After the Apology – Surely the Centre Cannot Hold?

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Member of General Synod and Ozanne Foundation Trustee

Rosie Haarper

There has been an apology. I confess I don’t get it.

The apology from the Archbishops was about the tone and the timing of their Pastoral Letter, and it totally missed the point. Yes, the timing could have been better. It cut right across the Living in Love and Faith process, a very lengthy process during which we have been told to hold fire. Yes, the tone was appalling. It was patronising and churchy and excluding. People rightly objected to both those problems, but it was the content that gave deep offence and for that there was no apology.

A lot has now been written about this but surely we have yet to experience the longer term effects?

I have heard explanations about how this document got into the public domain. It was basically “cock-up” rather than conspiracy. In an institution which does “high control” rather than “high trust” that is actually quite funny. As someone who knows their Facebook posts and tweets are carefully observed there is a childish delight in the banana skin moment!

It would be easy to think this is an in-house matter and it will blow over. Living in Love and Faith will be published and the usual motherhood and apple pie response will kick the deeper issues into the long grass.

However, I suspect that this is more than a domestic matter.

We have now declared in a very public way that the relationships of many of the people we love and care about are sub-optimal. Anyone who has sex outside a heterosexual marriage is falling short.  So that’s your own relationship, your sons and daughters, your friends and colleagues, in fact a large proportion of the whole nation.

How does that play?

How sustainable is it to pretend to be the national church when you write off the deepest and most meaningful part of most people’s life in a careless and patronising press release? The document is all about sex in a most lightweight and mechanistic way and completely misses the really profound dimension of people’s lives, which is about love.

To be an established church in any worthwhile way involves a synchronicity, a recognition of the realities of people’s lives. It involves living in the same space and speaking the same language.

Archbishop John recognised this way back. In Jamaica in Feb 2012 he said: ‘The only thing the Church of England needs to do is to ensure that its worship, its life, begins to reflect the community it serves. Its leadership needs to do that as well.’

He was talking about needing more black people in the CofE, but of course the same principle applies across the board.

Let’s not kid ourselves that we can get away with this or that we can pretend it never happened. The National Secular Society are all over it.

There is now a bill (House of Lords (Removal of Bishops) Bill’ to end the automatic right of Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords, which the National Secular Society helped to draft, and has been introduced to parliament by the Liberal Democrat peer and NSS honorary associate, Dick Taverne.

This private member’s bill would mean that the 26 places in the House of Lords which are reserved for the Church of England’s bishops and archbishops would end .

The Pastoral Letter sadly demonstrated that they are indeed so utterly out of touch with our society that it is hard to see how they can legislate effectively in a relevant way.

This gulf between the pronouncements of the Church and the ethical temperature of the country is mirrored by a gulf between the leadership and the parish. I find myself apologising all the time. ‘Yes I’m a Christian, but not that kind of a Christian.’ ‘ Despite the Pastoral Statement here in this parish all are welcome and all are blessed by God.’

Maybe the reason is that our faith is not at core propositional, but the Church has become increasingly so.  As some parts of the Church look for high definition we are losing the blurred edges.  There is a desire to prescribe ‘the true’ believer. It seems possible to be on the right side of the righteousness line even though your faith makes you a nasty person.  You can be someone who genuinely thinks that you can follow Jesus and at the same time exclude people. The opposite should be true. At funeral visits, people tell me: He wasn’t much of a church person, but he was a good Christian. Most people feel that Christian is how you behave not what you believe. The Pastoral Letter got that completely the wrong way round.

Perhaps we can learn from our Catholic sisters and brothers? Yes, there are those who are aligned to the full scope of Catholic teaching, but the vast majority don’t sweat that stuff at all. In conversation with a Catholic family in Germany a couple of years ago I asked, ‘But how can you go along with the whole contraception thing?’ ‘ Ah Rosie, we know they have to say it, but we don’t take any notice.’

When I stood for General Synod 10 years ago I honestly thought that the gulf between the Church of Lambeth Palace & Church House, and the local Parish, could be bridged.

I have reluctantly concluded that its probably impossible.

