2016 the year of challenge: institutional leadership wisdom and, design

Could 2016 be remembered as the year of institutional splits?

Perhaps come 2066, ‘A’ level history students might be asked asked to answer the following questions:

‘Explain and critique the reasons for the irrevocable split in the Labour Party,’ or, ‘Explain how the referendum vote to leave the European Union led to the emergence of new political parties.’

Religious studies students might be asked to ‘Compare and contrast the importance of Luther’s ninety-five thesis and the letter from the gang of thirty two in shaping the relationship between the church and state.’

(The gang of thirty-two refers to the signatories to an open letter arguing that the C of E’s structured conversations on issues of human sexuality were not in themselves legitimate).

Just speculating! We can’t be in the early stages of another reformation; can we?

However, it is certainly true that something is happening in and to a range of ‘established’ institutions. The fact that institutions are being critiqued by different internal constituencies suggests, at least to me, that those self-same institutions need to start asking themselves some very hard questions about issues such as power, authority and, legitimacy.

The problem is that institutions, or at least ‘head office types’ seldom want to ask such questions; keeping the genie in the bottle, maintaining the illusion of managerial control is easier and more comfortable.

But history shows that the genie cannot be kept in the bottle and that managerial control is mere illusion.  History surely informs us that institutions tend to be really poor at adapting to their environment and, that change often comes from the periphery?

In politics and religion it is often those characters who seem peripheral who prove to be the real game-changers; not those placed in positions of power and authority by the institution.The philosopher John Cottingham makes precisely this point:

‘In the biblical narrative, a small seemingly insignificant Middle Eastern tribe becomes a special focus of divine action, and then in the Christian story, a particular, seemingly drab and undistinguished town, Nazareth, on the remote periphery of the Roman Empire, becomes the place where divine light appears.’

Light, whether divine or human, often comes into the centre from the periphery. But, as I have suggested the centre finds this difficult to accept. The ‘centre; doesn’t tend to cope well with arguments from Nazareth, Wittenberg,Tolpuddle  or Albany Georgia. The centre likes things to be done in its own way, in its own time. And of course, those of a conservative disposition and, especially those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, have a tendency to want to keep the periphery exactly where they belong: on the periphery. Is this what the ‘gang of thirty-two’ are up to?

So what should institutions do in the face of possible fragmentation? I suggest that they need to reflect on the following four questions. The ‘good news’ is that in many ways they are bog standard management questions:

  • Should we fight to retain status quo, both in terms of policy (doctrine) and practice?
  • Should we adopt a stoical attitude of resignation?  ‘Oh well, it’s simply in the nature of institutions to fragment over time.’
  • Could we re think where power and authority really lie and adapt accordingly?
  • Is it worth re-configuring the institution deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out?’

The Labour Party has to face these questions and, so does the Church of England. The Labour Party has to work out whether it is a membership organisation (like the Liberal Democratic Party) or a political party led by its MP’s.

The Church of England has to decide what it means, in the context we now find ourselves, to be ‘Episcopally led and Synodically governed?’ To answer this question it first needs to answer the questions posed above, and it needs to do so having considered whether change is something that can be managed centrally, or whether change inevitably comes from the periphery.

So what do I think?

I think we should start the discussion with one of our key source documents; the Book of Common Prayer! The preface to the BCP makes it clear the possibility for change is built into the C of E’s very DNA:

‘It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England since the compilation of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and too much easiness in admitting variation from it.’ The preface then goes on to suggest that changes may be, either, of ‘dangerous consequence,’ (it doesn’t say to who – but the inference must surely be to itself), or, ‘requisite or expedient.’ 

If we consider the current debates in the C of E regarding the institutional response to questions raised by the  LGBTI community and those who stand alongside it in solidarity, we can see that such questions should be regarded through the prism of ‘wisdom.’ The C of E’s response to the problems facing it, both doctrinally and structurally, should be above all else ‘wise.’ The problem is that wisdom is not clear-cut; it is frequently contested!

However, I would argue that wisdom demands seeing the environment as it really is; which may be very different to how an individual (leader) would like it to be. Seeing the environment as it really is, and understanding how various sets of actors within the environment are likely to respond is the beginning of institutional wisdom. The C of E needs, perhaps, above all ‘wise leaders.’ 

Wisdom is the quality the allows ‘leaders’ (Bishops) to respond to, shape and nurture the environment they find themselves operating in.

Without wisdom there can be no intelligent (institutional) design.

What else does wisdom teach us about institutions and institutional change?

First, as I have already suggested, the recognition that change frequently comes from the periphery, not from the centre, and this despite the centre’s preference for grand initiatives. Wise leaders should recognise this as an historic and contemporary norm.

Secondly the impossibility of keeping all of the people happy all of the time. Some folk will walk whatever. Wisdom and, de facto, wise leaders, knows its limitations. Wise leaders, returning to the Book of Common Prayer, understand the importance of pragmatism and, expediency. Wise leaders don’t need to decide on who’s in or who’s out instead recognizing that individuals (and congregations) will self select, with the majority deciding to remain. The institution should take confidence from the fact that most of her members are, when all has been said and done, both reasonable and pragmatic.

Reason and pragmatism are expressions of the C of E’s sense of self-identity. Of course for some, at either the conservative or progressive extremes of the Church of England, reason and pragmatism are an anathema, with discussions and outcomes being framed in the rhetoric of ‘all or nothing.’ The majority, even the silent majority, thank goodness, don’t think in such terms, regarding themselves as both orthodox and somewhat conservative or progressive. Ironically it is this group of ‘somewhats’ that arch conservatives and liberals alike tend to find hardest to cope with, regarding them, unfairly, as wishy-washy or uncommitted. But, perhaps, it is this group of ‘somewhats’ who provide us with our long-term stability? It is this group, after all , who are presumably most committed to walking together, seeking reconciliation and accepting difference. They are able to do so precisely because they are only somewhat committed and therefore flexible. As any engineer will tell you it is rigid structures that are most likely to crack and break.

Thirdly, the tendency of actors to act politically, to issue threats and write letters. Threats can of course be either explicit or implicit. Some of these actors will deliver on their threats, others won’t. Good and wise leaders sit lightly to threats.

Fourthly, and I think most crucially, maybe even controversially, the recognition that each and every group and faction sits extremely lightly to the notion of top down power, influence and authority. The world we all inhabit is characterized by instability, cynicism and innovation (and innovation rarely comes from the centre). Wise leaders recognise that real power comes from below and, that innovation and power are closely correlated.

When the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer was written it was assumed that leaders were both divinely appointed and largely infallible; this assumption no longer exists. In fact the reverse: leaders are regarded as highly fallible!

Paradoxically, the evidence for this can be found in the actions of those ‘conservative’ churches asking for alternative episcopal oversite! Bishops put simply can no longer take it as a given that those in their charge will submit to their doctrinal orientation. Real power comes from below, but, again paradoxically, continues to seek authority figures, for reasons of confidence, esteem and belonging. However, the notion that power and authority is vested in a particular ‘leader’ simply as a consequence of the position they hold has long gone. Better to wise up, recognise it and, adapt.

I would want to suggest that the wise leader of the future (also the present) is one who recognizes the realities of institutional life; one who welcomes thoughts and practices found on the periphery of institutional life, even when they may not concur with the leaders own cherished doctrines to which they should only be ‘somewhat committed’; one who sits lightly to any thoughts that they are the institutions real entrepreneurs or pioneers; one who accepts that we live in a bottom up rather than a top down world and, one understands that in a disjointed and  fragmented world subsidiarity (delegating decisions to the lowest effective point and, facilitating significant differences in practice) is the only real route to any form of sustainable long-term unity and, that those who can’t live with subsidiarity may ultimately walk, whatever.

It is only through accepting and embedding the principle of subsidiarity that the C of E can continue to be Episcopally led and Synodically governed.  I think…..

Uncomfortable as it seems to those who want to either take or be in charge, sustainability is provided by the ‘somewhats’ and change by the ‘peripherals;’ wisdom demands that its institutional leaders recognise this.











Julian Henderson and ‘the case for a conservative approach.’

I have read, and re-read, Julian Henderson’s article – ”Sexuality: the case for a Conservative Approach” – in the Church Times with a growing sense of incredulity.

The Bishop of Blackburn, who is keen to stress that even as a Diocesan Bishop he is writing solely on his own account (is this possible / credible?) set himself the aim of making the case ‘for’ a conservative approach. But he doesn’t actually do this, rather he seeks to make the case ‘against,’ any forms and variations of progressive argument.

His thesis is based on one massive sweeping assumption: that ‘conservatives’ take the Bible seriously, and ‘progressives’ don’t. This assumption cannot go unchallenged!

‘This current debate is, therefore, not so much about sexuality, as the place, interpretation, and application of the Bible in our life as a Church. Its authority must not be superseded by pastoral, anthropological, and missional arguments, if we are to maintain a faithful witness to Jesus Christ, in this generation and for those who follow.’

Julian Henderson seems to be saying that only a conservative reading of Scripture really honors Scripture, and that those who those who hold a more progressive view are in some ways manipulating Scripture and, deliberately refuting Mary’s great cry of vocational acclamation, ‘let it be with me according to your word.’  I would want to reject this line of argument, and the judgments that it makes. I would also like to ask Bishop Julian a direct question:

‘Given his choice of this verse is he implying that those who either love a partner of the same sex and desire to live in a faithful, monogamous and covenanted relationship and, those who would support them in their quest, can not, de facto, live the vocational life and have therefore placed themselves outside the mission of the Church?’

For that appears to me to be his implication.

Ironically the article criticizes those who argue for greater levels of affirmation for LGBTI Christians on the basis of ‘mission,’ whilst locating his own thesis in an anthem whose rationale is vocational and, ergo, missional.

For a bishop to believe that there is only one way of engaging with, being inspired by and, shaping one’s life according to Holy Scripture is a matter of huge regret, and one that asks his readers to ignore some of the tradition’s finest and earliest scholars.

The article does, however, beg an important question or two:

‘Is the way we engage with Scripture based necessarily on our cultural and other experiences?’ 

‘Is Scripture ever really read separate from pastoral, anthropological and missional imperatives?’ We could, in fact, slightly (maybe controversially) re-frame this question in the following way:

‘Is Scripture, (among other things) a pastoral, anthropological and missional set of holy texts?’ 

Many would believe that it is, and also that significant parts of Scripture (some of the Psalms, for instance) explicitly reflect the experiential, pastoral and anthropological dimensions of faith. Scripture is not one thing, to be read in one way, and it never has been.

The Bishop ought to both know and acknowledge this. Of course he, and the conservative voice, are perfectly free to dismiss any, or even all, progressive arguments, but what I think is unfair is the notion that progressives don’t take Scripture seriously.

Seek to correct  me, as someone inclined towards a more progressive stance, ‘with gentleness’ (2 Timothy 2, 25) by all means but, please don’t start with the assumption that ‘you’ and your tradition take Scripture seriously and ‘us’ progressives don’t.

Having heard the two bishops who contributed to Journeys in Grace and Truth preach, I simply can’t accept the case that they are guilty of ditching Scripture. I strongly believe that they have sought to enter fully into Scripture, studiously and imaginatively, as we are encouraged, through the tradition, to do so.

Origen, one of Christianity’s earliest biblical scholars, made precisely this point! He argued that all texts should be engaged with through the lenses of history, morality and spirituality. Scripture was to be entered deeply into, but with multiple sets of complimentary lenses.

Scripture is not just a never-ending rule book,to be read through the  lens of one fairly straightforward hermeneutic, but this is what the article implies.

Does the Bishop believe that Scripture is just one thing that’s its message of ‘good news’ is binary, plain and obvious, taking little account of genre, context and time? I would be intrigued to know.

It was very interesting, in considering the first question (is our reading of Scripture by necessity inter-mediated by cultural and other experiences), that the Bishop of Blackburn refers to a leading scholar from his own tradition prior to quoting the single Scripture he offers in his ‘analysis’:

‘Dr Stott taught, unequivocally that the only alternative to heterosexual marriage is sexual abstinence. As a bachelor, he wrote: ‘I know something of the pain of this.” 

Reading this causes me to ask is the Bishop of Blackburn, and the tradition, he represents just as ‘person centered’ as his progressive neighbour? The argument he seeks to build doesn’t appear to me to be as ‘text focused’ as he would have us believe. It is also a little binary. He offers only one lens (Dr. Stott) followed by one Scripture:

‘Woe to you, if all people speak well of you.’ 

This verse is offered as a defense against the perceived unpopularity of the ‘conservative’ perspective (and fails to mention the startlingly obvious fact that throughout human history homosexuals have seldom been spoken ‘well of.’) To be fair to the Bishop of Blackburn he does argue that it may be necessary to risk unpopularity in order to be ‘salt and light.’

