Sunday, 27 January 2013

Loyal Anglicans : A historical view

A few years ago, the Church of England's General Synod passed a resolution declaring that both those who agree and those who disagree with the ordination of women are 'loyal Anglicans'.

Since then, this phrase has been repeatedly quoted by those who disagree with women's ordination. Look here, the argument runs. We are loyal Anglicans - Synod has agreed -  and we cannot be called disloyal just because we don't support the church's decision to ordain women. You have to let us have everything we feel we need to flourish. Separate bishops. Separate dioceses, preferably, but failing that certainly separate Chrism masses, separate ordination services, separate selection conferences. It isn't disloyal or separatist to ask for these things, we are assured: how can it be, when we know everyone involved is a 'loyal Anglican'?

Let's leave aside, for a moment, the illogicality of basing your argument on a declaration that both sides are loyal, and then using that declaration as an excuse for disowning your opponents as invalid innovators who are not loyal to the inheritance of faith.

Instead, I want to consider the phrase 'loyal Anglicans' as a historian. Because from a historical perspective, this phrase 'loyal Anglicans' is a very richly evocative phrase.

It is hardly going too far to say that the entire basis of Anglicanism is loyalty. Loyalty to the Crown over the Pope, mainly. And secondly, loyalty to a prescribed way of doing things rather than to our own ideas.

Reading the Book of Common Prayer, and contemporary texts such as the Book of Homilies, it is very clear indeed that loyalty, for the founders of the Church of England meant 1) Unquestioning obedience to the Crown, and 2) Conformity to the set forms of worship.

Much of the language in which this is couched sounds ridiculously sycophantic and even downright creepy to modern ears. But to put it in context, the early Church of England was being formed at a time of terrifying political and religious turmoil across Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the wars that raged between Spain, France and the Low Countries. England's monarchs and ruling class were understandably petrified of being drawn into these wars. They were petrified of religiously motivated acts of terrorism - such as the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. They were terrified of invasion by Spain under the pretext of religion. They were terrified of invasion by France via Scotland, ditto.

In these circumstances, the equally fierce war of words between those of Catholic and those of Puritan persuasion within the Church of England was seen as a grave danger. Nothing that might cause the war of words to flare up into open violence could be tolerated, because it might give an opening to invasion from abroad. And anything that looked too much like Roman Catholicism was viewed as potentially treasonous, because the Pope had declared Queen Elizabeth to be an invalid ruler.

For several decades, it was uncertain how things would turn out. One key turning point was the Spanish Armada of 1588. As the mighty Spanish fleet sailed up the Channel, and Elizabeth made her famous speech at Tilbury, it was notable that several prominent Catholic noblemen were there with their retinues. The threat of invasion had cystallised their loyalties: they had decided that they were Englishmen first, and Catholics second.
You might be secretly harbouring a Catholic priest to say Masses for your household, you might regularly pay your fines for non-attendance at your parish church: but ultimately, loyal Anglicanism meant being there at Tilbury.

And if you were a thorough-going Calvinist, and thought candles, vestments and the BCP were a load of papist nonsense, you could believe, privately, what you liked: Elizabeth famously said that she had no wish to "make windows into men's souls". But you couldn't do what you liked. You were required to use the prescribed prayer book, preach only the prescribed Homilies (unless you were granted a special license to preach your own sermons), wear the prescribed vestments. Conformity was all.

So loyalty was the heart and soul of early Anglicanism. Loyalty to the Crown, and loyalty - shown by conformity - to the church. Explicitly not, ever, loyalty to your personal theological convictions, or the claims of any other church body. Explicitly not, ever, loyalty to a certain theological position over loyalty to that proclaimed by the bishops, monarch and parliament.

So I find these current pleas of loyalty rather unconvincing, especially when they come from those most eager to claim continuity with our traditions.

Loyal Anglicanism means accepting the decisions of the Church of England - and of the Crown-in-Parliament - and being prepared to act in conformity with them even if you personally think they are mistaken. Now, you might validly dislike that idea, and you might validly think that your loyalties are to a different body. But this is what the history and tradition of Anglicanism are.

Why else would a declaration in Synod be quoted so repeatedly, so triumphantly? The very fact that 'Synod says so' is being used as an argument is a tacit acceptance that Synod has the right to decide on such matters, and that conformity to Synod's rulings is appropriate.

But if Synod's statements are to be taken as the grounds for argument, there is no getting away from the fact that Synod has said that women can be ordained. That women can and should become bishops, that there are no fundamental theological objections to women's ordination. And since Synod has declared women can be ordained, there is no grounds for refusing to accept that your (male) bishop is a loyal Anglican, let alone demanding an alternative one with whom you can agree.

We should stop the creeping separation that we have allowed to infiltrate the Church of England since the Act of Synod. Let's all go to the same Chrism masses, the same ordination services. Let's enact unity, rather than talking about it. Or let's stop, please, claiming to be loyal.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Sermon for Unity Sunday

A sermon for Unity Sunday (Epiphany 2C readings)

These are my sermon notes from this morning: the context was a service held jointly with the local Methodists. This isnt an exact script, and some parts are more in note form than others!

What is unity?

Specicifically, what is Christian unity?

It's a question that has been particularly live for us in the Church of England over the past year. It's certainly been a key question for me in 2012, as a member of General Synod until the summer.

We began the year by the dioceses voting on the whether the proposed Anglican Covenant was a good way to deal with serious theological differences across the communion. We decided overwhelmingly that it wasn't, and I think that was the right decision. But it dies of course leave us still with the question, and we don't have an alternative answer at the moment. We spent much of the year working our way through the final stages of the women bishops legislation, trying to find a way both to have women as bishops and accommodate those who think women's ordination is unacceptable, only for that compromise to be rejected at the last hurdle in November. And then at the very end of the year the government's proposed legislation on same sex marriages reopened what were very fresh wounds in the body of Christ.

So what unity means - really means - in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences among Christians is no abstract idea for us today. It's not just a nice to have, a lovely idea that we all say we would like, pray for together today and then ignore for the rest of the year. Christian unity is the cutting edge of church theology and church state relations at the moment. If we can't get to grips with it, we may well end up with the Church of England disestablished, and with the Anglican communion a distant memory. And that's just the internal situation. Unity with other denominations remains a distant dream. Certainly structural unity with Methodism has been ruled out until we open the episcopate to women. Methodism and other denominations such as the Quakers have been pushing to be allowed to hold same sex marriages in church, and the governments current proposals drive a deeper wedge between us as denominations. And our ability to engage in ecumenical discussions both nationally and internationally is seriously hampered by our inability as a denomination to know how to handle our own internal differences.

This stuff really matters. Im not going to solve the problems this morning: the best minds of our generation have been working on these problems and not sorted them out yet! If I had the solution to Christian Unity I'd have told Synod about it....

But let's look at what our readings this morning say about unity, when we read them with this question in our minds.

Each of  our Bible readings this morning shed light on what unity is from rather different angles. Isaiah gives us the image of marriage as a metaphor for unity. John tells us a story about Jesus at a party. And Paul gives us a densely argued piece of theology, with a surprisingly radical message.

Images of unity : marriage, party (eating and drinking together). Cf communion. Not abstract theory but practical reality. We are unified if we eat and drink together. This approaches the queation of who we are in communion with from a completely different angle to those who say they won't share communion unless we are unified. Or that we are in imoaired communion with those who don't agree with us, or do things differently to us. The suggestion here is celebrating together creates communion. Is the real reason people refuse to take communion with others a deepseated sense that they do believe in the power of taking communion together, and fear having communion created with thise with whom they profoundly disagree?

Unity is action, not theory. And delight, celebration,joy. Never dour, solemn, agreement: lavish hospitality, exuberant delight. In Isaiah, delight, marriage and rejoicing are used virtually as equivalents - no sense here of marriage as a loveless contract or submissive relationship, Here it is all about joy, delight, love, celebration. Unity in joy.

