Posted in Anglican Communion, Church of England

lest we forget

Canada Hall, Merstham, Surrey

From the parish website:

On the evening of Saturday, the 19th April 1941, a German bomber dropped a landmine on parachute which exploded All Saints’ Church.  It killed five people waiting at a bus stop, an air-raid warden and messenger who were just going on duty.  It demolished half the church and wrecked the vicarage, houses and shops were devastated.  The vicar’s sister was also killed and the vicar, Henry Baker, and his other sister badly injured.

At the time, a Canadian field Ambulance Unit, the 9th, and some units of the Royal Canadian Engineers were stationed nearby.  In that Field Ambulance Unit was an Anglican Priest the Revd. George Hedley Wolfendale.  He had enlisted as a private soldier but later became an army chaplain.  He had a dream of building the people of All Saints’ a new church, using the materials from the ruined church and vicarage, and the voluntary labours of the Canadian Engineers to whom he now ministered.  On the 22nd March 1943 the work was begun.  In an incredible five weeks the church was completed, the only materials being paid for being the cement and the paint.  Eighteen Canadian Engineers did the work and the resulting church was consecrated by the Bishop of Southwark on Easter Day, the 25th April 1943.

In his address the Bishop “In the future, I hope that when the church is built again, this little building which you have, will still house some of the family life of the parish and all will be told the story of the Easter of 1943, that our Canadian kinsmen went out of their way to build a place in which our people might worship.  And when we have got over this business and together have cleared the course for the next bit of history ….we shall remember … ” (

In the week of the D Day 2014-06-07 11.05.29commemorations it seems appropriate too to remember this more local but still powerful memory. I was there this morning celebrating the work so far on building a link between the present All Saints Church and the Hall. it seems very appropriately symbolic that a building which in itself symbolises a link between people in Britain and in Canada should itself be linked to the church for which it was itself originally a replacement.

Canada Hall does look quite Canadian in its simplicity and straightforwardness. It’s also a reminder that the things we should not forget are not restricted to warfare and those who died. We should also remember, and treasure, our relationships and our benefactors. Canada Hall does that in the best way possible, by providing a space in which new relationships are formed through community activities of all kinds. It was built in response to destruction, but way beyond the plans of its original builders (I wonder if any are still alive?) it is still giving life.

Posted in Church of England

Welcoming Pilling

My heart lifted as I read the invitation in the Pilling Report (its second recommendation), that

The subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views on both sides, would best be addressed by facilitated conversations or a similar process to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at national and diocesan level.

I couldn’t agree more. When I am asked about this – mostly by people who think they know what I’m going to say – I can only answer that we haven’t really yet begun the conversation. We have exchanged increasingly entrenched opinions between different camps, but we haven’t really talked – because we haven’t really listened.

The listening I’m talking about is the sort which is rooted in the process that the Pilling Group records of itself, that

As a group, we continue to seek the presence of Christ in one another. In the end, we are not prepared to say that our deeply held views render any of us un-Christian or put any of us outwith the Church of Christ. We commend to the wider Church a version of the process which we have found ourselves undergoing – attentive listening to brothers and sisters in Christ whose understanding of God’s demands and our responses is very different from our own. (Para 65)

The Report deliberately does not come to conclusions, and that will discredit it in the eyes of many. But I believe we are not yet ready for conclusions. I hope that we are now ready for a process: a process which will reflect our Anglican identity. I couldn’t agree more with the Group when it says

Anglican social ethics is characterized by listening to each other within the church. If one emphasis in theological ethics is allowed to dominate all others, the whole nature of Anglicanism, as a conciliar Church which holds together distinctive traditions, is lost.

The Anglican approach to social ethics is profoundly Christian in its refusal – in theory if not always in practice – to countenance premature foreclosure on matters where discerning the mind of the Church and the mind of Christ is elusive. In the flawed way of all institutions, that can be a counter-intuitive gift to a world fixated on immediacy, certainty and intolerance of difference. (Paras 307 & 308)

Not being ready for conclusions also means that we as a Church are not ready for changes (if we are to make them). We just haven’t reached the depth of mutual understanding of this issue which would enable us to move forward in love, even in loving disagreement.

