I can still remember when it used to be a case of, ‘More tea and another slice of cake, vicar?’ and let’s keep the conversation light and pleasant if we can. Certain subjects were never raised if a clergyman, and it was always a man, came round to visit your mother. Topics such as religion, politics and money never came up, and the topic of sex was unheard of, quite unthinkable as a subject of discussion for decent people.
Now it seems in formerly pleasant Anglican pastures there is no other topic. Gay sex at least, is an all consuming obsession, at least among the clergy.
I realised this last November when I attended a debate about the future of the Cof E. I naturally thought this would be about possible reasons why numbers attending church were falling so drastically. But it turned out that the only Q &A I heard were about gay rights and ecclesiastical justice for lesbians. I was surprised to hear then and since that the issue of homosexuality is regarded by most of the C of E clergy as of overwhelming importance for the future of the church. No one ever asks the laity, at my church, mostly elderly ladies, what they think about this and the downgrading of marriage which seems concomitant. At that debate I did stand up and ask about this apparent disparity, but the reply was as cold and stony as the walls around us.
On June 1st this year a church think-tank, alarmed by the increasing lack of elderly ladies or anyone else in its pews, decided to change or rather improve on the traditionally understood nature of God by deciding that he is a woman. Forget the God of our fathers strong to save; the Almighty was now reconfigured to be more appealing to the missing masses as a cross between Harriet Harperson and Oprah Winfrey. A women’s group in the Church of England also called for a complete change in the language so that the Christian deity be referred to in future as ‘She.’
This call came from Watch (Women and the Church), which spearheaded the campaign for female bishops. Watch member Rev Jody Stowell said the group wants to re-configure the almost exclusively male references to God. The Rev Emma Percy, chaplain of Trinity College Oxford, also a member of Watch, said a change in language would change the way God was perceived, and shake the image of the, ‘man in the sky.’
There will be no more ‘Men of God’ rising up to serve the ‘King of Kings,’ and at Christmas we will soon have to do without the ‘Merry Gentlemen,’ rested or not.
None of this has of course got us very far, at least not in terms of numbers attending church. In popularity these measures register somewhere alongside the stone tablets recently presented to the multitude by Ed Miliband.
Undeterred, leaders of the C of E have remained loyal to their most precious topic. This weekend, 11th July 2015, it was revealed that the church now wants to spent well over a quarter of a million pounds on retreats to discuss homosexuality, with conflict resolution experts. Up to now they’ve been talking about it endlessly for nothing, gassing on about sodomy usually costs nothing, unless you do it in a gay bar, but it seems the time has come to dole out a great deal of money to try and get to grips with the subject.
Details of the budget for the talks are disclosed in papers circulated to members of the General Synod, which is meeting in York this weekend. In written questions Rosemary Lyon, a lay member from the Diocese of Leeds, and the Rev Stephen Pratt of Lichfield asked for details of how these discussions on human sexuality are to be funded.
Answering on behalf of the House of Bishops, the Bishop of Norwich, Rev Graham James, disclosed that the events would collectively cost £360,000. He said that the Church’s financial arm, the Church Commissioners, had agreed to set aside £300,000 of the money it normally gives the Church in rent relief for its Westminster headquarters towards the cost of the shared conversations.
‘In addition a further £60,000 is being funded by a direct charge to dioceses for the expected 600 participants.’
It is understood much of the money is being spent on ‘conflict resolution experts’ who will attend each meeting, along with chiropractors, reflexologists and experts on overcoming allergies to church dust. I jest, although they wouldn’t seem that absurd in this context.
‘They are the same sort of people who did a lot of the work in bringing communities together in Northern Ireland. They’re sort of a combination of a referee slash judge and they get people together and they help the conversation to progress,’ said Synod member Revd Canon Jonathan Ford.
‘If it’s done well it allows people to say what’s in their hearts without it leading to a breakdown in the actual dialogue between the various groups there, it is a skilled post.’
Every home should have one. After all, in these days of Health & Safety concerns, we can’t allow people to openly disagree about such an important topic without strong support and counselling facilities available. We can’t have girl and boy vicars hurling hassocks at each other.
According to Canon Ford there is widespread support among Synod members for the meetings, despite the cost, which is predicted to escalate to half a million pounds. You could buy an awful lot of new hassocks and cassocks for that, repair a lot of church hymn books, and pay the salaries of forty new vicars for a year. But we wouldn’t want any common sense coming near the institution which once created the Book of Common Prayer, that would be unthinkable.