Tuesday 11 December 2012

Locked and Bolted ...

Today’s announcement in the House of Commons should have been a cause for celebration.
Indeed, in many ways it is.  The Government has reaffirmed its commitment to introduce legislation to enable same-sex couples to marry.  More than that, it has pulled back from earlier plans to prohibit religious groups from celebrating same-sex marriages.  Both these are to be warmly welcomed.

But as I listened to the statement by Maria Miller today there were two areas which left me profoundly sad.
Firstly, the vast majority of the statement was devoted not to joyful news for LGB&T couples, but instead to the level of protection for churches and other religious groups when the proposed legislation comes into force.

This is not, of course the Government’s fault.  It is the Church which has forced its way to the top of this agenda.  The Church of England’s response to the Government consultation earlier this year displayed alarming levels of defensive self-interest while ignoring or patronising the hopes and aspirations of same-sex couples.  Statements by Roman Catholic leaders have been even more offensive.
As a result, today’s statement, welcome as it was, said more about the Church than it did about the longing among many same-sex couples to express their love and commitment in the ultimate expression of Marriage.

My second sadness however, is more serious, as it comes from an announcement which will have far reaching consequences.
While the opportunity will be created for churches in general to ‘opt in’ to celebrating same-sex Marriages, Anglican churches will not have this provision.  The statement today made it clear that one of the ‘quadruple locks’ to protect religious belief and practice, will be specific legislation making it illegal for the Church of England (and Church in Wales) to conduct same-sex marriages.

For me and many others this will be a safeguard too far.
It will mean that even when (in years to come) the CofE changes its mind, it will require a change in primary legislation before same-sex marriages can take place in parish churches.  Unlike other religious institutions, the CofE will not be able to vote to ‘opt in’ – it will have to ask the Government to change to law.

This has been presented as a further reassurance to the Church of England (& Wales) but it only reassures those who want to stop same-sex marriage in the first place.  There are many others who have been appalled by the Church response to these issues.  We do not want the CofE excluded from the ability to ‘opt in’ when that view achieves a majority.  We do not want to be treated differently from other churches and religious groups.  We do not want to see such discrimination cast into law.
If the Church of England welcomes these new ‘safe-guards’ the  real effect of the ‘quadruple lock’ announced today will be to ensure that LGB&T couples are left in no doubt that the Church of England is locking and bolting the door to them for as long as it possibly can.  It will send out a clear message – “You are not welcome here.”

If the CofE welcomes these safe-guards, once again it will be seeking to protect itself at the expense of others.  Once again, it will be putting its own interests first. 
How far we have departed from the famous words of William Temple when he said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”.  If the CofE welcomes these safeguards today, it will be demonstrating that the Church of England only now exists to protect itself against social change – in relation to women, in relation to LGB&T people, and in relation to the State.

The trouble with locked doors is that they tend of keeping everyone out who doesn’t have the right key.  Is that really the kind of church we want to be?

Monday 3 December 2012

Reflections on a broken democracy ...

The Church of England has always voted for women Bishops.
Ever since the ordination of women to the priesthood 20 years ago, the church has been making its way, slowly but surely, towards the ordination of women as Bishops.

Every round of voting (and there have been many) has left no doubt that it was the will of the Church.  When I was a member of General Synod from 2000 – 2005, we had 2 of rounds of voting – both clearly in favour - but there have been many more.
So how is it that the law which would have created women bishops was thrown out – even when 74% of the General Synod and 42 out of the 44 dioceses in the CofE voted for it?

The answer lies in a voting system which is designed to prevent significant change.
In most areas, a simple majority in General Synod is needed to take something forward.  In a few cases the issue has to be sent to dioceses to vote on before it can come back to General Synod for the final majority vote.

But there are some areas where not only does General Synod have to vote for change - which is a challenge in the first place – but then it has to go to each diocese to be voted on – and then if a majority of dioceses support it, the innovation finally comes back to General Synod where it has to pass an even higher bar – a 2/3rds majority in each of the 3 ‘Houses’ – Bishops, Clergy, and Laity.
And that death by attrition is what scuppered the women Bishops vote.  It is democracy gone mad – a self-defeating democracy where the will of the majority is ignored in deference to the minority.  It is designed to ensure that radical change is prevented at all costs and this un-democratic framework has resulted in the CofE shooting itself in the foot with both barrels.

So what is it about women’s ministry that makes it such a threat?  Why should women’s ministry have to pass all the ridiculously high hurdles before the church can change?  Why are women so dangerous that such anti-democratic measures have to be employed to keep them in their place?
When women were ordained priest, it was only by the slimmest of 2/3rd majorities – just 2 votes in the infamous House of Laity.  Many predicted doom for the church as a result, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Women now outnumber men in ordination services, a third of all licenced clergy are now women and the church has not fallen apart.  Far from it, the church has been blessed by women priests up and down the country.  Those who have left as a result have left – but what of it?  The church has not disintegrated.   A church which doesn’t allow people to leave is not a church – it is a prison.  And a church which does not allow change because it fears the people who threaten to leave becomes a prison of a different kind – a prison of the past.

