Who Are The Prophets in Charismatic Churches?

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury and Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea

Years ago I was invited by my then bishop to attend a day conference on Deliverance Ministry, about which he was a prominent advocate. At his invitation, a woman he said was an ‘anointed prophet’ was asked to prophesy to the group. What followed disturbed me deeply: intimate things were said as if by God to those present which seemed to be accepted as entirely authentic, without being weighed, and in a way that seemed closer to the fortune-teller’s booth than any biblical understanding of prophecy. There was a culture of ‘group-think’ present that assumed that the title of ‘prophet’, the track-record from her parish and the bishop’s imprimatur confirmed the truth of her words. It made me very angry.

When we reviewed the session I raised my concerns with the bishop about what had just happened. The bishop listened politely and, for the rest of the conference, I was firmly and clearly side-lined: I had a problem with my anger that “the Lord wanted to deal with.” From that moment on the bishop never invited me to join any future training: critical voices were not encouraged.

At the time of the incident above I was serving in a church associated with Charismatic Renewal, although our congregation was predominantly working-class. The typical church member had a life which was complex, messy and far from straight-forward. My boss and I often contrasted the life-situations and preoccupations of middle-class Charismatics with the needs and priorities of our own folk. Pentecostal form of Christianity are often found most powerfully in communities of the marginalised. I still like to think of myself as a sort of charismatic, open to the inspiration of the Spirit and ministering alert to when the Spirit speaks: at our own church we offer a sensitive ministry of healing and wholeness.

But among some Charismatics at the moment there is a concern that safeguarding is being used as a Trojan Horse to attack their freedom to believe and practise their form of Christian faith, including the use of charismatic gifts. This is because a number of people have started to speak about their own experience of poor treatment, bullying and coercion associated with churches where the added dimension is the unchallenged way in which the Holy Spirit is presumed to speak through certain ‘anointed’ leaders, lay and ordained. As I experienced in a modest way those years ago, when someone asks questions or critiques bad practice or simply doesn’t go along with ‘the leadership’, subtle or overt changes in relationship dynamics can occur. This sort of spiritual abuse isn’t inherent in Charismatic forms of Christianity, and it certainly isn’t restricted to it.

But, where the problem lies for Charismatics is the appeal to the Holy Spirit – if you don’t go along with what the Spirit is saying, you are quenching the Spirit, or (in a tradition with an occasionally baroque demonology) even possessed by a ‘spirit of rebellion’ which needs exorcising. Such appeals can amount to little more than a power grab by insecure or inexperienced leaders who, when faced with criticism, cannot face it or adapt. At a time when the Archbishops’ Council is funding significant work aimed at planting congregations with younger leaders, many of them emerging from the larger Charismatic churches, attracting younger disciples, it is important that firm, mature oversight is given, perhaps at a much closer level than the typical laissez-faire style of episcopal leadership.

With the publication of Living in Love and Faith, it is often LGBTI+ voices that are articulating these concerns, and especially the misuse of charismatic gifts. This naturally presents particular challenges to those leading churches where the theological wind blows conservative on matters of sexuality. I offer this to my Charismatic friends: please listen to these voices. If you hear such stories from LGBTI+ church members, please don’t write them off as revisionism. Hearing such stories is a pathway to growth: they allow a mirror to be held up to a less-appealing part of your culture. This could be an opportunity: although it is painful to live through, the stories of poor treatment, marginalisation and occasionally abuse are important for you to hear.

Perhaps it is the LGBTI+ voices that are the prophets among you?

Posted in Human Sexuality, Simon Butler, Spiritual Abuse | 4 Comments

“It’s a Sin…Not to Care and Listen”

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

In 1982 I moved to west London to minister as a University chaplain there. I had been ordained for three years. The West London Chaplaincy was a wonderful, creative outfit; it had been set up a generation before by Ivor Smith-Cameron and had no place of its own, built around small groups meeting in halls, departments and community houses. There were about 60 of these groups each week. The work was very rewarding. Intellectually demanding certainly, but it was also lovely to minister alongside Christian students; men and women whose sense of identity, and Christian calling, grew as they learned from one another.

It was at this time, as a young priest wanting to make sense of my life and of ministry, that I connected with the late, great Bill Kirkpatrick, who became my spiritual director. Fr Bill lived in a basement flat in Earl’s Court, from where he opened his heart to the community through “Reaching Out”, his ministry of presence and listening and love. He had converted a coal cellar, under the Inner Ring Road, into a chapel, with plain whitewashed walls and (for a place that shook whenever a lorry rolled over its roof) an extraordinary quietness and peace.

Fr Bill Kirkpatrick

Fr Bill was an intense presence. His listening released truth in the people he met. He wore a wooden holding cross around his neck. He made a great cup of tea. At the end of every session he would say “Thanks for sharing”, and I’d go and pray in that coal cellar and then walk up to Earl’s Court tube station feeling that I’d been heard and understood, and feeling that life was richer than I had known before.

I was not the only one to receive wisdom from Bill, whose ministry was widespread and deeply respected. (For example Colin Coward has written movingly of his own connection with him[1]). But in the years I knew him, Bill’s ministry took on one focus in particular, because of where he was and who he was. For Bill was a gay partnered man living in Earl’s Court, and these were the years of what was then a mystery illness that devastated and further marginalised the gay community in London, as in so many other cities; the years of AIDS/HIV.

