Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby paid tribute to David Bowie just two days ago:
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, the Archbishop said he became a Bowie fan during the singer’s early rise to prominence.There's a certain irony, here, as the very day after Bowie died, the Archbishop was delivering an address somewhat in conflict with his enthusiasm for the late artist:
He said: “I’m very, very saddened to hear of his death.
“I remember sitting listening to his songs endlessly in the ‘70s particularly and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had.
We can also paint a gloomy picture of the moral and spiritual state of Anglicanism. In all Provinces there are forms of corruption, none of us is without sin. There is litigation, the use of civil courts for church matters in some places. Sexual morality divides us over same sex issues, where we are seen as either compromising or homophobic. The list can go on and on. The East African Revival teaches us the need for holiness. We must be renewed as a holy church, defined by our passionate worship and its content, with every Christian knowing scripture, prayerful, humble and evangelistic. In a sentence, we must be those who are, to the outside world, visibly disciples of Jesus Christ.I've given a much more full quote than strictly needed to make my point, because I want to be fair, and to provide the context of the Archbishop's remarks. There are things to praise here, in his evident devotion to Jesus Christ, his belief in the mission of Anglicanism, and especially in his emphasis on service and reconciliation. I genuinely admire that portion of his address.
For all that there is much good news. First, Jesus did not come to a group of well-established disciples and send them, but to failures, who had fled, denied, abandoned. Paul in the letters to Corinth does not write to a well-functioning church of good disciples, but to those who were divided, immoral, filled with rivalry and hatred. We are a Jesus centred people, and we serve the God who raised Jesus from the dead and raises us. At the heart of the life of the church is not power, or structure, or authority, but the person of Jesus Christ, present by His Spirit, whose plans for good, whose love for the lost is our calling and our urging.
We see good news as well as knowing good news. Around the world the church is growing, evangelising, leading people to life in Christ, without whom there is no true life. The Anglican churches are everywhere caring for the sick, educating children, influencing society, and most normally of all, in bringing people to reconciliation with God in Christ, the only decisive reconciliation, they are also bringing reconciliation in society. In so many places, especially at the local level, by the grace of God alone, Anglicanism is a church of the Beatitudes.
In this country many talk of the post Christian society, but the C of E educate more than 1,000,000 children in our schools. We are involved in almost all the food banks as, for the first time since the 1930s, we have hunger in this country. We are still a major part of the glue that holds society together. A recent attempt to introduce assisted suicide was crushingly defeated in Parliament. We are exempted from the same sex marriage act, showing that our voice is still heard against the prevailing wind of our society, and at much cost to ourselves, by the way. The Church of England is still a primary source of leadership for communities, to the dismay of the secularists. It is a struggle, but we are not losing. And we are also in the middle of the biggest reform of the church since the mid 19th century. We are planting churches. The Archbishop of York is on an evangelistic pilgrimage, I imagine the first Archbishop of York to do that in centuries, even perhaps over 1,000 years. And the Bench of Bishops is described by the longer standing members as the most orthodox since WWII.
Less admirable, though, is his assumption that there is a global "Anglican Church." There isn't; there is a communion of autonomous churches, each of which exercises the historic episcopate, locally adapted.
But even more so, I was jarred by Archbishop Welby's defense of the C of E as "still a major part of the glue that holds society together," which is predicated at least one fairly rum data point:"We are exempted from the same sex marriage act, showing that our voice is still heard against the prevailing wind of our society, and at much cost to ourselves, by the way."
"“I remember sitting listening to his songs endlessly in the ‘70s particularly and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had."
Bowie, of the complex sexuality, might raise an eyebrow at Archbishop Welby's claim to have relished what Bowie was and then scant hours later preening himself on being contra mundum as exemplified by his Church's securing an exemption from the same sex marriage law.
We'll see what happens at the Primates Meeting, but Archbishop Welby may be missing the point. As Bowie sang, long ago:
I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're going through.
And they'll remember who stood with them, and who against them. And they'll wonder why.