Scottish lessons for the English church (or at least the C of E)

Both the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church appear to be on the march towards marriage equality. Compared to the Church of England our Scottish neighbours seem to be more progressive and, enlightened. There again Scotland has a long and proud history of enlightenment!  Of course I write this as a progressive on matters relating to sexuality and, gender. Some conservatives in the Church of England are no doubt somewhat less sanguine.

Such conservatives will no doubt argue that the Scottish churches have ceased to be orthodox churches. But, surely the counter view is that orthodoxy and progression can be perfectly natural bed fellows? My orthodoxy is rooted in belief in the creed as a communal declaration of faith. The creeds are the kite mark of orthodoxy. The Scottish churches have recognised this. This doesn’t mean that progressives within the Scottish churches have won; unless that is a determination exists to regard issues of human sexuality, particularly as they relate to marriage, in win-lose terms.

A summary on the Church of Scotland’s web site of the outcome of its meeting of the General Assembly includes the following:

Professor Torrance said he felt that the Church as a whole understood that the Theological Forum was trying to move it out of a “culture of mutual denunciation into a non-binary situation”.

“A non-binary situation is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing,” he added.

The Church of Scotland, in doing its theology, which it did robustly, has come to the conclusion that a simple binary outcome cannot exist within the church to ‘issues of human sexuality’ and, that a monochrome one size fits all mode of praxis is not possible. The Church of Scotland has further accepted that orthodoxy cannot be defined in relation to sexuality. The implications of this are significant.

The conservative voice in the Church of England continues to argue for a binary approach and, whilst it does it will, following Professor Torrance’s line of reasoning, succeed only in ensuring that honouring each other as orthodox creedal believers and, enabling mutual flourishing cannot take place.

But, and here is the interesting point, if mutual flourishing – that is to say the flourishing of both orthodox-progressive and orthodox-conservative churches – is to occur then both need to be freed from the yoke of binary thinking. Binary thinking may, if Professor Torrance is correct be a very subtle form of self-harm.  This is perhaps counter intuitive to a church unwittingly imprisoned  by binary ways of thinking, theologising and, believing.  Yet, if Professor Torrance is correct binary thinking and a winner takes all mentality must be challenged because a non binary mode way of being church ‘is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing.’ 

The Church of Scotland  has linked the conclusions it has arrived at to notions of flourishing and, growth. The Church of Scotland’s analysis is that if a binary solution is sought and imposed the overall size of the mission pie decreases. That’s a sobering thought.

The Church of Scotland recognizes that it  must remain a broad church and, a relational church; a church which allows for and facilitates different integrates on issues of human sexuality, just as it does, if you will exclude the pun, on a ‘host’ of other areas of difference. The irony is that the Church of England used to be a famously broad church. The Church of Scotland’s challenge  to us C of E types includes a rediscovery of our breadth. Breadth makes no sense, as a motif, separate from diversity of thought and, theologies. And, if we are serious about our status as a national and established church we must be a broad church. Breadth cannot just be about styles of worship, or ways of being church. Breadth must incorporate both multiple ecclesiological and (supra) doctrinal integrities.

The Church of Scotland has also subtly redefined one aspect of leadership. Leadership, or at least thought leadership, in issues relating to human sexuality is about drawing out and facilitating differences and, integrities. For the Church of Scotland leadership, enlightened leadership, has meant giving due consideration to the whole and not a particular faction or grouping within the whole. The views of the individual leader (or in C of E terms bishop) are of less importance than their ability to recognise and foster different integrities.

Surely this should be characteristic of our C of E bishops if we are to make any real headway? The risk for the bishops is that should they continue to seek a uniform, binary, solution a large swathe of church  and country will continue to fail to take note of their every proclamation. This would be a tragedy because we live in an era when the country needs to hear the voice of its public theologians. Pursuing the binary, as already suggested, may well  be a very dangerous form of missional self-harm.

By stating that ‘a non-binary situation is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing,’ the Church of Scotland is affirming the orthodox theology of progressives and, conservatives alike. It is bringing something of Desmond Tutu’s ‘ubuntu’ theology to these lands. It is claiming for itself Martin Buber’s I-thou philosophy. It is explicitly making the case for twin integrates.

The Scottish have given us English some new words to think about: flourishing, relationship, mutuality, integrity and respect.

