Archive for the ‘Churchof England’ Category

Earlier this week I was at Wells Cathedral to preach at the Foundation Service. The gospel reading was the story of Jesus ‘cleansing the temple’ in John’s gospel. This sermon tries to say that what matters most for a cathedral in every aspect of its life, however apparently small and unmanageable, is ‘God-consciousness’.  This is the key paragraph.

In these days when we have learnt a certain amount about how to balance commercial activity with the spiritual mission of our cathedrals we would hope, that should Jesus turn up one day that he wouldn’t take exception at the shop or the admission charge or suggested donations. He might however take exception to the attitude and demeanour of those leading worship, or those offering tours, if what was missing from what they offered was a sense of the profound presence, and yet complete transcendence, of God. God is not captured or constrained by anything that we do, but God can be referenced and reverenced and acknowledged and called upon and trusted and loved in and through absolutely every human activity. Of all that happens in a cathedral, what matters most are the thoughts, words, acts of nonverbal communications and deeds that reference and encourage not an exotic mysticism, but an everyday, down to earth, God-consciousness.

The sermon also includes four short practical proverbs.

  1. Welcome is an attitude – it’s a matter of the heart.
  2. Slow is better than fast – because every moment matters to God.
  3. Silence is as important as music or speech – it is space for the spirit.
  4. Humility is never out of season – it always becomes the wise.

This is the text of the whole sermon.

In January this year I was able to make my first ever visit to Israel and Palestine. Like all pilgrimages it was a combination and challenge and inspiration, and like most pilgrimages to the Holy Land it ended up in Jerusalem where we visited the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, the only remaining part of the huge Temple edifice that Jesus would have visited after his triumphal entry into the eternal, holy and golden city. Just having been there has changed the way I feel about the temple and about Jerusalem, places which are so important in the bible and in Christian language and piety.

Of course today’s Jerusalem is a very different place to the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time, even if you restrict your focus to the old city. When we walked the via dolorosa the first part was through a commercial area where the shops and souks were predominantly Muslim-owned. everywhere you looked across the city there were armed soldiers, mostly young women, of the Israeli army and we had to pass through stringent security checks to get to the temple wall. Nonetheless the geography the architecture and something about the atmosphere or spirit of the place made it clear that this was same place that Jesus walked and talked, and challenged and healed and lived and prayed and died and rose again.

I was staying close enough to church of the Holy Sepulchre to be able to walk down to it when it opened at 5am and be there for the first few hours of the various morning liturgies. It was a bewildering as well as inspiring experience. It wasn’t particularly peaceful, though there was something profoundly awe-inspiring about it all; it really did feel as it was the focal point for many prayers and spiritual encounters and desires, and in that way it felt to me a bit like Rome. But it was standing at the Wailing Wall, having slipped my scribbled prayer into a cleft between two of those massive ancient stones that I felt a truly astonishing peace, the sort of peace in which you heart seems to feel tooted to the earth through your body and feet; ‘anchored’ one might say not only on God’s earth but in God presence. It was a moment of God-consciousness.

It is this particular spiritual experience, which is not exotic or exciting, so much as settling and affirming and strangely homely, that we might well think about when we consider the foundation of this or any other cathedral. Cathedrals are built, but spiritual experiences cannot be fabricated. They either happen or they do not – the spirit blows where it wills. Nonetheless history, architecture and ethos matter and go together to make up the spirit of a place and if stewarded well can encourage God-consciousness.

Jesus’ encounter with the temple when he entered Jerusalem as an adult was a rather different sort of experience to mine of last January. For some the story of Jesus fierce ‘cleansing’ of the temple is about trading, for others its about what’s appropriate in holy space, for some its about corruption; the problem not being trade but the exploitation of the vulnerable.

For an English cathedral today it’s likely that it is the second of these questions that will attract the most attention and generate the most emotion. We have got used to people selling things in and around our churches and cathedrals and while no one would expect there to be a shop in the sanctuary we are happy enough with gift shops and admission charges and indeed those rather tidy earners – votive candle stands. Changes in attitudes around this have been quite rapid and, while financially driven, do not seem to have destroyed the atmosphere and ethos of our cathedrals or made them any less attractive to visitors or worshippers. Indeed the opposite seems to be the case. If it’s a choice between attending a church that can’t pay its share and a cathedral that keeps its head above water by means of prudent commercial ventures then many people would select the latter. And most visitors would prefer to visit somewhere well maintained with helpful and fitting interpretation and some staff on duty than something that looks uncared for and oozes the spirit of neglect. Resources matter, both human and financial, and they need to be deployed and managed wisely.

Engaging wisely with financial matters is an important part of any institution’s life. The cathedrals that have got into the deepest trouble in recent years are those where financial management has not been as professional as it might have been. The institutional conclusion drawn from this is that the authority of the clergy should be reigned in and more financially focussed minds be given a greater say when it comes to making the big decisions.

I don’t have any argument with this development, though I do find it hard to understand quite why it is that there is a connection between being ordained and being financially feckless. Perhaps its that the clergy are so poorly paid that no one who cared about money would ever allow themselves to be called to serve in ordained ministry. Or is it the absence of a financial management module on the curriculum of our theological colleges? The question of how to manage money was certainly never raised in my three years at Westcott House. Nor was it a big deal in my curacy. It was when I became an incumbent that I had to start to think very hard about money not only so that we could see our way to paying the parish share but also because our large and beautiful grade-1 medieval parish church had huge problems with its fabric. These became evident in the time between my appointment and my institution and at my first PCC I naively asked ‘how much money is in the fabric fund?’ To be honest I don’t now who was more astonished, the PCC that I asked the question or me at the answer. ‘There is no fabric fund!’

The big question in cathedral leadership today is how you find a way to care for an institution where neglect of the financial, practical and material side of life will undermine the spiritual mission, but also where excessive attention to the financial and managerial will distort and undermine the very purpose of the institution. It is clear to me that while we might say that you can meet God anywhere, there is spiritual point and purpose in maintaining beautiful parish churches, and similar point and purpose, coupled with extra layers of cultural meaning, in sustaining cathedrals. I don’t think it is a bad thing, for instance, to have scriptural phrases like ‘this is none other than the house of God this is the gate of heaven’ come to mind when we walk into a place like this. To think this is not to denigrate anything else but to remind us of the best purpose and the highest aspiration that any cathedral can have: to locate, earth, and to encourage God-consciousness.

Every year back in Cambridge I have a conversation with the boys who are about to admitted as full choristers to our choir. These Year Six boys have had up to two years of probationary experience and will have sung in plenty of services and concerts. So as well asking them what makes a good chorister I ask them what the differences are between services and concerts. It’s remarkable just how much wisdom and insight the ten-year-olds can come up with … i

  • In a concert you face the audience who have come along to be entertained and they clap at the end.
  • In a service its about the worship of God so there are readings and prayers as well as music, and no one claps because its not a performance to palace or entertain people but its a kind of message. And it’s all for God, so that even if no one turned up we would still do it.

In these days when we have learnt a certain amount about how to balance commercial activity with the spiritual mission of our cathedrals we would hope, that should Jesus turn up one day that he wouldn’t take exception at the shop or the admission charge or suggested donations. He might however take exception to the attitude and demeanour of those leading worship, or those offering tours, if what was missing from what they offered was a sense of the profound presence, and yet complete transcendence, of God. God is not captured or constrained by anything that we do, but God can be referenced and reverenced and acknowledged and called upon and trusted and loved in and through absolutely every human activity. Of all that happens in a cathedral, what matters most are the thoughts, words, acts of nonverbal communications and deeds that reference and encourage not an exotic mysticism, but an everyday down to earth God-consciousness.

