Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Apostolic Regression

According to Christian Today, we now know that the Church of England is set to further deepen its division over Women Bishops.

In yesterday’s article by Ruth Gledhill, she has revealed that when the new ‘Traditionalist’ Bishop - Philip North - is consecrated, the Archbishop of York and his new Diocesan Bishop will not participate in the consecration of the new Bishop at the crucial moment – at the laying on of hands.

Why is this?

At first sight this may sound like a snub to the new Traditionalist Bishop. Not participating in his consecration sounds like a snub – but nothing could be further from the truth.

The reason why they will not lay hands on him, is because a week earlier they will both fully participate in the consecration of the first woman Bishop, Libby Lane. 

And because they will participate in the laying on of hands of a woman Bishop, traditionalists appear to consider them ‘tainted’.  Or in plain English, because they have consecrated a woman, they no longer qualify to take part in the consecration of a man - well, not a real man anyway!  They have become ‘tainted’ by consecrating a woman.

At the heart of this issue is the Anglo-Catholic belief in Apostolic Succession – an unbroken line of consecrations and ordinations properly conducted by the hands of men to the heads of men – which they believe can be traced right back to the Apostles, who were in turn ordained by Christ.

In the minds of traditionalists, this unbroken line is everything.  It’s like an unbroken electric current connecting today's priests and bishops to the Apostles and Christ.   If you break the circuit, it ceases to connect you to the heavenly light bulb – the whole thing breaks down.

Not only is such a connection Biblically spurious, but it also assumes that God’s hands are bound such an arbitrary set of rules.  It is a theology which negates the ministry of all Christians who have not been ‘properly’ ordained in the line of Apostolic Succession.  It couldn't be further removed from the wind of the Spirit which Jesus talked about in John 3 - the wind which blows where it wills.  It couldn't be further removed from Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4 – where Spirit and Truth replaces slavery to places, regulations and restrictions.

This kind of belief in Apostolic Succession is designed to exclude those who do not fit the ‘right’ ecclesiastical mould – to restrict and constrain rather than release and set free.  This is not the truth which Christ talked about - the Truth which sets us free.  Rather it harks back to an Old Testament legalism – the very same legalism which got Christ crucified in the first place.

It is more like Apostolic Regression than Succession – regressing to a pre-Christian understanding of God and priesthood, and ministry.

So what should the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Blackburn do?

They certainly should not give in to this superstitious legalism.  If a new traditionalist Bishop is to be consecrated, it should be a consecration by the whole church – not just by those who are ‘untainted’ in his eyes.

When Paul talked to Timothy (in 2 Timothy 1)  about “the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands”, he first reminds him of a different succession involving two women in his life – the succession of faith passed down from his grandmother to his mother, and then to him.  It is the succession of faith which counts in God’s eyes – from believer to believer – men and women - of faith in the Good News of Christ.

When the Church of England finally authorised the consecration of women, it was a wonderful (if overdue) sign of Apostolic Progression.  As a sign of respect and care for those who could not agree with it, it was deemed necessary to provide Bishops to look after their needs.   But allowing this theology of taint to flourish will be both divisive and regressive.  It allows the creation of a ‘pure sect’ within the church which defines its own rules and its own boundaries of who is in and who is out.

I pray that those in authority will think again, and when the Bishop of Burnley is consecrated, that he will be consecrated by all Bishops present – not just a few.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Sex or Gender?

I have become increasing uncomfortable with the concept of Same-Sex Marriage recently.

Now before you reach out to delete me from your contacts list, I should explain!  I am perfectly happy with two men or two women marrying each other – I would even go so far as to say that I believe that recognition of Same-Sex Marriage is the latest stage of our deepening understanding as Christians of the very nature of marriage itself.

The problem I have is with the name.

Sex has always been a stumbling block for Christians.  For most people in churches, it’s super-embarrassing to talk about – if they can bring themselves to talk about it at all.  Most churches are still very Victorian in their approach to sex and the sum total of teaching on sex in most Evangelical churches consists of:

  • Don’t do it before you get married
  • Don’t talk about it when you have got married.
  • Don’t let your children do it before they get married.

