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

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

The Church is fast running the risk of being regarded as something far worse than an irrelevance, an out of date, out of touch, legacy of a past long gone.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of Jeffrey John:

Lord, do something about your Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of bishops, accountability, and governance

Okay I admit it: I am a bit of a nerd and a geek when it comes to governance. I can’t help it, for when I worked in industry it was drummed into me again and again that directors are governors and agents and, as such, should be prepared to be held account through rigorous systems of governance. Governance should not be something left to the compliance officer, it should instead be part of the oxygen that every senior leader breathes. All leaders and future leaders should be tutored in governance. It should be the first module on any senior leadership curriculum!

Governance and leadership are coterminous for, where there is poor governance, there can ultimately be no long-term and sustainable leadership, because governance is the art of keeping an organisation, institution, or body, fit and healthy. Institutions can recover from poor strategy, but rarely from poor governance. The result of poor strategy is redeemable whereas the consequence of poor governance is frequently terminal. Strategy’s concern is ‘success,’ which we all know is, in reality, fleeting and contingent. Governance’s concern is reputation and trust. If any organisation wants to flourish over the long-term good governance isn’t an option, rather an obligation. Nothing will undermine the credibility of an organisation, or an individual governor, more critically than poor governance.

Yet, paradoxically, most ‘leaders’ seem to shy away from governance. The reason that ‘leaders’ seek to subcontract, or even ignore and ride roughshod over governance, is because it seems at first sight as though it is designed to slow things down, to get in the way of vision, to be overly managerial, and, as many contemporary ‘leaders’ have been (wrongly) taught, leadership and management belong in different boxes.

This again is faulty thinking for good governance is about shared leadership, responsibility, and accountability. From a theological perspective good governance isn’t a million miles away from the notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ This isn’t to say that the executive isn’t important, far from it, or that the development of strategy is everyone’s responsibility, but it is to say that governance is the sense checking, democratic, process through which strategy should be discerned, critiqued, amended, ratified and commissioned. Good governance is underpinned by profoundly theological values.

Governance’s biggest concern is to check the power of the ‘leader,’ or executive. Governance is the process to holding to account the governors. Good governance is always concerned with transparency and integrity. In old-fashioned language good governance seeks to mitigate against ‘moral hazard,’ and in doing so accepts that the group most likely to fall victim to ‘moral hazards’ are the senior leaders.

Moral hazard can be thought of as the propensity, for basic human reasons, of leaders to appropriate too much power, in the belief that in some / many ways the leader is the organization, rather than simply being the stakeholder’s agent. Good governance is, in my view, profoundly Christian because it assumes human fallibility, starting with an acknowledgment that pride and hubris are basic human realities. Good governance therefore seeks to mitigate the pride that always comes before a fall and, as such, really ought to be seen as leadership’s best friend.

In the last few days I have been pondering governance in the Church of England (again). As I have stated on other occasions I think that the Church of England’s standards of governance are pretty woeful. My concern this week has been the place, role and accountability of the bishop (the governor) in the governance system. It looks and feels as though the office of bishop has become increasingly cut adrift from any acceptable model of good corporate governance. I have found it difficult to understand the nature of the bishop’s agency relationships. I know in theory that the bishop exists to serve the diocese (or area) where they are located and, that they also, in many cases, have a secondary and national role, but to who are they actually accountable and what governance systems are in place to act as a check and a balance, and to prevent pride before a fall? It’s not obvious; at least to me.

The prompting for this concern was a radio interview with +Peter Hancock in which he stressed that he was not consulted over the decision to grant P.T.O. to former ++Carey and, that even if he had been he had no authority to do anything other than advise. A diocesan bishop, it seems, has full authority to make any such decisions in their diocese. Can it be right that all decisions are effectively delegated and, that in some situations wider consultation, at the very least, must take place before a decision is made?  I am struggling to think of any other area of institutional life where the governors scope of power is so radically unfettered.

My point is not to judge the decision that my own bishop arrived at, but to question the governance process through which such a decision was made. The governance process, as it stands, seems to cede monarchical levels of authority to the local governor bringing into question what it means (in concrete governance terms) to be the lead bishop for a given issue. It looks at present as though lead bishops cannot really exercise much in the way of leadership. The fact that a diocesan does not have to consult the lead bishop on sensitive issues is a fault line in the governance process. The lead bishop shouldn’t necessarily be given the final say, but they should be consulted. They should, at the very least, be given the equivalent status of a non executive director responsible for chairing one of a corporations major committees.

Good governance shouldn’t just be a top down process, or even a peer to peer process. Instead those who have a direct ‘stake’ (stakeholder theory) should be participants in the overall process. The closest stakeholder group for a bishop is of course the diocese, and yet in some ways the diocese is disenfranchised. It only has a limited role to play in the election of the bishop (and even here it isn’t an election in any meaningful sense) and, in the ongoing evaluation of the bishop. This is extremely odd given that the role of the bishop is, in large part, to serve the interests of the diocese.

Maybe one way that the diocese could be given a greater role, and that the nature of the agency relationship between the bishop of the diocese could be strengthened, is for the diocesan synod to also act as an elector to the nomination? This would, at the very least, help articulate the nature of the bishop’s agency as one nominated by the church to serve the diocese.

I think it is also worth wondering whether a bishop should be appointed for an initial period of say seven years with the diocesan synod being given the authority to extend the term of office by a further period of between three and five years? I am not sure what the right answers are, (and understand that common tenure doesn’t lend itself to fixed term appointments) but I am sure that bishops currently operate in a governance vacuum and that this, in the longer-term, will be to the absolute detriment of episcopal leadership.

The phrase ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’ has always been central to Anglicanism. My worry is that over the last few years our understanding of this genius of a notion has fallen prey to a revisionist ecclesiology, whereby ‘episcopally led, and ‘synodically governed’ have been separated out and treated as two separate and distinct activities. This is not to argue that each and every executive episcopal decision should be placed before synod for approval, for this would be truly constraining, but rather that there must be a synodical process for formally reviewing the ongoing pattern of episcopal decision making. In the absence of such processes episcopally led and synodically governed has no real currency, standing instead as just another contentless catch-phrase or slogan.

My thesis is that episcopally lead and synodically governed should be related and mutually interpretive, a bit like ‘catholic and apostolic.’ If they aren’t I simply cannot see how governance works. If the relationship between the governor and governance is stretched, blurred, or even broken then catastrophe is inevitable. If no corrective processes are in place then poor leadership will become a long-term phenomenon.

The reason for this revisionist ecclesiology may be, probably is, the rise in the cult of the leader. Good governance has tragically come to be seen as an impediment to executive leadership, a way of slowing things down. It may well be true that rigorous systems of governance slow things down, but it may also be true that this is no bad thing. This way of thinking has led to the creation of new groups and bodies such as executive councils, which in many cases exist to get round the perceived ‘problem of governance.’ This revisionist ecclesiology combined with the rise in the cult of the leader and the propensity to regard governance as the enemy of strategy is in dire need of a corrective counter-narrative. Yes strategy and leadership are important, but so is governance.

Maybe one of the most important challenges  facing the Church of England is the re-discovery of what it really means to be ‘episcopally led and synodically governed?’ 

 

 

 

 

Talking with Ruth Hunt: a review of the Inclusive Church Annual Lecture

Trekking to Leicester to sit for an hour or so in a crowded cathedral nave on one of the hottest days of the year wouldn’t necessarily, ordinarily, be something I would choose to do. It is, however, something that I am glad I did, for the whole purpose of the trek (sorry Richard iii) was to listen to Ruth Hunt, the C.E.O. of Stonewall, give the Inclusive Church Annual Lecture, and what a lecture it was. In many ways it didn’t feel like a typical lecture but more of a conversation; thank you Ruth.

Ruth was at pains to tell her audience that she doesn’t regard herself as a theologian, but rather a campaigner, activist and Christian. I would argue that she is a theologian in the prophetic and liberation traditions because, for the next hour or so, she talked about vocation, conversion, ecclesiology, justice, inclusion, solidarity, righteous anger, and the very nature of the all loving God. Listening to Ruth speak was to hear echoes of prophets such as Amos (Amos 5, 14 – end for example).

It is clear that Ruth regards her job as C.E.O. of Stonewall as a vocation. When she became the C.E.O. she had to make a decision: whether to be out about her faith or to keep it private and in the closet. She decided to be up front about her faith and to integrate it into her working life because her faith is quite simply part of who she is. In Christian terms she is an exemplar of work based vocation.

