Category Archives: Stephen’s Blog

Which side are you on?

One aspect of the political life of America has become a lot clearer in the past few days. Apologists for Donald Trump used to be able to pretend to detect a thin thread of rational thinking in his utterances and his tweets. Many of us were more doubtful that this was indeed the case. Now even his most ardent supporters are finding it impossible to stand by him when he has been revealed as a racist of the most obvious kind. More serious even than that is Trump’s inability to see that even a suggestion of holding such views flies in the face of all the traditions and values of the nation he claims to represent and serve. In the face of the ‘car-crash’ news conference of 15th August, there can hardly be a civilised individual in the Western world who sides with the values and thoughts of Donald J. Trump.

The answer to the question ‘whose side are you on’ is easy to answer when looking at the views of Trump. The free democratic world united to fight and defeat the forces of Nazi Germany in 1940s and no historian has ever risen up to challenge the correctness of that decision. Sadly, few moral decisions are ever as simple as taking a stand against racism and fascism. Now today Wednesday 16th August the newspapers have presented to Christians a new moral question. As far as this one is concerned there may be different answers and responses. But once again Christians are being asked ‘whose side are you on?’ There is acknowledgement that agreement is unlikely in this case.

The church of St Sepulchre’s in the city of London has for decades acted as a special place for the network of professional classical musicians in the capital. They have been permitted to practise in the church, hold concerts and generally treat the space as a friendly one for their task of producing professional music of the highest kind. In return, they have helped to keep the building open by the fees paid. As a former vicar outside London I was always on the look-out for musicians who wished to perform in any of my buildings. The most memorable of these occasions was when a prestigious organisation called Music in Country Churches descended on Lechlade. They arrived complete with their Patron, Prince Charles and laid on a fantastic concert featuring Sophie von Otter, the international soprano soloist. Many lesser occasions took place in that church and other churches for which I had responsibility. All the musicians were thrilled with the acoustics that a mediaeval building can create. Never once, even among my evangelical members, was there any hint that good music of all kinds did not have a place in a building whose primary function is for worship.

The problem at St Sepulchre’s is that the new Vicar has decreed that from 2018 the long link with professional musicians is to be broken. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/14/proms-conductor-row-musicians-church-bans-non-religious-concerts/ Although the official reason is that the church, an offshoot of HTB, needs the full use of the building and cannot share it with anyone else, there is clearly a theological agenda. There is, according to John Rutter, the distinguished composer, an implication that non-religious music has no place in the building. In other words a binary distinction is being made between ‘religious’ music and ‘secular’. The former is acceptable while the latter has no place in a house of prayer.

The theological justification that seems to lie behind this story obviously can be argued for. It implies a world view where the clean and the sacred must be kept physically separate from the secular and potentially unholy. We are in other words entering into the world occupied three hundred years ago by the Puritans. No one is suggesting that the Puritans had nothing on their side in terms of theological insight. It is sometimes important to draw boundaries between good and bad and wholesome and wicked. But the Christian perspective that is behind this particular judgement seems very narrow and designed to give the wider church an extraordinarily bad press with people beyond its influence. This negative publicity for the church in London and nationally will be felt for years to come. Is non-religious classical music in some way ever a threat to the gospel? For myself I feel shame that Christian leaders have made this decision. Although I am in no way party to it, I still belong to the organisation which has made this judgement about the role of classical music in our society.

The question of taking a side over the stance of Donald Trump seemed straightforward. Is the question of which side we are on between the Vicar of St Sepulchre’s and the musical world of London equally clear? Does a Christian ever have to decide to exclude what is not overtly designated as Christian? Until Wednesday I had not even realised that this issue of encouraging classical music in a church music in a church building could ever be an issue of faith. Which side, my reader, do you take in the matter?

What people believe -insights into St Michael-le-Belfry

One of the most difficult things to know is what other Christians believe. They may belong to churches which have very definite statements of belief and moral teaching. In order to belong to that church, each member is expected to agree to the doctrinal standards set out. It would, we believe, be normally unwise to assume that all the members of such a church always believe exactly what is expected of them.

I have recently been reading a study of a church in York which attempts to tackle this important question. It is a detailed snapshot of the famous St Michael-le-Belfry Church in York and it is based on field studies carried out in 1999 and 2000. Two things interested me. The first was a frank account of the history of this church since its effective foundation in 1965 by the well-known clergyman, David Watson. He inherited a church building in York which was ripe for closure. Under his leadership St Cuthbert’s, and later St Michael’s, became showcases for the charismatic/ evangelical impulse which was sweeping through the church at the time. The second point of interest is the way that the author, Matthew Guest, now a lecturer in sociology at Durham University, has used extensive questionnaires to probe deeply into the beliefs of the congregation. This section is for me, by far the most revealing part of the book. What it seems to show, in summary, is that while the church possesses a clearly defined charismatic/evangelical identity, the beliefs of many of the congregation often veer towards a liberalism that is not officially appropriate to a church in this tradition.

Two classic Protestant doctrines exist which tower over all others in their importance for the conservative evangelical identity. Both are problematic for many Christians outside the conservative networks such as myself. The first of these is a belief, which we have met many times before, a commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. The other belief that is normative for classical evangelicalism is a belief in the efficacy of the death of Christ. This is a divinely given means to allow the followers of Christ to obtain salvation. The implication of this belief is that no one will be saved if they have not shared in the distinctive experience of evangelical conversion.

According to Guest’s survey, only 24% of the St Michael’s congregation followed a strictly literalist understanding of the Bible. The majority position, 51%, declared that the Bible was true but not always to be taken literally. It is interesting to note that in 1994, in another survey, 28% of churchgoers of all denominations believed the Bible to be literally true. We might have expected that St Michael’s, a beacon of evangelical belief and practice, might have had a higher score. Guest’s research suggests that many in the congregation were actively involved in an attempt to relate what they knew of secular learning to biblical insights. To put it another way, independent reading and reflection was a normative part of the individual forging of a spiritual identity. There was little sense that preaching provided a definitive statement of what had to be believed. Sermons were only one part of the journey towards faith.

