Thursday, 21 August 2014

Greenbelt 2014

I am off to Greenbelt shortly, and very much looking forward to preaching at the Goth Eucharist this year. Don't let us being in a youth venue put you off.

As usual please say hello if you see me. I may not recognise you if your twitter avatar is a chicken and your I.D. is not your name. Explain clearly to me who you are with hand actions if required.

Speaking of names I will be trying to see people I have never heard of (as usual) this year. I continue to be suspicious of Christian celebrity and an advocate of symposia where all contribute. I will be argueing for this passionately from the contributors hospitality area with a charged phone and a free hot drink (if such a thing exists this year).

However I would far rather be talking about passionate, inclusive, charismatic (anglo) catholic life and mission. So grab me. DM me. Text me.

I will be the one in skinny jeans. And red hair.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Outwards and Upwards

Vicky Beeching and I grew up in a conservative church culture together in Canterbury. Back when I was in my late teens she was in her early teens. We haven’t really kept in touch over the years – we have bumped into each other at festivals – had a few conversations.

Vicky went on to Oxford and then on to be a well known worship leader in the US, where she played in some of the largest churches and Christian gatherings. She has a number of albums recorded. A few years back Vicky came back to the UK and has started work in television. She is hotly tipped as a future presenter of Songs of Praise.

This last week Vicky came out in the Independent as gay.

Vicky speaks of the huge struggles she has had since she was 13 finding acceptance of herself and reconciling her faith and her sexuality. It is a deeply moving testimony to her faith in Christ despite those who follow Christ causing her such pain. I have experienced some of that too, including the prayer ministry she describes, as have some of the people who have been closest to me in my life.

I have to say that whilst I respect the official teaching of the Church of England on human sexuality I think that much of our thinking is confused and disordered both theologically and in its scientific understanding of sexuality. Our official teaching assumes a model of ‘Royal Male Headship’ in marriage that certainly wouldn't wash in many clergy marriages, and doesn't make any sense in a church that embraces ordained women's ministry. Our official teaching fails to engage with complexities of human relationships - and the reality that who you fall in love with and want to walk down the beach with as the sun sets on your lives together is a deeper and more beautiful thing than simply which gender(s) you fancy.

In the Eucharistic prayer Jesus calls to us ‘Lift up your hearts’, and we respond 'We lift them up to the Lord'. In the Eucharist we enter the holy of holies in heaven. The bread of heaven is what we receive and that shapes who we are and are becoming. And so also theologically our hearts must be in heaven. Although our roots are in earth, a fallen paradise, our theology must be shaped by where we are going, a new heavenly and earthly paradise.

Jesus himself tells us himself that in heaven we shall be like the Angels, beyond male and female (Matt 22:30). St. Paul reminds us that in Christ there is no Male and Female (Gal. 3:28). 

However dearly we may hold our own gender or the gender of the one we love - it is passing away. Perhaps not something lost, but something gained as we like Christ become the fullness of all humanity can be. The Church as Christ’s bride (Rev. 21:2) speaks of marriage beyond gender, one that is procreative in the deepest sense. Truly life giving and eternal life long. As a church we have accepted that a priest’s gender does not matter as they lead us into heavenly places at the table. To welcome and marry people whatever their sexuality is part of the same heavenwards movement. 

Christian life isn't just about looking forward to heaven, but bringing heaven to earth. As we pray before we receive Christ in bread and wine "Your will be done … on earth as it is in heaven". Here is a journey that we are on together. Christ came first to the Jew, then to the Greek converts to Judaism and then finally to the whole world. As the Church has grown and spread that welcome into God’s Kingdom has expanded, has embraced the poor, the marginalized, those on the edges. As Christ did in his early ministry.

And that is the story we find in today's Gospel reading. It is a complex reading – poetic in the greek, rich in cultural allusions to relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Some commentators suggest that the women represents wealthy landowners who treated the Jewish people like work dogs – living off the scraps of the land.

But simply, here is an outsider crying Lord have Mercy. Just as we cry Lord have Mercy. She is one with us.

The disciples cannot cope with the implications of her desiring Jesus and God’s mercy. Even Jesus’ answer to the disciples suggests that he did not hear her cry. But she was persistent, she comes to Jesus kneeling, just as we kneel before Him in prayer and adoration at the Eucharist. In the conversation she has with Jesus she makes it clear that she is happy with the scraps from the table. That is enough. And Jesus responds ‘Great is your faith!’ And her daughter was healed.

Which means that this woman, the outsider, the stranger, distrusted, suspected, now by Jesus’ acknowledgement she is one his sheep. As is my friend Vicky, As is each of us. 

In our liturgy this we are reminded that we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under His table. But we can receive because Jesus welcomes and accepts us. Not just a welcome to people like us, but a welcome to everyone. To embrace that is probably the most challenging goal any family could set themselves. But if anyone can do it I believe that the church can.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

These are not the Liberalisms you are looking for?

