I really enjoyed your honest reflections in The Times on Sunday April 17th in the light of your retirement this week. I felt as though I ought to respond in the second person, writing to you rather than writing about you, for several reasons. First, we are fellow clergy in the Church; we have taken the same vows, and to that extent share the same call to ministry, so surely we ought to be able to talk to each other, and not (as many seem to these days) talk about each other.
I suppose I feel I know you a little too. Like many, your lyrical wit has become part of our weekly routine, as we have breakfast in bed, read The Week, and listen to Saturday Live on those Saturdays when my wife doesn’t have an additional morning surgery (which seem to have become more frequent of late). A few years ago she heard you speak at Greenbelt, and found your testimony of coming to faith both engaging and compelling. We consistently appreciate the way, in your interviews, you grant your guests the grace of attention and interest, entering empathically into their stories and experience. And, though we have not yet met in person, we have had some unusually respectful exchanges online about the C of E and the vexed question of sexuality—unusual in the sense that people like us, sitting at different ends of the debate, don’t often have that kind of exchange. I still hope that, one day if you are passing up the M1, we might turn it into a conversation—though perhaps sitting in the garden drinking tea might be easier. You would be very welcome to do either, and I think you might enjoy the roses here. And, as it turns out, we appear to be the same age.
And, of course, you have written so movingly of your grief at the loss of your partner David—though that does not allow me to know you any better than your other readers.
But I wanted to write to you because your article says some important things about ministry and the future of the Church—but also raises things that need more reflection.
You articulate with honesty the challenges faced by many clergy during lockdown. I was delighted to hear that you ignored the foolish and over-reaching ‘guidance’ (as it turned out) for clergy not to enter church buildings. You were not alone in finding new energy in social engagement—nor were you alone in the reluctance to engage with online worship. I am not sure that either were the radical change that some claimed at the time; as bodily creatures, we find there is no substitute for physical gathering, and it is that coming together in the community of faith which provides the vision and motivation for the going out to engage with the wider world.
You also express well the unusual privilege of parish clergy, who remain for many years in one place, the involvement in their communities, as they see the rites of passage of one generation to the next. Because my own calling has primarily been to theological education and national roles, I have seen less of that than you, but encounter it more at second hand through relations with my clergy colleagues. But as a GP, my wife has seen something similar in her practice over the last nearly 20 years. The stability of communities is both more and less prevalent than we imagine. It is still the case that half the population dies in the local authority area where they were born; yet our towns and cities have always been more fluid than our villages and rural areas.
But all this raises the question: why do clergy still have a privileged status in the community? Why are we recognised and, to some extent at least, still held in regard and treated with some kind of deference? My wife continues to be esteemed in her role as a doctor, since it is clear that she still has expert knowledge (though this is constantly eroded by Dr Google) and that her work has some utility—though she spends as much time listening to people as she does prescribing for them.
What of clergy? I suspect you are right that our remaining recognition is due to ‘a deep cultural memory’ at a time when fewer and fewer people have any connection to church. But the problem with memories is that they fade; and the problem with cultural memories is that they don’t fade gradually, they drop off the edge of a cliff, as the next generation don’t own the memory that their parents had. That is what the C of E is experiencing just now. Memory is not going to sustain us.
And that memory actually came from somewhere. It came, I would suggest, from a time when clergy did exercise actual authority, because they stood for something that people did in fact believe was true. They made claims about transcendental, spiritual reality which shaped people’s lives, their habits, their ethics—and their wallets. This was why people put up the money to pay for the buildings which we now find such a financial burden. When you believe things, with confidence, it changes everything.
When we celebrate the social standing and role of clergy, but don’t address the question of the radical claims that Christian faith makes, it is as though we are polishing the car and admiring its leather upholstery and walnut dashboard—without noticing that the engine no longer works.
This leads straight on to the question of the future of the Church. You are a lot more honest than many of your fellow travellers when you admit candidly:
The churches that are viable — by that I mean growing in numbers and income — tend to be conservative, punchy, fundamentalist in matters of scripture, rigorous in matters of doctrine, and about as likely to offer choral evensong as I am to do the 400m hurdles.
The research evidence backs up your observation. David Goodhew recently offered a stark analysis of where the C of E is headed, and it is mostly towards continued declined, with extinction in some areas now on the visible horizon. But there are key lessons to be learnt, first from the contrast between London (growing) and Southwark (declining):
First, London prioritized congregational growth over decades. That might sound obvious. But you’d be surprised how easy it is to evade the obvious. Large sections of the C of E see the growth and multiplication of congregations as unnecessary or impossible…
Second, London protected and sought to increase the number of parochial clergy…
Third, London was led by Anglo-Catholic bishops who supported often evangelical parish clergy. I’m not saying that is a guaranteed way to grow dioceses, but it is intriguing that when Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals work together, good things can happen.
These lessons mirror what can be seen in the growth of other denominations, something that the Church of England might find even harder to learn from:
Many churches in Britain are growing, But most of the growing churches are not Anglican. Immigration is a significant driver of growth, but not for every growing church. Alongside this, historic denominations such as Methodism and Presbyterianism are collapsing.
The primary common denominator is theology. Those trimming faith to fit in with culture have tended to shrink, and those offering a “full-fat” faith, vividly supernatural, have tended to grow. This is as true of the ultra-liturgical Orthodox as it is of the ultra-informal Pentecostals.
I understand that the Church of England you love is of ‘liberal sympathies’ and ‘of broad inclusion’. But this is the Church which does indeed have a strong tendency to ‘trim faith to fit in with culture’. I don’t quite understand the logic of this; after all, British culture was very different 30 years ago from what it is now, so if the Church fitted with culture then, why does it still fit with culture now? Is it so malleable? And, if people experience something similar on Sundays to the kind of things they experience Mondays to Saturdays, why bother? Why make the effort to get up on Sunday morning rather than have a lie-in or go for a walk, or do something much more entertaining?
And the question of which theology ‘we prefer’ raises a stark question. Which matters most: my own ‘preferences’; or the call of God? I confess that there are things about evangelical (or just historic Anglican) theology which I find difficult. Temperamentally, there are some things that just don’t fit very well for me. I was nurtured in a faith which prioritised evangelism, but I discovered after some painful episodes (for others as well as me) that, despite the way some people see me, I am actually not an evangelist. It’s awkward. I wish it were different. But evangelism needs to happen, because people who are no longer connected with the Church need to hear about the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus, and that will only happen if someone tells them. Not very Anglican I know!
I quite often have conversations with friends who were once zealous evangelicals, but for whom their faith has now ‘matured’ and ‘broadened out’; they have embraced an inclusive engagement with other traditions. So I ask them: ‘What brought you to faith?’ and they comment on the enthusiasm, the clarity, the conviction, and the challenge of the evangelical faith they encountered. Then I ask ‘And where you are now—how are people coming to faith there?’ There is often an embarrassed silence. Going on this kind of journey is like joining a party, then closing the door behind you. The choice for many clergy, not least our bishops, is will we work for a Church that we ‘prefer’, or will we work for a Church that has a future?
This saying of William Temple is often quoted: ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’. This is nonsense in two regards. First, any organisation that provides a service (such as the NHS) exists for the benefit of those who are not its members. Secondly, the Church is not merely a service provider, as if we were an extension of Social Services, though this is the way that it is often used. But it is true in one regard: the Church exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members by proclaiming confidently the faith of Jesus, so that trust and new life in him might become a reality. This is the sense in which Paul describes his ministry as ‘priestly’ in Romans 15.15–16; it is the primary way that you and I are ‘priests’, and it is the way in which ordinary congregations share in the priesthood of Jesus—by offering to God those who come to faith as a result of our ministry, testimony, and life of service.
But that can only happen if ordinary members of the Church of England learn how to express their faith and live it out—in what feels like an increasingly hostile culture—and are willing to invite their friends and colleagues to ‘come and see’ for themselves. That is happening in some places, but mostly not in places that have ‘liberal sympathies’ and would prefer to avoid ‘zealous devotion’.
And that takes us to the thorny question of gay relationships, which you comment on next. I am aware that your comment here forms only one part of your longer piece, but (like Justin Welby’s comment on Government policy on asylum seekers in his Easter Sunday sermon) it will be the main thing people note, comment on, and take away. I am also aware that, since I am not gay, I have a different kind of interest in this question from you. But it still touches on some pretty central questions of faith, culture, and the future of the Church, so it is not unreasonable for me to comment.
You make some bold claims in one paragraph. First, you claim that those who believe in the Church’s doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman ‘are shaped by a conservative reading of Scripture’. I think you probably know this isn’t true; that Scripture consistently rejects all forms of same-sex sexual relationship is recognised by reputable scholars across the whole spectrum of ethical and theological views. Here are some reminders:
Diaspora Jews had made sexual immorality and especially homosexual activity a major distinction between themselves and gentiles, and Paul repeated Diaspora Jewish vice lists. I see no reason to focus on homosexual acts as the one point of Paul’s vice lists that must be maintained today.
As we read the conclusion of the chapter, I should remind readers of Paul’s own view of homosexual activities in Romans 1, where both males and females who have homosexual intercourse are condemned: ‘those who practice such things’ (the long list of vices, but the emphasis is on idolatry and homosexual conduct) ‘deserve to die’ (1.31). his passage does not depend on the term ‘soft’, but is completely in agreement with Philo and other Diaspora Jews. (E P Sanders, Paul: the Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought (2015) p 373).
It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order. (William Loader, The New Testament and Sexuality, p 323-4)
Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct. (Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible”)
This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, p 705)
See also the comments of feminist Bernadette Brooten, liberal John J Collins, or Pauline flavour of the moment Douglas Campbell—and of course the whole raft of Catholic, orthodox and evangelical commentators. Questions keep being raised about ‘what the biblical texts really mean’, and doubt is fostered either by repeated questioning, or by borrowing from the discredited work of John Boswell from the 1980s—but few serious commentators see the texts as anything but clear and consistent. This is surely the root of the reason why ‘reconciling my view with the Church’s traditional teaching on sexuality is problematic, to say the least’.
