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, written to remind myself of the ideas and ideals that were paramount in my philosophy of life and ministry. 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 in 1988.
We can become too easily (and understandably) trapped in the binary, good and evil, us and them, loving God and punitive God dynamic on which the dualistic faith of conservative traditionalist Christians is founded. It’s New Year Resolution time: and for me it’s renewed decision time. Do I – do we – opt for and choose to construct from our interior conviction and from the Biblical evidence – a God of unconditional love who is entirely and unconditionally for creation and evolution and for us, we the diverse human community living on planet earth?
To live into life in all its fullness, we human beings have to let ourselves go ‘into something’ more than where are at the moment. We cannot move on without letting go. What will we be moving into? Into the next moment, for a start – the future moment, the new year, and a future which is always and inevitably a future of uncertain, unknown, mostly unpredictable events. We make New Year Resolutions in the hope that we might assert some control over the events of this new year. New Year Resolutions also express some hope that we will move in some way more deeply into ourselves, if we can – the person we would like to be in our idealised hopes and dreams – knowing that at the moment we are not quite who we dream of being and hoping to be, in 2018, more fully the person we could be.
Today I return to two themes which are fundamental to my vision. The first is the centrality of the contemplative/apophatic tradition and the second is the how question – how does transformation take place in the Church of England (or perhaps better put in the negative – why has the church lost the gift of radical transformation?). In three Church Times articles, the authors offer an interpretation of past events and current times, seeing the potential for a transformation of Christian life and witness. Each of them gets so far, but fails to communicate how this might become a reality in practical terms. Very few have the conviction necessary to turn such ideas into reality. Voices crying in the wilderness and grain falling on stony ground are the images that come to mind.
The outcome of the debate at Synod last week on the Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations report was positive from my point of view. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at the end of the debate communicated that he knew change had to happen and his awareness was communicated in the statement issued soon after. Subsequently several bishops made statements or issued letters indicating that they also understood the need to think and do things differently. Did the culture and understanding of the bishops and archbishops undergo a sudden conversion? I doubt it.
A group of nine people is meeting from lunchtime today for three days at Sarum College in Salisbury. They are all people who are exploring life and faith in radical, unconventional ways. I hope that over the course of the three days, a conversation will develop, woven from our own experience of the holy and our dreams of the divine. We urgently need a new, truthful, healthy, re-imagining of God. I imagine the church as a prophetic agent of transformation for people, revealing how life and creation are infused with love and goodness despite our wounds and the losses and pains that are integral to contingent lives lived with free will. The love is infinitely present, and we are immersed in it, and can become aware that we are infused with love.
I’ve been lamenting for a number of years the loss of quality of life in the Church of England compared with my experience in the 1960s and early 1970s. They were adventurous, exciting, imaginative, creative times. I was introduced to the work of theologians, prophets and mystics that continues to nourish my faith. Where has that energy and risk-taking exploration of faith gone? Because gone it certainly has. The centre of energy is shifting away from the orthodox, traditional patterns of church life and faith. I have a core of friends who are really living, living into God and the future, energised and inspired. I have no doubt they are being inspired by the same teacher and energised by the same Spirit and loved, intensely, gloriously, tenderly, unconditionally loved by the same God.
A stormy conversation has been raging on Changing Attitude’s Facebook group for the past three days. The storm is going to become even more intense in the coming months as first the College of Bishops discuss and then the House of Bishops formulate proposals in response to the Shared Conversations, proposals which will be presented for debate at the meeting of the General Synod in February 2017. How are the Christian LGBTI networks and organisations going to communicate with each other and maintain a coherent strategy during what is going to be a very turbulent period?
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.
I was asked to lead a workshop on Saturday with the focus on contemplative prayer and silence. It turned out to be quite a challenging event. I’d prepared a sheet of notes outlining the ground I wanted to cover – vision of God; vision of ourselves; vision of Christ-like life; contemplative prayer and silence; breathing; with a check list of elements of a spiritually healthy life to conclude. It was an ambitious agenda!