Unacknowledged Materialism and the decline of the Church of England

I have been a little unwell, and postponed various meetings, which has left me, unusually these days, with the time to think and thus to blog. I find my thoughts coming back to what it is that the Church of England has really got so wrong, that has led to its not-quite-terminal-yet long decline.

If I had to put my finger on one thing, I would say that most members of the hierarchy of the church are philosophical materialists. That is, they might pay lip service to spiritual realities but in practice no real choices are made on the basis of those spiritual realities. They would almost certainly all demur from such a description – at least, those who knew what it meant would demur – but the demurral would not achieve much in practice. Which is my point.

Philosophical materialism is, roughly, the dogma that the only things that are real derive from mass and from motion, and stems from the thought of Francis Bacon. He excluded two of Aristotle’s four causes from reasonable (ie scientific) consideration, that to do with formal cause (a determining pattern) and final cause (the purpose for which something exists).

This materialism became culturally dominant in England quite some time ago, to the extent that it is now simply a matter of common sense. To reject such a materialism is socially not respectable; at least, not until extremely recently. It is why all language of miracles is rejected (miracles are, most of all, to do with the final cause of events). It is what lies behind the notion of ‘hard’ sciences – because Bacon’s two causes are the ones that are most tangible.

To take just one example with regard to the hierarchy, this – possibly unconscious – materialist bias is shown when the language of spiritual warfare is used in their presence, and the squirming and unease is palpable. Mostly I think this is a caution relating to charismatic forms of devotion – very unEnglish – but there is often something wider too. I diagnose it as a cowering before the mighty edifice of science. In opposing science the Church of England came off worst, it lost, and anything which smacks of reviving that fight is to be shunned for fear of more pain.

However, where materialism is accepted, the work of the church becomes less about a knowledge that leads to salvation than about those things which can be clearly understood in materialist terms: hence the emphasis upon the palliative care of the suffering and the embrace of a managerialist ethos.

It is, put simply, not a spiritually serious position to hold. Which is rather disappointing given the nature of the job, and it is why, in my view, the Church has been a long time a-dying. It cannot give spiritual sustenance when deep down it doesn’t believe that such a thing is real. Where the flock are not fed, they die or they leave.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that the decline of the Church of England stems from an intellectual surrender to the doctrine of secular materialism. The Church has surrendered to science, and forgotten its own genius.

We need to rediscover the magic of our faith. In every sense.

I’m doing my own part to chip away at this through my own research, looking at one area in particular where this has happened (psychiatric diagnosis) yet I am very conscious of being in a distinct minority within the church community: odd, and therefore lonely. (I seek to avoid the vainglorious notion of being the only one left, I’m sure there are at least 7000 more that have not bowed the knee to Baal.)

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if God wants something to be done about it. It may be that God wants the Church of England to enter into glory. I just can’t help but believe that we need to see our situation clearly before we will be enabled to hear God clearly – and this is my contribution. I will start to believe that we are healing – and therefore open to growth once again – when the language of spiritual warfare, of idolatry, principalities and powers, angels and demons are once again comfortably and normatively used by those in spiritual authority over the church.

The fragility of civility

I wonder how many of you have seen the Channel 4 interview that took place between the journalist Cathy Newman and the Canadian academic psychologist Jordan Peterson. I thoroughly recommend seeking it out on YouTube if you haven’t seen it, as Peterson is a stimulating and lucid thinker. Yet what most struck me when I watched it was the remarkable lack of civility displayed by Ms Newman.

Repeatedly – and by ‘repeatedly’ I mean on at least two dozen occasions – Ms Newman appeared to listen to Peterson before then stating “What you’re saying is X”, where X is a remarkably dishonest and misleading construal of Peterson’s remarks. This is an example:

Peterson: …if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcome.
Newman: Right, so you’re saying that anyone who believes in equality, whether you call them feminists, call them whatever you want to call them, should basically give up, because it ain’t gonna happen.
Peterson: Only if they’re aiming at equality of outcome.
Newman: So you’re saying give people equality of opportunity, that’s fine?
Peterson: Not only fine, it’s eminently desirable for everyone, for individuals and for society.
Newman: But still women aren’t gonna make it. That’s what you’re really saying.
Peterson: It depends on your measurement techniques. They’re doing just fine in medicine…

newman bacon

What I want to bring out here is the remarkable lack of civility that Newman brings to the discourse, compared with the abundance of civility that Peterson displays. Just imagine how the conversation would develop if, instead of Newman saying “What you’re saying is X” she simply asked “are you saying X?”

