The aroma of unreality: a summary of my views on the CofE

Archdeacon Janet Henderson recently wrote “I’ve noticed a lot of articles (blogs and media) lately suggesting that the church is dying. The authors of these pieces are hand-wringing over the fact that there aren’t enough resources to keep things going, bemoaning the fact that churches are getting caught up into ‘management-speak’ and chastising these churches for losing sight of gospel values.”

I can’t imagine who she has in mind! I thought I’d use her post as a prompt to set out a few summary points about how I see the Church of England at the moment, as it would seem that my approach is being misunderstood.

Firstly, I do believe that the Church of England – in its present form – is dying. That seems to be a straightforward conclusion to reach from considering the evidence of long-term numerical decline, as David Keen has chronicled. So I do not wish to ‘suggest’ that the church is dying – that doesn’t seem like a very interesting conversation to have any more. I want to proceed on the assumption that the church is in fact dying, and then ask what do faithful Christians – who are loyal to the faith as the Church of England has received it – do now?

The corollary of this is to recognise the difference between the church and the gospel itself. That is, I have great faith in the gospel as something inherently contagious, and which in all likelihood will become a majority world faith some time in the twenty-first century. I trust Jesus’ words that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the church. However, that does not mean that any particular local instantiation of the church cannot die – clearly, in history, many have done and do. The question is: is there, in the structures of the Church of England, still an effective vehicle for the transmission of the gospel, or has the glory of the Lord departed from it for good?

Archdeacon Janet writes: “death is perhaps the least surprising concept to apply to the church which, in theological terms, is the body of Christ – Christ who died and who rose again.” Yes – but it needs to be a real death, as Christ’s was. My take on the Church of England is that it is like a man who has had a really bad car accident and is now in a perpetually vegetative state, being kept alive by an apparatus (establishment) that keeps the vital signs ticking over, and therefore the illusion of life continuing, but there is nothing new or generative possible. We need to really believe in the gospel – and really believe in the resurrection – and therefore have the courage to turn off the machine (and thereby give all the genuinely encouraging green shoots room to grow. You’ll only get new trees in the forest when the ancient trunks have toppled over and created space in the canopy).

To adapt that image, what I am interested in, therefore, is surgery, not butchery. I want to examine those elements of the body that are unhealthy, that have died, and excise them, in order that the healthy parts have room to flourish – and thereby that the body itself might be creatively renewed. What troubles me about the Archdeacon’s post is what could be called the ‘aroma of unreality’ – the sort of ‘nothing to see here, move along, everything is under control’ which happens so often in all walks of life when uncomfortable truths get covered up. To discuss the death of the Church of England is not bemoaning and hand-wringing, it is simply to seek an honest description of the situation in which we find ourselves. It may well be – indeed I hope that it is – possible for there to be a future Church of England, in recognisable continuity with the present one, in which the particular English genius of local via media Christianity is able to be carried forward. I just think that if we are to pursue such an aim with integrity, prayer and moral honesty then we need to be willing to speak directly and be prepared to take some very tough decisions.

On which subject, I hope to finish a second book (to be called “Haunted by Herbert”) in the next few weeks, where I shall spell out what I mean by saying that the Church has forgotten the gospel and what the hard decisions that need to be made actually are. In the meantime, these are links to some of my recent writings on the subject, which will give you a flavour of the argument I shall be making.

Of Strategy, Smallbone and the Spanish Train
Is the Church of England doomed?
Going to Eli – the tension between the institutional and the vocational
The stupid and ungodly Church of England
How shall we clothe the naked CofE?
Efficiency and resilience in the CofE
Faramir, Fraser and the folly of a fast church
Population or congregation? Where the ghost of establishment resides
What is to be done?
Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori
Is it time to abandon ship?
The dying of a church is not a management problem

The dying of a church is not a management problem

Prompted by the conversation over at David Keen’s blog, I got hold of a copy of ‘The Tiller Report’ – “A Strategy for the Church’s Ministry” by John Tiller, then Chief Secretary to ACCM, which was published in 1983. The Tiller report was, itself, building and moving on from a previous ‘Paul Report’ from 1967, which covered similar ground. It makes depressing reading. All the issues that are currently being discussed (eg how to cope with a reduction in clergy numbers) are identified in Tiller, and all the same solutions are advocated – empowering the laity, distributing responsibilities, making the Deaneries the focus of mission and so on. I have this dark vision of another report being written in 30 years time, describing our present context as richly resourced, and working out how to keep the CofE rolling on with only 4,500 clergy.

This is not to say that I disagree with what Tiller wrote – or with what is now being advocated, eg through Transforming Presence. It is simply to say that, if these managerial, pragmatic and administrative remedies addressed the real problem, then those problems would have been solved by now. In my view, the fact that identifying these problems and outlining solutions has been done so competently suggests that our continuing malaise is not something that can be treated with those techniques. The root of our problems does not lie in technocratic incompetence – prevalent though that is – but deeper. The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. In my view, the real issue is that there is is a hole where our understanding and practice of the gospel should be.

This can be seen most clearly in the present debacle concerning whether or not to have women bishops, and how that might be carried forward. Manifestly, at this point in time, there is no single understanding to which all give consent; therefore there is fragmentation and each party simply seeks to advance its own interests. The discussion is not being carried forward as between brothers and sisters in the faith, but in the manner of opposing and mutually despising political parties. There is, in short, a spiritual collapse which has this faction fighting as a consequence. The debates that are taking place in Synod, and more broadly, seem indistinguishable from the political struggles that we are familiar with in Parliament. How can we get sufficient numbers to drive through our agenda? How can we get sufficient numbers to prevent the enemy faction from succeeding?

The trouble is that we do not have a culture in which these events can be described honestly. The hierarchy simply colludes with a culture of concealment (despite the fact the the world outside is full of small children pointing out the nakedness of the emperors) – because lip service has to be paid to the Christian virtues, even when those virtues are not embodied. Let me explain what I mean.

When the initial vote to approve women priests was made in 1992, it was only enabled to happen through a political compromise. In essence, those who were opposed to the ordination of women were assured that this was to be a ‘trial’ – that there would be a ‘period of reception’ during which the Church would come to a view about whether it was in fact the right thing to do – and that in the meantime, those who were opposed to the measure would not be forced to act against their conscience, and their views would continue to be respected. Notoriously, the language was of their being ‘two integrities’ possible within the Church of England. This political fix enabled just enough people in the ‘middle’ to switch sides and pass the measure. Since that time, it would be fair to say that the opposition to the ordination of women has only hardened amongst those who were originally opposed – and, similarly, it has been affirmed and embraced enthusiastically by those who were originally in favour. In other words, the division that was present in 1992 has, through the adoption of crude political methods, become heavily entrenched. Such spiritual camaraderie as was present in 1992 has now mostly evaporated, and we are in an even more emaciated spiritual condition than before.

This is the context within which the women bishops debate is taking place. Those who were in favour of women’s ministry before can now point to twenty years of experience and say ‘see?’ Those who were against, however, can now say ‘you have not kept your promises, we have not been respected, we have instead been persecuted, scorned and scapegoated, why should we start to trust you now?’ In this context, to say ‘we have to rely on our common Christian grace to get by’ is radically inadequate and dishonest. It is a pretence built upon a failure to own up to sub-Christian behaviour. The continued repudiation and moral opprobrium heaped upon those opposed to women’s ministry does nobody any credit, most especially when proper theological reflection gets substituted out in favour of a shallow acceptance of the secular language of justice and rights.

If our church had any spiritual strength it would – before exploring the question about women bishops – close the conversation about the ‘period of reception’ with which this experiment with the ordination of women began. It would come to an honest decision, once and for all, as to whether the decision in 1992 is to be affirmed or rejected (or, perhaps, agree to defer that decision). It would have that discussion in full and honest and open acceptance of the consequences. That is – given that the church is not going to repudiate the ministry of getting on for half of its clergy – it will have to say ‘we are not going to have the ecclesiastical abomination of flying bishops any more’. It will have to say to those opposed ‘this is the decision that the church has reached, this is the integrity of the Church of England now’ – and it would then have to act as charitably as possible to care for those who are rendered spiritually homeless as a result. There are creative ways to do that – but those creative and charitable possibilities cannot be explored in a situation of systematic abuse and bad faith.

Put simply, the church needs to live up to its words; not the high-flown language of spiritual aspiration and love, but the workmanlike words of the 1992 resolutions. The Church actually has to grow up and take what it has done seriously, not continue to indulge in a politically convenient forgetting that advances the agenda of one part at the expense of another. Until we have this honesty – and the patience to pursue the path of honesty wherever it might take us – we will never get anywhere.

Which brings me back to management. Terry Leahy, in his book ’10 words’ begins by talking about truth, as the foundation for everything else that can come, and writes “Organisations the world over are terrible at confronting truth. It is so much easier to define your version of reality and judge success and failure by that.” Why does the Church have such a problem with truth and honesty? My take on this is that it is because we have lost our way spiritually – and yet we can see the consequences around us of that state. We can feel that we have been mortally wounded, but we can’t see where the wound was inflicted and so, in lieu of actually dressing the wound and healing it (allowing God to heal it) we throw ourselves into ever more frenetic endeavours to try and cover up the truth. We substitute social and secular agendas for the gospel to show to the world how righteous we are (as if the gospel could be reduced to being righteous); we throw away the inheritance of our liturgy for the mess of pottage that is children’s entertainment, poorly done (as if the right way to worship God could only be properly discovered with the advent of Powerpoint); and we throw away the long, slow obedience of loyal, local discipleship for the ‘because I’m worth it’ pick and mix of the preferential rather than the penitential. Is it any wonder that we are in the state that we are in?

I believe that the only thing that will energise the church and lead it out into the kingdom is a renewed appreciation of the gospel – a sense of confidence that what we share and why we share it is genuinely a matter of real life and real death – and that that in itself will give the strength for mission, and allow the temperature of things like the women bishops debate to be lowered. At that point all will recognise that wrestling over who has the helm is not the most crucial decision at a time when the ship is sinking and all hands need to be on deck. Given the nature of the traumas that have begun to be inflicted upon our culture – and which will continue to worsen through the coming years, with all the genuine hardship, poverty and starvation that ensues – I believe that we will look back on our arguments at this time with a profound sense of shame; shame not simply that we were distracted from the one thing needful, but shame that this blinded us to the mission that God wishes us to carry forward in a time such as this.

