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.

 

 

Why I will continue to wear vestments

Synod has voted and canon law will now be changed to permit deacons and priests and, presumably, readers to dispense with vestments when celebrating the divine office. Vestments will no longer be required for weddings and, I think, funerals. The decision to dress less formally, though hopefully not casually, will need to be agreed by the PCC and, for weddings and funerals by close relatives.  I think it is a bit odd for the reader, deacon or, priest to ask the family ‘now how would you like me to dress,’ during the pre-funeral visits. It’s not a line of questioning I would be comfortable opening up.

I will continue to wear vestments. I will wear them not because I particularly like them, nor because I have a large wardrobe of them, but because I think, in my context, they are missional. They are missional, in part, because they conform to people’s image of what a priest or minster should look like. I strongly believe that in my context the wearing of vestments makes both me, and the church, more and not less accessible.

When I got ordained a very close friend of mine invited me to meet to chat about faith. My friend was a very lapsed catholic. At the time I remember saying to my friend Phil, for that is his name, that he could have talked to me about faith, bringing any questions he might have had, at any stage during the previous twenty years. His reply startled me ‘look,’ he said ‘when I arrange for someone to come round to fix the boiler I expect them to have a corgi certificate and wear a boiler suite.’ These  two things gave him a high degree of confidence. The interesting thing about Phil is that he is a pretty relaxed character. He is not hung up on formality (in fact when I took his dad’s funeral he dressed very casually) but he did have an expectation that I would dress ‘properly.’ My training, my dog collar, my vestments all contributed to me being more, and not less, accessible to laid-back Phil. I will continue to wear vestments for people like Phil.

I have heard comments recently to the effect that the wearing of vestments is correlated to notions of power and, authority. Or, more particularly, the misuse of power and authority. I think this is a false line of argument. Priestly excess is just as prevalent in chinos as it is chasubles.

Worn with humility vestments help tell the Christian story. The wearing of vestments should not be about self promotion but, rather, self-denial. For sure there are priests who love wearing all manner of dress, but the majority of priests who vest don’t own the stoles, chasubles and even copes they wear.

I own the basics: cassock, surplice, cassock alb, scarf and the cheapest stoles I could buy but, everything else I wear belongs not to me but to the churches in the benefice I serve. The only exception to this is a stole that was commissioned for me, as a gift, by the benefice based on the  hymn ‘All are welcome in this place.’ This stole tells the story of our aspirations. It is narrative in dress and by the way when I wear it in school the children get very excited.

So what I wear at the Eucharist, Evensong, or Matins is not about me, and my desire to self express but about honouring the people I serve. My vestments allow me to meet expectations, with dignity, at little personal cost. So why wouldn’t I wear them? I am a priest, and I want to look like a priest. I want to give people the opportunity to relate to me and talk to me in role. For these reasons I shall continue to vest.

And, by the way, when the bishop comes I do hope they will bring their mitre.

Teaching and teaching documents; some thoughts.

How should we respond to the Church of England’s proposed teaching document on sexuality? I don’t mean the report itself so much as the very notion of a ‘teaching document.’

Some, no doubt, will be delighted that the Archbishops have commissioned a report, regarding it as an opportunity to re-state the church’s historic position. Others will receive it with a spirit of resigned apathy, as yet another document which will slowly find its way to the bottom of the desk draw which contains all manner of documents that might otherwise have been thrown away save for a sense of church induced guilt. Yet others will be holding their hands up in horror at the sheer chutzpah of an institution whose track record on all things sexual they perceive to be pretty rank.

My worry, and concern, is what is meant by a teaching document. It also strikes me that the authors of the report are going to have to confront the very real possibility that in drawing on different sources, and disciplines, they are going to have to deal with competing sources of evidence. Scripture and tradition may well be found to offer different insights to reason (science)  and, experience. In taking insights from multiple data sets the authors will have to confront some stark epistemological choices: Do they assert the hegemony of scripture (and tradition)  over reason (and possibly experience), or do they look for some form of synthesis? In receiving data from a wide range of sources (scripture, tradition, ethical theories, science, experience etc) the authors will need to consider the thorny question of epistemology. They are going to have to ask themselves how truths are discovered, communicated and, validated.

My own view is that the authors of the report are going to need to hold carefully, but with courage, different forms of epistemology. The weight of factual scientific evidence, for instance, cannot simply be ignored or wished away. The sexual equivalent of climate change denial shouldn’t be given too much credence. If the weight of scientific evidence indicates that sexuality is a given then this should be accepted and, acknowledged. Facts must be treated as facts; even uncomfortable facts.

How the facts are then treated is of course a different issue. Facts don’t of course exist just in the scientific realm they also exist in history. It is a fact that the church has for the majority of its history regarded homosexuality as deeply sinful, it is also a fact that for the majority of church history to be anything other than ‘straight’ has meant be designated as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ It is a fact that these views have been largely validated through a particular view of ‘the fall.’ So, one of the urgent tasks of the group charged with writing the report may be to re-consider the traditional notion of the ‘fall.’

Tradition can, in some ways, be regarded as the way the church receives and, integrates into its ways of thinking, relating and, behaving historical facts. Healthy tradition, I would want to argue, is powered by two dynamics: the willingness to accept the ‘good’ things that have been passed down through the ages whilst, simultaneously critiquing the nature of (salvation) history.  Good teachers are in this sense traditionalists. Any appeal to tradition which precludes the right, or obligation, to critique is an unhealthy, reductive, static and, defensive interpretation of tradition. In fact it’s a distortion of tradition.

The proposed report isn’t just about sexuality. It is actually, at a more basic level, about how the Church of England does theology. 

Of course there will never be a universal buy in to one fixed method of doing theology but I do think that is important to acknowledge and recognise that real differences exist and, that the teaching document will in all probability expose these differences. At a recent diocesan synod I was aware that two distinct groups were highly critical of the report produced by the bishops for General Synod. I am of course talking of the (in) famous report that synod decided not to take note of. Both groups believed that the report failed theologically. One group sought to locate  theology as biblical studies (as defined in their own terms), the other group regarded theology as something far more holistic. The teaching document I suspect will be divisive in that it will lean either towards a holistic method, or towards prizing biblical studies above all else. If the biblical studies method wins through tradition will be co-opted in support; a more holistic approach will seek to balance out insights from the different spheres. The report, through the methods it employs, will I think promote disagreement and, may lead to dis-unity. Is this a bad thing? Possibly not in a ‘good’ teaching document.

The report is also about hierarchy and church order for the whole question of the bishop’s teaching role will also be placed under the spotlight. Bishops are charged with a specific teaching responsibility, but what does this mean?

Does it mean that what the bishop says goes? Does it mean that the bishops own view, perspectives and theology must always trump those of the clergy and laity in their diocese? Does it mean that a teaching document is an ecclesial version of a Haynes Manual, designed to instruct, members of the church how to proceed in a given situation? Or does it mean something richer, more nuanced and, designed to encourage deeper levels of reflective learning. 

The effectiveness of the report will be contingent, in part, on understanding what is meant by teaching, or good teaching. I would like to suggest that good teaching must include the following:

  • Accepting as factual that which is factual.
  • Encouraging a spirit of reflective learning fostered by providing ‘learners’ with a different perspectives, some of which will be complimentary and some of which may compete. It is vital that teaching is not reduced to instruction.
  • A level of acceptance by the teacher that whilst their own perspectives may be offered they should not necessarily hold sway. Good teachers (in the humanities and social sciences) offer to their students multiple perspectives. In marking assignments and exams they reward students who are capable of understanding, arguing and synthesizing multiple perspectives. The notion of twin, or multiple, integrities is normal in the humanities. Drawing out and permitting well-considered disagreement is integral to good teaching. A good teacher presents far more than their own exegesis.

All of this leads to a consideration of what is meant by (Church of England) theology in the twenty-first century; sexuality is the presenting issue but the real questions for the Church of England are how we do our theology and, how we hold authority.

Integral to doing authoritative-theology are the related activities of teaching and learning. Good teaching in the sciences always starts with a search for the factual. Good teaching in the humanities fosters the ability to interpret (often afresh) and, reflect. Good teaching in the social sciences encourages the ability to hypothesize and, theorize. Good, authoritative, teaching in theology does all of these things.

Good teaching presents (facts), encourages (dialogue) and, accepts (difference). The fruit of good teaching is validated through praxis.

The purpose of a good teaching document is to inspire, motivate  and challengemaybe even to disturbA good teaching document should never seek merely to instruct, still worse appease (or even reconcile). The effectiveness of a good teaching document is, of course, directly correlated to its ability to engage. 

