Longing for an unafraid church

The Church of England is afraid of dying; consequently it is failing to be a church at all.

As someone who is persuaded of the merits of the ‘Limits to Growth’ argument – and who believes that we missed the opportunity to change course back in the 1970′s and that therefore our industrial growth culture is substantially over – I have become very familiar with the language of ‘doom’ and the way in which it can be misused. Just because something can be misused, however, does not mean that it is always false. The core argument of the Limits to Growth, after all, was that if present trends continued, then we would end up arriving where we were headed – and, indeed, we have now arrived there. Can the same analysis not be applied to the Church of England? 

After all, it is fairly unambiguous where we are headed – by the mid 21st Century there will be less than 100,000 members. It is not as if the trend has been hidden and come upon us unawares – it has been the unpleasant background music for several decades now. Clearly, unless something changes, the Church of England as it has been known and understood for several centuries is going to die within the next generation or so (the institution will collapse under its own weight well before we get to 2050). Perhaps the history of the Church will be described as resting between the two Elizabeths – the first pulled it together, and the second watched it pull itself apart.

Let me at once clarify two things. The first is that this anticipated fate of the Church of England needs to be separated out from the expected fate of Christianity within the world as a whole. I expect that well before 2050 disciples of Christianity will pass beyond 50% of the world’s population. Key to this will be the continued growth of Christianity in China, which already has more practising Christians than Western Europe, as well as all the other places where the faith is being spread. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, and I am confident that one day, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.

The second point to make is that the Church of England is not the be all and end all of Christianity in England. Whatever the merits of Catholic Emancipation – and I suspect the Church has still not caught up with what it meant – the consequence is that there are now more practising Christians in England outside the Church of England than in it. Whereas it has historically been the definitive form of English Christianity – as epitomised by its establishment status, and (in many ways) in its ongoing self-understanding – it has become, to all intents and purposes, merely another sect. Theologically the status quo is untenable, and the Church of England has to either fight that fate or embrace it.

Now an objection might easily come to mind: what if there was a revival? For sure, a major revival might well stop the Church of England declining so much – and I’m sure that evangelisation is one of God’s priorities – but we have been needing such a revival for some time now. I am persuaded that the tide of faith has turned, the Spirit is moving; I am convinced that the bombast of atheistic secularism is the last gasp of a dying ideology, and the potential for growth is immense – but might it not be the case – and I say this with all due humility – that God doesn’t want the Church of England to continue? I’m sure God wants Christianity to continue, but the Church of England, in its present form? Of that I am not so sure.

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

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

I believe that we most need to recognise that the good ship of Establishment is sinking, and trying to prevent that from taking place is not simply a wasted effort on our part, it is actually a blasphemous and misguided attempt to thwart God’s will. What we are called to do is the same as what all Christians are called to do, every where and at every time – to be faithful, to hold on to Christ alone and to be willing to let go of everything else. The centralised Church of England is sinking – what strikes me now as being worthy of theological interest is the multitude of Anglicanisms that shall follow – a flotilla of lifeboats floating away from the wreckage, seeking a new shore on which to embark on new adventures. Which is, after all, a more exciting and more inspiring prospect.

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 – we are afraid of our own death – 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. 

The blunt truth is this: the Church of England is at death’s door. All I’m arguing for here is that I’d rather that we went out fighting for a joyful gospel rather than trying to save a particular historically conditioned administrative pattern which has turned the cornerstone of our faith into the proverbial millstone around our neck.

(This is a Courier article, drawing together a couple of previous blogposts)

Where is the redeeming grace?

There is one aspect of the conversation about gay marriage and so on which is really starting to become clear to me, which is, put simply, that to get from a conservative premise to a conservative conclusion you need to resort to some distinctly ungracious arguments. This is what I understand the conservative argument to be:

1. In the beginning were Adam and Eve, male and female, with no confusion between them. This establishes the pattern for human sexual relations, viz, monogamous, essentialist and heterosexual.

2. Through the Fall, disorder enters into the world. Homosexual desire is ‘objectively disordered’ and not part of God’s original intention for humanity.

