Monday, 12 September 2016

An Open Letter From Me to the C of E ('cause everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn't I?)

Dear Everyone,

Oh no, you think. Another open letter. Surely we've had enough of those lately. Well yes, I reply, that's true, there have been a few, haven't there? Mine is a bit different, though; firstly, I haven't canvassed for signatures other than my own, because this is my letter, and mine alone. Secondly, this letter isn't addressed so much to the Bishops, who are having quite a busy week and, as I've said, have had a few letters come their way already, as to the whole church, at least inasfar as I've experienced the Church of England in all the many people with whom I've prayed, worshipped, thought, learnt, ate, argued, lamented and laughed over the years.

As our Bishops meet this week to try and find the best ways they know to keep us all in the same boat, or as many of us as possible, I've read and responded to the wince-inducing pain of the issues that threaten to divide us (oh, go on, then: SEX. Visceral and fundamental to our humanity, no wonder poverty, the refugee crisis, party politics, Brexit and longstanding theological controversies have nothing on sex when it comes to threatening to divide a church).

As I've ouched my way through blog posts and online tussles between liberal and conservative, progressive and less-progressive, what I've found myself pondering is not so much the presenting issue (I've done enough of that already) nor the people involved (no offence), but the Church at the heart of this latest round of culture war skirmishes.

So, Church, my letter is to you.        

I met you long before I remember, before I could walk (just) or talk. Before my memories blurred into focus, you took me in your arms, and you welcomed me, washed me, and buried me all in one moment. Through my childhood you were there with your bonfire night parties and outrageous pantomimes, your weak orange squash and your strange, compelling words, your enormous crucifix above Father David's head as he beat his chest and softly spoke of the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. You were there with choir rehearsals, Sunday School fuzzy felt Bible stories and Easter Monday walks to the Cathedral.

You were there when Father Stripey-Beard (whose real name is a matter of historical irrelevance) stood next to a Bishop and prayed that the first welcome I ever received from you would be confirmed as mine forever. You were there in the confirmation present I got, a pair of dangly earrings with at least twelve crosses hanging from each ear. That's how much I wanted to know what you knew; every one of those crosses, and more. I'd have covered my ears in them if I could. You were there to hear and hold all my questions, and you did your best to answer them, even when I didn't understand your answers and wasn't ever really looking for answers, anyway.

You were there, in the background, through my teens when the evangelical youth group seemed so much more definite and do-able, and you were there when I arrived, a few years later, away from home at university in your birthplace, of all places. You were there as I stood during Freshers' Week and took in the list of Archbishops, going all the way back to Augustine himself, my A Level History still fresh in my imagination as I imbibed fifteen hundred years of comings and goings, prayer and politics, all in this one, awe-inspiring place, where I stood, a term later, with the Christian Union and sang, of all things, 'Come On and Celebrate.' In my defence, it was 1992.

You were there for me through those tumultuous, idealistic years of university, in gentle Sunday mornings with those occasional, fleeting movements of the divine, and in the long, heartfelt Sunday evenings when 195 young people who all wanted to change the world crammed into a Canterbury townhouse living room (then afterwards in the kitchen for private prayer for those who *really* wanted to change the world).

We've been through a lot together since then, haven't we, Church? I've sat on pews, on plastic chairs, and on the floor of leaky tents at agricultural showgrounds. I've got up early to learn to love the profound poetry of the BCP, I've stayed up late to wait and watch. I've done Toddler Church and Sunday School and Messy Mass and Youth Hub. I've heard sermons, homilies, Bible expositions and PowerPoint talks. I've sung choruses, hymns, chants and anthems. I've arrived early at a conservative evangelical church to be offered a place in a pre-worship prayer group, and I've arrived late at a charismatic church to find what looked like the re-enactment of the crucifixion on TV screens all around the building. I've arrived on time at an Anglo-Catholic church to be given detailed instructions of when and how to move during the service. I've been slayed in the Spirit at Holy Trinity Brompton, and basked in the cavernous holiness of Brompton Oratory (although I know that, strictly speaking, that's not exactly you - but still....)