Of course being out about her faith has brought challenges and pain, as well as blessings and joy. The criticism comes from two sources: the communities she, and Stonewall, seek to serve and the ‘faith community,’ (is there really such a concrete thing?). Many of the groups Stonewall serves aren’t necessarily overly enamored with religion and, conservative Christians aren’t thrilled about her being, well, just so obviously gay. Of course Ruth like many gay Christians isn’t always shown the church door as soon as she pitches up on a Sunday morning. In fact she is normally made to feel reasonably welcome, but as she says: ‘there’s a massive difference between being allowed to come and being included.’ 

For the Church of England this insight should provide real food for thought. The Bishops, I think, tried to get away with allowing LGBTIQ+  people to simply come, but without really including them, through their now infamous report; the report  that the House of Clergy declined to take note of back in February 2017. Hopefully, the episcopal teaching document will be a route planner charting the journey from attendance to ‘radical new inclusion,’ (Justin Welby).  But, maybe real change won’t come, in the Church of England, as a result of the bishops strivings? In a sense this is Ruth’s ecclesiological point, a point encapsulated by her observation that ‘the Church is more powerful than its leaders.’ 

If Ruth is correct this may well be an uncomfortable thought for those who regard themselves as being in authority. Such leaders will probably be even more alarmed by Ruth’s other observation that ‘increasingly the role of the leader is irrelevant.’ I don’t think Ruth is dismissing leadership per se, but top down, authoritarian and hierarchical models of leadership. It seems that Ruth is a liberation theologian!

The notion that ‘increasingly leadership is irrelevant’ is, of course, profoundly counter cultural. The importance of leadership, as understood by those who remorselessly promote particular modes of leadership is, for Ruth, something of a fetish and, an idol.

Ruth also believes that the idea that culture is determined through the exercise of traditional (even episcopal) models of leadership is pure myth. It may well be that she would say that, she is after all a self-professed campaigner and activist, but equally she could well be exercising the prophetic voice. Her observation is that: ‘culture changes then leadership changes.’

I suspect that Ruth is on to something here. In a Church of England context I would point, once more, back to February 2017, and the decision of the House of Clergy not to take note of their bishops. The decision to reject a report issued by those at the apex of the hierarchy was, perhaps, the fruit of a cultural shift, which led in turn to an acknowledgment of that cultural shift, articulated through the strap line ‘radical new inclusion.’ But, please do not think that Ruth (nor I) believe that this cultural shift is anywhere near complete! The jury is well and truly out. Radical new inclusion is, for the moment, just a strap-line. For it to become a reality something new has to follow.

Cultural change, in Ruth’s world, is achieved through the theological motif of conversion. She also believes that it is possible to discern a tipping point. For any cultural shift to occur, and for the ‘leaders,’ to appropriate the shift as their preferred strategy, it is necessary to achieve a conversion rate of 25% outside of ‘your core group.’ Securing the explicit support of the 25% rather than seeking to change the mind of those belonging to another ‘core group,’ is ‘the thing.’ As an orthodox-progressive I hope that Ruth is correct, for I can’t really see how those who wish to retain the historic position will be to add the crucial 25% to their numbers.

Ruth, like many of the prophets (again see Amos 15, 14 – end) is powered, or do I mean empowered, by a deep feeling of anger. Her anger is directed towards those who should know better, those who should be calling the church to be her best self. She is angry at the silence of the bishops over the recent spate or hurt and vitriol directed towards high-profile LGBTIQ+ Christians and, rightly, suggests that the cruelty and nastiness directed at the likes of Vicky Beeching is a more public version of the pain inflicted on many less high-profile LGBTIQ+ brothers and sisters each and every day. The question for all Christians seeking justice and inclusion for those kept at an uncomfortable distance is how to we express anger, but with love, for as Ruth said: ‘the time for polite dissent is passing; we need to find a way to express our anger with love.’ Mea culpa this is no easy task.

Ruth was keen to stress that ‘the Church of England’s weakness is unforgivable,’ and that the Church of England really ought to be able to ‘cope with good disagreement.’ Uncomfortable as it may feel Ruth described the Church of England’s leadership as weak on several occasions. She stressed that she would find out-right rejection easier to deal with than vacillation, apathy, and the constant efforts to appease various, and different, ‘core groups.’ 

