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‘That Was The Church That Was’: Review by Richard Ashby


For those not old enough to remember, ‘That Was the Week That Was’  was a satirical television programme of the 1960s, starring David Frost, Millicent Martin, Bernard Levin and Willie Rushton who used their considerable talent and insight to comprehensively demolish the pretensions of the ‘establishment’ as part of the satire boom which also produced the still surviving magazine ‘Private Eye’. As such it was part of the movement which destroyed ‘deference’, one of the elements which has changed the Church of England over the past half century and more as identified by the authors of this entertaining book and which has contributed to its current existential crisis, where lack of direction, different visions of the future, ham-fisted leadership and illusory expectations combine both to alienate the Church from the people and offer most people nothing which will sustain them outside the material world in which most live these days.


Andrew Brown is a distinguished journalist, well known for his writings in both the Guardian and the Spectator, not the most likely of bedfellows. His press column in the Church Times is where I turn first when I get my weekly copy. Linda Woodhead joined the staff of a theological college and was so appalled by what she saw that, in order to understand what was happening, she retrained as a sociologist of religion and now spends a lot of time telling the Church things it doesn’t want to hear and getting scarce thanks for it.


One of the temptations when reading a book of joint authorship is to try and discern who has written what. Here it’s quite difficult. What unites the book is a rather racy style which may well emanate from the journalist in Andrew Brown. The exposure of the outrageous, hypocritical and mendacious behaviour of church people, both lay and ordained, alongside the cool statistical and sociological analysis makes for an entertaining romp while at the same time painting a picture of a Church in deep and probably terminal crisis. Indeed it’s really necessary to read this book twice, in order to separate out the two elements and in order to appreciate the depth to which the Church has sunk.


The book has much in common with ‘A Church at War’ by Stephen Bates, published in 2004, covering much of the same ground, in particular the disastrous Lambeth Conference of 1998. Conservative evangelicals, amply funded and prepared for by US money and manpower simply out gunned and out manoeuvred the more liberal and inclusive Anglicanism of previous generations when, with their African and third world allies, largely bankrolled by US dollars, they pushed through the notorious resolution Lambeth 1.10, which, along with ‘Issues’ has become the touchstone of ‘orthodoxy’ amongst too many Anglican leaders across the worldwide Communion. The farcical scene of the Revd Richard Kirker being exorcised of his homosexuality by an African Bishop only underlined the sense that this had been a coordinated and authorised lynching of gay people within the church.


It’s a pity though that the book seems to stop not much after the installation and the first year or so of Justin Welby’s episcopate. There is nothing about the Church’s reaction to civil partnerships or same sex marriage and the quadruple lock it engineered in parliament to save it from the embarrassment of having to itself prohibit same sex marriage. There is nothing about the disastrous ‘Valentine’s Day Statement’ or indeed the cack-handed reactions of Bishops to the fact of same sex marriage amongst the clergy and their indifference to the laity who wish for the Church’s blessing on their own marriages.


Surrounding this is much anecdote and informed gossip, which makes the book such a romp. (I would love to know what led to the first printing having to be pulped because of the threat of libel action. Just who is it who didn’t want their words or actions disclosed?) The hypocrisy of too many church people, the don’t ask don’t tell culture which gradually became an authorised intrusion into the private lives of honourable men and women, and the compromised and temporising behaviour of too many closeted gay men (and they are almost all men) both clerical and lay was and is a betrayal of all that Anglicanism and especially the Church of England is supposed to stand for.


Two Archbishops particularly get it in the neck. George Carey, chosen by Mrs Thatcher because she liked the alternative even less, presided and connived at Lambeth 1998. Having already decreed that there would never be another bishop like David Jenkins, he presided over an ineffectual so called ‘Decade of Evangelism’ which sent clergy scurrying around for good ideas to get more bums on seats and had no effect whatsoever. Rowan Williams, a good man, perhaps the most spiritual Archbishop the Church has produced for at least two generations and more, chose to put unity before truth, betrayed his friend and his principles. Having failed to prevent exactly the division he feared he retired with relief from the fray, leaving behind an even more fractured, unhappy and divided church; the sacrifice of his friends being to no avail in the end after all.


Alongside this is perhaps the more interesting though more difficult discussion of what went wrong. Church attendance has been declining for the past century and more and no one seems to know what to do about it. Linda Woodhead identifies four linked causes, all basically related to the changes in the society in which the Church is supposed to witness.


Firstly is the decline of deference or paternalism; the idea that there is someone above you who deserves your respect and to whom you instinctively defer. In a society where the individual is king and everyone’s views are equal to everyone else’s, authority figures lose their place. This can be seen in politics and other areas of civic life as well as in the Church. Moreover, against the moralising trend of much of the Church, western peoples have made up their own minds on the issues of the day such as divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, same sex relationships and abortion and the strictures of clerics have had little effect. Linda Woodhead seems to ascribe this decline to societal changes in the 1970s and the onset of Thatcherism and the politics of self-interest. I think it goes back much further, to at least the First World War and the bloody sacrifice of the working class soldiery by their political and military masters. Such attitudes also flourished after the trauma of World War 2 was abating; teenagers, teddy boys and then the satire movement all helped. Who can forget the scornful laughter when the judge asked the jury at the Lady Chatterley trial whether this was a book which their wives and servants should read? Or indeed Alan Bennett’s sermon in Beyond the Fringe, text ‘Now Esau was an hairy man but Jacob was a smooth man’ and the immortal line ‘Life is like a tin of sardines, you are always looking for the key’. This was rather too near the bone to be dismissed lightly.


Secondly, the Church has become increasingly cut off from wider society. The parson is no longer the ‘person’. The more the belief of the religious becomes separated from the society in which it finds itself the more such belief and practice is alien to the majority. Over the years much of the church has become more strident in what it demands in the way of belief. This is particularly evident in churches following the conservative evangelical line and amongst some traditional Anglo Catholics too. Holy Trinity Brompton with its enormously popular (though debatably effective in the longer term) Alpha franchise is an example where commitment and the direct debit might appeal to certain elements amongst the white middle classes and students, but which many find alienating precisely because of its requirement to sign up to its own creeds.


The third element which Linda identifies is ‘theology’ which she defines as ‘how you explain what you are doing, both to yourself and to others’. She doesn’t go into much detail, preferring to say that this is the least important of the three elements she identifies. But I think that this is crucial and I wonder why Linda relegates it to the also ran. My personal view is that it is impossible to be a conventional Christian in the 21st century and that agnosticism is the only honest approach. There is a dichotomy there which should be acknowledged. Scripture and the prayer book contain some lovely language and I believe that Choral Evensong is one of the highest art forms yet devised. But I have to ask what does it mean? Do we honestly believe what the words of the Creed mean? (I always think that it better to sing the Creed as the words take one naturally over the more difficult bits) What is salvation? Indeed what is ‘sin’ apart from a fairly obvious attempt at social control inherent in the Judeo/Christian heritage? In an age lacking deference how can God be the big man in the sky, usually angry and always judgemental? How on earth does anyone of any sensibility believe that the death of Christ on the cross is designed to avert God’s anger from us? ‘Cosmic child abuse’ said Steve Chalke, who instantly became a persona non grata amongst his fellow evangelicals. I almost fell out with a friend on Facebook recently who, attending Evensong for the first time in years, queried why the violent words of a certain psalm set for the day could be used. My attempts to explain history and context failed. Now my friend is the same age as me and has been through the same sort of educational process, but he honestly ‘doesn’t get it’, and indeed why should he?


Fourthly and perhaps as importantly as all the others, is the loss of women. Women have kept the church going, they always have. Away from the high politics of the men it was always the women who kept the show on the road, not only keeping the place clean, organising fetes and sales of work but also in working for the church as missionaries, church workers, teachers, in health care, with children and the vulnerable. They also prayed.


Two things happened. Firstly the welfare state, for which the church had argued and largely supported, removed many of these roles from church affiliation and were secularised. (The same happened with religious orders too of course.) Alongside this, as more and more women entered the workplace so the time and opportunity they might have had for extensive voluntary work became more limited.


Secondly was the battle over women priests and then bishops. The polarization this brought within the Church is difficult to underestimate. While polling showed that there were large majorities within the laity for the ordination of women, for years the activists in synod blocked any movement. While women came to participate fully in social and civic life; so the Church often cruelly and cynically kept them marginalised. The denigration of women was sometimes extreme. I remember being in a disreputable gay bar near London Bridge Station twenty years ago listening to leather clad gay clergy describe their ordained fellow women clergy with contempt and hatred. The result is that the church has lost the next generation of women. Those who remain have failed to bring their daughters and grand-daughters with them. The consequences are extremely serious.


Alongside this is the clericalisation of the Church and the exclusion of the laity from any sort of meaningful participation in the governance of the church by the undemocratic and unrepresentative structures of the Synod. We now have a caste of Bishops lacking vision and indeed theology, whose main aim seems to be to keep the lid on the boiling pot. They cannot act either prophetically or in any progressive way, fearful of leadership because of their fear of the strident opposition of the small minority, and who thus fail to do what they know to be right.


What is to be done? The authors describe some of the attempts made over the years, all to no avail. Carey’s ‘Decade of Evangelism’ along with what they describe as his ‘voodoo’ management changes seems only to be replicated in our current decade by the arch-managerialist Justin Welby. There is no evidence at all that importing discredited management techniques from the oil industry coupled with the development plans which every congregation and diocese is clearly under pressure to devise and implement, will have any effect whatever. The inevitable failure will only further the alienation of the faithful. Furthermore there is no evidence that plans to massively increase the number of the ordained will have anything like the effect desired either, whatever that is.


The majority of the English now have no religion. This doesn’t mean that concepts of spirituality have disappeared. The authors make the very good point that practices such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and Tai Chi are now part of everyday life. Numbers studying religion in schools have rocketed. It is organised religion to which so many are hostile and it is organised religion, as shown in our own Church of England which has lost the English people. Those who would do something about it seem to be planning to turn the Church into a sort of well managed HTB sect. In doing so they will kill it off forever.



That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead. Bloomsbury 2016

“The Church of England still seemed an essential part of Englishness, and even of the British state, when Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979. The decades which followed saw a seismic shift in the foundations of the C of E, leading to the loss of more than half its members and much of its influence. In England today religion has become a toxic brand, and Anglicanism something done by other people. How did this happen? Is there any way back?”



I am indebted to Richard Ashby for this review. He was formerly Head of Libraries and Archives in Bath and North East Somerset. He now lives outside Chichester and is active in the Cathedral there. He is a lifelong member of the Church of England but has spent much of that life clinging on by his fingertips.



Separate Beds And Separate Tables For The Anglican Communion?


Copyright: sutsaiy via Shutterstock. Image ID: 309126473

If asked to describe through an image what it has hitherto meant to be a member of the Anglican Communion, most of us would pick, I think, not the compass rose used by the ACO (from the four corners of the earth) but a version of The Last Supper, at which all of its members are welcome to sit together at The Lord’s Table.

