Tuesday 27 March 2012

Anglican Covenant - Rest in Peace

One of the most striking memories I have of General Synod was a conversation with Bishop Colin Buchanan – a veteran Synod member and wonderfully maverick Bishop.
He was a Bishop who was fully committed to the Synodical structure of the Church of England and a campaigner for truly democratic processes in the church.

He said to a group of us who had just been elected to General Synod that, “The first duty of members of General Synod is to try to defeat the platform!”
His words shocked more than a few of us!  But there was great wisdom in what he said.  The ‘platform’ of the great and good are the ones with the appearance of power in General Synod.  Ensconced in almost magisterial isolation, set above the rank and file of Synod members, the temptation is to believe that they must be right when they tell you something is good, or something is bad! This is particularly true when speeches from the platform are made with such Anglican politeness and distinguished reserve that anyone who might try to question them runs the risk of seeming untrusting and churlish, reactionary or revolutionary (hardly Anglican traits!)

Yet the duty of Synod members is not to meekly bow down to the received wisdom of church dignitaries, however deep their shade of purple or however many Boards and Committees they sit on.  The duty of Synod members is to question and scrutinise – to examine the substance behind the smoke screen of polished presentation.  The duty of Synod members is to probe beneath the surface of reasonable acceptability to see if the Emperor does indeed have clothes to cover his embarrassment.
This is what Diocesan Synods have done with great courage and perception over the last few months.  They have not been taken in by the great and good standing up in true Tony Blair fashion saying ‘Trust me!’  They have wanted to hear both sides, and to make their own minds up. It has been Synodical Government at its best.

The fact that so many clergy and lay people voted against their Bishops showed that when they really looked beneath the surface of the proposed Covenant, they found it wanting.  And in doing so time and time again, they defeated the platform.  And where Bishops had the courage of their convictions and voted against, they found themselves at one with their flock, rather than trying to drag them along in humble submission.
There are those who are still trying to pretend that the Covenant is still alive, desperately trying to breathe life into its limp body, while claiming still to feel the faintest pulse.  They are mistaken.

What is needed now is to recognise the will of the Synodical process, and express deep and sincere thanks to those who genuinely tried to find a way forward for the Anglican Communion in the form of a Covenant – and to let it now Rest in Peace.
Having led hundreds of funerals since my ordination over 20 years ago, I know that the best funerals are those where the mourners gather to say a loving good bye – and the worst are those where the grievers meet in a kind of desperate denial.

For the good intentions of those who tried to square this circle, the Anglican Covenant deserves a good funeral which will enable us all to move on and find new ways of living together as the living Anglican Body of Christ.
The Anglican Covenant – RIP.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Fundamental Truth

The search for Truth is a tricky business.  We all want it, but getting hold of it is not easy.  When we get it (or a piece of it) some of us have a habit of holding onto it so tightly that we strangle it or suffocate it, depriving it of the oxygen of other truths to help us make sense of it.  Others react to this over-constraint by holding truth so lightly that it slips though their fingers to reveal a kind of empty-handedness which helps no-one when the uncertainties of life disorientate us, and we desperately need something to hold onto.
In that context I am indebted to my Bible reading notes today.

The Gospel reading was from John 7, where people are arguing about who Jesus was and whether he was sent by God.
Among the people of Jerusalem, there was a lively debate going on – who was this miracle worker and teacher?  Was he a prophet, was he the promised messiah?  Where did he come from?  What did his teachings mean?

But amongst the most religious people, the chief priests and Pharisees, there was no doubt – their religious certainty closed their minds to what God was doing.  This religious certainty reinforced their prejudices – against ordinary people who didn’t have their religious training – against ‘northerners’ from Galilee, from which no prophet could ever come – even against their own, like Nicodemus who tentatively tried to pull them back from snap judgments and rash conclusions.
In response, my Bible reading notes said,

“In this reading we see people’s struggle to figure out Jesus.  But was that only during his lifetime?  Were his followers soon quite sure of his identity?  Not at all!  The only ones who exude total certainty are the fundamentalists!  But their certainty is mostly a mixture of deep insecurity, wishful thinking, and hard salesmanship.  The truth is that Jesus escapes all our categories and definitions; he continually puzzles and challenges us.  He strips down all our crude certainties.  He calls us beyond ourselves, beyond everything we ever thought and imagined.  He calls us into new life!”
As a Christian and an evangelical, I am deeply committed to following Jesus Christ.  I believe (in his words) that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life!  But that doesn’t mean that I have got him all figured out.  All through my life, he has constantly inspired, surprised, and challenged me and my pre-suppositions, and I have come to expect that he always will.

More than that, if I haven’t got Christ all figured out, then I haven’t got God all figured out either.  Truth is not locked in history or human formulations of doctrine, rules or expectations – it is found in the Christ who I am still getting to know.  Any other certainty is – at its heart – idolatry.
On the radio this morning Bishop Gene Robinson reminded the interviewer and his Radio 4 audience of some other words that Jesus said – this time on the night before he was crucified.

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”  (John 16).
The Holy Spirit is still revealing God to us, and just as in the time of Christ, it is often the most religious people who are the most reluctant travellers on this journey.   She still has the capacity to shock, challenge and inspire us.  She can still rock our preconceptions, our prejudices and our misconceptions.  She still points us to Christ the Truth who alone has the power to set us free. 

Fundamental truth is not found in doctrine or dogma – it is found in a person, and it is in following Christ - not confining Christ - that “the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

Monday 19 March 2012

Can you change marriage ?

When the Government published its much awaited consultation on same-sex marriage last Thursday, the battle lines had already been clearly drawn.

On one side are the Prime Minister, gay pressure groups, and the majority of MP’s in parliament  who, according to all calculations, would back such a measure in a free vote.
On the other, ranks of church leaders from a range of denominations who have denounced the proposed ‘re-definition’ of marriage as, in varying degrees, grotesque, dictatorial, and shameful.

A common assertion among the latter is that you simply can’t change marriage.  Marriage is what marriage is, and no-one has the power to alter it – not government, nor church nor equality activists.   According  to the Archbishop of York, it is not "the role of the state to define what marriage is.  It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are."
The Archbishop is undeniably right of course, when he points to our current understanding of marriage as "a relationship between a man and a woman" but what he fails to acknowledge is that definitions, understandings and laws relating to marriage have been constantly changing through human history, biblical history, and church history.

If we go back to the Bible, we find that for the bulk of biblical history, marriage was polygamous with many wives equating to male power & success.  Neither the Gospels nor the Epistles ever put a formal end to this model of marriage and yet it is one which few would advocate today - our understanding has changed dramatically from the examples of scripture.
In pre-Enlightenment times marriage was more about property than about love, with political order and social standing high on the agenda for budding brides, grooms and their families.

In the Prayer Book the reasons for marriage are clear - first for procreation of children, then as a remedy against sin, and then finally for the mutual 'help and comfort' of the couple – little about love here.   Brides were ‘given away’ from one man to another. Marriage between family members which were forbidden, included a prohibition on marrying your wife’s sister after her death.  This came from a mistaken understanding of consanguinity – that because you became one flesh with your wife, so you shared the same family blood with her sister.  So strong was this belief that when an act of Parliament finally legalised such marriages in 1907, clergy were permitted to refuse to conduct them - an interesting parallel in today's debates about same-sex marriage.
Today’s theology of marriage can be found more in the modern marriage service of Common Worship than in the Prayer Book.  Here we find the Prayer Book introduction substantially re-ordered and changed.  Marriage is first and foremost about enabling two people to be 'united with one another in heart, body and mind' as they 'grow together in love and trust'.  Then it is for the 'delight and tenderness of sexual union' within 'joyful commitment to the end of their lives' and after all that, it is the 'foundation of family life in which children are [born] and nurtured'. Even here, the square brackets reveal a changing recognition of more complex realities in the raising of children.

So when those opposed to same-sex marriage claim that you can’t just change marriage, it is a selective view of history at best because clearly it has been changed time and time again.  The real issue must be about the substance of marriage and whether same-sex relationships can be embraced within that essence.
Many people in the church and wider society have recognized the marks of marriage in committed  same-sex relationships around them.  Bishop Nicholas Holtam referred to these recently when he said, “I think same-sex couples that I know who have formed a partnership have in many respects a relationship which is similar to a marriage and which I now think of as marriage.

Indeed, when David Cameron asserts that he supports same-sex marriage because "society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other", he is echoing the modern marriage service when it affirms that marriage "enriches society and strengthens community."
And there are several pointers within Scripture which might direct us towards an understanding of marriage which is not dependent on gender difference.

When God sought to provide a suitable companion for Adam in the Garden of Eden, he said “It is not good for the man to be alone”.  Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people exhibit the same yearning as Adam.  Just because they find that the person who completes them is of the same sex, that does not abrogate the need which God meets in the creation of another human being to complete Adam’s yearning for a suitable companion in life.
In imagery of the Church as the Bride of Christ (often quoted as a justification for opposing same-sex marriage) we easily forget that the Church comprises both women and men who will, in some sense be a bride to Christ as part of His Church.

