Saturday, December 31, 2011

So that was 2011

2011 was a year of extremes, highs and lows.

Some of the lows:
Ollie snapped the ligaments in both knees
My therapist and spiritual director died of a sudden heart attack
The voices finally succeeded in getting under my skin
Sold the boat

Some of the highs:
Taking my eldest to Greenbelt
Giving up therapy(!)
Recognising how much I have to be thankful for, and starting to just enjoy them all
Holiday with friends
Developing some iron in the soul, and making some core decisions
Seeing some clear fruit from long-term work in the parish
Starting up the Learning Church sequence again after a two year break, and receiving some of the most positive feedback ever
Christmas - one of the best ever (personally!)
Sold the boat, and bought a dinghy
Went Primal - diet first, exercise next - which is really suiting me
Haven't mentioned the book - I expect that to figure for 2012, from January onwards ;)
Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Priestly priorities: ordination, orders and the permanent diaconate

Whilst I'm happy with the three-fold understanding of leadership mentioned in my last post in this sequence - good character, sound doctrine, ability to teach - I think that more needs to be said. Most especially, I think that there is something essential to the priestly role which comes about through ordination. Here my Anglo-Catholic nature asserts itself!

As I understand it, one of the essential elements of ordination is that a person is being entrusted with authority by the wider church, and therefore carries that authority into their work within the local church. It is this authority - derived from the authority and nature of the Bishop's work - which makes the difference between a congregational church and an episcopal church. Note - it is this and nothing about how people are paid (eg parish share or not) that makes the difference.

Furthermore, this authority carries over into sacramental worship; that is, sacramental worship - most especially our communion - is only rightly ordered when it is not simply a communion of a gathered congregation but the communion of that congregation with the wider church. This is why lay presidency is anathema and would destroy Anglicanism as an episcopal church. I see this 'bearing of authority' as an essential element of the work of the stipendiary priest, and it carries over into the nature of the work that they do.

This is why we need to be careful in considering 'good character' a prerequisite of ministry. There is an undoubted sense in which a church leader needs to embody the doctrine which they teach, and 'notorious and unrepentant sinners' are by that measure disqualified from acting in leadership. Yet sometimes the priest needs to stand over-against a particular congregation - or group within a congregation - for perfectly holy reasons, and it is through resting in that episcopally-derived authority that this becomes possible. This is an element of the Anglican patrimony that I think is quite precious. (I think there is also an aspect of priestly ministry as it relates to communion bound up with a healthy understanding of the New Temple and sacrifice - but this isn't the post for that, I'm just putting down a marker!)

Having said the above about ordination, I would want to emphasise that priests are not the only 'orders' in the church. Most especially I would argue that a recovered understanding of the diaconal ministry is essential for meeting the needs that we now face, and, moreover, such a diaconal ministry needs to be based on Acts 6: "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."

Doug said some good things on this here, and it is a subject dear to my own heart. I believe that one of the things that we are presently being called to do is to simultaneously a) call many, many more people to ministry for the church and b) become much clearer about the specific vocations to each order, and the differences between them. Then, perhaps, all the different parts of the body might be enabled to work together, for the greater glory of God.

An Alternative Carol Service

The Order of Service for a Carol Service that we had last week; this is what I wrote in the pew sheet: "I've been asked what 'An Alternative Carol Service' is. It is a traditional Carol Service in terms of its format (bidding prayer, readings and carols) but using one of the alternative themes and patterns of readings suggested in Common Worship - 'Good News for the Poor'. The carols have been chosen to fit that theme, many of them simply alternative words to familiar tunes. The aim is to bring out an element of the Christmas story that I believe is often missed: 'the meaning of the manger'. For those who want the more customary 'Nine Lessons' style Carol Service, Peldon's service is at 6pm tonight (18th), and East Mersea has a traditional candle-lit service at 6.30 on Christmas Eve. There is also the Friends traditional Carol concert on Tuesday evening and our own two Carol services on Christmas Eve, as well as a wholly traditional Midnight Mass. Given the scale of the provision here and across the benefice as a whole I felt that there was room to explore something just a little different. There will be mulled wine and mince pies available after the service and I do hope people will come and join us for what I am sure will be an enjoyable and meaningful service."

The service provoked some very strong reactions, both positive and negative, which I'm still digesting, and I suspect we won't do it in the same way next year. I wasn't going to post it, but reading Giles Fraser I thought that people might find it of some interest. (By the way, I think this research is relevant!!)

~~

Carol: It came upon the midnight clear (323)

Bidding Prayer and Lord's Prayer (trad)

Reading: Micah 5.2-5a

Carol: When God Almighty came to earth (sheet)

Reading: Isaiah 35

Carol: The aye carol (sheet)

Reading: Jeremiah 22.13-17; 23.5,6

Carol: Inspired by Love and Anger (317)

Reading: Isaiah 11.1-9

Carol: Join the song of praise and protest (363)

Reading: Isaiah 40.1-10

Carol: God bless us and disturb us (sheet)

Reading: Philippians 2.5-11

Carol: Once in Judah's least known city (sheet)

Reading: Luke 2.1-20

Carol: When our God came to earth (729)

Solemn Blessing

Left behind by lemmings

My latest Courier article.

I take a break from talking about the bad news on the energy resources front to return to talking about the bad news on the financial crisis front – most especially the delightful effect of David Cameron's 'No' at the European summit. Is British politics about to become interesting again?

What I mean by that is that for the last few decades more and more of the significant decisions that affect our lives have been taken at a level above that of the British parliamentary system. Yes, we are 'represented at the table', but I'm sure I'm not the only one to believe that the influence flowing from that position is over-rated (and to find some of the recent fretting a touch comical. It's not 'Where's Wally?' it's 'Where's Clegg?'). Yet with this 'No' it would seem possible – and I mean simply 'possible', not 'likely' or 'probable' – that some measure of autonomy might return to our national life.

What is the crucial thing to understand about this recent crisis? Well, I thought this picture summed it up rather well:

The language being used is of establishing a 'fiscal union' – that is, that there is some form of common governmental budget-setting, to be enforced by some central authority yet to be precisely defined – in order to establish the financial bona fides of each government, thereby allowing them to continue to borrow at rates that will not cripple their economies, with the hope, thereby, that the financial crisis can be eased. Now there are so many elements wrong with this vision that it is difficult to know where to start, but let us focus on Germany, for the German political system has made very clear that there can be no joint-liability for government debt. According to the German constitutional court “No permanent treaty mechanisms shall be established that leads to liability for the decisions of other states, especially if they entail incalculable consequences...” In other words, whatever it is that Merkel and Sarkozy have been trying to put together, Germany will not be accountable for the debts of Greece.

This is where the problem lies. In order for Greece, say, to be able to function economically, it has to be able to cover the cost of its debt – and this cost is seen in the interest rate of Greek government bonds. When that rate is low – say around 2% - then the sums add up. When that rate starts to get higher – and the danger rate is thought to be around 6% or so – then the sums do not add up. Now one way out of that problem, for a government like Greece, would be for there to be genuine 'Eurobonds', backed by a common European government and drawing on the credibility of the Eurozone as a whole. This, however, is what the German courts have forbidden. Instead, what has to happen is that the local government has to either raise taxes, or cut spending, or both. This is just about possible when the relevant government is enabled to make that decision itself, although even then it is politically extremely difficult. What is being proposed, however, is that the local governments will no longer have autonomy over these decisions, and instead some Eurocratic institution is going to enforce these judgements. So instead of a Greek government choosing to balance its books – and perhaps, gaining the authority to pursue that path through a referendum – the Greek government is simply going to be an administrative arm of the European government, which is where the decisions will be made – and who, rather pointedly, have forbidden such a referendum from taking place.

This is not a long-term solution to the crisis; in fact, it is a recipe for increasing short-term disaster. Imposing technocratic governments upon the allegedly “insolvent” nations of Italy and Greece is simply increasing the perceived illegitimacy of each government. It won't be long before there is bloody revolution – and a large part of the problem is that this will be seen as a German desire for control, built upon a basis of German hypocrisy. Ponder the fact that the German economy has been benefiting hugely from an undervalued currency – possibly as much as 30% less than where an independent Deutschmark would be – and that this undervaluation is what has enabled the German economy to perform as well as it has, and for German government bonds to be obtained as cheaply as they have. In other words, it is not simply that the German approach is 'virtuous' it is that – to put it starkly – the southern European countries have effectively been subsidising the northern. The honourable course – and the one with the only prospect of preserving a functioning Eurozone – would be to go all out for a comprehensive fiscal union for the countries that use the Euro, and to establish a common taxation and budgeting system; in effect, a single government. This is what enables the United States to function with a single currency. Yet this is exactly what is impossible for Europe.

So the proposed solutions will not work – and I haven't even touched on the fact that the sums of money being discussed are trivial compared to the size of the debts, nor the way in which the government debt problems interact with the wider banking debt problems, nor the fact that, frankly, it is all too little, too late. What we are witnessing is the spectacle of a generation of politicians committed to a particular path whose only response to a crisis is to say 'further and faster'. Sadly, reality has changed, and the further and faster simply means going further and faster over the cliff, with all the destruction and devastation that follows. If Britain is being left behind then we are being left behind by lemmings, and that is not a bad place to be.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Priestly priorities: inside out?

I want to engage with Kathryn's comment on my 'doomed' post. Kathryn writes: "I'm just wondering what, under the "membership" model of church, happens to those who don't see themselves as members anywhere, but who clearly value and engage with the ministry of their vicar. Far more of my time, & by far the most fruitful spiritual encounters here are with those outside the church, who see me as "their vicar" because they have a strong sense of local community. I totally understand that we have passed the point of no return with the current situation - but I cling to the idea that I am here above all to serve those who are not members of the church."

This provokes several thoughts from me. Firstly I very much agree with Tim that "in New Testament Christianity the entity which is supposed to serve the whole community is the church, not the vicar" - in other words, it is the common vocation of all Christians to carry out such service, not the separate vocation of the ordained.

I don't believe that it is possible to understand the role of the priest separately from that of the mission of the church as a whole, and specifically the function of the laity within the world. To understand the priestly role distinct from that of the laity is like trying to understand the purpose of a shoe without considering the sole, that which actually makes contact with the ground. I think this is a problem with many of the discussions about 'models of ministry' (including some of my own thoughts).

What then is the priority of the priest? Inside or out? By which I mean, should the work of the priest be centred upon those who gather for worship and teaching, or on those who have yet to hear the message? Not so long ago, within a culture which still assumed and shared much of the teaching of Christianity it was possible to do both - and this is reflected in the ordinal. Yet in the present context it is radically destructive to pretend that the ordained can carry out the same tasks in the same way as before. We need to choose, and to choose wisely.

According to Scripture (mediated here) the Biblical model for leadership involves three things, and three things only: being of good character, maintaining sound doctrine, and having the ability to teach. I believe that the church is suffering from a lack of focus on these elements, and that the poverty of sound teaching is one of the principal reasons for the withering away of faith.

Perhaps the point is to discriminate between those who are called to work within a church to ensure that the members are formed for discipleship, and those who are called to work outside the church as missionaries and evangelists. Both sorts might be priests, but let us call the first 'pastors' and the second 'missionaries'. This ministry might overlap on occasion, but there are different gifts needed for each, and continuing to expect the one person to excel in all areas is likely to continue to contribute to our decline.

There is another element to be pondered here, which is the cost of such work. For how long should a particular congregation be expected to pay for work to be done outside of the church at the expense of work inside the church, if this means that the church itself is shrinking? (I take shrinkage to be the natural consequence of either insufficient or inappropriate pastoring.) Of course, the church must engage in missionary work - and such work is especially essential in England at this time - but missionary work is a sign and product of a spiritually healthy community, and the decline of the Church is eloquent testimony that such a description does not apply.

I would want to argue that the most effective missionary work is done on a small scale, from a Christian to a non-Christian, person by person. Such work can be fostered and encouraged by the right sort of leadership, but it cannot be carried out by them. It is when each individual Christian is given all joy and hope in believing the gospel that the gospel is inevitably shared and allowed to grow. I would see that as the expected consequence of a healthy 'pastor' type ministry, and that is why I would want to argue that the principal focus of the stipendiary priest of the Church of England needs to be internal work with the "membership" rather than external work into the community.

Taking forward the logic of this, however, causes much pain.

The statistics of decline

I wanted to grab together a handful of statistics that give substance to the notion that the Church of England is declining, if not 'doomed'. I accept the criticism that the the figures I linked to in my last post on this are flawed, but I believe the main point still stands. I'm not going to talk about what needs to be done in this context - that is what I'm exploring in my other posts.

These are the figures quoted by David Keen


This data from the Church Society (source) also seems useful:


And this one confirms it:


We can add to this the expected rapid decline in clergy numbers over the next ten years (as the baby boomers retire and aren't replaced) and the way that this links in with the increasing age profile of attenders (and what this means in terms of a sudden drop for actuarial reasons). See also David Keen's post on Diocesan growth here.

"One of our problems may be that decline is so slow and imperceptible that we don’t really see it coming clearly enough. I have seen large companies perfectly and impeccably manage themselves into failure. Every step along the road has been well done. Every account is neatly signed off... I sometimes feel the Church is a bit like that. I wish that all of us would have a sense of real crisis about this."

(Andreas Whittam Smith)

The Lord being my helper I expect to be working for the church until my family dies until 2040 or so. If things don't change, I may outlast the good old CofE...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is the Church of England doomed?


As someone who is persuaded of the merits of the 'Limits to Growth' argument – and who believes that we missed the opportunity to change course back in the 1970's and that therefore our industrial growth culture is over – I have become very familiar with the language of 'doom' and the way in which it can be misused. Just because something can be misused, however, does not mean that it is always false. The core argument of the Limits to Growth, after all, was that if present trends continued, then we would end up arriving where we were headed – and, indeed, we have now arrived there. Can the same analysis not be applied to the Church of England?

After all, it is fairly unambiguous where we are headed – by the mid 21st Century there will be less than 100,000 members (source http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/21/anglicanism-religion ). It is not as if the trend has been hidden and come upon us unawares – it has been the unpleasant background music for several decades now. Clearly, unless something changes, the Church of England as it has been known and understood for several centuries is going to die within the next generation or so (the institution will collapse under its own weight well before we get to 2050). Perhaps the history of the Church will be described as resting between the two Elizabeths – the first pulled it together, and the second watched it pull itself apart.

Let me at once clarify two things. The first is that this anticipated fate of the Church of England needs to be separated out from the expected fate of Christianity within the world as a whole. I expect that well before 2050 disciples of Christianity will pass beyond 50% of the world's population. Key to this will be the continued growth of Christianity in China, which already has more practising Christians than Western Europe, as well as all the other places where the faith is being spread. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, and I am confident that one day, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.

The second point to make is that the Church of England is not the be all and end all of Christianity in England. Whatever the merits of Catholic Emancipation – and I suspect the Church has still not caught up with what it meant – the consequence is that there are now more practising Christians in England outside the Church of England than in it. Whereas it has historically been the definitive form of English Christianity – as epitomised by its establishment status, and (in many ways) in its ongoing self-understanding – it has become, to all intents and purposes, merely another sect. Theologically the status quo is untenable, and the Church of England has to either fight that fate or embrace it.

Now an objection might easily come to mind: what if there was a revival? For sure, a major revival might well stop the Church of England declining so much – and I'm sure that evangelisation is one of God's priorities – but we have been needing such a revival for some time now. I am persuaded that the tide of faith has turned, the Spirit is moving; I am convinced that the bombast of atheistic secularism is the last gasp of a dying ideology, and the potential for growth is immense – but might it not be the case – and I say this with all due humility – that God doesn't want the Church of England to continue? I'm sure God wants Christianity to continue, but the Church of England, in its present form? Of that I am not so sure.

How might the Church of England respond in a timely fashion to the circumstances within which it finds itself? Well, here is one proposal, made with a modicum of hope that God does not want Anglican witness to be extinguished within the country that gave it birth. At the heart of what I am arguing for is a sense that the local church must be set free. Put differently, what I believe is that the Bishops in a properly episcopal church are called to exercise oversight rather than control, and that this can only be properly rooted when they exercise faith rather than fear. What might this mean?

First and foremost, I believe that the parish system should be abolished. The idea that everyone living in the country had their own parson, to whom they might turn when in need, was a noble one – and yet it is an increasingly untrue piety. I believe that this needs to be recognised – and what this means is that the Church needs to genuinely recognise the reality of the Christian ministry undertaken by other churches. Of course there are theological differences – some of them I would view as rather important! - but in the context of what is shared, especially in contrast to the surrounding culture, they are mostly trivial. The consequence of this is that the Church of England accepts that it is a 'sect' – that is, it is a Church which has a particular inheritance of faith. It is the distinctive theology which supplies the identity of the Church, not the establishment ecclesiology. In many ways all I am arguing for here is that an existing reality is affirmed rather than denied and that the inheritance of establishment, which assumes an equivalence between 'resident of the parish' and 'member of the church', is done away with. Canon law must be changed, most especially with regard to the occasional offices.

