A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 1

Whose stories?

Back in November, the Evangelical Alliance released a report called Transformed:  A brief biblical and pastoral introduction to understanding transgender in a changing culture; it is available for download from their website. The lead author was Peter Lynas, though others also contributed.[1]

I am going to argue across several posts that it is in various ways a bad report. And I will argue that not just because I disagree with its arguments and its conclusions (though I certainly do disagree with them), but because I judge that it fails on its own terms. That is: in various ways, this report tells you what to expect from a good answer to the questions it is tackling, and then it fails – quite dramatically – to give an answer that meets those expectations. It fails to do what it says on the tin.

That does mean that in most of what follows, I’ll be working with the report’s language and arguments, rather than using my own. Left to my own devices, I would want to approach the whole topic very differently.

‘We must start by listening to their stories’

The report begins with a quotation: ‘If you have met one transgender person you have met one transgender person. No two experiences are the same’ (p.5). (It’s a quotation from ‘a participant in a conversation conducted by the author with a transgender support group’). The introduction then stresses that readers should keep clearly in mind the people whose lives are being spoken about, and face them with love, compassion, and welcome. Later (p. 13), the need to offer trans people a pastorally sensitive welcome in church is stressed again; later still (p. 17), we are reminded of the need to meet the people involved ‘where they are at’. In the conclusion, we are told that ‘It is necessary for each of us as individuals and part of gathered communities to understand, love and relate to transgender people’, and that ‘If we want to understand those who are wrestling with gender dysphoria, we must start by listening to their stories’ (p. 29, emphasis mine).

I think we can, then, fairly ask whether this report lives up to this. Is it written in such a way that it will help readers understand some of the diverse stories of transgender people – to understand what it is like for them, what their journeys have been like, and why they have chosen the courses that they have followed? I think we can fairly – holding the report to the standard it sets for itself – expect it to be written in such a way that a wide range of transgender people might recognise themselves in its pages. I don’t mean that the report needs to come to conclusions that all trans readers would agree with, but that it should be a report that helps all its readers understand and relate lovingly and attentively to people with a wide range of transgender experience.

That, then, is the first and main lens with which I’m going to read this report – because it is a standard that the report sets for itself.[2]

Tim’s story

One story is told in detail, and it is told right at the start of the main body of the report. It is Tim’s story (pp. 6–7) – the story of how Tim reacted when his dad, who had previously been known as Stephen, transitioned to become Stephanie. Now, to get a rich picture of how people are affected by transgender experience, it is certainly important to hear a wide range of people’s stories, including the stories of family members of trans people, stories where some of the outcomes of transitioning for the transgender person involved are ambivalent or negative, and stories where the reactions of those around them are difficult. Those are amongst the pastoral realities to which churches will need to respond in attentive and compassionate ways. This, however, is the only story that we are told in detail in this report, and it is the story that gets to frame the whole argument. In emotionally powerful ways, it sets the tone and the terms for the whole of the rest of the discussion. It is worth asking, therefore, what kind of framing this story gives to the report’s argument.

The first and simplest thing to notice is that this is a relentlessly negative story. It is a story in which the transgender person’s transition breaks relationships: the relationship between Stephanie and her children has clearly been damaged; the relationship between Stephanie and her wife of many years is broken; we are told that Stephanie has lost touch with all her old friends. We are told that ‘Nothing has changed’ for Stephanie (p. 7) – meaning, I think, that transition has (in Tim’s view) resolved none of the problems that led Stephanie to it. We are told, in Tim’s words, that Stephanie’s transition was ‘self-harm at the highest level’. A story has been chosen to frame this report that paints a relentlessly bleak picture of trans experience – and in the absence of any other story, this gets to be the whole story.[3]

The second thing to notice is that Stephanie doesn’t get to appear in her own right. We are (as the title suggests) being told Tim’s story, and we are given fairly extensive quotations in Tim’s own words. We are given some of Tim’s mum’s own words. We don’t, however, get to hear Stephanie. There is not a single word of direct speech from Stephanie, and it is unclear whether the small amounts of reported speech that we get come from the authors’ conversations with her, or whether they are mediated through Tim. We don’t get to know in any serious way how Stephanie would tell her story; we only know how that story is told by other people. That is reinforced by other details, like the fact that it is Tim’s choice of pronouns for Stephanie (‘he’ and ‘him’) that are used throughout, not Stephanie’s. This is a story that leaves out the experience of the transgender person at the heart of it.

The third thing to notice is that the story is written in such a way as to foreground and approve Tim’s theological commentary, without opening it do discussion or critique. Tim is portrayed as someone with a strong, clear faith, who sometimes ‘has truth conversations’ with Stephanie, even if at other times he ‘leads with grace’ (so we are already being told that ‘truth’ runs counter to the path chosen by Stephanie, even if ‘grace’ will mean continuing to engage with her). And we are told, in Tim’s stark words, that gender reassignment is definitely against God’s plan, and that it is chosen mistakenly by people who should instead be finding their identity in Christ. The mix of direct and reported speech means that it is hard to tell where Tim’s voice stops and the authors’ voice starts: Tim’s perspective is implicitly endorsed and owned by the report. Before the report has given any theological arguments or discussion of its own, before it has given its readers any tools with which to make sense of trans experience, before it has introduced any nuance or complexity into its discussion, it has handed readers a stark theological condemnation.

Contrast the way in which the report distances itself from Stephanie’s theological perspective. We get (p.7) a brief description (again, with what is presumably Tim’s choice of pronouns rather than Stephanie’s): ‘Stephanie has a faith and says that he asked God to take being trans away and when that didn’t happen, he decided it must be for him. He has been involved in a number of faith communities and has engaged in different ways but has always struggled.’ To say that Stephanie has a faith – some kind of faith, something that should probably be called faith? – sets us up to question what she is reported as saying. We are told that Stephanie’s decision is made in the absence of guidance from God, rather than being a response to God’s guidance. We are left with the impression that she has struggled with church and with faith, and that her decisions have made full Christian participation difficult for her. And these brief sentences are followed immediately by Tim’s confident and articulate theological condemnation. The report does everything it can to insinuate that, in relation to Christian faith, Stephanie’s decision was as rootless as Tim’s faith was deep-rooted.

Remember: I am not for a moment denying that this is an attentive portrayal of Tim’s perspective on his experience. Nor am I denying that stories like Tim’s are important, and need to be heard and understood. The authors of this report have, however, made the decision that the only substantial story of trans experience in the report, the story that will frame their whole approach, should be one that unequivocally condemns transitioning as a theological error, that paints the consequences of transitioning in the worst possible light – and that does not allow the person who transitioned any space to speak for herself.

‘We must start by listening to their stories’, the report’s authors said – but they are not practicing what they preach.


Footnotes

[1] I am grateful to Susannah and Hope for their comments on an a draft of these posts.

[2] Note that I am not asking whether the authors talked to transgender people while preparing the report: they clearly did. I’m asking about what the report’s words communicate to its readers about the stories of trans people.

[3] There is also a quote from a trans person on p.14 (comparing their trans experience to cancer or schizophrenia), and a snippet of a story from ‘Sarah’ on p. 15 (who suggests that in transitioning she ‘may have sinned’). These are tiny in comparison to the telling of Tim’s story – and they also serve to frame trans experience negatively.


This is the first of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

Making our minds up

Why can’t Justin Welby make his mind up?

I am referring, of course, to the recent interview with Welby in GQ, in which he was asked by Alastair Campbell whether gay sex was sinful. He said, ‘I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. ‘ And a little later, asked whether one aspect of his answer was ‘morally a cop out’, he answered, ‘Yes. I am copping out because I am struggling with the issue.’

Inevitably, the publication of this interview generated a lot of comment. Among those who (predictably) disagreed with the substance of Welby’s comments, and those who (predictably) were disappointed that he wasn’t giving a stronger lead in one direction or another, and those who (predictably) disparaged his wisdom in agreeing to the interview in the first place, there were several responses that caught my eye. They came from people who were incredulous that Welby had not yet made up his mind.

That indicates, they suggested, a worrying lack of seriousness, of effort, of diligence; it suggests he’s not given the topic the attention one would expect – especially from someone who has ended up as Archbishop. Why has he not already made his mind up?

And – for reasons I’m about to explain – I find those reactions odd.

Now, I know Welby a bit, and have  over the past few years had opportunities to talk to him about quite a few topics, but (as far as I can recall) I have never talked to him about this one – and I have absolutely no extra information to pass on about his thinking. This post contains no revelations about the archiepiscopal mind. Indeed, it is not really about Welby at all. It’s about the state of the Church of England, and the difficulties we all face in making up our collective mind.

Ways of making up our minds

We have particular ways of making up our minds. There are things we find salient, and things that we don’t; there are things that make a difference to how we think and feel about something, and things that don’t. Some of this is conscious: we have particular ways in which we think things through. Some of it even includes explicit arguments: we have certain kinds of reasons we acknowledge, certain kinds of argumentative moves we habitually make. There are ways of talking about matters that make sense to us, and that can reinforce our position or sway us – and there are ways of talking that can’t. We have ways of making up our minds.

The problem is that in the Church of England we don’t share a single way of making up our minds. This is not a new situation; it has very deep historical roots. Nor is it by any means unique to the Church of England; it’s pervasive in church history. It is nevertheless a deep feature of our current situation. We inhabit a set of different ways of making up our minds (you could call them theological traditions, or traditions of argument, if you like – but only at the risk of making them sound more formal, explicit and organised than they typically are).

The actual picture is very messy, but a plausibly simplified version would suggest that the Church consists of several such ‘ways’ or ‘traditions’, sitting alongside one another. The considerations that are telling for members of one such way might not be for members of another; the arguments that seem natural in one seem forced or irrelevant in another – and so on. Our problem is not just that we come to differing conclusions (though we obviously do that); it’s that we reach them in such differing ways.

Crucially, there is no meta-tradition, no meta-way. That is, there is no overarching ‘way of making up our minds’ that we can appeal to when members of differing ways come to different conclusions. Our deepest disagreements can’t be resolved by our normal ways of making up our minds, because we are in part disagreeing about how we should make up our minds.

Yes, we have all sorts of things in common still – all sorts of shared ideas and practices, so that it is not at all ridiculous to say that we share a common life. But that doesn’t mean we share ways of making up our minds when faced with disagreement.

Living in between

This picture is too simple of course. I’ve spoken as if there were neat divisions into which everyone in the Church could be sorted: either you’re a member of one ‘way’ or you’re a member of another. But many people (perhaps most?) actually inhabit the grey areas between ways. They are aware of, they are schooled in, they are formed to recognise differing ways of making up their minds, and most of the time they are not pressed to see the incompatibilities between them or to worry about how to resolve questions where these different ways yield different answers. It takes a deep controversy to bring these fractures to the surface – to turn this complex inhabitation of multiple ways into a felt perplexity.

Diligent effort to make up one’s mind makes sense only within a way. It makes sense within a way to look harder and more seriously at the things that are salient, to follow the proper patterns of argument more carefully. But, in the absence of a meta-way, there is no form of diligence that can lead to resolution if one inhabits multiple ways, and have discovered that they yield divergent answers to a pressing question. The intellectually responsible reaction in such a situation is – bewilderment.

To urge someone to resolve such perplexity by an act of will, as if what is needed is simply a stiffening of sinews, might make sense if that person mostly inhabits a single way – if one way has, in effect, become that person’s home. They might then steel themselves to throw off the tendrils of the other ways that they have also inhabited – which they can now, in some situation of controversy, see, and recognise as alien to their proper ‘way’. But that relies on being pretty firmly situated within a single way. It makes no sense to demand it of someone poised between ways.

I have no idea whether Welby’s perplexity is of this form. But if it is, it would not be lack of diligence, or weakness of will, that is his problem. His perplexity would be a reflection of the deeper perplexity of the Church of England – a perplexity for which there is no simple cure.

Arguments between ways

This perplexity is reflected in various features of our arguments as a Church, many of which are frustrating and dispiriting. Some of the frustration that our arguments produce flows from our failures to acknowledge, or to know how to respond to, the diversity of our ways of making up our mind.

So, half aware that someone else’s way is not my way, I may end up arguing on what I take to be that other person’s grounds. And quite often, I will therefore end up arguing in a way that lacks integrity – in the sense that nothing really rests for me on the arguments that I have put forward. My arguments do not reflect the way I actually made up my mind about these things, so my position is not going to be disturbed by their defeat. To my opponents, I will seem to have a position supported only weakly, and when I hop to another set of borrowed arguments I will seem to be slippery, to be inconsistent and perhaps dishonest. I will certainly seem to lack seriousness: I will seem all to clearly not to be fully committed to the argumentative game that I have joined.

We carry on as if we had a shared tradition of argument, while actually lacking one. We carry on as if there were knock-down arguments (the kind of argument that will lead one’s opponent into one’s own position, if only they are diligent and serious enough to follow it), when in fact there are none. And as we do so, we become more and more convinced of each other’s obtuesness and lack of integrity –  because that is what arguing across divisions between ways typically produces.

Nil desperandum

This is, nevertheless, not a counsel of despair. There remain forms  of conversation possible in such a situation (especially if we acknowledge that this is our situation) – though they are both harder and yield fruit more slowly than the knock-down arguments possible within a shared way.  There remain ways of swaying one another, and seeking greater agreement. The answer is not simply to stop talking, or blandly to agree to differ.

More than that, there are still ways of understanding our life as a shared life, despite such disagreements as these – indeed, of recognising that the church has always been marked by this kind of disagreement. To recognise the deep differences in our ways of making up our minds does not mean declaring de facto schism.

Nevertheless, all this might make one look at the present argumentative landscape of the Church of England with weary bemusement – and it can definitely give a certain eager edge to the hope that we might, in time, learn to disagree better.

A Shared Vision?

We recently published ‘A Vision for Theological Education in the Common Awards’ on the Durham website. It was the product of a year-long process of consultation around the Common Awards partnership and beyond, and in its final form it secured wide agreement around that partnership. Inevitably, however, the agreement wasn’t universal, and I thought it important to make sure that some of the questions that had been raised about the statement were also visible online. David Nixon, Dean of Studies at the South West Ministry Training Course, kindly agreed to discuss some of his questions about the statement with me by email, and then to have that discussion posted here on my blog. His questions focus on the opening sections of the statement, particularly §§4–7. Here’s that opening section:

Beginning with God.

  1. The Common Awards institutions have different approaches to theological education for Christian ministry, but these approaches are held together by our worship of one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; creator and sustainer of all things; victor over death and source of life, the One who is above all and through all and in all. The mortar that holds our vision for theological education in place is confidence, trust and delight in this God, and the horizon of our vision is the fullness of life and love that God has prepared for all things, towards which God is drawing all that God has made. Our vision for theological education begins and ends with delight in the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
  2. We therefore focus on God’s activity before considering our own. We focus upon the eternally active life of the triune God, and upon the activity by which God shares this life. We focus on God’s action in creating and lovingly sustaining the world, in reconciling creatures to Godself and to one another, and in healing, fulfilling, and perfecting what God has made, drawing all things into the knowledge and love of God. It is God who establishes the Kingdom, God who draws all God’s children into that Kingdom, God who ministers and educates.
  3. When the activity of God’s creatures serves God’s purposes, it is because God is active in them, drawing them into God’s mission in the world together, and making their action bear fruit. The first note in our vision of ministry, and of theological education for ministry, should therefore not be our own effort, determination, or commitment, but our confidence in God’s work in the world, our thankfulness as recipients of God’s grace, our trust in God’s bounty, our assurance of God’s enlivening presence, and our resting in God’s strength.
  4. The activity of God in which we are called to rest is a triune activity. It is the activity of the Spirit, conforming God’s creatures to Christ and to Christ’s ongoing action in the world, and so drawing them to share together in Christ’s relationship to his Father, who sends us out in the power of the Spirit as Christ’s witnesses in the world. It is a work that the triune God begins, continues, and will complete.

David:

I really like the flow of words, images, sentences here, and I do understand that you have to produce something of manageable length overall (not another article or book), but in terms of Beginning with God, I would ask two questions: Why do we begin with God? and Who says that we should begin with God?

You say that ‘We … focus on God’s activity before considering our own’, but I can’t readily find anywhere else in the statement where our own activity is given much weight, especially our own activity in relation to working out who/what/how God is to us.

It might be okay to begin with God, but the assumption then is of a dialogue, a Jacob-like wrestling with God and theology, as to just what this God is. The wider picture is of context, and the way that context informs our theology (not dictates) – this would certainly be the emphasis of various missional initiatives, linked to a liberation theology overview.

I wonder if too much weight is being placed on God’s story almost independently of our own existence, a criticism made of Barth at one point?

Mike:

Thanks for these questions; they’re important ones. Before attempting some answers, though, I should perhaps start by saying that I can’t, of course, answer for anyone but myself. The text was a collaborative production, and I can only speak about the way I understand what we produced together.

Beginning the piece with God is a decision made in a specific context, and by specific people – in this case, it was the initial working group, though it’s been affirmed by most (not all!) of the feedback received from then on. For me, that decision sprang from a feeling that theological educators in the churches today are often pushed towards performance anxiety, made to feel that the future of the church depends on our action, our leadership, our entrepreneurial success, and if we don’t measure up (and we’re subject to constant measurement) we’re failures. It was in that context that it seemed good to emphasise trust in God. I guess we could have begun with a description of this context, to make sense of the focus on God – but it’s difficult to do that without making that context itself the focus.

I hope that the focus on God’s action before our own is not a focus on God’s action instead of our own. It’s meant, I think, to be a way of framing our thinking about our own action, and there’s quite a bit later on about people being called and empowered in all sorts of different ways. For me, this is quite an affirming and supportive way for all of us involved in theological education to think about our action, the action of those we teach, and the actions of those amongst whom they minister. I’d want to say that even wrestling with God like Jacob or Job or the Psalmist is something that God draws us into and sustains. I don’t think there needs to be a competitive relationship between a focus on God’s story and a focus on our stories – and hope we haven’t fallen into that.

It would, however be all too easy to slip from saying ‘God’s action is the sustaining context for our action’ to saying ‘My authoritative account of God sets the limits upon your action’. This piece leaves open the question of how authority and discernment work – not least, I think, because they’re issues on which we (the theological education community) differ. I hope it does at least leave the question open, rather than close down the kind of approach you sketch. It does, after all, insist that this God is at work in the world beyond the church (§9), that we need to discern and respond to that work (§10) and to name and celebrate it (§18), and that all our learning takes place ‘in the whole course of our interaction with one another and our presence and engagement with the world’ (§25), and so on. Does that leave the door open to what you want to say?

David:

Thanks for the clarification in your first paragraph here. Perhaps parish ministry has insulated against this as I don’t particular feel it (and resist it when I do), but I would fully support this resistance.

This is of course the usual danger of some more ‘liberation’ methodologies, (a kind of pelagianism isn’t it?) that it’s all down to me/us. However it does seem a little bit of a paradox that the context has inspired a universal approach! I need to think that out a bit more.

I don’t think the way the statement relates our stories and God’s story is competitive, and your ‘drawing into and sustaining’ is again a useful clarification, but I am mindful of Gerard Loughlin’s comment that where you begin here deeply affects where you end up. As you know he favoured starting with God, but I always think it’s a useful experiment to see where you end up if you start at the other end (and I don’t think it’s ever quite as black and white as it appears). There’s so much bad history, and bad current practice, which illustrates the value of such an experiment in the ‘other direction’. So you haven’t slipped into anything too difficult, but you don’t seem to have excluded that either – i.e. it might still be possible (unfairly) to interpret this as constricting others’ actions based on my account of God. Am I being unfair here?

This also links with another concern which is the emphasis on ‘witness’. I wonder if it’s helpful to relate this to Rowan Williams’ lecture on ‘The Christian Priest Today’? If so, what has happened to the images of watchman and weaver? It strikes me again that ‘witness’ is rather a passive approach, non-participatory, or at least that it has that risk. The action happens, and at best I am at one remove. You can see why this, combined with my other concerns, still asks the question how do we really enter a very tight (closed?) circle about our relations with God, and who holds the keys to the door? So this might open up the whole question of authority – or is that unfair too?!

Re-Reading the Green Report 5: Management

This is the fifth and last in my series of posts on the Green Report.  See the first, second, third, and fourth.

One of my friends (no fan of the Green Report himself) said in another context that good management is the institutional form that love takes.  You don’t need to spend much time in an organisation with well-meaning but incompetent management to know how true this is.  Of course, some talk about ‘good management’ is about control, about the reduction of human beings to units of resource that can be utilised efficiently in pursuit of key performance indicators.  But there is, nevertheless, such a thing as truly good management, where the ‘goodness’ involved has to do with clarity, honesty, openness, fairness and trustworthiness, and about rooting out the hidden forms of abuse, bullying and emotional blackmail that Christian organisations can be so good at hiding (or simply failing to see) when they assume that good intentions are enough.

The people who we believe are called to the specific kinds of ministry on which the Green Report focuses will normally have (amongst their many roles) responsibility for a large staff, large budgets and complex resources.  Good management is about taking with genuine seriousness the responsibilities to other people that come with these things – even if in some cases that will mean understanding them well enough to delegate them wisely.

In the FAOC report, we talk about the importance of such good management – and about its subordinate place.

A healthy account of leadership will focus first and most insistently on the nature of the collective practice concerned. In relation to the church, therefore, our starting point is the whole people of God as they are called to serve God’s mission in and for the world. The distinctive role of the leader can only be understood within and in relation to this calling of the whole people of God. The specific activities of leadership, together with the more generic processes of management, exist to assist, enable and inspire the people of God in their pursuit of this calling, and we should therefore take care that they are compatible with the church’s purpose and genuinely feed it. The processes that build a healthy organization (like finance and Human Resources) are absolutely vital to maintain the conditions that can allow the whole collective practice to function in the service of God’s mission, and their absence can seriously damage the church’s mission and ministry – but they are not ends in themselves. They are there, like leadership as a whole, only for the sake of the ministry and mission of the church. (§40)

Similarly, the Green Report says

the primary ordained leaders of the Church are priests, prophets, theologians, evangelists and heirs of the apostles. Alongside the apostolic call, bishops, like deans, are also responsible for extensive budgets and investment portfolios, for business and for process. (§29)

The problems of management do not define the ministries we are considering – but if they are not given attention, and if we do not equip ministers to understand and respond to them, they will with grim inevitability derail these ministries.  Getting this balance right, so that Bishops and Deans understand management well enough, and are skilled enough at it, to prevent themselves being turned into managers, is a delicate matter.

Business Schools and MBAs

The use of Business Schools in the delivery of the training (§34), and the offering of a Mini MBA (§34, 39), must not be allowed to re-order these priorities.  The training that is needed is training in ‘response to the presence of God in and through the community, calling us to act on its behalf as signs and agents of God’s love’ (§13), and includes elements of good management within that only because they are one of the forms that such loving action takes.

The training on offer must, therefore, not be a training in business management with theological elements tucked into it.  It must be, as a whole, theologically shaped and informed, and then, as necessary, include appropriate (and critically assessed) forms of training in management only as subordinate elements within that framework.  Partnership with a Business School need not be a problem, if it does not determine the ethos, direction, and parameters of the training in business terms, but simply offers a way to badge, validate, and administer a programme that is theologically framed, through and through.

And that’s me done, I think.  There are other things I could have written about – the shape of the church’s engagement with the wider world assumed in the Report, the ways in which it talks about growth – but I think I’ve already gone on more than long enough.

Re-Reading the Green Report 4: Discernment

This is the fourth in my series of posts on the Green Report.  See the first, second and third.

As discussed last time, we are thinking about some specific niches in the overall ecology of the Church’s ministry – Bishops and Deans in the first instance, but also various others roles with a particular kind of public visibility, or roles which require working on an unusually large  scale.  Those niches do exist in the life of the church, and they do from time to time need filling.  We do therefore need some processes by which we discern who will best fill those niches, and provide them with the support and development needed to fill them well.

These are not things that, on the whole, we currently do well.

The Green Report sketches a process for discernment, rightly aiming to be ‘more open to the emergence of leaders from a wider variety of backgrounds and range of skills than is currently predictable’ (§11), and to be more transparent and accountable.

The Nature of Discernment

As we think through whether and how the Report’s proposed new process might work well, it is worth keeping in mind various characteristics of discernment.

Discernment is (or should be) a corporate process; it is, fundamentally an activity of the whole church (see the FAOC report, §182).  It involves attentive looking, and the testing of what we see – and both of these are, finally, activities of the whole Body.  We open each others eyes to see better; we test each other’s discernments, and the truthfulness of our discernment emerges, God willing, from this interaction.  We are therefore charged with discovering how to keep our processes of discernment as open as possible to the challenging wisdom of the Body.

Discernment is (or should be) a process in which the church allows itself to be surprised. We are seeking to discern together the movement of the Spirit of God, not seeking ways to secure the continuation of our own plans.  Discernment is therefore properly a two-directional process.  On the one hand, there is the process of the church discerning who might be the right person to fit into the space we want to fill.  On the other, there is the process of discerning how our sense of the shape of that space might be changed by the people whom God is sending us.  It is a process in which the church is seeking to be discerning about itself and its future, as well as about the future ministries of specific individuals.

Discernment is (or should be) a spiritual discipline.  We are not the first generation or the only church to worry about discernment, and there is a good deal of wisdom to plunder from earlier generations and from other churches about how discernment might be handled well – about the patterns of prayer, the forms of self-examination, the practices of mutual accountability, that are proper to those most directly involved in discernment, and about the kinds of support from the wider body that they need.

Overseeing Discernment

A great deal of  the process set out in the Green Report rests upon the Development and Appointments Group (DAG), who are given the right to determine who participates in the process (§49).  Whether and how that process can work well will depend to a significant extent, therefore, on how DAG is asked to operate.

The first thing to say is that its remit is not to run a ‘Talent Pool’ (that language, as the report itself suggests, simply needs to go). It’s remit is to oversee the church’s discernment process in these instances.

Second, DAG will be overseeing just one discernment process amongst the many that the church needs – formal discernment processes like BAPs, the discernment involved in the allocation of different forms of CMD, the discernment of gifts and ministries in the local church, and so on.  (Once again, the Green Report only makes sense in the context of the other reports that have recently been published.)  Actually, it would probably be better to say that it is just one family of discernment processes amongst the many processes that the church needs.  There is only a rough and partial unity amongst the various ministries on which this process is focused, and only a very rough and very partial distinction of these from other, related ministries.

Third, DAG operates on behalf of the church as a whole, and it will need to find ways in which its work can be informed as richly as possible, and challenged as deeply as possible, by the discernment of others.  Some of this is set out in the Report’s discussion of how DAG will relate to diocesan processes.  DAG is there to gather and to reflect on (and be surprised and challenged by) the discernment of others – both about who they should be looking for and about what they should be looking for.  It also needs, of course, to be alert for cases where the discernment of others has been unimaginative or inattentive (including watching for unconscious bias, §62).  But it is there to search diligently, prayerfully and humbly for the signs of what God is doing, by listening long and hard to those around it in the church.  A DAG too convinced of its own patent remedies for the church’s ills would inevitably become undiscerning.

Fourth, DAG will need constantly to be open to challenge and to surprise.  Any list of criteria it uses (like those in Appendix 3 of the Report) need to be kept low key and heuristic, so as not to turn into a cookie cutter guaranteeing uniformity  of output.  DAG will need to cultivate an explicit ethos of looking at the margins – at the square pegs.  (As the Report says: ‘The Church must be more intentional about drawing in those with high potential who do not appear to “fit in”’, §11).  The language of monitoring, of evaluation, and of benchmarking can work against this.  Those words are capable of exerting a distorting gravitational pull which, at its worst, could lead to a deadening ethos of control – to a DAG that saw itself as a quality control mechanism on a production line.  A desire for control is, however, incompatible with true discernment.

Fifth, DAG will need to be very wary indeed of the lure of measurement.  In §14, the Report rightly says that ‘God’s wisdom is our measure of how we learn to manage better’; in §24 it speaks of ‘the measure of the full stature of Christ’.  In the light of these measures, we should be very reluctant indeed to give too high a role to supposedly objective measures of success.  As the FAOC report says,

It is always worth asking whether our descriptions of leadership can leave room for a leader who was abandoned by all his followers, who was stripped of all dignity and power, and whose ministry was in every measurable sense defeated – and where that failure was nevertheless the foundation stone of God’s mission. (§49)

There is simply no short cut to discernment.  The most readily available ‘objective’ measures of success by which we might compare candidates only achieve their comparability by having the narratives that make sense of them shorn away.  Discernment has to look at context; it has to look at the whole story – it has to take time and to risk wise judgment, rather than retreating to the safety of apparent objectivity, especially when it draws on apparently objective data.  But the work of discernment is always, at its deepest, the work of discovering how God is working amongst us – and that’s never going to be a process that we can make safe.

Sixth, DAG will need, if it is to live up to the best instincts of the Report, to give serious thought to how its own work can be grounded in prayer – not just in the prayerfulness of its individual members, nor simply in the opening and closing of its meetings with prayer, but in the recognition that its whole business is a form of prayer, a spiritual discipline.  We have, I suspect, a good deal to learn – from everyone from Jesuits to Quakers, as well as from our own tradition – about how such a form of prayer can flourish.  As Justin Welby has said, ‘If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer. It starts with a new spirit of prayer, using all the traditions, ancient and modern’ – and there is ‘No renewal of the Church without renewal of prayer.’

 

Next time: Management

Re-Reading the Green Report 3: Leadership

This is the third in my series of posts on the Green Report.  See the first (which explains just what I think I’m up to) and the second (which focuses on prayer and confidence).

The Green Report has a great deal to say about ‘Leadership’.  The words ‘lead’, ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ and their derivatives turn up on every page of the main report.  In this post, I want to suggest some ways in which we can receive that emphasis – and repair some of the ways in which the report presents it.

Leadership in the Body

In the FAOC report, we looked at the rise and rise of leadership language in the Church (§§18–23), and concluded

that this language is not going away any time soon. It has simply become too prevalent and too deeply embedded, and we acknowledge that this is in part because it can name important needs in the church’s life. Rather than arguing about whether we should stop using leadership language, therefore, we discuss how this language might be used well… (§10)

because

It can only be right to make ‘leadership’ a central idea in the life of the church if our ideas and practices of leadership (whether inherited from earlier generations of the church or borrowed from elsewhere) are subjected to ongoing critical questioning in the light of the church’s relation to its Lord. (§168)

We claimed that it is

impossible to sustain a simple opposition between Christian and secular ideas of leadership. Our tradition has always been in the business of assimilating and transforming material from the world around it. Ultimately, all the language we use about leadership – whether we say ‘bishop’ or ‘leader’, ‘shepherd’ or ‘counsellor’, ‘servant leader’ or ‘deacon’, ‘prince’ or ‘priest’ or ‘elder’ – is language that has been borrowed, assimilated and transformed. The only interesting questions are about the kind and depth of the transformation and assimilation involved, not about the fact of borrowing itself. (§164)

What, though, do we mean by ‘leadership’?  We offered an ‘initial, low-key definition’:

We might say that a leader is someone who assists others in the performance of a collective practice. Such a leader is not necessarily one who himself or herself excels in the practice, though he or she certainly has to be competent in it. Rather, he or she will be good at participating in that practice in such a way as to draw others deeper into it. (§39)

If that is where we start, however, we immediately have to reject any simplistic division of the Body of Christ into ‘leaders’ and ‘led’.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’  We need each other; we are built up by each other; we assist each other in the growth and enactment of our faith.  Starting with the low-key definition of ‘leadership’ above, we would have to conclude (as a first move) that leadership is something in which we are all involved or called to be involved.

We shouldn’t have a division between leaders and led, but a complex ecology of multiple forms of assistance and encouragement, building up the whole body together.  (As we say in the FAOC report, ‘Even the ministry of oversight, of episkope, is first of all a ministry of all God’s people, who are called to exercise self-control and hold one another to account’ – §177.)  We can certainly recognise many forms of differentiation – different gifts, callings, talents distributed around the body – but they are all differentiations within a Body in which every member is called to minister.

The Green Report is focused on Bishops and Deans, but also talks about ‘heads of theological colleges, mission agencies, para-church networks or significant pilgrimage centres’ and leaders of ‘large churches with specially significant roles in national church life’ (§64).  If we start with the kind of vision of the Body of Christ sketched above, we won’t think of these people as ‘the leaders’ over against everyone else as ‘the led’.  We won’t think of them as people who have come out on top of some hierarchy of excellence or importance or value.  Rather, we will simply recognise that, in the midst of a Body in which every member is called to minister, some people have received a specific kind of calling which involves ministry to a large geographical area, or playing a significant role in relation to a large number of people, as well as (in some of those cases) playing specific sacramental roles and specific representative roles.  To be called into these roles is not promotion; it is not a form of elevation.  Even ‘seniority’ is potentially a very misleading word for it.  It is, rather, a call to occupy one specific niche in the overall ecology of the Church’s ministry.

Training specifically aimed at enabling the holders of these posts to develop in what they do will therefore need to strike a careful balance.  On the one hand, it does make sense, for some developmental purposes, to take them out of their contexts and bring them together as a cohort, in order for them to share the wisdom and experience they have gained in similar roles, and in order for them to receive appropriate training in how to face common challenges.  In the same way, we might bring together people involved in similar ministries in all sorts of other niches of the church’s ecology – there’s nothing specifically ‘senior’ about this idea.

On the other hand, we should guard against any sense that those being brought together are a breed apart, or even an elite, separating off into their own exclusive club.  They are brought together as a cohort for the sake of their distinctive contribution to the overall weave of ministry that they share with others, and in order to energise and refresh them for deeper engagement with those around them, wider collaboration, and a fuller sharing of the tasks of ministry.  The design of the programme of development, and of the patterns of prayer woven in with it, will need to work hard to protect against any sense of isolation or exclusivity.

Minding our Language

In the light of all this, there are elements of the Green Report’s language that do, I think, call for repair.

First, from time to time, the language it uses to discuss leadership can indeed suggest that readers are a race apart.  Take that word ‘cadre’, for instance, in the statement of purpose (§32).  The dictionary definition, ‘a small group of people specially trained for a particular purpose’, is not itself problematic, but it sounds to my ears all too like a group defined over against their surroundings (the group of army officers who have their own mess; the closed communist cell that is working against the surrounding bourgeois society).

Second, and more pervasively, the Report uses language that moves away from a simple differentiation of ministries and towards a hierarchy of value.  We are, it seems, looking for ‘exceptional individuals’ (§6), ‘candidates with exceptional potential’ (§10), ‘exceptional potential leaders from among the clergy’ (§12); people who demonstrate ‘exceptional performance’ (§49) – and so on.  It is hard not to read this as suggesting that we are looking for people who are better than others – the talent, over against the untalented mass.  It makes it sound like we are indeed talking about promotion, about climbing a hierarchy with the best and brightest at the top.

