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.

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.

Resist with love and laughter

My beloved Church of England is having another spasm of ambition and vision, with an aim, not just for 10,000 new church plants but 20,000 new plants! Saul has his thousands but David has his tens of thousands….

I think this is the latest manifestation of a severely deficient theology and ecclesiology, on which I have written many times before. I have come to the point of thinking that our leadership has now jumped the shark. The level of disconnect between the people on the bridge pulling levers, and the people sweating in the boiler room trying to respond, has simply become too large.

So we need to resist, which for most of us will look like trying to ignore so far as practicable yet another central directive. We need more though – for all the activity poured into fruitless endeavours is energy wasted, and if we are creative it may be that we can open up more fruitful areas for our leadership to work in. I do believe, sincerely, that the problem is not that we have bad people in our positions of authority; no, I think the problem is not with individuals but with the institutional identity within which they serve, most especially, it is in the institutional narrative (‘panic!!’) that seems to shape all the decisions. We need to attend most of all to questions such as these: how did we get here? is this God’s will? how has our activity supported God’s will for the Church and how far has it frustrated that will? We need to get spiritually serious again.

I will write more about this as time goes on.

For now, what is most on my mind and heart is that we need to resist with love and laughter. With love for our leadership, and an absolute resolve not to scapegoat or cast blame upwards – we all share in our responsibility for the predicament we now face. 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.

It is in that spirit of love and laughter that I have put together this little video. The song is Babel, words by Trevor Carter, sung by Pete Coe:

Jesus is not Superman, or: how to understand the resurrection properly

I have been thinking about the resurrection. Specifically, I have been pondering the way in which it is so commonly misunderstood and that this misunderstanding is a real barrier to our mission. It prevents us from sharing what is genuinely exciting about the resurrection.

Consider: Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that in the course of this film – well, in the course of this four hour televisual marathon – Superman, who dies at the end of Batman v Superman, returns to life and joins his comrades in order to defeat the bad guy at the end.

Now this ‘hero dies and comes back to life’ trope is very, very common in our stories, and in the stories of most human cultures. After all, if you have a settled agrarian civilisation then the phenomenon of crops dying in Winter and regrowing in Spring is both remarkable and something to be thankful for. If this is the horizon of your moral imaginary then it makes sense to have stories about dying and coming back to life. Let’s call these stories ‘Phoenix’ stories.

The story of the resurrection of Jesus is not a story like this. It is not the story of a hero dying and coming back to life. It is not a Phoenix story. This requires some explanation.

In the Phoenix story there is usually no sense that the hero is in fact immortal – no suggestion, for example, that Superman is in fact immortal. To be immortal in the relevant sense would rather remove any sense of jeopardy in the drama.

More than this, even if Superman was immortal, there is no sense that Superman’s existence was anything other than in the flow of time. Superman is still an actor within time, simply (if immortal) an actor over an incredibly long stretch of time.

When Superman comes back to life, what we have is a resumption of what was previously possible. The life of Superman is interrupted by the awkward fact of death, but once death is overcome then the previously normal is re-established.

Superman is a Phoenix. The Phoenix dies and then comes back to life. The much larger pattern within which the Phoenix lives and dies and rises continues on.

[Aside #1 – I’m extremely interested for GRRM to finish Winds of Winter, so I can see what happens with a certain character, keeping in mind GRRM’s musings about Tolkien and Gandalf.]

[Aside #2 – the restoration of normality after the intrusion of the monstrous is a classic horror movie trope, and profoundly conservative.]

So if the resurrection of Jesus is not like that of Superman – or any other Phoenix character – then what is being claimed?

This is what I claim: Jesus actually died on the cross. The death of Jesus is not something that is ‘undone’ by the resurrection. There is no return to the status quo ante. Jesus does not resume his previous life. The previous normal is not re-established. This is not a conservative event. This means that the interactions of Jesus with people after the resurrection are not, strictly speaking, actions within time so much as the interruption of time by the eternal. Now, just to be cautious – I want to say that people who acted in time had temporal experiences (talking, eating etc), but that Jesus was not acting within time in the way that any other mortal person acts within time. Those who experienced Jesus after the resurrection experienced his eternal nature, his risen nature, not a reanimation of his mortal nature.

The core truth of the resurrection is the revealing of Jesus’ true nature – his eternal life as Son of the Father.

I think of it a little like this: a mortal life might be represented by a V to represent birth, dashes to represent life, and an A to represent death, viz:

V——–A

or a longer life

V————-A

A Phoenix life might be shown with an interruption, like this:

V———^ʅ——-A

Or if there are several Phoenix moments, then like this:

V———^ʅ——^ʅ——-^ʅ——A

and so on.

My point is that the life and resurrection of Jesus looks like my first example, not like my last.

Instead of the Phoenix life, the resurrection is the V—–A rendered eternal. Or, to put that a little differently, it is the demonstration that the A is not the end.

This is why it is true to say that ‘death has no dominion’ over Jesus. Jesus has already died, and he cannot die again. He cannot die again for he no longer exists within the time-bound mortal frame; he is eternal. He lives. Not life after death, for however often a Phoenix might rise, but… eternal life, sub specie aeternitatis, at the right hand of the Father.

And where He goes, so may we now follow.

Jesus lives! thy terrors now, can no more, O death, appal us;
Jesus lives! By this we know, thou, O Grave, canst not enthral us.
Alleluia

What is God doing with the Church of England?

(Something shared with my Deanery colleagues, as part of our conversation about finding a way forward)

This middle section of Thomas Hardy’s De Profundis really speaks to me:

Considerabam ad dexteram, et videbam; et non erat qui cognosceret me (Ps142.4)

When the clouds’ swoln bosoms echo back the shouts of the many and strong
That things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long,
And my eyes have not the vision in them to discern what to these is so clear,
The blot seems straightway in me alone; one better he were not here.

The stout upstanders say, All’s well with us: ruers have nought to rue!
And what the potent say so oft, can it fail to be somewhat true?
Breezily go they, breezily come; their dust smokes around their career,
Till I think I am one horn out of due time, who has no calling here.

Their dawns bring lusty joys, it seems; their eves exultance sweet;
Our times are blessed times, they cry: Life shapes it as is most meet,
And nothing is much the matter; there are many smiles to a tear;
Then what is the matter is I, I say. Why should such an one be here?

Let him to whose ears the low-voiced Best seems stilled by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom, and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here.

Like many others I have long been frustrated with the pervasive sense of unreality that seems to govern decisions made within our church. So many initiatives, so much cheerleading, so much refusal to face what is happening (for an example, see this General Synod paper on ‘resourcing the future’ from 2015, which begins “This is a moment of great opportunity for the Church of England.”)

“… things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long…”

I want to begin our conversation in a different place. I want to ask “What is God doing with the Church of England at the moment?” For what I see is long-term structural collapse, that has been rolling forward for at least fifty years, with roots that extend backwards much further than that. I want to ask ‘what is God doing?’ because if we have no awareness of what God is doing we will not have the capacity to co-operate with what God is doing, and then all our doings are as nothing worth.

Most especially I want to insist of what is happening with the Church of England, the collapse that we are living through, that this is not an accident. I see the hand of God in this. If we thank God for the good why do we evade that with the bad? It’s as if we are comfortable saying thank you to God for good things and blessings that we received, but have somehow lost the capacity to experience God’s hand in the bad things that we experience. The bad things are assigned to rational or secular causes, or considered meaningless – which is an atheist framework. I want to say: the structural collapse of the Church of England is the working out of God’s Wrath, and unless we recover an understanding of what is meant by this language we will not be able to navigate forward.

So I ask: what is the most prominent cause for God’s Wrath when described in Scripture? Surely it is a lack of faith, a failure to worship the living God alone, a falling away from the first commandment which then has consequences for social justice, and, in time, political fallout too (most notably the Exile). We live in a society when it is comparatively easy and acceptable to live out the second commandment. I think we have settled into that comparative ease, and let the first commandment slide.

Before anything else, therefore, I think we need to honestly lament, and cry ‘God have mercy on us’ for our corporate lack of faith, with perhaps a day of fasting and prayer. We need to be able to grieve for what we have lost, and spend time recognising that we have played a part in this collapse due to our lack of faith.

What does our lack of faith look like?

I wonder how many of you saw Justin Welby’s ‘personal statement’ released following the publication of the IICSA report (text available here) I find it remarkable that the response of the institution to criticism is such a perfect example of legal boilerplate, without any reference to Jesus, let alone the theological drama of repentance and forgiveness, redemption and salvation. If the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot offer an authentic Christian witness at a moment like this (and I do not doubt his personal capacity to offer such a witness, this is a critique of the institution, not of him) what hope have the rest of us?

In my view the collapse of the Church has its roots in a lack of faith (that’s what I take from Scriptural precedent) and in our particular case it is a fundamentally doctrinal collapse, specifically, that as an institution we have unconsciously absorbed the secular framework of our surrounding culture. We have, in Scriptural language, gone whoring after foreign gods. The result of this is that we can 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. We are happy to demonstrate our sociologically convenient bona fides – such as giving support to measures designed to combat climate change, or genuflecting in church in solidarity with Black Lives Matter – and yet we have forgotten the rich spiritual language within which the second commandment can only make sense. That is, unless we have a true relationship with the living God we simply will not know what true love of neighbour looks like.

Most damagingly of all, with this collapse of doctrine the framework within which to understand 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. I read this in a Sheldon Hub forum last week: “I have only been ordained for 18 years. I wasn’t trained (on a 2 years full time residential course) to be the CEO of a small-to-medium sized enterprise, and one which is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, in part because of its attitude towards matters of human sexuality, & its attitude towards equality. I wasn’t trained in charity management. I wasn’t trained in people management, or H&S, or food safety, or in being a “venue manager”. And simply saying that all of those things are someone else’s responsibility within the church doesn’t take away the fact that as the incumbent, the buck stops on my desk if they are not taken heed of and someone is hurt as a result of ignoring them.”

How then shall we turn again to the Lord, who has torn us and will heal us?

I believe that we have to be utterly ruthless and relentless in narrowing down our focus upon our core task – which is the Great Commandment, to proclaim the gospel and teach people to obey all that Jesus has commanded. As an institution we spend a vast amount on training clergy to be ministers of Word and Sacrament – to teach the faith and administer the spiritual medicine of the gospel – and then we ask them to do so many things other than that.

I am using the language of ‘we’, and clearly talking about ordained ministers. I believe passionately in the ministry of all the faithful, I am, after all, a Vocations officer for the Diocese as well as Assistant DDO, but I see something in the current emphasis on lay ministry as a manifestation of the doctrinal collapse I pointed to earlier. We (corporately, as an institution) don’t have an understanding of spiritual matters any more, and so we think that those set aside for the especial purpose of handling those spiritual matters are replaceable. I want to insist that the truth is precisely the opposite – we need to let priests be priests (not incumbents) – and set them free to manifest their full calling. We need to take spiritual matters seriously again. If we do that, it will in turn liberate the laity to manifest all their gifts, to be the church in the world.

There are other things I want to say here – about learning how to proclaim gospel in today’s society (both content and medium), which I am feeling a particular calling towards, and the need for us to concentrate on the intense discipling of small numbers of people, teaching them how to share transformed life and faith in turn, but this has already gone on for long enough.

I could be excited about these possibilities. I remain utterly convinced of the truth of the gospel as the Church of England has received it, and I also remain a loyal Anglican. I just feel so often like one “horn out of due time, who has no calling here”, whose role is simply to disturb the order as I watch the wheels continue to turn and crush the life out of clergy.

We need to concentrate on feeding the sheep, for if the sheep aren’t fed, they leave or they die – and that, to my mind, describes the history of the last fifty or so years of our Church. My lament is that, because we have corporately and unconsciously imbibed so much atheist thinking, we have forgotten what the food we can offer looks and tastes like, and so we scratch around trying to find more or less acceptable secular substitutes, chasing the latest fads out of fear and desperation, and the more this goes on, the more we fade away.

“…if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst…”

With love and respect to all of you, and looking forward to the continuing conversation,

Sam

PS totally gratuitous plug: I have a chapter in this book, being released on Thursday, which expands on some of the themes here

The virtue of Christian hope (2): actively remembering

Yesterday I spoke about Christian hope being a choice.Today I want to say that it is also a virtue. That means it is something that we can practice and get better at.

Now in saying that Christian hope is a virtue I am drawing on the classical Christian tradition, derived from Aristotle, that describes the virtues as the building blocks of the good life. In simple terms we are what we regularly do, that is our character, and the path of Christian discipleship is, in simple terms, the pursuit of Christian virtues. So if we are to inhabit hope, then we need to make a habit of hope, and this morning I want to touch on how we do that: how do we build the habit of hope so that we show to the world the virtue of Christian hope?

I wonder how many of you are familiar with the concept of the sacred bundle? This is a native american tradition, in several tribes, wherein there is literally a cloth bundle that contains items that have significance for the tribe. These items can be anything – feathers, rocks, glass ware, old weapons, bits of fabric, anything. What binds the bundle together is that they are all significant for the life of the tribe, and each one is the focus for a story. To receive the sacred bundle, and to have the stories told, is to be initiated into the tribe.

Such things can also happen in churches of course. You are not allowed to remove this flower pedestal because it was given in memory of Vera, who ran the flower guild for many decades before she went to glory….

More seriously, our Christian tradition also has sacred bundles – we tend to call them liturgies – and we inherited this from the Hebrews. Consider the ritual of passover. Why is this night different to other nights asks the youngest person present – and this is the cue for a retelling of the story of the flight from Egypt, the wonderful acts of God that led his people from slavery under Pharaoh to freedom in the Promised Land. The sacred elements of the tribe are brought forth – the unleavened bread, the roast lamb, the herbs – and with each item a story is told, and through the telling of this story the Hebrews are renewed as a people.

Of course, Jesus consciously takes up, renews and transforms this tradition when he institutes our Eucharist. Do this to remember me he says. And when we take our sacred objects, our bread and our wine, and we tell the story of Jesus we are renewing our identity as the people who proclaim his death until he comes again; and without wishing to get too deeply into matters of theological controversy, this remembrance, just as with the passover, is not simply a calling to mind of something that has happened in the past, but also an anamnesis, a making present – in the act of this remembering we meet with him.

With both the passover and the eucharist, there is, then, a deliberate remembering of what God has done in the past, which forms and shapes us in the present, equipping us and enabling us for our work in the future.

Now I hope that you have all found an answer to my request from yesterday – what is it in your own lives that you call to mind, and therefore you shall have hope – because what I want to suggest to you is that your memories are your sacred bundle. You may have particular objects to go with them as well – this mug from which I am drinking my tea this morning was given to me by someone in my last parish, and I think of that person whenever I pick it up, and with that memory comes a whole package about my own story, about the shape of my ministry, about times of pain and joy… and so on. It is an object that conveys a powerful meaning for me – something of a sacramental.

Just as with passover and eucharist it is important to take time, regularly, to remember the elements in your sacred bundle. This can be a private activity, taken up when you go into a room by yourself, but many elements can be shared, indeed they must be shared, with trusted, close companions – with family, with friends, with a spiritual director. I think of these people in my own life as the custodians of my story. When I get bogged down with the burdens of daily life, time spent with close companions, those who have known me for a long time, recalls me to myself, and I remember who I am: a child of God, redeemed by Grace, called to his service. When we consciously remember those key elements from our own stories, it is a deliberate remembering of what God has done for each of us in the past, which forms and shapes us in the present, equipping us and enabling us for our work in the future.

Whatever is in your bundle, I would like, in closing, to add three things to it, if they are not there already – they are three things that I keep in my own sacred bundle, and which have helped me.

