The kind of unity we need


So the Church Times mini-series on the ‘State of the Church’ has come to an end. Like many, I suspect, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there have been some fascinating insights, and it has been good to focus on something other than the latest bust-up in the Church. On the other, I have been left with the kind of feeling that you have after a headache or migraine has subsided—the sort of dull ache that reminds you of something unpleasant. Alongside the interesting and profound, I have also been disturbed by some of thinking that is clearly influential in the Church.

In the concluding part, there was a fascinating diversity of views expressed on the future of the Church and the issues raised. Martyn Percy, Principal of Cuddesdon, warned against a single obsession with numbers:

We may want to intentionally develop a broader range of leaders than the singular objective of numerical church growth currently allows for…Having a knack for  imaginative, reflective, and refractive public theology and spirituality does indeed intrigue and draw people in.

I wouldn’t disagree with the second half of his observation, but to borrow an earlier epithet, the chief failing of the Church of England is not an over-obsessive preoccupation with numerical growth.

The different visions for what the Church might look like in 20 years were great. Maggi Dawn wants us to be generous and hopeful. Peter Ould painted a hilariously detailed scenario, even naming the future Archbishop of  Canterbury. Susie Leafe probably appears to some to be painting the future of the Church as being rather like Reform writ large. However you react to that, she includes some statistics that we must take seriously:

The 350 or so churches represented by Reform have bucked many of the trends of the past 20 years. One third of their average congregation is under the age of 30. One third of churches have experienced sufficient growth to require them to start a new congregation in the last ten years. Their average weekly attendance is three times that of the average C of E church. They produce three times the average number of ordinands.

Given that the theological tradition of the Church is largely determined by those traditions that are generating future leaders, this is significant. And it is a reminder too that evangelicals have consistently been under-represented in the C of E. With larger congregations than other traditions, and less interest in committees and structures, the further you go ‘up’ the organisational chart, the fewer evangelicals you will find.

Graham Tomlin offers an interesting and, in many ways, compelling vision. There needs to be more flexibility in church planting; we need younger leaders; academic training needs to be dovetailed with curacy; apologetics and the use of overt evangelism strategies, like Alpha, need to feature strongly. It reminded me of the approach of a relative newcomer to the scene in theological education…now what is its name…?

Out of all the pieces, the one I found most compelling was by that old lag (and former archdeacon) Bob Jackson [it’s ok—we are friends!] and David Goodhew. The key feature of this piece was the most overt statement of two, often diametrically opposite truths. On the one hand:

God wants his church to grow numerically. Only God grows the church; our job is to collaborate with him…The New Testament is full of positive examples of numerical church growth…The most important reason why there is hope for  numerical church growth is that God wants his church to grow.

Here we find the most explicit, most confident and most theological expression of confident conviction about numerical church growth. On the other hand:

Empirical research show that there is significant church growth happening across England…Research over the past 15 years has given us a much better understanding…

So hand in hand with theological conviction is a real commitment to research and giving attention to empirical evidence.

This was rather a contrast to the ‘lead’ article in this section by Linda Woodhead. Here, we find what I can only describe as expressions of paranoia: ‘A neo-puritan takeover is in process…its leaders [have a] devotion to unity at almost any cost…bought a the price of historic breadth and variety.’ All this says more about Woodhead’s own beliefs than her analysis. She does then move into a helpful and clear description of the different strands in the Church, and quite rightly, even astutely, identifies six key sectors: the cathedral group; those with community focus; the charismatic; the conservative evangelical; those concerned with justice; and the ‘open’ church. But what she then does with these is odd—she imagines them as distinct ‘franchises.’ Of course, this is only a ‘fantasy’, and exercise of the imagination, but it is one that seems to lack any theological insight. The vital thing about these traditions, or strands, or ‘franchises’, is that they need each other. The cathedral group needs the charismatic if it is to avoid religious formalism; the charismatic needs the cathedral if is it to avoid becoming banal. Both need the conservative evangelical if they are not to be loosed from their moorings in Scripture. And the evangelicals needs the justice group to remind it of the biblical vision for the welfare of the world. And so on. We do need to hold together.

So amongst these diverse visions of the church, what kind of unity should we seek? I think it is the kind of unity that was found at another period of history, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 during the controversy about the two natures of Christ as human and divine.  What the Chalcedonian Definition did, in effect, was to draw some boundaries; in the one person, these two natures were:

…without confusion, without change, without division, without separation…

Rather than try and pin down, positively, who or what Christ was, the vital thing this definition does it describe boundaries around what Christ wasn’t. It is a paradoxical feature of ‘negative’ rules (you can’t do this, you can’t do that…) that, like the lines around a football pitch, they actually create a space for play, rather than pinning down (as ‘positive’ rules do, ‘You must do this, you must to that…’) and prescribing action. It creates a bounded space for a variety of theological understandings, and that is just what we need.

We need both variety and boundaries. The recognition of the need for variety will, of course, frustrate those influenced by a more modernist understanding of truth, who would like to see everything pinned down, theology expressed as a single point or proposition of truth. And the need for boundaries will frustrate those who are more influenced by the postmodern paradigm, who see all boundary-drawing as an attempt at coercive control. But spaces are only created by boundaries, and the myth of the Church of England as an infinitely extendable broad church needs to be killed off.

The roots of this idea of bounded diversity don’t just go back to Chalcedon. They are found in the gospels themselves. There are four gospels—or, rather, the one gospels told in four different ways. (The gospels are ‘according to…’ not ‘of…’) But there are other accounts which are not gospels, ones which lie outside the boundary of the truth-telling, authoritative testimony to Jesus that we have in the four.

It is only as we inhabit such a diverse, bounded space that we will be able to trust one another, learn from each other, and act with the generous confidence we need.

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42 thoughts on “The kind of unity we need”

  1. I thought the present ABC is evangelical, growth is also happening at the catholic end of the church and indeed in the somewhat liberal vicars church.

    The kingdom can only grow if numbers are added in that I fully agree but likewise it’s not the only measure as you say.

    I have noted that a significant percentage of the 30+ age group that join us are from the sort of churches you describe as growing but with maturity find the more liberal approach more helpful. Although this week I was told it is so nice to go to a church that really stands for mission and out reach. (We do, I preach on it teach it and exemplify it) although that may mean the paperwork gets forgotten.

    I think it is about balance, about a holistic approach that leaves doors open for people to come in and for truth however phrased to get out but conserves the work God has already done. The differing styles of churches do it in different ways but of late we seem to have lacked the maturity to agree to not entirely agree.

    I as a liberal in perhaps am happy with homosexuals in an active relationship being ordained, do not have to have a slanging match with those who disagree. We need to rediscover the virtue of speaking gently with one another and bearing each other in prayer. How does it actually damage the church across town that believes, homosexuality is purely the work of Satan and that women in leadership is the path to hell (no such church is actually being thought of as I write) if I belive and make statements to the contrary. The world around is big enough to cope and does so

    • Paul, I think that the kind of interaction you mention is what I was getting at in the comment about the different strands coming together.

      One thing that has always challenged me though is how to be the kind of church which *both* offers the challenge to come to faith *and* offers the opportunity for deepening of reflection.

      • Glad to be on the same lines, please do note as said by others as well the two most senior posts are evangelically filled. If senior is the right term for bishops arch or otherwise

      • Yes, I have come across that before…but I think he talking about something else. He appears to be using the metaphor for local church membership and identity. I think I am applying the metaphor to the question of whether there are any boundaries to our different beliefs, priorities and convictions.

        • I like the open set idea too – wells not fences but ultimately even the influence of a well has a boundary. However it works as a way to communicate our views to one another. Although as I blogged, the future lies with those who are less tribal.

          • “Eddie what is the evidence for that? HTB, Reform and New Wine seem to suggest the opposite.”

            For some reason can’t reply to your reply in the right place.

            HTB are actually a very good example of the post-tribalism which I am thinking of, as they have worked and grown in parishes which share a different tradition of worship.

            Last night I spent an evening discussing how brilliant Youth Alpha is with a Roman Catholic – whilst comparing notes on contemporary worship music used in a liturgical context. I shared lunch with a local pioneer with a Soul Survivor background, talking about renewal, mission, and why we need two projector screens not one – and here in Watford find Soul Survivor very much part of the family and a blessing to our modern catholic congregation.

            New Wine is perhaps a different case – I haven’t had the best experiences with folks who identify as ‘New Wine’. However I know plenty of Charismatic Anglo-Catholics who go to the weeks and are blessed (whilst joking about how nice a mass would be.)

            Reform obviously are going to see the Charismatic Catholic as the worst of both worlds – so I have had very little contact.

            I am not denying that a strong identity in a birthing tradition is not important – but post tribalism can be about a shared identity in renewal and mission rather than just being mushy.

          • I think you have replied in just the right place!

            I don’t think I am quite convinced of your comment on HTB. Yes, they have planted in places of different tradition—by bringing their tradition with them. I am not knocking what they have done; it has been a very effective strategy. But I am not convinced the receivers would support your interpretation.

            If it is working as you say, that is great. But I think HTB would be part of the ‘neo-Puritan takeover’ that Linda Woodhead complains about.

          • “I don’t think I am quite convinced of your comment on HTB. Yes, they have planted in places of different tradition.”

            From what I understand in some places more traditional catholic worship is being supported by HTB – because there are simply not enough missional catholics to go round. Anecdotal I know, I hear positive noises by those who are not hugely threatened by HTB – but that I am sure is only one side of the story.

            Prof. Woodhead’s approach baffles me. Before this current series we had conversations on Twitter about how ‘encounter with God’ seemed key to growth across traditions. And yet this final piece seems to ignore that as a factor – as if the key to Alpha was a nice meal rather than the Holy Spirit.

            The post-tribalism I want to hold on to recognises that encounter with God as central to mission and working together. Even if we disagree about Altars. Obviously there are differences of opinion over issues of gender and sexuality, and differences of opinion over how important those issues are in terms of partnership – but I don’t see them as defining as what God is doing in his church.

    • Yes, but that is relatively unusual, and there are many layers in between. Something like a quarter of all bishops trained at Cuddesdon, largely because in the past bishops have appointed their friends.

      The moment you move from congregation to deanery to diocesan synod to clergy to national synod you almost always find decreasing numbers of evangelicals. In the past, that is because they have said ‘I would rather be doing ministry than sitting in committees’. I have quite a lot of sympathy with that; I never worked out in my five years on Synod whether it was useful or a complete waste of time in terms of contribution and outcomes.

  2. Ian, if diversity is your aim, would you support the repeal of ‘Issues …’ and the 1987 Higton motion?

    Tension is caused by conservatives attempting to force their views onto liberals via the demand that gay clergy are celibate for life. As a married man with a family, you certainly wouldn’t want this done to you, so empathy should be no problem. If gay clergy were allowed to express their sexuality, and marry, according to their conscience, tension would reduce greatly.

    You don’t have to agree with them, in public or in private: just be willing to tolerate them. Can you?

    • James, I don’t know how much of the actual post you read. I don’t think I ever said that diversity was the aim. My whole point is that we must have bounded diversity, and not diversity without boundaries.

      So whilst theology and doctrine must not be narrowed down to a single point, neither must it be disappointed under the mantra of ‘a broad church.’

  3. You supported rules precisely because they create a space to play. I agree with this. We need rules.

    What’s being gained by forcing gay clergy to be celibate? If that’s your position, why do you want to do this to them? I’m sure that you’re a kind and empathic person, and you’re willing to tolerate non-evangelical liturgy and practice, so I genuinely don’t understand your motives. Why seek to impose your view in this one area?

    Why not, instead, support rules that protect both those who take an affirming position, and those who want to live and defend a traditional position? That would create a diverse, bounded space in which we could trust one another.

  4. 1. This call for diversity within boundaries is highly commendable, but it is not a new idea. J.I.Packer laid out the same position with detailed argument a long time ago in his essay/epistle ‘A Kind of Noah’s Ark’. He called it ‘bounded comprehensiveness’, if I remember correctly.

    2. Why have several commentators suggested that the Archbishop of York is an evangelical? He may have been so in the past (so was James Barr!) but is there any evidence that he is one now? Did he associate himself with evangelicals when in parish ministry? Would it not be fair to describe him as liberal in theological method and politics, but middle-of-the-road on social issues and committed to evangelism?

    3. James, you consistently argue your position with fairness and clarity. However, the idea that “Tension is caused by conservatives trying to force their views onto liberals…” is an unintentional half-truth because it uses the present tense to describe a changing situation. What you wrote has only held true for at most twenty of the almost two thousand years that people have followed Jesus. Tension was introduced by liberals trying to force a 180-degree change in the ethical teaching of God’s people going back to the patriarchs.

  5. I take your point, but when did liberals try to “force” anything in England?

    The position before 1987 was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was Tony Higton who made gay relationships center-stage by introducing a motion in the English Synod. If anything, English liberals have consistently retreated: they submitted to the discipline of ‘Issues …’ and let Jeffrey John’s “resignation” pass. Rowan Williams defended the status quo with enthusiasm.

    You’re right to say that liberals desire a change, but few want it imposed on everyone in the church. In that sense they’re not attempting to force it on anyone. I’d certainly defend the right of conservatives to promote their views.

    Affirming gay relationships is no more radical than ordaining women to the priesthood or remarrying divorcees. It remains a puzzle why Open Evangelicals have, until very recently, been united against it. Yes, there’s various hermeneutics that separate homosexuality from women and divorce, but we make hermeneutics, and choose to follow them. Why were they created, and why is maintaining the distinction so important?

    • ‘The position before 1987 was “don’t ask, don’t tell.”’ That, James, was the ‘forcing’–the assumption that the liberal position was so evidently right that there was no need to follow the outmoded and narrow idea of actually meaning what you said or taking public vows seriously.

      The question is not whether we accept this or not—clearly a good number do not. The challenge facing the church is whether (in the term Tom Wright has popularised) this issue is adiaphora or not. In insisting that we must live and let live, again liberalism is forcing its view that it is adiaphora, when evangelicals believe it is not.

  6. I like the metaphor of boundaries and spaces. There is an interesting mathematical phenomenon which many will be familiar with: the Mandelbrot set. This is a finite space with an infinite boundary. In terms of the church it means that while the characteristic beliefs of the church can (and must be, as you point out) finite (against the postmodernists, they are not infinitely definable to suit ourselves) this finite nature still allows an infinite boundary or points of access at which people can come to faith. Hence an explanation of what for some will be puzzling, how churches with a strong sense of the finite space can be those where the largest numbers cross the boundaries. But maybe I am just too interested in chaos theory for my own good?!

    • ‘churches with a strong sense of the finite space can be those where the largest numbers cross the boundaries’ Nicely put. Yes I am sure you are too interested in chaos theory, but we won’t hold that against you!

  7. Ian, traditional Catholics don’t view female ordination as something indifferent. As a result the Church of England created “two integrities” and flying bishops.

    I’m certainly not asking you to accept that gay relationships are theologically indifferent. It’s your prerogative to call them a sin and a salvation issue (if that’s your position). My problem is with that view being imposed on everyone else, and the pain this causes LGBT people.

    If we can have two integrities on female ordination, why not on sexuality?

  8. Because it is a sin and salvation issue, and I don’t believe that the issue of women’s leadership is. I think I have said this several times, including to you in comments. Thanks for contributing…but the discussion needs to move on not just go around and around.

  9. How do you propose it move on?

    Clearly, many in the church disagree that this is a “sin and salvation issue,” and view the affirmation of gay relationships as a justice issue. This includes some of your fellow Open Evangelicals. Do you believe this movement can be stopped? If so, how?

    If not, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to draw boundaries to allow coexistence? You might think gay relationships are a “sin and salvation issue” (as it happens, I sympathize: you must feel trapped by the Bible, and hate the pain caused to LGBT people) but the church, as an organization, has to reconcile conflicting views. Living alongside those you profoundly disagree with is the essence of toleration. Supporting a diverse church wouldn’t equal support of gay relationships.

  10. So because one group believe strongly that this is not a sin and salvation issue, and because they believe they are ‘unstoppable’, then the only solution is to redraw the boundaries of belief…?

  11. No, but the alternative is destroying the church, wounding LGBT people, and isn’t how a bounded, yet broad, church deals with other disagreements.

    Many evangelicals believe that a person goes to hell if they haven’t accepted Jesus as their personal savior. Yet the Church of England has no requirement that this be taught, and confirms people without it.

    Neither does it forbid its priests from teaching that gay relationships are right, so its “discipline” isn’t there to stop people from being led astray.

    Allowing something isn’t endorsing it. Why, in this one area, must the church be so narrow and cruel?

    • I don’t think that drawing the boundaries where the House of Bishops have is destroying the church–far from it. I think what might damage the church is those who don’t like it mounting a ruthless media campaign to discredit the church, and I think they should stop.

      If you read my post, you will see that this is *precisely* how the church has dealt with disagreements in the past—and in fact this has been vital for its health.

      I’ve no idea of the relevance of your comment about hell.

      It is simply not the case that the boundaries are drawn ‘in this one area.’ There are plenty of others where this happens, and quite rightly.

  12. You’re right, the church has done this before. The church should learn from its past mistakes. Imposing Nicene orthodoxy led to schism, persecution, and misery. Closer to home, witness the failure of the 17th century attempt to suppress Puritans, and the Victorian attempt to suppress “ritualism” by slinging Anglo-Catholics in lockup.

    Lesson learned was tolerance and diversity. Anglicanism has entertained diversity in liturgy, worship, and understanding of the Eucharist. Yet in one area, sexual orientation, that broad church approach has been cast aside. Even if you believe it isn’t destroying the church, you can’t deny the misery it’s causing, principally to gay people, but also to their loved ones.

    The point about accepting Jesus as a personal savior was that this “salvation issue” hasn’t led to uniformity, so why must homosexuality?

  13. Whatever else it did, ‘Nicene orthodoxy’ actually preserved the truth about who Jesus was. I think the same debate could be held about the Reformation.

    The C of E doesn’t hold that position on hell because it is not clear in Scripture.

  14. Many evangelicals would disagree on that! The synoptic gospels portray Jesus as having a lot to say about Gehenna. But running with it (I agree with you, BTW), should those evangelicals try to impose their view on everyone else?

    That’s the issue. Opinions are subjective. Anglicanism generally seeks to use rules to allow different views to coexist. Why should a discipline derived from one opinion on sexual orientation be singled out from the rest and imposed on all?

    • James, you just seem to be saying the same thing again and again. Gehenna is mentioned by Jesus, but the scriptural texts are not uniform on it. They are on sexuality. That is the difference between issues within and beyond the boundary.

  15. The issue isn’t what we believe the Bible says (as I’ve said, I agree with your interpretation of what it says about Gehenna/homosexuality), but whether Anglicans should try to impose their interpretation of scripture on the church. As we all believe the Bible says different things, that way lies chaos.

    As many Anglican aren’t evangelicals, and so reject the idea of biblical authority, it makes even less sense. What’s to be gained by it?

    • My experience is rather different: as I have sat and debated with people what the Bible does actually say, there has often been a change and convergence of views from both sides. This is prima facia evidence that texts can’t mean whatever we want them to.

  16. Very interesting reflections Ian. The Diocese of Southwark has done some serious research on growing churches in South London and East Surrey, in conjunction with Professor Leslie Francis and his colleagues. Allowing for the fact that London is by nature different from the rest of the country it demonstrates a number of correlations that coincide with the received wisdom on church growth, pace Bob Jackson (importance of leadership, vision, good children’s/famlies ministry, etc) and some more surprising things that don’t (growing churches in Southwark tend to be “of moderate tradition”, i.e. open evangelical or liberal catholic, rather than middle of the road or conservative evangelical or catholic, team ministries are growing, but only where congregational members can identify with a particular minister as their own). While this is clearly presents challenges to us, especially in our resourcing of children’s ministry and what we might call lay-lay ministry, it also allows us to maintain a commitment to theological and ecclesial diversity, while ensuring that all traditions feel valued in the complex missional environment of London.

    I’d also mention my long-standing position that the numerical thing needs to be accompanied by some qualitative work on exploring how many of the ‘bums on pews’ are being properly discipled. My guess is that this is more patchy – across the traditions – and that churches like mine do well from churches that are good at making converts but less good at making disciples who engage with the world as Christian people.

    • Yes, I agree with you on the both/and of numbers and maturity —though my observation is that churches that are growing are doing *something* with their converts. The question is: what, exactly? I suspect that the reason people come to you is that their questions are not being answered in a way they find helpful. There is a paradox in nurturing people into a maturity in faith which is *not* also attracting others from outside!

      Your point about ‘moderate tradition’ is fascinating and concurs with intuition. Churches need to have a distant tradition, but in our open world people often don’t put up with the kind of monochromicity demanded by those at the extremes.


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