Hey ho, hey ho & it’s off to synod we go

Next week General Synod convenes for its first meeting of 2019. For me it will be my first time at General Synod. I am one of the newbies.

I go with a mixture of enthusiasm, hope, and anxiety. Enthusiasm, hope, and anxiety pretty much describe how I feel about the state of the Church of England.

I am enthusiastic and hopeful because of the continuing emphasis on evangelism. As a moderately Catholic Anglican I firmly believe that the Church of England has a duty, no a mandate, to evangelize the people of England. If the Church can’t present the gospel and the story of Jesus Christ as good news – the best of news – then we really are wasting not only our own but everyone’s time.

For me evangelism must be holistic. I don’t think it can be straightforwardly  reduced to conversion (although conversion is, for sure, central to the task of evangelism) so I hope and pray for, ‘a bigger church, that makes a bigger difference’ (Bishop Paul Bayes) and passionately believe that, in Archbishop Temple’s words, the world needs ‘more and better Christians.’  

Society needs, badly needs, a robust and healthy church; one which models a better way of living, relating, caring and believing.

Society needs to witness a church which demonstrably stretches out to those on the margins, daring to care from them and, learn from them. Society, and her political leaders, need (even if they don’t recognise the need) to witness a church that understands the plight of the refugee, a church which constantly asks of itself (and others) the fundamental religious questions, such as ‘who is my neighbour?’ 

Society needs to witness a church that cares deeply about the devastating effects of addiction and economic exploitation. Society needs to witness a body that manifestly esteems young and old alike whilst caring for the created order.

The good news, for this newbie, is that the various synod papers make it abundantly clear that the church is deeply committed to such holistic modes of evangelism.

The Church of England also needs to model, for a bitterly and deeply divided society, that good disagreement is truly possible. Good disagreement, or disagreeing well, is a difficult ask of the church because as a motif it applies solely to the deeply contested areas of church life. And, we all know what these are: sexuality and gender.

I was interested and delighted to read the update paper (GS Misc 1200) on the ‘Living in Love and Faith Project,’ because the possibility of living, and hopefully living well, with disagreement appears to be woven into the very fabric of the text. It is hoped  that ‘church and community,’ will:

‘Have learned different ways of reading scripture together well,’  where this implies ‘resisting over simplification and inviting readers to think for themselves.’  GS Misc 1200 points towards a destination where ‘faithful and fair presentations of the breadth of inherited and emergent views’ will be respected and where these will inform ‘the Church’s theological tradition and pastoral and liturgical practice,’ in the recognition that the Church of England is by its very nature an ‘ecclesiology in the context of difference.’ 

If the Church of England can agree to, and absorb into, its pastoral and liturgical structures such difference the result will be the modelling of something truly remarkable for a broken and bitterly divided nation.

In order to live well together, and to remain united whist acknowledging our deeply held differences, requires all of us to commit to living in ‘love and charity with our neighbour,’ whilst making sure that we ‘do not presume to come to the table trusting in our own righteousness but in his manifold and great mercies.’ 

My anxiety? Well, it’s simply this: that we fail to incorporate good disagreement fully, pastorally, and liturgically, into the life of the church. If we fail to do so we will fail the test set by love and charity having fallen back on our own, perhaps misplaced, sense of righteousness. We will become just another broken and divided institution in a broken and divided world.

Hey ho, hey ho, it’s off to synod we go.

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Talking of inclusivity, offence and rejection

Earlier this week it was suggested to me that in ‘my rush to be inclusive’  I may not have thought through the supposed negative consequences of ‘inclusivity.’

I still don’t know quite how I feel about this observation and am unclear whether the criticism implied that a) I haven’t given much, if any, serious theological thought to transgender (and other) issues, before coming to a conclusion or b) that, although I may have sought to think things through, my thought processes were deeply and structurally flawed.

I suspect that many of us (me included) like to play the ‘you haven’t really thought things through’ card when it appears that events have moved, or are moving, in a direction we find uncomfortable. It’s a fairly easy card to play, and in some ways I am happy to cede the point; I am not as thoughtful as I would like to be. I need to keep reflecting, thinking and praying about inclusivity for inclusivity, or a commitment to inclusivity, is about process, growth and pilgrimage.

