Archive for the ‘Christian Ministry’ Category

The Church of England has just launched into an epic consultation about whether or not clergy should be required to wear robes when taking services. A carefully worded consultation paper outlines the question and gives the background.  Inevitably it focuses on the meaning of the wording of the current legislation. It also offers some history, which makes it quite clear that the received norms of clerical vesture were never really thought out. In truth, there isn’t much theory here.

The consultation has already got the attention of the national press, which is presumably delighted at the prospect of endless column inches of harmless fun, and we can all begin to imagine some amusing cartoons. Though let it not be forgotten that this has been a very hot and even violent subject in the past. I remember reading about the nineteenth century surplice riots in Exeter when I studied church history. And I did so with a degree of astonishment. I mean, who cares what clergy wear in church.  The answer is that a lot of people seem to care very much.

The issue has arisen now because of a private member’s motion at the General Synod, but it’s one of those subjects that just goes round and round.  A quick internet search shows that it also came up 2008 – and the arguments were much the same. The main one being put forward being that wearing robes makes clergy look different from everyone else.

It’s a good point, come to think of it, but as it’s also the main argument for wearing robes it’s hardly decisive.

So, what’s the issue?

There are those who say that it’s by dressing distinctively that the clergy help make a special atmosphere where spiritual things can happen. And then other people who rightly say that spiritual things happen with people in all sorts of clothing.

This is a version of the dispute that has been going on for thousands of years about whether or not it’s a good idea to have a special building for religious matters – whether or not people should, or even can, build a ‘house’ for God. There are those who say that this is ridiculous – you can meet God anywhere God chooses to show up. And yet just because you can meet God anywhere – say on Dartmoor – it doesn’t follow that you might not rather go to Exeter Cathedral, or the parish church at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, for a service of Holy Communion, a Baptism or a Funeral, and feel that it wouldn’t really be right to celebrate these occasions at Hound Tor.

But let’s get back to the case against robes.  There are those who say that if the clergy don’t dress like other people the other people will think the clergy are aliens and conclude that their religion is a religion for aliens and so not for them – at least not on a day-to-day basis, though they might also feel that it’s nice to have the aliens help out when no one else knows what to do – such as at times of birth and death.

I have never really felt this to be a convincing argument, as even when dressed as an alien you can speak in everyday language, use familiar gestures and be a warm, sympathetic and empathic human being. Indeed it seems to me that this is just as much a duty for someone leading a religious ceremony as is looking the part.

My hunch is that there is actually no way to resolve the question of whether wearing robes is a matter of ‘may’, ‘should’ or ‘must’ for clergy. And so I wonder why we should worry about it. The reality today is that if clergy don’t want to wear robes they don’t wear robes and no one does anything much about it. And this is probably a good thing, or a good-enough thing, or at least a not very bad thing. I confess that I have taken at least one communion service without wearing vestments, and it all seemed to go just fine. I’ve also preached wearing a suit and even in less formal garb. There is something relaxed and friendly about it. But it’s not, and it shouldn’t be, the norm.

The sensible thing for the church to do on this matter would be to continue the current practice of having a norm expressed in Canon Law, but to carry on being tolerant about those who choose not to obey it. This is certainly a better way forward than one proposal on the table, which is that clergy should be allowed not to wear robes provided that ‘he or she had first ascertained, after consultation with the Parochial Church Council, that doing so would benefit the mission of the Church in the parish’.

The simple truth is that no one can ascertain any such thing. It’s all a matter of opinion, of personal choice; and if you have an institution with a weak centre and a strong and dispersed periphery you may as well recognise that the authorities are never going to have the energy to throw the book at you, so you don’t need to pretend that you know things that you don’t. You just need to get a local consensus and do the responsible thing.

However, this is manifestly not a debate about the sensible thing to do. It’s going to be a time and energy consuming exercise in which the wear-what-you-like clergy will try to make the robing clergy look even more odd than they do; and the robing clergy will probably oblige by pretending that there really are deep theological reasons for doing what is, in fact, at best only custom and practice.

There is no right answer to this one, and now the debate is open the smart thing for the church to do is to find some sort of compromise which allows local and sensible decisions be made about who wears what when, while insisting that there is a modest norm that involves dressing like an ‘other’; but not just any old other but like er, well, like a vicar. The norm needs to exist not so that clergy can dress themselves up like peacocks but so that they can be present with and for others but in not quite the same way as others. Because that’s the job, the role, the calling, the vocation.

Robe-wearing clergy are not aliens, but real people inhabiting a special and peculiar role on behalf of the community and by both vesture and demeanour signifying the possibility of that gracious mix of intimacy and transcendence that is Divine.

We should free the clergy from having to worry about what best to wear; we should certainly discourage them from looking like minor executives or life-style coaches. We need not insist on robes, precisely, but some sort of distinctive and objective dress is appropriate – and as there is no known way of designing such things from scratch we should let custom, not fashion, be our guide.

