by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham
It could be so different.
The Royal Wedding will be remembered for many things. If you are a ‘Hello’ magazine reader the dresses might be the thing. If you are interested in young talent then the fabulous cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is certainly one to watch. Most people in church the day after were talking about Michael Curry and his sermon.
What we didn’t realise was that we got the mild version. At the opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church we were treated to the Full Monty! We had warmth and humour and of course passion, and he covered a lot of ground, but the take-home message for me was when he described a process we all know so well.
In Curry speak the question was ‘How do we help our folk to throw themselves into the arms of Jesus?’
We usually name that in a less florid way as discipleship. As church leaders tend to do, they got a working group together -at Atlanta airport no less! They worked and worked until finally, said Curry, ‘we realised something. We didn’t need to come up with a new program for the Church. We got programs and there’s nothing wrong, but we don’t need a new program. We don’t need a new program. No. We realised that – wait a minute, we don’t have to do any thing new!’
He went on to quote Jesus in Matthew: ‘ “The scribe who is fit for the kingdom goes into their treasure box and pulls out something old that becomes something new.” And we realised that we already have what we need in the tradition of the church going back centuries.’
This, I must confess, was music to my ears.
I’m living with the feeling that as a Church in England we have lost our nerve. Lost our confidence in the treasure we have inherited, and are putting all our money and energy into new programmes rather than breathing new life into the riches of our treasure box.
The scariest aspect of this is that our Crown Jewels are the local parishes. It is there that the life-long relationships are built far more deeply than within the more transient inner city communities. It is there that you road test your faith in real life, because the person sitting next to you in the pew will probably be your neighbour and teach your children at the local school.
There were in fact lots of reasons to love that opening Eucharist. It was inclusive in ways that we haven’t begun to tackle. Musically it was extraordinary. There were traditional hymn tunes but they have given up singing words that are nonsense, so the treasure of great tunes have new life breathed into it with sharp and relevant new words. There was a Latino music group, more folk than worship song and culturally spot on. The language was completely free of the generic ‘man’ and the liturgy moved from English to Spanish in a simple and unforced way. The order of service was entirely paperless -you just took along your iPad or phone and you could have French, Spanish or English.
Worship is simply so much more vibrant when the whole body of Christ is free to belong and engage. It was the first time for many years that I felt that the very concept of a ‘service’ wasn’t terminally ill.
After all that diversity it came as a serious wake up call to go to a seminar run by the Center for Anglican Communion Studies on racism. It is, like safeguarding, like the way we treat LGBTI people, like the everyday sexism in the church, an issue about which we say all the right things, and then nothing changes. Here the take-out sentence was ‘Racism is a spiritual problem – we have been spiritually malformed.’
Frankly I have been saying this for a long time now about our response to survivors in the CofE. We have been trying to solve a spiritual problem with structural solutions. It’s really the same point that Michael Curry was making. We don’t need more anti-racism programmes, we need transformational change of heart. We need our hearts, not the lawyers to tell us how to respond in a loving way to those we have damaged, and it seems to me we are a long way off that yet.
Some of the racism conversation was shocking and served as a warning for us in our own country which is undoubtedly becoming more racist.
’We black folk go to church as a matter of survival, said one contributor. ‘ We have this President, we have police we no longer trust not to be violent towards us, and we experience far more overt and gratuitous verbal and physical racism. We need to go to church because even if no-one else is listening, at least God is listening.’
It is extraordinary how early we internalise this stuff.
There was a classic piece of research. It was run with 5 year old children- both black and white. They were given two dolls, one white and one black and asked to say which one was pretty, which one was good, where did their parents live -and so on. Both black and white children ascribed all the good, positive qualities to the white doll and the bad ones to the black doll.
The Church is made up of the same people as the community, so we transport our prejudice, even when it is unacknowledged or unknown, into our relationships. Where are the black leaders in the CofE either lay or ordained? John Sentamu has ticked that box but it doesn’t let us off the hook, especially as far a black women leaders are concerned.
It is indeed a spiritual problem. A very simple one.
God looked at what he had created and saw that it was good. That gives us absolutely no wriggle room to leave anyone on the fringe. Not someone who is gay, not someone who has been abused, not someone who is black.
The CofE have just kicked the debate about the full inclusion of LGBTI people into the long grass. What is really wrong is that there has to be a debate at all. It’s as if we are saying: This is our party and we will consider whether you might get an invitation. Terms and conditions apply.
In fact it is God’s party and everyone is invited on a completely equal basis.