Ruth’s world-view is, in many ways, bleak and depressing. She experiences the world as hostile, cruel and unjust. Her deepest desire is to energize and unleash the goodness that resides within many, perhaps even most, human souls. She believes that the world needs what she terms an ‘explicit vocal faith.’ Surely she is right? Surely a new counter-narrative needs to be told? Surely an ‘explicit vocal faith,’ must always be one that stands up for the oppressed, counters the bully and, refuses to allow a ‘bruised reed,’ to be crushed (Isaiah 42, 3)?

The church needs, as I have written elsewhere, to decide whether it is going to heal or harm, bless or curse; neutrality and passivity aren’t, in any sense, real choices or real strategies. Let me finish with what I would like to call Ruth’s great exhortation:

‘Wherever we live, work, socialize, play and pray we must create a counter-narrative.’ 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyers Naude, LGBTIQ+Christians, prophecy and blessing.

In 1963 Beyers Naude gave a sermon that changed the course of his life. Naude was the moderator of the Southern Transvaal synod of the Dutch Reformed Church. His association with, and pedigree in, the DRC was deep. Beyers Naude was born into what Desmond Tutu has described as ‘the royalty of Afrikanerdom.’ He was esteemed by the dominant, and domineering, civic and religious elite. His father was a founding member of the Broaderbond, of which Beyers became its youngest member when he was just twenty-five. However by the age of forty-eight (1963) Beyers found that he simply couldn’t reconcile the theopolitical position of the Dutch Reformed Church, and its endorsement of the apartheid regime, so he spoke out.

Speaking out, following his conscience, choosing to favour the plight of those who lived under the cruelest of injustices, was a costly decision. He was forced to resign his post as moderator of his church district, his congregation ostracized him and, his friends ‘reviled him.’ As far as they were concerned the consummate insider had become the ultimate outsider. Beyers Naude had become a ‘prophet without honour’ among his own people; his own people being the white, educated, middle class, religious, and civic, elite.

After giving his famous 1963 sermon Beyers Naude began to discover, that despite what his critics said, many Christians thought and believed as he did. He found, and was blessed, through new associations and friendships. Sadly, this didn’t stop him being cursed by his former friends and associates (brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers cf Matthew 12, 46-48 & Matthew 19, 29), but it did provide him with the blessing he needed to keep on speaking truth to power as he rightly saw it.

This week I have continued to think about the prophetic example of the likes of Vicky Beeching and Jayne Ozanne. Two high-profile, Naude like Christians, who have dared to speak. Like Naude they have been vilified and ostracized by their own. They have been ushered out of their own communities of faith at break-neck speed and told, repeatedly, that their faith isn’t real. They have been forced to leave their erstwhile brothers and sisters behind and they have been made painfully aware that they are deemed to be ‘without honour,’ in what they previously experienced as their ‘own country.’ Hopefully they have both found new friends who can provide them with a sufficiency of blessing to keep going for, like Beyers Naude, I hope, believe, and yes pray, that (salvation) history will be on their side.

I am grateful to the likes of Vicky and Jayne for laying all on the line, for making themselves vulnerable, for allowing themselves to be constantly ‘reviled.’  They are a true blessing to the church.

I am sad that the church, and especially her leaders, have done nothing to address the ferocity and frequency of criticism that Vicky and Jayne receive each and every day. It feels as though our senior leaders don’t wanted to be tainted through association. I would want to say that it is not okay to remain silent. In fact I would want to go further and suggest that in order to be a blessing, in any meaningful sense, our leaders should accept the inevitable cost of ridicule that comes with standing up to the vilest of voices and, the cruelest of theologies. Addressing the issue won’t stop the criticism but it will provide pastoral support, and the strength to keep going, to some of our most courageous sisters.

Alongside Vicky and Jayne I am also grateful to the wider army of LGBTIQ+ Christians who remain in the church even though they are painfully aware that swathes of the church regard them as being beyond blessing. It takes real character to stand up and say ‘here I am, just as I am.’ It takes a depth of faith that I can only dream of or imagine to say ‘I am going to keep coming even though I know that I am not fully accepted.’ I know so many people, some of them very close to home, who have been so incredibly (and incredulously) hurt by the church. The wonder is that they want anything to do with the church, and yet they continue to bless the church.

