Rachel Treweek calls us to approach the five guiding principles outlined by the House of Bishops with hopeful imagination
‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15.5).
In recent years there has been a constant refrain that it is impossible to square the circle of our different theological convictions regarding the ministry of bishops and priests. And indeed it is. In many of our attempts to find a way forward regarding women in the episcopate we discovered that as soon as those with one theological conviction created a neat legislative right angle, the theological conviction of someone else caused the straight lines to curve again.
We now have a way ahead and the blessing of the five guiding principles outlined in the House of Bishops Declaration is that they are not about a neat fit. Rather they stand as boundary markers framing a space with a perimeter made up of various curves and angles. Together we are committing to inhabit this space as followers of Jesus Christ, carrying different theological views about priesthood and the episcopate. No one is being asked to affirm theological convictions which they cannot support with integrity, but we are all being asked to affirm that the landscape is as it is, with all its mess and paradox, and to have the courage to live with our differences.
Our shared life
If we see the five guiding principles as a way of saving the Church of England then I believe the next chapter will be marked by anxious hearts and fearful footsteps. There would be a tendency to revert continually to forensic problem-solving and a real danger of never venturing beyond the ‘but’. We need to take hold of the truth that death and resurrection dwell together and that our shared life in the Church of England is about joining in with what God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is doing in saving the world. With this as our lens, I believe we can approach the five guiding principles with hopeful imagination.
Alongside the vocabulary of squares and circles there has also been frequent use of the words flourishing, trust and respect. These are not code for polite tolerance. ‘Flourish’ is a word often used by gardeners and the image is one of buds, blossom, leaves and fruit with the strong implication of growth and health. There is nothing in the word ‘flourish’ which implies simply keeping something alive. Therefore, if I am committing myself to the flourishing of those whose theological convictions I am unable to accept, it must mean more than a tacit acknowledgement of their existence. To desire the flourishing of others is to desire that we collectively abide in Christ, the true vine, and that we all bear fruit together.
Walking towards one another
One of our problems has been that we have become all too adept at seeing people as part of a group which is a faceless ‘them’ – people who are merely an embodiment of certain theological convictions. Yet the truth is that this is about unique individuals created in the image of God who are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. When the person who is different from me is a stranger, then I can choose to attach all sorts of assumptions to who they are and how they act. Furthermore, when people stand in places of difference, the natural tendency is to retreat from one another. The guiding principles invite us to walk towards one another. Herein lies the potential for trust and respect to take root and grow. Therefore, one of the key questions we each need to ask is whether we are committed to building relationship with those who hold different theological convictions from our own. To answer no’ is to defy Christ’s imperative to abide in him and to love one another. To say ‘yes’ is to commit to relationship, and that is something which has to be lived.
As a female archdeacon I have already experienced some of what is possible. Like others I have numerous stories to tell of mutual engagement with those holding different theological convictions, including those under alternative episcopal oversight. In conversations with individuals, in appointment processes, and parish visitations involving PCCs, there has been opportunity for personal relationship to develop and strengthen. I endeavour to be explicit about my intention to avoid polite pretence, acknowledge our theological differences and encourage mutual support as we seek to follow Christ and grow his Church. I count some of these encounters among my most significant experiences of God’s grace and glory.
Despite the centrality of the Eucharist for the unity of the Body of Christ, we are often most aware of our theological differences in our corporate liturgical celebration of the sacraments. For example, for some people their participation in a Eucharist will be affected by who is presiding; and when it comes to future services of consecration and ordination, some people have questions which will affect their ability to engage. Even if the issue of gender is removed from the discussion, we are well aware that when we gather together across the spectrum of traditions to celebrate the Eucharist (a.k.a. the Lord’s Supper, Mass or Holy Communion) our understanding of the sacrament differs and we live the liturgy in different ways, which can provoke feelings of unease or, at worst, disdain.
Our starting place
I am certainly not advocating that we avoid sharing in the Eucharist together – indeed we need to continually express our unity in Christ by doing so; but I am suggesting that it is probably not the best starting place for building trust and respect. I suggest a better one is our unity as those sent out into the world as baptized disciples of Jesus Christ – the truest meaning of ‘Mass’. Thus rather than continually looking at what these five principles will mean for our life together on the ‘inside’ of the Church, we can use our hopeful imagination to explore ways of participating together in sharing the good news of Christ and contributing to the common good – for example, the inspiring work of churches across all traditions uniting in the provision of winter night shelters or foodbanks. Such partnership in addressing gospel imperatives creates opportunities for the deepening of relationship which inevitably strengthens people’s resilience when it comes to living the tensions of our internal church life.
With hopeful imagination we can cultivate intentional invitation. It is easy to focus on what we won’t allow each other to do or what compromises our integrity, but hopeful imagination looks for the opportunity to live the ‘with’ rather than the ‘can’t’. Hopeful imagination recognizes the brother or sister with different theological convictions and asks ‘what can I intentionally invite them to participate in?’ This is not about patronizing others or ticking boxes; rather it is about our hopeful imagination spurring us on to be proactive in inhabiting the landscape with authenticity.
How might worshipping communities with different theological convictions have hopeful imagination to work together on outreach projects? Or how about relationship deepened through sport or singing or art? Or by focusing on discipleship as a starting place, how might people who hold different theological convictions support and encourage one another in living out their Christian faith among the people and places of their week? For example, prayerful and social support between people from different worshipping communities who occupy the same profession or who are all carers or who are seeking employment, etc. The list is endless.
With hopeful imagination, leaders in every diocese will creatively seek ways to include people from all traditions across the range of decision-making bodies; and priests, bishops and vocation advisers will choose to be active in encouraging vocations even among those who hold different theological convictions from their own.
Where a PCC has requested alternative episcopal arrangements, what imaginative opportunities exist for the diocesan bishop to participate in the parish in ways which are not divisive? And how can the diocesan bishop and those bishops to whom s/he delegates certain responsibilities, participate together in particular events or tasks?
Whilst I do not believe that it is either imaginative or hopeful to always have the same episcopal post occupied by one tradition, I trust that hopeful imagination will mean that the College and House of Bishops continually reflects the diversity of theological conviction regarding, amongst other things, the ministry of bishops and priests.
Risk and conflict
As we dare to live with hopeful imagination we need to allow one another to take risks knowing that sometimes this will inadvertently provoke anger or offence. This is where gifts of generosity and graciousness come in. At these stress points, we need to talk, not retreat. Trust and respect are not about polite niceness, they are about authentic love of neighbour which includes honest conversation and gracious challenge.
It is good that the appointment of an Independent Reviewer is part of the new territory, yet I hope that wherever possible we will endeavour to work out our differences in direct relationship. In conflict it is often tempting to appeal to the intervention of a third party rather than choose the courageous path of human encounter with those with whom we disagree. Increasingly we need to accept the reality that conflict is a normal part of life on earth. What matters is how we handle it.
Lifting our eyes
Above all, this new landscape needs to be lived with daily acknowledgement that the Lord is God. ‘It is he that made us and we are his people and the sheep of his pasture’ (The Jubilate). Unless we humbly grasp the truth of our mortality and the grace and glory of God to whom one day we will each be accountable, we will find our eyes gazing downwards as we anxiously focus on the futile management of a declining institution. Our calling is to lift our eyes and amidst all our brokenness and failings to be the hope-filled Church of England which is seeking to join in with what God is doing in growing the Church and establishing his Kingdom. ND