Monday, 29 February 2016

Join Up The Dots: Reflections on General Synod February 2016

It's a dark time for the Church of England. The challenge laid down at the Keele Conference of 1967 by John Stott to evangelicals where he called on evangelicals to stay within it and work towards being in positions of leadership has now borne fruit. It is now some time, I'm told, since the House of Bishops has been dominated by evangelicals and now, nearly 50 years on, Stott's vision seems to have been justified. But I think if Stott was to sit in today's Archbishops' Council, much as it talks the evangelical talk, he would, I believe, be dismayed at how it no longer walks the walk. The present administration has imposed a theory of leadership and management that unashamedly borrows directly from dated secular commercial models with no reference to traditional models of the three fold ministry with its historical checks and balances. In short it's not bad theology. There is just NO theology.
 I commend Andrew Lightbown's three blogs at Theore0  who gives a very accessible overview that explains why I wrote that last paragraph.

So let's join up the dots........ and I'm looking at these 5 key agenda items

  • Evangelism
  • The Enabling Measure
  • Scotland
  • Renewal and Reform funding
  • Resourcing Ministerial Education
This debate is perhaps the most disarmingly honest because it presented to Synod members entirely in the language and thought world of evangelicalism. So we were encouraged to tell or faith stories in small groups, talking about when we owned our faith for the first time and something of our journeys since then. Which is fine if that kind of language world fits your faith expression. Which for me, it does not. It raises so many questions about what evangelism actually is..... questions which couldn't be asked because the conversations were structured so that there was no room for looking at this differently. The overarching assumption, familiar to me from evangelical teenage years 4 decades ago, is that Christian faith is deliberately owned and acquired by a decision of mine. Which it might be. But it might not.. and that's a long discussion we'll leave right there.

I just want to highlight one point here.... faith, according to the instigators of the this conversation, is obviously about private individuals' personal choices and experiences. But please take on board just how significant an assumption (on their behalf) that is. It doesn't square with a bigger, orthodox, picture of how faith is shared. In my experience, anyway!

Taken with the Talking Jesus report from last November it's plain that there is only a one-size-fits-all understanding of evangelism, which ignores the statistical truth that 3 more people are put of Christianity than are attracted to it by the "Talking Jesus" approach. As a Priest of 35 years I've seen that for myself. But real thanks to the Evangelical Alliance, Hope UK and someone odd bods called "The Church of England" for getting me from anecdote to evidence. And it is highlighted by ABC's twice reported dislike of the Franciscan (though of course not from St Francis himself) adage: "Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words." The ABC wants words, words, words, it seems.
The "dot" I want to join up here is
: Christian faith is individualistic and evangelism is about sharing faith so that I ensure that what you experience is what I experience.

The Enabling Measure
For all the assurances to the contrary, this measure seeks to take power away from Synod and vest decision making more and more in the Archbishops' Council.

Those who can't see this need to wake up.
Or perhaps they don't want to see that.
Or perhaps they simply approve.
This was only the first part of Synod giving away it's own powers, and it's dressed up as innocuous. But over 5 years you will see more and more power being given away to the Archbishops' Council… just you watch.
There will be a scrutiny committee that aims to ensure that all is done properly and the members of the scrutiny committee will, I gather, be taken from the Archbishops' Council. So that's all fine and dandy then. 
The "dot" I want to join up here is: The Archbishops' Council, especially in the person of John Spence, wields for too much power and Synod is less and less holding it to account.

Stands Scotland Where It Did?
Two effusive apologies from the Bishop of Chester and the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Scottish Episcopal Church simply missed the point. Our Scottish brother and sister Anglicans were present only up until a year before the report came out - so when it was released (in the wrong way, according to the Archbishop... whatever that meant) it wasn't already known to them.
Mark Russell - well know to us in Worcester as he's a lay canon of the Cathedral - made an impassioned speech for his amendment, knocking the acceptance of the report back into next year, was able to get 50 folk to support him (including me) and 49 abstentions. And that was in the face a headmasterly intervention by the Archbishop and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland being present. The real point I want to make here is how much this debate showed the sheer patronising, condescending way too many English people still speak about the Celtic nations. References to university, holiday homes and golf really made me squirm. Is it surprising that many Scots want independence?
It's important to know, of course, that I'm Welsh and Baptised and Ordained in Wales. Mark Russell and the David Chillingworth, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, are both Irish. I'm used to patronising remarks, and more often disparaging remarks, about our Celtic nations, but this was really embarrassing by any standard.
The bottom line for me however was the clear trajectory that the Columba agreement would mean us working towards an interchange of ministry. At that point I leave the CofE. A presbyterial college is not the same as episcopacy, which is vested in a person. The whole idea made the long struggle for women bishops a complete nonsense. The idea that we agreed all this theology with the Meissen report is, I suspect, not one we can completely support. There is a real difference in intent. And suggesting that English folk going to Scotland should be encouraged to go to the Church of Scotland and not to the Episcopal Church is staggering.
The "dot" I want join up here is: Ministry is not understood in terms of orders of ministry but simply in terms of ordained and lay. The three ministry of ordained ministry – deacon, priest and bishop are not spoken of. Maybe you cheer. I don't.

Renewal and Reform Funding
This is simple. The Archbishops' Council want to break what's called the "intergenerational principle" that govern the Church Commissioners. They do not spend capital, only income. Now we want to sell the family silver to pay for a series of reforms that have no obvious benefit for the Church.
The "dot" I want join up here is: The Archbishops' Council want to have direct access to a lot of money (one of the Church Commissioners who I know tells me it is £78 Million!) to spend without reference to anyone.

Resourcing Ministerial Education
I won't pretend I understood all the complexities of this debate. I did not. The way we educate for ministry needs to change, and I think there was general agreement about that. It was the specifics that caused the rubs.
The "dot" I want join up here is: The line between ordained and lay ministry were, at times blurred. Of course we should train lay ministry to the same standard as the ordained. But for me there is a difference between the ordained and the lay. Not a difference of importance, but of being. I am a priest. It isn't a role or a job. A foot is not a hand etc. That's because I take the three fold order of ministry as so deeply rooted in the Church's story. Ministry and leadership are words that are almost interchangeable in the current debate. And that alarms me.

The Worcester fees debate
Well, Archdeacon Nikki did a great job in presenting it and it got a robust debate and it was lost. Synod was doing what Synod is supposed to do, with people, including Bishops onboth sides... and although the Diocese lost the motion it should be proud that it reminded General Synod of it's raison d'etre:
The "dot" I want join up here is: There us clear trend towards General Synod simply receiving reports, taking note or having questions and answers - and moving away from being the Governance of episcopal leadership.

When I join up the dots I see a Church of England being led by a theologically monochrome Archbishops' Council which confuses ministry with leadership, and which is impatient with the checks and balances of the Synodical process. What theology there is (precious little) assumes that ordained ministry is one thing (not 3-fold) and different to lay ministry only in function. Here is the old division between Catholic and Protestant ecclesiologies.
What do you make of the dots?

And finally
Please can the worship be dignified, beautiful considered and prayerful? Being on a podium in Church House is no excuse for shambling about and sounding bored. If they were my curates there would have been some serious reflective practice afterwards!