Canon John Binns, Vicar of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, writes in the Church Times about the 83 per cent of those who identify as Anglican in national statistics but don’t come to church, leaving 17 per cent or about one million. The 83 per cent who don’t come to Great St Mary’s are as important as the 17 per cent who do. Each church, says John Binns, has its own unique way of relating to the community around, the many who are connected to the church but don’t feel the need to come to services. They are recognized as full and equal parts of Christ’s body as those who attend services. I’d want to extend this – every single person is an equal part of Christ’s body in creation, but I understand the point John is making.
The question of who belongs and who is the church for and who does God recognize as members of the Body of Christ was opened when I read yesterday’s lesson for Evening Prayer, Luke 24.13-35, the Emmaus story. Cleopas and his companion say to each other, after Jesus has vanished: ‘Were not our hearts on fire as he talked with us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’
Reading this, I thought of the frisson of excitement I often experience as I read the scriptures, an experience that I assume is what evangelical passion is all about – hearts on fire as heart and soul is touched and warmed. I also remembered the expectation in the oaths we swear to use only those things lawful and approved (or whatever I last subscribed to many years ago) and the conservative evangelical demand that LGB&T people conform to the plain meaning of scripture in conforming our lives to the demands of God and the church. The Bible trumps everything else.
I read on – to verse 35 when they have reached Jerusalem, the eleven and the rest of the company. ‘Then they described what had happened on their journey and told how he had made himself known to them in the breaking of bread.’
We encounter Jesus the Christ as we read scripture and in the breaking of bread and potentially in every other encounter and experience of our lives. This is basis of the ministry at Great St Mary’s and of Changing Attitude’s vision for the full inclusion of LGB&T people in church and society and the Kingdom of God. We’re already there in the Kingdom – my reading of the Bible tells me the Kingdom of God is 100 per cent inclusive. Society is getting there fast. But the church is way, way behind, because bishops and General Synod work with a different model, called ‘keeping everybody on board.’
Keeping everybody on board (which means those opposed to justice and the full inclusion of women and LGB&T people because of what it says in the Bible) is more important to the governing bodies of the Church of England than the encounter with Jesus available to every human being as we break bread together.
I have come to the conclusion that the category ‘conservative evangelical’ has very little to do with what I assume the word ‘evangelical’ once described – the evangelical vision, passion, fervour, and energy which flows from a deep bodily experience of God’s infinitely tender, loving presence. I have long been tempted to write a blog titled I am an evangelical, because I think I am.
People in western societies have been abandoning attendance at church for decades, no longer thinking of themselves as ‘proper’ Christians. But as Justin Welby discovered in the House of Lords equal marriage debate, our secular society thinks its values towards women and LGB&T people are more truly ‘Christian’ than those upheld by the church.
Changing Attitude has been meeting with bishops who have open, generous, warm hearts. But they are trapped in their need to maintain relationships with conservative evangelicals and catholics.
One of the questions we have opened in our conversations is ‘What does God look like to you?” This might seem rather a presumptive question to ask of bishops, and is certainly a difficult and often challenging question, but it is, we think the key question.
If your picture of God is misplaced or downright wrong, then your faith and the outworking of faith in Christian life and belief are going to be corrupted. This certainly isn’t true of the bishops we are meeting, but is clearly true of many of those who make almost daily representations to their bishops about the need to preserve the church from error and discipline LGB&T clergy in particular who may be ‘living in sin’ or advocate ‘false doctrine.’
The Church of England is in crisis. The bishops and Archbishops know the church is in crisis but don’t appreciate the scale of the crisis. The crisis has a huge impact on the church’s ‘client group’, the 83 per cent or the 98.5 per cent (depending on just how inclusive you think the mission of the Church and the Kingdom of God are).
The church is far too good about prevaricating over how to keep the majority inside the church. It is totally failing to understand how to be ‘the Body of Christ’, made known in the breaking of bread, wherever that is done, which at its best can set hearts on fire as we talked with passion and inspiration of the Jesus we encounter on the road, in the scriptures, and in the deep interior of our hearts and souls.