Wednesday, 21 November 2012

So, Farewell then, Church of England

Letter from Littlemore No. 27 Wednesday, 21st of November 2012 So, Farewell then, Church of England Dear Friends, Some years ago there was a hugely entertaining cover on the periodical magazine Private Eye with the heading “Women Priests – Yes, It’s No” and a photograph of two newly ordained bishops camply holding hands with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, on the steps of a cathedral, with the speech bubble “who needs women priests when they’ve got us?” If memory serves – and I am too old to believe that it often does – the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was against, had voted for, because they’d won the argument, and the Archbishop of York, who was for, voted against, because he didn’t think the time was right. The General Synod had done its evil mischief then, as it has this last week, leading some of us to despair of the Church of England. Intransigent conservatism, absurd politics and psychopathic misogyny were allowed to get in the way of theology and good governance – not to mention the more important and vital matter of the calling of many good and faithful women to serve their church as ordained clergy. It was dismaying then (although later the Holy Spirit’s call to women to serve within the Church as priests was admitted) as it is dismaying now, for those of us who would wish women with the right gifts and skills to be ordained to the episcopate if and as and when it is right and fitting for them to do so. It is hard to convey just how awful this feels to me. I don’t know any women who want to be bishops – although I know several who could do the work well and with immense distinction – but that isn’t the point. The point is a much more personal one. I was doing the sums this morning and it seems that for twenty-four years I have watched the Church of England abuse, dismiss, disdain, and vilify, people I love, people who wanted nothing more than to serve God within its hallowed portals, and in his name to serve the people of this country according to the ancient tradition of Anglicanism, the English church, for all the people of this land. And I’ve been one of them. For years, I only stood up to the hierarchy in private – often in no uncertain terms that they found challenging and shocking. And it got worse. Then I started to do it more publicly, in the newspapers, and on the telly and radio. And it got worse. Now I have nowhere to go, because I simply do not believe any longer that it will get better. Several years ago I said as much to Rowan Williams, the present but soon-to-retire Archbishop of Canterbury, and he agreed. It will not get better. So, my time with the Church of England is at an end. I am, will always be, an Anglican to my fingertips. It’s a way of worshipping, of thinking about God, of turning belief into action, that is entirely natural to me. I didn’t grow up with it, it found me, long years ago, when I was an undergraduate, in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, at evensong each day, and at our little 9 a.m. College Holy Communion services every week. Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, not to mention the whole created order, all helped me on the journey. They made sense of the God I knew was there but whose presence I didn’t know how to honour. So I am forced to a new way of being. I can’t become a Catholic because the claims of the Papacy are absurd (those born in that tradition never have to think about it, and, I find, don’t really think it’s very important); I can’t become a conformist of any other kind. Orthodoxy has its theological charms, but with its attitudes to gay people and women priests, well, that’s not really a promise of a welcome haven. I hope my friends, the Sisters of the Love of God at the Convent of the Incarnation here in Oxford will continue to invite me in to celebrate Holy Communion with and for them. I have no intention of resigning my Holy Orders, as, in the words of the lovely old song “they can’t take that away from me”. But I have became an Anglican without a church, as my own church - not the parish church here in Littlemore which has always been kind and accepting - but the wider institutional Church of England has wandered too far from its own path to be credible any longer. I have felt more at home in the last decade or so with Anglicans in the USA and in Brasil than in my own country. Jumping ship feels like a cowardly thing, but I hope in over twenty years of being faithful to the Church of England, in its mission, in ministry, in worship, preaching, and teaching, I have done the best I could, and not always in the best of circumstances. Tomorrow I will be sending letters to Archbishop Rowan (who once gave me and my first partner a temporary home at Oxford long years ago), and my diocesan bishop, my PCC, my MP, and the chairman of the Parliamentary Ecclesiastical Committee. The spirit of agitation is deep in my soul and I will not let up being a thorn in the flesh of those in power. But 26 years since my confirmation in Christ Church Cathedral on S. David’s Day 1986, by Bishop Patrick Rodger, who was himself confirmed there at the same stage of his own time as an undergraduate, it is time to part company with a church I can no longer respect nor defend. Maybe a new journey begins. I doubt they will miss me; but I shall miss them. With love Richard

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