Something is dramatically wrong with the C of E

Mutual Flourishing, Shared Conversations, and Five Guiding Principles and Meister Eckhart

I spent yesterday revisiting books I read, or bought and intended to read, thirty year ago, books about or rooted in the mystical, apophatic witness of Meister Eckhart. Eckhart was born in 1260 in the village of Hochheim in Germany and at the age of fifteen was admitted to the novitiate in the Dominican order. In 1327 he was required to appear before the Archbishop of Cologne charged with heresy. He started to walk the 500 miles to Avignon to plead his case at the papal court but died before being declared a heretic, although a Papal Bull issued in March 1329 condemned some of his propositions as heretical. Matthew Fox drew heavily on Eckhart in Original Blessing and The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, as have subsequent authors exploring the mystical tradition. Rereading Fox yesterday, I was inspired anew, and wondered why his work on creation spirituality is somewhat neglected today.

In the evening, my inspired reflections were interrupted by the announcement of Philip North’s withdrawal of his acceptance of the see of Sheffield and the comment threads which soon followed on Facebook. Many defended his appointment and expressed sadness at his decision to withdraw.

Eckhart’s spirituality was clearly perceived to be unorthodox and his teaching dangerous for the ‘common people’ that might lead them into error. Eckhart commented: “If the ignorant are not taught they will never learn, and none of them will ever know the art of living and dying. The ignorant are taught in the hope of changing them from ignorant to enlightened people.”

My view of what is so dramatically wrong with the Church of England is that it fears teaching people about God, the God of whom Eckhart wrote: “God created all things in such a way that they are not outside himself, as ignorant people falsely imagine. Everything that God creates or does he does or creates in himself, sees or knows in himself, loves in himself. The purpose of his coming is more our divinization than our redemption from sin and guilt.”

Philip North's withdrawal

The comments yesterday in reaction to Philip North’s withdrawal focused on the loss of his very real gifts to the diocese of Sheffield and the impact on the key Church of England policies in relation to equal orders in ministry of 'maximum freedom' and 'mutual flourishing'. Kelvin Holdsworth commented that both were dealt body blows. Less than a month ago the Mutual Conversations process which was supposed to achieve a breakthrough for the LGBTI issue also suffered a body blow when the House of Clergy voted not to take note of the bishops’ report.

Both the Shared Conversation process and the idea of Mutual Flourishing were designed to achieve the impossible, to reconcile divergent theologies and understandings of gender and sexuality. Far more critical and serious is their failure to address God and what might be going on in the mind of God (to use an anthropomorphism I don’t believe in) and what might be going on in the mind of Anglicans (which, when it comes to God, is a pretty closed book).

Philip North seems to be a good communicator on behalf of the divine. But he communicates a God who doesn’t believe that women can ontologically represent him in ordained ministry or administer the sacraments. That makes him a not very good communicator for people who don’t believe God is gendered and don’t believe women are in any way different from men when it comes to being ordained and being effective sacramental ministers. This is a very basic and irreconcilable difference.

What is God like?

The result of my reading about Eckhart yesterday leads me to ask the question, what kind of God is the Church of England believing in? or ,even more significantly, what does the Church of England think God is like? This question is not being addressed. Our conversations in the church worry about whether the C of E really means what it says when it commends mutual flourishing as a prime task. Mutual flourishing is a great quality, but a tertiary quality compared with the quality of the divine, holy, ‘isness’ of God, that of God, infinite and unconditional, awe-full and awe inspiring, love pouring out and love immersing, in all of creation and evolution.

What God is the Church of England believing in? That seems an unnecessary question, even a stupid question, but the more I ask myself, the less confident I am that the church knows. It know what the creedal statements and historic formularies of the church say and it knows the version of God constructed from use of the Bible for nearly 2000 years and its version of God seems very obvious and given and familiar. Every Sunday in almost every cathedral and parish church, bishops and archbishops and clergy and lay leaders use the authorised services and the doctrinally acceptable teaching to talk about God. Nothing is questioned, uncertain, curious, or not working for people. Jesus is a given. +Justin’s Jesus is a given. The Bible as prime source is obvious. No radical doubt or uncertainty is allowed – certainly not teaching as radical as Meister Eckhart’s. No deviation from the approved liturgies and the corporate mind set.

Mutual Flourishing, Shared Conversations, and Five Guiding Principles are attempts to maintain fundamental, endemic, systemic, un-Godly, un-holy theology and discrimination. Ray Gaston comments that this isn't about personalities, or good or bad bishops, but an outdated and seriously oppressive system being challenged by collective action.

I beg to disagree. What I think it’s really about is the Church of England not getting God. That is what is so fundamentally and dramatically wrong.