The ‘target audiences’ for the teaching document should  not be  the ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ who have already come to a settled, and irreconcilable,  view on all things church and sexual – although the temptation will exist to regard these two groups as the primary categories of recipient  –   but instead the apathetic and, those who currently think that church is acting with astonishing chutzpah in producing a teaching document on sexuality. If the church and her leaders engage with and inspire these groups they really will have produced a good, and effective, teaching document. 

It’s a about building a relational economy, stupid.

In Friday’s Church Times the Bishop of Burnley wrote an interesting and thoughtful reflection on the emerging national mood, arguing that ‘it’s relationships and not the economy,’ that people really value.

I agree with much, perhaps most, of his analysis. Of course relationships matter. Christian anthropology has always stressed that life well lived is, by its very nature, relational. Genesis, our foundational Scripture, makes it clear that people are designed to live together in relationship. It is not good for us to be alone, isolated, disenfranchised (Genesis 2, 18). The poet John Donne famously wrote that “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” 

Christians celebrate the importance of relationship through some of our guiding, and relational,  motifs; the concepts of fellowship, communion and, belonging to the body. Desmond Tutu has in recent times brought the African philosophy of Ubuntu – ‘there is no me without you, there is no I without the other,’ to western consciousness. So, Bishop Philip is entirely correct to stress the importance of relationships.

But is he correct to juxtapose the economy and relationships (and to be clear I don’t think he is saying that the economy is unimportant)?

I am less sure, for the simple fact that we all live in an economy and, that we are all economic beings. Economics isn’t just about facts, figures and statistics. It is also about ethics, relationships and, policy. The choices we make about the economy and how it operates are relational and ethical choices. Economics and theology in fact share the same basic agency question: ‘whose interests do I / we serve?’

Before ‘designing’ an economy deeper philosophical and theological questions need to be asked. Adam Smith knew this hence writing both The Wealth of Nations (an oft quoted but rarely read tome)  and, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The notion of a ‘who’ and, service reside at the heart of all economic decision-making. Of course we could answer the who and service questions by affirming that the economy exists primarily  to serve our own self-interest, in the vague hope that if enough people take this view a ‘rising tide will lift all boats,’ and, that the ‘trickle down effect’ will weave its magic. These were Milton Friedman’s arguments. They have been the guiding ‘ethics’ behind post 1980 capitalism.

I think Bishop Philip is arguing Friedman’s economic theory is outdated. He also, correctly, in my view discounts the ‘ethical theory’ (and Friedman was keen to promote his theories in ethical terms) that self-interest, actively pursued,  leads to  communal and relational benefits. The main  problem with excessive self-interest is that it necessarily leads to a hierarchy of interest; my interests will always take precedence over yours. This in turn leads to conflict between the inhabitants of different economic islands.

My interest, self-interest, always leads to regarding others, as well just that, other. Excessive self-interest erodes relationships, it renders impossible the enactment of ubuntu or Martin Buber’s ‘T -thou,’ philosophy. It is also unchristian. Excessive self-interest  stands contrary to Christian notions of justice, solidarity and service. Excessive self-interest diminishes the value of giving. Justice, solidarity, service and, gift are, I believe, ‘theonomic’ motifs.’ Excessive self-interest undermines sustainable economic growth. It is an uncomfortable fact, widely ignored, that economic growth in the period post the Second World War, has been at its greatest in periods of narrower disparity in wages and, higher taxation. Greater equality does not necessarily correlate to economic stagnation. There is no reason to believe, despite the rhetoric of those who passionately (and uncritically?) believe in the economics of self interest, that less disparity dampens the sort of entrepreneurial flair that the majority of people may benefit from. Innovation and risk taking are hard wired into certain people.

Yes, many people are thirsting for deeper relationships. But, many people also believe that the economy remains of primary importance. They feel that, in a word, the way the economy has been deigned and managed is just plain ‘stupid.’ They feel this because they know that self-interest has not proven to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. To pick up once more on John Donne’s metaphor that the economy has produced a series of islands populated by the have’s, the have not’s and, the barely getting along’s. And, they know that the economic system has already put in place hard border controls.