The Report’s eleventh recommendation will be difficult for many – for some the first clause, for others the remainder

Whilst abiding by the Church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality, we encourage the Church to continue to engage openly and honestly and to reflect theologically on the circumstances in which we find ourselves to discern the mind of Christ and what the Spirit is saying to the Church now.

But as far as I can tell, for us in the Church of England, here and now, it is the most faithful response we can make.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

Reasons to be more cheerful (women bishops)

I can’t come up with quite as many reasons as Ian Dury did, but I think there are three really important reasons to be more cheerful and (for those of us in favour) more hopeful about the prospect of women being admitted to the episcopate in the Church of England.

The first, and most obvious, is the new proposed legislation and the package of provision around it. Having spent many hours helping to prepare proposals, comment on amendments, and engaging in general politicking around the previous proposed legislation, it is a huge relief to see that the steering committee have come up with such a comparatively simple system. There is an excellent summary on Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’ blog.  it’s not the substance of the proposals that I want to focus on, though. Equally important is the change of tone and atmosphere.  Throughout this process,  the church has found itself stuck between the desire to bring Christians together around the maximum possible unity, and the legislative processes which encourage not only debate but also division.  The General Synod of the Church of England is particularly prone to this schizophrenia. It finds it very difficult to work out whether it is a Synod or a Parliament. The desire of most members is to be a Synod, understood as a body which seeks the way forward together. But the rules and regulations of the Synod push it towards parliamentary practice.

It is that dilemma, as much as the differences of principle, which has in my view been at the root of our failure to move forward.  Some at least of those who have voted against the legislation have, I believe, been voting against the whole legalistic way in which Synod has worked.  the establishment of a revision committee including the whole range of theological perspectives has opened up the possibility that these proposals might be considered in a different spirit. The committee themselves suggest

Given the measure of progress made within our Committee we venture to express the hope, however, that this debate might be an occasion when the Synod might be prepared to focus more on how to nurture the degree of consensus that has started to emerge rather than having a series of detailed and possibly divisive debates on amendments. (para 84)

To reuse a phrase in a more positive direction than normal, this is not parliamentary language, but synodical.

The other two reasons to be cheerful are the responses put out by Forward in Faith and WATCH. Yes, both of them. Cautiously (as one might expect), their press releases hold open the possibility that the revision committee’s hopes might be fulfilled. It was equally encouraging to listen in to Fr Paul Benfield’s report to the FiF National Assembly, which similarly seemed (to me at least) to hold out the possibility of a genuine conversation around the proposals which have now been published.

The question is, can this delicate flower of Christian love hold out against the synodical machinery? I would like to end by suggesting to all members of General Synod that they re-acquaint themselves with the late Walter Wink’s suggestion that we can only understand any human institution if we understand the “angel” which expresses its true nature:

The angel of a church [is] the spirituality of a particular church. You can sense the “angel” when you worship at a church. But you also encounter the angel in the church’s committee meetings.

The angel of an institution is not just the sum total of all that institution is; it is also the bearer of that institution’s divine vocation. Corporations and governments [and synods] are “creatures” whose sole purpose is to serve the general welfare. And when they refuse to do so, their spirituality becomes diseased.

The Powers That Be, pages 4-5.

I don’t think the Church of England General Synod’s angel is diseased, still less “daemonic”, as Wink goes on to suggest may happen. But I think it is a confused angel, uncertain of its vocation. A different sort of debate about the ordination of women to the episcopate might also open the way for a different sort of Synod: one in which the desire of Synod members to seek the way forward for the Church in love is more important than the rules of process and political power plays.

Posted in Church of England, Croydon

Having faith in Zimbabwe

It was with some nervous anticipation that I approached passport control at Harare Airport. Would there be problems getting in? Would I be interrogated about the purpose of my visit? Fortunately it went a lot more smoothly than it does for many Zimbabweans visiting the UK. I paid my $55, got the visa, and the receipt from another official whose job it was to do nothing else, through I went and there was Bishop Ishmael.

As we headed out on the way to Gweru, where the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe has its cathedral and offices, I was struck by what a ‘green and pleasant land’ I was looking at. It was the rainy season, of course, but nevertheless I realised right away what an abundance of natural gifts Zimbabwe has. But we were driving down the main road to South Africa – what should be a major conduit for trade – and the road was largely empty. We passed several large farms which had fallen into disuse.  Time and again during my stay I was reminded that the basic amenities of society are in a St Michael Kwekwepoor and declining state, and that the economy is operating at a very low level.

