Speaking of the Oxford letter

A confession: I wasn’t surprised when the letter from the bishops hit my in box.

But what should we make of the letter? Is it just a straightforward restatement of the church’s current position, or is it something different?

My own view is that the Oxford letter is different and that it does seek to move things on. I also think that it requires careful reading and that it should be read alongside the letter from the eleven evangelical bishops. The Oxford letter is nuanced in three ways:

First, it suggests that bishops should be free to speak their mind whilst also stating that the current default position, adopted by many bishops, of ‘remaining silent on these issues is not serving the Church well.’ My hope, and expectation, is that the Oxford bishops, alongside others, will have more to say, so that they can fulfill their mandate to serve the ‘Church well.’

I applaud the statement that ‘as bishops we will continue to listen to different streams in the debate. We will seek to be honest about our own views and also listen with respect to the views of others.’ As a priest in the Oxford diocese, and as the proud dad of a gay daughter (who as the letter stresses really isn’t a problem to be solved) I look forward to hearing more.

Secondly, the letter makes it clear that experience is to be highly valued. Yes the Church of England must ensure that any debates about sexuality ‘are grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition,’ but where ‘attention to people’s experiences’  is a constant theological companion. The letter proposes a highly incarnational, non dogmatic, method of doing theology.  In proposing this methodology the Oxford bishops, are in my view, offering an approach which meets the demands, made by the eleven evangelical bishops, for ‘serious intellectual engagement.’

 However, they also seem to be suggesting that their method of ‘doing theology’ is unlikely to lead to a‘single universal ethic.’ The statement that  all should be able to be ‘authentically themselves,’ is to be applauded.

Thirdly, the letter is thoroughly Anglican, in that it recognizes that a theological motif –  such as “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church”  – can only have any real currency, or content, when it comprises the pastoral (hence the establishment of a dedicated chaplaincy), the sacramental and the liturgical. I found the section on Liturgy (notice the language; Liturgy) one of the most interesting in the letter.

Liturgy and Prayers:

As Bishops we are receiving an increasing number of enquiries seeking guidance in this area. There is no authorised public liturgy for such prayers. The Guidelines are clear that “Services of blessing should not be provided” (21). However, there is positive encouragement for clergy to respond pastorally and sensitively.

We warmly welcome dialogue and conversation with clergy across the Diocese who are looking for further guidance. This is, of course, one of the key areas under review in the Pastoral Advisory Group. Depending on the timetable of the national group’s work, we may look to draw the fruits of our own conversations and reflections together in the short-term for the benefit of this Diocese.

Gone is the pernicious notion of ‘informal prayers’ whilst the expectation that the Pastoral Advisory Group will be considering liturgy is expressly referred to, with the  paragraph finishing with a note of contingency, ‘depending on……’

The Oxford bishops are committed to building a Christ-like church and have identified three values as animators of this aspiration: compassion, contemplation and courage. By pledging to listen to the experiences of LGBTIQ+ Christians and allowing such experiences to help shape the future direction of the church, alongside the acknowledgment that ‘as a Church we have continually failed our sisters and brothers in Christ’ the bishops have shown real compassion. Listening, deep listening, is of course also the very heart beat of contemplative practice. In writing this letter, in the sure and certain knowledge that there will be some very real kick-back, and through their insistence, that silence does not serve the Church well, alongside a commitment to express their own views with integrity the Oxford bishops have been courageous, for courage is worked out in the most difficult, most contentious and most potentially divisive issues.

Well done Oxford bishops.










Speaking of cathedrals, mission and evangelism.

It is always seems a bit odd to me when the church talks about cathedrals as though they are a homogeneous group, for there are many types of cathedral: there are the great metropolitan cathedrals (St. Paul’s and Liverpool for instance), there are city cathedrals (Coventry, Sheffield and Birmingham), there are small city and market town cathedrals ( Wells, Hereford) and there are parish church cathedrals (Derby, Portsmouth, Blackburn). Some cathedrals are world heritage sites or places of real beauty (Durham and Salisbury) whilst others are a little more contemporary (Guildford).  Some cathedrals seem to engage with and resource the diocese, as the mother church, other cathedrals come across as atomized and isolated. Cathedrals are both something of a mixed bag and a mixed blessing.

I am pretty sure that we could come up with many more categories of cathedral; my list is not exhaustive. There are also churches that are cathedralesque in nature: some of the crown peculiars (St. George’s Windsor, Westminster Abbey) and the greater churches (Tewkesbury Abbey and Beverley Minster). And, of course, just being legally designated as an entity doesn’t say everything about the quality of vibe of the entity.

