Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Paterson saga -medicine and abuse of power

From time to time a story in the newspaper sounds as if it has something in common with an abusive church of the kind that we often meet in this blog. Today’s newspaper account is not about violence in the home or even the coercive control which people are beginning to recognise as being part of some relationships. It is rather about the devastating effect of a trusted surgeon who physically maimed and wounded women unnecessarily over several years. His behaviour and apparent motivations appear to be worse than any cultic or religious leader. This cancer surgeon, Dr Ian Paterson, has just been sentenced to 15 years for carrying out operations on women without medical justification. The press reports speculate that these unnecessary operations to private and NHS patients were a means of boosting his income. Money may have been a factor but, by noting parallels with the behaviour of cult leaders, I would surmise that Dr Paterson’s motivation was as much about the gratification and enjoyment of power over other human beings.

Various words were used to describe the behaviour of Dr Paterson by the judge who sentenced him. The surgeon was described as possessing arrogance which left him feeling untouchable. He was also able to exercise power by playing on the deepest fears of the women that he operated on. The numbers of his victims are not known precisely but they may add up to nearly a thousand. Ten of his patients had victim statements read out in court. The words they used sounded very much like we might expect as coming from cult survivors. ‘Loss of trust in medical professionals’, ‘feeling violated and vulnerable’, ‘loss of confidence’ are some of the words used by these women. Another spoke of the operations as being ‘truly chilling, cruel behaviour… beyond dark’. All this suffering was endured over a decade to allow one man to gratify an evil need for self-importance through abusing his power.
In the attempts to explain why the crimes went unchecked for so long, we also had a glimpse of the dynamics of collusion that exists within the medical profession. Doctors at consultant level do not seem to be answerable to anyone except their internal professional conscience. Also, a fierce independence among senior doctors allows the abusive minority to misuse their position. People want to trust themselves to experts but, on these rare occasions, they are badly let down. One word that was used to describe Dr Patterson was his charm. Charm is one of those words that implies an outward appearance which may or may not be genuine. Is it a sign of altruistic, benevolent and caring behaviour? Or is it by contrast, the socially acquired polish of an utter scoundrel?

How many of the words used to describe Dr Patterson’s behaviour and the experience of his victims have we heard in the context of religious and spiritual abuse? Fear and vulnerability are felt not just by individuals who may have cancer, but also by any who enter church for the first time. The vulnerable look to people of authority and expertise to ease their fears. If the person in charge is a charlatan then it is not difficult for unequal power dynamic within the relationship to be exploited. A religious leader is often in the same role as a doctor caring for vulnerable patients. He or she may use their skills to relieve fears; alternatively, the presenting vulnerability may be exploited to serve some dark purpose. Gratification through misusing power is a temptation faced by all Christian leaders. The possibility of giving way to such a temptation is especially acute among those who run independent (and unaccountable) institutions.

The victims of Dr Patterson’s malign attentions were also openly critical of the way that he was not challenged by his fellow professionals. It seems that many colleagues knew what was going on but they said nothing. This is the claim of Diane Greene one of his victims. She said: ‘These co-conspirators in the medical profession also need to face justice. They let this happen – they saw it happen – we need to find out why they said nothing.’ The same collusive and protective behaviour seems to happen also in the church. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Peniel Church saga is the way that the neighbouring churches did little to challenge the abusive tyranny of Michael Reid. Every one of them had direct knowledge of what was going on as Peniel members were leaving in quite large numbers and joining other congregations in the area. The Brentwood and District Evangelical Fellowship did eventually suspend Reid’s church from membership. But it was permitted to re-join the group with great alacrity after Reid was sacked. None of the local ministers wanted to do anything on behalf of those who had been abused and treated badly. None of them suggested that the history of the church needed to be re-visited and apology made to Reid’s victims. All the abuses were swept under the carpet and the single individual, Reid, was conveniently blamed for everything that had gone wrong.

When an individual in the church or the medical profession is permitted to run amok, to damage and hurt individuals by gratifying their lust for power, there is always an institution which has colluded in this terrible evil. The imprisonment of this doctor in this case may well help the institution to engage in some self-examination. We would hope that the profession will take seriously the way that narcissism, excessive privilege and hubristic attitudes grow and flourish within their ranks. When those lessons are learned then perhaps other institutions, even the church, may come out clearly always to condemn power abuse and the exploitation of the fears and vulnerabilities of the weak. Let us hope so.

When words crack and break

The events in Manchester last Monday made us realise, if we did not already know it, that words to express our current feelings sometimes do not exist. We also recognise that when somebody commits a heinous action, which is a kind of blasphemy against the whole of humanity, there are no words adequate to describe what is going on. It is somewhat limp to use the word ‘fanatic’ or ‘extremist’ when the desired aim, to destroy the lives of innocent children, is so utterly deplorable. The English language breaks down in its ability to describe accurately the combination of utter ruthlessness and an appalling devotion to a nihilistic ideology. We need several sentences to bring together all the elements of fanaticism and hate which undergird the Manchester event.

One of the disturbing elements about the horror from last Monday, is the way that it was somewhere associated in the mind of the attacker with the principles of religion. For him, Allah demanded that cruelty and death should be shown to the most innocent in our society. There was also the fact that through the action, he was going to cause his own death. Thus we have a twisted understanding of religious martyrdom. Does any religion ever put us in the situation where we could contemplate killing others as well as ourselves for some higher cause?

Sadly, the history of Christianity gives us several examples where Christians have killed others in the name of their faith. Although my main presentation at the conference on cults in Bordeaux in a month’s time is on the topic of healing, I am also speaking about the Cathar sect for an historical thread. This heretical group flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in an area of southern France known as the Languedoc. The group was destroyed by the ruthless work of the Inquisition by around 1320. They completed the work of Crusaders who had captured citadels and slaughtered the inhabitants without mercy. The Inquisitors themselves did not hesitate to use the punishment of burning against those who would not recant their beliefs. Hundreds of men and women, called Perfects, perished in this way. Once more we are faced with something utterly appalling. A religion of love expresses its beliefs in dreadful acts of cruelty. The minds of the early Inquisitors had similar sentiments to the Manchester suicide bomber. Can religious truth ever demand such behaviour from its followers?

At the beginning of this piece I asked the question whether words exist to describe the horror of fanatical hatred which seeks to destroy innocent lives. I found myself also wondering if there is a word to describe what I believe to be the attitude needed to counter such appalling extremism. We speak about liberal attitudes to respond to fanaticism and ruthless conservatism. We need a new word to convey the moderate, peace-loving and rational approach which many of us believe to be at the heart of Jesus’ message. Such an approach is required, not only to offer moderates of all religions a better understanding of the alternatives to extremism, but also an effective weapon against these forces. Religious extremism comes in many forms, from the desire to kill in the name of truth to a hubristic defiance of a complete denomination and its leaders, such as we have seen in the recent Jesmond consecration.

Is it possible to hold on to truth without being marked by hubris and conceit? All Christians claim to follow truth but they do this in very different ways. The extremist claim to truth will brook no alternatives. It will express its utter hostility to other truth claims, whether liberal approaches to Scripture or the emancipation of women in Muslim societies. The moderate approach to truth claims comes in a different garb. This seems to have three facets. To summarise these, the moderate will first temper his/her understanding of truth with a sense of its provisional quality. Secondly the moderate will accept that whatever s/he claims to be true may possibly be mistaken. Third and finally, moderate truth claims will be made in an attitude of humility rather than one of arrogance or aggression.

The first of these moderate ways of approaching religious truth is made inevitable by the provisional nature of words. Words have changed their meaning even in a generation, so why should we entrust all religious truth to the fickle unstable medium of words? To say that truth remains the same while the ways of articulating it will change is not a retreat from conviction. It is merely a common-sense way of recognising that we and our language are in a constant state of flux. Religious truth must open itself to possible verbal changes in the future.

The second principle is that we hold on to our truth while being aware that we could in fact be wrong in our claims. I think it was Oliver Cromwell who made the plea to a Puritan fellow member of the English Parliament. ‘ I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be mistaken.’ Being open to the possibility of error is never going to considered a strong position to be in. Even though it may be considered a wishy-washy kind of faith, the opposite, claiming infallibility for our truth, is potentially dangerous and may involve violence towards those who disagree with us.

The third principle, which binds the first two together, is that we hold on to our truth and our beliefs with the quality we call humility. Humility never seeks to destroy, pressurise or in any way bully another person. In other words, we hold on to our truth without any desire to impose it on another person. We certainly do not use methods of force or powerful persuasion. So much evangelism comes over as an exercise in hard sell. A recipient is made to feel that they are the target of professional sales techniques. They are invited to receive a product – not to share a new vision to help them live to the full and make the most of the rest of their lives.

There is no word in the English language at present available to describe this approach to the Christian faith. The moderate approach to truth, the humble sharing of the good news of God does not have its own word. Some of the words we would want to use, like love, have been partly devalued by overuse. Moderate evangelism, the path that seeks to share depth, silence and beauty is seldom discussed or articulated. Still less is evangelism as a new way of caring for other people given words. A moderate way, one that which gives individuals space to think about and explore the meaning of life and death within the context of the Christian faith, is needed. The words liberal, inclusive and broad church fail to describe this approach. I am left to ponder what words I could use. Perhaps my readers could help me?

Holiness -approach with silence and trembling

One of the problems of using words frequently is that they all too easily lose their meanings. Because of overuse, they often no longer have the same power to evoke anything new in our minds. This is as true of religious words as it is true of ordinary words. Yesterday I was caught up short in church when I heard the words of the Sanctus – ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts’. In the Anglican Common Worship the celebrant picks up this word ‘holy’ by addressing the Almighty with the words ‘you are holy indeed, the source of all holiness’. I realised to my shame that I had not thought about this word and its meaning for a long time.

As I reflected on this word later, I slipped back in my mind to my confirmation classes which began almost exactly 60 years ago. The clergyman who taught us gave us a single word explanation of this word ‘holy’. He said it meant ’separate’. I discovered later that this is not a bad translation of the Hebrew word for holy – ‘qodesh’. When Isaiah has his vision in chapter 6, the word ‘holy’ is repeated three times to emphasise a sense of distance between God and humanity. This word ‘qodesh’ was also able to convey his profound sense of awe and wonder felt because of the unexpected vision. These words of Isaiah have inspired much liturgical writing. The Eastern Orthodox liturgy is far more explicit in presenting God as a transcendent, even terrifying reality. The words of the hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh’ convey this Orthodox emphasis. The hymn, a translation of words from the 5th century St James’s liturgy, tells us to ‘keep silent and in fear and trembling stand’. These words convey something of the way that worship for early Christians was an experience which evoked, if not terror, certainly profound humility and respect.

