In June 1988 a group from St Faith’s Wandsworth went to St Columba’s Woking for a retreat weekend led by Verena Tschudin. Verena provided us with a number of pictures from which we could choose one. She also gave us a series of questions to help us engage with the image. I offer these journal thoughts from thirty-one years ago as a complementary insight to what was going on within me at the same time as I was writing my reflections about parish life and ministry in the previous blog.
My daily faith experience is woven around the always elusive presence in which silence, attention, presence, self-giving, experience, quality, emotions, the unconditional, uncertainty, goodness are ingredients and essences, everywhere. Trusting deeply in what I can’t prove but know is my core, my essence, deep within, touched by, feeling it. The Church faces me with many images of God – homophobic, misogynistic, white bearded, authoritarian, judging, cruel, partisan, rejecting. The disconnect the Church maintains, between an imaginable God for the twenty-first century, and the God of co-dependency, abuse, depression, anxiety, and neurosis, is unsustainable.
The Christian Church hasn’t begun to come to terms with the nature of myth as the most powerful expression of sacred, holy truth about the divine. As a result, we live with false myths: the myth of a male God, the myth of male superiority, the myth of God Incarnate, and the myth of God is dead. It’s the male anthropomorphic God that is dead.
This week I’ve been particularly interested in the authority of bishops. I realised that the status of the authority of bishops has changed significantly in my lifetime, in a way that I had been intuiting but hadn’t quite identified. I haven’t found it easy to find the right words to describe this, but I believe the bishops of the church, the teachers and leaders and theologians, senior staff at Church House and Lambeth Palace, the members of the Archbishops’ Council, no longer, ontologically, embody the kind of wisdom authority to the same degree that many church leaders embodied in my youth and my years in parish ministry.
Jesus’ authority is predicated on God’s authority. Biblical authority is predicated on God’s authority. Jesus declines to answer the question posed by the chief priests and elders. He poses instead a question they find it impossible to answer – clever move. But the question of what authority Jesus has remains unanswered. What amazed the people was not Jesus’ authority - the people were amazed at his teaching because, unlike the scribes, he taught with a note of authority. It’s the teaching, not the authority, that is fundamental.
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.
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 suspicion is that talk about the uncertainty of the God experience is more difficult for Christians and within Christian communities now than it was four and five decades ago. How do I come into the presence of God? My question is not well framed. The better question is: How do I become aware of or conscious of God’s always present presence? The presence of the holy, the divine, the infinite, unconditional, utterly loving other is often elusive. It takes me time and the setting aside of deliberate intent to find myself in the presence. And that’s how it happens – finding myself there. I don’t make it happen – can’t make it happen.
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.” Mutual Flourishing, Shared Conversations, and Five Guiding Principles are attempts to maintain fundamental, endemic, systemic, un-Godly, un-holy theology and discrimination. 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 I think is really, fundamentally and dramatically wrong about the Church of England is that it’s just not getting God.