Following last weeks response to Prof. Linda Woodhead there has been some discussion of the use of the word liberal. Theological liberalism can be understood in a number of senses.

One sense is technical and historical: a C19th protestant theological method whose root is identified in the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and theological movements that have followed. But even in the late C19th century theological liberalism had a broader non-technical sense. John Henry Newman wrote:
Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true.
Newman also wrote more positively of wider liberal understanding of society:
There is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command which are among its avowed principles, and the natural laws of society.
But again for balance Newman also contends:
Hitherto, it has been considered that religion alone, with its supernatural sanctions, was strong enough to secure submission of the masses of our population to law and order; now the Philosophers and Politicians are bent on satisfying this problem without the aid of Christianity.
To summarise Newman sees the the weakness in liberal society as its rejection of the supernatural action of God (through the church) in building and shaping society. Liberalism in religion in Newman's thought is principally a rejection of positive truth, or as I would see it truth of a supernatural origin.

Moving forward to to the mid C20th century and C.S. Lewis writes of non-technical liberalism:
It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. It may depart from Anglican Christianity in either of two ways: (1) It may be so “broad” or “liberal” or “modern” that it in fact excludes any real supernaturalism and thus ceases to be Christian at all. (2) It may, on the other hand, be Roman.
I include the end of the quote because I am aware that Lewis (who was highly sacramental and held a form of purgatory) was issuing a warning to the Catholic tradition in the CofE - although today he may have said 'It may, on the other hand, be Vineyard'.

Speaking at Westcott (published as Fern Seeds and Elephants) Lewis engaged with Liberalism again:
A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia - which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes.
There is much more that could be explored in Newman and Lewis. Both Lewis and Newman have a sense that how Christians respond to the world should be drawn from the supernatural. There are wider theological questions about the authority of the church, how the miraculous occurs today, the nature of biblical inspiration and the intentions of original authors. However the direction is from God to us through these supernatural actions. The world is then to be interpreted and shaped by theology rather than our theology interpreted and shaped by the world.

From discussions on Twitter it is clear that some who identify with the term liberal do not mean liberal in either the ways thus far discussed. Rather the term simply means 'open minded'. Is this what Prof. Woodhead means by liberal? Helpfully we have a talk delivered for Inclusive Church here.

In the presentation Prof. Woodhead identifies two forms of liberalism. In the slides 'Recovering Liberalism':
1.Ethical or political liberalism: the belief that each individual should have the right to decide how best to live his her life (JS Mill) The opposite is not conservatism but authoritarianism, illiberalism, paternalism. ‘There is a higher authority to which you should defer.’
2.Hermeneutical liberalism. The belief that the meaning of no text, including the Bible, can be accessed directly and without human interpretation, or that there is a text which does not itself involve human interpretation.It is perfectly possible – and common – for hermeneutical liberals to believe that the Bible is nevertheless the Word of God.
So for my purposes, liberal Christians are Christians who see ethical/political liberalism and hermeneutical liberalism as integral to the Christian faith. (Not as secular ‘add-ons’, but as growing out of the Christian tradition itself.)
This definition is far more precise than Prof. Woodhead's more general description of those in favour of the ordination of women and committed same sex relationships as liberal. The concept of Christianity being a tradition out of which grows the rejection of a higher authority (God?) seems especially problematic. Furthermore hermeneutic liberals are not alone in recognising the human element in interpreting texts - what seems to be missing here is any suggestion of reading the text within community.This in general is the post-liberal Christian response to theological liberalism.

In the talk however Prof. Woodhead focusses on ethical rather than theological liberalism. This is defined by views in three areas, being in favour of abortion, being in favour of assisted dying and being in favour of same sex marriage. It follows then that a liberal Christian is one who supports all three.

Unhelpfully in Prof. Woodhead's statistics a liberal Anglican is described as someone scoring '3 or less' on the three questions. Three could indicate someone in favour of same sex marriage (2 points), opposed to assisted dying (0 points), and who feels the current abortion time limit should be lowered (1 point).

There seems to be a pattern here. Not only are those in favour of the ordination of women (and possibly in favour of same sex marriage) co-opted as liberals, but so are those with moderate conservative ethical views.

In the rest of the presentation Prof. Woodhead asks:
Why has the power of liberalism in the CofE declined when Anglicans and the country have been getting more and more liberal?
And why has the influence of (liberal) Anglicanism in British society declined?
Prof. Woodhead gives a number of answers. A number of them could be compelling if the liberal Christianity described was thriving anywhere else in the world. The most obvious answer to the question is that the described liberal Christianity does not work - even for liberals. However this does not mean that inclusive Christianity cannot work, or that  inclusive Christianity requires Prof. Woodhead's liberalism.

From a wider perspective it could be suggested that the Prof. Woodhead's whole project is endeavouring to co-opt others with inclusive views to a particular brand of discredited theological liberalism, whether they like it or not.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Is Right Wing Morality Costing the Church of England Dearly?

