Saturday, May 26, 2012

Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori

So: another priest is being subjected to harassment from the noble and honourable legions of the printed media as a result of the discretions of a friend on Facebook. The allegation is that, as a result of these written disclosures, the priest is "unfit to serve the church at all in the opinion of many Doncaster residents". Well, good opinion, is, of course, the determining criterion for suitability for ministry. There is a deep issue here, which I want to try and tease out - not least because I too, have been blessed in the past by the tender ministrations of our legacy media.

There is something about being an ordained minister which can be captured in the phrase 'the dignity of the office'. Obviously this can be abused - I'm sure we're all familiar enough with the genus of pompous ass for the point not to need belabouring - but where that dignity is recklessly disregarded then the institution of the church is led into disrepute. This is, truly, a bad thing. What I want to explore for now, though, is what actually counts as godly dignity in an environment such as ours. After all, alongside the verse from 1 Timothy we must also assess the tradition of the prophets, culminating in our Lord Himself, in which the most direct and offensive language was deployed to tear down the dignity of offices, for the simple reason that those offices had ceased to serve the living God.

Take the present debate about women bishops legislation. How I wish we had people with philosophical training in positions of leadership in the church! Not for arcane expertise but simply for the ability to follow through the implications of a train of thought or a decision. What we see now is the necessary consequence of the short-term expediency deployed to get the original women-priests measure through. The more compromises that we reach for political purposes - without regard for the underlying principles - the more awful a mess we lead the church into. In this situation, Bishop Alan, for example, might be rightly accused of lacking collegiality with his fellow bishops through his forthright comments - and yet, he is also channeling some righteous rage at the follies that have led us into this situation. Which is more fitting for the dignity of his office - colluding with an inability to have real conversations, or speaking honestly? It is this inability to get real that is the root problem here - as with my brother priest in Doncaster. The idea that a clergyman might swear, might be exhausted or occasionally feel hatred for his work - this is to glimpse an unsettling truth, and preserving contrary illusions does not advance the Kingdom. I am reminded of a wonderful scene in the outstandingly good film Moneyball, which I watched the other night, and which led me to ponder all sorts of things about the church: "You guys are talking the same old nonsense... We've got to think differently."

If we are to truly preserve the divine dignity of the ordained office, does not a respect for truth have to figure somewhere along the line? Sadly, where the church has fallen so far from its divinely ordained purposes, all that is left is an ecclesiastical Game of Thrones, with ++Rowan having played the role of Ned Stark. What is needed is an understanding that 'you win or you die', and to succeed in that process we need integrity and honour and an understanding of the dignity of the office - coupled with an acceptance that blood must sometimes be shed. In other words, we need leadership that has an Old Testament Heart, not a Smallbone. Our leadership has been prepared to wound but not to kill, and as a result we have spent twenty years in further interminable argument, and the divisions have simply become more and more entrenched. We are bleeding to death, pummelled by the secularist and materialist cultural imperatives, denuded of our faith and our joy. This is the consequence of not recognising the fallen nature of our world and its implications for the church. Does the church actually want to live?

And just in case the full reference of my title is missed, let me state explicitly that I am channeling Wilfred Owen, not Horace; and, to be true, just a little bit of Mark Antony in my opening paragraph.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What is to be done?

I read this in an article from the Guardian:
"I teach 400 children. Slightly more, actually, but we'll call it 400. That means your daughter counts for 0.25% of the children I teach. It is difficult for me to honestly and accurately tell you anything about her, so please forgive me if I speak in vague generalities at parents' evening and try to avoid using your daughter's name. I might have forgotten it.
I teach twenty five lessons a week. Despite my best intentions, some of these lessons are boring. To plan an outstanding lesson can take hours. I can't do that for every lesson I teach. Sometimes I stand in class delivering a lesson I know isn't as good as it could be. I know how to make it better. I just didn't have the time to do it. I don't think the children notice, they are used to this...
Schools are full of middle-management types....The school needs to improve, but I'm not sure it can. Common sense and trust in human communication is being forced out of the profession. A lot of teachers seem to like being told exactly what to do and how to do it. The status quo is just fine for a lot of middle and senior management too. It allows them to wield power, justify inflated salaries and be recognised by their peers as being "outstanding" teachers. A recognition the children in their classes would never give them. Never mind. They never really liked teaching children that much anyway."

The reason why this article struck me this morning is that - if you change the relevant terms (including 'outstanding teacher' to 'senior priest'!) then the same analysis applies to the life of an increasing number of parish priests. That is of interest, not because I want to share in the groaning - done enough of that recently - but because it shows how far the Church of England has become bound up in the prevailing patterns of our culture.

That culture is one of expecting more and more to be achieved by less and less - and of putting bureaucratic control systems in place to achieve it. So, in teaching, it means a significant increase in central government direction and intervention, carried through by qualified consultants and enforced by Ofsted. Similar things happen in other fields, like the NHS. The church - being behind the times - is only now starting to move in this direction, but it is clear that Common Tenure is from this stable, and this pattern of thought has clearly infected many.

I say that with confidence because I think it has also infected me - and I'm trying to extirpate it (which I do, through things like writing out my thoughts in a blogpost). For example, I am closely involved in Deanery discussions planning for the future - specifically, how to negotiate a reduction in stipendiary clergy of around a third (from 13.5 to 9, covering 27 parishes). My first reaction was to develop a plan to restructure the Deanery around geographical clusters, each with at least two clergy, so that the workload is distributed fairly. So, from an average ratio of clergy to people of 1:120, it will shift to around 1:180; or, using a Deployment Indicator that takes account of local population and number of churches, it will shift from an average of 101 per priest to an average of 144 per priest - either way, it will effectively mean a 50% increase in workload for clergy here. (For comparison, and in lieu of another moan from me, the figures for Mersea are 1:300 on the former measure, and 186 on the latter, so I do have a very good idea of what these implied changes mean in practice). Yet as time has gone on, I become more and more dubious about this type of change - the notion of spreading clergy around in a perfectly balanced distribution seems simply to be about managing the decline.

What, after all, will be the consequences of proceeding with this plan? We will be asking clergy (and bishops) to do more and more with less and less - exactly the situation that the teacher in the Guardian article is describing. We will end up either with ever-increasing levels of clergy burn-out; or with ever-increasing congregational decline and disillusionment; or, most probably, both. This is exactly the pattern of thinking that led us into our present problems, so why do we expect a different result from continuing with it?

So what is to be done? One answer is to 're-imagine ministry' - along the lines that Bishop Stephen is calling for here in Chelmsford Diocese. I strongly support what +Stephen is attempting to do, but I suspect that we are still not digging down into the real roots of the problem. Do we: change our understandings of priesthood; change our understandings of lay ministry; or - increase the numbers of clergy?

After all, one of the great challenges about 're-imagining ministry' is to make sure that we don't re-imagine ministry away completely. The reason why Killing George Herbert has always resonated with me is simply because the George Herbert model of ministry is so tremendously attractive. To be a pastor and a teacher building up strong relationships with a group of disciples - and through that to enable each of them to live out their calling with joy and giving glory to God - what priest could possibly object to that? If we are to have a truly enabled and energised, inspired and inspiring laity - is there not a role there for those whose job it is to help such a thing come about? That is, I am not sure that the answer to the problem of a shortage of clergy is to do away with such clergy altogether. The answer is two-fold, it seems to me - we need more clergy and we need to have a much clearer idea of what clergy are for.

In the secular world, to provide resources for training and development is straightforward and obvious. It is an investment in the future. The Church of England doesn't do this - and I sometimes wonder if there is something in our ecclesiology that says we are only allowed to take the bad bits of management practice and have to ignore the good. If we were serious about priestly ministry then we would invest a much greater proportion of our resources in training and developing priests - and we would then set those priests free to do the work that they have been called and trained to do. There are many ways in which this might be done. Personally I am coming around to the view that anyone accepted for training should be installed as a curate in a parish, with housing and a stipend, and then spend the next seven years doing 50% work in the parish and 50% formational training. I am very aware of the benefits of full-time residential training, but that model only really works with people who are single, and probably young as well.

More crucially, I believe that we need to make a decision about what we expect priestly ministry to look like. This is a long conversation but one key element of it, surely, has to do with the size of the congregation - that is, how many people is one priest expected to pastor? Bob Jackson's research pertains to this - for me, I would suggest a ball-park figure of around 100 as the limit for what one person can effectively minister to. Beyond that number the possibility of genuine relationships with each member of a congregation diminishes exponentially. If something like this is accepted, then it has a direct implication for the recruitment and training of clergy. If we have 10,000 people needing to be pastored, then we will need 100 clergy, and we will need to ask each of those 10,000 people to give 1% of their income in order to pay for them. All that is happening now is that we are a long way into the spiral of decline that spreading butter over too much bread inevitably causes. Put another way, we need to abandon the use of the Sheffield formula and its equivalents in working out how to deploy clergy.

Personally, I don't believe that this challenge can ever be met without at the same time addressing the folly of the parish share system. That is, without some sense of direct relationship between what parishioners give, and what they receive there will be no chance of increasing - that is, financing - the necessary numbers of clergy. Of course, this immediately runs up against some of the principal taboos of church culture - taboos which are, sadly, principally twentieth century in origin. After all, one of the roots of the blight of management culture across the different areas of our lives is the huge growth in centralised state control - and the parish share system is simply one aspect of that, as applied to the church. The sort of system that I would like to see - benefices tithing their income, then paying for the costs of their own ministers - is a massively decentralising process. I happen to believe, not only that this is the form that the Spirit prefers, but also that it is in profound harmony with the way that the world is developing at the moment. Yet like all release of centralised power, those who hold such power will not release it voluntarily, they will have to be persuaded by non-rational means.

Essentially, what I am describing is the shift from maintenance to mission - and in saying that, I am depressingly aware of what a cliche it is. I am sure this has all been said before, and much more articulately. So the question becomes - why has there been no change? Why is it that we are still circling the plug-hole? I believe that the answer is to do with our capacity to make decisions. To actually address these issues properly requires painful choices to be made, and it is the incapacity to make those choices which is our fundamental problem. I don't believe that we can escape from the truth that the church is in crisis because it has lost its spiritual moorings – and this has led to our culture being in crisis (see my book for more detail). We can't discriminate between good and bad management because that requires spiritual discernment – and in an environment that doesn't take spirituality seriously (the church) that sort of discernment is not encouraged as it is too challenging to the existing powers.

So what is to be done? I hear the words that say 'leave with the others', to which I want to respond to the church 'but you have the words of eternal life'. What can those who are loyal to the CofE actually do? That is, what do those who actually believe in the gospel as the Church of England has received it do when that very same Church becomes the obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel? I think that my heart's desire is to do the work of a Samuel, and change the structures in such a way that it becomes possible for the priests to do their job once again. Yet in my darker moments I wonder whether what is truly needed isn't a Samuel but a Samson - someone to pull down the pillars of establishment and leave nothing but rubble and dead bodies behind.

If I were Roman Abramovich...

I'd keep RDM and let Drogba leave as a legend - along with half a dozen other squad members.
And then if I was RDM...
I'd make Terry a player-coach (simply because, politically, you couldn't sell him).
I'd make Lampard captain, Cahill vice-captain.
And I'd build the side around Torres - solid base, fast counter-attacks, Mata, Marin, Ramires - maybe Modric and Hazard as well - providing the ammunition.

I'd also make my kids ball-boys for the next home match...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Nothing. That is, the short answer to my titular question is: the Bible says nothing about homosexuality. This is because 'homosexuality' as a concept was developed in the nineteenth century, and the word 'homosexual' does not occur in the Bible, and Jesus never discusses this issue. What the Bible does discuss, in a small number of texts, are the ethics (or holiness) of particular actions. What I want to do in this article is go through three of the main relevant texts in turn but I will return to this first point at the end – the Bible doesn't say anything about homosexuality – because it is actually fundamental to the conversation which our church and society is having at the moment.

The first text to consider is Genesis 19, the sin of Sodom leading to their destruction in fire and brimstone. This is the story from which the word 'sodomy' derives, and it is a deeply unpleasant tale – and yet, it is also a tale that can be read in various different ways. In brief, two men – who are actually angels – come to stay with Lot. At night, the men of the 'city' (probably a village smaller than Mersea) surround Lot's house and tell him to cast out the angels so that the resident men can have sex with them. Lot refuses, the angels blind the men, and in the morning Lot escapes and the Lord destroys the city. Now, in our sex-obsessed culture, we tend to emphasise the sexual elements of this story and say 'this is all about how God hates homosexuals'. This is not the emphasis of the story itself. After all, if the emphasis was on bad sexual behaviour then Lot – who is the righteous man in the story – would not say to the men outside his house “Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.” (Compare and contrast this story – where the daughters actually get away – with the similar story in Judges 19.22-29 which doesn't have such a 'happy' ending.)

So if the sin of Sodom is not principally about sexuality, what is it about? In a word, hospitality. What Lot says immediately after the offer of his daughters is “Don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Ancient near-Eastern culture was not obsessed with sex, as we are, but they were obsessed with the importance of hospitality, and the rights and obligations associated with it. It is this social regulation that the Sodomites were transgressing, and it was for their overthrowing of the norms of hospitality that God destroyed them. How can I be so certain that this is the right interpretation of the story? Simply because it is how Jesus himself understood it – see Matthew 10.14-15, when Jesus invokes Sodom in the context of talking about hospitality.

The next significant texts to ponder are from the book of Leviticus, which are very similar so I'll treat them together. Leviticus 18.22 says “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable ('abomination')”; Leviticus 20.13 says “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable ('have committed abomination'). They must be put to death.” The book of Leviticus is essentially a book describing how the Levites – that is, the priests – are to carry out the worship of God in the Temple, and how the Jews more generally are to achieve holiness. In other words, Leviticus cannot be understood separately from the context of ritual worship. For Christians, all of the theology in this text is subsumed into the 'New Temple' worship of Holy Communion, and so the specific legalities associated with the ritual worship in the Temple have been superseded by what Jesus developed. This is why Christians have no problem with carrying out many things also considered abominations by the book of Leviticus, such as eating oysters, or cutting men's hair. That is not to say that the book of Leviticus has no use for Christians today – on the contrary, I believe that a proper understanding of Leviticus would be the best safeguard for keeping contemporary Christian worship meaningful – but it is to say that these specific commands have no particular weight. A homosexual act is as intrinsically 'wrong' as eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of different fibres (like a polycotton shirt), no more, no less.

So what of the New Testament? It's fairly straightforward for a Christian to argue that we don't have to submit to Old Testament laws because we follow a God of grace and freedom, but what of particular relevant passages in the New Testament? The key passage to ponder is this one, from Paul's letter to the Romans. To put the passage in context, Paul is speaking to a Jewish audience in Rome, and he is listing all the ways in which the surrounding culture is decadent – in order to then make the point that his listeners don't have a leg to stand on, for whilst his audience has avoided some obvious and external immoralities, their hearts are full of judgement and condemnation of others, and that “There is no-one righteous, no not one” - which is why we have to rely upon a God of mercy and grace, and not on our own merits or achievements in avoiding obvious sins. However, that does not mean that what Paul describes as sinful aren't actually sinful! Having talked about the origin of bad behaviour in bad worship (ie idolatry – bad worship leading to bad behaviour is an axiomatic truth in the Bible) this is what he says: “... God gave them over to sinful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

So what is it that Paul is denouncing? Remember the context – Rome, the centre of Empire – where there was a highly developed culture of temple prostitution. It is this bad worship which is Paul's target. For example, in Cybele's Temple there were male transvestite priests who had cut off their own genitals and offered themselves to men as part of the temple rituals. These rituals were essentially about fertility – using expressions of human fertility (ie what we might think of as 'exuberant' sexuality, orgies) to honour the gods of fertility in order to ensure a good crop and stave off hunger. The bad worship leading to bad behaviour – it is the entire package that Paul is objecting to. The question is: what does this have to do with homosexuality today? The short answer is – not a lot. I don't know many gay men who want to chop off bits of themselves in order to generate a more bountiful crop of wheat.

Now, to broaden out the discussion a little, I think it would be fair to say that the Bible does take sexual misconduct seriously – that is, there is such a thing as sinful sexual behaviour, and indulging in it threatens our relationship with God; the most obvious example is adultery, which it would be fair to say that God absolutely detests. Yet there seems to me to be a logical leap between saying 'certain acts are sinful' to saying, more broadly, 'homosexuality is wrong'. That is, there seems to be a confusion between what it means to do something wrong, and what it means to be someone. Which brings me back to where I began, which is that the Bible says nothing about homosexuality – which, I now confess, is ever so slightly misleading. For there are several instances when it talks about relationships between people of the same sex – not in the context of obsessing about sexual behaviour (remember, that is the hang up of our culture, not the Bible) – but simply in terms of celebrating what it might mean to honour a loving relationship.

The most prominent example of this is that of David and Jonathan. Some texts to ponder: “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself... and Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18); “David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, 'Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, "The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever"” (1 Samuel 20); “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1). Clearly with David and Jonathan we have an important relationship between two people of the same sex which was dedicated before God in the form of a covenant. There is no hint of disapproval in this story for the relationship between the two (except from Saul, but he's the 'bad guy').

The response to mentioning David and Jonathan in this context is often 'but their relationship wasn't sexual!' which simply reveals our own obsessions. Clearly it is possible to have a loving and affectionate same-sex relationship that is honoured by God, and that is fully Biblical. Is that compatible with a prohibition on particular sexual acts? Of course. Are those relationships which seek a blessing in church more like Jonathan and David, or more like the cult prostitutes in Rome? Perhaps readers can use their own judgement on that; I trust my own view is clear.

One last point, which is strictly for Christians. To my mind the biggest problem that compromises conversations on the topic is that we don't take baptism seriously. That is, for Christians, baptism is when we are set free from the law of sin and death (things like Leviticus) and enabled to live by grace alone. In other words we become members of a group of people who acknowledge a common lack of righteousness before God, a bunch of people who get things wrong and need forgiveness, mercy and grace from each other in order to progress. If we took our baptism seriously then, firstly, we wouldn't obsess about the sins that our fellow Christians may or may not be carrying out, and, secondly, we might take seriously the intention of those same fellow Christians to live out a life of holiness before God, doing their best to know him and to walk more closely with Jesus day by day. It is because we don't respect our fellow Christians' integrity that the wider culture no longer respects us, and sees us as obsessed with rules about what we can or cannot do with our genitals (or whether you need certain genital equipment to exercise leadership in a church). Obviously we need to obsess about these things because our Lord spent so long teaching about them. Jesus wept - at the graveside of a man he loved.

