Talking of brands. And, the cross

As I was reading and reflecting on this week’s gospel (John 12, 20-33) I couldn’t help but think about the concepts of brands and branding. A bizarre line of thought maybe, but hey-ho.

Brands are interesting things (up to a point). At a branding seminar in the early 1990’s I was told that brands are a mixture of the incontrovertible truths, about a company, product or service and, a range of intangible benefits, features and even promises. I think this is a fair description. Let’s unpick this for a second or two by considering a particular brand. I have chosen Mont Blanc pens, but really any brand will do.

Let’s start with the most basic of facts: the Mont Blanc pen is nothing other, in reality, than a pen. It is a means of writing. Theoretically it would be perfectly possible for a company to make a pen to the same quality as a Mont Blanc pen and simply retail it as something called Pen. The trouble is that they wouldn’t be able to command a premium price, for the ability to command a premium comes not from the basic product features, or even necessarily the price of the raw materials used to manufacture the product, but through the intangible benefits that owning a product, good or service is supposed to provide. In the case of luxury brands, such as Mont Blanc, the intangible benefits include status, esteem and the perception of wealth and happiness. Mont Blanc pens are a club good. Most, certainly most premium consumer brands, are club goods. The basic message is buy this product or service and you can become a member of an elite group; a group capable of giving, and providing you, with a sense of identity. The marketing message of the brand manager is, in some senses, deeply theological: ‘we come that you may have life in all its abundance.’   The snag is that in order to buy into this false narrative the product, good or service on offer needs to become an object of deep desire. The good is to become in some senses a god.

This promise is of course a lie, or even a heresy, for no brand can offer life in all its abundance. The marketing folk know that their promises are shallow, for brands that provide life-long satisfaction will go out of business. Mont Blanc needs its customers to buy more pens. Brand management is about selling the illusion of satisfaction and not its permanence. The job of the brand manager is to keep the customer mildly dissatisfied whilst at the same time seeking to retain their loyalty by offering the promise that your status within the club will be enhanced if only you buy a bigger, better and more expensive product from the range on offer. Brands, in this way are discriminatory and exclusive.

The exclusive and discriminatory nature of brands, justified through the science of ‘customer segmentation’ was brought home to me when I became an ordinand. For the previous decade or so my bank, Barclays, had offered me all manner of treats as a premier customer: a leatherette cheque book cover, a snazzy looking debit card, a personal banker, a guaranteed overdraft facility, access to a premier loan, the occasional offer of entering a ballot for football tickets and so forth. Of course the real  desire was to sell me products! My ‘premier’ status was won on the basis of my, then, income. The very month that I became an ordinand the bank were on the phone: ‘what has happened to your income?’ When I explained that I was now the grateful recipient of a training grant so I could attend theological college I was downgraded, with immediate effect, to the status of an ordinary customer. No more perks. My membership of the Barclays premier club was withdrawn, taken away. My new cheque books and debit card arrived and I never heard from my ‘premier banker’ again. The bank was effectively telling me that from henceforth I should consider myself Joe Average. C’est la vie. I had been, once again segmented.

The Cross is , of course, the most visible symbol of Christianity. I hesitate to call it a brand but its true that the crucifixion was a historical fact and, that Christians believe that benefits flow from a life of  purposeful faith. The cross was the place where Jesus was branded, as a criminal, and killed, not for his own benefit but ours. The crucified Jesus is the same Jesus who John (10,10) records as saying, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ 

The ‘they’ in Jesus’ terms means everyone: you, me, us. Jesus makes the universal branding promise: I, not you, will pay: I will pay once and once only, for there is nothing worse you can do to me and, my ‘offer’ is universal, I don’t segment or discriminate: I do not chose to differentiate between people.

At the beginning of the gospel passage we are told that some Greeks had come to worship at the festival (of the Passover) and had approached Philip saying Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Andrew (good chap – my namesake) then goes and informs Jesus. Jesus then suggests that the only way that they, like his kin the Jews, will be able to see Jesus and, all that he stands for is through the Cross. It is not a snazzy or glossy image but it is the universal image, or symbol, and, whatever the marketing folk would have us believe, the cross is the only way we can ever come to ‘have life in all its abundance.’  Surveying the ‘wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,’ is our Passiontide invitation.

The Cross is the only true means through which we are able to claim life in all its abundance and, play our role in putting an end to segmentation, classification and discrimination.






Talking of being progressive and liberal

I recently stumbled across a poster on Facebook which offered the following three propositions:

A liberal church says you are welcome here and don’t need to clean up your life.

A legalistic church says you are not welcome here until you clean up your life.

Jesus says you are welcome here and I will change your life from the inside out (John 8, 11).

Now I can’t speak for the legalistic church but maybe I can for a liberal church?

Although I would prefer to use the phrase orthodox-progressive as an identifier, meaning that I am fully signed up to the truths expressed though the creeds in a fundamentally literal sense whilst being progressive in issues relating to both gender and sexuality, others, because of the ground on which I stand, have and continue to describe me as liberal. And, that’s just fine.

But, what is not fine is the suggestion that ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ aren’t interested in helping people live better, cleaner, more Christ-like lives. In all honesty I don’t know any liberal clergy who don’t prize conversation and transformation of life highly. I don’t know of any liberal or progressive clergy who aren’t deeply committed to conversion in a real, meaningful and life-enhancing way.

I think that virtually every liberal or progressive preacher that I have heard  takes growth into the likeness of Christ to be fundamental to the liberal or progressive project. Sure, just as with conservative Christianity there is a huge spectrum within liberal or progressive Christianity, but the overwhelming majority of contemporary ‘liberals’ take conversion of life, and the notion of habitas, to be characteristic of the Christian life.

The liberal or progressive Christian, isn’t overly concerned with relativism, or some form of theological libertarianism, but with coming to good, sound and virtuous decisions about how the Christian life might  be well lived. For sure, this is frequently done through engagement with other disciplines. The liberal or progressive Christian takes Scripture seriously, very seriously, but is happy to reason through discourse and, by analogy.  This method of Scriptural engagement isn’t new or faddy, and neither does it represent a capitulation to culture. Instead it draws deeply from the well of tradition; think of Origen and his method of biblical engagement, for instance. And, then there is Henry Major whose dialogical liberalism was entirely bound up with arriving at good decisions and the subsequent exercise of virtue, both at the individual and corporate level of analysis. The liberal or progressive prizes dialogical and analogical reasoning and relies on Scripture as the primary source. Scripture in this way is cherished and acknowledged for its revelatory potential. Progressive and liberal methods of exegesis are both traditional and sophisticated.

Liberal or progressive Christians are, it is true, happy to welcome honest doubters and, those who don’t know quite why they are in church into the community. They don’t insist on sound doctrine as a condition for membership, or even for offering gifts and blessings to the church. Pilgrimage and journeying are important concepts for many liberal-progressives. However, the hope, prayer and expectation is that en route lives will be transformed, relationships deepened, wounds healed and that Christ will be made known.

Community is important to most liberal-progressive types. Liberal or progressive Christianity is certainly not, despite some conservative critiques, an exercise in religious individualism. Many liberal-progressive churches make a virtue of the type of community, and witness, they are seeking to fashion. The biblical concept of Koinonia is as important to the liberal and progressive church as it is to the conservative church. As an orthodox-progressive priest one of my absolute pre-occupations is the shape and collective witness of the church. I am ever so slightly obsessed with Peter Selby’s 1991 question:

‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation?

This is an ecclesial and eschatological question. It is a question for the whole church and, maybe in particular, the progressive wing of the church. It is also a communal and divisive question. It presupposes that faith is exercised corporately and communally. The question hints that churches can have healthy or unhealthy shapes. It is a suggestive and eschatological question in that it insists that the church here on earth (the church imperfect) is a preparation, and more importantly a living witness, to the church in heaven (the church perfect).

Liberal and progressive Christians, despite the conservative critique, do believe that transformation of life, conversion, both individually and collectively, is the rationale of an active faith. To suggest otherwise is just plain wrong. The overwhelming majority of liberal and progressive Christians would share John Stott’s sentiment that changed people change the world. In fact, paradoxically given the stable which Stott helped build, transformation is the fundamental concern of large swathes within the  progressive-liberal church. It’s certainly mine!

Talking of identity, mental health and addiction.

My dad would have been eighty on Wednesday. Sadly, tragically, he died aged forty seven in 1985 (2nd October – the same day Rock Hudson went to meet his maker). So, this week has been a sad, poignant, week in some ways.

My dad (Barrie) was born into a working class family in Rishton, near Blackburn. He had a fierce intelligence and benefited from a grammar school education, in Accrington. He was particularly good at maths and science. After school he joined the army – well he had no choice really but to join army (national service) – and was commissioned. He played rugby to a high standard and was an excellent marksman. He was then sent to Cyprus where he witnessed, and was personally impacted by, some hideous acts of barbarity. Cyprus left its scars both physically and psychologically and, I would guess, spiritually. Dad found the concept of a loving God hard to accept.

Post Cyprus and the army dad began working for I.C.L. and studied Maths, in the evenings, at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. He was awarded a first class honors degree; pretty impressive for a working class lad from Rishton. He became a computer scientist. The 1960’s were heady times for the computer industry and I am proud that my dad was a pioneer. He oversaw the building and installation of a computer at the University of East Anglia in 1962. He met and fell in love with my mother, over her neighbours garden fence (he was a fellow rugby player) and, was married in 1964. He was then offered a plum job at Moor Hall, I.C.L.’s academy in Cookham, Berkshire, lecturing and undertaking research in applied computing. The family moved south in 1966. In the early 1970’s he set up his own business, Enquiry Systems Limited, which he sold in 1978 to RACAL Electronics.

It’s a good story. One of success, of triumph in the face of adversity, the self-made man and so forth, isn’t it? Except that my dad couldn’t live with himself. There is no doubt that he was seriously, and permanently, traumatized by Cyprus.  He suffered from the most horrific nightmares. He was a deeply kind and compassionate man but he also suffered from the most extraordinary temper. I say, he suffered, because his outbursts of rage, which were incredibly frightening, led to periods of prolonged remorse. He had other identity issues as well (lets leave that one hanging) and, began to drink; heavily, very heavily. The drinking to its toll and he died in 1985. The death certificate provides a medical diagnosis and reason for death, but in my opinion, he died of a broken heart and mind. There is nothing pleasant, good, or calm about an alcoholics death. The last five years of his life was a living hell both for dad, and for the family. Life had no stability, no predictability. The five or so years after his death were also pretty cruel. I call them my wilderness years. I know that I could have gone the same way as dad, so insecure and fragile was I in my own identity.

So what ‘saved’ me? Or more precisely who ‘saved’ me? Well, I was fortunate to meet my Christian wife and I joined the church. I was ‘saved’ through my relationships. And, for this I will be forever grateful. It was through my marriage and through the church, working alongside each other, that I began the process of discovering my identity; ‘in Christ.’

Now, I don’t think my story is unique or even abnormal. Mental health problems and addiction are rife, the effects of them devastating. I often talk to a friend about the level of despondency and despair I witness in church. One of the most intimate pastoral encounters that a priest can have is during the distribution of the sacrament. The altar rail is, in many ways, the best place to pick up clues about what is really going on in people’s lives. It is a place of, if you will excuse the pun, instant feedback. I look for the tears in the corner of communicants eyes and, often wonder why the person who normally seeks to make eye contact has begun to keep their head bowed. Sometimes what I see in people’s eyes is a simple request for help, a plea for healing. And, then there is touch. Sometimes, often, people want something more than the bread to be simply placed in their hands. They want, for the briefest, of moments to be touched, for their hand to be held. For me the Eucharist has become a place, or do I mean occasion, for healing. Mind you this might be expected given the affirmations that ‘the Lord is here’ and that ‘his Spirit is with us?’

If the church is to take her healing ministry seriously, which she must, then she must position herself ‘a yard from the gates of hell,’ (C.T. Stubbs). This implies reaching out to those devastated by mental health and addiction. The church must offer a safe and healing place for both sufferers and survivors. Mental health and addiction are the two epidemics of our age. They are conditions which posses,  torment, imprison, dominate and kill. Frequently, the route cause of mental health and addiction is a crisis of identity: ‘who am I’ followed by ‘what have I become’ are two questions frequently asked by sufferers.

The Church needs to find ways to reach out to all who are carrying the heaviest of burdens and play her part in rebuilding damaged lives. It needs to find ways of partnering with secular agencies, offering the use of its buildings and, through its life and worship, restoring damaged and tormented souls. It needs above all to make sure  it never adds to or increases the weight of the burdens carried by many. For sure the church has, and can, add to already unbearable loads. Sadly doctrine, dogma, ‘orthodoxy’ can all be used as building blocks in the creation of an unbearable load. For the church this should be a sobering thought.

To live a life of torment, fueled through mental health problems,addiction and crises of identity, is to live life ‘a yard from the gate of hell,’ that is the grim reality. I am grateful that through my marriage, and through the church, I was able to begin the journey of finding the real me, that I was able to find a place where ‘deep calleth on deep,’ and where the storms raging within could be calmed and, where fears could be named, acknowledged, and overcome. The journey of recovery is seldom straightforward and linear. It requires patience, endurance, understanding, authenticity, solidarity, and friendship. My favorite verse, or mantra, also helps: ‘I sought the Lord and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears,’ (Psalm,34, 4).

My hope and prayer is that the church will always be part of the solution in tackling questions of identity and in breaking the bonds of those held captive by those two most greedy and destructive of impostors: mental health problems and addiction.