Injustice for whom? The unexplored link between #justpray and the sexuality of ministers-in-training

It’s sometimes said that the internet in general and social media in particular is nothing more than a vast echo-chamber where the user can find any personal nuance of prejudice or point of view confirmed and re-stated. If that’s the case, then the last couple of days give an alarming picture of just how off-message we Christians can become.

It’s a matter of well recorded fact now that 3 of the UK’s largest cinema chains have refused to screen a 60-second film that shows a variety of people saying the Lord’s Prayer before the forthcoming new Star Wars movie. This is because, its attested, of the relevant company’s policy in the wake of public reaction to the screening of political themed adverts in cinemas relating to the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign; though there’s a bit of confusion as to if this policy was only applied late in negotiations.

The reaction has been vociferous. The Church of England has talked of the ‘chilling’ implications for ‘freedom of speech’; Christians across social media have expressed bewilderment, offence at other cinema content, and anger; bizarrely, Richard Dawkins has given his support to the film being screened (though it’s not so bizarre if you consider the long-game he’s most likely playing); the word ‘banned’ has been thrown around. The ante has been well and truly upped.

Let’s all take a breath. What started as a campaign to get more people praying may have got itself some extra eyeballs as a result of the press coverage (or maybe that was the plan all along?); an unwelcome side-effect is the association, yet-again, of church and Christians with what we’re against … are anger, bewilderment, offence and so on. Nothing about Jesus; little about the Gospel; relationship with God missed in the quest for more youtube hits. All over a not so bad, but not so great 60 seconds of film.

Apparently all publicity is good publicity, but that seems a bit simplistic. I’m sure a few extra people will be prompted to pray as a result, which is clearly a good thing. I’m rather less clear what the resulting big picture is. Any takers? Maybe it will emerge in time, maybe it will be forgotten in the wake of another fresh and terrible genuine crisis.

All this time that Christians are complaining about injustice received (something Jesus seemed reluctant to complain about when He received it), the UK church continues to place itself in morally tricky water. There are now reports of (evangelical) colleges that train people for ordained ministry discouraging already accepted ordination candidates from training with them if they are in a celibate same-sex relationship.

Logs and specks, and all that. Be wary of crying victim. It could come back to haunt us one day, now or in eternity.

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Lost Church by Alan Billings

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, I am a Christian called to worship in and minister in the Anglican church. I was bought up in one, I have worshipped in several, and have committed myself before God and people to ordained ministry in that context. I am also someone whose own tradition within that context is as charismatic evangelical. I am committed to the theology and practice of that; I value other traditions greatly, but that is mine. That doesn’t mean that I sign up to everything which some people associate with that label – I interpret my tradition in the may that fits and works and makes sense for me. But it is the label which fits most naturally – if imperfectly. I am also deeply committed and passionate about a movement within Anglicanism and other denominations known as Fresh Expressions (more of that later). I see none of these things as in conflict with one another. Which is not the impression I was left with after reading Lost Church by Alan Billings.

It’s an accesible and clearly constructed book calling Anglican churches and their clergy to reconsider ministry to those who may not be fully professing Christians, but have a vague sense of belonging to the established Church of England. They may not ‘believe’ as many would understand that concept, but they have a sense of attachment, loyalty and belonging to a type of religious expression which they understand the Church Of England as providing.

In essence, that’s Billings’ call. There’s a lot that’s helpful here. He speaks as an experienced parish priest and trainer of clergy, so this is coming from a position of first hand experience. His variety of ministry contexts and  engagement with research leaves him well placed to analyse societal trends. There’s much that’s helpful and challenging for me and for people like me – I need to own the fact, as he does suggest, that evangelical Anglicans can put as many barriers as we think we are taking down for people. It’s just that we’re keeping out, sometimes, a different sort of person. There’s also a tendency amongst some in our tradition to cut ourselves off from our historical moorings and fellowship within the broader church. All of that is true, and the book was a helpful reminder and corrective to me  – even now, serving a long way from England, but still an Anglican. Societal trends in South Africa are likely to follow a similar path to that seen over recent times in the UK, so these are apposite warnings.

I had problems with the book, though. First is that I was struck by what felt to me a certain meanness of spirit. I own some of these criticisms of the traditions of which I am a part; but some of the language and tone felt at times snide and at others unfair. As a former priest in Sheffield he criticises, for instance, the high profile St Thomas’ Crookes church in that city. In the late 1980s/early 90s the church experimented with an usunaual form of worship which came out of nightclub culture. This met with initial success, before a very public moral failure, the fall of the leader and accusations (almost certainly justified) of cult-like behaviour. Billings criticises St Thomas’ for sitting outside normal Anglican structures – without mentioning the reality of the the church having been a joint Anglican and Baptist project since 1982. So of course it was going to sit outside normal structures; that’s not to excuse the failures or mistakes, but he’d have done well to point out that it wasn’t fully Anglican because that would have been to deny the essence of what that church was meant to be.  He suggests that ‘perhaps’ lessons have been learned at St Thomas’ and in similar contexts – the reality is that if you read books to emerge from St Thomas, listen to the leaders and speak to people in the Fresh Expressions movement, then they manifestly have. In the case of St Thomas’, the church has continued to grow and move into innovative, exciting models of leadership, mission and discipleship – without a hint of moral failure. That tragic series of mistakes has been learned from, but will remain fallen Churches are led for sinners by sinners so failures will still occur, but you can’t move far in these circles without hearing these lessons rehearsed.