This understanding of the meaning of holiness has affected my appreciation and understanding worship ever since childhood. It never seemed strange to me as a child that the clergy, dressed in their fine robes, were a long way away from the congregation. Still less did I find it strange that the Orthodox clergy were not only at some distance from the people, but even behind a physical barrier, the iconostasis. I remember being rebuked by an Orthodox priest for disrespect because I sat with my legs crossed in the altar area, even when a service was not taking place. The sense of separateness or holiness pertained to that area of the church even when there was no liturgical action taking place.

In many ways, this reflection on the meaning of holiness might seem archaic and belonging to another era. Now, in the place of clergy dressed in gold at one end of a large building, we have worship leaders dressed in casual clothing communicating a chatty informal approach to the Deity. The sacred, the mysterious and the holy in church have in many places been rendered commonplace and no longer special. The question I raise today is whether removing mystery and holiness from worship is what people really want. Do we always wish to have everything taken apart and explained? Would we not rather enter a place and enjoy an experience where words simply fail? I am reminded of the hymn which states that we are to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’. As I explained in previous posts, beauty, however we understand or experience it, has a tantalising quality. It will always defy our attempts to grasp it and define it. It will slip out of our grip as we try to use words to hold on to it.

If describing a beautiful object defies our ability to use words precisely, then the same thing should be true of our understanding of God. Should we not at the very least always be rediscovering the separateness, the holiness of God in what we say about him? Should we not make every encounter with God, not an exercise in over-familiarity but a meeting with mystery? As words do not hold on to mystery, so we should approach it with respectful silence and stillness. In Christian history, there has always been an attempt to use art to evoke the reality of God for worshippers. Should we not be discovering new forms of art which can hint at the unknowability and the transcendence of the God we seek to worship? The Protestant emphasis has always been on the written word for 500 years. Thus, access to the divine through seeing has decreased in importance. Our imaginations have also been impoverished by an absence of good art in church. Also, there is no attempt to create a common language among Christians for understanding God through what is visible. Some Christians do in fact find God through visual beauty. Access to him in this way is nevertheless something of a personal individual journey rather than one that unites them to their fellow Christians.

Accessing the holiness of God is like approaching beauty. It is done not through words but through the power of human imagination. Sadly, the dominance of words in Christian culture has made it far more difficult to encounter God’s mystery and holiness. Perhaps this reflection is an invitation to my reader to ponder for him or herself the meaning of this word ’holy’. Perhaps we all need to be recalled to another richer and less verbal understanding of the Divine which this word points to. May we all better encounter him in mystery and in the beauty of holiness.

Trumpism, cults and the destruction of truth

For me, and probably for most of my readers,the political events unfolding in America have been gripping. Watching how individuals respond to the irrationalities of the current American president never ceases to provide a drama of quite extraordinary fascination. At the time of writing there seems to be the promise of some rationality and sanity being injected into this maelstrom of political chaos. The appointment of a highly respected former head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, offers the chance that an analytical brain, politically independent, will successfully establish truth amid the swirling and confusing facts over possible collusion with the Russian state. All of us have come to recognise that ‘truth’ in the White House is less about actual facts but more about what makes President Trump feel good.

Alongside the extraordinary mental processes at work in the President and in others in charge of the American State, we have glimpsed a further widespread fanaticism. Quite substantial swathes of the American population seem unable to see anything amiss in the current political situation even though the processes of government in some areas have almost ceased to function. A full 80% of those who voted for Donald Trump still believe that he is on track with his stated aims of ‘draining the swamp’ and destroying the political legacy of Obama. For this group any obstructions in completing his programme have been caused by an unholy alliance between the old political elite and a ‘lying’ media. Trump himself is caught up in this extraordinary widespread corruption of thought. Such an immersion in an Alice in Wonderland world of ‘alternative fact’ and ‘fake news’ is simultaneously alarming and intriguing.

One of the current ways for understanding the way that members of cults think is to use what is known as the Lifton model. I do not have the space here to explore fully this particular analysis of cult thinking, but the theory stems from the work of one Robert Lifton. He sought, in the 1950s, to understand the victims of Chinese ‘brainwashing’. His analysis provides for eight characteristics of mind control as used against American prisoners of war. Many see these techniques being applicable to members of harmful religious groups. I would further add that many Trump followers are behaving in the same ways that we associate with cult victims. There are two of these criteria creating ‘mind-control’ that I want to mention here. The first of these Lifton principles is the insight that to create a controlled group, one must cut them off from all reasoning and discourse except that being peddled by the group leadership. In the case of Trump followers there is one source of information which is being endlessly presented 24 hours a day in the form of Fox News. I have tried to watch small segments of this propaganda outlet but find it quite hard to stomach. It is a combination of lies, half-truths and conspiracy theories. Those who try to get a handle on what is really going in American politics through the mainstream media also find it quite hard to cope with. Fox News is not just presenting another point of view but is attacking rationality and even the sanity of people who want to think for themselves. I can see that prolonged exposure to this kind of broadcasting would either create mindless compliance or a nervous breakdown in the one watching. President Trump himself would count himself as among the passive consumers of this outlet. Fox News does precious little to enhance his rational understanding of what is going on in America or in the wider world. Every time Trump utters his accusation of ‘fake news’ or ‘lying media’, it is because has heard it on Fox News first.

