theology & flourishing

Why do we send ordinands to theological college?

On the face of it, that question has little to do with the debates over gender and equality in the church this week, and on the nomination and withdrawal of +Philip North as bishop of Sheffield. But one of the things that I think is happening right now is that we are realising that we can’t be silent about theology.

So: why do priests need theology degrees?  One answer is that a theology degree gives us time to broaden and deepen our understanding of God and the traditions of the church, which hopefully help us understand ourselves better too. A degree is a gift of time and focus. There is nothing that I learned in five years of academic theology that I haven’t used at some point in parish ministry — and that means my degrees were useful.

Knowledge is useful. But knowledge only gets us so far with God. One of the other gifts of a theology degree is that it helps us understand the limits of our knowledge. Any degree worth its salt puts us up against ideas that clash with our expectations of the world. Some ideas fall into place quickly, and illuminate other things we only half-knew. Other ideas provoke and annoy us, so that we have to question what we assume. When we engage with an idea that surprises us, it changes us. Wether we ultimately accept it or reject it, a new idea helps us learn what we think about God.

The process of doing this time and again — letting a new idea come and rearrange our thinking — gives us the greatest gift of all in a theology degree. We come to realise that we can change our minds. And that is invaluable to the church.  If I believe that at one point in my Christian journey I believed something to be true, that I now believe to be false — but also believe that I was Christian then and am Christian now and God loves me still — then it must follow that I can allow other people to be wrong too. I can believe that they are both Christian and mistaken, and still beloved of God. We can change our minds.

And imagine what might be possible if the church were truly full of people who believed they could change their minds.

This idea makes some people nervous. Surely we should have conviction. Surely God needs us to be clear. Well yes. At any given moment, we have to be utterly committed to the best vision of God we have seen. We have to proclaim the gospel believing with every fibre of our being that it is good news.

But sometimes, God gets at us, and teaches us something new. Our understanding of good news shifts a bit — and we go on preaching it, glad for what we now understand.

If we believe that God is infinitely more than we are — infinitely greater and more loving and more complex — then there will always be something new for us to learn. We believe that Jesus embodied all the fullness of God; but that doesn’t mean we yet understand the half of it.

And that is where I come back to the current confusion in the church over Philip North, and what the circumstances of his appointment and withdrawal mean for our mutual flourishing. If Philip North believes that I cannot – simply cannot —  be a priest, because it is not possible for a woman to be a priest, then his desire for my flourishing should involve a desire to persuade me of that. He shouldn’t leave me to follow a vocation I have misunderstood, and give my whole life to a task that he believes is not from God. That is not how love works, nor how we long for another’s flourishing.

And similarly, if I believe that the the good news of Christian faith is that Jesus sets us from prejudice and inequality — proclaims and creates our equality in the loving gaze of God — then my desire for Philip North’s flourishing must involve hoping he comes to believe that too.

Mutual flourishing does not mean that we politely agree to disagree and separate ourselves from each other while sheltering under the same umbrella organisation. It does not mean appointing bishops tit for tat. It means we commit ourselves to continuing the disagreement, and not letting that disagreement divide us as we share in the body of Christ.

And this is what has become impossible in the church of England.

At theological college, we fought all the time. We fought over scriptural interpretation, ecclesiology, real presence, ontological and functional views of ordination, the importance of tradition, the relationship between theology and modern philosophy, feminist thought, and the body politic. We disagreed all the time. We sometimes lost our tempers, and sometimes fell silent in frustration and rage. And then we went for coffee.

The final gift of theology degree is the gift of friendship — with people who affirm your understanding of God, and with those who challenge it on every point. What we knew — always — was that were in this together. Giving your life to trying to know and serve God is a bit of specialist pursuit in this world. Those of us who are in this game need to be in it together, and need to recognise that in each other even when we can’t reconcile our theologies at all.

When I was in the Scottish Episcopal Church, our bloody minded unity in the midst of diversity was express most clearly in sharing communion. We could fight all day, throw every idea into uncertainty, and then gather at the table to share in the body of Christ. The mystery of how God comes to us in communion in infinitely greater than the mystery of how we can be in one church when we so often disagree. Communion is what we can share while we passionately defend our best understanding of God, while also admitting that there’s still more to learn, and (therefore) I could be wrong.

But what does that mean in England?

