So has Bishop Dakin acted correctly?

Referendum questions are interesting things! One of the peculiarities with referendums (is referendums the plural of referendum?) is that exact specification of the question isn’t established until fairly late in the day; first the issue, and then the question.

In today’s Church Times readers are asked to vote on the following question: ‘Has Bishop Dakin operated correctly?’ (Is this the first time that the actions of a bishop have been turned into a ‘referendum question?’ Am I alone in feeling quite uncomfortable with an online vote from the readership at large, the vast majority of whom have no connection with Winchester Diocese?  Anyway……)

I won’t be voting, partly because I am not sure I understand the question; it is a bit vague, lacking in specification. I am not sure it would pass muster as a referendum question. My problem is that I don’t know what is meant by the term ‘correctly.’

Are voters being asked to assess whether Bishop Tim has acted ‘correctly’ from a techno-legal perspective. Or are readers being asked to decide on whether his actions are ethically sound? Maybe we are being asked to assess his ‘correctness’ in relation to how he exercises his leadership?

Let’s consider a few more issues in relation to the word ‘correct:’

Is ‘correct’ to be regarded as absolute term, or can ‘correctness’ be contextual and relative? If ‘correct’ is an absolute term then would it stand to reason, that any actions by another individual faced with the same, or a similar, situation, yet who came to a different decision were, de facto, ‘incorrect?’

Are ‘correctness’ and consistency overlapping terms? This is certainly what Ian Paul suggests (or at least the CT’s use of quotes from his blog infers).

‘If the action here involves hypocrisy, then the fault lies not with Tim Dakin in Winchester, but with the liberal Nick Holtam in Salisbury.’  Ian, as reported in the C.T., goes on to argue that  ‘for the most part, whatever else their faults (and I would be intrigued to know the nature of ‘their faults’) evangelicals (presumably not all evangelicals for surely evangelicalism is not defined solely in relation to issues in human sexuality?) have been consistent in opposition to same-sex sexual relationships, in speech and action.’  The C.T. reports Ian as suggesting that a varied ‘piecemeal approach,’ was leading to ‘anarchy.’

I am not so convinced that ‘correctness’ and consistency are correlated.  My own view is that it is entirely reasonable to argue that both +Tim and +Nick have ‘acted correctly.’  Hear me out!

Bishop Richard Inwood, under examination, conceded during the employment tribunal brought by Jeremy Pemberton that he had discretion to either grant, or not grant, a license to Jeremy Pemberton. He chose not to and the appeal confirmed that he was acting entirely within his rights.

Equally Bishop Tim is acting within his rights, and so is Bishop Nick, in their decisions to either grant, or refuse to grant, Permission to Officiate to Canon Jeremy Davies.

Looked at through the techno-legal lens ‘correct’ is not a binary issue. One bishops ‘correctness’ does not equate to another bishops ‘incorrectness.’ The fact that bishops have discretion also means that ‘correctness’ is not contingent on consistency.

Whether +Tim (and +Nick) are ‘correct’ from an ethical point of view also depends……it depends on the ethical decision making process. Both Bishops would presumably argue that they employ a theologically  robust methodology, both would also, again presumably, take issue with the other’s approach.

Finally I would suggest that whether +Tim and +Nick are ‘correct’ depends on your view of (episcopal) leadership.

If the ‘job’ of a bishop is to lead a diocese where a varied an ‘piecemeal approach’ is to be avoided at all costs, lest it leads to ‘anarchy’ and, where the individual views of a particular bishop are of paramount importance then of course Bishop Tim is ‘correct.’

If, by contrast, leadership is diffused, the vast majority of decisions are taken at the lowest effective point, and the theological convictions of the bishop on a range of ‘second order’ issues are just one voice among many, then Bishop Tim is incorrect, and Bishop Nick is ‘correct.’

The principle of devolving decision making to the lowest effective point (subsidiarity) is one the Bishops called for in their pre-election pastoral letter:  ‘Who is my Neighbour.’

The Bishops, in their analysis of the socio-political landscape, stressed that society is a ‘community of communities.’

Shouldn’t a diocese also be regarded a community of different communities, bound in unity through each community’s affirmation of the creed and, participation in the sacraments?

So is +Tim correct? I would answer both yes and no.

Yes, he has acted correctly from a techo-legal perspective (but so has +Nick). Is he ‘correct’ from an ethical perspective? Well, that depends on how you ‘do’ your Christian ethics. Is he ‘correct’ in his style of leadership? Again this depends on your model of leadership and  acceptance of the principle of subsidiarity.

