Who has pottered by this way, then?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving & Incarnation


Today, November 22nd, it's Thanksgiving in the US and St Cecilia's Day throughout the Church. So, as women and thanksgiving seems to be the order of the day, and this week more than most, it seems appropriate to combine these themes in a personal prayer for women priests, and priests-in-waiting who have had an impact on me. It's not a prayer of intercession that they might some day all aspire to be Bishops, rather it's that I need them to know how valued and loved they and their ministries are in what is most probably a pretty negative week for them. It must be hard not to take the General Synod's decision on the Women Bishops legislation personally. And, actually, if I were them, I'd take it personally too. So now is a good time to give thanks for them all, and for all women priests.

Lord I give thanks for all the women priests who've inspired and sustained me so far.

Rev Dianna Gwilliams for giving such sensible advice and care to us as a young family and giving me friendship, space, encouragement and, where necessary, prods to get on with my personal ministry.
Rev Karen Gardiner for showing me a great model of calling to ministry and just getting on with it.
Rev Sarah Hartley for first teaching me some of the ways of the anglo-Catholic and kicking my backside into gear about being serious about evangelism.
Rev Barbara Lydon who came out of retirement to officiate at my marriage.
Rev Jan Goodair for her thoughtful and practical help and advice.
Ven Janet Henderson for her online encouragement and wise example of thoughtful blogging.
Rev Ruth Hind for showing me a great example of how to love a rural community.
Rev Elizabeth Sewell for her infectious enthusiasm and good sense in tackling new challenges.
Rev Lindsay Southern for her integrity and commitment to the work of WATCH.
Rev Kate Bottley for being authentically herself online.
Not-yet-rev Bryony Taylor for her online friendship and invaluable insights into online ministry.

Thank you Lord.

Moving on towards Advent

I'm sure others have lists just as long, or even longer than mine. I think it's important for all woman clergy to know that so many of us in the laity of the Church of England are wholeheartedly behind them, even if the House which is supposed to represent us has not listened to our consistently expressed support for your ministry, and that our reasoning is one of theology rather than mere liberal humanist pleasantness and wanting things to be 'fair'.

As we head towards Advent, it is all the more important to reflect that we await the coming of Jesus: God incarnate. The Incarnation is about God being among us. Its significance lies not in Jesus being a man, but in him being, like us, a human: the image of God. I believe that the events at Synod this week challenge us to theologically engage with the issue of the Incarnation across the Church of England. Once we address our own humanity in the light of the Incarnation of God, we can move beyond the language of equality and fairness (which the House of Commons will join the mainstream media in using on pretty much every contentious issues facing the Church of England) to our identity as images of God.  This is a wide-ranging conversation we need to have and will encompass issues of gender, sexuality, genetics, disability and the very definition of what it means to be human. These are issues of theology, no matter how much they intersect with questions of science, legality, rights and sociology. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female - and we need to engage with how that list might be added to in our times. Then, recognising the significance of the Incarnation and how it applies to all humankind, we need to replace the word Christ with the word Humanity and work out what that means for our ministry and for what it means to 'be Church'. Then we will become a Church which more truly reflects the Incarnation, but also has a deeper understanding of the true, human-wide scope of salvation through Christ's death and resurrection and the scope of our mission and ministry.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Year 7 Homework is hard in Lincolnshire

A friend of mine, Barry Coward, sent me and other Christians of his acquaintance, an email this weekend. In it, he explained that a local 12 year old daughter of friends of his had been asked to write an essay on "Why do Christians Believe in God?". It's been ages since I actually thought of something so foundational, so I wrote the following in a stream of consciousness... I'd be interested to hear what others would have said in the same circumstances.

Dear young, Lincolnshire friend of Barry,

That's a tricky bit of homework you have there!

For a lot of Christians, I think that this homework title seems strange. God tends to be the 'given' - the 'obviously there' thing that we just know, experience and accept already. I believe in God and am a Christian, but it's not that I came to the conclusion that God exists following a lot of reasoning-out, which seems to be the way the mainstream media, the British Humanist Association and even the RE curriculum imply I should!

All I can do to help is share my own experience of being a Christian and what I know of God from that.

Christians believe that God created humans in the image of God. This doesn't mean that God looks like a human - it's more about the kind of spiritual beings we humans are. In all human diversity, whatever our gender, nationality, culture, sexuality or age, there is something of God in every person. This is one reason why Christian morality focusses on loving others. Jesus taught that the most important rules to live by are to love God and to love each other.

The Incarnation - what Christians call the historical event of Jesus being born - is about God physically being on earth as a human being. This wasn't done because God somehow had to prove he existed, but was part of this same story, about a relationship between God and those who have been created to be like him: we didn't create God in our own image, as some perfect, never-dying kind of super-human. It was the other way round. God created us to be individual reflections of God, and to reflect all that is good, wonderful and God-like in ourselves to each other. Once you start to see other people in this way, and look for the Divine even in those who hate you, the imperfect world of humans starts to look more hopeful.

For Christians, the question of God's existence is closely linked to Jesus. The message of Jesus isn't so much his teachings - indeed, other religions have made similar points about loving God and each other. Rather, the point is about who Jesus is: the Son of God who was with God at the very beginning of everything and then was born and lived just like you or I at a particular point in human history. So it is because Jesus is God in human form, he himself is the message, and the message is "God is with us". Jesus is a huge reason why Christians believe in God.

In the end, though, it isn't a question of proof of God's existence, but of faith. St. Paul wrote "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1).

There's a huge amount I haven't written, and some people spend their lives writing book after book on this, but I hope this personal take on your homework helps.

Kind regards,

Nick Morgan

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Yorkshire Diocesan Reorganisation: a view from the fringes.

A reorganisation based on community and mission. Or is it?

Three Cathedrals or one insuperable mound?
Three Dioceses are to be merged, but
 how will this look from the rural fringes?
As Bishop Nick Baines explains in his blog, the West Yorkshire Diocese proposals have been agreed upon in principle. The title of Nick's blog entry is telling, though, as it makes no mention of North Yorkshire, significant parts of which are affected by the proposals.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story so far, the idea is to combine the Dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds to create a mega-diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, the rationale for which is i) that the current way things are organised are based on historical factors which no longer reflect the communities the Church of England is serving, and ii) combining the Dioceses and restructuring will help mission. These are both reasonable enough grounds for reorganisation, but I am uneasy about whether the proposals, as they stand, will address either issue effectively.

