On Synod and the Kingdom

July 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’

I was a member of the General Synod of the Church of England for thirteen years, in two stints. Tomorrow its meeting in York, and a little bit of me misses it. So I found myself preaching about it last Sunday, prompted by Luke 17: 20 – 21. What follows is the edited version of me trying to answer this question: for General Synod, and for the Church of England, where will the Kingdom be found?

Where Synod is at its best is when people with experience and commitment speak into areas they know, relating their understanding of the Gospel mission imperative to the contemporary world. And that, of course, is where Synod is at its worst too. Examples of the best have included the challenge to trade fairly; to set aside historic and crippling debt; to enable flexible new ways of mission for the church; to simplify bureaucracy so that church can get on with the job; to provide new ways out of debt for people over reliant on extortionate lenders; and many more.

The worst has been exemplified when the call to be distinctive and to hold on to the Gospel becomes tied up with a particular moral, ethical and spiritual position, such as in the debates around human identity and human sexuality. I found the intense debates we had about equal ministry so wearing that I simply couldn’t imagine what the Synod would make of human sexuality and equal marriage.

The problem comes when people believe they know how the rules of the Kingdom of God apply in particular cases, and beat people about the head with them. Rather than allow testing, thoughtful examination, and generosity of application, some people declare what the truth is to be and condemn any other approach. When debates in Synod take place with people wielding those kinds of weapons, trouble ensues, and not even the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘good disagreement’ will do. For those who believe they know the views of the Kingdom of God on a matter, any disagreement is anathema, not good.

So, very recently: clergy in the Diocese of Chelmsford have written expressing ‘no confidence’ in their Diocesan Bishop; a member of my Bible study group at university was consecrated as a missionary Bishop for Scotland (and the wider Anglican world), in order to hold the true faith against the onslaught of revisionist doctrines, mainly around sexuality; and today people are considering boycotting Synod because of the presence of the Scottish Bishop who proposed the Equal Marriage motion passed there last month.

My reading of Luke 17. 20 and 21 is that we need to be careful when pronouncing on the rules and presence of the Kingdom. Answering the Pharisees Jesus says it’s not the kind of thing that can be seen or pointed to. Neither is it something that will come very soon. Don’t get twitchy about it, says Jesus, putting two and two together and making a hundred. Don’t even start trying to interpret the events of today in apocalyptic terms.

Rather…the Kingdom of God is ‘among you’. The Kingdom is present in Jesus, pushing boundaries, dwelling on the edge (he has just been with ten lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan), simply living and being. It is not, yet, to be found in an institution or a programme or a manifesto. Don’t think you can grasp hold of it, as if it was a thing. The Kingdom is me, says Jesus.

I think that means that the Kingdom is found when we recognise Jesus in each other, when we are taken by surprise, when we commit ourselves to finding the other and understanding them. If the Kingdom is tied to a set of propositions alone, then we may preserve some sort of pietistic purity but become overly distanced from the communities and society in which we live and move.

The knack with the Kingdom is to recognise where we have to stand firm, where we have to challenge, and where our emphasis on one aspect of belief – say to hold to an aspect of doctrine – plays against another – say to love our neighbour. ‘The Kingdom of God is among you’. The crucial thing is to find such wisdom, from the Spirit, that we can both stand firm, and be bent and shaped by the Spirit’s work across society, not just in the church.

I’m praying that General Synod this weekend will discover such wisdom, and that, for us and for them, seeking the Kingdom first will put everything in place.

Another Jeremy, Same Sex Marriage and Licensed Ministry

August 5, 2014 § 4 Comments

When I was a Vicar in Nottinghamshire I had good cause to be grateful to the Chaplaincy Team at Kings Mill Hospital, in between Sutton in Ashfield and Mansfield. It is a cause of great regret to me that the trust which now manages that hospital is unable to employ Canon Jeremy Pemberton. Its rules state that Chaplains must be authorised by their denomination, and the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham will not issue a licence. The story from the BBC is here.

I know Jeremy. We share a name. We have a curacy in common, and we’ve met down the years. I hope I would feel the same way if he was unknown to me. In February I wrote a blog post which regretted the strength of the wording of the House of Bishops’ Statement on Same Sex Marriage.

