Depression, anxiety, ministry and friendship:’ a post funeral reflection.

Last week I was confronted with the requirement to reflect on ‘mental illness.’ On Monday I attended the funeral of a good friend, a ‘successful‘ man who had been ‘crippled’ with depression.

My friend’s successes were significant ones. He had played sport at the very highest level, for his country. He had a beautiful singing voice, a keen mind, a wonderful family, a vocation to which he was deeply committed and yet he was, on  at least two occasions, ‘crippled’ with depression. So here are three lessons I re-learnt from my friend and his story:

  • Success’ does not immunize individuals from mental health problems. I too know this to be true. A successful business career, post-graduate qualifications, selection for ministry training, a healthy bank balance were, in my case, all entirely impotent as antidotes to depression and anxiety. Yet, as a society we are bizarrely hooked on success. Could it be that the obsession with success is a major contributor to mental health problems? I think so.
  • Mental,physical and relational health are inextricably linked. In the funeral address my friend was described as having been ‘crippled’ with depression. The word I prefer to use in relation to my own depression and anxiety is ‘ravaged.’ When my depression and anxiety were at their  worst I lost a huge amount of weight (mostly muscle) whilst  cold sores, mouth ulcers, impetigo, leg, back and neck pains were my constant companions. Nausea was never far away and I used to experience a strange chemical reaction shooting through my forearms and wrists when the phone rang and I was in the mood to anticipate bad news. I used to go to bed at night praying that either God would take away my depression and anxiety, or that I simply wouldn’t wake up. It was crap. Thank God for my family, their love and their prayers. And, then there is the guilt because when I was really suffering I retained the self-awareness to know that I was putting my beloved others through the wringer. Guilt can of course lead to the persistent voice of nagging inferiority: ‘you are no good,’ ‘they would be better off without you,’ and so forth. Lies, of course, but lies experienced as truths.
  • Healing is possible. I felt so guilty and so weak about being on therapeutic  drugs. I really, sincerely, felt a huge sense of shame. Why? Because, being treated for depression and anxiety didn’t really fit with my self-construct. My friend encouraged me to ‘get real,’ and to accept that I was ‘wounded.’ He encouraged me to hope that one day I might become a ‘wounded healer.’ He encouraged me to be open and honest about my condition – sharing with those I felt I could trust. He encouraged me to see a Christian counselor and to take the doctor’s advice. One more thing – he avoided using pat Christian words and phrases, like ‘redeem.’ All he promised to do was to walk alongside me, and he did; gently and, with humility.

The man we mourned  wasn’t the only Christian friend who walked alongside me, but he was the first Church of England Priest I knew who was utterly comfortable and unashamed in talking about mental health problems.  In fact he had insisted that depression, the ‘dark night of the soul,’ was talked about at his funeral.

I can’t in all honesty say that I am 100% happy talking about depression and anxiety, maybe I never will be.

And, I don’t regard myself as being cured (even though I have been drug free for two years). I still get down and have a tendency to believe that the worst that can happen will happen. But, now it is an occasional tendency and, not my absolute default position.

I think I am being healed, day-by-day and, I am aware of the things that I need to do in order to  make ongoing healing possible, starting with prayer (coming to God ‘Just as I am’). I also need to take regular exercise. As validated by neuro-science I firmly believe that prayer and exercise alter the functioning of the brain leading to positive mental (and physical) health outcomes.

Anxiety and depression negatively impact the mind, body and spirit, so healing must also be directed towards all three characteristics of human functioning.

Finally,I am grateful for the one-to-one ministerial encounters that allow me in some small way to be a ‘wounded healer.’ I never say to a fellow sufferer  ‘I know how you are feeling,’ because I don’t. I know they feel truly crap, but I don’t know the specifics of their individual response to their unique problems.

But, because I have been able to open myself up to my suffering I do feel able to stand alongside the suffering; especially those whose suffering is not immediately visible to the wider world.

