by the Revd Robert Thompson, Vicar St Mary’s, Kilburn & St James’, West Hampstead and host of Open Table, London
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent echo the insistent call of God to renewal and reform in personal, communal and institutional spheres of our being. We are called to ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’ But the liturgical season grounds this reorientation and faithfulness first in the call to repentance and humility: ‘Remember that you dust and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3:19)
Repentance here is not only seen as fidelity to a particular religious tradition. Rather we are reminded of our mortality, which we share with all humanity, and the entire created order. All of us come from the dust of the stars and return to the humus of the earth. We are reminded of what we share in common with others and the radical equality that this robust doctrine of both creation and death encapsulates.
This is demonstrated more fully in the alternative gospel for the Eucharist of Ash Wednesday. Judgemental religious men bring an adulterous woman to Jesus and ask if she should be stoned. Jesus replies ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be there first to throw a stone at her’ (John 8:7). The bigots dispersed. No stones were thrown. Jesus said he did not condemn her and enjoined her to sin no more.
Often (sexist) interpretations of the text focus on the restoration of the adulterous woman and Jesus’ call that she leads a more virtuous life. But this misses the point that Jesus actually judges and condemns the fundamentalists who are too ready to kill her. Jesus unmasks, and confronts them, with their delusional spirituality, which both stereotypes the woman and is simply untruthful in its moral evaluation of their own lives.
The call to repentance in Lent confronts us both individually and as a church with our own delusional theologies and the ways in which we lie to God, to one another and to ourselves:
We say we want our churches to grow numerically. Yet we allow long interregnums to decimate attendance (in the parish which I took over over 50% within a year) and leave problematic vacuums of leadership.
We say we want to ensure the well being of our clergy and talk about them acquiring ‘resilience’ for the demands of ministry. Yet we allow deep inequalities in the allocation of resources such that some are totally overburdened, and we fail to offer robust, consistent and proactive forms of management and supervision.
We say we want to help the disadvantaged and those in BAME communities in their faith. Yet we operate a thoroughly unbiblical and (un)common fund based on ‘cost’, which means that the poorest and most ethnically diverse parishes, as a proportion of their income, are asked to carry the heaviest of financial crosses.
We say we want to celebrate our rich diversity of ecclesial traditions and to encourage ‘mutual flourishing.’ Yet we allow church planting in increasingly single tradition, sectarian, ways and foster a church that is characterised by competing theological silos set within a neoliberal capitalist internal market.
We say we have ‘church’ schools in order to distinguish them from the ‘faith’ schools of other communities. Yet in many parishes we operate sectarian admissions policies that reward church attendance and which, in morally problematic ways, encourage cheating and give unfair advantage to affluent families.
We say we want to build a ‘radically inclusive’ church in relation to sexuality. Yet we tolerate the exclusion of LGBTQIA+ people from lay leadership in many of our parishes and the existence of conversion therapies in others, even though this is contrary to all published pastoral guidance from our bishops.
We say that we are a church that is ‘episcopally led’ and ‘synodically governed.’ Yet we have maintained a quasi monarchical form of episcopacy which has shown itself utterly inadequate to ensure safeguarding within the the church, and which jars against any form of open, transparent and democratic governance with strong systems of accountability and oversight.
Will we, this Lent, like the men in the gospel run away from Jesus? Or will we display the necessary repentance which heeds Christ’s call to radical, non sectarian, equity and justice; one which bears the marks of crucifixion, so that we may share in resurrection, which alone brings the renewal and reform which we seek?
Robert Thompson is Vicar St Mary’s, Kilburn & St James’, West Hampstead, home of Open Table London . Until this he was in healthcare chaplaincy for 18 year & a Labour Councillor & Chair, Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee.