Sunday, 9 February 2014

A New Reformation

In Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, the Pardoner's job is to travel around selling 'indulgences' - assurances that, for a sum of money, people's sins had been forgiven and their entrance to Heaven smoothed. At one point in the tale, he says that actually he could not care less whether 'their souls go a-blackberrying in Hell.' It was outrage at this kind of moral corruption that fuelled the Reformation and gave rise to the need for the Roman Catholic church also to reform itself at the Counter-reformation.

A modern woodcarving

Are we in a pre-second reformation place today? Robert Warner, in his article Why Young People Turn Their Backs on the Church here tells us that research shows that young people (a good number of whom would identify themselves as Christians and people of prayer) experience the church as as morally corrupt as Chaucer's medieval audience did. In a society where living together before marriage, the use of contraception, acceptance of gay and bisexual life styles and questions about end of life that challenge traditional values are all seen as normal, responsible moral stances, what does the church have to bring to the table?  'Senior clergy want the church to be more engaging without softening its traditional moral absolutism. One recently described modern Britain as 'floundering among meaningless anxiety and despair.' That is one interpretation of the revolution we have seen over the past 50 years. Another might simply be that' 'People have embraced a new morality and it is the church which is now considered immoral.' This is true even for many who consider themselves Christians. In a nutshell, the moral convictions espoused by society at large and 'new paradigm Christians' radically challenge some of the church's moral teachings and values. The church has been found wanting not only in these teachings but in its own failure to live up to them in profound, structural and persistent ways even when such behaviour is repeatedly uncovered and pointed out.

I was invited to speak, yesterday, at a meeting about the position of women in the Anglican churches in England and Wales. Having listened to an informative and well-reasoned presentation about the latest proposals for women bishops in the Church of England and the plans to accommodate those who will not accept them, I did my usual spiel about how extraordinary it was to be having such a conversation at all in 2014 in Britain. One of what looked like 3 women under 35 in the audience then commented that her generation find the church's apparent difficulty with women offensive. Young women today are not brought up to think that they will be barred from doing things because of their gender. Any organisation that attempts to do this ought to have a convincing rationale for its stance in order to have even a modicum of credibility and, in this respect, the churches specularly fail. An example might be the Armed Forces' arguments for the exclusion of women from some jobs; although some do challenge this, most can at least comprehend the arguments. Women coming newly into the churches, then, are  going to be brought up short by a massive shock (one described it as a 'body blow') when they realise there is a hidden agenda that constrains their role and contribution simply on grounds of their gender. I've heard this story time and time and time again over the past 10 years. It was certainly no surprise to see from Linda Woodhead's latest set of statistics in the Church Times this week that there is currently only 1 ordained woman under 25 and 19 under 30 in the Church of England. See Not Enough Boots on the Ground

So what does this new paradigm Christianity look like? What manner of reforming fire is sweeping through Christianity? At the Reformation 400 years ago and in the counter reformation that followed, it was a fire that destroyed or refined assumptions about the church's role in controlling sin and forgiveness (justification), about the place of the sacraments in that process and about the interpretation of scripture. The reformation that is gathering momentum today seems to me to be a fire that will radically redefine (if we let it) the church's role in controlling human relationships especially around birth, death and sexuality. These are essentially questions about our creatureliness and it is perhaps no coincidence that they are emerging so strongly at a time when our understanding about our relationship to the planet is also undergoing a revolution.

For some these changes cannot come quickly enough. For others there is great apprehension, not to say a sense of anxiety about major shifts in paradigm. Coming, myself, from a tradition that takes scripture very seriously and continuing every day to rejoice in the treasures found there, I see in the Biblical texts huge resources that fuel this refining fire. Not, I hasten to add, in particular passages cherry picked and strung together to support sociologically-driven arguments. But in the witness of the whole narrative of scripture. Over a 5,000 year period we do indeed find 'texts of terror' (whose function is more to describe an historical social order than to tell us anything direct about God or theodicy) for women, gay people, people of the 'wrong' ethnicity or clan or family. But we also find among the people who follow God most passionately an amazing range of relationships based on personal integrity - and the losing and finding of integrity. Courage, respect, patience and willingness to stand against the social norm when required to do so characterise these 'rainbow' relationships. Think of Jacob and Rachel, Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, Esther and her people, Jonathan and David, Mary and Joseph, Jesus and John, the beloved disciple.We also find people whose relationships break down (Joseph and his brothers, David, Michal and Bathsheba) but who do not thereby cease to play a significant part in the purposes of God. In the New Testament and especially the gospels, we have the surprising fact that relatively little mention is made of the place of marriage in the lives of those closest to Jesus - and this is a culture where family life and the bearing of children were highly prized. Instead, around Jesus, we find all kinds of friendship groupings - brothers and sisters, single and married women, single and married men, small groups of women and men friends for whom Jesus Himself is said to have felt differing degrees of friendship and love. 

Picture taken from the Baylor Proud website, 'Helping Churches Welcome Kids with Special Needs'

What leaps out from the pages of scripture is that relationship with God, the courage to be true to oneself, and the wisdom to do this in the social setting in which one has been placed so as to bring good and remain true to God's purposes are what matter. Unless the churches of the twenty first century rediscover this, they (we, I should say) will wither on the vine and struggle to bear fruit. Unless we respond to the spiritual and moral evolution around us we will increasingly be accused of hypocrisy and immorality by younger generations who have been touched by revolution that is already far advanced.   


  1. Well written Janet, I truly agree with what you have said here.

    I do feel that the Church has lost its way, and is in danger of disappearing all together, if it does not change very soon. I used to be proud to say I was C of E but these days, I confess that I don't feel religious at all, and that is very sad.
    I have at times written to Bishops in the vane hope that they would listen, but they all seem to live in their own little world insulated from reality.

    I live in hope that some day they will go back to their grass roots and learn from their mistakes before its too late

  2. It's so deeply important to listen to what people the country over are saying.

  3. Wonderful. It is the whole narrative that will indeed help us. The Bible is full of stories in which God is present in the 'out of bounds' places. Thanks for this Janet.

  4. Yes, I never cease to be excited by the possibilities in scripture and really the whole narrative is full of the unlikely person/people being those who are most clearly of God, in the end.

  5. My frustration is that there seems very few places to have the discussion to explore the possibilities.