The article also contains a significant and worrying category confusion. The terms celibacy and abstinence are used interchangeably as though they are one in the same thing. In his article the Bishop suggests that some of the evangelicals who contributed to ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth,’ are guilty of using the same words and phrases ‘to mean the same thing;’ and yet he does the same thing!

Celibacy and abstinence do not share a common meaning, and again the Bishop should be aware of this, making sure he uses each term appropriately without pastorally de-valuing the other.

The article is keen to discount the value of experience: ‘the powerful voice of experience is, however, becoming a more important driver and authority than scripture itself in our ethical decision making.’ 

This line of argument makes absolutely no allowance whatsoever to the notion that Scripture and experience are seldom neatly decoupled from one another. The bishop fails to show how his reading of Scripture is free from his own prior experiences.

The bishop, paradoxically, continues without pausing to offer any scripture whatsoever, instead applying directly to the experience of one group of people, those who have chosen to ‘live out,’ to validate his point.

I wouldn’t want to discount their experience (because I value experience and believe that some Scriptures are cries from experience), or devalue their choice, but equally I don’t understand the rationale for generalizing  from their experience.

The article set out to make ‘the case for the conservative approach,’ but, instead it seeks only to refute the ‘progressive’ case. The irony is that given the statement that ‘this debate is about the place of the Bible in our life as a Church,’ the author makes his substantive points, not through reference to Scripture, but instead tradition and, experience.

Rather than showing that Scripture stands alone as God’s objectivity the article instead reveals that all interpretation is mediated through tradition, experience, culture and prior disposition. The conservative voice might not want to admit this, but it seems to me, at least, to be both true and validated through its own apologists. The article undermines the very approach it seeks to endorse. 

Nationality; patriotism and jingoism

Maybe, hopefully, one of the consequences of Brexit will be to encourage folk to think deeply about the whole issue of identity; specifically national identity.

What does it mean be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish or even European?

What theological resources can we draw on in thinking about national identity?

The answer to this question, I suspect, is the same as the resources that allow us to think about identity more widely.

Before I delve into this let me be clear and upfront: I am a patriot and an English patriot at that. When England compete in the 6 Nations Championship (I am one of those men who preferred playing with funny shaped balls) or the Rugby World Cup I cheer vociferously. I want them to win, and am pleased when they do, and whisper it quietly I sulk when they don’t.

However, when every four years the British Lions play against one of the big southern hemisphere sides, I feel ever so British. During the Ryder Cup (switching sports) I shout loudly, at the television, for Europe.

It seems that despite being English I am in fact capable of multiple allegiances and identities. My ‘Englishness,’ in many ways, is animated by, and defined through, a wider set of relationships.

Is it too much to suggest that all forms of identity only make sense because they relate to something, not necessarily bigger, but broader than themselves? Is this what Paul was getting at in his ‘In Christ there is no……..’ declaration? ‘ After all Jews didn’t mysteriously stop being Jews, neither did women cease to be women, or slaves slaves, or free free, when they located themselves in Christ. Being ‘in Christ’ in many ways affirms our core temporal identities. Being in Christ asks Christians to look at and cherish difference, and to make sure they always look beyond themselves.

Maybe the Noah story works in a similar way? All of the species who entered the ark – surely a metaphor for the common good – were different and unique.

If we turn to Desmond Tutu’s theology of Ubuntu, ‘there is no me without you,’ or Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou,’ we find other resources to help us work out questions of (national) identity.

I think to be patriotic means to be rooted in and to enjoy one’s national identity, but to recognise that it only makes sense in a hopefully productive and mutually respectful relationship of accountability to other different, and broader, identities.

In the referendum, to my sadness, I think we heard a lot about jingoism, dressed up as patriotism and subsumed in careless talk about sovereignty. Jingoism doesn’t relate, it can’t because it is narrow, (falsely) nostalgic and inward looking. Real patriotism is broad, in many ways progressive and outward looking; perhaps?

And, to be clear I am not simply having a go at the Brexiteers, for the leading advocates on the remain side failed to paint an attractive and picture of relational identity and, positive patriotism. Maybe they didn’t because they couldn’t? Maybe they couldn’t because they had no real and substantial ‘thick narratives’ to draw on?

So as we move forward from here could it be that one of the key  tasks for those interested in, and committed to, public theology is to make sure that patriotism is positively defined in such as way that it can’t be reduced  to jingoism, the most vitriolic consequence of which may be racism? 


Bishop David Walker or Richard Lewis? Who is correct?

The Church Times, through its editorial, letters and various articles has attempted to interpret what went wrong from the perspective of the Church of England during the referendum campaign.

The Bishop of Manchester has received some flak in the editorial:

‘We are unconvinced by the Bishop of Manchester’s argument that it was necessary to remain neutral during the campaign in order to help with reconciliation afterwards.’

However, what I found interesting is that the Bishop of Manchester doesn’t, in building his model of reconciliation, limit himself to ‘there, there,’ platitudes and promises of prayer. Instead he has sought to speak the truth, as he sees it, to leading advocates of both leave and remain.

‘Sadly, too much of what I have read from the Remain constituency during these past few days feels engulfed in and paralyzed by  a bereavement that most U.K. voters do not share, and for whom even the present turmoil in our political parties and financial markets may be a sign that for once they have stood up and been counted…………….the challenge for Leave voters is perhaps even more urgent; to join in with and even lead immediate moves to isolate those who are trying to use the referendum decision as a building-block for a resurgence of racist aggression.’

The language underpinning Bishop David’s focus on reconciliation is both robust and critical. It is also objective.

The former Dean of Wells, the Very Rev’d Richard Lewis, in a letter, suggests that the C of E ‘contribution’ to the national debate ‘has been, in one word, pathetic.’ He asks:

‘Who then has the authority to speak for us?…….Is there any backbone in the House of Bishops, or any spine in the forest of deans?’ 

He criticizes senior leaders for failing to ‘have spoken about the soul of Europe, of history, of duty, of responsibility, of sacrifice,’ before asking ‘isn’t it  that  which is at stake?’

Like Bishop David his language is robust. But, unlike Bishop David he (alongside the ‘we’ at the Church Times) believes that the Church of England should, through its senior leadership, been in the midst of things.

So who is right?

Both of them I suggest!

It is of course right that people of faith should seek to be ‘peacemakers,’ and agents of post event reconciliation. In recent times Desmond Tutu has reminded us of this imperative.

But, it is also right that the prophetic voice warns and chides; speaking truth into a given situation, without waiting for the situation to unfold. Don’t the Old Testament prophets teach us this?

So the editorial is both correct and, simultaneously incorrect. Public theology (for this is the discipline that we are talking about) cannot be ‘either-or’, it must be ‘and-both.’ And, an Established Church must take public theology seriously. Speaking truth into highly charged debate and, pursuing all that leads to peace and reconciliation should both be characteristic of an established church that takes public theology seriously.

So here lies the real problem:

Large swathes of the population don’t give a stuff about what the Church of England, as part of the ‘establishment,’ thinks. Any rejection of the Church of England’s authority  by the population at large to speak about matters of national importance  cannot, however, simply be explained away by anti establishment rhetoric.

If the C of E wishes to inhabit an ‘and-both’ world of public theology it must wake up to three facts (or at least facts as I see them!):

First, there is a real legitimacy in seeing the senior leadership as representing the metropolitan, establishment elite.Until we have far, far, greater diversity in the House of Bishops, we will continue to be regarded as part of the establishment, the consequence of which is we won’t be heard.

Secondly, we need to recognise that many, because of the debates we have had, and continue to have, around gender and sexuality regard the Church of England as overly conservative and reactionary, some would even say ‘fundamental.’ The Church of England might be reluctant to accept it but there are a large number of people who would seriously question whether the church has the credentials to act as a ‘moral agent.’ We can’t simply ignore this fact, or claim that the role of the church is to set itself against the prevailing culture. The Church of England doesn’t need to bow to all aspects of culture, or collapse into the excesses of moral relativism but it does need to learn the art of speaking about morality into, and on behalf of, a progressive liberal culture, without simply saying ‘you are wrong.’

At present there isn’t much evidence that it either has the confidence, or language, to do so.

Thirdly, the ‘dominance’ of the C of E, and in particular its senior leadership, by the evangelical wing of the Church has resulted in a narrowing of outlook. Personal faith, discipleship and evangelism are rightly promoted, but has this been at the expense of public theology? I for one think so. The Church of England, as the established church, has a duty, to always promote the notion of the common good and to seek to be a blessing for all. The Church of England must always be a ‘and-both,’ not simply an ‘either-or,’ church.

If we are to take both aspects of public theology seriously, as we must for the healing of the nation, we first need to get our own house in order, and we need to do it fast, starting with an honest appraisal of the diversity and skills among the church’s ‘senior leaders;’  it’s bishops.