Speaking of size

Last week the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, the Right Rev’d Josiah Idowu-Fearon, was quoted in the Church Times as saying that Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha Course were ‘shining lights’ in the Church of England. The Secretary-General was, no doubt, seeking to reassure other provinces that the Church of England is serious about mission and evangelism. Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course were held up not only as ‘shining lights’ but, as models of success.

Idowu-Fearon is of course correct. Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha have both been ‘successful’ in bringing people ‘to Christ.’ However, just because they have been doesn’t mean that they will continue to be for, as they say in the investment management industry, ‘past performance is no guarantee of future performance.’ That being said I would want to endorse the ‘success’ of this church and its famous course; irrespective of whether you like its ecclesiology and theology it has been ‘successful.’

Other forms of church have also been ‘successful.’ Cathedral worship has also grown. Maybe they have both grown (Holy Trinity Brompton and similar churches alongside cathedrals) because what they offer is a highly intentional ecclesiology. They know their character and their character is expressed through their worship. If this is true it maybe a source of hope for other churches. I suspect that intentionality in ecclesiology is a key characteristic of numerical growth.

My problem with the notion with Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course being singled out as the primary, or even sole, examples of success is that is two-fold: First, it seems to conform to a cultural narrative which prizes, endorses, and celebrates the large and the powerful whereby size becomes the arbiter of success. Secondly, it feels a little like looking only at the tip of the iceberg. Below the tip of the iceberg can be found many ordinary suburban, market town, and rural churches that are highly effective in mission. My suspicion is that these churches possess two distinct characteristics: an intentional ecclesiology and pastoral sensitivity.

I am not claiming that small is always beautiful. I know that many small churches struggle and, that providing ministry into our smallest communities isn’t straightforward. I hope that I am neither naive nor romantic. However, I am claiming that many of our suburban, market town, and rural churches are ‘shining lights.’ The tragedy is that we simply don’t hear enough about them and their success as ordinary parish churches. Their light is kept well and truly under the proverbial bushell.

A deeper tragedy also exists for it is these churches that are most frequently starved of resources. I recently conduced a highly qualitative survey among clergy in my diocese with responsibility for churches with an average Sunday attendance of between thirty-five and one hundred and twenty. These churches are asked to contribute per head of worshiper between £475 and £950 to parish share. The very large, essentially gathered, HTBesque churches, in large towns, by contrast, are asked for a vastly reduced offering (between £290 and £350 per head of worshiper on my rough and ready calculations.) This gives rise to two questions: who is subsidizing who and, much more importantly, do the formulas used for the collection, allocation, and distribution of resources actively mitigate against the ability of small-medium to medium-sized churches to grow? I think they do!

As the rector of a multi-parish benefice which comprises a small market town (circa 5.5k pop with average Sunday attendance in the region of 110-120), a village and, a hamlet I am unable to fund ministries. In an ideal world I would like to be able to fund a youth worker, or an old persons worker, or other forms of ministry, just like the ‘shining lights,’  but I can’t. I can’t for the simple reason that there is nothing left after the payment of parish share. My strong belief is that many of our structures and formulas act as a squeeze on the middle, the consequence of which is to act as a break on mission.

Many ordinary churches are shining stars, they really are. The tragedy is that because  they operate below the surface of the metaphorical iceberg their success isn’t recognized and, their efforts aren’t resourced.

 

 

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Speaking of despots and of kings

This Sunday the Church of England celebrates the festival of Christ the King. Earlier in the week one of thee world’s ‘great’ despots, Robert Mugabe, ‘resigned.’

Mugabe may not have been a king, simply a president, but there can be little doubt that he had scant regard for the rule of law and for anyone who stood in his way. His ‘kingship’ was all about power and personal aggrandizement. He subjugated, terrified and tyrannized ‘his’ people. I am glad that his ‘reign’ is over and that he was forced to face up to his own rejection. Mugabe of course stands in a long line of political tyrants. Tyrants for whom power and authority are absolutes. Is, God, was Jesus such a king?

I don’t think so, in fact I would want to suggest that at the very essence of Jesus ministry we find the concept of liberation.

 Jesus’ earthly ministry, his earthly ‘kingship,’ was one of liberation not subjugation. When Jesus died, he did so as, ‘the king of the Jews,’ and by all earthly standards he was a pretty ineffective king. He  didn’t singlehandedly and heroically defeat any imperial powers. He wasn’t much of a land grabber (but there again when all the world is His why would he be?) He didn’t seem to be very good at getting the strong, decisive, and resolutely alpha types on his side. He seemed to be happier mixing with the likes of Peter, Thomas, James and John. He got on well with various Mary’s and the odd Martha and seemed to have a very strange mate called Lazarus. He was, and is, a paradoxical and counter cultural old king. Oh, and he died tragically young.

It seems he wasn’t particularly interested in  shoring up his defenses and protecting himself from his opponents. All that could be mustered by his supporters was one sword attacking one guard in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his life time the only physical injury that could in any sense be attributed to his ministry was one ear (which he then stuck back on!). Jesus was, and is, a funny old king.

Many, perhaps even most, ‘kings’ are obsessed by power and the trappings of office.  Jesus wasn’t. That is what made him so counter cultural. We need to be clear Jesus, ‘Christ the King,’ wouldn’t have been of any interest to Hello Magazine or Forbes. He wouldn’t have made it into the Sunday Times Rich List or Who’s Who. In earthly terms he was a pathetic example of anything that passed for a king. And yet, we still celebrate his kingship.

How on earth can it be that a king born in a stable and crucified on a cross is exalted to this day? The answer to this question is of course multifaceted, however, speaking personally (if I may) a big part of the reason is that he came to offer liberation not subjugation. 

Jesus’ kingship was of a an entirely different quality:

Born in a stable, and not a palace.

He worked as a carpenter, and not a prince.

His kingship started in the wilderness where he confronted all of the temptations that might have led to despotism and the abuse of power.

He allowed himself to touch, and be touched.

Those who he touched included lepers, demonics, epileptics and women with serious gynecological problems.

He cared about the young, the old, the widowed, the orphan, the outcast, the migrant and the refugee.

He was vulnerable and allowed his perception of his own kingship to be challenged by the ultimate outsider; a Samaritan women.

He sought to challenge social, economic and religious taboos irrespective of whether they were imposed by kings, emperors or priests.

He cared about standards, but was less concerned with protocols.

When he spoke he did so first hand with his feet firmly planted on the ground, surrounded by his people, and not from a remote and deified kingly throne.

His ‘courtiers’ were an extremely odd lot including ex fishermen, former tax collectors, reformed zealots, honest doubters, men, women and, I suspect, children.

He was, and is, a king whose primary concern appears to be liberation not subjugation.

Maybe by focusing on Jesus’ kingship we start to understand the notion of kingdom? Maybe then, and only then, do the words ‘they kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,’ become real to us?

As I reflect on the character of Jesus of this I am sure:

That Jesus came to bring liberation not subjugation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of teaching

I must admit to feeling ever so slightly nervous when I hear the word ‘teaching’ mentioned in, or by, the Church of England. With the panel being announced for the greatly anticipated Episcopal Teaching Document on Sexuality my nervousness has greatly increased.

Part of my anxiety derives from a feeling that teaching and instruction are used interchangeably in church circles. Of course I would say this as a progressive. But, I also strongly believe that churches, in particular conservative churches, are far happier instructing than they are teaching. So what might we mean when we discuss the notion of teaching, or at least good teaching? What virtues might underpin good teaching and what are some of the ‘intended learning outcomes’ that derive from good (theological) teaching? Here goes:

Good teaching should foster reflection and discourse. Good teaching introduces different ways of thinking about problems. Good teaching deliberately brokers  significant disagreement. Good teaching isn’t necessarily a route to uniformity or even unity, at least not in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Good teaching doesn’t necessarily mean that students must assimilate the convictions of their teachers. Again at least not in the arts, humanities and social sciences. For some ‘teachers’ in the church this might be a hard pill to swallow. A good teacher, paradoxically, is one who fosters in learners the ability to develop strong and defensible counter arguments. Good teachers often accept that their own perspectives are of secondary importance.

