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by Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University, authorised lay preacher, member of General Synod and vice-chair of its Gender & Sexuality Group

As another calendar year draws to a close, and those who make resolutions write them down, it seems like a good time to ask my headline question. Your answer to it may  revolve around the Living in Love and Faith process, as well it might. What’s wrong with the Church of England? The abuse by some of our number of those who don’t fit the male white cis-het model? Being obsessed with peripheral matters? (I’m not a fan of Twitter posts showing the clergy in their swankiest rose vestments for Advent 3). Having a total disregard for what is good in the society in which we are placed? Going too far in accommodating our message to that society? Not being sufficiently faithful to whatever we see as the central message of the Bible? But I’d like to take this question back further and reflect on what I see as the four ‘oppositions’ which I think lie behind many other aspects of the Church of England today; and none of them is conservative/progressive, because I think the problems run far deeper.

This blog post is stimulated by something I was doing back in September, when I was invited by those running a church committee I’m on to offer my reflections after joining it. I did as they suggested, although I’ve heard nothing from them since. Was I too forthright? Or was it all too obvious? The four oppositions I offered there, and have developed here, are all ones which I think about in other aspects of my life and work, too. They are binaries, but could also be spectrums, if we accept that both of the poles are equally important and that much lies in between, rather than prioritising one term over the other.

The first would be access vs excellence. As someone with Open University experience, I strongly believe in access to any sort of education or training or anything else being entirely open. You don’t need any previous exam passes to start an Open University degree. Similarly, I believe that baptism should be freely offered to anyone asking for it; think of the Ethiopian eunuch, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). And yet we hear of churches where the child of a couple who are same-sex isn’t welcomed to baptism… While baptism ‘courses’ should be offered to those who would find them helpful, they shouldn’t be compulsory. Yet only once have I been at a C of E service at which the bishop asked if anyone else in the congregation would like to be baptised on the spot… but I thought that was a really Scriptural invitation!

In churches, access should continue after baptism as we want everyone to feel welcome, to be able to join in. That means being accessible to people of all ages, every class, every race, every gender identity or sexuality. But we need to know where the barriers to participation lie before we think about how to overcome them. That’s difficult because the people whose views we need to hear may well be those who aren’t in the room. There can be little more depressing than a group of middle-class people discussing how to attract more working-class church members; unless it’s a group of straight people and same-sex attracted people who think they must never have a sexual relationship, discussing lesbian and gay people in committed sexual relationships (that was rather how the process of writing the Living in Love and Faith book felt).

At the other end of things, there’s the need to enable everyone to be their very best self. That may mean encouraging or even pushing them. Sure, open the choir to everyone, but there’s nothing wrong with training; with expecting choir members to join in rehearsals! And that applies everywhere else too. Those preaching need opportunities to think about what a sermon is for. Everyone helping in the Sunday School needs to do the safeguarding training, not just the leaders. Access is not the end of the matter. And we need to go further still; we need to think about how to recognise and honour excellence. That means transparency in finding out who is outstanding, and encouraging them to go even further. We shouldn’t be afraid of excellence and we should be ready to recognise it in anyone, not just those who turn up with all the advantages already, or those who fit our expectations about what sort of person would make a good preacher or a good welcomer. What if you’re a woman in a church with a ‘complementarian’ position where you would never be allowed to preach, let alone to lead? How is your excellence to be encouraged? And who is going to do this work of discernment?

The second is local vs national, and that one seems to me to be the key fact about the Church of England’s dual identity which we rarely face. General Synod may make some decisions but, back in their dioceses, bishops rule. The Church of England may declare a national policy, for example on maternity leave for clergy, but does that mean every diocese follows it? I think you can guess the answer to that. If you challenge any instance where something isn’t done consistently they’ll cite ‘subsidiarity’ or ‘local context’ – both highly important, although dioceses often contain a mixture of rural areas and large urban centres, areas of poverty and pockets of wealth, so claims that they need to do things differently from the next diocese along fail to convince. But we are a national church, and the implicit assumption that people grow up and develop within just one diocese doesn’t really wash any more. So, what happens when those people move house? For example, is it right for one diocese to have its own lay training scheme, or should this be centralised? Does ‘local ordained ministry’ make any sense? In a recent case, someone on the Reader pathway in one diocese moved, and found that the new diocese would not support them because of their sexuality – which hadn’t been seen as an issue in the previous diocese. What is best done at a local level? Who decides?

