Saturday, 11 July 2009

On being grumpy in Synod

This afternoon I was at home to Mr Grumpy for a while. What set it off was a couple of comments from someone talking about Church Pensions. That's a difficult topic anyway - we pay our priests almost nothing, and now we are told that we cannot allow them to retire on 2/3 of that because we can't raise the money - but something about the man's attitude touched a nerve. He told us how pleased he was to have decided that Synod should have this particular debate, and how delighted he was that we had debated so intelligently. This is an employee of the Church of England, don't forget. Sesame Street's word for the day is 'patronising'...

But usually, Mr Grumpy only appears as a result of a string of unfortunate events, and in thinking about what has happened so far at Synod, I think I'm starting to disentangle what they are. It started with the farce we had on Friday evening over appointees to Archbishops' Council. Now, the rules say that the Archbishops can co-opt people, but that General Synod has to approve the co-option. Seems a sensible enough check-and-balance approach you might think, and on the surface that's true. But in reality, what it means is that every so often Synod gets presented with a couple of names of people they don't know at all, and are invited to approve them. How can they do so in any meaningful way? Even if it wasn't the intention to use General Synod as a sort of democratic fig-leaf, that is the practical result of such a procedure. You might have guessed by now that I do not find this satisfactory.

It's a funny thing about the way in which politics, or at least the idea of political accountability, has changed over the last few years, and I fear that the same malaise that affects the country in general has also affected the institutions of the Church of England. There has been remarkable - and often unnoticed - centralisation of political power over the last few years. While the rhetoric is all about local decision making and devolvement of power, the reality is tight central control and the appearance of what is known as 'scrutiny' at local level to replace actual exercise of authority. It is beginning to feel to me - and I think to others on Synod too - that there is a difference between the rhetoric associated with Synodical government and the reality. What is rather more depressing is that the proposed constitutional changes look like even more of the same.

In the end, my real problem with all of this is not actually the democratic defecit. I don't necessarily mind if Synod becomes entirely or almost entirely a reactive body rather than a place where change is initiated, or indeed if Synod is not to have a say on various different Church appointments. What I can't stand is what seems to me the hypocricy of presenting reforms as something that they aren't.

End of rant. Now I'm going for a beer.

Friday, 10 July 2009


I have been thinking about labels, and the way in which they can tend to pigeonhole people. For example, this blog's title tells you quite a lot about where I stand on various issues, so in that sense 'liberal' is a useful label. However, it's not the only one I tend to apply to myself. I also describe myself as Catholic, and in many ways I am a traditionalist too. People see these labels as in some way incompatible, but I disagree - at least in terms of what I understand them to mean.

At its simplest, Catholic means 'universal'. That's what it means in the Creeds. In terms of church labels, to me, it means that I stand within the Western, Latin, Rome-centered tradition of the Church that stretches back many centuries. It's a shorthand way of saying that my faith and practice is sacramental: that I believe in the historic three-fold ministry; that I have a particular understanding of the relationship between deacons, presbyters, bishops and laity; that my pattern of worship is centered upon the Eucharist.

As to traditional - that's easier. I don't believe in innovation for the sake of it. In particular I am liturgically traditionalist - I don't like 'modern' language because it sounds dated as soon as it is off the press, and I have always believed that any attempt to be hip with the kids is bound to end in disaster... What I don't mean by traditional is that I think it's right if the Pope says it is, or that no change is possible or desirable within the body of the Church.

So what about Liberal? How can you be both a Liberal and a Traditionalist? It's an understandable question, but I think it is based on a misunderstanding of the words. The opposite of 'traditional' is 'progressive' or 'modern'. The opposite of 'liberal' is 'restrained' or 'narrow', or perhaps 'particular'. To be Liberal is to be tolerant or open-minded - to admit that one's own position on any issue might not be the only tenable one, or even that somebody else's position might actually be right.

The trouble is, that people get so used to particular labels that they forget what they might actually mean. At best they are convenient shorthand, but at worst they can be seriously misleading. So, this Liberal Catholic Traditionalist is hoping that as the campaign process for next year's Synod elections starts to kick off, voters will look carefully at those election addresses, and not just pick the candidates with what seems to be the right label.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Synodical Ruminations Part 2 (BNP Etc.)