Having reflected on the debacle which we witnessed in the Synod vote, I have realised that the problem is not the membership of the Church of England – it is not the Bishops or the Clergy.  It is certainly not the Laity who voted ‘yes’ in 42 out of 44 Dioceses and by a clear majority in General Synod.  It is the system of voting we have shackled ourselves with – a system which despises the will of the majority – a system which requires ever higher hurdles to be negotiated until finally the loser becomes the winner in a moment worthy of Alice in Wonderland.
It is not the women Bishop’s legislation which needs fixing - it is the voting system itself.  Until this is addressed, the vocal minority can still play the heart-strings of the compassionate majority to ensure that nothing will ever be good enough to meet their demands.

And it would not need a major readjustment.  Even the high standard of requiring a 2/3rd majority could still be required to ensure overwhelming support.
·         If the requirement had been for a simple majority in each House and a 2/3rd majority overall – we would now have women Bishops.

·         If the requirement had been for 2/3rd of dioceses to vote for women Bishops and then a simple majority in General Synod to ratify the will of dioceses - we would now have women Bishops.

·         If the requirement was for a 2/3rd majority in 2/3rds of the Houses of General Synod and a simple majority in the third House - we would now have women Bishops.
The women Bishops vote in General Synod laid bare the structural flaws in our version of democracy – a version which allows the minority to dictate to the majority as an anchor against change.

It is time for change – it is time to lower the impossible hurdles to the point where the church can move forward and try to rebuild its shattered credibility – and that change must start in the structures of General Synod.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Two feet in the grave...

Tonight the CofE has done the unthinkable.
Twenty years after it voted for women priests… after years of debate and counter debate…  after pouring over the issue of women bishops ad nauseum… after sending the proposed legislation to dioceses who voted overwhelmingly for it… tonight it has thrown out that legislation to welcome women as bishops for another 5-10 years.

I wrote last night on my blog that the results of voting ‘no’ would be catastrophic - http://benny2010.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/make-or-break.html - and have no desire to change a single word.  Today was a ‘make or break’ day for the CofE, and the House of Laity has chosen to break with the vast majority of church members who have voted for women Bishops in Diocesan and Deanery Synods throughout this land.
They have chosen to break with public opinion and with Government.  Worst of all they have chosen to break with the work that the Holy Spirit has been doing in society by enabling everyone to be seen as equal before God – each person, male and female, made in the equal image of God.

Last night I also wrote on Facebook that I was “praying for the CofE tomorrow as it chooses between the past or the future in its vote on women bishops. A vote for the past will be like putting a second foot in the grave...”
But now it has jumped with both feet into the grave.

My wife’s response to the news was to say… “If I was still a member of the Church of England, I would be leaving now in disgust.”  She tired of CofE discrimination some time ago and when I left parish ministry joined an MCC Church where everyone is welcome.
My 14 year old son was even more direct – “The Church of England is evil” were his words.  Thank God that he has not given up on his Christian faith, and now worships elsewhere too.

Such is the plight of the Church of England.  Out of touch with both God and the people it is called to reach out to, its structures and procedures are outdated and arcane, and it is so anchored to the past that it is increasingly incapable of following Jesus Christ on the road of salvation.
Tonight the Church of England has put two feet in the grave.

My only hope comes from an evangelical author Oz Guinness, who I once heard say,
“Several times in the history of the Christianity, the Church has gone to the dogs!  But each time, it is the dog that has died – not the church!”
As a Christian, I believe in resurrection – and I know that God can bring resurrection to the Church even when the Church seems to prefer death to life!  But that does not excuse the behavior of a Church who insists on presenting an image of God which denies and undermines the Good News of Christ.

While I would not want to second guess what Oz Guinness would think of our present situation, I would like to finish with one more quote from him which resonates with me today.
“Sometimes when I listen to people who say they have lost their faith, I am far less surprised than they expect. If their view of God is what they say, then it is only surprising that they did not reject it much earlier.

Other people have a concept of God so fundamentally false that it would be better for them to doubt than to remain devout. The more devout they are, the uglier their faith will become since it is based on a lie. Doubt in such a case is not only highly understandable, it is even a mark of spiritual and intellectual sensitivity to error, for their picture is not of God but an idol.”
What picture of God has the Church of England painted today?

Make or Break...

Today is a make or break day for the Church of England.
In the debate and vote on Women Bishops, the Church of England faces a clear choice.  It can either stick with those who want to hold the Church back – or move forward to embrace the work which the Holy Spirit has been doing – often in wider society more than in the church, because we have been so slow to hear.

To hold back from welcoming women as Bishops would be catastrophic.
It would be catastrophic for our credibility in the country in which we minister - which can’t see what the problem could possibly be. 

It would be catastrophic for the relationship between the established Church and State which is already being strained to breaking point by the refusal of the Church to accept the equality of all human beings, each of us made in the image of God.
It would be catastrophic for the image of God we project to the world – a no vote today would present a God who is out of date, out of touch, and fatally flawed – who considers those who would exclude women to have greater importance than the women He is calling.

