Speaking of worthiness and sacraments

Rod Thomas’ letter to the Bishop Michael and members of the Lichfield College of Bishops makes interesting reading, for it exposes a very particular slant on sacramental theology. In some ways, paradoxically, given Rod’s churchmanship, it all feels a little pre-reformation. It seems to indicate that access to the sacraments of the church is a matter of good works, where man, is the arbiter of what is held to be good, or worthy. I was bemused, but not amused, by his line of theological reasoning. As I read his critique of the Lichfield letter I couldn’t help but here echoes of Luke 18, 11 where we are told that ‘the Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

Rod is adamant that there is a difference between what he describes as worthy and unworthy participation in the sacraments of the church. He uses Canon 25 to validate his point:

 ‘As part of the national church, I would fully agree that we want to encourage everyone to participate in the life of the church to the maximum extent possible. However, I wonder whether the reference to ‘a place at the table’ for all might be taken by some to imply encouragement for all to participate in Holy Communion. This understanding would create a tension with the BCP Article 25 distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation. One of the practices in many churches is to draw attention to this distinction and to welcome those who have sought to repent and have placed their trust in Christ’s atoning work on the cross; it is then up to the individual members of the congregation to decide on their participation. In this respect, the Church of England has always had the practice of ‘charitable assumption.’

Now interestingly in letter Rod doesn’t refer to the Liturgy of the Sacrament. This is somewhat bizarre given the principle of Lex Orandi Lex Credendi. I will return to the liturgy shortly, but in the meantime let’s stay on Rod’s ground by looking at Article 25 which starts as follows:

‘Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s will towards us, by the grace he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.’

Canon 25 makes it clear that participation in the sacraments can never be a badge of honour, letter alone worthiness. For sure the Canon then goes on to say that ‘they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as St. Paul saith.’ 

So, the question then becomes what is meant by unworthiness, and can any of us ever be deemed worthy to receive the body and blood of Christ? My own view is that when we regard ourselves as remotely worthy, due to our good works and the sacrifices that we make, then we are truly unworthy! The eucharistic paradox is that we become remotely worthy only when we acknowledge our unworthiness. We know this because the liturgy tells us so.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the peace, the call to be reconciled one to the other, as we begin the journey of prayer towards receipt of the sacrament. Unworthiness, according to the Scriptures, and captured through the liturgy is in taking the sacrament whilst remaining in a state of enmity. Worthiness and unworthiness can therefore be regarded as communal and relational virtues. The stress on the relational and communal should be expected given that the Eucharist is our shared meal.  So, another problem I have with Rod’s theology of the Eucharist is that it is so highly individualistic! The stress on worthiness, and unworthiness, (and judgment) would seem to lead to a situation where, like the Pharisee in his prayer, we can only ever stand alone when we come to the communal feast, which would seem to undermine the whole point!

When we share in the church’s common meal,  we should do so in a state of true humility (not that any of us can ever truly achieve this, in our own strength) and, in a spirit of expectation; expectation that through God’s grace we will be transformed and equipped to live better, more Godly, lives. In the Eucharist the initiative is all God’s.  Rod’s beloved canon 25 makes this clear! Our responsibility is to come to the table, in spirit of humility and in love and charity with our neighbour. Everything else is up to God!

The fact that we continue to be unworthy recipients can be further evidenced through the liturgy, in particular the Prayers of Humble Access:

‘We do not presume to come to this your table trusting in our own righteousness (worthiness) but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not WORTHY (there it is in black and white) so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table. But, you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy…..’

Or, in the alternative form:

‘Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs under your table. But, you Lord are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinners. So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son, that he may live in us and we in Him…..’

The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with a call for peace and reconciliation between believers (worthiness to proceed) and ends, through the Prayers of Humble Access, by reminding us that we must continue to hold fast to the notion that we are unworthy to proceed. There in lies the great paradox of the Eucharist: any worthiness to partake is contingent on the total acceptance that we are all, yes each and everyone one of us, entirely unworthy. Our hearts can never be truly prepared, our hands can never be clean enough, our lives can never be sufficiently righteous. It’s not about us and the sacrifices we make. The Eucharist is not about a theology of works. Participation is not a badge or token of honour. The Eucharist is all about grace and the radical, inclusive, hospitality of God. The wonder of the Eucharist is that when we accept this then the effect is that we are ‘made clean by his body’ and ‘our souls are washed through his most precious blood.’ If we come believing in our own worthiness no cleansing and washing can take place for, once again, the liturgy tells us so.

The fact that a Church of England bishop seems to adhere to such a thin Eucharistic theology is worrying. The fact his argument is made, primarily, through a very particular understanding of one article of religion, is troubling.

 

 

 

 

 

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Speaking of spreadsheets and the cross

I read Bishop Philip North’s article, ‘The spreadsheet or the cross – time to choose’, in the Church Times (1st June) with considerable interest.

This autumn I will, once more, be leading a Mission and Evangelism course in my own archdeaconry (Buckinghamshire).  I also sit on my diocesan parish share review group and, the Glebe Investment Committee (before ordination I worked in the investment management industry) . Mission and money, and in particular the relationship between the two, is close to my heart.

In a spirit of honesty I get very frustrated when the argument is put forward that mission and evangelism can somehow be effective separate from financial support. Mission and evangelism can never be cost-free. This is surely a lesson that should be learnt from those churches who invest, because they are able to do so, directly and financially, in mission strategies and action plans?

The trouble is that many churches are unable to allocate significant sums of cash to mission and evangelism either because there is no money in the first place (poverty), or because the demand of parish share is so onerous that there is little, or nothing, left to invest directly, over a sustained period of time, in mission (the squeezed middle or only just managing). In my own parish, according to the ‘spreadsheets’ 88% of our voluntary income is directed towards parish share. In some of our largest churches, well, I will leave you to guess the figures……………

Like the Vicar of Ribbleton, many of the clergy in my locale work pretty much ‘entirely alone.’ And, it’s getting worse. Team ministries exist, for sure, but they are stretched to breaking point. In fact they are so stretched that they don’t in any meaningful sense operate as a team. Ministers are so busy fulfilling their basic commitments and obligations to pastoral ministry, and satisfying the needs of the rota, that there is little time or energy left to do anything else.

Bishop Philip’s concern, is rightly, focused on areas of deprivation; the outer estates. My concern is the squeezed middle and the countryside. Rural poverty is a real thing, even in Buckinghamshire. I come across the devastating effects of poverty each and every week as do my deanery colleagues. Mind you urban poverty is also a very real thing, even in leafy Buckinghamshire. Towns like Slough, High Wycombe, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes all have ‘no go areas.’ If the Church is to devise a new and more just system for the allocation of resources what it mustn’t do is pit urban against rural. This is my only real concern with the overall thrust of Bishop Philip’s argument.

Bishop Philip’s concern, again rightly, is for a fairer distribution of resources across dioceses. His proposal is for a new ‘Endowment and Glebe Measure’ that would allow ‘historic assets to be held centrally so that we could deploy clergy nationally on the basis of need rather than history.’ It is a good proposal, however I would agree with Bishop Philip that ‘the chances of the General Synod’s passing such a measure are roughly the same as Accrington Stanley’s winning the UEFA Champions League.’ This level of realism depresses me beyond words.

I suppose my more modest hope would be that dioceses would deploy their historic assets, and the mechanics of the parish share scheme, more strategically in order to invest directly in areas of poverty, whilst also relieving the burden on the squeezed middle. If we are serious about the cross this would appear to me to be a no-brainer. It is something that I have been arguing for, with some passion, in our parish share review group. I have no doubt that the spreadsheets work to the advantage of the large and successful. The spreadsheets that I have studied prove this.  The spreadsheets tragically testify to the fact that the Acts Chapter 2 (43 – end) is, indeed, an inconvenient text.

So if the notion of a new ‘Endowment and Glebe Measure,’ in conjunction with an economically more just share scheme, operationalized either at the national or regional level, or pragmatically some combination of the two, with wealthier dioceses, such as mine, also making a greater contribution to the common good, in the recognition that some dioceses, when they were formed, were set up to fail is a no-brainer why won’t it be enacted?

Well, again, I think Bishop Philip provides the answer: structural injustices are easier to live with. Of course structural injustice can always be explained away or legitimized. I have been repeatedly told that asking large, essentially gathered churches, some of which are the grateful recipients of vast sums of discretionary giving, to contribute more to the common purse, would be to penalize them for growth (or size). To my mind this argument is the ecclesial equivalent of the suggestion that a modest increase in income tax on the super wealthy would lead to a mass exodus to other, more favorable, tax regimes. It is an argument made from a place of fear. The unspoken message is that we would like the wealthy to make a greater direct contribution, but we dare not put in place a system that corrects the structural injustices, and facilitates meaningful redistribution of either historic capital or current income, which so manifestly prevails. Until these issues are courageously addressed the best we can aspire to be is a faded caricature of the the apostolic church, as described in Acts 2, 43 -end.

