Trinity VI: 23 July 2017 Matthew 13: 24-30; 36-43

I’m not preaching tomorrow but quite enjoy figuring out what I might do with the readings if I were…

Now that the choristers are safely at the Southern Cathedrals Festival, and doubtless out shining Winchester’s and Salisbury’s choirs, I can preach about Christian soft-rock music without the fear of corrupting young minds. 

In the summer of 1994 I worked for the Boy Scouts of America on a summer camp on the Pacific coast, in Oregon. It was a momentous time: I was, more or less, converted to Christianity by the example of the conservative evangelicals I lived and prayed with.  They, I suspect, would now deny that I am a Christian at all. Or perhaps they’d just label me “un-sound”.

And I came home knowing all the words to the standard canon of soft-rock evangelical praise choruses. It comes in surprisingly useful. Years later, as a student at a liberal catholic theological college in Cambridge, I surprised some more conservative friends who invited me to their prayer and praise service with my word perfect knowledge of all the verses of “My Jesus, my saviour.”

Some of those songs – and My Jesus, My Saviour is a great example, do some distinctly dodgy theology. But some are, indeed “sound”. And of those, the one that stays with me is a simple chorus which, you’ll be relieved to hear, I’m not going to sing for you now. But I will tell you the words. It says:

Our God is an awesome God

He reigns in heaven above

With wisdom, power and love

Our God is an awesome God

And it came to my mind when I looked at today’s readings. 

Isaiah has God say, in characteristic no-nonsense style: There is no other rock; I know not one. 

So it is the most natural thing in the world to say, our God is an awesome God:

O come as the Psalmist sings Let us worship and fall down

And yet the scandal of the incarnation, that God pitched his tent with us in human form, is that S. Paul can write of our adoption as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. It’s head spinning stuff. The same God of whom the Psalmist can write: The sea is His/For he made it has adopted me, and each one of us, so that we might have life in all its fullness, starting now and forever.

Adoption is a very deliberate thing. Anyone who has adopted children, or been adopted, will know that the process is neither easy nor short. A prospective adopter has to really want to adopt that child. 

Later we will sing Bernadette Farrell’s modern paraphrase of Psalm 139 including this verse:

Although your Spirit is upon me,

Still I search for shelter from your light,

There is nowhere on earth I can escape you

Even the darkness is radiant in your sight

We are saved, adopted, safe. God has done what God needed to do for us, in the life death and resurrection of Jesus. As Stephen will pray for us later, “Through Him you have freed us from the slavery of sin”. And yet our instinct is not to believe it. We cannot readily accept, if you can excuse the Americanism, that our God is quite that awesome. 

And it gets harder still to hang on to when we hear today’s Gospel. 

Because it’s all too easy, as we sit here with the burdens and concerns and tantrums of a difficult week – the petty mindlessness – the time wasted – the sarcastic put down we regret – the pornography, the diagnosis, the performance review at work, to decide that we are the weeds not the wheat and that burning is, or should be, our fate. 

And I want to spend a moment unpacking why it’s wrong. It’s bad theology because it’s narrow-band, not broadband. Salvation history is a story not a sound bite.

First, let’s be clear this language of harvest, gleaning and burning, is metaphorical. The whole point of it is that it’s not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is telling the story in this way precisely in order to force us to think for ourselves. 

Second, the lectionary has not served us well, because in between the two chunks of Matthew we’ve just heard read are six verses containing two things that are very helpful to grappling with what we have heard. 

The first is a quotation from Psalm 78: I shall open my mouth in images/I shall utter things hidden from the foundation of the world. That is Matthew reminding us how difficult Jesus teaching is precisely because it is Gods teaching. And God is awesome, but not easy. We are meant to wrestle with this story. 

The second is a mini parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour and the whole lot was leavened. 

God is here rather daringly compared to a baker woman. That’s something that would have scandalised and unsettled Jesus audience just as much as the thought of being adopted as a fellow heir with Jesus by the Father might, and should, unsettle us.

So what are we to do? 

Well I’m going to dare to suggest that we should go from this place and behave not as people who are destined to burn but as people who have been adopted, as fellow heirs with the saviour of the world, to be His hands. 