I said in the previous post that there were a couple of things from Synod I wanted to pick at a bit more. Here is the second one. A week on, I am still annoyed about that BNP motion. I wrote about it at some length here and here, so won't re-hash any of that now, but some of what happened is still bugging me. Of course, I am annoyed that my own amendment went down - it's always nice to win an argument - but what really annoys me is the fact that Norman Russell's also went down. I can't help but come to the conclusion that we have damaged our credibility by passing the motion as proposed, as it makes it quite clear that we take our moral lead in these matters from ACPO. I am sure ACPO is a splendid organisation, and that its moral sense is profound, but given that we are a Church we really ought to be able to come up with our own moral viewpoint - based on the Bible, perhaps - and not rely on someone else to do it for us.

I also remain concerned that passing this motion represents an abrogation of responsibility. Again, I've banged on about this already, so won't keep on about it. Of similar concern is the fact that whatever the Bishops come up with will almost certainly be unenforceable in law. Not only will we be encouraged to look to other people for solutions, but the legalistic solutions they are liable to present are not going to work.

There's another thing, though, that goes a little deeper than last week's motion. Do you remember Jorg Haider, and all the fuss surrounding his Freedom Party's becoming part of Austria's Coalition Government in 2000? All those cries of horror from the political chattering classes about how Something Should Be Done. It's exactly the same when the BNP win a Council seat in this country. Everybody is up in arms, everybody wants to ban those nasty people from being politicians at all, and everybody misses the point. If you ban them, you martyr them and they win. If you get into a terrible flap and shout that something should be done to protect our democratic institutions from these proto-Nazis, then you suggest that our democratic institutions are insufficient and in so doing you inflate their mediocre success out of all proportion, turn them into a threat and then they win. People elect them because their arguments appeal. How do you beat them? You argue against them, you attack their policies, you come up with alternatives that work. You engage with them as you would engage with any political opponent and you beat them at a local grassroots level. The recent by-election in Tameside shows the sort of thing we ought to be doing. This wasn't a Church-wide policy initiative, it was local people joining together to do what they knew was right, and you won't get that from a House of Bishops Report.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Synodical Ruminations Part 1 (Covenant)

Thinking about what's on the General Synod Blog from this group of sessions, it looks in general like a pretty fair summary - especially of that major topic of conversation as to whether or not you need a Y chromosome to be able to wear a pointy hat... There are two things, however, that I want to pick at a little more. The first is the Covenant. Fine, so you've all gone to sleep and I'm now talking to myself. I'll carry on anyway. If you don't know what the process is that I'm talking about, by the way, then you can find the official Anglican Communion page about it here. You might also like to look at the pages of the Modern Churchpeople's Union who don't like it, and Anglican Mainstream who like it a great deal.

Despite the fact that the flash-points for the Covenant process were the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and the policy of the Anglican Church in Canada towards the blessing of same-sex unions, I have never really believed that the whole thing is about sexuality. It's really about a fundamental difference between two possible ways of dealing with the relationship between Church and Society. Does the Church itself need to change and adapt to continue to minister to the society in which it finds itself, or should the Church instead proclaim more firmly what it understands to be its historic orthodoxies and attempt to refute the errors it finds in society. Both alternatives have their problems: the former runs the risk of becoming post-Christian, of losing the uniqueness of the Christian message in a fog of moral relativism; the latter has to struggle with the question of what orthodoxy actually is in an institution like the Anglican Communion. Quite why the line got drawn in the sand over sexuality, as opposed to marriage after divorce or the ordination of women, for example, I have no idea, but this is the situation in which we find ourselves. At this point it has to be said that neither extreme in the current squabble has acquitted itself particularly well - in terms of intolerance there is really not a great deal to choose between the hard-line progressives and the ultra-orthodox, and frankly neither side is particularly attractive. They do, however, have a slightly different attitude to those with whom they disagree.

The caricature progressive position is that anyone who does not espouse liberal doctrines must be suffering from a deficit of intellect and education. If only their thinking can be raised above Neanderthal level then they will eventually see the light and join the liberal ranks. This is best achieved by saying the same thing over and over again to them very loudly, and squashing all counter-arguments by claiming that they demonstrate lack of understanding on the part of the arguer. The caricature orthodox position is that anyone who does not espouse orthodox doctrines has not read the Bible properly or is interpreting it wrongly. If they can be shown that the Bible contains all necessary truth, then they will see things the right way. This is best achieved by repeating the same Bible verses over and over again to them very loudly, and ignoring all counter-arguments on the grounds that they cannot be justified by reference to Scripture.

