Stephen D’Evelyn on the Church of England and Human Realism

Recently, the Conservative government has decided to cut Employment and Support Allowance for new claimants. (See: ESA is a state benefit which some disabled people receive to help level the playing-field when it comes to income. There is widespread statistical evidence that being disabled also means being financially disempowered. So the proposed changes should again bring to the fore questions about employment in the broad sense of what we as disabled people do with o9ur time.

In speaking of employment–‘vocation’ and the processes by which people become ministers, the Church of England is not always transparent, and certainly not always inclined to promote disenfranchised people actively. The actual procedure by which people are selected and then trained for ministry are in fact mysterious and often shrouded in mystery. God may move in mysterious ways, but when it comes to acting as an employer, the church should not.

My own encounter with ordination brought me to a meeting with a bishop who asked if I would contribute a statement warning disabled people about the rigours of ministerial formation. This is objectionable on the grounds of legal principles of discrimination, since broadly speaking it is not lawful to discourage employees or would-be employees on the grounds of age, being or becoming a transsexual person, being married or in a civil partnership, being pregnant or on maternity leave, being disabled, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), religion, belief or lack of religion/belief, sex, or sexual orientation.

This is not a mere problem of employment law which the Church can choose to ignore. (A recent Employment Tribunal ruling involving a gay would-be NHS chaplain found in favour of the Church and ruled that it has the authority to enforce what would otehrwise be discriminatory views.) History may make some cautious about opening the Church to government intervention. Yet there are fundamental theological questions at stake which employment law approaches from a different angle: What is the human being (in relation to–in the image of–God) and how should human beings therefore relate to each other?

Scriptural accounts and their ethical interpretrations seem to point to the human being as worthy of the same kind of treatment wherever she finds herself. Yet those training for ministry in one place may be treated quite differently from those in another–and certainly we find nothing close to a clear and thoroughly thought-through approach to equality.

Or again the Bible seems to say that being ourselves as God made us is a matter of kindness and generosity–of trying to do the right thing but also of being in the middle of life as a divine gift. This means not just trying to live up to precepts–error, reconciliation, and forgiveness–but also communal and mystical transformation, often by way of mistakes and weaknesses transforming earthly popwer. Those training for ministry, however, are not informed that if they are on placement in a different church or in a hospital or school chaplaincy to gain experience of ministry in different contexts this is not a neutral environment such as a classroom where making mistakes in order to learn is encouraged, but rather they will be observed and judged.

The language of divine purpose and mysterious calling to ministry serves to create an aura for those who would be included in ministry–an aura that may also hide the tendencies to over-work those actually in ministry. I think it does more than conceal unfairness or even self-obsession on the part of the institution and many of its leaders. I think it also shows a theologically threadbare vision of reality. If you can allow the language of divinity to obscure inequity, you do not really believe in God or at least not in a loving and just God.

It seems to me the Church needs a strong dose of theological realism and a reminder of theological realism’s three main claims: that God exists independently of human beings, that God can be ‘known’, and that God may be spoken about truthfully. Such a reminder might help bring its practices into line with its precepts.

And the Church needs a complementary dose of human realism – training to sensitise the whole ‘people of God’ to implicit bias and indirect discrimination and to the value and profound religious implications of speaking of those who differ from the white male norm not in terms of otherness (‘those heroic women…’) but in terms of solidarity (we are all ‘heroic’ in various ways and are called to help each other.) This could lay the groundwork for the much-needed thoroughgoing revamp of its procedures, especially when it comes to equality and diversity. The Church might then be better able to live up to the high calling of its potential- a full theologically rigorous vision of the human being which could help transform the world.


One thought on “Stephen D’Evelyn on the Church of England and Human Realism

  1. Reblogged this on Uncovering the Roof and commented:
    I thought my readers might be interested in these fascinating thoughts from a disabled person who has been involved in ordination training in the Church of England. He identifies discrimination and issues with equality law, in relation to disabled ordinands/would-be ordinands. This is something I am finding in my research among a few of my participants. My study is qualitative, so the results can’t be generalised (meaning we can’t assume they apply to everyone). But it’s very interesting to hear stories of disabled people who are aiming to be ordained in the Church of England, and the barriers they are facing. Here, Stephen D’Evelyn reflects on his experiences of this.


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