Anglicanism – the road ahead of us

By John Gillibrand
January 22, 2018

 I am originally from Manchester. I have been an Anglican priest since 1989, having trained for the ministry at St. Stephen’s House in Oxford, and I have served in parishes throughout Wales, most recently in the Parish of Llandeilo Tal y Bont, Pontarddulais, in the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon.

I am married to Gillian, and we have two sons, Adam and Peter. My experiences in caring for Adam who is disabled, led me to write Disabled Church, Disabled Society – the implication of autism for philosophy, theology and politics, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2010. This was shortlisted for the Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing at the Hay Festival in 2013. I learnt Welsh as an adult, and am a member of the Gorsedd of Bards. I have a fascination with the issues of Christian mission across cultural contexts, issues which I believe to be at the heart of the New Testament documents. In whatever context, my priesthood is not what I do, nor is it my status. It is my very being. In order to be who I am, I necessarily reflect theologically upon my context, both within and outside the church, both political and religious. This is – once more – what I am seeking to do here.

The Anglican Situation The context is one of impasse, of aporia, if you will. The death of so many of the generation having living memories of the struggle against Hitler, has led to the rise of new and dangerous hard right movements. Within the church, and as if in a different place, a seemingly intractable struggle drags on regarding human sexuality. In that struggle, I am – as a heterosexual (though my sexuality is none of your business) unambiguously in favour of equal marriage, and refuse to accuse loving same-sex couples of any kind of sinfulness. But of even greater concern is the way in which the sexuality wars have distracted the Anglican, and other churches, from our core teaching. “Good teacher”, Jesus was asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” No greater question imaginable could have been asked. The lawyer who asked the question knew the answer already: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10.25-28). If the church had concentrated on the proclamation of this message, if the church had been genuinely counter-cultural, our politics would by now have been in a better place. We needed to withstand the politics of hatred, and we chose to put our energies elsewhere.

Diversity and division The church is called to be an icon of loving relationship. “By this”, said Jesus, “will everyone know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13.35). In the midst of the hyper-division of late 15th century Europe, the Anglican Church – at its best – fulfilled that calling, combining within itself Catholic and Protestant elements, and aligning itself with High Renaissance culture. Diversity has been at the heart of Anglicanism since its very beginning. In the early 21st century, diversity seems to have been replaced by divisiveness. There is a cantankerous factionalism in the wider life of the church, and in local congregations, which so often leaves both Bishops and parish clergy as little more than adjudicators of quarrels. Rather than addressing each dispute singly, we need rather to begin the task of rebuilding an Anglican spirituality for the twenty-first century. This will be a spirituality in which Anglicans learn from, and are nourished by, all the strands within our tradition.

Faithfulness to the traditions of Anglicanism

Protestantism I know that there are other elements to the picture, but let me illustrate what I mean by referring to the strands of catholicity, protestantism and liberalism. As a good Protestant, I regard the Bible in its totality as the revealed Word of God, determinative in all aspects of faith and praxis. It is the measure of all things. Central to my ministry as a priest is seeking to enable people to take the word of scripture seriously. However, we belittle scripture if we refuse to hold it up to serious external scrutiny, in the same way that the institutional church has on occasion sought to avoid the scrutiny of others. Speaking personally, I do not leave my skills as a historian and philosopher to one side as I read scripture. The Word of God does not need to be insulated from the rough and tumble of contemporary academic debate – it needs to be a part of that debate, for, as the sixth of the 39 Articles tells us, it containeth all things necessary to salvation.

Catholicity As a good Catholic, my spirituality is eucharistically centred. The Eucharist, Mass, Holy Communion – by whatever name it is known – is a glorious act of protest. It is Passover, it is a shared walk to freedom. As we gather, by gathering, we protest against the breakdown of the values of communal solidarity which are both the cause and effect of the renewed rise of the hard-right. In place of a fascist self-assertion and hatred of the other, we meet with Jesus who gives himself for others, who empties himself for us. “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in the one bread”. It is a week by week, and day by day protest in churches throughout the land. Rather than lamenting the decline in numbers at worship, we need to call all to prayer and protest.

Liberalism As a good Liberal, I believe that mission starts outside the church. As Christians we have been called to be counter-cultural from the very earliest days, but we cannot be counter-cultural unless we have first engaged with our contemporary culture. This was a move made, for example, in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel. As St. John sought to gain the attention of the pagan world for the claims of the Gospel, he used the word ‘Word’ – logos, a word taken from the very heights of Hellenistic philosophy. St. John is telling his surrounding culture that they will understand the Gospel, in terms that they already know. Rather than creating its own cultural and social context in an ecclesiastical bubble, the church needs to live out its vocation in its worldly cultural and social context, as Jesus did.

