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





Speaking of sexuality, continence and pretense

Of course when I say ‘speaking about sexuality’ I don’t mean that at all. What I actually mean is ‘speaking about sex.’ For the last few decades sexuality has been the church’s preferred term when ever it feels the need to talk about sex. Maybe this is out of a sense of politeness, or maybe plain and straightforward embarrassment. In former, 1662 times, the church was less restrained.

Marriage, according to the preface to the Book of Common Prayer’s Solemnization of Holy Matrimony is ‘secondly….ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.’  Marriage, according to the B.C.P. preface can never be regarded as a celebration and affirmation for that which is already deemed to be good. Marriage exists first and foremost for procreation, secondly for the avoidance of sin (fornication) and thirdly for ‘mutual solemnity, help, and comfort.’ 

How our view of marriage has changed! But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water because the B.C.P. preface contains a real nugget of wisdom: the majority of us are not able to live a life of ‘continency.’ The Church of England accepted this basic fact way back in 1662! (Okay its preoccupation was with the male of the species, but…….)

So why do large swathes of the Church of England pretend that some people, okay gay people, are able, uniquely, to live a life of continency if, ever since 1662, it has been accepted that the vast majority of heterosexuals are unable to live without sex? Just a thought. And, yet the thought remains the Church of England’s ‘official’ position.

In 1662 the Church of England acknowledged, through her liturgy, that continency is a special gifting, a grace from God and not simply an obtainable ethical standard. The current and ‘official’ position of the Church of England would seem to support a view that suggests that LGBTIQ+ people are either uniquely graced or capable of a higher ethical standard than us straight folk, and that’s just plain bizarre! As Marcus Green in his wonderful new book ‘The Possibility of Difference’ puts it: ‘Celibacy, the single life, requires an ability to live alone that some people have and some others do not. It’s a gift – a divine charism – given to some and not to others,’ he adds, ‘that’s St. Paul’s understanding.’ 

The Book of Common Prayer stresses that continency isn’t the norm. If this is true to seek to impose celibacy, or to offer it as some kind of therapy, must be just plain cruel; surely? And, if all LGBTIQ+ Christians are called to celibacy, or to fast forward and borrow a word used by Archbishop Carey in the preface to Issues in Human Sexuality, a life of pretense, what does this say about the very nature of God? It begins to look as though God has created a sub species – what Marcus calls a ‘moral underclass’– to who God then, through the church (or at least a branch or two of the church) says ‘go on prove your worth.’ It begins to start looking awfully like a theology of salvation by works and not by faith through grace.

In the Preface (prefaces are important texts!) to Issues in Human Sexuality – a discussion paper which seems to have mysteriously morphed into doctrine – Archbishop George Carey wrote that: “It is our hope that this statement – which we do not pretend to be the last word on the subject – will do something to help forward a general process, marked by greater trust and openness, of Christian reflection on the subject of human sexuality.”

The key phrase in this sentence must surely be which we do not pretend to be the last word. The tragedy of the last twenty-seven years is that many have regarded ‘Issues’ as the last word. I was able to assent to Issues in Human Sexuality prior to ordination based on this one simple phrase: ‘which we do not pretend to be the last word.’ Without this key phrase I couldn’t in all conscience have made my assent.

Ongoing pretense is an awful, inauthentic, state of being. If the church pretends that continency is within everyone’s grasp it risks ridicule from all critical observers, be they insiders, or outsiders. Ultimately what the church will risk is irrelevance. However, if the church insists that LGBTIQ+ Christians pretend they are something other than who they truly, gloriously are, it runs an even greater risk. It runs the risk of causing harm and pain to those who the church should be loving and embracing. The church should, must, be a place where all may flourish and none need fear. The church should be a place where there should be no pressure to pretend. As Marcus puts it:

‘It’s not good enough to produce an ethic and call it biblical when basically is says – it’s OK to be gay if you bear the pain alone and no one can tell. It’s OK to be gay if you face life by yourself. It’s OK to be gay if you look like a straight person, speak like a straight person, act like a straight person. It’s okay to be gay if you pretend.’

