The Road Ahead and differentiation
From Canon John Dunnett
Sir, — I am sorry that you found the Church of England Evangelical Council’s (CEEC’s) internal discussion document The Road Ahead “irritating, puzzling, and frustrating” (Leader comment, 2 June).
It does not make “casual” use of the term “orthodox”, but uses it in recognition that the creation-covenant understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman has been the consensus doctrine of the Church Catholic at every time, until the past 30 years. Indeed, this remains the doctrine of the Church of England, as confirmed at February’s General Synod meeting; so we are speaking here not so much as “conservative Evangelicals”, simply as faithful Anglicans.
Our argument is not based on “individual conscience”, but on precisely this very broad consensus, which also remains by far the majority view of the Anglican Communion. The “plain meaning of Scripture” is not about avoiding complexity, but noting the clear and consistent teaching of scripture, which even scholars arguing for a change of church teaching recognise. As Luke Timothy Johnson has commented, “The exegetical situation is straightforward. . . we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good.”
I am surprised that your critique did not engage with the more substantive issue of differentiation. This offers the best hope for securing the greatest possible unity in the face of incompatible theological convictions. Without it, the current crisis produced by the House of Bishops’ proposals risks furthering widespread division and fracture within the Church of England.
21 Brynford Street, Holywell
Flintshire CH8 7RD
Potential spiritual uses of artificial intelligence
From Professor Fraser Watts
Sir, — Paul Vallely (Comment, 26 May) raises the question how competent Open AI (GPT) is to discuss spiritual matters. I have been involved recently, with Yorick Wilks and others, in research on this, funded by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to the International Society for Science and Religion.
The responses from the computer were often impressively knowledgeable, as would be expected; but many of our users found it limited. The computer’s responses, taken individually, were often convincing and impressive, but, over a period of time, they were stereotyped and formulaic. The computer was also unable to probe the user’s responses, and consistently lacked depth.
Nevertheless, computers have their spiritual uses. They are a good source of information. They can also facilitate self-exploration. There is research from the 1960s, using older methods, showing that a computer can mimic non-directive counselling. It would also be possible to develop computerised expert systems to deliver training in particular skills relevant to the spiritual life.
Also, before GPT-3, there was useful work on developing personalised spiritual companions for the elderly. It may eventually be possible to develop a somewhat similar personalised spiritual companion, which would become familiar with a particular person’s spirituality.
Overall, AI is currently far from being an adequate substitute for a human spiritual counsellor. It may, however, have value as a supplementary resource, used alongside consulting a human. Various publications arising from this research are forthcoming. I can provide more details on request to the email address below.
2B Gregory Avenue
Coventry CV3 6DL
Unhappy outcome of mishandled appointment
Sir, — Let us picture a large, happy and successful rural parish, during an interregnum. An application is received from a priest looking for their first parish. An interview is arranged by the diocese, who say that their archdeacon must run it. He arrives with a list of questions to form the bulk of the meeting; he further says that, though he has references for the candidate, he will not show them, declaring them not relevant. As this candidate has been a curate in the diocese for three years, it is reasonably assumed that the references could show nothing amiss. The panel ask for time to consider the matter, but are told that a decision must be given that afternoon. After two years of looking, the panel feel compelled to accept the diocesan candidate.
Fast forward ten months, and the parish is a shambles, bullying is rampant, slanders about church members are widespread, all the voluntary officers, churchwardens, treasurer, secretary, etc., have either been fired or resigned. The sick lie unvisited; the bereaved are unconsoled. The organisation of funerals and weddings is chaotic. A vote of no confidence in the incumbent is passed overwhelmingly, but then ignored. The congregation and income are in free fall; the organist and choir are harried and driven to resignation. Cash is running out, and, in a desperate bid to cover the scandal, the diocese volunteers a 90-per-cent reduction in the parish share. But, beyond delaying insolvency, which would be welcome, they offer no help.
I had foolishly thought our predicament so awful that it must be unique — but not so. It seems that we are just one of several such abandoned rotten parishes, left swinging in the wind, beyond anyone’s concern. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, what part does our bishop play?
NAME AND ADDRESS SUPPLIED
Headship wrecked by poor Ofsted inspection
From Canon Ian Robinson
Sir, — Rachel Farmer’s analysis of Ofsted is correct in reflecting the view that the inspection process is not fit for purpose (Education, 9 June).
Since the death of Ruth Perry, I have reflected that some years ago the school of which I was vice-chair of the governors could have experienced such a tragedy — and I thank God that we were spared.
