Gospel frameworks for understanding exorcism

I have started my doctoral research, and had my first supervision last week. I am so conscious of my brain having atrophied for the last decade or so (since writing my book), but it has been a joy to start to engage with intellectually stretching material. It is like an infusion of oxygen into my soul; now I just have to work out how to breathe again. I thought I’d share a discovery with you, which has come from looking at Graham Twelftree’s work, and which is about how to understand exorcism in the gospels.

Before the extract from my paper let me spell out the conceptual issue which is going to be one of the main themes that I shall be pursuing over the coming years. Exorcism necessarily talks about the demonic, for exorcism is about the expulsion of the demonic from someone suffering (“ἐκβάλλω” is the word used in the gospels, meaning to cast out or expel). What is it that is being cast out? To give a framework for seeking an answer to that question, when the Christian tradition uses the language of the demonic is it a) describing the effect of an intelligent, malevolent entity, or b) describing a disorder that is taking place within the suffering person? My working assumption is that most often the answer is b) but that it is essential to retain the possibility of a), as that is what the tradition has stated down the ages: sometimes there really is a malevolent entity that needs to be dealt with. (Also, as an aside, the scientistic/materialistic insistence on the unreality of the intangible needs to be opposed! Oops, my prejudices are showing.)

What I have discovered is that within the gospels themselves, that is, from the earliest practice of Christian exorcism, both a) and b) have been understood to be part of Christian ministry. Which I didn’t know, and which I find quite exciting.

~~~

That Jesus himself was a practicing exorcist is not a controversial claim1. According to Twelftree, “Exorcism was a form of healing used when demons or evil spirits were thought to have entered a person and to be responsible for sickness and was the attempt to control and cast out or expel evil spiritual beings or demons from people.”2 With regard to Jesus in particular, “From the sayings and narrative material in the Synoptic Gospels I have surveyed it would seem that we could only conclude that exorcism was a part of the ministry of the historical Jesus.”3 In his subsequent work, ‘In the Name of Jesus’4, Twelftree writes in more detail that exorcisms “loom large as one of the most obvious and important aspects of his ministry”, adding “We know of no other healer in antiquity for whom this was true.”5

However this still leaves much that needs to be explored if we are to understand the nature and variety of exorcism as practiced by Jesus and the early church:
1. Styles of Exorcism: “there was probably a range of kinds of exorcisms and exorcists that would have been known to the early Christians”6. A key distinction was between a magical exorcist, wherein the exorcism is conducted through the use of particular words and phrases, and a charismatic exorcist, wherein the exorcism is accomplished through the personal force and ‘power-authority’ of a particular individual. Twelftree concludes that, although there are some moments when it would seem that Jesus is using the set phrases of a magical exorcist7 he is best characterised as a charismatic exorcist: “Jesus used the emphatic “I”, for which I can find no parallel in any other incantation or exorcism story in the ancient world. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that, in light of his statement that he was operating by the power-authority of the Spirit or finger of God, Jesus was particularly confident in his ability to use or even be identified with that power source… Jesus deliberately draws attention to himself and his own resources in his ability to expel the demon.”
2. Different gospel emphases: there is a marked difference between the presentation of Jesus’ struggle with the Enemy (the devil, satan, demons8) between the Synoptic gospels on the one hand, and the Johannine literature on the other. Mark’s gospel treats this aspect of Jesus’ ministry as central and paradigmatic, including by making it the first reported act of ministry in Jesus’ life9; in contrast, in the Gospel of John, there are no exorcisms at all. Part of the explanation for this lies in the different motivations for each Gospel writer. Following Bauckham10 I accept that the accounts given in the gospels are rooted in eyewitness testimony, and that Mark in particular is rooted in the stories told by St Peter in prison in Rome in the mid-60s AD. “Mark views exorcism as a battle in which people illegitimately held by Satan are taken, so that Satan is seen to be overthrown.”11 John’s gospel is composed at a later date and is conditioned by a much more developed theological perspective. For our purposes the most important Johannine distinctive is that the defeat of the Enemy is focussed upon the moment of crucifixion (“now is the ruler of this world cast down” – Jn 12.31), and this is presented as the climax of a stupendous cosmic drama. “In a single act involving the heavenly realm, Satan is to be dealt with directly, without recourse to his malevolent minions on earth. In this way the Fourth Evangelist is able to affirm that the lies of Satan’s control of this world is far more pervasive than the possession of individual people, and that the defeat of Satan requires more than isolated activity by Jesus.”12 In sum, for both Mark and John the struggle with the Enemy is central, but in Mark this is accomplished through the healing through exorcism of individual people whereas in John it is accomplished through defeating the Enemy by the one climactic act of crucifixion and resurrection.
3. Exorcisms in the early church: it seems clear that Jesus commissioned his disciples and gave them authority to carry out exorcisms (Mark 3.15, 6.7) but that the different communities gave contrasting emphases to this ministry. In particular the tradition associated with Mark’s gospel and centred on Rome gave most importance to exorcism as a continuing practice.13 This was a form of charismatic exorcism in which the power-authority invoked to compel the demon was that of Jesus himself.
4. Conversion as defeating the Enemy: In the Johannine tradition, in contrast to the Markan, “Satan is not confronted in the form of sickness caused by demons but in the form of unbelief inspired by the father of lies. So exorcism is not the response to the demon possession; truth is its antidote.”14 Thus the crucial way in which the Christian community continued its struggle against the Enemy was by apologetics and through conversion of new believers, “the demonic is confronted not by exorcism but by truth.”15 In other words, “perhaps because of an increasing intellectual sophistication, … an understanding that the demonic could be doctrinal and dealt with and defeated other than through exorcism.”16

Bringing those four elements together it is fair to say that within the emphasis upon Jesus as an exorcist and one who defeats the Enemy there lie different patterns of behaviour rooted in different spiritual frameworks. These do not need to be understood as contradictions, and have not been within the mainstream Christian tradition17 What they have in common is that the struggle with the Enemy is seen as a characteristic of Christian ministry and that there is a duty placed upon the church to continue this struggle ‘in the name of Jesus’. In doing so the church is continuing the ministry of ‘Inaugurating the Kingdom’.

