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.

Friday, 22 January 2016

West Norwood Cemetery

My post-Christmas leave is a couple of weeks past now. My only adventure beyond the immediate area was a trip to see the Dulwich Picture Gallery after which I called in at West Norwood Cemetery. West Norwood is one of the 'Magnificent Seven' 19th-century cemeteries which ring London, opened in 1836, and, though not as famous as Highgate or Abney Park (the latter the only one I have yet to visit), still shelters a variety of interesting monuments. You enter through a vast low-arched gate and first come across a strange mortuary chapel looking like a cross between a rocket and a tent with a figure of Our Saviour on the top, and beyond it a massive drum-like mausoleum apparently inspired by Roman forebears. There is a ramshackle area devoted to the transplanted burials of a City parish, and rows and rows of monuments lining the sweeping paths.

The earlier part of the day was awful, the rain so heavy that the world outside the windows of my train was barely visible at all, but by the time I was at West Norwood there was bright sunshine raking across the tombstones. However there wasn't much time to take snaps before that helpful sunlight disappeared behind St Luke's Church on the hilltop.

The great glory of the cemetery is the Greek Necropolis, an amazing area of monuments erected by London's Greek community and the most European section, perhaps, of any British burial ground - temples, chapels, carving and mosaic in great confused profusion.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Reality Check

One of the great delights of Swanvale Halt church is our Toddler Group, which has been going for years and has undergone a series of ups and downs over that time. At the moment we have gravitated towards operating on a Friday morning and regularly get 15-20 children and their parents and carers, whereas 18 months ago the numbers were down into single figures. Some families have prior connections with the church, some don't, and some don't even come from the village. Every month we have a short service in the church mainly involving lighting candles and rattling instruments, and the photo shows Marion our curate struggling with the CD player. She says that when it's my turn to do it it's more Solemn High Toddler Praise.

Of course part of the rationale for the Group is to provide a space for conversations about faith, which do sometimes happen, though that's not why we do it. One of the spin-off benefits is that I get to speak to a variety of people I wouldn't normally interact with during most other facets of the church's work, and gain some insight into the lives of a rather wider cross-section of my parishioners. One of the things, for instance, that strikes me is that about a quarter-to-a-third of the parents-and-carers there on any particular occasion are chaps (though you might not think so from the photo). Talking to them all I realise the levels of part-time and shift-working which either allow, or force depending on your point of view, families to share the childcare duties between parents rather than automatically devolving them on the mother. People (and not just middle-class professionals) are now used to the sort of fragmented and somewhat more ad hoc working arrangements which mean that any notion of gender-based role-assignment doesn't work. 

Monday, 18 January 2016

Not Quite

It was Glenda's funeral on Friday - one of three longstanding members of the congregation who have died over as many weeks. As I was waiting for the undertakers to unload her coffin from the hearse outside the church there was an elderly lady and a small boy, aged about 3 or 4, standing nearby, and I heard what she was telling him as I came closer.

"This man is called a vicar. He's going to read some words, and they're going to take this person who has died into the church. He'll tell all the people how good they have been, and how they're going to go to heaven, because everyone goes to heaven, no matter what they believe or what religion they are."

And I think that was probably all I caught. It wasn't the right occasion to get into a discussion, but then it never does seem to be, does it?

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Fall Out

Image result for slap on the wristVery oddly when I Googled the term 'slap on the wrist', this scary nun was one of the first images I got. I don't think she actually is a nun, you know, but there's a truly righteous slap on the wrist coming in the direction of anyone on the wrong end of that ruler. 

And probably a rather more painful one than was inflicted on the Episcopal Church of the USA yesterday as a result of the global primates' meeting in Canterbury. I'm not sure what are the precise consequences of the measures outlined in the statement here but they will of course have next to no effect in any Episcopal parish in the US. It's a somewhat symbolic act of discipline designed to make it possible for the extremes of Anglicanism to keep meeting and talking to each other for a few more years in the hope that the Holy Spirit might lead us towards some greater degree of understanding in the future. And probably just about worth it for that.

Justin Welby made it all a bit easier to swallow by apologising publicly for the way Anglicans have traditionally treated LGBT people. This is itself significant enough. The Today programme yesterday decided to get the most extreme bishops they could uncover on either side - Alan Wilson, the ultra-liberal Bishop of Buckingham, and the former Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen, where they ban chasubles and aren't totally convinced slavery is a bad thing - to talk about the matter. Bishop Jensen quoted the Abp of Uganda saying 'our doors are open for those facing sexual disorientation to be counselled, healed and prayed for' which is a million miles away from recognising any degree of responsibility for real human beings being hurt and damaged, and, therefore, from Justin Welby's apology.  When the head of an organisation in which most people don't feel they have anything to apologise for apologises, the words carry dramatic importance: they are not the first step in the process of coming to terms with people of minority sexual identities, but perhaps the second, as the first is to recognise the common humanity and rights of such people. In their context, most of the African Churches dare not take that first step even if they wanted to; while in South Africa the Anglican Church is grappling with new realities more open-mindedly, in a more liberal cultural setting. I'm not sure what the Archdiocese of Sydney's excuse is.

So far three of the congregation of Swanvale Halt have collared me in person or via email to express their dismay at the result of the events in Canterbury, and I replied basically in the terms of my previous post about the necessity of living with difference. It continues to be miraculous that (the Archbishop of Uganda aside) the meeting concluded with a result that everyone accepted, ECUSA even voluntarily holding out its corporate hand to be slapped by its brethren. The Church proceeds falteringly and frustratingly, trying to glimpse the mind of God through the fog of Christians' own desires, delusions and fears. How could it be any other way? But it is still the Church, both before and after any decision it might take, the same sacramental sign of the same God preparing for the same End. 

And I hold in veneration
for the love of Him alone,
holy Church as his creation,
and her teachings as his own

even when it's not very easy.