Talking of speaking

‘We need you to speak’: US evangelicals urge Trump to condemn racist ‘alt-right’ in open letter.

According to Christianity Today a group of conservative evangelicals have written an open letter to The Donald urging him to very publicly disown any ideology which appears to endorse white supremacy. Good on them; that’s what I say.

It is of course important that Christians speak out on matters of dignity and justice. No one should be made to feel second class on the basis of temporal identity markers for God is recorded as saying ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’ (Genesis 1, 26).

It is this foundational  scripture that humankind has struggled with since the start of history. We like to rank and categorize but God doesn’t. We like to put country first but God, I fear, puts humanity first.

Maybe repentance means, in part, a turning away and repudiation of any ideologies or theologies that seek to rank and create hierarchies of being based on the crudest of measures? Maybe repentence means throwing off the false yokes of apathy and passivity and speaking out as an ally of those who live their lives in fear of the consequences of injustice and tyranny?

If this is true it is to be lauded that a group of ‘conservative evangelicals’ have written to President Trump seeking to hold him to account and, in some senses, repent. Of course ‘liberal’ Episcopalian types have also expressed dismay and outrage over the direction of policy, or do I mean ideology, in the US. ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!’ (Psalm 133, 1).

Speaking out against injustice is, of course, part of the biblical tradition. It is part of the prophetic mandate placed upon the church. Speaking out even, especially, when the very act of speaking courts ridicule, a barrage of tweets, or even physical danger is part of what it means to ‘take up (y)our cross and follow,’ (Matthew 16, 24).

Speaking out often means standing in opposition to the actual or emerging civic and political culture and that is why I am glad that the open letter written this week by the General Synod Human Sexuality Group calls on all Anglican Primates to continue to speak out against the criminalization of homosexuality. For some Anglican primates to do so will take significant courage. Speaking out also, on occasion, means being a a disruptive and challenging influence in the cultural and political life of the church. The church needs a stream of voices calling it to be its true, and liberating, self.

It has often been said that ‘you can’t be neutral’ on issues of justice. I agree. The Christian faith is, or at least should be, a liberating faith; a faith where our most significant act of fast or sacrifice should be ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke,’ (Isaiah 58, 6).

Because it is impossible to be neutral on issues of justice surely it is the case that if the Church (and her leaders) aren’t working to ‘loose’ the ‘yoke’ then it must be the case that we are contributing its tightening? Passivity, apathy and complicity may be, I fear, the greatest sins of our day.

Thursday was National Poetry Day. A well-known former Cathedral Dean asked on Twitter for nominations for poems that have really inspired people. I suggested Martin Niemoller’s ‘I did not speak.’ It is a chilling and haunting poem, written just after the Holocaust. I suspect it is very much a poem for our times.

Let’s let Niemoller have the last words:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.



Speaking of ordination, speaking of good will.

‘If in doubt refer to the liturgy.’  This point was stressed time and again by my liturgy tutor at theological college. My tutor was also took every conceivable opportunity to remind his students that for the Church of England ‘liturgy is doctrine in action.’ 

So, in the light of the ‘Sheffield debacle’ how can the liturgy of ordination help us, in the Church of England, to understand ordination into the episcopacy? How can it help us understand how the process of ‘nominating’ (as distinct from appointing) candidates may be reflected on to ensure that the opportunity for ‘debacle’ is minimized? I ask this question because it appears to me that the findings of Sir Philip Mawer’s report are geared towards the avoidance of future debacle.

I welcome the emphasis Sir Philip has placed on education and increased transparency in the work of the Crown Nominations Committee and hope that these will mitigate against ‘debacle,’ however, I also worry with Canon Jeremy Worthen that ‘it is no longer possible to talk in a straightforward way about the Church of England holding full sacramental communion within its own life, or with other churches.’ Hopefully a rubicon hasn’t already been crossed, but I fear it may have been.

Anyway returning to the liturgy:

The last question before the Archbishop celebrates the act of ordination, through which the candidate’s status is changed from ordinand, or nominee, to bishop is: ‘Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge that N is ready to undertake, and you have heard his declarations. Is it now your will that he should be ordained?’ (the ‘final question’ was taken from the Common Worship web site for the ordination and Consecration of Bishops, surely the exclusive use of the masculine form needs updating? The language for the ordination of deacons and priests is gender neutral using the phrase ‘these ordinands’).

The final act of verification is therefore  given, liturgically and doctrinally, by the ‘People of God’, lay and ordained, the ‘brothers and sisters.’ It is only through their assent that the ordinand’s status can be changed from nominee to appointee. The Church of England’s liturgy in this respect is different from the Roman Catholic ordinal. In the Roman Catholic Church candidates are presented and the ‘People of God,’ are asked to affirm their new ministry with a straightforward ‘amen.’

In the Church of England candidates for each of the three orders of ministry are not appointed, they are instead nominated, received and only then ordained. This, I think, is a significant point because it implies that the most important role of those charged with identifying and selecting candidates is to ensure that they may be received with the ‘goodwill’ of all who have a stake in their ministry, at least to the extent to which it is clear that goodwill is the dominant and guiding virtue. The baptism liturgy includes the beautiful line that ‘today the Church receives with joy…’ Perhaps the essence of this line could be captured in ordination services the next time that the liturgy is revised for, surely, the guarantee of joyful and gracious receipt should be the primary aim of every nomination process? What is good enough for baptism ought to be good enough for ordination; after all both express a theology of (gracious) receipt? 

As Sir Philip Mawer has suggested  what I describe as a theology of gracious receipt becomes possible only when the needs of the diocese, and other stakeholders, are fully understood and this means asking the right questions at the beginning of the process. It seems bizarre given that gracious receipt is central to the liturgy, and therefore doctrine, of ordination that the question of whether the ‘diocese would accept a diocesan bishop, who did not ordain women as priests,’ was omitted (Paul Handley, Church Times, 22nd September). My lingering concern is whether the Crown Nominations Committee had lost sight of their mandate to nominate for gracious receipt, instead thinking that their remit was to appoint? I also worry whether the Church of England, for all its good intentions, remains unaware of a deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset?

If the nominations process can be regarded as being geared towards helping the ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ affirm their desire that the nominated candidate should indeed be ordained with the goodwill of all (if this is possible) where might this leave the Five Guiding Principles and, the notion that those outside the Church of England have a legitimate stake in the nomination of a diocesan bishop?

Let’s deal with the second question first. Some inside the Church of England criticized politicians for objecting to the nomination of Philip North. This objection strikes me as odd given that Bishops are nominated through the Prime Minister’s (political) office.  Some may not like it but senior nominations in the established church are, by their very nature, also political nominations. Politicians and civic leaders therefore have a right to comment on those appointments which will have a significant bearing on the life of the diocese. Bishops do after all sit in the legislature. on the benches of the House of Lord’s. Bishops also have the opportunity, through their very office, of shaping civic life and culture.

1 Timothy 3, 7 stresses that potential bishops ‘must be well thought of by outsiders.’  So, when assessing whether the diocese is content to accept or otherwise a ‘non ordaining’ bishop the views of civic leaders should carry significant (not necessarily decisive but significant) weight.

As an aside the notion that a ministry should only ever be affirmed when the candidate is received with the goodwill of both the ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ and ‘outsiders’ representing the  local community is beautifully dramatized in the liturgy for inducting and licensing parish priests when the candidate is specifically invited to ‘come among us’ by representatives of the church and also cordially welcomed by representatives from civic society.

The Church of England, as the Established Church, has to be aware of social mores in its appointment process. Every bishop is also a potential archbishop. Could we really foresee a situation in which an archbishop was consecrated who couldn’t on grounds of theological conscience ordain women to the priesthood? I would suggest not for the Church of England would surely lose the goodwill of the majority of the population (or at least those who care) and, if this is true for archbishops, then why not also for diocesan bishops?

What of the Five Guiding Principles? Well, in some ways I think they are a bit of a red herring. Or at least they are if it is accepted that the remit of the Crown Nominations Committee is simply to nominate candidates for gracious receipt in the diocese on the basis of goodwill. A diocese, put simply, either will or will not be happy to receive a non ordaining candidate. The Five Guiding Principles whether they stand or come to be revised following a process of episcopal theological reflection may continue to make it possible for a traditionalist to be nominated, but the testing ground should always be the diocese and other interested stakeholders.

The Church of England, General Synod, and the Crown Nominations Committee do not have a mandate, right or responsibility to ensure that ‘a priest who publicly espouses the traditional catholic position on holy orders’ (Forward in Faith) will be appointed. It currently has a mandate to inquire into whether such a priest might be nominated, but that is a very different thing. The only promise that General Synod and the Crown Nominations Committee can make to those who would like to see traditionalists nominated is to ensure that the architecture is in place to test whether such appointments may be welcomed.

