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]

References
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?

DAVID CLARK

Hill View
Burton Close Drive
Bakewell DE45 1BG

 

 

 

 

Grenfell Tower – symbol of injustice

Last week Grenfell Tower in Kensington went up in smoke.   I think that Amos would have had something to say about it!   However, in British society, we have long ago given up seeing such incidents as ‘an act of God’.   I don’t go along with making this or that person a scapegoat – the leader of Kensington Council has just been compelled to resign.   The fault lies with all of us – a society which we allow to exist wherein the rich are safeguarded and pampered and the poor are exposed to life-threatening risks.   Mea culpa!   I do precious little to prevent the consequences of such injustice.

We are in a mess at the moment and our politicians have colluded with this situation for their own ends.   Brexit was totally unnecessary.   Austerity was, at best, a gross mistake – and Grenfell Tower has in part illustrated that.   The recent ‘terror’ attacks in Manchester and London, as well as Grenfell Tower, are simply symbols of our inability to create a just and communal society.    Its about time we engaged in some radical forms of intervention to try and get things a little nearer what would deliver fairness for all.   At least Jeremy  Corbyn is trying.

Constructs – all important

General HR McMaster, (President Trump’s) national security adviser, and Gary Cohn, wrote in an ominous op-ed after Trump’s Europe tour:   ‘This world is not a ”global community” but an arena where national, non-government actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage…   Rather than deny this elemental nature of international relations, we embrace it.’   Those words will surely have been noted by those who must now orchestrate Brexit.   Concerns about Trump making a state visit to Britain, or not, fade against that backdrop.

From The Guardian 9/6/17

May-be not

So Theresa didn’t get past the finishing line.  Not that the Tory party has been destroyed – simply that many people have notched up for the first time for years that it’s time to move on.   There have been a lot of positive things about this campaign.   But one that has been a sad commentary on politics today (and of course, at times, yesterday too) has been the vitriolic or cynical denigration of people as human beings.   Here the tabloid press has been a disgrace – spinning abusive headline after abusive headline about Jeremy Corbyn.   The labour party was mature enough not to rise to such provocation.   But for me it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth as to immature and destructive influence of those who seek to set the ethical agenda for society.   Thank goodness for the Guardian!

I am not naïve enough to be oblivious to the fact that even worse abuse is at times going on through social media.    And that is a massive challenge we have to face in the future.   But that does not excuse the public media from blatantly  using its fortunately decining power, to engage in personal character assassination.   It’s about time we as Christians had the courage to speak out – in whatever form – on that issue whoever is the target of abuse.

What an election!

I never thought that Theresa May would make such a mess, and Jeremy Corbyn such a success of this election campaign.   Far from ‘strong and stable’ May has come over as weak and wobbly!   Her attempts to appear ‘strong’ have exposed her many weaknesses – U-turns, failure to sign up to our European colleagues critique of Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, failure to challenge his ill-informed critique of the Mayor of London after the latest terrorists’ attack, and her knee-jerk reaction to remove some human rights as a response to the latter.   She had milked Brexit for her own ends, turning out to be a very hard-line and intransigent Brexiteer.     Her confrontational stance to negotiations with Europe is the last thing that will enable us to sustain a good relationship with the continent and retain mutually helpful trading terms.

With Andrew Brown in this week’s edition of the Church Times, I do not understand her interpretation of what Christian faith means in our world today.   She seems hostile to any attempt to create a communal world and antagonistic to anyone who dares to ‘encroach’ on ‘our’ territory even if in dire need.   Her treatment of European nationals in this country is abysmal.   Empathy appears to be something she sees as weakness.   I genuinely fear for our society if she gets another term as Prime Minister.