The deconstruction is real. The pandemic season is lingering and the waves of its wake are more disruptive, more disturbing, more confusing than the sudden crisis with which it struck.

It’s real everywhere. It is, certainly, in the church. Now is the time when things are being questioned. Now is the time of being undone.

We used to have forms and structures and predictable routines; we could hide in them and deflect away those deeper things we feared to face. Perhaps we imagined easing back into comfortable unchallenging modes of common life. But covid has ripped the covers off of us, and the substance, or otherwise, of our exposed core cannot be unseen. It moves us, it frightens us, it shakes us. Is it any surprise that even the biggest American denominations are being rocked and refined by scandal after scandal. It’s in the UK too. Covid was not a crisis for the church, it has been a catalyst; the crisis is coming. Are we ready?

Jeremy Riddle is a world famous worship leader, currently on the team at Vineyard Anaheim in California, and formerly of Bethel. You will have heard his music. There might perhaps be one higher level in the pantheon of professional praisers (the Order of St. Tomlin perhaps?) but he’s up there at the pinnacle of the religio-industrial complex. Wonderfully, beautifully, and above all Christianly, he’s questioning it all.

I’m writing this book in the midst of a global pandemic that has shut down church services, programs, conferences, and Christian events of almost every kind. This is a moment of reset (Page 119)

The book isn’t long. It isn’t actually all that insightful, in the sense of saying something new. For instance, we’ve all known for some time that there is something “off” in the industry of Christian worship. It’s refreshing to have it explicated from someone in the know. “The model [of the “Christian” music industry”] may still be useful to Christian music artists and bands,” he says (page 88), “but apart from a deep work of repentance and reformation, I don’t believe this industry is fit to carry and release the new sound of worship God is about to pour out.” Later, he writes about the “lack of kingdom ethics and practice”, “secular leadership”, and the lack of witness and accountability within the supplier space of the Christian market. He looks for reformation with regard to event management, stage production, performance drive, social media, and influence. They are important critiques, and this isn’t merely a tearing-down whinge; it’s the launching place for a positive vision (more on that in a minute). And he shows his working.

Chapter by chapter he reveals his heart that we might “cease playing Christian music games” (Introduction). He reveals (Chapter 1) his perspective on the recent history of Christian music, and the “worship movements” which have dominated the charismatic world; he wants to reclaim something of the purer creativity that was there at the beginning of the charismatic renewal. I know what he means; I still separate the charismatic world into “old-school” Spirit-driven wing-and-a-prayer crazy-but-faithful, and the stage-managed program-driven risk-averse-consumerism dominant variant. He lays the foundation:

Worship is the sound of a covenantal people; a people betrothed to Jesus. It is the sound of their love, adoration, and zealous devotion to the only One found worthy! (Page 8)

He appeals for a greater purity (Chapter 2) that opposes idolatry, particularly that of popularity. He imagines worship that sounds a lot like discipleship – costly, eternally-minded, driven by love, and built on our weakness and the gift of life’s pains in which we have nothing left but a life of faith. He wants to get our eyes off of our ourselves and onto Jesus (Chapter 3) and so be marked for a zeal for reform, beginning in the “internal temple” of our own hearts (page 37). Indeed, the shape of what it takes to become “wholehearted” (Chapter 4), is to embrace “our death” (page 41), the cruciform road of a life surrendered to God. This is the heart of worship, informed by the “joy set before” us (page 50).

If the call doesn’t require you to lay your life down, it’s less than the call of Jesus. If the call doesn’t cost you everything you have to obtain it, it’s less than the call of the gospel. (Page 47)

It was at this point, that my reading become less academic and more soul-searching.  His deconstruction resonates with my own. In his chapter on “dreams” (Chapter 5), my own heart ached. I know what it’s like to dream youthful dreams, and launch forward with missional zeal. I also know what it’s like for my dreams to be my idols that were “keeping me from surrender” (page 53). But without dreams, the joy of the Lord is elusive. The chapter explicates the problem, and it took the rest of the book for that tension to resolve. Chapter 6 (“Born of the Spirit”) begins to prod at that path. “The presence is a person”, he says (page 64), and this is the beginning of the touchpoint for me. Here’s something I’ve learned from my own deconstruction: I miss Jesus.

I’ve got a pretty good handle of the doctrine of Jesus. That is necessary and good, and I appreciated how Riddle asserts the place of Biblical truth (Chapter 7). But, (to quote him quoting J I Packer), the goal of theology is doxology (page 77), and that’s what I miss. In my youthful zeal, I was David dancing before the ark. In the desert of my undoing, I am Elijah in a cave of depression, missing the still small voice. I have struggled to yield to the Word of God, not because I despise it, but because, like Jeremiah, I don’t want it to burn in my bones with nowhere to go. We often sit in silence, my Lord and I, and he is more patient than me.

I think, this is where I’m at in my deconstruction: I am learning to speak. Not the preaching, praying, performing type of talk, rather I am learning to talk to Jesus again. He is present as a person, you see. I am learning to trust. I am no passivist, but I cannot generate the Kingdom of God. I cannot even build it. My agency is not my own, it is his, and all I can do is be used each day. I’ve spent too many years hiding in the striving, or curled up in a wearied whirl. Now it is time to simply be, with him, content to know and be known by him. I miss it, because I know it from my childlike youth. I want to discover it, because I’ve never been here before.

So come on, Jeremy Riddle! Tell me about “mothers and fathers of worship who have allowed their voices to be silenced, quieted and tamed” for whom “the pain of life, disappointment, personal failure and misunderstanding have taken the wind out of your sails” (page 119). There is prophetic truth in your words about old flames burning in our latter years, hungry for true, deep, yielding, cruciform, intimate, worship. This shakes and wakes my heart.

Here is a picture of “the future” (Chapter 10). We have encountered a similar vision in a number of places; it’s not about a particular plan or movement, but a bringing together:

Here is what I desire to see: I desire to see the worship movement marry the prayer movement and the missions movement. I firmly believe that if worship is re-anchored in ministry to the Lord and ministry to the world, it will explode with fresh life, creativity and power. (Page 111)

Time and time again, at the moment, we find a visceral reaction against “going back to the ways things were.” No one has the passion to merely put back the forms of church. Rather, we are hearing language of integration at every level. At the structural level it’s there – a push back at specialisations and homogenous units (imagine worshippers and evangelists and prophets and pastors together in community!). And it’s there in a desire to integrate worship life and work life and home life and inner life. There’s a yearning to live out of rhythms of grace in a Kingdom that is not just for Sunday mornings, but breakfast tables, and conversations in the park, and for when life sucks.  At the same time as churches are starting to count how many are “coming back”, dispersed monastic communities like the Order of the Mustard Seed are facing surges of interest. In fact, they put out a podcast this year on “apostomonasticism.” It captures a similar vision to Riddle’s.

In the end, though, it’s a challenge. It challenges me personally. This books imagines “a new expression of an ancient kind of worship leader… leaders whose lives of devotion are once again rooted in the rhythms of prayer and the mission of Jesus” (page 112). I yearn for this, I aspire to it. And here’s the rub: It can’t be striven for, not by myself. It challenges us leaders because it gets to the heart of it all, the necessary “mark of intimacy” (page 114). I miss Jesus. I need to talk to him again.

As covid begins to wane, the real crisis is appearing. For us leaders it will be a new set of expectations, perhaps some pressure to perform in some wonderfully Christian, churchy way. It’s easy to cry “let’s get back into it.”  My self-exhortation is to only have one primary pursuit: prayer first, intimacy with Jesus first, to be the sheep that knows the shepherd’s voice. It feels like we’re starting from scratch, but that’s ok. This is a waking-up season, an open-the-door-after-the-storm season, a sort-through-the-rubble season. It’s a stripped-back-to-the-only-one-who-is-truly-real season. It’s the season to sit at his feet. We are in a grace-filled reset.

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In this current moment many Christians are deconstructing their understanding of church. Covid has catalysed it but not caused it. As the forms of church have been stripped away it seems that many are questioning the substance in their church experience.

Gill and I have found ourselves in numerous related conversations. No two of them are alike, of course, but there tends to be some common factors. In most, there is a sense of wanting to “cash out” of a religious framework that had previously been “bought into”. Sometimes, but rarely, it’s a form of deconversion. Sometimes it’s a desire to question the unquestionable, perhaps like in Ecclesiastes, to see if there is actually something new under the sun. “After 18 months of covid, I’m now not sure why I was getting out of bed on a Sunday morning.” “I’ve now had a positive experience outside of the typical Sunday, and have realised it was negative experience inside, this can’t be what it’s all about.” This is not the typical whinge of consumeristic disappointment (“Pastor, I’m just not being fed!“) it’s of simply of being done with church on it’s own terms: “This is not the dynamic gospel-embodying radically-believing community of Jesus-loving disciples that it pretends to be!”

After two decades in professional pastoral ministry I’m going through my own gentle deconstruction. This is no bad thing. It is part of maturation to go through times in which the grace of the Lord has us being “undone.” From dealing with my childhood issues in Bible College, through a breakdown at the pointy end of church planting, to the small-boat-big-ocean experience of moving between hemispheres, it’s all part of the letting-it-die-to-rise-again cruciform shape of life with Jesus. You can’t be a leader without passing through these times. Yet this post-covid moment feels like a big reset impacting across the body of Christ; I’m waiting for it to hurt, timing the contractions of what might be.

It is in this context that I have encountered Diane Langberg’s Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. I have very few “must read” books for those who are in or considering church leadership and this is now one of them. It is good, solid, biblical, insightful wisdom for general application. In dealing with abuse, it relates to these times; in with and through the pandemic, the church world has also been rocked by revelations of spiritual and sexual predation in prominent organisations. There is much introspection about systemic injustices and abuses going on. Consider Langberg’s interview on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? podcast and her master class at the European Leadership Forum.

Langberg’s wisdom is also a light for the present deconstruction. Personally, she has taken me to an examination of my own ecclesiastical trauma, including my own complicity and weakness, as well as helping me dare to imagine the ideal of what might be. Reading it has been a deeply personal experience. I simply can’t review the book objectively; all I can do is to enter into a dialogue with it:

First interaction: For Langberg, power is real and ubiquitous, and can be used for good. Power is not conflated with evil.

My reflection: Very few of my ecclesial traumas have come through domineering powermongery, although I have heard those testimonies. Rather, I have collided with those who are blind to their hurtful exercise of power. In fact, some toxic situations are constructed by those who deny having any power at all! There’s delusion in it, and also manipulation, a form of leadership nihilism. By eschewing the formalities of power, manipulations are brought below the threshold of what can be “called out” and so accountability is avoided. To hold a leadership position in such a context is to be both loaded with unattainable expectation (so that the ineffectiveness of “power” can be proven), and, at the same time, be shunned because of the taint of the title. It is weary, and lonely, and toxic.

Langberg’s view of power is more robust. As one who is literally an expert on the misuse of power, she offers a profound and edifying reminder: there is goodness in the power of Jesus. This is truly affirming: “Are you verbally powerful? The Word gave you that power. Are you physically powerful? The mighty God, who breaks down strongholds and sustains the universe, gave you that power. Do you have a powerful position? It is from the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords…” (page 10). It also gives the proper bounds:

Godly power is derivative; it comes from a source outside us. It is always used under God’s authority and in likeness to his character. It is always exercised in humility, in love to God. We use it first as his servants and then, like him, as servants to others. It is always used for the end goal of bringing glory to God. God is pleased with his Son. That means our uses of power must look like Christ because he is the One who brings God glory. (Page 13)

Langberg is thoroughly biblical, and therefore instructs me in the healthy ways to hold what power I have: “We need the truth of the written Word of God and of the Word of God made flesh to help us see how to live out what God says, or we will lose our way, interpreting the written Word through the lens of culture and tradition and easily bending what is written into our own ends” (page 88).

Second interaction: Langberg understands vulnerability.

I have experienced cruelty in the church: Biting words. Shunning actions. I have known leaders who deflect their emotional burdens so as to foist them onto the shoulders of those who are weaker and at risk of injury. I can remember two times when words cut into me and left me to bleed; both times they were on the lips of those “above me” in the Church of England. They weren’t godly rebukes (I’ve had plenty of those) or wise, “hard” words of appropriate correction, they were words of diminishment moved by insecurity in one instance, and prejudice in the other. I had no recourse to emotional defense or safety; they didn’t see my vulnerability or didn’t care. Vulnerability isn’t just powerlessness, though. At other times, even though I was one of the most powerful persons in the room, the attacks were more covert, aimed at those that I love rather than directly at me. No one is invulnerable.

Part of my turmoil is that I am tired of being vulnerable. I would like some safety please, a place to rest, a freedom to not be dependent on those who do not have my wellbeing at the top of their priority list. However, I have also learned that if you can’t lean into your vulnerability you can’t exercise your power well. “You and I struggle to understand our own vulnerabilities and to manage them wisely” (page 28), Langberg says, and it’s a necessary task. “Vulnerability and power are intertwined, engaged in a dance that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes destructive” (page 19).

Here’s the key: Vulnerability is a “welcome gift” (page 22), a vehicle for our own growth, and for the building of trusting, deep, beautiful relationships.” Which means, also, that it needs to be guarded, “because it is unwise to make yourself vulnerable in abusive situations… Maturity is learning where to guard ourselves, and where to lead from our weakness.” I genuinely love the church, but note what that means: “The capacity to love makes everyone vulnerable… even God” (page 26). A journey through the world of church is often like walking through a battlefield marked by fortresses, no-man’s lands, and battlefronts. We get tired from the exposure, and we seek castles of our own. I feel the draw of the drawbridge, but what would that look like, and would it actually be healthy and loving?

There’s a tension to embrace here: To express love, we learn to offer ourselves vulnerably. To receive love, we create as much safety and security so that the vulnerability of others doesn’t lead to their injury. How, then, do we offer safety from a place of insecurity; how can we offer a safety that we have not yet, first, received? In our experience, the normal machinations of church life struggle to embrace that tension. Church should manifest a shared mutual experience, a dynamic of abiding in the heart of God in whom we are perfectly, ultimately, safe, and therefore free to be vulnerable, and free to love. The fact that it often doesn’t feeds the deconstruction.

Langberg explores this dynamic, in particular, with regard to gender and race dynamics. As a large white guy, this is instructive for me. Do others feel vulnerable where I feel safe? Compared to others it is relatively easy for me to find safety; this almost defines my privilege. It’s on me to understand the vulnerabilities of others: In one experience I found myself aware of others’ negative experiences of church leaders. Understandably, as a church leader, I was “lumped” into that box of unsafe people and, to some degree, I wore the face of those who had injured them. In a context of mistrust, my leading needed to be both aware of the trauma and yet shaped by freedom rather than that abusive legacy. It takes Jesus’ wisdom to walk that line, and my inadequacy is obvious. Langberg is instructive; picking up on the language of “headship” in the gender dynamic she gives insight into that way of Christ: “To be a head is to turn the curse upside down, not to rule over others. The Son of Man did not rule, though his disciples longed for him to do so. Instead he held out his great arms and said, ‘Come. It is safe.'” (Page 104).

Third interaction: Langberg understands deception, at a systemic, cultural level.

Systemic abuse occurs when a system, such as a family, a government, entity, a school, a church or religious organization, a political group, or a social service organization, enables the abuse of the people it purports to protect. (Page 75)

I’ve remarked previously how the Church of England, like many church institutions, is abusive by default. If we were to describe, for instance, a marriage relationship as being marked by financial dependence, spiritualised language of authority, the priority of reputation over truth, decisions being made for-and-not-with, and gaslighting condescension, all our alarm bells would ring! Yet this often describes the relationship with institution for those in a pastoral position, along with their family. The harm is mitigated, sometimes even eliminated, when good people are in authority and they are are able to resist and overcome the natural tendencies of the organisation. Langberg calls those things the “fundamental, though often hidden, properties of the system itself” (page 76) and reflects on how easily we refrain from speaking honestly about them. It leads to “…preserving an institution rather than the humans meant to flourish in it” (page 78).

All of this rests, of course, on forms of deception and self-deception which, itself, rests on a form of subtle idolatry. Langberg locates this at the heart of the first sin (page 29): We deceive ourselves by agreeing that we do not need God in order to be like him in nature and character. We cover our vulnerabilities by leaning into other things – “toxins” of deception. A common idol to lean into – for safety, preferment, provision, comfort, purpose – is the church itself. The result “is clear that we have preferred our organizational trappings to the holiness of God.” (page 79). The result is harm:

Deceived hearts are closed hearts. They are closed first to the God of truth and second to other humans. Deception always does damage to the one deceiving and to those being deceived. (Page 40)

Deconstruction, at its gut, is a reaction to this hidden hypocrisy. “Deceptions are systemic” (page 37), Langberg says. If we’re brave, we might seek to name them. In my own context of the Church of England some of them are obvious: Class, education, and position correlate to worth; That which exists is necessarily favoured by God and should not be questioned; Institutional deference is the same as unity in Christ.

Collective deception incorporates a form of blindness and therefore foments a culture of suspicion. Langberg speaks of the dueling cultures of “secular culture” and “Christendom” (page 47) and that war is real:  On the one hand is the machinery of the religio-industrial complex, consumeristic, and self-centred. On the other hand is the graceless pseudo-gospel of post-post-modern humanism. Both are defensively defined. “Any human not transformed by the redeeming work of Jesus Christ lives out of self as center” (page 47). In the no man’s land in the war of attrition between the two, it is lonely. Even good gospel words  –  “discipleship”, “mission”, “kingdom of God”, and even “Christ” – cannot be trusted. “Good words can whitewash evil” (page 50).

“When we hear scriptural words about building up the church for the glory of God, the work sounds heavenly. But when the building materials are arrogance, coercion, and aggression, the outcome matters. How we flesh out our good words matters.” (page 52).

It’s easy to become cynical. It’s easy to become bitter. It’s easy to long for the false-comfort and false-community that might come by joining one of the camps. I admire Langberg for clearly being at home in the middle, digging into and holding truth.

For instance, as she explores the question of the gender imbalance, she fulsomely critiques the patriarchy: “…violence is the male’s right, and the burden of managing it is the female’s” (page 93). But this is no shallow deconstruction. Rather than dismiss marriage, itself, as an abusive framework, Langberg speaks of “familiar theological words and concepts” that are misused to “sanction or minimize abuse and crush human beings.” (page 94). In this she takes the same line as Barbara Roberts (who I’ve written on before) in recognising that while “God hates divorce” this is not merely the “termination of a legal relationship” but the “disunion” caused by abandonment and abuse (pages 94-95).

Indeed, Gill and I have often found a correlation between abusive systems and the treatment of marriage relationships. I literally cheered out loud, therefore, as Langberg affirms the mutual ministry of Priscilla and Aquila: “Priscilla was not just serving coffee or ‘supporting’ Aquila. She is mentioned first in four out of five instances… Do you perhaps have a silenced Priscilla in your church? (pages 100-01). Priscilla and Aquila are a side-by-side ministry that Gill and I have looked to as our own exemplars. Most church cultures cannot cope with them. They will split a couple either by insisting on subjugation or individualism. Over the years, it is in this area that Gill and I have felt the most disempowered, and pondered the cost of staying within the institutions we were in. There is a real spiritual component to this; to the extent that a marriage relationship speaks of the relationship between Christ and his people, a self-deceived organisation will seek to diminish it.

Langberg also spends some time interacting with the systemic issues of race. I’ve just interacted with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, so I won’t delve into that too much here. She takes us, however, to the more general issues of collective guilt and shame that are thoroughly missional in impact. She asks, “Do we really think that we can enslave millions of people for more than two hundred years, treating them as things to be used, crushing, oppressing, and humiliating them, without long-term effects reverberating throughout generations descended from both slaves and slaveholders?” (pages 111-112). In the English church we would do well to ponder what our unresolved legacies are. We have not yet dealt with the abuse of either our own classes and peoples, or our external dealings with the wider world. Our systemic deceptions are rooted in our shame, meaning that England cannot love itself well. The call on the Church of England is to lead the way, without falling back to the comfortable deceptions of either denialism or self-flagellation. In the meantime we are perpetually self-starved of missional efficacy.  We should learn from the “intergenerational transmission of trauma” (page 113). If we wish to see God’s kingdom come, we need to bring reconciliation and healing to this land, beginning in ourselves.

Fourth interaction: Langberg understands abuse within the church.

It is a grace that I only have secondary experience of predation in church institutions. But I do have that experience; I have observed, from one step away, the nature and impact of predatory abuse on individuals and churches. My own experience of abuse is that of negligence rather than predation. Langberg speaks to the toxicity that can breed both.

For instance, a useful general point that Langberg makes cuts across our elevation of external qualities of position and charisma. These speak of power, but not of character. She takes us to Jesus: “Listen to the Word of God: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness…” (page 25). I personally have found it relatively easy to not be enamoured by academic prowess or formal titles; the Australian in me is naturally wary of pretension. Indeed, “an ability to articulate theological truths does not mean the speaker is an obedient servant of God” (page 127).

What has taken me longer to size up is the allure of success, and of wanting to simply belong to a movement or spiritual family who might offer covering and security. “All of us long for meaning, purpose, connection, and blessing. The systems of Christendom offer us these things” (page 147). There is compulsion to prove oneself worthy of inclusion, and that is, invariably, a toxic dynamic. When it is fed, and the performance is rewarded more than formation and maturation, abuse abounds. Langberg’s observations apply to our present church culture:

A leader is expected to know more, achieve more, and perform better. The more adequate they are in those areas, the more they are declared a success. Leadership is thus reduced to a never-ending treadmill of acquiring more and better skills and achieving impressive results. (Page 128)

Character work and an understanding of one’s personal history are not usually emphasized in training for ministry. This is unwise giving our heart’s capacity for deception. (Page 130)

I have filled out a number of application forms for pastoral roles in my time. None of them specifically ask about wilderness experiences (page 131) or of the maturation that comes in dry times and adversity; they all ask for proof of numerical growth, and offer a box for credentials and publications. We run to managerial and financially-driven structural changes, yet the reality is that  “pastors and leaders often live with little to no oversight… longing for good mentors” (page 131). We have left behind the traditions of spiritual direction, confession, and apprenticeship and have professionalised ourselves into courses and criteria. No wonder people get hurt.

I have been comforted by Langberg here. It is easy to carry the pain and shame of church trauma. Yet, the fact of that speaks to the deficiencies of the abuser and the abusive system, not the wounded ones (page 25). I have seen my teenage children summon emotional resilience and tenacity to weather circumstances that were beyond their control. The simple fact is that some of the roles I have inhabited have brought my family into an unsafe environment. I have searched my soul, I have blamed myself. But in the end there is grace in an honest grief: Their vulnerability was not their, or my, fault.

What I have found necessary, in the aftermath, is to wrestle with my powerlessness. Langberg brings her analysis and reveals what power looks like in a spiritual context (page 132-133). This was helpful to me. Despite the “power” of my ordination and the ministry titles I have held, my predominant experience of church life has been disempowerment. There are blessings and joys and brothers and sisters within the church of course; these are gifts from God. But they are usually gifts in the context, and not usually of it. It is simply the case, that the decades I have given the church have restrained me more than flourished me: socially, financially, and even in terms of my own dreams and longings. The church has not, ultimately had my back, it cannot, ultimately, be “for” me. This is simply the way it is; it is the cost of vocation, and it has been from the beginning. Even St. Paul as he writes to Christians who are rich in themselves, reflects on how he has become “scum of the earth” and “garbage of the world” in comparison (see 1 Corinthians 4:13).

As I work through the impact of this on my life and my faith, I hear similar echoes in the current deconstructions. I love the church of God. I remain moved to do my bit to see God’s kingdom come. I hope to speak words of life, and facilitate life-changing hospitality. I am drawn to know the heart of the Father and do what I see him doing. Yet, at the same time, I cannot recall the last time I saw in myself, or the church, a spirit of freedom and joyous expectation. To engage with the church is to steel ourselves for potential trauma, and to long for God. “Victims assume that God is also silent. Many people have asked me through the years whether they can find help for restoring their sense of safety in the house of God. that such a question must be asked is frankly, damnable” (page 137).

Fifth Interaction: Langberg understands the redemption of power.

My journey through this book has taken me to some of my pains and regrets. That’s fine; it is necessary, sometimes, to take stock of one’s injuries, and the temptations and weaknesses that leave us open to hurt. I’m still “hungry for safety” (page 153), for instance, and I need to be aware of how that drives me. I want to use whatever power I have for good and not for ill.

There is grace in the pain, and I see that affirmed in Langberg’s treatise. I have had a blessed breakdown. I am willing to “let the work die” (see page 149) because I know from experience that those who seek to save their church, and strive for performance, will lose it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. I learned that “long before God called [me] to shepherd, he called [me] first and foremost to be his lamb – a silly, stupid lamb who does stupid things, follows others into ravines, and allows themselves to get devoured” (page 150). It’s all about grace.

I am learning – learning again perhaps, although it feels like it’s from scratch – the necessity of prayer. Many of us leaders forget to pray (page 151), we forget to hope. Hoping hurts. Jesus only did what he sees the Father doing. He did that “no matter the cost. He did not work to preserve a system, even one originally ordained by God” (page 154).

I am wary of the future. We should read Langberg as a prophet, warning us, calling us, berating us as churches tear themselves to shreds. “Rather than dealing with our own discomfort, self-absorption, or fear of matters not going our way, we distance ourselves and label and dehumanize others”, she says (page 56). We’ve got some difficult conversations in the Church of England coming up, and they are surrounded by toxicity.

I am even wary of releasing this interaction onto this blog. I am used to “thinking publicly” and have written about politics and all sorts of difficult issues in the past. But there will be some who won’t get what I am writing here. I feel my vulnerability in the institution to which I belong. “Some of us have faced the power of systems that proclaim God’s name yet look nothing like him. That power can be formidable. It’s hard to fight an organic whole, particularly when a system is full of people we love or those important to us and our future” (page 82).

Where then lies the hope? Matching Langberg’s metaphor on page 51, one night I had a dream: Gill and I were in a situation in which we were required to live in a certain house. It was horrible. Excrement on the walls. Mould and mildew. Holes in the walls which let in frigid air and provided hideaways for poisonous spiders. It was a nightmare. It was a “home” in which constant vigilance was required in order to survive. If that is a metaphor for church life, then what is the answer? Reform is no longer enough. Renewal is no longer enough. Not even revival. What is needed is resurrection; a “burning down” is required, from which the new can emerge. That’s not a negative thing. I think Jesus’ friend Peter promised something like it, for “it is time for judgement to begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17).

Perhaps the deconstructions at the beginnning of the post-covid reconstructions are a context where this can happen. Covid has stripped away our forms and many of our churches have found that there wasn’t much substance underneath. There is a lesson to heed here: “God does not preserve the form without regard for content. God wants purity in the kingdom of the heart, not the appearance of it in a system. Our systems, our countries, our faith groups, our tribes, and our organizations are not the kingdom of God.” (page 84).

Like all prophets, Langberg therefore, sees the value of hope in the time of trouble. “The voices of victims today, of those abused and violated and crushed in our “Christian” circles, are in fact the voice of our God to his people” (page 190), she says. In that way they are “troublers” in the best sense of the word; the  “‘Valley of Trouble’ is God ordained, and in this place, he is calling his people back to himself” (page 190). Langberg writes, therefore, to encourage the dissidents and to give succour to those who are lonely.

Jesus sat apart from those who stood together in his day. It is quite a picture, isn’t it? In the same manner and spirit of Jesus, all Christians should be dissidents in the corrupt systems of this world, including in our own beloved institutions. (Page 85)

This is where this book has catalysed my wrestling. To survive what is coming I need to learn to be with Jesus in the lonely place, in the solitude of dependence on him. That is where my safety lies. “The discipline of living under the governance of God in the hidden places is a lifelong work.” (page 176). Only from here can the beautiful vision of the church, that Langberg never loses, emerge; it’s a beautiful vision of what she calls “Lady Ecclesia” (page 181).

The people of God who compose the body of Christ on earth are to live fully and faithfully under the lordship, authority, and mastery of Jesus Christ. If we are to be mastered, we must know him. (Page 186)

Intimacy is required. If “we love and worship the system or our church more than we love and worship Jesus Christ” (page 187) it all falls apart. This is a truly pastoral book. As I’ve conversed with it, it has exposed me to some honest reality, and thus thoroughly brought me, in the end, to Jesus.

Amen.

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This is the final part of my multi-part engagement with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. My dialogue with the book commences in my first part (link); you may want to begin reading there. The book is about how white people, while participants and beneficiaries of systemic racism, are racially blind to themselves and complicit. So far I have engaged with DiAngelo’s arguments through the lens of my own reflection, and in the previous post (link) I explored some biblical themes that support her view. What she reveals about racism is well argued, but how do we move towards a dynamic of resolution? In this part my intent is to show how I find it more helpful to look beyond DiAngelo’s ideology for that, and, in particular, I draw on a Christian understanding of vocation.


Part 3b – Vocation and identity.

There is much that resonates between DiAngelo and the Biblical voice. But there is also some discord. DiAngelo, is unashamedly, manifesting an ideology. “Ideologies are the frameworks through which we are taught to represent, interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence” (page 21), she says, and I agree with that definition. In fact, from a Christian point of view, a desire to shape our social existence by what Jesus “represents, interprets, understands, and makes sense of” is a decent description of what I would call “discipleship.”

Ideologically of course, DiAngelo is not neutral. I also don’t think she, or anyone else, would describe her ideology as “Christian.” Some dialogue is needed at the point where the voices diverge, and that is my intent here. Unsurprisingly, I find the Biblical voice more compelling.

Consider what we raised previously about individual and collective identity. DiAngelo eschews individualism, and understandably so, because it underpins the white propensity to deflect: “I don’t belong to a privileged class, I am just me!”  If we are to move forward, we can’t ignore individualism. Generalisation reveals, but individuals must act. This only happens when there is some sort of alignment between individual and collective identity, i.e. when a person has a sense of ownership about what is happening collectively.

DiAngelo has rightly revealed to white people our collective guilt. But how do we move forward with that? Collective guilt can only be dealt with collectively, because that is what is required for systemic change. It is manifest formally as enacted civil rights and forms of reparation and restitution, as well as organically through shifts in the dominant culture. No one person can achieve this, yet it doesn’t just happen by itself, it requires individuals to act. And, as DiAngelo points out often, it’s on white people to own their issues and do it, not people of colour to chase it.

To move forward we need an alignment of individuals and the collective. DiAngelo, in her anecdotes, often encounters a non-alignment. From one direction it looks like individualist defensiveness. From the other direction, an individual can be absorbed by the collective guilt. I’ve seen this as a form of despair in people, an emotional overwhelming in which they are unhelpfully stuck in the shame of their privilege.

The biggest strength of White Fragility is that it elucidates well what is wrong and what is going on. Admission is a big part of the solution; but beyond that the there is only a weak provision for the alignment we need.

It can be found, however, in the Biblical voice. Indeed, it’s there in the person of Jesus. What is the cross of Christ if it is not the perfect alignment of an individual carrying the load of collective guilt? “He himself bore our sins” says Peter (1 Peter 2:24), along with a multitude of other New Testament witnesses. It is the very essence of atonement and and it leads to redemption and reconciliation. The implications are also clear: Atonement neither excuses or permits ongoing complicity with evil and injustice. Rather, it compels that our bodies be used as “instruments or righteousness” (Romans 6:13). Christian spirituality looks to a process of sanctification in which the individual matures in cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit, into repentance, amendment of wrongdoing, and increasing Christlikeness. An aspect of that is understanding how we are called and led to interact within the collective of the church, humanity, and the wider world. Our word for this is vocation. It is grounded in forgiveness and freedom and is towards the righting of wrongs, and the renewal of the world.

Vocation is individual-and-collective in character.  The individual Christian is caught up into a collective marked by the name of Jesus. We refer to the “body of Christ”, one body united with many members or parts.  As an individual-in-community, I am responsible for manifesting Christ’s character to my brothers and sisters, and I am a “gift” as I serve in the particular way that I am enabled, impassioned, and inspired by God’s Spirit and truth.

When it comes to responding to racial realities, true vocation is a pathway forward. It is defined by Christ, and therefore counters self-absorption, deflection, and blindness to sin. It also incorporates a freedom from despair.  It is active to pursue what is good and what is right; the individual finds their place to move the collective towards the justice desired.  Today’s vocational prophets speak truth, the pastors care and mend lives, the healers heal, the wisdom-bringers speak, and so on. DiAngelo speaks the truth about white people. Vocation values this truth, and is also grace-filled towards the pursuit of self-awareness, goodness, and justice.

In this regard, vocation interacts, helpfully, with privilege. It would take an entire essay to examine this properly, but we can take a quick look: In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul explores the individual-in-collective image of the “body”. In that exploration he recognises differences with regards to “honour.”  There is a close correlation, I believe, between that sense of societal honour and what we might call “privilege.”  Here’s the point: Paul’s reason for raising it is to turn it upside down. We should “treat with special honour” those who are otherwise “less honourable” (1 Corinthians 12:23). We privilege the underprivileged. We should favour those who have been unfavoured.

There’s a corollary here that I believe DiAngelo, herself, recognises: privilege itself is not a sin. I didn’t ask to be white and male. I didn’t deliberately locate myself in a situation where I had access to good education. I have received the blessing of a healthy marriage and loving children; something that was neither owed to me or inevitable in life. The moral, and vocational question is not whether I am privileged or not, but what am I going to do with it. Again, the Biblical voice informs us. The character of vocation rests on Christ’s character of kenosis, i.e. self-emptying. Christ didn’t cling to his divine glory, but offered himself to the vulnerable, even laying down his life (Philippians 2:1-11). We are called to share this “mind of Christ”, and treat whatever we may have in the same way, i.e. self-sacrificially. If we have privilege, we don’t cling to it. We certainly don’t ignore it, or our complicity in whatever prevents others from attaining it. Rather we spend it out in the direction of goodness and justice. If I find myself with power, I don’t hold it to myself, I use it to empower those who are disempowered. This means it’s a self-effacing empowerment, even a handing-over-of-power empowerment.

In this way the Biblical affirmation of vocation is not antagonistic to the values of White Fragility, but it is more useful. 

Before we conclude, however, I need to address one point of discord between the Biblical voice and DiAngelo’s ideology. I’m hesitant to do this, as the value of White Fragility stands alone as a prophetic voice revealing white racism. Nor is DiAngelo setting out a fulsome treatise of her ideological foundations. Nevertheless, to the extent that I can discern her framework through which she can “represent, interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence” I find myself looking for ground that is more solid, from which to heed the truth she speaks. The discord is around the dynamics of identity and intersectionality.

Identity is a complex thing, and fundamental to our self-understanding. If I can ask and answer “Who am I?” I’m expressing my identity. A significant component will be how I see myself as an internal self-reflection; DiAngelo recognises this, for instance, with respect to the complexity of a multiracial person (page xii). There is a also a multiplicity of external characteristics by which I might self-identify and through which I might relate. “I am white, but I am also a cisgender woman, able-bodied, and middle-aged”, she says (page xii). What is dominantly expressed as my identity will often be driven by social context. DiAngelo’s whole project is to force those who do not see themselves racially to face that characteristic and its social context, and incorporate the results into their perceived and articulated identity. This is the value of the book.

As the social characteristics of identity intertwine we end up with what has come to be known as “intersectionality.” We find ourselves at the intersection of social categorisations, a complexity of different identifying markers – race, gender, sexuality, class and so on. Intersectional analysis can be and often is beneficial. It is a means by which we might explore ourselves-in-context. Again, DiAngelo’s project is to confront white people with their disinclination to undertake that exploration.

However, intersectionality is an intractable problem. It has the same shape as DiAngelo’s book; it can reveal much, but, in and of itself, that revelation alone does not effect change well.

Intersectionality reveals the complexity of human existence; I am writing this in the aftermath of the assault and murder of of Sarah Everard.  I am hearing the pain of women. The male-female social identity is being tested and explored right now, and rightly so. I am also hearing the pain of people of colour, pointing out how many black women have been murdered and who haven’t received the same attention as this white woman. It’s pain upon pain, at an intersection of two categories of identity. We don’t wish to despise or diminish either of them.

The complexity, however, reveals the intractability. The social categories are not mere labels on dynamics which are otherwise the same shape; they rub up against each other in different ways. It can even lead to a form of unhelpful division. That’s not with regard to division within a social category; White Fragility has been a healthy exploration partly because it refuses to ignore the racial divide. What I mean is an eventual competition between categories; race vs. gender, gender vs. sexuality, religious identity vs. class and so on.

Here’s the ideological collision: It seems to me that DiAngelo’s ideology attempts to look for the solution inside the intersectional black hole, as if it can be fathomed, and ordered, and solved. It can’t be. We might be able to elucidate and bring justice to one social categorisation. But that intersects with another, and another, and sometimes they are at odds. We do what we can do make a judgement of rightness and wrongness within the finite categorisations that we can explore, but we are finite. There’s a reason why we appeal to the infinite wisdom of the divine to bring about judgement and make things right! We can’t do it. We certainly can’t do it justly.

We all look into the intersectional blackhole. We all latch on to the identities that most adhere to our self-understanding. They are generally the ones that most correlate to our sense of pain and shame. We grasp hold of them, and we cry “What about me?!” So which of us has the right to rise above it all?

DiAngelo is unashamedly a believer in “identity politics”: “All progress we have made in the real of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics” (page x) and she lists everything from women’s suffrage to same-sex marriage and even the recognition of the white working class in the 2016 presidential election. She is revealing her intersectional hierarchy. I am, at least to some extent, in agreement with it, as I hope I have demonstrated in this engagement with the book.  But I am also very very wary of absolutising it. Civil rights are good, objectively so, and certainly within the social categories in which we dare to explore our complicity and fault. But civil rights action is not commensurate with bringing order to the intersectional chaos.