I have also been told, repeatedly, that largest and wealthiest of  churches invest directly in mission, using their ‘own’ funds. This is true, for the simple and straightforward reason that they can. Part of the reason they can is that they pay far too little into the common purse through the parish share system but even with a relatively substantial increase in contribution to the common purse they would still be able to invest substantial sums directly in their own mission initiatives; the spreadsheets tell us so. I have also been told, again repeatedly, that should any attempt be made to ask the wealthy churches to pay more all that will happen is that they will use the skills at their disposal to engineer their accounts, moving increasingly large amounts of money into restricted funds. To me this is a little bit like wealthy corporations moving assets offshore and off balance sheet. Its legal, but……

I would imagine that churches up and down the land would love to have the opportunity to invest directly in mission and evangelism so that day by day the Lord might add to the number those who are being saved (Acts 2, 47), but the financial and missional reality is that they, or should I say we, can’t. The fact that a large number of cash strapped churches are managing to sustain and, in some cases, grow is nothing short of a miracle and, yet, such churches are seldom celebrated or held up as exemplars of good practice. I wonder why not?

In his article the Bishop of Burnley speaks prophetically as follows: ‘if the Church of England is to play any part in the renewal of Christian life in this nation, it will come from the edges, from the margins, from the forgotten, and from the poor.’ He is surely right and yet the problem is that few head office, central planning, types will want to believe him, and others, who offer such a critique, for such critiques are regarded as being unworldly and insufficiently managerial and, yet history shows that in the church, as well as in the economy, change, transformation and renewal does in fact frequently come from the edges and the margins. Two of the late twentieth centuries best management thinkers (Henry Mintzberg and J.B. Quinn) proved this. The recent revival in ‘forgotten’ or retro products is also interesting. Is there a danger that traditional parish ministry, and worship, is increasingly regarded as past its sell by date? I fully accept that fresh expressions, church plants and the like must play their part, but they can never be the complete answer. Growth, both in number and in holiness, can also result from a real and sustained commitment to traditional patterns of ministry and worship, if they are given the opportunity.

I suspect, like Philip North, that a real financial commitment to invest in areas of poverty and, simultaneously, traditional parish ministry, will reap huge missional dividends.  Investing, or even subsidizing, the big, shiny, glossy and new will take the Church of England so far, but by no means far enough.

Like Philip North my concern is that if the spreadsheet system, and the structural injustice it perpetuates, continues mission and evangelism will become the exclusive preserve of the urban, wealthy, and already successful and that the Church of England will cease to be a truly national church.

Yes, it really is that stark.

 

 

 

Speaking of that sermon

I must confess to feeling slightly, well slightly something I can’t really put into words, when I heard that Bishop Michael Curry, had been invited to preach at the Royal Wedding. I knew that his address would be different. I knew that it wouldn’t conform to the normal suggestions given to preachers for big set piece occasions: ‘Keep it short, keep it dignified and keep it safe!’ Such advice comes with an inbuilt guarantee: that you will add to the occasion by saying nothing of any substance but that you will do so beautifully. We have all heard, maybe even given, such sermons!

But, Michael Curry didn’t give a short, dignified, (well, dignified in the British sense of the word) and safe sermon. He gave a fiery, charismatic, pentecostal sermon. He spoke as much to the heart as to the mind and he dared his listeners to imagine. In a strangely bizarre way I couldn’t help but think of the first lines of St. Benedict’s rule: ‘Listen, child of God, to the guidance of your teacher. Attend to the message you hear, and make sure it pierces your heart, so that you might accept with willing freedom, and fulfill by the way you live, the directions that come from your loving Father.’ His use of the phrase ‘my brothers and sisters,’ reinforced his starting point; that we are all beloved children of God.

Michael Curry invited us all, including the happy couple, to enter into the ‘imagination of their hearts,’ to paraphrase the words of the Magnificat. He asked his congregation, and especially Harry and Meghan, to enter fully into the greatest love story ever told and, to play their part, as humanitarians, in accepting and bringing into the here and now the reality that salvation’s story is the universal story and that God’s lavish love is for all people in ‘all nations.’ 

His sermon went right to the very heart, or start, of the Gospel Manifesto. His message was that love is not something to be sentimentalized, hoarded, personalized, domesticated, and kept safe. God’s love is for the common good or common wealth. Love, he seemed to be saying, is the virtue through which we play our part in bringing something of the Kingdom of God into every nook and cranny of the here and now; ‘thy kingdom come.’ 