You then claim that ‘Same-sex relationships are all those things and more, just like everyone else’s, a fact so obvious it cannot be denied’—but I am going to deny it, because it is not true. There is no doubting that gay relationships offer the kind of companionships, intimacy, solace and assurance that other relationships do, and you have expressed this with moving eloquence. But at the same time, same-sex relationships, in comparison with other-sex marriages, eliminate bodily difference (and therefore also do away with well-established psychological differences between men and women), eliminate the structural possibility of procreation, and fundamentally reorganise our anthropology. Identity is no longer established by bodily form as male and female, but by our pattern of inward desires and orientations. This inward turn has been a long time gestating, but has been brought to full flower by the strange combination of the rise of the internet (so that we can relate to people in completely disembodied ways) and the dominance of the affective in cultural discourse.
There is no denying the importance to you of your relationship with David, and we reflected on this in our last online exchange. And here we touch on the heart of the debate. On the one hand, you (along with many others) ‘cannot believe that relationships that are open to grace and holiness and healing can possibly be contrary to the will of God.’ Yet the consistent teaching of Scripture, including the teaching of Jesus (who, like Paul, shared Jewish rejection of ‘sexual immorality’) and its consistent reading across the Church down the centuries, says something different. This is the circle we are trying to square. In the end, we have to decide whether we discover the truth about ourselves by looking to what God has said to us in scripture, in Jesus, and in theology, or by looking at our own convictions about ourselves. At one level, this is a false dichotomy—but when the answers are so diametrically opposed, as they are here, we have to decide which is our primary authority in telling us the truth.
From this you claim that you are not really welcome in Church, or if so, only as a second-class citizen. But other gay friends of mine say something different. Those who do accept the call of Jesus, the teaching of Scripture, and the discipline of the Church, and so live single, celibate lives (though in the context of vital friendships) disagree with you, and in fact often find those arguing for change in the Church’s teaching the most hostile to them. Other gay friends have discovered the possibility of living out of the reality of being human, made in the image of God, as male or female, and not primarily as straight, gay or something else, and have married and had children. Many of these are church leaders, theological educators, and key voices in this discussion.
That is not to say that many churches have much work to do in this area, so that gay people really are made to feel welcome. But I think it is different work from what you are suggesting, and it does not depend on conflating welcome with affirmation of a particular way of living. After all, God’s welcome to us all does not simply affirm everything we are, but calls and equips us to live differently in all sorts of ways.
This question is intimately connected with the previous one of church growth and viability. I am not aware of a single denomination or national church which, having changed its understanding of marriage, moving away from the consistent teaching of Scripture and affirming same-sex relationships as on a par with male-female marriage, has done anything other than accelerate in its decline. Are you?
Finally, I would like to offer an observation about power and influence. You are a person who exercises considerable power—not the ‘hard’, institutional power of someone in charge of an organisation, but the ‘soft’ power of someone with prominence in the media, in our media age. You have position, and influence, and a voice that many people listen to.
And you are not unusual in this. I find it striking that, whilst probably about 1.8% of the population are gay, in the sense of having a settled sense of attraction to someone of the same sex, and those who have legally requested a change in their recognised gender number fewer than 6,000 to date, these issues dominate our cultural narrative. (A good indicator here is Denmark, which was the first country to put in place same-sex civil partnerships, and has full cultural acceptance of same-sex relationships; same-sex marriages are around 1.5% of all marriages.) By contrast, 9% of our MPs in Parliament are LGBT+, and (as you are probably aware) more than 12% of senior leadership in the BBC (though apparently this is still not enough). Our entertainment seems to be dominated by this issue; think of the number of gay presenters in the mainstream media. You might feel frustrated and marginalised in the C of E, but you are with the dominant voices in our culture.
And this is a context where a colleague of mine, a chaplain in a school with a Christian foundation, was reported to the police by the school’s head merely for explaining to pupils the teaching of the Church of England on marriage. And where ordinands in training in quite a number of contexts don’t feel they are in a safe space to express their belief in the Church’s current doctrine. What a strange situation we find ourselves in.
Your retirement location sounds delightful, and in a beautiful part of the world. But I wonder what will happen if you find yourself in a parish where the theological tradition is one of those that ‘tend to be conservative, punchy, fundamentalist in matters of scripture, rigorous in matters of doctrine’, where the vicar is one of those evangelicals? In that context, how will you use your voice, your power, and your influence?
But your final comment gives me great hope:
It is Easter. Jesus’s followers go to the graveyard thinking everything is over but what they find there sends them running out into a world transformed.
I think your confidence here is actually out of step with ‘liberal sympathies’ you identify with. Historically, these traditions have had little confidence in either cross or resurrection, saying little about the first (or dismissing past understandings as ‘cosmic child abuse’) and dismissing the second as a ‘conjuring trick with bones’.
If you can find it in yourself to work well with those who also have this confidence in the transforming power of Jesus, risen from the dead, even if their tradition and style of worship is not to your liking, then perhaps there is a future for the Church after all.
your brother and colleague