Gerry O’Brien says ‘Opportunity knocks’

What are the prospects for two thousand and five – or twenty-oh-five if you have read your BBC pronunciation handbook? It rather reminds me of the story of two American sales reps who met up shortly after the last war at a hotel in the Solomon Islands. They were each there to secure orders for their company’s shoes and on the last night of their visit they were having drinks in the bar. It emerged that each had sent a telegram to his company earlier in the day reporting on the prospects. ‘What did you say?’ asked one rep to the other.

‘Well, I said that nobody on the islands wears shoes. There’s no demand, so we can forget about selling anything here. Quite depressing, isn’t it? By the way, what did you say in your telegram?’

‘I saw it differently,’ said the second rep. ‘I said this is a land of boundless opportunity. Everybody needs shoes here. There is no competition, so send me as many pairs as you’ve got.’

I suppose it boils down to whether you see problems or opportunities as you look into your crystal ball. The Church of England does have an unfortunate penchant for failing to see opportunities, being unwilling to face up to problems and hoping that if we bury our collective heads in the sand then pressing issues will simply go away or evaporate.

I doubt that my list of issues will be comprehensive or exhaustive, but here is my list of issues to address in 2005.

Firstly, we have a gospel to proclaim. Do we have the stomach for the task of offering shoes to the unshod? Do we have the determination to so use our influence and to so order our affairs that this task is facilitated rather than impeded? The Government’s proposed bill against religious hatred poses serious problems which the Bishop of Manchester did not seem to have grasped when he supported the bill in the House of Lords. The Barnabas Trust, in contrast, has expressed grave reservations.

Given that Christians assert that Jesus was the Son of God and Muslims assert that he was not, then both cannot be right. Would a preacher be allowed to argue that Muslims are completely mistaken on this very basic issue without being accused of being disrespectful to their founder and inciting religious hatred. The Bible doesn’t mince its words about people who refuse to acknowledge Jesus for who he is, so should we allow ourselves to be coerced to be unfaithful for fear of giving offence? Unfortunately the gospel is offensive to non-Christians. If it were not, then Jesus would not have finished up on a cross.

Next, the Prince of Wales may announce an intention to get married. Should he do so, what criteria would the Church use to decide how to respond? Would it be better for the Supreme Governor of the Church of England (which he may one day become) to be in a married relationship rather than perpetuate the present situation? Should we be more exercised about a Supreme Governor who has indicated a wish to defend faith rather than ‘the faith’?

Then there is the Mental Capacity Bill, which some fear could usher in euthanasia by the back door. It does seem rather strange that it was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, rather than an Anglican dignitary, who was apparently negotiating secret deals with the government. The Christian Medical Fellowship joined the chorus of protest, but where was the Church’s voice? The Bishop of St Albans wrote to The Times welcoming the thrust of the Bill and saying that it ‘broadly satisfied the Church of England’s concern’. One can only hope the Bishops will find a more suitable spokesman when the Bill is before the House of Lords.

The Windsor Report shows the gulf that lies between various strands of Anglicanism. It is, to say the least, unhelpful that some of those who have gone out on a limb seem unwilling to listen to others or to heed their entreaties. If the coming year sees formal divorce proceedings between them and traditional Anglicans around the globe, the burning issue will be which side of the divide the Church of England comes down on. On past form it would not be surprising if we tried to sit on the fence for so long that we were eventually torn in half along the perforations. Meetings of the English House of Bishops and then the Primates will set the die, but the omens for compromise and unity are not good.

The Rochester Report will fuel debate on the vexed question of women bishops. There will again be those who will put greater weight on their personal wishes than on the unity of the Church. There will be many who find grounds to assert that God’s views coincide with their own. Some may seek to change their views so that they coincide with their best understanding of God’s views.

One has to admit that it would be hard to make a case that women presbyters have been ‘received’ by the Church. After ten years, the level of opposition has been sustained. The number of parishes passing the resolutions is increasing inexorably. The price for women presbyters was resolutions and flying bishops. The price for women bishops would almost inevitably be a free province. In that event, none of us would have the option of remaining in the Church of England as we know it. We would be faced with a choice between a grouping that was more liberal and a grouping that was more conservative. The broad church of Anglican toleration would be gone for ever – and is that what we really want?

Finally we have a Gospel to proclaim, which was where I started. The time for excuses and non-performance is over. An African bishop told his clergy in 1999 that by Christmas Day that year he expected them all to bring Jesus a millennium birthday present of ten new converts. He then expressed his intention to celebrate the millennium by planting ten new churches. In fact he planted fifteen.

Can you imagine the consternation in vicarages up and down the land if the Archbishop of Canterbury called for ten new converts per parish in 2005? The thought that when Jesus told us to go and make disciples he actually meant it, would be electrifying. For those who have forgotten the Gospel, or never knew it in the first place, it might stimulate a flood of applications for early retirement. It would however show the Church and the World that we mean business. Go for it, your Grace.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He currently represents the Diocese of Rochester (and hopes to continue to do so after the elections next autumn).