Like many, perhaps even most, who attend cathedrals (on my rare weekends off we tend to worship in a cathedral), I have found the quality and vibe to be extremely variable. I have also found the numbers to be a bit hit and miss.  I am not convinced that talking about cathedrals as homologous entities is useful. Some are growing in number, some are seeking to work with their congregations so that they also grow in-depth and holiness, some are passionate about mission and evangelism, some seek to serve their diocese as the mother church, but some simply do what they do and hope that people will turn up.  Being afforded the status of a  cathedral isn’t enough; the character of a thing, isn’t determined by the label on the thing. So how can we assess the character and commitments of cathedrals?

The obvious starting place is probably with the liturgical experience as the most common argument put forward for growth in cathedral worship is the quality of the worship. Quality is, in some ways, a strange term when related to worship. Quality can be a word used to donate a sense of technical excellence, but what it doesn’t necessarily do is shed light on the level of humanity lodged within the excellence framework.

I have attended cathedral services where I have felt as though I have witnessed a jolly good performance of something that I would have gladly paid to attend and, I have been to cathedral services where a sense of real warmth underpins the entirety of the liturgy. I have been to cathedral services which score a maximum 10/10 for technical excellence and yet where the chapter simply disappeared after the Eucharist and others where the ‘performance’ might only have scored 7 or 8/10 but where the Dean was to be found serving coffee after the service. I know which I prefer! My sense is that flourishing, nurturing (and possibly growing?) cathedrals have a real commitment to diaconal expressions of ministry. My own approach to mission and evangelism as a priest in a choral, liturgical and sacramental context, has been shaped by what I think of as the diaconal-cathedral model. Thank you to all who have modeled it for me, so well.

There is one place above all others that intrigues me in a cathedral: the shop. Its pretty simple the shop tells you everything you need to know about the cathedrals commitment to mission and evangelism. The tragedy is that in some cathedrals the shop is more akin to a National Trust outlet. Cathedrals which take mission and evangelism seriously have affordable guides to prayer, reading the bible and so forth. In fact I can’t really understand why cathedrals don’t produce their own free take homes.

A third lens through which the quality of a cathedral can be assessed is through the composition of the chapter. I am always intrigued when a cathedral has a canon pastor or a canon missioner. The presence of the canon pastor would seem to indicate that a cathedral is taking its congregation seriously and is deeply committed to its growth in holiness. The presence of a canon missioner is suggestive of a commitment to diaconal expressions of mission and evangelism.

I have never had a problem with labels in the sense that they do provide a short cut into expectation. Labeling a church a cathedral should provide some insight into the style of worship on offer, but what it can’t do is provide any meaningful information relating to the depth and warmth of the experience or the commitment to mission and evangelism and the desire to resource.

The Church of England needs her mother churches, her cathedrals, to model all that is good and holy. Our cathedrals need to be generous and inspirational. They need to be resourcing, diaconal and missional.

For the good of the whole church they need to be far more than well attended visitor attractions. They need to exude a sense of the living God rather than being what we might think of as religious museums. Some do this, others don’t.  Whatever cathedrals may be the one thing they are not is homogeneous.

As a post script the cathedrals that have impressed and inspired me most this year are Blackburn and Truro. The greater church that left me stunned by the quality of its hospitality, where such hospitality was clearly an expression of its Benedictine foundation, is Tewkesbury Abbey.

These three have been, for me, exemplars of the diaconal-cathedral model of church.


Reflecting on ecumenism, liturgy and mental health.

I started to feel nervous at about five p.m. last Sunday evening. By six forty-five I was just plain drained, exhausted, spent. The reason for my journey from nervousness to exhaustion was the service we were hosting for Living With, Through and Beyond Anxiety, Depression and Fear. Putting on such a service and crafting a safe liturgy felt like a big deal; it was a big deal.

In my benefice we have three aspirations, hospitality, holiness and healing. These three aspirations clearly overlap, they are mutually reinforcing.

Over the last eighteen months or so we have begun to think about what healing might look like, and what we can offer, in relation to mental health. We are still working this out. I suppose my passion for pointing our healing ministry in the direction of mental health derives from my own experience of depression and anxiety; the two most painful conditions I have ever had to come to terms with.

When we were crafting the service we wanted to be very clear that what we were offering was a form of healing, where the emphasis is on the ing, hence the phrase ‘with, through and beyond.’ We also wanted to offer something reflective, calm, mindful and scriptural. These four characteristics informed the shape of the liturgy.