In the Church of England our hope must be that when the question ‘brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge that N is ready to undertake, and you have heard his ‘ her declarations. Is it now your will that he / she should be ordained’ the answer is a resounding, confident and joyful ‘it is.’ The ‘it is’ must be said with integrity and without reservation.

Perhaps one of lessons the Church of England needs to re-learn is simply this: that our theology of ordination into all three orders of ministry is based not on appointment but on nomination and gracious receipt. Whatever the bishops and synod decide, however the Five Guiding Principles are tweaked, modified or even radically amended the testing ground for whether a nominee can be ordained can only ever be the diocese. Any shaping or re-shaping of the episcopacy should  therefore in many ways be a bottom up process and the process starts with asking the right questions. The work of identifying and nominating candidates is, of course, delegated to the Crown Nominations Committee but the validation of candidates can only ever be done at the local, diocesan, level. The nominations process is not, and should never be designed as, a mechanism for ensuring representation for a given group in the episcopacy.

In the Church of England we don’t appoint, we nominate, affirm, hopefully gratefully and graciously receive, and only then ordain.

How do I know this? Because, the liturgy tells me so.




Speaking of faith in the public square

It has been a strange old-time recently for theology in the public square.

The latest, post Fallon, series of ‘faith in the public square,’  started when Quentin Letts chastised Archbishop Justin for his role, nay his very public role, in seeking to help establish a better, more equitable, and just way to model socio-economic affairs. Justin’s ‘faux pas’ was quickly followed by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s defense of his anti-abortion, anti same-sex marriage, stances on the basis of his Catholic faith.

Next, without pausing for breath, came the story of the Isle of White couple who have made the decision to withdraw their child (who happens to be a boy) from a C of E primary school on the basis that another child (also a boy) wears a dress to school. Apparently the parents, who are being represented  by Christian Concern, feel that they have grounds for a claim against the school because they or their child have been victimized in some way.

There is now a growing campaign seeking to ban Franklin Graham from speaking next year in Blackpool. Notions of unity and peace seem to be in short supply in the Christian community. No wonder that those who can be bothered to take an interest in what the church has to say are looking on askance. It’s all pretty depressing stuff.

But what is most depressing and tragic is the myth that Christianity necessarily stands opposed to the very best that humanism has to offer is being allowed to grow, almost unchallenged. The notion that mission and evangelism is reducible to individual acts of conversion and that people of faith shouldn’t seek to play a part in shaping  the socio-economic-political environment is also a myth that needs well and truly debunking. The Christian faith is political.

Zoe Williams, writing earlier this week in the Guardian, urged ‘co-religionists’ to stand up, in the public square, in response to the ‘perspectives’ offered by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg. She pleaded for members of the institutional churches in particular to do so:

‘History has no shortage of religious movements for peace, justice and universal rights, and arguably it is within church structures that warriors for social justice – the Oscar Romeros, the Desmond Tutus – are likely to be found, while hard right authoritarians like Mike Pence, exist outside it.’  Zoe Williams, I think, rightly understands that humanism and religious conviction are not binary opposites. She also understands that there are different, and very possibly binary, expressions of Christianity (something that the church doesn’t seem able to confront) and not all of them are opposed to so-called ‘secular’ humanistic values.

Humanism according to the International Humanist and Ethical Union can be described as ‘a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic  based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry into human capabilities. It is not theistic, and does not accept supernatural views of reality.’ 

Now, as Church of England Priest, I am obviously of a theistic persuasion and I do accept supernatural views of reality (and I am intrigued that the humanists do in fact accept that these are views of reality, even if they reject them), and also believe that I am caught up in a larger cosmic, and salvation,  story. Laying my cards on the table I also believe in a theology of judgment. I am not an universalist. I also have no problems in saying the ‘Catholic Creeds’ each and every week fully affirming each and every proposition without crossing my fingers behind my back.

However, I fully accept the sentiments expressed in the rest of the definition; I guess I am, de facto, an Orthodox Christian Humanist. I also long for a church which truly values and encourages the ‘spirit of reason,’ and ‘free inquiry,’ for then I suspect that we really will be a teaching church?

