Tony Delves sets aside the politics of the Manchester Report and asks what sort of response we should make to the challenge it poses to our understanding of being faithful Christians
Frederick Engels once said the quickest way out of Manchester is drink. The Manchester Group offers many choices but not this one! Their Report, though, might excuse us for being driven to it. This is not a criticism of the Group or the Report. It is skilful in its clarity, its economy, its dispassionate and even-handed analysis. It models what is needed now.
So why do I want to reach for the bottle? Partly because the issues and their resolution are so complex. Partly because there is a sort of surgical feel to the choices which makes you realize this is going to hurt! But perhaps most of all it is the absence of vision, promise, hopefulness, which makes you wonder if any satisfactory outcome is possible.
This is not the fault of the Group. Such issues lie beyond their very specific brief, but I would be surprised if their discussions were not animated by those other, bigger, considerations. The Report hints at this in its very last paragraph , ‘The Church of England now faces some very serious decisions. They go to the heart of what sort of church it wishes to be.’
There the Report ends. Here our task begins. We need to take up the challenge of that question, to explain to all who are willing to hear why adequate provision should be made for us, and why it is necessary, desirable and viable. Two tasks for us stand out among all the others: Discernment and Witness.
Discernment means listening for the voice of the Lord and entering his peace. The first is the way, the second the reward. It may sound obvious, but the storms of passion have a way of drowning it. Because in the synodical system politics is so important, there is always the tendency to reduce everything to manoeuvre and calculation.
For all of us, the imminent choices demand a tremendous act of faith. We may appear to others like the Cats Protection League, or a Steam Railway Preservation Society, but we retain the conviction that, in Gods providence, there is purpose in our existence and work to be done for him. Discernment sounds mystical but, like most things spiritual, it is more like hard work!
Recently a petition was sent to the House of Bishops, said to be from up to half of all women clergy. The signatories said they would rather not have women bishops at all at this time if it meant conceding Statutory Safeguards to us. It repays careful reading. The letter speaks eloquently of the depth of misunderstanding which fifteen years or more has done nothing to heal. It also reveals a depth of real personal pain.
Our feelings may be as passionate but not personalized in this way. Listening to these voices, in their own terms, not ours, makes it clear how deep is the present fracture. It is a situation in which dialogue is virtually impossible. This has serious implications for all projections of Special Arrangements, however many variations are produced.
The Report makes clear that this is the time for choices. But on what grounds are the choices to be made? This is as much a dilemma for us as it is for the General Synod and Bishops. One way of advance is to ask in the first instance not ‘How do we solve this problem?’ but ‘How do we respond to Gods opportunity?’ An awareness of gifts helps us to focus opportunity, and it is to our gifted constituency we must witness, on pain of their being lost.
What gifts do we bring? How and where can these gifts best be used now, to his glory? These questions relate to some other basic issues. Firstly, why should the Church ofEngland make any provision for us at all? Secondly, if those provisions inhibit the full and free exercise of those gifts, what does stewardship of them entail?
A contribution ethic
What are we bringing to the Church of England that justifies the insistence on new structures? That is not the point. The point is that we may fairly claim to have been graced in those gifts, which we contribute to the common good. Here is my list.
1. Gifted people – laity, religious, clergy. Within the Integrity there is a wealth of scholarly, pastoral, spiritual and artistic gifts. Can the CofE afford to lose them, and similarly gifted people yet to come?
2. The Religious. It was the Sisterhoods and Communities, of women in particular, who re-established the Religious life in the Church of England. Some say the crisis in vocations to the Religious life means their hour is past. Their history shows a new hour and fresh forms are never far away. Does the CofE value this living tradition?
3. Pastoral skills. Many of ‘our’ parishes are UPAs, our pride and our glory. Our understanding of priesthood, and our rootedness in incarnational theology, still produce an effective priesthood second to none. We have always been good ‘down town and prepared to go there. Does the CofE want us there or not?
4. The Tradition. Our co-ordinates are longer and wider than any other wing of the CofE. Schooled by the Fathers, taught by the wider church, East and West, we have variously opened windows, built bridges, started conversations. Does the CofE want to lose this organic link with wider Catholic Christendom?
5. The Liturgy. This is the centre of our common life. We have an understanding of liturgical life based on scholarship and experience which has benefited the rest of the CofE immeasurably. It matters crucially in ecumenical and mis-siological terms. It is something we do well. As someone has written, ‘The evangelizing power of noble catholic worship should never be forgotten or underestimated.’
We need to talk more, and more widely, about what we as a constituency can bring to the whole, because it is seriously at risk. The loss would be not just a CofE matter, but a needless, self-inflicted wound which fails the Gospel.
The soundest way of resolving our difficulties is, paradoxically, to move beyond them, to ask more searching questions about much bigger issues.
The Manchester Report points the way when it says the Church of England must decide what sort of church it wants to be. There are many answers to this question, but the most vital relate to mission and evangelism. Does the church not need the gifts we are prepared to bring? If so, we must be given the tools.