On avoiding sound-bite theology

‘What do you think about the situation up in Sheffield then Father?’

A funny question to be asked at the petrol pump at Cherwell Edge Services!

My questioner was a late middle-aged man.  I replied with some caution: ‘well, ultimately it is up to the Sheffield Diocese working alongside the Crown Nominations Committee.’ My inquisitor looked at me blankly. It became clear as we talked for just a few minutes that he was a church goer but, that he wasn’t really up on church polity. Why should he be? I asked him what he thought and he said that he didn’t really understand what the bishop (Philip North) thought was ‘wrong with women.’ He nodded at me politely and we both went on our way.

Reflecting on our conversation I have been struck by the thought that my friendly inquisitor was asking me a perfectly valid theological question. And it is a question that needs answering; theologically.

Now I am aware of the Five Guiding Principles, the first of which insists the church recognizes that women are truly ordained not just lawfully, & the declaration proposed by the bishops, and accepted by synod in 2014, which states that a diocesan bishop may be someone who either does, or does not, ordain women. However, I do wonder whether there is an inherent and currently unresolved tension between the first principle and, the declaration?

Surely, if A.N. Bishop accepts that someone is really (and not just legally or canonically) able to be ordained then it must follow that A.N. Bishop should be prepared to ordain that person into that (sacramental) reality?

And, if the Diocesan Bishop cannot accept the sacramental validity of his female clergy, surely it follows that he also cannot accept the validity of the Eucharists at which his female clergy preside, and this would appear to this simple soul to be a fairly fundamental problem given that the Eucharist is supposed to be celebrated in each and every parish or benefice every Sunday.  Or am I over complicating things?

I know the declaration says that each diocese must have a bishop who does ordain women to the priesthood but, surely it is the diocesan who is ultimately responsible for the sacramental vitality and reality in his, or her, diocese?

Like my friend at the petrol pump Martyn Percy has been seeking to raise and address some fairly fundamental theological questions. He has made it very clear that he is not attacking Philip North but that he is critiquing a situation and seeking explanation.

Analysis, critique and, the search for explanation through the asking of questions is surely, in part, the theologians stock in trade? So to suggest that the Dean of Christ Church shouldn’t ask the hard questions and, shouldn’t focus on the inherent tensions between say the Five Guiding Principles and the Declaration is a rejection of not just a particular theologian (who is very probably not flavor of the month in the higher echelons of the C of E) but, of theology itself.

I believe that ultimately the decision as to whether Philip North should be the Bishop of Sheffield is a matter for the Sheffield Diocese, working in partnership with the C.N.C.  However, I also believe that the institution should take Martyn’s critique seriously.

The validity of the critique has been rejected by two means:

First, by the institution through the official releases and responses issued ‘post Percy.’ These refer to the Five Guiding Principles (note guiding and principles  not rules, regulations or even answers) and the Declaration and, seem to suggest that these two documents are perfectly, infallibly, formulated, with no internal contradictions or tensions. It is as though are deemed to be beyond critique. Surely if we have learnt one thing over the last few months it is that official reports are never beyond critique (even when ratified or noted by synod)?

Secondly, various bishops and other clergy have issued personal missives suggesting that it has been a pleasure to minister alongside the Bishop of Sheffield designate and that he is deeply committed to the Church of England and her mission. Others have said that he affirms women’s ministry. Many have said that they feel  inspired by Bishop Philip (and I too find him truly inspirational in many ways.)

I have no doubt that these statements, and the feelings that they invoke, are true in the sense that they are personal reflections based on experience. But, they are not theological responses and explanations. They don’t answer the questions raised. For instance they don’t address what affirmation means separate from ordination. Surely the laying on of hands by a diocesan bishop at ordination is the most visible and tangible manifestation of affirmation and, welcome? It is a very visible sign of commitment to a mutually shared and sacramental ministry. What can fully affirming mean separate from ordination? This is a question that needs clarifying and answering, by the bishops.

The Bishops, I think, need to be very careful to  avoid any tendency to act in a patriarchal fashion by suggesting that Philip North should be a diocesan bishop because he is one of us; admired by us, liked by us and, respected by us.

Knowing him, believing in him, liking him, respecting and being inspired by him (not least for his repeated call that the church must always stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalized & his pastoral work), are necessary but, in and of themselves, insufficient reasons for justifying his, or indeed anyone’s, episcopacy. Episcopacy needs its theology.