There is no recipe for God-consciousness, this, but let me conclude with a very short list of proverbs that I hope might both reflect and encourage the sort of God-consciousness that is the best foundation for the life of a cathedral.

  1. Welcome is an attitude – it’s a matter of the heart.
  2. Slow is better than fast – because every moment matters to God.
  3. Silence is as important as music or speech – it is space for the spirit.
  4. Humility is never out of season – it always becomes the wise.

You might be able to add your own proverbs to my little list, and I’d encourage you to do so, but the most fundamental point is this.

A cathedral needs to be founded on God-consciousness, to exhibit God-consciousness and to encourage God-consciousness.

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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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This is an edited version of a sermon I preached at St John’s, Bury St Edmunds for Copus Christi.

I don’t want to explore Eucharistic theology this evening, but rather to talk about an attitude, a value, a virtue even which is I think one of the rarely mentioned things that might draw together a rather eclectic congregation like this one.

The virtue of which I speak, is one about which I have read very little. Indeed I have only read one chapter about it and one book. The chapter is in a book called ‘Moral Clarity’ by the philosopher Susan Neiman and in the notes she tells me, and I have no reason to doubt her, that there is only one full-length book on this subject. I was impressed by the chapter and so got the book. It is called ‘Reverence – Renewing a Forgotten Virtue’ and it is by Paul Woodruff who is a professor on the humanities in Austin, Texas.

It may disappoint you to know that Woodruff doesn’t believe that there is an intrinsic connection between religion and reverence. It may disappoint you, but if you think a bit more about it you will realize that this is no cause for surprise. It is possible to be religious, pious, full of faith, spiritual even without reverence. And we know that being a member of a religion doesn’t necessarily make people well mannered, or dignified; it certainly doesn’t necessarily incline them to behave respectfully towards others.

One helpful clarification that Woodruff makes is that reverence isn’t the same thing as respect. Reverence lies being what one might call appropriate respect. If confronted by a bully or a tyrant or a manipulative sycophant you should not respond with respect. You should, however, retain a degree of reverence for them and this should inform the way in which you deal with them and the situation. If so called ‘assertiveness training’ were a bit more thought-through than it is, then you might expect your training day to explore what the virtue of reverence might look like when people are trying to push you around. It will not take the form of acquiescence, but neither will it take the form of violence, or recrimination or anything else that would diminish the people involved.

Having said that, it would be wrong to say that there are no connections between respect and reverence – but reverence is the deeper, more important matter. There isn’t an occasion that does not call for reverence; which is a tough call to those of us who realize that all too often our attitude and behavior is shamefully oafish, and that our sense of humour is crude and even cruel. I wonder whether I am alone in increasingly find what passes for humour as both predictable and unnecessary. Great humour is that it is based on surprise and incongruity and is either self-deprecating or victimless. That’s what comedy will be like in heaven; it has to be, for that will be comedy in which all can laugh and none need feel exposed or embarrassed or roughed up by it.

Reverence the virtue also offers a critique of the way in which we do criticism. I am on record as saying that I am concerned about the lopsidedness of our education system, especially at its higher levels, which outs so much stress on the development of critical faculties. I know that these matter and can, on the whole, hold my own when it comes to being critical. But I also want people, myself included, to have and to exercise constructive faculties and to do both crucial and constructive thinking in a way that is respectful and reverent and therefore appropriate to the humanity of the situation, and indeed, one might say, the implicit spirituality of the situation.

Woodruff spends quite a bit of time talking about reverence in ancient Chinese culture, Confucianism if you want to label it, and it is in this context that he talks about ritual. And here is a point I have been building up to. It’s not what you do but how you do it that matters. Ritual in general, and ceremonial in particular, are really, really different depending not on whether they are done right but on whether they are done reverently.

I know myself well enough to be able to say that I have a fairly tidy mind and I tend to think that structure and systems should be tidy and that so too should living spaces, and that places of worship should definitely be well ordered, tidy clean and so on. When I returned for a funeral in my former parish some of the parishioners were immediately concerned lest I notice that in the interregnum they had reverted to using not inconsiderable parts of the church as a junk store. The point, I hope, was not that they thought I was fussy, but that they agreed with me that this mattered but had just not had the energy to stop the junk accumulating.

Reverence, or lack of reverence, impact son everything we do, but let me emphasize again that is not about the surface detail. It’s a virtuous attitude which will never display itself but which is always apparent. Humility – another rarely mentioned but often-misunderstood virtue – is a close relation of reverence. This is why the Greeks thought that hubris was such a bad thing. We think if it as overweening pride, but the idea goes back to mutilating the bodies of those defeated in battle. Reverence says, ‘No, don’t do that.’

A couple of weeks ago I was present at a very moving and reverential ceremony at the medical school at Cambridge University. It was in the dissecting room – Cambridge is one of the few University left where the medics dissect real bodies rather than models. All the dissecting finished, the bodies were in coffins neatly arranged on the floor and all the 300 first year students gathered with them. This was the occasion on which they learnt the name and something of the life-story of the person they had dissected – whom they thanked on this occasion as their first and most silent teacher. In October these same students will come to King’s Chapel with the families of the donors for a thanksgiving service. All this is, I believe, truly wonderful, something that feeds into the hidden curriculum of reverence. A truly encouraging beacon in a world which is it seems increasingly brutal and dismissive of such considerations.

If there is one core reason why I feel that Anglican catholic liturgy is a gift both to the church and the world it is because of its potential as a theatre and as a school of reverence. I don’t believe that Anglican Catholicism has a particularly distinctive approach to doctrine, nor do I believe that it has an especially direct connection with social justice or community cohesion. However the emphasis on ceremonial, on a non-hectoring more contemplative approach to prayer, a respect of the need that people have for silence and space and beauty and to be involved practically and physically, all this is, to me, vitally important, and again not for the detail, but for the opportunity to do something that shows and encourages reverence.

I like Woodruff’s book but ultimately disagree with the basis on which it is written. For me reverence is not only a virtue it is an attitude that has spiritual depth –that is to say is rooted not in pleasure, or good taste, or better results but in the heart and being of the incarnate God. A theology of reverence is for me absolutely grounded in incarnation, but more than this a theology of incarnation necessarily issue is the ethics and practice of reverence.

So as we proceed in liturgy and life let us, whatever our particular doctrinal convictions or ecclesiastical preferences, seek to be people animated and shaped by the virtue of reverence, and thereby be ever more deeply grounded in the God of love made known in Jesus Christ and shared, we know not how, as we celebrate Eucharist together.

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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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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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I started blogging for a very specific reason. There were things that I wanted to say that I couldn’t communicate in a better way.  I guess that’s why people write in any medium.  You somehow know that you need to use a particular form to get something across, to communicate, to share. So you have a go.

My first blog post was born when I realised that there were things that I wanted to say about the Occupy protest at St Paul’s that did not belong in the pulpit (I was preparing a sermon at the time) and which were not being said by others.

So I stopped writing a sermon, set up this blog and created my first post.

Shortly after that I started to tweet. I saw it as a tiny noticeboard. I could advertise my blogs there.  But as time went by I began to realise that there was far more to Twitter than putting up little notices, and far more to blogging than making slightly edgy sermons.  I was beginning to see that social media are not only a new way of doing old things but also a new way of doing new things.

Yesterday I helped lead a day of training on the use of Social Media for Ministry with Keith Blundy, @stiltwalk, Communications Adviser for the Diocese of Durham.  It was a great day. There was real energy in the room. People walked in full of anxiety about what they might be getting into and went out smiling and signed up with new Twitter and blog accounts.

When they arrived most had no idea what a hashtag was. As they left they were adding to #DDSMM photo

There are lots of reasons for blogging and tweeting but two come near the top of my list. The first is that you have something to say, something to share, a perspective to offer, a comment to make.  The second is that you want to engage and connect with people where they are.