So although my friend was correct to avoid using terms like ‘redeem’ it does seem as though a positive and cautiously open attitude towards sharing about mental health problems, and my journey with them, has lead to some form of redemptive outcome.

Finally, I have avoided referring to my friend by name in this blog. I haven’t done so to protect his confidentiality for as I have said he wasn’t shy in talking about his illness. My reasoning is simply this: friendship is to the depressive perhaps one of the most important gifts you can make. 

A response to ‘The Andrews:’ Atherstone and Goddard.

I enjoyed reading ‘the Andrews’ (Atherstone and Goddard) in the Church Times and, agree with much, perhaps even all, of what they write.

I appreciate their sense of realism:

‘Disagreement is an indelible fact of life.’ 

It is from this straightforward statement that they are able to draw the question:

‘Can it be transformed for good?’

Andrew and Andrew are also correct when thy point out that ‘good disagreement’ is a slippery term. For some it is not just slippery, it is also vacuous a bit like ‘virtuous sin.’

I am in the ‘camp’ that regards good disagreement as a real and distinct possibility, but not at this stage a probability. For good disagreement to become a probability flexibility and creativity will be required along with an acceptance that most of those with strong views, liberals and conservatives alike, are probably going to have to give a little. (Liberals – on this issue – are probably going to have to accept that opening up Holy Matrimony to same-sex couples is unlikely, and conservatives -on this issue – are going to have to accept that liturgies will be offered to solemnize committed, faithful and monogamous same-sex relationships. In my opinion).

The Andrews article focuses on the ethics of dialogue. They rightly insist that the nature of debate in the coming synod must be far more gracious than that which characterized the previous synod.  But, realistically, when the stakes for so many are so high this will be difficult. And, so I think the argument that ‘we need a different approach to good disagreement; a middle way between those who reject it outright and those who embrace it unthinkingly,’ is spot on.

As a member of the clergy in the Oxford Diocese I appreciated the way the authors employed the statement from ‘our’ Bishop’s staff team that every view on the issue be honoured and respected ‘bearing witness to different aspects of the truth which lies in Christ alone,’ to illustrate grace in dialogue.

But, here is the problem: I don’t know (perhaps a bit like the term Good Disagreement) what this means in reality. It fails to answer two open questions. ‘How’ will every view be honoured? And, ‘who’ decides whether a view is honoured or otherwise? These are perhaps the two critical questions in the whole debate about ‘good disagreement.’

And, this is where the Andrews thought piece (and the sub-title to the article makes it clear that it is a thought piece) doesn’t quite, to my mind, go far enough.

Ultimately where the Church lives with ‘good disagreement’ (and I would strongly argue that the Church has for centuries lived with good disagreement on a large range of issues), it is able to do so because it offers a range of practices and styles that facilitate differences in interpretation.

Good disagreement in the Church of England is seldom about ideas, instead it is concerned with praxis. The terms given for the range of practices about which we disagree, mostly well, include rites, liturgies and even sacraments.

Rites, liturgies and sacraments are the epistemology of the Church, they are ‘doctrine in action.’  It is through rites, liturgies and sacraments that divergent theological perspectives are ‘honoured and respected as bearing witness to different aspects of the truth which is in Christ alone.’

Resolving the question of  ‘how will very view be honoured’ (and to be clear ‘we’ don’t mean every view – we are only talking about monogamous, faithful same-sex relationships) is therefore straightforward. It can only be resolved liturgically.

Until liturgies are in place the view of the ‘inclusives,’ or ‘progressives’ can be listened to, listened to with respect and grace, but it cannot be honoured.

Liturgies, rites and, sacraments  are the proof statements of what range of  perceived ‘truths’ the Church is prepared to accommodate and, honour. The Church has  no other formal epistemology.

So ‘who’ decides? Well clearly synod will make some non binding and provisional decisions over the next five years. But ‘who’ decides should be a question that is delegated to the lowest effective level. The local congregation and minister in other words; subsidiarity.