I write this as a supporter of the ordination of women, and the eventual opening up of the episcopacy to women. It’s just that the gulf between what the church thinks to be important – and the vituperative way in which this is proceeding – and what I believe to be important feels very wide. Christian progress does not proceed across the graves of our baptised brothers and sisters.

Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori

So: another priest is being subjected to harassment from the noble and honourable legions of the printed media as a result of the discretions of a friend on Facebook. The allegation is that, as a result of these written disclosures, the priest is “unfit to serve the church at all in the opinion of many Doncaster residents”. Well, good opinion, is, of course, the determining criterion for suitability for ministry. There is a deep issue here, which I want to try and tease out – not least because I too, have been blessed in the past by the tender ministrations of our legacy media.

There is something about being an ordained minister which can be captured in the phrase ‘the dignity of the office’. Obviously this can be abused – I’m sure we’re all familiar enough with the genus of pompous ass for the point not to need belabouring – but where that dignity is recklessly disregarded then the institution of the church is led into disrepute. This is, truly, a bad thing. What I want to explore for now, though, is what actually counts as godly dignity in an environment such as ours. After all, alongside the verse from 1 Timothy we must also assess the tradition of the prophets, culminating in our Lord Himself, in which the most direct and offensive language was deployed to tear down the dignity of offices, for the simple reason that those offices had ceased to serve the living God.

Take the present debate about women bishops legislation. How I wish we had people with philosophical training in positions of leadership in the church! Not for arcane expertise but simply for the ability to follow through the implications of a train of thought or a decision. What we see now is the necessary consequence of the short-term expediency deployed to get the original women-priests measure through. The more compromises that we reach for political purposes – without regard for the underlying principles – the more awful a mess we lead the church into. In this situation, Bishop Alan, for example, might be rightly accused of lacking collegiality with his fellow bishops through his forthright comments – and yet, he is also channeling some righteous rage at the follies that have led us into this situation. Which is more fitting for the dignity of his office – colluding with an inability to have real conversations, or speaking honestly? It is this inability to get real that is the root problem here – as with my brother priest in Doncaster. The idea that a clergyman might swear, might be exhausted or occasionally feel hatred for his work – this is to glimpse an unsettling truth, and preserving contrary illusions does not advance the Kingdom. I am reminded of a wonderful scene in the outstandingly good film Moneyball, which I watched the other night, and which led me to ponder all sorts of things about the church: “You guys are talking the same old nonsense… We’ve got to think differently.”

If we are to truly preserve the divine dignity of the ordained office, does not a respect for truth have to figure somewhere along the line? Sadly, where the church has fallen so far from its divinely ordained purposes, all that is left is an ecclesiastical Game of Thrones, with ++Rowan having played the role of Ned Stark. What is needed is an understanding that ‘you win or you die’, and to succeed in that process we need integrity and honour and an understanding of the dignity of the office – coupled with an acceptance that blood must sometimes be shed. In other words, we need leadership that has an Old Testament Heart, not a Smallbone. Our leadership has been prepared to wound but not to kill, and as a result we have spent twenty years in further interminable argument, and the divisions have simply become more and more entrenched. We are bleeding to death, pummelled by the secularist and materialist cultural imperatives, denuded of our faith and our joy. This is the consequence of not recognising the fallen nature of our world and its implications for the church. Does the church actually want to live?

And just in case the full reference of my title is missed, let me state explicitly that I am channeling Wilfred Owen, not Horace; and, to be true, just a little bit of Mark Antony in my opening paragraph.

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Nothing. That is, the short answer to my titular question is: the Bible says nothing about homosexuality. This is because ‘homosexuality’ as a concept was developed in the nineteenth century, and the word ‘homosexual’ does not occur in the Bible, and Jesus never discusses this issue. What the Bible does discuss, in a small number of texts, are the ethics (or holiness) of particular actions. What I want to do in this article is go through three of the main relevant texts in turn but I will return to this first point at the end – the Bible doesn’t say anything about homosexuality – because it is actually fundamental to the conversation which our church and society is having at the moment.

The first text to consider is Genesis 19, the sin of Sodom leading to their destruction in fire and brimstone. This is the story from which the word ‘sodomy’ derives, and it is a deeply unpleasant tale – and yet, it is also a tale that can be read in various different ways. In brief, two men – who are actually angels – come to stay with Lot. At night, the men of the ‘city’ (probably a village smaller than Mersea) surround Lot’s house and tell him to cast out the angels so that the resident men can have sex with them. Lot refuses, the angels blind the men, and in the morning Lot escapes and the Lord destroys the city. Now, in our sex-obsessed culture, we tend to emphasise the sexual elements of this story and say ‘this is all about how God hates homosexuals’. This is not the emphasis of the story itself. After all, if the emphasis was on bad sexual behaviour then Lot – who is the righteous man in the story – would not say to the men outside his house “Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.” (Compare and contrast this story – where the daughters actually get away – with the similar story in Judges 19.22-29 which doesn’t have such a ‘happy’ ending.)

So if the sin of Sodom is not principally about sexuality, what is it about? In a word, hospitality. What Lot says immediately after the offer of his daughters is “Don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Ancient near-Eastern culture was not obsessed with sex, as we are, but they were obsessed with the importance of hospitality, and the rights and obligations associated with it. It is this social regulation that the Sodomites were transgressing, and it was for their overthrowing of the norms of hospitality that God destroyed them. How can I be so certain that this is the right interpretation of the story? Simply because it is how Jesus himself understood it – see Matthew 10.14-15, when Jesus invokes Sodom in the context of talking about hospitality.

The next significant texts to ponder are from the book of Leviticus, which are very similar so I’ll treat them together. Leviticus 18.22 says “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (‘abomination’)”; Leviticus 20.13 says “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable (‘have committed abomination’). They must be put to death.” The book of Leviticus is essentially a book describing how the Levites – that is, the priests – are to carry out the worship of God in the Temple, and how the Jews more generally are to achieve holiness. In other words, Leviticus cannot be understood separately from the context of ritual worship. For Christians, all of the theology in this text is subsumed into the ‘New Temple’ worship of Holy Communion, and so the specific legalities associated with the ritual worship in the Temple have been superseded by what Jesus developed. This is why Christians have no problem with carrying out many things also considered abominations by the book of Leviticus, such as eating oysters, or cutting men’s hair. That is not to say that the book of Leviticus has no use for Christians today – on the contrary, I believe that a proper understanding of Leviticus would be the best safeguard for keeping contemporary Christian worship meaningful – but it is to say that these specific commands have no particular weight. A homosexual act is as intrinsically ‘wrong’ as eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of different fibres (like a polycotton shirt), no more, no less.

So what of the New Testament? It’s fairly straightforward for a Christian to argue that we don’t have to submit to Old Testament laws because we follow a God of grace and freedom, but what of particular relevant passages in the New Testament? The key passage to ponder is this one, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. To put the passage in context, Paul is speaking to a Jewish audience in Rome, and he is listing all the ways in which the surrounding culture is decadent – in order to then make the point that his listeners don’t have a leg to stand on, for whilst his audience has avoided some obvious and external immoralities, their hearts are full of judgement and condemnation of others, and that “There is no-one righteous, no not one” – which is why we have to rely upon a God of mercy and grace, and not on our own merits or achievements in avoiding obvious sins. However, that does not mean that what Paul describes as sinful aren’t actually sinful! Having talked about the origin of bad behaviour in bad worship (ie idolatry – bad worship leading to bad behaviour is an axiomatic truth in the Bible) this is what he says: “… God gave them over to sinful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

So what is it that Paul is denouncing? Remember the context – Rome, the centre of Empire – where there was a highly developed culture of temple prostitution. It is this bad worship which is Paul’s target. For example, in Cybele’s Temple there were male transvestite priests who had cut off their own genitals and offered themselves to men as part of the temple rituals. These rituals were essentially about fertility – using expressions of human fertility (ie what we might think of as ‘exuberant’ sexuality, orgies) to honour the gods of fertility in order to ensure a good crop and stave off hunger. The bad worship leading to bad behaviour – it is the entire package that Paul is objecting to. The question is: what does this have to do with homosexuality today? The short answer is – not a lot. I don’t know many gay men who want to chop off bits of themselves in order to generate a more bountiful crop of wheat.

Now, to broaden out the discussion a little, I think it would be fair to say that the Bible does take sexual misconduct seriously – that is, there is such a thing as sinful sexual behaviour, and indulging in it threatens our relationship with God; the most obvious example is adultery, which it would be fair to say that God absolutely detests. Yet there seems to me to be a logical leap between saying ‘certain acts are sinful’ to saying, more broadly, ‘homosexuality is wrong’. That is, there seems to be a confusion between what it means to do something wrong, and what it means to be someone. Which brings me back to where I began, which is that the Bible says nothing about homosexuality – which, I now confess, is ever so slightly misleading. For there are several instances when it talks about relationships between people of the same sex – not in the context of obsessing about sexual behaviour (remember, that is the hang up of our culture, not the Bible) – but simply in terms of celebrating what it might mean to honour a loving relationship.

The most prominent example of this is that of David and Jonathan. Some texts to ponder: “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself… and Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18); “David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, “The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever”” (1 Samuel 20); “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1). Clearly with David and Jonathan we have an important relationship between two people of the same sex which was dedicated before God in the form of a covenant. There is no hint of disapproval in this story for the relationship between the two (except from Saul, but he’s the ‘bad guy’).

The response to mentioning David and Jonathan in this context is often ‘but their relationship wasn’t sexual!’ which simply reveals our own obsessions. Clearly it is possible to have a loving and affectionate same-sex relationship that is honoured by God, and that is fully Biblical. Is that compatible with a prohibition on particular sexual acts? Of course. Are those relationships which seek a blessing in church more like Jonathan and David, or more like the cult prostitutes in Rome? Perhaps readers can use their own judgement on that; I trust my own view is clear.

One last point, which is strictly for Christians. To my mind the biggest problem that compromises conversations on the topic is that we don’t take baptism seriously. That is, for Christians, baptism is when we are set free from the law of sin and death (things like Leviticus) and enabled to live by grace alone. In other words we become members of a group of people who acknowledge a common lack of righteousness before God, a bunch of people who get things wrong and need forgiveness, mercy and grace from each other in order to progress. If we took our baptism seriously then, firstly, we wouldn’t obsess about the sins that our fellow Christians may or may not be carrying out, and, secondly, we might take seriously the intention of those same fellow Christians to live out a life of holiness before God, doing their best to know him and to walk more closely with Jesus day by day. It is because we don’t respect our fellow Christians’ integrity that the wider culture no longer respects us, and sees us as obsessed with rules about what we can or cannot do with our genitals (or whether you need certain genital equipment to exercise leadership in a church). Obviously we need to obsess about these things because our Lord spent so long teaching about them. Jesus wept – at the graveside of a man he loved.

Faramir, Fraser and the folly of a fast church

One of the many deeply moving elements in the Lord of the Rings is the story of Faramir, younger brother of Boromir, and his quest to gain his father’s approval – leading, in the end, to his sacrificial attempt to retake Osgiliath.

I was reminded of this when reading Giles Fraser’s latest column in the Guardian (which seem better than his Church Times articles – perhaps it is his new context). Fraser writes: “my former therapist made much of the pathologies of the English boarding school system and that those of us who are its victims often have an unhealthy relationship with establishment, looking towards it as some sort of substitute parent. But that, of course, is looking for love and acceptance in quite the wrong place. Larkin may have been overly cynical about “your Mum and Dad” but it was a cynicism that would not have been misplaced about the establishment – places like the army and the church. “Get out of this thing whilst you can”, can feel like pretty sound advice.”

My earlier post about the stupid and ungodly culture of the church seemed to strike a chord – normally, a well-read post here gets up to 400 reads – that one has had over 2,500 and is still rising. I think Fraser is putting his finger on one particular aspect of the ungodly culture of the Church, one particular way in which the church devours its own children, and it is to do with how the hierarchy expresses or withholds approval.

I think Denethor is a good proxy to use to describe this. Denethor is a steward – in other words, someone entrusted with looking after something glorious, with passing it on safely to his successors (in order that it is in good order at the time of the Return of the King). Because of his use of the Palantir, Denethor has given in to the despiser’s promptings and succumbed to despair. He sees no way in which he will be able to achieve what he has been commanded to achieve. This fear, this lack of faith, is what lies behind his corrupt actions and his lack of regard for Faramir – a son that truly loves him, and is an exemplary leader. Out of fear, Denethor seeks for any remedy that might stave off the darkness, is willing to sacrifice his son in folly, and would be even willing to use the Ring in order to see Gondor preserved. In other words, the leadership is gripped with fear and the actions are conditioned by a desire to ‘hold fast’ to what has been inherited. It is this holding fast which is, in the end, the problem, and which leads to such a sad end for Denethor.

In the same way it seems that our hierarchy is gripped by fear at losing what has been inherited, and spends time and energy on holding fast. This is not so much a question of holding on to particular churches despite losing so many clergy (something I actually agree with) so much as holding on to a particular attitude and understanding of what the Church of England actually is. That is, I believe it is a particular vision of the Church – a particular vision of the role of the church within our English society – which is being held on to. It is the sort of thing that comes to the forefront at times like last year’s Royal Wedding and it is, of course, exactly what was at stake in Giles Fraser’s conflict at St Paul’s. There the conflict came out into the open – the great unwashed had parked themselves outside the symbol of old establishment glory, and this really wouldn’t do. What greater symbolism could there be than the closing of the cathedral doors for fear of contamination by these ‘witless halflings’?

Fraser touches on how the hierarchy has rallied to preserve respectability in the sight of the world: “I’ve had my fill of polite rejections since resigning from St Paul’s – too many unconvincing smiles in the street by former friends and colleagues who suddenly wouldn’t break step to say hello… The more you seriously piss off the church authorities, the nicer they are to you in public. Ostracism is achieved with a well-rehearsed Christian smile and the rhetoric of pastoral care. Good social skills camouflage a deep irritation that you have betrayed the club.” This is how Denethor manipulates Faramir into self-sacrifice – the exercise of control through the withholding of approval. (The thought that occurs to me – to change the image for a moment – is that it is strange to disapprove of those who rock the boat when the boat itself is sinking, and holding fast to the status quo merely guarantees that the vessel sinks.)

The dark theology here has many aspects, but one in particular I would like to pick out. Those gripped by fear seek to hold fast to what has been inherited – and their clinging to old patterns develops into a strangling of the new. Yet there is another sense of ‘fast’ – the sense of something being quick, or immediate, something lacking in mediation. This is a hallmark of Protestant culture. It might be suggested to Fraser that he shouldn’t be seeking such reassurance and approval from the hierarchy – that a sense of doing God’s will should be enough for anyone with a living faith. Yet this is to deny that God has no hands but ours, no eyes but ours. It is a rejection of sacramentality and incarnation – in other words, it is primarily through the love and respect shown by other human beings that we experience the love and respect on offer to us from God. When that love and respect is withheld – when we are disciplined by disapproval – then this is experienced as a rejection by God. I don’t believe that this is simply down to having had a boarding school background (having one myself) – it is more that this aspect of boarding school culture is itself an expression of a particular form of English culture, and it is precisely this form of English culture which seems to control the Church, and it is this form of English culture that seems incapable of recognising holiness, as with Rowan.