We might call this the John Humphrys-isation of our journalistic traditions, whereby the task of the journalist is no longer to dispassionately seek the truth and share that truth with their audience or readership – so, in Newman’s case, to ensure that those watching Channel 4 at that point were given a clear understanding of Peterson’s ideas – but rather the journalist believes that their task is to be an advocate for one partisan tradition over against another. When a guest is perceived to be advancing a cause antagonistic to the journalist’s own tradition then they are traduced and mis-represented, as has become so wonderfully clear in the Newman-Peterson interview. Still, at least Peterson was allowed on to the television programme in the first place. The views of the majority of the British population tend not to be given any air-time at all.

I wonder whether this is one aspect behind the popularity of costume dramas like The Crown, Downton Abbey or Howard’s End, which show the country – people like us – operating in a vastly more civilised manner. I am not simply referring to the possibilities of grace and ease that are afforded by being stupendously rich. Rather, I refer to a shared culture of acceptable behaviour that had at its core a distinctly Christian ethos of shared mutual respect – distinctively Christian as it rests upon the idea that all human beings are made in the image of God, which is one of the elements of Christianity that marks it out as different to other world-views. If a person is made in the image of God then it becomes a form of blasphemy to treat that person without respect. In Downton Abbey, this could be seen very clearly with the servants, under the benign stewardship of the Butler Mr Carson. There was a clear standard of correct behaviour which all were required to adhere to.

Is this just a form of curmudgeonly conservatism? A pining for a long-gone age of deference and a refusal to acknowledge the huge advances in human welfare of the last hundred years? I would argue not. It isn’t simply about the possibilities of polite discourse, undertaken in a shared spirit of enquiry and humility before the truth. It is rather one aspect of an overall coarsening and vulgarisation of our national character and culture which has some very stark and chastening consequences.

One that particularly alarms me relates to the welfare of our children, especially our daughters. If we consider the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, amongst the victims of that particular terrorist atrocity were young teenage girls dressed up in ways that exaggerated their age and such secondary sexual characteristics that they might have possessed. There is a link between such display and the way in which the white girls of Rotherham were preyed upon by abusive gangs. In other words, a culture of civilisation protects the vulnerable and the innocent, whereas in the culture that we have now – which is all about assertion and aggression from both men and women – it is the vulnerable and the innocent that suffer the most. Am I the only person who thinks that something like Nickelodeon is designed to stimulate a paedophiliac culture, in Hollywood and then more widely? I worry for the stars of Stranger Things like Millie Bobby Brown, who at the age of 13 is being taken up into the Hollywood publicity machine and made-over to look much older. This is not healthy. This is not right.

I would not wish for one moment to say that there has been a previous golden age to which we must return – that’s a delusional and destructive path to choose. Yet surely there are creative ways in which we can revive the best of what has gone before, alongside all the gains that have been accrued since? A way of restoring a sense of truth, beauty and goodness to guide our common choices around ways of behaving and relating to one another?

What we have without such a shared sense is a disintegrating culture in which all civility is removed in favour of the naked struggle for power. We see the consequences every day, not least in all the arguments that continue to rattle on about Brexit. No longer are different people with different abilities united around a common aim; rather, those differences are exalted and exploited in order to service the media gods of drama and conflict.

Civility is both fragile and marvellous. We neglect its cultivation at our own peril.

A church for England

So here is the trailer for a new series on Netflix that I am planning to watch and hoping to enjoy:

One of the key elements in the story is that a person can ‘upload’ their identity so that it can be stored and then be ‘downloaded’ into another body, thus granting a certain sort of immortality.