Perhaps all of us, orthodox-progressives and orthodox-conservatives alike, in the Church of England, need to take some Scottish lessons?

Shifting questions, changing virtues

I listened to the Sunday Programme with interest last week, especially the debate between Ian Paul and Gavin Ashenden.

Gavin Ashenden is in the process of leaving the Church of England because he believes that the national and established church is departing from orthodox Christianity as he understands it, whilst Ian Paul is ‘a remainer.’

Ian correctly suggested that in the Church of England it is through our liturgy that our doctrine is expressed. Under Ian’s scheme given that no (official) liturgies exist to marry, bless, or dedicate same-sex couples, orthodox conservatives can, with integrity, remain in the Church of England. They can do so knowing that a diversity of opinion exists but, without accepting that such diversity means that the direction of travel is necessarily towards the establishment of rites and liturgies designed to solemnize same-sex relationships.

Over the last week other ‘traditionalists’ have made the same argument; Lee Gatiss for example. It is of course an argument that Gavin Ashenden rejects. For him the Rubicon has already been crossed. Gavin cites as evidence the fact that some bishops have departed from orthodoxy, as he proclaims it,  in myriad ways. Yes, his main beef is about sexuality but creedal literalism (and by the way I am highly orthodox in relation to the creeds) and, gender issues also rank highly on his list of complaints.

The low point of the programme, to my somewhat sensitive ears, came when Mr. Ashenden complained that the church is already ‘enormously hospitable to the this new secular culture;’  that is to say members of the LGBTI Community. Mr Ashenden would of course reject any notion that God might be acting in and through culture whilst also remaining blind to the sub culture which shapes his own particular beliefs and behaviors.

The group that Mr. Ashenden appears to have the most problem with is the Church of England’s bishops, who he believes to be responsible for the ongoing liberalization of the church. The, as he sees it, inevitable movement towards affirmation of same-sex couples is a direct consequence of the failure of bishops to take seriously their teaching role. Of course teaching for Mr. Ashenden is more akin to instruction than the development of reflection, dialogue and critical thinking. Teaching, just like orthodoxy, is subject to a single monochrome definition. Good teaching in Mr Ashenden’s scheme could never be measured by the level of reflection, debate and even healthy disagreement it fosters. His is a very particular slant on what good teaching means and looks like.

Ian Paul’s response to the criticism of the bishops was interesting. He informed Mr. Ashenden that he could introduce him to any number of traditionalist bishops. Now, this is a perfectly true statement; he could. But, he could also presumably introduce him to any number of bishops who wish to see rites and liturgies developed to celebrate loving, monogamous and faithful same-sex relationships. Not all of these bishops would argue for the same offering. A small number would argue for church weddings for same-sex couples, others would be happy with services of blessing, still others liturgies designed to dedicate and affirm. A healthy spectrum of views and theologies exists in the House of Bishops. If the church is to take its teaching function seriously such diversity may well be a very good thing!

So who ‘won’ the debate, Ian Paul or Gavin Ashenden? Sadly, I think probably Gavin Ashenden. Ian didn’t ‘lose’  because he failed to answer the questions put to him with eloquence or because he was bettered on the day by Mr. Ashenden (he wasn’t) but, because on the day that General Synod failed to take note of the bishop’s report into issues of human sexuality a seismic shift took place. No longer is the question what do the  bishops believe in matters relating to human sexuality’ of paramount importance to many members of the Church of England. Something has changed, for better or for worse, in the nature of the bishops teaching function. This is the new reality.

The bishops stated their beliefs (granted, not firmly enough for some) and synod said ‘no.’ In saying no synod were in effect saying ‘this house believes that the Church of England should take steps to ensure that faithful, loving and monogamous same-sex relationships can be officially recognized and celebrated in the Church of England.’

The fundamental question to be asked of bishops has changed, for better or for worse, and  is no longer what do the bishops collectively, or individually, believe but rather  ‘what is the extent to which you will facilitate, endorse, and affirm priests and congregations in their desire to affirm faithful, loving and monogamous same-sex relationships in your diocese?’ In the era of ‘radical new inclusivity,’ there will be no hiding place for individual bishops. The cloak of uniformity has been synodically removed.

Uniformity (because in reality unity in the House of Bishops didn’t exist) has been replaced by subsidiarity. The various conservative groups, just like accepting, progressive and liberal groups will also need to ask themselves to what extent are they prepared to accept the speed and extent of change towards the archiepiscopally sponsored ‘radical new inclusivity;’ a level of inclusivity which will go way beyond a generalized change in tone and culture.

