Relaxed about R & R

There has been a lot of heat generated about R &R (Reform and Renewal, or is it Renewal and Reform – it’s different wherever I look); some love it, others loathe it.

Some appear to love and loathe characters on either side of the debate, as I say there is a lot of heat around the place.

So, I must say I feel strangely ambivalent about it. I understand all of the very real concerns, and am especially sympathetic to concerns about the ongoing quality of theological education and, the perceived negative impact on the rural church.

I also take it as a truism that you can’t manage your way to success (whatever metrics are used to define this slippery little word) but, equally the Church does need to manage both its assets and its affairs well. Good and decent management is necessary, but not sufficient. 

But, the real reason behind my ambivalence is that history and experience both show that grand initiatives never end up working out quite as their authors think they should. As Professor Mintzberg has consistently pointed out the best strategies are those that ’emerge’ over the course of time.

Good planners, leaders, managers, strategists are aware of this, and they adapt or modify their plans in the light of new, possibly unforeseen, information. Often in the corporate world the supposed winning strategies tend to end up being loosing strategies, but the good news is that they are frequently compensated for by successes that come seemingly out of nowhere. If anyone is interested in a recent example of this just consider Nokia, who made the bizarre, yet miraculous, transition from manufacturer of arctic forestry tires to technology company.

This transition allowed them to move from sustainability at best, to growth. You could argue, and Martyn Percy has, that the C of E, unlike a company can’t simply change its core offering, and he is correct. Analogies between the world of business and the Church are limited at best, but they can be highly illustrative.

But, the fact that growth often comes as if out of nowhere doesn’t mean that we (that is the Church of England – because at least for the moment we remain a we) should stop investing in approaches that are currently working. No, we should instead invest in them (but without regarding them as a Utopian solution that will work forever and ever, Amen;  again the Corporate World is full of small and medium companies who were yesterdays big companies and we should at the least beware that big can become bloated, before it is forced to slim down.)

As someone with no personal desire to worship in a HTB style church it would be a bit churlish to deny that many, many folk have come to faith through their mission initiatives.

To back away from investing in these types of initiatives would be akin to selling shares in Microsoft a year or two after it floated. In order to bank the 100% return, you risk losing the 10,000% return.

My own view on Church plants, just out of interest, changed when I read the history of my own church (St Laurence Winslow) and found that it had been planted, circa 1350, by St Albans Cathedral, as a minister to serve the local villages. Nearly 700 years later we still have a vibrant worshiping community and a church that serves the whole parish. Maybe we should (re) create many more minsters as part of our rural strategy?

Another reason that I am sanguine is that grand initiatives are operationally hard to implement. They meet road blocks, or more positively checks and balances, en route. They always tend to get watered down. That’s just reality. We know this from our own experiences.

So what do I think the Church of England could, or if its not too arrogant should, do from a management science perspective, in order to achieve its stated aims of ‘making sure we have the right people and resources to help us to re-evangelise England and grow in the life of the Kingdom of God?’

I would suggest that what it absolutely needs to do is build a portfolio of responses by:

  • Investing in strategies that are demonstrably working at present, whilst accepting that such strategies may not continue working forever (Microsoft’s growth did slow down! So might HTB’s!)
  • Investing in a range of smaller scale initiatives in the knowledge that future growth often comes from the periphery (this is known in the management sciences as Logical Incrementalism, its chief theorist was J.B. Quinn.)
  • Making sure that we keep scanning the external environment for new and emerging investment possibilities (such as the group that self-define as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ as recommended by Woodhead and Brown. Mintzberg is the theorist in chief of the emergent school of strategy, and in my opinion, and it is only opinion, the greatest living management theorist.)
  • Engaging in a healthy dose of central planning (Michael Porter.) without expect the plan to role out as expected; it won’t!

My criticism of the C of E is that appears ‘all Porter’ and, insufficiently Mintzberg and Quinn. Purposefully add in a little of the emergent (Mintzberg) and incremental (Quinn) and there is a chance that R & R might just help the C of E achieve its stated aims.

I hope I haven’t added to much heat to the debate!

 

 

 

 

In response to the group of 72

The letter from the group of 72 to the College of Bishops makes interesting reading. The letter can be read in full on the Thinking Anglicans website: http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/

The signatories suggest that the Church of England provides more time and space for the studying of Scripture so that the C of E can  ‘make theologically informed decisions about human anthropology and sexuality.’ 

In particular the signatories stress that we all, collectively, need to understand what it means to ‘honour God with your bodies’ (1 Corinthians 6:20, NIV).

This would be fine and dandy if the signatories were committed to a process of open inquiry, during which they discarded all of their own prior subjectivities. But, they are not.

