Aidan: the patron saint of R&R?

Today, Wednesday, the Church of England remembered Aidan. Aidan was the Bishop of Lindisfarne and a missionary. Aidan was also involved with the training of priests. He died in the year 651 (at least according to Exciting Holiness).

Maybe in the conversations around Renewal and Reform there is something really important to learn from Aidan’s story? Maybe his concerns are our concerns? Maybe his story, should inform our story? 

Aidan was a passionate evangelist. He was, according to the collect, ‘sent to proclaim the gospel in this land,’ and, it seems as though he was successful. Who knows if he was a great orator capable of preaching to the heart? Who knows whether his mode of presiding at the Eucharist made it clear that the ‘Lord, is here?’

But what we do know is this: that his passion was making disciples and baptizing new believers ‘in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ We also know that those who encouraged Aidan, King Oswald of Northumbria for instance, were inspired by the same purpose driving the conversations around R&R: ‘making sure that we have the right people and resources to help us (re) evangelise England and grow in the life of the Kingdom of God.’ Hence the establishment of the island monastery at Lindisfarne as a plant of Melrose Abbey.

What else do we know about Aidan? Not much to be honest! However, the introductory blurb in ‘Exciting Holiness,’ makes it clear that any missionary initiatives he undertook were rooted in prayer, ‘from the island of Lindisfarne he was able to combine a monastic lifestyle with missionary journeys to the mainland, where through his concern for the poor, and enthusiasm for preaching, he won popular support.’ Every missionary journey, or endeavor, that we, the Church of England, undertake must also be a natural extension of prayer; or do I mean a supernatural extension? We must be rooted in prayer, and routed from prayer.

It strikes me that Aidan could be the Patron Saint of R&R for he managed to combine a real and enduring concern for the poor, with a desire to see the Church grow.

And guess what R&R is concerned for the poor: half of its funds are pledged for investment in areas of poverty and, the other half in growth, opportunities.

One final thought: Aidan and his contemporaries worked from the outside in, from the periphery into middle England. The Church of England must, likewise, as part of its mission strategy, continually look to its periphery for signs of new life. The re-evangelisation of England and growth in the life of the Kingdom of God might just depend on it.



Relaxed about R & R

There has been a lot of heat generated about R &R (Reform and Renewal, or is it Renewal and Reform – it’s different wherever I look); some love it, others loathe it.

Some appear to love and loathe characters on either side of the debate, as I say there is a lot of heat around the place.

So, I must say I feel strangely ambivalent about it. I understand all of the very real concerns, and am especially sympathetic to concerns about the ongoing quality of theological education and, the perceived negative impact on the rural church.

I also take it as a truism that you can’t manage your way to success (whatever metrics are used to define this slippery little word) but, equally the Church does need to manage both its assets and its affairs well. Good and decent management is necessary, but not sufficient. 

But, the real reason behind my ambivalence is that history and experience both show that grand initiatives never end up working out quite as their authors think they should. As Professor Mintzberg has consistently pointed out the best strategies are those that ’emerge’ over the course of time.

Good planners, leaders, managers, strategists are aware of this, and they adapt or modify their plans in the light of new, possibly unforeseen, information. Often in the corporate world the supposed winning strategies tend to end up being loosing strategies, but the good news is that they are frequently compensated for by successes that come seemingly out of nowhere. If anyone is interested in a recent example of this just consider Nokia, who made the bizarre, yet miraculous, transition from manufacturer of arctic forestry tires to technology company.

This transition allowed them to move from sustainability at best, to growth. You could argue, and Martyn Percy has, that the C of E, unlike a company can’t simply change its core offering, and he is correct. Analogies between the world of business and the Church are limited at best, but they can be highly illustrative.

