Comments: Opinion - 14 January 2017

I expressed some misgivings about Dr Percy’s theses last week. However, I am slightly depressed by some of the responses to his arguments, which might be summarised as: (i) Dr Percy having sour grapes at not receiving a bishopric; (ii) his exhibiting an ivory tower indignation at the state of the contemporary Church; and (iii) his assertions being factually incorrect.

I very much doubt that (i) is in play – Dr Percy is, after all, by far the best paid priest in the Church; his home is that lived in by Charles I when Oxford was the royalist capital (it is much larger and grander than many current episcopal residences) and, as I see it being a bishop these days is becoming a relatively more burdensome occupation. All the same, the jibe is intended to hurt and does those making it little credit.

With (ii) there are perhaps signs of inverse snobbery – an understandable, if unfortunate, response in view of Dr Percy’s role.

With (iii) I do think that the critics are on firmer ground; however, what I think Dr Percy means is that, even if there are individuals with post-graduate qualifications in theology (or who have taught it in higher education) there is no one who has been elevated from a university chair or even a college fellowship (I might be wrong…), after the fashion of the late Stephen Sykes, Rowan Williams or N. T. Wright (and many before them). Yet this is a weak argument for him to make – assuming he is. However, there is no one on the bench of sufficient intellectual (note, not ‘academic’) AND charismatic stature who can fulfil the role of a public advocate and defender of the Church – and there I think he might have a valid point.

I also think that the suggestions that Dr Percy is not really qualified to comment because of his slight experience of parish ministry inadequate, since there have been many successful bishops in the past with nugatory parish experience (and some useless bishops with ample parish experience), whilst being principal of Cuddesdon will have given him valuable insights into parish needs.

As to Nick Young’s piece, it is worth noting that there is a pending pastoral scheme which (despite its obvious merits) would have the effect of extinguishing some of the names of famous City churches that have lived on after their demolition:

Posted by Froghole at Saturday, 14 January 2017 at 1:32pm GMT

"So I, like thousands of others, wait patiently – in hope that our nightmare will soon end. No need to tell them the world is watching, that God is watching. They know." - Jayne Ozanne

How do we reconcile that God is telling some of us that the suffering of LGBT people outweighs other concerns, but the bishops aren't giving the impression that they are hearing the same from God?

Is God saying different things to me, to many TA readers, than he is to the bishops? Or are we, or the bishops, substituting our own views for those of God? And in a week when the theological abilities of the House of Bishops has been challenged so openly, that is the issue. If God is consistent - and most people believe He is - then either I and others here are not properly listening to God, or the bishops aren't. Or maybe none of us are.

But of all the things said, Jayne Ozanne has said that which most resonates with me. God IS watching.

Posted by Kate at Saturday, 14 January 2017 at 3:24pm GMT


I think that many of Martyn Percy's opponents are missing the point.

If the House of Bishops collectively lacks theological depth, why is the Bishops Reflection Group more qualified than the House of Laity to "discern" the correct approach to the issue of same sex marriage? Essentially the argument - though Percy was too sage to make it explicitly - is that the issue will be decided by managers, scared of change, and not by pastoral theologians trained to weigh difficult Biblical issues. In arguing that bishops do not need to be theological scholars, by arguing that the Church needs managers to promote growth, the opponents are unwittingly lining behind up a challenge to the very nature of episcopal leadership.

Commentators, I think, have failed to appreciate why Dr Percy is making a comparison with Martin Luther, seeing it as a publicity stunt, or sour grapes. But what if, like Luther, this is the first step in a deliberate challenge to the institutions of the church in preparation for the bishops declaring against same sex marriage?

Posted by Kate at Saturday, 14 January 2017 at 7:16pm GMT

I entirely agree with Froghole. The criticism of Martyn Percy has been appalling and largely ad hominem. From my recent limited encounter with Bishops,I think that he is right about the current bench of bishops compared with those I recall from some time ago. Mediocrity rules. other than perhaps Bishop Nicholas Baines with his excellent blog. there is no current diocesan who, as Froghole suggests, 'can fulfil the role of a public advocate and defender of the Church'. As so often, Andrew Lightbown is spot on.

Posted by Daniel Lamont at Saturday, 14 January 2017 at 9:08pm GMT

Being an absorbed reader of the KJV Bible, I found Miranda France's Words and the Word to be a wonderful read. I have something in common with the great poet Eliot. I also prefer the word "shew", so nice.

Posted by Pam at Sunday, 15 January 2017 at 6:59am GMT

Are we now reaching the point I wonder, given Martyn's comments and insights, when we should table a 'No Confidence' vote in the House of Bishops?

Posted by Jayne at Sunday, 15 January 2017 at 8:47am GMT

I don’t dispute anything Dr Percy wrote, but respectfully suggest that it may have made the common assumption of “all other things being equal” – which they are not.

Within living memory, the Church has changed. Formerly, the parish system *was* the C of E. Bishops were figureheads, worthy men but remote. Cathedrals were special places necessary for ordinations and choir festivals, and the music was often excellent, but a visit there was a pilgrimage; also there was frequently a standoff between cathedral and bishop. Today, cathedrals are growing in popularity, not least because the music remains excellent, but the parish system is only just hanging in there.

Remedy: learn from the Royal Navy, where there are two on each large ship with the rank of captain: one on the bridge, the other down in the engine room, only the former being known as “the captain”. A diocese’s effectiveness would, imho, be greatly enhanced if the usual two bishops in a diocese were closely associated with the cathedral – one of whom, the diocesan (“The Captain”) being selected for pastoral skills , the other a bishop theologian (“Chief Engineer”) whose brief would be to keep abreast of current theology and the role of the Church in the world. The Dean (the RN’s “Number One”) would run the cathedral parish life. A modern cathedral therefore would be open to the current findings of academic theology, but its main purpose would be to support the parishes with source material, in-service training, up to date theology and help with producing printed matter.

Secondly, the world has changed, too: we – in the West at least – have no time for the supernatural. Nor did Jesus much, disavowing the turning of stones into bread, despairing at everyone wanting “signs and wonders” and at the disciples for not learning the *lesson* of the loaves, rather than their marvelling at the apparently supernatural appearance of bread. It is highly desirable that Anglican theology includes a purely naturalist understanding of God, rather than treat it as a suspect form of materialism, which it isn’t. Anglican scientist/theologians like Arthur Peacocke and Alister McGrath have led the way in promoting it, but even non-scientist John Robinson had copious references to supRAnaturalism in Honest to God, and panENtheism – a word also coined 50+ years ago – counters the obvious trap of thinking a naturalist theology simply means pantheism: “God is everything that is”.

Posted by Michael Skliros at Sunday, 15 January 2017 at 2:14pm GMT

Pam, I agree. Miranda France's piece is indeed a wonderful read.

Posted by Kate at Sunday, 15 January 2017 at 4:32pm GMT

Heartening to see 'Honest to God' get a positive nod, Michael! I couldn't agree more about Anglicanism being in desperate need of theology that embraces, rather than fights, nature. The currently dominant signs and wonders model, charismatic evangelicalism, may pack 'em in, but truth isn't decided by popularity.

As for your intriguing nautical model for the church, hey, why not give it a whirl? Would make a pleasant change from all the managerialism.

Posted by James Byron at Sunday, 15 January 2017 at 11:50pm GMT

Thanks for kind words, James. No surprise I support JATR’s book, as (spoiler alert) he was my tutor when he was at Clare, though I hardly understood a word of what he said at the time, as my main efforts were devoted to (i) hitting fives balls against a wall, (ii) learning to fly with the university air squadron and (iii) discovering the opposite sex.

Reading 'Nat Sci’ before theology was useful, though: those who crave certainty in religion badly need to learn Karl Popper’s dictum: “nothing is worth studying unless it can be *dis*proved.” A naturalist theology does keep pace with the observed world, learning from its mistakes, which is healthy.

As for charismatic evangelicalism, it certainly "packs ’em in", but only with those who have unenquiring minds. A good discussion point for Thinking Anglicans?

Posted by Michael Skliros at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 9:58am GMT

'As for charismatic evangelicalism, it certainly "packs ’em in", but only with those who have unenquiring minds. A good discussion point for Thinking Anglicans?' A rather familiar dismissal but a caricature of a very significant part of contemporary CofE life. So yes, there is a need for enquiry on TA on this evidence. We might note how regularly HTB has hosted large theological events over the years with speakers like Lesslie Newbigin (who was a great friend of HTB), Miroslav Volf, Jurgen Moltmann, Rowan Williams and others. If that is not enquiring I would struggle to be there when it is. Generously hosted by a charismatic evangelical Anglican church and offered widely. I for one am grateful.

Posted by David Runcorn at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 11:00am GMT

'As for charismatic evangelicalism, it certainly "packs ’em in", but only with those who have unenquiring minds.'

Which is why the charismatic evangelical movement attracts so many university students?

A statement which is wrong on so many levels.

Posted by Kate at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 12:36pm GMT

Michael, as a fellow Cambridge 'Natsci' and also a theology graduate your comments made me smile, because I firmly identify with the charismatic evangelical stream.

No doubt my mind is less enquiring than yours, but it seems to me that, judging by the amount of tarot readers, spiritualists, psychic & mind body spirit fairs etc etc, many people in the West are *extremely* open to the supernatural.

To me there's no disconnection between a theology that's open to both the natural and supernatural, since a creator God is by definition super-natural. Indeed, for that reason it seems to me that good theology requires an openness to the supernatural.

Posted by Peter K+ at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 1:53pm GMT

Please can everyone just pause the debate about charismatic evangelicalism for a few minutes while I go out and buy some popcorn?

Seriously - you don't like liberals playing down the supernatural? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like Pentecostalism invading the C of E with prophecies and tongues? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like the reduction of church life to a kind of social services unit? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like the catholic mumbo-jumbo with its drama, magic rites and bells? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like the Reform priest who has set 'The Word' as an infallible document for all time? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like the churches that condemn gay sex but 'love the sinner'? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like the churches that won't baptise babies of pagans and the unconverted? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like the churches that *will* baptise babies of pagans and the unconverted? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like female priests? Welcome to diversity.

You don't like *any* priests? Welcome to diversity.



We share one language all the same.

The language is called love. All the different parts of our Church can find ways of speaking it.

And guess what? It's the greatest thing of all.

Because naturally or supernaturally, love is where God comes into the room.

And love is the test. Not theological correctitude, or cleverness, or 'who is right', but the kind of love that even a child can give. Or, especially a child.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 3:02pm GMT

My, oh my, how a few eirenic comments seem to have flushed out some hawks.

David Runcorn, I do not doubt the vigour of the spirit of enquiry at HTB, but if I were to report on, say, the standard of preaching in the C of E, I would not quote only sermons I had heard at Westminster Abbey.

Kate, I won’t challenge you to produce the actual numbers of university students following the char/evang movement – that would be juvenile – but are you seriously saying that university students today are noted for their critical thinking? Surely the bleats coming from university tutors would suggest the precise opposite? I recently conducted mock interviews for two prospective Oxbridge entrants. To varied questions about, e.g., the Middle East, the need for universities to be “useful”, the reason for the rise of populism, from one of them I got nothing but potted answers from their ‘A’ level set books. It was like living in a parallel universe. What is worse is that both got in – one to Cambridge, one to ‘the other place’.

Pete K+, Cambridge graduate, shame on you! To say that a universe created by an outside power must have been created by an outside power is, ahem, a circular argument. The naturalist argument is that nothing is outside, in the sense of being separate and distinct. God is infinite, impassible etc etc, and greater than the created world, but co-terminous with it. Think Venn diagrams and overlap.

Susannah, to misquote Ecclesiastes, there’s a time to just be loving and a time (when that ain’t working) to don thinking caps.

There’s one big advantage to a naturalist theology. With the supernatural kind, there’s the problem of pain and suffering, and the capability of evil. Who (a) put it there and (b) is either incapable or unwilling to alleviate it? In naturalist theology all these things are just part of the wallpaper. The downside is that several atheists have got there before us, notable the British physicist Paul Davies, who once said famously: “science is a surer path to God than religion.” That should concern thinking Anglicans; he’s not just talking about bad or unchallenging sermons.