3. To enable the consummation of homosexual desire is to assist in perpetuating the Fall, ie to connive in the furtherance of sin. As such, any support of homosexual relationships is to be rejected. Hence, no to gay marriage, no to gay partnerships, no no no no no….

I hope this is a fair summary, albeit a brusque one.

Where I think the ‘distinctly ungracious’ arguments come in is between points 2 and 3; that is, I think it is logically possible to accept premises 1. and 2. but reject the consequence of 3.

A parallel could be drawn with a physical disability. I am completely deaf in my left ear, since birth. I have no doubt that this is not part of God’s original intentions for humanity and counts as something which is ‘objectively disordered’. Yet society does not see the need to confine me to the natural consequences that follow from this disorder – indeed, it has very kindly provided me with a hearing aid, which I use as occasion demands. Also, unlike ancient Israel, I am not barred from a full participation in human life and the common assembly as a result of my human imperfection.

Why is the same grace not extended to those in the LGBT community, even when these conservative premises are accepted? In other words, why is the reality of the ‘disability’ not acknowledged but room given for God’s redeeming grace to come in and transform the situation as each context makes possible? Perhaps for some the redeeming grace might indeed be a life of celibacy, but for others might it not be the case that the way in which God’s redeeming grace takes effect is precisely through the stability, companionship, fidelity and so on that a covenanted and monogamous relationship gives? It’s still possible to say ‘this is objectively disordered’, but there is so much more human grace and compassion involved, and an openness to the God of Surprises. I say this because it also seems to me, given what Jesus says, and Paul writes, that heterosexual marriage is itself a falling short of the ideal, and not part of our eternal destiny!!

No, even though I remain sceptical about gay ‘marriage’, I’m more and more persuaded that the arguments against a full acceptance and inclusion of our LGBT friends in Christ are rooted in a theology which is itself objectively disordered. Where there is no law, there is no transgression. I’ll start taking such arguments seriously again when they recognise that Jeffrey John would make a good bishop.

On being a politically conservative Christian

So, I go away for a few days, and on my return discover that my former boss John Selwyn Gummer, aka Lord Deben, has been casting aspersions on my spiritual and theological integrity (he probably didn’t like this post; my thanks to Cranmer for his kind words). I thought that it would be worth saying a little bit more about my political perspective, not least considering the statement publicised today by many Bishops.

I see it as axiomatic for a Christian to be concerned with social justice. As I wrote in my book, it is not possible to be a Christian and not have such a concern. Where there are political parties that are based around a repudiation of social justice, that explicitly embrace ‘devil take the hindmost’ then I would see an irresolvable tension between support of such a party and continued Christian faith.

However, that does not mean that there is no longer any room for political argument. Most especially it does not mean – as so often seems to be assumed amongst the less reflective of the progressive establishment – that it is impossible to be a conservative and a Christian. As I see it, the heart of the disagreement lies in how we are to understand the role of the state. Roughly speaking, the progressive side of the political divide sees the state as a generally benign institution, and one to which resort may be made whenever a problem presents itself. Whereas the conservative side of the political divide is sceptical about the state, sees it as tending towards being a malign institution, and would far rather find non-state solutions to problems that arise.

Lying behind this difference is a divergent understanding of human sinfulness. The progressive agenda proceeds on the basis that human nature is perfectible, that, if the structural conditions were only to be correctly arranged, then human flourishing would be enabled. The conservative agenda, in contrast to this, sees human sinfulness as endemic and therefore seeks to avoid concentrations of power – for where there is a concentration of power it is inevitable that such a concentration of power will be wielded by a sinful human being, causing much havoc in consequence. Moreover it sees the wider distribution of power as best being embedded in the peculiar and local institutions that have grown organically around distinct communities. It sees the warp and weft of historical culture as a safeguard against the unwitting tyranny of bureaucrats with a Procrustean “vision of the anointed”. So everything from a monarchy to a parish council can be part of a human ecology which best maximises human flourishing. It will never be perfect – but it is the acceptance of imperfection that is both the blessing that a conservative perspective brings to the political conversation and also its vice, when it curdles into blind reaction.

