Red lines

It’s interesting to think about where you draw the line. I went along to the Bridge Theatre last week, just as the bishops of the Anglican Communion were gathering in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. I had heard about the play that was being performed there and was quite keen to see it – ‘The Southbury Child’ by Stephen Beresford. The set was simple; a large table as in many vicarage kitchens, unmatching chairs, mugs in which to serve tea to guests, piles of paper to be dealt with. And in this humdrum and familiar setting – especially to clergy and their families – the drama is played it. I don’t want to give the story away but it centres on a child’s funeral and a request by the grieving mother that the church be decorated with balloons, because the child loved balloons and it would make the church look jolly and welcoming.

For the priest it was a red line he was unprepared to cross, whatever the cost. The play looks at the costs, the price, and who pays it, and, of course, the back story to the marriage and the family relationships all come out. There are reasons for the red lines we choose, reasons why we will defend, often the indefensible, that are hard for others to understand.

My predecessor had his red lines. I remember arriving back one day and being asked to see the Dean. I was then the Canon Precentor and I was told that the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ was banned in Southwark Cathedral and, by the way, anything by Graham Kendrick. Some of you may remember that episode in our lives. Colin had to go on the radio to defend his decision; I had to make it work as best I could given that most schools wanted to sing ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Shine Jesus shine’, whatever its theological virtues, or lacks, was enormously popular. But it was a red line.

I suppose I have them, but of course mine are entirely reasonable and easily explained, as far as I am concerned. I went into the vestry the other day. It had been very hot. The Head Verger told me that one of the diocesan dignitaries, we love these titles don’t we, had asked not to wear a chasuble for a service they were presiding at. The vergers told the person that that was a red line for the Dean. However much he would sweat full vestments had to be worn. If it was good enough for the early martyrs of the church it is good enough for us! As such a notorious liberal with seemingly no standards or principles – according to some – it was good to know that I have some red lines!

My blog last week went a bit viral. I thought it might, commenting as I did on the ‘Lambeth Calls’ document and the reference to Lambeth 1:10 from 1998. I was pleased therefore when the announcement came of some significant changes, particularly that bishops would be allowed to vote that they do not accept it. Since then, of course, there has been push back. We are being told that 75% of those present support Lambeth 1:10, there seem to move moves afoot to bring it back on the agenda. Even more disturbingly some of the bishops have now refused to take communion with those who have a same-sex partner, or who support equal marriage, or … well, the categories seem a bit blurred and include a lot of those there.

It is all very disturbing. What is the Communion about if we are not actually in communion, able to receive communion, one bread, one cup? Why is the Eucharist being weaponised in this way? Why, oh why, is sexuality the red line for the church, the ‘balloon’ issue for the Communion?

I am writing this, as I always do, on Saturday, ready for Sunday. It’s the commemoration today (30 July) of William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson, the three, among many, who we remember campaigned for the abolition of slavery. We know, because it is all part of the #BlackLivesMatter and contested heritage debates, all part of the Queen Anne’s Bounty discussions, all part of the history of USPG and so many other church bodies, all part of the history of Bristol and its cathedral, that the church was up to its neck and beyond in slavery and we know that bishops defended slavery with recourse to scripture. We know that it was a red line at that time, that there was huge resistance to what Wilberforce and his companions, and others in parliament were wanting. Yet, somehow the Holy Spirit spoke through the arguments and wisdom and right and justice prevailed and that red line disappeared.

Human dignity is a matter of justice, who I am, who you are, loved and created by God is a reality. Denying what God has done, out of love, drawing red lines across the lines of God’s grace is a scandal, as is refusing to take the bread and the cup that Jesus holds out to us, his friends, and even to the one who would betray him.

The play is well worth seeing; ok not all of it is true to life, true to the vicarage kitchen, but it points to the way in which the red lines we draw are destructive and divisive. It seems to me, and as you all know I never claim to be a biblical scholar, simply a child of God, that Paul, speaking to the Romans describes a love that knows no bounds, a divine love in which no lines are drawn.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8.35-39)

But I will still insist on full vestments – and isn’t that really the problem? I need to look at my own red lines as much as the next person.

God of boundless grace, draw us with your cords of love into the freedom of your kingdom and into that deeper and fuller communion with you, which is life in all its fullness. Amen.