The House stated, incontrovertibly, that the Christian doctrine of marriage as it currently stands does not allow for a relationship between people of the same sex to be counted as a marriage. It went on, though, to use the words ‘conduct’ and ‘discipline’ in such a way as to allow individual bishops to use the statement as a means of their formal actions with clergy who marry a person of the same sex. I regretted this, because it seemed to me to prejudge the outcome of the ‘facilitated conversations’ we will be having  in the next two years.

Jeremy Pemberton was the first C of E cleric to marry under the provisions of the new law. His Bishop had to do something – the House of Bishops’ Statement required it. As I understand it the Bishop of Lincoln, in whose Diocese Jeremy is currently a Hospital Chaplain, wrote to Jeremy, noting that his marriage was at variance with the Statement, but not withdrawing his licence. That seemed to me a humane and pastoral response, though I’ve not seen the letter itself.

Jeremy had already applied for a new Hospital Chaplaincy job  in another diocese. Allowing an ‘errant’ cleric to keep their licence is one thing. Issuing a new licence to one is quite another. Again, it seemed to me that such a Diocesan Bishop could, in theory, note the circumstances of the cleric’s life, determine that, though irregular, those circumstances were not a bar to the proposed ministry, and issue a licence with a note on the file saying that those irregularities were on record. Such a Bishop could look his brother Bishops in the eye and say that the provisions in the Statement had been duly considered.

But…Southwell and Nottingham is in interregnum, and has a Bishop who is acting until a new diocesan is appointed. That Bishop is in an impossible position. Even if he wanted to issue a licence, he would not want to tie the hands of the new Bishop, and indeed he had already acted by removing Jeremy’s Permission to Officiate (Jeremy lives in that diocese, though he works in Lincoln). Advice from the Archbishop of the Province would no doubt be the same – again, entirely understandably. Though the House of Bishops approves of ‘conscientious dissent’, this was not then the situation in which it could be exercised.

Which is the pity of it all, and the unfairness, and quite possibly the injustice. Some injustices are not the fault of an individual, or one part of an organisation. They emerge out of a series of unfortunate events. Jeremy as a gay married cleric, is currently licensed to do the job he does. He is being refused a licence to do that same job in another place. What puts it into sharp relief is that the NHS would be prosecuted if it tried to prevent any other of its employees from being appointed to a post because they had married their same sex partner.

No one wins here. The House of Bishops, and the Church of England, is only at the beginning of a response to Same Sex Marriage, but the House’s initial statement is phrased such that it will now be continually on the back foot, or ‘behind the curve’, as Jeremy put it on TV last night. Jeremy now looks to be marooned, unable to be licensed to any other job than the one he holds. Kings Mill Hospital has to look for another Chaplain – and the hospital trust is surely baffled at a church which acts in this way. The Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham has to bide its time, awaiting a Bishop who can act in his own right, rather than simply holding the fort.

It will be reasonably clear that my personal theological views allow for the possibility of marriage being expanded to include those of the same sex, though I have much more thinking to do, and I’m sure many members of my congregation are in a different place. That’s a conversation for us to have, as the wider church will also have it. But I think there are wrongs in Jeremy Pemberton’s situation, and I pray they can be righted. I hope the House of Bishops can have a full and frank conversation very soon.

Same Sex Marriage and the House of Bishops

February 16, 2014 § 13 Comments

This is a bit of thinking out loud, to help me work out why I find the statement by the House of Bishops on Same Sex Marriage difficult. Do help me out…

In my role as Precentor at York Minster it was my job to organise consecrations: the ordination of bishops. One of the descriptions of bishops which always stood out in the service was this:

With the Shepherd’s love, they are to be merciful, but with firmness; to minister discipline, but with compassion.

The House of Bishops has just issued a Pastoral Statement on Same Sex Marriage. This wasn’t on a whim: same sex marriage becomes law in England next month. Across England there will soon be couples who are legally married, in a way which the historic doctrine and practice of the Church of England does not recognise.

