Living with ambiguity in the Anglican Communion: Archbishop Welby’s Address to the Synod

These are some initial observations on Archbishop Justin Welby’s Presidential Address to the General Synod of the Church of England. He spoke to the synod about the recent Primates’ Meeting in canterbury

Firstly, I was very impressed by his openness. He spoke of the difficulties the Anglican Communion faces, the divisions over issues of sexuality and the nature of marriage. It is hard to imagine such honesty from, say, a pope – even Pope Francis in all his spontaneity. I am impressed by the maturity which seems to exist in Anglicanism. He did not seek to downplay the difficulties, to paper over uncomfortable truths. The Archbishop’s description of the way the Primates washed each others’ feet was also moving. This was a group of men (sadly no women) who met together as Christ’s disciples, seeking to do His will. And they decided to walk together, not to walk apart, despite the cost. The Archbishop spoke of the personal commitment of each Primate to walk together, again a sign of maturity.

That maturity is required in Anglicanism because, as the Archbishop pointed out, the Provinces are bound together in charity, not by legal bonds, not be authority structures. And should that not be how we should be as God’s people?

The Archbishop also spoke of ‘reception’. I think this is an important concept. It was much discussed at the time of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the early 1990s. It is only in retrospect that we can see, not by some legal process but by a developing consensus of the Church, that an innovation is of God. The ordination of women has been received (though it will probably be some time before it is fully accepted), that of lay presidency at the Eucharist has not. We have to live with ambiguity, painful as that sometimes is, in the meantime.

And that is where I want to leave these initial observations. The Archbishop said much else that was good. But to me the living with necessary ambiguity, which is part of the human condition and the Christian life, is a sign of our maturity. Children want certainty. Adults accept ambiguity. Anglicanism chooses adulthood over childhood.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor. 13:11)

Prayers for the dead

I am at an age when I have not had to attend too many funerals. A few contemporaries of mine died in the early 1990s, when people did not infrequently die quite young. And relatives have died after a full life. Most funerals I have attended have been Roman Catholic of High Anglican, with a Requiem Mass and prayers for the dead. This seems natural to me. But I know that many funerals are not like that. I think it is true that they often tend to be either a ‘celebration’ of the person’s life, devoid of Christian content (even if in a church), or rather sentimental affairs. I recall seeing a memorial on a roadside to a young man who had been killed there on his motorbike. He said that this was the place where X ‘ascended into heaven’, which seemed presumptuous. Such sentimental certainly would make any thought of praying for the dead unnecessary, I suppose.

The fact is we do not know the state of the dead, either collectively or individually. Even the Roman Catholic Church, with all its presumptions of certainty, is cautious about what it dogmatically proclaims. The Orthodox Church is even more cautious, though it is open to the idea that hell need not be a permanent state in all cases. On balance, however, I think I find the RC notion of purgatory more comforting than the Orthodox idea of heavenly Toll Houses, which one must pass through, being confronted with a category of sins in each one.

But we do not need to know about the state of dead friends, relatives or strangers to care about them. And to care is to want to pray. The 16th century reformers were uneasy about prayer for the dead, and the whole doctrine of the communion of the saints of which it is a part, because of obvious abuses. But they clearly (to my mind) threw out the baby with the bathwater here. In the Church of England the Guild of All Souls has existed since the 1870s to promote prayer for the dead. It has a Chantry Chapel at Walsingham, employing what must be the only Chantry Priest in the Church of England. I was a member in my younger days, but resigned when I became a Roman Catholic. I will probably rejoin. In any event, it must have been deeply controversial when it was founded. But the 1st World War, with the huge loss of life, transformed English attitudes towards praying for the dead (and such things as spiritualism, too). You do not cease to love someone just because they have died. And prayer for the dead is, as I said earlier natural.

So I commend praying for the dead. And asking them to pray for us, too. Though that is a different issue!

Evangelicals, affirming or otherwise

As a Recovering Anglican, I have a lot of catching up to do on debates, publications, all that sort of things. I will make brief comments on some things which may seem rather dated.

The first is a press release dated 19th November 2014 (so just over a year old) from the Westminster faith Debates. Headed ‘Why unity eludes the Church of England’ it reports an opinion poll of attitudes of Church of England clergy. The bottom line is that about one third of the clergy polled identify as evangelical, and these clergy, especially if they are men, hold not only far less progressive views on matters like LGBT issues, but they are far less willing to compromise, or ‘disagree well’. Professor Linda Woodhead comments:

These findings are both good and bad news for the Archbishop [of Canterbury] – good in that his battle is won with most of the clergy and almost certainly an overwhelming majority of lay Anglicans. Bad, in that there is a significant group of male clergy who do not share his vision for the CofE and the Anglican Communion.

Now Evangelical Anglicanism is a bit of a mystery to me. But I understand it divides between the Conservative Low Church sort of people and the more charismatic Holy Trinity Brompton sort of people. The latter may be more affirming of LGBT people, but anecdotal evidence suggests that stunning homophobia can also be present in such circles too.

Evangelicalism seems to be in the ascendency. This may be just one of the regular pendulum swings. It may be because the Anglo-Catholics were badly divided and beaten by the Ordination of Women. But other factors may be at play here.

Professor Woodhead has done much good work elsewhere in addressing the changes to British society in terms of attitude to religion, and the way it is becoming ‘spiritual not religious’; that is, not hostile to spiritual things, not atheistic, but hostile to structures and institutions.

I would suggest that Evangelicalism has been very good at being countercultural, meeting people where they are, and bringing them to faith. Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, have been preoccupied with navel gazing and internal battles, which seem meaningless to the unchurched. A true Evangelical Catholicism would address this. How? I am not quite sure! Something for further reflection.

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God, by Sarah Coakley (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Sarah Coakley is Norris-Hulse professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and a canon of Ely Cathedral. This book is a collection of essays which have previously appeared elsewhere, and are now ‘lightly revised’. The overarching theme is gender and sexuality – neuralgic issues for Anglicans and other Christians. But I suppose that, unlike Roman Catholics, who, at least officially, bury their heads in the sand about them (which is no cure for neuralgia!), Anglicans are able to have a reasonably mature and sensible debate.

The great thing abbot Professor Coakley’s book is that she takes all strands of Anglican opinion seriously, but is beholden to none of them. Rather she seeks a creative way of cutting through the debates, finding a via media – not so much in terms of a simple midway position between extremes, nor even in terms of a dialectic in the Hegelian sense, using thesis and antithesis to create synthesis 9though there is some of that), but in using new approaches to inject new life into tired old debates. She succeeds marvellously, and I cannot praise this book too much.

Arranged in five chapters – the five original essays – with a substantial introduction, Professor Coakley moves effortlessly and impressively from Gregory of Nyssa to von Balthasar.  A primary aim is to recover the concept of desire. Professor Coakley wants us to understand sexual desire as being really about God and our desire for Him. This enables us to see sex, and God in different tones to those in which Freud painted them. Ultimately it is liberating.

We tend, from our human perspective, to judge that things in heaven are live things on earth. Thus we think of the relationship between Christ and the Church as being ‘like’ a marriage, or the relationship within the Trinity as being ‘like’ human friendship and love. But of course we have this exactly the wrong way around. It is the things of God which are the ultimate realities, and the things of the earth which are ‘like’ them. And it is from the perspective of human marriage being ‘like’ the relationship between Christ and the Church that one must consider the ideas of gender and priesthood. It is from the reality of human desire, sexual or otherwise, being like the inner life of the Trinity that one must consider human sexuality.

Professor Coakley’s strongly Patristic and Trinitarian theology invites us to look in new ways at the causes of the Church’s neuralgia, ways which are theocentric; when too often we look at God in ways which are anthropocentric.

I would like to consider each of the chapters of this book in a separate reflection, as it has so much to say on seemingly incidental matters, such as orientation (in the literal sense – facing east) in prayer. I commend the book to you most heartily. It is Anglican theology at its very best.

Christianity And …

In The Screwtape Letters CS Lewis has the senior devil Screwtape advise his nephew Wormwood that if he cannot stop his Subject becoming a Christian, the best thing is to get him involved in ‘Christianity And’. The ‘And’ can be anything worthy. Screwtape mentions Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order [presumably not the post Ian Curtis Joy Division!], Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. The aim is to keep him from what Lewis (and Screwtape) refer to as Mere Christianity.

The point is that the ‘And’ comes to dominate. Christianity comes to matter only insofar as it promotes the ‘And’. And in the end it matters less and less.

So is this blog about Christianity and Gay Rights, or somesuch thing? I hope not. I think Lewis’s insistence on Mere Christianity is right and important. This blog will consider (I hope) all sorts of things, such as current affairs, books, liturgy, even (heaven forfend) what the General Synod is getting up to. But from the perspective of someone who happens to be a gay Christian.

But isn’t that just as bad? Isn’t it enough to be a Mere Christian, as Lewis would have it, not a gay Christian? Well yes. I am a pretty mere Christian (using mere much as daisy Ashford would, as well as CS Lewis). But being gay does give one a certain perspective. There is also the whole issue of identity. This seems important. It is part of human nature to seek identity, to identify oneself with a group, a gang, a tribe. And that instinct is probably more pressing for those of us who belong to minorities of one sort or another.

So no Christianity And, I hope. But Christianity from an intelligent perspective (I hope) of one whose faith journey has involved coming to terms with his sexuality, and for whom that it is an important part of who he is.

I hope you will join me.

Return to Old Mother Damnable?

So why? Why, after 25 years away from the Church of England (or Old Mother Damnable, as Ronnie Knox used to call her) think about returning?

There is so much behind that sort of decision. And so much that can only be unpicked over time.

Suffice to say that I have travelled a long way since the early 90s, when, in what I thought was a principled stand for apostolic faith and order, but was really about the feared end of a comfy Anglo-Catholic gay ghetto, stamped my feet over women priests and flounced off to the Church of Rome.

I guess I was looking for certainty.

Now I am older. I am probably not much wiser, but I am more tolerant. I see through Roman Catholic ‘natural law’. I see that the arguments used against women priests (the male priest represents the male Christ, married to the female Church) are based on the same outmoded ideas of sexuality and gender that are used to condemn gay people.

The Catholic Church makes victims of women and gay men (and others). But ironically, or hypocritically if you like, it makes use of women and gay men. Without women, the churches would be empty. Without gay men, the priesthood would be, shall we say, much reduced.

But women and gay men are made complicit in their victimhood. They are even told that being a victim (ie being a 2nd class citizen) somehow helps them to mystically share in Christ’s sufferings.

Well it won’t wash anymore.

Now the Anglican position on LGBTI people may be confused. But at least it is an honest confusion. And at least there is an acceptance that there is a debate which needs to take place.

Today the LGBTI Mission has been established in the Church of England to campaign for full inclusion of us LGBTI people in the life of our Church. And that seems reason enough to start this blog, as a place to muse on faith – in the context of being gay.