Monday, April 30, 2012

Just a few songs



This Cohen song is the one that I referred to obliquely yesterday:



One of the leading contenders for 'my favourite Show of Hands song':

The last song that I sang in church. Might sing another one yet.

And finally...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Address to West Mersea APCM 2012

I hope you are sitting comfortably. On Easter Sunday this year I had the great privilege of presiding at a service of Holy Communion at the Methodist Church here on the Island. I came away with two somewhat contradictory feelings – the first was that our differences are really very trivial, the second was: I quite like our differences! And that's OK. Yes, it is a scandal that there are different churches and different denominations all proclaiming that they love the Lord in their own unique and special way – and yes this does very much cut across Jesus' own intentions I am sure – but actually, I'm not sure that this is a scandal that matters all that much in the end, not compared to so many other things that go wrong. What I mean is that – as I discovered through being chair of Churches Together In Mersea for four years – our capacity for working together and simply getting along does not depend upon the doctrinal discussions and debates that take place in the stratosphere – it simply means recognising our common faith in Christ alone, and then slowly, and patiently, working together wherever we can.

Another way of saying this is to say that our unity isn't something that we can achieve with our own efforts. Rather, our unity is already present – it is a unity which stems from our common baptism and our common confession in Christ alone – and our spiritual path is less to achieve unity than simply to recognise that it is already there – we don't have to try quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

I have become very fond of a cartoonist who calls himself the naked pastor, and some of his cartoons can be found in the Benefice Bulletin each month. One of his great passions is denouncing “vision”, and I am persuaded that, in the sense he criticises, vision is indeed a deeply damaging thing for a church to pursue. The naked pastor is drawing on some insights that were well articulated by one of my heroes, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book 'Life Together' – which does exactly what it says on the tin, in that it is all about what it means for Christians to live together. Listen to this:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.

And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day?

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together--the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship...”

I think that one of the reasons why this resonates so deeply with me is that I am a man prone to visions, of trying to fix things and put things right. What Bonhoeffer is articulating does not, I believe, preclude any attempt at seeking to reform or improve our common Christian life. Rather, what I believe is being described is the right spirit in which to proceed. That is, the right spirit for seeking to develop our common life has to begin by acknowledging the gift of God's grace in Christ alone – and that, as a result, we begin by responding and co-operating with what God is already doing. We do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

I'd like to share another quotation with you that I have found valuable – this one much shorter! One of my favourite authors is the American writer Eugene Peterson – many of you will be familiar with 'The Message' which is his translation of the Bible, but most of his writings are about what it means to be a pastor, and I have found him tremendously insightful and helpful as I work out what it means to be a priest in the Church of England today. He is very fond of a quotation from the American novel Moby Dick. Now I should say that I have never read Moby Dick – it's been on my shelf asking to be read for many years – but I know it is about Captain Ahab chasing a great whale. The quotation which Peterson likes – and which he takes as teaching us something absolutely essential for what it means to be a Christian today – is this: “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from toil.” In other words, if we are truly to carry out the will of God, we have to be rooted in quiet prayer and contemplation, in blessed assurance. We shall not find the will of God by striving through earthquake, wind and fire. Only when we hear the still small voice will we be able to know what it is that God is calling us to do. It is only then that we will be enabled to spend our labour on what actually does satisfy.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus tells us “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I am starting to believe that when we find ourselves in a state of perpetual weariness, it is a sign that we may be trying too hard spiritually, and we need to remember to ourselves that we love a God of mercy and Sabbath; that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more than He already does – or, indeed, any less than He already does. One of the implications of what Bonhoeffer is describing – of accepting our fellow Christians as a gift to us, of realising that we don't need to achieve a unity but simply recognise the unity that already exists through our common baptism – is that it opens up a space for real and genuine love to emerge. That is, it helps us to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Over the last several years I have taken lots of weddings, and conducted lots of wedding preparation classes, and seen some marriages work, and some marriages fail. One thing that has really been brought home to me from seeing all this is that it is always a mistake to try and change your partner – that is, to try and force a different pattern of behaviour on them. The root problem, I believe, is one of a lack of respect. To seek to force a change in someone is no longer to treat them as a person; rather, they become a means to an end, whatever end that might be. I don't believe that it is wrong to seek change – but I believe that the way to see that change come about is first to pray, and second, to be the change that you wish to see – to model it, and show what it looks like.