My interest is that I live in the part of North Yorkshire concerned, and I'm commenting as someone who has campaigned on rural issues nationally, has experience as a teacher of working in rural communities whose issues of poverty, lack of social mobility, access to services are largely ignored politically, but where the Church, and notably the Church of England, does a great deal of good. And I'm commenting as someone who lives at the Ripon end of the current Diocese of Ripon & Leeds where I see excellent things going on in the rural parishes, the excellent support given to these by their Archdeacon Rural Officer, Children and Young People's Officer and many others, and a friendly, outward-looking Cathedral engaged in supporting its local community, engaging in moral issues in society and acting as a focus for mission in the Dales already. And, I also have recent experience of life in a rural parish elsewhere in North Yorkshire over in neighbouring York Diocese and can't help worrying that they are another area not really being taken seriously in this re-organisation.

The Rural Fringe - off the map?

The first rationale for change is that current boundaries are historic hangovers, and this is true. Ripon, historically, was a West Riding city and the Bishop of Ripon oversaw a Diocese which took in a lot of the West Riding before the other Dioceses were created (in response to massive social changes in the industrial revolution and beyond). However, the reality for the communities of all the areas under discussion today is different. Ripon is firmly North Yorkshire in feel nowadays with more in common with Helmsley, Northallerton, Richmond or Thirsk than with Leeds, Halifax, Dewsbury or Bradford. As a community, Ripon looks to its north and north-east as much as it does to its south. It is not part of the West Yorkshire industrial conurbation which it is proposed that it remain bolted onto. Ripon is one of those places which gets bolted onto other places in reorganisations. Bizarrely, it shares an MP with Skipton, a town to the north of Halifax which is lovely, West Yorkshire in its architecture and major road links, but with which Ripon has no other link and very little similarity. Rather than wondering what to do with this weird bit of the county which doesn't really fit easily with what the rest of the West Riding to its south has morphed into, the Church of England might well be missing a trick. Why pretend that Ripon and most of the Richmondshire Archdeaconry is the northern fringe of West Yorkshire? By embracing the reality on the ground and using Ripon as a missional centre for the communities it really does resonate with, something far more exciting could emerge.

A less timid re-organisation

Radical shapes often work well.
A more radical and mission-shaped way organising things around the reality of many North Yorkshire communities would be to create a North Yorkshire diocese stretching from pretty much the east coast, across Northern Ryedale, Mowbray and into the eastern Dales. Expertise from across these rural areas could be pooled easily. Communities have a lot in common and share similar challenges, notably from being rural or market towns. Road links run east-west across this area, straddling the A1, A168, A19 and A170 - the railways were taken away from this area (with the exception of those parts which lay on the main North-South links, such as Northallerton and Thirsk)  in the Beeching cuts. Fast rural broadband is (we hope) being rolled out in North Yorkshire, and there is growing expertise across all these rural areas about how to harness social media and the internet for mission and serving the community (including those not online). It is realistic for these areas to support each other in mission and work together from an ecclesiastical base in Ripon and from Diocesan offices created in Northallerton, the county town.

Conversely, the parishes to the north of Bradford in the western Dales would be a long way from a rural centre of mission based in Ripon. The present proposal puts the two together, but that is not how these communities work in practice. For significant amounts of time each year, people in the western Dales cannot drive over to Ripon due to weather and poor road links. And as for those rural parishes on the western fringes of Wakefield diocese, perched on the very edge of Lancashire, they already find getting to Wakefield difficult enough given the road links and rail timetables available to them. Being on the edge of a mega-diocese can make the fringes feel unloved. A reorganisation which doesn't take account of the sheer isolation and relative difficulty of getting around from many of our rural parishes isn't taking them seriously enough as vehicles for mission. I suspect some similar new boundary moving outside familiar Diocesan lines would benefit this area too. So one of my criticisms of the proposed merger is that it does not go far enough: why merely merge existing Dioceses and not consider where the actual boundaries should be based on a mission-centred model for all the communities involved, rural ones included? The shape of churches on the ground is changing, as Archdeacon Janet Henderson notes, and I think that there is a lot to be said for making sure that we think in terms of encouraging effective networks rather than shoring up hubs.

The Numbers Game

One problem - and I may lose one or two friends in saying this - is that the Church of England has got drawn into the numbers game in the way it thinks about resourcing. For example, a while ago, the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds moved house from Ripon (the geographical centre of the current Diocese) to Leeds because "that's where 75% of the population of the Diocese lives". But I question this logic. Our mission is to communities. It is not a numbers game. To "make disciples of all nations" is to minister to communities and preach and live the Gospel there, whether they be densely populated areas of cities, market towns, small villages, or mainly isolated dwellings. Are there actually more communities in Leeds than in the Richmondshire Archdeaconry? I am not convinced.

The rural poor and disadvantaged. They are invisible in the media, electorally insignificant and therefore ignored politically, and the rural church often does very well at being there for them. There is much academic research which shows that life in rural areas is far different from the cosy Vicar of Dibley vision of popular culture. North Yorkshire has long been an area where higher than average numbers of people are in, or on the margins of poverty definitions, but the indicators which create that data only tell part of the story as the 'norms' are all based on urban life. The reality can be quite harsh for many on low incomes in rural areas.

 If we only think in terms of the number of people we serve, we'll get the equation wrong: we are to make disciples of all nations, which means preaching and living out the Gospel in every community where there are people, irrespective of how many people live there.

The trump card which those who support the centralising of power and the subsequent sidelining of rural areas (though this is never how it is actually termed, of course) is, of course, the "stewardship" card. It is surely good stewardship to concentrate resources on where 'the most good can be done'. In other words, put the money, clergy, real-estate and administrative resources in the urban centres where most people live. Organise a diocese around the urban areas and use the relative affluence of some rural parishes to help fund urban ministry. I don't have a problem with a flow of cash from richer areas to poorer, incidentally, but rural parish ministry needs to be valued for its own sake, rather than just as a diocesan cash-cow! Seeking God's Kingdom first is the key... building up our own empires is a real danger.

Putting the cart before the horse?

Are we re-organising around the right things?
Organising resources and centralising decision-making 'where the most good can be done' in the most densely populated areas is a great way to run a business and looks great as far as Diocesan accounts goes, but it can be a lousy way to organise the Church for mission unless it's accompanied by a genuine empowering of churches at the local level throughout the mega-diocese. Pooling administrative and back-office functions is one thing, but if resourcing, personnel and decision-making are too centralised, I can't see that ending well.

The pull of the numbers game and the world's way of measuring success and effectiveness is all-the-more alluring when control is centralised. It's easy to go native and behave like an Empire builder if you... er... build an Empire. Faithfulness to the great commission is a suitable measure of success. Pew numbers is not. No really - you did read that correctly: the number of people attending Church of England services is not our yardstick for doing our jobs as the people of God. Increased numbers in church is often the result, the fruit of our mission being faithful, but, counter-intuitive as it may sound, it shouldn't be what drives our sense of mission. God's grace is the driver of salvation, we are the vehicle and we have to work at it, but let's remember which way round this works: "for the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people"  It's also worth remembering that David counted his followers and was judged for it!

This might seem like I'm just messing around with words: church growth is important, but it is not actually our job to set this as a goal. In faith we believe it will happen. By God's grace, it will happen. By preaching and living out the Gospel wherever God has put us, it will happen. But it isn't a goal, a result to be planned for. A results-led model where we create a bigger, more important edifice is as far from the wonderful, rural potterings of Our Lord, proclaiming the Kingdom of God around a backwater of the Roman Empire as I can imagine.

The Servant of All

The Holy Spirit moves through the people of God. Our job is to allow ourselves to be used in service, in mission and in ministering to communities. If we are to re-organise, please let us not use the world's way of measuring success. We are not primarily after value for money, whatever those who have to deal with Diocesan finances might have to say on the matter (and bless them, their service and work is important and appreciated). We are after God's values being incarnate in our Church structures, in the way we organise ourselves, in the way we resource mission and in our ministry. After all, "anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." and so our structures should reflect the servant ministry of Jesus and exalt the humblest, less visible, less valued communities, including those rural ones which are, so far as I can see, not entirely on the Dioceses Commission's radar.

My questions are:

  • are we seeking to make disciples of all nations, all communities, or just the ones where it looks like we'll harvest the biggest crops?
  • how will the re-organisation promote mission in the areas on the edges?
  • how will mission in rural areas be enhanced by the changes?
  • is this reordering mistakenly using 'value for money' as a driver rather than mission?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Consultation paper on female Bishops

The Church of England has today published a consultation document on "Women in the Episopate - the Final Legislative Step". which you can read in pdf form.

It can be read in pdf form here.

What happens now?
This paper also goes into the procedure for how this process works and lays out the timetable. At this stage the next deadline appears to be August 24th by which any comments on this paper need to be emailed to william.fittall@churchofengland.org by Synod members and members of the House of Bishops. If you are not one of these, now is the time to be getting in touch with those who are, once you have read, pondered, prayed and worked out how to help them reach a decision, of course.

After this deadline, August 30th sees a Standing Committee meeting, the result of which will be a "more focussed paper" in preparation for the HoB meeting on September 10th-12th. This will be discussed on the afternoon of September 12th.

Interesting excerpts which struck me:
They seem to be allowing the House of Bishops a reasonable amount of room for manoeuvre, giving the option of leaving the amendment (Clause 5(1)(c) "as is", amending it or replacing it with a new clause, plus discussing the Code of Practice alongside the Measure itself. This seems wise and could provide a way forward in terms of making it explicit how things will work in practice. There is an "illustrative draft" of the Code of Practice at the very end of the paper.

That being said, it is only this Clause which the HoB will tinker with at this stage - the terms of the General Synod resolution make any other amendments beyond this one clause impossible within the part of the legislative process we've reached.

November will see a vote on whatever the Bishops come up with as a result of their September meeting. There will be no scope for further amendments, so the HoB have to come up with a response which will be passed or rejected. In other words, the whole legislation seems to hang on them getting this bit right. The document points out that this is, in fact, the proper role of the HoB under Article 7 of the Synod's Constitution - another reminder that it is this kind of ecclesiastical power and role which we are discussing whether women can fully participate in.

The paper is well worth a long and prayerful read. It says it offers 5 options (which somehow end up being 7 options by the time you read on to the actual options themselves!) which they believe they will discuss but leaves the door open for others to suggest other possibilities. The mechanism for suggestions is detailed above but needs to be done via a Bishop or General Synod member.

Sheep suggests you read the paper, discuss and send prayerfully considered thoughts and suggestions to member of Synod and the House of Bishops.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I need to know about these hedgehogs...

I was reading through the book of Zephaniah this evening. This book is famous as a kind of 'double bluff' pub quiz question: "True or false, Zephaniah is a book of the Bible." It's not widely quoted, not famous for anything in particular and hides in the last few millimetres of the Old Testament, so as a pub quiz question it's quite a good one.

As I was reading through its prophetic words about destruction, I came across an interesting verse concerning what was going to pan out in Nineveh:
Chapter 2 verse 14 in the New American Standard Version reads: "Flocks will lie down in her midst, All beasts which range in herds; Both the pelican and the hedgehog will lodge in the tops of her pillars; birds will sing in the window, desolation will be on the threshold; For he has laid bare the cedar work."

The pelican and the hedgehog? What?! Ah, there is a footnote at this point... it says that instead of pelican, it might be "owl" or "jackdaw". Right, interesting, but I was more struck by the "hedgehog" reference if I'm honest. Picture the scene: the city of Nineveh (you know, the place which Jonah was so keen not to go to that he did the whole going to sea and getting eaten by a massive fish thing) is desolate, left parched of water and in ruins, so much so that livestock roam in their flocks and herds among them and on the top of the ruined pillars both pelicans and hedgehogs lodge.

How did the hedgehogs get up there? 

I'm sorry Zephaniah, I have no clue now what your book is about. I cannot shake this knotty theological problem about the hedgehogs out of my head to make space for what I am sure you intended to challenge me with.

If anyone can help explain how the hedgehogs got up to the tops of these pillars, please let me know so my theological studies can continue. Till then, my mind is full of Terry-Gilliamesque images.

Note: For 'pelicans and hedgehogs' on 'pillars', the King James has 'cormorant and bittern' on its 'upper linterns', while the NIV has 'the desert owl and screech owl' roosting on its 'columns'. And people wonder why I love the NASB!

Monday, July 9, 2012

The bottom line

Throughout history, there have been occasions where a whole society's assumptions get overturned and things change. One way of looking at these occasions is that they were when people challenged "the way things are" because they recognised that they were based on a fundamentally flawed way of looking at things. To put it another way, they're based on a lie. Very often this "lie" has been about the value of people, and often these changes have been spearheaded by the church - or more accurately, by groups of Christians (occasionally at odds with their leadership) who find their faith so at odds with some aspect of the environment they find themselves in that they act against these lies . By 'lies', I mean these ways of doing things which are based on accepting untrue statements which society tells us about people (or accepted ways of treating people) as a justification for "the ways things are". These are "big picture" changes, not merely changes of government or ruler I'm talking about here. 

For instance: 
Recognising the lie of slavery: that some people are less than human and only have value as a commodity. People argued and fought against that lie and truth won.
Recognising the lie of women not having the vote: the lie that some people, based on their gender alone, are not suitably qualified to participate in democracy.
People argued and fought against that lie and truth won.

So how about the lies of the moment? What are they?
There are many, but this is the one which is on my heart at the moment: the lie that it's fine to sacrifice some people for the sake of the nation's economy. Will the truth of the  intrinsic, universal value of people as being made in the image of God win against this lie?
The weak, the poor and the voiceless are the ones suffering most from the current economic turmoil and it seems that they are considered expendable in the grand scheme of things "for the greater good of the economy". Surely the economy is the servant of people, not its master? This isn't just a little, local issue. It seems to me that the way we have chosen to organise our world economy is based on this lie, among others. Whole nations are considered expendable for the good of western democracies and have been so for many decades. Now this issue has come centre-stage in our own society, and that of many other western democracies,  this is surely the time for people to question this lie and get the true value of each person centre stage in how we organise ourselves. This is not a call to a politics of Left or Right, but a call for a far deeper culture change in the political debate to be centred around the lives of the weakest and most vulnerable in society. Those on the margins who are being disproportionately affected by recent changes include young people in rural areas,the disabled and children in low-income families. The media campaign of vilification of those on benefits, especially incapacity, is not based on fact (a mere 0.5% of the Disability Living Allowance budget was down to fraud) but even without the facts being on the side of those bearing such hardship, followers of Jesus should always be fighting in their corner.

My faith leads me to hope that, in the footsteps of those within the church who argued against slavery, Christians will lead the way on this as they, more than anyone, should be aware that each person is made in the image of God, is a glimpse of the divine and thus is not expendable, not merely some part of a fiscal numbers game, but is the bottom line itself.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

St. Paul, hamsters and the Twitter joke trial

I sometimes think that reading St. Paul's pastoral letters is a bit like this. 

St. Paul's letters were certainly powered by the Holy Spirit, but sometimes we lack perspective on why he was writing what he was to the particular church to whom he wrote. Just like Hattie, St. Paul is no longer around to explain exactly how all that he wrote was to be taken. When we take this and that extract from Paul's writings, are we looking at core theology, pastoral advice, chastisement for making a bad call on something cultural or something else? We have to remember that we are often coming in halfway through a conversation and that Paul had lived among these communities he was writing to, so a shared experience, a relationship, a history and a known cultural context is unwritten. We have a lot of Church tradition to help us unpick this, as well as historical research and secondary sources from the early Church, but looking at the texts alone is to hear only part of what is going on. I am sure we sometimes misunderstand Paul because of this.

There's a social media analogy for this kind of thing which happened to me this week. A person I follow on Twitter (disability campaigner Sue Marsh whose blog 'Benefit Scrounging Scum' you can read on my links on the right - and please do, she is incredibly well-informed on these issues and a hero of mine) posted a tweet saying "if I wrote about most of what I actually do, I think people would just think I was a delusional glory-whore". I replied "Memoirs of a Delusional Glory Whore would be an eye-catching title tho". Sue replied "Hey! Good point!! Wouldn't it?" then retweeted my comment, as did a few of their followers. It was a light-hearted bit of banter. Something and nothing and, in the grand scheme of things (especially given the really important issues Sue tweets on) an insignificant bit of pleasant human interaction on Twitter. However, one person who came late to the conversation and read just my response but hadn't seen the original tweet assumed I was insulting Sue (and you can see how they would think that, to be fair). They told me off and ordered me to apologise. Now this was very quickly smoothed over by Sue who explained the context - the offending phrase was something she herself had said and it was just banter. There was no harm done and we all came away not thinking ill of each other as far as I can tell, but it did make me think about the importance of context when we come into conversations part way. 

The current Twitter joke trial is another case in point: a flippant remark which the Twitter followers of the plaintiff would have clearly known to be a joke was later seen by someone in airport security who didn't consider it to be a threat but passed it onto the police anyway as a matter of routine. They seem to have then read it out of context as a literal threat to blow up Finningley airport. Unwise to tweet this, given the anti-terrorism paranoia surrounding airports at the time? Perhaps. But seen in the context of a series of increasingly frustrated tweets about flight delays and allowing for a typically British sense of humour, context should have informed the authorities that this was an annoyed and frustrated traveller rather than a terrorist. As the Independent reported it John Cooper, QC, for Mr Chambers said it was wrong to read any terrorist connotation into the message. “If that be the case, and I don't mean to be flippant, John Betjeman would be concerned when he said 'Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough', or Shakespeare when he said 'Let's kill all the lawyers’," Mr Cooper said. He added that the tweet was clearly a joke. “It was an expression of humour, it might be the humour of an acquired taste, but not even a threat.” Let us never become so po-faced as a nation that we end up stifling this very British way of expressing ourselves.

Being authentic online is often discussed in the online Christian community, but I hope we never become too afraid of being fun and lighthearted in case we offend. We have to be ourselves online rather than just donning a suitably respectable, holy disguise. If we're salt and light, we need to be rock salt and daylight rather than refined table salt and fairy lights. (My bid for clumsiest Christian blogging analogy of 2012, strategically released halfway through the year...)

It's fair to say that St. Paul drops some bombs in his epistles. Nearly 2000 years on and he's still challenging his readers. I'm not saying we should not be challenged by them and I'm deliberately not picking out particular knotty texts here. All I'm asking is: are we sure we're always reading what he's actually saying? 

Context doesn't mean brushing away things we're uncomfortable reading. But it does mean doing Paul the honour of listening to what he is truly saying, not just reading his words without engaging with how the Holy Spirit was using this obedient servant of Christ to pastor the very earliest Christian communities in truly tricky circumstances very different to our own.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What you won't read in the papers this week

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe in Sheep's brain, the following was splashed across the national press one morning this week...

Church of England Criticised by Tories

In a harshly worded statement, David Cameron launched a blistering attack on the Church of England today. This follows yesterday's press release based on a report into the consultation by the Archbishops' Council into Anglican attitudes on government policy.

"The Church of England should stick to what it does best," blasted a clearly unchillaxed Prime Minister, "namely responding to voice the concerns of its most reactionary elements on issues regarding human sexuality, inclusivity and the role of women. While I do not often agree with their views, this is an appropriate area of discourse between matters of faith and matters of politics. But by straying into the areas of policy addressed in this report which are quite beyond the remit of the established Church, the Archbishops' Council is threatening the relationship between Church and State in a way which we have not seen for over 500 years."

The report found that the majority of Anglicans were incensed by government attacks on the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the vulnerable and children. In the words of the Council, "our members overwhelmingly believe that this is such a disgraceful and sustained attack on the very weakest in society that, when asked "What Would Jesus Do?", the most popular response was "Disestablish the Church of England to completely dissociate ourselves from the hellish vision of eugenics and social cleansing which this nation state is rapidly descending into.". This surprised us as it wasn't actually one of the tick boxes we offered in the consultation."

House prices in solidly Anglican areas, such as the South London HTB-Church-Plant belt, are expected to plummet.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

What about unity? Lindsay Southern on Women Bishops legislation

In Sheep's first guest blog, Anglican curate and WATCH member Lindsay Southern challenges the logic behind amendments to the Women Bishops legislation.

'Like all walls, legislation is the lowest
common denominator of relationship.'

What about unity? 

The amendment to clause 5 will not promote unity - it fosters a church within a church where we define ourselves by the theologies on which we disagree, rather than the ones we hold in common, or our shared identity as children of God and heirs of Christ. At best it will allow us to live apart. 
I am old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, I have lived in Cyprus and walked the green mile and in Northern Ireland where communities lived apart. Like all walls, legislation is the lowest common denominator of relationship, further provision will create additional barriers to working together, to learning to respect difference, to celebrating all that we do hold in common. I suspect it will lead to segregation and ghettoisation within the Church of England.

Provision mutated

When provision was first proposed this was not what was intended. In 1993 during Synod debates about the Act of Synod the then Bishop of Birmingham Mark Santer said "we must not build walls or dig ditches that people find they cannot cross".

John Hapgood, then Archbishop of York, also said that "what we seek to provide are opportunities and safeguards which we hope will be used in a pastoral rather than a legalistic way so that none of us is trapped in unnecessarily rigid divisions..." and Archbishop Carey in 1993 debates made it clear that there was no intent to set up parallel episcopal jurisdiction stating that the provision was designed to provide appropriate pastoral care "working with and through diocesan bishops" "without undermining the authority of diocesan bishops".

So the legislation we had before us was in keeping with the spirit of the Act of Synod, but the amendment will go far beyond it and create something that our predecessors wished to avoid. 

Lord Runcie saw the special provision even then as "symptoms of an illness which replaces trust and good will with the flawed logic of two integrities" It is time to move towards restoring our spiritual health, rather than perpetuating further illness.

I am not sure they would recognise what 'provision' has mutated into now.

Clause 5 and unity

As an assistant curate in training I have benefitted from the insight, wisdom, encouragement and faith of those who do not agree with my ordained ministry. It is precisely because I value the ministry of those members of our church who disagree with this development, because I wish to remain as close a relationship as possible, because I think there needs to be space for us to demonstrate genuine generosity to one another rather than mere adherence to law, that I supported the original legislation that was approved by 42/44 dioceses. The more I look at the implications of the amendment to clause 5, the more disturbing it is and the less I want the Church of England to journey further down this path under the delusion that it will foster unity and inclusivity.

Lindsay Southern is a curate in a rural North Yorkshire parish in the diocese of Ripon and Leeds and her open letter to the Archbishops on the subject of Women Bishops in 2010 was published in the Guardian.

WATCH's press release about its members' response to the House of Bishops legislation can be downloaded from their website and the texts of the actual amendments themselves are reproduced on the Thinking Anglicans site.

Photo credits: Hadrian's Wall - Nick Morgan, General Synod - Getty Images

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Space invaders. When to blast through and when not.

I was thinking about the old-school type Space Invaders. You know (well, if you're a certain age you do), the ones before any kind of home computer that you'd get in arcades? Well, having seen a blimp flying above Ripon Cathedral earlier in the week, I was put in mind of Space Invaders and created this image:

The premise of the game (for anyone who didn't have a mis-spent youth in the 80s) is that you're defending yourself against aliens and have handy buildings to hide behind. These are there to defend you, protect you and give yourself something solid to retreat behind when there's too much incoming fire from above. One thing about Space Invaders is important to know, especially on the higher levels when the aliens start to zip along and fire more laser blasts at you: an effective tactic is to blast a hole through the buildings to get at the aliens, as seen in the pic. You're sheltered well from incoming fire at the expense of damaging your own defences.

With this in mind, my thought is: how do we use our church buildings and the outward signs of our church communities and even our human resources? 
Do we hide behind our traditions, rotas, buildings, ways of doing things? And, if we do, is this necessarily a bad thing?

Blasting through?
Sometimes it might seem useful to just blast through the stuff that's there to protect and defend us - there is something to be said for doing things which fly in the face of feeling too cosy if it is hampering our mission. For instance, if we are so concerned with the upkeep of buildings that our only contact with our communities is when we're seeking donations for a roof appeal, perhaps we need to find a way to turn this state of affairs around. I know from my experience as churchwarden of a lovely Grade II listed building how easily the upkeep of ancient monuments can threaten to eclipse effective ministry. 

