My spiritual director and I are the same age and both spent our childhoods in the diocese of Southwark. In our conversation on Wednesday, we discovered that we had both, in our teens, worked out that anything in the Bible that didn’t ring true to the ideas about God that had to be true had to be rejected – so much else in the Bible being unbelievable or downright un-Christian. I was hugely relieved when Honest to God was published to discover a bishop confirming that I wasn’t a heretic nor totally at odds with current church teaching. That was fifty four years ago. The conflict is still running through me.
I have recently been writing about my contemplative practice and what happens in the twenty-five minutes or so of silent awareness each morning that is for me an encounter with presence of God. My presence is very embodied, emotionally and physically aware. Given all the claims Christianity makes about God, the potential for deep, creative change should be even more present in Christian life and prayer. But this experience people seem to find elusive. Why? Why isn’t the church very good at knowing from experience the presence of God? Why is it not very good at acknowledging our bodies as integral to spiritual life?
Is it reasonable to hope for a better world? asks George Monbiot in an article in Saturday’s Guardian Review. George wrote that the answer to his question appears to be no. Four observations he has been making reveal that the current political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. I think the failure of the Church of England to give hope for a better world is also a failure of imagination, a failure to tell an inspiring Christian narrative. I believe the Church of England must do this if it is to remain a recognisably Christian, redemptive, transformative body of people, manifesting the unconditional, infinite, intimate love of God. We must, must become a diverse church. We must develop the ability to nurture people’s altruism, empathy and deep sense of connection, with self, other people, and the sacred.
The episcopal domination of the co-ordinating group on human sexuality is staggering and unprecedented. This extent to which the group is weighted towards bishops stands in contrast with virtually every other report produced in the Church of England in recent history. The lack of lay people is also striking and without precedent. There is not a single gender theorist, sociologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, politician, campaigner, voluntary sector worker, or any other lay person bringing relevant specialist knowledge or expertise. This absence is astonishing. The usual Anglican assumptions and ways of working have been set aside. It is a further example of the deliberate move toward centralization and episcopal control in the Church of England, in ignorance of Anglican history and theology.
Fifty years ago, in September 1967, the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England set up a Working Party on Homosexuality “to review the situation of both male and female homosexuality”. This was the first time the Church of England had formally set up a group to address homosexuality. Nearly fifty years later the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a letter in February outlining their proposals for continuing to address questions concerning human sexuality. The Archbishops committed themselves and the House of Bishops to . . . the development of a substantial Teaching Document on the subject. If the Teaching Document can’t articulate a belief in the absolute equality of all permanent, faithful, stable, loving, marital relationships, then the Group will have wasted three more years and fifty years on from the non-publication of the first report, we will not have achieved the goal to which Changing Attitude campaigned for twenty-two years.
Classical Anglican teaching is held to be rooted in the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason based on Richard Hooker’s teaching in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. More recently, some have argued for the addition of a fourth leg, that of experience. Conservatives opposed to the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church rely primarily on Scripture, arguing that the other two legs are utterly dependent on this. They deny that experience can be legitimately added as a fourth leg. We live in a society where experience is accepted as a given, an essential component of life. Conservative Christians argue against this cultural change.
I’ve been helped in my assessment of what changed at last weekend’s meeting of General Synod by reading the reflection of Rob Munro, a Synod member and a member of EGGS, the Evangelical Group on General Synod. Rob describes the outcome of the debates as a watershed moment when the radical held sway over the Christian. I spent Synod weekend re-reading books written forty years ago by Bishops John Robinson and Stephen Verney. I was somewhat astonished to discover how wonderfully honest, open, visionary and prophetic both men were, and amazed to discover that theological ideas and teachings that were commonplace then are thought to be dangerous today.
The Church of England is unfit for the purpose for which it primarily exists – to witness to the unconditional, infinite, intimate love of God and embody the teaching of Jesus that all are called to life, life in all its fullness, and to be open to grace, to the presence of spirit in all creation. Because the church has such an inadequate and often flawed understanding of its core purpose, it is that at the moment, it has become systemically abusive, and I mean the whole institution, from bishops and archbishops, the House of Bishops, the Archbishops’ Council, to suffragan bishops and archdeacons and rural deans, to dioceses and deaneries and parishes and parish clergy and lay leaders and volunteers. The church is unfit for purpose because it fails to place witness to the unconditional love of God at the front and centre of teaching and mission.
A paper has been published in advance of the July meeting of General Synod outlining progress towards the creation of a Pastoral Advisory Group and the development of a ‘substantial’ teaching document on the subject of human sexuality. The paper notes that responses in February underlined the point that the ‘subject’ of human sexuality can never simply be an ‘object’ of consideration because it is about persons in relationship. This paper proceeds to do exactly that, making me feel like an ‘object’ under repeated consideration in the church, a ‘subject’ of interest to be discussed and analysed in a variety of modes because my freedom to be myself is questioned and challenged by others who think I have no right or freedom to live in a sexual relationship. The experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people who have integrated their sexual and gender identity with their deep Christian faith should, in 2017, be at the centre of the exercise – and we are most certainly not.
Today I return to two themes which are fundamental to my vision. The first is the centrality of the contemplative/apophatic tradition and the second is the how question – how does transformation take place in the Church of England (or perhaps better put in the negative – why has the church lost the gift of radical transformation?). In three Church Times articles, the authors offer an interpretation of past events and current times, seeing the potential for a transformation of Christian life and witness. Each of them gets so far, but fails to communicate how this might become a reality in practical terms. Very few have the conviction necessary to turn such ideas into reality. Voices crying in the wilderness and grain falling on stony ground are the images that come to mind.