I've only two years left before retirement but the Church of England into which I was ordained is not the same church todayIs it optimism or faith, or both, but I’m rather glad the Church isn’t the same as the one into which I was ordained 31 years ago. I can’t as a Church historian think of any age in which somebody could have said the Church of thirty years ago hadn’t changed in ways that mattered. Certainly not the first century, or fourth, or sixteenth.
I’ve taken a quick flick through some paperback commentators about the Church Bishop Benn seems to wish he were in, including Nick Earle’s What’s wrong with the Church? (1961). Here were the things he thought had to change in 1961:
- Growing out of being the Tory Party at Prayer and engaging with society in a less hidebound way.
Good Story: We have. Faith in the City was one major turning point. And the current mood music from government implies that many of them have had enough of mindless secularism as the only way to engage with religion in the public square. I rejoice that the Church is very much more diverse, though it faces major internal anti-discriminatory challenges.
Bad Story: the pain of having to climb down from Imperialism and Monopoly has exacted a cost of it own. Faith is the opposite of, not a higher form of, nostalgia.
- Growing away from financial dependence on endowment income, and providing pensions for the clergy as well as looking after the buildings. Good story: Another Job done. C of E giving has mushroomed since the eighties and our diocese is now financially self-supporting, thanks to a revolution in generosity. Buildings are in better nick than ever, but pose great challenges. Retirement is now possible, and pensions have come in, albeit recently downsized.
Bad Story: How do we, as a voluntary organisation, prevent ourselves becoming financially driven and keep aligned with basic Gospel values?
- Opening the “Parson’s Pleasure” clerical caste, freeing up ministry
Good Story: Much progress on this in terms of access and, since 1989, female colleagues whom God has called and gifted and who enrich the life and witness of the Church immeasurably by their love, prayer and dedication. They reach places the old fashioned public schoolboys club that was clergy chapter back in the seventies never did, and have helped develop a more realistic picture of servant ministry to replace old romanticism.
Bad Story: We are still too obsessed with clergy — “Lay ministry” often means getting lay people to be clerical, rather than fulfil their calling in the community by being what they are particularly called to be, beyond the walls of the Church. Also, we have a new challenge to use new HR tools to secure justice and the common good, but preserve a sense of calling.
- Stopping pretending and obsessing about sex (in 1961 contraception and divorce) Good Story: Some real progress in the Church and the culture. Contraception has happened. The Church always did marry divorcees before 1925, and having to confront all the hypocrisy of pretending it didn’t, however painful, has delivered us to a potentially more honest place.
Bad Story: Society at large is all messed up over relationships and we, who live in this society, share the pain and damage the arises from this. One thing’s for sure, though. Hypocrisy wasn’t the answer. We are in some ways more fearfully childish and obsessional about gay people than we were n 1961, when everything was safely in the closet.
- Getting real about other Christians, by allowing inter communion and engaging with other faiths
Good Story: The structure is there for inter communion, and the rise of Charismatic spirituality and non-denominational churches have blessed everyone greatly in unexpected ways. Past Imperialism and exclusivism are not entirely dead, but largely possible to see for what they are now. The Church has begun to seriously de-institutionalise and become more like a movement, trying to model its life more on energy than power games.
Bad Story: There’s been a loss of optimism and confidence about who we are and what we’re doing there, and the whole challenge of being traditional rather than reactionary, which we don’t always handle well.
On balance, I thank God the Church is not as it was in the seventies because, however improbably, I do believe the journey we are on is his journey not ours and we are now thirty years’ march nearer home. But make no mistake. The Church is always called to change. Some change is good, some less good, but you only know which when you step out in faith and do it — what one of my college tutors used to call the Jewish rowing-boat view of history. That’s why we’re in God's hands not ours. The disciples in Luke 9 only discovered the resource to go out two by two out there, when they did it — what Jesus called travelling light, without excess baggage.
Jesus Christ, risen, ascended, glorified does not change, and the result is we are resourced to live and witness in a changing world without pretending! The reason the Cross is static, one for all, and our whole vision secured by an eschatalogical vision, is that this creates a liminal space in which we can live responsively in the world God has given us, always in the end times. In this zone the life of the Church is endlessly dynamic. The ark is secured not by being anchored to the sea bed, but by the Holy Spirit, as it interacts with the world.