Angela’s Lashes — in response to Canon Tilby and her detractors, concerning an ‘Evangelical takeover’

Angela Tilby’s Church Times articles have a reputation for rattling cages, indicating (if nothing else) the effectiveness of a certain sort of quiet English prose style.

This week, in ‘Deliver us from the Evangelical takeover’ (27 April), she has applied a crowd-dividing scalpel to her readership and my Twitter feed, attracting support from some, but criticism from others who have ‘liked’ seeing her piece described as ‘pathetic’ ‘dreadful’ and ‘victim-like’. Someone else has simply called it a #SloppyColumn. ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ one might well say. This way to the ducking-stool!

Except, of course, there’s nothing new to see. As we come to terms with the apparent demise of at least parts of the Church of England, there is understandably much passionate arguing about how best to bail out the water, plug the holes and rebuild the sinking boat so that it’s fit to carry the Lord across the Lake once more. I’ve done a bit of it myself, and am clear that there must be room for many different kinds of ‘church’. We know this instinctively as Anglicans and my friend @educationpriest is right to say that there is ‘no evangelical takeover’. Where ‘Catholics and others show life, enthusiasm, energy and good management’, the doors of support and funding are indeed ‘open’ to all kinds of parishes and projects.

Perhaps there’s a ‘takeover’ in the appointment of bishops? I’ve no idea. As a general rule, and as Professor O’Donovan’s CNC review recently illustrated, the usual request is that there should be more bishops ‘like us’, whoever ‘we’ happen to be. So if the evangelical churches are full, and if both of the archbishops are evangelical, it might mean a superfluity of evangelicals in purple. There are those who are convinced of it, but I cannot say.

Besides, the old labels have been inadequate for years: many evangelicals have shown an eager appetite for liturgy with all the trimmings, and while some catholics seem to be looking more conservatively at Scripture (perhaps seeking support for convictions about ordination), yet other evangelicals are reaching wonderfully surprising conclusions on human sexuality, and are consequently beginning to lighten their own hermeneutical grip.

Or so it seems to me. I’m not sure how you would ordinarily check such impressions, and it’s unfortunate that we are usually reduced to the level of the merely anecdotal. It is this, perhaps, that accounts for the threat of slight scorn with which much of the ‘conversation’ is uttered. When only the proper anoraks have any data, the rest of us rely on increasingly forthright assertion and the profile picture’s hard stare.

Canon Tilby’s concern, however (which I share), has more to do with communication between Church and society than within the Church as it arranges the delivery of its priorities. If it is the case (as she reports) that patients are flocking to their GPs with ‘existential distress’, then it means that for all our outreach, our men’s breakfasts, our cafés in the crossing and post offices in the choir vestry (all of which I entirely support), we still aren’t persuading enough citizens to look to the Church as a community among whom they can ‘open their grief’ and seek ‘comfort and counsel’ (BCP Communion).

Her article suggests that this is because of the current ‘assumption that there is simply no other way of speaking of the Christian faith’ than as one in which ‘individuals let Jesus into their hearts and lives one by one.’ (And do note that it’s not the second of those quotations that expresses her concern, but the first.) The problem, presumably, is that the enthusiasm of ‘the saved and the certain’ is scaring off the more reticent, a situation perfectly satirised by the Fast Show in their Christian Cops sketch. Again, I’m unclear how one would go about verifying that suspicion. There’s certainly nothing new in a very mixed attitude to enthusiasm in the Church.

It is Canon Tilby’s last two paragraphs that most closely reflect my own experiences, and attracted my eager support for her unpopular article. She juxtaposes two worlds: one, a warm, smiling, Messy world of cutting and pasting, chatting and sharing, with perhaps a few choruses before home-time. The other, a more austere and reserved, silent and private world of ‘the slow nurturing of the person through unconsciously memorised texts.’ This is much more self-consciously RS Thomas-type territory, the way ‘church’ used unapologetically to be. The parson wasn’t a chat-show host; the organist wasn’t a pop star. And one’s existential anxieties were kept at bay by the sure and certain hope that God was in His heaven, and that all would be well with the world.

Now, whether we should have been playing with tea-lights and cutting out paper flames all along; or whether our failure to do so is the reason some of the churches are emptying, the quieter days that Canon Tilby describes are surely gone now. And it’s perfectly possible to mourn them with nostalgia, sorrow and regret (which Tilby pours out in abundance) without for a moment being guilty of ‘unhelpful bleating’ or victim-like writing. She’s not ‘dreadful’. She’s just not dreadfully happy.

In the end, it’s surely all a matter of psychology, certainly once you’re retired or safely beyond the siren bray of ambition. For everyone convinced that the mission of an accessible and brightly smiling Church is the only way ahead (sans vestments, sans ecclesiology, sans Canon B5), there are others who are certain that only a liturgical diet of lacy albs and Palestrina, or a relentless programme of protest marches and Iona songs are capable of communicating salvation. Why? Because these are the things that they need to avoid their own existential crises. But what gets you through the day gives me nightmares. What soothes my soul is like fingernails down a blackboard to yours.

Yet, to miss what has gone and to be unimpressed by what has succeeded it is no crime. To say honestly what you discern or fear does not make you pathetic. And if it gets other people thinking and talking, planning and praying, then so much the better. Indeed, if you’ve done all that, you’ve performed a truly Evangelical takeover of your own.


Wider still and wider — setting the bounds of a new England on St George’s Day

I have always had a problem with St George: all that flag-flying, God-for-Harrying, Last-night-of-the-Promming fervour. I’ve never been wholly happy to have him in church, thinking he’s probably best left in the cheery care of the Pearly Kings and Queens down Trafalgar Square, jostling with the burger vans and roaming entertainers.


The dragon-slayer is now a familiar sight on the Spring outdoor-events circuit, having been brought centre-stage —like his colleagues Saints Andrew, David and Patrick— chiefly by a hospitality industry that is always keen on a knees-up, avoiding in this instance any unwelcome post-Easter/pre-summer slump in sales.


The cult of Saint George was initially brought to England by crusaders returning from the Middle East, and some of their more robust and mouthy descendants we no doubt see to this very day in an assortment of high-speed vans, their red-and-white flags fluttering from the windows whenever the nation’s next sporting humiliation draws near.


More modest souls would probably prefer his predecessor, the chaste and godly Edward Confessor who built Westminster Abbey, and whose touch alone could cure the most unsightly dermatological complaint. But he was not exactly high-octane on the personal level, and we can see how George might have been considered the more invigorating option and so anointed for the top post-mortem post of patron saint.


I say ‘we can see’, but alas we can see nothing, wholly deprived as we are of any consensus on anything.  In recent times, we have gone way beyond the old familiar sensation of being a nation that had lost an empire without finding a subsequent role. After decades of indecision and a bitter and mendacious referendum, we have abandoned our European neighbours and, seeing ourselves as some sort of priapic world player, have chosen to invest our hopes in the USA just at a time when their own choice of leader makes such a decision look somewhat ill-advised. Add strident calls for Scottish independence, intractable problems with the Irish border, and the sense of a kingdom cracking beneath the weight of its own self-induced cock-up is palpable. It’s like being stuck in the storm with King Lear.


George as emblematic of England absolutely feeds this ravenous disunity. For the racially-intolerant (whether UKIP’s faux-tweedy Farageistas, or the no longer shaven-headed supporters of the BNP), our dark-skinned patron saint is pressed into incongruous service as symbol of a non-existent whites-only England, as if we were acting out an endless episode of Miss Marple, without any of the racial and cultural diversity that we have in some measure experienced since Boudicca was a girl.


And now, with the unspeakable betrayal of the Windrush generation by the Right, and the appalling anti-Semitism that continues to cast its incomprehensible shadow on the Left, we find ourselves called to celebrate St George at a time when we are not so much ‘taking back control’ as completely spinning out of it. Government and Opposition are equally rudderless, significantly damaged by racism and disunity; the historic third party, already decimated, is unable to assume any mantle of responsibility, and with the dangerous uncharted shambles of Brexit just around the corner, one feels that England cannot have been in a worse situation since the throaty aircraft of the Luftwaffe were chugging dangerously through the skies above us.


All of which, perhaps, is simply the imperial bully’s just reward for past sins, the whirligig of time bringing in his revenges, and so on. It’s certainly easier to celebrate nationhood in a country that was more colonised than colonising. I lived for a time in Greece and adored celebratory evenings of national culture. They have of course like all of us done some frankly unpleasant things from time to time in their history, but their essential myth of throwing off the shackles of occupation (being true, unlike the supposed Independence Day our Foreign Secretary egregiously wants to fabricate out of the day of the Brexit vote) gives them the liberty we have lacked to drape the flag over their shoulders, tune the bouzouki, throw a bit more oregano in the kleftiko, and make a song and dance like Zorba.