Our shared spiritual ground As I have indicated, we need to rebuild Anglican spirituality, in solidarity with each other. At the heart of this is the practice of the prayer of silence. This is our capacity – Catholic, Protestant, Liberal, whatever label we give to ourselves or others – to pray in silence together, to move beyond vocal assertion of our own wisdom to the seeking of God’s wisdom in the still, small voice. If you have read this far, you may well be agitated by what you have read. Take a break now, pause, experience silence.

And then continue.

Finding unity through deconstruction The life of the church is too much predicated on binary opposites: Catholic – Protestant; Liberal – Conservative, and so on. At our worst, we define ourselves by whom we oppose rather than by positive faith. Derrida’s deconstruction offers us a way forward from this impasse. No term in binary opposition to another term can claim priority. Derrida called this a critique of Western metaphysics. It could perhaps also be called humility.

Deconstructing the establishment One particular target of deconstruction should be the church’s establishment. In the sacred-secular divide, the Anglican church has privileged the sacred, and privileged itself in its role as the established church. I am a priest of the Church in Wales. In Wales we have an Anglican church but no established church. Our contributions in the public sphere do not stand or fall on established privilege, but on their quality alone. The Christian Gospel is a critique of the operations of power which were so vividly depicted by Michel Foucault. We can so much better proclaim a Saviour whose salvific action consists not in being served, but serving, in giving his life as a ransom for many, if we do not take refuge in power relationships.

Missionality belongs to all of us So as a church we must prepare ourselves for mission. A commitment to mission does not belong to one particular group of Anglicans, to Evangelicals – it belongs to us all. Too often the internal wrangling and concerns of the church have taken our focus off mission. Equally, we should not engage in mission unless and until we are mission-ready. We need to have our own house in order, in ways which I have sought to outline, for otherwise the good news which we offer to others will be but partial.

Mission – starting with the questions What does mission look like? It begins with an acknowledgement of the questions being asked outside what Paul Tillich would have called the theological circle. The classic questions cannot be avoided. If we have a God of love, to whom we ascribe almighty power, why is the world like this? If the world is like this, with millions suffering day by day, can we believe that there is such a God? There are so many people who do not come to church because, having prayed from the profundity of their distress, they do not believe that they have received an answer. In the face of this agony, the last thing the church should do is provide easy answers, or shelter behind an ever more assertive faith in the miraculous which cannot be justified from the brute facts of life. We should become a place where questions – any question – can be asked, and responded to both in its own terms and in terms of the Christian inheritance of faith. Not only is it right to ask questions – the asking of the question belongs to the heart of our salvation. As Jesus dies upon the cross he calls out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27.46, Mark 15.34) This question raises in its starkest form the problem of faith. If Jesus did not believe in God, he would not be asking the ‘why’ question – why have you forsaken me? Unlike the day of Christ’s baptism, and of his transfiguration, there is no answer, there is no voice from heaven. The answer comes three days later in Jesus' resurrection. What binds Anglicans together, and binds us with our brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations, is Easter hope in the midst of a world of pain and trouble, hope against hope.

Pastoral care at the heart of mission In our mission, hope is no theological abstraction. It makes our pastoral work as a church absolutely central. In countless pastoral situations, we are called upon to be ministers of hope. I am not referring here to the traditional model of ministry, where a congregation drives a priest frantically round a diminishing body of the faithful, controlling him or her through a guilty supposition that enough has not yet been done. I am talking rather of the ministry of the whole congregation – priest and people, with the priest enabling people to be what they are called to be, the body of Christ in that place, in the immediate and the local. Easter hope belongs not just to clergy, but to all God’s people, and we are called upon to spread it. Nothing is more bleak than a soul that has lost hope – if we have hope, our vocation is to share it with others.

Pastoral care – always in context Pastoral care is exercised in context, and often in the context of transition. The church traditionally has exercised what should be acknowledged as an often challenging ministry to families through baptisms, weddings and funerals: Through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy.. We need to analyse more carefully what are the other sources of pastoral challenge. There are those which belong to the workplace, and those which belong to the home, both of which can be sources of the most enormous stress and difficulty.

