A Modern Day Nativity Policy: Last Week’s Other Global News

by Colin Blakely, Editor of the Church of England Newspaper and Co-Editor of ViaMedia.News

Colin Blakely

The last week has been a momentous one. Unfortunately, those who are reading this in the UK may be unaware of the level of importance of these events.

Of course the subject in question has long been controversial, and created divisions between the right and the left, between families and even between Governments. Last weekend, it even led to the collapse of the coalition Government in Belgium. But finally we may be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

It all centres on the thorny subject of migration.

For some, it was the driving force behind the UK’s Brexit referendum result, but it continues to be a subject that has raised temperatures all around the world.

And the fact that real temperatures continue to rise is one reason that global migration is on the rise. Changes inflicted by our warming planet are making more places inhabitable. To survive, they simply have to move. But where to?

Last Monday at a conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, some 164 countries – including the UK — adopted the new Global Compact on Migration proposed by the United Nations. There are two principles to the pact: firstly that migration –which has always been a human fixture – should be managed and safe, and, secondly, that national policies are more likely to succeed with international co-operation.

It sounds reasonable and uncontroversial. However, for some those “troublesome migrants” are only on the move for economic reasons: they want our money and our jobs. And for some governments it has been seen as a sensible policy to ban humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean rather than to save the lives of desperate people who will almost certainly die without intervention. To them, this new pact will only encourage more illegal immigration.

Here in the UK this story has hardly been reported. It’s been a bit like an important foreign language movie that is only on show at a few art house cinemas for one showing at an inconvenient time.

That may have helped the Government, as my colleagues in the media have been preoccupied with the extraordinary events in SW1 this week. That fact meant there was no backlash to the signing of the pact here in the way that happened in Brussels. But it could have been. Some media outlets had reported on the pact weeks before last week’s summit and the best interpretation they could find was that it could lead to anyone who opposed the EU’s migration policies being slung in jail.  While it might have made a dramatic headline, it was far from the truth. That was just one of the “many falsehoods” that had been noted by the UN Secretary General António Guterres as he opened the Marrakesh conference.

And to be clear, this pact is not legally binding or even a formal treaty. Nor would it allow the UN — or anyone else [including the EU] — to impose migration policies on a member state. “It is a framework for international cooperation, rooted in an inter-governmental process of negotiation in good faith,” he told delegates in Marrakech.

The pact was signed as the UN is marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a point not lost on Mr Guterres: “Voluntary or forced; and whether or not they have been able to obtain formal authorisation for movement, all human beings must have their human rights respected and their dignity upheld.”

Making that reference to forced migration was also meant to include the threat of human trafficking – an issue to which the world has woken up in recent years. That was an issue that brought to the fore by many Christian agencies and their action prompted Government action here in the UK.

Climate change, migration, human trafficking and the battle for human rights have all been ideas championed by influential Christian movements over the years. This latest pact is a testament to their hard work.

Indeed as we think of one particular family who was forced into migration 2,000 years ago, the Marrakesh Conference is in part a testament to them, and gives us all, and even the Government in Brussels, a worthy standard to set.

 

 

 

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“Enjoy But Don’t Inhale!”

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of General Synod

Rosie Haarper

The past few weeks in the church where I work there have seen some of the largest numbers ever, and some of the lowest. What’s going on?

Remembrance Sunday was mega all round the country. We ran a variety of events across that week-end. They were all well attended, and it was standing room only at the service following the ceremony around the memorial. At the end of the day we had a quiet thoughtful evensong and 50 people attended. That is huge for a little village church. Then the bells rang out again (the third time that day) and we processed out into the dark to light the beacon. I was bowled over. Yet more crowds. People had walked up the hill in the dark to come to a very simple ceremony at a church they otherwise never go near.

The service for folk who have been bereaved called ‘Remembering with Love’ was also packed. When we manage to offer something that people actually want they pitch up.

I asked some of them why they had come. ‘It’s important to remember.’ ‘This year is particular we need to be here.’ ‘My Grandfather died in WW1’ ‘It’s a sign of respect.’ ‘We need to say thank you.’ Lots of very good reasons. Here’s the issue: their motivation was good and solid and human. These were all the sort of person who had depth and an instinct for values beyond their own personal story. But none of them said they were in church to worship God. None of them. Not even the  regular paid up church goers.

So were they worshipping? When the community got together to remember WW1 and all the sacrifice and the honour and the relief and pride that it all came to an end on 11.11.18  -were they doing something  secular in a church building, or was it worship? I believe that when you do something that comes from the depth of your humanity it can it be worship even when there is no deliberate religiosity about it.

One of the depressing aspects of Facebook is the snarky comments of the super religious. The colour of the advent candles, the exact vestments, the singing of carols before Christmas. All these and of course more profound issues are bickered over as if true worship can’t happen unless we get it all correct.

Maybe real worship can’t be conjured up at all. A bit like happiness, it is what falls out of being fully alive, of living in a connected loving, compassionate way that makes sense of being human. Maybe the unchurched pitching up at Remembrance Sunday were more in touch with God than the faithful few who work so hard to get their liturgy right in order to conjure up God. I’ve just read Anglican Mainstream’s response to the House of Bishop’s Pastoral Guidance for blessing transgender transitions. I struggle to discern even the faintest fragrance of God in what they say, and yet they are confident that they speak in his name

The same probably applies to ‘Mission’ We are running on old software. Our aim is still to get people to come and join the club, and we totally fail to recognise that most people have a pretty deep inner life and firm and good values. They just don’t articulate or express things in religious terms. My example would be the Christmas Tree Festival we held in church last weekend.  Again the church was full to bursting with folk who rarely come to services. There were multi layered conversations, lots of laughter, children having fun in the church rather than being told to be quiet. And yes, someone said; ‘This is what church means to me. All sorts of local people from our community getting together   -looking out for each other.’

That little festival felt pretty close to the way Jesus saw it   – they’ll know you  are Christians by the way you love one another. Surely mission falls out of loving one another and loving your local community?

On the whole the Church is moving in the opposite direction. It is looking for ever more ingenious ways of telling people their lives are shot without God. In a way that might be true, but the offer is always ‘you need MY type of God’ and it simply is never going to work. Think of the way things have changed in the world of shopping. In a very short space of time people have moved on-line. It is no good shouting at them telling them to get back to the High Street. Things have changed. It really is the same for church. It is not good shouting at people telling them they ought to come. The thing which we call a ‘Service’ is probably toast. Some of us love it, and in Cathedrals and the like it will survive as a supreme part of our culture. Most surely you can encounter God there. But it is mostly a social and cultural construct which now carries with it so much baggage that people look elsewhere for ‘a God moment’.

The baggage certainly makes it tricky for me. The class, the hierarchy, the bigotry, the language; it’s all neatly packaged and the good experiences when they come, happen despite that massive handicap. In a way what we actually do in church doesn’t matter that much. We have created some wonderful and some dire liturgies over the years. Surprisingly research shows that people are not that interested in what is taught either. Warm supportive relationships, in a context where power is used well and justice and equality are clearly the ground values, make for something worth striving for. The way that happens for the next generation is surely going to be very different. The  regular ‘service’ will probably continue but as a niche product.

At the moment that drive to define the church as a place for ‘true believers’ is very strong. The bar for belonging is getting higher. There is more emphasis on discipleship and on getting the fringe of the CofE drawn into the centre.

My personal experience is that I see more of Christ in people on the edges. Getting really keen on religion doesn’t seem to be very good for your character. Most of the in-fighting we are struggling with at the moment is amongst sincere but judgemental people who “know they are right”. Treading lightly, with a good dose of doubt and questioning and creating a holy space where you can just come along as yourself is healthy.

Religion is not the point but the pointer. We have to remember that most of it is a human construct, built with extraordinary creative imagination, but also with the desire for power for personal and political ends.   A lot of what we have inherited is glorious for people who like that sort of thing, but a wise friend of mine has a strategy: ‘enjoy but don’t inhale.’

