Posted in Church of England

Sheep and shepherds

I’ve just devoured James Rebanks‘ The Shepherd’s Life, which is a fascinating and brilliantly written account of his life as a shepherd on the Cumbrian fells (with a little international consultancy on the side to help with the bills). As near as I can reckon, it tells us non-farmers what it really means to live with that connection to a place and to a way of life which is almost completely foreign to a market society. Looking at it from the outside, why would anyone work so incredibly hard for such little reward? But that question only makes sense when you’re thinking of ‘work’ and ‘life’ as two different things. You contract for work in order to have enough money to get on with the things you really want to do.

But for farmers – or at least for Rebanks – it’s not like that. The life and the living are one and the same thing. You have to make enough money to survive, so you work as cannily as you can to maximise your return. But that’s not the heart of it. Rebooks begins by talking about the way sheep on the fells are ‘hefted’ to a specific area. Even though there aren’t any fences, they know their territory, and that’s where they stay. It’s their space. As a one-time walker on the Cumbrian fells, I can attest to the indignation of a Hardwick sheep when confronted by a stranger carrying a knapsack. One definitely gets the feeling that they’re thinking ‘if I had proper teeth, I’d be after you …’.

Rebooks leaves the reader to makes the connection with himself and his fellow farmers. But they too are hefted to their places. Not necessarily the individual farm, because people move from time to time. But to the area, the territory, they are inextricably linked. A lot of Church of England clergy feel just the same about their parishes.

Given the centuries of describing Christian ministry as ‘pastoral’ (pastor = shepherd), `i couldn’t help starting to think about the connections. Ito s an important part of our Anglican life that the normal way of ordaining or licensing any priest (or for that matter bishop) is to a specific place. We are not free-floating; our ministry is always to a place or to a community. Sometimes nowadays the community on question may be a non-geographical one, a virtual community, but there is a community nevertheless. And the great strength of the parish model is that it reminds clergy in the Anglican tradition (even those not licensed to geographical parishes) that our ministry is not just to the gathered congregation, but to all.

The parish system was set up for a pattern of ministry in which it was expected that the majority of people – in principle, all the people – would be connected to their parish church for at least the rituals of living and dying, and often much more. We no longer live in that world, and less so as the years go by. The reduction in the number of people identifying as ‘Anglican’ may not make much difference to church attendance (they mostly didn’t come anyway), but it does make a difference to baptisms, weddings and funerals. Parish priests (already in many places; increasingly so in the future) cannot expect to be have a key role in the lives of the families of the parish, just by virtue of their role.

Does that mean then that we give up on the parish as a unit of organisation? Not according to the clergy of the Church of England, for whom it remains a key and valued part of what our church means. That response rejoices my heart, but I’m also all too well aware of how stressful parish ministry is for many clergy. I want to see parish ministry continue and flourish, but parishes and their clergy can only do so if the patterns by which we have worked are transformed. In order to preserve what we have, we need to change it.

Firstly, we need to start thinking of the parish system not as a gift of an existing set of pastoral relationships, but as a specific and special field of mission. Parish clergy can’t expect the parish to come to them, but they know where the focus is for their reaching out with the good news of the gospel. (See my last post for some more of what I mean …). That doesn’t just provide a piece of territory: it sustains a particular view of the church’s mission, which is what maintains the continuity with the earlier model of the parish. There is the same care for the whole community, the same openness to all, the same rootedness in place – now offered to a wider community that does not any longer think of itself as belonging to the church, and which does not speak the language of faith. The worshipping community also is committed to its place and its parish, but also knows that it has something distinctive and different by virtue of being the church, which it offers to the parish of which it is also part.

Secondly – and this is really where I get back to James Rebanks – if the parish system is to thrive, it will only do so by re-thinking the messages that underlie our pastoral model of ministry. My perception of the Anglican ideal, at least as it has been expressed in many traditions within the church, is that the pastor should be continually, intimately involved with the life of his flock. He or she knows the details of their lives, is aware of all the different currents of joy and sorrow in the community, lives the life of the flock day by day and minute by minute. I suspect it’s always been a myth, but it was maybe once a myth with power to inspire and encourage. As the number of clergy decreases through retirement – and the number of worshipping communities remains very much the same – that vision can increasingly only be one which demoralises and defeats the clergy. And when it is also the expectation of the people of God in a local church, it can lead only to frustration and a sense of having been abandoned, when the clergy are no longer able even to aspire to such a form of ministry.

So we want to renew the parish system, with a vision for mission in each local place, and simultaneously to liberate both the lay people of the church and the clergy from an unsustainable ideal of pastoral ministry.

So, what about the sheep on the Cumbrian fells? Herdwicks live for months of the year on their fell – their place, their territory, even their parish – without seeing a shepherd at all. When times are all right, they fend for themselves. Rebanks talks about going onto the fells when the weather is bad, and finding that the older ewes, experienced in storms, have already led much of the flock into the most sheltered places. Does that mean that Rebanks is no longer their shepherd? Of course not – he searches out the sheep who haven’t made it to safety, he ensures that there is feed for the flock. And when the flock need to have closer care, especially at lambing time, he gathers them off the fell and is there night and day to take care of sheep and lambs.

The church’s model of the shepherd always there, always nudging and urging, correcting and caring, is not the only one. Being a shepherd can also mean equipping a flock to organise themselves, being there for the key moments of celebration or crisis. The sheep know who their shepherd is without needing to see him or her every day, and s/he knows the flock likewise.

Could we dare to think about pastoral ministry this way? For worshipping communities to become able to sustain and maintain their lives much more independently, knowing and loving their clergy, and being known and loved in return, but leaving behind the dream of an impossible intimacy? It wouldn’t just mean change for clergy, but for the whole people of God. But it might be what enables the renewal of parish ministry for the next generation of the church’s life.

Posted in Church of England, Roman Catholic Church

Karl Rahner, prophet

Karl Rahner, in 1974 (!) – some gems from The Shape of the Church to Come. Might it be coming now, in the UK?

The situation of Christians and the Church today is therefore one of transition from a people’s Church (Volkskirche), corresponding to the former homogeneous, secular society and culture, to  Church as that community of believers who critically disassociate themselves, in voter of a personal free decision in every case, from the current opinions and feelings of their social environment (23)

The smaller Christ’s flock becomes in the pluralism of modern society, so much the less can it afford the mentality of the ghetto or the sect, so much more open must it be to the outer world (30)

If in the immediate future we want to choose a capable parish priest or bishop … we ought to ask whether he [sic] has ever succeeded in getting a hearing form the ‘neopagans’ and made at least one or two of them into Christians (33)

… the fact must be accepted in teaching and in practice that in the one Church with her one Spirit there can and must be a variety of charisms whose ultimate harmony … is perceptible only to the one Lord of the Church and history; and he is not identical either with any sort of individual group or with the Church’s office-holders (36-7)

… we are going towards a future of the Church which is still hidden from us … neither a promised land nor a final catastrophe will soon take away from us the burden and the dignity of a continuing pilgrimage through history (45)

a declericalized Church [is] a Church in which the office-holders in joyous humility allow for the fact that the Spirit breathes where he will and that he has not arranged an exclusive and permanent tenancy with them (57)

the authority of office will be an authority of freedom … the Church is a declericalized Church in which the believers gladly concede to the office-holders in free obedience the special functions … which cannot be exercised by all at the same time … [The office-holder] will gain recognition for his office by being genuinely human and a Spirit-filled Christian (57-8)

If we are convinced that much injustice and tyranny prevail in a sinful world … we ought also really to be surprised how seldom the Church comes into conflict with those who hold power (62)

We talk too little about God in the Church … Only when the message of the living God is preached in the churches with all the power of the Spirit, will the impression disappear that the Church is merely an odd relic from the age of a society doomed to decline (87)

The Church of the future will be one built up from below (108)

When living Christian communities are formed by the Christians themselves, when they possess and attain a certain structure, solidity and permanence, they have just as much right as a territorial parish to be recognised as a basic element of the Church. Of course a basic community [has become] a local Church … only when it can really sustain the essential basic functions of the Church (organised proclamation of the gospel, administration of the sacraments, Christian charity and so on) (109)

(of bishops) The pastor should remain a pastor, but this certainly does not mean that he is to treat his flock as if they really were sheep (121)



Posted in Anglican Communion

Living in Anglican Communion

This is a sermon I preached last week at evensong at Hertford College, Oxford – hence a few local references. Sorry it’s a bit long, but it’s a big topic!

I have spent the last week in Canterbury, at the conference for new bishops. We were a diverse group – 26 of us from Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana, Kenya, South Sudan, India, Myanmar, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Canada, Jamaica, Uruguay, Portugal, Ireland, Scotland and England. We came from countries which are mostly Christian, and from those in which Christians are a small minority. We represented churches which are large canterburyand small, growing and declining. Some of us were committed evangelicals, others convinced Anglo-Catholics. Probably eleven of us had English as our first language (I didn’t go around asking!). And there we were for a week together in Canterbury, the home and hub of the Anglican Communion, experiencing first hand both the solidity and history of its tradition in the cathedral and its worship, and also the difference and diversity of Anglicanism as it has spread and mutated across the world.
It was quite a disconcerting experience. The first thought I was wrestling with was this: apart from the fact that we all have some sort of common inheritance, why are we all here? Why am I here? It was like an ecclesiastical version of ‘Who do you think you are?’ – look, this is your family, these are your ancestors. Now: who are you?
Compared to some, I already have quite a lot of experience of Anglicanism worldwide – through family in Canada, through visits to the diocese with whom we are linked in Zimbabwe, through visits to dioceses in Chile and the USA, and churches in Israel/Palestine. But this experience made me ask even more: what does my identity mean as an Anglican in the context of this worldwide communion? A proper answer can’t just ignore all the bits that are different or far away; they too are part of the whole pattern which defines my Anglican identity. So not just, ‘who are you?’, but what are we – what is Anglicanism?
Is it: erudite, cool evensong and sermon; worship songs at St Aldates; scriptural exposition at St Ebbes or exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at Pusey House? Or the Melanesian Brotherhood, seven of whose brothers were martyred in 2003 while trying to bring peace; or the work of repentance and restitution among those First Nation people who were sent to residential schools in Canada in which their language and culture were denied; or negotiating with the World Food Programme in South Sudan to feed displaced people; or providing a hostel for HIV/AIDS sufferers in Uruguay; or planting new churches in Kenya?
St Michael KwekweHow do you hold all of those together? Well, the one clear negative answer is doctrine. The Anglican Communion, like the Church of England, encompasses people of pretty much every shade of Christian belief and doubt. One statement which is used as a pointed towards Anglican identity is what is known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral – having been invented in the US, agreed on by the Lambeth Conference in 1888, and having four parts, that is
(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s Words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.
Those four characteristics might explain where we come from, and provide a useful frame within which we work. Certainly if you didn’t have one of those you wouldn’t be an Anglican church. But – and this was the whole point – they would also describe perfectly well many other Christian churches and communities. The Quadrilateral was supposed to provide a springboard towards unity, not a description of what was Anglicanism.
Another attempt to define Anglicanism offered two qualities: ‘a readiness to be ‘located’ in a particular culture, place, and time, and an acceptance of internal pluralism’ . Together, these two indicate a distinctive quality which is precisely the quality of being different – of adapting to a local context, and living with the divergences and differences that that adaptation throws up. It might be then that the distinctive quality of Anglicanism is only to be found when the huge variety I listed earlier is evident, and therefore that the diminishing of that variety necessarily also reduces Anglicanism to be no longer fully itself.
And that is the anxiety which I felt during my time in Canterbury particularly acutely – that it is becoming more and more difficult for Anglicanism to retain that acceptance of pluralism – perhaps particularly as it becomes more and more definitely located in its different cultures and places. One of the conversations I had with my fellow bishops from around the world, in their different contexts, was about the border line between inculturation and syncretism: that is to say, when does Christian faith move from locating itself within a particular culture, and begin to change its very nature in order to fit in.
