A rudderless nation

Philip Hammond’s budget yesterday was but one small example of a nation that has lost its way.   We are being ‘led’ by a party dominated by an economic myth – balance the books and all will be well – which has been accepted as ‘divine truth’ since the days of Thatcher.  Neither the Tories nor New Labour have offered us – and the wider world – a vision of a society which sees furthering the well-being of those at the bottom of the pile as a matter on which the health of the whole nation rests.  Symbolically, it is appalling that we have come to accept food-banks as normal.   It is an affront to everyone of us who simply puts our spare goods in the ‘bin’ and forgets what a commentary on our way of life as a society that is.

And what is true of our society is true of our world.   We have two massive tasks ahead of us which if we neglect will be the end of humankind as we know it.   One is eradicating poverty – the other is creating a just world.   Both of those should be  written into the DNA of every person – including every Christian and every church.   At the moment we are fiddling whilst ‘Rome’  burns.

I have no easy answers as to how those of goodwill can be mobilized in sufficient numbers in order to address the crisis increasingly evident across our world.   However, I know it has to be done.   All I can do is to try and get that mobilization underway by whatever small means I can – in Bakewell and beyond.

A time to forget not remember

Last Saturday was Remembrance Day.   I am late with my blog.   But I wanted to notch up that it is a day which causes me more anger and frustration than thanksgiving.   Of course I am immensely grateful that many people ‘laid down their lives’ and enabled this country to live reasonably peacefully even whilst others were devastated by the immediate effects of battle.   After all, my Father served in the medical corps in WW1 even though he spoke about it very rarely.
But the wars we ‘remember’ had so many unintended causes – many of which were the result of the acts of power-seekers on all sides.   We only ‘won’ in the sense that other countries came to our assistance – or we could easily have ‘lost’.   The cost in human lives was appalling – with many young people being sent to their deaths – especially in WW1 – without the generals giving their slaughter a second thought.
And has ‘remembrance’ prevented other wars?   Of course not.   The nationalistic and militaristic underpinning of these ceremonies simply affirms the validity of war and the righteousness of our cause – when this is often deeply in doubt – Iraq?   Afghanistan? Syria?   ‘Remembrance’ can often perpetuate self-righteousness and hostility to past ‘enemies’.   It overlooks our own massive errors for which we should seek forgiveness.   It maintains a distorted nationalism and a ‘them and us’ mentality.   And so enmity, fear, hatred and resentment fester on, to burst to the surface again at the slightest new affront to national pride.   Let’s end ‘remembrance days’ for wars past (not least  those now a hundred years old!) and replace them with ‘peace days’, the red poppy with the white, the pomp with acts of humility and the determination to hold on to a mythical past with a determination to build a new and truly human world order.



Quakers and Business

I’ve not produced a post for a while as I’ve been working on the Kingdom at Work Project’s next Bulletin.   I co-ordinate the project.  The Bulletin goes out to over 250 people concerned with how faith can inform work, and work inform faith, across all denominations in the UK – and to a few people abroad.   The Bulletin is published, free to download, about three times a year (see below).  It seeks to cover different issues relating to the value-added dimension of a faith approach to the world of work.  Each issue runs to about 15 A4 pages. We have teamed up with the Saltley Trust in Birmingham which puts all back copies of the Bulletin on its web site to be downloaded by anyone interested:
http://www.saltleytrust.org.uk/faith-and-work-in-theological-education-and-training/    Topics covered so far are:
No.12 (Nov, 2017)     Quakers and Business
No.11 (July 2017)      Ministers in Secular Employment
No.10 (Feb. 2017)      The Christian Entrepreneur
No.9   (Nov. 2016)      Servant Leadership
No.8   (July 2016)      Spirituality in the Workplace
No.7   (Feb. 2016)      Christian faith and the economy
No.6   (Oct. 2015)      Chaplains and Chaplaincy
No.5   (Jul. 2015)       The Common Good
No.4   (April 2015)    The Kingdom at Work project – ten key questions
No.3   (Dec. 2014)     ‘Educating for Mission in the World of Work’ conference report
No.2   (Oct. 2014)       Faith and work agencies in the UK and beyond
No.1   (Feb. 2014)      The Kingdom at Work Project and related initiatives

For the last few issues, the Kingdom at Work Project has teamed up with a number of faith agencies operating in this field and invited their members to write about the topic concerned.

The next issue (out next week) has been produced in partnership with the Quakers and Business Group.   It’s a really excellent issue because the Quakers are one of the few denominations in the UK which has really tried to get to grips with the value-added dimension of the contribution of faith to the workplace. Their members have a rich ethical heritage to draw on – Quakers were active and entrepreneurial business leaders, especially from the 19th century, bringing a breath of fresh air (often literally) to the often appalling conditions of the workplace.   How I wish other denominations could move away from their pre-occupation with survival and obsession with ‘making disciples’ and seek to engage with what Christian faith has to offer to the transformation of a consumer-dominated world of work – a hugely influential world – which is constantly distorting what being human is all about.

A new narrative

Just back from a week in Croatia – fascinating country steeped in history.   Among the places we visited was Split with its Diocletian Temple – built for the emperor’s retirement around 295 AD.   This was when the Christian community was still being persecuted – but only a few decades before Constantine co-opted the Christian church as a means of giving more stability to his far-flung empire.   That partnership of convenience has lasted in the West until the present day, albeit in an increasingly attenuated form.

However, the writing is now on the wall not only for termination of that partnership but of its hierarchical institutional principles and forms which have been taken as the norm over the last two millennia.   The social, economic, structural and religious foundations on which our institutions have been built are now being called into question by immensely powerful forces –  universal education, civil rights, globalization, climate change and the internet among others.

Our only way forward is for the creation of what George Monbiot describes in Out of the Wreckage as the discovery of ‘a new narrative’.   The old narratives have served a purpose – but they cannot be revived as the world of the third millennium will be fundamentally different from the past.

Any new narrative which can enable humankind to survive, as with those that have gone before it, has to be a combination of principles and practice – for world and church alike.   For the principles. I believe we need to re-visit the meaning and nature of what, in this blog, I call Christ’s vision of the kingdom community.   For the practice, I believe all institutions, sacred and secular, have to become ‘diaconal’, that is, the servant of that kingdom.   What  a new narrative will mean in terms of the shape and nature of those institutions, not least the form of their leadership, is a journey, with many dangerous blind alleys to be explored (as Trump and Erdogan remind us), that will have to go on for many generations to come.



Where we’re at – and it’s scary!

I’ve just been reading the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s book Life in Fragments written in 1995.   In it he speaks about the emergence of a postmodern age in which all the landmarks have gone.   In particular he sets out the challenge and dangers of living in a world in which the old authorities have collapsed – Christendom and, more recently, secular empires in particular.   This leaves a vacuum for ‘neo-tribalism’ to come centre stage – those collectives which can only find ‘security’ by dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, with ‘them’ being the unknown and threatening ‘stranger at the gate’.    The response to such strangers is to seek to build higher and higher walls to keep them out or, failing that, to eliminate them.   If this happens on a global scale, the future of humankind will be at risk.

Twenty years ahead of his time Bauman seems to be describing the world as we are (again) experiencing it.   Donald Trump’s speech to the UN this week simply indicates where we are at – not very far along the road to creating a global community of communities.   I have called it ‘the communal dilemma’.   But maybe that’s too gentle a term – ‘the communal disaster’ might be better.   Because the threat to nuke North Korea is no throw away line.   It is a wake up call to a world which needs to realize the immensity of what is at stake.   ‘Progress’ towards a just and peaceful world is not a given – it is an immensely difficult journey in which we continue to go backwards as well as forwards.

In that quest Christian faith has something hugely realistic to offer – a way of life based on the recognition that loving God and neighbour is very costly.   But also a vision of what can be – including being open to the stranger as potential friend – and the promise of the power to make it a reality.







