The Rt. Rev. Paul Bayes, the bishop of Liverpool, has recently published a new book. Titled The Table, the book advocates for a wider vision of what the Church can be. It also challenges readers to listen more closely to voices within the wider culture which not only have much to teach about the practice of hospitality, but also which are challenging the Church to re-examine its place within that culture. In an interview in the Church Times, Bishop Bayes notes that:
“We are called to help one another to conform their lives to Jesus Christ and to live lives of holiness, but we do not need to engage people in healing therapy if they are not sick” (News, 14 July 2017)…
The presence within his own family of people in civil partnerships and same-sex marriages was not a deciding factor, he says. “But it helped me to think these things through,” as did the ministry of Open Table. It is a question of justice, he says — an agenda to which he has “always been committed”.
Perhaps it is this conviction that underpins his confidence. The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, noted recently that one option open to bishops was to remain “as silent as possible on these difficult questions, avoid them wherever possible, and take refuge in ambiguity” (News, 2 November). But Bishop Bayes seems to have given this short shrift.
“I think it is possible for bishops to feel that, because they are meant to be symbols of unity in a diocese, therefore they must never have an opinion about anything,” he observes. “I don’t think that advocating for change prevents me from being there for the whole diocese, although it would if I were trying to wrangle change unilaterally — and I have always said in the diocese that I would never do that, and I hope and believe that my colleagues here trust me on that.”
He is advocating, he says, “for the opportunity within the Church for same-sex unions to be recognised and affirmed. . . I am not using the word blessed, and I am not using the word getting people ‘married’, because the Church hasn’t made up its mind up about that.”
His contention in The Table is that the Church has lessons to learn from the LGBT communities: that we see less clearly if we ignore “those on the edge of things”. Do those who, with Jesus, have experienced “emptiness and desolation” have something to teach the Church about “finding honour and pride in who they are, and (if they are Christians) in giving praise to Jesus Christ”?
The US Episcopal Church — which provided hospitality while he wrote the book — has “more honestly and radically explored” these questions, he writes.
Running through the book is a critique of a Church that has, he argues, placed obstacles in the path to the table at which Jesus presides. He laments the regiments of those who “erect barriers and walls and fences around the extraordinary gift of grace that is the friendship of Jesus, and who presume then to test and examine people who seek to enter, and indeed to examine those already there, to establish whether they are ‘worthy’ to remain.”
About the apparent disconnect between the Church of England and the people it serves, Bayes writes:
“That disconnect sometimes puzzles us,” he says. “When Princess Diana died, there was this great outpouring of national grief, and the Church of England was caught flat-footed. Over the Brexit vote, one bishop spoke out for Brexit; 51.7 per cent of the people voted for it. So, therefore, what does that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that we should all get with the programme and vote for Brexit. But it does mean that we should relate to the England that God has given us to love.”
There are some communities where the Church’s “line of sight is stronger, because the cultural identity of the C of E is more easily accepted”, he suggests. “And that is why I rejoice in the ‘mixed economy’ Church. . . I find the disdain in which Fresh Expressions are held by some . . . profoundly unhelpful, and I long for a C of E where cultural diversity is not only recognised but also celebrated.”
It is always a risk, he says, to “generalise experience. . . The glories and the beauty of the Christian tradition and history are lovely, but if you generalise that experience . . . it’s very easy for that then to tip over into contempt, and it’s never seemed to me, from reading the scripture, that Jesus made it a priority to identify with the cultural elite of his time.” To suggest that “if you are mistaken enough to use short words and to prefer rock music, then in some way you have a journey to go before you can become a proper Christian,” is, he suggests, “foolishness”.
Bishop Bayes also has faced backlash in his own diocese and on social media as a result of his advocacy work.
He writes in The Table that some have refused to receive communion from his hands, and he has been on the receiving end of “abusive statements” via social media.
The latter is a “swamp”, he observes, and most of his attackers are anonymous. “I greatly honour those in my own diocese and beyond it who disagree with me, and are prepared to come and explain why, and ask me to explain myself.”