Europe, the referendum and truth


*Body Armour on*

One of the joys of being on Sabbatical has been having time to read newspapers in both paper and on-line form. It’s also been a time of some despair. The quality of discourse about the EU referendum has, in some pieces I’ve read been interesting. The vast, vast majority has, in my humble opinion, been unbelievably bad.

So for the sake of a bit more hot air, here’s my reflection on where we’ve got to so far.

  1. The Tories are in disarray and look more toxic and disaster prone by the day: the ‘nasty party’ is back with a vengeance. This time, they’re incompetent too.
  2. The Remain Campaign sounds like an establishment-corporate shill. Project fear is undoubtedly project well-funded.
  3. The Leave Campaign have elevated public discourse to the level of a nursery sand-pit fight. They’re more interested in infighting and disinformation. Where has Gove gone by the way? Has he been locked in the stationary cupboard?
  4. There are lies, damn lies and statistics. And then how politicians use statistics, badly. Honestly, have any of them ever done maths?
  5. Politics in general today is unedifying, like a third rate sixth form debate. Please can we have some facts and real debate rather than bluster?
  6. Where the hell are Labour? Ideology is great, but they’re the opposition party, not a pseudo-academic think tank wondering what position to take on macrame. At this rate they’ll struggle to be elected class monitor.
  7. The EU is a nightmare. But it might be a devil which we at least know. Decisions are taken by people who show up. If we leave, we won’t get an invite – and people heckling from outside are always irritating.
  8. If we do leave, we’re not going to build an armada and regain the Empire. Total global destruction is unlikely too – but there’s more than a whiff of ‘little englander’ going on. Its 2016 people, not 1716. We’re not going to get America back either – not even if they elect Trump.
  9. The underlying racist and xenophobic sentiments aren’t just offensive: they’re a national disgrace. To often ‘concerns about immigration’ actually mean ‘I don’t like people who aren’t nominal anglicans living in Chipping Sodbury who are friends with the Smythe-Campions and own a pony called Tuppence’
  10. Cameron, Osborne, Bo-Jo, Farage, Gove, etc This isn’t The X-Factor or Britains Got Talent. This is real. So stop playing to the cameras and start making sense. You may look down on us, but we see through you more and more each passing day.
  11. We live in a global world now. ISIS really aren’t bothered about our Sovereignty. Sovereignty is an illusion. Its what we tell ourselves about ourselves when we want to feel better.
  12. Media. Impartial, objective, honest truthful reporting. How hard is that? Please try.

I could go on (which is my usual style). But I find myself longing for real politicians to hold a real debate which makes real sense.

What we’ve got now is sadly less than we should expect. That we’re happy to settle for that is the real problem.


Spiritualities and Temporalities 1

“I just don’t understand why he needs to be commissioned again!”

I still vividly remember the conversation, 25 years ago, between my then boss and a congregational member of a large evangelical parish church. It took place as people were beginning to arrive for a service to ordain new priests, the curate of that large parish included. To be clear, my then boss and the lay person concerned knew each other well and were warm and friendly. But the line that’s stayed with me was “I just don’t understand why he needs to be commissioned again… he was ‘done’ last year, why does he need to be ‘done’ again?”

What is a priest..?

Well, within the Church of England, there is the “official” answer as set out in the Ordinal, and the reality of how priesthood is perceived across the spectrum of the Church. That’s made more complicated because there are other questions inherent in what appears to be one straightforward question.

Firstly there is the ‘what is a priest’? Secondly there is ‘what does a priest do’? That’s a fair enough qualitative enquirery – what is the nature of priesthood, and how is that vocation lived out – how and where do we see what that life is?

That’s made more complicated though in the holding of an office. So, we could also ask, ‘what is a curate, what does a curate do‘? and ”what is a vicar, what does a vicar do‘?

In other words, there is a dichotomy between what I am (a deacon and a priest) and what I do (in my case a Team Rector – I could as easily have put Rector, Vicar or with some limitations ‘post with Incumbent status’). Between my ‘ontological state’ (being a priest) and my ‘legal state’ (being an Incumbent) there is a delicious interplay, and scope for great confusion. For to be an Incumbent, I need to be a priest; but much of what I am and do as an Incumbent, does not require me to be a priest in order to do that work.