And so, more and more, Bill’s life was spent accompanying people in their journey of illness and too often of death and bereavement. He brought a listening ear and the openness and love of Christ to people in fear and desperate need, people who saw all too little of that openness and love in communities of Christians that told them nothing more than that they were sinners, and passed by on the other side when they fell ill.

I write this partly to give honour to Fr Bill, who died three years ago this month and whose radical mission and radical ministry deserves to be celebrated at any time. But I write it in particular now because those years have been dramatized and recaptured by Russell T Davies in his TV series “It’s a Sin”.[2]

The series follows a group of young people, mostly gay men, as the adventure of their adult lives begins in the 80s. We are with them as they find themselves, and then find themselves under a terrible shadow. It’s truthful, honest, unsparing about the consequences of unknowing and unbridled promiscuity in a community that was still finding out how to live wisely in a world where love was not forbidden. It also remembers energy and laughter and joy and friendship and care and life, sustained even in the face of fear and illness and death.

It is resonant. Gay friends of mine have been triggered by it this week, remembering people they loved and lost in those years, remembering their own experience of living in the shadows, still hearing the homophobic echoes in their lives today. “It’s a Sin” is a title with a lot of resonance –it references the Pet Shop Boys’ song of course, but wherever did Chris and Neil get the idea for such a title or for such a lyric?

“When I look back upon my life
it’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame…”

Neil Tennant has said his song “was intended as a camp joke and it wasn’t something I consciously took very seriously.” But he went on: “Sometimes I wonder if there was more to it than I thought at the time…”[3]

Well, yes, you do wonder. Thirty years later, poor little talkative Christianity continues to talk. The churches’ conversations on love and faith, which so many are still pleased to call “debates”, will continue for a good while yet. Human lives will continue to be pressed like flowers between the covers of one book or another.

For myself, I love the body of Christ and I believe Jesus was serious when he asked his Father that we might all be one. So I will continue to do my best to take part in these conversations; I will do my best not to talk about people without them being there. I will do my best to advocate for love and marriage for all, in the persistent hope that Christ’s body may move forward together, may indeed be one, in love.

But when from time to time all this talking gets too much and I tiptoe out of the room in search of the God of love, when I want to follow Jesus Christ onto the street, I’m going to remember Fr Bill Kirkpatrick – a partnered gay man with a ministry on the edge of the church to people on the edge of the world, a man who reached out.

And I’ll remember a coal cellar under the London streets, and place of contemplation and silence as the cars roar overhead. And a priest with a ministry of “hearing through listening”, a ministry of unfailing presence, a ministry of encouragement for so many including me, most of all a ministry of listening to his people where his people were – listening in the hubbub of the Coleherne, listening on the street, listening on the ward, listening by the grave. And alongside all this a ministry of resourcing and writing[4] – about prayer, about AIDS, about death, and in everything he wrote, about life.

Thanks for sharing, Bill. Remembering you I’ll remember that a self-absorbed, censorious and condemning Christianity need not have the last word – it will indeed never have the last word, because the last word is life beyond death.[5]

Fr Bill Kirkpatrick

[1]  http://www.unadulteratedlove.net/blog/2018/1/27/fr-bill-kirkpatrick-rip

[2] https://www.channel4.com/4viewers/blog/its-a-sin

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2009/06/for-hard-core-petheads-the-tennant-interview-in-full/200905/

[4] For example “The Creativity of Listening: Being There, Reaching Out”,“AIDS: Sharing the Pain”, and “Going Forth: a practical and spiritual approach to dying and death”

[5] https://www.barnesandsons.co.uk/news/the-late-father-william-john-ashley-kirkpatrick-father-bill/

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Mental Health, Social Justice | 7 Comments

IICSA, ‘Living in Love and Faith’ & Lockdown 3.0

by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and member of Living in Love and Faith project

Lockdown 3: how’s it going for you? I’m finding it far worse this time around.

Living with uncertainty is never easy, and it’s particularly difficult when things appear to be going backwards rather than forwards. Where I am, church buildings reopened: then closed again. Raised hopes were dashed. When the pandemic started, there was an institutional as well as a personal tendency to look on the bright side: in the Church of England, to focus on the numbers clicking on our online services and the inclusion of those for whom physical church is a step too far in some way. Now, the optimists are focused on the vaccination programme, and enthusing about using some cathedrals to deliver this.

Personally, I’m poised between optimism and pessimism (which I’d call realism) here. I accompanied an elderly neighbour for her jab. The leaflet given out says “two doses will reduce your chance of becoming seriously ill” and tells you that the date for the second dose will be written on the card stapled to the leaflet. Of course, it isn’t, because all that changed after these leaflets had gone to press, and so she doesn’t know when she will be given the second dose. The leaflet isn’t the most encouraging of documents, as it also says “We do not yet know whether [the vaccine] will stop you from catching and passing on the virus.” But at least that’s honest.

In the Church of England, we are also living with uncertainty about two issues: abuse, and inclusion in terms of sexuality and gender. And I’m not sure that we have honesty in either area. Our pandemic lockdown is difficult because it has no end date, no clarity as to its exit strategy. This vagueness can be excused, because we don’t understand the situation we’re in, but it’s not easy to live with it. But what about the Church of England responses to the IICSA report and the publication of Living in Love and Faith. Do we have an exit strategy?

In the case of IICSA, since the October publication we’ve had plenty of expressions of shame and of frustration. The 19 January House of Bishops claims “progress towards independent oversight for Safeguarding” but doesn’t share with all the rest of us – who aren’t bishops – what that progress is. Like outbreaks of the virus, pockets of abuse keep appearing. It’s clear that managing these pockets locally, at diocesan level, didn’t work. A church version of ‘track and trace’ can follow offenders’ careers from diocese to diocese, showing the connections between outbreaks of abuse. We still wait for the ‘lessons learned’ review into the actions of Jonathan Fletcher being carried out by the independent Christian charity thirtyone:eight, the most recent date revised as ‘not before January 2021’. For those who have survived abuse, there is clearly frustration at the lack of progress.

LLF, to my mind, invites a parallel between our discussions of sexuality and gender, and our attempts to make sense of the uncertainty we feel due to Covid-19. While our government exhorts us to “Follow the science” on the virus, scientists don’t agree on what that may be; partly because it’s all too soon to know, but also because ‘science’ isn’t one huge entity and they come from different disciplines within it. The over-simplification of “Follow the science” feels rather like “The Bible says”. Neither leads to agreement.

While LLF has a timeline, an exit strategy, it is increasingly unlikely to work. 2021 was supposed to be when we were ‘learning together’. Some dioceses were out of the starting gate immediately, with presentations from bishops at diocesan synods. As I noted in something I wrote for Modern Church, the LLF book uses the past tense for the pandemic, as they thought that everything would be sorted on the Covid-19 front before publication. At publication, more realism emerged; Bishop Paul Butler said to his diocesan synod that “We really hope that these LLF groups will be able to be done face to face and realistically this is more likely to be possible post Easter.”

But is even that realistic? The website for LLF anticipates midweek small groups, a Lent series, or away days; engagement with the resources by PCCs, deanery and diocesan synods and clergy conferences. How is any of that supposed to happen, if we won’t all be vaccinated until Easter, or November, depending on which press release you read; even assuming that vaccination is enough to allow groups to meet? With events still being cancelled – last week, Glastonbury, scheduled for late June – or rescheduled – the new Bond movie postponed again, from April to October – is the timeline realistic?

However, as Bishop Paul also noted, “We are asked to feedback our discernment nationally by November next year.” The LLF page states that “Engagement will need to be during 2021 so that processes of discernment and decision-making can take place in 2022.”

So, rather than delaying discussion of the resources yet again, isn’t it time for some online options to be offered? They would first need to be trialled to make sure that they are safe – not in Covid terms, but in safeguarding terms – for all participants. I’m not convinced that Zoom is the best way to have these conversations, not least because anyone can record a meeting, even by pointing a camera at the screen.

The lack of an exit strategy for lockdown is depressing, but understandable. The lack of an exit strategy, of a clear timeline and goals, for responding to IICSA is depressing, and there seems no reason for it. As for LLF, the planned timeline simply feels impossible as things stand. Are the episcopal Recovery Group (covering Covid-19) or the Next Steps Group (covering LLF) facing up to any of this? Some honesty here would go a long way in managing our uncertainty.

Posted in Coronavirus, Helen King, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith | Leave a comment

A Gospel of Love Trumps Hate in the White House

by the Revd Professor Robert Gilbert, Biochemistry Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford and Anglican parish priest

Does his faith help us to see why Joe Biden is the American President needed right now?

Political debate, and public discussion in the media, have never seemed so angry and divided as in recent years. Both in the United States and the United Kingdom there is a growing realisation that we are disunited. In other countries too, such as Poland, Hungary and Brazil, a politics of extremes has flourished.

One way in which the success of extreme political positions can be explained is as a response to the experiences of people “at the grass roots”. As a response to a profound sense of alienation and impotence, and of financial and social disadvantage, too. They feel that a radical, new direction is needed, and that they need to take back control.

And for sure, many people are justified in feeling powerless, and alienated from the centre where the power is; and many people do live in poverty and are forgotten about, with no route that they can see of making a greater contribution to the common life of their community and country.

But the anger and division voiced in politics and echoed by it in the media have not been simply a response to the voice of the people. I think the French-American literary anthropologist René Girard can help us understand something else that has been going on, and why Joe Biden might be the person well suited to help bring the hurt and fury to an end.

In Girard’s view, within human social groups, communities and societies, competition for limited resources and opportunities, and resentment at (perceived) relative success of others and unmet desire, find a let out in the spontaneous creation of “victims”, or perhaps put more biblically, “scapegoats”. Onto the scapegoats get loaded everything which seems to be making the community or society all wrong with itself. The scapegoats are innocent, but the community that has fastened their problems to them really believes they are guilty. If they do not believe this, then the scapegoating mechanism will not work. When the scapegoat is driven out, or killed, no sense of relief will come.