It is not just this language that needs changing, however – it is the whole tempting mind-set that it can encourage and express.  Yes, of course we are looking out for people who are exceptionally well suited for the specific ministries that we have in mind – but only in the sense that we might also look for people who are exceptionally well suited to be a welcomer at the church door, or who are exceptionally well suited to do staff the night shift at the homeless shelter, or who are exceptionally well suited to clean the church hall loos.  That is, we’re trying to discern together to what roles, to what forms of ministry, God is calling each person; where each person best fits in the activity of the body, in ways that will do most justice to the specific gifts – the specific talents – that God has given to each person.

That is why the Green Report rightly says that a Bishop or a Dean will be someone who ‘Recognises and develops unique gifts’ and who is ‘a creative steward of lay and ordained talent’ (§32); someone who will give priority to ‘Supporting the formation and development of individuals in the full range of their ministry’ (§10).  The Bishop or Dean is one minister in a whole church of ministers, a person with one peculiar set of talents amongst the talents of all those who make up the church.

That is also why the Green Report only makes sense as one report amongst many.  This one deals with some specific issues surrounding this particular kind of ministry; others deal with aspects of Continuing Ministerial Development, or with developing the ministries of all the baptised.  This isn’t the top of the pyramid; it is one small piece of the patchwork.

 

In my next post, I’m going to delve more deeply in to what the Report has to say about the processes of discernment and development by which we identify and train people for these peculiar roles.

Re-Reading the Green Report 2: God at the Centre

This is the second of my posts on The Green Report.  The first can be found here.

Faithful Improvisation

The main body of the report starts (in §10) by repeating, in slightly fuller form, the quote from Justin Welby given at the start of the introduction (§1).  It is a quote from his first address to the General Synod as Archbishop of Canterbury, in July 2013.  He spoke of the members of the Church being ‘Custodians of the gospel that transforms individuals and societies….called by God to respond radically and imaginatively to new contexts.’  That word ‘custodian’ suggests that we hold faithfully to what we have received; the reference to imaginative and radical response suggests that this faithfulness will be expressed in new ways in new contexts.

The idea here is the same as one of the ideas at the core of the Faith and Order report: ‘faithful improvisation’, which the Green Report quotes in §14.  In the FAOC report, we said (§§12–13) that compelling answers to questions about the kind of senior leadership needed by the Church of England

are not developed in the pages of reports. They are developed in situ, hammered out in context by Christians drawing deeply on the Scriptures, engaging with the tradition, attending to their situations, questioning and challenging and encouraging one another, and discovering prayerfully over time what bears fruit and what does not.  In other words, good answers to this question are produced by faithful improvisation, in the never-ending diversity of contexts in which the church finds itself. By ‘improvisation’, we do not mean ‘making it up as we go along’ or ‘bodging something together from the materials available’. Rather, we are drawing on the way that ‘improvisation’ has been written about by a number of theologians in recent years, and are using the word in something like the sense it can have in musical performance. Musicians who are deeply trained in a particular tradition (who know its constraints and possibilities in their bones) draw on all the resources provided by that formation to respond creatively to new situations and to one another. Compelling and faithful answers to the church’s questions about leadership require something of the same deep formation and deep attentiveness in situ, and will be similarly diverse and creative.

Rooted in Prayer

Deep rootedness in the gospel underpins our improvisation, or our imaginative and radical responses to new contexts.  The central form that the Green report suggests this rootedness will take is prayer.  It talks about the importance of the leaders’ ‘life of prayer’ (§10), a substantial element of prayer is built into the proposed patterns of training  (§35), and the diagram of ‘Leadership Characteristics for Bishops and Deans’ (§32) has at its top this statement of ‘purpose’: ‘Develop a prayerful cadre of Bishops and Deans who are confident as leaders and evangelists who release an energy for mission and growth across the Church, as the urgent priority set by the Gospel’  (see also §10).  I’m going to come back to various aspects of this statement later, including that word ‘cadre’ and the idea of releasing energy for mission and growth.  For now, however, I want to keep the focus on prayer, and take the report at its word: the highest priority, the first element in its purpose, is a call for leaders to be ‘prayerful’.

The FAOC report (§174) speaks of

constant, prayerful, humble and attentive listening by the whole church, and especially by those who exercise leadership within it, to what the Spirit may be saying to God’s people. Wise improvisation in leadership will therefore only emerge from communities and individuals gathered by the Spirit in sustained prayer and worship, with the Son, before the Father.

All our action, including any action we call ‘leadership’, is a joining in, a participation in what God is doing.  As the FAOC report says elsewhere, ‘one’s action is a gift that one receives more than it is something that one achieves; [and] there can be no effectiveness without grace’ (§48).

Prayer is the starting point not simply because we need to seek guidance before acting, or to recharge batteries before expending energy.  It is the starting point because our agency – our determination, our endeavour, our action – is never primary.  Our vision of ministry, and of leadership within it, should not begin with any picture of heroic activity on the part of those who minister, but of deep and abiding receptivity and attentiveness.  To minister is to be acted upon by God, to be caught up in what God is doing in and through us.  Its centre is not labour (though there is almost certain to be labour involved), but our rest in God.  Prayer is therefore necessarily the centre of ministry, including of all those forms of ministry we call leadership.

The training programme promised by the Green Report has prayer and reflection as one of its major components.  To fulfil its promise, however, that needs to be more than simply a space for prayerful reflection on what has been learnt.  Rather, central to the substance of the training, there will need to be a focus upon developing the kinds of habit of prayer, the kinds of community of prayer, the kinds of rule of prayerful life, that can underpin the kinds of ministry envisaged.

Confidence

When the report speaks of ‘confidence’ (as in ‘a prayerful cadre of Bishops and Deans who are confident as leaders and evangelists’), we should read this first of all not as self-confidence, but as confidence in God.  As §15 says, ‘This confidence is rooted entirely in the victory of Christ.’  It is the confidence that flows from prayer, and so from trust in God, from rest in God.  But God’s action and our action are not in competition, and to focus on God’s action does not mean that we have to deny our own.  God’s action enables, accompanies and directs our own, and a primary confidence in God is compatible with a secondary confidence in ourselves – what the Green report calls a ‘realistic confidence’ in our ability (§13) – a thankfulness for the gifts that God has given us, a practiced knowledge in their possibilities and limits, and a joy in their exercise.

Our confidence in ourselves is, however, bounded by our confidence in God.  Our self-confidence must never become a conviction that we are the centre of what is going on.  It has to be a self-confidence that remains attentive to what God is doing beyond us and without us, ready for surprises, and open to correction.  It has to be a self-confidence that does not let us take ourselves too seriously.  As the report says, ‘We want leaders so centred on God that they exhibit neither neurosis nor narcissism’  (§17) – and finding that balance in the context of a demanding ministry is a serious spiritual discipline – and, again, exploration of this will need to be en element of the training offered.

Do Not Fear

Our self-confidence should also never become a conviction that the future is ours to command.  The FAOC report says

The growth of God’s kingdom is in God’s hands. We must pray all we can, learn all we can and work all we can, but these are not handles that need only to be turned hard to guarantee success.  (§185)

Our future is in God’s hands.  That does not mean that we don’t need to act strenuously in the present, but it does mean that we need to act not out of anxiety and panic, but out of trust: wholehearted reliance upon God.

One aspect of the ‘culture change’ that the Green report speaks of (§8) is therefore a move away from a culture of anxiety.  On the one hand, that means a move away from a culture of communal anxiety about the future of the Church – as if everything depended upon us.  On the other hand, it means a move away from a culture of individual performance anxiety – as if the one thing needful is to make a success of ourselves, to demonstrate our worth by what we achieve.  Confidence in God is the root of a move away from such ecclesial Pelagianism – and it is the root of the joy, resilience, energy, and hope of which the Green Report speaks (§12).

The Green Report warns against the aversion to risk that can flow from the belief that we can manage risk away (§22).  Instead, the church needs ‘spaces of safe uncertainty in which creative and emotionally intelligent change can happen.’  A move away from a culture dominated by anxiety and control is necessary if faithful improvisation is going to flourish.  Micromanagement kills improvisation; insecurity kills improvisation; fear of failure, the need to perform, the obsession with targets, all kill improvisation.

Promoting ‘safe uncertainty’ means refusing a culture focused on success.  As we said in the FAOC report:

We therefore have to cultivate a culture that allows failure, that attends to it carefully and learns from it seriously, but that does not condemn it. In part, this is because we will certainly not encourage real improvisation and experimentation if we have generated an atmosphere of performance anxiety; improvisation is only made possible by trust. More seriously, however, it is because any understanding of Christian leadership that believes success to be firmly in the grasp of good leaders, rather than in the hands of God, has become a form of idolatry. The one true leader of the church is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and true success is in God’s hands alone.  (§186)

Releasing Energy

The statement of purpose at the top of the Report’s diagram of Leadership Characteristics (§32) speaks of leaders who ‘release an energy for mission and growth across the Church, as the urgent priority set by the Gospel’.  In the light of all I have been saying, we will read this not as the high-octane energy of the big leader, but as the energy that flows in each of us from a confident, trusting participation in what God is doing, grounded in prayer.

