Speaking of despair; talking of ‘healing.’

Someone once asked me what was the most painful injury I have ever experienced.  My questioner knew that I had played rugby into my early thirties and no doubt expected me to say a broken bone, a popped cartilage or a ruptured ligament. But, even though these things hurt my most painful and enduring injury is in fact a combination of depression and anxiety.  In my experience there is something permanent about anxiety and depression. Even when I am not feeling acutely  anxious or deeply depressed I know that my very own twin impostors are lurking in the background ready to colonize my mind.  Yes, I live with their constant threat.

The good news is that I am not alone, for I now know that many, many people live with and suffer from mental illness. In fact I would like to suggest that helping people live with and through the threat or reality of mental illness is one of the church’s challenges. Naming and acknowledging mental illness perhaps needs to be normative to the church’s healing ministry?

Thinking about mental illness and healing has been at the forefront of my ponderings these last few months. I minister in what looks like a very ordinary market town. Of course it isn’t really ‘ordinary’ because there is no such thing. Inside each and every person and community is to be found a complex and competing relationship between light and dark, pain and joy, hope and despair.

In looking after myself and ministering to my community it is important to help create the situation where light, hope and joy stand a chance of winning through. In many ways this is how I now understand the concept of Christian healing. In saying this I in no way wish to discount the possibility for the miraculous, rather I simply want to stress the ‘ing’ in healing. The ‘ing’ helps me see healing as an ongoing process rather than an event.

This year I have had to look the worst consequences of depression and anxiety squarely in the face. In my very ordinary parish I have taken funerals for those who have simply been unable to find the means to carry on, and it has been heart rendering. I have also spoken to many people who feel that life is either not worth living or is a never-ending uphill struggle. Such conversations are part and parcel of my ordinary pastoral ministry. Such conversations demand that I take my own vulnerability seriously.

For many years I tried to hide the fact that I have suffered. I was ashamed of my ‘fragility.’ I strongly felt that I shouldn’t feel as I sometimes do. I thought I was a freak, a uniquely tortured specimen. The more ‘successful’ I became the more tortured I felt. I both felt and thought that I was always on the verge of being found out, uncovered and revealed for the sham that I thought that I was. Being a Christian didn’t help, after all as someone of faith surely I shouldn’t think and feel anxious and depressed? Surely God is all the medication that I need? But, as I have already suggested, the good news is that I am not uniquely tortured.  Just like me other people have a whole collection of scratched records stuck on constant play in the jukebox of their minds. Through the healing process I have come to learn that the jukebox doesn’t need to be on constant play and, that other songs can be added to the play list of the mind.

Nowadays I carefully and selectively choose to share my vulnerability. It helps me and, hopefully, others. Sharing and caring builds up a feeling of solidarity and ‘ubuntu.’ Ubuntu is the African philosophy / theology that stresses that we are all in it together: ‘without you there is no me.’ When we care and share we build up that most precious of all commodities: good neighbourliness.  Thanks to the help of doctors, specialists and friends I now have a range of strategies open to me to help me not only cope but occasionally thrive. Not everything I have tried has worked and this means I am very careful about making too many recommendations. There is  no one single  cure-all. If there was I would have found it and taken it. So, although anxiety and depression are commonplace each individual needs, with assistance, to find their own means of firstly surviving and then, hopefully, flourishing. For what it is worth prayer, meditation, exercise and writing are all core elements in my from surviving to thriving strategy. And, yes, medication has also, at times, played a significant role. I know that many, many people appreciate and find significant value in ‘talking therapies.’ In all honesty I didn’t.

Having said that I am loath to offer general recommendations I would like to ‘big up’ two resources and one possible strategy. I do so with some nervousness!

Recently Bishop Steven (Oxon) has been reflecting on depression and anxiety. In November he gave a wonderful presidential address to the diocesan synod and has subsequently written a very gentle reflection on the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer of healing. It is available though the link below:

https://blogs.oxford.anglican.org/seven-reasons-to-say-the-lords-prayer-each-day/

The other resource that I would highly recommend is Katharine Welby-Robert’s ‘I thought there would be cake.’ It is (again) gentle, grounded, humane, honest, reflective and funny. Oh, and its realistic. Katharine talks about her own battles with anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue. For me she is an exemplar of the importance of ‘ing’ in healing. At only £7:99 her book is great value for money.

The strategy I would suggest is laughter therapy. I am nervous about suggesting this and recognise that for someone staring into the abyss my suggestion might appear to be a little insensitive. If I have offended you please accept my apologies. Recently I attended a seminar on ‘laughter, mirth and merriment,’ during which I took part in something called Laughter-Yoga. Fortunately for me , and the other participants, I was able to remove my cynical hat and found the session intriguing. Someone very close to me suffers with permanent and chronic pain (alongside other conditions) and I told her that I had attended the workshop. A few days later she phoned me back to tell me that she had, with a friend, done some ‘purposeful laughing’ and  that it had paid dividends. So why not google ‘laughter therapy’ and give it a go?

I am extremely grateful to the likes of +Steven, Katherine Welby-Roberts and Ian MacDonald (who led the course on Laughter, Mirth and Merriment) for helping create the conditions whereby naming and acknowledging the cruel reality of mental health problems paves the way for the breaking through of light, hope and joy; healing in other words.

For all who are suffering; prayers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Speaking of vocation

Let’s start with some good news: the vast majority of people working in education, medicine and, health do so out of a sense of vocation. One of the privileges of my ministry is that I get to work alongside educators and health professionals. Put bluntly one of the reasons they do their jobs is because they care. Their professional (and professed) desire is to use their carefully and diligently developed skills and interests to serve others.

Now the bad news: in contemporary society the notion of vocation has been devalued. This is in fact really, really bad news. Such is our society’s obsession with business and the ‘economy’ that vocational jobs are not only undervalued but underappreciated. I am not using the word appreciated sentimentally. My criticism is that in undervaluing those in vocational employment we fail to appreciate their contribution to the economy. In a book I co-edited (Theonomics) Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper made the following audaciously obvious claim:

‘A banker is no more a wealth-creator than the nurse who saves his life in casualty, and no less.’ 

Tragically over the last thirty or so years the west’s chosen method of doing economics has led to the acceptance of a belief that the banker, or business manager/ leader, is in some way entirely self-made. The worst excess of this way of thinking is the belief that somehow they have ‘made it’ in spite of the system. This I would want to suggest is economic gobbledygook, yet it many ways it is ‘our’ current economic orthodoxy.

Such thinking has spread into our public and charitable institutions. Vice Chancellors, for instance, are no longer regarded  by themselves or those who set their pay and rations as having reached the height of their vocation. Instead they have been re-categorized as educational entrepreneurs operating in the mythical international market for talent. The ‘fruit’ of such faulty thinking is the extraordinary levels of remuneration granted to the Vice Chancellor of Bath and Bath Spa universities.  Vice chancellors, just like the vast majority of corporate managers, are not, of course, entrepreneurs in any academic understanding of the word. They don’t take significant personal risk, they don’t invest their own capital or stake their all on the ‘success’ of the institution they manage and administer. One of the peculiarities of modern economic ‘thinking’ is the category confusion between entrepreneurship and business  administration. I wonder whether the desire to describe, and be described in, entrepreneurial terms can be regarded as an economic  manifestation of capitulation to an emerging culturally economic norm: hubris? Hubris, of course, undermines the economic and theological virtues of care and service. Hubris is by its nature inward looking and self serving even when it pretends to be otherwise. Vocation by contrast is always outward looking. True vocationalists use their interests and passions for the benefit of others.  The ‘average’ academic (teacher and healthcare professional) bears the impact of such crass, sloppy, and hubristic thinking remaining undervalued and underappreciated, whilst their most senior ‘business administrator’ is rewarded as an entrepreneur  and, this matters. It matters economically and, it matters theologically.

