Speaking of inclusivity and disagreement

‘So what’s it to be?’ It’s a hard question and one most frequently asked of people, or institutions, when they have arrived at what might be thought of as decision time.

Is it too fanciful to suggest that ‘so what’s it to be’ is the question facing the Church of England in 2018. The decision that the Church of England must face up to and answer is this:

‘Are good disagreement and radical new inclusivity to be mere pragmatic, managerial, political and, perhaps, ultimately vacuous strap-lines or, are they going to be guiding theological motifs?’

Put another way will 2018 be the year when the Church of England decides whether it is going to rely on managerial and political solutions to our most contentious debates, or whether the hard work of doing our ecclesiology properly will win through?

Ecclesiology, as (well) defined by the conservative theologian Gerald Bray is the obligation to describe  the church not merely as it is has historically been and currently is constituted in practice ‘but as it ought to be in principle.’  I suspect, or rather know, that Gerald and myself would come to rather different conclusions as to what a healthy church might look like in ‘principle’ and ‘practice,’ but I hope that we would agree that ecclesiology can only ever be verified through practice. 

Principle and practice, I would want to suggest, are the two characteristics which differentiate a strap-line, or slogan, from a motif. The Lutheran bishop-theologian Anders Nygren was big into motifs and motif research. He was adamant that motifs had to possess both internal content and external manifestations. The internal content is the guiding principles, or theologies, at play. External manifestations relate to practice and, performance. Put the two together and, hey presto, a motif is the result! Leave principle and practice standing in isolation from each other and what you end up with is a meaningless strap-line, or slogan.

In some ways the introduction of good disagreement and radical new inclusivity (by ++Justin), as notions to be transformed into motifs,  obligates a revival in ecclesiology. Radical new inclusivity can, after all, hardly be regarded as either radical or new if retention of the status quo is the end result!

For the Church of England our ecclesiology is verified through our liturgy. So if radical new inclusivity is to mean anything at all, if it is to become a guiding motif, then some form of rite of affirmation, dedication or blessing for same-sex couples will be required. Without this all that that can be offered are ‘informal prayers,’ which can only ever be an expression of inclusivity at the level of the local church, rather than a statement of theological principle by the national, and established church. The Church of England, it should be remembered is a formal, national, established and liturgical church. These are, perhaps, the most significant internal characteristics of our ecclesiological motif. ‘Lex credendi, lex orandi’ is the principle at stake should the Church of England continue to insist that only informal, non liturgical, prayers can be offered to same-sex couples.

The challenge for the Church of England is that not everyone is going to be cock-a-hoop with any form of movement towards rites of affirmation, dedication, or blessing. This is a statement of the obvious! And, this is why the notion of good disagreement is so important. Good disagreement, if it is to be a motif, has to be disagreement about two things: principle and practice. If good disagreement only ever relates to principle, its only real concern is the nature of our internal debates. At this level good disagreement translates as ‘kids play nicely.’ The problem is that in high stake games kids tend not to play nicely!

Over the last year it has become clear to me that good disagreement only makes sense in relation to radical new inclusivity and, that radical new inclusivity, as a guiding (theological) motif,only makes sense ecclesiologically  if it leads to new forms of practice, the only verification for which are liturgical rites of affirmation, dedication or blessing. Without such rites all that we will be left with is a couple of essentially meaningless strap-lines, or slogans.

‘So what’s it to be?’ Are good disagreement and radical new inclusivity to be mere pragmatic, managerial, political and, perhaps, ultimately vacuous strap-lines or, are they going to be guiding theological motifs?’

For the Church of England and her leaders we really are approaching ‘make your mind up time.’ Strap-lines or motifs, managerial pragmatism or ecclesiology, these are the questions. 










Can the C of E learn a lesson or two from Tim Farron

It is easy to jump on the bandwagon and have a pop at Tim Farron over his views on homosexuality. During the election campaign he managed to annoy both conservatives and liberals alike.

From a liberal perspective he was far too slow in eventually saying that he didn’t believe homosexuality to be a sin, in fact he was so slow that very few liberals unreservedly believed him . From a conservative (evangelical) perspective he was seen as selling out. The poor bloke couldn’t win! And, let’s be honest neither him, nor his party (my party), ‘won’ in any meaningful sense on election night.

Tim Farron was also slaughtered on the altar of the oughts. Surely, the argument goes, a political liberal should also be a social, and some would argue theological, liberal. For many Tim Farron came to epitomize a distinct lack of joined up thinking and, yet, I have the feeling that there is a positive lesson for Church of England from the way that Tim Farron has conducted himself.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with Tim’s views on homosexuality as he now states them. I think he is wrong. I also understand the political problems that arise when the leader of a socially progressive party holds socially conservative views. However, I also think that Tim Farron has something to offer our theologically conservative bishops.

Tim Farron has a good voting record when it comes to supporting LGBTI rights. He voted in favour of same-sex marriage. He has also spoken from the floor of the house about the appalling treatment of homosexuals in Ukraine (Anglican Primates take note – you did after all pledge to speak out against institutionalized homophobia.)  He has been consistent in seeking liberty for members of the  LGBTI community. He has managed to relegate his own views to a place of secondary importance. It is others, primarily in the media, that have escalated his views to being of primary importance.

Whilst I fully accept the inadequacy of  comparing the challenges of political leadership with the teaching mandate given to bishops I do wonder whether there is something that the House of Bishops might learn from the way that Tim Farron has managed the tension between what we now know to be his own views and, his voting record?

I cannot see, for instance, why a conservatively minded bishop wouldn’t be prepared to support rites of affirmation for same-sex couples, providing there is an opt out on the grounds of conscience.

Why should it be that the view of an individual bishop, or the House of Bishops as a somewhat divided  collective should be of primary importance on what is, after all, a second order issue?

If the notions of ‘good disagreement’ and ‘radical new inclusivity’ are to have any real currency I suspect that it rests on the ability to differentiate between first and second order issues. In a very real sense Tim Farron has managed to do this for, despite his own personal convictions, he did vote in favour of same-sex marriage.

‘Good disagreement’ and ‘radical new inclusivity’ will end up being one of two things: meaningless (political) strap-lines, or real and enduring (theological) motifs. Ensuring that they become theological motifs is contingent on the willingness to differentiate between first and second order issues. Good disagreement and radical new inclusivity are, perhaps, most of all an invitation to theologically minded conservatives to accept the principle of subsidiarity in relation to second order issues.

Subsidiarity is, in many ways, the most challenging of all values for it implies the willingness to relegate self, even our own most cherished (second order) convictions and, to re-locate control, power and authority. Subsidiarity is, in and of itself, messy and seemingly inconsistent; just like Tim Farron!

Is there, in fact, something that the Church of England, and her bishops in particular, can learn from Tim Farron?




Talking of mission: something old, something new.

The Christian story is not just an old but, a timeless story. The plot never changes nor does the chapter outline. The colour coded story, at least from a C of E, perspective begins in Advent and moves through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity. The chapter headings never change. The plot outline is never re-written. Yes, various sub chapters are added in to further animate the story: harvest, remembrance, saints days and so forth, but the basic story line remains constant. Thank goodness for this, for to change the story would be to cheapen the story. And, it would be wrong to cheapen a story which seemingly ends with the most painful of all deaths. Of course, for the Christian, the story line can be summarized in the phrase ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…..’ (John 3, 16).

The Christian story is the consummate love story. It is the story of  the God who constantly gives. It is the story of the God who gives of himself in creation, in and through the pangs of labour, from the cross, through the resurrection and, then again at Pentecost. ‘Our’ Christian God is no-misery-guts instead he is utterly selfless and always self-giving. So we are not at liberty to tweak, amend, or even change the story line.

And, yet I was struck at the midday Eucharist on Wednesday when I read from Psalm 98 which begins with the phrase ‘O Sing a New Song,’ (it then makes it clear that the new song is to be sung ‘unto the Lord’ – the psalm is one of praise). Over the last couple of years I have become increasingly convinced that the church does need to sing a ‘new song.’ Singing a new song doesn’t imply putting the record collection in the loft for safekeeping. I have far too much respect for the traditions of the church to suggest that, but it does mean reaching out in new ways and trying new things, so that God can ‘do a new thing,’ (Isaiah 43, 19).

Let me clear, transparent and up front: the churches I am responsible to and for as their parish priest could be described as liturgical, choral and sacramental. We happily occupy what might be thought of as the modern catholic tradition in the church. We are corporate members of Inclusive Church and the Prayer Book Society, and we are growing in number and, hopefully, in holiness. We care about the story we are obligated to tell and seek to do so through both word and sacrament. We are not about to jettison our inherited tradition and, neither should we. To do so would be an act of reckless folly. It would also be a missional disaster.

But, and this is my sneaking anxiety, for I would love everyone to accept and endorse my tradition, it’s simply not enough. If we are to meet our aspirations to grow in number and holiness new ways of telling the greatest of all love stories need to be developed and incorporated into the missional mix.

The only reason I ‘know’ this is experience. ‘Our’ way of expressing ‘our’ communal praise and adoration for God works for many and not just those who are steeped in the traditions of the church.

Young couples, those seeking baptism for the children, families and friends of those we have taken funerals for, have all remarked on the beauty of the liturgy, the experience of community and the dignity of our worship, but others have been left confused and, if I am honest, ever so slightly wary of the formality. For some new comers our liturgical, choral, and sacramental style of modern catholic worship really is a ‘new song,’ for others it simply cannot be their song. So we, not they, need to do a ‘new thing.’ 

Because the story won’t change, just the ‘set’ and method of delivery there is nothing to fear. There is simply no competition over the overall story, and the chapter headings, for the simple reason that God, not we, is the author. God is the narrator, the alpha and omega, of the story.

Its funny, or perhaps it’s not, a few years ago I was fairly cynical about Fresh Expressions and Pioneer Ministers and now I am not. I still, again in a spirit of honesty and transparency, have reservations about church plants (but maybe I will get over myself). I would prefer to see existing parish churches being resourced and  equipped for mission and evangelism than new churches being planted. I have no problem with new (parish) churches being established to serve new communities. I continue to believe that the parish system should be central to the Church of England’s ‘mission strategy.’ It is hard to see how the C of E can be a truly national and established church, serving the entirety of the nation through maintaining the widest and deepest nexus of relationships, separate from the parish system. If the parish system is undermined or eroded any notion of being the national and established church will simply be a matter of constitutional niceties. The Church of England should avoid any temptation to do mission by project.

I believe our small-medium and medium-sized parish churches can and should be powerful engines for growth in the communities they serve, if strategically resourced.  I now believe that such churches should be encouraged to find new ways of telling our never-changing story, whilst at the same time honouring, even deepening,  their existing tradition. It’s a about a complimentary theologies of worship, mission and evangelism. It is not either-or but and-both.

For me it’s not out with the old and in with the new, but about equipping parish churches up and down the land to invest in both, for then, and only then, will we be a true missionary church; only then can the stated aim of Renewal and Reform to evangelize the whole of England stand a chance.

I hope that one of the  Renewal and Reform strategists overarching concerns is how to resource the ordinary parish church to achieve extraordinary returns. I was encouraged to see a letter from William Nye, the Secretary General to the Archbishop’s Council, sating that ‘we have also supported churches in outer estates in Blackpool, rural ministry in Salisbury and Cumbria, parish development across County Durham and, traditional parish work in the diocese of Coventry and in the Bishop of Ebbsfleet’s traditional catholic parishes.’  I would like to see much greater levels of strategic investment funding, both through R & R and directly by dioceses, in ordinary parishes, although not just in their ‘traditional work.’

One of my greatest desires, as an ordinary parish priest, is to work with a Pioneer Minister sharing in the job of story telling, mission and evangelism, so that those who know and love the Lord will grow in number and in holiness. They will do so by listening to different, yet entirely complimentary,  new songs telling an old and never-changing story.

And, I never thought I would say that!