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.