But, the fact that growth often comes as if out of nowhere doesn’t mean that we (that is the Church of England – because at least for the moment we remain a we) should stop investing in approaches that are currently working. No, we should instead invest in them (but without regarding them as a Utopian solution that will work forever and ever, Amen;  again the Corporate World is full of small and medium companies who were yesterdays big companies and we should at the least beware that big can become bloated, before it is forced to slim down.)

As someone with no personal desire to worship in a HTB style church it would be a bit churlish to deny that many, many folk have come to faith through their mission initiatives.

To back away from investing in these types of initiatives would be akin to selling shares in Microsoft a year or two after it floated. In order to bank the 100% return, you risk losing the 10,000% return.

My own view on Church plants, just out of interest, changed when I read the history of my own church (St Laurence Winslow) and found that it had been planted, circa 1350, by St Albans Cathedral, as a minister to serve the local villages. Nearly 700 years later we still have a vibrant worshiping community and a church that serves the whole parish. Maybe we should (re) create many more minsters as part of our rural strategy?

Another reason that I am sanguine is that grand initiatives are operationally hard to implement. They meet road blocks, or more positively checks and balances, en route. They always tend to get watered down. That’s just reality. We know this from our own experiences.

So what do I think the Church of England could, or if its not too arrogant should, do from a management science perspective, in order to achieve its stated aims of ‘making sure we have the right people and resources to help us to re-evangelise England and grow in the life of the Kingdom of God?’

I would suggest that what it absolutely needs to do is build a portfolio of responses by:

  • Investing in strategies that are demonstrably working at present, whilst accepting that such strategies may not continue working forever (Microsoft’s growth did slow down! So might HTB’s!)
  • Investing in a range of smaller scale initiatives in the knowledge that future growth often comes from the periphery (this is known in the management sciences as Logical Incrementalism, its chief theorist was J.B. Quinn.)
  • Making sure that we keep scanning the external environment for new and emerging investment possibilities (such as the group that self-define as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ as recommended by Woodhead and Brown. Mintzberg is the theorist in chief of the emergent school of strategy, and in my opinion, and it is only opinion, the greatest living management theorist.)
  • Engaging in a healthy dose of central planning (Michael Porter.) without expect the plan to role out as expected; it won’t!

My criticism of the C of E is that appears ‘all Porter’ and, insufficiently Mintzberg and Quinn. Purposefully add in a little of the emergent (Mintzberg) and incremental (Quinn) and there is a chance that R & R might just help the C of E achieve its stated aims.

I hope I haven’t added to much heat to the debate!





In response to the group of 72

The letter from the group of 72 to the College of Bishops makes interesting reading. The letter can be read in full on the Thinking Anglicans website:

The signatories suggest that the Church of England provides more time and space for the studying of Scripture so that the C of E can  ‘make theologically informed decisions about human anthropology and sexuality.’ 

In particular the signatories stress that we all, collectively, need to understand what it means to ‘honour God with your bodies’ (1 Corinthians 6:20, NIV).

This would be fine and dandy if the signatories were committed to a process of open inquiry, during which they discarded all of their own prior subjectivities. But, they are not.

The fact that they are not is clear from their letter:

‘As you prepare to meet in the College and House of Bishops, we urge you not to consider any proposals that fly in the face of the historic understanding of the church as expressed in ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ (1991) and Lambeth Resolution 1.10. To do so – however loud the apparent voice for change – could set the Church of England adrift from her apostolic inheritance. It would also undermine our ability as members of General Synod to offer support and lead to a fracture within both the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.’

The letter is in reality a declaration that the status quo must be preserved; nothing must change.

Of course this is dressed up in the language of unity, nothing must be done that allows different parts of the Church of England (or the Anglican Communion) to pursue different modes of practice, derived from different hermeneutics of the Gospel. Sexual practice has been, elevated to a first order issue and, the notion of subsidiarity is not to be countenanced.

The letter suggests that those who support the opening up of pastoral rites for same-sex couples don’t take Scripture seriously, or have a high view of Scripture. This is deeply patronizing.

