SIGNS THAT THE SPIRIT listeth where she wills fill me with a real sense of hope. I pray that history will look upon the Bishop of London and the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s with a kindly eye. There can hardly be a priest, dean or bishop in the country that hasn’t privately sighed “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. We’ve all done a bit of volte face in our time. Truth to tell, and to pinch an oft used phrase of Bishop Michael Marshall’s: “the many are saved by the few and the few are saved by the one”. Wrong-footed wrath – or even just embarrassment – too quickly and too often demands a scapegoat … until we learn (and – thank God – some are learning) the ways of God a little more perfectly.
The Church in England has long been in need of a bit of a shake up.
I’m mortified every time I hear another weary “Christian” bleat about human sexuality – of whatever shade or hue; embarrassed by the continual twittering about women priests and bishops – there are thousands of women who, whilst waiting for consecration and call to a particular office have just got on and quietly exercised episcopal ministry anyway; irritated by the anonymous demands of “health and safety” – so often more to to do with giving someone a licence to pontificate than with actual health or actual safety; too frequently angry about “personnel management” and “growth action plans” that give the impression that the only kind of growth that the Church is interested in is its bank balance and the number of seats filled in the nave (the expensive nave that “must” be preserved in every town and village whatever the cost – so the “growth” will preferably be made up of season ticket holders or pay monthly contracts). And God forbid that we should ever be asked to pray in a tent (or a local ecumenical project) … without a stained glass East window. It’s hard going firing slings and arrows at fat cats when you’re hoping against hope that no-one notices your own interest in preserving what you think is “rightfully mine”.
So where’s the sense of hope coming from? Let me name a few reasons:
1. St Paul’s changed its collective mind. You might say that St Paul’s repented. Turned around. Had a rethink. Looked at the situation from a changed perspective after Giles Fraser’s prophetic resignation. And the diocesan bishop Dr Chartres, writing for the Church Times has now said: “I believe that this is a moment in which St Paul’s, and the Church in general, has been shown how it can get away from an in-house ecclesiastical agenda, and its passion for elaborating defensive bureauocracy, in order to serve the agenda of the people of England at a critical moment in our history”. Amen. And hooray.
2. The Archbishop of Canterbury, having joined with 300+ other faith leaders at an interfaith – :) – event in Assisi, organised by Pope Benedict XVI, said: “Lasting peace begins when we see the neighbour as another self, and so begin to to understand how and why we must love the neighbour as we love ourselves … human beings do not have to be strangers”. Here’s a man of God for our times. A man who can keep his head when all about him are either losing theirs, or becoming more entrenched in outdated religious conservatisms.
3. I visited the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield the other day. I quickly ordered up a core text I spotted on an ordinand’s bookshelf. How delighted I was to read in his introduction to Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Daniel Migliore’s “Authentic faith is no sedative for world-weary souls, no satchel full of ready answers to the deepest questions of life. Instead, faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as they are, and continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, our world, and ourselves … When faith no longer frees people to ask hard questions, it becomes inhuman and dangerous. Unquestioning faith soon slips into ideology, superstition, fanaticism, self-indulgence, and idolatry …” So there’ll be some good people shaping up at Mirfield then. Future priests with their eyes and ears wide open.
And the Spirit of God hovers over the abyss today as yesterday. Blessed be God.