Navigating Theological Dialects in a 3D Church

In the last little while I’ve had a couple of conversations with people who are trying to get their head around the amorphous complexity that is the Church of England.  This is partly administrative (“What on earth is a Deanery for?”) but mostly to do with what I call “theological languages” (or “dialects”) and what we might have once called differences in “churchmanship.”

It is not helpful to arbitrarily split people into factions and put them in boxes.  Underlying it all there are some unifying commonalities (in the name of the law, if nothing else).  But understanding the diversity is necessary for good relational reasons.  This is particularly so if you’re new to it all.  If you’re trying to understand, converse, or collaborate, you need to have some sense of the theological landmarks and boundaries, the buzzwords and shibboleths; you need to know how the same word might mean something slightly different depending on who is saying it.  You need to know something of the stories, the varying priorities and values and why they exist.  By this you can avoid needless scandal, and express “brotherly charity” (to quote the law again).

So none of this is by way of disparagement.  Nor is it naive oversimplification.  But just as maps simplify reality to that which helps with navigation, so it is sometimes helpful to try and locate oneself, and others, on a theological map that is described and shaped by some simple, relevant markers.

2dtheomapIt has been common to describe ecclesial markers using words such as “high and low” and “left and right”, forming something of a two-dimensional plane.  So-called “liberalism” is on the left, and “conservatism” is on the right.  Traditional formality is “high” and informal flexibility is “low.”

In reality, the church population is scattergraphed all over these spectra.  But we can identify some communities within the community, different camps or theological dialects.  And so, for instance, we can speak of “Anglo-Catholic” who are “high” and emphasise traditional forms of worship, symbolism, contemplation, mysticism, and organisational integrity.  Within this camp the “left” wing might emphasise the symbols-in-themselves, and make use of them as means for social action or radical inclusion; the “right” wing might emphasise the referent of the symbols, and so emphasise the connection with apostolic roots.

Similarly, the “Charismatic” groups emphasise the spontaneous experience of the Holy Spirit in the everyday.  They are therefore “low” in their formality and express “leftwards” tendencies as they desire freshness and renewal.  The “conservative evangelical” group is closely related, but values theological precision (placing them slightly higher in terms of formality) and adherence to the revelation of Scripture, which is a conservative, rightward, trait.  The “left” or “liberal” wing of the church is wide-ranging, but emphasises the general revelation of the social sciences, affirms the multiplicity of different journeys with God, and champions human capacity.

I’m sure that those who identify with any of these communities will find my precis unsatisfactory.  That’s OK.  My point is simply to recognise a simple way of summing up the variances that exist along the whole board of theological subdisciplines: espistemology, soteriology, eschatology, etc. etc.  For better or for worse, while not a complete picture, a map like this reflects at least something of reality, and might help people to navigate their way through this broadest of landscapes.

3dtheomapInterestingly, though, in recent weeks, I have found myself wanting to add a third axis.  We might call it an “inwards”/”attractional” and “outwards”/”missional” spectrum.

There are ecclesial movements such as “pioneering” or “fresh-expression” that emphasise getting out of the four walls of the church and focusing on “going” with the gospel into the world.  Similarly, you can find elements of the church that have an inward emphasis on the Sunday-to-Sunday rhythm, and bringing people into the building and the organisation.

My small realisation is that this inwards-outwards marker shouldn’t simply correlate to positions on the normal axes; that is you can’t say that Anglo-Catholics are more outwards focused, and charismatics are more inward focused.  Rather the inwards-outwards dynamic variance can be found across the board.

For instance, Anglo-Catholicism can be expressed inwardly, inviting people into a sacred space of holy service.  Conversely, Anglo-Catholicism can be expressed outwardly, taking service, symbols, and sacraments into the highways and byways, so to speak, and doing so by drawing upon monastic precedents.  Charismatics can be inward, drawing upon seeker-sensitive models, managing the church with homogenous units, and providing an appealing, attractive face.  They can also easily operate outwards, in modes such as that of the evangelistic street healer, or through models such as missional commmunities.  Liberalism can be expressed inwardly, shaped around intellectual treatise, or outwards in social action.  Conservative evangelicals emphasise their pulpit ministry inwardly, but can just as easily commission apologists and planters of new churches.

Having said that, however, I have one concern: a gap in the map perhaps.  Because there is a tendency to identify the provocative, edgy, and creative with those parts of the church that are low and left; the ones who are meant to be socially aware, and who give relatively less value to existing structures.  But I don’t think that’s a necessary consequence:  There’s room on the map for “high and right” pioneering.  There are many ways of taking that which is considered “ancient and true” outwards to the world – seeking the touchstones of the gospel in the local culture.  The missiological frameworks and traditions exist.  There is room for some more imagination on our theological map.

Posted in 2.0, Ecclesiology, General Tagged with: , , , ,

Eunuchs, Semantics, and the Theological Divide

philipeunuchOxford academic Emma Percy, writing in the most recent edition of Theology poses the question “Can a eunuch be baptized? and derives “insights for gender inclusion from Acts 8.”  It’s an interesting question to pose about an interesting text.  I came to the article at the suggestion of a colleague and as observation of how the thinking of the church engages (or fails to engage) with the prevailing issues of sex, gender and identity.

It’s a fraught topic.  We are talking about a fundamental sense of “self” here.  That’s a simple, hard, question: Who are you?  We can inform (and hear) the answer in terms of biology, psychology, sociology or a dozen other aspects.  But at the bottom of it all is one of those explorable-but-not-fathomable theological mysteries where we can get to the end of our language and risk talking at cross purposes.

Percy’s article enters into this space.  Her exegesis delivers some often overlooked aspects of Philip’s encounter on the road to Gaza and her argument extends to some good pastoral guidance.  In the end, however, this essay, in itself, reveals the semantic divide that besets these issues in particular, and theological discourse in general.

There is much to affirm. In the account in Act 8, of course, we have a eunuch.  Percy emphasises the physicality of this term: the word “eunuch” applies to a person who has been castrated and it was a real phenomenon in the culture of the time.  And, of course, the answer to the titular question is affirmative.  In the eunuch’s own words, “‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?’”

This inclusion is kerygmatic in a profound way and Percy does well to expound it.  She highlights the gospel in it: covenantal exclusion overcome, “dry branches” grafted in, those with no physical legacy drawn into the eternal family of God, etc.  She is rightly incredulous: “I cannot count the number of sermons I have heard about the Ethiopian eunuch which have made no reference to the significance of his being a eunuch!”

In applying the text to the contemporary debate Percy is firstly ready to admit that “it is not appropriate simply to map the term ‘eunuch’ on to those who are intersex or transgender.”  She is secondly ready to do exactly that, using the lens “of people who do not fit into neat binaries of male and female.”

And so she brings us to consider intersex persons.  The mapping is not direct: A eunuch is an emasculated male and so defined by the binary, and what has been lost; an intersex person has indeterminate sex, described by referencing variations of either end of the binary or neither. Nevertheless, for both the eunuch and the intersexed, their embodied selves don’t fit “neatly” into the sexed categories, and the gospel inclusion of the eunuch does inform our response.

Percy outlines the pastoral implications.  To give just a few of her words:

The Acts 8 story itself offers an important reminder to make inclusion a priority.  Baptism becomes for the Church the mark of a Christian and, unlike circumcision, it does not require a particularly gendered body.  Women can be baptized and so too can those whose bodies do not conform to gender norms…

Clergy need to be aware of the pastoral needs of families with intersex babies who may want baptism before they feel they can assign a gender to their child.  Registers ask for the child’s sex, but surely this is not a necessary requirement of baptism.  In a culture where children are often identified as male or female by scans, even before they are born, the families of those who cannot be so neatly categorized need compassionate pastoral support.

It is when she turns next to consider transgenderism that we begin to run into the semantic issues that complicate dialogue on these sorts of issues.  To explain what I mean, I need to give my take on how language works in our search for meaning:

All language is ultimately self-referential, but it begins with a simple referent.  An example helps: when communicating the physical reality of a tree we use a word, such as “wood.”  It’s a simple syllable that refers to the physical reality of what trees are made.  A simple word, a simple physical referent, a simple meaning.

