Review: Setting God’s People Free – A Report from the Archbishops’ Council

“This report concludes that what needs to be addressed is not a particular theological or ecclesiastical issue but the Church’s overall culture.  This is a culture that over-emphasises the distinction between the sacred and the secular and therefore fails to communicate the all-encompassing scope of the whole-life good news and to pursue the core calling of every church community and every follower of Jesus – to make whole-life maturing disciples.  We will not raise up cadres of godly leaders unless we create communities of whole-life disciples.” (Page 2)

The Archbishops’ Council has released this report under the Renewal & Reform agenda. Hot off the presses (it is dated February 2017) it is refreshingly and provocatively titled “Setting God’s People Free” and is based primarily on the work of the Lay Leadership Task Group.  It is perceptive in outlook, insightful in analysis, but self-admittedly limited in application.  It provokes a degree of excitement with just a hint of cynicism.

From my “outsider” perspective, reports like these from the Church of England have stimulated and encouraged mission and discipleship in other contexts.  This was the case with significant works such as Mission-Shaped Church.  It is similar here; the leadership of the church is saying what needs to be said, giving a voice and lending language to those who desire a deeper Christian community that is more active and effective in doing the things that matter.  The simple encouragement that this gives to those on the edge cannot be underestimated.

With my slowly developing “inside” view, these documents now seem a little starker.  It is still immensely encouraging that these things are being said, but there is also an awareness of why they need to be said.  A report like this reveals behind (or in front of) it some sense of the inertial malaise that can be found in the Church of England.  It envelopes a justifiable sense of urgency.

So what does this report give us?  It’s not really anything revolutionary.  It’s a couple of things that make deep sense, and, if taken seriously, come attached with a whole bunch of difficult but positive implications:

This report identifies the need for two shifts in culture and practice that we see as critical to the flourishing of the Church and the evangelisation of the nation.

1. Until, together, ordained and lay, we form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the Gospel we will never set God’s people free to evangelise the nation.

2. Until laity and clergy are convinced, based on their baptismal mutuality, that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifting and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship, and equal partners in mission, we will never form Christian communities that can evangelise the nation.

We believe that these two shifts would represent a seismic revolution in the culture of the Church.  The first is about the focus of our activity and the scope of our mission, the second is about the nature of the relationship between clergy and lay.  They are both vital.  And they are both rare.
(Page 2, emphasis theirs)

This is an exemplary act of ecclesial self-reflection.  These assertions about church culture are based on some decent quantitative and qualitative analysis.  It is a conversation that is well and truly at the missional and cultural level.  Personally speaking, we have been bewildered in our observation and experience of how these issues are usually avoided or mishandled.  This includes misalignment over the meaning of crucial language such as “discipleship” and “mission.”   This report not only clarifies terms (“Discipleship is not a course of study but is determined by circumstances”, page 7) but unpacks what that clarity reveals:

Today… the Church of England finds itself in a situation where the significant majority of the 98% of people who are not in ordained ministry are neither adequately envisioned, nor appropriately trained, nor consistently prayed for, nor enthusiastically encouraged for mission nor ministry in the ~90% of their waking lives that they do not spend in church related actitivites. (Page 3)

Yes, huge numbers of lay people serve in positions of influence and leadership in the church, community, workplace and society.  However, few claim to have been given a theological framework or to have the confidence to express biblical wisdom, in both word and deed, in these contexts.  We will not raise up cadres of fruitful godly leaders in every sphere unless we create healthy communities of whole-life disciple-making disciples. (Page 4)

What is needed, first and foremost, is not a programme but a change in culture. A culture that communicates the all-encompassing scope of the good news for the whole of life, and pursues the core calling of every church community and every follower of Jesus – to form whole-life maturing disciples.  And a culture that embodies in every structure and way of working the mutuality of our baptismal calling and the fruitful complementarity of our roles and vocations. (Page 5)

Our contention is that the motivation for Christian leadership must arise not from a slightly greater willingness to ‘do jobs’ but from a compelling and positive vision of the redeeming work of Christ for all people.  It is when people become aware of the great things that Christ has done for them and wake up to the gifts that the Holy Spirit has bestowed on them that a joyful and willing leadership emerges, for it is out of communities of disciples that cadres of leaders will appear. (Page 8)

To all this I give an understated Anglican “Amen, brothers and sisters!”  Here is a vision for a missional church that resonates with our own hopes and passions.