The Pastoral Letter cemented my resolve. I won’t be standing again.

This entry was posted in Establishment, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Rosie Harper. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to After the Apology – Surely the Centre Cannot Hold?

  1. Graham Holmes says:

    Forgive me for disagreeing only with your final sentence! Your whole discussion emphasises why the real Church, the worshipping communities parish by parish, desperately needs you and many others of common sense, integrity and above all, actual Pastoral experience ministering in and to all the people of your parish, both inside and outside the church walls. Please stand again , and if necessary again and again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Phil Gardner says:

    Thank you, Rosie, for your insightful and prophetic article. I have been frustrated that so many people on both sides have been focusing on the tone of the statement – now you have opened up the more important question of the content, which as you say is what really matters and which has caused the most harm.

    I was very sad to read your final three sentences. If the official position of the Church of England is to change, it can only be achieved through General Synod. Please, please reconsider your decision not to stand again. We need more voices like yours to speak out for change, not fewer.


  3. minidvr says:

    A post that has made me think quite a lot. I read the pastoral statement and thought that is was a joke? Literally, I thought that it was a mock up. Than reality set in and I realised that our Bishops are in a different Church from the rest of us.

    I am sad that you feel that General Synod isn’t working, and will not stand again, we need prophetic voices like yours to be heard. If only the HoB were listening.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Adamm Ferrier says:

    Isn’t it amazing how important leaders of churches feel they are to society?

    Frankly, religious organisations are little more than a form of media – filtering their vision and version of God to a consumer audience in such a manner as best favours their hierarchical leadership, preserving their power and privileges. Just as years ago there was only the BBC, then ITV, and now a plethora of options where one may seek televisual satisfaction, the CofE is beset with competition within a capitalist economy it has long championed, and its sclerotic leadership is clearly not up to the task. Any economist of worth knows that a sexually liberated society consumes more, which drives profits for business owners and shareholders.

    What a missed opportunity.

    How much more relevant it would have been to say that respectful, faithful, and loving relationships are important and the CofE encourages, honours, and supports them. That the CofE supports those who seek loving relationships, and foster environments conducive to their development. That the CofE welcomes those who struggle to find relationships, and provides solace to those whose relationships have – sadly – failed.

    Instead, it chooses to marginalise through heteronormativity.


  5. Martin Sewell says:

    An excellent post Rosie, we need more voices like yours. Whatever one’s views on marriage ( and I am clear it is the best context in which to raise children) the genie cannot be put back into the bottle, and trying to do so becomes a huge distraction to mission


  6. The Rev’d Dr. D.Paul Dalzell says:

    Hi Rosie. I think that the argument that the church must first serve the community gets the thing the wrong way around. The problem as I see it is that the bishops statement does not serve the Triune God we’ll, as your later comments about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and a church with a Gospel that is not, as you say, propositional. If we served God better, we would know better how to look like the incarnation, which in Wallace Steven’s words from ‘The Man With The Blue Guitar’ reminds me is A tune beyond us …yet ourselves’. Just serving the community means that Jesus is not our Judge, but we his. The incarnation brings ‘good news to the poor, and a call to follow’ in that order. Not a standard to be met of not. That I think is where the bishops are deeply wrong.


  7. Andrew Lane says:

    As above. If you are right, your voice needs to be heard – in Synod more than anywhere. We still need voices crying in the wilderness. Jesus cleared the temple, but He still went back there to teach and worship. I understand your reluctance to go, and I share your frustration at being associated with such unChristlike views and being labelled alongside those with whom you so profoundly disagree. (My answer to the question ‘Are you a Christian?’ is always ‘Tell me what you mean by a Christian and I’ll tell you if that’s who I am.) But the gospels demonstrate Jesus engaging with the Pharisees for a significant proportion of His ministry. ‘How can they hear without a preacher?’ Go, Rosie. If that’s where you are meant to be, not only will you stand, but you will get in. And if you don’t get in, it’s only Jesus closing the door. And that’s fine. But perhaps your job is to knock. Again. And see what He does.


  8. Rob says:

    This is an interesting article. You seem to be saying that true Christianity is not about what we believe: “our faith is not at core propositional”, “Most people feel that Christian is how you behave not what you believe”. And it seems you count yourself among the “most people”.
    What if I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, nor that he rose from the dead, but I behave in the christian way you allude to? Am I a Christian? Can I be confident that God would welcome me into heaven because his love is unconditional?


    • Pete Cathcart says:

      I’d say a big division in Christianity is what it is actually for

      Is it fundamental things that we believe to be true about our reality or is it a set of rules for a club?

      If the former then it is obviously important that theology is in concord with facts about existence (eg that there are some people, who through no choice of their own, are attracted to the same sex), if the latter then reality doesn’t matter and, in fact, having some rules that cause friction with reality help weed out those who are less committed.

      Is the primary purpose of believing to promote good for the world and good for other humans or is it to reach heaven and avoid hell?

      If the former then we need to be careful not to cause harm, even if it means harming treasured theology or traditions, if the latter then we need to be careful to keep traditions and sound theology and ignore any appearance of harm.


      • Rob says:

        I don’t quite understand how you decided that these are the only alternatives available.

        Surely it is not up to us to decide “what Christianity is for”? Jesus stepped into the world, taught, died and rose again. Christianity is his idea, his mission of reconciling a lost world to our loving Creator. He said he will come again to save those who’ve trusted in him as Lord and Saviour, to be with him in a world made perfect for all eternity. He tells us what it’s for.

        Of course, anyone is free to reject that and come up with their own principles for life. Just seems a bit rich to then define our own conclusions or principles as “Christianity”, when we have decided not to accept or believe what the Christ has said. Canon Harper’s approach is obviously very popular among many people, and that’s hardly surprising, but she seems worryingly uninterested in what Jesus told us about himself, or what faith and discipleship looks like.


  9. Akshai says:

    You say that the the Church should be more inclusive and not condemn loving relationships regardless of their type is not not Biblical. Yes, Jesus loved the sinners, the adulterers and the prostitutes, but he also said, “Go and sin no more”. Are you saying that if someone is committing adultry, but are in a loving relationship that that is OK and we shouldn’t warn them of their sin? The Bible clearly sets that sex outside marriage (heterosexual marriage) is wrong, but we have to do it in a loving way. Yes, everyone is welcome in in Church, but not to tell them that they can be free from the bondage of sin and find forgiveness in in Christ is making Church just a social club!


    • Pete Cathcart says:

      Adultery usually isn’t a loving relationship because it isn’t loving to either the spurned partner or the new partner. Of course the CofE already accepts adultery to some degree since it allows remarriage after divorce. Although, as a married gay person, I was far more angry at these statements treatment of my straight friends who are in committed long term loving relationships, some of whom have very good reason not to marry. There was no attempt to suggest actually love might be important and no understanding of situational ethics.

      I think if churches, in general, treated gay people in the same way as they treat remarried divorcees then there would be a lot less aggro on this entire topic.

      You say everyone is welcome in the church, but that is quite often not people’s experience. I, like many others, have heard countless stories of primarily gay and/or disabled people being made to feel very unwelcome indeed. I have experienced some of this myself. I would think, after this statement, a lot of my straight unmarried friends may feel worried that if they were to go to church they would get thoroughly told off for not being married.


  10. James N Lodwick says:

    Couldn’t you just apply your German Roman Catholic friends’ wisdom to the statement of the C. of E. bishops (“We know they have to say it, but we don’t take any notice of it.”)? Then you could fret a lot less about it. I think the situations, mutatis mutandis, are rather similar, including the hypocrisy involved.


  11. Maggie Evans says:

    Rosie, I’ve only just now come across you! I’ve been praying for a prophetic voice, why is there an echoing silence from the Church about the state of our nation, it’s needs and what action we CAN take to help to improve things.
    Please stand again for Synod. It is so TOUGH swimming against the flow, I’ll join your cohort of supporters. The OT prophets had a hard time, I respect your courage,your passion for Christ and you stand for many vibrant believers, Maggie


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s