Friday, 28 January 2011

A Wake Up Call!

The Church of England spends too much time thinking about issues that don't matter very much to anyone outside the church and having arguments that people outside the church have moved beyond. This was the hard hitting message of journalist and actor Gavin Campbell to the assembled archdeacons of the Church of England, this week. Gavin is best known to me as one of the presenters of the ?1970/80's TV program That's Life with Esther Rantzen. He is a recently baptised member of the Church of England, so he spoke as an 'insider' when he challenged a room full of 80 archdeacons to think about whether the C of E is engaging with the nation and whether it is addressing the concerns that people in the street expect it to address. From what he said and from a vox pop he showed us, we were left in no doubt that arguments about women bishops, gay bishops, ordinariats and schisms in the communion are not what people want to see from the church and that, whether they like what they see of the church or not, many do still look to us for moral comment and, more than that, for action to help those who most need it. But they do not think they are seeing or hearing what they hope to see and hear from the Church of England. 

Many of us sat through Campbell's presentation thinking, 'We've been saying this for ages'. As one archdeacon said to me, 'I've been trying to preach this message for the last 20 years. So why does nothing change?' Well, I suppose that one answer is that archdeacons do not in fact tend to shape the messages about the church that find their way into the media - it is very largely bishops, press and communications officers and journalists who do that. Archdeacons, in my experience, often tend to be fairly moderate in their views and don't usually create headline grabbing news. But that wasn't really the point. We, as archdeacons, can't dodge our responsibility; we are part of the leadership of the church and it is up to us to play our part effectively in bringing about change and making sure that the church is both engaged in the things people see as important and able to communicate about them. So are we infact ineffective and out of touch?

Campbell's message was that people want to hear from the church on issues that cut us to the quick - or ought to. We need to review our priorities. Sexuality and justice in terms of how people are treated for their gender and sexual orientation matter and the horrific murder of the Ugandan gay human rights activist David Kato Kisule, which has shocked us all today, underlines the fact that there is urgent work to do on these issues. But Campbell's point was that there are other injustices that should equally outrage everyone one of us to the point of unceasing prayer and action until there is change. And these are  issues people expect the church to talk about and wade into and even make mistakes about; they want to see and hear us getting involved!  Above all they want to see the churches taking a lead in action to help the very poorest of the world - peoples who are starving and dying of thirst and disease and the consequences of war in large numbers every minute of every day. To illustrate the point, Campbell showed us a searing film he had made about starvation and war in the Sudan.  Aren't many of Jesus' parables about compassion in the face of human need and desperation?  He is recorded as reserving His most frightening warnings for the end of the parables which show people overlooking and refusing to respond to the obvious human need that is in front of them - for example, the parables about Dives and Larazus and the sheep and the goats ('In so far as you did not do it for the least of these, you did not do it for me.') Compassion failure - is this the main sin of the churches at the present moment? Compassion means, quite simply, 'It matters to me, you matter to me.'    

During the National Archdeacons' Conference at which Gavin Campbell spoke, we also heard a moving address by the Rt Revd and Rt Hon Lord Eames, former Primate of Ireland, in which he spoke of the Irish 'Troubles', the peace process and the effect of sectarian terrorism on a whole society. From his experience at the centre of church and community life and as an instigator of the peace negotiations, he challenged our behaviour and asked us to think, as priests, about how reconciliation is possible, about the absolute necessity of being with people in adversity no matter what the cost or how difficult, and about the place of story and memory in the process of suffering and reconciliation. People are shaped by memories - this is what makes humanity unique - and memory cannot be disregarded as Jesus showed when he placed memory at the centre of the eucharist - 'Do this in remembrance of me'. 

What came through to me from both speakers' challenges was that the Church of England is being too narrowly selective about the stories - the 'memory chains' - that it gets involved with and gives attention to. And it is colluding with the religious affairs media who are also guilty of this and seem even more obsessed than the church with a very small range of issues. In fact, throughout the conference, there were many examples of how the churches are engaging in places where there is great adversity and where the stories of our country and our time are shaped - following the floods and the recent shootings in Cumbria, in the board rooms of London banks, at the beds of the dying and at gravesides, with soldiers on the front line in the theatre of war, with asylum seekers, with charities that work tirelessly to bring education in places where there is none, to name but a few. But how often do we hear about this? Part of the problem is undoubtedly that, as one archdeacon pointed out, representatives of the church are usually working in situations where we would not want publicity or attention drawn to the work of delicate negotiation or to the anguish of individuals. But that is only half the picture. I believe that Campbell's wake up call was not unjustified and that he has a picked up on something real in claiming that the Church of England has taken a direction which is deeply uncongenial to the nation in allowing such an excess of its synodical debate and so much of its public life to be concentrated around unresolved sexuality issues. And to do this in a way that seems to most people to pay almost exclusive attention to negative expressions of the place of sexuality and gender in human experience. People on the street (and, in my experience, many of the people in the pews) are saying 'Enough!' and have been saying this for a long time if they haven't walked away.

Four areas in which we could be taking a lead to work for social justice and the alleviation of poverty are
  •  ensuring that there is employment for all who want and need it - working with government and the private sector on the needs of those who are beyond the reach of employment and, as a consequence, pass this lack of opportunity on to their children. There is an overdue need for a major report about this along the lines of Faith in the City.
  • changing people's approach to what and how and how much they consume.
  • reassessing the use of alchohol and drugs and their effect on the lives of many people.
We seem to many people to be a 'two message church' at the moment. Can we not change the track?  Most importantly, and if we do nothing else, we should be
  • systematically working with government, NGOs and charities to address the global imbalance of resources, to find ways of reducing poverty and to create sustainable ways of earning a livelihood in areas of the world where there are disastrous levels of poverty and absolute starvation.
Taking on the challenges of global social injustice and poverty reduction is, I believe, the great spiritual, moral and political imperative of our time and the Church of England and the Anglican Communion should be at the heart of movements which are addressing these challenges. Indeed, the Anglican Communion is well placed to tackle some of these issues with representation from each of the continents at Primates' meetings, at Anglican Consultative Council meetings and at the Lambeth Conferences. I would like to see the current General Synod of the Church of England doing more work in these areas during its five year term and generating headlines that provoke national debate in these areas and not about schism and tolerance of intolerance over gender and sexual orientation. I will commit myself to try to act and pray and speak more on social justice issues and only speak when absolutely necessary on internal church politics. Campbell's message was certainly that unless we all do this, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion are in danger of being so found wanting that they will cease to occupy any significant place in national and international life in the future.

See the Archbishop of Canterbury's statement about David Kato Kisule's death today
Holocaust Memorial Day
The Moscow Airport terrorist attack


  1. Brilliant!! I pray that you will get full support from 'above' (you know what I mean). What would Jesus do if he came into the CofE today? I think he would start throwing the furniture around and ask what we have been doing for 2000 years. Let's get Him back and start living the Gospel in our churches. Make us a church that people want, indeed need, to join.

    PS: Please add Nelson Mandela to your prayers.

    Dave May - Reader

  2. Janet, Highly interesting and thought provoking. But, as a press officer, I think I'd like to disagree mildly with Gavin Campbell - or your summary! When it comes to the stories we put forward, we can only really put out stories that are happening and are true. I can't remember ever putting out a story about women bishops except when Diocesan Synod debated it. But I have put out a lot of stories about wonderful work happening across and beyond the diocese - Paphras, Children's work, urban and rural work, churches supporting people like Andy and Susie Hart - Woman of the Year - work with the homeless, the Crypt,the Bishop's many words and actions on asylum and other social issues, Christian Aid's work etc etc. I have never knowingly put out a story about gay clergy! So it's a bit of a muyth to say we are 'colluding with the religious media'. I'm glad to say a lot of the good news stories do get out there and are read and heard. Is it not possible that Gavin Campbell, no doubt an avid reader of Ruth Gledhill,the broadsheets and a listener to Radio 4, is simply reinforcing a second hand myth that 'all we ever talk about are women bishops etc'? He couldn't say that if he read the Yorkshire Evening Post or listened to local radio. Now of course, I'd be the first to say we are still not talking enough about social issues in the media - but just maybe that's because we are not doing enough about them in the real life of our churches, Monday to Saturday. I'd love to hear about new social action initiatives of churches in the Dales, or the Cathedral but I'm unaware of them. So, hmmm, if there is an element of truth in the message, maybe the Archdeacons are exactly the audience to address!?

  3. Thanks for this, John. I think that many diocesan communications officers (ours most especially included!) do a much better job than some of the national press at keeping social issues and actions in our sights. However, it reamins true that there are an awful lot of articles in the media about the arguments over women and gay people - I found five today plus at least six blogs (bloggers are guilty too!) And a great deal of what gets into the press is around what bishops do and say, overlooking lay initiatives and thinking. I'm not exonerating myself or archdeacons in general from blame, just saying Gavin Campbell has a point and we could, collectively, do better. Street pastors, local work of St Martin in the Fields Charity, various churches and schools taking environmentally friendly initiaties, emergency planning initiatives, local arts, crafts and food intiatives and end of life study days spring to mind. But I do take your point that the news coverage on the diocesan web site is very socially aware and engages with a broad range of subjects. However, I don't necessarily think that local radio and TV pick up on these stories very much - one is tempted to say, 'It takes an earth quake...'! The drift of the lecture was to point out that if you take an average bunch of people in the street what they know about the C of E is that we argue about gender and sexuality issues.