Let them wear robes!



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It has been clear for many years now that one of life’s less comfortable facts is that sometimes people abuse the power they have over others, and betray the trust which is vested in them. As we a society have become more aware of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, we have invested significant resources in processes and practices which we call ‘Safeguarding’.

‘Safeguarding’ is only part of the response to the abuse of the vulnerable, however. Another aspect of the response is that of the legal system to those who have perpetrated abuse. When abuse is illegal it needs to be treated as such, and as we know, the news headlines have all too regularly been dominated by the trials of people who are well known. In many more cases people are prosecuted and imprisoned with no one much noticing, apart from family, friends and acquaintances. The male prison population in this country is getting much older as this process goes on – there often being a huge time lag between offence and prosecution. This leads people to use the term ‘historic child abuse’. It means to refer to events that happened many years ago. The phrase is misleading if it suggests that the effects and consequences of the abuse are historical. For one thing we know about abuse of children is that the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds and consequences can persist not only for days weeks and months, but for years, decades and lifetimes.

A few days ago I was speaking with a leading activist and campaigner in this area. He made the point that whenever he speaks about the subject he assumes that there will be people present who have been on the receiving end of child abuse, and that there may well be those who have inflicted it too. Of course there is no certainty about this, and different people take different views about just how occasional, prevalent or endemic child abuse is in our society. However, the question of the severity of the impact of abuse on the victim, and the enormity of the evil involved in its perpetration, is not a quantitative question. One incident of child abuse is one too many, and any words which might be heard to minimize extent or impact must be avoided.

A sense of the sensitivity of the subject is one reason why a preacher should be careful in the way they address it, and I have wondered whether it is a reason to avoid it altogether. Certainly it’s not a subject that is often addressed from the pulpit. And yet to fail to talk in church about something that is so often in the papers seems to me to be a dereliction of ministerial duty; not least in an area where one of the mechanisms of cruelty and evil is coerced silence, ‘this must be our secret’, and where silence is self- inflicted because the power of shame is so smothering – both for perpetrators, and for victims.

There are those, perhaps, who would see this subject as relatively straightforward. After abuse the crime should be reported, the perpetrator dealt with according to the law, and the victim be given support and counseling to him or her move on. Of course I don’t think it is anything like this simple, either in theory or in practice, and yet this simple little model has much to commend it compared with some responses. And the church, I am sorry to say, is often the source of responses which range from the collusive to the re-abusive. It is well known that for many years reports of abuse were dismissed, disbelieved or denied by church authorities of various denominations, and that at the same time clerical perpetrators where quietly moved on, quite possibly to places where they could continue the habit of abuse. The whistle has been blown on such practices now, and reports written and better policies and practices implemented. But the reports make shameful reading and have shaken the faith of many. There are other inappropriate responses too.

A recent book by Sue Atkinson (‘Struggling to Forgive’ Monarch Books, 2014) , explores many examples of inept and inappropriate pastoral response, not least the sort that is based on what she calls the ‘weird theology’ that puts huge pressure on the victim of abuse to forgive the perpetrator. I have heard, and heard of, so many bad sermons about forgiveness that I have no doubt that this is true, and it is to me just as worrying a response to abuse as is the institutional cover up. You could call it the pastoral beat-up. I have no doubt that people experience this as re-abuse. It is all about putting pressure on a vulnerable and frightened person do so something they are not comfortable with, and quite probably invoking God’s authority. ‘You know you must forgive others everything they do to you’ says the possibly well-meaning but nonetheless manipulative pastor, ‘it says it in the Bible and you pray it in the Lord’s Prayer.’

Let me very clear about what I am saying here. Do I mean that child abuse is the ultimate, unforgivable sin? No. I don’t think that there is any limit to God’s capacity to forgive, unless the person whom God seeks to forgive and transform into a new person actively resists: this is the sin against the Holy Spirit which is the only unforgivable sin. To be clear, this is the sin of willfully and determinedly keeping God out of your life and away from all aspects of yourself that might need to be forgiven. Under these conditions God can’t forgive because God can’t get close enough to forgive. But to say that God can forgive is not to say that the actual victim of abuse is, or should be, placed under any pressure whatsoever even to think about it.

One of the most important lessons that I try to offer whenever I speak about forgiveness is that there are three distinct types: God’s forgiveness, the forgiveness of one person by another, and self-forgiveness. If we had a few hours we could talk about how the three connect and relate, but one thing I hope you take away from this sermon is the clear message that the forgiveness questions are among the last that should ever cross the mind of the victim of abuse who is beginning to come to terms with their experience by sharing it with others; something which typically takes place only many years later.

Now let me add a few points of clarification. It’s sexual abuse that catches the headlines but that’s not the only form by any means. Neglect, bullying, and cruelty – physical and mental – can all be deeply abusive. And nor are all abusers males. Women abuse too, and many who abuse are not the overtly nasty types but pleasant, friendly people who have a high degree of empathy, by which they gain the trust and access that are later exploited in abuse. The other thing to say is that most abuse is not perpetrated by strangers, or adults who insinuate themselves across the normal domestic boundaries, or by clergy, but by members of the same household and family. I hope that I have said enough to convince you that abuse is not a simple matter from any perspective.

I hope that I can also convince you that the impact of abuse on people is not simple either. Psychologists and others have researched this and come up with long lists including emotions like fear, guilt, shame and anger; behaviours like self-harm or even suicide; and experiences like depression and even psychosis. For those whose trust has been betrayed, the whole subject of trust becomes difficult. For those who know that they have been subjected by a powerful other, then questions of how to respond to the power of other people, or how to manage your own personal or positional power, also emerge. For people of faith, spiritual and theological questions emerge – how could God allow this? Why did God let it happen to me? And where the abuser is a religious representative, people have reported that is as if the abuse is being perpetrated by God.

Having said all that, you will not expect me to offer any magic-wand method for putting matters right. I do, however, think that there are a few things that can be said that might be helpful for people coping after the abuse of themselves or someone they know. The first thing is that to feel confused, ambiguous and bad about it is normal. It is also normal to think that you can’t tell anyone about it.

Second, finding someone who you can trust with this, and who is caring and robust enough to share something of your emotional journey, is almost certainly the most helpful thing you can do.

Thirdly, if this has been your experience, or a friend tells you that it is theirs, then it is wise to be in touch with one of the agencies which offers support to people who have had similar experience – check out the NAPAC website for instance.

Fourth, it is important to remember that any healing of the words of abuse is going to take time, and that sometimes will feel painful itself, just as the healing process after more simple physical or mental wounds.

And fifth, because abuse is complex and impacts on many aspects of who a person is, then the onward journey is also complex. One book (‘Shattered Soul? Five Pathways to Healing the Spirit after Abuse and Trauma’ by Patrick Flemming. Wordstream Publishing 2011) talks of five different pathways, the first three of which are the pathways of courage, grief and anger.

Courage – to move forward after abuse really takes guts. Grief – to move forward involves engaging with the sadness and loss that is caught up with being abused. Anger (the author actually calls this ‘holy anger’) this is allowing yourself to experience all the indignation that is appropriate when you let yourself realize that this should never have happened. That anger might also of course be directed at God. It’s really important to experience that anger – but also not to be trapped by it.

And that is perhaps the key belief that allows for any healing or transformation after abuse. Namely the Christian belief that however dark the past, the light of Christ is stronger; that however awful the torture, the healing of Christ is deeper; and that ultimately, while it might seem that we have died inside, deeper within is the true soul- self that God desires to restore to fullness of life.

Christianity is predicated on the faith that God in Christ is with us in our deepest need, and darkest loneliness; that God in Christ raises us from whatever form of death in life is inflicted on us; and that God in Christ gives us the grace in the fullness of time to say that although I have been a victim there will come a time when, with Christ, I will be not only a survivor but a victor, standing with him on the glorious dawn of an utterly unexpected Easter.


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This is the first sermon in the series ‘King’s Divines’ preached as part of the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the completion of King’s College Chapel in 1515.

I have to confess that I only recently discovered that the famous nineteenth century Bishop, Brooke Foss Westcott, had a King’s connection. He is commemorated by a plaque at Trinity Chapel as he was an undergraduate there, gaining a double first and becoming a Fellow. He was the President of what was then called the Cambridge Theological Training School – and is now called Westcott House. But he is also one of us, in as much as he was a Professorial Fellow from 1882. In fact he was the first Professorial Fellow the College ever had. He was ‘headhunted’ as soon as the statutes changed to allow such posts. He was, I might add offered a similar position by St John’s, but King’s asked first, and so we got him. At the time he was Regius Professor of Divinity – a post he held along with being a Canon of Westminster Abbey (from 1884) until he moved north to become Bishop of Durham in 1890.

Westcott is most remembered today for two things: his contribution to New Testament scholarship and as Bishop of Durham. This second point is remarkable in as much as he went to that demanding position in his mid-sixties, his predecessor having been one of his former students who died in office. It is clear from his correspondence and comments from others, that Westcott was an extremely hardworking priest as well as a very able scholar. He had a large family, and like many of that time knew the sadness of the death of children. Several of his sons were clergy; one, a missionary in India, died of cholera in the same year as Westcott’s beloved wife – and this not long before the end of his own life.

Westcott is known as the ‘miner’s bishop’, and is, if I can venture this opinion as a former Canon of Durham, one of three Durham bishops who are remembered especially fondly by the people of the North East today. The other two are Michael Ramsey (who was also Regius Professor here and of course went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury) and David Jenkins, also, as it happens, a clerical don in his prior ministry. And so it is that Westcott is one of those great Anglicans who managed to hold together a commitment, indeed passion is not too strong a word, both for the pursuit of truth through the most serious and rigorous intellectual work, and the pursuit of justice by equally strenuous and forthright social engagement. His most famous act was to reconcile striking miners and pit owners and so bring to an end the 1892 Coal Strike. To appreciate the significance of this you need to imagine not only the dangerous and grinding lives of miners and their families in the colliery villages, but also the way in which striking rendered then extremely poor and hungry. This was a long time before the National Coal Board, or indeed the National Union of Mineworkers. They were desperate days, and it was Bishop Westcott who realised that sorting this out was as important a call on his time as had been preparing a new standard edition of the Greek New Testament. Bishops were of course far grander in those days than they are now. It is said that one meeting he had with miners and owners overran and so he was late for the train at Darlington. The train therefore waited on the station for the Bishop.

Grand or not, Westcott remained committed to the miners and to social justice. In 1895 he was instrumental in establishing the ‘Board of Conciliation for the Durham Coal Trade’ – a means whereby ‘labour’ and ‘capital’ could resolve their differences. And he saw this as more than social work. It was spiritual work; God’s work. And it was given lasting expression in the great Cathedral service which happens towards the end of the Miner’s Gala day in Durham; an occasion which continues to this day, brass bands, banners and all, despite the fact that the last pit was closed in 1993. In fact Westcott’s last public engagement was to preach at a Miner’s Gala service in 1901. He was already ill and it exhausted him. He died a week later.

It is moving to read various statements that were made when he died. The Durham Miners’ Association said that, ‘We recognise that we have lost a sympathiser, counsellor and helper in all our efforts for better conditions, both in our home surroundings and our working life.’ Their statement concludes, ‘we tender our sympathy to the relatives of the truly great and kindly Christian who has been taken from a life in which he lived usefully and well to a reward which awaits all who try to correct the wrongs and brighten the darkness of this life’. And the Durham Diocesan Conference agreed a statement that concluded: ‘It is only the late Bishop’s written injunction which has restrained the Diocese from offering to his memory some material monument. Nothing can restrain us from cherishing and profiting by the spiritual monument of his illustrious work and inspiring life’.

Such is the Durham perspective, what of the view from King’s itself? While he was here he was repeatedly offered Deaneries, and at one time was invited to be Dean of Lincoln. He replied to the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, in these terms: ‘If I could feel that it would be right for me now to seek comparative rest, there is I think, no place which with all misgivings I should accept more gratefully than the Deanery of Lincoln’. He wrote about this later, saying that the decision had been very easy. The work at the Abbey and in Cambridge was important and demanding. Although a Cambridge man, he was no cyclist, and so his family clubbed together to buy him a tricycle. He was also an amateur artist, and some of his sketches are in our College archives. He could express himself pungently – wishing Matthew Arnold was ‘less vain’, and writing in horror to the Archbishop of Canterbury when he heard that Queen Victoria was planning to visit the Abbey in a bonnet: ‘It would be a national disaster. The empire needs sorely to honour the Queen as Queen’. Before he came back to Cambridge as a Professor he was a Canon of Peterborough, and took a good deal of interest in Cathedral music, not least the singing of the Psalms; such involvement or ‘interference’ by a canon shocking and annoying some of the choir men. He was often in correspondence with Archbishop Benson (himself an important figure for us as it was his liturgical innovation in Truro that inspired and encouraged Eric Milner White to try the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols here) – on one occasion adding what he called ‘A very big PS’ to another letter. It was an invitation to preach here in this Chapel the following month.

The records tell us that Westcott was greatly pleased by his King’s connection, and endeavoured to do his duty as a Fellow. He was in regular attendance at College meetings, attending Congregations until 1898, and he promoted small gatherings for discussion on Sunday afternoons. One of the students he influenced while here was W. R. Inge – who became a famous Dean of St Paul’s. About 10-15 undergraduates would attend these events, which took the form of Platonic dialogues, Dr Westcott taking the part of Socrates. I will let Dean Inge’s remembrances form the conclusion of this address for they offer, I think, the key to the significance of Westcott for us as we reflect on our 500 years here. Not only did he preach beautiful sermons (this is recorded) but he also had a faith and spirituality which connected thought with action, and truth with justice, and to which the fundamental connectedness between people, and their equality in the eyes of God, was a fundamental of faith.

Dean Inge: ‘I took no note of what he said, and have only a general recollection that he spoke often about human personality, propounding mystical doctrines of the solidarity of human beings, which then seemed to most of us rather paradoxical and difficult to follow, but which have since come back to me associated with memories of his face and voice. I remember that he spoke of the shame which he felt in reading of any horrible crime, as if he were in some way partly responsible for it himself. But whether we understood him or not, we always felt that we were in the presence of a saint, and that it did us good to see and hear him’.

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An unseasonal row has erupted in the pages of the Church Times and across the ecclesiastical parts of social media.  Like many church rows it has been precipitated by a document.  This one is called ‘Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A new approach’. It has become known simply as the ‘Green Report’ as the group which produced it was chaired by Lord Green, a clergyman who is a former Minister of State for Trade and Investment and Group Chairman of HSBC Holdings plc.

If you google ‘Green Report’ you will find a huge amount of analysis, comment and complaint, and a few articles on the more positive or perhaps defensive side. I am not going to summarise all that here. Rather let me make a few observations about ‘Leadership Development’ in the Church today.

About half the dioceses of the Church of England have been running ‘leadership programmes’ for clergy over the last decade or so. In my previous job as a ‘Director of Ministry’ I declined to adopt, develop or invest in such programme. It seemed to me that good leadership inevitably emerges if you get the basics of ministerial development right. It also seemed to me that something happens once the word ‘leadership’ becomes a project for the few – and that something is often a bit suspect.  My approach rather was to try to find multiple and diverse ways of helping people develop the perspectives, skills, confidences and habits that would make them good ministerial leaders.

I know the church is on the whole anxious about the quality of the leadership it gets. But this anxiety needs to be analysed. Here are a couple of points. First, just because people are anxious about something it doesn’t follow that you can do anything about it. Second, just because you feel your leaders are not very good at leading it doesn’t follow that putting them on a leadership programme will make them better at it. And yet, human beings are so good at learning that it must be possible for many to learn how to be better at leadership.  The questions are – can we know how? And, suppose our well-intended efforts misfire?

Leadership and Liberalism

One of the features of the church in general and the Church of England in particular is that it loves a conversation, a debate, a seminar.  It values discourse and the production of books and papers. It actually quite likes blogs too. This is especially true of the liberal part of the church – which I still consider its centre.

By the way, it makes no sense to me to say that the Church of England has a liberal wing. It is manifestly a liberal institution. This observation is vital, not least to this subject and the way it is being discussed.

There is no doubt that some construe the Green proposals as an attack on the ethos of the church. And I agree that it is far from axiomatic that it is possible to retain the ethos of a liberal institution at the same time as being strongly led. On the other hand, even liberal institutions ought to seek to flourish, and to know what they are for and to be appropriately administered – and all this is can be compromised if there is no space for leadership. It is not enough to hope that things will work out in the end provided that everyone is given a voice. This is a lovely democratic thought but it is naive and romantic. There is always leadership, there is always an uneven distribution of influence, and some people are always silenced.  The question is, ‘is it clear to all where leadership responsibility is vested, and is the person closest to the heart of that adequately prepared, carefully appointed, wisely guided, appropriately supported, and transparently accountable?’

These are the questions that cannot yet be adequately answered at any level in the church – but especially at the ‘top’.

The New Hymnbook Test

One of the sins behind the row about the Green Report is the failure to base it on sufficient conversation between enough appropriately qualified or representative people. This is an ironic and somewhat silly mistake to make.  One training exercise I have developed for new vicars is to ask them what they would do if they were woken in the middle of the night by the thought that what the church needed was a new hymnbook.

The wrong answers include: ‘order a set of new hymn books immediately’, ‘tell the choir that you don’t like the existing hymn book’, ‘bring a proposal to the next church committee that the church gets new hymnbooks’.  But another wrong answer is, ‘don’t do anything about it’, and yet another is ‘write or speak at length about the virtues of a hymnbook that you want but that nobody else has seen’.

Personally I doubt that there is a leadership programme out there that will furnish people with the right answer to the hymnbook question, partly because I doubt whether there is a right answer. Nonetheless a good ministerial leader will be much better at knowing what to do with their nocturnal feeling about a new hymnbook than a not so good ministerial leader. In  some cases this will result in no change because they will come to realise that their powerful feeling was actually based on subjective factors rather than a good analysis of what the church really needs. In other cases it will lead, in the fullness of time, to the happy acquisition and assimilation of a new hymnbook willingly paid for by people who, until recently, were more or less content with the old one.

Faithful Improvisation

The approach I have described here is perhaps a simple example of what has been dubbed ‘Faithful Improvisation’ in a recent church document. This has received far less attention than the Green Report, but is the best analysis of leadership in the church I have read.   (It is called ‘Senior Church Leadership – A Resource for Reflection’ FAOC (2014) 15A. It is available as a PDF via the ‘Thinking Anglicans’ website.)

There is no doubt in my mind that the Church needs ‘leadership’.  There are, however, many doubts in my mind as to how much can be helpfully said about leadership in the abstract, and whether any training programme can deliver the kind of self-aware, contextually-alert, vision-led and yet collaboratively worked through style of ministry that looks and feels like appropriate leadership today.