The classic view of salvation which states that only those who have made a personal decision to follow Christ will enter heaven was also problematic for many St Michael’s members. This evangelical soteriology was firmly held by David Watson and I heard this teaching from his lips in 1974. It is this teaching which lies behind the (to my mind) intrusive question: ‘Are you saved?’ The strict version of the evangelical message sees any watering down of this model of salvation as being ‘patently false and the result of delusion or satanic machinations’. The idea that family members are destined for hell because they have not made a decision for Christ sat uncomfortably with many of the St Michael’s folk that Guest spoke to. In many of the interviews that he conducted individuals wanted to soften the harsh version of the doctrine. 86% of those interviewed preferred to reject the idea of hell being a place of punishment. Like Christians elsewhere they found it difficult to conceive of a God of love who ‘lets people trip off down into eternal misery’.

Hard-line views about other religions also failed to find favour with the majority of the St Michael’s congregation. Many wanted to find positive aspects in these non-Christian religions. While maintaining that other religions were deficient in some way, most respondents were unwilling to condemn them. In short it could be said that at a personal individual level, the majority of St Michael’s members opted for a tolerant and inclusive view in relation to other religious.

The one area where the St Michael’s congregation revealed a classic conservative approach was in the area of sexual morality. Guest found that 81% of respondents believed that sexual relations between same sex adults are always wrong. This compares with 39% for the population at large. This latter figure will have decreased further since the survey was made. Attitudes about the role of women in church and family were far closer to the views held by the wider society. Some members did identify with traditionalist patriarchal view of women and their role within the home. Nevertheless 57% disagreed with the statement that the primary role of the Christian woman is to support her husband as provider by caring for the children and tending to the household duties. The same percentage was also found in a public opinion survey.

Guest concludes that wider cultural norms in our society have made considerable impact on the beliefs and practices of the members of St Michael’s. The official position of the church is to be exclusive and set-apart from the secular world. This is the stance taken by preachers, whether visitors or resident. In practice, this sense of separateness has been eroded for many St Michael’s individuals. We can even call it a significant liberalisation of parts of the congregation. Strict conservative views on issues connected with the Bible, the meaning of salvation and the role of women continue to be held. But, Guest would claim there is no consensus on these topics. Can we by any chance extrapolate these findings to other bastions of evangelical identity and suggest that any unanimity that is claimed is not real? The ‘myth’ of evangelical agreement is certainly one that has intimidated those of us who positively applaud diversity and untidiness of belief in church life.

Christianity and Class

The Church Times on Friday 4th August had an article about the issue of social class in the Church of England. Class is one of those topics that probably everyone secretly has feelings about but finds difficult to discuss. The authors were brave to raise this issue in the new book, A Church for the Poor. It raises dilemmas that seem insoluble. A central starting point for the authors of the book, Natalie Williams and Martin Charlesworth, is that the Church of England is at present culturally very middle-class. People brought up in a different background often find themselves out of place in many of its typical activities, including the acts of worship. The book also faces up to the practical problems that arise when a middle-class congregation tries to be more accessible to people of a different social background. Many individuals from a humble background lack the education and a facility with words which is the norm among most church attenders. There are other topics in the book about working class representation in the structures of church government and leadership. Also, what might a successful church operating in a working-class environment look like?

I want to take the book’s discussion as a starting point for some reflections of my own rather than comment further on the topics raised by the authors. On this blog Chris is frequently reminding us how the Church fails to connect with members of the ‘lower’ classes. There is also the problem that culturally, middle and working-class populations occupy different worlds. Young people are perhaps the exception in this statement. The mass youth culture has a greater homogeneity today than in the past. Older people on the other hand are likely to follow the cultural norms set by their own backgrounds and education. Loud rhythmic music is seldom heard in middle class neighbourhoods. Because of the huge range of cultural manifestations in today’s society, it is not surprising that the church finds it so difficult to find a cultural style to suit all its members.

While the different classes follow quite different trajectories in choosing their cultural preferences, there are some places where all classes meet. Popular television and certain forms of popular music attract people from every social tier. The plot line of East Enders and Coronation Street may be a conversation piece among people of widely differing educational backgrounds and class. At the same time, the members of the semi-literate groups in society, those who have been unable to climb the social and economic ladders, may find it hard to connect with better educated people in other areas. The task of sheer survival takes priority over any kind of social and cultural aspiration. These people in particular, will find little meaning in what the church is saying. What little they do know will be filtered through the columns of popular newspapers. Many people will conclude that the Church is obsessed with the topic of gay sex. This is what they think they hear when the Archbishops are speaking to the general public. It is hard to know how the deeper aspects of the church’s message can be shared in the face of such massive misunderstandings.

This past week I took a funeral service to help a local vicar who is on retreat. I had an opportunity to meet the bereaved family before the service so was able to gain a good impression of what they were expecting of me at the crematorium. None of them had any background in the church and I was faced with the task of saying something that would avoid cliché but also reflect something of the Christian hope. There was a balance to be observed – one which gave due attention to the Christian context of the service without alienating the congregation with the use of too much Christian jargon. I spoke briefly about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Such an event helps us to envisage that death is not a final statement. From my perspective death was an entry into a place of dazzling brightness, a place where there was to be found peace, joy and the fulfilment of all our longings. Any attempt to speak about salvation or other aspects of Christian dogma would have been in this setting a complete waste of time. Instead we celebrated and gave thanks for all the positive aspects of the life of the deceased man. I hope it was done in a way that was helpful and able to bring comfort.