In the joy that is human creativity, semantics get expanded.  The fact that wooden objects are hard and rigid extends the meaning of “wood” to include a sense of hardness or immovability.  By this I can describe someone’s facial expression as “wooden.”  The simple word now means something additional, that is more complex and abstract.

This expansion is not a logical necessity, the expanding meaning only partially derives from the characteristics of the physical tree.  In a large part, the meaning comes from convention, common usage, and social norms; the semantics of the word are at least partly socially constructed.  And that construction can shift and expand even more: I could also use “wooden” to mean “rustic” or “natural.”  And now a word that is objectively derived from the physical stuff of a tree can mean anything from “emotionally repressed” to “undisturbed by the advancement of modernity”!

woodsemantics2The linguistic complexity can come full circle.  The original word, applied back to the initial referent, brings its expanded meaning with it.  And this is what leads to contradictions, the limitations of language, and talking at cross purposes.

To finish with my example: I might have in my garden a beautiful tree, that is full of life and character; the way it sways in the wind and the flowers that form on it speak of joy and vitality.  In attempting to describe this I might reach for an antonym.  To communicate the verve and vitality of my tree, I could say “my tree is not wooden.”  Linguistically, it is a contradiction, effectively nonsense.  It only communicates meaning if there is a shared understanding of semantics, agreed upon social norms that construct the sense of what that means.  If two interlocutors did not share or agree on the semantic space they would be talking at cross-purposes.

It’s a simplistic illustration.  It is manifoldly more complicated when we engage not with trees but with the meaning of self, our sense of identity.

In Percy’s engagement with intersex the semantic ground is relatively safe.  She emphasises the physicality of the eunuch and intersex, using physical words, even anatomical ones such as “micro penis.”  These words are closely connected to the simple referents of physical bodies.  Her meaning, and therefore, her exhortation, is thoroughly graspable.  And it should be grasped even by the most conservative reader.  In the politics of it all, conservatives who throw the whole “LGBQTI” alphabet soup into the one anathematised pot, should get a bit more bothered about doing the hard yards of seeking to understand the meaning of those letters and, at the very least, take a lead from Percy’s wisdom on how to care for those who are intersex.

But as the consideration moves from intersex to transgender, the semantic complexity escalates; the mystery of self is manifest in the various constructions and reflections that come in the search for meaning.  It can never be fully mapped out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  To that end, I find an important linguistic distinction between sex (as in intersex) and gender (as in transgender):

The concept of sex has a clear referent.  We use words such as “man” and “woman”, “male” and “female” and they closely encapsulate physical characteristics.  It’s why we use “male” and “female” to describe plugs and sockets!

malesemanticsThe expansion of these words in a shared semantic space is an engagement with a sense of gender.  Gender is more socially or self-constructed, a sense or even a “feeling” of what it means to be be male or female.  We use words such as “masculine” or “feminine” to explore this meaning.

Part of this meaning derives from the physicality of the referent sex.  e.g. “masculine” might adhere to a sense of muscular dominance, or assertive impositional (some might even say “penetrative”) engagement; “feminine” might adhere to softer embrace, or fierce motherly protectiveness.  But in this semantic expansion, the meaning also derives significantly from social expectation, poetic legacy, various forms of prejudice, and all the other things that you find in the shared language of a human community.

And, of course, as the semantics come full circle, those constructed meanings are applied back to the physical referent.  Our language reaches its end point:  We end up talking about “manly men” or “boyish girls” – linguistic tautologies and contradictions that only make sense if the social inputs into the semantic process are shared and agreed upon.

This is not just some academic exercise.  The subject at hand here is a sense of self.  It is how how we conceive of and find meaning in our own bodies, and locate ourselves within the millieu of meaning.  Human history is full of people fighting over words (consider current controversies about the use of pronouns) and this is why:  the social constructions have semantic force and so influence, even impose, on our sense of self.  The cost and pain of these fights, particularly as they relate to gender, is something that I can really only observe and seek to understand:

Take for instance, the feminist movement.  A certain socially normative sense of “feminine” which encapsulated notions of weakness, passivity, or intellectual inferiority, was rightly rejected.  A strong contingent of unashamed women refused to agree that such semantics should inevitably, invariably, or ever at all refer to them.  Through various forms of persuasion and social action the social norms were shifted (and could still shift some more) and this in turn has shifted our understanding of femininity, demolishing gender distinctions where those distinctions were meaningless or unjust, and delivering a larger degree of freedom to those who are physically female.  In simplistic terms, in order to reflect a sense of self, the referent biological sex differences were strengthened (“I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman!”) and the semantic gender differences were redefined, minimised, even eliminated.

The complexity of transgenderism is that it approaches self-meaning from the other direction, beginning not with biological sex, but locating primary meaning in the sense of gender – as masculine or feminine or of neither or both senses.  Semantics that derive from the physical sex are de-constructed, leaving the self-and-socially-constructed semantics as the primary source of meaning.

As this meaning is applied back into the physical world, the meaning of gender collides with its physical referent, manifesting as a disconnect between meaning and reality, and reflected in our language. The linguistic progression is this: a reference to “a man who feels like a woman” (a description) becomes semantically equivalent to “a man who is a woman” (a contradiction) becomes semantically equivalent to simply “a woman” (as a disconnected label, an arbitrary nomenclature).  At this point it is entirely logical, albeit ethically perplexing, to make physicality conform to the semantic construct.  In simplistic terms, in order to reflect a sense of selfthe referent biological sex differences are redefined, minimised, even eliminated, and semantic gender differences are constructed and absolutised.

Much more could be said about the complexities, inconsistencies, and contradictions that this creates within a human community.  Suffice it to say that I find myself exhorting for the importance of physicality.  The irreversible modification of one’s body to conform with a self-and-socially-defined semantic of gender seems to me to be a fraught and ultimately unfruitful quest for meaning.  It would seem to me wiser and more compassionate to affirm the complexity of the sex-gender dynamic, and embrace and include whatever we might mean by the “feminine male” or the “masculine woman” or the interwoven complexity of gender expressed constructively and joyfully in male and female bodies.  I think the Scriptures have some beautiful light to shine on and guide such an exploration.

What has intrigued me, however, in engaging with Emma Percy’s article, is how the semantics of her discourse correlate closely with the semantic direction (and ultimate disconnect) of transgenderism itself.  As she broadens her application of Acts 8 from intersex to transgender she buys into the semantics.  Her rhetoric moves from her earlier, grounded, positive kerygma and becomes that of unanswered questions and provocative exhortations that are built upon her own theological constructs.

eunuchsemanticsEven the meaning of the eunuch shifts, from the historical physicality of the Acts narrative into her own semantics of gender.  The progression is clear: The eunuch’s physical referent is initially explored and carefully correlated to other physicalities, but then subsumed into a mere metaphor of “liminal gender.”   Once captured into Percy’s theological world, the historical figure is is not actually needed and could quite literally (and ironically) be “cut off” from the argument.

theologicalsemanticsThe correlation between positions taken in the gender identity debate and theological process shouldn’t surprise.  It’s not for no reason that such issues have become the touchstone of theological divides!

Like all quests for meaning, theological method will find itself engaging with the revealed world of Scripture and the general truths of science and common sense.  Semantics and interpretation will play their part as social assumptions and hermeneutical lenses are applied.  Some methods emphasise the biblical referent as the primary source of meaning.  And others will look to the socially-and-self-constructed semantics.  It seems to me that Percy’s framework is doing the latter, following the same semantic course as transgenderism: deconstructing the referent, and locating meaning in that which is socially-and-self-constructed.  She juxtaposes ecclesial norms (marriage, baptism, the gender of Jesus) with the semantic force of gender fluidity.  The hanging question and the wondering implication embraces the deconstruction.

