Happy incumbents

Reading Lesley’s blog reminded me that I wanted to write something on this.

First a lengthy quotation from Rowan’s remarks:

“On the humanity of priesthood and episcopacy, it does seem to me that, if we have an ordained ministry in the Church, and if part of the function of any ordained ministry is to help the Church be the Church, and if the Church truly is the Church when it is the human community that is Christ’s body among us (and you can add lots more ifs), then the ordained person — deacon, priest, or bishop — is not exempt from modelling the new humanity.

The ordained person does not just talk to other people about how they become better human beings or more effective parts of the Body of Christ. The ordained person is a part of the Body of Christ, and therefore in­volved in modelling the new human­ity.

So if we ask whether this or that form of ordained ministry models a humanity that looks full or joyful or renewed, maybe that is the crucial question. And frequently the answer is no, for men and for women.

When looking at challenges such as employment practice, work patterns, couples in ministry, and a whole range of issues, we might ask whether this human ministry looks as though it stands for an attractive, a trans­forming and transformed, new human­ity. Because if it doesn’t, we are actually not doing what we are sup­posed to do, and we are treating ordained ministry as if it were some­thing other than the life of the Body of Christ. So it is all right for a con­gregation to flourish and a priest to be crushed? I don’t think it is all right.

We all know how the pain and the cost of ordained ministry can feed the life of a community. And I think that is what St Paul is talking about in a great deal of 2 Corinthians.

But we can’t leave it there, because that both dehumanises and super-humanises the ordained ministry. It dehumanises because it says it doesn’t really matter what happens to these particular persons that God loves in Jesus Christ. That is dehumanising.

These particular persons in Jesus Christ, who have collars round their necks and various coloured shirts, are the ones who do the work for the Body of Christ, including the sacri­ficial suffering. And everybody else sort of freewheels on it.”

Now two quotations from David Hare’s ‘Racing Demon’, which I read a little while back and which (the play as a whole) has been haunting me:

+Southwark to an incumbent: “In any other job you’d have been fired years ago. You’re a joke, Lionel. You stand in the centre of the parish like some great fat wobbly girl’s blouse. Crying for humanity. And doing absolutely nothing at all… you are the reason the whole church is dying. Immobile. Wracked. Turned inward. Caught in a cycle of decline. Your personal integrity your only concern. Incapable of reaching out. A great vacillating pea-green half-set jelly… It truly offends me, the idea that people need authority, and every time they come to ask what does the church think then they are hit in the face by a spurt of lukewarm water from a rugby bladder. And I simply will not allow it to go on.”

and especially this one, where the incumbent’s experienced colleagues (Harry and Streaky) are discussing him with the new curate (Tony):
Harry: He’s tired.
Tony: Yes. He’s tired. Exactly. Lionel is tired because he gets no strength from the gospel. That’s my whole point. He’s tired because he isn’t getting anything back.
Harry: (shaking his head, disbelieving) You can’t say that. How dare you? You can’t say that of any priest.
Tony: Of course I can say it.
Harry: Who are you to judge?
Tony: Have you seen him? Going down the street? In Brixton? His forehead is knotted. He gives off one message: ‘Keep away. I carry the cares of the world.’ It’s true. People don’t go near him. He reeks of personal failure. And anguish. Like so much of the church.”

Now regular readers will be aware that this is a theme I have pondered a lot. A little while back I commented that I didn’t know any happy incumbents and was taken to task for this. So I changed it to ‘many’ rather than ‘any’ – my rule of thumb being that you have to be a moderate evangelical called Tim in order to be a happy incumbent in the Church of England today (grin). As it happens, speaking personally, I’m in quite a happy place at the moment – I might even qualify as a happy incumbent, although it might also simply be that I’ve found a more comfortable position on my own personal cross – but the ‘going around with a knotted forehead’ would, I think, be a reasonably accurate description of me in the last few years! Not good, and I hope that I’m eliminating it.

The general problem remains, however. The nature of the ministry than a priest is called to, in the way that Rowan articulates, is – to generalise hugely – a ministry that will become rarer and rarer in the Church of England today, and that means that there is something profoundly wrong somewhere. So what is to be done? How are we to cultivate an ordained ministry that enables a witness to the full humanity that is the inheritance of every member of the Kingdom? I’m starting to wonder if it’s possible, or whether there needs to be a massively more traumatic shift in the Church of England in order to enable it. As I said to one group the other day, the church on Mersea – understood as a community – has been gathered together for a good 1400 years, only the last 450 or so of which have been under the auspices of the Church of England. It may well be that the present institutional arrangements have to break down comprehensively before something new can be released.

What might that look like? Well how about these proposals as food for thought: the abolition of the parish system and parish boundaries, the abolition of parish share, leaving each congregation to pay for its own minister(s), the abolition of Church House and all the financial arrangements there, and the abolition (or, realistically, the massive simplification) of the faculty process. Most of the disagreements I’ve come across to such proposals take the form of saying ‘the Church of England has to be in every place’ (which is a good ideal that I support, although we ought to be realistic and say a) we don’t achieve that now and b) why can’t we be ecumenical about it and say, eg, ‘here the Methodists are the Body of Christ’ in this place?) or, what would happen to the poor churches that can’t afford their own minister? Well that latter assumes that Christians don’t wish to exercise Christian charity – a very telling assumption – and ignores the pre-20th century history of, for example, all the work done in the East End by the slum priests. This is not congregationalism – after all, the financial and faculty elements to be removed haven’t been in place for very long – a hundred years, if that. What I’m advocating is a radical shift in power away from twentieth century centralisation and back towards the local autonomy that has, for most of our history, characterised the English church.

I just have a suspicion that, in the environment into which we are moving, with more and more incumbents having to stretch across large multi-parish benefices (see eg here – it is highly likely that the Mersea patch will be expanded by yet more parishes in the next few years), the institutional side needs to become much more streamlined and simplified. I think that would make for happier incumbents.

NB I’m aware that I haven’t talked about the underlying spiritualities in this post – I think they are even more important, but one thing at a time, and for a flavour of what I think is needed to make incumbents happier, see this recent post. The larger point is about what it means to be a servant of institutional Christianity when both institutions and Christianity are generally regarded with scorn, scepticism and pity – but I’ll talk more about that some other time.)


Further economic growth is neither possible nor desirable. Modern industrial economy is not required for cultural or spiritual growth, and poses a threat to human survival. (Dmitri Orlov)

Why I wouldn’t take Rooney to Euro 2012

He’s not the Messiah he’s a very naughty boy…

So Fabio is being put on the spot by Rooney’s suspension (and why were people surprised that it was for three matches?) and now there is the question of whether to take him to the Euro’s at all. The argument for taking him goes something like: he’s our best player, he can turn a match around, he’ll be fresh and raring to go if we make it through the group stage.

I think it would be a very bad idea to take Rooney. To begin with it would cast a shadow over building a team with the capacity to get through the group stage. That by itself we could probably live with, but let us just pursue what might happen. I think there are three possible outcomes:

1. We don’t get through the group stages – in which case taking Rooney has wasted one space in the squad, a space which might conceivably have given Fabio another option to respond to dire circumstances.
2. We sail through the group stages in great comfort – in which case adding Rooney in would mean disrupting a team that has successfully gelled without him.
3. We struggle through the group stages and look to Rooney to raise us up to a higher level – in which case the pressure upon Rooney to perform becomes all the greater.

The first two outcomes argue against taking Rooney, but it is the third which I think is in fact the most problematic, simply because Rooney has repeatedly demonstrated his inability to cope with intense mental pressure. This would be the worst environment in which to pitch a volatile player. If English football is ever to get the best from his immense talent then perhaps the salutary lesson of not being taken to Euro 2012, and the experience of watching from the sidelines, is the best opportunity for him to conquer his demons.

I think Fabio should build a team without him, and leave the task of integrating Rooney to his successor. A front four (in a 4231) of Young-Gerrard-Sturridge, with Bent converting the chances, should surely be enough to get us to the traditional quarter-final elimination, and there are other options around too who could cover for injuries in that quartet. We need to stop relying on talented individuals, and start building a proper team, and a proper system.


…with great reluctance and regret, I am compelled to doubt that we can confidently hope to avoid a serious “crash” as the focal human experience of the 21st century—envisioned also as our species having to pass through an ecological “bottleneck

A short sermon about music (West Mersea Civic Service 2011)

Those of you who read my Courier articles will know that I have a favourite philosopher, who has had a profound influence on how I understand the world – Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was raised in an extremely musical environment as his parents house in Imperial Vienna was one of the most important musical salons in that city; Brahms, Schumann and Mahler were regular house guests, Richard Strauss would play duets on the piano with Wittgenstein’s brother – this is the context for Wittgenstein to write, after finishing his greatest philosophical work ‘it has been impossible for me to write one word in my book about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’

Perhaps I should stop there… After all, what can be said in a sermon about music? It is rather like trying to talk about God in some ways – every attempt is bound to fall short of the reality, and yet sometimes we cannot but speak and the words have to stumble out of our mouths. Even shipwrecks have their uses.

Our first reading described the musician David with King Saul; here David can play music to soothe the troubled breast of the king – and this is certainly one element of music, as something which can soothe our spiritual aches and pains – bringing harmony out of discord – and yet, there is so much more to music than this.

In the context of this civic service, where we are dedicating ourselves to the welfare of all, we might perhaps call to mind the wider context at the moment. The financial crisis that has been running for a few years now but has not yet run its full course; the environmental and resource crises that are starting to bite as we start to run up against the Limits to Growth; the frankly frightening world context where violent militancy is on the rise. These are so many deep bass notes in a minor key, and we cannot overcome them with a blithe and bland melody. Yet there are ways to harmonise with those movements in a way that makes the music overall something that can be listened to, something which reflects who we are, something which might, perhaps, even heal. There are things which we can do even in this disquieting context.

For even though I don’t have much confidence that our governing classes have much idea about what is going on – one might say that their range of hearing doesn’t go down as far as basso profundo, or perhaps it’s just that they’re distracted by the sound of cats – my trust in God is still intact. In the end it is not for us to be in control – we are not the composer, we are not even the conductor, we’re not even the first violin – I suspect there is a good Trinitarian image there for Father Son and Holy Spirit – but we do have our own parts to play. We do not have to worry about the overall composition, it is not for us to know how the main themes and contradictions will be creatively resolved, we simply have to play our own part as best we can, confident that the creator can redeem any mistakes that we might make – as those marvellous words of Leonard Cohen have it ‘and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…’ For where there is no dissonance the music is in the end bland and boring and, most of all, unreal – and surely the complexity is real, the mournful notes are real – and in the end it is from the real deep well of our suffering that we will draw the refreshing water of joy. That is the trust with which we simply have to press on with the tasks that we have been given to do. And we have been told what we need to do: we are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before our God.

So may we commit ourselves this day to making real music together, in the service of our community, following the composition of, allowing ourselves to be conducted by, and being led in our playing by, the One in whom all things are harmonious, the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Exceptional or Imperial? Sarah Palin and the choice facing the United States

Note: this was first posted to my now-defunct political blog Gandalf’s Hope on 4th February 2011

How is the US exceptional? I would say it is an exceptional nation because it is based upon an idea, the idea that all men are created equal. Of course, the United States has gone through tumult on its way to fully learning, embracing and embodying that idea but nonetheless, the extent to which the US pursues that vision, and the way in which the consequences of that vision such as individual freedoms and democracy are embedded deeply into United States culture do in my opinion make the US an exceptional nation (and, indeed, one to which I often consider emigrating).

How is the US imperial? Well, the simplest way to demonstrate that is to ponder a handful of facts. The US maintains 730 army bases in 50 nations around the world (some would say it is higher). It operates (for now) the global default currency, and thereby enables a transfer ‘rent’ from the rest of the world. It dominates a number of client states and has intervened explicitly or tacitly throughout the world (most notoriously in Iran). Most explicitly, the US with around 4% of the world’s population enjoys something like 25% of the world’s natural resources, most especially oil. We might have a long academic debate about just how the US qualifies as an ‘Empire’ but if we avoid the semantic quicksand the essential point seems unassailable.

It seems to me that discussions of the worth or otherwise of the United States is often bedevilled by a failure to distinguish between these two aspects of US polity. Real life is of course much greyer than any binary definition can allow for. Those who defend the exceptional nature of the US are often hard-pressed when faced with evidence of US government complicity in torture and other systemic abuse. On the other hand, those who are most convinced that the US is the Great Satan and an evil empire are hard-pressed when presented with the strong evidence available that the US is often a force for good in the world, not least in terms of the highest values embodied in the constitution and the sheer grace and decency of so many individual citizens.

There is, inevitably, a tension between these two strands of current US life, and because the world is going through a process of upheaval the world has an interest in seeing which way the US will choose to go. For the truth is that the Imperial structure established by the US, most especially since the end of WW2, is now breaking down. The US is going to go through a process of relative weakening. Instead of being the overwhelmingly dominant nation, within the next thirty years the US will become more of a ‘primus inter pares’ – still very strong, but with several other strong nations alongside it: China, India and Brazil are the most obvious three, possibly accompanied by an EU, but not accompanied by either Russia or South Africa, the other two nations often suggested as potential major states.

In this context, the US governing class is faced with a choice. Does it seek to preserve imperial power and control for as long as possible? Or does it seek – in accordance with its own exceptional highest values – to enable a peaceful transition into a different world order?

The way that governing classes think is often preserved at an institutional level. By that I mean that, in order to become a member of the governing elite one has to adopt the values of the institutions into which one becomes trained as a member. In order to gain power within the system, the bona fides of acceptance of the system have to be demonstrated. When all is well this provides a cohesive strength and stability and is a prerequisite for long-term stable government. However, what this process does not prepare for is an existential crisis when the fundamental basis of the establishment is called into question. In such a situation the perpetuation of group-think leads the governing class to become more and more detached from the emerging reality, with the inevitable consequence of collapse or revolution.

It seems clear to me that this is what is happening in the United States at the moment. The present occupant of the White House – in my oh-so-humble opinion – is a corporate shill who lacks the character required to be anything other than a front for the governing class. As a man who has made a habit of pleasing people and being as inoffensive as possible, and without the moral hinterland required to recognise the crises engulfing the world at this time, he operates as a teleprompter operator articulating the assumptions and preferences of those who have benefited most from the imperial system, and who are acting with increasing desperation to preserve that system from collapse. This can be seen from the healthcare system designed by pharmaceutical and insurance corporations through to the bailouts given to the wealthiest banks (at the expense of the middle class) and the way in which the revolving-door culture between Wall Street and Washington is repeatedly renewed and affirmed.

If there is to be any hope of a benign transition to a different world order, one in which the US can take an esteemed place alongside other powerful nations and continue a ‘soft-power’ revolution to slowly transform the world, then there must be a change of leadership. The world is crying out for a US that lives out the exceptional path, not the imperial path. This needs a leader that embodies that higher path and is able to call the United States to its own highest values and ideals. This needs a leader with proven courage in standing up against vested interests. This needs a leader with grounded attachment to moral high ground, most especially in a faith which enables a discrimination between the true light of the world and worldly pretenders to that light.

There is, of course, one person who fits that bill. The imperial system, the governing class, recognises that existential threat and is thereby doing its damnedest to destroy that threat, through a consistent and co-ordinated campaign to defame and demean Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska. This does not mean that Palin is perfect and without flaws and weaknesses. It does mean that here we have someone who may just possibly be the last best hope for US exceptionalism.

This is not a Democrat vs Republican challenge. The governing class would be perfectly content with Mitt Romney or any of the other seven dwarves that may be contending for the GOP nomination. No, this is about the possibility of a creative renewal of the United States enabling it to work for the highest possible outcome. The stakes are very real, up to and including another US civil war or (more likely) a more global war, if the governing class sees that as the only way in which to preserve its power. The only way in which a higher path might be taken is if the governing class itself is detached from its hold on the levers of US power, and the US enabled to return to its own best values and practices. Of course I may be wrong, but I do see Palin as the one contender who might possibly be able to do that.

Addition for October 2012: I respect Palin’s decision not to run, but I still believe that she is the right person for this time of crisis.


“We need to tell our politicians that they can no longer give even one single penny of ours to any institution that hasn’t marked all of its assets to market. No exceptions.”

Now that’s a very good idea