Veni Sancte Spiritus – but please don’t tell us anything we’d rather not hear

This is a guest post by Rev Edward Dowler

First of all, let me state my own position, somewhat fence-sitting thought it is. Although I long for closer communion with my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, I realise that there is an anomaly about a church in which a certain category of priests cannot be considered for ordination to the episcopate. However, some aspects of the reaction to the recent vote on women bishops have deeply disturbed me.

The first of these was majoritarianism. One bishop pronounced with perhaps some sleight of hand that ‘the clear majority of the Church of England demands it, the people of this country expect it, and I believe that the Holy Spirit yearns for it’. Since forty two out of forty four dioceses (or, more accurately, diocesan synods) have expressed support for women bishops, it has been widely concluded that the legislation should certainly have been passed, despite not receiving the required majority in the General Synod. But majoritarianism is not democracy: as the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently pointed out, democracy is not just about enacting the will of the majority, but also, just as importantly, it is about protecting the rights of the minority: exactly the point about which the House of Laity was concerned.

Secondly, in the aftermath of the vote, there has been a nasty strain of clericalism in evidence. Members of the House of Laity were, it seemed, simply too thick and reactionary to get it; no surprises there if you believe in any case that they are ‘life-denying fun sponges obsessed with being right and with other people not having sex’. But it was noticeable that the key swing voters whose votes ensured that the legislation was defeated were in fact people who actually support the ordination of women to the episcopate. However, they felt unable to ignore an uncomfortable feeling that charity was not served by what seemed to them to be a ‘winner takes it all’ piece of legislation. At what has already turned out to be very considerable cost to themselves, they were not prepared to endorse this, despite their own desire to see women bishops.

Thirdly, there has been erastianism of the worst kind. As John Milbank has pointed out, the purpose of having an established Church is so that ‘the political nation is answerable to the Church: to God, to Christ and to Scripture’. But the Church of England seems largely to have accepted that it now goes the other way. The Prime Minister, in one of the milder comments from the House of Commons, has told the Church of England that it needs to ‘get with the programme (of secular equalities legislation)’. Despite all of the lessons that the twentieth century might teach us, even the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to believe that the Church should essentially keep in step with modern ‘trends and priorities’, as if it were in these that true wisdom is to be found. Other bishops meanwhile contend that the answer to this disagreement within the Church is to put it all in the hands of the secular courts (cf. 1 Cor 6.1-8).

Fourthly, we have seen what one might describe as a pneumatological deficiency. Are the prayers for guidance, the talk about seeking God’s will, the Synod Eucharists and all the rest of it just so many platitudes and pieces of empty flummery? For, rather than asking what it is that the Holy Spirit might be saying to the Church of England in and through this vote, the immediate response to the decision is hotly to protest that a way must be found of overturning it as soon as possible. In the words of the Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Stephen Maxfield (scroll to the last letter), ‘The Church of England is very odd. It invokes the Holy Spirit before meetings of its General Synod, but then it flatly refuses to believe that He has anything to do with the results of its deliberations’.

As several commentators have pointed out, one problem is a chronic lack of theology. Since we do not have an agreed theology of the episcopacy, we do not know whether bishops exist to provide leadership in the manner of secular gurus of that discipline, or bureaucratic managers, or fathers within a family. And because we do not know this, the conversation all too easily defaults to regarding episcopacy as just another ‘senior position’.

Similarly, since we do not have theology of gender, or indeed of the human person more generally, we default to secularised discourses of rights and equal opportunities. In the words of one priest in my own diocese, ‘young professional women aren’t used to being told they can’t do things’. So, putting it bluntly, we have been trying to decide whether to have women bishops without really having a clue what either a bishop or a woman (or a man) actually is.

Perhaps the egregious Chris Bryant MP is right – although not for the reasons that he thinks he is – that we should simply appoint no more bishops of either gender for the time being. Perhaps (and I owe this point to the Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross) we need to put aside our anxious, self-preoccupied strivings, our worldly perceptions that things can be fixed if only this or that group of people can be outflanked and defeated. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has indicated to us in and through this vote that the old way of doing things has now reached a dead end and that, instead, we must now just wait in stillness and silence before the Lord who waits to be gracious to us. If we did that, people really might take some notice.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill, Enfield in the Diocese of London. He was formerly Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford and a member of the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford. He has recently written the SCM Core Text in Christian Ethics (SCM: 2011) and The Church and the Big Society (Grove Books: forthcoming).

Sarah Coakley agrees with me! (perhaps they will listen to her)

Please forgive the egotistical title for this blog-entry, but my inner cheer is too buoyant to repress. I’ve been banging on about the lack of theological seriousness in the Church, the creeping managerialism, and the effect it has on clergy morale for a long time – and focussed all those concerns on the women bishops question here. In the aftermath of the Synod debacle, Professor Sarah Coakley, who is an all round star, weighs in here. Go read.

Please can we now do women bishops the right way?

Three step process:

1. Formally decide that the period of reception is at an end, and that the Church of England definitively accepts women priests.
2. Construct a generous, loving – dare I say ‘Christian’ – settlement with all those who on reasons of conscience cannot accept #1, involving transfer of property and so on – at least one new denomination, but let’s be fraternal about it.
3. Synod passes a remarkably simple single-clause measure bringing in women bishops by unanimous consent.

Is it really so hard to do things the right way, rather than descending into so much appalling political bickering?

If I had a vote on women bishops I would vote against

I wrote about this fairly extensively here, and my views haven’t changed; instead they have hardened. I see all the political manoeuvrings as confirmation of our spiritual bankruptcy. Shame on us.

(Again, for the record, I’m in favour of a full acceptance of women to every order of ministry. God doesn’t care whether the wobbly bits are above or below the waist, he looks at the heart.)

Is "self-denial" the right way to understand "take up your cross"?

This is from the interview with Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St. Ebbes Church, Oxford, by Julian Hardyman, found via Andrew Brown’s article.

Julian: That’s encouraging. But what about the pain, surely that’s very real? What do you do with that?
Vaughan: Yes, the pain is real — I can’t deny that. The world, the flesh and the devil all conspire to make sin appear very attractive, so it will be hard for believers to remain godly in this area for the sake of the kingdom of God. To do that you need a clear understanding of the call to self denial in the kingdom — and the dynamic of resurrection life proceeding out of sacrificial death. Christ does call us all to a life of costly suffering as we take up our crosses for him, but, just as it was in his experience, that way of the cross is the path to life: ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ (Mark 8.35).

And here is another article, found via Peter Ould:

The reality is that I acknowledge my same-sex desires. I talk openly with family and friends about homosexuality, especially as it relates to my commitment to Christ. More importantly, I’m honest with God about my struggles with same-sex attraction. I don’t pretend the feelings aren’t there; on the contrary, I consider them very real temptations. The only denial happening here is self-denial, the daily charge to take up my cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23). That’s the calling of every Christian, not just those who fight against homosexual desires.

For me there is something significant being missed in this sort of language and the understanding of “taking up our cross” that is being assumed. I am not persuaded that what these two articles are describing counts as the denial of self that Jesus is talking about.

What, after all, is the key point to understand about the crucifixion? Is it about Jesus denying himself, or is it about Jesus being rejected by society? I am sure that there is some mileage in talking about Jesus denying himself on the path to Golgotha, but if we want to say that when Jesus was crucified he was denying what was most central to himself then I think we have misunderstood what was happening. I would, in contrast, want to say that on the cross Jesus was most truly himself, he was most authentically keeping faith with his core vocation and destiny. To me, the crucifixion – why it was necessary for Jesus to be crucified – centres upon the contrast between what is acceptable by society and what is called by God.

This came up in the lectionary reading set yesterday (Mark 9.42-48) when Jesus is saying that it is better to be maimed and enter the Kingdom, than to be whole and not enter it. I understand this to be about drawing a contrast between being a fully accepted member of the community (which at the time necessitated being bodily whole) and being a member of God’s community, where being the person God has called us to be is more important than any particular physical attribute. The contrast repeatedly drawn in the gospels, so far as I can see, is between what it means to follow God, and simply falling in with what society sees as acceptable.

I believe that when we interpret ‘deny yourself and take up your cross’ as being about the repression of a part of ourselves, we are misunderstanding what Jesus is describing. I understand Jesus to be saying that if we are to follow him then we have to let go of any desire for social approval and acceptability. This is why in the context of the Mark 8 passage that Vaughan Robert references, Jesus rebukes Peter and says ‘Get behind me Satan’ (ie prince of this world, society) ‘you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men’. That is the contrast we are to have in mind when understanding this teaching.

To take up our cross is to embrace the necessity of social rejection. Each of us has a tailor-made cross – it is what happens when we follow the law of love, accept Christ’s invitation into the Kingdom, and are rejected by society as a result. The cross as I understand it is about what the wider society will do to us; it is not about what we do to ourselves. In other words, taking up the cross looks more like Matthew Shepard than these other commenters.

