Monthly Archives: May 2014

76 Church Growth part 1

During my undergraduate years, someone asked me to read an article on the subject of congregational size. The article was based on some research that suggested that a normal congregation seldom grows beyond a ceiling of 150 individuals. The number of 150 seems to be the maximum number of people that a single individual can relate to. Beyond that number, whether it be in a firm, a school or any institution, the sense of being lost in a crowd becomes extremely strong. The author of the paper, David Wasdell, put forward the idea that if a congregation has any chance of growing larger, then the church leaders must ensure that each member must be allowed to be part of a small group. The title of the paper was something like ‘Divide and Grow’ to fit in with this idea. If the small group is the main focus of membership, then the church congregation can in theory break through the 150 barrier.

There are of course churches in Britain which appear to break this limitation of 150 members but they are usually special city centre establishments, catering to groups of people who are in transit. If you attend All Souls, Langham Place in London you will find larger numbers, but the dynamic is quite different from a neighbourhood congregation. There will be students, visitors and overseas residents who come for the preaching. People who sit in large congregations accept the fact that they are one of a large number and they tolerate the fact that they will probably be unnoticed for weeks if not months. They maybe even welcome this anonymity, as the price to pay for good preaching and/or music. In the local parish church you would object if, in a congregation of around 50, no one spoke to you after you had visited the church for four Sundays in a row. It does happen but most congregations have some mechanisms for welcome. The sub-150 congregation can, after all, normally cope with a few new people without any trouble.

Research in the States has looked at this issue of congregational size. It divides the sizes of congregation into four categories. The largest, 350+, is seldom relevant in a British context so we will mention the first three. The smallest group is a congregation which has up to 50 members. This is called a family congregation. Frequently such a congregation is strongly controlled by one or two leading families and such congregations will ‘see off’ any minister who attempts to change the status quo. Some young conservative clergy here in rural Cumbria have become unhappy at the way that their small rural congregations have resisted the changes which the minister wanted to bring in after learning about them during their training. Based on the remarks in the previous post, these ideas will normally be to do with ‘mission’ and outreach. These will not fit easily in with a church firmly rooted in a ministry style of functioning. The change of focus required is frankly too great for such a congregation to take on board, particularly in deeply rural situations. One should not quickly ascribe blame in these situations as it can be found on all sides. But the basic fact remains that, as the American research shows clearly, the dynamic of a small congregation is quite different from that of the large gathering. Not to respect these differences is to court unhappiness and dissonance on all concerned.

If the ‘family’ congregation is resistant to change, the research suggests that there is greater potential for change in a congregation which numbers between 50 and 150 members. This is referred to as a ‘pastoral congregation’. Within such a congregation, there is the expectation that after a period each member will know something about every other member. Equally important, the individual members will expect to be known fairly well by their priest or minister. The priest/minister in such a congregation will have ways of keeping ‘tabs’ on every member of a ‘pastoral’ congregation so that if, for example, sickness occurs, there will be a mechanism for letting him/her know. It does not always work like this but, administratively, it should be possible to know what is going on with a sub-150 member parish. I have worked with two congregations of this ‘pastoral’ size and also I can attest it is possible to know everyone well and make small but steady changes in the ethos and style of the congregation over a period.

The larger congregations of 150+ need to be treated differently. The minister can no longer know well each individual and so, as the Wasdell paper suggested, the congregation needs to have a different structure. In the researchers’ terminology, the larger congregation has to be a ‘programme’ church in order to function. There needs to be extra attention to different sub-groups in the congregation, young parents, the elderly etc. Each group will have leaders who will communicate with the minister. He will support the leaders and make sure that they have the resources needed. The management of ‘programme’ churches does require special skills because internal lines of support and structure can easily go toxic when someone within the group decides to do things their own way. As any Vicar will tell you, there are always problems overseeing volunteers.

Having set out this theory about congregational size, I realise that there is no space left to speak about the place of evangelism and church growth in this particular post. So I shall keep that discussion for my next posting. But the information I have set out, cheerfully lifted from studies made by the Alban Institute in America, was revolutionary for me when I first encountered it some ten years ago. Perhaps the reader will be able to apply this analysis to their own situation and experience of church life. The main point that has been made so far is that congregations of different sizes have quite different dynamics. The priest/minister who ignores this fact does so at the cost of his/her happiness and ability to serve the people in his charge.

75 Mission or Ministry?

An unresolved conundrum in the Church

I have noticed that when clergy of my generation meet together, there is often a nostalgic sigh and the cry along the lines of ‘things in the church were not like that in our day!’ We reminisce about the strict training given to young clergy (many of us did start young in those days!) and the way that we all did two periods of training under an incumbent. Much has changed and it could be said that the priorities of clergy today are often very different. The 60 -70 hour weeks have (thankfully) vanished and visiting parishioners in their own homes seems to have become a forgotten activity. The working day began at 7.30 or 8 and apart from a meal times and snatched breaks, went on till 10 pm, after the evening meetings had finished. As a curate I did have a fixed day-off, but the evening of that day was moveable at short notice so that I could never enrol for a choir or an evening class.

This preamble brings in the discussion of two words that are in the title.   Anglican clergy of my day were concerned that their work tasks could be subsumed in the word ‘ministry’. Ministry covered the pastoral care of young and old, the leading of worship and the teaching that went with it. Somehow the church carried on through this kind of faithful attention to people’s needs, in and out of their homes. The Vicar or the curate might take one or two funerals every week and the so-called ‘occasional offices’ would take up a lot of time. But over a period, even in quite large parishes, you found that the networks of contacts that you had built up, through the funerals of people you had buried and the babies you had baptised, was quite extensive. I myself, in the days when my parishes were only 1200 homes, would attempt at Christmas to knock on every door with a card. This was quite an investment of time but it paid pastoral dividends. The greatest of these was that no one in those parishes ever was totally unknown when it came to taking a funeral. It is surprising how much information you pick up on the doorstep in a five or ten minute conversation. Bereaved people were always appreciative of the fact that I had known something of their relative while he/she was still alive.

The word ‘mission’ sums quite a different emphasis in the task of the clergy. It suggests that the main priority of the clergy’s work is to evangelise and ‘save’ the ‘lost’ and bring them into the worshiping congregation. My memory of working full-time was that mission and ministry in fact worked seamlessly together. In my last English parish, there always seemed to be a cluster of adult confirmation candidates alongside the far more challenging group of teenagers, whose parents wanted them to be ‘done.’ The new arrivals seemed to balance the number who died and the congregation maintained a equilibrium of around 90 worshipping souls at the main service on Sundays. The point is that clergy of my background believed that you did ministry, the mission side of things took care of itself.

What seems to be happening today is that an emphasis on mission seems to be undermining some of the old pastoral priorities. I had a shock when a single mother reported to me that her local clergyman had said to her, when seeking support, ‘I don’t do pastoral.’ I interpreted that to mean that the only thing he was interested in as a clergyman was evangelising. By not doing ‘pastoral’ he was saying that the bread and butter of parochial ministry, the comforting the sick, the support of the lonely, the helping the confused and bereaved was no longer part of his job. I would not suggest for a moment that these things are not going on in churches up and down the land, but something has nevertheless changed in the way that the church is perceived by the people of the communities where it is placed. There no longer seems to be the sense that the church plays a full part in the community.   There is a sense that the church is far more concerned about its own inner affairs than serving this community. I was recently asked to help support an urban parish for nine months while the Vicar went on maternity leave. In the first week I was asked to do a funeral. After that there was silence in that direction. It may be that the local undertakers had a cosy relationship with a retired clergyman to cover all the funerals or maybe the funerals were being performed by lay (secular) celebrants. These people do a good job but it is sad if such large numbers of people are opting out of Christian burial because the message has gone out that the only times that the church cares for you is when you are a soul to be saved.

This question of finding a balance between mission and ministry is of relevance to our topic because the absence of pastoral care towards people inside and outside the church who need it is a serious matter. In some parishes locally there is a sense that the clergy no longer care for the elderly, the poor and the ‘shut-ins’ . All the energy goes into trying to attract the young with a range of activities which include ‘seeker-sensitive’ services. In one particular church I know, two thirds of the traditional congregation left after a mission-focused Vicar arrived, to be replaced in part by a new group of individuals whose loyalty appears to be fickle at best. The stories of individual betrayal, as the things that gave comfort and solace over decades are abandoned, are hard to catalogue. I do occasional work in our local hospital as bank chaplain and I know how much some people appreciate simple acts of ministry like a prayer or a bible reading when facing the possibility of death ahead of them. If they cannot find these things from the priest or even from lay visitors because the emphasis has gone to mission at all costs, then that is, in a way, a form of desertion by the church. Ignoring the real needs of people by Christian leaders is, to my mind, a form of abuse.

As I write this I am reminded of the passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus talks about the disciples who will be recognised in the coming age. They are the ones who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and visited the sick and the imprisoned. Surely these are the signs that we are required to give of our Christian witness. Such behaviour, the gentle reaching out to people in their need, will give glory to God and to his church.

74 Christian abuse on a poster

This poster recently appeared on a church notice board in Norfolk.  It has been taken down after a complaint that it was ‘hate incident’.  What cannot be seen on my copy are the flames that are at the bottom of the poster.  This poster perhaps sums up the mentality among certain Christians that is at the heart of this blog’s concern.

Questions that arise.

Who commissioned this poster?

Do the people who approve of it really believe that the people who disagree with it and them will eternally burn in hell?

Do they take pleasure in this terrible example of discrimination against their fellow human beings?

If they do, are they not guilty of murderous sentiments laced with a thick dose of cruelty and bitterness?

Is there really anything distinctively Christian about this poster at all?

73 Rearing children – the protestant way

This post is not a full description of theories about child rearing on the part of conservative parents, but starts with a vignette from one particular family with a fiercely evangelical background in the 20s and 30s. This comes from a description of the family of Broughton Knox (b.1916), the formidably influential Australian evangelical teacher whose ideas have such a strong influence in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney even today.

