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.

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.