What this would mean is that each existing church is allowed to pursue its own sense of mission and vocation. Much of the substance of this would end up being financial. The existing system of parish share has very few defenders. Bob Jackson puts it well:

"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 think this is the way forward, and I would add that responsibility for clergy housing should also be passed down to the parishes.

What might this mean for the central authorities of the Church? Well, rather than Bishops being concerned with ensuring that a parish pays its quota, they might be set free to ensure that those clergy who are licensed by them are exercising their ministry in an appropriate way – most especially that they are orthodox (I touched on this in my Spanish Train post). In other words, the core function of the Bishop becomes less administrative and financial than about preserving the truths of the faith and exercising pastoral care and leadership of the clergy. I have a sense that this is what Bishops are supposed to do...

This is likely to provoke great fear and concern – what about the poor parishes? What about our need for mission? Well, what about them? Aren't they precisely the natural concerns of Christians – so why wouldn't the Church seek to pursue such priorities, even if there wasn't a central system to enforce it? Put differently, if we do not do the right thing because we are afraid that our people will not act as Christians then we are already doomed. Which does perhaps raise what is the most central issue facing the Church of England: not that the model of ministry for the priest has to change – although it must – but that the distinctive Anglican patrimony has to cash out in a distinctive ministry of the laity. I'll have to write more about that another time, as this post is long enough.

The blunt truth is this: the Church of England is at death's door. All I'm arguing for here is that I'd rather that we went out fighting for the gospel rather than trying to save a particular historically conditioned administrative pattern which has turned the cornerstone of our faith into the proverbial millstone around our neck.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

David Cameron's Christianity, or: why conservatives can support the Occupy movement

Much twittering about David Cameron's speech, accusing him of hypocrisy - after all, how on earth can a Conservative be a Christian? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Well, no. It's perfectly possible to be a Conservative and be committed to, inter alia, social justice; 'conservative' does not equate to 'apologist for an abusive status quo' - although, obviously, in some cases that is accurate.

To bring out what I am describing, ponder the Occupy movement. Some 'conservatives' might criticise it for being a petulant protest, an army seeking to destroy the goose which lays the golden egg of prosperity. That's just shallow. On the other side, of course, there are elements in the protest which are indeed, childish and irresponsible (and gross). Yet it seems to me that the core of the protest is an assertion of moral values, most especially a rebellion against the idolatry of greed and an idea that justice must be done, that criminals should be punished, and that subsidising the wicked is no way to run an economy. Which seems exactly what a conservative would support - so long as the conservatism was thought through, and not simply tribal. I suspect that tribal criticisms from the left are not the best way to bring conservatives to such a realisation though...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Does the church need more cheese?

A question I started to ponder when I came across this video (via Facebook): This is a very attractive vision - people being accepted for who they are, and being celebrated for the same - which surely has something to do with what Jesus was wanting to show. Yes, I know, we need to talk about the reality of sin, and yes, we need to have a mind to only offering up to God the very best of which we are capable, and yes, we need to make sure that what we do is genuinely worshipful and centred on God and not just about celebrating the fluff found in our navels... but even so. I suspect that this is what (some) 'happy clappy' worship captures, and to that extent it is holy, and of God. A place of acceptance and peace which is in stark contradistinction to the surrounding culture; a sign of the Kingdom. I wonder whether the intellectual and sacramental has started to obscure the simply joyful, rather than being a servant of it. Which is a way of saying - our cynicism is a sin. Mea culpa.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Numbers

Sometime in the last few weeks I went past 200k total hits on this blog. Which I suppose has some significance. Of more interest is the fact that I have over 150 committed and regular readers - and I am very grateful to you all.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of Strategy, Smallbone and the Spanish Train



There's a Spanish train that runs between Guadalquivir and old Seville,
And at dead of night the whistle blows, and people hear she's running still...
And then they hush their children back to sleep, lock the doors, upstairs they creep,
For it is said that the souls of the dead fill that train - ten thousand deep!!


Well a railwayman lay dying with his people by his side,
His family were crying, knelt in prayer before he died,
But above his bed, just a-waiting for the dead, was the Devil with a twinkle in his eye,
"Well God's not around and look what I've found - this one's mine!!"


Just then the Lord himself appeared in a blinding flash of light,
And shouted at the Devil, "Get thee hence to endless night!"
But the Devil just grinned and said "I may have sinned but there's no need to push me around,
I got him first so you can do your worst – he's going underground!"


~~

Having been a strong Chris de Burgh fan in my innocent youth (don't snigger) and then given up on him around the time that 'Lady in Red' became so popular, I recently rediscovered his early songs, which are actually rather fun – and this is one. I played the album on the way to Greenbelt and concluded that the title song was enjoyable but very bad theology. Yet there is more to it than that – the bad theology reflects a certain understanding of the nature of Christ – and therefore it says something significant about the Christian church which exists to tell people about Christ. I had those thoughts bubbling away in the back of my mind when a number of themes that I have been wrestling with for some time crystallised together, triggered by looking at David Keen's very interesting figures:


The Church of England is dying, although it is not yet dead. Essentially fewer people are giving more, and whilst the latter side of that equation is a sign of spiritual vitality, the process cannot continue for ever. There is, of course, no reason to believe that the CofE will keep going in perpetuity. Establishment acts as a bulwark against any precipitate collapse, but that simply means that the butter gets spread ever more thinly. It is not impossible that the centralised (and centralising) forces associated with Church House collapse, and that the thousands of different parish churches are simply left to go their own way. Some will thrive on their independence, some will simply close, others will get handed over to the local Friends organisations and be turned to other useful purpose. The overall structure will revert to that existing before twentieth-century statism, and possibly even to that existing before the implementation of the parish structure, so we would have Minster churches, who send out clergy to serve local congregations. The several different denominations will work together (good thing) and eventually merge on cost grounds, whilst various 'plums' get picked off by the predatory. This isn't to say that Christianity hasn't a future in England, just that it may need to die a proper death before revival and resurrection.

What is it that has killed – is killing – the Church of England, and Christianity in England more generally? Well, here I want to talk about the Rev Adam Smallbone. I think Rev is an incredibly good programme, but it shares in some of the theological mistakes that Chris de Burgh articulates in his song, and I think it cuts right to the heart of where our problem lies. That is, there is no real sense of God in the programme, and no sense of the gospel – and in this, it is a faithful reflection of the wider culture. It gives, I believe, a very important insight as to what the church has lost, and why the church is dying.

Consider this clip:

I believe that our wider culture sees two types of Christian. The first is an aggressive evangelical, full of overwhelming bonhomie about “good news”, who comes across to the wider culture as part of the Borg - resistance is futile and you will become a part of us – equal parts insane and malevolent. This is often the target of New Atheist criticism. Whilst there are often apparent stories of 'success' from such projects I cannot help but believe that there is a limit to how far such activity can really reach into our wider society. The other type of Christian, however, is the woolly liberal do-gooder, who means well, and understands and moves within the wider society rather easily – and therefore isn't bonkers – but has no passion or strength – they are just, in Hauerwas' words, “asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent”. This is not a new problem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”

Watching the most recent episode of Rev (2.3) the moment that encapsulated the problem for me – amongst several possible examples – was when Smallbone swigs from the bottle containing 'Holy Water'. This Rev is completely irreverent, and, as a result, is completely irrelevant. Compare and contrast Smallbone – and the evangelical opposition – to the church as described in Acts, which was very highly regarded even though people were very afraid. Why afraid? Because the Pentecostal fire had made these men holy – and holiness is an aweful thing. There is very little holiness in Rev, and this is because the wider culture sees no holiness in the Church of England. This is our problem.

~~

"But I think I'll give you one more chance" said the Devil with a smile,
"So throw away that stupid lance it's really not your style,
"Joker is the name, Poker is the game, we'll play right here on this bed,
And then we'll bet for the biggest stakes yet: the souls of the dead!!"


And I said "Look out, Lord, He's going to win, The sun is down and the night is riding in,
That train is dead on time, many souls are on the line, Oh Lord, He's going to win!.."


Well the railwayman he cut the cards and he dealt them each a hand of five,
And for the Lord he was praying hard for that train he'd have to drive.
Well the Devil he had three aces and a king, and the Lord, he was running for a straight,
He had the queen and the knave and nine and ten of spades, all he needed was the eight...


