Exactly 250 years ago today, on 1st January 1773, the words of Amazing Grace were first heard here in Olney, Buckinghamshire. They were composed by the Reverend John Newton to accompany his sermon. In the following century, they were set to the tune we associate with Newton’s words.
The same judge who heard the Tobias Rustat case about, and in, Jesus College, Cambridge in 2022 had granted a faculty in 2021 to the Church of St Peter & St Paul, Olney, to present a more balanced account of Reverend John Newton ahead of today’s anniversary. Chancellor Hodge QC’s conclusion was that,
‘The planned changes to the eastern end of the south aisle of the church are designed to bring into regular and beneficial use what is presently a little-used area of the church and to ensure that it is available to educate visitors, in a balanced way, about John Newton, his life and his work, and to celebrate his later, and worthy, achievements whilst not overlooking or in any way seeking to diminish his earlier sins. The proposals will enhance the significance of the church through its strong connections with John Newton; and they will have no adverse or negative impact upon the significance of the church building. The four pews that will be removed are of no intrinsic, practical, or historical significance; and they will not be lost to the church. Rather, the proposals are entirely positive in terms of their impact. As the ‘Home of Amazing Grace’, with significant connections with John Newton and William Cowper, the church already attracts thousands of visitors every year; and the changes that are being proposed will only serve to enhance the visitors’ experience, thereby enhancing the church’s mission. The new displays will serve to remind the worshipping congregation and visitors alike that Jesus came “to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5, 32). They will also bring to mind the true saying of Saint Paul, worthy of all to be received: “That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1, 15) as we are instructed during the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer. From the material that has been presented to me, it would appear that the church are alive to the need both to ensure that there is appropriate diversity amongst the presenters of materials which are to be displayed within the church, and to recognise the vital contributions made to the abolition of the vile trade in human flesh by African and other global majority heritage writers and abolitionists, women and working class reformers rather than simply focusing upon the work of prominent, white, upper and middle class male abolitionists like John Newton and William Wilberforce.’
In an era of cancellation, how has this legacy of a former slave-trader survived? It was an act of redemption but its lasting impact has been helped considerably by other creative acts of genius through the ages. John Newton’s eighteenth century words were blessed fifty years later by the American William Walker who set Amazing Grace in the 1830s to variations on a folk tune known as New Britain, and who popularised this version through his entrepreneurial and religious vocation of selling hymnals. Amazing Grace was revived in popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century. In 2015, it was used to great effect by President Barack Obama in his eulogy for Reverend Clem Pinckney, one of the Black Christians murdered in their own church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white gunman they had welcomed into their worshipping community. Just looking at the point where the President began to sing, on YouTube, is graceful enough but it is worth watching or listening to the whole eulogy to appreciate the beautiful way in which President Obama introduced grace earlier in his oration and, especially, around the assumption that the murderer would have had about how his victims’ relatives, friends and church community would react, where President Obama made this unattributed allusion to another insight from Olney, this time by Newton’s friend, the poet William Cowper,
‘Oh, but God works in mysterious ways’ lightly paraphrasing the opening line of Cowper’s 1773 hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’.
Instead of nursing a grievance, the community’s reaction was a measured, forgiving kind of grieving, an amazing grace, to which the President added beyond measure. The congregation is electrified by this phrase 16 minutes into the eulogy. Then President Obama begins to talk about grace. He gives a moving reason why sometimes a symbol should be removed, talking about how amazing it would be for the state of South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag in recognition that slavery was wrong. He links this back to God’s grace and faces squarely political controversies around race discrimination in employment and around gun laws. This eulogy is one of the greatest of contributions to the public square. It was only after 35 minutes that President Obama began to sing Amazing Grace.
On this 250th anniversary, then, it is timely to reflect on how we add to legacies and how they are linked. For example, I think it mattered that Newton lived here in Olney, with Cowper and all those oppressed in the lace industry and other disadvantaged circumstances, just as it mattered that Temple, Beveridge and Tawney lived in Toynbee Hall, in the midst of poverty, after their privileged time together as students. Newton and Cowper tried to help the poorest of their neighbours but also learned from them. They exchanged stories of Cowper’s life-threatening mental health issues and of Newton’s life-threatening journeys, including his shipwreck off the northern coast of Ireland.
Listening to Amazing Grace, which might have been directed to him, was thought to be William Cowper’s last experience in church and this hymn might have been his last. I gave the year, 1773, but it was actually in January, indeed in the next day or so after Amazing Grace, before another suicidal episode.
