Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Oxford Faith Debate on Vision for the Church of England

The fifth and final debate of the current Oxford series took place last Thursday. Audio recordings of the entire event are now available on this page.

Those who have been attending regularly seemed to agree that this debate was the best of the series. Do listen to it all if you can.

Links to the opening statements:

Link to the ensuing discussion.

Lorraine Cavanagh has written about the event here: What does the Church of England offer the next generation?

Update Video highlights are also now available here.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Tuesday, 9 December 2014 at 8:30pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Church of England

I wasn't there, of course, but looking at the list of names, I'm guessing they were pretty well all singing from the same songbook. Was there actually a debate? I can't tell from Lorraine Cavanaugh's review, and I haven't had time to listen to the recordings yet.

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Tuesday, 9 December 2014 at 11:10pm GMT

Great to see such a broad and representative groups of speakers discussing this important issue. It supports the idea that this has been a broad and objective approach throughout.

Posted by: Ian Paul on Tuesday, 9 December 2014 at 11:25pm GMT

Well I did listen to nearly all of the contributors and right through the rest. It seems to me there is a contradiction between wanting this Church 2.0 of changing it by the users and the success of the anonymous participation where people turn up for what is given and expected and where they might send in their sum of money separately from the rate of actual participation. Where I go, input has to be made or nothing happens, but that means involvement and a lot of people shy away from groups where they have to become involved.

Posted by: Pluralist on Wednesday, 10 December 2014 at 4:33am GMT

Having listened to each of the links, I must say I was most impressed by the keynote message of Diarmaid McCulloch, whose diagnosis of the malaise of the Church of England seems spot on.

The following Speakers, also, spoke much to the point; alerting all of us in Anglican Churches around the world, of the need for a radical shake-up of the Institution, releasing the Gospel message of Love and Justice into a needy world. I urge everyone who loves the Church to tune in to the links provided by T.A. Deo gratias!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 10 December 2014 at 5:12am GMT

All the speakers were good except the chap who said that liturgy is for God rather than for "us." Wonder what God was doing with himself all those years that he had to wait for us to come up with the idea of liturgy, and then wait even longer for us to start directing it at the right deity.

Meanwhile, MacCulloch slammed it outta the park

Posted by: Daniel Berry, NYC on Wednesday, 10 December 2014 at 2:24pm GMT

Daniel, having just listened to it myself, I think it was Diarmaid McCulloch himself who was arguing that liturgy is for God.

Posted by: Simon Dawson on Wednesday, 10 December 2014 at 10:16pm GMT

Mr Dawson, I think you'll find that it inconceivable that he'd say such a thing against the background with the rest of his work. He doesn't even describe himself as a Christian, but as a friend of Christianity.

Posted by: Daniel Berry, NYC on Wednesday, 10 December 2014 at 11:29pm GMT

Although I'm on the same side as all of these speakers and am a fan of two of them, I think none of them has anything useful to say about the existential crisis facing the C of E - and, indeed, the whole of western Christianity.

Posted by: John on Thursday, 11 December 2014 at 10:44am GMT

I have to say that I rather agree with John. I enjoyed most of the contributions immensely. But isn't the real question not about what the CofE has to offer to the next generation but whether Christianity has anything at all to offer in its current form and theology to secularised and indifferent world? Outside the diminishing numbers who go to church Christian belief is both largely non existent and regarded as irrelevant. What folk religion remains is often not much more than superstition and bet-hedging or some sort of comforting refuge in tragedy.

Can Christians formulate a Christianity which resonates in the 21st century? is there a message of belief and belonging which people will recognise as authentic and attractive? I would like to think so, but anyone who tries to think outside the conventional formularies of belief, creed, Bible, and obedience is ostracised and excluded.

I thought the most powerful statement from the floor was the contributor whose daughter had said that believing should be about flexibility, justice, beauty and inclusiveness but that as a Christian she was assumed to be homophobic and judgemental.

I also applaud the denial of the shibboleth of 'unity'. It is this, amongst other things which has led the CofE into its present impasse on lgbti issues and which was so toxic in the women priests/ bishop debates. And which in its guise of bishops being a focus of unity is undermining the current feeble attempts to bring the church into the 20th (yes) century.

Posted by: Richard Ashby on Thursday, 11 December 2014 at 4:32pm GMT

"What folk religion remains is often not much more than superstition" Richard Ashby

And this isn't confined to 'cultural' Christians who think Nan is looking down on them from the stars. I have heard a Diocesan Education Officer, a Canon Precentor and a Cathedral/School Chaplain each tell me, with a straight face, that God found them a job for a rich friend, a parking space and a grand piano respectively. What are the candidates like that *didn't* get through the ordination selection process?

Posted by: Laurence Cunnington on Thursday, 11 December 2014 at 7:01pm GMT

Thank you, Richard, a generous comment on several levels. A Happy Christmas to you.

It is of course absolutely vital that even any reconstituted Christianity maintains absolute fidelity to credal formulations concerning the Trinity.

Not. That sheer myopic lack of grasp of any conceivable reality almost drives one to despair about one's co-religionists. Almost, but not quite, because there are people on all sides who extend grace to their peers.

Posted by: John on Thursday, 11 December 2014 at 8:07pm GMT

In positive response to comments by Richard and John:

It is only when Christian communities are able, convincingly, to elicit the remark (from outsiders) - "See how these Christians love one another" that we can hope to attract potential believers into the understanding of a loving and merciful God. While we in the Church continue to fight among ourselves on matters of gender and sexuality, we will never be able to convince anyone of the empowerment of the Incarnation of Jesus - for peace and justice,

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Thursday, 11 December 2014 at 8:30pm GMT

The talks were good but it was difficult for the speakers to answer the question. Everyone only had five minutes to present their slant. They would have needed at least half an hour to develop their themes and then five minute to summarise.

All agreed that social justice was a key concern for young people and that the church wasn't presenting as an organisation that supported social justice, especially with regard to women and gay people ( a very large group!).
Diarmaid focused especially on the complicity of African bishops in human rights violations against lgbt people and the shocking lack of condemnation of this from CoE bishops.
I wonder whether the majority of those who criticise the CoE for not being sufficiently engaged in social justice would know any of that. And if not, whether that is really their major stumbling block. Not that Diarmaid’s point wasn’t extremely well and passionately made! But I wondered whether it really answered the question. If we did have 100% lgbt inclusion and bishops speaking out for human rights in Africa, would we be closer to being a viable option for young people?

Vicky asked the church to take risks and to let young people be more active. What I was missing was some idea about what that active participation was to achieve. Vicky’s take was that we cannot know what the church of the future looks like. Which is true, but I’m not sure that means we shouldn’t even have a rough idea! Just letting the kids lose with the iPads seemed as vague as Diarmaid’s call for exposing everyone to the psalms whether they like it or not, because “it’s good for us”. It is! But HOW you get people to see that was precisely the question of the evening.

Christina developed a vision of the church of the future in which larger churches and cathedrals still existed but most people met in private houses.
As all panellists agreed that more theological education was needed, I wondered how Vicky’s and Christina’s church models could possibly deliver that.

Rosie pointed out that there is a huge hunger for spirituality out there but that it has become disconnected from religion.

I’m sure if all had had more time, they would have answered some of my questions, but as I said, 5 minute only really allow for a brief statement of the problem and a summary of a possible solution, and it is not possible to develop the underlying thinking.


