Category Archives: Church Of England

Disagreement, conscience, and harm


In the wake of our bishops’ proposals for ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’ for use in the blessing of same-sex couples, there has been a lot of talk in Church of England circles about conscience.

In the ‘Response from the Bishops of the Church of England’ to the Living in Love and Faith process, the bishops speak of those who ‘might not want to use any of the resources [i.e., the new prayers] on the basis of conscience’ (Overview, p. 2), or for whom ‘the Prayers of Love and Faith will go too far: your consciences and theological convictions will not allow you to use them’ (Full response, p. 3). They go on to speak of ‘the disagreement, in conscience, of those who believe [that the blessing of same-sex couples] compromises the Church’s inherited tradition and teaching’ (Full response, p. 4). Later, it becomes clear that consciences on both sides of the debate are in view, and the bishops speak of the church’s disagreements about same-sex relationships as an ‘area where convictions among us differ, and where it is important to create a generous space for one another’s consciences’ (Full response, pp. 6–7, my emphasis). (There is also another reference to conscience in the bishops’ discussion of celibacy, on p. 16, which is not so relevant for my purposes.)

The picture painted is of a church that will hold together people whose consciences pull them in sharply different directions. It is of a church providing a ‘generous space’ that does not require those pulled in either direction to act directly against their own conscience, but does require them to live and work alongside some whose teachings and practices they find unconscionable.

In this post, I ask both what positive sense we can make of such a ‘generous space’ in the life of the church, and what it might cost to hold that space open.

That question of cost will be central, and I am not talking about some emotionally rewarding meaning of the word, involving humble acceptance or heroic self-sacrifice. I am talking about the harm done by our words and deeds, including to vulnerable people. If we do hold together as a church across our conscientious differences, we should do so with our eyes wide open to these harms, and with a fierce determination to minimise them.

Opposed consciences

There are many shades of opinion across the Church of England about the blessing of same-sex couples, but for simplicity’s sake I will talk for much of this post as if there were simply two opposing sides.

Some Anglicans believe that the blessing of same-sex couples is what Scripture demands, such that to do anything less would be a refusal of God’s command. Others believe that obedience to Scripture demands that we refrain from such blessing, and that to go ahead would be contrary to God’s revealed will.

Saying this much ought not to be controversial. It ought to be so obvious as to be banal, but some readers may already be unconvinced. They may believe that only one side in this debate is really seeking to be obedient to Scripture, and that the other is obviously subordinating Scripture to some other principle or impulse, whether that be ‘cultural accommodation’, or homophobia, or something else.

For myself, I think it clear that there are people on both sides who are sincerely convinced that their approach is demanded of them by Scripture. That is not the same as saying that I think these people are all using Scripture well, or that I think their arguments valid. It is not the same as saying that there are no other factors – psychological, cultural, ideological – shaping their conclusions. I am not, at this point, offering any evaluation of the quality of argument on either side, or of the consequences to which they lead. I am simply saying that on both sides there are people who, standing where they stand and thinking as they think, believe that their stance is required of them by Scripture.

Take me, for instance. I am on the affirming side of this debate. I do not think that the planned Prayers of Love and Faith go far enough, and I long for the day when we can marry same-sex couples in church. This is not something that I believe despite what I read in Scripture. I believe that this is what we are required to do by the gospel of Jesus Christ, as that gospel is revealed to us in Scripture. That is my settled conviction.

People on the opposing side are perfectly entitled to refuse my claims. They may think I have been misled. They may find it hard to see how I can say what I have just said with integrity, or how I can carry on saying it after patient attention to all that Scripture has to say. They may think my arguments invalid. The fact remains: I believe this.

We can say more. People on both sides have paid careful attention to the words of Scripture, over long periods of time. Whether we have done so well or badly, whether we have come to plausible or implausible conclusions, it is a fact that we have paid this attention and that we continue to do so. And, more than that, we have done this reading prayerfully and thoughtfully. We have done it in the context of the church’s tradition of worship. We have done it in the light of belief in the same creeds. Our views have been formed though deliberation, conversation, and argument. Our views are, on both sides, shared by a substantial community of fellow Christians. And even after many years of serious argument, neither side has managed to persuade the other.

We can acknowledge all of this even if we think those who disagree with us thoroughly mistaken, their readings of Scripture unjustified, their views distorted by forces and factors alien to the gospel, their conclusions unsustainable. We can say it even if we think that there are strong arguments for our position, arguments that ought to be convincing to all people of good will and open mind. I am not making a claim about ‘good people on both sides’, nor a claim about the equal validity of different pathways, nor a claim that the views proclaimed on both sides are worthy of admiration or even respect. My claim is much more restricted.

Even this limited claim has important consequences, however. Were anyone to demand that I turn away a same-sex couple from blessing, they would be demanding that I disobey what, with settled, deep and tested conviction, I believe the God of Jesus Christ revealed to us in Scripture is calling us as a church to do. They would be demanding that I betray my conscience. And I recognise that if anyone were to demand that those on the other side of the debate offer such a blessing, they would be demanding of them a similar betrayal.

Freedom of conscience?

This is an important fact, but conscience is no trump card. The fact that people on both sides sincerely regard their position as a matter of conscience does not by itself mean that the church must adopt a settlement accommodating both sides.

As things stand in the Church of England, however, I do think that the creation of ‘a generous space for one another’s consciences’ is our only viable way forward together, for now. That is because we find ourselves, for now, in a situation in which

  • for people on both sides of this debate, their stance is a matter of conscience;
  • those consciences have, on both sides, been shaped by diligent engagement with Scripture (and with tradition and reason);
  • that engagement with Scripture, tradition, and reason has happened in the context of the worship and credal affirmations of the church;
  • it has been careful, prayerful, and thoughtful;
  • people on both sides believe that it has been done in the context of serious pastoral concern for all those affected by the discussion;
  • there is no realistic prospect that, with a bit more time, either side is going to persuade most people on the other;
  • the disagreement between these sides is not simply a matter of scattered individuals versus a broad consensus, but of substantial bodies of Christians on both sides; and
  • we are not yet as a church in a position where a broad consensus has emerged that, however deeply held it might be, one or other of these positions is simply unconscionable.

