The theopolitics of disassociation

I have read William Nye’s letter, sent on behalf of the staff working for the  Archbishops’ Council to TEC (The Episcopal Church), a few times now. What is clear, at least to me, is that the response is entirely theo-political. The reference to the word pressure is both illuminating and interesting. The  staff of the Archbishops’ Council suggest, through the pen of Mr Nye, that should marriage rites for same-sex couples be written into The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer then “the pressure to dissociate the Church of England from TEC [the Episcopal Church], in all manner of ways, would increase”. This is presented as a blanket comment, a statement of truth, one made on behalf of the entirety of the Church of England. It is a critique that has been offered, in reality, solely by the Archbishop’s Council staff team, a group of insiders who  should not be regarded as coterminous with the Church of England.

I am deeply worried that this unrepresentative group has responded to a request from  TEC, even allowing for the time constraint Mr. Nye’s response refers to. It is interesting, perhaps even instructive, that the text of the letter seeks to justify the reply being authored by the Archbishops’ Council staff team. If it was unambiguously within the remit of the ‘staffers’  no such justification would be required.

The aims and objectives governing the scope and span of the Archbishops’ Council, taken from the Charity Commission’s website are: ‘Enabling, supporting, sustaining & advancing of the Church’s worship, spiritual & numerical growth, engagement with social justice & environmental issues ,work in education, lifelong learning & discipleship, selection, training, and resourcing of people for public ministry & lay vocations and the inherited fabric of buildings, to maintain & develop these for worship & community service.’ 

The Church that is referred to is of course the Church of England. The Archbishops’ Council, let alone its staff,  has no remit to respond, on behalf of the Church of England, to issues relating to overall Anglican polity. The Archbishops’ Council exists solely for the purposes of enabling mission and ministry in the Church of England, for the people of England. That’s it; that’s all. It should not be used as a vehicle of response on global or doctrinal matters. So yet again, what we have seen is excruciatingly poor governance.

The letter also makes the following statement: ‘For a majority in the Communion, and in the Church of England (not to mention the Church Catholic) Holy Scripture is held to rule that sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is contrary to God’s will.’ Now I can’t speak for the Church Catholic but I do want to suggest that this a massive, sweeping, and very possibly unfounded statement from a Church of England perspective.

Where is the empirical evidence to support this claim? What does polling suggest? Well, polling doesn’t suggest anything for the simple reason that the Church of England has conscientiously chosen not to poll her members. We simply don’t know what the majority in the pews think or believe. So why not poll our ‘membership?’ Why, not produce a simple survey designed to show the range of beliefs on issues relating to marriage and sexuality and ask everyone who attends church on the middle two Sundays in October (the dates that the Church of England uses for the gathering of mission statistics) to complete it? It would be a really easy and straightforward exercise to undertake and it would lead the Church of England to a place where it was able to make statements on the basis of hard, verifiable, evidence. Surely this would be a useful and illuminating exercise?

But, it won’t happen because truth is a frightening thing. Its far easier to make assumptions, or simply to tell people what they ought to believe. It won’t happen because conservative ‘leaders’ don’t want the genie out of the bottle either in the Church of England as a whole, or in their own church. It won’t happen because the Church of England is gripped by fear; we simply don’t want to know what people really think and believe.

In the absence of hard evidence my suspicion is that ‘the pressure to dissociate the Church of England from TEC’  is based on assumption and, entirely driven by one group within what is supposed to be a famously broad church. If the Church of England, through her various instruments of governance, purport to speak for the breadth of the church then they really ought to find out what the widest possible constituency think and, believe. In the absence of data all that is left is speculation and assumption and, tragically,  ‘pressure’ from the most threatening of voices; that is the real theo-politic behind the response written by Mr. Nye on behalf of the Archbishop’s Council. 

It seems to me that the Church of England has two choices: courage or fear. My suspicion is that fear, masquerading as strong and decisive leadership, underpinned by assumption (fears’ best friend), and, a lax attitude towards governance will continue have its toxic way.

The only way to relieve the pressure from within is to find out what people really do think and believe. This will take courage for the data may well stand contrary to the assumptions that are so often presented as fact. (And, in the meantime can we please make sure that our governance is of the highest possible standard?)





Speaking of being senior

I enjoy watching rugby, or at least I do when my team, Northampton Saints, win. Okay, I haven’t enjoyed my rugby very much this year! Over recent years, since the advent of the referee saying to the players ‘last play,’ it has become common for the side in possession, if they are winning, to boot the ball high into the stands. The referee then blows the final whistle; job done and four points in the bank. If I could choose one word that I would like to be kicked high into the stands and off the church’s  field of play it would be the word ‘senior.’ I just don’t think its a church word. In fact I would go further and suggest that its use represents the ultimate capitulation to a culture that endorses, promotes and celebrates success. Yet, it is a word that is used with some extravagance in the world of the church.

Over the last few weeks I have seen an area bishop described as a ‘senior bishop,’ I have heard a member of general synod being characterized as a ‘senior member of General Synod,’ I received an invitation to a conference to which ‘senior pastors come free.’ And so it goes on: the bishop’s staff is now frequently referred to as ‘the senior team’ and special MBA style (apparently) training is being provided for those identified for senior leadership. For those of a gentle, middle management, disposition escaping the word senior is impossible. It is a word that just won’t be kicked into touch. It should be because it’s a dangerous, toxic, word. It’s a word that begs to be idolized. It’s also a highly secular word. Its close cousins are ambition, status, reward and career. Its closest ecclesial relation is clericalism.

It is true that the church operates on the basis of a hierarchy. But, surely the church’s hierarchy should be based on those old-fashioned notions of vocation, functionality, and (mutual) accountability? I would like to see more stress on these, especially accountability. I also think that the church would be better, healthier, place if bishops, priests and deacons simply focused on being bishops, priests, and deacons fulfilling the basic functions as described in that work of genius: the ordinal. The church’s hierarchy shouldn’t be about seniority because at heart it is a functional hierarchy in which men and women take their place following a sense of calling to a specific ministry; vocation in other words.

Seniority is in many realms regarded as a good in its own right and something to be strived for. Seniority can also be a gift, granted for good and impressive behaviour. Seniority confers status. It is often assumed that those who occupy senior positions have higher powers or greater abilities. Seniority is frequently granted on the basis of perceived success. It is often assumed that those occupying senior roles have a greater ability to develop strategy. No wonder those occupying senior positions frequently want to develop a closed network to advise them, and work with (but in reality for) them. Demarcation, the drawing of non porous borders, and the encouragement of unfettered ambition and pride can be the toxic results of an excessive drive to be regarded as a senior, for seniority is best served through the creation of an exclusive club. Clubs comprised only of seniors are by their nature exclusive, divisive, prone to group think, and possessed by a tendency to protect the club and its interests at all costs.

Matthew 20, 21-28 perhaps reveals the problems of a focus on seniority. Traditionally James, John and their rather pushy mother are presented as suffering from pride, and ambition but what they are really asking for is a place at the top table, one on Jesus’ right the other on his left. Their desire is to be considered senior. No wonder the other apostles are angered. The apostles are supposed to be equal in status. The idea of senior and junior apostles was for Jesus’ contemporaries an anathema. It should be for those of us who continue to walk in the apostolic tradition. The idea of a senior bishop, synod member or pastor is, when seen in the light of this account, silly.

The Rule of Benedict also stands opposed to some modern notions of seniority. Benedict for sure demands a functional hierarchy, but he also insists that virtue, not success, should be the determinant of status within the monastery. Being an abbot, prior or steward isn’t regarded as a reward for success neither does it assume a greater ability to make strategic decisions. In fact Benedict warns against the very idea of the senior team for in Chapter Three of the rule he writes:

‘When any business of importance is to be considered in the monastery, the abbot or abbess should summon the whole community together and personally explain to them the agenda that lies before them…….we have insisted that all the community should be summoned because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the younger members.’

If the church is to flourish and grow, if it is to organize itself in a profoundly counter cultural way, if it is to be outward looking, if it is to minimize the risk of group think and clericalism and, if it really is serious about the well being of its members, then it really does need to kick the word senior off the pitch and high up into the stands.




Thinking about anxiety, depression, mindfulness and prayer

One of the issues with mental illness is that it is frequently, normally, an enduring illness. Depression and anxiety seldom simply go away. They are conditions that need to be lived with, through, and beyond. They are also sneaky conditions. They are quite capable of appearing as if out of nowhere and taking their victim captive. These have been my enduring experiences of depression and anxiety. It all sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it?

The good news is that it is possible to live beyond these two twin impostors. One of the ‘tricks’ I have had to learn is to look back and remind myself that I am still standing, that I did get through some pretty rough times and, that my worst fears didn’t come to their ugly and toxic fruition. Learning the art of remembering, if not well, then better, is a key tool in my box of mindful strategies.

Remembering well doesn’t mean re-writing history, nor does it mean trying to forget the really bad things that have happened in our lives and, the truly painful periods we have experienced but it does, for me, mean accepting the simple fact that I am still standing, that I have to a greater or lesser extent moved on, or beyond. As a Christian this inspires, in some ways, a sense of awe and wonder: ‘How is it that I didn’t simply capitulate? Where, or from whom, did I find the strength to keep going?’ Psalm 27 has become one of my key texts. I often read mindfully:

‘The Lord is my light, my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the refuge of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?……………..I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, have courage and wait, wait for the Lord’ 

Slowly and mindfully reading this wonderful text helps me to remember well, to look forward (or beyond my immediate condition) with some hope. The relationship between remembering well and hope is foundational to my ability to live with, through, and beyond depression and anxiety.

On the Mindfulness course I attended a few years ago one of the strategies participants were given was to consciously bring to mind our troubles and anxieties. We were invited to picture them as clouds moving before us; into our field of vision and beyond our field of vision. I don’t use this strategy, as taught, any longer but I have adapted it, and placed it in a liturgical setting, as part of my night-prayer (Compline). This is what I do:

I start my night prayer with the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation before reading Matthew 11, 28-30, ‘Come unto me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest…….’ I then seek to, mindfully and prayerfully, bring before God my burdens. I do so in the knowledge that it is my historic burdens that are most likely to feed Impostor One: depression. As a depressive I am perfectly capable of ruminating on, holding onto and even in some ways cherishing my deepest hurts. For me a deep sense of  regret can also be a significant burden; ‘if only’ is my most unhelpful, most toxic, mantra. So in order to live beyond the burdens of hurt and regret I need to practice the art of giving them away, to Jesus.

Next I read 1 Peter 5, 6-7: ‘Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.’  

Humility is important because despite knowing that I can’t solve all my own problems, there is still lurking not very far below the surface, a Messiah Complex and, a belief that I need to be strong; heroically so. Anxiety(Impostor 2), for me, derives from the writing of a pretty dire future orientated script. What I have learnt is that my past (burdens) and future (anxieties) are inextricably linked and, because, remembering well is something I need to constantly work on I tend to assume that the worst will happen. So mindful reflection on this Scripture provides me with the opportunity to name my deepest anxieties before the God who cares. Mindfully placing my burdens and anxieties into Jesus’ hands has, thus far, allowed me to live with, through, and (mostly) beyond depression and anxiety.

I finish my night prayer with the Nunc Dimitttis and Lord’s Prayer. I do so for several therapeutic reasons:  First, it is important to end a period of mindful prayer. I have found that if I remain focused on my burdens and anxieties for too long it becomes very easy to start ruminating and ruminating is the precise opposite of ‘coming unto….’ and ‘casting all anxiety.’ Secondly, I take great comfort in saying the prayers of the church (the Nunc Dimittis & the Lord’s Prayer) for I know that all around the world people of good faith, all of whom have their own issues to deal with, are saying these precise prayers.  These prayers are capable of playing a role in breaking down any feelings of isolation and bringing me back into community. Thirdly, because they are effortless prayers all I need to do is say them and, trust in them.

So there you have it: my own modified and liturgical form of mindful prayer, designed to help me live with, through, and beyond depression and anxiety.

Key words  / phrases: Remembering well or better, hope, consciously bringing to mind troubles and anxieties, impostor, prayerfully, liturgically, humility, trust.














Talking of ++Justin: legality, honesty and rising above contempt.

Archbishop Justin is ashamed of the Church of England.

That’s a sobering, perhaps chilling, thought as we enter Holy Week. Of course we should always enter into the spirit of Holy Week with a sense of shame and sorrow. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday should always stop us short and burst the bubble of our hubris. Holy Week is not supposed to be an easy week. In Bonhoeffer’s terms to go straight to Easter Sunday without entering into the shame of Good Friday is to take for ourselves ‘cheap grace,’ at the expense of ‘costly discipleship.’ 

Archbishop Justin wasn’t, however, talking about how we should approach Holy Week, but was, instead, giving his response to how he feels about the Church of England, following the appalling revelations at the IICSA hearings. I am glad that ++Justin feels ashamed, and there can be little doubt that his feelings run deep. In giving voice to the shame he feels he demonstrated real leadership.

Justin was also correct to talk about tribalism and clericalism. Clericalism is one of the church’s greatest ills, and it cuts across all traditions. Clericalism is indiffernt to ecclesiology. It is as happy in chinos and chasubles. It doesn’t mind whether its mantra is ‘fathers says’, or ‘the leadership has decided.’ Clericalism always leads to in groups and out groups, it always seeks to protect its own, it is always theologically competitive and, it has scant regard for free thinking, difference and, disagreement. Clericalism is authoritarian.

++Justin was impressive this week. He has been quietly impressive over the last few weeks. His interview in the Church Times and his book (Reimagining Britain) both make it clear that he accepts and values difference and, has a profound belief in ‘disagreeing well.’   To the chagrin of the clerical class – whether they are chino or chasuble wearers (and to be clear I gladly wear a chasuble when I preside at the Eucharist) it is abundantly clear, despite his background and pilgrimage to Canterbury, that ++Justin is no conservative-authoritarian.

In the chapter on the family Justin writes: ‘The nature of shifts in the content of tradition, of their development and alteration, is of change working when it retains a recognizable sense of where it has come from. Tradition that is static dies. Tradition that abandons the past in a paradigm shift loses its stability. The same applies to traditions of values, and thus the importance of embedding our reimagining in what we have been, as well as what we will be. Thus, for example, same-sex marriage builds on the presumption that marriage is stable and lifelong (the rootedness of the tradition), while also responding to the massive shift in cultural acceptance with regard to the understanding of human nature and sexual orientation.’ 

Now  I am not arguing that Justin has gone all progressive, but it does appear that he is laying the ground for a plurality of theological integrities, for earlier in the same chapter he also writes: ‘A liberalism of approach that rejects all other approaches that are not equally liberal is stifling, unenforceable and contradictory. A one size fits all approach, whether originating from the state, secular view or faith groups – even those whose tradition is deeply embedded in the culture – will be overthrown by numerous contradictions.’ 

At the IICSA hearings Justin referred to the lack of trust between the different ecclesial tribes. I don’t think trust is quite the right word. Those at the extreme of each tribe do, in a sense, trust each other in that they know where they are coming from. The motives of the most ardent conservative and the most progressive liberal are hardly shrouded in darkness. The issue for me isn’t trust its something far worse: contempt. As we we approach Good Friday we need to be clear that the ardent conservative and uber progressive alike both believe that the other is betraying the faith. I am beginning to wonder what on earth Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer that ‘that they all may be one,’ might mean for a denomination whose members are so viscerally not as one.

What is becoming clear to me is that ++Justin’s three great archepiscopal challenges are these: legality, honesty, and eroding the contempt that clearly, and manifestly, exists between those who hold different integrities as they relate to sexuality and gender.  His predecessors, it now seems, were either unwilling or  unable to rise to these challenges. The mantle has been passed to ++Justin. His job is to lead the Church of England through shame to redemption. He needs, and deserves, our support, for there will be enormous pain on the way. Some will decide that they are no longer prepared to journey together. Some, perhaps many, will treat Justin with contempt. He has a heavy load to bear.

But, bear it he will.


Talking of leadership and governance

Is it just me that suffers from a real sense of leadership fatigue?

Of course, at one level, I know that I am a ‘leader,’ but I am beginning to wonder whether the preoccupation with leadership (and leaders) is, in some way, unhealthy. I also wonder whether such a strong  focus on leadership, in the church, contributes to a form of collective ecclesial myopia? Could it also be that obsessively, slavishly, focusing on leadership as a good in its own right perversely ends up in undermining leadership, growth and maturity? Just some thoughts drifting through my mind.

Leadership is in some ways is sexy and fun. Developing a ‘compelling vision’ supported by a vision, mission statement and strap-line is exciting, perhaps even intoxicating, but are such activities in and of themselves a little bit hollow and, maybe even vacuous? Can corporate visions, mission statements and strap-lines become the very things capable of hoisting ‘leaders’ on their own petard?

I ask because living up to the vision and embodying the values is always a hard ask and any divergence away from the values expressed through the vision, mission and strap-line can easily become rich pickings for those looking to levy charges of hypocrisy and pastoral insensitivity. Is the very notion of leadership in some ways divisive through its ability to categorize and maybe even discriminate? Does the very notion of leadership promote the heroic at the expense of the ordinary? Does leadership, badly exercised, create in groups and out groups, group think and the requirement to be loyal to the club? So many questions!

But my real worry is the growth of leadership undermines the importance of the hard, maybe even tedious work, of governance. Leadership is after all ‘visionary’ (even if people are fatigued by the constant focus on vision and efforts to reinforce it).  If the vision becomes the thing that is beyond question then it becomes, in some ways, extremely difficult to hold leaders to account. If our leaders are not to be held to account we need to hope and pray that they are benign rather than tyrannical in their approach to others; their subjects.

In many ways the financial crisis represents the triumph of leadership over governance. The risk managers in the finance sector were roundly marginalized and ignored. Risk managers, with their difficult and challenging questions, were seen as irritants. Anything that called into question the never-ending desire for success and growth was regarded as heretical. The cult of the leader, some of whom were publicly esteemed for their achievements, reigned supreme. The subliminal message running unchecked through some of the financial institutions was simply this: be loyal to the leader, be a member of their gang. Any notions of loyalty and obedience being defined solely through reference to ‘all things legal and honest,’ was jettisoned on the altar of growth and success, at which the corporate leader presided.

I think, in the Church of England, we need to recapture the art of governance. In fact I would go further and suggest that it is the only way that leadership can, in the long-run, be sustained. Bishops and other senior ‘leaders’ perhaps first and foremost need to regard themselves as governors, rather than leaders; after all the head of the Church of England, the monarch, is described as the ‘supreme governor.’ Surely, it therefore follows, her Archbishops and Bishops are the day-to-day governors?

Being a good and effective governor demands a high level of objectivity and, an absolute determination to ensure that the Church of England at ‘all times and in all places,’ manifestly places the virtues of legality and honesty at the centre of its decision-making processes, operations and, I would argue, strategy. Being a good and effective governor requires rigor and courage.  Good governors are never slaves to a vision and refuse to be taken in by mission statements and strap-lines. Good governors are prepared to court contempt and ridicule by those addicted to the intoxicating spirits of vision, mission and strap-lines. Good governance requires an attention to that most boring of things: detail. Good governors understand that sustainability and long-term success is dependent on the nitty-gritty. Good governors get their heads out of the clouds and operate with their feet firmly planted on the ground. Good governance is, above all things, an exercise in virtue.

Good governance is about raising the right (good and moral) questions and demanding that they are answered. It is about shining light into the potential darkness. Without good governance we, the Church of England, will collapse. Leadership, vision, mission statements and strap-lines can only take you so far and they risk taking you in entirely the wrong direction. Leadership, by itself, is poor cartography.

It is perhaps a statement of the obvious to suggest that over the last few weeks a failure in governance has been laid before the Church of England in all its gory details. I am of course referring to the IICSA hearings. It will be up to the governance experts (I am assuming we have some) to respond appropriately, but my fear is we (the C of E) won’t go far enough.

I would like to see the House of Bishops and every diocese appointing a Chief Risk Officer, or a Director of Risk. When I worked in the city the board of the company on which I was privileged to serve had a director of risk. His job, broadly speaking, covered three spheres of activity: Corporate Governance (and as he constantly reminded us we were all governors), the management of relationships with regulators and, crucially risk (financial, operational and reputational.)

His job was to ask, and to encourage us to learn to ask for ourselves, the ‘what if questions.’ His job, in a nutshell, was to keep us ‘legal and honest,’ to look for the downside in our strategic decision-making and operational processes and, to ensure that the charge of hypocrisy couldn’t be levied and, that us ‘leaders’ didn’t leave ourselves vulnerable to being hoisted on our own petard. He always reminded us that our reputations were dependent on doing the right things, in the right way. We didn’t, of course, get everything right but he made sure we avoided getting a lot of things horribly wrong. He didn’t do the sexy ‘leadership’ stuff but his value was incalculable for the straightforward reason that he kept us ‘legal and honest.’ 

If the Church of England truly desires to sustain, flourish and grow then maybe we need to spend less time focusing on ‘leadership’ and more on governance? 





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!