Monday, 6 April 2009

Crowds, majorities, development

Palm Sunday shows the fickleness of crowds, and the limitation of group dynamics. Pilate took a straw poll, acting out of fear, and used the result to make his decision for him, against his best instinct... Thank God he did, you may say, but it was not exactly role modelling how we should undertake Change management. So how should the Church handle its decision making in the light of this experience?

Make no mistake, Every Church has group dynamics, and no Church can survive without changing. J. H. Newman pointed out in 1845 that the only way Christianity renews itself is as new ideas arise and are expressed within its common life:
whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. ... In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms.
thus a living Church, says Newman, “changes in order to remain the same.” How do we decide which changes are corruptions, and which instruments of renewal?

In secular life, you take a vote. The majority stampedes; the minority becomes roadkill. But hang on, Christians are called to think differently — to recognise and respond to Christ in each other. That’s why some Christian traditions, like the Quakers, make decisions by concensus, not votes with majority wins, reframing the question until a solution emerges. Taken as an absolute principle, however, that could produce total gridlock.

Of course, everyone is right from their own point of view. But that’s just the point at which it’s vital not to focus on being right so tightly as to forget the whole picture. It is not healthy to push things through without understanding the resistance. It is a mistake to undervaue relationships, and to risk ignoring missing, if difficultly shaped, pieces in the puzzle. It’s easy to believe that if only the other lot, whoever they are, changed, everything would come right. All of these assumptions, however understandable, are dangerous and unhealthy. Resistance is, potentially, a resource to the whole Church; a radical form of feedback. Engaging with it helps test innovation, clarify goals, and improve processes. The meeting of resistance is no time to dig in with the like minded. It’s the ideal time, however counterintuitively, to stand back from the issues and engage with the people.

The question for the Church in the face of Change, whether it’s about worship or music styles, patterns of ministry, or new technologies, is not to be found in machine age binary thinking, “who wins?” but the meta level question of how both sides can better measure up to the whole stature of the fulness of Christ. In the meanwhile, the most arrant and foolish worldliness is to accept in our own processes the blame culture, cynicism, anger, intolerance and facility for talking past those we don’t understand, of the secular world.

Right or Left, progressive or traditional, to twist an old World War I slogan, do our Churches have men digging trenches, when they should be digging gardens?


Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Aaargh! woe is me! Through sheer incompetence I managed to push the wrong button and delete a comment I meant to keep! It was about the capacity of people in TEC to understand the North Michigan bishop election. My grovelling apologies.

PAPowerball said...

Very good post, thanks for the information.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Whilst grovelling for accidentally deleting a comment about North Michigan, I note two thoughtful Conservative posts that throw some light on why this election seems problematic, apart from the press puff about "Buddhist practices" which is pretty irrelevant: and

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