Thursday 26 January 2023

How fast is change possible?


The English societal cultural shift towards the acceptance of homosexual sexual activity and then of same-sex marriage has been historically rapid.  Homosexual sexual activity was still a criminal offence in my lifetime (not decriminalised until 1967) and fresh Government restrictions preventing schools and local authorities promoting a homosexual lifestyle were being introduced after I was ordained (1988).  It is striking that progress culminating in legalising same-sex marriage was then achieved by 2013 – the same political party which legislated against promotion of a ‘pretended family relationship’ in 1988 legislated to establish a real family relationship just twenty-five years later.

Now, ten years later, those members of the Church of England’s ‘House of Bishops’ who want to follow this through are in a trap.

First, our doctrinal limits are hard to pin down.  These often have to be deduced from what authorised liturgy (especially the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) and our Canons (a rule book much more limited in size than, say, the very substantial code of the Catholic Church) say.  But it is clear that marriage is explicitly referred to in both as being between a man and a woman.

Secondly, our ability to express fresh developments is circumscribed.  Changes to authorised liturgy or to Canons can only be made by consensual agreement in the General Synod.  The working definition of such consensus is that a majority is needed of two thirds in each of the Synod’s three ‘Houses’ (bishops, clergy and lay people voting separately).  This is the reason, for example, agreement to ordain women as priests and then as bishops came much later in England than in, for example, the Episcopal Church in the United States.

So even if a majority of the members of the House of Bishops have come to believe that homosexual sexual relations are not inherently sinful, that same-sex marriages are a welcome development, and it is politically expedient to progress in speaking and acting on these beliefs (which are, incidentally, three quite different things), they could not begin to act on these convictions by attempting new authorised liturgy or changing the Canons whilst they know the level of consensus does not (yet) exist in all three Houses.

Some voices urge strongly a move towards equal marriage celebrated in church – what the state has been doing for the last decade and some other Christian denominations churches are also now doing.  Some voices urge strongly an explicit recommitment to the position that any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is sinful – the teaching of the church for most of its history.  The House of Bishops latest move is seen by some to be an attempt to split the difference between these two irreconcilable positions – proposing new liturgy to ask a blessing on those who have entered into same sex civil marriage but not proposing any move towards having such marriages take place in church. 

Actually the trapped House of Bishops may simply be moving as far as it can.  There is provision in the Canons which allows bishops to commend liturgy for situations in which no authorised liturgy exists - but such commended liturgy cannot be ‘contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’.  This is what they are doing - although it remains an open question as to how many Christian men or women who have entered into legal civil same-sex marriage will want to seek such a blessing  which, when you look through them, studiously avoid mentioning that such a marriage exists or is possible.

They cannot, as far as I can see, do any more.  This dismays those who wish they would - it flummoxes both Christians in faithful same-sex unions and those in wider more accepting English society.  It delights those who wish they wouldn’t – many believing that the General Synod’s approach to over whelming consensus is an important safeguard against fashion or liberalism.  It is simply what it is - a church which, when it does change, for good or ill, does so slowly.

I mentioned the ordination of women.  I might have it in mind because the official cycle of daily Bible readings brought me to read 1 Corinthians 11 at Morning Prayer today – Paul spelling out that it is self evident to him (in his reading of scripture, reason and tradition) that it is inappropriate for women to pray with their hair uncovered.   Anyway, I’ve just looked things up.  Anglican women were being ordained priest in Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the United States in the 1970s, but, nearly forty years later, 36% of the members of the House of Laity of the General Synod were voting successfully in 2012 to prevent their ordination as bishops.

Meanwhile, I was given a bulb and some instructions by one of Deborah’s friends when I moved house at the end of September.  There has been a lot of change in the four months since and something spectacular is about to happen.

Friday 20 January 2023

What are we after?


What are you looking for?  We were reminded on Sunday that, in John’s Gospel, these are Jesus’ first words: ti zeteite (John 1.38).  What are you after?  Do you know what you want?  Would you recognise it if you found it?

Perhaps the Gospel would be differently encountered not simply as a section of the Bible, nor as a particular biographical sketch, nor as a distinctive theological treatise, but as a separate epic poem entitled What are you looking for?

Towards the death-resurrection climax of the poem the words re-echo.  First those who arrest Jesus and then Mary at the empty tomb are asked Who are you looking for?  This is tina zetite (who rather than what) and then tina zeties (singular rather than plural).

Even at the climax, looking for a rebel to detain rather than for bread, life and light, or for a dead body to anoint rather than for truth, vine and way?

Perhaps I am reading too much into this - certainly the several commentaries on John which have survived my recent retirement down-sizing purge don’t highlight this.

But John the poem-writer had just had John the baptiser say he did not know Jesus until he found him Spirit-touched and Spirit-touching (John 1.34).  Short of that experience, every Gospel-poem moment is charged with Can you begin to know what you might be encountering here?

Meanwhile, here are the Red Arrows practicing over Lincoln - they’ve been particularly active over the last couple of days.

And with it, deep sadness today learning that Traidcraft is going into administration.  My wife Deborah had been active in it all the way from its beginning in 1979 (when she was an undergraduate), attentive to its restructuring and hopes forty years later in 2018/19 (towards the end of her life).

Covid and the subsequent economic climate, the most recent surges in energy and transport costs, and now tightness in consumer spending and unreliability in postal deliveries, are doing for many less vulnerable businesses, and have done for it.

Perhaps its legacy is the culture change of which it has been such an important part, but I grieve for the small suppliers who have now lost a rare outlet.

Wednesday 11 January 2023

An obscure note


I was aware that weddings which take place in Lincoln Cathedral were recorded in the registers of St Mary Magdalene’s church, the parish church which almost abuts the wall around the Cathedral close.  I know this simply because my own wedding is so recorded.

The reason is that the Cathedral, unlike some others, is neither a parish church nor a ‘peculiar’ (that is, territory which does not fall within any parish), so weddings taking place there are taking place within St Mary Magdalene’s parish. 

Actually, the parish boundary runs through the Cathedral, so weddings in the retrochoir at the west end of the Cathedral were recorded in the registers of St Peter-in-Eastgate.

What I had not realised is that the same thing applies to burials.  Part of the Cathedral grounds was actually treated as the parish churchyard.  I was told this when I spotted that a Victorian Alderman is commemorated both on a memorial in St Mary Magdalene’s (which says he was a regular worshipper there) and on a grave stone close to the Cathedral’s  Galilee porch (where he is buried).

But the biggest surprise was then being told rule seems also to apply to burials in the Cathedral’s cloister garth (the grass area within the cloisters).  So I was shown the page which includes the burial of Bishop Edward King there in 1910.  The signature in the right hand column is that of the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

As always, clicking on the picture brings it up bigger.

Monday 2 January 2023

Greetwell Quarry


My Boxing Day walk drew my attention to the way an earlier industrial intrusion into Greetwell parish was not the Lincoln bypass but a Victorian ironstone quarry.  I’d be unaware of it even when living less than a mile from it in 1994-1999.  So walking on New Year’s Day took me all around the scrub and overgrown land until reaching this extensive quarry wall.  The low afternoon late December sun came through and brightened the honey coloured surface.