What’s new?

New? There is nothing remotely new about any of this ‘new agenda’. The policy that this latest clerical cabal wants to push through in our parishes locally is the same policy that they have been trying on us nationally for these last four decades. It has had the results we see. It has emptied the churches, and allowed social devastation nationwide. They have offered us a cup with less and less in it, and amazingly, the English people are less and less interested in it. The clergy and the very few over-seventies are the only people who still do not realise that no one is listening and no one is any longer receiving the great package of Christian discipleship. British families and the nation are in trouble just exactly because this modern clergy has replaced the Gospel and put in its place a perfectly tasteless substitute.  Apart from the current generation of clergy still attempting this same trick, no one is fooled.

Many people have left the Church. Outside the cities, no one is coming into the churches.  Many clergy have left the ministry or gone over to the Catholics or Orthodox. Many of these said clearly that the result of ordaining women would be the end of the Church of England as part of the worldwide catholic Church, in which notionally a Church of England bishop was recognised as a bishop by all other bishops in Roman catholic and Orthodox churches across the world. The Church of England has claimed and hoped that its bishops are recognised as fellow bishops by other bishops of other provinces and churches. The activists for ordained pseudo-priestly ministry did not want to hear this. They did not consider themselves bound to the churches around the world, or to previous generations of Christians who did not appoint women to public ministry. They promoted themselves over all actual bishops, whether of all previous generations of the Church of England or of Catholic or Orthodox churches in other parts of the world. They would rather have the appearance of tradition and apostolic continuity than wait for the reality, which can only ever come by waiting for agreement and consensus.

The question is whether the Church of England is now anything but a sect. The answer we seem to get from the activists of women’s rights is that they don’t care. They don’t feel the force of the question. They don’t feel that sort of loyalty to the whole Church, because they don’t see themselves as inheritors of an unchanging deposit of faith or as its transmitters. They don’t share the awareness that the Church is the community that unlike any other stretches across time, continents and cultures – and yet is always the same. They are people in a hurry, driven by the conviction that whatever worked then, cannot work now. Whatever was, must be abandoned. ‘New’ and ‘change’ appear in their every utterance.

But we must continue to be members of the Church of England in the sense that our parents and grandparents were. These parishes, church buildings, were built by them and handed on by them to us, with the expectation that we will do the same. Those who close churches, lock the prayer books and hymnbooks in cupboards from which they never expect to come out, have been turning the Church of England into a sect. It is the same old Arian unfaithfulness, motivated by a love of power. The Church of England has suffered it many times over the centuries, and eventually and at great cost, overcome and been restored. Of course we must treat these activists with the same respect we treat every other Christian, and always ask them to show us how they claim to be members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Meanwhile, stand your ground, and hold tight onto that altar rail. Our agenda is public worship as public witness, through Morning and Evening Prayer in this and every parish church, and on feast days, in every public square.

Dear Bishop

You are right. We live life together as the Church. We share the gospel. We serve the people of Devon with joy. You have summarised our calling.

We are able to serve the people of Devon because the people of Devon have served us. They passed the gospel on to us. We have the good news, and the worship that expresses it; we have the hymns, prayers, liturgy and we have the churches which are their gift to us, these large three-dimensional witnesses at the centre of every community. What they have given us, we hold out the present generation of Devon. In our worship we tell Devon that the Father of our Lord Jesus has been good and faithful to us for many generations, and that this long discipleship has made us a mutually-accountable, egalitarian, articulate and prosperous society. Each person is called to be responsible to his neighbours and to the next generation. We tell them that when we do not take what all previous generations have given us, we shrink back into a more authoritarian and less equal world and become a dependent, envious, resentful, timid people, afraid to speak and unable to listen to any news that does not affirm our own view of ourselves. When we do not hear the gospel our energies are directed toward ever more spurious forms of self-expression while our society becomes sectarian and totalitarian. The gospel makes us free;   Christian worship defies the powers of the present age and calls us towards a vaster view of humankind. This witness and worship is the one true thing we offer to our neighbours, in Devon or anywhere.

On Saturday evening the Knight family celebrates evensong. We do this publicly, and so it is our act of service to the people of Devon. We sit in the choir and say or sing the canticles, psalms, responses and a hymn. The children read out loud the lessons of the following Sunday morning. Beforehand we talk about the readings and so become aware of our progress though the gospel of Matthew. We pray our own intercessions antiphonally followed by the BCP collects. We say prayers in particular for all in authority, and in particular for those who overstep their authority. We intercede for those who do not pray for themselves, confess their sins as well our own and so we speak on their behalf, which is our priestly office.