~~

I've recently read John Richardson's 'A Strategy that Changes the Denomination' which I thought was rather good. John quotes from a 1945 Church Report called 'Towards the Conversion of England' and it makes fascinating reading: “We cannot expect to get far with evangelism until three facts are faced. First, the vast majority of English people need to be converted to Christianity. Secondly, a large number of Church people also require to be converted, in the sense of their possessing that personal knowledge of Christ which can be ours only by the dedication of the whole self, whatever the cost. Thirdly, such personal knowledge of Christ is the only satisfactory basis for testimony to others. It will thus be realised that the really daunting feature of modern evangelism is not the masses of the population to be converted, but that most of the worshipping community are only half-converted. The aim of evangelism must be to appeal to all, within as well as without the Church, for that decision for Christ which shall make the state of salvation we call conversion the usual experience of the normal Christian.”

I think this is right (although I would enter a caveat about the use of the non-Scriptural term 'personal knowledge' which is an importation of Enlightenment-era categories of thought, and a frequent tool for the enemy). I most especially like the passage which John quotes after this: “Above all, the Church has become confused and uncertain in the proclamation of its message, and its life has ceased to reflect clearly the truth of the Gospel. It is for the Church, in this day of God, by a rededication of itself to its Lord, to receive from Him that baptism of Holy Ghost and of fire which will empower it to sound the call and give the awaited lead.” I find it remarkable that this was written sixty-five years ago. Is it something that will remain eternally true, or is it possible to actually live up to our faith? I wonder what difference it would make if we took John's argument and at each point changed the word 'evangelical' to the word 'Christian' – because it seems to me that what is needed is for all the believers to take the faith seriously, and live up to it. From John's conclusion: “...we must shift our primary goal from either seeking to preserve the institution from others or seeking to make it more comfortable for ourselves. Instead, we must look to the Church's true task: to seek people's conversion through the proclamation of the gospel. And in the light of this we must seek the transformation of the Church for gospel proclamation.”

This requires, of course, that we believe the faith ourselves, that we have indeed been cut to the quick, and repented, and experienced the breaking of our hearts of stone and their new creation as hearts of flesh. It is this and this alone that can fuel mission. It is the absence of this that has killed the Church of England in particular, and Christianity in England more generally. Why? Well, there is a long story about atheism here – I'll be able to tell it properly one day – but a very large part of it is that we have lost confidence in the faith. The atheistic criticisms have been internalised and we have lost our confidence, and this has undermined everything else. Now we are simply regarded as a good works club – alright if that's your thing but please don't take it out on me. Our holy fire has been extinguished.

I wonder what John Robinson would say about it now? In some ways he became a poster child for the disbelieving Bishop, inaccurate though that might have been, but I do think that this element of intellectual confidence is what has been lost, and the fish rots from the head down. The other messes can be traced back to this. We no longer inhabit the world distinctively because our beliefs are no longer distinct, and we cannot have the one without the other. We will not be gospel people unless we have a gospel to proclaim, rather than just a gospel to mumble about hesitantly, half-hoping that nobody notices.

~~

Well the railwayman he cut the cards And he dealt them each a hand of five,
And for the Lord he was praying hard for that train he'd have to drive.
Well the Devil he had three aces and a king, and the Lord, he was running for a straight,
He had the queen and the knave and nine and ten of spades, all he needed was the eight...


And then the Lord he called for one more card but he drew the diamond eight,
And the Devil said to the Son of God, "I believe you've got it straight,
So deal me one for the time has come to see who'll be the king of this place,
But as he spoke, from beneath his cloak, he slipped another ace...


Ten thousand souls was the opening bid, it soon went up to fifty-nine,
But the Lord didn't see what the Devil did and he said "that suits me fine",
"I'll raise you high to a hundred and five and forever put an end to your sins",
But the Devil let out a mighty shout, "My hand wins!!"


~~

It is, historically, surely quite an odd place to be inhabiting, to be an English Christian in these early years of the twenty-first century. There often seems to be a background sense of 'we tried that and found it false'. We're no longer even strong enough to be worth fighting against. We're like an old family dog who is gently declining, and needs to use the back garden rather than long vigorous walks, but for whom the owner still holds some tenderness, and so their last years will be made as comfortable as possible, until the pain is too much. How has the gospel been reduced to this?

The entertaining heresy in Spanish Train is the posed equivalence between Christ and Satan – that Satan might actually be able to trick and manipulate the Lord and thereby win the souls of the dead. Whilst this does have some cultural resonance it is in truth a complete nonsense. There is no comparison between creature and Creator – were Jesus actually to command 'Get thee hence to endless night!' then the effect would be accomplished by the speech, it wouldn't even require Satan's consent to go along with it. So what is missing in the presentation of the Lord here, and why it is heretical, is any sense of the immense power and overwhelming strength of the Lord. It is yet another presentation of Jesus as milksop, recipient of abuse. It is an echo of Nietzche's characterisation of Christianity as slave morality. I like the word thumos, which is the Greek word for 'spiritedness', the precursor for courage and manliness. Put bluntly, the trouble with this presentation of Jesus is that he is no longer a mensch, he is no longer a centre of life, he is no longer a progenitor – he has no thumos but is instead simply a patsy for other character's actions and desires. He does not stand for anything beyond a weak-willed wish to do good. It is surely no accident that the lead character in Rev is called Smallbone, and perhaps part of the problem is that our wider culture has dictated to the Church that only women are allowed to have balls.

I wonder whether a part of the root issue at stake in all of our arguments about women priests and women bishops is in fact an inchoate sense that the Church has become emasculated. Perhaps it is rooted in a reaction to the first half of the twentieth century, which scarred men so deeply that they wished to withdraw. Yet even that may be because the church had already failed to be the church. In the Medieval era returning warriors had a particular form and ritual for re-engaging with society, which recognised that the taking of life was sinful – and therefore rendered the warrior unfit for sharing in Holy Communion – and so the church made provision for the warrior to become reintegrated with wider society. It did not repudiate their manliness but integrated it into a larger whole. Now the very notion that there is something healthy about manliness, and that it needs to be nurtured and cultivated, is laughable. Yet this is also why our society is so fractured. There is something essential here that has been lost sight of – it is as if we are in a boat without a rudder, the boat is still sea-worthy and we seem to be moving, we're just at the mercy of larger forces – and for the church in particular, we are being dashed upon the rocks.

There is a particular flavour of holiness which is associated with manliness. This isn't an argument that only men can be priests – although I think that there are some very non-trivial arguments making that case, alongside a great many very trivial arguments (“justice!”) that argue against it. God will call whomsoever he chooses, and it is the character of the individual that counts, not her biological composition (another Enlightenment-era heresy). Yet for fear of offending women we have ended up denying men – and we need to repent of that sin. In particular, the form of caring that seems to have become determinative in the training of clergy is (forgive me) a more classically female understanding – the showing of compassion and solidarity, the alleviation of immediate hurts. Being a spiritual nurse, for want of a better description. The idea that the sharing of truth is also pastoral, that the proclaiming of the gospel is the foundational spiritual medicine – this is what we have lost sight of. And so we do not care to train the clergy in the right understanding of doctrine, nor do we seek to hold our clergy to account for the doctrines that they proclaim. So long as they are nice to people, keep their heads down and don't cause a fuss then they can keep doing what they are doing. This is not good enough.

It is as if we think that all we need for an engine to work is the generous application of oil to lubricate the parts. The hard work of hammering the metal into shape and then organising the parts into a right form is no longer a consideration. So we are left with an oily and sticky mess and we are not getting anywhere. We are dying, drowning in the oil of our gentle compassion.

If this is to be addressed, it is no good simply looking at our structures and the allocation of resources – important though those things are. We need to recover our sense of the awefull awesomeness of Christ our God. “Jesus is my girlfriend” - no, Jesus is Almighty God and Creator so fall to your feet in awe and worship! I believe that this is what we lack, and it is tied up to our failure to understand and appreciate what it is to be a man. Of course, this can only finally be demonstrated by actions, not by words.

~~

And I said "Lord, oh Lord, you let him win, the sun is down and the night is riding in,
That train is dead on time, many souls are on the line, oh Lord, don't let him win..."


Well that Spanish train still runs between Guadalquivir and old Seville,
And at dead of night the whistle blows and people fear she's running still...
And far away in some recess the Lord and the Devil are now playing chess,
The Devil still cheats and wins more souls and as for the Lord, well, he's just doing his best...