There is more to say about what one might call the recognisability of each side’s engagement with Scripture – about what it means to be able to make the claims above about diligence, faithfulness, and prayerfulness, when one believes that one’s opponents’ conclusions about Scripture are mistaken. I will return to that topic in another post soon.

Most of the bullet points above are saying, however, that when we talk about conscience in this context, we are not talking about just any deeply held conviction, but about convictions that have been formed in the way that Christian conscience is meant to be formed in our shared tradition.

It is, I think, because we are in a situation in which all these points are true – because we are faced with two substantial bodies within one community, exhibiting different but equally ingrained and well tested forms of conscience, both shaped by long, prayerful, worship-soaked engagement with Scripture – that a settlement which permits freedom of conscience on this matter is called for at present in the Church of England.

The case for such a settlement is made still stronger by the recognition that we are not, in fact, a church divided into two discrete camps. There remain many who stand somewhere in the middle. Their consciences, formed by their own long, prayerful, worship-soaked engagement with Scripture, do not pull them sharply in either direction, and they have not been persuaded that either side is proposing something unconscionable.

A mixed church

The last bullet point above – acknowledging that there is as yet no broad consensus that one stance or the other is simply unconscionable – is crucial.

We are not in a position in which there is one clear, well-formed understanding across the church of what the gospel demands, and then a small minority whose conscience has led them to reject that consensus. Were we in that position, we might draw guidance from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5. There, Paul tells the Corinthians ‘not to associate with sexually immoral persons’ (5.9), and even to exclude them for now from their fellowship (5.11, 13). ‘Do you not know’, he says, ‘that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch’ (5.6–7). He can give that instruction, however, only because he expects his addressees to recognise and accept his description of the people in question as ‘sexually immoral’. That is, he presumes a basic level of agreement, and then issues instructions about what should flow from that agreement when there are those who reject it.

We are in a different situation. There is, for us, no such basic agreement. Instead, we are in a situation in which substantial groups within the church are teaching different things – a situation much more like that described in 1 Corinthians 3. It is clear there that factions have arisen in the Corinthian church, beholden to leaders with different teachings. Paul does not take this situation lightly. Earlier, he has appealed to the Corinthians, ‘by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose’ (1.10). And he does not present the differing teachings that have arisen amongst the Corinthian factions simply as acceptable variations on the gospel. The differences include matters of truth and error, healthy and diseased growth. Some of what is being taught, he insists, is nothing but ‘wood, hay and straw’ (3.12) – and that does not just mean that these teachings are less robust than the gold, silver and precious stones with which others are building. There are teachings destined for destruction when God’s judgment is revealed against them on the last day. Then ‘the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done’ (3.13). In other words, some of the teachings that Paul sees in the Corinthian church are teachings against which God’s wrath will burn, teachings that will have no place in the kingdom of heaven.

Until the Day of the Lord, however, there can be no separation. It is this whole building – built at present of both straw and gold – of which Paul says, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (3.16). And having just said that the teacher who builds with materials destined for destruction ‘will be saved, but only as through fire’ (3.15), Paul now says, ‘If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person’ (3.16–17). The one who destroys the temple of God is, it seems, not the one whose teaching is straw, but the one who by ‘jealousy and quarrelling’ (3.3) breaks the fellowship of God’s church.

In the Church of England, we are in a 1 Corinthians 3 situation. We are a church in which different teachers and different groups are building differently on the foundation laid in the gospel. Those differences are far from trivial: some are building with gold and silver, but some with materials destined for destruction. And yet we are in a situation in which, as things stand, the only way to remove the flammable material from our life together would be to divide the church down the middle, destroying the temple of God.

Facing harm

And yet, and yet – it is all too easy to say this glibly, and to let a rhetorical flourish in favour of unity drown out the real difficulty of what is being proposed.

If we do, as a church, opt for a settlement that permits freedom of conscience on this matter – permitting some to offer blessings to same-sex couples, and some to refuse – that should not be mistaken for easy tolerance, making space for cheerful coexistence.

Consider how it looks from my side. A central strand of my support for the affirming position comes from the harm I see being done to many LGBTQIA+ people by the church’s current teaching and practice. My desire to see the church develop new practice – and, as a bare minimum, to adopt these Prayers of Love and Faith – is rooted in my understanding of how the God of Jesus Christ witnessed to authoritatively in Scripture calls the church to respond to such suffering.

I am convinced of this, even though I know that those who disagree will interpret the evidence of harm differently, and will disagree sharply with the response that I claim is necessary.

This means, however, that permitting freedom of conscience on this question means two different things to me.

Positively, asking the church to permit the blessing of same-sex couples is not simply a matter of acknowledging a spectrum of permissible teaching. It is a matter of allowing a significant part of the church freedom to respond to a situation of suffering that, in all conscience, we find intolerable, and that we regard it as our gospel-driven, scripturally mandated calling to address. Freedom for us to follow our consciences here is freedom to repent of something we regard as a grave sin in the life of the church.

Negatively, however, freedom of conscience in this context also means freedom for those who take the opposing view. And so, from my point of view, allowing such freedom of conscience also means allowing the persistence of teachings and practices that I believe are sinful – teachings and practices that I believe do real harm.

When I say ‘harm’ here, I am talking about patterns of teaching and behaviour that drive people away from Jesus, and that do real psychological and physical damage. I am talking about patterns of teaching and behaviour that kill.

I also acknowledge that I am talking about forms of harm that do not threaten me personally. I am a straight, cis man in a heterosexual marriage, and the worst I have to face is people disagreeing with my opinions or getting cross about the work I do to advocate for them. The harm that I am talking about falls almost entirely on others, many of whom have already been asked to bear too much. I have no right to speak glibly about such harm, nor to minimise it in any way.

I do think that our current situation as a church calls for freedom of conscience on this matter. But I can’t regard that as anything more than a tragic, temporary necessity. And I say even this reluctantly because I will not be the one to bear the cost, and I’m not sure my voice should have much weight in arguments for or against it. I say what I say only because I think it may be the best we can currently do. I fear that, if we don’t do this, we will do something even worse.

I also acknowledge that many on the other side will think something that closely parallels this, except that their concern will be for the consequences of permitting freedom of conscience for the affirming side. They may think that the affirming position does real harm to people’s health, wellbeing, and perhaps eternal salvation. They may consider this a high price to pay for freedom of conscience, and if they accept such freedom it may well be with a reluctance that echoes my own.

Walking together?

To accept freedom of conscience in this area is not, then, the same as demanding that each of us accept the other’s conclusions or arguments. It is not the same as affirming that both sides are setting out acceptable and habitable versions of the Christian faith – two different but valid integrities. It is not the same as learning to see our differences as part of the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

Each side might well continue believing that the other’s stance is not only mistaken, but contrary to God’s will. We may continue to believe that the other side’s teaching and practice does real harm, to them and to others, including to many who are vulnerable. We may continue to believe that such harm is unacceptable, and that it has no place in the kingdom of God.

To accept freedom of conscience in this area, therefore, does not require either side to give up the long effort to persuade the other. It does not involve either side giving up on the hope of securing a broad enough consensus in the church finally to rule the other side’s stance out of bounds. It does not mean that we have accepted this settlement as permanent.

And accepting freedom of conscience in this area must not mean that we stop looking for ways to keep people as safe as we can from the harm that may follow from this ‘generous space for one another’s consciences’. It makes it all the more urgent that we look for ways of keeping people safe, and of responding to ongoing harm with whatever protection and healing we can. That is the least we can do, if this ‘generous space for one another’s consciences’ is, for now, the best that we can do.

Walking away or staying put?

For some on both sides, the only way to stay safe from this harm, and the only way to keep others safe, will be to walk away. I don’t fault those LGBTQIA+ people and allies who find that they can no longer remain in the Church of England, and who for their own safety and flourishing find some other part of God’s church in which to rest. Walking away from the Church of England need not mean walking away from the church. It certainly need not mean walking away from Christ.

Neither, however, can I fault those who choose to stay. I am one of them. From where I currently stand, I don’t see that walking away would do much good. It would not stop conservative churches teaching what they teach and practicing what they practice. I suspect that it would, in fact, insulate that teaching and practice from further challenge, and help to cement it in place. It might make it harder for LGBTQIA+ people in those churches to find their way to help. It might force churches that have been muddling along somewhere in the middle of these debates, and that might have been edging in a more affirming direction, to retreat. It would, ultimately, renounce the hope that one day the Church of England as a whole will become affirming.

I recognise that many on the conservative side may have similar reasons for not walking away. They may hope that they can protect people from the error into which they believe those of us on the affirming side have fallen, and they may believe themselves called to continue fighting for the church as a whole to recognise the truth as they understand.

Other factors

There are two other things I want to say in this regard. The first is negative. It seems clear that, for the Church of England to break apart would be a damaging and painful process, likely to drag on for decades and to reverberate for longer. I believe it would be a process in which a lot of people would be harmed.

I say this only cautiously, however, because I certainly don’t want to suggest that the ongoing pain of LGBTQIA+ people in the church is a price worth paying for the avoidance of this other kind of pain. I am not proposing any such horrific bargain.

The second point is more positive. Those with whom I disagree are not defined solely by the respects in which I disagree with them – and I hope that they might be able to say the same of me and those with whom I agree. However deep our disagreements, there remain things we can learn from one another, gifts we can give and receive across the barriers between us, and areas in which we might be able to work fruitfully together.

Here again, however, I say this cautiously: I don’t think this is a good for which we should be willing to throw LGBTQIA+ people under the bus.

The points I am making here are therefore secondary. If we judge that walking together, despite our deep differences, is the best that we can do at present, including being the best we can currently do for the LGBTQIA+ people who are part of our church, then it is worth noting that such walking together might also make possible the avoidance of these other harms, and the realisation of these other goods.

I must, however, add a caveat even to these hedged-about claims. If we do pursue such a settlement, we must not continue to force LGBTQIA+ people into dialogue or engagement with those whose teaching and practice does them harm, as if that were a positive way of expressing our togetherness. If our remaining together does make possible some goods, our accessing of those goods will need to be negotiated around the need to protect the LGBTQIA+ members of our body. It must not be allowed to override that protection.

A broken church

My argument has, I know, become clotted, in a way that reflects a genuine difficulty to this subject matter. To be a church shaped by freedom of conscience of this kind is no simple thing. It is not a simple matter of celebrating our diversity and enjoying the rich fellowship that can be shared across our differences. It involves real danger of harm. It demands of us that we learn how to navigate around that danger as best we can. It involves negotiating a deep brokenness in the Body of Christ.

It is possible to talk about living with brokenness in a way that makes one sound rather noble. One can aestheticize it, as if it were like preferring the poetry of R.S. Thomas to that of Pam Ayres. And yet we are not talking about a willingness to endure an aesthetically astringent bleakness, but about persisting with a church that can do real harm to vulnerable people. We are talking about allowing that harm to continue, because we can’t yet see how to do less harm together.

Such a settlement may, at present, be the best that we can do. I believe that it is. None of us, however, should make peace with it, or face away from what it will cost. We are, for the time being, a broken church.

Power in the Church of England

Over the past two years, I have been part of a group organising webinars on the theme ‘Power in the Church of England’. It has been a joint project of the Michael Ramsey Centre for Anglican Studies at Durham University and the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Videos of all eight webinars are available on our website. These blogposts are my own personal reflections, prompted by those presentations and the conversations that followed them – and also by papers and conversations at the recent conference on power hosted by the Society for the Study of Theology.

1.   Redefining power

‘Power’ is often taken to refer to a person’s capacity to influence others to bring about some desired outcome.

This definition conjures up a certain picture. We begin with an individual, who has some project in mind. We then widen the field of view, and see that this person is surrounded by others. We ask about the individual’s capacity to enlist these others in service of the project.

Once this definition has been given, the next step is often to set out the different ways in which the individual might succeed in enlisting these others – influencing, persuading, instructing, ordering, forcing and so on.

Before we get to this point, however, we already have a problem. This approach to power suggests that the basic subject matter is a person’s ability to get their own way. We may be interested in better and worse ways of exercising such power, but our basic picture of power will already be of

  1. an individual,
  2. a goal that this individual already has in mind, and
  3. other people, who appear in the picture only in ways framed by (1) and (2).

Let me suggest a different starting point. (This was prompted by a discussion at that SST conference, during which Emily Kempson posed the question of how our basic definition of power might need to change.)

  1. Instead of an individual’s project, I want to begin with the project of a whole community – to form a life together in the world.
  2. Instead of a goal that is already possessed, I want to begin with the idea that the members of this community don’t yet know all that they can become together.
  3. Instead of asking how one person can enlist others, I want to begin with the question of how all the people involved contribute to defining and pursuing their project.

If we want to think about power in the church, therefore, I think we should start with one central question: Who belongs in the process by which we are building a life together?

2.   Belonging 

The key word in this question is ‘belonging’. I use it to name something that goes beyond bare inclusion.

It refers to a certain kind of relationship between a community and an individual.

  • I belong in this community if I would be missed if I were not there.
  • I belong in this community if I make a difference to it, such that the community would be significantly different were I not there.
  • I belong in this community if not only my presence but the difference that I make to its life is acknowledged and welcomed.
  • I belong to this community if my presence and contribution shape not only how this community heads towards its goals, but also how this community identifies the goals it should pursue.
  • In short: I belong to this community if who ‘we’ are depends, in part, upon who ‘I’ am.

The Body of Christ

In the background here, I have in mind the Pauline image of the Body of Christ. In Ephesians 4:15–16, for instance, it is clear that the Body of Christ is supposed to ‘grow up in every way … into Christ’ and (which is to say the same thing) to engage in ‘building itself up in love’. It is equally clear that this is a process in which every ligament of the body has a part to play, each working in cooperation with all the others.

That should, I suggest, be the primary picture we have in mind when we ask questions about power in the church. Who belongs in the process by which we are, as a body, growing up together into Christ?

3.   Leadership is secondary

When we think about power in the church, we often default to thinking about leadership, or about processes and structures that resemble leadership. That is certainly not an irrelevant topic, but it should not be primary. It should not set the terms of our discussion.

We should instead begin with the whole Body of Christ in the midst of the world, with the processes by which all its members share in its building up in love and into Christ, and with the question of what it means truly to belong in that process of building up.

Within that context, leadership is a secondary reality.

We are engaged in building a life together in the world, and in principle all of us have a place in that process. The fundamental form of relationships into which we are called in this process is one of interdependence. We are supposed to depend upon one another, learn from one another, support one another, encourage one another, stand up for one another, receive from one another, and give to one another.

As we pursue this life of interdependence, there will be times and situations in which more asymmetrical relationships are needed. It may be proper, in a certain context or for a certain time, for there to be relationships in which one person is primarily giver and another primarily receiver, or one primarily teacher and another primarily learner. Those are, however, secondary realities, and they make sense only as ordered towards the primary reality of interdependence.

Leadership is one such secondary reality.

It makes sense, if it makes sense at all, only as ordered towards the primary reality of interdependence.

4.   Diagnosis

One thing that has struck me again and again as I have attended the ‘Power in the Church of England’ webinars is the importance, especially for people who, like me, occupy quite prominent positions, of asking questions about our own power. That is, it is important to ask about the factors that affect how much weight our voices are accorded in the deliberations of our churches.

  • Why do people take notice of me (to the extent that they do)?
  • What allows people to dismiss me (to the extent that they do)?
  • What do I do, say, think, or imagine that enables me to hear others’ voices (to the extent that I do)?
  • What do I do, say, think, or imagine that enables me to ignore others’ voices (to the extent that I do)?

These are simple questions to pose, but not to answer.

In my own case, I know that anything like a full answer is going to have to include reference to the positions I occupy, the expertise I have, the access I have to various different fora for speaking, the networks I am a part of, the cultural reference points I share with other people in influential positions in the church, my job title, my accent, my skin colour, my gender … and the list could go on. Diagnosis is a matter of noticing what makes a difference.

I have written about this in an earlier post on ‘Being Privileged’, trying to tease out some of the ways in which power works in my own case. I’ve no doubt I’m still not as attentive as I could and should be to the ways in which my own power works, but one of my hopes for the church is that we might, collectively, become better at noticing and acknowledging our own power, and the strange ways in which it works.

To set a low bar, it would be good for our discussions about power to reach the point at which it would be plainly ridiculous for any archbishop, any bishop, any member of the clergy – or any academic theologian who gets to sit on church commissions and committees – to think or say that they have no real power in the church.

Such diagnostic work is necessary, if we are asking who belongs in the process by which we are building a life together in the world. It is necessary if we are to understand what holds us back from interdependence – from being a community of belonging. And it is necessary if we are to understand how secondary realities like leadership relate to our primary calling as people baptised into that community of belonging.

5.   Positional Power

From discussions in various of the webinars, it has seemed to me that there is in Church of England a specific barrier to good diagnosis. We have a persistent twofold problem in the acknowledgment and assessment of power.

  1. There is a widespread reluctance to talk about positional power: the power that someone has by virtue of their office or position.
  2. There seems to be a widespread belief that questions posed by positional power can be answered in behavioural or cultural terms.

Let me explain. Consider, for instance, the asymmetric relationship between an ordinand and their sponsoring bishop. The bishop, simply by virtue of being the sponsoring bishop, has considerable power over the ordinand. They can say and do things that will make a sharp difference to the path the ordinand takes within the Body of Christ. They can say and do things that will do a great deal to determine where and how the ordinand’s voice is heard in the conversations of the church. This power unavoidably takes the form of ‘power over’, whether the bishop wants it to or not. That power is baked in, legally and procedurally, to the way in which our system of ordination works.

The first problem I mention above is our reluctance to talk about such positional power in the church (or our tendency only to talk about the forms of it exercise by other people, never the forms we exercise ourselves). We (understandably) want to focus on our primary calling to interdependence and mutuality. We let the secondary realities of asymmetry and positional power drift out of focus.

The second problem arises when we, as a church, do think about the dangers that come with such positional power (fundamentally, the danger that it will undercut or betray the primary realities of mutuality and interdependence). We have a tendency to think that the dangers of positional power can be overcome by behavioural and cultural means. A sponsoring bishop might, for instance, think that the approachability, friendliness, and humility evident in their behaviour, and the collegiality of the culture that they seek to cultivate, are enough to make their positional power safe, or even irrelevant.