As that word ‘release’ might suggest, this is not an energy that some of us possess and then distribute to others.  Neither, however, is it simply an energy independently found in each of us.  Our relationships of trust and confidence in God are never simply about the individual and God.  We encourage one another, we build one another up, and we are involved in one another’s relation to God.  That is what it means to be a body.  The Spirit’s work in each of us is inseparable from the Spirit’s work in those around us, and we can therefore all be involved in the ‘release’ of energy of the Spirit in those around us.

The Green report does not simply talk about mutual encouragement, however.  It talks about a cadre of leaders who will be engaged in this work of encouragement.  If I am to take this project of retrieval and repair further, I need to tackle that next.

Re-Reading the Green Report 1: Suspicion, Retrieval and Repair

In December, the Green Report (more formally, the Report of the Lord Green Steering Group, or ‘Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A New Approach’) was leaked, to the accompaniment of a fountain of criticism (and a splash or two of defence) in blogs, comment pieces, and letters pages.  (It has also now been published as a Synod paper, with an introductory summary.)

(See the initial Church Times report; see also the various collections of responses gathered by the Thinking Anglicans blog.)

My aim in writing now, as a latecomer to this party, is not to try to get that debate flowing again.  Instead, I want to try something a little different.  Rather than setting out yet another critique, I want to try for retrieval and repair.  This first post will try to explain what I mean.  I plan a few more posts, over the next few days, to try and put this retrieval and repair into practice.

Suspicion

All sorts of criticisms were levelled at the report after it was leaked, but most prominent among them were those which saw in it the triumph of corporate language over theology, or of business culture over the culture of the church, or of managerialism over Christian wisdom.

It is not hard to see where this criticism comes from.  The corporate language starts on the title-page – indeed, in the first two words on the title page: ‘Talent Management’.*  And when readers whose critical senses have been alerted by that title turned to the Introduction, it is not hard to see how their suspicions might have deepened.  The first paragraph is confidently, if briefly, theological.  It quotes Justin Welby speaking about our being ‘Custodians of the gospel’ and ‘called by God’.  That initial theological note immediately vanishes, however.  From the next sentence on, we are in the realm of ‘leadership development’, ‘talent management initiatives’, and the engagement (to develop detailed proposals for these initiatives) of the former ‘Head of Talent and Learning at BP’.  It was therefore inevitable (and entirely predictable) that, by the time they reached §8, the report’s claim that its recommendations ‘mark a culture change for the leadership of the Church’, most readers will have seen the change in question precisely as a takeover of the church by the habits and language of the corporate world.

This opening actively invites a suspicious reading of the report.  In fact, it does more than invite, it all but demands it.  The choice of title; the way the introduction has been put together; the brusque transition from §1 to §2 – it all says, as Martyn Percy said in his critique in the Church Times, that what is ‘on offer is a dish of basic contemporary approaches to executive management, with a little theological garnish’.

By the time the reader reaches the body of the report, just over the page, the damage is already done.  That body contains strands of theological language and recognisably theological ideas woven in with strands of management language and borrowed corporate ideas.  Having reached it via the introduction, many readers will inevitably see the corporate strands as central, and see the theological strands as twisted around them – whether as decoration or disguise or inadequate amelioration.  In practice, that means that they will take the specific proposals (§§33–78) as bearing the main weight of the report, and see the discussion of ‘principles and context’ (§§10–29) as secondary – to be read, rather sceptically, in the light of the later proposals.

Retrieval and Repair

My claim is not that the suspicious reading is wrong. Much of the language and argument of the remainder of the report lends itself very well to being read in this suspicious way – and the suspicious reading is powerful, penetrating and worrying. I do not, however, think that the suspicious reading is the only thing that can be done with this report.  I have said that the report is woven from multiple strands, including ‘strands of theological language and recognisably theological ideas’.  I want, in my subsequent posts, to try the experiment of flipping the suspicious reading over, and seeing what happens when one takes the theological strands as central.  I’m not ignoring the critical readings – I have learnt a great deal from them – I am simply doing something different.  I am attempting a ‘retrieval’.

This retrieval also involves ‘repair’.  There are times, I will suggest, when the report resists being read around its theological strands.  There are indeed times when its managerial language pulls hard against the retrieval I am attempting.  There are moments when I am forced to say that if I want to re-read the report in the way I am suggesting, I will have to refuse some of the specific language it uses.  Just as the suspicious reading is forced to say of some of the theological material in the report that it is undermined or evacuated or denied by the corporate content, so I am forced to say from time to time that some of the corporate content is called seriously into question by the theological content.

I suggest, however, that this very task of repair is one that the report itself encourages.  Very close to the end, in §85 (far too late for the suspicious reading to take seriously), the report notes that it has used ‘corporate labels such as “talent management”, “leadership development programme”, “talent pool” and “alumni network”’, and acknowledges that ‘these should perhaps be replaced by terms meaningful to the Church’.

So, over the next several posts, in line with that last recommendation. I am going to attempt a retrieval and repair of the report.  I do not claim that, in so doing, I am identifying what the intentions of the reports’ authors really were, nor do I claim that I am running counter to their intentions.  I am simply not playing the kind of interpretive game that involves me in that task of excavating intentions.  I am, rather, exploring one way of receiving and responding to the report – a way of making something of it that I think it does make possible, even if it is not something that it demands.  So I don’t ask, ‘What were they really up to, the Lord Green Steering Group?  Rather I ask, ‘What should we be up to, now we have this report in front of us?  How can we best live with it?’

Full Disclosure

I’m on the Faith and Order Commission.  I’m therefore one of the co-authors of the report Senior Church Leadership: A Resource for Reflection, published in January, which tackles some of the same territory as Green, but from a very different angle and with a very different remit.  There was some discussion and consultation between members of the two groups, and the FAOC report is cited in the Green Report, but I wasn’t involved in the writing of the latter.  I’m not writing these thoughts on behalf of the Green group or anyone on it, nor on behalf of FAOC or anyone on it.  Of course, my thinking in this area has inevitably been shaped by the work we did in FAOC and the conversations we had with people involved in the Green group, but these are entirely my own personal ramblings, and nobody else bears responsibility for them.  You could however, plausibly take my proposal as an attempt to read the Green report in the light of the FAOC report.


* Of course, the word ‘talent’ travelled from referring to a particular weight of gold or silver, to meaning an divinely entrusted gift to be used wisely, and so to meaning a capacity for success in some sphere of endeavour, by way of Jesus’ parable in Mt 25:14–30.  In other words, we do owe the word ‘talent’ in the title of this report ultimately to the Bible.

Procreation

This is the fourth and last of my posts on the Faith and Order Commission’s report, Men and Women in Marriage. See the first, second and third.

1. The Argument of the Report

As I noted in my second post, the Report’s insistence on the centrality of male–female partnership to the definition of marriage was not limited to the necessity of such partnership for procreation. Nevertheless, claims about procreation form one important strand in the Report’s overall argument. I don’t have as much to say about this as about the other features of the report, and what I do have to say is a bit more fragmentary – but I think there are one or two important points to make.

The Report presents the possibility of procreation as part, though not all, of the ‘blessing’ that God gives to sexually differentiated, male–and–female humanity (§3) – and it presents differentiated male–female relationships as (in humans and in many other animal species) oriented towards (amongst other things) ‘the tasks of reproduction and the nurture of children’ (§11).

Male–female partnership is not important simply for biological reproduction, but for parenthood more broadly, because parenthood is properly a ‘cooperative venture’ (§16). The report argues that exclusive, life-long male–female partnerships – marriages – are the best form of parenthood (§§2, 16), and that when we marry, part of what we are doing is therefore ensuring that our procreative power is contained with the most appropriate structure for it (‘we commit the procreative power of our own sex to an exclusive relation with a life-partner of the opposite sex.’ (§21)).

If marriage is important for parenthood, parenthood is also important for marriage. Marriage and parenthood complement, crown, and strengthen one another (§22), and parenthood is important in the ‘spiritual growth of a married couple in the course of life’; it lays ‘the foundation for a moral responsibility towards each other’ (§33).

