The sound of an idol toppling

Like most of the world around it, the Church of England is so caught up in busyness and anxious make-work that it has ceased to attend to what is truly happening in the world around it; and as attention is simply another word for prayer this is a grievous fault.

If the Church were to pay attention, I believe that it would perceive one immensely important fact in particular: the great idol of our time is toppling. The idol is science, or, more particularly, the idol is a particular form of scientific and technical expertise that has been shepherded by a priestly class of laboratory-coat wearing men (well – in the story that is told, mostly men) who have journeyed into the greater mysteries and emerged bearing gifts and blessings for the people.

This idolatry, this white coated religion, has its foundation myths (Galileo!) and rituals (the scientific method!), its seminaries and its churches just like any other faith. Walter Brueggemann, in writing about the prophetic imagination, notes that when Moses, the archetypal prophet, seeks to inspire the people of Israel with a belief that things do not have to be the way that they are, that it is not an eternal truth that the Israelites must be enslaved by the Egyptians, a crucial step comes when the technocrats of the Pharaoh contend with the technocrat of YHWH – and they come up short (see Exodus chapters 7-9). Each time Moses and Aaron take a step to demonstrate the power of YHWH the magicians of Egypt are able to match the demonstrations using their own powers – until they cannot. There comes a point when the powers of the establishment are no longer sufficient to provide for the people, when they are shown as no longer omnipotent and omniscient, all wise, all benevolent.

There comes a point when the god bleeds.

Which is where we are now in the West. We have experienced an immense crisis, whose ramifications are still rippling through our lives. Rippling? Maybe a rip-tide. Covid 19 – from whence did it come? Almost certainly from gain of function research in a scientific laboratory in Wuhan. From the place of expected blessing has come a curse. The cure for the curse? A white coated woman in a laboratory achieved something amazing (Sarah Gilbert) yet the issues with the mRNA style vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna) seem to only grow with time. We have embarked upon an immense social experiment, whereby fear of a contagious virus has been deliberately stoked in order to justify unprecedented levels of social control. People in England, from where I write, have for the most part gone along with this. It’s what we tend to do, this is the land of the obedient queue. Yet there comes a point when that obedience comes to an end and the Anglo-Saxon plants their feet in the ground and says ‘No’. Then the authorities have to navigate around a new reality.

(It’s what happened with Brexit.)

So the apparatus of science and the religion of technological expertise is wobbling, it is uncertain – but why am I so sure that this wobbling is in fact an incipient toppling? Because of climate change. Not so much climate change itself but the scientific and technical apparatus that surrounds it, that has been so on display in Glasgow in the COP negotiations when we do not simply see the expected hypocrisies from the great and good who jet in from overseas in order to lecture the peons on the virtue of doing without, but also in those one might reasonably expect to know better – such as the Green politician from Brighton who flew to Glasgow rather than taking the train. The gap between the ritual intonations of ‘climate change’ and the people who are being lined up to change their patterns of life is becoming increasingly large. The people are noticing more and more, and are paying more and more attention, and some time soon the tipping point will be reached and the underlying science behind the rhetoric will be brought out blinking into the light.

At which point there will be much anger. The poor are being asked to pay for the choices of the rich; I am thinking parochially – the poor in post-industrial England are being asked to change their patterns of life (gas boilers, cars), all the things on which they rely, in order to… what exactly? The claims will be of seas rising, and nations vanishing, and mass migrations and so on and so forth – yet because the cost of the changes being demanded of the poor will be so great upon the poor, the poor will rightly say ‘prove it’, and the naked panjandrums will stand blinking and mumbling and Greta will denounce the blah blah blah and the Anglo-Saxon will say ‘No’.

For the IPCC itself no longer foresees disaster under the heading of climate change. The ‘consensus’ of 97% of scientists – which is itself a falling away from the true faith, for true science has no place for ‘consensus’ – will be shown as not very interesting. The climate is warming – yes – but how dangerous is the warming, what is the best way to respond to the warming, adaptation or mitigation and most of all, with Brueggemann in mind but as Rowan Williams once phrased the single most important question in Christian political thought: “Who pays the price?”

The rich will ask the poor to change their ways but the poor will once again vote for their own betterment, and the climate will shift, in earth as in politics, and as above so below the idols will topple. The rich will use the inherited rhetoric of the scientific and technological hegemonies and they will be rejected, and the idol of science will topple with them. No longer will science be seen as the repository of blessings and wisdom; instead the intertwining of science and technology and capitalism will be rejected as a whole, from pharmaceutical exploitations to farming interventions the fundamental wrongness of the apathistic stance will be perceived and rejected – for it will be asking people to be cold in the winter, and it will have lost its power of persuasion.