That of course was the very large elephant in the room. Some of us in Canterbury were among those who see the church’s acceptance of same-sex relationships as a threat to the whole life and order of the church – a fundamental question of faith about which there can be no compromise, no flexibility. Others of us felt very differently, that Christian support of loving, faithful relationships should be extended to people regardless of their sexuality. What some see as incarnational witness, others see as syncretistic betrayal. So proponents of all the different views argue in different ways, with complete conviction that they are remaining faithful to the tradition of Christian faith. We may all be family, but we look like we might be one in which various relatives are about to disown others.
The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is not going to help this fractious family – everyone could declare themselves completely signed up to every clause, and the things we argue about would not go away. It’s not about that: it’s about the strain between the local and the universal. Anglicans are trying to get better at being the local church in the different places where they are, but in doing so they are stretching ever further the ties of commonality which enable global mutual recognition.
Sermons are supposed to end by tying all the ends together, making a satisfying resolution which leaves the hearers inspired, or reassured, or whatever effect the preacher was trying to create. You can imagine that it’s not going to happen tonight. If I were able to propose a neat solution to the Anglican Communion’s problems, it might also provide a formula for world peace which would put me straight in line for the Nobel Peace Prize. There is no neat solution; the only solution I can see is to cease to worry so much about the mess. That is to say, the only way to stay together as we become increasingly local, is at the same time to become increasingly able to hold an ever greater ‘generous orthodoxy’.
You may have been wondering when God would get a look in to this sermon. Finally we have reached that point, because what I am suggesting is a deeply theological move in the Anglican understanding of church. Just as the increasing desire to be ‘located’ has obvious analogies to the doctrine of the incarnation, I think that the church can only incorporate that increasing diversity by a (perhaps less obvious) fresh understanding of the transcendence of God.
The old story goes of three clergy (any assortment will do) who meet on a train journey, and end up talking to one another about their different churches’ patterns of worship. Maybe they’re trying to get to the West Country, because they have plenty of time. Eventually they reach a stop, and one gets out saying: ‘Thank you for such a fascinating conversation. It is wonderful to me that we are part of such a diverse and fascinating church. I pray that you will each continue to worship God on your way, and we will continue to worship Him in His.’
I think we need a renewed appreciation of the practical consequences of belief in a transcendent God. If God is transcendent, then God transcends us – transcends our understanding in every way. In God’s grace and through Christ’s incarnation, we are invited into a relationship of love, but the relationship of understanding only goes one way. As St Paul puts it, ‘then – that is after the end of this world – I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’. Taken seriously, that means that we cannot judge one another on our understanding of God; we can only help one another by sharing what insights we think we have gleaned. Our doctrinal differences meet, like parallel lines, only at infinity – the eternity of God. A framework like the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral then begins to make sense, not as a definition of what Anglicanism is, but as a set of boundaries which point to where it isn’t. Within that space, the differences between us are differences within the church, not differences which can divide it.
If we can begin to attain this doctrinal humility, we will be pushed back into that which did in fact make my experience at Canterbury a powerful and moving one: meeting with other men and women in whom I experienced the same desire to follow Christ. It can’t be neatly conceptualised and packaged, and it’s not easily susceptible to doctrinal evaluation, but it is in the encounter of people – an opening to one another in community – that we discover our true unity. As we ate, and prayed, and talked together we knew that we were part of the church which is the body of Christ.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

Reasons to be more cheerful (women bishops)

I can’t come up with quite as many reasons as Ian Dury did, but I think there are three really important reasons to be more cheerful and (for those of us in favour) more hopeful about the prospect of women being admitted to the episcopate in the Church of England.

The first, and most obvious, is the new proposed legislation and the package of provision around it. Having spent many hours helping to prepare proposals, comment on amendments, and engaging in general politicking around the previous proposed legislation, it is a huge relief to see that the steering committee have come up with such a comparatively simple system. There is an excellent summary on Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’ blog.  it’s not the substance of the proposals that I want to focus on, though. Equally important is the change of tone and atmosphere.  Throughout this process,  the church has found itself stuck between the desire to bring Christians together around the maximum possible unity, and the legislative processes which encourage not only debate but also division.  The General Synod of the Church of England is particularly prone to this schizophrenia. It finds it very difficult to work out whether it is a Synod or a Parliament. The desire of most members is to be a Synod, understood as a body which seeks the way forward together. But the rules and regulations of the Synod push it towards parliamentary practice.

It is that dilemma, as much as the differences of principle, which has in my view been at the root of our failure to move forward.  Some at least of those who have voted against the legislation have, I believe, been voting against the whole legalistic way in which Synod has worked.  the establishment of a revision committee including the whole range of theological perspectives has opened up the possibility that these proposals might be considered in a different spirit. The committee themselves suggest

Given the measure of progress made within our Committee we venture to express the hope, however, that this debate might be an occasion when the Synod might be prepared to focus more on how to nurture the degree of consensus that has started to emerge rather than having a series of detailed and possibly divisive debates on amendments. (para 84)

To reuse a phrase in a more positive direction than normal, this is not parliamentary language, but synodical.

The other two reasons to be cheerful are the responses put out by Forward in Faith and WATCH. Yes, both of them. Cautiously (as one might expect), their press releases hold open the possibility that the revision committee’s hopes might be fulfilled. It was equally encouraging to listen in to Fr Paul Benfield’s report to the FiF National Assembly, which similarly seemed (to me at least) to hold out the possibility of a genuine conversation around the proposals which have now been published.

The question is, can this delicate flower of Christian love hold out against the synodical machinery? I would like to end by suggesting to all members of General Synod that they re-acquaint themselves with the late Walter Wink’s suggestion that we can only understand any human institution if we understand the “angel” which expresses its true nature:

The angel of a church [is] the spirituality of a particular church. You can sense the “angel” when you worship at a church. But you also encounter the angel in the church’s committee meetings.

The angel of an institution is not just the sum total of all that institution is; it is also the bearer of that institution’s divine vocation. Corporations and governments [and synods] are “creatures” whose sole purpose is to serve the general welfare. And when they refuse to do so, their spirituality becomes diseased.

The Powers That Be, pages 4-5.

I don’t think the Church of England General Synod’s angel is diseased, still less “daemonic”, as Wink goes on to suggest may happen. But I think it is a confused angel, uncertain of its vocation. A different sort of debate about the ordination of women to the episcopate might also open the way for a different sort of Synod: one in which the desire of Synod members to seek the way forward for the Church in love is more important than the rules of process and political power plays.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

And now?

The day after…

Having just spent ten days in the Holy Land, I have been thinking a lot about irreconcilable conflict. What do you do when different groups have different base lines – when the starting point of each side’s aspiration crosses the bottom line of the other?

Israel/Palestine is a splendid example of how not to do it. Both sides became involved in a ‘might is right’ struggle, which Israel won conclusively. Having won the military battle, Israel has continued to work for the delivery of its political aims by quasi-military means – house demolitions, movement controls, land and resource seizures, and so forth.

What’s needed is a different sort of game, but as far as I can see the Palestinian leadership is trying to find a means of winning, if not militarily, then certainly by a variation on the ‘might is right’ strategy.

That’s a struggle which costs lives. I don’t think anyone has died over the ordination of women as bishops, but on its own scale the problem of irreconcilable bottom lines is just as acute. It is very depressing indeed to hear people talking as if there were a better solution just to hand, especially those who have been through all the negotiations of the last few years. Circles do not become squares. A solution acceptable to everyone is not going to emerge. Israel/Palestine shows us that.

So what is the other game? It’s the game that anyone’s played who was patched up a rift between friends; on a political level, it’s the game that was played in Northern Ireland. It’s a game that involves listening – something that many of those opposed to women bishops were claiming has not happened. I think they were probably confusing listening with agreeing.

Listening means speaking honestly. A starting point would be the recognition that there is no magic bullet, and an agreement to stop using the myth of a consensus on this issue as a rhetorical holy grail with which to criticise any actual concrete proposal.

Much as I would have wished that Bishop Justin didn’t have this on his plate, I pray that in the providence of God he may have been called to Canterbury to help the Church of England in this particular hour of need. I pray too that church business, however important, doesn’t prevent him from leading us in mission.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

The sun has gone down, and I am still angry.

The sun has gone down, and I am still angry. Not angry with those who voted against the legislation (how can I be angry with someone else’s conscience?), but angry that there are women called to episcopal ministry who will never get the chance. Angry at the damage that will be done to the church and its mission both because of the absence of those gifts, and also because of our inability to welcome the gift God is offering to us. Angry at being stuck here, when I can feel the Spirit beckoning us forward.

Now is not a time for ‘what next’? It’s a time to recognise our feelings for what they are, and let them be. In a little while, maybe, those of us who tonight are angry, or depressed, or despairing can return to ourselves and find the gift of God which will enable us to do whatever it is we are called to next. But not tonight.

Posted in Church of England, Uncategorized

Beginnings and Endings

Tomorrow is my last day as Rector of St Mary Stoke Newington; on Wednesday I am consecrated as Bishop of Croydon. But my little ending and new beginning is somewhat overshadowed by yesterday’s news of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s impending resignation. Maybe my own transition has set me up a bit to think about how we could approach this time of change with hope and purpose, rather than colluding with the media expectation that it will just be a bear pit of fruitless competition between our competing factions.

So let’s start by ignoring the bookmakers – make a resolution not to note how the odds are changing. Follow that up by paying no attention to anyone, inside the Church or out, who claims to know who the new Archbishop will or won’t be. Why? Not just because they’re probably wrong, but because doing either of those things is a way of trying to escape from the uncertainty which is a real part of the situation – and which is where God’s gift to us lies right now.

Plenty of people are predicting the end of the Church over this or that issue. They always have been. If the Church were a purely human institution (and it’s always in danger of becoming one) it would surely die. If it takes the risk of faith, then it lives. So every time you feel tempted to check the betting, pray. I will if you will.

Posted in Church of England, politics

Nearer my Neighbour to thee

I went to a briefing the other day for the Near Neighbours programme: that very rare bird, a funding programme being introduced, not cut. The details are interesting, especially for those of us in the areas covered – but the other thing that really stood out for me was that this shows in practice what the government’s ‘Big Society’ idea is meant to look like.

The programme uses a local network of providers (in this case Church of England parishes) and is designed to facilitate fairly low-key locally based projects which aim to

  1. develop positive relationships in multi-faith areas i.e. to help people from different faiths get to know and understand each other better.
  2. encourage people of different faiths, or no faith, to come together for initiatives that improve their local neighbourhood.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is what the ‘Big Society’ agenda would look like if you were able to abstract it from the current (excessive, draconian) cuts in public expenditure. Near Neighbours I think is one answer, and quite an encouraging one. Compared to my experience of other, much much bigger, government funded projects, it seems genuinely to have got away from the dead hand of bureaucracy.

My previous experience was that governmental bodies wanted the third sector to be involved, but only on the condition that we started behaving like governmental bodies, with all the risk-aversion, caution and form-filling that involved. So the very qualities the government wanted from us – mobility, flexibility, responsiveness to local conditions – were the ones we were no longer allowed to show.

If this is different, it’s a very good thing. If it sets the tone for a different way of engaging with third sector partners, it’s a very good thing indeed. There’s no reason why a similar principle might not be used by a rather less parsimonious government on a much wider scale and for a much wider range of purposes. But of course there’s a risk: the less control you exercise, the less you can ensure that everything goes according to plan. Actually, I didn’t feel that really was the main concern; the key issue was to make sure nothing got in the papers. If the price to pay was a mediocre project with most of the money going on administration, monitoring and consultancy costs – well, so be it. Are the government really going to take that risk with anything more than small change? Maybe not – but even governmental small change makes quite a difference on the ground.


Posted in Church of England

Why bother with General Synod?

I sometimes suspect that this question regularly crosses the mind of those charged with the day-to-day leadership of the Church of England. Most members of General Synod have relatively little to do with the church’s national life until they appear for meetings of the Synod. Then, who knows what havoc they may wreak? Like, this last week, the House of Laity refusing to co-opt the person who was wanted to chair the Dioceses Commission, but had unfortunately neglected to stand for election. From the outside it did seem to indicate a certain disdain for the relatively newly elected lay members, that none of them were judged adequate to chair the Commission.

