The Church of England’s officially recognised, liturgically and theologically approved god is god with a small g, the small, tribal god who is indeed to be found in the Bible and is partisan, dualistic, supports one side against another, is prejudiced, anthropomorphic, judgemental and punitive.
The Church of England is a broad church and the spectrum of theologies and ideas about G_d range from the deeply prejudiced small god of the Old Testament (and the revisionist New Testament authors who reworked Jesus’ teaching) at one extreme, to those who are deemed to be barely Christian because they dispense with such images of G_d and find much G_d language problematic. And yes, revisionists were at work from the earliest days of the Christian community, writing, rewriting and editing for personal reasons the Jesus narrative.
I am searching for a different narrative in scripture (a meta-narrative?). The narrative I am being driven to seek is as deeply traditional and orthodox and historical as that followed by those who lay claim to the ‘orthodox’ label in our church (in opposition to ‘revisionists’ like me). The narrative I search for is located in the apophatic dimension of the tradition which is the essential counterpart to the cataphatic dimension. It is exemplified in those who have sought silence, depth and contemplative presence, the desert fathers (and mothers), the mystics and prophets, who pursued, or were pursued by, the call of unconditional love.
The church of my youth knew that love is at the heart of Jesus’ message. The church of my mature years seems not to know (or to be afraid of revealing and proclaiming) the unconditional love that is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. G_d’s love, as exemplified in the parable of the Prodigal Son, is utterly unconditional, gracious, free and flowing, whatever we get up to in our lives and in our various guises of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, tribe or whatever. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God nor limit the infusion of love that is at the heart of all creation.
Because the institution seems not to understand or believe in G_d’s unconditional love, but does believe in real-politic and the prime importance of unity, it does things that reinforce prejudices, against women, LGBTI people, radicals, liberals, visionaries, prophets. It appoints bishops to institutionalise the rules and police the boundaries. It creates policies (and revises the outcomes of Primates and ACC meetings) to achieve the same effect.
So-called, self-proclaimed ‘orthodox’ conservatives select from the Biblical narrative to create a theology that results in teaching about and worship of a small god. They have been doing this for several centuries. I have been working away at creating a Biblical narrative which is congruent with my contemplative experience of G_d as the impenetrable darkness and the invisible light which flames all creation with unconditional, infinite, intimate love.
It isn’t difficult to do. It’s all there, even if it was misunderstood by the first witnesses and corrupted by those who told and re-told the narrative. It has been a profound element of the orthodox Christian tradition, integral to the experience of the Holy Other who is intimately present in our lives.
The questions that pursue me have become more and more insistent as more of my friends respond to the questions by facing the crisis head on and walk away from the church – while others are driven away.
At the moment I still ‘go to church’ most Sundays. I attend, in that I take my body there, to the building, and engage with people, even though what I find there is archaic, out of touch, fantasy, unreal, a world in which the small god predominates as people replay the Anglican tradition of nostalgia and ‘niceness’.
I am aware that while many of my friends share my experience, others may find my attitude difficult, as they continue to invest themselves, heart and soul, in the life of the institution, as active members of a congregation, licensed lay ministers, ordained clergy and bishops, and as members of bodies like the General Synod.
The change that many seek will not be achieved and cannot be achieved until those who adhere to small god theologies are called out – and courage is found to speak more openly about the disintegration of small god thinking in western society (and the addiction to small god thinking in the GAFCON axis).
G_d who is experienced by Jesus and the mystical tradition in the church as unconditional love is ill-served by substitutionary atonement, and sin and guilt as necessary hurdles to be confronted if we are to be acceptable in our relationship with God. (The church erects many other unnecessary hurdles – these will do for the moment.)
The Church of England is in thrall to a collusive silence about what people do and don’t ‘really believe’, and this seventy years or more after Tillich and de Chardin and Bonhoeffer and fifty years after Honest to God. There are many who are continuing to pursue and expand the dream of G_d, exploring the deep mysteries of the Holy Other in contemporary contexts. Most of the visionary work is being undertaken by people outside of the church. Well, I think that’s authentic to the Jesus teaching and experience!