 

Posted in Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper | 5 Comments

Are Christians Guilty of Exerting Peer Pressure to Make People “Fit In”?

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

David ison 2

All of us want to ‘fit in’, to be part of a human group where we feel at home.

It’s programmed into our minds and our genes. From early childhood we copy others. We shape our actions, our thinking, our statements, and ourselves around our family and our friends, and in relation to wider society. We take on the views of those around us, and as we get older we choose carefully when and where to be different. We wear particular fashions, or not. We build an identity, which as we get older and more confident may become more varied through our own conscious choice. Football fan, catholic, political party supporter, goth, liberal, lover of classical or rock music, rebel, parent, conservative evangelical, intellectual…. we discover who we are, and we adapt who we are, to try to have a physical, emotional and spiritual space which will nurture us and where we will fit in.

Because not to fit in is uncomfortable – for you, and for the group around you who find it threatening. If the group rejects you, it threatens your physical, mental or emotional survival. So you try hard to conform enough to be accepted, even when it doesn’t feel like the truth of who you are. Whether it’s your family or your peer group or your church. Even when you get bullied and pressurised not to be different, while knowing inside that you probably are.

But how would you feel if someone in the group went as far as saying to you, ‘You don’t fit with our view of the world, and so we’re going to make you change your body and your mind so that you’ll fit in with what we think’?

That’s been the experience of many intersex people, and the historical experience of many gay people. Castration, whether physical or chemical, and unwanted ‘reconstructive’ surgery for the body; conversion or aversion ‘therapy’ for the mind.  ‘Fitting in’ has meant ‘forcing into’. And even if it doesn’t go that far, people have felt emotionally pressurised into being what they truly are not, in order to fit in. And they suffer because of it.

At a day conference on 8th December on Faith, Science and Sexuality, delegates heard the experience of what it was like to be gay, trans and intersex; and how mental as well as physical health is impacted by the stress of not being able to fit in, yet not being able to be yourself. One of the many fascinating things I learned was just how much ignorance and hostility focuses on trans people, those who don’t conform to gender stereotypes and so unsettle and disturb others.

One of the psychological factors at play in this is that those who feel insecure in their own sexual identity will feel threatened by others who deviate from it. If you’re afraid you’re gay and that others might notice, then in self-defence you may bully non-conforming people – gay, trans, intersex – to show yourself or your peer group how you’re definitely not ‘queer’ and therefore you really do fit in with them.

And yet one of the very positive messages of the conference was that to be who we truly are, to accept the reality of ourselves and others, sets us free to find wholeness and peace in ourselves and with the wider world. Whether it’s gay people coming out, or trans people discovering their inner identity (whether or not they have surgery), or intersex people asserting who they really are against the expectations of others about what is ‘normal’ – breaking out of the tyranny of a binary male/female, black or white, view of the world enables people to fit in with one another on the basis of realism and generosity, not insecurity and rejection.

And the same is true with regard to religious belief. When I began to speak up publicly in support of gay people in same-sex relationships, I was accused by conservatives of betraying those who wanted to be faithful Christians and also struggled with their sexuality, because entertaining the possibility that same-sex relationships might be positive could undermine their resolve to be faithful to Christ. Which not only assumed that there were no faithfully Christian gay people in committed same-sex partnerships, but also that people trying to fit in with the conservative view of sexuality were not fitting in well with the narrative of being committed to celibacy – there was a discontinuity between what they felt and what they believed, and they felt insecure about it.

I wholeheartedly support those who choose and feel called to celibacy, because it’s such an important witness against the sexualisation of relationships in all human societies. But I don’t support people doing it to fit in with what others require, rather than what they choose and are.  That’s because that can damage and even destroy them, as so many non-conforming people are damaged by the imperative to fit in with the views of others on faith, gender, sexuality or anything else.

Professor Robert Song of Durham University concluded the conference with a vision of a Christ-centred ethic where we are seeking as Christians to be one in Christ, with all our differences and non-conformity, and where procreation is through baptism not sexuality. Our identity is in Jesus Christ; not an identity mediated, defined and confined by the church’s power structures and local communities, not living in a particular way because of pressure from others to conform to one world-view or another, but living out the reality of how God has made us to be and become.

We’re not called to fit in with the expectations of others, but to come to fit beautifully and in wholeness with who we are and who God calls us to be in Jesus Christ.

Posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality | 3 Comments

Toxic Debates & Disagreement

by Erika Baker, Convener of the Christians for LGBTI+ Equality Facebook Group

Erika Baker

Our current polarising Brexit debate shows us what happens when politics does not include the notion of Good Disagreement, and when winning at all cost comes at the price of demonising those who don’t agree with us, and even lying about them.

Getting close to people, truly understanding their concerns and not demonising them is the only solution to the clash of civilisations Jayne Ozanne highlights so well in her latest Via Media post.  As long as we divide people dismissively into ‘Remoaners’ and ‘Brexshitters’, or into con-evos and liberals, whereby both words are devoid of any real meaning beyond “disagrees with me on something important”, we will only increase the level of mutual misunderstanding, suspicion and dislike for each other.  Without breaking down our own resistance to giving up our beloved stereotypes, we will never get to that holy grail of Good Disagreement. That state where we respect each other’s views and, even if we don’t agree with them, stop fighting each other with such corrosive passion.

That said, Good Disagreement in itself is not anything tangible. It’s a frame of mind, a way of engaging with people. Of itself, it is not a solution to anything.  In our LGBTI+ debates, we absolutely must find a way of developing an attitude of Good Disagreement  before we can begin constructive conversations about what it is we are disagreeing about and how we can find a solution.

Our Brexit debacle, the decades leading up to it and the way it currently plays out in our politics teaches us something else: If one side in a political debate is completely disenfranchised and feels powerless, the only outcome is resentment, increasing hostility towards “the others” and a semi‑permanent sense of victimhood. Good and durable  political outcomes can only be achieved when all participants have an equal voice in the process, when compromise has been sought and found, and when people feel that everyone’ s interests have been taken seriously.

For our LGBTI+ conversations this means that while we can learn to understand why each side holds their views, and why each side can hold them with genuine love and faith, we simply cannot leave it there. We cannot just stay at the table, accepting that it is difficult.

Living side by side in acceptance of difference is impossible while one side experiences genuine discrimination, in law and in every day Church life. The disenfranchised people in that unequal conversation are never going to accept that they must continue not to have genuine agency in their lives and that they must live out the consequences of other people’s theology while their own is simply dismissed.

It is not possible for the Church as a whole to welcome the “good” LGBTI++ people who believe that God calls them to celibacy and to force the other LGBTI++ people to accept reduced lives that are not aligned with their understanding of God’s will for their lives. There can be no genuine mutuality when only trans people who don’t seek to transition are fully accepted into the fold. There can be no genuine welcome for intersex people while churches define the status of a person born with a variety of sex characteristics as ‘disordered’.

It is not possible for us LGBTI++ people and for our allies to accept that those who disagree with us have the unilateral right to make the rules that govern our lives.

Mutual Flourishing, that other holy grail developed during the Women Bishops debate, is only possible when both sides are genuinely equal and can freely disagree with each other. Our debate can only be solved when competing theologies are officially given equal status and when all legal constraints are removed. Yes: removing all legal constraints and permitting equal marriage for lay people and clergy is not the end point. It’s the baseline without which no peace will be possible.

That’s why I don’t hold with the idea that we must always accept that we may be wrong. It is not credible to expect that happily married gay people who know God’s grace in their lives will suddenly be persuaded that they should have suffered loneliness and self-hatred instead.

It is not credible to expect that trans people who have found wholeness and healing in transitioning will be persuaded to believe that living with constant gender dysphoria would have been what God wanted from them.

And it is not credible to expect intersex people to accept the violation inflicted on them by doctors, and to accept the verdict that they are disordered.

Nor is it credible to expect that gay people who believe that God asks all gay people to lead celibate lives, and who live up to that belief with great courage, faith and personal struggle, will suddenly come to believe that their efforts were misguided.

We and our allies on both sides of this conversation have all grappled with the topic of gender, sexuality and Scripture deeply for years, and none of us with a genuine stake in the debate are likely to come to a different conclusion.

The attitude of Good Disagreement is needed to help us to recognise why people believe what they believe and respecting that. It is not about winning a battle and beating the other side into submission. Rather, it is about recognising that all of us, on all sides of this debate, are living out our lives in faith and trust in the same loving God. And that we are each answerable to God for our own lives and choices. We can take the risk of allowing others to live differently.

Once we commit to an attitude of Good Disagreement , we can finally create a Church that enables genuine mutual flourishing for all.

 

 

 

Posted in Erika Baker, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality | 3 Comments

Advent – The Challenge of Active Waiting

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Former Chair of the Human Sexuality Group on General Synod and member of the Co-ordinating Group for the “Living in Love and Faith” Project.

Giles Goddard

We have just celebrated Advent Sunday. The new year begins. Our thoughts turn to the people of Advent: Elizabeth, the prophets, John the Baptist., and of course Mary.

Last weekend my parish held a retreat, when twenty of us crossed London to spend the day reflecting and preparing for Advent. The retreat leader was Revd. Jenny Morgans, the curate from the parish next door: the title of the day was ‘God-bearers.’ We focused on the stories of Mary and Elizabeth – both unexpectedly pregnant, both presumably shocked and surprised, both waiting for these unexpected births.

The overarching theme of the day was the notion of Mary as God-bearer, theotokos, enabling us all, through the birth of Jesus Christ, to become God-bearers ourselves. Witnesses to and agents for the love of God, here on earth. All of us. All, all, all! as Desmond Tutu would say. Remembering that Mary would have been an outsider, one rejected by her society, one misunderstood and marginal.

But the theme underlying these reflections was the remembrance of the waiting, of the story of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth as told in Luke’s Gospel. We thought about the process of waiting. Is it passive or active? Are we engaged in what is happening, even as we wait, or are we simply flotsam drifting down the river of time?

I had a strong sense of waiting being an active process.

As Mary and Elizabeth spent time together, those children growing in their wombs, they must have changed. Their relationships would have deepened. They formed new connections. Mary’s relationship with Joseph would have changed. She had to make sense of these new and unexpected experiences. She had to reckon with the consequences of the ‘yes’ she said to Gabriel.

The resonances of the day were, for me, very great. As we wait for the church to become fully reflective of the Kingdom of God, fully inclusive, fully able to grant each person their full potential as God-bearers, are we waiting passively or actively? Is this a time of creation or a time of dryness? Are we coming open-handed into the long and complex process which the church is engaged in, or are we closed and unwilling to change?

I had a strong sense that waiting is becoming.

There is pain and there is hurt in each of us. Loss and rejection. Heartache and sadness. But there is also Mary’s  proud ‘yes’; her bringing of her whole self to Joseph and to the world around here. Here I am! This is me! Let me be me, she might have said to Joseph, and together let’s work out the consequences.

The idea of waiting being an active thing, a time during which we can ourselves be transformed, was new to me and I am glad of it.

During the retreat, Jenny offered us this poem, by Nicola Slee, which I hope Nicola won’t mind me quoting here:

Fiat  (Luke 1.38)

I uttered myself

I claimed my voice

I was not afraid to question

 

I held my ground

I made my yes

looking straight into the angel’s eyes

(any slave could have been raped or beaten for less)

 

There was no mastery here

Nothing was taken from me

Everything was given

Here I am:

See me

 

Listen

 

The poem Fiat is by Nicola Slee is published in The Book of Mary (SPCK Publishing, Nov 22nd 2007)

 

Posted in Giles Goddard, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | 1 Comment

A New Clash of Civilisations – Where God is on “Our Side”

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Member of General Synod

Jayne Ozanne new

It seems our world is getting even more divided by issues that create irreconcilable differences between hitherto relatively peaceful sections of Western society.  There is a growing desire for what can only be likened to divorce, where one side or party no longer wants to live in the same space as the other.  This is becoming increasingly difficult given that they are committed either financially or geographically to living in the same city, town, village or church.

Be it Brexit, Trump, social policy or sexuality debates – the issues are countless.  However, more often than not they tend to be a front for a far deeper difference founded in fundamentally opposing world views.

We are now seeing a “Clash of Civilisations” no longer just between East and West, as put forward by Samuel P. Huntington in his classic text for anyone studying international relations, but within our civilisations.  This is creating a far more worrying fissure that threatens the very bedrock of so much of what we hold so dear.

These opposing world views go to the core of who we see ourselves to be and as such are a key to our identity.  There is much that these opposing views tend to hold in common, namely:

  • Both sides believe the other is wrong – fundamentally wrong.
  • Both sides believe the other is ignorant of the “true facts”.
  • Both sides believe the other is dangerous – creating instability and chaos.

However, there is increasingly the advent of a new dimension which is a far greater cause for concern – and which has yet to be named given the enormity of the size of the ‘elephant’ it represents.

It seems to me that the most dangoeus dimensiom of all, as with the “Clash of Civilisations” text, is that both sides are now invoking a divine dimension – that is, that each now believe that God is on their side.  That they alone hold the true Christian view and that the other is therefore representing a view that is “anti-Christ”.  Put more simply, that the other side is evil.

It is this I believe that is behind the growing tendency to “other” people.

Indeed, it is this belief – that one side is Godly and the other is demonic – that has led to policies and practices that have shocked the world in their inhumane treatment of people who “do not fit certain select criteria”.

Be it the way we welcome or fear the stranger in our midst, or embrace or reject those who are different to ourselves, there appears to be a growing trend to demonise “the other”, the one who is different.

The most frightening thing is that this is happening amongst Christians who arguably should know better.

I’ve been reflecting on why sincere Christians are doing this….and I can only believe it is because they see “the other” as someone who is outside of God’s love and care. Who represents a threat to the Gospel and is what God warns us to ‘guard against’ – they perceive this threat in real people rather than in spiritual powers.

But is this really Biblical?

Do we really have people who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ – those who have the right skin colour, the right postcode, the right sexuality. Those who have prayed ‘the right prayer’, believe ‘the right thing’, live ‘the right way’.  Members of the ‘lucky spiritual sperm club’ – born in the right place at the right time and into the right church.

Is this really the teaching of our God of unconditional love who we worship? Is this truly what Jesus teaches in His sacrificial death that ensures that we all have access to God because of what He has done, once and for all?

How then should we determine which view is right and which is wrong – if indeed we ever can?

Well I for one believe the answer is plain and simple….which ‘side’ is the side of love? Or perhaps it’s easier to discern the opposite – which side is the view based on fear?

Unconditional love has no limits, no boundaries, no borders.

It loves all, embraces all, forgives all.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

It Just Loves…

Posted in Human Sexuality, International Relations, Jayne Ozanne, Social Justice | 8 Comments

Spinning the Stats – Are We Too Defensive to Really Listen?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

Is the Church of England still the church of the nation?

It’s probably only Anglicans themselves who still assume it is, and even then not all of them.  Constitutionally, little has changed in the last century or so to imply that the Church of England’s position is fundamentally different now from what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In that sense, it is still the national church, or at least the established church.  But it would be very foolish to think that the vast majority of the population of England have any real, tangible sense of this.  Many – but a declining number – still get baptized, married and have their funerals in Church of England churches, but with an ageing and shrinking congregation, the wider claim looks more and more fragile.

Two weeks ago the usual annual report on statistics was issued, bearing the by now well-established balance of good and bad news.

There was plenty of bad news.  Once again, the average Sunday attendance was down, to 765,000 in October 2017; that’s a seemingly catastrophic decline of almost 15% in ten years; but the fall was higher – 24% – for attending children.  Easter attendance has fallen by 16%.  Baptisms have fallen by 22%, weddings and associated services by 27%, and funerals by 28%.  All of the falls reflect longer term trends, though of course there are fluctuations in various indices year on year.  No wonder the perception of many parish clergy is that the Church is in dire straits.

But there is some good news.  Christmas attendances are up again, rising gradually over the last few years to reach 2.68 million, suggesting that nearly 5% of the population are at a Church of England church at some point at Christmas.  That led the Bishop of Manchester to suggest that Christmas services probably represent a more attractive form of worship than the usual Sunday fare.

But the other quoted statistic concerned a different measurement, the ‘worshipping community’, a more amorphous concept meant to catch those who ‘regularly’ attend at least once a month, but not necessarily weekly.  This suggested no essential change since 2012, with some 1.1 million in that category.  Moreover, the Church’s ‘hits’ on social media more than doubled in one year from 1.2 million to 2.44 million.

These positive figures enabled the statistics to be spun, as critics were quick to point out, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to work out that if (and it’s a big ‘if’) we take all these figures at face value as accurate, then one conclusion must be that commitment to regular attendance is thinning out, as the weekly Sunday numbers continue to fall, yet people’s wish to be in some way connected to their church via less frequent attendance remains apparently stable.

As lots of people have pointed out, the idea of the ‘worshipping community’ is particularly problematic, because it’s not at all clear what it’s really measuring.  The broader and looser the technique of measuring something is, the greater the number of variables one is likely to have to factor in when interpreting the data.  Someone who slips into Evensong from time to time because they like the relative calm and the opportunity to reflect, and the music (if there is any), might have very little real sense of identity with the local worshipping community – indeed the whole point for them might be to avoid community.  And yet, I suspect there is a basic realism about the measure, however slippery.

When I was in a parish, and also when I was in charge of a chapel, I’d often find myself totting up roughly the number of people I would see from time to time and would count as part of the wider ‘family’ of the church or chapel – it was of course always much bigger than the weekly attendance.  Sometimes the only connection between all these people was me.  Sometimes someone who attended irregularly turned out to have a very strong, informed faith.  Amongst those who came for the sake of the music, or the peace (when they could have it), were certainly some virtual non-believers.

All of that reminds us that spirituality is not the same thing as going to church, that great devotion does not necessarily show itself in being active in church life, above all that people’s motives are always very complex and varied.  The statistics barely penetrate these deep, below-the-surface realities, and the only way to get at them at all is by close study of particular communities – a brilliant example being Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas’s study of Kendal (The Spiritual Revolution, 2005).

We should, then, be very cautious in making precise deductions about what people do and don’t want from the annual statistics, and also of being a bit inclined to seize immediately on the positives – in that sense, I doubt that Christmas really is much of a pointer to ways forward.  That downward trend looks pretty steep, and it poses an enormous challenge to the Church of England.

In response to that challenge, there seem to be two quite different strategies on the table – I’m talking in general terms, not about specific church policies.

One is to emphasize the distinctiveness of Christian teaching over and against the world around us, and to press people to make firm decisions between the Church and the world.  Some would call this circling the wagons, or going into the bunker.  It looks like a defensive move, but it usually depends on a definite strategy of mission, with catechesis, with distinct forms of outreach, and so on.  So it isn’t necessarily inward-looking.  But it is what the larger Evangelical congregations essentially are about, and it’s usually defensive about wider developments in society such as changes in sexual ethics and changing concepts of identity.

The other is to stress inclusivity, to widen the boundaries of those to be welcomed, to open up the Church to those who might otherwise feel excluded or condemned by it.   This has its own risks, of course, which are likely to include looking a bit woolly and a bit over-reactive to social change.

Both may miss something vital about the Church, which ought to be relentlessly inclusive and at the same time confident in its values and traditions.  Reconciling those two things requires a lot of hard work, but it also requires a readiness to change and above all a willingness to listen to others and to learn from them.

We have a gospel to proclaim.  But our first thought should surely be, ‘What do others have to say to us, and what can we learn from that?’  In order for us to hear what they have to say, we have to encounter them wherever they may be – and that means tearing down the walls of our own defensiveness and insecurity.  Only then can the Church truly be an inclusive community.

 

 

Posted in Establishment, Human Sexuality, Jeremy Morris | 9 Comments