The aroma of unreality: a summary of my views on the CofE

Archdeacon Janet Henderson recently wrote “I’ve noticed a lot of articles (blogs and media) lately suggesting that the church is dying. The authors of these pieces are hand-wringing over the fact that there aren’t enough resources to keep things going, bemoaning the fact that churches are getting caught up into ‘management-speak’ and chastising these churches for losing sight of gospel values.”

I can’t imagine who she has in mind! I thought I’d use her post as a prompt to set out a few summary points about how I see the Church of England at the moment, as it would seem that my approach is being misunderstood.

Firstly, I do believe that the Church of England – in its present form – is dying. That seems to be a straightforward conclusion to reach from considering the evidence of long-term numerical decline, as David Keen has chronicled. So I do not wish to ‘suggest’ that the church is dying – that doesn’t seem like a very interesting conversation to have any more. I want to proceed on the assumption that the church is in fact dying, and then ask what do faithful Christians – who are loyal to the faith as the Church of England has received it – do now?

The corollary of this is to recognise the difference between the church and the gospel itself. That is, I have great faith in the gospel as something inherently contagious, and which in all likelihood will become a majority world faith some time in the twenty-first century. I trust Jesus’ words that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the church. However, that does not mean that any particular local instantiation of the church cannot die – clearly, in history, many have done and do. The question is: is there, in the structures of the Church of England, still an effective vehicle for the transmission of the gospel, or has the glory of the Lord departed from it for good?

Archdeacon Janet writes: “death is perhaps the least surprising concept to apply to the church which, in theological terms, is the body of Christ – Christ who died and who rose again.” Yes – but it needs to be a real death, as Christ’s was. My take on the Church of England is that it is like a man who has had a really bad car accident and is now in a perpetually vegetative state, being kept alive by an apparatus (establishment) that keeps the vital signs ticking over, and therefore the illusion of life continuing, but there is nothing new or generative possible. We need to really believe in the gospel – and really believe in the resurrection – and therefore have the courage to turn off the machine (and thereby give all the genuinely encouraging green shoots room to grow. You’ll only get new trees in the forest when the ancient trunks have toppled over and created space in the canopy).

To adapt that image, what I am interested in, therefore, is surgery, not butchery. I want to examine those elements of the body that are unhealthy, that have died, and excise them, in order that the healthy parts have room to flourish – and thereby that the body itself might be creatively renewed. What troubles me about the Archdeacon’s post is what could be called the ‘aroma of unreality’ – the sort of ‘nothing to see here, move along, everything is under control’ which happens so often in all walks of life when uncomfortable truths get covered up. To discuss the death of the Church of England is not bemoaning and hand-wringing, it is simply to seek an honest description of the situation in which we find ourselves. It may well be – indeed I hope that it is – possible for there to be a future Church of England, in recognisable continuity with the present one, in which the particular English genius of local via media Christianity is able to be carried forward. I just think that if we are to pursue such an aim with integrity, prayer and moral honesty then we need to be willing to speak directly and be prepared to take some very tough decisions.

On which subject, I hope to finish a second book (to be called “Haunted by Herbert”) in the next few weeks, where I shall spell out what I mean by saying that the Church has forgotten the gospel and what the hard decisions that need to be made actually are. In the meantime, these are links to some of my recent writings on the subject, which will give you a flavour of the argument I shall be making.

Of Strategy, Smallbone and the Spanish Train
Is the Church of England doomed?
Going to Eli – the tension between the institutional and the vocational
The stupid and ungodly Church of England
How shall we clothe the naked CofE?
Efficiency and resilience in the CofE
Faramir, Fraser and the folly of a fast church
Population or congregation? Where the ghost of establishment resides
What is to be done?
Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori
Is it time to abandon ship?
The dying of a church is not a management problem

The dying of a church is not a management problem

Prompted by the conversation over at David Keen’s blog, I got hold of a copy of ‘The Tiller Report’ – “A Strategy for the Church’s Ministry” by John Tiller, then Chief Secretary to ACCM, which was published in 1983. The Tiller report was, itself, building and moving on from a previous ‘Paul Report’ from 1967, which covered similar ground. It makes depressing reading. All the issues that are currently being discussed (eg how to cope with a reduction in clergy numbers) are identified in Tiller, and all the same solutions are advocated – empowering the laity, distributing responsibilities, making the Deaneries the focus of mission and so on. I have this dark vision of another report being written in 30 years time, describing our present context as richly resourced, and working out how to keep the CofE rolling on with only 4,500 clergy.

This is not to say that I disagree with what Tiller wrote – or with what is now being advocated, eg through Transforming Presence. It is simply to say that, if these managerial, pragmatic and administrative remedies addressed the real problem, then those problems would have been solved by now. In my view, the fact that identifying these problems and outlining solutions has been done so competently suggests that our continuing malaise is not something that can be treated with those techniques. The root of our problems does not lie in technocratic incompetence – prevalent though that is – but deeper. The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. In my view, the real issue is that there is is a hole where our understanding and practice of the gospel should be.

This can be seen most clearly in the present debacle concerning whether or not to have women bishops, and how that might be carried forward. Manifestly, at this point in time, there is no single understanding to which all give consent; therefore there is fragmentation and each party simply seeks to advance its own interests. The discussion is not being carried forward as between brothers and sisters in the faith, but in the manner of opposing and mutually despising political parties. There is, in short, a spiritual collapse which has this faction fighting as a consequence. The debates that are taking place in Synod, and more broadly, seem indistinguishable from the political struggles that we are familiar with in Parliament. How can we get sufficient numbers to drive through our agenda? How can we get sufficient numbers to prevent the enemy faction from succeeding?

The trouble is that we do not have a culture in which these events can be described honestly. The hierarchy simply colludes with a culture of concealment (despite the fact the the world outside is full of small children pointing out the nakedness of the emperors) – because lip service has to be paid to the Christian virtues, even when those virtues are not embodied. Let me explain what I mean.

When the initial vote to approve women priests was made in 1992, it was only enabled to happen through a political compromise. In essence, those who were opposed to the ordination of women were assured that this was to be a ‘trial’ – that there would be a ‘period of reception’ during which the Church would come to a view about whether it was in fact the right thing to do – and that in the meantime, those who were opposed to the measure would not be forced to act against their conscience, and their views would continue to be respected. Notoriously, the language was of their being ‘two integrities’ possible within the Church of England. This political fix enabled just enough people in the ‘middle’ to switch sides and pass the measure. Since that time, it would be fair to say that the opposition to the ordination of women has only hardened amongst those who were originally opposed – and, similarly, it has been affirmed and embraced enthusiastically by those who were originally in favour. In other words, the division that was present in 1992 has, through the adoption of crude political methods, become heavily entrenched. Such spiritual camaraderie as was present in 1992 has now mostly evaporated, and we are in an even more emaciated spiritual condition than before.

This is the context within which the women bishops debate is taking place. Those who were in favour of women’s ministry before can now point to twenty years of experience and say ‘see?’ Those who were against, however, can now say ‘you have not kept your promises, we have not been respected, we have instead been persecuted, scorned and scapegoated, why should we start to trust you now?’ In this context, to say ‘we have to rely on our common Christian grace to get by’ is radically inadequate and dishonest. It is a pretence built upon a failure to own up to sub-Christian behaviour. The continued repudiation and moral opprobrium heaped upon those opposed to women’s ministry does nobody any credit, most especially when proper theological reflection gets substituted out in favour of a shallow acceptance of the secular language of justice and rights.

If our church had any spiritual strength it would – before exploring the question about women bishops – close the conversation about the ‘period of reception’ with which this experiment with the ordination of women began. It would come to an honest decision, once and for all, as to whether the decision in 1992 is to be affirmed or rejected (or, perhaps, agree to defer that decision). It would have that discussion in full and honest and open acceptance of the consequences. That is – given that the church is not going to repudiate the ministry of getting on for half of its clergy – it will have to say ‘we are not going to have the ecclesiastical abomination of flying bishops any more’. It will have to say to those opposed ‘this is the decision that the church has reached, this is the integrity of the Church of England now’ – and it would then have to act as charitably as possible to care for those who are rendered spiritually homeless as a result. There are creative ways to do that – but those creative and charitable possibilities cannot be explored in a situation of systematic abuse and bad faith.

Put simply, the church needs to live up to its words; not the high-flown language of spiritual aspiration and love, but the workmanlike words of the 1992 resolutions. The Church actually has to grow up and take what it has done seriously, not continue to indulge in a politically convenient forgetting that advances the agenda of one part at the expense of another. Until we have this honesty – and the patience to pursue the path of honesty wherever it might take us – we will never get anywhere.

Which brings me back to management. Terry Leahy, in his book ’10 words’ begins by talking about truth, as the foundation for everything else that can come, and writes “Organisations the world over are terrible at confronting truth. It is so much easier to define your version of reality and judge success and failure by that.” Why does the Church have such a problem with truth and honesty? My take on this is that it is because we have lost our way spiritually – and yet we can see the consequences around us of that state. We can feel that we have been mortally wounded, but we can’t see where the wound was inflicted and so, in lieu of actually dressing the wound and healing it (allowing God to heal it) we throw ourselves into ever more frenetic endeavours to try and cover up the truth. We substitute social and secular agendas for the gospel to show to the world how righteous we are (as if the gospel could be reduced to being righteous); we throw away the inheritance of our liturgy for the mess of pottage that is children’s entertainment, poorly done (as if the right way to worship God could only be properly discovered with the advent of Powerpoint); and we throw away the long, slow obedience of loyal, local discipleship for the ‘because I’m worth it’ pick and mix of the preferential rather than the penitential. Is it any wonder that we are in the state that we are in?

I believe that the only thing that will energise the church and lead it out into the kingdom is a renewed appreciation of the gospel – a sense of confidence that what we share and why we share it is genuinely a matter of real life and real death – and that that in itself will give the strength for mission, and allow the temperature of things like the women bishops debate to be lowered. At that point all will recognise that wrestling over who has the helm is not the most crucial decision at a time when the ship is sinking and all hands need to be on deck. Given the nature of the traumas that have begun to be inflicted upon our culture – and which will continue to worsen through the coming years, with all the genuine hardship, poverty and starvation that ensues – I believe that we will look back on our arguments at this time with a profound sense of shame; shame not simply that we were distracted from the one thing needful, but shame that this blinded us to the mission that God wishes us to carry forward in a time such as this.

I write this as a supporter of the ordination of women, and the eventual opening up of the episcopacy to women. It’s just that the gulf between what the church thinks to be important – and the vituperative way in which this is proceeding – and what I believe to be important feels very wide. Christian progress does not proceed across the graves of our baptised brothers and sisters.

Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori

So: another priest is being subjected to harassment from the noble and honourable legions of the printed media as a result of the discretions of a friend on Facebook. The allegation is that, as a result of these written disclosures, the priest is “unfit to serve the church at all in the opinion of many Doncaster residents”. Well, good opinion, is, of course, the determining criterion for suitability for ministry. There is a deep issue here, which I want to try and tease out – not least because I too, have been blessed in the past by the tender ministrations of our legacy media.

There is something about being an ordained minister which can be captured in the phrase ‘the dignity of the office’. Obviously this can be abused – I’m sure we’re all familiar enough with the genus of pompous ass for the point not to need belabouring – but where that dignity is recklessly disregarded then the institution of the church is led into disrepute. This is, truly, a bad thing. What I want to explore for now, though, is what actually counts as godly dignity in an environment such as ours. After all, alongside the verse from 1 Timothy we must also assess the tradition of the prophets, culminating in our Lord Himself, in which the most direct and offensive language was deployed to tear down the dignity of offices, for the simple reason that those offices had ceased to serve the living God.

Take the present debate about women bishops legislation. How I wish we had people with philosophical training in positions of leadership in the church! Not for arcane expertise but simply for the ability to follow through the implications of a train of thought or a decision. What we see now is the necessary consequence of the short-term expediency deployed to get the original women-priests measure through. The more compromises that we reach for political purposes – without regard for the underlying principles – the more awful a mess we lead the church into. In this situation, Bishop Alan, for example, might be rightly accused of lacking collegiality with his fellow bishops through his forthright comments – and yet, he is also channeling some righteous rage at the follies that have led us into this situation. Which is more fitting for the dignity of his office – colluding with an inability to have real conversations, or speaking honestly? It is this inability to get real that is the root problem here – as with my brother priest in Doncaster. The idea that a clergyman might swear, might be exhausted or occasionally feel hatred for his work – this is to glimpse an unsettling truth, and preserving contrary illusions does not advance the Kingdom. I am reminded of a wonderful scene in the outstandingly good film Moneyball, which I watched the other night, and which led me to ponder all sorts of things about the church: “You guys are talking the same old nonsense… We’ve got to think differently.”

