The Church of England is unfit for the purpose for which it primarily exists. For me, the prime purpose of the church is to witness to the unconditional, infinite, intimate love of God and embody the teaching of Jesus that all are called to life, life in all its fullness, and to be open to grace, to the presence of spirit in all creation.
I think the church is unfit for purpose because at the moment it fails to place witness to the unconditional love of God front and centre of teaching and mission.
The purpose of priestly ministry
I participated in one of the many ordination services taking place last weekend, this one for the ordination of priests. I became aware during the service that I found much of the content about the role and duties of a priest, and by extension, the purpose of the church, uncomfortable, unhelpful, and contrary to my understanding of the essence of priestly ministry in the church, a Bible-based understanding honed through ministry and my commitment to contemplative prayer.
The purpose of priestly ministry expressed in the ordination service is, among other objectives, to bring people to know Christ, to seek out the lost, to teach the truth and rebuke error, to pray, to lead worship, to preside at communion, and to maintain orthodoxy and tradition - to conform, control, and discipline.
In contrast, I think the role of a priest is to help people discover, in the words of my spiritual director, the God they already know. It is to help people discover within themselves the light of Christ, the unconditional, infinite, intimate love that is innate, infused into the heart and soul of every human being. Many seem to be unaware of the divine presence in their core, while others seem to have a natural affinity with their divine centre. The priestly role is to help people discover and nurture within themselves and their community Jesus’ most profound truth that he has come that we may have life, life in all its fullness. This teaching in John 1.10 flows through the Gospels and Epistles. This teaching doesn’t come easily to human beings because we are all wounded and carry the scars of anxiety and insecurity, lost awareness and confidence. Many of us compensate well for the wounds we carry.
The message of unconditional love and fullness of life
I rarely hear the church proclaiming the gospel message of God’s unconditional love. All too often hear the church reiterating the message of God’s conditional love, love dependent on our recognition of our sinfulness and our readiness to confess, turn to Christ, and conform to church teachings and rules. Almost never do I witness the church teaching people how to live into fullness of life.
The Christian faith as taught and practised is compromised by human failings and weakness. The church is addicted to practices and habits that Jesus warned his followers about. Jesus repeatedly confronted the leaders of his faith community with the urgent need for radical reform of their teaching and practice. He warned them about their addictions to power and control, false authority and self-importance. He warned them about institutional religion and the dangers of misguided tradition, legalism, and the elevation of systems and institutions above grace and open access to God’s free gift of life and love.
Abuse of the Bible
Abuse in the church is justified by abuse of the Bible, using texts inappropriately or out of context or in ways contrary to the teaching of Jesus. The church has to come to terms with and change the ways in which the Bible is misused and abused. Ideas about the nature of God and God’s authority and power and the Lordship of Christ are used by fundamentalists and others with a weak grasp of the essence of Jesus’ teaching, to justify the abuse of people. A member of General Synod has this week justified the use of reparative therapy for lesbian and gay people. This therapy is in no way reparative but abusive, justified by an abusive misuse of Biblical texts. There are many other ways in which bishops, priests and Christian leaders misuse so-called biblical teaching to justify abusive leadership styles and patterns of behaviour.
The church is systemically abusive
One result of the church having such an inadequate and often flawed understanding of its core purpose is that at the moment, the Church of England is systemically abusive, and I mean the whole institution, from bishops and archbishops, the House of Bishops, the Archbishops’ Council, to suffragan bishops and archdeacons and rural deans, to dioceses and deaneries and parishes and parish clergy and lay leaders and volunteers.
Throughout the church there are outstanding examples of Christian witness and ministry, dedicated, costly, loving, self-effacing and creative. But in the past weeks and months I have experienced the most horrendous, scandalous examples of abuse, abuse of which the perpetrators seem unaware and the victims too fearful and compliant to report what has or is happening to them. The system works to suppress reporting of abuse by persuading people to collude in the idea that they would be betraying the church and contaminating the purity of the gospel.
We know from the reports into the abuse of children and young people that the institution habitually disbelieves the victims and sides with the abuser, who is trusted above the abused person because of their status and authority within the church. Often abusers are charismatic, highly respected people held in awe within the church. We still don’t properly understand how dangerous this cult of charismatic personality is.
The church now has in place safeguarding systems that should provide much better protection for people and ensure that the potential for sexual abuse is significantly curtailed. The abuse I am witnessing is not sexual abuse, however, but emotional, spiritual and psychic abuse. It is as equally traumatising and damaging as sexual abuse and the abuse of children.
