Estates, the poor and culture war stereotypes


Paulsgrove, Portsmouth

There’s a debate about the Church of England’s attitude to parishes in estates: especially those in what might be termed ‘white, working class’ areas. That debate has actually been going on for years (anyone remember Faith in the City and the creation of Urban Priority Areas?). In truth, its a historic debate that stretches back through the centuries.

It has gathered pace again recently. In part, that has been through the advocacy of the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North. It has also played into all kinds of discourse about Brexit, Trump and income disparity.

There have been both thoughtful and knee-jerk responses. What are some of the issues, and how does this affect the Church of England’s agenda of Reform and Renewal?

I was tempted not to write anything (some of you will rather wish I hadn’t), but felt that there are some things we’re shying away from saying. So what follows isn’t an academic treatise. It is observation, personal experience and comment. Don’t quote it at me in ten years time – my views might have changed. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all evolve in the light of learning, context and experience.

I grew up in what would be easily described as a white working class household. We had little money, I qualified for free school meals (at secondary school) and (remember those days) a full grant to go to University. Whilst that is my “root” – of which I am enormously proud – I’d be hard pressed today not to be described as apparently very middle class (grammar school, Durham, Oxford – and for heavens sake, Rector of a Parish in Harrogate).

I was Vicar of a UPA parish, Paulsgrove, in the Diocese of Portsmouth for ten years. So I have some experience of estate ministry. And in the interests of transparency, I’ve known +Philip since we were both ordinands, more years ago than either of us care to remember. He too was Vicar of a large UPA in Hartlepool – and served a curacy in Sunderland – so any ‘typical middle class out of touch bishop pontificating about poor people’ critiques are, I would suggest, a little wide of the mark.

The contention is that the CofE is a white middle class Church, which for decades has rather sneered at poor white estate parishes in a middle class ‘pity them’ way and under-invested, under-supported, and over-patronized them. The feeling being that such places are left to rot – and might hopefully fade away.

After all, why should nice middle class parishes (and this is an argument I hear often) pay huge parish shares to employ clergy for places which can’t support themselves, don’t flourish, have small congregations and don’t fit the glossy PR brochures stereotype for smiling CofE hipsters?

Indeed, the suspicion is that if we had the choice of a picture of an ordinand in a Jack Wills outfit, it’d be included in preference to an ordinand (if we could find one) in a Kappa tracksuit and a burberry baseball cap (unless, of course, they were achingly trendy middle class clergy-to-be, trying oh so hard to ‘identify’).

I think there’s an awful lot going on here. There’s a lot of assumptions being made. There are incredibly important and valid points – and a lot of tosh tied up in this too.

I used to be dismayed in my last parish how many people (from outside) thought if they ventured onto the estate they’d need body armour and to drive a tank (which would probably be nicked). So yes, there’s much talk about estates and ‘the white working poor’ from often those who have never been near – but assume all such estates are chock full of feckless, druggie, single mother, child abusing, racist, thick, workshy, illiterate, criminal, broke, granny bashing, BNP supporting, common, fake gold encrusted, trackie wearing, obese, ugly, football hooligan, benefit cheats.

That’s, of course, a stereotype too. It’s perpetuated by the media (in part) and by ignorance. Not every estate is like watching an episode of Shameless. Nor are they like the more sensationalist elements of Benefits Street. But there are always some elements of truth in that – all stereotypes emanate from at least some truths… and to fail to acknowledge that or to fall into an inverted snobbery or naive engagement with those unpalatable truths is dishonest. There is a nuanced argument to be had here.

Some of this is historical and generational. When slum clearance happened, many new estates were created. These were often ‘sold’ as utopian ideals. But what was often transported was a sense that ‘those people’ had been cleared out of city and town centers – often to the periphery – where they might be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ so everyone else could get on with gentrification and ‘urban renewal’.

For some who I’ve known, the stigma of being ‘poor’ never went away when they were moved like cattle from one place to the next. If they were generationally ‘looked down on’ in slums, so they are still ‘looked down on’ in new estates. Even now, I personally still find the rare accusation of not quite ‘being one of us’ is a painful stick to be poked with. As someone put it when I was appointed here: “is he really the sort to be Team Rector, surely more suited to be a Team Vicar for the poorer part of the parish.” Ho hum. I’m still here.

That aspect of ‘enforced movement’,  betterment by societal deportation, was exacerbated by cuts to public transport. Now, estate dwellers often became physically less well connected. That feeling of disconnect was exacerbated. If you had a car, fine – but if you couldn’t afford one (we had no car in our household from me being 5 until I was 16) then you walked, or had to rely on an erratic (and expensive) bus service. Where estates were less well planned you’d be divorced from access to services and healthcare. And where estates have rapidly expanded, the pressure on minimal provision of such services has only increased the concomitant problems.

My last parish wasn’t though ‘poor’ in the way many would assume. There was some endemic fiscal poverty – but many had well paid semi-skilled and skilled manual jobs. Where there was real poverty was in education. Rates of adult illiteracy were incredibly high. Educational achievement scores (i.e. how many GCSEs through to PhDs) were rock bottom – in the lowest 1% for the country. Schools, with dedicated teachers hovered in and out of special measures for not hitting targets.


But these targets were often incredibly difficult to meet in a system which presumed that the learning in school continued at home. If one of the keys to success is the partnership between school and home – then that was an uphill struggle. It’s hard to teach a child to read if, as a parent, you can’t read. Just as its a proper observation that it’s hard to get people to join in with liturgy which requires degree age literacy skills if you can’t read. I learned the hard way – never change the words to well known hymns, even if everyone has a service booklet. If they can’t read – they’ll simply sing the words they know – and you’ll embarrass them.

Granted, governments have invested in schools – and SureStart and Pupil Premium did make a difference. But, in general, very little resourcing ever went into Adult literacy projects – with the knock on effects that as the digital age dawned, more people were excluded. It’s hard to order from Amazon and get that black friday discount if you can’t read (and don’t have a debit or credit card).

That’s been a significant problem. That kids today still have to do what I had to do as a child – write your own absence letter to school because mum or dad “can’t find their glasses” should be a tell tale sign that something isn’t working.

That also followed through in other areas of funding allocation. Regeneration money was often available to communities – but – the reality was the only people who could manage to complete the complex application forms were from specialized departments in the local council. They’d specify what, in their view, the community needed – and then grant fund their own allocation to finance it. Or simply use ‘community funds’ to pay for what they could no longer to pay for out of normal revenue because of cut backs.

Genuine community inspired and led grants were, I’d submit, far fewer in number than might have appeared the case. So for many communities what they might have actually wanted – decent access to healthcare, transport, somewhere for the kids to play – were supplanted by councils wanting to demolish crumbling offices, community centers and libraries to be replaced by vanity projects filled with the sort of books and leaflets no one could read.

Now, there’s no doubt some exaggeration there and whistful memorializing of my own past. But the central point remains that the disconnected, down-trodden and dispossessed could and would often resent being given a ‘hand out’ they neither wanted nor needed whilst being told to be grateful for what they’d been given – when their needs were entirely different and continued to be unanswered. To be then told they were all ‘scroungers and cheats’ only added insult to injury.

It’s also true that this social group isn’t a homogeneous entity in the perception of the hegemony. For many, perhaps older (but not exclusively so) people there is a real resistance to being given help. There has existed a deep seated stigma to receiving ‘hand outs’ from the state. Many (my parents were exactly the same) would refuse benefits because they were fundamentally aspirational – they wanted to stand on their own feet without acknowledging they were struggling – and as such very much hated being made to feel like they were the ‘deserving poor’. Memories of the workhouse were not far away – and whilst living standards and social care in post war Britain did improve many things – pride still had an important part to play. To take up a benefit, to receive a ‘hand out’ was for a lot of folk a knock to their pride and sense of self: “I’m not good enough”, “I’m a failure”.

Why should such communities and people live on ‘handouts’? If you are poor, life was demeaning if you were even remotely made to feel like you needed to tug the forelock as you queued up in the jobcentre or at the post office for the giro. Part of that has diminished if your payments are made through direct banking now. Of course, you need a bank account for that – and without one, you are a social leper.

I grew up laughing at Carla Lane’s Bread. The story of a Liverpool family who lived in relative luxury having worked out how to game the benefits system to their advantage. It was funny – and at times painfully well observed without being cruel. Yet it – and other programmes like it, fed an increasing suspicion in political and middle class circles (what we’d now in a reverse-snobbery way refer to as ‘the elites’) that all benefits recipients were ‘scroungers’ who were ‘spending our money on booze and fags’ and living a tax-payer funded half lie.

That stereotype is projected with even fiercer venom today. Survey after survey tells us that the perception continues that benefit fraud is very significantly higher than is the actual case (and yet that’s a drop in the ocean compared to corporate and high net worth tax evasion).

So today, added to the mix is the blanket term of the ‘undeserving poor’. That’s increasingly the way in which the population is encouraged to see anyone on any form of Universal Credit. It’s not just the white working class who ‘get it in the neck’ – now its the working poor, disabled people, anyone from a minority background and refugees and assylum seekers. The go-to mantra is ‘feckless workshy’. The stigmatization of the working classes and poorest is now inexorably transposing to the middle classes.

That cannot, of course be disconnected from the possibility of employment. For some of these communities – often limited by education and poor life-skills to low skill jobs – that supply of employment has dried up, died or been decimated. The routes out of poverty have become harder. If your community has had, historically, a single major employer which provides employment (the pit, the factory line, the industrial center) which closes – and isn’t replaced by another employer – then simple geography can easily mean you are dislocated from easy (or any) access to work.

Globalisation and neo-con free market economics indeed play a significant part in this. But that too is too easy a tag line. The post-banking austerity age has seen the rise of zero hours contracts, the use of ‘self-employed contractors’ as a tax dodge for companies and a stagnation of low paid menial employment. Many new ‘jobs’ are part time – and even a glance at the Church Times reveals how many ).5FTE, .4FTE, .2FTE etc posts replace what were once full time posts (for clergy as for anyone else). Work might well exist – but not work that will pay enough (in rate, hours or conditions) to meet the needs of those who want and need to work.

Automation has probably done as much, if not more damage than globalization. And the more we automate, computerize and digitize, then the rate of ‘De-industrialization’ will only accelerate. Robots replacing people has created more societal decline than any intercontinental company’s employment strategy.

There are, of course, those who whilst not work-shy are decidedly picky (and not just from estates). Entertainment culture easily suggests that if only you can win a talent show, a record contract, a game show or the lottery, then you’ll be fine – and since this is an ‘opportunity for all’ why shouldn’t everyone have that opportunity? Surely it’s more glamorous to be on the TV than clean toilets? If we complain that cleaners and shop assistants and builders are ‘all Poles’ isn’t that in part a creation of culture that fools us into thinking someone else can do all the dirty work? “English jobs for English people!” but only if they’re the kind of jobs we like… and certainly don’t involve too much effort. No wonder the reply to the question “why are your builders Polish, Romanian or from wherever” is often the painful “because they work hard”. No part of society is immune from the fact that as life has got easier, the culture has made us lazier?

Yet this is the pup, mantras of social mobility, equal opportunity, and inclusion tell us: this is a level playing field with no closed doors. But isn’t a level playing field. And there are plenty of closed doors. When the glittering prize is snatched away – and given to someone else – then a fertile ground is created of simmering resentment – perfectly tilled soil for those with a populist slogan, and an equally alluring simplistic agenda of replacing difficult social, political and fiscal choices with a ‘false front’ tirade of ‘name, blame and shame’.

That many of these communities are vastly white adds another dimension – the perception of racism. My experience is yes, there is racism. There’s no backing away from that. My late father’s views were, at times, horrific. But that sadly exists in every social order and group (and often is more prevalent in richer ‘white enclaves’ and bastions of power than elsewhere).

That doesn’t excuse it – it is a social evil which has deep complexities. Perhaps one such complexity is simply suspicion of ‘the other’. Many of those who I have known who live, or who have come from estate backgrounds have had very very little social mobility. They might never have left their village, town or city – in some cases having hardly ventured further than the estate they live on. They know no one who is black, Asian or from any other ethnic (or religious) group – let alone refugees, assylum seekers or immigrants. They see no need to ‘mix’.

But if they are then constantly fed a diet that says ‘your way of life is under threat’ and that ‘they’ (whoever ‘they’ are) are coming for you, stealing your jobs, homes, lives, children etc then if you don’t know any better, and have never met anyone from such vilified groups (or as we call them now, Supreme Court Judges) then you may well be scared of them, and simply repeat what elements in the media have told you is true.

Social mobility is, in large part it seems to me, a middle class political construction to explain why you need to take a long train journey to eat goose at the family table for Christmas. The idea was laudable, I think – to integrate sections of society and to learn from each other. But it’s never happened. We are as suspicious now as ever. We travel more (as a whole) but know less. Our knowledge is primarily located in our own back yard.

Curiosity is there – but it can be hard to branch out from what you’ve known all your life. That’s not endemic to estates and white working class people either. I know more people in Harrogate who won’t eat garlic, or ‘foreign’ than I ever knew in Portsmouth. Then again, I’m a Yorskhireman, and for Yorkshire folk, almost anywhere is foreign (especially Lancashire). Social mobility works – but only if you have the money to acquire that mobility and perceive or desire the need to engage.

And Benidorm isn’t social mobility either – it’s often recreating the known, just abroad (yep, I’ve been there). The irony there is that the parody of white working class people is that they all holiday in Benidorm (it was once Skegness). They don’t. It’s a stereotype. Many now can’t afford a holiday – others are just as likely to holiday in a heritage city, (or America, Thailand, Dubai or go backpacking) as there are ‘posh people’ in magaluf or Ibiza.

Tax and spend. You get what you pay for. That’s life hard reality. These may all indeed be cliches, but they are true. For decades we have all been led to believe that if the rich get richer, then the fiscal fairy will eventually flutter downstream and the magic pixie redistribution dust will prevent poverty. Trickle-down economics hasn’t worked. The divide between rich and poor is stubbornly wide. Only the very wealthiest have flourished.

If society as a whole is to improve – if services are to improve – if life chances are to improve – then money has to be spent. That money comes from tax. And raising tax is always seen as politically unpalatable. And governments can’t just ratchet up borrowing, can they? Of course, it appears if that saves banks and lobbyists and those perceived to be rich and powerful – then that’s fine (so we’re not all plunged into economic crisis). But to pay to improve life at the bottom end of the social scale? Well – that’s the fault of those who need to learn to help themselves and work harder, innit?

Social justice isn’t the prerogative of the middle class. It is the responsibility of the whole of society – to care for those least able to care for themselves, to care for the stranger, to care for each other without qualification. Both rich and poor alike need that – and we fail to recognize each others’ need more than ever in a time of a poisonous atmosphere of blame and counter-blame.

That requires investment, commitment and perseverance. It needs us to understand that there aren’t magic wands that can fix all of societies ills or problems overnight. We have to work together.

For the Church, I firmly believe that there has to be as much commitment to the poor as to the middle-class swanky new church plant. Philip North (and others) have done us a great service in re-focussing us to be attentive to the unloved, the unglamorous, the rejected and the alienated: whatever class or background, but especially in our estates.

That’s especially true where our priority for the poor has turned into a priority for high profile swish mission orientated PR photo-ops (with lovely powerpoint slides and attractive brochures). After all, if you chuck a lot (and I mean a lot) of money and staff (clergy and lay) at me and let me off the quota for a few years, I can open a reclaimed warehouse in a university town to steal every teenager and young person from parishes from miles around for some swanky high intensity youth work (with an in house band and light show)  – and then proclaim myself a resourcing church.

With such rich resourcing, I might well do it better than many parishes can afford to, especially where they’re struggling or don’t have capacity. After all, you’re investing in giving me a building that isn’t falling down, and paying all the bills for me. That’s not equal resourcing – its a land grab, albeit one with a Christmas Costa black forrest cherry hot chocolate from the hip in house cafe. And it does make a very good photo op for the Diocesan magazine.

And that’s the rub. For isn’t the danger that we perpetuate the cycle? Nice middle class, well resourced ‘hubs’ of generosity  with smiling faced promises to ‘re-evangelize’ England – doing their bit to help ‘struggling’ parishes. Isn’t the danger that this isn’t investment – but handouts. A handout generated by middle class people, to help the helpless, whether they want that help or not?

Isn’t this the premise of an ecclesiological inter-generational loan? You can have help – but only on ‘my terms’. If we have the courage of our convictions, and really aren’t that slightly scared middle class Church then why not move everything from Brompton to Blackburn, Bolton or Burnley?  Why not put the Diocesan office in a UPA parish in a derelict factory, as opposed to next to a stockbrokers office in a genteel terrace or gated business park? If we are serious about moving out from a middle-class hinterland, then won’t it be that by our works we shall be judged?

I am genuinely pleased that there is an absolute commitment, I hear, that in Reform and Renewal  a significant emphasis will be on making funds available for estates, for the poorest areas, for places of deprivation and dispossession.

That’s a significant development. And one I welcome. It is long overdue.

But, careful monitoring needs to be made that such cash, such investment reaches its destination – and isn’t simply sidelined into underwriting existing budget lines in national and diocesan budgets, or diverted into ‘high profile’ projects which don’t target real need – and just supply glossy pipe dreams. We can’t save souls in some of our estates by hoping we can make the people there just that bit more middle class. We can’t simply operate on “our own” terms – we have to operate on “theirs”. Promise has to turn into presence – and one that listens rather than patronizes.

We cannot create hub churches, resourcing churches, or churches with all the dosh if what actually then happens is we withdraw clergy and laity from living and working in our estates and poorest parishes. We are often the last professional left. To echo the words of Fr Graeme Buttery, “for how much longer?”

We need to invest in, not just hound-out to our poorest parishes and most deprived estates. Anything else would be an illusion. One which perpetuates injustice and won’t deliver where there has been chronic under-investment.

The case for the prosecution that needs addressing is one where the charge is that the Church is the rich man in his castle, looking down on the low man at the gate.

God doesn’t need to make us high or lowly – when the church deprives our large estates.













Mission or Managerialism?

That was the sabbatical that was… Part 2

There. I’ve used the “M” words, the two that inflame passions beyond all others in the Church today. Mission and Mangerialism. I’m a good Catholic, so I ought to add a third “M” – mass. That should at least keep up the interests of some who might read this…

For three months I’ve been thinking about the priestly life, Management and Leadership. Its been genuinely fascinating, and comes at a time when the Church of England is engaging in the Reform and Renewal agenda at General Synod. I’m even considering the possibility that this whole area might make a great subject for a PhD – something I’ve long considered, but never been quite brave enough to pluck up the courage to attempt.

This isn’t though an interest bourne out of something which happens to be en vogue at the moment. I think that there are real questions in this for every parish priest as well as for the Church as a whole.

Of the clergy who I have spoken to whilst I’ve been pottering around the country, almost all lead a larger parish church or cathedral. They have staff: clergy, lay or both to manage often with a building with significant listed status.

Without exception, all of them like me have had a similar response when asked “What proportion of your time is spent being ‘The Vicar’ and what proportion is spent as ‘CEO’ of your institution managing people, policies and projects. Universally, the reply is that 20% of time is spent on ‘priestly’ work or activity and 80% of time is spent on ‘management’.

It is an astonishing figure, well worth reflecting on.

When asked about how much training they have had for these respective roles, the figures don’t simply reverse – they fall off a cliff. Almost all our training concentrates on the priestly – and hardly any prepares us for what we actually end up spending large amounts of our time doing.

Put another way – is a challenge we face that instead of being immersed in the mission field, we’re increasingly manacled by management?

That’s a neat headline of course. It sets up a great battle – those who want us freed from the tyrants of ‘ecclesio-management speak’ –  against the ‘centralize, organize and incentivise’ people. Set them going and it becomes a debate of those who would ‘throw the babies out with the bathwater’ against ‘CofE PLC’. If you don’t believe me, try this article by Harriet Sherwood or this one, by the same author. A very helpful blog post by Ian Paul, a fellow general Synod member is here.

There are huge questions going on here.


Firstly, there is a question about what priests are for. That’s not a new argument – we’ve been having that debate in the Church of England since the reformation. I’ve already said something about that in New Directions based on an earlier blog post here. The last three paragraphs, I think, tease this out:

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 dump 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?


Secondly, and alluded to above is a question about ‘clericalism’ and the respective roles of clergy and lay people. Yes, there can be clergy whose attitude is very much rooted in both “Father knows best” as well as a martyr complex of “And Father will do everything”. We can easily propogate any concept of mission and evangelism, of ‘growth’ (however you might want to define that) as little more than ‘bums on seats’ and see the laity as nothing more than pew fodder.

But there is a reverse problem. I fundamentally believe that good mission and evangelism needs the whole people of God to be engaged with that task. I think that’s what’s meant by congregations being “intentionally missional” In this paradigm, congregations want to grow and flourish, want to share the Good News of the Gospel, invite others into relationship with Jesus Christ and so incarnate them into the sacramental economy.

There are fantastic lay people who indeed do that, thanks be to God. But, and here is the challenge, there are three other groups of lay people. There is the ‘hour a week’ group. They are happy that the Sunday service they attend happens, but that’s really it. They give (something), because that keeps the Sunday service (and their church) going – but they don’t really want to be more involved than that. They certainly don’t want to take on any roles – even getting some of them to read is like pulling teeth. They are often stalwarts who’ve been coming for years. They are by no means bad people – but they know what they like (and what they don’t) and that’s why they come. Energizing them is not an easy task. Getting them to mention they go to Church, or say the word “Jesus” the other side of the door….

The second group is ‘the do-ers’. They are a Godsend. They’ll pitch in and help with anything. They’ll take on the roles no one else is prepared to do. They do so without (much) complaint. Some of them have, after all, been landed with whatever task for decades. They will deliver leaflets, talk to baptism families etc etc etc.

The last group are ‘the talkers’. They want to be on everything, do everything and lead everything. They talk. They talk a lot. They’ll talk to anyone and everyone (inside the church) sometimes until the people they’re talking to look like crying. They can talk at a PCC on any subject as if Just a minute were extended to just an hour! They have an opinion on everything – but when it comes to actually doing anything – well, they’re far too busy talking… But woe betide anyone who gets in their way. Some of this group can turn a bit nasty. If I was being really waspish, the ultimate aim of this group is to change the kingdom of God into an eternal deanery synod meeting. Lots and lots of talking for remarkably little if any return. What of course quite a few of them would really like to be is the Vicar. The fact that they aren’t doesn’t stop them believing that actually do run the parish (despite or in spite of the Vicar), and so their lives are ordered to achieve that end…

Now, this is a terrible caricature, with some hyperbolic purple prose. But, there’s a grain of truth in there… What do we want of the people of God? What do they actually want – and how receptive are they to the latest episcopally inspired scheme?


By this I mean not the people, but our buildings. They are a glory – and a millstone. We arguably have better kept churches now than ever before. We (mostly) rejoice that there are toilets, and some churches are even warm (by which I mean, places which don’t induce hypothermia after 10 minutes). But they are a money pit. Try improving them, and believe me, the world and his wife suddenly appear. Correspondents who once set foot in the building in 1954 and knew the 3rd cousin of the architect write to object that the ‘idiot vicar’s new scheme’ will cause sacrilege by moving great aunt matilda’s flower vase by three inches – a view expressed in green ink from the comfort of an armchair in Camberwell.

Our buildings are an asset, they really are – but they aren’t museums. Again and again I’ve listened to colleagues who have spent vast amounts of time having to deal with not just day to day items, but significant schemes to stop their buildings decaying.

This is, itself a business today. I want to pay tribute to many heroic parishioners up and down the land who spend immeasurable hours preserving, protecting and promoting their parish churches, chapels, cathedrals and other places of worship. They are fantastic – but they increasingly have to deal with systems for effecting repairs and obtaining grants which can challenge even the most committed.

That’s all by way of saying that in many many places much of the energy and focus which might otherwise be better channeled into worship and mission is consumed by simply ‘keeping the show on the road’. This is a consuming management task – both for clergy and laity. The bigger the building(s) then the more difficult that task can be.

‘Church management’ as bricks and mortar management, it seems to me, receives little honest treatment in the present debate. How we manage our buildings is just as much a mission question as how we convert people. Enthusiasm for Jesus can wain quickly if the parish loo should be condemned or the only place to change a nappy is covered in mould…

Staff and Volunteers – a question of capacity

Many larger parishes have staff. They have them not because the Vicar likes HR, but because as places grow, the demands grow. Growth creates work, and beyond a certain point, it creates work which can exceed the time or the ability (or both) of the volunteers that are available.

Churches which want to grow have to have capacity – either in terms of volunteers or staffing – and ideally both. More kids in church – great! But that means more people to help with Sunday school – or to start a creche. And that means more safeguarding work. And as those kids grow, shouldn’t we do something about teenagers? Who’s going to do that?

Again, churches can be excellent about talking about what they want to do – but those plans run out of steam if no one is available to roll up their sleeves and get it done.

There are two distinct challenges I think we face today with this. Firstly, a generation of ‘do-ers’ is now retiring (often for the second or third time). Those who had lots of free time and generously donated that to the Church are fewer than before. The “Gen X” typically have had their children later, work longer hours than ever before and have an array of activities which didn’t exist thirty years ago. They’re great (often with good skills) but their time is constricted. This is a group which (for want of a better term) pits their time as a committed Christian against their other leisure activities. Sometimes, God wins.

Second, whether or not a church can afford staff (part time, full time, interns etc) those who volunteer their time need better care, support and management then has previously been the case. Many now volunteer their time outside the church and want to know why the church’s acknowledgement and engagement with their church volunteering isn’t of the same standard.

Time and again, in conversations with colleagues there has been a question about being realistic with volunteers. How many parishes end up with depressed treasurers becuase what started out (with a bit of arm twisting) as ‘pay a few bills’ and ‘do the accounts once a year’ actually turned out to mean “It’s 10 hours a week minimum, but you’ve done it for 17 years now, its a bit late to complain about it, and there really isn’t anyone else to do it….”

Job descriptions for staff, role descriptions for volunteers (and officers) aren’t any longer wishful thinking. They help define what needs doing, by whom and for what purpose. A church which employs people, or asks them to give generously of their time cannot any longer do so on the basis of a few figures and notes scribbled on the back of a fag packet.

All of that, of course, needs careful planning and careful management. Of course, some bright spark always says “oh we don’t need to do that here” – but try that one when there’s a safeguarding problem created because the proper policy wasn’t in place and followed through.

We might rail that we’re being professionalised – but there are times we really do need to be professional.

Mission and Managerialism

The argument today it seems to me is a false dichotomy. Badly managed churches don’t grow. Over managed churches can be souless. This isn’t either / or – its both / and (or if you’re of a more theologically literate mind, this is the modern outworking of anaologa entis).

I can find God in the celebration of Mass. I can find God in priestly service of his people. I can find God in the pastoral encounter, the sharing of the Gospel, in leading others to faith. But as an Incumbent, can I find God in my buildings, in managing staff and volunteers, in a balance sheet, in a mission plan, in the tedious monotony of even a deanery synod?

Well the answer to that must be, yes.

Do I think that there are many things we can learn as a Church which would mean our buildings and people are in better condition?

Well the answer to that must be, yes.

Are there times when I wish I had less to manage and could spend more time with people?

Well the answer to that must be, yes.

But there is a false proxy debate going on.

Leadership and management aren’t the same thing. They are though often confused. In reform and renewal we need to be much clearer about which one we’re talking about. I think in truth, we’re talking about both – but we need to be wiser about that. It would be easy to pin our hopes on one style of management or one style of leadership when different approaches are required in different situations.

We need support, training and encouragement to learn and put that into practice. Every single dean (and parish priest of some of the “greater” churches) who has been on the recent mini-mba training has said it was fantastic, helpful, and (wait for it) theologically adept and not the sort of ‘management speak’ nightmare that some though it might be. More than once though I heard the words ‘would have helped even more if it had been available earlier in post’.

Clergy need to be able to lead and manage. Many of us do – but more by luck than by design; more by the grace of God than with certainty and courage. Most of us ‘re-invent the wheel’ in our parishes and institutions when we could help each other far more effectively than the hours spent googling for a job description for a [insert post you’re trying to create/define/sort out].

Clergy training cannot stop at the end of IME. And post-IME a really good course on parish finance can be sometimes what I need. Sure, another course in “great preaching from the book of Leviticus” can be fun…

I am a priest. I am not a branch manager of an ecclesiastical business. I am a parish priest. But I have to manage staff and volunteers and buildings and support those who want us to succeed in mission. So I am a priest, but I need to develop the skills by which I can manage to grow a parish. That might well be managerialsim – but I believe it is also mission.

And yes. I can always say another mass. I can wear ever more lovely vestments to do so. I can pray harder – God knows, I ought to be better at that too. But I cannot, and will not stick my head into the sand and pretend that if only the tat was nicer, the liturgy more mysterious, the silver better polished and the sermon more erudite then that will fill the Church with more people by itself. It won’t. That’s the harsh reality we have to face. I absolutely believe in worship (no surprise there) – and in catholic faith and practice. But if all I can do is to bore on about the virtues of facing ‘east’ or ‘west’ should I be surprised if one day there is only one old lady and a dog left? And if my only answer is ‘plant a hip church’ with a better band and a funky (I’m showing my age now) light system and fantastic coffee that does little more than steal other congregations from the “we were achingly trendy yesterday” cafe church next door, is that any better?

Nor indeed will shoving up a banner with the details of the latest go-to HTB inspired course. I’ve read lots of books on mission whilst I’ve been away. The biggest beneficiaries are no doubt the authors – they must be raking it in.

We need more priests. We need more volunteers. We need more staff. We need better management. This isn’t one or the other, and there is no magic cure for decline – there is only hard work to be done.

But let’s not spend decades poo-poohing those who try. But let’s do so from a level playing field. If there’s big bucks from the Church Commissioners, will there be fair and equal access to that for rural churches, estate churches, rich churches and poor churches? Or is the fear it’ll only go to the funkiest out there – creating a network of proto-HTB cathedrals in every University town?

What have I learned on sabbatical? Here’s the list:

  • There is no easy answer – but God asks us to try.
  • When someone has something that works, share it.
  • Don’t fear failure.
  • Most books on mission tell you what the problems are. Very few offer solutions.
  • I am a priest. I am a leader. I am a manager. Train and support me to do all of these to the very best of my abilities and in turn I will help and train others.
  • I cannot do this alone. I rely on those who work with me.
  • Above all, God is to be found in the mass, in our mission and in our management. Sometimes we just need to look a bit harder – and trust that he’s there.

You can follow me on twitter: @GaryWaddington




That was the Sabbatical that was… 1

In a week, my sabbatical ends and I return to the coalface of public ministry – the parish. I’ve very much enjoyed my time away, and want to record my thanks to everyone who has supported and enabled me to have this opportunity.

It has, of course, been an interesting three months of study, engagement and reflection on the role of clergy today and how we run our churches. That it has taken place in one of the most turbulent periods of time in our country’s history (by pure coincidence) has also been fascinating. Perhaps the two are not as unrelated as might first appear. It is, I believe, all about people, engagement and commitment.

So this is part one of two posts…

Woodhead and Brown

The last few days has been taken up with reflecting on Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown’s That Was the Church That Was: IMG_3722How the Church of England Lost The English People.

It’s a fascinating read. The style is thoroughly journalistic – but the use of the authors self-referencing themselves in the third person “Andrew at this time…” “Linda was working as…” is a little clunky as a literary device.

It is a page turner; it’s at times funny; it’s bitchy and in some places it’s downright rude. It quite rightly flags up all sorts of difficult ‘issues’ with the Church of England. It is an absorbing heady cocktail which I devoured in one afternoon sitting.

But therein lies, I think, the real problem with this book. Its a polemic of ‘what the problems are’ and ‘who to blame’ – but it is poor at coming up with specific answers or suggestions. At times it feels very raw – as though the authors themselves are living out their own personal guilt, hurts and agendas. As Robin Gill, reviewing in the Church Times puts it:

“it is quite difficult to sort out fact from fiction, clear-sighted observation from gossip, and legitimate concern from personal bias.”

Edward Lucas, writing in The Times is even more pointed:

“Despite flashes of insight and some vivid writing, their book is lazy, spiteful and meandering.”

For Woodhead and Brown, the central themes are that decline in membership of the Church of England can be ascribed to:

  • Not taking seriously the women who have variously run church activities (the fault of clergy)
  • The debates about the ordination of women (which is mainly the fault of Catholics)
  • The Church’s position on same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general (which is mainly the fault of screwed up evangelicals)
  • The rise of ‘Voodoo Management’ and dull bishops (the fault of the appointments process)
  • All Archbishops are, liked or not, a bit useless (their own fault)
  • Not offering ‘spirituality’ which is attractive to a ‘spiritual generation’ (parish churches  fault for offering ‘religion’)
  • A Church in league with the Establishment (Politicians fault, particularly the Tories) at a time when the establishment and proletariat were diverging
  • Not taking people like Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead seriously (obviously everyone’s fault, but particularly the Archbishops’ fault)


As Gill points out, decline in membership of the Church of England isn’t a special feature of the Church of England alone. It affects all mainstream Christian denominations, both in this country and across both Europe and North America. Gill reminds us that Grace Davie:

“has helpfully depicted this as a cultural shift from “obligation” to “choice” — something that affects political parties as much as Churches.”

Lucas’ review concludes:

“In the final pages the authors concede that the church may have a future, based on using the talents of the laity, and with many more non-stipendiary clergy. It could combine the “enthusiasm, flexibility and organizational pragmatism” of the evangelicals, the liberals’ “love of humanity and clever interest in the outside world”, and the “unnerving because otherworldly” spirituality of the Anglo-Catholics. It would be a church for England, not the Church of England — because the England that sustained the church described at the beginning of the book no longer exists.

These are tantalising thoughts, but they are not developed. Instead the book concentrates far too much on the abundant character flaws of the people involved, most, but not all of them, dead.”

The Church and the World Today

In the twenty years since I was ordained, the world is, in some ways, very different. In the thirty years since I took my “O” levels (the period Woodhead and Brown’s book covers) that choice is even more marked. Family intergenerational fun is always to be had with stories of “ah yes, when I was your age…” But there have been three great trends I think in my adult lifetime:

  • The rapid growth in technology and its widening availability
  • The rise of ‘rolling’ news and the attendant growth in ‘opinion’ pieces
  • The predominance of a ‘me’ culture: the death of community and the isolation borne of individualism and self-service

These of course all sound a little grand, but each has enabled the other. “We knew the names of everyone who lived in our street when we were kids, now we know no one.” It is entirely possible that this is middle age musing, but I strongly suspect that this is a line more commonly repeated today than ever before. Why? Why this breakdown?

I think there are two underlying themes which are exacerbated by the trends above.

Firstly, the explosion of choice. Choice is good. Everyone should have choices, everyone should have the same choice. But as I was well taught in pastoral psychology, much of the choices that face us are illusions: ultimately they frustrate us rather than empower or enable us.

When we go to a supermarket we are confronted with choice (choices not available until the birth of supermarkets in the late 1940s – the first fully ‘self service’ store was in Albert Road, Southsea – so, ironically the parish where I served my title was the birthplace of the post war “choice” boom).

Yet what we’re not able to do is choose from every foodline available. We’re in fact having our ‘choices’ limited by others – we’re choosing from what others have chosen for us. And then our choices are directed, managed and filtered by product placement. Sorting out what is actually the best value, or unit prices is far more difficult than appears. By the time you’ve calculated BOGOF offers, multibuys, selected discounts (who knew I needed 10% off a product I’ve never used) you’d need a whiteboard and laptop to work it all out. Our choices are heavily steered by others.

The education reforms of the 1980s and 1990s promised parents they would be able to ‘choose’ the school their child would go to. Yet parents know that today school admissions criteria, the presence of an older sibling or the distance from their home to the local school are determinate factors, rather than their own preferential choices.

Choice is very often an illusion. Yet as ‘choices’ have grown (with a narrative extolling us to choose) we’re more confused than ever. We either stick with ‘what we’ve always known’ and feel cheated out of a good offer, or have to spend inordinate amounts of time navigating the options available to us, and the competing claims of those shouting “choose me” through ever more subtly burnished advertising.

We live in a society increasingly disadvantaged by the array of choices available to us. Sure, the brighter you are, the more easily you might be able to manage the decision making process – but it takes time…

The second is time itself – or rather ‘capacity’. In this age of choice and labour saving gadgets we are sold an illusion of more and more quality leisure time. What’s actually happened is that we’re being sold more and more choices to fill that time. If anything, we have less ‘down time’ now than since the end of the second world war. And as people have taken jobs with longer or more unsociable working hours, so the competition of time and choices has become more complex. Add social media to that mix, and we have even more chance to fill ever more time, doing even less…

Of course, there is a flip side to this. Accessing these choices, opportunities and advantages doesn’t just take time. It takes as I’ve indicated some brain cells. It also takes great literacy and numeracy skills. Without this latter set of skills then accessing an increasingly ‘online’ economy becomes more and more difficult. The more literate and numerate we are, the easier we not only can get online, the more also we can evaluate and research so as to get the best we can out of a not just globalised but ‘digitized’ economies.

The importance of literacy and numeracy is, I think, crucially overlooked still today. It is easy in a world of league tables and Ofsted reports for (well educated, literate, numerate middle class) people to overlook the astonishingly low literacy and numeracy levels in the general population. Around 5.2million adults in the UK are ‘functionally illiterate’ that is they can get by and cope with familiar simple vocabulary, but anything new or complex is a barrier. The average ‘reading age’ of an adult (something of an arbitrary concept) is 9. The Sun is written for someone with a reading age of 8. The Guardian, 14. The same reading age is needed to access Common Worship. The Book of Common Prayer requires a reading age of 21.

If you can’t read the school admissions form, understand the website (or app) or quantify the value of the ‘bargain’ at the supermarket, or have the time to do either, then today, you’ll miss out. No wonder we’re in a time where so many people feel ‘left behind’ or increasingly caught up in a world of cultic languages. The greatest triumph of management speak is that it is the modern day Tower of Babel – its power lies in the confusion it brings. Advertising exploits this – by emotive, powerful language which distorts and makes claims of ever increasing cleverness. So too, politics uses the art of ‘truthful distortion’ to statistics and complex information to ‘spin’. £350million anyone?

Of course, if you are wealthy enough, little of this matters so much – you can pay someone else to do it – or the differentials for value are negligible in the scale of economy you might work to.

Which makes me ask, is this a problem for the Church, our mission and evangelism? How good are we at accurate portrayal of ourselves, and understanding our work, witness and the world? That is, I think important in the debate over reform and renewal – it would be easy to use that as a ‘sticking plaster’ if we don’t get to grips with some fundamentals and live in a world as it is, rather than the world we believe exists of our own making.

There are many choices we are about to start making. The vital question is: are we making the right choices for the right reasons, or embarking on a vanity project based on an illusion? If it’s the latter, then my fear is that our picture of the Church and of the world will be just as partial, just as distorted as the views presented in Woodhead and Brown.


Shared Conversations and The Evangelical Ascendancy: an existential crisis?


Six people witness a car accident. Reading their reports, you’d wonder if they witnessed the same event, or even were in the same street. The problem with their reports is of three “P’s”: partiality, perception and proscription. What one saw, the other didn’t. One witness thought something important but another thought it irrelevant. All had common themes, but reached different conclusions.

I returned a few days ago from the York sessions of General Synod. Much of that was “business as usual” even if that meant little more than those of us who are still new trying our best to negotiate the geography of York University.

The last few days though were not ‘business as usual’. The afternoon of Sunday, the whole of Monday and the morning of Tuesday were given up for Shared Conversations.

For anyone not ‘churchy’ the Shared Conversations are about engaging people from a diversity of theological backgrounds in a common attempt to consider how the Church of England might respond to the issues surrounding Human Sexuality in a culturally changing society. You can read more about that here.

So anything I write now comes with some caveats.

Firstly, by its nature, it is my reflection on those three days. It’s not a statement on behalf of anyone else, nor any ‘group’ within the Church.

Secondly, because we all agreed to a set of protocols about handling sensitive information, there is a necessary redaction of some of the details. That is, I think, quite right.

Thirdly, my own reflection also comes affected by the “three P’s” – just as anyone’s account of our time together would also be influenced.

In what follows, therefore, I’m attempting not only to give something of a ‘flavour’ of what happened, but also to try to dig a little deeper and tease out some themes which struck me personally during this process. Again, they are my reflections…

The Process

The Conversations were a mix of group work and plenary sessions. Each synod member was assigned a ‘parent’ group of around twenty people plus a facilitator. For some of that time we worked together in sub-sets of three or six people. The group work was both reflecting on where we were each ‘coming from’ and reflecting on what we had heard in the plenary sessions. They were as much ‘get to know you’ sessions as anything else.

The ‘whole synod plenary sessions’ were essentially panel based conversations which we were witnesses to. We heard from panels of biblical scholars; from young people who are LGTB; from a range of older clergy and lay people who brought their own sexual identities and perspectives; and from a group of clergy reflecting on the human sexuality debate across the wider Anglican Communion.

We all came with a whole range of expectations to the start of the process. For many, and for me, there was a certain sense of dread. How uncomfortable would this all be? Was there a hidden agenda? Would there be a massive punch up? Would we be duped into making decisions? Would this all be ‘one way’ traffic? Would it all just be a massive waste of time (and money)? Would it be all talk, just a load of hot air?

My reflection is that much of that sense of dread dissipated pretty quickly. That’s not to say this was at all easy – it wasn’t. There were certainly times that this was tough going. Members laughed, and members cried. Some of what we heard was what we’ve always heard and was fearsomely unsurprising. Other material was surprising, thought-provoking, informative and challenging. Some parts were easy, and others were very difficult indeed to listen to.

If the Shared Conversations were nothing more than an attempt to get people with differing views to listen to, rather than shout at each other, then I think the time was well spent. Clearly a great number had a real will to explore ways of dealing with contentious subjects which elevates our discourse and understanding, rather than diminishing it. That some very conservative evangelicals didn’t boycott, but participated, should be applauded.

These were not though conversations in which we dealt with the issues at hand directly. For those who thought this might just be a ‘here are the questions and here are my answers’ session, there will have been some disappointment and frustration. For me and for many I think the value will lie not in what we have just done, but further down the road.

That, pretty simplistically says something about what we did. All of us will reflect on our time together. But for me, there are some serious questions that arise – as much from what was not said, as from what was.

When is a sex debate not a sex debate?

More than once, it was clear that Synod holds “proxy” debates. So for example, an earlier discussion about legislative reform was clearly just as much a debate on “can we trust Bishops?” For much of the wider world, the Shared Conversations might have appeared to be a discussion about “homosexuality”. But for me, what was striking was that this was just as much a proxy debate.

Yes, human sexuality was indeed the catalyst – but it certainly felt at times that what was being debated were some very big issues which haven’t been satisfactorily dealt with before. Now that can sound like a weird paradox. If the Church is obsessed with sex, you’d think we’d have a grammar, a hermenutic, a doctrine or two, a common theological reference point? You might even think we’d talk about sex, a lot. That I think is a much bigger problem – there’s a lot, it seems to me of restating of slogans (by which I mean theologically or biblically loaded ‘code phrases’) which singularly failed to be ‘unpacked,’ challenged, thought through and nailed down.

So questions about theological anthropology and ‘personhood’, ethics and moral theology, ecumenical implications, sacramental understandings, theologies of justice and more were, if at all, skated over. It’s interesting that hearing comments from others, you’d think that we’d hardly mentioned the Bible – though that was far from my view, but a bit more of that later…

What was striking was that for a debate about human sexuality, how little we talked about human sexuality. LGBT people seemed to be the ‘elephant in the room’ which often meant that contributions from LGBTI+ people were powerful for the fact that the debate opened up, more so than some other of the content.

Further still, ‘homosexuality’ is, and I think ought to be seen as shorthand for a whole host of discomfort with sex. Sex is, after all, dirty isn’t it? As such, gay sex is really dirty sex. And that is, I think, a cop out. There’s clearly as much problem with sex outside of marriage in purely heterosexual terms. Ditto, divorce and remarriage. And contraception. Etc etc etc… That’s all by way of saying that we spend a lot of time talking about sex, but not talking about sex. It’s all very English.

Haven’t we been here before?

In short, yes. For almost all of my adult life the CofE has been debating the Ordination of Women: first as deacons, then as priests, then as bishops. That’s well over thirty years. It has been like watching in particular the (in the widest interpretation of the phrase) catholic movement of the Church of England have an enormous car crash. Speaking as someone who inhabits (for want of a better phrase) the ‘traditionalist’ catholic part of the playground, it has at times consumed us, sapped our energies, and often, regretfully relegated our sense of mission to a very low item on the agenda. Over all those years it was a debate which (occasionally) had real theological enterprise and at worst (and far more often) been from all sides a vicious exercise in name calling.

That’s no doubt a gross simplification, but might serve as a decent shorthand. Despite all of that, we’ve arrived at a point of some degree of permanent settlement. How long that will last is a good question.

I say all of this because of all the ‘wings’ of the Church of England, it was the Catholic wing which perhaps found itself at the epicenter. The present debate doesn’t though feel like another anglo-catholic car crash. It certainly doesn’t seem to be where the spotlight is. It genuinely doesn’t seem to be the place where the voices are, at present, raised.

Perhaps that’s at least in part what the Shared Conversations are about – trying to stop a car crash in a different part of the Church of England (and as such, to ameliorate the same being replicated across the wider Anglican world). It may be that we’re learning some lessons. It could just be that we’re trying to change the tone of the debate – or rather to set far clearer parameters for our internal discourse before the next round of decision making takes place.

I fully realize that this debate has been ongoing for quite some time. But (and its a big but) whilst Issues in Human Sexuality, the Higton debate and indeed the last two Lambeth Conferences (and passim the Ordination of Gene Robinson) have all turned up the volume at times, this debate has been ‘held back’ because of the ordination debate in England. Now that’s out of the way, the Human Sexuality debate can’t be put off or held back any longer. It’s an argument whose time has come – and it certainly isn’t going to go away now.

Sex: Is this The “Evangelical” Problem?

More than once throughout the Shared Conversations process I was struck as being not only a participant, but also being an observer in what felt an overwhelmingly ‘evangelical centric’ debate. Almost everyone who spoke from the platform appeared to come from an evangelical background: be that ‘conservative’ ‘liberal’ ‘progressive’ or whatever tag you might dream up. It felt very very much at times as if this wasn’t the whole Church of England talking – rather we were, in differing degrees, engaged in a inter-pan-evangelical family argument within the Church of England (albeit one heavily influenced by events from outside).

This often felt in itself like a proxy debate for at least three issues. Firstly, there is very serious question about ‘what is the authority of the scriptures in the Church?’ To put it another way, ‘how can we read the bible and when we do, do we agree on what scripture says’? That’s going to be a very difficult question of hermenutics. For some, the Bible is very clear and is to be read at least in general terms as a form of interpreted literalism. For others, there are important ranges of exegetical readings to be applied. For more still there are significances of how newer biblical hermeneutics might be brought to bear, influenced by feminist, queer, liberation and other contexts. That itself should illuminate the difficultly of the theological question: when we read the bible, what’s the right way to do so (especially if I believe you’re reading it all wrong).

Alongside that sits another thorny question. What is the determinable authority for anglicanism? Is it sola scriptura? Is it tradition, or reason? Is it that the historic Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral – Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Episcope – is breaking down? Whilst I wouldn’t agree with my evangelical brothers and sisters that scripture alone is a defining authority, there is a real sense I perceive within this debate that for them, the place of scripture is under threat, as well as specific ways in which that scripture might be read. I absolutely realise that ‘conservative’ is no more a hegemony amongst evangleicalism than ‘traditionalism’ is so amongst catholics. The point though it where the balance is.

That is perhaps the third ‘issue’ proxy debate in evangelicalism – where now? The shape of evangelicalism is today very different to what it was at the start of the 1970s. What I can remember from my childhood as being “low church” is a different beast to much of the evangelical world today. I’m by no means an expert – but sung mattins with the Vicar in a surplice, scarf and hood is, I suspect a much rarer beast than a charismatic influenced, worship band led, non robed “service of the Word”. I stand to be corrected, but evengelicalism’s 70s revival has now created a section of the church which has its hands on lots of levers of ‘power’… just at a time when an issue comes along which threatens to break up that growing monopoly and influence. Could this be the issue which breaks the evangelical ascendancy? Is this debate not just about human sexuality – but the outplaying of an existential evangelical crisis unable to deal with the present cultural zeitgeist?

The Justice Question?

For at least some of the more generally liberal parts of the Church of England this is an equal crisis, but one in which this group feels firmly themselves to have an upper hand. After all, if the question of the ordination of women was about inclusive justice, then surely the context of this debate bears as much, if not more of the hallmarks of that debate? Since those arguments held sway then, surely they will triumph now?

That of course whilst a theological solipsism of reason, just as much as the ordination debate was, is now hitting buffers not easily forseen in the law of unintended consequences. Surely, the sisters liberated from the yoke of patriarchal oppression will rally to the cry of liberation of all similarly oppressed?

There of course is the rub. It turns out that some of those who have scaled the dizzy highs of preferment aren’t so keen to publicly cry for freedom for others. No wonder there was a sharp intake of breath from some when newly appointed women bishops demurred from a full throated defence of others facing proscription. If the ordination of women was ever seen as a trojan horse to deliver full acceptance of human sexuality, it turns out the horse is busy eating the hay bales and has forgotten to gallop to the rescue…

There can be little doubt that society has moved on. For many today, sexuality is of little if any import or consequence. Of course, outside metro political circles, that’s not quite the whole story, but in most social and media circles, the argument is won, even if there are pockets of resistance.

Is this just a question of the necessity of righteous justice as a Gospel imperative? Or is this playing out as an overarching metanarrative of an inbuilt conservative position? Just as the conservative position clings to a claim to scriptural warrant, so a more progressive position clings to an appeal for reason to triumph.

