As I write the title for this piece, I feel rather hesitant. Why is it worth talking about discontent? Isn’t it best left, so that we can focus on things that are positive? Sometimes that is true—but the difficulty with ignoring the discontent, or other negative feelings, is that they then fester, and become worse. And the reality is that the discontent is out there, and being expressed, and it invites some kind of reflection.
There is also a theological reason not to focus on the negative. All through scripture we find descriptions of nay-sayers, and we also find that the nay-saying involves either a focus on the human rather than the divine, or simply a lack of faith and vision. But there is rather a lot of discontent in the C of E at the moment, and I think we are better off addressing rather than ignoring it. Once I have done that in this post, I promise that normal service will be resumed, and in my next post I will return to focussing on the wonders of what God has done, as set out in the Scriptures, and reflect on how we might inspire our congregations with the compelling vision of the goodness and grace of God in Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit.
The issue of discontent has been raised for me by two articles, one shared by others on social media, and one shared by me.
The one shared by others calls itself ‘A love letter to the Church of England‘, but it seems rather devoid of love for anyone or anything. It begins:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lot of people are fed up with the Church of England. It is important to say (in the name of inclusivity) that there are also other churches available where you can be having a tiresome time, but I’ll stay in my own lane just for now.
In the last fifteen years or so we have witnessed an evangelical takeover in The Church of England: Steaming backwards out of Holy Trinity Brompton, creating an enormous bow wave of Pioneer Ministry, Alpha, and Church Planting. A tsunami of initiative that has, ironically, pushed people out from the edges of the church where they were happily lurking, and into the neat lycra clad bosoms of a thousand yoga teachers, all biding their time like bears, mats at the ready, waiting for the salmon to swim upstream. Many of those who got washed ashore by this wave of evangelicalism have discovered that Yoga is better for their mental wellbeing than spending a Sunday morning listening to two ladies in the middle row bitching about the vicar, to the accompaniment of an old Graham Kendrick song, played on an organ at half speed. I think it was hoped that we might replace these hopeless pew-warmers with a new community of the committed but so far this doesn’t seem to be panning out, does it? They are in bed on a Sunday morning and they aren’t coming back.
As I read through this long piece (3,000 words long), I had three responses.
The first was a pastoral one: it made me very sad. I don’t know the author (who is a chaplain at Cumbria University based in Lancaster) but it felt to me as though the piece was so full of exhausted and rather bitter cynicism that this is the work of someone who at the very least needs support, probably needs a sabbatical, and likely needs to rethink her approach to ministry. She works part-time as a psychotherapist, and that seems to be to be a good thing.
There are lots of things that can provoke us to cynicism in ministry—resentment at the way we have been treated, disappointment with God, disillusionment in our theological and pastoral thinking, or frustration with the institution of the Church. But if we allow these things to make us cynical, I think it is the death of ministry. Actually, it is the death of vibrant faith, and it needs dealing with, whatever the cause, but it is particularly corrosive for those in stipendiary ministry.
My second response was about the language used here. Why would anyone ordained in the Church of England describe the ministry of others in these kinds of terms? ‘An evangelical takeover’; ‘steaming backwards out of HTB’; she characterises her students as believing that ‘most Christians are farty homophobic bigots whose faith got stuck in the ark’, and appears to agree with them. She claims that ‘much of the church is…homophobic, individualistic, climate denying.’
I wonder when it became acceptable to denigrate fellow Anglicans and fellow Christians publicly in these terms? She is a chaplain at a university—and is mocking the Christian students who might expect her support; they have enough enemies already.
Yesterday on social media the idea that I was giving a talk on the Church’s doctrine of marriage at a city church was described as ‘shitty’ by the previous incumbent. Perhaps clergy have always used this kind of language about one another, but in the past it was private. Social media has dragged this language into public and shone a glaring light on it. But when did Anglican clergy become so lacking in discipline and self-control that they became happy to malign each other in this way in front of the watching world? ‘See how they love one another…’
My third response was to note the serious theological issues at stake here. The author appears to be content to play games with important questions of truth, and delight in goading those who take these things all too earnestly.
I’m more of a Richard Rohr girl. Everything belongs. Everything is sacred. I don’t want to have conversations discussing if people are ‘in or out’. I never did…I went to Christian Union once or twice, but they were all a bit serious and seemed quite focused on not having sex with each other. Which I found annoying…
Back at college chapel, Luisa and I tiptoed in trepidation into a Feminist Theology Conference, full of circle- dancing women pissing off the evangelicals by calling God ‘Christa’. They were all reading Gyn-ecology by Mary Daly.
I think that Richard Rohr stands some way outside any reasonable definition of orthodox Christian faith; he is universalist, panentheist and describes his beliefs as akin to Buddhism. I think that matters, and he wide appeal in the church is corrosive. Having a distinctive sexual ethic has been a hallmark of Christian faith since the early church, and Paul ties this into belief in bodily resurrection in 1 Cor 5, so it is not ‘merely’ ethical. And the sexualising and feminising of God is of huge theological significance, not merely a game to be played. In saying this, I risk being labelled by the author as one of those oh-too-serious Christian Union types. But in fact the Church of England has, in the past, taken these theological issues seriously; if it no longer does, then something big has changed very rapidly in the last few years.
The author came to faith herself in an evangelical context:
At a friend’s baptism in Derby, in February 1992, an evangelist called Gary Gibbs led the altar call in the most time-honoured way possible: “If you want to give your life to The Lord tonight, raise your right hand!” – and I did. And I would do it again.
