Wednesday, 17 December 2014

On 'talent pools' and floods...

'"The Word" (of God) is "a flood which breaks the dam." ... One senses this in our community to some extent. Uneasiness, anguish, dis-ease, because something is building up to break the dam and this "word" is inscrutably different from the comforting platitudes of Superiors. But this sense pervades all society - is resisted by those who erect their word in to a dam and are determined to "hold" it at any price.' (Thomas Merton, Learning to Love, p.165)
These words of Thomas Merton were unearthed for me by friend and theologian Gary Hall. You can read Gary's reflections on Merton here (if you're registered with

But Gary's paper, and Merton's words, appeared on my computer screen just as I was settling down to write a blog on 'the Green report' or, to use its full title, 'Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A New Approach' (you can read the full report here). And I began to wonder: how far apart are the so-called 'talent pool' of the Church of England, and Merton's 'flood which breaks the dam'?

In the days that followed the leaking of the Green report, the little corner of social media that I find myself following went a bit wild. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford, wrote an incisive critique in the Church Times, highlighting the 'breathtaking' absence of any ordained women from the working group, nor any 'recognised theologian' or 'academic specialising in continuing professional or vocational education'. This was a report, said Percy, which offered 'a dish of basic contemporary approaches to executive management, with a little theological garnish', with 'a total absence of ecclesiology' or indeed any awareness of 'critiques of management, executive authority, and leadership'. Secondly, Percy highlighted the managerial self-perpetuation proposed by the report: ' a small "talent pool" of potential future leaders ... will be selected and shaped by a handful of executive managers' who control their selection criteria, and facilitate their recruitment and training. 'Potential' and 'performance' will be measured against 'growth factors', and 'if there is a decline in measureable performance or potential, an individual will be asked to leave.' 'We appear to live in an age,' says Percy, bitingly, 'in which all bishops must now fit the "executive mission-minded-middle-manager" paradigm.' And it is the rise of that paradigm itself, he argues, that requires 'some radical and imaginative responses.'

Financial expert Richard Murphy, a prophetic voice from beyond the boundaries of the church, raised serious questions about a report on a 'culture change for the leadership of the Church' written by a group chaired by someone who just happens to be the former chairman of HSBC, under whose leadership the company engaged in tax evasion in Switzerland for which it has been fined billions of pounds and now faces prosecution in a number of countries.

Among the flood of criticism - much from people, like Martyn Percy, who have either already received, or might well soon receive, an invitation to join the 'talent pool' - Archbishop Justin himself responded, reminding people that one of the purposes of the Green report was to get away from the 'old boys club' preferment system, to something more inclusive, more diverse, more supportive, with more careful discernment.

At which point I should, as the Americans say, 'check my privilege'. I happen to be a white, straight, middle-class, married man with a Cambridge degree. I am, at least within that description, the kind of person whom the old 'system' favoured. Who am I to resist a change which is all about making the system more inclusive and diverse?

But inclusion in what? That seems to be the key question, knocking its head against a brick wall of a whole host of unexamined, or unchallengable, assumptions about 'leadership', 'growth' and 'performance' - and even, as Martyn Percy highlights, the much more fundamental concepts of 'mission' and 'church' themselves.

I want to focus on two key areas that trouble me - or rather, two key concepts that seem to be absent from the Green report, the absence of which worries me deeply. One is contestation. The other is incarnation.

We live in a time that many are beginning to call 'post-democratic'. 'Democracy' has turned into a form of culture, a spectator sport, entertainment to be consumed, where the organs of the system profoundly shape our opinions and desires, all the while convincing us that we have freedom - and responsibility - to choose.

There are theologians out there - I'm reading one in depth for my PhD work - who suggest that one of the great gifts of the Church to the wider world at this time might just be the gift of contestation: of the art of creating spaces for the self-critical exposure of reality, and for the passionate argument over what is true and good. Spaces for 'good disagreement', we might say.

And oddly, that has been a phrase coined within the CofE recently in relation to such internally difficult issues as women bishops and same-sex relationships. Maybe it's an art we're even beginning to learn a little of, as a Church together. Maybe it could be one of our gifts to the wider world.

But in the Green report, and the process around it, there's little sign of that particular 'charism'. The report was leaked, early. But the advert for 'Talent Development Manager' is already out there, with a closing date of mid-January. There might well have been, within the working group, 'sparky and rewarding' and theologically 'stimulating' conversations, particularly over 'the place, in any proposed "system", of the maverick-prophet', as one member of the group, Pete Wilcox, suggests. But there is no sense of a wider conversation within the Church about this stuff. The working group has met. The job advert is out. It's happening. Deal with it. Quite a different approach to that on questions of gender or sexuality - as if this is something that's just 'obvious'.

Which brings me to my second major area of concern: that the thing we need to be working hardest on contesting, on creating spaces for 'good disagreement' about, is the mission of the Church itself.

I had repeated to me today, at 3rd or 4th hand, the suggestion, possibly originating from a senior cleric, that 'incarnational ministry is incompatible with senior leadership'. It's an interesting thought. I have to admit, it's something I've found myself pondering on for a little while. Maybe it is. But if it's a choice between the two, I know which side of the line I'd come down, every time. Perhaps I'm being naive and simplistic setting up 'Jesus' and 'institution' as polar opposites. But we need to take a long hard look at the latter and ask how much it reflects the former.

It's much easier to do at a local level, of course. Us parish priests can put down roots in our neighbourhoods, hang out with our neighbours, make friends, spend time eating and drinking and laughing and crying with our friends and neighbours, listen to stories, tell stories, provoke stories, get our hands dirty planting seeds, sweeping floors, helping people move house... get angry with systems that fail human beings, turn over the odd table, wrestle poetry and theology out of blood, sweat and tears, encourage the gifts of those around us to come out, share in hugs when it all goes wrong, watch and wait in the darkness, and kindle little flames of hope...

I'm sure that stuff's harder to do when you're a senior manager in the institution, watching the figures and the graphs and balancing the books and streamlining the deployment of clergy and the like. That's when 'strategies for growth' and 'targets' and 'performance' and the like seem to become more central.

But I worry that this shift, from 'incarnational' to 'institutional', does actually completely miss the point.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not ungrateful for my house, and my stipend, and my pension. The institution frees me up to do what I feel profoundly called to, and what I love. It creates stable space which enables me to be the person, the priest, that I believe God wants me to be - or at least to have a good crack at it.

But the tendencies to institutionalise and 'technologise' (as Ivan Illich might call it - creating the 'technologies' to 'solve' the 'problem', whatever the 'problem' might be defined as) - however well dressed-up in the language of 'the gospel' and 'evangelism' and 'confidence' - betray, I fear, a deep-seated anxiety. If we don't do this, we might not be around for much longer. We've got to keep the show on the road.

And I fear that this is a long way from what Jesus, and the New Testament, call 'faith'. That reckless confidence in the being and activity of God, that is utterly opposed to anxiety. That overflow of abundance, friendship, 'conviviality' (Illich's own counterpoint to the technologies of institutions), joy, love... that can't be contained by strategies and plans and institutional structures and 'talent pools' and the like.

I'm secretly - or perhaps, now, not-so-secretly - hoping that the arrival of women bishops will bring down the system from within. Feminist theology (and yes, I know, not all women are feminists, and not all feminists are women, but even so) has some sharp things to say about structures and hierarchies and, dare I say, the whole idea of bishops...

There is, I would suggest, still a hugely significant role for leadership, though. But it's leadership from the grassroots, 'up' (rather than from the top, down); leadership from the middle, and from the edge; leadership in the connections, in the cracks, in the questions, in the laments and protests and laughter and parties.

I'm tempted, as the Green report sees the light of day, to suggest an alternative movement for leadership in the Church of England. Not 'grooming' people for 'senior' positions, but finding ways of connecting the irritants and trouble-makers, encouraging the listeners and pray-ers, hearing to speech the poets and story-tellers, resourcing the connectors and community-builders, stretching the thinkers and theologians, unleashing the prophets and protesters...

When the 'talent pool' is separated from 'the flood which breaks the dam', then the water in the pool is in grave danger of turning stagnant. Why don't we let go of our anxiety, and our Promethean attempts to technologise and strategise with it - and just ride the waters of the flood. Who knows, we, 'the Church, might not be around for much longer - not in our current form, at least. But the flood continues breaking the dams, and the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness isn't going to put it out...

