Talking of depression, anxiety, lies and liturgy.

I was flicking through the TV channels earlier this week and found myself watching Horizon’s ‘Stopping Male Suicide.’ It made for sobering viewing.

As some readers might be aware I have suffered from both depression and anxiety. I call them my twin impostors. They are impostors for the straightforward reason that they seek to impose, without invitation, their presence. Depression and anxiety like to penetrate every part of our beings: bodies, minds, and souls. The symptoms and manifestations of depression and anxiety are widespread; they are holistic diseases.

Depression left me feeling physically sick. It hit me in the pit of my stomach. It made me feel as though my whole body was being suffocated in what the psalmist (40, 2) describes as the ‘miry bog.’ Anxiety caused acute pain in my large muscle groups and the sensation of my whole body being washed through with chemicals. It was truly awful. Both depression and anxiety tell the worst of lies. As one of the main characters in the programme said: “Depression is a liar: it tells you horrible things about yourself and makes you believe them.” This is so true. In my experience anxiety is also a liar. It tells you that the worst is going to happen, and that your wildest imaginings are truths, and every time something ‘bad’ does happen, anxiety’s cruelest whisper is ‘I told you so.’ 

Depression and anxiety also tell three, potentially devastating,  spiritual lies: ‘you aren’t good enough,’ you aren’t capable enough’ and, cruelest of all, ‘they would be better off without you.’  For a person of faith, a Christian, these are particularly awful lies. The first lie invites a direct rejection of our foundational Scripture, the very notion that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1, 26). The second lie tells us that we really can’t expect to a make any form of meaningful contribution to the functioning of the ‘Body of Christ,’ and that we don’t therefore properly belong, the third lie asks us to consider whether there is any point in going on, given that we are of no earthly value to anyone else. These lies are all cruel, de-humanizing, and potentially dangerous. They are some of the most widespread lies at work today.

These are the lies I had to confront time and time again as I trained for ordination, for it was at theological college that many years of suffering from ‘twin impostor syndrome’ came to a head. These were the  lies that crushed, that sought to break an already highly ‘bruised reed,’ (Isaiah 42, 3).

I was very fortunate to have a friend, one friend, who I could talk to (the staff at Cuddesdon were also simply amazing). His name was Nick. I think he saved my soul. I can’t remember a single word he said to me; it was enough to know that he was simply there for me. I will be forever grateful. The presenter of the Horizon documentary said ” in the fight against suicide the power of a single conversation should not be underestimated.” This is so true. Sadly Nick died earlier this year, of natural causes. Preaching at his funeral was bitter-sweet but was without doubt one of the greatest privileges of my life.

I still find it difficult to think of the twin impostors as a blessing, but these days I can’t quite think of them as a curse. But, there again, I am fortunate for I have survived, at least thus far. If, as a parish priest, there is a blessing to be found it is through the privilege of having a platform from which to speak about mental health and the tentative possibility of helping others to live ‘with, through, and beyond,’ depression and anxiety. For me, ‘with, through, and beyond,’ best articulate my understanding of ‘healing.’ We learn, as I found out to, with and alongside, others.

I am passionate about speaking out, and hopefully de-stigmatizing, the twin impostors. I am also passionate (for Andrew is a passionate fellow) about helping others live with, through, and beyond depression and anxiety. I also think that if the church is serious about her healing ministry she needs to get down into the ‘miry bog,’ and help in the process of lifting sufferers out of the ‘pit.’  One of the ways we can do this is through the use of carefully crafted liturgy.

A small group in my benefice have been working on a liturgy we are going to be offering for the first time on the 21st October. The aim is to bring sufferers together in gentle solidarity in the hope that we learn, together, to live ‘with, through, and beyond’ depression and anxiety. Can I ask you to keep us in your prayers? If you would like to join us you would be most welcome. In the meantime let me offer you a passage from Scripture that reflects my experience of living ‘with, through, and beyond’ depression and anxiety:

‘I called on your name O lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea: ‘Do not close your ear to my cry for help, but give me relief.’ (Lamentations 3, 55 -56).



Leadership? What sort of leadership? What sort of Church?

The Church isn’t, at present, covering itself in glory. What must God be thinking of the church?

The Church is fast running the risk of being regarded as something far worse than an irrelevance, an out of date, out of touch, legacy of a past long gone. The Church is rapidly, in many ordinary, sane, logical and caring people’s eyes coming to be seen as a thoroughly corrupt and immoral body. That is the stark reality; the view of many interested observers. I am not referring here to the evangelical atheists, the sort of people who might be happy to use every church scandal as an opportunity to say ‘I told you so,’ but rather the sympathetic and persuadable outsiders, the sort of people who in some ways long for a sane and healthy church.  These types, many of who are connected with the Church (of England) through serving as school governors, helping at fetes and coffee mornings, bell ringing or flower arranging are questioning whether the Church of England is a healthy brand. This week an ‘ordinary’ member of my congregation took the time and effort to talk to me about how unbelievably angry she is with the church. I am pleased that she did. I am pleased that she didn’t do what countless others have done over recent years and quietly drift away. Another example: a school governor asked me whether it might be possible to remove the words ‘Church of England’ from a school’s name.

The Church of England, like all churches, exists to spread the good news, to incarnate the gospel, to speak truth to power, to shine into the darkness. But, the problem is that we are, in many people’s eyes, becoming part of that very darkness. And, let’s be honest they have a point, don’t they?

One of the Church of England’s preoccupations is Renewal and Reform. Renewal and Reform is short-hand for growth, bums on seats, conversions, ‘becoming a growing church for all people and all places.’ Now please don’t get me wrong: I am passionate about growth both in terms of numbers and holiness but surely ‘renewal’ should also be concerned with the health of the body and its aggregate stock of virtue?

As an ordinary parish priest in an ordinary parish I am privileged to witness the amazing amount of good that ordinary people of good will do each and every day. But, the problem is that every time another scandal is reported, another cover up exposed, another example of the ‘purple circle’ looking first and foremost to the institution’s interests is revealed, the power of the extraordinary ordinary is diminished. And, it is in’t good enough. We have to do better, if we are serious about the gospel and being agents of Him who is genuinely good news.

Our ‘leadership’ seems to be obsessed with growth, but what it isn’t doing (at least not in a way that is obvious to me) is tending to the foundations and doing the really hard work of real ethical leadership. It seems that the Church of England has fallen prey to group think, a bland uniformity where ‘strategic growth’ is all that really matters.

As a priest and parent of two daughters who are a bit different, a bit other, I feel, if I am totally honest, in some ways slightly relieved that they are no longer church goers in their university cities. It shames me to say this but why would I want my vulnerable and cherished ones to be influenced by a culture that continues to celebrate alpha males above all others, and where disability and sexuality are sometimes considered to be the bitter fruits of ‘sins in the family (see John 9, 1-5), or where ‘I will pray for you,’ is in reality a statement of assumed superiority, or where ‘you haven’t prayed hard enough’ is a critique of both human identity and the depth of faith?

On what grounds could such a church possibly be good news to ‘all people?’ If Renewal and Reform is really serious about ‘all people in all places,’ then our theology and ecclesiology need to match the stated aspiration. If we dehumanize others through weak leadership, poor governance, and poor theology then we can only ever masquerade as good news. For sure we might get away with this for some time, but in the long-run we won’t. 

If the Church of England is serious about Renewal and Reform maybe it should be spending far more time, effort, and money on the real work of renewal? For me this means focusing on the hard and nitty-gritty work of ethical leadership. What does a healthy church look like, what ‘theologies’ are we prepared to accommodate (for there must be some that we aren’t), and how do we get there are the questions posed by a serious commitment to renewal. Only when we have answered these questions can we begin to understand what form (or Reform) the church should take.

Maybe its time to put away the flip charts, marker pens, and post it notes, to stop creating strap-lines and mission statements and obsessing about vision, and instead to start digging deep, making sure that our foundations are sound, and our vital organs are healthy? Maybe we need to completely rethink the art of leadership in light of our current reality? Maybe we need more theologians and governors and less ‘visionaries’ if we are to get out of the mire we are now in?

Yes, we need to grow. Yes, mission and evangelism are our mandate, but first of all we need to attend to the health of the body. This is our most important leadership task. But, is it one we are really up for? One more thought on health: in the Church of England we are always asking people to be more generous with their giving. Like all organizations we are after what the marketing people call ‘share of wallet.’ Share of wallet is directly correlated to that most important of intangible values: trust. If people don’t trust us, if our own insiders don’t really trust us, then on what basis can we really expect them to contribute a significant proportion of their discretionary income? It is of course this income that in the longer-term, after the Renewal and Reform money has been invested, that funds both mission and ministry. As an institution the Church of England needs to generate goodwill and it can only do so if it is trusted. Trust, money, ministry, mission are all close relatives. If you doubt this just ask OXFAM.

My big fear for the Church of England is that we will continue to achieve short-term growth, but at the cost of long-term decline. An out-and-out growth strategy can mask all manner of ills. The Church of England is perfectly capable of doing a R.B.S, or Northern Rock. A fixation with growth alone will deliver short (maybe even medium) term ‘success,’ but that’s all it will achieve. I would also dare to suggest that an out and out growth strategy combined with really weak governance is an absolute recipe for institutional disaster. Growth strategies are capable, in the short-term, of covering all manner of ills but in the longer-term if the ills are not addressed and dealt with corporate Armageddon surely follows.

The Church of England needs to be the healthiest of all institutions, or bodies, if it wants to achieve long-term and sustainable ‘success’ and, more importantly, if it is to deliver on its gospel mandate: to be good news. We can’t afford to be behind the curve, we must instead always be ahead of the curve, always modelling best practice, always holding its senior leaders (bishops) to account for their ongoing pattern of decisions, always making sure the processes and procedures are in place to mitigate the corporate governance evils of moral hazard and group think. In the interests of transparency I ought to be clear and upfront: I don’t think that our standards of governance and stock of ethical leadership can rise without a fundamental change in the legal status of the office of bishop. We have to find ways of making sure that bishops (individually and collectively) are responsible and accountable to their peers and those who they are ‘called’ to serve. If we don’t, if we leave bishops with unchecked monarchical powers, if we continue to rely solely on formal disciplinary processes as the only form of check and balance, then we better hope and pray,for the sake of the church and her mission, that our bishops are undisputed paragons of virtue. Recent history indicates that bishops may be just as likely as any other form of senior leader to fall victim to moral hazards and group think.

For now we need to be honest. The Church of England is in a moral, ecclesial, and theological mess. It is in desperate need of  internally orientated Renewal and Reform.

In the words of Jeffrey John:

Lord, do something about your Church.

It is so awful, its hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it. Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned: Hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical, respectable, comfortable, moralizing, compromising, clinging to its  privileges and worldly securities. And, when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.

Lord we need your whip of cords. Judge us and cleanse us, challenge and change us, break us and remake us. Help us to be what you called us to be. Help us to embody you on earth. Help us to make you real down here, and feed your people bread instead of stones. And start with me. (Jeffrey John).

Speaking of political parties, the church, and forks in the road

I thought I would start by being up front and transparent. I am, politically and civically, a liberal. I am, theologically, an orthodox-progressive. I haven’t always occupied these places. I have in the past been far more conservative, politically and theologically. I remember at my BAP (Bishop’s Advisory Panel) describing myself as a small c conservative. I have, like many politically liberal and theologically progressive types of my generation, been, as they, say ‘on a journey.’ The direction of my journey has largely been shaped through encounter and experience.

As a liberalish type I like to read a spread of newspapers. The Guardian and The Times are my go-to newspapers, although I have also been known to buy the Daily Telegraph, although, in all honesty, primarily for the sport. Matthew d’Ancona’s article (Politics can be decent, or it can be deplorable. Time to choose) in Monday’s Guardian (13th August) set my reflective juices flowing. In the article he discusses the nature of Boris’ language and the support he has received from various well-known conservative politicians. He also describes how the conservative voice is prone to reconstruct all criticisms of the erstwhile Foreign Secretary in relation to that most cherished of privileges: freedom of speech. He writes:

‘Let’s first establish what this row is not about. For a start, it is emphatically not about freedom of speech. In absolutely no way has Johnson’s liberty to speak been forcibly curtailed or legally constrained.  On Thursday the Met Police commissioner ”disclosed her preliminary view” that ”what Mr. Johnson said would not reach the bar for a criminal offence.”’

I think Matthew d’ Ancona’s analysis is spot on. Johnson has said what he has said and what he has said appears to be within the law. There is therefore no freedom of speech issue. However, what seems to happen with increasing tendency, in civic and political spheres as well as within the narrow orbit of Church of England discourse, is that whenever the conservative voice is placed under the lens of scrutiny it responds by claiming that freedom of speech is being curtailed. It’s a synthetic technique designed to do three things: deflect from the real issue under discussion, rally the troops and protect the tribe.

When I wrote a review of the conservative reviews of Vicky Beeching’s book, Undivided, it was put to me that I was seeking to close down the freedom of conservatives to express their views. This line of argument was, and is, clearly nonsensical. The conservative voice had spoken and was responded to. That’s all that happened. Freedom of speech surely demands that all voices, and all pens, can be critiqued?

For Matthew d’Ancona what is really at stake is the nature of political discourse. In the same way that what is at stake in the Church of England is the nature of theological discourse (which is not to say that doctrine doesn’t matter):

‘In Johnson’s case, what we are witnessing is a man who  until very recently held one of the great offices of state, claiming jester’s privilege. When he writes, or speaks, he does so as an MP and privy counsellor……….It is almost a working definition of politics: you can say what you like, within the law, but you must face the consequences. A standup comedian will point out that he is just making jokes, or being ironic or testing taboos. A politician does not enjoy such license – indeed how could he or she? A political party is not a free-for-all or a convenient platform for uncurtailed rhetoric, but an organisation for the disciplined achievement of power and implementation of principled policy.’ 

Language, in other words, matters. How we say and write and, how we review and criticize is all important. It matters because when we speak and write we seek to influence others not only through their thoughts but through their behaviour. Words and phrases have real currency.

In our theological debates we must always be careful with the words we use, but we must also be aware of the power and authority of silence. One of my criticisms of the Church of England’s senior leadership has, and remains, the wall of silence in the face of  homophobia and misogyny. When I see bishops criticizing Boris, but not standing in solidarity alongside those in the church who regularly receive the vilest of criticisms I feel really, really sad. It is almost as if we can’t, or won’t, see the log in our own eye. It’s almost as if we are seeking to protect the institution without cleansing the temple.

Matthew d’Ancona concludes his article by suggesting that ‘we have reached a fork in the road where it is under sustained attack from nativists, opportunists and bigots in suits. There are only two paths available. Johnson has chosen. So must we.’  He is of course writing about the political sphere, but I strongly (very strongly!) believe that the Church of England has reached a fork in the road and decisions have to be taken. The decisions we must take clearly relate to gender and sexuality but they also relate to the very character of the body.

‘We, the Church of England, have reached a series of forks in the road. We have to decide whether we are on the side of the oppressed, marginalized and ridiculed, or whether it is the institution that must be protected. We have to decide whether all people are truly made in the image of God, or otherwise. We have to decide whether to remain silent when people are referred to, sometimes by our members, in the vilest of terms, or whether to speak. Ultimately we have to decide how we are to walk the path of righteousness for His name sake, because at the end of the day it isn’t about us, or about or our tribe, it’s about God, our neighbour, and the coming of the kingdom here on earth as in heaven.’