There are those of course, who have threatened to leave the Church of England if the vote is ‘yes’.  They have made this threat very public to ensure maximum leverage in General Synod.
Much less visible are people like a valued female priest I know well, who has quietly confided that if the vote is ‘no’ she will resign her ministry.  She has not announced this with a fanfare of trumpets, but with a quiet resignation that a church which votes ‘no’ is not the church she felt the call to minister in.  I wonder how many other women and men feel the same.

So today is a make or break day for the Church.  My prayer is that we make our way into the future with generosity for those who are unable to recognise the work of Spirit in opening up Episcopal ministry to all – but not by allowing them to hold the Church to ransom.
Today is the day – and to quote Hebrews 4:7

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”


Monday 15 October 2012

New jam - new jam jars...

It is good to see that the Churches in England are finally catching up with Jesus teaching on jam-jars.
In a landmark move, the Churches Legislation AdvisoryService (CLAS) has issued guidance to churches of all denominations, pointing out that EU(European Union) regulations now forbid the re-use of jam jars for selling produce at church fetes.  While it is legal to give home-made jams and preserves away in old jam-jars as personal gifts, old jam-jars must not be sold under any circumstances.  Even the great repository of wisdom and knowledge known as the WI, has confirmed this to be true.

The EU ruling is, of course, reminiscent of Christ’s famousteaching on wineskins.  “Who puts new wine onto old wineskins?” he asked.  “If you do you will lose the lot!”

Which makes you wonder – why did it take the EU to identify the dangers of putting new jam into old jam-jars?  Why did the church not recognise the problem decades ago?

The issues which worry the EU are, of course, slightly different than those that Christ drew our attention to.  The EU is more concerned with the hygiene risk of ‘old jam-jars’ .  Old bugs and bacteria might contaminate the new jam endangering those who consume it.  But the analogy still holds true when we look at the church today.

Churches have been putting the new jam of the gospel into the culturally contaminated jam-jars of the Victorian era for over 150 years and the results are all too obvious.  Young people stay away from the church in droves; deeper understanding in areas like gender and sexuality are contaminated by outdated Victorian values; and the result is often seen in virulent outbreaks of ecclesiastical nausea and vomiting.

The few young people who stay can also become infected by the same Victorian values which infuse those old jam-jars.  At best many seem to accept that this is quite normal – at worst some rise with zombie like conviction to defend views of which are un-Christian, compromised and arcane.

Yet again we find that Jesus was right.  Whether it is wineskins or jam-jars, we constantly need to put the new wine (or jam) of the gospel into the new skins (or jars) of the Kingdom of God today.

But sadly the church of today seems more attached to its old jam-jars than to the gospel.  No wonder church attendance is falling…