Yesterday, the still new-ish Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a revolution, as he invited the 37 primates to a ‘gathering’ in Canterbury from 11-16 January, 1916. No decennial summer outing, this, but a gathering scheduled between Epiphany and Candlemas, when daylight is at its shortest, and the ground may be under snow. The pathetic fallacy is not always fallacious (hence its ubiquitous use in literature), and the timing is surely a theatrical device designed to set a sombre mood of ‘bleak mid-winter’.

In brief, Archbishop Justin is suggesting that we cease to fall over backwards to hold on to the Anglican Communion as a force seeking to hold everything revolving around the centre (which, had the Anglican Covenant been passed, would have acted as the reference point). Instead, we could aim to be a force seeking to spread out into the world, according to broadly agreed principles (based on the understanding of the Bible by each Church in the Communion). {The Archbishop does not describe it thus, this is my interpretation}.



The immediate press and public reaction is well summarised on Thinking Anglicans. The meeting is to be an opportunity for a “review of the structures of the Anglican Communion.” In an interview with the Anglican Journal, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the invitation was “not a surprise,” and nor was Welby’s stated desire to review the structures of the communion. “He’s been quite open about that from early on.”

 The Guardian ran an article under the headline, “Archbishop of Canterbury urges breakup of divided Anglican Communion,” to which Lambeth Palace responded by tweeting “Just to clarify, the Archbishop of Canterbury is NOT planning to break up the Anglican Communion.” The headline has since been changed. The Guardian reported that the archbishop would propose that the worldwide grouping be reorganized “as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other.” It quoted an unnamed Lambeth Palace source as saying the proposal would allow Welby to maintain relations with both liberal and conservative churches in the Communion, which have been deeply divided over the issue of human sexuality.


Lay Anglicana Interpretation

Bearing in mind that I am writing only 24 hours after the news broke, and reserve the right to change my mind later…

  • This is almost entirely good news for the liberal catholic churches in the Communion.
  • All those Churches who self-identify as Anglican will be invited to be in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, should they so wish, but would still be able to call themselves Anglican if they did not so wish; the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury would derive solely from his occupation of the post and buildings which were the first so to call themselves, and the bilateral relations between the Church of England and each other Anglican Church would be fluid and determined solely by the two parties.
  • The Anglican Communion would no longer be recognisable as we currently know it: not only are separate bedrooms and beds being talked of by the archbishop’s spokesman, but separate tables would logically follow, and some would eat in the dining room, some in the kitchen, some off their knees in the drawing room, and some on the verandah – as in my illustration.
  • This loose federation  would allow like-minded Anglicans across the world to form loose alliances – not necessarily de jure, but de facto.
  • The Church of England would finally be enabled to consider issues like the admittance of LGBT people to the priesthood and episcopate, and same sex marriages, without feeling constrained by the views of GAFCON etc.
  • Members of The Episcopal Church have expressed disquiet over the invitation of ACNA to at least part of the 2016 conference. As the Anglican Communion is presently constituted, this is indeed odd: only TEC officially represents Anglicans from the US. For the sake of consistency, it is to be hoped that Archbishop Justin has also invited AMiE, which represents a similar threat to the hegemony of the Church of England. But, if the looser, federated, Anglican Communion is accepted, any number of groups might spring up which describe themselves as Anglican – it would not matter to the rest because we would not be obliged to agree detailed doctrine with each other. Breakaway groups would be allowed to form ad infinitum.
  • The loose federation envisaged by Archbishop Justin is not a new idea – so far as I can see it represents a return to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/8 which includes”The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.” This consummation, devoutly to be wished, has long been called for by Lay Anglicana, most recently in November 2013.



What could possibly go wrong?

I leave it to you, dear readers, to fill in this section. The archbishop’s spokesman is said to regard a successful outcome as by no means guaranteed. Luckily, the Archbishop of Canterbury spends much of his day in prayer.




Westminster Faith Debates, Unity and Diversity: by Erika Baker





A purely subjective account


I had been really looking forward to the Westminster Faith Debate “Diversity – what kind of unity is appropriate nationally and internationally, how can diversity become a strength?”, the penultimate one in this year’s series organised by Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster University.


The format of the debates is a 5 minute talk by each of the panellists followed by a brief moderated discussion between them, which is really more a question and answer format than a genuine conversation between the speakers. There is then a period for contributions from the floor and slightly longer contributions from the designated provocateurs.


I won’t summarise all the contributions here, they can shortly be listened to here, and Colin Coward published a very good summary of them here  .


Laura has asked me for a “smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd” contribution… well, the first thing to say is that there was indeed a full crowd, plenty of spontaneous applause (as well as the customary “end of speech” version) and that there were many interesting questions raised by various people in the audience.


The first speaker was Bishop Trevor Mwamba from Botswana, now Assistant Bishop in Chelmsford. I must confess, I had not heard of Bishop Trevor before and my initial suspicion was “an African bishop, well, we can guess where this is going”. I was delighted when Bishop Trevor spoke warmly about embracing diversity, and I also felt hugely ashamed of my completely unfounded original prejudice. SUCH a dangerous thing, suspicion and prejudice, and although I try so hard to be genuinely open to everyone, I still catch myself out every now and then.


It made me think that much of our debates around women bishops and about lgbt inclusion is characterised by mutual suspicion.


That perception was reinforced when the discussion was opened up to the floor and the first question was for a show of hands about whether the audience believed that the vote on women bishops had been a success and that it would provide stability and unity in difference. The vast majority voted “yes”, but I sensed with great hesitation, and if we had known that there would be a third option “we don’t know yet”, many of us would probably have voted for that. Talking to people afterwards, it was clear that traditionalists weren’t sure that the promises given to them would be kept indefinitely, whereas the women were still shocked by the complete lack of joy and celebration in General Synod after the final vote in favour and felt that there was still a very long way to go before the church truly celebrated women’s ministry.


One of the key comments for me came from Miranda Threlfall-Holmes who said that when she had first been one of those who came up with the idea of “mutual flourishing” it had been intended to be not a legalistic but a relational concept whereby we are each committed to the flourishing of the other. Since then, the term had morphed to mean “my right” to “my own flourishing”.

It is not clear to me why we can’t have both, why a focus on someone else’s flourishing is seen as threatening my own rights and place. And for me our inability to say not “either/or” but “both” will remain one of the great mysteries of our church debates. But if we could do what Miranda proposes, if we could focus on relationships and on the flourishing of the other, we would be a good deal further on than we are.


The actual debate was incredibly polite and measured, to the point that Simon Sarmiento criticised the panellists for being too nice to each other.


Someone from the floor commented that people tend to be nice when they meet face to face but that they can be quite vicious online.


Yes…. but no. It’s not the tone of the debate that’s the problem but its content. Anger and insults are as counterproductive as this appalling ice cold, dismissive politeness that so often characterises our conversations. Last night’s debate was perfectly polite but also, at some level, perfectly bland. I suspect it’s partly the format of the moderated panel discussion that does not allow a robust debate to develop. All anyone can do is to disagree politely and there is no mechanism and no time for teasing out the root of disagreement and of engaging with that passionately.


For me, coming from the lgbt sector, there is the added frustration of this huge imbalance of power, because my views about my own life still count for nothing in the church. We are still not formally included in the next round of discussions, which feels like yet again others talking passionately about us behind closed doors, reserving the right to make decisions on our behalf.

Having heard David Porter speak, I do believe that if anyone can make a go of guiding the conversations in the church, it is him. He has a sense of urgency and an appreciation of the difficulties on all sides. And yet, suspicion remains my overriding emotion.


This was encapsulated perfectly by a passionate contribution from the floor from a woman who had the courage to make the debate personal and who started by saying that God clearly had a sense of humour, making her female, gay and evangelical! She asked about the reality of lgtb suffering in the church and at the hand of church. And while there was passionate applause for her and some very heart-felt comments from the panellists, especially from Alan Wilson and Miranda, Andrew Symes from Anglican Mainstream acknowledged that Christian demands weren’t always easy for people and that one had to have compassion, but that one nevertheless had to draw lines…and we were back in the “head space”, the territory of supposedly purely theological and rational debate about us, where people take ownership of their ideas but no responsibility for the impact these ideas have on real people’s lives. And we just have to sit back and trust these people to decide our future in the church… not easy!


Fascinating also how we all hear each other’s contributions in our own way, reinforcing our own thoughts.

Miranda spoke very clearly about the problems presented by the bible, about how the historical texts get many things wrong, about the various theologies and the diversity within its many books.

Andrew, in his final summing up, commented that one of the things he had heard that evening was that people had problems with the bible. He stressed that he didn’t have any, his church didn’t have any.

And it was clear that had heard what Miranda had said as a liberal admission of confusion rather than complexity, and of not taking the bible seriously.

We have this inability to truly hear what the other is saying and we only ever seem to reinforce our own stereotype of their views.


How can one break through this?

For a possible approach we could turn to the women bishops debate and the almost hopeless situation after the first vote was lost in General Synod. There seemed no way out, everything had been said, people were talking at each other rather than with each other, there was a sense of fatigue, and one could almost believe that it would be impossible to break the deadlock.

Yesterday, David Porter talked about that moment and about the facilitated conversations that followed.

At the start of the subsequent facilitated conversations he asked everyone to take half an hour to think about how the debate so far had impacted on them.

And everyone replied that it had damaged their souls.

With that common experience, that shared admission at the heart of the issue, it became possible to find a new way forward.

Of course, women were eventually an official part of the debate about women bishops in the House of Bishops as well as in the House of Clergy and the House of Laity, whereas lgbt people are still not properly represented in the official process. It matters, because until you can hear everyone’s voices you cannot reach a stable solution. And it matters, because while we are not included, we remain on the outside, firmly and increasingly suspicious.


But we are where we are and this is the point from which we must move forward.

So maybe it’s time to do the same in the lgbt debate. It’s time for all of us accept not only our own hurt but that we are all damaged by this discussion, and that we must find a way forward. For our sakes, for the sake of those who oppose us and for the sake of the whole church. And if official church won’t include us in its conversations, we have to continue to shout loudly from the sidelines.


The diversity is already there. We don’t need to talk about whether we can have it or not. We need to recognise it honestly and find an honest and open way of living with it.

How could that be possible? Maybe we have discussed the morality of same sex relationships to death. We won’t agree and it’s time to shift the focus. It’s time to recognise that all sides in this debate hold their views with sincerity, integrity and great faith. If we could learn to respect each other and to recognise each other’s integrity, we could follow Alan Wilson’s practical and thoroughly scriptural proposal and recognise that Romans 14 requires us to live with diversity and that it provides a blueprint for how this is possible.


Can we do that?

Yesterday’s debate didn’t offer an answer, but it did offer some small measure of hope.


 Note by editor:

-Thank-you Erika – you have brilliantly filled the gap that I was feeling. Like many people, I have been avidly listening to the podcasts and reading the Facebook discussions arising from the debates in this series. What I was really missing was the camaraderie, the human exchanges and this piece really transports me and our readers to the debating chamber

-Attempting to find a copyright-free illustration to this post, I have taken a snapshot of the blog page on the Westminster Faith Debates website, which I think and hope does not transgress copyright law. But if anyone objects, I will of course remove it.