The ethics of religious belief and women bishops

Responding to my post about management, Dave Paisley quoted my words “those who are rendered spiritually homeless as a result” and commented: Surely that should be “those who have rendered themselves spiritually homeless as a result”? It’s a choice. I want in this post to explore what I think is wrong about that comment, because I think it is one of the factors that unnecessarily complicate our debate about women bishops.

Viewpoints that don’t accept women bishops, as I understand them Con Evo – scripture primary not anglican but not internally inconsistent not misogynistic Con Ang-Cath – tradition primary not anglican not misogynistic impossibilist position – the one I have most sympathy with (though I don’t ultimately agree with it) difference between male and female, priesthood/episcopacy/leadership can only be carried out by a male scriptural perspective and church perspective follow from that problem is binary polarity – doesn’t adequately describe human nature difficult to cash out ‘male’ in any relevant sense that would exclude all (biological females) progress does not come through arguing about presenting issue not a ‘choice’ A bit of academic background – post on Locke (extract from a temporarily abandoned book)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dying of a church is not a management problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori

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

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

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

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

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

What is to be done?

I read this in an article from the Guardian:

“I teach 400 children. Slightly more, actually, but we’ll call it 400. That means your daughter counts for 0.25% of the children I teach. It is difficult for me to honestly and accurately tell you anything about her, so please forgive me if I speak in vague generalities at parents’ evening and try to avoid using your daughter’s name. I might have forgotten it.
I teach twenty five lessons a week. Despite my best intentions, some of these lessons are boring. To plan an outstanding lesson can take hours. I can’t do that for every lesson I teach. Sometimes I stand in class delivering a lesson I know isn’t as good as it could be. I know how to make it better. I just didn’t have the time to do it. I don’t think the children notice, they are used to this…
Schools are full of middle-management types….The school needs to improve, but I’m not sure it can. Common sense and trust in human communication is being forced out of the profession. A lot of teachers seem to like being told exactly what to do and how to do it. The status quo is just fine for a lot of middle and senior management too. It allows them to wield power, justify inflated salaries and be recognised by their peers as being “outstanding” teachers. A recognition the children in their classes would never give them. Never mind. They never really liked teaching children that much anyway.”

The reason why this article struck me this morning is that – if you change the relevant terms (including ‘outstanding teacher’ to ‘senior priest’!) then the same analysis applies to the life of an increasing number of parish priests. That is of interest, not because I want to share in the groaning – done enough of that recently – but because it shows how far the Church of England has become bound up in the prevailing patterns of our culture.

That culture is one of expecting more and more to be achieved by less and less – and of putting bureaucratic control systems in place to achieve it. So, in teaching, it means a significant increase in central government direction and intervention, carried through by qualified consultants and enforced by Ofsted. Similar things happen in other fields, like the NHS. The church – being behind the times – is only now starting to move in this direction, but it is clear that Common Tenure is from this stable, and this pattern of thought has clearly infected many.

I say that with confidence because I think it has also infected me – and I’m trying to extirpate it (which I do, through things like writing out my thoughts in a blogpost). For example, I am closely involved in Deanery discussions planning for the future – specifically, how to negotiate a reduction in stipendiary clergy of around a third (from 13.5 to 9, covering 27 parishes). My first reaction was to develop a plan to restructure the Deanery around geographical clusters, each with at least two clergy, so that the workload is distributed fairly. So, from an average ratio of clergy to people of 1:120, it will shift to around 1:180; or, using a Deployment Indicator that takes account of local population and number of churches, it will shift from an average of 101 per priest to an average of 144 per priest – either way, it will effectively mean a 50% increase in workload for clergy here. (For comparison, and in lieu of another moan from me, the figures for Mersea are 1:300 on the former measure, and 186 on the latter, so I do have a very good idea of what these implied changes mean in practice). Yet as time has gone on, I become more and more dubious about this type of change – the notion of spreading clergy around in a perfectly balanced distribution seems simply to be about managing the decline.

What, after all, will be the consequences of proceeding with this plan? We will be asking clergy (and bishops) to do more and more with less and less – exactly the situation that the teacher in the Guardian article is describing. We will end up either with ever-increasing levels of clergy burn-out; or with ever-increasing congregational decline and disillusionment; or, most probably, both. This is exactly the pattern of thinking that led us into our present problems, so why do we expect a different result from continuing with it?

So what is to be done? One answer is to ‘re-imagine ministry’ – along the lines that Bishop Stephen is calling for here in Chelmsford Diocese. I strongly support what +Stephen is attempting to do, but I suspect that we are still not digging down into the real roots of the problem. Do we: change our understandings of priesthood; change our understandings of lay ministry; or – increase the numbers of clergy?

After all, one of the great challenges about ‘re-imagining ministry’ is to make sure that we don’t re-imagine ministry away completely. The reason why Killing George Herbert has always resonated with me is simply because the George Herbert model of ministry is so tremendously attractive. To be a pastor and a teacher building up strong relationships with a group of disciples – and through that to enable each of them to live out their calling with joy and giving glory to God – what priest could possibly object to that? If we are to have a truly enabled and energised, inspired and inspiring laity – is there not a role there for those whose job it is to help such a thing come about? That is, I am not sure that the answer to the problem of a shortage of clergy is to do away with such clergy altogether. The answer is two-fold, it seems to me – we need more clergy and we need to have a much clearer idea of what clergy are for.

In the secular world, to provide resources for training and development is straightforward and obvious. It is an investment in the future. The Church of England doesn’t do this – and I sometimes wonder if there is something in our ecclesiology that says we are only allowed to take the bad bits of management practice and have to ignore the good. If we were serious about priestly ministry then we would invest a much greater proportion of our resources in training and developing priests – and we would then set those priests free to do the work that they have been called and trained to do. There are many ways in which this might be done. Personally I am coming around to the view that anyone accepted for training should be installed as a curate in a parish, with housing and a stipend, and then spend the next seven years doing 50% work in the parish and 50% formational training. I am very aware of the benefits of full-time residential training, but that model only really works with people who are single, and probably young as well.

More crucially, I believe that we need to make a decision about what we expect priestly ministry to look like. This is a long conversation but one key element of it, surely, has to do with the size of the congregation – that is, how many people is one priest expected to pastor? Bob Jackson’s research pertains to this – for me, I would suggest a ball-park figure of around 100 as the limit for what one person can effectively minister to. Beyond that number the possibility of genuine relationships with each member of a congregation diminishes exponentially. If something like this is accepted, then it has a direct implication for the recruitment and training of clergy. If we have 10,000 people needing to be pastored, then we will need 100 clergy, and we will need to ask each of those 10,000 people to give 1% of their income in order to pay for them. All that is happening now is that we are a long way into the spiral of decline that spreading butter over too much bread inevitably causes. Put another way, we need to abandon the use of the Sheffield formula and its equivalents in working out how to deploy clergy.

Personally, I don’t believe that this challenge can ever be met without at the same time addressing the folly of the parish share system. That is, without some sense of direct relationship between what parishioners give, and what they receive there will be no chance of increasing – that is, financing – the necessary numbers of clergy. Of course, this immediately runs up against some of the principal taboos of church culture – taboos which are, sadly, principally twentieth century in origin. After all, one of the roots of the blight of management culture across the different areas of our lives is the huge growth in centralised state control – and the parish share system is simply one aspect of that, as applied to the church. The sort of system that I would like to see – benefices tithing their income, then paying for the costs of their own ministers – is a massively decentralising process. I happen to believe, not only that this is the form that the Spirit prefers, but also that it is in profound harmony with the way that the world is developing at the moment. Yet like all release of centralised power, those who hold such power will not release it voluntarily, they will have to be persuaded by non-rational means.

Essentially, what I am describing is the shift from maintenance to mission – and in saying that, I am depressingly aware of what a cliche it is. I am sure this has all been said before, and much more articulately. So the question becomes – why has there been no change? Why is it that we are still circling the plug-hole? I believe that the answer is to do with our capacity to make decisions. To actually address these issues properly requires painful choices to be made, and it is the incapacity to make those choices which is our fundamental problem. I don’t believe that we can escape from the truth that the church is in crisis because it has lost its spiritual moorings – and this has led to our culture being in crisis (see my book for more detail). We can’t discriminate between good and bad management because that requires spiritual discernment – and in an environment that doesn’t take spirituality seriously (the church) that sort of discernment is not encouraged as it is too challenging to the existing powers.

So what is to be done? I hear the words that say ‘leave with the others’, to which I want to respond to the church ‘but you have the words of eternal life’. What can those who are loyal to the CofE actually do? That is, what do those who actually believe in the gospel as the Church of England has received it do when that very same Church becomes the obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel? I think that my heart’s desire is to do the work of a Samuel, and change the structures in such a way that it becomes possible for the priests to do their job once again. Yet in my darker moments I wonder whether what is truly needed isn’t a Samuel but a Samson – someone to pull down the pillars of establishment and leave nothing but rubble and dead bodies behind.