Yet when the church talks about relationships between two men or two women – the thoughts and concerns of most church-goers and church leaders immediately go to ‘Sex’.  Terms like “practising homosexual” and “same-sex acts” seek to define what more conservative Christians regard as sinful but they only serve to exacerbate the problem.  It’s all about sex!

I have a gay friend who noticed an elderly gentleman at church looking at him strangely, week after week, at church.  Finally the elderly gentleman plucked up the courage to say to my friend, “I can’t do it – no matter how hard I try I can’t imagine what it must be like for you having sex with a man!” My friend was horrified and replied, “Then please don’t!  Let me release you from feeling that you have to!”

When David Ison (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) was a Canon in Exeter Diocese, he found himself leading a number of seminars on sexuality.  At the beginning of each seminar, he began by asking the participants to get into small groups and talk about their sex-life.  As the look of horror spread across usually composed, calm faces, he let them off the hook saying, “It’s private isn’t it, so why do we think it is OK to discuss a gay person’s sex life?”

As an evangelical gay priest once wrote, “When we talk about married people, we do not suddenly imagine them having sex and then rush to affirm it as a good thing. Instead, we naturally think in terms of relationships, families and communities. There is no reason why we should think differently about gay relationships. It is tragic that so many evangelicals collude with the world in sexualizing gay people. If we could talk about love instead of about sex, we might well find that we have distinctively Christian things to say to gay people.”

It is truly bizarre that when it comes to heterosexual courting, we emphasise developing the relationship as of primary importance – not sex.  But when it comes to homosexual relationships, the first concern of the average evangelical church is sex – not relationship.  Perhaps that is why gay or lesbian couples are made to feel so unwelcome – because they ‘make us’ think about sex in church!

So here’s the thing…

Why are we perpetuating this by talking about Same-SEX Marriage?  For nervous Christians it has the dreaded word right at the centre of the phrase, thereby reminding them of everything they feel uncomfortable about – not just for gay couples but also for themselves – and it perpetuates a subliminal impression that gay marriage is all about sex.   Newsflash:  History has proved beyond any doubt that gay couples don’t need to get married to have sex!

As a result, I am going to break the habit of colluding with this.  It will take some time, but from now on, I will be talking about Same-GENDER Marriage (which is actually what we have been talking about all along).

Gender is a much more neutral word and crucially, it is the true heart of the issue whether you are in favour of marriage between two men or two women, or against it.  Same-Gender Marriage is less emotive, less confrontational, and points to the real pinch point in the theological debate.

I also hope this will catch on so that we can de-sexualise the whole debate about marriage – and start to de-sexualise our attitudes toward same-gender couples and LGBT people.

Why don’t you do the same?

Friday, 26 September 2014

Dealing with the Crap...

I sat by the river at The Old Thameside Inn today.

It sits on the Thames by Southwark Cathedral, and it was the place where I celebrated my Ordination at Southwark Cathedral over 20 years ago.

As I sat there, it began to dawn on me that my ordination was at this time of the year – and I looked up a calendar for 1991 to find that on this day, 23 years ago, I went to the Cathedral for my ordination rehearsal before setting off for my pre-ordination retreat.  My wife and I actually dropped into the Old Thameside Inn that day, on the way to the Cathedral, to check that everything was ready for the celebration!  As I no longer live in London and can’t remember how many years it is since I last visited that pub, the coincidence was striking.

I began to reflect on the last 23 years.

When I was ordained I was full of hope and purpose.  Ready for whatever God had for me.  Always eager for the next challenge!

Today, although still hopeful and still faithful, I can’t help but think that some of the challenges of the last 23 years have taken the edge off the enthusiasm. L  Sometimes ministry is not as glamorous, and not as successful as we would like, and over the years I have found myself struggling against all kinds of preconceptions, vested interests and prejudice in following my vocation to ministry.

From the Octavia Hill Estates, to the Church of England’s bias to the middle classes, to the utterly draining preoccupation with old listed buildings, and more recently, the struggle for dignity and acceptance for LGBT people in church – I seem to have got myself involved in more than my fair share of controversial issues.  Sometimes it has felt more like wading through thigh-high mud than living ‘life in all its fullness’.

At various times over the last 23 years, I have been accused of undermining the church, being a false prophet, working for the devil, as well as being racist, dishonest and homophobic – all while trying to serve God as best as I can!  I remember one church member shouting at me for going ‘AWOL’ because I had gone to sit at my wife’s bedside in hospital when she was facing the very real possibility of death.  Things like that stick in your heart and mind.   

As I sat at by the river at the Old Thameside Inn, the tide was coming in on the Thames and the current was strong.  I looked up and saw an old tug towing two garbage barges against the flow of the tide.  It was making slow progress downstream despite the best efforts of the tug.  But more than that, the bows of heavy rectangular barges were churning up the water of the river so much that it was almost breaking over the sides. There was a cost and a risk to pushing against the tide, and in that struggle I saw a parable.

Amidst the glamour of the other river boats, this old tug was plodding downstream, taking away the crap, fighting against the tide.  Sometimes ministry is like that too.  

We all want to be successful – no matter how pious we pretend to be.  We want everyone to like us.  We want to see our achievements and hope that one day we will be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our ministry. 

Sometimes however, ministry is more about dealing with the crap and being prepared to churn things up in the process.  

The prophets of the Old Testament knew this, and often paid a much higher price than we do today.  When the Ezekiel was called, God said to him, “I not sending you to people of strange languages – they would listen to you.  Rather I am sending you to your own people – and they will not listen to you.” (Ezekiel 2 & 3 - my paraphrase).

So 23 years on from my ordination, I am encouraged.  Without people ready to challenge ‘churchy’ preconceptions, prejudice and wrong priorities, the rubbish in the Church will simply grow, and we all know what happens when the garbage piles up – it begins to stink.

So to all my fellow old tugs out there – I salute you – and look forward with you to chugging away against the flow for the next 23 years, no matter how much it churns up the water, and however long it takes.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Alleluia! Resurrection at Synod?

When the vote was lost for Women Bishops in 2012 I was shocked and stunned.  I was not alone.

The prospect of waiting another 5 years to get the same point, with no certainty of progress compounded that sense of depressing disbelief.

In response I wrote ‘Two Feet in the Grave’ as a response to the CofE’s uncanny ability to shoot itself in both feet, while standing on the edge of its own grave and then wonder why it falls into the gaping hole.

But I was mistaken.

Today after less than 2 years, the same vote has taken place again – and this time with a different result.  Somehow the Church of England has managed to rouse itself and move with remarkable speed (for an arcane institution) to overturn the bureaucratic processes whose tail so often wags the dog.   To those outside the church, this might not sound like lightening speed – but in ecclesiastical terms it would impress even Einstein! 

There is a wonderful parody of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” where the verse starts ‘Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God – brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod’.   When it comes to bishops the outdated sexist language of the parody was absolutely true – it was indeed brothers only – but somehow the tortoise has stirred itself to life and movement, surprising those who mistook its paralysis for death.

So perhaps I was wrong.  It would seem that in the action of falling into the open grave, the shock of shooting itself in both feet has resulted in a surge of ecclesiastical adrenalin which has brought about the first signs of resurrection.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect the CofE to instantly bound ahead with exuberant life, but with the advent of women to the House of Bishops, I am sure that there will be a new injection of life into this previously patriarchal tortoise-like institution.

The CofE has benefited enormously from the ministry of women priests, and now, finally, it will have the opportunity to benefit from women bishops.

Today the CofE took one foot out of the grave.  

I now look forward to seeing more signs of life the future, and for the resurrection to be continue when we stop trying to exclude people on the basis of gender, orientation, love and marriage - and start living out the life-giving, welcoming love of Christ for all people everywhere, with no exceptions!