Friday 30 March 2012

Time for a reboot not a bailout

Yesterday, for the third time this year, someone expressed to me genuine concern about involving the Church in a project because they feared that dealing with a discriminatory organisation would compromise their moral integrity. The C of E used to be the guardian of the nation’s morals, but is increasingly perceived as irrelevant, or even a threat to them. At first sight this is amazing, because the people I meet in Church are usually kind, upright and morally aware. The nation’s moral instinct has changed, however. The Church in its own bubble has become, at best the guardian of the value system of the nation’s grandparents, and at worst a den of religious anoraks defined by defensiveness, esoteric logic and discrimination.

The collapse of Empire may have led people to search for a new moral purpose in diversity not conformity. Neoliberal economics since Thatcher may have broken down networks and social tribes, regional identities and family ties. A new social and moral consensus has emerged. It is broadly Christian in the sense of "inspired by the teaching of Jesus” but disconnected from the institutional Church.

This affects more than just the C of E. Evangelical bodies bemuse people who are innately suspicious of religious zeal and unpersuaded about the particularities involved. The RC Church seems corrupt and weird about sex.

Locally, the C of E is often good news. Individual clergy and Christians are often liked and respected on the streets. The figure of Jesus remains broadly attractive, even intriguing and sometimes compelling.

The national institution, however, appears disconnected from all this, remote, hierarchical, fixated on its own stuff.

This moral shift makes the conventional language of high, low and broad, conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and revisionists, mods and rockers, irrelevant. The real fault line now in the Church is between those of all stripes who are at home with social change, and whose Jesus inspires them to find ways of living authentic lives in this culture, and those who fear it, and whose religion is a way to prevent it, or even reverse it.

Where does faith come into this? As a theological virtue, faith can never be entirely at home in any particular cultural context, nor so scared of it as to take refuge in paranoia. On the streets what binds Christians of all denominations together is not institutional but inspirational glue — our mission. Missional zeal is kindled when passion sets values alight, not regulatory efficiency or structural elegance. the Church of the future may be less a civil service or conventional business, and more a movement like Alcoholics Anonymous, the ultimate locally delivered life-changing non profit. The job of the hierarchy will be to enable this, not to represent it or control it.

To represent the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and be good news to those within its care, the Church needs, not a re-brand or a bailout, but a reboot.

Where does Christianity connect with Life as it is lived?

What lines of code would come up on the screen during such a reboot?


UKViewer said...

I'm not sure of where I sit in terms of your new definitions of church traditions.

I welcome change, and risk taking, which was what the early church was all about. Mission to me seems to be being out there, where people are, engaging and enthusing by our living up to the model of discipleship given to us clearly by Jesus.

We just need to work out, how we get out of our safe/sacred spaces and make, wherever Jesus is working in or through us, with others, the sacred space. Sacraments can still be part of this, as can imaginative and beautiful liturgy, it just needs to be attractive to those we are attracting with our discipleship.

The institutional church model is no longer fit for purpose. Mothball historic buildings or hand them over to the Public purse to run and to staff.

If necessary, put up a tent in the park, and gather and worship there. Or the Golf Course or Sports fields on a Sunday morning, where most of our community will be.

Our chaplains working at the sharp end in difficult areas such as prisons, hospitals and hospices can give us a model of how to reach people in difficult places, we need to take that experience and pass it on.

Clergy in the new reality, will be living in and with their community, funded directly by them, with money gifted, being used for local mission initiatives, in the local context.

This is not an argument for Fresh Expressions, just for the church having an imagination, not tied to Cathedrals and Church buildings.

Mark Vernon said...

A clergyman said to me just today that probably the single most important thing he had introduced in his church was times of silence because it communicated two things. One, this is a place for your own thoughts to deepen, ie not the thoughts of some hierarchy. Two, this is a place to encounter a source of life we do not control but seek with you - almost an AA-like point.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I wonder if Church doesn't work for many people at this time of year, especially irregulars, as a kind of AA style transformative experience — like a Quaker meeting, but held in a frame that is historic and dramaturgical without being controlling and, if you're icky, lets the narratives stand up for themselves rather than dogmatising them.

Erika Baker said...

If the church does work for people in that transformative way at this time of year then that is largely due to people being able to explore their own situation in the safety of an established framework of prayer and liturgy that allows them to be and holds them there. Simply to be. Not to be questioned and told what to believe or do, but encouraged to let go, take risks with their faith and discover God and his healing powers anew.

If only we could always do that. If only we could realise that we're facilitators of a relationship between God and individuals, not the ultimate guardians of it.

How do we become facilitators rather than guardians and directors?

Jon said...

I think we'd see two or maybe three major sections if we could see the reboot code. One section would be contemplation and the just-being aspect of faith. The other major section would be what used to be called the active life or the pursuit of virtue, and is fundamentally concerned with how to live with passions or desire. I suppose I should point out that this isn't about enforcing detailed behavioral standards. Those standards shift over time but we still have to deal with anger, pride, and the desire for wealth among other things. If there is a third major section it would be mission, but mission might be a product of genuinely virtuous living instead of a separate aspect of the church.

St Peter and St Paul, Seal said...

Amen, Bishop.
One of the things that I would love to see in a reboot would be an honest appraisal of what the church can look like to those outside or on its fringes. I am often horrified by the (usually unintentional) arrogance of church people, who assume that everyone in church, or present at a church event, will automatically think as they do. There was a terribly sad piece in last weekend's Guardian by Lucy Mangan ( in which she describes a church baby and toddler group she had started to attend with her baby. She had evidently seen some of the goodness and care of those who ran it, and appreciated that, but it was all spoilt when one of them decided to assume that everyone there would want to sign the petition against gay marriage. It wasn't just the opinion but the assumption which offended her.
She finishes like this

"It was all terrifically upsetting. The sudden eruption of prejudice in our midst. The blind-siding. The glimpse of the unshakeable moral certainty that faith gives, which was apparent in her assumption that her audience would share her views....

It was a reminder that even if you love the language of the church and much else about it, you've got to stay alert to its threats.

So, thank you, playgroup lady. I was drawing closer. I shall keep a safer distance from now on."

Lapinbizarre said...

Can't get " of the value system of the nation’s grandparents" out of my head.

Archbeship Anthony said...


I would say that the RC Church is more hierarchiucal than the Anglican Church at first sight, but then a Priest can do confirmation in the RC Church.

I signed the pettition in my Church about not changing the definition of marriage. In my church it was mentioned in Notices, which gives people a choice to sign it if they want, but I feel also respects those who do not want to sign it.

Many Thanks

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

er, well, yes. It's doubtless all in the way it's done. shows how the assumption everybody takes one side on this is mistaken. As long as nobody assumes everybody is just going to sign this because they're in Church, all well and good. The whole notion that marriage is being redefined needs some thinking through. Is it the state that “defines” marriage anyway? or is it people who get married? Back in the fifties when interracial marriages were unlawful in many US States, did this make them impossible?

Lapinbizarre said...

Inter-racial marriage was possible by a ceremony in a state that had no ban. Though all US miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court's 1967 Loving v Virginia (great name) ruling, the law remained in the constitutions of South Carolina & Alabama (round up the usual suspects) until 1998 & 2000 respectively.

A number of US states ban marriage between first cousins as incestuous. Watch out royals.

Keep posting, Anthony.

Revd. Neal Terry said...

The tragedy of Lucy Mangans article is that she keeps distance based on the action of one person who abuses her position. That it is presumed everyone will 'sign' is the problem of the church. I've spent the last four weeks encouraging my parish Lent group that it is perfectly OK to ask questions, to challenge and to think for yourself and that our 'commons' are much the poorer without such individuality. I haven't done the feedback session yet, but I have the impression that they are relieved and liberated by this process. A little baffled at first, when I told them I wasn't going to teach them anything but create spaces for them to learn, they seem to have enjoyed it.

Rosalind said...

I am becomng steadiily more confused about what marriage is - or at least, what it signifies. There seem to be almost as many interpretations as there are couples.
The C of E has to marry couples when neither has been married before - but I take services with several children of the couple both separately and together ther as assorted bridesmaids and page-boys. If I ask - well, one groom, having children with a previous partner was never something he thought of as being a permanent relationship but this woman was the one for the rest of his life. Others marry as th e"final seal" on a relationship where co-habitation, then getting a house, then the arrival of children, all happen before marriage, which seems to be a way of saying their earlier decisions were right...and many, many other variations on this theme.Then we have the growing wish to "renew marriage vows" what was the vow "til death us do part" about? But the C of E on its website seems to encourage this. Does a life-long vow need to be renewed regularly? These couples are all a man and woman - but I doubt if they have the same defintion of marriage as quite a lot of the signatories to the petition, and the C of E is encouraging them to get married in church even if the wedding is the last(?)in a series of serial monogamous relationships. This may be the right thing to do - but does the C of E dare to ask the real questions about what we are doing and thinking and saying abut marriage - just one small example of the bubble we are in?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Traditionally, the church began with the relationship and built theology on that, rather than beginning with an idealised view of what marriage is and trying to apply it to people. The thought that marriage needs a theoretical definition by law is, in itself, a top shelf expression of philosophical "Idealism." Far better start with people where they are. I agree this is an example of the bubble we are in, and from which we need to be freed.

Anonymous said...

