A Better Story: thinking about the Church of England Evangelical Council’s “Gospel, Church and Marriage – Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life”

When I visited New Zealand in 2017, I was struck by how often the phrase ‘edge of the world’ was used. Kiwis used the phrase affectionately of their place on the planet (see here for more information on this image). In her powerful inaugural sermon as Bishop of Ripon, Helen-Ann Hartley – until recently Bishop of Waikato in New Zealand – used this image forcefully as she drew together her experience in New Zealand and her move to North Yorkshire, quoting Harrogate author Rob Cowan – who was, apparently, in the cathedral with his family.

Using Common Ground, Rob’s account of a place on the edge, Helen-Ann talked about places on the edges of communities and how they can become common, shared land. Earlier in the day I had been reading the Church of England Evangelical Council’s (CEEC) statement on Gospel Church and Marriage – Preserving Apostolic Faith. It struck me how like a series of villages the Church of England is. Tight communities, where we stay at the centre of our encampments; and I wondered how we could find safe places to meet, common ground.

The other image that came to me during the sermon was of the bishop as pontifex, literally, bridge. We tend to be rather fixated on the idea of bishop as “focus of unity”. This always makes me think of the spokes of a wheel holding the hub in place. A passive sort of episcopacy that reduces ministry to holding tensions in balance. Bridge building, finding common ground on the edge, is pioneering and dynamic.

The statement has a particular intention, to describe what the consequences of certain actions (unspecified) might be. I don’t really want to concentrate on this. The statement because of its purpose isn’t intended to be a comprehensive review of apostolic teaching on marriage or sexuality. Coincidentally in the last week I have been having my second read of Glynn Harrison’s book A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (IVP, 2017). I think I’m right in saying that a copy was sent to every member of General Synod last year. It is a fascinating read and I hope to comment on it in more detail at some point. It makes a good commentary on the CEEC statement which is itself only six pages long.

When debates become polarised it is hard not to be driven into one of the opposing camps. It is even harder to listen to what God might be saying through the ‘other’ camp, to hear the voice that is lost to us because of the polarisation. I think that is why edgy episcopal ministry is so important and I was so heartened by Helen-Ann’s sermon.

The first thing to note about the document is that is is graciously written and utterly immersed in Scripture. The vocabulary is profoundly Christian. I think that there is a lesson to be learned by those seeking a more inclusive approach. It would be hard to imagine language such as ‘submission’ and placing ourselves under the ‘rule of Christ’ among those seeking to be more inclusive. Yet there is no reason that it shouldn’t. Radical inclusion will only be truly Christian if it is so because it is the will of God, if it is what Jesus calls us to.

The statement recognises that we are fallen and in need of salvation. “The Gospel shines into the darkness of our fallen hearts and cultures, and gives us the transforming knowledge of God’s mercy and grace in the face of Jesus Christ.” It recognises that we are called “away from idolatry, injustice and immorality”. I think this is so important. One of the things that has shocked me in recent months is descriptions I have read of Love Island. A programme that not only encourages casual sex but publicises it. We all know that pornography is too easily accessible and read horror stories of the number of young people watching it. In one school I worked in a colleague had to try and identify the six Year 10 boys filmed while a female pupil performed oral sex on them in turn. The world so desperately needs “the life-changing goodness of [Christ’s] ‘amazing grace’”.

There is a strong and deeply biblical section on grace, and a wonderful sentence reminding us that “In establishing Christian communities the apostles … did not teach doctrine without discipleship, faith without formation, or grace without godliness.” We talk a lot of discipleship. With my educational preference for teaching that is knowledge based, rather than simply experiential, I value this call to link discipleship with doctrine, formation and godliness. We don’t talk nearly enough about how our lifestyles should be different because we are Christians.

The next section highlights the special gifts of marriage and singleness. The marriage section is strong, as we might expect, but could have been more. Working with young people I have always struggled to know how to promote marriage as a vocation. So many young people have no direct experience of lifelong marriage in any members of their family or friends. It is hard to praise marriage without sounding critical of their own families.

It is the section on singleness that I think is stronger, Again, this is desperately needed in a culture which imagines that to be a single is a failure. Finding ways to celebrate singleness, and include single people in friendship and fellowship, is an essential part of church life. I especially like the eschatological understanding of singleness as “an opportunity for faithful and sacrificial dedication to ‘the Lord’s affairs’ and for demonstrating an embodied longing for the ultimate marital union of Christ to His Church (Rev. 19:6-9).”

The authors adopt the language of radical inclusion : “We, in the church of Jesus Christ, are called to welcome, and offer God’s saving grace to, everyone—whatever their sexual history, identity or behaviour—thus manifesting the radical inclusivity of the gospel by which ‘God our Saviour wants all people to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:3).” And recognise that all are sinners and called to repentance and conversion.

The final sections outline the groups’ concerns about possible actions or decisions of the Church of England and the consequences that it feels are necessary if such actions were taken.

I have been arguing for much of the last week for unity (with the Methodist church) and recognising what cost, I think, we should bear, not just to seek, but to demonstrate unity. It would be impossible for me not to stare the CEEC’s document in the face and ask myself what is worth this cost of possible future disunity – not a question I am going to answer here. As the authors themselves state, “Going forward, we need to consider together the implications of our differences for our life together.” This is important if we are really to be a radically inclusive church. I have no problem praying fervently the prayer with which the report finishes:

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever’ (Eph. 3:20-21).

Almighty God, who built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,

with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone:

so join us together in unity of spirit by their doctrine,

that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.”

I agree with most of what CEEC have to say. There is vastly more common ground than difference. I believe that in them God reminds us of many deep things in our tradition which we need reminding of: to remain faithful to biblical language, to celebrate and rejoice in the kingdom gift of singleness and to live lives of constant repentance recognising the fallenness of our natures, perhaps more vulnerable in our sexuality than in any other area.

I hope that Glynn Harrison won’t mind me borrowing his title for this post. There is a better story and that it will involve going to the edge, finding the common ground.

Helen-Ann quoted part of this section from Rob Cowan’s book:

“Once upon a time the edges were the places we knew best. They were our common ground. Times were hard and spare but the margins around homesteads, villages and towns sustained us. People grazed livestock and collected deadfall for fuel. Access and usage became enshrined as rights and recognised in law. Pigs trotted through trees during ‘pannage’ –the acorn season from Michaelmas to Martinmas –certain types of game were hunted for the table and heather and fern were cut for bedding. Mushrooms, fruits and berries would be foraged and dried for winter; honey taken from wild beehives; chestnuts hoarded, ground and stored as flour. The fringes provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not, these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature. Feet cloyed with clay, we oriented ourselves by rain and sun, day and night, seasons, the slow spinning of stars. Humans are creatures of habit: we all still go to edges to get perspective, to be sustained and reborn. Recreation is still re-creation after a fashion, only now it occurs in largely virtual worlds. Clouds, hyper-real TV shows, 3D films, multiplayer games, online stores and social media networks –these are today’s areas of common ground, the terrains where people meet, work, hunt, play, learn, fall in love even. Ours is a world growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge. It is one of breadth, shallowness and the endless swimming through cyberspace. All is speed and surface. Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense, at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all of this. And it felt vitally important. You see, I still believe in the importance of edges. Lying just beyond our doors and fences, the enmeshed borders where human and nature collide are microcosms of our world at large, an extraordinary, exquisite world that is growing closer to the edge every day. These spaces reassert a vital truth: nature isn’t just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is in us. It is us.”

If we lose the edges in our Anglican world we will lose something vital and connected, our common spaces. Our Anglican differences and varieties are not just an eccentric oddity, it is in our DNA, “It is all around us. It is in us. It is us.” It is where we go, “to get perspective, to be sustained and reborn.”

Common Ground, Rob Cowan, Hutchinson

There is a very good Yorkshire Post article by Rob here.

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