Thursday 27 September 2012

The Power behind the Throne

There is a throne in Canterbury Cathedral called the Chair of St Augustine.
It is the chair on which the new Archbishop of Canterbury will be seated when he begins his ministry.  Named after the first Archbishop of Canterbury, it conveys the authority and responsibilities of the role to the new Archbishop and the Anglican Church.  It is an ancient throne, one of oldest in existence, and when the new Archbishop is seated upon it, the Church of England will have a new leader.
I first became aware of its power some years ago when I was part of a small group who went to talk to Rowan Williams about the mess the church has got itself into on sexuality.  We met in the Archbishop in Lambeth Palace.  We met him in the hope that we could persuade him to be more proactive in promoting a new spirit of openness.  We met him hoping to re-awaken those things which he knew to be true about the gift of God at work in people of the same sex who love each other.
We should have been pushing at an open door.  Rowan Williams had gone on the record many times before he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in support of greater openness, acceptance and inclusion. 
But as our conversation developed, it became clear that no such commitment would be forthcoming.  Time and time again, he referred to his role as the present occupant of the Chair of St Augustine.  He talked of the weight of history and responsibility which the occupant of that Chair carries.  He talked about the need to preserve what he had been given – what had been entrusted to him.  He talked about his role as Archbishop in terms of being a guardian.  He told us that what he thought (as an individual) was irrelevant because his job as Archbishop was to hold together the great responsibility which the occupant of the Seat of St Augustine is given.
Our hearts sank.  We had hoped to meet with an anointed leader for the future - instead we found a guardian of the past.  We had met someone who had been called to leadership because of his great gifts – but then neutered by the power of the institution which had called him – the power behind the throne.
I have seen it before…
I saw it at work among the Church Commissioners when fighting to preserve affordable social housing in the Octavia Hill Estates which they owned and managed.  When I met them as individuals, I met thoughtful genuine Christians keen to listen and engage.  But when I met them as an institution, entrusted only with maximising profits, a very different persona emerged.  The power of the institution had overtaken them – they had become ‘institutionalised’ – only able to act in the way which was expected of them, putting money first and people second.
I have also experienced the corrupting power of the institution at first hand - the subtle pressure to behave in a particular way contrary to personal conviction.  I experienced it when I was a member of the OICCU Exec – the committee which ran the Oxford University Christian Union.  I was asked to take on the role of Outreach Secretary – to encourage and enable evangelism.  I came full of hope for what we might be able to do together – with fresh ideas, hopes and expectations, but I was na├»ve about the power of the institution.
Before we started our work, we were all taken away for the weekend by UCCF to be trained for the vital role we had been given.  We were reminded that we were being entrusted with a weighty responsibility – the continuation of many years of faithful evangelical witness to the University.  We were reminded of the tools we were to work with – the Bible and the Doctrinal Basis.  We were told that if we did our job properly, we would ensure that the next generation of leaders in the UK were Evangelical Christians who would, in turn, ensure that we continued to be a Christian Country (what a pretentious heresy that was!)  Our role was not to bring innovation or change – it was to continue the work of those who had been before and to defend OICCU against error and compromise.
And I have to say that I was taken in.  The criteria for our decisions became not ‘what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28)  It was to do what was expected of us.
I remember the moment when this dawned on me.
It was when we voted to revoke an invitation to one of the most gifted and fruitful evangelists in Oxford - Canon Michael Green – because he would not sign our Doctrinal Basis of Faith.  His preaching had brought many hundreds of students in Oxford to faith in Christ.   He went on to be Professor of Evangelism at Regents College Vancouver, and came back to lead the Archbishops Springboard for Evangelism.  He wrote over 50 books on Christian apologetics and evangelism, but he wasn’t good enough to speak at our precious Christian Union because he would not conform himself to the expectations of our institution.
We had allowed ourselves to become institutionalised.
As the Crown Nominations Commission meets this week to decide who the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be, I can honestly say that I don’t know who should be appointed.  But unless it is someone who is strong enough to resist the power of the institution, I am also tempted to say that it doesn’t really matter.
What we need is an Archbishop who is courageous enough to lead us in the way of Christ. 
Jesus was no defender of the institution.  He refused to be boxed in, channelled or handled.  His concern was to bring new life – not preserve old structures, and he would not be manipulated into meeting the expectations of others.
And that is the Archbishop I am praying for…

Saturday 25 August 2012

Unconditional Joy

I recently came back from our family holiday in Polzeath, Cornwall – and it was fun!
The highlight, as always, was body boarding in the waves on this famous surfing beach.  Being picked up by the waves and propelled forward in the surf alongside other excited boarders as we raced towards the sands is nothing less than fantastic.

And as I looked left and right at others being carried along by the waves, I saw and felt something wonderful.  Unconditional joy!
It is the kind of joy that leaves everything else behind.  Whatever worries or stresses may have been around in the rest of our lives simply fell away as we sped towards the shore.  Uninhibited smiles broke across faces, divisions and social barriers fell away.  Old and young, fat and thin, cool and not so cool, all united for those few moments in the joy of riding a wave.

It was the wonderful power of unconditional joy and I think that we need more of it in our lives.
Many of us lead such complicated lives, juggling different responsibilities and spheres of life.  Work, home, faith, aspirations, expectations, joys and sorrows all mixed up inside of us – which mean that we rarely experience truly ‘unconditional’ moments like these.  It is the power of the ‘yes-but’ in the back of our minds which impinges on pure, true joy - the potent inhibition inside us that stops us surrendering to the joy of the moment - and we are the poorer for it.

I also think that Christians are particularly bad at this.  We are too self-conscious to surrender ourselves to pure joy – there is always the bit of guilt or concern for others that holds us back. 
Let me give you a trivial example – saying Grace before a meal.

I always thought that saying Grace was about thanking God for what he has given us, but so often any thankfulness is immediately followed by a reminder about all the people in the world who don’t have enough to eat. 
Now before you think me heartless or complacent, let me say that I do take seriously the needs of the hungry in the world.  As a family, we give financially every month to support aid and development.  In fact, when I left work recently to be a carer for my wife, it was the one piece of our giving which was non-negotiable, and we have gone without things to maintain it.  But why do we have to spoil the joy of sharing together in a family meal by this need to counterbalance our thankfulness with an equal dosage of guilt?

Then there are those times in church worship when the joy of God touches our hearts.  All too often, I have held back from embracing that joy unconditionally because of worrying about other people around me who may not be feeling so uplifted!   Yet unconditional joy has a unifying power – like the power of the waves at Polzeath – uniting very different people – even strangers – in a moment of pure enjoyment.
And there is also a deeper need to let ourselves go once in a while - to get lost in the moment.  As I have reflected on my experience in the waves at Polzeath, I have also found myself reflecting on another area of life where the unconditional is so important and yet so rare – Unconditional Love.

As Christians we are called to mirror God’s unconditional love for us.  The love that causes the sun to shine on good and bad people (Matthew 5:45).  The love that took Jesus to the cross, while we were still sinners (1 John 4:10).  The love that runs to meet the prodigal son and throws its arms around him without waiting for apology or contrition.
And we often pretend that we offer unconditional love to each other.  Yet so often there is a ‘yes-but’ in our love for brother, sister or stranger, than means we hold something back.  And in the process, our love becomes conditional and tainted – it becomes dependant on that person meeting our expectations in one way or another.