There are short intervals of silence between prayers. There is none of the anxious prologues, apologies or playing with the microphone which interrupt every clergy-led service. There is no talk, no nervous attempts at ice-breaking, no embarrassment, no boredom. Since everyone gives the responses, every voice and mind is engaged. Another year or two of this and our children would be capable of saying evensong without a book and without an adult. They will probably have to.

This is our public act for the people of Devon. It takes place in church at the normal evensong time, it follows Common Worship and the Lectionary, and anyone can join. This worship service can expand or change form at different seasons to become, for example open air carol singing around a crib in Advent. We expect to be praying in church porches before long as we increasingly find doors locked.

So you are right. We share the gospel and we live together as the Church. We have two prayers: that we will not be prevented in this, and that we will not always be on our own.

What else can we do?

Dear Interim Priest

Here is what I said in our first conversation. You came to me, of course, in order to find out what my views were. I said three things to you.

The first was that all Christians are witnesses to God and icons of Christ. Each Christian is glad to meet another and recognise in him the image and gifts of Christ. We bear this witness together every time we pray in public in our morning and evening prayer. This service of public witness is as intrinsic to us as our breath, and it is our service to the world. The best we can do for the world is praise God, publicly, and so this is what we do.

The second was that each church needs to receive from all other churches the full packet of holy catholic and apostolic life, and we acknowledge this package when we receive the person who presides for us in the Eucharist. Our church is a faithful witness for as long as it receives what is passed to it by the whole worldwide church, not only contemporary but generations past and future. It receives as gift, not as command, whatever it can recognise from the diocese and national church as faithful. It cannot receive what does not seem to be faithful.

Thirdly I said that worship of God is the public service of our church to the people of our town, our neighbours and our nation. Our service to God is also our service to them. The service begins as we stand and sing a first hymn at the entrance of the Lord. The procession of priest, servers and congregation together form the procession of the Lord coming into the world to dwell with man. The procession comes down the side aisle, up the nave. In this shared act, priest and people represent the drama of God’s advent in this public pageant played out before heaven and earth, before our neighbours in the parish and the nation.

That procession and this service is our act of witness. It is our mission and evangelism, and it is our intercessory and priestly office. The congregation is not inert. We are at work, for our praise and thanksgiving is the ‘Work of God’. We Christians have been offering this public work of praise of God here, according to the panel of names of rectors by the south door, for eight hundred years (and probably some centuries before that).  No one has the authority to alter this.

The whole congregation sets out on this work of God at the start of the service.  When you, or any priest, halt the procession in order to address us chummily you break our dialogue with the Lord. We do not want to have our attention drawn to you, or to listen while you labour to establish some other form of rapport.  This is not vaudeville and the priest is not an entertainer. We do not want you to make our servers, stand and look foolish whilst you attempt to establish some basis other than the liturgy. Your own ad hoc remarks are no different from those we have all heard from the BBC all week long.

In this procession and service you are in persona Christi, so we greet you as the Lord coming into the world. Surely the Dean of a cathedral knows this much.  We are in a large public drama, a ‘passion play’, so all the world can see that God is with man. I pointed this out to you and asked you not to do it.  Now I ask you again not to undermine this corporate act of ours.

This is not a private matter solely between you and me. It is a concern for our public life together as a congregation. It was you who changed it from private to public, by making a report to a statutory body. In that Sunday morning conversation I suggested that the three of us should talk again so we could hear one another’s reasons, see perhaps where there has been misunderstanding, and so attempt some reconciliation. I suggested that that reconciliation must take place before the altar.

It is baffling that you should think that that pastoral care should consist in telling people what their moral failings are. And that you should tell them this so heatedly, before these witnesses, minutes after celebrating the Eucharist with them.  A second point is this: we are looking for a pastor for men who are angry as well as for those who are not, and indeed for men of every sort. A pastor must love and serve each member of the church regardless of their moral failings, despite those failings, and with some awareness that we all, and he himself, share these moral failings. That pastor will be able to cope with all people of all characters of the parish and may not decide that the character of any parishioner is deficient and that they should be sent away.