Edale Valley, Peak District

As usual on a Saturday morning, today Sue and I went out on our Derbyshire walk together.   The Peak District National Park has been a fantastic stamping ground since we arrived in Bakewell thirteen years ago, and we have now traversed most of it.   Today we climbed up to the west of the Derwent reservoirs from where you can get one of the best panoramas anywhere of the Dark Peak.   It was a day of light clouds and sunny intervals but, on this occasion, no wind.   So the whole area had an air of spaciousness and tranquility about it.   It was the sort of place to help you get the daily affairs of humankind into perspective.   Not that people leaving a bomb on a London tube train, as happened yesterday, doesn’t matter.   But somehow I believe that we have to hang on to the recognition that this universe has a far deeper meaning – which we have barely glimpsed – than all the ups and downs of life, sordid or glorious can reveal.   For some people that meaning can only be an impersonal and heartless cosmos.   For me that meaning, despite everything to the contrary, is the power of a love that ‘in the end’ is supreme.   Call it foolishness or faith – but after over eighty years – there I still stand.

Where’s the vision?

There is an ancient proverb in the Old Testament which states that ‘without a vision the people perish’. I fear that the Brexit negotiations, as the referendum campaign before it, appear immune to that salutary warning. Leavers seem obsessed with an agenda moulded by the naïve assumption that Britain can become great again through a return to Victorian isolationism and self-sufficiency. Remainers seem obsessed with the economic necessity of the free market and unrestricted customs regulations.  Where do we hear any reference to the vision of what a European union was about in the first place?  Maybe we are suffering from the fact that the horrific impact of two world wars is almost beyond living memory and has been sanitised by Remembrance Day mythologies. What we urgently need to regain is a vision of a human, integrated and open Europe if our children and their children are not to ‘perish’.

‘Small great things’

This is the title of Jodi Picoult’s latest book, sparked by the growth of racism in the States given impetus by the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers.   It is the story of a black nurse in a maternity hospital who has a court case brought against her because of alleged neglect of a white baby who dies whilst in her care.   The brilliance of the book lies in Picoult’s ability to recognise that racism is communicated not just by blatantly prejudiced people and language but by asides, ‘innocent’ words and involuntary gestures by all of us which carry racists messages hidden even to the user.   The book made me look much more carefully at my own racism which lies buried in attitudes picked up over the years and never rooted out – but latent in words and phrases I unconsciously use.  Small things can do great damage.

The theme of the book made me reflect on Christian spirituality – which also seems to be associated with small great things – in this case with an immense potential for good.   Spirituality is a word to describes how a loving Reality permeates our world – usually through a host of small and fleeting yet potentially powerful experiences.   It is the antidote to those other small great things which undermine our humanity.   But in the same way that I need to become aware of the small great things which are destructive, I need to try, with much greater awareness, to tune into those small great things which are creative and life-giving.

North Korea and the USA – new ‘Christendoms’

The problem we face is not only with the church in the West being unable to shake clear of the  mould of Christendom.   The same is true of secular collectives, not least the nation state.   We are currently confronted with two nations which, cloning Christendom, believe they have the right to dominate the world scene – North Korea and the USA.   The relative size of these two competitors is not the issue.   The problem is that megalomania creates a reality for their leaders which drives their attitude to every other nation, not to mention to the well-being of humankind.

The old forms of Christendom were destructive enough.   But add to their exploitation of military power the nuclear factor and our world begins to teeter on the edge of self-destruction.   We are being warned that, without a vision of the world as a global community and the will – of every nation – to make that vision a reality, humankind may soon be past its sell-by date.

The power of small groups

We are so often consumed with the power of large institutions that we neglect the power of small groups.   For many years sociologists have extolled the importance of the primary group – the nearest we come to a face-to-face collective – with the family as its most ubiquitous model.   Many institutions were originally given birth by small groups – the early Christian church and its many subsequent forms from the religious orders to Methodism – being just one example.

However, it would be simplistic to believe that the small group was the epitome of everything good and the institution of everything evil.   Small can be beautiful – it can also be ugly.   Over the years small groups have been the seed bed for the emergence of hugely destructive movements – from the Ku Klux Klan to ISIS – which have revealed humanity at its worst.   Small groups can be authoritarian, closed and grossly inhuman.   Thus, like all social collectives, they need to be transformed by the kingdom community’s gifts of life, liberation, love and learning, if they are to contribute to the creation of a communal world.

