Thursday, 6 October 2016

David, Goliath & ABCD

At Hodge Hill Church's 'Messy Church' last Sunday morning, our children got stuck into the story of David and Goliath. The big scary, armed-to-the-teeth giant (left) and the brave small boy with the catapult, '5 smooth stones' and a decent aim. The kids thought about what the 'Goliaths' were in their lives, and how those Goliaths might be defeated.

I've been reading a book recently, for the PhD research, that also plays with the David and Goliath story as a metaphor. Romand Coles' 'Visionary Pragmatism: radical and ecological democracy in neoliberal times' (Duke University Press, 2016) uses it 'to glean insights into how underdogs and social movements can alter the spacing, timing, and practices of encounter in ways that change the conventional contestation - or game - to enable victories deemed highly improbable' (p.9). While much of Coles' book is hopeful in tone, he is also realistic about the scale of the challenge: '[i]n the form of global neoliberal capitalism, Goliath is no longer a dumb giant but a dynamic malignancy that has developed transformative powers of an alternating current that are nearly unfathomable. ... It is not enough to learn from David in our efforts to initiate the game-transformative practices of a radical democratic habitus. We must also learn from the Goliath who has learned from David, without becoming ourselves what is horrendous about Goliath' (p.27). The 'Goliaths' of neoliberal capitalism have become adept at 'co-opting' our best modes of radical resistance for their own ends, says Coles. As 'Davids', we need to learn something of that same skill of co-optation, for very different ends - and by a very different means. I'll come back to this shortly.

As these things sometimes do, the Messy Church session and the PhD research coincided with a third event, a blog post by my friend and fellow community-builder, Cormac Russell. In the blog, Cormac reflects on a recent critical article from two academics in Scotland: Neoliberalism with a community face?: A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland (MacLeod, MA & Emejulu, A, 2014), which accuses the movement often called 'asset-based community development' (ABCD) of a capitulation to the 'individualization, marketization and privatization' at the heart of the neoliberal agenda. Drawing on reflections from John McKnight, one of those who first coined the phrase 'ABCD', Cormac highlights how far this particular academic critique 'misses the mark' - but also acknowledges some important challenges that the article raises, including the over-population of the ABCD movement by 'the voices of white, middleclass men'; and the danger that ABCD language (watered down often to 'asset-based approaches') too easily gets co-opted, 'misappropriated', for neoliberal ends, justifying the removal of state support for people and communities because, so goes the argument, they have their own strengths and can therefore cope on their own.

I want to offer just two additional 'wonderings' into this conversation, which emerge from my own mix of practice and reflection here in Hodge Hill, and my current PhD research.

Firstly, I want to highlight Rom Coles' suggestion that what he calls the 'quotidian practices of radical democracy' - the patient, receptive, arts of paying 'full-bodied attention', 'listen[ing] deeply', 'exercis[ing] hospitality' and weaving the web of community between people (in a neighbourhood, and wider) - needs to 'oscillate', be 'interwoven', with what he calls 'evanescent' forms of 'countershock politics' (the Occupy movement is a good example) which 'block' (even if only temporarily) the malignant 'mega-circulations' of neoliberalism and 'dramatically prefigure alternatives that open and reconfigure the hegemonic common sense of our times' (p.163-4). 'Radical democratic countershock politics, when separated from the lively energies and agencies of quotidian political practice done well, tends to fall in love with itself in ways that can quickly leave it clueless about how to organize to generate more transformative waves, broader and more durable assemblages, and radical effects.' On the other hand, the 'patience' needed for day-to-day community building can easily turn into 'narrow complacency'. '[T]here are no guarantees. The best we can do is become very mindful of the risks involved in such politics, carefully work in both dimensions, reflect critically after each action, and learn as we go' (p.172). This 'oscillation' is, perhaps, something ABCD needs to attend to, lest those of us who advocate it vocally turn down the cul-de-sac of 'narrow complacency' of which Coles warns.

Secondly, and very briefly, I want to underline the concern that the ABCD conversation - like so much else in the world - is dominated by white, middle-aged, middle-class men. Cormac and John self-consciously inhabit that category. So does Rom Coles. So do I. What do we do about it? When we are vocal, we are doing our best to speak up for something we believe is deeply important - not just for our own self-interests, but for those of our neighbours and friends, and also the countless others who as yet are strangers to us. But we do not - I hope - only speak. At the heart of ABCD approaches (at least as I understand and seek to practise them) is the importance of listening, of inhabiting spaces that are not 'ours' and under our 'control', of seeking to 'hear others to speech' and into fullness of expression, connection and life - of being radically receptive to the gifts and challenges of others. That, when done at all well, involves a large amount of 'dispossession': something white, middle-aged, middle-class men have not been well-known for, across history. It is a practice 'we' (and the 'we' here is much more specific than universal) need to keep learning, developing, returning to. It means letting go of stuff, of status, of power, of definitive claims to truth - of language, even. Maybe part of our radical resistance to the co-optation of 'ABCD' is to let go of the language of 'ABCD'? Another part of it is to identify when it is we need to shut up and listen to others speaking. And one of those moments, for me, is right now...

Saturday, 25 June 2016

No, no, no, no, no... yes...

"A decisive result". "The people have spoken". "A victory for ordinary people over the establishment". "Democracy in action". "We must unite". "We must listen to what the people are saying"...

Well, in the words of Jim from 'The Vicar of Dibley', "No. No. No. No. No... Yes..."

No, 52% to 48% (even of 72% turnout) is not a decisive result. It is a narrow majority, with a very significant minority voting in the opposite direction. And so no, 'the people' have not spoken. If the vote says anything about 'the people', it is that 'the people' are deeply divided.

And no, this is no 'ordinary people vs establishment' victory. Many 'ordinary people' may be feeling happy, at least temporarily, that their vote has been one of the 17 million that 'won' in this particular referendum. And while it's true that a whole load of the rich, powerful 'establishment' were advocates for 'Remain' (including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, the IMF, a whole load of big business, alongside the rather different bed-fellows of economists and political scientists, church leaders and educators)... well, welcome to the 'post-establishment' world of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan-Smith and the like... Truly a revolution of the 'ordinary people'.

