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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Where Shall We find Trust?

The mayoralty of Durham has been a matter of public debate this year: not the person but the office itself. I am sure I speak for us all when I say that we value the traditions of mayoralty that affirm this city’s pride in its history. It is not for the preacher to say more. But I urge us to do what the prophet said and ‘seek the welfare of this city’, for in it lies our own welfare. This is why we hold a civic service: because we honour the mayoralty and want to pray for the new mayor, offer the civic year to God and dedicate the city’s leadership and ourselves to the service of our fellow human beings.

Any public office, be it mayor or dean, means living in two worlds: the visible role we inhabit when we put our robes on, and the human being we are underneath. In today’s New Testament reading we heard two parables that belong to the place where these personal and public worlds meet.  They tell of two people at the end of their rope, whose private struggles have become so severe that they crash through the normal restraints we impose upon our personal lives and become a public matter.  In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, organised religion and public duty are not enough.  It is the cry of a broken man that God hears, says Jesus: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’.  In the parable of the widow the judge respects no-one, but her ceaseless worrying away galvanises him into action out of a wish for a quiet life.  The public world needs pressure to respond. It is not by nature altruistic. The temple religion of the Pharisee cannot take away the publican’s burden.  The judge does not want to help the desperate widow. Both needy people are an embarrassment to those in high office, as the poor often are.

The paired characters in these parables are a foil for each other: tax-collector and Pharisee, widow and judge, two victims in trouble, two establishment people who have their reward already. But these stories also show the complete trust both victims have in their institutions. They believe without hesitating that their causes will be addressed in a public place be it the temple or the law court.  The tax collector never doubts that his cry will be heard. The woman knows after a lifetime of struggle that it pays to pester authority, and that even a self-serving judge can be driven to the point where he must act.  Never mind his motives.  What matters is her belief that she will have an outcome.

Let me explore this question of trust.  Why is trust in our public institutions at such a low ebb, and when was it ever more challenging to take up public office? There is a culture of suspicion that rests heavy on all of us in public roles whether in education, the church, the judiciary, healthcare or politics.  Wherever we are, we cannot escape the mechanisms of performance targets, benchmarking, micro-management and hyper-accountability that, far from enhancing trust actually erode it.  Our love affair with rights, litigation and blame is hardly surprising.  Of course, institutions erode trust in themselves when they become compromised, heedless of their values, haughty about those with little voice or power.  There are hospitals that have been too careless about whether patients live or die. There are church leaders who have covered up for abusing clergy. There are financial institutions that exploit the poorest or have failed to honour their pledges. These are not just little local difficulties.  They are symptoms of a worrying disease that, unchecked, will corrode confidence and trust. This includes the ancient institutions that symbolise what our nation stands for: parliament, local government, the armed forces, the judiciary, the monarchy, the church.

I want to think, a trifle naïvely you may say, that our public institutions and their leaders could be more trusted, not less, to know what they are doing, act responsibly and behave ethically.  Many sign up to the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and good leadership. But these altruistic, vocational ideals for public service and citizenship only flourish in a world where we trust one another. But there’s the rub, for our society feels a profound dis-ease toward institutions of all kinds. We don’t always believe that they have our best interests at heart.  We easily suspect collusion, self-interest and hidden motives. Respect for public office and those to whom we owe loyalty, what we used to call piety, is not what it once was. 

What might Christian faith have to say about this on mayoral Sunday? I believe that when there is trust in our institutions and those who hold office in them, it creates a virtuous circle where we can all flourish.  Where we act out of a real desire to serve, where we practise compassion in the face of pain and need, where duty is truthfully yet humanely exercised and where we honour the value of others, we create trust.  And trust is not just a utilitarian way of oiling the machinery of our institutions.  It is a theological virtue whether we know it or not. It is grounded in the belief that human beings have infinite worth, for we are made in the image of God. It is how God is towards us to whom he has given the stewardship of creation: he trusts us with his world, to look after it and cherish it. This is how we need to be towards one another.

Where trust fails, coercion and the abuses of power that go with it gain a foothold. That ugly trait has been elevated to a fine art in the last century or so.  Of course we need checks and balances, proper audit and intelligent accountability in public life and personal relationships.  We need them in our governance and to preserve good order. We need them to make good judgments in our ethics and religion. This is where the unjust judge fell short: he feared neither God nor man.  By contrast the widow shows a better way.  By hoping against hope, she represents those in every age who will not capitulate to despair, not give in to the idea that things can never be other than they are, not be fobbed off by the structures of power and those who wield their weapons.  She symbolises the possibility that the world can be a different place if we want it enough.

Jesus told the parable, Luke says, to help us not to lose heart. This civic service brings together people committed to promoting the wellbeing of our city and county. It affirms trust by pointing us to resources beyond our own for tasks we feel scarcely prepared or adequate for, Solomon’s wisdom we heard about in the first reading. It invites us into a journey of hope which offers a new perspective on who and what we are.  It is a journey our society needs to make if we are to be saved from ourselves. It is a journey our church needs to make, and not simply speak about from a safe distance. It is a journey for each of us to make as we look beyond our narrow worlds into a more generous vision of what God is calling us to become. This is what we ask for our new mayor today and for ourselves as we give thanks for another year and pray that even if we have to sow in tears, we may soon reap with songs of joy.

Durham Cathedral, at the Mayor's Service, 28 July 2013
1 Kings 3.3-15; Luke 18: 1-14

The House of the Interpreter

Wisdom means many things in the Hebrew Bible.  It can mean practical skill, competence, good management.  It can mean insight and discernment.  It can mean knowledge of the natural world.  It can mean learning the lessons of history and transmitting them to your children.  It can mean being able to play music and write poetry.  It can mean having a moral sense, an educated conscience. It can mean detachment from our drives, an inward stability of character.  But however they speak about it, wisdom is a religious quality.  The wise sum it up as the fear of the Lord, committing your way to him.  The wise know their place in the scheme of things, and in relation to God the creator who is not only the source of wisdom but is Wisdom itself.

Being aware means learning how to discern and ‘read’ the world and what God is doing in it. There are biblical stories that seem designed to explore how God works in the lives and histories of people and nations, and how some have the gift to see into the meaning of events, understand the patterns within them.  The Joseph story in Genesis is like this.  It is one of the most perfect narratives not just in scripture but in all of literature.  Our passage comes in the middle of the story where Joseph is playing games with his estranged brothers: he knows who they are, but they have not yet recognised him.  One of the story’s themes is to portray Joseph as a wise man.  He shows shrewdness and skill as a manager in Potiphar’s house; when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him he behaves with integrity; he knows what is required when famine befalls; and not least, he has compassion for his brothers with whom he wants to be reconciled. 

But more than anything, Joseph has the gift of interpretation.  He can understand his own dreams, and others soon start telling him theirs: the butler, the baker, Pharaoh himself.  Somehow, Joseph has the gift of detecting in them what God is doing or is about to do, and counsel the right response. Dreams provide clues to the mysterious workings of providence; what is needed is to know how to read their meanings within the larger purposes of God. Every psychoanalyst knows the importance of decoding the complex but intelligent symbolism of dreams and how reflecting on them adds to wisdom. In a larger way, reading the signs of the times is like reading dreams. ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good’ he says at the end of the story. 

I want to commend to you the interpreter as an image of what the church is for. One of its tasks is to help people understand and respond to what God is doing in the world and in people’s lives: pointing to meanings, uncovering significance, not simply human significance but divine significance.  Wordsworth, in a beautiful phrase in his ‘Lines Written above Tintern Abbey’ speaks about ‘seeing into the life of things’.  You may say that it’s a brave person who speaks like that in our age.  Yet in the ancient world no-one seriously doubted that providence, dreams, omens, sacred texts all carried meaning; the only question was, what.  Today when we are suspicious of ‘grand narratives’ we still want to ask the fundamental question of how we recognise pattern, structure and connection in the world, and how we dare to speak about it.

As Christian interpreters, we establish meaning in different ways.  We do it when we bring the power of the gospel to bear upon human lives and transform them.  We do it in the celebration of the liturgy where we play at living in the kingdom of God as if it were already fully present. We do it in our relationships with individuals, when, in joy or in sadness we attempt to read the stories of their lives in the light of the value God puts upon each of them. And we do it in our citizenship of the world by putting the questions of God’s kingdom to situations where justice and mercy are unacknowledged or forgotten and victims have no voice of their own.  In looking for ‘divine significance’, we are taking seriously our role as God’s interpreters.

I’m saying that the interpreter is, if you like, God’s spy in recognising and naming the good, the beautiful and the true, and also falsehood, deception and illusion for what they are.  In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian comes with his heavy burden into the house of the Interpreter.  As he steps inside, he is shown a painting.  It shows a man ‘with his eyes lift up to heaven, the best of Books in his hand, and the Law of Truth writ on his lips; … his work is to know and unfold dark things to sinners, even as also thou seest him stand as if he pleaded with men.’  He says the Interpreter is the guide Christian must follow on his journey.  It’s of course a portrait of Christ, depicted both as travelling companion and as destination, the interpreter par excellence of our pilgrimage.  In knowing and unfolding dark things and standing as if he pleaded with men, Bunyan is saying that Christ himself is the model; for the living Word is God’s final act of interpretation by which his movement towards us is revealed as grace and truth.  Calvin says in the Institutes that the scriptures are like spectacles which bring the world into focus and help us to begin to see things with God’s way of looking.  When Christian leaves the house of the Interpreter, he comes to the wall of salvation and finds the cross> There the burden he carries falls off his shoulders, and he is free. Good interpretation brings liberation because the truth always makes us free.

To be an interpreter is part of the church’s apostleship. It is always a risk. We know how broken and fallible the church is.  But there are God-given ways by which we are kept close to the mind and heart of God, learn to read his ways in what the French spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade called ‘the sacrament of the present moment’.  They are the old fashioned disciplines that nurture the inner life: prayer, reading the scriptures, meditating, the kind of silence that teaches us to pay attention, spiritual friendship that helps us know ourselves; and not least, enriching our lives through literature, poetry, film, music and the arts which are so often the unlooked-for sources of wisdom in our time. These are among God’s instruments to help us become aware, have insight, be wise and become good evangelists.

The task of the interpreter is not some huge ordeal. It will come to us as naturally as breathing if we simply speak honestly out of our faith, and are ready when asked, as St Peter says, to give a reason for the hope that is within us. When the world is as it is, why should we have hope and not give in to despair? This is where the interpreter is crucial. The story says that Joseph ‘reassured’ his brothers, ‘speaking kindly to them’.  ‘The Lord meant it for good.’  To help others glimpse how, in the changes and chances of the world, ‘love is his meaning’ is the missionary vocation of the church and of each of us individually.  It is to be a dealer in hope and help turn back the tides of human angst. It is not to point to ourselves but to God in Christ, to make room for the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the lives of others and ourselves. As the hymn we are about to sing puts it so wisely, ‘God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.’ 

Durham Cathedral, 28 July 2013.
Genesis 42.1-25; 1 Corinthians 10.1-24

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Ant-wisdom and Bird-wisdom: Practically Human in Life and Ministry


Many of you will know William Blake’s famous water colour of Babylon’s 6th century king Nebuchadnezzar.  He has been reduced to the status of an animal prowling around on all fours, his face half human, half beast.  (In fact, this condition known as lycanthropy afflicted his son Nabonidus, but the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible attributes it to Nebuchadnezzar on account of his legendary arrogance.)  The message is that power, when it is driven by hubris, has a corroding effect on the character of the perpetrator.  In this condition of abasement, conscience and rationality are forfeited.  A person is driven by their appetites; or as we say, they are at the mercy of their animal instincts. In the church where I was an incumbent, there was a series of four corbels in the south aisle that charted the decay of a human soul, a kind of rake’s progress except that the besetting sin in his case was greed. A noble face in the first corbel began to be distorted and show animal features in the second. By the third grotesque it was clear where he was going, and by the fourth he had become fully pig-like. It was like a medieval version of The Picture of Dorian Gray with its secret picture that accurately depicts the erosion of a human soul. The message is: you become like the gods you worship, or as Seneca said, to honour the gods, it is enough to imitate them. ‘Human beings are like beasts that have no understanding’ says one of the wisdom psalms.

Let me jump a few centuries to the 21st.  A few years ago in the Cathedral, we held a controversial exhibition of sculptures by the South African artist Jane Alexander. Her work is her response to apartheid and oppression, and it depicts human beings not in the nobility of fulfilling their humanity, but in the tragedy of failing to realise it: falling short, we could say in the language of the Letter to the Romans.  They were troubling pieces of human beings and animals in various states of disfigurement and distortion, and we were advised not to allow children into the exhibition unsupervised. The message was that the ‘dominion’ given to humanity in creation has become corrupted, so that all relationships are susceptible to being skewed, whether within societies and collectives, in the interpersonal sphere, or towards the natural order. 

Alexander talks about ‘humanimals’, partly in the good sense of wanting to place human beings within the created order of fauna (where animals as often as not judge us by their behaviour), but also in this debased sense of human ‘bestiality’ driven by the id, breaking the boundaries of civilised existence, wreaking havoc across a divinely-ordered world.  As a theologian, my take on her work was that it was an interpretation of the fall, rather in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy where sin becomes visibly expressed in the bodies and bearing of its practitioners. In Jane Alexander’s masks and deceptions, like Dante, in the bizarre contortions of her figures we see not only how other people are but also how we ourselves are, both as oppressors and as victims.  Exhibiting these pieces in a sacred space pointedly raised questions about the nature of humanity, both in the state of destructiveness and collapse, and by implication as potentially redeemed by divine grace.

The theological issue here is what it means to be created as (or in?) the image of God. Whatever that is, and there is a large literature that discusses it, we can agree that becoming wise and therefore more fully human leads to the divine image in us being restored, those distortions and contortions imagined in art and sculpture being gently bent back (which is what the word ‘religion means’ into their proper human shape. So let us turn to the conference theme Being Human, Being Wise. I have been asked to give this address under the title ‘Practically Human in Life and Ministry’. I like the meanings cunningly elided in the word ‘practically’.  It partly means being practical about wisdom, asking how being wise makes a difference to ordinary life. But it also smuggles in the idea of an ‘almost’, of having potential and being on the way to realising it. The thing about wisdom in the Bible, as I am sure you have heard earlier in this conference, is that its scope is as wide and deep as human life. It plumbs the depths of the riddles of existence: why is there suffering, why are we mortal, what purpose exists in the universe? The great wisdom texts of Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms engage with these questions at a profound level, disturbingly so for some people who would prefer their faith not to be troubled by these complex and elusive dilemmas. But biblical wisdom also has as much to say about chronos as it does about kairos – ordinary time as well as the ecstasies and the agonies of human life. And it is aspects of our ordinary days that I want to focus on today.

In 2008 I wrote a little book called Wisdom and Ministry: the call to leadership. For those who have not read it, it tries to make links between the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible and Christian ministry today. It partly does this by exploring the ‘big’ themes in the classical wisdom writings such as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and the wisdom psalms. But it also takes as exemplars key characters in the ‘narrated wisdom’ of the Old Testament: stories like Joseph, David, Solomon and Daniel that everyone agrees are among the best in the Bible.

Perhaps it’s worth saying why I wrote the book at all.  There is no limit to the books on ministry, and I did not want to add to them without having something distinctive to say.  That ‘something’ was to try and address a deficit I detected in the biblical models the church draws on in its discourse about ministry.  If you look at the Anglican ordinal, you will find its recommended readings from the Hebrew Bible peppered with the calls of prophets. Deacons get Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Priests get Second and Third Isaiah and Jeremiah. Bishops have Second and Third Isaiah and Ezekiel. I spoke in the General Synod debate about this when the new texts for ordinal were being discussed. Why is vocation to ordination in the Church of England presumed to be like being called as a Hebrew prophet? There is a lot to be said for prophets of course: ‘O that all the Lord’s people were prophets’ says Moses.  But I do not think Anglican parish ministry is very like being an Isaiah, a Jeremiah or an Ezekiel, at least most of the time.  If we model it on that presumption, I think we shall be misleading ordinands about what it is they undertaking.  Indeed, I think it raises expectations that are not helpful. 

However, there is another influential group of writers in the Hebrew Bible waiting in the wings for us to take them seriously in the context of ministry.  These are the wise of Israel who have left us such a rich deposit of texts.  Every ancient near eastern society had its wise. They seem to have had a special role in equipping young men for leadership, especially in the royal court. The Old Testament has even taken over a long section of an ancient Egyptian text called The Wisdom of Amenemope almost word for word in a passage in the Book of Proverbs. This illustrates how cosmopolitan wisdom was in antiquity. So I asked in the Synod: why has this tradition not been recognised as a source for ordination readings?  I decided to test the viability of this idea out for myself, as I was invited to give the ordination retreat addresses in Durham soon afterwards. The retreat was entirely based on wisdom texts from the Old Testament. That was the seed of my book. For me, coming to the end of my full-time ministerial career, if I have learned one thing since being ordained 38 years ago, it is that what is needed in the church’s leaders, in any leaders, but especially among the ordained, is wisdom.

