In Praise of Method and Application

A propos the priesthood, Giles Fraser writes in praise of Incompetence in his latest Unherd blog. He talks movingly and rightly of the dangers of any priest ever pretending that they are “successful”. And of how the grace and love of God uses the unlikely, the odd, the incompetent to advance the cause of God’s love and justice. The Bible and our faith’s history are littered with fine examples of how great things have been done on a large and (perhaps much, much more importantly) a very small-scale by those you would least expect to do so. All of this keeps us humble and reminds us of the truth of Paul’s telling us that we have this treasure in jars of clay.

I want, however, to raise a flag for hard work and organisation. I have been a priest since I was twenty-five. I never had a career before I was ordained. I was lucky to be a fairly naturally hard-working person, and had a dutiful sense that I was under an obligation to do my best. But over a long ministry as vicar, rural dean and chaplain I have noticed many colleagues who did not naturally have this drive.

The trouble with being a clergyperson is that you are paid a stipend. This is an allowance sufficient to allow you to live and to perform the duties of your office. But you are not paid a wage or a salary. Your work is not tied to time. You work when you want to and need to in order to fulfil your responsibilities. This is a tricky business to manage.

The naturally lazy can spend a long time doing very little indeed. Or taking an inordinate amount of time to do relatively simple tasks because they were poorly organised. But provided they turn up at church and take the services they must and don’t do things so badly that the archdeacon is complained to, then they can drift on for years unguided and unmanaged and unimproved. I have known clergy exactly like that – who did a few services a week, visited the one or two parishioners they liked for a bit of gossip, and pottered about reading or in the garden.

Conversely there are the clergy, who, because of the unbounded nature of the role, work themselves to a standstill because they can never do enough, and the jobs are never finished and the to do list remains ever full. There are many clergy marriages that have foundered on overwork and burn out. Thankfully, places like the Society of Martha and Mary exist to support and help the clergy who do work hard discover some balance.

I want to suggest, however, that hard work is not always well-directed, or well-organised work. In the 1990s and 2000s I was rector first of five parishes and then of a team of thirteen parishes in Cambridgeshire. I worked hard, very hard, to manage and to grow the spiritual life of the villages I ministered to. But two people helped more than I can say, and I have never properly acknowledged what they gave me. I won’t name them, but they will recognise themselves. They were both colleagues in the Team Ministry I led.

One was my curate. I had the fortune to be asked to train a man who had worked for Parcel Force before he trained for the ministry. What that meant he brought to his ordained life was a real ability to organise methodically pieces of work that needed doing. The classic case was working out how we were to have all the meetings that we needed in a benefice of thirteen parishes without clashes and confusion. The answer, which my colleague provided, was to devise a spreadsheet which booked all meetings eighteen months in advance, so everyone knew in very good time, when and where everything of that kind was happening. It was a big piece of work – but once done could be easily updated.

I was initially a bit resistant to this. It seemed rather unministerial to me. But I was soon converted – there was in his method a truly liberating truth – getting organised frees you to do other things and stops you wasting time sorting out messes.   That spreadsheet made for hours more pastoral contact time with all kinds of people. He completely converted me to forward planning and organisation in one spreadsheet. I am forever grateful.

Another colleague had been a senior HR manager in IBM and now farmed. He offered to take me through an appraisal process. I agreed and he very gently told me of some of my greatest failings. They were mostly about prompt responses to communications. He helped me find a system that made sure I responded fast to people who wanted to get hold of me without letting their needs overtake me. I learnt how to do my job better. I improved. I will always be hugely grateful to him for what he gave me in that process.

The lessons they taught me have never left me. I used them extensively in Chaplaincy. Now I run my own business in celebrancy. I rely on my reputation to earn my living. My bookings come almost entirely from Funeral Directors recommending me to families and then booking my services. I have to be both hard-working and organised as well as pastorally sensitive, or I would get no work. If I messed up it would reflect on the Funeral Director and I would never be asked to take a funeral again by that company. And word soon gets around.

The benefits of applying oneself with method and organisation are not primarily for myself. I think that what makes them really important things to hold on to as we labour is that they are both, in ministry, ways of showing that we truly care for other people. If I want to love my neighbour as myself, then the dreary virtues of being well-organised, punctual, and prepared show that I value the people I am going to see. Working from a snowstorm of paper on my desk will impact on how I take care of people or not. Easy for the naturally well-organised, not so much for some of us. But these are things that can be learnt, can be bothered with. And in so doing we bother about other people, and we show them that we do.

Of course, it is God who is at work in us however we work, however lazy or shambolic we are, when something extraordinary and gracious and life-transforming takes place. Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in the Power and the Glory taught us that. But that is no reason not to try our hardest or seek to be as well-organised as we can. The same Paul who tells us so often that the initiative is God’s in working in us and through us also says. “leaving what is behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal”.


How will the Church of England respond to heterosexual civil partnerships?

The Church of England likes to portray itself as the friend of civil partnerships for LGBT+ people.

This is notwithstanding the fact that when the legislation was passing through the House of Lords in 2004 the majority of its 26 bishops in the British upper chamber of parliament voted for an amendment that was widely seen at the time as a way of wrecking the bill.  

The amendment failed, and the bishops published rather grudging pastoral guidance as the new arrangements came into force, including a refusal to offer any services of blessing for couples entering civil partnerships.

Since then same-sex marriage has been introduced, and bishops have discovered the joy of civil partnerships, which is that they can be assumed to be sexless relationships.

In the Church’s teaching, sex belongs, you will recall, only in a lifelong, exclusive marriage between one man and one woman. Just don’t ask about divorce and second marriages – somehow they don’t alter this fundamental position.

However, because there is always the possibility that people in a civil partnership might have discovered the delights of sex, the bishops still don’t want to ask God to bless anyone entering such a union. Just in case. Because sex is so yucky and awkward and worrying.

In a ruling in the British Supreme Court last year, the judges found unanimously that barring entry to civil partnerships for heterosexual couples (as had been the case) was, since the introduction of same-sex marriage, discriminatory and against the human rights of heterosexual couples who wished to make such a commitment.

The passage of a bill recently changing registration arrangements has now opened up the prospect of the Secretary of State being able to change the rules around civil partnerships to include heterosexual couples. And the timetable for this to take place is before the end of the year.

This is going to put the Church of England in a bit of a spot.

Any heterosexual couple in England has a right in law to be married in their parish church. If a heterosexual couple choose to have a civil partnership rather than a marriage, but also want this union blessed in the church and present themselves to their local vicar, what is s/he to say?

The Church of England doesn’t bless civil partnerships. But what is the essential difference between them and marriage?

If a civil partnership is between a man and a woman should it be a sexless thing like for same-sex couples? Or will the Church of England agree to bless heterosexual civil partnerships officially, but not homosexual ones?

The uproar that would cause doesn’t bear contemplating – even the most tin-eared Lambeth Palace apparatchik must know that would be PR suicide.

Up until now the bishops have not had to address this question. But the clock is ticking. The end of the year is the latest date the change in regulations could be introduced, not the soonest.

We deserve to be told what they will do.

There is no time for the Living in Love and Faith process, a major report into – as the Church describes it – “human identity, sexuality and marriage” due to be published next year, to debate this for years.

Will gay and straight people entering civil partnerships get equal treatment as regards a blessing? If not, why not?

If no blessing is offered, on what grounds is this denied to heterosexual couples? And if it were to be offered equally, then is the assumption about “sexlessness” being abandoned? In which case, why doesn’t the Church of England bless same-sex marriages as well?

It could be a very interesting few months.

This blog post was first published on 7th May 2019 by Openly, an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation :

The Church of England must break its toxic colonial legacy

March 12 marks the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women priests within the Church of England. Yet while today marks one milestone, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people remain second-class citizens.

Next year the Anglican bishops from around the world will meet for the Lambeth Conference. Except that a tranche of them, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, will boycott the event because of the toleration (as they see it) some churches show towards ungodly behaviour.

In their eyes, this is because the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States (and one or two others) have welcomed and included LGBT+ people in the life and ministry of their churches and support equal marriage.

The Archbishop of Canterbury sits poised anxiously and uncomfortably on the fence between these two blocks.

He doesn’t want to be seen as being nasty to the gays, but he doesn’t want to be the man on whose watch the Anglican Communion (the loose worldwide federation of Anglican churches) falls apart terminally. He daren’t offend the anti-gay churches by being seen to be too supportive of the English LGBT+ faithful and their frustrated cries for inclusion.

So the LGBT+ community faces oppression for the sake of a greater goal – inter-church unity.

This Anglican Communion only exists because of British colonialism. As the empire spanned the globe, so too did the Church of England. And after some time, indigenous churches sprang up along the Church of England model. This is not all the story – Scotland and the United States have a close relationship and an entirely independent route through history into this family of independent reformed catholic churches. But the dominant influence was churches being established on the coat tails of British colonialisation.

