Friday 3 December 2010

From the vanguard to the rearguard: standing on the platform waving off the Covenant Express

Back in the 1990s the diocese recommended my benefice (two parishes) and the one next-door (three parishes) to ‘cluster’. We were described as ‘the untidy end of the deanery’ and it did make sense: the five parishes (three quite rural; two semi-suburban) did indeed encircle, physically, a growing conurbation. No matter that there had been, for decades, intense rivalries between the two benefices and former incumbents, the current ‘leadership’ believed that it was right to proceed with the idea because our communities (church and civil) would be the beneficiaries of this co-operation, and one of the first things we did together was the Alpha Course.

As you can imagine not everyone was enamoured with the notion of ‘clustering’ and an image was used to describe the various responses to the emerging vision for the future. It was a bit like setting out on a train journey: some people (the leadership of the parish) were driving the engine; others, who had caught the vision, were sitting in the various carriages, front or back, depending on the degree to which they had bought into the clustering project; and finally, as the Cluster Express began to leave the station, some people were left behind on the platform.

As one of those in the ‘driving seat’ I found it a very helpful analogy. There were some people who we were never going to convince to board the ‘train’ but that shouldn’t prevent it from setting off and perhaps, once things began to move, the people on the platform would recognise what they were missing and try to catch up (like F.W. Robertson who was left behind at Euston Station in 1849, as his lover moved off in the departing train, and overtook it later on the way to Chester).

I’d like to play a little with this analogy in terms of current Anglican politics. First of all, we had the inclusion train, with the Episcopal Church and Canada in the driving seat. Lots of people were excited by this vision and keen to ride in the carriages of its train because they knew that it wasn’t just about sexuality (gay bishops and same-sex blessings) but signalled respect, justice and equality for all who were oppressed whether it be because of gender, race, or disability.

But some of the other drivers didn’t see it like that and did all that they could to derail this train. That made the rail company very nervous and so they tried to push the inclusion train into a siding and in its place began to assemble another train, with four carriages. It was called the Covenant Express and it looked a bit strange: not quite like any other train that the people had seen before. Some were shocked by it, others afraid that once you got on it you wouldn’t actually move very far or very fast, in fact, that you’d end up going nowhere; but others loved it, extolled it, and warned, that if you didn’t climb aboard, well, you’d probably end up on that rusty old inclusion train, either stuck in a siding, or, if the company decided it was OK, allowed on the network, but not on the main track.

So here I am, a liberal Christian, once (in my own estimation at least) in the vanguard, but now, most definitely in the rearguard, standing on the platform waving off – with no regrets - the Covenant Express. Should we try to derail it – of course! Do we have the wherewithal? Probably not, but it would be interesting to find out. In the meantime we can only hope that the commuters will see it for what it is and shove into a siding and the sideline of history where it belongs.


  1. Christina,
    thank you for this. I like the image of the train, although I think the earlier inclusive train had the benefit of having had non-inclusive carriages, all going along on the same track.

    The question for me is, if the commuters don't see it and if the Covenant does go ahead, where will it leave us?

  2. Thanks Erika, a good point and a good question. If it goes ahead and is not punitive - as we have been promised - then we may want to leave the platform and 'catch up' but if it is as bad as we fear it might be then, and probably only then, we will need to look for another 'train'.