~~

It is not enough to 'do our best'. We need to do what is right, and to cleave with our Old Testament Hearts to the truth of the gospel. In the context of the overwhelming decline of the Church of England that may well seem an impossible task – but then, that's the sort of thing that appeals to men of sufficient thumos, to men of sufficient faith. It's our mission, should we choose to accept it...


UPDATE: these statistics are interesting: "Its not that men are not interested in spiritual things. There is no gender gap in Islam, Buddhism, Judaism or Hinduism, nor is it a feature of the Eastern Orthodox Church." If it is true that a family follows the faith of the father, then what I'm talking about here is even more important than I thought...

Monday, November 14, 2011

When you go home, tell them

We have gathered together today to remember before God those who have gone before us, who gave their lives in war in order that those whom they loved would be saved, and be enabled to flourish in their lives and homes in peace. This year we especially mark the passage of 90 years since the foundation of the Royal British Legion. How can we best honour those who gave their lives for us?

Well, in a simple sense, we can honour them by what we do today – simply by remembering them, and naming them. Anything beyond that runs the risk of being superfluous – but I would run that risk today. Clearly it is in living out our lives freely, making the most of the gift that we have received as a result of their sacrifice, that we do honour them. A straightforward example will demonstrate this point: in Afghanistan today there are girls being educated who would not be were it not for the courage and sacrifice of those men and women serving there. For those schoolgirls to honour those soldiers simply requires them to take advantage of their education, to have and to enjoy better lives. That is enough of a purpose and an honour. Sadly, what seems straightforward thousands of miles away seems much less clear closer to home. For what does it mean in this country to enjoy such better lives? What might it mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought? How can we here, today, best honour those who have given their lives for us?

Earlier this week, as part of his homework assignment from Mersea school, my eldest son has been tasked with learning something about the First World War, most specifically about the trenches. Now the trenches were a barrier, there was the enemy in front, and there was the home to be protected behind. I expect to be going through his homework with him this afternoon, and what I am wanting to teach my son is that the place for battle, the place for military excellence, for courage and skill, is on that front line. But the most important thing is that those virtues are placed in service of something larger – something larger than any one soldier's own interests or personal advantage. This is what makes the difference between the heroes and the villains in all the stories that he has become familiar with. For example, my son greatly enjoys the Harry Potter stories – Harry Potter fights on behalf of a community and, in the end, he accepts his own death in order that they might flourish. His enemy, Voldemort, is simply pursuing his own immortality, and he is quite willing to dispose of his closest allies if it allows him to get closer to his wish. What I want to do is tie together what he has been learning through reading such fictional stories, with what actually has happened, and does happen, in our world.

It is this sense of serving something larger than our own desires that makes the difference between the hero and the villain, and it is this sense of something larger that I think our society has been forgetting for several decades now. It has become unfashionable to say that there are objective values, that some things are definitely right, and some things are definitely wrong – irrespective of what anyone might actually think about them. It is because our society has been so corroded by this moral relativism that we have the spectacle of young men hanging from the Cenotaph in London during the student protests last December, whose defence was that they didn't realise the significance of what they were doing. They hadn't been told the stories, their community hadn't insisted on the importance of telling them the stories, of saying – this matters.

I asked earlier what it might mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought – and that is Christian language. As Christians we claim that in Jesus is our fullest and truest freedom – and that it is in so far as those who laid down their lives for us did so in resemblance to Jesus laying down his life for us that we honour them, and we remember them. What that means is that their stories find their meaning and purpose through being a part of the larger true story, the story of the creation of the world in love, the breaking of that world through our own sinful mistakes, and then the ongoing healing of that world through a loving sacrifice. As Christians we insist that there are values that are independent of our own judgement or preference, values that are woven into the fabric of this world by the one through whom it was all created, and it is by tuning in to those values and aligning ourselves with them that we start to touch the real and genuine freedom which is God's intention for us. Freedom is not license, the ability to do whatever pleases us. True freedom comes from recognising the nature of the world and aligning ourselves with it: the truth shall set us free. This is the overall story that binds us together and within which all our own individual stories find their meaning. This is the story that gives us the fabric of our common life – and it is that fabric that has been unstitched over several decades by those with no awareness of the havoc that they have caused – Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

I asked at the beginning of these words what is it that we can do to best honour those who have given their lives for us. I believe that I can now offer you an answer: the answer is simple, but very hard to live up to. We honour them best by telling their stories, and we give those stories meaning by embedding it within the larger story which gives it sense and purpose. We honour our heroes – those who fought for something larger, something bigger than themselves – by also telling the story that is bigger than them themselves. It is this bigger story which allows us as a community to live together and to enjoy the fruits of a hard-earned peace. This is our common story, within which the stories of the veterans and fallen take their place and within which they find their meaning – and we honour them by continuing to tell all of those stories, from the stories of Jesus in the gospels through all the different stories of those who at different times in different places have given their lives and health that we might enjoy our lives and health. As the Kohima declaration has it: when you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today. That is the essential thing, to best honour those who have given their lives for us: keep the story which structures our lives alive. So today, when you go home, tell them.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

TBTE20111109

Some initial thoughts on 'Transforming Presence'

On the whole I'm very impressed with 'Transforming Presence' and am very excited about the possibilities that are going to open up. I want to say a few things about item 4 in the paper, about ministry - that being a topic which is particularly close to my heart! But first, here is a fuller extract for consideration rather than just the KGH part:

"Here are some basic principles which, with our agreement, could form the basis of a more radical forward thinking look at the ministry of God’s church in our diocese –
> Ministry belongs to the whole people of God. Every person, because of their baptism, has a ministry. We must nurture an expectation that every Christian gives expression to this ministry in their daily life and in their participation in the life of the Church.
> Ordained stipendiary ministers will be thinner on the ground in the future. We need to agree what figure we are working to, communicate that figure effectively to the deaneries, and then give each of them a target to work to. If at the same time we allocate a number of stipendiary posts (say five to ten in each Episcopal Area) as Mission posts, this can give strategic flexibility at a bigger level, allow new initiatives to flourish and ease situations of painful transition.
> These stipendiary priests will need to be more episcopal in the way they understand and express their ministry. This is not new. As the Institution Service reminds us, the Church of England has always believed that the Incumbent in the parish has a share with the bishop in the ministry “which is yours and mine”. Now they will become much more obviously those who have oversight of the ministry of the church in a cluster of rural communities, or in a town or suburb. Their role will be to lead and facilitate ministry in that area, not provide all that ministry themselves. They will, of course, be involved; but their main task will be to animate the ministry of the whole church.
> For this to work, there also needs to be a huge flourishing of authorised lay ministry (especially youth and children’s workers, authorised preachers, catechists, pastors and evangelists) and ordained self-supporting ministry. And of course we already have many Readers. Alongside some priests being more episcopal we need many others who will be more diaconal, taking on a pastoral, catechetical and evangelistic ministry at the local level. Each local church needs to have some sort of ministry team and, preferably, some minister to whom they identify as the worship leader and pastor of that community. Sometimes this will be a lay person, such as a Reader, and we should encourage lay led worship and ministry in many of our churches. In many cases I hope it will be an ordained self-supporting minister, so that the sacramental life of our church continues to flourish. But where there are lay led services of the Word it will still be possible within the cluster of communities under the oversight of the (probably) stipendiary priest, for there to be regular Sunday by Sunday Eucharistic provision. Some SSM priests will themselves be the leaders (‘episcopal’ priests) in these benefices."
"We need an end to that debilitating and depressing approach to ministry where it feels like an endless game of knock out whist: every time the cards are dealt there is one less. We must transcend this situation, by looking slightly further ahead and developing a bold ministry plan that is based on sustainability and growth. We must stop spreading diminishing resources more thinly. This has been a disaster for clergy morale and a massive disincentive to giving."

Initial overlapping questions and thoughts:
1. There is a lot of practical thinking about models of ministry to be done putting flesh on the bones of this vision.
2. This must be shared with the laity as it is principally their expectations which will not be met.
3. Knowing where we will likely be in fifteen years time (in terms of clergy numbers) would be a great help, and would allow us to actively work towards a particular outcome.
4. Nothing has been said here about what incumbents will be expected to do vis-a-vis fabric questions, including church yard management and so on. I would want to see this brought out into the open with a view to passing these on to church wardens.
5. Are incumbents meant to be managers, pastors or missioners? Or all three?
6. If the role of the incumbent is to 'animate the ministry of the whole church' then the focus for allocating those resources must surely be the size of the congregations (ignoring specified mission priests who are supplementary) not the size of the population within which a particular church is placed. (This is a particular grouse of mine)
7. I don't think that we can push effectively in this direction unless we also tackle the question of parish share and accept a different model.
8. We need to have a good hard look at the occasional offices and clarify what is expected and who is going to do that ministry.
9. How we train the ordained is going to have to change to fit with the answers discerned to all of the above.

