Friday, April 30, 2010

In defence of the debates

Confession: I watched _almost_ every minute of the leadership debates, the exception being the first ten minutes of the second as I had set my Sky+ incorrectly! I found them to be very useful and, with minor caveats - like how useless the first two moderators were - I think they are a significant step forward for democracy in the UK. Why do I say this? How in particular to respond to the idea that they represent a regression, a capitulation to celebrity culture?

Well, in brief, we get a very great deal of information through non-verbal communication, and that information is relevant to our decision making, including the decision as to who we wish to be our leaders. We cannot escape displaying our identity when people see us react in difficult circumstances - and it seems perfectly sensible to make a voting decision based upon that identity.

The idea that policy must be placed above personality privileges a particular way of understanding politics - dare I say the anointed way? - and is one of the pernicious products of the idolatry of rationalism in our society. (Too many p's in that sentence!) Of course, the blowback against that idolatry has its downside, but I don't think watching 4.5 hours of debate between party leaders counts as a symptom of not taking matters seriously - and the uptick in voter registration tends to support that. The debates have engaged people in the political process, and that is surely healthy.

Some of those limits to ministry

Following his sabbatical Tom Wright feels it impossible to combine academic study and being a Bishop - perfectly understandable - and gives priority to what is most important (ie his vocation).

Nakedpastor steps down from his post - perfectly understandable given his reasons - and gives priority to what is most important (ie his vocation).


However good our new Bishop's book is, I don't think it gets down to the roots of these sorts of problems.

Of Ministers and Musicians

A colleague picked this up at a Diocesan training day, but I haven't been able to find it on the web. I thought it was worth sharing more widely.

The Minister's perspective:

PULLING TOGETHER: I want to know that you are fully behind me, that we share the same vision. I've heard of many situations where the musicians have been a major impediment to the growth and life of the church. They've developed their own empire. When the rest of the church has wanted to move forward, they've dug their heels in or even split the church.

LOYALTY: As leader, I expect your loyalty and respect towards the leadership team. I am legally responsible for the church and nothing can change that at the moment. The decisions I make with the leadership team are made for the good of the whole church. Some things you may not approve of, but please don't be tempted to gossip or foment rebellion in the camp. The musicians are a powerful force within the church and if they begin to pull in a different direction it can be devastating.

TEACHABILITY: I want to be able to 'speak into' your ministry – to make suggestions and comments about the way things are done so that it matches the whole thrust of a service or the worship in general. I'd like to be able to suggest certain hymns and songs without feeling that you disdain my comments. I'm not particularly musical but my opinions deserve a hearing.

SERVANT SPIRIT: Servanthood is an important qualification for ministry. Whatever gift we have, it must be used to serve others in the body of Christ. I wish to serve you and help release your full potential in terms of personal growth and ministry. I expect you to have a similar attitude to me, so that together we will be able to serve and build up the body of Christ here in its worship and mission.

MUSICAL BREADTH: I want to emphasise the need for musical diversity within the church. We are from many backgrounds and age groups. We have many different needs in worship, therefore we need a similar diversity within music for worship. While I know you value certain styles of music above others, please don't dismiss other preferences if different from your own. If you rubbish the style, you can rubbish the person too.

KEEPING UP TO DATE: I expect you to keep abreast of the wider worship scene, and to ensure that the congregation is introduced to that music which the wider body of Christ is finding relevant. I don't want our church to be cut off from the mainstream but I'd like to maintain some quality too. I want us to develop our own distinct musical repertoire which reflects our needs, our priorities.

APPRECIATING MY PERSPECTIVE: Please realise that I have to keep an overview of everything. What you see as the most important priority at the moment may not be so for someone else standing in another position. Please trust me in the decisions I make.

BE A MODEL: I acknowledge the tremendous gift and potential for music in worship. You and the whole music ministry can be come a model and inspiration to the congregation – an embodiment of worship, a sample of what the body of Christ can be.

The musician's perspective:

AN OVERALL PERSPECTIVE: I need you, as leader, to hold the wider vision open for me. I can easily get so preoccupied with the music and worship scene that I forget that it is just one area of ministry. If you and the other leaders are clear about the overall vision, direction and emphasis of our church, then I can develop music and worship styles which reflect and serve it.

VISION: If the leader hasn't a clear sense of direction, how can anyone follow? I believe your role is to guard the vision God has given for our church. Other service gifts like music can then fit into the context. For example, a church with a strong evangelistic calling might have music which emphasises that commitment.

MUSIC CAN'T DO EVERYTHING: I don't appreciate it when people expect music to glue the whole thing together. Effective worship has much wider implications. For the music ministry to function properly, I rely on the whole body of Christ being well formed and nurtured. Music may reflect a healthy body, but it can never be a substitute for it. Don't force on me the whole responsibility for making worship happen within the congregation.

