Saturday, 24 November 2012

'Regime change' at the 'centre', or experimenting at the 'edges'?

With most of those inside the Church of England, and a remarkably large number outside, this week I have spent a lot of waking hours somewhere in 'the valley of the shadow of death', repeatedly finding myself surprised by intense feelings of shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, disappointment, disgust, embarrassment, frustration... the reel of emotions could go on and on.

Coincidentally, the decision of General Synod almost to agree to proceed with bishops of both genders, but not quite - thanks to 6 members of the House of Laity - comes in the week that I've sent off a hefty chunk of ramblings to my PhD supervisors, around the themes of 'asset-based' community development and 'co-production', and the Christian practices of gratitude and lament. I finish the piece, with inevitably unsatisfying loose ends, by suggesting that the 21st Century version of Saul Alinsky's community organising tradition, seen in the Occupy and UK Uncut movements, contains more than a little promise and possibility for bringing the laments of the local to the centres of power. I dare to suggest that these movements might be valuable partners to the local church.

The trouble is, of course, this week has made the church look ridiculous, irrelevant, lacking in any credible voice, especially on issues of community and justice. The very fact that, the day after the Synod vote on women bishops, the same Synod voted for the Living Wage throughout the institution - this should have been headline news, a challenge to central government, but instead was utterly eclipsed, consigned to irrelevance by the day before's 'long, boring suicide note', as one astute journalist described it.

But we in the parishes, at the front line of community-building in our neighbourhoods, had to get up on Wednesday morning and get on with our jobs. To be sure, we had plenty of explaining to do to our incredulous neighbours, to our children, to our partner organisations in local quests for justice, wholeness and integrity. God knows our jobs have been made more difficult by Synod's failure to live up to its latest kairos moment. But a crucial part of our 'getting on with things' locally has been the sense that, whichever way Synod had voted, how we live out church 'in the local' is not greatly changed. This is a point, I think, about bishops in general, about decisions in London, about the institution - in relation to the local Christian community that happens to call itself Anglican (in our case, even that is only partly the case).

We are a long way from the centres of power. Bishops do not (sshh, don't tell anyone) actually make a vast difference to our daily life and ministry and mission. Neither does much else that the institution does or decides or instructs - other than the 'taint by association' (unfortunate phrase in the context, but hey) that such crashing stupidity, amplified by media interest, inevitably fosters.

I am reminded of two things. One is a recent comment by a well-respected Council officer that 'the further you are from the centre, the more you can get away with'. Other institutions have their human edges, as well as their inhuman systems, too. The other is the wisdom of Australian 'Christi-anarchist' and radical community development thinker and activist, Dave Andrews. Dave reminds us that, in systems and institutions, 'regime change' (i.e. changing those at 'the top') never changes the system itself. Jesus was not interested in regime change. Instead, says Dave, 'Jesus’ stratagem was simply to persistently deny hierarchy, advocate mutuality, and reframe all his relationships, over time, in terms of equality'. Instead of seeking to 'move up' in the institution, Jesus and his followers deliberately sought to move to the institution's 'edges', locating themselves 'on the sidelines' rather than 'in the main game'. This presented Jesus (as it does his disciples) with a number of advantages:

'One, it gave him perspective. From the sidelines he was able to see the whole field, and see what needed to be done to improve the game. Two, it gave him opportunity. On the sidelines he was far enough away from the game to be beyond its immediate control, yet close enough to affect the way it played out. Three, it gave him time. On the sidelines he was able to develop his short-term alternatives to the system while he worked on his long-term transform-ation of the system. Four, it gave him space. On the sidelines he was able to demonstrate the alternatives he developed in the eyes of everyone, so they could assess for themselves whether they wanted to adopt them - or not. Five, it gave him a position from which he could advocate change, without being in a position to impose the change he advocated on anyone. So people knew they were truly free to adopt the change—or not to—as they so desired. And - because that made the change process much less threatening to the people in the synagogue - it gave Jesus greater freedom to experiment more!'

As the apostle Paul took on and developed Jesus' strategy of experimenting at the edges, 'Paul’s prayer,' says Dave, 'was that his experiments would not stay ‘on the margins’. But, that his ecclesia, would become ‘the centre of attention’. And not only be admired, but also be adopted as the modus operandi of society.'

Dave continues:

'Now many people think there is no point working for change on the margins. But I think there is probably often no other place we can work - except on the margins. Until there is a kairos moment of some kind or other, which can open up a closed system, and can give us a chance to take the changes we have accomplished on the margins, and place them—for serious consideration - right at the heart of the congregation. It doesn’t matter whether the kairos moment comes sooner or later. What matters is: we recognise it when the moment comes, and use it to manoeuvre our movement for change, from out on the edge, into the middle of the turmoil. We should always use a crisis in an institution to advocate the kind of change that can facilitate the development of a healthy community. Whether the crisis be conflict in the group, criticism of the organisation, or a succession in the leadership - we can use it - to encourage people to consider serious change.'

Now I don't want to claim anything special for Hodge Hill (although I do happen to think Hodge Hill is a very special place, for all sorts of reasons!). But I do want to suggest that this week, more than ever, Anglican churches around the country that are slogging away, often at great cost, at the edges of society and the edges of the church institution, undertaking risky, daring experiments in mutuality and community - these are the gift to the church that could, if the kairos moment is grasped, change everything. And guess what? Women are equal partners with men in leading such work. Why wouldn't they be?