The ABC And The ABC Of The Anglican Communion

Rockefeller Centre NYC Atlas

Rockefeller Centre NYC Atlas

The Vortex

 Anyone who saw the Archbishop of Canterbury carry a wooden cross through the streets of Dover on Good Friday can be in little doubt that he feels genuine anguish at the agony the Anglican Communion perceives itself to be in, apparently incapable of resolution. On the one hand are the GAFCON countries, as convinced of the moral rectitude of their own position as any Pharisee; on the other are the rest of us, who find Galatians a better guide to Christianity than Leviticus.

On 4 April, somewhat unfortunately juxtaposed with his visit to The Episcopal Church, Archbishop Justin took part in a phone-in on LBC:

A subsequent report in the Daily Telegraph said:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested he is powerless to provide blessings for gay marriages because to do so would split the global Anglican Church.  In an interview with The Telegraph, the Most Rev Justin Welby says that the Church had probably caused “great harm” to homosexuals in the past — but there was not always a “huge amount” that could be done now to rectify the situation. Although indicating that he was sympathetic to calls for the Church to publicly honour gay relationships, the Archbishop says that it is “impossible” for some followers in Africa to support homosexuality. In the interview, the leader of the Anglican Church, which has 77 million followers globally, speaks movingly of the persecution faced by Christians in parts of the world. He indicates that the Church must not take a step that would cut off these groups, most of them in the third world, however much this angers parts of society in Britain…“I do believe passionately that unity is something we have to maintain,” the Archbishop said privately soon afterwards. “I may be wrong, but I also believe that to take a step that means that people who desperately need our help — and who we can help — can’t take it, feel in their own culture that it is impossible to be helped by us, is something that we can’t easily do.”
Interview in the Telegraph, 18 Apr 2014

Possibilities for Reconciliation

Church leaders, when faced with an intractable situation, are given to dumping the whole problem on God, and asking Him to to sort things out. Sometimes, though, one senses that God’s response is to decline to accept, and kindly but firmly return the problem to us. One reason may be that he wants us to come up with a third possibility, to think again. For one thing:

“If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family – anything you like – at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.”
C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

Send for a child of five

Imagine that you are faced with a set of impenetrably difficult assembly instructions from IKEA. What do you do? Well, for Groucho Marx the solution was:

A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five. 

A child of five might suggest the following:

The Anglican Communion is not a Church, it is a loose association of Christian churches which were set up by the Church of England in British colonies around the world two or three hundred years ago and which have since developed through the work of the Holy Spirit and according to the characteristics of the country in which they were implanted. Rather as the Queen has the courtesy title of ‘Head of the Commonwealth’, the Archbishop of Canterbury of the day is primus inter pares of all Anglican bishops. He is not the ‘head of the Anglican Church’, for there is no such thing.

What’s the problem? Each province is entitled, and has always been entitled, to interpret Christianity in the way that seems right in their own circumstances.

Er, that’s it.

Peaceful co-existence or mutually assured destruction

The Churches of the Anglican Communion are essentially faced with this choice. Either we try and follow Krushchev’s policy introduced in 1956 at the 20th Congress of the CPSU or those of us on the sidelines, powerless to halt our leaders from taking us into the vortex through their intransigence, are in little doubt that the alternative is mutually assured destruction. And all for the want of a child of five.

Creation or Evolution?: Colin Coward


Spring is in the air in the Church of England. Although we sometimes wonder if we are imagining it, there are enough signs in different quarters that ‘Aslan is on the move’ for us to dare to hope that we are not.

This is the first half of a blog post written by the Revd Colin Coward on Changing Attitude this morning, which I am reblogging on Lay Anglicana as it is important that it should reach as wide an audience as possible. I urge you to visit the site to read the rest of it.
Colin Coward, April 19th, 2013

I woke feeling excited this morning. I sat at 06.15 gazing through my east-facing window at a sensational sunrise, the sky ripped open to reveal azure blue through the ruptured clouds, as I ate muesli and drank leaf Darjeeling tea.

The sunrise enhanced my excitement. I know from the various conversations I had yesterday, with members of the LGB&T Anglican Coalition, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jo Bailey Wells, the Archbishop’s chaplain, David Porter, the Director of Reconciliation, briefly with John Lee, Canon Phil Groves and David Chillingworth, Primus of Scotland, even more briefly on a bus with Chris Smith, and at length with Andrew Goddard, that things are in flux at the moment. There is movement and potential. Change is in the air.

In certain directions, things may look bad – the Men and Women in Marriage report. In other directions, things are moving, conversations are happening, representations are being made. Behind the scenes, in private conversations, far more is happening than breaks the surface into news media. Events (dear boy) will continue to destabilise those who fantasise about being in control of the process of dealing with LGB&T people in the Church and cause ruptures in the most carefully prepared and managed plans. Evolution, in short, continues.

Having been transfixed by the sunrise I lowered my eyes to Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. I’ve reached page 213, and suddenly, de Chardin’s narrative, which I had found rather plodding to that point erupted into visionary excitement.

I worry a lot, and so do the people who comment on Twitter, Facebook and the Changing Attitude web site, as to whether the Church ‘gets it’. Whether the Church even remotely understands my experience and the experience of LGB&T people lay and ordained, who are often at their wits end in reading about and dealing with their experience of Church. Teilhard de Chardin convinced me once again to stop worrying – the Church WILL get it. Of course it will, there’s no escaping the evolutionary processes of God.

And I am blessed, I live and work and move among people who ‘get it’, often at a profound level – people living into the new paradigm, new, passionate visions of God.

