General Synod; questions and answers.

As some of you may know I am standing as a candidate for the House of Clergy representing the Oxford Diocese.

Candidates were recently forwarded three questions to answer in fewer than 120 words! The questions and my answers are below.

I have tried at all times to be up front, transparent and honest in my answers, as well as in my election address and ‘campaign video’ (both of which can be accessed through the Oxford Diocese website). I have sought to make sure that I am sufficiently candid for the electorate to know precisely what I stand for, and the line that I will take in various debates, if elected.

I have tried to avoid all ambiguity particularly in relation to issues of human sexuality, the nature of ‘Church leadership,’  the importance of the rural church and the democratization of the Church of England as a whole (this is explained in my answer to the third question).

Some will reject my views at the ‘ballot box’, others may vote in support them; that’s the nature of democracy.  But, what I would say is simply this: ‘what you see is what you get.’ 

Question: Given there are such strongly held differing views on the issue of human sexuality in our Church, how do you think the Church of England should approach the issue in the next five years? Reply: 120 word limit applies

The Church of England should approach the issue honestly and robustly recognizing that significant differences exist and, will continue to exist. The Church of England’s leadership must recognize that for many on, all sides of the debate, the moral standing of the Church is ‘at risk.’ The Church of England should respect the theological integrity of all, which it can do by applying the principle of subsidiarity; allowing each priest and congregation to act according to their conscience, free from bullying or coercion. This will mean establishing liturgies for the celebration of life-long, monogamous and faithful same sex unions without obliging any church, or priest, to adopt them.

Question: What role, if any, do you think the Church of England and its partner churches in the Anglican Communion might play in response to the world’s current needs? Reply: 120 word limit applies

The Church’s of the Anglican Communion and the C of E in particular need to play a significant role, if we are serious about the Kingdom of God here ‘on earth as in heaven.’ We can respond in three ways: First, by acts of love and charity, using our financial resources to fund agencies committed to assisting those experiencing a form of living hell. This will provide short-term assistance. Secondly, we must continue to seek longer-term justice by holding governments and supranational agencies to account. We must speak loudly and courageously in the knowledge that our words are validated by our deeds. It feels like a real ‘faith without works,’ moment in the life of the Church.

Do you think the ministry of the Church of England might need to change in the coming years, and, if so, what changes would you support in the selection and training of its lay and ordained leadership? Reply: 120 word limit applies

Whole scale reform is urgently required, including both ‘senior’ and grass roots leadership. The House of Bishops needs to become more representative. We need more bishops with significant rural expertise; we need more bishops from all sorts of ‘minority’ groups. We need bishops from a non stipendiary background. We need to widen the franchise for the election of bishops and we need to consider making bishops fixed term appointments. At the grass roots level we need to, both, promote and authorize lay ministries and increase the number of priests and deacons operating in a geographically defined area, making the training process far less burdensome and more role specific. The ‘appointees’ for grass roots leaders should be the community they serve.


Thoughts on ‘our’ Anglican communion; Justin’s potential genius.

So ++Justin is calling for a meeting of Anglicanisms most senior leaders to discuss the future shape of the ‘Anglican Communion.’ Good on him! It is a conversation that needs to happen. 

When I was training for ordination I was invited each Wednesday afternoon to attend a seminar on ‘Anglican identity.’ I can honestly say that I found it the most depressing two hours of the week!

We never really managed to get to grips with what is the supposed Anglican identity. Is there one? Or do we define it in different and diverse ways? And, what does it mean, in this day and age to say with confidence,clarity of purpose and, integrity of intent that ‘we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church?’

Even on this statement, which supposedly represents our core theology of the Church, we have no substantive agreement.  Some wish to distinguish between apostles and disciples, some believe the terms to be more or less identical. (The guidance note to the ordinal, from the House of Bishops, in relation to the Apostolic Succession, uncomfortably for some, makes it abundantly clear that the Church of England continues to believe in the ‘Apostolic Succession). Some regard ‘catholic and apostolic’ to be two different clauses within the creed, others believe this to be a liberal rewriting of the creed, arguing that the terms can not be separated out.  I tend towards the latter view!

So we already, as a ‘communion,’ have very different understandings over our core articles of belief, expressed through the ‘catholic creeds.’ We just don’t acknowledge it, or like to admit, too often! It’s not polite!

In other areas we either explicitly, or tacitly, permit substantive disagreement. Take the sacraments and, especially the Eucharist for instance:

I would describe myself as a’sacramental conservative.’ I believe that the real presence is somehow, mysteriously, made manifest through participation in the Eucharist, because Jesus told us so, and that the Eucharist should be central to our worship because he said ‘do this!’

