Thinking Anglicans

'Evangelicals call Williams a prostitute'

That’s the headline over a story by Stephen Bates in today’s Guardian, reporting on the Conference of Reform.

Conservative evangelicals flexed their muscles yesterday by denouncing the Church of England and its leader, the Most Rev Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, as sinful and corrupt, and threatening to refuse to recognise the authority of liberal bishops.


Dr Williams was denounced as a theological prostitute by the Very Rev Phillip Jensen, the controversial Anglican dean of Sydney, addressing the 200 clergy and lay members attending the conference.

Dean Jensen was applauded as his sweeping denunciation of the Church of England took in the Prince of Wales — a “public adulterer”; King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, attacked as a “temple to paganism” for selling the records and compact discs of its famous choir in the ante-chapel; and women priests because, “as soon as you accept women’s ordination everything else in the denomination declines”.

More coverage of the Conference in the Telegraph.


Ethical Investments

The Daily Telegraph reports that the Church of England may review its policy on ethical investments. Currently, the Church Commissioners are unable to invest in companies involved in pornography, arms, tobacco, gambling and alcohol.

The Church Commissioners, who manage assets worth £3.9 billion, are reviewing their ethical investment policy to ensure that they are maximising their returns. Clerical insiders admitted that any significant changes could prove controversial among the General Synod, who are sensitive about the size and use of the Church’s holdings.

A copy of this Telegraph article also appears here.


Noddy Land

Anthony Howard writes in The Times today about the forthcoming Rochester report, due next month, on women bishops. And he doesn’t like what he thinks it will say.

The Bishop of Rochester’s 15-strong working party has come up with what is, in effect, a shopping list. And a pretty ludicrous one it is, too.


Its suggested courses of action for the future range from a kind of ecclesiastical Noddy land in which women could become suffragan bishops but not diocesan ones, through an even greater fantasy world in which they could hope to be full-scale diocesan bishops but never Archbishop of Canterbury or Archbishop of York, to a somewhat dismal and defeated maintenance of the status quo under which our present crop of women priests may become deans or archdeacons but never break through the stained-glass ceiling to sit on the episcopal bench.

(For the benefit of readers outside Britain, ‘Noddy’ is a character in a simplistic children’s storybook.)

As for next week’s Windsor Report he comments:

punitive action hardly looks like an essentially Christian activity and it is impossible to see anything but damage coming out of this particular piece of reprisal. Conceived in panic, it seems doomed to end in recrimination. No situation is ever surer to delight the outsider than the sight of those who purport to uphold standards of forgiveness and charity failing to live up to them.


Easy Rider

A few years ago I had a funeral which involved a burial in an unfamiliar churchyard. The morning October mist was still over the graves and I went quite a way ahead of the procession to find the grave, and to stand as a marker in the cloud to ensure it would be occupied by the one for whom it was intended. As I stood sentinel the quiet was pierced by a scream, and I caught the red eyes of a stoat, his teeth deep into the neck of a struggling rabbit. I took off after the stoat which persisted, eyeing me from behind successive gravestones before vanishing into the mist.

As one raised as an urban kid, my images of rabbits came from the stuffed variety, and the crimson glare of the stoat lent itself readily to looking demonic, which convinced me of what I thought was the right thing to do. I failed the rabbit in the end by not finishing it off humanely, which I would have done if my instincts had been properly country.

Six years later, I am accustomed to being told the name of the chicken I am eating, and am well adjusted to rural life being about the sharp end of life and death.

So when Old Labour is baying for blood in calling for the abolition of the hunt, its instincts are as skewed as any townie who serves food on the table, the provenance of which is lost in a trail that ends on the supermarket shelf.

The ban against hunting with hounds has to be the most misguided and wasteful cause our representatives can pursue. Old Labour is urban, its roots are industrial, just like my own. While the anti-hunting lobby claims to be caught up in the fate of a fox, what is driving it is a deep disdain for the culture of the people who ride with the hounds.

I think, if Old Labour is still wanting to build a new and fairer world, it can be more effectively occupied.

The hunt is only partly about the fox, it is mainly rural ritual. Like any ritual there is a beginning, middle and end, there are conventions to follow, costumes to wear and patterns of deference to observe as you enjoy, for a brief season, the freedom to ride across the land unfettered and free. In the past, the hunt leader was at the head, and those who followed were in their appointed order according to their position in the rural community. The hunt was a ritual rehearsing the social makeup up the community.

The very fact that it is possible to even consider the demise of the hunt is not because we want to be kind to foxes, but because the social hierarchy which it depicts is fading quickly from country life. More often these days, whether you ride at the head or the tail of the hunt, you are likely to be found in your grey pinstripe on the platform waiting for the 0610 to Liverpool Street.

This is the 100th year of the Harley Davidson, the steed of choice for the classic biker pack. Fifty years ago, bikers had the same fantasy of riding free, the road coming to meet you, and an open horizon. The biggest and meanest dudes rode at the front, while the weakest followed behind. These days, the only people who can afford Harleys are middle-aged accountants in mid-life crisis. I’m certain that, after the bike is in the garage, today’s bikers check to see their grey pinstripe is where they can find it when they all stagger for the 0610 on Monday morning.

Old Labour should leave the hunt alone, it is already a changing institution, and can safely be left in the hands of history. In the meantime, Old Labour would be more true to its vocation if it turned to championing the cause of the availability of public services for the rural elderly and poor.


the Windsor Report

ACNS reports that the Lambeth Commission report will be published on Monday, 18 October, 12.00 midday in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. The report is named the Windsor Report after St George’s, Windsor, where it was drafted.

ACNS expects a large media frenzy to surround the report, which will also be available online at midday BST (i.e., GMT +1) on 18 October.

Update 18 October — for more reports and comments on the Windsor Report see the main page at Thinking Anglicans


new Deputy Secretary General

ACNS reports that the Anglican Consultative Council is to have a deputy Secretary General, a new position. Canon Gregory Cameron has been appointed to this position with immediate effect.

Canon Cameron is currently Director of Ecumenical Affairs and Studies at the Anglican Communion Office, and he has been secretary to the Lambeth (or Eames) Commission.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that in this announcement Canon John Peterson is described as ‘Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council’, and not as ‘Secretary General of the Anglican Communion’, a phrase which has been used frequently over the last few years.)


Gladwin for York?

Bishop John Gladwin

The House of Bishops of the Church of England is having one of its regular private meetings today and tomorrow. Michael Brown in the Yorkshire Post reports that they will discuss who they would like to see chosen as the next Archbishop of York and that their first choice will be John Gladwin, Bishop of Chelmsford. The paper describes him as a “tolerant liberal”, a “tilter at Thatcherism” and a “friend of gays”. He is also a former Provost of Sheffield Cathedral, which explains the paper’s particular interest.

This weekend’s Sunday Times also tipped Gladwin, but did not go so far as to say that the bishops as a whole were supporting him.

The York diocesan vacancy-in-see committee will be holding its first meeting on Tuesday 12 October. Can anybody tell me when the Crown Nominations Commission will meet to consider the York appointment?


Muscular Christianity?

Food stories are a standard part of the news repertoire – and I suspect they have more impact on most people’s daily lives than high politics or war. This week’s (apart from Jamie Oliver’s beans-on-toast) was about the Co-op’s introduction of labels showing the fat and salt content of foods on their shelves. Another prompt to healthy eating. Food, diet, and health are not just news items, they are now part of the entertainment industry. This is the third week of BBC 1’s ‘Fat Nation’ series, diverting us couch potatoes with the progress to virtue of residents of a Birmingham street, as they give up burgers and take up skipping. Part of what fuels all this is a desire for people to be healthy. Discovering that the nation is idle and obese, the government fears for our well-being, and even more, for the cost to the health services in the long run.

If, as Christians, we seek to be good stewards of a divine creation, of which we are part, surely we should wish for ourselves and for others to live healthy lives, in body as in mind and spirit.

But I have a few questions about all this. Two come from the damaging ‘do nots’ of the Christian tradition. We stand in the shadow of the long history of Christian ambivalence towards the body: restricted diet and physical stress have long been used as ways of denying or diminishing our being as bodily creatures, and consequently becoming closer to God. It is a tradition which has been challenged only relatively recently, as we have sought to recover a sense of the goodness of our bodily being.

And then there is another strand in Christian thinking, a strand which we characterise as ‘puritan’, and which tells us that whatever is enjoyable cannot, by definitition, be of God. I’ve caricatured it in those few words, and there is no doubt of the value of setting aside much of what we do and get in a consumer society; but surely we are called to delight in the lavishness of creation, remembering the creator, rather than to withdraw from it as ungodly.