The first is a small piece of paper with these words inscribed upon it: this too shall pass. As Ecclesiastes puts it, there is a time for everything under heaven. Whatever Jeremiah-like conditions we may have to endure in our lives – this too shall pass.

The second is something that was emphasised at Westcott House, where I trained – the verse 1 Thessalonians 5.24: pistos ho kalon, the one who calls you is faithful. You can trust him. He who has brought you to this place, this moment, he will never leave you or forsake you.

The last item is another verse and one which, for me, encapsulates everything that I have been trying to say so far. For the purpose of our remembering is to place any present experiences into a larger context, to place our lived story into the context of the larger story that God is telling – and we know how that story ends. There are many verses that might serve to remind us of this larger story, and of where it ends, but for me this passage in Romans 8 serves me well: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. 38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NLT)

So choose hope – choose hope and make it a virtue. Practice it, practice your remembering. Practice it in your public ministry and liturgy, practice it when you go into a room by yourself. Practice it by remembering who you are as a child of God, practice it by remembering who we are as a people called by God to go out in the name of Christ to serve his people. Practice hope and make it into a habit, and in doing so, you will truly inhabit hope.

Then, whatever you meet in your ministry, you will be equipped to say with Jeremiah, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope…”

Amen

The virtue of Christian hope (1): hope is a choice

Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

There is a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah that I would like to share with you (Lamentations 3.19-24):

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Jeremiah sees around himself the devastation of Jerusalem, the trauma that the people of Israel have experienced. Read Lamentations for the detail of that. Yet still he chooses to hope.

There are times when we too can feel ourselves surrounded by devastation. Our present situation with the virus is for many just such a time. I know from hearing your stories that many of you have come through difficult times to arrive here. I also know that many of you will experience such times in the years to come; times when things will start to lose their sense, when a dark fog of bewilderment descends in which all we can do is cry out ‘Oh God!’

It is to help you in such times that I say to you now: Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

Our human freedom, our distinctively human soul, is found in the place between the stimulus and the response. What do I mean by that? Permit me to talk about puppies.

Specifically, I have a five month old puppy in the Vicarage at the moment – she is called Bazooka, and she belongs to my 18 year old son. Now puppies are delightful, but they need to be trained, and that means that sometimes the puppy gets told off or given a sharp tap on her nose. She’s doing well, and has learned, for example, to patiently sit whilst her food is being prepared. When she is stimulated by hunger, and the smell of the food is filling her nostrils, she has learned not to express her natural response of rushing to the food. She has become more skilled, more mature, and life is much better for everyone as a result.

When we experience devastation, when we are like Jeremiah and lamenting what has come to pass – this is a stimulus. As human beings with souls we can choose how to respond. We can choose to hope. Now, this is not a matter of denying the truth of a situation, however difficult it might be. We are not called to forget or ignore or suppress our suffering. Our calling in fact is the opposite, for the choice of hope depends upon a clear, a calm – even a cold assessment of the truth of our situation. Rather, choosing hope is about seeing the whole truth – allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, to mourn and lament the loss of what has passed away – but then… placing that truth, those feelings, into a wider context, into a larger story.

Jeremiah does that, and he chooses hope when he remembers. He remembers God, he remembers what God is like and he remembers what God has done before – and it is on the basis of those memories that Jeremiah hopes. Jeremiah remembers, and so he gains a greater perspective, a wider context, a larger story. It is this remembering which, in the face of the stimulus of devastation around him, enables him to respond with hope.

So I have a request to make of you all for this afternoon. A mission for you, should you choose to accept it. Jeremiah calls to mind all that the Lord has done for the people of Israel up to his time. My question for you to ponder is: what has the Lord done for you to lead you to this time? How has God led you, and shaped you, and blessed you? What are the essential moments in your journey of faith, in your story, that you want and need to remember? Of what are you able to say “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope”?

Tomorrow morning we will do some work with those memories, as we learn the skill of Christian hope. But for now, let me just emphasise this: Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

 

(Part one of a talk I gave to ordinands on their retreat – via Zoom! It went well)