These two reasons lie at the heart of all communicating, but also at the heart of all ministry.

What makes social media social is its capacity for interaction and immediacy. It’s relational.  It’s when the comments begin to come in that the blog begins to live. It’s when tweets lead to new conversations that life is enriched.

When his appointment was announced (and it went out first on Twitter) Justin Welby said he would continue to tweet as Archbishop of Canterbury – unless forcibly stopped.  He had got the point. Tweeting is a way of communicating and connecting which makes sense for people today.  It is a way of being part of the human community – of joining in.

Would Jesus tweet? At our training day yesterday someone said he definitely would. Others disagreed. I myself have no idea.

But I do know that he was great with pithy one-liners and many of his more memorable sayings fit easily within 140 characters.

And I do think that it is a good thing for his followers and ministers to get involved and communicate in the idiom, and with the media, of the day.

Christians tend to like books. Christian ministers like many books (ask any removal company what its like to move a family from a vicarage and they will grumble about the endless boxes of them). I like books too – reading and writing them, buying them, having them on shelves around me, talking about them etc etc.. but they can’t do all the things that social media can do.

People say Twitter is lightweight, ephemeral and inconsequential.  And so it can be. But so too can books.  But I have learnt an enormous amount via Twitter, especially when I have followed up on links to articles or blogs or when drawn into following a hashtag.  Earlier this week I discovered #mhchat (mental health chat) and was drawn into a discussion about emotions with @thomasdixon2012 and @sadgrovem.  That was much more fun than reading an article, and while quick and banter-like it really set me thinking, and I will read around the subject more in the future. May even blog about it…

Jesus did not tweet but those who have something to say about what he stood for, what he was, what it means to live in the light he revealed, what it means to do justice and love mercy, what it means to reflect both grace and truth… such people – let’s call them ministers, whether lay or ordained – have in social media a real godsend. Here are means of communicating which are open, generous, democratic, relational, rich, informative, flexible and fun.

What a gift!

It’s time to get out of the pulpit (a much over-rated place of communication) and onto the hashtag.

Tweet for Jesus  – and blog like an apostle.

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This has been a very odd three weeks in the Church of England in general, and in Durham in particular. Who could have imagined it a year ago when our new bishop was welcomed to Durham.  I think it finally sunk in last night when ‘Have I Got News for You’ showed the photo of Justin knocking on the Cathedral door. A friend tweeted my precise thought. We had just seen someone we knew on HIGNFY. But the person was not Justin – the person was Trevor the verger, standing in the background. Somehow seeing Justin there was sort of normal – already.

One of the many exciting things about the appointment is that the new Archbishop is such a contrast to his predecessor. I say that as a huge admirer of both Rowan and Justin.  The differences are obvious, but the similarities are a bit more subtle. This is my list.

  1. Both have the ability to listen very intensely and deeply and then to respond.  This is rare, but it underlies greatness both in leadership and in pastoral care. One-to-one conversation with either can have the quality of deep attentiveness.
  2. Both read voraciously. Both research. Both enquire deeply and find things out. Many with less demanding ministries and lives read a fraction of what they get through.  They both feed the hunger to know – and this lies behind what they have to say. Their leadership is fueled by the humble habit of learning.
  3. Both can move easily in and out of prayer, silence and liturgy.  This lack of awkwardness or show about spirituality is a delightful gift and the sine qua none of true priesthood.
  4. Both give voice to that thought that they know is going to be a bit uncomfortable. Both bring truth into the room and, simply by being there, insist on a high degree of social seriousness and mutual respect.  Both know the importance of both truth and reconciliation.
  5. Both often wear a black shirt. That’s cool. It’s also ecumenical; and it gives a message of solidarity to the troops.
  6. Both have the quality of wisdom but also real wit and a robust sense of humour.

Thank God for both.

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