Amid the natural beauty and the economic tragedy, I was almost overwhelmed by the vitality, energy and enthusiasm of so many of the people I met. Most of them were from the churches, of course, but I could see that there are many Zimbabweans of all sorts working really hard to create pockets of growth and stability. The churches were not merely full of people, but full of purpose – reaching out to their communities in worship and service.

The picture shows most of the congregation at St Michael’s Kwekwe – the children and the choir are out of sight. The Mothers’ Union, all in uniform, occupy the entire right side of the church.

The thing I came away most convinced of, was that our partnership with the church in Zimbabwe must be genuine partnership. All Christians have something to give to the whole body of Christ; and all have something to receive. Precisely because of our very different situations, we in Southwark have much to learn about our own life of discipleship to Christ as we grow in our relationship with the churches in Zimbabwe.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

And now?

The day after…

Having just spent ten days in the Holy Land, I have been thinking a lot about irreconcilable conflict. What do you do when different groups have different base lines – when the starting point of each side’s aspiration crosses the bottom line of the other?

Israel/Palestine is a splendid example of how not to do it. Both sides became involved in a ‘might is right’ struggle, which Israel won conclusively. Having won the military battle, Israel has continued to work for the delivery of its political aims by quasi-military means – house demolitions, movement controls, land and resource seizures, and so forth.

What’s needed is a different sort of game, but as far as I can see the Palestinian leadership is trying to find a means of winning, if not militarily, then certainly by a variation on the ‘might is right’ strategy.

That’s a struggle which costs lives. I don’t think anyone has died over the ordination of women as bishops, but on its own scale the problem of irreconcilable bottom lines is just as acute. It is very depressing indeed to hear people talking as if there were a better solution just to hand, especially those who have been through all the negotiations of the last few years. Circles do not become squares. A solution acceptable to everyone is not going to emerge. Israel/Palestine shows us that.

So what is the other game? It’s the game that anyone’s played who was patched up a rift between friends; on a political level, it’s the game that was played in Northern Ireland. It’s a game that involves listening – something that many of those opposed to women bishops were claiming has not happened. I think they were probably confusing listening with agreeing.

Listening means speaking honestly. A starting point would be the recognition that there is no magic bullet, and an agreement to stop using the myth of a consensus on this issue as a rhetorical holy grail with which to criticise any actual concrete proposal.

Much as I would have wished that Bishop Justin didn’t have this on his plate, I pray that in the providence of God he may have been called to Canterbury to help the Church of England in this particular hour of need. I pray too that church business, however important, doesn’t prevent him from leading us in mission.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

The sun has gone down, and I am still angry.

The sun has gone down, and I am still angry. Not angry with those who voted against the legislation (how can I be angry with someone else’s conscience?), but angry that there are women called to episcopal ministry who will never get the chance. Angry at the damage that will be done to the church and its mission both because of the absence of those gifts, and also because of our inability to welcome the gift God is offering to us. Angry at being stuck here, when I can feel the Spirit beckoning us forward.

Now is not a time for ‘what next’? It’s a time to recognise our feelings for what they are, and let them be. In a little while, maybe, those of us who tonight are angry, or depressed, or despairing can return to ourselves and find the gift of God which will enable us to do whatever it is we are called to next. But not tonight.

Posted in Church of England, Jerusalem, women bishops

Holy and Ramshackle

Today I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for the first time in my life. It was of course chaos – a chaos of people of varying churches and none, a chaos of architecture and church furnishings, a chaos of liturgies. A bit like the whole Christian church, then. A warring, ramshackle, mutually uncomprehending bunch of pilgrims held together only by our faith in Jesus, and drawn to this place despite everything because of what that faith means.

I write this post during the debate on General Synod on the legislation on women bishops – and before the vote. So it is in ignorance of the outcome that I hope we will remain in the Church of England a ramshackle witness to the faith of Jesus, living under one roof. Even if, as is the case with Holy Sepulchre, we can’t even agree how to keep it in good repair.