I yearn for an institutional church that fully absorbs Rabbi Jonathan Sacks belief that the primary religious vocation is to be a blessing to all of humanity. The Church of England, in particular, needs to re-appropriate this notion; this foundational Old Testament tradition. The Church of England, as the established church, needs to be simultaneously pastoral and, prophetic. It needs to offer comfort and stand in solidarity with those in need, materially and spiritually, whilst discomforting the proud and powerful. It can’t fulfill this role if it remains quiet on issues of what it means to be fully human.

Maybe we need to stop fixating quite so much on ‘church leadership.’ Church leadership is but one aspect of parochial ministry; a subset of diaconal and priestly ministry? My very great fear for the Church of England is that if we fail to encourage ‘the spirit of reason’ and ‘free inquiry’ in our teaching and, if fixate on the notion of ‘church leadership,’ at the expense of our wider ministry to be a blessing for all we will become an irrelevance at best and a nuisance at worst.  Establishment could then only be defined in legal and constitutional, as opposed to ministerial, terms.

The Church of England must seek to avoid all drives that may lead to it becoming what Martyn Percy has described as a ‘suburban sect.’ Sectarianism may well be popular and carry with it the veneer of ‘success’, but it is seldom attractive. I do wonder whether the excessive focus on ‘church leadership,’ and the preservation at all costs  of the status quo in deuterodoctrinal terms necessarily leads to sectarianism?

For our own sake, as well as for the nation we are called to serve, we need to speak more loudly, in the public square, about ethical issues, always ensuring that we communicate God’s love and grace; which implies that in our dialogue we need to be both loving and graceful. We also need to be far more courageous. We need to stop talking to and among ourselves and begin talking to society at large. We need to stop seeking to appease various factions within the church (factions which ultimately cannot be appeased) and enhance our credentials in society through the blessing we offer. When we speak in the public square we must do so with humility in the awareness that the for many, particularly younger people the church  has become a ‘face of intolerance,’ (Elizabeth Edman).

I suspect that in some, no many ways, I have more in common with many ‘secular’ humanists than I do, ultra conservative Christians. To be clear I would probably feel very uncomfortable in communities that endorsed a theistic and supernatural view of reality,whilst seeking to suppress reason, inquiry, dialogue, reflection and, difference. I think I would find such communities just a tad too priestly, patriarchal and life limiting and,  it matters not whether the priest sports a chasuble or some rather smart chinos.

My own views on abortion are that it should be permitted, even offered,  in a small range of circumstances.  I would like to see the Church of England providing rites for same-sex couples who wish to affirm their desire to live together in a faithful, monogamous and covenant relationships. Why? Because I believe, based on my own experience, that such relationships, in the words of the preface to the marriage service (Common Worship) ‘enrich society.’ 

Yes, I strongly believe that love, union, self-sacrifice, monogamy and fidelity are ideals worth both striving for and celebrating because they are in and of themselves ‘ethical’ and humane.’  And, by the way, I strongly reject Quentin Lett’s critique of Archbishop Justin’s role in arguing for a new way of doing economics. His critique seeks to erase the uncomfortable fact that Jesus launched his public  ministry by saying:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

Justice, compassion, liberation, inclusion, dignity, fidelity, self-sacrifice  and, monogamy are all distinctively (but not exclusively) Christian values. The Church of England as a national and established church  really has no option but to speak of such virtues in the public square. To hold these virtues dear and to speak of them in the public square is to honour tradition. To allow these virtues to engage with the epistemology offered by other disciplines and world views is to allow the tradition to live and breathe. As Elizabeth Edman has written ‘the progressive Church should square its shoulders and provide moral authority to people who hunger for it, one important way to do this is to acknowledge the moral witness of other communities, to celebrate them, honour them, and learn from them.’  A tradition that doesn’t live, breathe, learn and evolve will end up being a stale old thing, incapable of quickening (to borrow a prayer book term) new life into the very communities we are called on to bless.

Speaking personally, I suspect, that were I  not a Christian, my commitment to these values and, the shaping of communities based on these values may not be particularly strong.  I celebrate and, in many ways, deeply admire those who promote such values without also holding a theistic world view.

Yes, I would still want to critique secular humanism, and in the spirit of evangelism help promote free inquiry into the rationale for a rationally held faith. I always want offer the opportunity for faith and hope in the love that never ends and,  I strongly believe that this is entirely possible when the starting position is a shared commitment to a lived out expression of humanism.

I am, it appears, an Orthodox Christian humanist!