This week the Nobel prize in physics was awarded to three American physicists for the first observations of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that were anticipated by Albert Einstein a century ago. The description of what these three scientists detected is way beyond my imagination or comprehension. Our theology, especially our theology of God, is utterly inadequate to the task both of imagining our place in a universe of such incomprehensible dimensions and to the task of comprehending unconditional love. Jesus teaches about a Father whose love is unconditional and infinite. The God of tradition and orthodoxy habitually reinforces our guilty anxieties and worries.
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. 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).
I question the truth about ‘God’ being proclaimed in the church today. The image of God is based on an uncritical reliance on Scripture and Tradition, a simplistic reading of the Gospels, and a proclamation of the teaching and practice of Jesus which is in many ways profoundly in error. What theology, what image of God, is held by the bishops of the Church of England and the Primates of the Anglican Communion? Is it the toxic version of God and Jesus that supports discrimination and the abuse of LGBTI people or the radical, prophetic version that melts prejudice, confronts abuse, and transforms lives through living and loving unconditionally?
In 1966 David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham from 1984 to 1994, wrote a brief Guide to the Debate about God, exploring the historical perspective as well as appraising developments following the publication of Honest to God in 1963. Jenkins admits that there has always been a debate about God, not only about what He is like but about whether He exists at all. He wanted to explore whether theism really is on the way out and whether any hope of believing in God has to be abandoned as a result of the ‘new theology’. I have returned to David Jenkins’ Guide to the Debate about God this week because he identifies core issues of faith and the ‘experience’ of God with which I have been engaging for over five decades and which I believe are now essential for the Church of England to re-engage with if it is ever to recapture people’s imagination and open hearts and minds to the experience of unconditional love.
My spiritual director and I are the same age and both spent our childhoods in the diocese of Southwark. In our conversation on Wednesday, we discovered that we had both, in our teens, worked out that anything in the Bible that didn’t ring true to the ideas about God that had to be true had to be rejected – so much else in the Bible being unbelievable or downright un-Christian. I was hugely relieved when Honest to God was published to discover a bishop confirming that I wasn’t a heretic nor totally at odds with current church teaching. That was fifty four years ago. The conflict is still running through me.
I have recently been writing about my contemplative practice and what happens in the twenty-five minutes or so of silent awareness each morning that is for me an encounter with presence of God. My presence is very embodied, emotionally and physically aware. Given all the claims Christianity makes about God, the potential for deep, creative change should be even more present in Christian life and prayer. But this experience people seem to find elusive. Why? Why isn’t the church very good at knowing from experience the presence of God? Why is it not very good at acknowledging our bodies as integral to spiritual life?
Is it reasonable to hope for a better world? asks George Monbiot in an article in Saturday’s Guardian Review. George wrote that the answer to his question appears to be no. Four observations he has been making reveal that the current political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. I think the failure of the Church of England to give hope for a better world is also a failure of imagination, a failure to tell an inspiring Christian narrative. I believe the Church of England must do this if it is to remain a recognisably Christian, redemptive, transformative body of people, manifesting the unconditional, infinite, intimate love of God. We must, must become a diverse church. We must develop the ability to nurture people’s altruism, empathy and deep sense of connection, with self, other people, and the sacred.
The episcopal domination of the co-ordinating group on human sexuality is staggering and unprecedented. This extent to which the group is weighted towards bishops stands in contrast with virtually every other report produced in the Church of England in recent history. The lack of lay people is also striking and without precedent. There is not a single gender theorist, sociologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, politician, campaigner, voluntary sector worker, or any other lay person bringing relevant specialist knowledge or expertise. This absence is astonishing. The usual Anglican assumptions and ways of working have been set aside. It is a further example of the deliberate move toward centralization and episcopal control in the Church of England, in ignorance of Anglican history and theology.
Fifty years ago, in September 1967, the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England set up a Working Party on Homosexuality “to review the situation of both male and female homosexuality”. This was the first time the Church of England had formally set up a group to address homosexuality. Nearly fifty years later the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a letter in February outlining their proposals for continuing to address questions concerning human sexuality. The Archbishops committed themselves and the House of Bishops to . . . the development of a substantial Teaching Document on the subject. If the Teaching Document can’t articulate a belief in the absolute equality of all permanent, faithful, stable, loving, marital relationships, then the Group will have wasted three more years and fifty years on from the non-publication of the first report, we will not have achieved the goal to which Changing Attitude campaigned for twenty-two years.
Classical Anglican teaching is held to be rooted in the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason based on Richard Hooker’s teaching in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. More recently, some have argued for the addition of a fourth leg, that of experience. Conservatives opposed to the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church rely primarily on Scripture, arguing that the other two legs are utterly dependent on this. They deny that experience can be legitimately added as a fourth leg. We live in a society where experience is accepted as a given, an essential component of life. Conservative Christians argue against this cultural change.