This question is before many boardrooms, political parties, union meetings, community organisations, Parochial Church Councils and focus groups. The more radical any proposed solution is, the more it involves facing critical issues.
The Church of England has in the past both been able to spearhead change in some areas of its life, while becoming ossified in others. Its latest shortcomings – abuse, racism and the Clergy Discipline Measure to name but three – only serve to highlight its difficulties.
The desire of some of its members to look both ways is not helpful. Sometimes such action creates a false ‘inclusivity’. This can be seen in the process that suggests the Church allows women to flourish in the ordained ministry while instituting a procedure that allows the selection and deployment of those opposed to their very existence.
Pointing out such things makes one liable to accusations of extremism or even cultural Stalinism. But radical measures are those which were advocated by Jesus only for them to be repeatedly subverted by institutions devoted to following him. They can reflect many toxic attitudes.
I want to put forward three propositions, each in its own nature provocative and potentially outrageous, that may help the Church consider where it stands on its principles and practice. They relate to memorials, graveyards and marriages in church.
The ongoing failings in relation to people of colour, highlighted again in From Lament to Action, can be seen in the heritage of memorials in church buildings. The very presence of any of these creates difficulties.
The church I served as parish priest in London for 17 years had a single surviving memorial on the church, the rest of which had vanished in the clear up and restoration after Second World War damage to the inner city. Visitors would often remark on the contrast of the 18th century building and its striking 1960s interior. When asked to account for this, I would quip, ‘Thank God for the Luftwaffe’.
The memorial by the entrance was deteriorating badly and the inspecting architect counselled its removal for storage in what was left of the crypt. This freed the building of memorials—none had been installed since refurbishment—allowing a freedom to worship or look at the extraordinary art that accompanied reconstruction.
Likewise, there were only two graves in the churchyard. One was maintained because of a legacy to an organisation that had benefitted from a man’s philanthropy. As is often the case, his good works may be considered questionable in the light of how his money was made. The second was of a family member of someone called The Boss of Bethnal Green in a book by Julian Woodford. Needless to say, the Boss had a colourful history, including a convictions for running bawdy houses and misappropriation of funds. The rest of the churchyard was clear of headstones, once again because of the damage suffered in World War Two.
I know of a Home Counties church that has two memorials of Crusaders. One has the decapitated head of a Turk as a pillow, the other has a cartoon-like Muslim as a footstool. I expect in time such memorials will rightly become as problematic as those of slave traders.
Memorials and, to a lesser extent, graveyards pose problems for a Christian. If we believe in the radical equality proclaimed in our faith as typified in the letter to the Galatians, why does the Church tolerate such testaments to human vanity?
These are mostly vestiges of a financial consideration. Of course, work needs funding and realpolitik would suggest there is a quid pro quo. But does the Church unduly compromise itself in this?
Gravestones do not help the Church in its oft stated mission about the sacred quality of nature. Parks, natural burial centres, and the like would be of greater use if they provided either open space or natural habitats for species of plants, birds and animals. This is not to ignore the needs of people needing a place to go to remember their loved ones, but a walk around many churchyards serves to remind us of the past and the here and now. This construct of destructive human need takes precedence over nature or eternity.
The last thorny area of activity is in relation to marriage. The latest changes to registration practices in the Church of England do little to clarify the mess that it is in over relationships. The current practice which allows marriage between certain sections of the population while denying it, by regulation or clerical conscience, to others is not sustainable.
Once again there is a heritage of power, privilege and financial gain. If the Church wants to have an open doors policy, then implement one. Follow the French, Dutch and German model, get civic authorities to conduct all legal and registration procedures and those who want a religious element are free to have one. Divorce, remarriage, same gender partnerships can all then come under the open arms of God’s love.
This proposal is not a new one from me and may be met with the usual reactions of seeking to destroy ‘Christian’ marriage. As has been pointed out before Jesus’s only consistent teaching was in relation to remarriage, but the Church has long since resolved its quibbles on that score.
Of course, each of these issues qualifies for sailing under a flag in the current cultural wars. And yes, such suggestions will be fraught with ‘practical’ difficulties. But reformation, which is what they amount to, needs to be confrontational and revolutionary.
There will be lots of arguments and reasons to counter these proposals. The responses will be, in many ways, predictable. But if the Church wants to move forward, how far will it go in changing itself beyond planting more middle class congregations aping ‘informal’ services? Is it prepared to be as radical as the early church was in being for the good of all, and ensuring no-one is in need?