I've enjoyed the close friendship of a Prayer Triplet, and have discovered the quiet, liberating grace of confession. I've talked, I've sung, I've read, I've thought, I've prayed, I've responded, I've argued fiercely about things that mattered then and matter still to me...And you've helped me, all the way through, to pick my way through life's trickier times, and to know God in it all with me, with you, together, whatever. And more recently, as you know only too well, you've agreed with me that God was, and is, asking me to give myself to Him, through you, as a priest. You agreed that God could let Himself be placed in my hands, broken, and shared, every single week. (I still shake myself at the ground-breaking, breath-taking privilege you've let me be part of. What were you thinking, Church?)  And, rather more down to earth, you've paid me and housed me and educated my children.

And if I'm being really honest - and this is quite an admission for a priest to make - I'm not sure I could have done it without you, Church. I don't mean 'Church' in the universal sense here; I mean you in particular, you Church of England. You see, by the time I stood in Canterbury Cathedral and read back through the ages to 597 and St Augustine coming through the West Gate towers fresh from Gregory's monastery in Rome, I'd already worked out that I couldn't do narrow church of any particular persuasion. Maybe I'm too eclectic, too easily bored and too quickly resentful of being typecast or defined, but I knew that I'd pretty quickly start rebelling against a church that had all the answers for everything all the time, and especially against a church in which everyone had the same answer all the time. If that had been the only faith on offer to me at the age of 18, I'm not sure I'd have stuck with it. But what you gave me - and what you give me still - is a space to reach out, to try out ideas and to live with differences. This doesn't mean that my faith in Jesus, the faith you helped me find, is weak or changeable; in fact, the more I've opened myself to Christian people in their myriad differences in religious experience, and the more I've recognised that  all God's people are known and cherished by God, the firmer and clearer my faith in the unchanging love of God has become.  

So, Church, this is my plea: please don't go. You are a hundred thousand individual 'yous', and each one of you is part of me, and whether you know it or not, I am part of you, too.

And I need you all. I need you conservative evangelicals, with your clear, true faith, your appetite to reach out with the good news, and your insistence on textual accuracy.

I need you radical liberals to get arrested and remind me of the cost of speaking out against injustice for the sake of the poor.

I need you charismatics to tell me of your visions and dreams for yourself and for the world.

I need you sacramentalists to help me draw near to the mystery of the Eucharist.

I need all you little local church congregations - my family - to be family to anyone and everyone who walks through your doors, and to walk out together as family to serve your communities with the love of Christ.

I need you progressives to push forward and seek to work out what it means to proclaim Christ afresh to each generation. I don't mind if you get it wrong sometimes, just as I don't mind if some of the new worship songs that others of you write aren't quite my style, because frankly I would far rather have a church with new songs to sing than one which has forgotten how to compose.

I need those few of you who go on television and the radio and remind the world that the Church is still here, still alive, still with so much to say and to offer and to do.

 I need those of you who do amazing things - who give to the poor, care for the ill and the housebound, look after the prisoners, teach and look after our children. And there are *so* many of you doing amazing things, week in, week out, all the time, and none of you think you are doing anything much - but you are.

The loss of any single one of you would be a loss for me. And of course, we need our Bishops to draw all us all together, to do their best to keep us all together despite the wince-inducing pain of the issues that threaten to divide us (oh, go on, then: SEX).  Yes, it's hard, because talking about sex is talking about that which is visceral and fundamental to our humanity. And no, we aren't going to agree, not all of us, anyway.  But, please: what we have, in this hotch-potch of contradictions and swirling currents of faith, is worth holding onto, even if it's hard, and even if we don't agree about sex. It's worth holding onto, because who we are - the Church of England - makes faith possible for contrary, questioning believers with low boredom thresholds, like me, and for so many other decent, good Christians who just want to worship God in a local church.

So this has been my letter to you, Church. I wonder, if each of us could write our own personal letter, tell our own stories of the C of E's presence through our lives, what all those letters would add up to. I'm sure God would love to read them all. And would they - could they ever - weigh less, matter less, mean less than what we think about sex? My prayer is for you, reading this, that you won't go, that you'll stick with this Church. And my prayer for any Bishops who may read this (because, of course, you're part of this church as much as anyone else, and my New Testament Greek pedantry reminds me that you are part of the laity as well as the episcopoi), that you will be given all the needful gifts of grace to help as many of us recaltriant Anglicans to stick together as possible. God knows you'll need them...

With love, and grateful thanks,