Writes de Chardin in 1948:…. [read more here]

Open Letter To The Bishop Of Birmingham: Chris Fewings

Dear Bishop David

I am writing this as an open letter from a half-faithful irregular worshipper delighted by the hospitality of various parishes in your diocese which welcome me as a fringe member. It will be published on the web. I would like to publish your reply but will only do so with your express written permission. However, I will let people know whether I receive a substantive reply.

I would like to thank you for your openness in calling a public meeting in Birmingham Cathedral just after the Synod vote on the gender of bishops. It was good to hear individual clergy and laity freely expressing their views and feelings.

In my view the ‘official’ Church of England (represented by Tim Stevens and anonymous press statements from Church House) is making a fool of itself on the subject of gay relationships, willing to sacrifice the innocence of gay couples who simply wish to celebrate their love openly and unequivocally before God and their community. (I welcome Tim Stevens’ strong statement on homophobia to the House of Lords, but in the current context it will not be heard.)

And yet these official pronouncements do not represent the range of opinions among Anglican clergy, laity and even bishops in this country. They are not even consistent with the known views of Rowan Williams. They show a woeful ignorance or ignoring of the history of marriage. The Bishops of Buckingham, Salisbury and Grantham have made their alternative views known, although to my knowledge among serving bishops only Alan Wilson has spoken out repeatedly, and Nicholas Holtam is the only serving diocesan to have raised his head above the parapet in recent years. Richard Harries assures us that others in the House of Bishops dissent but dare not speak their minds. What is stopping them?

In the past some de facto marriages (such as that between Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten) could flourish privately in a culture of secrecy. It may be that some gay bishops and others still see such secrecy as a protection against homophobia. In a society whose culture and legal framework has changed hugely since the bishops (and I) were growing up, to most people now secrecy seems like an undermining of loving commitment and an endorsement of homophobia. My impression is of a powerful lobby determined to create the public perception that the Church of England regards same-sex unions (however committed and long-term) to be at best second-rate or suitable only for non-Christians – and generally they are succeeding, as most non-Anglicans probably now assume this is how we all think.

I would like to hear every bishop tell his own story. How does each of you interpret scripture? Have your views of human sexuality changed over the last few decades, a period of intense study and re-evaluation of sex and gender issues in the fields of psychology, biblical studies, and cultural history? Could some bishops (of whatever orientation) tell us how they were called to celibacy in the service of Christ? How do they experience love and joy and pain in that context? Surely such stories would be a witness to love.

It seems to me that the silence of individual bishops promotes a simple message to those outside the churches: Christians oppose gay relationships. The nuances of stances within and between churches are lost. And opportunites to nurture life-long loving relationships (including those of many couples who are very active members of the Church of England) are missed. To be a locus of unity in the Anglican tradition surely implies acknowledging the diversity within that unity.

If silence is the best policy, are you free to explain why?

Wishing every joy of the last week of Epiphany as the light bursts into our world once again

Chris Fewings

The illustration is a statue of Bishop Charles Gore, the first Bishop of Birmingham, uploaded to Wikimedia by  oxyman

Men in Pink: The Church of England’s Gay Bishop Decision: Taylor Carey



One of the joys of the holidays is to wake up mid-way through the Today programme rather than at its opening six bleeps; the headline summary luxuriously accompanied by maternally-provided coffee and the gradual rediscovery of whatever book I fell asleep reading the night before.  Yesterday’s news that the church had lifted the moratorium on gay bishops thus proved the most effective alarm clock I’ve experienced in quite some time.

On 20th December 2012, the House of Bishops (the Episcopal portion of Synod responsible for church teaching) heard an interim report from a group set up in 2011 to consider ‘the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality’. The panel, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, continues to consider a wide range of issues concerning civil partnerships, in the wake of a moratorium imposed on the elevation of homosexual clerics to the episcopate after conservatives threatened schism in 2011. One of its key reference points is the pastoral statement which the House of Bishops promulgated in 2005 in response to the Civil Partnership Act. The document decreed that, whilst homosexual clergy were free to enter into civil partnerships, the church’s teaching remained that ‘sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings’.  Therefore homosexual priests, denied the institution of marriage, were expected to remain celibate. Quite how this applied to bishops was left unspoken and unclear, not least due to a perception that the issue would be fatally weakening for an already fractured church.

The 2011 freeze on gay bishops effectively promulgated the already implicit doctrinal stance that civil partnerships – or even homosexuality more generally – were incompatible with episcopacy. The December announcement effectively marks a rejection of this tacitly accepted position in confirming that

‘the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate’.

In other words, the House of Bishops appear to have aligned themselves with the view that civil partnerships need not be a bar to the episcopate for homosexual clergy who wish to live a companioned life and enjoy a legally recognised relationship, albeit on the condition of continued celibacy. The standards imposed on priests across the church can now be applied to and expected of those who lead them. As the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, stated:

‘The House has confirmed that clergy in civil partnerships, and living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate. The House believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline’.

Of course ‘the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics’ is, for homosexuals, far from clear. After considerable debate during the 1970s and 1980s, the House of Bishops produced Issues in Sexuality in 1991, which broadly affirmed the moral legitimacy of the homosexual orientation, whilst concomitantly opposing sexual intimacy outside of a heterosexual marital arrangement (see a useful discussion document here). But the dominance of anti-inclusive voices in the wake of the publication of Issues in Sexuality was made shockingly visible in 2003, when the Rev Dr Jeffrey John, besieged by a tirade conservative evangelical opposition, was forced to withdraw his candidacy for the bishopric of Reading. John, although living with a partner, remained faithful to the standards decreed in 1991; a fact that was well known in 2003. Yet the prospect of gay bishops quickly invoked ‘culture wars’ in the Church of England, fuelled by a language of mistrust which found an echo in the response of conservative evangelical groupings to yesterday’s announcement.