The third opposition, and this one is really obvious, is lay vs ordained. Going by my own experience, if you are in a middle-of-the-road Anglican parish church and you go to see your vicar to say that you are feeling that you are being called to something new but aren’t sure what, the default assumption is that this must be ordained ministry. I wasn’t comfortable with that assumption but agreed to work with a spiritual director for a while. She affirmed my calling to be lay. But the assumption persists that the ordained ministry is the ‘gold standard’ and everything else is a mere shadow of it, and this is one reason why not getting through the selection process leaves people so badly bruised. In the last few years there have been various Grand Schemes in the C of E; ‘Renewal and Reform’, ‘Vision and Strategy’, the ‘Transforming Effectiveness agenda’ and so on. These involve throwing large numbers around (10,000 new lay-led worshipping communities, 3000 new paid leaders of work with children and young people).

I remain unconvinced about these plans. Leaving aside what I see as the dubious wisdom of embarking on all this when numbers have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and when we can’t get enough volunteers for existing roles, where will these lay leaders come from? And what will they be allowed to do? In a conservative evangelical church where women can’t lead, will women be among these new lay leaders, or is it only men – and straight men at that – who will lead? How will they be trained? Locally? Nationally? What are the safeguarding implications? Meanwhile at the same time as the C of E is discussing expanding lay ministries, it is also piloting schemes to fast-track people to ordination. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to decide what we mean by laity and clergy before doing any of this?

And that brings me to speed vs depth. The C of E doesn’t usually ‘do’ speed. Look at the long process culminating in ordaining women, or the decades spent on producing various reports on sexuality. At the moment, though, speed suddenly seems to be OK when it comes to training as a priest. I’ve heard from someone whose church hosted a person who’d done one of the new one-year ordination schemes and who was very happy with this; so, maybe it can work, although it’s early days. The language I’ve seen in C of E papers is that of ordaining ‘seasoned saints’ (we do love our alliteration, don’t we?). I would like more assurance that this isn’t shorthand for ‘people like us’. But, in any case, is this sufficient formation? I remember about 20 years ago when a friend was accepted for ordination quite late in life, and was allowed the two-year training, that he said this was the one chance he and his wife had to gain the depth which would sustain them.

And are we ordaining people mainly so that communion services can continue, because since the Parish Communion Movement it’s all been about communion? (I’m old enough to have grown up with Mattins) Paradoxically, this ‘keeping the show on the road’ mentality can also lie behind encouraging lay leadership: one published report into lay ministry suggested that the laity were being seen as “a new source of voluntary help in maintaining existing patterns of public worship and associated activities”. Have we yet gone beyond that to appreciate lay ministry in a more distinctive, more positive way? My own parish is in interregnum at the moment and is fine as far as services go, not least because we have three retired clergy and a team vicar who are sharing them out. But there is so much more to church than services!

For me, when the normally slow C of E suddenly decides to move quickly, as in one-year ordination courses, alarm bells ring (because, normally, “Like a mighty tortoise/Moves the Church of God”, etc). I’m even more worried when the people sent on the ‘cheaper’ training options or expected to end up in self-supporting (i.e. unpaid) ministry tend to be women.

So: access vs excellence, local vs national, lay vs ordained, speed vs depth. Do you agree that these are the four oppositions, or spectrums, behind a lot of our discussions? And would it advance those discussions if we were able to bring them up to the surface and address them directly?



The post Another Year Gone: What’s Wrong with the Church of England? appeared first on ViaMedia.News.

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