Bishops have been encouraged, even mandated, to work out what ‘radical new inclusivity’ might mean in the life of their diocese. For some bishops, the traditionalists that Ian referred to, the rate of change might be slow, excruciatingly slow for those who would like to see far greater and increasingly formalized rites of passage introduced for same-sex couples, whilst other bishops seem keen to press on with exploring ways of formalizing the ‘radical new inclusivity,’ called for by the Archbishops, who very publicly said the message they took from the decision by synod not to take note of the now infamous report was that they must ‘do better.’ 

Mr. Ashenden is correct in his analysis something has changed. Yes, at present, nothing has changed officially (it can’t in the absence of liturgies, as Ian rightly stressed), but what has changed is the question that progressives and conservatives alike will be asking of their bishops and, the virtues that will now inform ongoing debates. Some will greet the new virtues as long lost friends others with far less comfort and enthusiasm.

For better or for worse a purely top down approach is no longer the chosen approach. The Church of England tried this and it wasn’t accepted.  It is now up to diocesan bishops to define what radical new inclusivity might come to mean and look like in the life of their diocese.

Pushing the responsibility down to the diocesan level represents a major shift in the Church of England’s modus operandi. It is a shift that will bring its own complications. Will dioceses be increasingly regarded as progressive or traditionalist? What will happen if a bishop is appointed to a diocese who is uncomfortable with the approach taken by their predecessor? Are we in danger of creating a job market in dioceses? Does it matter if individual dioceses produce their own localized liturgies? These are all real questions that the radical new approach brings.

The reality is, however,  that a Rubicon has been crossed and, the Church of England is moving inevitably  towards providing far greater levels of inclusivity and, hospitality towards what Mr. Ashenden described as ‘this new secular culture.’ As I have already suggested for some the pace of change will be excruciatingly slow, for others it will be far too quick, but change is afoot. Radical and new cannot mean finding new ways to affirm the status quo; for this would be neither radical or new!

It is afoot because, as Mr Ashenden rightly concludes, the question has shifted and, the guiding virtues changed. One final thought: Mr Ashenden was keen to present members of the LGBTI community as a group who should not be offered the ‘hospitality’ of the Church of England and, of course, the House of Bishops report was produced by a (as far as we know) exclusively heterosexual group, who have gracefully accepted, that by excluding same-sex Christians from the process of producing their report they too fell into the trap of thinking about LGBTI Christians as problems to be solved and as a distinct group who are somehow different from, or other to, ‘mainstream Christians.’

Various bishops have acknowledged that this was something they got very wrong and pledged to move from exclusion to inclusion. This is highly significant because when we include others in our conversations, when we commit to relating to them as equals, the process begins through which we cease to regard others as, well simply ‘other.’ We begin the slow and sometimes painful process of relating to them as brothers and sisters, ‘co heirs,’ in the unfolding Christian story. We accept their status as equals ‘in Christ.’

When subsidiarity is sponsored, inclusion enshrined and newness called for change becomes the inevitable reality. The best way to prevent change is to keep power close at hand and regard various groups of people as problems to be solved. This is the approach that the C of E has now, thankfully, ditched much to the chagrin of Mr. Ashenden, who has rightly diagnosed that change is inevitable; a Rubicon has indeed been crossed .






Small is beautiful; in praise of the ‘ordinary’ parish

In 1973 the philosopher and economist E.F. Schumacher published a remarkable little book called ‘Small is Beautiful,’ which was sub-titled ‘a study of economics as if people mattered.’ His thesis was anti-big and all that bigness stands for. He promoted a theory of ‘enoughness,’ and, sufficiency. Although the Times Literary Supplement ranked Small Is Beautiful among the 100 most influential books published since World War its thesis has largely been forgotten and ignored possibly, because in all walks of life, we live with a ‘bias to the big.’

‘Leaders,’ in many, or perhaps all, spheres of activity tend to favour the big. I think there are two reasons for this: awe and, fear. When we gaze upon the big in state of awe (which may include envy) we often seek affiliation by association, a bit like the father who lives his own unfulfilled dreams and aspirations through the success of his offspring. In some ways we can regard the big as a therapeutic antidote to our own feelings of inadequacy, failing and, smallness.

