The day I found myself in agreement with Jeb Bush! Up to a point!

Yesterday something truly strange happened; I found myself agreeing with Jeb Bush!

Now, hold your fire! I agreed with one small utterance only:

‘I believe in traditional marriage.’

I too believe in traditional marriage because I have for the last 24 years lived in one, inhabited one, experienced one. In fact the 29th June, St. Peter and Paul’s day, is my wedding anniversary. Next year I will have been married for half of my life. Yes, I believe in marriage; traditional marriage.

And, my belief is based on the joy of living through good times and difficult times, in times of relative security and insecurity, in a monogamous, faithful and covenant relationship with someone I love, deeply.

Mysteriously, majestically, materially, spiritually, marriage makes me far more that the sum of my individual parts. It seems as though the Preface to the C of E’s marriage liturgy provides a really good description of what marriage, traditionally, is all about!

But, this is where I disagree with Jeb, and all who use the word tradition as a restrictive and prohibitive linguistic trick. For unlike Jeb I think ‘good’ traditions live, breathe and expand. They do so as the Spirit leads us into ever deeper truths, as light is shed into darkness.

Yesterday in the U.S. the decision was made to legalise Same Sex Marriage (how I long for the day when we can all just talk about marriage without  binary, gender specific, adjectives). President Obama suggested that America had become a little bit more perfect.

But, I suspect that Obama, like countless others, realises that one of the truly amazing things about human beings, perhaps the most amazing thing, is that we are capable of making, and keeping to, life-long  monogamous and faithful relationships based on that most wonderful of all virtues: love.

The great thing is that Obama hasn’t had to rely on speculation, or intuition, to arrive at his conclusion. Like Jeb Bush he has been presented with some pretty conclusive evidence, derived from a longitudinal study of the tradition or institution.

He – Obama –  perhaps also recognises the importance of liturgical rites as signs of God’s covenant love? ‘No rights and responsibilities,without rites.’ I just hope that the Church of England also comes to the same conclusion. I strongly believe that we need to re-discover the dynamic relationship between rites, rights, and responsibilities. Marriage keeps me responsible!

So let’s ask what is it that marriage truly celebrates? If it is truly about love, fidelity, monogamy, faith (in each other and, for some people, in God), stability, reciprocity and productivity (in the wider sense of the term), then we should build on the tradition. Shouldn’t we?

Building on the tradition does not erode the tradition, instead it makes it stronger. In marriage we should surely celebrate virtue and not binary, gender specific, distinctions? That’s what I have come to believe. So like Jeb Bush I too believe in ‘traditional marriage.’

Now I must go and buy my wife a card and an anniversary present (or two)!


A la Carte Christianity (in the C of E)

Last week the communications team at ‘head office’ rushed out the statement below in response to events taking place in Nottingham. I am not talking about England’s record run chase against New Zealand but, the employment tribunal taking place just down the road from Trent Bridge brought by Canon Jeremy Pemberton.

“The Church of England supports gay men and women who serve as clergy in its parishes, dioceses and institutions. Jeremy Pemberton is one of many who currently serve and receive that support. The Church has no truck with homophobia and supports clergy who are in civil partnerships.

The Church of England’s doctrine on marriage is clear. The Church quite reasonably expects its clergy to honour their commitment to model and live up to the teachings of the Church. Clergy do not have the option of treating the teachings of the church as an a la carte menu and only modelling those with which they personally agree.

The Church is currently involved in a process of shared conversations about a range of issues on sexuality in regions across the country. It is regrettable that this case risks undermining that process by invoking legislation which does not even apply to this situation.”

Now it seems to me that there are several problems with this statement:

The statement is highly defensive; played off the back foot, as it were. The extent to which gay clergy (and other gay members of the church) are fully supported is debatable.  If the ‘Pemberton case’ does ‘not even apply,’ then why imply that it might? If (and it remains an if) the Acting Bishop did act outside the law isn’t this something that needs clearing up? Shouldn’t the church be more concerned with truth than protocol, light rather than darkness? Is it a bit naive (or even arrogant) to think that internal Church of England conversations can take place in a vacuum and that everyone else should place their lives on hold whilst these take place? Where would justice fit into such a scheme?

But, perhaps the most problematic part of the statement is this:

”Clergy do not have the option of treating the teachings of the church as an a la carte menu and only modelling those with which they personally agree.”

Now this statement, theoretically, applies only to ‘issues of human sexuality.’

However, is it also indicative of an outmoded model of leadership thinking; a model which is overtly and excessively top down orientated? I think it may be and, as many will know I suspect that the Church of England has got its approach to leadership and leadership development badly wrong.