The problem of course is one of inherited position and the inherent weakness that at a three or four legged appeal to a theological argumentative ‘stool’ cannot stand on one leg alone.

Justice is blind, says the maxim. But this argument isn’t impartial, and rightly so. But in order for the justice argument to have weight, it has to have a theological back up – one which is at present, it seems to me, sadly lacking.

The Theological deficit?

A colleague of mine is fond of saying that if the arguments about the ordination of women were primarily wanting a theological response, but found a justice argument, so the debate about human sexuality should be precisely the reverse. In other words, if the previous argument had found deep and resonant theological foundations, then what now follows would have had a much easier a path. The fact that the former didn’t, means that the latter has a far more tortuous pathway.

Anyone who might have posited this as a ‘zero sum’ argument misses the point. This is,  I predict, about to become a battle which, in the Church of England, will make the ordination of women a row of the order of magnitude of which comes first, milk or tea?

It is that our theological grounding is partial, based too often on perspective and necessitates from both sides a degree of unsubstantiated proscription that sets the scene of what may well be a fractious battle. This is about a battle between the soul of evangelicalism and the soul of progressive liberalism. And the stakes are high.

What’s missing are cogent theological voices. Above the loudspeaker claims and counter claims needs to be a persuasive range of voices which carry real weight. My worry is where are the scholars, the scholar bishops on both sides which can weigh in? This has to be a much wider consideration that simply the repetitive exegetical attempts to corral some bible verses as proof texts one way or the other.

Even in recent weeks, Synod members doormats have been the recipients of thuds of books arriving on this very subject. That there is recognition that this debate needs wider perameters is good. But my worry is that in a landscape in which ‘we no longer trust experts’ there is an increasing cultural norm that what we need is a better slogan rather than depth of understanding.

In a fast moving debate both in the church as in society, there remains the propensity that the Church will find itself behind the curve. I’m convinced that where we are now is far from a sensible position. Some movement is required. But as ever, the theological and political balance is a difficult question.

Where now?

Imagine the scene. Slogans about with claim and counter-claim aplenty. Those leading the debate have a soupcon of charisma, but aren’t necessarily the main players. The leader has taken a real gamble that this might pay off, but its a huge investment on what might be an uncertain outcome. Potential splits abound. The stakes are high.

It is more than a passing co-incidence that Synod began with a debate about Brexit. Yet that debate was framed, illuminated and overshadowed by the debate still to come about human sexuality (believe me, there were quite a few speakers who drew parallels, or sought to make inferences about the sexuality conversations from and in the Brexit debate on the floor of synod.

The parallels are striking.

In what is increasingly called a post-fact, post-truth, post-reason political environment, the church can no less be immune to the cultural battles that seem no less reducible or illuminating at times than the taunts of a playground fight. That might well be a harsh judgement – but one which I am happy to defend.

Sex is the Church of England’s Brexit moment. Its a take it or leave it argument. And one for which, on either side, there are real significant dangers and unintended consequences.

The danger isn’t that we embark on a ‘zero-sum’ or ‘ no-win’ argument which fractures the church: it is that we engage in a damaging ‘no-sum’ ‘zero-win’ debate in which all are hurt and damaged. There is a real danger of a scorched earth outcome.

This is the age of theology by megaphone. That simply will not do.

The Church’s treatment of LGBTI Christians is little less than shocking. That should, I believe, be rightly called out, denounced and condemned. Eirenic statements are simply not good enough.

But a debate characterized as being between bible fundamentalist and revisionist gnostic relativists also falls short of where we ought to be. There are serious theological considerations to a debate which ought to be about justice, but which skirt important doctrinal themes because in previous debates they have been ducked and avoided.

Calling all conservative Christians ‘homophobes’ is as insidious as calling all brexit leavers ‘racists.’ I don’t deny that there are homophobes in the church – there are – but tarring everyone with the same brush isn’t just disingenuous, it fails to flush out what the real arguments are. Equally calling all LGBTI people ‘abominations’ isn’t where the vast majority of people are today.

We might like a bit of gladiatorial conflict, but it is very wearing. Trying to seek out what is God’s purpose, prayerfully and deeply discerning what we are called to do can’t be packaged as an ecclesiastical version of the X Factor. This should rightly be a grounded, robust and passionate conversation, debate and journey. But it must not be reduced to vacuity.

What we’re watching is an action reply of a previous car crash. The issue at hand is different, but the hermeneutic and pathology is almost identical. The question that faces us is are we willing to live with this for thirty years, with the attendant realities for mission, for the implosion of a section of the church and for the contingent consequences as yet unknown?

Or might we be able to do something far more grown up, get our story together and provide credible witness statements which rather than doing damage to each other, bring us together in a narrative which propels us beyond the present? We are after all, sinners. We are all redeemed by the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus didn’t shy away from difficulties, or from debate. He did though say that its better to acknowledge that we’re all sinners and to put our stones down before we start shouting at each other.

Only time will tell what comes next. Well, time and the House of Bishops. Only those involved have the wherewithal to make a difference. Let’s drop the slogans, stop shouting and keep talking.

Whatever your view, pray for us all.


Shouting at the rain…

Those who know me well, know I’m a massive West Wing fan. I quote chunks of screenplay verbatim and like other clergy fans, shoehorn quotes into sermons in a kind of West Wing Sermon bingo.

But before West Wing Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creative genius had other works. The best know is A few good men translated from a stage play into a humdinger of a film. Yet it’s his 1995 creation The American President which is, at least for a West Wing geek, a fascinating watch.

The American President is essentially a romcom with a good political sideline. Annette Benning and Michael Douglas star, the former as the latter’s ‘love interest’. President Andrew Shepherd, nearing the end of his first term comes under more and more pressure because (as a relatively recent widower, single parent and President) he’s dating a liberal lobbyist. He faces the ire of the blowhard Senator Bob Rumson. The more President Shepherd refuses to engage in a ‘character debate’ the lower his approval rating becomes (and the declining possibility of him being re-elected sends his staff into meltdown).

It’s fun just to see how many familiar faces Sorkin uses – it’s the sight of Martin Sheen as the President’s Chief of Staff which makes one do a double take.

The most powerful part though is Shepherd’s denouement speech. It uses every rhetorical device (and the movie pulls the stirring strings out too). It’s blistering stuff: classic Sorkin screenplay. You can watch it here. The comments about gun crime at the end make an awful lot of sense as well…

However, its in the past few weeks that I’ve been brought back to the central contention of Shepherd’s speech:

I’ve known Bob Rumson for years. And I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it!

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.

That penultimate line seems to me to be all too true: “He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it.”

Modern politics seems in decline, like much public square debate, perhaps because it has become so completely centered on making us afraid and telling us who to blame. In doing so, engaging though that can be at times, it fails to proffer any real solutions. It is utterly frustrating.

So as the rhetoric ramps up, and the claims become ever more extreme, the hyperbole ever more bizarre and the relationship to facts, trust and truth ever more strained; so our reaction is one of ever more sinking hearts. At worst it leads us, collectively into an apolitical angst and through that to listen to anyone, however extreme, who might at least be willing to suggest what ‘answers’ might exist to our problems.

Politics is about character, Sorkin is right.

But it also has to be about truth, facts and trust. That should be how elections are won. That it isn’t is a sad reflection on politicians, and on us. We, after all, put them there.

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?