VULNERABILITY: Leaders operate most effectively out of weakness – that is, the acknowledgement that without God they can do nothing. That doesn't mean leaders should be inept, indecisive weaklings. It means they should have a vulnerability to God and to others, a softness of character which God has effected through life's experiences. People identify with weakness: it allows others in so that sharing and bonding may happen.

EARN MY RESPECT: I will submit to your leadership, but I'd rather do it out of respect than out of obligation. You will earn my respect particularly by admitting that you don't have all the answers and by your willingness to acknowledge mistakes. When I summon up the courage to confront you over an issue about which I feel deeply, I hope that you won't be dismissive. Don't let feelings of insecurity put you on the defensive and prevent you from listening to me. I hope that you would do the same for me – I want to grow as a person and as a disciple too.

FACILITATING: Many of us within the church have very specific gifts. As the overall leader I look to you for the ability to facilitate them and allow our ministries to flourish for the good of the whole. We don't expect you to be gifted in every direction, but to provide continuity and oversight, a covering under which we can operate.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


The Way of Wendell Berry
The limits to liberal theories of citizenship
Biblical arguments against vision

Gordon Brown, smeared and anointed

Although I disagree with most of his policies, I do think Gordon Brown is a good person. Most particularly I think he was most effective in the TV debates when he was talking about taking steps to alleviate poverty. I have no doubt that his commitment to social justice is genuine, heartfelt and commendable.

I was pondering that when thinking about the smearing he had to endure yesterday, as a result of his rude comments about Mrs Duffy. First off, let's acknowledge that much of the drive to smear him comes from a Murdoch-driven agenda to get the Conservatives into power and thereby reduce the power of the BBC (something I very much oppose). Having said that, I do think that the episode reveals something of the mental framework of our governing class which is worth bringing into the light.

Rather similar to Obama's comments about 'clinging to guns and religion' what the comment reveals is a commitment to the 'vision of the anointed', ie that the governing class has a better, more elevated understanding of the needs and priorities facing a country than do the ordinary people who live in the country. There is then an inevitable process of perception management (spin) to try and disguise the tension generated by seeking the approval and votes of people with whom you disagree. Occasionally the mask slips.

In contrast to this, for all sorts of theological and practical reasons, I think the most essential task is to return power to the local level so far as possible, in order to encourage people to take responsibility for their own lives. In their different ways, LibDems, Greens and Conservatives are all pursuing that objective. I hope that, whatever the actual outcome, there will be a reversal of the centralisation of power that has proceeded under both styles of government for the last few generations.

Are humans smarter than yeast?

Imagine the classic scientist's petri dish, in which is growing a culture of yeast. Some sugar is introduced into the dish, and the yeast thinks 'food!' - so the yeast population expands as it gorges on the sugar. Sadly, there are bounds to the petri dish, and the amount of sugar is limited. The yeast population expands rapidly, bumps into the limits to growth, and then collapses. For the yeast, think of human population; for the sugar, think of fossil fuels; for the boundaries of the petri dish, think of the earth. Put simply, the problem faced by the yeast, and the problem faced by the human community on earth, is the same – exponential growth cannot continue for ever in a finite space. Human society is facing a similar situation, and the only question is – can we do better than the yeast?

Exponential growth occurs whenever something grows at a constant rate – for example, an economy that is growing at 5% a year. So if we begin with 100 widgets of production, and our production grows by 5% then after 1 year we will have 105 widgets. If the growth continues then after another year we will have 110.25 widgets. After another year we will have 115.7625 widgets. Notice that the amount added on increases each time – 5 widgets in the first year, 5 and a quarter in the second year, five and a half in the third year. That is because the underlying quantity has increased. So exponential growth is not simply adding on a fixed amount each year, it is adding on an increasing amount each year.

The interesting thing about exponential growth, and what makes it so marvellous and miraculous and devastating, is something called 'doubling time'. When a certain percentage of growth is maintained over time then we can expect the underlying quantity to double at a particular rate. For example, if growth is maintained at 7.5% a year then the underlying quantity will double (approximately) every ten years. Which brings us to the famous tale of the chessboard and the king. The tale goes – and it is entirely apocryphal so it has been told many ways – that a great inventor gave the king a chess set. The king was greatly pleased with the gift and asked the inventor what he would like as a reward. The inventor asked that a grain of rice be placed on the first square, two grains of rice on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on round all the 64 squares of the chessboard, doubling each time, and that he be given the total quantity of rice that would end up on the board. The king readily agreed and asked his treasurer to dispense the rice. After taking some time to work out how much this would be, the treasurer told the king that it amounted to more rice than was available in the whole world – at which point the king decided the inventor was more trouble than he was worth and had his head chopped off.