So we are sent forth from this place to do what Jesus – what God – would do. To heal, bless, comfort, forgive and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. 

It is, as Stephen will pray for us in a few minutes, our duty and our joy

Let anyone with ears listen. 

Amen. 

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Trinity V: 16 July 2017 – Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

I’m not preaching this morning, but if I were this is what I might say. 

In Pebbles, with the Cathedral’s children, this term we’ve been re-visiting a number of Jesus’ parables. And today’s gospel, this strange agrarian instruction manual of seed sowing, unpacked for the disciples afterwards, is the parable that has stayed with me in my prayer and thinking most this term.

We’ve explained to the children that parables are like presents of a very special kind. Each time they are unwrapped, even over a life time, God gives us a slightly different gift, something that we have not seen or thought or felt before. 

And we are at the peak of the growing season, right on the hinge of harvest – depending on what the weather does in the next couple of weeks. My own children have been assiduously tracking the growth of the snap dragons planted by the Cathedral gardeners along S. Richard’s Walk. Everywhere we look there is beauty and bounty. So this feels like a timely parable for us, a word spoken in season. 

One of the many very lovely things about studying the bible with children is that they wrestle with it. They often don’t have our adult need to pretend we have understood the full meaning of things, lest we be thought less than Christian, or less than intelligent, or less than holy. And sometimes that gets noisy, and sometimes that’s a bit bizarre, and sometimes we end up in fits of giggles because someone has said something rude, and sometimes we end up in moments of silence where God is so palpably with us that He should have His own cushion in our circle on the floor.

And I want to reflect on the three things this parable stirs up for me this time around, on generosity, unexpectedness and demand. 

Generosity:  That same unexpected, divine, random gratuity, that sometimes breaks into the Pebbles wondering, is at work in this parable. In my mind’s eye I see seed galore, scattered everywhere: on rock and shingle and grass and loam. And we will immediately have expectations about where life will sprout, about where it’s sensible and productive to scatter the seed. Forgetting that Gods economy so often confounds our expectations. 

New life is sprouting constantly in the places where, by our human rules, it shouldn’t and mustn’t. Two years ago I had the privilege of meeting a Jesuit priest who is chaplain to a maximum security federal prison in America. Each week he goes onto death row to celebrate Mass. He does so in a cage, wearing a stab proof vest under his vestments. The rules forbid him from touching any of the prisoners. He is the only person who can rceive communion by bread and wine. But he told stories of profound growth and transformation, of men the state has so written off that it will kill them out of hand when it can. 

Closer to home, who would have bet that cathedrals, that bastion of traditional music and liturgy, would be among the fastest growing congregations of the Church of England. But not two miles from here is Emmanuel Chapel, on the Graylingwell Hospital site, where as new housing has been built, a new congregation has re-vivified the hospital chapel. A couple of hundred people now worship on a Sunday in a space that is still semi-derelict.

Unexpectedness, then, goes with the territory. Last autumn I was running one Sunday morning on the panhandle, that very fertile agricultural land just to the south of Chichester. As usual I was slightly lost, and I came upon a group of caravans where Eastern  European agricultural workers were living to bring in the harvest for us. It was not long after the Brexit vote and I wonder how welcome they were made, and are being made this year?

And I wonder who will come into the cathedral today who is foreign to us? But who maybe offers us their gifts to bring in God’s harvest in this place? Maybe the prayer that is prayed at S. Richard’s shrine today by that slightly smelly homeless man we are all a little wary of, or that loud teenage tourist with her phone very definitely not on silent, is the prayer that God is asking to be offered in this place, today, for the building up of His kingdom. 

And so there is a demand. A demand of each of us to hold ourselves open, to make ourselves fertile ground for God’s seed to land, and grow and sprout, in ways that we cannot imagine, and maybe don’t think we want. 

Ultimately we can be confident of two things: First, that if we can play our part in incubating the seed God is sowing among us it will bear fruit one hundred fold greater than we can expect or deserve. And, second, that the choice is ours. God offers us his bounty and we can choose to be stoney ground if we must. 

But instead let’s pray for the grace that Isaiah’s God offers: to go out in joy and come back in peace, that instead of the thorn there shall come up the cypress. May God grant us the grace to make it so. 

Two Gems to Share

I wanted to post simply to share two lovely talks I’ve watched recently from previous Greenbelt festivals. 

Both are very much my kind of theology, rooted in the real world. 

The first is by Lucy Winkett, Rector of St. James Picadilly in the Diocese of London. It’s called Reading the Bible With Your Feet.

Link to Lucy’s talk on Youtube
The second is Giles Fraser on Helplessness. He draws in the work of Freud and I came to this fresh from re-reading Sarah Coakley’s God Sexuality & the Self  who has interesting things to say about Freud and theology of desire (and a whole lot more). 

Giles Fraser link is here. 
Enjoy!



Shared Conversations

burning1-728x400When the delegation from the Diocese of Chichester attended the national Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality they came away with a whole variety of feelings, thoughts and views, not at all unanimous. But on one thing there was agreement: there should be some way to continue the conversation.

And the diocese listened. And so it was that I found myself invited to a Friday evening and full Saturday of conversations in a (beautiful new) primary school for the follow up.

Those of us who have been around the Church of England for a while know that it’s asset rich and cash poor. So one doesn’t go to these things expecting lavish provision. It’s all the more impressive, therefore, that not only had he diocese hired two of the senior facilitators involved in the design of the national process, we were also treated to beautiful food provided by excellent local caterers. Thank you to thank Archdeacon Martin Lloyd Williams and his PA, Marc Sacher, for their organisation.

It’s important to understand what we were there to do, which was to figure out how to disagree well.

When he inaugurated this process in General Synod, Archbishop Justin was clear that he doesn’t expect conversations to result in some new agreement about how the church should treat same sex couples who wish to marry, and clergy among them. Peter Ould, from the opposite side of the argument, has blogged powerfully to the effect that neither those who see the Bible as clearly demanding celibacy of those who are same sex attracted; or those who would like to marry them at the altar using the rite in Common Worship, believe this is adiaphora, a second order issue about which Christians might disagree. Broadly, I agree with Peter about this. I’ve been through a time of thinking that this was a second order issue and now I don’t think it is.

Process

We were together for a Friday evening and the whole of Saturday.

On Friday evening, we had dinner together, introduced someone else at the table to the wider group as an ice-breaker and were invited to sign the St Michael’s House Protocols under which our conversations were had.

That’s why, in this post, I’m not going to identify anyone who was present, attribute views to anyone else, share anyone else’s story or the substance of what they said.

Driving home from a delicious dinner, three things struck me:

First, although I had made some guesses, I had no idea of the views of anyone else in the group on the issues we were discussing the following day. Typing it now that seems obvious but it is perhaps a measure of how entrenched and stereotypical the politics of this has become that my working assumption is often that if x worships at a particular church, or trained for ordination at a particular college, they will hold a particular view.

As it turned out, one of my fears, that no-one with conservative views would attend, was unfounded and we had a wide spread of views in the group.

Second, it struck me as profoundly sad and shameful that in order to create a safe space for these conversations to be had, we needed facilitators whose backgrounds included truth & reconciliation work bringing together loyalist and nationalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, men who had once literally tried to kill each other.

Third, I realised how frightened I was of what might happen the following day – of how I might feel if others tore into my views; of what we might say to each other. And I’m a lay straight white Oxbridge educated male. So God knows (note: no irony) how I would feel if I had more at stake, as clergy or layworker, or their partner or spouse.

I didn’t sleep brilliantly.

Saturday began with a time of silence, after which we met in small groups to share something of our own stories and what had brought us to the views we now hold. For me, at least, that silence was a profoundly powerful time. I had forty minutes alone with God to decide what I would say – the account I would give of the hope that is in me. And I felt the weight of doing so very heavily.

In my group we all told very different stories. We were all very open with one another which is, of course, a fairly profoundly un-English thing. And we re-discovered how powerful it is to listen to someone without interrupting.

We then brought our reflections on what we had heard back into a larger group.

After lunch we repeated that pattern, this time sharing a passage of scripture which each of us had brought along and which said something to us about issues of human sexuality.

Finally we had a plenary session.

Reflections

So what do I think? Well I’m still working and praying it through, which is why this has taken ages to write and is rather stumbling.

I was certainly jolted out of my party-political allegiance, to the progressives, into a more mature place. The truth that, wherever two or three gather together, the church is, was profoundly true of the whole gathering and has recalled me again, and powerfully, to the truth that Christianity is not a club for the like-minded.

I was struck by the shallowness of the intellectual resources that all of us brought to bear. Here was a group of churchgoers committed enough to give up their weekend to undergo this process together. But our level of theological and scriptural insight wouldn’t have won us any Sunday school prizes. On one level that doesn’t matter at all. Faith isn’t an intellectual or a competitive thing. On another level it matters profoundly. We are attempting to form a mind on issues of doctrine, sacraments and conduct – to decide what we think God asks of those He [sic] calls as laity, clergy, partners or spouses.

It’s made me think that we need, even more urgently, to devote resources to equipping lay people to understand the history, doctrine and spirituality, and the scripture, that is at the core of our faith. We need to get used to thinking together, and to bringing theological resources to bear on our thinking.

Above all I am torn. On the one hand I feel the force of the old chestnut that there’s more that unites us than divides us. That’s certainly true.

But that’s easy for me to say, because no-one is asking me to be celibate when I don’t feel called to be celibate, or to tell half truths in a discernment process, or to change my lifestyle to fit the expectations of my congregation. And all around me were people having to do all of those things to follow the path that they believe they must.

And I’m conscious of a new kind of hurt; just as raw. It’s the hurt of those with conservative views who are used to reasoning rationally, verbally and sometimes literally from the pages of scripture. I feel now, in a way that I didn’t before, the pain that they bear as they hear people like me attempt to shift the ground underneath them by founding theological arguments on concepts like the right ordering of desire – which build on the fathers and not on scriptural texts alone. I know now, in a way I didn’t before, how scary it is for them to see the shift to more accepting views of sexuality and gender in the church. My caricature conservative evangelical has died, and I see him now as the voodoo doll he was.

My own theological views are unchanged. I believe that the full inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender people in every area of the life of the church on equal terms is a gospel imperative. I don’t think that’s an accommodation to the forces of the age. I think it’s an outworking of the combination of unconditional compassion and demanding ascetical channelling of desire that Jesus asks of His church.

As I was mulling all this stuff, a friend who is a committed atheist shared the photograph at the head of this post on his blog. It’s a piece of art from the Burning Man festival and it encapsulates how I’ve been left feeling – how I now see the church. We are failed, broken adults hunched away from each other. Only our inner children are still trying to connect.Yet the two adults are resting against each other – to a degree dependent. And the sky behind is still radiant with the glory of God, who broods over our chaos now as he did at the very beginning of creation. Is it a dawn or a sunset? How long, O God, how long?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An interlude…

Last weekend I participated in a day and a half of shared conversations on human sexuality, organised by the Diocese of Chichester as a follow on from the regional shared conversations that have seen groups of dioceses’ representatives come together over the last year. Plaudits, incidentally,to my Diocese (not always famous for its innovation) for responding to the feedback of those who were part of the national conversations with this follow on, and resourcing it so well with expert facilitators and lovely food!

It was an humbling, provocative, stretching and weird couple of days. When it’s all percolated a bit, I’ll probably write further about it although in doing so I’ll be bound by the St Michael’s House protocols under which the conversations are had.

I didn’t realise, until afterwards, quite how much emotional and spiritual energy the conversations would absorb. It’s taught me how important my faith is to me. But it’s left me wiped out for a whole week.

And so it was that, in search of light relief, on the train home on Friday night I was reading the long running Pistonheads £100,000 garage feature. The rules are simple: find a collection of vehicles on which to spend a fictional hundred grand which would, for you, be (as the McKinsey consultants might put it) mutually exclusive but collectively exhaustive in covering all your motoring bases. Here’s mine:

1975 Bristol 411 £59,950 – I love Bristols. I’m finding more heat than light in the BREXIT debate at the moment (vote remain, people, let’s not give Boris the satisfaction!), but of one thing I am sure: Our national stature as a great power diminished markedly on the last day you could drive your Bristol car onto a Bristol aeroplane and fly to France.

Everything about this quirky company is delightfully odd. Until recently it was owned by Toby Silverton, a jet spares millionaire who took great delight in not fixing the neon sign outside the company’s only showroom if it malfunctioned in a humourous way. It said “Bisto ars” for about a year, as I recall.

Caterham 125 Roadsport £19,995 – The whole point of a Caterham is that it is an immersive driving experience. If you want, they will make you one so fast that it will warp time and space. But that’s not really the point. They’re all quick enough to be fun and this would be my choice for those gorgeous sunny mornings when the South Downs are the best place in the world to be.

Land Rover Discovery £17,995 – I live in Chichester, where it sometimes feels as though I am the only person alive who doesn’t already have a Land Rover Discovery. This is the container for sandy wellies, tired children and long, loping journeys to grandma’s house. Because there’s no way I’m risking the boys being sick in the back of the Bristol.

That leaves me enough for a few days of driver training with one of the course managers for the High Performance Course. Andy and Clive will make sure I don’t kill myself in the Caterham or mangle the beautiful aluminum panels of the 411.

My apologies to those of you who follow this blog expecting half-decent theology. Normal service will be resumed when my brain has recovered…

 

 

 

Easter 2 2016: Thomas

This week in a moment of late night idleness I read the blog of a one of that strange new category – forced on us by social media – of people that I’ve never met but feel might be a friend who has just finished her first year of cathedral ministry, after ten years in parishes. She wrote, slightly guiltily that she had struggled to enter fully into the drama of Holy Week and Easter because, for the first time in a decade, she hadn’t found herself exhausted and overwhelmed by the pressure and workload of the season. The vergers had done their stuff – the unsung heroes of cathedral life there as here. The flower ladies had done their stuff. The readers their’s, the stewards their’s, and so on. All my friend had to do (all…) was to be a priest.

We might, perhaps, leave for another day whether it’s sensible to rely on stress and unrealistic workloads to deepen our clergy’s spiritual engagement with the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord.

But, as the rioja flowed, it got me thinking that it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when being a parish priest in the Church of England could easily leave plenty of time for other things. And so we have the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, from the Revd. Wilbert Awdrey – whose legacy as a writer has vastly outshone his ministry.

This week on my Facebook, as my clergy friends got ready to preach on S. Thomas today, there were some great cartoons showing Thomas the Tank Engine at the bottom of a very steep hill. There’s a speech bubble from his face saying “I doubt I can… I doubt I can…” because Thomas, of course, has become synonymous with doubt.

And we’ll come to doubts, of which I of course have plenty from time to time. But let’s stay with the theology of Thomas the Tank Engine for a moment, if we may.

Those of you who have ever had small children might, like me, remember more of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories than you ever wanted or need now. And you may, therefore recall, that the god of the stories is Sir Topham Hat, The Fat Controller of the railways on the Island of Sodor which includes Thomas’ branch line.

The fat controller is a stentorian, remote and demanding victorian figure, for whom the two cardinal sins are not being “really useful” and causing “confusion and delay”. Each of those things are liable to send an engine summarily to the scrapyard, or at least to their engine shed in deep disgrace. At one point, you may recall, one of the engines is imprisoned by being bricked up in a tunnel for being frightened of the rain. But I digress.

I suspect that if I went outside now and button holed some people, and asked them “What’s God like?” A good few of them would describe a God who is a stentorian, remote and demanding Victorian figure who will banish us unless we are “really useful” and who disdains those of us whose lives are full of confusion, and delay.

Which is why I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas – because it shows us a God who is completely unlike that hateful stereotype.

This is a God who appears miraculously seemingly just so that someone whose doubts have swept away his faith can feel the bodily reality of the good news – that Jesus has defeated death.

And it comes in a long line of completely unnecessary – completely generous and gratuitous – appearances. To walk beside the grieving followers on the road to Emmaus and open their eyes as bread is broken. To meet the defeated disciples on the shore of the lake, and feed them breakfast.

In human terms, it’s ridiculous. In worldly terms it’s ridiculous. But it shows us a God who will do literally anything – who will go to hell and back again – to calm the fears of even those of us whose doubts have swept away our faith.