There is a second Lifton principle which applies to both political propaganda and religious language known as ‘loading the language’. When Lifton was studying his American survivors of Chinese prison camps after the Korean War, he noticed how easy it is possible to corrupt the thinking of an individual by subtly changing the meaning of words. After words have had their meaning changed within a closed community like a cult or a prison camp, it becomes difficult to communicate with the old pre-cult world. We in the church are sometimes guilty are using words which have coded meanings for an ‘in-crowd’. To be able to use such words in this way is an expression of power over those outside or otherwise uninitiated. The consumers of Fox News and Trumpist slogans have also learnt to think and speak in a way which has little meaning or currency outside the group. People outside the group neither can, nor indeed want to, speak with them because of the difficulty of establishing a common meaning. Trumpists have developed an infuriating way of bombarding their political opponents with words and slogans which have acquired meanings which seldom connect with normal discourse.

The situation in the United States is a very serious one because the divisions in society between Republicans and Democrats represent a huge gulf of culture and communication. One side, fed by lies and propaganda has removed itself from many of the rules of language and meaning. Communication with such a group who refuse to speak about truth in a coherent way makes it hardly possible to develop mutual lines of comprehension. Similarly, former members of cultic or extremist religious groups have comparable difficulties. Some cult experts speak about a cult personality. By that they mean that the individual has come to develop a new personality outside the norms of society. In thinking, culture or language, he/she is virtually identical to the cult leader.

I think in a previous blog I discussed the role of Donald Trump in terms of his fulfilling some of the roles of a charismatic leader. By this I was referring to the way that Trump attracts to himself the hopes, the expectations and even the dreams of many unhappy or desperate people. He appears to speak for such people. Thus he evokes a mindless devotion to himself similar to that exercised by some religious leaders. Such a projection is of course unable to be fulfilled or satisfied. The narcissism of President Trump knows how to receive adulation but is unable to give anything in return. It was instructive to notice how, when speaking to a graduation ceremony of coastguards, Trump could only speak about himself. He had nothing to offer these young people. They looked for words of encouragement or wisdom but all they received were the rantings of a petulant child.

This reflection, which links the dynamics of President Trump and his followers with the dynamics of some religious groups, may help us to understand the dangers in both scenarios. The dangerous lack of rationality and clear thinking in large parts of American society has some eerie religious echoes. In both political and religious contexts, we sometimes see rational and clear thinking melt away to be replaced by primal human activities such as hate. When language and reason are corrupted in this way by unscrupulous leaders, whether political or religious, we should be alarmed. We should also be prepared to speak clearly about what we see is going on. There may be enormous problems of communication with the victims of such irrationality. We should never cease to try to express what is clear and rational as well as infused with the spirit of love and acceptance.

Sydney Anglicans and the subversion of the Anglican Communion

Over the past two weeks, there have been two episodes which involve conservative Anglicans from overseas in what are attempts to subvert the Anglican church in Britain. Both these incursions have been made supposedly to help protect our church from its ‘apostasy’. The first of these was a proposal by GAFCON primates, meeting in Nairobi, to appoint a missionary bishop to Britain. He would provide conservative parishes in this country, who cannot work with their bishops, with pastoral support. This was reportedly thought to be urgent as the Scottish Episcopal Church may legalise gay marriage at their Synod in June. The second more recent event was the irregular consecration of Jonathan Pryke in Newcastle by two or more bishops from the Reformed Anglican Church of South Africa (REACH-SA). Both these events have the potential to cause disruption to the fragile bonds that link Anglicans together across the world. It is one thing to have ‘flying’ bishops legally appointed to work alongside diocesan bishops to support dissenting congregations. It is quite another to have bishops appointed by authorities overseas to work in this country and who possess no legal or canonical authority.

I see in these two stories evidence of ecclesiastical subversion from afar. To summarise this article, I wish to observe and point out the direct or indirect influence of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in each of these incidents. I should add that because of their timing, these disruptive events are unlikely to have been coordinated.

Those who are interested in the history of GAFCON will have noted that much of the energy and finance for the meeting in Jerusalem in 2008 came from Sydney Anglicans. Without rehearsing all the details of this organisation, GAFCON is a conservative alliance of Anglicans, mainly from the Global South, who wish to restore ‘biblical’ principles to an Anglicanism which is believed to be falling away from these values. The input of the Sydney Diocese and especially of Peter Jensen, the then Archbishop, was considerable. Before the financial crash of 2009, the Sydney diocese had been able to donate large sums of money to set up a secretariat for GAFCON. There was also the underwriting of the travel expenses to bring conservative Anglican Christians from all over the world to Jerusalem for the 2008 gathering. Although the Sydney diocese was quite badly affected by the financial crash of 2009, the work of GAFCON is still substantially supported with Australian money.

