All life is evolutionary. The ability of the human race to see all of life as evolutionary is a relatively recent development, but apart from those Christians who wish to read the Bible literally, for the past century and a half the majority of Christians have come to terms with the inherently evolutionary nature of life and creation. Evolution is creation. But have we arrived at a revolutionary moment for Christianity?
People are identifying recent events as signifying the moment when the Church of England’s version of Christianity is being forced to face up to the expectation from within and outside the church that it must become a genuinely inclusive organisation modelling radical equality in gender and relationships in the context of ministry, practice and teaching. Some predict that a tipping point has been reached. What are the significant events that suggest this might be so?
Radical inclusion and equality
Many think that radical inclusion and equality are obvious, essential values that Christians ought to be modelling in the twenty-first century. Research indicates this group to be the majority. Other minority groups believe that other values should predominate: a theology of marriage as exclusive to male/female couples; ordination as exclusive to men.
There is no way of squaring the circle these views represent, though formulations such as mutual flourishing, shared conversations, two integrities, five guiding principles and sacramental assurance attempt to do just this. Ultimately, these attempts are doomed. The circle cannot be squared.
Either Jesus is the image of God who modelled unconditional love, justice, truth, wisdom, and compassion, or he wasn’t and these are not universal divine values and Christian qualities. The refusal of the bishops to confront and resolve this conundrum is having a disastrous effect.
They have worked incredibly hard, with the help of Church House, over the past few weeks, to defend their position. They are still issuing statements and letters and Facebook posts defending their position. People see their position as being increasingly indefensible and the more they defend the weaker they look.
The recent meeting of General Synod showed a group of people in some distress. The bishops were trying to defend their report. LGBTI people, representatives of other minorities, and those many supportive of justice and equality, spoke about ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty decades of living with prejudice and exclusive practices and teaching in the church. Their testimonies were heartfelt, powerful and passionate. They witnessed to the stark contrast between Christian teaching and secular practice in our society.
The bishops gathered in their clan positions, their report and authority rejected by many speakers and in the vote, by the House of Clergy. Conservatives described their cherished beliefs and faith in authority, their trust in God and scripture and their place in the church as being under threat. The General Synod of the Church of England has been living with corporate distress at being confronted with seemingly unresolvable problems and fault lines for over two decades. People may pretend everything is alright under the surface – but it isn’t.
To one set of people, Christianity is about defending and protecting, converting and attracting, maintaining and defining, upholding and imposing.
To another set, a set including me, Christianity is about loving and being, following and exploring, inspiring and creating, evolving and including.
A time of crisis
We are living at a time of dramatic crisis and decay. Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders, and ISIS are political manifestations of the crisis internationally. In Christianity, the crisis is focused on gender and sexuality. Less publicly, there is a crisis of faith about the nature of Jesus and God. Ultimately, these are more significant. Christianity is in decay, despite the astonishing growth in the number of Christians outside the western/northern countries of origin. Christianity is living with an inherited body of belief and ideas about God which are inadequate to the vision and the evolutionary imperative to transform human awareness and knowledge about ourselves, our inward lives, our spirituality, our environment, our context in creation and history, the universe, time and space.
Tradition or evolution?
Some Anglicans are attached to (and some bishops are totally committed to) so-called traditional teaching which is misogynist, heterosexist, patriarchal. The majority of people in the west perceive these ideas as being an utter corruption of what Jesus believed, taught and practiced. It
Other bishops are alert to quite other values and interpretations but in recent years have allowed themselves to collude with their conservative brothers (and sisters?) in adhering to what can now be seen to be a corruption of Jesus’ teaching. This results not only in a diminished respect for women, LGBTI people, BMA people and those living with disabilities, but in a use of power and control that damages the well-being of the whole body, and does serious psychic, emotional and spiritual damage in general.
It isn’t easy to live Christianity differently when the institution is so addicted to bad practice. I know this isn’t true of every place and parish, but I’ve seen enough to know that in general, the Church of England is in a very unhealthy state.
I have found it difficult to free myself from this corrupted version of Jesus and his teaching, opening the way to live into infinite, unconditional, intimate, integral, evolutionary love, truth, energy, wisdom and goodness. It isn’t easy when growing up in and being “indoctrinated” into the all-pervasive culture of the Christian system. The Church has great difficulty in being self-reflectively aware of just how obsolete or unhealthy is much of what it teaches and practices.
This, for me, is the critical element. It isn’t about inclusion or equality, primarily, though these are critical elements which secular society has come to terms with, to the shame of the church.
A breakdown is occurring in human psychical, spiritual, emotional, and mental health, in the health of faith communities, Christian and Moslem and others, and in the health of our planet, where global warming presents a terrifying existential crisis.
The Church of England devotes three hours to a truly wonderful debate about equal marriage (which no LGBTI group that I’m aware of thought was even on the agenda at the moment). We wanted basic recognition and valuing of our relationships and ministry and were offered nothing practical whatsoever. This is important to us, but so is the effect of immigration paranoia and the failure of governments to respond to climate change.
While I was drafting this blog, a letter from John Wraw, Bishop of Bradwell, was posted on the Diocese of Chelmsford web site. I knew John when he was Archdeacon of Wiltshire and living in Devizes. John was diagnosed with incurable cancer three years. In his moving letter to the Clergy of the diocese he writes about his hopes for a well-founded theology of relationships, friendship and marriage leading in time to a full acceptance of same sex marriage in the Church of England. John is the second serving bishop to advocate for equal marriage (the terminology is not quite right yet).
In my ideal world, bishops would claim greater freedom and independence and write and talk openly when their theology and teaching differs from that being imposed for the sake of unity and collegiality. What a difference there would be if all bishops spoke from the heart as John Wraw has done, truthfully, taking risks.
The spirit is always at work in our hearts, opening and inspiring us. The Church of England is imprisoning the spirit by suppressing difference.
Many of the most spiritually alive and aware people I know are gradually drifting away from the church. The spirit is leading them away from the institution. It hasn’t led me away – yet.
I’d like to ask the spirit to work more effectively to inspire people in the church to explore and model within their congregations and parishes the inner changes and wisdom that I know are unsettling and energising many. I’d like to, but I can’t – the spirit blows where it wills.
All I can do, and we can do, is to open ourselves, trust our hearts and intuition, align ourselves with the spirit in courage and live for transformation. Are we approaching a tipping point in the C of E, substantive change might be achieved? I hope so. I pray so. I will work to make it so.
I began to search for a way to end this blog. I turned to the book I’m reading, The Heart-Mind Matrix by Joseph Chilton Pearce. The very next words on the page were apposite:
“We must be actively involved in the unfolding of this new thinking itself. Such involvement-action is not only critical to establishing such thinking, it is part and parcel of that next move and our ability to take part in it. Acting as though you possess some capacity plants the seed of that virtue in us, if only in imagination. The model, imperative to any new growth, is formed by our action, as is the growth that follows.”