As a society we need to take people’s economic concerns seriously and, we need to do so in the hope that a healthy and equitable economy will also be good for relationships. We need to understand the importance of distributing economic goods to people on the basis of their needs (Acts 2, 45). We need to design an economy that truly looks after the young and the old, ‘the widows and orphans in their distress,’ (James 1, 27). We need to appreciate the importance of giving, and I don’t mean straightforward redistribution of our cast offs, the things we have already categorized as second best or out of date, but the giving to others of those things that we truly value. We need to take into the heart of our economic decision-making Jesus mandate that we should ‘give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back’ (Luke 6, 30) and, we should heed the advice that ‘if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.’ 

Our Scriptures stress the importance of relationships. They also ask us to relegate self-interest to its rightful place. After all why should we, how could we, relate to others when their primary motivation is their own economic self-interest? Justice, fairness, equity and, solidarity cannot exist where self-interest reigns. The economy cannot work for widow and orphan, the impoverished student and the refugee, the economically marginalized and the homeless where self-interest reigns.

For many people it really is about the economy.

 

Tim Farron: religion and politics in polite society

When I was growing up I distinctly recall members of my family suggesting that there were two subjects that should not be talked about in polite society: politics and religion. Paradoxically the people who I remember most frequently resorting to this quip were the most political people I knew! They couldn’t stop talking about the big political issues of the time, or about their MP Barbara Castle. They admired her character and intellect, but not I think it is fair to say, her politics. One of the tragedies of the current era is that a real tendency exists to denigrate people’s character based on their beliefs. Of course some beliefs are just plain odd, or even wrong, but surely it is unhealthy to categorize those we profoundly disagree with on various issues as either weak or bad?

For very many people, even those who aspire to inhabit ‘polite society’ it is impossible not to talk about either politics, or religion, or a combination of the two. As a Parish Priest I have to talk about Christianity and indeed have vowed to ‘proclaim the gospel afresh’ in and for this generation. For this Parish Priest the distinction between politics and religion is extremely blurred. My liberal internationalist politics, to some extent, flow from my faith and, I am sure that my faith is also informed by my politics. I don’t think we can easily demarcate the origins of our beliefs, try as we might.

Tim Farron was forced to talk about both politics and religion, by those keen to erode the borders of ‘polite society,’ during the election campaign and, clearly it was an extremely uncomfortable experience for him; it was designed to be an uncomfortable experience for him. Journalists after all like to see leaders squirm. Journalists like to invite their readers to categorize their victims as weak or bad. It is a very crude form of blood sport.

Tim has now decided that he is unable to manage the conflicts, perceived or real, between his life as a politician and, as an active Christian. This is sad. It is sad for Tim and, it is sad for the Liberal Democratic Party and, it is sad for politics. I hope that Tim continues to contribute to the work of parliament. Tim has accepted that he didn’t handle the situation as well as he would have hoped, but let’s remember the questions were designed to make him squirm and, to infantalise his faith. The hounding of Tim was designed to characterize him as both weak and bad.

So what could Tim have done differently?

He could have appealed to the long and noble history of parliamentary liberalism citing someone like Michael Ramsey who opened the debate in the House of Lord’s in favour of the decriminalization of homosexuality whilst still maintaining that homosexuality fell short of the highest moral standards. The trouble is the debate has moved on since Ramsey’s time. Where Ramsey was credited for his enlightened and progressive line of argument Tim would have appeared judgmental and, behind the times.

He could have suggested, and I think that this was his line of argument, that certain moral issues are of a purely private nature and, that it is not the remit of parliamentarians to stray into such territory, But, again this line of argument probably wouldn’t wash as the line between private and public is increasingly blurred and, in any case, parliament in making law frequently does so with an eye to public, or communal, standards of morality.

Or, he could have been up front and open about living with  the tension between  his religious and political convictions, with regard to issues of human sexuality. But, this again wouldn’t wash because the journalists were out to make him squirm. The idea that politicians (and people of faith) are as conflicted as the electorate on various issues and, that their views aren’t always as binary or as neat, tidy and orderly as the squirm makers would like isn’t afforded house room.

This for me is a serious issue for when we seek to stifle what seems to be contradiction we stifle good and honest debate. We trash any possibilities for the hard work of moral reasoning because we only care about an immediate  result. Inter disciplinary discussions between say politics and theology become impossible because success or truth can only belong to one discipline. The result is that real people are made to choose. ‘Come on Tim what’s it to be your politics or your faith?’ Binary thinking becomes the only possible outcome.