The inclusive journey is a pilgrimage whose final destination is affirmation of the beloved other as a sacramental friend. Along the way I hope we / I may learn to jettison the less than fulsome and decidedly unfriendly offers of mere accommodation and luke-warm tolerance from our ruck sacks.

I think that I would also like to suggest that my journey towards whatever level of commitment I now possess to inclusivity has been slow, grinding, sometimes tortured, and forged in the hard reality of everyday family and communal life. It’s been incarnational and there has genuinely been no rush. For me it has been a case of real and diverse people dismantling the bricks and mortar of innate preference, prejudice, unwarranted fear and tribal loyalty.

And yet now I feel a sense of urgency.  I also feel compelled to contradict those who say ‘slow down’ and ‘the timings not quite right,’ for in reality the timing will never be perfectly right. To those who say that to act too quickly is to undermine the unity of the church, I would want to say that justice must always precede peace in unity.

In fact I would go further and say that any peace in unity worth having must always be built on justice; justice for the beloved other, where justice means an open invitation to sit, listen, converse and eat at the same sacramental table, and bathe in the same the same sacramental waters, on equal terms, as friends ‘in Christ.’ 

This Wednesday I was deeply challenged by the lectionary readings for the Eucharist (Hebrews 12, 4-7 & 11-15 and Mark 6, 1-6). In the gospel reading we find and, must allow ourselves to be challenged, by the following words:

‘This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too are they not here with us? And they would not accept him,’ (The Jerusalem Bible – in the NRSV we are told ‘they took offence at him.’)

Jesus was rejected because the good people, the decent people, the morally upright people, found him offensive. That’s the truth of the matter.

But, why did they find him so offensive that they would not, or could not, accept him? Was it just jealously or could there have been other reasons: reasons so shocking that Mark can only hint at them?

Could it have been that Jesus’ family was just a bit too common? Or, is it possible that there may have been something truly different, or other, about James, Joset, Jude, Simon or one of his unnamed sisters?

The answer is we don’t know, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respond to Mark’s narrative with our imaginations. What if Jesus’ commitment to justice and inclusivity was forged through the messy experience of his own family life? It’s a thought and perhaps one worth playing with, as the Magnificat puts it, in the imagination of ‘our hearts.’

The reading from the letter to the Hebrews is no less challenging:

‘Always be wanting peace with all people, and the holiness without which no one can ever see the Lord. Be careful that no one is deprived of the grace of God.’

The notion of peace, shalom (seeing and willing the good in and for the beloved yet intrinsically different  other) is directly equated with holiness and, frighteningly, salvation. Now, that is a sobering thought!

Jesus, the offensive Jesus, was not accepted, in fact he was rejected, whilst the scribe to the Hebrews insists that we, the Christian community, should ‘be careful that no one is deprived of the grace of God.’ In all honesty these are lessons I have been slow to learn, and am still slow in learning, and yet I urgently want to belong to a church which ensures that no one is deprived of the grace of God;’ a church where all are given a place at the same sacramental table, and in the same sacramental waters, on equal terms, as friends.

p.s. I have unashamedly ‘borrowed’ several ideas from Bishop Paul Bayes wonderful new book ‘The Table.’ Paul I hope you don’t mind?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking of baptismal rites. It’s time for the bishops to stand firm.

All is not well in Church of England land. That much is clear. And, as usual, the subjects we are falling out about are sex and gender.

The catalyst for the latest outbreak of outrage is, of course, the House of Bishops decision to issue guidance notes to be used when offering the Rite of Baptismal Reaffirmation to a trans person wishing to ‘re-appropriate’ their baptism.  According to the Guardian ‘2,155 clergy and senior lay members of the church have demanded the guidance be revised, postponed or withdrawn.’

It will be interesting to see the episcopal response. I hope that it is calm, measured and, above all, kind to the trans community. I sincerely hope that the trans people seeking to re-appropriate and affirm their identity ‘in Christ’ are not sacrificed on the altar of false unity. I hope that the bishops have the courage, compassion and confidence to speak truth back to assumed power.

I also hope that the bishops refuse to capitulate to the numbers, which as David Baker, a signatory to the letter, has suggested are, in any case, entirely besides the point, as well as notions of so-called seniority. The bishops must not allow themselves to be swayed by the lukewarm thinking of theo-utilitarian ethical discourse and perceptions of seniority and power.

In considering whether to re-appraise their prior commitment to Trans Christians the bishops should reflect not just on the content of the open letter but, on some of the quotes given to the press, for in these quotes is to be found the yeast of beliefs and assumptions behind the composition of the letter. The quotes act as a commentary to the plain text of the letter.

The Guardian reports that ‘one member of the archbishops’ council, the Rev Ian Paul, suggested church leaders were “allowing themselves to be hijacked by these very small special interest groups”.’

I have two problems with Ian’s analysis: First, church leaders (bishops) have not allowed themselves to be hijacked by a very small special interest group! It was General Synod ‘wot did it.’ It was the overwhelming vote in favour of the Blackburn Motion, at General Synod, which paved the way for the subsequent process which resulted in the issuing of the Guidance Notes.

To suggest that the The House of Bishops was ‘high-jacked,’ is a deeply theo-political analysis of recent church history.

But, my bigger concern is this: so what if the Christian trans community are a ‘very small special interest group?’ The fact that this community is relatively small, and that hitherto it has been largely kept in the ecclesial dark, is the point. Reaching out to those on the margins, bringing them back into the fullness of community, affirming them as God’s beloved, allowing them to reshape the ‘Anglican Core’ seems to me to be an authentic Christian response. Failing to pay attention to them because they are a ‘very small special interest group,’ is to pass by on the other side.

Edward Dowler, the Archdeacon of Hastings, suggested (again to the Guardian) that the bishops “might have been more circumspect about appearing to lend their support to an increasingly high-profile ideological movement whose aims and methods sit uncomfortably with the Christian gospel and are now being increasingly questioned throughout western society.” 

Again he declines to acknowledge that it was General Synod, en masse, ‘wot did it.’ The ‘aims and methods’ he so clearly disapproves of were the fruit of the synodical process. It may, for him, be a bitter fruit to swallow, but to suggest that the bishops have capitulated in the face of ‘an increasingly high-profile ideological movement’ is, once again, a highly creative re-writing of recent church history. The chilliest feature of his argument is, however, the re-categorization of real people as ideology.

When the House of Bishops wrote their guidelines they rightly spoke to, and engaged with, trans Christians. The fact that Trans Christians are a ‘very small special interest group’ was taken seriously. Their ‘smallness’ was not regarded as a negative, but as a positive. Canon Rachel Mann’s reflection (as quoted in the Daily Telegraph) on her involvement in the process, and the subsequent issuance of the now contested guidelines, is beautiful, dignified and graceful:

“This is a classic example of Anglican thoughtfulness. This is a set of guidance that addresses the deep human desire that we all have, whether trans or non-trans, to reaffirm our baptismal commitment to Jesus Christ.” 

So here is the paradox: to suspend or jettison the guidelines, and the use of the Rite of the Reaffirmation of Baptism, would itself be a capitulation to ‘an increasingly high-profile ideological movement,’ and this is something that the bishops should avoid. To deny a small group of people a rite through which to re-appropriate, and re-affirm, their commitment to being ‘in Christ,’ in order to appease 2,000 or so loud and angry voices would be an act of huge betrayal.

The Bishops have listened, first to synod, then to trans Christians. There has been real integrity in both their ‘aims and methods.’ They  listened, engaged and acted. They did so with pastoral sensitivity and liturgical flexibility.

The trans Christian community should not be sacrificed on the altar of conservative Christian ideology and it matters not a jot whether such ideology is publicly endorsed by 2,155 signatories, or even more.

It is time for the bishops to stand firm in the ‘hope that has been set before’ them by a group of people who should be of ‘special interest’ to the Church.

 

 

 

 

Speaking in praise of the elderly and the young.

I think it is fair, although perhaps it is unfair, to say that we inhabit in a culture which seems intent on capturing the spirit of the young.

Young is deemed to be exciting and future orientated. ‘The young are the future,’ is an oft-repeated phrase. The church also seems, at times, to be obsessed with the capturing the young. Attracting the young is, of course, important, but on what basis and on what terms? A supplementary question might be ‘at whose expense?’

Putting the young on a pedestal, seeking to attract, or even capture them, as THE priority, may very possibly be unfair, belittling, and damaging to young and old alike.

In church, just like in culture, we need, I think, to be careful when we say ‘the young are the future,’ for surely all, potentially, have a future in the church? And, doesn’t the church as a concrete entity in the here and now exist so that all can worship, irrespective of age? Put another way shouldn’t the church, if she truly aspires to be a Holy Communion, seek to be genuinely All Age?

When we speak in church of the young we often seem to do so on the basis of a set of fairly flaky assumptions. We think that the young want to be placed into a clearly demarcated group, one that is treated differently from everyone else. We also tend to assume that they don’t want to join in activities with other, more elderly, congregants. We, perhaps, tend to think that the young are anti tradition and that, somehow, the church’s grammar and practices cannot be of any real relevance to their lives.

Research (see Rooted in the Church Summary Report November 2016) discredits this view: ‘The importance placed by young people on inclusion within the whole church family is reflected in their preferred style of worship (the report claims that what they appreciate most is ”blended worship”); while they value age-specific leadership and activities, they do not always want to be artificially separated from the main church.’

I strongly, firmly, categorically, believe that the young, alongside those of riper years, or even in ‘holy communion’ with those of riper years, are perfectly capable of absorbing and being nurtured through the church’s liturgical and sacramental traditions. The young are far more catholic in their tastes than we sometimes dare admit.

To suggest otherwise, to seek to impose new forms of relevance on the young, is to seek to capture, rather than liberate, their spirits. It is also to patronize the elderly and the church should never do this, for the elderly, just like the young, are a gift to the church. The elderly, just like the young, are the church’s humanity.

A church without the elderly isn’t in any meaningful sense a real, living and dynamic church. In order to flourish the church needs to value both the ‘widows and orphans,’ (James 1, 27) in her midst.

The Church needs to capture, or recapture, its appreciation of, and for, the elderly. So far this year I have taken the funeral of three elderly members of our congregation. All three made a significant, although quiet, contribution to the life and vitality of the church. All three contributed financially and spirituality. All three gave from their wallets and gave from their hearts. All three cared deeply about the local church and her future. All three had over the course of many years learnt to talk about their faith without embarrassment and without the fear of ridicule.  All three prayed each and every day for the church even when they could no longer come to church. Their ongoing and final gift to the church was prayer, and for that the church should be grateful. All three modeled something special and beautiful: fidelity to the Church, come-what may, through the joys and tribulations of life.

Many years ago St. Benedict provided an insight into what it means to be a genuinely ‘All Age’ community. It is clear that Benedict had reverence for both the young and those of riper years alike. Chapters 3 and 63 of the Rule make this clear:

‘We have insisted that all the community should be summoned for such consultation because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the younger members,’ (Chapter 3)

&

‘Juniors in the community should show due respect for their seniors , and the seniors should love and care for their juniors. When they address each other, it should not simply by name, but seniors call their juniors brother or sister, and juniors address their seniors as nonnus – father, or nonna – mother.’

In Benedict’s monastery there was no artificial separation: the juniors and the seniors shared in, and contributed fully to, the life of the community. Benedict saw both the young and the old as integral and vital to the life of the community. Benedict aimed to build communities where all could flourish and none need fear, where everyone was treated equally and with due respect and where age was simply an epistemological fact.

So should we.

 

 

 

 

 

Talking of being in Christ as the gateway to radical new inclusivity

‘In Christ’ is one of the most beautiful of all New Testament phrases. All Christians should delight at being ‘in Christ.’

John Stott, in his 1983  address at the Leadership Lunch following the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. said that  the expressions “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” and “in him” occur 164 times in the letters of Paul alone.’  ‘In Christ’ is a vitally important and deeply sacred theological concept, yet it is one that is often used indiscriminately and with pastoral insensitivity. Sadly, it is sometimes used to knockdown and exclude rather than to build up and affirm.

