The nonsense of the ‘broad church’

yhst-129304271719313_2268_34131292It is often claimed, with pride, that the Church of England is a ‘broad church’, and to think this is a bad thing is to be narrow-minded and unreasonable. But the question never addressed is ‘how broad can a church be?’ I would certainly agree that sound theology can never come down to a single point; the classic way that Christian theology has been done has been to set boundaries within which theological truth can be expressed in a variety of ways. But that leaves the question of where those boundaries lie, and what happens when we cross them.

This question was raised again by John Bingham’s piece in the Telegraph yesterday about the Buddhist ‘sangha’ set up under the auspices of staff at York Minster.

In what will be seen as a striking departure from its Christian traditions, senior clergy at the Minster have quietly introduced a new form of spiritual enrichment altogether: Zen Buddhist meditation. A new “sangha” – meaning community or order – has been set up under the auspices of the Minster chapter and meets within the medieval precincts every other Friday for an hour and a half’s silent meditation.

The idea has come from the Canon Chancellor of the Minster, Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood, who was also behind the Minster’s support for the York Gay Pride march last year..

Dr Collingwood described himself as “religiously bilingual”, combining Christian beliefs and Zen ideas, and having “a foot in more than one religious camp”… Asked if being religiously bilingual meant that he saw himself as being both Christian and Buddhist, he said: “Yes, I think in a sense, perhaps – I would be conscious exactly about how you might express that. There is a recognised phenomenon now which is explored in research … called ‘dual religious belonging’ where it is recognised that people have a foot in more than one religious camp.”

For a reaction against this position, John Bingham rather predictably goes to Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of pressure group Christian Concern, who points out the incompatibility of Buddhist and Christian beliefs. This isn’t the most helpful move, not least because Christian Concern have recently been roundly criticised for a piece by Tim Dieppe about the election of a Muslim mayor for London, which many thought sounded racist.

Even for those who are not well-versed in Buddhism, it is not difficult to see that Zen is not only a long way from orthodox Christian belief, but quite at odds with it:

The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language.

This is not so much about putting experience alongside theological reflection, but seeing such reflection as something to be displaced—and hardly sits well with the kind of ‘logos’ Christology we find, for example, in John’s gospel.

Defining Zen is like trying to describe the taste of honey to someone who has never tasted it before. You can try to explain the texture and scent of honey, or you can try to compare and correlate it with similar foods. However, honey is honey! As long as you have not tasted it, you are in the illusion of what honey is.

The Zen Master who assists with the York sangha says this on his own website:

Zen gives us a method to put the wordless and imageless prayer of contemplation into practice. Zen training does not allow us to analyze or theorise about prayer or life. Instead it plunges us at the outset into the contemplative act in which there is no subject or object.

At one level, there might be some parallels in the biblical injunction to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’—but notice the language above of ‘illusion’ in reference to reflection on experience. You do not have to belong to one end of a theological spectrum (in Christian Concern) to see there is a problem with this. Surely anyone, of any reasonable theological tradition who is concerned about the boundaries of orthodoxy, would feel that there is a problem with promoting Zen Buddhist meditation in cathedral grounds. (The group did not meet in the Minster itself, so there were not the same issues with the holding of Muslim worship in a church last year.)

For other clergy in the diocese, and for any of us in the northern province, it is clear that the Canon Chancellor is in breach of his ordination vows, which (in the Common Worship form) includes:

Will you faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to your charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?

By the help of God, I will.

Relations between cathedrals and diocesan bishops are not always straightforward, but any clergy minister with the bishop’s license, and so the question is what action the bishop can take in this kind of situation. The Clergy Discipline Measure was supposed to make obvious cases simpler to deal with than the old process through the Ecclesiastical Courts, but it has not proved to be so, and many clergy are nervous about a process which pushes too much power back to the episcopate. The CDM process was supposed to be complement by a Discipline (Doctrine) measure which would have this kind of situation more in its sights—but Synod pulled back from implementing this.

The situation raises a series of other questions as well. Vivienne Faull, Dean of York Minster since 2012 (having moved from Leicester) was once tipped to be the first of the women bishops. But what diocese, in our current context, would want a diocesan who has overseen the promotion of non-Christian religions on her watch? It affects relations with the diocese as well; I have been told that it is ‘nearly impossible’ to arrange diocesan events in the Minster. How extraordinary that, at the time of a national initiative of prayer for evangelism, one of the Beacon events happened not in the Minster but in next-door St Michael-le-Belfrey church.

The timing of John Bingham’s report could not unreasonably be consider mischievous; after all, the workshops have been going on for around two years, and the programme for this year has been available since January. So why does Bingham report on this on the day of Pentecost and the climax of the national initiative?

But it illustrates the essential problem with the unqualified use of ‘broad church’ language. As long as there are, in effect, no boundaries to what is considered orthodox Anglican Christian belief, and what it is acceptable for clergy to teach—particular clergy in prominent roles—and no mechanism for bishops to act to address this, then the Church is hamstrung in its commitment to discipleship and evangelism.

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38 thoughts on “The nonsense of the ‘broad church’”

  1. ‘Broad Church’, is a bit like ‘motherhood and apple pie’, it means whatever the hearer wants it to mean. If by broad you mean holding together a variety of worship styles, theologies and ecclesiology within a framework of Christian belief, then yes I like being part of a ‘broad church’. If it means practicing ‘other faiths’ then I for one would struggle with that as that feels like syncretism. And that along with injustice towards the poor, and immorality was the major factor in Israel’s exile. Just maybe we are so keen to fit into the world and appear to be jolly reasonable folk, that we forget that the ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

  2. Your argument appears to unreasonably assume that Zen has a precise and agreed definition. Something is happening at York which the Cannon Chancellor describes as ‘zen’. You quote 2 different sites for a definition of zen, and find language which you say is incompatible with Christianity. (Whether the zen use of the word ‘illusion’ is actually incompatible with Christianity is a very interesting and complex question which I don’t have time to think about right now). You have not shown that the practice at York actually involves seeing the world as ‘illusion’ or involves any other practice allegedly incompatible with Christianity.

    In fact, the session is described as Sitting Meditation. This is a silent contemplation of a form very similar to that practiced by many Christians over many centuries. Although the precise practice is slightly different, the arguments John Main (founder of the World Community of Christian Meditation) made (quoting John Cassian) about meditation being an ancient Christian practice are broadly applicable here. Silent contemplation is certainly common in Christianity (and in Christian cathedrals), where it is usually introduced with an entirely Christian explanation of its history.

    A lot of teaching that is essential to a complete Zen practice is incompatible with Christianity. However, that does not prove that a particular individual practice which forms a key part of Zen is incompatible with Christianity. In fact, ‘Christian Zen’ events such as this are quite common, and are often criticised (with considerable rigour) for not actually containing enough of the essence of zen to really be described as ‘zen’. (In particular, there is usually no attempt whatsoever to reveal that the world is ‘illusion’)

    So what we have here is an event which would be entirely non-noteworthy were it not for a somewhat dubious claim that it’s part of zen practice.

    • Thanks Leon. But the claim comes from York Minister itself. If it was ‘Christian sitting mediation’ and the focus was on God, then I don’t think I would have any concerns. I have had long experience of silent retreat myself.

      But my quotations come from the website of the person who is involved in leading these sessions, not just from general definitions.

  3. Is York Minster really promoting the religion of Buddhism, with all its tenets? Do we expect boddhisattva statuettes to replace the stations of the cross at any moment? Surely what is being attempted here is to use the meditation techniques of Buddhism to deepen and broaden the practice of Christian prayer to a Christian God, the Trinity?

  4. Notice how Collingwood turns immediately to the ‘identity politics’ response. It’s almost knee-jerk. “I’m religiously bilingual. It’s a thing, honest. They’ve even done research on it!”
    So you can’t really call it into question, can you? Cause that’s who he is.

  5. i am sorry but broadchurch as iam going to callit asit is en masse entertainment and murder of the first commandment .”love your lord(jesus, god.and holy spirit) wih allyour heart, soul annd MIND.could actually be the dception of the elldect. how can you give your entirety to god when you are flirting with another so-called self made deity=buddha? i go to a c. of e. church(sml) and there are a lot of issues i want to talk to them about and it is totally avoided. if i could find a lively baptist church in my area that had evening services i would consider going to it, as baptists uphold the TOTAL authority of the word of god as well as god’s grace. i think ALL churchses including c.ofe. ones should be TOTALLY upfront about what they believe so people have an informed choice. most people today don’t want a mishmash of beliefs, they want the bible presented to them in context, how they can understand it, no clever psychology or persuasion and then be left to make their own minds up. the world in general admires people with the guts not to “water” things c.of. e. church would well to realise this in their evangelism mission. of course well stillholding onto god’s grace and love.what do you think of this ian.?

  6. When “broad church” means a church that seeks honest inclusivity and engagement/dialogue with the full scope of the nation, within a context of humility and mutual service, I am all for it, even though I have my reservations about some of the ways in which this works in practice.

    When “broad church” means culture having a transformative effect on God’s people, rather than the other way around, I think we have a serious problem!

    I agree completely with Vernon’s point above. This was the very issue the OT holiness codes and the law (not to mention a huge bulk of the prophetic writings) write expressly against. There is a danger in diluting yourself, and your community distinctiveness, through assimilation of the practice of your neighbors. While this is no longer tied to race/ethnicity in the way that it was for Israel, the same principles; to live in God’s paradigm, to be His obedient people, to reflect His unique holiness and Will into the world, and to have a transforming effect on culture while being a blessing upon the nations are still the guiding principles today.

  7. When I began searching I practiced meditation with a group called the Brahmin Kumaris, I couldn’t accept their extreme practice of complete celibacy but the actual practice of meditation where for an hour the mind is beautifully stilled, and time, that robber of all peace, seemed to halt like Joshua’s sun is an experience which has yet to be reached through the Christian prayer.

    Prayer is essentially turning to God with the conviction of need, and in full reliance that this need can be supplied. Every thing else in prayer is outside of this, either as its consequence or its preparation ; something secondary, or something ancillary. This is its heart. But to produce this full reliance which is essential to prayer, it is equally essential that we should see God as the living God, coming to meet the individual soul with special help ac cording to its special needs. (James Freeman Clarke)

    The above strikes me as fair and explanatory of why distinctly Christian prayer is so difficult, to some extent aren’t we all so ‘rich that we forget God’ and to actually have real needs – and Jesus doesn’t say give us a happy heart but daily bread – can only be understood emotionally, and that too often means escaping petty concerns or ego which would keep us in the pit our pride has dug. Or else we go Calvinistic and berate ourselves refusing to believe the God who said ‘their sins I will remember no more’.

    • Phillip, thanks for your insightful and interesting testimony. I think I would entirely agree with you that much Christian prayer fails to reach this point of stillness, often because it is too ‘small and talkative’. I think my own tradition, evangelicalism, is often guilty of this.

      That is one reason why I developed a habit of silence and stillness on retreat, and have found that it has created a stream of stillness in me.

      But the Christian understanding is that it is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who calms our storms and brings us rest and peace, and we attain this by focussing, in stillness, on him and inviting his Spirit in. Buddhism, including Zen, believes that reflection is an illusion and that the human problem is simply not realising that it is blessed. This is a different, and incompatible belief, even if there might be contact points in some aspects of practice.

      • Thank you,
        although I often wonder what is meant by that term evangelical? The witness of the spirit came through a charismatic, where being open to the spirit is the principle thing, and all too much abused of course, (the gospel misunderstood all too easily becomes the minister of sin does it not) but for me the gospel is the good news of God’s empowering presence through the eternal word made flesh, that word of life which was with the Father will now dwell in each and all if only they ‘would receive with meekness the engrafted word which is able to save your souls’ or as an old Brethren man once said to me ‘what matters is being a new creation’ and then one goes into white evangelical churches seeking meatier exposition of the scripture to discover they extemporise from some displaced text as much as any charismatic, while being rather too fond of none too subtle attempts at guilt tripping which merely alienate this working class person, although it seems to work wonders on the educated, they support this cause ( I don’t like working but I wouldn’t mind being a paid missionary in Peru – I’ve always fancied Peru don’t you know it must be God’s leading, well we’ve had no actual conversions but lots of really love chats with people) and bring in their tins for the food bank as if Paul never urged ‘if they won’t work let them not eat’, sometimes I wish good ole Samuel Clemens was alive to see his preachers yet live. -:)

  8. Aw, man, I’ll have to cancel our Zen sangha and scrap plans for the minaret we were going to add on to the church tower 🙁

    It seems to me that the problem is not what may or may not have been technically illegal, but in the Canon Chancellor’s comments about being religiously ‘bilingual’: does he believe, as the CofE does, that Christ is the only way to God? I wonder if the uniqueness of Christ may be the next big issue once the dust has settled on matters of sexuality (whenever that may be…)

  9. “I wonder if the uniqueness of Christ may be the next big issue once the dust has settled on matters of sexuality (whenever that may be…)”

    I think that observation will most probably turn out to be correct.

  10. You seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that there is contemplation of this sort is entirely contrary to Christianity. Can I suggest some engagement with (to pick a few of the better known examples) the Desert Fathers, John Cassian, Thomas A Kempis, Julian of Norwich, the author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ Bernard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross,Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton… before assuming there is no such pattern?

    Karl Rahner offers an interesting reflection too; to a Japanese philosopher asking him how he would respond to being called an anonymous Zen Buddhist, Rahner reports replying: ‘certainly you may do and should do so from your point of view; I feel honoured by such an interpretation, even if I am obliged to regard you as being in error or if I assume that, correctly understood, to be a genuine Zen Buddhist is identical with being a genuine Christian, in the sense directly and properly intended by such statements.’ (from Theological Investigations, vol. 16, p. 219 (DLT, 1979))

    Oh, and the reason that nothing happened in the Minster for ‘Thy Kingdom Come’? Well, they are currently setting up for their Mystery Plays – an event that draws in large numbers of people, often unchurched, to hear the story of Christ. For it they build a theatre in the nave, and whilst the quire is being used for their regular services, one presumes it wasn’t a suitable space for whatever was planned for Thy Kingdom Come.

    • Thanks Tom. I am quite surprised that it was not possible to fit the event in. St Michael-le-Belfrey is a lot smaller than even using part of the Minster…but who knows unless some tells us? The comment I had been passed related to diocesan events more generally. It is not uncommon for their to be something of a disconnect between a cathedral/minster and its diocese—and I think it is always unfortunate when that happens.

      I ma not at all ‘labouring under the misapprehension that there is contemplation of this sort is entirely contrary to Christianity’; I am noting that the form offered at the York sangha is Zen Buddhism, and not Christian meditation, and not on the basis of speculation, but on the basis of what those leading it themselves have said.

      Given that there are Christian forms of meditative prayer, why not deploy those instead? Why not focus on the Jesus who calms our storms and bring true peace of mind, rather than sitting in front of a statue of the Buddha (see photo on the York website)?

  11. “Religiously bilingual” sounds like a rhetorical strategy for admitting there are multiple religions within the church. And to do so in an identity politics kind of way that is trying to be immune to critique

    It seems my right to be who I am (in my own eyes) has become decoupled from finding identity in Christ and God’s truth for at least some clergy. I don’t know whether they are now prepared to admit it is a good thing or a bad one

  12. Just to say , – as New Religious Movements/Alternative Spiritualities adviser for the C of E, I’ve had a lot of enquiry about John Bingham’s article, ranging from ‘shock horror’ to ‘where do I sign up?’ The C of E’s policy on these things is ‘boundaries not barriers’. How do we know what the boundaries are?

    There are a number of issues: first – matters of compatibility and faith. It takes clear-sighted and firm Christian faith and a sensitive as well as critical eye to engage effectively with other forms of practice, as well as the capacity to reject it. Problems from this kind of initiative often arise when people are just exploring Christian faith and adopt other beliefs and practices uncritically.

    Second, – one of the questions is about who this actually benefits – a lot of enquirers have looked up the programme and want to know about WildGooseSangha and the promised ‘dharmic transmission’ that is part of the programme. So is it more about Sensei Eastman than offering something meaningful to Christians?

    Third, a touchstone for doing anything in this area of NRM/AS is whether it falls in with the mission of God. Would a non-Christian, coming along to explore faith, be likely to be attracted to explore Christian faith further or be bewildered and confused by what they encountered?

    Fourth, different forms of meditative techniques should again not be engaged in uncritically, or without reflection on how helpful they really are. There are some new questions about whether Zen is actually bad for some people because of an interruption to physiological work being done by the resting brain.

    I don’t agree with Christian Concern’s language, but I do think that in determining the ‘boundaries’ there should be more of a duty to take care of people who are less ‘religiously bi-lingual’ than those providing the programme…

  13. Thanks Ian. A very thoughtful contribution. I suspect it will not belong before we find out how broad the Church of England is and will become in the future. Thanks Peter

  14. May I just point out that the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure is in force, and emerged in the 1960’s from a good hundred years of severe and often litigious wrangling over what has historically been very significant Christian doctrine as the best way to deal with divergence over doctrine in the Church. The fewness of the times it has been used bears witness to the general distaste of English people for Inquisitions, but it is the tool for the job!

  15. Being different does not mean incompatibility. I’m a Marcan Christian: those who are not against us are for us! Matthew reversed this saying but he was wrong. We should be opening doors not closing them. And we have evidence of some Church Fathers meeting Buddhists and being impressed. And we have Monastic interreligious dialogue in our own day. Ian Paul needs to do some more research.

    • I think you are misreading Matthew and Mark here. The sayings are not contradictory; they are given in different contexts and referring to different things.

      Christianity says God can be personally known in Jesus; Zen Buddhism says prayer has no object or subject. Christianity says humanity’s problem is sin and separation from God; Zen says that humanity’s problem is simply ignorance of our blessing. Christianity says that peace and rest come from Jesus, the Prince of Peace; Zen Buddhism says that peace comes from emptying the self.

      Alan Race needs to do some more theology.

  16. I hear something of an echo of the discussion on your recent article about the Presence of Christ at Communion. You asked: Do Anglicans believe Christ is really present in the bread and wine?” (or similar) and someone commented: “some do, some don’t”. This may be true, but I think your respondent had misread your question, which really had the force of “SHOULD Anglicans believe…”. This requires a more dogmatic (or clear-cut) answer, either negative or positive. How broad a church are we on sacraments?

    Should Cathedrals allow Zen Buddhism to be practised on their grounds? You make a persuasive case they should not.

    • SHOULD Anglicans believe in the “Real Presence”?

      Some Anglicans believe that Anglicans should. On the other hand, some Anglicans believe that Anglicans shouldn’t. It is a question to which various Anglicans would give differing dogmatic (or clear-cut) answers.

      “How broad a church are we on sacraments?”

      On this issue, a very broad one.

    • Thanks for that helpful reminder! As with so much language in the C of E, the Humpty Dumpty approach wins out and people make terminology mean what they want it to!

  17. We strive so hard to be relevant to culture, wanting so much to be seen as open minded and reasonable. In part it is a reaction to the church being too judgemental and condescending of others. However if we loose our distinctiveness, if we become salt that is no longer salt, then we have no relevance to God. And here is a rub, as a Christian with Jewish heritage, God’s people have history here and it’s not a good history. By seeking to be so open and inclusive to the world we loose what makes us distinctive, like the Passover I attended last month, true the Hebrew was used at times, but the Biblical narrative was absent, lots of nice stories had taken its place, very accommodating to anyone, but hardly distinctive!. And the youngest generation there had no idea of what the Passover was really about.If the Church forgets our primary call to be a covenant people, a Royal priesthood, a Holy nation, then we are of no use to God. If that’s the case we go into exile, after all if God can call a new people into being from both Jews and Gentiles, and move His people from being purely defined by one race then bypassing the Church of England is no big deal. Ultimately we are accountable to God and not to society, and if we choose to ignore the former in order to please the latter we have no value to God and His Kingdom. If we choose first and foremost to be relevant to God, then we will be at our most relevant to society. For what society needs to see is an alternative community, a new humanity, yes that might be quite broad as the early church was, but it will be distinctively Christian and fit for Gods purposes.

  18. Thanks for the link to the Telegraph article, which seems to confuse Rowan William’s use of Eastern Orthodox Christian payer (the Jesus Prayer) with Buddhist prayer!

  19. Oh dear! More paranoia. I don’t suppose you ever heard of the origins of the Anglican Society of Saint Francis – in Christa Seva Sangha? God is not only concerned about conservative Christians, than God!. Lighten up, Ian, for goodness’ sake!

    • Interesting Ron, but as a quick search of the internet shows Christa Seva Sangha was explicitly a Christian movement Jack Winslow, that well-known Anglo-Catholic charismatic, who later was part of the Lee Abbey movement. Pretty doctrinally orthodox, although keen to connect with people outside church culture. About Christa Seva Sangha he says:

      ‘ I was given a vision of a Christian ashram, in which Indian and
      English Christians, of whatever caste or class origin, would live together on
      terms of complete equality, sharing a simple Indian life of poverty and service,
      and offering to God a worship rich in the traditions of the East as well as the

      It’s a fascinating story, but doesn’t read at all Christa Seva Sangha is about dabbling in other faiths – rather seeking an authentic, radical Christian community, away from the western cultural baggage. Seeking to make connections with the local belief systems but not ‘selling out’. In other words, good Christian missionary work. Here’s the link:

  20. Paranoia? So, I’ve just read ‘ From the rule of Christa Prema Seva Sangha 1934’:

    It says of Bhakti: ‘Bhakti holds always, as of right, the foremost place in the lives of the brethren. An ever-deepening devotion to the Christ is the hidden source of all their strength and joy. He is for them the true Bhagavan, the One all-lovely and adorable, God incarnate, crucified and risen, whose love is the
    inspiration of service and the reward of sacrifice.’

    So, how does the self-same document describe bhakti: ‘devotion to a personal God. One of the three paths to God taught in the Bhagavad Gita;’

    Actually, bhakti is devotion to Ishvara, which is one or more deities of an individual’s preference from Hinduism’s polytheistic canon of deities.

    The other path of salvation are: Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga.

    This is nothing more, not less than syncretism. If you can do that, you might as well further incorporate Jewish circumcision as a harmless rite of religious initiation.

  21. Have spent some time recently thinking and reading about how the perceived spiritual needs of western society have changed in the last few decades. Stirrings of the Soul Evangelicals and the New Spirituality by Raiter Michael is an interesting look at the subject and include a look at how the church should respond.


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