brighton_frontThis morning I drove down to Brighton to do an extended BBC radio interview. I was in a good mood – despite the very early start – because Liverpool had beaten Portsmouth yesterday with a last-gasp goal from Torres (again) and when I got to the studio they played the great Bruce Cockburn song, Lord of the Starfields.

The main thrust of the conversation was about the meeting of the General Synod which convenes in London this week. Apparently, the radio station has had a lot of people calling in and claiming that the Church of England has lost the plot – unlike other churches (the URC was mentioned) that have embraced women’s ministry and same-sex relationships. Oh dear.

A second point was that the Church is divided and split into parties who don’t want to stay together. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I offered a different opinion.

Firstly, the Church of England is perhaps the only church witnessing to the pain of holding together instead of taking the easy option and simply splitting and going where your mates are. It costs nothing to form yourself into a community of like-minded people among whom you won’t have to struggle with challenge or difference. But that is not the Church. Just like the first disciples of Jesus, our vocation is to follow Jesus together. Jesus did not give any of his disciples a veto over who else should or should not be called into the company of disciples.

Secondly, instead of doing it the way the world does it (that is, running away from the tensions into safe groups of the like-minded), perhaps the Church of England has no option but to wrestle openly with its tensions in a way that refuses to pretend to the watching world that every issue is easily resolved or reality ignored. I get as impatient as everyone else at some of the things I hear, but they don’t give me permission to walk away.

One of our problems (as I have said and written many times before) is that people get their impressions of the Church and its preoccupations from the media. But the media is only interested in certain elements of that agenda: notably, sex and conflict. So, when I was challenged in a live television discussion last year about the poor image of the Church, I interrupted the journalist concerned and asked why the media only portrays some elements of the Church (the negative ones) and ignores all the other stuff? He agreed I had a good point. We can’t blame people for having a bad image of the Church if all the stuff they imbibe is bad. But perhaps people could be a bit more savvy and recognise that they are being fed a selective diet that suits the tastes of the people with editorial control – people who bring their own agendas to the table.

Now, I don’t blame the media for this. In one sense, it is inevitable. Journalists have a seriously difficult job in trying to present a picture of reality in media that thrives on excitment, the dramatic, the unusual and the negative. I know journalists who are heroes for the way they keep plugging away creatively in the face of a massive pressure to ‘produce a story’ rather than ‘give an accurate picture’. And the Church cannot and should not be exempt from the nasties that the media want to throw at us. But, neither should we stop challenging the image that is presented to the wider world when it is partial, biased or ideologically prejudiced.

(I might also want to caution those who make generalised judgements from afar about the Church here simply from reading blogs and online reports…)

The Incarnation was about God opting into the world, not exempting himself from it. And once you are in it, you are subject to all the complexity and contradictory stuff that can be thrown at you. But the Church is committed to getting stuck in to the stuff of life: to our communities, to our national life, to the tough debates about difficult ethical and philosophical issues, to the messy lives of people and to engaging at every level in the rough and tumble of life as we know it (and not as we might like it to be).

The General Synod next week will debate some tough issues and try to do it in a godly way. Some brilliant people will bring their expertise and experience, their passion and fears into debates that have great significance for many people – not just in England, but around the world. Wherever one stands on the gay debates, we cannot ignore the fact that in some parts of the world Christians suffer because of decisions we make here (and the ways the media report them). We have a responsibility to different people of different views and experiences who find themselves in vastly different contexts; and addressing this in a godly way is costly, complicated and never clear-cut.

I will be popping in to the Synod on Wednesday afternoon, mainly for the debate on the uniqueness of Christ. Having read the preparatory papers, I know I will be at times encouraged, stimulated and challenged, but also frustrated, cross and despairing. That’s how it is. And it is a good discipline for me to sit in the gallery and not be allowed to intervene!