So if there’s one thing we need to do urgently in this England in such dire need of renewal, it’s consciously to transform St George’s Day and his flag so that they are associated not with ‘setting the bounds’ of Empire, but opening the hearts and minds of our citizens ‘wider still and wider’. Obviously, such work does not happen overnight, especially when it runs counter to a human instinct to fear difference. This is going to take more than a few bhajis and Victoria sponges to sort out. But it can, must and will be done, and this year’s London celebration of the ‘Feast of St George’ was a great encouragement. The Mayor of London spoke movingly about the English complementarity of his identities of husband and father, Londoner and Muslim. (Had he been gay or a woman or disabled or trans, these notes would also have rung out with an urgency equal to those of race and religion, adding their own indispensable sound to the nation’s much-needed harmony.) He waved his St George’s flag with a gathering of old white Cockneys, while the rainbow people partied on around him, consuming community-building gallons of tea (the drink that cheers without inebriating), and no doubt enjoying much else besides.

Brown face St George's FlagOne picture on his Twitter feed caught my eye. A young brown girl with pierced lips had painted a red cross in make-up on her face. It needs no interpretation: it is an icon of what all these words have been about.
In all of this, George himself points the way. The only two biographical details the hagiographies give us with any certainty is that he gave his goods to the poor and confessed the name of Christ at the court of his king.  To be generous to the point of folly, and faithful even when persecution is threatened, require a strength which only the gentle can muster, and a realism which only the idealist can achieve. For Christians, the significance of these acts is clear. As the Pope said in his recent visit to the English College in Rome, love of God and of neighbour provide the foundation stones of the Christian life.


And for people of all religious traditions and none, the creation of any worthwhile national community involves a commitment to others, irrespective of their background, recognising their inviolable human dignity, especially that of the least fortunate; and a constant search for justice and truth. So perhaps we can cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George’ with an easier mind than we imagined. It turns out that he is as contemporary and necessary as can be.


Dandelions — on the bombing of Syria, 14 April 2018

To bomb or not to bomb?

That is the question.

But I have no answer.


I can barely manage ‘Tea or coffee?’

sitting in my sunny cul-de-sac

(neat and tidy, one tree each).


On drives and verges cars stand by,

ready for the Tesco run, lunch with Grandma,

and the Five-a-side we’re bound to win.


Through tiny lawns

ready for their first Spring cut,

weeds push skywards to a sure beheading.


But they’ll be back; for, never rooted up,

other mornings, other lawns

will see them loitering golden, green.


On screen, the Dementer-in-Chief,

strutting like a thrice-crowed cock,

showered and pink stands furrowed by the flag,


his gameshow grin internalised

(see Power for Dummies, page 13);

a man at last, a blooded warrior.


Now bridesmaid Britain, kitten-heeled,

does its favourite Churchill voice

and waves young airmen off to war.


And while they rocket overhead,

families beneath them shelter in the caves

of their own arched backs and bloodied arms.


Is every prayer a prayer to stop the bombs?

Or is the hell of some no hotter in these flames?

I have no answer, none


but that these old tales set out in hieroglyphs

can never be uprooted by a fire.

Only patience can renew the land,


or else the great round clock moves on,

seeds take flight

and where they lie fresh hatred grows.


Wealands Bell

14 April 2018


Preaching in red ink

Of the various congregations I have addressed over the years, it is my current flock of teenagers that poses by far the greatest homiletic challenge and opportunity. Usually, in a parish, the people voluntarily turn up, are more or less signed up, and generously put up with whatever preaching is set before them as nourishment for the week ahead. Theological depth is by no means universally valued. One often gets the impression that what people really want from their preachers is a joke, a heart-warming story and a vignette of vicarage life to make everyone feel involved in the compelling soap opera that is sometimes the Church.