So what should be the last word, or guiding thought, as discussions progress, and as yet another document is written. I would simply suggest this:

‘That we do not pretend that there are groups of people who are uniquely graced to live a life of continence.’ 

If we accept this basic principle then maybe, just maybe, we can make real headway when we speak about sex. If we can’t accept this basic, foundational, and yes liturgical principle, then we will be talking about sexuality (sorry sex) for years to come.



Talking of God to the church and in the public square

Archbishop Justin had a hard time in some sections of the press last weekend.

In the Sunday Times Rod Liddle and Dominic Lawson could barely contain themselves. Liddle, who seems to believe solely in the privatization of salvation and that Christianity is above all a faith that seeks to promote individual, rather that corporate or communal, responsibility commented that ‘there is touch of the Frank Spencer about Welby, the Archbishop of Cant.’  

Both Liddle and Lawson expressed the opinion that given that the Church of England is an imperfect institution Archbishop Justin should put a sock in it. They could hardly disguise their glee that the Church of England, through its investment bodies, holds shares in Amazon whilst also offering workers zero hours contracts. Liddle commented that ‘Justin looks really, really stupid, as well as hypocritical. He is his own satire.’ Lawson was slightly more restrained accusing Justin of the ‘banal hypocrisy we expect from politicians.’

Are these comments fair? Well, to an extent, but, in my view to only an extent. Of course the church must always look to clean up its act, and I suspect that this is very high on Justin’s agenda. Justin seems to be committed to shining light into the dark areas of the church. I suspect that by the end of his tenure the church will be healthier in many respects. O that all institutions would commit to becoming healthier. The Church of England, despite Liddle and Lawson’s critique, is making strides towards becoming healthier.

I welcome the Church of England’s commitment to model what it might mean to be a socially responsible investor in relation to fossil fuels (something neither Liddle or Lawson mentioned) and the moral leadership the bishops have given on fixed odds betting (again something neither commentator mentioned). I hope the Church of England might play a compassionate and creative part in the provision of financial services to the poor. And, yes, as an orthodox-progressive I hope, and pray, that under Archbishop Justin’s tenure a far greater proportion of women will occupy ‘senior’ positions than in the average board-room. I also hope that significant progress is made in all matters sexual. I hope that the Church of England will truly become a place and a body where all may flourish and none need fear.

Criticism and critique is never, of course, purely objective. I don’t know what’s behind Dominic Lawson’s attempts to smear Justin’s very character, but in Rod Liddle’s case its pretty clear: he wants a church whose theology is directly aligned with his own essentially conservative social and political views. He wants, like many of us, to be appeased by the church and told that he is right.

The trouble is that it doesn’t work like that. The Church, through its bishops, should speak truth to power; The Church should unsettle, challenge and disturb; The Church should, whilst always proclaiming Jesus Christ, seek to let light shine out of darkness’ (1 Corinthians 4, 6); The Church, through the office of her bishops, should always exercise  special care for the poor,’ (Ordinal of Bishops).

Whatever else Justin is he isn’t stupid. He knows that in many areas the Church needs to get her act together, but he also knows that he is called, mandated, obligated to exercise a very public theology. He knows he has two audiences to challenge: the church herself and the ‘principalities and powers,’  (Ephesians 6, 12).

Renewing and reforming the Church whilst continuing to speak truth to power is the ‘ministry of the Spirit,’ Justin is called to. All who worship in the Church of England should pray that he ‘does not lose heart,’ (2 Corinthians 4,1). If Justin carries on with his dual agenda he is sure to face ongoing criticism from those who would prefer him to proclaim a softer, less disturbing, more domesticated gospel. These critics will carry on accusing him of hypocrisy, always pointing to the state of the church militant, however, the Church, whilst always seeking to become a better, healthier, and more righteous communion of the faithful, should continue seeking to help ‘transform the unjust structures of society’ (Five Marks of Mission).

This week I came across these words of wisdom from Yves Congar: ‘I have long thought that the most favorable moments for sowing and planting are times of storm and trouble.’  Maybe these can be real words of encouragement for all who desire both a healthier church and a more just society?



Talking of the future and Archbishop Justin’s potential legacy

I often wonder what Archbishop Justin’s legacy will be, what will be the ‘mark’ of his archepiscopacy? I suspect he stands on the edge of becoming a truly reforming Archbishop.  Whether the Church of England is truly renewed and reformed under ++Justin’s governorship depends on his ability, and the willingness of the Church, to make significant progress in (at least) three, as I see it, priority areas.

Let’s start with the big institutional challenges: sex, gender and our ability to respond with integrity to the findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. A lot has been said, and written, about these mega-meta issues, and I don’t propose to say anything here other than a failure to confront these issues and to shine light into our areas of supreme darkness will, in my view, damage the church irreparably.

The second priority area is mission and evangelism which the Church of England is seeking to address through its Renewal and Reform initiative. I was recently talking to a friend of mine (an Archdeacon) who said he was 80% behind R&R, I remember commenting that I was 65% in favour. I hope these figures render us both critical friends. It is surely massively important that the Church of England seeks to make a positive impact in every community in the country and that we seek to become a ‘growing church for all peoples and all places?’ 

If research showing (Voas, for instance) that the norm is for people have come to an essentially fixed view on matters of faith by their early twenties is accurate then it is surely also correct that evangelism to the young should be a priority? However mission and evangelism on the periphery and fringes should also be a priority. My own view is that the Church of England should be investing to a far greater extent in various forms of chaplaincy. Mission and Evangelism also needs to take place at the fringes or the ‘end of the earth’ the sort of places where mission priests and chaplains have tended to operate.

The third priority is public theology. Public theology can be thought of as the way the church engages with the civic society, and its institutions, and in so doing presents a Christian position that can be publicly understood. Through its public engagement the church (and her spokespersons) opens herself to and even invites public critique.

Public theology is necessarily underpinned by an understanding of what it means to be human and a commitment to the embodiment of various Christian ethics in public policy. Public theology is serious stuff because, as already suggested, through its exercise it invites an external critique of the very character of the church and her agents.

Public theology, as a missional exercise, can only ever achieve credibility if the church is seen to be an exemplar of what we might think of as ‘standards in public life.’ I hope this doesn’t sound pompous but it (public theology)  needs to be exercised from the moral high ground. I would argue that ++Justin’s ability to make a real and lasting impact in the field of public theology is largely contingent on his willingness and ability to get to grips with the big institutional challenges highlighted at the start of this article. The church can only speak with credibility if it operates from a place of credibility.

++Justin has taken a lot of flak this week from those who don’t, or won’t, understand that seeking to ‘transform unjust structures of society’ and the ‘pursuit of peace and reconciliation,’ are marks of Anglican Mission. His critics are those who seem to view the church solely as an agent for the privatization of salvation. In my view his critics offer a poor and reductive theology. They ignore, for instance, St. Paul’s insistence that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,’ (Ephesians 3, 10).

Making known, proclaiming, the wisdom of God, and the values of the kingdom, beyond the walls of the church is central to the church’s calling. Archbishop Justin understands this. Those who would prefer him to stop speaking about what they regard as solely worldly matters (there is no such thing) don’t.

My suspicion is that Archbishop Justin’s high-profile interventions in world of public theology are deeply missional and evangelistic. They speak to a younger audience for who notions of social and economic justice, fairness, and the dignity of each and every person are highly cherished values. ++ Justin’s biggest leadership challenge maybe in ensuring a high degree of alignment between the issues he speaks about with passion and integrity in the public square and the internal characteristics of the institution he exercises governance over. If those we are seeking to reach, and to invite through our doors, experience a discrepancy between our public theology and their direct and personal experience of church their judgment is likely to be harsh indeed. A public commitment to justice, fairness and the dignity of each and every person must be verifiable through an ecclesiology which also, demonstrably and unequivocally, prizes and (ritually) reinforces these self-same virtues. The proof really is in the pudding.

If ++Justin can sort out the Church of England’s mega-meta challenges and continue to make a significant contribution in the public square my suspicion is that he will stand firmly alongside those great reforming Archbishops Temple and Ramsey and, he might just assist the church in reaching out to the younger generation by speaking about the issues that concern them.

His legacy could be to become the Archbishop who gave back to the church her very credibility, but in the meantime there’s an awful lot of work to do.









Talking of depression, anxiety, lies and liturgy.

I was flicking through the TV channels earlier this week and found myself watching Horizon’s ‘Stopping Male Suicide.’ It made for sobering viewing.

As some readers might be aware I have suffered from both depression and anxiety. I call them my twin impostors. They are impostors for the straightforward reason that they seek to impose, without invitation, their presence. Depression and anxiety like to penetrate every part of our beings: bodies, minds, and souls. The symptoms and manifestations of depression and anxiety are widespread; they are holistic diseases.

Depression left me feeling physically sick. It hit me in the pit of my stomach. It made me feel as though my whole body was being suffocated in what the psalmist (40, 2) describes as the ‘miry bog.’ Anxiety caused acute pain in my large muscle groups and the sensation of my whole body being washed through with chemicals. It was truly awful. Both depression and anxiety tell the worst of lies. As one of the main characters in the programme said: “Depression is a liar: it tells you horrible things about yourself and makes you believe them.” This is so true. In my experience anxiety is also a liar. It tells you that the worst is going to happen, and that your wildest imaginings are truths, and every time something ‘bad’ does happen, anxiety’s cruelest whisper is ‘I told you so.’ 

Depression and anxiety also tell three, potentially devastating,  spiritual lies: ‘you aren’t good enough,’ you aren’t capable enough’ and, cruelest of all, ‘they would be better off without you.’  For a person of faith, a Christian, these are particularly awful lies. The first lie invites a direct rejection of our foundational Scripture, the very notion that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1, 26). The second lie tells us that we really can’t expect to a make any form of meaningful contribution to the functioning of the ‘Body of Christ,’ and that we don’t therefore properly belong, the third lie asks us to consider whether there is any point in going on, given that we are of no earthly value to anyone else. These lies are all cruel, de-humanizing, and potentially dangerous. They are some of the most widespread lies at work today.

These are the lies I had to confront time and time again as I trained for ordination, for it was at theological college that many years of suffering from ‘twin impostor syndrome’ came to a head. These were the  lies that crushed, that sought to break an already highly ‘bruised reed,’ (Isaiah 42, 3).

I was very fortunate to have a friend, one friend, who I could talk to (the staff at Cuddesdon were also simply amazing). His name was Nick. I think he saved my soul. I can’t remember a single word he said to me; it was enough to know that he was simply there for me. I will be forever grateful. The presenter of the Horizon documentary said ” in the fight against suicide the power of a single conversation should not be underestimated.” This is so true. Sadly Nick died earlier this year, of natural causes. Preaching at his funeral was bitter-sweet but was without doubt one of the greatest privileges of my life.

I still find it difficult to think of the twin impostors as a blessing, but these days I can’t quite think of them as a curse. But, there again, I am fortunate for I have survived, at least thus far. If, as a parish priest, there is a blessing to be found it is through the privilege of having a platform from which to speak about mental health and the tentative possibility of helping others to live ‘with, through, and beyond,’ depression and anxiety. For me, ‘with, through, and beyond,’ best articulate my understanding of ‘healing.’ We learn, as I found out to, with and alongside, others.

I am passionate about speaking out, and hopefully de-stigmatizing, the twin impostors. I am also passionate (for Andrew is a passionate fellow) about helping others live with, through, and beyond depression and anxiety. I also think that if the church is serious about her healing ministry she needs to get down into the ‘miry bog,’ and help in the process of lifting sufferers out of the ‘pit.’  One of the ways we can do this is through the use of carefully crafted liturgy.

A small group in my benefice have been working on a liturgy we are going to be offering for the first time on the 21st October. The aim is to bring sufferers together in gentle solidarity in the hope that we learn, together, to live ‘with, through, and beyond’ depression and anxiety. Can I ask you to keep us in your prayers? If you would like to join us you would be most welcome. In the meantime let me offer you a passage from Scripture that reflects my experience of living ‘with, through, and beyond’ depression and anxiety:

‘I called on your name O lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea: ‘Do not close your ear to my cry for help, but give me relief.’ (Lamentations 3, 55 -56).



Leadership? What sort of leadership? What sort of Church?

The Church isn’t, at present, covering itself in glory. What must God be thinking of the church?

The Church is fast running the risk of being regarded as something far worse than an irrelevance, an out of date, out of touch, legacy of a past long gone. The Church is rapidly, in many ordinary, sane, logical and caring people’s eyes coming to be seen as a thoroughly corrupt and immoral body. That is the stark reality; the view of many interested observers. I am not referring here to the evangelical atheists, the sort of people who might be happy to use every church scandal as an opportunity to say ‘I told you so,’ but rather the sympathetic and persuadable outsiders, the sort of people who in some ways long for a sane and healthy church.  These types, many of who are connected with the Church (of England) through serving as school governors, helping at fetes and coffee mornings, bell ringing or flower arranging are questioning whether the Church of England is a healthy brand. This week an ‘ordinary’ member of my congregation took the time and effort to talk to me about how unbelievably angry she is with the church. I am pleased that she did. I am pleased that she didn’t do what countless others have done over recent years and quietly drift away. Another example: a school governor asked me whether it might be possible to remove the words ‘Church of England’ from a school’s name.

The Church of England, like all churches, exists to spread the good news, to incarnate the gospel, to speak truth to power, to shine into the darkness. But, the problem is that we are, in many people’s eyes, becoming part of that very darkness. And, let’s be honest they have a point, don’t they?

One of the Church of England’s preoccupations is Renewal and Reform. Renewal and Reform is short-hand for growth, bums on seats, conversions, ‘becoming a growing church for all people and all places.’ Now please don’t get me wrong: I am passionate about growth both in terms of numbers and holiness but surely ‘renewal’ should also be concerned with the health of the body and its aggregate stock of virtue?

As an ordinary parish priest in an ordinary parish I am privileged to witness the amazing amount of good that ordinary people of good will do each and every day. But, the problem is that every time another scandal is reported, another cover up exposed, another example of the ‘purple circle’ looking first and foremost to the institution’s interests is revealed, the power of the extraordinary ordinary is diminished. And, it is in’t good enough. We have to do better, if we are serious about the gospel and being agents of Him who is genuinely good news.

Our ‘leadership’ seems to be obsessed with growth, but what it isn’t doing (at least not in a way that is obvious to me) is tending to the foundations and doing the really hard work of real ethical leadership. It seems that the Church of England has fallen prey to group think, a bland uniformity where ‘strategic growth’ is all that really matters.

As a priest and parent of two daughters who are a bit different, a bit other, I feel, if I am totally honest, in some ways slightly relieved that they are no longer church goers in their university cities. It shames me to say this but why would I want my vulnerable and cherished ones to be influenced by a culture that continues to celebrate alpha males above all others, and where disability and sexuality are sometimes considered to be the bitter fruits of ‘sins in the family (see John 9, 1-5), or where ‘I will pray for you,’ is in reality a statement of assumed superiority, or where ‘you haven’t prayed hard enough’ is a critique of both human identity and the depth of faith?

On what grounds could such a church possibly be good news to ‘all people?’ If Renewal and Reform is really serious about ‘all people in all places,’ then our theology and ecclesiology need to match the stated aspiration. If we dehumanize others through weak leadership, poor governance, and poor theology then we can only ever masquerade as good news. For sure we might get away with this for some time, but in the long-run we won’t. 

