Secular utilitarianism 1 – Agape 0; the problems with Baber’s scheme

Is it just me that worries about Harriet Baber’s Church Times musings?

A few weeks ago  Harriet suggested, or stated, that ‘it is time to separate ethics from religion.’ 

This week she goes one step further, entering into the field of applied ethics arguing that charity should, largely be devolved to the state, through the creation of a Ministry of Good Works. Her aspiration is that the state will take up the majority of the slack leaving a ‘minor role’ for the Church.

Referring to Jesus (which she does only once, and right at the end of her article) she reflects that ‘as far as I can see, he was interested in ends rather than means – in making people better off by whatever means were most effective.’ I am not sure I agree, I think Jesus was concerned with both ends and means, but, that he wanted his disciples to be just that; his disciples. And what did his disciples do? The New Testament suggests they did an awful lot of charity.

The problem with Baber’s approach is that it totally ignores the Church’s twin mandate to: act as a prophetic voice, always looking out for the needs of those at the margin of society and, to be the arms of God’s love in the world. The Church would lose its ability to act as salt and light, in other words.

It  risks turning ‘good works’ into yet another election gimmick. A ‘wise’ minister for good works would presumably support the most popular, election winning, causes. ‘Charitable investment’ would flow into the types of sector capable of producing quick wins and a short-term, demonstrable, return on assets employed. Risk would be avoided, the most vulnerable ignored.

Charity, as a distinctively Christian virtue (and we only have three cf. 1 Corinthians 13) would have been relegated into the political abyss.

Secular utilitarianism 1 – Christian agape O. 

But, what really irritates is the sweeping assumptions Baber makes. Consider this:

‘Charities are sophisticated operators. They search extensive databases that include my profile, gleaned from my history of Amazon transactions, and Facebook likes; they know the sort of projects to which I’m likely to contribute………operating in the market charities spend lavishly on marketing. They have to……..they employ legions of administrators and clerical workers to do research, maintain websites, and produce junk mail.’

Is this an accurate picture? Well, yes there are a large number of mega charities who do this sort of thing. But, overall, no. Most charities are managed on a wing and a ‘prayer.’ The majority of charities are run from garages and back bedrooms. And these charities make a significant and lasting difference to the lives of those they serve. And the people they serve are often found in the least glamorous of contexts. Baber’s analysis is really far too big picture, ‘philosophical’ and, abstract.

Let me give another example: her claim that charities perceive themselves as members of the ‘charity market.’ For sure this might be true of the mega charities who actively pursue a ‘share of wallet.’ But, its not true for the thousands and thousands of smaller charities who don’t regard themselves being in competition with other charities but rather as servants of the forgotten and marginalised. These charities largely promote their beneficiaries interests through a very old fashioned strategy; story telling.

But lets’ have a look at Baber’s other motivation for the creation of a Ministry of Good Works: self-interest.

‘I would prefer a Ministry of Good Works, funded by taxes (they may rise) to do the work these charities do. The creation of such a government agency would instantly cut junk mail in half, and wipe out millions of non-profit bureaucrat’s jobs. Since we all want some say about how our money is spent.’

Baber’s scheme is theologically suspect because it would seek to separate the ‘rich’ from the ‘poor,’ in real, physical and relational terms; undermining the common good (or common wealth).

For, what Baber fails to recognise is that redistribution of financial or material assets is only a part of what Christians refer to as charity. Effective, transformational charity is always animated by love, and love is relational. For the Christian,charity also seeks to bring another entity into the equation: God.

If Baber were to talk to small Christian charities she might discover something truly amazing, nay miraculous: despite managing on a shoe-string, through God’s grace, it seems that meagre rations are blessed and produce truly amazing dividends. A few scraps can indeed feed many (cf the Feeding of the Five Thousand; Matthew 14, 13-21).

One final thought: under Baber’s scheme, confident that the Minister of Good Works is catering for every, electorally popular, work of charity we run the risk of institutionalizing the role of the rich man in the famous parable of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19–31). Dives basic problem is that he failed to see, for himself, the poverty that existed right under his nose. And it cost him his salvation.

Now there’s a sobering thought!

Simon Peter & St. James Gerrards Cross; an update.

A update:

I have spoken with Rector of St. James Gerrards Cross and have decided to remove the previous post. The Church are aware of the concerns, legitimately expressed, regarding Simon Peter. They will be speaking with him directly (tomorrow) before making any further decisions. I am grateful to those who signed the petition. I am also grateful to Rev’d Martin Williams for contacting me. St. James, I believe, do take their voluntary responsibilities to the people of Uganda very seriously indeed; hence their considerable charitable commitments and, funding of mission initiatives.I hope and pray for a successful resolution.

Good disagreement: It’s all about leadership!

Recently Ian Paul wrote a piece called ‘Good Disagreement?’

He asked whether ‘Good Disagreement’ was possible in relation to Same Sex Marriage. It’s a good and valid question. Of course the answer slightly depends on expectations and definitions.

I think Ian, and  many involved in the conversation his article stimulated, felt that two issues were at stake: the way Christians behave to others who take a different theological perspective on this most contentious of issues and, the reality of peaceful co-existence.

I suspect, with a heavy heart, that for a small minority it will be necessary to depart, hopefully in peace.

But, I don’t think it will be true for the vast majority.

For the last few weeks I have been mulling other Ian’s final paragraph; it has got under my skin (thank you Ian!)

Here it is:

‘It is far from clear that churches which are ”inclusive” on questions of same-sex marriage are in fact ”inclusive” of welcoming those who support the Church’s current teaching.’

I think Ian is largely correct but, I also question the extent to which the leadership of churches that wish to adhere to the historic position are able to cope with diversity and the idea that some, even in their own congregations, might disagree on this and, other issues.

I suggest there are three problems that follow from Ian’s summation.

The first is the thought that an  individual Church in fact possess a commonly agreed set of doctrines. This may be true for a small number of large stylised town churches but, in rural churches it is unlikely to be true.

I remember the vicar of a large evangelical church I attended being shocked when he discovered in a private conversation that I disagreed profoundly with him on a number of issues. He then found out that so did a significant number of others. ‘His’ church contained far greater theological diversity than he had allowed for, and, this made him feel distinctively uncomfortable.

In one of the parishes in the rural context in which I serve I was asked to lead a series of house group discussions on Same Sex Marriage. Some wanted the Church to proceed full steam ahead (this was a minority perspective), others suggested proceeding with caution (blessing of a union – the majority view), others were extremely uncomfortable with any possible changes.

The second problem is this: when we talk of Churches being inclusive or otherwise who are we talking about? The ‘leadership’ of the church or the congregation? We shouldn’t necessarily conflate the two. (For the Church of England there is of course a third problem, namely the parish and the legitimate expectations of parishioners – but let’s leave that to one side.)

Good disagreement, therefore, might not just be a macro issue. We might need to learn to disagree well within individual churches.

Good Disagreement might call for a radically different form of leadership; one which accepts diversity at both the institutional and congregational level. Good disagreement requires a new form of maturity in leadership. Maybe individual churches (parishes or teams) might need the courage to accept significant theological diversity within their leadership teams?

If my intuition is correct then Good Disagreement isn’t just an aspiration; it is an obligation, and strange to say I think the Bishops have already paved a way through their pastoral letter, Who is my neighbour?

In their open letter addressed to ‘the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015’ the bishops stress that they are not proposing ‘a shopping list of policies we would like to see,’ but instead ‘a new direction that we believe our political life ought to take.’  The same is true for the Church. We, the Church, will no doubt continue to argue about Same Sex Marriage and a whole range of other contentious issues, but maybe the job of the bishops is not simply to oversee a process which leads to a new set of doctrines (policies) and liturgies but, to lead the Church in an entirely new direction?

So how could this be done? Well again I think the pastoral letter gives some clues, for the third problem is concerned with ecclesiology, diversity and catholicity.

In their musings on Disagreement, Diversity and Coalition the Bishops say that it is a ‘fallacy that people can only work together if they agree about every issue,’ suggesting that this thesis is ‘proved wrong day after day.’

We need to be up front and honest: the Church of England, is a coalition comprising significant diversity – to pretend otherwise would be a fallacy. What the Church of England now requires of its leaders – at both the diocesan and parish level is the ability to embrace and encourage diversity; to work in coalition.

My own diocese (Oxford) is currently without a Diocesan Bishop. At one level I have no real interest in the new appointments position on Same Sex Marriage, the reason being that the days of ‘leader knows best,’ are rapidly disappearing, I am far more concerned about the bishops ability to create communities that are adept at ‘breaking free of self-interest and welcoming our opponents as well as our supporters into a messy, noisy, yet rich and creative community of communities.’ The Bishops state that this is ‘the only way we will enrich our almost moribund political culture,’ and that this will require a ‘leap of imagination.’ In the words of Spandau Ballet: ‘So True.’ But if this is true for a moribund political culture, it must be true for the Church.

