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.”


“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 | 7 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

Independence & Safeguarding: Marking Our Own Homework?

by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and member of Living in Love and Faith project

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) issued its final report on the Church of England last autumn. Now, the heat is on, because the deadline for the church’s response to the various recommendations is 22 March.

That explains a lot. It explains why the document on Independent Safeguarding Structures for the Church of England presented to General Synod last Saturday was only sent out two days before the meeting. It also explains why it has so many typos: I’m all in favour of getting on with sorting out the safeguarding mess, but typos don’t give me much confidence. This document was clearly completed in a rush. The House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council each had just one week in which to suggest changes. One revealing typo features in a section about how ‘club mentality’ is “exacerbated in an institution where ordination conveys authority which can leads to a culture of clericalism in which challenging the authority of the ordained becomes a kind of spiritual offence”. “Can leads to”? I’m guessing that this started out as “leads to” but someone didn’t like the suggestion that clericalism is an inevitable part of ordination and wanted to add that “can”.

It’s a good point about how we weaponize the spiritual, but was it right to make that change? Fiona Gardner’s Sex, Power, Control: Responding to Abuse in the Institutional Church (2021) notes how difficult it is to challenge the authority of the ordained. In 2005, while Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser for Bath and Wells, she was shut out by the diocesan hierarchy as it closed ranks to protect itself when the abuse carried out by Rev. David Smith became known. In her words, she was “seen as peripheral (not ordained and female and not, as it turned out, ‘in the know’ about what had been going on)”. Smith’s crimes finally came to public attention in 2007.

That point about how the hierarchy failed to see someone who was “not ordained” as a peer and a professional is revealing; even more, the combination of being “not ordained” and female. Independent Safeguarding Structures includes a point made by the survivors who worked on the current proposals; namely, that clergy training needs more on “the causes and nature of abuse”. For more on that, again, see Gardner, who uses her psychoanalytical experience to think about how the culture of deference – clericalism – protects abusers. She quotes David Runcorn on the role of boarding school values in shaping abusers: “devotion to the team” but also “distrust of women, suppression of emotion, assumptions of patriarchal and hierarchical social ordering, mocking of any feminine trait in men and minimal empathy for the weak and ordinary”. Can the Church of England name and reject these values?

I was reminded of boarding school culture again when listening to the presentation on Independent Safeguarding Structures made to General Synod. We were told several times that the aim of a new Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) is to avoid the church “marking its own homework”. The phrase was used by Richard Scorer, representing 21 people abused within the Anglican Church, at the end of his submission on the first day of the public hearings at IICSA, 5 March 2018. It has since featured in media headlines about the Peter Ball abuse case, and after the Dean of Lincoln Cathedral had failed to report a disclosure made to her. It has also appeared in headlines around the inquiry into historic child sex abuse in Scottish football.

But marking your own homework – self-assessment – is a recognised part of teaching at all levels: here is a 2017 document from Trinity College Dublin. And it can be a very good idea. Assessment has traditionally been something from which students are excluded, so that self-assessment changes the dynamics of power as the teacher becomes a facilitator rather than the mysterious source of grades which determine your future. When I’ve used self-assessment as an educator, I’ve found that students are often harsher when marking themselves; they are more aware of the shortcomings of their own work. Self-assessment helps students to understand how they learn. But – and it’s an important ‘but’ – it requires humility and honesty, and those have been qualities in short supply as the Church of England has covered up abuse.

Independent Safeguarding Structures is certainly an improvement on the usual unconvincing claims that ‘The church has come a long way…’ or ‘That was the past and it’s all fine now’. In Bishop Jonathan Gibbs’ presentation to Saturday’s Synod, he talked about “things we are not doing well now”. Wording like “Given the church’s past failings and present weaknesses in safeguarding…” is far more realistic. Other good things include the acknowledgement of inconsistency between dioceses on safeguarding arrangements; that it is the “internal cultures of the Church of England which too often have resulted in preventing best practice”; the involvement of survivors and the intention to involve them even more as Phase 2 develops; the realisation that it is at the very least problematic to expect someone to trust the institution through which their abuse took place to provide a fair investigation into what happened to them.

Bishop Jonathan said that the aim of independent safeguarding is to rebuild trust. It’s clear from the document that they are expecting people to be suspicious; even needing to say how important it is to “demonstrate that the appointment process is not being manipulated in favour of ‘safe’ candidates” shows the basic lack of trust that has resulted from this long and sorry history of failing to deal with abuse, as does the wording that this is a search for “a structure which the church may put in place, but which it cannot frustrate”.

Will this document be enough to satisfy IICSA? It isn’t clear to me whether the aim of Phase 1 of Independent Safeguarding Structures – an Independent Safeguarding Board – is quite what IICSA had in mind. IICSA specifically asked for Diocesan Safeguarding Officers to be able to make decisions independently of the bishop; the present document envisages them instead appealing to the ISB if “difficulties arise within the diocese which compromise their effectiveness”.

Even if it is enough, we can’t abdicate all responsibility to an independent body. In some ways, we are still going to need to mark our own homework. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it requires not just honesty, but self-knowledge. Marking our own homework can be part of our reflection on how we are doing. Every one of us needs to be aware of our role in preventing abuse. Renaming safeguarding ‘training’ as safeguarding ‘learning’ – something else mentioned on Saturday – isn’t enough.

As for those who have already suffered at the hands of church abusers, listening, repentance and redress must be prioritized.

Posted in Helen King, IICSA, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse | 2 Comments

Change is Coming…Even if We Feel the Record is Stuck

by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley and Member of General Synod

“I can hear change humming
In its loudest, proudest song.
I don’t fear change coming,
And so I sing along.”

Words from US Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s forthcoming book, Change Sings

Change is humming. Can you hear it?

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote in a recent article the Church in changing times:

“The Anglican stability that people rightly cherish — as do we — is the result of our willingness to change. As the theologian Hans Kung once observed: ‘To stay the same when everything else around you changes is not to stay the same.’”

Are we willing to change, to sing along?

Some of us thrive in changing times. I admit to relishing the challenge of leading change. It energises me, yet I understand that others find it threatening.  What I am struggling with right now however, is not being able to sing along with change, as everything feels stuck, and June freedom still feels a very long way away.

Change is humming, but it’s so quiet now it’s almost imperceptible.

We know that the world has changed. We know (whether we like it or not) that some aspects of church life will need to change. We can work towards that change to a degree, but this has all gone on so long, that many of us can’t really remember what ‘normal church’ felt like, so planning for change feels very abstract.

In a reflection entitled, “A change has begun” delivered in March last year, Rowan Williams said:

“And as we contemplate the coming months, not knowing when we can breathe again, it’s worth thinking about how already the foundations have been laid for whatever new opportunities God has for us on the far side of this crisis.”

The change that began humming last March will provide new opportunities, but the far side is still yet to come.

Change is humming, but the record has stuck.

I was challenged last week by a wise woman, when I spoke of feeling that so much of the work I believe we need to do to change and strengthen our churches for the future is ‘on hold’.  She urged me not to press pause, but rather to respect the unique phase we are in and look for opportunities to do new and different things, to nourish, support and enable people in this season so that we come out of it flourishing rather than depleted and exhausted.

She pointed me to William Bridges’ writing on transitions, where he argues that the process of change is different from the change itself. Change is situational, transition is more personal, the inner reorientation that enables the change to become real. It involves rites of passage, appropriate endings and beginnings, dying and rebirth.  He writes helpfully about the ‘neutral zone’ between the ending of one stage and the beginning of the next, being the key element of transitioning well.  In this neutral zone we can easily feel apathetic, we drift in an untethered way, disorientated and uncertain, disconnected and disengaged. It’s certainly how I have felt in this last lockdown especially.  But Bridges asserts that “the neutral zone provides access to an angle of vision on life that one can get nowhere else. And it is a succession of such views over a lifetime that produces wisdom.”

Change is humming, but in the neutral zone it’s humming a different tune.

We are going to be in some degree of neutral zone until at least late June.  How can we embrace this gap for something fruitful?  Rather than trying to go into reverse, back to the way things were, or into fast-forward, planning for the future without knowing the parameters, can we simply embrace the emptiness to prepare well for coming out of lockdown into a new beginning?

Individually, the neutral zone can be used positively for retreat, time out for prayer and reflection. Although social distancing and staying at home have meant most of us have had enforced time away from others, there is a difference between isolation and retreat. Choosing to enter the wilderness as Jesus did in preparation for beginning his ministry might reframe the experience, enabling it to be a more spiritually regenerating period. Perhaps engaging with Brueggemann’s grouping of the Psalms into those of orientation, disorientation and new orientation will speak hope into our soul.

Collectively, the neutral zone can provide space to invest in relationships.  How can I use this moment to deepen understanding with a colleague, to communicate well, to facilitate creative thinking?  How can we offer just enough structure to reassure people they are held and secure, without constraining new ideas which will, in due course, emerge? How best do we set short term goals that can be celebrated when met, without overwhelming people? How can we set an outline direction of travel, in the midst of uncertainty, such that the background hum of change is helpful mood music rather than dissonant clanging?

Making peace with the present will enable a more healthy emergence into the future. In due course we may have to revisit endings. Some things didn’t end well, because we had no idea they were gone for good. This time last year much that was laid down was done so temporarily, but some of it has since died and inadvertently been let go of for ever, and must be appropriately grieved for before something new can begin and grow in its place.

We will, as always, weave in and out of endings, beginnings, and the neutral zone, as transition is part of life, and navigating transitions well is what grows wisdom.

This season of change has the potential in our churches to build to a crescendo at the right time.  The enthusiasm with which we add our unique voice to the song to make it loud and proud will depend to no large extent on how we engage with this neutral zone of our transition.  But we do so, in all our rich harmonies, knowing that our remodelled selves, and our remodelled churches, are safe in Christ.

“‘Christ yesterday and today’, says the prayer over the Easter Candle, ‘all times belong to him and all the ages’. He is contemporary to me now; and when I remember with honesty and hope, I discover that he is contemporary with what I remember, faithfully at work in my past as in my present. And as I struggle and pray to bring together the fragments of an identity that is always being shaken around and remodelled, I get some glimpses of the promised end in which Christ simply embraces the whole of me, all I have been, and makes it one with itself and with him.”

Rowan Williams, “Candles in the Dark – Faith, hope and love in a time of pandemic

Posted in Coronavirus, Nikki Groarke, We Can't Go Back... | Leave a comment