I mention this funeral because it was an example of a meeting between two cultures. The cultures represented were here not strictly speaking defined by social class. The barriers of incomprehension that I observed were the result of one group being totally unversed in the words and ideas of the Christian faith. I know that some clergy would have taken a different line from my attempted sensitivity to the situation. They would have ploughed on with a presentation of the gospel as they understood it, without any regard to the incomprehension of their audience. Others might have veered in the opposite direction, making the event much closer to a humanist celebration of a person’s life. Whichever is the right approach I have no means of knowing.

Christians who wish to speak of their faith to those who share nothing of their language or culture do have one strong tool at their disposal. That is the teaching of Good News through music of all kinds. Music sometimes reaches the inner parts of human beings in ways that no words can. Some find themselves awakened by melody while others can be invigorated by a strong rhythmic style. The problem for many of us is that the most popular Christian music repels some on taste grounds as much as it attracts others. I also fear a worship style which leans heavily on the use of culturally popular music. Is it the music which attracts the audience or God? Are we attracting people to Hillsong or Vineyard services to listen to contemporary musical entertainment or are we drawing them towards God? I simply do not know the answer to this question. If it is really possible to draw in people to meet God who use less verbal communication in their cultural lives, then we need to be able to demonstrate how this takes place.

My reflections are full of unanswered questions. My dilemma is that the very things that help me articulate my faith, a facility with words and education, are repugnant or off-putting to those who do not share them. Culturally I am cut off from large numbers of the British population. I do not understand their cultural assumptions and neither do they understand mine. One of the authors of the book about class, Natalie Williams, was facing another issue. She had begun her life as a member of working class community. Her conversion to Christianity and the education that followed it had taken her to a middle-class identity. Now she was no longer able to claim solidarity with the people she had known as a child. Where does she now belong? Her dilemma and indeed mine suggest that easy solutions are a long way off.

Leadership and personality in the Church

Three years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a comment about the clergy which was felt to demoralise some of them. He said that where there was a good vicar, ‘you will find growing churches’. This comment seemed to be unfair to the many clergy who work in difficult areas where the church finds it hard to make headway. It was also suggesting that a church that fails to thrive is in some way the fault of its leader.

In the Church Times last Friday, there was published an article based on some research by one Henry Ratter, a layman and a former senior manager at ICI. He has recently completely a PhD thesis which shows that clergy personality is in fact a factor helping churches to flourish. His research involved using the unlikely named Glowinkowski Predisposition Indicator. This is a tool to assess the thinking style and engagement with work among professionals. Ratter used the questionnaire on one hundred clergy in a rural diocese in England. The questionnaire assessed problem solving in their work alongside issues connected with feelings and self-control.

It is the second part of the assessment that interests me. I have long since claimed (privately) that some parish clergy are beset with issues of morale. Not a few of them seem, from personal observation, to have complaints about the amount of support they receive from above, bishops and archdeacons. Thus, they often feel isolated in their work and some of them seem to withdraw into themselves, becoming ‘prickly’ and defensive towards the outside world. This is expressed by a reluctance to take part in Synods and other clergy gatherings. In this way, they complain about failures of support while simultaneously withdrawing from the structures that are provided.

Ratter’s research was not directly addressing the issue of morale among the clergy but there were some interesting shafts of light on the problem. Out of the hundred clergy who completed the questionnaire, 37 were found to be ‘self-contained and ill at ease’. Ratter suggests that such a disposition renders this group less able to ‘express their feelings and emotions openly’ thus making ‘a negative impact on their work.’

The research of clergy personality profiles was conducted alongside statistics of church attendance. Four personality features were found to equate to ‘healthy’ congregational life. One was that these clergy were extraverted types. The other features were that they were ‘radical’, able to plan for the future, ‘at ease with themselves’ and finally ‘collectivist’. By way of comment I note that each of these features suggest that such clergy were confident, avoiding the collapse of morale that seems endemic among a cohort of their peers.

Speaking as a retired parish clergyman, I can see that the last feature mentioned by Ratter, the collectivist, is especially important. Through this word Ratter is speaking about the ability to get along with people of all kinds, empowering them and using their gifts within the structures of the parish. I know from experience that without good people managing finance, fabric, church fetes etc, life would have been impossibly stressful. Equally there needed to be trusted individuals to share strategy and vision for the future of the congregation. Trying to ‘go it alone’ would have made a difficult job impossible. ‘Collectivism’ seems like a strategy for emotional survival rather a quality of personality.

Yet we know that the ability to trust the right people and bring out the gifts of all is a skill. Insofar as I possess it, it went with the other quality mentioned by Ratter, being ‘at ease with themselves’. As a child I probably spent more time than was healthy looking up to other children who were good at sport or cleverer that I was. It was never difficult to exceed my skills on the sports field. Nevertheless, by the time was adult I had largely purged myself of this sense of inferiority. Away also went the emotions of jealousy and envy. Assisting me were the benefits of a good education and many opportunities for travel. Whatever the reason, I do not now spend any time wanting to be someone else or wanting what they possess. That is, I suppose, a mark of being at ease with myself.

This personal reflection is not meant to be about me but to reflect on the way that this piece of research points to a problem. Some clergy do seem to have an issue with a personality type which gets in the way of congregational flourishing. One expression that might sum it up is to say that some clergy are lacking social confidence. Whether training can eliminate the introversion involved in this trait is an open question. I am not convinced that there is at present much interest in examining the psychodynamic profiles of potential clergy or ministers. While some sort of psychological profiling may happen in the Anglican church at the selection stage, there is no evidence that anything equivalent is done for independent congregations where the potential for damage is massive. One of my few peer-reviewed published articles is on the issue of narcissism among the clergy. Although the topic of narcissism among leaders has become extremely topical with the arrival of Trump, I am not aware of anyone who has picked up the topic among the trainers of clergy. Ratter’s observations about the personalities of the clergy and their leadership potential may have created a few waves over the past few days, but I suspect that it will be quickly forgotten. Power in the church, its use and misuse, is a very disconcerting and threatening topic. Until it can be discussed in a way that does not threaten the actual holders of power, it will always be easier to leave the subject in an in-tray. There it can be quietly forgotten.