That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  Genuine inquiry uses the semantic space to explore mystery.  There’s a lot to like in Percy’s essay and it has helped my own exploration.  But it does bring to bear the issues of theological language, and whether I am understanding what Percy is meaning.  Consider a word like “inclusion”, which is important enough to be in Percy’s sub-title, and which I affirm as a gospel imperative.  Does Percy mean it the way I mean it?  Or is it empty language which can only be inhabited with meaning if I share and agree with her constructed semantic?  Perhaps the answer is simply more dialogue, but the risk of cross-purposes remains significant. The fact that I need to ask these semantic questions reveals my fear: that we are more and more a church with a shared language, but a disparate sense of meaning, with separate methods of exploring the mysteries of this world that cannot easily be shared.

Posted in 2.0, General, Marriage & Sexuality Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Review: ‘I Find That Offensive’

ifocfHere’s an example of constructive polemic that goes where angels fear to tread. Left-wing libertarian, Claire Fox, critiques “Generation Snowflake” – the millenial generation, now in their young adulthood, who are readily caricatured by their insistence on things like safe-spaces and trigger-warnings, who have a propensity to take offence and call for silencing, de-platforming, and any number of other sanctions against those with whom they disagree.  Throughout this book, aptly named ‘I Find That Offensive’, Fox recounts various occurrences of such intolerance-in-the-name-of-tolerance that have embroiled and disparaged even champions of progressivism such as Germaine Greer.

Fox’s perilous journey through these issues walks a fine line.  Despite her leftward and presumably progressive leanings, she sometimes feels only half a step away from derisive Trumpism.  For the sake of fairness, then, it’s worth noting that she also has a message for the “anti-Snowflakes”, exhorting them to respond without just being “the un-PC rebel lashing out” or turning things into a “joking matter” (page 165).  And despite her pessimism, she does provide some thoughts on possible responses that are positive and at least somewhat remedial even if fundamentally lacking.

The value of Fox’s book is her main point of enquiry.  This comes after her first part where she describes the phenomenon at hand, recounting episode after episode in which free speech has been curtailed by official sanction, the fear of the politically correct landmine (page 9), the arrogant epistemology in which the offended person alone can “determine what your words really mean” (page 9), and the perplexing apparatus of “unconscious microaggressions” (page 20).  She then begins to examine generational psychology, particularly of victimhood as the currency of rhetorical authority (page 24), that can be appropriated by overzealous empathy (page 30) or claims of self-identity (page 37), and which frames mere disagreement as abusive violence.  It’s at this point she asks the key question: Why?

Why does this Generation exist like this?  What has brought about these symptoms?  From what root do these deeply-held assumptions about society, community, and humanity come from?  From my own perspective as a cultural observer, these are the gems to reveal.  And Fox is clear:

…why do the young – historically associated with risk-taking, experimentation, rule-breaking and pushing boundaries – now see safety as a trump-all virtue, so much so that concerns about safety are regularly deployed to censor, ban and retreat from argument?… why do so many teenagers and young adults , who as a generation have always been those who aspired to freedom from adult supervision and who regularly rebelled against authority diktat, now demand to live in a hermetically sealed, risk-free cocoon, protected from harm by authority figures who they complain do not police their ‘homes’ stringently enough?

The short answer is: we socialised them that way.  They have been reared on stories about how vulnerable and in need of protection they are.  Adult society has fed them a diet of anxieties and provided the language of safety and risk aversion that now threatens liberal values of tolerance and resilience.  We are reaping what we have sown – and the young Snowflake Generation, so quick to shout offence, are merely ventriloquising our own fears imposed on them as children. (Pages 66-67)

We are to blame!  That’s worth unpacking.

At this point Fox appears to step across the line into simplistic tirade.  She blames our focus on “health and safety madness” (page 67), public health scares (page 78), child protection systems (page 83), and the “anti-bullying bandwagon” (page 91).  Her points are mostly well-made – particularly with regard to helicopter parenting and the consequent diminishment of a generation’s resilience.  And her critiques of more sacred cows, such as anti-bullying and safeguarding are not without their validity.  Nevertheless, her analysis comes across as dismissal with only a cursory glance at the necessary place of some of these cultural developments.  Speaking from experience of necessary safeguarding in the church, there’s an obligation for commentators to be an apologist as well as a critic of measures that are proper defenses against the harming of children.

Her analysis retains its value though.  She begins with the symptoms, attempting to reveal the layers on which they rest.  She uncovers two hallmarks of Western Society that I have discovered in my own area of a Christian engagement with contemporary society.  These hallmarks are fear and consumerism.

For Fox the fear derives from parental anxiety and the “catastrophising of life’s challenges” (page 70).  A generation has interiorised an attitude in which “children are portrayed as vulnerable and helpless victims, rather than in any way resilient or competent – or indeed happy” (Page 74, quoting David Buckingham).  This is certainly apparent in church culture, in which parents’ fears about the world or their own perceived incompetence motivates both an outsourcing of their children’s spiritual care, and an infatuation with that which is passive and safe.  A very recent article in the Telegraph, “Parents fear that their religion will make their children outcasts” illustrates exactly this.

The consumerism factor leads to a sense of entitlement.  The culture of protectionism and super-vigilance by authority figures has led to a passivity.

However, a lack of awareness of this passivity can mean that young people themselves are flattered at such third-party interest.  They seem to enjoy being mollycoddled, gaining an artificial sense of empowerment from their various victim roles as well as feeling legitimised as objects of institutional concern and interventions. Hence we have two seemingly contradictory phenomena: generational fragility combined with narcissistic self-belief in one’s own importance.  (Page 116)

This also is prevalent in church culture, which has been forced like other institutions into a “service-consumer” dynamic (page 123).  Ministry is expected to merely entertain and stimulate, and key aspects of discipleship – self-examination, self-sacrifice, the cost of moral living, etc. – are anathema.

I end up sympathising, then, with Fox’s final exhortation to this current younger generation to not given into the “condescension” of mouthing “the identity-laden values that PC Baby Boomers and academic cultural relativists have been pushing at you for years” (page 150) and so “toughen up” (age 162) and grasp a more “vibrant sense of autonomy” (page 175) that can transcend the prevailing zeitgeist.  And her appeal to embrace a “new model of personhood, a new philosophy of freedom” (page 173) that seeks an “aspirational future” that “replaces safety as the end goal” (page 174) is almost on the money.

What I think is missing is something that can be encapsulated by the Christian sense of hope.  Such hope is realistic about the threats of the world, yet a source of great assurance.  It encapsulates an objective sense of value that places opposition outside of oneself (and therefore able to be not taken personally).  It also provides a sense of purpose that places other-centred doing of gospel good, rather than self-centred safety, as an aspiration and a goal.

Such hope is abstract, but relevant, applicable to all generations, and not least this current one that is rising up.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Progress and Pluralism Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Review: Out of Chaos – Refounding Religious Congregations

oocgaI must admit, I didn’t think a 1980s reflection by a Marist brother on the aftermath of Vatican II would be particularly relevant to today’s task of dealing with ecclesial torpor.  But there is wisdom and insight in this book that plays in the same space as contemporary texts on church leadership and mission action planning, and it does so in a distinct and provocative way.

I’ve come across Gerald Arbuckle before with regard to pioneering dissent.  Here the keyword is the need for religious congregations to be refounded.  “Congregations” in this context are Catholic religious societies dealing with the chaos (another keyword) they experienced after the Second Vatican Council.  Vatican II occurred in the 1960s, this book was written in the 1980s, bringing with it the insight of a generation’s experience.

The applicability in our own generation comes from the fact that the church of the Western World is facing its own existential chaos; our very reason for existence whirls about in a pool of semantics with people swimming in different directions as we begin to differ even on the most fundamental aspects of our founding myth (another keyword) or worldview.

What are we for?  Even today I was referred to a survey that purported to discern the nature and effect of discipleship in a region.  It was premised on a subjective sense of how the respondents’ faith had grown and the “growth activities” they participated in.  It’s not a bad survey but the essence of discipleship is actually missing.  There was no reference to the Great Commission (where we are called to disciple nations), no engagement with following Christ on the path of suffering.  It appears as subjective semantics with no foundation, chaos artificially blanketed by catch-all words and phrases that cannot tell a story that draws us beyond ourselves.  We need refounding.

The refreshing difference in Arbuckle’s approach is that it is fundamentally spiritual.  I don’t mean in an ethereal contemplative sense, but in the sense that he fully expects that the Spirit of Christ has been, is, and will be forming and preparing his people.  This is a Catholic distinctive that we could do well to embrace.

In salvation history, God permits chaos to develop that people may rediscover that he must be at the very heart of their lives (e.g. see Dt 8:1-4) (Page 3)

As the Spirit leads us, so he understands that passing through chaos is painful.  Refounding involves suffering: an antidote to the quick-fix and cheap mission action planning that pervades today.

So this book offers readers no dramatically simple or rapid way to begin and sustain refounding.  In fact the road to refounding is a humanly complex and a spiritually painful one, for Christ calls us to a more intimate, privileged relationship with himself, which means being invited to share deeply in the purifying experience of his own suffering. (Page 6)

But “refounded” is an interesting term.  I can see its value over “reforming” which connnotes the continuous, ongoing, iterative, day-by-day semper reformanda.  “Refounding” recognises the passing through of chaos, it reflects a season.

Arbuckle draws on the sociological concept of mythology to explain.  “Myth” in this sense doesn’t mean vague or imaginary legend, it refers to a founding “story”, an “historically transmitted pattern of meanings.”  When I have come to a new church context I have looked for the “folklore” or “DNA” of the church, to seek to understand where the Lord has led it and is leading it.  “Founding myth” is the same thing: it’s the historic story that gives meaning and order and purpose to a group or congregation.  In a season of chaos this story is lost, and refounding is not just to rediscover it, but to recapitulate it in a new context, a different world.  It is to sing the ancient songs in a new land such that they are heard and joined.  “Reconversion” is not an overstatement of how this can be described, as Christ is at the heart of our “founding myth.”

Arbuckle’s categorisation of “creation/regeneration myth”, “character myth”, “identity myth”, “eschatological myth” and “direction myth” (pages 21-23) are useful in that ongoing discernment of “DNA” and “folklore.”  They are thoughts that I suspect I will return to.

The main component in Arbuckle’s thoughts, however, is, I think, the most provocative.  He considers that the main actor in the refounding process is not found primarily in councils, committees, working groups, or consultations (such as the many chapter meetings that apparently followed Vatican II), but in “refounding persons”, individuals with a particular charism gift (page 89) to call the group to its reconversion.

Arbuckle appeals to a management speak of “pathfinders, problem solvers, and implementers” (page 30) that is now outdated.  More helpfully, though, he looks to the OT role of prophet as exemplars of what he means.  There is a pattern: from a season of chaos that is allowed by God “to develop as the preface or catalyst for a marked creative faith response from his chosen people” (Page 50),  God calls the people, through his prophets, back to the “regenerative myth” in which they repent and trust in the Lord’s power alone.

Every time the Jewish people experience chaos or weariness and then resurrection to test Yahweh’s love, they relive the primal events of their creation in sacred time. (Page 50)

These refounding prophets are therefore “Israel’s creative, dynamic and questioning memory” (page 57) who simultaneously criticise the people for the gap between the vision of who they are and they reality of who they have become, and energise the people to bridge that gap through faith by giving them hope (page 58).

The prophets reject the distorted culture in which they live, for they measure it against the vision they know can and should be realized, if the creation myth is taken seriously…  They break through the chaos of confusion, of numbness and denial, by pointing out the way the people must go in order to return the culture to Yahweh-centered foundations. (Pages 58-59)

He takes this thinking, applying it to his post-Vatican II situation, and then generalises to consider the “role of the refounding person.”  The description is apt:

There is a fire in these people, a Gospel radicality that inspires the converting, disturbs the complacent, the spiritually lethargic, those who deny chaos both inside and outside themselves and those who compromise with worldly values.  They can be feared, like all innovators, because they dare to push back the frontiers of the unknown – chaos, a world of meaninglessness – in the name of Jesus Christ. (Page 88)

And he summarises their characteristics (Pages 96-97).  They are close to people, especially the poor, and with a finger on the pulse.  They exercise creative imagination and perception as to how “people… are starved of Gospel values” and “they are able creatively to construct new ways to respond to this deprivation.”  They are committed to hard work.  They are committed to small beginnings.  They tolerate failure.  And they are community-oriented; like the prophets before them:

Prophets are not loners, even if they are marginalised or threatened with death by the people for whom they work; they earnestly seek to summon the people into the deep covenant communion with one another and with Yahweh. (page 59)

Now all of this could be a disconcerting propensity to look for “supermen” and “superwomen” to come and refound us,  a guru mentality that speaks more of worldly celebrity than anything else.  But where we might look for “super-apostles” Arbuckle wants us to look for a genuine apostolicity.

He recognises that the refounding charism is predicated on a level of faith (helpfully enumerated on page 99) that expresses a “driving selflessness” made manifest only through a union with Christ in his suffering.  He posits “a shattering failure, or rejection by one’s own congregation” as a near necessity to deal with pride and to allow a “refounding person an ultimate jump into a more perfect faith, a faith that moves one into the darkness of belief and away from one’s own false securities” (pages 105-106).  Such persons are often marked by loneliness and “a strong urge to escape the prophetic responsibility” (page 106).

The reality is that we all know people like this; we look up to them, and as we grow we begin to realise the cost they have counted and respect them even more.  They are not gurus, but gifts to God’s church.

The detail of Arbuckle’s treatise goes into further description, even advice, for refounding persons, and also their superiors.  He puts a significant amount of work into analysing the cultures of contexts and considering where relational and structural facilitation may or may not be effective.   But above all, he recognises that there will likely be conflict between the refounding persons and their superiors

He notes that true refounders do not deliberately bring discord, but also recognises that the inherent passion and charism will “inevitably cause tension, difficulties, and even conflicts” (page 107).  In the face of rejection he urges the refounder towards prayerful discernment and submission, but without quenching the fire.  Different authority lines can be pursued, and withdrawal “to a new congregation or reform within a tradition” might be necessary because “religious life does not demand an absolute commitment” (page 109).  This is strong, refreshingly unusual stuff.

For the superior authority figure, Arbuckle urges them to recognise, release, and cover the prophets that God will raise up.  This is an obligation on the superior who might otherwise risk quenching the Spirit.  This counters an attitude that suggests the role of the Superior is to repress, so as to ensure the prophetic refounder may emerge from that repression with a seemingly-helpful humility and holiness.  Arbuckle rightly counters that such an attitude is dangerously simplistic (page 118) and effectively pharisaical.  Yes, discernment is needed, but in the end the refounding should not be quenched.

Throughout history, anything charismatic has always been a point of concern and fear for churches and ecclesial organisations.  We’ve all seen excesses of exuberance.  We are quick to counter with common sense, and to speak from the known.  But Arbuckle is right, in times of chaos what is known is fleeting and we need to re-find our foundations.  We know what they are in the abstract – biblical Truth, salvation in Christ, the present and coming Kingdom of God.  But grasping them, embracing them, embedding them, being rooted in them and living them is simply something the church is not doing very well.  Whether you call them prophets or apostles or refounders or reformers, we do need godly men and women, who have been led through refining fire, through whom God will minister to and lead us.  Inasmuch as they bring us to Jesus, they should be recognised, supported, released, and even followed, out of the chaos that so marks our time.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Ministry Tagged with: , , , , ,

Review: 5 Voices – How to Communicate Effectively with Everyone You Lead

5voicesPersonality type inventories and leadership style analyses are a common tool in leadership and management circles.  I’m sure this is the case in the business sector.  It is certainly the case when it comes to churches and non-profits, with our high volunteer basis, and our emphasis on vocation and personal engagement.

Over the years I have become familiar with Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)DiSC, Personality Plus, and even some of the more esoteric ones such as Enneagram and Motivational Gifts.  I have recently come across Colour Energies which appears to be a condensed version of MBTI and is apparently growing in popularity in management circles.  Each has a different focus on nature or nurture, or things such as innate personality and context.  All have a fundamental grounding in an understanding of the human psyche as individuals and as a team or system.  All have something useful to contribute, but some more than others.

And now, on a recommendation, I have picked up a book on the 5 Voices.  The focus is a link between personality types with communication in a team dynamic.  There’s a clear application built into the premise (the subtitle says it all) and this is useful.  The authors continually point out the benefit of their readers knowing “what it is like to be on the other side of them” (p17).

The Five Voices are, in order of “loudness:”

NURTURER – “Nurturers are champions of people and work to take care of everyone around them… They are always concerned about the relational health and harmony of the group… They are completely committed to protecting values and principles… They innately understand how certain actions, behaviours, or initiatives will affect people.” (p31)

CREATIVE – “Creatives are champions of innovation and future ideas.  They are conceptual architects and are able to see how all the pieces fit together… Creatives are never satisfied with the status quo; they always believe it can be better… They are like an ‘early warning radar system’ and can see the opportunities and dangers of the future before everyone else.” (pp33-34)

GUARDIAN – “Guardians are champions of responsibility and stewardship…  They respect and value logic, systems, order, procedure, and process…  They have a selfless capacity to deliver the vision once it has been agreed…  Guardians guard what is already working.” (pp35-36)

CONNECTOR – “Connectors are champions of relationships and strategic partnerships… They rally people around causes and things they believe in…  Connectors believe in a world where everyone can play and get excited about future opportunities… and they work to make it happen… They are usually persuasive and inspirational communicators.” (p39)

PIONEER – “Pioneers are champions of aligning people with resources to win or achieve the objective… They approach life with an ‘Anything is possible!’ attitude…  Pioneers believe visioning a new future is always the highest priority… Pioneers brings strategic military-like thinking to achieve the agreed objective.” (p41)

 

As a simple personality inventory, this system is somewhat lacking.  Unlike MBTI and DiSC, for instance,  where the categories derive from a fundamental framework (the psychology of processing information in MBTI, the interplay of task-or-person focus and empowerment in DiSC) the five voice categories seem a little arbitrary.

Author Steve Crockram talks about his desire to “repackage” the 16 MBTI personalities (page x), but this is not that.  How do you condensed 16 into 5 in a way that maintains the integrity of its derivation?  And besides, that work has been done: there is so much material on, for instance, how NF’s interact with ST’s.  It is telling that in some of their subsequent analysis they feel the need to split the Creative voice into Creative-Feeler and Creative-Thinker (p115).  Similarly, at other times, they need to combine the Nurturer and Guardian voices into a single entity.  There isn’t a consistent framework, a derivation to look back to in order to justify their conclusions, or reach forward to new ones.  The voices are presented as simply “what is”, a product to buy into, or otherwise.

The spiritually minded could perhaps attempt a mapping from APEST/Pentagon/Fivefold terminology: Apostle = Pioneer, Prophet = Creative, Evangelist = Connector, Shepherd/Pastor = Nurturer, Teacher = Guardian.  But this is tenuous.

I think this is why I found myself pushing back at some of the over-simplifications. For instance, the Nurturer voice could easily be caricatured as maternalistic, always ready with the empathy.  But Nurturers (as an expression of their nurturing) also know how to exhibit “tough love”, avoid mollycoddling, and to break symbiosis or transference.  They can be champions, not just wetnurses.  Similarly Pioneers are caricatured as militaristic generals, ready to roll over the top of other people for the sake of the goal.  But Pioneers (as an expression of their pioneering) also know that bringing the people with them is not just part of the goal, but integral to it.  Creative voices can be quiet, but not always so!

Nevertheless, the benefit of the book is significant and it lies, as mentioned, in the area of communication and team dynamics.

The first benefit is that of self-awareness, not only of yourself, but of others in your team.  The descriptions of each voice throughout ask questions such as “What do they bring at their best? What questions are they really asking inside?” and considerations of likely negative impacts.  They also encourage you to not only work out your foundational voice (and so understand your weaknesses and limitations) but also your nemesis voice that you will often fail to hear, and often fail to reach.

They suggest “Rules of Engagement” for staff meetings and the like, because there’s “no such thing as accidental synergy” (p128).  Having a speaking order of Nurturers, Creatives, Guardians, Connectors, and Pioneers makes internal sense to their system, as well as the assurances and challenges that are put before each voice.

I’m not entirely convinced; for instance, it’s not just about ensuring that the louder voices wait their turn, it’s also about a dynamic in which the quieter voices are willing to step up, in which case something like Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team might be a better place to start.  Nevertheless, they fully acknowledge that their Rules of Engagement might (initially) feel a little contrived.  The unpacking of the sort of “weapon” each voice brings to a dysfunctional table is useful as a description.

All the weapons deployed every day in any environment where human beings interact. Usually, teams simply accept friendly fire and allow the Nurturers to care fro the wounded without analyzing what’s really happening.  But where the use of weapons remains unchallenged, teams function at far below their true potential.  Where team members understand the impact of their weapons system and become intentional in how they deploy it, team culture and productivity will change immediately for the better. (p108)

Similarly helpful is the role of each voice in vision casting and change management.  The gap between Creative/Pioneer and Nurturer/Guardian is stark, and the alignment of each with progressives and conservatives respectively is well-made.  The role of the Connector voice in keeping the two ends together is no mere “piggy in the middle” here, but a crucial part of the dynamic.

In a perfect world, Pioneers and Creatives would be out on the front lines, focused on and exploring the future possibilities.  Connectors would be trying to message the opportunity, getting everybody on the same page and fully aligned.  Nurturers and Guardians are connected and engaged but invariably towards the back because they want to make sure it’s safe and that the people, money, and resources are being taken care of. (p169)

All of this can help the reader to analyse their team health, be self-aware of their own voice, and the voice of others, and to avoid being an unnecessary contributor to dysfunction.  What it doesn’t do is give you a real way forward in how to deal with dysfunction.

This could have been explored.  For instance: How do you deal with a disconnect, when all have retreated to their castles?  How do you deal with an other-voice leaning team, when you’re well outside of your energising 70/30 principle situation in which you are using your natural voice 70% of the time ( p155)?  How do you go about motivating team health from an empowered position, a disempowered position, an oversight position, or a “leading-up” position?

 

To the extent that the 5 voices can provide a common vocabulary, and be a catalyst for personal and interpersonal reflection, it remains a useful resource.  Despite its weaknesses, it’s a worthy addition to the menagerie of leadership style products.  Add it to the mix, and use it when it’s useful.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews Tagged with: , , , , ,

Can Churches Be Too Churchy?

iglesia-y-retrovisorWhat is a church? I don’t mean as a denomination, or as a theological entity.  I mean in terms of the local church: the St. Somebody’s that’s in the town, or village, or just down the street.  What is it?

It’s a place of worship, for sure (one hopes). For many it’s where the milestones of life – births, marriages, deaths – are marked and solemnified.  And, of course, it’s not just a building but a community which provides fellowship, companionship, and belonging.

But all of this only speaks to one aspect of the local church.  In technical terms, this is the church as a modality: the universal church expressed in a local mode.  Each particular geographical place is cared for by one local expression of the one church.  It’s why we think of “parishes” and why even non-established denominations still have local congregations with the name of the town in their own name.

But there is another aspect of church.  In technical terms, it is the church as a sodality.  This aspect reflects more of the sense of a church as a movement.  The word itself comes from the latin sodalis meaning “comrade” and so portrays a group of people moving with common purpose.  When we think of things such as monastic orders and mission agencies we are thinking of sodalities.

There has often been tension between the two: from historic power plays between monasteries and local bishops, through to a local pastor bemoaning yet another appeal for energy and resources from a parachurch organisation.

But my reflection here is about this: our churches are too churchy.  The modal aspect has become the overwhelming characteristic; we need to learn to act more like sodalities, like movements, like purposeful communities.

