As a Christian partly due to my theological beliefs I have always been on the edge of the Church of England. When I was in my early 20’s I studied at King Alfred’s College now the University of Winchester and attended my church, All Saints Catherington on a Sunday when I was home for the weekend. When I rolled up at KAC in 1988 a debate was raging over the establishment of a gay society in the Students Union with the College being a Church of England College there was much opposition to the society’s establishment. On the home front our then vicar Tina Beardsley got up in the pulpit one Sunday in November 1989 when the church was in the middle of the Alpha course and informed the congregation that she had realised that God still loved her even though she was gay. I can only repeat this as I was not present at the time being on retreat with the college chapel down at Hillfield Friary the HQ of the Anglican Franciscan movement in Dorset. The house group that I was in was very sensible and was led by the late Alan Richards who Tina Beardsley called her “left hand” after Alan’s sad death in 1991, and made no fuss over this revelation whatsoever. The late 1980’s was a time of much discussion in the C of E over the inclusion or rather the exclusion of gay people from the church and the priesthood and the ordination of women in the church. So between the KAC SU and my house group I lived in two environments where there was no big issue or big deal in other members of the church having different sexual orientations and I had no problem accepting that the church and wider society was made up of different people with different beliefs and orientations and that all should be included.
Secondly as someone with a disability I have myself experienced much discrimination throughout my life and this has also shaped my attitude to other minority groups in the church and wider society seeking to understand them and support their cause. I came to know the Rev Peter Owen Jones through my research into the Gage chapel at St Peter’s church in the village of Firle, East Sussex. Pete is a very forward thinking person he is not afraid to explore new ideas and lives on the edge of Christianity interacting with non-Christian people and beliefs. Knowing Pete Owen Jones has caused much criticism to be thrown at me by other Theology students at Chichester whose beliefs range from straight laced high church Anglican for whom there is only the Book of Common Prayer and no other liturgy to Pentecostal Christians. What they share in common over this criticism is their view that Pete holds heretical views and who have labelled me a heretic by my association with him.
I have come to realise that it is these Christians who are holding the church back. Over the issue of gay marriage they will not budge. Recently one of the now former Chichester students who is Pentecostal criticised gay marriage on Facebook and when I asked them what is equality the reply was that equality for everyone is right but it should not include gay marriage. On booking my ticket to Greenbelt 2012 I told the curate at my church a few Sundays ago at coffee after the service that I was going this year and that the plan was to buy Pete Owen Jones and Diarmaid MacCulloch a drink in the Jesus Arms after their talks to say thank you for the help that they have given me with my history dissertation and how the Pentecostals and other students at Chichester have criticised me for my association with Pete. Her reply was that they should look at who Jesus kept company with – the down and outs and unwashed of society but then on informing her about the views that the Pentecostal student published about gay marriage on Facebook she promptly changed her tune and informed me that marriage is sacred and only between a man and a woman. At this year’s Greenbelt Pete’s talk was on “The New Christianity” and in it Pete touched on how the C of E is fixed on the arguments over the ordination of women, gay clergy and homosexual sex as “like a record that has got stuck”. I think that at present we have a canon of equality legislation that has been cherry picked it is not fully encompassing in equality because it is not comprehensive it does not fully implement disability rights and excludes full and equal marriage rights for gay people.
Pete talked about how western Christianity promotes the individual at the expense of the planet, how he met a group of people in the Lewes area who believe that humanity now stands at a crossroads as it did 10,000 years ago at the time of the agricultural revolution which like the industrial revolution after it changed humanity and the planet. Pete drew heavily on Joanna Macey’s book “Active Hope” which considers the impact of the damage that man has wrought on the planet and Pete summed up the three models or groups that Macey argues humans fall into. The first is the “Business as Usual” model/group in which continued global economic growth is encouraged and people continue to be encouraged to consume products on a mass scale where the subplot is the promotion of finding a partner, having a family and living happily ever after and where people’s lives are far removed from the ecological catastrophe that awaits humanity unless it changes its priorities and begins to think about adopting more ecological friendly policies.
The second model/group is termed “the great unravelling” this model embraces those who hold no hope for the future, and the third model/group is “the great turning point” where people do have hope for a future that humanity can change its ways and look after the planet. Pete asked the audience “Where are you? Which group are you in?” He rounded off his talk by underlining his view that Christianity must embrace the natural world and to love your neighbour means to include the natural world where people will enter paradise by appreciating the butterflies, birds and natural landscapes of our planet. He used Jesus’s parable that all of King Solomon’s finery did not compare to the wild flowers in the fields. That we have to change from the Anthropocentric structured church that we have which is promoting consumerism and driving us to the brink of environmental and social meltdown and adopt an ethos that will save our environment.
From my perspective as an archaeologist and historian I think that Pete might have been better off providing some examples from world history where societies have failed due to the way that they over abused the natural resources around them causing an environmental disaster; for example the people on Easter Island who deforested the island so severely that no tree was left standing or the systematic ecological collapse that many academics have advanced for the cause of the decline of the Maya of the Mayan classic period. Nevertheless his argument was a passionate one. Concerning western Christianity he highlighted its anthropocentric structure which promotes the individual and outlined how the church supports western society and consumerism through this structure. Consumerism is helping to drive the abuse of natural resources and the decline of the natural world like the developments in the intensification in agricultural production terminus post quem World War II, here Pete cited the decline by 87% of the butterfly population in the fields around Cheltenham. I think that he could also have underlined the point that since the Millennium some scientists have called for a new epoch called the Anthropocene due to the advent of global warming and other environmental and ecological changes that have happened on earth due to the activities of man.
What also needs to be considered is that whilst there has been a rapid increase in the numbers of non-stipendiary ministers in the C of E due to the ordination of women, the church still has a duty to financially support its retired clergy who held a stipend and their spouses in their retirement. Stipendiary clergy often do not own their own homes and live in church property. The C of E has an infrastructure of social care which includes support for its retired clergy including care homes and needs capital income to support this infrastructure let alone income to conserve and protect the fabric of its historic buildings. At the end of the talk during the questions a member of the audience pointed out that although Pete had highlighted these issues he had not put forward any solutions. Any solution to the development of a society that is not based on mass consumerism and the destruction of our natural world has to consider how organisations like the C of E are going to fund social care for its retired members. Pete did attempt to live without money in his series “How to Lead a Simple Life” I know myself that it is perfectly possible to live without a credit card and debt on just what money you have coming in perhaps this is the first step to moving away from a consumer orientated society.
I bumped into Pete later whilst looking for my Renault 5 Henri Tudur II in the car park and he was telling me that in reading my dissertation he is finding it all very Machiavellian leaving him with questions about the events that the Gages encountered during the 16th and early 17th centuries. My recent history dissertation on: “The Gage Family of Firle, East Sussex, c. 1503-1650. Prosopography, Politics, Religion and Recusancy.” has led me to consider the effects of the persecution of heretics in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sir John Gage KG and his sons Edward and James were involved in the persecution of the Protestant Sussex martyrs during the persecutions of the reign of Mary Tudor. The topics covered in my dissertation are to be expanded and studied in more detail for my planned book on Firle and one issue that I want to explore more closely is the effect that the persecutions and burnings had on Sussex society. During the reign of Elizabeth I the Gages were persecuted heavily for their recusancy and many historians have concluded that this was due to their central role in the Marian persecutions in Sussex. The great 19th century Sussex Antiquarian Mark Anthony Lower noted that “It may be inferred from the statements of John Foxe that he [Edward Gage] did this ‘ministerially’; that he showed as I have elsewhere stated much courtesy to Richard Woodman” and that the Gages “suffered far more from their consistency to their own creed than from the Protestants ever suffered from them” [Mark Anthony Lower: ‘Notes on Old Sussex Families’ Sussex Archaeological Collections Vol. XXIV 1872; The Worthies of Sussex 1865]. Lower has been credited with creating the cult of the Sussex Martyrs in the 19th century.
Coincidentally on Saturday evening BBC Radio 3 had a programme the “Last Heretic” about Edward Wrightman who was the last person to be burned at the stake for holding heretical beliefs in 1612. Diarmaid MacCulloch, (with whom I had a cup of tea and chat after Pete had to pull out of the planned drink in the Jesus Arms due to the rescheduling of his Friday talk to Saturday afternoon and our decision that the Jesus Arms was far too muddy to enjoy a drink there) featured in this programme. Diarmaid explained why heretics were perceived to be so dangerous to society due to the view that their heretical beliefs were considered to hurt society and the fact that they as an individual endured an extremely painful death through being burnt alive was given no consideration, the emphasis being on the hurt endured by society from the heresy committed. Diarmaid argued that it was the untidy nature of Wrightman’s case (he was burnt at the stake twice recanting his views at the first occasion the flames were extinguished and he was given a reprieve only to refuse to give a full recantation which led to his second burning) that put those in authority off the practice of burning heretics thus leading to Wrightman being the last heretic burned in England.
I will continue to be labelled by others as holding heretical theological views, but I enjoy life at the edge of the church it is far more interesting!
Pete Owen Jones talk on “The New Christianity” can be purchased from the Greenbelt website:
And Diarmaid’s discussion about the Last Heretic – Edward Wrightman can be heard on BBC iPlayer: