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 .







One thought on “Shifting questions, changing virtues

  1. I suspect a diocesan “solution” has been operating for sometime.It would be interesting to hear from civilly partnered clergy who have attempted to move dioceses or retired clergy who are civilly partnered seeking PTOs…I suspect it isn’t a level playing field.
    Perry Butler.

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