Ok. This is all beginning to sound a bit esoteric, but stick with me.

There is a game, an exercise I run with groups which simply asks: “List all the things your Vicar does each month”. It normally produces a very long list from Administration to Zesting lemons. I then ask the participants what, from their own lists, must the Vicar be a priest to do. Inevitably this causes some confusion, but eventually we get it down to two things:

  • Celebrate the Eucharist
  • Absolve sins

There is normally some silence at this point and a lot of questions.

Now, there is a sense in which, of course I’m cheating. Ecclesiastical Law, Church polity and practice mean that there are some other things which in general you have to be a priest in order to do – but they, in and of themselves are not a function of priesthood, rather they are a consequence of holding an office which can only be held by someone who is in priestly orders. But, in general, the two ‘actions’ above are the essentials of priesthood.

At the heart of the life of an Incumbent (Parish Priest, Team Rector, Rector, Vicar etc) is this dichotomoy between the ‘essential’ priestly life – the ‘Spiritualities’ of the office of Priesthood and everything else – the ‘temporalities’ of the office of Incumbency.

How this polarity is related, and how just as importantly it is viewed, is a crucial question today.

So back to where I started.

For some within the Church of England, and again I grossly simplify, ordination is little more than a granting of a permission to (extend the) ministry (in general of the baptized) as a form of ‘specialized leadership’. In this view, ordination as a ‘prize giving’ ceremony in which the ‘candidate’ graduates from ministry school and is given their contract of employment as an ‘assistant branch manager’ in the business. Ordination in this sense marks someone out, but no more so than giving them a new and important title and status which others can recognize as a ‘badge’ of their seniority in the organization. They are  little more than a brand new first rung ‘manager’ of lay people, a sort of church warden with a dog collar.

So one can see why when someone has been ‘commissioned’ as a Deacon, it can be confusing that they need to be ‘re-comissioned’ as a priest, when its not really going to make much difference to their status as ‘assistant branch manager’. They’ll still be leading what they were before, they’ll still be not-quite-the-boss. The only thing is they’ve now got an extra star that says they can ‘do communion’.

My point is: at this extreme, ordination is about the temporalities. It is a gateway to learn more about how to ‘do’ the temporal activities and a recognition of a form of promotion to do these tasks. It is centered on acquiring leadership skills and exercising them within the structure of the place where they minister. It should then, surely, be open to anyone who has ‘qualified’ by passing the right courses and who’s jumped the right hurdles. It is no more than a job.

I may well be being a tad unfair. But another true life example might help demonstrate this ‘polarity of temporality’.

At a day for Incumbents at a theological training establishment (no names, no pack drill), a member of staff recounted their journey to ordination. They had been running the Sunday School – but no one, including the Vicar, really took this, or them, seriously. So this particular person decided that if they were ordained, they and their ministry would be taken much more seriously. And so they got ordained.

The room of clergy  went very quiet. “So,” I asked. “If you had been taken seriously as the Sunday School leader, you wouldn’t have got ordained then, is that what you’re saying?” “Oh, yes, absolutely – there would’ve been no need” was the reply, without any trace of irony.

At the other end of the scale (and in all honesty) is a place I’m far more familiar with. In the extreme of tendency towards ‘the polarity of spiritualities’, ordination, especially for those to be ordained to the priesthood is wholly about the ontological nature conferred and its efficacy for the celebration of the Eucharist. In this scenario, ordination, and indeed formation for ordination is very much concerned with the preparation for and realization of an indelible character which when imparted in the grace of ordination finds its actualization in the celebration of mass and in the absolution of penitents.

Here, this is not about leadership per se, rather it is about a vocational self-oblation in which the individual is conformed to Christ’s own ministerial priesthood. In being conformed to this sharing in the self-offering of Christ himself, and in the leadership proper of the cultic celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice which makes that oblation present to the people of God, the priest is themselves a living sacrament. Hence Austin Farrar’s memorable description of the priest as ‘a walking sacrament’.

In this mode of polarity, the priestly life and formation for that life is wholly about the spiritualities. For it is here that priestly life is to be located. Through this conformation to Christ, the priest also, by virtue of sacramentally sharing in Christ’s own priesthood, is charged with service. So, the grace of ordination imparts a double nature: to celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice (and the attendant related place as the provider of absolution in relation to the Eucharistic banquet – restoring the penitent to the Eucharistic community) and the incorporation of the Johannine command to service. The priest stands in persona Christi as a sacramentally generated alter Christus.

Seen in this mode, the Vicar is all about the ‘religious’ bits – the spiritualities. That’s what they have been prepared for. And surely that’s what he should do! After all, can’t we just find another volunteer from among those nice people in the congregation to take care of the temporalities – the drains and the roof and the pesky organist. Surely?

Now, I hope you can see where I’m going with this.

I’m certain that incumbency, and therefore inter alia priesthood, isn’t about one polarity or the other. It is ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. Indeed, I’d go further by saying that to focus on one, to the exclusion of the other impoverishes the office holder and the preist. And there’s the rub. How to hold the spiritualities and temporalities in balance. How do we live with this creative tension?

For the commensurate danger is that operating at only either pole is dangerous, not just for the individual concerned, but for the Church as a whole.

It can be tempting for a parish priest to want to exist only at the ‘spiritualities’ pole of the scale. If only liturgy and the liturgical things were all I had to bother about. But the danger is that if I don’t attend to the finances, there’ll be no bread and wine, nor any nice tat to wear. And if I don’t attend to the building, then I might really have to say mass in the car park. And if the safeguarding, contracts of employment, insurance, communications etc don’t get done properly then there’ll be real trouble down the line.

Of course, if all I do is manage the staff, the finances, the legalities and the building, then there’s every danger than what I’ll become is a glorified bank, facilities, events and general worship manager with a sideline in vaguely religious social work. If I wanted to be a mutli-national branch manager, then there’s a whole lot better places I could have had far more training to be a ‘successful’ branch manager. Heavens, just imagine how then I could have built my customer base, engaging clients in an immersive experience through which they would develop brand loyalty, upsiding the potentiality for growth across the marketplace! Simples innit?

That is, of course the dilemma and problem I think we face as a church today. Spiritualities or temporalities of priesthood? Local Branch Manager or walking sacrament? Management Leadership or servant-leader? No wonder there were howls of protest at the publication of the Greene Report.

For at one pole (temporality) is the inherent sense that surely anyone could do most of this stuff (and indeed they can) so if only we can crack how to let non-ordained people celebrate mass, then we’ll have this all wrapped up and be far more successful. Every member ministry! Or if we can equally shift the clergy into a better collaborative management mode (and structure) surely we’ll have this evangelisation malarkey sown up. Numbers up – profits up! We wouldn’t need ordination then at all – just some strong leaders. [After all, you can become the Bishop of X without having to actually be a Bishop]. Lay rectors everywhere, rejoice – your time has come!

At the other pole (spiritualities) is the inherent sense that if only we just ‘say another mass’ and get a few more people to make their confessions, it’ll all be ok. And if we can crack how to get those pesky lay people to do everything else, we can spend more time leafing through the vestment catalogues! Heavens – every member ministry – no! Let’s abolish the damned PCC… Father knows best! If only we did live in the 18th century again, it would be all so much simpler (and why can’t the state fund all our buildings, so I can get on with the really important stuff). And if the building is nicer and the liturgy is nicer / more transcendent / more proper – then that’ll have them queuing up to come in, won’t it?

Or perhaps there is a balance to be had? Spiritualities and temporalities. That would of course mean we need to learn to do both and do them well.

Mission, reform and renewal (or is it renewal and reform now?) and much of our hand-wringing today is, I think, routed in a perpetual debate about the nature of priesthood and the overlying questions that then stem from that about Incumbency.

How can we ‘let priests be priests’ in a way which adequately balances the responsibilities we’re given? How can we best, or better resource that? What strengths and weaknesses does our formation and training generate? What are the skills I need to acquire to manage the temporalities which add to, rather than detract from the spiritualities of my office, and vice-versa?

How can we rightly involve the laity, but in a way which isn’t dishonest, dupes or simply dumps on them? How these poles of spiritualities and temporalities are lived, led and managed, and by whom, it seems to me, is so often at the root of power struggles in parishes. If both our theological training (of priests and lay people) and practical training (of priests and lay people) were clearer, surely this might help our life of worship and mission?





Mission and Evangelism: Another 10 things…

Ok. Time for another rambling entry…

Books and websites about Mission and Evangelism  (I’m working though a ton of them at the moment) increasingly seem to proclaim the 10 (or 12, or 7 or 5 etc) things that ‘successful’ churches should do.

It strikes me that handy though some of those lists might be, something more than a shorthand quick-fix list is required. Whatever denomination or ‘churchmanship’ within it, there is an increasing ‘cri de coeur’ in the Church today about Mission. Mission is an imperative! Well, as if that hadn’t occurred to anyone…

Digging beneath the surface that begs a number of questions in my mind:

Just what is a ‘successful’ church? Is it one which is numerically strong (and what is ‘numerically strong’)? Is it one that reaches out to the poor and marginalized? Is it one where people travel for miles to hear the music, the preaching, to participate in the Liturgy, to adore Jesus, to adore the Vicar? (Not so many of the latter in my experience). Is it one where the Bishop is kept happy, the quota paid, and no one complains? Is it one where everyone is entertained and every PCC meeting is a vision of utopia? Is it one which balances the books and isn’t falling down.

Just what is ‘Mission’ and ‘Evangelism? Yes, I think I know what each one is: but today we seem to use terms interchangeably, and often sloppily. Adding a suffix (normally an “-al”) to big words seems the plat du jour for many at the theological lexicon smorgasbord.

So if you want an incarnational, sacramental, intentional, missional, invitational, hospitable (ok, I cheated there), transformational, liturgical, biblical, vocational, millenial, inspirational (I so, so want to put delusional) Church, you can have one and be one.

Just put lots of words in your “Vision Statement” “Mission Statement” “Identity Statement” etc add “-al” to their end and you’ll have them flooding through the doors. Wont you?

Well, my answer is a profound ‘No’.

I think our problem with mission and evangelism is that we’re really, really good about talking about it, writing about it and blogging about it… What we’re not so good about is doing it – it’s tough. We’re in an age where there’s hardly a shortage or material to work with from the Alpha Course to the Y Course (can someone write the “Z” Course, please). Yet talking about mission and evangelism consumes us. From the Decade of Evangelism to Renewal and Reform we’ve had initiative upon initiative.

Now we have the Archbishop’s Thy Kingdom Come. Great. What did happen to William Temple’s great report Towards the conversion of England?

I’m not knocking these things ( I may be being mildly risible, that’s true ) because they are about trying to get us to be doing something – but my worry is that they do little more than jump on a bandwagon which is about bandying about some well-worn phrases which scratch an itch for those for whom those phrases are buzz words.

Even Archbishop Justin was clear in his inaugural Lambeth Lecture on Mission and Evangelism that:

“When I introduced my third priority [as Archbishop] as evangelism and witness I imagine some, maybe a minority, were high-fiving, while others stopped and stared into space with a look of horror, thinking, ‘Oh golly, here we go again’. I won’t ask you which group you fall into.”

The proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the conversion of those who are not yet Christians (and the renewal of those who are already) is, for me (and many clergy), a non-negotiable element of the Faith we have received.

Holding a course, or inviting people to imagine their understanding of the Trinity with some fuzzy felt, glue and glitter is, I’m sure, nice enough – but I feel uncomfortable because it seems too often these things are displacement activities for actually serving as Jesus serves, proclaiming and teaching the Gospel as it has been revealed and celebrating the sacraments of the new covenant.

How many parish priests are there, I wonder, who have people who say “we need more teaching” but the very people who ask, never turn up and the 12th iteration of the Lent/advent/Summer/Autumn/house-group is given, after much preparation to the same 10 people who’ve been each year since Moses first delivered the “Tablet Course”? Yet in an inerrant missional groundhog way, we keep on doing the latest version of ‘what we’ve always done’.

I gently mock, because it strikes me that the greatest beneficiaries of our missionary and evangelistic activities are the authors and publishers of these courses,  books and cross-platform multimedia “mission materials” .

I know that’s unfair, but someone somewhere is making quite a bit of dosh out of the frenetic writing about what we should or shouldn’t be doing. Sure, some of that income goes to charitable projects, churches or mission agencies. But we seem to spend more and more money on buying materials and holding training days for talking about what we ought to be doing – and talking almost exclusively to the same audience again and again and again.

I don’t know of any course, initiative, book, or of any ‘How to do mission’ scheme nor indeed of any 5, 7, 10 or 12 point list which has resulted in a great wave of conversions, baptisms or returners to a worshiping community which has had any lasting effect. Well, not in and of themselves.

What I do know are people who have brought these things about. Ok, they may have sometimes found the opportunity or excuse to do so because of a course, an initiative, a book etc. However, if all these things were so effective, so powerful, so great in and of themselves: why aren’t our churches full? We’ve written and produced more in the last 25 years on this subject than almost ever before. And declining numbers continues.

My fear is that we have engaged ourselves in a belief in the doctrine of “Salvation by Missional Materials alone”. What would Jesus do? Well, today he’d get an awfully good book deal.

My thinking is that perhaps we need to take a risk and simply be bolder about what we ‘do’. And what we ‘do’ is God, and his people. And that’s done by people for God and his people. Not simply talked about, or even (hoisted by my own petard here) written about. That might be a great point to contemplate.

So yes, I’m going to write my list of 10 things to ‘do’ and 10 things to ‘don’t’ but the voice of my Old Testament tutor sounds ringing in the back of my head, saying:

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd.

Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”




My time away from the parish has begun. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring further the relationship between priest as ‘leader of a worshiping community’, and priest as ‘leader of a commercial enterprise’. In other words how do we balance out the expectations and demands of being ‘a proper Vicar’ and ‘keeping the show on the road’.

It’s easy to treat both sides of this coin as it they are in competition. There are many times I’ve heard people opine that “we’re a church, not a business” as though wishing away buildings, finance and management as some nasty conflict with our “core activities” will make everything better.

All of this, of course, sounds like I might have gone native with the kind of management speak many of us find a bit bonkers. So a good part of my time will be spent contemplating what is the ecclesiological basis of how we run the Church, what can we learn and how can we do it better?

This isn’t something new. These two distinct, but complementary roles are set out whenever a new parish priest is instituted (or collated) and inducted into their parish. There are two elements made very visible.

Firstly, the Bishop shares with the new priest ‘the cure of souls’. The parish priest received the ‘Spiritualities’ of the parish – oversight and care for the celebration of the sacraments, prayer, pastoral care etc etc etc.

Secondly (and the bit that normally gives us the giggles) is when the Archdeacon (or their commissary) takes the new priest by the hand and places it on the door of the church, leads them to toll the bell and places them in their assigned stall. This is the gifting of the ‘Temporalities’ of the parish – legal title to the possession of the benefice and the responsibility to care for that too.

It is this interplay between spiritualities and temporalities – a ‘conjoined twin’ role that I’ll be thinking about. It strikes me that as clergy we are (generally) well prepared for the first role through our training, both in theological college and in our title parishes. It’s the second role though, which often consumes a great deal of our time, for which we have little or no preparation.

Against a background of mission imperatives, and the growing agenda of ‘Renewal and Reform’ I want to suggest that the care of the temporalities is an important part of priestly life and work – and examine how we can learn to do that part better, be trained and resourced better, and so be freed to flourish.

So for the next few weeks, there’ll be occasional posts, the odd thought or two on other matters, part travelogue, part reflection, part testing and part ramblings on my part!

How do we organize a parish for the 21st century? Is it a case of buy a nicer set of vestments and say another mass? Or is there something deeper in the nature of our vocation and ministry that we need to learn?


New beginnings?

Ok. So I thought it was time to give this a go again… and yes, I hear the groans of ‘another clergy blog?’ So why now and why this particular title for a blog?