The mainstream media were quick to pick up on a narrative of injustice, inequality and exclusion. Giles Fraser’s valiant charge against the grotesque Lynette Burrows on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday PM (exchange begins at 18 minutes) made for amusing but also frustrating listening. The former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral is, in my opinion, correct to bemoan the church’s stance on homosexuality as a travesty – and to acknowledge that there is very little by way of sound theological argument against homosexual bishops – yet I can’t help but feel that we are seeking a scandal where there isn’t one. The House of Bishops hasn’t promulgated any further inequalities; it has actually lifted at least one – the exclusion of gay men from the episcopate.  I stand very much dissatisfied with the inequalities which remain – the exclusion of women, the continuing inequality between the enforced celibacy of homosexual clergy and the freedom of sexual expression of heterosexual clergy – but these have not been uniquely generated by the decision taken by the House of Bishops in December.  Indeed, yesterday’s announcement marks a cautious step in the right direction.

So where does that leave us? In the short term, pending further clarification from the House of Bishops, who are due to vote on the final report delivered by Sir Joseph Pilling later this year. But if the message emerging from yesterday marks a genuine change of direction, then prospects are looking up for a Rt Rev Dr Jeffrey John sometime soon. And, as we say a fond farewell to perhaps the most iconic and inspirational gay cleric the Anglican Communion has ever had, in the form of Gene Robinson, that might just constitute a ray of light appearing on the horizon.

The situation seems ripe for yet another reproduction of one of my favourite hymns by Donald MacLeod:

‘Courage, brother! Do not stumble,

though your path be dark as night;

there’s a star to guide the humble:

trust in God and do the right.

let the road be rough and dreary,

and its end far out of sight;

foot it bravely; strong or weary:

trust in God and do the right.’


The illustration is by Toby Melville courtesy of  Reuters, via The Guardian article by Riazat Butt on 29 July 2008

The Tipping Point?


Many of those in the pews share my perception (until now) of the Church of England as a monolith not unlike Kafka’s castle:

The narrator, K, arrives in a village governed by a mysterious bureaucracy that resides in a nearby castle.  An official named Klamm tells K he will inform the Council Chairman of K’s arrival. This Council Chairman then tells K. that, through a mix up in communication between the castle and the village, his presence was requested by mistake, but offers K instead the position of caretaker. Meanwhile, K, unfamiliar with the customs, bureaucracy and processes of the village, continues to attempt to reach Klamm, which the villagers regard as strongly taboo. The villagers hold the officials and the castle in the highest regard, justifying their actions even though they appear not to know what the officials do.  Assumptions and justifications concerning the officials and their dealings are set out in lengthy monologues by the villagers. Everyone has their own explanation for the actions of any particular official, but these are all founded on assumptions and gossip. Actions by the officials are often impenetrable and contradictory, but the villagers continue to praise the officials who, in their eyes, can do no wrong. The castle is the ultimate bureaucracy with copious amounts of paperwork that the bureaucracy maintains is “flawless”. This flawlessness is, of course, an illusion; it was a flaw in the paperwork that erroneously brought K to the village… The castle’s occupants appear to be all adult men…

In the case of the Church, it is the chancel steps which divide ‘castle’ and ‘village’. The castle-dwellers, with all the advantages of possessing the hill-top known to combatants of old, let loose well-aimed arrows at those in favour of women bishops, the autistic,  members of the LGBT community and others in unproductive marriages (presumably including the childless).


But this may all be about to change? Like a butterfly beating its wings in the Amazonian jungle,  scattered and puny efforts by  hundreds and thousands of individuals seeking a rainbow Church, in which all of God’s creation is welcomed into a loving, inclusive Body of  Christ may, just may, be about to bear fruit. As we look back in years to come, I think Bishop Nick Holtam’s interview will stand out as the moment that the tide finally turned. Also important, however, in the same week (just before General Synod) was  a group of clergy in the Diocese of London signing a letter calling for the Church of England to reverse its ban on civil partnership ceremonies being held in churches.


I won’t quote Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem ‘say not the struggle naught availeth‘ yet again (though it may tempt you to follow the link if I tell you the lines are spoken by Paul Scofield with ‘Nimrod’ in the background). Instead, I offer a short extract from the lyrical description of the end of winter and the reign of the White Witch  in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’:

Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller…soon, wherever you looked, instead of white shapes you saw the dark green of firs…then the mist turned from white to gold and presently cleared away altogether. Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down on to the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree-tops. Soon there were more wonderful things happening…he noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree – gold and purple and white. Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree…’This is no thaw’, said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. This is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan‘s doing.’


If we are to have a Spring in the Anglican Church, it will not be like the October Revolution of 1917: I foresee no storming of Lambeth Palace, its residents may be relieved to hear. The nature of the revolution (and, if it comes, it will be a revolution, not a mere revolt) is more akin to the wisdom of the Eastern book, the I Ching: The overlapping hexagrams 39 and 55 read:

“An obstruction that lasts only for a time is useful for self-development. That is the value of adversity…the obstruction is overcome not by pressing forward into danger, nor by idly keeping still, but by retreating, yielding…water on the top of a mountain cannot flow down in accordance with its nature, because rocks hinder it. It must stand still. This causes it to increase, and the inner accumulation finally becomes so great that it overflows the barriers. The way of overcoming obstacles lies in turning inward and raising one’s own being to a higher level.”


I pay tribute to my fellow-campaigners, who have almost universally had the spiritual strength not to storm the barricades, but to retreat and yield until the water should reach a higher level. But has that moment finally come? Is it premature to dream of singing in unison Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy‘ (which needs liberating from its EU national anthem status to an expression of heavenly ecstasy as intended)? Will Hyde Park be big enough to contain us all for a big sing, do you think?

