One of my jobs this week has been reading a lot of papers for Diocesan Synod. Usually this is not the most gripping of tasks. This time, along with many of the usual agenda items, were three items of interest, about women and the church, a draft anti-racism policy and reports of the progress of the Living in Love and Faith process. Reading all three sets of papers together shows clearly what is going wrong with church today.
All three sets of papers, read together, show three very different strategies to solve the same issue and with no co-ordination or coherence. Each of these three groups has experienced significant marginalisation by the church – and apologies by the Archbishop of Canterbury – but each group is being seen and treated very differently.
Each of the three reports contained varying amounts of theology, of varying relevance and calibre, but there was a complete absence of even an acknowledgement of the lack of an underlying, encompassing theology of the church and marginalised groups. Until the church does that theology, then each group that experiences marginalisation, and there are many, many more than these three groups, will be vulnerable to being excluded from full participation in the church.
Briefly, the church is treating these three groups in very different ways:
Women are allowed to be ordained to all levels of the church. Some people disagree with this. The church response is that special arrangements have been made for those who object to the ordained ministry of women – the Five Guiding Principles – available to view at:
(Finding a list of these on the church of England website was not straightforward).
This settlement allows women to be ordained as bishops but also settles an equal integrity for those who disagree and do not accept the ordained ministry of women or insist on male headship. Both ‘sides’ are expected to ‘mutually flourish’ and extra bishops like the bishop of Maidstone are in place to minister to those who do not accept women’s ordained leadership.
Race, people of any and all ethnic backgrounds are full members of our churches and at all levels of leadership, including bishop and archbishop. Some people disagree with this. The church response is that racism is always wrong and needs to be rooted out of the church. Targets are to be set for more participation of BAME people, especially in leadership and ordination. There is a recognition of past failures and a need for work on ‘othering’ and inclusion.
LGBTQ+ people are tolerated in church. In theory they can be promoted to high office, but in practice they only get promoted to bishop etc if they keep quiet and hide their sexuality. LGBTQ+ people can get ordained, but have to agree to be celibate for life if they do so. LGBTQ+ clergy can enter into a civil partnership (legally the church cannot stop them) but will lose their license if they enter into a same sex marriage. Trans people can get ordained and can get married in their acquired legal gender, but there is a clerical optout to such marriages. Some people disagree with this. The church response is meaningless apologies and lots of long grass. Despite significant evidence of the real harm being done to LGBTQ+ people by conservative attitudes and behaviour in the church, there is a lot of talking, even more ‘listening’ and precious little action. Spiritual abuse and outdated theology are not addressed.
Three different approaches – for women both sides are equal and the settlement has to be honoured no matter the cost, for race the pro equity side is always right and everyone who disagrees is likely to be accused of racism, for LGBTQ+ people toleration at best and abusive attitudes and practices are not addressed.
Jesus was not this inconsistent; He had a bias for the poor and marginalised and took their side against oppressive church authorities. Mark 7.1 – 23 is almost a case study for Jesus supporting the oppressed and marginalised against the religious leaders.
‘In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’ v 7- 8.
That is what we are seeing, human tradition being passed off as divine commandment. As a church we need to learn the lessons of liberation theologies and do the theology of what Jesus actually taught and lived. We need to have a worked-out theology of the church and marginalised people. We need the Bible’s teaching on the abuse of power and privilege to make sure that all people are included in God’s kingdom and in God’s church. That means there is a lot of work still to do and a lot of precious traditions to challenge and discard. We need the missing theology so that all God’s children have an equal place in the church.