What really distinguishes them, though, is that while it is an article of faith to all progressives that anyone can eventually be persuaded to their point of view, it is an article of faith to the orthodox that those who do not follow orthodox teaching are not Christians. So, from a progressive point of view any sort of innovation is fine if the innovators all agree about it, and if there are other people who don't then they'll come round to our way of thinking eventually. On the other hand if you sincerely believe that you are guarding the orthodox traditions of the Church, and some other people start doing a whole load of things of which you do not approve, then first you must attempt to convert them back to orthodoxy. If that fails, then they must be removed from the Church until they repent of their sins, at which point they can be welcomed back. That is very much the way the Covenant seemed to stand when it was first mooted. The price of keeping traditionalist provinces within the Anglican Communion - rather than having them go their own way, possibly attempting to take traditionalists from other provinces with them - was to provide a process whereby the Communion could decide what was or was not acceptable innovation, and enforce it. If necessary, this enforcement could take the form of expulsion from the Communion.

Since that point, quite a lot seems to have changed. There has been quite a lot of consolidation in the traditionalist camp - GAFCON and the foundation of ACNA are two examples that spring immediately to mind. However, the emphasis of the Covenant process has shifted too. The most recent draft - the response to which Synod noted in its debate last week - has travelled some distance from the legalistic tone of earlier efforts. From the point of view of the Church of England this is probably a good thing. The fact that as an Established church our governance is bound up with the governance of the country makes doing things like signing up to sets of rules somewhat difficult - the Church of England cannot submit itself to an 'external power of direction' as it was put in answer to a question I asked in October last year. It was noticeable that in his speech introducing the debate last week the Bishop of Rochester described the proposed Covenant as "comparable to agreements about communion with other churches and, indeed, to some forms of ecumenical commitment into which the Church of England has entered." This means that we are to think of the Covenant in the same terms as say the Porvoo Agreement or the Bonn Agreement, or perhaps the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. None of these is anything other than a voluntary agreement of common intent - they do not enforce doctrinal uniformity, they are not in any way a set of rules.

You might have guessed from the title of this blog that I tend rather more towards the progressive side of things, so this drift away from enforcement is good news as far as I am concerned. However, I can't help remembering some of the things that were being said at the beginning of the process to the effect that there was no way a covenant can deliver unity. Either it has to have some method of enforcement - in which case it will inevitably exclude some people in its efforts to keep the rest as a cohesive whole; or it has to be sufficiently vague as to encompass everybody - in which case it will not keep any of those who hold extreme views within the fold. I suspect that we are drifting towards the latter option, and while I am personally happy to see things progressing in that direction, I can't help thinking that there might have been better uses for all the money and the tons of carbon that the process will have cost by the time it comes to an end.

What kind of a title is that?

What, apart from being a pretty good description of my general outlook on life, you mean?

Well, it's like this. Last week there was a General Synod debate entitled "The Uniqueness of Christ in Multi-Faith Britain." There is a little bit about it in the unofficial General Synod Blog here, and rather more on Peter Ould's Blog here, and if you want to know more you can find the official Church of England summary here. The debate was on a Private Member's Motion brought by Paul Eddy. Paul is known as a conservative evangelical - certainly in Church of England terms - although I don't really think that this description does him justice. Perhaps because of this reputation, or perhaps because of simple paranoia, Paul's Motion caused the General Synod rumour mill to start working overtime. The motion was part of a conservative plot to... well, pretty much anything really: to embarrass the bishops; to have a go at Islam; to get us all talking about sex again - you name it.

Much of the panic left me more than a little underwhelmed. As far as I am concerned, life would be rather easier if just occasionally we took things at face value. Paul's motion as it stood highlighted the very real tension between the imperative within Christianity to witness to our own faith and the reality of the multi-faith (and increasingly secular) society in which we live. The fact that I describe myself as a Liberal does not mean that I am any less committed to spreading the Gospel, even if I do differ from Paul in my interpretation of some parts of it. Anyway, the debate for the most part went pretty well, but the vast majority of those who spoke tended towards the Evangelical side of things, and there were a couple of times when we were beginning to move away from testimony and get a little closer to smiting.

So, I made a speech in favour of the main motion and against both the amendments in which I tried to point out that there was not an Evangelical monopoly in considering that this issue was important. One of the things I said was that passing the motion unamended was as important for the Liberals in the Church as for anyone else, and as the dodgiest of dodgy Liberals I asked the Synod to pass Paul's Motion unamended. And there you have it - it's official - I am a self-confessed dodgy Liberal.