If we are to truly preserve the divine dignity of the ordained office, does not a respect for truth have to figure somewhere along the line? Sadly, where the church has fallen so far from its divinely ordained purposes, all that is left is an ecclesiastical Game of Thrones, with ++Rowan having played the role of Ned Stark. What is needed is an understanding that ‘you win or you die’, and to succeed in that process we need integrity and honour and an understanding of the dignity of the office – coupled with an acceptance that blood must sometimes be shed. In other words, we need leadership that has an Old Testament Heart, not a Smallbone. Our leadership has been prepared to wound but not to kill, and as a result we have spent twenty years in further interminable argument, and the divisions have simply become more and more entrenched. We are bleeding to death, pummelled by the secularist and materialist cultural imperatives, denuded of our faith and our joy. This is the consequence of not recognising the fallen nature of our world and its implications for the church. Does the church actually want to live?

And just in case the full reference of my title is missed, let me state explicitly that I am channeling Wilfred Owen, not Horace; and, to be true, just a little bit of Mark Antony in my opening paragraph.

Population or congregation – where the ghost of establishment resides

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the Sheffield formula, and thinking about the implications of it (and I’m aware of coming late to the party so if people know of good discussions of this elsewhere, I’d be grateful for pointers in the comments). For those in a blissful state of non-initiation into the arcane mysteries, the Sheffield formula is a way of calculating how clergy should be deployed. It was developed by the eponymous Bishop in a report published in the mid-1970s and takes four factors into account: local population, area, church buildings and church membership. To quote Gordon Kuhrt, “The greatest emphasis was given to population and reflected the priority given to the idea of the Church ministering to the whole nation, not just to its members.”

I’m coming to see that decision as possibly the prime disaster of the post-war church, principally in terms of mission. A few bullet points on the dimensions of that disaster:

– Where population is given that strong weight, there is no direct link between staffing and growth (or diminishment) of the congregation.

– There isn’t even a direct link between population and workload, for the missing link between them is culture – a smaller population of more traditional culture will likely generate a larger workload for clergy than a larger population that is completely secular.

– It can cosset comfortable churches and set ceilings to growth, making it very difficult to reinforce success.

– It entrenches centralised management of resources rather than enabling local initiative.

– It confuses the mission of the church with maintenance of the status quo (that is, it equates the former with the latter) – and the status quo that was assumed in the mid-1970s is very far from being a healthy assumption to make about the church in the 2010s.

In my view the central diocese should step back from making such determinations, and hand over the responsibility for funding clergy to the parishes themselves, supplemented by a mission fund to support churches in more vulnerable areas. Failing that, we could at least shift to a system that excluded population from consideration, and tied the deployment of clergy directly to the size of congregations.

However, there is one aspect of population that I think would make a useful measure. There is, presumably, an average figure for how many from a local population are likely to become part of an Anglican church – let’s say that it’s 2.5% for ease – so for every 1,000 population we might expect a congregation of 25 people. We might then set up a system whereby any church which has a congregation of between 2% and 3% of the local population is considered ‘average’; those with a congregation of less than 2% are less than average, those with more than 3% are more than average. This would give a rough and ready guide to how churches are doing (and obviously, other factors would need to be taken into account, along the same lines of the ‘culture’ mentioned earlier. Mission posts would not be expected to be ‘average’!)

At the moment, a town of 20,000 people with a single church might have one that seemed to be thriving, with a church membership of 300 and all sorts of activities and services, whereas a small village with a population of less than 500 might seem to be failing, with a church membership of 16 – yet the latter would be ‘above average’ and the former quite significantly below. A formula for deploying clergy that places emphasis upon population will never challenge the former to grow, and will continue to reduce the resources available to the latter despite their progress in advancing the cause of the Kingdom.

Faramir, Fraser and the folly of a fast church

One of the many deeply moving elements in the Lord of the Rings is the story of Faramir, younger brother of Boromir, and his quest to gain his father’s approval – leading, in the end, to his sacrificial attempt to retake Osgiliath.

I was reminded of this when reading Giles Fraser’s latest column in the Guardian (which seem better than his Church Times articles – perhaps it is his new context). Fraser writes: “my former therapist made much of the pathologies of the English boarding school system and that those of us who are its victims often have an unhealthy relationship with establishment, looking towards it as some sort of substitute parent. But that, of course, is looking for love and acceptance in quite the wrong place. Larkin may have been overly cynical about “your Mum and Dad” but it was a cynicism that would not have been misplaced about the establishment – places like the army and the church. “Get out of this thing whilst you can”, can feel like pretty sound advice.”

My earlier post about the stupid and ungodly culture of the church seemed to strike a chord – normally, a well-read post here gets up to 400 reads – that one has had over 2,500 and is still rising. I think Fraser is putting his finger on one particular aspect of the ungodly culture of the Church, one particular way in which the church devours its own children, and it is to do with how the hierarchy expresses or withholds approval.

I think Denethor is a good proxy to use to describe this. Denethor is a steward – in other words, someone entrusted with looking after something glorious, with passing it on safely to his successors (in order that it is in good order at the time of the Return of the King). Because of his use of the Palantir, Denethor has given in to the despiser’s promptings and succumbed to despair. He sees no way in which he will be able to achieve what he has been commanded to achieve. This fear, this lack of faith, is what lies behind his corrupt actions and his lack of regard for Faramir – a son that truly loves him, and is an exemplary leader. Out of fear, Denethor seeks for any remedy that might stave off the darkness, is willing to sacrifice his son in folly, and would be even willing to use the Ring in order to see Gondor preserved. In other words, the leadership is gripped with fear and the actions are conditioned by a desire to ‘hold fast’ to what has been inherited. It is this holding fast which is, in the end, the problem, and which leads to such a sad end for Denethor.

In the same way it seems that our hierarchy is gripped by fear at losing what has been inherited, and spends time and energy on holding fast. This is not so much a question of holding on to particular churches despite losing so many clergy (something I actually agree with) so much as holding on to a particular attitude and understanding of what the Church of England actually is. That is, I believe it is a particular vision of the Church – a particular vision of the role of the church within our English society – which is being held on to. It is the sort of thing that comes to the forefront at times like last year’s Royal Wedding and it is, of course, exactly what was at stake in Giles Fraser’s conflict at St Paul’s. There the conflict came out into the open – the great unwashed had parked themselves outside the symbol of old establishment glory, and this really wouldn’t do. What greater symbolism could there be than the closing of the cathedral doors for fear of contamination by these ‘witless halflings’?

Fraser touches on how the hierarchy has rallied to preserve respectability in the sight of the world: “I’ve had my fill of polite rejections since resigning from St Paul’s – too many unconvincing smiles in the street by former friends and colleagues who suddenly wouldn’t break step to say hello… The more you seriously piss off the church authorities, the nicer they are to you in public. Ostracism is achieved with a well-rehearsed Christian smile and the rhetoric of pastoral care. Good social skills camouflage a deep irritation that you have betrayed the club.” This is how Denethor manipulates Faramir into self-sacrifice – the exercise of control through the withholding of approval. (The thought that occurs to me – to change the image for a moment – is that it is strange to disapprove of those who rock the boat when the boat itself is sinking, and holding fast to the status quo merely guarantees that the vessel sinks.)

The dark theology here has many aspects, but one in particular I would like to pick out. Those gripped by fear seek to hold fast to what has been inherited – and their clinging to old patterns develops into a strangling of the new. Yet there is another sense of ‘fast’ – the sense of something being quick, or immediate, something lacking in mediation. This is a hallmark of Protestant culture. It might be suggested to Fraser that he shouldn’t be seeking such reassurance and approval from the hierarchy – that a sense of doing God’s will should be enough for anyone with a living faith. Yet this is to deny that God has no hands but ours, no eyes but ours. It is a rejection of sacramentality and incarnation – in other words, it is primarily through the love and respect shown by other human beings that we experience the love and respect on offer to us from God. When that love and respect is withheld – when we are disciplined by disapproval – then this is experienced as a rejection by God. I don’t believe that this is simply down to having had a boarding school background (having one myself) – it is more that this aspect of boarding school culture is itself an expression of a particular form of English culture, and it is precisely this form of English culture which seems to control the Church, and it is this form of English culture that seems incapable of recognising holiness, as with Rowan.

How might those who still love the church – as with Fraser – and who wish to see it prosper take forward the necessary remedial work? Two thoughts. The first is that – in a church which has become too fast in every sense, and which is distracted by passing, glittering fancies as it seeks the next Red Bull to assuage the neurotic void and spiritual lack at its heart – we have to prioritise the opposite of the fast, which is the slow. A remark attributed to Jung is that ‘haste is not of the devil, it IS the devil’, which I believe contains much truth. We have lost our sense of rootedness in prayer, our sense that God is in charge and that, whatever goes wrong, He has the capacity to redeem it and the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. We need to get back to putting the first commandment first – that is the only thing that will remove our fear.

The second is that we have to reform the structures of the church. Structures – principalities and powers – embody and maintain a particular culture, and even good people can become distorted out of God’s plan by living within fallen structures. I am more and more convinced that we need to disestablish the church, for it is precisely establishment which is the bulwark propping up this particular culture. (Disestablishment would also bring us into line with the global Anglican Communion, which I thought was a particular desire of the hierarchy… Hmmm.)

I believe in the gospel more firmly than I ever have, and I believe in the local church – that it is where Christ can be met and incarnated, and which has a vibrant future to look forward to – but the wider structures of our Church, the wider culture or soul of this institution – there I have ever-increasing doubts. I believe that it can only be saved if it is significantly reformed. Has it gone too far to be redeemed? Has the glory of the Lord actually departed from it? Is the future of the Church of England simply to be the Anglican denomination in this land? Probably, but, as with Fraser, I still hold on to a hope in the God of surprises.

For you and for many (on "lay" presidency)

As this is again being discussed, I thought I’d bring it back to the top of the blog.

First posted July 2007, with a more personal follow-up here.

In the ‘I confess’ post, I said:

“I confess: that the idea of lay presidency appals me. It’s either a redundant aim (because communion is celebrated by everyone) or it’s simply an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology. Priesthood is a differentiation sideways, not vertically, so what precisely is being objected to? I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.”

This has caused a bit of comment (off-line as well as on!) and it’s certainly something which is being discussed here in Mersea. So I thought I’d expand a little further. Click ‘full post’ for text.

This is still in the style of summary points:

– the role of the ordained minister is not ‘above’ the people, which would undermine the priesthood of all believers, but ‘alongside’ the people – separated out to perform a particular role on their behalf – if they were all one part where would the body be?;
– if a bunch of Christians were stuck on the proverbial desert island without an ordained minister, then clearly it would be good for them to celebrate together; it is the community gathered which does the celebrating (even when not on the desert island) – but I would lay odds that they would choose one person to do it, and not just take turns (unless they were already formed in that theology!) – NB there’s a thread in Lost that explores this, but I haven’t finished series 2 yet, so I don’t know where it’s going;
– a community celebrating because there cannot be an ordained minister present is very different from a community celebrating because they choose not to value what the ordained minister represents (ie unity with the wider church) – one is acquiescence to necessity, the other is an elevation of separation;
– it is precisely that elevation of separation which is the core problem with lay presidency, so far as I understand it, ie it is a mark of the local community gathering all authority to itself, saying to all outside their self-defined boundaries ‘we don’t need you’, whereas I see one of the essential tasks of the ordained minister as being to represent the wider church to the local community, and call it to account, not least through being the sign of fidelity to apostolic teaching;
– accepting ordained ministers is therefore accepting a wider church and all that that entails – it’s the definition of catholic, in its proper sense, and it’s the opposite of sectarian. It’s about being a part of something larger than the individual ego, or even a gathering of individual egoes;
– the task of the ordained minister is balanced – to represent the wider church to the local and vice versa – and the ordained minister is the one who has overall pastoral and teaching responsibility within a particular community – presiding at the eucharist is the function and sign of that authority, not the source of it;
– the ordained minister therefore also has important disciplinary functions – eg the excommunication of unrepentant sinners; the rooting out of bad theology – which cannot be delegated – or is this also included in ‘lay presidency’?!? I have visions of a church version of the grand Mexican Stand Off: ‘I excommunicate you!’ ‘No, I excommunicate YOU!’ ‘NO, I EXCOMMUNICATE YOU!’;
– of those whom I have met who advocate lay celebration, none actually want _anyone_ to do it, that is, they wouldn’t be happy if a stranger walked in from the street; nor even if some particular known members of the congregation performed the duty (for various reasons). Moreover, the idea that the person doing it should be trained up to do it is uncontentious – and this leaves open the real issue which is about the laying on of hands by the wider church, and the value of sacramental theology as such;
– in other words, what is being objected to isn’t the idea of some members of the community being allowed to preside rather than others, it’s the idea that being ordained by the wider church body represents something important – and so we are back to the idea of the local congregation being an authority unto itself, without any accountability to the wider church, either in space or time;
– at bottom, my strong reaction against this notion is a belief that it is yet another example of the idolatry of choice that has infected Western society, whereby each person is their own little God able to muster tributes according to their own taste (much the most insidious form of slavery) and where worship simply becomes an agglomeration of common preference, leading to the ten thousand things (denominations) rather than a unity with a Body much greater than oneself. I think this is one of the core things that identifies me as ‘Anglo-Catholic’ – though this is supposedly ‘whole-Anglican’ theology;
– I find great comfort in the idea that my ministry and authority does not rest upon meeting the particular standards of a local community but is bound up with the wider church as a whole (as signified by the laying on of hands). Without this form of acknowledged authority it seems that each congregation goes its own separate way, in smaller and smaller splinters, in more and more egotistical forms (even when the egotism isn’t exercised in a personal way, it is still a function of a theologically elevated egotism as such). One tyranny has replaced another (and the New Testament is hardly silent on the idea of ministerial authority). There seems to be no distinction between the idolatry developed in Western theology in the late Middle Ages, which separated priests from people, and the theology developed by the church – the same church that was inspired enough to put the Bible together – which progressively delineated who had authority to preside. Hence my comment that I see advocacy of lay presidency as “an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology… I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.”