I'm sure there will be other thoughts as time goes on, but at the moment my strongest sense is one of relief. I feel that I have been banging my head against a door that has been firmly closed against me for many years, and suddenly it has swung open. Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 07, 2011

A short story about small parish growth


Peldon is a small village of some 600 people situated to the south of Colchester. The regular congregation of the parish church has seen growth of around 50% over the last three or four years – from around 10-12 and declining, to around 18 and increasing (often in the mid-20s now). This has had a greatly positive effect in all sorts of ways, from simply increasing morale and generating momentum to finally paying our full parish share, from a position of only paying around 50% five years ago. I thought that it might be helpful to put some thoughts down about what has enabled this growth to take place. There is no one 'magic bullet' that can be applied without care in other parishes, but hopefully there might be some encouragement to be drawn from our story. Having said that, the one essential component in my view has been the dynamic lay leadership within the parish, in the form of a very active church warden, who has given much of the energy and impetus for the work carried out. I am certain that without this the outlook for the church in Peldon would have been very bleak.

I would pick out the following, in no particular order, as contributing to the growth of the church:

  • consistency of Sunday worship pattern, with all Sunday services rationalised to 11am and a service at that time every week. Normally there are enough ministers available (through access to benefice resources) to ensure that there is a licensed minister leading the worship, but sometimes the services have been lay led;
  • an overhaul of the fabric of the church, most especially including the removal of the pews. The pews were of no historical or architectural merit and had become a decrepit hazard to worshippers (one collapsed just before a funeral). Their removal has energised the space within the church and enabled a much more flexible approach to worship;
  • the launch of a Friends organisation, which has had two major positive consequences – financial assistance with the cost of fabric repairs, and a generally positive engagement with the members of the community who do not attend worship but who have good will towards the church;
  • hosting special events on a regular basis, such as quiz nights, suppers, history lectures and so on. This has helped to raise the profile of the church within the village and made it easier for those unfamiliar with the church to cross the threshold;
  • running a simple 'mission' to the parish, which involved gathering a small team together to knock on every door in the parish, asking a few simple questions and advertising the Alpha course, which ran subsequently;
  • a particular funeral, of a young man who had grown up in the village, and to which the great majority of the village came. I believe that this put the church back on the 'mental map' of the community.

I view growth as the outcome of a healthy church, and believe that if our priorities are right then the inherent attraction of the gospel will draw people in. We haven't done anything particularly novel, we have simply tried to follow the best practice seen elsewhere (I've been particularly helped by BobJackson's research). The conclusion that I draw is simply this: it works.

Killing George Herbert is now the official policy of Chelmsford Diocese

Diocesan Synod last Saturday affirmed the paper 'Transforming Presence' which includes the following:

"...stipendiary priests will need to be more episcopal in the way they understand and express their ministry... they will become much more obviously those who have oversight of the ministry of the church in a cluster of rural communities, or in a town or suburb. Their role will be to lead and facilitate ministry in that area, not provide all that ministry themselves. They will, of course, be involved; but their main task will be to animate the ministry of the whole church."

It's been a while, but I'm glad we've got there in the end. Full paper here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy London, St Paul's and the Rebel

One of my formative philosophical influences - and I can say that without being pretentious because I was about 17 when I read it, and pretention is expected at that age - was Albert Camus' 'The Rebel', most especially the first few pages. These describe the reaction of a slave who has simply taken too much abuse and turns round to say 'No'. From that refusal comes a sense of value and a sense of self - and these are the building blocks for creating something new. This is the primal reaction from which all else comes. Camus writes "An awakening of conscience, no matter how confused it may be, develops from any act of rebellion and is represented by the sudden realisation that something exists with which the rebel can identify himself..."

I've been pondering this whilst following the events outside St Paul's. There has been much criticism of the Occupy movement for not having 'clear goals' (on which see this great cartoon). That is immediately to try and force the rebellion to conform to the dominant discourse, to be co-opted into the patterns that pose no threat to the establishment. Specific claims will, I do not doubt, follow in due course. For now, however, it is enough for there to be the protest, the rebellion - the saying 'No' to manifest injustice, arrogance, ignorance and greed.

So what of St Paul's at this time? I can't be the only one who is dubious about the 'Health and Safety' rationale for closing the cathedral, not least because those grounds have not been clearly communicated to the Occupiers, who are therefore prevented from being able to take action in response to allay the concerns. Clearly it is a way of trying to bring moral pressure upon the protesters to get them to move along and not cause such bother. Yet if I'm right about the rebellion being the 'awakening of conscience' then the cathedral authorities are lining up on the wrong side of the divide - their moral pressure is simply an expression of convention rather than a receptivity to the right. In Camus' terms they are embodying the abuser, metaphorically and literally. What I find most intriguing is that the Occupy actions have inadvertently put the spotlight onto the national church, rather than causing immediate difficulties to the financial institutions. What are the real values that guide the Church of England? With whom shall we stand? At the moment, sadly, it looks as if the Church is simply another element of the governing class, an Erastian placeholder cavilling at those protesting wickedness because it is simply not the done thing. Will the Church ever get to a point where it can say to the establishment 'thus far and no further'? It would return to the Church that sense of value and sense of self which is conspicuous by its absence. I believe that it is what the people of this country are in fact looking for - the Occupiers not least among them.

(In the meantime plaudits and kudos to Kathryn Rose for following where the Spirit leads!)

Monday, October 24, 2011

A few more thoughts about faculties

Tim commented on my post last week that he didn't know what the faculty process was. The faculty process is essentially the church equivalent of gaining planning consent. If you want to build an extension on the back of your house (in the UK) then you need to get approval for that from the planning department. If you don't get that consent (which can be voted on by the council) then the council has the power to remove such an extension (this was the principal issue at stake at Dale Farm).

In principle, the faculty process does make sense. There are some 'de minimis' regulations which mean that minor changes don't need a faculty, and there is, in theory, a clear procedure set out for how to obtain a faculty that is sought. My gripes about the faculty process flow from the following two thoughts:
1. it is very centralising and undercuts local autonomy. The planning process, which the faculty process reflects, is very much a modern creation, part and parcel of a modern Western state.
2. it is highly politicised, in that, if you get English Heritage on side, and you are on good terms with the hierarchy and so on, it is more straightforward to get consent for what you are trying to do. Of course, English Heritage, as their name suggest, have a vested interest in preserving historic buildings and that interest does not necessarily coincide with the interests of an on-going church community.

Now, just as the over-centralised state doesn't have much of a future in the context of Transition and all that that involves, nor does the centralised structure of the church, of which the faculty process is one example. I can envisage a time - indeed, I know of colleagues' situations where this has in fact happened - when a church community simply says to English Heritage 'If you want to keep it like it is, fine, here are the keys, we're off to rent the School Hall' (EH backed down on that one).

Put simply, the faculty process is a dinosaur in the time after the comet has hit. In order to prosper, the church must become much smaller and more nimble - the mice that became men, rather than the dinosaurs entering into history. How might that happen? Well... I'd need to do more study to really thrash it out but it would involve a) a massive expansion of the 'de minimis' provisions, b) provision of a democratic (parish resident) process to establish consent, replacing the standard DAC/Chancellor system and c) a structural bias in favour of approval vis-a-vis English Heritage, so that they would have to formally object and take a parish to court if they wanted to stop a development, rather than, at present, simply indicating that 'it wouldn't be quite right'.

My belief is that this would liberate the church communities to shape their buildings around their worship and life, rather than having to shape the latter to the former in Procrustean fashion.

The Sandman's Ruby

I thought it would be worth reposting this - it is still how I think... (first published 29/6/2006)


I have been meaning to write this up for ages. There is much theological ore waiting to be mined in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman sequence; this may be the first of a number of posts (but don’t expect any more any time soon – the most important will be one about the nature of story and narrative identity).

The Sandman, also known as Morpheus or Dream, is one of the Endless – seven ‘beings’ or ‘anthropomorphic representations’ of aspects of creation. The story sequence begins with Dream being mistakenly captured by an Aleister Crowley type character, and the initial seven issues of the comic describe the immediate consequences of the capture – Dream’s escape and pursuit of the valuable objects taken from him – his helm, his ruby, and his pouch of sand.

The ruby eventually ends up in the hands of a madman named Doctor Destiny, who uses it to perform diabolical acts, and then to fight Dream himself. Dr Destiny drains Dream of all his power, and then destroys the Ruby, thinking that in doing so he will destroy Dream. In fact the reverse happens – all of Dream’s power and identity that had been vested in the Ruby is returned to him, and he is ‘recalled to himself’, thence easily able to overcome Dr Destiny, and return him to Arkham Asylum.

What struck me on originally reading this passage is that it is a parable for the church and the Bible.

The Church is formed by the Spirit descending at Pentecost; the community gathers for prayer and fellowship, the apostle’s teaching and the breaking of bread; it grows and strengthens around the world. Eventually it creates an object, a tool, which allows it to pursue its ministry – what we call the New Testament.

That New Testament is then taken away from the living church community (which is the only place wherein it is able to be used properly) and diabolical consequences result. In particular, the Bible is taken into the academic community, and is used to make dark materials which are destructive of the church. The academic community has now, in effect, destroyed the Bible that it originally took from the church.

Yet it seems that what is now opening up is a possibility of the church being able to return to its divine origins, to allow the Bible to be what it always was – the principal tool of the church, not something of divine origin in and of itself – the Bible can return to what it is, and the church can return to what it is: the Body of Christ in the world.

[Mad Priest’s Pre-Biblical Movement prompted me to put this up.]

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Happy incumbents

Reading Lesley's blog reminded me that I wanted to write something on this.

First a lengthy quotation from Rowan's remarks:

"On the humanity of priesthood and episcopacy, it does seem to me that, if we have an ordained ministry in the Church, and if part of the function of any ordained ministry is to help the Church be the Church, and if the Church truly is the Church when it is the human community that is Christ’s body among us (and you can add lots more ifs), then the ordained person — deacon, priest, or bishop — is not exempt from modelling the new humanity.

The ordained person does not just talk to other people about how they become better human beings or more effective parts of the Body of Christ. The ordained person is a part of the Body of Christ, and therefore in­volved in modelling the new human­ity.

So if we ask whether this or that form of ordained ministry models a humanity that looks full or joyful or renewed, maybe that is the crucial question. And frequently the answer is no, for men and for women.

When looking at challenges such as employment practice, work patterns, couples in ministry, and a whole range of issues, we might ask whether this human ministry looks as though it stands for an attractive, a trans­forming and transformed, new human­ity. Because if it doesn’t, we are actually not doing what we are sup­posed to do, and we are treating ordained ministry as if it were some­thing other than the life of the Body of Christ. So it is all right for a con­gregation to flourish and a priest to be crushed? I don’t think it is all right.

We all know how the pain and the cost of ordained ministry can feed the life of a community. And I think that is what St Paul is talking about in a great deal of 2 Corinthians.

But we can’t leave it there, because that both dehumanises and super-humanises the ordained ministry. It dehumanises because it says it doesn’t really matter what happens to these particular persons that God loves in Jesus Christ. That is dehumanising.

These particular persons in Jesus Christ, who have collars round their necks and various coloured shirts, are the ones who do the work for the Body of Christ, including the sacri­ficial suffering. And everybody else sort of freewheels on it."


Now two quotations from David Hare's 'Racing Demon', which I read a little while back and which (the play as a whole) has been haunting me:

+Southwark to an incumbent: "In any other job you'd have been fired years ago. You're a joke, Lionel. You stand in the centre of the parish like some great fat wobbly girl's blouse. Crying for humanity. And doing absolutely nothing at all... you are the reason the whole church is dying. Immobile. Wracked. Turned inward. Caught in a cycle of decline. Your personal integrity your only concern. Incapable of reaching out. A great vacillating pea-green half-set jelly... It truly offends me, the idea that people need authority, and every time they come to ask what does the church think then they are hit in the face by a spurt of lukewarm water from a rugby bladder. And I simply will not allow it to go on."

and especially this one, where the incumbent's experienced colleagues (Harry and Streaky) are discussing him with the new curate (Tony):
Harry: He's tired.
Tony: Yes. He's tired. Exactly. Lionel is tired because he gets no strength from the gospel. That's my whole point. He's tired because he isn't getting anything back.
Harry: (shaking his head, disbelieving) You can't say that. How dare you? You can't say that of any priest.
Tony: Of course I can say it.
Harry: Who are you to judge?
Tony: Have you seen him? Going down the street? In Brixton? His forehead is knotted. He gives off one message: 'Keep away. I carry the cares of the world.' It's true. People don't go near him. He reeks of personal failure. And anguish. Like so much of the church."

Now regular readers will be aware that this is a theme I have pondered a lot. A little while back I commented that I didn't know any happy incumbents and was taken to task for this. So I changed it to 'many' rather than 'any' - my rule of thumb being that you have to be a moderate evangelical called Tim in order to be a happy incumbent in the Church of England today (grin). As it happens, speaking personally, I'm in quite a happy place at the moment - I might even qualify as a happy incumbent, although it might also simply be that I've found a more comfortable position on my own personal cross - but the 'going around with a knotted forehead' would, I think, be a reasonably accurate description of me in the last few years! Not good, and I hope that I'm eliminating it.

The general problem remains, however. The nature of the ministry than a priest is called to, in the way that Rowan articulates, is - to generalise hugely - a ministry that will become rarer and rarer in the Church of England today, and that means that there is something profoundly wrong somewhere. So what is to be done? How are we to cultivate an ordained ministry that enables a witness to the full humanity that is the inheritance of every member of the Kingdom? I'm starting to wonder if it's possible, or whether there needs to be a massively more traumatic shift in the Church of England in order to enable it. As I said to one group the other day, the church on Mersea - understood as a community - has been gathered together for a good 1400 years, only the last 450 or so of which have been under the auspices of the Church of England. It may well be that the present institutional arrangements have to break down comprehensively before something new can be released.

What might that look like? Well how about these proposals as food for thought: the abolition of the parish system and parish boundaries, the abolition of parish share, leaving each congregation to pay for its own minister(s), the abolition of Church House and all the financial arrangements there, and the abolition (or, realistically, the massive simplification) of the faculty process. Most of the disagreements I've come across to such proposals take the form of saying 'the Church of England has to be in every place' (which is a good ideal that I support, although we ought to be realistic and say a) we don't achieve that now and b) why can't we be ecumenical about it and say, eg, 'here the Methodists are the Body of Christ' in this place?) or, what would happen to the poor churches that can't afford their own minister? Well that latter assumes that Christians don't wish to exercise Christian charity - a very telling assumption - and ignores the pre-20th century history of, for example, all the work done in the East End by the slum priests. This is not congregationalism - after all, the financial and faculty elements to be removed haven't been in place for very long - a hundred years, if that. What I'm advocating is a radical shift in power away from twentieth century centralisation and back towards the local autonomy that has, for most of our history, characterised the English church.

I just have a suspicion that, in the environment into which we are moving, with more and more incumbents having to stretch across large multi-parish benefices (see eg here - it is highly likely that the Mersea patch will be expanded by yet more parishes in the next few years), the institutional side needs to become much more streamlined and simplified. I think that would make for happier incumbents.

NB I'm aware that I haven't talked about the underlying spiritualities in this post - I think they are even more important, but one thing at a time, and for a flavour of what I think is needed to make incumbents happier, see this recent post. The larger point is about what it means to be a servant of institutional Christianity when both institutions and Christianity are generally regarded with scorn, scepticism and pity - but I'll talk more about that some other time.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why I wouldn't take Rooney to Euro 2012

He's not the Messiah he's a very naughty boy...

So Fabio is being put on the spot by Rooney's suspension (and why were people surprised that it was for three matches?) and now there is the question of whether to take him to the Euro's at all. The argument for taking him goes something like: he's our best player, he can turn a match around, he'll be fresh and raring to go if we make it through the group stage.

I think it would be a very bad idea to take Rooney. To begin with it would cast a shadow over building a team with the capacity to get through the group stage. That by itself we could probably live with, but let us just pursue what might happen. I think there are three possible outcomes:

1. We don't get through the group stages - in which case taking Rooney has wasted one space in the squad, a space which might conceivably have given Fabio another option to respond to dire circumstances.
2. We sail through the group stages in great comfort - in which case adding Rooney in would mean disrupting a team that has successfully gelled without him.
3. We struggle through the group stages and look to Rooney to raise us up to a higher level - in which case the pressure upon Rooney to perform becomes all the greater.

