Dreaming of a creative vision for the potential for Christian life

I have a question pursuing me at the moment, which is motivating the direction of my blogs, and which I may be in danger of over-emphasising.

After 17 years in Changing Attitude, working to defend the place of LGB&T people in the Church against global hostility, I want to move from defence and beyond advocacy to an inspiring, creative vision of the potential for Christian life and witness to transform individual lives, communities, global and planetary relationships. A modest vision, you see, at which those who know me will smile knowingly.

I want to do more than dream of living in a Church that is unreservedly pro-women and pro-gay. I want to live in a Church that inspires me to live more deeply, openly, lovingly, creatively and enriches the depths of my being and my spiritual life. I want to live in a Church that is actively gathering people who campaign for justice, the environment, quality of life for all. I want to live in a Church that is aware of God’s infinite, tender, loving presence in the core of our being, heart and soul, and in the energy of our bodies, God with whom creation is infused, alive with energy and goodness.

Needless to say, at both the local, the national and the international level the Church is not like that! In the west, the major denominations are on the defensive, declining in numbers and influence, and lacking courage and imagination to free itself from traditions and orthodoxies which no longer ring true for people living in the global, internet, mass-education age.

Reports and articles in last Friday’s Church of England Newspaper help explain why the Church of England is declining in numbers and influence and is being abandoned by seekers after truth, love and justice and rejected by those it might hope to attract.

Bishop’s warning on Church’s future

There’s an article on p2 of headed Bishop’s warning on Church’s future. The warning comes from the Bishop of Manchester Nigel McCulloch. In Crux, the diocesan magazine, he writes: “Alarming recent projections shared at the General Synod suggest that unless we start growing our congregations now at the rate of three per cent each year, we will decline into near oblivion.”

The CEN article reports a second warning from the Rev Tim Horobin, the Blackburn diocese parish development officer. In an article in See, the diocesan monthly, he warns about the Church becoming irrelevant. “We must connect to the people of today,” he says.

How many times have I heard that?

Bishop Nigel prescription for a remedy that will lead to his 3% growth target is for what counts for far more in Christianity than more ministers and better buildings – the perseverance, enthusiasm and commitment that, by God’s grace, you and I give to making new disciples of Jesus. I don’t think that’s adequate.

Tim Horobin’s analysis is also familiar. He says: “There are many issues facing the Church today around finance, but I believe there is a bigger cloud behind us and that is that the Church is not connecting to this generation and is becoming irrelevant. I believe this generation is as spiritually aware as any other, but the tools we are using within the Church may have become blunt and need to be renewed.”

His proposals are also sadly familiar and for most of my life, have not proved to be effective. He says: “Churches seeking growth are the ones looking at how to do church in a different way – making their services relevant to the people of today. When Jesus was teaching the disciples he used the language of that time. Is that not a challenge to us?”

Making churches relevant, updating the language, perseverance, enthusiasm and commitment are helpful but fall way short of the degree of transformation called for if the Church is to connect with people whose worldview is twenty-first, not twentieth century.

Elsewhere in the paper there is abundant evidence to demonstrate to me that the concerns that consume the attention of the Church of England are not only far-removed from most people’s lives, but far removed from Jesus’ experience of God.

The Bishop of Buckingham’s Out4Marriage video

In the video supporting the Out4Marriage campaign, the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, said God is not ‘an angry old man out to get us’ and “It all comes down to how we see gay people and how we see God. We don’t actually believe gay people are sick or stunted or criminal.”

We shouldn’t need to be saying these things, should we, but Alan knows that he is going to be attacked and defends himself against thinking that is still endemic amongst some Anglicans.

On cue, Duncan Boyd, Chairman of the Keep Marriage Special campaign, pops up to say: “The Bishop’s statement is a disgraceful and disingenuous distortion of biblical teaching by someone who ought to know better.” He added that the Church of England’s doctrinal foundation, scripture, ‘makes clear that homosexual desire and practice are sinful.’

Not only do the vast majority of people in this country not believe that homosexual desire and practice is sinful, they believe God thinks homosexual desire and practice is sinful. So long as the Church of England’s attitudes to LGB&T people are determined by a small minority of biblical fundamentalists, we will never be free to convince people that we have a vision of God which is capable of inspiring, liberating and energising them.

Andrew Carey’s view from the pew

Andrew Carey uses his weekly column to attacking Bishop Alan Wilson. Andrew says Alan might have used his teaching office as a bishop to address the serious theological questions that such a step raises.

Andrew proposes that Alan should have used his 150 seconds of video “to address the imagery of marriage in the Bible to describe God’s relationship with his people, or the creation narrative in which marriage is firmly rooted in the notion of complementarity between a man and a woman. He might also have discussed how the idea of Christian marriage isn’t merely a private relationship between two people, but is itself about the creation and nurture of children.

Andrew says it’s absolutely astonishing that a Church of England bishop dishes up such a nonsensical and distorted view of the principal Christian arguments against same-sex marriage. It beggars belief that he has such an impoverished understanding of the theological principles at stake and the arguments expressed by his own colleagues.

To me and to tens of thousands of Anglicans like me, Bishop Alan’s views are not in the least nonsensical or distorted. I realise that Andrew is a journalist who adopts a Daily Mail attitude in writing his column. Andrew should know as well as I that Bishop Alan has a perfectly well-formed theological understanding and knows that the majority of colleagues gave an understanding of gay relationships and the arguments about same-sex marriage that are closer to his own than to those presented in the House of Bishops submission to the Government.

Andrew’s stance and theology exemplify a tradition which has an honourable pedigree but which is comparatively recent in historical terms. Andrew’s arguments reflect the attitudes of the more reactionary elements in the mainstream churches, the Roman curia and others who maintain a defensive stance towards God’s evolving creation and the need for evolution in Christian theology and practice.

Contrary to what Andrew says, the redefinition of marriage is an open question in the Christian church and ministers and bishops do hold a variety of opinions about marriage. There are perfectly respectable theological arguments that dismiss the issue of complementarity as it is presented in the Old and New Testaments. There is wriggle room in the Bible’s view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. There is evidence to suggest that the development of marriage historically has ever introduced such a major ontological change to the Christian understanding of marriage. Andrew thinks the remarriage of divorcees does not fundamentally change the nature of marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman linked to procreation.

Andrew is writing for a very specific constituency in the CEN, as the letters column reveals. His readers are committed to a world-view, a faith and an understanding of God and the Bible which is legalistic and rigid – and not very Christ-like.

Rod Thomas and the Bishop of Lewes

Rod Thomas of Reform laments the retirement of Wallace Benn, Bishop of Lewes, the last serving evangelical bishop who believes in the biblical doctrine of male headship. Rod claims that nearly one in 10 members of General Synod holding to an understanding of male headship in the Church yet have no serving bishop anywhere within the Church of England supporting this view.

Rod says Wallace Benn has very successfully pursued his ministry within Chichester diocese noted for its Anglo-Catholic leadership and has given the lie to the myth that conservative evangelicals are temperamentally incapable of serving the needs of the wider church. Rod was writing before publication of the Chichester report. The report implicates Wallace Benn in the dysfunctional character of the diocese and implies that he had created a self-governing empire removed from the authority of the diocesan bishop.

I would suggest that doctrines of male headship are not universal, biblical, doctrines, and that minority doctrines like this, which elevate one group of people over another are, again, not Christ-like, and contribute to the dysfunctional nature of the Church at diocesan and national level. The character of Episcopal leadership and authority will not change until there are women in the House.

Wallace Benn has also contributed to dysfunction in the Anglican Communion, helping, as Rod Thomas notes, to establish close links between evangelicals here and orthodox Anglicans worldwide and playing a pivotal role in the 2008 meeting of GAFCON. I fear he will continue to pursue schismatic objectives in retirement.

None of the bishops appointed since 2007 have held to the beliefs expressed in the Reform Covenant about God’s ordering of church and family life, says Rod. Increasingly, the language we speak is diverging. He writes of many evangelicals have senior managerial roles in the big city-centre and suburban churches. Senior managerial roles – is that what Reform think is required of the men and women called calls to ministry in the Church? It is often difficult, he adds, to persuade diocesan representatives on particular CNCs that such persons will meet the needs of the whole diocese. Thanks be to God for such wise CNC representatives, say I. Rod proposes a possible solution – to require such appointments in legislation. Legalism – is that something advocated by Jesus of Nazareth.

Growth targets, more minsters and better buildings, making churches relevant, the sinfulness of homosexuality, the complementarity of men and women, male headship, legalism, management roles – these are some of the issues which the CEN thinks will make a difference to the appeal of the Church of England in twenty-first century England.

I think they totally miss what is needed – an inspiring, creative vision of the potential for Christian life and witness to transform individual lives, communities, global and planetary relationships. Jim Cotter puts the vision more prayerfully:

…that the Giver of life and of this moment now will open our lips that we may speak truthfully, our hearts that we may love courageously, our minds that we may think clearly, our loins that we may create passionately and our whole being that we may love wholeheartedly through this and all our days, and at the last. Amen.

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