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...

11 comments:

  1. We need passion!!! from our church and those people who are moved to lead and teach us. Not the modern sexual contortion of the emotion but the one that inspired the apostles, convinced the martyrs and fired the preachers and teachers of the past with a fervent desire to 'spread the gospel' and gather in souls.
    While there is much hand wringing about the emptying churches there are many lost souls out side those buildings crying out for a way to faith - but the devil and his minions will snap them up while our Lord's servants fuss over the housekeeping.

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  2. The more I think of it the more I think that we need (a doubtless very different*) Bonhoeffer for our days. DB acted as "hausvater" for the seminary in Finkenwalde, a role which had very little of the "spiritual nurse" about it (good coining, btw).

    Of course, the temptation then to avoid is manly, macho, action-based "leadership" (which, to coin another phrase**, is at best a myth, and at worst a heresy). How can we learn to be *disciples*?

    * Spot the reference?
    ** Soon to be a tradepaperback available from Continuum/Bloomsbury

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  3. Justin - *of course ** I look forward to reading it. My one will be out in the New Year (self-published)

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  4. Sam, I was with you until you began to equate courage with manliness and spoke of the church being emasculated. And if men don't have balls, are women to be blamed?

    Of course, there's an argument to be made for manliness, as well as an argument for womanliness. My experience of growing up was with strong women, who kept families afloat when men didn't carry their weight.

    If you had spoken of strength and power in terms of all humans, power as from the experience of those in the upper room at Pentecost, I'd be with you.

    I agree that the church is dying, on your side of the pond as well as mine, and I agree that we are a church without power and strength, but not necessarily because of a lack of manliness. Look at the many women martyrs in the history of the church, who stood in faith in the face of unspeakable tortures and painful deaths. Tell me there's a lack of courage there.

    The churches, as they are, perhaps need to die. Often it seems to me we are only playing at having church, when Christ should be the very center of our lives. Yet, I don't despair of Christianity. From the ashes something new will arise.

    You are correct that the people in the church are the first who need to be converted, but honestly, when you get into the manliness and muscular crap, as though only manly men could possibly have the courage and strength to do the job, and women are lacking in both, it's a major turn-off.

    God will indeed call whomever God chooses, and who amongst us will say that God chooses wrong? I started off reading your post with such hopes, but....

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  5. Mimi, where do I equate courage with manliness (as *opposed* to womanliness)? My point is that female 'thumos' is now more acceptable than male thumos, and this is a problem. I think you're reading something into this that just isn't there.

    For what it's worth I am very optimistic about the future of global Christianity and I think it's possible that it may become a majority in my lifetime. Not in England though!

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  6. Sam, I thought I had left a comment earlier in the day.

    ...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.
    ....

    There is a particular flavour of holiness which is associated with manliness.
    ....

    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.


    Those statements were the red flags that set me off. Why wouldn't they?

    I don't get to watch the Rev Smallbone, and he well may be irrelevant and true to life of your average reverend of the church today, but to say he is irrelevant because he is irreverent seems to me to miss the mark. Who was more irreverent in the eyes of the religious leadership of his day than Jesus?

    As I've already said, I agree with you about the state of the church. As to the cause of the weakness, I don't know that atheists are to blame. We church people have to take responsibility and, or so I believe, not push the responsibility onto others. The Gospel didn't go away. It's always been there for us to proclaim. Why don't we do it? Why don't we take action?

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  7. Mimi, in your first comment you said "when you get into the manliness and muscular crap, as though only manly men could possibly have the courage and strength to do the job, and women are lacking in both" - nothing that you quote above justifies that, so far as I can see. My point is that men aren't being allowed to offer of themselves (whereas women are). If I was saying, eg, there is something essential about male holiness for the priesthood, therefore no women bishops then you'd have a point.

    Agree with you that the church - especially the priesthood - has to take responsibility for what has gone wrong. Indeed, that is the central thrust of my book that's about to be released!

    PS something going wrong with Google/Blogger at the moment...

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  8. Sam, I admit I came on a bit strong in my initial comment and perhaps misunderstood you. Maybe the Church of England is different from the Episcopal Church, but over here women still lag behind men in wages and in moving up the hierarchical ladder.

    In my own church, we let an excellent woman candidate for rector slip away because somehow after a vote of 8 to 2 to call the priest, 2 turned out to be the majority, because the strong dissents were emphasized over the majority who voted for her, and the woman backed away. I still see a lack of fairness in my church.

    Perhaps the CofE is different, but with the resistance against women bishops, the bias against women appears to be still alive and well as I look from across the pond.

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  9. Interesting piece Sam. Nothing new under the sun though. (Crisis, what crisis ? ... you are quoting a 1945 piece)

    As always the middle-way is best; neither aggressive evangelist nor woolly do-gooder.

    I think your key point (for me as an atheist) is true understanding of what your beliefs are based on - where the "personal knowledge" comes from - divinity has some value for all of us (theist or atheist). Armed with true knowledge you can understand and communicate your actions / tactics / strategies. As I say - 'twas ever thus - your "culture in crisis" makes me cringe I'm afraid.

    Finally I love this quote "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."

    You may know I recently bought from the church and moved into an old vicarage - the occupant before was a female vicar - with balls it has to be said.

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  10. Sam, what a fascinating post! I'm glad to have finally caught up with it. I look forward to seeing your new book. Let us know when it comes out.

    When it comes to songs about competition with the Devil, I much prefer Charlie Daniels to Chris de Burgh:

    The Devil went down to Georgia
    He was lookin' for a soul to steal
    He was in a bind 'cause he was way behind
    And he was willin' to make a deal.

    But it all goes horribly wrong for him:

    The Devil bowed his head
    Because he knew that he'd been beat
    And he laid that golden fiddle
    On the ground at Johnny's feet

    Johnny said, "Devil,just come on back
    If you ever wanna try again
    I done told you once you son of a bitch
    I'm the best there's ever been"

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