None of this is to say that an ‘agape’ isn’t something wonderful, and to be encouraged, eg in small group ministry, only to differentiate it from ‘Holy Communion’ – that foretaste of heaven which is the celebration of the catholic church, local and universal. The ordained minister is the sign of that wider unity. ‘Just’ a sign? Only in the sense that the bread is ‘just’ a sign of the Body of Christ! It’s not an accident that the idea of lay presidency is most closely associated with the least sacramental understandings of the Eucharist. If what happens in communion isn’t ultimately that important, then it’s not that important who presides – but if what happens in communion is a means of grace and essential medicine for the soul – then it’s much more important that it is done rightly. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” – and ‘the body’ here isn’t simply the bread, it’s also the communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.

Efficiency and resilience in the Church of England

This is a line of thought prompted by the conversation about the structure of the Church of England (see Andrew Brown’s article here). One of the key concepts in ecological thinking is the contrast between efficiency and resilience. An efficient system (or ecology) is one in which each resource is being utilised to the greatest possible extent. In contrast, a resilient system is one in which there are areas of under-utilised resource which stand the system in good stead when there is a particular crisis leading to a lack of availability of resources more generally. In other words, when a crisis comes, a resilient system is one that is able to bounce back from a shock, drawing on previously unexploited resources. An efficient system is more vulnerable to such shocks because it lacks those unexploited resources – it is like glass, robust in normal use but likely to shatter if those normal conditions depart.

The free market, of course, worships efficiency – that is, efficiency, obtaining the most value from a particular resource, is the structuring value around which economic activity orients itself. This can be seen quite explicitly in economic and business text books which use concepts like ‘return on investment’ to guide choices. If a company is able to become more efficient then that means it is able to generate a higher financial return for its shareholders (or more profit for the owners). Now there are questions here about different national cultures – for example, my understanding of the zaibatsu model in Japan (and the equivalents elsewhere) are that other values than simple efficiency can be employed by a company to guide their choices, eg long term growth of market share.

Be that as it may, the quest for efficiency is a hallmark of the particularly Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, and it is this which governs the business culture in our own country. It is also this which guides the culture of managerialism, which brings me to the point I want to make about the Church of England. I hope that it is clear that structuring our activities in order to make them more efficient is not necessarily of God. After all, one way of understanding efficiency is to see it as claiming that nothing must be gratuitous, all must ‘earn their way’ – and of course, that is in profound contrast to an understanding of the nature of God which sees God as overflowing in abundance and generosity towards the creation. Historically, the Church of England has been a very inefficient but very resilient system, reflecting the diverse historical origins of the different elements within it – parish churches, cathedrals, university foundations, and so on. One might say that the inheritance of the Church of England is one that has emphasised the importance of the local and the different, the queer and the inefficient. This, I feel, is part of the glory of the CofE – that it is capacious and tolerant; one might say, all manner of folk can find a fold of her skirts in which to hide and thrive.

It is this that was understood to be at stake with the Covenant process – a fruit of a search for efficiency if ever there was one. After all, one of the concomitant passions of the drive for efficiency is the drive for clarity (the distinguishing of the brand over and against other brands) and the drive for effective managerial control (in order that the activities are congruent with the values of the people in charge). I am delighted that the Covenant process has been checked, at least for now, but the underlying pursuit of efficiency is still present, and that entails that other bitter fruits will be forthcoming. (A small example is the fuss about fees – see Justin Lewis-Anthony’s article here; it cannot be separated from the George Herbert process either.) Digging down into the spirituality of this approach we have a desire to control the outcome, which is based upon a fear that all that seems to be going wrong will continue to go wrong, which is based in turn upon a loss of trust that God is the one in charge and able to redeem whatever we do in order that his purposes are accomplished. In other words, what we see in the Church’s pursuit of efficiency is evidence that we have forgotten what it means to believe in God, and so we grab at the latest glittering fix on offer from the world – at just the time when the world is changing in the opposite direction! After all, belief in God is something that is worked out in practice, not simply in the privacy of one’s own opinions and thoughts – a bad tree will bear bad fruit, and this is what we are seeing. None of this is to say that efficiency, on its own, is a bad thing – it is to insist that any efficiencies sought have to be placed into the context of the other values held by the organisation. We are to be more like the zaibatsu than Goldman Sachs.