To be sure, there are many blessings in modal ministry.  At its best the church acts truly as the community’s chaplain.  It is a steady presence, available in season and out of it.  It is a refuge for people with busy lives.  It’s a place where the solace of word and sacrament are regularly offered for regular folk.  It is a provider of pastoral care, particularly for those who would otherwise be forgotten.  In this, those who serve the church (in everything from flowers to singing) can rightly see themselves as also serving the community in which the church exists.

But the purely modal church has missed something major: the church’s task is not simply to serve the world, but also to change the world.  There have always been those who have caught a vision for some sort of renewed mission, evangelism, or social activism.  And many times they have found the local church unwilling or unable to embrace this form of movement, and they have formed a parachurch organisation.

A consequent phenomenon is the “hidden” mission of volunteerism.  Christians are by and large excellent volunteers, devoting resources and energy to worthy causes.  They will give time and energy to the church in its modal chaplaincy mode.  And they will also give much time and energy to “sodalities”: other charities, agencies, and programmes that bless and build the wider community.  This is excellent in so many ways!  But it does mean that the various forms of activism are divorced from church life, they are merely competing opportunities to serve.  A volunteer can serve the church, or they can seek to change and bless the world by volunteering with other groups; the two don’t go together.  I have known a congregation where a significant section of the membership was doing wonderful good works together through another organisation; but this common movement was simply not a factor in how they worshipped and shared in fellowship.  The church simply did not matter for that part of their lives.

These days it is further amplified.  As the church’s chaplaincy role in society wanes, so service to the church begins to feel more and more like self-serving.  Anecdotally, there is an increasing numbers of those who are “done” with church.  They want to serve the Christian community, but towards an end.  Without that missional movement, the church seems self-referential.  Things like, “we were just playing at church,” “we were talking the talk but not walking the walk”, “devoted to Sundays and nothing else”, “we just never did anything”, “a nice friendly church that in the end was an inch deep”  is the sort of language that gets used.  It is usually a justifiable critique.

The reflection is simple: a local church must recapture a sense of “sodality”, not content to simply just be in the place, but to be an active movement.  Collectively, a church must be seeking to answer the question of how it is being called to engage, confront, and improve the world.  It must therefore not just offer solace, but also good and godly provocation.  It must be more than a place of solidity, but a generator of instability, of discontent with the status quo, providing the tools, language, and opportunities to push ahead down gospel-shaped paths.  The church needs to not just be a worthy end of charitable acts (amongst many) but an effective means for them.  We must be a movement, shedding our churchiness so that we can truly be the church of God.

Posted in 2.0, Ecclesiology, General Tagged with: , , ,

Disagreeing with a Judgemental World

6249833748_9d9f815fc7_oThe touchstone of contemporary apologetics is not rationality (“Is belief in God logical?”) but ethics (“Is belief in God morally wrong?”)

Often, a religious person is portrayed as a caricature:  It is supposed that belief in God involves submission to absolutist and outdated moral stances.  This necessarily involves the believer repressing both their naturally inquisitive mind and their naturally tender conscience.  It is concluded that the religious believer has therefore embraced a sociopathy that has some good but a lot of bad and is ultimately reprehensible.

It is an understandable picture.  Much has been done in the name of God that is reprehensible.  Some fundamentalist frameworks do lead to the repression of intellect or conscience or both.  This is the case, however, for tyrants of both religious and non-religious persuasions.  It’s enough to make you sceptical about the natural goodness of humanity!

But the caricature remains.  It is simply presumed.  The other day a young Christian I know was accosted out of the blue with the assertion, “You hate me because I’m gay and you’re a Christian.”  It’s not just a sexuality thing.  Replace the word “gay” with some other descriptor (e.g. “muslim”, “atheist”, “scientist”, “person who likes to have fun”) and the dynamic remains.  It is how young people of faith are treated in the prevailing popular mood.

Ironically, of course, those who assert the caricature are actually reflecting it.  It’s a gavel-banging declaration:  “I judge that you are judging me and so I condemn you for it.”  There is no enquiry in this statement, no generous observation or gracious listening.  The caricature is projected onto the “other” irrespective of whether it fits or not.  The particular dignity, principles, thoughts and feelings of that person are irrelevant: they are guilty by association with an abstraction!

We need to lead our young people into understanding this dynamic and responding in an opposite spirit, one that truly demonstrates gentleness and grace without conforming to the pressures and assumptions of a judgemental world.

The real danger is that we Christians come to agree with the caricature ourselves.  We can come to accept the judgement that “we” (for some definition of us religious folk) are, by that very fact, dangerously judgemental.  And then our judgemental reflection, our projection, is placed on God himself. Our wrestle with the Bible and with godly principles of Christian living collapses into a capitulation: “What God does and says is judgemental and so I judge him worthy of condemnation.”

In some ways this is no surprise. It is not for no reason that the the biblical account of humanity’s fall begins with a questioning of God’s character. “Did God really say?  God knows that you would become like him.

We capitulate to the caricature when we agree with its assertion. “You’re right, the Bible is clearly outdated and doesn’t speak the truth as we know it.”  When we do this we are simply making God in our own image.  The end game of that is tyranny and philosophical anarchy: There is no higher authority or principle to appeal to; we have a cacophony of individuals asserting that what they say is true is actually what is true.

We capitulate to the caricature when we reinforce the assertion by combatting it on its own terms.  “You’re the one who is wrong, the Bible condemns you! You must submit or be damned!”  By this we become part of the tyranny, just another one of the voices claiming that their truth wins.

We can only avoid capitulating by turning not to ourselves and some sense of self-righteousness, but by embracing confidence in the trustworthiness of God’s character.  That is, by growing in faith.

The way forward is to deliberately choose a posture of trust in God as a good parent.  Trust is earned, and can be nurtured.  It involves honesty, and takes risks: “Yes, this part of the Bible is difficult to read. But let’s wrestle with it, let’s grapple it. If we stand over it we will not learn anything, but if we begin on the foundation that God is good, how then are we confronted, provoked, taught, and grown by what we read and see?”

We know from our own experience as children of the times when we questioned our parent’s character, particularly when we were being disciplined, or when a family decision takes a difficult path.  But we grew to trust.  And we came to understand what was going on, and to even respect and agree with what we were taught through those times.  Our trust grows, and we are shaped, corrected, and transformed as we go on that journey.

This posture helps us, then, to relate to others.  We don’t meet judgementalism with judgementalism.  We respond with the truth (“What you say I believe is not actually the case.”) and an invitation to journey (“This where I’ve come from, this is what I’m learning at the moment.  Where are you coming from?”).  Or, as St. Peter did saith:

…in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16)

[Image by Anton Novosolev licensed under CC – BY]

Posted in 2.0, General, Society Tagged with: , , ,

Review: Inventing the Individual – The Origins of Western Liberalism

9780141009544Cultural assumptions have historical roots.  It is incumbent upon anyone who takes part in public debate or social engagement to explore them.  In the current moment there is a growing appreciation that when it comes to the self-evident truths of the Western world – things like human rights and democratic values – our roots are firmly and inextricably embedded in our Christian heritage.

This conclusion is not simply the stuff of political rhetoric of the Christian Concern variety, nor even of decent apologetics like that of CPX or the recently released Jesus the Gamer Changer series.  It’s the stuff of thorough historiography.  Larry Siedentop, formerly professor of Intellectual History at Sussex University, and fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and Lecturer in Political Thought, gives us this stimulating monograph.

Like any careful teacher, Siedentop précises himself throughout.  His epilogue, “Christianity and Secularism” contains a summary of the basic building block of his argument:

More than anything else, I think, Christianity changed the ground of human identity.  It was able to do that because of the way it combined Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism that had roots in later Greek philosophy.  By emphasizing the moral equality of humans, quite apart from any social roles they might occupy, Christianity changed ‘the name of the game’.  Social rules became secondary. They followed and, in a crucial sense, had to be understood as subordinate to a God-given human identity, something all humans share equally…  In one sense Paul’s conception of the Christ introduces the individual, by giving conscience a universal dimension… Through its emphasis on human equality the New Testament stands out against the primary thrust of the ancient world, with its dominant assumption of ‘natural’ inequality. (pp352-3)

Siedentop is not, nor does he read like, a New Testament exegete or biblical theologian; he’s a political philosopher.  But his grappling with biblical texts is robust and fair and his understanding of early and middle Christian history is useful as a history text in its own right.