The Corpus must act as a mirror to the polis.

But, ‘our ability’ to disagree well, to take make the changes in ‘our’ leadership style necessary for good disagreement, depends on the acceptance of one key, theological, principle stressed in the letter: subsidiarity (a virtue also promoted in Theonomics, my book! Cheap plug, sorry!).

Subsidiarity derives from Catholic Social Teaching and stresses that ‘decisions should be devolved to the lowest point consistent with effectiveness.’  Ecclesiologically this means allowing individual congregations (and priests?) to decide on how they wish to proceed within the broad framework that preserves our ‘Anglican identity.’ It also means allowing them to head off in a direction not necessarily favoured by the ‘leader.’

The problem is that the Church is not good at subsidiarity (it might have been before the Synod of Whitby). We have tended to stress a more institutional, alpha style leadership. It’s a style that is now starting to look increasingly outdated.

So let’s return to Ian’s question: ‘So can there be ‘good disagreement’ as we move forward?’

For some people the answer will be no. Doctrinally any changes will be a step too far, and yes there is also a ‘liberal’ voice that will tend to speak in condescending tones to anyone who dares disagree. But, I hope that these people are in the minority.

For the majority ‘good disagreement’ may be not so much about doctrine but more about leadership and a style of leadership animated through an unwavering commitment to the principle of subsidiarity. 

Specialist and flying bishops? I’m not so sure.

Is it just me or is there something seriously strange going on in ‘our’ approach to the episcopacy?

Several years ago three ‘flying bishops’ (every-time I hear this phrase I think of a purple Ford Granada, John Thaw and Dennis Waterman – very irreverent of me, I know, but I just can’t help it)  were created to cater for Anglo Catholics who simply couldn’t agree to women presiding at the Eucharist: the Bishops of Ebbsfleet, Richborough and Beverley.

Recently Archbishop Justin created the See of Maidstone to protect the interests of conservative evangelicals who can’t accept female headship. And, now we have the Bishop of London suggesting a bishop for church planting. It seems a good idea, after all church planting is surely highly specialist, isn’t it?

I just hope all Church Planters can accept female bishops!

But is a bishop supposed to be a ‘specialist,’ and are we entitled to a chief pastor who agrees with our own cherished deutero-doctrines (i.e doctrines that have been added to those expressed in the Catholic Creeds)?

I think not, and I don’t think ‘specialist bishops’ are good either for the Church or for the individual bishop (although it must be wonderful for the ego and far less tiring to be surrounded all the time by like-minded people!)

I can sort of see the Bishop of London’s point as he is at least pursuing what looks to be a ‘growth strategy’, although I don’t agree with his proposal, but I just can’t understand bishoprics created in order to appease doctrinal sensitivities. In the long run appeasement always fails to satisfy and reconcile, doesn’t it?

I accept that as someone who believes strongly in progressive revelation my comments may not be quite so palatable to those who feel that tradition is being tossed away, and I can’t offer any real comfort, other than to say that I suspect that in the long-run appeasement always tends to make a difficult situation worse.

Surely a Bishop needs to be able to recognise that the Church is a ‘community of communities,’ (the phrase used by the Bishops in their recent pastoral letter to describe society) and the various communities that comprise the Church in its catholicity need to accept that sometimes a bishop might not agree with a given congregation’s deutero-doctrinal orientation? If the Church is really interested in advocating the concept of ‘good disagreement’ this would appear to me to be a given. Surely it is also good for the bishop to be aware that the flock doesn’t just comprise folk who think just like them and, that they don’t have the right to seek to impose their own perspectives,however well thought through and strongly held, on a specific congregation?

If the practice of creating specialist bishops continues how can we with integrity claim to believe in ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ for it is the bishops job to preserve, and model, catholicity under his, or her, apostolic mandate.

Now here is a slightly cheeky question:

Under the proposals made  in the Green Report how will potential specialist and flying bishops be identified and trained? Maybe there will be some form of decision tree guiding their choice of MBA modules? Maybe they will be granted certain opt outs on the grounds that a particular course might not be relevant?

