Bishop’s progressive vision: church combining humble presence with “prophetic edge”

Sep 24, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

What’s the best way of diagnosing the state of the Church of England? For some, we look at its canons and liturgy and conclude that if they have not changed, then nor has the church. This is a bit like judging the current effectiveness and ethical practices of a company just by reading its Articles of Association.  A much richer and more accurate picture is built up from finding out what the organisation is actually doing day to day, and what those responsible are saying, from which we can deduce what they believe and where they are likely to lead the organisation.

The recent Presidential address to virtual Diocesan Synod by the Bishop of Oxford is a typical case study. 

He begins by talking about “rebuilding and regathering” after lockdown. Of course at the time of his speech (5th September) he was not to know that infection rates would rapidly rise, leading to a return to restrictions which may yet extend again to physical church gatherings. But there is no attempt here to review the way that the C of E initially responded to the pandemic. Later in his talk Bishop Steven refers to the importance of physical meeting rather than worshipping as “disembodied minds”, but he does not question the church’s policy from late March to June of  prioritising the complete closure of churches, banning of public worship and repeating of government health and safety instructions, while obscuring the gospel message of hope in the resurrection in the face of death, and omitting any call to repentance and intercession on behalf of the nation.

So how does Bishop Steven describe the mission of the church? He says:

“We will be playing our part in sustaining villages and towns and cities across our Diocese as disciples as well as hospitals and universities and businesses and civic life.”

This understanding does not see the geographical area of Oxford Diocese as a mission field, most of whose inhabitants don’t have a relationship with God. The bishop’s focus is not on the church as distinct from the world, a worshipping and witnessing community with different ethics and worldview. Rather, the focus is on what is seen as an essentially benign society, and how the presence of Christians and the church “sustains” it.

Where does this idea come from? Reflecting on this, I remembered an essay I wrote a number of years ago for a study course, on the nature of the church. One of the theologians I looked at briefly was an American who spent many years in England. Here’s my summary:

It is instructive to consider the method of influential theologian Daniel Hardy …In Hardy’s essay “Worship and the Formation of a Holy People” [2001, pp7-23] he does not begin with biblical models for defining the church – in fact he is critical of those “employing bland conceptions of ‘knowing God’ through God’s ‘self-communication” [17]. Rather he begins with a philosophical exploration of the concept of “holiness” which God enacts in the world, and the result is the good that we see in society: law and justice, civil society, the arts, education and so on. In other writing Hardy uses language of redemption to describe this as “redeemed sociality” [eg Hardy, 1989, 21-47] in which God is working in all that is good in society, and the church is that part of society which intentionally faces the holiness of God and celebrates it in worship. Hardy does not see the missionary essence and activity of the church as over against the world or rescued/rescuing from the world, but a prototype within the world in which God is working to bring unity and harmony, or “godly sociality” among all people.

Whether or not Bishop Steven is consciously echoing the thought of Hardy, his understanding of the church and its mission is very similar.

He goes on to summarise the two problems facing the nation as he sees it: the pandemic, with risk of infection, illness and death, and the government’s response, with disruption to the economy and mental/emotional fallout. He asks:

“How then should we minister and serve our communities and God’s world in this next season, in a world in continuing crisis? How can we play our part as disciples and as citizens and play that part together as part of the Church of Jesus Christ?”

Good questions. One would hope they could be answered

  1. by pointing out that the pandemic and its effects are not the only problem facing us as human beings. We are alienated from God and neighbour, increasingly so as secularism takes hold; we need forgiveness, redirection and power to live better
  2. by reference to the good news of God’s invitation to enter his kingdom and the task given to the church to proclaim it

But because like Hardy he does not start with a biblical diagnosis and solution, but rather a humanist vision for a harmonious or “holy” society, Bishop Steven’s understanding of the church’s mission reflects this. This involves being alongside and part of society, doing good in it while facing God, but definitely not preaching to society or individuals within it, certainly not in a way which calls them to believe something different, or to change, except in certain ways defined by the world (see below).

He does bring in two biblical passages for reflection, from which he derives pointers for how the church should act:

From Isaiah 42

He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street.

A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench (42.3)

“This is the kind of leadership which draws alongside people, which gathers the fragments, which liberates the gifts of others, which does not overwhelm, which listens and waits patiently to see what is emerging”, he says

And from Philippians 2

…he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.6-8)

The Bishop expounds: “The humility of Christ will be needed as we seek to rebuild together…to continue his life-giving work in the world, a gentle, tender community of grace…we continue to centre ourselves on Jesus Christ, on his character, on the pattern of the incarnation and on serving the needs of the communities around us with the gentleness and tenderness of the servant.”

He rightly draws attention to the example of Jesus’ humility and gentleness for us to imitate, but appears to ignore what the passage goes on to say about the status of Jesus: triumphant Lord before whom all must bow the knee – a vivid image which if true, surely shapes the church’s idea of mission as something more distinctive than just wordless service.

But then the Bishop goes on to say that the call to imitate Christ’s humility and submit to his Lordship must be balanced with the need to give voice to victims and resist oppression:

“Philippians 2 has sometimes been wrongly used… to suppress dissent and to resist change. This message in turn has supported the continued oppression of women or black people or the LGBTQI+ community…Embracing the humility of Christ does not mean muzzling our prophetic voice or edge.”

This isn’t unpacked in the rest of the address, so it’s open to interpretation. The Bishop appears to be saying that society is full of systems of oppression in which the church has often colluded, by advocating meekness and submission for the oppressed instead of “prophetically” advocating for justice in society. So, while in general the church should quietly serve, not confidently proclaiming a message of the Lordship of Christ and the need to submit to him and orient our lives around him, but rather live alongside people in a humble, loving and caring way, where it encounters “oppression”, it should “seek change for the sake of the kingdom”.

It’s clear that Bishop Steven’s understanding of “oppression” is defined in a politically progressive way, using the language of identity politics. He mentions certain groups as experiencing oppression but not others. Not for example, children and parents with orthodox Christian views on the family as they face compulsory ideological RSE in schools, or unborn children as DIY abortion pills are sent to hundreds of thousands of women through the post, or Christians in Muslim-majority parts of the world and even cities in the UK.

He has chosen to carefully avoid expressing an understanding of Christian mission which entails some privilege or power attributed to the church. Engagement should be tentative, based on listening, not claiming knowledge or utilising power, “tending this continuous reflection and development as the new community emerges by the grace of God”. But there is no such diffidence as he is keen to show full solidarity and support for the “LGBTQI community’’. Once again (see below for past examples just from Oxford Diocese), a senior C of E leader struggles to clearly articulate the Christian faith, while much more confidently demonstrating the alignment of his institution with contemporary secular ideology. And yet the canons have not changed – so perhaps all is well?

See also: Previous blogs about Oxford Diocese

2014: Anglican Mainstream questions Oxford’s ‘neutrality’ in Shared Conversation process

Bishop Alan Wilson: please stick to the day job!

2016: Oxford Clergywoman conducts celebration of same sex marriage 

Journeys in, or moving away from, Grace and Truth? (A review of a compilation of essays edited by Jayne Ozanne)

2018: “Clothe yourselves with love” – a response to the pastoral letter from the Bishops of Oxford Diocese

Diocese of Oxford: a case study in radical inclusion

2020: Bishop offers orthodox Anglicans hope of retaining protected minority status as Diocese takes progressive route

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