Institutional leaders may also ascribe various characteristics to the big regarding them as more strategic, successful, inspirational and effective than medium and small-scale operations. The messages that institutional leaders can then give out include ‘why can’t the rest of you be more like the big boys,’ and, ‘if you would only replicate their way of doing things then you too would be in a much better place, in fact you too could join the big boys club.’ 

Yep, ‘big’ is an alpha male world!

But often ‘leaders’ are afraid of the big, the ‘rich,’ and the seemingly powerful. The 1997 British Lions coach (Sir) Ian McGeechan was very aware of this. He chose Martin Johnson as his captain on the basis that he was the biggest and most intimidating player at his disposal. Johnson was not at this stage the England captain. He was appointed largely on the basis of his size! Sir Ian wanted to invoke a feeling of fear in the opposition based on their first, pre-match encounter, with the opposition. Martin Johnson literally towered over the South African captain Gary Teichmann (who stood a mere 6 ft 3 inches!). The subliminal message was ‘our captain is bigger, harder and more ruthless than yours; now yield.’

St. Benedict was also aware of the power that the ‘big’ and, successful exude: ‘When it comes to rich people we are more likely to show respect to them because we are in awe of them,’ (ROB Chapter 53). Benedict’s advice is pretty straightforward: avert your gaze and look for goodness and riches in the small and, ordinary. This is advice that all leaders, and perhaps especially today’s church leaders, would do well to heed.

The way to Renewal and Reform does not exist solely in replicating the approach of the mega planting churches and, the route to some form of settlement in respect of rites for same-sex couples does not lie in fear of large, rich and powerful evangelical churches and, the power and clout afforded to them on the basis of their size. Our national church leaders need to avert their gaze and look for the good in the ordinary; medium and small-sized parish churches across the land.

For sure some, if not many, of these churches face real struggles but look at what they do each and every week of the year. They do the ordinary, unspectacular, and frequently dirty work of holiness. They prepare candidates for baptism and confirmation, they marry wedding couples, they run lunch clubs for the elderly and toddler groups for mums and dads desperate for an hour or so of respite. They act as good neighbours cooking and doing washing for the housebound and the sick. They rattle tins during Christian Aid week and meet to hold vigil prayers at times of tragedy. They gather together to sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs and, share in the breaking of bread. They conduct funerals. They visit hospitals and hospices. They host school visits and take assemblies. I say they because it is most frequently a team effort involving the local ‘priesthood of all believers.’

In all of these, ordinary, small-scale and frequently underappreciated activities they contribute something of the love and grace of God. Through all of these activities they tell something of salvation’s song. It is in churches such as these, small and medium size churches, that we discover what it means to be a national and established church, for it is such churches that truly exist for all.

Yes, doctrine is important to many of these churches, and although they occupy the centre ground they may be more or less conservative or progressive by degree, but for such churches doctrine only makes sense in the context of loving service. These ordinary parish churches are in many ways intuitively diaconal. They just get on with the job of trying to be the most faithful, loving and neighborly church they can be. Some of these churches are growing, some simply sustaining and some are struggling, but in them can be found example heaped upon example of the ordinary, unspectacular, and frequently dirty work of holiness.

It is in these churches that we also find true appreciation of, and loyalty to, the C of E as the national and established church. These churches seek neither awe or fear and it is for this reason that our leaders should gaze upon them, cherish them, appreciate them, resource them, and yes even replicate them, for it is in churches like these that true loyalty to the institution and her bishops is to be found.

Our church leaders need to look upon the large, whether they be found in Jesmond or on Bishopsgate, with equanimity, casting off all residual awe and fear, in the recognition that in the Church of England:

‘Small is beautiful.’


GAFCON & the paradox of ‘cultural captivity.’

It seems that plans are under way to consecrate a ‘missionary bishop’ to provide alternative episcopal leadership to conservative churches that simply cannot accept any movement away from the status quo in respect of the offering of rites and prayers recognizing same-sex relationships many of which, as Archbishop Justin has pointed out, are of ‘stunning quality;’ why wouldn’t they be?

These plans are not being drawn up in Lambeth, Edinburgh or Cardiff  by the U.K’s domestic archbishops and their advisers, but by a group of  overseas (or should I say oversees?) GAFCON primates and are a direct snub to the leadership of the Anglican churches in England, Scotland, and, Wales. GAFCON, we should be clear, is no longer a movement or ecclesial pressure group but, rather a self-appointed cross border province, responsible only to itself and its members.