Footnotes:

1See Twelftree, G. H. (1993) Jesus the Exorcist : a contribution to the study of the historical Jesus. Tübingen: Mohr (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 54); hereinafter JtE.

2JtE, p13.

3JtE, p137.

4Twelftree, G. H. (2014) In the name of Jesus: exorcism among early Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic; hereinafter NoJ.

5NoJ, p46

6NoJ, p35 and following.

7“Be silent!”, Mark 1.25 and parallels.

8The metaphysical status of all these and associated terms will be considered in detail in a later chapter.

9Mark 1.21-28

10Bauckham, R. (2006) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : the gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

11NoJ, p114

12NoJ, p196.

13NoJ, p289 inter alia.

14NoJ, p282

15NoJ, p283.

16NoJ, p290.

17See subsequent chapters…

When the bubble becomes a boulder

I’m pretty sure the image wasn’t original to me but it was nearly 12 years ago that I started to think in terms of there being a ‘bubble’ of mainstream opinion, and that I was outside of the bubble. The dimensions of the bubble became obvious to most observers in the UK when the bubble lost the Brexit referendum, and then spent several years trying to overturn the result.

The disconnect between those within the bubble and those outside has only increased over time; that is, the polarisation of views, the increase in the extremity of opinions voiced, the active embrace of previously unthinkable political positions, all of these developments have damaged our body politic, and I see them as unsustainable.

Most especially, the bubble has coalesced around the righteousness of the vaccines and – more in other countries than in England – an embrace of mandates. Before the developments around Covid-19 lockdowns were considered a very poor response to an epidemic virus, now they seem to be a default. A default that the bubble has embraced.

The image that comes to my mind now is that the bubble has become a boulder; those within the bubble are determined to impose their will upon society, and resistance will be crushed – more or less gently according to taste.

The boulder will itself end up smashed to smithereens as it is detached from reality – from the human and political realities most of all, but also – imho – the scientific reality around the vaccines. Time will tell on the latter front.

My concern is about how much damage will be done through that process, and how to mitigate that damage, how to increase the permeability of the bubble and enable communication between those who disagree, most especially with those who cannot see that they are within the bubble. (Yes, we are all within bubbles of some sort or another, that doesn’t negate this point. As has repeatedly been shown, conservatives understand the progressive point of view much more clearly than progressives understand the conservative point of view.) This is something that Psybertron has been writing about for a long time – how to have intelligent dialogue across the divides. A work in progress.

We need to be Reformed from our new works-righteousness

I enjoyed Paul Hackwood’s two articles critiquing the centralising tendencies of the Church of England, but amidst much agreement there was one element that I vigorously disagreed with. Hackwood writes:

“This idea of general welfare is gaining traction as our culture changes; “well-being” is increasingly spoken of in the workplace and in civil society. Not coincidentally, this is what most clergy in the Church of England see as their purpose, and the horizon of their mission, and it gives meaning to what they deal with every day. Well-being and welfare are a strong foundation for evangelism and growth.”

I do not see well-being or the idea of general welfare as my purpose, or the horizon of my mission, and I suspect – I hope – that I am not alone in this. To me, this comment encapsulates all that has gone wrong with the Church of England, and it is why Hackwood’s recommendations, commendable though they are, will not ultimately bear the necessary good fruit of evangelism and growth.

For me, the principal purpose of ordained ministry is to feed the faithful through word and sacrament. There are other purposes too, of course, but that is the beating heart of the ministry. Mission, in so far as it falls specifically to the ordained in distinction to the purpose of the whole body of Christ, is fulfilled when new believers are enabled to share in the worship of the Body of Christ. This is what it means to love God with all that we have and all that we are, which is the most important commandment that we are given to obey.

The second commandment comes second – to love our neighbours as ourselves. All that can be considered as general welfare is an expression of that second commandment. Important, yes, but less important than the first commandment. We must insist upon the priority of worship in our self-understanding of who we are; we are most truly ourselves when we can come together in the presence of Christ.

To set aside the priority of the first commandment is a product of the unacknowledged materialism that so conditions the public language of our church. There is a story to be told of how and why the Church of England has come to be seen as lacking in faith, but a component of that must be the reluctance to talk about matters of faith. What we must surely do at this moment is talk about the priority of worship, and that means not trying to justify our worship in terms that the wider culture finds acceptable. We need to declare the priority of worship for its own sake.

Which is why the contentious decision to close churches during the first lockdown was so disastrous. It was the perfect embodiment of the priority given to the second commandment over the first. Love of neighbour was given priority over love of God; physically gathering for worship was optional, reducing the risk of infection was essential. As an act of prophetic drama this decision could not have more clearly communicated the theological wrong-headedness that governs our church. This is why we are dying.

What gives me hope is that there are enough church members who instinctively recognised the wrongness of that decision, both the substance of it and the way in which it was enacted. The capitulation of our leadership to the imperatives of the state, marked by an absence of theological perspective, is only to be expected from a church that has so systematically, over many decades, sought to make itself acceptable to society through accommodating itself to what it thinks the society wants. Please like us – see what good works we are doing! We no longer need to be Reformed from a works-righteousness in relation to God, we need to be reformed from a works-righteousness in relation to our wider society.

I believe that the only path towards evangelism and growth starts from unapologetic apologetics. The gospel is the truth, our primary need is to proclaim that truth – everything else will then fall into its proper place.

So that was 2021

For the first time, writing this on New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve!

