The problem with returning from a stint of incommunicado foreign service – even for just a week and a bit – is that you have to catch up with the news in one go. So, I’ve been whipping through the Church newspapers, glancing off websites and other journals and now find myself wishing I hadn’t bothered. Here’s three examples of what I found that don’t fill me with joy, but do reflect on the posts I published since my return from Zimbabwe on the freedom to think aloud and aspects of criminal justice:

1. A couple of weeks ago Stephen Kuhrt wrote in the Church of England Newspaper about the impact of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans on the Diocese of Southwark. He drew attention to a sermon by a preacher at Fairfield Church (part of Richard Coekin’s Co-Mission network, known locally as the Diocese of Dundonald) inwhihc his church, Christ Church, New Malden, was accused of having lost interest in mission because it had strayed from the Gospel (or words to that effect). In last week’s copy of the CEN the aggrieved preacher retorted with a remarkably either disingenuous or naive counter-complaint. He writes:

Richard [Coekin] is a forward-thinking leader who in the years I’ve known him has never said anything against Stephen or Christ Church, New Malden, despite previous attacks on him, and it wouldn’t occur to him to do so.

Richard certainly is a strong leader, but I am boggled at how people can be so revering of him that they cannot recognise the truth of his failings. I’m afraid Philip Cooper, the said preacher, needs to listen to people who have worked with (as I have in my capacity as Archdeacon of Lambeth from 2000-2003) or related to Richard Coekin locally. Richard criticised Christ Church, New Malden, in precisely the terms used by Mr Cooper to me on more than one occasion. He was also reported to me by a member of a mission team several years ago as having done so on more than one occasion publicly and in a way that made the identification of the church not hard to discern.

Believe it or not, I have a respect for Coekin and his leadership qualities despite my antipathy to the disingenuous way he goes about things in relation to the diocese and his representation of his own victimhood. But it is wilful hagiography of the worst kind to portray Richard as almost infallible on these matters and to not want to hear inconvenient things about him. Why can’t they just admit that he gets things like this wrong, as the rest of us do, and apologise?

Rowan Williams2. Today I read Martin Beckford’s piece in the Telegraph about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s participation in a forthcoming Channel 4 programme about belief. The Archbishop speaks of ‘hell’ as being:

… stuck with myself for ever and with no way out… Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell.

The article is fine. But go down to the comments on the online version and then it starts to get scary. Some people – who clearly think of themselves as Christian – clearly need help. Why is it that people outside fo the Church often find Rowan Williams thoughtful, insightful and painfully honest, whereas people inside the Church (who disagree with him) like to denigrate him?

I wrote the other day about the danger of ‘leading’ people (such as politicians) not being free to speak the truth, but constantly to be saying what other people want to hear and always in a very safe way. I remember him saying at a conference: ‘When people ask me to lead, what they really mean is: ‘say very loudly what I want to hear’.’ The Archbishop, albeit quoted briefly and (inevitably) out of context in the article, is at least interesting as well as being honest. Clearly, some of the commentators would prefer him to be dishonest and just tick their boxes in their language. Thank God he doesn’t.

FernandoTorres3. But, if that isn’t enough for one day, I then read on the BBC website that where I live is one of the 20 burglary hotspots in the UK. This is a pity because Croydon is a fantastic place to live – a place of real civic and social ambition. And I haven’t heard a burglar alarm go off on my road in the six years we have lived here…

Oh well. At least Fernando Torres has signed his new contract for Liverpool…

Why should I or anyone else get worked up about an institution splitting into bits (especially when I am on holiday)? After all, it happens all the time, doesn’t it?

I have referred before now to the great gift the Christian Church offers the world in flagrant contravention of its founder’s injunction (“Love one another as I have loved you”), that injunction’s purpose (that by this love “they might know you are my disciples”) and its fundamental  ministry (“reconciliation”): constant fragmentation on grounds of (im)purity. In this, the Church shows itself to be no different from any other human institution; the problem, however, is that the Church is the body that is called not to fragment – precisely in order to challenge the ways of the world as evidence of the reconciling power of God in Christ.

So, when people question the suggestion that ‘unity’ should have priority over ‘truth’, it must surely be possible to assert that ‘unity’ is an essential part of ‘truth’ and not in opposition to it.

Yet, what is going on in the Anglican Communion is not a new phenomenon. I was among a group reflecting recently on the fragmentation of the Left in Britain in the 1970s and ‘80s – especially in relation to what became known as ‘entryism’ in the old Labour Party. I was a student of modern languages and politics at the time, but mystified by the self-destructive internal fragmentation of Marxist groups in British universities during those decades. The revolution was never going to happen while the ultimate goal was constantly made subservient to the internal purities of self-defining factions. Furthermore, the rest of the world could only laugh at the impotence, self-consumption and growing irrelevance of such groups – not only on grounds of their absurd ideologies, but the phenomenon of self-destruction in the name of the goal they were simultaneously defeating.

James Purnell, the Labour Minister who resigned from the British Government recently, wrote in the Guardian newspaper on 20 July 2009 (p.26):

Being clear that we want a more equal society may also allow that debate to be open rather than narrow. One of the most attractive things about New Labour in the 1990s was how pluralist it was – with many strands of leftwing thought coexisting, and learning from each other.

Over time, New labour became too much of a sect – we went from big-tent politics to small-gazebo politics. Perhaps in response, the left has become balkanised into smaller groups, based on small differences. If we recognise that our common goal is a more equal society, we may be able to remember that there is more that unites us than separates us. And where there are differences, we may just see that as an inevitable but manageable pluralism, rather than a reason for division.

Purnell was bemoaning the loss of focus on a common vision in favour of a concentration on factional purity or rightness – somehow reminiscent of the judgement that ‘the operation was a success, but the patient died’. However, the question that really matters both for politics and the Church is: who suffers when our focus goes awry and we so easily fragment? Yes, the Party suffers and the Church (as institution) is weakened. But the sole answer that really matters can only be that (a) the fragmentation of the Party lets down the country and the people whose interests it purported to support and (b) the fragmentation of the Church lets down the world to whom it is called to offer not only a message but also evidence of reconciliation – with God and, therefore inevitably, with others.

The glory of Anglicanism has been its almost unique vocation in holding under one roof a range of different and diverse groupings and emphases. Those who wish to split may be ‘right’ in their theological or ecclesiological focus. They might even be passionately right. They might even feel better to be rid of those who, though theologically close in many respects, have become an embarrassment to ‘the righteous’. But there is also something curiously self-indulgent about the hearty way in which the fragmentation they drive is presented as either inevitable or self-justifying. Or, as Barack Obama observes in a different context, ‘When two locusts fight, it is always the crow who feasts’.

 Who benefits and who suffers?

I’ll come clean. When I was a child in Sunday School in Liverpool in the mid-1960s, my thriving church was suddenly divided by a faction going off to found a new ‘house church’. Those who left charged the minister with not being a Christian on the grounds that he didn’t speak in tongues. All I knew is that my Sunday School teacher was there one week and gone the next. We now look back on those days with embarrassment and regret – partly at the arrogance of such division based on a single narrow theological difference. The wounds of that loss still, I think, shape me.

We had just had Billy Graham. Later we had John Wimber. Then we had Willow Creek. Now we have New Wine, Spring Harvest, Keswick and a million other ‘identities’.  Most of these enrich the wider church while holding Christians together under one roof. Yet some position themselves over against others – being more theologically pure, more ecclesiologically consistent or more biblically adherent. But it seems to me that they all bring with them the danger of seeking or offering some sort of panacaea to the church – that if we only get the formula right, God will bless us with some sort of ‘revival’ and all will be well.

This is a seductive delusion and it is time it was killed. If we so easily fracture, then today’s consistent ‘church’ will fragment tomorrow when the internal need for greater purity will create an unsustainable tension and the same old patterns will repeat themselves ad infinitum. Or should that be ad nauseam? I guess it depends on whether you see it from the perspective of the church… or that of a sick world in need of reconciliation.

The weather in London is awful, so it must be time for a summer holiday. We are going up north to a place where there is probably no wireless internet connection and poor mobile reception. So, I might be quiet for the next couple of weeks. The day after I get back, I fly to Zimbabwe for a week or so – and I am not planning on getting any blog posts out from there with any regularity.

But, if the rain is pouring in the real world, it is also pouring in the Anglican world. By deciding (and the bishops endorsing) to allow for the consecration of actively gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex relationships, the Episcopal Church in the USA has consciously decided to walk away from most of the rest of the Anglican Communion. That is their prerogative and one can understand the rationale behind their decision even if one profoundly disagrees with it. Furthermore, it is entirely within the remit of the polity to do such a thing. But, regardless of the content of the decision, the fact of it means that a line has been crossed from which there seems to be no going back.

In one sense, this is not a bad thing. After years of the phoney war, something has now happened and positions can be taken either with or over against it. That is life… and at least we all now know what we are dealing with. (Of course, real life is a bit more messy than this and TEC still contains clergy and people who strongly disagree with the General Convention decisions, but do not wish to leave their church.)

What isn’t true, however, is that the ‘Covenant is torn to shreds’ – as the Church of England Newspaper puts it in its front-page headline. TEC might well have decided not to engage with it, but that doesn’t mean it has no future or that TEC’s presence is crucial to its success. If anything, its imminence could be regarded as having forced the issue within TEC and the ground has now been cleared. I wonder why the CEN prints a misleading headline like that over a report that says no such thing. The Covenant – whatever one thinks of it – is not designed simply for TEC, but for the Communion.

Bishop of DurhamStill, we should be thankful for small mercies. Tom Wright’s letter to the CEN got printed. In it he challenges the CEN ‘to do better’ in its support of FCA and its lazy critique of English bishops:

Since when is there ‘a drift of appointment of bishops… who must be ‘politically correct’ … on all things from Islam to sexuality?’ I challenge you to publish a full list of diocesan bishops appointed under the present Archbishop and say which of them come into this category. It would be interesting to compare this with an equivalent list of those appointed under the previous Archbishop.

Monochrome? Hardly. If there is anything uniform about the appointments to dioceses over the last seven years, it is an energy for mission, a robust theological and ethical orthodoxy, and a willingness to articulate the challenge of God’s kingdom across this country in the face of secular, postmodern and relativist revisionism. Doesn’t fit the FCA mythology does it?

I am glad Tom wrote this. I was sorely tempted to do something similar, but am getting fed up with using energy fighting stupidities within the church instead of using energy for the work of mission and ministry. I wonder if such lists will be forthcoming – or if we will just continue to get this lazy and misleading unsubstantiated insinuation.

I won’t be holding my breath.

The good thing about blogging is that the conversation forces me to think through what I think I think in the light of other people’s perspectives on what they think I think. I have been critical of the launch of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in recent posts and – as I don’t believe in playing games with words – have offered what have clearly been considered to be ‘robust’ observations. For that I do not apologise. Indeed, one of the things I get fed up with as a bishop is the generalised criticism that bishops don’t ‘lead’ or don’t ‘speak out’. Of course, what usually lies behind these criticisms is an assumption that a bishop ‘leads’ by saying loudly what ‘I’ want to hear (and, by implication, does not lead if taking a different view from ‘me’) and is only ‘speaking out’ when loudly agreeing with ‘my’ view on things.

But, given that I am happy to say what I think and take the flak, how do I respond to Andrew Carey’s response to my critique of FCA? Here is what he said:

However your posts on FCA will be perceived as pretty insulting really by your targets. There’s no qualification of what you’re saying. I always try to use the terms ’some’ and ‘many’, for example when imputing views to groups such as ‘evangelicals’ or ‘liberals’ because there’s always diversity. So it’s unfair to make implications about the honesty or integrity of people in FCA by extrapolating from a situation you were close to. Furthermore the idea that FCA supporters view you as unChristian or dodgy might be true of some but not others.

But you yourself also said that people tend to be more suspicious of those close to them (ie the same tradition). Does that explain your hostility and defensiveness as well as that of some of the FCA people you have encountered).

The unity thing is a serious question, given the fact that you’ve accused them of ‘fracturing’ the Church despite their denials of that. Answering a question with a question is all very well, but I’m not a bishop, and don’t have the specific gifts, responsibility and calling to the Church you have. You’re entitled to think me a hypocrite, though I don’t concede that I am on this particular issue, but I think that you and Graham Kings now both have an uphill struggle in your ministry with FCA-types now.

Is FCA a distraction? Well at a time when the views of someone like +Michael Nazir-Ali are seen as extremist when they were entirely acceptable only a decade or so ago, then there’s definitely a need for movements/organisations of this kind. I support loyal but robust protest in response to some trends both in society and the Church. FCA has the potential to a focal point for that. If they ever become separatist they’ll leave me behind.

Andrew has a point about me generalising and tarring all FCA people with the same brush – a brush shaped by particular experience of certain leading FCA people. I know there were many who went tothe FCA launch out of curiosity and that many of those present do not deserve the accusations of dishonesty that I have levelled. So, Andrew is right to draw attention to the generalised nature of my polemic and I plead guilty. There are many evangelicals who do not behave as others and who are not as arrogant or economical with the truth as others.

But it is important to understand where I stand. I am an evangelical bishop whose concern is to equip, encourage and resource my clergy and parishes to learn, believe and promote the gospel of Jesus Christ. This means engaging robustly and with a confident humility in the public space, representing and arguing for the truth of God in Jesus Christ. But I also believe that the church is there to create the space in which all people can find (in different ways and at different paces) that they have been found by God. The glorious Diocese of Southwark is one in which this mission is promoted, defended and in which I have had nothing but encouragement in the six years I have been here.

My experience in the Diocese of Southwark has, however, taught me that there are those who claim to be ‘biblical’ whose behaviour is not. These same people talk down the Church of England and the Diocese of Southwark all the time. They also are not hesitant about behaving in ways that cannot be described other than as dishonest. Consider, for example, the way the ‘irregular ordinations’ were planned for and executed a couple of years ago – raising questions that were never pursued by outsiders as they should have been. And, the lot of the Bishop of Southwark? He played (and continues to play) a completely above-board straight bat in the face of what looks to me like subterfuge. So, he waits three months for a response from Richard Coekin on (a) processing Coekin’s curates for ordination and (b) regularising the Co-Mission (known locally as ‘the Diocese of Dundonald) church plants within our church-planting guidelines… only to get a letter giving him two weeks’ notice (conveniently ending at the launch of FCA) and threatening him with consequences if Tom didn’t agree to Coekin’s demands.

Now, how would you describe that?

So, I hope that explains my personal anger in the face of what then seems to me to characterise a driving element in FCA. Does this blind me to other elements? Possibly, yes. And I will give further thought to that.

And maybe that is why I consider FCA to be ‘fracturing’ of the church and do not believe their denials. I see it at close quarters and I don’t like what I see. If I didn’t take the Bible so seriously, I wouldn’t have so many problems with those who claim the loudest to be ‘biblical’. But, to be on the receiving end of criticism with such blatant hypocrisy is, I think, worthy of exposure. So, I don’t retract my criticisms of FCA, their direction or what lies (politically) behind them, but I do accept the criticism that I have generalised where I should have been more nuanced.

I don’t accept that Graham Kings and I have any more uphill battle with ‘FCA types’ now than we did before. I would further note that in terms of ministry in this diocese no distinction is made between clergy of any ecclesiological complexion. I visit every parish on the same basis – whether they be liberal catholic, conservative evangelical, charismatic, ‘anglican’, Forward in Faith or anything else. I look to resource, encourage, etc without distinction and regardless of my own views on their stances on particular issues. I also make myself available to them without discrimination.

But, it needs to be noted that many ‘ordinary’ evangelicals keep asking for leadership against the FCA types. Evangelicals do not take kindly to finding churches planted in their parishes on the basis that ‘there is no Bible-based ministry there’. How should I respond to these requests from evangelicals? I would be interested to hear advice – when the bishop is called to be the focus of unity (among other things).

As for Michael Nazir-Ali, I have known him for a long time and have massive respect for him. I don’t agree with him on some issues, but his integrity is never something I would question. I don’t agree with his stance on FCA and associated matters, but that is a difference of view and not a dispute about integrity.

This has got long enough. I can amplify other matters separately, if anyone is interested. But I hope this is an adequate response to Andrew Carey and provides a little more background to my own position.

rupertmurdochI woke this morning to the news that journalists on a national newspapers have been systematically and repeatedly bugging people’s private phones.

I also am wondering if I should ever go for meetings at Church House, Westminster, again. According to the Bishop of Fulham at last week’s FCA launch, ‘Satan is alive and well and resides at Church House’.

And I am intrigued that the Queen has been dragged into the FCA business.

So, I have three areas of questioning running round my head:

1. Will the News International publish a list of every person whose phone was hacked? And, picking up another theme of recent bloggings, will journalists now push for an independent Press Complaints Commission – having insisted on such scrutiny for MPs?

2. Will the Bishop of Fulham tell us which bit of Church House is home to Satan – and give us names? I want either to avoid the said person or tackle him/her. I think we should be told. (And why did Archbishop Jensen or anybody else not question this bizarre statement at the time?)

3. It is clear, now that Anglican Mainstream has published the correspondence with Buckingham Palace, that the ‘letter from the Queen’ was no such thing and did not offer support to FCA. Why, then, did Chris Sugden (when being interviewed about this specific point on Sunday on BBC Radio 4) not simply deny it rather than leave the question of royal support open – suggesting that this would be revealed at the launch the next day and, therefore, setting off speculation and reaction?

I wonder if any of these questions will get answers? I have to admit, however, that the only one of importance to the real world is the first.

Yesterday, having just returned from Kazakhstan, I went with my family to support a friend being ordained in Leicester Cathedral. We left Croydon at 6.30am and got to Leicester in time to park the car and look for a place to get something to eat or drink. The first place we came across was a Wetherspoons pub, already open at 9.00am, and already with a number of people drinking. We felt a bit over-dressed while eating the fry-up and drinking coffee. By the time we left (around 9.45am) one bloke was on his third pint  and others were not far behind.

At 9.15am on a Sunday morning. What was about to happen in the Cathedral seemed a million miles away from this pub and its early boozers.

beerToday, while the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FOCA) was being launched in London, I was doing a Parish Visit in a suburban parish. I have 102 parishes and visit each one for a day each four years (plus loads of other visits for services, etc., of course). These visits enable me to know the parishes better and gives the parishes access to me for whatever purpose they wish. Furthermore, I get the opportunity to encourage and raise questions/challenges about worship, mission, etc. The main thrust at the moment is questioning how each church can create the space in which people can learn to read and understand the Bible, growing confident in the content of Christian faith in order to be able to communicate and defend the faith.

While in this parish I spent some time in an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and listened to many stories of grief and hope. What characterised this meeting was the raw honesty of those who spoke, the respectful attention of those who listened, the acceptance of failure and encouragement to try again, the promise of real fellowship in a common struggle. Here there was no posturing, no game playing, no self-righteousness or superiority, no judgment, no accusation. There was an articulated acceptance of a common condition, an explicit need for mutual support and a genuine mutual compassion.

To me it felt like what the church should be.

When I went into the room I got talking to a woman who questioned my presence there. She had had a bad experience of the church and my clerical collar and pectoral cross spoke to her primarily of authority and judgment. I held my cross and indicated that the man who was crucified on it was loved by those who knew their need and weren’t afraid to acknowledge it – and was crucified by those who put the purity of their religious institution above the signs of God’s presence and kingdom in their midst. We are all in need of confession, mutual support and God’s healing grace – alcoholics do not have a monopoly on this, but they are the most honest people you can meet.

It also got me wondering whether some of us have a ‘faith addiction’ in the sense that we fixate on elements of the faith, missing the broader point of it all and displaying the symptoms of addictive behaviour seen in other forms. Just wondering…

Anyway, I came home late tonight and have been reflecting on this. Should I have gone to the FCA launch? I know my credentials as a Christian and a bishop have been questioned, but that doesn’t worry me. I do not think that all in the Anglican garden is lovely and unproblematic. But I do think I chose well to be in a parish where the world is raw rather than in a meeting discussing protecting God from muckiness. I have come home to read again the Gospels and find that Jesus challenged the purity-lovers and healed those who had been excluded from the ‘church’, told that they did not count in God’s economy.

Given that the media have apparently ignored today’s launch, I have no idea what (if anything) happened. What I do know, however, is that while they were doing their holy stuff in London, I was seeing healing happen in a place where the Gospel is being lived out and struggled with on the ground. I was with some people whom I respect enormously for their courage and discipline – and for their love and compassion.

I think that is what Jesus looks like in the Gospels – and the church is called to look something like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. So, regardless of the judgments of others who are (obviously) closer to God than I am, I will keep plugging away at encouraging the churches in their faithful ministry, trying to inspire them with a vision for the Gospel and opening up the Bible to and for them.

And I won’t worry too much about those who (in the words of Karen Armstrong I heard on the car radio on the way home) are ‘more concerned to be right than to be compassionate’ – or something like that.

Being a long way from home inevitably makes you reflect on domestic matters with a different perspective. Sitting in a Central Asian capital city, having been in conference with a vast range of world religions, the scandal of Christian division is all the more acute.

Waiting for my next appointment I was catching up with emails and read Bishop Graham Kings’ article on the Fulcrum website at http://fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=437. The questions he poses are astute, but I doubt if he will get any response.

The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans will be established on Saturday (as I understand it from a distance). This is a self-indulgent distraction from the real stuff of Christian mission in a fractured world that cries out for reconciliation. FCA is not needed, is a distraction and offers the world yet another example of Christian fracturing.

After the irregular ordinations in the Diocese of Southwark several years ago I asked a couple of those involved to show me where they find the biblical sanction for lying, misrepresentation and subterfuge. I have never had a reply. Despite protestations of innocence, the scheming behind FCA does not give us confidence that dodgy behaviour will receive the same biblical or ethical scrutiny as is applied to questions of sexual behaviour.

I don’t know who FCA is really for. I am not aware of evangelicals really wanting it and will be interested to see who joins the party. Graham Kings suggests that the take-up for this weekend has not been great – if so, that should not come as any surprise. Most evangelicals – it seems to me – just want to get on with the ministry and mission to which they are called as Anglicans and are fed up with schemes for fragmentation.

The intriguing conundrum that I cannot resolve is how Forward in Faith and Reform can unite despite such serious contradictions in their cultures, priorities and practices. It seems they can only do so with a massive dose of pretence that the world is not as it is: that there is no gay sub-culture in FiF’s constituency and lay presidency does not happen.

I hope Graham Kings’ questions will be answered and that his warnings will be heeded. Maybe, when I get back from Kazakhstan to the familiarity of England my perspective will change. But, sitting here and thinking about the world, some of these internal Anglican shenanigans do look like trumped up, self-indulgent and self-important side-shows.

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