Taking communion once a month, guided by a theology that suggests that ‘the Lord’s Supper’ is solely  a commemoration of the last supper is, to my mind, a very liberal interpretation. Yet, many, with integrity, would robustly disagree.

Whilst theoretically sharing a common liturgy or liturgies (in the case of the Church of England the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship) we also differ in the way we incorporate both our beliefs about, for instance, the significance of the Communion of the Saints and the breadth of Church history into the standard liturgy. If you take my ‘home city’ of Oxford for example, some churches will today commemorate Hildergard of Bingen, whilst for other churches her ‘saints day,’ will be a complete non issue.

Perhaps, one feature of Anglicanism is that we are a church in  disagreement. We share a set of common affirmations and  practices (or we are at least supposed to) but we already take the words and practices to mean different things. And, as ++Justin says, because ‘we have no Pope,’ we recognize and live with the reality of this situation. And, many would say that is a good thing; it is already the living embodiment of ‘good disagreement.’

I would also suggest that subconsciously our current arrangements celebrate a significant theological principle: subsidiarity. According to the Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops prior to the General Election subsidiarity is:

‘The principle that decisions should be devolved to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness.’

I would slightly expand the definition by amending the clause ‘decisions should be devolved to the lowest level……’ to ‘decisions and resulting practices should be devolved to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness.’

Who decides on issues of ‘effectiveness’ would then follow as the next logical question. My response, and it is one validated through the Christian leadership tradition (the Rule of Benedict, for instance), would be taken from the definition: ‘the lowest level;’ the parish, or distinctive missionary community.

Subsidiarity can, therefore, be used in two ways:

Firstly, as an epistemological lens to critique reality, including the tendency for groups to claim subsidiarity for themselves irrespective of institutional endorsement.

Christian communities always have, and will always continue to, bring different levels of meaning to a range of common and binding practices. The Anglo Catholic and Evangelical Churches in Oxford, as already indicated, are already the living embodiment of subsidiarity. And, even within these broad groupings there are significant differences!

We can pretend that the differences ‘ the mystical we’ currently accommodate are trifling compared to the ‘big issues,’ but this would surely be a very ‘liberal’ reading of both history and current reality? And, the ‘big issues’ to some extent are only ‘big issues,’ because they are current issues?! And, individual priests and congregations will apply the principle of subsidiarity to these issues in any case. It is already happening and cannot be stopped as Archbishop Justin recognizes.

Subsidiarity in both its negative (we will not….)guise and its positive, (we will……) guise is there for the taking. A wise church leader recognizes this. And, the degree to which subsidiarity will be claimed depends on a number of issues, one of which is the broader socio-political landscape. Theological vacuums simply don’t exist, except in the mind of the most abstract theorists.

Secondly, subsidiarity can be used as a guiding,  binding, future oriented principle. I hope, and think, that this is ++Justin’s hope. If Justin’s plan works he will have pulled off two master strokes of leadership. He will have managed to persuade Anglicanisms’ most senior leaders to recognize reality (and many leaders run a mile from reality) whilst reshaping Anglicanism as an expression of Christianity that celebrates, subsidiarity as an expression of catholicity. And, that really would be a stroke of genius!

Justin’s intention is to re-shape the Anglican Communion. But, could the consequences of his project have far greater implications? I think they might. I think they could just provide a shining example for all denominations who week-by-week declare that we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ Justin’s plan has consequences, for ‘better of for worse,’ way beyond the narrow, and somewhat artificial parameters, of Anglicanism?

Beware the tinker men; thoughts on episcopal leadership.

Last week Philip Johanson wrote a thought provoking article in the Church Times: ‘Top-down tinkering will not serve the Kingdom.’ He is correct; in fact it won’t even serve the Church of England.

Top-down tinkering is of course the natural response to the perceived problems in a system from those who have already benefited from that system.

After all the system can’t be quite that bad, or outdated, when it has promoted the likes of us, can it? Well, yes it can.

I have recently been asked, as part of my candidature for General Synod, what I think are the most important issues facing the Church of England. I highlighted two, one of which was episcopal leadership.

As I have previously argued the Green Report is the epitome of a top down, institutionally sponsored approach, that as Philip Johanson argues, just ends up tinkering around the edges of a system that requires a deeper root and branch review.

What is required if we are serious about leadership is root canal surgery and not a few temporary fillings!