For much more articulate reflections on the Green report, have a look at:
- Rachel Mann's "'These are not the leaders you're looking for' - talent pools, management & the C of E"
- Andrew Lightbown's "Open Letter to Advocates of the Green Report"

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

For now, I'm cursing the darkness

"In the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace." ~ Luke 1:78-79

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness" ~ Ancient Chinese Proverb

Just a week or so back I wrote this brief blog post for the Church of Scotland Priority Areas blog, a response of gratitude for 48 hours sharing 'holy ground' with folk from some of Scotland's neighbourhoods labelled the most 'deprived' - a celebration of the wonderful gifts we find around us in communities like theirs, and mine, if only we look for them.

But today I just feel like cursing the darkness. The darkness that can be relentless, draining, despairing, hopeless.

In the last few days, following on from the story with which I began my last blog (on food banks, the shame of poverty, and our broken systems) I have found myself in conversation with solicitors and barristers, a District Judge, council officers, councillors and city cabinet members, and leading lights in homelessness charities and the Church of England in Birmingham. I've caught brief glimpses of compassion and humanity within the systems. And then some of those glimmers of hope have been rapidly extinguished, by another bit of the system behaving with either incompetence, stupidity, or inhumanity. And while it has been abundantly clear that there are good people working away within these systems, what's also been painfully obvious is that the systems themselves have evolved in ways that squeeze out people's humanity, erode their common sense, chip away at their compassion, encourage and often reward the more stupid tendencies that we all have within us.

So today I'm cursing the darkness. Because I can't help myself. Because I feel helpless to do anything else. And because the darkness keeps on being dark and keeps on snuffing out the candles of hope, moments after they've been lit.

And I will continue to insist that cursing the darkness is itself an act of faith. Because while I still have any energy to curse the darkness, there is something within me that insists that this is not how things should be, that things can - and should - be different.

And within my limited capacity as a human being who wants to keep going with all those I care about and who care for me, I will do my best to keep on sitting with "those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death", sometimes in silence, sometimes cursing the darkness with them.

And although I can't see where on earth it will come from, or even imagine how it can be possible, I will stubbornly refuse to believe that we must simply wait until the end of time, or the end of our lives, for "the dawn from on high" to "break upon us". Something within me - something from beyond me - insists that that dawn, that light, is closer to us than we often know. And that it shall break. And that things shall be different. Something holds open that space, that possibility, that insistence, within me.

But for now, I'm cursing the darkness. And I have to believe that that, for now, is enough.

are we really waiting for
and what are the things
we need more
than ever
and how
should there be a beginning
of what
and who
still hopes at all
for what
and when
will it break
this day
of light
and who
still believes in it?

(Carola Moosbach, in traces of heaven)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

'Emergency Use Only?' On food banks, shame, and broken systems

I’m angry. I’m also tired, frustrated, and have moments of despair, but most especially, I’m angry.

Yesterday, I spent a substantial part of my day in a cold, barely-furnished flat, with a woman who’s facing eviction in a week’s time. On Tuesday, we’d given her some food, because she had nothing to eat at all. On Wednesday morning when I visited, it was pretty clear that she had no money to pay for enough electricity to heat the food in the cans we’d given her. And then I spent about an hour on mobile phone (she didn’t have any credit, as you can imagine), trying to navigate the complex and over-stretched systems of Birmingham City Council, attempting to find out whether there might just be a new flat available for her in a week’s time, or whether she’ll be kicked out onto the streets, two weeks before Christmas. The extra irony is that Birmingham City Council are knocking down her block of flats next year, so it’s pretty much guaranteed that her flat will remain empty when she leaves.

On 19th November, a report was published, entitled ‘Emergency Use Only: Understanding and reducing the use of food banksin the UK’. It was quickly dismissed by the government as inconclusive, selective and not proving anything, with the DWP insisting “we have a strong safety net in place”. The DWP minister who was meant to be attending the report’s launch and responding in person, inexplicably pulled out at the last minute, leading one Church of England bishop to politely suggest – as perhaps only a Church of England bishop can – that “they possibly need to read the report”.

In case you missed it, the report – jointly commissioned by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England and the Trussell Trust – examined why people are turning to food banks, how food bank use fits with their wider coping strategies, and what might be done to reduce the need that leads to food bank use. Its key findings included:
  • that people turned to food banks as a last resort, and that they found the decision difficult, ‘unnatural’, ‘embarrassing’ and ‘shameful’
  • that most food bank users were facing an immediate, acute financial crisis – either a complete loss of income or a very significant reduction in their income, leaving them with little or no money to put food on the table
  • that those acute crises could be prompted by a sudden loss of earnings (e.g. losing a job, or loss of work through ill health), a change in family circumstances (e.g. bereavement), or homelessness – but for between half and two-thirds of people, it was linked to problems with the benefits system (e.g. waiting for payments, sanctions, or reductions in disability benefits)
  • that sources of ‘emergency support’ were insufficient, or so poorly advertised that people were not aware of what was available

In addition, the report found that food bank use is made more likely when individuals or families lived with specific vulnerabilities, including:
  • living in a local area where access to jobs, shops and services is limited
  • the impact of physical and mental illness on an individual or within the wider household (including caring responsibilities)
  • difficulty obtaining or proving educational qualifications or skills
  • problems with housing
  • isolation or lack of family support
  • large debt repayments

The report made recommendations, within its tightly-constrained remit, around improving access to emergency financial support, improving the effectiveness of communication and support within the systems (e.g. Jobcentre Plus), and mitigating the impact of gaps in payments around challenging and reconsidering decisions.

But there are glaring issues the report writers were not able to say in so many words, for fear of the kind of oppressive government retaliation against vital anti-poverty charities that, once upon a time, we might have imagined was the sole preserve of dictatorial regimes.

Like the fact that the systems that are supposed to ‘support’ people on the breadline are so complex, inefficient and unfriendly that either those in government have deliberately intended them that way, or those in government are so incompetent they are unable to address their fatal flaws. Take the ‘Universal Jobmatch’ website, for example – a place that all those on Jobseeker’s Allowance are expected to visit several times a week. If the frequency with which it crashes on me and my colleagues at our local Open Door drop-in is anything to go by, or the endless circular loops it gets into, preventing a user from registering, or having their latest activity acknowledged by the system – then the system is well and truly broken, and it’s certainly not the fault of the ‘users’. The idea that all benefits are going to be computerised through Universal Credit is a vision that should strike terror into everyone who has ever used a government website. And I can’t help wondering if terror is exactly what is intended. After all, it saves the government lots of money, doesn’t it?

And then there’s sanctions. The report could highlight the inefficiencies and failures in the sanctions process, but it wasn’t allowed to say that the whole sanctions process is utterly unjust. It is, to put it bluntly, the legalising of a penal regime of destitution, wielded almost on a whim by the functionaries of the system who are too scared about losing their own jobs to be in any position to challenge it. Some of my neighbours have been living on just over £4 a fortnight as a result of sanctions, whilst living with multiple disabilities, compounded by illnesses developed as a direct consequence of their financial circumstances. The privatisation of the welfare industry means multiple failures in communication between bodies involved in imposing and lifting sanctions, and claimants having to travel miles – with what? when a return bus journey is more than a fortnight’s income? – for appointments that make no difference to their situation, having to prioritise ‘compliance’ meetings over hospital appointments and family funerals.

One of the other publications on my reading list at the moment is an international study spanning Global North and Global South, on The Shame of Poverty (Robert Walker, Oxford University Press, 2014). It states the obvious, but – like Emergency Use Only – backs it up with hard evidence: that the pain of poverty extends beyond material hardship; that rather than being ‘shameless’, as the media often claims, people in poverty almost invariably feel ashamed at being unable to fulfil their personal aspirations or to live up to societal expectations due to their lack of income and other resources. Such shame not only hurts, adding to the negative experience of poverty, but undermines confidence and individual agency, can lead to depression and even suicide, and may well contribute to the perpetuation of poverty. Public policies would be demonstrably more successful, the book argues, if, instead of stigmatizing people for being poor, they treated them with respect and sought actively to promote their dignity.

Who knew? You treat people like shit, and on the whole they stay stuck in the gutter. You treat people with a bit of dignity and respect, and they begin to be able to make life better for themselves. We shouldn’t need hundreds of hours of research and report-writing to help us understand that. And, I fear, the hundreds of hours of research and report-writing will largely fall on deaf ears. Has anyone mentioned revolution recently? It’s time to get angry, together.

Other related stories: