The key to surviving the General Synod of the Church of England is to have a book on the go that has nothing to do with church business. Or church.

I have just finished the excellent ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ by Martin Gayford. Hockney spends a lot of time looking. Not just spotting something and drawing it, but looking. He describes how he looks for a very long time – hours and days – at, for example, a group of trees. The book ranges over time, space, colour, place, depth, and much besides. And it is beautifully illustrated.

The problem is that it provides a lens through which to look at and think through the business of the church as mediated through the General Synod. No escape there, then.

We began yesterday (after worship and a very odd choice of an unsingable hymn) with an address by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. This was a powerful first-hand account of what is happening to Christians at the hands of Islamic State. The plight is dire and the plea for help is urgent.

It always jars to move from such a matter to the legislative business of the Church of England – even though that is basically what the General Synod is for. But, it rams home the fact that life has to carry on despite the mess of the world. We then ranged over a variety of matters before departing in the evening. Today is taken up with four reports aimed at reorienting the Church of England for the future, aimed at focusing our attention on our core vocation: making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ and shaping the church at every level for its core mission.

It could be expressed like this: how does the church, in all its variety of context and reach, create the space in which different sorts of people can be invited to join us in following Jesus in the particular contexts in which we live, work, play, and give our lives? This involves worship, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, nurture, learning, arguing together, and so on.

Of course, the bit of this that has hit the media radar is the so-called Green Report. The coincidence of its launch with the depressing news about HSBC’s tax evasion behaviour is … er … unfortunate. But, a half-rational mind would realise that, putting the easy target to one side (how can the church be advised on leadership by a banker?), the question of how to equip church leaders for the responsibilities they carry is an important one.

Someone in public life said to me yesterday that, although she had not read the Green Report, she only had to look at her vicar to realise that some training in professional conduct would be helpful – given that he had run down his congregation over the last few years. I guess many in our churches would like to see their clergy better trained for some of the ‘management of people and stuff’ responsibilities that running a parish demands.

So, we will no doubt pick holes in this report and others. But, we cannot simply hide behind cleverness and dismissive non-engagement with serious questions about how we train and equip leaders for what we are asking them to do. The Green Report should have been translated for its ultimate audience; it might even start from the wrong place and use the wrong language; the process of its genesis might well not be ideal; it might well make assumptions about the nature and exercise of leadership and the nature of the church. Fine. But, the criticisms still don’t address the question of how we do then invest in ensuring that church leaders in the future are better equipped to do what is expected of them.

When I was Bishop of Croydon I initiated a clergy leadership development programme and recruited an experienced colleague to create, develop and facilitate it. Some in the diocese were sceptical – about any suspicion of ‘management’. However, this programme involved peer cell groups of six clergy in their first post-curacy post, residential training, expert coaching, and so on. It was a heavy investment. But, it was an attempt to take clergy seriously and build their confidence in their own competence. It made a huge difference to morale, and feedback from parishes about their clergy made clear the impact that went wider than the development of the clergy themselves.

This is what the church is now looking to work on. It is not a substitute for inspiration, spiritual direction, theological development or all the other holy stuff of ministry. We need to ensure that the question Green poses is not avoided by dismissal of the Green response.

Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech yesterday in which he praised the impact of the King James Bible, stamped all over the nonsense assumption of secular neutrality, and called for Christians to be confident about their faith, the Bible and their right (nay, responsibility) to speak into public life. Not surprisingly, it has caused a bit of a stir amongst the commentariat whose assumptions got a bit of a kicking.

Cameron was speaking in an Anglican cathedral, so was duly confident in his laudatory observations on the impact of the King James Bible. He also used the occasion to give the Church of England a bit of a kick in relation to its wrangles over women and sexuality. Fair game, I say. And it was good to hear a British politician ‘do God’ without embarrassment, hesitation or self-exonerating caveat.

But, having praised the phenomenon and some of the content, I am still left with a cautious hesitation myself. And I think I know why this is.

He managed to talk up the language of the Bible without really referring to the content of it. Yes, the KJV has powerfully influenced our language and, proclaimed by the Church, has shaped our culture and law as well as our worship. But, we can’t just leave it there.

It reminds me of a rude remark I made recently at an interfaith gathering. I said that many of the global interfaith conferences I attend are a bit like a glorified BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk’… provided we don’t actually talk about anything. Yet, avoiding ‘content’ is a sure way to waste time and money on non-engagement and the fostering of a false sense of coherence when all we have done is avoid speaking about ‘content’ that might prove contentious. Of course, this is a caricature, but it made the point: we have to move beyond talking about talking to talking about something.

Well, Cameron lauded the language and spoke eloquently about the need for moral codes and ethical foundations in private as well as public life. He argued for a thought-through moral and spiritual basis for our ethics – rather than just assuming one.

But, the problem with the Bible is that as soon as you get beyond the language to what it says, you begin to find it challenging – on lots of fronts. Beautiful language is a means to comprehension, not an end in itself. And it’s taking a bit of a risk challenging the Church of England on its ethical conflicts when those conflicts arise precisely from going through the language and on to conflicted ways of reading the text in its integrity. So, it is alright for the Prime Minister to “recognise the impact of a translation that is, I believe, one of this country’s greatest achievements” and to claim that “the King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history” as long as we don’t delve too deeply into what it says. He goes on:

One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective. The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning. I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations. The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”. They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.”

I take the point (and basically agree with him), but the Bible isn’t meant to dazzle us with poetic magic; it is meant to open us to the mind of God… which tends to be a little bit challenging.

Like Shakespeare, the King James translation dates from a period when the written word was intended to be read aloud. And this helps to give it a poetic power and sheer resonance that in my view is not matched by any subsequent translation.

Again, point taken. But, resonance isn’t enough. It isn’t a performance prop. Like with Shakespeare, it is possible to enjoy the spectacle and experience of a play while going home oblivious to the point of it all. It won’t kill you, but you are missing out on rather a lot.

Cameron (or whoever wrote the basic text) does a good job of exposing assumptions of neutrality, affirming the role of the Bible in the development of British politics and culture, the fundamental power of biblical anthropology in shaping what would now rather weakly be called ‘human rights’, and the importance of biblically informed theological and spiritual motivation in social altruism. He says:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love… pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities… these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

I didn’t know we were afraid to acknowledge that. But, we are not told which biblical origins these virtues are derived from… or just how to deal with the fact that some people who read that same Bible will not recognise in the same way Cameron does how those virtues should be worked out in concrete priorities, policies or practices. He is absolutely right to knock on the head the utter nonsense that confident Christianity confounds those of other faiths – usually a patronising and ignorant gesture from secular humanists who think they know better than Muslims what offends them. Christianity has indeed created the space in which all people can freely worship or not.

However, Cameron’s conclusion made me wince a little – not at what he said, but at the unarticulated assumptions behind it:

I believe the Church of England has a unique opportunity to help shape the future of our communities. But to do so it must keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country. The future of our country is at a pivotal moment. The values we draw from the Bible go to the heart of what it means to belong in this country
…and you, as the Church of England, can help ensure that it stays that way.

And what might the ‘agenda that speaks to the whole country’ actually be? I suspect it has to do with stuff that some Christians, precisely because of their reading of the Bible – in whatever translation – believe is contentious on moral grounds. I am not saying they are right or wrong; my point is simply that Cameron’s point is itself contentious… as soon as you move beyond vague generalities about ‘values’ and ‘magic’ and into the text itself.

But, maybe he has just opened the door a little to a willingness to take the content of the Bible seriously and invite people to look at the text itself rather than some general or selective bits of nice language. (‘The Word became flesh’… which is when it all got a bit difficult…)

Two cheers for a brave and serious speech. One cheer reserved for the reservations above.

The utterly corrupt and very ex-Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, has described the Archbishop of Canterbury as “an irrelevance” as Rowan Williams begins his visit to Zimbabwe. Just how deluded do you have to be to come out with something like that in the face of Zimbabwe’s madness?

Having had very close involvement with Zimbabwe over the last decade, it is hard let go. This beautiful country, with it’s wonderful people and its heroic Anglican Church, deserves so much more than the rape and pillage it has suffered during the last twenty years of Mugabe’s tyranny. The Dioceses of Southwark and Rochester continue to work hard to support, sustain and encourage the Anglicans who are now suffering oppression at the hands of a Mugabe-backed renegade bishop in a country devoid of the rule of law.

This morning the Archbishop of Canterbury preached to thousands of people in an outdoor stadium in Harare. The Cathedral has been stolen by Kunonga with the backing of the judiciary and the police.

Is Dr Williams an irrelevance? Or is he a brave man who, trusting in the God who is on the side of the oppressed, is walking into the lion’s den in order to demonstrate that however loud the roar, the lion’s teeth are blunt and will one day soon fall out? His attempt to meet Mugabe might fail; his plea for justice might be to no avail; he might even be humiliated by the despot. But, by being there he will have shown the regime its moral nakedness and challenged its legitimacy. The cry for justice and mercy will not ultimately be silenced.

Because this is part of our problem. It is not only that some refuse the invitation of God to share his abundant love and generosity. It is all too easy for us human beings to try and block that love and prevent it from reaching others. You know very well, dear brothers and sisters, what it means to have doors locked in your faces by those who claim the name of Christians and Anglicans. You know how those who by their greed and violence have refused the grace of God try to silence your worship and frustrate your witness in the churches and schools and hospitals of this country. But you also know what Jesus’ parable teaches us so powerfully – that the will of God to invite people to his feast is so strong that it can triumph even over these mindless and Godless assaults. Just as the Risen Jesus breaks through the locked doors of fear and suspicion, so he continues to call you and empower you in spite of all efforts to defeat you. And in the Revelation to John, the Lord proclaims that he has set before us an open door that no-one can shut. It is the door of his promise, the door of his mercy, the door into the feast of his Kingdom.

In your faith and endurance, you have kept your eyes on that open door when the doors of your own churches have been shut against you. You have discovered that it is not the buildings that make a true church but the spiritual foundations on which your lives are built. And as we together give thanks for the open door that God puts before us, we may even find the strength to say to our enemies and persecutors, ‘The door is open for you! Accept what God offers and turn away from the death-dealing folly of violence.’

I have just arrived in Salisbury for the Meissen Theological Conference. I attend as Anglican Co-chair of the Meissen Commission, but have no responsibility in this conference other than to participate and enjoy it. How nice is that?

The theme this time is ‘Ecclesiology in Mission Perspective’ – which basically means that we want to tease out our understandings of what the Church is (and what it is for). If that is still too vague, then we will be looking at culture, Scripture, unity, implications of Fresh Expressions, academic thinking in Germany and the UK, systematic and practical theological perspectives, ecumenism… and taking a peek at dead influential theologians (who happen to be both dead and influential) such as Karl Barth and Lesslie Newbigin.

Now, for those outside of church circles who might think this is a weird way to spend the inside of a week, I’ll explain where the interest lies.

Churches – like any institutions or any groups of human beings with a common interest or task – easily fail to address the demands of a rapidly changing world. Their default setting is to consolidate the gains or settled patterns of the past – especially where such gains were hard won or costly in some way. So, it is vital that serious consideration is given at regular intervals to re-examining why we think we are who we think we are and why we do what we do in the way that we do it.

The advantage of doing this here is that bringing two cultures and two histories together provides a perspective that sets the experience and priorities of a church in one culture in the context of the critical light of another. So, what might appear to be (or assumed to be) fixed and ‘given’ in England might look a little more relative when seen through the lens of another church’s theological or historical experience and thinking.

Given that – for both the Church of England and the EKD – our churches are not there merely to maintain themselves as ‘societies’ or institutions with a common identity, these themes become important. The Church exists for the sake of the world and not vice versa. It needs to be built up, grown and supported in order that it can fulfil its primary mission of ‘creating the space in which people can find that they have been found by God’ (in whatever circumstances of life). And we can learn better how to do that by subjecting our own preoccupations and assumptions to the scrutiny and questioning of those who come from somewhere else.

I’ll keep you posted.

peter jensenI was amused to read in a comment on the Anglican Mainstream website that Archbishop Jensen of Sydney had accused me of “putting loyalty to my diocese above loyalty to Christ”. I don’t know if he did say this or, if so, why he said it or what he meant by it – but it did make me smile. To be dissed by Archbishop Jensen would be seen by many as a badge of honour.

What is interesting here is that bishops are supposed to be loyal to their diocese (that is, their clergy, parishes, people, etc) as part of their expression of their loyalty to Christ. That is why I will defend my lot against silly attacks from people who don’t know what they are talking about. Yesterday I confirmed nearly 40 people (mostly adults) who have come to Christian faith and commitment – none of them in evangelical churches. Being a bishop is brilliant simply because you get to see where God is at work, apparently sometimes breaking his own rules.

I wonder how Archbishop Jensen regards clergy in his own diocese who disagree with him or decide that loyalty to Christ means being disloyal to his diocese and him? I suspect I know the answer. To disagree with (or be disloyal to) him would be the same as being disloyal to Christ. And I thought ‘infallibility’ – by Popes or any other Archbishop – was not a good thing…

In this context there have also been mutterings about Anglican Mainstream itself being a misnomer. Surely AM should call itself something like Anglican Conservatives? Or do we need a new grouping called Mainstream Anglicans to give a home to all those who feel disenfranchised by AM stealing the term?

That would surely help our mission in and to the world…

(In case of doubt, that last comment was ironic.)

During the Lambeth Conference in July/August 2008 I agreed to write a blog for the evangelical group Fulcrum. The blog can still be read at www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk. Readers should read it with the caution that comes from understanding the context in which and the pressures under which it was written.

Fulcrum asked me to write a review six months after the conference and it has been posted today at

www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=376. It is a review not of the conference itself, but of the conference as reflected in the blog I wrote during it. I will see what the response is before deciding whether or not to coment further here.