This is one manifestation of the ancient gnostic heresy, which sees bodies as barriers to enlightenment.

Christianity, in contrast, proclaims the Word made flesh – and thus sees flesh as inherently capable of bearing divinity, thus, worthy of respect and affirmation. If you really want to protect the bodies of human beings in the world today it doesn’t help to consider them metaphysically dispensable…

Interestingly, contemporary philosophy of mind and neuroscience would concur that the idea (of disembodied intellects being the essence of who we are) is inadequate to describe our shared humanity. We do not exist apart from our bodies, and cannot exclude our bodies from our sense of self, not even of our concept of mind. No, the Biblical witness that we are embodied souls (to be resurrected one day in the body DV!) is proving remarkably robust.

So far, so uncontroversial to an informed theologian. Now for my radical turn.

Jesus was the Word made flesh, and the scandal of the incarnation is about particularity – how odd that God should choose the Jews. Jesus was a particular man who lived in a particular time and place; so far as we can tell he was very typical of a man of his time, for all of his untypical aspects are otherwise remarked upon – his teaching, his demeanour, his morally and religiously radical behaviour.

In other words, all those aspects of humanity that are tied in with a particular time and space – to be a Jew in the first century in Palestine – these also become bearers of the divine.

Which means that all our own particularities share in that potentiality; and they can only do so if they are real.

By which I mean: ontologically real. Most especially, a nation, or national identity, is a real thing. It meant something for Jesus to be a Judean. The nation is a principality, a creation of God, fallen and in need of redemption, yet also granted a place in God’s economy.

Which brings me to the Church of England, which is dying if not yet quite dead. I rather wonder whether part of the affliction from which it suffers has its root in a metaphysical blindness about the true spiritual nature of the nation which it claims to serve. That is, it would appear that, unlike the laity, almost all of the leadership has no interest or care in the salvation of England as a nation, as opposed to the individuals who live within that nation.

Might it not be the case that, if the Church of England is not to die out from lack of use, a part of the solution would be a recognition that the Church has to be for England as such?

At the moment this is just a seed of an idea. Yet it ties together so much.

Film, TV, novels of 2017

Last year my New Year’s Resolution was to keep a list of all the popular culture I consumed. It has been a very interesting exercise and one that I plan to continue. It is a good prompt to me to read more and watch less! Here is a list of some of my cultural highlights of the year:

Novels:
I re-read Lord of the Rings, and all of the Game of Thrones books, and CS Lewis’ space trilogy. All good.
I read some more horror again, after much time away – Clive Barker, James Herbert, now re-reading Stephen King (which may take some time!)
Best books read: Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Xenocide by Orson Scott Card; Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
I read about 25 novels – so one a fortnight.

Movies (at home)
I watched more than 60 – so more than one a week. Some favourites: John Wick (1&2); Ex Machina; I, Daniel Blake; Nymphomaniac (both parts)
Worst film watched: The Circle

TV
Probably watch a bit more TV than movies now – influence of Netflix!
Kept up with Game of Thrones, Walking Dead and all the Marvel series – though I have now given up on that (Inhumans! erk).
Enjoyed the first few series of Downton. Loved Westworld, American Gods, Wolf Hall, Star Trek Discovery and The Crown.
Also: Strictly! for the first time.

Cinema – roughly one a month, they were all good. Basically I’ll see the main popcorn movies on a big screen. Best of these was probably Blade Runner, closely followed by Dunkirk

Lego Batman
Logan
Lion
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Spiderman: Homecoming
Baby Driver
Dunkirk
Kingsman: Golden Circle
Blade Runner 2049
Thor Ragnarok
Justice League
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

For next year? I just can’t wait for Infinity War…

So that was 2017

Didn’t achieve most of my resolutions from last year – in fact, I have pretty much got the same ones again this year!

Was Dame in the panto again…

…and had a small role in the May play too.

Bought a lovely boat!