Ofsted came on a December Monday morning. We had had a heavy fall of snow during the night, the first of the winter, and several members of staff and students were experiencing the winter vomiting bug. More were falling as the day progressed.
The diocesan board of education, the local authority, parents, and governors asked for the inspection to be postponed; but Ofsted refused. We went from Grade 2 to Grade 4 with little explanation and a refusal to debate.
After more complaints, Ofsted agreed to void the report, as the inspection team had not followed procedure. Six months later, Ofsted returned and graded us a 2.
Sadly, the damage had been done, and our talented head suffered from stress and never returned as head — though he did eventually come back as a classroom teacher.
There has to be a better way of inspecting schools. Tinkering around the edges, as the current changes appear to be doing, is not the answer.
Caistor Vicarage, Spa Top
Caistor LN7 6RB
Incense in unexpected places: warning requested
From Mr Colin Ashworth
Sir, — On Pentecost Sunday, I attended evensong at the place of worship where I was a chorister many years ago. On this occasion, I knew a singer in the visiting choir, and I also took along a friend. During the Magnificat, one of the clergy processed through the choir stalls to the high altar accompanied by a thurifer. While I am aware that some traditions favour the use of incense, this particular place of worship is not known for using it: at least, it wasn’t fifty years ago.
In some scenarios, health warnings are given — for example, if strobe lighting is used, because a proportion of people with photo-sensitive epilepsy may be affected. I would argue that a similar warning ought to be given in those churches and cathedrals where incense is not expected but, apparently, is used on special occasions. My friend almost had a coughing fit, but was able to stifle it. Had anyone with COPD or similar been present, there could have been a serious medical incident.
I was able to speak to the clergy after the service and raise my concerns, which were received with good grace. It remains to be seen if anything will change.
Address supplied (Desborough, Northamptonshire)
Autism and leadership
From the Revd Zoe Heming and the Revd Shemil Matthew
Sir, — I was delighted, as were my fellow disabled and/or neurodiverse siblings in Christ, to read the feature on autism (19 May). After so long exiled to the wilderness of church life, the gifts of disabled and neurodiverse Christians are beginning to filter through the many barriers of our Church for the good of us all.
Many (but not yet all) diocesan bishops are tuning in to these prophet voices and sending nominations of ministers with potential to excel in leadership positions (lay and ordained) for the new Enabling Leaders course starting later this year.
As the deadline for nominations fast approaches, those senior leaders of dioceses yet to recognise this prophetic voice may benefit from a more proactive tap on the shoulder from currently overlooked parts of the body which we should “treat with greater honour” (1 Corinthians 12).
ZOE HEMING, SHEMIL MATTHEW
c/o The Vicarage, Seighford
Stafford ST18 9PQ
Diocesan advisory committees and faculties
From Mr Anthony Acton
Sir, — Brave words from the Archdeacon of Salop, the Ven. Paul W. Thomas (Comment, 2 June), but I’m afraid they ring hollow with me, as I suspect they will with many others. My own experience is, in the Archdeacon’s own words, that the DAC process is “a serious hindrance to the mission of the church”.
It is evident that the Church of England does not have the resources to carry out efficiently its function of providing listed-building control for its vast number of listed churches. The process would be no better, I suspect, if it were carried out by local authorities, but its removal from the dioceses can only improve their relations with the parishes.
Forge House The Barton
Corston, Bath BA2 9AJ
From the Revd James Mather
Sir, — With reference to the celebrity auctioneer Caroline Hawley’s proposed sale on 8 July of Beverley Minster’s accumulated bits and pieces (including “wood carvings, masonry pinnacles, ironwork, pews, and an ancient wheelbarrow”), you quote the Two Churches, One Town project chair, Tim Carlisle, as saying: “The Minster is bigger than some cathedrals, but it is only a parish church” (News, 9 June). Please may we all know how to navigate the faculty system so speedily and successfully?
The Rectory, King’s Walk
Norfolk PE38 9LF
Once bitten, twice shy
From Canon Phillip Nixon
Sir, — Your letters page on 2 June was four to one in favour of dogs in church. That day, a woman was killed by a dog attack in Warwickshire.
I have been bitten twice in unprovoked attacks, and, whenever a dog is present in church, I find it very hard to concentrate on the service. When pet owners say, “My dog has never yet bitten anyone,” this is less reassuring than they imagine.
Dean Hedges writes that dogs “bring comfort to the distressed”. I accept that. But they also bring distress, which one politely tries to hide.
If dogs are to be admitted, please could the church insist that they be muzzled, and provide a well-defined and secure dog-free zone?
32 Cedar Road
Oxford OX2 9EB