Posted in Anglican Communion, Lambeth Conference, power

The mind of the Anglican Communion?

It is one of the most reliable techniques in the lexicon of power. If you want to silence your opponent, don’t engage with their position: just pretend it doesn’t exist. State the rules of the game, the terms of the debate, in such a way that the position you oppose has nowhere to stand. It’s a move experienced often enough by women, by people of colour, by almost every group that someone wants to silence.

Churches have not been immune from this kind of behaviour, so it’s good to see the papers for the Lambeth Conference of bishops acknowledging that the “legacies of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and other abuses of power continue to impact our communities” and “the existence and ongoing impact of an imperialist Anglicanism involved in dehumanizing practices predicated upon cultural and racial supremacy”. On the contrary, they affirm that “[a]ny Christian commitment to human dignity must celebrate the rich diversities of contextual theologies”.

Which makes it all the more shocking that only two paragraphs later the same game is played. “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same gender marriage is not permissible.” That statement is made on the basis of the infamous Resolution 1:10 passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The problem is that it isn’t true, either in principle or in practice.

The principle is that resolutions of the Lambeth Conference (or Calls, for that matter) express only the majority view of that particular Conference. It is up to each Province to decide what authority they may have: “Member churches have distinct processes for receiving decisions from Lambeth Conferences and deciding/discerning to what extent they will have authority in their context.” Lambeth 1998 1:10 cannot of itself express ‘the mind of the Communion’.

And in practice, it clearly doesn’t. Eight provinces of the Communion have in whole or part begun to make provision for the blessing of same gender relationships. The Church of England is part way through a process which was explicitly designed on the basis of exploring the whole range of views and experiences, openly and without prejudice. Those voices, those people are pre-emptively silenced in this document.

As I’m no longer serving full-time in the church, I won’t be at the Lambeth Conference. I hope that those who are there – whatever their own position on human sexuality – will find a way to reject a document which seeks to silence some by creating an alternative reality in which they do not exist (even though voting ‘no’ doesn’t seem to be an option). That is not the way to seek the truth, or to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Posted in politics, power

What are governments for?

I’ve been trying to avoid the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party as much as I can. But even on a remote island it creeps through. So as a second line of defence against the posturing and point scoring, I’ve tried asking a different question, which I think underlies quite a lot of what I haven’t been able to avoid seeing and hearing. From a Christian point of view, what are governments for? Why do we have them at all?

Despite having been in government for twelve years, quite a few of the candidates are trying to present themselves as new – promising a different government, a fresh start. It’s quite a stretch after all this time, though it did seem to work for the present Prime Minister in 2019. I doubt if (consciously at least) the candidates are adopting that approach because they think the last twelve years have been a failure. What they are doing is recognising the deep-seated, and I think entirely reasonable, distrust in which all governments should be held by those whom they notionally serve.

This is of course a thoroughly biblical position – or at least, so I would like to argue. When the people of Israel demand a king, the prophet Samuel lists the consequences, each sentence beginning “he will take … your sons, your daughters, your fields, your produce, your resources …”, and ending “and you will be his slaves” (1 Samuel 8). But the people don’t listen: they want to be like the other nations. They want a king: what we might now think of as a government. But national government as a concept doesn’t seem to be getting much divine approval.

In contrast, some might point to the various injunctions to pray for and respect “authorities” in the New Testament. Paul in Romans 13 says “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” but I don’t think that disproves the point. If Paul was talking about the Roman empire, the stories of his experiences recorded in the book of Acts directly contradict his statement that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”. Given the context of the passage in that part of the letter to the Romans, it’s far more likely that he’s trying to work through the contested relationship of Christian believers to the synagogue authorities – with an added working out in practice of Jesus’ command to pray for those who persecute you.

There’s far, far more to say, but for now I’m inviting you to go along with the idea that a certain suspicion of the notion of government might be a reasonable position to start from. The biblical deal was that God should occupy the space other peoples gave to their king. Any human government then is usurping what should properly be God’s space.

So what are governments for, then? Despite their origin in human disobedience, God’s response to the people’s demand for a king in 1 Samuel is that he gives them one (Saul), and then another (David). Within the context of the world as it is, governments of some sort seem inevitable. But how can they be better than ‘take,take,take’?