It matters economically because empirical research shows that excessive wage disparity seriously harms productivity. And, in this country, we have a problem with productivity.  It matters theologically because significant disparities in income erode our ability to relate to each other and, trust each other. As Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper state economic equality ‘liberates the rich from status anxiety and the poor from abject hopelessness.’ I would add that greater income equality liberates the hard squeezed middle from resentment and exasperation. Equality, it seems to me, makes sense both economically and theologically. It makes sense economically because it feeds through into productivity, it makes sense theologically because it places paramount importance on the value of all human beings and, on the relationships between human beings.

If we, as a society, really wish to re-balance the economy, and achieve higher levels of productivity, I would suggest that a re-discovery of vocation would be a great place to start. We need to value and appreciate those who diligently develop and use their skills to care for and serve others. We also need to stop re-categorizing and paying silly money to those who ‘lead’ vocational institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? 
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?…

I must admit to being a bit of a Janis Joplin fan!

But, over the last few days since the ‘resignation’ of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Bath my mind has turned to cars. I think that the reason is that the erstwhile V.C. has had her £31,000 ‘car loan’ written off as part of her ‘resignation’ package.

In a funny way there are similarities between clergy and vice chancellors; hear me out! Both should be interested in teaching and learning. Both presumably entered their chosen field out of a sense of vocation. Both have their pay and rations set through a system of governance. And, in the case of the Bath V.C., both receive grace and favour accommodation. Okay, the Bath V.C. was provided with a ‘flat’ in Bath’s Royal Crescent whilst your average cleric lives in a 1970’s vicarage (although I am sometimes embarrassed at the size of the vicarage we live in when compared to the size of the homes I visit). I am sure that the argument will be made that the V.C. has to entertain, but surely the university has a senate building equipped with private dining facilities? If it doesn’t there are plenty of facilities for hire in Bath. Why does the V.C. require a grace and favour ‘flat.’ I presume that when your average academic moves to a new place of work, just like your average employee in any sector, they have to pick up the tab for their accommodation?

Like the Bath V.C. I too have a car loan! But, it is not interest free and, if I were to resign the Church Commissioners aren’t go to write off the value of the ‘loan.’ Someone, somewhere, is going to have to pick up the tabs for the interest that the V.C. isn’t paying, and the capital value of the loan being written off. Who? Anyway, why on earth, under what rationale, is it reasonable to provide someone who is payed in excess of £450k with an interest free car loan?  Surely like your average employee a vice chancellor should fund their own means of transport?

A myth is frequently perpetuated to support the payment of huge salaries, supplemented by significant ‘fringe’ benefits. The myth is that star employees work in a global market place. Now like all myths there is some truth in this and, some industries are truly global (football for instance) but, there is also a whole lot of rubbish spoken whenever the ‘global market place’ narrative is told, for only a tiny, teeny-weeny, fraction of employees are genuinely free and able to participate in the ‘global market’ for talent. (Theoretically all C of E clergy are equipped to work globally in other provinces in the Anglican Communion, just out of interest).

A few years back when I worked in the investment management industry (another industry that validates the huge salaries it pays using ‘global talent market place theory’)a ‘colleague’  came in one day are resigned. He had accepted a job overseas. He was very excited and bragged about his new package. The next day he came into the office and asked if he could withdraw his resignation. The problem was that he hadn’t told his wife about his new job. His wife didn’t share his excitement, neither was she seduced by the dosh. What she cared about, it transpired, was the place where she lived, the friendships she and her children had made, proximity to her parents and so forth. Notions of family and community overrode the enticements of the ‘global market place!’

As Christians family, community, solidarity and friendship should be our concerns. Yes, pay senior staff well, but lets do so in a way that recognizes their ability and contribution without alienating them from their colleagues and the constituency they serve.

Let me finish with a plea to the Church Commissioners: if you are minded to offer me an interest free car loan please may I have a Mercedes Benz?

 

 

Speaking of size

Last week the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, the Right Rev’d Josiah Idowu-Fearon, was quoted in the Church Times as saying that Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha Course were ‘shining lights’ in the Church of England. The Secretary-General was, no doubt, seeking to reassure other provinces that the Church of England is serious about mission and evangelism. Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course were held up not only as ‘shining lights’ but, as models of success.

Idowu-Fearon is of course correct. Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha have both been ‘successful’ in bringing people ‘to Christ.’ However, just because they have been doesn’t mean that they will continue to be for, as they say in the investment management industry, ‘past performance is no guarantee of future performance.’ That being said I would want to endorse the ‘success’ of this church and its famous course; irrespective of whether you like its ecclesiology and theology it has been ‘successful.’

Other forms of church have also been ‘successful.’ Cathedral worship has also grown. Maybe they have both grown (Holy Trinity Brompton and similar churches alongside cathedrals) because what they offer is a highly intentional ecclesiology. They know their character and their character is expressed through their worship. If this is true it maybe a source of hope for other churches. I suspect that intentionality in ecclesiology is a key characteristic of numerical growth.

My problem with the notion with Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course being singled out as the primary, or even sole, examples of success is that is two-fold: First, it seems to conform to a cultural narrative which prizes, endorses, and celebrates the large and the powerful whereby size becomes the arbiter of success. Secondly, it feels a little like looking only at the tip of the iceberg. Below the tip of the iceberg can be found many ordinary suburban, market town, and rural churches that are highly effective in mission. My suspicion is that these churches possess two distinct characteristics: an intentional ecclesiology and pastoral sensitivity.

I am not claiming that small is always beautiful. I know that many small churches struggle and, that providing ministry into our smallest communities isn’t straightforward. I hope that I am neither naive nor romantic. However, I am claiming that many of our suburban, market town, and rural churches are ‘shining lights.’ The tragedy is that we simply don’t hear enough about them and their success as ordinary parish churches. Their light is kept well and truly under the proverbial bushell.

A deeper tragedy also exists for it is these churches that are most frequently starved of resources. I recently conduced a highly qualitative survey among clergy in my diocese with responsibility for churches with an average Sunday attendance of between thirty-five and one hundred and twenty. These churches are asked to contribute per head of worshiper between £475 and £950 to parish share. The very large, essentially gathered, HTBesque churches, in large towns, by contrast, are asked for a vastly reduced offering (between £290 and £350 per head of worshiper on my rough and ready calculations.) This gives rise to two questions: who is subsidizing who and, much more importantly, do the formulas used for the collection, allocation, and distribution of resources actively mitigate against the ability of small-medium to medium-sized churches to grow? I think they do!

As the rector of a multi-parish benefice which comprises a small market town (circa 5.5k pop with average Sunday attendance in the region of 110-120), a village and, a hamlet I am unable to fund ministries. In an ideal world I would like to be able to fund a youth worker, or an old persons worker, or other forms of ministry, just like the ‘shining lights,’  but I can’t. I can’t for the simple reason that there is nothing left after the payment of parish share. My strong belief is that many of our structures and formulas act as a squeeze on the middle, the consequence of which is to act as a break on mission.

Many ordinary churches are shining stars, they really are. The tragedy is that because  they operate below the surface of the metaphorical iceberg their success isn’t recognized and, their efforts aren’t resourced.

 

 

Speaking of despots and of kings

This Sunday the Church of England celebrates the festival of Christ the King. Earlier in the week one of thee world’s ‘great’ despots, Robert Mugabe, ‘resigned.’

Mugabe may not have been a king, simply a president, but there can be little doubt that he had scant regard for the rule of law and for anyone who stood in his way. His ‘kingship’ was all about power and personal aggrandizement. He subjugated, terrified and tyrannized ‘his’ people. I am glad that his ‘reign’ is over and that he was forced to face up to his own rejection. Mugabe of course stands in a long line of political tyrants. Tyrants for whom power and authority are absolutes. Is, God, was Jesus such a king?

I don’t think so, in fact I would want to suggest that at the very essence of Jesus ministry we find the concept of liberation.

 Jesus’ earthly ministry, his earthly ‘kingship,’ was one of liberation not subjugation. When Jesus died, he did so as, ‘the king of the Jews,’ and by all earthly standards he was a pretty ineffective king. He  didn’t singlehandedly and heroically defeat any imperial powers. He wasn’t much of a land grabber (but there again when all the world is His why would he be?) He didn’t seem to be very good at getting the strong, decisive, and resolutely alpha types on his side. He seemed to be happier mixing with the likes of Peter, Thomas, James and John. He got on well with various Mary’s and the odd Martha and seemed to have a very strange mate called Lazarus. He was, and is, a paradoxical and counter cultural old king. Oh, and he died tragically young.

It seems he wasn’t particularly interested in  shoring up his defenses and protecting himself from his opponents. All that could be mustered by his supporters was one sword attacking one guard in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his life time the only physical injury that could in any sense be attributed to his ministry was one ear (which he then stuck back on!). Jesus was, and is, a funny old king.

Many, perhaps even most, ‘kings’ are obsessed by power and the trappings of office.  Jesus wasn’t. That is what made him so counter cultural. We need to be clear Jesus, ‘Christ the King,’ wouldn’t have been of any interest to Hello Magazine or Forbes. He wouldn’t have made it into the Sunday Times Rich List or Who’s Who. In earthly terms he was a pathetic example of anything that passed for a king. And yet, we still celebrate his kingship.

How on earth can it be that a king born in a stable and crucified on a cross is exalted to this day? The answer to this question is of course multifaceted, however, speaking personally (if I may) a big part of the reason is that he came to offer liberation not subjugation. 

Jesus’ kingship was of a an entirely different quality:

Born in a stable, and not a palace.

He worked as a carpenter, and not a prince.

His kingship started in the wilderness where he confronted all of the temptations that might have led to despotism and the abuse of power.

He allowed himself to touch, and be touched.

Those who he touched included lepers, demonics, epileptics and women with serious gynecological problems.

He cared about the young, the old, the widowed, the orphan, the outcast, the migrant and the refugee.

He was vulnerable and allowed his perception of his own kingship to be challenged by the ultimate outsider; a Samaritan women.

He sought to challenge social, economic and religious taboos irrespective of whether they were imposed by kings, emperors or priests.

He cared about standards, but was less concerned with protocols.

When he spoke he did so first hand with his feet firmly planted on the ground, surrounded by his people, and not from a remote and deified kingly throne.

His ‘courtiers’ were an extremely odd lot including ex fishermen, former tax collectors, reformed zealots, honest doubters, men, women and, I suspect, children.

He was, and is, a king whose primary concern appears to be liberation not subjugation.

Maybe by focusing on Jesus’ kingship we start to understand the notion of kingdom? Maybe then, and only then, do the words ‘they kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,’ become real to us?

As I reflect on the character of Jesus of this I am sure:

That Jesus came to bring liberation not subjugation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of teaching

I must admit to feeling ever so slightly nervous when I hear the word ‘teaching’ mentioned in, or by, the Church of England. With the panel being announced for the greatly anticipated Episcopal Teaching Document on Sexuality my nervousness has greatly increased.

Part of my anxiety derives from a feeling that teaching and instruction are used interchangeably in church circles. Of course I would say this as a progressive. But, I also strongly believe that churches, in particular conservative churches, are far happier instructing than they are teaching. So what might we mean when we discuss the notion of teaching, or at least good teaching? What virtues might underpin good teaching and what are some of the ‘intended learning outcomes’ that derive from good (theological) teaching? Here goes:

Good teaching should foster reflection and discourse. Good teaching introduces different ways of thinking about problems. Good teaching deliberately brokers  significant disagreement. Good teaching isn’t necessarily a route to uniformity or even unity, at least not in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Good teaching doesn’t necessarily mean that students must assimilate the convictions of their teachers. Again at least not in the arts, humanities and social sciences. For some ‘teachers’ in the church this might be a hard pill to swallow. A good teacher, paradoxically, is one who fosters in learners the ability to develop strong and defensible counter arguments. Good teachers often accept that their own perspectives are of secondary importance.

Good teachers render themselves vulnerable and are open to the possibility of personal change (cf Matthew 15, 21-28), not just in perspective but also through new and revised forms of practice; even where such forms of practice may depart from their own sympathies.  I hope that those who have been asked to chair various panels are ‘good teachers,’ rather than political appointees. For the sake of the church they need to be.

So, in producing a ‘teaching document,’ the Church of England should carefully articulate its desired ‘learning outcomes.’ Has it? Does the Church of England know what it is trying to achieve through the Teaching Document on Sexuality? Does it know which of its bishops are the best teachers?

If the desired result is a document which presents a settled outcome to which all are expected to (uncritically) accept then the document, I suggest, will have little integrity as a teaching document. If the document presents different ways of thinking and responding then maybe, just maybe, it really will be a ‘teaching document.’

The production of this document is a watershed moment for the church for what is at stake is not only our response to issues of human sexuality (aka homosexuality) but our very credibility as a teaching church. In fact I would go further and say that the credibility and mission of the Church of England is the thing that is really at stake.

Teaching or instruction that is the question.

 

 

Speaking of Paradise (for clergy)

Dear clergy friends,

I am thinking of setting up a Paradise Scheme for clergy (this is a spoof). Yes, I know we already have one, a Paradise Scheme, but really it is a bit of a tired old story. And, why wait?

Let me start by explaining that I used to work in the city and have been a director of an offshore umbrella fund. I know about hedge funds and the like. Its part of my past, part of my history. I thought that I had left such things, such deeply temporal things, behind some years ago when I finally listened to and followed my calling but now I am rethinking things; renewing my mind once more, following Paul’s advice.

Perhaps an opportunity now exists to redeem my past for the good of the clergy?

So this is how the Clergy Paradise scheme might work:

An offshore company could be set up to receive and administer clergy stipends. Each member of the clergy, irrespective of whether the size of their stipend, that subscribes would hold one share in the company. It is important that Clergy Paradise Holdings demonstrates a commitment to equality, after all we must always hold before us a vision of the kingdom and, take seriously our prayer that ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ 

On the same day that the stipends are paid into the holding company (gross of tax), a loan will be issued to each shareholder for the exact same amount as their gross stipend, less a small administration fee. We should be able to negotiate a fee of in the region of 0.5%. Because, we would now be receiving the value of our stipends as a loan, rather than as income, no further tax liability would be incurred. The loan isn’t of course a loan in the conventional sense. It is simply an ‘asset swap.’ The value of the loan is simply the value of the monthly stipend which is repaid in full each and every month.

The scheme would therefore be making a valuable contribution to one of the church’s preoccupations: ‘clergy well being.’ A better paid cleric is a happier cleric. Shareholders (which in time we hope will include all stipendiary clerics) will also be making a real contribution towards the Church of England’s ‘simplification,’ programme for no longer will payroll be forced, through the coercive nature of the government’s tax policies, to divide the gross stipend into tax, national insurance, and take home pay. One simple payment is all that will be required.

The management company for the clergy pension scheme should also be moved offshore so that arrangements can be made for ensuring that payments from the scheme are also exempt from taxation. Clergy well-being should be from ordination to the grave.

The Memorandum and Articles will make it clear that part of the rationale behind Clergy Paradise Holdings is to preserve the distinction between clergy and laity. What better way to do so than through the creative use of corporate structures and tax avoidance for the sole benefit of the clergy?

It is of course right and proper that investors are warned of the potential risks. The risks in a sense fall outside of the scheme itself. But, they do relate to the word ‘paradise.’

As clergy we are unfortunate that some of our historical texts seem to suggest that the love of money causes problems. These same texts do in fact talk about taxation (although it is important not to take them out of context) and, duty to society at large (again these shouldn’t be taken out of context).  This is a situation not of our own making. We didn’t write the rules we simply inherited them. So what can be done?

I would like to suggest that a small and carefully selected group of  ‘prosperity theologians’ are tasked with the job of reinterpreting these texts. The alternative is simply to redact them. If the offending (and offensive) texts can be faithfully reinterpreted or redacted then I am confident that the scheme will be the first ever ‘risk free’ investment. The Clergy Paradise Scheme is uniquely designed to cater as much for the wallet as for the soul, this being neatly captured in our new strap line (which has of course been registered in all major off shore tax havens & some minor ones as well):

‘Clergy Paradise Holdings: requisite for the wallet as for the soul.’ 

Yours in Paradise,

Andrew