They are not.

Note that I am not, here, saying that positional power is inherently wrong. I will, for instance, be sitting on an interview panel in a few weeks’ time. That position will inevitably give me (working with a small group of others) power over the candidates who are interviewed (the power to decide whether they get this particular job). That power will be sharply asymmetrical: they will not have the same power over me. I don’t think that fact is in itself a problem.

I am also not saying that behavioural and cultural responses to this fact are unnecessary or unimportant. Far from it! It will clearly be essential in that interview process, for instance, that I behave respectfully and attentively, and that the panel cultivates an appropriately open atmosphere.

What I am saying is that behavioural and cultural responses are not by themselves enough to mitigate the dangers inherent in positional power. Those dangers require structural thinking.

In the case of the bishop and the ordinand, for instance, as well as thinking about behaviour and culture, we need to think about structures of accountability. That means asking questions like these: In what ways can a bishop be held accountable for the things they say and do from this position of power? How can the ordinand access those processes so as to ensure the bishop is indeed held to account? How can those processes be designed so that they don’t automatically favour those holding the ‘power over’? And so on.

It is only by a combination of cultural/behavioural thinking and structural thinking that we’re going to get anywhere. To put it aphoristically:

  • Good culture isn’t enough to make bad structure safe.
  • Good structure will be ineffective without good culture.

6.   Trust and accountability

A couple of times in the webinars, questions of trust have come up. This makes good sense. It is hard to imagine how the community of belonging can come into being unless its members are able to trust one another. It is clear that any breakdown of mutual trust will eat away at our ability to become such a community.

Mutual trust, however, goes with the other forms of mutuality and interdependence that hold together the community of belonging. I trust you because we depend upon one another, learn from one another, give to and receive from one another.

When we deal with asymmetrical relationships, and especially with those generated by positional power, we need to think more carefully about the moorings of trust.

I’d like to suggest a rule of thumb here. If you have power over me, and if I need to trust your exercise of that power, my trust is going to depend upon the accountability that surrounds your power.

It may be appropriate that the asymmetry of our relationship exists. It may be appropriate that you have and exercise this positional power. It may be true that my trust is necessary for this relationship to work well. But I need to be able to see that this asymmetric relationship is held within a more fundamental pattern of interdependence and mutuality – and, specifically, that you remain even in your exercise of this power someone who depends upon others, who receives from others, and who learns from others.

My trust is not, after all, primarily in you. I know that you act, as I do, in ignorance. I know that you are, as I am, beset by clumsiness and derailed by circumstance. I know that you are, as I am, a sinner. If I am to trust you, it will ultimately be because I trust the one who is making you a part of his Body, who is drawing you into the weave of relationships that hold that Body together. And the one who is drawing you to himself in that way is also, at the very same time, the one who stands against you to the extent that you remain sinful, and who stands against the church as it presently exists, to the extent that it exists sinfully. The trust to which I am called is not, therefore, an uncomplicated acceptance of all that you say and do, nor an uncomplicated acceptance of all that the church permits and sustains.

My trust in you will be bound up with my trust in the processes by which I see that you can be challenged and held to account. My trust in those processes will be bound up with my trust in the community that can do that challenging and holding to account. My trust in that community will be bound up with my trust in the Spirit who can raise up prophetic voices to interrupt that community and call it to repentance, and in what I see of that community’s ability to hear and respond to such voices.

Trust is inevitably complicated in a fallen world. Let me, however, risk one simple rule of thumb: Do not expect to be trusted where you cannot be held to account.

Theological Education in ‘From Lament to Action’

Last Thursday, the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce published its report, From Lament to Action. Given my role in the Common Awards partnership, I have a particular interest in the recommended actions that concern the Church of England’s Theological Education Institutions (TEIs).

This post offers some extended theological reflections on these actions, and some discussion of their practicality. Before reading my ramblings, however, you might like to read the more incisive reflections offered by Nick AdamsAl Barrett, and Jonathan Jong. (I am sure there are others; these are the ones that have come to my attention so far.)

The diagnosis

From Lament to Action moves swiftly. Previous reports have offered long diagnoses of the problem of racism in the church, and detailed rationales for change. From Lament to Action does not try to reproduce all that work. Instead, with a sense of urgency and determination that does not often characterise Church reports, it sets out step after practical step that the Church needs to take.

To produce this agenda, the Taskforce worked through ‘25 previous reports relating to racial justice which had been presented to the General Synod of the Church of England in the past 36 years’. They identified ‘161 formal recommendations made to the Church related to racial justice, and many more informal ones besides’ – most of them left unimplemented. They arranged, combined, updated and prioritised, and then set out the results as an invitation and a challenge (9).

Though expressed only briefly, the report’s theological approach is clear.

It is a call to the Church of England to repent, in a situation of serious sin – the sin of racism. ‘We must’, say the authors, ‘repent of racial sin, turn away from racism and be reconciled, so that we may all experience the love of God’ (7).

Racism is a sin, the report explains, because it represents a failure to be the Body of Christ together. The dedication to the report begins with 1 Corinthians 12:24–26: ‘But God has put the body together…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.’ In the Body of Christ, we are all given to each other as gifts. We constitute that Body together, in mutuality and responsibility for one another. And this life of mutuality and responsibility is not an imposition upon us. It is the life for which we were made. It is a realisation of our dignity as creatures made in the image of God.

Racism is a turning of the shoulder against both creation and salvation.

Actions related to theological education

I am going to run through the main actions in the report that relate to theological education, providing some running reflections.

Given its diagnosis of the problem, it was inevitable that theological education would be one key arena for the report’s recommendation. Theological education is one site in the Church’s life in which the mutual accountability of the Body of Christ is worked out. This mutual accountability is not simply one topic that theological education might cover; it is intrinsic to the whole project.

In theological education, students who are already, in their local context, disciples, readers of scripture, participants in fellowship, and involved in ministry and mission, are drawn into engagement with the wider Body of Christ. That is not so that they will repeat in their own location what has been said and done elsewhere, but so that they can be drawn deeper into the mutual accountability, the mutual giving and receiving, that should unite the whole Body across time and space.

