs them – but they are always secondary to the principal task of the prophet which is two-fold: to call the people of Israel (and the Church) back to the right worship of God, and to call them to establish social justice, and ensure that nobody is excluded from sharing in the life of the wider community.

When this doesn’t happen, the prophet points out that terrible things follow in consequence. To put that in different terms, the prophet points out that if the people are not obedient to God, then they cannot flourish. The most pointed and political form that this takes in the Bible comes when the prophet Jeremiah is criticising the Royal court and says that the army of Babylon will destroy Jerusalem – which duly happened in 586 BC.

So there is a general truth that those in positions of political power do not like to be criticised, as it might threaten their hold upon that power. Yet there is also something distinctly English about a desire to have apolitical clergy, and it goes back to the experience of the Civil War, and the way in which religious enthusiasm took definite political form in the shape of the New Model Army and Cromwell’s abuses.

After that point, any form of religious enthusiasm was inherently suspect. The Church of England accepted a role in society which was essentially that of a neutered house pet. It received lots of grace and favour and a position of privilege, but it was prevented from the most central form of authenticity available to it, and has been unable to reproduce.

This is the legacy with which contemporary religious leaders – most especially Anglican leaders – have to deal. It isn’t simply a straightforward clash with those in power who wish to hold on to their power, and their various cheerleaders in the media and wider society. No, there is a perception still current that for an Anglican to express political opinions is simply not the done thing.

That pattern of life is slowly breaking down, as part and parcel of the way in which the whole notion of what it is to be English or British, or Christian or secular, is breaking down more broadly.

So does this mean that the Church of England needs to identify itself with one particular political party or stance? I would argue not, but with a very significant caveat. The principal reason why not is simply that faithful Christians can be found across the whole political spectrum, and what marks out the Christian point of view is not so much being left or right as recognising that their political perspectives are less important than their religious ones. Which means, to go back to the example of the prophets, not letting any ideology get in the way of submission to God – for that would be what the Bible calls idolatry. It also means being on guard, over against oneself as much as others, not to deceive ourselves about our motives, and to always seek to have a motivation which expresses love for neighbour rather than simply being a cover for our own needs, whether those be naked financial self-interest or the temptation to indulge in nationalistic or even internationalistic fantasy.

The caveat is that I don’t believe it is open to Christians to sit upon the fence when there are issues of immense political importance being decided upon. My model for this is the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in the 1930s, spent much time with friends in England, including the great Anglican Bishop George Bell, and who could easily have sat out the Second World War in safety in England or the United States. Instead, he chose to return to Germany in order to take part in the struggle against Hitler, eventually being executed by the Nazis for his part in the assassination plot. Shortly after returning to Germany he wrote to a friend in the United States saying, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

Whenever there is a great question of public life to be decided, each Christian must resolve within their own heart and soul what it is that is God’s will. It will almost certainly not be an easy discernment, for political questions in this life by their very nature do not commonly admit to simple, coherent and complete solutions – indeed, the idea that there are such is something of an indicator that an ideology is being deployed, rather than a properly prayerful discernment.

Yet in all the discussions, as much as any political decision debated, decided and argued for, perhaps the real hallmark of a Christian perspective is the grace with which that position is held, and the capacity to listen to alternatives and find common ground with opponents. Christians are called to speak, and must not accept being excluded from the conversation, yet must also bear themselves as those who are dependent upon the virtues of another. We are the ones who do not scapegoat, who do not victimise, who do not project – for it is only through the merits of the one who received all those things from the world that we at all acceptable.

Brexit, the Church, and God’s bias to the poor

In 1983 the then Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard (once of the England cricket team) published a book entitled ‘Bias to the poor’. In it he argued that Scripture shows that God has a consistent preference for looking after the poor and weak of society, and that, to use the modern expression, God was a God of social justice.

This seems incontrovertible to me; that is, I do not think it possible for a person to be a Christian and not be concerned for those who are poor or marginalised or excluded from engaging with the wider society. The message of Scripture, perhaps best exemplified in the marvellous words of the Magnificat in Luke’s gospel, are clear and consistent on this point.

The ‘bias to the poor’ is something that is deeply embedded in the Church of England’s self-understanding, and is something of a commonplace amongst clergy. However, I want to bring out one way in which I think the church has gone astray in its understanding of what this means. Put simply, I think the Church has confused the imperative of caring for the poor with one particular form that such caring might take and, moreover, missed elements of caring for the poor – of integrating them with wider society – which is of huge contemporary relevance.

To explain that point, I want to tell a story about King David – the story about how he was chosen. The prophet Samuel had previously chosen Saul to be the King of Israel – Saul was a fine, handsome, tall and muscular man, accomplished and acclaimed. He led Israel to disaster. When Samuel asked God to lead him to the new King, that he might anoint the King, Samuel was led to the sons of Jesse. Each one paraded before him, but God did not give his consent. Finally, Samuel asked Jesse – do you not have any other sons? And Jesse said, ‘there is still my youngest’ – and this was David. God said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected [Saul]. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16)

Poverty in scripture is never simply about material wealth, but also about status in society. When Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest, he brings a little child into their midst and says that unless they become like a little child they will not enter the Kingdom – and the point of this is that a little child has absolutely no status in society. This principle was embedded in many Christian practices down the centuries. In the Rule of St Benedict, for example, the monks are told that “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger”.

In other words, God doesn’t simply love the poor and seek for them to be given material relief. He also ‘often reveals’ his will through what is said by the poor. This is because those who have little stake in existing systems can often see those systems more clearly – as opposed to those who have a great stake in the existing systems (the High Priests) who lack such a perspective.

Which brings me to the Church of England. So far as I can tell, there isn’t a single member of the House of Bishops who is in favour of Brexit. Which means that, if we look at who tends to be against Brexit, and who tends to be for it, the Bishops are lining up with most of the rest of the establishment – and on the other side are the poor and excluded of British society.

The researcher Matthew Goodwin, of the University of Kent, recently published a paper describing the attitudes and approaches of those who supported Brexit. He finds that such voters are not generally motivated by racism or cultural insularity (which are the usual, reflexive brickbats offered by those opposed to Brexit in order to reinforce a sense of moral superiority) but rather a combination of two things: a sense that, for decades, whole communities had been cut off from the increasing prosperity of wider British society; and, secondly, a sense that those who were making the decisions affecting those communities were more and more distant from the communities themselves. Hence the success of the slogan ‘take back control’.

So here we have large sections of British society who are poor and excluded – exactly the sort of people for whom the Bible expresses an especial concern – but who are entirely unrepresented in the hierarchy of the national church.

Something has gone very wrong.

In Ancient Israel, the role of prophet was one that had a particular place within the Royal Court. There is a fascinating story in the book of Jeremiah which details the conflict between the ’employed’ prophets in the Court – notably Hananiah – and the prophet from the North, Jeremiah himself. Jeremiah was foretelling disaster at the hands of the Babylonians, whereas Hananiah proclaimed that the Babylonians would be defeated. Hananiah, put simply, was telling the Royal Court what they wanted to hear, and preserving the Court in what we would today call a ‘bubble’, where they were unaware of what was happening in the wider political context. Jeremiah, on the other hand, was persecuted for his teaching – and he was proved correct.

The trouble with the Church of England is that it has allowed the bias to the poor to be restricted to the safe, middle-class and soft-socialist nostrums that constitute acceptable discourse for the mainstream centre-left of this country. In doing so, it has failed to recognise that God doesn’t simply care for the poor, he also speaks directly through them, most especially when they cry out for justice and liberty.

If the Church of England is serious about being a Church for the whole nation, especially its mission to the poor, it might do well to start listening to what God is saying through the poor of this country – or, if that is too much, perhaps even listen to the ‘consensus of the faithful’ on the subject of Brexit. After all, Anglicans were significantly more likely to vote for Brexit than the average. The Bishops don’t just represent the more affluent minority of the country, they also represent a much smaller minority of their own church. I just hope that God doesn’t have the same fate in mind for us that he did for Israel under Babylon.