I believe that the same thing applies in our common Christian life together. If we take our baptism seriously then we are yoked to each other in just the way that a married couple is yoked to each other – we are here for the duration. And no doubt it is true that just as within a married couple there are all sorts of ways in which the one spouse infuriates the other, so too there are ways in which we as Christians infuriate each other – and that has led over the centuries to the many different churches. Yet when our common baptism is respected – when the marriage vows are followed – then a wholly different quality of relationship becomes possible. Suddenly there is a safe place within which to grow as a human being – safe, because here there is at least the rumour of unconditional love. A love which isn't earned as a reward for good behaviour, but simply a gift, a grace. In other words, when we recognise our common baptism, and what it means, then we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease.

The implication of this, I believe, is that the fundamental Christian category is not whether you are a member of a church, good though that is; it is not whether you are a disciple of Jesus, good though that is; it is not even whether you are a believer, good though that is. I believe that the most fundamental category is the one set out by Jesus as recorded in John's gospel – which is that of being a friend. I believe that friendship is the most fundamental Christian understanding – a friendship which seeks what is best for the other simply because it is the best for the other. There is no ulterior motive. There is no working out of issues. There is simply a solidarity – a solidarity in suffering, a solidarity in celebration, a simple being alongside one another in sorrow and in joy.

In both our Ecclesiastes and Isaiah readings this morning there is mention of the joy that comes from simple fellowship: “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.” We are greatly blessed in the provisioning of food and drink in this church community, and I do want to pay particular tribute to our social and catering committee, for all their hard work and the wonderful results – some of which we'll be sampling in a little while. One of my favourite moments in church life is the breakfast on the first Sunday of the month, when people from very diverse services sit down and eat together. That, I believe, is a great blessing, and I see it as having tremendous importance in our common life. Which is why it is so wonderful to be able to say that, very soon, the Lord being our helper, we will have a new kitchen in the church hall and so that element of our fellowship will be reinforced and strengthened. I should add – if we get permission to do the work this summer – I anticipate that the first time that it will be properly used is when Bishop Stephen comes to visit us in September for our Harvest festival. Which is somehow very appropriate, don't you think?

Of course, the good news on the new kitchen is simply a part of the good news on the financial front generally. Last year, in January, I called together all the members of this church for a service wherein I explained our financial situation. We were running in the red, and had been for several years. The situation was not sustainable – and had become a cause of significant concern. So we did two things. We launched an internal appeal to try and raise our income, coupled with a real look at where we might save money. And we also launched an external appeal to the community to help raise funds towards help with the fabric, joined with the launch of the Friends. I am very happy to be able to tell you that those efforts have been blessed by God, blessed beyond our expectations. Last year – with a very slight rounding – we broke even on our household costs, thanks to the increase in giving from this congregation. We broke even not even including a significant legacy that we received, which has been parked in a separate fund for a rainy day. Thank you for your generosity in such trying economic circumstances – and please don't stop! I believe that we are now on a sustainable path and I would like especially to thank our financial committee led by Roland for all that they have done to sort out our situation.

More widely, as I am sure you are all fully aware, our appeal to the community has been moving forward – and we are roughly a third of the way towards our eventual target. I would like, in this context, to pay tribute to Kathy Bowman-Dines, who has worked so very hard to get the Friends up and running, with such success both in terms of the events themselves and, of course, in terms of raising money for our necessary fabric works. There are many people who have helped the Friends, with their time and money and effort, inside the church and outside, far too numerous to list, but you know who you are, and I hope you also know that you have done a great service to this church and helped move it towards a happier future.

To talk about moving towards a happier future is implicitly to acknowledge a less happy past. Our reading from Ecclesiastes, famously, says that there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. I do believe that church life moves in seasons, and my impression is that in this church we have been through a season of winter, which is now passing. I am aware of so many people who have received serious knocks, often in terms of health but also psychologically and spiritually, and I see the financial problems of last year as simply one symptom of a common crisis which touched on all aspects of our life together. I know how much of a struggle it has been for so many people, but I do believe that, as with our finances, so too with our wider life, as a community we are moving into a new season – a season of Spring and new life. Perhaps it was divine promptings that shifted this Annual Meeting to the season of Spring and Easter, when we can shout Alleluia to each other as we share in celebrating the resurrection of Christ. I do think it would be good for us to keep meeting in this season each year. I believe it sends out a true message of where we are – united in our devotion to the risen Lord who has conquered death, and in whom we might rest and find peace; for whom we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease. At the risk of breaking my own advice against visions, I do believe that we have a very great deal to look forward to, and that this church community can move forward not just with hope but with confident expectation of all that God is doing on our behalf, to bless each of us and to bless our common life together as a church. Rather like Moses I believe that I can see the promised land, and it isn't very far away. Yet, also rather like Moses, I do not believe that I will be able to get there with you.