2021 was dominated on the outside by structural things: getting divorced and being made redundant (which took effect in January). Divorce is something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but I believe it can be a lesser evil. Some things still to be worked out, and it is by far the major remaining stress in my life, but I expect 2022 to see the end of the process.

Redundancy has been a gift from God; most especially the gifts of time and simplicity. I am so much calmer than I have been in years. Parish work is a blessing – and I hope that I have been a blessing – and it is so very different to my Mersea experience. I think it’s actually going to be possible, maybe… mostly possible(!) for me to be a priest here. Lots of work to be done, including some structural issues and the impact of Covid etc, but I am looking forward to 2022 in work terms.

I stood for General Synod! Came fourth out of eight, and just missed a place, which I thought was quite good (and I think our elected candidates are good which also helps).

I am also very much hoping – will learn in the next week or so – whether I have been accepted to do a PhD at Bristol. I have twice before tried to do a PhD (and one other time came very close to starting one) so I am very conscious of this being an arena of previous failure for me. Yet this is an itch that has persisted for thirty years, and it seems to be an auspicious time. I am most especially delighted that my hoped-for supervisor seems genuinely interested in the topic, and isn’t seeing me as a way to get the academic statistics and bureaucracies turning over! So I hope this will come to fruition, and if it does, the blog will see a lot of related output.

As will my substack account – go here.

Other things – I’m still chipping away at my WSET Level 3, having postponed the exam twice – will now take it in March 2022 which is a year later than planned! Need to do the work…

I am more and more conscious of my deafness, and I have a nice new wireless hearing aid that I am using more and more often. Doesn’t solve every issue, but there are contexts where it really helps.

Had some excellent time with friends and family at different points in the year; I remain conscious of how much I need them and rely on them.

I have become quite unfit in the last few months, but I expect that to change quite severely over the coming year. One of the best things that has happened is that, as of now, two of my children have returned to live with me, which was unexpected and delightful in equal measure. Eldest son is something of a physical fitness enthusiast, and so I now not only have a basic gym in my garage but I have someone to push me into using it regularly! I am greatly blessed.

So I don’t know what 2022 will look like, but I’m hopeful. I’m a disabled, weight-challenged single parent in precarious employment but I’m also, for the most part, immensely peaceful and happy to be who I am.

Thanks be to God.

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020.

Diagnosing the demonic (research plan)

I am hoping to start a PhD at the University of Bristol from January. This is the research plan that I have submitted.

Bristol PhD application (part-time/half-time)
Research plan

Diagnosing the demonic

A conceptual comparison of the metaphysical frameworks employed in the Ministry of Deliverance and in Psychiatric Diagnosis

The overall aim of the research is to understand and clarify the nature of the difference between the psychiatric diagnosis carried out by medical professionals and the spiritual discernment carried out by ordained clergy in the ministry of deliverance. There is an existing conversation within the field of psychiatry that is metaphysical in character and I would like to bring insights from the Christian tradition into that conversation: when there are strange, troubling or unexplained phenomena that affect individuals or groups what are the criteria that are presently used to distinguish the greater applicability of one field of expertise rather than another to a particular situation? Are they the correct criteria to use? I would like to more precisely delineate the boundary between the professional competences involved, with a view to enabling a greater facility between deliverance ministers and consultant psychiatrists in multi-disciplinary teams.

The research is essentially an exploration in metaphysics, ie what are the philosophical presuppositions within which the different experiences are interpreted and understood? What is actually going on when certain words are used in particular contexts? The principal philosopher with whom my research will engage is PMS Hacker, and this in two ways. Firstly, the methodological framework within which the work will be undertaken is conceptual analysis, as understood within the analytical tradition following Wittgenstein and elucidated by Hacker, most especially in his commentary on the Philosophical Investigations. I shall rely upon the Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical practice as a tool for dissolving conceptual confusions. Secondly, the research will include a sustained engagement with Hacker’s recently concluded Study of Human Nature, especially volume 4 on the language of good and evil.

The research plan involves four phases of work. The first two phases are essentially a task of exploring and explaining the different frameworks used in a) deliverance ministry and b) psychiatric diagnosis. The research will therefore look at how particular words and phrases are used in each area before engaging in the more fundamental work of elucidation and the dissolution of conceptual confusions – within each of the two fields. The third phase of work will engage principally with Hacker’s Study of Human Nature, situating that work within the present debates in the philosophy of psychiatry, and drawing on Hacker’s critiques to comment upon both deliverance ministry and contemporary psychiatric practice. The final phase of work will then seek to synthesise the insights generated into a systematic account of the languages of psychiatric diagnosis and deliverance ministry, with a view to comparing these different frameworks and assessing their variable viability and potential for creative engagement with each other. I would hope, at the end of the research, to be able to articulate the areas within which one field of expertise is more suitable for dealing with unusual phenomena rather than another, and why.

Phase 1: The metaphysics of deliverance ministry
(what is meant by the demonic in the Christian tradition?)

In this first substantial part of the research I will set out the practice of deliverance ministry as presently undertaken within the Church of England, setting out the philosophical tradition within which this work takes place.

I will start by sketching out the metaphysics of contemporary practice in deliverance ministry, in the light of the review above (distinguishing poltergeists, ghosts, place memories, unquiet dead, possession experiences), using the work Deliverance edited by Michael Perry as the key text, supplemented by more recent work by Gabriel Amorth, Tom Clammer and Francis Young amongst others. These texts are the materials used for the training of deliverance ministers, and which therefore provide the best guides to the use of language in this ministry. I will highlight a) the variety of metaphysical presuppositions involved in the different areas of the work, and b) the interface with medical expertise in present practice;
I will then look at some contrasting areas from church history where language similar to that used in deliverance ministry is deployed, especially the language of the demonic. This will begin with a review of Jesus’ actions as recorded in the New Testament, which are taken as normative and paradigmatic for deliverance ministry: Jesus’ own ministry of exorcism, the use of exorcism by the disciples, and the language of ‘principalities and powers’ especially by St Paul. Here I would want to use in particular the work of Graham Twelftree and Walter Wink;
I will then seek to elucidate the understanding of demons in the early church looking especially at the desert fathers and the way in which this language was used in the development of the seven deadly sins (eg ‘the noonday demon’ as a way of talking about the sin of accidie). I would here engage specifically with the work of Christopher C H Cook and Olivier Clement;
I will then look at the way in which Augustine adapted the classical understanding of the cure of souls (using rhetoric as a form of therapy, to regulate the emotions) looking at the work of Paul Kolbet and Martha Nussbaum;
I will lastly look at the way Aquinas understood the language of deliverance ministry, looking most especially at his understanding of angels and demons in the Summa Theologica part 1a, and his overall understanding of the nature of good and evil. Aquinas has a status and authority within the Catholic tradition (including the Church of England) which makes his understandings definitive for the practice of deliverance ministry, although I will seek to engage with the critical literature also on these points, especially Herbert McCabe and Fergus Kerr.

Phase 2: The practice and metaphysics of psychiatric diagnosis
(how does psychiatry understand the demonic?)
For this area of work I would seek to understand contemporary psychiatric practice, taking the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) as representative of the mainstream of that practice, with a particular focus on those areas which have the strongest overlap with exemplary deliverance issues such as demonic possession (depression and schizophrenia, and possibly manic/bi-polar disorders).

As with deliverance ministry I would begin with a review of the present practice of psychiatric diagnosis, using the DSM as an authoritative text, with a view to elucidating the philosophical presuppositions within that tradition, in other words, how is the language of psychiatry used in the specific, relevant contexts? If permitted I would very much like to audit some of the lectures (medical training) offered within the University of Bristol in this area as this will enable my understanding to be informed by contemporary practitioners;
I would then seek to explore contemporary critiques and developments of the DSM framework from various perspectives, firstly by looking especially at the appropriateness of the use of the ‘medical model’ as a metaphysical framework within which to consider mental disorders, engaging with the work of Szasz and the secondary literature around his critique, and also drawing on M O’Connor Drury’s work ‘The Danger of Words’ as he was a student of Wittgenstein who became a professional psychiatrist;
I will then look specifically at the understanding of depression and schizophrenia within the DSM and engaging with criticisms of the DSM in this area, both by medical practitioners (Mary Boyle) and by philosophers (Louis Sass)
I will lastly consider the work of the Critical Psychiatry Network (especially the writings of Joanna Moncrieff, but also Lucy Johnstone, David Healy and others) and in particular the recent development of the Power-Threat-Meaning Framework which is conceptually very different to the DSM framework. The work of Bill Fulford in relation to Values-Based Medicine is likely to be relevant.

Phase 3: PMS Hacker’s Study of Human Nature
Once the groundwork of the first two phases has been set out, this will lead into a detailed engagement with the work of PMS Hacker. This will take the form of a detailed commentary on five volumes:
firstly his critique of cognitive neuroscience in his work with Maxwell Bennett, the Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. This will clarify the inter-relationship of mind and body and especially how this can be applied to the practice of the DSM, for example, what does it mean to say that a feeling of sadness (depression) is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain? Is such a comment meaningful?;
secondly I would take each of the four volumes of his recently concluded Study of Human Nature, beginning with the Categorial Framework which considers rationality and explanation with respect to human behaviour, which is relevant to considerations of human will – and therefore what it means for a human will to be ‘possessed’ or impaired;
Hacker’s Volume 2, The Intellectual Powers, looking especially at the nature of belief and the way in which imagination interacts with reason, and therefore the importance of the metaphysical (narrative) framework within which phenomena are intepreted;
in Volume 3, The Passions, Hacker engages with human emotions that are considered sins within the Christian tradition (eg envy) and I shall here compare his treatment with that outlined in my earlier research;
finally, and most importantly, in volume 4, The Moral Powers, Hacker considers the nature of good and evil, and human meaning in the face of death. Considering his arguments here will feed directly into the considerations of the language of the demonic considered in the first two phases of my research.

Phase 4: Synthesis
Once these three phases are complete I would then seek to do the more synthetic work and attempt a detailed conversation, looking at human behaviour from different aspects, exploring how the different metaphysical frameworks might interact and critique each other, and therefore how the language and practices within psychiatry and within deliverance ministry might better understand each other. I would hope to be able to clarify the nature of each discipline in such a way that collaborative working across the disciplines might be facilitated.

Timetable
I would expect each stage of the work set out above in phases one and two (each bullet point) to require some 4-6 weeks of work, resulting in around 5,000 words of suitable material. Assuming a January 2022 start I would expect phase one to last until the summer of 2022; phase two to take through to Easter 2023. Phase 3, the engagement with the work of Hacker, will take longer for each section, at least four months for each volume. This is therefore likely to take until the Christmas of 2024 – at least two and a half years after the start of the research.

The sound of an idol toppling

Like most of the world around it, the Church of England is so caught up in busyness and anxious make-work that it has ceased to attend to what is truly happening in the world around it; and as attention is simply another word for prayer this is a grievous fault.

If the Church were to pay attention, I believe that it would perceive one immensely important fact in particular: the great idol of our time is toppling. The idol is science, or, more particularly, the idol is a particular form of scientific and technical expertise that has been shepherded by a priestly class of laboratory-coat wearing men (well – in the story that is told, mostly men) who have journeyed into the greater mysteries and emerged bearing gifts and blessings for the people.