Community – an aerosol word?

The problem with the word ‘community’ is that is has, like an aerosol, been squirted onto so many concepts that it means everything to everyone, and thus nothing to anyone.   ‘Community’  is supposed to give greater collective value to terms such as community schools, community work, community health, community policing, community businesses and so on – right up to what was once called the European Economic Community.   But what it actually adds is never spelt out.

The concept of ‘community’ has been used to try to add some vague cohesive quality to residential settlements (a suburban community), particular localities (the Notting Hill community), social classes (a working class community) and religious collectives (the Muslim community).   So can we make any sense of the term or should it be jettisoned as too ill-defined to be of any use?

In my page on ‘Community as a social reality’, I argue that the only way to give the concept of community the importance it deserves is to move beyond some of the facile uses of the term and acknowledge it is fundamentally about the power of feelings (and their morale-boosting potential).   On that page, I highlight three fundamental communal feelings or sentiments – a sense of security, a sense of significance and a sense of solidarity (what I call the 3Ss).   I argue that no social collective can survive without these feeling being present to some degree.

In this post, I want to stress again that community understood as feelings – the 3Ss – is vital to the sustainability and flourishing of every human collective – from the family to the nation state.   These sentiments are the sentient bedrock of what enables human life to exist.   If they are strong, humankind will flourish; if they are weak, civilizations will collapse.   The urgent quest is for a sense of community which will enable our world to make it through the immense challenges of the decades ahead.

There is one proviso to this (sociological) understanding of community.   The 3Ss must bring about open not closed borders, and foster inclusiveness not exclusiveness.   Because openness and inclusiveness are rarely the default position for collectives, the latter need to promoted the motivation which can only come through a commitment to values and the beliefs which espouse a global vision of what community is all about.   Only such values and beliefs have the potential to turn community as a power frequently high-jacked by self-centredness and hatred of ‘the stranger’, into community as a power which can create universal well-being and one world.


Reality is not virtual

What is Reality?   Is it my view of the world – or your view of the world?   As a sociologist  I understand the importance of subjectivity.   But if we abandon the search for reality by succumbing to the dominance of subjectivity, we end up with what Peter Berger once called ‘the vertigo of relativity’.   It is a state of affairs all too evident in the emergence of ‘fake news’ and the power of the Internet to promote virtual reality.

I believe there are three approaches to genuine Reality which offer some hope of overcoming this nauseating experience of vertigo.   First, there is science – which requires a positive and proven answer to the question ‘Does it work?’.   Secondly, there are the human sciences – which ask, ‘Are our observations as universally as valid as possible?’.   Of course there are limitations here as human relationships and interaction cannot be reduced to statistics.   But at least the goal is to move towards that which is as objectively valid as possible.

Then there is the Christian approach to Reality.   For me this cannot be a retreat to the literal interpretation of the bible.   It cannot be unquestioning obedience to the ‘truth’ that has supposedly been revealed to the architects of doctrine – from the creeds to the thirty-nine articles.   Nor can it be an appeal to personal religious experiences which claim to reveal the nature and will of the divine – however vivid or inspiring.

For me, Reality of a religious kind is grounded in the discernment of a way of life, in whatever shape or form, which enables human beings to live and work together as a community of communities – founded on the principles of life, liberation, love and learning (the 4Ls) in their deepest and fullest sense.  I do not believe that any religion, claiming the title of ‘Christian’ or not, is authentic and credible as an exemplar of Reality if fails to manifest the 4Ls or is in practice communally closed and exclusive.

The test of the validity of any church is not how true it claims to be to the bible, traditional mission statements or the religious experiences of its members.   It is whether or not it offers a vision of one world and actual examples of how in practice we might create it.


DIAKONIA 2017 – Visions for the future

Chicago 2017
DIAKONIA World Federation Assembly

22nd Assembly: Shaken by the Wind
Visions for the future
Address by President Rev (Deacon) Sandy Boyce

During my term as President of DIAKONIA World Federation I have learned just how diverse are the expressions of diaconal ministry around the world and how diverse are the structures in which diaconal ministry is couched. There is no one way – but we have found we can all learn from each other. And that’s the great work, I believe, of the DIAKONIA World Federation, that within and between the member associations we can all learn from the experience of the other, to affirm as well as to be a catalyst for change when need be. It is worth briefly pausing to look at the development of the Deaconess movement in 1836 under the leadership of a German Lutheran pastor, Theodor Fliedner. It was a response to the challenging contextual issues of the day, especially with the rise of industrialisation, the movement from rural areas to the cities for employment, the subsequent rise of the urban poor who lacked the community support they might have enjoyed in rural communities, the rapid spread of disease, the end of the Napoleonic wars that left society in upheaval, and so on. It was into this particular context that Fliedner established a deaconess motherhouse and a diaconal community that would enable women in the 19th century to find a meaningful vocation and that would respond to these challenges in society.

Now, I want to suggest that this direct correlation between the context as the catalyst for the shape and ordering of ministry may at times be disconnected. It is necessary from time to time to step back from the immediacy of ‘doing’ ministry, to reflect on the pressing challenges for our time, and how may we together to respond through releasing lay and ordained people to exercise ministry and mission within the church and in the community. You know the many current challenges in the world – globalisation, the unjust distribution of resources, weapons of mass destruction, the rise of terrorism, increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, complex inter-faith relations, accelerating climate change, the worldwide refugee crisis, to name but a few. The pressing overarching question may be, how can we live together in peace as a global community? The particular question for the church may be, how do we respond most effectively to this particular context in which we find ourselves?

Using the example of Theodor Fliedner and the development of the deaconess movement, the question may be, what kind of model for ministry is required in our time and place, for our particular context? (We have heard this morning some thoughtful insights about that)

David Clark in his two books, Breaking the Mould of Christendom and Building Kingdom Communities, offers very compelling arguments for a new way of thinking. He provides a comprehensive vision of church and ministry from a diaconal perspective. The movement is away from what is ‘done to’ people, and towards collaborative and collective action – what people do together to address the issues and needs of the day.

It is a movement from diaconal ministry as something Deacons undertake on behalf of the church ‘out there’ to Deacons equipping and empowering the laity, the whole people of God, for diaconal ministry, and Deacons collaborating in collective action with others in the community, beyond the four walls of the church.

It places Deacons within the heart of the congregation – visioning, animating, equipping, empowering, sending.

It places Deacons within the heart of the community – building relationships, standing in solidarity, drawing alongside people and groups, committing to collective and collaborative action in cooperation with community groups to work towards an outcome that will enable flourishing for all. ‘The role of Deacon is not so much a personal vocation lived out in the community, but a vocation that releases all members – the whole people of God – to live out their baptism in service in the community, ‘to recognise, encourage, develop and release those gifts in God’s people which will enable them to share in the ministry of caring, serving, healing, restoring, making peace and advocating justice as they go about their daily lives.’ (Report on Ministry in the Uniting Church 1991 Assembly)

The role of the diaconate is very much a live issue for Deacons in the Methodist Church in the UK, where there is currently a debate about the future of the Methodist Diaconal Order.

David Clark suggests that the kind of leadership required for a church that orients its life towards diaconal ministry requires new understandings about leadership. He suggests that Presbyters (Leaders and Pastors and Ministers) take responsibility for the renewal of the gathered church through accessing the kingdom community’s gifts of life, liberation, love and learning.

The diaconate as an order of mission would assume responsibility for furthering the ministry of the laity as the church dispersed in the world, educating and equipping lay people for their task of building communities which make manifest the gifts of the kingdom community throughout the whole of society. David Bosch’s definition of mission picks up this idea of ‘participation in the liberating mission of Jesus, the good news of God’s love incarnated in the witness of a community for the sake of the world’.

What flexibility do we need in how we are church together in order to respond to the particular context and challenges of our time? What ways of organising ourselves as church will best enable a collective response to a particular context – social, political, economic?