If I had to be critical of Tim it would be for his presentation of Christianity in his resignation letter. He seems to believe that Christians can only hold one view on the thorny issue of sexuality. On this I believe he is profoundly wrong. But of course I would say this as an orthodox-progressive! I say it as someone who has had the luxury of time and space to do my theology. Unlike Tim I haven’t been made to squirm.

But, in saying good-bye to Tim as my party leader (there you go I am now bringing both my politics and my religion into the sphere of ‘polite society!’) I would like to say thank you for voting for marriage equality. Thank you for doing so despite any personal reservations. Thank you for living with your tensions and, thank you above all for being both liberal and, progressive and, I am just so sorry that you were made to squirm.

 

 

Scottish lessons for the English church (or at least the C of E)

Both the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church appear to be on the march towards marriage equality. Compared to the Church of England our Scottish neighbours seem to be more progressive and, enlightened. There again Scotland has a long and proud history of enlightenment!  Of course I write this as a progressive on matters relating to sexuality and, gender. Some conservatives in the Church of England are no doubt somewhat less sanguine.

Such conservatives will no doubt argue that the Scottish churches have ceased to be orthodox churches. But, surely the counter view is that orthodoxy and progression can be perfectly natural bed fellows? My orthodoxy is rooted in belief in the creed as a communal declaration of faith. The creeds are the kite mark of orthodoxy. The Scottish churches have recognised this. This doesn’t mean that progressives within the Scottish churches have won; unless that is a determination exists to regard issues of human sexuality, particularly as they relate to marriage, in win-lose terms.

A summary on the Church of Scotland’s web site of the outcome of its meeting of the General Assembly includes the following:

Professor Torrance said he felt that the Church as a whole understood that the Theological Forum was trying to move it out of a “culture of mutual denunciation into a non-binary situation”.

“A non-binary situation is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing,” he added.

The Church of Scotland, in doing its theology, which it did robustly, has come to the conclusion that a simple binary outcome cannot exist within the church to ‘issues of human sexuality’ and, that a monochrome one size fits all mode of praxis is not possible. The Church of Scotland has further accepted that orthodoxy cannot be defined in relation to sexuality. The implications of this are significant.

The conservative voice in the Church of England continues to argue for a binary approach and, whilst it does it will, following Professor Torrance’s line of reasoning, succeed only in ensuring that honouring each other as orthodox creedal believers and, enabling mutual flourishing cannot take place.

But, and here is the interesting point, if mutual flourishing – that is to say the flourishing of both orthodox-progressive and orthodox-conservative churches – is to occur then both need to be freed from the yoke of binary thinking. Binary thinking may, if Professor Torrance is correct be a very subtle form of self-harm.  This is perhaps counter intuitive to a church unwittingly imprisoned  by binary ways of thinking, theologising and, believing.  Yet, if Professor Torrance is correct binary thinking and a winner takes all mentality must be challenged because a non binary mode way of being church ‘is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing.’ 

The Church of Scotland  has linked the conclusions it has arrived at to notions of flourishing and, growth. The Church of Scotland’s analysis is that if a binary solution is sought and imposed the overall size of the mission pie decreases. That’s a sobering thought.

The Church of Scotland recognizes that it  must remain a broad church and, a relational church; a church which allows for and facilitates different integrates on issues of human sexuality, just as it does, if you will exclude the pun, on a ‘host’ of other areas of difference. The irony is that the Church of England used to be a famously broad church. The Church of Scotland’s challenge  to us C of E types includes a rediscovery of our breadth. Breadth makes no sense, as a motif, separate from diversity of thought and, theologies. And, if we are serious about our status as a national and established church we must be a broad church. Breadth cannot just be about styles of worship, or ways of being church. Breadth must incorporate both multiple ecclesiological and (supra) doctrinal integrities.

The Church of Scotland has also subtly redefined one aspect of leadership. Leadership, or at least thought leadership, in issues relating to human sexuality is about drawing out and facilitating differences and, integrities. For the Church of Scotland leadership, enlightened leadership, has meant giving due consideration to the whole and not a particular faction or grouping within the whole. The views of the individual leader (or in C of E terms bishop) are of less importance than their ability to recognise and foster different integrities.