This idolatry, this white coated religion, has its foundation myths (Galileo!) and rituals (the scientific method!), its seminaries and its churches just like any other faith. Walter Brueggemann, in writing about the prophetic imagination, notes that when Moses, the archetypal prophet, seeks to inspire the people of Israel with a belief that things do not have to be the way that they are, that it is not an eternal truth that the Israelites must be enslaved by the Egyptians, a crucial step comes when the technocrats of the Pharaoh contend with the technocrat of YHWH – and they come up short (see Exodus chapters 7-9). Each time Moses and Aaron take a step to demonstrate the power of YHWH the magicians of Egypt are able to match the demonstrations using their own powers – until they cannot. There comes a point when the powers of the establishment are no longer sufficient to provide for the people, when they are shown as no longer omnipotent and omniscient, all wise, all benevolent.

There comes a point when the god bleeds.

Which is where we are now in the West. We have experienced an immense crisis, whose ramifications are still rippling through our lives. Rippling? Maybe a rip-tide. Covid 19 – from whence did it come? Almost certainly from gain of function research in a scientific laboratory in Wuhan. From the place of expected blessing has come a curse. The cure for the curse? A white coated woman in a laboratory achieved something amazing (Sarah Gilbert) yet the issues with the mRNA style vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna) seem to only grow with time. We have embarked upon an immense social experiment, whereby fear of a contagious virus has been deliberately stoked in order to justify unprecedented levels of social control. People in England, from where I write, have for the most part gone along with this. It’s what we tend to do, this is the land of the obedient queue. Yet there comes a point when that obedience comes to an end and the Anglo-Saxon plants their feet in the ground and says ‘No’. Then the authorities have to navigate around a new reality.

(It’s what happened with Brexit.)

So the apparatus of science and the religion of technological expertise is wobbling, it is uncertain – but why am I so sure that this wobbling is in fact an incipient toppling? Because of climate change. Not so much climate change itself but the scientific and technical apparatus that surrounds it, that has been so on display in Glasgow in the COP negotiations when we do not simply see the expected hypocrisies from the great and good who jet in from overseas in order to lecture the peons on the virtue of doing without, but also in those one might reasonably expect to know better – such as the Green politician from Brighton who flew to Glasgow rather than taking the train. The gap between the ritual intonations of ‘climate change’ and the people who are being lined up to change their patterns of life is becoming increasingly large. The people are noticing more and more, and are paying more and more attention, and some time soon the tipping point will be reached and the underlying science behind the rhetoric will be brought out blinking into the light.

At which point there will be much anger. The poor are being asked to pay for the choices of the rich; I am thinking parochially – the poor in post-industrial England are being asked to change their patterns of life (gas boilers, cars), all the things on which they rely, in order to… what exactly? The claims will be of seas rising, and nations vanishing, and mass migrations and so on and so forth – yet because the cost of the changes being demanded of the poor will be so great upon the poor, the poor will rightly say ‘prove it’, and the naked panjandrums will stand blinking and mumbling and Greta will denounce the blah blah blah and the Anglo-Saxon will say ‘No’.

For the IPCC itself no longer foresees disaster under the heading of climate change. The ‘consensus’ of 97% of scientists – which is itself a falling away from the true faith, for true science has no place for ‘consensus’ – will be shown as not very interesting. The climate is warming – yes – but how dangerous is the warming, what is the best way to respond to the warming, adaptation or mitigation and most of all, with Brueggemann in mind but as Rowan Williams once phrased the single most important question in Christian political thought: “Who pays the price?”

The rich will ask the poor to change their ways but the poor will once again vote for their own betterment, and the climate will shift, in earth as in politics, and as above so below the idols will topple. The rich will use the inherited rhetoric of the scientific and technological hegemonies and they will be rejected, and the idol of science will topple with them. No longer will science be seen as the repository of blessings and wisdom; instead the intertwining of science and technology and capitalism will be rejected as a whole, from pharmaceutical exploitations to farming interventions the fundamental wrongness of the apathistic stance will be perceived and rejected – for it will be asking people to be cold in the winter, and it will have lost its power of persuasion.

I hope that we don’t face a Butlerian Jihad, for those in white coats have indeed given many blessings to the people, but for so many reasons the thought patterns of scientific and technological rationality need to be, have to be, incorporated into a larger, wiser, deeper understanding. Theology must become the Queen of the Sciences once again. In one of those little ironies of history, if in the long run we are to ensure a safe place for the Richard Dawkins of this world, it will likely only be if a recognisably Christian culture is re-established.

Else there shall be war and famine and pestilence and death – and Hell shall follow.

The idol hasn’t toppled yet, but it is moving, and wobbling, and in another year or ten or twenty it will fall, and great will be the falling of it. Then, once again, the communities of the faithful will start to pick up the pieces and seek to preserve as much as possible of the good, whilst seeking to ensure the practice of virtues that might inhibit a return to the bad. The world will continue to turn, the tides will rise and fall, and human follies shall remain inescapable.

Kyrie Eleison.

The apathistic stance devastates the world

At the heart of our modern predicament lies a way of seeing the world that is characterised by carelessness – a carelessness that is systematically taught and encouraged through the educational and industrial establishments that dominate the activities of the western world. I call this way of seeing ‘the apathistic stance’, and I wrote about it in my book:

“There is a Greek word apatheia which has come down to us as the word apathy. It means being uncommitted or uninvolved emotionally – an emotional distancing, a ‘not caring’. This happens in science because the scientist is pursuing the truth about the world. What they are trying to attend to is what the world is actually like – not what they want the world to be like. So a true scientist will put their own desires to one side and submit to the process of scientific method in order to pursue the truth. This requires a discipline – you have to be trained in how to investigate, in the attitudes of science, you have to learn what I call the apathistic stance. This is what you do in order to ensure that your own biases, your own emotional desires, are put to one side. This process is a way of learning more about the world, of learning in particular more about the physical and natural world, because the physical and natural world does not depend upon our emotional reaction to it. As with all tools, however, we need to learn how to use them properly – and this has not happened with regard to science. This process of emotionally disengaging from what we are trying to discover in order to discern more truth, putting our own desires to one side, is a tool, and we need to learn how to use the tool, how to put it into a broader framework. In other words, after gaining true information from employing the apathistic stance, we need to adopt a different stance in order to process that true information properly. We need to integrate it with our wider knowledge and understanding.”

