I’ve been thinking about posting on this subject for the last couple of days as the news has gradually leaked out about the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC)…
Before I write any further, however, I guess I should explain where I’m coming from. I grew up in the Salvation Army, eventually becoming an Officer (minister) before feeling led ‘out’ of the movement into something new. The next 5 years would see me working as Diocesan Youth Work Adviser for Exeter Diocese, the Church of England in Devon. Not only that, but we found our spiritual home with an Anglican fresh expression of church – Exeter Network Church, who we would journey with for several years until moving our attention into a more organic, community focused approach to ‘being’ church. During this time I was baptised and confirmed as an Anglican – so I guess I am ‘Anglican’…whatever that means?!
I guess I write this to explain why I might feel qualified to have anything to say on this appointment. On Friday I talked to one of my year 11 groups (I teach Religious Education) about the appointment of Justin Welby, explaining why this was so important for the CofE and also the wider impact it might make on society. What struck me was the sheer apathy of young people (who can be naturally apathetic at the best of times!) towards this news. They only started to get excited when I discussed the two major issues facing the new ABC – women bishops and same-sex marriages. I guess I’d summarise their views as ‘what’s the problem?’.
This got me thinking. Dangerous thing, thinking. It made me wonder about the self-consuming strife that is encompassing Anglicanism about these issues. We don’t need a Dawkins tearing away at us. We don’t need apathy across society. We don’t need ‘persecution’. We’re doing a good enough job at ripping ourselves to shreds, aren’t we?
I suppose in some ways I might call myself dechurched now, if we mean ‘institutional’. I got tired of fighting against the system from within as youth work adviser, watching as senior church leaders were more interested in scoring political points or preserving their ‘patch’ at the expense of truly embracing the missio dei. How is the church ever going to reach out to its community if all it ever does is focus on preserving itself – whether it be stopping women from being bishops, or using the Book of Common Prayer or whatever?
The church I belonged to, ENC, was wonderfully free of much of this baggage, and was a hugely healing place for us after years in a highly institutionalised movement such as the Army. We were free to focus on being us, to seek to be who God made us to be, to deconstruct so much of what we’d built up and focus on what was truly important. Moving on from ENC was moving on into the next stage – deconstructing to explore what it might be like to ‘be’ church rather than ‘do’ church.
Anyhow…I guess what I’m saying is that if I, someone with a huge investment in church and Christianity feel this way, what about those who don’t? Those ‘normal people’ who can’t believe that in 21st century Britain we might still be arguing whether women can be in charge or not. Those who think love is more important that gender.
I get that being followers of Christ means being set apart, being different. This is the daily deal. How do we walk, how do we talk, how do we act. Who we are when we’re being watched, who we are when we’re not being watched. I get that we have to stand for something, that we have to ‘believe’ in something, and that sometimes that will go against what society wants us to do. I don’t buy the idea that just because society says its ok, the church should follow suit, should modernise, should be more inclusive…whatever. That just isn’t the way it really works.
What does work in my mind is embracing a theology that welcomes the whosever, the broken, the lost, the hopeless, the rich, the poor, the weak, the powerful, gay, straight, white, black, young, old…welcomes everyone and says “come and be a part of what God is doing here on earth…there’s a part for all of us to play”…We take seriously what Paul seems to be saying when he writes to the young church that in Christ there is ‘no jew, no gentile, no male, no female’.
A church that says we’re all in a process of becoming, that we all ‘sin’ and that all sins are equal, no matter whether they’re ‘sexual’ or breaking the law of the land by speeding. We all need mending and reshaping in the image of the creator, all of us being ‘recreated’.
A church that focuses on who we are, not what we are. Male, female, straight, gay. Who cares? Seriously? I don’t think God does. I say that in all honesty. He has a track record of using the strangest people to change the world. A wandering geriatric called Abram…a trickster called Jacob…a prostitute called Rahab…a teenage mum called Mary…a hate-full young pharisee called Saul…we could go on and on. Ending up with me and perhaps you. It isn’t about apostolic succession – the idea of an unbroken line of men back to the first disciples. I’m not a better Christian because a bishop confirmed me, and definitely not because that bishop was a man (although the man who prayed for me was a wonderful man who happened to be a bishop).
I guess I believe that God is interested in love, and where pure, beautiful love is found, and I mean love, real love, then I think God is there. Whether that is between a man and a woman, a man and a man, a woman and a woman. If hearts are strangely captured by God and are being shaped in to that Image we know we must become then the detail of sexuality simply doesn’t matter. What matters is deep commitment, deep monogamous commitment, to one-another. A commitment that reflects God’s love for his creation. Whatever Leviticus or Paul has to say on the issue. And I don’t say that lightly – I don’t think I’m cleverer or more ‘modern’ than these texts, I just see it differently. And don’t get me started on the myth of biblical marriage…
So…I guess what this ‘rant’ is trying to say is that the time is right to move on, Anglicanism. Choose women bishops. Leave the sexuality thing alone. Not because times have changed but because God is love.
Focus instead on combatting injustice and world poverty. Focus on seeking to rid the world of hate and give it hope. Focus on love. Focus on unity.
Let people run away to Rome if they want to.
Let whoever wants to leave Anglicanism do so if they don’t like women or gays. Who cares if we’re getting it by showing what Christ’s love looks like?
Let priests be priests. Let them serve their communities and try new things. Give equal status to people pioneering as people looking after what’s already in place. Take more risks. Close down stuff that doesn’t work any more. If congregations won’t accept women, let them get on with it without a bishop. They won’t die. Well, they will, but that’s another matter entirely!
Get rid of the bling. It doesn’t do anything magic. Focus on being what we were called to be – salt and light. Give it away. Don’t store up treasures on earth…
Get over the persecution complex until we do something worth being persecuted about (pissing off those in power)…then…well, then we’ll be doing something that might make people interested in finding out who this Jesus is.
The great thing is that beyond all the crap we are doing some incredible things in our communities. In fact, I think we might even be the glue that’s holding it all together in an awful lot of places. That’s the cool thing about Anglicanism, that’s the bit we should be celebrating…
Archbishop-elect Justin – I really do pray that you will know God walking with you during this time of preparation, and that you seek to serve him in everything you do. I pray that you will know peace but also courage to be the man you need to be…and that is who you were created to be…not what conservatives or liberals or even I might want you to be.
Just spend more time looking outside of our church than inside.
You might even find God out there more than inside its ‘hallowed halls’…