A few pointless thoughts about Hodgson's squad

- I'm glad he's not taking Ferdinand; and I'm sure Sir Alex is too.
- I wouldn't have taken Terry either; it's been a long time building but this Chelsea fan would actually be quite happy for the club to sell him off to the Middle East in the summer. I deeply hope that CFC will win on Saturday night, but if that happens, the sight of him lifting the cup...
- I would have made Lampard captain - experience and form, proven performer when it counts.
- Not sure about Gerrard being captain - look at stats for his performances for Liverpool, he seems to intimidate the others - but that might not be a factor for England. Depends entirely on what Hodgson's plan is (see below).
- Downing? I'd rather have taken Joe Cole, who has had a good season playing on the left in France and has tournament experience (or Adam Johnson - presumably this isn't a first choice pick so we're looking at an impact player?)
- Forwards, hmm. I was minded not to take Rooney at all, but the reduction of the ban to 2 matches did change that calculation. Yes to Carroll, but Defoe? - the thing is, Hodgson clearly has a plan - and we don't yet know what that is. For what it's worth (not much) I'm glad Hodgson is the manager and most of the criticism of him is unmerited. Let's see where we are after Brazil 2014; he'll have my backing until then. Unless he sets us out in a 4-4-2.
- Given the squad, my choice for a starting XI in the first match (4-2-3-1): Hart; Cole, Cahill, Lescott, Johnson; Parker, Lampard; Young, Gerrard, Walcott; Carroll. That would be quite a decent side - but if we get to the quarter finals, I think it'll count as a successful start for the manager.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Two stories

We all have voices in our heads. I think, though, that all the different voices resolve down to two - and they each have a story to tell.

The first story is 'you are not good enough' - you are a failure, an impostor, you do not belong here, go away, destroy yourself, cease to be a burden to the world.

This first story is the one that leads to depression and despair, to hatred and vengeance, to strife and division. The story teller is the enemy, the accuser, the voice of despite.

The second story is 'you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased' - I made you and I love you and behold it is good - come and enter into your inheritance as my child.

This second story leads to the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, gentleness, self-control and all the rest. The story teller is the maker of heaven and earth.

When we hear our voices, we need to decide who it is that is speaking, and which story they are telling. Most of all, when we realise that it is the first voice, we need to rebuke it and say 'Get behind me Satan, you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men'. Actually, the best way to get rid of the first voice isn't the formal and stern rebuke, it's ridicule - the enemy really can't stand being made fun of, because it is the one thing that brings home to him just how ridiculously powerless he is. It is by continuously refreshing our memory and consciousness of the second story - and the second story teller - that we become infected with laughter and joy, and the enemy is sent scurrying back beneath his rock. We need to have the attitude 'was that your auntie?'

This is for someone particular in the parish, for other friends, for Dave Walker who did the wonderful cartoon at the top, and, of course, it's for me too.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Reviews of 'Let us be Human'

Hopefully this list will continue to get longer. I'll update it as necessary.

At the Energy Bulletin review by Roy Smith "I would highly recommend this book to anybody seeking to explore the spiritual ramifications of the crises our industrial civilization faces. It is concise and well-written, and possesses the unique strength of being written by one of the few people I am aware of who has an equally solid grounding in Christianity and theology on the one hand and in the issues of resource depletion and the limits to growth on the other."

Jeremy Williams at Make Wealth History "If you move in mainstream Christian circles at all, you’ll know that Norton is swimming against the current here. In my experience at least, the church is no more aware of the growth dilemma than the general culture is. That’s a shame, because churches should be natural hubs for imagining an alternative lifestyle together – that’s pretty much what they’re for. Churches don’t build community, they are community. There’s a vital opportunity there if we can learn to see it, and Let us be Human deserves a bigger audience."

At "In this brilliantly insighful book Sam takes us on a broad brush journey. He highlights the failings of our current culture and the failings of the Church to really engage with it... A definite 'Must Read' for anyone who wishes to be part of the emerging discussion surrounding what it means to be human and Christian in our time."

A comparison between my book and Tarkovsky's 'Sculpting Time' by Jonathan Evens at Between "both have been addressing the same issue; that only by becoming more distinctively Christian can we engage constructively with the crises of our times."

Mad Priest is nice to me "THE BOOK on the Peak Oil crisis and what Christianity's response to it should be. It's a serious book but it is perfectly intelligible to non-experts like me. In fact, that is the point of the book. It is designed to get us all up to speed on this major issue of our times."

It's available here, and it's very cheap on Kindle.

Population or congregation - where the ghost of establishment resides

I've been doing a bit of research on the Sheffield formula, and thinking about the implications of it (and I'm aware of coming late to the party so if people know of good discussions of this elsewhere, I'd be grateful for pointers in the comments). For those in a blissful state of non-initiation into the arcane mysteries, the Sheffield formula is a way of calculating how clergy should be deployed. It was developed by the eponymous Bishop in a report published in the mid-1970s and takes four factors into account: local population, area, church buildings and church membership. To quote Gordon Kuhrt, "The greatest emphasis was given to population and reflected the priority given to the idea of the Church ministering to the whole nation, not just to its members."

I'm coming to see that decision as possibly the prime disaster of the post-war church, principally in terms of mission. A few bullet points on the dimensions of that disaster:

- Where population is given that strong weight, there is no direct link between staffing and growth (or diminishment) of the congregation.

- There isn't even a direct link between population and workload, for the missing link between them is culture - a smaller population of more traditional culture will likely generate a larger workload for clergy than a larger population that is completely secular.

- It can cosset comfortable churches and set ceilings to growth, making it very difficult to reinforce success.

- It entrenches centralised management of resources rather than enabling local initiative.

- It confuses the mission of the church with maintenance of the status quo (that is, it equates the former with the latter) - and the status quo that was assumed in the mid-1970s is very far from being a healthy assumption to make about the church in the 2010s.

In my view the central diocese should step back from making such determinations, and hand over the responsibility for funding clergy to the parishes themselves, supplemented by a mission fund to support churches in more vulnerable areas. Failing that, we could at least shift to a system that excluded population from consideration, and tied the deployment of clergy directly to the size of congregations.

However, there is one aspect of population that I think would make a useful measure. There is, presumably, an average figure for how many from a local population are likely to become part of an Anglican church - let's say that it's 2.5% for ease - so for every 1,000 population we might expect a congregation of 25 people. We might then set up a system whereby any church which has a congregation of between 2% and 3% of the local population is considered 'average'; those with a congregation of less than 2% are less than average, those with more than 3% are more than average. This would give a rough and ready guide to how churches are doing (and obviously, other factors would need to be taken into account, along the same lines of the 'culture' mentioned earlier. Mission posts would not be expected to be 'average'!)

At the moment, a town of 20,000 people with a single church might have one that seemed to be thriving, with a church membership of 300 and all sorts of activities and services, whereas a small village with a population of less than 500 might seem to be failing, with a church membership of 16 - yet the latter would be 'above average' and the former quite significantly below. A formula for deploying clergy that places emphasis upon population will never challenge the former to grow, and will continue to reduce the resources available to the latter despite their progress in advancing the cause of the Kingdom.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

What does the Bible say about...?

After my article about gay marriage a number of people asked me to explain my understanding of certain biblical texts that applied to that topic. This I am happy to do, but I felt it would also be helpful if before doing so I took a step back and explained how to understand 'what the Bible says about' anything, as it is often the case that a disagreement about what the Bible says about a particular topic actually stems from a difference in how to understand the Bible as such.

The first thing that I would point out is that the question seems to assume that there is one single answer to the enquiry 'what does the Bible say about...?' This is a mistake, and it is a mistake with very particular Modern origins, which I'll explain below. One of the most important things to understand about the Bible is that it is a library of Holy Scripture – that is, there are many different voices within the Bible (even within particular books of the Bible) – and this is of God. That is, it is in recognising both what different books have in common, and where they disagree, that an individual Christian is enabled to come to a mature understanding of the text.

Let me give an example, which will hopefully not be too controversial. In the Old Testament there is a long-running tension between the priests and the prophets. The priests are those responsible for the correct administration of the cult (ie the sacrifices in the Temple) which were ordained by God in great detail in books like Exodus and Leviticus. The prophets are those who speak the word of God against the priests and people, and who criticise the administration of the cult in great depth. This is the tradition that has striking texts like this from Amos chapter 5: “I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want.”

The art of understanding the Bible properly is to realise that in the interplay between different points of view lies the truth. Imagine that you come across a group of people having an intense conversation about a subject you know very little about – let's say it's about football tactics and whether the new England manager should use a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 in the forthcoming European championships (I favour the latter – but you don't need to understand why in order to get my point!). As you listen to the different voices you start to get a sense of what the different viewpoints are and then, as time goes on and you learn more and more, you start to develop your own perspective. However, unless through this conversation you also realise that there is a game called 'football', and that the purpose of the game is to win football matches (either through playing or coaching) then the point of the discussion is being missed. Someone might become a wonderful expert in the language of tactics, and be able to hold forth with great knowledge about the importance of the 'false nine' to modern football (eg Lionel Messi of Barcelona) – but this is just abstract unless there is a link to an actual game being played.

In other words, the Bible points beyond itself. The point of the Bible is not that we become experts about what the Bible says, but rather that we recognise what it is that is being talked about – and then get on with pursuing that (which is, for a Christian, all about getting to know Jesus and becoming more like Him). Buddhists would call this distinguishing between the pointing finger and the moon which is being pointed to, but the Christian tradition has its own way of describing the difference. In one of his many angry confrontations with the Pharisees, Jesus says “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” - in other words, the Pharisees, despite their very great knowledge of Scripture, didn't realise what the ultimate point was. They were like football fans whose only knowledge of the game came from reading reports in the newspapers, and who had never actually seen a match played, let alone kicked a football for themselves.

This is why the Bible can't be assumed to have one single unequivocal thing to say about a topic. Sometimes God actually wants us to use our own judgement about a question – and a good example of that comes with the Council of Jerusalem, described in the Acts of the Apostles, which shows the early church deciding to dispense with some clear Scriptural commands about circumcision, because 'it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them'. Do we take this as simply an amending of an existing legal process – which can then not be amended again – or do we take this as a worked example of the authority that Jesus has given to the church, and which therefore allows the church to amend what is acceptable over time? The answer given to that question will, of course, largely shape the answers to many other questions that arise in our common life.

I said earlier on that the idea that the Bible does have a single and unequivocal meaning is a particular Modern idea. Whilst it has some earlier roots, it really came to a head with the influence of something called 'Scottish Common Sense Philosophy', which was a philosophical school that initially flourished in the eighteenth century, and which had a major impact especially in the United States. This philosophical perspective taught that, with respect to the Bible, there was a clear and simple meaning associated with a particular passage that was open to any reader. There was therefore no need for a community to have any specified authority to determine the sense of any particular passage, all that was needed was the reader and their own Bible.

Now there are lots of things wrong with this perspective philosophically, which I won't go into, but there are also problems with it from a Christian perspective. The major problem is that it privileges a particular technology, in that it is only possible within a society that has invented printing. For the first 1500 years or so of Christian thinking, the Bible was something that was primarily read and interpreted by a community, not by individuals (indeed, the 'individual' is itself a post-Biblical concept!). The Bible was read out loud when the community gathered together (out loud because 'faith comes by hearing') and it was the community as a whole which then interpreted the meaning of what has been read. Furthermore, it is the community which decides what books (ie what Holy Scriptures) are included within the Bible in the first place. In other words, the long history of understanding the Bible in Christian practice has been primarily communal. The idea that it can be done on an individualistic basis is simply part and parcel of post-Enlightenment thought in Western society (which is why Fundamentalism – which is what Scottish Common Sense philosophy leads to – is also, rather ironically, entirely a product of the Enlightenment).

For myself, as an Anglican, I accept the Bible as having supreme authority, but the Anglican view is that such authority is necessarily mediated by a worshipping community (what we call tradition and reason). Whilst any individual thinker can have their own views and beliefs about what the Bible says, it takes the endorsement of the worshipping community to say whether those views and beliefs are correct or not. In what I write in further articles, I will be writing very consciously from an Anglican perspective – and next time, I'll talk about the texts which reference homosexuality in Scripture.

When will I ever learn?

Whatever it takes to fulfil his mission
That is the way we must go
But you've got to do it in your own way
Tear down the old, bring up the new

And up on the hillside it's quiet
Where the shepherd is tending his sheep
And over the mountains and valleys
The countryside is so green
Standing on the highest hill with a sense of wonder
You can see everything is made in God
Head back down the roadside and give thanks for it all

When will I ever learn to live in God?
When will I ever learn?
He gives me everything I need and more.
When will I ever learn?

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Faramir, Fraser and the folly of a fast church

One of the many deeply moving elements in the Lord of the Rings is the story of Faramir, younger brother of Boromir, and his quest to gain his father's approval - leading, in the end, to his sacrificial attempt to retake Osgiliath.

I was reminded of this when reading Giles Fraser's latest column in the Guardian (which seem better than his Church Times articles - perhaps it is his new context). Fraser writes: "my former therapist made much of the pathologies of the English boarding school system and that those of us who are its victims often have an unhealthy relationship with establishment, looking towards it as some sort of substitute parent. But that, of course, is looking for love and acceptance in quite the wrong place. Larkin may have been overly cynical about "your Mum and Dad" but it was a cynicism that would not have been misplaced about the establishment – places like the army and the church. "Get out of this thing whilst you can", can feel like pretty sound advice."

My earlier post about the stupid and ungodly culture of the church seemed to strike a chord - normally, a well-read post here gets up to 400 reads - that one has had over 2,500 and is still rising. I think Fraser is putting his finger on one particular aspect of the ungodly culture of the Church, one particular way in which the church devours its own children, and it is to do with how the hierarchy expresses or withholds approval.

