(Something shared with my Deanery colleagues, as part of our conversation about finding a way forward)
This middle section of Thomas Hardy’s De Profundis really speaks to me:
Considerabam ad dexteram, et videbam; et non erat qui cognosceret me (Ps142.4)
When the clouds’ swoln bosoms echo back the shouts of the many and strong
That things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long,
And my eyes have not the vision in them to discern what to these is so clear,
The blot seems straightway in me alone; one better he were not here.
The stout upstanders say, All’s well with us: ruers have nought to rue!
And what the potent say so oft, can it fail to be somewhat true?
Breezily go they, breezily come; their dust smokes around their career,
Till I think I am one horn out of due time, who has no calling here.
Their dawns bring lusty joys, it seems; their eves exultance sweet;
Our times are blessed times, they cry: Life shapes it as is most meet,
And nothing is much the matter; there are many smiles to a tear;
Then what is the matter is I, I say. Why should such an one be here?
Let him to whose ears the low-voiced Best seems stilled by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom, and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here.
Like many others I have long been frustrated with the pervasive sense of unreality that seems to govern decisions made within our church. So many initiatives, so much cheerleading, so much refusal to face what is happening (for an example, see this General Synod paper on ‘resourcing the future’ from 2015, which begins “This is a moment of great opportunity for the Church of England.”)
“… things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long…”
I want to begin our conversation in a different place. I want to ask “What is God doing with the Church of England at the moment?” For what I see is long-term structural collapse, that has been rolling forward for at least fifty years, with roots that extend backwards much further than that. I want to ask ‘what is God doing?’ because if we have no awareness of what God is doing we will not have the capacity to co-operate with what God is doing, and then all our doings are as nothing worth.
Most especially I want to insist of what is happening with the Church of England, the collapse that we are living through, that this is not an accident. I see the hand of God in this. If we thank God for the good why do we evade that with the bad? It’s as if we are comfortable saying thank you to God for good things and blessings that we received, but have somehow lost the capacity to experience God’s hand in the bad things that we experience. The bad things are assigned to rational or secular causes, or considered meaningless – which is an atheist framework. I want to say: the structural collapse of the Church of England is the working out of God’s Wrath, and unless we recover an understanding of what is meant by this language we will not be able to navigate forward.
So I ask: what is the most prominent cause for God’s Wrath when described in Scripture? Surely it is a lack of faith, a failure to worship the living God alone, a falling away from the first commandment which then has consequences for social justice, and, in time, political fallout too (most notably the Exile). We live in a society when it is comparatively easy and acceptable to live out the second commandment. I think we have settled into that comparative ease, and let the first commandment slide.
Before anything else, therefore, I think we need to honestly lament, and cry ‘God have mercy on us’ for our corporate lack of faith, with perhaps a day of fasting and prayer. We need to be able to grieve for what we have lost, and spend time recognising that we have played a part in this collapse due to our lack of faith.
What does our lack of faith look like?
I wonder how many of you saw Justin Welby’s ‘personal statement’ released following the publication of the IICSA report (text available here) I find it remarkable that the response of the institution to criticism is such a perfect example of legal boilerplate, without any reference to Jesus, let alone the theological drama of repentance and forgiveness, redemption and salvation. If the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot offer an authentic Christian witness at a moment like this (and I do not doubt his personal capacity to offer such a witness, this is a critique of the institution, not of him) what hope have the rest of us?
In my view the collapse of the Church has its roots in a lack of faith (that’s what I take from Scriptural precedent) and in our particular case it is a fundamentally doctrinal collapse, specifically, that as an institution we have unconsciously absorbed the secular framework of our surrounding culture. We have, in Scriptural language, gone whoring after foreign gods. The result of this is that we can no longer use spiritual language with confidence, and so we spend our time parading our secular virtues in order to be acceptable to the society in which we live. We are happy to demonstrate our sociologically convenient bona fides – such as giving support to measures designed to combat climate change, or genuflecting in church in solidarity with Black Lives Matter – and yet we have forgotten the rich spiritual language within which the second commandment can only make sense. That is, unless we have a true relationship with the living God we simply will not know what true love of neighbour looks like.
Most damagingly of all, with this collapse of doctrine the framework within which to understand the role of a priest has vanished. Instead of a ministry of Word and Sacrament we have had an evacuation of priesthood in favour of incumbency. I read this in a Sheldon Hub forum last week: “I have only been ordained for 18 years. I wasn’t trained (on a 2 years full time residential course) to be the CEO of a small-to-medium sized enterprise, and one which is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, in part because of its attitude towards matters of human sexuality, & its attitude towards equality. I wasn’t trained in charity management. I wasn’t trained in people management, or H&S, or food safety, or in being a “venue manager”. And simply saying that all of those things are someone else’s responsibility within the church doesn’t take away the fact that as the incumbent, the buck stops on my desk if they are not taken heed of and someone is hurt as a result of ignoring them.”
How then shall we turn again to the Lord, who has torn us and will heal us?
I believe that we have to be utterly ruthless and relentless in narrowing down our focus upon our core task – which is the Great Commandment, to proclaim the gospel and teach people to obey all that Jesus has commanded. As an institution we spend a vast amount on training clergy to be ministers of Word and Sacrament – to teach the faith and administer the spiritual medicine of the gospel – and then we ask them to do so many things other than that.
I am using the language of ‘we’, and clearly talking about ordained ministers. I believe passionately in the ministry of all the faithful, I am, after all, a Vocations officer for the Diocese as well as Assistant DDO, but I see something in the current emphasis on lay ministry as a manifestation of the doctrinal collapse I pointed to earlier. We (corporately, as an institution) don’t have an understanding of spiritual matters any more, and so we think that those set aside for the especial purpose of handling those spiritual matters are replaceable. I want to insist that the truth is precisely the opposite – we need to let priests be priests (not incumbents) – and set them free to manifest their full calling. We need to take spiritual matters seriously again. If we do that, it will in turn liberate the laity to manifest all their gifts, to be the church in the world.
There are other things I want to say here – about learning how to proclaim gospel in today’s society (both content and medium), which I am feeling a particular calling towards, and the need for us to concentrate on the intense discipling of small numbers of people, teaching them how to share transformed life and faith in turn, but this has already gone on for long enough.
I could be excited about these possibilities. I remain utterly convinced of the truth of the gospel as the Church of England has received it, and I also remain a loyal Anglican. I just feel so often like one “horn out of due time, who has no calling here”, whose role is simply to disturb the order as I watch the wheels continue to turn and crush the life out of clergy.
We need to concentrate on feeding the sheep, for if the sheep aren’t fed, they leave or they die – and that, to my mind, describes the history of the last fifty or so years of our Church. My lament is that, because we have corporately and unconsciously imbibed so much atheist thinking, we have forgotten what the food we can offer looks and tastes like, and so we scratch around trying to find more or less acceptable secular substitutes, chasing the latest fads out of fear and desperation, and the more this goes on, the more we fade away.
“…if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst…”
With love and respect to all of you, and looking forward to the continuing conversation,
PS totally gratuitous plug: I have a chapter in this book, being released on Thursday, which expands on some of the themes here