Monday, 8 February 2016

Upward and Downward Falls

Theological speculations are probably of limited interest to most of the souls who read this blog, but my mind has been running in that direction over recent days (and there’s not much else to talk about). 

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the nature of spiritual growth and the paradoxes therein contained; of how we only discover our desire for God if he withdraws from us, for instance, or how conversion begins with a gradual awakening to the possibility of sin, and how this relates to our experience of God, which seems to be the sort of thing St Paul is grappling to express in the middle chapters of the Letter to the Romans. I found myself hunting the web for the concept of the ‘upward fall’, and discovering it’s an older idea than I imagined: Christian thinkers arguably from Immanuel Kant onwards have had a tendency to see the ‘Fall’, if it can be called such, as less a moment of decline from an original state of grace than a necessary step in human self-awareness and so, perhaps, not such a disaster after all, even understandable as part of God’s plan. The Christians of the Middle Ages were groping in this direction, aware of the paradox between the awareness of sin and the sweetness of being forgiven. There is Mother Julian declaring ‘it behoved that there was sin, that there might be forgiveness’, and the words of the Exultet, sung on Easter morning, words which take us back to the 9th century at least:

O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
That won for us so great a Redeemer!

And the haunting carol 'Adam lay y-bounden':

Had that apple not been taken
That apple not taken been
Never then would Our Lady
Have been Heaven’s Queen

You can see why this kind of rhetoric can lead in hazardous directions, directions Paul is keen to shut off firmly at the start of Romans 6: ‘Shall we sin so that grace may abound the more? By no means!’ But there is something to it, something to the sense that forgiveness is a greater spiritual gift than a simply sinless being can receive; because then they learn to forgive in turn, and forgiveness takes them to the heart of who God is.

As (most) Christians came to accept that the Biblical account of Creation could not be literally true, this sense fitted in rather well with the new view of human origins at the end of untold millennia of development driven by natural selection: it stressed a sort of progress, a racial coming-to-life which mirrored the progress the individual first makes when they discover their own sinfulness before God. An unconverted soul is in an almost animal state, unaware what sin actually means, and certainly unaware of its implications; the person takes a step towards true personhood as they discover the distance between themselves and God, and you can read the Fall as a parallel process. However such a reading does go against the nature of the Scriptural narrative.

My browsing led me to a piece about CS Lewis’s interpretation of the Fall. Lewis came to believe that it had a real historical basis and insisted on this despite his easy acceptance of the idea of evolution. I too have never seen a problem with believing that the Fall occurred in history. Animals do not know what it is deliberately to do something wrong; we do. Therefore, that there must have been a moment when one of our remote ancestors first committed an act they knew to be wrong is nothing more than logic.

An historical Eden, which Lewis also argued for, is a more of a challenge: it isn’t a logical necessity, as one can make a case for the Fall being. Yet you can imagine a moment in which God makes himself known to our primitive ancestors, when they are finally ready, and their first response is adoration. This would be a step so dramatically away from the consciousness of the animal world that it could be said to amount to a new creation, to humans being taken from the dust of the earth, to their being made in God’s image, him breathing life into them. How long this state might have lasted is another question; it may well have been a very short time indeed; but to fall away from it would mean having to learn, slowly and painfully, how to draw close to God again – to learn by means of our corrupted will and evolutionary biology, by rebellion and its results rather than by obedience, as we were supposed to.  Like the resurrection of Jesus, an event of this sort would have left no trace discoverable by scientific means; it’s incapable of proof or disproof. You decide either that the evidence draws you towards it, or it doesn’t (and in the end, the veracity of the Biblical narrative as a whole depends on what you think happened to Jesus).

Though I’d long since imagined an historical Fall, an historical Eden was not something I had ever seriously considered. I’m not sure, yet, what allowing its possibility changes, apart from forcing me to re-examine the ‘blessed fault’ rhetoric I’ve been finding myself moving towards recently. That remains, because our redemption in Christ is not a return to our pre-lapsarian state, but an advance to something else which incorporates and transfigures our heritage of sin. Nevertheless huge questions arise. For instance - the ultimate content of our salvation is what the Orthodox call theosis, becoming like God – or as like God as we are capable of being. How does that differ from bearing the image of God as the creation story insists? If God is eternal, he is always the crucified one who gives up his life for the sheep; that has always been part of his nature. Could we have understood that and taken it into ourselves without an awareness of our capacity for sin? 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Move Swiftly On

Our ordinand-in-training Debbie is studying with Sarum College in Salisbury and that means that I have to go there occasionally for training and information days. The first time I was there, the Old Testament tutor got the training-incumbents together to grapple with a knotty bit of text. She complained about the Church's tendency to skate over anything it finds hazardous and uncomfortable in the Scriptures. 'When you go back to your parish, check the lectionary and see whether the Rape of Dinah is included', she said, 'I bet it isn't.' We were, as it happened, going through the middle chapters of Genesis at Morning Prayer around that time, and lo and behold, she was right: Genesis 34, with the disagreeable story of Dinah and what happens to her and her relatives, is completely omitted. 