The first two outcomes argue against taking Rooney, but it is the third which I think is in fact the most problematic, simply because Rooney has repeatedly demonstrated his inability to cope with intense mental pressure. This would be the worst environment in which to pitch a volatile player. If English football is ever to get the best from his immense talent then perhaps the salutary lesson of not being taken to Euro 2012, and the experience of watching from the sidelines, is the best opportunity for him to conquer his demons.

I think Fabio should build a team without him, and leave the task of integrating Rooney to his successor. A front four (in a 4231) of Young-Gerrard-Sturridge, with Bent converting the chances, should surely be enough to get us to the traditional quarter-final elimination, and there are other options around too who could cover for injuries in that quartet. We need to stop relying on talented individuals, and start building a proper team, and a proper system.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A short sermon about music (West Mersea Civic Service 2011)

Those of you who read my Courier articles will know that I have a favourite philosopher, who has had a profound influence on how I understand the world – Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was raised in an extremely musical environment as his parents house in Imperial Vienna was one of the most important musical salons in that city; Brahms, Schumann and Mahler were regular house guests, Richard Strauss would play duets on the piano with Wittgenstein's brother – this is the context for Wittgenstein to write, after finishing his greatest philosophical work 'it has been impossible for me to write one word in my book about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?'

Perhaps I should stop there... After all, what can be said in a sermon about music? It is rather like trying to talk about God in some ways – every attempt is bound to fall short of the reality, and yet sometimes we cannot but speak and the words have to stumble out of our mouths. Even shipwrecks have their uses.

Our first reading described the musician David with King Saul; here David can play music to soothe the troubled breast of the king – and this is certainly one element of music, as something which can soothe our spiritual aches and pains – bringing harmony out of discord – and yet, there is so much more to music than this.

In the context of this civic service, where we are dedicating ourselves to the welfare of all, we might perhaps call to mind the wider context at the moment. The financial crisis that has been running for a few years now but has not yet run its full course; the environmental and resource crises that are starting to bite as we start to run up against the Limits to Growth; the frankly frightening world context where violent militancy is on the rise. These are so many deep bass notes in a minor key, and we cannot overcome them with a blithe and bland melody. Yet there are ways to harmonise with those movements in a way that makes the music overall something that can be listened to, something which reflects who we are, something which might, perhaps, even heal. There are things which we can do even in this disquieting context.

For even though I don't have much confidence that our governing classes have much idea about what is going on – one might say that their range of hearing doesn't go down as far as basso profundo, or perhaps it's just that they're distracted by the sound of cats – my trust in God is still intact. In the end it is not for us to be in control – we are not the composer, we are not even the conductor, we're not even the first violin – I suspect there is a good Trinitarian image there for Father Son and Holy Spirit – but we do have our own parts to play. We do not have to worry about the overall composition, it is not for us to know how the main themes and contradictions will be creatively resolved, we simply have to play our own part as best we can, confident that the creator can redeem any mistakes that we might make – as those marvellous words of Leonard Cohen have it 'and even though it all went wrong I'll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah...' For where there is no dissonance the music is in the end bland and boring and, most of all, unreal – and surely the complexity is real, the mournful notes are real – and in the end it is from the real deep well of our suffering that we will draw the refreshing water of joy. That is the trust with which we simply have to press on with the tasks that we have been given to do. And we have been told what we need to do: we are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before our God.

So may we commit ourselves this day to making real music together, in the service of our community, following the composition of, allowing ourselves to be conducted by, and being led in our playing by, the One in whom all things are harmonious, the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Exceptional or Imperial? Sarah Palin and the choice facing the United States

Note: this was first posted to my now-defunct political blog Gandalf's Hope on 4th February 2011

How is the US exceptional? I would say it is an exceptional nation because it is based upon an idea, the idea that all men are created equal. Of course, the United States has gone through tumult on its way to fully learning, embracing and embodying that idea but nonetheless, the extent to which the US pursues that vision, and the way in which the consequences of that vision such as individual freedoms and democracy are embedded deeply into United States culture do in my opinion make the US an exceptional nation (and, indeed, one to which I often consider emigrating).

How is the US imperial? Well, the simplest way to demonstrate that is to ponder a handful of facts. The US maintains 730 army bases in 50 nations around the world (some would say it is higher). It operates (for now) the global default currency, and thereby enables a transfer 'rent' from the rest of the world. It dominates a number of client states and has intervened explicitly or tacitly throughout the world (most notoriously in Iran). Most explicitly, the US with around 4% of the world's population enjoys something like 25% of the world's natural resources, most especially oil. We might have a long academic debate about just how the US qualifies as an 'Empire' but if we avoid the semantic quicksand the essential point seems unassailable.

It seems to me that discussions of the worth or otherwise of the United States is often bedevilled by a failure to distinguish between these two aspects of US polity. Real life is of course much greyer than any binary definition can allow for. Those who defend the exceptional nature of the US are often hard-pressed when faced with evidence of US government complicity in torture and other systemic abuse. On the other hand, those who are most convinced that the US is the Great Satan and an evil empire are hard-pressed when presented with the strong evidence available that the US is often a force for good in the world, not least in terms of the highest values embodied in the constitution and the sheer grace and decency of so many individual citizens.

There is, inevitably, a tension between these two strands of current US life, and because the world is going through a process of upheaval the world has an interest in seeing which way the US will choose to go. For the truth is that the Imperial structure established by the US, most especially since the end of WW2, is now breaking down. The US is going to go through a process of relative weakening. Instead of being the overwhelmingly dominant nation, within the next thirty years the US will become more of a 'primus inter pares' - still very strong, but with several other strong nations alongside it: China, India and Brazil are the most obvious three, possibly accompanied by an EU, but not accompanied by either Russia or South Africa, the other two nations often suggested as potential major states.

In this context, the US governing class is faced with a choice. Does it seek to preserve imperial power and control for as long as possible? Or does it seek - in accordance with its own exceptional highest values - to enable a peaceful transition into a different world order?

The way that governing classes think is often preserved at an institutional level. By that I mean that, in order to become a member of the governing elite one has to adopt the values of the institutions into which one becomes trained as a member. In order to gain power within the system, the bona fides of acceptance of the system have to be demonstrated. When all is well this provides a cohesive strength and stability and is a prerequisite for long-term stable government. However, what this process does not prepare for is an existential crisis when the fundamental basis of the establishment is called into question. In such a situation the perpetuation of group-think leads the governing class to become more and more detached from the emerging reality, with the inevitable consequence of collapse or revolution.

It seems clear to me that this is what is happening in the United States at the moment. The present occupant of the White House - in my oh-so-humble opinion - is a corporate shill who lacks the character required to be anything other than a front for the governing class. As a man who has made a habit of pleasing people and being as inoffensive as possible, and without the moral hinterland required to recognise the crises engulfing the world at this time, he operates as a teleprompter operator articulating the assumptions and preferences of those who have benefited most from the imperial system, and who are acting with increasing desperation to preserve that system from collapse. This can be seen from the healthcare system designed by pharmaceutical and insurance corporations through to the bailouts given to the wealthiest banks (at the expense of the middle class) and the way in which the revolving-door culture between Wall Street and Washington is repeatedly renewed and affirmed.

If there is to be any hope of a benign transition to a different world order, one in which the US can take an esteemed place alongside other powerful nations and continue a 'soft-power' revolution to slowly transform the world, then there must be a change of leadership. The world is crying out for a US that lives out the exceptional path, not the imperial path. This needs a leader that embodies that higher path and is able to call the United States to its own highest values and ideals. This needs a leader with proven courage in standing up against vested interests. This needs a leader with grounded attachment to moral high ground, most especially in a faith which enables a discrimination between the true light of the world and worldly pretenders to that light.

There is, of course, one person who fits that bill. The imperial system, the governing class, recognises that existential threat and is thereby doing its damnedest to destroy that threat, through a consistent and co-ordinated campaign to defame and demean Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska. This does not mean that Palin is perfect and without flaws and weaknesses. It does mean that here we have someone who may just possibly be the last best hope for US exceptionalism.

This is not a Democrat vs Republican challenge. The governing class would be perfectly content with Mitt Romney or any of the other seven dwarves that may be contending for the GOP nomination. No, this is about the possibility of a creative renewal of the United States enabling it to work for the highest possible outcome. The stakes are very real, up to and including another US civil war or (more likely) a more global war, if the governing class sees that as the only way in which to preserve its power. The only way in which a higher path might be taken is if the governing class itself is detached from its hold on the levers of US power, and the US enabled to return to its own best values and practices. Of course I may be wrong, but I do see Palin as the one contender who might possibly be able to do that.

Addition for October 2012: I respect Palin's decision not to run, but I still believe that she is the right person for this time of crisis.