John Wesley began his great sermon on ‘The Catholic Spirit’ with a text from II Kings 10.15: ‘He greeted him and said, “Is your heart true to mine, as my heart is to yours?” Jehonadab replied, “Yes.” “If so,” Jehu said, “Give me your hand.”‘ As so often with wonderful texts from Scripture, the context makes you scratch your head a little (look it up). But – as I suspect all serious readers of Scripture would agree – one of the striking things about scriptural texts is that they grow beyond their context in the light of the Spirit’s work of interpretation. And Jehu’s question is one that we should hear the Holy Spirit putting to us every time we meet as a Synod. Because our hope must be that the loyalty of heart to heart in Christian community will constantly enable us to join hands in the work set before us for the sake of the Gospel.
That work has been explored and reflected upon a good deal in the last couple of years by an Archbishops’ Task Group looking at the use of our resources, and through discussion in the House of Bishops, especially in their Standing Committee. Three main themes have emerged with absolute clarity. We are called –
(i) To take forward the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church of England – including the growth of its capacity to serve the whole community of this country;
(ii) To re-shape or reimagine the Church’s ministry for the century coming, so as to make sure that there is a growing and sustainable Christian witness in every local community; and
(iii) To focus our resources where there is both greatest need and greatest opportunity.
In a way, everything else I have to say will be quite insignificant compared with those agreed priorities and with the exhortation from Scripture about our hearts being true to each other. But I hope you won’t stop listening just yet. John Wesley in the same sermon is painfully realistic about the fact that we ‘cannot all think alike, and in consequence…cannot all walk alike.’ The greatness of this particular sermon of his is to challenge us to recognise that what he calls the Catholic Spirit is neither a climate of imposed universal agreement nor a free for all held together by mutual tolerance (‘Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding’). Wesley wants us to be settled in the basics of our faith, ‘fixed as the sun’ in our allegiance to the creed and the doctrine of a free and God-given atonement for sin. But this is consistent with two things that might strike us as unexpected in their context. First, it is consistent with readiness to hear arguments against what we believe without panic; and second it is consistent with acknowledging that opinions vary even where doctrines are shared. And how do we know that something is an opinion not a doctrine? An opinion is something ‘compatible with a love to Christ and a work of grace’, he writes in a letter; something which visibly grows out of the basic commitment to a divine Saviour, yet which can be denied without undermining that commitment. As he writes to a nephew who had embraced Roman Catholicism, what we need in our discussion is a fierce eagerness to clarify and explore the unfathomable wonders of what it is to be an adopted child of God through the Holy Spirit; and if we then have any energy left or nothing better to do, then, he says, we can argue about purgatory or whatever.
If we are to flesh out the vision that has been defined for us of growth, ministerial effectiveness and the concentration of resources where there is need and opportunity, we shall need something of Wesley’s Catholic Spirit. How eager are we to explore what it means to believe in a divine Saviour as a priority for our work in this Synod? How far do we yield to the temptation to postpone this until we have sorted out everything else? What I have often called the real rather than the virtual church seems often to live at this level. And at the moment, our society is calling out to the real Church with a new urgency. We are going to be discussing the language of the Big Society in this group of sessions. And if such language means anything – as I believe it does – it looks to an ideal that Wesley would have recognised easily: men and women determined to enhance each others’ lives by building up their freedom to shape their future and their communal life with fairness and generosity; people for whom responsibility is not a grim and repressive word but a joyful acknowledgement of what we owe to each other. This will of course be in many areas a task to share with our friends of other denominations and other faiths; and I am specially glad to be able to welcome the representatives of other communities of faith here today as guests and observers along with our ecumenical friends. But that should not take away from the fact that, if we are going to be both positive and critical partners in this process, we need some of that ‘settledness’ Wesley speaks of; some degree of freedom from the clash of opinion that will enable us to join hands.
And it may help us too to be reminded that the Church’s growth has always been in some ways haphazard and diverse. God gives increase in unexpected places – and, by his grace, such growth is already going on in unexpected places in our Church, both in ‘inherited’ forms of Church life and in Fresh Expressions. For God’s sake, don’t let us waste time and energy talking or behaving as if there were competition going on here. The truth is that this diversity offers an opportunity for exactly the shared exploring of our common gift that Wesley writes about. ‘In both ways, whether with false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and for that I am happy’, says St Paul (Phil.1.18). And there is another text that we might well hang on our walls for the coming quinquennium.
You see, what I should really love to see in this Synod is all of us disappointing expectations. What plenty of people expect – people in the media, people in the pews, perhaps even some of us – is that a Synod elected in the middle of several tough political rows in the church is going to be a body consistently pulled away from the hope of joined hands, let alone joined-up thinking, a body in which the Catholic Spirit is invisible. So I am urging you to surprise those who are looking on, to surprise them by your loyalty to each other: ‘Is your heart true to mine?’ That loyalty grows and flourishes when we spend time together exploring what has brought us together; which is God. It happens when we pledge ourselves to seek out those we disagree with and work till it hurts on finding ways of sharing prayer and fellowship with them in and around the life of the Synod. It may mean something as trivial as not always sitting with your friends and allies, or something as long term as a prayer partnership. If our hearts are true to each other, different things become possible; and I think there is a certain urgency about getting this right at the very beginning of the life of a Synod.
Part of what that means too is (remembering Wesley yet again) the willingness to hear the arguments. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling some anxiety about the degree to which strongly-worded exchanges outside this Synod, and the zero-sum atmosphere of campaigning and pamphleteering, can feed a climate in which people are almost expected to arrive in Synod with minds made up on everything, even with a feeling of party lines being defined and voting ‘packages’ created. I don’t think we are doing the job for which God has called us here if we reproduce the worst aspects of secular partisanship. It ought to be possible for us to arrive here ready to discover something, rather than simply determined to win.
And that requires us also to be ready to look at how we ‘do’ Synod. For all the enthusiasm of many members, there is also a widespread unease about some aspects of our practice, an unease shared by a lot of people in our Church. It has something to do with the way in which a packed legislative programme leaves us less time than we need to think together, to do theology together. And the effect of that is to reinforce the tribal tendencies that always recur in bodies like this. When I hear people saying after a debate, ‘That was Synod at its best’, it is usually after a session in which people have spoken out of their experience and expertise, when we have not felt driven towards closure on a matter we need to approach reflectively, when there has been a manifest willingness to learn on all sides. Happily there are a good many such moments. But we could do with more, and I hope that in this quinquennium we continue to look at ways of relaxing our rhythms a bit to allow more of this. I should add that, after a good deal of work on the patterns of meetings for the House and College of Bishops, the same questions about the frequency and character of meetings of the Archbishops’ Council are under discussion so that we can somehow find the reflective time we need.
All this is relevant to how we approach the most sensitive areas of our decision-making. As we proceed towards a decision about the ordination of women as bishops, it is important that, here and in the dioceses, we should not be afraid of discussions that clarify the theological issues. It will be a great pity if we come to our final decision without having confidently articulated why women bishops would be theologically in tune with our deepest commitments. As I’ve said more than once before, I believe that the ARCIC Agreed Statement on ordained ministry offers a clear basis for argument and a clear common ground on which we can continue discussion with our ecumenical partners, whatever the tensions. Those like myself who believe women bishops to be a development both good and timely for the Church and wholly consistent with its mainstream understanding of ministry and sacraments should be ready to make the argument in the strong theological terms in which it can be made. And those who do not share these convictions have both the right and the responsibility to articulate the theology of the Church and its authority which makes them hesitate, because listening to these points is a necessary part of the whole body’s discernment.
Of course it is a matter of real sorrow that some have already decided that they cannot in conscience continue this discussion within the Church of England. They remain in our prayers and we continue to give thanks for the ministry they have offered all of us. And I must add that, despite continuing sensationalism about the effect of this on the main work of ecumenical relations, the planning of the next round of ARCIC has been developing constructively; and I was told last week in Rome at the highest level that the membership of the Commission is at last practically finalised. The remit of this next Commission is – appropriately – to look at exactly this question of the authority belonging to the local Church and its relation to the universal Church.
The other issue, still bitterly divisive in the Communion, is that of our approach to same-sex unions. It is inevitable that, whether in open debate or in general discussion, this will be around during the lifetime of this Synod. I shall make only a brief comment here, having said a fair amount on the subject this time last year and in other settings. And it is that this has become a cardinal example of how we avoid theological debate. The need for some thoughtful engagement that will help us understand how people who read the same Bible and share the same baptism can come to strongly diverse conclusions is getting more urgent, because I sense that in the last few years the debate on sexuality has not really moved much. It is unthinkingly treated by some as almost the sole test of biblical fidelity or doctrinal orthodoxy; it is unthinkingly regarded by others as one of those matters on which the Church must be brought inexorably into line with what our culture can make sense of. Neither side always has the opportunity of clarifying how they see the focal theological issues – how one or the other position relates to our belief in a divine Saviour. And if we are not to be purely tribal about this, we need the chance for some sort of discussion that is not dominated by the need to make an instant decision or to react to developments and pressures elsewhere.