The Report acknowledges that not all marriages issue in parenthood, and not all parenthood takes place within marriage – but it insists that the union of parenthood and marriage is nevertheless the defining ideal. On the one hand, the Report insists (rather mysteriously) that to say of married couples that they open themselves to parenthood ‘may be true even of a couple who, for whatever reasons, have no prospect of actually having children’ (§21). On the other hand, the report acknowledges that it is not only in ‘an ideal family unit of two biological parents’ that parenting takes place, but that we must reckon with various forms of adoption, step-parenting, and single parenthood, too. Other things being equal, however, such forms of parenting will be more of a struggle – indeed, they may well involve ‘heroic’ struggle (§23) – and that struggle will properly take the form of an endeavour to ‘imitate as closely as possible’ the ideal family unit  (§24).

2. Evaluation

a. Affirmation

As with my previous posts, there is something I want to affirm here. It is absolutely right to ask, as we think about marriage and its changing forms, whether we are making arrangements that are likely to tend to harm any children born into those marriages. And it is right to ask that question critically, and to recognise that it has the capacity to call into doubt some arrangements that we might otherwise have thought desirable.

b. Questions

That being said, I have several questions about the way the Report describes the connection between marriage and parenthood.

(1) I must admit that I am not at all sure what it means to say that a couple who have no possibility of having children are nevertheless opening themselves to parenthood by getting married.  I am, therefore, not sure what to do with the implied claim that this opening is in some way central to the definition of the relationship of such a couple. In any case, we as a church have been perfectly willing to marry couples who cannot have children, and who know they cannot, or who have no intention of trying – and (thank God) we do not seem to be required to proclaim that these are second-class arrangements, marriages only in name and not in substance. So my first question is whether the Report, for the sake of making its argument against same-sex marriage, is making procreation more central to the definition of marriage than does our own well-established practice – with potentially serious pastoral consequences.  And it is not only our current practice that might give us pause, here.  After all, the most direct reason given for marriage in the creation narratives, as reaffirmed by Jesus (§5), is that ‘it was not good for man to be alone’, and that this need could only be met by one who was flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, and with whom he could therefore be one flesh – so we would seem to have somewhere to stand if we want to explore the possibility that marriages might take the form of partnerships without procreation.

(2) If my first question was about the importance of children to marriage, my second and third are about the importance of marriage for child-reading. I think some questions need to be asked of the Report in the light of the very many different ways of bringing up children we can find across history and culture – and across Christian tradition and scripture. Some of those ways are primarily a matter of mother + father + children, but many (most?) are not. Parenting has often, for instance, been a responsibility of a wider and more complex community, with involvement from multiple generations, from various members of the extended family, or from other kinds of household member – or has involved handing the boy over to be bought up by the priest in the temple the moment he is weaned. The Report may talk about how a single mother might try to make up the lack created by the absent father (although I shall have something to say about that comment in a moment), but we could as well talk about how the isolated nuclear couple might have to make up the lack created by the absence of aunts and grandparents. How easily can the Report’s description of an ‘ideal family unit’ survive attention to this complexity?

(3) The Report confidently talks about the ‘best’ contexts for bringing up children – and that again raises for me questions about the relationship between the kinds of claim made by the report, and the other forms of investigation and understanding available to us. This question of the best context for raising children is, after all, one about which there has been a great deal of research, and a great deal of controversy. On the one hand, I wonder what difference would be made to this account of ideal parenthood if we paid attention to that research – and whether it is at least possible that some of that research might undermine or complicate the Report’s confidence. On the other hand, I wonder quite what kind of stake we actually have in this game. Let me explain what I mean by way of an analogy. Different diets have different health benefits for children. I’m not sure, however, that it is the church’s job to make advocacy of certain diets and deprecation of others a direct part of its social teaching – the kind of topic on which we might expect the House of Bishops to issue pastoral guidance – even though there’s a lot of talk about diet in the Christian tradition, and loads in the Bible (rather more than there is about sex, at a guess). I think the church’s proper task probably stands at one remove from that, and will have more to do with forming us in some of the questions we should be asking about our diets than in determining the answers we should be giving. Might not something similar be true in reference to patterns of child-rearing and family structure?  And might that not give us the freedom to ask rather more insistently and openly what factors in parenting are genuinely crucial to the flourishing of the child?

The Sharp End

As with the other aspects of the Report that I have analysed, there is a dark background to anything we might say in this area.  This is, after all, an area in which it is possible to do quite serious damage – and as a Church we have something of a track record of damage in this area. We have too often taken culturally and historically specific configurations of family life, and valorised them as if they were ideals required of us by divine authority. We have too often dumped all kinds of guilt, vilification and exclusion upon those whose family lives do not match those ideals. And we have too often made it harder to see and name the forms of abuse and dysfunction that can flourish within families that do appear to conform to the ideals.  That’s not a history of far away and long ago, either, and its proximity should make us watch our words with care.

In this light, I must admit that I find it difficult to stomach our Report’s description of the ‘heroic struggles’ that step parents, adoptive parents and single parents are apt to face because they are not the original biological couple; or its insistence that all other forms of family ought to be working to imitate the ideal of a family like mine; or the deeply uncomfortable ventriloquism by which we make that point by putting our own words into the mouth of a representative but fictional single mother. At very least, we have left the Report wide open to being read as an uncritical paean to ‘family values’ – as setting an unexamined and undifferentiated normality on a pedestal, and arranging all other forms of family life on the slopes below it, gazing up at it longingly. In a world where such ideas are rife, and powerful, and do real and deep harm, that was badly done.

Nevertheless, I hope I have managed to indicate, in this post and its predecessors, some ways in which the Report does set out an important agenda for deeper investigation.  I don’t quite know where to go with this next, but the Archbishops commended this Report for study, so I’m hoping we can find some ways to pursue this agenda further.  Any ideas?

Desire and Discipline

This is the third of my posts on the Faith and Order Commission’s report, Men and Women in Marriage. See the first and second. I’m planning one more, on procreation, at some point in the next couple of weeks.

1. The Argument of the Report

I said last time that the heart of the report – and the aspect of it that I most wanted to affirm – was its claim that flourishing human life requires an attentive response to our bodiliness. In that sense, flourishing human life involves working with what we are given. So far, I have focused on what the report has to say about what it is that we have been given; I now want to focus on what it says about how we work with that given material.

The report presents marriage not as a static fact, but as a form of patient labour and slow growth, in which the participants and the relationship between them can be transformed. And it describes this labour, growth and transformation in the language of Christian discipleship. It speaks of ‘The “hallowing and right direction of natural instincts and affections”’ (§36, quoting Canon B30). It says that the disciplines of married life ‘are not a mere constraint, a form we must accept and conform to somehow’, but that instead marriage ‘is a “vocation to holiness”, a path of discipleship by which we are opened to the life of the Spirit of God in the context of material existence’ (§30, quoting Resolution 113 of the 1958 Lambeth conference).

The fullest expression of this strand of the report comes in its discussion of the sacramental nature of marriage. It quotes the Common Worship marriage service to the effect that ‘as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church’ (§39) and then expands that to say, ‘The encounter of man and woman in marriage affords an image, then, of the knowledge and love of God, to which all humans are summoned, and of the self-giving of the Son of God which makes it possible’ (§40). A little earlier, it had spoken of marriage attaining ‘a permanence which could speak to the world of God’s own love’ and of this as a matter of our species’ ‘spiritual vocation’ (§33).

In other words, marriage can be a means by which human beings learn to embody and to communicate God’s love – in fact, marriage can be a sharing in, a participation in, a love that is prior to it: God’s own Christlike love. God’s love is marriage’s context and goal, and that love therefore defines marriage. Marriage is, fundamentally, ordered towards Christlike love.

2. Evaluation

a. Affirmation

The central idea here is one I want to affirm, enthusiastically and insistently. We are not simply called to live in attentive response to our bodiliness, but to live in attentive response to our bodiliness in the light of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Christian ethics, that is, is not simply about conformity to creation, but about participation in redemption – though to put it this way is already to divide these two aspects too sharply. Redemption is the fulfilment of creatureliness, so that the route to true response to our created nature is by participation in redemption. Redemption does not abolish or override but brings to fruition our creatureliness. Creation and covenant belong together, because the Creator is also the Redeemer.

The call to live in response to out created natures is not, therefore, to be thought of primarily as the imposing of a constraint – an imprisoning within a static given that can only curtail our freedom. It is the call to discover together the possibilities of growth and transformation that our created natures give us, the particular forms of flourishing that they make possible – and to discover the particular ways in which we, as these particular bodies, can become by the Spirit’s work conformed to Christ, and so become particular icons of God’s love, communicating that love in a way that no other bodies could.

And that transformation is rightly thought of as a matter of discipline – but the discipline in question is that of a craft, working with the grain of the material at hand to make something beautiful, something that speaks ever more clearly of God’s love. It is a transformation that happens under the discipline of the material and under the discipline of the word that we are called to let that material speak, the word of love – and it is rightly seen as a matter of spiritual discipline, and of growth in holiness.

b. Questions

I think this strand of the report has a great deal going for it.  I do, however, have one big question and one big caution in relation to it. The question is, ‘Why isn’t this theology of transformation the heart of the report? Why isn’t the report arranged around this as its centre?’ The caution is, ‘Isn’t this language of discipline nevertheless rather dangerous, in this context?’

