Re-enchanted Christianity? I don’t think so

Two important and challenging reads from this week. First, in the New Statesman, from Anthony Sheldon’s review of A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond.

Susskind asks the right question – what will replace the dignity work gave? – but falls short on answers. The building of relationships, family, adult education, communities, the arts, sport and volunteering are barely mentioned. Oddly, religion too is dismissed as no longer giving meaning to lives. But in this century there has been an explosion in people searching for meaning in spirituality and religion.

Where are those people going to look for, and find, meaning in spirituality and religion? I’ve given the whole of my working life to the hope that the answer might be: in the Church of England. But how likely is that, I’m now asking myself, when it’s clear to people that the Church of England is more interested in telling them who’s allowed to have sex, than in telling them how they can know and experience God?

And then, in the Church Times, an opinion piece by the pseudonymous Ines Hands, entitled We are failing the next generation of Anglicans.

The loss of confidence in traditional worship stems from the fact that its tenor (solemnity, ceremony, and repetition) has few if any parallels left in modern life. Interpreting this as a barrier to participation, the response has been to adapt the life and worship of the Church so that it more closely resembles life outside the Church.
Certainly, the Church should have its eyes open to wider society. But it is absurd for the worship of the Church to be dictated by what we imagine those outside the Church want. I recently asked a friend, another lifelong Anglican of about my age, whether he expected other faiths to adapt their worship to outsiders. Without hesitation, he said that he would expect no such thing.
Likewise, for change to be dictated by the presumed tastes of children is frankly, bizarre. If children are routinely excluded from the eucharist and other liturgical rites, if the term “all-age” is applied only to patronising forms of worship, what children implicitly understand is that the way adults worship is boring and incomprehensible when they should infer that it is rich and sustaining. All worship is all-age. It is involvement and exposure that breed attachment. We cannot afford to disregard how much children learn from the attitudes that adults – parents in particular – unconsciously enact. If adults have little confidence in, or respect for, traditional worship, then it is already as good as lost.

You never heard of “Messy Synagogue” or “Messy Mosque”, did you? How is it that we have so lost confidence in what we do in church that we have virtually killed the dignity and beauty of worshipping and encountering the Mystery?

What went wrong?

I’m re-reading some of the spiritual and theological titles that have meant most to me over the years of my spiritual journey and ministry, and today I came across this paragraph in A. M. Allchin’s The Kingdom of Love & Knowledge. This was published in 1979, so over 40 years ago:

… the developments of the last ten years, both in North America and Western Europe, have suggested that we are faced with an undeniable spiritual hunger, a renewed thirst for the experienced knowledge and love of God. We observe a desire to rediscover suppressed or neglected aspects of man’s being, his search for the transcendent, his capacity for delight and wonder, for a non-exploitative attitude towards the world around. We see a desire to re-integrate the body into the totality of life, not least the life of prayer and worship. The problems of ecology, the rediscovery of the sacredness of the material world, the nature of spiritual, indeed mystical, experience, these are questions which are alive now in a way in which they were not ten or fifteen years ago.

That spiritual hunger and thirst is just what I’ve tried to convey with the strap line to this blog: Enchanted by God: Looking for a re-enchanted Christianity. Yet 40 years have passed, and it sometimes seems that most of what the Church has done and tried in the mean time, most of its new schemes and initiatives and projects and other good wheezes, have had precisely the opposite effect. They have trivialised the Gospel, dumbed down worship with inane lyrics to (some) new worship songs, managerialised Church structures, tried to make Church ‘relevant’, ‘entertaining’, ‘appealing’ and simply made it look stupid, and generally robbed worship and God of mystery.

The only notable exception I can think of is the ordination of women, which has hugely enriched the ordained mystery, but not yet allowed the dangerous gifts of women to re-enchant the faith.

What went wrong with Allchin’s vision? How can we put things right? If, indeed, it isn’t already too late?

Abuse in the Church of England

If you haven’t yet watched Exposed – The Church’s Darkest Secret, I urge you to do so, right now. Broadcast on BBC2 earlier this week, it will be available on BBC iPlayer for another 28 days. It is harrowing and horrifying viewing, but I would say it’s essential viewing for anyone who cares, and believes that any and all forms of abuse – sexual, physical, emotional, or spiritual – should have no place in the Church of God. They need to be identified, rooted out, offenders removed from office and brought to justice, and above all, victims believed and supported.

The programme examines the scandal of Peter Ball, formally Bishop of Lewes and then Gloucester. In 1993 a young man told the police that, when he was a novice monk, Ball had taken advantage of his own position as mentor and director, to abuse this young man on numerous occasions, forcing him to strip naked together with the then bishop, and submit to physical embraces, beatings, and mutual masturbation.

Ball was arrested and questioned, strenuously denying the allegations, and exercising his right to remain silent. (Why is it that courts of law don’t reckon “No comment” as an admission of guilt, and find the accused Guilty immediately?) One of the most chilling moments is when Ball is asked about the naked beatings, sadly shakes his head and murmurs, “You wouldn’t understand.” Sometimes you wonder whether he ever even knew he had done something evil…

The Crown Prosecution Service told Gloucestershire Police not to prosecute, and Ball accepted a caution and resigned as Bishop. Within two years he had been granted Permission to Officiate again, and was able to minister in churches and as a school chaplain: a clear sign, then, that in spite of his own admission of guilt – that’s what accepting a caution means, for God’s sake – the church hierarchy believed he was the innocent victim of false accusations.

It becomes clear, however, that the pattern of abuse was persistent and long-lasting, going back to the 1970s, and continuing after his short-term suspension and reinstatement. He emerges as a man who loved his position of power and influence. Vain and arrogant, he deliberately courted the friendship of the powerful, wealthy and important. Margaret Thatcher was a frequent host, often inviting him to dinner. Prince Charles was a supporter and admirer, who went on believing long afterwards that Ball was innocent, that “monstrous wrongs” had been done to him by “that dreadful man” who was making accusations. As Bishop of Lewes Ball was a friend and supporter of several of the other notorious paedophile priests in Chichester Diocese, not only colluding with them, but on at least one occasion taking advantage of one of the teenagers who had been groomed, and was being systematically abused, by one of those priests.

Lots of people knew about what had been happening, but they were not important or influential enough to be believed. When a small number of heroic people – the newly appointed Safeguarding Officer for Bath & Wells, and a former detective turned professional safeguarding consultant, and a former victim of clergy abuse – began to investigate, they were hampered again and again by powerful men taking them to task. Sir This and Lord That and Chief Constable or Right Reverend The Other would phone them up and give them a rollicking, telling them that Ball was a wonderful saintly chap, and his accusers were liars, losers, only out to make money out of the situation. The ‘smoking gun’ in the end was the Tyler Report, compiled by the Revd Brian Tyler, a former CID officer and now private investigator. Eric Kemp, the Bishop of Chichester, had instructed Tyler to carry out the investigation in order to defend Ball and discredit his accusers. Instead of this Tyler became convinced that the accusers were telling the truth, and Ball was in fact guilty. His Report seems to have been quietly filed away within Chichester Church House, until this ‘second generation’ of investigators brought it to light.

It wasn’t until 20 years after Neil Todd first came forward, that Ball was finally tried, pleading Guilty to a token number of charges, in order to avoid a longer charge sheet, and was sentenced to 32 months in prison, of which he served only 16. The greatest tragedy was that when the investigations were finally being reopened, Todd could not face the ordeal of being questioned all over again, and forced to relive what he had suffered. He took his own life. Ball was never charged with having indirectly been the cause of his death.

High-up figures in the Church, including former Archbishop George Carey who had spent years telling the police he was ‘unhappy’ about the suffering the investigations were causing to Ball (!), finally admitted they had been wrong, and gave a sort of apology.

Has the Church learned anything from this sorry, terrible story? There are signs it has learned something and is trying harder, but Phil Johnson, a former victim and now a member of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission, says there are still times when he thinks ‘they’ wish he wasn’t there.

And what about me? I found these two programmes disturbing and challenging. I never knew Ball except by reputation. When I heard about the first allegations back in 1993 I didn’t want to believe them, so I didn’t believe them. I suspect that was how many people reacted. But those who were in a position to find out the truth, and to know, should have known better. And I know now that I was wrong, and the present emphasis on caring for the victims of abuse, helping them, trusting them and above all believing them, is the right one. Never again will I grumble about the mandatory safeguarding training we’re required to undergo periodically. Instead, I mean to welcome it and suck every bit of learning from it that I can.

There are other questions I’m sure we should be asking, too. Should a monk really be so ambitious for fame, position, and influential friends and contacts? What about humility, obedience to the abbot, conversion of life, contentment, lack of ambition? Ball and his brother, not content with joining an existing monastic order, founded one of their own: that ought to ring alarm bells. It’s like in the United States where it’s common for men (usually men) who feel called to the ministry to start their own churches, rather than join established denominations, and that has led to numerous instances of abuse, immorality, fraud and loss of faith. Spiritual leaders need to be under authority, under the oversight of superiors, and where that oversight is absent or lacking, it’s all too easy for them to go astray. Where was the oversight over George Carey? Who oversees the Archbishop of Canterbury anyway, and was the lack of any such oversight partially the reason for his terrible misjudgement in the Ball affair? And, how do we disempower the Establishment, which allows the powerful men (usually men) like Sir This and Lord That and Chief Constable or Right Reverend The Other to continue to close ranks, defend their own kind, prevent justice from being done, and victimise the vulnerable and powerless?

Please, do watch these programmes. And weep, and think, and pray, and let your default position ever hereafter be to believe anyone who has the courage to speak about the abuse they have suffered, no matter how powerful or godly their abuser may seem to be.

The Meaning of Life

[Just a taster of my #NaNoWriMo effort this year.]

How fortunate we are to live in times when, faced with difficult questions, we can turn to our digital friends and helpers.

Siri, what is the meaning of life?

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

OK Google, what is the meaning of life?

“The meaning of life, or the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”, pertains to the significance of living or existence in general. Many other related questions include: “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, or “What is the purpose of existence?” There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The search for life’s meaning has produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question…”

(Oh, come off it, Google, you’re just reading from Wikipedia!)

Alexa, what is the meaning of life?

“42”

(Make what you will of these differences between different operating systems, MacOS, Google and Amazon.)

But is it true that contemplating a thing – a blade of grass, a cockroach, a lover’s face – for long enough, will convince you that life has meaning? Without having read his book, I’m attracted by the story of Victor Frankl. He was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, whose experience of some of the worst cruelty and brutality that has ever been inflicted by supposedly civilized human beings upon their fellows, led him to the conclusion that a person’s sanity and even survival in adversity, will depend on their ability to find meaning in their suffering. Man’s Quest for Meaning, he called his book, and with it he developed his concept of logotherapy. In contrast to Nietzsche’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure, Frankl bases his theory upon Kierkegaard’s will to meaning: that the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in human life, is the need to find meaning. I’m guessing that whether it helps us survive or not, may depend on the value of the meaning we find. “Trying to live in harmony with other people” may work better than “42”. Just sayin’…

Language and Mystery

Most people have a favourite psalm or psalms, perhaps one that they have become familiar with at some special moment in their life, or that means a lot to them for some other reason. For many people it might be Psalm 23, just because it’s one of the shortest and best-known. When I was at primary school, many years ago, it was one of the pieces of verse we were encouraged to learn in our English class. (I never learned it: even at the age of 10, I was the bolshy child who wants to learn ‘A Poem of Your Own Choice’, rather than one that the teacher had chosen for us.) Or it might be Psalm 139, at some moment in our lives when it’s especially important for us to learn that God knows us intimately, and values us:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (verses 14-16, ESV)

My ambition is to get to know all the psalms so well, that they are all my favourites for their own unique reason. In the meantime, there are lots that stand out for me. One of the recent additions to my ‘list of favourite psalms’ is Psalm 85. For a number of years, I would say Evening Prayer on Christmas Day, using the Book of Common Prayer order for Evening Prayer. The traditional lectionary lists Psalm 85 as one of the psalms appointed for the day, and I came to love the verses which explain that, in the coming of Christ into the world, God’s mercy was satisfied, and God’s righteousness and justice also.

For his salvation is nigh them that fear him:
that glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together:
righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (verses 9-10)

Whenever I say Psalm 85 in the daily course of psalms, it reminds me of that message about the Incarnation. So I have a great affection and concern for these words. Imagine my dismay, then, when I find that the Psalter used in Common Worship Daily Prayer, and the translation that appears in the New Revised Standard Version, reads

9 Truly, his salvation is near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth are met together, *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other;

Where has that his come from? How has it crept in before the word ‘glory’, when my guess is, it’s not present in the Hebrew? And why does it make such a difference to me, and grate so, and feel that it has taken something away from the meaning of the line?

It’s because there is something about modern translation – in the Bible and in liturgy, too – that wants to over-specify, over-define. By making it crystal clear, what it wants you to understand by the words, it takes away ambiguity, and the possibility of reading different things in the text, from what the translators want you to read. This impoverishes Scripture and liturgy, where it is often the ambiguity of a phrase, its ability to bear many possible shades of meaning, that leads the reader or the worshipper deeper into the meaning and reality of God.

Thomas Cranmer, and the translators of the King James Bible, often had a better sense of this. It wasn’t that they didn’t know the different meanings: what they knew was, that if there were several possible meanings, it wasn’t their job to define any single one as the meaning

Clearly, language is supposed to communicate meaning; but if the meaning of a thing is mystery, then it is mystery that the language ought to convey. That’s one of the reasons why I find some of the more traditional formularies of liturgy and hymnology so much more satisfying than modern attempts to update them.

Impossible Gestures in Worship

Somewhere I remember reading an account of an earnest young curate who caused amusement to his congregation by exhorting them: “Let us take our hearts and look them in the face.”

Apparently this kind of spiritual contortion has now become part of the vocabulary of modern worship songs, too. Today I found myself being invited to sing

All who are thirsty,
all who are weak,
come to the fountain,
dip your heart in the stream of life…

Google Images unfortunately couldn’t find an illustration of this startling feat, so this will have to do instead:

The Shame of American Evangelicalism

Shane Claiborne interviewed in the Church Times, talking about Christianity in the USA:

Evangelicals own more guns than the general population, and 85 per cent of executions happen in the Bible belt. They can be pro-guns, pro-death penalty, pro-military . . . and still say they’re pro-life, because they’re against abortion. For me, being pro-life means ending gun violence, caring for creation, welcoming immigrants, opposing war, declaring that black lives matter, and abolishing the death penalty.

Like he says, they’ve gone a long way from the spirit and the teaching of the guy they call ‘Lord’ and claim to follow.