Many of the emphases of the GAFCON vision are closely aligned to the conservative fundamentalist agenda which has been the hallmark of Sydney Anglicans for decades. Apart from a handful of Anglo-Catholic parishes, the entire diocese is dominated by the strongly conservative theological outlook of Moore Theological College in Sydney. One particular theological position that is held, is to exclude women from priesthood on ‘biblical’ grounds. This perspective is, however, not accepted by all the other GAFCON provinces. Nevertheless, a visceral dislike of homosexuals and a rejection of any possibility of their ordination or marriage is held in common throughout the GAFCON community. All clergy who are appointed within the Sydney diocese have been trained at Moore College. The theological vision of the clergy will thus remain monochrome for decades to come. Moore College maintains close links with Oak Hill Theological College in the UK.

The influence of Sydney Anglicans on the breakaway Church of England in South Africa, now called REACH-SA is not widely known. The relationship, past and present, is so close that the South African church can almost be regarded a dependent satellite of Sydney Anglicans. Although the history of what became REACH-SA goes back to 1880, it was in 1938 that a constitution was adopted which formalised the split with the official Anglican church in South Africa. From the very beginning Sydney churchmen were active in support of this breakaway church, particularly when it was frozen out of the 1958 Lambeth Conference at the insistence of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher. Howard Mowll the Archbishop of Sydney and later Primate of Australia was unflagging in his support for this group. Two Sydney clergy, Stephen Bradley and Dudley Foord were sent to serve this church as successive presiding bishops. Sydney Anglicans also were instrumental in helping to found a substantial theological college for the Church known as the George Whitfield College near Cape Town. Broughton Knox, the immensely influential Sydney theologian, spent three years of his retirement between 1989 and 1992 as its founder and first Principal. This sealed what was already a close relationship into one of total theological unanimity between the two groups.

Broughton Knox whose career included time in both Sydney and South Africa is an interesting figure. His influence on Sydney Anglicans is such that his biographer describes him as the ‘Father of Contemporary Sydney Anglicanism’. His theological perspective was formed through his doctoral studies in England on the early Reformation in the early 1950s. The bulk of his career was spent at Moore College where from 1959-1985 he acted as Principal. Knox could be said to have almost single-handedly set the theological agenda for the entire Sydney Diocese for his generation and the one that came after. Although he was possibly the most highly educated theological voice in Sydney, if not the whole of Australia, Knox’s perspective on theology had a somewhat dry legalist feel to it. As with other theologians whose detailed area of study is the 16th century, something of the Reformation polemic and intransigence emerges in Knox’s writing. We see in the discourse that even today is put out on behalf of REFORM and other Sydney inspired organisations a similar inflexibility and even harshness. It is difficult have dialogue with theological perspectives that are unable ever to consider that they might have something to learn. Sydney Anglicans for good and for ill owe a massive debt to this single individual but there is little recognition that his legacy may be a flawed one. Knox’s thinking and somewhat legalistic theological method are still felt like a shadow in the current divisive events that threaten the fragile unity of the Anglican Communion.

Sydney Anglicans are implicated directly or indirectly in both the incidents that have taken place over the past two weeks in Newcastle and in Nairobi. The activities of GAFCON appear to remain very much under the guiding influence of their paymasters in Sydney. It is also hard to imagine that the as yet unnamed REACH-SA bishops involved in the Jesmond Parish Church consecration would have done so without the tacit support of their theological allies in Sydney. We do not know about all the preparations that took place for the illegal and irregular consecration of Jonathan Pryke. But it is not unreasonable to assume that the current Archbishop of Sydney and others in his diocese knew about the proposed consecration.

Each of the recent incidents we have referred to has the potential to cause considerable disruption to episcopal authority within the Church of England. Anglicans have always been tolerant of a wide variety of theological opinion. They have been less accommodating to incursions by foreign bishops who use the word Anglican as part of their self-description. There would seem to be a number of legal options for resisting these invasions. If my analysis for claiming that both these incursions from abroad can be traced back to Sydney, then we need perhaps a better understanding of the nature of Sydney Anglicanism. We cannot allow Anglican thinking and practice in Britain, which is marked by breadth and variety, to be overtaken by the narrow and dry fundamentalist vision of Sydney Anglicans. This must be resisted with whatever means are at our disposal.

(Apologies to my regular readers if I have repeated some material from the last blog. The purpose for my writing this piece an attempt to get my reflections to a wider audience over this serious issue of illegal consecrations. I have added material from my reading about the Australian church. The issue of Sydney Anglicans who want to destroy the Communion and rebuild it in the own image is a serious one. Some of the material I have included is not well known. The bullying of our Anglican church by an overseas Anglican diocese, Sydney, is a matter that concerns me and the issues of the blog.)

Jesmond consecration

The recent irregular episcopal consecration of a senior minister at Jesmond Parish Church, Jonathan Pryke, represents a new threat to the Anglican Communion by conservative Christians. For some 40 or more years Jesmond Parish Church in Newcastle has been a byword for defiant independence, standing against Anglican authority both in the Newcastle area and nationally. I remember during my ordination training, 48 years ago, being allocated to a placement in a parish in the Jesmond area. The deanery in this part of Newcastle was host to some 15 of us who were at my college. It was explained to me at the time that Jesmond Parish Church took no part in any deanery or diocesan activities. Over the years, this parish, especially under its forceful Vicar, David Holloway, has made a name for itself by refusing to cooperate with local bishops, regarding them as apostate. Today the parish plays a prominent part of the so-called REFORM network of churches. This network believes that it alone among Anglicans is faithful to the Anglican Reformation legacy. Their theology is thus strongly fundamentalist in tone and fiercely intolerant of new ideas. Together with other Reform-type churches across the world, especially in GAFCON, it has a special loathing for any attempt to tolerate homosexuality. Also REFORM represents those conservative evangelical churches who have little interest in charismatic or pentecostal practice. Parishes attached to the REFORM network will, for example, have little to do with the style and ethos of Holy Trinity Brompton. Jesmond thus stands for an austere and doctrinally ‘pure’ way of practising theology.

