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.

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: 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.

The great green herring of the IPCC

So those who know me know that I’m a dissident, old-fashioned and curmudgeonly sort, “afflicted with the malady of thought” – and that applies especially to Green things, where I find myself repeatedly annoyed by what I think of as ‘the great green herring’ of climate change.

I see the IPCC process as simply yet another form of the technological imperialism, the death-complex, that drives out our common humanity in favour of unacknowledged puritanical theologies and self-hatreds (I don’t doubt warming, nor human contributions to that, but all the coverage is about the most unlikely outcome). Fear is the mind-killer.

I like Schumacher’s idea of appropriate level technology, and the importance of the human scale, emphasising our biological and social nature and the importance of what we have in common. That is where we need to concentrate our attention – not with pandering to the fear-factories of modern media because we think that being seen is sufficient.

To put that in concrete terms – our future is not going to be electric cars, nor will it be people riding around on horseback, it will be everyone using a bicycle, and our communities will be geared around that, not the interests of the motorists.

The truth is that no matter what measures are taken to respond to climate change we are not going to be able to carry on in the way that we have been. We are still tracking the ‘world model’ outlined in the Limits to Growth, which means that in ten to fifteen years – AT BEST – we are going to go through a breakdown and collapse.

Personally I think it has already started – and it will solve the climate change problem fully no matter what we do. I first started studying climate change in 1989 – I still have my Greenpeace report on Global Warming on my bookshelf! – but what made me start questioning the orthodoxy was discovering LTG. You can’t be worried about both LTG and climate change – the one cancels the other.

Human life will carry on. Human civilisations will carry on. I think that the UK is well placed (in many senses) for a good future. The only question is how much damage the death-complex will make as it struggles with its own demise. When something is unsustainable that means that it will not be sustained, it will come to an end. Our machine civilisation, this asophic industrial fascism, will come to an end.

I am interested in what comes afterwards. What comes afterwards will be determined by the stories that we tell each other (which is why the Dark Mountain group is so important). I think a healthy story has to be rooted in the greatest story ever told – the only story that leads to long-term, healthy and sustainable communities. It’s also why we need a much better national narrative – more on that another time.

For a sense – a much more effectively-written sense – of what I am on about, have a read of this by Wendell Berry. Our human future begins with a hug.

Click to access Berry-Health-is-Membership.pdf

IDWTSLACP – why the crazy conversation is important (OR: why the UK has a more hopeful prospect than the US in the coming years)

One of the dire consequences of our present cultural breakdown is the collapse of a shared space of discourse – a common frame of reference, a mutual framework of values – against which, within which, we can hammer out our differences without threatening the stability, and therefore the safety, of the community as a whole.

One of those shared values is democracy, which has as a necessary component the notion of ‘loser’s consent’. In other words, democracy is the means by which we have agreed to resolve our differences. We make our arguments and then there is an election (or a referendum!) which produces a decision for one path or another, and then there is a gathering around that decision with a common resolve to make the decision work, or apply.

The two shocks in the English-speaking world, of 2016, did not receive that expected loser’s consent. However, the working out of that refusal of consent took a different path in the UK and in the US.

In the UK there was a concerted effort on the part of the governing class to overthrow the verdict of the referendum. However, in contrast to what happened in other EU member states, the governing class was not able to succeed. Through a sequence of further democratic votes, most notably the impact of the Brexit party in the EU elections of 2019, and culminating in the General Election of December 2019, the democratic decision was re-affirmed, Mr Johnson received a mandate for Brexit and – slightly to my surprise – he has actually implemented it.

Please note that this is not an argument saying that Brexit was the ‘right’ decision. This is simply saying that in the UK a democratic verdict was implemented – there was a time of strife but in the end the institutions of the state, the limbs of the body politic, did actually reflect the choice that was made.

(A personal aside: whilst I am – obviously – a committed Brexiteer, it was actually a sense that this needed to happen, that there was a risk of something profoundly wrong and damaging about to take place, that moved me to stick my head up above the parapet with the Brexit Party. That was a terrifying experience on all sorts of levels; but it was the right decision, and, I believe, it was of God. A small but healing (for me) act of prophetic drama.)