Lambeth calling … London calling

Many of the bishops heading for the Lambeth Conference, which begins next week, are still in transit, looking forward to a few days together, and already we are experiencing the fallout. The Conference has been delayed from 2018 – firstly because it wasn’t the right time to bring the bishops together, it would not have been productive; then because of the global pandemic. In former times we would have been entertaining bishops in the dioceses across the country this weekend, establishing and re-establishing relationships and friendships. But the ‘pre-Lambeth hospitality programme’ was abandoned and, apart from a few exceptions where individual arrangements have been made, the bishops are heading straight to the campus outside of Canterbury that will be their base for the next couple of weeks. That was a real shame because the Communion, if it is about anything, must be about relationships. But that sad decision was made.

Another decision was made, however, and that was to issue a document in the last couple of days called ‘Lambeth Calls’, a kind of agenda for the Communion, for the bishops to consider. It has caught everyone, it seems, by surprise and the surprise has not been good. One specific call is already causing damage, hurt and pain and that is the call to reaffirm Lambeth 1.10. This was the declaration made at the 1998 Lambeth Conference which affirmed a traditional view of sexuality and relationships, of marriage and the views of the church about homosexuality in particular. We have been struggling to live with Lambeth 1.10 since then but out of those struggles has emerged much more understanding of different positions, different beliefs, different readings of scripture, we have been brought into a place of greater trust and mutual respect. At the same time, society, especially western society and not least of our own has moved on dramatically. As Dorothy in ‘Wizard of Oz’ would say ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’; we are not in 1998 anymore.

In the UK Civil Partnerships became possible in 2005; marriage to a person of the same gender in 2014. Both are now commonplace in our society. Clergy in the Church of England are allowed to enter a CP with their same-sex partner, at the moment they are not allowed to be married. Lay people can remain in good standing and in positions of leaderships and in authorised and licensed ministries if they enter into either of these. In general society it has all been celebrated, even on ‘Strictly’ same-sex couples dance and entertain the nation and families sit there encouraging John and Johannes and whoever it is. Wake up Lambeth Conference, wake up Church of England, wake up bishops, this is London calling and beyond London calling; this is not 1998 and this is not the world or the church you imagine it to be, nor should it be.

What really angers me is not the homophobia apparent in all of this, I am used to that, sadly. What gets me is the scandalous way the ‘church’, whoever, whatever that is, displays such a lack of openness, transparency and honesty with the rest of us who are the church. It is ok calling out the lies and the lack of integrity in Downing Street when just across the river in the offices that deal with the Lambeth Conference the same goes on.

We have just emerged from General Synod, not a word of this was mentioned, not even in the gossip in the bar and over coffee. We are still awaiting the Synod debate on the LLF process, ‘Living in Love and Faith’, the open conversations we have all been invited to have which will help us move on even further in our understanding of each other around the subjects of sexuality and committed relationships. That process is now holed below the waterline. ‘Lambeth Calls’ has sunk LLF and we need to recognise that.

What also annoys me is this is precisely why the office of Archbishop of Canterbury needed to be separated from the leadership of the Anglican Communion. Many of us were calling for a real root and branch examination of these conflicted roles as the debates about the shape of the Canterbury CNC were being had. But no; the status quo had to remain, except the Communion had to be given a stronger voice in the nomination of ++Justin’s successor. The Church of England has been stopped and will be stopped in moving forward in mission. Those who call the church to ban Pride, to ban celebrating our reality as human beings loved and created by our inclusive God are obviously supported by the Lambeth Conference even before it gathers. If I was a bishop of the Episcopal or Canadian Church I would get straight back on the plane and return home.

In the debate at General Synod which Canon Tim Goode, an Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral, led on the place of disabled people in the life of the church, he used the final sentence of the Introduction to the Common Worship Baptism Service, which he then used as a refrain throughout his speech:

‘In God we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life.’

It is the Jesus I know and love, the Jesus who called me into the church and called me to be a priest, the Jesus who has enabled me to fulfil this ministry in the church for the last 39 years, who says to his disciples – and that includes us

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10.10)

Not Lambeth 1.10 but John 10.10 is the calling of the church and the witness of Jesus. This fullness of life is what each of us is called to and yet the church can so often seem to deny. I call on Lambeth to pull back and chose a better, life affirming way, whilst there is time.

Loving God, you create us beautiful; may we be allowed to flourish and be the people you want us to be. Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark