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!




Speaking of the wonderful old writers; in search of the significant

The management scientist Henry Mintzberg wrote in his introduction to the Strategy Safari that:

‘There is a terrible bias in today’s management literature towards the current, the latest, the hottest. This does a disservice, not only to all those wonderful old writers, but especially to readers who are all too frequently offered the trivial new instead of the significant old.’ 

It is a quote, nay a sentiment, that I very much like. I also think it is a sentiment applicable beyond its context (i.e. the management sciences).

Is there a danger in the life of the church that works of real significance are being left to gather dust on library shelves in favour of shiny new coffee table offerings?

Now I am not saying for one minute that there aren’t contemporary books that are both wonderful and significant (I would highly recommend Steven Croft’s ‘The Gift of Leadership, for instance), but I am suggesting that within the Christian Literary Tradition there are books that should be read and read again by successive generations, not simply for their own sake, but so that the church really can preach the gospel afresh to, and for, each generation. Paradoxically the goal of freshness might mean reaching into the treasure chest marked ‘ old works of significance.’

I think I would also suggest that it is the responsibility of all who are involved in the leadership of theological education to curate such works to prevent them from losing their significance. So here are five of my ‘must reads,’ which have been categorized into five ‘leadership spheres:’

Ordained Ministry:  The Christian Priest Today, Michael Ramsey

Worship: The Mystery of Christian Worship, Odo Casel

Discipleship: The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Organisational behaviour, managerial decision-making, virtue based leadership:  The Rule of Benedict, St Benedict

Pastoral care: Pastoral Care, Pope Gregory I

Of course this ‘reading list’ is hopelessly incomplete both in terms of author and categories covered. But, hopefully, it’s a start. I would be very interested to find out who others consider to be ‘wonderful old writers,’ who should be read by successive generations, such is the significance of their work.

My thesis is that if we, the church, really want to keep the christian tradition alive and relevant we need to engage with the wonderful writers of old.






Speaking of faith, speaking of inclusion

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Matthew 15, 21-28; ‘The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.’ Could there be a more fitting gospel narrative for our times?

There seem to be three things ‘wrong’ with the Canaanite Woman. Two of her ‘wrongs’ are given away in the title:  she is a woman and, she is a Canaanite. Her third ‘wrong’ is in having a thoroughly dodgy daughter; so dodgy that we are told she is possessed by an evil spirit.

The Canaanite woman is the archetype of someone whose very presence is unsettling, disturbing, even unwelcome. The Canaanite woman is the sort of person designed to inhabit the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind.’  But, the amazing thing about the unnamed, and therefore shamed Canaanite woman, is that she is audacious, plucky and, possibly, let’s be honest, a bit of a pain in the backside. Oh yes, and she has faith. In fact I would go further and say she has a quality of faith. This quality of faith allows her to do two things: acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Son of David whilst also saying I too am who I am, and my offspring are just as important the offspring produced by your family and, friends.

At first Jesus seems to say ‘no you are not, and no they are not.’ Jesus appears to be invoking an in-group out-group mentality to the very great approval of his disciples. After all his disciples have complained about this third-rate individual to Jesus in frank and certain terms:

‘Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy,’ (Message Bible).

It seems as though in ancient biblical times people who were ranked second, third, or even fourth-rate drove the in group crazy! Plus ca change.

However the tables are slowly turned as the woman’s faith compels her to persist with her demands. I wonder how it must have felt for the watching disciples as their friend, leader and Messiah-to-be, cedes to the woman’s wishes? Again I like how the Message Bible puts it:

‘Oh woman your faith is something else. What you want is what you get.’

The disciples who had hitherto been allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to consider this Canaanite woman a worthy and a legitimate candidate for exclusion are forced to watch as Jesus affirms both her right, and her daughters, to be included. The Canaanite woman stands both for those who are excluded and, those who have children who may, on whatever grounds, be excluded.

I reckon the disciples must have been shocked and stunned by Jesus apparent volte face. I wish Matthew had told us something about the post encounter debrief between Jesus and the disciples but there again maybe it is better that he didn’t. Pehaps this is a space that we need to enter into using our imagination?

Perhaps, the questions we need to ask include who are the contemporary equivalents of the Canaanite woman, and, for what contemporary out-groups does the Canaanite woman stand as an archetype?

And,possibly here is a lesson for all who consider themselves to be part of an ever so right in group: those whose faith compels them to seek inclusion based on the straightforward acceptance of who they are before God are not going to stop, again in the words of the Message Bible, ‘coming back’ with their demands.

Perhaps one of the most significant lessons from the story of the Canaanite woman and her faith is that the demands for acceptance, recognition and inclusion, rightfully and rite-fully, in the life of the church, by out-groups whatever the critics may say, stems from one source: faith.




Speaking of wealth and poverty; in praise of Philip North

‘The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’

Fortunately this stanza from All Things Bright and Beautiful is rarely sung these days. Perhaps, at least at the cognitive and explicit level of reasoning, we no longer quite buy into a hierarchical and stoical theology of existence?  But, maybe, the Church of England at a deep and unacknowledged level does in fact continue to be guided by such theologically poor assumptions?

Bishop Philip North certainly believes that the Church of England seems to have a bias towards the middle class and, wealthy.  Or, more precisely, the churchy and ever so slightly glamorous  home counties set. And, he is very possibly correct.

I have a lot of sympathy with the drift of + Philip’s argument even though I am not totally convinced by some of his analysis or the generalizations he makes. +Philip, for instance, seems to regard poverty as an entirely urban and northern phenomena. I am not sure this is true. Rural poverty also is a cruel, and isolating, thing. Real urban poverty is to be found in Swindon, Slough and Shoeburyness all of which are in the south. Perhaps, I am just splitting hairs?

Bishop Philip’s grand claim is that ‘every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised.’ Some have that suggested this, whilst sounding grand, is not true. I think what I would argue that every effective and enduring renewal movement has sought to remove distinctions between rich and, poor challenging the notion that socio-economic stratification is somehow divinely ‘ordered.’ 

St. Benedict famously did this when he wrote that ‘the greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and to pilgrims, because it is in them above all others, that Christ is welcomed. As for the rich, they have a way of exacting respect through they very fear inspired by the power they yield,’ (R.O.B. Chapter 53). Turning to a fresher expression of church St. Francis’ theology was also biased not only to the poor, but to the very act of becoming impoverished. Both St. Benedict and St. Francis were educated middle class boys who understood that care and compassion for the poor and the building of communities which eradicated the distinction between rich and poor are a large and significant part of authentic Christian mission and evangelism. Perhaps their confidence was vested in the notion that Jesus was a middle class boy whose very mission was to make the Kingdom of God fully available to all?

Bishop Philip is surely right to challenge the Church of England to invest in mission activities which look unglamorous and where the short-term payback is unquantifiable. He is correct in challenging the Church of England to stop being so impressed by SW1 & 2 models of mission and evangelism. He is impressive in standing alongside the likes of Pope Francis in seeking a a church that is poor and for the poor.” He is prophetic in asking the Church of England to finally and completely jettison a theology which in many ways continues to believe in the unsung line which declares that ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.’ So here is the question for the allocators of church funds:

Do we (and yes I am part of the collective we) continue to believe at a deep, but unspoken level, that rich and poor exist in a divinely appointed hierarchy of estates?  I suspect that we do and that Bishop Philip is right to challenge some very deeply held assumptions; assumptions that guide some of the Church of England’s most important investment decisions. Finally I suspect that Bishop Philip would endorse the words of Oscar Romero:

‘If we really want to learn the meaning of conversion and faith, if we want to learn what it means to trust other people, then it is necessary to become poor or, at the very least, it is necessary to make the cause of the poor our own. That is when one begins to experience faith and conversion: when one has the heart of the poor, when one knows that financial capital, political influence, and power are worthless, and that without God we are nothing.’ 

As a church we need to stop being so focused on the shiny, the glitzy, the apparently successful and, the contemporary. We need, if we are truly interested in building enduring and effective renewal movements to find ways of learning the lessons bequeathed by the likes of Benedict, Francis, Oscar Romero and, yes, Jesus. If we don’t we might as well start singing once more ‘‘the rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’ 

The investment decisions we – the Church of England – make are ultimately reflections of the theology we prize and, for me at least, that is a sobering thought. Thank you Philip North.





Talking of sin

On Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement. The statement can be read through the link to the Thinking Anglicans website:


The statement, I fear, may well end up causing more heat than light.

One of the things I find interesting is the archbishops willingness to use the word sin. I am grateful for this because sin is the notion at the heart of the long running ‘debate’ around issues of human sexuality, which is a churchy term for homosexuality, for we spend little or no time ‘debating’ heterosexuality.

I was also encouraged by the archbishops willingness to locate sin in both the communal and individual spheres. The communique was right to suggest that legal sanctions against consenting adults are always wrong irrespective of sexuality. Some of the Primates in the Anglican Communion may well feel a little bruised by the reminder of their mutually agreed commitment to argue against criminal sanctions for homosexual acts, however very few in the Church of England, even those of an ultra conservative persuasion, will find the archbishops suggestion that the criminilization of homosexuality is always wrong, immoral or sinful in the least contentious.

But what about individual sin, for this is where the ‘debate’ for the Church of England becomes contentious?

Are the archbishops arguing that homosexual intimacy is always and necessarily sinful? My own reading is that they don’t quite get to this point although they are clearly seeking to appease those who hold this view. Maybe ++Justin and John’s intention is to bring the debate back to basics and simply get the Church of England focusing on a single issue: the nature and locale of sin? As the Church of England continues to wrestle with issues of human (or do I mean homo) sexuality it is possibly the case that two competing, and very possibly irreconcilable, theologies of sin inform those arguing both for change and no change in doctrine and, praxis.

Those arguing for a re-assertion of the historic position believe that same-sex relationships can never be liturgically affirmed because they are always sinful. Same sex relationships are held to be impure and, are a rejection of a divinely appointed notion of binary complementarity. Only heterosexual relationships can conform to biblical standards of purity. Heterosexual relationships entered into prior to marriage are capable of redemption, homosexual realtionships can never be redeemed. The church, under this scheme,  is therefore correct to assert that the only relationships that can be affirmed and blessed are heterosexual relationships. If the church were to introduce liturgies to affirm and bless same-sex couples the institution itself would become corrupt and even sinful. Sin  would be re-located away from the individual (although the individual would remain in a state of sin)  to the institution.

The progressive view is the polar opposite and its (our) charge is a grave one because sin is already located at the institutional level. The argument is that by denying same-sex couples who wish to have affirmed and blessed their intention to unite in  a life-long monogamous, faithful and, loving relationship the church is denying them  that which should be rightfully (and ritefully) theirs according to the standards of distributive justice.

The ‘debate’ is extremely difficult and contentious because the competing sides are informed by different virtues and both regard an erosion of their cherished virtues as deeply sinful. For one side, the conservative side,  the church is currently on the side of morality (just) whilst a group of individuals, LGBTIQ Christians and their allies are either ‘living in sin,’ or endorsing a sinful ‘life-style. For progressives the inverse is true; sin is primarily located at the institutional level.

Whilst I am truly grateful to the archbishops for raising the stakes by introducing the concept of sin my fear is that by having done so they have begun the process of bringing to the fore two possibly irreconcilable theologies.

But, maybe that was their intention?

If the Church of England is to continue as a unified church, albeit with different views regarding the morality of human sexuality, some serious theological work needs to be undertaken on the relationship between purity and justice. Perhaps the archbishops could appoint some Lambeth theologians to undertake such work for the future of the Church of England might just depend on it. A teaching document, such as the one sponsored by the archbishops, that fails to recognize and address the tension between these two theological virtues will ultimately fail to live up to its aspirations.










Speaking of culture, speaking of tradition.

