‘No religion’ and formulation of Christian belief
From the Revd Adrian Alker
Sir, — Canon Alan Billings, like so many other observers, draws attention to the rise of those who say they have “no religion” (Comment, 17 June). He might also have referred to many others who, in surveys, claim to be “spiritual but not religious”.
He is right to point to the shrinking of the Church, its defensive mechanisms, and its untenable position over the issue of same-sex marriage. While Canon Billings laments the Church as an unreliable moral guide, he might also have said more emphatically that the Church and its leadership had failed to engage with those who raise the bigger questions about the existence and nature of God, and the doctrinal formulae that frame our worship and stultify our services, including those occasional offices.
It is simply not true that we know next to nothing of those who profess “no religion”. Speakers, theologians, festival- and conference-goers, and members of many organisations, such as my own, have raised issues around the credibility of Christian belief for decades. Rather, the Church does not want to hear the reasoned voices of many former and, indeed, present church members who are convinced that, unless the Church radically rethinks many of its doctrines, is more honest about what is believable, and seeks a spirituality that embraces an openness of thought, reason, and experience, it will not re-establish itself as an institution worthy of its place in our contemporary society, as Canon Billings and all of us desire.
Chair, Progressive Christianity Network Britain
Sheffield S8 7UA
Flaws in Bishops’ analysis of the welfare state
From the Revd Paul Nicolson
Sir, — By adding a sixth giant, “isolation” (News, 10 June) to Beveridge’s “five giant evils” of want, disease, squalor, ignorance, and idleness, in their report Thinking Afresh about Welfare, the Bishops have gone a very long way towards describing the dilemmas of poverty in the UK faced by politicians and the electorate, but never reached its depths.
They rightly set a goal of “enhancing the well-being of the whole nation”, but I searched in vain for a description of the impact of debt on mental health reported to governments of all hues by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Government Office for Science, and of the creation of debts by welfare reform; and of the lifetime behavioural problems of too many low-birth-weight babies born to impoverished mothers who cannot afford a healthy diet, before and while they are pregant, described by the Institute for Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition; of the 17-year and increasing gap in life expectancy between some rich and poor areas; for an understanding of the socially decisive and growing inequality of wealth accumulated over the past 30 years by land-owning home-owners, corporations, large builders, and landlords, including the Churches, while the landless tenants, with diminishing security of tenure, have rent and council-tax arrears enforced against their low benefit incomes because of cuts in their housing and council-tax benefits.
Perhaps the most serious omission is the failure to mention the deliberate reduction of access to justice by pricing it out of the reach of the poorest citizens and reducing legal aid. The administration of welfare involves millions of decisions to be made by national and local government officials every week. Parliament has passed an immense amount of welfare legislation, the just interpretation of whose practice inevitably requires the courts.
Benefit sanctions, which stop benefit incomes for one month, three months, or three years, are cruel and disproportionate punishments. They create hunger and crippling debts, which pile up during the sanction and have to be paid off over even more months when it ends. The Bishops suggest: “Our approach to sanctions should focus on how they are administered whilst supporting the principled option of using sanctions where they are demonstrably effective in changing irresponsible behaviour.”
No punishment should be left to Jobcentre administrators. They should be proportionate to income and handed down by the magistrates after due process, including independent representation.
Taxpayers Against Poverty
93 Campbell Road
London N17 0BF
The Church Commissioners and ExxonMobil
From Mr Chris Halliwell
Sir, — Edward Mason contends that the Church Commissioners should continue their policy of engagement with oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil, in spite of shareholders’ rejecting all climate-change resolutions at the company’s recent AGM (Letters, 10 June). Operation Noah disagrees with this view.
Whatever attempts are made to portray a positive outcome, it cannot be denied that nearly two-thirds of Exxon shareholders rejected the resolution proposed by the Church Commissioners.
Will the threat of divestment possibly be taken seriously if, as in the case of Exxon, the Church Commissioners continue to invest in such companies despite both the Board of Directors’ and shareholders’ rejecting their demands?
Exxon will not change its stripes. It has rejected every shareholder resolution on climate change since 1990 — as recommended by the company’s Board of Directors. The Church Commissioners’ views are simply being ignored.
Mr Mason states that the Church Commissioners intend to be involved in shareholder activism for the long haul. Yet there is no time to lose on the issue of climate change.
The Church of England must “align its financial assets with its spiritual assets”, as Christiana Figueres has called on religious institutions to do. It should divest from ExxonMobil immediately, and use the funds to support the transition to a zero-carbon future by investing in clean, renewable energy.
The Neighbourhood Office
40 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3UD
Public debate and the death of Jo Cox MP
From the Revd Andrew McLuskey
Sir, — Can good come out of evil? Is it possible that the tragic death of the Yorkshire MP Jo Cox will lead to an improvement in public debate? The EU conversation has been marred by some pretty dreadful claims and counter-claims by people who should know much better. It is also possible that some of this may have contributed to the motivation of Mrs Cox’s murderer.
Politics is always going to be a tough trade, but our national conversation need not be marred by the hysterics that we have seen of late. Let us hope that, after this dreadful episode, our nation can return to a more fundamentally decent way of conducting public life and discourse.
17 Diamedes Avenue, Stanwell
Staines TW19 7JE
From the Revd Dr David Gosling
Sir, — As one who exists on the fringes of the institutional Church on account of its non-inclusive policies, I was pleased by your sympathetic coverage (News, Comment, and Letters, 17 June) of the mass killing at the Orlando gay club in Florida — including the strongly worded condolences on the part of the two Archbishops.
But the Anglican Communion still has a long way to go before it commits itself to the biblical principle of diversity, especially the conservative wing. In the mean time, much must be done to encourage discussions with members of the gay communities who have largely abandoned their churches, and to articulate a clear and scientifically credible understanding of what it means to be gay — especially in schools. While many sections of society are doing this, the Churches still drag their feet.
DAVID L. GOSLING
2 St Lukes Mews
Cambridge CB4 3DF
Minority-ethnic and retired clergy, and leavers
From the Revd Shemil Mathew
Sir, — Thank you for the report on the ministry statistics (News, 3 June). I agree that ministry statistics fpr 2012-16 clearly indicate that we, as the Church of England, really need to recruit more clergy to match the demand.
Perhaps a more alarming matter that needs to be taken into consideration, however, is the very slow progress that the Church is making in recruiting and training candidates from a minority-ethnic background. Yes, I agree that there is a growth of 0.4 per cent in ordinations between 2012 and 2015 (and I am delighted that I am one of the 0.4 per cent), but it is hardly a representation of the multi-ethnic congregations that we have, or the multi-ethnic society that we live in.
Church-growth research, From Anecdote to Evidence (2011-13), clearly indicated that the multi-ethnic congregations were more likely to grow, making the argument for more minority-ethnic lay and ordained leaders in church, is not only right, but also essential for the growth of our Church.
In the light of this, I would argue that, as a Church, we need to not only understand why we are moving at a rather slow pace, but also need to initiate and implement strategic plans to bring about much-needed organisational change.
The Vicarage, The Spinney
Launton, Bicester OX25 6EP
From Mr G. M. Lyon
Sir, — There may well be an “urgent need for more ordinations”, but we should consider retention as well as recruitment. Presumably, stipendiary clergy are lost from parish ministry not just by retirement, but by transfer to (worthy) sector ministries (e.g. chaplaincies), by moving out of priestly office into secular jobs (e.g. teacher), and by renouncing priestly office, more or less freely (e.g. owing to loss of faith or scandal).
Do we have any statistics regarding such retention issues? Should we? Is there a “parish-ministry clergy-retention problem”, and, if so, how can we address it?
G. M. LYON
13 New Acres, Newburgh
Wigan, Lancashire WN8 7TU
From the Revd Simon Douglas Lane
Sir, — It is generally accepted that without the increasing numbers of retired clergy with permission to officiate, the ministry of the Church of England would be severely compromised: we are needed.
It was, therefore, with some surprise that, having been asked to sign a nomination form for a clerical colleague for a clergy diocesan-synod post, I was advised that because I “only” had permission to officiate, but not a licence, I was unable to participate in the democratic process.
Many retired clergy were experienced incumbents, and this fact alone should make us eligible for nominating those who, we think, will make an effective contribution to the synodical structures of church governance. When it comes to deanery synods, I was also advised that one can attend but cannot vote. This, again, seems unfortunate, bearing in mind that many PTO clergy have a better turnout and turn-up record than many stipendiaries.
I am advised that these matters may be taken up in the General Synod this year. We may be retired, but we should be recognised for the experience we bring and treated as equals as far as possible.
SIMON DOUGLAS LANE
30a Belgrade Road, Hampton
Middlesex TW12 2AZ