I hope every view can be honoured. But honouring every view  is not something that can ever be resolved in the synodical equivalent of smoke-filled rooms, or even in a bishop’s staff-meeting. Good disagreement is ultimately not about views and arguments, it is about different interpretations of what is taking place in a liturgical context.

Good disagreement therefore necessitates the widening of the range of liturgies without insisting that these liturgies are used by any individual minister.

In the absence of rites and liturgies all talk about ‘honouring’ and ‘disagreeing well,’ is both meaningless and  ‘fundamentally flawed.’ 

Rhubarb; reflections on electoral ‘failure.’

In common with the vast majority of those standing for the House of Clergy in Oxford Diocese I was ‘rejected’ at the ballot box. C’est la vie.

In truth I always knew that electoral success was unlikely and, this is presumably true for anyone who subjects themselves to any form of democratic process?

But, nevertheless the cognitive and the emotional don’t at first operate in sync. So, yes, I feel gutted. For now.

But, I also feel slightly relieved.  I feel relieved because I think it is going to be a contentious synod with hand-grenades going off everywhere. At least I might now be able to avoid a direct hit!

‘Good disagreement’ might be the aim on several issues, but many, perhaps most of the elected representatives, are there because they represent a ‘narrower’ constituency of (self) interest. And few of those who represent a ‘narrower constituency’ are in the mood to give way. So many synod members will experience deep hurt over the next five years, and, if ‘we’ can’t hold everything together maybe even guilt and, a sense of failure.

Can ‘we’ hold everything, and everybody, together? Probably not.

I think we can be sure that the Anglican Communion will not hold in its current form. I don’t think that the Church of England can expect to operate in vacuum isolated from decisions made in the political and judicial spheres. Shifting societal norms can not simply be wished away.

There is a going to be a lot of external systemic pressure on the Church of England and yet  I sense that an overall feeling exists that, in some way, the Established Church remains in control of its own destiny. This, I fear, is pure myth.

I am also slightly relieved to be freed from the potential of acquiring ICS (Institutional Conceit Syndrome). Institutional conceit takes root when the institutions that represent the wider body (corpus, polis, society etc) mistakenly believe that they are the very thing they represent.

Synod is not the Church. At its best it is a representation of the Church.  At its worst, and democracy can lead to poor results, its a distortion of the corpus it seeks to represent. And yet many in all sorts of institutions forget that they, for a short period of time only, represent the constituency that comprise the entity itself. I suspect that I could (not would), if elected, have confused synod and church.

So all the best to those who have been elected. You have an unenviable task. Will you succeed?

Well that all depends on your definition of success! If success means satisfying the short-term needs of a ‘narrower constituency,’ a ‘constituency of self-interest’ then some groups will, in five years time, believe that they have succeeded. But, if success means satisfying the requirements of the widest possible constituency then I fear that ‘success’ will remain out of reach. Unless………..

And, so here is my penultimate point: understanding what ‘unless’ means might be the most important task facing this synod and, this will require flexibility and creativity.

Finally, you might ask, what on earth this all has to do with rhubarb? And, the honest answer is not much, other than I experience rhubarb as a subtle combination of the sweet and sour, a bit like how I feel today!

Institutional power: reality or illusion?

People expect an awful lot from institutions and, of course, those who are given access to the levers of institutional power have a natural tendency to believe that the decisions they arrive at are binding and, permanent. Institutions are ‘perfectly uncomfortable’ with the notion of provisionality!

It is, of course, true that institutions  make decisions that stand the test of time, and that some decisions, once reached, appear irrevocable.

For British Christians the decision, made at the Council of Whitby, to accept Roman Catholicism as the ‘state religion,’ must have felt like the end of the matter. But, of course those arguing the toss in the synod chamber could not have predicted the political and biological challenges that Henry VIII would face, to say nothing of the  Pan-European influence of a certain M. Luther!

Nevertheless for around 1000 years (or half the length of Christian history) the decisions made in Whitby stuck.