Over the course of the last couple of decades the Church of England has asked ‘who’ is eligible for the episcopacy, with the question being framed in terms of gender and we have, rightly, decided that both male and female alike may be appointed bishop (so can we now drop the adjectives and just use the single word, bishop?)

We now need to consider three further questions:

  • How should bishops be appointed? I believe that there are strong, very strong, reasons to consider widening the franchise.
  • How long should bishops remain in post? I was surprised that some commentators on social media suggested that the recently appointed Bishop of Newcastle was a ‘stop gap’ appointment because, at the age of sixty-four, she was unlikely to serve for more than six or seven years. Shouldn’t six or seven years be the norm? I am not comfortable, for all sorts of reasons, with senior clergy remaining in post for year upon year, upon year. Such long term tenures would not be acceptable in most leadership contexts (FIFA excepted!). And anyway, shouldn’t being a bishop simply be ‘an incident in the life of a priest?’ I believe that the Church of England should consider making episcopal appointments fixed term, say for seven to ten years.  At least we should have the debate.
  • What skills and experiences does the Church of England (as opposed to its’ existing leaders) wish to see represented in the House of Bishops, so that ‘our’ bishops are truly representative of and, best placed to lead the Church of England? Where is the rural voice in the House of Bishops? How many of our bishops have served in peripheral, resource starved contexts, and how many of our bishops have the academic training to get to grips with the substantive issues now facing the Church of England in some of our most contentious debates? In all cases I would answer very few.

These remain three fundamental and unanswered questions. They are unanswered for the straightforward reason that our bishops haven’t asked them, either of themselves, or of the wider church. Why not? Because that might involve a range of radical propositions! It might also involve accepting that they don’t have all the answers.

Far better to tinker!

I think not!

Prophecy versus pragmatism; reflections on the humanitarian crisis

I can’t help feeling that what is required above all else, if there is to be any form of resolution to the humanitarian crisis, in Europe is a prophetic response.

Sure, we need politicians to step up to the plate and, we need imaginative policy responses. But, politicians tend to be more interested in pragmatic responses to problems. Politicians always have one big vested interest; winning the next election. Politicians are not big into self-sacrifice; losing is not part of the political game. Very few politicians would ‘go to the cross,’ for the sake of all.

‘Political Pragmatism’ is the doctrine of doing just enough: just enough to be seen to be doing something, but at the least possible cost, economically and electorally.

The problem is that pragmatism never does enough! Pragmatism doesn’t ever get to the stage of ’emptying itself of all but love.’

Yet, Christians, and I dare say people of other faiths, have no option but to think about, and embrace, the entire human family. And, we also have a mandate to irritate our ‘political masters.’ The prophetic voice constantly challenges its audience – and its audience includes self, less we stand in front of our judge charged with hypocrisy – to move from pragmatism to loving embrace.

The prophetic voice reminds us all that there is a greater judgement that we must all face. The prophetic voice looks beyond the five-year parliamentary term and, into eternity.

Prophets understand the long-term perspective. They also willingly render themselves unpopular. Prophets tend to be losers, they are entirely  unelectable  But, there again they are not too bothered about the ballot box!

Last week, on the 29th August,  the Church ‘celebrated’ the Death of John the Baptist, who before his arrest, for saying unpopular and hard-hitting things (prophetic things), was described as a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness. The Old Testament reading for John the Baptist, is from the prophet Malachi:

I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me says the Lord  (Malachi 3, 5).

This morning I am presiding at a ‘Themed Celebration,’ (a votive), taken from At All Times and in All Places. The theme is The Global Community; One World. The readings are Amos 5, 4 &11-15, Psalm 12, 1-7 and Luke 16, 9 -end. Please do read them in your own time! Let me offer you the collect:

Almighty God, you have entrusted this earth to us, and have called us to be citizens of heaven: grant us such shame and repentance for the disorder, injustice and cruelty which are among us, that fleeing to you for pardon and for grace we may henceforth set ourselves to establish that city which has justice for its foundation and love for its law, whereof you are the architect and maker; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord……….

If the writer of the collect, Simon Jones, is correct two things are clear: we should be shamed by the refugee crisis, because as Christians it is, if not our fault, then at the very least our problem and, secondly we must continue to work for the establishment , ‘here on earth as in heaven,’ of that city which has justice for its foundation and love for its law, for this hope, aspiration and desire is the very core of the ‘prayer our Savior taught us!’ One way we can do so is to maintain pressure on the political elite reminding that it is only the kingdom values of justice and love that ultimately make all things well.