The Church of England will only be saved by those who are not consumed with conviction about how to save it, and who sit lightly at the prospect of the Church of England not being saved – simply because they are utterly committed to the sovereignty of the living God, and they trust in His provision, rather than our own choices. Our future is going to be one that is local and catholic, not corporate and monotone. It is the desire that is wrong here, not any particular outcome, and we won’t get anywhere until we give that desire a proper theological interrogation. Whether the theological resources of the Church are actually up to that task is, sadly, an open question at this present time.

The stupid and ungodly culture of the Church of England

I’ve been pondering two things – the failure of the Anglican Covenant process in the Church of England, and the fate of Rowan Williams. It seems to me that both are evidence that the culture of the Church of England is incredibly stupid and ungodly. As that will doubtless come across as needlessly confrontational, I had better explain what I mean.

Take the Covenant process first. Why were the Bishops so out of touch? Why was so much effort invested – in a frankly morally dubious fashion – by the institutional establishment in pushing through a measure where there was clearly no consensus? The disconnect between the hierarchy and the rank and file – and especially, the disconnect between the episcopacy and the clergy – should really be a wake-up call to the hierarchy to carry out a fundamental review of how Bishops work. As Bishop Alan has put it, the failure is at least an “opportunity to grow up, to take stock, and to get real. It’s very sad that a large number of bishops were out of touch on this one”.

With Rowan the situation is rather different. My question here is – how can someone so widely acknowledged to have remarkable intellectual gifts and personal holiness be so distorted by the pressures of the office that his ministry is considered to be a failure? (I don’t believe that it has been – I’m not even competent to begin the assessment – but it is the fact that it seems to be regarded so that I find significant. That is, why is it that holiness is not valued and celebrated? It is a symptom of our profound spiritual sickness.) It seems to me that a significant part of this is the culture inhabited by the hierarchy which prevents a genuine and honest conversation from taking place – homosexuality is the presenting issue but the issues go much deeper than that. Put simply I don’t believe that it is possible to be a Bishop and to tell the truth (with some honourable exceptions).

The roots of this are manifold, but I want to draw attention to one in particular – and that is the cult of overwork that has taken hold in the Church, in mimicry of the surrounding culture. It is this cult of overwork and ‘busyness’ that I see as stupid and ungodly. It is this cult that has radically diminished the capacity of the bench of bishops to exercise holy discernment. After all, how many Bishops do you know that are not absurdly overworked? The research is pretty clear that overwork leads to a significant decrease in productivity and is self-destructive – but appreciating that requires the application of wisdom, and it is precisely that wisdom that flies out of the window when a person is exhausted. We cannot expect our Bishops to exercise holy discernment and godly leadership if at the same time we are also expecting them to work 70 and 80 hour weeks (the same thing applies to clergy of course).

Of course, as Christians we are more than usually vulnerable to this cult of overwork because it appeals to our co-dependent culture and masochistic minister syndrome – if we are not suffering then we are not being properly godly. This is pernicious nonsense, and rooted in some very bad theology (not least the doctrine of penal substitution). It is as if we equate the way of the cross with the decision to mimic the world’s obsessions, when a proper understanding of the cross would lead to precisely the opposite conclusion. The development of the stipend was originally to allow at least one person in a parish to have time for prayer; it is a sad irony that, as with many salaried posts, it has become an excuse to extract the maximum amount of labour for the minimum amount of expenditure.

In Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels there is one character, a thaumaturge, who carries around a small child on his back, called a croyel. The child never grows up but does, periodically die – and is then replaced by another. As the story develops it becomes clear that the thaumaturge is simply siphoning off the life-force of each successive child in order to preserve his own immortality. It’s a frightening image, but one that I feel captures the way that the church treats all those who work for it – full-timers, part-timers, volunteers. What we expect from our bishops and clergy is exactly what happened with Microsoft – use up the resource until it is a dry husk and then discard and replace with another. The needs of the institution – keeping the show on the road – is paramount, and the church continues to sacrifice its children on this idol’s altar. It’s long time past for us to stop.