There has been a progression of ‘official’ Church of England pronouncements on this.

Broadly speaking:

  • The Biblical case is not so clear cut as it may seem, but the current accepted doctrine of the Church of England affirms that a physical relationship outside marriage between a man and a woman falls short of God’s ideal.
  • However, nothing we do or say about this should be used in any way to attack people with a homosexual orientation.
  • No one should be excluded from the church or denied the sacraments of baptism or communion because of this.
  • Faithfulness in relationship, and faithfulness in working out Christian discipleship are clearly a good thing.
  • Where people in a same sex relationship wish to affirm that by making a formal commitment to each other, that wish should be recognised, but not publicly and formally ‘blessed’.
  • Things are different for clergy, and those in a licensed relationship with the Bishop, as their public ministry is part of the affirmation of the doctrines of the church as the Church of England has received them.

The current guidelines nudge things a little more in the direction of recognising that there may be some kind of act of prayer as an appropriate pastoral response to a same sex marriage, though this should not be a ‘blessing’, nor, probably, a public act of worship. I guess that our ‘facilitated conversations’ around the Pilling Report will help us get more clarity on this.

But here’s my problem. Right at the end of the Appendix to the Pastoral Statement, the House of Bishops make it very clear that, whatever the tradition of ‘conscientious dissent’, and whatever desire they have not to draw lines too firmly, anyone currently in holy orders and under the authority of a bishop could find themselves under ‘discipline’ – a word they use in para 28 – if they marry under the provision of the new act. In using the word ‘conduct’ in para 27 the House points to the use of a charge of ‘conduct unbecoming a clerk in holy orders’ being a possibility here.

On Wednesday, at General Synod, we had a presentation about the Pilling Report. I came away hopeful that the process over the next two years would bring some kind of nuanced and generous settlement of these things. The answer to a question from a prominent cleric, who announced himself to be gay and not called to celibacy gave me some hope that such faithful expressions of same sex human love within a commitment to Christ might one day be given a surer footing in the Church of England than they are now. We spoke of ‘good disagreement’.

Two days later the House has given the clear impression that clergy who intend to marry under the provisions of the new act might find themselves subject to discipline. The House’s statement makes this so public that, it seems to me, an individual bishop will now have to give clear reasons why he is not going to allow formal proceedings to happen, should he be so challenged.

I think the House probably had no choice than to restate historic Christian beliefs about marriage. They overstate the case about this being the first time church and state have diverged over marriage: in the 1800s debates happened over the marriage of a man to his deceased wife’s sister, and more recently over remarriage after divorce. In both cases secular law was in advance of church rules. And it was only in the last 20 years or so that people who were divorced and remarried could be ordained. But marriage between people of the same sex is, of course, quite a departure from what we have inherited.

However I do think the House did have a choice about what they were to say about the treatment of clergy, and ordinands. Given that we are to have facilitated conversations about the wider area of same sex attraction, the House could have said something along the lines of:

The existing doctrine of the church is that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Any cleric seeking to marry under the provisions of the new act must be clear that they are going against this.

They must do so having informed their bishop, and discussed it with him.

Pending the outcome of the facilitated conversations process which has been commended by Synod, we will not, at this stage take disciplinary action against serving clergy who choose to marry under the provisions of the Act. (A ‘moratorium’)

That would have been the House as a whole stating a case ‘firmly’, but then acting with ‘compassion’, and allowing the whole Church of England to come to a mind, as much as that is possible, before stating a final position on clergy and same sex marriage. What they have done is to express the firmness of discipline, and left it to each individual bishop to work out the mercy and compassion on a case by case basis. That’s going to be a whole lot of difficult situations, which I think they could have avoided.

I tweeted that I was ‘naffed off’. It was not with the House per se, but with a situation which left them no choice but to say something, and the logical process which led them to be so declarative at the end. I want to be as compassionate as possible about the Bishops’ situation here. But I don’t think it would have been too much for them to stay their hand, just a little, while we all wrestle with this and seek to come to a position which will enable us to speak of the love of God to a society which is moving very quickly indeed.

As I said, these are my first thoughts. Thanks for being a public sphere to try them out.

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