And sailed as far as Ipswich…

Another wonderful Greenbelt

Saw a lovely colleague ordained to the diaconate

Continued to struggle with the CofE, especially with regard to workload and institutional priorities – whilst being more and more enthused with the gospel itself

Got stuck in to my doctorate

Got on a motorbike again

Lost Ollie

Missed my kids

(There would have been images to go with all this but WordPress is not co-operating!)

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.

Ollie RIP

A sad beginning to Christmas Eve in the Mersea Rectory – my dear companion of almost twelve years (he was on the cusp of turning fourteen) passed away peacefully in the night, after a couple of days of illness. He was a good dog.

gop20061027

gop20101021

GOPmar09

olhol3

olhol4

ollie jun 08

startled

What is Justin Welby afraid of?

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks during a news conference at Lambeth Palace in London

I am feeling ashamed of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As you might imagine, this is not a comfortable experience for someone who is a loyal Anglican.

This has been provoked by Welby’s response to the Carlile report.

The Carlile report concluded that, in its investigation of the allegations against George Bell, “the Church of England failed to institute or follow a procedure which respected the rights of both sides. The Church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past when it had been too slow to recognise that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect oversteered in this case. In other words, there was a rush to judgement: the Church, feeling it should be both supportive of the complainant and transparent in its dealings, failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the Bishop. Such rights should not be treated as having been extinguished on death.”

In other words, the Church got things wrong – it did not make a proper investigation into the strength of the allegations against George Bell, and consequently defamed the late Bishop and destroyed his reputation without good cause.

This seems to me something that is a serious moral error and one that needs to be repented of.

Yet the Archbishop says this: “Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good.” He is balancing the heroic elements of George Bell’s life, which are well-known and well-attested, with the single, uncorroborated (and clearly partly factually mistaken) allegation of wickedness.

I believe that this is in itself wicked.

As I do not believe the Archbishop to be a wicked man – indeed, he has for the most part seemed a good thing so far – I am forced to wonder about his motivations for being so maladroit on this topic. The only thing that occurs to me is that he is terrified of the opprobrium that falls upon the church when it gets things wrong with regard to safeguarding – indeed that is what Carlile alludes to in the extract above. Welby has taken the easier, more worldly-mollifying course of action, rather than one which is principled and concerned above all with the truth.
This cannot end well.

This acting from fear is so far from what we need. I am still someone longing for an unafraid Anglicanism. I had been hoping we would get some fearless leadership from Dr Welby. I am now more worried that we will get an extremely efficient leadership that takes us vigorously in the wrong direction.

St Anthony of Padua pray for us!

The nature of our Brexit

The quirks of editorial deadlines mean that I write this article just two days after Theresa May has forged enough of an consensus with the EU to enable talks about an eventual trade agreement.

I’m mostly extremely happy about what Theresa May has agreed. The financial settlement is the first element, which might end up being around £40bn spread over several years. Given the scale of our contributions to the EU, and the amount that will actually be reimbursed back to us (our rebate is going to continue) this amounts to a net transfer of around two years worth of our prior EU member state contributions. So not a lot in the overall scheme of things. This will then end, at which point we are free of all financial obligations and in a position to enjoy something of a windfall. Excellent.

The second element is about citizenship. It always seemed to me transparently obvious that both sides have an interest in a civilised settlement that preserves all the accrued rights enjoyed by our respective citizens, and that seems to have been accomplished. Again, ongoing recourse to the ECJ is time-limited and will cease after eight years. So: also excellent.

The third element, which has risen in both prominence and political temperature, relates to the Irish border. Any eventual solution will have to be integrated into whatever trading agreement is eventually adopted – there is no way of answering the border question separately. I’m glad that the talks were not fully derailed by this issue but I also have a strong suspicion that the Irish Taoiseach has overreached himself.

Although it was Arlene Foster’s phone call that disrupted Mrs May’s planned announcement of a deal – leading to a week of frantic diplomacy – the essential Unionist point, that there can be no internal barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, is widely accepted. This simply had to be spelled out in extremely clear terms, hence the reiteration in the text of the agreement that the UK as a whole is leaving the EU’s internal market (‘single market’) and the customs union, and that there will be no .

However, in order to get this agreed, there was also inserted into the agreement a text that will continue to cause problems between now and March 2019. The crucial paragraph in the text is this one: “The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”

In essence, Mrs May’s strategy with respect to Ireland is to aim for a wider EU-UK trade agreement that solves the border problem itself. If that isn’t possible then she has agreed to seek ‘specific solutions’ to the border problem, which will be some form of technological and pragmatic compromise.

The kicker comes with the third option, which is what Mrs May has agreed to (in principle – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed). In the absence of a wider EU-UK deal which solves things, or a technological solution, then the UK as a whole is committing itself to ‘full alignment’ with the regulatory system of the EU.

This is a potential disaster, and not something that any Leaver could willingly countenance. Full alignment for the UK would mean that we would track the EU’s internal market regulations without having any say in how they are developed. This is a worse situation than we are in at the moment. Tactically, for the negotiations, it gives the EU an incentive to be uncompromising on the question of the border, as they would benefit from the UK remaining aligned. Strategically it compromises all the most exciting elements of Brexit, involving the pursuit of free trade deals with other countries around the world.

So I see this element as the most problematic. However, I recognise that giving this concession was pragmatically necessary, as it has allowed the movement through to trade discussions. I would see two priorities for the UK negotiators over the coming year. The first is that any trade agreement has to include services, which maintains the existing recognition of UK institutions by the EU. I am hopeful that this will be included as it is in the EU’s interest as a whole, even if not in the interests of all members of the EU, such as those cities like Frankfurt and Paris which seek to take some business away from the city. The second is that the UK needs to be set free to negotiate trade deals for itself from March 2019, even if such deals cannot take effect until the end of the transition period.

I am extremely keen that we move quickly to have an effective CANZUK agreement; that is, a open trading system between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. We have so much in common already – a shared head of state, a shared language, a shared common law tradition, alongside all of our shared history and familial connections. I would give this the highest priority – certainly higher than an agreement with the United States, attractive though that would be.

On the whole, I think that Mrs May has done rather a good job, certainly enough to ensure that she stays in post until this process is complete. There is still a very long way to go, but I am now much more confident than I was that there will be an eventual free trade agreement with the EU, and that our exit from that structure will be well managed.

Researching Church understandings of Mental Health care

the spiritual mindFollowing encouragement from the church hierarchy, in January this year I began a Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology through the Cambridge Theological Federation. It has taken me a while to get back up to speed academically – quote from my supervisor ‘this sounds too much like a blogpost’ – but things are falling into place, and I’m starting to feel that a part of my soul that has been locked in a box for about twenty years is emerging slowly into the light once again.

My area of interest is to do with the overlap between psychiatric care and spiritual care, with, possibly, a particular focus on deliverance ministry. I’m particularly interested in the conceptual foundations of psychiatric diagnosis (ie what are psychiatrists actually doing when they diagnose someone) and comparing and contrasting that with the Christian notion of the cure of souls, so: where do they correspond or overlap, where do they contradict or have tensions? I’m very interested in the Critical Psychiatry Network, and a big fan of Joanna Moncrieff’s work. The trigger for the research was a series of particular pastoral problems both in the parishes here and more widely, hence the ‘Practical Theology’ part. I’m hoping, at the end, to have something which will be of distinct practical use for my fellow clergy.

I’ve now handed in my first essay – 7000 words on John Swinton’s Spirituality and Mental Health Care – and I might put some of that up on the blog. Yet what I need to do most is to start journalling my research; as my supervisor puts it, don’t get it right, get it written! So there will be a significant increase in both the number of blogposts and their academic calibre! I’m looking at depression next.

On hoping that the Conservatives might become more conservative

I_Daniel_Blake_Photo
I recently watched, and greatly enjoyed, the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. This is a deeply moving portrait of a good man crushed by an inhumane and incomprehensible system. It might seem strange that a conservative is so sympathetic to such a classically socialist visionary as Loach – but that is because conservatism is generally greatly misunderstood, not least by the Conservative party itself!