And yet she now mocks those who stand in the same tradition. Having walked through the door of conversion, she seems to have closed it behind her so that it is no longer available to the students to whom she ministers. I think that is tragic.
My final response it to recognise that there are important issues that need addressing which have played a large part in generating the author’s cynicism, disillusionment and discontent.
As a young female curate in the early 2000’s I regularly had groups of male clergy, black shirted and hostile, turning their backs on me en mass when I walked into rooms and refusing to walk next to me in processions or sit next to me at meals. It was standard. Quite a lot of them were gay men.
That is a hideous experience, and I haven’t experienced anything that could match it. I have, though, experienced prejudice from those of different traditions, and pretty awful manipulation and use of power dynamics in a range of situations. These things need addressing—as long as we can address them without becoming cynical, or spraying our cynicism around the world online.
The second expression of discontent was of a rather different kind.
I am the wife of an Anglican vicar in training and, sometimes, I bitterly miss the Catholic Church. But it’s not for the reasons you might think; it’s got nothing to do with theology or cathedrals. It’s got everything to do with moral courage and spiritual leadership.
When I was asked where I stood on an issue (for example, abortion) I could explain that, as a Catholic, I followed the teachings of the Catholic Church. It did not excuse me from doing my own thinking, but it did mean that my views were not taken as personal. To an abortion advocate, their disagreement was not with me as an individual but with the teachings of the Catholic Church, a global institution with over 1.3 billion members. I was protected.
When I moved to the Church of England, my experience changed completely. I found that when these questions came up, the tone of the conversation was much more vicious and personal. It took me a while to figure out why, but I understand now. Where the Catholic Church teaches clearly on what it believes, the Church of England stays silent…
The Church of England refuses to teach me on the key moral and spiritual matters of today. I am begging you for guidance but you will not provide it. I am left fumbling on a thousand issues and I am frequently overwhelmed. I am trying my best but there are too many questions, and even if I did nothing but read for the rest of my life, I would still run out of time.
And as I am trying to learn about gender and sexuality and abortion and race and Anglicanism, I have the added pressure of knowing that I alone will be under attack if the position I come to doesn’t align with the world’s teaching…I can find more moral clarity from the FTSE 100 than I can from the Church.
At least as interesting as the piece was the range of the 165 comments in response to my posting from it. Some suggested that she was asking the Church to think for her; I don’t think she was, and the assumed individualism in that response very striking. Some saw her complaint as a call for spoon-feeding; I interpreted it as a call for theological leadership.
Others thought that she had unrealistic expectations of having a kind of ‘magisterium’ in the C of E akin to the Catholic Church. But I think there’s a difference between having a magisterium and having courage and clarity. I am constantly amazed when I find people often don’t even realise the C of E has a formal position/doctrine on subject X let alone know what it is. Sadly many such people are clergy! I am not aware of anyone having fallen out of ordination training because, after study and reflection, they decided that they did not actually sign up to the doctrine of the C of E. That seems to be to me implausible and worrying.
There was some important discussion in the thread about whether we can believe in absolute ethical certainties, and the discomfort that some feel with necessary ambiguity. One thread explored the complexity of ethical issues, and the divergence of views in the Church. But it is interesting that we have come to a situation where, on many ethical issues, it appears as though there is little confidence that Christian faith has something distinctive to bring to secular discourse—and that at a time where, arguably, contemporary culture has moved as far from Christian faith as it has been for many decades, even centuries.
The most helpful summary of what is at stake came in a comment from Jeremy Duff:
Its point is that, in the leadership of the Anglican churches, cowardice in not speaking clearly, and projecting that there is no such thing as Christian teaching—on whatever topic—is damaging for people. The contrast with the Catholics is that among Catholics there is a clear articulation of the considered church position. Nobody is then forced to agree with it, follow it, etc. But there is clarity, which for many gives a direction of travel or a reference point. Anglicanism seems to have wandered into a position in which everyone can decide for themselves what the Church teaches.
That is defended within Anglicanism by a false polarity—either it’s a dictatorship or we all decide for ourselves. But that is false. The traditional Christian position has been there is Christian doctrine, and many of us find different aspects of it challenging, outside what we can accept at the moment, a work in progress, and so on. It is as if in Anglicanism folks are either so fragile and self-obsessed that they can’t cope with the idea that there is an ideal which is beyond them, so they have to collapse the idea down to their personal practice or opinion. Or indeed a particular clergy sin in which they want to reject any sense of authority over them (despite ordination vows), or being servants of something bigger than them, and want to be a personal ‘measure of all things’.
There are many other issues to be explored in response to this second expression of discontent, too many for one article. But my main point here is to juxtapose these two. How can both sets of discontent be addressed? Can they? Can these two disparate views even co-exist in one Church with any coherence? Can a house so divided against itself really have a future?
I think these things could co-exist in the past, when two things were in place. First, there were not quite the same pressures from outside that there are now; second, there were not the same pressures from within to change in response to some fundamental challenges to the sustainability of the Church.
When you have an old, precious, porcelain vase, with beautiful decoration, and which is a valuable family heirloom, sitting on your mantelpiece, the fact that it has deep cracks in it does not matter as long as you leave it alone and do not want to pick it up and put it in a new place. But if it needs moving, you are in trouble, as it is not certain that the pieces will hold together and withstand the demands of change that must happen for it to find a new situation.
That feels to me to be the situation the Church of England is at the moment. Yet, if the vase is not moved and cannot change, it is going to be swept off the mantelpiece and smashed to pieces.