Constructs of faith and authority in the Church of England vary widely. There are differences not just between different tribes in the C of E – open evangelicals, conservative evangelicals, headship evangelicals, middle of the road, liberals, radicals, liberal catholics, conservative catholics, and those who just pitch up at their local church, but dramatic differences between each one of us who is in some sense belongs to the Church of England. Ours is a broad Church, with a tradition of unity by inclusion, living with difference.
In the past this variety would have been valued and respected as part of the spectrum of faith and belief within the broad church ethos of the C of E. The spectrum now covers other variations, including those who have faith in an anthropomorphic idea of God, a God who can be prayed to in the expectation that He (because this God tends to be gendered) will answer prayer in one of ways, yes, no, be patient, look for the unexpected, and those who have faith in a numinous, apophatic experience of God as transcendent other, flowing energy in all creation, unconditional love, the God Jesus talked about in metaphor and parable.
Mary Grey and Catherine Keller
Catholic theologian Mary Grey is one of many to remind me that “Holiness can never be a static notion but reflects the way the Spirit of God is at work in the age” in Beyond the Dark Night: A Way Forward for the Church? published in 1997. She suggests that “the heart of being Church meaningfully is a shifting category, refusing to be bound by regulations.
More recently, Catherine Keller, has written about theological thinking from a process perspective in On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process, 2008. She proposes “a way for theology to avoid the garish neon light on absolute truth claims, which was out our vital differences.” Two vital differences are being washed out of the Church of England for me. One is my sexuality and the other is my deep contemplative faith. The Church diminishes my faith by treating both as being questionable elements of my core experience.
Catherine explores an alternative path of theology which is not a middle ground nor a compromise but something else, something emerging (a theme common in recent theology), something on the way (echoing the ancient image of Christianity being people ‘of the Way’). She argues that “when people of faith step out of the mystery and make totalizing claims for our truth and our beliefs, we perpetuate an antagonising polarity that actually paralyzes faith rather than fostering its living process. Relativity dissolves into the indifferent relativism and truth freezes into a deified absolute.”
My faith does not depend on dogmatic propositions or proof texts from the Bible, or on prescriptive systems of belief. My faith is where I give myself as openly and unconditionally as I can to trust in the ultimate risk and mystery of infinite unconditional love and the unfolding complexity of otherness in creation, alongside the search for truth, wisdom and understanding in myself and the world as I experience it. I am searching for love, righteousness and justice, the subtle, inescapable presence of God in the core of creation, in my life and being, and in the risk of trust. Some think this is unorthodox and non-Biblical. I think it is deeply orthodox and Biblical.
I disagree radically with many constructs of faith and practice in the Church but how can I not accept that God calls all humankind into relationship. Everyone has to be welcomed and valued, just as they are.
Conservatives of whatever persuasion do not accept that the Church can be so inclusive and object to the full inclusion of LGBTI people as we are, naming our own identities, open to sexual desires and fulfilling our love in relationship and marriage. To me, some conservative exegesis is misguided, their use of Scripture flawed, their understanding of what it is to be a Christian misguided to the point that it endangers other people’s faith and well-being. Such a pattern of faith has the potential to be abusive and can contribute to a systemic culture of abuse in the Church. My silence can also contribute to the continuation of abuse when I lack the courage to speak or can’t find the words to express my ideas and feelings.
Authority, discipline and equal marriage
Some will think I am on shaky ground in my attitude to truth and on even more shaky ground in my attitude to authority. They may well be right.
Bishops have authority to impose their will on clergy and congregations, both individually and corporately. But I don’t invest bishops with unlimited authority. They do not necessarily have authority over my conscience and inner thoughts. They do not control the way I construct my faith. If they did, I would never have been ordained.
My theology is clearly at variance with what some conservatives demand if I am to be recognised as a ‘true Christian’. I have been labelled ‘a revisionist’ and I am; ‘unorthodox’, and I willingly accept the label. I have never believed, not since I became aware of my sexuality, that it was wrong for two women or two men to enjoy sexual intimacy, love and pleasure, outside of marriage, because marriage and legal recognition of relationships wasn’t available. It still isn’t available in Church and is a matter of discipline for lesbian and gay clergy.
It is so obvious to me that getting married or contracting a civil partnership is what lesbian and gay Christians who respect the teaching and tradition of the Church of England should do as their relationship morphs into life commitment. It is what God is already blessing and what the Church ought to be blessing – with rejoicing!
If the bishops and the Church corporate can’t get their hearts and minds around this, well, I understand that they can’t, yet – but they will. In this interim period, when bishops disapprove of and discipline clergy who marry and those who bless same-sex relationships in church, another element of my respect disappears. This is body and heart and guts and truth and reality stuff, not head and theory and dogma and tradition stuff. This is about people who have long endured prejudice and conditional welcome in the Church and who now require full inclusion and celebration of love. The legal and dogmatic and traditional elements of Church order all have their place but that place becomes dangerously unreal and abusive and sometimes surreal, the more disconnected it is from body, heart, guts and faith in the ultimate mystery and unconditional love of God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus the Christ.
This disagreement is set to run until the Church of England changes its teaching – or doesn’t. Not changing may be yet another terminal move as more people reject the prejudice embodied in the teaching.