Good teachers render themselves vulnerable and are open to the possibility of personal change (cf Matthew 15, 21-28), not just in perspective but also through new and revised forms of practice; even where such forms of practice may depart from their own sympathies.  I hope that those who have been asked to chair various panels are ‘good teachers,’ rather than political appointees. For the sake of the church they need to be.

So, in producing a ‘teaching document,’ the Church of England should carefully articulate its desired ‘learning outcomes.’ Has it? Does the Church of England know what it is trying to achieve through the Teaching Document on Sexuality? Does it know which of its bishops are the best teachers?

If the desired result is a document which presents a settled outcome to which all are expected to (uncritically) accept then the document, I suggest, will have little integrity as a teaching document. If the document presents different ways of thinking and responding then maybe, just maybe, it really will be a ‘teaching document.’

The production of this document is a watershed moment for the church for what is at stake is not only our response to issues of human sexuality (aka homosexuality) but our very credibility as a teaching church. In fact I would go further and say that the credibility and mission of the Church of England is the thing that is really at stake.

Teaching or instruction that is the question.

 

 

Speaking of Paradise (for clergy)

Dear clergy friends,

I am thinking of setting up a Paradise Scheme for clergy (this is a spoof). Yes, I know we already have one, a Paradise Scheme, but really it is a bit of a tired old story. And, why wait?

Let me start by explaining that I used to work in the city and have been a director of an offshore umbrella fund. I know about hedge funds and the like. Its part of my past, part of my history. I thought that I had left such things, such deeply temporal things, behind some years ago when I finally listened to and followed my calling but now I am rethinking things; renewing my mind once more, following Paul’s advice.

Perhaps an opportunity now exists to redeem my past for the good of the clergy?

So this is how the Clergy Paradise scheme might work:

An offshore company could be set up to receive and administer clergy stipends. Each member of the clergy, irrespective of whether the size of their stipend, that subscribes would hold one share in the company. It is important that Clergy Paradise Holdings demonstrates a commitment to equality, after all we must always hold before us a vision of the kingdom and, take seriously our prayer that ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ 

On the same day that the stipends are paid into the holding company (gross of tax), a loan will be issued to each shareholder for the exact same amount as their gross stipend, less a small administration fee. We should be able to negotiate a fee of in the region of 0.5%. Because, we would now be receiving the value of our stipends as a loan, rather than as income, no further tax liability would be incurred. The loan isn’t of course a loan in the conventional sense. It is simply an ‘asset swap.’ The value of the loan is simply the value of the monthly stipend which is repaid in full each and every month.

The scheme would therefore be making a valuable contribution to one of the church’s preoccupations: ‘clergy well being.’ A better paid cleric is a happier cleric. Shareholders (which in time we hope will include all stipendiary clerics) will also be making a real contribution towards the Church of England’s ‘simplification,’ programme for no longer will payroll be forced, through the coercive nature of the government’s tax policies, to divide the gross stipend into tax, national insurance, and take home pay. One simple payment is all that will be required.

The management company for the clergy pension scheme should also be moved offshore so that arrangements can be made for ensuring that payments from the scheme are also exempt from taxation. Clergy well-being should be from ordination to the grave.

The Memorandum and Articles will make it clear that part of the rationale behind Clergy Paradise Holdings is to preserve the distinction between clergy and laity. What better way to do so than through the creative use of corporate structures and tax avoidance for the sole benefit of the clergy?

It is of course right and proper that investors are warned of the potential risks. The risks in a sense fall outside of the scheme itself. But, they do relate to the word ‘paradise.’

As clergy we are unfortunate that some of our historical texts seem to suggest that the love of money causes problems. These same texts do in fact talk about taxation (although it is important not to take them out of context) and, duty to society at large (again these shouldn’t be taken out of context).  This is a situation not of our own making. We didn’t write the rules we simply inherited them. So what can be done?