Most ‘progressives’ have wrestled with Scripture and seek to live a life informed by Scripture. Most progressives take it is a basic fact that all are made in the image of God. Most progressives have spent many years wrestling with the interplay between Scripture, reason, tradition and experience, often at some personal cost. And, they have come to the conclusion that God, truth be told, is interested in justice, equality, dignity, inclusivity and, love. In fact these are among the very attributes and characteristics of God. So, if we are to look at Scripture, yet again, let’s focus on these virtues as well as the very few individual texts specifically concerned with notions of homosexuality.

Most progressives, and especially LGBTI Christians I would suggest, take the injunction to honour God with their bodies extremely seriously. To suggest otherwise, as I have already suggested, is deeply patronizing. Drawing on my own experience I have no reason to believe that my LGBTI friends, and family members, take virtues such as love, fidelity,monogamy  any less seriously than my heterosexual friends. LGBTI folk are just as capable of cherishing a sexual partner as straight folk. The fruits of their relationship can be equally spectacular. As Archbishop Justin reflected in March 2013:You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship.” 

The implied threat to withdraw support (what does this mean? Are we talking about financial support?) must be treated with caution. Maybe it is a statement of the obvious but most LGBTI Christians, and their ‘allies,’ don’t really experience ‘support’ in any meaningful and concrete sense from the arch conservative group in the Church of England, in any case.

You can’t withdraw what you aren’t perceived to be providing!

However, if the implied threat is the withdrawal of financial support then maybe the C of E should simply accept its lot as a ‘poor Church?’ It may find itself both wealthier and healthier in the long run.

The suggestion that ‘we are committed to building a church that is genuinely welcoming to all people, irrespective of the pattern of sexual attraction that they experience. We would welcome initiatives to help local churches do this in a way that is affirming of and consistent with Scripture, and would hope to support suggestions you might wish to bring to Synod to that effect,’ must therefore be received with some suspicion.

The small print needs to be read carefully, for terms and conditions surely apply. Same sex attraction is allowed (how could it not be), but active same-sex relationships, it would seem, are not.

The letter, I hope will be politely acknowledged, but not acted on. It is time for the Church of England to move on. The Church of England, as the established church, must be a church that is there in real and concrete ways for all people.


Brighton Pride; a celebration of inclusion and identity

pride '16

If twenty-five years ago, when I got married, someone had said one day you will march with a group of Christians, lay and ordained, on an event called ‘Brighton Pride,’ I would have raised my somewhat less bushy eyebrows in incredulity.

In 1991 the memories of the tomb stone AIDS public health films were still ingrained in the national psyche and, homosexuals tended to be regarded in the public consciousness with a mixture of horror and pity. To be the parent of a gay child was to invite questions over your own man or womanhood and your ability to properly nurture your offspring. Nature or nurture, whatever, it was your fault.

There was a real sense that anything less than fully fledged heterosexuality was a fault, or more severely a sin, and certainly not something to be talked about, less still openly lived out, in polite circles.

If you were homo or bi sexual, well, you were probably better off keeping it quiet.To be gay and out was to be both highly outrageous and, socially courageous.

Times have changed, somewhat, and thankfully. Only somewhat because the homo, bi, pan, inter and so forth lot is still a heck of a lot harder than the heterosexuals lot, or at least the lot of the white, middle class and highly educated male. And, so it is ironic that conversations in the church, and the decisions that the C of E eventually arrive at in response to the question of what ‘rites’ to provide for the LGBTI community, will be largely decided by white, middle class, educated, and yes, heterosexual folk; the very epitome of mainstream C of E identity!

Over the last few decades, since the decriminalization of homosexuality (and lets not forget it was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who led the debate in favour of decriminalization in the House of Lords)  the so-called secular world has concentrated on ‘rights,’ whilst in the church we are preoccupied with ‘rites.’

My own perspective is that the two go together; ‘no rights without rites.’ Rites are the Church of England’s epistemology; until we have pastoral rites any talk of inclusivity and affirmation of identity, by necessity, carries little, real, substance. In the absence of rites all we are really left with, at best, is some form of weak form accommodation, or toleration neither of which, I would suggest, are distinctively Christian virtues.

Anyway, let’s get back to Brighton and the thoughts that have been circulating in my mind over the last week:

First, I was struck by the diversity within the group of clergy and assorted Christians. We were male, we were female, we were gay, we were straight, we were catholic, we were evangelical. We were priests, pastors, youth workers and parishioners. Among the clergy we were Fathers and, we were ministers. We were Cuddesdon, Trinity, Oak Hill, regional courses and, you might not believe it, St. Stephen’s House!

We were single, married and civilly partnered. We were in love and, weighting for love. We were old and, we were young. We were male and, we were female. And, we were hot! Not sexually, but physically, because it was a real scorcher of a day.

Take from this what you will. My take is that the move towards inclusivity in the Church of England is very widely held.

I have also been thinking a lot about how experience shapes response. Over the last twenty-five years I have met and become friends with members of the LGBTI community. Our children have gay God Parents, chosen because of the fruits of their relationship;  ‘by their fruits you will know them.’

Walking alongside one of my children and her God Father, both whom were carrying a placard on which was written ‘This is the Gay that the Lord has made,’ was an interesting experience, one that I am ‘proud’ to have participated in!

Experience is an interesting thing. The relationship between experience and dogma can be, for Christians, a difficult thing. But, need it be as difficult as we sometimes contrive to make it?

The hospitality extended to the church group was the single thing that struck me most. As a friend of mine commented on Radio Sussex last Sunday morning:

‘All of us were glad to be there, but very conscious that for so many in the crowd we represented a Church who says no. And yet we were offered hospitality and welcome. In spite of our sometimes confused message, we were given a special place, our presence was celebrated by a thousand sweaty handshakes and a chorus of often surprised but disarmingly spontaneous roars of approval. And so I felt the power of unconditional inclusion.’ 

Irony of ironies, here we were representing a church that is tying itself in knots about inclusion being unconditionally included! There was a real sense that the so called secular world doesn’t quite want the divorce from the Church –its church– that so many secularists claim.

All week I have been thinking about how strange it is for the C of E to be restricting its conversations on human sexuality to those in the Church. Should we, could we, broaden the net and invite other, stakeholders, to take part as equal participants, we are after all an’established church,’ one that exists and is established for each and every person, irrespective of gender and sexuality?

The moment we forget this we, surely, loosen the bonds of establishment, for it is through the nexus of relationships that establishment is made fleshy, real and, incarnate? Loosen the bonds and we reduce establishment to an abstract, constitutional, theory.

Finally, I have been reflecting on identity. Pride, I think, is yes a celebration of LGBTI identity, but it is much more than this; it is a celebration of all forms of human identity, including heterosexuality.

I felt that my identities as husband, dad, christian and priest were all wonderfully and gloriously affirmed, through marching with Brighton Pride.

And this got me thinking about the notions of I-Thou (Martin Buber) and Ubuntu (Desmond Tutu) both of which stress the potential for divine revelation through human relationships.

As a relational being my distinctiveness is a function of the reverence I afford another person’s God-given distinctiveness. My ability to affirm that ‘I am a straight that the Lord has made,’ is contingent on me looking at my brother, sister, son, daughter and saying ‘this is a Gay that the Lord has made.’  As Tutu’s Ubuntu theology insists:

‘My humanity is caught up, inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say a person is a person through other persons.’

So what was Pride all about?

It was a celebration of inclusion and identity and one which I was ‘proud’ to participate in.

In praise of Woodhead & Brown

Let me start by being up front. I don’t know Andrew Brown, but I do know Linda Woodhead, not well, but well enough to like and admire her.

Like her I am broadly progressive on matters relating to sexuality and, gender (disability and mental health are also biggies for me.) So, it’s a fair cop, I am bound, to some extent, to be supportive of the stance that Linda and Andrew take in ‘That Was The Church That Was.’ In the same way many who criticize Linda and Andrew are perhaps, to some extent, bound to do so.

Having said that I do worry that some of the character analysis that they offer will cloud the serious issues they raise and, the critique they offer. At times I do think it could have been toned down.

Linda is, of course, a sociologist and Andrew a journalist, so what you get in the book is an accessible, racy yet thoughtful page turner. My worry is that the thoughtful gets lost in the accessible and racy. My own academic background, (and practice – I have held ‘real jobs,’) prior to ordination, was in the management sciences.

As a management scientist, I agree with much of Linda’s sociological analysis. Like Linda I too think that the C of E has caught a bad case of popular managerialism, or Voodoo as our esteemed authors term it. The Church of England’s approach to management, and the modern-day obsession with leadership, seems to me, to be informed by the sort of books purchased by desperate executives looking for an edge in airport book shops just prior to take off. It is no coincidence that such outlets sell leadership and management books, as well as semi academic periodicals such as the Harvard Business Review, by the shed load. These books make you feel better for a time, and they prop up the anxious executive ego, but over the longer-term tend to be exposed for what they are; shallow.

Linda and Andrew provide a thirty year socio-historical survey of the Church of England. What their illustration shows, from a management science perspective, is an organisation / institution or body that could be regarded as existing in a state of ‘federated unity’, or ‘affiliated unity’ making (or trying to make) the transmission to an institution which prizes above all else centralized modes of planning and control in the search for what we might think of as ‘consolidated unity.’ Senior leaders have sought to extend this principle beyond the boundaries of the C of E into the global span of the Anglican Communion. The problem may be, despite our week-by-week allegiance, to the proposition that ‘we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ that consolidated unity is not, and never has been, part of the C of E’s DNA.

Ironically, I think that ++Justin knows this. Think back to his public uttering before the (in) famous Primate’s Conference, where he suggested that the Communion might need to re configure itself as a group of churches who all individually relate to Canterbury but, not necessarily to each other. (I still think that this is the only real future for the Anglican Communion).

The appointment of a an Adviser for Reconciliation is, perhaps, also indicative that he doesn’t believe, deep down, that ‘consolidated unity,’ is a real long-term possibility. The C of E and the Anglican Communion have historically arranged themselves as ‘affiliated entities,’ it is only over fairly recent history that they have sought any greater degree of alignment between the disparate parts, hence the need for reconfiguration, and return to the socio-historic norm.

However, ++Justin also comes from a background where centralized planning, leadership and management are highly prized. He is an interesting mix. It will be fascinating to see, under his leadership, where we end up. At present it appears that the desire for consolidated unity is winning out and that, federated and affiliated models of unity are regarded as second best. But, maybe in time they will come to be regarded as the real winning strategies, the best strategies given the  history of both the C of E and the Anglican Communion? Would such strategies render the Church any less episcopal? I don’t think so.

I would also suggest that if the likes of the Harvard Business Review, and thinkers who are unequivocally disciples of Michael Porter, doyen and very much the public face of both Harvard and the generic and planning school of management theory, have provided the stimulus for engaging with the management sciences then the current obsession with the highly planned and generic approaches to management, combined with a preference for decisive looking and authoritative leaders is, inevitable.

In the same way as the University of Chicago provided late twentieth century capitalism with its academic stimulus and subsequent endorsement the Harvard Business School has provided the academic credentials for those who believe that centralized planning, economies of scale and, generic off the shelf (global) strategies offer the best route into efficiency and, beyond into success. My fear is that the Church of England has bought these strategies hook, line and sinker. Their thumb print is all over reports such as Green and R&R.

Top down, generic strategies only really work, or stand a chance of working, in organizations where decision-making really is consolidated in the hands of senior management (or leadership) and where authority is virtually unquestioned. To work well it needs a tightly defined corporate culture which is maintained through the use of rewards and sanctions; carrots and sticks. Of course it is, theoretically, possible to seek to design (or redesign) an organization to support the chosen management style, but this most often ends up going badly wrong. Is this what the C of E is seeking to do, maybe?

Linda and Andrew make the following point in their final chapter:

‘The evangelicals achieved power and then showed they had no idea what to do with it.’

I only half agree; they did know what they wanted to do and the fruit of their doing is reports such as Green and R&R. I believe that these the reports, if implemented, will do untold damage to the C of E. Justin Welby, as quoted by Andrew and Linda, told his Bishops Council, whilst Bishop of Durham, that church decline appeared to him to be inevitable, without some radical changes, and that it could in the short-term be:

‘Camouflaged in pastoral reorganizing at diocesan level.’

Nevertheless he predicted that within seven to ten years the level of decline would have plummeted to such a level that recovery just wouldn’t be possible, without a range of radical, restorative, strategies.

The Church has chosen it strategies and my very great fear is that they are entirely the wrong ones. They look radical, tough, and uncompromising but are they in reality mere ‘camouflage?’ Are they the equivalent of taking a few aspirin when what’s need is open heart surgery? Is the Church of England’s response equal in its timidness to that provided by our political and economic leaders to the financial crisis of 2007-8?

Of course strong and decisive leaders will never admit to being timid.

My own view is that any attempts to refashion the Church into an entity that supports a chosen school of leadership and management theory has disaster writ large all over it. It will be disastrous both financially and institutionally. It will also cause real human damage. And, it won’t work. It won’t work because the C of E is at heart a federated and affiliated beast. And, it won’t work because centralized, generic and, planned strategies only work where power and authority is vested solely in the hands of a very few senior leaders. Conservatives might want power and authority to be vested in the few, but in the C of E it isn’t (for a start its synodical) and, nor should it be.

Linda and Andrew’s sociological analysis tells the story of the importance of women in the life of the church. From the grass-roots up is it women who have led the local church ‘in mission.’ Their analysis shows, in management terms, that the C of E has ,in  many ways, been led from the bottom up (by women).I would argue that across the piste this continues to be the case. Far more still needs to be done to support, recognise and enable women’s ministry. Our very life might just depend on it.

There are of course large ‘successful’ evangelical churches, frequently in university cities, where this is not the case. The trouble is that these forms of church are often depicted as ‘the model of success,’ to be mimicked and copied by all ‘struggling’ churches. Large, successful and ‘individually branded’ churches can, somewhat obviously, adopt a Harvardeseque approach to management and leadership, and to a large extent should do so. But, the folly is in assuming that what is right for an evangelical church in, say, London or Oxford is right for rural ministry in Cumbria, suburban ministry in the midlands conurbation or, market town ministry in Dorset.

One final consideration. The C of E in its desire to enhance and support local ministry and, in the recognition that congregations grow where there is focused leadership, has decided to increase the number of stipendiary clergy significantly over the next few years. Could this be a grave mistake and one with huge financial implications? Yes, the C of E needs to invest in focused leadership, but what does this mean? Does or should, it mean more clergy, all of whom are (theoretically) nationally deployable? Or could it, as Brown and Woodhead, suggest mean investing in local leadership (lay and ordained), in the sort of people who already have strong local knowledge and connections, who have the authority to speak for and to the community because they are already intimately connected with the community, because they are already known to care about and, yes love; their local community? This thought deserves a lot more thought. The C of E might, in fact, be able to make a substantial investment in mission at a vastly reduced cost.

My hope is that whatever anyone thinks about the way that Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead have critiqued the various characters involved in the leadership of the C of E over the last thirty years their analysis will be taken very seriously indeed. The long-term future of the C of E is at stake and, they may provide, uncomfortable as it might feel, the insights that allow the Church to make some good and brave decisions, before it really is too late.