The news of the irregular consecration of Jonathan Pryke came as a shock not only to ordinary Anglicans but also to the other conservative networks with whom Jesmond has had long historical links. Among these are GAFCON and the conservative Anglican Mission in England (AMiE). Only a matter of days ago I was writing about the plan of GAFCON primates themselves to plant a missionary bishop in Britain. Such a figure would serve the needs of those conservative parishes who had found themselves out of sympathy with their local bishops. We may imagine that the consecration in Jesmond has been planned over several months. Thus, it would have been prepared for in secret without any knowledge of this other debate that was to take place in Nairobi in April 2017. The effect of this consecration, however, is likely to be considerable. First it shows that Calvinist Anglicans across the world are not as united as they would like to appear. There is a suggestion of power games at work between these different factions of Reformed Anglicans. The consecration is also a direct challenge on the authority of the Archbishops in this country. As I said in my previous piece on GAFCON, Anglican discipline is weak in deciding where its boundaries of theology lie. It is however stronger when it comes to the issue of episcopal jurisdiction. A bishop in Anglican terms is given a physical area over which he has responsibility. In special circumstances church lawyers have come up with the notion of ‘flying’ bishops. These have the power to cross diocesan boundaries to serve minority groups. But even then they have been given titles which refer to a particular place. It helps to root them in the age-old tradition that every bishop looks after a particular area. The Bishop of Ebbsfleet would be hard pressed to exercise any ministry over an area of marsh land on the Isle of Thanet. But at least the place Ebbsfleet exists in the real world. We have not been told whether the new ‘bishop’ in Jesmond is even attempting to follow this tradition.

One of the intriguing details of the consecration of Jonathan, is that it was performed by bishops belonging to the group which call themselves the Reformed Anglican Church of South Africa (REACH-SA). This is a conservative fundamentalist group which in 2013 emerged out of the so-called Church of England in South Africa. In my past reading about the Anglican diocese of Sydney, I was struck by the close relationships between the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and this conservative group of Anglicans in South Africa. It could be claimed that without support, financial and theological, from Sydney, REACH-SA would have faded away long ago. Sydney Anglicans and their fundamentalist Calvinist ideas have now become the dominant expression of Anglicanism in their part of Australia., REACH-SA with its similar ethos is still a smallish minority group when set against the official Anglican Church in South Africa. South African Anglicans in general have always tended to support a more catholic and broader style of theology. Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, was the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation committee which did so much to heal the wounds after the collapse of apartheid. In contrast the then Church of England in South Africa was very much identified with the cause of white supremacy. In this way, this conservative expression of Anglicanism identified with the reactionary position of a large section of the Dutch Reformed Church.

As I mentioned above it seems that the GAFCON network, to which Jesmond Parish Church owes some allegiance, was apparently not informed in advance of the plans to consecrate a new Bishop. I can imagine that these events in Jesmond have caused considerable problems for GAFCON. It is worth reminding my readers that through the consecrating REACH-SA bishops, there is an indirect link back to Sydney Anglicanism. The wider GAFCON network is also serviced from offices in Sydney under its secretary the ex-Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen. Thus, two subversive and disruptive events against the whole Anglican Communion have taken place within a week. Both can be traced directly or indirectly back to Sydney. The Anglican Church in Britain is being challenged by these two attacks and both have to be taken very seriously. We can only hope that that those in authority in this country can stand up to a naked attempt to bully and manipulate the structures of our national Church. Sydney Anglicans cannot be allowed to define the nature of the whole Anglican Communion.

One of the curious anomalies of the Church of England has been its readiness to recognise the orders of other churches even when it is not in communion with them. Thus there are a number of breakaway Anglican groups across the world which are not in communion with the wider Communion but whose orders are recognised. It is one thing to recognise the orders of groups that are obviously different from our own, such as the Orthodox or Catholic communions, but recognising the orders of groups that use the word Anglican in their self-description is a cause of confusion. The church in Jesmond which has effectively separated itself from the Anglican Communion by various illegal acts should now be formally required to withdraw from the Church of England and cease to use the word Anglican to describe itself. Unfortunately, this will not happen. Many young and enthusiastic Christians in the Jesmond network will believe that they are fully members of the national church. In reality they have become members of congregations which are behaving much like cults. We await to see how this story pans out. It is however clear that, politically, this attack on the wider Anglican Church in this country from two directions within a single week, does not make good publicity for the conservative cause. It will demonstrate to most right-thinking people that the conservative grouping within Anglicanism worldwide is arrogant and power hungry. It is simultaneously much fragmented. Both actions, coming at the same time, may help to concentrate the minds of our leaders to resist vigorously against these direct attempts to control and manipulate the church in Britain. GAFCON threats and Jesmond illegalities need to be faced up to with energy and determination by our Anglican Christian leaders.