Which makes the 'democracy in action' point all the more interesting. Really? Democracy, the 'rule of the people'. The decision of a narrow majority to 'Leave' imposed on the almost-half-the-UK who voted to 'Remain' - is that 'democracy'? A decision shaped profoundly through appeals to gut feelings, through lies and misinformation, by the powerful forces of a couple of multi-millionaire newspaper moguls and their mates? A decision that has come at the end of a so-called 'debate' with very little light (facts, for example; policies and plans for the next stage, perhaps) and far too much heat (not to mention hate, division and suspicion), on both sides? And a 'debate', if we can call it that, that was largely conducted in a 'stage-managed' way in TV studios, and much less often, in any meaningful sense, in the pubs and clubs and village halls and churches and mosques and schools and the like, that was so impressive in the lead-up to the last Scottish independence referendum. If these last few weeks have shown us 'Great British democracy', then I would suggest it's profoundly broken (and I can't claim any moral high ground here - we might have organised a hustings in Hodge Hill before GE2015, but we didn't do anything before this momentous vote).

And then there are the calls to 'unite'. Calls not just from the victors, but from the outgoing Prime Minister and from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, among others. It's seductive language. Unity's a good thing, right? The decision's been made, we must pull together, rather than pull further apart. But it's cheap, far too cheap. It's rooted in a lack of critical examination of the false assumptions above. 'Democracy has done its thing, the people have spoken - so the minority should stop moaning that we didn't get the outcome we wanted, and unite behind the decision that has been made'.


'Stop moaning' can very easily become a repression of political dissent and protest, as well as a repression of the simple, human necessity of grief and lament after a shocking sense of loss. 'Unite' can be a very convenient call from those who continue to hold the reins of power to get behind them and their agenda - an agenda that goes far beyond 'Remain' or 'Leave', and that has a whole lot to do with a tiny minority preserving their own privilege, and grabbing further power, resources and control for themselves - not to mention further marginalising, disempowering, excluding and scapegoating of minorities who are already vulnerable and fearful: it is one thing to say that all who voted 'Leave' are racist (they're clearly not), but another to highlight the frightening increase in racist attacks (verbal, physical and, yes, murders) that people in the UK are experiencing as directly connected to the language of the 'Leave' campaign (the tiny steps from "we want our country back" to "pack your bags and go back to where you came from" that are already being witnessed).

What's also pretty clear is that we've not just woken up to a 'divided country'. Our country has been divided long before the EU referendum campaign kicked off - and not just on this issue. Just think how little traction language of 'the common good' seems to have in public debate. Geographically, we're divided: not just between the nations of the UK, but between North and South, between rural and urban, between London and everywhere else. Economically, we're divided: not just between 'the elite' and 'ordinary people' (the 1% and the 99%), but between house-owners and house-renters, between 'middle-class professionals' and 'working-class', between the 'just-about-OK' and the 'deeply-precarious', between employed and unemployed - both in terms of our ability to access and participate in something we call 'society', but also in the way media and politicians have framed our language and labels. Culturally, we're divided, between libertarians and authoritarians (as one perceptive bit of post-referendum analysis by the Fabian Society highlighted), between feminist, environmentally-concerned multiculturalists and those who still believe such trends are signs of unnecessary 'political correctness' (as one of Lord Ashcroft's pre-referendum polls showed with frightening clarity).

So what's the 'Yes', however qualified? We must listen. Listen to what people are saying. Listen to the people who celebrated on Friday, and listen to the people who were disconsolate. Not speculate on what the result means, on why people voted like they did - that's not 'listening'. One of the great fallacies of democracy is that people 'speak' through the ballot box. People don't 'speak'. They put a cross in a box - in one of only two boxes, on this occasion. That's not 'speaking'. So let's go and listen to what people are actually saying. And let's not just listen to the surface conversations. Let's dig deeper. Let's listen for the fears, anxieties and insecurities underneath. Let's listen to the best hopes, ideals, longings underneath. Let's listen for difference as well as for agreement. Let's listen, particularly, to those who are articulating experiences very different to our own. Let's listen in places where we are uncomfortable, where we are the strangers, the out-of-place. Let's listen, especially, to those whose voices are less-heard, muffled, indistinct, silenced, incoherent, faltering. Let's listen, to help them be heard, help them speak things for the first time, things they've never dared say before, help them find some coherence amid fragmentation and fragility. And by listening to people, let's help them (and us) listen to each other.

The political theorist Albert Hirschmann talks about 'exit', 'voice' and 'loyalty' as the three strategies for dealing with conflict. We can 'pull together' (loyalty), we can speak up (voice), or we can get out (exit). There's been plenty of focus on all three of these in the last few weeks, and no doubt much more to come in the weeks and months that follow. But they're not the full story. Because 'speaking up' without learning to listen to others just increases the volume, the cacophony. And 'loyalty or exit' doesn't account for the possibility of travelling - physically moving, and opening ourselves to be changed by encounters with people in different locations, geographical, economic, cultural, political, to our own - a 'to and fro' where we learn both to be more hospitable on 'our turf' but also take the risk of being strangers and guests in other people's territory.

Some of us this might be picked up in the Archbishops' post-referendum language of 'reconciliation' - but the danger is that we seek reconciliation too cheaply. 'Being with' our neighbours who differ from us is no easy process, no easy achievement. There's a whole load of divesting ourselves of power, of many of our defences; a whole load of patience beyond our usual busyness; a whole load of courageous 'leaning towards' others whose surface views we might dislike, even sometimes find viscerally disgusting; a whole load of resistance and blocking of those power-strategies (deployed both by the obviously powerful, and the relatively powerless) that seek to close down conversation, hide behind parroted cliches, shout louder, deflect responsibility, or retreat into a 'benumbment' that will not listen to anything anyone says because it's all become overwhelming. There will also need to be an acceptance that harmony, unity, are illusory and unhelpful goals. The best we can seek - and it is truly the best - is creative tensions, constantly reanimated tensions between social goods that resist any easy reconciliation.

So I want to say No today. No. No. No. No. But also, tentatively, the beginnings of a Yes...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Let's call the whole thing off

If - as very occasionally happens - a discussion at one of my Church Council meetings has ended up producing rather more heat than light, rather more emotion (anger? frustration? incomprehension?) than clarity of purpose, rather more introspection than a sense of wisdom being received and discerned... then the last thing I think of suggesting is that we take a vote. Much more likely is that we agree to go away, sleep on it, reflect, pray, talk together some more (in one-to-ones and small groups as well as in the formal confines of a Council meeting), try and listen to each other better... and then re-convene to see where all that has got us to. Voting 'in the heat of the moment' is almost always going to give some a brief sense of the elation of victory, give others over to a bitter sense of disenfranchisement, and all of us wounds that are likely to run deep, and last for a long time. The process of seeking healing for those wounds is almost always longer, more painful, than that process of 'active pausing' would have been.

I don't feel like I have much wisdom to share in this week of a big, big decision in the history of the UK. But I'm increasingly passionate in one plea.

To those of my friends, neighbours and sister- and brother-citizens who are thinking of voting 'Leave' this week: please don't.

Not because I think there are no credible, thought-through arguments for why 'Leave' would be better for the UK (although I would suggest the weight of credible, thought-through arguments does seem to be tipping rather heavily towards 'Remain').

Not because I think everyone who wants to vote 'Leave' is xenophobic, or racist, or a 'little Englander' with no broader view of the world (although there do seem to be quite a few in those camps).

Not because I have any clear sense of what the future holds if the UK votes in either direction.

But for one reason that I would suggest trumps (pardon the rather untimely word) any others. Because the 'debate' in the lead-up to this vote has been crap. Utterly, appallingly crap. Angry, and fear-mongering, and divisive, and full of lies and half-truths and claims entirely lacking in evidence. On both sides. And so a decision this week to dramatically change the status quo (to 'leave the EU', whatever that will even mean in practice) that is made in the midst of all of this - whether that decision is 51% to 49% or 99% to 1% - will quite certainly open wounds not just across the continent of Europe, but within the UK itself: deep, divisive, open wounds that will take many, many years to find any kind of healing. A deep sense of bitterness, blame, and resentment - if not palpable fear.

So if you think 'Leaving' is the right thing to do, let's decide it properly, and with a good dose of British caution and care thrown in for good measure. Let's agree to put it off for a bit. Let's give ourselves a couple of years to do some proper research, some proper discussion, some proper listening to each other. Let's try and capture a bit of what they had in Scotland before their independence referendum in 2014: a genuinely grassroots conversation about 'what kind of country we want to be', that happened in pubs and village halls and schools and shops and churches and mosques and around kitchen tables. Let's make a decision that we can all say we've genuinely had a part in deliberating and discussing - not one made by gut responses shaped by the rich and powerful. Let's make sure the conversation includes a much clearer sense of what we want 'Leave' to mean - and, indeed, what we want 'Remain' to mean. We could even try and take it beyond the crude and crazy binary 'In or Out' of this Thursday's ballot papers.

So if you really, passionately want to 'Leave' - let's get there in a decent, careful, British kind of way. Let's give ourselves a bit more time. Let's 'keep calm', 'have a cup of tea' and talk it through properly. Because this week's no week to make such a crucial decision.

Remind me who hates whom, again?

Moments after I pressed 'post', late last Thursday afternoon, I realised what I'd done. I realised I'd done just what I can't stand other people doing at moments like these: I had linked my lament at a horrific loss of life (the murder of Jo Cox) with my political prejudices (that Nigel Farage's latest poster was blatantly racist); I was, at worst (however unconsciously), 'using' this tragedy - this personal tragedy of the death of one woman, a wife, mother, daughter - to confirm what I already believed and had been saying about where our society is going wrong. I was called out on it by a good friend, who I'm glad is able to say such things to me, and I was sorry, genuinely.

And yet. All murders are political. They are never simply 'random acts'. They have histories, they are entwined in relationships. If not directly between perpetrator and victim, at the very least relationships and histories that have shaped a perpetrator, brought them to this moment of senselessness.

And perhaps senselessness itself is the wrong word, misrepresents: because although we dearly long (with St Augustine) to consign evil to the non-realm of meaninglessness, to label all acts of violence senseless is to conceal the meanings, however murky, that their perpetrators believe them to have. And those beliefs are themselves the products of meanings not merely fabricated by isolated individuals, but also absorbed by them: from messages they have received, consumed, from others; from family, or neighbours, or school, or prison, or religion, or the internet, or politicians, or the media, or corporate marketing machines, or...

We act because an action 'makes sense', even just for a moment, within the meaning-games we have absorbed, consumed, inhabited - as well as constructed for ourselves.

And so, when we try to 'make sense' of the most horrific of actions, we need to look to the meaning-games within which the actions, and the actors, are situated.

And therein lies the great danger for all of us. How quickly we 'join the dots', make the connections, add 2 and 2 and make... well, is it 4? Or is it 5?

The man who shot Jo Cox shouted 'Britain First' before shooting her, and was a vocal supporter of that far-right group, it seems. The man who shot dead 49 people in the Orlando night club was a Muslim, we're told. But the former, we're also told, had a history of mental health struggles. The latter, we're also told, was revolted at a gay couple kissing. Which dots do we join? Which connections do we make?

Every human being, one of my pastoral theology lecturers once pointed out, is in some ways like all other human beings; in some ways like some other human beings; and in some ways utterly unique. But in what ways? And how do we know?

