I have read William Nye’s letter, sent on behalf of the staff working for the Archbishops’ Council to TEC (The Episcopal Church), a few times now. What is clear, at least to me, is that the response is entirely theo-political. The reference to the word pressure is both illuminating and interesting. The staff of the Archbishops’ Council suggest, through the pen of Mr Nye, that should marriage rites for same-sex couples be written into The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer then “the pressure to dissociate the Church of England from TEC [the Episcopal Church], in all manner of ways, would increase”. This is presented as a blanket comment, a statement of truth, one made on behalf of the entirety of the Church of England. It is a critique that has been offered, in reality, solely by the Archbishop’s Council staff team, a group of insiders who should not be regarded as coterminous with the Church of England.
I am deeply worried that this unrepresentative group has responded to a request from TEC, even allowing for the time constraint Mr. Nye’s response refers to. It is interesting, perhaps even instructive, that the text of the letter seeks to justify the reply being authored by the Archbishops’ Council staff team. If it was unambiguously within the remit of the ‘staffers’ no such justification would be required.
The aims and objectives governing the scope and span of the Archbishops’ Council, taken from the Charity Commission’s website are: ‘Enabling, supporting, sustaining & advancing of the Church’s worship, spiritual & numerical growth, engagement with social justice & environmental issues ,work in education, lifelong learning & discipleship, selection, training, and resourcing of people for public ministry & lay vocations and the inherited fabric of buildings, to maintain & develop these for worship & community service.’
The Church that is referred to is of course the Church of England. The Archbishops’ Council, let alone its staff, has no remit to respond, on behalf of the Church of England, to issues relating to overall Anglican polity. The Archbishops’ Council exists solely for the purposes of enabling mission and ministry in the Church of England, for the people of England. That’s it; that’s all. It should not be used as a vehicle of response on global or doctrinal matters. So yet again, what we have seen is excruciatingly poor governance.
The letter also makes the following statement: ‘For a majority in the Communion, and in the Church of England (not to mention the Church Catholic) Holy Scripture is held to rule that sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is contrary to God’s will.’ Now I can’t speak for the Church Catholic but I do want to suggest that this a massive, sweeping, and very possibly unfounded statement from a Church of England perspective.
Where is the empirical evidence to support this claim? What does polling suggest? Well, polling doesn’t suggest anything for the simple reason that the Church of England has conscientiously chosen not to poll her members. We simply don’t know what the majority in the pews think or believe. So why not poll our ‘membership?’ Why, not produce a simple survey designed to show the range of beliefs on issues relating to marriage and sexuality and ask everyone who attends church on the middle two Sundays in October (the dates that the Church of England uses for the gathering of mission statistics) to complete it? It would be a really easy and straightforward exercise to undertake and it would lead the Church of England to a place where it was able to make statements on the basis of hard, verifiable, evidence. Surely this would be a useful and illuminating exercise?
But, it won’t happen because truth is a frightening thing. Its far easier to make assumptions, or simply to tell people what they ought to believe. It won’t happen because conservative ‘leaders’ don’t want the genie out of the bottle either in the Church of England as a whole, or in their own church. It won’t happen because the Church of England is gripped by fear; we simply don’t want to know what people really think and believe.
In the absence of hard evidence my suspicion is that ‘the pressure to dissociate the Church of England from TEC’ is based on assumption and, entirely driven by one group within what is supposed to be a famously broad church. If the Church of England, through her various instruments of governance, purport to speak for the breadth of the church then they really ought to find out what the widest possible constituency think and, believe. In the absence of data all that is left is speculation and assumption and, tragically, ‘pressure’ from the most threatening of voices; that is the real theo-politic behind the response written by Mr. Nye on behalf of the Archbishop’s Council.
It seems to me that the Church of England has two choices: courage or fear. My suspicion is that fear, masquerading as strong and decisive leadership, underpinned by assumption (fears’ best friend), and, a lax attitude towards governance will continue have its toxic way.
The only way to relieve the pressure from within is to find out what people really do think and believe. This will take courage for the data may well stand contrary to the assumptions that are so often presented as fact. (And, in the meantime can we please make sure that our governance is of the highest possible standard?)