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. 

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