Faith in the workplace In the workplace, there are the pressures of productivity related to a particular management culture. It was high time for the church to adopt a more managed approach to its people and resources. However, in the process of managing its way out of difficulty, there is a danger that the church will create a pastoral blockage. Those whose own difficulties are created by the culture of productivity and overbearing management will not find refuge in the body of Christ if that is a managed body, with a stress on activity and outcomes. The Sabbath needs to be a true Sabbath rest from the day to day unfolding of power relationships in the workplace. The church needs to practice the prayer of silence not only for its own benefit, but for all.

Faith in the home In the home, each family unit is impacted in its turn by the unfolding crisis of care. One in eight adults in the United Kingdom have some kind of responsibility as family carers, including 1.3 million people who provide over 50 hours of care per week. 625,000 people suffer mental and physical ill health as a direct consequence of the stress and physical demands of caring. Turning to professional care, the demands on the system are notoriously increasing.  Between 2003/4 and 2015/16, the number of admissions to hospital increased by 3.6 per cent a year. On discharge, the pressure transfers to social care. The King’s Fund points out that public spending on adult social care is set to fall to less than one per cent of GDP by 2019. As a result, “the potential for most local authorities to achieve more within existing resources is very limited and they will struggle to meet basic statutory duties.” It is not surprising in this context that standards of care have been compromised. In July 2017, for example, the Care Quality Commission reported 32 per cent of nursing home facilities in England were “inadequate or in need of improvement” and said that social care was in a “precarious” state.  In a system which is run on a shoestring, there is a notorious and chronic lack of investment in front line support workers, both in regard to wages and training.

The church quite rightly attends to the pastoral needs of individuals, but it cannot ignore the situation from which many of these needs arise. It is a situation which goes to the heart of our being, as human beings, and members of the body of Christ. We assert that God is love, that he has a loving care for us, and that we are called to love God. Care given and received is at the heart of the mystery of salvation. If we take pastoral care seriously, the church cannot be silent on the care crisis, and is called to play a part in resolving it.

The economic order that arises from good mission What therefore would a theological reflection on the care crisis look like? The church would stand against the selfish voter who, asserting the need to keep tax at a low level, would gamble that he or she would never need care services, or would even blank out that possibility. A church which speaks of us loving our neighbour as we love ourselves is committed to social solidarity in the face of collective human need. Nor can the church of the Good Samaritan be happy to ration care in the face of that need. The Good Samaritan did not work within a budget. He put two denarii up front, but instructed the innkeeper to: “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back” (Luke 10.35). Mrs Thatcher famously used the Good Samaritan as a paradigm of modern conservatism, describing him as able to care because he had the money, because he was prosperous. Famously also, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Bryne left a note for his successor in 2010, asserting, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, that there was no more money. So how do we finance the care to which the very being of God – the God who is love, calls us?

As Christians, we turn back to Scripture which is harsh on accumulators of capital – for the rich person, it is almost impossible to gain admission to the Kingdom of Heaven. The rich, says Jesus' mother,  have been sent empty away. The collective resources of our society need to be reorientated towards the provision of care. The provision of care becomes the motor of the economy, in place of the heavy industry of the Victorian period, and the financial services of the Thatcherite ‘revolution’. Care is not what we do with our surplus in the good years, when we can afford it – it is the widest provision of care, which makes for prosperity. Christian theology and sound economics are met together.

Abundant life, abundant mission And this is mission. In the midst of a troubling world, with so many hard questions, we are called upon to proclaim the love of God. In the abundant provision of care, in care given and received, people catch, and will catch, a glimpse of the reality of the love of God. Here it is made real. For too long the Anglican Church has been obsessed with its own concerns, with fellow members of the body of Christ treating each other as problems, as an excuse for not confronting the problems outside our doors. We have a glorious vocation, and have missed the glory of our calling.

The philosopher Heidegger, complicit in his Rectorship address at Marburg with the Nazi regime, was afforded much time for subsequent reflection. In 1966, interviewed in Der Spiegel, his view was that ‘only a God can save us now’. In 2017, that is more true than ever. But not just a God, but rather the Christian God, a Trinity of Persons, bound together in unity by perfect love. As Church we are called to live that Trinitarian life, but also to call the world to it. A few years ago, I spoke at a conference in which the Diocese of Manchester launched a new disability policy. The message of the Diocese was striking – welcome as if you are expected. This is a message which needs to go from the whole body of the Church to the whole of contemporary society. Welcome, as if you are expected, to the abundant life of the Trinity.


 © John Gillibrand is a priest of the Church in Wales. He is a theologian and researcher who has done extensive work on the history of disability. His latest book is Disabled Church - Disabled Society: The Implications of Autism for Philosophy, Theology and Politics, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Michael Ramsey Prize. He is currently working on how an alternative "care-based economy for all' could function.

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