When the bubble becomes a boulder

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to be Reformed from our new works-righteousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that was 2021

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

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

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

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

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

As will my substack account – go here.

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

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