I hope that we don’t face a Butlerian Jihad, for those in white coats have indeed given many blessings to the people, but for so many reasons the thought patterns of scientific and technological rationality need to be, have to be, incorporated into a larger, wiser, deeper understanding. Theology must become the Queen of the Sciences once again. In one of those little ironies of history, if in the long run we are to ensure a safe place for the Richard Dawkins of this world, it will likely only be if a recognisably Christian culture is re-established.

Else there shall be war and famine and pestilence and death – and Hell shall follow.

The idol hasn’t toppled yet, but it is moving, and wobbling, and in another year or ten or twenty it will fall, and great will be the falling of it. Then, once again, the communities of the faithful will start to pick up the pieces and seek to preserve as much as possible of the good, whilst seeking to ensure the practice of virtues that might inhibit a return to the bad. The world will continue to turn, the tides will rise and fall, and human follies shall remain inescapable.

Kyrie Eleison.

Synod: Incarnational Integrity, or why I support the blessing of same-sex relationships

This is the second of my planned three emails unpacking the soundbites from my election address.

Our conversation around the blessing of same sex relationships (SSRs) has become increasingly fraught. I support the Living in Love and Faith process wholeheartedly – I think it is one of the most impressive things to come out of our central institutions for many years.

Most especially, the seven ‘voices’ giving different understandings of Scripture are a useful short-hand for understanding the different perspectives and assumptions about Scripture (see pp294-297 of LLF). I would place myself very much in the middle of these voices, and dependent on the issue, would be somewhere between 3 and 5. I consider myself to have a high view of Scripture; I would want to talk about the authority of Scripture, and I would want to flesh that out with some description of what it means to live under the authority of Scripture. So I would want to say that Scripture is a) the principal witness to the Incarnation – and thereby an irreplaceable source for how we know Jesus (and that not being restricted to the Gospels, or even the New Testament); b) independent of my own preferences; and c) something which has the capacity to question and interrogate me, and overthrow my own self-delusions. Yet what is often missed is that Scripture testifies about itself that it refers beyond itself. The point of Scripture isn’t that we get to know Scripture, it’s that we get to know Jesus, that we get to know the God who is revealed in Jesus – and that by believing we have life in His name.

In the Anglican tradition this insight has been captured by making Scripture our highest authority, but also, as explicitly taught by Hooker, that Scripture needs to be interpreted using the insights of the tradition (especially the early church) and the right use of reason. In saying this Hooker was not being especially innovative as the Scholastic tradition had been pursuing just such an approach for many centuries – and still does.

What this tradition means with regard to Scripture is that it is always legitimate to ask of Scripture ‘why?’ Not with a view to disregarding Scripture but with a view to seeking to journey more deeply into the mysteries of faith that Scripture can disclose to us. The prohibition on slavery is the fruit of just such a journey.

So if we take as a starting point that Scripture prohibits same-sex relationships, what is the answer to our question ‘why?’ The answer given in the tradition is essentially a ‘natural law’ argument, that has two components. The first is that same sex activity is ‘contrary to nature’; the second is that sexual activity is only licit when it is undertaken in the context of heterosexual marriage and is open to procreation – for procreation is the fundamental purpose of sexuality (here the tradition is using a framework derived from Aristotle – procreation is the telos of sexuality).

To take the latter point first, our Anglican tradition has expanded the understanding of the purposes of marriage to three. Hence the Book of Common Prayer outlines the purposes of marriage as being 1) procreation; 2) the avoidance of fornication and 3) the mutual society and help given within the relationship. This understanding led directly to the acceptance of contraception in the 1930s – which was incredibly controversial at the time, and was a major innovation to the inherited tradition – as it recognised that there was more to our sexuality than procreation. The first thing that God says is not good in creation is that Adam is alone.

To return to the first point, what does it mean to say that same sex activity is contrary to nature? As I understand it, the framework used to understand what Scripture is saying is one that considers heterosexual desire as the universal default, and the pursuit of same sex relationships as necessarily perverse. That is, for a person to pursue a same sex relationship is a failure of integrity. It represents a collapse into sin, whereby a pursuit of a bodily pleasure undermines the harmony of body and soul and fullness of life that we are called to in Christ. There is a contradiction within the person.

The core reason why I think it is possible for the teaching of the church to change can now be simply stated: I am not persuaded that it is necessarily the case that when a person pursues a same sex relationship that it is a failure of integrity in the way understood by the tradition. On the contrary I am convinced that for some people it is a fulfilment of integrity to pursue such a relationship, an incarnational integrity – allowing something to be expressed that is inherent in the creation of that person by God.

Scripture’s prohibition of same sex relationships has a particular behaviour in view – that it is a violation of purpose and integrity for those involved in it. It sees things in this way because of an assumption about universal heterosexuality. I don’t believe that we see things in this way any more, for all sorts of reasons (see the later parts of LLF).

One way to characterise the difference that I am trying to describe here is to talk about sexuality being chosen or received as a gift (and I recognise that I am drawing two points of a much more complicated spectrum). Scripture sees same sex desire as something which is chosen by a heterosexual person for perverse reasons, and it (rightly) prohibits such behaviours. Yet what of those who do not experience their sexuality as something chosen, but as something received, something given? I am not persuaded that Scripture teaches anything specifically on this, in the same way that it does not contain any specific teaching about the internal combustion engine, to take something morally problematic that is distinctive in our own time. In other words, that which Scripture prohibits is not what those who support the blessing of SSRs are advocating.

Put simply: it is possible to have a high view of Scripture as an Anglican, yet also to support the liturgical blessing of SSRs. I emphasise here ‘as an Anglican’ because there are some views of Scripture which reject the Hookerian approach outlined above (perspective number one in the LLF list is certainly not an Anglican understanding).

If what I am describing here is true, the question then becomes – what is the legitimate context for the expression of incarnational integrity in those who are not heterosexual? Surely it is through some form of regularisation and public affirmation of a relationship, emphasising the non-procreative grounds for marriage; to enable the avoidance of fornication, and for the mutual companionship, help and support that the one offers to the other… and to do so in the sight of God.

This is why I support the liturgical blessing of same sex relationships.

A more personal postscript

In the argument above I have tried to be very precise in my language; in particular I have not entered into the conversation around non-heterosexual marriage. This is for many reasons, not least that it is a discussion that is logically distinct from the one above, is much more complex, and can only reasonably be entered into by Synod if an argument akin to the one I make here is accepted.

Yet I find this talk of linguistic precision, logical distinctions and political practicalities – however essential it might be for our common labour – I find that it draws me too close to a Pharisaical spirit, and so I would like to finish with something more personal and real:

“I realized that the opportunity for him and me to say any more than we already had said was limited, so when he was more or less conscious I asked to be left alone with him. I got onto the bed and held him as gently as I could, and told him I loved him and he had brought gifts and goods, and frustration and testing, that I had never imagined would come my way, and I was so grateful for him, and then I stroked his hair and sang him ‘A Case of You’. I don’t know if David heard what I said, or knew what it meant, but I did know that he loved me and that I loved him, and that nothing could have separated us apart from what was separating us, so I did not fret too much about leaving anything unsaid.”
(from The Madness of Grief, by Richard Coles)

Resist with love and laughter

My beloved Church of England is having another spasm of ambition and vision, with an aim, not just for 10,000 new church plants but 20,000 new plants! Saul has his thousands but David has his tens of thousands….

I think this is the latest manifestation of a severely deficient theology and ecclesiology, on which I have written many times before. I have come to the point of thinking that our leadership has now jumped the shark. The level of disconnect between the people on the bridge pulling levers, and the people sweating in the boiler room trying to respond, has simply become too large.

So we need to resist, which for most of us will look like trying to ignore so far as practicable yet another central directive. We need more though – for all the activity poured into fruitless endeavours is energy wasted, and if we are creative it may be that we can open up more fruitful areas for our leadership to work in. I do believe, sincerely, that the problem is not that we have bad people in our positions of authority; no, I think the problem is not with individuals but with the institutional identity within which they serve, most especially, it is in the institutional narrative (‘panic!!’) that seems to shape all the decisions. We need to attend most of all to questions such as these: how did we get here? is this God’s will? how has our activity supported God’s will for the Church and how far has it frustrated that will? We need to get spiritually serious again.

I will write more about this as time goes on.

For now, what is most on my mind and heart is that we need to resist with love and laughter. With love for our leadership, and an absolute resolve not to scapegoat or cast blame upwards – we all share in our responsibility for the predicament we now face. We also need to resist with laughter. The emperor has no clothes, but all the courtiers have been stitched up into a false narrative, and the clothing may not be on the emperor but it is covering their eyes. Sometimes we need to laugh – it might just be that laughter brings people back to themselves, and the truth can then be realised, and the masks can be taken off and then, together, seeking the truth in love, we can work out where to go.

It is in that spirit of love and laughter that I have put together this little video. The song is Babel, words by Trevor Carter, sung by Pete Coe:

IDWTSLACP My motte-and-bailey mind

There is a bad form of argument known as the ‘motte-and-bailey’ fallacy. This is derived from the medieval castle system, where there is a motte (mound/castle) that can be defended easily, and a separate area (the bailey) which can’t be defended. In peaceful times the bailey can be used for lots of human activity; in times of conflict the people can retreat to the motte. So in an argument, a position can be advanced which is outlandish (can’t be defended) and the fallacy comes when the person advancing the argument shifts their position to say that they were only advancing a reasonable position (the motte). So it is an example of bad faith, what might be called ‘trolling’ these days.

So what do I mean when I say that I have a ‘motte-and-bailey’ mind? I mean that I will often consider things, and talk about things, without being committed to defending them – they are in the bailey. Whereas some things that I argue for I really AM committed to. I appreciate that this causes problems for other people; it has certainly caused me problems in my own life, when people have thought I was committed to a perspective (my motte) when in fact I was only exploring it (in my bailey).

In considering matters of faith, I have sometimes used the language of a doctrine being ‘weight-bearing’. That is, the Christian faith has many elements within it, and I have grown in my understanding of the faith over time. For many years I took the doctrine of the resurrection on trust – it resided in my bailey, I was still working through it. Eventually it became a part of my core understandings, it ‘took the weight’ in terms of how I live my life, and so it became a part of my motte, my most fundamental commitments. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth, by contrast, is still in the bailey, although it has moved closer to the motte over time.

This sequence of ‘I don’t want to sound like a crazy person’ is me making public those things which I am pondering which are in the bailey. I find them alarming. I don’t want them to be true. I am therefore opening them up to public scrutiny in order to bring them in to the light, to be exposed to criticism, to be tested and examined. I am grateful when people engage with what is in my bailey and say ‘Sam, that’s crap, because X, Y, Z’. I am saddened when people look at what is in the bailey and say variations of ‘you’re a moron’. It may well be true that I’m a moron, but calling me a moron doesn’t help me – and it doesn’t help those who are also considering the same questions.

I think I need to find a way of signalling the level of commitment that I hold to any viewpoints that I choose to discuss. The Less Wrong community have a useful marker – ‘epistemic status’ – which I quite like, but it’s a bit philosophically exact for this blog. Perhaps I can simply continue to use this language, putting ‘this is in my bailey’ or ‘this is part of my motte’ when putting forward an argument. Hopefully that will help to clarify things.

So, for the record – this entire sequence of IDWTSLACP is operating with my bailey. Everything I outline in it could be wrong, and my fundamental convictions would not be affected.

Whereas, when I start talking about the resurrection, and what it means for spiritual warfare and our present political crisis – that will involve a lot of ‘motte-stuff’!

IDWTSLACP – why the crazy conversation is important (OR: why the UK has a more hopeful prospect than the US in the coming years)

One of the dire consequences of our present cultural breakdown is the collapse of a shared space of discourse – a common frame of reference, a mutual framework of values – against which, within which, we can hammer out our differences without threatening the stability, and therefore the safety, of the community as a whole.

One of those shared values is democracy, which has as a necessary component the notion of ‘loser’s consent’. In other words, democracy is the means by which we have agreed to resolve our differences. We make our arguments and then there is an election (or a referendum!) which produces a decision for one path or another, and then there is a gathering around that decision with a common resolve to make the decision work, or apply.

The two shocks in the English-speaking world, of 2016, did not receive that expected loser’s consent. However, the working out of that refusal of consent took a different path in the UK and in the US.

In the UK there was a concerted effort on the part of the governing class to overthrow the verdict of the referendum. However, in contrast to what happened in other EU member states, the governing class was not able to succeed. Through a sequence of further democratic votes, most notably the impact of the Brexit party in the EU elections of 2019, and culminating in the General Election of December 2019, the democratic decision was re-affirmed, Mr Johnson received a mandate for Brexit and – slightly to my surprise – he has actually implemented it.

Please note that this is not an argument saying that Brexit was the ‘right’ decision. This is simply saying that in the UK a democratic verdict was implemented – there was a time of strife but in the end the institutions of the state, the limbs of the body politic, did actually reflect the choice that was made.

(A personal aside: whilst I am – obviously – a committed Brexiteer, it was actually a sense that this needed to happen, that there was a risk of something profoundly wrong and damaging about to take place, that moved me to stick my head up above the parapet with the Brexit Party. That was a terrifying experience on all sorts of levels; but it was the right decision, and, I believe, it was of God. A small but healing (for me) act of prophetic drama.)

This outcome – that the UK voted for Brexit, and the UK has now got Brexit, for better or for worse – gives me a degree of confidence in the future of our society. Our institutions eventually worked, and that means that our institutions continue to enjoy the consent of the population. When things go wrong – as they seem to be doing with our COVID response, whatever your view on the underlying science – then people will turn to the existing systems to remedy what has gone wrong. In other words, if Johnson is eventually considered to be an incompetent and bumbling fool then he will be thrown out of office, either by the Conservative MPs as they face the prospect of losing an election, or by the voters in a General election themselves.

The reason why I think that this is so essential is because I think if it hadn’t happened – if Brexit had been somehow denied by overt and covert means – we would find ourselves in the situation that the United States finds itself in today.

When Trump was elected, against the odds, there was a parallel reaction of the establishment to try and overturn that democratic shift. It took various forms, Russiagate was the most blatant, but there were others. Again, this is not a point in favour of Trump, it is a point about the democratic process. When one side of a democratic context refuses to accept the basic legitimacy of a decision that they did not support, then it is the framework itself that breaks down – and when the framework breaks down then there is no longer a possibility of a consensual future.

In my view, what we are seeing in the United States today is the product of both long-term and short-term factors. The long-term factors need not detain us now (see MacIntyre amongst others) but the short-term factors are quite straightforward. The deplorables have been demonised, and they have demonised in turn. Trump was denied legitimacy, and now Biden is denied legitimacy. Consent in the democratic process is being withdrawn, and that withdrawal is escalating. Place this into a context of cultural polarisation and add free access to automatic weapons, then stir.

I am very worried about the short-term (up to five years) future of the United States. I do not see how to get through the crisis that now obtains without things getting significantly worse, up to and including a degree of civil conflict, and possibly the secession or breakdown of the United States itself.

If there is to be a shared future – and this applies to the UK also, even though I hope and pray that we have now avoided the worst outcomes – then I believe there are two linked things that simply must be put in place. The first relates to political leadership, the second relates to how ordinary people conduct themselves with each other.

Political leaders must demonstrate honesty. The normal jostling for advantage, the reliance upon ‘spin’ to present events in a light that is most flattering to the speaker, these belong to a more luxurious and decadent age. We need plain speaking, frank admissions of what has gone wrong, what the true situation is. Leaders need to trust people again – and that cannot happen if the full truth of a situation is not disclosed.

Similarly, if there is to be a renewal of our shared cultural space there needs to be an acceptance of the legitimacy of difference. To denounce different perspectives as malicious – which is what happened in the Brexit debates – and fail to engage in the substance is part of the cultural breakdown that leads to greater conflict.

One might say: if there is to be reconciliation between the warring factions, that reconciliation can only be built upon a shared truth.

Which is why the ‘crazy’ questions simply must be addressed. They must be engaged with, patiently, and the truth must be excavated and brought out into the light. It will not do to repeat talking points shared on the one side or the other. There must be a recognition of the sincerely held beliefs held by those who oppose. There has to be an affirmation of the shared humanity of the other side. Without this there is only perpetual conflict and dissolution.

I am hopeful that the UK has been enabled by grace to find that more creative path. On this day of Epiphany, the light that enlightens the nations, I pray for the US – an amazing nation, a beautiful people – currently in the grip of a devilish crisis. Lord have mercy.

IDWTSLACP – OK, Covid in the UK has (probably) got much further to go

One of the principles of the ‘less wrong’ community, which I find very attractive, is a commitment to open thinking, in other words, to be clear about what evidence is being relied on to make what judgement. In addition – and possibly the most important of all – is a commitment to be clear when a view is changing as a result of finding new evidence.

So I’m glad to have written what I did earlier, as it provoked some good conversations and lines of investigation that have changed how I am seeing this. This represents progress, and is my new drug of choice (actually, that’s a bit flippant, but I’ll make a more serious point on that topic tomorrow). So this post is to explain a shift over the last 24 hours.

The issue that had engaged me was a perceived discrepancy between rocketing infection rates and an unchanging bed occupancy rate. This was the source for the point about bed occupancy:


I didn’t just go from the tweet; I did go to the NHS site to see if the raw figures back up what was shown in the graph, which they did.

However, in the light of the explosion of infections – why was the bed occupancy rate not changing? Perhaps it was because the argument offered by people like Mike Yeadon was true, ie that the testing regime is compromised by, amongst other things, a very high false-positive rate.

Some tweets from John Bye made me reconsider that possible answer:

In other words, if the false positive rate was madly high then it would show up in other places. That seemed plausible to me (although there were a couple of tweets in that thread that made me go ‘hmmmm’).

So there needed to be an alternative explanation for the discrepancy between the bed occupancy rate and the infection rate (ie why did one not reflect the other; same issue with the death rate, of course, but I thought that had alternative explanations along the lines indicated in my earlier post). I have now had a good conversation with a nurse on the front-line, who unpacked the seeming contradiction, and made a further essential point.

The reason why the bed occupancy rate isn’t changing is because it cannot change – there are only so many bed spaces available. What is happening is that the people who would otherwise be occupying those beds (in a ‘normal’ winter) are now not in hospital at all, displaced in favour of Covid+ patients. In other words, simply looking at bed occupancy rate is not a sufficient guide for measuring the impact of the virus.

The further essential point, though, is that the NHS has still not recovered from the earlier peak in April, most especially in terms of the availability of trained personnel, and that this has a huge impact on what is being demanded of nurses and doctors and support staff now. My friendly nurse was extremely concerned at the capacity of the hospitals to cope with the surge coming down the line due to the Christmas break. The NHS is really up against it.

Lockdown it is then.

I don’t want to sound like a crazy person

I don’t want to sound like a crazy person – which is an acknowledgement that I know I sometimes do.

However, I also know that sometimes the crazy person is right, and not just in a ‘stopped clock is right twice a day’ sense. Sometimes the crazy person is right simply because they are outside the social consensus, in the way of children and naked emperors; sometimes also the desire to be a child, and mock the nakedness of emperors, is a temptation for those who are more cynical than innocent.

So I accept the hazards involved in speaking from an unusual perspective. I accept most of all that ‘of course I could be wrong’ and perhaps what I most want from speaking about what I see is a refreshed dialogue, new perspectives that can show me where I am wrong. I am thirsty for the truth.

I have my own biases, most of which flow from a profound commitment to the Christian tradition, which has given me a respectful scepticism towards “the science” and a realistic appraisal of the nature of human evil.

All of which is a bit of throat clearing. This last year – these last few years – have been difficult ones. I have often proclaimed that I wanted to write more, and then not done so. So I’m not going to proclaim anything about how often I shall write. All I want to say is: I’m going to write some things that will make me sound like a crazy person. This is me trying to find the truth, and providing updates along the way – I am a work in progress.

Open Source Anglicanism

I wonder how many readers of this article have heard of Open Source software? This is software for which the underlying programming code is publicly available and open to general use. Linux is a good example – it is a computer operating system run on open source lines, and does the same job as Windows, the product made by Microsoft. Due to the advantages that open source has over Windows, Linux, and software derived from Linux, now makes the digital world go round – it powers 8 out of 10 servers, which are what enable the internet to function.

One of the key advantages of Linux is that it avoids what is called ‘bloatware’ which is when a program becomes bigger and bigger over time – and takes up more and more room on your hard drive – and then slows down your computer, which becomes more and more prone to crashing. Bloatware means that the processing power of your computer is expended on inessential tasks. Microsoft filled Windows with bloatware because they thought that more features made their products more attractive, and they wanted to make more money. The Microsoft way is of a managerialism seeking to control everything from the centre, whereas the open source way is all about letting go of a desire to control the outcomes. It is purely about the process. Simply put, in the great majority of contexts, open source software is better than closed source software – it fosters co-operation and creativity and it is more reliable and more secure.

My question is: might it be possible for the Church of England to learn something from this? Might we be able to establish an ‘open source Anglicanism’? If we take the equivalent to the software code as ‘the gospel as the Church of England has received it’ then it is the job of those in the line of apostolic succession to spread that code and nothing else. The apostolic task is to teach the truth of the gospel, and to guard it against error, against heresy. This guarding doesn’t have to be done by an inquisition, it can be done simply by guarding boundaries – and the mechanism for this is already in place, it’s called a Bishop’s license. Everything else is ultimately disposable.

That means letting go of the fears which drive the need to control the outcomes – it’s a spiritual undertaking that can only be carried forward when we let go of our fears and properly learn to love God and trust the Holy Spirit. Everything else runs in the direction of ecclesiastical bloatware, and the Church of England has been suffocating for decades beneath that bloat, giving rise to tragedy and fiasco in equal measure. It is why our numbers have collapsed; it is why if we don’t change what we are doing, we will cease to exist within the next generation or so.

Open source Anglicanism doesn’t do anything other than teach the gospel as the Church of England has received it; or, to be clear, open source Anglicanism allows a very great many things to be done under the umbrella of Anglicanism, but they are not done by central direction, management and control. They are simply what are done by enthusiastic and faithful Anglicans in their own place and time.

So there are no central initiatives. There is simply a central teaching resource, embodied in the Diocesan Bishop and continually renewed, so that the gospel is proclaimed afresh in each generation. How that is done is then left to those who have the license in their own context. There is a minimal central organisation. The Bishop has a small staff of administrative and legal support, but concentrates on teaching the faith and enabling those who share in the cure of souls to conduct that task – so pastor to the pastors.

As for the clergy, once they are ordained and licensed, they have independence within that framework. Incumbency drives out priesthood – so let’s not have any clergy incumbents, and give all the legal control over parishes to the laity. Why on earth is it the business of a priest to decide what wording goes on a gravestone? Let priests be required to minister word and sacrament – and let anything else that they do be up to them. Let the stipend return to truly being a stipend!

Open source Anglicanism – in which the role of the officers of the church is to share the gospel by word and sacrament, and almost nothing else – is really a return to how the church started. All the essential things about Anglicanism, the Lambeth quadrilateral, these remain untouched – but all that has accumulated around those essentials is let go of. So often I feel that as a Church we have forgotten our core purpose, and we spend all our energies scratching around for more or less suitable substitutes, which, funnily enough, regularly follow the fashions of the day. We have forgotten that we are supposed to focus on the gospel, so we end up focussing on myriad other things, and we do them very badly, and the outside world looks on us with bemusement and contempt. We wrestle with the inertia of our inherited habits, and we don’t give ourselves the time to dig deep and ask who or what our present practices are actually serving.

If the Church of England is to pull out of its terminal descent it will only do so if it remembers how to trust the Holy Spirit, and recognises that the gospel itself is inherently contagious. We need to overcome the inertia of our inherited institutional imperatives – the blockage of ecclesiastical bloat. This is where we’re going to end up anyway, so why not co-operate with what God is bringing about? I passionately believe in the Gospel as the Church of England has received it, so why not try Open Source Anglicanism? Let’s set the gospel free.

(A more fully worked out description of what I was originally mulling over here)

Gesticulating with ‘wrath’ – why we need to rehabilitate traditional language if we are to learn what God want to teach us

When it comes to language about wrath I have been accustomed for a long time to quote what Julian of Norwich says – that there is no wrath in God. When pushed, I have tended to nuance that comment by saying that wrath is a real thing that we need to take account of, but I have been comfortable not to identify an experience of wrath with the experience of God’s purpose for my life.

I have come to believe that I have been missing something essential to the life of faith, which traditional language of wrath preserves, and I’d like to briefly sketch my thinking. I would say at the outset that I’m going to argue for a rehabilitation of the language of wrath in principle – I’m not here going to say how that language needs to be used in practice, with respect to COVID. Hopefully we can engage with that work in our discussion.

My title draws from a passage that I have been mulling on, which is something that Wittgenstein once wrote (Culture and Value 85e). He says this:

Actually I should like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense”

My thinking is simply this: our language of wrath is a way of saying something about our lived experience before God, and if we outlaw this language then we are not making anything clearer. So what might our gesticulating with this word ‘wrath’ be about?

Now, two more elements of throat clearing, before I suggest a tentative answer. The first is to make a reference to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which so famously begins “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” I don’t believe that it is possible to do theodicy as a Christian. That is, as soon as we start to make some sort of moral evaluation or justification of the ways of God to humanity then we have embarked upon the path of idol worship. We are not the measure of God; God is the measure of humankind.

Yet we do want to insist that God is good; that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. Even with a properly reticent and analogical understanding of that language I do not believe that we can escape saying that God is good and that this is foundational for our faith and spirituality. So my second element of throat clearing is this: when Job loses his health his wife invites him to “curse God and die”, which invites the rebuke “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”

So to weave these three things together – Wittgenstein, Bonhoeffer and Job – and finally make my point, I want to say that when we use the language of wrath, when we gesticulate with it, we are not engaged in some sort of theodicy, as if we were making some sense of judgement over God; rather we are asserting, with Job, that the good that we receive in this life cannot be separated from the evil.

As a matter of theological grammar, I would now say, we cannot give thanks to God for the good things that we receive in this life from Him if we cannot at the same time cry in lament for the bad things that we receive in this life from Him. If we say that the bad things that we receive in this life are not from God, if we abandon this sense of God’s wrath, then the blood drains out of our thanksgivings to God too.

What, to refer back to Wittgenstein’s language again, is the difference that this language makes in our lives? Or, given how widespread the abandonment of this language has become, what difference did this language make in the devotional lives of those who have gone before us? What spiritual lessons might there be for us if we pay attention to their prayers?

I would say – if we look at the Book of Common Prayer for example, that +Christopher discussed, and the language wherein pestilence and horror is taken as a form of chastisement, and an invitation to repentance – that this is above all an insistence that the experience being undergone is meaningful. That we, who are in a state of dependence upon God, experience God more intimately when we are in extremis, when we are put to the test – and that God opens up a path of redemption for us that proceeds directly from the place of our suffering.

In other words, the spiritually essential heart of this language of divine wrath is not that we gain a heavenly imprimatur for our own prejudices, nor that we come to some rationally satisfactory accounting or justification of divine activity but that: without wrath we have no redemption. To use the language of wrath, to insist upon God’s agency and responsibility in our suffering is to make the claim that all of life is meaningful, and that there is a way forward from where we are. It is, in the end, the only thing that enables us to cling to the cry that God loves us even when he chastises us.

If we are to find the path that God is giving us to walk in out of this present pestilence, I do not believe that we will succeed unless we reclaim a healthy sense of God’s wrath. We must repent of our ways and return to the living God, for he has torn us, and he will heal us.

The Lord giveth; and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

(A talk given to the Severn Forum last night)

I am not a white Christian

Yesterday our Archbishop of Canterbury sent out this tweetabc white christian:

The single most important lesson I learned about racism I learned from an African-American named Steve. Before I went to university I had a gap year, three months of which were spent wandering around North America with a friend. We began with a week in New York, staying in the flat of a radical couple in which I was introduced to many intellectually exciting things – amongst them Noam Chomsky and Abbie Hoffmann – but what I most clearly remember was Steve’s insistence that racism was the belief that there are separate human races. I remember him talking about the census form, asking for information on racial category – and him saying ‘I write in “human” when they ask me about my race’.

The point I took from Steve was that as soon as you start thinking in racial terms, racism as an evil ideology is the inevitable consequence. The more that there is an insistence upon one racial category, the more that thinking in racial categories becomes endemic.

(This is not to deny that there is something real being described (objected to) with #Blacklivesmatter – there is clearly a deep-rooted structural racism within US society generally, and their police forces in particular, which needs to be addressed. At the end of our three months we returned to New York, and before meeting up with Steve again, we spent some time sat on the floor of the Greyhound station. I vividly remember policemen walking by us, ignoring us, and then hassling the African-Americans further along. That was when I realised just how deeply the racism was embedded in US society.)

The challenge for us all is to identify what is wrong without succumbing to thinking in racial categories. We have to use the right language to describe the problem, otherwise we simply repeat and amplify the original sin, we surrender that which is most distinctively Christian: that our identity in Christ surpasses all of our other identities, without obliterating them. In other words the most fundamental truth about anyone is that they are made in the image of God, and the most fundamental truth about me is that I am a Christian. As was once so wisely said, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

When we succumb to using racial categories and then – much more dangerously – use those categories in the form of accusations then we have left behind the Holy Spirit and are giving service to another. It would seem that a tormenting spirit is upon our Archbishop, and he has hurled a spear of accusation, which is the tool of the enemy. I shall step to one side and allow the spear to embed itself in the wall beside me.

In Christ there is neither black nor white. There are no black Christians or white Christians or Christians ‘of colour’. To add an adjective before the word Christian is to risk, blasphemously, the full meaning of the word Christian. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Healing can only be built upon our recognition of our common humanity, not on cornerstones of blame and accusation.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

I am not a white Christian. I am Sam, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.