Is God Inhuman?

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


I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s book The Body. It’s a fascinating read about the wonders of the human body and how much of it – of us – is incredibly complex and still little understood. But in Chapter 11 he refers to things medical science learnt about the body through experiments carried out during the second world war by Nazis in concentration camps and by occupying Japanese forces in a huge experimental facility in China. He doesn’t dwell on them, but they were horrifying in their cruelty. Some experiments were supposedly to help soldiers wounded in battle, but others were to satisfy doctors’ curiosity by doing things unspeakably unethical just because they could. And although many Nazis were brought to justice for their cruelty, the director of the research centre in China was debriefed by the Americans to get his medical knowledge and then allowed to return to normal life, while the existence of the Japanese facility was hidden for forty years.

The Uighurs and Rohingya. Political and religious terrorism. Black Lives Matter. Child poverty and homelessness. Violence and discrimination against women, LGBTI and disabled people. Cruelty continues, and those with power who do it will find ways to justify the unjustifiable. We even do it in the Church – not only with repeated safeguarding failures, but by being complicit with society at large in structural discrimination against black people and poor people and women and LGBTI people. The Church goes further now than society does in maintaining exemptions from discrimination against women and gay people, and we justify it in the name of what is acceptable to God – which makes the Church and its God appear inhuman to many.

What is ‘humane’? What is ‘inhuman’? After all, it’s human beings who act ‘inhumanly’ some of the time. Being cruel and discriminatory is something which every single human being is capable of. That’s you and me both. Which of us is without sin and can say that we have never acted in a way intended to be hurtful? Who has never done something which another person experienced as cruel and unkind?

A healthy human body is a dynamic balance of many different systems and needs, where too much or not enough salt or other nutrients can be fatal. Like our body, our humanity is a balancing act, full of difficult compromises to enable life to happen at all, more or less good or evil. Being human means we are capable of being, not either good or bad, but both good and bad, both humane and inhuman. And yet we define acting ‘with humanity’ as being solely good: as the Oxford Dictionary puts it, being human or humane is having ‘attributes or behaviour proper or befitting to a man.’

Why do we do think that being good and kind is ‘proper’ and ‘befitting’ human behaviour, when experience is that human behaviour includes so much that we want to reject as ‘inhuman’? Discrimination, violence, misogyny, racism and slavery come from dehumanising those who are ‘different’, excluding them from being our fully human neighbour, treating them as ‘other’ or as evil or to be eradicated like germs from the social body, acting as we do so out of the evil that has not been eradicated in us. (See the useful reflections by John Root around racism and binary thinking).

The view that ‘acting with humanity’ or being ‘humane’ describes only the morally good aspects of human behaviour is not derived from the reality of the world around us. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that Christians believe humanity in its fulness is fully realised: the human being without sin, the Son of God who shows us what is ‘proper’ and ‘befitting’ to a human being, without hatred or cruelty or exclusion, bringing us together into the love of God in our redeemed humanity.

It is no coincidence that the goodness of humanity is defined by the one who takes on himself our sin for our salvation. Repenting of our sins, cruelties and lack of love, and inviting Christ to dwell in our hearts in love to transform us, frees us to acknowledge both past and present evil in us; it enables us to become more humane, by letting go of the inhumanity of believing that we are good and others are bad.

The case of Jonathan Fletcher is yet a further example of how avowedly orthodox faith can inculcate an atmosphere of fear and repression in which our humanity in Christ is denied and abused, and God is modelled in ways which are more inhuman than humane.

It’s crucial to Christian faith that God is the God we see in Jesus: that God is humane, human, abounding in steadfast love. God is not the inhuman deity who many have experienced through the Church, and of which we must repent. Any Church or Christian disciple making either God or other people become less rather than more human and humane needs to repent and change.

My former colleague Canon Mark Oakley often asks: ‘What do people become in my presence?’ More human, or less? And we might add, ‘What do people become in the presence of the God I worship?’

Through your church and through encounter with you, do people and their God become more or less human?

Posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality, Politics, Racism, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse | 1 Comment

Why Don’t You Just Leave?!

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of Via Media, Member of Synod and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

“Why don’ you just leave the Church of England?”

It’s the question I’m repeatedly asked by my non-church LGBT friends and allies after the repeated mistakes, misappointments, misguided decisions and misunderstandings in relation to sexuality and gender identity matters.

To be honest, it’s the question I ask myself constantly too – as I’m sure do so many others.

But of course, that is precisely what the “conservative fundamentalists” want.  They’d love to purify the Church of those who they think defile it, and I’m sure there are many who will have muttered under their breath “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” (or in my case, “woman”).

The question has come into sharper focus following my recent resignation from the government’s LGBT Advisory Board, where I’ve been asked publicly by the media “Why on earth do you stay in such a homophobic institution like the Church of England?  Surely you should resign from there too – for exactly the same reason that they too have created a “hostile environment”?”

My impromptu answer surprised even me. I said it was because I knew there were those who were changing their minds within the Church, that this movement was only ever in one direction and that research shows that there is a younger generation, even within the Church of England, who think very differently to those in power at the moment and that “one day things will change”.  But, and it’s a big but, I have always then stressed that the key question is how many lives get damaged and ruined in the process, and whether people can cope with being the victims of injustice and abuse whilst this change occurs.

