Exaggerated Certainity

22 November 2008

I keep bumping into people who want to off-load their certainties on to me. Although it seems a habit of religious people, it is there in many facets of life. It is the expectation that you will join others in understanding and interpreting the world from inside of their stereotypes. Religious people root their certainties in their understanding of God and then use that understanding to justify why they can be certain about so many aspects of faith, order and morality. In the face of such certainty it often feels that to have a faith, but to disagree or question such certainties is to be cast as ‘wishy-washy’, liberal or lacking in faith.

Yet can the possibilities of God be packaged in such constructs? Can the God who inhabits all the complexity of humanity and the outrageous imaginative dynamics of cosmology be contained within a certainty constrained by the limitations of human experience and understanding?

During the Lambeth Conference I was able to come close to a number of Bishops who professed certainties. One of the benefits of spending an extended amount of time with them was to discover that their certainties were not nearly as clear-cut as they initially appeared. Belief is held within context and is cradled by many factors – some personal, others cultural or political, whilst others are the pragmatics of belonging to a particular grouping within the church. As I came to understand their certainties I realised that there were exaggerated by the factors of personality, affinity, culture, mission, context and history.

Exaggerated certainty can become a public expression of faith, which suggests that such certainties are far more robust than they really are. Yet upon such exaggerated certainties so much conflict and division have been founded. Today I came across a memorial near Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire erected to the p1000651memory of protestants who had been burnt to death in the sixteenth century (and for two of them their children were compelled to light the faggots). They had been executed for wanting religious liberty and the right to read the scriptures. They had become victims of exaggerated certainty, with politics and power providing the exaggeration which enabled such actions in the name of God.

Whilst we can be certain of the love of God, certain of the forgiveness which flows from that love and also certain that the God we meet in Jesus is outraged about injustice. We have to be wary of the kind of certainty which is used to justify division and conflict in the name of a God who blesses the peacemakers – certainty of this kind may well be an exaggeration which takes us away from the God who invites us to have faith enough to explore the possibilities of his love.

Why I don’t believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic lobster!

26 October 2008

One of the best things about being part of a church like the Church of England is that we are an organisation with a long history, through which many norms and structures of organisation have developed.  One of the worst things about being part of a church like the Church of England is that we are an organisation with a long history, through which many norms and structures of organisation have developed!

It is inevitable that when people come together they need structures of organisation to be able to relate both internally and externally.   In addition there is much regulation relating to employment, the use of trust funds and a plethora of other legislation relating to organisations operating in a liberal democracy.

The norms and structures of the church, coupled with the requirements of legislation, become the structures which support and enable our mission and ministry.  They are like a skeleton which enables the body of Christ to function, to move and to have a shape.  Yet skeletons come in two distinct types – exoskeletons (like lobsters) which are obvious and protective and endoskeletons (like you and I have) which remain hidden, thus enabling relationships to be developed with the substance and not with the structures.

As I live within our church and consider how we relate to our communities, it seems to me that we have developed an exoskeleton.  So much of our time is invested in sustaining the structures, the norms and the legislative requirements.  People in parishes give hours and hours of their time to servicing the institution of the church and, at times, become passionate about defending it.  We expend much of our ‘church related’ energy to raising money to service the institution.  When people contact the church about ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’  they frequently encounter the rules and regulations attached to these ministries and sometimes they are put off exploring further into our faith by this shell of institution.

Yet we are called to be witnesses to a kingdom which is about the fruits of knowing God through his spirit of love, forgiveness and life.  These are things which cannot of their nature be institutionalised.  Indeed you can read the gospels as a radical attack on the type of institutionalise religion which lives within an exoskeleton and so becomes exclusive.

Our structures only make sense when they give us the shape and strength to be the Easter people of our vocation.  Such a people have to live with the vulnerability of love offered to the world.  The more we protect ourselves with the armour of institution, then the further we move away from reflecting the crucified Christ.

So we have a problem – we cannot avoid having our structures and we cannot avoid having to put time and energy to meeting the legislative requirements of a modern democracy.  But what we can do is to keep reminding ourselves that we are not a lobster – our purpose is to be exposed to the world and to offer ourselves as agents of a God who reacted so  powerfully against the institutionalised religion which frustrated his mission.  We can aviod developing new structures which perpetuate the notion of institution before mission.  We can also look at how we shape and develop our structures to ensure that we are making the best gospel use of the time and energy which people give to the church.

Sometimes just naming a problem is all that we need to do to work against it.     So I am adding a line to the creed – “I do not believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic lobster” and, as an agent of the institution, I really need reminding of this daily,

If resolution 1.10 is important, what about resolution 19?

9 August 2008

The more I read the final Lambeth Document, “Capturing Conversations and Reflections”, the more I rejoice that we did not go down the road of resolutions and votes. To have a ‘snapshot’ of the engagement between the Bishops is probably of far more worth, than adding to the fossilised remains of earlier conferences, which leave skeletal resolutions disconnected from the tissue of conversation lying behind them as some sort of guide to the heart and mind of the church.

Much has been made of Resolution 1.10 from the 1998 Conference, as though this is an enduring and unerring piece of truth. It has become almost a test for orthodoxy.  But if this resolution has such enduring status, then all resolutions of the Lambeth Conference must be given the same status. So what about Resolution 67 from 1908?  Very importantly it states

We desire earnestly to warn members of our Communion against contracting marriages with Roman Catholics under the conditions imposed by modern Roman canon law, especially as these conditions involve the performance of the marriage ceremony without any prayer or invocation of the divine blessing, and also a promise to have their children brought up in a religious system which they cannot themselves accept.”

I am also concerned that there is not enough campaigning with regard to Resolution 6.f from 1888:

“That the most careful regard should be had to the danger of any encroachment upon the rest which, on this day, is the right of servants as well as their masters, and of the working classes as well as their employers.”

and what has been done about Resolution 36 from 1908?

“The Conference, having regard to the uncertainty which exists as to the permanence of the practice commended by St. James (5.14), and having regard to the history of the practice which professes to be based upon that commendation, does not recommend the sanctioning of the anointing of the sick as a rite of the Church.
It does not, however, advise the prohibition of all anointing, if anointing be earnestly desired by the sick person. In all such cases the parish priest should seek the counsel of the bishop of the diocese. Care must be taken that no return be made to the later custom of anointing as a preparation for death.”

But most urgently of all, how do we reconcile Resolution 19 from 1897 with 1.10 from 1998?

“That it is important that, so far as possible, the Church should be adapted to local circumstances, and the people brought to feel in all ways that no burdens in the way of foreign customs are laid upon them, and nothing is required of them but what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church.”

As I heard the conversations between Bishops from very different context explaining how issues in sexuality affected their mission within their context, social norms and cultural inheritance – Resolution 19 sounded very modern. It addresses the crux of these matters – what is the essence of faith and of order?   The conversations of which I was part were really about ‘foreign customs’ being forced upon radically different parts of the Communion – and some of those radically different parts were contained within the same province!

So I am starting a campaign for Resolution 19 and it will become my ‘litmus test’ for orthodoxy.

Quintessentially beautiful

7 August 2008

Last night I visited the village of Donington-on-Bain, which is a quintessentially beautiful and very English village nestling in a fold of the Lincolnshire Wolds, to meet with the PCC of the local group of parishes.

Encouragingly the parishes are looking to their future.  We had a very positive conversation about possibilities for the future and how to sustain the mission and ministry of the parishes in a changing context for the church’s ministry.  It was not an evening for making decisions, but once again I encountered the deep and fundamental support which exists for the church within these communities.

There are always those ready to write the obituary for the church, but they fail to recognize the faith and commitment of people such as those whom I met last night.  When we face the challenges of the future, then the church will always be robust and will continue to witness within its communities.  It is only when we resist the future and try to work in ways which deny the realities facing the church that we become vulnerable, for then we become introspective and absorbed with secondary issues about being church,  rather than being servants of a Gospel of hope.

The Gospel of hope is just so much more attractive than the council of despair which can at times be heard from the church – indeed that gospel of hope is also quintessentially beautiful.

Lambeth Reflections

5 August 2008

Looking back on the Lambeth Conference two days after it closed, I feel even more convinced that we used our time well.  The key thing in my mind is that, with issues before us which could have led to fundamental division, we were counter-cultural and did not get drawn down a path which would have ended up with ‘winners and losers’.

The temptation to resolve a number of issues, not least the gay issue, was ever before the conference and its designers.  It was a path which would have suited some and which was eagerly anticipated by the press.  Such a path would, however, have led to division – for it would have brought resolution but at the cost of losing parts of the Communion.

As I see it, although the divisions within the Communion have been portrayed as the ‘orthodox’ versus the ‘liberals’, this is a parody.  They are just different ways of understanding how the God we encounter in Jesus Christ works in and through history.  They stem from a shared belief that God was in Christ and that the Spirit leads us into truth. The division comes about whether the work of the Spirit has been completed or whether we continue being led into truth as an ongoing process of the Spirit as it leads us to discover and understand more about salvation,  the human condition and its context.

We live in a culture of ‘winners and losers’, it is most evident politics – but does it make it a better world?.  It is a culture which drives the market, shapes the globalisation of economics and which is champion by those who most frequently found amongst the winners.  The culture of ‘winners and losers’ is a culture of division and injustice, especially when one group are constantly amongst the losers.  There is little evidence that the culture of ‘winners and losers’ leads to peace, harmony, human flourishing or justice for the poor.  It is a competitive culture leading to the survival and success of those who are better educated, more confident and for those who can attract majorities without really engaging with the truth.  It is a culture which is loved by those who enjoy  division and who thrive on conflict.

The indaba process which has dominated this Conference, with all its imperfections and frustrations, has enabled the overwhelming majority of bishops within the Anglican Communion to engage with each other.  In my study group we approached the key question of biblical authority from vastly different stand points, but we engaged with, shared and respected each other’s sincerity and faith.

Whilst the Conference did not produce grand statements, resolutions or answers – it did produce Bishops prepared to listen to and understand the complexity of each other’s faith and position.  The divisions and issues have not gone away, but we have sat closely with God and this will serve us well when the time is right for us to address these things.  We have renewed a common mind about poverty, injustice and the integrity of creation.  We have explored having a covenant relationship – creating a space in which we can relate to each other in the Communion.  Most importantly we came away with no thirst or desire to separate, but rather we appear more determined to keep a common voice to witness, support and encourage each other in the 130 countries of the Communion.

Finally we have been enriched by each other – as one Bishop put it “We are the product of this Conference”.  So it has not been about resolutions or paper work, but the people who have the great privilege of being Bishops in mission and in serving God’s Church.

We have also had a opportunity to be appropriately counter-cultural,  for there are no winners and losers in Christ, but all are one in his love.

Lambeth Day 16

1 August 2008

Those who have been supporting the process of Bible Study followed by an Indaba were vindicated this morning.  I sat, listened and contributed as one of 40 bishops engaging with issues in human sexuality.  As far as I could tell, everyone was able to make a contribution and the challenges facing us were clarified.  There was no ‘grandstanding’ and people were able to make their contribution without having to run the gauntlet of a plenary of 660 bishops  – which would have ensured that only a minority were heard.

In my Indaba, one thing about which there was unanimity was that our attitude to homosexual people must be positive, generous and full of Christian love.  There, however, the unanimity ended.   In my Bible Study group there had been a recognition that we are each trying to be faithful to God and to our understanding of the nature and authority of scripture. By the time we came to the Indaba I detected the underlying presumption that a ‘real Christian’ is essentially fundamentalist when it comes to using the Bible.