But, if we generalise away from ‘issues in human sexuality,’ and apply the quote to other areas of doctrine it is clearly wide of the mark.

Churches do offer distinctive and alternative teaching on a wide range of doctrinal issues. We really do offer an a la carte menu; at least we do when we get to the second course. Furthermore this has been generally accepted as a good and ‘wholesome’ feature of Church of England ecclesiology.

The reason that the Church of England has been able to offer a choice of second courses is that we share a common, non negotiable, starter; the Catholic Creeds.

The Catholic Creeds (Nicene, Apostolic etc) bind us to the wider Church and, then allow us to offer a range of distinctive alternatives, within the broad framework of services authorised by canon (I suspect that some of those most up in arms about the Pemberton case, often go completely off menu when it comes to worship – but that’s a different story).

The Church of England has developed a sophisticated approach to doctrine obliging individual Churches to first share our affirmation of faith and, then to express other, deutero or secondary, doctrines locally and in context. It is because we have this approach that we are able to critique history and make adjustments as we are led into new truths (of course, it goes without saying, one person’s truth will always be another’s heresy!)

Now it is clear that there is always a tension because some believe that choice at the doctrinal level, even when choice is restricted to the ‘second course,’ is unwholesome. The menu isn’t completely set, and for many the distinction between the first and second courses isn’t completely clear. But for many it is and it is the distinction that facilitates ‘progression.’

And, if you want proof that we truly are an a la carte church just pop down to Oxford on an average Sunday morning. You will encounter Priests in chasubles and pastors in chinos, you can speak in tongues or sing Ave Maria’s, you can attend the Mass, Eucharist, Communion or Lord’s Supper.

And the point is that all of these different expressions of worship are indicative of a wide range of beliefs and doctrines about matters of real and significant difference.

And, if you doubt the historic seriousness of these differences the Martyr’s Memorial on St. Giles might help put things into some form of perspective, because those who died at the stake were concerned with the extent to which the Church of England should be an a la carte church.

The Church of England is an a la carte church and, should remain so.  At least that’s what I reckon and I think it will, inevitably, happen with regard to same sex marriage. 

All Change Please:

Well this week two church leaders confirmed a change of view on the most contentious issues of debate in the Church: female headship and same sex marriage.

The Bishop of Horsham had for many years held the view that priestly and episcopal ministry was the preserve of the male of the species. I think it is fair to say that +Mark Sowerby’s decision came as something of a surprise to many.

Tony Campolo’s declaration that he now thinks it is right for gay and lesbian Christians to be afforded full and equal status in the Church is, apparently, less of a surprise.

For both men the decision they have come to has followed a long and difficult period of prayer and reflection. Christianity Today’s article on Campolo’s affirmation puts it as follows:

”He explains it has taken hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to get to the point where he is ready to change his mind and finally call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.”

Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, has written charitably of his colleague:

“Bishop Mark’s shift in theological outlook on the ordination of women priests and bishops is a costly one. All who know and respect him will understand the serious struggle with conscience that will have led to his decision. We respect his honesty and applaud his courage. For some of those he serves it will be a development that they cannot follow, and that will be painful. For others, this news will be greeted with relief and considerable rejoicing.”

From these two quotes we can see that both men have sought, with serious intent, to discern God’s will. We are told by those who know them well that the process has been a struggle involving significant personal turmoil and, that both men know that others will feel let down by their decision. The Church it appears remains somewhat tribal!

So following this weeks ‘church notices’ are there any lessons we can learn, and, apply in the context of ‘good disagreement?’ I think there are!

  • For liberals (and I would count myself as a liberal) beware of name calling! It just can’t be the case that +Mark and Dr. Campolo were fundamentalists and bigots last week, but this week they are fully redeemed members of the authentic Christian community, can it?
  • For conservatives ditto: be aware of name calling! It is surely implausible to suggest that last week Mark and Tony were orthodox and traditional Christians but that over the weekend they became progressives and revisionists, can it?
  • For all of us, liberal and conservative alike. Respect the journey and the fact that we possibly don’t know everything about the spiritual turmoil going on in each others lives. Also, lets recognise and accept that the Church is tribal, brutally so at times, and that changes in theological outlook demand humility and courage. I think that there is a great deal to learn from the Bishop of Chichester’s response, because Martin Warner continues to believe that it is only men who are called to exercise priestly and episcopal ministry (as far as I know) and, yet his instinct is to offer the hand of friendship.
  • We also need to understand that discernment can be a long-term process and, this is uncomfortable for those of us who are in a hurry. It is uncomfortable for those of us who want change and want it now, it is equally uncomfortable for those wishing for a guarantee that liturgical rites will never be developed for same sex couples. So we might as well accept our ‘common discomfort,’ but……………(I will get back to my but and it is a big but!

I used to think that ‘good disagreement,’ and ‘facilitated conversions’ were a bit of a waste of time because, ultimately, whatever ‘head office,’ decides priests who wish to affirm same sex relationships will just go ahead and do it and, those who don’t, won’t.

Now I still think that should the Church spend too much time ‘procrastinating’ some priests will either start, or in some cases continue to conduct, same sex liturgies creatively designed to fall short of Holy Matrimony, or even an official blessing, yet looking remarkably similar. And, the bishops will be impotent to do anything about it, even if they want to. This is something that the Bishops need to grasp.

My other issue with good disagreement, and others have also shared this perspective, is that nobody knows what it means. However, is this, paradoxically, part of its genius?. Could it be that good disagreement is something we stumble into, rather than arrive at? Is there a danger that in seeking to define good disagreement too precisely we run the risk of ensuring failure? Maybe.

Could it be that the real, unplanned genius in the process, is to provide time for reflection not for those committed to a given course of action (or inaction) but to those still going through hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil? 

Is it just possible that the real actors are not those involved in Church sponsored conversations but the countess others seeking to discern God’s will from the margins? Again, maybe. And could it be that we, the Church, need to give the Marks and Tonys of this world just a little bit more time for a serious struggle with conscience? 

But……… let me get back to my but:

I don’t think that a process which only facilitates an exchange of views but which doesn’t provide alternative ways of doing or being church can ever be regarded as good disagreement.  Ultimately good disagreement must involve the possibility of different forms of non binding practice. Can such models be developed, where the issue is so contentious? I think so and, the New Testament provides a wonderful example in Romans 14.

The issue up for discussion was not, of course, same sex relationships (although fornication is mentioned) but whether gentiles should be forced to accept Jewish ‘food standards,’ and this was a contentious humdinger of an issue which we mustn’t trivialise.

Echoing the decisions made at the Council of Jerusalem, St. Paul permits alternative (and competing) theologies writing ‘let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block in the way of another. I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean of itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean,’ (verses 13 &14).  The early Church managed to respect the integrity of different positions, allowing for different forms of practice. Ultimately,so should we.

I hope that we will stumble into good disagreement, for I suspect that ultimately the only real choice is to march stridently into bad and militant disagreement.

Charles Kennedy: inspired by the prophet Amos?

As I watched the tributes to Charles Kennedy in the House of Commons I was surprised – perhaps I shouldn’t have been – by the number of politicians who framed their reflections in Christian language. We could of course be cynical and accuse the political class of resorting to religious language to suit the occasion, but I don’t think this is necessary.

Several referred to Mr. Kennedy’s own ‘well of faith,’ and it was good to know that he was a frequent attendee at mid-week Eucharists in the Undercroft. I enjoyed Stephen Pound’s quip that he and Charles used to sit somewhere near the back just in case there was a collection!

A significant number of politicians,from all sides of the house, finished their refrain with ‘rest in peace,’ or ‘let light perpetual,’ style doxologies. I was left with the impression that Charles Kennedy regarded politics as a vocation and not just a job. Some of my faith, if not in politics,then at least in individual politicians has been restored.

All of the speakers presented a realistic picture of the erstwhile liberal leader. Charles Kennedy was obviously deeply principled and understood at a very deep level what it means to be a liberal and at the heart of his liberalism could be found a deep and unwavering commitment to social, political, international and, yes I would argue, religious justice. He cared for the disadvantaged and was keen to take what he saw as the right course of action, whatever the cost. Right, it seems, for Charles Kennedy was more akin to righteousness rather than political expediency; his stand against the war on Iraq being the most obvious example.

To borrow a line from Harry Pearce in ‘Spooks The Greater Good,’ ‘you can do well or you can do good,’ and oft-times there really is a choice; do well, get promoted and then do the expedient thing, or take a stand, try to do the good thing and, risk ridicule and failure.

Perhaps Charles Kennedy knew, and had taken to heart, the words of the prophet Amos, a prophet who championed doing theology in the public square?

‘Seek good not evil that you may live,’ (Amos 5, 14).

And maybe, in an era besotted with image and ‘success’ we Christians need to re-appropriate the words of the prophet: ‘Seek good not evil that you may live.’

But the politicians also, and rightly, painted a picture of a complicated and paradoxical character: talented yet tormented,(frequently) seemingly at ease yet suffering from a real sense of disease. And surely this is true of so many of us? We are a mixed bag of hopes, talents, convictions and neuroses. Sadly, sometimes the neuroses and disease seem to win.

