A bigger table: an interview with the Bishop of Liverpool

by
01 February 2019

Bishops are allowed to have opinions, Paul Bayes tells Madeleine Davies

Diocese of Liverpool 

Bishop Paul Bayes in Liverpool Cathedral

Bishop Paul Bayes in Liverpool Cathedral

WHEN Paul Bayes arrived as a drama student at Birmingham University, he was in a “spiritually dizzy state”. The son of a churchwarden, he had been stewing in the “hippy-ish ferment of the ’60s”, and, when he opened the door to members of the Campus Crusade for Christ, he did so confident that he could offer wisdom gleaned from reading paperbacks about Taoism.

He agreed to pray the “sinner’s prayer” with them, simply to get rid of them. But it was their leaving that “evangelised” him, he reflects in his new book, The Table. Their confidence that “God will do the rest” left him “thunderstruck”.

The second act of — in this instance unwitting — evangelism which proved pivotal was the sight of a woman leaving her place in the pews of a local Charismatic church to dance at the front. He was “profoundly shaken, this time by beholding an offering of love to God in worship”.

It is somewhat typical of Bishop Bayes — who was installed as the eighth Bishop of Liverpool in November 2014 — to acknowledge the fruits of two expressions of Christianity likely to engender some derision in some quarters. No reader could finish The Table and be unaware of his concerns about the “toxic brand” attached to Christianity, or his readiness to attribute this to the Church’s failings. But there is an evident desire, too, to take on “scoffers”, and to seek inspiration from a diverse range of sources, from conservative bloggers to progressive priests.

When the exchanging of the Peace was introduced, he notes, it met with resistance. “Nothing is more tiresome than the gregarious young priest who overwhelms his parishioners with ‘friendship’, slaps people on the back, and asks them to call him ‘Tom’,” Kenneth Child, an Archdeacon of Sudbury, wrote in his memoirs.

Bayes wants to defend “Tom”, and to challenge the “cultured despisers”, whose “toes curl at the very thought of sharing the Peace, being friendly, smiling”.

“Very little has annoyed the cultured world so much as the church’s cheerful commitment to friendliness,” he writes. “The friendliness of the local church is a prophetic act, valued most by those who need it most.” The “table” laid by the Church today, he observes, is host to “disproportionate numbers” of the lonely, the elderly, single parents, and those with learning disabilities.

 

THE idea of invitation to a table — with its echoes of George Herbert’s “Love (III)” — is central to Bishop Bayes’s theology. His inaugural sermon at Liverpool Cathedral in 2014 told the story of one constructed by “the poor carpenter Jesus, who has invited you and made room for you there”. His book asks what it might mean to see the Church thus: “An open table of friends, sitting beside One who calls and sends them in love.” Open Table is also the name of an inclusive worshipping community for LGBT people, started in Liverpool in 2008 (Comment, 11 January), and now, Bishop Bayes says, “one of the fastest growing church-planting movements in England”.

His advocacy for LGBT inclusion has become a significant part of his public ministry. In 2017, he addressed Liverpool Pride, telling the assembled crowd “how proud I am to be in a nation which is so enriched by LGBTI people in every walk of life”.

geoff crawford/church timesBishop Paul Bayes speaks at a meeting of the General Synod at Church House, Westminster, in February 2017. “The world needs to hear us say that LGBTI-plus orientation and identity is not a crime,” he said

He has since become a patron of the festival, and chairs the Ozanne Foundation, set up by Jayne Ozanne, a prominent Evangelical activist and General Synod member, to tackle discrimination within religious organisations (News, 13 April 2018).

“The world needs to hear us say that LGBTI-plus orientation and identity is not a crime,” he told the General Synod in 2017, with quiet fervour. “We are called to help one another to conform their lives to Jesus Christ and to live lives of holiness, but we do not need to engage people in healing therapy if they are not sick” (News, 14 July 2017).

 

NOW perhaps the House of Bishops’ most prominent advocate of inclusion in such terms, he agrees that he has been on a journey, although “I don’t think it’s a journey from having been decidedly conservative on these things. . . Like so many things, it was something that I hadn’t really thought about, or hadn’t really thought through what the impact of our present policies and approaches on LGBT people was.”

The presence within his own family of people in civil partnerships and same-sex marriages was not a deciding factor, he says. “But it helped me to think these things through,” as did the ministry of Open Table. It is a question of justice, he says — an agenda to which he has “always been committed”.

Perhaps it is this conviction that underpins his confidence. The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, noted recently that one option open to bishops was to remain “as silent as possible on these difficult questions, avoid them wherever possible, and take refuge in ambiguity” (News, 2 November). But Bishop Bayes seems to have given this short shrift.

“I think it is possible for bishops to feel that, because they are meant to be symbols of unity in a diocese, therefore they must never have an opinion about anything,” he observes. “I don’t think that advocating for change prevents me from being there for the whole diocese, although it would if I were trying to wrangle change unilaterally — and I have always said in the diocese that I would never do that, and I hope and believe that my colleagues here trust me on that.”