Let me be clear. I don’t in the least mean to say that there is a lack of theological work on either side. Comments I have made on this subject in communications with the Communion, in which I stressed that what had to make up our minds should be theology not social convention, have been interpreted as ignoring or dismissing the quantity and quality of existing work. This is not at all my point. Of course there is a formidable literature in this area, with much theological sophistication; but in the debates we involve ourselves in, in and out of Synod, here and elsewhere in the Communion, the prevailing tone is often rather different. If you think that there is no respectable debate to be had, or if you think that the debate is entirely over, it is unlikely that there will be a useful exchange. But this means that our disagreement will too easily become just that familiar struggle to win leverage rather than to arrive at shared understanding. I’m told fairly often that the lack of advance in nurturing this debate properly is a serious failure in the leadership of the Church and the Communion. I am bound to accept my share of reproach; but I would want to invite you all to help me do better by working with me to create the ambience where better understanding may happen. I hope that Synod will not be averse to thinking about how we can take this forward, without the pressure of feeling we have some single and all-important decision to make. Happily we can point to the methods currently being developed in the ‘Continuing Indaba’ project, with its success in creating many such spaces for face-to- face discussion across cultures. This project, which is considering a wide range of actually and potentially divisive matters, has been pursued with heroic energy and imagination by many people of profoundly diverse convictions in the Communion and needs prayer and support.
This in turn takes us to one of the more sensitive areas we have to look at – how we handle the Covenant proposals. One or two things need saying here. This is by no means the first time we have discussed the Covenant in Synod or in the Church of England. Our input into the process has been considerable, and it has come from theologians of widely divergent views. The Covenant text itself represents work done by theologians of similarly diverse views, including several from North America. It does not invent a new orthodoxy or a new system of doctrinal policing or a centralised authority, quite explicitly declaring that it does not seek to override any province’s canonical autonomy. After such a number of discussions and revisions, it is dispiriting to see the Covenant still being represented as a tool of exclusion and tyranny.
But the truth is that it does mark the seriousness of our current situation. It is an illusion to think that without some changes the Communion will carry on as usual, and a greater illusion to think that the Church of England can somehow derail the entire process. The unpalatable fact is that certain decisions in any province affect all. We may think they shouldn’t, but they simply do. If we ignore this, we ignore what is already a real danger, the piece-by-piece dissolution of the Communion and the emergence of new structures in which relation to the Church of England and the See of Canterbury are likely not to figure significantly. All very well, you may say; but among the potential casualties are all those areas of interaction and exchange that are part of the lifeblood of our church and of many often quite vulnerable churches elsewhere. These relations are remarkably robust, given the institutional tensions at the moment, and, as I’ve often said, many will survive further disruption. But they will be complicated and weakened by major fracture and realignment.
The Covenant offers the possibility of a voluntary promise to consult. And it also recognises that even after consultation there may still be disagreement, that such disagreement may result in rupture of some aspects of communion, and that this needs to be managed in a careful and orderly way. Now the risk and reality of such rupture is already there, make no mistake. The question is whether we are able to make an intelligent decision about how we deal with it. To say yes to the Covenant is not to tie our hands. But it is to recognise that we have the option of tying our hands if we judge, after consultation, that the divisive effects of some step are too costly. The question is how far we feel able to go in making our decisions in such a way as to keep the trust of our fellow-Anglicans in other contexts. If we decide that this is not the kind of relationship we want with other Anglicans, well and good. But it has consequences. Whatever happens, with or without the Covenant, the Communion will not simply stay the same. Historic allegiances cannot be taken for granted. They will survive and develop only if we can build up durable and adult bonds of fellowship. And in this respect, the Church of England is bound to engage in this process as one member of the Communion among others. The fact is that the mutual loyalty of the Communion needs work, and the Covenant proposals are the only sign at the moment of the kind of work that has to be done.
Back to Wesley. He knew quite well that in a world of theological confusion, political manoeuvring and historical memories, Christian divisions are going to happen and to persist, and he himself was quite clear why he thought Baptists and Calvinists seriously wrong and why he could not join them in visible unity until things had been sorted out (he thought Calvinism a grave problem in effective evangelisation). What he is concerned to safeguard is what he calls heart being true to heart. There may be divisions, old and new, and no Christian should be complacent about that or step back from the hard work of visible reconciliation. But there is a kind of mutual loyalty that allows mutual respect to underpin even these separations, the loyalty that comes from recognising in the other Christ’s loyalty or faithfulness to them. I want to encourage this Synod as forcefully as I can to maintain this level of loyalty to each other – and to the whole Anglican family. Because, if the three great priorities earlier identified are the right ones, we are called on to be loyal in Christ’s name to the whole society in which he has called us to serve. It is a society that finds trust difficult, a society in which there is a widespread sense that other people and institutions and classes cannot be relied on to be faithful to the common good. We have the extraordinary opportunity of showing what a faithful community might be, in which no-one is forgotten – that is our version of ‘Big Society’ language. But we shall be set free for this if our mutual faithfulness here in this part of Christ’s Body that is the General Synod becomes a daily reality. ‘Let all these things stand by,’ says Wesley; ‘we will talk of them.’ But the question that cannot wait until we have ‘talked of them’ remains: and I end by quoting it as Wesley does in the language of the King James Bible, and repeating it as the agenda for this Synod’s life and work: ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’