A COUPLE of months ago, at the end of the parish communion in our church, I realised that not one of the seven people who played a public part in its leadership — preaching, presiding, reading a lesson, leading the intercessions — was male. I asked several people at coffee afterwards whether they had noticed this, and no one had.
Then, two weeks ago, we had a big welcoming eucharist in Reading Minster for the new Bishop of Oxford. It was a grand affair, with a packed church and some inspiring congregational singing. At the end, I observed that, in the whole service, not one woman had taken a public part. Again, I asked people whether they had noticed this. No one had.
Thinking about it afterwards, I asked myself whether this was good news, or bad. On reflection, I decided that it was good. Clearly, gender is no longer an issue for rank-and-file Anglicans. They simply do not notice whether the officiating minister is male or female. That is one big issue settled.
At the same time, I had a tiny feeling in the back of my mind that church is where women and men visibly worship God together, and where, together, men and women lead God’s people in prayer and praise. It is not always possible, of course, but we grow by what we see as well as what we hear.
Hurrah for boring
I HAVE always admired Libby Purves as a broadcaster and journalist, back from the days when, as a student at Oxford, she broke on to the Today programme. In the 1980s, I was a producer on her first TV series, Choices, on BBC1, but she always preferred radio and writing. In recent years, in her regular Times column, she has become a kind of tribune of the people.
My heart warmed when she argued recently that her long-held ambition to live under a boring government was finally being fulfilled. She saw this as a compliment, not a criticism. Every new administration feels the need to announce itself in neon lights, passionate promises of this and that, visions of Jerusalem. A “boring” government would simply get on with it, whatever the “it” was. She felt that a government under Theresa May might well turn out to be like that (although she may have reviewed her opinion after the recent Tory Conference).
I like the idea of boring government at Westminster — and, even more, I like the idea of boring church government. I suspect that many parish clergy do not appreciate hectoring voices calling them to adopt some wonderful new national or diocesan initiatives to bring the nation back to God. Frankly, I am old enough to have tried many of them, and, having done plenty of the hectoring myself, I know that they seldom make any long-term difference.
In the 1990s, I worked for the diocese of Oxford half-time as its “adviser/enabler” for the Decade of Evangelism. Do you remember it? Probably not. At the same time, I was half-time incumbent of a village church near Witney. At the end of my contract, I had done thousands of miles, and talked to literally hundreds of PCCs and deanery synods. I enjoyed it, and, on the whole, I think they did; but the sceptical British public remained unmoved.
Living the gospel
IN MY village church, however, a great many people were coming to faith. When eventually I reflected on all this, I decided that just “getting on with it” in a parish was what worked — not, in this case, my efforts, let me be clear, but a great team of lay people working in my absence on things such as baptism preparation and follow-up, a wonderful mother-and-toddler service, a thriving youth group and children’s work, and loving support in bereavement.
You wouldn’t call it “boring”, but it was certainly ordinary, just doing what we’re supposed to do to the best of our God-given ability. It convinced me that the battle for hearts and minds is won or lost in the life of individual congregations, who just get on with it. The “it” is living the gospel, really.
I ENJOYED the feature on Quanglicans (7 October), partly because I know a few. One of them, a long-term friend, is a licensed lay minister who preaches regularly at the sung eucharist in a parish church, but whose alternate spiritual home is the Quaker meeting.
The truth is, some Anglicans long for a bit of shared silence in their worship, and some Quakers would like to “break bread”, as Jesus commanded. Quakers — the Religious Society of Friends — are usually publicly anonymous, but the ITV thriller Paranoid has a prominent role for a woman Quaker, who explained to her troubled detective friend that “we believe there’s something of God in everyone.” He is not convinced — yet.
All of this reminded me of our first broadcast of Quaker worship on Radio 4, nearly 40 years ago. The producer was concerned when they told him that the 40 minutes might consist of silence, depending on whether or not members were “moved” to speak.
Anxious discussions followed. After all, the transmitter switches off for security reasons if there is prolonged silence. The answer, we decided, was to place a ticking clock near a microphone. Forty minutes of blessed silence, tick-tock, with the occasional helpful reflection: radio had never been like this before.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.