That means, however, that the problems of exclusion tackled by this report stab right at theological education’s heart. They have to do with the breadth of the community of accountability into which theological education draws its students.

If theological education is taking place in a room in which some of the doors out to this richly diverse body of Christ are blocked, then just to that extent it fails in its core task. Just to that extent, it fails to be theological education. Racism detaches theological education from the Body that is its proper matrix.

Making the Body visible

TEIs … to mark Black History Month, celebrating diverse saints and models (modern Anglican Saints/Martyrs).

Education Action 3

Request the TEIs to use resources in training liturgies, prayers and other worship which reflect the breadth and diversity of the Anglican Communion.

Education Action 10

These may seem like the most trivial of the actions related to theological education. In one sense, however, they get to the heart of the matter. In worship, in prayers, in the images on their walls, in the stories they tell – in all sorts of ways TEIs hold up members of Christ’s Body as exemplars of people filled with the light of Christ, for emulation and thanksgiving. These practices and forms of material culture help make the Body of Christ visible to their students.

How much of the variety of Christ’s Body becomes visible in the TEI’s life in this way? How well does it reflect the diversity of their own students? How well does it reflect the diversity of the churches that their students will serve? How well does it reflect the wider diversity of the Body to which they and their students are united in mutual accountability? These are not peripheral questions for TEIs to be asking.

Diversifying the curriculum

For TEIs and other Church based training institutions to diversify the curriculum (including church history, Global Theologies) and to diversify their bibliographies (include authors of UKME/GMH background).

Education Action 10

Renegotiation of the lists of texts, people, and contexts that feature in our curricula is not a new thing. It has always been a part of theological education. You can, for instance, tell the story of the Oxford Movement through the nineteenth century in part as a story of a radical reworking of the canon of texts used in Anglican theological education – and of no less radical reworkings by the Movement’s opponents. Fighting over our bibliographies, and over the visions of the church embodied by them, is just what theological educators do.

Of course, as theological educators, we want to introduce students to the best resources out there. But ‘best’ can never be defined in the abstract. It is always defined in relation to some vision of our purpose. I have said that theological education is, fundamentally, meant to draw students into deeper engagement with the breadth of Christ’s Body. It is meant to draw them deeper into the mutual accountability that should unite the whole Body across time and space. How can monochrome curricula and bibliographies do that?

There can be a tendency in some discussions of this point to suppose that there is a tension here between two tasks of theological education. On the one hand, there is the pursuit of a deeper rootedness in the faith that is already known and loved within the Church of England. On the other, there is engagement with the challenges, questions and gifts that can come from voices from unfamiliar within that tradition.

It is, however, a mistake to frame the question in this oppositional way. Think of the experience of reading a familiar biblical text with someone whose experience and assumptions are very different from your own. Imagine that moment when, with their help, you suddenly see the text in a new way – realising that there is something more, or something different to it than you had previously grasped. In an experience like that, openness to the challenge from the other person can be precisely what opens up more fully for you the text you already know – or what opens you up more fully to that text. Yes, it might pull you away from your own existing grasp on that text, but it is your grip on yourself that is being loosened, not your rootedness in the text.

This is a characteristic work of the Spirit: to draw us deeper into Christ by drawing us into encounter with people beyond our existing circles of familiarity, through whose eyes and ears we might learn to see and hear differently.

By its very nature, therefore, theological education needs to take place in communities of learners which are themselves diverse. And by its very nature it needs to involve forms of learning – and curricula and bibliographies –  that connect students with the even richer diversity of the whole church and of the world. And although there are always tussles over space in our timetables, and decisions to make about what we can and can’t cover, there is no inherent competition between the need to be more deeply rooted in the scriptures or in the traditions that we have inherited and the need to engage with the variety of Christ’s Body. It is the same God who gives us both.

Black Theology

Participation in an introductory Black Theology module (e.g. TMM1657 of Common Awards) or module on Theologies in Global Perspective (TMM42620) to be a requirement for all ordinands

Education Action 4

In part, this action is simply another way of diversifying the curriculum, and is covered by the comments I have already made. Especially in the mention of Black theology, however, it begins to push beyond that. There is a suggestion here not just of that existing curricula might be enriched, but that they might be critiqued. That is, there is a suggestion here that we might go beyond diversification the curriculum to decolonising it.

That seems to me to be entirely right. Deeper engagement with the diversity of the Body of Christ, and with the diversity of God’s world in which that Body lives, can yield many gifts. Amongst those, it can lead us to look again at practices, habits of speech, and ideas that we have taken simply to be the way that Christianity universally is – and to discover that they are in fact local expressions. It can involve us in discovering that some of what we have taken to be faithful discipleship is in fact doing harm to our sisters and brothers.

Such scrutiny has to involve more than scrutiny of our individual motivations, decisions, and actions. It has to involve attention to the systems, institutions, and traditions that we inhabit. Those systems, institutions and traditions are shaped by human hands, and so are inevitably marked by sin. And that includes our theological traditions.

Article XXI of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion says that even General Councils of the church ‘may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining to God’. All our traditions, all our interpretations, all our theological claims and explanations, stand under the judgment of God.

There are all kinds of ways in which we can hear this judgment pronounced. Some of our hallowed ways of thinking and talking about creation, for instance, have turned out to be broken as we have looked at them again in the light of the climate crisis. Some of our hallowed ways of thinking and talking about the church, and about salvation history, and about the relationship between the testaments, have turned out to be broken, as we have looked at them again the light of the Church’s horrific record of anti-Semitism.

One of the main forms, however, in which we can listen for this judgment upon our theological traditions is in what one can very broadly call liberationist approaches. The heart of those approaches is a re-reading of those traditions in the company of those whose voices have tended to be ignored or downplayed where those traditions are produced and passed on.

Latin-American liberationist approaches, feminist approaches, disability theology, Black theology, queer theology, and many others, are examples of such re-reading. Not one of these labels names a monolithic reality. Anyone who has been paying attention, for instance, knows that ‘feminist theology’ is not the name of a single position or approach, or of a unified bloc.

