Fear: bishops, sex and rugby; a few thoughts.

Fear is one of the biggest biblical motifs. I am told that some derivation of the phrase ‘do not fear,’ appears 365 times in the bible; once for every day of the year. And, of course Jesus frequently introduced himself with the words ‘do not fear.’

But, it is interesting that Jesus’ audience seldom, if ever,admitted their fear,for fear rarely likes to self-disclose. Instead fear likes to wear different clothes, frequently masquerading as courage, bravado, authority and,control.

Psychologists have long posited that humans have two basic responses to fear: fight or flight.

Both are problematic as they fail to address the issue itself. Jesus, by contrast, in his pastoral encounters confronted fear head on, refusing to let fear have its corrosive way.

I understand something of the ‘fight’ response. When I played rugby there was always a moment in the dressing room, about ten minutes before kick off, when I suffered from something akin to stage fright.

Each Saturday between September and the end of April (I played rugby in the days when sports had defined seasons) at 2:50 pm I used to feel physically sick and start thinking ‘I can’t go through with this.’ 

The basic problem I was confronting is that I had no way of determing, despite all of the mental and physical preparation I had put into the game, of what was going to happen over the coming eighty minutes. I was afraid of what might happen.

Of course I always managed to get onto the pitch and, normally managed to survive a full eighty minutes. The bumps, bruises and scars that I so feared were transformed, in the bar, into badges of honour!

And, I developed a trick to get over my fear: I went looking for contact: could I impose myself in a tackle situation, ruck or maul? Could I dominate my opposite hooker in the first scrum?

These were unsophisticated and tribal fight strategies. They were also attempts to wrestle back some degree of control. They were all ‘courageous’  attempts to mitigate fear and, they sort of worked.

‘Sort of’ because they got me through the ensuing 80 minutes. ‘Sort of’ because the following Saturday the whole wretched cycle would start again.

Esther De Waal has painted a picture of the appeal and consequences of flight: ‘often it seems so much easier and more appealing to stop, to look back, to fossilize, to refuse to grow.’  Now flight, just like fight, will never admit to fear, it will instead use other terms, such as deliberation or maybe, controversially, discernment?

Over the last few months I have begun to wonder whether it is fear above all else that is driving decision making in the Church and, whether the Church (of England) is using classic fight and flight strategies in dealing with two of our current hot topics; episcopal leadership and same sex relationships? I might well be wrong, as I say I am only ‘wondering.’

If we look at the selection and training of Bishops it seems that ‘head office’ is determined to impose a set of solutions. Lines of communication have been shut down, no further dialogue is allowed. A set of unsophisticated responses have been accepted and imposed on the wider Church, many of whose members are tribally regarded as ‘the opposition.’

Could the response of those charged with producing the infamous Green Report be regarded as a classic fight response? Could the response be seen as an attempt to regain, and impose, some degree of control in the midst of ambiguity? Could it be that the chosen strategy ‘sort of’ works, until next time we, the Church, experience a sense of fear and foreboding?

If we turn to ‘our response’ to issues of human sexuality could it be that ‘head office’ has a real fear of engaging with the issue? Are our facilitated discussions in some measure a strategy designed to buy time and, appease the conservative voice? Is the process born out of fear of grasping the nettle lest ‘we’ get stung? And  could it be that endless rounds of talking simply cause the Church to ‘fossilize’ and reduces any chances of real growth?  Or am I being too harsh?

Maybe our leaders have an even deeper fear, namely loss of control and authority? I really, sincerely, think that this might be the case. There seems to be a real fear in ‘devolving decision making to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness,’ (this being the Bishops definition of subsidiarity in their pre election pastoral letter) and a preference for neat and tidy, top down, solutions.

Yet, our bishops know that neat and tidy institutionally sponsored, politicised, responses seldom work:

‘The desire for neatness and tidiness, as much as the desire for control, is how politicians tend to think – especially those in government or contemplating office. They are often backed up by bureaucrats which are allergic to messiness. But, human life and creativity  are inherently  messy and rebel against the uniformity that accompanies systematic constraints and universal solutions,’ (ibid).

Writing in today’s Times David Aaronovitch muses that ‘they (law makers and politicians) do not trust us to do the right thing. They are scared – as they almost always are – about the consequences of an extension of personal autonomy.’ Aaronovitch is writing about the right to die (which I am not sure about), but could it be that his thoughts could also apply to the Church’s current preoccupations with bishops and same sex relationships?

So here are just two musings of my own:

  • What would we – the Church – have to fear if we allowed all clergy and members of electoral roles to vote for their preferred candidate for their next diocesan bishop from a list of say five candidates  presented by ‘head office.’ What is the worst and best that might happen if the whole process were made more transparent and democratic?
  • Why shouldn’t the Church simply allow local communities of faith to decide how they want to respond to same sex couples seeking liturgical affirmation (I do accept the need for nationally endorsed liturgies) of their relationship? What would we – the Church – have to fear?

My suspicion is that we wouldn’t have much to fear at all. We could instead end up with far more creative solutions and ones which are locally owned. And, although this might render the Church ‘inherently messy,’ so what?

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