Conditional love is not God’s love.  Conditional love is not empowering, liberating, overwhelming, or transforming.  Conditional love does not open our hearts and wills to the love and purposes of God.  Rather, it set limits on how much we mean to God.  It sets limits on what God can do.  It seeks to steer us rather than embrace us.

And as I have reflected, I have come to realise that there is a link between Unconditional Joy and Unconditional Love, and it is this…

Until we are able to embrace Unconditional Joy,
we will be unable to offer Unconditional Love.
Or put another way, until we are ready to let go of the ‘Yes-but’ in our joy, we will be unable to let go of the ‘Yes-but’ in our love.

So I am grateful to the waves of Polzeath for giving me a glimpse into the power of unconditional joy – for the strangers with whom I felt united as we rode the waves in those moments of joy – and for the God who loves us without conditions and who longs to fill us with his unconditional joy.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Women Bishops - a Minority report ...

During Monday's Synod debate on women Bishops I witnessed an interesting spectacle.

It has long been accepted in the CofE that women Bishops are going to happen.  The only question which remains is how to accommodate the minority who still can’t accept the fact. 

Some of those are Anglo-Catholics who believe that a Bishop must (by definition) be male, but others are conservative Evangelicals who can’t accept the notion that a woman can have authority over a man (except the Queen of course, who is supreme governor of the CofE – I assume they think she is really a man!).

So the debate (which is still rumbling on) is about how to ensure that these minorities still feel welcome in the Church of England and what system should be put in place for providing Bishops to look after them.

And in the debate yesterday, we had 2 or 3 conservative Evangelical speakers pleading for a system that would mean that their minority could remain in the CofE after women Bishops become a reality.

“Will there still be a place for us?” asked one speaker, “Will we still be welcome?”

As I thought about this, the situation became more and more intriguing.  Here was a minority in the CofE, which acknowledged that they were a minority, pleading for special treatment because they were a minority.  There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  The Church should be a place where everyone is welcome, even those whose picture of God and the church is very different to the majority.  It should be a place where grace and acceptance is not dependant on having the same theological view.  Our unity should be found in following the Lord of grace who reached out and embraced the poor, the outcast and the sinner.

Yet at the same time this particular minority is the most vocal group in the fight against the acceptance of another minority in the Church – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians.

When it comes to gay Christians, who (on this issue) understand the Bible differently, they vehemently deny the possibility of a special place in the Church.  They want lesbian and gay Christians to be barred from ministry unless they promise to deny themselves and bow to enforced celibacy.  They would like to see Bishops taking action against gay and lesbian ministers in relationships and Civil Partnerships instead of turning a blind eye.  They want enquiries made about their sexual conduct and public repentance for past errors as a condition of continuing in ministry.  They want to see the Church continue to deny same-sex couples who are seeking blessing or dedication for their loving commitment to each other.  And they certainly do not want to see openly gay Bishops – even if they are celibate.

Yet they plead for a ‘special place’ in the CofE with their own Bishops who will share their minority theology while at the same time seeking to exclude others.

I am sure that I was not the only one who shared the irony of the moment.

If the CofE does manage to square the circle and provide a framework which creates a space for them without undermining the authority of woman Bishops, then perhaps we ought to require of them a little grace and charity towards the minority which they have been trying to drive out. 

Perhaps a commitment should be required from them to show respect and acceptance to the minority of Christians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, before we let them stay?  Perhaps we ought to ask them to publicly repent of their failure to love and to listen to their brothers and sisters, and in a particular, the 1500 LGB&T clergy in the Church of England?  Perhaps they need to be ready to accept that there is a place in the Church of England for gay Christians – in the pews – in the pulpit – and in the House of Bishops.

And perhaps the CofE should seek to cater for all its minorities instead of picking and choosing which ones to protect.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Another way of doing business...

We are half way through the Church of England’s General Synod in York, and it has been fascinating as usual.  Conversations with Synod members, Bishops and others reveal a huge amount about what happens behind the scenes in the Church of England – and helps make sense of the debates.

But there is one area which is still shrouded in mystery – the meetings of the House of Bishops.
Questions on voting records in House of Bishops meetings, and questions about the secrecy which surrounds the Bishops meetings were swept aside on Friday evening by the blanket phrase “that remains confidential to the House” and there are clearly no plans to change that.

Such is that the secrecy that I saw the BBC’s correspondent’s eyes light up in a passing conversation with a Bishop at the vaguest prospect of getting an inside story on the last meeting.
The House of Bishops – unlike General Synod as a whole meets in private.  No record is published of votes taken, or of the content of speeches made, or contributions to discussions.  We never know if a policy or statement has been overwhelmingly endorsed or just scraped through by the slimmest of margins.

