Thursday, 18 December 2014

Christmas in the Margins or 'What is the point of Christmas?'

Life can often feel like it’s happening elsewhere, to other, more interesting people. In the past week I’ve had a number of conversations which have underlined this.

For the sake of protecting confidentiality, it’s obviously unfair to mention names and too many details. But those conversations have shared an important characteristic – a sense of ‘life not really happening for/to me’. That is, a sense of feeling a bit neglected and left out of the action, of not quite ‘being seen’.

It’s an experience that’s most common among people who (on the face of it) lack the means to shape their own lives. For example, I’ve spoken to housebound people who experience marginalization and who feel they lack power, authority, and the means to shape conditions of respect around them.

I remember when I was really ill, years ago now, and I relied on benefits to support me. I was a highly educated and, in some ways, confident person, but the experience corroded my sense of place and worth. (I hate to think just how awful ‘life beneath the line’ is for people dealing with our current vile benefits regime. Indeed, in our divided society, in many cases, work itself is no longer the means to lift oneself to a place of dignity.)

However, I suspect feeling ‘unseen’ or ‘at the edges’ is an experience all of us have from time to time. It probably sounds absurd to suggest that someone as seemingly powerful as, I don’t know, Barack Obama might ever feel that life is happening elsewhere, but who knows? (Let’s leave aside whether that’s justified! My point is that one can so easily get caught up in one’s context and not see it for what it is.)

I also think that in the age of Social Media this experience is amplified – for it is so very easy, via Twitter or Facebook, to catch a glimpse of other people’s lives. Given that these glimpses are so often carefully curated insights into the ‘best’ or ‘most exciting’ parts of those lives, it can leave us feeling inadequate. When we’re on Twitter, we all run the risk of being like that bloke on The Fast Show who smugly talks about his amazing adventures, concluding by saying, ‘Which was nice.’

I am not someone who has many grounds for self-pity or for believing that ‘the real action is elsewhere’. I have one hell of a rich and creative life. But I’m as bad as anyone else for feeling left out of the action. I suspect that reflects one of the flaws in my personality – I love to feel like ‘an insider’. For example, I’m one of those people who, when I go to the theatre, I really want to be in the show. I don’t need to be on stage (no matter what my younger brother says!), just to be on the inside.

I’m not particularly proud of this trait, but it’s worth acknowledging it. It can mean that even if things are varied and fun in my life, I can look at other people’s lives and think, ‘Well, they’re having more fun’ or ‘getting to do cool things’ or ‘living a more interesting or more influential life’ and so on. It’s all rather tedious, but real nonetheless.

It’s rather like the story of the Jesuit novice who envied a colleague because the latter was clearly ace at prayer and silence and contemplation. Finally the novice spoke to the ‘expert’ contemplative and said how much he envied him. To which the contemplative said how much he envied the novice back. Why? Because the novice was so committed to social action and engagement and the contemplative wished he found it as easy to be with people. So often ‘the world’, ‘the action’ and ‘the life’ can seem to be going on other people’s glamorous, or powerful or busy or, frankly, different lives.

This phenomenon is one reason we all need Christmas. For the ‘power’ of Christmas – as symbol, story, narrative, myth (I really don’t care if the first nativity happened ‘exactly’ like the Gospel record)  – lies in its reminder of The Divine’s/God’s disinterest in glamour, cool and position. It reminds us that God, as ultimate Other, does not need all the things many of us think are fundamental, but are actually props for our vanity, our position, and even our desire to serve the institution (by, e.g., extending its reach or making it better, bigger, cooler, more impressive and so on).

Where is Christmas happening? Clearly, the easy answer is everywhere. Everywhere the tinsel goes up, and there are songs of good cheer and so on. Those of us who are religious need to remember that we don’t ‘own’ Christmas. Or perhaps Christmas happens most clearly among those who believe in the Christ, who gather to share his story and are united in belief and liturgy. It’s not my job to put limits on where Christmas can and does happen.