It seems as though the votes taken at General Synod last weekend in respect of LGBTIQ+ issues may be indicative of a general move towards greater levels of both affirmation and inclusion in the ordinary life of the church. General Synod has, in a significant way, started to flesh out, give content to, the notion of ‘radical new inclusivity.’ This is important because if ‘radical new inclusivity’ is to be effective as a guiding motif it can only be so if it has content. A motif without content will ultimately be exposed as a cheap, meaningless, strap-line or slogan.

There has been a conservative backlash to the votes taken at synod with the same lines of argument being repeated to defend the historic position. But, interestingly, the group blamed for the acceptance of these motions has changed. The target of conservative ire is, currently not the progressives (or liberals) but the middle ground, who are blamed for misunderstanding or willfully ignoring Scripture, capitulating to culture and, jettisoning tradition.

Rob Monro has written that: ‘In previous synods, the non-aligned middle, the roughly 1/3 of synod who don’t self-identify as either conservative or radical, could usually be relied on to be social conservative, to be slow to bow to the pressures that political correctness has always brought. No longer!’

Susie Leafe’s social analysis suggests that: ‘In the space of four days, the General Synod of the Church of England have, in effect, rejected the doctrines of creation, the fall, the incarnation, and our need for conversion and sanctification Instead we have said that we are ‘perfect’ as we are, or as we see ourselves, and that the Church should affirm us and call on God to validate our choices. No wonder we do not want to proclaim Christ’s unique identity and significance for all people.’

So it is clear that a rejection of doctrine caused by an uncritical response to contemporary cultural norms and a downplaying of the importance of tradition (as the guarantor of doctrine) are to blame.

But, the problem is that LGBTIQ+ Christians, and a large number of those who stand beside them in solidarity, have been arguing for change and greater levels of inclusion for decades and, decades. It is simply not accurate to suggest that many of those who wish to see change have bowed before the throne of political correctness. In fact many LGBTIQ+ Christians have stood, over the decades, ‘proud’ against societal and, cultural norms. They have dared to be both politically and theologically incorrect. And, yes they have also challenged the church to look anew at issues such as the doctrines of creation and fall, redemption and sanctification, covenant and relationship. You could argue that they have been a prophetic voice. Perhaps the fact that the middle ground has listened not to culture, but the prophetic voice, needs to be recognised and, celebrated?

‘Tradition’ is often used to defend the status quo. The idea being that we, in the Church of England, have no right, or indeed rite, to change doctrine unilaterally. We must remember, so the line of argument goes, that we are but a branch of the ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ Whilst it is true to affirm our status as an ‘apostolic and catholic church’ applications to tradition in order to ensure stasis in our own position and, solidarity with other branches of the church that also self-define as ‘apostolic and catholic’ don’t necessarily follow. They don’t follow for two reasons:

First, we have consistently changed doctrine for our own ends. We  only have two sacraments, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have seven. We ordain women as bishops, priests and, deacons, the Roman Catholics and Orthodox don’t. Our differences are both sacramental and, concerned with church order. But, both are concerned with doctrine! Doctrine only makes sense as it relates to and is enacted by rites, rituals, sacraments and , liturgies. The guardians of rites, sacraments and, liturgies are those who have official roles in the ordering of the church. Although some conservatives like to separate out doctrine and church order this cannot really work for a church whose creeds articulate that church order is coterminous with doctrine.

Secondly, doctrine in many ‘second order’ (i.e. areas that don’t relate to salvation) areas should be considered provisional. Tradition doesn’t mean acting solely as a curator of historical norms. Tradition, at least according (irony) to that most liberal of theologians Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) should be held respectively, less tradition refuses to pay us due respect:

‘Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as a legitimate tradition…….consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.’ 

This quote is from Ratzinger’s Commentary on the Documents of Vatican ii. I am not suggesting that Ratzinger is a supporter of same-sex marriage, but I am suggesting that his understanding of tradition is accurate, and it is also worth remembering that the doctrinal changes discussed during the Vatican ii process were seismic in nature.

So let’s keep discussing the way ahead and, please let’s do so free from false understandings of the roles played by culture and, tradition.