To be a conservative is to be concerned above all with the husbanding of resources. I prefer that phrase to one that means something very similar – ‘the preservation of capital’ – because it is not only a more traditional expression, it is also one that is less likely to trigger premature associations with the word capitalism, with all the things that go with it.

The resources that need to be husbanded fall into four principal areas.

The first is economic, that is, all the various forms of financial wealth and property that our society values. This form is most easily associated with a conservative point of view, and runs alongside a respect for the rule of law and a high regard for private property and the rights associated with it. This approach, when taken to an extreme, shades into forms of libertarianism, whereby the state is only deployed in order to ensure the rule of law and such other elements as are essential to the continuity of the rule of law (such as the police and the armed forces). Libertarianism and conservatism are not the same, principally because conservatism also values three more forms of resource.

The second resource which conservatives seek to husband is ecological. Under this heading would come all the shared physical goods that a community enjoys that aren’t owned privately (or that only have private consequences). Much that comes under the heading of ‘green concerns’ has a natural connection with this area of conservatism, that is, everything which seeks to conserve our natural environment and preserve it in good repair. So a bias against pollution, a recognition of the need to preserve clean air and water, the preservation of species and biodiversity, all of this and more is conservative.

A third resource is social, and my favourite way to think of this form of resource is to think of Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’. These are all the ways in which human beings gather in order to seek mutual enrichment, and together these make up the very real and important human good which is called society. Under this heading would come things like the MICA centre, or the Lions, or Blindspot – activities and organisations and institutions which bind people together with mutual support. Much of what makes human life worth living falls into this section.

The last resource is human; that is, individual human beings, in all their glory and potential. Things like health care and education are important not principally because it keeps the economic wheels turning but rather because they enable individual human beings to thrive.

In the conservative vision, all of these forms of resource can be husbanded harmoniously together – so the preservation of our natural environment enables human beings to thrive and contribute to the social organisations which strengthen mutual trust and thereby ease the commercial endeavours that enable our prosperity – which then helps to pay for better care of the natural environment and so on. In a healthy society these things all work together in a virtuous circle, each one reinforcing the other.

Given this, how has Conservatism come to be seen as ‘nasty’ and uncaring? In many ways – as portrayed in the Loach film – the consequences of Conservative policies have indeed been despicable, but that is because they have been deeply anti-conservative, and have manifestly failed to husband the sorts of resources that I have described above.

I understand this through the use of my estate agent metaphor. I mean no offence to estate agents in using this (the estate agents I have had to deal with have always been very civilised people) but merely to bring home a clear distinction. If you sell your home then you are also letting go of a place which contains all sorts of sentimental attachments, memories and meanings. None of these are relevant to the price that an estate agent will place upon the property, for they are not relevant to the person who will be purchasing it.

In the same way, the problem with so much Conservative policy in the last few decades has been an over-emphasis upon the first form of resource described – financial – at the expense of all the others. The Conservative party was taken over by cynics who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing – or at least, not the value of the other three forms of resource described above. One tragedy of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was that ‘One nation’ conservatism became identified with a ‘wet’ economic perspective. I rather suspect that if the Conservative party is to regain its strength and morale that it will need a strong voice that is both deeply ‘dry’ and strongly ‘one nation’.

At the heart of a properly conservative outlook, then, is a particular vision of what it means for human beings to flourish – human beings that are situated in a particular place at a particular time within a particular society – and a recognition that such flourishing can only take place when all the resources that enable that flourishing are husbanded properly.

The tragedy of Daniel Blake was that he was caught up in a system that did not recognise the human and social resource that he was; he was not valued and the rejection killed him. A naturally conservative response to such a situation would be to call for a universal basic income – in order to properly value, nurture and affirm all the human beings in our society. To not do so is to conduct our common life in the manner of a transactional estate agent – such an approach might be Conservative, but it is a long way from being conservative. It doesn’t simply fail, it deserves to fail.