How amazing that, here in this little town of Olney, within hours of each other, Newton wrote the world’s favourite hymn and Cowper wrote the wondrous phrase that is so often echoed, as by President Obama, and which is often assumed to be a Biblical verse, but which was his original expression, about God moving in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
I think Cowper might have drawn on the Giant’s Causeway and the storm in which his friend Newton almost died in the imagery of his opening stanza. Unlike Newton’s Amazing Grace, this example of Cowper’s genius has not yet benefited from such a fitting tune. So I wonder if, in death as in life, Newton (whose fame for this itself depends so much on the American Walker’s yoking of his words to the amazing New Britain tune) could come to the aid of his friend, Cowper. Since both hymns are in that 8, 6, 8, 6 syllable-rhythm, and bearing in mind President Obama’s intertwining of the two friends’ words, could ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ be sung to Amazing Grace’s New Britain tune? Might that be one small legacy from the celebrations here today, and around the world, of the 250th anniversary of Amazing Grace?
‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform He plants his footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.’
Simon Lee lives in Olney and is the Chair of the Trustees of the William Temple Foundation, Professor of Law, Aston University, and Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast
In 2022, the William Temple Foundation has marked the 80th anniversaries of William Temple’s Christianity & Social Order and of the famous Report by his friend, William Beveridge, which is often credited with responsibility for the foundation of the Welfare State. We held conferences in partnerships at Canterbury Cathedral, Balliol College, Oxford, and Blackburn Cathedral, all places which had a link to William Temple’s life.
We heard from some of the most distinguished theologians and historians, convening gatherings of diverse voices, including those critical of Temple or Beveridge or of the Welfare State. We have more to do in 2023 and beyond to ensure that our panels are more evenly balanced, for instance by gender, but we have made progress for instance in listening to a range of perspectives from younger participants in contemporary debates.
For the most part, there was a recognition that the ideas of Temple and Beveridge, together with those of another college friend of theirs, R H Tawney, were influential and progressive. They were prophetic in and during two world wars, which makes their examples relevant to society amidst various crises today.
More detailed lessons from different speakers either have been published already or will be in 2023 but I would like to round off the year with a few points from my remarks at the end of the Blackburn Cathedral symposium on 15th December.
First, that setting was chosen partly because William Temple as Bishop of Manchester had the wisdom and humility almost one hundred years ago to give up part of that big diocese to create a new diocese. Its surrounding communities have become increasingly Muslim which also made it an appropriate setting to consider how we might adapt Temple’s pioneering work in Jewish-Christian partnerships to encompass the widest possible range of faiths and beliefs. Personally, I love the nominative determinism of Temple’s surname and believe that our Foundation can reach out to, and learn from, all those who have their own temples, or places of worship, whatever their particular faiths or beliefs.
Second, there was a disagreement about whether the welfare state is working as Temple and Beveridge envisaged. It is worth pointing out that Beveridge disliked the term and called his proposals instead a ‘security plan’ but the expression used by Temple proved more popular, often without an appreciation of the context in which he coined ‘welfare-state’ in the 1920s, which was as a contrast to ‘power-state’. It is timely at the end of 2022, the year in which President Putin launched his war against Ukraine, to bear in mind that security is important both for nations and for all their citizens, and that our preference is for a state which focuses on the well-being or welfare of its citizens, the ‘common good’. Within such a state, there will be plenty of scope for intermediate groups, called voluntary associations in another report by Beveridge, to play their part in the flourishing of all individuals and communities, but there is a role for the state itself in safeguarding everyone.
Third, our Foundation is a small example of these intermediate institutions, such as cathedrals, other places of worship, colleges and other places of study, academic research centres, grassroots community organisations, and diverse charities. We value working in partnerships with other such institutions, which has been a feature of our year. All these ‘little platoons’, as Edmund Burke dubbed them, have a role to play in creating and curating what one of our research fellows, Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell, calls Spaces of Hope. This is why I am so interested in what the ethos was of Balliol College, Oxford, as the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth began, when Temple, Beveridge and their friend R H Tawney were all students there. Of course, different institutions will have different values, the same institution might change values over time, and individuals might take different lessons, if any, from the same community at the same time. But there is something remarkable about the exchanges of ideas between those characters and the way they drew on the spirit of earlier generations of Balliol students and their tutors. Again, it was not about all thinking alike. Rather, as a Balliol student of the 1880s Anthony Hope Hawkins said of his tutor, R L Nettleship, it was that he ‘taught me to seek truth – and never to be sure I had found it’.
Fourth, as this 80th anniversary year proceeded, I was struck by how many reports I read or re-read not only by Beveridge but also by committees which included Temple or Tawney. This was brought out beautifully through one of the many insights of our final panel of the year when Lord (Rowan) Williams pointed out the methodology of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, of which he is co-chair, which was established by the Welsh Government. The Commission has made a point of going out and about to listen to people in their own communities. This reminded me of co-founding thirty years ago in Northern Ireland, with a journalist friend Robin Wilson, Initiative 92, a citizens’ movement which created the independent Opsahl Commission. This invited representations from all-comers, whether or not they were subject to broadcasting restrictions, to offer views on ways forward for people and communities in Northern Ireland. Charitable funding, principally from Quaker foundations, allowed outreach workers to help new and old community groups develop their submissions and prepare for their appearances at the 17 public hearings and two inter-school assemblies held across Northern Ireland. The Commission received over 500 submissions from more than 3.000 people. The report was published in June 1993 and is perhaps best remembered for its practical proposals to promote parity of esteem between different communities. In my opinion, however, the beauty of it was in the process. As Index on Censorship observed, ‘The Opsahl Report gave a platform to voices excluded elsewhere – from the Catholic and Protestant working women of Belfast to academics and lawyers – all tired of the old polemic. It gave hope that in Northern Ireland, too, an end is stirring.’ The first IRA ceasefire came just over a year later at the end of August 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement was reached in 1998. This emphasis on encouraging inclusive processes, from Northern Ireland to Wales and beyond, connects to points our Foundation has made throughout 2022, especially in Professor Chris Baker’s public lecture in Leeds and in his wider writing on what he calls kenotic leadership.
Fifth, what Temple and Beveridge in their different ways brought to war-torn people in 1942 was ultimately a prophetic voice of hope. Today, still, what the socially excluded are ultimately excluded from is a sense of hope. Cardinal Suenens explained that, ‘To hope is not to dream but to turn dreams into reality’. When we celebrate an anniversary, we are not simply looking backwards. We are seeking inspiration to pass forwards. In war-time, people yearn for peace. The priority for those being ‘left behind’ is naturally food and shelter. Both Temple and Beveridge wanted better education as well as good health and living conditions for all. All this comes together in the gift of hope. On publication of their 1942 works, Temple and Beveridge immediately set about taking their messages around the country and beyond. The talks by Temple are collected in a volume entitled The Church Looks Forward. They include his BBC broadcast for Christmas 1942. Temple returned to the theme of states using power and force being resisted by nations that wished to promote the welfare of all through love and hope. He ended with wise words which apply just as much in 2022 as in 1942: ‘the hope of the world will not be fulfilled when’ we have overcome aggressor states, ‘that hope will be fulfilled when the lesson of Christmas is fully learnt’, by which he meant absorbing the mystery of the ‘Child of Bethlehem’, who ‘lies helpless in the stable’. Then he spoke again on the last Sunday of 1942, in a BBC broadcast entitled ‘From The Old Year To The New’, in which he asked for an examination of our individual and collective consciences:
‘So at this moment of passage from a year of so great vicissitudes, which yet closes with great hope and promise, to a year which must call for all we have of constancy in endurance, and perhaps also for the vision and wisdom to make a right use of success, let us take stock of ourselves and ask how far we, to whom a noble cause has been entrusted, are worthy to be its champions.’
Simon Lee is the Chair of the Trustees of the William Temple Foundation, Professor of Law, Aston University, and Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast
Over the last few months, I have become aware, while working as a community development practitioner in the Durham Diocese, that the wonderful staff and volunteers are increasingly expressing that they are exhausted and angry.
Loughborough University has found that North East now has the highest child poverty rates in the country, with over 50% children growing up in poverty in some communities. Child Poverty rates in the region have risen by almost half, from 26% to 38%, in the space of six years compared to a drop by two percentage points across the country 
I was reflecting on this when I came across an old report from the Church Urban Fund that looked the problems facing community organisation in the most deprived areas. It described:
‘Significant issues confronting people living in deprived communities – The most common problems cited by respondents included high levels of unemployment, especially amongst young people; reductions in benefits coupled with rising rent, food costs and bills; increasing levels of homelessness, and rising levels of debt’.
What, however, most shocked me about the report was not the content – but the fact that it was written ten years ago! The austerity years, the COVID-19 years, and now the current economic crisis. Each wave of crisis has seen congregations and faith-based organisations pick themselves up and do what they can. Food provisions, debt advice, drop-in support, and warm spaces.
The congregations and projects I support are increasingly growing exhausted, not knowing what to do next or where to turn. This exhaustion has been highlighted by a recent article in The Guardian:
“Many of our teams are struggling to cope as demand for our support outstrips our food and financial donations and we are forced to make difficult decisions about how we operate. We are overstretched and exhausted. Many of our organisations are at breaking point.” 
However, there is another emotion that I am witnessing: the anger resulting from the recognition that years of responding to human need through loving service has not changed things. Rather, it seems things are now worse than ever before, as highlighted in the child poverty statistics.