Those colonial churches have been independent for many years. They are in places where the British introduced harsh laws against homosexuality. The majority of the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations criminalise sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex and other forms of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in 35 of the 53 sovereign states of the Commonwealth and legal in only 18.

This has been described as being the legacy of the British Empire. In most cases, it was former colonial administrators that established anti-gay legislation or sodomy acts during the 19th century and even earlier. The majority of countries have retained these laws following independence.

Due to the common origin of historical penal codes in many former British colonies, the prohibition of homosexual acts, specifically anal sex between men, is provided for in Section 377 in the penal codes of 42 former British colonies, many of whom are today members of the Commonwealth.

Perhaps, then, LGBT+ Christians and their allies in the Church of England should give some attention to this toxic legacy. We should be supporting the work of groups like the Human Dignity Trust. Changing the law in these Commonwealth countries requires lawyers who will work to get this done – they need our support. It is work that needs to be done for its own sake.

However, when decriminalisation arrives in, for example, Uganda, Kenya or Nigeria, then it will start to put real pressure on, for example, Uganda’s churches to change their homophobic tune. Those Anglican churches that are most virulently anti-gay are also financed and resourced by extreme conservative Christians from the United States.

These links also need exposing and breaking.

It might also free the Archbishop of Canterbury from the bind he now finds himself in and help him to do the right thing by the many LGBT+ members of his own church who are tired of being second-class Christians.

This blog post was first published on 12th March 2019 by Openly, an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation :

The Church of England must open its doors to same-sex weddings

The first same-sex marriages were celebrated on March 29 2014 shortly after midnight. No same-sex marriages have yet been celebrated in Church of England churches, because the established church, firmly against the proposal, campaigned for and was granted a pass by the government to make sure it wouldn’t happen.

Five years on, a new campaign for equal marriage in the Church of England is being launched on Friday.

EQUAL: The Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England begins the work of persuading the church nationally to accept this foundational social institution among gay and lesbian as well as heterosexual couples. I say begin, but in truth, most Anglicans support same-sex marriage and would be pleased to see it available in their parishes. Fewer than 20 percent now think that same-sex relationships are wrong in all circumstances.

The problem lies with the church. What does it say? And how does its opposition to same-sex marriage look after five years?

The Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission produced a report called “Men and Women Together in Marriage” in 2013. In it we find some startling claims.

On the first page, we are told that marriage between a man and a woman is the best context in which to raise of children. This is an understandable traditional assertion, but is there any evidence that this is so? The question is usually posed the other way round: does being raised by same-sex parents harm children?

The research on this point is extremely clear, the latest being a considerable study from Australia published last autumn in Nature magazine – being raised by same-sex parents does not harm or disadvantage children at all. What harms and disadvantages them is stereotyping, bullying and homophobia. There is no demonstrable advantage to being raised by two parents of opposite genders.

Again the Commission writes: “We cannot turn our back upon the natural, and especially the biological, terms of human existence.”

But what is “natural” and “biological”?

Estimates of species that exhibit same-sex sexual behaviour run to as many as 1,500, and pair-bonding for life is well-documented in some species, for example the Laysan albatross. Domestic sheep have a stable population of exclusively homosexual sheep of about 8 percent.

And humans, the only species to have hated and persecuted homosexual people, has a persistent and stable minority despite these hurdles. Not acknowledging this, and not supporting it looks rather more like turning your back on nature and biology.

LGBT+ people are a persistent natural minority.

When it came to the debate in the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated… The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as a covenant is diminished.”

No evidence was offered to support these claims. “However, it is not at heart a faith issue,” he concluded. “It is about the general social good”.

I agree. How has the general social good been affected by the introduction of same-sex marriage?

Five years on, the Church of England ought to be ready to evidence the rather wild claims that it made before its introduction, only a few of which I have highlighted here.

I don’t believe it can produce any serious evidence to support its concerns. Indeed, the evidence points, as I have indicated, in other directions.

EQUAL is campaigning for the doors of parish churches to be unlocked to same-sex couples. They want a full welcome to couples of all kinds who want a religious wedding.

Enough time has passed. The dogma and foot-dragging of the institution needs to change fast if it is to retain any credibility with a population who thinks that treating people equally is the only moral way to behave.

This blog was first published on 12th April 2019 by Openly, an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation :

True LGBT+ inclusion and equality in the Church of England are a long way off

This has been a strange few weeks in which to be LGBT+ and a member of the Church of England. The bishops of the church have commissioned a process called “Living in Love and Faith”. This will, according to its website, produce “resources that will help bishops” lead others in thinking about “what it means to be holy in a society in which understandings and practices of gender, sexuality and marriage continue to change”.

It is a slow process involving many experts and a report is expected in time for the global Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops next year.

In a meeting last month of the General Synod, which governs the Church of England, the project called for people to work against prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, lying and the use of power against LGBT+ people in churches.

All fine words. But what is the reality?

Looking positively first, gay and transgender people in the Church of England can be members of a congregation and join parish electoral rolls and stand for parochial offices.

They are also permitted to sing in the choir, ring the bells, do the flowers and be a part of study, prayer or teaching groups. They may also find that they are loved and accepted by the parish in many parts of the country.

However, on the flipside, they may also find that their gender identity or sexuality is never mentioned even in abstract terms and that their partners or loved ones are airbrushed out.

Certain churches might also prevent them from performing certain tasks, for example, working with children, because they are LGBT+. They might also discover that their vicar is unsympathetic if they come out to them.

Many might also find that there is no explicit advertising in their church that makes a welcome for gay and trans people obvious and that some same-sex couples find it hard to have children baptised.

In instances, some LGBT+ might have been refused communion. And finally that there is explicit teaching in some places about sinful same-sex relationships.

Therefore there are a few ground rules for those who sense a vocation to ministry. First, when offering for ordination they may well be treated sympathetically, but their reception will depend on each diocesan policy.

Second, that colleges try to accommodate and care for LGBT+ ordinands and that initial training placements (curacies) are mostly handled sensitively.

They will also be expected to train and be ordained in accordance with a 1991 House of Bishops statement that makes clear that clergy should not be in sexually active same-sex relationships. Bluntly put, this means they will have to either live in a celibate relationship, or pretend they are doing so.

They will not have the choice to marry and minister, and those clergy in same-sex couples who marry will not be employed or allowed to take services even on an occasional basis because of the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidelines of 2014.

Finally, clergy in civil partnerships will be able to find employment in some dioceses subject to the restrictions noted above and the policy of the individual bishop.

In conclusion, everyone needs to remember certain fundamental facts that underpin who the Church of England operates.

At the base of everything is the rule that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, and this is the only approved context for sexual relations. Yet despite this, the church has accommodated divorce and has many divorced and remarried bishops and clergy; indeed divorce is no longer a bar to remarriage in church or to taking Holy Communion.

The Church of England fought successfully for exemptions to the Equality Act 2010. No same-sex couple can legally be married in a Church of England church, and it will require parliamentary legislation to change that.

The church still discriminates nationally and locally against LGBT+ people and shows no sign of wanting to give up the special privileges that allow it to do so legally.

The truth is simple: true inclusion and equality are a long way off.

This is the reality and this is the checklist against which we will measure progress. Not the fine words and phrases of a House of Bishops project group.

This blog post first appeared on 4th March 2019 in Openly, an initiative by the Thomson Reuters Foundation :

Fake Participation: what is wrong with Living in Love and Faith?


The Living in Love and Faith Project of the Church of England is the outcome of the impasse that happened in February 2017 when the General Synod, very unusually, declined to take note of the House of Bishops Report that followed the shared conversations of 2014-16. This meant that the report was effectively dead in the water. In the scramble to recover the bishops’ equilibrium, the archbishops wrote the next day, committing themselves and the whole church to a process designed to handle disagreements and find a way forward. They wrote:

we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

This commitment was widely welcomed, not least by LGBTI+ members of the church. The archbishops’ own staff and Church House staff had no idea at the time of the archbishops’ writing of their letter what they were committing themselves to.

A project was swiftly created. It had two foci: one was a Pastoral Group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle, designed to help on questions of pastoral practice within the current guidelines relating to LGBTI+ people. The other, a much more wide-ranging undertaking, was a study programme chaired by the Bishop of Coventry, with experts in Biblical, social, scientific, historical and theological aspects of gender and sexuality being brought together with the intention of creating what was called a Bishops’ Teaching Document. The aim was to complete this work in time for the Lambeth Conference of 2020.

Some of us who are LGBTI+ have been highly suspicious of the whole project from the start, as it stretches out into the future any possible time when the church might review its actual doctrine and practice as they relate to LGBTI+ people, but others have urged us to be supportive. Along the way the membership of specialist groups has widened, and some good work has, we are told, been done. General Synod members had an opportunity in the summer to hear about what had been achieved. Amongst the co-ordinating group of the teaching document have been two identified campaigners for LGBTI+ affirmation in the church, Canon Giles Goddard and the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley.

The two-winged project has now been given a new name, Living in Love and Faith, and we are now told that it has reached a point where the experts have done enough for the moment and participation needs to be widened. Today, the Living in Love and Faith webpages have been updated.