(I am minded to do a ‘ten year update’ on the book – I finished the text in January 2012, and I think it still holds up)

As a culture we have neglected this second part of the process. In the religious traditions, the apathistic stance is a moment in our growth of learning – it is a distancing from our own emotions in order to grow closer to the truth. The point of the religious discipline is to integrate those new insights with the wider understandings and frameworks which give sense to those new insights (for no new insights can have meaning independently of such wider frameworks).

Instead of this integration we have been dazzled by the jewels that the apathistic stance has unearthed, all the fruits of technological and scientific development. We have not cared about the consequences – for if we started to care about the consequences we would no longer be apathistic, and we would no longer have our golden goose.

So we have built a society that slaughters the creation around us. We have excised our compassion, we have abandoned wisdom, we crucify creation for a mess of pottage.

The apathistic stance devastates the world.

To overcome this devastation, to heal the world, is first and foremost a spiritual task – and the most essential element of that task in our present time is to dethrone science; or, to put that in slightly different terms, the only way in which we can work out our salvation is if we restore theology to her proper position as queen of the sciences.

Synod: We shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation

The third of my three emails unpacking the soundbites in my election address

Our Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of what a nation is, which means that it doesn’t know how to call a nation back to a faithful religious life. This is something of a problem when the name of the nation is in our self-description. Captured by modern, secular individualism, the church seeks to market the gospel to modern, secular individuals – which means that those for whom issues of loyalty, authority and sanctity matter are alienated from their natural spiritual home, and then we gather in attempts to ‘Save the Parish’. Why do I say this?

In Scripture there is consistent reference to the nation and the nations, Israel being the paradigmatic example. Nations are a part of the created order, fallen and redeemable. They are real things, spiritually real, part of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers. Our culture is very familiar with what it means when such a principality is raised up into the shape of an idol, when it is given a greater value than it deserves to have, and it becomes demonic. For such reasons our dominant culture sees the expression of national identity as immoral, inherently risky and liable to cause disaster. It is clearly a great sin to overemphasise nationhood: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, the claims of Christ are higher than any national claim.

This does not obliterate nationhood however; it does not mean that we are to abandon any sense of what it means to live within and be part of a nation. What is missed in our church and our culture is that there is an equal and opposite error, of obliterating any sense of national identity and seeking to do away with any expression of it. It is part of being fully human that we are formed within a community of people, and the most fully human person who has ever lived was not an exception to this. The whole tradition and theological standpoint of our Church is ‘somewhere’ not ‘anywhere’ – rooted in each local parish, and bound up with an emphasis upon the incarnation as a leading theological doctrine in our self-understanding.

Which is why this phrase isn’t leaving my mind: we shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. One of the texts used to justify the disdain for national identity within our church conversation is that wonderful passage from Galatians referenced above – in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. I believe that this passage can be misused. I do not for one second doubt that our identity in Christ trumps our various national identities. We are called to a Christian identity that is more foundational than any national identity. Yet what I wish to insist upon is that this Christian identity does not evacuate the national identity of meaning or continued application. On the contrary, it is only through being set within that larger Christian identity that the national identity can be redeemed, so it truly finds itself and is able to flourish, becoming something that enables life rather than destroying it.

Jesus, after all, was a particular man born in a particular time and place within a particular culture. His universality is not something imposed ‘top-down’ from Heaven, as if he came down from the sky fully-formed, rather it is built up out of that identity – they are the building blocks. Jesus never stops being a Jewish man from first century Palestine. This is what I mean by ’emaciated incarnation’ – the anywhere ideology that seeks to downplay all the particularities and distinctives that make us different from each other, as they are perceived as problematic. In contrast I want to insist that these distinctives cannot be taken away from us, for they make us who we are. We are not called to be national eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is a point of conflict with the prevailing liberal mindset (which I see as also culturally dominant in the church – theology by MBA) which does not give a nation any existence that is separate to the viewpoints and habits of those individuals which aggregate together into a ‘nation’ (or a ‘family’ or a ‘corporation’ or a ‘government’). The great beast of global capitalism generates an immense social and cultural pressure pushing a smoothing of such distinctive particularities. Capitalism wants us to become efficient ball-bearings that do not hinder the accumulation of profit.

In contrast I see such entities as part of the principalities and powers – and I see the Biblical treatment of such things as an essential aspect in our understandings. We cannot understand the cross, or the teachings of St Paul, without understanding them. The Biblical understanding of nation does not map neatly onto modern understandings of the nation, let alone the nation-state, and let alone the rich complexity of a ‘United Kingdom’ but there is something here which is essential for our Church to grasp if it is to fulfil its vocation. My concern about the institutional mind of our Church is that this anywhere ideology has surreptitiously crept in and taken over: “Of course it is wrong to value a distinctive national identity! Don’t you know that it inevitably leads to bigotry and racism and fascism and all the other terrible things that the twentieth century taught us?”

I see this, not simply as an acquiescence to worldly thinking but as an abandonment of our own, distinctive, Anglican charism. The Church of England needs to be a Church that believes in England; we shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. To do so simply aligns the church with those economic forces that depersonalise and dispossess the people in this land. We are then seen as hostile and alien, court chaplains whose ultimate service is to Mammon not to our living and incarnate Lord. If we are to call England back to Christ, we won’t do it if we deny that England exists.