So, does the Green Report belong in the shredder?  No, I don’t think so. It’s a clumsier and clunkier document than it needed to be, and if it is not interpreted carefully – not least in the light of the criticisms it has precipitated – it could be damaging, not least by encouraging an regressive, topdown and authoritarian leadership style – largely among those already inclined to offer precisely that.

But just as leadership has at its heart the careful reading of context, so too does the proper interpretation of this Green Report. Yes, it is full of the wrong sort of language – management-speak – but you don’t need to have a fully fledged theology of everything in every document.  If it is put alongside the FAOC report, and fed into a church that knows itself to be liberal to the core, and has centuries of tradition to draw on, and used to assist not with the early formation of people for ordained ministry but with those who have years of ministerial experience – and plenty of leadership mistakes – under their belts, it can do good.


In this blog I have avoided commenting on the detail of proposals for ‘Talent Management’ aspect of the Green Report. In a nutshell I see these as no more invidious than current arrangements, but significantly more transparent and therefore open to adjustment in the light of experience. Nor have I made the point that it is wrong to confound the leadership roles of  bishops and deans. This I believe to be a serious but non-catastrophic error at both a theological and practical level. I may blog about this another day, but basically, bishops never buy hymnbooks.




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I have just found this article which I publised in the Independent‘s Faith and Reason column in 1994.  Strangely timely.


Faith and Reason: The call to mind God’s business: On this historic day, when women are priested for the first time in England, The Rev Stephen Cherry considers the nature of reconciliation. Mr Cherry is the chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge.

WHEN IN 1988 Barbara Harris became the first woman Bishop in the Anglican Communion there was a great deal of interest in her human qualities. What struck me at the time was that she was described as ‘a great reconciler’. It is quite clear that both Church and world are short of good reconcilers. But what are good reconcilers made of?

Reconcilers are people who themselves know something about the inwardness of conflict. Conflict is a fact of life. But bloody as many conflicts become it is not conflict itself which is the problem. Of course you can get by, but you can’t live a Christian life without getting involved in conflict. To try to live as a follower of Christ without conflict is like trying to play football without kicking the ball.

But if conflict is unavoidable, so too is the need to attempt to resolve conflict. If you live you have conflict. But what happens next? When the answer is termination of relationship that is sad. When the answer is violence it is tragic. When the answer is reconciliation that is a triumph – it is a fundamental part of Christian living to engage with our own and other people’s conflicts in such a way as to bring them to reconciliation.

The word for the process of reconciliation between an injured person and the person who hurt them is, of course, forgiveness. Writing about reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Alan Falconer referred to ‘the reconciling power of forgiveness’. By using that phrase he meant to draw attention to the fact that forgiveness is the positive exercise of power in what looks like a hopeless situation. Forgiveness is the power, the personal power, to overthrow the heavy burdens of – anger and guilt which are the result of injury and offence.

Forgiveness is the way by which we put our own experiences of being hurt in the context of the wider needs of the community. According to St Luke, Jesus and the first martyr Stephen died with words of forgiveness on their lips. The gospel, the good news, the message, in this was that people should not be slaves to their own or anyone else’s previous actions. Forgiveness is not only a way of breaking out of the despair of cyclic and repetitive pattern of hatred, injury, revenge. Forgiveness is a way of breaking into a new future where the past is laid to rest and where hope and peace and fellowship are possible.

Just as a reconciler must be a person who has known conflict, so too must a reconciler be a forgiver. It is impossible to think of reconciling conflicting people to each other if you do not have that sense of proportion, that generosity of spirit, that sensibility that you too are a sinner in need of forgiveness, which allows you to forgive other people for the way in which they hurt you.

But there is more to being a reconciler than being a forgiver. For it is one thing to deal with the way in which you have been hurt, but it is a deeper thing to help others to come to terms with the way in which they have been hurt. You cannot make other people forgive. However much you want to be a reconciler, and however much you know what you would do in the circumstances, you cannot make anyone put away their anger or throw out their resentment. In order to be a reconciler you actually have to stand with the two parties in their mutual hatred and antagonism.

Two people are at odds, they are in conflict, you are known to both, but you side with neither. You speak with both and see everything except the need for the continued antagonism. Both parties confide in you. Both parties both trust and mistrust you. Both parties curse and swear at you because you are not as angry as they are with their adversary.

This is the characteristic experience of the reconciler. Wanting to be everybody’s friend, you feel like everyone’s enemy. Wanting peace, you seem to make trouble. Wanting forgiveness you seem to be a catalyst for a new round of hatred and abuse. That all sounds pretty bad, but that’s the way it is. Reconciling is what they call in the theological trade sacrificial work.

St Paul’s summary of the Christian gospel is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Was it easy? It was not. Was it without pain? It was not. Was it popular? It was not.

The cross of Christ is an icon of reconciliation. It depicts a dying Jesus, a messiah abandoned by God. The dying Christ, the lonely Christ, the Christ who has gone beyond his own resources to cope and to hope and to love, the Christ who feels utterly desolate: that crucified Christ is the reconciling Christ.

The first Anglican woman bishop was elected in part on her qualities as a reconciler. But reconciliation is not only an admirable facet of religious leadership, it is inherent in the vocation of Christian living.

No one loves the person who is reconciling them to someone they hate. People who reconcile others live sacrificially. That sounds a bit pious but the reality is not pious at all. It is at the least very annoying. You’re only trying to help, after all. You could be watching the telly – it’s not your problem.

But the reconciler knows that there are no boundaries between problems. Your problems are my problems – and mine are yours. If it were not so being a reconciler would be a glorification of minding other people’s business. But it is not that. It is minding God’s business – and that is of the essence of the Christian vocation.

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It started as a sit-com, but has become, according to some, a compelling social commentary.  It’s always been compelling for me – but the latest series of Rev. has proved to have more of a Marmite quality, sharply dividing opinion.  Comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr Tim Stanley are probably the tip of an iceberg of discomfort: ‘vicars should not be like this’ – and anguish – ‘goodness, some are’.

Why do I find it compelling?  Not because of Adam’s personality or his performance in role.  If he and I were colleagues I can only imagine it going badly. Adam should get himself sorted out – that seems plain enough. But in this he is no different to Fr Ted or the Vicar of Dibley.  You don’t make good entertainment out of perfect exemplars.

Rev. is compelling because so much of the stuff around Adam rings true. Of course there are exaggerations – and guess what, it’s not done in real-time either. This is not a documentary or a ‘how to’ DVD. Like many people, Adam has a strength relevant to his role – a convincingly clerical combination of still-need-to-think-it-through faith and broad compassion – but in his case it adds up to tragic weakness, because it’s not balanced out by other strengths.  Quite what these might be – well, there’s a subject for an extremely interesting and helpful discussion, a ‘training day’ for clergy, perhaps.  Personally I’d like to see him a bit more decisive and determined, and if it were down to me he’d be moving towards an assertiveness programme to help him beyond his passive-aggressive oscillations, which seem to be getting worse and might be his downfall in the end.  (BTW: Adams are prone to downfalls – geddit?)

Adam needs help – that’s part of the story. But there’s another part too, and that is that no one is able to give it to him.  His pathetic relationship with Ellie is the clue. He doesn’t want her so much as he wants to be her, or at least to be like her.  With her drive and skills and professionalism he’d certainly make a better job of it.

Except that he might not.  And therein lies the rub. What does it take to deal with Colin and Adoah and Nigel?  And who is there to help Adam do it?

This series of Rev. has become a bit of a squirm-fest for me. Not only because of Adam’s ineptitude and well-meaning muddle-headedness, but also because of his isolation and lack of support.  The Archdeacon has softened, now that he knows that Adam knows, but the real powers and forces are the Diocesan Secretary and Area Dean; so powerful that they need hardly ever appear . That’s menace for you – unseen power.

Another compelling point about Rev. is that is so knowing about the Church of England. It almost always gets the detail exactly right. Notice the church noticeboard in the opening sequence: Adam’s name being crudely superimposed over his predecessor’s.  That tells its own story – and it’s a story that is replicated across less-confident-than-they-should-be churches across the land, where people feel that the clergy are passing through, pretending to do ‘presence and engagement’ while others get on with ‘real life’.

What’s compelling about Rev. is the clinical way it depicts the actual, improbable but apparently intractable situations that fill ministrial days and minds. The tragedy is that some of the situations are avoidable and others are manageable.

The thing about Adam is that he makes good mistakes – the sort that we (the real people who watch the fictional him) can feel something about and learn from.

The great thing about Rev. is that it brushes nothing under the carpet. In fact, it lifts up the carpet and exposes all the dust and dirt that has been swept there.  That’s why it’s uncomfortable and unbalanced, but also why it is good watching for Lent, and compelling matter for reflection in Holy Week.

Provided we don’t think it’s just a matter of Adam getting a grip.










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About a week ago I heard that the Rectory which had been our family home from 1994 until 2002 had been demolished. Ever since I have been trying to work out where my feelings are on the ‘cry-cheer’ spectrum. When we moved out the plan was that the house should be demolished. But just because something is planned doesn’t mean it won’t be felt in unexpected ways when it happens.

We knew things weren’t going to be easy when we turned up with the removal company to move in. The builders were still at work in the kitchen (too many clergy readers will recognise that one) and the windows were still boarded up. The instruction had been given that it wouldn’t be safe to remove the massive sheets of chipboard until the house was inhabited. Having already made all the decorating decisions in the more or less dark, this wasn’t too much of a surprise.

The theory, I suppose, was that having vicar and spouse plus two children, 6 and 8, in residence was meant to put the fear of God into the local vandals and villains. The fact that the burglar alarm was yet to be installed and that the telephone had been disconnected (mobiles were rare and prohibitively expensive in those days) was neither here nor there. The Cherrys are in residence – think twice about messing around here, matey!

Not long after we moved in there was a tremendous kerfuffle in the garden in the early hours. I looked out and there were torches so I opened the window. ‘It’s the police, vicar. We are after someone. Don’t you worry about it’. Okay then. Back to bed and a peaceful sleep. Another day a big chase ended outside the back door at tea time and a young man was bundled off by burley police officers.

Part of the sadness of the story of All Saints Rectory, Loughborough, was that it was all planned as a good idea. The ancient Rectory had been inhabited until 1958 and the new one built under the guidance of the go-ahead incumbent in the early 60s, Canon Jones, who also introduced a nave altar in the church, moved the choir stalls and organ to the west end, and was a pioneer in developing ‘stewardship’. What the good Canon could never have envisaged was that a grand 1960s house with enormous plate glass windows and no fewer than three areas of flat roof would become, in just a few decades, not a contemporary statement of parsonical dignity but a palace of vulnerability. Things had changed, and what was intended as privacy became isolation. Just close enough to the town centre to be the place where stolen goods were dumped, but too far away to have enough people around to make a friendly atmosphere.

So – things happened. We got used to the nighttime noises, and learnt how to deal with callers at the door in ways that balanced the need to be charitable with the need to survive as a family. The first caller arrived as soon as the removal van appeared. But the callers were easier to deal with than the people who rather randomly found themselves in our large garden. It did look like a public park but our kids thought it was a safe place. It wasn’t. Thankfully nothing tragic happened, but it might have done – very early on. The kids were spinning round their new home on bicycles when beer bottles were hurled against the wall of the house from the churchyard.

The garden was huge. The council had been cutting the grass but that stopped when we moved in and I bought a lawn mower called a ‘commando’. It seemed appropriate. Then we got a powerful strimmer and I used to march out valiantly to do some ‘robo-gardening’ every now and then. One Saturday morning I was up early to try to bring some order to the horticultural chaos. I nearly leapt out of my skin when a figure sprang from the long grass where he had been sleeping. ‘Bloody hell, vicar’ he shouted as he marched indignantly down the drive.

Looking back on it now we can smile. The day the police holed up in our utility room for hours on end waiting to catch someone red-handed as they picked up stolen goods; the Saturday we invited people for coffee but could hardly speak to them as there was a queue of callers at the door wanting us to provide what was then called care in the community; the increasing efforts the diocese went to to make it safe – more fences, gates, security lights, a video camera so you could see who was at the front door.

The best fun was had when we gave away half the land to be a Wildlife Garden for the local community. Loads of people got involved. One day I got to drive a dumper to move gravel from the churchyard to the make the paths. And when people could be persuaded to come round (and no one liked to come to our house after dark) it was great. Photos of the all age football games on the lawn bring back cherished memories, as do those of lunches with parishioners sitting around folding tables in the entrance hall. And there is no doubt that the children who grew up there learnt much about both hospitality and the human condition.

And, while we were on edge for far too much of the time, the really horrible incident never actually happened; though there were enough near misses to force the issue.

‘What will happen when we leave? Can you imagine another incumbent living here?’ These were the questions I began putting to Churchwardens and Archdeacon. And in the end a house was bought – just outside the parish – and we moved into it. We felt the difference immediately. It seemed that we had become normal. Everyone rejoiced.

Now, a decade later, and after a public petition signed by a thousand people for whom it had become ‘a melting pot of crime’ and, ‘a haven for drug users and drinkers’, it has been demolished. A major fire a few years ago had made a serious mess of it, and like any garden neglected for decade it became a mountainous mass of brambles. The beech hedge which lined the long curvaceous driveway, and that we used to spend hours trimming, become a small urban woodland.

When recently in the neighbourhood I scrambled through the carefully cut hole in the security fencing to have a look around. I am sure it was misguided, but heck, this used to be my garden! But I only took a few paces through the undergrowth before I turned back. There was no mistaking what was fuelling the voluble activity of the small group of young men there, and it wasn’t just the cans. Less than 50 yards away a wedding party was coming out of the church, as oblivious of life in the Rectory as any such group ever has been.

So now its demolished. In time the area will be redeveloped. This is the up and down, down and up, of life. We are all part of it, part of the ebb and flow of order and chaos. Sometimes chaos comes close, too close, but blessed are those who can look back and remember the good times.

I am still not sure where I am on the ‘cry-cheer’ spectrum, but I can say rest in peace, All Saints Rectory.

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