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14 April 2017

Rev Richard Coles: Brexiteers and Remainers alike could learn from the life of Jesus

By Richard Coles

“Now is the time to come together,” said Theresa May at the despatch box on 29 March. But how? Britain is more divided than I have ever known it, if my Facebook feed, lively with debate, is anything to go by. As I look at it, I keep hearing that mysterious sound in Act II of The Cherry Orchard, of something turning and twisting and tightening to breaking point. At first, I attributed it to tinnitus, the enduring legacy of my pop career, but now I wonder if others hear it, too, in exchanges between Remainers and Leavers – especially those happening in unlikely places and testing untested loyalties.

The Church, particularly the Church of England, with its historic commitment to the via media (“middle way”), has rich experience in seeking to bridge irreconcilable differences. The first Christians were formed by the first Easter into a new community that transcended all other commitments, encompassing the tax collector Matthew, a lackey of the occupying Romans, and Simon the Zealot, an insurrectionist.

Two millennia later, the Church of England, which has a kind of ecclesiastical personality disorder, is obliged to seek breadth. It is a Church of the Reformation that retains its Catholic character, with thrash-metal-loving, wifi-enabled congregations which believe that the world is about six thousand years old next door to congregations singing Renaissance polyphony amid clouds of incense. A church of such conflicting views that can hold together for almost half a millennium should have something to offer the wider divided world.

You might think so, but we are fully occupied holding together our own irreconcilable differences. Here are two examples. After decades of wrangling and compromises extracted like wisdom teeth without anaesthetic, the Church of England voted in 2014 to allow women to be ordained not only as deacons and priests but also as bishops. Trying to explain why the Church found this so hard to a generation that has grown up finding women’s leadership not even noteworthy (let alone controversial) is increasingly difficult, if you found the change necessary. And opposing it is ever less defensible.

Philip North, widely acknowledged as a fine priest and bishop, was nominated to be the next bishop of Sheffield, a post with a special responsibility for all of the priests in the diocese – including women, whose priesthood he finds doubtful because he questions the validity of their ordination. A compromise that ensured the passage of the legislation allowing women to become bishops guaranteed the “mutual flourishing” of both sides of the argument. After intense protest against his appointment, Bishop North decided not to accept the nomination. Whatever you make of this, no one would dispute that the promise of “mutual flourishing” was premature.

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A recent document pledged just as gushingly to “affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church”, while ruling out any change to the status quo regarding same-sex relationships. It came out of a process in which those of us who are working towards a change engaged with those who cannot countenance it, in the hope of finding some sort of compromise that would, we hoped, allow at least a move towards greater inclusion. What we got was language that said one thing and action that said another. The General Synod responded by declining to “take note” of the document.

I was not surprised that we failed to make a breakthrough in the Church’s position on same-sex relationships, nor was I surprised that the agreement providing for a bishop who does not ordain women to be given charge of a diocese failed. The effort to reconcile the irreconcilable is sometimes more difficult and painful than the compromises achieved in Synod allow.

The most difficult and painful experience I have had of division was at theological college – an enclosed and febrile place where disagreements about the butter knife could suddenly become gladiatorial. Our disagreements were over more fundamental issues, and they grew so intense that I once spent the night in a tent in freezing weather because I could not bear to be under the same roof as some of my brethren (I know that some of them found me no more bearable). At the darkest hour, I sat in the echoing church at evensong as a monk read the New Testament lesson from the second chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, in which the writer speaks of Jesus Christ reconciling the irreconcilable, making “one new humanity from the two” at the cost of His death on the cross. Something sparked.

Jesus comes among us, in our all division, not to instruct, comfort or inspire but to die. In doing so, He answers the sum of our self-regard, stupidity and cruelty. On the other side of the cross, self-regard, stupidity, cruelty and their associated powers are spent, and we look beyond to see a new day rising and the possibility of life transformed.

Just before dawn on Easter Sunday, we meet outside the church where a new fire is burning. From it, we light the great Easter candle, which the deacon carries into the church, bare and empty and dark, symbolising the tomb in which Jesus was laid on Good Friday. The deacon sings, “The light of Christ!” We respond, “Thanks be to God!” and, one by one, light our candles, anticipating the dawn breaking outside at the edge of night on an undiscovered country where divisions are not glossed, or dodged, or reconciled, but left behind.

Richard Coles’s “Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years As a Priest” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue