Following last week’s spat about the Church of England Newspaper’s misleading front-page story about bishops working costs, I have been thinking hard about accountability issues – both for bishops and journalists. My contention that ‘the story’ is king - regardless of the facts – has been questioned, and the questions have to be faced. I was interested, therefore, to read Paul Vallely’s excellent article in today’s Independent on Sunday: ‘Sexed-up contrariness is not journalism’. He makes the point more eloquently than I can – maybe because he is a journalist.
However, this touches a wider issue: whether the stories that dominate our mental wallpaper are the right ones – or even the real ones.
For example, a great deal of noise went up a couple of weeks ago when Folkestone parish announced it was to explore going into the Ordinariate set up by the Pope for Anglicans wanting to go to Rome without actually crossing the Tiber. The reality turned out to be a church with a congregation of between 30-40 (which equals two housegroups in some of our parishes), many of whom had not been consulted – and neither the vicar nor the PCC had any idea of how many might actually want to leave. In other words, not a great story, really.
It is rumoured that a couple of bishops are planning to resign and enter the Ordinariate in due course. You hardly have to be a soothsayer to work out who they might be. I won’t comment on this until we have facts on the ground (as it were), but you can bet your life it will be held up as yet another story of Anglican conflict and church decline – when, in fact, it offers the first whiff of clarity for men of integrity (and those whom they have served) who will be happier in the Church they probably should have been in anyway. They have made hard decisions and, at last, have some clarity for their future. However, if the Church of England is no longer a ‘real’ church, then it hasn’t been up till now anyway; Rome has not just now decided not to recognise Anglican orders. So, this is a good story of resolution. But, I bet it won’t be represented as such.
The point of this is that the ‘news’ is inevitably dominated by those stories deemed to be the most ‘important’. But, are they? This week we have the Ordinariate and the bishops, the Anglican Covenant, the resignation of Gene Robinson… and they are just three for starters. But, they do not represent the totality of the life, concerns or normal business of the Church of England or the Anglican Communion. The Church in Zimbabwe probably won’t be discussing gay bishops or who might enter the Ordinariate: they are more preoccupied with questions of AIDS, nutrition, education, politics and the rule of law in their lovely country – and how to end persecution of the Church by the lawless Mugabe. And here in England on Sunday 7 November 2010 most Anglicans will be worshipping God, serving their local community and living out what it means to be church… regardless of all the ‘noise’ going on around them.
This morning I had a reality check. The village of Oxted has an ancient church which enjoys traditional worship. The large group of highly-motivated and committed young families have, with the support of the clergy, set up a monthly Cafe Church event in the Community Hall. It was packed with all ages, some of whom had been to the traditional Eucharist in the old church beforehand. Several (more elderly) people told me they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the form of Cafe Church, but that they wanted to support it as it was reaching people not reached by the traditional forms. Now, how mature is that? Wonderful.
The service involved a superb band, was organised and led by a group of highly-motivated and creative lay people, showed liturgical integrity and direction, and included all ages at all stages. It was simple and accessible, involved noise and quiet. I loved it. Here was the Church of England at its best: (a) creating the space in which people’s gifts and enthusiasms can be given free rein; (b) supporting a menu of liturgical cultures (vocabularies?) for different sorts of people; (c) rejecting an ‘either-or’ and going for a ‘both-and’ approach to the mission of the church in the parish. Not surprisingly, it is a source of growth.
But, it won’t get into the papers.
While other storms blow around the media cosmos, the huge number of stories such as this one do not often get heard. But, this is where the real stuff of the Church is being done – and not in the shouty arguments that dominate the headlines of media where conflict is king and (what Paul Vallely calls) ‘contrariness’ is the favoured approach to a story.
What I would now like to hear is some similar stories of growth, creativity and mission amongst parishes thinking of moving towards Rome. This is where the Church is – where the internal interests of the Church sink beneath the real evidence of the Kingdom of God among us. It is easy to miss.