But do they? Do they in the end? Well several of our politicians expressed the sure and certain hope that Mr. Kennedy will be resting in peace as a pre-cursor to rising in glory. For once I will bow both to their wisdom and to the words of Amos: ‘seek good not evil that you may live.’

Charles Kennedy was a conviction politician and it was his earthly misfortune to pursue his trade (or vocation) in an era where expediency and electability seemed to win out at the expense of virtue; where doing well could be regarded as trumping doing good.

In all our institutions we need to relearn the importance of doing good, and we need to relearn, as followers, that virtue is the real game changer. But will we? Our track record isn’t great, perhaps because our mental models have been corrupted? We like our leaders to look suave and pragmatic. But isn’t this just a little bit shallow? Shouldn’t we take off our rubber rings and learn to swim in the deep end?

As I read David Aaronovitch’s article on Labour’s search for a new ‘leader’ in today’s Times I couldn’t help feeling deeply despondent:

‘First the cart and then, miles behind, the poor old horse. First you elect a new leader and then you decide what they should stand for. Well it’s not what you should do in a well-ordered world, but this is British politics.’

We must make sure in all our institutions – political ones, economic ones, and yes religious ones – that we dismiss the caricature of effective leadership and instead look for people of integrity and courage. People determined to do the right thing, people who couldn’t care less about expediency (or even looks) ,and we must accept that ‘good’ leaders, just like the rest of us, are deeply flawed!

Charles Kennedy ‘rest in peace, and rise in glory,’ Amen.

Gender, Jesus and Identity; some ‘what ifs….’

I hope that I am not about to be labelled a heretic by both sides of the debate about the gender specific words we use to describe God!

I don’t object to, in fact I would welcome, more feminine ways of describing God. If I am honest I often subconsciously seek to minimise gender specifics. I might introduce intercessions with a phrase like ‘gracious God,’ as opposed to ‘loving Father.’ But as I have been reflecting over the last two days other concerns have come to mind.

My most serious concern is the mental image ‘we’ carry of God and, especially of Jesus. Now it seems to me an inescapable fact that Jesus was, biologically, a man. To believe otherwise would be to buy into one heck of a conspiracy theory!  So for me the bigger issue is what sort of man was Jesus?

Who is the Jesus that I am commanded to love? Who is the Jesus whose love I am asked to accept?

Jesus always asks questions of me and perhaps the most fundamental is this: ‘who do you say that I am?’

And, maybe in asking this Jesus wants us to go beyond words and phrases such as ‘Son of God’, ‘Son of Man,’ ‘The Son,’ and straight to the words Immanuel and Messiah; or ‘God with us,’ and ‘anointed one.’

These words are in one sense wonderfully nondescript. They invite us to enter, without pride less we become entrapped, straight into the ‘imagination of our hearts,’ to create an image of the type of person we are prepared to love, unconditionally, and be loved by; again unconditionally.

The temptation of course is to construct an image, no idol, of the kind of person we could like to love and be loved by. The problem gets worse for in creating our very own Immanuel we also, uninvited, construct God’s Messiah.

For many years the kind of Jesus I wanted to worship was pretty alpha (male). My Jesus was a kind of first century Captain America. And then life got difficult and the image let me down and, it dawned on me that I needed to discover the real and authentic Jesus. And so onto my ‘what ifs:’

What if Jesus rather than being Captain America was a tad effeminate? What if he had a speech impediment? What if he had two left feet, mobility problems, and was really, really bad at sport? What if he had learning difficulties? What if he had terrible eye sight and atrocious hearing? Or, heaven forbid, personal hygiene issue? What if he was the sort of person who struggled to make ends meet and consequently ended up isolated and imprisoned? What if we take His self-description in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats so seriously that it shatters every conception we might want to have of Jesus? What if bizarrely, paradoxically, ‘our fallen on hard times Jesus,’ was still the epitome of love, wisdom and sacrifice; the most unlikely personification of salvation?

And if we end up with a less than picture perfect image of Jesus we have five final, unresolved, questions to answer:

  • Could I love such a saviour ?
  • Would I permit a seriously fallen, non perfect, but all loving saviour to love me?
  • How would I feel about God (the Father) anointing as the chosen one someone who might look like the very epitome of weakness, failure and even fallen humanity.
  • Could it just be that a weak, effeminate, disabled,isolated, imprisoned, smelly and intellectually challenged Jesus might look pretty attractive to those desperate for a Jesus they can truly relate to? 
  • What breadth of ‘Christian company’ do we keep?