A little rant about Brexit and the Church of England

Whilst I have been following much of the continuing conversation around Brexit fairly closely, I have tended to avoid writing too much due to the unfavourable ratio between heat and light that has shaped so much of the debate. I am moved to write now, however, due to a remarkably poor piece of writing that I have discovered in the Church Times, which ever so gently seems to suggest that those in favour of Brexit are not simply warmongers tossing aside a hard-earned peace, but also in the wrong with God. So herewith some comments follow, paragraph by paragraph (read Professor Chapman’s article first).

Paragraph 1: David Cameron was indeed an appalling Prime Minister, with a deeply anti-conservative world view, like most of the commentariat and those who live within that bubble of thought. I disagree that we are in a ‘fine mess’, but we’ll come on to why.

Paragraph 2: Chapman writes that the situation is complex and bleak – why? Because the EU is established upon four freedoms (he only mentions three) “and there are no solutions possible short of accepting these principles”. I wonder what the specific problem is that is being assumed that requires such purported solutions – it would seem that the problem is ‘how to participate in the European market on existing terms’, which is precisely what Brexiters have voted against. The economic part of the argument is that the long-run growth rate of the British economy is likely to be larger if the UK is outside of the EU than if it is inside. So a Brexiter doesn’t see this as a problem that needs a solution – and is certainly resistant to accepting the principles required, as they would prevent us from pursuing trade agreements with the more rapidly growing parts of the world economy.

Paragraph 3: participation in the EU “requires adjudication through mutually accepted standards and mediated by a court”. Indeed it does, which is why Brexiters would prefer trading on WTO terms – also through mutually accepted standards and mediated by a court. We do not particularly seek the Norwegian or Swiss models, unless as part of a temporary transition process. Linking the free movement of goods in Ireland to the continuation of the Good Friday peace process is mistaken both practically and morally – and the use (abuse!) of this issue by the European Commission is shameful.

Paragraph 4: I’m never sure whether Remainers like Chapman fully appreciate the implications of the arguments made in this paragraph. He writes, “there is no incentive to offer concessions that might mean other countries would start their own renegotiations with Brussels”. In other words, the Commission is not negotiating with a view to the best long-term interest of the population of the EU but with a view to preserving their existing power structure – which implies, therefore, that it is not sustained by widespread support. Rather than arguing for the principles at stake, this is about power. Chapman is speaking from a position of fear, which is not a particularly Christian stance. The last part of this paragraph, about nations finding it ‘much more effective to work as part of a massive economic bloc’ is pro-EU boiler-plate, without a great deal of empirical support. It is undoubtedly good for the major multinationals to work in a market in which local differences have been erased. I find it disturbing that an Anglican priest – and professor! – cannot see any tension between an Incarnational theology and support for companies like Monsanto.

Paragraph 5: “sovereign states have far more geopolitical power when they pool their sovereignty” – again, this reveals much about what is assumed to be important. This claim may or may not be true (I think not), but what seems unthinkable to Chapman is the notion that someone might prefer to have less power in order to have greater sovereignty. The EU largely runs according to German dictates, either explicit or implicit – see Varoufakis’ book for details on how the latter works. The construction of the UK economy over the last three decades can be seen as being shaped by German industrial interests. I’m not sure what the point of Chapman’s last sentence is, or how it is relevant.

Paragraphs 6-8: Conservative MPs, if assessed by their votes in the referendum, are indeed split – yet equally clearly the majority of MPs, and the overwhelming majority of party members, are now committed to implementing Brexit. There is an issue of principle here – the people of the UK voted by a clear majority to leave the European Union. It is perfectly in order to say ‘I think this was the wrong decision, but the people have decided and we now need to make the best of it’ (which I think is May’s position); it is a very different proposition to say ‘I think this was the wrong decision and I am now going to do everything I can to frustrate it’ – such an attitude places someone outside of the democratic process and is an unashamed bid for power. Again, in favour of large multi-national corporations – a bit of a theme in Remainer dialogue.

Paragraphs 9&10: here the fear comes fully into the open, a fear of Britain being ‘forced into a third-country status, which could have a disastrous impact upon the economy’. Trade with the EU represents something like 12% of the British economy, which is less than trade with the rest of the world and very much less than that of the internal economy itself. I have no doubt that there will be some disruption to business, especially the large multinational corporations mentioned earlier, yet there is nothing here of which to be especially afraid. The economy changes constantly and I rather suspect that the car industry in particular is facing major technology-driven changes in the next five to ten years that will have a much larger impact upon employment in the supply chain than anything which will be agreed or not between ourselves and the EU.

Paragraph 11: “The EU has preserved peace for the longest period…” This is incorrect. Peace in Europe has been preserved by NATO. Indeed, looking at the situation in Greece a compelling case could be made that it is now the EU itself which is the largest source of conflict within Europe! Chapman goes on, “that peace is fragile in the face of the simplistic populism and extremist nationalism” which he sees as dominating national politics. Clearly, Brexiters are simplistic populists – the very idea that there might be a coherent argument in favour of leaving the EU that doesn’t reduce to ‘simplistic populism’ is outside of Chapman’s experience. Which is an argument for him to read more widely. I recommend Roger Bootle, Andrew Lilico and Daniel Hannan as people whose arguments he needs to get acquainted with.

Paragraph 12: “our Church leaders might need to stand up for a vision of pan-European peace and a common humanity” – for clearly, those in favour of Brexit reject such things. In Chapman’s argument, the EU is cast in the role of ‘source of all good things’, certainly membership of it represents an extremely high political value – and I would simply ask the good Professor, how can we be certain that it is not functioning as an idol within your theology? Like all human institutions it is a fallen principality, which the British people have chosen to leave. Is there really no room for seeing positives about this? Again, the comment about “upsetting some churchgoers” is revealing – I rather suspect that there is much unexpressed anxiety amongst the great and the good of the Church of England that the people in the pew voted for Brexit at a much higher rate than average. Clearly the great unwashed must be re-educated and forced to repent of their intellectual failures.

Might it not just possibly be the case, however, that God was at work in the Brexit process? That the EU has become something deeply antagonistic to God’s preference for the poor? That an institution which prioritises the bailing out of French and German banks at the expense of impoverishing the Greek population simply no longer possesses any moral credibility whatsoever? And that the sight of an eminent theologian and teacher of the clergy defending such a fallen principality in these terms tells us all that we need to know about why the Church of England is in the state that it is in?

The future of the Church of England: Insanity or Robert the Bruce?

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results” – said Einstein, allegedly.
Then again, Robert the Bruce took inspiration from a spider, that kept going despite repeated failure – was he insane to do that?

I ask because this question seems very relevant to discerning which direction the Church of England needs to be going in. What isn’t in question is that the Church of England is dying – there has been a consistent decline in church membership for several generations now (see David Keen’s blog).

So: if we carry on as we are, we are facing certain doom (as an institution; let’s not indulge ourselves in the egotistical delusion that Christianity in England rises or falls with the CofE!).

Yet there have been other times in history, in the Bible stories, where disaster comes upon the people as a form of the Lord winnowing the tribe, in order that the faithful remnant might thereby prove their faith – and then be vindicated and give triumph. (I think there are conservative cohorts in different branches of the CofE that have this as their major background narrative). Some of my thoughts have been similar.

Is it the case, then, that what the Church needs to do is simply carry on being faithful in the way that it has been thus far? That the processes in the world that have led to a rejection of faith will turn and that people will once more embrace the faith? And – crucially – that the faith that is then embraced will be recognisably what it has been before? Again, some of my thoughts have been along these lines.

I am coming to the conclusion that simply persisting in the faith as we have received it is not enough. Yes, we must remain faithful – and continue to pray and share the sacraments and so on – but I am more and more convinced that the sorts of solutions I’ve argued for before are inadequate. Not wrong, simply insufficient for what needs to be done.