It’s a bit bizarre, don’t you think, that the church won’t affirm, and bless, those who are already an extraordinary blessing to the church, preferring instead to leave them ‘without honour’ in what should be ‘their own country’?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking about being out; some thoughts about ‘Undivided’ and its reviews

 

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I enjoyed reading Vicky Beeching’s book ‘Undivided.’ It made me laugh; it made me cry. It was, in my view, raw, honest, and revealing. It shone a light into Vicky’s own soul and into the nature of some aspects of evangelical Christianity. The book, in many ways, stands as testimony to the battle that many Christians, LGBTI Christians in particular, face in coming to understand that they are beloved by God, and made in the very image of God.

I haven’t enjoyed reading some of the reviews by evangelical Christians of Vicky’s memoir. But, there again, perhaps I wouldn’t?

As I have reflected on Vicky’s book and the various conservative critiques I have read one thought has kept returning on a consistent basis, its my boomerang thought: Christianity  has the potential to do one of two things, to make things a whole lot better or a whole lot worse. Christian practice is never, it seems to me, neutral. It either heals or harms, blesses or curses.

There is no doubt, in my view, that some of the responses to Vicky’s book, and indeed to her coming out, have been extremely hurtful, vitriolic even. This one in particular (from a blog written by the weeflea)  reads as a curse:

“You loved the things and the fruit of Christianity but you didn’t love Christ.”

How anyone can read Undivided and regard Vicky’s journey through life as anything other than a sincere attempt to enter into the deepest of all loves is a mystery to me. The truly awful thing is that it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to hear a chorus of ‘amen (brother)’ to this most judgmental of statements; it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to hear statements of this sort being delivered from the pulpit or lectern by those seeking to condemn the likes of Vicky. It is a form of words carefully designed to frighten young Christians who may be starting to experience the first stirrings of desire. It is the sort of statement that can only ever curse and harm.

Of course not all Vicky’s reviewers have been so openly nasty and judgemental. Most of them have been keen to assure their readers that they appreciated aspects of Vicky’s craft. Peter Lynas, in his review written on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance, begins with the following so far so cozy remark:  ‘The book is well written and a powerful memoir.’ Andrew Atherstone (writing on Psephizo) describes Vicky’s writing as ‘highly polished, with one clear line of argument prosecuted from beginning to end – more of an extended essay than a full memoir.’  He goes on to say ‘that it will sell briskly, written for the American market, with its references to ‘semesters’ at the University of Oxford and buying ‘cotton candy’ on Eastbourne pier.’

These opening gambits aren’t, of course, crude curses. They are something far more subtle: attempts to damn the author (Vicky) with faint praise and to seek to convey, to their readers, a sense of detachment and cool objectivity. Of course neither critic is detached or objective. None of us come to these issues disintermediated from prior experience, context or theopolitical allegiances. Vicky doesn’t, I don’t, and neither do her reviewers.

The fact that none of Vicky’s critics are detached, cool, and objective is revealed through their attempts to promote their own corner in the theopolitical battle for a one size must fit all doctrine of sexuality. Atherstone and Lynas both provide what looks like an alternative reading list. Both are keen to sign post (and advocate) the theology of Living Out. In fact they are so keen that they come close to suggesting that Vicky’s book is somehow unbalanced. Peter Lynas states that ‘she doesn’t explicitly mention Living Out, but seems to hint at their work in negative terms. Her view seems to be that Sean, Ed and Vaughan are entitled to their choices but, it’s a problem if they “teach that the only option for gay people is celibacy or opposite-sex marriage.” The book comes very close to silencing them and others like Dr Rosaria Butterfield, formerly a lesbian professor of queer theory who was radically converted to Christ.’

This quote provoked three thoughts: First, Undivided is Vicky’s testimony and memoir, so what moral duty does she have to put across an alternative theology? Secondly, Vicky’s story is in large part about her attempt to live beyond her sexuality, as a single and sexually abstinent Christian. ‘Living out’ for Vicky and a large number of LGBTI Christians has, and continues to be, a recipe for disaster. Living out is not the cure-all its apologists would like it to be. Thirdly, I just wonder whether, although Peter Lynas hasn’t commented on the nature of Vicky’s faith quite as starkly as the weeflea, whether that statement that Dr. (and I also can’t help wondering about the use of the title ) Rosaria Butterfield ‘was radically converted to Christ,’ in some way implies that Vicky hasn’t really been converted in any meaningful, or radical, sense?