In Galatians, Paul calls us to a radical new reality in Christ as gender becomes irrelevant in Christ who enables us all to be born again into a new creation.
As the Government consultation begins, we need to grapple with these issues.  We need to engage in theological debate and prayerful reflection, rather than knee-jerk reactions claiming eternal authority for an institution which is incapable of change.

The role of the Established Church is not simply to act as a line of last defense, but to guide our nation in examining our understanding of God and society.  Marriage is not an immovable object - the question is what direction should it take today?

Wednesday 7 March 2012

A self-defeating Covenant

One thing is for sure - among Anglicans, views on The Anglican Covenant are very divided.
For example, I live in an area of Salisbury diocese where our local Bishop, Graham Kings, is vociferously in favour of the Covenant.  He has devoted much time and effort in writing, speaking and arguing for it - yet in this same diocese our new Diocesan Bishop voted against the Covenant in Diocesan Synod, as did Graham Kings predecessor, Bishop Tim Thornton in his diocese of Truro.

Around the world, some in the Anglican Communion are saying they won't adopt it because it is too restrictive - others are rejecting it because it's too loose!  So far, 8 provinces of the Communion are in the process of ratifying the Covenant, whereas 9 appear to be moving towards rejection (not counting the CofE).
Even global neighbours see the Covenant in very different ways.  The Province of South East Asia has 'acceded' to the covenant but wants to make it stronger while the The Episcopal Church in the Philippines has rejected it 'saying the proposal to centralise authority in London was an “un-Anglican” attempt to “lord it over” the Communion’s national provinces'.

So how can the Covenant possibly succeed?  If a framework that was designed to foster unity in the Anglican Communion is itself the cause of such division, what hope can there be that its aspirations will be realised?
In the Church of England, our dioceses are divided with 10 dioceses having voted in favour and 17 voting against (updated 11th March).  All this fatally undermines the ideals which were the motivation behind this Covenant - the desire to promote unity, not division.

Some, like Bishop Graham Kings have tried to portray it as a marriage, while others have said it sounds more like a pre-nuptial agreement between partners whose relationship is already in trouble, even before the wedding.  Still others have likened it to a shot-gun wedding motivated more by the fear than loving commitment.
Canon Richard Franklin, in the General Synod debate of 2010 said,

"A troubling expression that has been used to describe the purpose of the Covenant is that it is ‘to make explicit and forceful’ the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the Churches of the Anglican Communion; but communion is not something that can be forced by human means."
At the end of the day, the Anglican Covenant has shot itself in the foot.  Even if somehow the Church of England and others adopted it, it would simply leave the Communion limping along nursing its wounds and looking for someone to blame.   The divisions which it has engendered make it precisely the wrong solution to the problems facing the Anglican Communion.

As the Bishop of Lincoln said in General Synod,
"I therefore leave you, Madam Chair, with the wise words of the American philosopher H.L. Mencken, with which you may be familiar.

‘For every difficult and complex problem there is a solution which is simple, straightforward and wrong.’

As an answer to a difficult and complex problem, this Covenant is simple, straightforward and, I still believe, probably wrong.

There is too much religion in the world and not enough faith, and I think this Covenant seems to be more about factory-farm religion than free-range faith."

With 17 more dioceses still to vote, it is time to gently and humanely put the Covenant down, thanking those whose intentions have been to strengthen our Communion, but recognising that it is already more dead than alive.

It is a self-defeating Covenant.

Monday 5 March 2012

Grotesque Rantings of an Illogical Cardinal

I must begin by saying that I am not anti-Roman Catholic.  I have always valued fellowship, prayer and discussion with Roman Catholic colleagues and friends.   In fact I was baptised as a Roman Catholic when a baby, and when at University, I even played guitar at the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy Folk Mass each week in rebellion to the anti-catholic rhetoric of the Christian Union - even though I was and am a evangelical.

But it is hard to know where to start in responding to the illogical rantings of Cardinal O'Brien in the Sunday Telegraph  this weekend, and on Radio 4  this morning.

Describing the prospect of same-sex marriage as grotesque, shameful and a violation of human rights,  he compared redefining marriage to legalising slavery, abortion and polygamy.

"Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right."

Yet who is being grotesque here?