He is advocating, he says, “for the opportunity within the Church for same-sex unions to be recognised and affirmed. . . I am not using the word blessed, and I am not using the word getting people ‘married’, because the Church hasn’t made up its mind up about that.”

His contention in The Table is that the Church has lessons to learn from the LGBT communities: that we see less clearly if we ignore “those on the edge of things”. Do those who, with Jesus, have experienced “emptiness and desolation” have something to teach the Church about “finding honour and pride in who they are, and (if they are Christians) in giving praise to Jesus Christ”?

The US Episcopal Church — which provided hospitality while he wrote the book — has “more honestly and radically explored” these questions, he writes.

 

RUNNING through the book is a critique of a Church that has, he argues, placed obstacles in the path to the table at which Jesus presides. He laments the regiments of those who “erect barriers and walls and fences around the extraordinary gift of grace that is the friendship of Jesus, and who presume then to test and examine people who seek to enter, and indeed to examine those already there, to establish whether they are ‘worthy’ to remain.”

“I do not seek a pure church if the price of a pure church is that our sisters and brothers are excluded,” he writes. The way of Jesus is “a spacious, light, open, and tolerant way, trusting and relaxed in the mystery of God and vibrant with hope for the world God loves.” He laments that the Church treats repentance as “a masochistic, gloomy business”.

ST BRIDE’S. LIVERPOOLYvonne Bell’s artwork Urban Mission was given by the Bishop of Liverpool, when he visited the Open Table LGBT service at St Bride’s, Toxteth, in 2015

Some may suggest that such a vision downplays another narrative in the Bible: that of narrow doors and paths. Writing in Christianity Today in November, the Episcopal priest and theologian the Revd Fleming Rutledge explored the contemporary discomfort provoked by St John the Baptist and his warning of “the wrath to come . . . for ever summoning us to rethink and reorder our lives totally, orienting ourselves to an altogether new perspective”. Several years ago, Lord Williams remarked that he did not believe in inclusion as “a value in itself. . . We don’t say: ‘Come in and we ask no questions.’”

Bishop Bayes agrees that “the commitment to living a life which is pure is a Christian commitment,” and points to the Rule of Life introduced in his diocese. “The implications of being a Christian bind immediately on your behaviour,” he says. “If people, for example, are racist and enter the Church, and if they continue to be racist, or if, as many are in America, they seem to be able to hold together white supremacism together with a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord, I would have to say that there are things in the scripture that challenge that. . . I certainly do not believe in an antinomian Church.”

If the person on the street was familiar with this term, it is one that he or she would be unlikely to apply to the C of E, The Table suggests. When researchers descended on Liverpool to explore perceptions of the Church, the people interviewed were “almost unanimous in their distaste”, Bishop Bayes writes. “To them it was a toxic brand. They had accepted the commonly held caricature of Christianity: that it is a joyless, aridly intellectual, propositional, conceptual, legalistic system. . . That the extraordinary and life-giving truths of the faith have no purchase on the imagination of the unchurched West represents a profound relational failure on the part of the people of God.”

Is there a danger that such a diagnosis places too much blame on the Church, and ignores the profound sociological shifts taking place around us?

“In the past, people used to say ‘We like Jesus but we don’t like Christians — Christians are not following Jesus,’” Bishop Bayes says. “Now, because England has moved away from residual Christianity, people say we don’t like Christians and we don’t like Jesus, because Christians say they follow Jesus, and if they follow Jesus that way, well, then, Jesus must be wrong.”

The Church needs to “listen harder to the world that God loves”, he suggests, and “see seriously how much of what we do is cultural; how much of what we do frankly sometimes is culturally elitist; how much of what we do doesn’t connect with where people are”.

 

DESCRIBING himself as a “working-class boy”, the son of a works manager and home-help supervisor in Bradford, Bishop Bayes has issues of class and exclusion firmly in his sights.

“The air we breathe and the language we speak is academic or quasi-academic by default; expensive, elitist, class-ridden, ineluctably exclusive,” he writes. “Learning to breathe that air and speak that language has caused me to be a traitor to my class.”

As the first person in his family to go to university, he is aware of “the disconnect between England and its Church”.

“That disconnect sometimes puzzles us,” he says. “When Princess Diana died, there was this great outpouring of national grief, and the Church of England was caught flat-footed. Over the Brexit vote, one bishop spoke out for Brexit; 51.7 per cent of the people voted for it. So, therefore, what does that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that we should all get with the programme and vote for Brexit. But it does mean that we should relate to the England that God has given us to love.”

There are some communities where the Church’s “line of sight is stronger, because the cultural identity of the C of E is more easily accepted”, he suggests. “And that is why I rejoice in the ‘mixed economy’ Church. . . I find the disdain in which Fresh Expressions are held by some . . . profoundly unhelpful, and I long for a C of E where cultural diversity is not only recognised but also celebrated.”

It is always a risk, he says, to “generalise experience. . . The glories and the beauty of the Christian tradition and history are lovely, but if you generalise that experience . . . it’s very easy for that then to tip over into contempt, and it’s never seemed to me, from reading the scripture, that Jesus made it a priority to identify with the cultural elite of his time.” To suggest that “if you are mistaken enough to use short words and to prefer rock music, then in some way you have a journey to go before you can become a proper Christian,” is, he suggests, “foolishness”.

He writes against the backdrop of a heated conversation about whether the Church has ceased to value its theologians — a conversation that frequently scrutinises the House of Bishops for their presence, or alleged lack thereof — as the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, argued recently (News, 30 November).

The Table offers something of a push-back: a warning that we are in danger of “weaponising” the term “theology” (“I am theological, you have not read quite enough, he/she/they are ignorant”), or calling for more of it as a means of prevarication. He is averse to the phrase “theological heavy lifting”, he says, “because it privileges a particular way of thinking about God”. In the book, he suggests that the way in which theological training is done today “would disqualify most (if not all) of the people our Lord called to be with him at the first tables of our community”.

LIVERPOOL PARISH CHURCHBishop Bayes (far left) in an ecumenical conversation about the place of the eucharist in the life of the Church, at Liverpool Parish Church last year

When Professor Oliver O’Donovan’s review of the Crown Nominations Commission suggested that more bishops should be theologians (News, 26 January 2018), Bishop Bayes says, “I frankly couldn’t see the point, because Oliver O’Donovan is a better theologian than any of the bishops would be, because he has given his life to it. . . I think it’s still a risk that theologians and the leaders of the Church are envious of each other. . . Why don’t they just work with each other? . . .

“The theologians I have followed most and the saints I have followed most are not bishops. St Francis was a deacon, and Thomas Merton was a monk.”

 

FROM 2004 to 2010, Bishop Bayes served as the National Mission and Evangelism Adviser to the Archbishops’ Council. In Liverpool, his diocese’s strapline is “A bigger church making a bigger difference”. Growth is a good in itself, he says. “My normal line is to say: ‘If you think of the Christian you respect the most . . . is England better if there are more people like that, or not?’” But he is also clear that both anxiety and complacency are to be avoided. What is attractive to those outside the Church is “justice and wonder. Those are the doors through which England comes to its Church.

“People love the fact that Christians are involved socially . . . that we extend help to those who need us. People appreciate the fact that we do so with no strings attached. People appreciate the fact that actually to wander into a church and sit there in silence is a lovely thing to do, and lots of people do that.”

Once they have been drawn in, they can “fall in love with the beauty that’s inherent in the Christian gospel and . . . inherent in Jesus’s person”, he says. The challenge is to avoid reducing scripture and the creeds “to propositions, but just enjoy the richness of them, because, actually, poetry is beautiful; and, as well as being beautiful, it’s true”. In the book, he laments the times that he has had the Bible “mansplained to me, as if God’s word were a stagnant pool that can’t flow by itself, needing a theological stir, or a doctrinal push”.

Until it was disbanded last year, he was a member of the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group. All of its members, they discovered, came to faith either as children, teenagers, or at university.

“The impression is that teenagers are all drifting away, but the lived experience of people is that if you ever came to Christ [it was] probably in those years; so they are years that are full of potential.” His advice — in addition to investing in children’s and youth workers — is “to allow people the freedom to ask their questions . . . [that] seems to be the royal road for evangelism among that generation”.

 

ADVOCATING inclusion in the way that he does comes at a price. He writes in The Table that some have refused to receive communion from his hands, and he has been on the receiving end of “abusive statements” via social media.

The latter is a “swamp”, he observes, and most of his attackers are anonymous. “I greatly honour those in my own diocese and beyond it who disagree with me, and are prepared to come and explain why, and ask me to explain myself.”

His own Twitter feed tends to be celebratory (stories posted with the prefixes “Splendid” or “Very good news”), but there is political commentary, too, including expressions of alarm at the poverty that is gripping parts of the nation. In Liveprool, he co-chairs the city’s Strategy Group for Fairness and Tackling Poverty.

“There are two nations, and the south-east is one and the rest of us are the other one,” he says. “I am not saying that we are whingeing Scousers wanting more money off the Government, but I am saying that the system is broken.” Last week, he notes, a homeless person died in a tent. Most of those attending foodbanks are employed; some work for the NHS.

His own sense is that a Church on the margins is a much healthier one.

“The Church of England used to be in a spiritually dangerous place: we were cushioned by privilege,” he writes. “Now, in this England, we’re on the edge and underneath — marginalised, not always taken seriously, sometimes mocked. That’s good news for us. Because on the edge and underneath is where the people are.”

The Table concludes with a “provocation”: an initial probing of whether baptism should be a condition of receiving holy communion; whether the table should be “undefended”. Some C of E churches already explicitly invite “everyone”, he remarks. “If we believe that the poor carpenter welcomes all to sit and eat, why may we not extend that invitation . . . to the baptised?” And what about the example of Sara Miles, the atheist writer transformed by receiving communion (Features, 30 July 2010)?

It is not the only provocation in the book, but another variation on a theme: how to draw more people to a bigger table.
 

The Table: Knowing Jesus, prayer, friendship, justice is published by DLT at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69).

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