It happened again the other morning. I allocated the Lectionary readings at Morning Prayer and asked Marion the curate whether she would read 'Genesis chapter 19, up to verse 26 - but on no account are you to read verses 4 to 11 ...' We didn't recognise this until looking it up, but it's the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The bit we're not supposed to read out is where the men of Sodom visit Lot and threaten to rape the visiting angels. 'Don't do this dreadful thing, fellows!' says Lot out the window. 'Look, I have daughters here, aren't they good enough? Have them!'

Of course it's not especially edifying, but it is part of the Scripture, whatever you make of it. Sometimes the Anglican Lectionary spares us reading a lot of complicated names (not always - a few days ago we had to list all the kings in Genesis 17 who fell in the tar pits) - but surely we can cope with the unsavoury habits of the men of Sodom and poor Dinah's fate? Morning Prayer is usually said by clergy and a few faithful laity such as Readers, and I don't know any church that uses the morning readings for public services, as opposed to the Mass readings, which are much more selective and restricted. There's something bloodless and suspect about simply pretending all this stuff isn't there and hiding it.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The End of Which Stick?

It's sometimes a struggle to know what theme to adopt at my assemblies at the Infants School. A few days ago I found myself talking to them about the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, in which Jesus imagines the Judgement and the separation of the good and the bad. He pictures God saying to the righteous, 'You saw me hungry and gave me food, thirsty and gave me drink, naked and gave me clothing,' and so on. I hadn't imagined the children would pick up on the word 'naked' but one or two did and once one starts giggling they all do. Oh well.

One of the children is Nathan, son of the director of the ecumenical youth work charity which works with the churches in this area. His dad asked Nathan about what I'd said and got the answer that it was 'About goats and naked people' which, as he suggested, 'Sounds more like an extract from a Dennis Wheatley novel'. So I tell myself that my mere presence achieves more than anything I might actually say. How often that seems to be the case. 

Saturday, 30 January 2016


Image result for tim harford adaptOne of my favourite radio programmes is More Or Less, the show about statistics presented by economist Tim Harford. If I have a quibble with it, it’s that it so clearly feels the need to undercut its radicalism – the radicalism that comes from the mere business of challenging received wisdom, usually at the expense of politicians who’ve plucked this or that dubious statistic that neatly confirms their own viewpoint -  with whimsy, which it just doesn’t need to do.

There’s little of that in Mr Harford’s 2011 book Adapt, which I’ve just finished. There are anecdotes, a great many of them, little economic parables that often include humour, but they are all there to make a serious point about the way organisations and ultimately individuals themselves cope with changing circumstances. The world is massively, and increasingly, complex, says Mr Harford. In a situation of such complexity, how do we best ensure the inventiveness and adaptation that will produce solutions to our global, and local, problems? His answer is to decentralise decision-making, to embrace the certainty that most of our ideas will fail, to measure, to evaluate, and not to deceive ourselves about the things we get wrong.

The book is lightly and lucidly written and great fun to read. It would be a mistake to draw too many narrowly political conclusions from its thesis, as while it makes a strong case for a capitalist economy as the best means of encouraging innovation, it doesn’t argue that capitalism has a moral basis rooted in human nature, nor make any endorsement of the kind of world we live in at the moment, a free market which is neither truly free nor truly a market. Instead I found myself thinking how Adapt’s argument applied to the Church, which is why I bought the book in the first place.

If what organisations need is a decentralised structure whose top management devotes itself less to making decisions which aim at controlling the organisation on the ground than to setting the tone and establishing vision and purpose, the Church of England would seem to be an almost exemplary instance. Its ten thousand-or-so parishes have almost complete operational independence and, to be fair, this does result in a great deal of innovative practice on the ground as individual churches come up with new ways of trying to respond to the changes of the society around them, rooted in the circumstances of their own local contexts. It is exactly the sort of thing Harford argues should be going on.

There are, however, three areas in which the Church fails to embody the model, it seems to me. The first is that the management doesn’t spend a great deal of its time establishing a sense of purpose and direction. To be fair, it might not have that much effect even if they did. The Church of England, riven as it is by sectarian differences (although we tend to be quite polite about them), is a difficult beast to influence precisely because of that radical localism and decentralisation. Until relatively recently, thanks to the ‘parson’s freehold’, it was almost impossible for bishops to lever out a priest who was failing or even damaging his parish community; now freehold is dying out (I was one of the last incumbents in the diocese to receive it), but a bishop still can’t do very much to affect life in a particular parish. Equally, we have a tendency to be a bit dismissive of senior management whose outlook we don’t share, and not without some justification, as it’s possible to travel up the hierarchy from an Evangelical parish to be an Evangelical bishop without having to have much experience of or sympathy with different visions of Church life (the same applies to Anglo-Catholics, of course).