And it's not just buildings. Changes to staffing patterns for clergy, especially common in rural areas where priests are increasingly thinly-spread, mean that church communities are challenged to question how much the laity need to take over roles traditionally done by clergy: around the country there are more lay-led services, home communions, hospital visits, pastoral visits, school assemblies etc. than there used to be, and especially so in rural areas. This is invariably and increasingly unquestioningly presented as a good thing: challenging all of God's people to share in the mission and ministry of the Church. The question which gets asked is: which aspects of the priestly role are appropriate for delegation and which need to be prioritised and staffed by the clergy? Any empowering of God's people for more active, considered and mission-shaped ministry is a good, and soundly Biblical concept, though the arguments used tend to be managerial and practical at heart rather than being borne of understanding the difference in role between priest and laity. An article on this by Carl. Olson - a Protestant evangelical turned Roman Catholic makes for challenging reading for those whose model for reorganising is principally practical and managerial rather than theological.

We can lose sight of the fact that the buildings and traditions we inherit are of value to our ministry in ways which might not be apparent if we're too focussed on a particular target. The things we inherit as Church were usually put there for good reasons. If we simply let our buildings rot, don't value them and don't keep them going, we can discover by its absence that the simple witness of a church building's ancient stones was actually one means in which the Holy Spirit was, unseen, moving in people's hearts. Maintaining buildings actually can be one simple means of outreach. Those outside the worshipping community who value the church building sometimes get involved practically and financially in keeping things going and feel they have some stake in things. Many of the key-holders in my previous parish (those who took turns on a rota to unlock the church for visitors during the day and lock up at dusk) were not members of the congregation but valued "their" church being open to all. Many families outside our benefice's congregations were greatly comforted by our vicar's presence and prayers at their loved-one's hospital bedside as they faced their final hours or days. Lay people could have offered prayer and presence just the same, but there is something sacramental and incarnational about the ministry of a priest which even those outside the Church instinctively sense and value at these crucial times in life. As Olson puts it, "Priests, by virtue of their ordination, are a living witness to the sacramental realm and the reality of the Incarnation." I know some parishes have a lay-ministry which does pretty much all the home and hospital visits and would love to hear from people who have found that this has been successful, and God bless anyone who does this difficult ministry, but my experience has been that visiting the very sick (and especially the terminally so) was a role which a priest did best as part of the overall ministry of our benefice. To put this role into the hands of a lay-ministry team would have, I believe, had weakened our witness and represented a misunderstanding of the role of the priest within our Christian community.

Where each church draws the line is different on this and where I would draw the line may not be where you would. All I'm saying is: be careful which bits of church and ministry get blasted through when you're trying to renew how you are doing things or reviewing your use of resources. Even in Space Invaders (which you can play on this link - yay!), being too focussed on a distant target, too focussed on blasting away and racking up a high score can lose you the game in the long run if you blast away too much at the very things which should be there to help.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Looking to St. Hild for Guidance on Women Bishops?

WATCH has asked for feedback about what its supporters think it ought to do next. Is it better to accept the current legislation which its supporters find not only imperfect, but which many believe is storing up bigger problems for the future? Or perhaps would it be better to stop such an obvious schism-in-waiting to be passed now, even at the cost of putting female bishops back many more years, for the sake of taking the longer view? Janet Henderson sums up the options facing the church very succinctly in her blog. 

With this is mind, and having read Lay Anglicana's thoughts on this, I started to think about where to look for a model of a woman grappling with schism, hurt and dissent in the Church, and my thoughts and research took me in the direction of St. Hild, abbess of the double monastery at Whitby. Hild hosted a hugely significant synod which determined the future of the Church in these islands. 

Now.... the weird thing is.... the following was not what I intended to write when I started writing. My heart, my every instinct and all my thinking on this in the last couple of weeks really was leading me to believe that it would be better to avoid the pig's ear on offer outright and not have female bishops for the foreseeable future than to institutionally split the episcopacy and hard-wire a schism which should have been lanced in 1993. The best outcome would be a swift cut somewhere in the future where women bishops were accepted by the church, full-stop with no faffy opt-outs, then on with the actual business of taking the Gospel into our communities and beyond. That was my gut-feeling on this. This legislation seems weak and bound to doom the CofE to worse heartache down the line, no matter how brilliant any actual women bishops may transpire to be. However... I find myself now strangely challenged by my own words which leads me to suspect all sorts of Holy Spirit type of things are involved. See what you reckon...

An edited version of my reply on the Lay Anglicana site:
St. Hild was Abbess of an amazing centre of ministry, the double monastery at
Whitby. It was not the same building as this one: hers was destroyed by Vikings.

I can’t help thinking that an appropriate female role model to look to here might be St. Hild. She oversaw a deep division in the church between the Celtic and Roman traditions. The divisions seemed similarly insurmountable at the time, I am sure. The main issues were the date of Easter and the style of monastic haircut (tonsure). To us this sounds a daft reason for schism, just as surely as future generations will view our current palaver with head-scratching bewilderment.

What can we learn from Hild? 
Well, in her case, she argued on the side of Celtic traditions and lost. Her kinsman St. Wilfrid successfully argued that the Roman traditions came from St. Peter whilst the Celtic traditions came via St. Columba who was said to have followed the tradition of St. John the Evangelist. Wilfrid successfully debunked the claim that St. John calculated the date of easter the Celtic way and, in all other matters under discussion, by referring to St. Peter (as holder of the keys of heaven) as the authority followed by Rome, successfully argued that this could trump all other traditions which could only be traced as far as Columba.
Whereas her bishop, Colman, resigned the See of Lindisfarne and left for Iona, Hild accepted defeat graciously and accepted the Roman protocols for her double monastery.