Finally I think that the Church of England needs to be very careful in making sure that it doesn’t do theology by sound-bite.

Phrases like ‘mutual flourishing,’ and ‘radical new inclusivity,’ will end up going the same way as ‘changes in tone and culture,’ unless they are underpinned by real theological substance. The search for theological substance is the remit of the theologian. Phrases like mutual flourishing’ and ‘radical new inclusivity,’ need real (and very possibly bounded) theological content, otherwise they will become either politicized and transactional or, hollow and, vacuous. The way to avoid such terms becoming platitudes is to ask challenging  questions and demand rigor in response.

I think it was the Lutheran bishop-theologian Anders Nygren who suggested that  real and living motifs should be characterized by their internal characteristics and, external manifestations. If ‘mutual flourishing’ (and radical new inclusivity) are to be guiding motifs the church needs to work very hard on establishing the content of these terms. In a nutshell what Martyn is asking: ‘what is the content?’ Without content all that is left is the politicized and emotive rhetoric of the sound-bite.

The Church of England needs her theologians to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions and it needs her bishops to give thought through and considered responses.

Watershed moments

A few days have now passed since synod voted not to ‘take note,’ of the bishop’s report on marriage and sexuality. It was, as we know, a close run thing, with the House of Clergy, ‘wot done it.’ It seems as though, for the most part, the debate was lively  yet courteous and the response, in the form of a pastoral letter from ++Justin and John addressed to the bishops but published for all to see, was positive, encouraging and, gracious.

In the debate (and in earlier sessions) it was made clear that for some a red line had been crossed; a watershed moment had arrived. It appears, from the safety of my armchair view, that this is indeed the case. There are a number (I don’t know how many) on both sides of the debate who are in all probability ready to leave the C of E, unless………unless their own position is affirmed. Should we afraid of such threats? (I don’t think so.) I don’t think we should fear being part of the ‘church imperfect,’ for this side of death the ‘church perfect’ doesn’t exist in any case.

However, I suspect that the larger proportion of folk in both synod and the wider church have no wish to depart, either in peace or acrimony, and have a genuine desire to be part of the solution. The first watershed moment is thus revealed: no longer can LGBTI Christians (and members of society) be regarded in and by the Church of England as problems. This is hopefully made clear in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s declaration that the C of E needs a ‘radical new inclusivity.’ Inclusivity must start with positive self-regard for each and every person and acceptance of their stake in the life of the church.

What the ‘radical new inclusivity’ will look like is of course yet to be determined, but a direction of travel has been set. No longer will, I suspect, it be possible for the C of E to be ‘inclusive at the door, yet exclusive at the core.’ Such sentiments can now be regarded as a false and phony form of inclusivity. LGBTI Christians can now look forward with greater hope.

I also think that another, second, watershed was both recognised and reached. What I am referring to is the nature of episcopacy and episcopal leadership. Again Archbishop Justin appears to have recognised this through his gracious acknowledgment that the message had been heard that the bishops must ‘do better.’ The rejection of the report in the House of Clergy must have both stung and hurt the bishops.

It seems clear to me that over the last few months (maybe even years) things have gone awry in the art of bishoping; in fact I think the bishops know this, hence the introduction of specialist training for senior leaders, with such training being based on the (in) famous Green Report.

I have a feeling that the report that being ‘not noted,’ in synod was a consequence of a loss in the art of bishoping. The loss of this art was, in many ways, recognised in the letter from the retired bishops who suggested that their successors had sought to manage the Church of England’s way to an outcome. They argued that they did so at the expense of leadership. My suspicion is that they were correct. My other suspicion is that the report was written from a place of deep, if unacknowledged, fear.

So I hope that the defeat in synod will in some way lead to a rediscovery in the art of bishoping. Such a rediscovery must start with the throwing off of all fear. It must also involve a willingness to speak openly and transparently about the bishops own inclinations and theology. This cannot be the sole prerogative of conservative bishops.  Mature leadership cannot broker false unity and accepts that it cannot keep all of the people happy all of the time, whatever the peddlers of secular methods leadership training may say.

Good, and effective, training can be characteristic by the 3 R’s: right people, right means and, right ends. If we assume that the right people have been identified (and I have no reason not to), then we can focus on right methods and, right ends. I would like to gently question whether the bishops report resulted, in part, from a perspective that suggested that unity in the senior leadership must clearly be seen to exist; this, if you like, being the ‘right ends.’ But, what if it is not, in the Church of England, the right end? The bishops can, I think, only exercise mature episcopal leadership if they are transparent in their own diversity and recognise diversity within their own dioceses. Diversity, just like inclusivity, must be called out,named, acknowledged and, given its voice.

I am pleased that the Archbishops have asked the diocesan bishops to go back and reconnect with their synod reps. But, I do wonder whether the bishops should go further and deeper. Could it be the case that their urgent task is not simply to gather views, and to work out where the red lines are in order to broker a solution (recognizing that many are on synod because they represent a particular ‘stakeholder’ group), but to take all available fragments and create a mosaic? Such an approach would require the skills of an artist bishop rather, one who is happy to scrap the rule book and reject any notions of bishoping by numbers. Is the current means of senior leadership training capable of nurturing artistically creative bishops?

The decision ‘not to take note,’ also, I think, signified another, and third watershed, moment. It is clear that different parts of the Anglican communion will have reacted very differently to the outcome.  The Anglican Communion is in many ways a strange thing. Is it a real denomination or a federation? This is a question that  remains unresolved. Over the last few years the communion seems to have been moving towards regarding itself as a denomination, with the Primates seeking to act as a global magisterium (and the C of E bishops as a localized magisterium). Now of course the language of magisterium has not been explicitly used, but nevertheless the consequences of magisterial tendencies can be observed: the Primates Communique and, the Bishop’s report, for example.

Ironically it was the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion who hinted in his speech to synod, that the game might be up for the Anglican Communion as a denomination and that the principle of subsidiarity is what remains.

‘The prophetic task for African Anglicans is to denounce violence and civil disabilities that are supported by members of our own communities and leadership. This is about changing attitudes, and we need the space to do this work on our own.’

The prophetic task for African bishops is different to diocesan bishops in the Church of England. But, just as the African churches ‘need the space to do this work,’ so does the Church of England in its discussions about how to ensure that the ‘radical new inclusivity’ doesn’t just become mere rhetoric.

Led by a cadre of artist-bishops we need to do the work of inclusive theology and, we need to do it free of all fear.

A commitment to subsidiarity over and above any notions of unity is the only real way that the radical new mosaic of inclusivity and diversity can be crafted, by the bishops. It is the only way that the Church of England can become a place where all may flourish and none need fear.


An LGBTI lament

Last night I met a man who had been imprisoned just for being himself and, heard the story of a young girl, who could no longer live with the notion that she could just be herself.

I met many people whose love is considered second class. I met folk of courage with real stories to tell.

I met people who love their God, but no longer the church.

I met people committed to providing safe places, in the church, for those who have been alienated, rebuked, forsaken and, told that they no longer fit, by, wait for it, the church. Thank God for those who respond to the Gethsemane lament and even the Golgotha cry.

And, I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed that despite all that has taken place, their stories are not heard, listened to & truly acknowledged. I felt ashamed that their lives are case studies to be analysed & problems to be solved.

We are supposed to be the body, our table is supposed to be broad, we are supposed to be, called to be, mandated to be ‘OneBodyOneFaith.’ And yet, and yet, we fail and for that I lament.




I want to belong

I want to belong.

I want to belong to a church.

A church where all may flourish and, none need fear.

A church where lives are affirmed and, where hurts are healed.

A church where stories are told and, lives made anew.

A church where the hungry are fed and, where goodness is shared.

A church that reaches out and, says come in.

A church that beckons and, softly calls, to all who hear:

‘Come in and claim the place that is ritefully yours.’

I want to belong to a church.

(Well its not going to win any poetry prizes, but that’s okay – just so long as we can belong).



Unity, dissent and episcopacy.

Since the publication of the House of Bishops report on sexuality and marriage I have been considering the concepts of unity, dissent, episcopacy  and Church of England identity, all of which have been endangered by the report.