Most of the money raised by the Church of England goes to pay for the clergy, so if something is going to change then it has to centre on them. Most of the problems that clergy experience relate to the burden of establishment (buildings, PCCs, graveyards etc). So I wonder if the change might need to be separating clergy from all the legal aspects of establishment, and charging them simply to be ‘ministers of word and sacrament’ in particular areas. We could keep the houses as the link to particular parishes – so long as that housing was then offered for life (a soap box I shall avoid jumping on just now).

The thing is, if the sheep aren’t fed, they will leave or die (and sheep leaving or dying seems to be a good way to sum up the history of the Church of England over the last sixty years at least). We need to ruthlessly prioritise what we are investing in – and stop investing in the paraphernalia of establishment.

Set the clergy free to be what they were called to. Stop incumbency driving out priesthood. I don’t think it’s just me.

Yet perhaps what I am really describing with all of the above is less what the Church of England needs to do as a corporate body so much as what I need to do in my small part of that body: to be the change I want to see. After all, I have said a lot of this before. It’s not enough to say these things, I have to do things differently. To stop turning the institutional wheels and give myself over much more fully to proclaiming the gospel.

Might even be exciting.

Open Source Anglicanism

What would an open source Church of England look like?

I ponder this because it seems that there are many indicators showing that i) centralising leads to failure (Tainter) and ii) the open source alternative is much more humane, creative and resilient.

Three more specific points to add:

1. There is a collapse of authority, the idea that ‘Father knows best’ or ‘the Leadership has decided’, and this extends far more widely than simply within the church. All traditional institutions are struggling.

2. The burden of our buildings is crippling us. Whilst Simon Jenkins is indeed writing drivel we are just as clearly not in a sustainable position.

3. Incumbency drives out priesthood; or, why do we invest so much in clergy only to then ask them to do things that they are neither called to or trained for? Might we not simply release them?

There remains a role for central authority in open source systems, even if only to mark out the labels for different things. In the same way, I would still see a role for episcopacy and priesthood in an open source church – some people’s theology is actively harmful, not just non-Anglican! Yet what it would look like I am not sure.

Maybe stipendiary priests located in different places but without any legal authority or connection to buildings or church councils? There simply to preach the Word and administer the sacraments, and let all the rest of it float upon the waters of the wider Body?

I know we can’t carry on as we are – and I don’t know that many people that actually want us to. After all doesn’t open source characterise the early church rather well – a community of people that shared collaboratively and threw themselves into a radical dependence on God?

The code that is shared in open source anglicanism is the gospel as the Church of England has received it – along with the accumulated liturgy and wisdom and liturgical wisdom that goes along with it, not understood statically, but as something that is open to progressive improvements. Despite its problems, Common Worship is quite a good format for this.

Anyhow. Thinking out loud, which is appropriate for the post-Easter lull. Needs much more work. Need also to get my wife to design a logo…

Unacknowledged Materialism and the decline of the Church of England

I have been a little unwell, and postponed various meetings, which has left me, unusually these days, with the time to think and thus to blog. I find my thoughts coming back to what it is that the Church of England has really got so wrong, that has led to its not-quite-terminal-yet long decline.

If I had to put my finger on one thing, I would say that most members of the hierarchy of the church are philosophical materialists. That is, they might pay lip service to spiritual realities but in practice no real choices are made on the basis of those spiritual realities. They would almost certainly all demur from such a description – at least, those who knew what it meant would demur – but the demurral would not achieve much in practice. Which is my point.

Philosophical materialism is, roughly, the dogma that the only things that are real derive from mass and from motion, and stems from the thought of Francis Bacon. He excluded two of Aristotle’s four causes from reasonable (ie scientific) consideration, that to do with formal cause (a determining pattern) and final cause (the purpose for which something exists).

This materialism became culturally dominant in England quite some time ago, to the extent that it is now simply a matter of common sense. To reject such a materialism is socially not respectable; at least, not until extremely recently. It is why all language of miracles is rejected (miracles are, most of all, to do with the final cause of events). It is what lies behind the notion of ‘hard’ sciences – because Bacon’s two causes are the ones that are most tangible.