It is not an unrealistic vision.  The report is aware of “constraining factors” and rightly names as primary a “theological deficit” (page 13) of “robust and incisive… thinking” (page 14).  The counter offer is a “theology of the laity as grounded in the centrality of mission and evangelism” (page 14) made with full awareness that parochialism and other factors work to prevent such vision from “achieving long-term currency, let alone significantly informing policy and practice across the Church of England” (page 14).

Mission is not about removing people from the world to seek refuge in the Church… but about releasing and empowering all God’s people to be the Church in the world in order that the whole of creation might be transformed and restored in Christ. (Page 14).

I am sympathetic to, but not entirely yet convinced by, the engagement with the clerical-lay divide as a primary problem.  The report portrays both sides of the frustration and that is useful: some congregations try to make their clergy into messiahs, some clergy already think they are!  Nevertheless, the engagement with the issue assumes and perhaps unhelpfully reinforces the division. After all, the clergy are subset of the laity, not a separate category.  And one of the problems in our formation of clergy is that we don’t also (and especially) disciple them as people.  A discipleship culture is rarely prevented by a lack of theological knowledge; it is resisted when leaders are unable to share of themselves because of insecurities, fears, emotional immaturity, inexperience with suffering, or simple lack of exposure to the deeper things of life with Jesus.

Few churches have developed the kind of learning culture that would illuminate the resource and support that is required to develop lay people.  Few churches are equipped with the kind of ‘action reflection’ approaches that we see in Jesus’ disciple-making and in best practice adult learning models in wider society. (Page 18)

Good reports make recommendations and here “eight levels of cultural change” are proposed (page 19).  They are only really applicable to “Dioceses and the National Church”, which is understandable as these are the atomic ecclesial components from the point of view of the Archbishops’ Council.  I am not particularly familiar with the sort of machinations that happen at that level, but the principles seem sound: theological vision, increased lay voice, episcopal priorities, centralised resourcing, liturgical development, structural reform and so on.  I’ll be watching the commentary on these things with some interest.

There are two recommendations for action in the short-term that attract me.  The selection of “pilot dioceses” (page 26) to model the culture has me hoping that my own Diocese of Oxford will be one!  And, the provision of resources through a “national portal” (page 26), particularly “the facility for people to join small affinity/learning groups for support, discussion, and accountability” recognises a crucial lack of communal learning that should be happening at Parish, Deanery and Diocesean level, but usually isn’t.

The emphasis remains however: cultural change is required.  And that is a fraught exercise.

I have sat on enough boards and committees in my time to understand that clarifying the situation and identifying the problem is one thing; putting forward achievable and appropriate proposals is another.  This is only amplified when the problem is a cultural one.  There is always an aspect of catch-22 and chicken-or-egg.  How do we use culture to change culture?  Are the available options – the levers that can be pulled – able to transcend the culture or are they products of it?

There are all manner of obstacles to cultural change.  It will take more than this report to overcome them.

For instance, cultural change is resisted by allowing symptoms to control the remedy.  Our natural tendency is to alleviate symptoms, and it is often not efficacious.  Consider how the report points out that there is “no sense of any centrally-coordinated strategy for the support and development of lay leaders across the Church” (Page 11).  This is clearly a symptom of something that’s wrong.  But it may not follow that the answer is to rely on a “centrally coordinated strategy.”  Rather, it is likely that cultural change is achieved by some other means, which then results in a centrally-coordinated strategy.  What comes first?  Here, while not wanting to “institute a top down approach” (page 1) we still have a “clear implementation plan” (page 9) from a high-level body!  Catch-22.

