Church of England

Safespacing the Church: revising doctrine to suit mental health

Mental health matters, right? Yes, of course it does. And the Church of England is right to focus on this often-neglected area of human flourishing and wellbeing, with speeches in Parliament, reports and motions in Synod, and resources which can make a considerable difference both to the lives of the afflicted and in the guidance of those whose vocation it is to minister pastoral and spiritual care. There’s a fine line between helplessly melting into hell and the noetic revelations of the mystic caught up to the third heaven. Discernment is all.

But something is happening to the sap of Church doctrine which is poisoning the fruit on the branches.

Consider the current furore surrounding the nomination of the Rt Rev’d Philip North as the next Bishop of Sheffield. Neither the full and final authority of the Bible nor the doctrine found in the XXXIX Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer or the Ordinal have been adduced to oppose his election. Indeed, there is no doctrinal or procedural reasoning by which his consecration can be opposed at all. Instead, the articles and petitions against him focus on the grief, shock, anger and denial of women clergy, and their levels of  anxiety and distress: “Even if, as we believe, you are committed to unity and justice as our Bishop,” opponents write, “we do need to ask, for the sake of our mental and spiritual health, for the opportunity to understand how your episcopate would not prove divisive..”

What about Philip North’s mental and spiritual health? What about justice for him? What about his liberation, his equality, and his “radical inclusion”? He has been so assailed and stressed by the campaign opposing his translation to Sheffield that he has been forced to go away:

..taking some time for prayer and reflection on retreat. Having heard the criticisms and concerns, alongside the support and affirmation, he rightly feels he needs to spend time in prayer. He will not be making any public statement or entering into further correspondence at this time. I hope you will allow Philip this space and as such direct any further communication to me until the end of his retreat.

You could read quite a lot between those lines: it is on enforced purdah; he needs space to distance himself from his modernising oppressors. He might be depressed, despondent, even suicidal. Does anyone care? If this had been a woman candidate assailed by traditionalists, we’d have surely heard of the harassment and bullying inflicted by the backward-looking misogynist bigots of Anglican conservatism; those who “sacrilise sexism”, as Martyn Percy put it. But, hey, it’s Phil, he’s a bloke, so that’s okay. And he seems to be heterosexual, too, so no problems with his mental fortitude to cope with intolerant speeches by bigots like Andrea Minichiello Williams.

That isn’t a trite point. When the Director of Christian Concern made a perfectly reasonable, cogent, courteous and scriptural speech to Synod in the recent debate on marriage and same-sex relations, this was how Vicky Beeching received it:

Vicky Beeching - Andrea Williams Synod tweet

Mrs Williams didn’t actually say that: she spoke first and foremost of love; she expounded the gospel, the orthodox understanding of marriage, and the moral foundations of holiness. You may demur over whether sex and sexuality are ‘first order’ issues of salvation, but the ultimate judgment lies with God, and He reveals His will in Scripture, which Mrs Williams preached. You may have been thankful that her three “painful” minutes were cut short, but God’s word is eternal: if sexual immorality is no longer an expression of immorality (for that is what this is about), then words cease to have meaning, and faithfulness is robbed of its spiritual sanity.

The assertion appears to be that there is some correlation between the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and teenage suicides (/attempts). Ergo, orthodox Christian doctrine is inflicting mental torment, chipping away at young people’s sense of wellbeing, and sanity can only be restored if the malignant cause is eradicated or rendered benign. “It is no secret that the negative stance taken by the Church, and so many individual local churches, has a hugely distressing impact on large numbers of LGB people and leaves countless numbers of them living lives of forced secrecy and dishonesty,” writes the Rev’d Steve Chalke, who adds:

Tragically, it is also common knowledge that the resultant anguish and distress often leads to spiritual, mental and physical harm, and in the worst of cases to people making the desperate decision to take their own life.

So the Church is bullying and overbearing: it inflicts anguish and distress and mental harm. Instead of loving and healing, it hurts people, slowly and systematically driving them out of their minds, often to the point and actuality of suicide. The solution, we are told, is for the Church to become affirming of all sexualities, lifestyles and.. well, of whatever is causing anxiety. It must be “radically inclusive”, as the Inclusive Church preaches:

Inclusive church god judges no one

It becomes difficult in this gospel paradigm to discern why people need Jesus at all: there is no sin, no need for the cross, no judgment, no narrow path to salvation. Church becomes the ultimate safe space: no one is judged because no one can help what they are or stop what they are born to do. The Church’s love must be like rainbow-coloured jellybeans – fiz-wiz bright, popping sweet, crazy gooey and fruity dribbles. There’s nothing nasty at all, and certainly nothing that could possibly cause fear, nervousness, anger, frustration, worry or anxiety.

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven‘ (Mt 7:21), says Jesus. Bit stressful, isn’t it? ‘For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified‘ (Rom 2:13), says St Paul. So terribly oppressive. And don’t, whatever you do, talk about sheep and goats: ‘And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal‘ (Mt 25:46). Poor goats. We must include them. It’s an outrageous discrimination; appallingly specieist. The only true mercy is to suspend all moral judgment and responsibility, so these scriptures must be revised.

But instead of revising Church doctrine to suit mental health sensitivities, shouldn’t we be renewing minds to comply with the precepts of God’s holiness? ‘And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God‘ (Rom 12:2). Or is that crass and insensitive? ‘That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness‘ (Eph 4:22-24). Or is that just heaping Pelion upon Ossa?

And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?‘ (Lk 6:46) asks Jesus.

“Because I can’t stop the way I am,” we reply. “So you can’t judge me, or rebuke me, or hurt me, or exclude me. And if you do, there’s a chance I might become psychologically unwell and won’t be able to cope.”

“You wouldn’t inflict that on anyone, would you, Lord?”