What happened next is interesting. How did accepting a decision she disagreed with affect her ministry?
Hild remained Abbess of Whitby. She used the power she had achieved well. The monastery became the foremost centre of learning in the Christian world of its time. She continued to oppose Wilfrid very effectively, in later life helping ensure that his diocese was split up (and his political power therefore curtailed) by sending an ambassador to the Pope in support of the Archbishop’s decision to carve it up. She advised the great and the good. She nurtured the talents of Caedmon, the first recognised English poet who adapted folk-songs and traditional tales for evangelistic use. Whitby Abbey became a centre of evangelism, using Caedmon’s words and songs to spread the Gospel throughout the north and sending out many very significant bishops.

Hild accepted what seemed to her an imperfect reality. She had strongly supported the Celtic traditions yet went along with an outcome she did not want, but used the power which came with adopting the new status quo to achieve a lot. Many great things which furthered the Kingdom of God in this land may not have happened were it not for her wise, and clearly ordained, leadership.

A cautionary note: 
Her monastery was destroyed by vikings 187 years after her death.

Depends which longer view you choose to take, perhaps?

P.S. Interestingly... 
When I look at this issue with my evangelical head on and have Jesus as revealed in the Bible as my frame of reference (as in my previous blog post), I seem to come to a pretty firm conviction that women bishops are not only the right way forward but that it is so blindingly obvious that to fart around with amendments seems obscenely wrong.
Then when I take something approaching an Anglo-Catholic "lives of the saints" approach in this post, I come up with this more accommodating approach which does seem to lack the ire, bitterness and heat of much of the current debate expressed on both sides. Interesting that it is my internal challenge from a tradition not of my own which brings a sense of peace transcending imperfect realities. This is no reflection on evangelicals or Anglo-Catholics you understand, merely a reflection of the inner discussion I am having. I do not believe I am alone in being pulled in several directions at once in this matter.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Pentecost - a little musical interlude

The Holy Spirit, a rushing wind that pushes us out of the door and out into the world , taking the  Gospel with us.
I put together this setting of the Pentecost hymn 'Veni Creator Spiritus' as a rather upbeat processional a year or two ago. Musically, it nods towards the Indian subcontinent in its use of sitar and includes clear themes of wind, water and, towards the end, fire. If anyone wants to use this liturgically, please do.
There is an interlude of music (equivalent to 8 lines of verse) between each verse. This gives time to allow the procession to move on, or to allow for other things to happen (such as dance, ribbon waving, lighting effects, open prayer etc.).
It's a bit different anyway and will not suit everyone but may well fill a niche for someone's service planning! If you try to sing along, note that it is at a very brisk tempo.

 Veni Creator Spiritus

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire;
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost Thy sev’nfold gifts impart.

Thy blessèd unction from above
Is comfort, life, and fire of love;
Enable with perpetual light
The dullness of our blinded sight.

Anoint and cheer our soilèd face
With the abundance of Thy grace;
Keep far our foes, give peace at home;
Where Thou art Guide, no ill can come.

Teach us to know the Father, Son,
And Thee, of both, to be but One;
That through the ages all along
This, this may be our endless song.

Praise to Thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What Sheep Thinks About Women Bishops

David Keen has put together a good set of links which are by way of a round-up of reaction to the C of E press release on the House of Bishops' decision on Women Bishops, as translated in my previous blog. I commend anyone interested in following the story to access these over at David's site. 

As my posting on this subject was merely a translation, and so many people have read my impression of what had been agreed, I thought I ought to pin my colours to the mast and share some thoughts. Here is a comment I made in a Facebook status thread which sums this up well:

"The whole thing is stupidly unAnglican, but the groundwork for this was Resolution C back in the day. This sets up a two-stream episcopacy which can't be sustainable in the long run. My position, for what it's worth, is that once you've accepted that women are fully human (which, daft as that sounds to modern ears, hasn't always been accepted historically), I can't see how you cannot ordain them on an equal basis as men. And if ordained as priest, then consecration as Bishop or Archbishop can have no barrier either. To me this is all about the incarnation: Jesus is the Word made flesh, God as human. If he died for the sins of the whole world, it is his being human that counts, otherwise he is an exemplar of men only and no women are saved. Simples (adopts meerkat pose)"

I also think that deciding only to serve under the authority of a Bishop with whom you pretty much agree is not an Anglican practice either. Frankly, it's all part of our broad church that we generally do not have whole Dioceses whose churches all represent one expression of Anglicanism. It's not always comfortable, not always entirely satisfactory, but it's generally an approach which has served us well and one which I value. I categorically refuse to be only in communion with those with whom I entirely agree. And by being so cussedly embracing of disagreement, I believe that I, along with all for whom this picture of Anglicanism rings true, am heeding the fact that Jesus' prayed that his followers should be forever one.

and so...

A Reflection
To be human is to be made in the image of God. 
To be a member of the Church is to be part of the Body of Christ. 
Christ is the Word Made Flesh who dwelt among us. 
In his resurrection, Jesus was revealed as a new creation; ground zero of humanity.
This new creation, this resurrected reality of humanity is what we are called to in Christ.

Put these statements together 
And still tell me that Christ's maleness is key to all this.
Put these statements together 
And tell me that Christ died as a representative only of men.


Christ died for the sins of the whole of humanity. 
Women's sins as well as men's,
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Even so, in Christ shall all be made alive.

Aside from the priesthood of all believers,
A separately ordained priesthood and episcopacy
Can only be legitimate
If that ordination comes from God.

Vocation, not gender is the issue.
Mission and ministry 
And how God chooses to equip His Church,
And whom he calls to lead and inspire
Is what we should listen to.

Listen then:
I hear a roaring still small voice
Explaining patiently yet firmly
That Christ died for all,
And among all for whom he died
Will the work of His kingdom be shared
According to gifts and vocation.
Not according to gender,
Not according to race, class or culture;
Not according to anything other
Than the humanity we share with our Saviour
And those aspects of his image and nature which,
Reflected in us, in the power of the Holy Spirit
Equip us to serve, lead,
And find our role among his Church.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Sheep Unpicks The Worst Press Release Ever

The Church of England made a press release today which was really quite difficult to understand. Ruthie Gledhill dubbed it 'the worst-written press release since the Reformation'. I have had a go at translating it. It related to the House of Bishops meeting today which considered the legislation which, if implemented, will enable people who lack a Y chromosome to become bishops in the Church of England.

I include the text of the press release with my own comments / translation into commonly-spoken human English in blue italics.

NEWS from the Church of England
PR 62.1221/5/2012For immediate release

House of Bishops approves Women Bishops Legislation

The House of Bishops of the Church of England today concluded its consideration of the draft legislation to enable women to be consecrated as bishops. It agreed that the legislation should be returned to the General Synod for final approval.

I can understand this bit.

The House of Bishops had power to amend the draft legislation in such manner “as it thinks fit”. It made two amendments to the draft Measure.

A reminder that the Bishops could have done what they wanted to the legislation, but they have only made two amendments. The tone so far suggests they want to give the impression that they have substantively passed the legislation as it was presented to them.

The House accepted an amendment making it clear that the use of the word “delegation” (in Clause 2 of the draft Measure) relates to the legal authority which a male bishop acting under a diocesan scheme would have and was distinct from the authority to exercise the functions of the office of bishop that that person derived from his ordination.

This relates to powers given to a male bishop to act for parishes which will not recognise a female bishop. This is to make it clear that he is a proper, full bishop, with power to ordain in his own right, and not merely given the power to ordain as a secondary-level functionary of the diocesan bishop.

For example, when another bishop ordains someone to the priesthood he needs permission to do from the bishop of the diocese (“delegation”), but the power to ordain derives from his consecration as a bishop. The amendment also makes clear that delegation should not be taken as divesting the diocesan bishop of any of his or her authority or functions.

Yeah, what I said above, plus clarification that, in being empowered to ordain in this way, the male bishop acting under this arrangement is not taking any authority away from the diocesan bishop. Essentially, all this seems to be an attempt at ensuring that neither bishop is seen as a second-class of bishop because of the working out of this set of arrangements when it comes to ordinations. Both types of bishop is equally able to ordain because they are empowered to do so as bishops. Their power to ordain is not subject to the power of the other type of bishop. It's a mutual respect pact - both must be seen to hold equally the status of bishop. The legal mechanism, however, is that the diocesan bishop must give the alternative bishop permission to ordain within the diocese, but the ordination itself will be under the alternative bishop's own authority as a bishop in his own right.

The House also accepted an amendment to express in the Measure one of the three principles which the House had agreed in December (see notes).

There are notes? Blimey, I hope they're easier to wade through...

This amendment adds to the list of matters on which guidance will need to be given in the Code of Practice that the House of Bishops will be required to draw up and promulgate under the Measure. It will now need to include guidance on the selection by the diocesan bishop of the male bishops and priests who will minister in parishes whose parochial church council (PCC) has issued a Letter of Request under the Measure. That guidance will be directed at ensuring that the exercise of ministry by those bishops and priests will be consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women which prompted the issuing of the Letter of Request. Thus, the legislation now addresses the fact that for some parishes a male bishop or male priest is necessary but not sufficient.

I was a little stumped here at first reading and really am not sure what this actually means as it is so badly written. Unpicking it, I think it goes like this...
Being a male priest or male bishop is not sufficient in itself to satisfy some parishes. It is proposed that the Code of Practice includes guidance on exactly what these male bishops and priests will have to sign up to in order to fit in with the theological thinking behind the PCCs' requests to be overseen by male bishops. In essence, this will probably mean that there will emerge some kind of "statement" to which these male bishops and priests will have to sign up in order to show that they will provide Proper Provision of oversight for these parishes.

The House rejected more far-reaching amendments that would have changed the legal basis on which bishops would exercise authority when ministering to parishes unable to receive the ministry of female bishops.

I'm not sure of the wording or even the exact nature of the amendments they mean, but again, I think this relates to the House of Bishops wishing to avoid having any sense of a two-tier episcopacy - first and second division bishops.

It also rejected amendments giving statutory expression to the other two principles (see notes) that it agreed in December, judging that it would be better to leave them to be addressed in the Code of Practice or in other ways rather than referring to them in the Measure.

This Code of Practice will need keeping an eye on by the looks of things. This will essentially be the handbook which gives guidance on how everyone is supposed to behave and the procedures to be followed. Now, who was it who was supposed to be in the detail, again?

Now that the legislation has been amended the six Officers of the Synod (the ‘Group of Six’) - the Archbishops, the Prolocutors of the Lower Houses of the Convocations of Canterbury and York and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the House of Laity - will need to meet later this week to determine whether the amendments constitute a change to the substance of the proposals embodied in the draft Measure as approved by 42 of the 44 dioceses last year.

The House of Bishops is not the body who actually decides this. Based on today's decisions, the Officers of the Synod will look at today's decisions.

If the Group of Six determines that no such change has been made - an announcement will be made after their deliberations - the way will be clear for the legislation to come to the Synod for final approval in York in July.

If the Officers of the Synod decide that the amendments don't change the whole nature of the legislation, it will be allowed to go on to the final stage which is the July meeting of Synod.

This is subject to the possibility of the Convocations and the House of Laity asking for the draft legislation to be referred to them for approval before it is returned to the Synod. If they were to exercise this right, their meetings would take place in York immediately before the July meeting of General Synod, and the legislation would need to be approved by each of those bodies by simple majorities before the General Synod as a whole could consider it at the Final Approval Stage (at which two-thirds majorities in each House of the General Synod will be required).

There is still scope for the House of Laity to assert their right to look at it again before this meeting of the full Synod in July.

Summary - in the words of the Sheep:
The House of Bishops have passed the legislation which would allow women to be ordained Bishop in the Church of England.

They passed two amendments which seem to be clarifying in nature:
i) to clarify that both the diocesan Bishop and any male Bishop providing alternative oversight of parishes who cannot accept a female Bishop are equally Bishops, of equal episcopacy.
ii) to clarify that the Code of Practice will need to codify how these alternative bishops (and alternative priests not ordained by female Bishops) will be selected: not only must they have the correct arrangement of chromosomes, they must also be theologically in sympathy with the whole "not ordaining women" thing in a way which keeps such parishes who feel they need such oversight happy.

The House of Laity can still request another go at approving what was agreed today, but failing that, the whole Synod will be asked to approve the whole thing, including today's amendments in July.

The Code of Practice could still provide scope for division, upset or flouncing out if badly drafted.

I hope that helps. If I am wrong about any of the above, please comment to clarify!