In general, there are other obstacles to cultural change.  There is the presumptive existent: “We exist, therefore we’re on the right course.”  There is semantic deflection: “Of course we’re doing X; when we do it it looks like…”  By embracing the buzzwords the real engagement is avoided.  We’ve seen this happen with words such as “discipleship”, “fresh expression”, “leadership”, “vision”, “mission”, and “emerging”.  Cynicism can easily abound.

I’m not sure the report totally avoids these obstacles.  For instance, in trying to articulate a picture of lay ministry in terms of the “sent church” there is an emphasis on volunteerism.  However, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there is often a cultural disconnect between the social action of individual parishioners and the movement and mission of the church to which they belong.  The report mentions Street Pastors (page 10), but how much can we say that that ministry belongs to the institutional Church?  There is a danger of stealing the fruit of others in order to avoid our own barrenness.

Nevertheless, I was both encouraged and moved by this paper.  I am grateful to know that people are thinking these thoughts, and even dreaming these dreams.  It’s the right conversation in the right room, and it speaks a vision that needs to spread to every room in this House of God.

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Four Levels of Church Conversation

There’s something to observe when Christians get together and talk about themselves in meetings, in groups, or even over coffee.  It’s an observation that relates to the question of “what is this meeting for?” and “what are we not talking about?”

Here is how I’ve come to answer that question: by identifying four levels of conversation.  It’s an oversimplifying categorisation, for sure, but hopefully a useful way to discern what page a conversation is on.

The top level of conversation is mechanical and operational.  Like coats of paint, it’s this top layer that is on the surface and is often the easiest level to enter into.

It is at this level that we find ourselves talking about operations: planning services, organising rotas, remarking on how good the flowers look, the size of the congregation, the clarity of the sound, and the feel of the sermon.  These are all necessary things to discuss and it’s not for no reason that such topics dominate the agenda of many meetings, and make up the bulk of a minister’s emails and phone calls.  Things need to happen, programs need to run, and coordination and conversation is required to do that.

Conversations at this level, however, presume and rest upon an understanding about how the church operates.  That’s the topic of the next level of conversation:

The second level of conversation is managerial and organisational.  At this level, it’s not so much about keeping the church operational but improving those operations.

These are conversations that deal with priorities, financial allocations and budgets, improving efficiencies, and responding to hiccups and crises.  A good engagement at this level keeps things running smoothly.  Most complaints and criticism are also at this level because they usually relate to how things could supposedly be done better.  Boards and oversight committees often spend time talking at this level.

These sorts of conversations inform and found how we talk about the operations of the church (the previous level), and presumes the church’s mission and purpose:

The third level of conversation is missional and cultural.  

This is where questions of identity, purpose, and values are considered.  It’s a level of conversation that is both reflective and strategic.  

It is reflective, in that it involves questions about ourselves:  Who are we? Where are we going? What are we for? What’s really important? What are we struggling with? What is good about us that needs to be affirmed? What is wrong that needs to be addressed? Where are we clinging to idols that we should put away?  What gifts are we ignoring that we should cling to?  What is our culture? Where are our blind stops? What makes us tick?

It is strategic, in that it involves questions about mission and calling: What is God doing in with and around us?  Where is he leading us? What is his heart for the people and place in which we find ourselves?  What is the culture in which we find ourselves, and how do we bear witness to the gospel in the midst of it?  It is in this sort of conversation that vision and purpose are tussled through and articulated.

Conversations at this level can be quite rare.  Such engagements are usually motivated by passion or crisis, or both!  Where the context is marked by stability, or even stagnancy, these topics are rarely broached; the presumed answers suffice for the sake of management and operation.  This is understandable; for conversation at this level to happen well, there needs to be a willingness to embrace the challenge that these sorts of questions generate, and that often requires facing fears and insecurities and daring to dream and be imaginative.

Conversations at this level inform and shape how we talk about the management and organisation of the church (the previous level), and presumes a theological and doxological basis:

The base level of conversation is theological and doxological and deals with spiritual foundations.  