Toronto Blessing – looking back to 1994

While I was away from a computer for a few days in Scotland, I found myself reflecting on a topic that many of us have considered – the Toronto Blessing. For those too young to remember this significant episode in the life of the Church, the Toronto Blessing was an episode of high-octane religiosity which spilled out from Canada in the 90s to affect many Christians in other parts of the world. Even those who were not caught up directly in this explosion of Pentecostal/Charismatic enthusiasm were aware of what was going on. Reactions varied from ‘this is a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ to ‘what a terrible example this is of religious hysteria.’ Few people who knew anything about it could remain totally indifferent. For myself the ‘Blessing’ peaked at around the time I was finishing off some writing I was doing on healing. The reports were such that I considered taking a plane to Toronto Airport to see what the fuss was all about. But having studied the phenomena that is Toronto subsequently, I am glad that I did not make the journey and submit my emotions and my psyche to a full-frontal assault.

I have recently encountered a doctorate thesis on-line on the topic of the Blessing written by a South African, Stephanus Pretorius , from 2002. It is a very careful study. Its value for me is in the way that the author explores many disciplines in attempting to make sense of what went on at the small Airport church in Toronto for most of 1994 into early 1995. I am especially grateful for the attempt by the author to locate the phenomena of the Blessing within the context of world religion.

Among the reported effects at Toronto was the sight of people collapsing to the floor and lying apparently unconscious for considerable periods of time. Others were said to imitate animals either in their movements or in the sounds they made. The thesis claims that similar phenomena occur in Hindu spiritual practice, particularly in the disciplines associated with the awakening of an energy known as Kundalini. Kundalini is understood to be a primal energy living within every human being. It is the task of yogic spiritual practice to awaken this energy so that it can transform the body and raise it to its true potential. Kundalini energy is pictured as being like a snake at the base of the spine, waiting the opportunity to be awoken and activated in the spiritual seeker. The literature suggests that this life force also on occasion expresses itself in ways comparable to the Toronto phenomena.

That there should be a parallel between Toronto spirituality and a branch of Eastern yogic practice is something that many might find threatening to their understanding of the Christian faith. I personally do not find this idea strange as it has always been clear to me that God can only reveal himself using the faculties of mind and body that we all possess as humans. There are no special new organs of spiritual communication afforded only to Christians. A further point that is also striking in the thesis are the comparisons made between the pastors at Toronto and the gurus who teach kundalini practice. In both cases, a ritual of light touch by the leader is given when the disciple is considered ready. The Toronto initiate frequently falls to the floor and similar happenings may take place in a Hindu setting.

I suggested above that I am glad that I was not tempted to make the ‘pilgrimage’ to Toronto as part of my then research on healing. I mentioned that the highly charged atmosphere that was part of the daily service in the church seems to have been a bit like an assault on the spirit and psyche. Enormous energy was present in the building and however one wants to describe it, it is clear that few people were able to resist the massive primal emotion that was causing people to behave in strange ways. Such emotion and power seem potentially destabilising or even dangerous to mental well-being.

Pretorius’s thesis is particularly useful in the way that he discusses the power of hypnosis in the whole process. He sets out the characteristics of hypnosis for his reader. He notes the following.
1. Hypnosis is not a dreamlike quality. It is in fact a state where reflexes are fully functioning, alertness maintained and there is full awareness of what is going on.
2. The normal planning functions of a hypnotised person are reduced and the hypnotised person tends to wait passively for instructions from the hypnotist.
3. The subject’s attention becomes highly selective.
4. Role playing is readily accomplished, the hypnotised person frequently becoming quite thoroughly immersed in a suggested role.

It is clear from what Pretorius says about the state of hypnosis (he says a great deal more) that it can account for much of the strangeness of Toronto type events. It is also not difficult to identify how the participants were drawn into this state of hypnosis. The use of repeating choruses is a well-known technique for dulling the critical mind and inducing a trance-like state. I have frequently made the point that music has the capacity to bypass the conscious mind whether for good or ill. A further method used at Toronto to induce the state of hypnotic suggestibility (and no doubt among its contemporary imitators) is the repetition of suggestive phrases like ‘Let the Spirit come’ or ‘Flow into your hearts’. Taking this pragmatic understanding of hypnotic methods that we have, we need find nothing extraordinary in the spiritual events that are recorded as happening at Toronto.

Although what I have written above may seem to be reductionist and designed to undermine the Toronto experience, it is not meant to do this. The value of Toronto must be judged, not on its strangeness or its mechanics but on its fruits. Did the experience of Toronto change the hearts and lives of those attending, or did they experience a primal experience of disinhibition which they enjoyed and want endlessly repeated? For myself a suggestion that any Christian experience can only be enjoyed after using the methods of hypnotic suggestion and crowd psychology is one that makes me a little uncomfortable. My ongoing evaluation of Toronto will, however, not be swayed by what I think about the methods used to induce the experience. I shall be judging it by looking at the transformation that may have touched those who attended. The jury in me is still out.

