Talking of management and theology

‘Leadership, not theology’ in today’s C of E.

It’s a good, attention grabbing, headline (Church Times 30th November) for a report of a sermon given by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev’d Andrew Nunn, at a memorial service for a former Dean of Southwark: David Edwards.

In the sermon Andrew Nunn is said to have argued that the Church of England has jettisoned theology in the belief that the exercise of  management (and leadership) is the route to ‘success.’ The Church Times reports Dean Nunn as reflecting that:  ‘It’s leadership and governance and management and financial reporting and targets that are the skill set of the Church today; it’s evaluation and peer review, that set the standards for what we do. There is little space or time for theology, and especially not academic theology – not the kind of stuff that David gave his life to – and certainly not on the bench of bishops, and increasingly amongst the deans.’ Dean Nunn’s criticism is stinging and I am not sure how his ‘senior’ colleagues have received it. To be told that ‘you are not a theologian’ presumably cuts quite deep?

So the question that must be asked is whether Dean Nunn is correct. My suspicion is that he is, but only up to a point.

I do believe that the Church of England needs to value theology and that rigorous theological inquiry and debate is the only real way through which the Church of England can confront our most divisive issues. I also believe that good theology, prophetic and diaconal theology, are intrinsic to mission and evangelism. Good theology must inform our preaching, nurturing and pastoral practice. I don’t think that there is any credibility in arguing that management (and leadership) can replace theology, or that management (and leadership) skills and techniques can, devoid of good theology, sing salvation’s song. So I have a lot of sympathy with the ‘Southwark critique.’

But, I also have concerns! My primary concern is this: I do not necessarily accept that management and theology belong in separate categories. I think I would want to argue that how the Church manages and governs her affairs and exercises stewardship over her assets, is an exegesis of her theology. How the Church treats people through its HR processes is also surely an exegesis of her theology?

This certainly seems to be the view that St. Benedict took some 1,500 years ago. In his rule Benedict prescribes how the monastery should be managed and governed. Benedict offers a distinctive approach to the election and appointment of seniors, corporate decision-making (‘good practice’), discipline and grievance, the use of the tools and assets belonging to the monastery and so forth. For Benedict governance and management can be, no should be, practiced theologically. In the Church management is, and should be, an exercise in practical theology.  In Benedict’s scheme the treatment of people, goods and assets are all signatories to how we treat God. Governance and management are, in other words, sub sets of theology. In my view the Church of England has suffered, like many institutions, from poor management and governance.

When I taught in a business school (in a highly secular university) we introduced the Rule of Benedict into the MBA curriculum. It was well received. We also looked at some of Gregory’s Pastoral Dialogues. I hope that sources such as these are taught on the Senior Management Course? Colleagues in the university were surprised, amazed and in some cases delighted to find out that theology – ‘the Queen of Sciences’ – had treasures of her own; offerings to make to the wider management curriculum. My hope is that the Church of England doesn’t throw away these treasures at the altar of the new, shiny and largely untested. Professor Minztberg, one of the most highly regarded ‘management scientists’ and Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the McGill University, who incidentally refuses to teach on his universities MBA program, puts it like this:

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

It also feels to me that the Church of England is reserving her management training for those identified for ‘senior’ leadership positions. I worry about this. Surely all office holders would benefit from some basic skills in areas such as finance and governance? What the Church of England needs to make sure is that it provides as Mintzberg puts it ‘the right training, to the right people, directed towards the right ends.’ We need to make sure that this takes place at all levels of the body. If the Church of England waits until people have been identified for ‘senior’ positions it will have waited too long.

Where I do have an awful lot of sympathy with Dean Nunn is in the relentless desire to develop ‘leaders’:

‘Nowadays, deans are sent off to Cambridge – not to be deepened in theological skills, but in leadership, in which we are encouraged to look across the river from here: not for inspiration from the many steeples and towers, that extend our vision heavenwards, but from the glass and steel towers and corporate headquarters that are crowding them out.’

This desire to develop leaders has, in many ‘sectors,’ including the church, come at a great cost. It has come at a great cost to the more boring, prosaic and necessary practice of management (business administration). This, again, is one of Mintzberg’s points.