I have responded to Linda Woodhead's perceptions of the Church of England before. The most recent piece of writing comes from USC Religion Dispatches.

To summarise: The article claims that church attendance is sharply declining. That one reason for this is that the hierarchy is out of step with its members - the latter being more liberal on moral issues, and the former having become more conservative. The article explores the dynamics between three parties in the church liberals, conservative evangelicals and traditionalist anglo-catholics in relation to the ordination of women to the episcopate, concluding that despite a post-liberal turn in leadership since the 1970's the average Anglican would
"have preferred a church which was more responsive to their moral convictions, and better able to accommodate the diversity of their views."
So let's start with church attendance: The last Statistics for Mission was in 2012. It shows a small decline year on year:

Meanwhile in London Diocese there has been growth in church membership running up to 2010:

Whilst these figures don't suggest that everything is rosy in the Church of England they don't tell a story of 'sharp decline'. I am not convinced they tell as story of stagnation either. With the average age of an Anglican stable at 61-62 over the last four years there has had to be growth to compensate for death or residential care of church members. 

Some of this growth must be coming from younger people to balance 'ageing congregations'. However it is not just younger people coming to faith. On the ground the Church of England seems to be effective with engaging with the active, fit and recently retired. It is a certain type of ageism which places the 'retired' into a single category rather than recognising that Baby Boomers are a very different generation to their parents. As a generation X Christian I am delighted to see the Boomer generation coming to faith later in life.

In reading Prof. Woodhead's wider research I am uncertain as to what 'Christian' means. I do not disagree that cultural Christianity has sharply declined. However practised faith is still present.  

Prof. Woodhead's description of Church of England as a three party system is also confusing. The term 'liberal' is particularly meaningless. Following C.S.Lewis I would define liberalism in Christianity as the exclusion of 'any real supernaturalism'. This may be manifested in the denial of the supernatural action of God in the sacraments, through the church, in scripture, in spiritual gifts or miracles. Different traditions focus on God's supernatural action in different areas - my own catholic tradition endeavours to embrace all five.

Many of the proponents for the fullness of women's ordination are then simply not liberals. I trained with and have worked with a number of charismatic evangelical women and men who believed God to be calling both men and women to all orders of the church, and understood this to be compatible with the (supernatural) witness of scripture. An increasing number of evangelicals and charismatics are gently reviewing their views on human sexuality too, again in a way they see as compatible with the (supernatural) witness of scripture. To label this broad group as liberals does violence to their spiritual tradition and convictions. 

Prof. Woodhead at least speaks of conservative evangelicals but makes no distinction between groups of anglo-catholics. There are those opposed to the ordination of women - 'traditionalist catholics' but also those who fully support women's ministry. The term 'liberal catholic' is unhelpful here. The Society of Catholic Priests fully supports the ordination of women and requires members to believe in the supernatural action of God in the sacraments and to assent to the historic creeds. Because of anglo-catholic's different theological method to evangelicals the matter of same sex relationships was settled earlier with the SCP being 'inclusive'. To label this group too as liberals also does violence to their spiritual tradition and convictions. 

I cannot speak for evangelicals who share my views, but as an  anglo-catholic and charismatic who supports de-gendered sacraments, Prof. Woodhead, please stop calling me a liberal! 

I do not deny that there is a broad or more liberal party in the Church of England. - I embrace them as fellow Christians and as friends. But I do not believe that they are the active part who enabled the recent legislation to pass through synod. It would not have happened without evangelicals and catholics who firmly believed that God could act supernaturally through female bishops, and that such faith was consistent with orthodox Christianity. 

At the end of the article Prof. Woodhead muses over the 'popular argument that illiberal forms of religion do better than liberal forms, even in liberal societies.' With Prof. Woodhead I recognise that this is not clear cut. Where the focus of research needs to be is not on different views of gender and sexuality but on the thoroughly un-liberal and un-modern idea that God acts supernaturally in the world. 

Are congregations which embrace this idea, and seek to share God with others, seeing people come to faith, and those which reject it waning? I suspect that it is the latter form of liberalism which has cost the Church of England dearly, and that it is the former form of non-liberalism which will ultimately save it.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014


It gives me a huge amount of pleasure to title this post just Bishops. Not Female Bishops, not Women in the Episcopate. But Bishops.

The process has been long, with many meanderings along the way. It has been hard for proponents and opponents. It has I suspect been especially hard for women in the catholic movement who owe their understanding of the faith and discovery of vocation in some part to those opposed to their ordination. Some of those conversations are still happening. I had one today.

For me something remarkable has come out of the heartache and the debate. Bishops are important. Not important as managers, not important as public functionaries, not important as leaders, but important as the hands and feet of the Apostles.

Circumstance made Presbyters.

Apostles made Deacons.

But Jesus, in breathing on the Apostles, Jesus made Bishops.

Bishops are not vicars with a better hat, but the foundational blocks of the church's ministry. They inspire, they send, they break new ground, they discern, they ordain, they teach, they serve. And I reckon we need more not less of that in the church.