Love, sacrificial love, is the virtue that is to be taken into places of squalor and injustice.  If love is kept safe and contained it can never to borrow a word from Bishop Michael be ‘redemptive.’ To strip love of its redemptive power would be, in many ways, the ultimate act of selfishness and sin, for love’s biggest request is to be given and shared. Bishop Michael’s sermon was an invitation to move beyond eros and into agape.

Bishop Michael’s’ s address was highly personal. It was personal to Meghan and Harry and, it was personal to all who dare to call themselves Christian. There was nothing abstract in his sermon for he spoke of Christianity’s most abiding theological virtue: love.

He challenged each and every one of his 2 billion plus listeners to listen,imagine, and act; to get on with the sometimes dirty job of holiness, and that is why his sermon had such impact.

 

 

Talking of ‘thy kingdom come.’

I was slightly shocked and surprised to read a couple of critiques of the ‘thy kingdom come’ initiative; truth be told. I thought it was sad that an idea, or even a movement, which has garnered such success has been used as a weapon in our ecclesiological disputes and disagreements.

The initiative, it strikes me, is an example of how our senior leaders can, and in this case have, motivated the church to get on and do what the church should do: pray! Of course we all come to prayer with our own unique concerns, anxieties, biases and preferences, but prayer, true prayer, is bigger than these.  Prayer is capable of subsuming and redeeming our egos. Isn’t that, in some senses, the whole point of prayer. Isn’t  the very phrase ‘thy kingdom come,’ a plea, from the deep, for the suppression of ego?

My own suspicion is this: that if we are praying for the breaking in of God’s kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ with a fixed idea of what this does, or doesn’t, mean then we cannot be doing anything other than offering a superficial  uttering of the words that Jesus taught us. We need to pray these words in a spirit of openness to change and transformation. We need to allow the results of our prayers to be unexpected. As a church we need to be rooted in and routed from prayer. If we pray these words with a fixed view of what the church should look like then we have missed the whole point of prayer.

If we pray the Lord’s Prayer in a spirit of partisanship, or even resentment, then we might as well not even bother. To ‘pray with confidence as our Saviour  taught us’ requires us to put aside all enmity and to provide the space for God to do God’s work in and through us; individually and collectively. I know that it is difficult to put aside our differences and biases, even our mistrusts and dislikes, when we pray but, if we can’t, then maybe we run the risk of praying in the spirit of the publican and pharisee?

The ‘thy kingdom come’ initiative is a gift to the church. Not just the Church of England, but the church. In my own benefice I have been ever so slightly amazed to discover how enthusiastically it has been received by members of the Roman Catholic congregation and the Free Church fellowship:  Beholdhow good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity(Psalm 133 verse 1). Whilst on holiday in Cornwall this week I worshiped in an Anglo-Catholic Church on Sunday and mid-week in Truro Cathedral. In both places ‘thy kingdom come’ was being promoted and entered into with excitement. The Archbishops’ initiative is, I think, both an ecumenical and denominational gift.

The Lord’s Prayer is, of course, the prayer of the Church. It belongs to all who worship. It matters not a jot whether those who pray it are deeply committed Christians, or seekers. God, I suspect doesn’t care whether it is prayed from the depths by evangelicals or catholics. The Lord’s Prayer cannot be owned and  should not be politicized.

It was given simply to be prayed.

The Church of England response to the US Episcopalian consultation; some commentary

Last Sunday afternoon I drafted a letter to the Church Times (reproduced in full at the end of this commentary).

The letter was submitted on Monday lunchtime as I was booked on a conference that started on Monday tea time. When I drafted the letter I sent it to four or five friends, my usual ‘revisionist’ friends, and asked whether they might like to be co-signatories. Some of them asked if they could invite other friends. The result was that within eighteen hours we had 112 signatories. We live in a networked world! But, the reality is that I have been inundated with messages from people saying that they would like to have signed had they not  missed the deadline. This is significant because it shows the overall level of diss-ease with the trajectory of travel and, the mixed messages that are coming out of ‘head office.’ There is a very strong feeling that the Church of England needs to do far better both in terms of governance and, for many, as an ethical institution. Again, for many, Mr. Nye’s letter crossed a boundary both in terms of content and process.

Over the last few weeks I have spoken to a fair number of LGBTI Christians and heard their stories, and their treatment has not been good. They are wounded, yet we (the C of E) refuse to let them be our wounded healers, instead we write letters and make proclamations designed to keep them at the very margins of the fold. It is almost as if we are saying ‘we want to include you, but not as an embarrassment, still less a challenge.’

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic but this week I heard of a bishop saying to a group of gay clergy that they were the first gay people he had ever met. Now you might think that this is a) unlikely and b) as I say, tragic. The question ‘where have you been all your life’ feels apt. Do we really want, or need, ‘seniors’ whose experience and word view is so restricted?

It is my strong belief that the Church of England also has to ask itself what it might mean to bind up the wounds of this community and to reflect on what it might mean to proclaim release to those held in a form of ecclesial captivity. It is also my strong belief that the time has come to stop making sweeping statements based on grand, but very probably mythical, narratives and actually to the hard work of finding out where most members of the Church of England are at. If the Church of England fails to do this the (in) famous teaching document will be issued into a vacuum, or black hole, entirely of our own making.

Finally, it is time to (and I can’t quite believe I am saying this!) stop trying to manage the process and exercise some leadership. The Church of England, or at least her ‘seniors,’ seem to be lurching from one crisis to another; always reacting to the last critical incident. These critical incidents occur because there is no sense of overall direction and an absence of ‘leaders’ who are prepared to nail their colors to the mast.

Every official statement, letter, slogan or catchphrase seems to be issued as a reaction and what we are left with is ambiguity and contradiction. Let me give just one example: how does Mr. Nye’s letter, both in terms of (doctrinal) content and tone,  sit alongside the archiepiscopal promise of a ‘radical new inclusivity?’  Of course the catch phrase itself (radical new inclusivity) was the fruit of a failed attempt to close off the issue through the bishops report to synod; the one that the clergy declined to take note of! In failing to take note of the report the clergy rejected and then ejected the previous guiding slogan ‘change in tone and culture.’ The irony is that Mr. Nye’s letter is entirely unreflective of any supposed change in tone or culture, let alone movement towards ‘radical new inclusivity.’

The reason that our seniors are trying so hard to manage (rather than lead) the process to an uncertain end, in my view, boils down to one word: fear. Fear of course never seldom likes to fess up, instead it likes to masquerade as strength (but rarely courage, for this is a harder act of mimicry to pull off). Maybe our seniors need to spend some time dwelling in the biblical phrase ‘do not fear’ and reflect on what this might mean for them in the field of sexual ethics asking themselves who and what are we truly afraid of? The opening verses of Psalm 27 address these two questions: who and of what I am afraid?

My own suspicion is that the bishops are deeply afraid of the ultra conservative ‘over my dead body’  few and that if they exercised real and courageous leadership they might just find support, respect, friendship and loyalty from the many (even the majority) in our famously broad church. This doesn’t mean or imply that conservative bishops need to jettison their own theology on this one issue, but it does mean an acceptance of difference and a recognition that their own theology, on this (second order) issue, is of secondary importance. Spreading this message through the House of Bishops and then into the church would of course be the responsibility of our most senior leaders.

In the absence of courageous leadership all we end up with is the continuation of a badly managed process the result of which will be ambiguity, reactivity, vacillation, lax governance, chaos and worst of all the pain and further marginalization of those who are already hurt, bleeding and hanging on in there by their very finger tips.

 

The Church of England response to the US Episcopalian consultation

From the Bishop of Buckingham, the Dean of Guildford, the Rt Revd David Gillett, the Revd Andrew Lightbown, 76 others of the clergy, and 36 members of the laity

Sir, — We have read William Nye’s letter to the Episcopal Church in the United States (News, 20 April) with considerable interest, surprise, and, to be honest, disappointment, and wish to dissociate ourselves from it.

Mr Nye writes about pressure from the Church of England to dissociate from the Episcopal Church. We think this is a misleading statement. Pressure may well come from various conservative groups in the Church of England, but (unless the content of the letter is tested synodically), he surely cannot claim to speak for the Church of England as a whole.

Mr Nye’s letter, written on Archbishops’ Council stationery, gives the impression that he was acting as an agent of the Council and its trustees and writing with its authority. But, as he acknowledges, his response is simply the fruit of conversations held among a small cadre of professional staff. As a governance matter, this will not, we think, do.

The letter refers to a majority belief in the Church of England that the only legitimate locus for sexual relationships is within heterosexual marriage. This sweeping assertion cannot, in fact, be substantiated, as the Church of England, to our knowledge, has never asked her regular worshipping community what it thinks and believes about this.

Given the House of Bishops’ work on human sexuality, now would be a good time to find out. Would it be too much to suggest a survey of worshippers on the middle two Sundays of October, the dates used for the compilation of mission statistics? We would not be surprised to find, for instance, that, among lay people, a majority would recognise same-sex relationships as a valid and joyous expression of human sexual loving, and would wish the national Church to allow for the liturgical affirmation of such relationships.

To discover what breadth of opinion is actually held within the Church of England would provide much-needed evidence to inform the Bishops’ teaching document and future communications with the Episcopal Church in the US and the Anglican Communion as a whole.

ALAN WILSON, DIANNA GWILLIAMS, DAVID GILLETT, ANDREW LIGHTBOWN,

DAVID MEAKIN, MICHAEL SADGROVE, FRANCES WOOKEY, ROSIE HARPER, DIARMAID MACCULLOCH, MIRANDA THRELFALL-HOLMES, JONATHAN DRAPER, ROBERT THOMPSON, ANDREW TEAL, JANET FIFE, RICHARD COLES, CHARLOTTE BANNISTER-PARKER, HANNAH-LEWIS, KEVIN SCOTT, ANDY MARSHALL, NEAL TERRY, PETER LEONARD, COLIN COWARD, JEREMY DAVIES, WILLIAM LAMB, JEREMY FLETCHER, NADINE DANIEL, WYN BEYNON, PHILIP COCHRANE, ANDREW ALLEN, JONATHAN CLATWORTHY, ANDREW HAMMOND, NICHOLAS ELDER, SARAH BRUSH, BARRY NAYLOR, JULIAN HOLYWELL, DAVID RUSHTON, DAN BARNES-DAVIES, RICHARD WATSON, MIKE TODD, ANDREW DOTCHIN, CHRISTINE ALLSOPP, JAMES ROSENTHAL,SIMON KERSHAW, NIKKI SKIPWORTH, ANDREW FORESHAW-CAIN, MARJORIE BROWN, PRU DULLEY, RICHARD HAGGIS, MICHAEL ROPER, JEREMY PEMBERTON, DAVID AUSTIN, RICHENDA WHEELER, ALICE GOODMAN, SIMON RUNDELL, MARION CLUTTERBUCK, ALLIANDRA ALLISON, MARK PUDGE, DOMINIC HOLROYD-THOMAS, CATH HOLLYWELL, ELAINE DANDO, JONATHAN PAGE, DAVID VYVYAN, RORY REYNOLDS, SHARON ELDERGILL, JANE BRADBURY, JACQUELINE STOBER, TIMOTHY GOODE, ANTONIO GARCIA FUERTE, ROBERT KOZAK, DWAYNE ENGH, MARK LETTERS, BRUTUS GREEN, STUART CRADDOCK, ANDY ATKINS, SIMON ROBINSON, JULIA FRENCH, JANE CHAMBERLAIN, EMMA DUFF, AND BRUCE KINSEY (clergy); SCOTT PETERSON, SIMON SARMIENTO, ERIKA BAKER, TRACEY BYRNE, JAYNE OZANNE, TIM HIND, JENNY HUMPHREYS, MARTIN SKIPWORTH, SIMON CULLEY, RAH FROEMMING-CARTER, JEREMY TIMM, JAY GREENE, ROB EDLIN-WHITE, KATE ALLREAD, RICHARD WELLINGS-THOMAS, RICHARD ASHBY, STEVEN HILTON, JOSHUA CAMPBELL, SUE JONES, ALICE WATSON, RUTH WILDE, SALLY BARNES, HANNAH GRIVELL, PENELOPE COWELL-DOE, JUSTINE RICHARDS, LIZ BADMAN, MARY SUTTON, KISORI MORRIS, LAURA SYKES, FIONA MACMILLAN, NIC TALL, SUSAN STRONG, ANN MEMMOTT, CHRIS RICKARD, JACKIE TWINE, AND NICK BASSON (laity)

The Church of England response to the US Episcopalian consultation

 

The Church of England response to the US Episcopalian consultation

From the Bishop of Buckingham, the Dean of Guildford, the Rt Revd David Gillett, the Revd Andrew Lightbown, 76 others of the clergy, and 36 members of the laity

Sir, — We have read William Nye’s letter to the Episcopal Church in the United States (News, 20 April) with considerable interest, surprise, and, to be honest, disappointment, and wish to dissociate ourselves from it.

Mr Nye writes about pressure from the Church of England to dissociate from the Episcopal Church. We think this is a misleading statement. Pressure may well come from various conservative groups in the Church of England, but (unless the content of the letter is tested synodically), he surely cannot claim to speak for the Church of England as a whole.

Mr Nye’s letter, written on Archbishops’ Council stationery, gives the impression that he was acting as an agent of the Council and its trustees and writing with its authority. But, as he acknowledges, his response is simply the fruit of conversations held among a small cadre of professional staff. As a governance matter, this will not, we think, do.

The letter refers to a majority belief in the Church of England that the only legitimate locus for sexual relationships is within heterosexual marriage. This sweeping assertion cannot, in fact, be substantiated, as the Church of England, to our knowledge, has never asked her regular worshipping community what it thinks and believes about this.

Given the House of Bishops’ work on human sexuality, now would be a good time to find out. Would it be too much to suggest a survey of worshippers on the middle two Sundays of October, the dates used for the compilation of mission statistics? We would not be surprised to find, for instance, that, among lay people, a majority would recognise same-sex relationships as a valid and joyous expression of human sexual loving, and would wish the national Church to allow for the liturgical affirmation of such relationships.

To discover what breadth of opinion is actually held within the Church of England would provide much-needed evidence to inform the Bishops’ teaching document and future communications with the Episcopal Church in the US and the Anglican Communion as a whole.

ALAN WILSON, DIANNA GWILLIAMS, DAVID GILLETT, ANDREW LIGHTBOWN,

DAVID MEAKIN, MICHAEL SADGROVE, FRANCES WOOKEY, ROSIE HARPER, DIARMAID MACCULLOCH, MIRANDA THRELFALL-HOLMES, JONATHAN DRAPER, ROBERT THOMPSON, ANDREW TEAL, JANET FIFE, RICHARD COLES, CHARLOTTE BANNISTER-PARKER, HANNAH-LEWIS, KEVIN SCOTT, ANDY MARSHALL, NEAL TERRY, PETER LEONARD, COLIN COWARD, JEREMY DAVIES, WILLIAM LAMB, JEREMY FLETCHER, NADINE DANIEL, WYN BEYNON, PHILIP COCHRANE, ANDREW ALLEN, JONATHAN CLATWORTHY, ANDREW HAMMOND, NICHOLAS ELDER, SARAH BRUSH, BARRY NAYLOR, JULIAN HOLYWELL, DAVID RUSHTON, DAN BARNES-DAVIES, RICHARD WATSON, MIKE TODD, ANDREW DOTCHIN, CHRISTINE ALLSOPP, JAMES ROSENTHAL,SIMON KERSHAW, NIKKI SKIPWORTH, ANDREW FORESHAW-CAIN, MARJORIE BROWN, PRU DULLEY, RICHARD HAGGIS, MICHAEL ROPER, JEREMY PEMBERTON, DAVID AUSTIN, RICHENDA WHEELER, ALICE GOODMAN, SIMON RUNDELL, MARION CLUTTERBUCK, ALLIANDRA ALLISON, MARK PUDGE, DOMINIC HOLROYD-THOMAS, CATH HOLLYWELL, ELAINE DANDO, JONATHAN PAGE, DAVID VYVYAN, RORY REYNOLDS, SHARON ELDERGILL, JANE BRADBURY, JACQUELINE STOBER, TIMOTHY GOODE, ANTONIO GARCIA FUERTE, ROBERT KOZAK, DWAYNE ENGH, MARK LETTERS, BRUTUS GREEN, STUART CRADDOCK, ANDY ATKINS, SIMON ROBINSON, JULIA FRENCH, JANE CHAMBERLAIN, EMMA DUFF, AND BRUCE KINSEY (clergy); SCOTT PETERSON, SIMON SARMIENTO, ERIKA BAKER, TRACEY BYRNE, JAYNE OZANNE, TIM HIND, JENNY HUMPHREYS, MARTIN SKIPWORTH, SIMON CULLEY, RAH FROEMMING-CARTER, JEREMY TIMM, JAY GREENE, ROB EDLIN-WHITE, KATE ALLREAD, RICHARD WELLINGS-THOMAS, RICHARD ASHBY, STEVEN HILTON, JOSHUA CAMPBELL, SUE JONES, ALICE WATSON, RUTH WILDE, SALLY BARNES, HANNAH GRIVELL, PENELOPE COWELL-DOE, JUSTINE RICHARDS, LIZ BADMAN, MARY SUTTON, KISORI MORRIS, LAURA SYKES, FIONA MACMILLAN, NIC TALL, SUSAN STRONG, ANN MEMMOTT, CHRIS RICKARD, JACKIE TWINE, AND NICK BASSON (laity)