Posted by Michael Skliros at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 3:57pm GMT

'charismatic evangelicalism' is ' only those who have unenquiring minds' = an eirenic comment? Sorry if I missed that. HTB was an example of course of theological depth present within the wing of the church. It is not an exception and its influence is significantly wider than, say the preaching team at Westminster Abbey. And if I'm a hawk for suggesting the understanding of charismatic evangelical needs to be more informed on TA - guilty. Oh and I'm not the only one from this broad enquiring eclectic corner of the church who reads TA. You didn't flush me out I was here along. Welcome.

Posted by David Runcorn at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 5:32pm GMT

Michael, we can indeed 'think', but if thinking simply divides people into camps, then I'd sooner resort to the even more difficult challenge of needing to love.

See, I simply can't place myself in any of these camps. I don't belong in anywhere fixed. I'm catholic, and that's an important part of how I hold my faith. I embrace and affirm 'charismatic' expressions. I believe it's really important to recognise that science is fantastically precious for truth-seekers. I'm liberal in my approach to the bible, and in my views on issues like sexuality. I'm contemplative, and that is the heart of my spiritual path. And, though I don't personally share the same 'take' on how to receive and treat the bible as many of my evangelical friends, my home church for 36 years has been an evangelical Anglican church, and the love I've received there has opened my heart, and fantastically supported all three of my children, all of whom have a Christian faith. Furthermore, for a decade I associated with HTB, went on HTB houseparties (well, Stewards Trust, but that was very HTB-supported), and gained from the openness to the Holy Spirit in ways that touched and changed my life. Following on from that, I completely believe in a supernatural God, and in supernatural events, as well as the supernatural nature of the human soul. I see supernature as more physical, not less physical, than the lower dimensional natural world we find ourselves in.

So I don't feel I can 'fix' my theology in one 'camp' or another. Rather, I see many groups of Christians following paths to God and ways of trying to love God and their neighbours. And rather than schism into countless sects, I prefer the concept of 'unity in diversity' with 'love' rather than 'rightness' being the dominant imperative.

It's messy, it's theologically dispersed, but it places the emphasis on... grace and love from God, and attempts to love one another and abide in community, just as God lives in community.

We can certainly think and pray, and try to make sense, in our own times, our own communities, our own lives, of the call to open our hearts to the love of God. We can think and pray deeply. But there is always a danger in trying to systematise the numinous and the disparate approaches of God, in a diverse world. To an extent, I think the apostle Paul tried a little too hard at times to rationalise, to systematise, though no doubt his intentions were good.

At all times, let's try to look for the best we can find in people, while not shying away from questioning and critique (which I think we do here at Thinking Anglicans).

Posted by Susannah Clark at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 5:48pm GMT

"The naturalist argument is that nothing is outside, in the sense of being separate and distinct. God is infinite, impassible etc etc, and greater than the created world, but co-terminous with it. Think Venn diagrams and overlap."

Disallowing concavity and discontinuity - nature is observably both convex and continuous + if God is simultaneously both bigger than nature and coterminous with it, He must occupy a higher dimension than nature. We call that dimension the miraculous, the spiritual, the mystical..

That's the conclusion from your own premises.

Posted by Kate at Monday, 16 January 2017 at 6:16pm GMT

I remember my own Oxford interview. I walked in the room, and every fresh thought was sponged from my mind. I could not think of ideas which had buzzed in noisy profusion two days before, and which rose up to accuse me as I walked out and shut the door behind me. Just saying.

Posted by Rosemary Hannah at Tuesday, 17 January 2017 at 6:10pm GMT
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please note that comments are limited to 400 words. Comments that are longer than 400 words will not be approved.

Cookies are used to remember your personal information between visits to the site. This information is stored on your computer and used to refill the text boxes on your next visit. Any cookie is deleted if you select 'No'. By ticking 'Yes' you agree to this use of a cookie by this site. No third-party cookies are used, and cookies are not used for analytical, advertising, or other purposes.