Just a quickie as I haven’t had time to write anything deep (did I ever?) this last couple of weeks.
Funny old world. The Church of England gets it in the neck from politicians regarding women bishops and gay marriage. The Mother of Democracy makes space for people elected on a fraction of the electorate’s votes to threaten the Church that if we don’t change our polity they will do it for us. In other words, “we don’t like how your people voted, so change the system in such a way that they get it right next time – or we will force you to do it”.
Er… forgive me for being naive, but did any of these guys think through the implications of this ‘advice’? Or the assumptions behind it?
Did the Prime Minister not feel just a tinge of embarrassment in encouraging the Church of England to “get with the programme” (interesting choice of words…) when he had, for example, failed to reform the House of Lords (which the Church still thinks is needed) in Parliament? Pots, kettles, black. And how many u-turns has this government managed in the last couple of years? And they tell the Church how to get the right results by bending the systems?
Then we have a minister stand up in the House of Commons and state that the Church of England will be ‘banned’ (“It will be illegal…”) from allowing the celebration of gay marriages in church under the planned new legislation – without actually talking to us or alerting us first. OK, the established church finds itself in a conundrum about this and other ethical/cultural issues (and with a spread of opinions within the church) and some of the challenge has to do with stuff you simply can’t erase from reality (or law). So, the debate about the Church of England is OK. But, the minister referred to the Church in Wales in the same category – when it was disestablished 92 years ago. That’s 92 years ago.
So, we have politicians who are badly briefed, ignorant of the polity of the matters they are dealing with, change their minds every five minutes, put out ‘consultations’ at the same time as announcing that they “are determined to push this through”, make a false and factually erroneous distinction between ‘civil marriage’ and ‘religious marriage’ in their consultation paperwork, fail to think through the implications of their proposals, fail to provide evidence of anything other than ad hoc and reactive populist thinking in the proposals they announce prematurely, and then expect to be taken seriously.
I was asked by a radio interviewer this morning how the Church of England will respond to ‘the ban’ on performing gay marriage in church. I wasn’t being entirely facetious in replying that we had probably better wait a while as there might well be an announcement next week changing it all again. Confidence isn’t high.
To make it worse, BBC Question Time last night was embarrassing. Not for the Church for being out of touch or irrelevant or any of the other things levelled at it. No, embarrassing because none of the panellists seemed to be aware of their ignorance, ashamed of their lack of basic research or the least bit open to the remotest hint of a possibility that their confident opinions might be even questionable.
One of the charges against the church is that we are irrelevant and out of touch with contemporary values. This might be true. It is also true that the church always needs to check its hermeneutics against lived reality and have the humility to consider that it might be ‘reading wrong’. But, the principle that the church ought automatically to go along with whatever a particular contemporary culture thinks is ‘right’ or ‘obvious’ is such obvious nonsense that it is embarrassing to have to name it.
Let’s be dramatic – and remember we are talking principle here. What should the church have done when German society in the 1930s colluded with the nasties? How should the Russian church have re-shaped itself during the Communist years? Should the church in England simply let go of some unpopular values because they get widely ridiculed? Should a church’s theological anthropology simply be short-circuited in order to keep trouble away and ‘fit in’?
The Christian scriptures and tradition don’t sit easily with this line. The prophets weren’t popular in the sixth or eighth centuries BC when they saw through the short-term political and military alliances that would ultimately lead to chaos. When life was cheap they didn’t refrain from holding to the inherent value of human life, the common good and the need for justice. Jesus didn’t get nailed for being untrendy – but for daring to challenge the Zeitgeist. His followers weren’t encouraged to blend in to first century pagan culture.
Let’s be clear: it is the principle of automatic collusion with the Zeitgeist that has to be questioned. Drill down then to the issues themselves (gay marriage, etc) and at least the conversation can proceed with mutual respect. Simply writing off those who oppose gay marriage as homophobes without engaging with the fundamental value systems and world views that shape their journey to that conclusion is crass – as is the sneer from the other end that approving of gay relationships automatically writes off all Christian credentials and reduces them to brain-dead liberalism.
The church needs to listen very carefully to what society is saying – and be willing in all humility to contemplate that its tradition on any issue might need to be amended. Sexuality is the big one in this respect at present. But, wider society should not expect an authentically Christian church to simply reflect its surrounding culture or be cowed by sneering ridicule or political pressure.
For the record, the House of Bishops of the Church of England has commissioned work on sexuality (Pilling) and the outcome of this will inevitably have implications for other matters. No bishop is treating this lightly and we are fully aware of the impatience of many people for us to get on with it. But, we will work on it properly and will eventually come to some conclusions. Sneering or ridicule won’t force the issue – however much many of us would like to expedite it to a particular end.