It is probably because I am of a certain vintage that often, when I am thinking of a title for a blog post, a song lyric pops into my head. My optimistic last piece on the recent York General Synod was expressed in the song title ‘Reasons to be cheerful’.
This time I am thinking beyond safeguarding issues, and whilst seeking inspiration, my mind dredged up the mature optimism of poet singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who once introduced a song with the explanation: “I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
Perhaps this ought to be the strap-line for the Church of England: if Christ is risen (which He is), there are indeed ‘reasons to be cheerful’, and notwithstanding the follies of intellectualism, party lines and over attachment to our personal foibles, cheerfulness can keep breaking through.
At the York Synod last week, we heard much to lift the hearts. After centuries of exclusion from positions of influence, women are making a huge and positive contribution. All three Estates Commissioners are now female, and their talents in the financial fields have contributed to a remarkably successful period of management of the church’s assets. This has enabled investment in church planting, as the Church Times reports.
£27m is being invested in projects of evangelism in 100 different places, principally in our most deprived communities. Fergus Butler-Gallie was troubled that our evangelism debate was postponed until February, but I hope that news of this projects will softened the blow. Equally encouraging was the fringe meeting presented by our Digital Communications team. They are immensely talented, highly responsive to those who engage with them, and brimming with expertise and imagination. Their role is to take the saving message of Christ to the digital generation, and they are producing thoughtful material and introducing the sincerity and warmth of the church’s best communicators of the gospel to a sector of society which bricks-and-mortar churches simply do not reach. Actions speak louder than words, and this project is about active evangelism.
Although they are not an official part of Synod, the fringe stalls contribute greatly. We rarely sing the praises of the Mothers Union, which is the largest women’s organisation in the world, pioneering evangelistic outreach in all corners of the globe. Next to them you would find the small charity Disability and Jesus, who have launched a wonderful resource for the lonely and the isolated, as so many people with disability are. Already over 1,000 people are praying the Daily Office on their own but within a community which supports each other by online communication, thereby affirming that they, too, are the Body of Christ. This is what modern-day evangelism looks like. They offer liturgy in Makaton sign language for those who can’t read, which is truly innovative and inclusive.
Disability inclusion is a major growth area. Our General Synod sessions are now routinely chaired by people with disability, and that has become unremarkable. That would not have been the case 30 years ago. In order to cascade that down through all layers of the church, a meeting was held at Lambeth Palace last week involving a hundred people from all sectors of the community in order to discuss the essential and relevant mission. Archbishop Justin was on hand to hear and engage.
I sense cheerfulness breaking through.
It was pleasing to hear that our outreach to BAME Christians has succeeded in bringing the number of BAME clergy into line with their representative proportions within the church. That should not be a ceiling or an inflexible measure of successful outreach, but it is a useful metric to note in asking whether the Church of England truly reflects the society it seeks to serve.
The absence of a specific debate on evangelism did not mean that nobody was mindful of it. There are few greater or more passionate advocates of evangelism than Mark Russell, CEO of the Church Army, but while slightly disappointed not to have had the debate this time, he explained to me:
“There were a number of reasons why I had actually asked for the debate to be scheduled in February, but the powers that be decided July was better. I preferred February because I think the debate would be enhanced with ++Justin in the room and he was baptising Prince Louis on Monday. Alongside that, we had been only allocated an hour, and I would have rather gone to the Feb Synod and bid for a longer slot, and finally I have a Private Members Motion scheduled for February on youth evangelism, and I felt the two debates would enrich each other. My fear for this group of sessions was if we got to the evangelism debate, it would have been cut short and a tired synod wouldn’t have given it the attention it deserved.”
I hope it reassures Fergus that the absence of a debate this time is not suggestive of disinterest. There are always many worthy topics which don’t make it through the Business Committee which orders our agendas, and those making the hard choices have a thankless task.
I always find it helpful to go to a fringe group outside my own sphere of knowledge and beyond my comfort zone. Some at Synod last year regretted that the Bishops did not approve a welcoming liturgy for transgendered folk. It was said that the existing materials could be adapted in pastorally sensitive ways, but I never understood why a degree of guiding expertise was a bad idea.
Knowing little of the subject I decided to go to a workshop which included material on the science of intersex, with real theologians and scientists explaining carefully the detail of the matter. I never knew that 2% of the population will have some degree of association with the question, or that some people presenting completely as female but infertile will be chromosomally male. We learned that testosterone in the amniotic fluid during pregnancy creates ambiguous gender signifiers which have in the past been corrected by doctors whose surgical skills exceeded their appreciation of the complexity of the problem. Other complexities present with the onset of adolescence in forms entirely outside the individual’s volition or control. This is about biology, not choice. Stereotypical images disappeared under such knowledge and learning, and the importance of aligning our theology with careful science was plain.
I was surprised to hear St Augustine supporting the importance of Scripture being expounded in congruence with science:
Reckless and presumptuous expounders of Scripture bring about much harm when they are caught in their mischievous false opinions by those not bound by our sacred texts. And even more so when they then try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case ‘without understanding either what they are saying or what they assert with such assurance’.
John Calvin was also castigating those whose theology flies in the face of science and reason, and that too was a real eye opener:
But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth.
Having two such Titans of theology encouraging us to hear and evaluate the science of the subject was encouraging. We did not discuss it on the floor of Synod, but the self-education going on behind the scenes on this and other subjects is impressive, and useful preparation for future debate.
Ordinary people sense that much needs to change in the Church of England before our credibility is restored on various issues. Educating ourselves to enable us to change is as much a contribution to evangelism as anything else. On some issues, the non-believing public are ahead of us because we have failed to bring the rigour of Augustine or Calvin to the debating floor, and so the decision to hold off public debate until we have put in the foundational work does makes sense.
So, all in all, there was much about York to lift the spirits. God was praised, the welfare of his people was considered, the outcasts were welcomed, and our prejudices and sloth challenged.
During the financial debate, the force of nature that is Canon John Spence did his usual run through of the financial report – answering questions, citing tables, page numbers, percentage variabilities between different financial years – all from memory because he has been blind for 30 years. He also tells the best jokes. Nobody embodies what the Church gains from inclusivity more than John. He is also good at promoting honest and healthy debate, and acknowledging future challenges he declared: “No conversation must be off the table.”
I agree. That applies in finance, in safeguarding, in handling tensions between theological understandings and with many other issues. Open respectful discussion is the answer, and not a problem. We have to learn to ‘share the TV remote’, or, to put it more biblically, we must address our differences with Christ-like love one for another, constantly mindful of the challenge of fellowship: ‘How shall we live together?’
So much about this General Synod encouraged one to think that this question is becoming better understood.
Correction (20 July 2018):
The original iteration of this post included some references to ‘transgender’ which have now been corrected to ‘intersex’. The author apologises for any confusion or offence which may have been caused.