The Anti-Testimony (on reading the House of Bishops’ Report)

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

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We tell stories in church – they’re called testimonies – we tell stories of those who in dark times turn to God. And we rejoice.

But this story is an anti-testimony. A testimony of being pushed away. Of losing faith if not (quite) my faith.

I cannot pray at the moment. I’m struggling to believe.

It’s anger. It’s being wounded. It’s feeling betrayed. By my church (well by our bishops at least and, therefore, in some cases by my friends). Again.

Why do others – often armed and so well-defended with doctrines and bibles, canons and lawyers – call into question who I am in Christ and how I follow him? “Your deepest identity is in Christ,” they cry, wagging their fingers, as then they happily describe themselves as “Husband, Wife, Parent, Child, Teacher, Minister, Leader, Bishop”, all with Capital Letters. God, do they realise how exhausting it is to hear this again and again?

And what of God? Have I been betrayed by God too? Was this call that the church gave me a deception? If so, whose?  Mine?? God’s? Was that enthusiastic encouragement which I heard as God’s call, was that a mistake? Did I hear correctly? Did the church somewhere change its mind about me? Could I do more good in some other walk of life (I could certainly be happier, it would certainly be easier)? That will take some working out.

I’ve never quite felt  this way before. I don’t know what it means. I recall Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ from my studies. That you need the basics of life before you get to anything more.  Well spiritually, right now, I’m back down needing just the basics. Just God in Jesus. Nothing else thank you very much. And just now, I don’t know if I can find this God in the Church of England. I really don’t. (Strangely, my superego wants to reject this statement. “Don’t write it,” it screams, “what will people think of you? God, you’re so self-indulgent!” But then I calm down and realise that’s the point. When you’re looking for the basics, all you can think about is yourself. Unless you’re a saint. And I’m so not.)

And I do know I cannot pray.

People have naturally asked me about prayer many times in the past. It’s never been my most comfortable ground if I’m honest. One beggar telling another and all that stuff…Being more at home in the Bible than in prayer I’ve always told people that when they can’t pray to remember that the church prays and that the Spirit prays within. Well I hope the church and the Spirit are both praying now. It’s time to take my own advice. Physician, heal thyself!

But if I could pray, this is the sort of prayer I would pray. So, if you can, will you pray it for me?  And for the many others in the Church of England at this time who feel like me? Not just LGBTI people (we’re not that self-indulgent). It’s bigger than that. The victims of John Smyth. The victims of cover-ups and abuse of all kinds. The victims of the dissembling culture that confuses “keeping the show on the road” with “unity”? The screw-ups, the misfits, including some wearing purple, and the ones we’ve always said were at the heart of our gospel: “The Last, the Least and the Lost.” And the many people who love the Church of England but who are wondering if it can ever truly be home for them again. Of your charity, pray for us.

All power, honour, glory be to you!

You…sometimes hidden, silent, absent, unresponsive.

We are so privileged that we seldom sense you

            Hidden, silent, absent, unresponsive.

But we know people who do,

            We think of places where you do not appear.

We imagine you defeated,

            Weak,

            Held captive.

And we wait a day,

            Two days,

            Until the third day.

And then, most often then,

            Quite reliably then,

            You appear then in your full glory.

This day we pray against your absence, silence, and hiddenness.

Come with full power into deathly places,

            And we will praise you deep and full. Amen.

Walter Brueggemann “On Reading I Samuel 5” from “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching”. Louisville: John Knox, 1990

 

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Simon Butler | 19 Comments

Elders of the Tribe

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

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“The weak bishops.” “The lying bishops.” “The bastard bishops.” “I wouldn’t trust them as far as I can spit.” “The only way they’ll give a straight-line response is if you ask them to design a corkscrew.”

A few months ago on this site I wrote a piece which spoke of the need for people to express their anger if they were angry. I have seen all the phrases above on social media in the past few days, and I am glad of them, though I am not a masochist and I do not enjoy them. I am particularly grateful to the people who have contacted me directly to express their emotion and to make their points about the recent bishops’ statement.

For some, the sense of betrayal is particularly acute when applied to people like me, who have spoken of the need for change in the Church. Where was I? What happened to my voice? How could I have been so weak as to stand with this document?

Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, the same year that “Issues in Human Sexuality” was published, my friend and mentor Bishop Peter Selby wrote a book called “BeLonging” [1]. Its subtitle was “Challenge to a Tribal Church”. In this book Peter spoke of the kind of community the Church is called to be, and contrasted it with the Church as it is. It is a prophetic and an angry book. It locates its anger in three areas; race and racism, gender and sexism, and the treatment of LGBT people. Peter in writing about this last subject drew on his experience of the 1987 Synod debate on the motion proposed by Tony Higton.

And then in the book there comes a chapter called “The Elders of the Tribe”[2]. It speaks about bishops. It reflects that, when the ordination of women was discussed, “the report of the House of Bishops on the issue shows strong signs of having been diverted into accepting the agenda of those opposed to the change.” Peter went on to ask, “Do these responses reflect something of the demands and pressures on leadership when tribal responses are rife?”

This is a very good question. It speaks crisply and clearly over the intervening years.

Peter went on to speak of the risks and dangers inherent in the idea that the bishop is called to be a focus of unity in the Church. He said, “At the heart of that perception lies one of the most profoundly Christian of instincts, that we are called to bring together and not to divide, to seek and not to lose”. But beautiful and profoundly Christian as it is, Peter said, it is only a half-truth.

His point was that collegiality, the act of standing together and speaking as one, can endanger and indeed exclude the possibility of prophetic dissent. I believe that it is this point that lies behind the anger of the angry today. People believe that the bishops, the bastard bishops, have preferred unity to truth: “We asked for bread and they have given a stone”.

It is not my intention in this post to defend anyone or anything, least of all myself. In clear awareness of Peter Selby’s analysis, I nonetheless stand by the bishops’ report. I have chosen to act in this matter wholeheartedly as a member of the episcopal College. I have done so in good faith, because I believe that the suggestions in the report, insufficient as they are, are nonetheless necessary; that they will help LGBT people in the church, will make a church less toxic than the one we have now. But all that is, of course, debatable.

My own experience, since I began speaking out for the beginnings of change in the Church, is that I am profoundly suspected by many who disagree with me and that indeed some of them cannot in conscience remain in the same room as me, or work with me. This has not made me change my mind, but it does help me to understand still further what it is to be a bishop, a bastard bishop, in the Church today.

In October 1986, almost thirty years ago, Peter Selby wrote this in a newspaper:

Bishops do focus the Church, but what they focus is the Church as it is. Being a focus of disunity is not therefore in itself a sign of pastoral failure.[3]

I believe that this is so; but since I first read this a quarter of a century ago, long before I became a bishop, I have been most profoundly challenged by the response to Peter’s words from another Peter, Peter Walker, then Bishop of Ely, who said this:

It surely is not a sign of failure, but on one condition; that the disunity which is focused in the bishop is held in a Godward reference. We here touch the mystery, but the central and to a degree the public mystery, of a bishop’s prayers…[4]

The recent statement of the House of Bishops is offered to the Synod in the hope of prayer – not as a finished work but as a resource for dialogue, for further conversation in a context of sharing before God. And in a couple of weeks we shall see what the other Houses of the Synod make of it, what “the clergy” and “the laity” make of “the bishops”. And then the road will go on, and no one’s voice will be silenced, as I do not believe mine has been silenced, or will be. And we will continue to learn together what it is to listen, and to dissent, and to pray.

And in this season my prayers will include in particular my LGBT sisters and brothers, inside and outside the Church, whose real-life love has been marginal to our conversation as bishops and whose explicit voice so far has been absent there. And I will pray too for all the Church, and all the bishops, the other bastard bishops like me. And I will continue to seek the right way to be a bishop, in this season on this matter when those who disagree with me outnumber me. I will struggle for a church where the love of the loving will be honoured, whomever they love. I will reach for and advocate for and enable the maximum freedom now, and I’ll pray and work and hope for still greater freedom later.

But I would ask one thing of my sisters and brothers in the Church. I am one of “the bishops”, and on many matters I know before God how much I am a bastard bishop. But I also have a name; my name is Paul. Every bishop has a name. If across the Church we are to break the spirit of fear and conformity of which Peter Selby spoke, we must say our names to one another, in the room, in English, looking on the ones to whom we speak. In the Diocese of Liverpool I expect this of the people who share their being in Christ with me; that they will call me by my name and speak the truth to me, and will listen to me as I call their names and speak to them. And each one reading this has a bishop or bishops, each one with a name. I encourage you to learn that name and to use it in a conversation shared. It is in this way that the anger of which I wrote some months ago, the anger I welcome even though it is excoriating to me, will be tempered and used by God to change the world.

Paul Bayes is Bishop of Liverpool

January 2017

Footnotes

[1] Peter Selby, “BeLonging: Challenge to a Tribal Church”, SPCK 1991

[2] BeLonging, pp 54-63

[3]Quoted in “BeLonging”, p.63

[4] Peter Walker, “Rediscovering the Middle Way”, Mowbray 1988, p.110

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 42 Comments

“Plastering Over the Cracks?”

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, member of the National Executive of UNITE representing the Faithworkers’ Branch
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They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

Jeremiah 6:14 NIV

Recently a builder dropped out of a job on my house. He wanted to know if I was having the work done for myself, or simply to sell it on or rent it out.  When he discovered that it was for myself, he pulled out because that would mean that he couldn’t simply board over the cracks and the damp and then skim the lot with fresh plaster. Instead, he would need to check for and treat any issues with the damp course, and then he would need to insulate and line the room before plastering.  The job became messy, awkward and potentially very time consuming.   A “quick fix followed by a quick pay out” it was not.

Papering, plastering or even talking over the cracks in any room, be it literal or figurative, is never a long-term solution. Even if it does the job long enough to ‘sell it on or rent it out’, at some point the whole thing is going to come crashing down around somebody’s ears. And then it will not only need to be done properly, but it is likely to include significant remedial work to undo any further damage from both the original issue, and the consequences of ‘the inevitable fall’.

If ‘the’ fall teaches us nothing else, it teaches us to tread carefully when covering over our mistakes or even our inner rot if we stretch the analogy.  The fig leaves and ‘hiding from God’ were as ineffective as boarding over the damp and plastering over the cracks. It simply couldn’t be done.  Precisely the same applies to conflict.  For conflict is bruising, and particularly wounding to any party that is either power-less or powerless in comparison to the other.  Yet Christians can still fall foul of the temptation to ‘plaster over’ the deepest of wounds in order that unity, which seems apparent on the surface of some of their most broken relationships, may be maintained.

We find this in the current debates around gender, sexuality, BAME and different abilities.  Groups of people have rightly felt marginalised and excluded from taking an active role as living bricks in the temple of Christ.  They have been unable to exercise their God-given gifts and talents and in many cases, held to standards of delivery or lifestyle that are either inappropriate or simply impossible to achieve.  Each of these groups[1] is subject to a majority group, free to exercise their own rights, exercising privilege over them and making decisions about them.

It seems inconceivable that any committee, albeit made up of the good and Godly, could make decisions on behalf of people groups living with identity and ability issues that are unknown to the group itself.  Pure Doctrine is a delight sitting in the hallowed halls of esteemed universities scribing one’s notes, but all genuine theology is contextual; it’s where the rubber hits the road and reality meets divinity; it’s where Christ sends out His disciples in pairs knowing full well what they will face in His service; it’s where creation continually creaks and groans with the birthing of new understandings, new knowledge and an ever expanding grasp of what it is to be human living in the vast universe gifted to us as curators.

I cannot know your privilege or your disadvantage I can only grasp mine; I can only view our respective lives and have a sense of where we might sit in that pecking order and how I might use any privilege I might have to shrink the distances between us.  But I cannot do that unless I first listen to you, open up my table to you, that you might hear how we are thinking of approaching your unique identity, the one I have absolutely no experience of living with.  This is the bare bones basis of reflective practice, of contextual theological praxis – what I like to think of as a practising priest as “bread and butter” theology.  It means that I need to be willing to hear things that I don’t want to hear, to be hurt myself as I hear your pain and anger and to risk being deeply wounded as I begin to recognise how I have wounded you.

The truth can be profoundly painful, but refusing to acknowledge the depth of any wound connected to a human being’s basic personal and relational identity will not do if we are the bearers of Christ’s light seeking to enlighten those ‘bruised reeds’ and ‘smouldering wicks’ to whom we have been sent as harbingers of God’s love.  Why plaster over these difficult topics with vaguely ameliorating platitudes that please no-one?  Are we guilty of simply papering over the great gaping wounds of persons forbidden to love, disabled from service, or simply excluded whether that be via unconscious bias or worse, deliberate prohibitions, spoken or unspoken?

Genuine peace is costly.  Genuine peace-seeking is a painful process.  It does not make us ‘feel better’ but confronts us with our own biases, privileges and lack of compassion and understanding.  We come face to face with our own deeply writ prejudices and we are humbled by the process. It is neither a pleasant task nor one for the faint-hearted but it is necessary if the prize – the pearl of great price – is to be won.

So please, do not send out yet another missive saying, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace”.  Tell me that we grasp the pain of our sisters and brothers in Christ who have and do feel wounded on the grounds of their identity; tell me that we are deeply wounded as a Church by our own sins of omission and commission towards people who belong to minority groups; tell me that there are no easy answers and that we are listening and learning and that it is challenging and painful to hear; tell me that you can’t imagine being in love with somebody you can’t hold in your arms or how soul destroying it must be to hear somebody tutting every time you do a reading.  Then ask those whom you wish to open up the breadth and depth of the Kingdom of God to how that might look to them.  For it is imperative that we grasp that people of excluded and minority identities do not hear ‘you are fully welcome’ they hear the sound of someone peeling back a sticking plaster, or worse still, a door closing and silence. For some, that sound is synonymous with God.

Imagine if what they heard was, ‘Come in and tell us your story; let us dress the deep wounds of our sisters and brothers; let us – together – find peace.’

Footnote

[1] The diversity within these groups is beyond the scope of such a brief blog, not to mention intersectionality where two or more of those minority identities are lived out by any one individual.

Posted in Church of England, Hayley Mattews, Human Sexuality | Leave a comment

An Old Dirty Candle to Transform the Darkness…

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

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Round the corner and down the aisle as you walk under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is the Dean’s Vestry.  On the mantelpiece of the fireplace next to the Dean’s cupboard there’s a small and cheap rectangular tin candleholder, with a dirty old candle about the size of my little finger stuck in it by means of a piece of old newspaper. I’ve often wondered what that candle was about, until a few weeks ago when I was poking around in a room in the cathedral I hadn’t seen before, and found an old guidebook from 1926 which gave me the answer.

On 21st December 1868, the Revd Robert Gregory was installed as a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was in his late 40s, an energetic vicar in south London, and already a noted reformer. His mission was to turn St Paul’s Cathedral from an erratically staffed, dirty, dark, and underused institution into a cathedral fit for the glorious age of Christian faith in Victorian London.

Because he was known to be a reformer, his colleagues wanted nothing to do with him. So, on the longest day of the year, after the evening service had been sung and the few choirboys and singers had left, the Archdeacon of London and the verger accompanied him by the light of that small candle up to the high altar of the cathedral, where he was unceremoniously installed on a single chair.

In the following 22 years as a canon, and for 20 years after that as Dean, Robert Gregory provided much of the driving force that transformed St Paul’s into the institution that we see and know today. He reached a financial settlement with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners that gave the cathedral decades of reasonable financial stability, although it would have been helpful to us if he’d known about inflation! He recruited the reforming organist John Stainer, who got the music into shape using the new choir school to provide well-trained choristers and ensuring that the adult choir actually turned up – for many years there was a weekly disciplinary meeting to try to get the unruly choir, clergy and vergers under control. His energy drove through a decoration scheme for the dome and the quire, culminating in the beautiful mosaics which now adorn the East End of the cathedral. A wonderful reredos behind the altar and a pioneering scheme for splitting the organ into sections were parts of his legacy.

One of Robert Gregory’s final acts was to secure funding from his American friend John Pierpont (JP) Morgan for the installation of electric light in the cathedral. Gregory went from from lighting one candle in the darkness, through perseverance, shared vision, response to public concerns about the inadequacy of the church, and a pioneering engagement in the spiritual and social life of the City of London, to the final triumph of a cathedral blazing with light. In his last few years, policemen helped him across the road from the deanery into the cathedral for daily prayers, as he contemplated the beauty and wonder of a building designed by Christopher Wren and beautified further and made fit for purpose through the vision of himself and others.

In my role as Dean of St Paul’s, I find Robert Gregory an inspiration. I certainly won’t be here for as long as he was, but I believe as he did in the power of vision, particularly shared vision, as we seek to discern what God calls us to do in the service of Jesus Christ, and put it into effect with faith, hope and love. Whether that calling is to us individually, or to us together: remember the power of God’s vision to change us and the church as well as the world.

In an age of change which can feel dark and threatening, with an uncertain future and ongoing conflict, where injustice and unkindness, terror and coercion, discrimination and abuse are all too common – let’s take inspiration from Robert Gregory and what he achieved in the service of Jesus Christ, beginning with a small candle shining in a dark place, and ending in a blaze of light and glory.

 

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Hopes and Dreams

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News

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So the waiting game is nearly over, and we shall soon know what the Bishops believe we should do as a Church with regards to the challenging topic of sexuality.

It has been a gruelling process, which has left many of us bruised, battered and hurt.  We chose to make ourselves vulnerable, we brought ourselves to the table and sat through discussions about whether we are going to heaven or hell.  We have had our private lives dissected, our faith challenged and our integrity questioned.  We have been the subject of unkind and prurient banter and ridicule, particularly in relation to what we can and can’t do in bed with our life-long partners.  All so utterly demeaning.

We have been told not to be so emotional, to not share the pain of our journeys or the harm that has been done in God’s name in certain churches using disgraceful spiritually abusive practices.  We have relived our pasts and reopened old wounds.

However, we have done so willingly as we believe this sacrificial path has been what the Church has asked us to do.  The powers that be have asked us to trust them, and so we have.  They have asked us to be open, and so we have been.  They have asked us to believe that they will hear our stories and reflect on our testimonies – even if they then did chose not to have an openly LGBT member as part of their Reflections Group.

Trust.

It’s hard to trust a group of mostly middle aged heterosexual men who have a history of causing pain, and adding to confusion – rather than confronting it.

But this time it’s going to be different we’re told.  This time.  Just trust us.

This time, they know that the stakes are too high for us to be given just more platitudes that add to the “fudge” that exists in the heart of the Church.  This time they know that they have to make some clear and concrete decisions, because otherwise they will undermine all the trust that has been placed in them, at their own request, by the LGBT community, by those desiring an inclusive Church and by society as a whole.

Because otherwise the trust we have put in them would be broken.  And as we all know – it would be impossible to rebuild.  Many would just walk away knowing that yet again they have been let down by an institution that is bound by fear and compromise.  An unholy mess that creates smoke and mirrors that fool no one.

So I, like thousands of others, wait patiently – in hope that our nightmare will soon end.  No need to tell them the world is watching, that God is watching.  They know.

Trust us.

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne | 5 Comments

Bursting the Bubble

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

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That different groups live alongside each other in Britain, but never meet, has been flagged up as a concern, over several decades, most frequently in response to an outbreak of community disorder in our cities. It’s presented as a problem of poorer communities inhabiting parallel worlds. Official responses are directed towards bringing the different parties together, so that they can learn about each other and come to a point of mutual respect, trust and friendship. Much good work has been done, not least through initiatives such as Near Neighbours, a project conceive and initiated by the Church Urban Fund. But the core analysis has been that living in isolated bubbles was a problem for the poor. A problem they needed to be helped by us to solve, so that they could become more like we whose wealth and security allow us to move comfortably with others equally fortunate, whatever our diversity in other ways. Meanwhile the comfortable classes remained blind to their own bubbles.

In another part of the social inclusion sector, I was chairing a meeting a few years ago that brought together agencies involved in helping people back to employment in a conversation with people living on estates with low levels of paid work. After all of the service providers had in turn set out the marvellous opportunities they had to offer I turned to the residents and asked them, “Is that how it feels from your perspective?” Immediately, we were in a different world; one where fear was the dominant emotion and even the physical layout of furniture seemed designed to intimidate rather than welcome. I coined the phrase that, “If a service is not being accessed, then it is by definition not accessible”, as a way of suggesting that the problem, and hence the solution. may lie more with the provider than the service user. I suspected it was the first time many of the agency staff had been challenged to see things from the viewpoint of the other side of the reinforced glass partition, to enter the other’s bubble. It has coloured the way I have engaged in such programmes ever since. It underpins the “co-production” strategy of working with those who are “experts by lived experience” on which the work of the Manchester Homelessness Charter is founded.

And yet as 2016 ends, I’m beginning to realise that the problem of living in bubbles goes much wider in our society. A striking piece of research has shown that one the biggest differences between those who voted for Britain to leave the EU and those opting to remain was in the brands that they feel most positive about. Be it a preferred news source or a favourite food product, not a single item appeared in the top ten list for both groups. We are not simply encased in our bubbles by the social media networks we inhabit but by a wide range of aspects of our lives. I suspect someone will soon produce a comparable piece of research based on the US presidential election, and show similar results.

The majority response from those on the losing side of Brexit has seemed to be that society ought to educate “them” better. And meanwhile somebody should censor the “post-truth” blogs and websites that feed them the lies “they” are so eager to swallow. Less prevalent, but equally missing the point, has been the view that the moral weight of any majority, simply by virtue of being a majority, is such that we need to accept it on its own terms. Yet neither of these projects would get us out of our bubbles. We would continue to live parallel lives, accepting or rejecting each other’s views, but still disconnected. Rather the call to engage, to engage in the way we have often demanded of just the poorest in our society, is a call to all of us, not just those for whom it is professionally desirable. We need to befriend not to berate, to love those we have been tempted to see as the enemy. These are the qualities that I see time and again in the lives and work of clergy ministering in inner our cities and outer estates. Maybe our New Year Resolution for 2017 could be to behave a little more like them.

 

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Church of England, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Couldn’t We Just “Dissolve the People”??

by Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

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After the uprising of the 17th June the Secretary of the Writers Union had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee stating that the people had forfeited the confidence of the government and could win it back only by redoubled efforts.

Would it not be easier in that case for the government io dissolve the people and elect another?

Bertolt Brecht, “The Solution”, 1953

For the past few years we have been treated each Autumn to a series of (usually) light-hearted grumbles from Anglicans/Episcopalians about the coming of Christmas. These are not the usual grumbles about commercialisation and vulgarity, but specifically liturgical grumbles that the nation is celebrating Christmas too early, is putting up its trees when it shouldn’t and is ignoring the season of Advent.

This is usually a bit of fun, as the picture indicates. But it makes me uneasy just the same. For me it hides a nagging truth about the attitude of Christians to the world God loves. It seems that if the people around us don’t get our Christian thing, don’t see the point of our spiritual preparation, don’t see what we’re up to, then somehow it must be their fault. They are letting us down. Can’t we dissolve this disappointing England and elect another one?

But God loved the world so much that he sent his only son. And of course the world God loves is the real one, the one we’ve got, indissoluble. Shot through with the love of the One who loves it so much. In need of conversion certainly, but also in need, serious need, of loving and of being heard.

When I was installed as Bishop of Hertford in St Albans Abbey in 2010 I preached a sermon in which I said that the Church of England was not about the Church but about God and about England, that these were the poles of our thinking and our loving. The true God and the real England; God as God is and England as England is. And I said that when Christians find it hard to bear too much reality then the easiest way out of that was to get interested in the church. And we are, I said, many of us, very interested in the church. Extremely interested in the church. All too interested in the church; in its politics, in its gossip, in its image.

Well, the church rightly deserves a measure of interest. As well as being a fractured and fractious institution, the church is the mystical body of Christ in which we are by God’s grace incorporate.

But the main things for us will always be God and England. The church in itself has no right of purchase on the people, and wishing they knew all about Advent – that is, nostalgia for the years of Christendom – is not a virtue but a snare. If the Bible is our guide then we can expect the ways of the changing world to speak to us of God’s action[1], not simply of human foolishness and forgetfulness. And as we dialogue with the world God loves, we can expect to learn something as well as to teach.

It is easy to forget how quickly England is changing. In 1993, in a speech defending the place of Britain in Europe, John Major as Prime Minister said:

‘Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”… We are the British, a people freely living inside a Europe which is glad to see us and wants us.’ [2]

Twenty-three years later the morning mist has dissolved like the football pools, and the England we have now is a different place. And yet we’re called to love it just the same, and perhaps also to learn what God is doing in it, and to join in.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but not all change is for the worse. Nostalgia for the England of 1993 cannot be unalloyed. In 1993 for example if that old maid cycling to Communion was in a same-sex relationship, she would almost certainly not have dared say so when she got to church; not 18 months after “Issues in human sexuality”, not when Section 28 of the Local Government Act still had ten years to go on the statute book[3]. More people may have known about the liturgical year, but for many of them love was a secret thing to be treasured but not shared. And that has changed now, and changed for the better.

This is indeed a strange new land, this late-Christendom or post-Christendom England, in this post-Brexit UK, in this post-Trump West. But we cannot dissolve it. We can’t be with an imagined England that we love. We have to love the one we’re with, the real one. We have to speak the love and the truth of Jesus to this strange and unyielding England that we are called to love, and we are bound by our love to listen to the echo of faith as England reflects it and speaks it back to us. Called to speak critically, called to defend fidelity and steadfastness and gentleness and spiritual seriousness, but also called to discern the signs of the times and perhaps to see the hand of God in the swirling of the times. Because sometimes the culture has good news to offer. Sometimes the long arc of history does indeed bend toward justice.

God loves England so much that he gave his only son. And the angular, angry, diverse, confused voices of England are not to be ignored, or conformed to the cultural prejudices of Christian people, but listened to and grasped and discerned and permitted to change us, even as in the Scripture Peter was changed in his encounter with Cornelius[4], and Jesus in his encounter with the Canaanite woman[5]. Ours is an historic faith, and a faith in the One who not only entered history but who loves it still and who is in it still and who still has much else to teach us[6].

The true and real God is a consuming fire[7], and the real England is getting pretty hot to handle too. Between them they form the crucible of our discipleship, as we follow the call to love and to be changed and to grow and to be real ourselves. And if bearing all this reality is not the heart of our incarnate faith this Advent, then what is?

Meanwhile, as Aleppo burns and as Christmas draws near, here are five liturgical things to do[8]

5-steps-for-christmas

Footnotes

[1] See for example Isaiah 44:28ff with its inclusion of the emperor Cyrus in the purposes of God.

[2] John Major, speech to the Conservative Group for Europe,  22nd April 1993.

[3] Section (clause) 28 of the Local Government Act 1988: “No Local Authority shall promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The clause was repealed in 2003 by Section 122 of the Local Government Act of that year.

[4] Acts 10

[5] Matthew 15:21ff

[6] John 16.12

[7] Hebrews 12:29

[8] From Jarrod McKenna; https://www.facebook.com/jarrod.mckenna

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Church of England, Social Justice | 1 Comment