Jesus did not appear to us coming down from on high, full of heavenly glory: no, he lived at a very particular time in a very particular place, he took part in the very particular customs of a very particular nation and from that solid foundation he transcended those particularities to become a source of universal salvation. It is as members of one nation or another that we are redeemed, none of us are redeemed as abstract human beings, devoid of context or roots in a particular land and nation. So we need to take the Good Shepherd as our pattern, and do His work in the same way – loving this fallen nation of ours, and working out our redemption together.

Synod: Incarnational Integrity, or why I support the blessing of same-sex relationships

This is the second of my planned three emails unpacking the soundbites from my election address.

Our conversation around the blessing of same sex relationships (SSRs) has become increasingly fraught. I support the Living in Love and Faith process wholeheartedly – I think it is one of the most impressive things to come out of our central institutions for many years.

Most especially, the seven ‘voices’ giving different understandings of Scripture are a useful short-hand for understanding the different perspectives and assumptions about Scripture (see pp294-297 of LLF). I would place myself very much in the middle of these voices, and dependent on the issue, would be somewhere between 3 and 5. I consider myself to have a high view of Scripture; I would want to talk about the authority of Scripture, and I would want to flesh that out with some description of what it means to live under the authority of Scripture. So I would want to say that Scripture is a) the principal witness to the Incarnation – and thereby an irreplaceable source for how we know Jesus (and that not being restricted to the Gospels, or even the New Testament); b) independent of my own preferences; and c) something which has the capacity to question and interrogate me, and overthrow my own self-delusions. Yet what is often missed is that Scripture testifies about itself that it refers beyond itself. The point of Scripture isn’t that we get to know Scripture, it’s that we get to know Jesus, that we get to know the God who is revealed in Jesus – and that by believing we have life in His name.

In the Anglican tradition this insight has been captured by making Scripture our highest authority, but also, as explicitly taught by Hooker, that Scripture needs to be interpreted using the insights of the tradition (especially the early church) and the right use of reason. In saying this Hooker was not being especially innovative as the Scholastic tradition had been pursuing just such an approach for many centuries – and still does.

What this tradition means with regard to Scripture is that it is always legitimate to ask of Scripture ‘why?’ Not with a view to disregarding Scripture but with a view to seeking to journey more deeply into the mysteries of faith that Scripture can disclose to us. The prohibition on slavery is the fruit of just such a journey.

So if we take as a starting point that Scripture prohibits same-sex relationships, what is the answer to our question ‘why?’ The answer given in the tradition is essentially a ‘natural law’ argument, that has two components. The first is that same sex activity is ‘contrary to nature’; the second is that sexual activity is only licit when it is undertaken in the context of heterosexual marriage and is open to procreation – for procreation is the fundamental purpose of sexuality (here the tradition is using a framework derived from Aristotle – procreation is the telos of sexuality).

To take the latter point first, our Anglican tradition has expanded the understanding of the purposes of marriage to three. Hence the Book of Common Prayer outlines the purposes of marriage as being 1) procreation; 2) the avoidance of fornication and 3) the mutual society and help given within the relationship. This understanding led directly to the acceptance of contraception in the 1930s – which was incredibly controversial at the time, and was a major innovation to the inherited tradition – as it recognised that there was more to our sexuality than procreation. The first thing that God says is not good in creation is that Adam is alone.

To return to the first point, what does it mean to say that same sex activity is contrary to nature? As I understand it, the framework used to understand what Scripture is saying is one that considers heterosexual desire as the universal default, and the pursuit of same sex relationships as necessarily perverse. That is, for a person to pursue a same sex relationship is a failure of integrity. It represents a collapse into sin, whereby a pursuit of a bodily pleasure undermines the harmony of body and soul and fullness of life that we are called to in Christ. There is a contradiction within the person.

The core reason why I think it is possible for the teaching of the church to change can now be simply stated: I am not persuaded that it is necessarily the case that when a person pursues a same sex relationship that it is a failure of integrity in the way understood by the tradition. On the contrary I am convinced that for some people it is a fulfilment of integrity to pursue such a relationship, an incarnational integrity – allowing something to be expressed that is inherent in the creation of that person by God.

Scripture’s prohibition of same sex relationships has a particular behaviour in view – that it is a violation of purpose and integrity for those involved in it. It sees things in this way because of an assumption about universal heterosexuality. I don’t believe that we see things in this way any more, for all sorts of reasons (see the later parts of LLF).

One way to characterise the difference that I am trying to describe here is to talk about sexuality being chosen or received as a gift (and I recognise that I am drawing two points of a much more complicated spectrum). Scripture sees same sex desire as something which is chosen by a heterosexual person for perverse reasons, and it (rightly) prohibits such behaviours. Yet what of those who do not experience their sexuality as something chosen, but as something received, something given? I am not persuaded that Scripture teaches anything specifically on this, in the same way that it does not contain any specific teaching about the internal combustion engine, to take something morally problematic that is distinctive in our own time. In other words, that which Scripture prohibits is not what those who support the blessing of SSRs are advocating.

Put simply: it is possible to have a high view of Scripture as an Anglican, yet also to support the liturgical blessing of SSRs. I emphasise here ‘as an Anglican’ because there are some views of Scripture which reject the Hookerian approach outlined above (perspective number one in the LLF list is certainly not an Anglican understanding).

If what I am describing here is true, the question then becomes – what is the legitimate context for the expression of incarnational integrity in those who are not heterosexual? Surely it is through some form of regularisation and public affirmation of a relationship, emphasising the non-procreative grounds for marriage; to enable the avoidance of fornication, and for the mutual companionship, help and support that the one offers to the other… and to do so in the sight of God.

This is why I support the liturgical blessing of same sex relationships.

A more personal postscript

In the argument above I have tried to be very precise in my language; in particular I have not entered into the conversation around non-heterosexual marriage. This is for many reasons, not least that it is a discussion that is logically distinct from the one above, is much more complex, and can only reasonably be entered into by Synod if an argument akin to the one I make here is accepted.

