Disability & Easter – thoughts prompted by a Govt. Minister

With the resignation of Iain Duncan-Smith disability, or specifically disability funding, has hit the headlines. As part of his overall critique of government policy Duncan-Smith has also questioned the line that ‘we are all in it together.’

As we enter into Holy Week it seems apt to stop and ponder on our own reactions to the disabled. After all this is the week in which Jesus’ body is disfigured in the most appalling manner. This is also the week in which we see the very real emotional and spiritual turmoil that Jesus has to face.

Of course his impending bodily disfigurement and his sense of being isolated, forsaken even, cannot, should not, be easily decoupled. Christianity is an embodied faith. Bodies are important.

Nor should we sanitize the post resurrection Jesus. His body is still broken, disabled even. His friends and intimates didn’t even recognize him. And yet, he remained the Messiah, the Holy One of God. In order to fulfill his calling to humanity he didn’t need the body of an Olympian ‘God’, or an X factor winner. No the Christ we meet, post resurrection, is a disfigured and disabled Christ. He, this disfigured and disabled Messiah, remains the sole (and soul) means for our salvation. The prophet Isaiah captures this thought in the Old Testament reading set for the Eucharist on Good Friday:

‘Just as there were many who were astonished at Him – so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance and his form beyond that of mortals,’ (52, 14.)

And,

‘He had no no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was desired and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised and we held him of no account,’ (53, 2-3).

So this Easter as we sing ‘Thine be the glory’ and ‘Jesus Christ is risen today,’ perhaps we need to hold in our mind’s eye a picture of Jesus, as gloriously disabled. A Messiah whose very status is not contingent on the ‘body beautiful.’ And we need to ask ourselves how we react to such a savior.

And what of the disabled in our own communities? Are they a set of people who we should merely fund so that they can have some form of quality of life? Poor folk to be treated with charity in its coldest sense? Or are they to be regarded as brothers and sisters who should receive the same investment opportunities as everyone else? These, I suggest, are the sort of questions that theologians should be bringing into the public square, after all as Iain Duncan-Smith said in his interview with Andrew Marr it is the job of ‘churchmen’ to moralize.

Do we recognize the disabled as being made in the likeness of God, that is our real question.

Last week I was blessed to be invested, inducted and installed as Rector of the Winslow Benefice. The preacher, the Archdeacon of Brighton and Lewes (a good friend) spoke movingly on Mark 2, 1-12 (the Healing of the Paralytic).

He asked the congregation to reflect on the relationship between the men who carried the paralytic to Jesus and the paralytic (he also asked us to consider the possibility that until the day of the ‘Jesus meeting’ the paralytic and his new friends possibly had no relationship whatsoever and that it was the presence of Jesus that brought them into relationship), leading to the question of ‘who is responsible for bringing the other to Christ?’ Or, ‘who carries who?’ For, in some sense we all need carrying, don’t we?

He also suggested that we reflect on whether we would have aligned ourselves with the Pharisees and their offense at Jesus’ actions or with those who rejoiced in the paralytic’s healing? We need to ask ourselves questions such as these for  I suggest that they are ‘converting questions.’

The preacher and I have something in common – we are both the parents of disabled children. Our children’s disabilities are very different.But, we both agree that through the experience of disability our pilgrimage through life has been deeply enriched and that our understanding of, and relationship with both our fellow human beings and with Jesus, is somehow different.

The disabled are not problems to be solved, lesser folk to be merely funded, but nothing less than the image of God, and that for me is a theological given! So, if I am correct, the only remaining question is: how do we respond? How do we respond to the image of God?

 

 

 

 

Church leadership; just a few thoughts as I approach incumbency.

Leadership is in the spotlight like never before, at least in church circles. The C of E has determined, through its acceptance of the Green Report for instance, to put in place mechanisms and procedures to identify and train its leaders of the future. Leadership conferences abound: New Wine, HTB, Willow Creek and Hillsong all offer events for existing and aspiring leaders, with key note speakers lined up to share their wisdom and experience.

I suspect that many, lets hope the majority, of speakers at such events have something of real substance to share. But, I also suspect that, as at all conferences, some of the key note speakers will have developed the art of saying not very much at all, but doing it with supreme eloquence.

Leadership is a word that attracts some and, frightens others. It is an emotive word and concept and, I think we all need to be aware of this in our discourse around the subject. At one level it is only a word, but it is a word that seldom, if ever, is spoken or written about dispassionately. It is a word that excites some and exercises others.

In the church leadership and theology must go hand in glove. My problem is not so much the word itself, although I do worry about the tendency to fixate on leadership as a good in its own right, but rather how ‘leadership’ is exercised.

I also worry about the ‘traditions’ and disciplines the church draws from in developing its theologically distinctive models of leadership. In saying this I am, of course, working from the assumption that the Church of England (the church into which I was both baptised and ordained) is concerned with theologically distinctive approaches to leadership, strategy and decision making. If our approach to leadership is not predominately inspired through the Christian tradition, then it surely stands that secular approaches are the only other sources of data?

The problem with secular approaches is that they are inherently competitive,somewhat utilitarian and endlessly calculating. If left unchallenged secular approaches to leadership, even when dressed in the clothes of the visionary, descend into managerialism and functionalism.

I hope the church is inspired as much, if not more, by Benedict (the Rule of….)  and Gregory (the pastoral dialogues) as it is by the Harvard Business Review, successful business leaders, who happen to be Christian and, pastors of mega churches.

The problem of leadership is particularly sharp in my own mind at present because next Wednesday I am, God willing, going to be installed as Rector of the Winslow Benefice (I have been serving, on placement in the benefice since July last year). I have to acknowledge that even though I don’t very often use the word leader, parishioners will look to me for leadership and direction. So the questions of where I will draw inspiration from and how I will exercise leadership are very real questions.

I hope in my own ‘leadership’ to draw on Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I am, you see, a member of the Church of England!

Starting with tradition (yes, I know I really ought to start with Scripture),  I have already mentioned the significance I find for contemporary leadership in the Rule of Benedict. Turning to experience I will of course draw on my thankfully positive experience during my curacy, in the Schorne Team of Parishes, where I served in a very well led team ministry. Reason also has a part to play for the church does have to exercise prudent stewardship of its assets, whilst also taking calculated and discerned risks from time to time.

And of course we have Scripture to draw on as our bedrock, and I think we can learn an awful lot about Christian leadership from Scripture! Perhaps, this is statement of the obvious! But the problem is that there are many different ways of engaging with Scripture, with these in part being dictated by our prior theological convictions. As someone who would want to assert that the Church of England is reformed-catholic I would want to draw on last Sunday’s Epistle (Colossians 3, 12-17) and Gospel (John 19, 25-27) readings as inspirational to my understanding of what it means to be a ‘church leader.’

The epistle lists the virtues with which Christians are expected to clothe themselves  and the Gospel is the story of Jesus giving his mother, from the cross, to the beloved disciple:

Here is how I ended my homily:

‘In the world in which we live strong and decisive leadership have their part to play, of course they do, but, and its a big but, never at the expense of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, fortitude, and love.

As I look forward to my time with you as your official Parish Priest I hope and pray that I will dress myself appropriately, perhaps taking Paul’s words and Mary’s example as my guide. I hope that I will be able to inspire and encourage you on your journeys. I hope that this church will stand as a beacon for all that is good and true and that people will be drawn to us not simply because of what we say, or even necessarily what we do, but because we are compassionate, kind, humble, meek, patient and loving because if we are we will equip people to grow in their own faith towards maturity; we will be Mother Church, of if you prefer the Bride of Christ. And that is our vocation.’

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What on earth were the Primates up to, and why we should be worried.

‘Baton passes to ACC over Episcopalian’s status.’

I found this article in the Church Times (4th March) intriguing; extremely so.

It is not so much the issue itself that is exercising me for it appears that come what may the Episcopalian Church will end up finding itself on the naughty step, for where power has a will it tends to find a way, but rather what what we might learn about the exercise of leadership, and church governance, from this article.

My intrigue derives from my former life in business and then as a lecturer in Business Ethics (which is not an oxymoron!)

Now it may well be true that the Primates Conference did have the power and authority to ‘sanction’ (whatever this means, the Episcopal Church of the USA). I don’t know enough about the legal structures of the Anglican Communion to pass a definitive judgement, but let’s assume that there is some real legal and ecclesiastical merit to the Bishop of Connecticut’s comments that:

‘The primates had spiritual and pastoral significance and not constitutional authority.’ 

If the Bishop of Connecticut is correct several questions follow:

  • Were the Primates aware that they possessed no real ‘constitutional authority?’
  • In setting the agenda for the meeting was the scope of the primate’s authority to act, or advise other bodies within the communion to act, laid clearly before the primates? There should be some form of source document that precisely defines the Primate’s remit.
  • What  model of collective episcopal leadership did the majority of primates bring to the decision making process?

These are all leadership questions and they lead to some bleak conclusions about how leadership has been exercised.

If the Primates thought that their leadership was of  ‘spiritual and pastoral significance’ and that they possessed ‘constitutional authority,’ when in fact they didn’t then the Communion faces a ‘crisis of governance.’

The Communion and its individual churches have a right to expect the highest standards of governance with decisions being made where decisions should be made (subsidiarity in other words).

In the world of corporate governance it is well known that various groups (executives) are prone to claim supererogatory powers and, this is one of the ‘moral hazards’ that governance structures seek to mitigate.

Primates, just like ‘executives’ in any field of endeavor should not simply assume powers that are not rightfully, or constitutionally, theirs even if they think (hence their mental model) they are the people best equipped to make a given decision. Perhaps Psalm 131 verse 1 should be burned onto the heart of every aspiring leader, whether ordained or lay, whether dressed in purple or otherwise: ‘O Lord my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high, I do not occupy myself wit things too great and marvellous for me.’ 

If the Bishop of Connecticut is correct in his analysis there can only be two explanations:

Either, they acted out of ignorance,

Or, they chose to override the communion’s formal structures and mechanisms.

Acting out of ignorance would be the lesser sin, choosing to assume powers which may not be theirs to assume would be a catastrophic example of the abuse of position, status and rank, acting as a stark reminder to all of us of the simple fact that power has a terrible tendency to seek even greater power.

The decision to impose sanctions on the Episcopalian Church may or may not be without merit. But could it be that the process through which the decision was taken is completely without merit, and is therefore indicative of a crisis not only in governance, but dare I say it, in episcopal leadership?