Let's get some stuff straight. In a manner of speaking. Some people who call themselves 'Muslim' are violent, some are homophobic. There are also plenty of violent, homophobic self-declared 'Christians', and violent, homophobic atheists. But there are also - and I know some of them and am blessed to be able to call them family, dear friends, neighbours - many, many peace-loving Muslims, Christians and atheists who are either LGBTQ themselves, or love and ally themselves with those who are. And what's more, can point to places from within their own traditions of belief and practice which firmly ground those loves and solidarities. The labels of faith affiliation are big, broad labels - to the point that we can look at each other across the breadth within a faith tradition and barely recognise a shared faith. Many is the time I've looked at the words or actions of others who call themselves 'Christians' and responded with horror, disgust, wanting to put as much distance as I can between their faith and my own.

Let's try another one. Some people who have long-term mental health struggles are violent, and some have extremist, fascist views. There are also, quite obviously, are many, many people who have long-term mental health struggles who are passionately, painstakingly committed to working for a peaceful, just world for all. Some of these, again, I am fortunate enough to call family, dear friends, and neighbours. Again, the label is so, so broad - that blanket pronouncements about 'how we should respond to people with mental health problems' might, for one person, be entirely appropriate, and for another, be utterly, destructively wrong.

There is nothing - absolutely nothing - about being Muslim, Christian, atheist or struggling with your mental health, that makes you inherently more violent, homophobic, or fascist than anyone else.


If you participate in meaning-games (in the most serious sense) that portray some human beings (whether because of their gender, or sexuality, or ethnicity, or religion, or nationality, or statelessness, or disability, or state of mental health, or low level of income, or way of dressing) as less valuable, less worthy of respect or reverence, less 'human' - then you are doing your little bit to legitimise fear, hatred, and violence against such people. If you laugh at the jokes, or tell them, if you write the news headlines, or buy them, if you create the images, or share them on social media, if you use the words, preach the theology, shore up the institution, buy the products, or 'merely' stay quiet when you witness any of this going on around you and let it go unchallenged - then you are part of the problem, you have your own share in the violence, the hatred me the fear-mongering.

And of course, 'you' means 'me'. I am part of the problem. My hands are not spotless, my words innocent, my actions pure. I am complicit in the fearful, hate-full, violent dynamics of our world. I cannot stand blameless lay 'outside' and point unambiguously to those 'others' whose fault it all is. This, simply, is what we Christians call 'original sin'. None of us can escape it. It touches us all.

The question is what we do with it. Do we jump into it with both feet and hate with the worst of them? Do we despair of the whole damned world and turn our back on it all? Or do we do our little bit of throwing beached starfish back into the life-giving water, loving those we can love, challenging those we can challenge, repenting where we can repent, learning where we can learn, befriending where we can befriend, forgiving where we can forgive, hoping where we can hope, that - against all the odds - love, ultimately, wins?

On the Sunday after the Orlando shootings, after Jo Cox's murder, I led a couple of services in Hodge Hill, as I do most Sundays. In one sense, we did something 'special'. We began the main morning service by gathering around an altar draped in rainbow fabrics, each of us holding in our hands a small piece of one edge. We lit a single candle in the middle. We said short prayers, we sung, we kept silence, we held hands. But in another sense, we Christians in Hodge Hill did last Sunday what we do every Sunday (and other days too): we gathered together the fragments of our lives and our world as it has touched us over the preceding days; we offered to God our penitence for our part in the brokenness of our world, the hatred and division which we know is even within our own hearts - and opened ourselves afresh to God's healing and forgiving love; we prayed in solidarity with the suffering and the bereaved, for healing and peace and justice; we joined consciously with that 'great cloud of witnesses' of those who have gone before us (sometimes dying violent deaths) in witnessing to God's kingdom of life and love and wholeness, longing for that kingdom to come 'on earth as in heaven'; and then we re-committed ourselves to turning that longing into a reality in our daily lives. Nothing unusual in any of that - but extraordinary nevertheless.

A good friend who is a chaplain at Warwick University shared with me another story of simple, faith-full human responses to last week's tragedies, in some ways much more extraordinary but no more 'superhuman' than our response in Hodge Hill:

"On Thursday night the societies at Warwick organised a vigil for the Orlando shooting; over a hundred went.  It was led by Pride but all sorts got involved, including one of our orchestral societies who played.  Faith societies were visibly present.  Afterwards, one of the Christian societies walked back to the chaplaincy with Pride members to light candles with those who wanted to, and the Muslim attendees went back to the prayer hall for prayers and to prepare food.  Later,  people from all the groups that night gathered at the Islamic prayer hall to break the fast together.  There were all sorts of blurred lines between the 'liberation' and 'faith' societies as we sat on the floor and ate curry together; people whose identities are complex and unique.  I joined just for the food but what I saw in my snapshot of the evening filled me with hope.  On Friday night, students from a Christian group came to mine to eat and pray - what they had taken part in the night before had been transformative for them.  They’ll carry that with them for the rest of their lives."

The words and actions we consume, in which we participate, form us and transform us. No simple labels will ever do them much justice, tell us much about their content and character - or ours. Our challenge, as human beings, and as societies, is discerning (literally, teasing out) the multiplicity of different meaning-games that form us - and finding ways of nurturing those which are good, and life-giving, and disentangling ourselves from those which are unhealthy, and destructive, to ourselves as well as to others. We might call that process of discerning, disentangling and nurturing 'faith'. We might call it 'politics'. I think it's probably both, and more. But I know, because I have witnessed it, that when it is done carefully, painstakingly, across differences and divides, and drenched in love, then it has the power to cast out fear.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

'Thinking afresh about welfare'? Really?!

The Church of England's House of Bishops has just published a discussion paper attempting to 'think afresh about welfare'. It has three aims: "to help formulate a considered response to the challenges facing the country's welfare systems today", "to develop a narrative" about the purposes of welfare, and "to inspire hearts as well as minds in pursuit of the people's welfare". At its heart is a relatively simple, four-stage argument: vital to our welfare (or wellbeing) is interdependence and community; we live in a world where such interdependence has broken down; the welfare system should help tackle this problem; and the churches are well-placed to help. Unfortunately, any helpful insights in the paper are overwhelmed by (at least) three fatally flawed assumptions: about work, about politics, and about 'solutions'.

Firstly, the paper assumes that 'work' is by its very nature a social good: 'a primary source of companionship and a remedy for isolation', 'productive' and 'socially useful'. On that basis, while 'welfare systems' should 'strengthen people's ties to their locality and not undermine them', it is quite acceptable to expect people to move locality 'to take up opportunities for work' ('on your bike', we might say). Work thus trumps any other social good, passing over the reality for so many people that work is temporary or short-term, alienating and unfulfilling, and radically 'desocialized' (as sociologist Loic Wacquant puts it), such that low-income work environments are increasingly designed to isolate workers from each other, to prevent them from forming meaningful bonds of solidarity.

The paper's second problematic assumption lies in its view of politics. It acknowledges that 'welfare cuts are a political choice', but goes straight on to suggest that they 'may be the only politically possible alternative to high levels of debt'. Politics may well be 'the art of the possible', but this paper does not deserve to be dignified with any pretence to Christian theology if it rests content with what currently appears 'politically possible'. Where is its prophetic voice to seek to change the terms of the political conversation? Nowhere, it seems, beyond a thinly-evidenced suggestion that it is our 'loss of connection' that is responsible for 'the burden on the state' (of the welfare bill) becoming 'unsustainable', 'outstripping the willingness of the people as a whole to pay for it'. Nowhere does the paper question the vested interests of those who would perpetuate this particular economic narrative, or alternative narratives that might highlight where wealth has in fact been concentrated in recent years.

The final fatal flaw with this paper is in its proposals for moving forwards. It does not consider tackling the desocializing forces of 'the economy' and the workplace. It pays scant attention to the need of the affluent and the comfortable for 'interdependence' and 'mutuality', focusing only on their necessities for the poor. And most troubling, it ties itself in knots trying to argue, on the one hand, that the 'welfare system' out to 'promote mutuality and challenge isolation', and 'address issues of character', and also, on the other hand, that such issues can only be addressed by neighbourhoods, and communities like, guess what, the church. While I agree unequivocally with the latter point (systems cannot love, or nurture love, almost by definition), the barely-hidden subtext of this paper is that 'voluntary bodies' (like churches) need to be enabled to 'bid competitively' (against the unloving but seemingly more 'efficient' private sector) to deliver welfare provision. It doesn't quite say as much, but the suggestion of using food banks as 'one-stop-shops' for state-sponsors welfare is implied, thickly, between the lines.

When will the church renounce the temptation to position itself as the state's ideal 'service provider', while abdicating its prophetic calling to expose our idolatries (of 'the economy', work, and the politically expedient, to name but three)? Why can our ecclesial imagination not even stretch as far as the idea of the Universal Basic Income, already a serious political concept in a growing number of countries - one way of 'decoupling' meaningful, productive, interdependent work from the apparent necessity of wage labour, which might just possibly liberate people for voluntary action in their communities and neighbourhoods? Why, furthermore, must we buy the lie of 'scarce resources', when there is wealth in the hands of a few that, invested in serious community-building, could transform our society? Why are we not asking serious questions about the moral failings of the rich, and urging the state to incentivise their moves towards interdependence and community within our wider society? If this paper is 'thinking afresh', then the Church of England has truly run out of ideas.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Love God = hate your family?!

A couple of weeks ago a small group of friends, all dads with young-ish (and rapidly growing) children, met together to chat. Nothing unusual in that, especially with curry involved! But what was more unusual was that we had come together to talk about being a dad - to share, with as much honesty as we could manage, the joys and the struggles of parenting, how we've been shaped in it by experiences long past and more recent, and how we might try to do it as well as we can. It was a fascinating conversation, and hopefully the first of many. Perhaps most interesting was that it brought to the surface tensions that we wrestled with, not just between our best ideals and the imperfections of reality, between the various senses of vocation in our lives.

Love God = hate your family?!

We recalled Jesus' harsh words in Luke 14:26: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple." The 'cost of discipleship' might sometimes be great - but hate your family?! Jesus is speaking in hyperbolic language, of course, and we had a sense that this is, first and foremost, a call to resist idolising. Following Jesus, loving God, seeking the kingdom, must come first - and nothing else must fill that place. We can (and culturally, often do) place 'family' in the place of God - as the ultimate source of our security, as our ultimate goal in life, as the locus of our meaningful relationships, and so on - and such idolatry can destroy us all. Jesus' words must shock us out of such idolising. But...

Love your neighbour = love your family?

I resist the expression 'charity begins at home' like the plague. It's normally said to argue that generosity shouldn't be extended anywhere else but the home, or 'our community', or 'our country'. 'Look after our own first' usually means not looking after 'others' at all. It's an expression that comes out of a worldview of scarcity and competition, rather than abundance and sharing. But if what if we took 'charity begins at home' more at its word? What if home and family, in whatever form we our lucky enough to have them, offer us a 'school' for love - a place to learn it, practise it, get it wrong and learn from our mistakes - a training ground for loving in the wider world? The particular gift of family (however difficult that gift is, often, to receive) is that we're stuck with them for life - whether through the commitment of marriage, or the 'givens' of parents, siblings and children. And if we have a lifetime with these people, then we have a lifetime to be able to learn the art of loving them.

Vocations in harmony - or tension?

I floated a suggestion, offered to me by a wise friend, that if our various vocations are given to us by God, then they shouldn't conflict. I'm afraid to say that none of us, in our little group of dads, was terribly convinced. Managing tensions between our different vocations seemed to be an inextricable part of our lives - in particular the tension between loving our family and loving our other neighbours (both locally and wider): both loves are 'good', both we acknowledged as callings from God, but they often seemed to pull in different directions on our time, energy and attention.

I've been thinking about our conversation a lot in the days since that evening. I don't feel like I have many gems of wisdom yet, but it feels important to try and get dads (and perhaps men more generally) together more often for these kind of conversations, as I have a feeling we men tend to be rather less well-equipped for them (or more resistant to them, perhaps) than women.

