Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori

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

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

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

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

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

What is to be done?

I read this in an article from the Guardian:

“I teach 400 children. Slightly more, actually, but we’ll call it 400. That means your daughter counts for 0.25% of the children I teach. It is difficult for me to honestly and accurately tell you anything about her, so please forgive me if I speak in vague generalities at parents’ evening and try to avoid using your daughter’s name. I might have forgotten it.
I teach twenty five lessons a week. Despite my best intentions, some of these lessons are boring. To plan an outstanding lesson can take hours. I can’t do that for every lesson I teach. Sometimes I stand in class delivering a lesson I know isn’t as good as it could be. I know how to make it better. I just didn’t have the time to do it. I don’t think the children notice, they are used to this…
Schools are full of middle-management types….The school needs to improve, but I’m not sure it can. Common sense and trust in human communication is being forced out of the profession. A lot of teachers seem to like being told exactly what to do and how to do it. The status quo is just fine for a lot of middle and senior management too. It allows them to wield power, justify inflated salaries and be recognised by their peers as being “outstanding” teachers. A recognition the children in their classes would never give them. Never mind. They never really liked teaching children that much anyway.”

The reason why this article struck me this morning is that – if you change the relevant terms (including ‘outstanding teacher’ to ‘senior priest’!) then the same analysis applies to the life of an increasing number of parish priests. That is of interest, not because I want to share in the groaning – done enough of that recently – but because it shows how far the Church of England has become bound up in the prevailing patterns of our culture.

That culture is one of expecting more and more to be achieved by less and less – and of putting bureaucratic control systems in place to achieve it. So, in teaching, it means a significant increase in central government direction and intervention, carried through by qualified consultants and enforced by Ofsted. Similar things happen in other fields, like the NHS. The church – being behind the times – is only now starting to move in this direction, but it is clear that Common Tenure is from this stable, and this pattern of thought has clearly infected many.

I say that with confidence because I think it has also infected me – and I’m trying to extirpate it (which I do, through things like writing out my thoughts in a blogpost). For example, I am closely involved in Deanery discussions planning for the future – specifically, how to negotiate a reduction in stipendiary clergy of around a third (from 13.5 to 9, covering 27 parishes). My first reaction was to develop a plan to restructure the Deanery around geographical clusters, each with at least two clergy, so that the workload is distributed fairly. So, from an average ratio of clergy to people of 1:120, it will shift to around 1:180; or, using a Deployment Indicator that takes account of local population and number of churches, it will shift from an average of 101 per priest to an average of 144 per priest – either way, it will effectively mean a 50% increase in workload for clergy here. (For comparison, and in lieu of another moan from me, the figures for Mersea are 1:300 on the former measure, and 186 on the latter, so I do have a very good idea of what these implied changes mean in practice). Yet as time has gone on, I become more and more dubious about this type of change – the notion of spreading clergy around in a perfectly balanced distribution seems simply to be about managing the decline.

What, after all, will be the consequences of proceeding with this plan? We will be asking clergy (and bishops) to do more and more with less and less – exactly the situation that the teacher in the Guardian article is describing. We will end up either with ever-increasing levels of clergy burn-out; or with ever-increasing congregational decline and disillusionment; or, most probably, both. This is exactly the pattern of thinking that led us into our present problems, so why do we expect a different result from continuing with it?

So what is to be done? One answer is to ‘re-imagine ministry’ – along the lines that Bishop Stephen is calling for here in Chelmsford Diocese. I strongly support what +Stephen is attempting to do, but I suspect that we are still not digging down into the real roots of the problem. Do we: change our understandings of priesthood; change our understandings of lay ministry; or – increase the numbers of clergy?

After all, one of the great challenges about ‘re-imagining ministry’ is to make sure that we don’t re-imagine ministry away completely. The reason why Killing George Herbert has always resonated with me is simply because the George Herbert model of ministry is so tremendously attractive. To be a pastor and a teacher building up strong relationships with a group of disciples – and through that to enable each of them to live out their calling with joy and giving glory to God – what priest could possibly object to that? If we are to have a truly enabled and energised, inspired and inspiring laity – is there not a role there for those whose job it is to help such a thing come about? That is, I am not sure that the answer to the problem of a shortage of clergy is to do away with such clergy altogether. The answer is two-fold, it seems to me – we need more clergy and we need to have a much clearer idea of what clergy are for.

In the secular world, to provide resources for training and development is straightforward and obvious. It is an investment in the future. The Church of England doesn’t do this – and I sometimes wonder if there is something in our ecclesiology that says we are only allowed to take the bad bits of management practice and have to ignore the good. If we were serious about priestly ministry then we would invest a much greater proportion of our resources in training and developing priests – and we would then set those priests free to do the work that they have been called and trained to do. There are many ways in which this might be done. Personally I am coming around to the view that anyone accepted for training should be installed as a curate in a parish, with housing and a stipend, and then spend the next seven years doing 50% work in the parish and 50% formational training. I am very aware of the benefits of full-time residential training, but that model only really works with people who are single, and probably young as well.

More crucially, I believe that we need to make a decision about what we expect priestly ministry to look like. This is a long conversation but one key element of it, surely, has to do with the size of the congregation – that is, how many people is one priest expected to pastor? Bob Jackson’s research pertains to this – for me, I would suggest a ball-park figure of around 100 as the limit for what one person can effectively minister to. Beyond that number the possibility of genuine relationships with each member of a congregation diminishes exponentially. If something like this is accepted, then it has a direct implication for the recruitment and training of clergy. If we have 10,000 people needing to be pastored, then we will need 100 clergy, and we will need to ask each of those 10,000 people to give 1% of their income in order to pay for them. All that is happening now is that we are a long way into the spiral of decline that spreading butter over too much bread inevitably causes. Put another way, we need to abandon the use of the Sheffield formula and its equivalents in working out how to deploy clergy.

Personally, I don’t believe that this challenge can ever be met without at the same time addressing the folly of the parish share system. That is, without some sense of direct relationship between what parishioners give, and what they receive there will be no chance of increasing – that is, financing – the necessary numbers of clergy. Of course, this immediately runs up against some of the principal taboos of church culture – taboos which are, sadly, principally twentieth century in origin. After all, one of the roots of the blight of management culture across the different areas of our lives is the huge growth in centralised state control – and the parish share system is simply one aspect of that, as applied to the church. The sort of system that I would like to see – benefices tithing their income, then paying for the costs of their own ministers – is a massively decentralising process. I happen to believe, not only that this is the form that the Spirit prefers, but also that it is in profound harmony with the way that the world is developing at the moment. Yet like all release of centralised power, those who hold such power will not release it voluntarily, they will have to be persuaded by non-rational means.

Essentially, what I am describing is the shift from maintenance to mission – and in saying that, I am depressingly aware of what a cliche it is. I am sure this has all been said before, and much more articulately. So the question becomes – why has there been no change? Why is it that we are still circling the plug-hole? I believe that the answer is to do with our capacity to make decisions. To actually address these issues properly requires painful choices to be made, and it is the incapacity to make those choices which is our fundamental problem. I don’t believe that we can escape from the truth that the church is in crisis because it has lost its spiritual moorings – and this has led to our culture being in crisis (see my book for more detail). We can’t discriminate between good and bad management because that requires spiritual discernment – and in an environment that doesn’t take spirituality seriously (the church) that sort of discernment is not encouraged as it is too challenging to the existing powers.

So what is to be done? I hear the words that say ‘leave with the others’, to which I want to respond to the church ‘but you have the words of eternal life’. What can those who are loyal to the CofE actually do? That is, what do those who actually believe in the gospel as the Church of England has received it do when that very same Church becomes the obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel? I think that my heart’s desire is to do the work of a Samuel, and change the structures in such a way that it becomes possible for the priests to do their job once again. Yet in my darker moments I wonder whether what is truly needed isn’t a Samuel but a Samson – someone to pull down the pillars of establishment and leave nothing but rubble and dead bodies behind.

If I were Roman Abramovich…

I’d keep RDM and let Drogba leave as a legend – along with half a dozen other squad members.
And then if I was RDM…
I’d make Terry a player-coach (simply because, politically, you couldn’t sell him).
I’d make Lampard captain, Cahill vice-captain.
And I’d build the side around Torres – solid base, fast counter-attacks, Mata, Marin, Ramires – maybe Modric and Hazard as well – providing the ammunition.

I’d also make my kids ball-boys for the next home match…

If I were Roman Abramovich…

I’d keep RDM and let Drogba leave as a legend – along with half a dozen other squad members.
And then if I was RDM…
I’d make Terry a player-coach (simply because, politically, you couldn’t sell him).
I’d make Lampard captain, Cahill vice-captain.
And I’d build the side around Torres – solid base, fast counter-attacks, Mata, Marin, Ramires – maybe Modric and Hazard as well – providing the ammunition.

I’d also make my kids ball-boys for the next home match…


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Never let it be said that I have indoctrinated my children in the faith. Yet this shall be a solemn feast day unto the seventh generation…

A few pointless thoughts about Hodgson’s squad

– I’m glad he’s not taking Ferdinand; and I’m sure Sir Alex is too.
– I wouldn’t have taken Terry either; it’s been a long time building but this Chelsea fan would actually be quite happy for the club to sell him off to the Middle East in the summer. I deeply hope that CFC will win on Saturday night, but if that happens, the sight of him lifting the cup…
– I would have made Lampard captain – experience and form, proven performer when it counts.
– Not sure about Gerrard being captain – look at stats for his performances for Liverpool, he seems to intimidate the others – but that might not be a factor for England. Depends entirely on what Hodgson’s plan is (see below).
– Downing? I’d rather have taken Joe Cole, who has had a good season playing on the left in France and has tournament experience (or Adam Johnson – presumably this isn’t a first choice pick so we’re looking at an impact player?)
– Forwards, hmm. I was minded not to take Rooney at all, but the reduction of the ban to 2 matches did change that calculation. Yes to Carroll, but Defoe? – the thing is, Hodgson clearly has a plan – and we don’t yet know what that is. For what it’s worth (not much) I’m glad Hodgson is the manager and most of the criticism of him is unmerited. Let’s see where we are after Brazil 2014; he’ll have my backing until then. Unless he sets us out in a 4-4-2.
– Given the squad, my choice for a starting XI in the first match (4-2-3-1): Hart; Cole, Cahill, Lescott, Johnson; Parker, Lampard; Young, Gerrard, Walcott; Carroll. That would be quite a decent side – but if we get to the quarter finals, I think it’ll count as a successful start for the manager.

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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