The Council of Nicaea debated the nature of Christian belief, and, through the words of the creed, systematized Christian doctrine. But, even though churches up and down the land proclaim the creed Sunday by Sunday, those self-same churches have very different interpretations of what some of the creedal statements actually mean.

I suspect that many of the participants at Nicaea would be horrified by some, maybe even most, contemporary interpretations of the creed.

Whisper it quietly but even within the Church of England there is no homogeneous agreement on what precisely is meant by ‘the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ ‘the Communion of Saints,’ or even the ‘resurrection of the dead.’ And these are not matters of trivia!

I also suspect (well, in fact I know) that Oxford’s most ‘famous’ Churches have vastly different perspectives on the ‘sacrament of the Eucharist’ for example. But, by and large churches live, in a sate of moderately good disagreement, with ‘our’ diverse interpretations.

But when it comes to ‘extra creedal’ beliefs, such as around issues of human sexuality, or the nature of marriage, then for some reason many feel unable to disagree well and, get on with their own congregational lives.  Strange but true!

The C of E appears to be able to happily accommodate a range of views in respect of so-called ‘first order’ issues, but over ‘second order’ issues, no way! And, the irony is that the Church is threatening to tear itself apart over such issues.

Why? I suspect it has as much to do with the fear of ‘liberation’ as it does the nature of Christian doctrine. The invocation of doctrine, as the study of Church history demonstrates, is useful in the face of ambiguity, fear and perceived loss of control!

There are also some who believe that either change, or no-change, can and will be settled at the institutional, or synodical, level.

This is a deeply flawed belief for four reasons:

  • First, very little is ever irrevocably settled. Institutions can make policies, write liturgies, encourage practices but, what they cannot do is predict the future, or, mandate and control the meaning that individuals and groups will attribute to the practices and rituals they participate in.
  • Secondly, it completely ignores the real change  frequently from below, or at least from the periphery. Think of the impact of ‘liberation theology,’ or characters like St. Francis, who the Church remembered yesterday. St. Francis and the liberation theologians dramatically shaped the theology of the Church, devoid of institutional support! The Church has a tendency to co-opt theologies that gain ‘mass’ (awful pun – sorry) support. Post event strategy is a neat institutional trick! The institution, whatever it might think, is in reality, the arbiter of very little. This reality is often deeply disturbing for those of a conservative disposition.
  • Thirdly, this belief represents a misunderstanding of the characteristic nature, the DNA, of the Church of England. As Michael Mayne has argued the Church of England, is and always has been, ‘an organic, developing body within an organic changing society.’ Controlling organic change is notoriously difficult, if not impossible.
  • Fourthly, those who believe in the ‘authority of institutional’ decisions are naive when it comes to realpolitik. Last year the British electorate were assured that the ‘Scottish question’ would be definitively answered through the mechanism of a Scottish referendum. Well, it could be argued that the question, in spite of the referendum, remains open.  Will ‘our’ relationship with Europe really be resolved come the promised U.K. wide referendum?  Some issues just refuse to go away.

So if I am correct what can synods and church councils actually do?

It seems to me their members have two choices. They can either engage with issues constructively, or destructively. Put another way they can either work with or against the forces of historical and political reality (and I would also argue, theological reality).

That is all they can do, when all has been said and done. 

Working constructively means accepting the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity accepts the reality of disagreement at the institutional level whilst, devolving decision-making to the local level. Disagreement at the institutional level stands the chance of becoming ‘an objective fact’ rather than an agent of disintegration.

Working destructively involves working all out to preserve the status quo, to impose a mono-orthodoxy and, to operate under the illusion that power and authority are vested in the institution. The problem is that this is view a simply an illusion, because when all is said and done (think of the liberation theologians) communities will appropriate meaning, and develop what they believe to be appropriate responses, in situ. To a large extent theology is always contextual.

Progress and change are inevitable, or put another way, doctrine is both contested and provisional; always has been and always will be. Disagreement is a fact of life, both inside and outside the Church.

So given this reality, the only remaining question is ‘what are we as a Church going to do?’