For the moment, I have some emerging questions that might just help me navigate some of those tensions between the different calls on our time, energy and attention. They probably need refining, and adding to, but they feel like a place to start...
  • Vocation - am I called to this? with all that I am?
  • Responsibility - how much of the responsibility for this rests with me? who else is it (or could it be) shared with?
  • Strain - is something (or someone) under strain here? is there a 'clear and present danger' of something (or someone) breaking?
  • Possibility - can I contribute meaningfully here and now?

I wonder what wisdom you can bring to this - as male or female, whatever the makeup of your particular 'household' might be? I feel like I'm just a beginner, with much to learn!

'Ethical Leadership and the CofE'

On Tuesday, I went up to Leeds for a day 'workshop' on 'Ethical Leadership and the CofE'. When I first saw it advertised, I was instantly intrigued, closely followed by the instinctive response of 'that's surely not for people like me'. As someone who has, at times, been rather scathing of the apparent lack of theological reflection preceding major reforms in the Church of England (the Green Report being the most notorious example), however, I realised that this might be a great opportunity to dip a toe into exactly those waters. So I booked, I travelled, and I wasn't (on the whole) disappointed...

It wasn't exactly a 'workshop', more a series of intensely nutritious reflections, philosophical, theological and biblical, on the question of leadership. But with some immensely fine minds, and experienced practitioners, both behind the lectern and in the audience, the conversations that began yesterday (and beginnings, rather than endings, they surely were) were rich with insight.

Leadership as skillful, non-manipulative persuasion

Jamie Dow, a philosopher in Leeds, mined Aristotle's understanding of rhetoric to make suggestions as what 'leadership as persuasive influence' might look like if it was thoroughly ethical, which is to say both skillful and non-manipulative. If a key aspect of leadership is, as he framed it, 'seeking to have a persuasive influence on the beliefs and actions of others in order to achieve a common goal', then there are ethical questions to be asked about:

  1. the 'common goal' itself
  2. the identity of the leader(s)
  3. the character of the leader(s)
  4. the behaviour of the 'followers'
  5. the character and culture of the 'followers'
  6. the process or methods of leadership
Via Aristotle, Jamie argued that the last of these can be considered ethical if it 'gives people proper grounds for conviction' - and, in the process, helps create the conditions, among the 'followers', for appropriate weighing, thinking, deliberating and responding. It is not enough to have a 'trustworthy' leader who presents 'pre-cooked' decisions - such leaders should be skilled at enabling genuine deliberation. In the questions that followed Jamie's presentation, we noted that leaders should be just as skilled at 'holding spaces open', understanding the particularity of context (with its vested interests, power imbalances, pressures and the like), making themselves accountable to the judgment of others, listening well, and reflecting on what they hear (perhaps balancing an emphasis on 'rhetoric' with an attention to both 'dialectic' and 'praxis'). One big danger of overly 'task-focused' leadership, it was suggested (with the story of Socrates' wife in mind), is that there might well be people and considerations apparently marginal to 'the task in hand' whose exclusion could result in the wider fabric of life being damaged.

The practice of leadership in the Pauline epistles

Loveday Alexander, a biblical scholar (and member of the Faith & Order Commission which has reflected on senior leadership in the CofE), offered us a rich picture of leadership emerging not so much from the teachings of Paul but from Paul's practice as a leader through his letter-writing, itself creating the 'social glue' between Christians (himself included), and the 'theological glue' between Christians and their God. Loveday pointed to much evidence in the Pauline epistles of an 'equilateral triangle' of relationship between local church leaders ('B'), the trans-local apostle ('C'), and the God who calls and empowers both ('A'). Each divine-human relation (A-B, A-C) was a two-way relationship of call and response, and the human-human relation (B-C) was also one of mutual support. The important thing for Paul, said Loveday, was 'keeping the triangle equilateral' and not 'collapsing it into (top-down) line-management', whether of a 'congregationalist' ('A-B-C') or 'Catholic' ('A-C-B') shape. Paul is interested, she suggested, in redistributing hierarchical power into something shared and accountable, so that the one who is 'obeyed' is not the apostle, or the local leaders, but only Godself.

The Pauline ethos of apostolic leadership, then, understood leadership as discipleship or calling; as charisma or gift; as diakonia or service (of God, and of others); as koinonia, synergy or partnership (all working within the same divine energy); as episkope or oversight (of a consensual, enabling kind - 'power to' not 'power over'); and as apostolicity, ultimately cross-shaped. Philippians 2:5 was a hermeneutical key for a Pauline understanding of leadership relations: 'let your bearing towards one another arise out of your life in Christ' (NEB). Or, in Rowan Williams' words:
"How can anyone carry God, bring God to birth in the world? How can you carry the cup without spilling it? But what if the cup is no fragile container but a deep well that can never run dry? Then you know it isn't just your resource, but God's insistent generosity, carrying you as you carry God." (from 'Waiting on God: a sermon for Lady Day 1992', in A Ray of Darkness, p.13)
The ethics of leadership in a diverse church

Sam Wells, theologian and vicar of London's St Martin's-in-the-Fields, began his reflection with the reality of diversity, difference and disagreement in the CofE, and suggested (in the title of his lecture) that "There's Two Ways We Can Do This". One way is to ignore the diversity and make assertions of 'truth' and 'integrity'; the other way is to embrace diversity in the cause of 'unity' and 'grace'. In fact, for Sam, there were perhaps three ways we could 'do this' - think about the ethics of church leadership, that is - corresponding to his three-fold typology of 'ethics for anyone' ('universal ethics'), 'ethics for the oppressed' ('subversive ethics') and 'ethics for the church' ('ecclesial ethics').

The first ('universal ethics') understands Christian faith as content rather than process, and Christian practices as a 'delivery mechanism' for that content. The 'ethics of leadership' can be considered independent of its specifically Christian context - as a question of universal 'norms' to be negotiated through an ongoing series of dilemmas, rather as President Bartlett in The West Wing or Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister repeatedly had to confront. The underpinning assumption that the 'goals' of leadership are clear, unambiguous and widely shared - such as for Churchill against Hitler - falls down, of course, in the case of the CofE - where most 'goals' are themselves are disputed and fundamental interpretations diverge. The recent Reform and Renewal process emerges as a victim of just such false assumptions of clarity and consensus - which is why it was so widely received as an 'arbitrary exercise of power', Sam suggested.

The second approach ('subversive ethics') finds its expression (in this particular context) in 'lament, criticism, antagonism and even fury' at the exclusion of people on grounds of gender, race, class, sexuality or disability; in 'concern, attention, penitence and even despair' at the misuse of power, abuse and negligence often witnessed in the leadership of the church; in 'a longing for and concerted commitment to leadership models of care nurture, compassion and kindness (in contrast to models which emphasise winning and losing, dominating and submitting, and an infantilising avoidance of responsibility); and, most clearly, in an exasperation at 'business as usual' - the 'narrow habits and exclusive assumptions' - of the church's 'civil service'.

A third approach ('ecclesial ethics') might be seen as seeking, in Sam's words, to "put the church in order before trying to put the world to rights", but most crucially understands the church more as the 'how' than the 'what' - the importance of the process or the journey as much as (if not more than) the destination. Questions of leadership in this approach begin not with supposed 'universals', or with lament from the margins, but with the Christian-specific question of 'what might Christ-like leadership look like?' With echoes of Loveday  Alexander's reading of Paul, Sam observed that the biblical witness often highlights the ways in which human leaders all too often obscure God's authority, and questions and deconstructs the legitimacy of any kind of leadership (e.g. 'the greatest among you shall be your servant', Mk 10:42). Embracing the diversity of the church rather than seeking to pass over it, an 'ecclesial' approach seeks to 'disagree with dignity, muddle through with hope' and, at best, understands that as a much-needed gift to the wider world.

There is, however, Sam suggested, a sense of urgency - anxiety even - in the current CofE, that fears that the church is 'slipping into social oblivion' and that 'something must be done'. The danger is that this anxious urgency works precisely against the good news of the gospel, that proclaims and practises grace, mercy, compassion and forgiveness for what has been; that is confident, in the present, that 'God has given the church everything it needs to follow'; and that is able to be a non-anxious presence, trusting that 'in God, the future is bigger than the past'.

Sam's final point, in conclusion, was to suggest that church leaders must develop the ability to speak two languages (and be able to make the distinctions between them): the language of 'contract' (a 'minimal expectation', perhaps, but one which expresses love through keeping promises, safeguarding the vulnerable, undertaking due process, etc.); and the language of 'covenant' (a 'maximal aspiration', which relies on God, dwells in forgiveness, trusts in time-honoured practices, and overflows with grace and patience). Both 'contract' and 'covenant' are needed, he argued, and in both love is expressed as 'attention to particulars'.

In a rich Q&A session, the language of 'covenant' was questioned - 'co-opted' as it has been by the 'Anglican Covenant' - something which, it was generally felt, started with covenant and ended in contract, an illegitimate switch that people rightly 'felt done' by. The instrumentalising of the CofE as 'the best boat to fish from' was critiqued - 'it's all about being a good boat', Sam said. How might 'contract' and 'covenant' function together to build up the body again from its current catatonic state, someone asked. 'There are things worse than numerical decline,' Sam replied, 'such as losing your soul'. As a church we should embrace opportunities to be more like David and less like Goliath. 'It's not about size - it's about being transfigured.' And returning to the importance of 'subversive' ethics alongside an 'ecclesial' focus, the CofE would do well to 'become more aware of the stones it has rejected over the years' that might just, with the grace of God, 'become the cornerstones'.

Leadership as collective practice, enabling collective practice

In the final presentation of the day, Mike Higton asked (and suggested an answer to) the question "Whose leadership is it anyway?". Starting from a 'low-key' definition of leadership as "assisting others in the performance of a collective practice", and drawing out the distinction between 'assisting' and 'imposing' or 'coercing', he carefully unfolded an argument that if we can 'get non-coercion clear', then we will in fact clarify what we mean by 'leadership' itself in all its most important dimensions.

First, then, 'non-coercion' means working with the 'free agency' of others. 'Freedom' doesn't mean somehow escaping relationships of receptivity and dependence in which we are all enmeshed, but rather not being absorbed into, or co-opted by, other people's narratives - freedom is dependence, but dependence on an attentive love that is not oriented towards meeting another's needs and/or fantasies.

Secondly, God loves us in precisely this attentive, unselfish way: God doesn't have an agency or project defined over against the agency and projects of others in the world - rather, God's unselfish love is precisely the condition of the possibility of our free agency.

Thirdly, for this to become real for us, God's unselfish love needs to be mediated to us - through words and actions ('sacraments'), and through the love of others. We need practices, embodied ways in which we celebrate, learn to inhabit, communicate and pass on the unselfish love of God. Such mediations are, because we're human, imperfect, however - and so we need also to regularly acknowledge our failures in mediation, through seeking forgiveness, healing wounds, etc. These practices of word and sacrament, care and penitence are themselves, then, the necessary conditions for enabling the growth of free agency - a certain kind of communal life which is the 'collective practice' of the church.

So, what kind of leadership is necessary to 'assist others in the performance of [the church's] collective practice'? A kind of leadership which is, in fact, the collective practices of the church themselves. 'Being the church' is what enables us to 'be the church'. Leadership is distributed and shared before it is held by particular individuals - which itself is but one specific way of inhabiting the communal practice of the church. 'Agency is something you receive at the hands of love,' said Mike. A leader is only someone who is 'enabled by all this', to then be able to assist the enabling of all of this. 'The freer I am, the more I am receiving well from others, the more I'm sharing in God's agency'. The argument is beautifully circular.

'But what about the world?' we asked. Mediations of the love of God happen in multiple contexts, Mike replied, but with one telos: for the whole world to be radiant with it. 'What about our needs?' we asked. As finite beings, our needs are inherent to our loving (unlike God's unselfish love), and not just a limitation on it. It's vital, in our church and in our leaders, to acknowledge honestly our needs, insufficiencies and vulnerabilities - as part of enabling us to love honestly, love fully, and enable others to do likewise.

