Tuesday, 27 November 2012

New Found Catherines

I kept St Catherine's Day on Sunday with a votive mass at the 8am (it was the Feast of Christ the King, but then Jesus is such a self-effacing fellow) and then promptly forgot about the Octave until this morning. Anyway. Here are two recently-noted Catherines to mark the season:

This first narrow one comes from St Petroc's Church in Padstow and was spotted by Miss Traves, on holiday a few weeks ago in Cornwall with Dr Bones. Very stately.

While this Catherine appears in a manuscript volume on display in the V&A's medieval galleries. I like the double wheel, you don't see that very often.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Keeping It Together

One of the questions I said the other day that I wanted the majority in the Church of England to answer was, Why are we bothering to accommodate those who are against the consecration of woman as bishops? If we discover answers to that question, more than just the cynical ‘Because we can’t do what we want unless we do accommodate them’, we might be willing to do more actually to make it happen. One of the possible answers is that the antis bring something valuable to the Church which we don’t want to lose, and I’ve been thinking around that over the last couple of days.

Richard Hooker wrote that the three sources of thought on which the Anglican Church relies are Scripture, Tradition and Reason: we were taught that at St Stephen’s House and I trust it gets mentioned in other colleges and training courses too. You can obviously relate these to the three main divisions within the Anglican Church today. Evangelicals place the Biblical documents at the centre of their thinking; Catholics put a strong emphasis on what the Church as a whole has taught across time and geographical distance; Liberals draw lessons from the world they observe and experience to interrogate both the words of Scripture and the tradition of the Church.

All three in their thinking will inevitably get stuff wrong. I am rather a conservative sort of liberal, and so while I support the consecration of women as bishops I can understand the arguments the two sorts of antis, Catholic and Evangelical, are making. I think they are wrong, but possibly that they are wrong for the right reasons. I believe that, in their anxiety to preserve the importance of the Biblical witness, the conservative Evangelicals are misinterpreting that witness; and I also believe that, in their concern to keep Anglicanism linked (at least in the way it looks) with the other bits of Catholic Christianity, the Catholics are overemphasising the wrong parts of that tradition. But their concerns are, at root, sound ones.

My frustration with some, let’s say, less reflective liberal Christians is that they are, conversely, often right for the wrong reasons. It’s perfectly possible to be a Liberal Anglican and have a great concern for Scripture and the Catholic identity of the Church, but too many Liberals seem to sit very light to both, and often not even to understand them. I suspect, as I’ve let on in the past, that there is stuff in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church that we don’t really grasp yet, but that we have to engage with rather than just junk in order to work out what it is that God really wants us to take on board.  The tragedy of schism, of Christians breaking fellowship and ceasing to talk and worship together, is that it makes it less likely that this will happen. When Churches divide and set up new, separate structures, we fall in with the competitive model under which the World operates, not the model of the Kingdom – with all its frustrations. Different sorts of Christians with different biases get nice, comforting, if smaller groupings in which they will only need to deal with people who think the same way they do, and they then compete with each other.

We need to think deeper than just that ‘the Church of England is a broad church and so we want to keep everyone on board’. That’s a weak version of the real situation – which is that precisely because we think differently we need those differences in order to tack towards the truth. You only have to look across the Atlantic to see what happens when Anglicanism blithely severs itself from parts of its identity. Think of Catholics, Evangelicals and Liberals not as ‘bringing different things to the table’, because that image implies that you could, if necessary, live without any of those things (I’m pretty sure my Catholic and Evangelical brethren each believe they could very cheerfully manage without the other two). It pays lip-service to the ideal of unity without really believing that you might be affected, changed, as a result of dealing with those challenging others. Instead, those three elements are like tethers that keep us attached to what are, basically, channels of the Holy Spirit’s teaching us: the Biblical witness to Jesus, the Church’s inheritance of spiritual experience and thinking, and the constant interrogation of both those things by what we actually see and hear around us. We need people who prioritise one or another of those, because our natural human tendency is to downplay the ones we’re less biased towards. And that’s what it is and what makes it so maddening at times – a necessary combination of prejudices.