Conservative Anglicans on the March

In the last post, I expressed the belief (and the hope!) that General Synod was shifting away, bit by bit, from endorsing or supporting the hard-line ‘biblical views’ of small conservative pressure groups. These are associated with politically active Anglican bodies like REFORM, GAFCON and the Church Society. This assessment has been echoed by others. The ultra-conservative Synod members who support these groups seem also to reflect a concern that their influence may be slipping. In June, various individuals from these factions wrote a joint letter to the Church Times. This letter contained the threat that they would walk out of Synod if the Bishop of Edinburgh was permitted to address the Synod which was then about to take place. The Scottish Episcopal Church has recently redefined marriage so that it will be possible for same-sex weddings to take place in their churches. The CT letter suggested that an invitation to Bishop John Armes by Synod might damage the Instruments of Communion which bind the Church of England to the wider Anglican Communion. The signatories, 10 lay members and 5 clergy, believed that their presence at Synod would somehow endorse the views of the Scottish Episcopal Church. I understand that no such walk-out took place in the end. We are still left with the memory of an unpleasant discourteous threat that was contained in the letter.

After the General Synod meetings which were concluded in York on the week-end of July 9th, the same conservative factions represented in the letter have geared themselves for more confrontation with the wider church. An open letter has appeared on Wednesday 19th July on the Anglican Mainstream website, which is another conservative grouping. In it the signatories declare that the General Synod are ‘pursuing principles, values and practices contrary to Holy Scripture and church Tradition.’ Such a failure, they continue, is ‘not wholly unexpected’. They are therefore starting to meet ‘on behalf of our fellow Anglicans, to discuss how to ensure a faithful ecclesial future.’

There is a certain amount of coded language here. What I think the signatories are saying is that they recognise that their influence in the Church of England may be declining. Their answer to this is to draw on the strength they possess through the alliances they have with similar-thinking Anglicans elsewhere in the world, especially in the Global South. These alliances enable them to attempt to threaten and even manipulate the main body of the Church of England. ‘A faithful ecclesial future’ would appear to be another term for a full-blown division within the Anglican Communion. Once again this relatively small faction in the Church of England is flexing its muscles by threatening to leave the Communion and align itself to other conservatives across the world.

It should be repeated here that this threatened schism is not one that concerns the bulk of evangelicals in the Church of England. While the evangelical representation in Synod is strong and includes many bishops, few of them are playing the political games which always seem to involve threats of division and splits. The names of those who have signed the letter is interesting. We have both the newly but irregularly consecrated Anglican bishops, Andy Lines and Jonathan Pryke. Also included are the two bishops of the Free Church of England which is a tiny schismatic Anglican grouping. While their orders are recognised, the Free Church of England is not in communion with the main body. All the main conservative groups at work in Britain, GAFCON, REFORM and Mainstream are signatories. The main feature of all these groups is that they each came into being in order to protest against what they believe to be a liberal drift among their fellow Anglicans, especially in England. GAFCON provocatively held its first meeting in Jerusalem at the same time as Lambeth 2008. REFORM and Mainstream both thrive on presenting themselves to the press as the true voice of worldwide Anglicanism even if their main message seems always to be about sexual behaviour. Their reactionary perspective seems to have a single aim – how they can destroy the Church of England and rebuild it in a purer form which meets with their theological vision. This ‘new’ biblical version of the Church would lack one key feature of the Anglicanism which most of us have long appreciated. This is the ability of the church to preserve more than one theological perspective simultaneously. The Elizabethan settlement allowed Catholics and Puritans to live and work together in a single ecclesial body. Anything that destroys this balance would destroy Anglicanism as we have known it for 450 years.

The Anglicans in Britain represented by these letters is not a large. Probably the Church of England would survive easily if it allowed these politically motivated conservative Christians to go their own way. Other prominent groupings of evangelicals, like those attached to Holy Trinity Brompton, do not appear to be political in this way. The strength of this ultra-conservative Anglican alliance, is, as we have pointed out, in the links it has with churches overseas. On paper the Anglicans in the Global South vastly outnumber members of the Church of England, however you count the numbers. But, just as I want to query figures claimed by some Christian networks in this country, so I question the numbers of Anglicans actively supporting these conservative issues overseas. Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria may have twenty million active Anglican members in his church, but I find it very hard to believe that all these Anglicans are as concerned about the topic of same-sex marriage as their leaders. I doubt very much if most African Anglicans have even heard about the debates which are so passionately argued about as a hall-mark of conservative Anglican identity in this country.

The Mainstream letter about the ‘ecclesial future’ of the Anglican Church may just be one more threat by a distinct group of conservative Anglicans to split away from the main body. Alternatively it may finally persuade church leaders that the days of pretending that the Anglican Communion is a single body are over. Over the next three years, preparations are being made to bring together the Anglican Communion from all over the world to England in 2020 for the Lambeth Conference. Will the scheming of these groups finally result in a split between the North and the South on this issue of gay sex? The acclaimed aim of the group, to restore the Communion back to a tradition and a version of biblical orthodoxy will never happen in the way they would like. The Anglican Church in England will always preserve its Elizabethan balance of different views and outlooks. Thus it will continue to represent the moderation of the English people. It will never be a body representing fanaticism. Those who want to control the entire body by denying a place to the opinions of those who disagree with them will always ultimately be defeated.

Mood change at Anglican General Synod

I do not normally follow in detail the proceedings of the General Synod of the Church of England. But there was something which caught my eye in one of the commentaries made by a conservative evangelical member of that body. Rob Munro, a representative from the Chester diocese and a member of the conservative body, the Church Society wrote a reaction to the recent Synod in York. He was particularly concerned about what he perceived to be the declining influence of the evangelical bloc within the Synod. He suggested that, politically speaking, the centre ground of General Synod has shifted away from the biblical position on topics to do with sexuality etc. In other words, the perspective of the bulk of Synod members no longer identifies with the well-rehearsed conservative positions on these matters. I read this comment alongside another hint that things are changing in General Synod. It seems that when certain well-known conservative individuals stand up to rehearse their predictable positions, they were sometimes being greeted with ‘noises of unhappiness and booing’. This behaviour was deemed to be unhelpful to the conduct of Synod.

