Sunday, June 18, 2017

Clergy need to have more in common

The other day I was involved a minor twitter spat with one who we shall describe as "a well-known blogger". I say minor because, honestly, it would not even feature on the Richter Scale of such altercations. It was more an exchange of slightly grumpy tweets followed by what each party imagines to be a dignified silence (note to self - don't engage with well-known bloggers at 10 pm at the end of a long and gruelling week).

The cause of the dispute, you ask? The said well-known blogger was objecting to the number of clergy online who are joining the call for the resignation of the Prime Minister in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster and, well, everything else. I tried to question whether he would be equally disgusted if they were to give the same treatment to a Labour Prime Minister, whereupon he immediately took me to be one of the pitchfork-wielding mob, and sent me to Coventry.

The irony is that, on one point at least, I agree with the w-kb. The sight of Priests and Bishops lining up to call for the Prime Minister's head, in such a nakedly partisan way, makes me very queasy. Should Christian Ministers campaign for the interests of a political party? It's long been my opinion that they should not, and in the current situation I feel that more strongly than ever.

Of course, the Christian gospel is highly political. Anyone who reads the Bible and maintains otherwise is either missing half the pages or is being selective to the point of myopia. But what you won't find in the Bible is the manifesto of any particular party. You'll find some things which match the aspirations of any mainstream party, and other things which would make them extremely uncomfortable. Anyone who maintains otherwise is either missing half the pages, or is.. anyway, you know the rest. And Politics is a noble profession. I don't subscribe to the notion that politicians are all venal, mendacious chancers. Most are motivated by the desire to serve the public and to change things for the better. But, being duty-bound to keep to the party line, or at least to maintain the pretence that they are right and the other lot are wrong, they operate in an oppositional and abrasive way. This is not the calling of the clergy, or anyone who is in Christian ministry.

If my calling is to be a representative of Christ to people (however you understand that), how can I possibly be, if I alienate more than half of them by attacking their politics? And if I am called to preach Christ (again, however understood), isn't it confusing, to say the least, if I also preach the [insert name] party? It seems to me that this vocation demands that we are political, with a small p, but to eschew Party Politics, at least in public.

The Church of England has established a role for itself in critiquing the Government of the day, a role which perhaps began with Faith in the City, which so famously annoyed Mrs Thatcher. Recent examples including the Feeding Britain report, in which the Bishop of Truro played a leading role, and the ministry of Justin Welby, who walks the tightrope with great skill. But this role demands a political independence which is compromised if we start to cheerlead for one side (or the other).

Recently many people marked the anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox by celebrating her words, that "we have far more in common with each other than that which divides us". Perhaps, not for the first time, the church needs to heed a message from outside in order to communicate its own message more effectively.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nativity chaos isn't so bad

This week brought us a new entrant on the stage of popular theological debate: Netmums alerted the nation to the imminent demise of the "traditional nativity play".  Mums are concerned, or in some cases, disappointed or even disgusted by their children's schools cavalier treatment of the Nativity, at a number of levels. Even those schools which haven't dispensed with it altogether, we learned, subvert the classic form by introducing a range of characters who can only be described as extra-biblical, including Elvis, Alan Sugar, spacemen, "a lobster", and, pushing the definition of "characters" to the limit, recycling bins.

None of which is news to any long-serving parent, especially those of us who had more than one offspring and consequentially sat through a decade or more of school Christmas performances, grinning fixedly at the antics of the fairies, reindeer, and angels in the syncretistic nativity of modern Britain. Nor is it news to any parish priest, who every year invites the children of the community to come on Christmas Eve dressed as "your favourite nativity character", knowing full well that the among the Shepherds and Angels will be Captain America, Tinkerbell, and a number of other characters probably best left un-named.

This, of course, drew the usual responses from the usual places.  "Extreme political correctness or a nation too embarrassed to face up to its Christian heritage", thundered Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance (quoted here). Which is odd, because one of the few things that unites conservative evangelicals and liberal biblical scholars is a dislike of Nativity plays. If we were to accurately reflect the biblical text, shepherds (from Luke) and wise men (from Matthew) would never appear in the same scene, and there certainly wouldn't be a donkey. For clergy and other Christian leaders who are already anxious about this kind of thing, the appearance of premier league footballers and dancing sprouts is bound to cause something close to meltdown.

But it's interesting that the majority of schools actually don't dispense with the Nativity (that is, the birth of Jesus), but instead go with what we might call this "Nativity plus" approach. And, in the end, is it so different from what went before?  The traditional Nativity is cheerfully unbiblical with its eclectic gathering of angels, shepherds, and the ones who may or may not have been Kings. But, far from being a liberal sell-out which needs to be replaced with the biblically correct version, it actually says something important about the incarnation of Jesus. As the boy born to be King lies in the manger, he is worshipped by his own people, but also by heaven (the angels), creation (the animals), and all the nations of the earth (the wise men, who came from beyond Israel). The whole world is invited to gather round the baby Jesus, no-one is excluded, and all the realms of this world, political or cultural, are brought into his Kingdom. In the words of Christina Rossetti:
Come all mankind, come all creation hither,
Come worship Christ together. 
So what's wrong with adding some new characters to the mix?  Everyone's invited to the Nativity. We're always saying we want to communicate the real meaning of Christmas - I can't think of many better ways of doing that than seeing Darth Vader, Wayne Rooney, and the cast of Eastenders kneeling in the muck and straw around the manger. They belong there, with the sheep and the angels, in the world to which Jesus was born, and is born again each Christmas. Come one, come all, there's room for you in the stable.

Friday, July 18, 2014

What we learned from women bishops vote

So, the deed is finally done, less than 2 years after the embarrassing collapse of the original proposal, the Church of England's General Synod has voted to open the ranks of the episcopate to women for the first time. Years of anxious wrangling appear to be coming to an end, as the new rules will surely be speedily approved by Parliament and then nodded through the final stages by the same Synod, before its term of office expires next year.

I'm in favour of this, I always have been, and though for the most part I respect and value those who hold a different view, I'm sure this was the right decision. I don't have anything to add to the many comments already made on the rightness of it, only a few reflections on what we might learn by observing what happened on Monday:

We learned that General Synod hasn't improved since 2012.  Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. We wouldn't be talking about this if the Synod had not failed, in 2012, to pass a proposal that had already been approved by 100% of the Dioceses.  And once again, on Monday, we had to listen around 85 individual speeches to a body whose members had almost entirely made up their minds how they were going to vote in advance, and yet still had to endure an anxious wait to see if they would consent to pass the legislation that all the Diocesan Synods had already approved. It is frankly embarrassing to be represented in the national eye by this verbally incontinent bureaucratic dinosaur of a body.  We need a better governance system and this process has made that painfully clear.

We learned a bit more about Justin Welby's leadership. He wasn't much in evidence on Monday but the process has his fingerprints all over it. Always Hope seems to be in danger of becoming the Welby cheerleaders' club, but still, credit where it's due, and much is due here. The Church of England seems to have unearthed a leader with the rare talent of getting things done. Instead of meekly accepting the failure of 2012, and sheltering behind the old excuse of Archbishops having no real power, Justin and his colleague Sentamu sent out a message that we were going to try again, and get it right this time.

We learned that the Church of England is not as divided as some think. My opinions about the Synod system do not detract from my respect for the many individual members who supported this legislation in a spirit of reconciliation, including several who voted against their own views to do so. Many people have been confidently predicting for some time that this, and other controversial issues, are going to split the church down the middle. This seems a perfectly reasonable assumption, given all the evidence. And yet, contrary to all expectations, once again the Church has demonstrated its peculiar genius for sticking together without agreeing on anything.  The Church has a long tradition of holding together different streams which, at one level, seem to have nothing at all in common. The agreement over women as bishops is the latest example of unity being plucked from the jaws of division, and it was done, by the majority at least, in a spirit of humility and mutual respect.  Maybe there's more to this than meets the eye. Maybe the explanation is something along these lines:

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. 
There really is hope, after all.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Another year

I appear to have had a year off blogging. I don't know how that happened. Perhaps I didn't have anything to say.  But now seems a good time to pull the dustsheets off AH and take the old thing for a spin.

So what's been happening in the world, or at least the world as seen through the lens of this blog, in the last 12 months?  Good question, thank you. Because it has been fascinating, even if not easy.

Life in the UK feels a bit downbeat. I avoid party political comment but it's not partisan to notice that the Government is struggling. We're told that the recession is over, and that economic policy is vindicated because we're all getting better off, but in real life everything still seems hard work. We're a country that is getting by, making the best of things, rather than one that's really enjoying life. The fact that almost all our politicians have adopted a rhetoric of threat, anxiety, and defensiveness only reinforces this. Hope seems to have disappeared from our public discourse.

Curiously, for the Church of England, things are looking up, or at least less down than they were. The advent of Archbishop Justin has been a breath of fresh air.  The appointment of a financially literate Archbishop of Canterbury, coming so soon after the banking crisis, in which the Church became so spectacularly embroiled through the St Paul's affair, just seems to have worked. He had a good way in to the media, on which he has built and shown a happy knack for getting his message across without being misinterpreted or led into elephant traps.  His leadership appears to steering us through the women bishops fiasco, which was threatening to destroy the Church completely. And he talks about Jesus all the time. Of course his predecessor did as well, but once again he seems to be able to make himself heard effectively.  He's even made a start on cleansing the Augean Stables of church bureaucracy.  Sorry if that sounds a bit crawly. I know he's not perfect, but he seems like the right man at the right time.

Talking of church bureaucracy, there's a lot happening in the internal workings of the ecclesiastical machine. Partly prompted by the aforementioned Archbishop, but partly as a belated reaction to changing times and circumstances, the way we do business as an organisation is being put under the microscope. This creates some tensions in an organisation that doesn't have a centralised chain of command, but the conversation is happening. This means we're seeing a surprisingly rapid culture change in the way the organisations of the church work. Watch this space.

So is there hope after all? I think so. But if there is, it's because we are plugged into the main supply of hope: "Jesus, who God raised from the dead", as Peter put it. There's a message worth hearing, in church, or anywhere.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kate Bottley flashmob wedding is 100% good news

First things first. If you have spent the last 48 hours on Mars, or not on Twitter, watch it now:

Kate posted links to this yesterday and I think she was beginning to wonder if anyone was interested. She need not have. Today the internet has gone bonkers over it, in its usual frenzied way and she is the news-worthy vicar of the week, which is a good result in itself, keeping the usual embezzlers and philanderers out of the press, and giving the church a rare good news story on the clergy front.

Inevitably, then, the backlash has followed, with various individuals lining up to ping epithets like "irreverent" at her, and explaining how they like a good laugh as much as the next man but apparently not within 10 miles of a church, since this is "not an appropriate moment in the liturgy" and other such important-sounding things. Tomorrow there will be a rash of newspaper columns shouting about it and telling us that this is why the Church of England is doomed. Apparently someone has even told Mrs B that this proves that women should never become bishops (presumably because there would be too much danger of having fun).

Always Hope wants everyone to know, then, that there is nothing bad here, and a battery of things that are good, nay brilliant.  To begin: this is completely appropriate to the liturgy. What better point in the service to do this than the one where the congregation inevitably start cheering and the groom already expects a quick snog, as we see here? A bit of choreographed waving and wiggling is hardly going to detract any further from the dignity of the moment. And in case the critics (mostly clergy, who perhaps ban kissing in their services too) hadn't noticed, the liturgy is a celebration of love, human as well as divine, the clue being in the word "celebration".

And that is the crux here. People go to weddings to have fun and celebrate the two principals. Most have no great affection for the religious bit, and churchpeople who insist on turning it into a po-faced ritual which apparently has nothing to do with the rest of the day are only making it worse. The average wedding guest endures the service in the hope that it will be over quickly so the good bit can start, and so is deprived of the chance of celebrating the third person in the contract -  God. (Who, we can assume, is not as easily offended as some of his servants).

What Kate has done here is to give a couple back some ownership of their wedding from a church that has been used to telling people what they want. It worked a hundred, maybe even thirty years ago, but not any more. She's made herself, and the Church of England a tiny bit less irrelevant. Read Andrew Brown today. And she has also sent away a whole crowd of people thinking that the God bit might be worth listening to after all. Read the Richardson's comment underneath their YouTube video: "a fantastic vicar, church and congregation, and a bit of faith!".

That's what mission looks like in unchurched Britain today. Well done Kate.

I just hope nobody ever asks me do this.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Church for the world

The way I'm thinking about church was clarified in an instant this Sunday, in the unlikely setting of an 8.00 am BCP service.  Or perhaps not so unlikely, because unlike some clergy, I find the communion service of 1662 to be a liturgy that powerfully expresses the liberality of the gospel, built as it is around the explosive declaration that "God so loved the world".  God didn't just love the 5 of us who did him a favour by turning up to the service, but the whole world, even the ones who don't seem that bothered about him.

This was brought home to me by the Gospel reading (completely different to the one that non-17th century congregations were reading): 

Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?  And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
(sensible version here)

Would a shepherd really leave ninety-nine sheep to their own devices in order to go after just one? This shepherd would. The God that Jesus reveals to us is a restlessly questing one, who loves with a passion that will not be quenched until the last sheep comes home.

Of course, if the shepherd had consulted with his churchwardens first, he would never have got out of the fold.

That is horribly unfair to many churchwardens, but as a general point it is sadly true. Many congregations have very little interest in the sheep outside their own little fold, and actively resent the time "their" clergy spend on community work, visiting non-church members, and evangelism.  The irony that in the modern Church of England there is only one sheep left, and it's the ninety-nine who have done a bunk, is lost on these myopic Christians who would rather we spent our final days as a denomination looking after the tiny minority who are "in", and leaving the rest outside.

Sunday by Sunday we worship a God who is totally unrecognisable in a church that exists only for itself.  If there is any future for us, it's time to reconnect with the Shepherd who leaves us behind and goes out to those who aren't tucked up in the cosy building where he keeps the sheep.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Part time clergy short of cash shock

Reverend Martyn Pinnock has taken a job as a Sainsbury's delivery driver because he is short of cash

A vicar in Cornwall has taken up driving for Sainsbury's delivery service. [warning to readers of a delicate constitution: links to Daily Mail website]. Of course the idea of the worker priest, or minister in secular employment, is a well-established and noble one. We've long benefited from the ministry of priests who earn their living in other jobs, taking their vocation to work, and bringing back their multi-faceted experience to the Lord's Table. What sets the Revd Martyn Pinnock aside is that he offers a less theologically nuanced reason for his new job, ie. he needs the cash. In fact he is not officially a Minister in Secular Employment at all, because he is a stipendiary priest, paid by the church. Or, to be precise, half-stipendiary.

This isn't a criticism of my old diocese, Truro. Or at least, not a criticism of Truro in particular. But without a doubt, there will be people around in Mr Pinnock's parish and his diocese who will frown on this as an inappropriate and selfish move by a man who, in their eyes, ought to be devoting himself to the work of the church. Whereas the correct response should be simply to note that, as a staff worker effectively employed for 50% of full-time, what he does with the other half of his work hours is entirely his business.

And could we blame him? The Mail's given explanation for his employment move is that he was recently divorced and needed the money for legal fees. But probably a more direct explanation is that a half stipend is about £12,000 a year. As we noted already, he needed the cash. Given his circumstances, it's very unlikely that he took a half-stipendiary post by choice, but because there was no realistic chance of getting a full-time one.

And there's the thing which should give pause for thought for anyone interested in the future of ordained ministry. Over the years Dioceses have elevated to a virtue the pursuit of knocking money off the bill for clergy pay. The latest of a long list of cunning plans is the half-stipendiary appointment. Diocesan leaderships like it because it helps them eke out the meagre number of clergy posts they allow themselves, and because it is nice and cheap, especially if by some alchemy they can persuade the priest that being paid half a stipend means working two-thirds of the time. And in reality, many part-time paid priests put in the extra hours out of their own time, because that's the kind of people they are, and because congregations, who have often been used to having a full-timer, have not scaled down their expectations. So everybody's happy.

Except, as it turns out, the priest. It's quite easy for a hypothetical Archdeacon in a hypothetical diocese somewhere to convince himself that because he gets applicants for the half-time posts he creates, that there are lots of clergy who really want to work for half pay. This enables Archdeacons to sleep at night but isn't a rigorous analysis of the situation. Of course there are some ministers whose circumstances mean that a part-time appointment suits them better (assuming they are able to manage their boundaries strictly) but there are many others like Mr Pinnock, who would like a full-time post but can't get one.

This is serious because it begs the question of what we as a church want from our ministers. I imagine that most churches would like to think that their parish priest is wholeheartedly devoted to their work, energised by a call from Christ and a desire to serve. And clearly this is what any Bishop would hope for the clergy in their diocese too. On the other hand, if you offered them a priest who was disgruntled about being forced into an appointment they didn't really want or exhausted from holding down two jobs to make ends meet, they probably wouldn't be too keen. But this is the path that "part-stipendiary" is taking us down now. It's not an attractive prospect, leaving parishes ill-served and opening us up to the charge of exploiting our staff. Dioceses need a serious think about whether cheaper appointments are always the best ones, and how we manage the demands on priests in part-time appointments.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

We sometimes think of the Christmas story as being tinged with stardust and a little magic, especially late on Christmas Day when the memory has been blended with Doctor Who and the Strictly Christmas special. And yes, there are angels and glory and and a star in the East. But the event itself is uncompromisingly ordinary. The blood and pain of childbirth, the everyday miracle of a baby's first breath, a young mum making the best of what she had in difficult circumstances.

And it is the wrapping of the Incarnation in ordinariness that makes it such a powerful challenge to the materialistic view of life. We are told that life goes on, day by day, following rules that cannot be broken. There are high points along the way, like our annual winter celebration that lifts the spirits, but they are just variations in the pattern. There is no escape from our journey from birth to death, and the stern humanists are waiting to whip us back into line if we try to lift our eyes away from that road.  And so we live our ordinary lives - we eat, sleep, shop. We laugh and love, we cry and die.

How curious then, that the miracle takes place in the midst of all that. Not in a different world, but in our world, that we were told had nothing else to it. If this was a fantasy it would not be told this way. It is too plain, too commonplace. If we didn't read the rest of Luke's book, we would think that nothing happened at all.

The early church who placed Christmas at the same time as the ancient midwinter feasts did the right thing (although possibly for the wrong reasons). Christmas belongs right in the middle of the shopping, the parties, the family fun and feuds.  Because the Nativity shows us that God is not afraid to get dirty. He cannot be kept sealed up in a precious heavenly dimension, even if we want him to. Our ordinary, messy and very human lives are where we meet God, just as much as in any sacred space. And in those ordinary lives we find him at work, and we find it's all right to be ordinary, because that is not all there is, after all.

God is with us. It's more than a promise, because he is.

Happy Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

These words will be sung by thousands tonight, and regarded by most of them as harmless sentimentality, which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on your point of view.  But I've always found it the most profound and challenging of Christmas Carols.

I've noted this year, having more time for observation than I used to, the controversies stirred up in the media by opponents and defenders of religion. The Advent season brings Richard Dawkins out of the woodwork as reliably as daybreak makes the birds sing, and everybody else joins in the fun. Media pundits queue up to offer their views on the state of the Christian religion, the Church of England, and the future of Christmas itself, and meanwhile the churches engage in an advertising blitz to rival the apparently secular one which calls us to the shopping centres every December day.

It isn't surprising that Christmas stirs such strong passions when we remember what is at stake. Christmas and Easter, the two great celebrations, show up, like nothing else, the huge gap between the Christian view of the world and the atheistic, purely material one.  Many of us sense this, and value the annual trip to church not just for childish reasons, but because it puts in touch with something deeper, something which goes beyond the world we can touch and see.  But few realise just how deep, and how far beyond.

As we sing the words of the carol, it tells us that there was a moment in space and time when the whole of human history turned on its axis. The destiny of each and every one of us, a mystery which even the greatest minds could not solve, was written for all to see in stars and song and the moment of childbirth at Bethlehem. We are not just here for a time before we dissolve again into nothing. The moment we live in is not the only reality.  Christmas changes everything, heart and soul, life and death and everything in between. "Heaven touches earth", in the words of the prayer. And at the moment it touches, Jesus is here, Do we dare to believe that as we sing, and allow the one who is from heaven to reach out to us tonight?

Picture by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic from Cagua, Venezuela (Sirius) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, December 10, 2012

Student Christian Unions & women in ministry

In another century, many years ago (let's just say "20 or more"), I was young, confident, and impetuous. Like so many young people in any age, I wanted to change the world and I was sure I knew how to do it. I had drifted into a place at Bristol University without much idea of what to do with life. But the summer before, I had, as we used to say, "made a commitment" at a youth camp. I decided that I was going to be a Christian. When I arrived at Bristol, confronted at once with the full range of excitements and opportunities that University life offers, it dawned on me that this decision was going to have implications.  Gradually during my first year, something that had previously compelled me intellectually began to convict me at a more visceral level: following Christ was something to be done 100%, or not at all.  I threw myself into all things Christian, did my best to live out my faith in practice, and in the process became more and more involved in the evangelical scene at Bristol. Gradually, I suppose, this made an impact on those around me. What the impact was in some cases I shudder to think, but one effect was, that half way through my second year I was amazed to be asked to become the president of Bristol University Christian Union.

Some might be surprised to hear this, but know that it's not my intention to somehow recant of this phase of my past. Unlike some, after 20 or more years I'm not a "post" evangelical, but still just plain evangelical. I value my spiritual roots and wouldn't exchange my CU experience for anything, because of what I learned and the foundation it gave me for all that came after. But still, there are so many things I wish I knew then, that I know now. All this was brought back to me forcefully last week, when I read about BUCU and their decision (possibly since rescinded) to "ban" women from speaking at their meetings.  I've no intention of defending that policy, which I think was wrong both in principle and on its own terms. In fact, that was one of the mistakes I didn't make during my year in the hotseat. But I did feel deeply for the young man who is the current occupant of that chair. 

Did I mention that I was young, confident, and impetuous? I was twenty years old. I've never been more confident in my own abilities than when I was twenty. I could do anything (in my own opinion). I wasn't arrogant, I just didn't know better, because I had no idea of the huge range of human experience, of success and failure, of the complex interplay of hope and disappointment, of the multiple ways we react to each other and indeed, to God. I was young, confident, and impetuous, and I think I was fairly typical of the twenty-year old human, a combination which is both exhilarating and profoundly dangerous.  Young people really can change the world, but they can also make a huge mess along the way. At this point in my life I was given the leadership of an organisation that encompassed an extraordinary range of views within its membership, which was under pressure from a huge number of external vested interests, and which represented evangelical Christianity in one of the UK's largest Universities.

The conclusion of this should be fairly obvious, but it's one that has escaped the multitude of commentators who have rushed to hit the keyboards this week.  But before we get there, there are a couple of observations that will suffice as my two-penn'orth on the subject:

1. is that it is much more likely that a CU would adopt a "no women teaching" policy now than it was 20 or more years ago.  At that time, CUs could still make some sort of claim to be what they say they are, ie. a union of all kinds of Christians who signed up to the basis of faith. In my time at Bristol, solemn and sound Baptists rubbed shoulders with frothy house-churchers and tidy Anglicans. What might appear narrow from the outside housed a range of opinions which the Church of England itself could hardly match. We invited all kinds of speakers, including women, and nobody flounced out because they were the wrong gender, or the wrong anything else. It worked, somehow. But in the intervening years, British evangelicalism has fractured like thin ice into myriad groups, factions and movements. One of the results is that there are alternatives (some would say rivals) to UCCF (the parent group of CUs) on University campuses now. This means that the Uni CU is now more likely to be a gathering of those from conservative churches than it used to be. Not certain to be, but more likely.

2. is that much of the criticism aimed at BUCU last week was wide of the mark, because it assumed that the CU leadership somehow acted in isolation. Of course, as was pointed out, individual CUs are independent and make their own decisions. But however young, confident, and impetuous CU leaders are, they aren't really operating in a bubble. They all belong to local churches, where their values and understanding of their faith are formed. And their position brings them into contact with all kinds of people with strong opinions on what they should be doing. My time at BUCU was punctuated by constant advice, some of it benevolent, some of it less so.

3. Painful though it is to say, UCCF must think about its role in all of this. It's really not enough to say that they have no control, and there's nothing they can do about it.  This is not the first time a CU has thought of taking this line, and it won't be the last.  At the very least, some sort of advice about dealing with these difficult issues should have been in place. What does an advisory group do if it can't advise that a story like this would light up the national media? In any case, the time-honoured line of "they sign the doctrinal basis, and after that it's up to them" was looking less like a policy, and more like an excuse last week.  UCCF's line has always been that CUs are all about mission, and everything else is secondary and should be left aside. If that means anything, it means they should coach CU's to avoid controversy and stay in the mainstream.

It's been strange to reflect on this from opposite ends of a 20 or more year gap.  I'm not young any more. You might think I'm confident and impetuous, but you should have seen me then.  I've learned a bit more about people, about myself, and about God. There's still a load of things I wish I knew, but I don't know what they are yet. But one thing I do know is that sometimes it's better to show a bit of tolerance than to rush to judgement. And if you think I'm soft for letting young people off the hook, then I've got good reason. One of them is me, 20 or more years ago.