That “but” has come into sharp focus with the launch of the Living in Love and Faith materials, and the realisation (finally) that there are major safeguarding issues for LGBT people as they are “encouraged to take part”.  Added to that there is the totally misguided notion from the Church hierarchy that there are “two equal and valid sides” in this “debate”, and that all we need to do is reconcile and everything will be all right.

Even the archbishops in their Synod address talked about the need to “just love each other”, which shows a complete lack of understanding about the abuse being metered out by one side on the other and the obvious power differentials at play.  As many have themselves reflected, it feels like we are tragically in a situation akin to domestic abuse, where one side is constantly being assaulted and yet those with the power to do something about it are advising both parties to “just love each other” and get over it.

No, the abuse needs to stop first.  There can be no peace without justice, and no reconciliation until those who have the power to wound are dealt with appropriately.

Interestingly, what domestic abuse victims are encouraged to do is to leave and find somewhere safe.

If I can be honest, it is what I’d recommend all LGBT people do who are finding the journey just too hard and too painful – there is no shame in going somewhere where you will be loved, honoured and cared for properly.  Where your wounds will be dressed, your heart healed and where you will be honoured with dignity and your love celebrated.

In truth, it is already happening.  Indeed, it has been happening quietly for years, as thousands have left without threats or sabre-rattling, and certainly with no media attention.  Unlike a certain wing of the Church who keep holding their bishops to ransom, saying they will leave, but who rarely seem to actually follow through and go.

However, there is another reason – if I’m honest with myself – why I stay.

And that is because this is my home.  It is where my friends and family are, it is where I have have roots and memories.  It is my familiar place that I love.  I do not want to leave for a foreign land, I want to stay where I belong – I just want to be safe in doing so.

Sadly, there comes a time in any abusive relationship where the realisation dawns that the only way out is to leave, with the vain hope that in doing so the offending party will then reflect on their offensive behaviour.  The trouble with that strategy though is that they are inevitably then left to retraumatise other victims and so the cycle continues.  Which is why so many of us stay and try and change things.

So, if you’re wondering what to do, I would suggest that you must put your own wellbeing and safety first.  If you are finding things too painful, please do leave and find a refuge – even if it is for a short while, in order to find rest and recuperate.  Easter Saturdays are an inevitable part of the Easter story.

However, for those who know their calling is to stay and soldier on, please do take care of yourselves and know where your “red lines” lie.  That is, where are the lines that if crossed you will say “enough is enough”, and that you then feel empowered to act on principle – not beaten down into submission, as so often occurs in situations of domestic abuse.

I am honestly weighing up how near the Church hierarchy’s decisions are getting to my own red lines.  The constant undermining of LGBT people and the lack of progress to create safe environments where we can flourish is astounding.  Maybe soon it will be time for me to act again on my principles – and leave.  We will have to see – God only knows.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding, Spiritual Abuse | 5 Comments

It’s A Sin: The Myth of Homogeneity

by Father Richard Peers, Sub Dean of Christ Church, Oxford

Extract from: Final Report – Independent Lessons Learned Review for Emmanuel Church Wimbledon (March 2021)

“Theme 17: Homogeneity

The Review illustrated that one of the biggest difficulties in identifying and disclosing the behaviours was the myth of homogeneity. The Review evidenced that a person who possesses positive characteristics and is widely highly-regarded could nonetheless display entirely inappropriate, abusive and harmful behaviours which render them ‘unfit for their office’.

Furthermore, those who wish to disclose abuse or harmful behaviours can be caused to question their experience and reality where the predominant narrative outlines the positive traits of an individual. When this is combined with a narrative of protecting the gospel above all else then this becomes a powerful barrier to disclosing abuse or harmful behaviour.”

It was in 1987 that the Pet Shop Boys released their single It’s A Sin which provided the title, and elements of the soundtrack, for the recent Russell T Davies mini-series on gay life in the 80’s. Whether it was 1987 or a little bit later my strongest memory of dancing to this iconic song was on a Sunday night (gay night) at The Academy in Boscombe, just outside of Bournemouth. It was an exhilarating time for me. I had met and was with that night, the love of my life, a housemate was performing on stage with a live snake (don’t ask). Like the housemates in the recent TV series it seemed that there was nothing that could poison our sheer delight at life. 

Three decades later watching It’s A Sin touched many unexpected raw nerves for me and I am not embarrassed to say I wept watching it. 

During lockdown I have done a fair bit of online teaching in the form of seminars for various groups including ordinands at Ripon College Cuddesdon and Cranmer Hall in Durham on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, better known as Confession. I have heard a fair number of confessions in the last 20 years or so. One of the key tasks of a confessor, it seems to me, is to help the penitent identify what is and what is not sin. Many people come to the sacrament filled with shame, self-loathing or in need of healing. 

We live in a society in which the language of Christianity is tired and worn; it is hard for people to understand. Sin is a key concept that is much misunderstood. Yet the older I get the more important I think sin is. The more I believe in its reality. We all know that when anyone says “Human beings are divided into …” some trite simplism is going to be uttered. If only it was so easy.

The older I get the more aware of my own sin I become. I am a deeply flawed human being. If that sounds like I am beating myself up. I’m not. 

The older I get the more aware I am that we are all sinners. We are all capable of deeply flawed behaviour. My favourite image for sin (not sure who invented this, perhaps it was me) is a bicycle on which the front wheel is slightly askew. We human beings just can’t cycle straight. We need to constantly adjust for the reality of our askew-ness (sin). That’s mostly what the Christian life is about.

At the top of this piece there is an extract from the investigation into abuse at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon by Jonathan Fletcher. For me it is the most important passage in a very important report. The review highlights how a combination of fear and putting people on pedestals made it impossible for victims to report abuse. It also calls for a wider understanding of vulnerability in situations where individuals wield considerable charismatic and institutional power. These are all important lessons to learn. But it is this myth of homogeneity that is, I think, the most important lesson and the most difficult for us to hold on to.

The American pastor and writer Brian McClaren talks and writes about :

“Confirmation Bias: the human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.”

and

“Complexity Bias: the human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth.”

It is easy to believe that there are good guys and bad guys. The truth is almost always more complex.

A friend of mine was one of the young men who formed part of the residential community associated with the serial abuser Bishop Peter Ball. It was a transformative and wonderful time for him, all blessing. Another friend spent much of her life as part of l’Arche communities. She is the leader she is now because of that experience. She has spent the last year grieving the revelations about Jean Vanier.

What can we learn from this? Nothing simple.

I can’t write a line, or come up with a phrase that explains this.  All I can do is offer the Christian faith. St Paul is often mocked for the complexity of his writing; his endless and sometimes seemingly incomprehensible sentences. But he was on to something. Perhaps no one has understood sin better. We human beings are all sinners. There are certain characteristics that we associate with something we call ‘holiness’. I am deeply sceptical of them.  

When we pray the penitential material in our worship and in Scripture it is not a reason to beat ourselves up. It is a reminder that every human being is a sinner. I am with St Augustine, and the Pet Shop Boys: It’s A Sin. I find the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” to be tremendously liberating. This is who I am. This is who everybody is. As I say to people when they begin the journey of Spiritual Direction with me: there are no gurus.

As we move into Holy Week there are simple questions we can ask. Why do we need Jesus? What do we need saving from? And the simple answer is: ourselves. As Walt Whitman put it “I contain multitudes”, and some of them are not very nice.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Richard Peers | 3 Comments

‘Oi Vicar, Why Don’t You Heal Yourself?’

by the Revd Canon Timothy Goode, Rector of St Margaret’s, Lee, Disability Adviser to the Diocese of Southwark, Member of Archbishop’s Council and Co-Chair of MOSAIC

Talk about coming down to earth with a bump! The day after I was ordained deacon, and the official start of my time as Associate Curate at Croydon Minster, I stepped out, crutch assisted, into my new parish, wearing a crisp new black clerical shirt with dog collar gleaming fresh and white in the early summer sun. Though I was nervous, being the first time I had gone public in my new ‘uniform’, I wished to inhabit my new role with confidence and go and greet the hustle bustle of central Croydon life.

My planned port of call was Surrey Street Market, which has existed since the 13th century. Just as I started to walk through the market offering welcoming smiles to all who passed, suddenly at the top of his voice, loud and clear over the surrounding melee, a local greengrocer shouted, ‘Oi Vicar, why don’t you heal yourself.’

Immediately I was aware of the eyes of the crowd turn and focus on me. My fight-or-flight instinct kicked in and, with an utterly unconvincing smile, I made a hasty retreat back to the Minster, my perceived lack of agency having been publicly mocked.

The incident confirmed for me that my physical impairment would never be allowed to be separate from my role as a public figure within the Church; the two were going to be forever inextricably linked.

This incident, and countless similar incidences have caused me to reflect back over my own life and how my own lived experiences of disability have challenged and reformed my understanding of privilege as a white heterosexual male. Where have my own attitudes, both formed and inherited, created barriers to access and, as a result, denied others agency?

I know that my experience of single sex education at mostly white middle class boarding schools could easily have impacted on how I engaged with race, gender and human sexuality, to name but three groups which the church has marginalised and oppressed over many centuries.

But I am also very aware that I, and countless other disabled people, have had to confront and overcome disabling attitudes that have created barriers to access, in order to recover and restore the agency that such attitudes have denied.

As I have sort to embrace and champion inclusion across the Church of England, I have become more and more aware of the power and potency of a cyclical motion encompassing ‘Attitude, Access and Agency’. This cyclical continuous motion all too easily perpetuates belittlement, exclusion and powerlessness.

Disabling attitudes form barriers to access which in turn deny or remove people’s agency. This denying of agency reinforces additional disabling attitudes which form even greater barriers to access, which further close off agency and so this vicious cycle continues to revolve and evolve, marginalising and diminishing as it does so.

On the one hand the Church of England, through the Common Worship introduction to Baptism, states that ‘in God we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life.’ Yet with the other hand the Church of England withdraws that very dignity and denies the very agency required for fullness of life on those who continue to be marginalised because of economics, age, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, learning and physical disability, neurodiversity and human sexuality, to name but a few.

These disabling attitudes have deprived the Church access to the gifts, talents and insights of countless people, people whose very agency has been denied.

So how do we overcome this vicious cycle?

The Christian faith shows us how the subversive and liberating actions of the incarnation not only stops the vicious cycle in its tracks, it actually reverses it, transforming the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle, where the challenging of prevailing disabling attitudes breaks down the barriers to access, restoring and enabling agency.  In turn, this restored agency challenges additional disabling attitudes, breaking down further barriers to access, further restoring and enabling agency. Thus, the virtuous cycle continues to revolve and evolve, transforming and liberating as it does so.

We first hear the subversive and liberating actions of the incarnation in the call of Jesus’ birth, challenging the rulers of the day.

We see it as Jesus challenges the prevailing disabling attitudes, when he eats with “sinners” and the socially marginalised as well as the ritually unclean and those considered economic traitors.

We see it when Jesus upturns the Old Testament code by teaching a new way of understanding God in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you…” (Mt 5:38).

We see it when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey instead of a war horse, thus demonstrating a dramatically different way of addressing injustice, without resorting to violence.

We see it when Jesus overturns the moneylender’s table, challenging the very practices the Temple used to rip people off and exclude various marginalised groups from worship.

Ultimately, we see it when Jesus is executed as a rebel by the establishment. The God of the entire universe chooses to be killed as a criminal on a cross. The ultimate act of subversive love and vulnerability.

To embrace the virtuous cycle is to embrace the way of the cross. More importantly, it is to embrace the way to the resurrection, the definitive destination of the virtuous cycle. It is the Risen Body where we all are invited to find our fullest identity and image, the ultimate place of inclusion and where our vulnerabilities and abilities find their fullest expression.

At the end of February ‘Mosaic’ – Movement of Supporting Anglicans for an Inclusive Church – went public. Mosaic’s mission is to call out and reverse the vicious cycles that blight our church, seeking to transform them all into virtuous cycles of liberation and grace.  It is through challenging the disabling attitudes, both within ourselves and within the church – those which create barriers to access and in turn deny agency – that will open streams of mission and ministry that have, for far too long, been denied access and agency within the church.

 

Posted in Disability, Human Sexuality, Tim Goode | Leave a comment

We May be Winning the Fight Against the Virus, but We Risk Losing Something Else…

by the Right Revd Dame Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London

It has been a long year. So many of us have suffered, whether through loss of those we love, loss of financial stability, loss of the freedom to see our family and friends, loss of freedom of movement or loss of our mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. One way or another, we are all reeling from the sense that much has been removed from us. And this cannot help but raise questions of meaning, identity and belonging.

In the midst of all this loss, it has been my observation that we are in danger of losing something else: the way that we relate to one another seems to be deteriorating.

In particular, we have seen a rise in binary narratives.  One of the implications of this is that by definition you are either on the “right side” of the argument or the “wrong side.” The belief that I am right, and you are wrong, can so easily slide into being “I am good and you are bad.” From here, it is a short step to hate speech and violent isolation of those who hold different views.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that, in this kind of climate, we hunker down with our own and, in consolidating our sense of belonging within our own communities – of whatever kind – we differentiate ourselves from others, setting ourselves apart. The Church is not exempt. We can use language which not everyone may understand. We have sometimes been quick to form different Christian tribes.  We have too often shut our doors to those we should have flung them open to. And as we do, we draw explicit and implicit categories which indicate who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.

Our challenge in this time is not to pretend that we are all alike. We clearly are not. But to recognise, and hopefully learn in some small way to overcome, our intrinsic nature which pushes away others and tries to carve out territory only for ourselves and to see our circumstances in the wider context of God.

Digging Deeper

Maybe the biggest reason for wanting to hunker down with our own is fear.

I have reflected over the last few months since the publication of Living in Love and Faith that fear is the emotion that can hold the biggest risk in preventing us from listening to each other.

I wonder what it is that we fear because of the process?  We may fear not being listened to, we may fear being marginalised, we may fear being misunderstood, we may fear for the future of the Church of England; we may fear abuse or bullying. And our flight or fight response can so easily turn to getting in our pre-emptive attack, as a form of defence, before we are attacked.

Defence can look like denial – as Eli did with his wicked sons (1 Sam 2:22-25). In the end though it proves temporary and only makes matters worse.  It can also look like flight – as Hagar was forced to do from Sarai (Gen 16:6-8), but again fails to resolve the real issues.

On the other hand, attack can look like assault – gossip, slander and efforts to damage people’s reputation as some did towards Stephen in the early church (Acts 6:8-15). Too often, this is precisely what we see on Twitter. It seems to increasingly be the default option and has led to a culture where it is deemed acceptable to publicly shame people, irrespective of the facts.

Neither defence or attack leads to reconciliation or peace.  Defence pretends that there is peace when there isn’t, attack gives up on peace for the sake of getting what they want.

The Bible pushes us in a different direction. Before running away in defence or lashing out in attack, it urges us to look within. It warns us that often conflict grows out of our sinful desires to have things our own way (James 4:1-2). Many conflicts would be far more quickly resolved if we were prepared to take the log out of our own eye before trying to take the speck out of somebody else’s (Luke 6:42).

Pursuing Peace

Despite the gravity of these words, they also mean that conflict is an opportunity – an opportunity to act in a counter-cultural way which reflects the love of God and brings God glory. A way that leads to peace. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, mired in religious, legal and dietary disputes and says:

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 1 Cor 10:31-11:1”

In other words, see conflict as an opportunity to glorify God by pursuing peace. This is a God who calls us to trust that His ways really are best (Prov 3:5-7), to serve others by putting their interests ahead of your own in love and mercy (Luke 6:27-28, 36) and to grow like Christ who not only said “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27-36) but loved us to the point of death (Luke 22:41-44).

This does not come naturally. It requires brave people to step outside of the cultural norm and behave differently. People who are prepared to do the slow hard work of reconciliation where it is necessary. To head into difficult conversations with a humble, loving and hopeful heart. To walk the careful, slow, and sometimes painful path towards peace.

Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air – if the tone of our debates focussed less on showing people how right we are but on how to care for those most vulnerable, those most likely to be hurt?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could hold what is considered a minority opinion without being ridiculed or vilified as a traitor or troublemaker?

Wouldn’t it bring great glory to God if we could avoid a culture in which we demonise each other for dissent?

Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness to a watching world if we allowed each other the safe space we need for all views to be expressed and discussed in an atmosphere of compassion and respect?

But as we gulp at the challenge, remember that we have a great ambassador who went before us. Jesus was stripped naked, mocked and shamed in a way so brutally humiliating, that Western art has shied away from depicting it. He endured more public shame than any of us ever will. He did it to welcome us into a community where boasting was ruled out, servants were now served and outcasts became children, where the status that he gave us mattered far more than the status we had on social media. He did it to transform us into people who count outward fame as rubbish, compared with gaining Him (Phil 3:4-9).

For it is within Him that we find the answers to the questions of meaning, identity and belonging.

Posted in Bishop of London, Coronavirus, Establishment, Living in Love & Faith | 1 Comment

Pandemics, Parishes & the ‘National Church’

by Revd Professor Robert Gilbert, Biochemistry Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford and Anglican parish priest 

It’s a whole Church year since congregations first stopped worshipping together in person. A whole Church year since those who could, moved online. And although in the Summer months in person worship was able to resume, it obviously wasn’t the same as it had been before. Congregations remained distanced and could not sing, and were small in number because that is what safety required.

Since last March the widespread delivery of services over the internet has enabled those able to get online to join in worship provided within their parishes, and also to sample ministry on offer from elsewhere. Diocesan and national provision of online worship has played a significant role too, especially where parishes lack the resources or opportunity themselves; along with continuing radio and TV broadcasts like the BBC’s Sunday Worship and Songs of Praise.

In the parish where I serve, our recorded online audio services have gone out via our website but also on the local Hospital Radio. This has been a brilliant collaboration and one which has enhanced for us the sense that an online presence is a real presence, and that people kept apart from loved ones, by sickness and by the requirements of social distancing, can and are being reached with words of encouragement and comfort and a reminder that there is a Body of Christ to which they belong.

The experience of the past year has, for me, underscored the prime importance of the delivery of ministry through parishes and chaplaincies. Parishes and chaplaincies provide context and relatability, and not only when worship in a church building or together within a community is possible. Online or broadcast worship is always from somewhere in particular, and it matters to those who tune in where it is coming from. Parishes also provide a locus for social action, and for engagement with and strengthening of the general community, believing and not.

The signs are that this is understood by church leaders. In a recent Spectator article, the archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote how “[t]he aim is to make each parish and each Christian community sustainable”. “If that doesn’t happen,” they said, “there really will be no Church of England.” At the recent General Synod the Archbishop of York spoke of a vision for “a simpler, humbler, bolder Church”.

During the first national lockdown in particular I had a sense of the priesthood of all believers being realised in a new kind of way. The need for every person to worship from where they were didn’t seem to weaken, I thought, belief in a Body to which we all belong, but strengthened it. It was, in practical terms, an experience of a simpler, humbler, bolder church. As the Church plans for the future the focus should be on empowering, resourcing and enabling parishes and members of congregations. The routes for achieving this will include diverse forms of ministry, ordained and not, that provide real presence for local communities. In their Spectator article the archbishops spoke of the biggest rise in lay and ordained vocations for 25 years – and this should be combined with a much enhanced sense of the equality of all believers and those who minister to them.

Speaking of equality, it will be healthy for a simpler, humbler, bolder Church to move towards a situation in which the holders of diocesan posts also hold parish appointments. It is not unknown for archdeacons to be incumbents too; there is no reason why we can’t reimagine such roles as always involving parochial ministry, or why we can’t move towards a situation in which if a diocese is in need of a suffragan bishop then they are an incumbent or hold another kind of parish role as well. This could be complemented by a redistribution of responsibilities among those who are ordained and those who aren’t, thus freeing up time for localised as well as oversight ministry. Increases in centralised posts and diocesan provision can give a helpful sense of things being done, and suggest a reassuring management structure. But, as the archbishops have indicated, the Church of England delivers primarily at parish and chaplaincy level. Resources need to be concentrated in parishes and chaplaincies, so their differing needs can be understood, and because those are the places from which growth will come and where vocations are nurtured.

A national Church is needed to enable a continuous network of parishes, but it can do so lightly. The Church of England’s standing in this country has been profoundly damaged, over several centuries, by ways in which it has taken on the role of one powerful organisation among others. Hence the need now for renewed simplicity, humility and courage. Our existence as a relevant national organisation, as an organisation with a prophetic and pastoral role, is dependent on the continuing vitality and resourcing of a system of parishes and chaplaincies as the main activity in which the Church of England is engaged.

 

Posted in Coronavirus, Robert Gilbert | Leave a comment

Families – Love ‘Em, Hate ‘Em

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

I’m experiencing an interesting collision of three family stories as I sit down to write this piece. The gospel reading for Sunday morning sees a dying man hand his mother into the care of his close friend. Meanwhile the daffodils are out and we celebrate Mother’s Day  -or, for those of you who enjoy being counter-cultural, Mothering Sunday. This is dwarfed by the drama of the world’s most famous dysfunctional family having their melt-down on the international stage.

When all goes smoothly being part of a loving family is wonderful. We can feel assured of love even when we mess up. We know where we belong and we can trust that our family has our best interests at heart. This may be a genetic family, or a constructed family. It may be a social and faith-based family, such as a church. If your family is a really safe place it is also where you can have a good row. You can be free to say what is on your heart without the fear that you will be expelled.

Within a healthy family system being loved and belonging are not up for negotiation. There is, or should be, no ‘deal’ – in other words, nothing transactional about your place within your family.

Sadly, we know that it doesn’t always work out that way.

For many people it is a defining aspect of their emotional life that they are always striving to please their judgemental parents. Long into adulthood they crave parental approval more than anything else. It’s fairly common for successful people on Desert Island Disks to say something along the lines of ‘I really wish my Dad had lived long enough to see me win an Oscar, he never thought I’d amount to much.’

It is very hard to have a settled and confident sense of belonging if you are constantly feeling judged. Whatever you may think about ‘Megxit’ it does look as if she never developed a confident sense of belonging to her new family and always felt judged – maybe by them, maybe by the British press. Whatever the real story it has caused sadness and distress all round.

When my mother moved to the UK following her marriage one of the first things that struck her was how people controlled their children though their inheritance. In Switzerland you simply cannot cut off a child you’ve fallen out with. The inheritance laws give an equal share to every child.

So if ordinary human families so often mess this up maybe there is a second chance within God’s family?

Justin Welby expressed this very clearly when the news broke that the man he had always supposed to be his father was not. In 2016 he said: “My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal.”  And he said that he found who he was in his religious faith, “not in genetics”.

This is a very big deal. A whole new chance to find who you are in the context of the love of God and to become part of a healthy Christian family. I would even go so far as to suggest that this makes the church specially attractive to those who have challenging parental experiences. The offer is that you are adopted into the family of Christ and receive God’s unconditional love. It’s full of potential for healing and growth, stability and maturity.

The incident where Jesus, in extremis, thinks more of his mother’s pain than his own and entrusts her in the care of John, is a highly charged example of the quality of love we all long for. In the gospels we hear of Jesus’ acts and his teachings but there are very few moments of personal intimacy. This is one of them.

As Christians we invest very deeply in the ‘belonging’ part of faith. What could be better than becoming a child of God? How sad, how bitter then is the fact that huge energy goes into defining who ‘belongs’ and who doesn’t? This surely is an evil thing which betrays the love we proclaim.

This week, Jayne Ozanne quit the government’s LGBT+ Advisory Panel. She was holding them to account for their commitment to ban “conversion therapy” – which they were failing to implement. Thankfully this bold action has drawn a fresh promise that a ban will happen.

This is a way of putting action into the General Synod motion which also called for a ban.

It matters so very much because so-called “conversion therapy” is the most cruel expression of the many ways in which LGBT+ people have been treated by their Christian family. Sadly church has never been a place where any minority has felt safe. We unknowingly transfer our dysfunctional family systems into the church. We pre-load God with a love which demands total conformity – a love which will cut you off if you are different or rebellious or challenging.

We will never get this right until we repent of our idolatrous image of God and rediscover the God who is the very essence of love. Yes, as human beings, even within the church, we will probably go on being cruel and judgemental and capricious, but let’s stop calling that ‘God’ and own it and take responsibility. Goodness – just imagine if people were able to say ‘I don’t want you in my church’ instead of ‘God doesn’t want you in his church’!

It is a massive challenge. Taking responsibility for our own prejudices and working to understand what’s going on and bring about change. The Christian family could be pretty wonderful if we could just grow up enough to treat one another as equal siblings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Politics, Rosie Harper, Royal Wedding | Leave a comment

Are ‘Leaders’ Biblical?

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

Subverting the language of Leadership before it subverts the Church

A colleague who serves as a priest in the Church of Sweden recounts the deeply moving experience of attending an ordination at which the candidate being ordained deacon was a person with Downs Syndrome. It was clearly a powerful moment. In all the contemporary rhetoric about leadership, this ordination said something important and surprising about the kingdom of God.

Tolstoy tells a parallel story about three monks who were so forgetful that they couldn’t even remember the Lord’s Prayer, but so holy that they could walk on water. Tolstoy was no friend of organised (and organising) religion, and his story was partly another pot shot at the Russian Church. But the story but it raises the question in a pointed way of what qualities we might really need in our spiritual guides: holiness, or a good memory?

Whatever else, we clearly have a problem with language. It is very striking that the word “leader” is never used of a Christian minister in the New Testament or in Christian tradition until the latter part of the 20th century. From then on it becomes ubiquitous. This is an extraordinary phenomenon, and one that demands our critical engagement.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are clearly aspects of Christian ministry where we can learn from the language and study of leadership. Indeed, why wouldn’t we want to up our game, especially in the areas of good governance and proper accountability where churches have often come unstuck. I certainly need to learn from some of that wisdom to fulfil my role. But the absence of leadership language in the New Testament and Christian tradition – and Jesus’ own wholesale rejection of the language of power (Mark 10.43 and parallels) suggest that “leader” is at best a wholly inadequate word and at worst deeply misleading.

By contrast, when the early Christian community came to choose names for their “ordained elders” (the best phrase I have been able to come up with so far) they rejected the welter of Old Testament possibilities and the range of alternatives offered by Hellenistic culture. Instead they settled for three normal, secular, colourless words: supervisor, elder, and servant. Just a couple of generations after the death and resurrection of Jesus,  Ignatius of Antioch points out it is the deacon who represents Christ, because it is all about service.

When the church became a respectable institution, the supervisor, elder, and servant found themselves transformed into clerical officials, acquiring the appropriate finery and exotic headgear, and rather forgetting Jesus words to his disciples when they started arguing about who was the greatest: “it is not so among you” (Mark 10.43). And as Christians in the west gradually stopped speaking Greek in church and started speaking Latin, the simple name for authorising ordained elders – “laying on of hands” – became the grand word “ordination” – a word used for the installation of Roman officials. Every time I put on the traditional vestments to celebrate the Eucharist I remind myself that these are not the distinctive robes of a Christian priest, but the uniform of a fourth century pagan magistrate. It is important to feel the irony.

Beyond the sheer negative impact of managerialism, the language of leadership has taken such a hold in the churches because it dislocates us from the problematic language of priesthood. Priest in English (arriving by way of medieval French) is simply a contraction of the word “presbyter” i.e. “elder”). The title of the Common Worship ordination service is bizarrely tautological: “priests, also known as presbyters”. Well, no. They are simply different translations of exactly the same word. In the Latin rite, it has always just been “presbyters”.

Our problem is that we use typically use the word “priest” to translate to translate two completely different biblical concepts. The “presbyter” word for an ordained minister, certainly. But we also use “priest” to translate a completely unrelated word meaning “the person who sacrifices.” Certainly this word is core to the Old Testament understanding of priesthood. But this word is never used of a Christian minster; only of Christ and of the corporate body of the church. It is for instance the word used in the phrase “royal priesthood” at 1 Peter 2.9. It has nothing to do with ministry and  everything to do with all of us having equal access to God because of what Christ has done for us. We no longer need a sacrifice. That’s why Calvin said so emphatically “the priesthood is common to all. Not so the ministry”.

This ministry is never about power. Always about service. That has got lost somewhere in the language of leadership. When we have to qualify the word “leader” with the word “servant”, something has gone quite seriously astray. Servant leadership courses can easily become a way of double bluffing ourselves. As I’ve said in an earlier post on this site, whenever Christians start talking about service and vulnerability, there’s a good chance that they are really talking about power.

In Matthew 8, when Jesus says he will come and heal the pagan centurion’s servant, the centurion replies “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof”. The word translated “worthy” at 8.8 is the simple Greek word for “enough”, “sufficient”, “adequate”, “competent”.

That is my daily prayer, for myself and for the whole people of God: “Lord, I am not enough, sufficient, adequate, competent.” Subverting the language of leadership, and learning to speak the upside down language of the kingdom of God.

 

Posted in Nicholas Henshall | 6 Comments

International Women’s Day – Choose to Challenge

by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester

In 2019, on a visit to the Holy Land I visited the church in Magdala and found myself faced with an enormous and extraordinary modern painting by Daniel Cariola depicting larger-than-life sandaled feet which are those of Jesus Christ and those around him. There is also the hand of a woman stretched out so that it is just touching the hem of Jesus’ robes, and at the point of connection there is a vibrant, almost electric, circle of light. As I recall that picture now, it is not only deeply poignant as we live a time when close proximity and touch are things many people long for, but it also seems pertinent this week as we mark International Women’s Day (IWD) with the theme ‘Choose to Challenge’.

We have had a bucketful of challenges over this past year and little of it has been of our choosing. Yet I am also aware that even when there is not a viral pandemic, for many people across our world there is continual and overwhelming challenge, not least for many girls and women. Not much of their challenge is chosen, good or life-giving – unlike the sort of challenge which is the focus of IWD.

The hand in the Cariola painting is that of the woman who had been suffering for 12 years from a continuous flow of blood.  She knew much about isolation, trauma, and loss, not due to a viral pandemic but due to her gynaecological condition. I suspect her mental health was affected as well as her physical health.

As the woman touches Jesus, he feels power go out of him and he voices a challenge, ‘who touched me?’. The question would have sounded absurd to Christ’s disciples given they were being jostled by a crowd, but it could also be heard as critical and disapproving. Yet I wonder if it was more about ‘choosing to challenge’ in order to make this woman visible, such that the ‘who’ in his question was inviting the woman to be revealed as someone with a unique identity and story. Here is a woman who has been hidden, rendered irrelevant and even stigmatised, and now she is about to be deeply noticed as a significant and loved individual.

The gospel writers, as is so often the case where women are concerned, refer to her simply as a woman (unlike the men named by Mark and Luke in their chapters recounting this incident). We will never know if Jesus actually used her name in the moments of their encounter, but he does call her ‘daughter’, reflecting value and intimacy in relationship.

It is this challenge to notice and recognise that the Church is called to join in with wherever people are hidden, stigmatised, labelled, or condemned as ‘other’, not only as we live a viral pandemic but as we emerge from it and shape the future we want to see.

Yet there is another challenge in that circle of light, and it is that of the woman herself. Amid her desperation, isolation, and pain, she shows great courage in acknowledging her need and taking a decision to reach out.

In my recent book ‘Encounters’ (which has Cariola’s painting on the cover), I reflect on this gospel story in the context of women in prison. It is not easy for those women to reach out for help, yet rehabilitation and restoration are not possible until that moment comes.  Indeed, it requires a woman’s story to be heard and her trauma to be recognised.

This week as the Domestic Abuse Bill reaches Report Stage in the House of Lords many of our proposed amendments and challenges to the government are endeavouring to recognise the people who are powerless to challenge and remain hidden, most of whom are women, but not exclusively so.

I am acutely aware that whenever one speaks out specifically for women and girls there is nearly always a backlash from people who want to critically point out that boys and men should not be left out. I agree. Yet, I also want to say that sometimes we need to shine a light more strongly in particular areas to change a pervasive culture which has been perpetuated down the centuries. And working for that kingdom-of-God-shaped shalom means sometimes unashamedly choosing to shine the spotlight on women in order to bring challenge so that their potential and equality can be recognised and fanned into flame.

It is all part of the bigger picture in which we need to choose to challenge injustice, inequality, and discrimination, not least when it comes to disability, sexuality, background and colour.  At the same time,  we must never forget of course that the category ‘women and girls’ is of a different shape –  as all of those other listed categories of ‘difference’ include women, girls, men, and boys.

As we mark IWD this year I hope that we might all be challenged about how we challenge to make visible those who are hidden in the crowd of our communities and further afield, and how we do so in a way which enables those unique individuals to recognise their own worth and needs such that they can dare to challenge the narrative they have of themselves.

And today it is about women.

 

Posted in Bishop of Gloucester, Coronavirus, Disability, Human Sexuality, Mental Health, Racism, Sexism, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Transgender | Leave a comment

The Idolatry of Being “Sound”

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury and Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea

A friend of mine who is now a bishop once said to me that being a parish priest is, in part, all about managing other people’s idolatries. It was a provocative comment which has buried in it a deep truth. Most of us know that an idol can be more than a physical object worshipped by people. It can be a career, a sense of status, or an adherence to a certain way of doing things. When the ‘thing’ becomes the end in itself, the journey towards idolatry is very much underway. Identifying the idolatry is one thing, however; setting aside the idol in favour of true worship is always the challenge.

I am regularly reminded of this comment in my ministry because it helps me to bear with others and to recognise the danger in myself. We might even ponder whether the most worrying division in the Church of England is between those who know themselves and those who don’t!

It came to mind this week when I read of an entirely unedifying episode of competitive homophobia between factions of the separatist Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) and the Anglican Church of Nigeria. Put very simply, the bishops of ACNA issued a statement on same-sex relationships which denied the possibility of someone among their members calling themselves a ‘gay Christian’ (please don’t laugh, they are deadly serious); this was followed by a group of ACNA lay and clergy people issuing a letter implicitly criticising the ACNA bishops’ statement (from a ‘gay Christian’ perspective), defending their right to use the language which the ACNA bishops wanted to outlaw; finally, appalled by the first statement and even more so by the second, the Church of Nigeria then issued an outraged letter signed by its Primate, virulently homophobic in tone, condemning everyone else in this echo chamber, taking ANCA to task for even raising the matter.

I hope readers might forgive me a passing moment of schadenfreude[1] in all of this. Self-righteousness does need to be mocked. Even Jesus had these moments. But once that feeling had passed, I was reminded of the vulnerability of LGBTI+ Anglicans in Nigeria and ACNA who have to live in such a poisonous and unhealthy environment. For all its faults and mis-steps along the way, at least the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project begins with an honest acknowledgment of all the voices at the table. There are clearly those in and ACNA and the Church of Nigeria who identify as gay or, along with a modest number of conservative Anglicans in England “same sex attracted”. Among them there is an honesty that sexual temptation and lapses from the celibate lifestyle are a reality of living in fallen world. One hates to imagine the consequent pastoral burden that LGBTI+ people have to bear with only denial and condemnation in the air.

But the wider question of idolatry is the one that bugs me. If you define the membership of a sect such as ACNA, or even as a Church like Nigeria, in clear opposition to a particular ethical action by drawing a line in the sand (as they have done on homosexuality), then the risk is always that you focus on the definition as the mark of membership. The line becomes the measure of your welcome, the article of faith which sets you apart from ‘the rest’. You then have to define ‘the rest’ in some way as ‘other’. So we end up with the ACNA/Nigeria language of heresy and false teaching, the persistent claims that to hold a view such as mine (i.e. on the wrong side of their line) is to be outside of grace, and thus you redefine the gospel in much narrower terms. This is a subtle form of idolatry, however much you dress it up in the language of conscience (a word that has been the cause of much Protestant sin). It is, dare I say it and to borrow a phrase beloved of some conservatives, a form of false gospel, a limitation, even denial of the scope of the grace and love of God.

I’m pondering this question in Lent, with the words of Jesus about “dying to self” in my ears. Do I, do we risk, in our focus on doctrinal soundness and personal conscience, putting ourselves and our views in the place where Christ’s superabundant love should only have pride of place? Might we need to die to the idolatries that we love to create in the Church, which make us feel better about who we are and that for which we stand, always at the expense of ‘the rest’?

Is this how we end up excluding others from that which God only includes us in?

 

[1] Translated: the pleasure you take in the misfortune of another.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Simon Butler | 3 Comments