In the study of Business Administration there is a tendency to look towards ‘the glass and steel towers,’ without recognizing their tendency to mimic Babel. In the Church it is often assumed that real leadership, leadership worth mimicking (and even idolizing) happens over there; in the glass and steel towers (or in various sporting arenas). I worked in those glass and steel towers for seventeen years (the last seven at board level) and they are not oasis of calm where every strategic thought results in an accretion to an ongoing pattern of success. They are often high-octane places of panic where decisions are made on the hoof. They are also places that experience little in the way of kairos and where the requirement for  sabbath is a form of heresy. Like elite sports clubs they are places where talent exists to be bought and sold. In the run up to the financial crises the phrase ‘economic rent’ began to replace salary.

The study of, and fascination with, leadership borders on the cultish. Nowadays everyone wants to be a leader, or even a ‘leader of leaders.’ Nobody wants to be a manager. Management, the prudent stewardship of assets combined with concern for those who work in the organization, has been largely slain on the altar dedicated to leadership and strategy and we are all the worst for it.

All institutions, perhaps especially the Church, need to ask themselves a question: ‘has the aggregate stock of leadership and the results that might be expected to follow risen in line with the fascination with, and growth in, the study of leadership?’  I suspect the answer is not. In fact, paradoxically, I would suggest that fixating on leadership – and all that this implies in terms of the need to feed an insatiable appetite for growth  –  might actually undermine leadership!

I enjoyed Dean Nunn’s sermon, but I think he is only half right. Management and theology aren’t binary choices and what the Church of England needs (as St. Benedict understood) is an approach to governance and management which is in itself an exegesis of theology.

Oh, and by the way, we need to sit far more lightly to the notion of leadership.













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.













Speaking of the Oxford letter

A confession: I wasn’t surprised when the letter from the bishops hit my in box.

But what should we make of the letter? Is it just a straightforward restatement of the church’s current position, or is it something different?

My own view is that the Oxford letter is different and that it does seek to move things on. I also think that it requires careful reading and that it should be read alongside the letter from the eleven evangelical bishops. The Oxford letter is nuanced in three ways:

First, it suggests that bishops should be free to speak their mind whilst also stating that the current default position, adopted by many bishops, of ‘remaining silent on these issues is not serving the Church well.’ My hope, and expectation, is that the Oxford bishops, alongside others, will have more to say, so that they can fulfill their mandate to serve the ‘Church well.’

I applaud the statement that ‘as bishops we will continue to listen to different streams in the debate. We will seek to be honest about our own views and also listen with respect to the views of others.’ As a priest in the Oxford diocese, and as the proud dad of a gay daughter (who as the letter stresses really isn’t a problem to be solved) I look forward to hearing more.

Secondly, the letter makes it clear that experience is to be highly valued. Yes the Church of England must ensure that any debates about sexuality ‘are grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition,’ but where ‘attention to people’s experiences’  is a constant theological companion. The letter proposes a highly incarnational, non dogmatic, method of doing theology.  In proposing this methodology the Oxford bishops, are in my view, offering an approach which meets the demands, made by the eleven evangelical bishops, for ‘serious intellectual engagement.’

 However, they also seem to be suggesting that their method of ‘doing theology’ is unlikely to lead to a‘single universal ethic.’ The statement that  all should be able to be ‘authentically themselves,’ is to be applauded.

Thirdly, the letter is thoroughly Anglican, in that it recognizes that a theological motif –  such as “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church”  – can only have any real currency, or content, when it comprises the pastoral (hence the establishment of a dedicated chaplaincy), the sacramental and the liturgical. I found the section on Liturgy (notice the language; Liturgy) one of the most interesting in the letter.

Liturgy and Prayers:

As Bishops we are receiving an increasing number of enquiries seeking guidance in this area. There is no authorised public liturgy for such prayers. The Guidelines are clear that “Services of blessing should not be provided” (21). However, there is positive encouragement for clergy to respond pastorally and sensitively.

We warmly welcome dialogue and conversation with clergy across the Diocese who are looking for further guidance. This is, of course, one of the key areas under review in the Pastoral Advisory Group. Depending on the timetable of the national group’s work, we may look to draw the fruits of our own conversations and reflections together in the short-term for the benefit of this Diocese.

Gone is the pernicious notion of ‘informal prayers’ whilst the expectation that the Pastoral Advisory Group will be considering liturgy is expressly referred to, with the  paragraph finishing with a note of contingency, ‘depending on……’

The Oxford bishops are committed to building a Christ-like church and have identified three values as animators of this aspiration: compassion, contemplation and courage. By pledging to listen to the experiences of LGBTIQ+ Christians and allowing such experiences to help shape the future direction of the church, alongside the acknowledgment that ‘as a Church we have continually failed our sisters and brothers in Christ’ the bishops have shown real compassion. Listening, deep listening, is of course also the very heart beat of contemplative practice. In writing this letter, in the sure and certain knowledge that there will be some very real kick-back, and through their insistence, that silence does not serve the Church well, alongside a commitment to express their own views with integrity the Oxford bishops have been courageous, for courage is worked out in the most difficult, most contentious and most potentially divisive issues.

Well done Oxford bishops.










Speaking of cathedrals, mission and evangelism.

It is always seems a bit odd to me when the church talks about cathedrals as though they are a homogeneous group, for there are many types of cathedral: there are the great metropolitan cathedrals (St. Paul’s and Liverpool for instance), there are city cathedrals (Coventry, Sheffield and Birmingham), there are small city and market town cathedrals ( Wells, Hereford) and there are parish church cathedrals (Derby, Portsmouth, Blackburn). Some cathedrals are world heritage sites or places of real beauty (Durham and Salisbury) whilst others are a little more contemporary (Guildford).  Some cathedrals seem to engage with and resource the diocese, as the mother church, other cathedrals come across as atomized and isolated. Cathedrals are both something of a mixed bag and a mixed blessing.

I am pretty sure that we could come up with many more categories of cathedral; my list is not exhaustive. There are also churches that are cathedralesque in nature: some of the crown peculiars (St. George’s Windsor, Westminster Abbey) and the greater churches (Tewkesbury Abbey and Beverley Minster). And, of course, just being legally designated as an entity doesn’t say everything about the quality of vibe of the entity.

Like many, perhaps even most, who attend cathedrals (on my rare weekends off we tend to worship in a cathedral), I have found the quality and vibe to be extremely variable. I have also found the numbers to be a bit hit and miss.  I am not convinced that talking about cathedrals as homologous entities is useful. Some are growing in number, some are seeking to work with their congregations so that they also grow in-depth and holiness, some are passionate about mission and evangelism, some seek to serve their diocese as the mother church, but some simply do what they do and hope that people will turn up.  Being afforded the status of a  cathedral isn’t enough; the character of a thing, isn’t determined by the label on the thing. So how can we assess the character and commitments of cathedrals?

The obvious starting place is probably with the liturgical experience as the most common argument put forward for growth in cathedral worship is the quality of the worship. Quality is, in some ways, a strange term when related to worship. Quality can be a word used to donate a sense of technical excellence, but what it doesn’t necessarily do is shed light on the level of humanity lodged within the excellence framework.

I have attended cathedral services where I have felt as though I have witnessed a jolly good performance of something that I would have gladly paid to attend and, I have been to cathedral services where a sense of real warmth underpins the entirety of the liturgy. I have been to cathedral services which score a maximum 10/10 for technical excellence and yet where the chapter simply disappeared after the Eucharist and others where the ‘performance’ might only have scored 7 or 8/10 but where the Dean was to be found serving coffee after the service. I know which I prefer! My sense is that flourishing, nurturing (and possibly growing?) cathedrals have a real commitment to diaconal expressions of ministry. My own approach to mission and evangelism as a priest in a choral, liturgical and sacramental context, has been shaped by what I think of as the diaconal-cathedral model. Thank you to all who have modeled it for me, so well.

There is one place above all others that intrigues me in a cathedral: the shop. Its pretty simple the shop tells you everything you need to know about the cathedrals commitment to mission and evangelism. The tragedy is that in some cathedrals the shop is more akin to a National Trust outlet. Cathedrals which take mission and evangelism seriously have affordable guides to prayer, reading the bible and so forth. In fact I can’t really understand why cathedrals don’t produce their own free take homes.

A third lens through which the quality of a cathedral can be assessed is through the composition of the chapter. I am always intrigued when a cathedral has a canon pastor or a canon missioner. The presence of the canon pastor would seem to indicate that a cathedral is taking its congregation seriously and is deeply committed to its growth in holiness. The presence of a canon missioner is suggestive of a commitment to diaconal expressions of mission and evangelism.

I have never had a problem with labels in the sense that they do provide a short cut into expectation. Labeling a church a cathedral should provide some insight into the style of worship on offer, but what it can’t do is provide any meaningful information relating to the depth and warmth of the experience or the commitment to mission and evangelism and the desire to resource.

The Church of England needs her mother churches, her cathedrals, to model all that is good and holy. Our cathedrals need to be generous and inspirational. They need to be resourcing, diaconal and missional.

For the good of the whole church they need to be far more than well attended visitor attractions. They need to exude a sense of the living God rather than being what we might think of as religious museums. Some do this, others don’t.  Whatever cathedrals may be the one thing they are not is homogeneous.

As a post script the cathedrals that have impressed and inspired me most this year are Blackburn and Truro. The greater church that left me stunned by the quality of its hospitality, where such hospitality was clearly an expression of its Benedictine foundation, is Tewkesbury Abbey.

These three have been, for me, exemplars of the diaconal-cathedral model of church.


Reflecting on ecumenism, liturgy and mental health.

I started to feel nervous at about five p.m. last Sunday evening. By six forty-five I was just plain drained, exhausted, spent. The reason for my journey from nervousness to exhaustion was the service we were hosting for Living With, Through and Beyond Anxiety, Depression and Fear. Putting on such a service and crafting a safe liturgy felt like a big deal; it was a big deal.

In my benefice we have three aspirations, hospitality, holiness and healing. These three aspirations clearly overlap, they are mutually reinforcing.

Over the last eighteen months or so we have begun to think about what healing might look like, and what we can offer, in relation to mental health. We are still working this out. I suppose my passion for pointing our healing ministry in the direction of mental health derives from my own experience of depression and anxiety; the two most painful conditions I have ever had to come to terms with.

When we were crafting the service we wanted to be very clear that what we were offering was a form of healing, where the emphasis is on the ing, hence the phrase ‘with, through and beyond.’ We also wanted to offer something reflective, calm, mindful and scriptural. These four characteristics informed the shape of the liturgy.

The readings we used were Psalm 61,1-4, Lamentations 3, 19-26,Lamentations 3, 55-56, 1 Peter 5, 6-7 and Matthew 11, 28; each reading was followed by a short period of silence.

We also listened together, in solidarity, to three pieces of music: Be still for the presence of the Lord, Bless the Lord my soul, and Karl Jenkins’ Benedictus. We had a period of mindful prayer where those attending were invited to consciously bring to my mind all that was causing them pain and / or anxiety, followed by the ritual of taking a stone and laying it at the foot of an altar cross in one of our chapels.

We also offered anointing. A colleague of mine, who is a retired hospital chaplain and an ordained URC minister (married to a Roman Catholic), yet who worships primarily in the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church (top that for ecumenism!) anointed those who came forward, whilst I was available for prayer ministry. Virtually everyone came forward for anointing, but very few for prayer ministry. Make of that what you will!

The thing that really staggered me was both the demand and the reach of the service. Over forty people came, but I only knew or recognised around half of them. I was also aware of a good ten or fifteen people who couldn’t make it due to being on half term-holiday.

I do know that many of those who attended do not normally worship in the Church of England, and that others were what we might think of us as very occasional worshipers; people on the fringe. This has caused me to think about how we reach out to those who either can’t, or don’t, feel able to attend our normal regular services. How do we seek to pastor to and feed such people?  I was also aware that many of those who came did so with friends and family members. Maybe, perhaps for the first time, some of those who came were able to say to a loved one, or a close friend, ‘I am suffering’? 

So what are my reflections on Sunday evening and our ongoing work in relation to depression, anxiety and fear?

  • Anxiety, depression and fear are ecumenical, and universal, afflictions. It sounds simple, but its true! Our hospitality and healing ministry should therefore extend beyond denominational boundaries.
  • A carefully crafted liturgy whose aim is to provide a safe space is crucial.
  • Ritual is important.
  • Prayer, or at least prayer ministry, is less important (although it my have been of great benefit to those few who came forward.)
  • There needs to be a ‘take home.’ The liturgy we created was written in such a way that it could also be used by individuals.
  • People will come if what is offered appears relevant (we offered the service through the parish magazine, social media and the kind cooperation of neighboring churches).
  • People will respond to the invitation for healing. People did so in biblical times and they will do so now. Healing should be normative to the life of the church.
  • ‘Healing’ services are uniquely exhausting.

I think they are exhausting because in opening ourselves to other’s pain we become acutely aware of our own. Is it too clichéd to suggest that we anoint as ‘wounded healers?’ We also know from the gospels that Jesus frequently felt exhausted and depowered after he had healed people. On a purely practical level I found it incredibly helpful to spend a few minutes with my U.R.C. Anglican Catholic friend after the service, debriefing and praying.

We learnt that there clearly is a demand for this type of service. We also learnt, at a very basic level, that God’s people are hurting. I think we will continue to offer, maybe twice yearly, services designed to help people live ‘with, through and beyond’ anxiety and depression whilst also thinking and praying about what more we may do.