To take just one example with regard to the hierarchy, this – possibly unconscious – materialist bias is shown when the language of spiritual warfare is used in their presence, and the squirming and unease is palpable. Mostly I think this is a caution relating to charismatic forms of devotion – very unEnglish – but there is often something wider too. I diagnose it as a cowering before the mighty edifice of science. In opposing science the Church of England came off worst, it lost, and anything which smacks of reviving that fight is to be shunned for fear of more pain.

However, where materialism is accepted, the work of the church becomes less about a knowledge that leads to salvation than about those things which can be clearly understood in materialist terms: hence the emphasis upon the palliative care of the suffering and the embrace of a managerialist ethos.

It is, put simply, not a spiritually serious position to hold. Which is rather disappointing given the nature of the job, and it is why, in my view, the Church has been a long time a-dying. It cannot give spiritual sustenance when deep down it doesn’t believe that such a thing is real. Where the flock are not fed, they die or they leave.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that the decline of the Church of England stems from an intellectual surrender to the doctrine of secular materialism. The Church has surrendered to science, and forgotten its own genius.

We need to rediscover the magic of our faith. In every sense.

I’m doing my own part to chip away at this through my own research, looking at one area in particular where this has happened (psychiatric diagnosis) yet I am very conscious of being in a distinct minority within the church community: odd, and therefore lonely. (I seek to avoid the vainglorious notion of being the only one left, I’m sure there are at least 7000 more that have not bowed the knee to Baal.)

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if God wants something to be done about it. It may be that God wants the Church of England to enter into glory. I just can’t help but believe that we need to see our situation clearly before we will be enabled to hear God clearly – and this is my contribution. I will start to believe that we are healing – and therefore open to growth once again – when the language of spiritual warfare, of idolatry, principalities and powers, angels and demons are once again comfortably and normatively used by those in spiritual authority over the church.

A church for England

So here is the trailer for a new series on Netflix that I am planning to watch and hoping to enjoy:

One of the key elements in the story is that a person can ‘upload’ their identity so that it can be stored and then be ‘downloaded’ into another body, thus granting a certain sort of immortality.

This is one manifestation of the ancient gnostic heresy, which sees bodies as barriers to enlightenment.

Christianity, in contrast, proclaims the Word made flesh – and thus sees flesh as inherently capable of bearing divinity, thus, worthy of respect and affirmation. If you really want to protect the bodies of human beings in the world today it doesn’t help to consider them metaphysically dispensable…

Interestingly, contemporary philosophy of mind and neuroscience would concur that the idea (of disembodied intellects being the essence of who we are) is inadequate to describe our shared humanity. We do not exist apart from our bodies, and cannot exclude our bodies from our sense of self, not even of our concept of mind. No, the Biblical witness that we are embodied souls (to be resurrected one day in the body DV!) is proving remarkably robust.

So far, so uncontroversial to an informed theologian. Now for my radical turn.

Jesus was the Word made flesh, and the scandal of the incarnation is about particularity – how odd that God should choose the Jews. Jesus was a particular man who lived in a particular time and place; so far as we can tell he was very typical of a man of his time, for all of his untypical aspects are otherwise remarked upon – his teaching, his demeanour, his morally and religiously radical behaviour.

In other words, all those aspects of humanity that are tied in with a particular time and space – to be a Jew in the first century in Palestine – these also become bearers of the divine.

Which means that all our own particularities share in that potentiality; and they can only do so if they are real.

By which I mean: ontologically real. Most especially, a nation, or national identity, is a real thing. It meant something for Jesus to be a Judean. The nation is a principality, a creation of God, fallen and in need of redemption, yet also granted a place in God’s economy.

Which brings me to the Church of England, which is dying if not yet quite dead. I rather wonder whether part of the affliction from which it suffers has its root in a metaphysical blindness about the true spiritual nature of the nation which it claims to serve. That is, it would appear that, unlike the laity, almost all of the leadership has no interest or care in the salvation of England as a nation, as opposed to the individuals who live within that nation.

Might it not be the case that, if the Church of England is not to die out from lack of use, a part of the solution would be a recognition that the Church has to be for England as such?

At the moment this is just a seed of an idea. Yet it ties together so much.

What is Justin Welby afraid of?

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks during a news conference at Lambeth Palace in London

I am feeling ashamed of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As you might imagine, this is not a comfortable experience for someone who is a loyal Anglican.

This has been provoked by Welby’s response to the Carlile report.

The Carlile report concluded that, in its investigation of the allegations against George Bell, “the Church of England failed to institute or follow a procedure which respected the rights of both sides. The Church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past when it had been too slow to recognise that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect oversteered in this case. In other words, there was a rush to judgement: the Church, feeling it should be both supportive of the complainant and transparent in its dealings, failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the Bishop. Such rights should not be treated as having been extinguished on death.”

In other words, the Church got things wrong – it did not make a proper investigation into the strength of the allegations against George Bell, and consequently defamed the late Bishop and destroyed his reputation without good cause.

This seems to me something that is a serious moral error and one that needs to be repented of.

Yet the Archbishop says this: “Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good.” He is balancing the heroic elements of George Bell’s life, which are well-known and well-attested, with the single, uncorroborated (and clearly partly factually mistaken) allegation of wickedness.

I believe that this is in itself wicked.

As I do not believe the Archbishop to be a wicked man – indeed, he has for the most part seemed a good thing so far – I am forced to wonder about his motivations for being so maladroit on this topic. The only thing that occurs to me is that he is terrified of the opprobrium that falls upon the church when it gets things wrong with regard to safeguarding – indeed that is what Carlile alludes to in the extract above. Welby has taken the easier, more worldly-mollifying course of action, rather than one which is principled and concerned above all with the truth.
This cannot end well.

This acting from fear is so far from what we need. I am still someone longing for an unafraid Anglicanism. I had been hoping we would get some fearless leadership from Dr Welby. I am now more worried that we will get an extremely efficient leadership that takes us vigorously in the wrong direction.

St Anthony of Padua pray for us!

Christianity has declined because it no longer believes in magic

Eucharist icon

Some thoughts prompted by reading John Michael Greer here. JMG says, “I’m far from the only person to notice that something very strange has been happening to Christianity for quite a long time now. The liberal denominations that used to be the mainstream capitulated to atheism back in the 1950s — you’ll have to look long and hard to find ministers in any liberal church who actually, literally believe in the objective reality of the God whose weekly worship they’re paid to conduct—and now function mostly as charitable foundations and political-action committees with a sideline in rites of passage.” Then later on he says, “Valerie Flint, in her brilliant book The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, has documented that a core reason Christianity was able to spread so rapidly across Europe, winning support from local warlords and kings, was that Christian monastics and clergy earned a reputation for being better at magic than their Pagan rivals: better, that is, at delivering the goods that religion is supposed to deliver.”

I think there is a very great deal of truth in this (I leave aside the category mistake that JMG makes about ‘God’ and gods).

Specifically, I see the death of the mainstream churches (in the West) as rooted in a surrender to a scientific spirit which – as part and parcel of that spirit – also rejects any acceptance of magic and (what is commonly called) the supernatural.

If the church doesn’t dispense magic – and the most magical elements of Christianity are the sacraments – then it no longer has a spiritual purpose, and JMG’s description is justified.

Magic here must be understood in its proper sense, not Harry Potter-esque action at a distance, but rather as the changing of consciousness in accordance with will. In Christian terms it is about the renewing of our minds.

How many clergy actually take spiritual warfare seriously in their daily lives? I am only beginning to, and I am aware of how far I have to go in developing this, yet I am very conscious that – most especially from the viewpoint of the institution – I am a bizarre outlier. It’s a marker for how far the scientistic spirit has taken root within the church itself.

I am conscious of having written about this in greater depth in my book: “With you is my contention O priest!” I am quite certain that unless we attend to this deep spiritual wound within our common life then everything else we do will be of nothing worth.

Which is another way of saying: the first commandment must come first, and because that is laughed at within the church, this is why we die.

(Perhaps the problem is that different factions within the church claim the right to say what the first commandment means. At least the RC church doesn’t have that problem.)

Something to add to my musings about the Church of England. I do not yet have a solution; but I am working on it.

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.