Moving on. The ordinal prescribes what the Church requires of a bishop. The ordinal is ‘our’ master document and its a work of genius (you never know it might even have been inspired by the Holy Spirit). The ordinal makes it abundantly clear that the Bishop must be a general practitioner. Let’s have a quick look at what the bishop promises at ordination:

  • to care for the flock of Christ (i.e. pastor to the pastors)
  • to baptise and confirm
  • to ordain and commission
  • to proclaim the gospel boldly
  • to confront injustice
  • to work for righteousness and peace
  • to teach the doctrine of Christ and the Church (honesty moment – I would prefer the Church of England to refer to doctrines – lets stop instructing and instead start teaching!)
  • to be diligent in prayer
  • to live a Godly life and,
  • be of sound learning

This is a charter for general practice in Godly leadership and it makes it very clear that the Bishop doesn’t simply exist to serve a select group of hermetically sealed insiders who share the Bishops doctrinal, missional and ecclesial  preferences. The bishop must build the whole body whilst also working prophetically, in the public square, for justice and righteousness.

The list of promises in the ordinal are not presented in the form of a menu allowing a bishop to select his or her preferences, or even a small sub set of churches. They come as a complete and non negotiable cluster of sacred promises. It would be wrong of the Church to put a bishop in a position where the promises made at ordination cannot be fulfilled, because a functional and specialist model of episcopacy has been adopted.

Bishops should encourage and empower specialist ministries but should not be reduced to and, defined by them? Discuss.

Discipleship, ethics and religion: a response to Harriet Baber.

I thought Harriet Baber’s  argument in the Church Times (6th March 2015)  that ‘it is time to separate ethics from religion,’ was somewhat bizarre.

I hope I have misread her argument in some way, in the same way that I hope that I have misunderstood articles asking for an end to the Church promoting the concept of discipleship.

Discipleship and ethics seem to me to be inextricably linked. They are also both significant Christian motifs. Jesus asks his followers not simply to become disciples but to, therefore go and make disciples of all nations,’ (Matthew 28, 19).

To be a disciple is simply to be a follower of a particular person, world view or philosophy.  We are all disciples by dint of our humanity. It’s the direction of our discipleship and, what we do with our discipleship that’s important.

The Old Testament Prophets again and again remind their audience that God, perhaps, above all else is concerned with justice and therefore expects his followers to pursue justice.

Jesus instructs his followers to ‘be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,‘ (Matthew 5, 48).

St. Paul has the temerity to suggest to his Greek audience (who thought they knew a thing or two about ethics) that they needed to add  the theological virtues of faith, hope and above all love (1 Corinthians 13), to the list of cardinal virtues advocated by the Greek philosophers.

Philosophy it seems, sorry Harriet, only goes so far and, in the field of ethics, and that can never be far enough. (This does not mean that secular ethical thinking cannot call the Church to question its standards and behaviour).

St. John states that ‘God is love,’ before adding ‘whoever does not love does not know God’ (1 John 4, 8). John’s gospel reminds us that ‘God so loved that world that he gave his only son,’ (John 3, 16).

So as we can see in the Bible both God, and his actions, are consistently described through the language of ethics and virtue. Our character, behaviour and, speech as people of faith, should therefore be representative of God.

Christians believe that  the Church is the body (or the Corpus) established by Jesus to re-present God, and his values, to the world (the Polis). Each and every week we pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven,’ (Matthew 6, 10). This verse from the Lord’s Prayer is a direct plea for the breaking in of justice, love and peace in the ‘material’ landscape we inhabit. We can’t, surely, be expected to remain silent about our most heart-felt prayer, for God has given his people the mandate to become co-creators of a better world.

If Christianity is about responding to the grace of God in a manner that reflects God, and the repeated use of words such as therefore, just, gave and as must imply that this is true, the Church should not abandon moral reasoning to secular agencies and, their vested interests, for surely this would imply that God has abandoned the Divine priorities; the pursuit of justice, love and perfection?

Wouldn’t it?

Reflections on same-sex marriage.

I thought I would have a break from the Green Report and the nature of episcopal leadership and write about something far less contentious (irony being deployed here): human sexuality, or more specifically same sex marriage!

Now here is the challenge I am setting myself: I am going to try and be gentle, for as I reflected in my previous blog (see below), the nature of some of these debates has become a little heated; and that’s being polite!

By way of introduction I would identify myself as a robustly ‘liberalish’ Christian (this is a phrase borrowed from my publisher Richard Hilton of Sacristy Press,- which makes me sound really posh. If I can give a cheap plug for my book its called Theonomics, and is available from Sacristy).