In other words – and all too often – people like me. People like Thomas.People like us.

 

 

E-mail Sent to the Bishop of Winchester, 14th December 2015

This is my e-mail sent this week to the Bishop of Winchester in response to his refusal of a Permission to Officiate in Winchester Diocese to Canon Jeremy Davies, former Precentor of Salisbury, because he has married his longstanding civil partner.

Dear Bishop Tim,

I’m writing to express my dismay that you have refused the application for Permission to Officiate in your diocese of Canon Jeremy Davies.
You will doubtless argue that Canon Davies knew full well what were the likely disciplinary consequences of his decision to marry his civil partner, given the statements of the House of Bishops. And the judgment of the Employment Tribunal in the case of Jeremy Pemberton strengthens your hand still further. So I don’t doubt that you have acted lawfully.

My concerns are twofold:

First, this is the time of the year when many thousands of occasional or first-time church goers will risk entering a church for a Christmas service. Action which looks to them like blatant homophobia (even if you might try to explain that it’s not) is a considerable stumbling block to mission and evangelism. It also crowds out, in the media, the countless wonderful things that are being done in your diocese and in every other in the name of Christ to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and set the oppressed free.

Second: It is clear from the fact that a PTO can be granted in Salisbury but not in Winchester (Davies); or in Lincoln but not in Southwell (Pemberton) that the House of Bishops is not of one mind on what disciplinary consequences should flow from a decision to marry a same-sex partner. Shared Conversations are ongoing. There are vibrant new contributions to the debate from leading Anglican theologians of all shades of opinion – not least the Revd Canon Professor Sarah Coakley (no milksop liberal) who in her short book “The New Asceticism” has summarised work she has done over the last two decades to cut across conventional dividing lines between “liberals” and “conservatives” in Christian sexual ethics in favour of a call to a demanding and holy ascetic life that channels all desire, ultimately, towards God.

While the church is continuing those conversations, it is simply wrong to deny congregations in your diocese the benefit of Canon Davies’ gifts as priest, preacher and pastor.

Yours sincerely,

Footnote:

I’m indebted to a kind clergy friend, who has pointed out that I’ve over-egged the pudding on my second point because Jeremy Pemberton has a license not a PTO in Lincoln (a license is not as easily withdrawn) and that (as far as we know) Salisbury haven’t renewed Jeremy Davies’ PTO since his marriage. I’ve sent an appropriate e-mail of clarification to +Tim; but I think my underlying point – that the House of Bishops contains within it a range of views, sometimes in adjacent dioceses – stands. Whatever is the outcome of the current thinking the CofE is doing about same sex marriage, I suspect not all diocesans will feel able to assent to any resulting position statement and so the heterogeneity of approach is likely to continue

Dear Newly Elected Member of General Synod…

Dear Newly Elected Member of General Synod,

Congratulations on your election for the new quinquenium, and thank you for all the travelling, reading, thinking, praying, talking and scrutinising you are going to do on my behalf.

I have nothing to offer in return except my thanks, my prayers for all you do, and these thoughts. I’ve been mulling over what I’d like the Synod to focus on in the next term, and so suggest (with due diffidence and caution) three things that I think should absorb you and one thing that shouldn’t:

Strategic Planning

I’ve argued elsewhere that one reason why the Church is struggling with questions about how to form and equip its leaders, and particularly its senior ordained leaders, is that we have not done the hard work of deciding what we want the Church to look like in (say) 2028, what we think the barriers to that are, and therefore what our strategy is to get there.

In one sense this is understandable, even laudible. We’re not a commercial business looking at the future shape of the market. We’re the Body of Christ, formed and equipped to do His work in the world by divine providence under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. A certain agility and missionary boldness should come with the territory.

But nor should we squander the gift of reason God has given us. We have an interesting body of evidence, in the Anecdote to Evidence report and the subsequent debate about it on the factors that grow the Church. But I wonder how systematically those insights are being applied in dioceses. I’m not suggesting a “one size fits all” model. But at present we have striking diversity. Some dioceses (Lincoln) are investing boldly in more stipendiary clergy. Some (Exeter) are introducing a festival churches model. Some (Chelmsford) have mission area teams and turnaround ministers.

So the time seems ripe to ensure that all of these experiments are being properly resourced, evaluated and understood, so that best practice can be shared and mistakes avoided, not repeated.

Social Justice

If we are to be more than a rotary club with a pointy roof (to use Archbishop Justin’s memorable phrase) then we need to continue to speak with a prophetic voice that champions the poor, the lowest, the last and the least.

There’s been some strong work here: “On Rock or Sand” was a helpful and mature contribution to the election debate. Justin has done great work on payday lender regulation, and of course up and down the land, individual parishioners are active in foodbanks, shelters and refuges.

My plea is that we shout about this more – and where we identify best practice we shout about it and share it.

Catchesis

In a world where church going is unusual and Christianty is no longer taught systematically in school RE curricula, teaching the faith and explaining what we’re about becomes more important.

The good news is that we have some fantastic tools. Alpha isn’t quite my thing. But it is lots of people’s thing, and needs to be cherished for the great success it is. The Pilgrim Course is more my style, and answers the need for a course which (a) does more than explain the very basic tenets of the faith, as Apha does, and (b) engages with the riches of the Catholic tradition more than Alpha does.

My plea is to prioritise this – and other works of Christian education. Let’s be bold and identify some things parishes are doing at the moment that they should stop in order to create space, time and money to allow a course like this to be available in every parish in England.

Sexuality

Lastly, sexuality. A simple request: Please give no time whatsoever to this in the next group of Synod sessions. Yes, the regional facilitated conversations are happening, as part of a process of understanding how the church can model “Good Disagreement”. Let that happen. But please don’t bring it onto the floor of the Synod where, in parliamentary style, points will be made in an adversarial way which is the very antithesis of good disagreement. All of this will be live-streamed to a church that, while it listens, is distracted from other things. A few more people will see the church talking to itself about what same sex couples can or can’t do together and decide that Christianty isn’t worth the candle.

For the record, this doesn’t mean that I think the issue of the full inclusion of lesbian, gay and transgender Christians in the life of the church isn’t important. On the contrary I think it’s a gospel imperative. But nothing’s gained by yet further washing of our dirty linen – stained with instituional homophobia of the most disgraceful and theologically incoherent kind – in public.

With my continuing prayers,

James

The Green Report

For the past week or so, we Anglicans on social media have been roistering about the report of a working party chaired by The Rev’d Prebendary the Lord Green. His report focuses on future arrangements for selection and development of those who may take up a “senior” post in the CofE. Senior in this context means Archdeacon, Dean of a Cathedral or becoming a bishop; although the plan is also to include incumbents of large parishes, principals of theological colleges and heads of mission societies in due course.

This page from Thinking Anglicans has links to the full text of the Green report, the critique of it in the Church Times by the Dean of Christ Church, and a separate report by the CofE’s own Faith and Order Commission on the theological basis of leadership in the church. I urge you to read them all, particularly the report of the Faith & Order Commission in full.

Others have commented wisely. Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham makes a particularly powerful case for not forgetting the riches of our tradition, specifically the accrued experience of how to be a Benedictine Abbott, in a haste to adopt, uncritically, tools from the world of business.

I’ve found myself unusually emotionally engaged with the kerfuffle. I try to be polite on social media (as elsewhere) but got into no end of trouble on Twitter for describing some of the clergy responses on my timeline as “hysterical”. Why has this issue pushed my buttons to the point of rudeness? Well, three declarations of interest might be helpful:

First, I am a white male whose first degree was from Oxford. I don’t have a disability. I think many would perceive me as middle class although I don’t own my own home and, like many apparently secure families in 2014, we’re financially a bit precarious most months. I grew up in north Wales and went to a comprehensive school. So lots of the criticism of the Green Report alleging that it will privilege unfairly People Like Me hurts, because I don’t think some of the assumptions that are made about People Like Me are fair, or at least generalisable.