There is the problem. For all his no doubt deep experience and valuable, committed ministry Alan Billings seems to spend time lobbing criticisms at something he doesn’t show he’s engaged with. Evangelicals do not all try to argue people through reason into a propositional set of ideas, as he suggests. Many evangelical churches are profoundly, deeply, prophetically tolerant and welcoming; not all are cold and unfriendly. Some are not, of course. Some are, though. Fresh Expressions is not ‘about meeting in any sort of building other than a church, as if a church building could only be of interest to the already committed‘; it’s about creating a ‘mixed economy’ church (to use former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ phrase in his support of the movement) which uses BOTH traditional and new models of church. It takes inspiration from the vows all priests ordained in England take ‘to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation’; it’s rooted in Anglicanism and committed to ecumenism – so naturally it will contain elements that are not Anglican so much as reflective of other approaches. Many within the movement – as the aformentioned sinners we all are – will come across as arrogant or dismissive or loaners. Many, though, are humble, Godly people who love the church and their fellow ministers. Which is why they want to see the church grow, and even more invited into the variety of her beauty.

Lost Church blessed, challenged, encouraged, saddened and angered me. I liked it. It has an urgent message. Many who love the church should read it; I fear though that a lack of thought and understanding in places will lead to offence and regression rather than the forward movement Allan Billings clearly longs to see in the church he loves.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com

The Church of England and women Bishops: hope’s terrible beauty

Hope should be a beautiful, simple word. Hope, the Bible tells us, does not disappoint. The Shawshank Redemption told us ‘Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free’. That resonated with a lot of people.

There’s another side to hope, though. One that’s also true, and altogether more painful. It’s encapsulated in a saying that springs from British football culture. ‘It’s the hope that kills you’. It’s a way of saying that when you feel your team finally has a chance of achieving something unlikely or long dreamed of, it’s all the more painful and frustrating to have that hope dashed. That fits well today.

Yesterday the Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, voted down some legislation which if passed would have paved the way for women to become Bishops. Although Synod actually agreed to women Bishops some time ago, what was up for debate was how that would work legally – how to allow it to happen, but still allow space and provision for those English Anglicans who feel that in all conscience they cannot accept the ministry of a woman Bishop. There are 3 ‘houses’ at Synod; the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity (people who aren’t ordained). To pass, legislation needs a two-thirds majority in each house. This was achieved easily in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy. In the laity it fell short. If 5 laypeople had changed their votes, it would have gone through,

Pain was inevitable. If it had gone through, there would have been men and women feeling deep pain and anguish today about their future in the Church of England. This morning that pain is for those who long to see women allowed to be Bishops. There is hope, but it’s a hope that today hurts. Hope that women Bishops are effectively agreed to in theory, but the pain that this is not so in practice. Hope that this legislation was approved by most of the individual dioceses (a diocese is a Bishop’s geographical area of responsibility), hope that so many yesterday voted in favour, but pain that because of five the answer is still ‘not yet’. Hope that women are priests, but are not yet legally allowed to be Bishops.

Today it feels like never. I feel heart sore for those denied the possibility of what I and they believe is their God-given calling and right. There’s lots of hope, but this morning it’s precisely that hope which hurts. It’s the same hope which spurs us on and inspires as we wait for Jesus to return and remake creation to a place of no more pain, giving us glimpses now of what that will look like. It’s the same pain too – that causes us to carry on now, aware that pain and apparently unanswered prayer is also a reality.

I and many others are Anglicans partly because being one calls me to be part of something bigger, to challenge me to live in family and in relationship with those with whom I disagree. This morning some of us were always going to wrestle. Wrestle with what God is saying. Are we who advocate for women Bishops wrong? Was this the wrong legislation in the wrong way? Is it the right thing at the wrong time? What is the the Spirit saying to the church?

I don’t know, yet. I was born and raised in the Church of England. It frustrates me, but I also believe God has called me to serve from and within it. Currently I serve many miles away, in another expression of Anglicanism where women can be Bishops, where one was consecrated last week and another will be next year. But still I ache and cry and fear and pray for the Church of the England.

There is hope, but today it hurts, and threatens to kill.The time for discernment will come. It starts, though, with sitting in the dust awhile and feeling hope’s terrible beauty.