When a population embarks upon exponential growth in response to a sudden abundance of food ecologists call it 'overshoot'. In a situation of temporary abundance (the food supply for the yeast) there is a short period of exponential growth leading to a population explosion (lots more yeast); once the temporary abundance has been exhausted then there is a crash while the system returns to an equilibrium (a very small part of the yeast population survives). The human population of the earth has been growing exponentially, and the numbers have exploded through the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. However, just as with the yeast, exponential growth cannot go on forever and it will come to an end.

This is not a new insight. It was first popularised through work sponsored by the Club of Rome in the early 1970's and published as 'The Limits to Growth'. This was a work that was more misunderstood and maligned than actually read and considered. However, time has shown the essential insights of that report to be correct. The conclusion of the report was that, if nothing was done to amend the path that our culture had embarked upon then, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, our economy would start to hit the ecological resource limits and further growth would be prevented. In other words, around about now.

The best way to understand this is to think about physical economic growth as a cancer. Just as a tumour is a part of a body which is growing rapidly, without any regard to the health of the wider organism, so too is exponential growth of our physical economy something which will destroy the wider human and planetary ecology on which it depends. If we continue to pursue economic growth at all costs, then a fate very much like that of the yeast in the petri dish awaits us. Can we do better than the yeast? (Something to ponder at this time of a general election, when politicians promises to restore “growth”).

To my mind, the predicament we face is not a practical problem requiring practical solutions, but a challenge to our values. We need to work out what it is that we really want to preserve in our society, and what we are prepared to do without. This is an essentially spiritual task. More on that in the next issue.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Something I need engraved on my brain

"Do you worship the work?

... A great number of Christian workers worship their work. The only concern of Christian workers should be their concentration on God... A worker who lacks this serious controlling emphasis of concentration on God is apt to become overly burdened by his work. He is a slave to his own limits, having no freedom of his body, mind or spirit. Consequently he becomes burned out and defeated. There is no freedom and no delight in life at all. His nerves, mind and heart are so overwhelmed that God's blessing cannot rest on him."

(From today's section of 'My Utmost for His Highest', Oswald Chambers, which a lovely parishioner gave me for Christmas.)


der dum
der dum
dumdum dumdum dumdum...

Thursday, April 22, 2010


The only way is down

Some of you may have noticed that Richard Branson was part of an industry task force that recently released a report on the dangers of 'Peak Oil' – something that will make the financial crisis the equivalent of a 'little local difficulty'. Personally speaking I'm glad that the message is finally breaking through to the powers that be. Readers with a long memory might remember that I wrote about this in the Courier back in December of 2005!

Consider the supply of oil from the UK fields in the North Sea:

(Production had a dip in the mid-1980s for two reasons: the collapse in the oil price and the Piper Alpha disaster.)

UK production of oil began in 1975, hit a maximum rate of flow (the 'peak') in 1999 and has been declining ever since. Since 2006 the UK has been a net importer of oil – we had gone from being a major exporter to an importer in seven years (this is very significant, and I'll come back to this issue in a later article) – and as a consequence our balance-of-payments as a nation has been crippled, yet one more example of the financial black hole that our country is presently in.

The real trouble is that this issue of an oil-field beginning production, increasing to a peak, and then inexorably declining with malign consequences, isn't something that only applies to the UK. The US went through the same situation in 1970. For them, it meant losing control of the oil market, ceding that control to OPEC, and living through the consequent energy crises of the 1970's. In fact, of some 65 nations who produce oil, around 54 have now passed their peak. The real question then is: at what point will oil supply for the world peak? Sadly, the answer to that is 'round about now' – the world is now in roughly the place that the UK was in in the late 1990s. There is more oil being produced than ever before, and if we simply use the past as a guide to the future, then all seems rosy. Sadly, nature doesn't allow oil to be extracted forever. There is a limited amount, and we are facing a future with much less available.

What does it actually mean on the ground? Well, to explain Peak Oil to people that have never heard of it before I like to develop an analogy. Let's say that a new pub opens on Mersea, and this pub has a wonderful new beer selling for £1 a pint. They haven't done any publicity, so on the opening night, only one person comes along. Of course, he thinks this is marvellous, and so the next night he brings a friend. The next night, they both bring friends; the night after, they all bring friends. The pub is a success! Demand for this wonderful beer is increasing. However, success brings its own problems. There comes a point when the demand for pints is greater than the publican is able to supply. At that point there are realistically only three possibilities:

1. the publican puts the price up, which helps to reduce demand to a manageable level;
2. the publican sets up a rationing system – you can all have two pints each; or
3. the customers start fighting to get to the bar.

This is the situation that we face. We have seen 1) in the price of oil going up to almost $150 a barrel in 2008 – not an insignificant factor in our present recession. We have also seen 3) in the occupation of Iraq and various other realpolitik manoeuvrings by China in particular. In reality, especially after the fuel-tax protests of 2000, the government has already put plans in place with regard to 2) which we are likely to hear much more about over the next decade.