By ‘liberalish,’ I mean that I believe in the importance of progressive revelation, I tend to be more interested in what I believe to be the big Scriptural themes: justice, love, fidelity, judgement (apologies to any universalists out there),covenant, redemption and so forth, rather than working out what each and every verse, or even word, might mean.

On the whole I am suspicious of arguments deriving from a strict interpretation of particular words and phrases, especially as they relate to broad and ‘culturally enhanced’ terms such as homosexual. I believe that it is entirely possible to over interpret Scripture and, to inappropriately extrapolate from Scripture. By the same token I have to hold my hands up and say ‘yes’ it is entirely possible that I am guilty of under-interpretation.’

As a ‘liberalish’ Christian I would want to affirm the authority of Scripture and, its truths, I absolutely do. I also have no problem affirming the creeds without crossing my fingers behind my back. However I would stress that meaning is found in dialogue between the authority of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. One more thing: liberalish means, for me, regarding tradition as a set of gifts or an inheritance, but also a history to be critiqued.

I find it hard to accept that Scripture can, in reality, be read in isolation from tradition, reason and experience. Having said all of this, liberalism as a theological process should not be equated with relativism, for the output of ‘liberal thinking’ is a ‘good decision’ based on a rigorous methodological approach (thank you Henry Major!)

Often our understanding of Scripture  is a reflection of the traditions that have shaped us. I think we need to be up front and honest about this. I know many disagree with the conclusions I have arrived at, but what I would ask is that they are not dismissed as ‘mere opinion.’

From time to time the Church deliberately decides to revisit tradition and critique its own history, this is what it is doing through a process called ‘structured conversations.’

I have given a few insights into how ‘I do theology’ because I think it is really important that we understand where each other is coming from. After all you may be able to show me the weaknesses in my approach and vice-versa.

I think my support from same sex marriage would come from my persona as a both a dad-priest and, a priest-theologian.

The priest in me would want to affirm that where love is found God is found. Archbishop Justin hinted at the universality of this when he said that he knows same sex couples who have loving, stable and monogamous relationships of a ‘stunning quality.’ 

The theologian in me would want to suggest that love can be known by both its content and its manifestations. Love, in other words is not simply a sentiment, it is an epistemologically observable phenomena (just as Jesus, the epitome of love was observable).

The content of relational  love comprises amongst other virtues: monogamy, fidelity and, covenant. The manifestations of relational love could include neighbourliness, hospitality and charity.  And yes, such manifestations of love are also displayed by celibates and single folk.  But, I suspect that many of us are largely schooled in such virtues through marriage, for when we are married we acquire a whole new set of relationships as part of the deal!

The recently retired Bishop of Oxford said, (the day after he retired): ‘I want to affirm covenanted, faithful, life-long relationships either gay or straight.’ I agree. But here is the sting in the tail, and its the word ‘covenant:’

How, in the absence of a liturgical rite (such as Holy Matrimony) can we talk of covenant? I don’t think we can, at least not with any integrity.

Archbishop Justin has also said, with the noblest of intentions, that he doesn’t want to judge gay people. But his remark raises a couple (excuse the awful pun) of questions:

  • Isn’t it the case that through the so called structured conversations the Church is actively, purposefully and rightly seeking to exercise judgement?
  • Could it be argued that that inclusion or exclusion from liturgical rites are the concrete acts which testify to a a prior set of judgements?

We could talk about the difference between judgement and judgemental but I suspect this would be an exercise in splitting hairs.

So the priest-theologian in me would like to offer marriage to same sex couples, but what of the dad-priest?

No difference, for as I reflect on this issue it is clear to me that what I would like above all else for my girls is that they find a life-long partner who is going to cherish them. Someone who is going to give to them and, receive from them. Someone who is going to complement them and, be complimented by them. Someone who is simply going to stay the journey with them ‘for richer, for poorer.’ If this is a boy wonderful, if its another girl wonderful, for the wonder of God is simply this: that two people can live to give in mutual cooperation and love until ‘death us do part.’

The priest-dad in me would like to see God’s covenant love explicitly brought into my children’s most special relationship, through a liturgical rite, for there really is no other way that the Church can affirm God’s participation ‘life long, stable, monogamous relationships of a stunning quality.’ Is there? And, it this is what I desire for my own children surely it is what I should desire for all God’s children?

Liturgical rites and sacraments are, yes part of the mystery of faith, but also the Church’s proof statements – they are our living epistemology.The offering and withholding of rites of passage testify to the judgements we make, and it seems to me that there is simply no getting away from this.