After a lot of soul-searching, and having pondered and prayed for some time, I do believe that my time as your Rector is drawing to a close, and that you need a new Rector, a Joshua perhaps, to take you forward into a new season of your life together. I don't have anything established as yet – and it may well be some time before God actually shows me the place where he wants this slave to go – but I believe that my sharing this understanding with you now will help our on-going conversations and our common life. The truth is that I too am very tired – and as I've been saying, I think that this tiredness is a sign that I need to go home to God and find my rest in Him. I, too, need to cease my strivings, and find my rest in Christ alone. To go back to the Moby Dick reference, I do not know what sort of great whale God wishes me to pursue – or, indeed, if, rather than pursuing the whale like Captain Ahab, he instead wants me to be swallowed up by one and thrown up onto a beach somewhere – but I feel as if, in sharing this with you, I am recovering my spiritual balance. There is a modern Christian aphorism which I quite like – if you are going to learn to walk on water you need to get out of the boat. Well, I feel like I'm getting out of the boat, and I'm very nervous, but also excited to see what's going to happen.

I would like to return to where I began this morning, in talking about taking a service on Easter Sunday at the Methodist church; where the differences were so trivial. Our unity is something that is given to us in Christ alone, not in any effort or achievement on our part. When we can recognise this – and when we can recognise what it means for us simply to be friends in Christ – then we do not have to work quite so hard; our strivings can cease. The ground of our unity is our baptism and so, in accordance with the most ancient church tradition, in this great season of Easter, I would like to invite you now, my friends, please to stand, and reaffirm our baptismal vows.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

For you and for many (on "lay" presidency)

As this is again being discussed, I thought I'd bring it back to the top of the blog.

First posted July 2007, with a more personal follow-up here.

In the 'I confess' post, I said:

"I confess: that the idea of lay presidency appals me. It's either a redundant aim (because communion is celebrated by everyone) or it's simply an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology. Priesthood is a differentiation sideways, not vertically, so what precisely is being objected to? I can't see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost."

This has caused a bit of comment (off-line as well as on!) and it's certainly something which is being discussed here in Mersea. So I thought I'd expand a little further. Click 'full post' for text.

This is still in the style of summary points:

- the role of the ordained minister is not 'above' the people, which would undermine the priesthood of all believers, but 'alongside' the people - separated out to perform a particular role on their behalf - if they were all one part where would the body be?;
- if a bunch of Christians were stuck on the proverbial desert island without an ordained minister, then clearly it would be good for them to celebrate together; it is the community gathered which does the celebrating (even when not on the desert island) - but I would lay odds that they would choose one person to do it, and not just take turns (unless they were already formed in that theology!) - NB there's a thread in Lost that explores this, but I haven't finished series 2 yet, so I don't know where it's going;
- a community celebrating because there cannot be an ordained minister present is very different from a community celebrating because they choose not to value what the ordained minister represents (ie unity with the wider church) - one is acquiescence to necessity, the other is an elevation of separation;
- it is precisely that elevation of separation which is the core problem with lay presidency, so far as I understand it, ie it is a mark of the local community gathering all authority to itself, saying to all outside their self-defined boundaries 'we don't need you', whereas I see one of the essential tasks of the ordained minister as being to represent the wider church to the local community, and call it to account, not least through being the sign of fidelity to apostolic teaching;
- accepting ordained ministers is therefore accepting a wider church and all that that entails - it's the definition of catholic, in its proper sense, and it's the opposite of sectarian. It's about being a part of something larger than the individual ego, or even a gathering of individual egoes;
- the task of the ordained minister is balanced - to represent the wider church to the local and vice versa - and the ordained minister is the one who has overall pastoral and teaching responsibility within a particular community - presiding at the eucharist is the function and sign of that authority, not the source of it;
- the ordained minister therefore also has important disciplinary functions - eg the excommunication of unrepentant sinners; the rooting out of bad theology - which cannot be delegated - or is this also included in 'lay presidency'?!? I have visions of a church version of the grand Mexican Stand Off: 'I excommunicate you!' 'No, I excommunicate YOU!' 'NO, I EXCOMMUNICATE YOU!';
- of those whom I have met who advocate lay celebration, none actually want _anyone_ to do it, that is, they wouldn't be happy if a stranger walked in from the street; nor even if some particular known members of the congregation performed the duty (for various reasons). Moreover, the idea that the person doing it should be trained up to do it is uncontentious - and this leaves open the real issue which is about the laying on of hands by the wider church, and the value of sacramental theology as such;
- in other words, what is being objected to isn't the idea of some members of the community being allowed to preside rather than others, it's the idea that being ordained by the wider church body represents something important - and so we are back to the idea of the local congregation being an authority unto itself, without any accountability to the wider church, either in space or time;
- at bottom, my strong reaction against this notion is a belief that it is yet another example of the idolatry of choice that has infected Western society, whereby each person is their own little God able to muster tributes according to their own taste (much the most insidious form of slavery) and where worship simply becomes an agglomeration of common preference, leading to the ten thousand things (denominations) rather than a unity with a Body much greater than oneself. I think this is one of the core things that identifies me as 'Anglo-Catholic' - though this is supposedly 'whole-Anglican' theology;
- I find great comfort in the idea that my ministry and authority does not rest upon meeting the particular standards of a local community but is bound up with the wider church as a whole (as signified by the laying on of hands). Without this form of acknowledged authority it seems that each congregation goes its own separate way, in smaller and smaller splinters, in more and more egotistical forms (even when the egotism isn't exercised in a personal way, it is still a function of a theologically elevated egotism as such). One tyranny has replaced another (and the New Testament is hardly silent on the idea of ministerial authority). There seems to be no distinction between the idolatry developed in Western theology in the late Middle Ages, which separated priests from people, and the theology developed by the church - the same church that was inspired enough to put the Bible together - which progressively delineated who had authority to preside. Hence my comment that I see advocacy of lay presidency as "an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology... I can't see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost."

None of this is to say that an 'agape' isn't something wonderful, and to be encouraged, eg in small group ministry, only to differentiate it from 'Holy Communion' - that foretaste of heaven which is the celebration of the catholic church, local and universal. The ordained minister is the sign of that wider unity. 'Just' a sign? Only in the sense that the bread is 'just' a sign of the Body of Christ! It's not an accident that the idea of lay presidency is most closely associated with the least sacramental understandings of the Eucharist. If what happens in communion isn't ultimately that important, then it's not that important who presides - but if what happens in communion is a means of grace and essential medicine for the soul - then it's much more important that it is done rightly. "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself" - and 'the body' here isn't simply the bread, it's also the communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Efficiency and resilience in the Church of England

This is a line of thought prompted by the conversation about the structure of the Church of England (see Andrew Brown's article here). One of the key concepts in ecological thinking is the contrast between efficiency and resilience. An efficient system (or ecology) is one in which each resource is being utilised to the greatest possible extent. In contrast, a resilient system is one in which there are areas of under-utilised resource which stand the system in good stead when there is a particular crisis leading to a lack of availability of resources more generally. In other words, when a crisis comes, a resilient system is one that is able to bounce back from a shock, drawing on previously unexploited resources. An efficient system is more vulnerable to such shocks because it lacks those unexploited resources - it is like glass, robust in normal use but likely to shatter if those normal conditions depart.

The free market, of course, worships efficiency - that is, efficiency, obtaining the most value from a particular resource, is the structuring value around which economic activity orients itself. This can be seen quite explicitly in economic and business text books which use concepts like 'return on investment' to guide choices. If a company is able to become more efficient then that means it is able to generate a higher financial return for its shareholders (or more profit for the owners). Now there are questions here about different national cultures - for example, my understanding of the zaibatsu model in Japan (and the equivalents elsewhere) are that other values than simple efficiency can be employed by a company to guide their choices, eg long term growth of market share.

Be that as it may, the quest for efficiency is a hallmark of the particularly Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, and it is this which governs the business culture in our own country. It is also this which guides the culture of managerialism, which brings me to the point I want to make about the Church of England. I hope that it is clear that structuring our activities in order to make them more efficient is not necessarily of God. After all, one way of understanding efficiency is to see it as claiming that nothing must be gratuitous, all must 'earn their way' - and of course, that is in profound contrast to an understanding of the nature of God which sees God as overflowing in abundance and generosity towards the creation. Historically, the Church of England has been a very inefficient but very resilient system, reflecting the diverse historical origins of the different elements within it - parish churches, cathedrals, university foundations, and so on. One might say that the inheritance of the Church of England is one that has emphasised the importance of the local and the different, the queer and the inefficient. This, I feel, is part of the glory of the CofE - that it is capacious and tolerant; one might say, all manner of folk can find a fold of her skirts in which to hide and thrive.

It is this that was understood to be at stake with the Covenant process - a fruit of a search for efficiency if ever there was one. After all, one of the concomitant passions of the drive for efficiency is the drive for clarity (the distinguishing of the brand over and against other brands) and the drive for effective managerial control (in order that the activities are congruent with the values of the people in charge). I am delighted that the Covenant process has been checked, at least for now, but the underlying pursuit of efficiency is still present, and that entails that other bitter fruits will be forthcoming. (A small example is the fuss about fees - see Justin Lewis-Anthony's article here; it cannot be separated from the George Herbert process either.) Digging down into the spirituality of this approach we have a desire to control the outcome, which is based upon a fear that all that seems to be going wrong will continue to go wrong, which is based in turn upon a loss of trust that God is the one in charge and able to redeem whatever we do in order that his purposes are accomplished. In other words, what we see in the Church's pursuit of efficiency is evidence that we have forgotten what it means to believe in God, and so we grab at the latest glittering fix on offer from the world - at just the time when the world is changing in the opposite direction! After all, belief in God is something that is worked out in practice, not simply in the privacy of one's own opinions and thoughts - a bad tree will bear bad fruit, and this is what we are seeing. None of this is to say that efficiency, on its own, is a bad thing - it is to insist that any efficiencies sought have to be placed into the context of the other values held by the organisation. We are to be more like the zaibatsu than Goldman Sachs.

The Church of England will only be saved by those who are not consumed with conviction about how to save it, and who sit lightly at the prospect of the Church of England not being saved - simply because they are utterly committed to the sovereignty of the living God, and they trust in His provision, rather than our own choices. Our future is going to be one that is local and catholic, not corporate and monotone. It is the desire that is wrong here, not any particular outcome, and we won't get anywhere until we give that desire a proper theological interrogation. Whether the theological resources of the Church are actually up to that task is, sadly, an open question at this present time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why is it a 'Good' Friday?

Courier article

Why 'Good'? The simple answer is that the crucifixion of Jesus reveals the truth about the world – and the truth sets us free. I believe that what is Good about Good Friday is that on this day above all God is revealed as a God of love, that with this God there is no place for fear of punishment. There are lots of theories that Christians debate about how we are to understand this (it's technically called 'the Atonement') but I think CS Lewis put it best when he said: "We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself... "

Good Friday is really the culmination of something that I have been trying to describe through my last half-dozen articles – it is the climax and inevitable conclusion of living in a Fallen world. That is, it is because of our sin and brokenness that someone who was innocent ends up getting lynched. What makes Jesus remarkable is that he recognises what is going on and doesn't fight back. He recognises that what keeps the fallen system ticking over is the process of praise and blame, judgement and condemnation. As an innocent man Jesus had every right to retaliate against those who were accusing him, those who were beating him and flogging him. But he didn't. Instead he forgave them. In other words, what Jesus was doing was breaking the cycle of violence and pointing out that we didn't have to keep trudging around that path.

Righteous violence, after all, is what put him on the cross. It was the certainty of being righteous that gave each group of accusers their justification for putting Jesus to death. Whether that be the Romans, the religious authorities, the crowd or even the friend who betrayed him, there was always some more or less expedient rationale that could be deployed to make sense of doing something wrong. That is still the world that we live in. In effect, what happens on the cross is that judgement itself is judged, condemnation itself is condemned. The cross is the declaration that God is not on the side of those doing the denouncing, rather God is the one who is being denounced, the one who has offended the political authorities and the religious authorities and disappointed the expectations of the crowd and his friends.

When Christians talk about the cross – which is so central to our faith – this is what we are conscious of. Our own failures and brokenness, all the ways in which we have fallen short of God's intentions for us. Yet the thing is – it is level ground at the foot of cross. That is, we are all in the same boat; as St Paul puts it, 'We are none of us righteous, no, not one'. To come to the foot of the cross is, for the Christian, simply to recognise our own fallen nature, to see the consequences of that fallen nature, but also to recognise that God has taken those consequences onto himself, and that if we acknowledge this truth and let go of the compulsions and fears that lead us to judge and condemn each other – then we need have no fear of condemnation and judgement ourselves. This is the secret at the heart of the Lord's Prayer: 'forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us'. We just stand at the foot of the cross, not asserting our own goodness, but recognising the fate of goodness in our Fallen world.

Of course, if this was the end of the story, it would mean that the fallen world was all that there is – and that really wouldn't be Good. But I don't want to spoil the end of the story for those who don't know it... I'll say something about that in my next article.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

How shall we clothe the naked CofE?

Is Christianity in Crisis? No, not at all, but particular expressions of the faith might be - and the CofE is one such.

The analysis is so well-worn now as to have become banal - and I've indulged in it myself - but the more that time goes on the more I wonder whether the root problem is the loss of real faith in God. That is, we have bought into a sense that the numbers are the key thing that matter, and we then panic or plan on the basis of responding to those numbers, in line with our general characters and dispositions. Now, I'm not at all wanting to say that the numbers don't matter, what I am wanting to say is that numbers are not the one thing needful. Giving God all that we have to give, in heart and mind, soul and strength - this is the one thing needful.

In other words, if we start from a trust in a providential God, might not the utter disaster that has been the Church of England over the last forty years - utter disaster seen in terms of numbers, failure to evangelise and so on - actually be evidence of God accomplishing his purposes? That is, might it not be *God's* will that the Church of England has been brought low?

What, after all, might be accomplished by such a process? To lose all the trappings of power and respect - to be the object of repeated scorn and ridicule - to be reduced to begging for the means to keep our buildings open - to watch as successive generations turn away from an inherited faith - might this not simply serve to clarify our sense of priorities and enable us to return to the living God? Might it not simply be that the Church of England had become, by the beginning of the twentieth century, so enmeshed with blessing the business of the British Empire that God decided to withdraw his blessing from it? That the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar was the inevitable consequence of placing our faith in that which was not God - and then being disappointed when we noticed that He wasn't there?

In other words, might not the way forward be to remember that God is in charge all the time, not just when we are blessed by the obvious signs of His presence, and that the process that the Church of England has undergone - having her splendid garments stripped from her until she shivers naked in a cold wind - is precisely what we needed in order to be recalled to ourselves, and recalled to God? In other words, might it not be that we need to find more suitable attire for the Bride of Christ in this land - and might it not be that a simple linen shift is more suitable than royal robes?

So, enough with the metaphor already, what might this mean in practice? I think it means to return to trusting God - to rediscover what a living faith actually looks and feels like. To remember that worship is devotion and not entertainment, to remember that loving the neighbour means active service and not pious speech, to remember that the Church was built by Jesus for a reason and is not an optional extra that is acceptable so long as it can fit in comfortably with all the other priorities in our lives. To do this necessitates a theological renewal - for it is in our theology, and therefore in our preaching and teaching and (lack of) formation of our clergy that we have lost our way.

John Milbank's criticisms bear on this; I would very much agree that we need to renew the life of the mind, but I believe that this should not be in a Platonic academy but in the cloister, in and of the Eucharistic community (I have expanded on this at much greater length in my book). The church must stop sub-contracting loving God with our minds to secular institutions, and it will not find peace until it does. Until we are reclothed in the divine light, we shall continue to stumble, naked and ashamed, crying out to the secular scornful for pity, for we no longer even know who it is that loves us. We are like the disciples on Holy Saturday, confused and lost, not knowing where to turn, when in truth we already know what is coming. I have no doubt that the future for Christianity in England is a bright one - for us to share in it, we need to fall in with God's intentions not ours. So, come, let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us, and will heal us.