Where does all this get us?

So, much to chew on, for a long time to come. What did I take away - or at least, what is forefront in my mind in these early reflections? The importance, in a diverse church, of creating spaces for conversation - not assuming we have a 'common goal', but discovering one another as we engage each other's different interpretations of what the 'goals' of church, of Christian faith, might be. The importance of enabling others to reflect theologically, to articulate the 'whys' for their beliefs and their actions, as a precondition for any kind of genuine deliberation together. The importance of 'encouraging one another in our relationships to God', as vital to avoiding collapsing 'leadership' into 'line management', in Loveday's resonant phrase. The importance of attending to voices (perhaps barely spoken) and considerations 'on the edges', seen as 'marginal' to the task in hand - the importance, that is, of tending the fabric of life, a telos, perhaps, more important than any more 'focused' goal. The possibility, and the dangers, in holding the language of 'contract' and 'covenant' together - embodying love in our careful 'attention to the particulars'. The importance of a non-anxious ecclesial presence, grounded in a receptivity to the abundant love and patience of God that operates more in an economy of transfiguration than a neo-capitalist economy of endless growth. The importance of our communal life as the most important kind of 'leadership' of which any of us are a part - a life in which we learn to mediate the love of God through our finite, vulnerable, needy-and-gifted human lives.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Things are growing in Hodge Hill!

I need to be honest with you from the outset. Not everything in Hodge Hill is beautiful. My neighbourhood, Firs & Bromford, is a 1950s/60s council estate, still dominated by huge, claustrophobia-inducing, high-rise tower blocks (even though they are slowly being taken down, opening up surprising new 'breathing spaces'). And although there are pockets of beautiful community hidden inside these looming (and slowly crumbling) towers, if you talk to those of my friends and neighbours who still live in these flats, the vast majority will tell you they'd give almost anything to get out of them. There are days, not helped by the less-than-perfect British weather, when the estate just looks and feels grey, a greyness that can sink into your soul. There are times, particularly if you don't have the luxury of a car, when what the estate-born Brummie author Lynsey Hanley calls 'the wall in the head' can feel almost-impossible to break out from, when things beyond the local (library, swimming pool, coffee shop, supermarket even) feel a million miles away (all are within 2-3 miles, but often that's at least 2 buses away).

All of that is true. Some of it accounts for why some people who've come to visit us, to explore the possibility of being part of our 'Common Ground' missional community, have gone away again, unable to get their heads around moving here. The cost, the sacrifices - especially for those used to the luxuries of the middle-class consumer, the bustling 'vibrancy' of an inner-city high street, or even just some of the basic necessities to meet particular physical and social needs - have seemed to be too much to swallow. And each time we've got our hopes up that we might be about to welcome new and gifted and imaginative travelling-companions and co-conspirators to our community-growing adventure here, our hearts have sank as we've watched them go again.


Things are growing here. I've been here six years now, and in that time I've had the great privilege of witnessing so much growth in so many ways. Local people, my neighbours, growing in confidence, discovering their passions and gifts and opportunities to share them with those around them (take the 3-year-old Bromford Theatre Group for example, and the genius of Phil Howkins who started it, and who has the vision, passion and ability to charm almost anyone to do almost anything, beyond what they ever imagined possible). Friendships growing and flourishing, between people from vastly different backgrounds, from different parts of the world (Nigeria, Somalia, Romania, Ireland, Bromford, Berkshire and more...), learning each other's languages, sharing each other's favourite recipes, looking after each other's kids and dreaming each other's dreams. And at the risk of using an overly-technical word for something much more human and messy, local 'infrastructure' has grown, with institutions like schools (and Hodge Hill Church, of which I'm a part) increasingly looking outwards rather than inwards, strong and creative partnerships developing between organisations, and new places and spaces popping up for encounter, friendship, support and creativity, from Worth Unlimited's shopfront youth & community space, 'The Hub', to Open Door's drop-ins, school gate 'cuppas' and multicultural women's group, and now, most recently, our brand new Community Forest Space (at the local primary school), an Urban Allotment (around some of the sheltered housing), and a labyrinth and open-access raised beds outside the two Community Houses of our Common Ground Community.

Yes, things are growing here. People, friendships, organisations, partnerships, places and spaces are growing here. And while much of that growth feels often like 'one step forward, two steps back', while much of it is very small, very fragile, messy and chaotic - well, isn't growth in the natural world a bit like that, and yet, precisely in and through this, utterly beautiful?

So here's the invitation, and the challenge: why not come and join us?! Come and discover the beauty, the glory, even amidst the grey (as the poet Kathy Galloway puts it so well). Come and be part of growing things, growing people, growing friendships, growing community here. Our Common Ground Community is made up of people, households, families who live in and around the area and commit to sharing together - sharing time, sharing food, sharing work and projects and the ongoing journey of community-building, sharing prayer and struggles and joys together - and it includes those who have chosen to share their lives together in our two Community Houses, The Old Rectory and The Croft, places of welcome and hospitality and sharing, places of prayer and learning and exploring.

None of this is without its cost, its sacrifices. Sometimes it can be bloody hard living here, working here. It can be overwhelming frustrating, when hard-won growth is senselessly destroyed, or overtaken by fragility and precariousness, or it just feels like it's taking forever to see anything change. It can be the hardest thing imaginable, sometimes, to put aside our own sense of 'what we have to offer', how we imagine we can 'solve' this particular 'problem', or the supposed 'rightness' of our own agenda, to make space for others to give their gifts, to find their solutions, to begin to articulate their words, their agendas, their stories. But it is the most rewarding thing in the world.

So how about it? Come and join us! Come and move here. Come and join one of our Community Houses (we're after both long-term 'anchor' people and those who want to come for shorter-term experience) [click this link for more information].

And if growing things is your particular passion, why not come and work with us... We'll even pay you! Check out the advert below for more info... (NB. deadline Monday 9th May!)