by the Revd Canon Anna Norman-Walker, Rector of Streatham and past Member of General Synod
Last week I found my prejudices deeply challenged. I had been rather surprised to be invited to lead a session for first year Ordinands at St Mellitus College in central London.
Surprised, because I would have imagined I might not be ‘their’ type. It was well over ten years since I had enjoyed the strumming of guitars and raising of arms in worship and am now leading an inclusive, liturgical church in South London, having spent 6 ½ years previously in a Cathedral. These days I am more likely to sing the Exultat at Easter than ‘See what a morning!’.
And so, it was with both a measure of curiosity and anxiety, that I hopped on the bus from Streatham on Monday afternoon and made my way to Kensington. I fully expected that I was about to be ‘thrown to the evangelicals’ and then (God forbid) prayed for, by the charismatics!
I, like many of us who inhabit different spaces within the Church of England, have been following with interest the church planting strategies of HTB and it has felt from a distance that the establishment of St Mellitus, as an alternative route to Ordination, was a further bid to conquer the Church of England once and for all.
What I discovered could not have been further from the truth.
The student body was varied in age and experience, many were in placement churches which were Central, Liberal or Anglo Catholic. The age demographic was refreshingly young and yet the quality of questions and openness to fresh learning surprisingly mature and there was a strong resistance to ‘labelling’.
Yes, there was a ‘broadly evangelical’ feel to the place, but it was open, generous and I can confirm that evening prayer was straight from Common Worship.
This experience led me to ponder who the Bishop of Maidstone imagined he was speaking on behalf of last week when he wrote to the Bishops of Litchfield Diocese on matters concerning the full inclusion of LGBTQI people in the life of their churches?
The media has swept up the ‘evangelical wing’ of the Church of England as those who are cheering the Bishop on, but I believe they are wrong to do so in such general terms. It is true that many LGBTQI Christians have been subjected to appalling treatment in some evangelical churches and yet there are others who have found a warm and inclusive welcome.
Evangelicalism is a spectrum, not a tribal identity and there are many who find themselves at home in churches that would describe themselves as evangelical, yet who despair at the approach to homosexuality that Bishop Rod and his supporters hold.
Moreover, some may conclude that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is not God’s ideal, but this would not necessarily lead them to a demand for repentance, a withholding of the sacraments or a withdrawal from leadership. There are also those who have found ways of being entirely comfortable with a difference of opinion within the churches that they worship, because they have come to understand and practise grace. This would define them as ‘Anglican’ evangelicals in the truest sense of the word, because Anglicans have always held a range of views in matters of faith and the ethic that flows from it.
I say these things because the evangelical stable was somewhere I once dwelt, and I know it well. I understand the language and the culture and many of my dearest friends remain firmly a part of it. In recent years I have drunk countless cups of coffee with those who wanted a safe space to explore reconciling their conscience, experience and developing theology with what they perceived to be the evangelical ‘party line’ but about which they were growing increasingly uncomfortable.
Almost all these conversations have been about the acceptance of homosexual people and their relationships, the subtext being ‘if I change my mind on this subject, then where will I belong?’ The answer is simply ‘in the Church of England!’
One of the many wonderful things about the Anglican tradition and of the Church of England within it, is that we are all sitting on a ‘big old sofa’, where there is room to move about a bit, if you wish.
I recall Guardian columnist Peter Ormerod summing us up brilliantly some time ago when he wrote:
‘The Church of England is between Catholic and Protestant, between organ and drum kit, between robes and T-shirts, between conservatism and liberalism, between certainty and doubt, between silence and noise. All of those things can be found within it, but as a whole, as an idea, as an entity, it is a celebration of nuance, an avowedly flawed body of avowedly flawed people. In a culture that is increasingly polarised and awash with labels and identity politics, the C of E is a beacon of murkiness and is all the more beautiful for it’.
Which is why Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone has behaved very unwisely in writing as he has to his brother Bishops in Lichfield. Not because he holds the views that he does (he is perfectly entitled to them), but the fact that in doing so he is demonstrating an overt unwillingness to be an Anglican evangelical.
Perhaps a term at St Mellitus would help?