It hardly needs saying, I hope, that Unity is not about being the same. The image of marriage is of two very different people coming together in mutual joy and delight - God and Jerusalem, a young couple. The story of the wedding at Cana is obviously about a large group of different people finding unity in celebrating the marriage of two of their friends or relations, and in drinking together.

But even more notably, this story starts with one of the most arresting moments of dramatic conflict in the gospel stories. Mary notices that the party has run out of wine, and tells Jesus. And Jesus' reply, however much we know it is coming, still has the power to shock us. It is very uncomfortable to hear. 'Woman, what concern is that of mine?' It is a shockingly rude way for a young man to speak to his mother! But she ignores him and simply turns to the servants and says 'do whatever he tells you'. And so the miracle happens. It seems to me that this begins to address  some of the very real questions we bring to the question of unity. Unity doesn't mean not being in conflict. It doesn't mean necessarily being polite to one another. It is unity of action that matters, not unity of words. Jesus' words are rude, harsh, dismissive. But he does the business, and his actions speak louder than his words.

Our reading from 1 Corinthians takes a different approach. Instead of metaphors or stories, Paul gives us some densely argued theology. Paul focuses on the Holy Spirit, on what is animating our actions.

'Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone'.

It is interesting that even Paul the theologian again focuses not on the differences in what we believe but the differences in what we do. Gifts, services, activities: these are our business, our jobs, our work. And he goes on to list various examples, again busy busy busy: speaking wisely, teaching, healing, working miracles, prophecy, languages and so on. It is very interesting that Paul puts faith in this list - here, as elsewhere, it is clear that for Paul, faith is active not passive. It is something we do, we act out our faith.

Paul deliberately lists a bewildering variety of activities, some of which may seem rather alien to us. He is deliberately demonstrating the very wide variety of activities that the Holy Spirit animates in different people. The link that unifies this bewildering variety is the Holy Spirit,  from whom these gifts come and by whom they are activated.

So, does anything go? Is unity simply a question of recognising that the same Holy Spirit is working in and through each one of us, regardless of our very obvious and sometimes very serious differences?

Nearly, but not quite.

Paul addresses this question very directly in the previous paragraph. 'I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says 'Let Jesus be cursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.'

Thats it. As far as Paul is concerned - Paul the stickler for getting theology right - that is the one, simple test of whether someones gifts and activities are animated by the Holy Spirit or not. I find that quite mindblowing. Paul, of the rules and regulations? Paul, constantly writing to churches all over the known world teling them what they are getting wrong? Yup, that Paul says here that it is this simple.

So, what is unity in the light of these passages? Isaiah gives us the image of marriage. Its about delighting in each other, finding joy in the differences. John tells us a story: its about celebration, eating and drinking together, and what you do not what you say. And Paul gives us a theological test: anything that is animated by the Holy Spirit - anything that goes alongside acknowledging Jesus as Lord - is held together by that same Holy Spirit.

All of them seem to me to focus more on actions than words, and more on joy than correctness. Unity, it seems, is about eating and drinking together, delighting in one another, and accepting that the Holy Spirit is active in a bewildering variety of ways.  It is something we do, not something we say. Unity is what we are doing this morning, as we sing and eat and drink together.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Normality and Deviance

One of the many interesting and distasteful things about the rhetoric of poverty and privilege in political discourse, both now and for at least the past 400 years or so, is the extent to which poverty is conceptualised as deviant, and privilege as normal.

Statistically, of course, poverty is quite normal. There has always been something of a skewed bell curve of wealth distribution, with a few very wealthy individuals, a few in the middle and a long tail (though the shape of the curve changes over history). As Jesus remarked, the poor will always be with us.

What we consider to be poverty is culturally determined. When you ask rich people what poverty and wealth are, they come up with some astounding answers. A recent survey of City workers, who were asked what figure they thought the top 10th percentile of income started at, revealed how skewed their view of the world. Those relatively high earners thought that the top 10% of earners in this country earned more than £200, 000 a year. The correct figure is around £40,000; it is roughly where the higher rate tax band comes from. But most people earning this amount do not say that they feel rich.

Most people in this country have a household income of below £22,000 for a couple without children, and the bottom 10% less than £11,000. Yet struggling to pay for a washing machine when it breaks, or being unable to afford the bus fare to go to the doctor’s surgery - things that are, in fact, 'normal' - are widely seen as unusual. Not normal. Abnormal. Deviant.

‘Obscene’ wealth – and the choice of adjective is significant – is also regarded as deviant, but wealth – or as we in the middle classes prefer to call it, ‘being comfortable’ - is defined as the norm, despite all the statistical evidence to the contrary.

And if being comfortably well off is the norm, then clearly the poor are deviations from the norm. And the way we human beings use the language and concepts of the group means that we slip so frighteningly easily from speaking of deviations from the norm – which should be a matter of statistical fact only - to speaking of deviancy, and from deviancy to demonisation. We see this only too clearly in the rhetoric of poverty and benefits today.

What is the opposite of 'normal'?

Abnormal - odd - deviant?

All of these imply some sort of value judgement. We have few words in our language that can simply refer to the statistical fact that some things occur more or less often than others.

In mathematics, the norm is a particular type of measurement: the single number that occurs most often in a list of numbers. (For example: if five people's scores on a test were 1, 2, 2, 6, 9  the norm would be 2, whilst the average would be 4). Similarly, deviation from the norm is measurable (there is such a thing as 'standard deviation', a measure of how much variation there is a given set of statistics) and morally neutral.

But outside of mathematics, we seem to use normal to mean not just 'the way most things/people/examples are' but 'the way things should be'. This makes it hard for us to discuss statistical outliers neutrally.

One of the key goals of all liberation theologies, and perhaps of feminism in particular, is to challenge the extent to which the dominant social status is seen as the norm, with the subordinate status seen as deviant.

Just as poverty has been seen as abnormal, so has being a woman.
ness has for centuries been seen as the norm in our society. And it has followed apparently logically and inevitably from that, that maleness is the norm from which femaleness is deviant.  In past centuries this was very explicitly discussed. In the seventeenth century, for example, there were serious arguments amongst both theologians and natural scientists as to whether women were fully human. Women could be seriously considered to be deficient versions of men, in much the same way as children were deficient versions of adults. Though children were in some ways better off, as of course they could be expected to grow up.

This is not merely of academic interest. The oppression of women – physically, sexually, economically and politically – was routinely justified and explained on the basis that women needed to be looked after. We were seen as simply not having the same capacity as men to make financial, political, sexual or any other judgements, because we were not thought to have 'normal' (ie male) rational capacity.

The way we use the language of normality and deviance is of course also very relevant to current debates about those who have an LGBT sexual identity. We seem incapable of having a conversation about sexual orientation that accepts the existence of a statistical norm (most people are heterosexual), and of alternatives (some people - perhaps 5-10%, though estimates vary greatly  - identify as LGBT).

People say - you will have heard this, perhaps even said this, yourself - 'but it's not normal, is it?'. It is, mathematically speaking, entirely normal for some people to be not normal. As the adverts said - some people are gay, get over it. It may well be that we want to have a conversation as a society about the  acceptable use of our sexuality, what is and is not acceptable sexual behaviour. As a Church, we may well want to discuss the morality of certain sexual behaviours. But 'normality' is very poor grounds to base such a discussion on.

We need to pay much more attention to our discourse, our language, of normality and deviance. I would love to see the media - and all of us - resolve never to use the word 'normal' without a statistical qualification. If we said 'it is statistically normal for....' Or 'the statistical norm is....', we might begin to disentangle statistics from morality.

Some things are indeed more the statistical norm of human experience than others. But things that are less common are no less normal. It is within the normal range of human experience to be a rich gay woman, it just occurs less frequently than being a poor straight man.

But our current use of language tends to imply a value judgement on anything that occurs less frequently. We slip so easily and smoothly from normality to deviance in the way we conceptualise groups. Whatever your views on poverty, or women, or LGBT people, greater clarity in our way of speaking would be a great step forward in our discussions.