Secondly, we aren’t very good at questioning what we do in the right way. Harford argues that organisations have to generate a culture of challenge and self-questioning, and wise managers build this in to the structure. On the one hand Anglicans are often a bit too nice to tell each other blankly, ‘You’ve got this wrong’. On the other hand, in the absence of a clear and articulable sense of purpose for the organisation as a whole, when there is disagreement over a decision or initiative it tends to emerge from personality clashes which are then dressed up as an ideological difference, usually over something which the participants in the quarrel tell themselves is very important but which is actually marginal to the life of the Church as a whole – modern hymns or the clothing of ministers or this or that interpretation of the Bible, and so on. As a result, a lot of heat tends to be generated with very little light.

Thirdly, we are horribly bad at evaluating our initiatives, and thus working out whether they’ve failed or not. This is partly because we draw the wrong lesson from the Scriptures’ insistence that God so often reverses human value judgements: St Paul sums it up in the First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘God chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong’. We tell ourselves this means that apparent failure is not the point. At Swanvale Halt altHalta couple of months ago we were trying to work out what to do with a post-school children’s group whose attendance had been dwindling for years: only one child was booked up for the coming term. ‘It’s worth doing it just for that child!’ one of the passionately committed volunteers told me. It wasn’t; that attitude prevented us seeing the fact that the reason parents weren’t sending their children to the group was that it was based at the church, meaning they had to bring them from school, then come back an hour later to pick them up. We moved the group to the local junior school so parents only had to make one trip, and attendance went back up to a healthy 6-10 or so. 

Get this right, and the Church of England would of course be perfect ...

Thursday, 28 January 2016

'Total Worshipping'

The time has come to compile our annual return to the diocese, a matter I've moaned about before. This year, once again, I reached the dreaded question about how many people have left the 'total worshipping community' and found myself tempted to respond 'All of them. I'm the only bugger here. Now leave me alone' which is not a terribly positive reaction, for me as much as for the powers-that-be.

However, I realised that thanks to my pastoral directory compiled earlier on last year I do actually now have a means of getting a handle on this, provided some limits are set. Who is in our 'total worshipping community'? I decided to exclude special attendances at the Crib Service, or other big services through the year, as I won't know who a lot of those people are anyway, but to include everyone who shows up at a couple of Family Services in a year or who is a Messy Church regular, or to whom we take communion at home. That gave us, according to the Diocese's categories, 44 children, 5 young people, 100 adults under 70, and 77 over-70s, a total of 226. You will notice, perhaps, that this isn't very far off the guesstimate I made a couple of years ago. Of course the figures are very rough as I will have included and excluded various people I shouldn't, but at least it gives a benchmark for being able to answer this question with less stress in the future!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Temple

It's taken a year, and more, to get to this point, but the Temple of Reason (or as my sister facetiously referred to it, the Gazebo of Reason) is basically complete, bar trying to find paint that will take on the wooden roof and not run in the rain. When I started the process I was going to do a whole set of posts showing the gradual development of the building but the whole thing was so traumatic I couldn't bear to as almost everything I tried went awry. I wanted to make the pillars hollow so bought two lengths of plastic tubing of different sizes, sliced one down its length and tried to cast the first pillar. When it was dry it became clear there was no way of getting the inner tube out again so it had to be left as it was. The outer tube then warped before I got around to doing pillar no.2, and so all of them are a bit wonky; and it all went on in that manner. In fact, if you were to look closely, you'd realise how shoddy the whole structure is, but it doesn't matter as it looks the part from a distance and isn't going to fall down immediately. And human reason, as opposed to the divine, is of course flawed. That's what I say, anyway.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Heimlich or Unheimlich

Yesterday I decided to call by the church and found a group of young fellows in the porch - not just the early-teenagers I've been seeing a lot of lately, but also a few older lads who were around a lot a couple of years ago and have been absent for quite some time. I eyed them up a bit to make sure nothing was obviously amiss and then headed off for a bit of visiting.

As the light declined I thought I'd pop back to check all was in order, and found Candlestub Clem talking to two young police officers of mixed sexes. He'd got into some sort of altercation with the older boys and been shoved. He is very obviously not the most hale and hearty of men and this was no joke, clearly. While the police were tying all that up and I was sweeping chips out of the porch, another chap, who seemed to have some problems in both physical and learning respects, came over and complained about people barging into him, paying no attention to his disabilities. 

Today is the end of the Week of Prayer For Christian Unity and I was not at Swanvale Halt but at the Baptist Church in Hornington as their guest preacher. There I met a man whose son, a man with learning difficulties who used to live in the village, came to worship with us now and again. 'He's settling in very well in his new place', he told me, and then went on, 'Swanvale Halt is a hard place to live sometimes. There's a lot of families who have a hard time and people with disabilities don't always get treated very well. Hornington is more middle-class and although people may be a bit more careless they aren't usually positively unkind.'

This is not the image 'the village' has of itself, and which everyone almost without exception reports to me, that it's 'friendly' and that people look out for each other. But the existence of a substratum of casual unkindness is no surprise, and worth thinking on.