Girard then realised that the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus provide a total critique of this scapegoating process. Jesus seems to be the one who is driven out by his society, and whose death can bring people together: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). For Girard’s analysis, Jesus’s resurrection, the return of the scapegoat in forgiveness and love, reveals the reality of human violence and demonstrates the power of God to contain it, forgive it, and end it. In the words of the British theologian James Alison, following Girard, in this “God himself has given us the key to discover and inhabit with God the ordinary and good “secularity” of everything that is” (On Being Liked, DLT 2003, p60).

The former American President, Donald Trump, fuelled his rise to power on the sowing of division. He cynically preyed on the anxieties and resentment, on the sense of alienation and impotence, of the people in order to maximise their anger and the blame they ascribe to others. In order to identify for them individuals and groups that can be held to account, and punished or driven from power, to make for a better and greater America.

That this is so seems plain from the language of his 2016 campaign. That he continued to rule by creating and stoking a sense of division fuelled by the identification of scapegoats seems plain too. They include the residents of Muslim majority countries he banned from visiting the United States, the Mexicans he sought to exclude with a border wall, as well as his political opponents in a way which reached its inevitable violent conclusion on January 6th in the storming of the Capitol. The spate of executions which accompanied Mr Trump’s last days in office look, frankly, like a series of judicial sacrificial murders, offered to satisfy people on whose support he relies.

Mr Trump’s strategy seems to have been to define “his people” – the people who are with him and support him – by the common objects of their hatred. There is every sign that the new President Joe Biden understands this very well and sees it for what it is. And there is every sign that it is his Christian faith which enables him to do that.

Quoting Augustine in his Inaugural Address, President Biden showed that he plainly believes that a people need to be “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love”. He understands that the things that Mr Trump used as fuel to build anger and resentment are real and need solutions, but they are not new, and recognising that is an important step towards building back better beyond them. President Biden clearly named “the foes we face – anger, resentment and hatred,” to which he added some of their effects: “extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness”. But he also understands that their solutions start with recognising the good, ordinary secularity, the natural worldliness, of everything that is. In other words, that we are in this together, and we are good.

For Trump, a strategy of divide-and-rule was essential. For President Biden, this division must end. We can disagree, but “every disagreement does not have to be a cause for total war”. The new President’s Address makes clear that he sees growth in unity relying primarily on growth in equality – for a need for mutual recognition of equality between the politician and the people they serve, between the scientist or expert and the person they advise. A mutual recognition of goodness, frailty and value.

Joe Biden’s Christian ordinariness is what is needed now. It’s needed in the United States, and I would suggest something like this is sorely needed here in the United Kingdom too.

Posted in International Relations, Robert Gilbert, Social Justice | 1 Comment

The Reckoning – Will the Church of England Survive?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of Via Media, Member of General Synod and Member of the Government’s LGBT Advisory Panel

They say “people in glass houses should never throw stones” – although it seems to me that the Church of England is an expert at it, and the house now has very little glass left!

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in finding myself choking on my proverbial cornflakes last Sunday when I read an exclusive interview in the Guardian with the Church Commissioners’ new Head of Responsible Investment, Bess Joffe, outlining how the Commissioners will be warning companies “that they must do more to protect biodiversity and increase the ethnic diversity of their senior teams or risk protest votes at upcoming shareholder meetings”.

Explaining why they were taking this action, Joffe told the Guardian: “You want to be in a world where boards of directors, management teams and pipelines of talent look like the communities in which they exist.”

She is of course absolutely right – it’s just rather embarrassing that the Church of England has such a poor record on doing just this themselves! We have woefully few senior church leaders from diverse ethnic backgrounds. In fact, we have a pretty poor record on most areas of inclusion – looking at the current House of Bishops, and even the make up of General Synod, we still remain predominantly white, male and middle-class. We have woefully few members from any of the areas relating to the protected characteristics in the Equality Act – save of course religious belief. And then, of course there is the Equality Act itself and the preposterous fact that the established Church, which is in the privileged position of being able to make and shape British law, has been granted exemption to the one law of which it should be the Moral Guardian.

In short, Joffe has shown us that we are guilty, yet again, of not practising what we preach. In the real world, most would call this for what it is – rank hypocrisy.

To be fair, the Church of England has named “hypocrisy” as one of the Six Deadly Sins that came out of the Pastoral Advisory Group (otherwise known as the Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together). However it’s not something that we are really very good at talking about or owning – I mean, have you ever been in a meeting when it has been called out or addressed? Instead we tend to excuse it away privately to ourselves, saying “well it’s really a lot more complicated than that, and things are changing!”

But are they really changing or are we just getting better at creating more fog, where we get accustomed to living in our slightly surreal world of smoke and mirrors?

At least Bess Joffe spoke out! I applaud her for wanting to use her position to change things – and particularly for wanting to use it to address inequality. But it’s interesting to pause for a moment and reflect on why she is able to do this when so few others aren’t?

I’d suggest that one primary reason is because she is a member of the laity and is therefore not confined by the ridiculous covenant of silence that so many senior clergy seem to have embraced. This means, frankly, that she does not need to “behave well” in order to get any form of preferment – or in other words, she is not warned off saying anything that might “rock the boat” and put any hope of future promotion out of reach.

