Speaking of the wonderful old writers; in search of the significant

The management scientist Henry Mintzberg wrote in his introduction to the Strategy Safari that:

‘There is a terrible bias in today’s management literature towards the current, the latest, the hottest. This does a disservice, not only to all those wonderful old writers, but especially to readers who are all too frequently offered the trivial new instead of the significant old.’ 

It is a quote, nay a sentiment, that I very much like. I also think it is a sentiment applicable beyond its context (i.e. the management sciences).

Is there a danger in the life of the church that works of real significance are being left to gather dust on library shelves in favour of shiny new coffee table offerings?

Now I am not saying for one minute that there aren’t contemporary books that are both wonderful and significant (I would highly recommend Steven Croft’s ‘The Gift of Leadership, for instance), but I am suggesting that within the Christian Literary Tradition there are books that should be read and read again by successive generations, not simply for their own sake, but so that the church really can preach the gospel afresh to, and for, each generation. Paradoxically the goal of freshness might mean reaching into the treasure chest marked ‘ old works of significance.’

I think I would also suggest that it is the responsibility of all who are involved in the leadership of theological education to curate such works to prevent them from losing their significance. So here are five of my ‘must reads,’ which have been categorized into five ‘leadership spheres:’

Ordained Ministry:  The Christian Priest Today, Michael Ramsey

Worship: The Mystery of Christian Worship, Odo Casel

Discipleship: The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Organisational behaviour, managerial decision-making, virtue based leadership:  The Rule of Benedict, St Benedict

Pastoral care: Pastoral Care, Pope Gregory I

Of course this ‘reading list’ is hopelessly incomplete both in terms of author and categories covered. But, hopefully, it’s a start. I would be very interested to find out who others consider to be ‘wonderful old writers,’ who should be read by successive generations, such is the significance of their work.

My thesis is that if we, the church, really want to keep the christian tradition alive and relevant we need to engage with the wonderful writers of old.






Speaking of faith, speaking of inclusion

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Matthew 15, 21-28; ‘The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.’ Could there be a more fitting gospel narrative for our times?

There seem to be three things ‘wrong’ with the Canaanite Woman. Two of her ‘wrongs’ are given away in the title:  she is a woman and, she is a Canaanite. Her third ‘wrong’ is in having a thoroughly dodgy daughter; so dodgy that we are told she is possessed by an evil spirit.

The Canaanite woman is the archetype of someone whose very presence is unsettling, disturbing, even unwelcome. The Canaanite woman is the sort of person designed to inhabit the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind.’  But, the amazing thing about the unnamed, and therefore shamed Canaanite woman, is that she is audacious, plucky and, possibly, let’s be honest, a bit of a pain in the backside. Oh yes, and she has faith. In fact I would go further and say she has a quality of faith. This quality of faith allows her to do two things: acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Son of David whilst also saying I too am who I am, and my offspring are just as important the offspring produced by your family and, friends.

At first Jesus seems to say ‘no you are not, and no they are not.’ Jesus appears to be invoking an in-group out-group mentality to the very great approval of his disciples. After all his disciples have complained about this third-rate individual to Jesus in frank and certain terms:

‘Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy,’ (Message Bible).

It seems as though in ancient biblical times people who were ranked second, third, or even fourth-rate drove the in group crazy! Plus ca change.

However the tables are slowly turned as the woman’s faith compels her to persist with her demands. I wonder how it must have felt for the watching disciples as their friend, leader and Messiah-to-be, cedes to the woman’s wishes? Again I like how the Message Bible puts it:

‘Oh woman your faith is something else. What you want is what you get.’

The disciples who had hitherto been allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to consider this Canaanite woman a worthy and a legitimate candidate for exclusion are forced to watch as Jesus affirms both her right, and her daughters, to be included. The Canaanite woman stands both for those who are excluded and, those who have children who may, on whatever grounds, be excluded.

I reckon the disciples must have been shocked and stunned by Jesus apparent volte face. I wish Matthew had told us something about the post encounter debrief between Jesus and the disciples but there again maybe it is better that he didn’t. Pehaps this is a space that we need to enter into using our imagination?

Perhaps, the questions we need to ask include who are the contemporary equivalents of the Canaanite woman, and, for what contemporary out-groups does the Canaanite woman stand as an archetype?

And,possibly here is a lesson for all who consider themselves to be part of an ever so right in group: those whose faith compels them to seek inclusion based on the straightforward acceptance of who they are before God are not going to stop, again in the words of the Message Bible, ‘coming back’ with their demands.

Perhaps one of the most significant lessons from the story of the Canaanite woman and her faith is that the demands for acceptance, recognition and inclusion, rightfully and rite-fully, in the life of the church, by out-groups whatever the critics may say, stems from one source: faith.




Speaking of wealth and poverty; in praise of Philip North

‘The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’

Fortunately this stanza from All Things Bright and Beautiful is rarely sung these days. Perhaps, at least at the cognitive and explicit level of reasoning, we no longer quite buy into a hierarchical and stoical theology of existence?  But, maybe, the Church of England at a deep and unacknowledged level does in fact continue to be guided by such theologically poor assumptions?

Bishop Philip North certainly believes that the Church of England seems to have a bias towards the middle class and, wealthy.  Or, more precisely, the churchy and ever so slightly glamorous  home counties set. And, he is very possibly correct.

I have a lot of sympathy with the drift of + Philip’s argument even though I am not totally convinced by some of his analysis or the generalizations he makes. +Philip, for instance, seems to regard poverty as an entirely urban and northern phenomena. I am not sure this is true. Rural poverty also is a cruel, and isolating, thing. Real urban poverty is to be found in Swindon, Slough and Shoeburyness all of which are in the south. Perhaps, I am just splitting hairs?

Bishop Philip’s grand claim is that ‘every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised.’ Some have that suggested this, whilst sounding grand, is not true. I think what I would argue that every effective and enduring renewal movement has sought to remove distinctions between rich and, poor challenging the notion that socio-economic stratification is somehow divinely ‘ordered.’ 

St. Benedict famously did this when he wrote that ‘the greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and to pilgrims, because it is in them above all others, that Christ is welcomed. As for the rich, they have a way of exacting respect through they very fear inspired by the power they yield,’ (R.O.B. Chapter 53). Turning to a fresher expression of church St. Francis’ theology was also biased not only to the poor, but to the very act of becoming impoverished. Both St. Benedict and St. Francis were educated middle class boys who understood that care and compassion for the poor and the building of communities which eradicated the distinction between rich and poor are a large and significant part of authentic Christian mission and evangelism. Perhaps their confidence was vested in the notion that Jesus was a middle class boy whose very mission was to make the Kingdom of God fully available to all?

Bishop Philip is surely right to challenge the Church of England to invest in mission activities which look unglamorous and where the short-term payback is unquantifiable. He is correct in challenging the Church of England to stop being so impressed by SW1 & 2 models of mission and evangelism. He is impressive in standing alongside the likes of Pope Francis in seeking a a church that is poor and for the poor.” He is prophetic in asking the Church of England to finally and completely jettison a theology which in many ways continues to believe in the unsung line which declares that ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.’ So here is the question for the allocators of church funds:

Do we (and yes I am part of the collective we) continue to believe at a deep, but unspoken level, that rich and poor exist in a divinely appointed hierarchy of estates?  I suspect that we do and that Bishop Philip is right to challenge some very deeply held assumptions; assumptions that guide some of the Church of England’s most important investment decisions. Finally I suspect that Bishop Philip would endorse the words of Oscar Romero:

‘If we really want to learn the meaning of conversion and faith, if we want to learn what it means to trust other people, then it is necessary to become poor or, at the very least, it is necessary to make the cause of the poor our own. That is when one begins to experience faith and conversion: when one has the heart of the poor, when one knows that financial capital, political influence, and power are worthless, and that without God we are nothing.’ 

As a church we need to stop being so focused on the shiny, the glitzy, the apparently successful and, the contemporary. We need, if we are truly interested in building enduring and effective renewal movements to find ways of learning the lessons bequeathed by the likes of Benedict, Francis, Oscar Romero and, yes, Jesus. If we don’t we might as well start singing once more ‘‘the rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’ 

The investment decisions we – the Church of England – make are ultimately reflections of the theology we prize and, for me at least, that is a sobering thought. Thank you Philip North.