In comparing same-sex marriage to slavery he said, "Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that 'no one will be forced to keep a slave' ".  Ironic really, when there was a time when Christian leaders and Churches defended slavery on the basis that it was permitted in Scripture, and nowhere did Jesus tell us to put an end to it.  In fact many went further and defended it as part of God's natural created order.  Perhaps he would like to tell us that the Church was right and the State was wrong then as well?

On Radio 4, he compared the development from Civil Partnerships towards marriage to the creeping extension of laws on abortion, when one is about celebrating life-giving love and commitment and the other (however necessary it might sometimes be) is about destruction of life.

He says that there is no need for same-sex marriage as Civil Partnerships provide all the legal protection which same-sex couples need.  Ironic while he also lets slip that he opposes Civil Partnerships because "such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved."

Finally, appealing to the United Nations declaration of human rights, he quotes the section which states that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”, and claims that extending marriage to same-sex couples would "demolish a universally recognised human right".  But how can extending this right to a minority demolish the rights of the majority?  David Cameron has stated that he is on favour of same-sex marriage precisely because he believes in marriage and commitment as the glue which holds families and society together.

What will be most grotesque to many however, is that a church which has been shown to have systematically covered up and even colluded with child abuse, should now be preaching to the rest of us about what will harm children.

I came across a quote sometime ago on an anti-religious website, which hurts me every time I read it.  It says,

"Considering all the evil that exists in the world,
the fact that all of religion's condemnation is focused
on expressing disapproval of two people loving each other
proves just how evil religion is."

As a religious person, I grieve every time one of our Christian leaders adds fuel to this perception - and Cardinal O'Brien - you just have.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Same Sex Marriage - who will it really hurt?

According to promoters of the new Coalition for Marriage - C4M - allowing same sex marriage would undermine the whole fabric of society.

It would fatally weaken one of our country’s greatest strengths, lead to an increase in serious crime, harm people’s careers, and dash the hopes of parents hoping to adopt. Government plans are “the greatest power grab in history”, an “act of cultural and theological vandalism” and will unpick the legal rights of 24 million married couples at a single stroke.

If such claims were true, there would be genuine cause for concern at the consultation on same-sex marriage which will be launched by the Government later this month.

But who is really going to be hurt by the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples?

The coalition would have us believe that marriage would be changed irrevocably, not just for LGB&T people, but for the rest of us as well. But is this really true?

Allowing same-sex couples to get married would not invalidate the marriage of heterosexual couples. Their marriage would continue as before – not be picked apart by new law. And no-one would be forced into a same-sex marriage any more that anyone would be forced into a heterosexual marriage. Where is the harm?

Neither would the church be harmed - contrary to C4M’s claims. For many years now the state has married people who have been divorced, and eventually the Church has begun to do the same, but even now clergy are not compelled to marry couples where one or more partners are divorced. There has been no legal action – no court cases – no compulsion.

Neither would the raising of children be affected. While the vast majority of children are raised in heterosexual households (and would continue to be) some same-sex couples already raise children, either by adoption or by natural means, and the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples can only strengthen the bonds of commitment between their parental partners.

As for claims that changing marriage would lead to an increase in serious crime – Lord Carey must really be clutching at straws there! States in the USA which have seen the introduction of same-sex marriage have seen no such correlation or pattern emerging. It is quite simply scaremongering.

Nor are the Government’s plans undemocratic or the act of a dictator. While C4M claims a survey which shows a small majority (51%) believe that” no one has the right to redefine mar¬riage for the rest of us” (whatever that means), a Daily Telegraph poll showed that 80% of the 14,500 people who voted, said yes to same-sex marriage. And at the end of the day, it will be our MP’s who vote – for or against – which is, of course, the very basis of parliamentary democracy in the UK.

So who would be hurt by the introduction of same-sex marriage?

The striking thing about including same-sex couples in marriage is that it does exactly that – it includes people who have been excluded before. Nothing more – nothing less.

So the only hurt which might be involved is the hurt feelings of those who want to exclude others.

There is one thing which Lord Carey and I agree on, however. In his words, “Marriage is the glue that binds our country together. When a couple marries, they are not just joining with one individual, but connecting two families – and in doing so creating a support network far better than anything the state can supply.”

I have to say that I couldn’t agree more – which is why I firmly believe that marriage should be available to same-sex couples who want to make that life-long and life-giving commitment to each other – just like heterosexuals.

So perhaps there should be another coalition – C4M2 – for people who want to see same-sex couples given the same access to marriage to express their love and commitment to each other and for the good of society at large.