His last chapter, “Dispensing with the Renaissance” reveals his programme.  The fundamental tenets of Western liberalism (moral equality and “natural rights” of individuals, representative government and institutions, and freedom of enquiry) were not novel discoveries of the modern age.

…I am not suggesting that the Renaissance did not matter, that it did not channel human thought, feeling and expression into new forms… But what I am maintaining is that as an historiographical concept the Renaissance has been grossly inflated.  It has been used to create a gap between early modern Europe and the preceding centuries – to introduce a discontinuity which is misleading. (p337)

His preceding chapters justify a continuity.  Upon the Pauline building block of the salvation of “individual souls”, which counters the priority of aristocratic or familial obligations, he notes the “demolition of ancient rationalism” that was eventually completed by Augustine (p104).  Early monasticism avoids compromise with the “aristocratic world” (p93) and implements an “utterly new form of social organisation” based on “voluntary association, in individual acts of will” (p94).  By the time Charlemagne attempts to reprise a Roman-like imperial rule, the “individual began to emerge as the unit of subjection, a social role as well as a moral status” (p154).

It is intriguing to see how the role of the church in the post-Carolingian feudal period prevents a recourse to an aristocratic illiberal world.  Concepts that might now be caricatured as theocratic overreach were actually forms of emancipation.  The church’s insistence of marriage as a sacrament undoes the last vestiges of absolute slavery (p171) by preventing men and women being bartered and bred.  The sense of “divine right” of kings is actually a great leveller (p174); the king is not king by some ontological natural attribute, but by divine providence, and is therefore obligated to God as much as any other individual.

It’s a flip-side consideration that has contemporary impact. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a thoughtful person who was well versed in anti-discrimination law.  In conversation about how I would approach a certain subject I began with the words, “Well, we’re all sinners.”  To her look of dismay at such an unfortunate premise, I noted that that this understanding is fundamentally egalitarian:  No one can claim moral authority in and of themselves, we are all sinners.  The crescendo of self-righteousness on all sides of contemporary debates indicates the value of humility that a mutual recognition of the divine could bring.

Siedentop’s consideration takes us through the Cluniac reforms, in which the “purity” of monastic houses, and the freedoms of their volitional, individual members, were reinforced against local, feudal pressures.  He demonstrates how the developing sense of papal sovereignty extended the moral sense of the “individual” such that it became a primary social role “shared equally by all persons” (p219).  This inherently “bottom-up” conception shaped the development of canon law, as it grew to support the centralised papacy, bringing a form of universality of rights and obligations.  Civil structures were only later to catch up and, in so doing, moved the social framework away from realms towards nation-states with an embryonic social contract.  And finally, the philosophical pieces of liberalism are fully in place as the Franciscan movement, countering the scholastic infatuation with Aristotelian rationalism, emphasised divine freedom (free from the constraint of a more fundamental essence or ideal) and a consequent human agency.

And all of this before the Renaissance!

It is only in the tumult of the Reformation, as the enforcement of belief becomes a prevalent political and social reality, that Siedentop sees the liberal ideas becoming manifest as an anti-clericalism, sowing the seeds that germinate and grow throughout the modern period and even bear fruit today.

Sidentop’s history-telling is compelling and convincing.  All would do well to ingest it, certainly before rejecting fait accompli the Christian world view as inherently repressive and totalitarian.

But the bigger question this raises for me is something of a “so what?”  There are two aspects to this:

Firstly, to the extent that liberalism is virtuous, how much does the current irreligious age put our liberalism at risk?  Christian origins might be apparent, but not conceptually necessary for many thoughtful liberals.  What do we lose if we lose the understanding of origins?  What difference does it make?

I suspect the difference at this point is not sociological but epistemological, and we must perhaps consider different instantiations of liberalism in the contemporary setting.  You can have multiple points of view that share Siedentop’s liberal characteristics, but which vary greatly in application.  The current differences on gender and sexuality are the prime example.  For some, (ironically both traditional conservative and classical feminist), individual freedom is found in embracing and defending the biological aspects of human being as an essential part of identity. For others, individual freedom is to transcend or reject not just social constructions but the biological realities to which they attach.  Both are “liberal” in their own internal sense, but are also at odds.  From either point of view, the other constrains individual freedom.

I can therefore understand the argument by which the rejection of the Christian epistemological ground is seen as a path toward an illiberal “liberalism.”  This is evident in current popular rhetoric (the “intolerance of tolerance,” “slippery slope” etc).

Secondly, to the extent that liberalism is not the gospel, what correctives are needed?  We do well to focus on individualism, and recognise its primordial rejection of familial aristocracy.  But where do concepts such as community and family and plurality enter in?  There is power in introspection, but the gospel is more than just alleviating the anxiety of the introspective conscience, it is about the commencement and completion of a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” in which there is an interdependence of persons.

The postmodern reprise of both relationship and experience is a necessary corrective within the grand flow of philosophical history, and one that the Christian worldview is yet to adequately inform or harness.  Any attempt needs a view of history that would learn a great deal from Siedentop.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Progress and Pluralism Tagged with: , , , , ,

A Parentless Church in the Orphaned West?

1280px-salar_uyuni_bolivieWe have an ongoing task of considering the culture around us for the sake of the gospel.  We “live in the world” but do not act like the world.  Rather, we “take every thought captive”, which is not about our inner thought-life and has more to do with the task of simultaneously participating in and pushing-back at our surrounding culture.

The task involves this: What are some of the defining characteristics of the West?  Where is the church capitulating to or, alternatively, subverting our cultural narrative with the gospel?  They are the rubbing points of our mission, our proclamation, our relevance.

One Western characteristic we have encountered is the prevalence of fear.  The fear of falling, particularly in the middle classes, is a point of contact for the gospel of trust and hope.

A second characteristic is a peculiar individualism with an honour-shame shape.  You’re individually placed within a herd in which you are ranked by some descriptor such as school results, bank balance, or postcode.  Honour and shame pertains to perceived movement in that rank.  Perceptions as to where you stand matter as much as reality, and poor presentation can become self-fulfilling.  This a point of contact for the gospel which honours individuals as image-bearers of God and values the body life of a renewed Jesus-shaped community.

A third characteristic is the subject of this post:  It is a collective sense of parentlessness.  Our society exhibits aspects of orphanhood.  And the greatest concern is the extent to which the church which prays “Our Father…” readily adopts this same sense in thought and practice.

What do we mean by it?

In vague and limited terms, some observations that describe this characteristic are:

You are on your own.”  The community spirit, that vague but certain sense that we each belong to a “team” of some sort has waned.  This does not preclude interaction, or times and places where people can connect and share in anything from frivolities to more serious causes; but in the end I am not my brother’s keeper, and my neighbour and I owe each other nothing.  “Pulling together” is only of utilitarian value, and not an end in itself.

Cynical Leadership.  Political leadership is a stark example.  Here, leadership is not about inspiration, it is simply an algorithm, a feedback loop of wedge issues, focus groups, and the bartering of winners and losers in which principle is irrelevant.  We have ideology but no ideals.  We are called to self-interest but not to shared identity or purpose.  Statesmanship has been deconstructed.  Our debates and votes have become mechanical spins of a sloganeered poker machine.

Fearful Silence.  Perhaps as an overreaction to bygone paternalism, we lurch between fear of ourselves (that we might impose and control) and fear of rejection (that our pearls will be treated as swill).  And so we tend to simply stop saying anything, one generation to another and each to their own.   No one is raised up to purpose or vocation.  Rather than being covered and nurtured and raised up into their potential, all must fight for their place, seek their own sustenance, and justify their value. Elders are just old people, and young people have a divine right to not only “find their way” but to do so from first principles, standing at the feet of fading giants.  Withholding insight, we hold unthinking belligerence to be self-evident.  The concept of “Founding Father” is extinct.