I’m sorry to name it, but I think this is where so much of our real problems lie. We have created such large central structures at both diocesan and national levels – which we can barely afford in these financially strapped times – where in order to be able to be part of it you need “to conform”. And of course many understandably want to be “part of it” – they want to progress, often for the very honourable reason that they want to get to a place where they feel they can “make a real difference”. Although of course, few truly feel able to do so when they do actually get “there”. It’s “smoke and mirrors” after all!

I am speaking perhaps more bluntly than I normally do because I am deeply concerned that the Church of England is currently facing a crisis of such enormity that I fear few have truly taken its severity onboard. It is my sincere belief that we have only a few years left (if that) before we implode – under the weight of our central structures, under our inability to make decisions, under our crushed and demoralised parish systems and under the glare of a general public who have given up on an institution that they see as steeped in hypocrisy and puritanical legalism.

Believe it or not, God has not promised that the Church of England will continue for ever. The Christian faith most certainly will be carried from generation to generation, but God does not have to use an institution that has lost its ability to speak truthfully, act righteously and has chosen to exempt itself from standing up for the marginalised.

These next few years will be years of reckoning, and it’s about time we started facing some hard truths…we need to come off our fences, come out from our hiding places and allow the wind of the Spirit to blow away the fog and smoke that has blinded us so that we can look ourselves clearly in the mirror, and be honest about what we see.

Maybe then we’ll have a chance, but only if we’re humble enough to get on our knees and recognise how badly we’ve got so many things wrong – and how we have hurt so many people in the process!

We can but pray…

Posted in Disability, Establishment, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Living in Love & Faith, Politics, Social Justice | 6 Comments

Church of England: Will the Quest for Youth Save Us?

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology

The Church of England has a serious age problem. Or so, at least, we are reliably informed.

Dioceses are scrabbling around to improve their ‘provision’ to younger people, and at the same time we are told that we should be aiming to be a younger and more diverse church.

In the first instance, and as someone I think is probably still defined as ‘young’ in church terms, I should admit to finding the language a little bit uncomfortable. I understand, of course, what the point being made is – and any church that wants a future needs to encourage people through its door, including young people. Looking around many of our congregations, it’s certainly true that there are many grey hairs and rather fewer teenagers. That, however, is no excuse for ageism. For far too long, the Church of England has been complacent about its membership, and for years the faithful have continued to pay the parish share, staff the churches, keep the show on the road. Many of these people are now elderly and continue their faithful witness. It seems ungrateful, at best, to bemoan their preponderance in the church.

In much discussion about the state of today’s church, the elderly seem to be the focus of attack. ‘Once all the old people die out’, a middle-aged person told me during a lecture at theological college, ‘then we can get rid of the BCP, and start focusing on services which are relevant’. Meanwhile, the elderly are casually described as being the most conservative in our churches, despite there being little to no evidence of this being the case. Churches that focus on outreach to the elderly never seem to feature in the shiny Church of England webpages – despite the loneliness epidemic that blights so many of our communities, made even more acute by the current pandemic.

This obsession with the young, and primarily the able bodied, straight, married young, seems to have taken over so much of the marketing of a church that claims to follow a ‘despised and rejected’ man of the margins. The answer to all the church’s problems often appears to be a superficial commitment to loud music, beautifully presented videos and incessantly, ludicrously, smiling people, who appear to be the models for 1980s action figures. Everything in life is not roses, as even a brief foray into the human situations in which so much of the world finds itself would suggest. Yet many in the church seem to genuinely think that obsessive optimism and ‘relevance’ is what young people are looking for. If only we could be more ‘relevant’, they tell us, then there would be more people coming through our doors. Yet even when young people are encouraged through the door, we barely touch the surface of the wider population, and they don’t tend to stick around.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve sat through excruciating church talks about how to be more ‘relevant’. The irony of a middle-aged person telling me (someone in their 30s) how my age group might become ‘churched’ seems to be lost most of the time. The solutions are always couched in terms of presentation and polish – never in terms of substance. Not once has someone giving one of these well-meaning but highly condescending talks appeared to have asked – what might we learn from the people who aren’t coming through our doors? What could we, the church, be getting wrong – rather than what might all the ‘youth’ gain from our great store of knowledge?

What the Church of England seems to have missed is that we are no longer simply an irrelevance to the great majority of young people – and not only the young. We run the risk of being seen by many in wider society today as an agent of immorality, not morality.

Opening the Living in Love and Faith book a month or so ago, I will admit to being less depressed than I thought I might be. Some of the content is really good, and some of it manages to move beyond the tired arguments we have gotten used to in recent years. However, one question remained for me – to whom exactly is this book supposed to be addressed? Or, more pertinently – what does a book like this tell the rest of the world about who we are, as a church?

The reality is that we are aeons behind the rest of the world on so many moral questions – and chief amongst these is the rights, lives and loves of LGBT people. Many friends and secular colleagues of mine are disgusted when they hear that we don’t ‘do’ same-sex marriages, or that our clergy get sacked for having them. It’s incomprehensible to most young people – and, indeed, amongst a huge number of the not-so-young. When we wonder why our mission is failing, we never seem to ask the difficult questions. It’s not presentation that people have a problem with – it’s our message. We used to defend slavery. We continue to oppress LGBT people.