If intersectionality is a nexus of oppression, then it can only be ordered by those powerful enough to assert a hierarchy of identity, by those with the dominance to set the meta-narrative in which the social identities exist. This inevitably is a new form of oppression; all it does is shift the injustice, and the intersectional twirl finds a different oppressive equilibrium.  Paulo Freire warned of this years ago. In today’s world, for instance, the “fight” between feminism and transgenderism is over the narrative that defines womanhood, and consequently, personhood. It is essentially a conflict about intersectional ordering. In my world, the phenomenon of “cancel culture” is invariably a diminution of the religious or spiritual identity. Ironically, and this is one of those intersectional complexities, in discounting spiritual and religious identity many purveyors of identity politics are complicit in racism. Generally speaking, white progressives value spiritual and religious identity less than people of colour do.

An attempt to assert intersectional order is a form of domination. The extent to which those who aspire to identity politics cannot see this, is the extent to which they, themselves, are blind to themselves; it is the extent to which they have arrogantly placed themselves above the fray, and consider their own hierarchy of identities as “normal” and others as deficient. They both ignore and perpetuate the injustices that eventuate and are thereby complicit in them. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that many of them are white, and middle class, and are fragile in this exposure.

Here is what I affirm: If we reach into the intersectional quagmire, and examine the category of racial identity, White Fragility, is one of the best resources I’ve come across. It is instructive, truthful, helpful, challenging, and properly uncomfortable. I have literally had sleepless nights dissecting that discomfort, and working out how to not just leave this volume behind like yet another book, but apply it in my racial world. I am now more aware of the defensiveness and fragility that DiAngelo speaks of, and it has taught me about myself. I have much, much more to learn about systemic racism. I have received a cajoling in which I must recognise my white privilege, amend my individual ways, and use that privilege vocationally, towards collective justice.

However, on the same grounds, I cannot endorse a broader intersectional ideology.  It is not an effective pathway to real peace, or justice. In fact, I only see more despair, darkness, fracture, and pain when I see people move from an exploration of the world’s evils, and a resolve to attend to them, to take on the posture of a more universal judge.

Maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe it’s just my turn to learn about an everyday calculus of suffering, and to find myself at the bottom of the intersectional heap of those who have power and privilege. I mean, that’s sort of what Jesus did.

But I also look for hope. And I have only ever found that in Jesus, in whom I have been made new. My identity is first in him – everything else has been, is being, and will be surrendered to him – and all will be made well in him. I look for the day when I can run to Jesus and easily find in my vicinity – running ahead, and already there – black, brown, and all manner of brothers and sisters, with whom we share the deepest love of all.

Without that hope, I fall apart. Maybe I’m fragile after all.

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This is the beginning of the third part of a multi-part review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. The topic of discussion is systemic racism and, in particular, the collective blindness of white people towards their racial bias. In my first part (link) I explored DiAngelo’s observations by analogy with the phenomenon of classism. In the second part (link) I explored my own racial ignorance as a white person. DiAngelo does well to describe the problem of white fragility. In this part I am moving towards a focus on the question of “What we do in respons?” This will be the subject of my final post. I am not looking for a quick easy-fix, but aspiring to a dynamic of resolve towards white people owning their part in the world in which we live.


Part 3a – Religious resonance

DiAngelo does well. It’s hard to articulate a problem in a context beset by blindness. She’s persistent, and holds our nose to it until we can smell it. It can be an unpleasant experience, but it’s honest, and useful. But what does she imagine as a way forward?

At one level, it is obvious. DiAngelo is keen for white people to engage with “cross-racial skill building” (page 7), and hopes for when feedback about “our unaware yet inevitable racism” might be “graciously received” (page 113). I can certainly get on board with that aspiration; emotional honesty and humility are graspable virtues!  The guidelines she, herself, attempts to follow (page 125) are instructive for anyone in a position of power and privilege. Her own experience of “owning” her racism (page 145) is a demonstration of emotionally honest, humble, relational living. If only these were more prevalent! I want more of this in myself. I want more of this in the communities and churches in which I participate and lead!

What DiAngelo describes in her hoped-for response reflects aspects of what I might call “confession” and “grace.”  The one who is at fault, owns the problem, and doesn’t deflect. The one who is harmed, in a context of freedom, may offer a gift of illumination and help increase understanding. “Having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out…” (page 132). I need this. We all need this. If this is all that eventuates from books like this, that alone would be significant, and good!

My aim here, however, is to look a little deeper. To do that I am going to do my best to bring a Christian theological lens to bear. There will be some positive resonance, as well as some differences. However, before I proceed further, I need to recognise – and hopefully disclaim – a real phenomenon: I am becoming aware of how phrases such as “biblical worldview” and even “Christian” can intertwine with the exact forms of white privilege that DiAngelo has illuminated. Christianity has often (but far from always) played the part of the white man’s religion, and its forms have been used to sustain and justify segregation and white supremacy, just as DiAngelo has described. Even the beautiful eschatological vision of an ethnically diverse renewed humanity caught up together in eternal worship can be misused; “We are all one in Christ!” is over-realised eschatology, and harmful, when that unity is not actually present in the present.  Is the truth and certainty of ultimate renewal grounds for ignoring present sin? me genoito! Certainly not!

The Christian worldview can be perverted by whiteness, and my hope of disclaiming that is this: I sit at the brown-skinned feet of a crucified-and-risen man, reading the Scriptures that he read, upheld, and fulfilled. Within those pages I encounter and aspire to pathways of truth first walked by slaves, excluded women, African eunuchs, all manner of people who do not look like me. In the contemporary world I have received more spiritual food from the hermeneutics of black revivalism then the culturally-appropriating white-washed liberalism of the dominant ecclesial paradigm. I am far from fully sanctified, but this I know: Christian spirituality is not only a valid voice to hear, but a source of wisdom, more ancient, more universal, than any other perspective I’ve ever encountered. Moreover, it has a mystic ability to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and do the deep work beyond what we can ask or imagine. In its truest form, it is exactly what is needed to give sight to the racially blind.

The Biblical witness often harmonises with DiAngelo’s position. Sometimes this is against the rhetoric of those who might claim a “Biblical worldview” but are actually far from it. For instance, an absolutist individualism is not biblical. DiAngelo posits a sense of both collective guilt and individual complicity: We aren’t just “handed” our privilege as white people, the “systematic dimensions of racism… must be actively and passively, consciously and unconsciously, maintained” (page 64). The individual can’t just simply deflect on to the collective; it is wrong to “exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem.” (page 78). This is not a foreign theme in the Biblical narrative.

The Old Testament writings, especially, interweave that sense of systemic injustice into the deeper sense of idolatry and rebellion against the heart of God. Amongst myriad examples is the prophet Amos (5:14) who cries,  “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.” That evil is not just individual moralism, it’s against the “fat cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1) who “make it hard to the poor.” His summary introduction is against Israel collectively who “deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:7). The prophetic injunction is to a people – usually God’s people – not just to individual persons. My few short words here are not enough to express it – go and read the Bible! But heed the heart of God that is revealed. God responds to collective as well as individual guilt. He will even broken-heartedly take his people, collectively, into exile, because of their unrepented injustice, and so seek a change in their heart and their ways. The Western church should take heed!

We can conceive of a people, experiencing systemic harm, crying out to God, “How long, oh Lord? Remember us!”. We can conceive of him hearing, and heeding. There are some deep, deep expressions of this in the history of the black gospel movements. It is thoroughly biblical.

Moreover, God’s gracious gospel invitation, in Jesus, is to belong as an individual to a unified collective. This is most profoundly expressed by the image of a “body” – a diversity of members in a dynamic whole. St. Paul, especially, uses this image (see 1 Corinthians 12), He expresses it in a way that upturns the normal social defaults of his day. The gospel invites us into this common-union and this invitation is not a matter of affirmed privilege, but a belonging-to-one-another life of kenotic (self-emptying) transformation.

DiAngelo’s sense of collective guilt, and privileged complicity, therefore, should not offend us Christians. It’s part of our worldview. When exploring ourselves racially, we would do well to pray, together, along with the psalmist, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-4). Or is that only about acceptably-white personal trespasses like drinking alcohol and fornicating?

Indeed, in my mind, the Biblical voices are more consistent than DiAngelo herself. This is certainly the case when it comes to grasping the concept of “guilt”.  DiAngelo appropriately uses this language, e.g. “Anti-blackness comes from deep guilt about what we have done and continue to do; the unbearable knowledge of our complicity with the profound torture of black people from past to present” (page 94, emphasis mine). Given that, it is utterly incongruous that towards the end of the book, she refuses the language for herself: “… I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t chose [sic] this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it. to the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience…”  (page 149, emphasis mine). Perhaps, at this point, she is simply using it as a descriptor of emotion, i.e. “guilty feelings.” Nevertheless, her entire book has revolved around an honesty about guilt, but, here, at the end she steps herself back and couches it in terms of self-justifying attempts at a clear conscience. “I’ve done my best” – isn’t that a deflection?

The thing is, I don’t think this undermines her argument. Like all of us, DiAngelo is fragile when faced with being counted as guilty. I don’t disparage her for it. The Biblical voices are well-used to this phenomenon. A common objection to the gospel is the ever-present retort: “I don’t need anyone’s forgiveness, I’ve done my best!”  In this way the gospel is more consistent than DiAngelo; the gospel will not let us ignore our complicity and guilt in the fracture of this world, including it’s systems of injustice and pain. It will not even let us deflect towards our own good efforts. “All have fallen short”, Paul famously says (Romans 3:23).

The Biblical voice is also more robust than DiAngelo when it comes to shame. This a complex issue and there are two interwoven senses to understand. Firstly, shaming can be a malicious act of “othering” someone to diminish them and exercise power over them. But, secondly, someone can be “ashamed” in a healthy way, when they become aware not only of acting wrongly but having a propensity to act wrongly – i.e. that wrongness is in their character somehow. The gospel, literally, is about God entering into, inhabiting, and transforming our shame. It therefore relies on this second, honest, transformative sense. The gospel is rejected, however, when it is perceived in the first sense; when it is perceived as a malicious power-play, shame triggers our fragility, and we respond in defense. It is absolutely evident, in White Fragility, DiAngelo is shaming white people,  because there is guilt and we do have a propensity to perpetuate the systemic injustice! I believe she is doing so with the transformative intent, but she is encountering the defenses of the other perception.

The Biblical voice affirms the possibility of white fragility. And why not? After all, we Christians have a deep heritage in studying sin! I may speak, theologically, of “original sin,” or of an innate propensity to act seflishly and unjustly as part of our broken human community; I might even call this “depravity.”  DiAngelo speaks of “habitus”, an interplay of free will and societal structures which maintains our comfort and equilibrium (page 103). I then might speak of the “heart being deceitful” (Jeremiah 17:9). Surely these concepts are not foreign to each other?

In fact, as a professional sin-studier, I might dare to offer a little advice: One of the critiques of DiAngelo’s approach, in the sense that it doesn’t help white people talk about racism, is her imprecision with regard to sin. I see this in her use of loaded terms like “white supremacy” applied almost indiscriminately. It’s a term that connotes overt acts of violence and assault. Yet, applied to broadly, it would also cover lesser sins such as a mildly-negligent use of racist idiom in a conversation. This doesn’t excuse either act, but it is unhelpfully imprecise. I get that she’s pushing towards a common root of systemic white superiority, and that is appropriate. But we Christians do that too, and we have learned the limits of it. Our word “sin” also has a broad semantic range, grounded in a common root, and it also can be applied to anything from the cruel, malicious, literally diabolic oppressions of human empire, through to the complex inclinations of an otherwise innocent thought life. I’ve reflected it on that previously, and have suggested that we needed adjustments in our phraseology in order to communicate our intent, open the door to repentance and change, and not trigger misunderstanding and defensiveness. We don’t want to ignore sin and shame, but we also actually want to break the shame-cycle, not reinforce it.

Nevertheless, the Biblical voice does recognise the times when the root cause of sin needs to be revealed. DiAngelo uses a big stick, and it’s likely warranted. Jesus himself, tired of the religious deflections and excuses of his day, also uses amplification to uncover what is hidden and persistent:  “You have heard it said, do not murder… but I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment..” (Matthew 5:21). You can’t hide behind “done my best” and “I’m not a racist”, you must examine the heart and the root of the matter.

There is much that resonates between DiAngelo and the Biblical voice. But there is some discord also, particularly at the ideological level. DiAngelo has wisdom and insight, but the Biblical voices, in the end, offer more hope and a clearer way forward. This will be the subject of the final part of my engagement with White Fragility.

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This is the second part of a multi-part review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. This book explores how white people struggle to engage with the reality of racism in our society; we do not understand ourselves racially, and are blind to how we participate in and contribute to inequality and the manifest bias against people of colour. In the first part (link) of my review I attempted to grasp DiAngelo’s argument by using analogy; I correlated her observations regarding white racism with the cultural blindness of the English middle class. In this part I now seek to apply DiAngelo’s points to myself; I admit that I am playing an equivalent part, in racial terms, to what the middle class has played in my immigrant experience.