God beyond words

Among the claims made by conservative theologians is the suggestion that all the truths of divine revelation can be articulated in human words. This is held alongside another common conservative claim that we need never go beyond the Bible text for our theology. Another way of describing this approach is to say that theology has to be propositional. Saving truth can only be articulated through propositions or statements. These will always use actual words, preferably drawn from Scripture.

I have been thinking about this dimension of conservative belief that stresses definition and formulae. I have come to realise that this is for me a somewhat impoverished way of handling truth. It occurred to me the other day that when I say I know someone, I know more than the physical details of their life – the things that appear on a CV. I am also familiar with the aspects of the person’s personality that he or she chooses to reveal to me. Even with this fuller knowing I still do not know anything of their inner experience unless they share it. Probably there are also aspects of the other person’s personality that they themselves are completely unaware of. Saying that we know someone is a knowing that combines objective and subjective information about them. But, however much we think we know them, there will be much that we cannot know. We are always left with a partial and incomplete understanding of the inner life of another person.

There is a well-known section in the Psalms which says: ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Many sermons have been preached about this saying. The attractiveness of these words for a preacher is that they allow an immense range of possible interpretations to be explored. The words invite us to let go of formulae and carefully constructed definitions to think about God as he reveals himself to us in the present. He is here inviting us to seek for him, not through words, but in stillness and silence where concepts have no place. Here ‘knowing’ is being understood in its inclusive Hebrew sense. It involves multiple aspects of knowing – understanding, longing, together with a desire for intimacy with the creator. As each person enters into the stillness of God’s presence, one or other aspect of his nature may come to the fore. There is no attempt to prescribe what is a correct relationship with God. Similarly, there is no formula that tells us exactly how we are to connect with another person. We simply come into their presence. In the setting of friendship, we are allowed with them to be just what we are. They also become what they are within the orbit of the relationship. The same thing happens as we seek to approach God. As Christians we believe, sometimes in an inarticulate way, that the deepest part of our being is revealed to us as we approach a God whom we can never fully know. It is this unknowability and mystery of the divine being which many Christians want to celebrate. I for one want to worship God that I do not understand or know in any final sense. In his stillness, we find ourselves approaching something infinite, inexhaustible and certainly beyond definition.

It is the poets who glimpsed through their skilful use of words that reality will always transcend mere words. That is a kind of paradox which I would like to think that Christians can rejoice in. Formulae and definitions seem to promise a degree of precision which are valuable in the formulation of scientific truth. When theological definitions seek to offer a similar sense of control over a reality under scrutiny, I find it unhelpful. Of course, there are some statements that one wants to make about historical events and the claims of doctrinal belief need to be expressed in words. Equally much theological language is not about defining anything; it is being used to help us to go to a place where we can glimpse mystery, incomprehensibility and unknowable glory. The nearest secular analogy I can think of to describe this way of using language, is when we talk about beauty. I have described in an earlier blog the way that, even in a secular context, the notion of beauty is beyond language. The words being used to talk about beauty ultimately fail in their description of this reality. If words are seen to be inadequate in this context, should we not also come to see that words may well fail in talking about God who is beyond our understanding.

I would claim that any suggestion that we can contain or even describe divine truth by the use of a few well-chosen words, is an attempt to control and bring God down to our level. Propositional ideas suggest that human language has a power which arguably it does not possess. It is one thing for a conservative theologian to say that the Bible contains all necessary truth; it is another thing to suggest that the reality of the Divine being can be contained in these words in some way. Words have the power to evoke meaning for us rather contain it. When people feel that they are losing something important if bible phrases are shown to be only indirect mediators of truth rather than actual containers, it is perhaps they sense a loss of control. So often the words of Scripture become talismanic and magical when used by a preacher, giving him a quasi-divine power. The reality of God will in fact always be greater than these words, indeed anything we can say or imagine. When we become still and perceive something of God, we also simultaneously realise that he is completely beyond our control or our human understanding. Any claim to possess him by using ‘correct’ words is irrational and probably harmful. Many churches are harming their members by restricting what is said about him to the old formulae. A releasing of congregations from this kind of control and censorship over what can be said or thought about God may be an important act of liberation. It may also give the congregation an opportunity to discover the height, the depth and breadth of the reality of God. To deprive people of this adventure is, we would claim, an abusive withholding of the spiritual food which every Christian should be able to access.

GAFCON -The Saga continues

In Nigeria, two days ago, a meeting of Anglican Primates associated with GAFCON was concluded. I hope that my readers will be familiar from my blogs and elsewhere with the nature of this grouping within the Anglican Communion. The first major gathering of the group that has become GAFCON took place in Jerusalem in 2008. This assembly of conservative Anglicans, bishops, clergy and laity, was a calculated act of defiance and opposition to the Lambeth Conference taking place at the same time in the UK. GAFCON believes that it has the task of renewing the Anglican Communion from a strict biblical perspective. Its leader is the Archbishop of Lagos and Primate of Nigeria, Nicholas Okoh. He is supported by certain Anglican provinces and dioceses mainly in Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia. The organisation is also linked to a conservative but schismatic Anglican grouping in the United States known as ACNA. This group has been behind numerous law suits against the official Episcopal Church. Although these parishes and dioceses identifying with ACNA have formally seceded from the main body of Episcopalians in the States, they have attempted to prise property and other assets from the main organisation. These attempts have been generally unsuccessful.

The GAFCON statement put out by these conservative Anglican primates articulated the well-rehearsed position that these GAFCON members alone represent a true faithful biblical Anglicanism. From their perspective, the Anglican Church in the northern hemisphere has betrayed biblical principles, especially over sexuality and marriage. This rhetoric about sex and marriage is, when you scratch below the surface, almost entirely to do with the growing Christian tolerance in the West of the possibility of gay relationships and even allowing them among the clergy. This focus on the ‘gay issue’ has been obsessively harked on about at every meeting of GAFCON since its beginning. Finding some way of reconciling the conservative position to a more liberal approach has been one of the most intractable issues for those in leadership within the Anglican Communion. It would be true to say that the Anglican Communion has been on the edge of division for well over ten years and the problem shows no sign of lessening. The GAFCON April communiqué has now raised the temperature considerably. The Primates gathered in Lagos have expressed the desire to appoint a bishop who would act as a missionary with a responsibility for oversight for congregations in the North who ‘are in need of biblically faithful episcopal leadership’. The Primates are particularly concerned over the the Scottish Episcopal Church which, on 8 June in GAFCON’s words, ‘is likely to formalise their rejection of Jesus’ teaching on marriage’. GAFCON would also like to extend this biblical episcopal supervision to other ‘faithful’ congregations in England. These are those who have no longer access to episcopal oversight because they have chosen to put themselves outside the structures of the Church of England. In addition, there are other clergy and congregations who identify with GAFCON but who while not having formally broken away from Anglican structures might offer some welcome. Such an episcopal figure would however have no legal or ecclesiastical status within the national church.

Anglicanism has always been fairly open to a wide-range of doctrinal opinions. The one thing that Anglicanism does not tolerate well is border crossing by groups or individuals who claim to represent a purer version of the Anglican Church. The lack of any legal jurisdiction for a GAFCON appointed missionary bishop would be a matter of some considerable embarrassment, not least for some conservative Christians themselves. It would hardly be tolerated by our national church and its leaders. In Anglican terms an Anglican bishop outside its structures is an ecclesiological impossibility. Were such a figure to be appointed from Africa, it is likely that a work visa would be denied. Our Archbishop Justin recently invited the Primate of the breakaway ACNA group in the States, Foley Beach, to a meeting of Anglican Primates. Welcoming a GAFCON appointed bishop into Britain would be to extend Anglican hospitality to breaking point. In short, any GAFCON episcopal appointee would be totally unwelcome in Britain.

Alongside the news emerging from the GAFCON meeting in Nigeria, there is another story from the States. A congregation known as Truro Anglican Church which split away from the Episcopal Church in Virginia to join ACNA has recently set up an ecumenical institute described as a school of peace and reconciliation. This attempt by a breakaway conservative congregation to study and work with the group which they abandoned, i.e. the Episcopal Church, is something remarkable. Truro Church has received the attention and praise of Justin Welby our Archbishop for this initiative. More predictably the ACNA bishop who oversees Truro Anglican is far from expressing the same enthusiasm. Bishop Guernsey and Archbishop Foley Beach have both written letters articulating their dismay. The legal agreement with the Episcopal diocese of Virginia is ‘not in harmony with the Bible’s instruction in dealing with false teachers. The reconciliation that is being sought is something counterfeit.’

it is hard not to see something extremely mean-spirited or even fanatical in both these events in the world of GAFCON/ACNA. Members of these allied organisations believe that they are recalling the whole of Anglicanism back to its biblical Reformation roots. Yet, as I have said many times in looking at these disputes, the real issue seems to have little to do with the interpretation of Scripture; it is about a visceral loathing of homosexuality and the way that it undermines the political narrative of right-wing thinking. The world view of GAFCON/ACNA breathes old-fashioned patriarchy and rampant homophobia. It also has little connection with the words and understandings of Jesus. Jesus, it is true, did have a strong concern to strengthen the marriage bond. The Bible, or here I should say the Gospels, speaks a great deal about marriage. The focus of Jesus was an attempt to strengthen the bond and make the casual attitude to divorce a thing of the past. In America, the incidence of divorce is now so commonplace that for decades not even Christians attempt to make a strong stand for the gospel standard of marriage faithfulness. Many bishops, priests and laity are caught up in second and subsequent marriages. Any attempt to exercise strong discipline in this area would severely weaken churches, including conservative ones. Because the gospel line cannot be held in this area, the choice is then made to shift the argument to pontificating on the issue of gays. By forbidding even the possibility of marriage for gay couples, conservative Christians shut off even the potential of long-term faithfulness for a gay couple. The intemperate language used against gays and their supporters indicate that the conservative wing of the Anglican Church is not even interested in a discussion which might bring a degree of flexibility to their response. Such an inability to look at the problem afresh with an open mind makes it difficult to see how some relationships within the Anglican communion can be repaired. If an individual or institution cannot tolerate a point of view, then dialogue becomes pointless and of little value. Perhaps we are reaching the point where Archbishops in this country have to act to act with firmness and declare that any bishop appointed by GAFCON/ACNA to work outside their authority and jurisdiction is not welcome. The very existence of such an individual flies in the face of all Anglican practice and tradition. Anyone appointed in this way will not be acceptable or receive any recognition by members of the official Anglican body in Britain.