LET THE CHURCH CHANGE

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As long ago as 2002, it was reported that a quarter of Church of England members did not believe in the Virgin Birth. (see here)

In 2017, a survey revealed that 31% of Christians did not believe in life after death. (here)

Four years later The Clergy Project was launched to support clergy who no longer held supernatural beliefs.

In the light of these statistics, an assumption might be made that the church is in decline and no doubt the 57% of Christians who believe the bible word for word will claim that these doubters are not true believers and should be expelled from the church. From my standpoint, these figures are in fact a sign of hope that the church is evolving and changing.

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer we find prayers for rain and protection against the plague, yet I have never heard these prayers used, since only a tiny minority believes this is how the world operates. In forty of years of ministry I have never heard anyone preach a sermon on the threat of hell.

It vexes me whenever I encounter individuals holding forth on the subject of Christianity who haven’t set foot in a church for years and who imagine its members still believe what was taught fifty years ago in Sunday School. Most Christians are intelligent and well-read; it’s naive and patronising to afford them ideas and beliefs that cannot be considered and articulated in a meaningful way.

Why must a belief in prescribed fundamental principles be a prerequisite for belonging to a Christian community at all? In 2000 years we have seen an astonishing diversity within Christian thinking and practice and during that time the way we understand the world, the way we make meaning and interpret texts has changed, so it is hardly surprising our understanding of faith has changed accordingly.

As for the clergy who say God does not exist, Thomas Aquinus, one of the founding theologians of the church himself asserted that God is not a being that exists but existence itself; does that belittle his faith in any way? What does that say about his belief that God exists?

If the church is to thrive today, its clergy and people must continue to be honest about the things they believe (or not!) and indeed about the very nature of faith. Is it really, for example, a matter of giving assent to supernatural (whatever the word supernatural might mean today) propositions, or about living according to certain principles? At the same time, those outside the church should allow that church to change and furthermore acknowledge when it does.

PAST PERFECT

I’m very excited that this week sees the publication of my new book “Past Perfect: freedom from perfection in life and faith”. It’s available on Amazon and Kindle and other outlets! I’d be grateful if you felt able to share this blog, not only to publicise the book but because we need to free ourselves from ideas of perfection and imperfection.
 
We seem to be obsessed with perfection. It’s everywhere, permeating our conversations, our language, our advertising, our films and our religion. It’s not only widespread across our culture; it has roots deep in the beginning of civilization.
 
Generally when we describe something as perfect, it’s simply an expression of delight, but as soon as we try to impose standards of perfection upon ourselves or others it can become debilitating, undermining our confidence and linked to feelings of hopelessness, eating disorders (especially amongst young people) and in extreme circumstances, attempted suicide.
 
Due to a huge shift in our thinking, the terms perfect and imperfect have become largely redundant and that demands a radical revision of our theology. God is often described as perfect in hymns and services – “Perfect in power, in love and purity” according to the hymn Holy, holy holy. If these terms have little meaning in our everyday language, they  must be regarded as no more than poetic alliteration.
 
I’ve enjoyed looking at the uses and contradictory notions of the terms perfection and imperfection. “Just a perfect day” sang Lou Read… “Drink Sangria in the park / And then later / When it gets dark we go home.” What made the day perfect? Probably nothing exceptional at all. Imagine a wedding in which  everything went wrong – it rained, the bride was late and the groom fluffed his vows. Yet everyone said it was the perfect wedding! It’s been fun unravelling ideas of perfection in concepts of beauty, human life, love and goodness, society and even death – “Grant us, O Lord, a perfect end” and shaping an understanding of God free of this notion.

NEW IMAGE OF GOD

face of God

According to a recent survey involving a computer generated “identikit “, this is what a sample of American Christians believe to be an accurate visual representation of God. The 511 participants in the study saw hundreds of randomly varying face-pairs and selected the one which most closely matched their ideal. By combining all the selected images, the researchers could assemble a composite “face of God”.

Note the image has no beard and even if he is younger and more feminine than the clichéd “Old Father Time” model, he’s still white and male. It’s hardly surprising, since our services address God in masculine terms and as Father.

In another American study concerned with gender stereotypes, girls as young as six believe that academic/scientific brilliance is a male attribute. The majority of children and adults will draw masculine figures of surgeons and engineers, and despite a growing interest in maths and science among girls, only 10% of their toys are focussed on science, technology or engineering, compared with over 30% of those directed at boys.

Perhaps most alarming of all, is that in nearly all cultures worldwide, men seem to enjoy higher self-esteem than their female counterparts. Surprisingly perhaps, in industrialized Western countries like the U.S. and Australia, the gap between male and female self-esteem is more pronounced than in non-Western, developing countries.

How can we improve this situation if we still think of God in male terms? As Mary Daly the American radical feminist philosopher, academic, and theologian, wrote in 1973: “If God is male, then the male is God”. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite clear; “God is neither man nor woman: he is God”. Even St Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, prayed to “Christ, my mother” and called God “the great mother”.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury could do more for the cause of women by insisting on removing all patriarchal imagery from services and theological texts, whilst using inclusive language in all its publications. Other denominations have set a precedent which we would be well-advised to follow: the United Reformed Church agreed in 1984 to use inclusive language in all its publications and in 2014 its General Assembly called on all URC congregations to use “inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship”. In 1996, a prayer book of Reform Judaism, was published, calling God “sovereign” instead of “king”, and “source” or “parent” instead of father. A change within all churches is long overdue.

 

THE ABDICATION OF GOD

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Although here in the UK we have a Queen as our nominal head of state, we are not ruled by monarchy in the traditional sense. We live in a democracy, in the hope that the self-evident dangers of investing power in one person alone can be avoided. If we hold that to be a morally sound principle of government in the secular world, then surely we should apply the same philosophy within our spiritual lives.

That is exactly the focus of Pentecost : the power, energy, life and responsibility of God are poured out on each of us. Together as the body of Christ we have the responsibility to act in the world. We have the power to forgive, the power to create, and the power to love.

I think there is a tendency to view the spiritual life as akin to the polarised society of Downton Abbey, or of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; a world of glamour, bright lights and luxury upstairs and a world of darkness and drudgery downstairs.

Even through the distortions of those rose-tinted, period-drama spectacles, we can see clearly what an inherently unsatisfactory existence it must have been; Women wouldn’t have the vote, the food would be cold having been brought long distances from the kitchen, medical treatment would be primitive by today’s standards, not to mention the lack of wi-fi in the house…..and that’s just upstairs.

Some still peddle the notion that down here in our earthly existence we toil away against the odds of nature and disease and then in the life to come we will enter the bright, glamorous world of heaven.

The Gospel of the incarnation asserts that God is with us, born among us, and power is outpoured upon us. We are here to build heaven on earth, indeed the kingdom of God is among us already.

If we think of the spiritual life in terms of an upstairs and downstairs realm, all power will be invested in God alone, allowing us to abdicate our own responsibility to others and society.

Read the parables of Jesus which begin “the Kingdom of heaven is like . . . the kingdom of God is like” . . and you can begin to understand early Quaker Gerrard Winstanley’s notion of the Republic of Heaven. Kingship and God are simply not compatible in post-Pentecost thinking.

In an open, liberal society words themselves cannot be banned but if we are to continue to use the image of kingship in our theology, let us at least have the right sort of image to inspire us. Think of Prince Harry on his Arctic Charity trek trudging to the North Pole with wounded fellow servicemen, enabling them to become the first amputees to ski to the North Pole unsupported; or think of the Queen, powerless to speak her mind in public.

After all, in the New Testament, it is the dying Jesus, powerless, subjugated and nailed to the cross, who is described as king.

GAY DEAN

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I had been unaware that Norman Tebbit lived in my neck of the woods until he recently popped up in the media, unhappy about the appointment of the local cathedral Dean. Lord Tebbit said he found it difficult to accept a “sodomite” as a member of the clergy and would not be attending services at which the new Dean was officiating.

Rev Canon Joe Hawes was gentle and diplomatic in his response, saying he felt “no ill will” towards Tebbit and admired the way “he has cared for his wife with such devotion following the Brighton bomb”.

The Church of England itself also took a very measured stance after the statement was made public: “It has been clear for more than a decade that clergy are entitled to be within civil partnerships. Lord Tebbit is welcome to his views.”

Yet on closer examination the Anglican church is far from even-handed in its attitude to gays, gay marriage and civil partnerships. Certainly ministers are allowed to live in a civil partnership, providing they remain celibate, as “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively….” and …”it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage.” There are times when I’m embarrassed to be a priest in the Church of England.

Such hypocrisy cannot remain and should not be tolerated. How can there be one rule for lay people and one for priests? What exactly do the bishops in the Church of England profess their God finds so objectionable in a physical relationship between two people of the same sex? What constitutes a physical relationship anyway? Will the gay priests be allowed to kiss, to kiss with tongues? Which parts of the body will they be allowed to touch, hold, stroke? How will the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ensure the new dean refrains from a physical relationship?

Of course many leaders of the church are afraid that promoting same sex relationships will offend and alienate others within the Anglican Communion, but the cause of equality must take precedence over the risk of schism. The Church of England should affirm gay relationships in all their fullness, and rejoice both in civil partnerships and gay marriage.

GOD

I suppose my first theological blog ought to be about God!

In classical orthodoxy, God cannot be defined or described, so here are four quotations summing up the viewpoints that have guided me in my theological explorations. Although they are all classical orthodox statements, they have utterly radical implications.

God is not a thing that exists but existence itself.  Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae: The perfection of God Prima Pars, Q. 4.

St. Aquinas was a thirteenth century philosopher and theologian. His argument was that God is not like other things that exist – tables, chairs, animals, planets. God is existence itself. We might say God is not a real thing but reality itself or God is not alive but life itself. An exploration of life in all its fullness is an exploration into God.

God is that in which we live and move and have our being.

St. Paul quotes this saying of  Epimenides in the Acts of the Apostles (17.28). God is as close to us as water is to the fish, or the air we breathe. There is no need to search for God but simply to relax in God’s presence.

God is that which cannot be doubted. Anselm  in Proslogion chapter 3)

St. Anselm was a twelfth century philosopher, theologian and archbishop of Canterbury, whose views challenge many of our theological notions. When people say “I’m not sure about God, I don’t know whether he exists or not”, they are labouring under a misapprehension. Our exploration of God needs to begin with things that we don’t doubt – life perhaps, love, ourselves. Exploring these things is an exploration into God.

If I know myself I shall know thee O God.  Augustine  in Soliliques.

St. Augustine was a fourth century theologian and bishop who propounded the view that since we live and move and have our being in God, then getting to know ourselves is getting to know God.

All these avenues of exploration may take us down well-trodden religious paths. They might also take us into the everyday world without any obvious religious language or symbolism. Does that matter? I don’t think so.

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