Time and time again, we hear senior clergy opposing ‘all kinds of discrimination’ – just not, it seems, discrimination against LGBT people. We hear platitudes, but rarely a serious commitment to listen. And when it’s pointed out that the church is on the wrong side of history, we are fed nonsense about the fact that we are now in an age where we the Church are being ‘persecuted for righteousness sake’. Jesus told us we would never be popular, we are told – so who cares what the world thinks? We are told there is virtue in being persecuted, and being ‘against the world’. Yet persecution for its own sake is not what the Gospel is about.

Do we really claim that secular society can teach us nothing? Do we really believe there is nothing to learn about human flourishing from other disciplines?

I’ve grown very tired of hearing the mantra that the Church of England moves slowly, and that we shouldn’t be impatient about change. A slow and steady boat with holes in it will sink before it reaches the shore. Time is running out on this question, most particularly if the church wants to maintain any sense of moral authority. Covering our ears and pleading self-righteousness doesn’t cut it. It’s time we left the echo chamber and recognised what is already happening around us.

People in same-sex relationships are already living holy lives. They are already getting married to each other. They are already loving God.

We just haven’t recognised it yet. And it’s a mission imperative that we do.

Posted in Charlie Bell, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Transgender | 5 Comments

Wise Words for this Year’s End…

by the Right Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Minnie Louise Haskins, who wrote these words in 1908, does not often appear in anthologies of great English poetry. Her poem was privately published in a collection called “The Desert”, and would almost certainly have been forgotten, if it were not for King George VI who used them in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to (what was then) the British Empire.

At the end of December 1939 the “phony war” had been running for almost three months. War had been declared, but nothing seemed to be happening. The bombs had not yet begun to fall on the UK. Dread and threat were certainly in people’s minds, but it was an invisible dread and a threat chiefly existing in the imagination. To that dread and threat the King’s quoting of Haskins’ poem spoke clearly, and the words became immensely popular, iconic and inspirational. They are carved in stone at the entrance to the George VI memorial chapel in Windsor.

At first sight it’s not obvious that the King chose the right words. Anxious people in dark and complicated times long for a known way. And there are always those who will insist that they have a safe light – if only people will follow them blindly.

This is certainly true this year, and indeed in the past few years.

The ongoing strength of political populism in the West flows from this anxiety, as people look for strongmen in whose booming words they can lose their own voice. So does the growth of movements based on “alternative facts” such as the antics of the President of the United States and his supporters in the weeks after the election there, or the stridently anti-rational lockdown protests seen around the world, including here in Liverpool. Empty promises of certain light, the hate that says it will cast out fear, all detached from the world’s reality.

Meanwhile Minnie Haskins, and King George, reached for a deeper wisdom, and people in 1939 were inspired by it, and I think we should be again. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

For me there’s another dimension to this, which goes beyond Haskins’ poem.

Walking by faith is the way things work, and is in particular the calling of the Church; and in the end the way becomes clear as we walk – together. We are not called to a vacuous smoothing-out of the complexities of the world, but to a process of courageous contribution and mutual enriching, so that the wisdom of God, as shared with a diverse community, may become clearer for us.

God’s wisdom becomes clearer as each person takes the opportunity to listen, and to speak, and to listen again. In short it becomes clearer through a diversity of voices and a mutual discerning.

In the political arena we have seen this discerning process in action – sometimes despite the best efforts of a simplistic and over-optimistic boosterism. Scientific advice and the values of human life and flourishing have (eventually) shaped policy. Of course this policy has had to be nimble, and to steer quickly and sometimes erratically by a flickering light. But there is no known way, and together the world is moving in the dark.

As I look back on the year and on the world, it seems to me that most of the political failures in dealing with the pandemic have come from a willed disregard of corporate wisdom, and from pretending there is a clear light. To feel our way in darkness and in faith is not heroic; but in the end it is the way the world works, and is working.

The same is true for the conversations within the Church on the matters that vex us. As an example, “Living in Love and Faith” is a complex and steady process which seeks to listen to many voices, including those (the diverse lived-out voices of LGBTI+ people) which have hitherto been excluded from the room.

Together we are seeking to discern a future for love, in faith. The bright lights and the booming words of a contentious certainty continue to attract some – but for most of us the way of mutual and gentle discerning is the way the church works, and is working.

Whether in the world of politics or of organised religion, this is a slow and a modest way to proceed.

Those who promise a simple light will continue to criticise it, indeed with an increasing shrillness. But for me Minnie Haskins and King George VI knew a thing or two, and I shall walk with them, into a future which is shrouded in darkness and filled with surprise but which is nonetheless assured by the presence of God.

In 1939 the King ended his quote from Haskins’ poem with the line I quoted: “That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” But the poem goes on in words that make sense in the context of the Christmas story, the story of the Incarnation, and which I commend to all Via Media readers as the year turns and as our hopes gather for 2021:

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Coronavirus, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Politics, Racism, Social Justice | 4 Comments

The Sound of Silence

by Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester

‘How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given’

So goes the famous line in the carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’  And yet the wondrous gift is far from silent. Not only a baby crying in the night but a baby-grown-to-be-man who told stories, spoke words of challenge, affirmation, and rebuke, and who one day would cry out from the darkness of crucifixion.

Yet there were also times when Jesus Christ chose to be silent.