The fact that they are not is clear from their letter:

‘As you prepare to meet in the College and House of Bishops, we urge you not to consider any proposals that fly in the face of the historic understanding of the church as expressed in ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ (1991) and Lambeth Resolution 1.10. To do so – however loud the apparent voice for change – could set the Church of England adrift from her apostolic inheritance. It would also undermine our ability as members of General Synod to offer support and lead to a fracture within both the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.’

The letter is in reality a declaration that the status quo must be preserved; nothing must change.

Of course this is dressed up in the language of unity, nothing must be done that allows different parts of the Church of England (or the Anglican Communion) to pursue different modes of practice, derived from different hermeneutics of the Gospel. Sexual practice has been, elevated to a first order issue and, the notion of subsidiarity is not to be countenanced.

The letter suggests that those who support the opening up of pastoral rites for same-sex couples don’t take Scripture seriously, or have a high view of Scripture. This is deeply patronizing.

Most ‘progressives’ have wrestled with Scripture and seek to live a life informed by Scripture. Most progressives take it is a basic fact that all are made in the image of God. Most progressives have spent many years wrestling with the interplay between Scripture, reason, tradition and experience, often at some personal cost. And, they have come to the conclusion that God, truth be told, is interested in justice, equality, dignity, inclusivity and, love. In fact these are among the very attributes and characteristics of God. So, if we are to look at Scripture, yet again, let’s focus on these virtues as well as the very few individual texts specifically concerned with notions of homosexuality.

Most progressives, and especially LGBTI Christians I would suggest, take the injunction to honour God with their bodies extremely seriously. To suggest otherwise, as I have already suggested, is deeply patronizing. Drawing on my own experience I have no reason to believe that my LGBTI friends, and family members, take virtues such as love, fidelity,monogamy  any less seriously than my heterosexual friends. LGBTI folk are just as capable of cherishing a sexual partner as straight folk. The fruits of their relationship can be equally spectacular. As Archbishop Justin reflected in March 2013:You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship.” 

The implied threat to withdraw support (what does this mean? Are we talking about financial support?) must be treated with caution. Maybe it is a statement of the obvious but most LGBTI Christians, and their ‘allies,’ don’t really experience ‘support’ in any meaningful and concrete sense from the arch conservative group in the Church of England, in any case.

You can’t withdraw what you aren’t perceived to be providing!

However, if the implied threat is the withdrawal of financial support then maybe the C of E should simply accept its lot as a ‘poor Church?’ It may find itself both wealthier and healthier in the long run.

The suggestion that ‘we are committed to building a church that is genuinely welcoming to all people, irrespective of the pattern of sexual attraction that they experience. We would welcome initiatives to help local churches do this in a way that is affirming of and consistent with Scripture, and would hope to support suggestions you might wish to bring to Synod to that effect,’ must therefore be received with some suspicion.

The small print needs to be read carefully, for terms and conditions surely apply. Same sex attraction is allowed (how could it not be), but active same-sex relationships, it would seem, are not.

The letter, I hope will be politely acknowledged, but not acted on. It is time for the Church of England to move on. The Church of England, as the established church, must be a church that is there in real and concrete ways for all people.

 

Brighton Pride; a celebration of inclusion and identity

pride '16

If twenty-five years ago, when I got married, someone had said one day you will march with a group of Christians, lay and ordained, on an event called ‘Brighton Pride,’ I would have raised my somewhat less bushy eyebrows in incredulity.

In 1991 the memories of the tomb stone AIDS public health films were still ingrained in the national psyche and, homosexuals tended to be regarded in the public consciousness with a mixture of horror and pity. To be the parent of a gay child was to invite questions over your own man or womanhood and your ability to properly nurture your offspring. Nature or nurture, whatever, it was your fault.

There was a real sense that anything less than fully fledged heterosexuality was a fault, or more severely a sin, and certainly not something to be talked about, less still openly lived out, in polite circles.

If you were homo or bi sexual, well, you were probably better off keeping it quiet.To be gay and out was to be both highly outrageous and, socially courageous.

Times have changed, somewhat, and thankfully. Only somewhat because the homo, bi, pan, inter and so forth lot is still a heck of a lot harder than the heterosexuals lot, or at least the lot of the white, middle class and highly educated male. And, so it is ironic that conversations in the church, and the decisions that the C of E eventually arrive at in response to the question of what ‘rites’ to provide for the LGBTI community, will be largely decided by white, middle class, educated, and yes, heterosexual folk; the very epitome of mainstream C of E identity!

Over the last few decades, since the decriminalization of homosexuality (and lets not forget it was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who led the debate in favour of decriminalization in the House of Lords)  the so-called secular world has concentrated on ‘rights,’ whilst in the church we are preoccupied with ‘rites.’

My own perspective is that the two go together; ‘no rights without rites.’ Rites are the Church of England’s epistemology; until we have pastoral rites any talk of inclusivity and affirmation of identity, by necessity, carries little, real, substance. In the absence of rites all we are really left with, at best, is some form of weak form accommodation, or toleration neither of which, I would suggest, are distinctively Christian virtues.