Surely this should be characteristic of our C of E bishops if we are to make any real headway? The risk for the bishops is that should they continue to seek a uniform, binary, solution a large swathe of church  and country will continue to fail to take note of their every proclamation. This would be a tragedy because we live in an era when the country needs to hear the voice of its public theologians. Pursuing the binary, as already suggested, may well  be a very dangerous form of missional self-harm.

By stating that ‘a non-binary situation is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing,’ the Church of Scotland is affirming the orthodox theology of progressives and, conservatives alike. It is bringing something of Desmond Tutu’s ‘ubuntu’ theology to these lands. It is claiming for itself Martin Buber’s I-thou philosophy. It is explicitly making the case for twin integrates.

The Scottish have given us English some new words to think about: flourishing, relationship, mutuality, integrity and respect.

Perhaps all of us, orthodox-progressives and orthodox-conservatives alike, in the Church of England, need to take some Scottish lessons?

Shifting questions, changing virtues

I listened to the Sunday Programme with interest last week, especially the debate between Ian Paul and Gavin Ashenden.

Gavin Ashenden is in the process of leaving the Church of England because he believes that the national and established church is departing from orthodox Christianity as he understands it, whilst Ian Paul is ‘a remainer.’

Ian correctly suggested that in the Church of England it is through our liturgy that our doctrine is expressed. Under Ian’s scheme given that no (official) liturgies exist to marry, bless, or dedicate same-sex couples, orthodox conservatives can, with integrity, remain in the Church of England. They can do so knowing that a diversity of opinion exists but, without accepting that such diversity means that the direction of travel is necessarily towards the establishment of rites and liturgies designed to solemnize same-sex relationships.

Over the last week other ‘traditionalists’ have made the same argument; Lee Gatiss for example. It is of course an argument that Gavin Ashenden rejects. For him the Rubicon has already been crossed. Gavin cites as evidence the fact that some bishops have departed from orthodoxy, as he proclaims it,  in myriad ways. Yes, his main beef is about sexuality but creedal literalism (and by the way I am highly orthodox in relation to the creeds) and, gender issues also rank highly on his list of complaints.

The low point of the programme, to my somewhat sensitive ears, came when Mr. Ashenden complained that the church is already ‘enormously hospitable to the this new secular culture;’  that is to say members of the LGBTI Community. Mr Ashenden would of course reject any notion that God might be acting in and through culture whilst also remaining blind to the sub culture which shapes his own particular beliefs and behaviors.

The group that Mr. Ashenden appears to have the most problem with is the Church of England’s bishops, who he believes to be responsible for the ongoing liberalization of the church. The, as he sees it, inevitable movement towards affirmation of same-sex couples is a direct consequence of the failure of bishops to take seriously their teaching role. Of course teaching for Mr. Ashenden is more akin to instruction than the development of reflection, dialogue and critical thinking. Teaching, just like orthodoxy, is subject to a single monochrome definition. Good teaching in Mr Ashenden’s scheme could never be measured by the level of reflection, debate and even healthy disagreement it fosters. His is a very particular slant on what good teaching means and looks like.

Ian Paul’s response to the criticism of the bishops was interesting. He informed Mr. Ashenden that he could introduce him to any number of traditionalist bishops. Now, this is a perfectly true statement; he could. But, he could also presumably introduce him to any number of bishops who wish to see rites and liturgies developed to celebrate loving, monogamous and faithful same-sex relationships. Not all of these bishops would argue for the same offering. A small number would argue for church weddings for same-sex couples, others would be happy with services of blessing, still others liturgies designed to dedicate and affirm. A healthy spectrum of views and theologies exists in the House of Bishops. If the church is to take its teaching function seriously such diversity may well be a very good thing!

So who ‘won’ the debate, Ian Paul or Gavin Ashenden? Sadly, I think probably Gavin Ashenden. Ian didn’t ‘lose’  because he failed to answer the questions put to him with eloquence or because he was bettered on the day by Mr. Ashenden (he wasn’t) but, because on the day that General Synod failed to take note of the bishop’s report into issues of human sexuality a seismic shift took place. No longer is the question what do the  bishops believe in matters relating to human sexuality’ of paramount importance to many members of the Church of England. Something has changed, for better or for worse, in the nature of the bishops teaching function. This is the new reality.

The bishops stated their beliefs (granted, not firmly enough for some) and synod said ‘no.’ In saying no synod were in effect saying ‘this house believes that the Church of England should take steps to ensure that faithful, loving and monogamous same-sex relationships can be officially recognized and celebrated in the Church of England.’

The fundamental question to be asked of bishops has changed, for better or for worse, and  is no longer what do the bishops collectively, or individually, believe but rather  ‘what is the extent to which you will facilitate, endorse, and affirm priests and congregations in their desire to affirm faithful, loving and monogamous same-sex relationships in your diocese?’ In the era of ‘radical new inclusivity,’ there will be no hiding place for individual bishops. The cloak of uniformity has been synodically removed.

Uniformity (because in reality unity in the House of Bishops didn’t exist) has been replaced by subsidiarity. The various conservative groups, just like accepting, progressive and liberal groups will also need to ask themselves to what extent are they prepared to accept the speed and extent of change towards the archiepiscopally sponsored ‘radical new inclusivity;’ a level of inclusivity which will go way beyond a generalized change in tone and culture.

Bishops have been encouraged, even mandated, to work out what ‘radical new inclusivity’ might mean in the life of their diocese. For some bishops, the traditionalists that Ian referred to, the rate of change might be slow, excruciatingly slow for those who would like to see far greater and increasingly formalized rites of passage introduced for same-sex couples, whilst other bishops seem keen to press on with exploring ways of formalizing the ‘radical new inclusivity,’ called for by the Archbishops, who very publicly said the message they took from the decision by synod not to take note of the now infamous report was that they must ‘do better.’ 

Mr. Ashenden is correct in his analysis something has changed. Yes, at present, nothing has changed officially (it can’t in the absence of liturgies, as Ian rightly stressed), but what has changed is the question that progressives and conservatives alike will be asking of their bishops and, the virtues that will now inform ongoing debates. Some will greet the new virtues as long lost friends others with far less comfort and enthusiasm.

For better or for worse a purely top down approach is no longer the chosen approach. The Church of England tried this and it wasn’t accepted.  It is now up to diocesan bishops to define what radical new inclusivity might come to mean and look like in the life of their diocese.

Pushing the responsibility down to the diocesan level represents a major shift in the Church of England’s modus operandi. It is a shift that will bring its own complications. Will dioceses be increasingly regarded as progressive or traditionalist? What will happen if a bishop is appointed to a diocese who is uncomfortable with the approach taken by their predecessor? Are we in danger of creating a job market in dioceses? Does it matter if individual dioceses produce their own localized liturgies? These are all real questions that the radical new approach brings.

The reality is, however,  that a Rubicon has been crossed and, the Church of England is moving inevitably  towards providing far greater levels of inclusivity and, hospitality towards what Mr. Ashenden described as ‘this new secular culture.’ As I have already suggested for some the pace of change will be excruciatingly slow, for others it will be far too quick, but change is afoot. Radical and new cannot mean finding new ways to affirm the status quo; for this would be neither radical or new!

It is afoot because, as Mr Ashenden rightly concludes, the question has shifted and, the guiding virtues changed. One final thought: Mr Ashenden was keen to present members of the LGBTI community as a group who should not be offered the ‘hospitality’ of the Church of England and, of course, the House of Bishops report was produced by a (as far as we know) exclusively heterosexual group, who have gracefully accepted, that by excluding same-sex Christians from the process of producing their report they too fell into the trap of thinking about LGBTI Christians as problems to be solved and as a distinct group who are somehow different from, or other to, ‘mainstream Christians.’

Various bishops have acknowledged that this was something they got very wrong and pledged to move from exclusion to inclusion. This is highly significant because when we include others in our conversations, when we commit to relating to them as equals, the process begins through which we cease to regard others as, well simply ‘other.’ We begin the slow and sometimes painful process of relating to them as brothers and sisters, ‘co heirs,’ in the unfolding Christian story. We accept their status as equals ‘in Christ.’

When subsidiarity is sponsored, inclusion enshrined and newness called for change becomes the inevitable reality. The best way to prevent change is to keep power close at hand and regard various groups of people as problems to be solved. This is the approach that the C of E has now, thankfully, ditched much to the chagrin of Mr. Ashenden, who has rightly diagnosed that change is inevitable; a Rubicon has indeed been crossed .