Friday, 6 January 2012

St Paul’s: Writing on the subway wall?

What can leaders in the Church of England, like me, learn about our operation from last year’s experience outside St Pauls? I wanted to capture three bits of feedback about the Church of England from sympathetic voices. Their words are not comfortable, but we have to pinch ourselves and remember the Facts are our Friends. They can be changed, but doing so will require change in us.

Voice 1:
The chair of our local council, a member of the Conservative party, wrote to the Archbishop to
jolt the leadership of the Church of England to become more vocal and effective in offering moral guidance based on the Gospel to a society where the vast majority are fumbling to find their way to a place where the world’s resources are more evenly shared and where the poor and weak are both supported and respected.  ....It is absolutely appropriate for you to comment on the ethics of particular financial structures, taxation and economic policy. However, in arguing for three specific financial solutions in your first public response to the concerns highlighted by the protesters you sounded like yet another economist or politician rather than an Archbishop. Even if each of the suggestions proved to be a brilliant idea would they solve the fundamental problem? No! 
You state that the demands of the protesters have been vague. 
That, I suggest, is a symptom of their inability to collectively articulate their desire for a fairer world. 
Had your response been to answer simply and directly the question on the banner most frequently featured in the media coverage outside St Paul’s “What would Jesus do?”  you  may have been able to help them. 

Present concerns about the future of life, work and money transcend political stereotypes. Mammon is the god that failed, but remains enticing. Right now he has us by the short and curlies. People are desperate to go beyond the assumptions and processes that got us into this mess. They want spiritual guides to engage with the real big issue not tinker with silver bullets and quick fixes. What would Jesus do? Over to us...

Voice 2:
I was lucky enough to have a conversation in the week of all the resignations with a French Monastic friend I much admire. 



With the bodies piling up on the bed like the final act of a Jacobean tragedy, he told me:
 
There was no need to resign
— only to repent!






Our faith is one of repentance, renewal and hope. This isn’t always well understood in England, natural home of Pelagianism — the religion of dyb-dyb-dyb/dob-dob-dob and pulling your socks up. The world we are entering is an ever more risky place. To make fools of ourselves may be embarrassing, but if it’s only our pride on the line, that shouldn’t be the end of the world. A faith in grace breeds courage, including the courage to risk failure. Every day, we can start again. We become what we could be by the grace of God, not corporate planning.

Voice 3: 
Last word goes a US banker working in London. I wish I knew his name. He came up to me on the street outside the Cathedral that first weekend. With the press asking me what bishops think of bankers, I found it especially valuable to hear what bankers think of bishops. He saw my collar and asked if St Paul's was “my Church.” “Yes, and no,” I said. But I am a Church of England bishop. And he said...

Ah! Church of England! — a lot of what you do in your churches is beautiful. Your downside is your top people. Their heads are stuck so far up their own asses they can't see the light any more!

Excuse my friend’s American. They talk like that, especially the bankers. I hate to think our good and decent College of Bishops comes over like this. But it does.

The facts are our friends. And the fact is there is a world out there rocking on its bearings, looking to Jesus Christ, among others, for wisdom and hope.

An institution that’s absorbed in anxiety about itself, and gets hung up on, for example, arcana like “the gay issue” as currently framed, or discriminatory behaviour towards women, doesn’t inspire wisdom or hope in anyone outside itself.

This is painful to admit, but it’s the truth on the street. Most local parishes are far more recognisable as the Body of Christ than the anxious fading institution wringing its hands at the centre.

The time has come, not to resign but to re-engage — and to repent on the way. Change is possible, but we need to want to get real. That’s what metanoia is. How can we expect the bankers to do something we find so damned difficult ourselves? By grace, through faith. Same as everyone else. Who knows? our struggles to get real may resource them on their parallel journey.

But only if we do it.

How about the particular role of leaders in institutions? Can they do more than whistle for the wind, telling everybody how magnificent the Emperor’s new clothes are, pour encourager les autres? Let me throw in a final soundbite. I’m currently reading a wonderful book by Euan Semple about the realities of communication. I hope to review it when I’ve finished reading it. Reflecting on his hands-on experience of many corporate entities including the BBC, he says
We are used to thinking of the world in terms of mass. Big things like nation states, religions, society, the media. We are used to expecting those big things to look after us and protect us. But the internet splits those up and breaks them apart. It is made up of networks of individuals, each with their own voice. If we are going to survive the changes we need to see in our institutions we need to help them find that voice. We need to help them grow up.


11 comments:

Ann Memmott said...

Three wise voices, aye. Though, of course, there are very good senior clergy and very many wise words being said within the clergy ranks.

But we're caught between two extremes in the church, perhaps. The extreme traditionalists who believe that the church would flourish if only it got rid of women in authority, LGBT people, and arguably anyone who isn't fit, well, white and male. And the extreme evangelical groups who think, er, the same thing I think. So we spend so much of our energy appeasing the former in case they leave, and the latter in case they remove their money.

Meantime, the public have taken up 'astonished church-watching' as a hobby, wondering how surreal the whole picture is. I suspect they'll have fetched a deckchair and popcorn to better enjoy the infighting.

I run and own a Professional Practice. I'm female, part of the LGBT community, disabled. A large amount of business in the UK is run in part or in whole by women, people from the LGBT communities, disabled people etc - and an organisation that appeases those who wish us to be second class citizens isn't one that is going to change our economic morals any time soon. Or our tendency to want to leave legacies to the church so it can fund itself. Least of all when we see the CofE whipping money away from the vulnerable groups (90% of central disability funding which amounted to less than £100k)... and giving it to initiatives to find out why few people follow our faith nowadays (for which we found £millions). I literally couldn't make that up. It beggars belief.

What would Jesus do? I've no clue, but whatever it is, we're not really doing it, that's for sure. It would indeed be good if the church took a proper moral lead itself. So many fine clergy who want it to do just that.

gurdonark said...

To me, it has always been true that most local parishes are more like the Body of Christ than most bishoprics. The change today is the novel and unfulfilled hope that bishops might change,

Jon said...

I'm inclined to disagree with voice 1, at least partially. Sure the Archbishop should feel free to comment on the ethics of current and proposed policy, but unless the CoE has done an incredibly bad job of preaching the Gospel, everyone should already realize that it is unacceptable to ignore and/or further oppress the whole litany of people in need. While the teaching certainly can and should be repeated, at some point we have to ask whether this repetition is required by our own inability to be clear or by our listeners unwillingness to hear. Additionally, the concrete
solutions to our current mess are almost certainly political and economic, not explicitly religious (except for prayer), so if church leaders are going to do more than just criticize from the sidelines they should sound rather like economists and politicians.

What would Jesus do? Quite possibly put the problems back on our own shoulders, while continuing to heal, preach, and cast out demons. The question before each of us has always been "life or death?" and God has apparently never been keen on unmaking our choice, although when we chose death he did choose to join us rather than wash his hands of us.

Erika Baker said...

I have some sympathy with the conservative voice you cite. We all have our pet politics and if you agree with us you're a moral voice in the wilderness, and if you disagree with us you're meddling in party politics you don't understand.

When I grew up I genuinely believed that most people were interested in furthering the good of society, but that they disagreed about how best to achieve that.
Terribly naive - I know!!
But still a point I'd like to get back to.

I think the task of the church is to work so that the good of society and the flourishing of others shift to the centre of how our society thinks about life.
We can then happily disagree about how to achieve this.
But first of all, we need to find respect for those who disagree with us, accept that their motives may be moral even if we can't immediately see it, and stop dismissing and insulting people and whole groups of people simply because of who they are: bankers, Christians, politicians.....

MisterDavid said...

'Most local parishes are far more recognisable as the Body of Christ than the anxious fading institution wringing its hands at the centre.'

Agreed. And primarily, I would say, because one is a collection of individuals attempting to be community, while the other is a collection of individuals attempting to make policies.
Incarnation convinces.

Grandmère Mimi said...

An institution that’s absorbed in anxiety about itself...doesn’t inspire wisdom or hope in anyone outside itself.

So true, and I see much the same attitudes in the Episcopal Church, though the particular hang-ups may vary. I see it as a form of circling the wagons for a last stand in which the members of the institution end up talking pretty much only to one another.

And I think that the question, 'What would Jesus do?' is quite pertinent, and we should try to give an answer as to what he would do in certain situations today, taking the example from what Jesus taught and what Jesus did in the Gospel accounts.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks all for proving bankers and monks don't have a complete monopoly on wisdom. Ann, the incident that focussed for me the futility of our present behaviour and attitude was when a London professional practice said they'd have to run the prospect of working for the Church of England past their ethics committee, along with breweries and arms manufacturers. So Much for Romans 12:17. Gurdonark, thanks for the challenge. I do see signs of hope, but a long way to go. Jon, I see what you're saying - echoes of Paul? "I became an economist that I might preach to economists."? Erika, than you. An unpleasant undertone of those silly stories about whether Occupy protestors were going home at night was a simple assumption that if they could be shown to be scruffy we could ignore them. Saying Raca? MD Thank you for putting it so succinctly. I wish we could find ways of doing the former more lovingly at every level of the Church...

Jon said...

It's not so much becoming an economist to preach to economists. It's more about asking precisely what sort of question we're trying to answer or what sort of problem we're trying to solve. When confronted with a question about values or about how best to live, it makes sense to give an explicitly religious answer, but, when confronted with the question of how to make a more equal economy, religious answers are probably worse than useless. The first sort of question fits in some of the conversations of the disciplines of religion while the second is a technical question from the discipline of economics. Although disciplines can sometimes fruitfully interact, carelessly mixing disciplines just makes for confusion.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I think I'm with you, Jon. But, I speak as a fool (= someone who was once employed to co-supervise a PhD student in a University business school) the interesting thing is people posit "economics" as a value free scientific discipline when in fact it is nothing of the sort. It is underlain by value systems which are seldom acknowledged for what they are in moral terms. To put it crudely you can only really understand Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations if you've taken on board his Theory of Moral Sentiments first and, I would say, its historical context in 18th century Edinburgh. The erection of half of Adam Smith into the infallible deity he never sought to be, with the denunciation of anyone who looks beyond that as a stargazer is not the only way to do economics. We should not give in to it! Or, put it another way, you cannot serve God and Mammon!

Grandmère Mimi said...

In my comment, I don't refer only to the top people, unless you count members of the vestry (PCC over there) as top people.

Jon said...

Yeah, the Moneyballing of economics is the best thing that's happened to the discipline, especially because it helps separate the "how does it work" questions from the "what policy should be embraced" questions. To bad many economists, especially those that make public pronouncements, haven't quite got the memo.

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