Andrew Atherstone, I think, also calls into deep question the depth of Vicky’s faith. He writes as follows: ‘She concludes, with typical clarity, ‘God longs for us to simply be ourselves’. That is a remarkable motto, more akin to a pep-talk from a life coach, and shows the theological gulf between her current position and the gospel as she originally received it. Jesus does not say, ‘Be yourself’; he commands us to ‘Be born again.’ 

The implication must surely be that, in solidarity with other members of his theoploitical party, he too doesn’t believe that Vicky is properly Christian. The use of the motif life coach’ is a subtle ploy designed to imply that Vicky, and anyone else who believes that members of the LGBTI community should be fully, liturgically, and sacramentally, affirmed by the church has simply capitulated to secular culture. The use of the motif suggests that Jesus has, for such ‘Christians,’ become a peripheral figure. Its a clever technique designed to support a crude critique.  

As well as fearing for the state of Vicky’s own soul, her critics also fear for the health of the church (but there again don’t we all?) One of the arguments that conservative evangelical critics often make is that the Church of England isn’t really free to make doctrinal changes in isolation from other branches of the Christian faith. Peter Lynas, in particular, makes this argument, he writes:  ‘Ultimately, Vicky has decided that rather than change her own views, she wants to change the church, and not just the church she grew up in. Her new position is at odds with the historic and global church, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.’ 

Am I alone in finding this a strange line of argument from someone writing for a group that would in most, perhaps even all, other ways regard themselves as heirs to the reformation? Of course Vicky wants to see change and reform. So, as a reformed-catholic, do I. 

The freedom to argue for change, to hold doctrine up to the light of scrutiny, to believe and act differently, is one of the distinctive features of reformed Anglican ecclesiology. It is an aspect of out theology and ecclesiology that should be treated with consistency. 

So, what of Vicky’s book: will it harm or heal, bless or curse? To an extent you pays your money and takes your choice, but I suspect that Undivided will prove to be a game changer (I also think her conservative critics fear this deep down). My own view is that in being so ‘out’ and open and, by laying her vulnerability bare Vicky’s book is, and will continue to be, a blessing.

It’s a real pity that Vicky has, in the meantime, had to face so much criticism; some of it vile. Let me finish by offering one verse from Scripture, it is of course Matthew 5, 11:

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely against you on my account.’

Vicky’s book will be a blessing, because, when all is said and done, Vicky has been, and will continue to be, a blessing.

 

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Speaking of stewardship (and investment)

First a confession: the first half of my working life (actually I hope by the time I retire it will be less than half, but let’s wait and see) was spent in the investment management industry. It was an industry that I loved and then grew to loathe. As an executive in the investment management industry I began to experience a real sense of disease and fracture between my professional life and, my faith. Biblical stories such as the encounter between Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler became horribly personal. But, I do want to be clear and balanced: there are many good, holy even, people working in the investment management industry, it’s just that my calling was to something different. I found that I couldn’t work in the industry as a vocation.

I still keep my hand in by serving on the Oxford Diocese Glebe Investment Committee. It’s a role I enjoy. At our diocesan synod I voted in favour of the now ‘failed’ Oxford Motion on continued investment in energy companies, and I followed last Sunday’s debate at General Synod with considerable interest. I was sad that the Oxford Amendment wasn’t carried but proud of my diocese and our bishops for their leadership in, and commitment to, this issue. As I was observing the debate, from afar, two thoughts and two passages of scripture kept coming to mind.

My first thought was in response to the argument that our ability to influence change is many times, in fact hundreds of times, greater than the value of our holdings in the traditional energy companies. How can this be? If we take voting at the AGM as a proxy for shareholder concern it would seem to be the case that most shareholders are fairly apathetic. Only 5.5% of shareholders at Shell’s A.G.M. voted in favour of seeking to force the company to comply with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

My second thought was the very generic way in which the term shareholder is used. There are in fact many different types of shareholder; some of which are out of the reach of activist shareholders such as the Church of England and her National Investing Bodies. The index funds, those funds who seek to replicate the stock market index, are bound to hold shares in the energy companies to the level of their index weighting. Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum between them comprise in excess of 17% of the FTSE 100 index. The index tracking funds are passive shareholders. Their primary interest is in tracking the stockmarket by constructing portfolios that replicate the market.

A second group of shareholder that falls outside of the influence of activist groups is those investment management firms whose investment decisions are made on the basis of quantitative, computer generated, portfolios. These first two groups may be though of as disinterested investors. They own shares in companies on the basis of their index weighting, or because the computer model tells them to do so. Subjective value judgments have little or nothing to do with the way they build investment portfolios.

Active fund managers, by contrast with the index funds and quantitative managers, ought to fall within the N.I.B. scope of influence. Sadly, however, as we can see from the voting records of active shareholders many of them are also fairly disinterested. The active fund managers ought, at least theoretically to be interested in modifying corporate strategy, however many fund managers would gladly admit that they regard their real role as being the generation of investment returns in excess of their benchmark. The benchmark will normally be either the index or a number of peer group competitors. Most active fund managers, I would sadly suggest, are far more interested in beating the competition in order to generate ever greater fee income, than in making moral judgments about corporate behaviour. Some of them may prefer to invest in ‘cleaner’ companies but this is not, when all is said and done, their most significant priority.

Thirdly, income funds are normally mandated to produce a level of income in excess of the dividend yield of the market as a whole. How is this done? By investing in high yielding shares. Royal Dutch Shell’s dividend, by way of illustration, is in excess of 20% higher than that yielded by the market as a whole. It would be a brave and courageous income fund manager who decided not to hold shares in the largest energy companies!

Finally there is a fourth type of investor; the investor who does not operate in a competitive market place. The Church of England, through the N.I.B. is such an investor. The N.I.B. doesn’t operate in an external competitive market place, and as such, at least in theory, has far more flexibility in its decision-making. Put simply the N.I.B. can, perhaps uniquely, afford to make moral judgments about the companies in which it invests because it only has one client to which it is answerable (the C of E) and is under no real threat from competitors. The N.I.B. can afford to think and behave differently to other fund managers. In fact I would go further and would say that it has to because it is one of the few investors for whom theology must be the driver of its portfolio construction.

This leads me into the two bible passages that I couldn’t help thinking about as I was following the debate. The first is somewhat obvious: Genesis 1, 26-30, through which we are told that humankind is made in the very image of God and that it has been given responsibility for the created order. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it, that we have been given responsibility to act as God’s very agents in the loving care of creation? If we are truly committed to prudent stewardship we must surely ask ourselves what does it mean to exercise loving care towards the created order.

The second passage that I kept reflecting on was Matthew 25, 14-30; the Parable of the Talents. The current market value of the ‘talents’ under management by the N.I.B is around £11 billion; a large amount of money. The economic, or theonomic, question for the Church of England is how can these talents be best employed to generate significant returns. So here are my questions: is continuing to invest in the energy companies akin to acting like the slave who ‘hid the talent in the ground,’ and would dis-investing from  the traditional energy companies and instead investing in a portfolio of entrepreneurial companies in the alternative energy sector be like the ‘good and trustworthy slave(s)’ who exercised courageous economic stewardship of the master’s assets? No doubt the argument could be made that continued investment is a bit like placing the funds at our disposal in the bank in order to ‘clip’ the dividend, but is this really good enough?

The debate at General Synod has, I hope, ensured that we continue to ask ourselves what it means to be a good steward, both theologically and economically, or even theonomically. In writing this article I have also sought, imperfectly, to scope the geography of the share-holding landscape. I have done this because I suspect that the claim that the N.I.B is able to exercise influence over a wider group of shareholders might be a little overstated. It is a sad reality that a very significant proportion of shareholders are in reality disinterested. The Church of England, by contrast, can’t afford to be theonomically disinterested. The Parable of the Talents suggests that we will be judged on our theonomic decisions.

We must always seek to act as ‘good and trustworthy slaves,’ using the talents we have been given to best effect. Good stewardship demands that we do the right thing by creation, putting the talents we have been given to best use. Good and prudent stewardship comprises both theological and economic integrity.

The Church of England should deploy its talents wisely.