This outcome – that the UK voted for Brexit, and the UK has now got Brexit, for better or for worse – gives me a degree of confidence in the future of our society. Our institutions eventually worked, and that means that our institutions continue to enjoy the consent of the population. When things go wrong – as they seem to be doing with our COVID response, whatever your view on the underlying science – then people will turn to the existing systems to remedy what has gone wrong. In other words, if Johnson is eventually considered to be an incompetent and bumbling fool then he will be thrown out of office, either by the Conservative MPs as they face the prospect of losing an election, or by the voters in a General election themselves.

The reason why I think that this is so essential is because I think if it hadn’t happened – if Brexit had been somehow denied by overt and covert means – we would find ourselves in the situation that the United States finds itself in today.

When Trump was elected, against the odds, there was a parallel reaction of the establishment to try and overturn that democratic shift. It took various forms, Russiagate was the most blatant, but there were others. Again, this is not a point in favour of Trump, it is a point about the democratic process. When one side of a democratic context refuses to accept the basic legitimacy of a decision that they did not support, then it is the framework itself that breaks down – and when the framework breaks down then there is no longer a possibility of a consensual future.

In my view, what we are seeing in the United States today is the product of both long-term and short-term factors. The long-term factors need not detain us now (see MacIntyre amongst others) but the short-term factors are quite straightforward. The deplorables have been demonised, and they have demonised in turn. Trump was denied legitimacy, and now Biden is denied legitimacy. Consent in the democratic process is being withdrawn, and that withdrawal is escalating. Place this into a context of cultural polarisation and add free access to automatic weapons, then stir.

I am very worried about the short-term (up to five years) future of the United States. I do not see how to get through the crisis that now obtains without things getting significantly worse, up to and including a degree of civil conflict, and possibly the secession or breakdown of the United States itself.

If there is to be a shared future – and this applies to the UK also, even though I hope and pray that we have now avoided the worst outcomes – then I believe there are two linked things that simply must be put in place. The first relates to political leadership, the second relates to how ordinary people conduct themselves with each other.

Political leaders must demonstrate honesty. The normal jostling for advantage, the reliance upon ‘spin’ to present events in a light that is most flattering to the speaker, these belong to a more luxurious and decadent age. We need plain speaking, frank admissions of what has gone wrong, what the true situation is. Leaders need to trust people again – and that cannot happen if the full truth of a situation is not disclosed.

Similarly, if there is to be a renewal of our shared cultural space there needs to be an acceptance of the legitimacy of difference. To denounce different perspectives as malicious – which is what happened in the Brexit debates – and fail to engage in the substance is part of the cultural breakdown that leads to greater conflict.

One might say: if there is to be reconciliation between the warring factions, that reconciliation can only be built upon a shared truth.

Which is why the ‘crazy’ questions simply must be addressed. They must be engaged with, patiently, and the truth must be excavated and brought out into the light. It will not do to repeat talking points shared on the one side or the other. There must be a recognition of the sincerely held beliefs held by those who oppose. There has to be an affirmation of the shared humanity of the other side. Without this there is only perpetual conflict and dissolution.

I am hopeful that the UK has been enabled by grace to find that more creative path. On this day of Epiphany, the light that enlightens the nations, I pray for the US – an amazing nation, a beautiful people – currently in the grip of a devilish crisis. Lord have mercy.

Can an Archbishop be a Christian witness?

On the day that the IICSA report was published, the Archbishop of Canterbury released what was described as a ‘personal statement’, which was remarkable for its absence of Christian language, sentiment or perspective. Why?

Part of the reason why it was so remarkable is that Archbishop Welby has displayed a distinctively Christian witness at other times. When his unconventional family background was disclosed Welby remarked graciously that he ‘found his identity in Jesus Christ’. He has also sought to speak clearly about Jesus whenever he is interviewed, which is a standard for all clergy to aspire to. He is clearly capable of explaining and advocating for the Christian faith – which is surely a minimum job requirement in his present role.

So the remarkable absence of a Christian witness from the Archbishop’s ‘personal statement’ cannot be explained away with accusations against our Archbishop’s own perspectives or theology. That would be both unkind and untrue.

There may be a clue in the text. Within the statement there are two mentions of the word ‘Church’ and one use of the word ‘pray’. There is no mention of Jesus, let alone reference to the great theo-drama of repentance and grace, of forgiveness and redemption. In other words, if we change the word ‘church’ to the word ‘institution’ then we have something that could have been sent out by any organisation in the corporate world.

This is the problem. It is boilerplate drafted by lawyers. So how have we come to such a pass as this? Someone who is evidently capable of distinctive and inspiring Christian witness is – in the very position when such witness would be most expected – unable to give, or is prevented from giving, a distinctively Christian response.

At which point I call to mind that salt that has lost its saltiness is no longer good for anything, and is fit only to be trampled underfoot.

The problem is clearly an institutional one, not a personal one. Those with greater insight and information than I may be able to specify which institutional forces are responsible for this eclipsing of the capacity for Christian witness on the part of our Archbishop of Canterbury. I suspect that it is insurance companies not wanting a public admission of liability, but I could well be wrong.

Yet what most concerns me is that, as an institutional body, we may have lost the capacity to exercise theological discernment on such a situation as this. We do not see how shocking and damaging it is for there to be an absence of distinctive Christian witness at a moment when – for awful and terrible reasons – the attention of our nation is upon us. Our leading representative is constrained to speak in the language of secular reputational management, and I want to ask ‘what does it profit a man if he protect a reputation yet lose his own soul?’ We have given the devil a foothold.

Because we cannot see, we cannot respond with faith. Clearly when it comes to our corporate response to all that IICSA has investigated we have gone out from the presence of Jesus – “and it was night”.

It seems to me that in order to maintain a capacity for manifesting a Christian witness we need to have an institutional memory of what it means not to be captured by what Scripture calls the principalities and powers. When the early church became acceptable to the wider culture, those who were most sensitive to the risks of being captured by the interests of the Empire withdrew to the desert, and we still benefit from the insights discovered then.

As the Church of England we need to remember what it is to go in to the desert, to live by faith alone, to be willing to let go of everything except the knowledge of Christ and him crucified.

Doing this will require real spiritual leadership, not corporate reputational management. We choose the latter rather than the former because we are frightened of the desert. We cling to inherited status. We strive to protect our image. We are unwilling to sell everything we own to gain the pearl of great price.

And because we fear, we die. The spirit of the Lord is departing from our places. We cling to the vessel, but have forgotten that the purpose of the vessel was to share the holy wine.

So what is to be done? We must remember our faith and let it once again bear a genuine weight in our corporate life. We must repent, and speak the language of repentance, and return to the Lord who has torn us and will heal us. We need to start taking the living God seriously again, and then let Him look after our reputation.

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

I am not a white Christian

Yesterday our Archbishop of Canterbury sent out this tweetabc white christian:

The single most important lesson I learned about racism I learned from an African-American named Steve. Before I went to university I had a gap year, three months of which were spent wandering around North America with a friend. We began with a week in New York, staying in the flat of a radical couple in which I was introduced to many intellectually exciting things – amongst them Noam Chomsky and Abbie Hoffmann – but what I most clearly remember was Steve’s insistence that racism was the belief that there are separate human races. I remember him talking about the census form, asking for information on racial category – and him saying ‘I write in “human” when they ask me about my race’.

The point I took from Steve was that as soon as you start thinking in racial terms, racism as an evil ideology is the inevitable consequence. The more that there is an insistence upon one racial category, the more that thinking in racial categories becomes endemic.

(This is not to deny that there is something real being described (objected to) with #Blacklivesmatter – there is clearly a deep-rooted structural racism within US society generally, and their police forces in particular, which needs to be addressed. At the end of our three months we returned to New York, and before meeting up with Steve again, we spent some time sat on the floor of the Greyhound station. I vividly remember policemen walking by us, ignoring us, and then hassling the African-Americans further along. That was when I realised just how deeply the racism was embedded in US society.)

The challenge for us all is to identify what is wrong without succumbing to thinking in racial categories. We have to use the right language to describe the problem, otherwise we simply repeat and amplify the original sin, we surrender that which is most distinctively Christian: that our identity in Christ surpasses all of our other identities, without obliterating them. In other words the most fundamental truth about anyone is that they are made in the image of God, and the most fundamental truth about me is that I am a Christian. As was once so wisely said, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

When we succumb to using racial categories and then – much more dangerously – use those categories in the form of accusations then we have left behind the Holy Spirit and are giving service to another. It would seem that a tormenting spirit is upon our Archbishop, and he has hurled a spear of accusation, which is the tool of the enemy. I shall step to one side and allow the spear to embed itself in the wall beside me.

In Christ there is neither black nor white. There are no black Christians or white Christians or Christians ‘of colour’. To add an adjective before the word Christian is to risk, blasphemously, the full meaning of the word Christian. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Healing can only be built upon our recognition of our common humanity, not on cornerstones of blame and accusation.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

I am not a white Christian. I am Sam, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.

The pathway and the plank

Much commentary about the effects of this COVID crisis seem to me to be assuming too much. In particular, there is an assumption that it is both possible and desirable to return to how things were before the virus so disrupted our patterns of life.

In saying this I am not simply referring to the point that human behaviour has changed, and become more cautious, and that the damage being caused by social distancing will remain even were the legal elements of the lockdown to be lifted. (I am sympathetic to the idea that we can rely on common sense to carry us through, à la Sweden, but I am not wholly persuaded that our shared understanding is yet adequate for that task.)

No, I think there is a more fundamental challenge, and to make that clear I want to employ two contrasting images.

The first is of a pathway up a mountain. It is a good path, and as we ascend higher up the mountain, so the scenery becomes more breathtaking. In this image, the ascension up the mountain corresponds to our economic growth, which takes us ‘higher and higher’. In this image the virus is like a small landslide. There is now a blockage up ahead, and we’ll have to go a little lower in order to get around it – but then we can resume our upward path. In other words, in this image, there is nothing fundamental about our situation prior to the virus that makes it at all problematic to go back. We will get back to the pathway once this crisis is over.

My second image is different. It is of walking the plank – that is, of a wooden path being extended over the side of a ship, and walking along it until there is a catastrophic departure from the path which can never be regained.

My view is that the crisis is tipping us off a plank, not just setting us back on our path. There are lots of reasons why I think that – mostly to do with the Limits to Growth – but it’s the reflexive assumption of the pathway image that most concerns me.

Our culture has assumed that constant economic growth is the best of all possible things, and we live in the best of all possible worlds that has such economic growth within it.

This economic growth has become an idol, and worship of the idol has stored up for us a vast cornucopia of problems, ecological, sociological and financial. The virus has given this idol a huge shove, and now we are watching the idol topple.

To get through this, which will take many years yet, we need to imagine things differently. We will need to work out ways in which we can look after each other during this crisis, and develop the equivalent for our own time of rationing during World War Two (my preference is a UBI but there are other possibilities).

Most of all, I think we need to learn how to swim. There are sharks around, but also a rowing boat or two.

Are we smarter than yeast?

One result of the coronavirus crisis is that many more people now understand the nature of exponential growth, and the way in which it can cause overwhelming problems. There is much finger-pointing focussing on whether our various national leaders did the right thing or not, given information available at the time.

At some point – in a few months or a few years – we will be on the other side of the coronavirus crisis. We will have adapted to it, either through finding a vaccine or through social adjustments. That particular problem will be fixed, more or less successfully.

However, coronavirus is only one problem. Just as epidemiologists were sounding the alarm back in January, so too have students of the Limits to Growth been sounding an alarm for many decades. The timescale is different, yet the underlying issue is the same.

With coronavirus there has been much talk of ‘flattening the curve’, principally so as not to overwhelm the available health-care resources. We can apply the exact same reasoning to the growth of human population and resource consumption on planet earth.

If we do nothing, and the exponential growth of the economy continues, then there will come a point when we overwhelm the resources available to us. That will be catastrophic.

So are we smarter than yeast? Yeast in a petri dish will grow exponentially until all the resources are exhausted, and will then die off. Can we do better than that?

It’s possible that we can. To do better, however, needs us to behave in a wise fashion – and our culture is radically unwise. I call it asophic, blind to wisdom – it is so unwise that it no longer even understands what wisdom is.

Wisdom would have meant acting differently in January when it became clear that there was an extremely contagious virus now on the loose in the world.

Wisdom means cultivating humility before the truth. This is a spiritual task. The Western world is unprepared to meet the crisis of our times because it has become a spiritual desert. We need to repent.

The church is not innocent of blame in this. It has colluded in the privatisation of faith and the academicisation of theology. We no longer teach people how to pray, or cultivate the fear of God. With you is my contention O priest.

I see our present situation as a dress rehearsal for what is to come – and what is coming soon. We are about to experience a great economic unravelling, as the house of cards of our economic system, based on debt, suffers a seizure.

For those that believe in God, this can be received as a gift. There is still a little time left to get our house in order, before the multiple, overlapping and mutually reinforcing crises of our time come together and collapse our culture.

I started teaching about this fifteen years ago, and wrote a book about how the church should understand and respond to it ten years ago. I couldn’t find a publisher for it then. I’m hoping to find one now. People might be more willing to listen.