Just the same is true of ‘Black Theology’. It is a name for a wide, varied, and complex movement, with many different voices. Some of those voices are more doctrinally conservative, some more radical; some are committed to approaches to scripture that sit well within the evangelical fold, others are not. Anyone who presents it as a monolithic reality is probably trying to sell you something. (And anyone who presents it as a monolithic reality that can somehow be described as ‘Marxist’ is probably trying to sell you fear.)

What unites the many different strands of Black Theology is not any single conclusion or proposal, nor the employment of any single intellectual method or tool. It is simply the commitment to re-read the Bible, and re-read our theological traditions, in community with those who have suffered from racism, and in the belief that such re-reading can be transformative. And in a context marred by pervasive racism, the duty of theological educators to engage with this work is obvious.

Having said all that, I must admit that I am not convinced by the form of the action set out here. One way of ensuring that ordinands are led into deep engagement with a wide range of UKME/GMH voices is certainly to insist upon them taking a distinct module with that focus. But there is a risk that such an approach creates a segregated space within the curriculum where Black Theological and Global Majority voices can be contained. This could end up being yet another form of inclusion that in practice serves to mute the voices that are included.

There is also a danger that some of the real energy that there might be behind bringing more Black Theological and Global Majority voices in to shape the curriculum will get dissipated in the very tedious game of module juggling. TEIs already have a frustrating time trying to work out what arrangement of modules will allow them to teach all their cohorts in ways that will address all the Common Awards requirements and all the Church of England’s Formation Framework requirements. (If you want to know a bit more about what I am talking about here, you can see my recent Twitter thread.) It’s sometimes like trying to play Tetris with starfish.

I’d far rather see some clear learning outcomes identified by Ministry Council and the National Ministry Team, and TEIs asked to think creatively about exactly how they are going to enable ordinands and other students to meet those learning outcomes. TEI plans, and their implementation of those plans, could be monitored by the Quality and Formation panel, or by the National Ministry Team and the Common Awards Team, or in some other way. Compared to the Taskforce’s proposal, an approach like this is likely to be more workable, to be less frustrating for some TEIs, and to create more potential for the transformation of the whole curriculum.


TEIs … to promote intercultural (including international) placements

Education Action 3

The report raises one important question about placements: How well does the variety of placements on offer reflect the diversity of Christ’s Body? There are other questions for us to ask, however. Has the arrangement of placements become an arena for subtle (or not so subtle) forms of segregation? How well placed are TEIs to support and protect UKME/GMH students who experience racism on placements? How ready are they to recognise such racism and respond to it, even when it comes in subtle forms?

Anti-racism training

Facilitate national standards of training for TEIs staff on mandatory anti-racism learning programme, equivalent to the national standards set for Safeguarding Training

Education Action 4

Develop guidance on good practice and a template for use by TEIs setting out the NMTs outcomes and expectations of anti-racism practice

Training and Mentoring Action 6

Develop and implement a system for TEIs to make an annual return to the NMT of all anti-racism learning programmes provided for staff and students.

Training and Mentoring Action 7

I don’t have much to say about all of these actions, other than ‘Yes’. In particular, it is vital that we all (TEI staff, students, staff on the National Ministry Team and Common Awards team, and others) learn to recognise the subtler forms that racism can take – the microaggressions and quieter forms of othering (and if you hear those terms as meaningless buzzwords, you might like to undertake some training that can help you see how they name pervasive and important elements of some of your brothers’ and sisters’ experience). We need to learn to read more attentively the body language at play in TEIs and in the church contexts they serve. We need to learn how better to respond when problems arise.

The resources already available for this learning are already immense. As the Taskforce’s report notes, huge amounts of work has been going on in this area, for decades. There is no need to invent new wheels here, or to discover whole new approaches. What is needed is implementation.

Staff diversity

All TEIs to carry out a demographic audit of tutors, lecturers and governing board members and to produce a workable plan for increasing racial diversity and inclusion of UKME/GMH members. To be submitted to National Ministry Team, alongside their annual returns

Education Action 8

Again, I don’t have much to say about this action, beyond welcoming it warmly. There are many reasons for pursuing this action, including some already noted above. One important reason, however, comes from the phenomenon of recognition.

We know that it can make a big difference to many students from any minority background if, amongst those who teach them and who help shape their learning, they can say that ‘there is someone like me’ (and can see that that person’s work is valued, and not sidelined). It can help the student to imagine that someone like them belongs in this space, and can do well in it. It can help them to imagine that they, too, might progress – even that they, too, could become a theological educator. It therefore makes a difference to how well theological education can draw in, and draw on, students from minority backgrounds. And that means it can make a big difference to how well theological education can educate.

It’s obviously something we need to work on.

Complaints handling

There’s one last topic I want to touch on before finishing. In the list of workstreams for the proposed Racial Justice Commission, the Taskforce mention ‘Complaints handling’. They want the Commission ‘to make sure that incidents of overt racism within the Church are handled fairly, and in a way that enables reconciliation.’ The Commission, that say ‘will want to build confidence in both formal and informal processes’.

There is no mention of TEIs at this point, but I hope that TEIs will be part of this picture. It is vital to ensure that students at TEIs can complain, in the confidence that their complaints won’t be held against them in the reports that are written about them to their bishops, and in confidence that their complaining won’t lead to their being identified as troublemakers.

That will require more than good will and careful assurances from TEI staff. It needs some carefully built structures, some very careful scrutiny of institutional cultures, and some honest communication.


I welcome From Lament to Action, and I welcome the actions it sets before us. Whatever questions I have about the practical details, I am eager to work with others on implementing the agenda it sets out. God has made us part of this wonderfully diverse Body, and it is about time we stopped refusing the gift.

Making our minds up

Why can’t Justin Welby make his mind up?

I am referring, of course, to the recent interview with Welby in GQ, in which he was asked by Alastair Campbell whether gay sex was sinful. He said, ‘I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. ‘ And a little later, asked whether one aspect of his answer was ‘morally a cop out’, he answered, ‘Yes. I am copping out because I am struggling with the issue.’