What is participation? What is engagement?

Before we look at what LLF (Living in Love and Faith) says about this, let us consider first some of the principles of participation and engagement. There is a great deal of reputable study of how wider participation and engagement should be conducted. These things are taught at universities and in business and in the service sector. The Church of England is not expert in this area.

For example, this page[i] from the University of Sheffield provides advice on good practice in asking questions designed to help widen participation for the purposes of research, and points out that questions with the following flaws need guarding against:

  1. Loaded questions
  2. Loaded words or phrases
  3. Ambiguity
  4. Variable meanings
  5. Questions based on implicit assumptions
  6. Shared references
  7. Double or negative phrasing
  8. Double or triple questions
  9. “Dual thought” questions
  10. Questions that rely on memory or recall
  11. Offensive or insensitive questions

Widening participation is a standard tool now used in planning and solving problems in all kinds of contexts. My own experience is from working within the NHS. Widening participation or engagement begins with listening in a very unstructured way to the views of service users. It invites service users, carers and others to share their experience – which is often painful and quite traumatic, which was why a chaplain was also always present at these public engagement meetings to provide pastoral and spiritual support.

These stories are then sifted and the lessons that need learning are extracted. It is only then that designing the questions that you would like to have answered can begin. And in that process there will be full participation by service users from start to finish. The NHS would never dream of designing any new service now without a full and thorough attempt to listen to those who use the current services related to their illness or condition and involving them in creating the solutions – doctor knows best died a long time ago.

None of this in any way negates the expertise of clinicians, both medical and nursing. But it does invert the hierarchy of knowledge. It very determinedly understands who the service is there for, and that is the patients. So, at the end of the process to widen participation, the expert clinical responses will always have in mind, not just mending bodies as machines, but also how the people who are the recipients of treatments see themselves in the process. So embedded in NHS planning is this approach that there are patients who are invited to share in the design of services because they are “expert patients” – their long-standing experience of being the recipients of treatments or therapies brings with it an expertise that can help the clinicians as service design is undertaken.

Wider Participation in Living in Love and Faith

The Living in Love and Faith project tells us that it is “extending the reach” for this reason:

The Wider Participation work is to make sure that these two projects are earthed in the lived experiences of churches and individuals. It is not a survey of people’s views on the subjects of sexuality, gender and marriage – rather a listening exercise to make sure our work connects with the stories and concerns of people and churches.

There are some good things about this. It is not about ideas or views, it is about people and their concerns. So what does LLF think needs to happen to achieve this?

We want to ask groups from churches

  • how LGBTI++ people experience welcome and inclusion in their church community?
  • what might others learn from their experience?
  • what issues remain unresolved and painful?

We want to hear from individuals about

  • the kinds of resources they would find appealing and help them to think and learn more deeply about human identity, sexuality, gender, family, friendship, singleness, relationships and marriage?
  • the questions they and their peers have about these matters in the context of our church and culture today?
  • their faith journey and life story that would help us produce resources that are relevant and meaningful?

This is interesting. But it is not wider participation in any proper sense of the term. The questions fail almost all of the Sheffield tests. They are loaded; they are ambiguous; they make all kinds of assumptions; there are double and triple questions; some questions could be seen as insensitive. Take just one example: “How do LGBTI+ people experience welcome and inclusion in their church community?” This is a highly weighted question. It wants to hear positives. But what if the LGBTI+ people have a much more mixed experience and want to tell of exclusion, discrimination, and silencing? There is no way they can. No one is wanting to hear the bad news.

Again, the questions stay safely at the level of the local church. No one is asking anywhere in this process about the experience LGBTI+ people may have of the church as an institution. But why not? Might it be that this is because the answers may not be what those asking the questions what to hear? We know that Pilling spent a whole chapter telling us that we can’t call the church homophobic. But those fine words butter no parsnips for LGBTI+ people whose lived experience is of an institutionally homophobic church. The defence against the accusation of homophobia is not to try and silence LGBTI+ Christians but to behave in a non-homophobic way so that you have a real defence against the charge.

Who is going to answer these questions? LLF tells us that “We have created a process for identifying individuals and listening to how these matters impact their lives and relationships…” but does not tell us what that process is. They say that “We invited all diocesan bishops to select individuals and churches that represent a variety of perspectives and lived experiences.”