What Peak Oil means is that the supply of oil will first become expensive, and then become scarce. This will have a major impact upon most facets of our lives. Take a moment to think about what you have done today, and then think about how oil has enabled certain things to happen. From the clothes that we wear, to the toothpaste we clean our teeth with, to the food on our breakfast table, to the transport we so often take for granted, oil is the necessary underpinning for our contemporary society. All of this is at risk. The transport sector is the most vulnerable, but the ripples from the peaking of the oil supply extend much more widely.

The US government commissioned a report on Peak Oil which was published in 2005. The exact date of the peak is a matter of controversy – not least because it would have a major impact on the share prices of oil companies, and others – so the researchers were not asked to talk about when Peak Oil would happen, only what the implications were. The report said this: “The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and long-lasting. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and discontinuous.”

So: what is to be done? More on that in the next issue.

Bradwell: the wrong answer to the wrong question

(I've started writing articles for the local paper. They'll be posted here a little while after being published.)

One of the issues on Mersea at the moment is the proposed installation of new nuclear reactors at Bradwell, just across the water. This has raised a lot of strong emotions. But why is the government looking to build new nuclear power stations? The simple reason is that it has belatedly realised that we have entered into an energy crisis and, if it doesn't build new power stations, a lot of people will be trying to function without electricity in the near future.

Ponder this graph:

This shows the amount of nuclear generating capacity that is expected to go 'off-line' over the next decade or so. Simply to maintain a power supply equivalent to what we have today we need to find some 8 Giga-watts (GW) of generation capacity (from a total of around 56GW nationally). Of course, the 'equivalent to what we have today' understates the issue. We are facing an energy crunch from several different directions: coal plants (the majority of our generation capacity) are being forced to close down due to EU regulations; the oil supply has almost certainly peaked – hence the price rises – and will become progressively more expensive and scarce; and the same applies to gas, although on a slightly later scale. For comparison, the Gunfleet Sands wind farm that we can see from the beach (phase one) has a maximum capacity of 0.1GW.

Even if we ignore the problematic nature of depending on fossil fuels over the coming years, we are facing a shortfall of generating capacity. This is why the Government indicated in 2006 that they would look to build some new nuclear power stations, as part of the requirement to generate some 25GW of new capacity.

Now, there are many issues associated with establishing new nuclear capacity. BANNG have rehearsed many reasons why Bradwell is the wrong answer to the predicament that we face. My concern, however, is that the wrong question is being asked. Essentially the government is trying to work out a way of continuing business as usual, and this, frankly, is daft. Two principal reasons for why:

First, our present energy infrastructure is built around centralised generation of electricity, which is then distributed through the national grid to homes and industry. Taken as a whole (from energy source to eventual use) this is incredibly inefficient, and is only possible in the context of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. In the context of scarce and expensive energy, the future forms that power generation will take will be both more local and more resilient. For example, Woking has been a pioneer in establishing combined heat and power systems and Mersea is not too small to explore doing something similar. It would certainly be a more reasonable course of action than complaining about both the development of nuclear and windpower at the same time!

Second, there is the proverbial snowball's chance in hell that we will be able to maintain our present, high-energy lifestyle. This is why the Transition Town process (Transition Island in Mersea's case!) is so very important. We need, as individuals and even more as a community, to begin to prepare for energy descent – a context within which energy will be both scarcer and much more expensive than it is now. This doesn't have to be a frightening prospect, rather the opposite. We will be growing much more of our own food, using much more human-powered transport, and enjoying much more human-scale and homegrown entertainment. What we will not have very much of are things like private cars or homes warm enough to wear just T-shirts in the middle of winter.

The real question for us is about what we are going to prioritise. What are the things that are really important for us, that are worth fighting for? What, on the other hand, are we prepared to do without?

Personally speaking, I believe that the government has woken up a little too late to do anything substantial the energy crisis (although I hope I'm wrong), and for that reason we probably won't be faced with a new nuclear power station at Bradwell. We simply won't be able to afford one (and bear in mind that nuclear power has never yet turned a profit). Yet that will be a very literal cold comfort when we face a harsh winter again, and people find that they are unable to heat their homes. If we are to face our energy constrained future honestly then we need to focus much more closely on preparations now – such as ensuring that homes are properly insulated, that, wherever possible, we have passive solar hot water supplies installed, and so on.

I plan over the coming issues to explore aspects of this energy crisis in more depth. Next time: an explanation of 'Peak Oil' and why it matters.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

West Mersea church, c.1900

Some colleagues were clearing out a room in the church and came across this picture of St Peter and St Paul's. It is undated, but has to predate 1905 as the East Window was re-ordered, and a stained glass window put in, at that time. This is (roughly) what it looks like at the moment:

It just proves that things which seem to have 'been there for ever' haven't at all. The c.1900 picture shows a fairly Anglo-Catholic sensibility, which I'm quite certain wouldn't have been there a hundred years earlier, maybe not even fifty years earlier.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Movie notes

The boat that rocked 4/5 charming
Transporter 3 Fine 3/5
The Fountain Fabulously filmic 4.5/5
Day of the Dead 3/5 humdrum
Choke Surprisingly humane and intelligent 4/5
Iron Man 2 4/5 good fun, good second act
State of Play 3/5 meh
The International 4/5 good, complex thriller
Kick Ass 3.5/5 entertaining but morally dubious
I love you man 4/5 fine

Bioshock 2

Something else I spent my holiday hours on. Having loved the first one so much, I was very eager to get started on this. Summary review: better gameplay, less good story - but as the story in the first one was so brilliant, it would be hard to keep up, and it is still good. Instead of a nutter right-winger being the antagonist, this time it's a nutter left-winger. Rapture is still a fascinating environment, and the ending sets up for a Bioshock 3. Good for those with anger management issues ;o)

Blood Work/ Void Moon (Michael Connelly)

Read these on holiday. Two more excellent books, largely independent of the Bosch series, which stand on their own and would make for great films. Actually, I think one of them has been! I'll have to track down a copy...

I've read a lot of Morse novels this year too (had the complete set given to me for Christmas) and whilst I love them, and the remembrance of Oxford which they provoke, I find a US setting more relaxing, precisely because it is more foreign.

Hit the ground kneeling (Stephen Cottrell)

When it was announced that Stephen Cottrell was coming to be our Diocesan Bishop, I thought I'd best read a couple of books by him to get a flavour of his thinking. I enjoyed this, and thought it rather sound, albeit also extremely short (it's meant to be read slowly I guess). Much of the 'wisdom' I was familiar with, but as always the real challenge is turning right knowledge into right action. I'll get there.


See number nine :)

Old ideas, new meme, 1,2,3

Doug tagged me with this:
1. Name one idea that used to be seen as a key Christian theme, but is nowadays regarded as either irrelevant or outdated, although you think it still has a lot to offer.
2. In two sentences say something about why you selected this, and why it should be recovered or renewed.
3. Tag three people.

My answers:
1. Spiritual warfare (ie the spiritual reality of the demonic).
2. I like what CS Lewis said about the devil, that there are two equal and opposite errors, of taking it too seriously, and not taking it seriously enough. I believe the impact of Modernist rationality has, in large part, meant that the church generally, and the CofE in particular, has fallen into the latter error, and that this has had serious consequences.
3. I tag Joe (if/when he chooses to break his fast), Jon and Justin.

Five political confessions

1. The only political party I've ever been a full member of is the Liberal Democrats.
2. The only political party I've ever actively campaigned for is the Green Party.
3. The above applies to real elections. I was the Conservative candidate in my school's mock election in 1987, and I wore a blue rosette inscribed "I ♥ Maggie"! I came in second, behind the anarchists :)
4. "I've never voted Labour before". I never will either.
5. Whilst I view my vote in the next general election as pretty meaningless (the local MP will get re-elected) I think it important to exercise the right to vote. I haven't decided how to cast my vote yet, though. I might vote for a party I've never voted for before.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Half of Forward-in-Faith clergy will have retired within ten years.

The future and our souls

Two people who I enjoy reading on post-Peak matters are John Michael Greer and Stuart Staniford. They come at things from very different angles: JMG is a druid, SS is a computer engineer, and this, rather inevitably, affects how they see the future working out. SS has put up a very interesting thought experiment on his blog which gives a flavour of the scenarios.

This got me thinking. We each envision the future - in so far as that is at all possible - in ways that are conditioned by all our guiding assumptions, all the things that animate us - our souls, in short. We can't escape this. My vision of the future involves small churches being Benedictine/Transition centres!

Yet our souls are not fixed; on the contrary, they grow and develop (they also need food, light and shelter - but that's another blogpost). I think that there are two things that our souls need to be open to, if we are to navigate our way through the crisis with fruitful results.

The first is that sometimes our visions bump up against firm reality. There are all sorts of ways this can happen; it is when the bubble bursts and illusions break down. So our envisioning needs to pursue, or allow for, a certain amount of realism.
UPDATE: the nakedpastor has done an excellent cartoon expressing this point:

Which leads to the second: we need to assess what it is that we are valuing, what it is that our souls are set upon. Some visions of the future are not worth pursuing, because the lives envisioned do not flourish. What does it profit a man...?

This is why the crisis is unavoidably spiritual. All our guiding assumptions are being placed under the microscope, and, if we do get through it (and, being an optimistic soul, I think we will) then the choices that we make now will condition the future we receive. We shall reap what we sow.