I would like to suggest that a small and carefully selected group of  ‘prosperity theologians’ are tasked with the job of reinterpreting these texts. The alternative is simply to redact them. If the offending (and offensive) texts can be faithfully reinterpreted or redacted then I am confident that the scheme will be the first ever ‘risk free’ investment. The Clergy Paradise Scheme is uniquely designed to cater as much for the wallet as for the soul, this being neatly captured in our new strap line (which has of course been registered in all major off shore tax havens & some minor ones as well):

‘Clergy Paradise Holdings: requisite for the wallet as for the soul.’ 

Yours in Paradise,

Andrew

‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for?’

In 1991 Peter Selby, then the Bishop of Kingston, posed the following questions to ‘traditionalists’ who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood:

What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation? How would a Church that excluded women from certain aspects of its life be offering anything that might be called good news for women?’

He also invited traditionalists to reflect on the nature of calling, asking them to answer how they could refuse women who believe themselves to be called to the priesthood, the rite of ordination (subject to their sense of calling be discerned by the church).

Over the last twenty five years things have changed and women, like men, may now be ordained into all three areas orders of ministry, And,…….

And yet, a significant minority within the Church of England, whilst not seeking to deny the rite to ordination, of both men and women alike, continue to locate themselves within quasi ecclesiological structures which represent their theologies and provide a mechanism for ensuring they both provide and receive male only priestly and episcopal ministry. No longer do we have a situation where women are excluded from ‘certain aspects’ of the ecclesial life but we do have a situation where the ministry of women is restricted to those who are willing to accept their ministry. Thankfully the majority of Church of England parishioners and priests are happy to both receive and endorse women’s ministry. Sometimes their endorsement is based on theological and ontological grounds but usually because they have been direct beneficiaries of women’s ministry. Experience frequently helps shape doctrine in ‘real life.’ Yet, all too often experience and tradition are placed in different theological compartments. How much better if they were asked to travel together so that the tradition stands the chance of becoming a living, breathing, expanding, tradition?

For the majority of the time the fracture between experience and tradition causes no particular problem. Most parishes rub along doing what they do in their own contexts, possibly slightly aware of what they regard as the eccentricities, or traditions, of nearby parishes, but without paying too much attention to notions such as the Five Guiding Principles. Just occasionally though something happens in the life of the Church which brings the fragility of the supposed settlement to the attention of the wider church and society at large. Such a something was the ‘Sheffield Débâcle.’

On Saturday I attended a colloquium on the Five Guiding Principles. I must admit to feeling ever so slightly apprehensive and, to be honest, male (I am also aware of the irony of the male me writing this reflection on an issue which at face value mostly impacts on women, however, I also believe, as a fairly basic theological point, that if one part of the body is impacted so must be the entirety of the body.) My biggest worry concerned the mood of the meeting. Was I about to enter into a seething pit of anger and resentment, or a trough of woe mes?

This thought piece reflects my understanding of some of the issues raised at the colloquium. All of those present were asked whether they were content for me to write a reflection under Chatham House Rules. Permission was given. Any misunderstandings and under or over statements presented in this article are mine alone. Whilst this is my reflection, I hope that I have managed to capture the essence of the meeting both in terms of the discussions held and, just as importantly, its tone and culture.

To my relief, despite the fact that a number of the attendees had been personally hurt by the events surrounding Bishop North’s nomination, the overriding feelings were ones of lament and quizzical frustration. To my male mind there was a somewhat strange lack of anger, and there was certainly no vitriol. But, neither was there was a feeling of resigned passivity or Godly stoicism; there was too much love for the Church of England and a determination that for the sake of her mission things have to change for these emotions to hold sway. There was too much longing for a Godly community in which all, female and male, stand side by side on equal terms, to allow passivity and stoicism to win through.

So what, apart from the somewhat obvious fact that women are still not regarded, by some, as rightfully and ritefully (ritefully refers to the liturgical ‘rites’ through which the Church of England confirms and commissions candidates into various states in the life of the church) equal in the ordering of ministry, were the main areas for lament?

Starting with the obvious there was a sense of lament that, despite their best intentions, the Five Guiding Principles legitimize the notion, based on gender, of no go areas within the Church of England. The Five Guiding Principles, paradoxically given their commitment to ‘mutual flourishing,’ also help create the conditions for sectarianism. Sectarianism and mutual flourishing are not natural cohabitants of the same ecclesial family (denomination), even in a famously broad church. It is, and remains, a fact that even where the ordination of women is ritefully accepted women continue to be excluded from full and equal participation in certain aspects of Church life. How we might ask, can this be? Does this, can this, as Peter Selby asked all those years ago accurately depict the ideal of a Christian community we might long for and ‘for which the Church is preparation?’

Part of the group’s lament was that in striving to arrive at pragmatic and theo-political settlements it might just have been the case that the Church of England took its eye off that most cherished of all images: the church perfect. When we are able to see, even through a ‘glass dimly,’ an image of the ‘Church Perfect’ then we are better positioned to help shape the ‘Church Militant,’ or temporal.

A further characteristic of the sense of lament was the perception that the nominations process, and in particular the configuration of the Crown Nominations Committee, makes it far harder for a woman to be nominated, elected and appointed to an episcopal see. The nomination process, in other words, far from embedding the principle of mutual flourishing actively mitigates against it. Hopefully through Professor O’Donovan’s review of the work of the Crown Nominations Committee this structural deficit will be rectified and both women and men will have a genuinely equal opportunity of nomination to the episcopacy.

Whilst recognizing the gravity of the task set before Sir Philip Mawer there was a sense of sorrow that the report was in many ways sub optimal. It was not, for instance, an independent review but more of an internal audit of shortcomings in the nominations process and the subsequent reaction to Bishop North’s nomination. In asking Sir Philip Mawer to investigate what came to be termed as the Sheffield Débâcle the institution was playing it safe. Theological and ecclesiological questions were very much out of scope and off agenda. The report’s concerns were instead political and pragmatic. This I believe can only be to the detriment of the church. The Sheffield Débâcle was an ecclesiological and theological crisis and not a theo-political failure.

Could more have been achieved through an externally commissioned report? Was it sensible for the Archbishops to ask for the report to be authored by just one person? Would a better more rounded and nuanced report have been produced if a woman had been asked to be the co (and equal) author? Would the report have been more fruitful if a theologian had been asked to contribute; someone who recognized that good theological discourse speaks to many publics, including the public? These are some of the very real questions that it is fair and appropriate to ask. Is it unreasonable to suggest that these are in fact preliminary questions, ones which should have been asked up front?

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Sheffield Débâcle was played out in public and was as such a missional disaster. The potential for our Church of England angst to be played out in public, and critiqued by agents of the state, is part of the turf on which we stand as a national and established church. Church affairs, for us Anglicans, can never be simply church affairs. As an established church we should expect to be interrogated when a decision we make stands contrary to cultural norms, such as gender equality. This does not mean that the Church of England should always seek to affirm cultural norms but it does mean that where we depart from them it must be for the most noble of reasons.

The group were particularly concerned about some of the use of language in the report suggesting that it revealed an implicit bias towards maleness. The example was given that when Philip North answered various questions, questions that made him feel uncomfortable, he did so ‘robustly.’ By contrast the asking of difficult questions, by women, was described as ‘savaging.’

I was left wondering whether, despite all our protestations, we (the Church of England) still simply don’t understand that making the step change from regarding certain classes of people, women and members of the LGBTI community for example, as issues and problems to be solved means including them ‘at all times and in all places,’ at the top table and allowing them to help not only shape but take a leadership position in our most difficult discussions.

This point leads to the final area of lament, fear; the fear of inclusion, the fear of giving people their voice, of, if you like, the fear of genuinely ‘setting God’s people free,’ and the fear of tackling the difficult issues directly and, theologically.

The spirit of quizzical frustration was animated through perspectives suggestive of the idea that the Church of England has relinquished all serious attempts to understand itself ecclesiologically (and I would add liturgically). The question was repeatedly asked: ‘who is doing the work of theology and ecclesiology?’ (At times I wanted to shout ‘we are,’ – but that’s not the main point).

The bishops, to be sure, came in for a certain amount of criticism. They were criticized for enabling the conditions for the creation and sustenance of a theological and ecclesiological vacuum. They were also criticized for colluding in the maintenance of a sub optimal ecclesiology which seeks to honour all theologies in the belief that they should be afforded equal merit. It may well be right, in fact it is right to protect minorities within the church, but, does this mean that it is also right to nominate and seek to impose those who adhere to a minority position on the majority, asking them to set aside their own theologies in the name of ‘mutual flourishing?’ Surely as the Sheffield Débâcle shows to do so is to court rejection and rebellion?

Anecdotal evidence was offered of various bishops agreeing that appointing a ‘traditionalist’ to a see is problematic but that in the pursuit of unity it is also better not to speak out or ask the difficult questions. And, haven’t we seen unity confused with collegiality and uniformity in other spheres of ecclesial debate? Did all of the bishops who voted to take note of their (in) famous report on sexuality really believe that it was a cracking piece of work? The answer is surely ‘no.’ So what dynamics are at work in the College and House of Bishops that seeks to prize uniformity (for it surely isn’t unity) over the rough and tumble work of ecclesiology and theology? Do the bishops operate within a closed system of inquiry, challenge and debate? These are questions deserving of an answer.

The other question that the bishops must ask of themselves, or perhaps the Archbishops must ask of the college and house, is whether they have sufficient theological fire power to identify and address the tough questions. Surely the Church of England, if it is to make ecclesiological, theological, and missional headway needs a better balanced episcopacy and that this must include a cadre of bishop-theologians? If such theologians can’t be appointed to a see why not, as I have suggested before, create an order of bishop-theologians, or Lambeth Theologians? I would argue that an episcopally led church must include theologians among her bishops. For the health and welfare of the church and her publics we cannot, must not, create the conditions where theology is left to the academe alone. Over the last few years we have seen the perils of such an approach. The Church of England, must have her own ecclesiologists and theologians, for the sake of our identity and mission. At the colloquium we were privileged to listen to a Roman Catholic church historian of renown. His major point was that during the Vatican ii process the Roman Catholic bishops were repeatedly challenged by a group of Roman Catholic theologians. The theologians shaped the debate and informed the bishops thinking. Does the Church of England need its own equivalent of Vatican ii? Maybe.

So what are the questions that a cadre of ecclesiologists and theologians might be asked to address on behalf of the Church of England?

I would suggest that the group that met on Saturday might raise two:

What does it mean to have the highest possible degree of communion?’

And,

Has the Church of England already gone beyond the limits of diversity but is too polite to discuss it?’

Successfully answering the first question may, in fact, be the best way to answer the second. The term ‘highest possible’ is in itself interesting for it implies a level of communion that is at best impaired and falls short of the objective standard of full and absolute communion, which for a sacramental church must be the goal, or in Peter Selby’s terms, the longed for community of women and men for which the church is a preparation.

Are we a communion of brothers and sisters through baptism? Well, clearly we are, up to a point. This definition would seem to me to work reasonably well ecumenically but not denominationally, because the point is the sacrament of the Eucharist. Surely, in the Church of England and Anglican Communion, the only way we can say that we are ‘in communion’ is by literally, unequivocally, being in (Eucharistic) communion? As the liturgy stresses ‘we are one body because we all share in one bread.’ Is the liturgy wrong? I would suggest that the liturgy gives the correct and definitive answer. And, lest we forget, priests are ordained to share in the sacramental ministry of the bishop, this being foundational to any ‘catholic’ understanding of ministry.

Are there ways of being in lesser, ‘highest possible,’ degrees of communion, or are these meaningless terms? Is being in the ‘highest possible degree of communion,’ a realistic possibility, or is it like being a bit pregnant? If it is possible for the relationship between bishop and priest to meet a ‘highest possible’ standard, which falls short of full of sacramental communion, what would be the implications of this? Is it something to be lived with? Can such as situation be legitimized as a ‘bearable anomaly?’ And, if the answer is yes, is it just that one group of people, women, are asked to bear the full weight of the anomaly? Is it acceptable to ask ordinands to assent to the Five Guiding Principles as a condition of ordination? For the sake of women and LGBTI Christians (and in fact non Christians) these questions need to be both asked and answered. Finally, if ‘no’ is the answer to these questions what would the implications be for traditionalists?

These are the questions that must be answered by ecclesiologists and theologians; they are not questions for managers, politicians or even pastors. When we, the Church of England, understand the answers to these questions, then and only then, can we start to understand whether the nomination of a non ordaining bishop goes beyond the limits of diversity.

As things stand we don’t have a robust ecclesiology and theology, we have a theo-politicallly enabled vacuum; the task of the ecclesiologist is to fill the vacuum and in the process help shape the community of men and women for which the Church is an earthly preparation.

In Light of Hereford

The Hereford Motion has attracted plenty of attention. For some it represents light, for others heat.

Sexuality (code for homosexuality ) is obviously the Church of England’s hot, and most divisive, topic. So it is not surprising that the Hereford Motion attracted plenty of heat. There is a campaign for other dioceses to adopt the Hereford Motion whilst pressure is also being brought to bear on bishops who might be persuaded to say ‘over my dead body.’ And, there are those for whom the motion doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

For me the most interesting simile is light. The Hereford Motion may not go far enough, or it may go too far, depending on your theology (or it may even hit all the right notes) but what it does show is that all top down and institutionally sponsored attempts to manage some form of settlement have been well and truly off beam.

The motion, first of all, accepts that real and significant difference exists. Surely, this is to be expected in a famously ‘broad church?’ The great Anglican paradox is that difference is an essential characteristic of our unity. Being able to accept, work with and endorse difference on second order issues is part of the Church of England’s institutional genius. I understand that the diocesan and suffragan in the Hereford debate voted in different directions: so what?

The motion also rightly calls for formal and prescribed prayers, whilst making it clear that no priest or parish should be mandated to offer them. Asking for formal prayers, written liturgies, shines light into the straightforward fact that the Church of England is a liturgical church and that the prayers we offer are both formal and common. I have a deep-seated dislike of the notion of informal prayer. It feels very unanglican  and, to be honest, ever so slightly grubby.

I have a suspicion that one of the reasons that the House of Clergy decided not to ‘take note’ of the (in) famous bishop’s report was that it sought to ratify a departure from Church of England liturgical orthodoxy. Advocates of the Hereford Motion (and I am one of them) have claimed that the motion doesn’t infer a change in doctrine. I am not so sure. If liturgy is the method through which we verify our doctrine then any (serious) addition to the liturgy is, if not a change, then at least an accretion, to doctrine. If the motion proceeds to the floor of General Synod and is accepted it will be a watershed moment for the effect would be to override the Higton Motion.

The motion illuminates the nature of the Church of England’s synodical system. The synodical system, for all its flaws, is again part of the Church of England’s institutional genius. The synodical system facilitates a process through which motions debated at General Synod can start in the smallest of church councils. Yes, debates and motions can be generated ‘top down’ by the bishops, but they can also be inaugurated from the smallest hamlets in the land. There is something very precious and special about this aspect of Church of England polity that we should seek to protect, nurture and cherish. I can see no reason why changes in doctrine and liturgy shouldn’t be the concern of the smallest parishes in the land. If in the Church of England we are serious about ‘setting God’s people free’ surely this must also imply the freedom to think and shape the very nature and character of the Church of England?

This week several ‘commentators’ have suggested that the bishops should seek to arrest the progression of further grass root motions using a range of technical and reserved powers. Surely this would represent an abuse of power and a misuse of authority? Do we really want our bishops to act as technocrats?  Bishops are not absolute monarchs in their own dioceses. The Hereford Motion shines a torch back into the very nature of Anglican polity, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and reminds the Church of England that not everything can (or possibly even should) be managed and controlled through top down processes. The Hereford Motion illumines the fact that in the C of E there are real limits to archepiscopal and episcopal authority and control.

Finally, the Hereford Motion shines a light onto the real question facing the Church of England.

‘Do we really and sincerely wish to welcome and affirm same-sex couples who wish to live in life-long, monogamous and faithful relationships, in the belief that such relationships can be spiritually fruitful,’ or in Archbishop Justin’s words be of ‘stunning quality.’ That really is the only question.

And, if we do, if that is what we really believe, the only way we can verify such beliefs is liturgically. If we, the Church of England, can’t bring ourselves to write ‘formal,’ and ‘common’ liturgies then we need to drop the pretense that everyone is to be valued without exception, being regarded as neither a problem to be solved or an issue to be dealt with.

Although the Hereford Motion has attracted plenty of heat its biggest contribution is to shine a light into the hypocrisy which characterizes much of our debate. We either need to write a formal liturgy or stop pretending that we wish to be (radically) inclusive and affirmative.

There really is no other way but the Hereford Way.

 

 

Wonderings about Hereford Motion

On Thursday evening the Hereford Diocesan Synod passed the following motion:

‘That this Synod request the House of Bishops to commend an Order of Prayer and Dedication after the registration of a civil partnership or a same-sex marriage for use by ministers in exercise of their discretion under Canon B4, being a form of service neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter, together with guidance that no parish should be obliged to host, nor minister conduct, such a service.’

Well done Hereford. Incidentally I believe that the Bishop spoke in favour of the motion; well done +Richard.

So, what are we to make of this motion and the work of Hereford diocese?

Well, first of all, it is important that ‘progressives’ don’t get too carried away. This motion could get parked in General Synod’s Business Committee for years to come.

However, if a number of other diocesan synods chose to adopt the Hereford motion then maybe the Business Committee will feel obligated to accelerate the process? In a very real sense Hereford Diocese have laid down the ‘will you come and follow me’ challenge, asking other dioceses if they are also prepared to be ‘called’  by ‘name.’ 

 I would suggest that, whatever those who self style as orthodox claim, this motion shows that there is a clear direction of travel towards far greater levels of inclusivity and affirmation. It is the first significant and concrete manifestation of GAFCON’s worst fear.

Previously all initiatives to celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships have been highly localized, taking place in ‘rogue churches.’  The Hereford Motion is the first time that a synod has requested a formal liturgy available for use across the entirety of the Church of England.

The Hereford Motion rightly implies  that it is inappropriate for the Church of England, as a liturgical church, to offer ‘informal prayers,’ for same-sex couples. The Hereford Motion celebrates the fact that as a national and established church what we offer is common and formal prayers. The Hereford Motion is therefore a statement of  liturgical Church of England orthodoxy. It is also a rejection of strange, but unverifiable notions, such as ‘change in tone and culture.’ The Hereford Motion in a very real way builds upon the decision of General Synod not to ‘take note,’ of the House of Bishop’s report.

I have often argued that real and significant institutional change comes not from the centre but from the institutional and geographic margins. Sometimes institutional leaders become so taken with their own plans and ways of doing things that they lose their peripheral vision. So I wonder whether ‘the institution’ saw the Hereford Motion coming? I suspect not.

I also wonder whether the Hereford Motion exposes weakness in the idea that the process towards some form of resolution on issues of human sexuality can be centrally, planned, coordinated and controlled? After all isn’t the next step in the process supposed to be the publication of the (in) famous teaching document? Surely, in producing the document its authors cannot simply ignore the fact that at least one diocese accepts that loving, monogamous and covenanted same-sex relationships may be formally and liturgically affirmed?

I wonder, if when ecclesial historians chart the history of the Church of England, the Hereford Motion will be regarded as a decisive, epoch changing, event?

The answer to this question, I guess, depends on whether other dioceses also allow themselves to be ‘called by name,’ and similarly adopt the Hereford Motion.