The end result has society bearing the hallmarks of orphanhood:  An uncertain identity, an unanswered questioning of who we are; and a fear of rejection lingering as a subtle self-centredness that orbits the numbing false-comfort of entertainments.  Our world is uncontrollable, and so we curl up into passivity, only bothering to be moved when there’s something that “they” should do.

Now this is social commentary, not an observation of how well or otherwise mothers and fathers raise their children. Nevertheless, it does inform how family-life is pressured by prevailing assumptions of how things should be.

And it also informs the church’s application of the gospel.

The gospel begins with a good good Father, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and sends his Spirit by which we can respond with the rejuvenating childlike cry of “Abba, Father.”  The gospel invites us to turn to Christ, and so enter into the spiritual family that he heads.  There we have a certain identity, love that overcomes fear, and a call to purposeful action.  Our heavenly Father knows us, takes risks for us, calls us into the fullness of ourselves in him, and so binds his people together with love, affection, mutual recognition and godly provocation.

The most inspiring Christian movements model this family.  Irish band Rend Collective grabs hold of the Great Commission, and as family they go.  We’ve seen people try to emulate the energy of youth festival Soul Survivor – big music and loud lights – and fail to see that it only works because those who make it happen do it as family.

Families share life, spur one another on, and know one another.  Parents don’t just instruct and teach, they breathe life, they feel the wellbeing of each member in their own bones.  They pour themselves out and are wearied, for sure, but they delight and are rewarded by the family’s growth.  And all the while they hold their Father’s hand.

Read Paul’s letters and you see his apostolic father heart beating the whole time.  He never goes alone.  And he speaks of his people:

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 1 Thessalonians 2:19

Yet for so many, the loneliest place on earth is the church pew.  Church can be many things – a product to buy, a message to contemplate, a program in which to participate.  Our strategies can be clever, and our structures professional and proper.  Our job descriptions can be precise, and our line management clear and fair.  But without a sense of family, our Christianity is paint-layer thin, deep gets swallowed up by shallow, and we are yet another dusty bowl in the world’s wilderness.

The recent re-attention on discipleship steps towards the deeps we need to recover and re-dig.  Discipleship involves a recognition of “household”, the sharing of life, and training through apprenticeship.  It invokes the “band of brothers” family as the outward mission is pursued.

The next step perhaps, is deeper yet; it is towards an apostolic adoptive heart, which doesn’t just train, but calls and covers.  This next step can’t be manufactured.  Perhaps it’s simply what happens when the Father heart of God stirs us anew.  But we know we need it, this world and ourselves.

[Image by Olywyer used under CC BY-SA]

Posted in 2.0, General, Society Tagged with: , , ,

Pioneering Mission and Authoritative Dissent

IMG_2466It’s always great to get in conversation with stimulating people who understand the dynamics of mission in the church and all that’s in play and at stake when pioneering is needed.  One of the things that happens is that words and phrases get used that state a concept or an experience that you’ve always been aware of but have struggled to describe.  With new words comes an opportunity for reflection.

Recently we had cause to reflect on the concept of “dissenter.”  It’s in two parts, “pathfinding dissenter” and “authority dissenter.”

They’re not terms we’ve coined.  You’ll find reference to it books such as Arbuckle’s Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership, which I haven’t read but plan to.  It’s in a whole bunch of pioneering ministry material, which you can google for, but which I also haven’t read.  All that I say below are my thoughts, capturing our experience through in these terms.

The concept of “pathfinding dissenter” is readily grasped.  Everyone understands that for something new to happen there needs to be a form of leadership that is constructively discontent with the status quo and simply refuses to agree that the way things are always done is the best way forward.  This form of leadership, when done well, pokes and prods, questioning assumptions and the cultural “givens.”  The discontent is entered into and wrestled with, preferably in a gathering community of the like-hearted, and a pathway forward is discovered and followed.

To others, it may not look like a path.  Indeed, it is sometimes the task of the dissenting explorers to “toss their caps” over an impossibly high wall so they can find their way.  But this is why dissent is a good word to use.  It’s a disagreement with the presumed impossible, it blazes a trail, it gets new things done.

Gill and I have had the joy of walking with pathfinding dissenters.  For us, the phrase was “damn the torpedoes” and for an all-too-brief season it was the way of new things.

It’s the term “authority dissenter” that has intrigued me.  But, of course, it makes sense also.  The authority dissenter is the one who interfaces between the pathfinder and organisational structures.  They have authority, and they recognise, release, cover and connect with the constructive pathfinding dissenters.

They have institutional authority but a pioneering spirit.  They also share the same constructive discontent.  They also dissent from the cultural presumptions of the status quo.  They also understand viscerally that new paths ahead need to be found and forged.  And they champion and support the pathfinders, without getting in their way.  They take their hands off, create the space, and protect where needed.

An ineffective nerdy analogy perhaps:  It’s the wisdom of Gandalf, and then Aragorn, who allow the ringbearer and his friends to forge their own path, while they get on with the jobs that need doing and the wars that need waging, all the while watching, believing, and drawing away the enemy fire.

Without the authority dissenter, the pathfinders will still go ahead – the pioneering spirit cannot easily be quenched – but they will do so disconnected.  Their task will be harder and the pathfinders will struggle.  But most importantly, the organisation will also be disconnected, without a way to follow along the new ways forward, and with a diminished sense of “blessing and being blessed in return.”

The authority dissenter is a permission giver, but of a particular sort.  Many effective leaders will hear proposals and the creative ones will give permission to make it happen.  But the authority dissenter doesn’t just give permission to what can be known (“Go and do what you have said you will do.”), they give permission to the unknown (“Go, and may the Lord show you your path.”)

Authority dissenters can cover the pathfinders in all manner of ways, from providing resources, to dealing with and removing bureaucratic overheads, to bringing people into community with one another.  They are the champions that justify the pioneers to whoever sticks their nose in, so that the pioneers are released from the ever-present weariness of having to justify every step (and mis-step) to eagle-eyed naysayers.

And here is an important dynamic: the authority dissenter does not demand primary loyalty.  The relationship with pioneers is not that of patron-client.  It is a parental-release dynamic.

The analogy is this: I expect a certain high degree of loyalty from my children.  But as they forge their own path, those loyalties will rightly and appropriately shift, most clearly towards the formation of their own family.

In pioneering it is the same: as pathfinders scale their walls and go through fire together there will be a mutual loyalty which should not be tampered with.  As a pioneer leader passes through trials and moves in the charism that necessarily follows, their chief loyalty will be towards those they serve and serve alongside.

At this point, without an authority dissenter, the organisation will try and claim it’s prize, or like a clinging mother-in-law, try to put it in its place and demand its dues.  But the authority dissenter is there to make more room – the space given to the pioneer at the beginning of the journey is now extended to those who have been found at the end and along the way.  Because it is clear: the new thing will expand in God’s grace, and the old will either move and embrace it, reject and abandon it, or be cracked and broken by it.

The authority dissenter is there to be the point of embrace, taking upon themselves the points where it rubs and wears, mending the cracks, and helping the blessings flow both ways.

Gill and I have had “authority dissenters,” whose authority was episcopal.  It was a foundational blessing.  In other ways, though, we’ve had to cover ourselves: arching our backs against church machinery that would squash the fragile new things that were growing.  It’s wearisome and wrong to run up and down the path, pushing with the pathfinders at one point, pushing back at the machinery at another.

My reflection concludes: The authority dissenter, the cover of the apostolically hearted, is not just important, it is essential.  We look for innovative pioneers to push us outwards.  But that’s not enough.  We must also incorporate into ourselves, and give authority to, those who can recognise, release, cover and connect with those who will do what we need to do next.

Posted in 2.0, Church Planting, Ministry Tagged with: , , , ,