Consider today’s statement signed by bishops. It is indeed a terrible blight upon our society that people face the choice between ‘heat or eat’, and also that there exists such malnutrition – although I suspect that latter might have as much to do with ignorance as with poverty directly. Yet the political conversation that Christians can have in such a context begins with ‘what shall we do about this?’ If the truth is that the state and only the state can provide an answer, all well and good. Yet if a more diverse response, with distributed power, is able to provide an answer then that, from a conservative perspective, is devoutly to be preferred. As Tim Worstall points out with regard to Jack Monroe, her story is actually about the horrors of being left with nothing to turn to except a remote and incompetent bureaucracy.

It often feels strange to enter into political argument with ‘progressive’ Christians, for it seems to me that the nature of the progressive stance does entail a great many consequences which the progressive would instinctively wish to fight against. For example, my opposition to Tesco was rooted in the conservative vision that I described above, a concentration of power leading to impoverishment of the local and the particular, in this case farmers and local communities. This is, on the surface, a cause that progressives seem to be sympathetic to. It is a form of resisting the imposition of a monoculture, and monoculture is the inevitable result of the concentration of power. The sick ideology that justifies what happens when Monsanto is given charge of seed provision is the same sick ideology that justifies what happens when monopoly supermarkets eviscerate our High Streets, but this is also the same sick ideology that justifies what happens when the centralised state is given a monopoly on social welfare.

We know what this sick ideology looks like. It is the enemy at the heart of so much popular culture. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. The matrix has you.

What I find most striking is that so much progressive language uses Christian tropes in the service of such a dark, dehumanising and nihilistic project. Then again, the enemy is called Lucifer because he has stolen the language of light.

To my mind, the greatest grief that comes from this conversation – and indeed the bishop’s statement – is the ignorance of the wider crisis that we face as a society, of which the increase in poverty is simply a leading symptom. Not only are our bishops distracted by second order issues, on which they cannot even get their facts right, but they have lost sight of the spiritual heart on which we are to stand as we engage with the deluge of problems descending upon us. For more on this, see my book.

In our present context, the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of the progressive worldview are now bearing their inevitably bitter fruit, and the centralised, legibility-seeking, monolithic, overbearing and incipiently dictatorial gigantism exemplified in the EU is going to crash. I see the single most important political step that needs to be taken as withdrawal from that Leviathan. This is why, as I explained in my earlier post, I support UKIP. I am both a Christian and a conservative, in that order of priority, and the only political party that comes close to reflecting my understanding of the world is, with all of its flaws and embarrassments, UKIP.

The Lego movie and the House of Bishops Statement on gay marriage

A polished version of this morning’s sermon

In our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning St Paul writes of the importance of building upon good foundations, and then goes on to talk about what it is to be an ‘expert’ or ‘master builder’. This gives me the excuse I needed to talk about the Lego movie, which I took my boys to see last weekend, and which they are now pressing me to take them to again. The movie tells the story of Emmet, who is just your average Lego person, and who refers to the Lego instructions every moment of the day – to learn what to do when he gets up, when he goes to work, when he has coffee and so on. The arc of the movie is all about him becoming a ‘master builder’, someone who doesn’t just follow instructions but is able to be creative and new. Someone who can take the instructions for what they are but not be restricted by them.

I see the Lego movie as a good example of where our Christian heritage appears anonymously in popular culture. St Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 3): “Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

This is a commonplace within Christian culture. Our gospel reading this morning is a perfect example of the way in which Jesus pushes beyond a simple legal framework. Jesus repeatedly says “you have heard it said…I say unto you”. You have heard ‘do not murder’, I say when you are angry in your heart, it is as bad. You have heard ‘do not commit adultery’, I say when you lust in your heart, it is as bad. Jesus is pushing for a change of heart, a metanoia, one where consideration of the Law is simply the starting point for our journey into God, not the end.

There are wider issues at stake as well. When St Paul talks about ‘the works of the Law’ he is not referring to a legalistic righteousness; rather, he is talking about the cultural boundary markers which specify who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Where the Hebrew community of the time rested in a sense of identity that was bounded by things like circumcision, food laws and sabbath observance, for Paul these were overtaken by our identity in Christ. Hence in Galatians Paul famously writes that in Christ we are neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. What this does – and Jesus lives out this teaching before Paul codifies it, when he spends his time with the sinners and tells them that they will enter heaven before the religious teachers – what this does is establish a new form of social organisation.

Rather than a group being defined by the exclusion of the ‘other’ – in other words, all the lego parts that don’t fit, that aren’t given a role in the instructions – now there is an identity formed by the sinless victim, Jesus himself. We each come to Jesus and find identity with him on the basis of our redeemed sinfulness. There is no righteous group passing judgement on another ‘less’ righteous. This is the working out of the fundamental law that the measure that we give shall be the measure that we receive. We are all sinners. We either live by a spirit of judgement and condemnation, or we live by a spirit of compassion and forgiveness. One is a spirit of domination and slavery, the other, as St Paul writes, is freedom: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

As Christians, therefore, we are called to be on guard not to allow legalism, an emphasis upon certain particular actions, to define our identity but rather to recognise the humanity and ‘God-lovedness’ of the Other. To not to be legalistic, but to pursue the right Spirit and allow that humility and compassion to guide our choices; and to rejoice in the freedom from legalism that being guided by the Spirit can bring. After all, Jesus told us that we have the keys of the kingdom, what is bound on earth is bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. In other words, it is not an antinomian distaste for a little book of Lego instructions that drives us. Instead, it is the liberty that comes from being a master builder. Everything is permitted, but not everything is edifying. The church community as a whole, commissioned in our baptism, has the authority and responsibility to pursue the free life of the Spirit, a Spirit that is known by the fruits of love, peace, joy and grace and so on.

This is what I believe the gospel to be, and I do not believe that I am alone in such an understanding.

So, having said all that, it may be possible to explain why I feel the need to have something of a rant. The House of Bishops of the Church of England has just issued a statement about gay marriage, and so far as I can tell the presiding spirit of the statement is in direct contradiction to the faith.

For those whose lives mercifully spare them from having to read such things, I will give a very rapid summary. The letter is addressed ‘to the clergy and people of the Church of England’, which is why it is right to discuss it with you this morning. Three key points:
it’s OK for a Christian gay couple to get married, so long as it is not in church – that couple can still be baptised and receive communion, and are full members of the body of Christ;
it’s not OK for a gay clergy person to get married, because clergy have to show higher moral standards;
clergy are forbidden from conducting gay weddings, also forbidden from conducting services of blessing for gay civil partnerships, but are encouraged to offer other things. In other words – I can invite a gay couple who have been married to have some prayers of thanksgiving said in church, I can bless them as individuals, I can pray for their future together, but I cannot invite them to be blessed as a couple. Despite the fact that the statement recognises that they can be admitted to communion. Obviously the House of Bishops consider a prayer of blessing to be more theologically significant than reception of communion.

In this debate, there are some consistent positions possible, and there are some creative positions possible. Sadly this House of Bishops statement is neither creative nor consistent.

EITHER – the church still thinks an active homosexual relationship is sinful, in which case we stick by established teachings, and the consequence of that is, logically, to disbar married gay couples from baptism and communion, due to their unrepentant sinfulness. The trouble with that is that almost nobody in this country is seriously suggesting it, and it runs very much counter to the warm words which the Bishops speak about homosexual relationships; OR they could say, we now accept that God is working through the culture, we have been in error and now see the light – and so fully buy into the changes that the government legislation enacts; OR they could say, we are working through these issues. There are still many conversations to be had around nature of marriage, but we no longer see homosexuality as necessarily sinful. Therefore, as a sign of our good faith, we are accepting blessings for civil partnerships and setting up some new liturgy for clergy to use.

The Bishops don’t choose any of the consistent or creative possibilities, they simply continue to fudge the situation. Why? And what is being held constant? It’s certainly not a strict reading of the Bible, for that would entail a much stricter approach to divorce than these Bishops have accepted, as Jesus discusses this morning. No, this is simply a political document. Sadly, the interests of this Church in England continue to be sacrificed to the altar of the ‘worldwide Anglican Communion’. This statement is quite clearly driven by placing interests of parts of the established churches in Africa ahead of the gay people in this country and abroad.

The real heart of the problem is the ‘us and them’ mentality, in other words, a form of destructive legalism which is used to ground a sense of identity. There is an official viewpoint which asks whether ‘Others’ meet certain standards or not, which says that some things are OK for some members of the Body of Christ but not for others. I am increasingly of the view that we will only be able to make progress on this issue when those speaking from positions of authority recognise that as the Body of Christ we are both queer and straight in the same way that we are male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek – in other words, we will only be able to make progress when our gay bishops feel safe enough to ‘come out’, when the Spirit that sets free from legalistic demands is able to act and guide our House of Bishops.

Let us remember that Jesus had this to say about homosexuality…

Whereas he had this to say about those in positions of religious authority: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

It is a sadness to reach the conclusion that this statement from our House of Bishops is utterly bankrupt theologically. It is mealy-mouthed and meretricious nonsense, a document driven by political considerations, designed to try and keep the different parts of the communion together, when most of the communion has already moved on, and moved on in different directions. It is a locking of the stable door after the horse has bolted. Elvis has left the building…

When did we become the Pharisees? When did we get so appallingly useless at what we do that the Lego movie is a better guide to Christian truth than official statements from our own House of Bishops?

We as the people of the new covenant are called into a relationship of freedom, led by the Spirit in which we can enjoy a relationship of non-condemnation and forgiveness, founding our identity on Christ alone. Perhaps the only fitting conclusion comes from this morning’s gospel:

Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of deckchairs and lifeboats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new synthesis on gender

Latest Courier article – bit philosophical.

Our former Archbishop Rowan, for whom I retain a great deal of admiration and affection, was often criticised for being unclear. In part this may well simply have been the natural consequence of someone with a world-class intellect trying to explain something complicated, but I don’t see this as the whole reason. After all, when he needed to – as with some of his marvellous shorter books – Rowan could be incredibly compelling and lucid. I believe that part of his perceived ‘lack of clarity’ was actually rooted in a particular intellectual stance that he held and believed in strongly, and it is something that has its roots in the thinking of the German philosopher Hegel.

I would summarise one of Hegel’s key notions like this: there is a ‘thesis’ – a particular way of thinking or living, possibly expressible in some sort of philosophical maxim or aphorism, such as ‘men should be head of the household’. Over time, this thesis will collide with reality and human nature in such a way that it will develop tensions and contradictions, out of which will come an ‘antithesis’, which is again expressible – say ‘women deserve equal rights and responsibilities’. The thesis and the antithesis will inevitably conflict, and in human culture this will take time, and often have very visible form, such as when a suffragette chains herself to railings. Hegel labelled this conflict ‘dialectic’, taking over that term from its original use in Greek philosophy. Furthermore, as this dialectic continued, it would eventually settle in a new understanding and cultural form which took elements from both the original thesis, and the antagonistic antithesis, and combined them into a new synthesis. This synthesis would then itself become a ‘thesis’ of its own, and the cycle would continue. These repeated cycles of thesis – antithesis – synthesis formed, according to Hegel, the way in which a culture moved forward and progressed. Hegel’s thought was very influential, especially on Marx – Marxism can be seen as a type of ‘applied Hegelianism’ – and it underlies a very great deal of contemporary political thought, especially what is considered to be ‘progressive’ – that very term revealing the link.

Rowan is undoubtedly a Hegelian, and was always very conscious of the way in which any particular argument called forward an antagonistic response. Where many in the church wanted Rowan to give a strong, clear and principled lead – in other words, to nail his colours to the mast of one particular ‘thesis’ – Rowan wished, instead, to preserve the ongoing dialectic between thesis and antithesis, in pursuit of a new synthesis. Most crucially, in church terms, Rowan refused to place any of the various contenders for thesis or antithesis outside of the boundaries of the church. He insisted that every member of the group mattered, and he did not wish to see any group scapegoated (whether he succeeded in that desire is, in my view, something of an open question). In other words, the reason why Rowan was often criticised as being ‘unclear’ was because he went out of his way to include references to, and respect for, positions that contradicted each other. He did this not because he was himself intellectually confused but because he was himself seeking a new synthesis, and not wanting to be tied down to a thesis or antithesis which was politically convenient for whichever political group was pressuring him at the time. I do believe that history will be much kinder in its assessment of his leadership than his contemporaries have been.

Rowan’s time was marked – scarred! – by disagreements about sexuality and gender, specifically the questions around women’s ministry and homosexual clergy and marriage. This is a good example of the Hegelian process. The original theses, still most clearly expressed in official Roman Catholic teaching, had the following elements: sexuality is solely for the purpose of procreation; any form of sexuality which is not open to procreation is inherently sinful (and homosexuality falls into that category, along with other forms of sexuality, eg the use of contraception). In addition, human gender relations are ordered ‘by nature’ in such a way that men and women have distinct and different roles. This is best expressed and visualised in terms of a marriage which is open to procreation and the raising of children, within which a man will be the provider (which is about authority and direction as much as giving resources) and the woman will be the principal nurturer and carer.

At present in our society that thesis has been largely rejected and, as a dominant cultural form, effectively been abandoned. The antithesis, in so far as it can be articulated, would assert that: sexuality is not just (or even primarily) about procreation, but is most fundamentally about self-expression within the context of human relating, that is, it is one of the principal ways in which we as human beings bond with one another. Hence, any form of sexuality which accords with that aim is good. Marriage is the celebration of that bond and exhaustively defined by it. Where the bond of love breaks down, the marriage itself comes to an end (in other words, the marriage is no longer any form of contract). Children will fit in and cope with these arrangements as determined by the extended families.

At the moment we are in a position with regard to gender and sexuality of waiting for a new synthesis to be formed and adopted. I suspect this will only come when both sides, thesis and antithesis, are exhausted. Both sides to the argument have some merit, both have significant flaws and it was one of Rowan’s great strengths that he held on to that tension in the hope that a new resolution would eventually come forward, which would allow the best preservation of the good things whilst eliminating or reducing all the bad. From my point of view I believe that this synthesis has to begin with placing our created human nature first, rather than thinking in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women’. If we ask what will enable one particular human being to flourish, I believe that we will get further than if we start by wondering what will enable these particular ‘members of class X’ to flourish – whatever category X might be, of gender, race, orientation or otherwise.

Veni Sancte Spiritus – but please don’t tell us anything we’d rather not hear

This is a guest post by Rev Edward Dowler

First of all, let me state my own position, somewhat fence-sitting thought it is. Although I long for closer communion with my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, I realise that there is an anomaly about a church in which a certain category of priests cannot be considered for ordination to the episcopate. However, some aspects of the reaction to the recent vote on women bishops have deeply disturbed me.

The first of these was majoritarianism. One bishop pronounced with perhaps some sleight of hand that ‘the clear majority of the Church of England demands it, the people of this country expect it, and I believe that the Holy Spirit yearns for it’. Since forty two out of forty four dioceses (or, more accurately, diocesan synods) have expressed support for women bishops, it has been widely concluded that the legislation should certainly have been passed, despite not receiving the required majority in the General Synod. But majoritarianism is not democracy: as the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently pointed out, democracy is not just about enacting the will of the majority, but also, just as importantly, it is about protecting the rights of the minority: exactly the point about which the House of Laity was concerned.

Secondly, in the aftermath of the vote, there has been a nasty strain of clericalism in evidence. Members of the House of Laity were, it seemed, simply too thick and reactionary to get it; no surprises there if you believe in any case that they are ‘life-denying fun sponges obsessed with being right and with other people not having sex’. But it was noticeable that the key swing voters whose votes ensured that the legislation was defeated were in fact people who actually support the ordination of women to the episcopate. However, they felt unable to ignore an uncomfortable feeling that charity was not served by what seemed to them to be a ‘winner takes it all’ piece of legislation. At what has already turned out to be very considerable cost to themselves, they were not prepared to endorse this, despite their own desire to see women bishops.

Thirdly, there has been erastianism of the worst kind. As John Milbank has pointed out, the purpose of having an established Church is so that ‘the political nation is answerable to the Church: to God, to Christ and to Scripture’. But the Church of England seems largely to have accepted that it now goes the other way. The Prime Minister, in one of the milder comments from the House of Commons, has told the Church of England that it needs to ‘get with the programme (of secular equalities legislation)’. Despite all of the lessons that the twentieth century might teach us, even the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to believe that the Church should essentially keep in step with modern ‘trends and priorities’, as if it were in these that true wisdom is to be found. Other bishops meanwhile contend that the answer to this disagreement within the Church is to put it all in the hands of the secular courts (cf. 1 Cor 6.1-8).

Fourthly, we have seen what one might describe as a pneumatological deficiency. Are the prayers for guidance, the talk about seeking God’s will, the Synod Eucharists and all the rest of it just so many platitudes and pieces of empty flummery? For, rather than asking what it is that the Holy Spirit might be saying to the Church of England in and through this vote, the immediate response to the decision is hotly to protest that a way must be found of overturning it as soon as possible. In the words of the Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Stephen Maxfield (scroll to the last letter), ‘The Church of England is very odd. It invokes the Holy Spirit before meetings of its General Synod, but then it flatly refuses to believe that He has anything to do with the results of its deliberations’.

As several commentators have pointed out, one problem is a chronic lack of theology. Since we do not have an agreed theology of the episcopacy, we do not know whether bishops exist to provide leadership in the manner of secular gurus of that discipline, or bureaucratic managers, or fathers within a family. And because we do not know this, the conversation all too easily defaults to regarding episcopacy as just another ‘senior position’.

Similarly, since we do not have theology of gender, or indeed of the human person more generally, we default to secularised discourses of rights and equal opportunities. In the words of one priest in my own diocese, ‘young professional women aren’t used to being told they can’t do things’. So, putting it bluntly, we have been trying to decide whether to have women bishops without really having a clue what either a bishop or a woman (or a man) actually is.

Perhaps the egregious Chris Bryant MP is right – although not for the reasons that he thinks he is – that we should simply appoint no more bishops of either gender for the time being. Perhaps (and I owe this point to the Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross) we need to put aside our anxious, self-preoccupied strivings, our worldly perceptions that things can be fixed if only this or that group of people can be outflanked and defeated. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has indicated to us in and through this vote that the old way of doing things has now reached a dead end and that, instead, we must now just wait in stillness and silence before the Lord who waits to be gracious to us. If we did that, people really might take some notice.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill, Enfield in the Diocese of London. He was formerly Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford and a member of the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford. He has recently written the SCM Core Text in Christian Ethics (SCM: 2011) and The Church and the Big Society (Grove Books: forthcoming).

Sarah Coakley agrees with me! (perhaps they will listen to her)

Please forgive the egotistical title for this blog-entry, but my inner cheer is too buoyant to repress. I’ve been banging on about the lack of theological seriousness in the Church, the creeping managerialism, and the effect it has on clergy morale for a long time – and focussed all those concerns on the women bishops question here. In the aftermath of the Synod debacle, Professor Sarah Coakley, who is an all round star, weighs in here. Go read.

Please can we now do women bishops the right way?

Three step process:

1. Formally decide that the period of reception is at an end, and that the Church of England definitively accepts women priests.
2. Construct a generous, loving – dare I say ‘Christian’ – settlement with all those who on reasons of conscience cannot accept #1, involving transfer of property and so on – at least one new denomination, but let’s be fraternal about it.
3. Synod passes a remarkably simple single-clause measure bringing in women bishops by unanimous consent.

Is it really so hard to do things the right way, rather than descending into so much appalling political bickering?