I believe there has been a crisis in the CoE for many decades that is perhaps coming to a head now. Confirmed into the church as a child, since moving from my home county I have experienced greater and greater spitefulness to people 'unknown' to the local congregation who deign to attend church services and events.There is no sense of 'inclusiveness' that I experienced moving to a northern community many decades ago. Now I am assailed by snide remarks just within my hearing - "Who is that?" - and by curates and congregation alike. I am deeply offended that no one sees me as one of them and to introduce themselves to me, to introduce me into the congregation etc etc. The churches I have attended are filled with malice and I have no heart to return. I see instead vibrant, inclusive congegations turning out of the local RC churches. I am more and more tempted there.

DJW said...

Dear Bishop Alan
After nearly two years as a priest of the Scottish Episcopal Church (I trained for ordained ministry, served my title and was then for five years an NS Team Priest in a parish and a full-time school chaplain in England) I would suggest that one aspect of the reboot should perhaps be disestablishment and another a democratic method of appointing bishops. The latter move would go some way to addressing the hierarchical issues you raise. The former might be (1) a valuable humility/reality check (2) a way of somewhat reducing the internal squabbles - Establishment brings with it the expectation (from outwith the Church and from within it) that the Church should provide a kind of Notional Health Service for England. I wonder if that expectation adds an extra dimension of stridency to debates within the church about difficult ethical and social issues because every shade of opinion would like its views to be the views of the Established Church?
All good wishes for Easter
David Warnes

Anonymous said...

sorry I put the wrong blog link above - this is what I meant to link to:

Thanks again

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr Wilson,

Thank you for this. However, whilst I have encountered some local successes in a large number of services that I have attended in the five dioceses in Kent, Surrey and Sussex (800+ since 2009, including south London) these are relatively few and far between. Unfortunately, I have come across a number of instances of pastoral failure amongst the stipendiary clergy; indeed, the more churches I have been to, the more anti-clerical I have become.

The demographic profile of the church is, generally, terrifying. Out of every hundred or so churches I have attended, more than ninety have no one under the age of forty (and only relatively few between the ages of forty and sixty). Many of the clergy are enclosed in a clerical kraal. Eucharistic services (the monoculture of a high number of parishes) are generally dreary beyond belief (I agree with Michael Ramsey's deprecation of "communion with everything). Standards of preaching are, in most cases, awful. Recently, I attended a church in mid-Kent where the priest deprecated the absence of young people in church (this was a family service where, as usual, the congregation was almost uniformly elderly - one teenager had, evidently, been dragooned along for the purpose of reading the lesson, which he did with a sense of unease and discovery). As I drove away from the church I passed the local sports ground where a large number of the young people were playing Sunday morning soccer, probably a more productive way of passing the time.

If the people will not go to the church, then why doesn't the church (i.e., the stipendiary clergy in particular) go to the people? The vast majority of the stipendiary clergy never visit the people, except when they are sick or in extremis. Various excuses are proffered: it is very difficult to catch people when both partners are at work; it is "false"; it is too much of a job in a highly populated parish, etc., etc. Feeble! It does not mean that the attempt ought not to be made. The most important part of the job of a parson should be to be seen around the parish, and should involve knocking on doors and building up "social capital" (ugly phrase). The administration of the sacraments should come much further down the list; any fool can do that, and a great many do. Visiting used to be a staple of the life of the Anglican parson; it went into deep decline after the war, just when it ought to have been ramped up. It is now critically important, as the structure of Sunday life for the vast majority has changed so significantly in recent decades.

Many of the laity are at a complete loss to know what their clergy do all day (some of the more active clergy wonder what their colleagues do all day). If they are not visiting, and they are not devoting large amounts of time to crafting their sermons (they surely cannot be doing that), then what are they doing exactly?

Also you might wish to note that in a good majority of the churches I have attended I have not been spoken to by anyone. This includes so-called vibrant evangelical churches. In a few instances, the clergy have been rather less than polite when they have spoken to me. Personally, I care not at all whether I am spoken to or not, but the fact that I can leave without being spoken to, even where the congregation is small, is instructive.

Best wishes for your ministry in Bucks.

Alastair Newman said...

Right on here. The question surely is how this change happens in reality. Can it only come as a ground up movement? Or is it possible for the geologically slow Synod to get behind real change? Our wonderful vicar, sadly just retired, described the CofE to me as a "sleeping giant". Time for the giant to finally wake up methinks!

(Also just noticed that the picture at the top of your blog is the Chicago "bean". Visited Chicago a week ago as part of a larger trip to the USA, including a very pleasant few days with Maggi and Ben in New Haven - they are both very well.)

DaisyAnon said...

Well said Bishop Alan. I am specially interested in your reference to Alcoholics Anonymous. You say 'The job of the hierarchy will be to enable this, not to represent it or control it.'

If you look at the Traditions of AA - the way AA is organised, it is hard to see how the established Church heirarchy could enable this, except by dismantling the heirarchy.

I've put links to your post on my blog and thank you, you have given me renewed enthusiasm to carry on talking to myself.

If anyone wants to contact me to discuss how to make a 12 Step Church of Christians Anonymous a reality, please do so.

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