For St. Paul being in Christ clearly trumped all other temporal identity markers, but that is a very long way from suggesting that he believed that being ‘in Christ’ rendered all other identity markers superfluous or irrelevant.

And yet, in today’s church, in Christ’ is frequently deployed theo-politically. It is often used to suggest that all our other human characteristics and relationships are worth nothing because the only really important thing is that we are ‘in Christ.’  

When ‘in Christ’ is deployed in this way it is often done from a position of significant privilege and moral certainty.  Of course the irony is that sometimes those who use ‘in Christ’ in this way are frequently keen to highlight the nature of their own temporal identity markers and relationships.

The term ‘in Christ’ is, I think, so special, so sacred, that we all need to exercise extreme care when using it. It should never be used to suggest that past hurts and pains don’t matter, or even worse in some ways, weren’t real. It should also never be used to rank, diminish or establish hierarchies of (human) being; ‘in Christ’ is the great equalizer. ‘In Christ’ always seeks to include, not exclude.

‘In Christ’ is an expression of divine hospitality. ‘In Christ’ includes and raises up the hitherto excluded, marginalized and ostracized whilst asking the privileged to acknowledge their status. ‘In Christ’ is the gift to the many rather than the prerogative of a self-elected few.

‘In Christ’ is a doorway, or Gate, to the acceptance of greater diversity and ‘radical new Christian inclusivity in the life of the Church.’ ‘In Christ’ is the chalice that holds all who commit to love God and neighbour irrespective of difference. ‘In Christ’ is the sacred word animating the sacramental action of a radically inclusive God.

‘In Christ’ celebrates God’s creativity and the infinite and glorious diversity inherent in creation. In Christ doesn’t mean nothing else matters. It means that everything else matters.

The most famous ‘In Christ’  verse is probably Galatians 3, 28: in which we read that there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ 

To borrow a phrase from the Three Musketeers surely this means that the spirit of ‘in Christ’ is ‘all for one and one for all?’ Commitment, as John Stott suggested, to God, and to each other, is the glue that ultimately binds us together ‘in Christ.’

In Christ doesn’t diminish our differences, temporal identities, and experiences but instead receives them, blesses them, and distributes them in, through, and beyond the Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking of wisdom

It is perhaps slightly presumptuous to talk about wisdom, yet I suspect that a large dose of healthy wisdom is something that the world badly needs.

On Sunday the church celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany; St. Matthew’s  wisdom story. The heroes of the story are of course the Wise Men, the villain is Herod. The story is a real and meaningful story, in that it accurately depicts the dark side of human nature; the desire to acquire and hang on to power. The story, irrespective of whether it is a historically accurate account of a drama that took place all those years ago, has real parabolic and contemporary meaning, for surely we continue to live in a world where all manner of people are, perhaps literally, conditioned by a desire to acquire and hang on to power?

As I was considering the Epiphany story last week the thought began to emerge that maybe the long-term antidote to abusive and tyrannical manifestations of power is wisdom? Maybe wisdom is the animating virtue that ultimately allows those who have acquired it to make life’s pilgrimage along ‘another route.’ Maybe we need to become a little less prissy and self-conscious when it comes to wisdom?

Sure, to claim that we have achieved great wisdom is arrogant in the extreme, but to commit to developing our reservoirs of wisdom is simply to commit to growing into the likeness of the Logos, Christ, which is, in large part, our Christian calling?

I am seriously wondering whether a commitment to the development of wisdom should be the church’s new year resolution? It’s the sort of resolution people will mock and scoff at, but if we are going to learn to walk by ‘another road’……….

Huge tomes have, of course, been written on wisdom, but perhaps the most concise piece of New Testament wisdom literature available to us is St. Matthew’s Epiphany story (2, 1-12). The Wise Men are depicted, in contrast to Herod, as being concerned with finding the real source of truth, and ultimately power. On route to finding the Messiah they listen to what Herod has to say whilst remaining  open to what God has to say. When they find the child they are filled with joy and pay him homage (worship), and then they make their choice to go home ‘by another road.’I wonder whether the fruit of wisdom is in being able to make the choice to walk by ‘another (better, more Godly) road?’

Wisdom, it seems, can be boiled down to this: seeing as God would have us see, hearing as God would have us hear, feeling as God would have us feel, worshiping as God would have us worship, and choosing as God would have us choose.

Maybe the development of (Christian) wisdom is the only real long-term antidote to the abuse of power? Maybe a commitment to becoming increasingly wise, so that we demonstrably walk by ‘another road,’  should be the church’s New Year resolution? Maybe our prayer for the year could be:

‘Teach us, dear Lord to number our days; that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Oh, satisfy us early with Thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all of our days. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish Thou the work of our hands. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish Thou the work of our hands dear Lord,’ (Psalm 90, 12 & 17))

(taken from the Northumbria Community Midday Prayer)

 

 

 

Talking of Living in Love and Faith

‘Difficult issues not kicked into the long grass.’

The article by Paul Handley in the Church Times surveying the progress to date by the various groups working towards the final compilation of the pedagogical document to be used by the Church of England, and specifically her bishops, in discerning the way (or ways) ahead in relation to what we used to call ‘Issues in Human Sexuality,’ made for extremely interesting reading.

Of course some will remain deeply cynical, despite the assurance that difficult issues are not being kicked into the long grass. For my part I am gently, and cautiously, encouraged.

I am (cautiously) encouraged because it feels as though the idea that there can be a straightforward binary answers to the questions raised already appears to have been rejected. The report, we are told, will not pronounce on the ‘rights or wrongs of same-sex marriage.’ Am I reading too much into this, or does it look like the report is edging towards a very real acknowledgment that there are divergent theologies of marriage; each possessing their own integrity? (Not that I am expecting equal marriage any time soon!)

I was also encouraged by the Bishop of Coventry’s statement that: ‘I would hope that as we articulate and explain different views, that they would be framed in such a way that people can see the Christian reasoning behind them, so that they can be seen in their truest Christian light.’  The language here is again in the plural: ‘different views’ which may be ‘seen in their truest Christian light.’ Is it possible that the report will lead to the acceptance of difference, the affirmation of different integrities, and the possibility of good disagreement? I hope so.

Of course, as the Bishop again rightly points out, ‘there’s still a judgement to be made on validity,’ but intriguingly he again suggests that validity isn’t necessarily binary, for as he states and then asks: ‘there are all sorts of positions that I don’t necessarily agree with, but can we see what’s driving them theologically, can we discern in them a Christian character, can we see what is of the gospel in them?’ 

 Could it be that the Bishop of Coventry is suggesting that an individual bishop’s own view isn’t of paramount or primary importance, or that the bishop isn’t the sole arbiter of validity? Are we moving to a position where (possibly limited) subsidiarity might become the ecclesial norm? Could it be that Bishop Christopher is suggesting that bishops will have to learn to live with, accommodate, and maybe even foster difference (not only at the theoretical level but within pastoral and liturgical practice)? Maybe the ability to live with different theological integrities is becoming the hallmark of ‘Christian character?’

My hope for the Church of England, for it is the only way that any form of unity will be preserved, is that ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ alike will, at least, acknowledge that different views can possess real theological integrity and, ‘Christian character.’

I have one final source of encouragement and, somewhat bizarrely, it is to be found in the intended Learning Outcomes, where it is stated that a deeper ‘understanding of the Church’s inherited teaching on Christian living in love and faith, especially with regard to marriage and singleness, and of the emergent views and Christian reasoning behind them………….must be treated with proper attention to scripture, the church’s theological tradition, and pastoral and (crucially) liturgical practice.’ Is this an acknowledgment that for Anglicans doctrines must be underpinned by liturgy if they are to have any real meaning? Liturgy is the litmus test for both doctrine and character; for us Anglicans there really can be no other way.

It feels to me as though the Church of England has already traveled a long way from the dark days of February 2017. The road ahead will be difficult and, for sure, some will decide that they can travel no further (and we shouldn’t be afraid of this) but overall  I do feel that there are grounds to remain cautiously optimistic: it appears that difficult issues haven’t been kicked into the long grass and, that the future may be plural.