Posted in Church of England, Uncategorized

Beginnings and Endings

Tomorrow is my last day as Rector of St Mary Stoke Newington; on Wednesday I am consecrated as Bishop of Croydon. But my little ending and new beginning is somewhat overshadowed by yesterday’s news of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s impending resignation. Maybe my own transition has set me up a bit to think about how we could approach this time of change with hope and purpose, rather than colluding with the media expectation that it will just be a bear pit of fruitless competition between our competing factions.

So let’s start by ignoring the bookmakers – make a resolution not to note how the odds are changing. Follow that up by paying no attention to anyone, inside the Church or out, who claims to know who the new Archbishop will or won’t be. Why? Not just because they’re probably wrong, but because doing either of those things is a way of trying to escape from the uncertainty which is a real part of the situation – and which is where God’s gift to us lies right now.

Plenty of people are predicting the end of the Church over this or that issue. They always have been. If the Church were a purely human institution (and it’s always in danger of becoming one) it would surely die. If it takes the risk of faith, then it lives. So every time you feel tempted to check the betting, pray. I will if you will.

Posted in Church of England, politics

Nearer my Neighbour to thee

I went to a briefing the other day for the Near Neighbours programme: that very rare bird, a funding programme being introduced, not cut. The details are interesting, especially for those of us in the areas covered – but the other thing that really stood out for me was that this shows in practice what the government’s ‘Big Society’ idea is meant to look like.

The programme uses a local network of providers (in this case Church of England parishes) and is designed to facilitate fairly low-key locally based projects which aim to

  1. develop positive relationships in multi-faith areas i.e. to help people from different faiths get to know and understand each other better.
  2. encourage people of different faiths, or no faith, to come together for initiatives that improve their local neighbourhood.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is what the ‘Big Society’ agenda would look like if you were able to abstract it from the current (excessive, draconian) cuts in public expenditure. Near Neighbours I think is one answer, and quite an encouraging one. Compared to my experience of other, much much bigger, government funded projects, it seems genuinely to have got away from the dead hand of bureaucracy.

My previous experience was that governmental bodies wanted the third sector to be involved, but only on the condition that we started behaving like governmental bodies, with all the risk-aversion, caution and form-filling that involved. So the very qualities the government wanted from us – mobility, flexibility, responsiveness to local conditions – were the ones we were no longer allowed to show.

If this is different, it’s a very good thing. If it sets the tone for a different way of engaging with third sector partners, it’s a very good thing indeed. There’s no reason why a similar principle might not be used by a rather less parsimonious government on a much wider scale and for a much wider range of purposes. But of course there’s a risk: the less control you exercise, the less you can ensure that everything goes according to plan. Actually, I didn’t feel that really was the main concern; the key issue was to make sure nothing got in the papers. If the price to pay was a mediocre project with most of the money going on administration, monitoring and consultancy costs – well, so be it. Are the government really going to take that risk with anything more than small change? Maybe not – but even governmental small change makes quite a difference on the ground.


Posted in Church of England

Why bother with General Synod?

I sometimes suspect that this question regularly crosses the mind of those charged with the day-to-day leadership of the Church of England. Most members of General Synod have relatively little to do with the church’s national life until they appear for meetings of the Synod. Then, who knows what havoc they may wreak? Like, this last week, the House of Laity refusing to co-opt the person who was wanted to chair the Dioceses Commission, but had unfortunately neglected to stand for election. From the outside it did seem to indicate a certain disdain for the relatively newly elected lay members, that none of them were judged adequate to chair the Commission.

That sort of dysfunction stems I think from a deeper confusion at the heart of General Synod. On the one hand its constitution is modelled on a parliamentary structure, with similar procedures for debating and passing legislation. But along with that sort of process comes the assumption of opposition. A motion that is to be debated has to be constructed around some being for, others against. So when there’s something genuinely divisive, debate has to polarise: there is no real process for seeking compromise or consensus. When an item of business is non-controversial, the pretence of debate is faintly farcical.

But a Synod is not a parliament: members are not elected as representatives of one party or another (though you might not know it from the way groups form in Synod). More significantly, Synod should not be a parliament: its aim should be to find a way forward together, not to enforce the will of the majority.

And that’s why we should bother with General Synod: because we really need a place which brings together all members of the Church across the various diversities: those who represent the life of the parishes along with those who spend their days in the national institutions; bishops clergy and laity all having a voice and a vote; those from the whole rainbow of church tradition. We should bother with Synod because of the ways in which it fails to live up to that purpose, as well as the ways in which it does.

The last thing anyone should wish (though it might make things more ‘efficient’) would be to take the decision making powers away from Synod. The pressures and irritations that everyone feels, from different perspectives, should be the agenda for reform.


Posted in Church of England

Bigging up Society

To big up – to exaggerate, to ‘puff’, to praise or recommend something highly. Society is terribly popular; but what makes it big? My suspicion is that one of the reasons David Cameron welcomed the coalition so fulsomely was that it brought into government a group of people – the LibDems – who were far more interested in ‘the big society’ than the majority of his own party. There certainly seems to plenty in the Conservative Party who are only interested in Big Society if it provides useful cover for the Thatcherite (or more precisely ‘neo-liberal’) holy grail of small government.

But I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I’ve just finished reading Phillip Blond’s Red Tory, which includes one of the best denunciations of neo-liberalism I’ve come across. His prescriptions for a new (conservative) order involve a new valuing of local society and its strengths, against either the statism of the left or the marketism of the right.

I think I’m right there with that critique, if not necessarily with Phillip Blond’s remedies. Someone asked me a while ago if I would describe myself as a socialist, and i realised it was a difficult question to answer. I’m certainly not pro-capitalist, and definitely aspire to a society in which people are rewarded less for their place in society or ability to grasp the levers of power, and more for their intrinsic worth as human beings. But I’ve never been that impressed by the socialist tendency to believe that this vision could be realised through state action. Institutions by their nature are not the natural instruments to deliver a just society. I feel much more at home with Blond’s idea of co-operative ventures, small scale mutual enterprises and so on.

The Big Society Network says:

People have interpreted the ideas and vision in different ways, but we see the core of the big society as three principles:

  • Empowering individuals and communities: Decentralising and redistributing power not just from Whitehall to local government, but also directly to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals
  • Encouraging social responsibility:¬†Encouraging organisations and individuals to get involved in social action, whether small neighbourly activities like hosting a Big Lunch to large collective actions like saving the local post office
  • Creating an enabling and accountable state: Transforming government action from top-down micromanagement and one-size-fits-all solutions to a flexible approach defined by transparency, payment by results, and support for social enterprise and cooperatives

What’s not to like? Well, apart from the suspicion that it might be used as a smokescreen for neo-liberalism, the question in my mind, is what about those who aren’t just waiting for the opportunity to be free of governmental interference? What about the genuinely weak? How does the Big Society enable a community into which the poorest have been pushed, out of sight and out of mind? Where there’s no community organiser waiting to get people together?

The questions are not rhetorical. Jon Cruddas MP spoke warmly of the ‘big society’ language at a gathering last week for churches to consider how they might respond. If a distinctly left wing member of the Labour Party is interested, then I am too, and I want to find out the answers to those questions. I know I share Phillip Blond’s dislike of bureaucratic solutions which rarely fit any given individual case; but I also want to know there’s something better on the horizon before I support the dissolution of the bureaucracy.

Posted in Affirming Catholicism, Church of England, Roman Catholic Church

Hail and farewell

The Ordinariate is under way. To no-one’s great surprise, Fr. Keith Newton has been appointed Ordinary, and he and the other newly-minted (Roman) Catholic priests begin the process of inducting others to follow in their wake. Having just read Andrew Burnham’s interview in The Catholic Herald, I should think it must be quite a relief for them no longer to feel that they are held in tension between the Church of which they were part, and the Church which commanded their true loyalty. But what of those who remain?