Second, I am a middle manager at a retailer that I can’t name but whose adverts use penguins to inspire real love. I have been part, in the past few years, of exactly the kind of talent pool that the Green report advocates, and the proposed scheme of developing future leaders based on their perceived potential is pretty much what happens now where I work. So the secular language that so enrages my clergy friends is  comfortingly familiar to me.

Third, I’m a practicing Anglican who went through selection for ordination training a few years ago and spent a year at Westcott House before the church and I decided ministry wasn’t for me. But I love the church and long for it to prefigure the Kingdom, where all are welcome and cherished around God’s table because of God’s grace and love for them, rather than because they are talented or deserve it.

So what, with that rather complicated hinterland, do I think about Green?

My first thought is real regret that the working party who wrote the Green Report seem to have worked in something of a silo. The Faith & Order Commission’s report published virtually simultaneously has exactly the kind of theological reflection on the proper place of leadership, and the nature of leadership, in the church, that is missing from the Green Report. I wish that:

  • The two reports had been knit together, written, mulled and prayed over together.
  • The Archbishop’s Response to the Green Report had been the forward to it. The response makes it clear that +Justin has heard the urgent need for better development, discernment and selection for all who minister, not just those called to senior jobs. His affirmation that:

The Church, gathered and dispersed, stands as a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and God’s own people. The Green report is one of a portfolio of reforms being proposed cover the whole range of ministry, or to be accurate, will do once they are fully rolled out over a period of years. They will be introduced at General Synod in February and there will be opportunities for people to engage with and comment on the proposals. The reforms are rooted in a love for the whole people of God. They begin with the recognition that we can’t simply go on as we are if we are to flourish and grow as the Church of England. Our call is not to manage decline

is welcome context.

But are there deeper concerns than the fact that the Green Report’s launch has been a disjointed presentational disaster? I think there are two:

First, I think the Green Report’s authors have proposed a framework that is too prescriptive, and presupposes answers to key strategic questions that are still very much in play.

To know how large the talent pool should be, the church needs a settled vision of its future structure and manpower [sic] needs. And I can see no sign of that work being done. Some dioceses (e.g. Lincoln) are investing boldly in more stipendiary clergy. Some are retrenching with ever more house for duty appointments, or a minster model, or festival churches (Exeter) or mission areas. Have we truly digested the Anecdote to Evidence research and decided what we think we will look like in the coming decades? I don’t think we have. In fact, I fear it’s a conversation we’re studiously avoiding.

Second, if there are truly to be places in the talent pool for the edgy prophets as well as the middle managers, the development that each will need must be carefully tailored. Perhaps instead each individual’s development plan might be tailored after reflection on and prayer about professionally moderated 360 feedback from those alongside them in their present role, and others with whom they engage. I suspect there are likely to be some common, prosaic, fairly managerial development needs. I was on a coaching course recently with a group of clergy who told heart-breaking stories of incredibly poor basic line management: bishops and archdeacons who avoided having difficult conversations and seemed unable to hold anyone to account for anything. But even those difficult conversations can be had with grace as well as truth. And this stuff is teachable – see the 3d Coaching Transforming Conversations course for one excellent model.

But maybe others will need to go and spend a month in silence completing the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, or to walk to Canterbury, or to take a year or three out to write theology, if they are to release most-fully their God-given potential. And I’m not sure that breadth will obviously be on offer.

I spend my days doing secular commercial leadership. My key performance indicators are usually numerical and pretty black and white. I work in probably the most competitive retail market place in the world. But my leadership is grounded in prayer, in the daily office and even more fundamentally in silence and waiting on God. Professor Sarah Coakley’s suggestion that a Theologie Totale would ground and check doctrinal reasoning and speculation in the hard graft of regular, silent, contemplative prayer is an askesis that all those privileged and burdened with the reality or the potential of senior jobs might do well to remember. And it might make me less grumpy as well.

#Luke2Acts Day 2: Luke 2

For me, Simeon’s song, the nunc dimitis, is one of those prayers that’s so familiar that I never really pray it anymore. It’s become something my lips do while God takes me where God will. It’s part of the office of Compline, or night prayer, and so I’m probably tired and prone to thought-wandering.

And very often where God takes me is to wait with Simeon & Anna: waiting trustfully at God’s disposal to recognise Christ in the people I meet.