Rob Gallagher remembers an occasion at his theological college:
I had a tutor, John Fenton, at St Chad’s College Durham, who turned me up-side down. He used to regale us for our second-hand essays copied from the books who would say to us, “I know St Paul believes this, but I don’t believe you believe it. What do you believe?” We had fellow student-priests in tears, ‘losing their faith’. We began to think of petitions to remove him, for not telling us what to think, what to do. One day of tension and frustration, John was sat opposite me in such a ‘tormented’ group, asking us – asking me – ‘Why have you come here? Why have you come to this college?’ I was humiliated. All I could think of, was ‘for the power’, ‘to pull the women’, ‘to dress up’. What blurted out before thinking, was, ‘I think the only reason I’m here is, that after Robin Hood, Jesus was my hero!’ A big smile spread across John Fenton’s face, and he said, “At last! We’re getting somewhere.”… and walked out of the room. Left to ourselves, we all began to share the ‘skeletons in our cupboards’, our poverty of ideas, seeds of our own thoughts, and we became a ‘college’, a community of thought.
What? Can this be the Church of England? For well over a generation the debate on women’s ministry has been a permanent push-me-pull-you. If the supporters gain an inch, the opponents lose an inch. What is essential to one side is unacceptable to the other. Zero sum game.
Now suddenly there is an overwhelming majority transcending the impasse: yesterday’s vote in General Synod produced 378 in favour, 8 against and 25 abstentions. In what looks like a massive change from the equivalent vote a year ago, we all win prizes.
This is the last of my series of blog posts about the weekend conference on John Robinson’s Honest to God. The last main speaker was Richard Holloway, and it was clear that a lot of his fans were present.
Richard gave us an account of his changing views, which have already been much discussed. His latest book Leaving Alexandria is a best seller. Overall we were left with the impression that he isn’t sure what he believes but is content to be unsure. This does not mean he is abandoning Christianity – on the contrary he quoted Baron von Hügel: ‘Never leave a religion until it has made you the holiest person it is capable of making you’.
At last weekend’s conference about John Robinson’s Honest to God, Martyn Percy gave a lecture on ‘Being honest about the Church’. It was a powerful challenge to church authorities, all the more impressive coming from the principal of a leading theological college.
Martyn is in close touch with the priorities and concerns of the Church of England’s leadership. He argued that church leaders spend too much time talking about evangelism and organisation and not enough about God. 35 of the 42 dioceses in the Church of England have straplines. The most common word in these straplines is ‘transform’. ‘Jesus’ and ‘love’ do not occur at all!