The story would suggest that if you’re going to have a government, it should be as small as possible, as lightweight as it can be, interfering as little as possible with people’s lives. If governments are in principle an improper usurpation of God’s desired relationship with God’s people, then at least they should occupy as little of the space as possible. But – and it is a huge but – that doesn’t necessarily mean what the modern day proponents of “small government” have in mind.

To caricature, arguments for small government tend to argue that government’s role is to keep the playing field fair and open so that people can get on with their lives. And as virtually all of them come from the political right, that tends to be interpreted in a particular way. Defence of the nation, defence of property rights, underwriting of contractual and legal obligations: those are the sort of things that governments have to do. You could argue that (in its 21st century version) that’s the sort of thing that the people of Israel were asking for – “we are determined to have a king … [to] go out before us and fight our battles”.

I would argue though that we’re still stuck here, still part of the unhealthy dynamic which led to the appointment of a king. The fighting of battles is the price the king pays for being able to take, take, take from the people. It’s a theory of governance rooted in a Hobbesian vision of a world in which all are at war with all. The reality of that world is tempered by a government which itself is tempted to use its power not to keep the peace but to dominate others. No-one can be trusted.

There is a better biblical vision of society than this, a vision of mutuality which recognises human weakness but isn’t imprisoned by fear of the other. It’s there in the laws for the ordering of society set out earlier in the Old Testament. The cycle of taking that Samuel promises will be the fruits of kingship are replacing a deeper pattern which is based on a cycle of giving, especially to the poorest and most marginalised. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not gather to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 23:22) – in a rural economy, this is a form of redistributive taxation, without the intervention of a state mechanism. The rules of jubilee (whether or not they were ever observed) set out a vision for maintaining mutuality within society, and a fundamental equality between all its members.

And this I think opens up a possible answer to the question. What are governments for? In a fallen and unjust world, of which they appear to be an inevitable consequence, governments are there to try to remedy the injustices that made them necessary. The ideal government would be one that worked itself out of existence. And yes, governments should be setting themselves to keep the playing field fair and open so that people can get on with their lives. But the vision of society we see in Leviticus requires a lot more than today’s ‘small government’ enthusiasts would want.

Government needs to be only as big as is needed in order to provide conditions of equity for all, and especially to ensure that those on the margins of society are not left at the mercy of the powerful. But in a global society in which the powerful are multi-national and massively rich, embodied in mega corporations and personally adept at hiding their wealth from any attempt to tax it – to stand up for the poor means being pretty big. For a government in the 21st century to espouse biblical principles of community life demands that it is involved in education, in health care, in protection of those who lack the necessities of life; and also that it is strong enough to demand of the rich that they make a proportionate contribution to the good of the whole.

There remains though always Samuel’s warning. Governments are always tempted to see themselves as entitled to take. Their only ethical purpose is to give.

Posted in power, spirituality

A Parable of Power

He was born afraid. Afraid that the world into which he had been ejected would consume him, eat him up until nothing was left. So before he was able to know it, he made his decision: he would eat up the world instead. He would consume everything that threatened him, bring it into himself, control it so that it wouldn’t threaten him any more. Then the fear would be gone.

He cloaked his fear with hunger; hunger for safety and security. And because he thought the world was full of enemies, that hunger became a hunger for power. Only having power over others would make him safe; he had to control others, so that they couldn’t control him. He had to eat them up or they would eat him.

The strange thing was, that the more he ate, the more powerful he became, the more hungry he was. There were always new dangers, new enemies. He gained more and more power, and became more and more afraid, more and more hungry.

Then one night, he had a nightmare – or was it a dream? As the dream began he was in his usual waking state – full of power, but even more full of fear and hunger. But even more powerful was the figure that confronted him. He couldn’t see them clearly, but they appeared to be no more than a small child. Even so, he was completely in the power of this other; all his deepest fears were coming true. And in the grip of that overwhelming power, he found himself doing something he could not imagine, something beyond his waking fears. He found himself giving power away. A crowd had appeared around him of the poor, the wounded, the homeless, and he was giving power to them. He was giving them the ability to feed, and heal and house themselves – at the cost of his own power over them. But there was one even stranger thing in the dream. As he gave away his power, his hunger was becoming less. And he awoke.

A dream? No, it was a nightmare, he decided. And in the morning he redoubled his effort to make sure that in waking life no-one would ever control him in that way. And his hunger grew and grew.