Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Lack of Vision threatens the Church of England's Mission

Working as a Press Officer for a Bishop for some six years, I learnt how hard it is to get some things (good news) into the press, and how impossible it can be to keep other things (bad news) out of the press.
To share a good news story from the Church of England is remarkably difficult. The press are not interested, it seems, in the good work done by a local church with a project working with the homeless, or developing good relationships with the local mosque. But if a Vicar should stray from the straight and narrow, the gentlemen and ladies of the press are suddenly and immediately on your doorstep, wanting an opinion, a statement, some further facts.  
What would be the truly great story for the Church of England today, to ensure positive coverage on the front pages of all the nationals, and widespread acclaim from all sectors of society? I do have an idea about that – but more of that later. What we do see at the present time is, however, just the opposite.  The dear old C of E has done it again, and got headlines on the TV news and the national press for all the wrong reasons. Some poor bishop (possibly to rule him out of the running for the job at Canterbury) has been handed a brief and told to be the front man for the church’s biggest PR disaster in decades. (I’m tempted to say ‘for the last 500 years’, but someone has already used that particularly inappropriate piece of hyperbole.)
Some commentator on the BBC news even revisited the old cliché that the CofE has been the Conservative Party at prayer. That may have been so when Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister, and perhaps there is a longing for those good old days among some members of the House of Bishops, and more crucially, the mandarins at Church House who have manufactured this particular crisis.
What they do not have as their priority is the Church’s Mission! One of the great ‘rules of thumb’ in Mission, is to know the people you are seeking to address. The Church leadership seems to be failing in this task, and doing so spectacularly and disastrously. So many people around the country have moved on from the moral attitudes of the ‘Brief Encounter’ generation. Friends, neighbours, colleagues, children, siblings, even parents are known to be gay, and are no longer cast out from families and left to commit suicide as was once the case. Instead, they are affirmed, loved, and valued. And if they find that someone special to whom they wish to make a lifelong commitment, there is huge cause for rejoicing and an opportunity for a great celebration which involves everyone. And this is a good thing for us all! Apart from the Church, that is. Like some intimidating matriarch, the CofE is the one person we are urged not to tell of the wonderful love which David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi have found for each other. (The choice of names has no theological significance, unless you choose to give it any.) These are the people who are ripe for the Church’s Mission – people who know love when they see it. We have the opportunity to give that love a name – God’s gift to the world of love. But instead of affirming that love, the Church keeps on reminding us that it’s the ‘wrong sort of love’. The love that can’t be blessed in church, and the love that can’t be called ‘a marriage’ because that would devalue the ‘real marriages’ which have to be between a man and a woman, because they can have babies.
It may come as no surprise that there are many who are hoping for the rapid demise of that aged and manipulative harridan, Great-Aunt Church of England, so that they can get on with their lives in peace.  And I don’t blame them for doing so. The church has for too long been complicit in condemning LGBT people, and it is hard to break such a deeply entrenched behaviour pattern. Perhaps it fears that it will be condemned by its great allies, some of the conservative African prelates in countries where being gay is still illegal (often with the death penalty) or the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been known to bless neo-Nazi groups before sending them out to carry out vicious attacks on peaceful Gay Pride marches, using crosses as weapons to beat up those who seek to demonstrate their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.  
What good news it would be – and guaranteed front page news – if the Church of England were to let go of its deeply held homophobia. There, I’ve said it. The Church of England is deeply, and institutionally homophobic. And it will remain so until it ends its discrimination against its faithful LGBT clergy and laity. Despite the countless times the bishops try to deny it, it remains discriminatory and homophobic. And it MUST change if it is to have any relevance to the many people in the land who have moved on from that irrelevant shibboleth, and accept people for what they are.
So, what would be the great good news story for which the press would give us the sort of coverage reserved for Royal Jubilees?
If the Church of England were to renounce its love of status and fear of progress, and instead sought to reconnect with a more Christ-like call to unconditional love, and to serve all people after the example of the Good Shepherd – then we might regain some of the trust which has been lost by seeming to follow instead the model of an insecure and authoritarian dictator who loves only power, and acts out of fear and not love.
Isn’t it at least worth a try?