Perhaps one persons ‘anarchy’ is another persons ‘subsidiarity?’ 













Bishops: ‘focus of unity’ or ‘agent of reconciliation?’

Those charged with short listing potential bishops have recently stressed that the bishop must be a ‘focus of unity.’ So far so good. But the trouble is that this is a bit of a motherhood and apple pie term.

It sounds good, but…….but is it a bit, on face value, lacking in real and substantive content?

In Oxford Diocese we are currently without a diocesan bishop – possibly because different factions on the selection panel have different views as to the type of  character that would constitute a ‘focus of unity’  – who knows. But, I suspect that many of those involved in the wider consultation process would have stressed the absolute importance of appointing an individual who can truly unite the diocese. As if…..

Now I hope that we do get to a position of unity in both my diocese and in the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ but the more substantive question is surely ‘how do we get there?’ Is it really a question of asking all potential bishops to keep their mouths shut over the one issue that might divide the church (human sexuality), as stressed by the C.N.C.?

I don’t think it can be, because bishops are currently being forced to respond to ‘issues of human sexuality,’ in using their discretionary powers when it comes to granting licenses or the permission to officiate. The granting, and not granting, of licenses and the giving, or not giving of permissions, speaks every bit as loudly than words uttered and, pens pushed.

Unity, I suggest, is not a virtue in its own right but an outcome; after all Jesus prayed that his disciples ‘may be one.’ It is the process that leads to unity that we need to be more concerned about, rather than some form of manufactured, institutionally defined notion of unity.’

If we are serious about achieving an ultimate state of unity what is required in the here and now is bishops who are ‘agents of reconciliation.’ Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, on his Facebook page, has written:

‘Reconciliation is about our relationship with God and each other. It’s people, communities, nations learning to live together with deeply held differences in a spirit of love and respect. It’s working for justice and seeking truth in the light of God’s mercy and peace. It’s the very heart of the gospel.’

Could ++Justin’s description of reconciliation be a job description for our most senior clerics? I for one think so, and that is why I think that above all else a bishop needs to be an agent of reconciliation. Let’s suspend all talk of unity and instead focus on reconciliation (and subsidiarity).

Reconciliation is a hugely powerful process ethic. It talks not just to outcomes but also to behavior. To be an agent of reconciliation necessitates character.

Agents of reconciliation are entitled to express their own (strongly held) views and convictions; it is the manner in which they express them and their attitudes to those who hold different views that matters more. Agents of reconciliation don’t seek a one size fits all solution. No instead they recognize that ‘it’s people, communities, nations (congregations, dioceses, provinces, denominations) learning to live together with deeply held differences in a spirit of love and respect.’ 

Finally agents of reconciliation make ‘ultimate unity’ possible because they know that reconciliation – as an articulation and celebration of deeply held differences and interpretations of truth  – is animated through a commitment to subsidiarity, the ethic through which folk ‘live together with deeply held differences in a spirit of love and respect.’ 

The trouble with subsidiarity is that it demands a different, less institutionalized, approach to leadership, it asks senior leaders to think very carefully about power and authority vested in them through their office, whilst also asking them to accept that many under their ‘jurisdiction’ may not be convinced by their own strongly held convictions and,  for many senior leaders, these are significant challenges.

But my own hunch is that finding ‘agents of reconciliation’ and ‘advocates for subsidiarity’ is the Church of England’s most important leadership task.


Some issues with Butler-Sloss

Before I stand accused of being protectionist or parochial, after all I am a Parish Priest, let me say that there bits of the Dame Elizabeth’s report that I agree with.

I would, for example, accept the fact that church going has fallen over recent decades (although this not true for all churches in all contexts – the report does have a certain urban, metropolitan ‘Islingtonesque’ feel about it).

I would also be quite happy to accept that the number of Church of England bishops (sorry episcopal colleagues) sitting in the House of Lords should be reduced and, that senior representatives of other faiths should be appointed to the upper house.

I think it is vital that the Muslim faith, in particular,  is both institutionally represented and provided with a place at the ‘top table.’

We all need Muslim leaders who will challenge members of the Muslim faith to practice their religion in accordance with the highest and noblest of religious values whilst, educating non Muslims on the ethical foundations of Islam and, prophetically calling us, ‘non Muslims’ to exercise true hospitality and, integration.

I am, however, very unhappy with this reports use of numbers, or statistics, as grounds for a radical reshaping of public life.

We are told that 50% (approximately) of respondents do not describe themselves as religious. This seems to lead to the conclusion that they can therefore be described as ‘secular.’  This is all a little bit binary!

Is ‘secular’ really the opposite of ‘religious?’ Would some of the 50% who are ‘non religious’ prefer to self-describe as ‘spiritual but not religious,’for example?  I don’t know, but I am wary of the conclusions reached and, the implications drawn.

Staying with the numbers, apparently ‘only’ one in six people self-define as Anglican. I would argue that one in six is a positive,  sizable, and statistically significant, number!

In fact I could suggest that if 50% of folk are still happy to affirm a belief in a deity made tangible through religious affiliation and, 18% consider themselves Anglican then, despite the fall in numbers regularly worshiping in a formally constructed gathering, this country remains characterized by religious sensibility (either innate or explicit) and, Anglican identity.

One final point on the numbers: participation in religious attendance remains the most popular form of active voluntary activity in the land.  So just how ‘secular’ are we really? Not very I suggest.

We also need to think very carefully about the consequences of locating religious dialogue and practice at the margins of society, even if (doubtful) this can be done through a combination of political and social policy. And here I am going to be protective and parochial.

If religion is to be located at the margins of society then the consequence will be extremism. I strongly agree with Rachel Sylvester writing in today’s Times:

Downplaying religion overall is foolish and wrong. In France state imposed secularism has cleared failed. Not only have the terrorist recruiters taken advantage of dispossessed Muslim young people but Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National has exploited anger among the white working class as well. This is not a nation at ease with itself. It is not faith that is the problem but extremism………..religion should be reclaimed from the extremists and integrated into the mainstream, rather than forced into the shadows, where hardliners can flourish unobserved.’ 

The world desperately requires an increase in ‘good religion’ and a simultaneous decrease in ‘bad religion;’ this cannot happen if policy makers seek to sideline or marginalize all religious discourse. The report fails to understand this most basic of facts.

I suggest that Rachel Sylvester has a far greater (innate) understanding of the form of wisdom advocated by the prophet Jeremiah in his discourse on ‘public theology’ (chapter 29, for instance) than Dame Butler-Sloss and her co-authors.

Sylvester, like Jeremiah, understands that healthy religion is supportive of pluralism and diversity. Radical secularism, by contrast, because of its critique of religion stands opposed to diversity and pluralism; this is the irony in the secularist agenda.

One final problem: The report is very top down (and metropolitan) biased, and whilst this has strengths -the recommendation that Islam needs far greater institutional recognition for instance –  it also runs the risk of being overly abstract.

My own experience as a Parish Priest allows me to suggest that ‘religion’ will not allow itself to be pushed to the margins as the result of a concerted socio-political strategy.

Let me illustrate: this week I will be officiating at two funerals, and next Saturday at a wedding,a  fairly normal pattern. The families who I will be supporting at major junctures in their lives are not regular church goers. Under the Butler-Sloss scheme they are therefore, presumably, ‘secular.’ yet, every time I meet a ‘secular’ family preparing for a funeral, or a couple planning their wedding I ask them ‘why do you want a religious wedding / funeral’ and, I always get an answer which is ‘innately theological.’

One final illustration: A few months ago a teenager at one of our ‘secular’ schools tragically died in a car accident. I visited the school and offered the church building as a place where the school community could gather to remember the deceased student. I offered the building free of  commitment to any form of religious activity. I was keenly aware that the school is not a faith school.

The school subsequently asked me to lead the gathering (they seemed to possess some interesting insights into the theology of ministerial priesthood)  which they felt should include, hymns, a bible reading, a short talk and prayers. We also heard a poem, some music by Passenger and a few short tributes.

The act of remembrance designed by the school looked remarkably similar to the Common Worship outline of a Memorial Service. The school community, at a time of need, wanted religion to play a prominent part in helping them come to terms with an awful situation. The community had an innate sense of the value of religion. And, as a parish priest, I would argue that so do many people, irrespective of whether they formally self-describe as religious, and this is something that the Butler-Sloss report doesn’t recognize.

So there you have it; my issues with the Butler-Sloss report. The consequences of the report’s recommendations may well be extremism, rather than pluralism and secularism, and, whatever conclusions are drawn from the numbers, history and experience suggest that religion will always find its way back into the heart of life, for this is where it belongs.

