Thinking Anglicans

Carrying the Vision

What follows is a portion of the 8th Adullam Homes Housing Association Annual Lecture, given to an invited audience at Keele University. Adullam was established in 1972. It offers accommodation and support to some of the most marginalised, vulnerable and at risk people in our society.
This was reported briefly in the Guardian as Bishop gives warning on equality law.

I hear rumours that as faith based bodies revisit their employment and recruitment policies, partly in the light of the recent implementation of directives outlawing discrimination on grounds of religion or sexual orientation, a number are coming up with a maximalist position. The claim is that every board member, and in some cases every employee, must be firstly an adherent of the particular faith and secondly satisfy additional requirements regarding sexuality.

I want to stick my neck out and say that I find this trend quite alarming. I urge those who are giving consideration to this specific point to be aware of a number of risks in that approach:

i. Confusing the faith with the values.
When we substitute adherence to the tenets of a particular faith group for commitment to a set of values or ethos we risk losing the latter. Despite all the evidence from the fall out over homosexuality and bishops last summer many religious people retain a touching and naïve belief that the person next to them holds the same values as they do themselves. In some cases it may be fear of discovering otherwise rather than simple naivety.

ii. Excluding valuable contributions.
Some years ago I heard of the formation of a new body to support Christians engaged in the Housing world. When I approached it I found that I was only eligible for membership if I could subscribe to a particular understanding of the doctrine of salvation. I still fail to see the connection. Narrow religious requirements inevitably limit the range of views and perspectives that an organisation can bring to the task of working out its values. Some of the best board and senior staff members of Christian organisations I know are those who stand sympathetically but outside the church structures and can ask the rest of us the sharp questions.

iii. Avoiding or abusing the law undermines the policy of exemptions. Government rightly continues to give faith based organisations scope to claim exemption from aspects of equalities legislation. But when I hear rumours of substantial organisations claiming that every staff member has a “Genuine Occupational Requirement” to be an adherent of a specific faith I fear we are stretching the law to breaking point. If we are seen to be exploiting loopholes in order to operate policies that discriminate widely on grounds of religion or sexuality then we are likely to find the law tightened up so that we lose the exemptions that are justifiable.

iv. Discrimination contravenes our values.
Most faith based agencies have somewhere in their list of core values that they take equalities issues seriously. To suddenly resort to special pleading diminishes that commitment.

v. Inconsistent application of exemptions is illegal.
This is particularly relevant to the exemptions organisations make claim on grounds of sexual orientation. The legal advice published on the Church of England website makes it clear to me that the Christian ethic here is about the restriction of sexual activity to marriage. Any organisation that seeks to exclude gay employees whilst condoning or ignoring extra-marital heterosexual activity could find itself on very shaky ground.

vi. It isn’t necessary.
There is nothing that we want to achieve that cannot be achieved through having a clear core of faith adherents who take responsibility for the carrying forward of the vision both at board and senior management level. Moreover it is in the very nature of faith based organisations that they will tend to attract at all levels of staff those who are adherents of the faith in question. To revert to biblical imagery, there is plenty of leaven in the lump.


Communications: Kenning and Phillis

The Church of England recently announced the appointment of a new Director of Communications for the Archbishops’ Council and General Synod. The Church Times duly interviewed Peter Crumpler:

…Mr Crumpler described himself as “passionate” about the Church, which he described as “a superb institution that is not given the value it should be in society”. He will take up the post in May. The post was vacated by the Revd Dr Bill Beaver in 2002, and was frozen while a review of the national communications strategy was conducted on behalf of the Archbishops’ Council. Mr Crumpler… said he had studied the Phillis report into government communication strategies, which stressed the need for positive presentation, openness, and no “spin”.

Some information about these two reports may be useful.

First, the Independent Review of Government Communications, a 40-page report which can be downloaded from here, deals with UK government communications strategy. It was originally set up in the wake of the Jo Moore/Stephen Byers fiasco but later it also responded to the departure of Alistair Campbell.
Bob Phillis, who is the chief executive of the Guardian Media Trust and a former TV executive (with both the BBC and commercial TV companies) chaired a group of media professionals, many of whose recommendations for restoring public confidence in the government are in my view equally applicable to the Church of England. Just try substituting “church” for “government” etc. For example:

R.10 A new approach to briefing the media – We found that the lobby system is no longer working effectively for either the government or the media. We recommend that all major government media briefings should be on the record, live on television and radio and with full transcripts available promptly online. Ministers should deliver announcements and briefings relevant to their department at the daily lobby briefings, which should also be televised, and respond to questions of the day on behalf of the government.

or this

Greater emphasis on regional communication – Research told us the public want information that is more relevant to them and where they live. We recommend that more investment should be made in communicating at a local and regional level and more communication activity should be devolved into relevant regional government or public service units…

and on websites:

R.10.3 Government websites should make all relevant background material available to anyone who wants it.
R.11 Customer-driven online communication
… We recommend that the central government website should be redesigned to meet the needs and perceptions of users, with individual departments only becoming “visible” when this makes sense to the users. Information on local public services should be prominent and easily found. There should be increased investment in websites to reflect the increasing importance of this method of communication.

Turning now to the Review of the National Communications of the Church of England which was undertaken by Mr David Kenning of Bell Pottinger Ltd, this has not been published, but a 35 page summary was posted on the CofE website in Microsoft Word format. That can be downloaded from here. A more concise 8 page version was issued last November to all General Synod members, diocesan secretaries and others, and is reproduced as a web page here. This is worth reading in full. Synod members were told that:

The Council has accepted the general analysis and overall prescription in Mr Kenning’s report.
…The Council agreed that the new Director would need some flexibility over the detailed recommendations in the report. They noted that decisions about the resources devoted to the Communications Unit would need to be considered in the budget round next spring in the usual way.

Translating into plain English, the specific recommendations of Kenning would require a huge increase in the staff and budget of the department. So that’s not going to happen any time soon. The new Director will have to fight for his slice of the cake like everyone else. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Kenning’s emphasis on traditional media seems rather odd anyway. Kenning said:

The Communications Unit should invest in two additional professional journalists – one from the national press (preferably with tabloid experience) and one from national broadcasting (preferably also with national journalistic experience). This would increase the number of press officers from two to four…… revitalising Church relationships with key national journalists, columnists and journalists on a one-to-one basis. These (personal) relationships can only be improved where they are manifestly based on trust and openness. This should be done in the form of a weekly lobby – preferably held away from Church premises. … Hold a separate Thursday lobby for the Sunday press.

Whereas concerning the CofE website, Kenning said:

The Official Website requires full-time dedicated professional support with a recruited or outsourced full-time professional webmaster. Much more use could be made of an improved website (establishing an intranet) for more direct communications between the Unit and the dioceses and parishes…
A careful balance needs to be maintained between the effort devoted respectively to the press and electronic media. The recommendations for the staffing requirements above reflect the optimum balance for each. The Internet has made enormous strides into the national consciousness over the past five years and the next decade could well see it overtaking the established media as a source of information. However, the conventional press and media must remain a priority for the foreseeable future. There is no reason, however, why Church Advocates should not be able to post their views on the internet via webcams [sic] and, on occasions, invite an interactive communication with the nation such as is often conducted by television networks.

Compare this with what Phillis said about the lobby system, emphasising regional media, and using websites. Try looking at the Bell Pottinger website 🙂

On the other hand, Kenning accurately portrays the magnitude of the task facing the new director when he lists as a major issue:

A culture of inclusivity and openness – The fortress mentality in the NCIs needs to be dismantled – An entire strategy and programme needs to be put in place to improve and monitor relationships with the national press and broadcast media.
The Church must set about dismantling (the perception of) the “fortress” mentality at Church House in particular, and to a lesser extent at Lambeth. The first and most important area to begin with is within the Communications Unit itself.
This will require a change of culture.

Yes, and this is not a task which a Communications Director can do alone. Kenning also said:

The configuration of the Communications Panel holds the key both to enabling the communications strategy to work and to empower national Church communications as a whole. To date this Panel has been too remote, underpowered and insufficiently representative to do the job properly. It must draw together representatives from the major institutions and key individuals involved in communications.
… I recommend a new, re-configured Panel should include the following:
– Chaired by a media-literate senior bishop representing the House of Bishops with experience of national Church communications and who has a direct link to the Archbishops
– A maximum of two lay members (communications experts) to be elected by Synod
– One person elected from Diocesan Communicators’ Panel
– Director of Communications
– Senior Lambeth communications advisor
– Senior Bishopthorpe communications advisor ??

But the Synod was told that the Archbishops’ Council in its wisdom had:

– created a small task force to support and oversee the work of the Director over the next two years as he or she draws up and delivers a detailed implementation plan for the Review. The need for a Communications Panel will be considered further towards the end of the period. The task force will be chaired by the Bishop of Manchester. The three other members are Andreas Whittam Smith, Jayne Ozanne and Anne Sloman.

So no elected representatives of any kind on that task force, then. And the Panel recommendation has been sidetracked for at least two years. I don’t find that at all encouraging, and don’t suppose many synod members will either.

But, like many others, I do look forward to Peter’s arrival at Church House in May with joyful anticipation.


to stay or to go?

My current job requires me to take a managerial view of my university. I have been an academic for much (but not all) of my professional life, and this has allowed me to comment, and often comment critically, on how other organisations behave. I have often done so from a perspective of self-righteousness, in that the frame of reference for my criticism was informed by a belief that I was spreading the gospel of openness, transparency, accountability and equity. It’s a potent cocktail, because it numbs the capacity to see error in one’s own analysis.

Now I am in charge of a university, and I see at least some things differently. I recognise, for example, that universities are notoriously bad at modernising themselves, see tradition as noble, dismiss out of hand the possibility that they are bad employers — or worse still, that they might discriminate – and are suspicious of the desire on the part of public representatives to hold them accountable. They also have bits of mystical dogma — sometimes described as ‘academic freedom’ — which can be used to slap down argument when all else fails. And yet, beyond the slogans and the traditionalism, universities are stewards of a great public good: education and scholarship which maintains civilised, cultured and tolerant values. It is just when they become too self-important (which usually happens at times of great stress) that it becomes hard to see these values in action.

It’s probably similar with the church. We have all become a little fed up with the evident failings of the men and women (but usually men) who occupy the major ecclesial offices, and we are critical of the way in which both the mission of the church and its resources have been mismanaged. We become impatient when dogma which an educated person probably started to dismiss as absurd at the time of the Enlightenment still adorn a catechism or two, and we wonder whether this is an organism which can adapt sufficiently in order to survive.

But I am also aware that in the middle of all this mess is the Word, and however we have corrupted it, it is still there. So when I hear some daft new episcopal pronouncement and think I want to leave, I remind myself that the church is more than, and bigger than, what currently irritates me. And so I stay.

But staying should not be a comfortable irritation, in which I shrug off what annoys or offends me and get lost in other-worldly contemplation. Staying means accepting the mission to promote, and if necessary provoke, change — in a spirit of love, tolerance and (properly understood) obedience. It means recognising God in the church and striving to be true to God’s Gospel — an unchanging God who, for every generation, makes all things new.


The Passion of the Christ

I’d read the reviews, heard about all the hype, read yards of stuff giving all the reasons for not going to see the film, and was prepared to give it a miss. That is, until local clergy were invited to a free viewing, and a number of us went. Some, fearing it would be too much of a horror movie, stayed away.

Those who went found the film moving, profound, and thought provoking. It may not be one you would advise your elderly, churchgoing granny to see, but for anyone used to adult movies, this is well worth seeing. In Passiontide, the pictures will fill our familiar hymns with deeper meaning, and add a new depth to the Stations of the Cross.

Once, rich visual imagery was available in England as an aid to prayer and meditation. The fourteenth century mystics saw prayer as starting with a meditation on the Passion, not by looking at texts, for the Latin scriptures were inaccessible to many people, but from the familiar picture set up at 10,000 altars and on rood screens throughout Europe. A contemplation of Christ’s sufferings, for the sins of the whole world, and for our sins, was seen as both a road to conversion and the beginning of the life of prayer.

As painting and techniques improved, the crucifixion was depicted with increasing realism, culminating in works such as that by Grunewald.

But printed, vernacular Bibles and the Puritans destroyed much of this culture in Britain, leaving us with whitewashed church walls, and smashed stained glass. The ear, through the word of God, became the prime means of stirring the heart to devotion, and even music for a time was questioned. The result is that we have not understood the power and the place of devotional art.

But, with the rise of cinema and television, the visual arts can now reclaim their former place. With Mel Gibson’s film, the biblical epic has come of age. Raw reality and even savagery are displayed to an extent that makes previous biblical epic films look like chocolate-box illustrations. Yet “epic” is hardly the right word. There is little more than a following of the Stations of the Cross, given that the film only begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. As with any good meditation on the Stations, Mel Gibson introduces other scenes which comment on these final hours. And with these, and with the reactions of the bystanders, particularly Jesus’s mother, we are time and again taken away from the gruesome torturing of Jesus just at the point when it might appear unbearable.

The shifting of scene means that instead of being presented with unremitting gratuitous violence, we see something of the loving purposes of God, precisely at the point when we want to cry out “Why?”

Unless the film had brought us to this brink of feeling that it would be unbearable to go on, we might have come away thinking that this was just one more sanitised view that made the Christian faith just an interesting diversion for children. But this, with an “18” classification, is not a children’s film.

It is a very honest piece of propaganda for the Christian faith, the best that Mel Gibson could devise. In this I would see him as standing in the tradition of great religious artists of the past who have wanted to convey their faith through their art, and express their own Passion for Christ. It is precisely this which has made it difficult for the critics to know where to aim their arrows. The complaint that the film is anti-Semitic, for example, misses the point. Those who condemned Jesus are portrayed as very believable human beings in whom we should be able to identify our own failings. They are only as Jewish as the Virgin Mary. What is depicted is part of the history of Judea, and the history of the world.

There is a great deal to think about in the film. Don’t go alone, and allow yourselves plenty of time afterwards to reflect together on what you have seen.


Touring the estates

I’m beginning a round of tours of sites of special interest. Not historic architecture, or places of pilgrimage, or the nature reserves of east London, but places where I can compare my own working environment with other people’s.

In November I took responsibility (no, surely some of the responsibility belongs elsewhere) for a church-and-community-centre, one of a number in the surrounding area, and a hybrid well-known elsewhere. And my tour is of other urban churches which use this combination as a way of adapting the sites and/or buildings bequeathed us by the Victorians, in order to finance our continuing presence in the city and offer service to our neighbours.

I want to learn from the way other people and places do it, but more than that I want to underpin what we do here with some theological thinking. I want, at least, to know what the questions are — which came first, the need for money or the understanding of service? How do we identify the nature of that service — by responding to whatever regeneration pot is best filled, or by identifying the greatest need? What are the ethical issues around competing with other worthy causes for what money there is? Do I/we declare the building a no-smoking zone in the interest of abundant life, or say ‘yes’ to the single mothers and the street people who find it a safe haven? And, biggest question of all, how do the people who worship on Sunday relate to the weekday users?

A lot of the questions circle round the ancient counterpoint of immanence and transcendence — how do we hold the two together, and make evident the holiness both of the day centre for adults with learning difficulties and of our gathering as the people of God?

Answers on a postcard, please!


Why Internet Church?

Richard Thomas, the Oxford Diocese Director of Communication writes about the new venture:

One of the defining features of our culture is the desire to self-resource. And the internet is probably the ultimate expression of that self-resourcing. I seek the resources I need for my holiday, my banking, and my insurance on-line. I even buy my books and my wine that way. This change has affected the way that many of us think about our belonging. No longer do we belong to an organisation or an institution in order to serve that organisation or institution. We look to it to serve us. Instead of being contributors to our communities, we are consumers of them. This may be a key distinction between Grace Davie’s ‘believers’, and her ‘belongers’. It may well be that participant members of Churches remain participants, regardless of the difficulties of participation, because they have a well developed sense of the importance of the institution for the maintenance and transmission of the faith. And it may be that the increasing failure to participate is a direct result of a loss of faith in such institutions as places that are effective in their key tasks, and that make demands on us that do not contribute either to mission or personal growth.

This is not necessarily a good thing. It may not be a healthy thing. But it is happening, and if the Christian Church is to be truly incarnational, it cannot simply decry what is, and become fruitlessly self-absorbed in what might be.

So it should be no surprise to discover that there are some people, maybe more than a few, who want to be part of a Christian community, to commit themselves to one another in prayer, in learning, and in social action, without the hassle and clutter of participation in the local parish church. We could, of course, simply respond by saying that the Church is, above all things, a sacramental community where meeting together is of the essence of what we are.

But if that was the sum of our response, we would merely add to the number of people that we fail to reach, and increase the number of people that we alienate because we want them to be other than what they are.



February Synod

I wrote a news article for Anglicans Online this week.

It’s an account of everything important, and nearly everything unimportant, that was debated at General Synod last month. But this soon after the event I’m not entirely sure which was which.