When a decision is taken however, that becomes the policy of the House and a kind of Cabinet Collective Responsibility takes effect where everyone is expected to back the decision whether they voted for it or not.
But is there another way of doing things?

It was also fascinating to read Christina Beardsley’s blog on Changing Attitude this morning.  She was at a very different House of Bishop’s meeting yesterday in the USA as part of The Episcopal Church General Convention.
Their House of Bishops meeting was not held behind closed doors.  They met in ‘Open Session’ and observers could come, watch and listen.  Nor were they keeping it safe by only addressing uncontentious issues.  On the agenda were two resolutions relating to inclusion of Transgender people in the life of the church – including equal access to explore a vocation to ordination.  There were speeches made on both sides of the debate – some supporting the changes and some opposing them - before a vote was taken in public on the two resolutions.

What struck me in reading Christina’s report, was how constructive and open the whole process was.  Strong and moving statements were made on both sides, including a bishop opposing the resolutions who said that this would be “an idol that will break us” but the description of the open session was breath-taking for its maturity in handling areas of disagreement in public.
This American model is a world away from the workings of the House of Bishops in England but it showed me that there is another way of doing things.  There is another way for Bishops to model leadership in the Church. There is another way to make decisions which does not require Bishops to keep secret their discussions, or to bury their own convictions beneath the pretence of Cabinet Collective Responsibility.  It is more open, more honest and infinitely more transparent.

Perhaps there is another way…

Saturday 7 July 2012

Questions & Answers (& more Questions)

Every session of General Synod contains an Agenda item called “Questions” in which ordinary members of Synod can table questions.  These Questions are a little like Parliamentary Questions which MP’s can table in the House of Commons.  In parliament, the relevant Government Minister must stand up and answer the question.  In General Synod, it is the relevant Bishop, Archbishop or Chair of the relevant committee.

And last night the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had their work cut out as question after question was tabled about the recent Church of England response on same-sex Marriage.
'Who was the author?  Synod members wanted to know.  Who saw it?  What was the membership of the group who finalised it?  Who voted on it and by what authority was it submitted as “the view of the Church of England”?  Who can truly claim to speak for the ‘Church of England’ on an area where there is such diversity of opinion?  Why was Synod not consulted?  Why are the votes of the House of Bishops not recorded and published?

To be fair, the Archbishop of Canterbury took it on the chin.  He tried to be helpful, and took the final responsibility with the Archbishop of York for signing off the response before it went to the Government.
As a result of the Archbishop's answers, we now know that the response was drafted by ‘staff’ at Church House in Westminster and presented to the Archbishops Council and House of Bishops in May.  The basis for the response was Canon B30 which says:

 The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better or worse, till death do us part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.  

Suggestions were made and the House of Bishops “agreed the general shape of the response, considered a number of detailed suggestions … and invited the Archbishops to finalise the draft.”
But the answers only raised more questions…

A key question is who were the mysterious and anonymous ‘staff’ who drafted the response?  This is significant because we know of staff at Church of House who are sympathetic to the aspirations of same-sex couples, and we know of staff who are definitely not!  Without knowing which members of staff were tasked to write the response, we cannot know if it the group or individual was balanced, neutral or partisan.
Other questions followed from members of Synod…

If Canon B30 was the basis for opposing same-sex marriage, how is it that the Church of England can embrace the many church members (and indeed members of Synod) who have not lived up to its rigorous ideals of life-long union to the exclusion of all others?  Many marriages are not permanent and lifelong, but the Church does not exclude or oppose 2nd, 3rd or further marriages after divorce. 
If marriage is for the procreation of children, what about couples who cannot or do not want to have children?  The Archbishops answer appeared to stretch Conon B30 to breaking point when he responded that “The Church of England has never regarded the validity or value of marriage as dependent on the possibility or intention of having children.”

What consideration was given to the pastoral impact of issuing such an unequivocal rejection of the possibility of same-sex marriage, as many same-sex couples (including many Church members) woke up on the 11th June to find their hopes and aspirations crushed?  The response was non-committal.
Were there any plans to revisit and review Canon B30?  “No” was the clear and definite answer.

Is the House of Bishops aware of the level of dismay and discontent the response had produced among faithful Anglicans?  “One cannot be anything but aware of this” the Archbishop said in response.
Last night was very revealing as Synod members probed the response which had been made in their name, but as often happens, the answers raised more questions than they answered.  At the end of the day, 4 key questions remain:

1.      Who were the ‘staff’ authors of the draft response and what personal perspectives did they bring to the task before them?

2.      If the Church is able and willing to recognise divorce and participate in remarriage without contravening Canon B30 insistence that the  nature” of marriage is “permanent and lifelong”, why is the church not also able to consider recognising and (perhaps one day) participating in marriage of same-sex couples?

3.      If “the Church of England has never regarded the value or validity of marriage to be dependent on the possibility or intention of having children”, how is it that opponents of same-sex marriage can hold up the issue of procreation as a reason why gay people can’t get married?

4.      Given the coach and horses which these answers drive through the Church’s definition of marriage, why are there no plans to revisit and review Canon B30?