These conversations can sometimes feel a bit academic or esoteric.  This does not necessarily mean that they are not delightful, dynamic, and life-giving.  The main contributor to my own theological formation was coffee with fellow students!  I have wrestled with fellow colleagues about things like Neo-Calvinism (when it was a new thing) and New Perspectives (which still is).  There might be no clear application for such discussions, but they do shape the foundations upon which all other conversations rest.  What do we believe? And why?

Of course, “theological” doesn’t just mean cerebral things.  Theology cannot be divorced from doxology.  The conversations at this level are also intensely spiritual.  I have had delightful conversations with deeply contemplative folk who make use of art, symbolism, metaphor, and even silence.  Shared spiritual disciplines are located here.  It is at this level that our conversations come close to the heart of worship.

Again, these sorts of conversations can be few and far between, even in a church setting.  There is often an intense sense of privacy and vulnerability that prevents the dialogue.  We often tend to mitigate this by relegating these sorts of topics to a didactic sermon or by speaking in abstractions so that awkward conclusions can be avoided.  Yet this sort of engagement is the stuff of life, it is where we discover a common root for our passions, a base level unity that founds a true and open community, irrespective of disagreements at the other levels.

Diagrammatically, it looks like this: 

It is a simplification, but it does help as we ponder how we ourselves engage in dialogue about the church.

I suspect that every one of us is more comfortable engaging at one level more than another.  And sometimes we try and do things at the wrong place.  This is the situation where a conversation about hymn selection is not about the operation of the music ministry, but actually a commentary with regards to priorities, purpose, and base values;  the issue is rarely the issue!  This can help discern where the conversation needs to go.

But it also reminds us of the conversations that we need to have but sometimes never get around to.  The management meeting that spends all its time on minutiae and forgets the important things is a well-known experience.  The old analogy of the church that forgets that it is a lifeboat station is a failure to have the deeper conversations at the right time and in the right way.

The thoughts, and hopefully the conversations, continue.

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Review: A Tale of Three Kings – A Study in Brokenness

What is our posture and place before God?

Gill has often asked me, “How do you see God right now? Who is he to you?”  It’s not a doctrinal question, it’s a posture question.  Am I rejoicing before him, in freedom?  Am I figuratively curled up on his lap in weariness?  Am I ignoring him, hardened and rebellious, presuming and attempting to usurp, blocking my ears?  Am I being contrite, bringing my brokenness to him?  Do I see God as someone to be scared of, to avoid?  Or can I boldly approach the eternal throne, trusting in his mercy and grace?

It is often useful to ground such exploration in the pages of Scripture; to look to those who have gone before us and see how God reveals and deals with them.  What posture do they take?  What can we learn? Exegetical care is required, of course, but it is a blessing to observe the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever.  And dare to seek to his face.

In this fascinating book, A Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards takes us to the example of King David, to glean what we may.  David, of course, is one of the three kings.  The other two are Saul, who saw the young David as a rival and pursued him, and Absalom, David’s son, who sought to usurp the throne of his father.  Edwards finds in David’s response to both Saul and Absalom, an example of someone who is enrolled “not into the lineage of royalty but into the school of brokenness” (page 8).

If we were to be critical, we could say that Edwards overplays his hand.  His framework has David as a “broken vessel” who is able to pursue God through pain (page 12), and Saul is “the unbroken ruler (whom God sovereignly picks) who metes out the pain” (page 15).  Of course, in reality, David is not always the David that Edwards speaks of.  He is unbroken with regards to Uriah.  He is also a belligerent warrior, an inept father, and a wielder of authority who isn’t always humble. I’m sure that there were many in Israel for whom David was their Saul!

Nevertheless, this doesn’t diminish the force of Edwards’ exercise.  He takes us into David’s experience and unpacks what is virtuous in a way that matches the thrust of all levels of the biblical narrative.  As a type of messiah, David reveals Christ, and so Edwards is helping us to imitate him as he imitates Christ, so to speak.  Conversely, he wants us to be aware of the “King Saul in you” (page 23) and to be aware of where we may ally with Absalom (page 62).

