Thursday, September 29, 2011

Trigger's Broom and Living Traditions

In one episode of 'Only Fools and Horses' Trigger is boasting about having received an award from the local council for having used the same broom for twenty years – and he then reveals that in that twenty years the broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. Is it the same broom?

This is actually a new form of an ancient philosophical argument, first written down by Plutarch in the first century, where he discusses 'The Ship of Theseus' – a ship where all the different planks and masts and so on have been replaced over time, so that not one original piece of timber has remained. Is it still the same ship?

This is one of those questions that occupies philosophers for a very great deal of time, and I don't plan to get very technical in this column (I have been known to learn a lesson. On rare occasions). The reason why I mention it is because it cuts right to the heart of the various changes that are going on in and around Mersea at the moment. Is it still the same Island?

My view is that Trigger's Broom, and Theseus' Ship, are the same, despite the changes. That is because there has been a continuity of use over time. Trigger has been using a broom to do his work in a consistent fashion for over twenty years, and each day he has taken the broom from the same place, and at the end of the day he has put it back in that place. The fact that on several occasions parts of the broom have changed has not affected the identity of the Broom – at any one point, people could have pointed to the one object and truthfully said 'That is Trigger's Broom'. In a similar fashion, there was a sailing vessel crewed by a community of sailors that achieved certain travels under the command of Theseus – and at any point people could have pointed to that vessel and truthfully said 'that is Theseus' Ship'. In other words, the identity of the object (the broom or the ship) rested as much in the continuous use by the community as in the continuity of any particular physical element.

This is a debate that often comes up when considering churches. The parish church here in West Mersea has seen vast changes in its history. The origins of the Christian community there are likely from the early seventh century, and the importance of that community (as what was then called a Minster church) was such that the King of Essex, Saint Sebbi, built the Strood in order to gain regular access to it. Almost nothing physical from that time now remains (there is one very small Anglo-Saxon carving in the church and that's it) but I would argue that the church now is the same as the church then, simply because there has been a continuity of use on the site ever since. Similarly, the various physical changes to the church – building the tower using old Roman Tiles, the expansion of the different aisles, the massive re-ordering through the Reformation period, and more recently the installation of memorial pews and so on – all these things are simply like replacing the decking on Theseus' ship. For some 1400 years the 'sailors' in the church have continued to share bread and wine while telling the story of Jesus. It is that which gives identity to the church, rather than any one particular configuration of the church fabric.

In the same way, when we are considering the various things about Mersea which may or may not be changing in the future, we need to remember that what gives Mersea its identity is not any one particular physical feature so much as the nature of the community that lives here – and that too has seen many great changes over time. The issue is perhaps not so much 'we need to preserve that particular set of decking' as 'will this help us to keep sailing'? So in the context of Mersea, the questions are – what will best enable the population to flourish fully? That includes the environmental and historical questions; it also includes questions of employment and local amenities. Judging the balance between these elements is a complex task and I don't envy those who have the responsibility for making the final decisions. I do however believe that decisions are best made at the level closest to those affected – which means, for many issues, that decisions need to be made by the Mersea community and not in Colchester.

What I am trying to describe here is the reality of a living tradition. When a tradition and a culture is alive then it is open to ongoing evolution and development in response to different circumstances – in other words the ship is kept seaworthy. It is when a tradition has begun to die that different elements from that tradition get broken off and held up as totems, the ship is only good for salvage value. At that point there is no longer a living tradition, there is a museum full of relics – and museums are wonderful and important places, they can tell us the story of where we come from and therefore help us to know where we are – but I wouldn't want to live in one, or on one.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Priesthood and pastoral care

This is something I've been pondering anew since Graham reminded me of something Eugene Peterson wrote: "Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives."

What is the specific duty of pastoral care laid upon a priest?

It seems to me that there is a general duty of pastoral care laid upon every Christian. After all, it is every Christian who is to obey the command to love their neighbour as themselves; to pray for their enemies and to practice forgiveness; to share the faith - and so on.

Clearly the priest is not to be any less obedient to those commands than other Christians - possibly they are to be more so - but is that 'more so' the distinctive nature of the pastoral care offered by a priest? I would say not.

If you go to a Doctor, and you find that they have what might euphemistically be called a 'deficient bed-side manner' you might still walk away content if you know that you have received the right medication for your ailments, and have confidence that where once you were ill, now you are on the path of becoming well.

The cure of souls should surely be the same. However good at being straightforwardly pastoral the priest may be - that is, in being generally, kind, caring, solicitous and so on - that is not the central feature of their pastoral ministry. The priest is given the cure of souls within a parish. That means that the priest is called to cultivate and exercise spiritual discernment, in order to 'feed the sheep' appropriately. More and more I think St Benedict's Abbot is a good model to have in mind, as he is called to "so temper all things that the strong may have something to long after, and the weak may not draw back in alarm."

This is not a matter of being simply kind and compassionate - although those things are in short enough supply. Rather, as with the doctor who has no social grace, it is still possible to receive cure if the person administering is competent. So the question is: in what does this competence consist?

I would suggest the following. The priest is first and foremost one in whom the conversation with God is being conducted religiously, for whom the relationship with the divine is living and active, and who is therefore able, in some small way, to bring others into that same conversation. So the priest has to be a person of prayer, and to put that life of prayer before all other duties. Secondly, the priest has to be orthodox, and have the ability to share that orthodoxy with the flock. Doctrine is pastoral; poor doctrine is at the root of a very great deal - possibly the majority - of the suffering within the churches. The role of the priest is to share a right understanding of the faith - and therefore a right understanding of how we are in the world - with those who come to them in distress. The priest is one who understands and takes seriously the nature of spiritual warfare, and who has the most effective tools with which to further that combat. Lastly, and following on from this, the priest's ministry is necessarily sacramental as the sacramental tools are the principal means of spiritual combat. The proper use of sacramental ministry is the summation of pastoral doctrine, which achieves what it teaches. And when the priest is sufficiently advanced in the faith, then they begin to share in the nature of the sacrament themselves.

We have forgotten what priesthood is for. This is the logical consequence of losing confidence in the faith more generally. If you take the faith seriously, then you take the ability to teach the faith - and share the fruits of the faith - very seriously. If you no longer have confidence in the faith then you scratch around for more or less acceptable substitutes - priest as social worker; priest as nice person; priest as politician; priest as the entertainment package on the cruise liner. Then, slowly, the whole edifice begins to drift, and starve, and succumb to the blandishments of the world. It is because we have failed at being a Christian community that we no longer have a distinctive sense of the ministry of the priest. They are simply to be the representative 'nice person', and heaven help the one who fails in that most solemn of Anglican duties.

If this is truly the nature of the priesthood, how then are we to find such people? How are we to train them? The training of a priest becomes not so much a matter of choosing nice people, those with a particular gift of smal talk making them more compassionate - although one would hope and expect that to be a natural byproduct - but one of deepening an understanding of the faith, equipping them with the capacity to share that faith with those in their charge, so that the sheep are fed and ministered to. This is not an academic exercise - a filling of the mind with theory and grammar - but the conscious guiding and shaping of a person's soul, 'spiritual formation'. How can one hope to be a priest - and therefore seek to help form the souls of a flock - unless that process of formation has been undergone in one's own life?

Training, therefore is not a matter of abstract academics, even less is it a matter of learning a better bedside manner. All the various elements taken over from modern management and counselling theory are at best icing on a cake, at worst they are the idolatrous substitutes that we use to try to fill the void where a living faith once was. And the church will reap what it has sown. (See John Richardson for a related thought on this from the evangelical perspective).

