Does the Church of England need a revolution or, a somewhat slower process, reformation?

Last year the General Synod met under bad-tempered black clouds and constant heavy rain. This year we meet under blazing sun and constant complaints about the heat. Welcome to England.

The Synod began yesterday with mainly routine business interrupted only by the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s first Presidential Address. He looked the Synod – and its wider audience – in the eye and called for a revolution in what we preoccupy ourselves with, how we behave with one another, and what we prioritise under our ‘theologies’.

I wondered whether his repeated use of the word ‘revolution’ was a deliberate substitute for the more commonly referred-to ‘reformation’.

The church likes the idea of reformation. It takes generations. It also sounds nostalgic – taking us back to a time when things were simpler and the church more pure. Utter nonsense, of course.

In asking for a revolution, the Archbishop is stressing both urgency and realism. Not just in matters of sexuality does the church need to speed up, sharpen up and look up. He got huge applause yesterday – deserved for the boldness and clarity of his call. We will now see if his call has been heeded… or if it is business as usual with Synod parties demanding their own ‘rights’ over against those of others.

In my humble opinion, and as we go into small facilitated groups to address (again) the matter of how to allow for women bishops, we need a revolution in some things and reformation in others. Indeed, reformation might be the outcome of processes including the odd revolution.

We shall see.

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.

When I got tweeted the other day from the BBC to ask for a comment about an article in the Church of England Newspaper, I hadn’t read the piece and didn’t comment (other than to ask if they know anyone who actually reads or takes seriously the CEN).

I have now read the piece in question and can’t believe (a) that it ever got written and (b) that the CEN actually published it. The editor claims he didn’t actually read the article, but would have asked for the language to be toned down if he had. Leave aside the question of an editor not reading what goes into his (very short) organ, but how did such an article ever get published anywhere?

Basically, it compares the gay lobby in the UK with the advance of the Nazis in the 1930s. It speaks of the ‘gay Wehrmacht’ and the ‘Gaystapo’. This sort of nonsense clearly doesn’t take seriously a rational, theological or humane argument about sexuality, but merely shocks by its sheer awful ineptitude.

You would have to be brain dead to write this stuff and think that anyone in their right mind would not think it outrageously stupid. What did the CEN think it was publishing it for? Or, for whom? It is less Allo Allo and more a mockery of the gruesome bits of Schindler’s List.

Alan Wilson has done a good piece on it, so I won’t repeat or rehearse it. This sort of thing needs to be ridiculed, not argued with. But, I will shine a light on it from a different angle.

World War Two ended in May 1945. British people haven’t moved on. Our sole point of reference for anything to do with Germany is that war. History teaching has been dominated for decades by Hitler and the rise of fascism from 1933-45. Our tabloids still invoke stereotypes from war comics every time we play Germany at anything sporting. The mocking chants at international football matches of ‘two world wars and one world cup – na na na na na’ demonstrate the poverty of our understanding and the puerility of our cultural references. This is not something we should be proud of.

It is why some of us are concerned to promote the learning and effective teaching of modern languages in the UK – and to urge a history curriculum that moves beyond the easy dramatics of the Nazi period and allows Germany to grow up. I wonder what any young Brits might understand of the thinking going on in Berlin about the Euro and the EU this week – incomprehensible without some understanding of German post-war development, economic structure, political sensibilities and cultural engagement.

When Alan Craig wrote his ridiculous article he obviously didn’t consider the reality of the Nazi experience in Europe or think about how his spurious and offensive comparison might be interpreted. Or maybe he did – which is far more worrying.

Suffice it to say, despite its name, the Church of England Newspaper does not reflect the Church of England most of us know. It should apologise.

earth_mainYesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a lecture on climate change. Not for the first time did he speak in strong language and with a seriously prophetic edge about the world’s most pressing crisis.

I was scanning the response this evening after a full day of meetings and immediately before I go to bed and then disappear on holiday for a few days in the early hours of tomorrow morning. What I note about some responses is the remarkably easy way his critics elide from one issue into another (unrelated) issue and do so with a straight face.

rowan-williams2Take, for example, the following: The Archbishop of Canterbury critiques the issue of climate change and addresses the ethics involved. He is deemed by some to treat unjustly homosexuals in the Anglican Communion, being accused of ‘appeasement’ of those who call themselves ‘conservative’. Some ‘conservatives’ on sexual issues are also right-winger Americans who deny climate change. The fact that some people who agree with the Archbishop on one issue but disagree with him on another undermines his credibility in speaking powerfully about climate change. Then, for good measure, throw in the  added charge that his call for attention to be paid to minorities lacks credibility because one particular minority feels victimised by the way he is handling a wider issue and you’ve hit the jackpot.

Isn’t the silliness of these links obvious? To delegitimise what he says about climate change on the grounds that he pays attention to some people on a completely different issue itself lacks credibility – whatever position (so to speak) you take on the sexual stuff.

john_lennon_portraitI remember writing about my admiration for John Lennon. Unlike the Archbishop, he was a total hypocrite, but it didn’t stop him speaking out. Sadly, it also didn’t stop him writing nonsense like ‘Imagine no  possessions’ on an expensive grand piano in an expensive New York apartment; but hypocrisy in one area does not necessarily negate the truth of what is said in another.

Perhaps we ought to grow up a bit and learn not to make easy associations where they don’t exist. (And, in case it matters, I equally deplore the funding antics of those conservatives who are playing a dirty game ‘in the name of the Lord’. Trouble is, however, I also deplore the antics of single-issue campaigners who can only see one issue in everything.)

Now, I need my few days break…