How might those who still love the church – as with Fraser – and who wish to see it prosper take forward the necessary remedial work? Two thoughts. The first is that – in a church which has become too fast in every sense, and which is distracted by passing, glittering fancies as it seeks the next Red Bull to assuage the neurotic void and spiritual lack at its heart – we have to prioritise the opposite of the fast, which is the slow. A remark attributed to Jung is that ‘haste is not of the devil, it IS the devil’, which I believe contains much truth. We have lost our sense of rootedness in prayer, our sense that God is in charge and that, whatever goes wrong, He has the capacity to redeem it and the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. We need to get back to putting the first commandment first – that is the only thing that will remove our fear.

The second is that we have to reform the structures of the church. Structures – principalities and powers – embody and maintain a particular culture, and even good people can become distorted out of God’s plan by living within fallen structures. I am more and more convinced that we need to disestablish the church, for it is precisely establishment which is the bulwark propping up this particular culture. (Disestablishment would also bring us into line with the global Anglican Communion, which I thought was a particular desire of the hierarchy… Hmmm.)

I believe in the gospel more firmly than I ever have, and I believe in the local church – that it is where Christ can be met and incarnated, and which has a vibrant future to look forward to – but the wider structures of our Church, the wider culture or soul of this institution – there I have ever-increasing doubts. I believe that it can only be saved if it is significantly reformed. Has it gone too far to be redeemed? Has the glory of the Lord actually departed from it? Is the future of the Church of England simply to be the Anglican denomination in this land? Probably, but, as with Fraser, I still hold on to a hope in the God of surprises.

Efficiency and resilience in the Church of England

This is a line of thought prompted by the conversation about the structure of the Church of England (see Andrew Brown’s article here). One of the key concepts in ecological thinking is the contrast between efficiency and resilience. An efficient system (or ecology) is one in which each resource is being utilised to the greatest possible extent. In contrast, a resilient system is one in which there are areas of under-utilised resource which stand the system in good stead when there is a particular crisis leading to a lack of availability of resources more generally. In other words, when a crisis comes, a resilient system is one that is able to bounce back from a shock, drawing on previously unexploited resources. An efficient system is more vulnerable to such shocks because it lacks those unexploited resources – it is like glass, robust in normal use but likely to shatter if those normal conditions depart.

The free market, of course, worships efficiency – that is, efficiency, obtaining the most value from a particular resource, is the structuring value around which economic activity orients itself. This can be seen quite explicitly in economic and business text books which use concepts like ‘return on investment’ to guide choices. If a company is able to become more efficient then that means it is able to generate a higher financial return for its shareholders (or more profit for the owners). Now there are questions here about different national cultures – for example, my understanding of the zaibatsu model in Japan (and the equivalents elsewhere) are that other values than simple efficiency can be employed by a company to guide their choices, eg long term growth of market share.

Be that as it may, the quest for efficiency is a hallmark of the particularly Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, and it is this which governs the business culture in our own country. It is also this which guides the culture of managerialism, which brings me to the point I want to make about the Church of England. I hope that it is clear that structuring our activities in order to make them more efficient is not necessarily of God. After all, one way of understanding efficiency is to see it as claiming that nothing must be gratuitous, all must ‘earn their way’ – and of course, that is in profound contrast to an understanding of the nature of God which sees God as overflowing in abundance and generosity towards the creation. Historically, the Church of England has been a very inefficient but very resilient system, reflecting the diverse historical origins of the different elements within it – parish churches, cathedrals, university foundations, and so on. One might say that the inheritance of the Church of England is one that has emphasised the importance of the local and the different, the queer and the inefficient. This, I feel, is part of the glory of the CofE – that it is capacious and tolerant; one might say, all manner of folk can find a fold of her skirts in which to hide and thrive.

It is this that was understood to be at stake with the Covenant process – a fruit of a search for efficiency if ever there was one. After all, one of the concomitant passions of the drive for efficiency is the drive for clarity (the distinguishing of the brand over and against other brands) and the drive for effective managerial control (in order that the activities are congruent with the values of the people in charge). I am delighted that the Covenant process has been checked, at least for now, but the underlying pursuit of efficiency is still present, and that entails that other bitter fruits will be forthcoming. (A small example is the fuss about fees – see Justin Lewis-Anthony’s article here; it cannot be separated from the George Herbert process either.) Digging down into the spirituality of this approach we have a desire to control the outcome, which is based upon a fear that all that seems to be going wrong will continue to go wrong, which is based in turn upon a loss of trust that God is the one in charge and able to redeem whatever we do in order that his purposes are accomplished. In other words, what we see in the Church’s pursuit of efficiency is evidence that we have forgotten what it means to believe in God, and so we grab at the latest glittering fix on offer from the world – at just the time when the world is changing in the opposite direction! After all, belief in God is something that is worked out in practice, not simply in the privacy of one’s own opinions and thoughts – a bad tree will bear bad fruit, and this is what we are seeing. None of this is to say that efficiency, on its own, is a bad thing – it is to insist that any efficiencies sought have to be placed into the context of the other values held by the organisation. We are to be more like the zaibatsu than Goldman Sachs.

The Church of England will only be saved by those who are not consumed with conviction about how to save it, and who sit lightly at the prospect of the Church of England not being saved – simply because they are utterly committed to the sovereignty of the living God, and they trust in His provision, rather than our own choices. Our future is going to be one that is local and catholic, not corporate and monotone. It is the desire that is wrong here, not any particular outcome, and we won’t get anywhere until we give that desire a proper theological interrogation. Whether the theological resources of the Church are actually up to that task is, sadly, an open question at this present time.

How shall we clothe the naked CofE?

Is Christianity in Crisis? No, not at all, but particular expressions of the faith might be – and the CofE is one such.

The analysis is so well-worn now as to have become banal – and I’ve indulged in it myself – but the more that time goes on the more I wonder whether the root problem is the loss of real faith in God. That is, we have bought into a sense that the numbers are the key thing that matter, and we then panic or plan on the basis of responding to those numbers, in line with our general characters and dispositions. Now, I’m not at all wanting to say that the numbers don’t matter, what I am wanting to say is that numbers are not the one thing needful. Giving God all that we have to give, in heart and mind, soul and strength – this is the one thing needful.

In other words, if we start from a trust in a providential God, might not the utter disaster that has been the Church of England over the last forty years – utter disaster seen in terms of numbers, failure to evangelise and so on – actually be evidence of God accomplishing his purposes? That is, might it not be *God’s* will that the Church of England has been brought low?

What, after all, might be accomplished by such a process? To lose all the trappings of power and respect – to be the object of repeated scorn and ridicule – to be reduced to begging for the means to keep our buildings open – to watch as successive generations turn away from an inherited faith – might this not simply serve to clarify our sense of priorities and enable us to return to the living God? Might it not simply be that the Church of England had become, by the beginning of the twentieth century, so enmeshed with blessing the business of the British Empire that God decided to withdraw his blessing from it? That the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar was the inevitable consequence of placing our faith in that which was not God – and then being disappointed when we noticed that He wasn’t there?

In other words, might not the way forward be to remember that God is in charge all the time, not just when we are blessed by the obvious signs of His presence, and that the process that the Church of England has undergone – having her splendid garments stripped from her until she shivers naked in a cold wind – is precisely what we needed in order to be recalled to ourselves, and recalled to God? In other words, might it not be that we need to find more suitable attire for the Bride of Christ in this land – and might it not be that a simple linen shift is more suitable than royal robes?

So, enough with the metaphor already, what might this mean in practice? I think it means to return to trusting God – to rediscover what a living faith actually looks and feels like. To remember that worship is devotion and not entertainment, to remember that loving the neighbour means active service and not pious speech, to remember that the Church was built by Jesus for a reason and is not an optional extra that is acceptable so long as it can fit in comfortably with all the other priorities in our lives. To do this necessitates a theological renewal – for it is in our theology, and therefore in our preaching and teaching and (lack of) formation of our clergy that we have lost our way.

John Milbank’s criticisms bear on this; I would very much agree that we need to renew the life of the mind, but I believe that this should not be in a Platonic academy but in the cloister, in and of the Eucharistic community (I have expanded on this at much greater length in my book). The church must stop sub-contracting loving God with our minds to secular institutions, and it will not find peace until it does. Until we are reclothed in the divine light, we shall continue to stumble, naked and ashamed, crying out to the secular scornful for pity, for we no longer even know who it is that loves us. We are like the disciples on Holy Saturday, confused and lost, not knowing where to turn, when in truth we already know what is coming. I have no doubt that the future for Christianity in England is a bright one – for us to share in it, we need to fall in with God’s intentions not ours. So, come, let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us, and will heal us.

The stupid and ungodly culture of the Church of England

I’ve been pondering two things – the failure of the Anglican Covenant process in the Church of England, and the fate of Rowan Williams. It seems to me that both are evidence that the culture of the Church of England is incredibly stupid and ungodly. As that will doubtless come across as needlessly confrontational, I had better explain what I mean.

Take the Covenant process first. Why were the Bishops so out of touch? Why was so much effort invested – in a frankly morally dubious fashion – by the institutional establishment in pushing through a measure where there was clearly no consensus? The disconnect between the hierarchy and the rank and file – and especially, the disconnect between the episcopacy and the clergy – should really be a wake-up call to the hierarchy to carry out a fundamental review of how Bishops work. As Bishop Alan has put it, the failure is at least an “opportunity to grow up, to take stock, and to get real. It’s very sad that a large number of bishops were out of touch on this one”.

With Rowan the situation is rather different. My question here is – how can someone so widely acknowledged to have remarkable intellectual gifts and personal holiness be so distorted by the pressures of the office that his ministry is considered to be a failure? (I don’t believe that it has been – I’m not even competent to begin the assessment – but it is the fact that it seems to be regarded so that I find significant. That is, why is it that holiness is not valued and celebrated? It is a symptom of our profound spiritual sickness.) It seems to me that a significant part of this is the culture inhabited by the hierarchy which prevents a genuine and honest conversation from taking place – homosexuality is the presenting issue but the issues go much deeper than that. Put simply I don’t believe that it is possible to be a Bishop and to tell the truth (with some honourable exceptions).

The roots of this are manifold, but I want to draw attention to one in particular – and that is the cult of overwork that has taken hold in the Church, in mimicry of the surrounding culture. It is this cult of overwork and ‘busyness’ that I see as stupid and ungodly. It is this cult that has radically diminished the capacity of the bench of bishops to exercise holy discernment. After all, how many Bishops do you know that are not absurdly overworked? The research is pretty clear that overwork leads to a significant decrease in productivity and is self-destructive – but appreciating that requires the application of wisdom, and it is precisely that wisdom that flies out of the window when a person is exhausted. We cannot expect our Bishops to exercise holy discernment and godly leadership if at the same time we are also expecting them to work 70 and 80 hour weeks (the same thing applies to clergy of course).

Of course, as Christians we are more than usually vulnerable to this cult of overwork because it appeals to our co-dependent culture and masochistic minister syndrome – if we are not suffering then we are not being properly godly. This is pernicious nonsense, and rooted in some very bad theology (not least the doctrine of penal substitution). It is as if we equate the way of the cross with the decision to mimic the world’s obsessions, when a proper understanding of the cross would lead to precisely the opposite conclusion. The development of the stipend was originally to allow at least one person in a parish to have time for prayer; it is a sad irony that, as with many salaried posts, it has become an excuse to extract the maximum amount of labour for the minimum amount of expenditure.

In Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels there is one character, a thaumaturge, who carries around a small child on his back, called a croyel. The child never grows up but does, periodically die – and is then replaced by another. As the story develops it becomes clear that the thaumaturge is simply siphoning off the life-force of each successive child in order to preserve his own immortality. It’s a frightening image, but one that I feel captures the way that the church treats all those who work for it – full-timers, part-timers, volunteers. What we expect from our bishops and clergy is exactly what happened with Microsoft – use up the resource until it is a dry husk and then discard and replace with another. The needs of the institution – keeping the show on the road – is paramount, and the church continues to sacrifice its children on this idol’s altar. It’s long time past for us to stop.

What is your Church of England future?

Originally posted April 6 2007. I thought I’d repost it following the rejection of the Anglican Covenant – this still represents my thinking.
I’ve been musing about Hampson’s ‘Last Rites’ book, and in particular my development of his argument that the CofE will split into different factions (along the lines of the separate ‘flying bishops’ that we have already). A quiz below (hit ‘full post’).

Seems to me that three questions will reveal all:

1. Do you accept the notion of ‘penal substitution’ as an adequate account of salvation?

2. Would you receive communion from a female priest?

3. Would you receive communion from a gay priest?

If your answer is yes, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Reform, and join up with the ‘Southern Anglican Communion’.

If your answer is yes, yes, no then you will be sympathetic to Fulcrum, and you will seek to keep the CofE on the road as far as possible.

If your answer is no, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Forward in Faith and you’ll probably end up with Rome.

If your answer is no, yes, yes then you will be sympathetic to Affirming Catholicism and when the realignment comes you’ll join in with TEC.

(There are, logically, other options, but not many people will buy into them!)

I think the issue is how long before TSHTF and the split becomes formalised. I wonder if there are plans already afoot?

Oh, and if it wasn’t obvious already, I’m ‘no, yes, yes’.

The fate of a holy man in the Church of England

This is by way of some brief thoughts about Rowan’s resignation:

– I think I’m as delighted by his resignation as I was by his original appointment; principally because I believe he has earned the right to some happiness (language that I’m sure he’d repudiate, but I think it’s true nonetheless);
– for me, the high point of his ministry was the visit to Zimbabwe – some clear and courageous leadership, with an unambiguous meaning;
– whereas the low point, and the tragedy of his time, was his treatment of Jeffrey John. I think that the worst general consequence to this was that it obscured the truth about the power struggles going on, and enabled a continuing aversion to honesty by the house of bishops. We are way past the time when an honest and adult conversation should be had, and the continuing deceit on this issue repeatedly damages the church. Rowan, on principle, placed unity ahead of truth, and we are still dealing with the consequences of that decision (I think it is also the principal ground for why the Covenant will likely be rejected in England – Rowan’s natural constituency doesn’t trust him, and therefore it);
– Rowan has many immense gifts, gifts which are much more apparent on a personal level than when mediated by distance or writing. What he has not had is ‘serpent wisdom’, and I would associate this with his lack of parish experience. By his own life and witness he has called the church to be more faithful; by his unworldliness he has allowed the bullies to dominate. Pious language has its place but we also need to recognise our fallen context;
– in sum, what I see in Rowan’s ministry is the fate of a holy man in the Church of England. Misused and abused – and bullied into collusion with the misuse and abuse – we didn’t get the best of him, for the simple reason that as a whole church we have lost sight of the one thing needful. So alongside the delight for him personally is an immense sadness for what might have been.