I enjoyed listening to Archbishop Justin’s interview with the BBC on Sunday evening. I think that he is quite correct in calling for a renewed focus on mental health and for a new post COVID vision for a fairer, more equitable society; one in which each and every citizen feels that they have a legitimate stake.
However, as I have this week been musing on the notion of the ‘new vision,’ I have felt increasingly unsettled for surely the church must also be the embodiment, incarnation and ‘first fruits,’ of the ‘new vision?’
If the church wants, and is prophetically calling for, a ‘bias to the poor,’ alongside a spirit of ‘radical new inclusivity,’ in society as a whole (to borrow two phrases) then this is surely what the church must simultaneously model, and crucially, be seen to model. Our legitimacy to talk prophetically into the big debates of our time is, I reckon, contingent on out willingness to simultaneously look inwardly with a commitment to being a very different church. The church, just like society, indeed needs rebuilding. We should all be Franciscans now!
Rebuilding the church, and relegitimising the church, in the eyes of a public which may well regard us (for the church is the people as well as the building let us not forget!) as an irrelevance, an historical legacy from a bygone age, will take courage, and a commitment to go way beyond the cosmetic, although the cosmetic will, in fact, be very important for as a friend once reminded me ‘real change always starts with the optics.’
So what optics could we start with to get ourselves, the insiders, believing that change is really underway, that a ‘new vision’ really is being crafted? The first place I would be tempted to start would be General Synod, with the removal of the special seats reserved for the bishops. This might seem a small, perhaps even pedantic, but surely if we want to model a sense of equality and stress that all have an equal stake then having only one, standard class, seating plan may well have a significant democratising, and freeing, effect.
I do also think we need to think very carefully about the episcopacy, and optics around the episcopacy. Are purple shirts really necessary and what message do they convey? What is the effect of differential stipends, on the bishops themselves? (I have never understood the rationale for differential stipends). Have supererogatory titles outlived their use, with their tendency to talk to preferment and status as opposed to healthy functionality? Could it be that titles such as ‘The Most,’ ‘The Right’ ‘The Very’ and ‘The Venerable’ should be dispensed with? What do such self-descriptions say about the church, to society? Are they the language of the visionary?
Sorting out the optics will help change the culture, of that, I think, there can be little doubt. But, we clearly need to go further, far further. In particular we need to head to the north, both east and west. It is an inescapable fact that there is a bias, in all of our structures, and all of our finances to the south, or southern province (which is not to say that south equals rich and north equals poor, for there are also real structural imbalances within the southern province). If the Church of England is to model – incarnate – any form of new vision then now is the time to start redistributing assets: money and people. Put simply: we need to put our money and our people where our mouth is.
One of my frustrations is that the need to redistribute is frequently discussed at General Synod, with resolutions calling for ‘every diocese,’ or ‘every parish’ to do X,Y or Z, and then the conversation stalls. We need to move beyond talk and into action if we truly desire to be a prophetic and visionary church. If we are to be taken seriously we need to be the vision we demand to see.
There are no short cuts, or easy solutions to rebuilding the church, to becoming a truly visionary church, even a fit and proper and prophetic church. It will take courage and decisiveness (and the church is not very good at being decisive) and it will mean that the ‘mighty’ may need to voluntarily climb down from their ‘thrones,’ relinquishing power, status, and, yes, cash. If we are going to talk truth to power with integrity, alongside ‘filling the hungry with good things,’ through acts of loving service, then change must start, and be seen to start, from within.
Fashioning a new vision for the church must, or course, be underpinned by prayer. But, what we mustn’t do is to allow prayer to become a stalling tactic, for in reality we perhaps already know what needs to be done. We need to not only pray the Magnificat but be the Magnificat.
Let me finish with a prayer by Percy Dearmer, called New Vision:
O God our Shepherd, give to the Church a new vision and a new charity, new wisdom and fresh understanding, the revival of her brightness and the renewal of her unity; that the eternal message of the Son, undefiled by the traditions of men, may be hailed as the good news of the new age. Through him who maketh all things new, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.