Next year, it’ll be 20 years since I was first ordained. To celebrate that, I’m going on sabbatical (hopefully, if the powers that be agree to my proposal). If all goes to plan, one year from today, that period for rest, recreation and reflection will be about to begin – or rather, one year from today this will be the last day I’ll be working in my own parish before I go on leave.

So before anyone says “ah three months off….” there is some serious work and reflection at the heart of what I intend to do. The world has changed since the summer of 1996. Then my mobile phone did only one thing: it made and received calls. I had no internet connection (that was very new and very expensive). My diary was a strange book in which, by date-to-a-page, I wrote things down with something called a ‘pen’. My first stipend was about £600 a month. It was all new. It was very exciting. I loved it.

I still love what I do – don’t get me wrong. Lots of water has passed under the bridge. My friends comment on the grey hair, and if I’m honest, reading small print has now started to be a struggle. 20 years on, as Team Rector of a large parish with a stunning, impressive, beautiful (and very very expensive to maintain) church there are huge differences between what I did as a brand new Deacon, and how I now spend my days.

Busy. Yes, we’re all busy. I’m not the busiest priest in the world, I’m sure. I am astonishingly fortunate to live and work where I do, with the people I do, as as always been the case. But, my days seem now to fill with endless ‘stuff’ that needs to be done, and has to be done that often seem a million miles away from either the halcyon days of my curacy, or the romantic ideals of priestly ministry I was formed for at theological college.

Now, its contracts, staff handbooks, rotas, staff, safeguarding, health and safety, committees, reports, more reports, more meetings, emails – lots and lots of emails, social media, planning, PCC matters, policies, finance, statistics, Quota payments, Grant funders, HLF, budgets, training… The list goes on…

I wonder, and worry that the ‘proper vicaring’ gets lost in the administrative see and (try as I might, and I can be very trying) the life and vocation I have isn’t dealing with what might better and more rightly absorb my time and energy. Have I now become the antithesis of what I had always hoped to be – am I just another busy priest?

I have great lay people, office staff and a fantastic Team Vicar – but I see in them often what I know to be true in myself – more and more demands being made, with less and less time to deal with them. There has to be a better way?

Take a look again (those of you who are ordained) at that list above. Yes, the boring one. Just how many of those did we deal with, or were taught about at theological college? Or POT, CME, IME4-7 or whatever you might have called the ‘training’ given as curates? For many clergy today, there is a patchy sequence of training and support – and suddenly faced with job description writing, or a myriad of other things, there is often a sense of ‘where on earth do I go to find out about…’

So that’s what I’m going to be spending my sabbatical thinking about. How do we better support parish clergy – particularly when it comes to the less glamorous aspects of what we do? Are there lessons we can learn from larger churches and cathedrals? What resources are available when the part time parish administrator announces retirement is about to happen and you suddenly wonder what recruitment needs will have to be thought about (or as we call it now, what automatic pension enrollment scheme shall we use)? How do we share “good practice” (i.e. get it right and not get sued)?

For it strikes me that what makes life busy is I have two jobs now. I’m the priest who works in a parish with the “priestly” things we associate with all of that. And I’m the leader of a business, a parochial CEO and chairman of the board, who’s ultimately responsible for keeping the show on the road ( or ‘flourishing’ as we call it). Are those two aspects compatible, or exclusive? Does one inform or control the other – and to what extent?

When I was at college, we often used in stressful moments (and being young and flippant) to pretend it was 1953, the Queen had not long come to the throne, and the sun was only just setting on the empire – peace seemed settled, rationing was coming to an end, and all was well. Of course, that might have just been a romantic idea – a longing for an easier time in a simpler world (or so we perceived).

It isn’t that the world is bad today – but it is different. Whether for good or ill, well that’s a different question. As one of my wonderful and wise retired colleagues says, he wouldn’t want my job now, with the plate spinning it requires.for all the tea in China. How then can we sing the Lord’s song in what feels like a strange land? How can we make that difference that we’d convinced ourselves as shiny new curates we would one day make? What are the new beginnings we need to make, and the old habits that we need to  let go of?

That’s a question that between now and the start of my time away, I want to start to think about.