In contrast to these negative traditions, we set images of food and feasting at the heart of our worship: to do so is to speak to a fundamental human need and to use a universal language. But how do words about being called to the heavenly banquet sound to someone on their umpteenth diet? How do they sound to someone with a serious eating disorder, a group whose numbers are increasing as our image of an ideal body becomes more and more distant from the reality with which most of us live.

In my prayers for all those who use our community centre, I find myself at certain times praying for Slimming World and Weightwatchers, for the aerobics class and the line-dancers. And as I offer those prayers, I am increasingly aware of the ambiguities: am I praying for lives of physical well-being to be found through self-dislike and self-punishment, or for a growing acceptance of our different sizes, shapes, and life-styles? I hope I am praying that we are good stewards of ourselves and of each other – but I’m not quite sure what that stewardship involves.

Jane Freeman


Discrimination and the Church

As we await the report of the Lambeth Commission set up to address the crisis over sexuality, it might be useful to look at the rest of the news, and the way the secular world addresses such issues in Britain. The BBC news website has the following

A gay Conservative candidate has survived a deselection vote within his local party after winning support from Tory leader Michael Howard. Mr Howard earlier stepped in after press reports that Ashley Crossley hadbeen the victim of homophobia. He said there was ‘no place whatever for discrimination of that kind’ in his party, in a letter to local Tories.

Whilst the news media are all clear in their reporting of the Tory leaders’ view, what is equally significant is that without exception they all consider him to have acted correctly. Silence, or fudging the issue, would have been seen as reprehensible.

Of course Michael Howard has the full support of the law of the land in taking his stand. Discrimination on grounds of sexuality is wrong. Yet only ten years ago gay members of parliament were still being persecuted in the news media simply on the grounds of their sexuality.

There has been a complete revolution on this issue, one perhaps as challenging to people’s perceptions as was the ending of slavery in the 19th century.

The Church has asked for an opt out clause on sexuality, and this is beginning to look increasingly inappropriate. It is as though the Church were saying, at the point when slavery was outlawed, ‘but Christian clergy may continue to keep slaves’ with some argument like those used in the apartheid days of South Africa, to justify maintaining the status quo.

Lest this example appear unduly offensive, note that it is the South African churches and nation that have been foremost in campaigning against discrimination against homosexuals. They know, from their experience of discrimination, that all forms of it must be eradicated.

So, when the Eames commission reports, the rest of the Anglican Church will need to note that society in North America, in Europe and South Africa, finds discrimination against homosexuals unacceptable. The public, decisive, action taken by Michael Howard, as leader of the Conservatives, and Liam Fox, party chairman, ought to be an example to us all, and particularly to our own bishops. Homophobic discrimination has no place in the Church, and no place in the world today.


Oh come let us adore him

I am a conventional bloke really. When I find something that works I tend to stick with it. So when an overseas trip fell through at quite short notice and I decided to book a retreat it was a blow to find my favourite place couldn’t take me. At short notice I found myself heading for the Welsh Coast and a Jesuit-run week.

God was, of course, in all the places I’d expected to find him. There He was in my daily meetings with my spiritual director. He was up on the mountains – even when the fog descended – and on a glorious, almost deserted sunny beach. He was in the faces of my fellow retreatants as we ate our meals in silence. And of course He was there each day in the Eucharist as bread and wine were taken, offered, broken and consumed. None of that was any surprise. I do a retreat most years. Often it is in an Ignatian style and it is always wonderful for prayer to be the constant of the day rather than fighting for its share of space among all the other priorities.

What surprised me was how close I felt to God in a less usual setting. Each evening, after supper we gathered to sit in complete silence for half an hour with the sacrament set out before us.

The Eucharist is a drama. But this was a stillness. The Eucharist is a constant flow of words, music and actions. Here Christ was with us in silence. The time was set aside simply for us to be there with Christ. And to shun our usual responses of word and action in order to enter into a deeper adoration.

For an Anglican this is of course deeply controversial stuff. The final paragraph of article 25 begins “the sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” I don’t sit lightly to the Articles of Religion. Not only have I from time to time to assent to their place within Anglican tradition, I also regularly require others to so assent in my presence.

As I know from regular, daily reading of the scriptures, words not only convey meaning but also often hide, confuse or distort it. And never more so than when the writer and the reader live in very different contexts. For the Anglican Reformers the issue was not simply that lay people were gazing at the sacrament but that this had pushed the receiving of communion into a much lower place. People would rarely receive, would often leave the church once the Host had been elevated or even as a devotion go from church to church simply to be present for the consecration. A devotional practice that seems to have more in common with bird watching than genuine Eucharistic devotion.

I felt in my own devotions not a desire to replace the receiving the Sacrament but a delight to find it complemented. My time was not spent gazing on the Host but seeing it as a lens through which to see the One who gave himself for me and for many. A time to pause and be with Him in His self offering and in His passion. Sometimes, as St. Peter articulated on the Mount of the Transfiguration, it is simply “good to be here”. That moment of intimacy with Christ cannot be clung onto, as Peter himself was to discover. But it can be savoured whilst it is there. The sacrament becomes like an Icon – a window onto the Divine – but even more so because its relationship to that which it represents is closer than for any holy picture or religious ornament.

The primary purpose of the sacrament lies in the full drama of the Eucharist. Climaxing in the sharing of the elements by the substantive body of the congregation. The reformers rightly draw us back to this central truth. But at a time when we struggle to resist Forster’s jibe of “poor, talkative Christianity” and in a world ever busier, maybe devotion that brings us into the stillness of the presence of Christ is what many of us need.

And perhaps next year too I should plan my retreat at the very last moment.

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Inclusive Church, One Year On

Inclusive Church has issued a newsletter, the full text of which is below the fold.

On Thursday 2 September, there will be a seminar entitled Inclusive Church – One Year On – details of this are listed at the end of the newsletter.

Posters advertising the seminar can be downloaded from:
Poster as a .jpg file here (100K)
Poster as a pdf file (60K)



A personal pilgrimage

In a few days I shall be embarking on a pilgrimage. It will take me to Groszowice, a small town in Silesia in Poland. Like many pilgrims, I shall be looking for the comfort of a church when I arrive, and for some better understanding of who I am and where I am going. I suppose like many pilgrims also, I have no real certainty that I shall get that better understanding, and I am not altogether sure that my journey will give me comfort – but of course I am hoping that it will.

In fact, this is a personal family pilgrimage. My father was born in Groszowice (or ‘Groschowitz’) to a Prussian-Polish family in the early 20th century. In the second World War he was a German soldier, and at the end of the War his family property was confiscated as Silesia was transferred from Germany to Poland in the post-Yalta carve-up of Europe. Unlike some others I have met with a similar personal history, my father accepted this outcome of German fascist adventures and atrocities stoically, and at no point in his later life — lived in Germany and Ireland — did he ever indicate any resentment at the loss of his family possessions. Eventually he returned to visit his birthplace, and expressed satisfaction at how well it had been maintained.

I have never been there myself, but some six years after my father’s death I have decided to visit the place where he was born and grew up and about which he spoke often. I am not a ‘roots’ person, and so in all truth I don’t have any fixed idea of what I shall find. But to my great surprise, I am approaching the visit with rather more emotion than I had anticipated, and the idea of seeing my father’s house, and seeing the graves of his (and my) ancestors is turning this into an unexpectedly sentimental journey.

I suspect that not many of us can approach some lost heritage with indifference. We may neglect and ignore it for a long time, but bring us face to face with it and it will produce a reaction — perhaps one of awe, or of revulsion, or of a sense of loss, or of frustration, or of suspicion, or of love. For myself, I am not yet sure which of these it will be.

By a quirk of recent events, I am travelling to Poland just as a German pressure group is lodging legal claims for the return of or compensation for lost properties in Silesia. I shall have to emphasise that this is not my mission. I am not going in order to claim the heritage as my property. And this has reminded me that none of us should make such claims, because in doing so we trespass on the heritage of others. Our memories must co-exist, as must we.

Many of the squabbles in Anglicanism over the past year or two have been about lodging claims to exclusive heritage rights. Some of these claims are made by people who have not yet made, and perhaps have no intention of making, the pilgrimage to the source. And beyond Anglicanism, groups are placing flags in territories in which nobody should be claiming exclusive rights.

The Roman Catholic church of the perhaps rather short-lived Vatican II era spoke about the ‘pilgrim church’. Many of today’s would-be pilgrims appear to be marching in formation and singing battle songs. Maybe we should all be seeking to go on that great pilgrimage of uncertainty, of not quite knowing who we are or where we are going, of unknown emotions — but knowing that others are on the same journey; different people, different aspirations, but with the same rights. And then maybe we can accept the past as the past, and move on.

When I arrive in Silesia, I shall visit (at his invitation) the Archbishop of Opole (my father would have called it ‘Oppeln’). He has written to me to say that ‘if you grieve at the loss of your father’s posessions, then I can reassure you that, here in Silesia and everywhere else, you are welcome as a family member in our Father’s house.’


Justification for War

As the background to the decision to remove Sadaam Hussain by force emerges, it becomes clearer that there were no grounds on which Britain or the USA could claim that this was a just war. There were no weapons that posed an external threat, and no plans to develop any.

True, Sadaam was a terrible tyrant, but the world has seen plenty of these. They aren’t often removed if the only threat they pose is to their own people, whether in SE Asia, in Africa, or in Latin America. Indeed, the USA has a shameful record of having supported some of these. Sadaam’s government was supported by the West whilst he waged a war on Iran which involved the use of chemical weapons.

We also know that the Iraqi regime gave no support to Al Quaida, and would have suppressed any act of terrorism. So, to decide to overthrow Sadaam in the aftermath of 9-11 now appears completely illogical.

It now looks as though the decision to go to war was fuelled by the failure of the USA to eradicate the sources of terrorism. The most powerful nation on earth simply wanted an excuse to show what its overpowering weaponry could do, and take the eyes of the American public away from the intelligence failures which had both allowed the 9-11 events, and provided faulty information about the dangers posed by Baghdad.

George Bush needed a victim, a scapegoat for his own failures, and found it in Sadaam Hussain. He convinced Tony Blair, but he failed to convince most of the European Union, failed to convince the United Nations, and failed to convince a million demonstrators in Britain.

It was clear from the way the war was prosecuted that this was a piece of scapegoating, rather than a liberation for the Iraqi people. Much of the infrastructure of the ancient city of Baghdad was needlessly destroyed. The army, who hadn’t been seriously mobilised in any strength, was disbanded. The ensuing power vacuum allowed looting and lawlessness on a grand scale, sowing the seeds of strong opposition to the invaders.

The idea of finding a scapegoat was always a mistake. It was an ancient idea of the Jews that once a year, in an elaborate ritual, the sins of the people could be driven out by loading them on to the back of a hapless animal, which was driven out into the desert. Surely a moment’s rational thought is enough to show that a dumb animal cannot carry the sins of human beings. A goat is quite incapable of making people good. It might, given an impressive enough ritual, have convinced people 3,000 years ago. It might have made them feel good about themselves. But today the idea of making a scapegoat of someone is morally bankrupt.

It was wrong for Christian nations to go to war on this kind of basis. As Christians — and the national leaders concerned own to a personal faith in God – we have shamed ourselves in the eyes of both other Christians, and those who hold other faiths. At the time, when the myth of the weapons of mass destruction seemed credible, a million people in our own country demonstrated against what they saw as an unjust war, and a terrible mistake. Today, we have sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. We have set nations against us. We have driven willing volunteers into the hands of the terrorists. Though Tony Blair might claim Iraq is safer today, the world, and the West in particular, are surely less safe.

The lesson that needs to be learned is that nothing good will ever be achieved by making scapegoats. It doesn’t remove sin, or ultimately make people feel good about themselves. As Christians we should know that making scapegoats doesn’t work. Forgiveness of sins is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ.

There is a large body of literature which explores ideas of scapegoating from a Christian perspective. Much of it is indebted to the work of Rene Girard, who developed his understanding in the field of literature, drawing significantly on writing as diverse as Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedy and modern novels. For an except from Girard’s book I see Satan fall like lightning, see chapter 12 entitled Scapegoat.

See also a discussion of Girard’s work in relation to the Christian understanding of Atonement, and the implications of Girard’s theories on some current theological issues.


Celebrating fallibility

I’ve had the same mad conversation no less than five times in the last month, which is enough to suggest that others may not think the idea is so barmy, and that maybe I should take it more seriously than I do.

To backtrack a little, we’re talking about the slow disintegration of the Church of England. This is not an attractive prospect for me, and not only because I have a career and a pension riding on it. I happen to believe in a lot of what the CofE represents, which probably comes as no surprise to even a casual reader, but I am nevertheless increasingly pessimistic about its prospects for surviving in the way we have known it.

Where it affects us is whether we think there should continue to be a local church in every community in the land. In this part of the world we live in a deanery of sixteen parishes. Within living memory, each parish had its own clergyman, and Stansted also had usually two curates, so eighteen full-time clerics for sixteen parishes. These days, for the same sixteen parishes there are five full-time clergy. In fifteen years there will be three full-time clergy for the same number of parishes with increasing populations.

Back in the days when clergy were a less endangered species, it was possible for their church councils to say that, if they took care of the roof, the fête and the flower festival, the vicar could go and visit, do The God Bit and bring people to church. Those individuals who didn’t like franchising their faith to the clergy became Methodists or Quakers but, for the rest, this undemanding arrangement worked reasonably well. Reasonably well, that is, until clergy become thin on the ground, which creates a vacuum.

This empty space, to be fair, has come upon rural churches at a quicker pace than they are used to working; in fact it has come more quickly than any of us would like. Even for the most devout of us, it is one thing to recognise the gap, it is quite something else to fly in the face of old instincts and prejudices and presume to offer oneself to meet the need. In small communities this is an even larger step because, as we all know, there is nothing like a village for remembering the human frailties of its inhabitants ‘til well after they have taken up residence in the churchyard.

So, we must keep the church going, but we don’t quite know how. So we reach for widely held beliefs which are ready to hand: ‘The church is the centre of the community’ is one of these. This belief is held by sane people who hold down serious and responsible jobs. It is a view which only makes sense if the community is all Christian, and the kind of Christian which expresses its faith through formal organisations like a parish church.

The mad idea with which I started is also widely held in all three parishes, and even beyond, as I had the conversation in another diocese last week. It says that, if the parish church can put on social events in church to attract local people, somehow this will encourage them to become active members of the church, and so will stay the process of decline, now that we do not have local clergy to go and round up the lapsed.

Now I have no objection to social events and look forward to more of them in my parishes, but their provision does not address the core malaise of the church. The root problem is that most people, given free choice, do not publicly practice Christian faith. This is not just the much lamented young, it has been true for a long time. People born in the 1920s, 30s and 40s mostly are not regular church attenders for most of their lives. I know this as I bury a good number of them in the course of a year. Their offspring struggle with the language of a Christian burial ritual because it speaks using images and metaphors whose meaning just escapes them. Fewer people in church means that there are fewer individuals who feel a call to holy orders. With fewer in holy orders, there is a sense of communities being beached by the church, and so giving goes down, which in turn means fewer clergy taking on more parishes, which then see less of them, they become disaffected and the spiral goes on. If I were to stay here until retirement, I can quite see my parish growing to include half of the deanery.

There is hope for rural parishes, but the route is not an easy one, and the days of an undemanding faith are over. We need somehow to grasp the idea that people do not become practicing Christians by accident. There may even be some who choose a church because they like the cleric who serves there, but that’s not a true faith as it will evaporate when that cleric moves on and, surprise, surprise, the cleric is not God.

A local church is attractive only if it is engaged in its core business, and this is about ordinary fallible people stumbling around, along with their no less fallible cleric, trying to listen for the echoes of God’s footsteps in their own lives, and then sharing what they find with others. This is how a church is grown, and it doesn’t need a local cleric constantly to hand for that to begin.


Traces of Establishment

A couple of days ago, I found myself on the stage of the town hall in the company of the local MP, giving out ‘certificates of excellence’ to a steady stream of primary school children. Nothing unusual there, you may say. It’s the sort of thing vicars do.

But that’s the problem. It certainly fitted with the expectations of the local vicar with which I grew up, when the incumbent was part of the structure of the community, widely recognised as one of the neighbourhood’s ‘great and good’, a suitable authority figure for school prize-giving, and to be invited to civic events of every kind. He (of course) was there as the representative of the established church (and of the Establishment) in a country which described itself as Christian, no matter how small a percentarge of the population were active members of a church.

On Wednesday, however, I was giving out certificates to children, only a tiny proportion of whom would have any connexion with Christian faith; the great majority with a faith commitment were Muslim. I was part of the presenting team in my capacity as an LEA-appointed governor in a community school. That I also happen to be the local vicar is incidental.

And yet I was wearing my clerical collar, identifiably a leader in the Christian community, and a sign of continued Christian presence in and commitment to a neighbourhood where residual attachment to church and church-going is dwindling rapidly as the population changes.

In this area, there is a shortage of volunteers to take up governorships in local schools. Working for the well-being of the community in which I find myself is a natural part of my ministry, fitting with the long Anglican tradition of service particularly in the inner city. School governorship is a very practical opportunity to use my skills and experience in a field where they will be of value. It also gives me the chance to make relationships with children, parents, and colleagues whom I would not otherwise encounter – and who perhaps would rarely have any occasion to engage with someone who has a public commitment to the Christian faith.

The difference from the old days is that I cannot assume any right to that opportunity or those relationships. The old rules of establishment no longer hold. I must earn my place at the table, by whatever personal gifts I might bring and by an understanding of the gospel which connects to the hopes and fears of staff, parents, children and governors of the school. And I find myself wondering when and if I will be joined on the governing body by the local imam; when will he be the natural person to invite onto the platform, and should he be so already?


A call for the pruning shears

Among all the presents I received at my ordination as deacon in 1983 perhaps the most unusual was a poster. It depicted a group of people around a table engaged to varying degrees in some sort of argument. The caption was simply, “God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee”.

The poster is long gone, but the sentiments are still engraved on my heart. They come bubbling back to the foreground every time I’m confronted with a meeting agenda that looks poorly planned, confused, or lacking in clear purpose. So when the thick wad of papers for the forthcoming Church of England General Synod tumbled onto my doormat, that ordination present came back so clearly into my mind that I could almost describe every face on it.

Now I’m not, and never have been, a member of General Synod. So I need to test my reactions lest they are simply the natural suspicion most of us have towards clubs of which we are not a member. But just maybe the perspective of a non-member may have something to offer.

I don’t see my ordination poster as being an argument for abandoning all committees. There is a lot of work that can only effectively be progressed through a process of debate by duly authorised representatives. But it asks of any piece of committee business some sharp questions. Chief among these is “What will be different after this agenda item has been concluded? Close behind it comes “Is this the most efficient and effective way to achieve that difference?” and “Is the difference justified in terms of the costs entailed?” None of this is specific to General Synod – it applies just as much to a local church council, to a specialist charity and to the board of a multinational corporation.

In the heady days of my youth I was a member of a small Labour Party branch in a safe Conservative area. I still remember the night when, after lengthy debate and much proffering of amendments we voted through our simple and clear resolution to the problems of the Middle East. In terms of impact this item had considerably less than the same meeting’s traditional raffle of four cans of cheap lager. There’s much on the current Synod agenda reminiscent of those old political gatherings.

Worthy motions, that were I a member I would doubtless support, will be proposed, amended, and passed overwhelmingly. Members will feel somewhat better informed (a good thing) and that they have been part of something that will – simply because an august body has pronounced – make a difference (false – and therefore a bad thing).

The age has gone when councils or synods could, by passing resolutions, raise a topic above the threshold of public consciousness. Even Parliament, with all its resources, only influences opinion when it debates a subject already in the spotlight. Like it or not, the media are far more interested in reporting the views of individuals already in the public eye. People can be questioned, they can give a human dimension to an issue, and they can elaborate and go deeper in response to challenge. Whilst Synod members work through their preparatory papers, I’ve just produced a Press Release, in conjunction with other Bishops, on the Arms Trade. I suspect it will get rather more coverage in local media than any of the Justice Issues on the York Synod Agenda.

Emboldened by having removed all the worthy public issues for synodical debate let me turn my sights onto another target – the Private Member’s Motion – and dismiss it with brevity. Frankly, if I can’t get the backing of my Diocesan Synod for my concerns, I shouldn’t be taking them all the way to a National body. Too often they are simply a mechanism by which the disgruntled get to ride their hobbyhorses at everybody’s time and expense.

My final candidates for agenda pruning are those items that may well require general assent, but instead are subject to a detailed scrutiny that is achieved more efficiently elsewhere – indeed often the Synod debate duplicates this. I have yet to encounter a piece of Liturgy that has been significantly improved by General Synod.