This is an issue which won’t just go away…

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Trouble at the Top...

There is trouble brewing in the Church of England – shock, horror! 
It’s not just the women Bishop’s debate this weekend at General Synod.  It’s not just the running sore which is the (lack of meaningful) debate on sexuality.   It is something much deeper than that.  It’s the increasing gap which is opening up between the House of Bishops and the rest of the Church.

There have been worrying signs over the last year or so. 
First it was the Anglican Covenant.  Endorsed by the House of Bishops and sent by General Synod to the dioceses for ratification, it floundered as diocese after diocese voted against it – and even against their Bishops – in a rare act of defiance.

Then there are the frequent statements which try to keep pace with the very unchurch-like pace of change in social attitudes to same-sex partnerships.  Without the opportunity for proper debate in the Church of England, the Bishops have resorted to well worn statements about incompatibility with scripture and tradition, saying nothing new, getting left behind by the nation and increasingly by the church as a whole.
This has lead inexorably to the response which the Bishops (we assume it was the Bishops although even that has been left vague) made last month to Government plans for same-sex marriage – and the cry which went up from clergy, laity and even some less senior Bishops who have said, “Not in my name!” (The Petition on that can be found here)

But, most catastrophic of all, has been the overwhelming temptation to meddle with the Women Bishops legislation which is coming back to General Synod this weekend for its final vote.  The proposed legislation has passed every hurdle asked of it short of this final ratification.  Endorsed by General Synod – sent to Diocesan Synods – debated in Deanery Synods – this planned legislation was overwhelmingly supported by the Church as a whole, and yet the House of Bishops could not resist the urge to modify it yet again before final ratification.  Consequence – catastrophe!
The amendments, inserted by the House of Bishops in a paternalistic ‘daddy knows best’ approach to Church Government have enraged those like myself who long for women Bishops.  Ironically, they have also failed to impress the traditionalists who were meant to feel reassured.

And in this ill advised action we see the heart of the problem.  It is the outdated way the House of Bishops sees itself and its authority in the 21st Century Church.
Gone are the days when Bishops were all powerful in Church and highly influential in State.  Gone are the days when ordinary clergy and laity would instantly revere every word which came out of a Bishop’s mouth.  Gone are the days when the sight of a mitre and crook would instil a sense of awe and wonder.  And yet it would seem that the House of Bishops hasn’t noticed.

Authority in the church today does not lie in a kind of blind obedience to those ‘fathers in Christ’ who must know best.  Increasingly the Church of England has been learning to think for itself.  What impresses church members today is the strength of the argument, not the fact that a Bishop is saying it, and increasingly the arguments are seen to be lacking.
As a result, Diocesan Synods have started to flex their muscles.  Since the amendments to the Women Bishops legislation were announced, several have tabled emergency motions to ask for the amendments to be withdrawn or reconsidered.  The new found authority placed in church democracy has begun to rebel against the old paternalistic guidance of the Bishop’s crook.

Nor is this a bad thing.
There are those who say that the church is a theocracy, not a democracy – but that is to cheapen the issue.  We all want to know the will of God – the issue is how we discern it.  In times gone by, the Bishop’s word was final – today we all take part in the debate.  We do this in our reactions (positive or negative) when another church statement or policy hits the news headlines.  We do this when we face the increasing discrepancies which pull us apart, stretched between our day to day lives as part of society, and the interpretation of faith we are told to profess.  We do this through the people we elect to Synods at every level.

This weekend, it is the House of Bishops who needs to listen, and pull back to the legislation which Dioceses have already voted on – and voted for in such overwhelming numbers.
If you wish to sign the petition calling for this – you can find it by following this link.

As retired Bishop Laurie Green said, when signing the petition, “A male-only elite should not take it upon itself to gainsay the clear and overwhelming convictions made obvious in the votes in Diocesan Synods. I speak as a male CofE bishop who knows how lop-sided and strange the House of Bishops is!”
As Bishop Laurie shows us, there are Bishops who know that the old way of doing things is over.  They have recognized the unsustainability of the status quo and are starting to embrace a new way of going about the work of God.  Some have already spoken out on issues like those above and have sometimes been called ‘rebels’ for their honesty and genuine leadership.

Yet the future of the House of Bishops is in their hands and in the hands of those women who will (at some point) enter this male only domain.  Leadership which is disconnected from the voice of those it seeks to lead is doomed to failure – even in the house-hold of God.
It is time for change.

Friday 22 June 2012

Round and round we go ...

It’s a good job we don’t have heresy trials anymore.
If we did, I am quite sure that I, along with many others would now be facing charges for our views on same-sex marriage.  After all, according to the Church of England, we are contravening both Scripture and tradition in insisting that such a dangerous thing might be possible.