The discussion was however very helpful in enabling both sides to hear the problems faced by the other.  The problems are essentially both theological and cultural – but culture can be a vicious thing.  So we encountered one Bishop who shared his concern that, if the Communion was understood to be accepting of homosexual practice, then he would have no credibility amongst the people of his Diocese and he would be deposed.  It also became evident that homosexuality in many parts of the world remains taboo and so the Church cannot even raise the subject.   In many countries in the Communion homosexual practice remains illegal and again the Church cannot be seen to be accepting it.

Yet we also heard from cultures where homosexuality has become an accepted expression within the spectrum of human sexuality and so a Church which is perceived to be ‘anti-gay’ is seen to be prejudiced and hypocritical in its call for justice and peace.  One Bishop shared his concern that young adults in his congregations were looking for a Church which is inclusive and that they would leave if he went back without this issue having been resolved to enable their church to be an inclusive one.

Where is all this going?  Well, the one thing which has become apparent is that there is no general appetite for a ‘winners and losers’ outcome about this issue.  It may well be that the time is still not right for a clear way forward to be found.  That will frustrate the press (who are back here again in large numbers now that we are on to sex) and those who want a clear resolution.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the Church to absorb the challenges which modernity thrusts at us. The discussions about homosexuality have been going on within the Communion for about 30 years – which feels a very long time. We need to remember however that the Church is still trying to accommodate the theological implications of  a Sun-centered theory of the universe which Galileo posed in about 1610, of Darwin’s theory of evolution from  the 1840s, of the double helix in the 1950s and of Lemaître’s Big Bang theory from the 1920/30s.  Perhaps we need to just allow ourselves the time needed to find a balanced way to accommodate issues in human sexuality, in the same way as we have found ways to accommodate evolutionists and creationists within the theological spectrum which is part of the Anglican identity.

The Archbishop of Burundi started the day with a memorable sermon which ended with the words “…..before the Communion was, I am.”   Whatever comes out of the Conference about these matters, in the end we have been Christ centred in all this and there has been no room for those who would wish to demonise those with whom they disagree.

Lambeth Day 14

30 July 2008

“There are serious issues we are not talking about, that matter far more than homosexuality.” So said a spouse during the Bible Study organised for us all by the Spouses Conference and for which the spouse received sustained applause. The Bible Study drew on the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22) to guide us into addressing the reality of violence towards women and children. We were reminded that, outside of war, women and children are the main victims of violence in the world and much of that violence occurs in the home.

The story of Tamar and her rape by Amnon is seldom read in church and is not in the Sunday lectionary – indeed only about a 20 of the 1100 present had ever heard it read aloud on a Sunday. It is a powerful story and we benefited from a model of study which asked us to place the narrative alongside our own experiences. The small group in which I found myself drew many parallels between the story and our experience in ministry – it really felt a very modern story. I see people scouring the Bible to support their case against any acceptance of homosexuals, but I don’t think that I have heard anyone use this text to ask gospel questions about domestic violence and abuse.  One Bishop observed in the plenary session, “talking about homosexuality may be a way of avoiding the greater problem of heterosexual males behaving badly.”

Although trying to orchestrate the 1100 Bishops and spouses in a Bible Study was no easy task, I thought that the morning was well used and the production by the Riding Lights Company about Jesus’ dealings with women was a powerful and effective way of introducing this very sensitive subject.

Later in the day, the Archbishop, in his second presidential address, posed the question which has been on all our minds “What is Lambeth ’08 going to say?” He suggested that we need to speak form the centre, from our living in and as the body of Christ. He offered two caricatures of the two sides engaged in the debate at the Conference. I thought that they were a helpful way of increasing our understanding of each other and which may lead to a positive response to the Archbishop’s encouragement to step towards each other. He observed “If both were able to hear and to respond generously, perhaps we could have something more like a conversation of equals — even something more like a Church.”

We were encouraged to revisit the concept of ‘covenant’ as a way forward for the Communion and, in the days that are left to us, that will form much of our agenda. My own concern remains that structures can be used negatively when ideas to move the Church forward become a challenge to those who like things just as they are – but I have to admit to being open to persuasion, as where we are, is probably not going anywhere that is productive for God’s mission nor release the potential for mission which is contained within the Anglican Communion.