For Grenfell – Where Were You?

by Rev Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds

Hayley Matthews

It took some courage for the Prime Minister to make her apology on Tuesday, for the nation was truly shell-shocked by the Grenfell disaster, and Mrs May’s summary of the situation was a statement we could all agree with.

It’s taken me a full week to find myself able to watch the Panorama film documentation of the Grenfell disaster.  As I wept, it was impossible not to imagine waking to thick black smoked, or worse still, an unendurable, inescapable heat. The palpable shock and grief of the survivors interviewed was devastating as photographs of young, happy children, wisened old men, mothers, grandmothers and vibrant young adults were shared in the vain hope that somehow the fire didn’t reach them or impede their attempts to escape the towering inferno. Who will ever forget the disabled brother told to remain in his flat with a damp towel by the door on the 22nd floor, or his distraught sister?

Yet it wasn’t the scene of the destruction and loss of human life that disturbed me most. I was completely unprepared to see hordes of people on the streets with carrier bags full of clothes, boxes of nappies as shouts of “perishable food is about to arrive, we got manpower but we need women to sort it” reverberating through the crowds.  Hundreds of people spilling out of their homes and businesses to bring what they could, do what they could, share all they had in some cases, with those who had lost everything but the clothes they stood up in.  It was a beautiful sight, people pulling together in the face of human tragedy, a truly empathic response towards those in dire need. What disturbed me, however, was the fact that after waking up to a living hell, survivors were left to fend for themselves, find somewhere to sleep, get up the next morning to nothing but chaos, loss, grief, confusion, the true horror of losing loved ones, all one’s wordly goods and every memory in every form, whether it be photograph, trinket or song.  All irretrievable lost to nothing but the vagaries of the human memory and nobody there to say, ‘here we are.  This is what we are providing for you, this is where you need to go, this is where you can bathe, be clothed, fed, sleep.’  It was nothing short of chaos and had an ‘every man for himself’ feel about it. Nothing was properly planned or organised and I simply fail to believe that there is no disaster plan for every borough of our land never mind our capital city. Why wasn’t it activated for these people? Why was it left to Church Halls, mosques and the local neighbourhood to wade in and sort it out for themselves?

A few days later (yes, days later, I still find that hard to believe) the £5million fund from central government with each survivor receiving an immediate £5000 was met with the derision it deserves.  Perhaps a £5000 payout seems generous to a person living on £72.40 per week but even a minor whiplash victim is better compensated.  As has been rightly pointed out, a far lesser sum would have ensured the building was fire-proof in the first place.  What the survivors needed was a roof over their head, a plan for permanent accommodation and a proper support system in place, not cash, nor to be left wandering around the streets relying upon the charity of their neighbours, wonderful as it was.  It must have been bewildering to find oneself so utterly adrift.  It was one of the rare occasions when the word ‘aftermath’ rose to its full height, squared its shoulders and looked us all in the face.

Aside from the political and organisational questions raised, is the question most being bandied about is ‘where was God in this?’ The Christian faith speaks of a God who is amidst everyone, including alongside those who mourn, those who lie in the burns unit fighting for their lives and those who are traumatised survivors.

Jesus identifies with us in our human suffering most acutely as he hangs from the cross, vilified by the powers that be, turned upon by His own, crucified for doing nothing but good – the Innocent hung out to dry by the high and mighty, religious and political, easy to sacrifice, to silence, or so it seemed.  Yet I would suggest that God is most visible in those who gave from the little that they have, those who chose vocations that put their own lives at risk in order to save others; those who place ethical decisions above parsimonious politicking, for God is in these inhabited, lived out words, attributed to Jesus Himself: ‘”Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25_34-40)

Says it all really – doesn’t it?

 

 

 

Posted in Church of England, Hayley Mattews, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Bishops and Transforming Love

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral

David ison 2

Over the last few months the Vacancy in See Committee of the Diocese of London has been working to set out our view of what kind of bishop we need for the next stage of our journey together.

The Committee has been keen to connect our hopes with the content of the (modern English) Ordinal for bishops, to put the current challenges we face into the historic context of the mission of the Church. To help that process, I read through the Ordinal to find the words, prayers and questions which frame the calling of a bishop.