I mention this because, as I read the arguments used by the Church of England to oppose same-sex marriage in its recent submission to the UK Government, I found myself being reminded of a furious dispute which gripped the Church in the 17th Century.
The dispute was not about sexual morality, but about the position of the Earth.  The Church was relentless in defending the belief that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe, and that the Sun revolved around the Earth.  To suggest anything else (eg that the Earth revolved around the Sun!) was to oppose the Church and God because it invalidated the truth of Scripture, our understanding of the created order, and the authority of the Church.  If such a thing were held to be true – the Church claimed – it would unpick the whole fabric of faith and society!

Today it is hard for us to begin to imagine how this could have been such a major issue.  We take it for granted that the Earth orbits the Sun.  It doesn’t challenge our faith or belief in God.  We do not believe that this contradicts Scripture or any eternal truth of God.
But in the 1600’s this was a matter of the highest importance, and no effort was spared by the Church to fight this dangerous innovation.

As a result on the 22nd June 1633, the astronomer Galileo was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition.  He spent the rest of his life under house arrest; his writings (both past and future) were banned; he was silenced from preaching such dangerous heresy.
Here are some of the things that were said,

Cardinal Bellarmine, said that interpreting heliocentrism (the Earth orbiting the Sun) as physically real would be "a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false.”
The investigators said that the idea that the Sun is stationary is "foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture..."

Finally Galileo was put on trial "for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the centre of the world".
The rest – as they say – is history.

All of the above made me think of the Church of England’s recent response to the UK Government.  What would happen – I wondered – if we replaced the issue of same-sex marriage with the (now defunct) controversy about the earth orbiting the sun.
And I found that the translation works rather well – judge for yourself.  Below are some of the paragraphs from theCofE response on marriage, followed by my translation back to the times of Galileo.   I have numbered the paragraphs as they appear in the CofE official response.  I think you might see what I mean…

7.         Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church of England‘s Book of Common Prayer on which the laws concerning marriage are grounded, marriage has been understood to be, always and exclusively, between a woman and a man. This understanding is deeply rooted in our social culture. While marriage has evolved as an institution in many other ways this aspect has remained constant. For the consultation document to talk of a ―ban‖ on same sex couples marrying is a misuse of the language. There can be no ―ban‖ on something which has never, by definition, been possible.

Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church’s doctrine on which the laws concerning scientific exploration are grounded, the earth has been understood to be, always and exclusively, at the centre of the universe. This understanding is deeply rooted in our social culture. While our knowledge of the earth has evolved in many other ways this aspect has remained constant. For the consultation document to talk of a ‘ban’ on an understanding of the earth as rotating around the sun is a misuse of the language. There can be no ban on something which has never, by definition, been possible.

8.         Many, within the churches and beyond, dispute the right of any government to redefine an ages-old social institution in the way proposed. It is important to be clear that insistence on the traditional understanding of marriage is not a case of knee-jerk resistance to change but is based on a conviction that the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole.

Many, within the churches and beyond, dispute the right of any government to redefine an ages-old institution in the way proposed. It is important to be clear that insistence on the traditional understanding of the position of the earth is not a case of knee-jerk resistance to change but is based on a conviction that the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole.

9.         Despite the continuing debate in the Church of England on some key ethical issues in this area, the proposition that same-sex relationships can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute. To that extent, the Prime Minister‘s claim that he supports same-sex marriage from conservative principles is readily understandable. Same-sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity, two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage. The Church of England seeks to see those virtues maximised in society.

Despite the continuing debate in the Church on some key ethical issues in this area, the proposition that exploration of the earth can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute. To that extent, the claim that some support a new view of the universe from conservative principles is readily understandable. Scientific exploration often embodies genuine virtues which we would commend. The Church seeks to see those virtues maximised in society.

10.       However, the uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation. And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning.

However, the uniqueness of the earth – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of the created order. This distinctiveness is seen most explicitly in paths of the sun and stars across the heavens. And, even where, for reasons of the creative mystery of God, they follow paths which would suggest an alternative understanding of the universe, this is part of what gives the centrality of the earth its unique meaning in society.  

13.       We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

We believe that redefining the earth to include the concept of a globe circling the sun will entail a dilution in the meaning of creation for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of heaven and earth from the social and legal definition of creation.

 And finally…

16.       The one justification for redefining marriage given to us by the Equalities Minister was that it ‘met an emotional need’‖ among some within the LGBT community. Without wishing to diminish the importance of emotional needs, legislating to change the definition of a fundamental and historic social institution for everybody in order to meet the emotional need of some members of one part of the community, where no substantive inequality of rights will be rectified, seems a doubtful use of the law. We also note that by no means all LGBT people are in favour of redefining marriage in this way.

The one justification for redefining our understanding of the earth that was given to us was that it ‘met a scientific need’ among some within the scientific community. Without wishing to diminish the importance of scientific needs, legislating to change the definition of a fundamental and historic social institution for everybody in order to meet the ‘scientific need’ of some members of one part of the community, where no substantive inequality of rights will be rectified, seems a doubtful use of the law. We also note that by no means all scientists are in favour of redefining the position of the earth in this way.

 Perhaps today, on the 379th anniversary of Galileo's conviction, the Church would do well to learn the lessons of history…