The creation, evolution and reimagination of the Eucharist in partnership with the congregation that was a core dimension of Christian life and witness that energised and inspired me in the decades prior to 2000 has been diminished in the Church of England. The bottom upwards freedom that so inspired me to create living liturgical reform and controlled experiments in the local worshipping community, experiments that John Robinson described as so vital to the health of the Body of Christ, has been all but vanquished.
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.
I’ve been helped in my assessment of what changed at last weekend’s meeting of General Synod by reading the reflection of Rob Munro, a Synod member and a member of EGGS, the Evangelical Group on General Synod. Rob describes the outcome of the debates as a watershed moment when the radical held sway over the Christian. I spent Synod weekend re-reading books written forty years ago by Bishops John Robinson and Stephen Verney. I was somewhat astonished to discover how wonderfully honest, open, visionary and prophetic both men were, and amazed to discover that theological ideas and teachings that were commonplace then are thought to be dangerous today.
It’s a relief to be at home gazing out at field and clouds after two days of intense experience at the General Synod in London. Synod was extraordinary. I think it was a moment of transformation, after which the House of Bishops’ relationship with sexuality and gender will never be the same. As children we resist with all our will the loss of that original force bubbling up from within us, and this is the will that culture, particularly fundamental Christian cultures, must – and do – break at all costs. As a child we know we are an integral part of the continuum of all things, as Jesus taught and demonstrated. I hope the bishops are going to set out on a path, with all of us, to rediscover that knowing.
Twenty-eight years ago in God’s Truth: Essays to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Honest to God, published in 1988 and edited by Eric James, John Bowden wrote “There is need for vision not only inside the churches but outside them. Vision and a concern actually to make some differences where there is a crying need for change. Honesty is quite manifestly not enough; more people are going to have to do some fighting.” The same concerns haunt me today.