In the 1994 film ‘Forrest Gump’ the eponymous hero at one point says ‘Mamma always said life is like a box of chocolates.’ The General Synod of the Church of England certainly is. I last blogged from the bus heading for Westminster yesterday and reflecting on the fact that the day would be full of legislation. It certainly was, and, to be honest, the Synod worked efficiently and effectively through it. The reason that there is so much of this kind of stuff before us at the moment is because of the ‘simplification’ exercise that the church is going through.
The rules by which the church manages its life, the regulations, the Canons, the Measures, have tended to grow ‘like Topsy’ and we’re often amending this, that or the other. Simplification, so it seems to me, is about, well, making it all simpler, cutting out what isn’t necessary but simply makes life more difficult, makes the structures unwieldy and not fit for purpose, eats up time that could be used in mission and ministry.
Any box of chocolates will have soft and hard centres and we had that yesterday in the slew of legislation before us. There were debates on pensions, on risk assessments of clergy with regard to safeguarding. There were debates on ecumenical working in parishes, on the saying of Morning and Evening Prayer, on what we wear in church and when senior and other clergy can retire.
It was fascinating stuff and all credit to those who sat it out in the chamber to see it all through!
One of the really fascinating debates, however, came before the legislative business and that was on the calling of Banns of Marriage. At the moment if a marriage is to be solemnised in church then Banns have to be called in the church where it’s happening and in the parish(es) where the individuals live or have a qualifying connection. It is arcane. The original Catholic Canon law on the subject, intended to prevent clandestine marriages, was decreed in Canon 51 of the Lateran IV Council in 1215. It goes back a long way. The Banns are called on three successive Sundays, the couple does not have to be there to hear them, but the congregation is asked whether they ‘know any reason in law why the couple should not be married’ and to ‘declare it now’. Clearly it made more sense when we lived in small communities and knew each other, when people knew that like in ‘Jane Eyre’ there was a mad wife in the attic! So wouldn’t it be better/easier/less hassle if everyone went to the civil Registry Office to have these preliminaries done and just bring a certificate to the officiating priest? Well, yes and no.
Yes, it would cut out the hassle of having to write information in boxes on a form, remember to read it out and produce a certificate. But no, it would be one more way in which the Church of England is effectively distancing itself from the society we claim to serve. And it also gives a great opportunity for, normally, young couples to come to church, have the thrill of hearing their name read out, hear themselves prayed for and see that other normal(ish) people go to church and seem to enjoy it. That is called mission; that is called witness; that is what we are meant to do.
Fortunately the motion was defeated in every house of the Synod in the final vote. So we will continue to hear those familiar words ‘these are for the third time of asking’ ringing round our churches.
And so to today…. who knows what will happen. Please pray for us.
I was at the opening of an exhibition of the work of the fine-art photographer Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern. It was what can only be described as an eclectic crowd looking at challenging work. I wondered what they would make of the Church of England. I bumped into a friend and his husband. They are supporters of the art installations we do at Southwark. We talked about Brexit, Trump and the Church of England and saw clear connections. The conversation then turned to being in safe places, in bubbles, where you know you’re amongst friends, like Southwark Cathedral. ‘What’s so wrong with a bubble?’ they said to me. ‘But I’m a catholic and that means I exist in the universal.’ I responded.
Every chocolate in the box is in its little, designed, perfect bubble of plastic. Perhaps that is what the church is wanting, moving from the catholic to the congregational. We shall see.
I’ve turned to St Mark’s Gospel for my encouragement today and these words
‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.’ (Mark 10.21)
It was the story of the rich young man, wanting to get into heaven but needing to simplify his life. It was too much for him at that moment. But Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus looks at his church and loves us, despite, despite it all.
look with love upon us today,
and bring us to your kingdom.