Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Church of England's Finest Hour?

All the recent fuss and bad headlines for the Church of England set me thinking: what was the Church of Englands finest hour? Is there something CofE clergy like me can look back on with pride, rather than embarrassment?

One key moment for me was the opening up of ordained ministry to women in the church. I remember attending a service in 1987 in Ely cathedral when deaconesses were first ordained deacon, including 3 I worked with in Cambridge. It was the first time women wore dog-collars in the C of E. And then the 1992 vote for women priests was a cause for celebration for those of us who had campaigned for it, followed by those first ordinations. I remember being involved in the one at Southwell in May 1994 and later Debbie's on 11 June 1994, and they were very special moments. Longer-term experience would suggest that the rather messy arrangements that were adopted way back then have left us with an even messier legacy, which may well come home to roost when the women bishops vote takes place in July.

Any other candidates? Well, for a (comparitively) young ordinand in the late 1980s, it seemed quite exciting that we were getting a whole new set of worship resources through, which eventually updated, expanded and replaced the 1980 Alternative Service Book (mainly modern-language services which are authorised alongside the 1662 Prayer Book). But once it all arrived, it has been complicated to use (unless you have a suite of software and excellent printing resources) and people who look for creativity and variety in worship had already moved on to alternative worship, etc. Furthermore, all liturgy (there's a technical church word already) seems more and more culturally removed from the people we hope might use it.

My candidate would be the publication of Faith in The City, a report published in 1985 by the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Urban Priority Areas. At a point when the political opposition to Margaret Thatcher was in disarray, and Britain was in the aftermath of urban riots, the Church managed to say something that carried some clout on behalf of the poor. Although described by Thatcher's ministers as "Marxist theology", written by "Communist clerics", it influenced policy and showed the Church was concerned. The Church Urban fund, a recommendation of the report, was created in 1987 and in 20 years raised and distributed £55 million to projects in poor urban areas. Today, CUF continues and many of projects it has supported continue to provide important, albeit small, signs of hope for many of the poorest communities around England. They may not grab the headlines, but they do make a real difference to real people.

I started my journey towards ordination seriously in 1985. Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that it was the same year as Faith in the City. The Church was a real sign of hope in a difficult and depressed era, and perhaps that was part of my vocation. I hope today's church might still have the capacity to give today's ordinands similar inspiration.
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