If we get our values right, all else will follow. Or, put traditionally, 'seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you'.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Little Lion Man

I am "really loving" this song at the moment. NB bad language alert...

(some relevance to my previous post ;-))

Industrial disease for clergy

He wrote me a prescription. He said “you are depressed,
But I'm glad you came to see me to get this off your chest.
Come back and see me later - next patient please!
Send in another victim of Industrial Disease.”

One of the insights that I have found helpful whilst pursuing psychotherapy is the realisation that I was struggling with something that, at least potentially, has a label. At the moment my therapist and I are calling it “depression”, although I'm digging down into it more deeply at the moment, as I think there is more to be discerned, and I think 'burn out' may be more accurate. (For what it's worth, my therapist agrees that whatever it is, I'm not depressed at the moment – thank God, my CME adviser and my Bishop for my sabbatical.) That is, as discussed on this blog before, I think I was/am burnt out by the pressures of ministry in this place.

From “Time to Heal”:
Burn-out in carers
This is a syndrome of physical, spiritual and emotional exhaustion that is particularly likely where there is an experience of discrepancy between expectation and reality.
Three stages of burn-out have been described:
- In the first stage there is an imbalance between the demands of work and personal resources, which results in hurried meals, longer working hours, spending little time with the family, frequent lingering colds and sleep problems. This is the time to take stock, seek God and the advice of those around us.
- The second stage involves a short-term response to stress with angry outbursts, irritability, feeling tired all the time and anxiety about physical health. This stage highlights a real need to get away from it all.
- Terminal burn-out, stage three, creeps up insidiously. The carer cannot re-establish the balance between demands and personal resources. He or she goes into overdrive, works mechanically, by the book, lacking the fresh inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They tend to be late for appointments and to refer to those they are caring for in a derogatory manner, using superficial, stereotyped, authoritarian methods of communication.
On an emotional level, the carer becomes exhausted, incapable of empathy and overwhelmed by everyday problems. Emotional detachment becomes a form of rejection, which can develop into irritability and even aggression towards those nearby. Persons in this situation put themselves down, feel discouraged and wonder how they ever achieved in the past. Problems pile up and paralyse the mind. Disorganisation results in more precious energy being expended to make up for lost efficiency. Fatigue deepens and thought processes slow. Physically, an inner tension, an aching across the chest, weakness, headaches, indigestion and a lack of sleep are often experienced.
The caretaker was crucified for sleeping at his post
They're refusing to be pacified it's him they blame the most

In retrospect I can see various symptoms quite clearly, not least, for readers here: fewer blogposts, dropping off my beach photos, stopping the Learning Church programme and, frankly, growing my hair (= not paying attention to taking care of myself). I think there were specific tensions causing a problem – some of which I have taken action to address, and I'm optimistic for the future there – but the fundamental one is one of workload.

The maximum size of congregation:priest

On ITV and BBC they talk about the curse -
Philosophy is useless, theology is worse.
History boils over, there's an economics freeze,
Sociologists invent words that mean 'Industrial Disease'

I read in many places that 150 people is the practical top limit for a congregation to be manageable for a single stipendiary priest. Bob Jackson calls this the 'pastoral church' and the minister is thereby the key to how far the congregation grows or flourishes, for better or for worse. It ties in with sociological and anthropological research suggesting that 150 people is a universal human limit.

One aspect of this is that, unless steps are taken to directly address this problem, congregation size is independent of surrounding population. Beyond a certain point, increasing the population will not affect the size of the congregation as the glass ceiling will remain in place. This, I think, is the primary driver for my burnout:

Trouble is, whenever I raise this topic in formal meetings like the Deanery Standing Committee, people's eyes tend to glaze over with a 'here goes Sam again' expression. It's true that there are some mitigating factors, not least a significant number of retired clergy, but to my mind that doesn't address the point. To my mind it is more about a different model of ministry being employed – one aspect of Herbertism which we could call 'establishment'.

This is not a novel insight. Bob Jackson has discussed it in great depth in his books and given what I think is quite a compelling analysis. If we accept the establishment model then local population becomes the most significant factor – and the clergy are then deployed ever more thinly. Given the glass ceiling of 150 as a maximum size of congregation per pastor this approach guarantees further decline. The alternative model would be to reinforce patterns of growth – but that involves a profound culture shift away from the establishment pattern. This raises the shade of 'congregationalism', but that seems bizarre to me. After all, TEC is still episcopal isn't it??
“Part of the trouble is that the Church of England’s ‘managers’ have in many cases committed themselves to a model of ministry which denies that the clergyperson is ‘chaplain to the congregation’. Ministry is conceived as being to the ‘whole parish’, and since need is seen in material terms, a large parish in a deprived urban area is defined as more ‘needy’ than a small parish in a well-off rural area.” (I wrote about a related aspect here)
The trouble is that what has happened to me is in the process of happening to all the other clergy too, as we start to wrestle with the impact of 'downsizing', ie industrial disease. The overwhelming majority (95%+) of clergy that I know are already overworked. I think it is a truism that the potential work for a priest is infinite, and as priests tend to be conscientious, there is an inbuilt tendency towards overworking and exhaustion. This is reinforced by masochistic minister syndrome, by which, unless a priest is suffering, they don't feel that they're doing their job properly. And, of course, George Herbert has something to do with it.

What this also means is that, in a context where virtually every priest complains (legitimately) about overwork, there are no commonly agreed criteria on what constitutes an excessive workload. How do you compare and contrast a job with several PCCs to a job with several CofE schools? Inherent in any discussion is the question of what model of ministry is being favoured and, therefore, questions of churchmanship are not very far away and liable to erupt (invariably unhealthily IMHO).

Trouble is, if the various Diocesan authorities don't take a step back and resolve to make some very fundamental decisions then to all practical purposes mission and ministry will collapse in the CofE. I would distinguish this from "keeping the show on the road", and keeping services going. I don't see any need for those to stop, as that doesn't require full-time ministers to maintain – and I wouldn't want to underrate how important that is – but if your vision of church is seven days a week then you cannot be happy with that. In other words, are we simply about 'managing the decline' – thereby doing many things wrongly in my view, not least destroying a great many stipendiary clergy – or can things be done differently?

The further problem of bigness
Two men say they're Jesus – one of them must be wrong

If we carry on the way that we are going, then all full-time ministries will look like Mersea. There are consequences to this. The first, rehearsed ad nauseam in George Herbert discussions is that the priest is no longer a pastor but a manager. Yes, managerial work is still pastoral – and if the management is not conducted in a pastoral manner then all sorts of havoc follows – but I can't help feeling that there is a gap between what is envisaged at ordination and what actually follows on in practice.

This is not necessarily wrong, and it may well be of God. The Church seems to be more or less consciously adopting a model whereby priests are placed on to one of two tracks: a full-time stipendiary track, with associated full-time training, with the eventual destination of exercising ministerial oversight over parishes; a second, part-time, associate priest track, emphasising the pastoral (dare I say Herbertian) model of priesthood. I don't have much of a problem with that – I can see that it makes all sorts of sense and I can see that this may be what God is calling us to pursue – I just can't escape a sense of mourning. This is an ongoing issue for me – of actually wanting to be part of a congregation where I know, not just everybody's name, but have some sense of where they are with God at the moment. Life would be much easier if I didn't care so much.

Some more John Richardson: “The fact is that if the clergy of the future are to be team leaders, they must also be allowed to be team managers, and this means being allowed independence to exercise local initiative, authority to commission local leadership and financial control to fund what they propose doing.”

In one sense, the answer that the church is being called to affirm is that of the priesthood of all believers, understood not in the 'fighting a 16th century ghost' sense of advocating lay-presidency, but in the sense that all the baptised have a common vocation to ministry. The trouble is that in large agglomerations there is much more room for people to be passengers.

“Once anonymity is possible, the church ceases to be a community of followers of Jesus.”

“Where congregations of any size become “dual track” with a bunch of keenies doing the Jesus bit and everybody else in it for what they can get out of it, or sheer force of habit, Houston, we have a problem.”

Subsidising our own decline
Meanwhile the first Jesus says 'I'd cure it soon:
Abolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons!'
The other one's out on hunger strike he's dying by degrees.
How come Jesus gets Industrial Disease?

Related to this are all the questions about parish share. I don't have any disagreement in principle with the transfer of monies between different Christian churches, it's just that the present system seems to take away all discretion from the parishes themselves. Do the central authorities believe that, without a parish share system, Christians would not wish to fund missionary work? The real trouble is that – as Bob Jackson (him again) has identified – the existing system is a socialist system. Not (chance would be a fine thing) socialist in an Acts of the Apostles sense, but socialist in a Stalin-knows-best sense.

What this means, in practice, is that those parishes which are able to grow and develop are deprived of the resources with which to sustain that growth, and end up falling back. Whereas, those parishes which have found a comfortable spot (eg the 120 members mark) will continue to be subsidised and supported no matter what happens in terms of mission.

If I sound a little bitter it's because I think that's a good description of what has happened to the Mersea benefice.

Surely at some point the powers-that-be will wake up and discern that the present situation isn't simply unsustainable but that it is unChristian too. We are pouring all of our resources into maintenance, aka genteel decline, when in fact we need to be engaged in a much more bracing embrace of mission.

More John Richardson: “If clergy really were given the independence, authority and financial clout this required it would undoubtedly be to the long term good of the gospel. It all goes back to the principles advocated by Roland Allen, the great missionary writer of the early twentieth century, that indigenous churches should be ‘self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating’.” “we need to get back to something nearer what is generally acknowledged by scholars (and was recognized by the English Reformers), namely seeing the local presbyter as also the local bishop.”