The readings we used were Psalm 61,1-4, Lamentations 3, 19-26,Lamentations 3, 55-56, 1 Peter 5, 6-7 and Matthew 11, 28; each reading was followed by a short period of silence.

We also listened together, in solidarity, to three pieces of music: Be still for the presence of the Lord, Bless the Lord my soul, and Karl Jenkins’ Benedictus. We had a period of mindful prayer where those attending were invited to consciously bring to my mind all that was causing them pain and / or anxiety, followed by the ritual of taking a stone and laying it at the foot of an altar cross in one of our chapels.

We also offered anointing. A colleague of mine, who is a retired hospital chaplain and an ordained URC minister (married to a Roman Catholic), yet who worships primarily in the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church (top that for ecumenism!) anointed those who came forward, whilst I was available for prayer ministry. Virtually everyone came forward for anointing, but very few for prayer ministry. Make of that what you will!

The thing that really staggered me was both the demand and the reach of the service. Over forty people came, but I only knew or recognised around half of them. I was also aware of a good ten or fifteen people who couldn’t make it due to being on half term-holiday.

I do know that many of those who attended do not normally worship in the Church of England, and that others were what we might think of us as very occasional worshipers; people on the fringe. This has caused me to think about how we reach out to those who either can’t, or don’t, feel able to attend our normal regular services. How do we seek to pastor to and feed such people?  I was also aware that many of those who came did so with friends and family members. Maybe, perhaps for the first time, some of those who came were able to say to a loved one, or a close friend, ‘I am suffering’? 

So what are my reflections on Sunday evening and our ongoing work in relation to depression, anxiety and fear?

  • Anxiety, depression and fear are ecumenical, and universal, afflictions. It sounds simple, but its true! Our hospitality and healing ministry should therefore extend beyond denominational boundaries.
  • A carefully crafted liturgy whose aim is to provide a safe space is crucial.
  • Ritual is important.
  • Prayer, or at least prayer ministry, is less important (although it my have been of great benefit to those few who came forward.)
  • There needs to be a ‘take home.’ The liturgy we created was written in such a way that it could also be used by individuals.
  • People will come if what is offered appears relevant (we offered the service through the parish magazine, social media and the kind cooperation of neighboring churches).
  • People will respond to the invitation for healing. People did so in biblical times and they will do so now. Healing should be normative to the life of the church.
  • ‘Healing’ services are uniquely exhausting.

I think they are exhausting because in opening ourselves to other’s pain we become acutely aware of our own. Is it too clichéd to suggest that we anoint as ‘wounded healers?’ We also know from the gospels that Jesus frequently felt exhausted and depowered after he had healed people. On a purely practical level I found it incredibly helpful to spend a few minutes with my U.R.C. Anglican Catholic friend after the service, debriefing and praying.

We learnt that there clearly is a demand for this type of service. We also learnt, at a very basic level, that God’s people are hurting. I think we will continue to offer, maybe twice yearly, services designed to help people live ‘with, through and beyond’ anxiety and depression whilst also thinking and praying about what more we may do.








Talking of the evangelical bishops letter

Let’s start by letting the numbers sink in. Eleven bishops, including four diocesan bishops, have signed a letter to the Bishop of Coventry which seeks to reassert the church’s historic teaching on sexuality (whilst seeking to be nice and kind to the LGBTIQ+ community).

Now what we don’t know is whether they are supported by a whole cadre of other traditionalist bishops of various hues who feel that at present they cannot, or dare not, put pen to paper. But, as it stands the basic fact is that only eleven bishops, including four diocesan bishops, have actually put pen to paper.

My suspicion is that we haven’t heard the last episcopal words on the vexed issue of sexuality and that there is more to come from protagonists on both sides of the debate. Time will tell. I think, however, what we can safely surmise is that the bishops are not united on this issue. Disunity clearly exists in the episcopacy.

We can probably also surmise that the signatories of the letter believe that some form of change in doctrine and liturgy are at least possible, otherwise why bother with their salvo? So, paradoxically, this letter might just be a source of hope for those seeking to see greater levels of inclusion and equity.

But what of the letter itself?

Well, it’s a pity that the signatories couldn’t work out whether ‘non heterosexual’ people should be referred to as LGBT+ or LBGT+. Such editorial sloppiness can only seek to reinforce the view that some bishops are happier talking about, rather than directly with, a particular and distinct community of interest.

The signatories were keen to stress that issues of human sexuality (code for non heterosexuality) can only be resolved through a process of ‘serious intellectual engagement…. deep learning and again ,serious intellectual persuasion.’

So, where is the serious intellectual engagement in the content of the letter? It seems to me that the letter is written from the basis that a binary and complementary  understanding of creation is a given, even as it is keen to stress ‘that we are made in God’s image,’ albeit that we have all ‘fallen captive to sin.’ The line of argument is incredibly confused: we have all been made / created in God’s image whether straight of LGBTIQ+, yet the LGBTIQ+ community in particular, despite being made in the very image of God, can be assessed and categorized as having ‘fallen captive to sin.’ 

How can this be?

Well the signatories, thankfully, provide the answer through their assertion that  our ‘fundamental identity is not something we define for ourselves.’ I agree with this statement. We don’t get to choose! I didn’t choose my sexuality (or at least I can’t remember the moment of conscious choice) and I don’t suppose that the vast majority of my LGBTIQ+ family and friends got to choose either. When the choice line of argument is made I am always left wanting to ask: ‘when did you choose and on what basis?’ Choice is normally regarded as involving two or more possible outcomes and is based largely on experience.

Having sat with, talked with, and prayed with, many LGBTIQ+ friends I know that if many of them could have chosen to be heterosexual they would have done. It would have saved them from a whole load of bullying, ridicule and deep hurt. It would have preserved some of them in family relationships. It would have meant being able to live with an absence of fear. For some it would have meant an end to self-loathing and self-harm. So, please, when we say that our ‘fundamental identity is not something we define for ourselves’ can we, as the church, at least do so with consistency and from the true recognition that ‘that we are (all) made in God’s image,’ and that there is no hierarchy within the Iamgo Dei. We are either all made in the image of God, or none of us are.

The letter also suggests that those who argue for change do so lightly, in the absence of serious ‘intellectual engagement’ with both the Bible and the tradition. The capitulation to culture line of argument is, uncritically, employed: ‘We also believe that LLF must recognise and address the wider challenges in church and society to traditional Christian teaching.’  I would want to suggest that most of the progressive, or revisionist, Christians I know have spent an awfully long time with their experience and feelings in one hand and the bible and tradition in the other. If anyone doubts this they might want to read Marcus Green’s recently published ‘The Possibility of Difference.’ 

And, what of pastoral care? The bishops are keen to stress that pastoral care for the LGBTIQ+ community must be a priority whilst also stating that it is important ‘to consider the limits of legitimate pastoral practice.’ The bishop’s concern here is the use of liturgy to affirm, bless or even marry same-sex couples. What the bishops rightfully recognise is that the Church of England, as a liturgical church, expresses both doctrine alongside ‘tone and culture,’ through liturgy. I also suspect that they rightfully recognize that the notion of ‘informal prayers,’ (be nice to the gays but don’t do it ritefully) is antithetical to Anglicanism. But, what they don’t seem to understand is that members of the LGBTIQ+ community are highly unlikely to seek pastoral care, support and affirmation from those who believe that their very identity is a matter of choice, worse still a choice that is an anathema to the creator God. The  reflection that during and through various conversations and presentations ‘we heard and felt afresh the depth and breadth of so many people’s pains, fears and hopes’ and yet, we would still want to hold the view that somehow the Church of England must cling unflinchingly to the preservation of the status quo, comes across as harsh, judgmental, patronizing, and theologically hierarchical.

The signatories to the letter offer a broad historical survey to support their case ‘that reaffirming this (historic) teaching offers us the best way of maintaining our unity-in-truth.’  Unity-in-truth, or at least their perception of truth is thus perceived to be the highest good, or the noblest of ecclesiological and theological virtues, outranking justice, love, fidelity and covenant (all theological motifs that the letter fails to reference; all issues that need to be addressed if ‘serious intellectual engagement’ is to be satisfied).

The bishops, perhaps forget, despite referencing the recent work of  ARCIC III, that the Church of England is a Reformed (and some would argue reforming) Catholic church.  For a group of bishops who would consider themselves to be heirs to the reformation to argue that unity (in their perception of truth) is the highest good is an incredibly weak line of argument.

The signatories also reference the messiness that has necessarily followed when other Anglican churches have opened their marriage rites to all. They argue that mess is per se bad thing. Well, I think we need a reality check: the Church of England is both broad and messy. We are good at living with mess and seeming incoherence. This might be a virtue or it might be a vice, but it is, I would suggest, a truth. There is no logical reason why on this issue divergent groups within the Church of England can’t peacefully co-exist.

As a progressive I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, mandate a traditionalist to affirm, bless or marry a same-sex couple, however why should a conservative seek to prevent others from doing so? Sexuality isn’t after all given to be a first order (salvation) issue and marriage isn’t officially considered to be a sacrament. So, why are the conservative-traditionalists so keen to say ‘over my dead body,’  why are they seeking to prevent any change, and why are they prepared to suppress the legitimate claims  of one group of people, people who they affirm (either inadvertently or advertently) are ‘made in God’s image,’ ?

What is really going on here? That’s the question I am left with.







Talking of The Clash, Bonhoeffer, and the Church of England.

I suppose that many, perhaps even most, self-proclaimed members of the Church of England have something of a love-hate relationship with ‘mother church.’ Sometimes she delights us but gosh can she frustrate, annoy, even anger many of us. In fact sometimes she can be so annoying that we may be tempted to walk or even flounce away. But, for some strange, mystical, reason most of us don’t walk; we stay. Perhaps the love for mother-church tends to be stronger than the resentment (I don’t want to use the word hate again!) we feel? Or perhaps its a sense of proprietary ownership, a sense that ‘its my church.’ I certainly feel like this. The Church of England did after all baptize me, confirm me, marry me and ordain me. In very basic terms the Church of England – mother church – has set me up for my life’s journey. She has done so in the only way she can; through her rites and sacraments (there really is no other way).

But the painful truth of the matter is simply this: that I am one of her favored children. I didn’t ask to be treated as a favorite but I am. I am not treated as a favorite because I am kinder, nicer, more devout, better at preaching, or because I look stunning when dressed up for church. No, I am favored because I am educated, white, male and heterosexual. These are the shallow characteristics through which I am favored. None of these, of course, speak to notions of virtue, godliness, and character; the things that really matter.

My problem is that some time ago God exploded my bubble. He introduced me, at first inconveniently, to disability and then to homosexuality. He introduced me to the equally beloved other. God showed me the glory of diversity in the created order and that godliness, righteousness, and fruitfulness come from the depth of the soul and are not the consequences of immediately observable, or shallow, characteristics.

My even bigger problem is that the Church of England has favored me, but that it is unlikely to favor my friends and family. As things stand she won’t turn up to, still less host, the marriage of my gay friends and family. She is in many ways a distant, remote, and cold aunt, friend, and grandparent. And, that makes me sad. It makes me ask, in the words of The Clash, ‘Should I stay, or should I go?’

The answer, for me, although over the last week or so I have met others who have come to a different conclusion (I have also spoken to a ‘senior cleric’ who is giving serious thought to whether he can, with integrity,remain in his current post), is that I will stay. My rationale is that it is my church. It isn’t the bishop’s church, its my church. And its my friends church. And, its my daughter’s church. Its the national church, the people’s church. But, ultimately its God’s church and God it seems, looks beyond the shallow and into the deep.

Having said that I will stay, I think I would also want to say that my sense of proprietary ownership may be contingent on the overall direction of travel. At present I continue to believe that mother church is on a journey towards full inclusion, full and equal rites. I also believe that the journey will be long, slow and torturous. However, I may be wrong (he says in all humility!). If it becomes clear that I am wrong, then I would have to seriously consider going, for as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said ‘if you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.’

To change direction for a brief moment I was also struck by the question of whether the Church of England (through the office of the Church Commissioners) should stay or go in relation to climate change. In the back page interview Danielle Paffard laments the decision of the Church of England not join other investment institutions in deciding to dis-invest from fossil fuel companies, whilst Loretta Minghella (the First Estates Church Commissioner) argues that it is better to remain at the table as an active shareholder and seek to persuade the fossil fuel companies to change strategy. Loretta Minghella in justifying the strategy appeals to the fact that if the companies don’t comply with the terms of the Paris Agreement by 2023 then disinvestment will follow.

I suspect that if, by 2023, the direction of travel in the Church of England isn’t totally, unequivocally, visibly, clear many will also simply take the decision to go; some quietly in a mood of resigned sorrow, some loudly and with real anger . Making clear the direction of travel, the destination of the train, or ship, is the most basic task of leadership. 

Let me finish with The Clash and their anthem to family torment:

Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
It’s always tease, tease, tease
You’re happy when I’m on my knees
One day it’s fine and next it’s black
So if you want me off your back
Well, come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
This indecision’s bugging me (esta indecision me molesta)
If you don’t want me, set me free (si no me quieres, librame)
Exactly whom I’m supposed to be (digame que tengo ser)
Don’t you