Abuse of LGBTI people
The most obvious abuse that I witness is the abuse of LGBTI people. We who identify as LGBTI members of the Church of England, lay and ordained, often tolerate abuse, whether of ourselves or other people, because the call to faith and ministry in the church outweighs the negative side effects. The longer the House of Bishops prevaricates and fails to make progress on changing church teaching and practice (and I’ve been witness to this process for over thirty years now), the more intolerable the abusive attitude to LGBTI people becomes. The result has been the enforced departure from the church of many of my closest and most deeply spiritual and inspiring friends and colleagues.
Relationship and marriage equality
LGBTI people are abused by the lack of courage in the House of Bishops to approve teaching that enable lesbian and gay clergy couples to marry, legalise their relationships and express love in intimacy, and teaching that enables couples, lay and ordained, to be blessed in church and ultimately to be married in church. The current, abusive practice results in gay couples leaving the church to pursue their spiritual life in a more affirming, nourishing environment. Gay clergy are abused when we are denied a licence or permission to officiate or told that having married, we will never be given another post in the church. We are abused by the tolerance of bishops for organisations promoting and practicing reparative, as if being gay is a sickness to be healed. We are abused every time homophobic teaching is expressed in a sermon. We are abused when bishops tolerate or collude with clergy who teach against homosexuality. All this is abusive, systemically abusive.
Abuse of women and those with disabilities
Whenever I write about the abuse of LGBTI people in church, women and people with disabilities write to remind me or tell me that they too continue to experience prejudice and abuse, those with disabilities telling me that their experience is at least equal to mine, if not worse. I’m sure the same is true for many women, who silently endure abuse for the sake of their ministry and the gospel.
Individuals, lay and ordained, men and women, heterosexual and gay, single and married, young and old, are abused in the church by bishops and clergy who take power and control to themselves and make unreasonable and unrealistic demands, and in so doing, erode people’s dignity, self-confidence, and wisdom, undermining their confidence in who they are as people created in the image of God and loved by God unconditionally, infinitely and intimately. This is the nature of the abuse I have encountered most recently and it as deeply damaging in its effect and as difficult to report as the abuse of children and young adults.
Abusive behaviour has become systemic in the Church of England. Abuse has become normative in part because of the immature, sometimes infantile level of theology and exegesis taught and preached in churches. Recently, I have heard of children being taught that the world was created by God 6,000 years ago and that the devastating floods two years ago might have been sent by God to punish people for their sin and wickedness.
Fear of reporting abuse
Much abuse is tolerated or endured out of deference to authority figures. People fear there will be repercussions if they talk or complain about what has happened or report the abuse. Some rightly fear they will not be believed. Much abuse goes unnoticed because it is taken as justified by biblical teaching or by the authority bestowed by God on those called to leadership.
Time for action
I feel distressed and very angry. I wonder what effect the blog will have. Will it be treated with the kind of indifference bishops and an archbishop showed to those who were being abused by Bishop Peter Ball? I hope those of you reading this will be jolted into taking abuse far more seriously and that you will become more aware of the abuse that you have experienced, witnessed, or that has been reported to you. I hope archbishops and bishops and clergy will be shocked into an awareness that leads ultimately to action and a total change of culture in the church.
A church not fit for Christian purpose
I am now very clear that as a result of its practice and the effects of its teaching, the Church of England is at the moment not fit for the purpose it exists for. The House of Bishops is primarily responsible for this. I hope a movement will follow to better understand the nature of abuse, how and why it happens and how it can be identified and dealt with. We are all fallible and human and have the capacity to abuse others.
The duty of love and care
The church has a duty of care to those it employs and to those to whom it offers a path to deepen their experience of the holy and sacred in life. It has a duty not to manipulate or abuse people. It has a duty above all to teach and practice in ways that enable people to discover the God of unconditional, infinite, intimate love, God immersed in creation through the flow of the spirit and revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the shepherd who, when we enable people to be open to the call, leads us into life in all its fullness.
Jesus opened the scroll and found the passage which says,
‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me;
he has sent me to announce good news to the poor,
to proclaim release for prisoners,
and recover of sight for the blind;
to let the broken victims go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
In choosing this passage from Isaiah Jesus identified the essence of his ministry. Jesus radically re-centred people’s attention of God in their midst, as personal, tender, loving, nurturing, creative, subtly transforming life and love. Our church is failing to announce good news, release prisoners from abuse, recover sight to testify to abuse, and is entrapping rather than freeing victims. The Church of England is at the moment not fit for the purpose of modelling healthy, Christ-centred ministry.