The Church of England is not as eucharistically centred as either the Scottish Episcopal Church or The Episcopal Church in the States. I think most non-English Anglicans are shocked when they realise how little England really cares about communion. But it gets more complicated than that, since in 1993, the Church of England decided that people could belong to the same church while not being in communion with each other. That’s what resolutions A, B, and C created: a church in which people who were of the same denomination were not all in communion with each other. The Church of England teaches that it possible to ‘opt out’ of recognising someone’s orders, or the validity of the sacraments in a particular parish, while still belonging to the same church. The church of England has not been in full communion with itself since 1993.

So what holds us together?

Ironically, I suspect our valuing of communion is the thing that Philip North and I share most deeply. And if I ever did have reason to work with him, the work I would most like to do would be to explore how we could help the church re-value the eucharist as divine gift and blessing. But we can’t do that, because the structures of the Church of England mean that he is not in communion with me, even if I am with him, and even if we are both priests (and he a bishop) in the Church of England.

I have no solution to this.

I regret that Philip North has had to be the test case that exposes the confusion of the Five Guiding Principles and their call for our mutual flourishing. I want Philip North to flourish — I really do. And until he persuades me otherwise, that means I want him to change his mind about the ordination of women. And I want him to want to change my mind, and I’m happy to keep arguing it out. But what we can’t do is pretend that we want each other’s theology to flourish. We just can’t. The theologies are incompatible. If I believe God creates our equality and works for our liberation, I can’t want a theology to flourish that says the opposite — or that says, as the Bishop of Maidstone is consecrated to say, that women’s flourishing only comes through subordination. I don’t believe that is the will of God. I don’t want that theology to flourish.

And I as I write this, there is a voice in my head saying ‘can I say this? will I ever be able to work again — to take a new post — if I say this?’ And that is the greatest tragedy of all in the Church of England. We are afraid to talk about theology because it might divide us, and because if we nail our colours to the mast we may become un-appointable. We fail to proclaim love because we get caught in fear.

I believe that the only hope for the church is that we recognise sincere passion for God, wherever we find it. We need to be able to affirm that in each other, even when we can find no way to make sense of our theological differences. For me, the clearest affirmation of our mutual recognition is our willingness to gather at the table. When we take bread, and say ‘the body of Christ,’ we reach the limits of our knowledge. Where knowledge breaks, and love holds, communion begins.

liturgical wish list

Today, the curate and I tried to revise the Lent liturgy. When I presided on Ash Wednesday, I realised that the eucharistic prayer felt fine for that night, but I didn’t want six weeks of it. So, we started experimenting with legal combinations, looking for a prayer that would would feel stripped back and bare — and utterly lovely.  The conversation went like this:

‘What if we used a shorter preface with B instead of A?’
‘Have you read the shorter prefaces?’

‘OK. Extended preface — but B is shorter.’
‘Did you turn the page?’

‘What about the one that’s gone out of fashion — could we cut the refrain…’
[silence. we both knew it was illegal]

We can’t use that one — we use it at Christmas.
We can’t use that one — the double epiclesis is Easter joy.

Why on earth have they put an epiclesis ‘on us’ but not on bread and wine in that one? Stupid, stupid liturgy!

And so, after all that, we returned to the extended preface with prayer A — and agreed that even that would be better if we could cut a paragraph of theologically insignificant exhortation. (We also agreed that we had never had this conversation should one of us ever accidentally omit said paragraph.)

A friend on facebook asked, ‘what do you want?’  So here is my liturgical wish list.

I would like:

— proper seasonal prayers that fill the imagination, gladden the heart, and surprise with their poetic form

— a stable structure for the prayers, following the Western Rite (ideally as held in SEC and TEC). I don’t mind if there is one option that follows BCP order, but I shan’t use it.

 — at least one ‘year round’ prayer that is simple, elegant, and short.

— a prayer for occasional use that will work for dinner church — something simple, with the possibility of blessing bread and wine separately, at different points of the meal.

— a double epiclesis in every prayer. Since this is England, I don’t mind if half of it is optional and in italics, but let it be possible for us to be doubly blessed.

— prayers that are written by a small group of people with a clear theological vision. Let there be a very catholic prayer (that the charismatics will never use) and a very evangelical prayer (that the liberals will ignore), but let there be coherence and integrity in each, rather than the carnage of liturgical warfare.

