The Church of England as an institution still looks okay on the surface. Congregations may age and decline and parishes are amalgamated as clergy numbers reduce (while the bishops add to their number) but worship and parish life and the central structures continue to function. But look inside and underneath and pay close attention to events at local, national and international levels and things are not looking good.
The ideas we carry about our own local church, the denomination to which we belong, about God and life, are deep rooted and commonplace – so strongly internalised and commonly held that they become difficult to view from a different perspective. From my perspective built from conversations at my local church, and from listening to and reading about ‘my church’ (meaning the Church of England) over the weekend, false ideas and false stories abound, disturbing my contemplative centre.
False ideas in the Anglican Communion
Cambridge-educated missionaries were sent to evangelise Uganda in the 19th and 20th centuries. The missionaries taught Ugandans to take the Bible seriously, to treat it as the inspired and inerrant word of God. Now Western Provinces around the world are telling Ugandan Anglicans they should disregard the authority of the Bible. This is the narrative according to Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, the Primate of Uganda, as reported by Martin Bashir of the BBC who interviewed him earlier this year. The Archbishop blames C19th British missionaries for having brought Biblical teaching to Africa which Cambridge-educated Anglicans no longer believe. The result is an angry Archbishop, angry because he is being accused of homophobia. There are false ideas every step of the way in the Archbishop’s account of events and the blame that is laid on ‘the West’ for the current crisis in the church.
Thus, Cambridge-educated missionaries are responsible for the current threat of schism. They are responsible because they taught Ugandans that the Bible is inerrant, despite Biblical evidence that would have been available in Cambridge at the end of the C19th that the Bible is very self-evidently not inerrant. A century later, the Ugandan Primate is still reading the Bible as an inerrant book. Do both our Archbishops believe the Bible is an inerrant book in the same way? If so we are as responsible today for the Biblical illiteracy of GAFCON Primates as were the Cambridge missionaries a century ago.
The Primates of the Anglican Communion are dramatically divided in their beliefs about God. The most dramatic division from my perspective is that some believe God is homophobic and some don’t. We spend time arguing about whether gay people are allowed by God to marry and have sex and what sanctions can be imposed on Provinces that approve equal marriage and fail to recognise the radically different beliefs about God that underpin the arguments.
False ideas in the Church of England
‘The Archbishop of Canterbury has caused a storm’ (in the language of the media) by saying that he hadn’t seen the same integrity in dealing with child sex abuse in the BBC and ITV as in the CofE. Harriet Sherwood of the Guardian, interviewed on the BBC Sunday programme, said the CofE had not handled disclosure well and many of those abused feel bullied and threatened by the church. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse were quick to condemn the Archbishop, saying he has failed to respond to many victims. Lambeth Palace says safeguarding has been its highest priority and robust policies are in place to deal with the aftermath. Sherwood said Lambeth was very unwise to suggest the church had a better track record than the media in this area.
Lambeth Palace’s official reaction reminds me of the stance taken by political parties in response to inconvenient news stories. Lambeth said the Archbishop is irritated by the media focus on clergy abuse. The church has been singled out unfairly and would like the media to focus on other issues. Lambeth Palace and the church in general is handling accusations of sexual abuse and abuse in general very badly because systemic abuse runs through the church, legitimated by false (or unchristian) teaching about God.
False ideas in the parish
Conversations with members of the Church of England in different parts of the country show that false ideas about God held over decades and argued about in Primates meetings, Lambeth Conferences and the General Synod, are commonplace and have an impact on people’s faith and their images of God. Misogynistic, homophobic, racist, discriminatory teachings attributed to God are incredibly damaging. Conflicts and indecision sow seeds of uncertain, immature, and sometimes infantile faith. Against the odds, some clergy and congregations make heroic efforts to live and proclaim a faith of great courage and maturity. But this is against a background of shockingly bad teaching from those still fighting culture wars over puritanical, dishonest, unbiblical, Victorian Christian teaching and values.
Ask people what ideas and images of God they carry. God is somewhere, but where? Ask people whether their clergy have the confidence and competence to teach them about prayer, meditation and contemplation. Ask clergy about their own prayer life. Ask PCC treasurers and secretaries and members whether they are being resourced and given a vision of God which provides them with the confidence to live more deeply into Christ. Archbishop Justin says Jesus is the answer - but how? Ask congregations how decline is being managed. God will provide - but how, when - and from what resources?
False ideas about God, false ideas about the inerrancy of the Bible, false ideas about God’s prejudices, abound.
At local, national and international levels the church is lacking - the church lacks leaders with courage, prophetic vision and wisdom. The church lacks the integrity and insight to tell the story of creation and evolution and human potential revealed in the Bible and Jesus (if you know where to look).
We live a world where the immature American President disregards factual evidence and common sense to misrepresent truth all the time. The Anglican Communion is ill-served when Primates and bishops do the same. No wonder we are in a mess. The row about homosexuality has its roots in inadequate biblical scholarship, poor priestly formation, and an inability to think carefully about true and false statements. Above all, we are in a mess because our vision of God is inadequate, corrupted by false, immature teaching.
There are three things that last for ever; faith, hope and love; and the greatest of the three is love. If only the church were convicted of this awesome truth.