Inevitably, the publication of this interview generated a lot of comment. Among those who (predictably) disagreed with the substance of Welby’s comments, and those who (predictably) were disappointed that he wasn’t giving a stronger lead in one direction or another, and those who (predictably) disparaged his wisdom in agreeing to the interview in the first place, there were several responses that caught my eye. They came from people who were incredulous that Welby had not yet made up his mind.

That indicates, they suggested, a worrying lack of seriousness, of effort, of diligence; it suggests he’s not given the topic the attention one would expect – especially from someone who has ended up as Archbishop. Why has he not already made his mind up?

And – for reasons I’m about to explain – I find those reactions odd.

Now, I know Welby a bit, and have  over the past few years had opportunities to talk to him about quite a few topics, but (as far as I can recall) I have never talked to him about this one – and I have absolutely no extra information to pass on about his thinking. This post contains no revelations about the archiepiscopal mind. Indeed, it is not really about Welby at all. It’s about the state of the Church of England, and the difficulties we all face in making up our collective mind.

Ways of making up our minds

We have particular ways of making up our minds. There are things we find salient, and things that we don’t; there are things that make a difference to how we think and feel about something, and things that don’t. Some of this is conscious: we have particular ways in which we think things through. Some of it even includes explicit arguments: we have certain kinds of reasons we acknowledge, certain kinds of argumentative moves we habitually make. There are ways of talking about matters that make sense to us, and that can reinforce our position or sway us – and there are ways of talking that can’t. We have ways of making up our minds.

The problem is that in the Church of England we don’t share a single way of making up our minds. This is not a new situation; it has very deep historical roots. Nor is it by any means unique to the Church of England; it’s pervasive in church history. It is nevertheless a deep feature of our current situation. We inhabit a set of different ways of making up our minds (you could call them theological traditions, or traditions of argument, if you like – but only at the risk of making them sound more formal, explicit and organised than they typically are).

The actual picture is very messy, but a plausibly simplified version would suggest that the Church consists of several such ‘ways’ or ‘traditions’, sitting alongside one another. The considerations that are telling for members of one such way might not be for members of another; the arguments that seem natural in one seem forced or irrelevant in another – and so on. Our problem is not just that we come to differing conclusions (though we obviously do that); it’s that we reach them in such differing ways.

Crucially, there is no meta-tradition, no meta-way. That is, there is no overarching ‘way of making up our minds’ that we can appeal to when members of differing ways come to different conclusions. Our deepest disagreements can’t be resolved by our normal ways of making up our minds, because we are in part disagreeing about how we should make up our minds.

Yes, we have all sorts of things in common still – all sorts of shared ideas and practices, so that it is not at all ridiculous to say that we share a common life. But that doesn’t mean we share ways of making up our minds when faced with disagreement.

Living in between

This picture is too simple of course. I’ve spoken as if there were neat divisions into which everyone in the Church could be sorted: either you’re a member of one ‘way’ or you’re a member of another. But many people (perhaps most?) actually inhabit the grey areas between ways. They are aware of, they are schooled in, they are formed to recognise differing ways of making up their minds, and most of the time they are not pressed to see the incompatibilities between them or to worry about how to resolve questions where these different ways yield different answers. It takes a deep controversy to bring these fractures to the surface – to turn this complex inhabitation of multiple ways into a felt perplexity.

Diligent effort to make up one’s mind makes sense only within a way. It makes sense within a way to look harder and more seriously at the things that are salient, to follow the proper patterns of argument more carefully. But, in the absence of a meta-way, there is no form of diligence that can lead to resolution if one inhabits multiple ways, and have discovered that they yield divergent answers to a pressing question. The intellectually responsible reaction in such a situation is – bewilderment.

To urge someone to resolve such perplexity by an act of will, as if what is needed is simply a stiffening of sinews, might make sense if that person mostly inhabits a single way – if one way has, in effect, become that person’s home. They might then steel themselves to throw off the tendrils of the other ways that they have also inhabited – which they can now, in some situation of controversy, see, and recognise as alien to their proper ‘way’. But that relies on being pretty firmly situated within a single way. It makes no sense to demand it of someone poised between ways.

I have no idea whether Welby’s perplexity is of this form. But if it is, it would not be lack of diligence, or weakness of will, that is his problem. His perplexity would be a reflection of the deeper perplexity of the Church of England – a perplexity for which there is no simple cure.

Arguments between ways

This perplexity is reflected in various features of our arguments as a Church, many of which are frustrating and dispiriting. Some of the frustration that our arguments produce flows from our failures to acknowledge, or to know how to respond to, the diversity of our ways of making up our mind.

So, half aware that someone else’s way is not my way, I may end up arguing on what I take to be that other person’s grounds. And quite often, I will therefore end up arguing in a way that lacks integrity – in the sense that nothing really rests for me on the arguments that I have put forward. My arguments do not reflect the way I actually made up my mind about these things, so my position is not going to be disturbed by their defeat. To my opponents, I will seem to have a position supported only weakly, and when I hop to another set of borrowed arguments I will seem to be slippery, to be inconsistent and perhaps dishonest. I will certainly seem to lack seriousness: I will seem all to clearly not to be fully committed to the argumentative game that I have joined.

We carry on as if we had a shared tradition of argument, while actually lacking one. We carry on as if there were knock-down arguments (the kind of argument that will lead one’s opponent into one’s own position, if only they are diligent and serious enough to follow it), when in fact there are none. And as we do so, we become more and more convinced of each other’s obtuesness and lack of integrity –  because that is what arguing across divisions between ways typically produces.

Nil desperandum

This is, nevertheless, not a counsel of despair. There remain forms  of conversation possible in such a situation (especially if we acknowledge that this is our situation) – though they are both harder and yield fruit more slowly than the knock-down arguments possible within a shared way.  There remain ways of swaying one another, and seeking greater agreement. The answer is not simply to stop talking, or blandly to agree to differ.

More than that, there are still ways of understanding our life as a shared life, despite such disagreements as these – indeed, of recognising that the church has always been marked by this kind of disagreement. To recognise the deep differences in our ways of making up our minds does not mean declaring de facto schism.

Nevertheless, all this might make one look at the present argumentative landscape of the Church of England with weary bemusement – and it can definitely give a certain eager edge to the hope that we might, in time, learn to disagree better.