The Sauls of this world can never see a David; they see only Absalom. The Absaloms of this world can never see a David; they see only Saul. (Page 80)

The result is an excellent tool for self-reflection, particularly for those in leadership.  We are taken, for instance, to places where people desire power, “ambition, a craving for fame, the desire to be considered a spiritual giant” (page 41).  We are caused to think of why sometimes the wrong people seem to have the power, and how we might respond to that. The example of David who would not bring down the Lord’s anointed in his own strength governs much of this reflection.

It takes us to David as a “study in brokenness”.  This is where we find Edwards’ overstatement: That David “forced no rebellion because he did not mind if he was dethroned” (page 47) is not entirely true, and surely it could not be said of Jesus that “he had authority… but that fact never occurred to him” (page 48); humility is not psychological obfuscation!  Nevertheless, the way of leadership as a deliberate path of trust through loneliness and suffering is well made.

Legalism is nothing but a leader’s way of avoiding suffering. (Page 47)

The most important lessons, however, are not just for the leaders, but for Christians in general, for churches and congregations.  For me, the biggest lesson Edwards expounds is to exercise faith such that we are willing to do… nothing.  He looks to David with both Saul and Absalom, and also to Moses with Korah, who didn’t meet rebellion with rebellion, but simply “fell on his face before God. That is all he did” (page 87).

Consider this posture: “I will leave the destiny of the kingdom in God’s hands alone. Perhaps he is finished with me.  Perhaps I have sinned too greatly and am no longer worthy to lead” (page 93).

My instant reaction was to write this off as unworthy passivism, a reneging of responsibility, a failure to embrace the favour we have in Christ.  Surely that is far from the pursuit of God’s mission and a faithful response to his call?  But Edwards’ observation is not invalid, and the reflection has merit.

We Christians, individually and as churches, are so very very quick to sacralise our drivenness and idolise our achievements.  We intone, “Unless the Lord builds the house…”, and then pick up our own hammer and nails and do whatever we want; any success, on our own terms, becomes proof of divine favour.  We pray “Lord, bless my church, and all that we do” and this looks like (and can often actually be) a humble petition, but it can also be the essence of self-reliance.  The fact is, it is actually the Lord’s church, and we might not be doing what he wants at all!

Rather, David receives the Kingdom just as Christ would later receive resurrection and “all authority in heaven and on earth”, not from themselves, but in the laying down of themselves.  The posture that Edwards finds for us in Scripture would have us seek to do the same.

My own reflection is this:  We are so often like self-centred children.  Our Lord offers us every spiritual blessing as a gift of grace.  Our response should be to receive this gift, and the calling and activism that goes with it.  Yet our attitude can subtly shift us away from this; rather than receive, we seize, we take, we almost demand.  We consider our inheritance and treat it like an entitlement.  And this is where Edwards’ reflection assists:  Because the difference between receiving and taking is in the attitude, the posture.  And that difference is that the receiver waits, and does not presume, doing nothing until the giver puts the gift in place.

It is God’s church. And he will build it. That honour belongs to no other.

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Review: Spirituality Workbook – A Guide for Explorers, Pilgrims and Seekers

Some books are wide-ranging and broad.  Some books are deep and specific.  David Runcorn, in Spirituality Workbook, deals with some of the nitty gritty of everyday expressions of Christian spirituality, and manages to do both; it is both deep and wide.  I read the slightly older 2006 edition.

The breadth comes from the simple amount of material covered.  Runcorn has put together work from years of the rhythm of theological formation.  The chapters are short and independent from each other, but each is a gem of insight and reflection.  The content ranges from topical analyses, to reflections on historical persons and movements, to unpacking specific spiritual disciplines.

It is impossible, therefore, to condense the book down into a governing argument, or to give a fulsome summary.  For myself, I take from the book a number of insights that interact with, subvert, and even blatantly combat some of the ways in which Christians and churches have capitulated to the spirit of the age.