I think Denethor is a good proxy to use to describe this. Denethor is a steward - in other words, someone entrusted with looking after something glorious, with passing it on safely to his successors (in order that it is in good order at the time of the Return of the King). Because of his use of the Palantir, Denethor has given in to the despiser's promptings and succumbed to despair. He sees no way in which he will be able to achieve what he has been commanded to achieve. This fear, this lack of faith, is what lies behind his corrupt actions and his lack of regard for Faramir - a son that truly loves him, and is an exemplary leader. Out of fear, Denethor seeks for any remedy that might stave off the darkness, is willing to sacrifice his son in folly, and would be even willing to use the Ring in order to see Gondor preserved. In other words, the leadership is gripped with fear and the actions are conditioned by a desire to 'hold fast' to what has been inherited. It is this holding fast which is, in the end, the problem, and which leads to such a sad end for Denethor.

In the same way it seems that our hierarchy is gripped by fear at losing what has been inherited, and spends time and energy on holding fast. This is not so much a question of holding on to particular churches despite losing so many clergy (something I actually agree with) so much as holding on to a particular attitude and understanding of what the Church of England actually is. That is, I believe it is a particular vision of the Church - a particular vision of the role of the church within our English society - which is being held on to. It is the sort of thing that comes to the forefront at times like last year's Royal Wedding and it is, of course, exactly what was at stake in Giles Fraser's conflict at St Paul's. There the conflict came out into the open - the great unwashed had parked themselves outside the symbol of old establishment glory, and this really wouldn't do. What greater symbolism could there be than the closing of the cathedral doors for fear of contamination by these 'witless halflings'?

Fraser touches on how the hierarchy has rallied to preserve respectability in the sight of the world: "I've had my fill of polite rejections since resigning from St Paul's – too many unconvincing smiles in the street by former friends and colleagues who suddenly wouldn't break step to say hello... The more you seriously piss off the church authorities, the nicer they are to you in public. Ostracism is achieved with a well-rehearsed Christian smile and the rhetoric of pastoral care. Good social skills camouflage a deep irritation that you have betrayed the club." This is how Denethor manipulates Faramir into self-sacrifice - the exercise of control through the withholding of approval. (The thought that occurs to me - to change the image for a moment - is that it is strange to disapprove of those who rock the boat when the boat itself is sinking, and holding fast to the status quo merely guarantees that the vessel sinks.)

The dark theology here has many aspects, but one in particular I would like to pick out. Those gripped by fear seek to hold fast to what has been inherited - and their clinging to old patterns develops into a strangling of the new. Yet there is another sense of 'fast' - the sense of something being quick, or immediate, something lacking in mediation. This is a hallmark of Protestant culture. It might be suggested to Fraser that he shouldn't be seeking such reassurance and approval from the hierarchy - that a sense of doing God's will should be enough for anyone with a living faith. Yet this is to deny that God has no hands but ours, no eyes but ours. It is a rejection of sacramentality and incarnation - in other words, it is primarily through the love and respect shown by other human beings that we experience the love and respect on offer to us from God. When that love and respect is withheld - when we are disciplined by disapproval - then this is experienced as a rejection by God. I don't believe that this is simply down to having had a boarding school background (having one myself) - it is more that this aspect of boarding school culture is itself an expression of a particular form of English culture, and it is precisely this form of English culture which seems to control the Church, and it is this form of English culture that seems incapable of recognising holiness, as with Rowan.

How might those who still love the church - as with Fraser - and who wish to see it prosper take forward the necessary remedial work? Two thoughts. The first is that - in a church which has become too fast in every sense, and which is distracted by passing, glittering fancies as it seeks the next Red Bull to assuage the neurotic void and spiritual lack at its heart - we have to prioritise the opposite of the fast, which is the slow. A remark attributed to Jung is that 'haste is not of the devil, it IS the devil', which I believe contains much truth. We have lost our sense of rootedness in prayer, our sense that God is in charge and that, whatever goes wrong, He has the capacity to redeem it and the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. We need to get back to putting the first commandment first - that is the only thing that will remove our fear.

The second is that we have to reform the structures of the church. Structures - principalities and powers - embody and maintain a particular culture, and even good people can become distorted out of God's plan by living within fallen structures. I am more and more convinced that we need to disestablish the church, for it is precisely establishment which is the bulwark propping up this particular culture. (Disestablishment would also bring us into line with the global Anglican Communion, which I thought was a particular desire of the hierarchy... Hmmm.)

I believe in the gospel more firmly than I ever have, and I believe in the local church - that it is where Christ can be met and incarnated, and which has a vibrant future to look forward to - but the wider structures of our Church, the wider culture or soul of this institution - there I have ever-increasing doubts. I believe that it can only be saved if it is significantly reformed. Has it gone too far to be redeemed? Has the glory of the Lord actually departed from it? Is the future of the Church of England simply to be the Anglican denomination in this land? Probably, but, as with Fraser, I still hold on to a hope in the God of surprises.