In recent times Synod has improved itself by pruning its members. It was increasingly absurd that every single diocese had an archdeacon as a voting member. Indeed it was little more than a “payroll vote” giving the hierarchy a substantial caucus within the House of Clergy – perhaps at times a decisive caucus. Now is the time to take the same pruning shears to the agenda. With the goal being, that if we could reduce Synod to an annual gathering (like the Methodist Conference) or even less frequent (the ECUSA general Convention meets every three years) – it would not only be cheaper and more efficient but might actually attract the wider and more representative membership it so pointedly lacks.


vigilance in the cause of truth

Having no personal memories of D Day, and being required to take a service to commemorate the anniversary, I asked someone who took part in the landings about his memories. Bert suggested a hymn for the service, one that was unknown to me.

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood for the good or evil side;
Some great Cause, God’s New Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by for ever ‘twixt that darkness and that light

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust.
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ‘tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, beneath the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
James Russell Lowell

Bert had sung this as a schoolboy in rural Essex, and learned it long before he would be involved in ridding Europe of the tyranny of the Nazi regime. The hymn was actually written by an American, who I believe was strongly opposed to slavery, at the time of the American Civil War. Yet how appropriate it was to the conflict in Europe of 60 years ago.

It’s a pity the hymn went out of fashion, for it highlights to a need to remain vigilant in the cause of truth. Significantly, it points out that truth may not always require a simple repetition of an age old wisdom. No doubt Lowell was thinking particularly of slavery, which was accepted as normal in much of the society of his day, when he wrote New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. But the message remains appropriate to the need to fight against fascism 60 years ago, and to the different challenges and concerns of our day.

They were curiously juxtaposed in Rome last week in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the city from Fascism. The occasion had been planned to mark the gratitude of the Italian people, and recall how welcome the British and American troops had been as they arrived in Rome then. But the celebration was also marked by demonstrations against American policy today, highlighting the very different way in which war had been waged in Iraq.

I watched events on the news with mixed feelings. If Rome had not been liberated, there could have been no demonstrations of that sort today. But perhaps it was the moment to point out that ‘new occasions teach new duties’.


Canadian wrap

This will be the last report here on the week’s synodical proceedings in Canada.

Reports in British papers:

The Church Times has this report by David Harris (the content has been updated from the version that appears in the printed paper) Canada debates same-sex unions

In the Guardian Stephen Bates has Canadian Anglicans put off gay blessings which is subtitled
Synod avoids internal split and worldwide evangelical revulsion

Jonathan Petre in the Telegraph has Anglicans delay vote on gay blessings notes the overwhelming strength of the vote in favour of adding the “sanctity” clause against the “tiny majority” for the deferral proposal.

The Press Association has Canadian Anglicans Back ‘Sanctity’ of Gay Relationships


further Canadian developments

Today, the General Synod of the Church of Canada passed an addition to the motion approved yesterday that “affirms the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.”

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a press release which welcomed the decision by the Canadian General Synod to defer a decision on the question of same sex blessings until 2007.

Official Press Release Anglican synod ‘affirms’ integrity of same-sex relationships
Anglican Journal Synod ‘affirms’ same-sex relationships

Toronto Globe and Mail Anglicans clash again over same-sex couples
Toronto Star Anglicans affirm adult same-sex relationships

Associated Press Canadian Church Affirms Same-Sex Unions

Today’s further move by the Synod has angered many conservatives:
Orthodox Anglicans astounded at back-door approval of same-sex relationships
Statement to faithful Canadian Anglicans from Archbishop Drexel Gomez

Update Friday morning
Anglican Journal Nine bishops ‘express sorrow’ at synod’s actions


Canadians defer decision

The Anglican Church of Canada has decided to delay a decision on same-sex blessings until 2007.

The wording of the revised motion is here. Clergy and laity voted 142-118 and bishops voted 22-12 in favour of deferral. A further debate will occur Thursday concerning an additional proposal to “affirm the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.”

Press Association Canada’s Anglicans Delay Action on Gay Blessings
BBC Canadian gay union vote put off
Anglican Journal Synod defers decision on blessings – Will decide tomorrow on ‘integrity’ of gay relationships and Reaction to synod’s vote to defer a decision on same-sex blessings
Toronto Globe and Mail Anglicans put sex issue on hold and Anglicans hesitate to bless same-sex unions
Toronto Star Anglicans defer same-sex decision and Anglicans retreat from conflict
Associated Press Canadian Church Nixes Gay Marriage Issue.