Monday 15 February 2010

After a week of Big Questions – the Communion still survives

Participating in The Big Questions debate yesterday morning about the division or unity of the Anglican Communion reinforced my sense of confidence in the signs that I picked up in General Synod last week.

I was seated next to Lorna Ashworth in the studio. Lorna had tabled the private member’s motion about ACNA which was debated in General Synod on Wednesday afternoon. To her far right was Charles Raven from Kidderminster, the priest who was inhibited by Bishop Peter Selby when he challenged Peter’s authority. Between them was a conservative Christian lawyer who contributed to the opening debate about the torture of terrorism suspects and the second debate about fidelity in marriage. In both the views he expressed were not unreasonable, but when he joined in the debate about the Anglican Communion he suddenly inhabited an extreme world of sin and judgement in which any person who was neither married nor celibate like him was destined for hell.

There was intense heat in the debate between those who were arguing for inclusion and generosity and the conservatives who revealed more and more extreme views as the debate proceeded. Although the programme researchers had clearly been disappointed that all of us seemed to agree that the unity of the Communion should be maintained, it became apparent in the studio that this is not what the conservatives want. They want to be split from people like me who believe in a generous, forgiving, loving, ultimately inclusive God.

If they want to push this to its logical conclusion, all we need to do is stay. They have to decide whether to leave. I know it isn’t quite as easy or simple as this – staying in a Church where people express such prejudiced, hostile views and feelings isn’t comfortable. Sometimes the homophobia and the prejudice against women becomes intolerable.

Several people in the audience approached me afterwards and expressed astonishment at the views held by the conservatives. They had no idea that this is what an extreme minority in the Church of England believe. They wondered what had happened to what they remembered as the traditional Anglican ethos of generosity and welcome to all, whatever degree of faith people have.

There is a fault line in the UK more dangerous than the fault line within the Church between conservatives and liberals. It is the fault line between those who think it’s more important for Christianity to be doctrinally pure than it is for Christianity to model God’s generous love. An exclusive Church is not just the kiss of death for gays and women priests and bishops, it’s the kiss of death for a lively, loving, healthy, evangelistic Church of England which has any chance of connecting with real people and real lives. Why would anyone watching The Big Questions and hearing the conservatives bother to enter a church which is so judgmental and intolerant?

A friend sent me a text after the programme saying they think we have a mountain to climb. We are climbing it, and the further up the mountain we climb, the more the clouds begin to clear and the potential for a glorious view becomes apparent. Both global forces and history are against the conservatives.

I’ve now had time to read in detail the comments on and reactions to the debate on Lorna Ashworth’s motion in Synod. I was in the public gallery for the ACNA debate and present at the fringe meeting on Tuesday lunchtime when the ACNA case was presented.

There were a considerable number of people at the fringe meeting who were not taken in by the confident presentation, and several asked firmly probing questions, which did not receive honest answers and some weren’t answered at all. The voting figures on the motion tell the true story. The majority of members in each House voted consistently against Lorna’s motion – which was there to be accepted if Synod really wanted to state its desire to be in Communion with ACNA. Some comments on Thinking Anglicans still seem uncertain about this.

There may well be attempts to set up a parallel to ACNA in England. There will be further attempts to marginalize TEC and Canada. There will be attempts to inflate the success and importance of ACNA. Some leaders in the Communion will continue to vilify LGBT people while at the same time claiming they want the best for us.

I think Lorna’s motion was a disaster for ACNA. They were firmly rejected by the Church of England and the whole idea kicked into touch. The large contingent which had flown over and were much in evidence at Synod got nothing for their trouble, but seem to have been flattered into a false sense of success by our English ‘niceness’. We nod and smile sweetly and agree, whilst holding to a totally different view inside.

Lorna’s motion was lost.
Greater pension equality for Civil Partners was passed.
Archbishop Rowan apologised to LGBT people and described the Uganda Bill as repugnant.
The studio audience though conservative Christian views were shocking.

The conservative leaders in the Communion are not making the progress they claim. Their reports are grossly inaccurate and they misrepresent reality continually. No group confident of their position would do this. I receive many more reports in confidence that tell me the Communion is not with them. Bishops are not with their Primates. The Church of England is not with the bishops who support ACNA. International opinion is against the Uganda Bill. The UK Government is against repressive homosexuality legislation in the Commonwealth.

Most importantly, Christ is risen, God is love and Creation is good. Truth, justice and love shine in people’s hearts and lives whether or not conservative Anglicans think that the 39 Articles, the Ten Commandments and a literal interpretation of the Bible are fundamental to salvation.

If the Christian lawyer in the audience really thinks my eternal salvation is at risk because I love another man, well, bully for the celibate him. Me – I’m for life with a joyous God.


  1. The studio audience though[t] conservative Christian views were shocking.

    I would like to be as positive about this as you Colin, but I think time will tell. Overall, their views will surely eventually die out.

  2. Bradley, it may be that other members of the audience commented to the conservative Christians in equally positive support of their attitudes.

    No-one ever says to me, 'those conservatives are right, you know'. I only ever hear people experience them as frighteningly obsessed and judgmental. Conservatives have success in attracting people of a smililar fundamentalist mind set. They might, I suppose, grow and extend their reach into UK society but I hope and pray to God they don't.

  3. Colin, it's beyond me why you present doctrinal purity and modelling generous love as mutually exclusive alternatives. Surely not one person could be found who could or would wish to support this mutual-exclusivity view logically? Best wishes, Christopher Shell

  4. Gee this recurring trope of doctrinal purity fails to sound, an oxymoron, except for a certain stream of far right conservatives. Surely we see through a glass darkly in this realm, and need to be as responsible as possible, especially for our judgements too quickly elevated to being God's closed, eternal-wrathful truth. Meanwhile, I think the messy mix will probably continue, willy nilly. Far worse, far meaner things are yet to arrive from the farther rights of USA conservatism at least; and as those leaders forcefully link up with global others, we get the rotten fruits of stuff quite unthinkably akin to the pending Uganda legislation. Thanks, though, for pointing out how oddly the positive vote for equal partner benefits broke through ... a sign of how volatile the messy mix is and will be? drdanfee/USA/TEC

  5. This is as clear as mud. (a) The issue is about practice more than doctrine, and it is to the actual practice of so-called sodomy that most of the exception has always been taken. (b) If one does not believe in aiming at purity of practice, then where does one draw the line? Christians have always been diametrically opposed to anything-goes merchants. And saying that because we have not 100% understanding we will just follow our preferences and instincts is more convenient than honest.
    After all, if we see through a glass darkly, that suggests a high probability that your own position lacks a sound basis. Which has not stopped you voting with your feet. Which suggests that the 'glass darkly' thing is not an issue you actually take seriously (it does not issue in your taking a cautious approach) but rather an excuse. Best wishes, Christopher Shell.