This is not my current experience. Working in a school that retains a tradition of compulsory daily chapel, I do not unfailingly encounter a breathless zeal among the masses to hear the Word of God. That said, there is a generally high degree of willing participation in singing, listening and engagement with chapel, suggesting that, provided certain principles are not forgotten, a school’s constituents are likely to accept the essential premise that the Christian tradition in which a school was founded (in 1480 or 1840 or whenever), is one we gain more by maintaining than abandoning, even if we are no longer a recognisably ecclesiastical institution or Christian society.


But the provisos I alluded to are fundamental and quite unforgiving. You can’t, for example, simply iterate the tenets of the faith (even from a high pulpit) without saying exactly what you mean by them. To preach that ‘Jesus came down to earth to save me from my sins’ (the staple of so much Passiontide teaching) simply won’t do when delivered without a single word of commentary. An audience that has the blood-red instruction to ‘SAY WHY’ blazoned across its essays every week is unlikely to be understanding of any unsubstantiated glibness in a preacher.


So phrases like ‘God so loved the world …’ are to be used with particular care, avoiding the landmines of the anthropomorphism that can so easily turn God into Santa Claus, while steering equally clear of the cosmological vagueness that uses ‘God’ only as code for whatever incomprehensible physics permeates the star-spangled cosmos.


Where then do we turn to find words that are true and helpful? As always, the best words will be those that are rooted in people’s daily experience. If we’re talking about God’s love, we might find a way into the concept by thinking about the nature of the world as capable of the endless invention and re-invention that allows us (for example) to experience restoration after loss and reconciliation after discord. It is true that this outpouring of love will require for God a role in creation greater than many will be happy to yield; but if we can start to pick a hole through that muddle, it will allow preachers to talk of a God of love when other registers may sound too sing-song, convenient, infantile.


And when this talk of loving turns to the ‘only-begotten Son’ of John 3.16, we will need to avoid anything that hints at family trees and sexual reproduction, replacing them with the poetry that speaks of Christ as ‘radiance’ and ‘imprint’ (Hebrews 1) or as ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15).


As for enjoying ‘everlasting life’, I am not hopeful that many of my listeners would be able to imagine themselves as eternally-experiencing subjects (as my colleagues in the philosophy department would say), but this need not lead us to jettison all attempts at identifying that quality of human life that reflects deepest reality (what we might call divinity), and that enjoys the sort of ongoing significance that could be considered permanent.


Now, I know that none of this is news. Using words that can be understood and defended is fundamental to any educational or homiletic task; which is why I suffer such despair when prominent voices address matters as complex as the Passion in markedly unhelpful ways. Consider this Good Friday tweet, for example: ‘From the cross, Jesus cried ‘It is finished.’ That means that every sin you ever committed or ever will commit has been paid for. Your worst secret is known to God and the price has been paid. The only thing left to decide is: Will you accept this gift?’


Thus Mr Farron, the former political leader who has already given us a pretty shrewd idea of what he considers ‘sins and secrets’ to include. Leaving aside the question of how healthy it is to conceive of human life as an agglomeration of supposed failings (and I’m clear that it is generally unhelpful and damaging to the point of abuse), this mechanistic account of salvation is strong on certain readings of the Cross, but rather weaker on questions of how and why salvation occurs.


I certainly do not want us to go through life thinking that we are immune to all failings and devoid of any faults. That would be an opposite but equal sort of abuse. But I do want a person’s knowledge of Christ to be based on more than a reductionist concept of him as a kind of moral Mr Muscle who removes the grime of sin, leaving everything sparkling clean and good as new.


By all means let us talk of sacrifice, but let us begin by considering the sort of reparation we recognise and rely on when our trust is broken and our own relationships falter. Anything else will be in danger of making Tarzan-leaps across gaping chasms that only the already-convinced will find remotely comprehensible.


Now, I am aware that in making these remarks I may either sound churlish or simply be stating the obvious. All I can observe from my corner of the vineyard is that being clear about theology (and open to its awkward questions) is the indispensable first step in engaging in faith-talk with lively minds. Too often, the supposition seems to be that, if only we can get the message slick enough, the marketing strategy well enough directed, the teeth white enough and the participants drop-dead cool enough, everything else will follow. This is not my experience.


Of course, we who belong to a supposedly life-giving community wish to commend it to others by welcome and example. But this work cannot take place in a theological vacuum. We must seriously and rigorously address pressing intellectual matters if we are to commend to a new generation the faith once delivered to us.


Just saying happy stuff from time to time is unlikely to be sufficient.