The situation in the Church of England regarding the training of clergy is, at the moment, very fluid, but if I were to be given some dictatorial powers I would like to see a structure which made all those approved by the Bishops' Advisory Panels full-time employees, based in a parish, from the start, with all the housing and other benefits that a curate would normally receive. This curacy would be for a period of seven years, and during those seven years the candidate would pursue a rigorous course of theological study on a part-time (50%) basis. I would provide that theological education from a non-University setting, to avoid the Babylonian captivity of atheist academia. This would give much greater economic security to candidates - and probably to the various colleges - and would enable a much more rooted form of training.

Yet none of this would be of any benefit if the core vision of priesthood remains deficient. Until and unless we regain a sense of the nature of our faith we shall continue in our managed decline, and repeatedly sacrifice ministers and vocations to the domestic gods of the English middle class.

Bad sign

Leaving aside all the ways in which this wobbly, decrepit and fading sign is in need of renewal (agreed by PCC and in hand) - why on earth was it ever considered sensible to make such a point of conveying the identity of the Rector? It is George Herbert syndrome embodied in wood and pigment.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why shouldn't we let the bankrupt go bust?

A genuine question, and I'm trying to work out the answer (so here I'm thinking out loud).

If Greece defaults - which looks very likely very soon - then there are banks which have made loans to the Greek government which will then not have those loans repaid. This is on such a scale that it is likely that many banks would themselves become insolvent. There is thus great pressure on governments to ensure either that Greece does not default (they've lost that one) or, if it does, that the banks are 'ring fenced' from the consequences of their actions.

This doesn't seem right to me.

Assuming Greece defaults (or the other PIIGS) why shouldn't we let the banks go bust in consequence? After all, it is their decision making which such a fault would put to the test. What would be the malign consequences?

Well, for the 'average person' probably not very much. In the UK - and I guess elsewhere - there is deposit insurance, which means that most people's bank accounts are protected. If one bank goes bust then their customer base is an asset which is then sold on by the auditors who are trying to maximise the asset value from the bankruptcy proceedings. So that side of things is covered.

Those who are richer will get a more or less severe financial haircut, in several ways. Firstly, there is a threshold to the deposit insurance, so deposits above that level would be lost. Second, those who have shareholdings in the bank will - largely - see that investment be destroyed. Thirdly, those who have pensions may be at risk of seeing those pensions lose value if those funds are invested in insolvent institutions.

The thing is, those latter malign consequences I do not see as being anybody else's business. That is the nature of the free market. If you invest in a company that makes bad decisions then you will likely lose your money. What I most object to is a systemic bias towards privatising gains whilst socialising losses. Or, to put that more simply, I believe that it is shockingly immoral for general taxation to be used to subsidise incompetence and greed. To use an admirable politician's latest catchphrase, this is simply crony capitalism, and it is corrupt.

At this point the spectre of 'systemic risk' is raised. If we don't stop the banks going bust then civilisation will collapse - I paraphrase, but that is normally the gist. Civilisation is collapsing anyway - and not least because we have ignored the moral foundations of our communities and societies. My view, therefore, is that destroying the notion of moral hazard, making the rich invulnerable to the consequences of their own misjudgements, is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

So I say - let the bankrupt go bust. If we no longer bail out the venal and the incompetent then perhaps there will be a little bit of money left over to look after those in genuine need.

Make sense?

Friday, September 09, 2011

De Anima

The anima (like the shadow) also has a benevolent aspect in taking on the role of guide, or mediator, to the world within and to the Self. As femme inspiratrice she may serve as muse, inspiring his artistic or spiritual development, and putting him in touch with correct inner values and hidden depths of his personality. Jung said that if we deny these contrasexual figures in the unconscious, reject or ignore them, they turn against us and show their negative faces. It is only by accepting, understanding and forming a conscious relationship with the anima or animus that the positive side appears and becomes available for conscious awareness.

Perhaps Lisbeth can be my Beatrice, "La gloriosa donna della mia mente", and guide me on.


State of present thinking is: Church is that community of people with whom you are serious about your discipleship of Christ.

What I'm exploring is something which doesn't focus upon the various activities (worship, service, meetings etc) which end up being debated about and divided over in endless fashion. Rather, I'm wanting to emphasise what those things are for (formation in discipleship) and that this is necessarily a corporate and not an individual activity.

So, being serious about your discipleship of Christ necessarily entails: sacramental worship, mutual accountability, pastoral care, shared study and service and all the rest of it. Church is simply that group of people with whom you do this. In one sense I'm describing a 'house church' in that doing this properly can only be done in small numbers - but I don't see a need to erect a barrier between small groups and the gathered assembly.

Another thing I'm pondering - I'm not sure I'm a member of one. I'm also not sure the role of 'Church of England Rector' is compatible with church membership, in the sense that I've described it here. All the elements are present in my life, but they are disparate and spread across a number of different groups. That's not how it is meant to work.

I think the key barrier is one of authority. In what way can a Rector be vulnerable to members of their own congregation? It would mean setting aside the 'role' in order to be a Christian brother, which is tremendously attractive. I just can't see a natural way in which to do that in my present context. Yet I'm more aware than I have been in a while that I need to do this, for my own spiritual health - and, probably, for the health of those communities in my care. Which throws up an interesting line of investigation into what the priest is for in a community - and whether the authority 'role' is compatible with what the priest is for.

Still much to think about on this one. It is a work in progress, as are we all.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

I want to learn surfing

After all, it would be a shame to let a mid-life crisis go completely to waste


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

We are responsible for our own feelings

This is a line of thought following Sunday's sermon (Mt 18.15-20), in which I said:

"When was the last time that one Christian in this church admonished another for sinning against them, for falling short of Christian standards? Note this isn't a passage about one person saying to another 'you're not being good enough' in any particular public way – it is about one person sinning against another. So all the fuss that the church ties itself up about, for example, homosexuality – that largely falls outside of this conversation. No, this is about one person hurting another, and the hurt person saying, not simply 'you hurt me' – which I am sure is a complaint that is often heard, but 'you hurt me because you are sinning and failing in your faith' – in other words, embedding the pain in a larger context and understanding. Because it is that larger context and understanding that enables transformation to take place, that stops the conversation being simply 'you hurt me', 'you hurt me first', 'biff, bash, pow!' If a community is to mature it needs to be have individuals within it who are strong enough to put aside their own feelings – their feelings of hurt, or betrayal, or broken trust – and see the bigger picture. It is only that larger context that allows God into the conversation."

So often I see hurt feelings being used as a stick with which to beat other people into submission - we can't do this because it will hurt so-and-so's feelings. This is infantile. The spiritual path is about taking control of our feelings - or, better, letting God take charge and shape our feelings. We set aside our own inner responses in order to pursue a larger picture.

A while ago we had an evening reading (we use this great book) which was about our anger. It talked about a situation that provoked a disciple to anger, and then pointed out that in similar situations in the past, the disciple had not been provoked to anger. What had changed was not the external circumstances, but the internal spiritual state of the disciple. In such a situation the Christian response is to thank the person for making us aware of our own internal spiritual disorder, and resolve to improve matters.

This is why we are to use the language of sin, which presumes a shared faith. It means that we can put aside our feelings - that great oceanic and abyssal chaos - and instead set our minds on things above, things which are good, true and beautiful. This is the way in which we cultivate the gifts of the spirit - of love, peace, gentleness, self-control and all the rest. It makes all the sense in the world to point out when someone has sinned against us - for really, with a right understanding of sin, you are pointing out where someone is stabbing themselves in the eye. The escalation to the wider community is not really about establishing matters of justice so much as about establishing the correct diagnosis of what has gone wrong. It is not about blame - for we are not to judge one another - but about healing and transformation. This is why those who reject the community's judgement are to be 'pagan and tax-collector' - in other words, people who are no longer a part of the community. This is a matter of logic, not jurisprudence.

So if people reject the community, and they reject the theology and discernment of the community, then there is no longer a shared language with which to share a common life. To reject that judgement is to reject the faith. I think this is what is meant by 'what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven...'