some thoughts for the CofE…

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’…

6 thoughts on “some thoughts for the CofE…

  1. Hi Martin,

    You are completely right of course about what the CofE should be doing, indeed what it is largely doing on the ground in parishes, but I think your perception of its activity at the centre is a little off. The media only report sex stories, but it really doesn’t mean that that’s all the bishops do. A quick scroll through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website gives a good idea of what the other 98% of his time is spent doing: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php?action=search&tag_id=6.

    I think you know my other half (a teaching assistant) who may have mentioned that I work at Lambeth Palace; I can promise you that the issues of women bishops and gay marriage rarely come up. Though, as I say, that might not be the impression gained when reading the papers…

    J

    1. Hi Jack,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting – really appreciate your thoughts!

      I think what I was trying to do was to highlight the problem that the CofE has with its image – which actually isn’t too far off the point. Having worked for a Diocese and having been close to the centre I can only report what I experienced. The discussion focused in Exeter Diocese on women bishops and same sex relationships. Indeed the diocesan bishop no longer ordains women (at least that was my understanding at the time that I moved on) because he can’t support women bishops. I’ve also witnessed both Forward in Faith and Reform mobilising its membership to take control of Diocesan Synod and thus have a greater impact on General Synod which in no way reflects their representation in parishes across the country.

      My gut is that this is the reality (the discussion about women and same-sex issues) for most Dioceses, and therefore reflects the reality of what is happening in the CofE. Also, why has it dominated general synod business for the last few years if it isn’t what’s important at the centre? Also, as part of the national executive for DYOs for a year or so I have a pretty good understanding of the national picture…but I shouldn’t blow that trumpet too loudly as I only ever really heard from the perspective of DYOs and national advisers who tend to be fairly radical types!

      I have no doubt that the ABC does much more than spend his time on these things, and my contention is that he should be doing so – releasing more people and resources to enable mission in the broadest sense and shape – rather than focusing on these internecine issues which are literally draining the life out of the church. My love for Rowan is based on the holiness of the guy but also his willingness to be a critical friend to society, politics and the world in general. That is a valuable role and one which must be continued. Sex and gender may not come up much at Lambeth, but it certainly does out at the cutting edge.

      Even at parish level, where a huge amount of good is done, the church is riven by issues about gender and sexuality – can a woman preach, can a resolution C parish accept female oversight as part of a wider mission community, can a gay person take on a leadership role etc? If the answer is no then we’ve missed the point. The church is not for the whosoever.

      Very best wishes,
      Martin

      1. Hi Martin,

        That is all true of course, and to be honest I can easily recognise your experience from other places: Reform and FiF are certainly doing that and I too have seen many squabbles at the top on these issues.

        I guess my immediate reaction was simply “we really don’t spend all our time on this!! It’s all the media’s fault for reporting selectively.” But while I think that is certainly correct, you are right that an inordinate amount of time is consumed by these issues; General Synod’s time is spent on little else and when other subjects come up they tend to be poorly attended. I have seen bishops have to be ‘whipped’ (in the parliamentary sense) into the chamber sometimes to maintain a quorum, but I am sure we will see a full bench during the women bishops debate – unless any need to be absent for tactical reasons.

        There are some great people, as I’m sure you know, who focus outside in a really admirable way. Often it is liberals because they see the way the tide is going and so feel free to focus on more important mission, but churches like HTB are also great for having refused to be distracted by it and maintained, in their case, an almost unparalleled focus instead on evangelisation.

        This is all a long-winded way of saying I agree with you entirely, and thank you for posting the article in the first place!

        J

      2. That’s half the battle, isn’t it, persuading ourselves to stop spending so much time and emotion on this and just simply get on with the main stuff. That is the stuff the cofe does well.

        Agreed re: HTB – at the end of the day people can think whatever they want to about these issues, and will, but they aren’t the things that should be distracting us.

        Best wishes, Jack – and very many thanks for posting again.
        M

  2. Great post – lots of food for thought.

    And Jack – as much as I admire and respect teaching assistants, I doubt many of them are up planning at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning. (He reeeally didn’t like being called a PA earlier – apparently he’s ‘Chaplaincy Assistant’. Hmm.)

    1. Ha! Love it!

      I hear you sister…my planning is tonight although its off to the Mosque tomorrow with year 8 (with 5 cover lessons having to be prepared, of course!!)…

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