You replied by saying that you want your legal representative to be present at our next conversation. It is again astonishing that you think that recourse to lawyers is any way to offer pastoral care. One of us then reminded you of the command in Matthew to sort out issues before two witnesses, and then before the Church, and quoted 1 Corinthians 6.1 about not taking disputes outside the Church for judgement.

The way you have exercised power and taken decisions without consultation has been a shock to us. It seems to reveal such a low view of us and of our shared life and worship. It lacks the patience and self-control listed among the spiritual gifts. Our church is looking for pastoral, that is to say, spiritual oversight.  For you to resort to social workers and talk about using lawyers against parishioners within one month of your arrival is a colossal failure.  This has all taken place before our priest left the office of Rector, surely a breach of procedure and even of legality.

You came to visit me in order to find out what I thought. I told you.  At the end of our first conversation you told me that if I did not entirely share your views of Christian ministry you would not be able to work with me. I agree. It does not seem possible for you to work with us. And you do not want to work against us, do you?

Dear Churchwardens

Thank you for being our Church Wardens.

A Church Warden, as you know, safeguards our place of public prayer, so that anyone and everyone may come to Church to pray and worship God. The true worship of God is our refuge from all the insanities of our contemporary world that are broadcast at us all week.

Yet from what he has said and written in the parish bulletin, it is clear that the interim priest believes he represents the mandate of the diocese to bring changes to us, even though we have not sought them. But if such changes do not come from us, through consent, gathered over a long period, they are imposed. Then we simply have another unilateral ideological decision, pushed through by a central authority that wants to take decision-making away from us. You will be aware that every significant national institution is attempting to streamline, centralise and take decision-making away from us.

Over a period of many centuries, the Christian faith has enabled us to become mature, responsible, mutually-accountable persons. We are fully able to take decisions, for ourselves, for the long-term common good of our church and parish, as we are for national and local communities. We are not children, and any central institution that insists that decisions have already been taken, remotely, would seem to love control more than it loves us. We do not welcome totalitarians. We certainly do not set out to impose decisions on one another, do we?

Our church, like every other church, is fully sufficient as it stands before God. It is not the local branch of a national chain store. We do not take our orders from the centre. We take them from the Scriptures we hear each Sunday, and we take advice and discipleship from all the generations of the saints of the English Church from the beginning up until now. They formed us to withstand the destructive pressures of the world, for the world’s sake.

As we are all most painfully aware, for many decades the Church of England has not convinced anyone. We Christians are becoming fewer, our congregations smaller and more elderly, with the prospect that we will be one of the last Christian generations.  This is so, despite the attempts of many in the hierarchy to make the gospel more attractive and accessible by reducing its demands. These attempts have been counter-productive, perhaps because everybody outside the Church can see that they are dishonest. The gospel is demanding – it ‘demands my life, my soul, my all,’ as Isaac Watts taught us to sing. As St Paul emphatically reminds us every time we read the letters to the Corinthians, the gospel has a cross in it, and therefore pain and confrontation are unavoidably part of the passion that the Lord takes us through. It is paradoxical that some elderly parishioners call for yet more infantilising ‘family services’, while we reply that the whole gospel, and the full package of Christian discipleship, is what our children are due, now and always. What is easy and uncontroversial is hardly worth having: what is hard, and represents adventure, with real risks – that is what young people want.

The views that we have to contribute are entirely the views shared by all previous generations of Christians. These views created a confident society with confident individuals capable of making reasonable judgements about how to serve the future. We do not believe that the present generation had a burst of insight not known before, or that some special revelation about the relationships of men and women has come to some particular elite in the last twenty years. Our worship together surely protects us from such gullibility.

Without Christian discipleship, this generation can only serve itself. The country now finds it difficult to sustain the marriages that protect families and bring into being the children that will be our next generation of mature decision-making adults. Only Christian discipline makes it possible for us to serve the next generation, as our parents’ generation served us, by passing on the whole Christian way of life that will allow them to take our place.

So I say the following with gentleness, gratitude to you and love. I wish there were many more young families. Elderly members of the PCC have no mandate from us to make decisions for us, or without us. To do so, would just be a coup by the elderly against the young. You do not intend to do this, do you?

One way of avoiding this, would be to coopt one of us onto the PCC. You may not look forward to hearing views different from your own, but you are surely all professional enough to cope. To do this would be to be a good warden of the Church, helping to secure for another generation our access to the worship of God

The Lord be with you