Inga Bengtzon served 65 years as a Deaconess, and served for 13 years as the President of DIAKONIA World Federation. She was a visionary. Referring to the General Assembly of the WCC in 1983, she argued for the inclusion of a self-critical dimension of the diaconal role that challenges the church’s “locked, frozen, static and self-centred structures” in order to turn them into a “workable, living instrument for the church’s task of healing, reconstruction and sharing with each other.” Diaconia, she said, cannot be limited to institutional forms. It must “break through the already established structures and demarcations in the institutional church” in order to act, heal, and build in the world. (Bengtzon, 1984, translated from Swedish).

David Clark casts his vision to what he calls the kingdom community and suggests that in order to be able to undertake a kingdom-focused mission, the church has first of all to break the mould of Christendom, and become a diaconal or servant church, where all the ministries serve that purpose, and all the ministries orient themselves to servant leadership. The diaconate should be responsible for encouraging and equipping the laity to exercise their ministry of kingdom community building in every sphere of the life of society. What will enable us to most fully respond to God’s mission in and through the church? It’s a question for us all, and particularly how we orient what we name as church to be a kingdom community with a kingdom-focussed mission.

And I return to the question I asked when I introduced Theodor Fliedner’s initiative to establish a deaconess community in 1836 in Germany: what kind of model for ministry is required in our time and place, for our particular context? How can the church best shape ministry so that the diaconal mission of the whole people of God can be best equipped?

It is a continuing conversation and perhaps calls for a conversion of how we ‘do’ church.

4th July 2017 

  [David Clark is a member of the British Methodist Diaconal Order]

Clark, D. (2005, reprinted 2014) Breaking the mould of Christendom – kingdom community,diaconal church and the liberation of the laity. Peterborough: FastPrint Publishing
Clark, D. (2016) Building Kingdom Communities – with the diaconate as a new order ofmission. Peterborough: FastPrint Publishing





Deacons as bridges

I have time and time again come across the suggestion that one way to identify the role of the deacon today is to describe him or her as a bridge between church and world.   Sounds sensible enough?   My problem with this image is that the bridge as it stands is of no use to anyone – it is static edifice.   What matters is who or what crosses it?   So, OK, let the image of the deacon as a bridge remain.   But let’s be clear that the importance of that bridge depends on who and how many actually cross it – those from within the church to get involved as Christians in the life of society and those from society to get in touch with what the church can offer as a kingdom community.
So the test of whether the deacon is a good bridge or not is who welcomes the opportunity to walk over him (or her).



Place of deacons in Anglican-Methodist conversations on interchangeable ministries

My letter published in  the Church Times
7 July 2017

As a Methodist deacon, I read with encouragement the article (30 June) on the plans to further the interchangeability of the ministries of Anglican and Methodist presbyters. My question is whether any thought has been given by either church as to where deacons fit into these plans.

At present neither church appears to be clear about where its permanent diaconate fits into the ministries of the church present, let alone the church to come.   For such a time as this (a report to the General Synod of the Church of England in 2001) and The Distinctive Diaconate (a report to the Diocese of Salisbury in 2003) were hugely optimistic about the potential of a permanent diaconate to give fresh impetus to the church’s engagement with wider society. The response from most dioceses was a resounding silence. Since then the Church of England has done little to clarify the relationship between transitional and distinctive deacons. Thus the potential of the latter to help equip the church for mission has been wasted.

Methodism has addressed the role of a distinctive diaconate with much greater awareness of its being a mission resource. The Methodist Diaconal Order (MDO) is now an order of ministry (as well as a religious order). However, in practice, it is still treated as subordinate to presbyteral ministry. Many of us believe that the future potential of the MDO, and a renewed diaconate across all churches, will not be realised until full equality of diaconal and presbyteral ministries is achieved. That means an end to a hierarchical understanding of ordained ministries, which is where the Methodist Deed of Union has always taken its stand.

Will the plans for the interchangeability of Anglican and Methodist presbyteral ministries also embrace plans for the interchangeability of diaconal ministries? And will they do this is a way that moves the equal standing of all ordained ministries forwards not backwards?


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