None of that is hard. None of that is radical.

But it is not (yet) what we have.

glitter & glory

Sometimes I wonder if it is the nature of the established church to be given back it’s sacramental identity by the ‘outsiders’ around it. Ah, but I’ve given the game away, haven’t I? If I were properly an establishment figure, there would be no outsiders. Only hidden Christians, hidden Anglicans.

So, let me start again: I sometimes wonder if the nature of the established church to loose sight of its sacramental identity, and to have it returned by those on the edges.

And maybe, just maybe, that is what’s happening in the Church of England, through the goad of Glitter Ash.

This year, Glitter Ash hit Facebook consciousness. It arises out of the Metropolitain Community Churches as a way of affirming LGBTI inclusion, and in defiance of a world that has too often told some of God’s children that they are not acceptable as they are. So, instead of the dark black ash, a bit of glitz. A way of saying ‘you are loved.’ (you can read more here)

I have absolutely no issue with the MCC using glitter ash, and I don’t for a moment think it is sacrilege. I simply think it is unnecessary. Ash is glorious enough.

And that is the gift the MCC has given us: the realisation that ash is already glorious. The weight of penitence is so great in the Church of England. It is in our liturgies and in our hymnals, so much so that even our youngest choir member is already encumbered by a language of God that speaks first of sin, and only later (with prompting) of joy. And what could be more penitential than ash?

But glitter ash made me reconsider. Maybe ash isn’t about penitence, but glory. For what could be more glorious than a sign of our humanity — a reminder of our fragility, and the holy hush of wonder when we realise we must not take a moment of this life for granted? I had never thought about ash as a sign of the incarnation before, but that is what it is. And incarnation offers all the glitz we need — no glitter greater.

Is that what people have realised when they seek out Ashes to Go? Are they seeking not penitence, but affirmation of holiness?

I had become so used to the liturgy, to the heavy weight of penitence in the church, that I had seen Ashes to Go as an odd thing. Why on earth should we encourage people to engage in penance on the streets, when we don’t equally give them absolution, communion, blessing? What good does it do to mark people with an ash cross if they don’t stay long enough to hear the words of forgiveness and be transformed by the gifts of God’s love?

But maybe that’s not what’s going on. Maybe they are not engaging in penance, but seeking acceptance. Maybe they have caught just a hint of God’s generous sharing, and are looking for a sign that the glory of God is theirs.

I still think we could do this better with oil than with ash, or with bread and wine, rather than dust. But it’s something. So, I find myself glad for all those people I disagree with today, who have taught me something about a sacramental sign I thought I knew, and who might just be goading the church into a better understanding of God’s glory.

‘look up, startled’

This is my new favourite poem (though that is an ever fluid category).

It comes from Joyce Sidman’s What the Heart Knows, which appears to be a book of poems for children but really isn’t.

I used it last week in a sermon (along with an abundance of T.S. Eliot) to talk about how poetry opens perception and can reach and change us long before we understand.

It reminds me so much of home — and I have just learned that Sidman is from Connecticut and lived in Middletown. But it is of course every moment of waking, of wonder, and of grace almost missed.

Wake with a dream-filled head.
Stumble out into the morning,
barely aware of how the sun
is laying down strips of silver
after three days’ rain,
of how the puddles
are singing with green.
Look up, startled
at the crackle of something large
moving through the underbrush.
Your pulse jumping,
gaze into its beautiful face.
The wary doe’s body,
the soft flames of ears.
As it bounds away,
listen to the rhythm
of your own heart’s disquiet.
Burn into memory
the white flag of its parting.
Before you return
to house and habit,
cast your eyes into the shadows,
where others stand waiting
on delicate hooves.

— Joyce Sidman
What the Heart Knows



a need for poetry

Poetry has been pressing itself into consciousness lately.

I suspect it began with a seminar — a chance to play with poems amidst theologians — which woke something long dormant. But I’m sure my desire for poetry is also an aftermath of the shock of Trump. Not so much escapism, as deliberate protest against a political narrative that sees complexity as an unnecessary elitist complication, and which tries to crush truth into obedience.

Then, early in the New Year, as I caught up with back issues of the Church Times, I read an article about reading levels in liturgy. It argued that the language of liturgy was too complex — that we should aim for a lower reading level to be more accessible. I skimmed it and moved on, but it kept bothering me. Is reading-level really the key issue in liturgical language? Is the language of liturgy about understanding?

Liturgical language is performative. It helps create the relationships it describes. It needs to be big enough to hold all the emotions in the room, the different stages of faith, and all the ways of perceiving and relating to God. Only poetry is big enough for that. Only poetry shapes mood and raises expectation so that our longing for God becomes big enough that God might fit in.

It’s the polyvalent nature of poetry I long for — the constant assertion that meaning can be present and hidden all at once; that a word might mean more than one thing. I want liturgy to do that, because I believe scripture does that — and getting used to layers of meaning in poetry gives us language to grow into and helps keep us open to the ongoing revelation of God.

But mostly, I want poetry because it gives us space to breathe. I found myself wondering how many people in the congregation have ever read Eliot, R.S. Thomas, Levertov, Mary Oliver — and worrying that hardly anyone had. I may never convince them that poetry is necessary, but it’s negligent not to try.

So, we are having a month of poetry in The Waltham Group.  Full blown evangelism, with scansion lessons and poetic terms and all.

We don’t have time for this, of course. There are no doubt faculties to write and finance plans to devise. But in this world where truth is getting bashed by bullies and complexity is denied, where else can we turn, but the power of the word?




Between Shema and shalom
there were rabbit tracks
winding scrolls of hope through ash pits.

I stood
where I planned to remember death
caught in bewildering joy.

I hadn’t expected the beauty
of snow, of light, of birch,
and I wondered:

What if we let the land heal?
Chose life — the best defiance —
and watched the chimneys fall.


One woman carried a cheese grater —
when her world was disrupted
stuffed into sacks
clutched, and then hidden.
She chose to keep faith in details.

So I came home and cooked
grated carrot
made soup
watched slow yeast rise
through recalcitrant rye

Because this is how we become
human. The ritual of wonder
as grace tumbles like tea leaves
and what is cut and broken
becomes blessed.


In our churchyard there is mistletoe —
the romantic notion
of a former rector
to bring berries, laughter,

So I saw it, crowning the tree-tops
following the rail line,
and wondered: was this too defiance —
Resister’s gift? Or God’s
grace brushing cattle cars:
‘You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.’


(photo, with thanks, by The Revd Richard Frank)

annoying rules, annoying rectors

Dear Congregations,

There’s this conversation we keep having. So I thought I’d try to set it down here.

I know it’s a pain when we suddenly stumble up against a regulation that means more work. I hate it too.

No, I really can’t explain why all of my predecessors never mentioned that there were rules or regulations, nor why they were happy to break them when I am not. I wonder if that’s true — though I know you believe it to be so. Either way, I cannot make sense of it either.

I know, too, that sometimes we’re going to get it wrong. A lot of the rules are hard to apply when we only have ten people trying to do the work of a hundred, and when some rules feel impossible, it’s easy to assume all rules are optional.

But I also believe the rules are there to protect us.
That one about painting the door? It’s the same rule that applies to the walls. It’s to stop a well-meaning person who loves orange from painting everything in sight orange and ruining it for everyone else. It’s also to stop us from painting a wall with waterproof paint when in fact that wall needs to breathe. It’s about having people who know more than we do cast and eye over our plans so that we don’t make a well-meant mess.

I know you would never do that. You have good taste. You only wanted a fresh-coat of the sensible colour that was already there. But imagine it were someone else. Someone who thought orange and green stripes would be nice…

The one about the hall agreement? Oh, I so wish we didn’t need those. But neither do I want the lawsuit and the horrible articles in the paper if something goes wrong and ‘the church’ gets the blame. Let’s get an agreement written up and ask people to sign. Sorry I hadn’t noticed we didn’t have one before.

As for needing to tell the PCC before making big decisions? That’s just common sense. You all carry so much responsibility for the church, and one of my jobs is to help make sure you carry that safely — and that means we make decisions together.

I know it’s faster if you just make the decision on your own and tell us later. I know you worry that everything slows down if we have to talk. But that’s how we grow together as a community, how we share ideas, how we keep each other safe.

Sorry it’s all so annoying.
Sorry you’re having to learn this when you’ve been doing it differently for 30 years.
I really can’t explain it either. I have no idea why no one has ever told you this before.

But, at least we know now. The rules are there to help us.