We  now know that some bishops are deeply uncomfortable with the report and yet have chosen to lend their name to it. It is a shame that those bishops who are deeply uncomfortable with the report didn’t ‘do a Birkenhead’ and insist on an appendix detailing their disapproval. It is a shame because what they have done is made the lot of dissenting clergy an awful lot harder. And, this is shame because the bishops seem to have forgotten that their primary responsibility is to their diocese and not some larger institution such as the C of E, or even the Anglican Communion. Yes, the report is in many ways shameful.

Yes it is in some small, yet incredibly ill-defined way, welcome that a change in tone and culture is called for but what worries me about the report, other than it fails to present its findings through the lens of justice (the forgotten virtue), is that it is  so thoroughly un Church of England.

Through suggesting that informal prayers may be offered for same sex couples (but not a blessing – or at least a formal blessing), and that there will be differences in what constitutes informal prayer in different contexts, what we are witnessing is the erosion of what it means to be a national and  liturgical church. If we erode what it means to be a national and liturgical church we erode what it means to be the Anglican Church in and for England.

The great thing, it seems to me, about vast swathes of our Church of England approach to prayer is that it is not context dependent! Yes, clergy and parishes can make choices about which formal and authorized prayers to use in celebrating the Eucharist for example, dependent on which works best for a particular context, but effectively what is offered is a menu of prayers. Other rites offer a menu of choices. The Common Worship Marriage Service provides an alternative preface and, new baptism rites have been written.

The Church in Wales seems to have, in its deliberations, held onto the fact that Anglicanism is at heart liturgical, hence their decision to provide a menu of two formal and liturgical prayers, which both fell short of a formal blessing; although to be honest one of them gets very close indeed! Surely the Church of England could have followed our Celtic neighbours example? To do so would have revealed a far greater level of Anglican liturgical integrity.

The Church in Wales, in it its deliberations, was also far more comfortable and transparent in accepting, and owning up to, a level of episcopal disunity, but for some reason the Church of England bishops chose not to do so. So here is a question:

Why, how, and through what mechanisms did our Church of England bishops feel compelled to act as a quasi magesterium?’

This is an important question and it is one of ‘tone and culture.’ What has been the tone and culture within the House (and College) of Bishops which has led to this very un Anglican reconfiguration of what it means to be the House of Bishops? And, why on this one issue has unity been the most important ‘virtue?’ After all in the House of Lord’s bishops frequently vote in different directions.

The House of Bishops report therefore potentiality undermines ‘our’ Church of England identity in two ways:

First, through its insistence that same sex relationships can only be informally recognised and prayed for the nature of what it means to be a national and liturgical church, a church where doctrine alongside tone and culture is expressed through liturgy, is subtly (or not so subtly) changed. And, secondly, through the unexplained commitment to episcopal unity at all other costs the House of Bishops runs the risk of  radically altering the historic nature of Church of England episcopacy. I am sure that these are both unintended consequences, but consequences they will be.

The discussions at synod next week are not therefore just about sexuality, marriage, doctrine and, ethics but about the distinctive nature of the Church of England’s identity.

The bishops need to be far more up front, honest and transparent about the tone and culture within their own ranks and, about the rationale and mechanisms that led them to acting as an Anglican  quasi magesterium.

The future of Anglicanism as we know it depends on them being able and prepared to do so. Synod must hold its bishops to account.

Dear Bishops (an open letter suggesting you withdraw your report)

Dear Bishops,

It now seems clear that your (in) famous report on marriage and same sex relationships has not been well received and, that the road map ahead is highly problematic. Issues around formal versus informal prayers haven’t been thought through. A change in tone and culture is called for, yet you fail to suggest what this can possibly mean in isolation from an addition to the liturgy. You are encouraging the C of E to proceed in a very un Anglican fashion, undermining both your own authority and, the nature of the C of E as a liturgical church. In your attempt to avoid schism you may be in fact be simply ensuring that schism occurs.

Your report comes close to accepting that subsidiarity if not granted will simply be taken. You do this by accepting that what constitutes ‘informal prayer’ will be heavily dependent on context. In the long-run neither progressives nor conservatives are going to be happy with informal prayer, surely that is obvious?

It is also clear that you are not united and that many bishops are deeply uncomfortable with the report and, the road map ahead it suggests. It is not clear why episcopal unity has become the altar on which distributive justice has been sacrificed. You need to explain this, for the sake of your own credibility. If you feel that distributive justice can be served without an addition to the liturgy  you need to explain how. You seem extremely wary of talking about notions of justice; why?

The report is not a good piece of work, so what should you do? Should you foist it on synod? Should you present it to the wider church both in England and across the Anglican Communion as the C of E’s settled and final position? Or, could you take a step back and admit that ‘we got it wrong,’ ask that the report be withdrawn and that time is spent thinking of a better way to proceed from this point? There really is no shame in taking a re-sit (many of us have had to do it)  and, for the sake of your own credibility and episcopal authority, perhaps you ought to do so?

In Christ,




‘Good news!’ ‘Andrew there is no good news.’

Towards the back end of last year two gay friends rang me. ‘Good news,’ they said ‘we have got married, and are having a celebration, please do come.’ So, we went.

At both parties my friends asked me whether I would bless their wedding. Both sets of friends knew that I couldn’t marry them, but neither knew that I couldn’t bless their union.

This is in itself interesting because both couples are deeply involved in the life of the church, both in their parishes and further afield. They are all confirmed, regularly share in the Eucharist, offer their houses to host church events and, visit the sick. In quaint, old fashioned terms, they are obviously, demonstrably, both hospitable and charitable; their relationships are manifestly fruitful.

On both occasions I suggested to my friends that the best course of action was to hold fire and wait. I explained that the Church of England was coming to the end of a period of ‘deep’ reflection and, a that a small group of bishops had been asked to prepare a report to be presented to, first the bishops, and then General Synod.

The report, I suggested might provide a road map ahead so that their relationship, and the good fruit that grows out of it, might be formally recognised. In my heart of hearts I felt that an official blessing was unlikely, but hoped that some form of formal liturgical prayers of dedication might result from the bishop’s ‘deliberations.’ My friends agreed to wait, in fact they were happy to wait, so that ‘things can be done properly.’ They clearly didn’t share my feelings of inner pessimism. Why? Because they already experience God at work in and through their relationships.

So now I can go back and share the ‘good news,’ with my friends. I am now in a position to tell them that the bishops have met and written a report. I can tell them that report is up front in stating that all of humankind are made in the image of God and, that the Church of England wishes to affirm the integrity of this foundational scripture. In doing so I suspect that what I will be doing is leading my friends not up the church path but, sadly, the garden path, for what I will then need to tell them is that there can be no formal recognition of their union. I could seek to ‘reassure’ (but not patronize!) them by telling them three other things:

First, that the C of E recognizes the need to repent of historic (but not current) attitudes to LGBTI Christians (and non Christians?), secondly that I can offer them a couple of informal prayers and, thirdly that I will be able to give them, in the fullness of time, a shiny new, and presumably beautifully branded, teaching document on all matters relating to sexuality and, marriage.

I will also be able to offer some words of comfort by telling my friends that there really is going to be a change in tone and culture towards the LGBTI community and, that the unity of the Anglican community seems to have been preserved with the ‘executive leaders’ (for that is how they now regard themselves) of the Anglican Communion celebrating this remarkable achievement at a shindig later in the year arranged and hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Now I wonder what my friends might say to me when I present to them the outcomes of the bishop’s report, and make my offer to say a few ‘informal’ prayers?

I suspect what they might say is simply this:

Andrew there is no good news.’


I understand that some (perhaps even many) bishops are not happy with the report, despite significant efforts to present a united front, so wouldn’t it have been better to ‘do a Birkenhead,’ asking that their dissent was noted in an appendix to the report?

Also, wouldn’t it have been fairer and more transparent to be upfront in stating that the desire to achieve some level of (apparent) unity was the guiding ethic, to which all other ethical considerations played second fiddle?

I understand that several priests have resigned their orders over the course of the last week whilst others, including yours truly, are still considering what it means to be a priest in the Church of England, at this time in (salvation) history.

The report allows for flexibility in interpretation of what constitutes informal prayer. In allowing such flexibility is it the case that the bishops intuitively understand that subsidiarity if not granted will be taken and that, de facto, the authority of the bishops and the nature of the C of E as a liturgical and episcopal church, has been undermined, paradoxically, by none other than the House of Bishops, through their insistence that apparent unity (across the Anglican Communion) must be preserved at all costs and, their resulting decision not to sanction official and formal prayers?