Posted by: Erika Baker on Thursday, 11 December 2014 at 10:05pm GMT


Diffuse”, was what the six of us (3 under 30s) who went out for dinner afterwards thought about the evening. No-one answered provocateur Hilary’s question about what the church was currently offering students when only a relatively small number of universities even has chaplains?
What were churches to do who have no young people to create church 2.0 with?
The question from the floor about how any of the proposals differed from what the church had tried to do with Fresh Expressions and similar initiatives was left hanging in the air.
Provocateur Mark Chapman sketched a plan for a National Trust like subscription system to finance the upkeep of the buildings. I missed an explanation of what a subscription would offer the subscriber that non-subscribers would not get, and how new subscribers could be attracted.

Provocateur Rabbi Julia spoke passionately about getting away from the headspace, faith had to come from the heart. And that tied in very well with Rosie’s remarks about Spirituality.

All contributors agreed that we needed the community of church to get alongside people we would not normally seek out or like and that this is one of the challenges and benefits of Christianity.
To my mind, that ignored the obvious fact that we don’t often do what is “good for us” just because it is good for us, and that the Internet is already creating a Christian space outside the parish system.
What’s more, the space and the communities it’s creating are cross-denominational, not merely CoE. What impact will that have on what the CoE can offer the future generation?

I also fully agree with Richard Ashby’s question here of what we are actually trying to offer. Are we trying to offer “church”, or the “CoE”, or are we trying to offer “faith”? The strategy for doing it may depend to an extent on how we answer that question.

My own children and my wife’s children were all brought up in a church context, from pram service, junior church, helping to lead junior church to grown up worship. None of the four, aged 19 to 40, now even seems to understand the question of whether the whole idea of the possibility of God and what that could mean is even worth exploring. These are the people we’re hoping will return to church when they get older. What about their friends who didn’t even grow up in a church context, who have absolutely no link with it?
How do we even begin to speak to them?

The evening was fascinating – but I left with more questions than I had when I arrived.


Posted by: Erika Baker on Thursday, 11 December 2014 at 10:05pm GMT

'What folk religion remains is often not much more than superstition' I am struggling with this claim. Who exactly are we talking about? I wonder how you know Richard? There is evidence of a great deal of spiritual life and exploring around beyond traditional church life. What is to be the measure of this? What is it a sign of? To call people's personal beliefs and spiritual life 'folk religion' and 'superstition' is a huge put down. I am comparing this claim to the recent discussions on TA on Cathedral attendance where very sophisticated and deeply personal journeys were being claimed against which the spiritual life of local church communities was judged very harshly.

Posted by: David Runcorn on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 6:26am GMT

Laurence, in the context of your comment and speaking as someone who didn't get through the selection process, I would like to venture the suggestion that perhaps some of us are wiser and saner than some of those who did.

Posted by: John Duncan on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 9:51am GMT

@ John Duncan

Point taken! :-)

Posted by: Laurence Cunnington on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 1:30pm GMT

David. Perhaps I can refer you Laurence Cunnington's response to my comment for an explanation of what I mean.

Posted by: Richard Ashby on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 1:47pm GMT

The little discussion about Car Parking spaces, grand pianos etc reminds me of a sign in our church office - 'In this office we don't believe in miracles, we rely on them!'!

Seriously, though, if we believe in an omnipotent God who cares about all our lives why is it so ridiculous that he might occasionally wangle a job, or a car-parking spot? Is there a pay-bracket where God draws the line and leaves it just to us? (Asked with half a wink, but only half ;-) )

Posted by: PK on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 3:00pm GMT

Thank you, Erika, that is exactly the sort of sympathetic but critical summary I was looking for.

If we are asking questions about the future of the church, surely we should be inviting contributors who have a good track record of making sure the church has a future. Where are the ministries which are effectively sharing the gospel with younger folk, making new disciples, growing churches etc.? Surely their leaders should be the ones who speak at these kind of events, so that they can share the best practices they have learned to help the Christian community connect.

And I take your point, Erika, about emerging Christian communities being cross-denominational. Personally, I'm not at all sure God has a stake in the issue of whether the Church of England has a future. I think God wants the gospel to be proclaimed, disciples made, the kingdom furthered. I don't think God's as picky as some of us about what name happens to be on the side of the building (if there even is a building).

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 4:28pm GMT

Is that a serious question?
When my daughter, then aged 11, was ill with leukaemia many years ago she said to me, "Mum, if people pray for me to be healed and God heals me but the child next to me dies, I would have to hate him, you know."

Could you really live with the idea of an arbitrary God who is so random that he provides some with a parking space but lets others freeze to death sleeping rough?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 5:49pm GMT

In the light of the Church Times report (above) seeking to convert the Church into a management led business, the answer to the question posed by these debates is 'nothing'.

Posted by: Richard Ashby on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 5:59pm GMT

Oh dear, this thread is migrating to the efficacy of intercessory prayer (and theology/theodicy of a God who would respectively, respond favorably/badly/ignore them).

May I humbly recommend epistemological humility on this topic? And compassion towards all people, who may have wildly different responses to it?

JCF, who has not a "Nan" but a "Gaga" [NB: nothing to do w/ nee' Stephanie Germanotta!] "looking down on me from the stars" (in at least a manner of speaking ;-/).

Posted by: JCF on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 9:55pm GMT

Well, that was depressing. It was like a post-work bitching session, but without the jokes.

I sympathise with Daniel Berry's bemusement at Professor MacCulloch's apparent embrace of a somewhat starchy faith given his previous published self-definitions. That said, I was very grateful for his 'respectful disagreement' with Vicky Beeching. When it was possible to to make sense of her platitudes, it seemed she was advocating things that would be entirely destructive to the Anglican Church and the experience of those who can only give an hour or so a week to formal church activities (that's most of us).

Posted by: Stephen on Friday, 12 December 2014 at 10:00pm GMT

Richard - if by folk religion and superstition you were referring to some complacent cathedral clergy and senior diocesan staff then I misunderstood you. Folk religion is not usually applied to the faith of the diocesan board of education.
But is there no one on this thread who, like me, has known times when I have experienced God's guidance or answered prayer in specific ways? (mercifully this has never included a grand piano). But he has done this in a world where many more serious needs continue to go apparently unanswered. That is not folk religion or superstition. And yes, it is very challenging and uncomfortable even as I am grateful.

Posted by: David Runcorn on Saturday, 13 December 2014 at 7:12am GMT


Obviously these are big issues, which we can't fully put to rights in a short post, but just a few thoughts:

1) Is that homeless person on the streets there because of God, or humans? So often people on the streets are there as part of a huge chain of events and deprivation starting before their birth. When we see or hear terrible stories should we rail at God, or consider that the fault is a lot closer to home?

2) In the story of the Christian tradition, the redemption from the mess of human life comes through God in Christ, who not only came to Earths but suffered the agony of the cross and the glory of the resurrection as a 'firstfruits' of the general redemption - of humanity and the universe - to come. God is transcendent, but he's not aloof, and he will make all things new.

3) Given that God is good - genuinely good - when something simple but good happens to us - a meal with friends, a job unexpectedly coming up, someone gives a gift of a piano or car - who's to say that it isn't God at work in the world, or a nice personal gift? If we believe and pray to a good God why not?

4) Gifts are nice but relationship is better. If we just saw people as providers of goodies it wouldn't be much of a friendship. Real friendship is one that endures and grows over time, though the ups and downs of life. Isn't that what the Christian view of God is, a friend, a Father we can relate and know in some way?

Posted by: PK on Saturday, 13 December 2014 at 11:03am GMT

PK, this really isn't the right thread to discuss this. But your point 1. Is exactly it. If the homeless person is there because of humans and if God therefore doesn't do anything about the situation (I said nothing about blame), then one must assume that the availability of parking spaces is also entirely down to human activity and that God is not going to create a place quickly just because we'd quite like one.

I completely agree with your other 3 points.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Sunday, 14 December 2014 at 8:47am GMT
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