GAFCON are clearly worried about the health, or as they see it ill-health, of the Anglican churches in these lands. In the short-term their concern would appear to be more for the Church of England’s Celtic neighbours in Scotland and Wales but there can be no doubt that the notion of ‘radical new inclusivity,’ and the willingness of several diocesan bishops to explore what this may mean in the life of their diocese is also a major source of concern.

I share GAFCON’s concern that individual dioceses now seem at liberty to work out what ‘radical new inclusivity means.’ Could it be some dioceses end up producing their own localized liturgy? Would this undermine the concept of common prayer? Are we, in the Church of England, in danger of establishing (or at least explicitly acknowledging) a job market for clergy in dioceses? These for me are real concerns.

I suspect that with the arrival of a para Bishop, appointed by a pressure group turned self-created see or province,  and responsibility for working out what ‘radical new inclusivity’ actually means being given to diocesan bishops historians will look back and conclude that 2017 was the year that a new reformation, or re-formation, of the church in the U.K. formally began. Maybe such a reformation is required? Maybe it is required for renewal in the church? Maybe the Church of England’s Renewal and Reform initiative will head off in an entirely unexpected direction with Renewal and Reform being far less about strategy and finance than about ecclesiology and doctrine? Lot’s of maybe’s!

GAFCON’s critique of any form of progressive stance is based on the claim that progressives have failed to place themselves fully under the authority of scripture, the consequence of which is a life lived in ‘cultural captivity.’ This I would want to suggest is a staggeringly weak line of argument, based on a superficial analysis of history and, reinforced through the use of a politicized  soundbite or slogan. The soundbite is necessary because the argument is weak.

Many of those arguing in favour of rites  for LGBTI couples have spent years arguing against the prevailing, dominant and, domineering culture. I have met and sat alongside gay ‘rites’ Christians who have been imprisoned for homosexual acts and yet who continued to stand up to a culture whose basic message was ‘you are repugnant.’

Sadly I also know, or should I say have known, people who simply couldn’t live with being reminded that society and sub cultures within society believed them to be less than fully human, unnatural and, repugnant. Such folk lost life or identity because they couldn’t adhere to cultural norms. The choice of either ending life or living a phony, make-believe, life is a poor and toxic choice. Those who have lost life, liberty and, identity based on the fact of their sexuality are the true captives of culture and, victims of injustice and exclusion. Conservative cultures don’t come scot-free. Conservative cultures impose their own punishments and injuries; just consider the potential cost of being out and proud in many GAFCON territories.

I would like to suggest the church owes a huge debt of thanks to minority groups and, especially minority groups who have experienced the pain of exclusion and the pill of injustice, for reminding the church time and time again of one of our foundational scriptures. I am of course talking of Genesis 1, 26 where we read that God said (yes, God said) ‘let us make humankind in our image.’  

To remind the church, and society, that each and every person irrespective of sexuality, gender, color or physical ability is made in the image of God is to be both radically counter cultural and profoundly Christian.  To remain committed to standing at the church door and knocking even when you are knocked back time and time again is not to succumb to secular  culture but to live in hope, hope for a better more inclusive, more loving, church.

To stand in solidarity with LGBTI Christians cannot be caricatured as a simple and straightforward capitulation to secular culture. Such analysis is both trite and, consequentially,  patronizing. Many, perhaps most,  of those who have argued for greater inclusion have wrestled hard with issues such as distributive justice, often at the cost of knowing that their views are not welcome in the church which they have historically regarded as home. It is not so much a case as capitulating to culture but standing up to a powerful and closed sub culture.

To rank people and put them into nice neat little boxes, some of which are given house room, some of which are kept in the garage or still worse thrown on the skip (I have just moved house!) is to exist in a state of ‘cultural captivity.’  To isolate, exclude, or seek to throw out any of the treasured people of the church is an act of supreme and cultural violence. Isolation and exclusion should always be antithetical to the culture of the church.

So GAFCON’s reading of history, and their preferred soundbite, must be dismissed at every turn. They must be dismissed and rejected because they simply aren’t true.

Maybe, paradoxically, it is GAFCON (UK) and their followers who are the real voices of those held culturally captive?