Broughton’s mother, Doris, was well groomed in the Scriptures and the children were brought up to believe that the stories of the Bible applied to them. Both father David and Doris had been much buffeted by numerous family tragedies, including the death of several of their children. David, although a successful evangelical Anglican rector, and well respected for his preaching, seems to have shut down emotionally and was thus unavailable to his youngest daughters. They looked to their mother for emotional sustenance but again there was little available. In their memories of their upbringing, these younger daughters recall the Bible stories on which they were reared. The one thing the parents could not handle were whining and outbursts of childish emotion. So the particular stories told and remembered were ones lifted from the account of the wanderings in the desert by the Children of Israel. The narrative records how Moses had to cope with what the Bible calls ‘murmuring’ The people murmured and complained and so, the Bible tells us, the snakes came and killed them. The constant telling of this particular tale by Doris was able to suppress childhood emotion and complaining all too easily. It succeeded by introducing a state of constant fear in these younger Knox children. These younger sisters were never psychologically able to leave the desert for the joys of the promised land.

It does not take a childhood psychologist to see the way that Scripture was being used in a very cruel way to try and repress the process of growing up . Of course children will have tantrums from time to time. These will be allowed to blow over and be quickly forgotten. The idea that whining and outbursts of emotion are to be likened to ‘murmurings’ in the desert is a terrifying take on a scriptural passage, one that has certainly never occurred to me. One wonders whether this interpretation is to be found in a long-forgotten book on child rearing, or whether the mother made it up for her own purposes.

The classic text that is brought forward from Scripture on the subject of child-rearing is one lifted from the Book of Proverbs. It is a verse that single-handedly has probably caused more suffering to children than any other. The verse, referring to a father and his sons, reads thus: ‘If you take the stick to him yourself, you will preserve him from the jaws of death’ (Proverbs 23.14). There are other passages in similar vein and in 1 Samuel, God is likened to a father chastising a son with a rod for his iniquity. The common saying, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ is not actually a quote from Scripture but the sentiments of this saying can be extracted from the Bible if one has the mind to do so. No doubt physical beating was felt to be inappropriate with regard to young girls but the effect of a constant referring to the punishments of the Israelites who ‘murmured’ was equally cruel.

The issue of Protestant nurture of children is not simply a matter of the way some evangelicals choose to understand a number of biblical texts. There is a fundamental theological reason for bringing these texts to the fore. Calvinist theology taught as one of its key themes the utter depravity of humankind. In order to emphasise the glories of salvation, John Calvin made sure in his teaching that this idea of the utter powerlessness and depravity of human beings was well and truly emphasised. Thus in traditional Protestant thinking, the selfishness and self-centered behaviour of children is an outward example of their innate wickedness. Even babies of a few months old were beaten in some Evangelical households in centuries past to drive the devil out. I would not accuse anyone today of these excesses of corrupted child rearing, but the norm of 18th and 19th century ‘respectable’ homes is terrifying to read about. The point needs to be repeated that it was a theological idea that gave justification for this terrible cruelty. Even if no one, outside certain cults, behaves like this now, this tendency to behave barbarically towards children in the name of God is something that the present generation should acknowledge and repent of.

The younger Knox sisters who grew up with the legacy of emotionally damaged parents and a atmosphere of fear are just one small example of the way that Christianity has been bad news to many people over the years. Hopefully society mores, the law and a general recognition of the emotional needs of the young has meant that this particular example of gross cruelty would not be found today.   But the potential of people in every age to corrupt the good for evil ends is something we must ever be alert for.

72 Who are the Fundamentalists? 2

I have already indicated on this blog how difficult it is to define exactly who or what is fundamentalist. Part of the problem, as I have mentioned, is that individuals are very good at shifting their position to accommodate who they are talking to. Thus a preacher might come up with some classic conservative rhetoric to please a particular congregation.   In private on the other hand, talking to a liberal friend, his position on, say, the details of the Exodus, might be very flexible. One particular ‘trick’ that fundamentalist students and scholars use to impress their followers, is to utilise all the resources of biblical scholarship but then to arrive at a very conservative conclusion. Thus they might examine the language, contemporary literature of the ancient Near East and conclude that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible or that the events of the book of Jonah took place exactly as described. Because 99% of the readers of this literature are in no position to challenge (or understand!) the weighty arguments being put forward, they are left with the feeling that conservative scholars are every bit as good as the liberal scholars. The only difference is that these liberals come to conclusions which seem to challenge the idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Thus they have to be disregarded in favour of the work of conservative scholars. These scholars are part of the correct evangelical tribe and they allow a sense of safety that they have arrived with a series of ‘safe’ and ‘correct’ conclusions about the Bible.

I have recently re-acquired a key book for fundamentalism studies, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals by Harriet Harris. I say ‘re-acquired’ because I let my first copy go in a purge of books some years ago. The book is a reworking of a doctoral study of the detail of the differences and overlaps between the two, the fundamentalists and the non-fundamentalist evangelicals.   In this blog post I want to share one particular debate that took place during the early 90s on this issue of the boundary between evangelical and fundamentalism. On the liberal side is an Oxford writer called James Barr who wrote a controversial attack of the fundamentalist position over the Bible. It infuriated many people in the evangelical camp, among them an evangelical scholar called R.T.France. France claimed that among evangelical scholars there were many that followed the canons of academic study which are pursued at university level. These include detailed textual analysis and the other tools of critical scholarship. The fact that their findings and conclusions agreed with their pre-existing dogmatic certainties about the Bible did not stop their work being genuine academic scholarship. Barr’s response to this was that although the tools they used were scholarly tools, the fact that they came up with conservative conclusions meant that they could not be using them properly. Although France claimed that his position was one of openness to both conservative and scholarly approaches, a kind of ‘mid-way’ position, Barr pointed out that this was nonsense. The moment that a conservative scholar refuses to endorse a particular stance about a detail of scripture because it is ‘inconsistent with evangelical theology’, then that scholar is implicitly endorsing fundamentalism. Barr points to the fact that this cadre of conservative scholars have an internal boundary which tells them the line between acceptable and inacceptable findings. Conclusions have to conform to their pre-existing ideas of inspiration. John Robinson, the radical New Testament commentator, received approval from conservative scholars when he wrote a book suggesting a very early date for John’s gospel in accordance with conservative views. Everything else was quietly ignored because the conclusions were too ‘liberal’ and radical for conservative consumption.

The strong point that Barr is making is that if you research something with the proviso that your findings have to fit into a pre-existing pattern of truth, then you fail the test of proper scholarship. Any academic research worth the name does not fix the result but allows openness and creativity. Both these words imply newness and even change from what has gone before. Barr rejects completely the idea that a true scholar can have a prior commitment to evangelical or conservative interpretations of scripture before setting out to do detailed study. No amount of learning and knowledge can overcome this stumbling block. It reminds one of the nonsense that would be created if a ship-load of members of the Flat Earth Society set off to explore the world. Everything they saw and measured would be interpreted to accord with their beliefs. That is, according to Barr, exactly what conservative Biblical scholars are doing, however impressive and apparently learned their scholarship appears to be.

I have managed to write a shorter post than usual and my readers will again be able to accompany me as I dip into the considerable wisdom of Harris’ book in the future. Because it is a detailed study of much of the available literature, it will help us to have objective view of what people have actually written and said. The shifting sands of what people say they believe about Scripture is, as I mentioned at the start, frustratingly mobile. It is to the written literature that we have to return and Harris’ book will make that possible.

71 Further thoughts on Christian music

One of the things I have learnt from Chris in our conversations is the incredible importance given to contemporary popular music by many conservative churches across the world. As an individual reared in the music of Tallis, Bach and Stanford, it would not occur to me to attend a church where I was regaled every week by music with a mesmerising beat. And yet, I have to recognise that the popular style of Christian music, influenced by contemporary pop music, is far more the norm than the pale imitations of cathedral music that I have encouraged in my churches over the years. Rick Warren, the influential writer of The Purpose Driven Church was asked if he would do things differently if he were to start all over again. His answer is striking. He said ‘I’d put more energy and money into a first class music ministry .. I made the mistake of underestimating the power of music so I minimised the use of music in our services. I regret that now.’ In talking about music, Warren was not referring to hymns or Taize choruses but to the loud beat driven music of the contemporary music scene, albeit with Christian words.   The extensive influence of Warren’s words on this subject mean that Christian leaders all over the world are following him in providing a plentiful supply of popular music dressed up as Christian worship.

To write this post, I am allowing myself to be in part guided by a book sitting on my shelves called Why I left the Contemporary Christian Music movement by Dan Lucarini. His is a story of first involvement and then gradual disillusionment with the Christian music scene in the States. His theological perspective is a fairly conservative one but I can respect some of the biblical issues he raises in his questioning. He first asks the question ‘What is worship?’   In answering this question, he draws attention to the fact that the Greek word for worship, proskuneo, means to kiss like a dog licking his master’s hand. I have to confess that this is for me a completely new insight but the important idea is that of obeisance or reverence before someone of power. Implicit in this word is the idea that we come to God with nothing of our own. Lucarini contrasts this idea of human abasement with the fashion for feeling good about oneself that seems to pervade much modern worship. He says ‘worship is not looking up and feeling good, it is bowing down and feeling lowly.’ The word ‘fear’ needs to be reinstated in its proper meaning of awe and holy veneration rather a sense of dread of eternal punishment. These two words, holiness and awe might well provide a summary of the direction we wish to aim at when we seek to introduce people to the heart of worship, with or without the aid of music.

The problem for Lucarini is that churches the world over have been seduced by the mantra that the only way of bringing people into church is to offer them a musical culture that they are already familiar with. The common denominator is popular music which will always have a good rhythm and probably a repetitive melody. Pop music, otherwise called ‘rock and roll’ is, for Lucarini, a dangerous container for Christian teaching. The very expression ‘rock and roll’ is slang for sexual activity and the music itself is designed to arouse a variety of emotions, not all of which can be said to be wholesome or edifying. As someone who will not enter a shop or supermarket which tolerates ‘piped’ music, I am not the best person to judge whether Lucarini is right or not over the corrupting influence of certain forms of music. I find his arguments interesting and worthy of an airing. Because of my tastes in music, I have always been afraid that my indifference or dislike of pop music was based on my some form of musical snobbery. It is therefore interesting to read of the case against such music in church being made, not on aesthetic but on moral grounds.

One issue that Lucarini raises, which is familiar to every church goer, is that of splits when new musical traditions are brought into churches. The modernisers all too easily characterise the traditionalists as ignoring a movement of the Spirit. Many Christian leaders will make the decision that a new musical style makes the loss of traditional members a sacrifice worth making. A parallel mini revolution is going on in Anglican congregations across the country and this concerns the replacement of ‘ministry’ with ‘mission’. What this means in practice is that the pastoral needs of the old and the sick are sidelined in favour of new and often untried methods of attracting new potential members into the church building. This may include a revolution in styles of music.   Clergymen of my generation do not understand the changing priorities of a new generation of ministers who, in many places, seem to have retreated from many of the mainstays of parochial ministry. These included faithful pastoral care, teaching and the support of individuals from birth to death. The introduction of new music is perhaps one way that an untidy shift towards ‘mission’ is taking place. Sadly this has left casualties, and hurt, abandoned faithful Christian people are pushed to the sidelines and sometimes feel it necessary to leave their churches after many decades of faithful membership.

For me, an older clergyman with conservative musical tastes, it is good to read that there are younger people who express what we secretly feel but do not articulate, namely that some styles of music are spiritually harmful. My own objections to ‘pop’ styles of music are probably nothing to do with the issue of causing sexual arousal, as Lucarini would claim. The objections have far more to do with an intolerance for loud noise and the inappropriateness of such sound for the business of worship. Lucarini touches a very good point when he talks about the modern tendency to project God as being like a mate, rather than the object of awe and wonder which is as he presented by the Bible and Christian tradition. Both the lyrics of songs and the sometimes seductive lilt of the melodies do suggest a relationship that is some way from reminding us of the majesty and awe of God. The idea that music contributes to a generally looser style of morals and relationships in a congregation is not an idea I have heard before but it certainly requires some pondering.

I have included these notes about the experience of one Christian writer on the worship music scene as it resonates with some deeply felt concerns that Chris has expressed. I hope that my readers will add their own thoughts. If some Christian music is even slightly harmful, as Lucarini claims, then that is a matter of enormous concern to our attempt to understand and interpret the face of Christianity today, especially in its conservative manifestations.

70 Organizational theory and churches

I have been recently reading a bit on the subject of organizational theory. This is the study of the way institutions and organizations like schools or firms operate. One particular idea that is important to grasp, is that all organizations operate somewhere on a continuum between transparency at one end and defensiveness with tight boundaries at the other. Thus at one extreme you have an organization that is totally open to the world beyond itself. Sometimes it is so completely open so that there is little to distinguish it from what is outside. At the other extreme is the closed organization. This represents the kind of group that erects protective walls around itself so that those within have a strong sense of being separate from all that is outside.

Looking at this simple description of the open and closed in respect of organizations in general, it is easy to see how the church also conforms to this pattern. We have a contrast between churches that are open to the outside world so that there are few, if any, barriers existing. People can be members with no more than minimal attendance at these kind of churches. Welcome is given to all and maybe only a small number are completely identified with the organization.   At the other end are the churches which are seen to be closed and exclusive.   This is done by erecting strict barriers of membership. This might involve refusing baptism to any but the committed and insisting on regular attendance.   Members would also support the church by giving a tithe of their earnings and agree to submit to strong leadership. The dynamics of these ‘closed’ churches are quite different from the typical Anglican church.

The book I am consulting, The Incestuous Workplace, by William L White, in describing closed organisations, like certain companies and hospitals, could in fact be describing ‘closed’ churches. The words he uses, ‘high priest’, ‘charismatic leadership’ and ‘discipleship’ are theological in origin. He also reminds us of cultic groups when he describes the way that stress within an organization encourages this process of pulling up the drawbridge and having minimal contact with the outside. Within this ghetto, there is a strong resistance to change.   White also notes the way that mission statements or the traditional products of the company are clung to as though they were a form of dogma, faith in which will somehow protect them all from disaster.   Loyalty and trust in these codes of practice and in the leaders is required of everyone and any sort of questioning is regarded as disloyal heresy which cannot be tolerated. Those guilty of questioning the anxious defensive paranoia have to be excluded. A particularly insightful point that White makes concerns the vulnerability of socially isolated people to these closed groups. He says that such people, experiencing anxiety, can be made to believe ‘almost anything if it is delivered in the context of a supportive relationship that promises immediate comfort and continued safety security and happiness.’

White says so much in this vein that I kept having to check that this was not a theological treatise, that I was indeed reading about the world of secular organizations and institutions. The fact that there is such a close overlap between sacred and secular confirms a crucial point in our understanding of the church.   The point is that, in more ways than we would like to admit, the Church is a human organisation, subject to the same failings and dangers as every other institution. Whatever we may want to claim for the church in terms of its divine origin, this does not remove it from the inevitable fallibility of its humanness. While non-Catholic churches do not use words like infallibility to describe their institution, the authority given to some leaders often takes on a form that appears to be beyond ordinary human fallibility. The way that the Bible is proclaimed as ‘infallible’ truth is nearly always a claim for the unassailable correctness and unquestionable power of the preacher.   Such claimed power and authority is probably similar in kind to that found in all closed organizations, particularly those which, according to Williams, are facing threats to their continuation and functioning. People start to draw together under ‘infallible’ leaders, often the same ones responsible for bringing the organization to the point of collapse. The nearer the institution draws to extinction, the more irrational and uncritical is the confidence shown towards the leaders.

A further insight into closed organizations that runs closely to the understanding of the church, is the idea of homogenization. This predicts that people in a closed organization are likely to be very similar to one another. The non-conformist, the one with ideas to challenge the status-quo is likely to have been excluded. In organizational terms, appointees are likely to be conformists. In a church setting, nobody of an independent spirit is likely to feel at home with this ‘sameness’ among church members. But ‘sameness’ and predictability do have their attractions . Some people will find it an energising factor and thus be prepared to work and give generously. Thus companies with a clear mission statement will do well.   A church with a clear but simplistic statement of faith combined with demanding ethical standards, will also often do better than churches where the boundaries are fuzzy. White sees that the closed organisation, with its permanent sense of crisis and even paranoia about the outside world, will often have an addictive quality about it. Both leaders and led find a sense of purpose in responding to these crises and this may distract the individuals concerned from facing up to and dealing with their own internal issues.

White’s description of a closed institution is set out as the description of an organization probably in terminal decline. He makes the assumption that the pace of overwork, frenetic activity combined with the sheer exhaustion of keeping people together in this kind of setting will eventually result in overload and collapse.   We do in fact see examples of ministries that fall apart with the strain that comes from trying to work such an organisational pattern. Other churches avoid total collapse by re-inventing themselves totally.   Many years ago Weber noted the way that charisma often gives way to institutional openness after a generation. White’s insights give us much to ponder. It is certainly worth using his yardstick to measure institutions that we are involved in, whether a church or workplace.  Whether open or closed, every institutional setting seems to have the capacity to create stress for those caught up in them. Human beings are very similar the world over when they gather into groups, whether commercial companies, schools or churches. Negotiating with the stress of these systems is probably part of everyday life but books like this can help us to do it with wisdom and even humour.

69 Fundamentalism Down Under – further news

In the previous post I wrote a piece about an archetypal fundamentalist system of theology emerging from the Diocese of Sydney in Australia.   What I was basing my findings on were two books published three and five years ago respectively. Time moves on and there are two important events that have taken place since the situation that I reported. One salient event was discussed by Muriel Porter’s book, namely the meltdown in the finances of the Diocese of Sydney. The second event is the election of a new Archbishop, Glen Davies to replace Peter Jensen.

Sydney Diocese for many decades has been one of the wealthiest dioceses in the Anglican communion. This was based on endowments and property holdings. With that wealth came power and influence. Quite a sizeable amount of the costs of the first GAFCON conference in 2008 in Jerusalem were met from the endowments that flowed into the Sydney coffers. Money was also found to base this organisation in Sydney, providing office space and administrative backup. Archbishop Peter Jensen was the first secretary, a post he retains in his retirement. Another organisation which benefits from this largesse is the organisation in England with the misleading title of Anglican Mainstream. This organization appears to do everything with a web-site and while it sponsors gatherings it has no membership structure. To judge from the web-site it has a task of criticising real mainstream Anglicans from an ultra-conservative position.

The extensive wealth of the Sydney diocese received a severe dent between the end of 2008 and 2010. Although the fall in stock-markets was a factor, more serious was a remarkable degree of amateurish decisions made by enthusiastic but naive members of financial sub-committees. Borrowing money to buy shares and then selling them at the bottom of the market wiped out some 200 million dollars worth of investments. Muriel Porter details the various stages of the meltdown in her book. The consequence of the collapse was that the income of the diocese was halved and halved again. Many of the ambitious projects for converting ten per cent of the population to Calvinist Christianity within the diocese had to be put on hold and there was little money to employ all the new eager graduates of Moore Theological College. The Archbishop at the time, Peter Jensen put a brave face on things, but it is clear that he was fairly shattered by the whole fiasco. Before we leave the finances, it is worth noting that three areas of outreach did not have their support cut in any way. The first is Moore Theological College which continues to receive 1 1/2 million dollars a year. The second is the support for GAFCON, both the secretarial support in Sydney itself and grants for their gatherings. Thirdly the support for Anglican Mainstream is left unaffected.

In June 2013, Peter Jensen was required to retire as Archbishop on reaching the age of 70. The task of appointing a successor attracted a lot of interest from church and media alike. The legacy of Peter in preserving a ‘pure’ form of Calvinist theology was something that many of his supporters were anxious to ensure. Lobbying, political manoeuvring and canvassing were the order of the day for several weeks last summer. The two candidates were an existing Bishop, Glen Davies aged 62 and a priest Rick Smith aged 49. Both candidates came from the Sydney mould and it is difficult this far away to distinguish them on the grounds of theology. But Rick Smith attracted the support of Philip Jensen, the Dean of the Cathedral and many of the Standing Committee. Whether this association with a Jensen brother was a handicap or whether the reputation of the Standing Committee was still in doubt after the financial debacle is unclear.   For whatever reason Glen Davies was elected. Sydney may be beginning to row back from the political extremes of theology and intolerance. Let us hope so. The signs look good that eventually Sydney may begin to move back towards the central ground.

The Anglican Communion may well have been irrevocably fractured by the political shenanigans exercised in America and Australia with the help of allies from Africa. But there is in this Sydney election the first sign of a ray of hope that theological extremism is no longer going to be the order of the day in an entire diocese. One would hope that Archbishop Glen will make it his task to reach out to the embattled Archbishop of Canterbury to articulate a very small gesture of support which say just this: ‘I may not agree with your theology but I defend your right to hold this different point of view.’ That courtesy has been absent from recent statements from GAFCON as recently as last week. Is that very much to ask of one Primate to support another?

69 Who are the fundamentalists?

One of the problems of trying to study fundamentalist Christians 15 years ago was that it was very hard to find one. This may sound a strange thing to say when I was meeting conservative Christians all the time in my researches. But all too frequently the individuals would deny that they believed this or that doctrine which was supposed to be typical of conservative belief. I was dealing not just with the difficulty of defining what fundamentalism was but also finding it embodied archetypically in an single individual. People seemed very ready to back pedal on belief systems that might sound strange to another person or look somewhat extremist. When challenged on particular texts, the proponents of literal beliefs about the Bible would find some way of blunting the edge of what they believed, so that it was less offensive than when it had been uttered from the pulpit. I remember once hearing some bizarre ideas about demonic possession reported, which were apparently taught at a local healing centre. They fitted exactly a pattern that was ‘fashionable’ in the early 90s and I had no reason to suppose that my source had got it wrong. I did question the leaders concerned but they denied all knowledge of such teaching. A few days later I was in the back seat of a car and these same leaders were discussing transgender issues which were in the news at that time. Their comments fitted precisely the extremist language of moral condemnation of people in the unhappy situation of having an ambiguous sexual identity. Christian morality, according to their understanding, apparently had to condemn those who sought a sex change operation. I said nothing, but noted internally that conservative Christianity finds it easier to deal in precise categories of good and bad, light and darkness.   The concept of ambiguity in a moral situation did not exist within their thinking.

I write this preamble because it is extremely difficult to pin someone down as an archetypal fundamentalist Christian. The typical conservative Christian who sits in the pew is most likely full of inconsistencies about belief.   Even the most devout will not have internalised the ‘sound’ teaching perfectly . For most, there will be a muddle of correct teaching mixed up with all sorts of other ideas which compete for attention. Complete consistency of beliefs is quite hard to achieve. No Christian leader can ever completely police the thinking of his flock. Among Christian leaders you will probably find a layer of tribal ‘correct’ thinking and belief which they present to their congregations. In addition they will also have private doubts and questions which are kept to themselves Perhaps the only place we can find an archetypal Christian position expressed is in the writings of those who lead or represent denominations or Christian conservative networks. Whatever problems of faith such individuals have , these need to be kept firmly under wraps so that their followers see only the calm and clear presentation of consistent Biblical teaching. As far as this audience is concerned, doubts or hesitations have to be invisible.

In the past week or two I have come across two books which actually make it possible to study the archetypal conservative Christian. The books* make it clear that two brothers, Peter and Philip Jensen, both Anglican leaders in Sydney, Australia, have been teaching a coherent and consistent version of strict Calvinist Christianity for 20+ years. Peter Jensen served until recently as Archbishop of Sydney while his brother is Dean of the Anglican Cathedral.   The teaching of the brothers has acquired a fixed structure partly because the Sydney diocese has within it a strictly conservative Anglican college known as Moore Theological College.  This college through it principals and teaching staff developed a system of theology which can be thought of as an ‘ism’.  In church political terms, the Jensen brothers achieved supreme power in the diocese which allowed them almost complete control of church life in their diocese. No clergy were allowed to come from outside the diocese to ‘corrupt’ any of the parishes, and every ordinand has had to pass through Moore College. This Calvinist ‘take-over’ of Sydney Anglicans was of significance not just to the church in Australia but it is even now a threat to the world-wide Anglican Communion. What has happened is that the energy created within this conservative ‘ghetto’ has raised the confidence of this style of theology so that it believed that the whole Anglican communion is ripe for take-over by a confident Biblical Christianity. With the help of conservatives in America and across Africa, the Jensen brothers and their supporters believed that their time had come. Their version of Christianity was thought to be the only truly valid expression of Anglicanism. I have spoken of the influence of America in encouraging African churches to make a great issue over the topic of gay marriage, but it would appear that the Diocese of Sydney also has had comparable influence in this matter. The Diocese of Sydney and the now retired Archbishop Jensen form a crucial part of the so-called GAFCON group of disaffected Anglican churches across the world. They believe that they alone stand for Biblical Christianity.

In Britain, the greater part of the Anglican church has little time for GAFCON. While many churches and even dioceses follow a conservative path, few want to go the Sydney/ GAFCON way. The only allies in England for the Jensen brothers are the group of 30 or so parishes under the auspices of an organisation called REFORM. This conservative group has no representatives on the Bishop’s bench. Even in the one college that supports the Moore College ethos, Oakhill in London, there is far greater a degree of plurality than is allowed in Australia.

Conservative Christianity, à la Jensen brothers, has been indeed powerful in the Anglican Church but in many ways its power base is too narrow to take over the whole church. I suspect that all GAFCON and the other international groupings of conservative Anglicans have achieved is to help fragment the church. In the face of such uncompromising extremist teaching, Anglicans may, as I have suggested in another post, have to walk apart. It will always be impossible to talk to those who believe, as the Jensen brothers do, that the entire truth of God is preserved in a single theological system – theirs. Such a theological system is in fact a creation of their own hubris and must ultimately fall. My next blog post will indicate some of the cracks in the edifice that are beginning to show.

To return to the question at the beginning. To find true fundamentalist teaching we must look beyond the muddled thinking of individual Christians to the coherent ‘political’ systems set out by networks of destructive ideologies such as Sydney/Moore theological College/ GAFCON. Such ideologies must be studied and refuted with energy. This energy for such a task is sadly not in evidence.  (I will be writing more on this topic as further information come my way)

*Philip Jensen: Bible Believer. Psychology of Fundamentalist Leadership, Peter Herriot Amazon Kindle Book, 2009

Sydney Anglicans and the threat to World Anglicanism Muriel Porter, Ashgate, 2011

68 Education and Anti-Education

Years ago at the end of the sixties, I went on a 4 month study course sponsored by the World Council of Churches at Bossey near Geneva. The course was an international affair with some 60 attendees from every part of the globe. It was an experience which was designed to immerse us in the issues of ecumenism as well as different approaches to theology. Most important it introduced the participants into the cultural variety that exists in the world and the way nationalities see problems differently. To cope with the sheer variety of approaches, it was important that each person there was ready be, at least, a little flexible in their thinking. Some managed this well and grew as a result. Others struggled and I have a particular memory of a conservative American Baptist minister. After one lecture he was in the throes of expressing a sense of dissonance between what his training had taught him and what he was now struggling to understand. I watched this uncomfortable scenario for a moment and then scribbled a note and pushed it to my neighbour. The note summed up what I thought was going on and read: ‘An ex-fundamentalist with nowhere to go.’ What I was witnessing was a man who knew that his conservative theological training was incomplete but he did not know how to process new ideas into the thought-system that still dominated his mind. What I would say now in the light of my subsequent reading is that not only had this American received an education which did not equip him for new learning, but it could even be called an anti-education.

In thinking about the Baptist minister of 45 years ago, I am also reminded of the couple encountered by Chris at Skegness. In each case there is an apparent inability to process new information successfully. Being able to decipher new knowledge or information is a very important part of our ability to flourish both in the world of work and in our participation in a modern democracy. Society expects us to be able to take part in the jury process when called upon to do so, so an impairment in our ability to reason, to weigh up varied arguments and points of view is, to put it mildly, something of a handicap. If we are right to suggest that our Skegness couple and the American Baptist minister cannot process new information adequately, how may we account for this? The answer lies, I believe, in the nature and assumptions of a style of Protestant religious education, particularly that found in America. This tradition, as we shall see, stands in contrast to the main-stream ideas of a liberal education which have around since the 18th century.

The particular Christian educational pattern that is provided to many Christians in conservative settings is based on a theory from 18th century Scotland known as Common Sense Realism. This philosophy states that any statement which can be taken at face value has to be taken in this way.   The ‘realism’ being propounded was in contrast to the ideas of philosophers such as David Hume who put high importance to scepticism and doubt.   Common Sense philosophy found a ready home in 19th century American universities, and can be seen to undergird the philosophical ideas of early fundamentalism. When applied to Bible, it is claimed that the meaning of statements in Scripture are the meanings that can be deduced by anyone through the exercise of common sense. If the Bible says that God created the Bible in six days, then that that is the truth, the literal truth. This belief allows the ordinary person with a Bible to have access to enormous areas of knowledge without having to defer to ‘experts’. The ordinary Christian thus also has in his hands the key to understanding history, both past, present and future. This idea of such truth being given to the ordinary man was very popular in the egalitarian early days of the American Republic. It was an idea that contrasted with the elitism that seemed to be dominant in the Europe that American citizens had left behind in emigrating to the New World. There are obviously other strands in the emergence of conservative Biblical scholarship, but this anti-elitist common sense dimension is important to understand.

What is the consequence of putting this approach to Scripture at the heart not only of Christian formation but also into the general education of millions? Conservative Christianity has always had a strong influence on the formation of the young, right up to college level. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see how a belief in ‘common sense’ will flatten any understanding of complexity or nuance, whether it be found in dealing with Scripture, morality or social issues. God has spoken. What else is there for us to learn?

The typical conservatively trained American Protestant minister will have a good knowledge of the Bible. He will also have studied great preachers of the past, Charles Finney and Jonathan Edwards to name but two. But his entire education will have been neutralised (sabotaged?) by this overriding assumption that the entire body of truth and history – everything of importance has already been revealed. The skills that are needed are those of faithful study and re-presenting of this truth of Scripture week after week. Novelty of any kind will not be possible because the system of thought makes such newness unacceptable. The ‘common-sense’ words of Scripture and the permitted interpretations are all that is possible to hear in church.

It can be seen, from what has been said, that the undergirding principles of a conservative Christian education are in a collision course with the principles of a broad Western education. We describe such a broad education as a liberal education, recognising that this word ‘liberal’ is a hate word in large swathes of American society. Liberal values in education are nevertheless still upheld in most of the centres of higher education on both sides of the Atlantic.   There seems little chance at present that this dominance will be overturned. In spite of being accused of obscurity and elitism, liberals will continue to fight for the values arising out of paradox, plurality and complexity as well as novelty.   Truth cannot not be reduced to a democratic vote or be surrendered to the highest bidder. But meanwhile in a variety of educational institutions up and down the land, the values of anti-education rule. These deny the liberal values of the unexpected, the new and the constant possibility of change. One particularly depressing facet of fundamentalist behaviour, which arises from this type of education, is the inability to be wrong.   We noted the failure of humour in the conservative personality and we could add to this a smug complacency of ‘knowing’ that they are always right.

In our newspapers today we read about the issues of an illiberal education being offered by certain Muslim schools in Birmingham. We would be right to call this anti-education. But we would want to extend this description to the way that countless Christian people in this country are taught, whether in school or in church.