Consider his early chapter on the spirituality of the desert, which draws on the example of the early monastics.  He identifies the motivation of a “longing for God” that cannot be satisfied in an “increasingly worldly church” (page 10).  And his enumeration of the value of the wilderness experience includes concepts such as “judgment” and being “confronted with the sheer depth of our need of conversion” (page 11) that are anathema to the comfortable pews of the western world which idolise success and fanfare.

“In the desert you leave behind all your familiar securities.  You come to a place of confessing your absolute need and the emptiness of all you have been placing your trust in…  The desert is a place that weans us off addictions and false dependencies.  If your god is not the true God the desert will find you out.  Only the true God can sustain you in the wilderness.” (Page 11)

Consider the irony in his reflection on exile in a changing world, that the word from which we get “parish” and “parochial”, paroikia, originally meant “a place of refuge or exile” for Christians who experienced themselves as “resident aliens, non-citizens… sojourners in the world… shaped by the experience of enforced mobility, vulnerable exile and disorientating change” (page 23).

Consider the frustration that recognises that “finding and sustaining community in today’s society is a real struggle” even when “the Christian vision of community is central to spiritual formation, prayer and faithful discipleship” (page 51).  Hear the challenging wisdom, quoted from Bonhoeffer:

If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian community in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith and difficulty, if we only keep on complaining to God, we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” (Page 55)

Ponder his counter to the addiction of churches to self-actualising mission management, as he values a rule of life that resists that greatest of all Christian predilections: the inability to say “no” to something that is good but wrong.

It is quite common for churches to have their own mission statement these days.  What is less common is to find churches that have gone on to think and pray through together a shared, sustainable shape of living that might make that vision realizable.  Without an agreed boundary to its life and mission, church life proceeds on the assumption that Christian time and energy can extend limitlessly into an ever-increasing range of worthy projects.  That this is all “for God” just makes the burden worse!  The result is corporate exhaustion, guilt and frustration.” (Page 65, emphasis mine)

He gives important correctives for our corporate life:  “Worship that is organized to impress outsiders is no longer true worship – which is offered to God alone” (page 70).  He gives insight into culture: “The defining identity on offer today is that of consumer” (page 89).  He plumbs the depths of spiritual practices that may have become staid: “Intercession involves seeking to be where Christ already is… [it] is a participation in Christ’s costly and life-giving presence in the world.” (page 122).

And whether it be in the presentation of the Jesus Prayer or a discourse on sexuality, Runcorn takes us deeper, uncomfortably deeper, blessedly uncomfortably deeper.  Here is the constructive challenge of an effective spiritual director.  Such challenge disabuses us of immature and insipid notions of Jesus and what it means to follow him.  It presses us beyond superficiality and the ubiquitous ecclesial shallows and provokes us.

Where we would settle for peace & tranquility, he would take us to the shalom of Christ, who also challenges, and provokes and questions our assumptions until we rely on him: the Christ who counters our agendas with “Unless you repent you will all perish” (page 177).  Where we would like to waft on clouds of easy ecstasy, he reminds us that “Christian prayer is more often marked by conflict than by feelings of peace” (page 179).  Where we would prefer the stagnancy of unrocked boats, we are reminded that true hospitality and receptivity “does not mean becoming neutral” (page 193).

It is neither polite nor respectful to just sit agreeing with everything your guest says.  We are to offer a real articulate presence, sharing our own beliefs, opinions and lifestyle clearly and distinctly. ‘An empty house is not a hospitable house,’ [Nouwen] says, ‘Real receptivity asks for confrontation.‘ (Page 193, emphasis mine)

We have challenge, confrontation, provocation, uneasiness.  This is the stuff of life. What we have then, is a book to return to, and a book to recommend.  It takes us to depths that are rare in the salt-pan of contemporary corporate Christianity.  It is both comfort and correction, broad and deep, and therefore utterly useful.

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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.

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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 number 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: , , ,