Yet I find this talk of linguistic precision, logical distinctions and political practicalities – however essential it might be for our common labour – I find that it draws me too close to a Pharisaical spirit, and so I would like to finish with something more personal and real:

“I realized that the opportunity for him and me to say any more than we already had said was limited, so when he was more or less conscious I asked to be left alone with him. I got onto the bed and held him as gently as I could, and told him I loved him and he had brought gifts and goods, and frustration and testing, that I had never imagined would come my way, and I was so grateful for him, and then I stroked his hair and sang him ‘A Case of You’. I don’t know if David heard what I said, or knew what it meant, but I did know that he loved me and that I loved him, and that nothing could have separated us apart from what was separating us, so I did not fret too much about leaving anything unsaid.”
(from The Madness of Grief, by Richard Coles)

Synod: The dying of a church is not a management problem

This is the first of three emails unpacking some elements in my election address.

Like many others I have long been frustrated with the pervasive sense of unreality that seems to govern decisions made by our national church. So many initiatives, so much cheerleading, so much refusal to face what is happening. I am wholly in favour of church planting – I have successfully planted a new congregation myself – but with the recent discussions of planting 10,000 churches (‘No! We mean a different new 10,000 churches!’) I cannot but conclude that our national leadership has finally jumped the shark.

Back in 2012, when I was struggling with the realities of a large, multi-parish benefice, 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 made 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 20 years time, describing the present context as richly resourced, and working out how to keep the Church of England ‘renewing and reforming’ with only 2,500 clergy.

If managerial, pragmatic and administrative remedies addressed the real problem, then those problems would have been solved by now. That they haven’t suggests that our continuing malaise is not something that can be treated with those techniques. We keep doing the same thing whilst expecting different results. The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. Which means that we need to employ spiritual analysis and deploy spiritual solutions.

For me, the framework that makes most sense is Walter Brueggemann’s depiction of ‘Royal Consciousness’: those who make decisions on behalf of the national church are locked within a pattern of thought that is convenient for the established powers but which neutralises the gospel. As an institution we have unconsciously absorbed the secular framework of our surrounding culture which means we no longer use spiritual language with confidence, and so we spend our time parading our secular virtues in order to be acceptable to the society in which we live.

Most damagingly of all, the framework within which we make sense of the role of a priest has vanished. Instead of a ministry of Word and Sacrament we have had an evacuation of priesthood in favour of incumbency – fewer and fewer priests responsible for more and more churches. I believe that enabling clergy to become the ministers that they were called to and trained for is the most essential step that we can take towards renewing our church. Instead we employ business consultants to advise us on how best to manage our decline, and usher us into our simpler, humbler, bolder senescence.

For someone who considers themselves profoundly Anglican – as I do – the naturally desirable course of action is to stay and try and change things for the better. Yet I cannot escape Leonard Cohen’s mordant commentary, “they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom… for trying to change the system from within”. It occurs to me that if it was possible to change the system from within – through incremental shifts – then it would have been done already. After all, the spiritual root of our present predicament was accurately diagnosed by Evelyn Underhill more than ninety years ago. In a letter to Archbishop Lang in around 1931 she wrote to complain about the way in which the complications and demands of running the institution had compromised the capacity of priests to maintain their prayer life: “The real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice […] her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life.”

More recently, the generation of priests ordained in the sixties and seventies were, I suspect, not given any more or less grace than the present generation – and there were many more of them – so why the tacit assumption that ‘one more heave’ might make any difference? In other words, the spiritual rot has gone so much deeper than any possible structural reform can address. We no longer have the capacity to make the right decisions, because our spiritual strength has been exhausted – and it is that spiritual strength which is my principal concern, for building up the spiritual strength of any Christian community is precisely the priestly task, the cure of souls.

Which leads to a more troubling and possibly terminal question – is it actually possible to be a priest in the Church of England any more? If the generating and nurturing of spiritual strength is indeed the core role of the priest; if this is a distinct and important (most important!) task; if this is what priests continue to be called to by the living God – is it at all realistic to consider the role of an incumbent within the Church of England as a context that enables such a vocation to be expressed? Or is it the case that the hours of an incumbent are filled with the need to satisfy the demands of a second rate managerialism, keeping the wheels of the institution turning, and where the worst sin is not a failure of spiritual cure but bringing the institution into disrepute? Incumbency drives out priesthood, and the future that we are staring it is the exaltation of incumbency. The deep understanding of what a priest is for – that which inspires so many people still to present themselves for the task – seems to be structurally forgotten, and only referenced in rhetoric at ordinations.

If there is to be any future for the Church of England it will involve ‘giving up’ – giving up an illusion of centralised control, that if only we get in the right leaders doing the right programs then all shall be well. It will involve setting parishes free, and it will involve setting priests free – free to actually be priests, and not establishment functionaries. What we really need is a way of handing over all ‘incumbency’ rights and responsibilities to local laity – to revive lay incumbencies no less (which is not the same as lay presidency!) – and to only have ‘mission priests’ – people whose responsibility it is to feed the faithful by word and sacrament – and nothing else. The institution keeps loading on other options onto the creaking shoulders of the clergy and they are almost all distractions from that core task; they make clergy miserable and simply generate stress and burn-out. It is because we no longer know what a priest is for that we have devised an institution that makes it impossible to actually be a priest within it.

I want to resist this – and I want to resist this in the right way, with love and with laughter. With love for our leadership, and an absolute resolve not to scapegoat or cast blame upwards, for we all share responsibility for this predicament. We also need to resist with laughter. The emperor has no clothes, but all the courtiers have been stitched up into a false narrative, and the clothing may not be on the emperor but it is covering their eyes. Sometimes we need to laugh – it might just be that laughter brings people back to themselves, and the truth can then be realised, and the masks can be taken off and then, together, seeking the truth in love, we can work out where to go.