The theopolitics of disassociation

I have read William Nye’s letter, sent on behalf of the staff working for the  Archbishops’ Council to TEC (The Episcopal Church), a few times now. What is clear, at least to me, is that the response is entirely theo-political. The reference to the word pressure is both illuminating and interesting. The  staff of the Archbishops’ Council suggest, through the pen of Mr Nye, that should marriage rites for same-sex couples be written into The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer then “the pressure to dissociate the Church of England from TEC [the Episcopal Church], in all manner of ways, would increase”. This is presented as a blanket comment, a statement of truth, one made on behalf of the entirety of the Church of England. It is a critique that has been offered, in reality, solely by the Archbishop’s Council staff team, a group of insiders who  should not be regarded as coterminous with the Church of England.

I am deeply worried that this unrepresentative group has responded to a request from  TEC, even allowing for the time constraint Mr. Nye’s response refers to. It is interesting, perhaps even instructive, that the text of the letter seeks to justify the reply being authored by the Archbishops’ Council staff team. If it was unambiguously within the remit of the ‘staffers’  no such justification would be required.

The aims and objectives governing the scope and span of the Archbishops’ Council, taken from the Charity Commission’s website are: ‘Enabling, supporting, sustaining & advancing of the Church’s worship, spiritual & numerical growth, engagement with social justice & environmental issues ,work in education, lifelong learning & discipleship, selection, training, and resourcing of people for public ministry & lay vocations and the inherited fabric of buildings, to maintain & develop these for worship & community service.’ 

The Church that is referred to is of course the Church of England. The Archbishops’ Council, let alone its staff,  has no remit to respond, on behalf of the Church of England, to issues relating to overall Anglican polity. The Archbishops’ Council exists solely for the purposes of enabling mission and ministry in the Church of England, for the people of England. That’s it; that’s all. It should not be used as a vehicle of response on global or doctrinal matters. So yet again, what we have seen is excruciatingly poor governance.

The letter also makes the following statement: ‘For a majority in the Communion, and in the Church of England (not to mention the Church Catholic) Holy Scripture is held to rule that sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is contrary to God’s will.’ Now I can’t speak for the Church Catholic but I do want to suggest that this a massive, sweeping, and very possibly unfounded statement from a Church of England perspective.

Where is the empirical evidence to support this claim? What does polling suggest? Well, polling doesn’t suggest anything for the simple reason that the Church of England has conscientiously chosen not to poll her members. We simply don’t know what the majority in the pews think or believe. So why not poll our ‘membership?’ Why, not produce a simple survey designed to show the range of beliefs on issues relating to marriage and sexuality and ask everyone who attends church on the middle two Sundays in October (the dates that the Church of England uses for the gathering of mission statistics) to complete it? It would be a really easy and straightforward exercise to undertake and it would lead the Church of England to a place where it was able to make statements on the basis of hard, verifiable, evidence. Surely this would be a useful and illuminating exercise?

But, it won’t happen because truth is a frightening thing. Its far easier to make assumptions, or simply to tell people what they ought to believe. It won’t happen because conservative ‘leaders’ don’t want the genie out of the bottle either in the Church of England as a whole, or in their own church. It won’t happen because the Church of England is gripped by fear; we simply don’t want to know what people really think and believe.

In the absence of hard evidence my suspicion is that ‘the pressure to dissociate the Church of England from TEC’  is based on assumption and, entirely driven by one group within what is supposed to be a famously broad church. If the Church of England, through her various instruments of governance, purport to speak for the breadth of the church then they really ought to find out what the widest possible constituency think and, believe. In the absence of data all that is left is speculation and assumption and, tragically,  ‘pressure’ from the most threatening of voices; that is the real theo-politic behind the response written by Mr. Nye on behalf of the Archbishop’s Council. 

It seems to me that the Church of England has two choices: courage or fear. My suspicion is that fear, masquerading as strong and decisive leadership, underpinned by assumption (fears’ best friend), and, a lax attitude towards governance will continue have its toxic way.

The only way to relieve the pressure from within is to find out what people really do think and believe. This will take courage for the data may well stand contrary to the assumptions that are so often presented as fact. (And, in the meantime can we please make sure that our governance is of the highest possible standard?)