That it does so is due to the fact that many people have an innate sense of religion, to be drawn from in times of need and crisis, and I doubt whether the report’s methodology was able to capture this.

If the innate is to be recognized and drawn out it, of course, requires that religion remains, explicitly, in the public square, as I say, where it rightfully belongs, not simply for its own sake, but for the benefit of all.







On why I love the rural church

I love the rural church. Yes I love the the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ in its entirety (or at least I aspire to do so!) after all, as Pope Francis has recently written, those who share in the sacraments of the Church must have a ‘passionate love for the Church,’ but the rural church will always have a special place in my heart?


Because I came to faith in the rural church and have been, largely, formed in the rural church.

I was baptized, as an adult in a small village church, I was married in an even smaller village church, I have served as a Church Warden in a village church, I felt God’s call to ordination in a village church and I have served my curacy in a rural deanery.

My children were baptized in village churches and, all of our family funerals have taken place in…………yes, village churches. The rural church has simply always been there for us, the Lightbown family. And for that I am grateful.

For sure the rural church faces significant challenges. It is possibly every parish priests worst nightmare to walk into a medieval building to find out that cracks have suddenly appeared in the chancel, or what used to pass for a heating system has just packed in for good and that a vast amount of money needs to be raised from an already generous congregation to generate yet more funds.

And, of course the rural church is resource poor in other ways, often, for example, being highly dependent on just one organist, pianist or guitarist to provide a musical lead in worship.

But, the miracle of the rural church is that it has, despite limited financial, liturgical and musical resources impacted so many people over the centuries. It will continue to do so.

The rural church knows what it means to offer its meager resources to God for his blessing. Isn’t there a famous Gospel Story that describes what can be achieved when a few small scraps are offered to Jesus for his use?

Yet despite its success the rural church is frequently regarded as the Church of England’s ‘problem-child.’ In fact it is regarded both as a problem, to be fixed, and as a child that needs to grow up. But it is neither a problem or a child.

I would go further and encourage the leadership of the church to regard the rural church as leading the way in what it means to be church in the 21st century. Let’s look at some of the enduring strengths of the rural church, starting with mission.

The Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles suggested six ‘models of the church’: church as institution, community, herald, school of discipleship, sacrament and, servant. I suggest that the rural church scores particularly highly as community and servant. The protestant writer Tim Keller also stresses the importance of church as servant-in-community.

The sense of community and the ability to act as a servant is, in large part, developed through its commitment to deepening the faith of its members (school of discipleship) and its sacramental life. The rural church thrives because of its commitment to worship. In many communities a great deal of flexibility and imagination is required to ensure that meaningful worship takes place on a frequent basis.

The rural church can be an effective and visible community because it is deeply embedded in the ‘secular parish.’ Those who worship in village churches tend to live in those self same villages! Strange I know, but true! If you live and worship in a rural, or village church, your commitment to your faith, and the manner in which you practice your faith are highly visible.

The prophet Jeremiah (29, 7) instructed the Jews in exile to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the place to which I have carried you…..pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper.’ I suspect that the majority of rural parishioners (and clergy) are deeply committed to the peace and prosperity of the villages in which they live. Let us not belittle such prayerful commitment. And, lets not pretend that the wider community don’t know that they are cared for and prayed for by the church, because they do. In fact they frequently ask for the support of the church in times of crisis.

Finally, I would like to make a special plea for the church building. I do get irritated when the ‘urbanites’ suggest a mass closing down of rural churches. Please don’t think that I am wishing away the problems of buildings that are ludicrously expensive to maintain in small communities – I’m not – but I would want to suggest that the building is a ‘living icon,’ pointing beyond itself.

The building often tells the story of the community, its past and its present. The Church building is also, frequently, the only public space left in the community. It is a building which exists for all and may be used by all.

I never cease to be surprised by the ‘causal footfall’ that enters our rural churches; ordinary people seeking a moment or two of peace, or looking to experience a sense of transcendence, or perhaps even to meet with God.

Selling off churches would eradicate stories, deprive folk of the chance of meeting God and, place everything in private hands and subject to the vagaries of the market. Surely this should be avoided?

So there you have it, my rationale for ‘loving’ the rural church and regarding it as leading the way in mission:

The rural church is an embedded, visible, imaginative, flexible, worshiping servant-in-community. 

I love it!