Anyway, let’s get back to Brighton and the thoughts that have been circulating in my mind over the last week:

First, I was struck by the diversity within the group of clergy and assorted Christians. We were male, we were female, we were gay, we were straight, we were catholic, we were evangelical. We were priests, pastors, youth workers and parishioners. Among the clergy we were Fathers and, we were ministers. We were Cuddesdon, Trinity, Oak Hill, regional courses and, you might not believe it, St. Stephen’s House!

We were single, married and civilly partnered. We were in love and, weighting for love. We were old and, we were young. We were male and, we were female. And, we were hot! Not sexually, but physically, because it was a real scorcher of a day.

Take from this what you will. My take is that the move towards inclusivity in the Church of England is very widely held.

I have also been thinking a lot about how experience shapes response. Over the last twenty-five years I have met and become friends with members of the LGBTI community. Our children have gay God Parents, chosen because of the fruits of their relationship;  ‘by their fruits you will know them.’

Walking alongside one of my children and her God Father, both whom were carrying a placard on which was written ‘This is the Gay that the Lord has made,’ was an interesting experience, one that I am ‘proud’ to have participated in!

Experience is an interesting thing. The relationship between experience and dogma can be, for Christians, a difficult thing. But, need it be as difficult as we sometimes contrive to make it?

The hospitality extended to the church group was the single thing that struck me most. As a friend of mine commented on Radio Sussex last Sunday morning:

‘All of us were glad to be there, but very conscious that for so many in the crowd we represented a Church who says no. And yet we were offered hospitality and welcome. In spite of our sometimes confused message, we were given a special place, our presence was celebrated by a thousand sweaty handshakes and a chorus of often surprised but disarmingly spontaneous roars of approval. And so I felt the power of unconditional inclusion.’ 

Irony of ironies, here we were representing a church that is tying itself in knots about inclusion being unconditionally included! There was a real sense that the so called secular world doesn’t quite want the divorce from the Church –its church– that so many secularists claim.

All week I have been thinking about how strange it is for the C of E to be restricting its conversations on human sexuality to those in the Church. Should we, could we, broaden the net and invite other, stakeholders, to take part as equal participants, we are after all an’established church,’ one that exists and is established for each and every person, irrespective of gender and sexuality?

The moment we forget this we, surely, loosen the bonds of establishment, for it is through the nexus of relationships that establishment is made fleshy, real and, incarnate? Loosen the bonds and we reduce establishment to an abstract, constitutional, theory.

Finally, I have been reflecting on identity. Pride, I think, is yes a celebration of LGBTI identity, but it is much more than this; it is a celebration of all forms of human identity, including heterosexuality.

I felt that my identities as husband, dad, christian and priest were all wonderfully and gloriously affirmed, through marching with Brighton Pride.

And this got me thinking about the notions of I-Thou (Martin Buber) and Ubuntu (Desmond Tutu) both of which stress the potential for divine revelation through human relationships.

As a relational being my distinctiveness is a function of the reverence I afford another person’s God-given distinctiveness. My ability to affirm that ‘I am a straight that the Lord has made,’ is contingent on me looking at my brother, sister, son, daughter and saying ‘this is a Gay that the Lord has made.’  As Tutu’s Ubuntu theology insists:

‘My humanity is caught up, inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say a person is a person through other persons.’

So what was Pride all about?

It was a celebration of inclusion and identity and one which I was ‘proud’ to participate in.

In praise of Woodhead & Brown

Let me start by being up front. I don’t know Andrew Brown, but I do know Linda Woodhead, not well, but well enough to like and admire her.

Like her I am broadly progressive on matters relating to sexuality and, gender (disability and mental health are also biggies for me.) So, it’s a fair cop, I am bound, to some extent, to be supportive of the stance that Linda and Andrew take in ‘That Was The Church That Was.’ In the same way many who criticize Linda and Andrew are perhaps, to some extent, bound to do so.

Having said that I do worry that some of the character analysis that they offer will cloud the serious issues they raise and, the critique they offer. At times I do think it could have been toned down.

Linda is, of course, a sociologist and Andrew a journalist, so what you get in the book is an accessible, racy yet thoughtful page turner. My worry is that the thoughtful gets lost in the accessible and racy. My own academic background, (and practice – I have held ‘real jobs,’) prior to ordination, was in the management sciences.

As a management scientist, I agree with much of Linda’s sociological analysis. Like Linda I too think that the C of E has caught a bad case of popular managerialism, or Voodoo as our esteemed authors term it. The Church of England’s approach to management, and the modern-day obsession with leadership, seems to me, to be informed by the sort of books purchased by desperate executives looking for an edge in airport book shops just prior to take off. It is no coincidence that such outlets sell leadership and management books, as well as semi academic periodicals such as the Harvard Business Review, by the shed load. These books make you feel better for a time, and they prop up the anxious executive ego, but over the longer-term tend to be exposed for what they are; shallow.

Linda and Andrew provide a thirty year socio-historical survey of the Church of England. What their illustration shows, from a management science perspective, is an organisation / institution or body that could be regarded as existing in a state of ‘federated unity’, or ‘affiliated unity’ making (or trying to make) the transmission to an institution which prizes above all else centralized modes of planning and control in the search for what we might think of as ‘consolidated unity.’ Senior leaders have sought to extend this principle beyond the boundaries of the C of E into the global span of the Anglican Communion. The problem may be, despite our week-by-week allegiance, to the proposition that ‘we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ that consolidated unity is not, and never has been, part of the C of E’s DNA.

Ironically, I think that ++Justin knows this. Think back to his public uttering before the (in) famous Primate’s Conference, where he suggested that the Communion might need to re configure itself as a group of churches who all individually relate to Canterbury but, not necessarily to each other. (I still think that this is the only real future for the Anglican Communion).

The appointment of a an Adviser for Reconciliation is, perhaps, also indicative that he doesn’t believe, deep down, that ‘consolidated unity,’ is a real long-term possibility. The C of E and the Anglican Communion have historically arranged themselves as ‘affiliated entities,’ it is only over fairly recent history that they have sought any greater degree of alignment between the disparate parts, hence the need for reconfiguration, and return to the socio-historic norm.

However, ++Justin also comes from a background where centralized planning, leadership and management are highly prized. He is an interesting mix. It will be fascinating to see, under his leadership, where we end up. At present it appears that the desire for consolidated unity is winning out and that, federated and affiliated models of unity are regarded as second best. But, maybe in time they will come to be regarded as the real winning strategies, the best strategies given the  history of both the C of E and the Anglican Communion? Would such strategies render the Church any less episcopal? I don’t think so.

I would also suggest that if the likes of the Harvard Business Review, and thinkers who are unequivocally disciples of Michael Porter, doyen and very much the public face of both Harvard and the generic and planning school of management theory, have provided the stimulus for engaging with the management sciences then the current obsession with the highly planned and generic approaches to management, combined with a preference for decisive looking and authoritative leaders is, inevitable.

In the same way as the University of Chicago provided late twentieth century capitalism with its academic stimulus and subsequent endorsement the Harvard Business School has provided the academic credentials for those who believe that centralized planning, economies of scale and, generic off the shelf (global) strategies offer the best route into efficiency and, beyond into success. My fear is that the Church of England has bought these strategies hook, line and sinker. Their thumb print is all over reports such as Green and R&R.

Top down, generic strategies only really work, or stand a chance of working, in organizations where decision-making really is consolidated in the hands of senior management (or leadership) and where authority is virtually unquestioned. To work well it needs a tightly defined corporate culture which is maintained through the use of rewards and sanctions; carrots and sticks. Of course it is, theoretically, possible to seek to design (or redesign) an organization to support the chosen management style, but this most often ends up going badly wrong. Is this what the C of E is seeking to do, maybe?

Linda and Andrew make the following point in their final chapter:

‘The evangelicals achieved power and then showed they had no idea what to do with it.’

I only half agree; they did know what they wanted to do and the fruit of their doing is reports such as Green and R&R. I believe that these the reports, if implemented, will do untold damage to the C of E. Justin Welby, as quoted by Andrew and Linda, told his Bishops Council, whilst Bishop of Durham, that church decline appeared to him to be inevitable, without some radical changes, and that it could in the short-term be:

‘Camouflaged in pastoral reorganizing at diocesan level.’

Nevertheless he predicted that within seven to ten years the level of decline would have plummeted to such a level that recovery just wouldn’t be possible, without a range of radical, restorative, strategies.

The Church has chosen it strategies and my very great fear is that they are entirely the wrong ones. They look radical, tough, and uncompromising but are they in reality mere ‘camouflage?’ Are they the equivalent of taking a few aspirin when what’s need is open heart surgery? Is the Church of England’s response equal in its timidness to that provided by our political and economic leaders to the financial crisis of 2007-8?

Of course strong and decisive leaders will never admit to being timid.

My own view is that any attempts to refashion the Church into an entity that supports a chosen school of leadership and management theory has disaster writ large all over it. It will be disastrous both financially and institutionally. It will also cause real human damage. And, it won’t work. It won’t work because the C of E is at heart a federated and affiliated beast. And, it won’t work because centralized, generic and, planned strategies only work where power and authority is vested solely in the hands of a very few senior leaders. Conservatives might want power and authority to be vested in the few, but in the C of E it isn’t (for a start its synodical) and, nor should it be.

Linda and Andrew’s sociological analysis tells the story of the importance of women in the life of the church. From the grass-roots up is it women who have led the local church ‘in mission.’ Their analysis shows, in management terms, that the C of E has ,in  many ways, been led from the bottom up (by women).I would argue that across the piste this continues to be the case. Far more still needs to be done to support, recognise and enable women’s ministry. Our very life might just depend on it.

There are of course large ‘successful’ evangelical churches, frequently in university cities, where this is not the case. The trouble is that these forms of church are often depicted as ‘the model of success,’ to be mimicked and copied by all ‘struggling’ churches. Large, successful and ‘individually branded’ churches can, somewhat obviously, adopt a Harvardeseque approach to management and leadership, and to a large extent should do so. But, the folly is in assuming that what is right for an evangelical church in, say, London or Oxford is right for rural ministry in Cumbria, suburban ministry in the midlands conurbation or, market town ministry in Dorset.

One final consideration. The C of E in its desire to enhance and support local ministry and, in the recognition that congregations grow where there is focused leadership, has decided to increase the number of stipendiary clergy significantly over the next few years. Could this be a grave mistake and one with huge financial implications? Yes, the C of E needs to invest in focused leadership, but what does this mean? Does or should, it mean more clergy, all of whom are (theoretically) nationally deployable? Or could it, as Brown and Woodhead, suggest mean investing in local leadership (lay and ordained), in the sort of people who already have strong local knowledge and connections, who have the authority to speak for and to the community because they are already intimately connected with the community, because they are already known to care about and, yes love; their local community? This thought deserves a lot more thought. The C of E might, in fact, be able to make a substantial investment in mission at a vastly reduced cost.

My hope is that whatever anyone thinks about the way that Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead have critiqued the various characters involved in the leadership of the C of E over the last thirty years their analysis will be taken very seriously indeed. The long-term future of the C of E is at stake and, they may provide, uncomfortable as it might feel, the insights that allow the Church to make some good and brave decisions, before it really is too late.

2016 the year of challenge: institutional leadership wisdom and, design

Could 2016 be remembered as the year of institutional splits?

Perhaps come 2066, ‘A’ level history students might be asked asked to answer the following questions:

‘Explain and critique the reasons for the irrevocable split in the Labour Party,’ or, ‘Explain how the referendum vote to leave the European Union led to the emergence of new political parties.’

Religious studies students might be asked to ‘Compare and contrast the importance of Luther’s ninety-five thesis and the letter from the gang of thirty two in shaping the relationship between the church and state.’

(The gang of thirty-two refers to the signatories to an open letter arguing that the C of E’s structured conversations on issues of human sexuality were not in themselves legitimate).

Just speculating! We can’t be in the early stages of another reformation; can we?

However, it is certainly true that something is happening in and to a range of ‘established’ institutions. The fact that institutions are being critiqued by different internal constituencies suggests, at least to me, that those self-same institutions need to start asking themselves some very hard questions about issues such as power, authority and, legitimacy.

The problem is that institutions, or at least ‘head office types’ seldom want to ask such questions; keeping the genie in the bottle, maintaining the illusion of managerial control is easier and more comfortable.

But history shows that the genie cannot be kept in the bottle and that managerial control is mere illusion.  History surely informs us that institutions tend to be really poor at adapting to their environment and, that change often comes from the periphery?

In politics and religion it is often those characters who seem peripheral who prove to be the real game-changers; not those placed in positions of power and authority by the institution.The philosopher John Cottingham makes precisely this point:

‘In the biblical narrative, a small seemingly insignificant Middle Eastern tribe becomes a special focus of divine action, and then in the Christian story, a particular, seemingly drab and undistinguished town, Nazareth, on the remote periphery of the Roman Empire, becomes the place where divine light appears.’

Light, whether divine or human, often comes into the centre from the periphery. But, as I have suggested the centre finds this difficult to accept. The ‘centre; doesn’t tend to cope well with arguments from Nazareth, Wittenberg,Tolpuddle  or Albany Georgia. The centre likes things to be done in its own way, in its own time. And of course, those of a conservative disposition and, especially those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, have a tendency to want to keep the periphery exactly where they belong: on the periphery. Is this what the ‘gang of thirty-two’ are up to?

So what should institutions do in the face of possible fragmentation? I suggest that they need to reflect on the following four questions. The ‘good news’ is that in many ways they are bog standard management questions:

  • Should we fight to retain status quo, both in terms of policy (doctrine) and practice?
  • Should we adopt a stoical attitude of resignation?  ‘Oh well, it’s simply in the nature of institutions to fragment over time.’
  • Could we re think where power and authority really lie and adapt accordingly?
  • Is it worth re-configuring the institution deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out?’

The Labour Party has to face these questions and, so does the Church of England. The Labour Party has to work out whether it is a membership organisation (like the Liberal Democratic Party) or a political party led by its MP’s.

The Church of England has to decide what it means, in the context we now find ourselves, to be ‘Episcopally led and Synodically governed?’ To answer this question it first needs to answer the questions posed above, and it needs to do so having considered whether change is something that can be managed centrally, or whether change inevitably comes from the periphery.

So what do I think?

I think we should start the discussion with one of our key source documents; the Book of Common Prayer! The preface to the BCP makes it clear the possibility for change is built into the C of E’s very DNA:

‘It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England since the compilation of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and too much easiness in admitting variation from it.’ The preface then goes on to suggest that changes may be, either, of ‘dangerous consequence,’ (it doesn’t say to who – but the inference must surely be to itself), or, ‘requisite or expedient.’ 

If we consider the current debates in the C of E regarding the institutional response to questions raised by the  LGBTI community and those who stand alongside it in solidarity, we can see that such questions should be regarded through the prism of ‘wisdom.’ The C of E’s response to the problems facing it, both doctrinally and structurally, should be above all else ‘wise.’ The problem is that wisdom is not clear-cut; it is frequently contested!

However, I would argue that wisdom demands seeing the environment as it really is; which may be very different to how an individual (leader) would like it to be. Seeing the environment as it really is, and understanding how various sets of actors within the environment are likely to respond is the beginning of institutional wisdom. The C of E needs, perhaps, above all ‘wise leaders.’ 

Wisdom is the quality the allows ‘leaders’ (Bishops) to respond to, shape and nurture the environment they find themselves operating in.

Without wisdom there can be no intelligent (institutional) design.

What else does wisdom teach us about institutions and institutional change?

First, as I have already suggested, the recognition that change frequently comes from the periphery, not from the centre, and this despite the centre’s preference for grand initiatives. Wise leaders should recognise this as an historic and contemporary norm.

Secondly the impossibility of keeping all of the people happy all of the time. Some folk will walk whatever. Wisdom and, de facto, wise leaders, knows its limitations. Wise leaders, returning to the Book of Common Prayer, understand the importance of pragmatism and, expediency. Wise leaders don’t need to decide on who’s in or who’s out instead recognizing that individuals (and congregations) will self select, with the majority deciding to remain. The institution should take confidence from the fact that most of her members are, when all has been said and done, both reasonable and pragmatic.

Reason and pragmatism are expressions of the C of E’s sense of self-identity. Of course for some, at either the conservative or progressive extremes of the Church of England, reason and pragmatism are an anathema, with discussions and outcomes being framed in the rhetoric of ‘all or nothing.’ The majority, even the silent majority, thank goodness, don’t think in such terms, regarding themselves as both orthodox and somewhat conservative or progressive. Ironically it is this group of ‘somewhats’ that arch conservatives and liberals alike tend to find hardest to cope with, regarding them, unfairly, as wishy-washy or uncommitted. But, perhaps, it is this group of ‘somewhats’ who provide us with our long-term stability? It is this group, after all , who are presumably most committed to walking together, seeking reconciliation and accepting difference. They are able to do so precisely because they are only somewhat committed and therefore flexible. As any engineer will tell you it is rigid structures that are most likely to crack and break.

Thirdly, the tendency of actors to act politically, to issue threats and write letters. Threats can of course be either explicit or implicit. Some of these actors will deliver on their threats, others won’t. Good and wise leaders sit lightly to threats.

Fourthly, and I think most crucially, maybe even controversially, the recognition that each and every group and faction sits extremely lightly to the notion of top down power, influence and authority. The world we all inhabit is characterized by instability, cynicism and innovation (and innovation rarely comes from the centre). Wise leaders recognise that real power comes from below and, that innovation and power are closely correlated.

When the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer was written it was assumed that leaders were both divinely appointed and largely infallible; this assumption no longer exists. In fact the reverse: leaders are regarded as highly fallible!

Paradoxically, the evidence for this can be found in the actions of those ‘conservative’ churches asking for alternative episcopal oversite! Bishops put simply can no longer take it as a given that those in their charge will submit to their doctrinal orientation. Real power comes from below, but, again paradoxically, continues to seek authority figures, for reasons of confidence, esteem and belonging. However, the notion that power and authority is vested in a particular ‘leader’ simply as a consequence of the position they hold has long gone. Better to wise up, recognise it and, adapt.

I would want to suggest that the wise leader of the future (also the present) is one who recognizes the realities of institutional life; one who welcomes thoughts and practices found on the periphery of institutional life, even when they may not concur with the leaders own cherished doctrines to which they should only be ‘somewhat committed’; one who sits lightly to any thoughts that they are the institutions real entrepreneurs or pioneers; one who accepts that we live in a bottom up rather than a top down world and, one understands that in a disjointed and  fragmented world subsidiarity (delegating decisions to the lowest effective point and, facilitating significant differences in practice) is the only real route to any form of sustainable long-term unity and, that those who can’t live with subsidiarity may ultimately walk, whatever.

It is only through accepting and embedding the principle of subsidiarity that the C of E can continue to be Episcopally led and Synodically governed.  I think…..

Uncomfortable as it seems to those who want to either take or be in charge, sustainability is provided by the ‘somewhats’ and change by the ‘peripherals;’ wisdom demands that its institutional leaders recognise this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julian Henderson and ‘the case for a conservative approach.’

I have read, and re-read, Julian Henderson’s article – ”Sexuality: the case for a Conservative Approach” – in the Church Times with a growing sense of incredulity.

The Bishop of Blackburn, who is keen to stress that even as a Diocesan Bishop he is writing solely on his own account (is this possible / credible?) set himself the aim of making the case ‘for’ a conservative approach. But he doesn’t actually do this, rather he seeks to make the case ‘against,’ any forms and variations of progressive argument.

His thesis is based on one massive sweeping assumption: that ‘conservatives’ take the Bible seriously, and ‘progressives’ don’t. This assumption cannot go unchallenged!

‘This current debate is, therefore, not so much about sexuality, as the place, interpretation, and application of the Bible in our life as a Church. Its authority must not be superseded by pastoral, anthropological, and missional arguments, if we are to maintain a faithful witness to Jesus Christ, in this generation and for those who follow.’

Julian Henderson seems to be saying that only a conservative reading of Scripture really honors Scripture, and that those who those who hold a more progressive view are in some ways manipulating Scripture and, deliberately refuting Mary’s great cry of vocational acclamation, ‘let it be with me according to your word.’  I would want to reject this line of argument, and the judgments that it makes. I would also like to ask Bishop Julian a direct question:

‘Given his choice of this verse is he implying that those who either love a partner of the same sex and desire to live in a faithful, monogamous and covenanted relationship and, those who would support them in their quest, can not, de facto, live the vocational life and have therefore placed themselves outside the mission of the Church?’

For that appears to me to be his implication.

Ironically the article criticizes those who argue for greater levels of affirmation for LGBTI Christians on the basis of ‘mission,’ whilst locating his own thesis in an anthem whose rationale is vocational and, ergo, missional.

For a bishop to believe that there is only one way of engaging with, being inspired by and, shaping one’s life according to Holy Scripture is a matter of huge regret, and one that asks his readers to ignore some of the tradition’s finest and earliest scholars.

The article does, however, beg an important question or two:

‘Is the way we engage with Scripture based necessarily on our cultural and other experiences?’ 

‘Is Scripture ever really read separate from pastoral, anthropological and missional imperatives?’ We could, in fact, slightly (maybe controversially) re-frame this question in the following way:

‘Is Scripture, (among other things) a pastoral, anthropological and missional set of holy texts?’ 

Many would believe that it is, and also that significant parts of Scripture (some of the Psalms, for instance) explicitly reflect the experiential, pastoral and anthropological dimensions of faith. Scripture is not one thing, to be read in one way, and it never has been.

The Bishop ought to both know and acknowledge this. Of course he, and the conservative voice, are perfectly free to dismiss any, or even all, progressive arguments, but what I think is unfair is the notion that progressives don’t take Scripture seriously.

Seek to correct  me, as someone inclined towards a more progressive stance, ‘with gentleness’ (2 Timothy 2, 25) by all means but, please don’t start with the assumption that ‘you’ and your tradition take Scripture seriously and ‘us’ progressives don’t.

Having heard the two bishops who contributed to Journeys in Grace and Truth preach, I simply can’t accept the case that they are guilty of ditching Scripture. I strongly believe that they have sought to enter fully into Scripture, studiously and imaginatively, as we are encouraged, through the tradition, to do so.

Origen, one of Christianity’s earliest biblical scholars, made precisely this point! He argued that all texts should be engaged with through the lenses of history, morality and spirituality. Scripture was to be entered deeply into, but with multiple sets of complimentary lenses.

Scripture is not just a never-ending rule book,to be read through the  lens of one fairly straightforward hermeneutic, but this is what the article implies.

Does the Bishop believe that Scripture is just one thing that’s its message of ‘good news’ is binary, plain and obvious, taking little account of genre, context and time? I would be intrigued to know.

It was very interesting, in considering the first question (is our reading of Scripture by necessity inter-mediated by cultural and other experiences), that the Bishop of Blackburn refers to a leading scholar from his own tradition prior to quoting the single Scripture he offers in his ‘analysis’:

‘Dr Stott taught, unequivocally that the only alternative to heterosexual marriage is sexual abstinence. As a bachelor, he wrote: ‘I know something of the pain of this.” 

Reading this causes me to ask is the Bishop of Blackburn, and the tradition, he represents just as ‘person centered’ as his progressive neighbour? The argument he seeks to build doesn’t appear to me to be as ‘text focused’ as he would have us believe. It is also a little binary. He offers only one lens (Dr. Stott) followed by one Scripture:

‘Woe to you, if all people speak well of you.’ 

This verse is offered as a defense against the perceived unpopularity of the ‘conservative’ perspective (and fails to mention the startlingly obvious fact that throughout human history homosexuals have seldom been spoken ‘well of.’) To be fair to the Bishop of Blackburn he does argue that it may be necessary to risk unpopularity in order to be ‘salt and light.’

The article also contains a significant and worrying category confusion. The terms celibacy and abstinence are used interchangeably as though they are one in the same thing. In his article the Bishop suggests that some of the evangelicals who contributed to ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth,’ are guilty of using the same words and phrases ‘to mean the same thing;’ and yet he does the same thing!

Celibacy and abstinence do not share a common meaning, and again the Bishop should be aware of this, making sure he uses each term appropriately without pastorally de-valuing the other.

The article is keen to discount the value of experience: ‘the powerful voice of experience is, however, becoming a more important driver and authority than scripture itself in our ethical decision making.’ 

This line of argument makes absolutely no allowance whatsoever to the notion that Scripture and experience are seldom neatly decoupled from one another. The bishop fails to show how his reading of Scripture is free from his own prior experiences.

The bishop, paradoxically, continues without pausing to offer any scripture whatsoever, instead applying directly to the experience of one group of people, those who have chosen to ‘live out,’ to validate his point.

I wouldn’t want to discount their experience (because I value experience and believe that some Scriptures are cries from experience), or devalue their choice, but equally I don’t understand the rationale for generalizing  from their experience.

The article set out to make ‘the case for the conservative approach,’ but, instead it seeks only to refute the ‘progressive’ case. The irony is that given the statement that ‘this debate is about the place of the Bible in our life as a Church,’ the author makes his substantive points, not through reference to Scripture, but instead tradition and, experience.

Rather than showing that Scripture stands alone as God’s objectivity the article instead reveals that all interpretation is mediated through tradition, experience, culture and prior disposition. The conservative voice might not want to admit this, but it seems to me, at least, to be both true and validated through its own apologists. The article undermines the very approach it seeks to endorse. 

Nationality; patriotism and jingoism

Maybe, hopefully, one of the consequences of Brexit will be to encourage folk to think deeply about the whole issue of identity; specifically national identity.

What does it mean be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish or even European?

What theological resources can we draw on in thinking about national identity?

The answer to this question, I suspect, is the same as the resources that allow us to think about identity more widely.

Before I delve into this let me be clear and upfront: I am a patriot and an English patriot at that. When England compete in the 6 Nations Championship (I am one of those men who preferred playing with funny shaped balls) or the Rugby World Cup I cheer vociferously. I want them to win, and am pleased when they do, and whisper it quietly I sulk when they don’t.

However, when every four years the British Lions play against one of the big southern hemisphere sides, I feel ever so British. During the Ryder Cup (switching sports) I shout loudly, at the television, for Europe.

It seems that despite being English I am in fact capable of multiple allegiances and identities. My ‘Englishness,’ in many ways, is animated by, and defined through, a wider set of relationships.

Is it too much to suggest that all forms of identity only make sense because they relate to something, not necessarily bigger, but broader than themselves? Is this what Paul was getting at in his ‘In Christ there is no……..’ declaration? ‘ After all Jews didn’t mysteriously stop being Jews, neither did women cease to be women, or slaves slaves, or free free, when they located themselves in Christ. Being ‘in Christ’ in many ways affirms our core temporal identities. Being in Christ asks Christians to look at and cherish difference, and to make sure they always look beyond themselves.

Maybe the Noah story works in a similar way? All of the species who entered the ark – surely a metaphor for the common good – were different and unique.

If we turn to Desmond Tutu’s theology of Ubuntu, ‘there is no me without you,’ or Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou,’ we find other resources to help us work out questions of (national) identity.

I think to be patriotic means to be rooted in and to enjoy one’s national identity, but to recognise that it only makes sense in a hopefully productive and mutually respectful relationship of accountability to other different, and broader, identities.

In the referendum, to my sadness, I think we heard a lot about jingoism, dressed up as patriotism and subsumed in careless talk about sovereignty. Jingoism doesn’t relate, it can’t because it is narrow, (falsely) nostalgic and inward looking. Real patriotism is broad, in many ways progressive and outward looking; perhaps?

And, to be clear I am not simply having a go at the Brexiteers, for the leading advocates on the remain side failed to paint an attractive and picture of relational identity and, positive patriotism. Maybe they didn’t because they couldn’t? Maybe they couldn’t because they had no real and substantial ‘thick narratives’ to draw on?

So as we move forward from here could it be that one of the key  tasks for those interested in, and committed to, public theology is to make sure that patriotism is positively defined in such as way that it can’t be reduced  to jingoism, the most vitriolic consequence of which may be racism?