A philosophy and vision for parish ministry, then and now

In December 1986 I had been ordained seven years and been parish priest of St Faith’s Wandsworth for four years. A major building contract had just been signed for a new school, church, adult education and youth centre. I was exhausted after a two-year battle to get that far. I presented my bishop with a choice – either I had a breakdown, or he granted me a sabbatical. On December 26 1986 I set off on sabbatical, flying round the world for three and a half months. The one condition given was that I should keep a journal.

Recently I’ve been rereading the journal. Yesterday I reached the entry for Friday 26 May 1988. I had attended a Minister’s Fraternal discussion on mission and had identified a growing self-confidence in expounding my own philosophy of religious and human understanding and pointed up the gulf of understanding between myself and everyone else present. In the evening I talked to a friend who suggested that I should note the ideas and ideals that were paramount in my philosophy of life and ministry in the journal.

This is what I wrote thirty-one years ago aged 43:

If God is God and creator, then he is creator of everything and everyone. Creation is good. Everyone is created in love, and created good, and with the potential to make real that goodness. This is part of the purpose of being alive: to explore our own psychic and spiritual identity, to grow into our own truth and unique personhood, into the fullness of being, which has to be growth including God and the spiritual dimension. I guess evangelism or conversion is about encouraging/facilitating people onto their own journey. People seem to be able to do this when they are affirmed, loved, and accepted unconditionally. This seems to be what Jesus did, and how he describes God, and is certainly how God relates to me and everyone else. First there is love, acceptance, understanding, call. There is also judgement, alienation, rejection, but I would understand these as primarily things we do to ourselves, or that are done to us in childhood, or by life, for which we are often not responsible.

My primary ideal is to accept people unconditionally, non-judgmentally, to allow relationship to develop, within which growth, or healing, or whatever else may be necessary or appropriate, may occur. The hope is that with human experience of relationship, trust and acceptance may also enable people to discover and experience their innate acceptance, love and trust by God, because first, God so loved the world ...

Thus far, this may seem individualistic, and the Ministers Fraternal might condemn me as merely humanistic. This seems to me a silly judgement. Humanism may simply be re-affirming the this-worldliness of our experience where Christianity emphasises an other-worldliness and denies much of people’s normal experience.

So, many people live with a split, between their religious selves and the way in which the church understands and interprets the world, and their normal life experience, and above all their own emotional and intellectual experience.

Above all, the churches seem to exclude desire from the reckoning. Yet this is maybe the most powerful human emotion. Thus issues of sexuality, sexual identity, masculinity and femininity, ordination of women, power, institutionalism, etc., are the most vital issues today, and a place where the Spirit of God is most active, drawing humankind into a richer and fuller appreciation of its own nature. This is one of the vital issues the incarnate Jesus communicated.

Creation-centred spirituality is important for me, as is the inward-journey, exploring inner space, listening/attending to myself and God. Openly. Without my own agenda. Seeking God’s agenda. Being true to myself, enlightened by the God I meet in silence and the God I meet in Jesus and New Testament. People in relationship are vital. Community is vital. Any church community should ideally be a group working its way towards being a kingdom community. The Kingdom of God is within you; I in you and you in me. Truth – what is truth? What indeed, and whose truth?

Pluralism is important; the plurality and variety of individual experience, of Christian experience and churches, and of other religions and human interpretations of life.

I want to internalise my experience of God, and faith, and the Holy Spirit, and know that it is true to my own, honest experience of being alive. If God made us, then he gave us all the natural ability to experience him. Religious experience and faith is not something peculiar or other-worldly but this-worldly, incarnate.

My thinking has evolved and expanded since then, but the core of what I believe now was there in 1988. Today, I believe that creation, evolution and incarnation are seamless realities infused with the divine qualities of unconditional, infinite, intimate love. I no longer go to church. Part of the reason is that with one or two rare exceptions, almost nothing that I encounter now in church on a Sunday morning comes remotely close to what as a parish priest I was seeking to create with the congregation in Wandsworth.

I have witnessed a regressive movement over the past three decades. What I witness now in parish ministry, diocesan cultures, theological colleges and courses, the Living in Love and Faith process, Church House, and those working for justice for LGBTI people is unconscious collusion with a systemically abusive culture and practice in the Church of England. At times, the degree of abuse and the complacency with which it is overlooked is deeply shocking. Friends are being treated abusively by bishops and archbishops, archdeacons, area deans, senior diocesan staff (including safeguarding officers), college and course senior staff, and members of staff at Church House – all of them people who are supposed to be the guardians, teachers and exemplars in the church.

The leaders of the Church of England today seem to be unaware of or have become desensitised to behaviour that is being identified as abusive and collusive in recent investigations and reports. The majority seem to willingly tolerate what to me is the appallingly abusive corporate culture and practice of the Church of England.