Well, Are You Your Brother’s Keeper?

Tomorrow, January 27th, has been held as Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK since 2001. This is a message recorded by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, to mark the day. You can read it in full, together with some background here. For once, I am in complete agreement with ++Rowan about the message, ‘Speak Up and Speak Out’, but we differ in our interpretations.

Although I am neither a woman priest who is called to be a Bishop, nor a member of the LGBT community seeking acceptance in an Inclusive Church, I will, in the words attributed to Voltaire, defend to the death the rights of women priests and the LGBT community to be fully accepted into a loving and inclusive Anglican Church.


In 1933, Martin Niemoeller, a leader of the Confessing Church, voted for the Nazi party. By 1938, he was in a concentration camp. After the war, he is believed to have said:

“In Germany, the Nazis came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me.”


A similar point is made by Maurice Ogden in his poem, “The Hangman.” Though it may be doggerel, this is a chilling poem, made all the more thought-provoking  by the memorable accompanying film. If you can spare it, this is well worth ten minutes of your time, though I do not guarantee you an unclouded night’s sleep afterwards.


Into our town the Hangman came, Smelling of gold and blood and flame–
And he paced our bricks with a diffident air And built his frame on the courthouse square.
The scaffold stood by the courthouse side, Only as wide as the door was wide;
A frame as tall, or little more,Than the capping sill of the courthouse door.
And we wondered, whenever we had the time, Who the criminal, what the crime,
That Hangman judged with the yellow twist of knotted hemp in his busy fist.
And innocent though we were, with dread We passed those eyes of buckshot lead;
Till one cried: “Hangman, who is he For whom you raise the gallows-tree?”
Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye, And he gave us a riddle instead of reply:
“He who serves me best,” said he,“Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree.”
And he stepped down, and laid his hand On a man who came from another land.
And we breathed again, for another’s grief At the Hangman’s hand was our relief.
And the gallows-frame on the courthouse lawn By tomorrow’s sun would be struck and gone.
So we gave him way, and no one spoke,Out of respect for his hangman’s cloak.
The next day’s sun looked mildly down On roof and street in our quiet town
And, stark and black in the morning air,The gallows-tree on the courthouse square.
And the Hangman stood at his usual stand With the yellow hemp in his busy hand;
With his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike And his air so knowing and businesslike.
And we cried: “Hangman, have you not done,Yesterday, with the alien one?”
Then we fell silent, and stood amazed:“Oh, not for him was the gallows raised…”
He laughed a laugh as he looked at us:“…Did you think I’d gone to all this fuss
To hang one man? That’s a thing I do To stretch the rope when the rope is new.”
Then one cried “Murderer!” One cried “Shame!”And into our midst the Hangman came
To that man’s place. “Do you hold,” said he,“With him that’s meant for the gallows-tree?”
And he laid his hand on that one’s arm,And we shrank back in quick alarm,
And we gave him way, and no one spoke Out of fear of his hangman’s cloak.
That night we saw with dread surprise The Hangman’s scaffold had grown in size.
Fed by the blood beneath the chute The gallows-tree had taken root;
Now as wide, or a little more,Than the steps that led to the courthouse door,
As tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,Halfway up on the courthouse wall.
The third he took – and we had all heard tell –Was a usurer and infidel, And:
“What,” said the Hangman, “have you to do With the gallows-bound, and he a Jew?”
And we cried out: “Is this one he Who has served you well and faithfully?”
The Hangman smiled: “It’s a clever scheme To try the strength of the gallows-beam.”
The fourth man’s dark, accusing song Had scratched out comfort hard and long;
And “What concern,“ he gave us back,“Have you for the doomed – the doomed and black?”
The fifth. The sixth. And we cried again:“Hangman, Hangman, is this the man?”
“It’s a trick,” he said, “that we hangmen know For easing the trap when the trap springs slow.”
And so we ceased and asked no more,As the Hangman tallied his bloody score;
And sun by sun, and night by night,The gallows grew to monstrous height.
The wings of the scaffold opened wide Till they covered the square from side to side;
And the monster cross-beam, looking down,Cast its shadow across the town.
Then through the town the Hangman came And called in the empty streets my name.
And I looked at the gallows soaring tall And thought: “There is no left at all
For hanging, and so he calls to me To help him pull down the gallows-tree.”
And I went out with right good hope To the Hangman’s tree and the Hangman’s rope.
He smiled at me as I came down To the courthouse square through the silent town,
And supple and stretched in his busy hand Was the yellow twist of them hempen strand.
And he whistled his tune as he tried the trap And it sprang down with a ready snap –
And then with a smile of awful command He laid his hand upon my hand.
“You tricked me, Hangman!” I shouted then,“That your scaffold was built for other men….
And I no henchman of yours,” I cried.“You lied to me, Hangman, foully lied!”
Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye:“Lied to you? Tricked you?” he said, “Not I
For I answered straight and I told you true:The scaffold was raised for none but you.
“For who has served me more faithfully Than you with your coward’s hope?” said he,
“And where are the others that might have stood Side by your side in the common good?”
“Dead,” I whispered; and amiably “Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me;
“First the alien, then the Jew…I did no more than you let me do.”
Beneath the beam that blocked the sky,None had stood so alone as I –
And the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there Cried “Stay!” for me in the empty square.



Do visit Emma Major’s blog of today called ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’ on Holocaust Memorial Day. You may also like to visit the Holocaust Memorial Day website, whose theme this year is ‘Speak Up, Speak Out.


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