Bob Jackson, in his book 'Road to Growth', spends several chapters describing the problems associated with the parish share system. He summarises them in these bullet points:
"In conclusion, the whole chaos of quota, parish share, or common fund systems is simply not serving the church well.
1 It is inconceivable that every diocese, with its own unique system changing every few years, has currently found the best possible one, or even a good one;
2 Systems risk provoking conflict and dishonesty. They can lead to more serious division;
3 They do not provide a secure and stable framework in which churches can do long-term planning;
4 They fail to provide the fairness their architects desire;
5 They absorb the best energy, time and expertise of diocesan leaders and officials. They divert people at every level from concentrating on the real ministry and mission of Christian churches;
6 They asset-strip the large churches and tax away the growth of growing churches. They encourage the declining and sleepy in their ways;
7 They encourage false judgements to be made of clergy and endanger the future provision of dynamic senior leadership;
8 They cannot cater for fresh expressions of church;
9 They fail even to maintain the current levels of parochial staffing, let alone to produce the resources for growing the new sorts of expression without which the Church may wither away."

Jackson recommends a solution incorporating the following elements:

1. Churches pay the costs of their own ministers
2. Fee income stays with the local church
3. Diocesan costs are shared by local churches
4. The total bill (1&3) is presented to each church each year, and published in the church accounts.
Essentially what Jackson proposes is a way of a) localising the process; b) making the system completely transparent (and therefore much more defensible); and c) restoring the relationship between those who give and those who receive. I can't see the powers that be choosing to shift to this system, but it will come - not least because the Transition process will dictate it.

Still pursuing my own vocation

There are times when I get gloomy about the present situation. I find this quotation useful: “Francis Dewar identifies three vocations which, he maintains, can often become confused. Our primary vocation is to know God, it is the call to basic Christian discipleship. Our second vocation is to become the person we have been created to be; celebrating, developing and using that combination of gifts and experience that is uniquely ours and growing into maturity of personhood in Christ. The third vocation is to particular, recognised and authorised ministries in the Church or the world; this includes, of course, the vocation to ordained ministry. The great danger for all who have experienced the third call is that it can begin to undermine the first two. And the relentlessness of parish ministry, the fact that there is always more to do and never enough time in which to do it, can be one of the biggest contributory factors.”

At such times I peruse the Church Times jobs pages, and see things like this and wonder whether it would be the right thing to pursue. Such thoughts tend not to last for very long though. Whilst there is a sense of being in the middle of a car-crash when I think about the Church of England, I do think I am where God wants me to be. I'm not supposed to run away into the abstract. I've got to stick at it, partly for Bonhoefferian reasons of 'sharing in the shame and the sacrifice', although that is melodramatic and vainglorious. Reality is more prosaic. I think this is more to the point:
The apostolic role within established churches and denominations requires the reinterpreting of the denomination's foundational values in the light of the demands of its mission today. The ultimate goal of these apostolic leaders is to call the denomination away from maintenance, back to mission. The apostolic denominational leader needs to be a visionary, who can outlast significant opposition from within the denominational structures and can build alliances with those who desire change. Furthermore, the strategy of the apostolic leader could involve casting vision and winning approval for a shift from maintenance to mission. In addition, the leader has to encourage signs of life within the existing structures and raise up a new generation of leaders and churches from the old. The apostolic denominational leader needs to ensure the new generation is not "frozen out" by those who resist change. Finally, such a leader must restructure the denomination's institutions so that they serve mission purposes.
I think that's what I'm called to do here on Mersea. Don't expect support from the wider institutions, or approval from all sectors of the congregation(!) - just stop whingeing, and get on with the job.

Monday, April 05, 2010


Task for the week: finish the book. Word count is presently a shade under 55,000. I don't expect the word count to change significantly, but hopefully by the end of the week it will look much more polished.
In the mean time, some links:
The implications of unmeasurable capital
The Shirky principle ("Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.") See also the linked article on the collapse of complex business models. (If only the CofE powers that be could take this into account!!)
Collapse competitively
Rowan on Pullman's book
Five ways the Google Book settlement will change the future of reading.
The art of dying well, with Jesus.

For the word of the Lord endureth for ever

(h/t Kathryn)

Sacraments and social action

Doug has an outstanding post here, explaining why belief in bodily resurrection, sacramental worship, and social action are a seamless robe.

"If the tomb is not empty, though, then surely sacraments and social action are alike in vain. Our corporeal existence has no future, and only our souls or spirits matter, while bodily life is to be left behind. Only if the tomb is empty, if Jesus has been bodily raised from the dead, do sacraments make any sense, or caring for the earth have any value."