But many LGBTI+ people in the Church of England would tell you that in their diocese one of the last people to talk with any real knowledge or understanding about these matters is the bishop. Not one diocesan bishop is publicly identified as gay or lesbian, and only one suffragan. So they can’t talk freely about lived LGBTI+ experience. The diocesans are, frankly, unlikely (with one or two honourable exceptions) to know enough about the personal lives of clergy and lay people in their diocese to enable them to fill the representative categories LLF on their behalf identifies:

  • Male | Female heterosexual
  • Married | Single heterosexual
  • Male | Female gay partnered
  • Male | Female gay married
  • Male | Female same sex attracted celibate
  • Transgender Woman | Man
  • Asexual
  • Intersex
  • Age
  • Socioeconomic spectrum
  • Clergy | Lay (with at least one third lay)

Again, they create problems for themselves. Where are the bisexuals? What of lesbian and gay single people? What of non-binary people? The publication this morning of this information on the Living in Love and Faith website was met with disbelief and howls of protest from LGBTI+ faithful that such a thing could have been written and published with, what seem to us, to be blindingly obvious omissions and exclusions.

Tackling the problems.

The whole process has an intrinsic tension written into it from the start. We are told that it is a process initiated by bishops for bishops. It is strongly under the control of bishops – with an astonishing number of them involved in the various work strands of the teaching document. Contrast this with the membership of commissions and study groups a generation or more ago (Colin Coward has a splendid blog post about this here[ii]). General synod members were told in July 2018 that:

We have also clarified the purpose of the project: it is first to provide resources for the bishops to exercise their teaching both in the sense of teaching the faith and in helping the whole people of God to engage in deep and transformative learning.

So, stripping out the Anglican adjectives, the project is primarily for bishops to help them find the answers to these problematic areas which cause disagreement. Bishops are then to teach the faith in relation to these matters, and we are to learn. The process is fundamentally top down. The answers will, by then, be known to bishops, who will then communicate them to us whose job is to learn from them. But to state it as baldly as that will be met with howls of protest. For alongside this profound commitment to a hierarchy of knowledge they want to be seen to be “listening”.

So what is confected is a process of “wider participation” which remains at all times under the control of the project, which has loaded questions, which invites pre-selected participants, to provide partial information conducive to the House of Bishops to help them write a report which must be ready for – yes! – a conference of bishops in 2020.

The presentation to General Synod used the following image to describe what is going on : “The …image is that of gathering around a table at which we feast on a rich fare of scholarship while listening deeply to stories of lived experience.” It is clear which is the main dish on offer, and what are the side dishes. Scholarship trumps lived experience. Those of us who shared our lived experience with members of the Pilling Group will know this. I remember sharing deeply and personally with a bishop and a staff member about my and my then partner’s experience. At the end of the day we spent together the bishop said to us, “Well, that was interesting, but I haven’t changed my mind in any way”. But, as his marriage had recently ended, he did want to ask our advice on dating! So, you will understand, after that experience of having our life dismissed so lightly, that I am sceptical about the value of their deep listening.

This is not wider participation in any way that anyone outside the bubble of the church would recognise. Today, on the Via Media Blog, Canon Giles Goddard, a member of the coordinating group of the Living in Love and Faith process writes a rather sobering piece entitled, C of E Risks Failure on Human Sexuality Because of Privileged Power. Giles has shown himself to be committed and loyal to a process that has been going for nearly two years. His blog is a serious warning shot that deserves reading – you can find it here[iii].

There is another problem with this process that has not yet been examined. It is the problem of anonymity. The Church of England is very neurotic about sexuality and people, especially LGBTI+ people. It creates for the hierarchy a huge amount of fear. So, the web pages today tell us, “We have followed the Church’s ethical policies and procedures throughout this work to ensure informed consent, to protect anonymity and confidentiality, to conform to GDPR, and to ensure the ethical conduct of interviews.”

That is fine for people who do want their anonymity protected. But it makes an assumption that this will be the case, and that this will be helpful. And, of course, it is, for people who do not want LGBTI+ people in the Church to have real faces and personalities. Why is this important? Let me give you just three examples: the story of Lizzie Lowe and the changes in her church in Didsbury under Nick Bundock’s leadership after Lizzie’s suicide have power because, with her parents’ permission, her story has been told. It would not have anything like the power without her name. Both Vicky Beeching and Jayne Ozanne have published much valued and appreciated autobiographies this year. They have had a huge impact, and their publication has given both of them the opportunity to tell their stories to very many different audiences both inside and outside the church. It is their courage in being public that has helped people to do some deep listening.

But in Living in Love and Faith there is still the sense of shame around. That it is not safe to talk openly about one’s life and experience as an LGBTI+ person, and that this must somehow be kept anonymised and detached from a real person. But I certainly don’t feel that, nor do most of my LGBTI+ friends in the church and beyond. It is not a shameful thing to be LGBTI+ nor to live a full and happy life. What is shameful is the way we are treated and made to feel inside the church. A concern to promote and suggest anonymity as normal is a profoundly disempowering move. It is a choice that is made for people, and it comes from a very flawed process which is not really about wider participation, but about handling expectations so that the people in charge may feel that some wider participation has taken place.

What can be done?

I am not so naïve as to imagine that anything much can be done. The Church of England will continue on its Living in Love and Faith way. If they were serious about real wider participation, they would stop trying to control the whole thing from start to finish. What they should do is to set up a lot of local meetings staffed by people who are expert listeners, and ask anyone in the Church of England who would like to participate to the process to come and share their views and stories at meetings designed to allow people to speak freely. Permission for use of names and guarantees of anonymity, if required, could be given there. From those meetings Living in Love and Faith should then start to shape the process. Knowing the names and being able to identify participants (unlike in the Shared Conversations, where nothing was recorded, and no names were ever attached to views) would make it possible to draw in people with something specific to contribute to the process of the “experts” – they would be like the “expert patients” in the NHS. This is the route that will guarantee genuine connection and real participation and engagement. It would empower every person who has something to say. It wold not discriminate against anyone’s views, and it would get round the problem of “balance”.

Balance is not achieved by Living in Love and Faith drawing up a tick list of types of people they want to hear from. Doing that just means they have variety. They have no idea if the variety of people contacted represents just themselves or many more people. Open access to engagement meetings would not only allow all kinds of people to come and be listened to, but it would also reveal in a natural way, a sense of balance. It would need to be well advertised, and people from all kinds of churches encouraged to come and take part, but once that was done across each diocese then you would start to get a sense of the strength of feeling in particular directions. All voices would be heard, but much more would be learnt than by preselecting and controlling participation. But then again, that might reveal things that the bishops don’t want to hear.

The title of this blog is provocative. But I don’t think it is inaccurate. We live in a world of all kinds of fakery. Fake news, fake goods, fake politicians, faked votes, fake blogs and postings on social media.  Living in Love and Faith is the vehicle that our church is using to forward its engagement with its own LGBTI+ faithful. For the reasons I identify, I think it is methodologically suspect and highly biased to produce results that will not be too difficult for the commissioning bishops to handle. It is fake participation. I think the whole church deserves better. I don’t dare hope for that, but I do hope that someone is listening and thinking about the kinds of concerns that I am raising.

[i] accessed 3rd November 2018

[ii]  accessed 3rd November 218

[iii] accessed 3rd November 2018

The Bible and the Newspaper – Thoughts on Preaching

The Bible and the Newspaper

Confined as I am to the pews these days I have to listen to a lot of sermons. What I can’t do is what I am called and trained to do, which is preach myself. My estimate of most preaching I hear is that it is of a very poor quality indeed.

When I was training for ministry I was lucky enough to be attached to a church with a vicar who had a great preaching ministry. Dennis Lennon had been a missionary in Thailand before being ordained, was then a vicar in Cambridge and Edinburgh and finally Advisor in Evangelism in Sheffield Diocese. His preaching was remarkable. He was highly intelligent, and cultured. His sermons, which, after his upbringing and tradition were lengthy Biblical expositions, were littered with references to literature and poetry, current affairs, questions of philosophy, science, and politics. But they were never dull. Indeed, they made you want to hear more.

Administration was not his forte. He was, and this is being kind, fairly clueless about liturgy. He was happy for me to go and do visiting in the parish – he never did. But he did care about preaching and prayer and people. And he cared about communicating the good news. He was one of my heroes, and a saint (mind you, so was his wife Sonia, who had to put up with his foibles).

I remember one day talking to him about what he understood was his goal as a preacher. His reply has stayed with me; “I preach”, he said “because I want to give people reasons to go on being a Christian for just another week. I know that they face many challenges and struggles that I don’t understand, but I want them to know that God is with them and will sustain them for this week. I want my preaching to inspire them just for that long. And when they come back I will have something more to tell them.”

Communicating with yourself and the people in the pews

I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon that made me think “that has given me something to hold on to this week”. But, like many other people, I am deeply exercised by the huge national crisis we are facing. I go from week to week tracking the progress of Brexit negotiations, still unable to understand the proposal that is forming and that will dictate the terms of our national future, and that of my children and grandchild. I have only heard one sermon that addressed this at all.

I see a dissolution of the values of truth and integrity in public life and public mass communication that is fearful. I don’t know what is fake news or real. I know I don’t trust the BBC as I used to, and I know that most newspapers are tools of manipulation by very wealthy owners. I have learnt that I must not believe most of what is online without checking carefully. I want integrity in public life, and I don’t trust politicians who don’t show it in their own lives. In times past Boris Johnson and Donald Trump would have ruled themselves out of the running for being trusted with national and international affairs by the conduct of their private lives. I don’t want to go back to being prurient and puritan – but why should I trust someone with the country or the world, when clearly they are accomplished liars to their nearest and dearest? All of this worries me. It is never addressed by any sermon I hear.

I see the tectonic plates of power shifting globally. I know that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. I know that neo-liberalism has hugely empowered businesses who have no moral sense of moral responsibility for any population anywhere, but only to their owners and shareholders. I know what poverty looks like, I have lived with it in Britain and in Africa. I know who is my neighbour, but I feel powerless to help much of the time. And I have hardly ever heard a sermon that does more than criticise the consumerism that we are all told we need to power growth, and thereby sustain our economy. An unfolding of why neo-liberalism is wrong, what we can do about it, and why it may be a less than Christian approach to economic and social life is never touched on.

In a hemisphere where Christianity is in retreat, we are not hearing sermons asking hard questions about why. The Church of England has decided on a management led push for growth, with little evidence that this will work, but the underlying questions are not really tackled. What is the appeal of Islam? What does our own history tell us about imperial attitudes in the English to other faiths and cultures? How do we approach the huge upsurge in “no religion” in our own culture? What is to be done about Establishment, with all that it implies about approving the history and culture of England’s centres of power? The arguments about “being there to influence” are increasingly unconvincing.

These, and many other things are the questions that occupy me from day to day and week to week. And I get no help at all from the sermons I hear. What goes on in these sermons? Almost all sermons I hear are Bible-based, and that is commendable. I think Christians need to learn and know their Bibles and be equipped to know how to go about interpreting them. Bible-based preaching need not and should not imply a naively Biblicist attitude to the Scriptures. The most common thing I hear in sermons is some kind of retelling of a Bible story that we have just listened to. That, in itself, is irritating, implying, as it does, that we are unable to understand a fairly direct and clear piece of prose, unless the retelling is going to point out something that is not immediately obvious.

Good preachers will have done their own preparatory Bible study on the text they have chosen as their main topic for their sermon. This will uncover other passages that are similar, other texts that are alluded to, difficult words or concepts that arise, the history of the passage’s interpretation, and sometimes different and even conflicting understandings of its meaning. But none of this is the sermon itself. It is the preparation. And far too many preachers I hear think that sharing their own study for a congregation is in fact the preaching event itself. It is not.

Karl Barth, the great mid 20C Swiss-German theologian is usually said to have said that preachers should preach “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other”. In fact, he said a number of things of this kind, but never simply this. In 1966 he said this in an interview; “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain [religious] themes; they live in the world. We still need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.” Half a century before he had said in a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen, “One broods alternately over the newspaper and the New Testament and actually sees fearfully little of the organic connection between the two worlds concerning which one should now be able to give a clear and powerful witness”.  Clearly this connection was one that stayed with him all through his ministry, which was both pastoral and academic. In an article in Time magazine in 1963 Barth, “recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’”

My problem with the preachers that I have to listen to today is that I have no sense that they are, in Barth’s terms, “reading the newspaper”. That must mean taking their information from a lot of sources these days. We have access to twenty-four hour news. We have an astonishing range of commentary available to us, most of which is going on live. We have to select, and we have to test. But we have to interpret.

Two great preachers, Michael Curry and Gene Robinson

Good preachers will do their Bible study, explore their text, all the while alive to what is going on in the world around us. And then they will bring the two together and see how the Biblical text impacts on the pressing questions of the day. Then they may have, by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, a life-giving word for those of us who listen. Something to help us stay Christian for another week. Something to help us hope, something to challenge and change us in the world in which we live. One outstanding example was Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Much was made of this, and implied that it was a wholly different tradition of preaching. To my ears it was just a good sermon, that connected a central Bible truth with people’s lives. And it was powerful as a result.

Preaching at the Royal Wedding

Those who teach homiletics may tell me that I am all wrong and hopelessly out of date. I may be. But I listen to more sermons than most. I suspect that the message of the Gospel is actually hindered by bad preaching – disconnected Bible study does nothing for anyone but make them feel that the Bible is irrelevant. And I know it is not. And it should not be preached as if it is.