Retired Archbishop Rowan Williams – what a strange thought. Rowan, tutor from my Westcott days, was an easy friend before being appointed to Canterbury. My friendship with him wasn’t the only one to be changed following his elevation. I hope coming back down to earth restores the previously relaxed informality of friendship.
In his New Year message to be broadcast today, he says:
“Religion (in the ‘Robes’ project to homeless people in London) is a well-spring of energy and a source of life-giving vision for how people should be regarded and treated.
“It’s all based on one vision – to make our society, our whole world, work for everyone, not just the comfortable and well off.”
People should ask themselves: “What can I do to join this silent conspiracy of generous dedication?”
Rowan praises the army of volunteers, many of them from churches and other faith groups, the cheerful people who make the wheels go round and quietly, often invisibly, turn vision into reality and make things happen.
Well, I have a number of comments to make about this, but first, I’ve been looking ahead to the known knowns of 2013 that will impact on the Church and the work of Changing Attitude.
Potentially the most important is the report that will be presented to the House of Bishops by the Review Group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling. It isn’t being presented until the December meeting, so this may be the final event of 2013. I’m going to assume that the HoB will make a public statement almost immediately, although this can’t be taken for granted.
It will be a make or break moment. If the report doesn’t recommend real and significant change, then it will be the moment many people despair, and not only LGB&T Anglicans, who will simply abandon their involvement with the Church. Many of Rowan’s army of volunteers will walk away and devote their energy, wisdom and spiritual inspiration to other causes and communities of people. This will satisfy those organisations in the Church that believe it has to be protected from sexually active same-sex loving people. They will have achieved a cleansing, ridding the Church of inspirational people in the process. Pray God that Pilling and the House of Bishops have more courage.
The Government will publish the Equal Marriage bill. Whether or not it is amended in response to Church House reaction to the apparently unwelcome quadruple lock, it will maintain the pressure on the Church to decide in what way it is going to affirm same-sex relationships. Equal marriage is going to become a reality in 2014. If the Church House and the House of Bishops have any courage and wisdom, they will dedicate time to come to terms with this in a positive way.
The House of Bishops’ meetings prior to December and the meeting of General Synod in July are going to be critical moments for the review of the women in the episcopate measure. The decisions made will affect the centre-ground of the Church, where many of the quiet volunteers are drawn from, and those lobbying for special provisions because of their opposition to women bishops. The direction recommended by the review will be a defining moment for the future of the Church of England, and any recommendations about the place of LGB&T will be made in that context.
The most immediate and important initiative being taken by Changing Attitude England this year is an individual invitation to each of the bishops we know to be privately or publicly open and supportive of LGB&T people to meet for a confidential conversation about their diocesan ministry to LGB&T people and the ways in which they can welcome the ministry of LGB&T people. These conversations will be entirely private and will focus on pastoral ministry and gifts and not on campaign goals.
I note that the Church of England is reviewing its attitude to LGB&T people without a deluge of hostile comment and reaction from those Primates and Provinces in the Communion which hold a traditional (meaning homophobic) attitude. If there are meetings of the Global South Networks then I have no doubt hostile voices will be heard. I think another GAFCON event is being planned. The Church of England now seems to be less intimidated by conservative voices from elsewhere in the Communion.
And now to return to Rowan’s New Year message; there’s something fundamental missing, for me. I know I’m not the only person who fails to find in the religion of the C of E “a well-spring of energy and a source of life-giving vision.” People do find energy and vision, and some find it in those churches where the liturgy and worship, preaching and loving, really is inspired by deep Christian passion and conviction. For many others, the vision and energy tends to come from sources outside the institution and from their personal spirituality and pattern of prayer.
I wish Rowan had talked about his vision of God. This is the one thing most needed and the one thing most lacking in western Christianity. Because conservative, so-called traditional, orthodox views make the headlines, people thing the Church is homophobic, anti-women and prejudiced against pleasure, delight and creative energy.
Is it really so difficult to proclaim a positive message about God who is infinite and intimate, self-giving, creative love? This is the truth about God, not the pie in the sky when you die or the opium of the masses but the inspiration and energy in creation.
Bishops know this (most of them) but they allow themselves to be inhibited by their role, becoming managers and gatekeepers rather than prophets and visionaries inspired by love. Taking on board the idea that they have to be a focus of unity for the diocese traps them into containing the Christian convictions and passions which first inspired them. It’s a tragedy and a huge loss to the Church, let alone to the potential for the Church to proclaim and live into the Kingdom of God. Rowan’s army of volunteers do this at the local, parish level of course, but often under the radar.
WATCH and Changing Attitude and other groups are working for creative change in the context of false religion and false spirituality, false ideas of how God has created and who God has created, based on readings and interpretations of scripture and tradition that, whether or not true in their local, specific context, are not true to God’s infinitely loving, creative wisdom and energy. This is the disputed territory we face in 2013.
Encouraging bishops and individual Christians to live their relationship with God in confidence and in the depth of their being would be a satisfactory achievement for the next 12 months. I’m always dreaming and having visions, of course!