I have reflected on these two pieces of information about what might be going on in the Church of England Synod. Obviously, I was not present to hear the ‘noises of unhappiness’. I am however able to reflect on why people might begin to express their feelings in this way. One of the features of the conservative position on issues like same-sex marriage and the ordination of same-sex individuals is that it is completely unchanging. The spokesmen for the conservative groups in Synod will quote the same bible passages and repeat the same arguments over and over again. Obviously, there are differences among the proponents of the conservative evangelical bloc, but the actual individuals who support these views will not want to shift from personal positions they have in some cases held for decades.

How do we react to a person who never varies in their strongly held opinions? The first thing that happens is that we become bored when we have to listen to the same arguments rehearsed again and again. We hear the argument but, because we know exactly what is coming next, our willingness to listen carefully is compromised. Listening to an apologist for the conservative position over same-sex marriage creates the same effect on me as having to listen to listen to Easyjet cabin crew explain safety measure before take-off. The noises of unhappiness and booing during the speech of such a Synod spokesman as Andrea Minchiello Williams may be simply the sounds of boredom rather than disagreement. The hearers have heard identical arguments being rehearsed so many times before that their reaction is now to feel bored and dispirited.

The arguments from Scripture over gay ordination and all the other things that divide evangelicals from other Christians do need to be heard and the debate is necessary for the church to conduct. The issue in Synod at York at the beginning of July 2017 was not about the value or otherwise of the conservative position on these things. The problem for the evangelical bloc is whether their arguments on these topics have started to sound like a gramophone record which has got stuck. The same words are being repeated again and again with decreasing impact. This repetition has now created a sense of tedium in the listener so that the core message is no longer easily heard.

I personally will always be suspicious of a version of truth which is presented to me through endless repetition. This is because my understanding of the Christian faith has never worked like this. The things that I was taught at theological college almost 50 years ago are by no means the only truths that I have to offer. If they were I am sure that I would by now be utterly bored in endlessly repeating them. What is true for me is that the Christian faith constantly grows and deepens. There are all the time new insights that I obtain through reading and exposure to fresh experiences. Last week at the conference I was attending, an acquaintance introduced me to a writer that I have never heard of. She had heard me speak about power issues in the church and thought that this writer, Carter Heyward, would help me to clarify my thought on these matters. Reading new ideas, grappling with fresh insights is the way that my faith is not in danger of becoming utterly blighted by stale repetition. As it is, I allow myself to explore across cultures and centuries looking for new ways in which to articulate old and traditional truths.

As I write these words I am reminded of a Sydney Carter song. He writes about travelling from the old to the new. The old, the traditional, is not cancelled or destroyed by the new. It is however constantly transformed and changed. As far as the Christian faith is concerned there is always, as far as I can understand, a constant process of travelling. As we travel we allow new insights, new understandings and impressions to enthral us along the way. Without it we would be easily tempted to be among those who prompted ‘the noises of unhappiness and booing’. Boredom is never meant to be part of our understanding of the Christian faith. We certainly don’t want to be guilty of spreading such staleness and repetitiveness to others. The hints that this version of the Christian faith seems to be on the way out within parts of Anglicanism is to be welcomed. The Church of England and its General Synod is far healthier with less in the way of repetition and tedium.

What is a cultic group? The dynamics of coercion

During a two-day conference that I have just attended on the topic of the Trinity, someone asked me during a conversation ‘what is a cult?’. I found it impossible to answer the question in a single sentence, so I went away to write something down. I don’t whether the scrappy note about cultic groups I produced in my appalling handwriting will stand up to the light of day. Still less do I know whether it fits in with some of the learned reflections that were being uttered the week before last in the Bordeaux Conference. But I thought that my efforts should be recorded on this blog even though by tomorrow I may remember other essential ideas that have been left out.

I have changed the question I was asked by making the ‘cult’ word an adjective. This in part lets me off the hook in not closely defining the word that provokes much controversy. To say a church or group is cultic allows me to describe in general terms a style of operating rather getting bogged down in technical definitions

In my answer, I made three points. The most important aspect of a group of a cultic kind, I suggested, was that it was led by a charismatic leader. To call a leader charismatic is to suggest that he/she is articulating a vision for the future or the present which inspires followers to join a group. This vision may be secular, for example creating world peace or conquering hunger. Whether it is secular or religious in nature it will resonate with the idealism of a follower. The rewards for a leader of such a group are not inconsiderable. It puts him (normally a him!) at the centre of attention whether his group is half a dozen strong or in the thousands. Previous blog posts have explored the idea that such aggrandisement will, more often than not, be linked into areas of personal neediness such as those associated with narcissism. In the religious cultic group, the adulation given to the leader may resemble a kind of worship. This preacher of God’s Word may in the mind of the followers all too quickly become the only interpreter of God’s will. Such an individual is thus beyond argument or contradiction.

If absolute power is being enjoyed by a cultic leader, there are also rewards for his followers. These apparent benefits for group members form the second of my three points. Just as a leader may be resolving hitherto unmet personal needs through his role, so the followers are rewarded by finding in the relationship with the leader a way of relieving emotional issues from their pasts. Most people, particularly young adults, have issues connected to their own parents. Leaving home is painful and these relationships often result in some level of inner grief. The cultic group promises not just the excitement of a new adventure to change the world, but it also promises a degree of love and acceptance that will pour balm on old brokenness. There is this combination of being brought into a new adventure for life as well as being a member of a new family. The combination of binding up emotional wounds as well as pointing to a new future are the powerful incentives that cultic groups offer to their potential followers.