Last month an email from an area dene explained that at the deanery synod found ‘there is a desire to do more than give, [as] this cannot be accepted as the norm and collectively we would like to campaign but are unsure how to take this forward’. Our charitable practice doesn’t help us to seek to transform unjust structures of society. As Thia Cooper reminds us:
Charity is only needed when a situation of injustice exists. On its own, charity is not enough; it leaves the person ‘giving’ with the power. It does not ask how to achieve a just system, where no one holds greater economic, political, radical, or other types of power over another human being. (Cooper, 2007: 175) 
Last week was Living Wage Week. As the chair of Tyne and Wear Citizens Living Wage Action team, we will be celebrating the first Living Wage City in the region, Sunderland, and our second council, Newcastle.
This year, I have noticed a shift in the narrative around the Living Wage campaign from one of advocacy to deep solidarity. There is a deeper connection for many of us which has moved us beyond standing alongside as we are all, to varying degrees, look with concern to work out how to make ends meet. I am not playing the ‘we’re all in this together’ card, because that just isn’t true but there is a deeper solidarity.
Joerg Rieger (2017) develop the notion of solidarity into ‘deep solidarity’ when describing a situation where 99% of us who must work for a living, including people who are excluded from the job market, realise that they have this in common. Deep solidarity recognises that the system works for the few rather than for the many, and that nothing will change unless more of the many come together. It also recognises that our different religious traditions can help us imagine and reimagine deep solidarity.
At the heart of worship in Israel is the Exodus from the conditions of slavery in Egypt; this tradition ties together the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Interreligious dialogue is a live option not only because of shared traditions but also because deep solidarity helps us deal with our differences. In fact, differences become an asset when the resources of our different traditions are allowed to make their specific contributions to the struggle. (Rieger, 2017: 361) 
So tonight, I am off to run listening training for the deanery synod who wanted to move beyond simply giving but weren’t sure how to go about it. We will be practicing how to have conversations with people who are different from ourselves with such an understanding of deep solidarity.
Reviewed by Chris Baker, Director of Research, William Temple Foundation
This latest text from Stephen Spencer is another biography of Archbishop William Temple, who died in 1944, and joins a small but enduring list of biographies published to date. This year is an auspicious year to bring out such a volume, focussing attention as it does on the 80th anniversary of the publication of the work that Temple is perhaps still best known for, namely Christianity and Social Order. This biography, focusing on what Temple’s life says about a model of public leadership and service within a framing of servant leadership is also incredibly timely, coming at a time when political leadership in this country has been proved to be eye-wateringly corrupt and tainted by self-service, sleaze, and purposefully orchestrated division. Will public confidence in political leadership ever recover at this time of multiple crises—which range from the cost of living, poverty, and collapse in public services to environmental disaster and a new European war in Ukraine? Also, as I write this review, controversy and disunity have surfaced at the 2022 Lambeth conference over the issues of same-sex marriage and LGTBQ+ rights. I wonder how Temple’s approach to leadership and reconciliation would have played out amidst the current political and ecclesial splits shaping our public discourse? Inevitably, these thoughts were playing in my mind as I read this latest addition to the Temple oeuvre.
Spencer’s biography starts with a brief overview of the theme of servant leadership. There is a clear root to Jesus’ radically kenotic view of leadership along the lines ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all’ (Mark 10:43-44). But Spencer augments this allusion with two influential contemporary exponents of the concept (Robert Greenleaf and Kenneth Blanchard). These additional facets include providing vision and direction in ways that shape the present but define the future by having clear goals and acknowledging what others have done and offering clear and concise support when changes are needed—both of which are underpinned by a wider sense of hope and trust in what God is bringing to the world.
Spencer then cleverly moves to a description of Temple, arguably at the height of his leadership powers, caught on a news film report addressing a packed Albert Hall in September 1942 as the newly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury on the theme of ‘The Church Looks Forward’. In the audience are leading politicians of the day, including those who will serve as ministers in the post-war Labour Government, as he lays out the principles for post-war reconstruction. Like a movie that starts at the end for dramatic effect, the rest of the book offers us the backstory as to how this pivotal point is reached.
Spencer moves with well-signposted chapters through the early stages of Temple’s life and career, suggesting a nagging desire to question and confound the easy and accepted trajectory for his life at the heart of the elite establishment, including a stellar academic career in philosophy at Oxford and becoming headmaster at an early age of a prestigious public school. Two events challenge that orthodoxy. First, is Temple’s experience of being initially rejected for the priesthood on the grounds of theological unorthodoxy, and second, his placement at Toynbee Hall and the Bermondsey Mission, sent there by Edward Caird, the master of Balliol College, Oxford. The book then becomes more gripping and intriguing. We move through to Temple’s middle and late phases of life, where a meteoric rise to being Bishop of Manchester at the time of the post-war General Strike, and his theological and political reflections on the nature of sin, evil, compassion, and social justice begin to meld into his formidable expression of public leadership.
Here, Stephen Spencer’s acuity as a theologian, as well as an historical biographer, comes to the fore as he expertly unpacks the trajectory of Temple’s thought from its Idealist roots to his Christian Realism, profoundly shaped by the influence of contemporaries such as Reinhold Niebuhr and by his calling to shape society in accordance with Christian principles. This approach required a deep pragmatism allied to a deep vision and the ability to hold together multiple perspectives in tension. Chapter 6, on the theme of ‘Changing Views of Human History’, is an expertly charted essay in philosophical thought, whilst Chapter 10, ‘From Logic to Imagination’ does the same from a theological perspective.
Spencer’s archival diligence skilfully brings Temple alive as a person, a thinker, and a leader. The structure of the book holds the interplay between life experience, its impacts on theological and political thinking, and pattens of leadership in firm view. Finding intimate, touching, and vulnerable anecdotes alongside sustained passages of deep thought as well as incisive and honest appraisals of Temple by his contemporaries is one of this book’s strengths. Spencer is not averse to presenting Temple as a work a progress, rather than the finished article. However, this merely serves to reinforce the phenomenal achievements of a person who, in the end, drove himself to an untimely death through the stress induced by the range of his work and mission. Spencer also highlights the cultural, and in some cases colonial, assumptions of Temple’s thought and idiom which may struggle to find purchase in the contemporary world
In summary, Temple’s leadership comes across as visionary and humble, confident but collaborative, and increasingly fearless in calling out God’s truth to institutional power, both within the church and the wider world. Above all, Temple allowed his personal experience of prayer and spirituality to be the touchstone for his decision making, a spiritual journey that he was also able to articulate and share as part of his leadership, and which continues to inspire others to this day. Yet at the end of this fine and engrossing book I was left with a nagging feeling. It is presented as a study in church leadership for a principally church audience, but should there not be a more ultimate purpose? I think this book has huge and important things to say to secular politicians and business leaders, because, as Spencer so skilfully draws out, Temple’s thinking and approach spilled out into the wider world and touched and shaped many from outside the church. When so much of our public leadership seems paralysed by compromise and corruption on the one hand, and timidity on the other, then here is a voice that needs to be listened to again. I hope churchy imagery and endorsements, fine as they are, do not prevent this book from reaching a properly wide audience.
The William Temple Foundation, in partnership with Leeds Church Institute, is delighted to launch the latest series in our ground-breaking podcast Staying with the Trouble. The series will run for the next six weeks, starting 7th June, 2022.
Entitled Perspectives on Poverty and Exclusion in Leeds and produced by Rosie Dawson, the series is anchored by Bishop James Jones, Bishop Emeritus of Liverpool. Via six interviews with key actors across the city, Bishop Jones traces the impact of the current cost of living crisis on the lives of ordinary citizens, and the relationships and practices of solidarity, care, compassion and justice that emerge to provide resilience and hope to so many facing hardship and despair.
As Bishop Jones summarises, these relationships and networks reflect ‘an organic regeneration’ that cuts deeply across religious, secular, ideological, cultural and ethnic divides.
Director of Research for the Foundation, Professor Chris Baker reflects, ‘In this Platinum Jubilee Year, with its emphasis on theme of service as exemplified by Queen Elizabeth, this series really resonates as it shows how daily acts of service and sacrificial leadership build resilience and hope across our communities in the darkest of times.’
Dr Helen Reid, Director, Leeds Church Institute says, ‘I commend the podcast series to all who love Leeds and are troubled by inequality here. The podcasts combine personal experience and local perspectives with insight, hope and action for building a fairer city.’
In recent years, victims of church-related abuse have complained bitterly about their treatment by the church. What has gone so badly wrong, and how could the church do better? Falling Among Thieves seeks to outline a theological understanding of church-related abuse, and the church’s role in ‘re-dressing’ the victim—drawing insights from the story of the Good Samaritan. The text is preceded by a Foreword from Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, who both applauds and responds to Graystone’s words.
Andrew Graystone comments:
“I’m haunted by the scores of people I have met whose lives have been wrecked by their encounters with Christian leaders. In almost every case, the way the church has responded has caused as much harm—and often far more—than the original abuse. Over the years that I have been walking this road, the leaders of the contemporary church have failed to deal with this reality.
Abuse happens in every hierarchical institution—but there is no excuse for the church responding to its victims in such damaging and destructive ways. I hope that Falling Among Thieves will go some way to helping the church think deeply about the damage it has done, and how it might begin to respond more appropriately.”
Chris Baker, Director of Research at the Foundation comments:
“The William Temple Foundation is honoured to publish this important piece of theology by Andrew Graystone that is both a call for justice and a call for reconciliation around the topic of church-based abuse. We hope it will make a positive and substantive contribution to this serious issue.”
In this special blog for Eastertide, Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, explains the Church of England’s new vision for the 2020s.
Easter is a time of great hope. It is the season when Christians remember Jesus’ death on the cross, his victory in resurrection, his ascension into heaven and the disciples receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That gift nearly 2000 years ago is the reason why Christianity continues to this day and why Easter is such an important celebration in the Christian calendar.
It is with this same Easter hope, rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ that the Church of England has embarked on its vision for the 2020s. It was William Temple, when appointed Archbishop of York, who wrote to a friend to say, ‘It is a dreadful responsibility, and that is exactly the reason why one should not refuse’ (letter to F. A. Iremonger, August 1928). Shortly before I was appointed to follow in his footsteps, albeit 91 years later, I had been asked to give some thought to what the Church of England’s vision for the 2020s might look like and, if I am honest, similar words to those of Temple went through my mind.
However, as I embarked on this task, I was clear on two things. This should never be about my vision, but about discerning God’s vision for God’s church in God’s world—and therefore I should not attempt to find it on my own. Over the next 9 months, various groups were gathered together, representing a huge, and usually younger, diversity of voices. After much prayer and discernment a vision emerged which we felt was God’s call on us for this time. Consequently, there is now a clear Vision and Strategy that the governing body of the Church of England and the Diocesan Bishops have agreed—and the whole Church is shifting and aligning to this new narrative.
Except, it isn’t that new. The Church of England’s vocation has always been to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ afresh in each generation to and with the people of England. In our vision for the 2020s, we speak about this as being a Christ-centred Church, which is about our spiritual and theological renewal, and then a Jesus-Christ-shaped Church, particularly seeing the five marks of mission as signs and markers of what a Jesus-Christ-shaped life might look like. It is therefore a vision of how we are shaped by Christ in order to bring God’s transformation to the world. Three words in particular have risen to the surface: we are called to be a simpler, humbler, and bolder church.
From this, three priorities have emerged, and parishes and dioceses are invited to examine and develop their existing strategies and processes in the light of these ideas.
To become a church of missionary disciples. In one sense, this is the easiest to understand, re-emphasising that basic call to live out our Christian faith in the whole of life, Sunday to Saturday. Or, as we speak about it in the Church of England, Everyday Faith.
To be a church where mixed ecology is the norm. This has sometimes been a bit misunderstood. Mixed ecology reflects the nature of Jesus’ humanity and mission. It is contextual, ensuring churches, parishes, and dioceses are forming new congregations with and for newer and ever more diverse communities of people. It is about taking care of the whole ecosystem of the Church and not imagining one size can ever fit all. In the early church, in the book of Acts, we see this mission shaped by the new humanity that is revealed in Christ, made available and empowered by the Spirit. Therefore, mixed ecology is not something new—it is actually a rather old, and well-proven concept. After all, every parish church in our land was formed once. So, mixed ecology doesn’t mean abandoning the parish system or dismantling one way of being the Church in favour of another. It is about how the Church of England will fulfil its historic vocation to be the Church for everyone, by encouraging a mixed ecology of Church through a revitalised parish system. We hope that every person in England will find a pathway into Christian community.
To be a church that is younger and more diverse. Professor Andrew Walls writes, ‘The Church must be diverse because humanity is diverse, it must be one because Christ is one […] Christ is human, and open to humanity in all its diversity, the fullness of his humanity takes in all its diverse cultural forms.’ (The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, p. 77) We need to look like the communities we serve in all areas of age and diversity. For the Church of England that means believing in and supporting children and young people in ministry; facing up to our own failings to welcome and include many under-represented groups, particularly people with disabilities and those from a Global Majority Heritage; and committing ourselves to the current Living in Love and Faith process and our already agreed pastoral principles so that LGBTQI+ people are in no doubt that they, along with everyone, are equally welcome in the Church of England. It also means putting renewed resources into our poorest communities.
Whilst some have questioned why we only have three priorities, they are, I believe, vital for the Church of England in the 2020s as we continue to serve Jesus in the power of the Spirit through his Church.
In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.’ Our desire is to reach everyone with the good news of Christ, and especially those who in the past may have felt excluded. That is why the work with racial justice, a new bias to the poor, and an emphasis on becoming younger are so important.
Ultimately, this vision flows from the joy we find in the risen Christ. It is an Easter message. A message of transformation for the world, as a church that is renewed and re-centred in Christ and shaped by God’s agenda for the world will be good news for that world. It will bring God’s transformation to the hurt, confusion, weariness, and despair we see around us—that Church existing for the benefit of its non-members as Temple so memorably put it.
Professor Chris Baker, Director of the William Temple Foundation, speaks on Easter Sunday with Shaun Ley of BBC World News about Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s recent criticism of the Rwanda asylum seekers plan.
“[Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury] is reminding British society and British establishment of core principles, which are around the Christian values of hospitality, providing refuge, support, and working for the well being and development of all humankind.”
Review of Jarel Robinson-Brown, Black Gay British Christian Queer (London: SCM Press, 2021), by Yazid Said, Liverpool Hope University
Yazid Said, Lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and trustee of the William Temple Foundation, reviews Jarel Robinson-Brown’s recent book. Said applauds Robinson-Brown’s call for repentance but wonders whether human nature can really be viewed so optimistically.
Jarel Robinson-Brown’s book articulates critiques and reconstructions of the Christian understanding of grace from his experiences of living as a member of the Black LGBTQ+ Christian community in Britain. He is concerned with the ways in which being black and gay can encourage individuals and the whole Church to reimagine grace and to challenge some teachings and practices in the Church. The book is therefore mainly on how grace determines our understanding of divine action in the Incarnation (Chapter 2) and the crucifixion (Chapter 3) and its relationship to human action (Chapters 4 & 5). Drawing on several experiences of other gay, black, and queer individuals, he argues that genuine grace means walking alongside people in a position of powerlessness rather than in exercising power over them (pp. 72, 105-106).
The book’s importance lies in its emphasis on justice and its calling for a common repentance; it highlights the importance of the Church as a place of welcome for everyone and the significance of encountering the face of our victims for the release of grace (pp. 72 & 80).
Some issues raised in the book, however, require some unpacking. Grace itself remains a highly contentious concept in Christian history, reflecting a wide range of views on sex and sexuality. The implications, therefore, of how the author engages with Christian doctrine are mixed. He points to the Incarnation and crucifixion as an alternative to the emphasis on God’s transcendence, which he often links to human power structures (pp. 52, 56-58). Jesus’ story expresses divine immanence (pp. 50-58). Divine impassibility (Greek apatheia) would be rejected (pp. 69-70). In this way, the book draws on familiar themes and insights from other liberation theology traditions, emphasising the humanity of Jesus, as someone who stands alongside the outcast (p. 84). However, unlike other writers in this tradition (such as Carter Hayward’s The Redemption of God) Robinson-Brown subscribes to the orthodox definitions of Christ (pp. 104-106).
The author, evidently, has a view of grace that reflects a particular liberal philosophy. When it comes to the salvific effect of grace, he reads it as salvation from within, rather than an external challenge for change (106). This suggests that he maintains a highly optimistic view of human nature in line with liberal philosophy. He draws on other activists who have a shared sexuality and a common intellectual heritage with him. Robinson-Brown is not subscribing to liberal individualism, however. He believes that if communities and members of the Body of Christ cooperate, they can achieve true justice in response to the revelation of God in Christ (Chapter 5).
There is no discussion of the Christian understanding of original sin. Indeed, he talks of ‘silencing our sin-talk’ (p. 38). The book does not struggle with the implications of sin for all, when grace includes God’s judgment on sin for the benefit of the sinner (Matthew 9: 10-13). This is reflected in the manner of using scripture. We are rightly reminded that Jesus is more at home in the company of tax collectors and sinners (p. 84). However, whilst Jesus enjoyed the company of sinners, he did not see them as other than sinners. The woman found in adultery is still a sinner: ‘go and sin no more’ (John 8: 1-11). Zacchaeus was still a greedy person (Luke 19); they all need the grace of God in Jesus.
Whilst dependence on Christology and salvation remain striking in the book, the ambiguity of discussing ‘sin’ explains the ambiguity around his discussion of the crucifixion too. The cross becomes for the author a weapon (pp. 63, 67, 69). He identifies the suffering of Black LGBTQ+ Christians with Christ’s suffering. But this identification cannot reflect what is truly radical and new in the cross. It is the darkness of death on the cross that judges all our systems, not simply the suffering that makes us more ‘righteous’. It is difficult to assess whether Jesus suffered more than the millions who suffered in the twentieth century. This is neither here nor there. Rather, the cross silences us—all of us, white, black, gay, or straight—as it reminds us how we all tend to reject the truth when it comes among us.
Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap grace’ is susceptible to misuse in the book (p. 40). Though Bonhoeffer was influential in radical ‘secular’ theological writings such as that of John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), Bonhoeffer was certainly not trying to push for the usual liberal argument that claims to make God ‘relevant’ to ‘the modern world’. Rather he was trying to confront the evils of the modern world with the radical worldliness of the gospel.
It would also be good to unpack a little more of what the author means by ‘White Supremacy’ in Britain today (pp. 112 & 157). Some might distinguish between supremacist ideology and a ‘hidden’ racism. The latter is more personal. An argument, for example, from Rowan Williams’ chapter ‘Nobody knows who I am till the judgment morning’ in On Christian Theology (pp. 276-289) discusses the question of racism as part of a larger task of defining a human crisis overall.
It is evident today that the earlier blanket condemnation of sexual minorities is no longer tenable or indeed desirable. There are enough signs across different church traditions to move away from the condemnatory language of the past. Robinson-Brown refers critically to the Church of England’s document Issues of Human Sexuality (1991) (p. 10); he could have clarified that further in pointing to an aspect of legal hypocrisy here. The document goes as far as to see committed homosexual relationships as a valid option for Christian living whilst attaching celibacy to the legal expression of committed homosexual relationships. It therefore denies a key dimension of gay identity.
Robinson-Brown’s book deserves support for its cause and its apt call for the church to live out its call for repentance; but one still needs to ask to what extent this kind of ‘identity-focus’ theology is able to prosper where the liberal philosophical tradition is less influential. The book seems to assume that people who share the LGBTQ+ identity all share the same experiences, either private or social. This may not necessarily be the case either. Many who may be sympathetic to the cause, may not embrace the optimism that seeks to erase the importance of human sin. A strong consciousness of our fallenness helps deliver us from the kind of binaries that identity theologies—and politics—seek to work with.
You can also read John Root’s review of Israel’s book here.
The death of George Floyd in May 2020 happened at the beginning of a global pandemic. Whilst the issue of racial injustice has been with us for a while, the pandemic did help the global community to be more conscious of the suffering that many people of colour have been facing for decades.
Many of the questions people are asking today revolve around their humanity and their identity. There are questions around sexuality and identity, gender and identity, disability and identity, race and identity, and so on. It is the last of these questions, on race and identity, that I want to narrow down on in this conversation—because the murder of George Floyd has led to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet the Black Lives Matter movement, like any of the other issues highlighted above, has become politicised and potentially controversial. Some people view it as controversial because they think saying that black lives matter means saying other lives do not matter.
Let me start to unpack this by reflecting on the issue theologically. An anthropological view of scripture affirms that humanity, that is everyone, is created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26; 2:7). We are all bearers of God’s image irrespective of colour, nationality, social status, ethnicity, religion or culture. This means that our humanity is rooted in God; in essence, our human identity is derived from God. We bear God’s image because we are the signature stamp of God’s creation—and therefore all lives matter. All lives matter to God and are valuable because we are God’s handiwork. Our humanity, bearing semblance to God, also reveals a collective human identity and therefore a shared human identity.
If we agree that all lives do indeed matter and we share this understanding that we have a shared humanity rooted in God, then it should concern us all when black lives are made cheap. Black lives are made cheap when they are not seen as human, when they are enslaved, colonised, indentured, raped, exploited, seen as inferior, marginalised, oppressed, lynched, segregated, disproportionately imprisoned, murdered, and neo-colonised. The best way for us as a church to understand the message of Black Lives Matter theologically is through Paul’s body metaphor: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, NRSV). Black Lives Matter is saying that people of African descent worldwide, as part of humanity, are suffering from various forms of injustices—and their pain matters. Will our collective humanity seek to understand this pain and respond, or will we neglect that part of the human family? For the church, this is an even more pressing issue, because if we fail to address the hurt in God’s family, that is the body of Christ, we are inadvertently neglecting ourselves.
If the UK church in its breadth of diversity is going to be relevant today and be able to speak into issues of racial inequality, we must seek to engage intelligently. The church cannot afford to keep Black Lives Matter at arm’s length. It is important for the church to engage as Black Lives Matter raises questions around the issues of race and identity for many, particularly young people. If the church is going to make the gospel relevant to millennials and Generation Z, then we must engage some of the concerns of Black Lives Matter. During the Windrush period (1940s-1960s), the UK church lost a generation of African Caribbean youth because they saw how the church had mistreated their parents, and many of them turned away. If the UK church does not engage the concerns of Black Lives Matter, we will not only loose black youth, but also other young people, because Black Lives Matter is a multicultural international movement.
One of the impacts of the pandemic is that people are asking more questions about their humanity and their identity. This is because the Black Lives Matter movement has raised critical questions around what it means to be black in a western context. Whilst I am aware that Black Lives Matter is controversial for some, I believe that the UK church must find ways to engage some of the questions being posed because they are theological questions that require missional engagement.