Talking of bullying

Earlier this week I listened to a radio program about female teenage age self harm. It made for deeply unpleasant listening. All of the expert contributors stressed that bullying, real bullying, is frequently a catalyst for self-harm. The expert contributors were also unified in their belief that the scars from bullying, sometimes physical, but always mental, last for life. Anyone who has been bullied knows this.

One of the reasons why the scars run so deep, sapping the very soul, is that we humans often believe the things we are told. Humans, it seems, are hard-wired to believe; we are credal beings. We also find it incredibly difficult to let go of the ‘former things.’  At a very deep level I suspect that the bullies know this. They know the damage that they cause and they know that their taunts run deep.

Bullies understand, just like people of faith, that repetition is the tool that turns creeds from proposition to belief. Bullies know that the popular wisdom which suggests that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me,’ is the worst kind of myth.

Bullies, the worst of bullies, are happy using all the tricks of the trade: sticks and stones, words, whatever has the most impact, whatever causes the deepest pain, whatever facilitates the possibility of self-loathing and self-harm. The ultimate genius of the bully is, you see, to deflect blame and attention away from themselves. This is their great deceit. If the bully can facilitate self-destructive patterns of behaviour in their victims then voila, they have been successful in using their power to shift the blame. It’s a strategy perfect in its wickedness.

Bullies are, philosophically, critical realists. They understand – fully understand – their victims areas of weakness and vulnerability. They know where their victim feels uncomfortable and exposed and direct their critique towards maximizing discomfort, in the hope that discomfort will mutate into self-loathing. Bullies also understand how to turn vulnerability into fear. Bullies know how to get people to turn in on themselves. They are experts in diminishing horizons and undermining community. Bullies also know that various types of people are inherently more vulnerable and they therefore attack their easy pray. Its all incredibly ugly.

Bullies clothe themselves in a variety of different robes. Sometimes they dress for war, their intent out there, on public display, for all to see. Sometimes the pattern of bullying is more nuanced, sly, seemingly clever, less obvious and implicit. ‘Good’ bullies know that the constant drip, drip, drip, of causticity can reap real long-term harm. They also know that the drip, drip,drip of carefully rehearsed and choreographed harm is less likely to be seen and called out. And it’s not just individuals that bully its groups.

Sometimes these groups are referred to as gangs; sometimes they are referred to as institutions.  Institutions and gangs often start to bully as a form of protection when they perceive a potential cost to their freedom, power, status or autonomy. Both gangs and institutions have their own way of doing things, their own rituals, their own procedures. Gangland and institutional bullies hide within the collective and either crudely, or subtly, use the rituals and policies at their disposal for their ugly and demeaning ends. The rituals and policies at their disposal often allow the bullies to withhold the freedom of the target of their behaviour to stake their case on equal terms. Is this the sort of bullying we have seen in the Christ Church saga where it appears that the Dean has had the rights associated with natural and procedural justice withheld?

Gangs and institutions frequently stigmatize, victimize and ostracize.  It happens. Victims frequently report that they have been offered little in the way of institutional support and whistle-blowers are often consigned to the HR file called ‘trouble-maker.’ Institutions often collude in the facilitation of abusive forms of behaviour.  Victims and whistle-blowers, whatever the PR rhetoric, are frequently considered to be problems.

Bullies refuse to accept that each and every human being deserves to be treated with decency and respect. Theologically bullying starts with a dismissal of the sentiment expressed in Genesis 1, 26 where are told that ‘God said let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’  The ‘successful’ bully can never dare to take this foundational scripture at face value, for the bullies task is to erase equality, parity, and dignity. For the bully justice and love have little value, for their consequences stand contrary to the bullies destructive ends. The other, quite sickening, skill that bullies employ is role reversal. When it looks like they might not be able to secure their ends bullies are adept at saying ‘look at me, I am the real victim.’

The bullies ultimate aim is to get their victim to believe, truly believe, that they are not made in the very likeness of God, that they are somehow less, and what the bully knows is this: that if they can get their victim to feel that they are some lesser form of human being the result will be this: self-harm.

The church has a moral obligation to be a model institution. Bullying and abuse should never be countenanced in the church. Policies, (and even doctrine), should never be hidden behind, or worse still used, in such a way as to make people feel less than fully human.  The church should always ensure that its own house in order, that it is a place and community where ‘all may flourish and none need fear.’ The church should never allow that most corrosive of behaviors, group-think (even where it masquerades as catholicity and unity) to take hold. The church should always seek to be on the side of the marginalized, stigmatized and the ostracized. Surely this is a basic biblical imperative?

The Church should always speak truth to power.





Talking of mission, poverty, isolation and mental health

Last week I took the saddest funeral I have ever taken. It’s a funeral that was entirely preventable. If I was the Registrar of Deaths I think I might have been tempted to write just two words under ’cause of death:’ poverty and isolation.

I minister in a decidedly Middle England market town parish and yet over the last couple of years I have ministered time and again into the effects of real and damaging poverty. Poverty in our market town is largely dispersed and hidden but it’s there. Whatever the politicians say poverty really is in our midst. It might be disguised, it might be hidden, but it’s there and its awful. Real poverty, as I have learned to my shame, costs lives.

The poor of middle England tend to be dispersed, isolated, even forgotten. This came home to me last week at my ‘saddest funeral.’ Normally I prefer to go and visit the family of the bereaved in their home. On this occasion one of the daughters, a daughter who lived in the family home, said she would prefer to come and see me, with her sister. The reason was simple and straightforward: in the family home there was only one chair. The family home is on a 1960’s development and is surrounded by what might be thought of as Middle England semis and bungalows. The deceased had fallen into hard times when her husband had left her thirty odd years ago. For thirty years she had tried to eek out some form of living as a cleaner and had lived with anorexia. She had lived in our very midst and as one of the eight people who attended the funeral said ‘we had simply forgotten about her.’ To die forgotten must be about as sad as it gets. How many poor and  forgotten people are in our midst? I suppose the only honest answer must be that we have literally no idea.

Recently we hosted a service to help live ‘with, through and beyond depression, fear and anxiety.’ The service was well attended and largely by people I don’t know. I can think of only two other occasions (apart from the occasional offices) when its likely that I might not recognise a large proportion of the congregation: Christmas and Easter. And, yet at the mental health service I didn’t recognise at least 50% of those who attended. I still know nothing of their stories, the reasons for their attendance, or the reality of their daily lives. But, I do know this, struggling to live with poor  mental health, like poverty, is endemic.  I also know that poor mental health is a growing reality and is no respecter of age, gender, social class or any other human identity marker. Poor mental health is, furthermore, contagious, inter-generational and ‘viral,’ and isolating. The loneliness of poor mental health has to be experienced to be understood, and the sickening perversity is that sufferers can feel totally alone even when they are living alongside others. Oh, and one more thing: like poverty it takes route and sometimes hides right in the midst of us.

What has become clear to me over the last few years is that experiencing isolation isn’t necessarily a function of geography. The isolated, marginalized, alienated and forgotten are often to be found right under our noses, in our neighborhoods, in our very midst. Which brings me on to mission.

Last week I attended two diocesan events: Bishop Steven’s day on renewing catechesis (his favorite word!) and the Oxford Diocesan Synod at which we discussed the role out of the diocesan strategic investment plan. I appreciated the discussions that were held at both events. I deeply support (but not without a few reservations) both initiatives. In my own context I take the notion of growth in number and in holiness extremely seriously.

In our table top discussion at diocesan synod several people talked with passion and lamentation about the apparent inability of the church to connect with young adults. I happen to share this worry. However, I also worry that the Church of England is spending too much time worrying about demographics as opposed to the conditions that affect, for the worse, every demographic. Poverty, isolation and mental health are, for sure, no respecter of straightforward demographics. Could it be that by concentrating on the universal we arrive at the particular?

The gospel time and again ask us to take seriously the claims of the poor and the sick. Jesus mandated his disciples to make sure that they invited those who have no capacity to issue a return invitation to the wedding banquet (Luke 14, 7-14). He also told his disciples to search for banquet guests in the hedgerows (Luke 14, 23). The pursuit of justice for the poor and marginalized is a consistent and major biblical theme. The healing miracles always seem to me to be as much about restoration, the re-incorporation into community life, as they are about physical healing.

If we are serious, as a church, about mission and evangelism my hunch is that we do well to spend less time worrying about demographics and refocus our energies on being the gospel to the poor, sick, marginalized, alienated and forgotten.

Where do we find them? As I have learnt (to my shame) in our very midst.





Talking of sex, sin and church unity

‘How can you expect the Church to bless something which I consider to be inherently sinful?’ 

The sin which those seeking to affirm ‘a’ (rather than ‘the’) historic view of marriage is of course the sin of homosexuality, or more precisely homosexual practice, for as Ian Paul has written: ‘If you do not believe that same-sex sexual relationships are ‘a gift of God in creation, a holy way of living, which all should honour’ then you cannot ‘bless’ such things. ‘ 

Others have been more expansive in their analysis of sin; seeking to affirm that all sexual activity, outside heterosexual marriage, is inherently sinful. So on face value it would appear that for some homosexuality is ‘the sin,’ and for others all sex outside heterosexual marriage is the ‘the sin.’ Whichever way you look at it sex is ‘the’ sin which risks splitting the Church. To those who spend their lives outside the narrow parameters of the Church this must look just plain odd, yet within the church a group of powerful I’s is looking to block the You’s from any moves to bring the notion of “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church” to fruition. This group of I’s are the self proclaimed arbiters and judges of sexual sin.

As self confessed progressive and revisionist I don’t expect anyone to bless something they consider inherently sinful. I have no interest in seeking to compel anyone to act against their conscience. But what I do expect is consistency, equity and honesty (which in combination = integrity). If the issue really is that all sex outside marriage is deeply sinful then surely it must also be correct that rites of affirmation, blessing and marriage should be denied to all who have fallen prey to the ‘sin’ of fornication? If those who wish to retain an understanding of marriage characterized in the preface to the service of ‘Solemnization of Holy Matrimony’ where one of the three reasons for marriage is given to be ‘a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication,’ they presumably should be forcing their argument to its logical conclusion?

To provide rites to one group of ‘sinners’ (heterosexuals) but not to another (homosexuals) gives the impression of relativising sin and discriminating  against a specific set of people. Of course there may be clergy that do insist that heterosexual couples confess that they ‘followed too much the devices and desires of (their) own hearts,’ and therefore ‘offended against (God’s) holy laws,’ as a prerequisite for marriage, but……but, I am not convinced this is the norm. My suspicion is that the argument that all sexual activity outside of marriage is deeply sinful may be a useful device for continued exclusion of LGBTIQ+ people from the rites of the Church.

Unlike various conservative commentators I sincerely believe that faithful and monogamous same sex relationships can be an expression of a ‘holy way of living.’ I believe this because I have, like Archbishop Justin, been privileged to see same sex relationships of ‘stunning quality.’ I have also seen, and been the direct beneficiary of, the fruitfulness of such relationships. Through my LGBTIQ+ friends, family members and their relationships, I have seen the very image of God, and grown into an appreciation of the wonderful diversity that God has ordained in creation: LGBTIQ+ members of the human family are fully, and equally, made in the very image of God. To deny same-sex couples rites of affirmation and blessing is to deny the diversity ordained in creation.

So how could the Church progress from this point?

The pragmatist in me accepts that if the church is to make any form of progress on this issue a ‘twin cities’ approach will be required. Such an approach could take one of two forms.

Like Brexit the borders between the progressives and revisionists and the traditionalists could be either hard or soft. A soft border might well allow the Church of England to remain as one united body, where unity has ceased to be a function of mere uniformity, whilst a hard border approach would demand a new and radically different set of institutional arrangements.

The relative softness or hardness of the ecclesiological  boundaries is clearly open to negotiation. However it is also clear that some, just like in the Brexit negotiations, are seeking to play hard ball and allowing the possibility of simply walking away from the table to hang in the air. The bishops who wrote to GAFCON were, for instance, keen to stress the provisionality of their calling: ‘we see it as our present calling to remain committed to the Church of England.’

If the Church of England wants to make real and substantive progress in both its understanding and practice of a “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church” it must accept the possibility that some may feel that their calling may cease to be inside the Church of England with equanimity. My gut instinct is that, in reality, few will decide to leave, for the simple reason that for most people membership of the Church of England isn’t determined in relation to notions of sexual sin. But if a few, including bishops, decide that sexuality and sex are defining issues to the extent that they no longer feel called to serve the Church of England, so be it. It would be sad if they decided to ‘depart according to thy Word’ (as they perceived it) but it would at least allow the rest of the Church to move on and redraw the boundary lines.

The letter from the evangelical bishops and other commentators stress the importance of unity, often citing Jesus’ prayer that ‘they all may be one’ (John 17, 21). Like those who cite this verse I too hope and pray that the church imperfect – or militant – may one day be united. I do, however, find it deeply ironic that a group of protestant and reformed opponents to any form of progressive theology in relation to sexual ethics always seem to conclude their arguments by appealing for catholicity of practice.

Unity is to be desired, hoped for and, prayed for, but it can never be achieved at the expense of whole swathes of people, or at the expense of justice for as Ian Paul rightly comments ‘if pastoral practice is to have any integrity, it must be connected to liturgical coherence and doctrine grounding.’ The inbuilt diversity ordained through creation which allows people to live together ‘in love and trust……in good times and in bad,’ celebrating the virtue of ‘mutual companionship’ is the doctrinal grounding for liturgical practice. The phrase ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the Church’ can have no meaning separate from accretions to the  liturgy.

So where could new boundary lines be drawn, and what would soft and hard boundaries look like?

A soft boundary, which would be my preference, would mean the Church of England exercising the principle of subsidiarity and allowing decisions over whether to affirm or bless same-sex relationships to be devolved to the lowest level; the parish. Under this scheme there would be room for a diversity of views and positions, and no one voice (including the bishops) would be privileged over and above another. Under such arrangements there would be no need for alternative oversight or for the creation of new institutional structures and there would be no ‘I’ determining sexual ethics for each and every ‘you.’

A hard boundary by contrast would imply the creation of new institutional structures and alternative oversight. It wouldn’t be a pretty or elegant solution but it might just about hold things together. What it would also do is preserve a sense of Is’s and You’s. Sexuality and sex would remain the defining issues.  A hard boundary solution is a fairly unattractive solution. I suspect its efficacy would be short lived.

Some form of ‘twin cities’ approach is the only realistic way forward for the Church of England. Even if a settlement is reached some will walk away, let’s hope in peace, feeling that they can no longer serve in the Church of England. Sadly this is a price worth paying for securing ‘unity’ at the continued expense of whole swathes of people would, in my view, be a far greater sin.

It’s time start redrawing the boundary lines.