A few brief thoughts on the Bishop’s Pastoral Letter

I am delighted that the Bishops have written such a document. Those who cry ‘Archbishops should stick to theology’ are simply parading their ignorance.

I am most particularly delighted that the document is rooted in the language of virtues and character – clearly the influence of Alasdair MacIntyre and his disciples like Hauerwas. This is very much where I would position myself.

Lastly, despite some questions about tone, I think the overall tenor of the document is a good one – it is an invitation to a larger conversation. I very much hope that it bears good fruit.

So, for once, I want to applaud our hierarchy for something. Of course, I have some specific detailed disagreements, but they may or may not be worth writing about!

The Church of England is an institutionally abusive church

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

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

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

Let me give some examples of what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tainted love

Sometimes I feel I’ve got to run away
I’ve got to get away
From the pain you drive into the heart of me
The love we share seems to go nowhere…

Every time I think that I’ve plumbed the depths of despair at what the Church of England gets up to, along comes another episode of ‘how to demonstrate to the world that we are spiritually incompetent’. I refer, of course, to the debacle that has clustered around Fr Philip North’s consecration.

Two things first, before I let go and rant.

One, I feel immensely sorry for Fr Philip, who seems both principled and capable. Two, I have a huge amount of sympathy for the traditionalist perspective, not because I ultimately agree with it but because the process that has led to our present position has been driven by politics and a largely atheological form of argumentation (using the language of rights and justice). I well understand the fears and frustrations of those who see their perspective being marginalised and driven to the wall without even the courtesy of being properly engaged with by the wider church. It would be like seeing children let loose to play with the family heirlooms where the most distressing element is not that the heirlooms are being damaged but that all the other adults in the room do not recognise that there is damage being done. Far better that the damage is done openly and clearly with a full consciousness of what is going on rather than this blundering.

However.

The consequences of our compromises are absurd and damaging and will make the eventual and inevitable collapse of our unity all the harder to deal with.

What, after all, is going on with +Sentamu’s ‘gracious restraint’? I have to confess to being rather baffled, in that I simply don’t understand the theology, the ecclesiology, of what is about to happen.

I hear that it is not about ‘taint’, by which I understand that it is not about a form of purity and/or contamination that will follow from consecrating or ordaining outside of the tradition. It is, apparently, all about communion. That is, those who take part in such consecrating or ordaining are placing themselves outside of the historic communion of the church catholic.

What I don’t understand is where this leaves Fr Philip’s future apostolic ministry within Diocese and Province. After all, I thought the very definition of being a bishop is that they are the principal celebrant of the Eucharist, from which all other priestly ministry in their area derives? Is this aspect not considered crucial as Fr Philip is to be a suffragan? But then, how can a suffragan bishop not be in communion with the Diocesan or the Archbishop?

+Sentamu has indicated that there are ways in which his authority will be recognised during the consecration, such as through oaths of obedience and ‘presenting the episcopal ring’. Yet to my mind this is to elevate the outward forms of episcopal office above the spiritual heart, which is centred on communion. What sort of witness is this?

I can only conclude that we are not a spiritually serious church. We are neither hot nor cold and thus we are apt to be vomited out of our Lord’s mouth. Which, now I think about it, is a rather good description of this noxious mess.

Don’t touch me please – I cannot stand the way you tease.
I love you though you hurt me so
Now I’m gonna pack my things and go…

It’s because we don’t believe in God

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

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

Which idols am I thinking of? Here are some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remorseless logic and a Bishop’s rest

So at least one Bishop has now made the decision to enact discipline with respect to a priest who has entered into a ‘gay marriage’. As Ian Paul rightly asserts, the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has now come to an end, and the Church of England is going to have to choose where it stands with regard to non-tradtional sexuality.

There is a remorseless logic to the situation that the Bishops now find themselves in. The remorseless side of things stems from the nature of the society that we now live within, which will consistently seek to assert pressure from the progressive side of the sexuality argument. The logic, however, is an internal one. After all, it was the acceptance of contraception at the 1930 Lambeth conference which has led directly to our present social understandings of sexuality. The Roman Catholic hierarchy recognise that the logic of accepting contraception leads inevitably to a much more progressive understanding of sexuality tout court, which is why they have held out against it.

I can see any particular Bishop resting safely on a traditional Roman Catholic understanding of sexuality. That much could be argued for, and we don’t have to go far to see how it could be argued for. To my mind, those who oppose modern sexual mores need to accept the internal logic of their position and accept that, if they are to reject gay marriage (for example) then they are also required to reject contraception and re-marriage after divorce and so on. There are people who have made that argument within the Church of England and it seems to me to be an honourable position to hold.

However, what of those who do not wish to accept such a stance? What might be a place of ‘Bishop’s rest’ – that is, how might a Bishop exercise due authority within his Diocese when it comes to questions of priesthood and sexuality? Is there a place to stand at the end of the progressive path?

I am concluding that there is, and I believe that the new substantive policy would rest upon: an acceptance that questions of sexuality and marriage are second-order issues; an acceptance of the authority of the individual baptised conscience; and an acceptance that we are called to exercise a radical non-judgement.

Practically, the outworkings of such a framework would mean a repeal of Canon B30 (which articulates the traditional view of sexuality) and an understanding that the sexuality of any particular priest is first and foremost a private matter for the priest themselves. I think that there would still be some room for the exercise of discipline over a wayward priest, but it would have to be on the grounds of either a) illegality (in which case the church disciplinary process would follow the secular one, as in other areas of misbehaviour) or b) bringing the church into disrepute. For the latter, an individual bishop would have to discern whether there was in fact clerical misbehaviour or whether there is simply a faithful position which is out of step with wider cultural mores (in other words, the Bishop needs to discern whether the disrepute arises from waywardness or a prophetic vocation).

Article 32 might be rewritten in the following form, to articulate the new perspective: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from sexual relations: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to develop lawful sexual relationships at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”

One last metaphor to assist contemplation: there is a remarkable sequence in Peter Weir’s ‘Master and Commander’ when the ship’s captain has to take the momentous decision to sacrifice the life of one crewmember. A storm has stripped away a canvas-filled mast from the main body of the ship, with the man on it, and the detached rigging has begun to work as a sea-anchor, and will eventually cause the entire ship to sink. The captain has to cut the ties to the lost mast in order to enable the ship itself to come right and continue to be a safe vessel for the other sailors.

I see the traditional view of sexuality within the Church of England as being that broken mast. Unless we cut ourselves free of it we shall all sink.

Things we cannot bear

Andrew Goddard’s article in Fulcrum lucidly sets out the challenge presently faced by our Bishops as they seek to adjust to the new social reality which is gay marriage. As Ian Paul points out, this is the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. The church is going to have to move in one direction or another.

The inherited position, still maintained by the Roman Catholic church, is that the telos of sexuality is procreation; and therefore all sexuality that isn’t inherently open to the procreative is objectively disordered and sinful. The insitution of marriage is the structure that the wider society has put in place in order to regularise sexuality. Any sexuality which is non-procreative or extra-marital (NPEM) is to be forbidden.

The fundamental shift that has taken place within our wider society is that the telos of sexuality is no longer seen as purely about procreation. As Rowan Williams has pointed out, once you accept contraception, all the other elements of the traditional position are also undermined. From that point on there are no coherent grounds on which to claim that a sexually expressed homosexuality as such is sinful.

This change in the understanding of sexuality has been going on for an extremely long time. Indeed, the language of the 1662 marriage service, in talking about the mutual society, help and comfort of the marriage, and not just simply referring to the right ordering of procreation, is part of the opening up (this is somewhat ironic in the light of the Bishop’s statement). The end-point of this development is our present worldly situation, whereby the ‘quality’ of the romantic relationship is what justifies sexuality and marriage, rather than marriage justifying sexuality and romance.

The contradiction takes form in the House of Bishops’ advice and so they shout ‘stop the world I want to get off’. They do not wish to accept the consequences of what they have already agreed to. The CofE really has to decide whether NPEM sex is inherently sinful, and then commit itself to working out and implementing the conclusions that flow from such a decision. It may be worth pointing out – although it is not necessarily a defect, it might be a virtue – that to say that NPEM sex is sinful is to adopt a minority position within the culture of today. After all, if the church commits to a re-affirmation of the traditional position, that trajectory does not simply rule out an acceptance of same-sex marriage, it will also commit the church to ruling out, inter alia, the remarriage of divorcees.

If we wholeheartedly accept that NPEM sex is not inherently sinful, then this opens up all sorts of other questions – questions which we have really only begun to wrestle with. Part of the answer will involve something like covenanted relationships – which is what civil partnerships could be, and blessed by the church – but is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

What, after all, is the sin involved in NPEM sexuality? What is the sin involved in consensual non-monogamy? Or polygamy? Do people have to be assorted into one of two clearly marked out boxes in order to have non-sinful sex, and then only with someone from the other box?

A quick sketch of my own thinking would be: there are profound sins, which the church must be more actively engaged in denouncing, to do with the raising of children and the breaking down of family homes, the betrayals of trust and so on. Yet on the question of NPEM sexual relations, beyond a clear teaching about the difference between I-Thou and I-It relating, I do not see any scope, apart from the tradition, for saying anything beyond ‘All things are permitted, but not all things are edifying’ and ‘It is not good for the human being to be alone’ and then leaving it to the individual conscience of the believer. In other words, it involves a radical non-judgement, and a taking seriously that baptism confers both a new creation and an authority to decide what is good (what can be ‘loosed on earth‘).

This might apply especially to the clergy, for whom the 39 Articles reserve the authority over whether a marriage is of God for them or not. The two options that the CofE will therefore end up choosing between – or, more realistically, splitting over – are therefore a re-establishment of the conservative position or an embrace of a progressive path, and this latter option will, in the terms of Andrew Goddard’s article, mean removing any understanding of marriage from Canon Law and leaving the assessment of any and all sexual relations to the conscience of the individual believer. As I intimated back in 2009 I do not see this as representing a major threat to any form of Christianity. Tobias Haller articulated this well:

“Marriage is not a proper subject of dogmatic theology, but at most of moral or pastoral theology. There is no core doctrine concerning marriage, and it is doubtful that the subject warrants a doctrine at all, and at least some of the efforts to construct a theological defense of marriage do more harm to theology than help to marriage. The church did very well without much doctrinal reflection on marriage for centuries. The creeds and classical Anglican catechisms are silent on it. The Articles of Religion refer to it as an estate allowed, and available to clergy as they see fit. There is no settled doctrine of marriage, only changing rules, laws, rites and ceremonies — all of these, as the Articles also remind us, subject to amendment by the church.”

I believe this is something that we cannot yet bear, and yet, it seems to be where the Spirit is leading the church.