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Our Church is too addicted to sound-bites, Archbishop of York tells Synod

06 July 2019


Dr Sentamu presiding at St Agnes Church, Toxteth as part of the Tell Serve Give mission, in March

Dr Sentamu presiding at St Agnes Church, Toxteth as part of the Tell Serve Give mission, in March

THE Church of England has lost the habit of reading the Bible consistently and relies on others to do its “serious thinking for it”, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, told the General Synod on Saturday.

Delivering his last presidential address before his retirement next year, Dr Sentamu offered a stern diagnosis of failings in the Church’s approach to resolving its differences over sexuality.

“The kind of disagreement we have is exactly the kind of disagreement one would expect to find in a Church where the old habits of reading the Bible consistently and thoroughly, as part of a liturgical pattern or a pattern of private devotion, had broken down,” he said. “The expectations we have of biblical literacy — not only of laity but of clergy, too — would strike most earlier generations of Christians as sadly low.”

The disagreement was also characteristic of “a Church which has got used to jumping to conclusions quickly, driven by the need for a crisp sound-bite, a Church no longer capable of pursuing a question patiently and in hope”.

The Church had “come to rely on others to do its serious thinking for it — whether they are theologians, philosophers, scientists, sociologists, statisticians, or simply those with a story to tell. The Church acts as an echo-chamber instead of an interpreter and guide to the problems others in our time face.”

Dr Sentamu began by recalling the presidential address of Archbishop Rowan Williams in November 2010 (News, 24 November 2010), in which Dr Williams had asked: “How can people who read the same Bible and share the same baptism come to strongly diverse conclusions about human sexuality?”

The matter had become “a cardinal example of how we avoid theological debate”, Dr Williams had suggested. “I sense that in the last few years the debate on sexuality has not really moved much. It is unthinkingly treated by some as almost the sole test of biblical fidelity or doctrinal orthodoxy; it is unthinkingly regarded by others as one of those matters on which the Church must be brought inexorably into line with what our culture can make sense of. Neither side always has the opportunity of clarifying how they see the focal theological issues — how one or the other position relates to our belief in a divine Saviour.”

Nine years later, there had been “little, if any, progress” in answering the question, Dr Sentamu said. “We cannot read well if we read only to solve a crisis, driven by anxiety. This anxiety is kept stoked up by the context of a world around us which simply does not believe in anything very much. In a disagreement such as this, each side suspects the other of colluding with this loss of faith — of substituting one or another kind of moralism for belief. To understand our opponents, then, we need to be able to understand how they believe the faith of Christ before we can question them on how they reach conclusions that strike us as false.”

He exhorted people to engage “with the whole of scripture, and scripture as a whole. In doing this, the Holy Spirit brings our minds and wills onto a convergent path. . .

“Holy Scripture is capable of shaping our minds constructively and convergently if we read it not merely as a book of solutions to problems we have just come up with, but as a consistent guide to living which helps us understand what the real problems are.”

He drew on the word of Cardinal Newman; a former Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood; and Rabbi Jonathan Magonet in setting out his recommendations for a better approach to scripture.

Taking as his text Philippians 2.1-11 (“Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”), he observed: “Our debates on human sexuality, gender, and human identity — which began in 1987 — have had a chilling effect on all of us, as we have participated in patient empathy and patient listening and by God’s grace digested hurt. The urgent task before us is to find a trusting and tending way for the Church overall to support people on all sides who are experiencing the damage the debates have caused.”

He had experienced “unbridled hatred” after arguing on television that a vicar should not refuse to baptise the child of gay parents: “What disappointed me most was the deafening silence of the many who uphold the policy of the Church of England. No one came to my aid.”

He concluded: “May this General Synod continue to think and act in catholic communion with the wider Church and in the pursuit of Christian unity, and especially in partnership with the Anglican Communion as it expresses its unity and humility through the Lambeth Conferences. And when we disagree, to disagree Christianly, in a Jesus Christ-shaped life.”

On Saturday afternoon, members of the Synod were preparing to take part in a series of workshops and seminars exploring the development of Living in Love and Faith resources, teaching materials commissioned by the Archbishops (News, 4 January 2019).

In a presentation to members on Friday, Dr Eeva John, the project’s enabling officer, set out the challenges facing those charged with writing the materials. It had entailed exploring the question: “Who holds the pen?”, which could also be phrased as “Who holds the power?”

“In the face of change or lack of change . . . how do we resist the temptation of politicking to manoeuvre the Church towards one outcome or another?” she asked. “How do we hold fast to a process that is too slow for some and too fast for others?”

Patience was “much harder for some than for others. And it isn’t just about being patient with one another but with God who seems to be so slow in revealing himself to those with whom we disagree. . .

“Our subject-matter — being and relating as human beings — is inherently glorious and joyful, but also and often the root of deep personal pain, pain that is unevenly distributed among us and so a potential source of tension, rancour, and conflict.”

But, she suggested, the pain was “being shared around. Power is being acknowledged. Politics is being put in its place. And we are involved in a process of doing things in a new way, a way that requires hope and holds out a promise, were it to be fulfilled, that would speak powerfully to a nation that seems to be gorging on polarisation and division.”

The resources are due to be published next summer, shortly before the Lambeth Conference. Asked whether “a conclusion about where we stand as a Church” could be expected, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, who chairs the LFF co-ordinating group, said that its members were engaged in “a process by which we learn together so that at the right time those sorts of conclusions will be able to be made. . .

“This isn’t an exercise in trying to hold lots of views together, but in trying to understand what those views are, to allow them to be articulated and understood and done so clearly.”

He continued: “I do think that we can come to some very clear conclusions about the fundamentals of who we are as human beings.”

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