Mission (4): Morality for Mission – why people think the church is immoral

The fourth in a series of posts on mission,

Part 1, here,

Part 2, here,

Part 3, here.

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From my original post introducing this series here:

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“It is the missional problem of our time that needs most thought and reflection and most occupies my mind. Our failure to evangelise, to communicate the gospel, particularly to the young, and the decline of the church. I have a series of posts planned that will address this problem in four key areas for further investigation:

1 Mindfulness for Mission: there is no God-shaped hole

2 Learning for Mission: it’s all about memory

3 Seriousness for Mission: the easier we make it the less attractive it is

4 Morality for Mission: why people think the church is immoral”

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Bigger Church, bigger difference.

The Liverpool Diocesan tag line is well known not just in Liverpool but much wider in the church, as is its explanation “More people knowing Jesus, more justice in the world.” In fact, it is far more than a tag line, it is our aim, our purpose. Behind it sits our Rule of Life and our numbers for growth, including new congregations, new leadership, do ten things and bring one person.

I don’t have a regular congregation so it’s not so much ‘bring’ as suggest one person go to church. A few months ago I started doing this, explicitly, once a day, and adding the observance of this rule to my twice daily examen. It’s a bit difficult on days when I am with the diocesan staff all day or in the diocesan offices. Although even then filling up with petrol or popping to Tescos for lunch usually provides some opportunity.

Since I wear clericals almost all the time conversations often take a religious/meaning of life/request for prayer turn. I have taken to adding “You should try going to church, you might enjoy it.” Or something along similar lines. It felt a bit strange at first but I soon got used to it, and it soon began to come earlier in the conversation, not my final shot as a I left the til but while I was still packing my bags.

Introducing the subject earlier gives the chance for it to become a conversation. This is when things became very interesting and partly led to this series of posts.

People started to tell me why they don’t go to church. This is hardly a scientific study, of which I am sure there are plenty. I am also well aware that there is, no doubt, a gap between why people say they don’t go to church and why they actually don’t.

So, here are some things that have been said to me:

List A

  • Just too busy.
  • It’s the only day for a lie-in.
  • Church is for old people.
  • I can’t get the kids up.
  • The kids are playing football on a Sunday morning.

Well, as you can see, these are easy to bat back, “Most churches do something in the evening.” “You could go during the week.” And so on.

List B

  • I just can’t believe it.
  • I wish it was true.
  • It would probably be good for me.

I hope some of the earlier posts have addressed these.

List C

  • After all the child-fiddling/paedophilia/cover ups, no thank you.
  • All that money and you still don’t do anything for those who need it.
  • It’s just an establishment con. / It’s not for the likes of me.

There are lots of varieties to the list C conversations but they all seem to gravitate around people thinking there is something not just neutral but actually immoral about the church as an institution. Often the language is considerably more colourful. It has never been personally rude or insulting. It’s this list I want to think about here.

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If there were core texts for what is coming together (in my head) as ‘serious Christianity’ among them would be Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline . But I would also recommend his Money, Sex and Power.

As I read and review my first three posts on mission it seems to me there is a thread, a theme appearing: sin and salvation.

In the post on Mindfulness, sin is the element people feel uncomfortable with and don’t want to face or understand; in the post on learning, all of us in education find it hard to believe that our own intuitions could be wrong; in the post on seriousness we want Spiritual Directors who look at us with unconditional positive regard. We find reality difficult.

Christianity is serious because it is about salvation, our being saved, from ourselves.

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Richard Foster is clear that there is going to be no revival in the church unless we come to terms with his trio of money, sex and power:

“Historically it seems spiritual revivals have been accompanied by a clear, bold response to the issues of money, sex, and power… When these revivals occur in a culture, there is a renewal of both devotional experience and ethical life. We need a modern-day renewal of spiritual experience that is ethically potent.” (p3)

I would add a fourth element to Foster’s three, food. It is in our use of money, sex, food and power, that we most reveal our spiritual health and maturity – or otherwise. It is in these areas that we are at our most vulnerable, where we are most likely to find that our intuitions are wrong that we need something other than ourselves, that we need saving. As Sean Doherty said in his talk at New Wine this summer, “We are all sexually disordered.” Food, money, sex and power are the key areas where human beings are disordered. All of us. In fact I would say that power underpins them all. Foster could have called his book “Power” because this is at the heart of sin.

“The New Testament teaching on money makes sense only when we see it in the context of the “principalities and powers”… Money is one of these powers. When Jesus uses the Aramaic term mammon to refer to wealth, he is giving it a personal and spiritual character. When he declares, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24), he is personifying mammon as a rival god. In saying this, Jesus is making it unmistakeably clear that money is not some impersonal medium of exchange… Mammon is a power that seeks to dominate us.” (p25-26)

Foster is very good on money and power, I think he is less good on sex, perhaps because he reflects insufficiently on the value of celibacy and its importance in helping us understand marriage.

He is good on sin though. I don’t think ‘the church’ is any more or less immoral than any other human institution. Telling people that they are sinners does not, it seems to me, bring them to faith. But we need to find a way of talking about sin and acknowledging that all of us in the church are sinful. I am not surprised when church leaders and others get themselves into sinful situations. I am not surprised because I know myself. We need to talk about sin and find a way of talking about sin so that people see that the church is sinful, just like they are, just like I am. We need to find powerful ways of demonstrating that the road to holiness is way of failure after failure after failure. A way of always being ready to start again.

I am not going to say anything else about money and sex here because I think it’s in our use of power (and the structures that channel power) that we have most work to do to be able to talk and preach about sin. I am going to reflect a little on power, on my own experience of using power in leadership and then on how the church as a powerful institution can use its power as power for justice which can lead to mission through “spiritual experience that is ethically potent.”

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Power is a reality. There is power present in every human transaction. Christians can be very wary of acknowledging that. I suspect ideas of servant-leadership and even the (less biblical) wounded-leader are partially responsible. Power is dangerous. That is why not acknowledging the presence of power itself creates abusive situations. Human societies are fundamentally hierarchical, just as the church is. Pretending that there is no power present in a conversation or interaction leaves everybody vulnerable. It is also biblically weak. Just look up Jesus as the one who performs work of power-dunamis, he is, literally dynamite.

Churchill famously said that a “Headmaster has more power than any Prime Minister ever dreamed of.” In my experience of school leadership two things helped me in my use of power and still inform my thinking now.

The first is Transactional Analysis. It is a way of thinking about the transactions between human beings and the basic mental state of each of the people engaged in the transaction. To simplify this ridiculously, there are three basic states: Parent, Adult Child, in which we find ourselves. We all need all three. We need the Parent voice telling us ‘no’, should or must, and we need the Child voice, playful and fun loving. But we can get stuck in these modes. They can also be misadapted, some of us have over-developed naughty Child modes or tyrannical Parent voices in our heads, for example.

In schools, it is very easy for teachers to get stuck in Parent mode. In fact learning is best when the Adult teacher empowers the Adult mode in the (actual) child.

The church, like schools, is an institution where there are lots of opportunities for us to get stuck in Parent or Child, where, some of us are actually called “Father” or “Mother”, let alone, the happily not much used now “My Lord” or other titles.

The reaction of some is to pretend that this power doesn’t exist. To avoid titles or robes or other external signs. In fact this just confuses people. It obscures the presence of power and is dishonest. This is, partly why schooling went so wrong in so many places, with the progressive methods of the 60’s and 70’s, children were confused about power, about who they were in relation to adults. When the power is expressed honestly and openly everyone knows where they stand and feels safe.

This brings me to my second tool for the use of power. Systems, processes and procedures. A priest said to me recently “I wasn’t ordained to be a manager.” It wasn’t the moment to talk about what stewardship might mean or that in fact as Chair of Governors of a school, CEO of a Nursery Trust and incumbent she was accountable for an awful lot of management.

Systems, processes and procedures are what make the use of power safe for all involved in transactions. In TA terms they help us stay in Adult. We need the creative, playful, risk-taking power of our inner Child, but it needs to be balanced by the cautious warnings and permission giving Parent, and executed by a mature adult.

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Bigger church, bigger difference. These are not separate things. When more people know Jesus, there is more justice in the world. When we create more justice more people will know Jesus because they will see us, Jesus people, as justice makers.

The church is a powerful institution. In the face of global injustice we can seem powerless. The best work for justice is focussed. The work of three of our bishops has been really significant in recent months, Justin, Archbishop of Canterbury, on debt; Rachel Treweek at Gloucester on girls’ body image and Alan Smith, at St Alban’s on gambling. Three individuals who have made a concerted effort to create change. Imagine if every one of us did that.

It breaks my heart that people think of the church as unjust or immoral. I know that it is full of people who yearn for justice, many of whom spend themselves working for justice.

That witness will become clearer, our message better heard when we recognise the power we have, when we use it in focussed ways when we have in our systems even more professionalism in out systems, structures and procedures.

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At one of our schools in Wigan, which I have had to go to for meetings at the beginning and end of the school day, I have got to know the crossing patrol person (lollipop lady). “You again!” She says when I turn up. One day we got talking about the neighbourhood and the problems new immigrant women were having learning the language (“Wigan ways”). But she didn’t know what to do to help.

“You should go and see your vicar,” I said, “You’d love him.”

“I’m not going to church though.”

“You should try that too, you might like it.”

Preaching in Wigan several months later there she was in the congregation. “It’s your fault.” She began, as she described how she is now teaching English (“Well, Wigan, really.”) to immigrant women and their children and attending church regularly.

These are the stories, the voices, that need to be heard.

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