One of the things that struck me was how the content of the Ordinal is related to its origins in the sixteenth century conditions of Christendom and schism: in particular the concern for what in modern management-speak is termed ‘outputs’ (what the bishop and the Church are to do) as opposed to ‘outcomes’ (the fruits we bear). There’s a lot about proclamation of the Gospel so that it may be heard, gathering and feeding the flock, teaching rightly and guarding against error, and building up the unity and love of the Church. But there’s not so much that relates to the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to ‘make disciples of all nations’, or much about the revelation of Christ in the love of his people for one another as in John 13 and 17; when the reality of day by day mission is that God’s love for us in Christ is made present and visible in the love of the Church for one another and for the world – or not. The Church in the Ordinal is spoken of as a single community of love in space and time, and bishops are charged with loving ‘their people’; but they aren’t directly charged with loving those who are outside the Church, not least because when the Ordinal was drafted there were few people known to be outside the Church apart from ‘heretics’ and a few of other faiths.

There are two consequences to this. One is that bishops can carry a huge weight of expectation, being given an almost messianic level of responsibility for shaping the life of the Church and leading its mission in individual isolation. As with churches seeking parish clergy in times of stress and decline, dioceses look for someone who will rescue and transform their situation: and although there’s a lot a bishop can do, she or he is liable to damage their physical, mental and spiritual health in trying to do it without the Church being alongside.

And the other consequence is that we as the body of Christ don’t take seriously enough our responsibility for being the evangelistic community of love which leads people to Christ. Of course we need to have living faith, and witness to it: and we do so through how we live much more than in what we say, and by how we love those around us, within and outside the Church. It’s our job corporately to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ, confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in all the world, and so make disciples of all nations, and not the job of the bishop to do it for us.

And how do we see that happening? I have been greatly challenged over the last weeks by the response of the Coptic Church to the extreme persecution to which members of its community have been subject: bombed, beheaded, beaten, shot and killed just for being Christians in Egypt; most recently at least 26 men, women and children killed in the Egyptian desert going to pray, in between the Manchester bomb and the London Bridge killings. Bishop Angaelos, the Coptic Bishop in the UK, has not only called for forgiveness, but love: addressing the terrorists he has said, ‘the violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved…. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, Who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.’

Here is a bishop speaking out for love, boldly: bearing witness to the love which is held not just by him but by the community of faith, by a Church which is determined not to retaliate with hatred but to make disciples of Christ through the witness of love.

Here’s a challenge to Christians in this country as to how we proclaim Christ by living out the love of Christ in the face of terrorism and violence and frightened communities.

And here’s also a challenge to the Church as to how we help our bishops, in being the Body of Christ together: not expecting them to sort everything out for us, but together to build a community of love which puts Christ at the centre and enables everyone, wherever they start from, to find the power of the transforming love of God.

Posted in Church of England, Dean of St Pauls, International Relations, Social Justice | 1 Comment

Walking Beside Our Neighbour

by the Revd Charlotte Bannister-Parker, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford

Charlotte BP

Everyone of us has been appalled and deeply shocked by the wicked terrorist attack in Manchester on Monday night. We abhor the horror; we mourn the terrible loss, and the deliberate targeting such young, innocent lives. The aim of the attack was to create a climate of fear designed to shatter peace and tear communities apart.  All our thoughts, prayers and condolences are with those affected by the terrible atrocity.

Despite the destructive aims, the opposite has occurred. Yesterday’s one minute silence, a time for prayer and reflection, showed the Mancunians —  all people, all races, all religions — standing together and then bursting forth at the end with long applause. We have also seen extraordinary acts of kindness to random strangers, feelings of strength and unity, unbowed spirits and moving tributes to those still fighting for their lives.

Radicalisation, terrorism and all forms of extremism are abhorrent, and we must fight back in every way and on every level. We must make community cohesion and international cooperation priorities amongst all faiths. It was pleasing to hear Iman Monawar Hussain, Founder of The Oxford Foundation, say that “One thought on Manchester is that not a single classical Jurist has justified the killing of innocent people, what is happening now is anti-Islam and against all that the religion stands for”.1

And one of the most moving pictures from Manchester showed an Imam and elderly Jewish women side by side expressing solidarity for victims of Monday night’s bombing. Imam Sadiq Patel and Renee Black (93 years old) prayed together, having traveled together from Blackburn to express unity and compassion for the victims.

Such images and actions are important testament to combat hatred and division. And Oxford also hosts an interfaith action which tries to do just that.  On the eve of the transfer of power to Iraq in 2004 over 14 years ago, I founded an Interfaith Friendship Walk in recognition of the need for community cohesion. We walked from the University Church, St Mary the Virgin, to the Central Mosque in Manzil Way, Oxford in solidarity against the brutality to Iraqi prisoners in Basra prison. The following year the Jewish community joined, so the walk now starts at the Oxford synagogue, and goes from there to St Mary’s and then on to the Mosque, sharing prayers at each place of worship. The walk is led by a Bishop, a Rabbi and an Imam and now includes 9 other faiths, such as Hinduism and Sikhism.  Movingly, the Jewish community makes cakes and delivers them to the Mosque so we can all share a meal at the end of the walk. This event has fostered community cohesion, friendship, mutual respect, and fosters dignity in our difference. And out of this trust and shared action Oxford has created a Council of Faiths, which on Tuesday evening held a candle-lit vigil for those who lost their lives in Manchester.

Sadly, some Christians have declined to participate because the aim of the Inter-faith Friendship Walk is about conversation not conversion, about friendship not judgement.  Their response has saddened me deeply, as it indicates an agenda of separateness, and underscores their belief that there is an ‘other’ with whom it is impossible to connect. This kind of thinking has often been referred to as the “sheep and goat” theology.  2. (For many, I too am a “goat” because of gender, as I am a women priest in ministry teaching and leading worship).

Interestingly the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, The Rt Revd Dr Martyn Percy, said that in the early 1990s the LGBT community was regarded in a similar vein in conservative Christian circles. He said that at that period “Gay men and women are “the other”, not thought to be in the “kraal of the redeemed”. 3

The avoidance of the “other,” whether they are of another faith or a Christian of different theological persuasion, does not work. In a speech he made in St Martin in the Fields called “Who is our neighbour? The Ethic of Global Relations,” the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said we cannot afford now not to engage with the “other” in a deep and profound way. By referencing the story of The Good Samaritan, he claimed, “It is not a matter of deciding who out there deserved to be loved by you. It is a question of your decision to be a neighbour, your decision to be someone who offers life to others. This is a basic choice, which turns our lives into life-giving realities”.  He continued:

To love our neighbour is to love the person who can save our lives. The extra catch in the parable of The Good Samaritan is that we never know quite who that person is. It is likely to be the most improbable person around, so our openness to neighbourliness has to be profound, all encompassing, all embracing thing”. 4

On Monday night the world saw people acting as true neighbours.  Taxi drivers, homeowners, emergency workers, doctors and nurses all came to help those in need and brought light into the darkness.

Narrow conservatism and inflexible dogmatism prevent believers from seeing that they have more in common with the “other” than one might first understand.  All of us of faith need to encourage and to engage with the “other” in open-hearted and open-minded ways. As the OT scholar Professor Bruce Birch said, “the basic meaning of Shalom is peace – a wholeness, a state of harmony among God, humanity and all religions”. 5

Only with this can we all fight shocking extremism, radicalisation and terrorism. Then there is a possibility that there may be light where there is darkness, hope where there is despair. We as people of faith, can choose understanding over hatred, love over fear, hope over desperation.  Without this understanding, we are failing Christ and all those who lost their lives on Monday night.

References.

  1. Iman Monawar Hussain: The Oxford Foundation – Statement 26/5/17
  2. Matthew 25 31-46: The Sheep and the Goats.
  3. The Revd Dr Martin Percy: The Wisdom of the Spirit Gospel, Church and Culture.
  4. Lord Rowan Williams: Who is my neighbour? The Ethics of Global Relationships. Autumn Lecture Series. St Martin’s in the Field. London. 2016.
  5. Prof Bruce Birch: The Predicament of the Prosperous. Chapter V11 p149

 

Posted in Charlotte Bannister-Parker, Church of England, Social Justice | 11 Comments

ReNew and Reject….

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Chair of Human Sexuality Group on General Synod

Giles Goddard

50 years ago the watershed conference at Keele University committed Anglican Evangelicals to working within the Church of England.  Evangelical readers of this blog will know very well how the conference transformed relations with the C of E,  starting a process which is still continuing. The appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury is, partly, a result of the Keele gathering.

Although not without its problems, the relationship between evangelicals and the rest of the church has been fruitful and creative; the mainstreaming (!) of Holy Trinity Brompton and its cousins has brought a new dynamism to the C of  E. Speaking as someone within the Anglican catholic tradition, I hope that the engagement has worked both ways.

In the run-up to the conference, John Stott said, ‘It is a tragic thing…that Evangelicals have a very poor image in the Church as a whole. We have acquired a reputation for narrow partisanship and obstructionism… We need to repent and to change.’

It’s nicely ironic that, fifty years on,  the hardline conservative evangelical wing is laying plans to leave the C of E again.  There has been an irregular consecration of a bishop in Jesmond, and preparations are afoot for a parallel structure.

From their point of view, the experiment has failed. It’s not just about sexuality, it’s about leadership more generally.  ReNew, the latest iteration of the GAFCON/AMiA nexus has a statement of faith which is very clear about male headship as well as the indissolubility of marriage (really?) and gender complementarity.  It reads like a document from history.

We’ve been here before, many times. There have been protestant and catholic departures from the C of E. The history of the Dissenting movement in the 17th , 18th and 19th centuries is well known, as is the conversion of John Henry Newman to Rome. It’s hard to see how an organisation like ReNew with its rigorously regressive theological positions will get much traction, and there are many within the C of E who would breathe a sigh of relief if some of our most vocal conservatives moved to pastures new.  Many conservative evangelical churches have already begun to withdraw financially anyway….

Underlying all this is, of course, the vexed question of sexuality.  The question is most pointed in relation to same-sex relationships but ReNew is clear that ANY sex outside marriage is sinful (again, really?).

Readers of this blog do not need the arguments in favour of inclusive Christianity to be rehearsed.  As chair of the General Synod Human Sexuality Group I was very involved in preparations for the February Synod debate in which Synod voted not to take note of the Bishops’ latest report. It is becoming clear that, both for conservative evangelicals and those of us working for inclusion, that vote was another watershed moment.

We are all working out, collectively, what possible next steps might be taken.  Ultimately those of us who voted not to take note are urgently seeking a way of welcoming LGBTI people, especially vulnerable young people who may have been harmed by the church, into the family of Christ.  There are practical outworkings:  there is a strong desire for an authorised liturgy to be used in the celebration of same-sex relationships and to end the differential treatment of LGBTI ordinands & clergy in relationships.

But there is also a desire not to exacerbate the divisive behaviour of the conservative evangelical wing by pushing for the approval of same-sex marriage too soon. We want a mixed economy, similar to the mixed economy we enjoy liturgically and over other issues such as the remarriage of divorced people.

These are complex times. We are certainly seeing a realignment in English Christianity. At the heart of our shared life is a fundamental question:  who did Jesus come to save?

I am with Desmond Tutu on this. My favourite quote from him is:  ‘I wish I could shut up. But I can’t, and I won’t.’ My second favourite is this: ‘Jesus did not say, “I, if I be lifted up, I will draw some.” Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all, all, all, all, all.” ‘

 

Posted in Church of England, Giles Goddard, Human Sexuality | 3 Comments

A Question of Christian Identity?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News

Jayne Ozanne (3)

Later this week, the University of Chester will host a one-day conference on “Sexuality and Anglican Identities”.  It promises to be an interesting day with speakers offering a wide range of perspectives – from Dr Susannah Cornwall (Exeter University to Dr David Hilborn (St John’s School of Mission in Nottingham).

In promoting the event the project organisers, Dr Paul Middleton and Dr Jessica Keady, note:

G“Sexuality is a divisive issue in the Church today.  For many of those who hold different positions on the presenting issues, Christian identity is at stake.  …While what has been called the Church of England’s via media has been able to accommodate theological and ethical breadth within a broad understanding of Anglican identity (eg The Pilling Report, 2013), in the current environment, various Anglican groups (such as Changing Attitude, GAFCON, Reform etc) call for a more decisive decision to either include or exclude people in same sex relationships.  These groups, for whom sexuality (or more particularly, homosexuality) has become the measure of Anglican faithfulness, create different ways of constructing and understanding Anglican identity.”

Personally, I would argue that this issue actually has very little to do with Anglican identity and everything to do with certain tribes’ definition and understanding of Christian identity.  I make this important distinction as there are many tribes (such as New Wine, the Evangelical Alliance, Spring Harvest) whose first allegiance it seems is not to their denomination but to their tribe.  This is particularly true within the evangelical tradition.  If you doubt this, just look at how many relate to authority – where the recognised tribal leaders hold more influence than the official appointed traditional leader, such as the local bishop.

For many, their sense of identity is and has always been in their allegiance to their Christian brothers and sisters who exhibit certain key traits or have experienced certain spiritual manifestations.  These can be summed up in key catch phrases such as “bible-believing Christians” or “spirit-filled Christians” who have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”.  As such, these descriptors are used to segregate “real Cristians” from those who “just think they are Christians”.  Of course, they would argue this practice is highly biblical as Jesus talks about separating “the sheep from the goats” and “wheat from tares” (although they tend to forget that it is Jesus himself who does this – and not until the final judgement).

A good example of this was when Rowan Williams was announced as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  I remember clearly that the one single question that most of the Lambeth Partners (a group formed to provide practical support (ie money) for the archbishop) wanted to know was “Is he spirit-filled, Jayne?”  Most had joined the Partnership to support Archbishop George Carey, and as such were senior evangelicals from across the country.  Many were very sceptical at ++Rowan’s appointment, and wanted reassuring.  I remember being deeply angered by these questions and would always respond “Of course he’s spirit-filled!!  Have you read any of his books or heard him preach?!  Can’t you see the gift of wisdom that God has given him?”  But what they wanted to hear from me was that there was tangible proof that he spoke in tongues or exhibited other signs of the Holy Spirit as set out in 1 Corinthians 14.  For without this proof they could not be certain that he was on the right side of the great divide.  As such many left the Partnership.

And therein lies the crux of our problem as a “Church”.  We have a deep fault line that we hardly ever acknowledge or talk about.  One (large) evangelical group passes judgement on another (large but more dispersed) liberal/Anglo-Catholic group.  They assume that because they don’t have a similar experience of God – or at least they don’t believe that they have – they should be “written off” as charlatans and pretenders.  They perceive them as people just in love with tradition and ritual, who don’t have a “personal relationship with Christ” and hence “are in love with religion rather than with the living Lord Jesus”.

The problem doesn’t stop there.  Many within the liberal/anglo-catholic group tend themselves to write off those from the evangelical group for being “narrow minded bigots, who leave their brains at the door”.

Oh, see how we love each other!

Whatever happened to “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others you will be judged”?  Yes, I know this verse is frequently quoted by tribal leaders who say they don’t want to judge individuals – at least it’s regularly quoted to me when I ask whether they think I am going to hell as per Romans 1 for being openly gay.  But, of course they do judge!  They refuse to recognise people like me as being part of their tribe – or indeed any evangelical who “has gone soft” on homosexuality.  Instead many of us are asked to stand down from positions of lay leadership because of the views that we hold.

Be under no doubt, your tribal identity is key.  In fact, it is more than that, it is critical – as you may find yourself on the wrong side of the pearly gates if you get it wrong!  Of course, you’ll also find yourself out in the cold – away from the fellowship of your friends – if you show any form of disagreement.  That form of ostracism is far more difficult and painful to deal with.  You may also not get that promotion you hoped for.

As many know to their cost, it is extremely difficult to stand against your leaders’ teachings if you don’t agree with them – best to keep quiet and keep your thoughts to yourself.  Remember, your leaders must know best because “they are the really spirit-filled ones”.  They know, because they have the Spirit of Discernment, and the Spirit of Wisdom and the Spirit of Counsel.  Of course, “pretend Christians” can’t have the same level of biblical understanding because they aren’t spirit filled – even if they are a bishop!

So, to recap, there are many who believe that to be a “real Christian” (and recognised by your church leaders and friends as a “real Christian”) you must belong to the “right group”.  This means you MUST publicly show that you are prepared to play by your club’s rules – and more importantly, that you are prepared to publicly state that you believe the “right things”.  Hence being asked to sign a Statement of Faith, which increasingly has clauses about beliefs regarding sexuality and same sex relationships in it.

Indeed, your stance on sexuality is key – it is now the defining factor that shows whether you have “conformed to this world” and given in to “liberal pressure”, or whether you’re prepared to “stand firm against the devil” even if this makes you unpopular.  Showing any form of weakness in this area is very dangerous – you cannot afford to be swayed by emotional blackmail of the painful stories of what happens to LGBTI Christians who suffer under their church’s teaching.  Heaven forbid that your heart aches to show compassion and kindness, or that you see the wonderful fruit flowing from a same sex couple in love.

After all, you’re told, didn’t Christ warn this would happen “in the end times”? That people would be ensnared by “false teaching” and would “love the world”?  Ironically, it’s all done “for the sake of the Gospel” – even if that core Gospel message is being horrendously undermined, people excluded from God’s love and a Church labelled homophobic by an incredulous nation who look on in anger and bewilderment.

Oh what a web we weave!

But because we’re Anglicans (and British) we all smile sweetly at each other, and we pretend we get on.  Behind the smiles is that thought that “one day, God will show them we’re right and then they’ll repent..”

And that thought exists on both sides!

I am of the firm belief that this judgemental spirit is one of the greatest dangers to the Christian gospel today.  It turns the Word of God into a lie.  It is a form of spiritual abuse and blindness that cannot be reasoned with or challenged.  It is a fundamentalist belief that “I am right because I am spirit-filled and I KNOW.”  It is harsh, unloving, uncaring and ungodly.  It is even more dangerous because it is preached in the name of love by leaders who are themselves good men and women, but who refuse to recognise that they exhibit a homophobic spirit.  More importantly it refuses to answer the call of the Holy Spirit to show kindness and compassion, and fails to recognise that where there is love there is God.

Only Jesus can touch hardened hearts to the enormity of his love – and for that we need a miracle, and for that we need to pray!

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne | 19 Comments

Adjectival Insufficiency

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Convocation of Canterbury

presentation1

When I was in full-time theological education, our training was enriched by a number of people who were not pursuing a vocation to ordination but were seeking to equip themselves for some other form of Christian service. One of those people – I forget her name – was taking time out of running a tea shop in Gloucestershire, which she sought to use as a form of Christian service and outreach. I asked her what it was she did and she told me that God was calling her to run what she called ‘a Christian tea shop.’ When I asked her what the difference was between a Christian tea shop and any other tea shop, she talked about it being run on Christian principles.

I tell this story because I have no doubt about her sincerity and the way in which she served God but because, I don’t know about you but, when I go out for a cup of Darjeeling and a slice of Victoria sponge, my first thought is not ‘is this a Christian tea shop?’ but ‘is this a good tea shop’? Equally, when our Church Council needed legal advice, I looked for a good solicitor first, rather than a Christian one. Simply putting ‘Christian’ in front of something does not guarantee that the business is of a high standard or a person is somehow morally superior.

I say this because I’ve been struck by the way in which politicians and others have been attacking Tim Farron, the Christian leader of the Liberal Democrats, during the early days of the General Election campaign. “Can he tell me if he thinks being gay is a sin?”, asked the gay Conservative MP Nigel Evans. Whatever Farron’s personal view is – and he now appears to have made it clear that he doesn’t think gay sex is a sin – I have wondered why it matters, given his very clear admittance that he was wrong to oppose certain liberalising parliamentary votes a decade ago. Speaking to Pink News, Farron has made it clear that he has changed his mind and that, in matters of public policy, he is a supporter of equal marriage.

Part of the problem is the way in which we use the word ‘Christian’. For better or worse, Christians are perceived as those who take the moral high ground, who stand in judgment of others and whose ability to participate in public life is to be questioned because of a perception of where Christians stand on matters of sexual ethics. Tim Farron is clearly an able, gifted and passionate politician but, both within his party and outside, some question his suitability to lead because he is a Christian, and (pause for dramatic music) an Evangelical Christian at that.

Tim Farron’s electoral problem is but a microcosm of the test that the church faces. Whatever the merits of the policies of the Liberal Democrats, many people judge him – and his advisers fear, his Party – through the lens of being seen to be prejudiced or homophobic. Christians face the same challenge. We are no longer listened to by virtue of our inherited status, thanks be to God, but by the way our words and deed match up. For all the talk of being against homophobia, it still remains an endemic problem. If you don’t believe me, ask Jeffrey John.

Archdeacon David Picken, speaking at the On Fire Mission this week, said that “so many things are coming back to bite us from the past in the church. And most of them are to do with a lack of authenticity, a lack of trust and a lack of truth.” Until we face up to that, putting “Christian” in front of anything is likely to make little difference to our missionary effectiveness, even if it makes us feel good about ourselves.

Posted in Church of England, Simon Butler | 2 Comments

Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Tunes (and Words)?

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

david-walker

My music teacher at secondary school was fond of the saying, “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” Under his tutelage, morning assemblies went far beyond the contents of Ancient and Modern, affording us glimpses into how a wider musical repertoire might be employed in our collective worship. Nearly fifty years on, I’m beginning to wonder if his complaint about music applies to vocabulary too. Does the devil have all the best words?

It’s certainly true that the shortest and sharpest messages, the ones that are easiest to get across in a contested situation, are often the most negative or polemical. In last year’s US presidential election, Donald Trump proved adept at consistently applying the same single, simple negative adjective ahead of his uttering the name of whichever rival he wanted to beat at that moment. Each rival had their own personalised pejorative epithet. And they stuck. In Church debates the same techniques apply. Terms such as “Revisionist” and “Homophobe” are regularly thrown around; whilst during recent events in Sheffield the relative subtleties of the “Five Guiding Principles” were drowned out by more visceral cries of sexism or intolerance.

Increasingly, I find the only way to counter this is to seek to set up an equally short and simple vocabulary, but one aimed at helping us value each other and live with difference better. In my last foray for Via Media I sought to develop the notion of “Paradox” as a way of adding to the positive vocabulary. I’d want to invite readers to put their own minds to thinking through a language fit for irenical debate. What does an accessible and tested set of words, that help us engage and differ constructively, look like? And then how can we put those words into our conversation, with Trump-like regularity, in order to develop their meanings and use?

So let me offer one more word by way of example, Solidarity. It’s a term that seems to have been almost exclusively used in UK circles as part of the political rhetoric of the left. Most often it presupposes some common enemy against whole different groups are invited to unite. However, in continental Europe versions of it have borne a wider currency. To stand in solidarity with someone is not to agree with them on everything, indeed the word is predicated on some basic difference for which solidarity is the bridge across the divide. Solidarity takes us far beyond the grudging tolerance that is often all that wider society believes is achievable in the face of disagreement. As a nation, I think that we need the concept of solidarity to take us beyond the polarisation of the 2016 referendum process. We need to accept that we can differ hugely as to the wisdom of leaving the European Union, but it is in all our interests now to do it as well as we possibly can.

When, a few days ago, I attended, robed and received communion at the Chrism Mass presided over by the Bishop of Beverley, nobody imagined that my strong convictions on the full inclusion of women in the Church’s ordained ministry were wavering. What I hoped they recognised was that, just as I had done at the same service last year, I wanted to express my solidarity with a significant cohort of the priests and laity of my diocese. I regularly find myself standing on platforms with the leaders of the other major world faiths represented in Manchester, often as we express our solidarity with one another in favour of some societal good. But sometimes  our solidarity doesn’t require any specific common cause beyond itself. We are people of faith and belief, and that is enough to create the bond.

I don’t imagine for a moment that a single new concept, or the rehabilitation of a somewhat forgotten word, will clear us a path through the deep divisions that continue to face Christian Churches. But I do believe that building a new vocabulary, where the language of peace is at least as strong and clear as that of war, could play a significant role. The devil doesn’t need to have all the best words or tunes.

 

 

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 10 Comments