If the Church of England is serious about Renewal and Reform maybe it should be spending far more time, effort, and money on the real work of renewal? For me this means focusing on the hard and nitty-gritty work of ethical leadership. What does a healthy church look like, what ‘theologies’ are we prepared to accommodate (for there must be some that we aren’t), and how do we get there are the questions posed by a serious commitment to renewal. Only when we have answered these questions can we begin to understand what form (or Reform) the church should take.

Maybe its time to put away the flip charts, marker pens, and post it notes, to stop creating strap-lines and mission statements and obsessing about vision, and instead to start digging deep, making sure that our foundations are sound, and our vital organs are healthy? Maybe we need to completely rethink the art of leadership in light of our current reality? Maybe we need more theologians and governors and less ‘visionaries’ if we are to get out of the mire we are now in?

Yes, we need to grow. Yes, mission and evangelism are our mandate, but first of all we need to attend to the health of the body. This is our most important leadership task. But, is it one we are really up for? One more thought on health: in the Church of England we are always asking people to be more generous with their giving. Like all organizations we are after what the marketing people call ‘share of wallet.’ Share of wallet is directly correlated to that most important of intangible values: trust. If people don’t trust us, if our own insiders don’t really trust us, then on what basis can we really expect them to contribute a significant proportion of their discretionary income? It is of course this income that in the longer-term, after the Renewal and Reform money has been invested, that funds both mission and ministry. As an institution the Church of England needs to generate goodwill and it can only do so if it is trusted. Trust, money, ministry, mission are all close relatives. If you doubt this just ask OXFAM.

My big fear for the Church of England is that we will continue to achieve short-term growth, but at the cost of long-term decline. An out-and-out growth strategy can mask all manner of ills. The Church of England is perfectly capable of doing a R.B.S, or Northern Rock. A fixation with growth alone will deliver short (maybe even medium) term ‘success,’ but that’s all it will achieve. I would also dare to suggest that an out and out growth strategy combined with really weak governance is an absolute recipe for institutional disaster. Growth strategies are capable, in the short-term, of covering all manner of ills but in the longer-term if the ills are not addressed and dealt with corporate Armageddon surely follows.

The Church of England needs to be the healthiest of all institutions, or bodies, if it wants to achieve long-term and sustainable ‘success’ and, more importantly, if it is to deliver on its gospel mandate: to be good news. We can’t afford to be behind the curve, we must instead always be ahead of the curve, always modelling best practice, always holding its senior leaders (bishops) to account for their ongoing pattern of decisions, always making sure the processes and procedures are in place to mitigate the corporate governance evils of moral hazard and group think. In the interests of transparency I ought to be clear and upfront: I don’t think that our standards of governance and stock of ethical leadership can rise without a fundamental change in the legal status of the office of bishop. We have to find ways of making sure that bishops (individually and collectively) are responsible and accountable to their peers and those who they are ‘called’ to serve. If we don’t, if we leave bishops with unchecked monarchical powers, if we continue to rely solely on formal disciplinary processes as the only form of check and balance, then we better hope and pray,for the sake of the church and her mission, that our bishops are undisputed paragons of virtue. Recent history indicates that bishops may be just as likely as any other form of senior leader to fall victim to moral hazards and group think.

For now we need to be honest. The Church of England is in a moral, ecclesial, and theological mess. It is in desperate need of  internally orientated Renewal and Reform.

In the words of Jeffrey John:

Lord, do something about your Church.

It is so awful, its hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it. Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned: Hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical, respectable, comfortable, moralizing, compromising, clinging to its  privileges and worldly securities. And, when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.

Lord we need your whip of cords. Judge us and cleanse us, challenge and change us, break us and remake us. Help us to be what you called us to be. Help us to embody you on earth. Help us to make you real down here, and feed your people bread instead of stones. And start with me. (Jeffrey John).