As is often the way, it’s easier to speak the truth plainly when it no longer has personal impact: Fr. Newton is quoted by the BBC as saying: ‘”You can’t have a Church that believes in women bishops and doesn’t believe in women bishops.” Which is of course the point that Affirming Catholicism and others have been trying to make these many years. I do want those who disagree with the ordination of women to stay within the Church of England, if that’s how the Spirit is leading them. Others will feel called – and who am I to tell them they’re wrong? – to join the Ordinariate. But the Church which they are remaining within is either (as at present) one that does not ordain women as bishops, or (as I hope it will be) one that does. It can’t be both simultaneously.

The challenge for all Catholics, always, in whatever church they are, is to (in John Newman’s words)

…¬† hold in veneration,
For the love of Him alone,
Holy Church as His creation,
And her teachings are His own.

If the Church of England is part of the Catholic Church with authority to order its own life, then Catholic members of it are called to accept its teaching as the teaching of the Church, even if they disagree. If it isn’t – then I suppose there might be a prophetic ministry of trying to call the Church of England back to its true vocation as a part of the Western (i.e. Roman Catholic) Church. But that vocation cannot within integrity camouflage itself merely as opposition to women bishops; it’s about a wholesale change of direction, not a decision on one particular issue.

Posted in Affirming Catholicism

How to lose friends and fail to influence people

Well, here goes – my reasons why those best of enemies, Affirming Catholicism and Forward in Faith, really need each other – or to be more accurate, really need the Catholic insight that the other holds. Equally loud screams ensue from some on either side at the very idea that there might be anything to learn from the other …

So a bit of quasi-historical overview; you could argue with some chance of success that there have always been two major strands in Anglican Catholicism: one that regarded the others as not really Catholic, and the other regarding its others as not really Anglican. With some inevitable exceptions, you could map these two streams onto Affirming Catholicism and Forward in Faith. AffCath represents those Anglican Catholics who recognise in the Church of England an authentic part of the Church Catholic in its own right. As such, Anglicans have the right and responsibility to govern their own life, which includes matters of doctrine, liturgy and orders of ministry – the whole lot. Although it is a tragedy that the whole church is divided and cannot make these decisions jointly, Anglicans are not beholden to any one before deciding how their church should be organised. In particular, we do not have to wait for the Roman Catholics or the Orthodox Churches to endorse a change before it can be made. The Catholic appeal from this position is particularly to the undivided tradition of the Church – not so much as a template from which nothing can change, as a source of theological truth which cannot be disregarded or treated as mere secular history.

Not nearly Catholic enough, FiF would reply. They represent the Anglo-Catholic tradition which sees the Catholic claims of Anglicans as rooted in the historical link to the Western i.e. Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England is an unfortunately detached part of the Western Church, and its Catholic identity is dependent on that origin. So the more divergent Anglican and Roman Catholic structures or doctrines become, the more endangered is the Anglican claim to Catholic identity.

OK, so this is so much of a summary that it’s nearly a parody, but this is a blog not a monograph. If there’s something in this typology, it leads into a clear complementarity between the two approaches – a mutual corrective that neither ‘side’ might particularly want, but which each needs if it is to live out a Catholic vocation in an Anglican setting. If the Catholic tradition is to engage creatively within Anglicanism it needs to have confidence that this church has its own vocation within the Church Catholic, that its individual contribution (patrimony, perhaps?) may be part of what God is doing. Hankering after Rome is not a way of living out the gospel.

But equally, the Catholic tradition within Anglicanism needs that continual reminder that Catholic identity entails answerability to others, not just those with whom you happen to agree; it demands that changes be made in the light of tradition, and only if it appears that the tradition is unfolding itself into a new thing which the Spirit is revealing. It demands a recognition that the unity of the Church is not sometihng that just happens when everyone finally agrees about everything: it needs to be sought, sacrificially.

So each ‘side’ needs the other, precisely in order to prevent it from falling into the less truly Catholic tendencies of its own set of preferences. Any chance? Probably not yet, but I’m still looking. And it doesn’t stop me (to mention one current issue) being thoroughly in favour of women bishops in the Church of England (but for that see the next post …)