That sort of dysfunction stems I think from a deeper confusion at the heart of General Synod. On the one hand its constitution is modelled on a parliamentary structure, with similar procedures for debating and passing legislation. But along with that sort of process comes the assumption of opposition. A motion that is to be debated has to be constructed around some being for, others against. So when there’s something genuinely divisive, debate has to polarise: there is no real process for seeking compromise or consensus. When an item of business is non-controversial, the pretence of debate is faintly farcical.

But a Synod is not a parliament: members are not elected as representatives of one party or another (though you might not know it from the way groups form in Synod). More significantly, Synod should not be a parliament: its aim should be to find a way forward together, not to enforce the will of the majority.

And that’s why we should bother with General Synod: because we really need a place which brings together all members of the Church across the various diversities: those who represent the life of the parishes along with those who spend their days in the national institutions; bishops clergy and laity all having a voice and a vote; those from the whole rainbow of church tradition. We should bother with Synod because of the ways in which it fails to live up to that purpose, as well as the ways in which it does.

The last thing anyone should wish (though it might make things more ‘efficient’) would be to take the decision making powers away from Synod. The pressures and irritations that everyone feels, from different perspectives, should be the agenda for reform.


Posted in Church of England

Bigging up Society

To big up – to exaggerate, to ‘puff’, to praise or recommend something highly. Society is terribly popular; but what makes it big? My suspicion is that one of the reasons David Cameron welcomed the coalition so fulsomely was that it brought into government a group of people – the LibDems – who were far more interested in ‘the big society’ than the majority of his own party. There certainly seems to plenty in the Conservative Party who are only interested in Big Society if it provides useful cover for the Thatcherite (or more precisely ‘neo-liberal’) holy grail of small government.

But I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I’ve just finished reading Phillip Blond’s Red Tory, which includes one of the best denunciations of neo-liberalism I’ve come across. His prescriptions for a new (conservative) order involve a new valuing of local society and its strengths, against either the statism of the left or the marketism of the right.

I think I’m right there with that critique, if not necessarily with Phillip Blond’s remedies. Someone asked me a while ago if I would describe myself as a socialist, and i realised it was a difficult question to answer. I’m certainly not pro-capitalist, and definitely aspire to a society in which people are rewarded less for their place in society or ability to grasp the levers of power, and more for their intrinsic worth as human beings. But I’ve never been that impressed by the socialist tendency to believe that this vision could be realised through state action. Institutions by their nature are not the natural instruments to deliver a just society. I feel much more at home with Blond’s idea of co-operative ventures, small scale mutual enterprises and so on.

The Big Society Network says:

People have interpreted the ideas and vision in different ways, but we see the core of the big society as three principles:

  • Empowering individuals and communities: Decentralising and redistributing power not just from Whitehall to local government, but also directly to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals
  • Encouraging social responsibility: Encouraging organisations and individuals to get involved in social action, whether small neighbourly activities like hosting a Big Lunch to large collective actions like saving the local post office
  • Creating an enabling and accountable state: Transforming government action from top-down micromanagement and one-size-fits-all solutions to a flexible approach defined by transparency, payment by results, and support for social enterprise and cooperatives

What’s not to like? Well, apart from the suspicion that it might be used as a smokescreen for neo-liberalism, the question in my mind, is what about those who aren’t just waiting for the opportunity to be free of governmental interference? What about the genuinely weak? How does the Big Society enable a community into which the poorest have been pushed, out of sight and out of mind? Where there’s no community organiser waiting to get people together?

The questions are not rhetorical. Jon Cruddas MP spoke warmly of the ‘big society’ language at a gathering last week for churches to consider how they might respond. If a distinctly left wing member of the Labour Party is interested, then I am too, and I want to find out the answers to those questions. I know I share Phillip Blond’s dislike of bureaucratic solutions which rarely fit any given individual case; but I also want to know there’s something better on the horizon before I support the dissolution of the bureaucracy.