It may seem, for the next few paragraphs, as if I’ve turned away from this agenda to something more technical and methodological. There’s some truth in that, even though all the questions I pose in this post are really versions of that one central question that I’ve just mentioned. Nevertheless, if you’re not interested in the pros and cons of the report’s adoption of a ‘natural law’ approach to ethics, you might want to skip ahead to the next section – the one headed ‘The Sharp End’.

(1) The fact that Christian ethics is a matter of creation and redemption poses a question about method. The report answers this question in one specific way. The appeal to natural law, to the apparent facts of biology as confirmed by history, does nearly all the work in establishing the ethical guidance that the report gives. Discussion of what can be made of all that we are given – or, better, of what God, by Word and Spirit, can make of all this – takes up a secondary place. That is why the argument about natural order takes centre stage, and the argument about love can only play a supporting role.

In approaching its subject matter this way, the report stakes out one controversial option amongst the ways in which Christians have argued about ethics – even amongst the ways in which Anglicans have argued about ethics – and it declares in effect that this is obviously the proper Anglican form of ethical argument in this area. Yet there are other ways of approaching these questions, and this decision does have important consequences – such as the relegation of love to the ‘also starring’ credits.

It is perfectly possible to be no less committed than this report to the continuity of creation and redemption, and yet to be much less confident that we can know the order of creation – ‘nature’ – independently of the gospel. That is, it is possible to be no less committed to the continuity of creation and redemption, and yet to insist that here too we must resolve to know nothing but Christ and him crucified – and that we will only discover what our ‘nature’ is as we learn how our lives can be taken up and transformed so as to speak of God’s Christlike love. Our nature simply is the particular possibility that we have been given of communicating the love of God, and we discover it as we discover how to communicate that love.

So this is another item on the agenda for our deliberation posed by this report. What are the implications of placing ‘natural law’ arguments centre stage – and is that really a stance we have taken because we as a church have settled to our corporate satisfaction that this is the best way to proclaim the gospel?

(I should point out, before anyone gets too excited, that there can be versions of a natural law approach that lead to conservative conclusions, and versions that lead to liberal conclusions, and that there can be versions of a more love-centred ethic that lead to conservative conclusions, and versions that lead to liberal conclusions. The difference between these approaches does not map in any simple way on to the difference between liberal and conservative – which to my mind makes it a debate even more worth having.)

(2) Let me offer one specific way of focusing this broader question in relation to this report. What does the recognition of Jesus as the image of God do to our reading of male and female as the image of God? Does it supplement it or relativise it?

If we tend more towards the latter (and, yes, of course the range of options here is very much more complex than my simple binary suggests), might we be rather less ready to valorise the heterosexual couple as the normative form of human life (speaking of it as so easily as the ‘paradigm of society’)?

On the one hand, might we not instead tend to valorise celibacy – and regard (with St Paul) all marriage as some kind of ‘pastoral accommodation’? On the other, might we take the Body of Christ, the community of disciples caught up on the journey of discipleship and united in love, as the proper Christian ‘paradigm of society’ – and order our thinking about other human institutions, including marriage and the family, around that centre?

These sound like rhetorical questions, but they’re not really; the answer to each of them is quite likely to be a genuine, ‘Well, it’s complicated . . .’ And I realise that a public report is not the place to try to go into many of these complications. But if we ask what agenda the report sets for further deliberation, I think these questions need to be on the table – and possibly rather more prominent on the table than questions about biology.

The Sharp End

As I mentioned, my other worry about the report’s approach comes from a rather different direction (though it will ultimately leave us in much the same place).

If we do want to say that the transformation to which we are called is a matter of discipline, we will need to proceed with real caution – because this is an area in which we in the church have been all too ready to impose discipline, in ways that have done anything but lead to flourishing.

Our approaches to sexuality, to marriage, to ministry, to discipleship, to every area of life, have been distorted by the idea that it is above all women’s unruly power that needs controlling for the sake of good order – and we have justified that discipline by appeals to nature and to history. There is hardly any form of discipline – physical, social, mental – that we have not inflicted on women in our supposed pursuit of holiness. That history of such misbegotten discipline is far from over – and that’s the context in which we write our reports.

Our approaches to gender have been marred by our willingness to discipline those who do not conform to our expected patterns of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. We have exercised that discipline in forms destructive for both men and women, even if the forms of harm we have created have not been identical. (Part of the damage inflicted on men has involved our being given forms of freedom and power that we should not have, and that is certainly not the same as being denied forms of freedom and power that we should have – but it is still a distortion, a constriction upon true flourishing.) I have two children, a boy and a girl, and it is all too distressingly evident that they are living in the midst of an immensely complex and sophisticated machinery that squeezes them into specific gender roles, and doles out rewards for conformity and punishments for erring. This discipline is not a distant fact of history or of other cultures, it is here, all around us, and its strength is not obviously weakening. That’s the context in which we write our reports.

Our approaches to biological sexual differentiation have been marred by our willingness to enact discipline upon the bodies of those who do not conform to our biological templates for ‘male’ and ‘female’. We have been willing to enact our discipline on the minds, the appearance, the behaviours, and the relationships of intersexed persons – and, surgically, on their bodies. We have denied their existence as we have drawn our maps of sexual difference, and built our gendered culture – and, again, this is not a fact about long ago and far away, but is what we do now. (Go and read Susannah Cornwall’s critique of this very report, especially her last three paragraphs, if you want an illustration.) That’s the context into which we send our reports.

If we are going to talk about the disciplining of desire, the ‘hallowing and right direction of natural instincts and affections’, the ongoing patient transformation of what we have been given, we will need to tread with real and visible trepidation.

That does not mean that I am advocating an abandonment of all talk of discipline. It does not mean that I am giving up on all talk of what might actually be demanded of as as disciples, or all talk of obedience. But it does mean that I believe that I should be very wary of talking about that discipline in such a way that the hammer blow clearly falls first on those people over there, whereas I barely need to worry about whether it affects me.

I am, after all, a white, male, heterosexual, married, middle class, middle aged westerner with two children, a large income, and a Skoda estate. The closest I’ve been to being in a marginalised group was being a Mac user back before the advent of the iMac. I think it’s probably a good rule of thumb to say that I shouldn’t start talking about the spiritual disciplining of desire unless it’s clear that this discipline is going to be as much of a challenge for me as it is for anyone else. Otherwise, I’ll be like someone reading Romans 1 without realising that it leads straight on into Romans 2.

And that is why I think that the report actually points the right way forward here, albeit with a slightly shaking finger, when it turns to this talk about love. It suggests that the primary form of discipline we should be talking about is the discipline of love – the discipline by which we come to participate in and communicate Christlike love, the mutual love of disciples.

The discipline of love is not any kind of soft option. Taken seriously, it is the hardest teaching, the most counter-cultural teaching, that the church has available. It leaves nothing – no ‘natural instinct’, no tendency, no pattern of relationship – unaffected, and it is certainly not a discipline that lets me (or any of us) off the hook.

I suggest that we need to take this secondary strand of the report, and make it absolutely central. Everything else we say about the nature of marriage, about permissible forms of sexual behaviour, about sexuality, is secondary to this: the discipline of Christlike love.

We may also need to go on to say other things (and we will certainly continue to disagree about whether we do, and about what they are), but I am pretty sure that we will get those disagreements in the right perspective only if we keep the demands of love at the front and centre of everything we say.

Coda

I said when I began the evaluation of my second post, that ‘good, rich, complex and interesting work has been done on all the questions I am about to raise’. I want to say that again here. My frustration in reading this report did not stem from believing that my own brilliant ideas had not been given the consideration that I believe I am due. It stems from knowing that really good work on gender has been done by so many people – quite a few of them my friends and colleagues – and that many of the insights and challenging questions present in that work have become common currency in the circles in which I move, to our great enrichment. If Men and Women in Marriage had been written in serious engagement with that work, it would inevitably have been written differently – not necessarily because the conclusions would have been different, but because it would have had to respond to those questions and do justice to those insights along the way.

I am writing these posts not because I’m an expert in this area (I’m not), but because I happen to find myself standing on the overlap between two worlds – an academic world in which these questions and insights in relation to gender have rightly become unavoidable, and a world of church report writing in which they barely appear on the agenda. All I’m doing, in effect, is saying to the latter world, ‘Hey, you should talk to these other people, because they taught me everything I know about this, and they’re really worth listening to!’ So if you’ve got this far, and want to find the good stuff – well, go and read Susannah Cornwall, Rachel Muers, Sarah Coakley, Steve Holmes, Eugene Rogers, Christopher Roberts, Rowan Williams, Beth Felker Jones, James Brownson, for starters. They don’t all agree (to say the least), and they won’t all back up what I’ve said above, but they’ll certainly change how you approach these questions.