In recent weeks amid the clamour around Christmas and restrictions, and the noise of news across the world, I have also been aware of  views about voices which are perceived as silent in response to different issues or opinions. And so it is that I have found myself this Advent reflecting on the ‘sound of silence’ .

As we celebrate Christmas, albeit one with rules and restrictions, we will undoubtedly hear those spine-tingling words at the opening of John’s Gospel: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). God, three-in-one, comes to be with us, and although the baby Jesus Christ cannot yet form words, he is ‘The Word’ – God’s communication with the world.

As someone who began professional life as a Speech and Language Therapist, I am passionate about communication and enabling all people, each created in the image of God, to find a voice and have a voice regardless of whether or not that involves the vocal cords. And of course, communication is about relationship and connection, and that is at the heart of who God is.

Yet in our relating and being with God, each other and creation, there is also a place for choosing silence.

One of the most life-giving times in my life was a thirty-day Ignatian silent retreat. I escaped the demands of the world and the activity of usual daily life, but I could not escape God or myself and the noise within me.

It was the Gloucestershire composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams who arranged a translation of the ancient Greek chant ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silent’ to make it into a popular hymn. The words invite us to be silent in the presence of God who comes to earth, choosing neither to be distant nor silent.

I remember when the Church of England bishops first discussed the Pastoral Principles being developed by the Pastoral Advisory Group. There was discussion around the principle of ‘Silence’ and how to present it because there was recognition that so often silence is destructive and yet at other times is deeply wise.

Silence can enable us to listen more deeply, to notice and to be taken to the deep places within ourselves to explore and discover. It can also prevent or quench the metaphorical forest fire ignited by the spark of the tongue (James 3:5). Silence can also be life-destroying.

As a bishop I am aware that I have a platform of privilege to speak and communicate. It is also true that it is not an exclusive platform as social media and digital communication allow anyone to say whatever they want, whether or not they are heard. And in the age of the sound bite, social media and quick reaction, each of us is faced each day with a choice of responding or staying silent. Either way people will make assumptions and draw conclusions.

Issues in national or church news around justice and equality such as gender violence, sexual abuse, racial justice, human sexuality, and matters of discrimination, all demand unequivocal messages regarding no one being diminished, and the need for change in institutional structures and culture. Words are required and so is action. So too is a silence which is humble, listens and refuses to add to the noise of darkness.

As we approach a very different Christmas yet celebrate the unchanging love of God revealed in the incarnation, it is not that God’s action speaks louder than words, it is rather that in the action is The Word. Here is our God who comes to be with us through the mysterious act of the birth of a vulnerable child, pointing to the day when the  silence of an empty tomb will speak of hope and light which will never be overcome by the darkness.

As I live this Christmas of 2020 which not only looks different from previous years but also sounds different, I will be reflecting more deeply on knowing how and when to use my voice in 2021 and when to be silent.

Posted in Bishop of Gloucester, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | Leave a comment

To Sign or Not To Sign – A Bishop’s Dilemma

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia and Director of the Global Commission on LGBT+ Lives

It has been very interesting reading the various responses from a range of bishops around the world to my invitation to them, and to other faith leaders, to sign our Global Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ Live’s recent Declaration.

This Declaration is boldly entitled Declaring the Sanctity of Life and the Dignity of All” because that in essence is what this whole project is about: it declares that all lives are sacred, and that all should be treated with dignity.  We wrote it – with input from our Inter-Religious Advisory Board – in such a way that we hoped no religious leader could have a problem with it.  Surely we could agree that, independent of our theological views on LGBT relationships, LGBT+ people should have the right to life and that they should be treated with dignity…?

After all, there are 72 countries around the world where LGBT+ are still at risk of being locked up, and 11 where we are at risk of being put to death – purely for being found to gay or lesbian. It is sadly an even higher number (at least 15 countries) for those who are transgender. As we know all too well, there are a far larger number of countries – including the UK – where conversion therapy is still legal. So we hoped that religious leaders would want to join forces and speak out against the practices that have been classed as torture by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.

But of course it wasn’t that easy.

It was fascinating to see the critical role of leadership here.  In Canada, where Archbishop Linda Nicholls was one of the first to sign, many other Canadian bishops immediately followed suit.  Similarly, in Scotland and Wales.  I’m thrilled to say that we now have 10 Archbishops, 9 from within the Anglican Communion, who have signed – the most recent being the Archbishop of Norway, Rt Revd Olav Tveit (the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches).

It was just as fascinating to see the excuses that many came up with for not signing.

I will be honest and say, without breaching any confidences, that these letters from known allies made me very angry.  Did they still not get the power differential at play between those in power to change things and those with none, who tragically fall prey to draconian regimes?  Did they still not understand the lives that were being lost, often because no one was speaking out into the silence?  Did they still think this was about appeasing their conservative friends, so as not to risk losing them – whilst at the same time they were losing countless others?

Interestingly, this became the focus of the discussion towards the end of our final session of our Global Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ Lives conference on Wednesday.  The conversation came as a result of a typically bold and honest comment in the Zoom chat from Bishop Alan Wilson:

“I think it’s a fear of aggression that is holding things back more than anything else in the Church of England, and we really need to stop throwing LGBT people under the bus to try and placate them”

Archbishop Mark Strange, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, had just shared how his relationships with other ecumenical partners had in fact strengthened after their General Synod had taken the decision to allow same-sex marriages.  He said that whilst there had been some initial anxiety that they might become isolated, the reality was that they hadn’t been. Instead he said that in Scotland “they were in better relationship with other ecumenical churches than they had been for many many years”.  He admitted that there were some who still struggled as they didn’t like what had happened, but he added that hadn’t been excluded from anywhere.  Instead, he found that people wanted to have a conversation and hear what he had to say. 

Reflecting on this, Rabbi Laura said: “yes we are frightened of aggression, which is the other side of anxiety – anxiety and aggression/anger are either sides of the same coin.” She then went on to ask: 

“How do you flip the coin of anger and aggression so that people can express their anxieties?  How do you vaccinate (people) against aggression?”

Archbishop Mark’s answer was unequivocal: “the only way you can do this is in relationship”. 

He recognised that whilst there were indeed people who did not want to speak to him, he had decided to just keep on talking to them anyway.  As he explained, “it’s very difficult to maintain anger with someone you are in relationship with, with someone who wants to keep talking to you”. 

And the learning from this?

Well, as Bishop Paul concluded – he hoped he could play this recording to other bishops and show them that “it is not the end of the world to say what you think!”

So, faith leader, what do you think?  Will you sign our Declaration? Others have.

You can do so publicly or privately – just click here!

Posted in Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Safeguarding, Social Justice, Transgender | 3 Comments


by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

Contested conversations and the life of faith

Contested conversation is written into Old Testament narrative. Indeed, the Bible presents contested conversation as its primary hermeneutical model. It still stands at the heart of the Jewish tradition and issues an invitation to Christians in a cultural context which often seeks bunkers and silos rather than listening to all the voices.

John J Collins, in his recent – and intentionally provocative – book What are Biblical Values? Goes as far as to suggest that when someone claims that “this is what the Bible says,” they normally mean “this is what I want the Bible to say”. And as Elizabeth Gaskell points out in North and South – her great novel of faith, love, and class – when the church starts talking about “keeping the teaching simple” that normally ushers in the infantilization of the people of God.

The Bible itself never claims to be without error or internal inconsistency. That is a product of the Enlightenment. Richard Dawkins and contemporary biblical literalists are (tragically) singing from the same epistemological song sheet.

The notion that texts only mean what they say is devastating enough for Jane Austen, and a complete catastrophe when it comes to sacred texts. For much of Christian history the Church has understood biblical texts to have many layers of meaning. Origen suggested at least four. Contested conversation invites contemporary Christianity to re-enter this arena.

So, John places the crucifixion on a different date and at a different time from the other Gospels. Paul himself recognises that he disagrees with Peter. Luke – who contributes more text to the New Testament than any other author – shows no trace of anything resembling substitutionary atonement. One of the reasons that so many churches in the early centuries chose to read Tatian’s synthetic version of the Gospels rather than the real thing was that it neatly tied up all these inconsistencies. much as we choose to do at Christmas with the infancy narratives and the family trees (plural) of Jesus.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch intentionally places two stories of creation side by side, with creation happening in a different order in each of them; the text then refuses to resolve the conflicts. In the same way two iterations of the Law itself, each of them reflecting different contexts and concerns. The biggest example is the variety of responses to the Exile in the early 6th century BC. Isaiah on the one hand; Ezra / Nehemiah on another; and Ezekiel offering something wildly different, driving a coach and horses through whole swathes of Old Testament thinking.

One of the primary roles of the church here is as the “venue” for these contested conversations. Luther translated the Bible into German not so that each person could sit at home deciding what the Bible said but so that the community of faith could gather round the Scriptures and swink and sweat in the corporate search for the truth.

Are there limits to the conversation? Certainly. Newman’s line that theology is always a “process of saying and unsaying” suggests that the goal posts are generously wide. Contested conversations are not intended to be bitter conversations, inviting exclusion or the denial of people’s right to be present around the table. Jesus’ own pattern of speech and action explicitly rejects the notion of power as coercion but embraces the idea of power as capacity to act. Any partner in the contested conversations who diminishes the ability of others to join in on the basis of a priori assumptions based on gender, sexual orientation or race is forfeiting their own right to participate. Just as when I was invited to address the congregation at Friday Prayers at our local Mosque last year, we go into the conversation clear and unapologetic about our identity, but undefended.

In lock-down I have been binge-watching Scandinavian Noir. In one of the final episodes of the gruesome Finnish drama, Bordertown, the lead character confronts a Puritan Christian sect whose theology and practice has led them to commit appalling acts. At the climax he walks into the church just as the elders are about to discipline yet another female member who they judge to have misbehaved. He asks for permission to speak. Stunned, they fall silent, and he simply says: if you go on listening to just one voice in your little echo chamber, you will carry on doing evil when you want to do good. You must listen to all the voices.

Its very unlikely that we are going to learn, develop and grow if we only pay attention to the voices we agree with. As the Bible itself suggests, we are invited to pay attention to all the voices, including the ones that make us uncomfortable.

The biblical practice of contested conversation can be challenging but ultimately teaches us to live not in the absolute authority of our own views but out of a place of assurance that whatever happens, the future is secured through what God has already done for us in the salvation of the whole created order.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Nicholas Henshall, Safeguarding | 3 Comments