Thursday, 2 July 2009
About 5 years ago our diocese had an electoral synod in which I was a candidate. The events leading up to the synod and the synod itself were particularly grueling for me, and it took me fully two years to recover from them. One of the very unfortunate side effects, for me, of the events surrounding the synod was a sense of alientation from much of my own diocese and a sense of deep disillusionment with the national Anglican church. I remember one of the members of the synod using a metaphor which has stuck with me since that day. She said our diocese was on a roundabout, going round and round looking for the right street to exit into. I had a sense, on that day, and one which has grown every day since, that I got off on one street and the Diocese of Dunedin got off on another. Following the synod, I remained as Vicar General of the diocese, a position I deeply did not want to hold but which I could not quite find a way to relinquish, at least until my illness gave me the excuse I had been looking for. I found myself in a leadership position in a diocese whose decisions often (usually?)baffled me, but also in the odd position of being uniquely unable to comment on or critique those decisions. Further, the Anglican Church at national and international levels was making decisions and doing things which I found more than baffling. My reaction to much of what was said and done was Toto we're not in Kansas anymore. As the months drew on I could find fewer and fewer points at which I could comfortably identify with much of what my church did. I found myself, at times, wondering if I wanted to remain with the church I had given most of my adult life to; but there were two things above all others which kept me loyal: the support of a few friends within the church (particularly my Archdeacon, Graham Langley) and the wonderful community of St. John's Roslyn.
This pilgrimage has been a pilgrimage to the heart of the Anglican Church, and it is one that I completed yesterday when I stood on the spot where, in 1170, Thomas Becket was martyred, and, later, on the spot in St. Martin's churchyard where, in 597 St.Augustine baptised King Aethelbert and thousands of his subjects. These two events were defining moments in the history of Christianity in England, and both were incidents in the long and tortuous relationship of Church and State which have shaped the pragmatism which is Anglicanism's defining characteristic.
The pilgimage began with a journey into Catholicism. Across Spain, Italy and France, week by week I worshipped in Catholic churches and associated with Catholic people. It wasn't an intellectual journey -I couldn't understand a word of the liturgies, readings or sermons - so much as an emotional and spiritual one. I tried to choose ordinary parish churches in which to worship and felt held by the warmth of the congregations. I witnessed many examples of fine pastoring by holy priests. In this way, I experienced something of the seedbed out of which my own church had grown.
Journeying to England has been an experience of the things which set this European country apart from the rest of Europe. A different currency, system of measurement and language and a deeper rigour about immigration matters are only part of it. In the rest of Europe you see the European flag flying as often as the national flag. Not in England. Here it's Union Jacks all the way, proclaiming a sense of difference and independence which is mirrored in the relationship of the Church of England to European Catholicism. This is a different church. Quirkily different. Proudly different. Sometimes different just for the sake of being different.
The Church of England is like that most English of jokes, a curates egg. Parts of it are excellent. The new life bursting out of Holy Trinity Brompton and the deep spirituality of Walsingham could not be more different but they are held in the same organisation and both are inspiring. I have been in dozens of small churches, though, where a tiny congregation struggles with the upkeep of their much beloved ecclesiastical museum (aka the parish church) with diminishing resources of money and personnel. I have seen both the church's impotence in the face of the increasing social and economic malaise which seems to be engulfing Britain, and her small courageous, and often ingenious attempts to make a difference. But it's the history which has helped me to understand the current Anglican church.
The church here is old. I met a vicar who spoke of the damage done to his parish church by "the invasion". He meant the one which took place in 1066 but he spoke of it as if it was last week. In every place the plundering of the dissolution, the ravages of Viking longboats and Luftwaffe bombers and the vandalism of the puritans have left their mark, and the current parishioners are dealing with them still. This is a church which has been part of the fabric of the society around it, and where the demands of being a social institution and of being the body of Christ have caused constant tension. Sometimes the church has become more a part of the social fabric than the spotless Bride of Christ, and it has failed. Sometimes though, it has been a witness to the Gospel in the face of hardship and oppression and sometimes the Spirit has caused rebirth, even centuries after a seeming full stop.
Unsurprisingly, it is where there is a continuing practice of spirituality that the church has flourished. Where there has been prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, meditation, social responsibility and almsgiving the Church of England has thrived. It has also thrived where there has been disciplined, holy, fearless leadership. To see the marks of the Church's history and to hear the stories has been to encounter this deep vein of spirituality and to feel again the influence of her sainted leaders. Where this rich seam is refound, as on Iona and in Mother Julian's cell, the 21st Century church has risen, seemingly invincible, from the ashes. It is this, the great treasure of our church, that I have glimpsed, and which I know to be the only hope of my own diocese and of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
I was raised a Methodist and chose to be an Anglican. After this month in England, I choose still to be an Anglican, but I know that much of what occupies our church and seems so important in our councils is froth and bubble: the detritus rising to the surface from the ongoing struggle with our wider culture. I choose to be an Anglican, but know that the only way for my own faith and my own parish to be viable is if I try to dive deeper and find the cool streams beneath. This seeking the depths must be what forms my ministry in this, the last decade of my life as a stipended Anglican priest. Which brings me to reflect on the third thread of my own journey: that inward one of my own soul.