However, the Bible narratives offer some powerful suggestions that undercut many of our easy assumptions. Christmas powerfully undermines our vain-glorious pictures of what’s important and significant in the world and our lives.

Jesus Christ – as icon of God – is not born in a temple or palace, among kings and emperors and hierophants. He is not born at the heart of a metropolis or political centre. His place of birth is no Rome or Jerusalem, but a no-note town that barely retains the rumours of a once great king. There is no glamour or cool, just a stable and peasants for parents. One of the parents isn’t even – on some readings of the Biblical text - the ‘birth’ parent.

The eyes of the world are not upon Jesus, no reporters waiting at the door, waiting for a quote from a proud mum or dad. There are just shepherds. Not the romantic figures of Victorian sentiment, but unrighteous men and women who plied their trade in lonely hills far away from the rituals that might make them pure and righteous.

This Icon of God, Jesus, was, as the song has it, ‘a saviour without safety’, without any means of self-defence, but the effects that a baby can have on stony hearts. He was placed into the hands of humans as adequate and inadequate as any of us. He was dependent, open to abuse and neglect and, yet, calling forth love.

We live in an age of carefully curated lives, where so many of us calculate how best we can make an impact, can get ahead, can ensure our voices are heard. And, damn it, some voices should be heard, though probably not the ones who get the most ‘airtime’.

We live in an age of shiny things, where – understandably – even as Christians we want to be seen in the market places and public square. (And I’m clear that faith voices have much to contribute beyond safe ‘holy huddles’.)

We live in an age where it can feel like all that is good is happening in the palaces and modern temples of money and glamour and power. And anyone can feel left out or unseen.

But I sense God is about other things.

Where is Christmas happening this year? Probably in some neglected, uncomfortable part of the estate on which you (or should I say ‘I’) live, without much attention or seeming value. Right there, good news will be happening, a commitment to love and act for the good by people who seem to be nobodies to those whose attention is fixed elsewhere,

Where is Christmas happening this year? Perhaps, in the passion and pain, but unconquerable courage of LGBT people in Africa, people whose voices are as marginalized as Christ’s, people who are being made to bleed without safety and justice.

Where is Christmas happening this year? Among those who this society and others treat as unrighteous, as outcasts, and as the nobodies who are told never to expect glory or wonder or joy. Perhaps, Christmas is happening in the midst of those seeking refuse and asylum and those taking the risk of granting it. Perhaps.

Perhaps, we cannot quite say, under the conditions our society finds itself living through, where Christmas will be happening.

However, the Nativity is a reminder that if Christmas – or life or whatever – is happening ‘elsewhere’ it is not in the ‘elsewhere’ of glamorous, powerful and influential lives.

Christmas is not in the homes of those who insulate themselves from the terror, pain and exposure of reality, who create simulacra of Christmas for the benefit of telling themselves they are the special or honoured ones.

The elsewhere of Christmas is all around us, in the world we choose not to see, that won’t be dressed up in an ironic Christmas jumper and made to look nice. And in that otherness God is alive and seen by those with eyes to see. And from those places God comes to tear the palaces and the temples of our, of my, easy comfort and exploitation. God’s star points us not towards position, glitz or status, but into a more fearful glory. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

'These are not the leaders you're looking for' - talent pools, management & the C of E

“I alone must write on flesh. Not even
The congenial face of my Baptist cousin,
My crooked affinity Judas, who understands,
Men who would give me accurately to the unborn
As if I were something simple, like bread.
But Pete, with his headband stuffed with fishhooks,
His gift for rushing in where angels wouldn’t,
Tom, for whom metaphor is anathema,
And James and John, who want the room at the top—
These numskulls are my medium. I called them.

I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives.
My Keystone Cops of disciples, always,
Running absurdly away, or lying ineptly,
Cutting off ears and falling into the water,
These Sancho Panzas must tread my Quixote life,
Dying ridiculous and undignified,
Flayed and stoned and crucified upside down.
They are the dear, the human, the dense, for whom
My message is. That might, had I not touched them,
Have died decent respectable upright deaths in bed.”

The above is taken from U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem, Getting It Across. It’s well worth checking out in full, vocalizing in Fanthorpe’s inimitable style Jesus’ exasperation with the fools he’s forced to work with.

When I read the Church Times’ article on The Green Report – which advises the Church to effectively adopt a business-shaped approach to developing its ‘talent pool’ for leadership positions – this poem came to mind. Fanthorpe’s poem reminds us of what we all know – that God, in the shape of Christ, is seeking to 'tattoo' glory on our makeshift lives. Her poem goes to the heart of the ironic, perhaps paradoxical glory of God and how it might be embodied in the church: how God does not necessarily choose the brilliant, the talented or even the especially virtuous for service. He almost perversely has a fondness for Keystone Cops and Sancho Panzas. God works with and calls the human, the dense and the foolish for ministry as much as the Augustines and the Pauls. And while the Anselms and Aquinas are called along with the clowns, it is not clear that they are the ones who are called to lead.

It is hard to argue that the C of E qua institution has been pretty poor at looking beyond patronage and ‘old school tie’ as a means of filling ‘senior’ posts. In one sense, the Green Report's desire to find ways of identifying clergy for those posts from a wider range of backgrounds than have hitherto been found is fair enough. As a friend pointed out on FB, in an hierarchical institution that is male-dominated, middle-class and so on, it makes sense to build the confidence of candidates from non-'trad' backgrounds.

However, one of the abiding questions concerns the extent to which the church should be driven by institutional rather than kingdom/God concerns. From an institutional point of view, demonstrable ‘success’ in achieving goals ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘z’ is a fundamental concern. Unilever or HSBC (for which Lord Green worked) will want managers to show how they have ‘added value’ to the institution for the sake of making that institution ever more successful in the world (in both cases, by delivering profits for the shareholders, one assumes). Leader-managers will model the values of the institution, managing risk and reward, and producing results. If they don’t they will lose their jobs or be demoted or be retrained. Growth will be the driver. If profit is not achieved, they may have to get rid of employees or find other means of rationalization. It is not the managers’ role to ask whether his/her institution is questionable or part of a system that might be open to question. 

I overstate for rhetorical effect, but I wonder: should the Church, insofar as it is committed to living for God and the Kingdom, be like the above? 


All I am certain of is that the figure at the centre of what the early Christians called The Way, Jesus Christ, modelled an odd, questionable and dodgy form of 'leadership'. Sacrifice, loss, and woundedness were not alien to him. His leadership was defined by grace and servanthood, not by extending the reach and (gulp!) penetration of an institution into the market-place.

And, yes, I know he never had to deal with the anxieties and challenges of being a bishop, a dean or an archdeacon. Jesus is precisely the kind of poltroon no institution, business or organisation is likely to want.

But he disturbs and inspires me because he seemed interested in the Kingdom and in God rather than delivering success according to an organization’s values. Maybe that’s what God is about. That's why he's so damn outrageous and infuriating.  For he dares us to make fools of ourselves for the sake of a ridiculous Love rather than living the respectable, upright lives - managed, costed, demonstrably growing - the institution adores.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Headship and Holiness: 'It's a Trap!' or 'Why the Bishop of Maidstone might be particularly bad news for Conservative Evangelicals'

There’s an old joke, worn thin from use, that goes something like this:

A woman dies and goes to heaven. As part of the ‘orientation progamme’ she’s taken on a tour of heaven. She is, as the Americans say, ‘shown a time’. Finally, she’s taken past a large enclosure. From within issue sounds of rejoicing, praise and excitement. Wanting to take a closer look, the woman looks for an entrance. None is to be found. In frustration she asks her guide, ‘What’s that?’ To which the angel replies, ‘Oh, that’s the Baptists* - they think they’re the only ones here.’

*add denomination as appropriate. Apologies to Baptist friends!

This rubbish joke occurred to me when I read yesterday’s news that the vacant See of Maidstone was going to be filled with a conservative evangelical bishop.

This bishop will be consecrated to serve those parishes that cannot accept ‘the headship’ of women. He will be serve the pastoral needs of people who fundamentally object to women being in positions of authority and leadership over men.

For anyone who needs bringing up to speed, this situation has emerged as a result of negotiations that allowed the legislation for women to be bishops in the Church of England to pass through.

Unsurprisingly this announcement has generated a fair amount of exasperation and gentle mockery on the web. Kelvin Holdsworth - who blogs as Thurible - has listed ten questions which are raised by this announcement. It is well worth a read and captures the concerns of some people on what might be called the liberal wing of the church. Others have raised titters by suggesting that this is a bishop for people who don’t really believe in bishops, but if they have to have them they’d better be bloke bishops. 

There are serious questions raised by this announcement, of course, not least about how much this development signals the levels of fissiparousness within the church. It is an icon of our tribalism. It may have been the price of having women as bishops, but it is still an uncomfortable icon.

Personally, I’ve tried to be alert to the ‘tone’ and ‘timing’ of this announcement. If this announcement was to be expected it does feel rather deflating. Why? Well, it comes reasonably swiftly after the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to prevent acclamations of gladness at Synod when the women as bishops legislation finally went through. That situation felt like, ‘Please don’t be publicly thrilled about this thing almost all of us are really thrilled about.’ Many were left feeling that our songs of gladness (songs shared by most in the church) were to be kept in the silence of our hearts. Now those muted scenes have been swiftly followed by a development that can hardly thrill most in the church.

Equally, given that this announcement has happened before the appointment of any women as bishops just feels uncomfortable. To (awkwardly) borrow a form of language I believe is popular among ‘the yout’’: ‘All the feels are wrong.’

My instinct is to say that having a 'headship bishop'  (that always sounds embarrassingly close to 'headshop bishop' to me) is bad news for the church. It creates the prospect of C of E bishops who are not in ‘full communion’ with other C of E bishops.

However, ironically, I think this announcement is probably really bad news for those conservative evangelicals tempted to ask for the Bishop of Maidstone’s oversight. I think it’s a poisoned chalice that Conservative Evangelicals should weigh up carefully before drinking from. I certainly think it’s not a hugely thrilling job opportunity for any chap called to serve in the post.

For to ask for Maidstone’s oversight is to step into an enclosure. It is an enclosure that I suspect might feel safe, honoured, hey, even holy. But – and I’m going with my Columbo-ish instinct here – I think it might be a trap.

The most dangerous prisons we have are the ones we create for ourselves. That we long for. That we say, ‘If only I have things this way I will know true freedom, I will be myself.’ And along come others who help us to make that box for us to live in.

I sense that Maidstone might be a classic example of ‘Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it'. It offers an enclosure in which Conservative Evangelicals can get on with things, yes, but which will look odd to the rest of us - for we will probably be left feeling, 'Oh, so they'd rather play over there on their own, than muddle through with the rest of us'. Sadly, we might then end up not taking 'them' seriously any more. It runs the risk of becoming a kind of marginalia, by choice. And that, I suspect, is precisely what evangelicals – as people very keen to speak into wider public life in order to communicate the Gospel – would find horrifying.

I know I am not the kind of Christian who could fit the Conservative Evangelical world-view. So what do I know? But I know how my sometimes overly determined pictures of what the church should look like or what the Gospel is, would, if granted, offer new forms of spiritual prisons for me and others. I like all Christians need community to be called to account. And, hard though it can be, I like being challenged by my sisters and brothers. But why take mark of those who choose a holy enclosure for themselves?


It will remain to be seen how the newly shaped see will cash out. I sense God is always seeking to call us out of our spiritual prisons, so that we are more exposed to the Other and to difference and the terror of God’s beauty. On that account, the see of Maidstone risks not being an answer, but a trap.