Part 2 – Exploring my ignorance.

A book like this cannot be read objectively. The main point of my analogy, in the first part, is to demonstrate why I, myself, might be racially unaware, and unable to taste the water I’m swimming in.

To that end, I need to admit to some anxiety. I don’t feel the privilege of being of white. I know that, relatively speaking to so many others, I am privileged. Many of these privileges, ironically, are attached to assumptions of middle class success. But I don’t feel the racial privilege. I have seen acts of racism against my friends and neighbours, and, perhaps, have some internal gratitude that I don’t have to weather those storms. But race isn’t embedded in the calculus of my life.

Instead, my self-awareness, (and I’m confident I’m not alone in this), attends to where I do feel underprivileged. I am, for instance, an immigrant outsider to self-seeding ecclesial networks, my path did not lead to cushy jobs (which, to be fair, I no longer aspire to) or obvious financial security, and I’ve never worn an old school tie in my life! Like the anecdotal antagonist on DiAngelo’s very first page (“A white person can’t get a job anymore!”), I do not feel empowered. In fact, I often feel excluded, in particular, by those with the formal and informal power to categorise me – and perhaps even “cancel” me – because of a privilege (white, male, straight) that I never asked for, and can do nothing about. And, in complete awareness that I am writing this freely and publicly, and that I literally own a right to a public-speaking platform – I often feel voiceless, unheard, ignorable, different, alone.

But this is exactly where I think DiAngelo has a valid exhortation: It’s my job to get over that anxiety, and, to be honest, to get over myself! Perhaps there is some injustice in my own broader experience, but that does not give me an “out” by which I can ignore other exclusionary dynamics, particularly racial ones, in which, whether I like it or not, I am a participant and a beneficiary.

What I have realised, from this book, is that with regard to racism, I have much to learn. I hadn’t clocked, for instance, how something as ostensibly benign as “white women’s tears” (page 134) could actually, and understandably, express racial power dynamics. That example clicked on a small light, and left me thinking, “if that is the case, then what else?”

A helpful pathway into my ignorance was the correlation with gender. I cannot be “colour-blind” in my relationships, just as I cannot be “gender-blind” (see page 81). The bias is there; for any number of reasons I will relate to a woman differently than to a man. The vast majority of those reasons are socially accepted, therefore I can admit to them, process them, and adjust them to ensure that they are not deleterious to anyone, including myself. But DiAngelo is right: As a white person, I have not had the opportunity or particular inclination to examine my racial bias. That effective denial of bias “ensures that we won’t examine or change them” (page 11). In short, I need to “name my race.”

… a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does). Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility, and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race.
(Page 7)

To be clear, I am not on some crusade of virtuous self-flagellation here. I can make some robust assessment of myself: I truly don’t think I am guilty of overt or even aversive racism; I don’t consciously exhibit “racial disdain that surfaces in [my] daily discourse” (page 45). Similarly, I don’t share all of DiAngelo’s experiences. She reflects that “not one person who loved me, guided me, or taught me ever conveyed that segregation deprived me of anything of value” (page 67). That is simply not my personal experience. In fact, the opposite is true; my wife and I have experienced a diversity of cultural contexts, including ones that are multiracial, and when we find ourselves confined to an echo-chamber of progressive liberal whiteness we feel the deprivation of that segregation. And let me tell you about how the prophetic presence of an Iranian community impacted a previously pale church community one day!

However, as DiAngelo reinforces, racism is a system, not an event. It pertains not to my individual experience, but to the privilege of my racial class, a class which was invented by white colonials in order to protect that privilege. The ignorance I need to reflect on relates to my complicity to this system, this world. To a large degree, this is necessarily about admitting ignorance and deliberately informing myself.

I can, for instance, reflect on what DiAngelo presents as the “common set of racial patterns” engendered by our socialisation(page 68). These are characteristics of the white collective, things like “preference for racial segregation”, a “lack of understanding of what racism is”, and “seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization.”  I can observe aspects of these in myself. I know, for instance, that I have “focused on intentions over impact”; I can remember nervously washing away someone’s awkward casual racist remark by asserting that “no harm was meant.”  In other ways, I’m open to instruction. I don’t think I have, for instance, a submerged and “internalised assumption of racial superiority” (page 55), but would be glad to have it revealed to me. I’d rather deal with it, if it’s there, than pretend it away. In this way it is more uncomfortable, and and also more useful, to be open to my complicity in the disproportionate advancement of white people as a collective.

The reality is that I simply do not have to think about being white. For sure, I live in a multicultural area, and I can see how my race might be impediment for certain church activities; to that extent I realise I am white. But I don’t have to think about it. As I think and dream and imagine my life, my whiteness is simply not a factor. To that extent, I am a beneficiary of some key sociological resources, of “self-worth, visibility, positive expectations, psychological freedom from the tether of race, freedom of movement, the sense of belonging, and a sense of entitlement to all of the above” (page 25).

I had assumed that this book was, in the main, going to give me an insight into the lived experience of people of colour. It does, of course, do that to some extent. But that is not the point; its intent is to give an insight into the white lived experience of ignoring or diminishing people of colour. It is actually more confronting. If it had been a book on how ethnic minorities experience racism, it may have left me informed, perhaps even angered, but, in the end, only objectively. In fact, I would have likely had a moment of self-congratulation for being open to understanding the plight of my non-white brother and sisters. White Fragility is more prophetic than that; it holds our feet in the racial story, so that we might understand our part.

Truth, however, takes a while to inhabit and explore. DiAngelo has given me a map of my ignorance, but it’s up to me walk those trails myself. Like all maps, it turns what is unknown into “known unknowns”. This book has given me the lie of the land of the racial privilege from which I benefit, the extent of my likely unconscious complicity, and, to a certain degree, what I might do about it.

However, it’s that last question – what to do about it – where DiAngelo is less helpful. If I may draw on a religious example: White Fragility is like God’s good law; it rightly, justly, appropriately, reveals what is wrong and our part in it… and yet I sense little power by which it can make things right.  I will explore this further in the next part.

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I’m reviewing this book with some trepidation. It is far from my field of expertise. It is not a Christian book. It interacts with a topic that invokes emotional as well thoughtful response. It’s a serious book about serious things with which we must seriously engage.

The broad issue that White Fragility touches upon, of course, is systemic and cultural racism. We might instantly think, therefore, that the focus is on people of colour. That’s a telling assumption which raises the exact issue that the author is focused on, as per the subtitle: The problem is “Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.”

The author is Robin DiAngelo, an academic and a professional in the area of diversity training. The illustrative anecdotes she brings from her experience ground her discourse. It’s unfortunate that this attaches the book very closely to the US context, but that does not diminish its value for the broader Western and post-colonial world.

My reflections are going to come in a number of parts, spread out over a number of posts on this blog. I will be “wrestling out loud”, so to speak, and doing so in response to the DiAngelo’s focus. She is articulating an observation about white people, and I am a white person. I have gone through some difficult introspection as a result of this book, but I am not laying claim to any emotional hardship. In all that follows, I will simply be seeking to follow the aim of my blog; it’s a “wild attempt at thinking things through.”  We live in a racially charged world which white people are often blind to, or deny – this is our white fragility. What are the dynamics behind that? How might we own what we need to own up to and act upon it well? I welcome any feedback and critique. I am on a learning curve.

My intention is to engage with this book in three ways. The first part is included below. The second and third part will come in subsequent posts, which I will link here when they are uploaded: Part 2, Part 3a, Part 3b

Firstly, in this post, I am going to try and understand by analogy. I will be drawing on my own experience of being an immigrant and of English classism. I want to be clear: I am not pretending that there is any equivalence between my experience and that of people of colour. I am, however, seeking to understand DiAngelo by applying her thoughts to something that is within my own comprehension. I participated in some racial awareness training recently and it affirmed a similar approach; being aware of when we ourselves have been “othered” can, if held well, use empathy as a bridge to understanding.

Secondly, in a subsequent post, I’m going to try and admit my ignorance. This book does challenge and confront white people, and I am a white person. Having done my best to understand what the author is saying, I will aspire to allow myself to be undone by it, and examine myself racially. At the very least, I will try and find the bounds of my what I do not know.

Thirdly, in a one subsequent post, and then another, I will seek a dynamic of resolution. I come to this as someone aspiring to be a disciple of Jesus. This fundamentally forms and shapes how I will explore and interact with DiAngelo’s approach. I will discover much that mutually affirms, and also some philosophical collisions. Please note: I am not looking for a simplistic solution here, but what I’m calling a dynamic resolution, i.e. a pathway ahead towards what is right, to which I, for my part, can aspire.


Part 1 – Understanding by Analogy

When my family and I arrived in the UK in 2015 we found ourselves in the middle of “Middle England.” It was a significant cultural collision. We made many mistakes, and we sought to educate ourselves. Our encounter was with the sociological collective that we might generally call “The Middle Class.” At the time, I wrote about some of the reading I’d done as I struggled to understand.

I’m mentioning this not because I think there is an equivalence between classism and racism. Rather, it is a reflection using analogy; my understanding of one thing will inform my understanding of another thing. I have found myself agreeing with much of what DiAngelo says about white people because I have seen similar dynamics within the English middle class. I am also aware that I have only seen these because, as an immigrant, I have straddled the boundary of being on the “inside” and the “outside” of the normative group.  But let me say it again: I am not conflating.  A white immigrant’s experiences are grounded in aspects of identity, (e.g. accent, cultural presumptions), that are often positively received and generally excused or overlooked. All that my experience affords, if anything, is a glimpse under the sociological hood.

For instance, DiAngelo asserts from the very beginning that “being white has meaning” (page 2). As a group, white people do not see themselves as a racial category, but rather as a racial norm. This is a confronting truth. Many white people would dismiss it as a nonsense. I may have included myself in that number at one point but, from my cross-cultural experience, I now know what it means for a class of people to be blind to themselves while classifying others. I can grasp a little of the concept of whiteness in this regard, even if I can’t fully appreciate the impact of it.

Those on the inside of a “normative class” cannot taste the water they swim in. Immigrants do. In order to process the dynamics of their new situation, generalisations are needed: We have to be able to make conclusions: “Middle class English people exhibit a certain behaviour.”  This is necessary in order to navigate the world we have landed in and so minimise social and psychological injury. It does not mean that every middle class individual person acts that way. Similarly, DiAngelo, generalises about race, and unashamedly so (page 11). It offends the “cardinal rule of individualism” and our visceral white, middle class hatred of being managed as a herd. Yet we do act with some herd-like dynamics, and a lack of awareness is part of the problem. Those dynamics are maintained through what DiAngelo calls “socialization”; “we make sense of perceptions and experiences through our particular cultural lens” (page 9). Immigrants have to learn these perceptions, but for the dominant culture they just “are”, and are often unexamined.

Why this blindness? In the middle class there is often an underlying foundation of fear and shame: the fear of never quite being secure enough, and the shame of being comfortable when others are desperate. DiAngelo, speaking of whiteness, identifies defining ideologies such as individualism and objectivity. I can also detect these within the middle class; as a member of that group I learn (i.e. am socialised) to think of myself as fully in control of my own destiny, and able to impartially assess myself and others. By these means I can divest myself of responsibility for another’s misfortune, protect myself from their fate through objective assertions of why they are lesser, and unconsciously invest in a system that will maintain my conclusions. If we disrupt this system, we disrupt some deeply held self-protections; we are fragile. I can therefore comprehend why DiAngelo asserts: “We need to discuss white people as a group – even if doing so jars us – in order to disrupt our unracialized identities” (page 89).

I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization. I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system. And in light of so many white expressions of resentment toward people of color, I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I saw our investment in a system that serves us.
(Pages 3-4)

There are other analogical correlations as well. DiAngelo asserts that racism is “a structure not an event” (page 20). I find it interesting, and helpful, that her references to overt acts of racism are usually the illustrative beginnings to her broader argument; the overt is used to reveal the related, covert, hidden, systems. Again, without conflating, there is a correlation in classism: Overt acts of snobbery are relatively rare, and, after all, “it’s not like we put people in the workhouses anymore.” We do, however, define success, and restrict the pathways to it, in ways that “help” people to know their place and stay there. I can conceive of what DiAngelo means when she talks about “new racism”, “a term coined… to capture the ways in which racism has adapted over time so that modern norms, policies, and practices result in similar racial outcomes as those in the past, while not appearing to be explicitly racist” (page 39).

DiAngelo asserts that the “social forces that prevent us from attaining the racial knowledge we need” include “the ideologies of individualism and meritocracy, narrow and repetitive media representations of people of color, segregation in schools and neighbourhoods, depictions of whiteness as the human ideal, truncated history, jokes and warnings, taboos on openly talking about race, and white solidarity” (page 8).  I can elucidate at least one analogical example from this list: My children have gone to a good school and can do so by virtue of our address. We do, however, live in a “poor neighbourhood.” At some point the school’s catchment was arranged to include this neighbourhood. I suspect it was a deliberate attempt to help the lower classes. But here’s the observation: it is the children from the poorer, multi-racial neighbourhoods which are required to travel two miles uphill to get to the campus. It sits and belongs in the middle of a more affluent suburb. This is not an overt act of classism (or even racism in this case); nobody has said “let’s make it difficult for the poor kids and the BAME kids to get to school.” But somehow it’s ended up that way. It’s not the only example in the city I live in.

Here’s another correlation: DiAngelo asserts, “I believe white progressives cause the most daily damage of people of color” (page 5, her emphasis).  Her point, as I understand it, references those who see the evil in overt racism, and decry it, yet, in failing to realise their own complicity in systemic racism, end up reinforcing it. The correlation in classism is with regard to those who “care for the poor” in some way. I see this in church circles all the time; even when it is manifested in good things such as food banks, there is, so often, an entrenched “client-patron” model at work. It is unspoken but real: “I am here to help you. I am normal. You are a poor person.”

“White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism” (page 112). DiAngelo is not speaking nonsense. I’ve seen this dynamic with respect to class. But now I must seek to understand it with respect to race and my own whiteness. I need my equilibrium disturbed. When it comes to understanding racism, I must admit that I am playing an equivalent part, in racial terms, to what the middle class has played in my immigrant experience. In other words, I am likely to be unaware, and unable to taste the water I’m swimming in.

I must turn away from my known analogy, and do my best to understand myself racially. This will be the content of my second part.

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Anonymous asks:

How does the church, especially the evangelical/charismatic wing, move away from the “singing group leader” = “worship leader” model?

The same problem exists in the traditional robed choir churches. I recall hearing one Dean talking about the cathedral choir delivering “high quality” worship. I remember my first vicar preaching a sermon telling us that the same word is used for “worship” and “service” in Greek. I think we could do with some teaching on this issue at some point.

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks for the question.

To get to your final point first. What you describe is a cultural problem. It’s something for which “teaching on the issue” alone is not enough. I can give something of a theoretical and theological response, but in the end this matter is one of the heart, of desire, of the orientation of our lives. It is, absolutely and in fact, a matter of devotion and worship.

I’m reminded of the complaint received by a pastor one Sunday: “Pastor, I didn’t really enjoy our worship this morning.”  The response? “Well, that’s OK, we weren’t worshipping you.”

To be frank, an honest assessment of our motivations for turning up on Sunday morning would probably reveal how self-centred we tend to be. That’s not necessarily bad; we can come to church seeking relief, solace, or comfort, and while these are self-centred, God loves us and delights to graciously give us good gifts. However, we can also come to have our egos stroked, our angsts papered over, and our privileges decorated in virtue. “I’m not getting what I want from church! I’m not being ‘fed’!” can be the genuine complaint of the spiritually hungry soul, or the entitled whinge of an acceptable form of ecclesiastical narcissism. Usually it’s somewhere in between.

As a vicar, when I field complaints about church, (“The children were too noisy”, “The livestream isn’t family friendly”, “I didn’t know the songs”,  “The sermon was too long”, “The sermon was too short” etc. etc.), I have learned to parse the feedback through this frame. Is it genuine feedback that I really should listen to? (It often is.) Or is it a self-centred demand for a better performance from myself or others? (That happens as well.) I have learned to look for the issue behind the issue. I ask myself, and sometimes the person who’s talking to me: “That’s interesting. What are the expectations that are not being met? Is it actually my job to meet them?”

This, of course, raises the question of what the “job” of Sunday actually is. Your suggestion is helpful here. Yes, “worship” and “service” share some semantics, and the original greek words are worth exploring:

λειτουργίᾳ (leitourgia), from which we get “liturgy”, relates strongly to the sense of “serving.” It pertains to things such as a military or civic service, or the duty of giving alms to the poor. In a religious setting, the priests in the temple serve God, through offering sacrifices or administering other rites and ceremonies. It sounds dry and dusty, but there is a real depth to it. It is right to come to church for spiritual succour and solace, but we also come to serve God and to minister to one another.

λατρεία (latreia) takes it further. We find this, for instance, in Paul’s exhortation to the Romans. If only we heeded it, Sundays would look a lot different! “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)  Here worship is a self-offering, a giving of ourselves to God. It is this form of worship that we should be modelling for our children, every day, rather than the consumerism that our generation has bought into.

προσκυνέω (proskyneo) is a verb and speaks of adoration and devotion. This is worship in the form of a kiss of reverence, or of lying prostrate. In the gospels, many worship Jesus in this way, including the disciples in Luke 24:52 at the time of Jesus’ ascension – “they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” This is the worship of surrender, and love, deep love of God.

To answer your question: The extent that our church culture can align with these forms of worship is the extent to which our focus will move away from the “singing group leader.” Rather, the focus will be on a self-offering to God. In fact, the other reasons why we come to church will find their place. We come on Sunday for worship, and also discipleship and fellowship. Discipleship is about having our whole lives taught and shaped by Jesus by the truth of his word and the power of his Spirit. Fellowship is about doing that together, spurring one another on to righteousness (Hebrews 10:24-25) and being united around Jesus. All of that is worship. And in that sense our “worship leaders” will be our pastors, and prophets, and teachers, and all the other gifts at work.

But in the end, just as we said at the beginning, this is a matter of our collective heart. To make that move would require cultural change, including the need for repentance. Many, if not most, of our churches enable self-centred consumerism.  When worship is about me…. If I go to a church service so that I can be well served… then I will be attentive to how well the servants are performing for me.  And so I will prefer the high quality choir, or the anointed “singing group leader”, and that’s where the focus will be. I will value the performance because it adheres to my self-absorption.

The irony is, of course, that it’s actually in real worship, in the ministry (leitourgia) of our devoted (proskynew) self-offering (latreia) that worship actually becomes a moment of real fulfilment and self-discovery. I am “fed” by worship when it’s not about me, and, consequently, not about the person on the stage.

Musical excellence is not irrelevant, of course, and it’s worthy of some investment. But the musical leaders who truly serve (leitourgia) us are marked by humility, and self-effacement (latreia) and turn us to devotion (proskynew), not adulation. It’s not easy for them. We love our celebrities, and we will always be attracted to those people through whom we have encountered the presence of God in some way. It is understandable that we will turn to them to seek more of the Lord. We will want to pitch our tents there, as Peter desired to stay on the mountain of Transfiguration. The wise worship leaders will simply echo the voice from the cloud on that day: “It’s not about you, it’s not about me; here is Jesus… listen to him.”

Photo Credit: Austin Neill on Unsplash

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It’s not often that I encounter a book that is both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. I picked up Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners as background reading for some upcoming conversations about sexuality in the Church of England. What I encountered were some deeper insightsThis isn’t really a book about sex and stuff, it’s a book about the stars; it beholds God’s grand narrative intimately and deeply and with no loss to its grandeur.

For better or worse, it is thoroughly Roman Catholic. The reason it is “for beginners” is because “Theology of the Body” is actually John Paul II’s opus. This book is Christopher West’s commentary on that work. Some caveats are therefore necessary; it is Catholic, and sometimes that is jarring. The mention of Joseph and Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, and the censuring of contraception are two cases in point. These assertions, however, are mostly tangential to the essence of West’s argument, which remains worthwhile.

I found myself exploring the content in two aspectspersonally and eschatologically – and two applications – individually and ecclesiastically. They are all intertwined, and it can be a confronting exercise.

For myself, when it comes to the personal aspect, I am quite familiar with my body. Over time, I have learned to listen to it. This is partly because as I’ve got older I’ve had afflictions, such as bladder cancer, which require me to pay attention. But mostly it’s because I am also familiar with anxiety. I know when the “fight or flight” adrenaline response kicks in, and when the knot in my stomach firms its grip. I am acutely aware when physical and existential angst overlap. I have experienced surgery trauma during a delicately intimate emergency procedure. I have also experienced, in my time, ecclesiastical mistreatment. Somehow my body conflates them and remembers both as a form of violation.

When it comes to the eschatological aspect, my engagement is this: I’m old enough to look back at my virile youth when zeal was pumping through my veins. Dreams and longings fizzed and popped. I would lie awake at night, not only moved by the prospect of juvenile romances, but by the sheer abundance of life ahead. I had idealism, expectation, and a simple desire for life.  But it’s one thing to dream, it’s another thing entirely to pursue life “in the flesh.” It’s one thing to fantasize about a romance, and even act it out with someone else, exploring each other physically like adventurers on the brink of a new world. It’s another thing to bring those dreams, and those romances, into steady, stable, committed, reality. Our bodies get spent in the pursuit of life, yet that deep foundational desire is still in there. Belief, when manifest in the physical world, takes the form of desire; we long to desire life, and for life to desire us.

My question of myself, then, is how do I process this experience?  How do I process it theologically? Abstractions and metaphor have their place, but it comes down to something physical: How am loved by God? Me, in this failing, hurting flesh? Me, a fallen man. Am I safe with him? Does he love me in this fat, old, pale, body of mine? Will he be there for me when me and mine need him, literally?

And what about this church that I’m a part of? If we are, together, the Bride of Christ, then I can imagine us looking wistfully in the mirror, studying ourselves with a degree of shame. Perhaps there is torpid obesity, self-afflicted wounds dividing one member from the next, a hacking sickness as yet another abusive leader lodges like phlegm in our lungs. Are we abandoned? Can we ever be fruitful? Who are we that He, our Saviour, should desire us? In our own internal monologue, we speak to each other as if Jesus isn’t even in the room. Shared belief, when manifest in the ecclesiastical world, eventually boils down to desire, and therefore worship.

Do we trust that he loves us? Do we entrust ourselves to him? Forget about strategic plans and all the other church fippery; that’s what it comes down to in the end.

This is why a theology of the body is important. It touches us deeply, intimately, powerfully – both individually and collectively. This part of theology brings implications for all the hot-topic issues; it is why I was reading the book. But those topics are touchstones for a reason. They touch places that run very, very, deep.

No wonder we are all so interested in sex. God put an innate desire in every human being to want to understand the meaning of our creation as male and female and our call to union. Why? To lead us to him. But beware of the counterfeits! Because sex is meant to launch us toward heaven, the enemy attacks right there. When our God-given curiosity about sex is not met with the “great mystery” of the divine plan, we inevitably fall, in one way or another, for the counterplan. In other words, when our desire to understand the body and sexuality is not met with the truth, we inevitably fall for the lies…
(Page 108)

What West has encouraged me to do is to not shy away from words such as “erotic” when  framing concepts of God’s love and mission. For many of us, “erotic” is a difficult word to talk about, and antithetical to anything divine. Eros often connotes uncontrolled passion, lustfulness, or a desire to dominate or manipulate. But we’re talking pure or redeemed eros here. It speaks of yearning and longing and of a form of love that is physically manifest. “Capital ‘E’ Eros – the very fire of God’s love – this is where small ‘e’ eros, the fire within each of us – is meant to lead.” (page 120). The incarnation teaches us that Jesus came in the flesh, and the defining act of “God so loved the world” was “This is my body, broken for you.”  Eros is not something that taints the divine, it is the divine that defines and confines the fire of eros, and is its only satisfying end.

This maddening ache I felt inside was a yearning for the infinite, and God put it there to lead me to him… Christ doesn’t want us to repress our desires, he wants to redeem our desires – to heal them, to redirect them toward an infinite banquet of love and ecstatic bliss called “the marriage feast of the Lamb” (Revelation 19.9). Discovering this set me on fire!
(Page 3)

Therefore “the body is not only biological… [it] is also theological”, West says (page 11), and he is right. Indeed, “Ours is an enfleshed religion, and we must be very careful never to un-flesh it” (page 13).  When we respond to Jesus, we don’t merely give intellectual assent, but a physical response. Not only do we “come to the altar” or wash our bodies with the waters of baptism, our very selves become his. To belong to Christ is to re-orient our physical selves, our yearnings, our longings, our actions, our sufferings. Collectively and individually we respond to his perfect and holy desire for us.

It doesn’t take too long for this to hit close to home. There were times when I had to put this book down because I was manifesting, physically, some of my traumas. I curled up in a ball. I felt, in my gut, the familiar knot of the unlovable, rejected, and ostracised teenager. I felt lonely; shallow-breathed, wild-eyed, scared, hiding my nakedness. I was being reminded that I want God’s love as more than theory; I long to know that the me-in-my-body is longed for, cared for, valued.

As I dared to dwell in this, I found the answer in the physicality of the cross. There have been times – very few times if I’m honest – when, as a man, I have expressed love by serving to the point of physical pain. But Jesus on the cross exemplifies such love. His love for me, for us, is leg-trembling, blood-sweating, shallowed-breathing, pain-moaningly clear. He loves me with his body; it is tenderness, it is affection, it is embrace. His touch on my life may be scary and frightening at times; but in his arms, I am safe, and I can surrender to him and bear much fruit to his glory.

But, to be honest, I struggle with those words. I’ve tried, and failed, to avoid sexual imagery. West’s encouragement is to not avoid it, but to find the holy foundations on which it is grounded. “In Christ eros is ‘supremely ennobled… so purified as to become one with agape‘” (page 23).  There are two foundations that help us:

The first foundation is our own physicality. In the Genesis accounts God creates humanity with physical, sexed, bodies – male and female. Of course, in this current moment of trans and gender militancy, this is a difficult topic, and there is a complexity of “lived experience” to pay heed to. Nevertheless, the essential link between biblical ontology and physical sex is powerful and essential. It can’t be eradicated without fundamentally shifting how we conceive of God, and of ourselves. We are made in the image of God, and that includes our physicality. “God inscribed this vocation to love as he loves right in our bodies by creating us male and female and calling us to become ‘one flesh'” (page 12) and so to “fruitful communion” (page 18).

The second foundation is the so-called “spousal analogy.”  Here is the coherence between marital union and the union of Christ and the Church. It is epitomised in Ephesians 5:25-33. And despite the misrepresentation of its detractors, it was also the substance of the recent CEEC video The Beautiful StoryWest writes, “from beginning to end, in the mysteries of our creation, fall, and redemption, the Bible tells a nuptial, or marital, story” (page 21).

That’s where we can ground our language, and our thoughts.

Take the issue of masculinity. When talking to men about men it is easy to slip into caricatures: the emasculated man-of-the-cloth wearing vestments like a dress, or the macho preacher yelling for Jesus. It can only be approached through a theology of the body.

Us men must learn to be effective members of the church, the “Bride of Christ.” There is an unashamedly feminine form of intimacy in that notion; we rightly pray, as men, something like “bear fruit in us and with us and through us.”  Our sisters, therefore, have much to teach us. The female form of intimacy allows someone to be inside and to leave something there. Men are uncomfortable with that, but need to learn what it means to embrace vulnerability with dignity, honour, and grace-filled empowerment. Without it we struggle to entrust ourselves fully to God, and we certainly cannot nurture and lead his people. For West, drawing on the example of Mary, “every woman’s body is a sign of heaven on earth” (page 25), and that, exactly, is the eschatological nature of the church.

Male bodies have their fragility on the outside, and in our corruption we cover and defend, often by domination. The spousal analogy points to a redemption of this. Christ “gave himself” for his bride, the church. For West, therefore, “the theology of a man’s body can be described as a call to enter the gates of heaven, to surrender himself there, to lay down his life there by pouring himself out utterly” (page 25). No wonder Augustine referred to the “marriage bed of the cross” (page 26). I’ve had enough internal dialogues with myself, and real conversations with other men, to know how dearly we need a cruciform shape to our sexual discipleship.

Clearly, some conceptions of gender, singleness, and marriage are examined by the spousal analogy. It is why these are not second-order issues that are just going to go away. What West does really well is demonstrate how the orthodox or traditional view is not founded on prohibition or repression, but on worship and gospel proclamation. Clearly there is honour in the marriage union of husband and wife; it expresses a divine eros, and it can bear, quite literally, the fruit of new life. But it’s the divine eros that comes first; and none are excluded from it.

…marriage does not express definitively the the deepest meaning of sexuality. It merely provides a concrete expression of that meaning within history… At the end of history, the “historical” expression of sexuality will make way for an entirely new expression of our call to life-giving communion.
(Page 100)

For West celibacy is not a repression of sexuality, but a “fully human – and, yes, fully sexual – vocation” (page 36). All of us – including those of us who are married and sexually active – need to take heed. Our physical yearning is grounded in a more profound yearning that we all hold; to be united in Christ and to see his kingdom birthed in all its fullness. The older I get, the more I realise how that eternal desire is deeper and more profound than that found on the marriage bed. In fact the health of the marriage bed will usually reflect and reveal what is being grasped at the deeper divine levels.

What we yearn for, whether married or single, is a participation in the “spousal meaning” of our body. “Spousal love… is the love of total self-donation” (page 56), and the spousal meaning “is the body’s ‘power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning… of being and existence.'” Marriage looks back to the foundations of the spousal meaning, celibacy looks ahead to its deepest eternal fulfilment. Neither is ethereal. Undergirding both is an eschatologically pure eros desire for eternal communion.

Christ is the ultimate end of our search for intimacy. For those who are single; a sexual partner will not answer your deepest longings. For those who are married; your spouse and your sexual activity will not do it either. I echo West when he offers “great reverence” for the “cry of the heart for a spouse” of the person who is single and doesn’t want to be. Eros is the “cry of our hearts for the infinite… Whether we are single, married, or consecrated celibates, setting our sights on that eternal union is the only hope that can safely see us through the inevitable sorrows and trials of this life” (page 115). We all long for Christ.

We worship whatever we think will satisfy our deepest desires. Eros yearns for the infinite, crying out to be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). In the divine plan, sexual love is meant to point us to the infinite and opens us up to it. But when we fail to see our sexuality as a sign that leads beyond itself to the mystery of God, eros gets “stuck” on the body itself, and we come to expect small “b” beauty to do what only capital “B” beauty is capable of: fulfilling our deepest longings.
(Page 62)

Here, at these deepest longings, the individual and the ecclesiastical intertwine.  When the church tears itself apart, it reveals what it worships. At the moment much of the church is tearing itself apart over sexuality. Our eros, our worship, is stuck, and we “don’t really believe God wants to satisfy our desires” (page 73). While we desire something other than Christ – the lusts of our consumerism, traditionalism, activism, nationalism, and even some hedonism – we are simply not a real embodiment of the gospel, not really a church.

But in all things – both personal and ecclesiastical – there is hope. There is the blood of Christ poured out for us on the cross. There is new wine to receive – quite literally in Communion. There is the Spirit of God, holding us, filling us, giving voice to groans, and making all whole, new, and fruitful. God desires us. How can that not awaken and delight our heart?

If Christians themselves don’t believe in the power of redemption to transform eros, what do we have to offer a sexually indulgent world other than rules and repression? If the contest is between the starvation diet and the fast food, the fast food wins hands down. But if redemption can truly redirect our desires toward a divine banquet that infinitely satisfies our hunger, the banquet wins hands down.
(Page 86)

I came to this book expecting some treatise that may inform a church controversy. I have left with some of my cynicism eroded. I have left having brushed against a beautiful thought such that “I was filled with a painful longing, a kind of nostalgia that grabbed me in the chest and became a prayer.” I have found myself praying: “I have been afraid that living from that ‘fire’ inside me would only cause me pain or lead me astray. Awaken a holy and noble eros in me, Lord. Give me the courage to feel it and help me to experience it as my desire for your Fire” (page 109).

Amen.

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Anonymous asks:

I read with interest the series of Facebook posts sparked off by your post of the Christianity Today article. I think it is fascinating to see how Christians come to opposing conclusions from the same set of “facts”.

For me, one of the biggest problems not just in the specific case of the USA but generally, is what we mean by “discerning the mind of Christ” or “listening to the Holy Spirit”. I am fully in agreement with the article and your counter-arguments against the pro-Trump people. However, how do I know that this really is what God is saying to us?

The same can be said of other major issues on which the church is split. Each side is sure that they are listening to God. I think this conundrum is something that has got increasingly difficult over the 40 odd years of my Christian life. For example, in the early 70s, I think the evangelical world was pretty unified on the sexuality issue. We could dismiss pro-gay views as being part of the liberal wing. Now, I suspect that even the evangelical wing is probably in a minority in holding to traditional views.

Why does God not speak to everyone in the same way or rather why do we not hear God in the same way?

The Christianity Today article referenced is: We Worship with the Magi, not MAGA

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thank you for this question. This was sent in a while ago, and the delay in my response comes from the fact that this is my second attempt at answering!

At the heart of it, your question is about disagreement. In particular, it’s about Christians disagreeing on how to discern what God wants, what God wills, or simply what he is doing. In my first attempted answer I wanted to talk about epistemological differences – i.e. our understanding of how we know things – and then set our feet on the solid rock of God’s revelation in Scripture and analyse our disagreements from there.

It wasn’t a bad place to begin. From that perspective of Biblical truth we can form an opinion on whether people (including ourselves) are correct or incorrect with regard to doctrine or fact. We can also discern whether people (including ourselves) are wrong or right in terms of the spirit or character of our engagement. We can also reach for some conclusions about what things are essential or primary, and what things are secondary adiaphora on which we can disagree in unity.

On the matters you raise – Trumpism and sexuality – there has been much that has been written and said and I’m not going to rehearse it all again here. If our intention is to disagree well while holding to a robust epistemology, there are some good examples. A number of years ago I wrote a lengthy multi-part review of a book called Good Disagrement?. One of that book’s contributors, Andrew Goddard, has written very recently on the same topic of sexuality on the Psephizo blog. With regards to US politics, a recent podcast from Premier Christian Radio, Unbelievable? Is the US Church in the grip of political idolatry? with Shane Claiborne & Johnnie Moore, is useful.

The reason for my second attempt at an answer is that I think your question might be pushing a little deeper. It is a good thing to analyse the nature of disagreement. But you are asking why it happens. Why does it seem that God is not speaking clearly? If God’s truth is real and foundational, why do Christians differ so significantly on what we think that truth is? And if that clarity is not there, how can I truly know anything?

Conflict and disagreement about God’s will amongst God’s people is self-evident, biblically, historically, and in our present moment. Our trust in God cannot depend on their being a lack of disagreement. So we must find the right place for it in our thinking. To that end, I discern two types of conflict, which I will tentatively call unfaithful disagreement, and faithful disagreement.

The first category of unfaithful disagreement is needed because sometimes God’s truth is clear. The conflict arises simply because there are those who wish to be faithful to what God says, and those who wish to dismiss it, disobey it, or harden themselves to it in some way.

Many of the conflicts in the Bible are of this sort, which makes perfect sense when viewing Biblical history from the perspective of hindsight and a greater awareness of the grand scheme of things. There is story after story of various people whose eyes are open to God’s truth being opposed by those who are hardened or spiritually blinded in some way: from Cain & Abel and those who opposed Noah, through the mumbling moans of the Israelites against Moses, to Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her (Matthew 23:37). This is truly the conflict of light vs darkness, truth vs lie.

These conflicts cannot be truly resolved by compromise or finding the balance of things. In such conflicts even if an “agree to disagree” can be found it resolves to a diminishment of unity, rather than an increase.

Take the issue of state authorities, for instance. With regards to Trump the normal “common ground” issues of how God ordains secular and civil leadership (e.g .in Romans 13) are not really the issues at hand. What is under dispute is whether some particular anointing, even of a Messianic kind, attaches to Trump, the nature and extent of spiritual warfare and prophetic utterances about Trump, and the intertwining of gospel proclamation with the ascendancy of one man, and the violent actions of a mob in Washington. These are matters of right and wrong, light and dark.

With regard to the issue of human sexuality; there is a lot of complexity and nuance, and things to understand and embrace in the middle of it all. Nevertheless, sometimes the dispute does encroach onto matters of fundamental clarity, and we do face (on both sides of the politics, to be honest) fundamental matters of idolatry and grossly negligent handling of the Scriptures.

To some extent, then, this answers something of your why question. Why do we disagree? Why do we claim God’s support on different sides of various debates? It is simply the human predicament:  We long to stand in the light and truth of God, and at the same time our rebellious self-centred hearts oppose it. That essential conflict is therefore within society, within church communities, and even within our own souls. In our sin, we do not hear him as we should, therefore we disagree. This should not surprise us.

The response to it is hope. One day the Father of Lies will be defeated, and the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life, will shine and all will be revealed.

However, there is also a form of faithful disagreement. It rests on the reality that God made us good, and he also made us finite. There is goodness in our epistemological finitude; it is part of God’s good design that we are limited in our knowledge of the truth. Those limits are a dynamic part of us that draw us towards a deeper knowledge of God, a deeper worship.

It’s one of the reasons I am wary of Trumpist-like prophets who sometimes speak of getting a “downloaded” word from God. Biblical and personal experience, rather, indicates that God’s truth is something that we have to learn. After all, Jesus had disciples; i.e. he had students! He promised that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). And through the various modes of ministry and gifts within the church, a process of maturation is expected (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Some of us will know certain aspects of God’s truth differently than others. Some of us will be better versed in the Scriptures. Some of us will have had different experiences to bring alongside those Scriptures. In our learning there will be difference of opinion. But that doesn’t mean that that process of learning is flawed.

