This is our truth, tell us yours
It being Christmas time, when, traditionally, the BBC assumes its historic duty of telling us all how much we should consume to keep the economy afloat, it’s also the time when political rows break out in institutions and organizations.
Sometimes, those rows are genuine, and sometimes, they’re like the moment when a soon to be divorced couple act out their hatred in a petulant spat about the toast, or the menu for dinner.
One institution on the seasonal rack is the Church of England. A great institution in an historic, and near terminal decline, the CofE has responded with a talent programme, a way of identifying and training both its future leaders, and of directing the talents and soothing the sadness of those who will never be called to high office. You can read more about the row here, here, here, here, and here.
Now, Jem is the theological correspondent of this blog. I’m exempt from such things, by reason of my lack of faith in anything other than my fellow humans. However, I know a bit about organizations, and leadership. The CofE is an organization split, to paraphrase R S Thomas, between two hungers.
There are two hungers, hungers for bread
And hungers of the uncouth soul
For the light’s grace.
Precisely the problem of the CofE is that it has to spend so much of its resources on maintaining the assets of an established church; its buildings, its structures, its unwieldy and near-feudal governance arrangements. All too often the provision of light and grace to uncouth souls seems to be an optional extra, secondary to the task of maintaining the corporate body.
Beneath that obvious problem though lurks a secondary problem, the one that Luther posed and which has aroused and fascinated many overlooked or unregarded preachers since. If each priest, if each christian is called, and experiences an unmediated conversation with god, how does leadership express itself in a way that retains and reinforces the established order and keeps rebellious theses from the door?
R S Thomas provides a hint in another of his beautiful poems
IN A COUNTRY CHURCH
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’ s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
The CofE’s problem is that for some of its congregation,when they read the Green report, they see language and practices that are not evidence of love but of privilege and exclusion. The very notion of High Office in the church reeks of hierarchy and orthodoxy, not service and devotion, and risks a division between those who are chosen, and those who would by their very nature refuse to be chosen at all, and who choose to align themselves only with the duty of bringing light and grace to uncouth souls, as if the church has only one hunger to satisfy.
These things intrigue me not because I care for the church I was brought up in, albeit in the disestablished western fringes, but because the historical trajectory of the CofE has parallels for my beloved secular church, the Labour Party. It has two hungers it always tries to feed; the hunger for a fairer, more generous society that can care about and bring welfare and security to Prytherch and his heirs, and the immediate, junk food hunger for electoral success. The apparent rupture in the historic polity of Scotland, with the fakery and dishonesty of the SNP, promising all things to all men while delivering less to most of them, likely to sweep all before it in 2015 asks many of the same questions as are being asked of the CofE.
The challenge this poses to me though is not to rush to the door of Labour head office and nail my theses to the smoked glass and the chrome. I see the challenge as being to me. What have I done that has led us here, and what can I do to effect a change?
One of the lowlights of my church career was the annual outing to a mission church established in a new industrial settlement in the nineteenth century. This daughter church was kept alive for reasons uncertain, but alive it was and once a year, on its saints day, the whole congregation of the mother church would decamp, and gather in its squeaky bandy legged chairs and give thanks. The year when a hailstorm rattling off the corrugated iron roof rendered the entire service a performance of mime and mystery made some question whether the annual pilgrimage was worth the effort. Stoic to the last, ad close to retirement, the Canon answered ‘God was there’. Rachel Mann, who we linked to above, quoted U A Fanthorpe referring to Jesus tattooing his word on his disciples, and that conjured in my head a reminder of RST again
rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten.
That’s an excerpt from a poem called The Country Clergy, that burned its way into my mind because of that elderly canon. It begins
I see them working in old rectories
By the sun’s light, by candlelight
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels.
When I see how badly astray my beloved Labour Party has gone, I remember that it was built by hundreds and thousands of men and women who wrote sublime words about fairness, decency and love in the hearts and minds of millions. If it is failing now, a hollowed out shell of itself, the solution may lie in changing the leadership, in developing the right talent to take charge of the institution and the structures to feed the insatiable hunger for power, or it might lie in the humility and willingness of the majority of us to focus on the hunger for fairness, love and peaceful security in this world. The Labour Party desperately needs to convince its hinterland, the people it was established for, that its leaders do not care if they are buried with paupers or princes, provided they have not failed the people they served.