My third point takes us into the negative territory that cultic groups occupy in the scheme of things. The dynamic that I have described of the leader receiving gratification from being at the centre of attention and the followers finding an outlet for their idealism as well as their need for ‘healing’ from past hurts seems arguably beneficial. The problem is that the flow of energy and power to both parties only ever works when there is a high degree of control. Things like questioning the leader’s authority will upset the harmony of the group. So there has to be in these cultic groups a level of coercion which will stamp out any questioning or challenge to the leader and his vision. The role of an effective all-beneficent father figure is a narrative that only works when everyone agrees with it. The reality behind the image of a beneficent father may be that a leader is struggling fiercely to manipulate and control some of those below him. The successful hiding of this kind of behaviour will require the leader to control the information reaching other followers. So, we find that in most cultic or high-demand groups there is almost inevitably censoring of information. The price to be paid which enables the ‘cultic flow of power’ to operate effectively is often coercion, fear, power abuse as well as the suppression of information.

My three points, which address the issue of the nature of a cultic group, began first with describing the power flows that enables it to operate ‘successfully’. The third point brings out the coercion, the fear and power abuse that seem necessary for this power flow to function as it is intended. My description may help us to understand why, over a period of time, every cultic group becomes corrupted in its exercise of power. No high-demand group, Christian or not, ever seems to be able to maintain its original (possibly innocent) power dynamic without later resorting to the controlling techniques known to totalitarian regimes the world over. What may have begun in an atmosphere of glorious freedom seems inevitably to descend into structured control and coercion. The reason for this use and abuse of power seems to be built into human nature and the institutions that are created by human beings. This is not to say that every institution is corrupt. Most institutions have some checks and balances to protect them from the ‘fallenness’ of human nature but the same is seldom true of independent cultic groups. It is here that we find the most vivid examples of the evils that we associate, along with my questioner, with the groups we describe as cults.

Safeguarding and Child Abuse -Case of Matt Ineson

On the Sunday programme this morning which is broadcast every Sunday at 7.10 am on Radio 4, there was a salutary tale about sexual abuse in the Church of England. And yet it was not just about sexual abuse. It seemed to reveal a state of panic among those who manage the Church of England at the highest level.

This radio story can be told in broad outline. In 1984 a young lad called Matthew (Matt) Ineson, then aged 16, was sexually abused by a priest, one Trevor Devamanikkan. In spite of this harrowing experience, the young man went on to become ordained himself and by 2012 he had become Vicar of Rotherham. In that year Matt become involved in dealing with a sexual abuse case in his church school. This eventually led to some kind of intervention by both the Bishops in the area, Steven Croft and Peter Burrows, As part of the involvement with these bishops, Matt told each of them about his own abuse. Both Bishops appear to have done nothing, either to have involved the police or to follow up pastorally on the allegations of Matt’s own abuse. The original issue of the church school caretaker also seems to have become buried by inaction or apathy.

In 2013 Matt disclosed his experience of abuse to another senior churchman, Martyn Snow, now Bishop of Leicester. This was in the context of a meeting about pastoral responses towards offenders. Martyn Snow objected to the advice given by Matt to an offender and, in spite of being told that Matt himself was a victim of a crime, made an official complaint against him for his pastoral response. By this time Matt was beginning to find the stress of being an unheard victim too much to bear and he resigned his living in the course of the year 2013. He submitted full accounts of all his experiences to the Diocesan Bishop, Steven Croft and Bishop Peter Burrows with copies to the Archbishop of York. By 2015, with the help of a solicitor, Matt had submitted a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure against his abuser and the six senior clergy who had failed to respond appropriately to his serious allegation of sexual abuse. This Clergy Discipline Measure proved to have a legal limitation. All the accused have hidden behind a provision that states that a complaint must be made within a calendar year of an offence. An extension can be agreed only if the accused concur. Needless to say, the rapist and the six senior clergy have not wanted to surrender this protection afforded to them under church regulations., Meanwhile Trevor Devamanikkan has removed himself from the scene, prior to his criminal trial, by recently committing suicide.

This story might have been overlooked by me as just one more example of institutional failure on the part of senior churchmen. But another story has come my way in the past few days which suggests that the Church of England may be trying to keep the lid on a full-blown crisis. I cannot for obvious reasons reveal too many details about this account except to say that the case involves an English diocese. A woman known to me had cause to speak to her Diocesan bishop about a friend who was apparently suffering spiritual and financial abuse in her local parish. The bishop referred her to the Diocesan Safeguarding Officer and my friend made an appointment to see him. She spent some time with the Officer and was struck by his highly professional and perceptive questions. He promised to consult others, including the local police as there were questions which touched on possible criminal behaviour in the case. He also expressed concern for my friend’s physical safety.

After having had a good level of communication with the Safeguarding Officer, my friend was surprised to receive a terse email a week or two later expressing regret that he could do nothing for her and that she should contact her local police station. My friend immediately believed that the Officer had been ‘nobbled’ by someone who wanted to shut down her complaint. In other words my friend may have stumbled across something big and the Officer had been required to terminate any further enquiry. Am I or my friend being paranoid? I do not think so.

What might be going on? The Church of England may be lurching into what is a cover-up of child and other forms of abuse of massive proportions. As we saw in the case of ‘Jo’ and his abuse, the management of this crisis seems often to be being directed by insurance companies and lawyers. They are apparently attempting to shut down information as much as they can. Steven Croft seemed to be speaking not from the heart, when speaking his memories of Matt’s experience on the radio this morning. He seemed to be speaking from a lawyer’s script. That is always going to be bad news when the church, in the person of its representatives seems to be only interested in preserving reputations in preference to caring for real people.

These two stories have made me feel quite gloomy. So frequently in the past months, the Church at the highest level has shown itself to be incompetent in dealing with abuses of power within its structures. Even those who are otherwise decent and conscientious individuals are being used to defend the ‘system’ from its massive failures from the past. How many more scandals are going to erupt? Is the church going to become a tainted environment that no one can trust? Are children going to be prevented from attending Sunday School for reasons of safety? Safeguarding must be as much about integrity, honesty and openness. The box-ticking culture to create safe spaces may been fine as far as it goes but is a tidal wave of past wrong-doing going to overwhelm the church before it can get its structures into place?

Thoughts on Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter

A recent press account tells us that the Ark Encounter project in Kentucky in the US is in trouble. The Ark Encounter allows visitors to walk round a huge replica of Noah’s vessel which has been built according to the measurements recorded in the Bible (Genesis 6). Believing the literal veracity of the Biblical account, the Encounter tries to imagine the scenario of how thousands of animals were housed and fed by Noah and his family. The founder of the project, Ken Ham, has produced for the people of Kentucky what, for this writer, is a huge monument for the absurdity of literalistic readings of the Bible. Ken Ham, like millions of Christians around the world, has bought into the idea that one of the ways in which the Bible is true is that every apparent historical or scientific statement is to be understood literally. This must always be preferred over any modern interpretations. As I pointed out in one of my earliest blog pieces, there are in fact in Genesis two separate accounts of the building of the Ark. In the first in Genesis 6 one pair of every kind of animal is taken aboard. In the second account in the first verses of Genesis 7 there are seven pairs of the available animals placed in the Ark. Only in the case of the ’unclean’ species is a single pair allowed on board.

Returning to Ken Ham’s project, we find that people are just not turning up in sufficient numbers to help pay for the $100 million project. Perhaps it is also because the vast swathe of the Christian population in Kentucky fails to feel Ham’s enthusiasm for ‘proving’ a Biblical narrative as being literal history. If anything, the Ark replica helps to make the story in the Bible even less believable as literal fact. How could one man, assisted by his three sons build anything as massive as the vessel recorded in Genesis? That is before we think about the gathering together of the necessary materials for the project.

The Ark Encounter project is a vivid reminder that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic want us to believe every narrative or story in Scripture is historical fact. Conservative interpreters seem to be wedded to the idea that it is essential to read the stories of Noah, Job and Jonah as accurate history. There is the belief that because God is the supposed author of all Scripture, there is no other way to understand these narratives.

Although we today are used to making a sharp distinction between fiction and history whether in the Bible or elsewhere, this way of thinking simply did not exist before the 18th-century. The birth of the scientific method and historical analysis allowed scholars to distinguish between fact and probable fiction. Most historical works of the earlier period were an amalgam of legend, myth and fact. It is only today that we have the tools to separate them out. Even to use the expression ‘literal truth’ made no sense in a pre-Enlightenment age. It is noteworthy that today many Christians are so reluctant to use these modern critical tools of analysis on the text of Scripture. While they are prepared to apply the modern (and post-modern) tools of analysis in every other area of life, when it comes to Scripture, Christian leaders insist that we think and interpret in a pre-modern way. In the case of the Noah story, that involves us pretending that six verses of Genesis 7 do not exist.

Behind this insistence on reading every narrative passage as literally true is a method called ‘common sense philosophy’. This takes the view that every individual of reasonable intelligence can interpret language and determine its meaning by the application of common sense. Thus, one does not have to possess a sophisticated education to penetrate the meaning of the Bible. It is laid open to the understanding of all, including the common man. There is a second principle at work in this understanding of Scripture. This is known as propositional theology. This builds on the idea that the chosen method of God to reveal himself is through the words of Scripture. So, the Biblical text is all that is necessary for salvation. By applying ‘common sense’ the individual Christian can through diligent reading of the Bible text discover what God wants him to do with his life and his faith.

These two philosophical undergirding principles are, as we might expect, fraught with problems. The first problem is that the Bible does not in fact easily surrender its meanings to a casual reader. In practice, it requires the help of a Christian teacher to reveal its meaning to the ordinary Christian disciple who attends church. We do of course find a massive number of interpretations which vary according to the personality and training of each individual minister. The second problem is perhaps more serious. If God’s will and purpose are contained in written words and ideas, this will suggest that each Christian engages with God primarily through the use of his or her intellect. The part of us that deals with the content of words and concepts is the thinking mind. Is this really the only part of us that God wishes to engage with? Surely God meets us through all our senses, our emotions, feelings and longings.

It is instructive to compare the apparent compulsion to take all the stories of the Old Testament as being literal history (and never as story!) with the way Jesus extensively used stories in his teaching. When I hear a story, I respond to the emotion, the humour and the possible message within it. Something rather different is happening when I listen to a narrative which is supposed to be accurate history. I will also be puzzled and possibly even irritated when I am expected to overlook any inconsistencies or contradictions. If I were ever to visit the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I know that I would feel completely overwhelmed by a sense of distaste and even anger at the stupidity of the project. $100 million has been spent on a building which tries to convince visitor that the words of Genesis 6 are literally true. Such a pretence has been maintained by ignoring the obvious discrepancies in the story revealed in the first verses of Genesis 7.

A reading of Scripture which insists that any narrative or story has to be read as straight history is sometimes a massive betrayal of proper interpretation. The God that I meet in the Old and the New Testaments speaks to me through story, poetry as well as through myths and history. I had the privilege of studying the Bible for itself and never had to use the lens of a conservative ‘pre-modern’ Bible teacher. I hope I can read it with a clearer vision. No one placed on me the burden of the doctrine that says only in the Bible do we discern the will of God. My use of the Bible is thus outside any dogmatic straitjacket and I am freed to use all the sources of history and tradition that are given to us. I am also fortunate to have some knowledge of the original Biblical languages. The Bible is I believe a far richer document when it is read against this background of the culture, the history and the experience of the people who met God in so many different ways. It is their words to describe that encounter that we have today. The uncovering of their experience is a never-ending project.