Consider the ideal: Adam & Eve walked and talked with God in their innocence; their growth and maturation sprung, in all goodness, from that relationship. (Interestingly, the fall is portrayed as an attempt to seek knowledge on their own terms). Similarly, Jesus gathers his disciples and they sit at his feet where they receive the words of eternal life (John 6:68) – and that was good!  It was good when they first started being taught by him, and it was good after three years of walking and talking. And, we might note, it didn’t stop them having disputes – some of them painful – which were, in themselves, opportunities for Jesus to teach them, yet again.

At our best, this is what we see in the “disputes” of the church. They lead to greater understanding, and deeper worship. Paul talks to the Bereans and they run to the Scriptures with eagerness, (Acts 17:11), to test what they have heard. The leaders of the church come together in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 and they ponder together Peter’s experience with Cornelius, and the truths of the Law, and their own eyewitness learning from Christ himself, and they resolve the dispute about the inclusion of the Gentiles. They don’t pitch these things against each other to find some shallow overlap; they wrestled in their faithfulness to Scripture and the direct teaching of Jesus, in order to grasp what was happening in their experience. From this wrestle came a greater fathoming and proclamation of the gospel!

This isn’t some mystical magical thing; it’s the ordinary experience of the gospel. Personally, I remember how one of the greatest joys of my theological training was the lunchtimes debates of one topic or another – well-hearted differences of opinion that forced me back to the word of God, to wrestle, to learn, and, in the end, it led to greater worship.

Why do we not hear God the same way? Because, in his divine wisdom, our ignorance is a call to worship, as we bring each other to sit at his feet.

How, then, do we know, with the issues that are rising in our own time now, what sort of conflict we’re dealing with?

I will always do my best to take heed of the disputes around me – even the matters of Trump and sexuality. I may learn something from them, you see. Here’s the framework I use to parse that:

  1. Is this dispute a matter of fundamentals? Are we seeing, here, a matter of spiritual opposition to God and his word. Have we slipped from asking “What does our Lord say?” to “What am I going to say anyway?”  In this case, I either call out the error as constructively as I can, or I walk from the dispute; it cannot lead me to greater worship.
  2. Is this dispute a secondary matter? That is, does what I have learned from God’s word stay the same on either side of the debate? I will enter into the matters if I have the inclination or energy to clarify my own opinion, but only if it’s edifying. Paul warns us away from needless controversies (Titus 3:9) and about needlessly offending our brother or sister (1 Corinthians 8:9).
  3. Is this dispute taking me to sit at God’s feet once more, to learn from his word, and explore his heart? At this point I will attempt to receive the dispute as a gift, even if have to expend some energy and suck up some humility. In this moment it can be a great joy and delight that we do not all hear God in the same way; there’s something more to learn from his Word.

The difficulty with the matters that you raise – Trumpism and sexuality – is that in different ways, with different people, on different particular topics, I have found that all three parts apply. Sometimes it’s a matter of opposing what is blatantly wrong. Sometimes it’s needless controversy. Occasionally it is edifying dialogue. You will see all three aspects at work simultaneously, and because of that, much wisdom is needed.

Thanks for the question.

Photo credit: Wikimedia licensed under CC SA 4.0

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How Clergy Thrive is a short report in the Church of England that was released in October 2020. It provides insights from the Living Ministry research programme, a longitudinal study into clergy wellbeing that has been following four cohorts of clergy and their families. It is substantial research and author, Liz Graveling, presents it well. It pushes in the right direction but, unsurprisingly, falls short of a fulsome exhortation for the cultural and structural changes that are really needed.

I have attended enough “resilience” sessions at clergy conferences to approach a report on this topic with a healthy cynicism. This report avoids many of the normal pitfalls.

For instance, clergy wellbeing is often reduced to a matter of individualised introspection and the promotion of coping mechanisms. Refreshingly, this report recognises that “wellbeing” is a “shared responsibility” (page 7). It notes that the “the pressure to be well”, itself, “can sometimes feel like a burden”. Indeed, “clergy continuously negotiate their wellbeing with institutions, social forces and other people: family members, friends, colleagues, parishioners, senior clergy and diocesan officers, as well as government agencies and market forces.” We clergy live in a complex web of ill-defined social contracts. We are often the least defended from the inevitable toxicities. A recognition of this system is a good foundation.

Similarly, the multifaceted approach to “vocational clarity” (page 9) deals well with actual reality. There is always a gap between the “calling” of ministry and the “job” of ministry, between the way in which the Holy Spirit gifts someone to the body of Christ, and their institutional identity. In my experience, the wellbeing of a clergyperson is essentially shaped by one’s emotional response to that gap. Wellbeing is encouraged by stimulating and supporting a clergyperson to reach an honest, holistic, and healthy equilibrium. It is undermined by arbitrary training hoops and merely bureaucratic forms of institutional support. The short discussion on where annual Ministry Development Reviews are either helpful or not (page 9) or even damaging (page 10) indicates that this dynamic has been recognised. The many “questions for discussion and reflection” are also helpful.

It’s impossible, of course, to read something like this without evaluating my own wellbeing and the health of the institution to which I belong. I have my own experiences, of course, including some significant times of being unwell. Here, however, my attention has been turned to the cultural and structural problems that are revealed.

Take the surveyed statement “I feel that I am fulfilling my sense of vocation” (page 11). It is noted that “79% agreed they were fulfilling their sense of vocation.” This sounds reasonable. However, I’m not sure if that positive summary is quite what the data actually suggests. Only 47%, less than half, of the respondents can fulsomely agree with vocational fulfillment. The other 32% in that 79% can only “somewhat agree”, and a full 20% is neutral or negative.

In many professions this picture might be excellent. Retention rates for teaching, for instance, indicate a 30% loss after five years.1  We must, however, make a distinction between an ordained vocation and most other professions. In ordained life, one’s profession is not just one facet of life, it is holistic (page 7); it captures many, if not all, of life’s parts. Integration of those parts is key to being healthy. How can it be, then, that 53% of our clergy are not able to fully find themselves within the life of the church? From my perspective, this speaks of a consumeristic culture in which clergy are service-providing functionaries rather than charism-bearing persons. Perhaps it simply speaks to an unhealthy culture in which it is tolerable for square pegs to be placed in round holes despite the inevitable trauma. Whatever the case, this isn’t about the church institutions doing wrong things, it’s about innate ways of being wrong; we need to change.

We see glimpses of this same sense throughout. Consider the relative benefits of the activities that are meant to support clergy (page 14). The more positive responses correlate to personal activities or activities that are outside the institution: retreats, spiritual direction, mentoring, networks, and academic study. The institutional supports such as MDRs, Diocesan Day Courses, Facilitated Small Groups and so on, are of relatively less benefit. In fact IME Phase 2, the official curacy training program, scores worst of all!  I cannot speak to IME – my curacy was in Australia – but the rest of the picture certainly matches my own experience.

This is observation, not disparagement. I generally sympathise with those in Diocesan-level middle management. They have tools and opportunities that look fit for purpose, but they so often appear to run aground on deeper issues they cannot solve. Dissatisfaction then abounds. A related observation is this: It appears to me that a common factor amongst the poorer scoring forms of support is that they are often compulsory. This invariably amplifies dissatisfaction. Appropriate accountability and commitment aside, compulsion usually reveals an institution propping itself up through confecting its own needfulness.

Again, when  “sources of support” are considered (page 31), the ones most positively regarded are non-institutional: family, friends, colleagues, and congregation. Senior Diocesan Staff, Theological College, and Training Incumbent score low. This is understandable and perhaps it is unfair to make this comparison; no one is expecting the Bishop to be a greater source of support than one’s spouse. However, the question wasn’t about support in general, but about “flourishing in ministry“, and the picture remains stark. Note, also, that the most negative response that could be offered was a neutral “not beneficial.” If a negative “unhelpful” were counted, the picture might be even starker.

My point is that cultural problems are being revealed. If only 63% of respondents could agree, at least somewhat, that “the bishop values my ministry” (page 49) then this is not so much a problem in our bishops, and certainly not the clergy, but in the institution in which we all embody our office.

Remuneration and finances are also revealing. 45% of the respondents are “living comfortably”, but 81% of the respondents had “additional income” (pages 39-40) which, I suspect, relates mostly to the income of a spouse. To some degree, this is all well and good; a dual income usually means a better quality of life. Nevertheless, the sheer disparity in financial wellbeing between clergy couples with one or two incomes cannot be ignored.  The provision of parsonage housing is a factor; in other occupations accommodation costs generally rise and fall along with household income and dampens the disparity.  More importantly, however, is how this reflects the individualisation of vocation, and the shocking degree to which clergy spouses are simply invisible, for better or for worse, within the Church of England. It is also my experience, both personally and anecdotally, that the wellbeing of couples who are both clergy is not well assisted in our current culture. This is especially so for those called to “side by side” ministry, who share a ministry context and usually only one stipend. It’s well past time to allow for couples to be licensed and commissioned as couples, like many mission agencies do. We need the means to share remuneration packages and tax liability, and, at the very least, the provision of National Insurance and pension contributions for the non-stipended spouse. Our current culture does not allow for this.

Finally, this study would do well to extend its work to take into account the effects of incumbency on wellbeing. I wonder what proportion of the respondents, given their relative “youth” in career-length terms, have reached incumbent status? Incumbency comes with a certain level of stability, power, and protection. Attached to incumbency are checks and balances on institutional power. Incumbents are more clearly party to the social contract between clergyperson and institution. Associates, SSMs, permanent deacons, and the increasing numbers of crucial lay ministers are not as well protected. They do “find themselves overlooked or under-esteemed” (page 35). The increasing prevalence of non-tenured and part-time positions in the Church of England is a structural concern that does effect clergy wellbeing. We need more work here.

How Clergy Thrive has painted a useful picture. There is scope for even more insight. The benefit of longitudinal research is that the story of wellbeing can be told over time. The testimonials in this report reflect this and are very helpful. It is unfortunate, however, that most of the data is presented as a snapshot census-like aggregation across the cohorts. An accurate picture of how wellbeing ebbs and flows as a career progresses would help us all. If we knew, for instance, at what point in their career a clergyperson is most likely to not be thriving, we could respond. If clergy wellbeing suddenly drops, or if it slowly diminishes over time, that would teach us something also.

Like the vast majority of reports, this one struggles to answer the question of “What do we do about it?” How do we help clergy thrive? In the end, it appeals to an acrostic: THRIVE (pages 56-57). It’s not bad. It’s healthy advice that I’ve given to myself and to others from time to time: Tune into healthy rhythms; Handle expectations; Recognise vulnerability; Identify safe spaces; Value and affirm; Establish healthy boundaries.

These principles are applied, to a small degree, to how the existing system might do a few things differently. In the main, however, they describe what clergy have managed to do for themselves. It’s a story of technical changes for the institution, but adaptive change for the clergy. We need the reverse of that.

The life of a clergyperson exists in an impossibly complex interweave of pastoral, strategic, and logistical expectations. Technical changes in an institution often only add more expectation and more complexity. We have a structural problem. We have forces vectoring through things that are too old, too big, or too idolised to be modified. Instead, they are dissipated through the clergyperson, and other officeholders, but not the system itself. Personally, I’ve learned to find my place and peace with much of the machinery, and to look for the best in the persons who hold office. I have done this, in resonance with many of the testimonials in this report, by trusting real people when I can, and by not giving myself, or those I love, to the church system itself.

It’s not enough for the ecclesiastical machine to do things better. It must become different. Take heed of the testimonial on page 25 – “I wouldn’t really trust my diocese to make them aware that I have a mental health issue.” Imagine, instead, that the diocese was for that person a fount, a fallback, a refuge, or a hope! In short, imagine if the church (ecclesiastical) really aligned with being a church (theological). That’s the redemption we need. I wonder if the “big conversation” alluded to on page 6 will help.

Like most intractable problems, the hard thing is not about noting the problem. It’s not rocket science; we “just” need real Spirit-filled personal nourishment and discipleship. It’s the getting from here to there that is difficult. Difficult, but not dire. There are times when the right people are in the right place and it just works. For myself, I hold to a glimpse of how things might come to be:

What do clergy need to thrive? They don’t need an “MDR”, they need to be overseen: a regular conversation with a little-e episcopal someone who can cover them, is for them, and who has their back.

What do clergy need to thrive? They don’t need strategic plans and communication strategies, they need to be treated as the little-p presbyters they are: brought into the loop, entrusted with substantial work without being second guessed, and given space to be themselves without having to watch their back.

What do clergy need to thrive? They don’t need a “remuneration package”, they need to be provided for with decent housing that’s fit for their purpose, enough money to feed their family and prepare for the future, and an assurance that spouse and children will also be backed and supported without needing to beg or “apply.”

Footnotes
1 – National Foundation For Educational Research, 2018

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