And why should we bother preserving that? Why not just let one wing or another go off and do their own thing? I believe very strongly that the answer is because the Church of England has, dare I say it, a particular eschatological role. We have, very peculiarly and strangely, developed this mad, frustrating, divided identity – alone among the Churches, at least to this degree. It’s because we are committed to keeping together our connections to those three sources of the Spirit’s guidance that we mediate those other Churches which emphasise one or another. The time will come, I think, when the Church of England will play some deep role in the reunification of the sundered branches of Christ’s Church, and we’ll be able to do it precisely because we’ve kept together internally. Of course God’s plans will happen regardless, but if we actually get in the way of them he’ll be terribly sad …

Maintaining the breadth of the Church of England isn’t just nice if we can manage it. It’s the point of the whole thing. We need those people we disagree with in order to do what God wants of us. None of us, Catholics, Evangelicals, or Liberals, can do it on our own, because we are flawed, limited, biased human beings. And we should be willing to sacrifice virtually anything to keep it.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A Culture of Suspicion!

As light relief to having a go at my own religion, here's a short jab at non-Christianity for a change.

I know a number of people who are vegans and pro-animal campaigners. A short while ago, one of them put up this photo on a well-known social-networking site:

This prompted a lot of discussion, arising out of the quotation in the picture. I can't find the thread now so I can't quote from it, but it was mainly along the lines of how wicked Christianity in particular and religion in general is for promoting exploitation of animals, and, in contrast, how atheism, being natural and rational, promotes instead respect and kindness towards them.

William Ralph Inge? I thought. I recognise that name. He was, it doesn't take long to confirm if you want to, the famous Gloomy Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in the 1910s, 20s and 30s; this quotation is from Outspoken Essays, published in 1922 and based on an earlier lecture.

As always, it only takes a moment to look this up but you have to have a mental culture of suspicion. I suppose it may be having a background in studying history that I automatically want to know the context of any statement or fact I'm presented with, what the qualifications are of the person who is quoted or who reports an event. This is another tiny instance of our willingness not to question or investigate things that conform to our preconceptions, made all the more glaring because of the sad assumption behind it that atheists can't be unkind to animals or Christians promote their welfare.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

And Relax

Yesterday, a day after my birthday, I went out with Ms Narain, Mrs Monday and Mr Valentine to see Caravan Palace at Koko in Camden. I'd never been to Koko - it's a fantastic venue, occupying the old Camden Palace Theatre built in a wonderfully Rococo style in 1900 and now decked out in gold and sumptuous velvety red (actually the walls aren't velvety at all, and instead are painted woodchip, but look velvety). Caravan Palace, the pinnacle of electroswing, were promoting their new album, and while some of the tracks are veering more in the House direction than what I find particularly appealing, it was huge fun - even though our view of anything was blocked by security men of increasing girth as the evening wore on.

I looked down over the balcony at the mass of mainly young, mainly ordinarily-dressed people on the dancefloor below. They were happily bouncing up and down as Caravan Palace thumped away on the stage (in fact Mrs Monday bounced so much she felt sick). I've recently been dipping back into Richard Davenport-Hines's Sex, Death and Punishment which he wrote a few years before his great history of Gothic, and marvelling how, within the last half-century, we have ceased in so many ways to be the vicious, vicitimising culture we once were, wrapping ourselves in fear and lies and hitting out at queers and deviants in our fear and self-deceit. Or at least, we now deem it socially unacceptable to voice such opinions. A mass of young people being happy is not a threat, and how grateful I am to live now rather than then. It is a society from which the influence of the Church has largely been removed, and that's a good thing too. We Christians have connived at the evils society has inflicted on its minorities, and I am grateful that we are being flung to the margins: we deserve it. As all the bullshit about women bishops proves, we still aren't to be trusted, and God needs to purge us a little more yet.

Where to Start?

I went out on Wednesday morning not really wanting to put my collar on. The General Synod's vote against the legislation allowing women to be consecrated bishops made me feel positively ashamed. I hadn't expected that kind of emotion; I find myself the public representative of an organisation whose thinking is not just at odds with that of the society around it, but actually incapable of being explained in terms that society can understand. I wanted to apologise to everyone I met. How can I even begin to explain what this is about, or to relate it to Jesus of Nazareth who I exist to introduce people to?

My reaction was, and remains, frustration that we have to go through all this again at some point in the future. I have used incautious and unpriestly words to describe all the 'this' through which we will be going, such as 'bullshit', and 'crap'. This is because the argument is settled, and what we are debating is how the minorities who dissent from the decision are to be protected: it means Codes of Practice, legal divisions of powers and responsibilities, interpretations of words within documents. It means endless effort to try and link all this in some remote way to the Gospel of the Kingdom we are supposed to be proclaiming. It is not what I want to be doing, not what I want people to ask me about, and not what I want to hear bishops wasting their breath on either.

Yesterday morning I read our church secretary 1Corinthians 11.3-15 and 1Timothy 2.8-14, the core of the Scriptural case against women exercising any authority. Her response was to laugh: the Apostle Paul's arguments about how women should behave don't make any sense to her, don't relate in any way to her experience of living. I asked her what she does when she and her husband disagree over something, and she said he invariably does what she wants: so much for 'male headship'. The truth is that people outside the Church not only think the Church is 'out of date' regarding the role it allocates to women (as though that was itself of any importance), but can't understand the terms in which the argument is couched. There will be some Christians who regard the scorn and derision of secular society as a sign that they are following what is in truth God's will; they are wrong. Sometimes you're a laughing stock not because you're holy, but because you're ridiculous. Jesus's challenge to his world was perfectly clear and explicable; those who turned on him didn't do so because they didn't understand what he was saying but precisely because they did. If people can't work out what you're talking about, perhaps, just perhaps, you ought to start considering whether you're actually saying anything sensible. There are truths buried in those Scriptural passages, of course - how could there not be? But they don't half need a lot of unpacking. In contrast, the trad Anglo-Catholics' basic position - 'The Roman Catholics don't ordain women. We want to be as close to what the Roman Catholics do as possible' - is at least comprehensible, but open to the pretty obvious question, Well, why don't you just become Roman Catholics?

There are plenty of other questions I'd like to ask than that one. I'd like to ask the conservative Evangelicals why exactly they think male headship means that women can't be bishops when it doesn't appear to mean they shouldn't be heads of companies, legal practices, Prime Minister or Head of State? (Of course they used to argue all these things, and use the same passages of the Bible to justify them, but strangely have gone quiet now that it's socially inconvenient to hold such opinions. It is all, I'm afraid, bollocks). I'd like to ask my fellow Anglo-Catholics, including people I actually love, what they think Catholic words like 'obedience' and 'authority' actually mean? Can they really mean insisting that the only people you'll obey will be people you choose to obey on the grounds that they think the same way you do? What kind of obedience is that? Seriously, not facetiously, what kind of Catholics do you think you are?

At the heart of the whole thing is a neglect of the Gospel. Christians are called to follow Jesus to the cross and that actually means sacrifice. It means giving stuff up. It means choosing to be humble, choosing to have your interests neglected, choosing not to fight your corner, choosing to lose, choosing to obey even though the authority figure set over you is clearly an idiot, choosing vulnerability, openness and the possibility of error. It means acting as though we believed that because Jesus died and was raised, so we must die in order to be raised. That the only way to life is through the Cross.

Where is all that? When the pro-women crowd bleats that certain legal safeguards for the antis are incompatible with the dignity of potential women bishops, is that willingness to be nailed to the Cross? When the antis demand that they be shielded from every effect of the change; that there can be women bishops provided their own ecclesial life is fenced off so it can go on completely unaltered, what exactly is being sacrificed there?

Well, we have this ridiculous voting system in the Church of England to ensure that minorities can't be steamrollered, and no other organisation on earth, not even any other Church, works this way. Let's assume it must serve some Godly purpose somewhere and, in that case, let us ask ourselves some more questions.

Let the pro-women bishops party ask: Why should we reconcile the antis? I can think of three answers: Because we promised to; because various things about them are positive and we don't want the Church to lose them; and because Christians breaking relationships with each other is an appalling act which should have us tearing our clothes and weeping. If the answers are anything like that, well, let's get on with it and reconcile and not stand on our dignity.

Let the anti-women bishops party ask: Why the hell should we be accommodated? We lost the argument and in any other organisation would have to put up with the consequences or get out. Why do we deserve any kind of consideration? (Actually I don't see there is any obvious answer to this, other than the three abovementioned, but you're welcome to try and think of one).

Perhaps going some way to answering these questions might lead to some positively Christian conclusions which the uncomprehending world beyond the church door could at least respect.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Justin Welby's sense of the ridiculous is completely incompatible with the dignity of the Archiepiscopal office. Good

One of the nice things about British religion is that nobody goes to church but they still take an unhealthy interest in who the Archbishop of Canterbury is. People have even asked me what I think about Justin Welby, as though it matters at all what I think. So here is what I think.

I think Bishop Welby is about the best we could hope for, given that the tradition in the Church of England, at least since the War, is that the primatial office alternates between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals and that it's the Evos' turn. The previous Evangelical incumbents of the job haven't had a glittering record. When Geoffrey Fisher became ABC in 1944 'evangelicalism' was very much a slumbering force in the Church and so he was more a sort of crusty Low Churchman rather than a tambourine-banger, so you could argue he doesn't count. Nobody remembers who Donald Coggan was, and as for George Carey ... But Justin Welby, converted though he may have been by the great Evangelical hothouse system of Holy Trinity Brompton and its Alpha CourseTM, has some surprisingly unEvangelical aspects to him. He makes a regular confession. He is an oblate of the Order of St Benedict. (He has the customary evangelical's utter lack of aesthetic sense but presumably can get advice on that). He illustrates the fact that the boundaries between the wings of the CofE are no longer as clear as they once were.

There are three things which make me quite hopeful about this new archiepiscopate. Firstly, there is Bp Welby's much talked-about experience in the oil industry. Of course as an industry there is, shall we say, a certain amount of moral ambiguity about the oil business, but it means that he's not been cloistered within the confines of the CofE all his life, and has some relatively recent experience (he's only been ordained three years longer than me) in what we laughingly call the real world. Furthermore, it's a bit of the real world - industry, finance, capitalism in all its glory - which is very relevant currently.

Secondly. There is his experience in the ministry of reconciliation, gained from five years at Coventry Cathedral and trying to get Muslim and Christian Nigerians talking to one another. One might hope that he might even be able to get Christians talking to one another.

Thirdly. He may not be a very archbishoply archbishop. Since the announcement of his appointment, he has:
       - informed a press conference that he is not a horse and that's a really important point to make;
       - Tweeted that he isn't a woman;
       - swapped his mitre for a policeman's helmet at a photo-call.
And over at Heresy Corner the Heresiarch has called attention to his inability to take some of the more bizarre juxtapositions of the Christian religion with entirely po-faced seriousness.
This bodes well because it suggests that Bp Welby is not going to be the kind of person who expects to command and be obeyed.

There are more than just liturgical contrasts between Bp Welby's two predecessors. Abp Carey had had an extremely successful ministry as a parish priest, and was then sucked into the Anglican System as a theological college principal and Bishop of Bath & Wells. Something happened to the priest whose infectious and enthusiastic faith trebled the congregation of St Nicholas's Durham in two years; he became a humourless, sour man bewildered by the refusal of other people to do what he, and as he thought, God, wanted them to. Since retiring he has continued to plough the same furrow, carping, criticising, increasingly a caricature of the bitter Christian pursing his lips at everything the modern world brings. Rowan Williams's great virtue, on the other hand, was to realise that the command-and-control mode simply wouldn't work either inside the Church or regarding the Church's relationship with the world. Instead he wrote simple books and warm mini-lectures (you can find them on Youtube) about trust or holiness and what they might mean. Relinquishing the ambitions of power meant Rowan was bound to disappoint virtually everyone, but that's reality.

It's clear that there are many Anglicans who want Justin Welby to be a sort of Mrs Thatcher in a mitre, writing articles for the Daily Mail about how wicked everything is, shaking his crozier and moaning 'down with this kind of thing'. But I don't think he will be.