It is tempting to stay with these marvellous texts. However, with this literature as our starting point, I want to go beyond them in reflecting with you on two aspects of practical wisdom today. I wish I could have explored ten more: the scope of wisdom is so all-embracing. In particular, I wish I could have explored how wisdom can inform our interpersonal pastoral practice, though some of this is in my book. I want to focus on these particular areas because both of them touch our lives all the time, yet the questions wisdom puts to them are not always as much noticed as they should be if we are to be ‘practically human’ in our ministerial roles and our personal lives. These two ‘wisdoms’ are themes distinctive to our modern world which I have been reflecting on recently and would like to share with you. Perhaps what I can offer are two worked examples of practical wisdom that may help us apply sound wisdom principles to other aspects of life so that we become wiser in our thinking, our practice and our behaviours.

So that you have the road map, here are my two themes: organisational wisdom and digital wisdom. Having begun this lecture on an animal theme, I’d like to offer two images to represent each of these, drawn straight out of the wisdom literature: the ant and the bird. They can be our non-human travelling companions, and help us, say our texts, learn about practical wisdom. There is ant-wisdom, and there is bird-wisdom. I doubt if these are very different: each may turn out to be an aspect of the other. So let’s look at them in turn. 

Organisational Wisdom: the Ant

The first is organisational wisdom. Perhaps I should explain why I have taken this as my first worked example. For 26 years my day job has been in cathedrals, and for 18 of those as a dean in two places. When you are directing and caring for the life of a cathedral, especially a large one like Durham, you find yourself searching for models to help you understand what kind of organisation you are leading.  A cathedral is of course a religious foundation.  But it is also an educational institution; a leisure destination; it is heritage and parkland; a concert hall and exhibition gallery; a museum; and not least, a retail and catering outlet. In all these, finance plays a large part. So we are a small to medium-sized enterprise, a business with a turnover of several million pounds. Now, I do not baulk at the thought that Durham Cathedral is a business. We have no choice about that. So the important question is: how do we make sure that it is a good business? And by ‘good’, I don’t only mean successful.  I mean a virtuous, ethical business which a Christian church can be proud of. And this is one place among many where organisational wisdom is not simply desirable but essential.

What do I mean by organisational wisdom? It certainly includes paying attention to the sound principles of ‘economy’, oikonomia, literally ‘household management’ about which proverbial wisdom has so much to say. The virtues of time-wisdom (as my colleague Stephen Cherry calls it in one of his books), leading and managing people well, keeping your word, using your resources prudently, planning for the future, responding with agility to crises: all of these are reckoned to be essential in the Hebrew Bible’s assessment of practical wisdom if your enterprise is going to flourish.

The locus classicus is the 6th chapter of Proverbs with its admonition to the lazy to imitate the ant:

           Go to the ant, you sluggard. (NRSV has lazybones but that lets us off too jokily when the author is deadly serious; and anyway, the word sluggard is marvellously onomatopoeic of the idle man or woman who is an addict to somnolence and sleep, lying prostrate, bloated by lack of application and effort, turning on their bed like a door turns on its hinges as Proverbs says in another place.) Go to the ant; consider its ways and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest.

And then the unforgettable portrait of the sluggard:

            How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a thief, and want, like an armed robber.

So ant-wisdom embodies the virtues of good organisation, planning for the future, working collaboratively and knowing how to read the signs of the times. The opposite is sluggard-folly, not just laziness but making everything vague and ambiguous, not to say pointing the finger when things go wrong which in the end will subvert the structure and bring it crashing down. This is a familiar theme of wisdom literature in its many manifestations: consider how well-ordered the natural world is. It is that way because a well-ordered God has made it. So emulate this well-ordered state, and you will find that it transforms your organisation.

Of course, reflective wisdom looked into the heart of creation and found it more complex, more elusive and more baffling than Proverbs seems to think. This is what makes Job and Ecclesiastes the masterpieces of Old Testament wisdom. But that is not to undermine the value of practical wisdom, any more than quantum theory undermines Einsteinian or even Newtonian physics. It depends what job you need them to do.  In one way, precepts like those in Proverbs simply state the obvious. But the obvious, stated in a larger context gives them a particular range and depth. The 6th century Rule of St Benedict is another example of how the profound and the practical live easily side by side as they do in Proverbs. The most-read parts of the Rule focus on the Christian life, what obedience means, the various degrees or steps of humility, living the religious life together in community and so on. But much of it, given no less emphasis in the cyclical reading of the Rule in Benedictine communities, focuses on how to order the liturgy, when to say which psalms, managing the convent’s finances, stewardship of kitchen implements and garden tools, and looking after your clothes. What transfigures those workaday instructions is the context they are placed in which is wisdom, virtue and discipleship. ‘Who sweeps a room as for thy laws makes that and the action fine’ says George Herbert in the well-known words. The message is: calibrate your organisation according to wisdom and virtue, and it will change everything.

This is where I have concerns about the relentless ascendancy of organisational and management language and practice in the church. You cannot lead any organisation these days without finding yourself speaking about strategic objectives, KPIs (key performance indicators), USP (unique selling points), key messages and outputs for niche markets & target audiences and so on. As well as being a Cathedral dean, I am a governor of a school and a university, the president of a Durham charity, and the titular head of house of a Durham college. Whether the business is religion, education, arts and leisure or healthcare, the discourse is the same. And so is the tension, which sometimes feels like a widening gulf, between practitioners and administrators: those whose job it is to (jargon alert) deliver the core business and those tasked with resourcing and administering it.

I don’t want to make cheap jibes about people who work hard to keep the wheels on our sometimes fragile institutions. They need our respect and gratitude. However, I have a hunch that the processes we follow and the language we use to talk about them ought to be consistent with those institutions’ values. In the case of a Christian organisation like a cathedral, we should expect theology, religious practice and organisational behaviour to inform one another. In my shorthand, religious values should make an organisation wise, to the extent that its behaviours might be nuanced differently from those of other organisations. For example, in our governance and leadership roles as a Cathedral Chapter, it is tempting to map our functions on to those of a board of charity trustees with the Dean as Chair. In our management roles we might think of ourselves as a senior team with the Dean as CEO.  But the reality, both in Christian history and in the Cathedrals Measure that underlies our statutes, is that our roles don’t fall easily into either of those familiar organisational models. What a Chapter is required to exercise is oversight, what the tradition calls episcope, and that is shaped not just by systems theory or good organisational practice but by Christian theological reflection in an ecclesial context. 

Here are two more examples of organisational life. When it comes to setting objectives, we should not so lock ourselves into a rigid planning mentality that there is no space for the manoeuvrability, agility and spontaneity that are needed when circumstances change, or new opportunities arise, and we want to respond quickly to what God may be doing in an unforeseen way. Similarly in our employment practice, where we are subject to the law like any other employer, we should try to resist going straight into adversarial procedures – grievances, complaints, disciplinaries etc.) without first trying, as the gospel urges us to, to make friends with our adversary quickly, to resolve issues through face to face meeting and personal conversation. I am not being naïve here: often, informal personal  approaches will not work, and this is when we should not be afraid of formal processes as a way of caring for and protecting the interests of both employee and employer. We should not too quickly sacrifice the interpersonal for the structural. And this, it seems to me, is how theological wisdom-shaped values can make a difference, allowing what we do to be illuminated by how we do it 

What am I saying here? Not at all that an institution, least of all a Christian one, should be inefficient, unprofessional, casual about financial discipline, careless about sound stewardship and planning. I like good institutions, and I like good organised religion precisely because at their best, organisations not only harness human energies, creativity and skills but also discipline them, give them shape so that they work for the betterment of us all.  This is what Proverbs admires in its ant-wisdom. But an ant colony is more than an organisation. It is a true organism with its own self-generating life and wholeness, a community of living things whose task is to express what Bonhoeffer called ‘life together’. There is a danger that organisations lose their grasp of this insight, mutate into impersonal, mechanistic principalities and powers, take on a kind of demonic persona which, unchecked, ends up by suppressing what is wise, humane and life-giving in communities and relationships. Honora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures of a decade ago offered timely warnings against micro-management and the culture of mistrust it creates. If I read the poetry of William Blake aright, this dehumanising tendency of institutions was the aspect of the industrial revolution he most hated. Its destructiveness is chillingly chronicled a generation later by Charles Dickens in his novel Dombey and Son where the construction of the railway becomes a metaphor of the suppression of love, intimacy and humanity in Dombey’s soul. In his late great work Bleak House, the dead hand of remorseless process, this time in the Court of Chancery, ends up with legal costs wiping out the entire value of the estate whose succession it has been engaged for generations trying to determine. I have sat in meetings that have felt like ‘Jarndyce versus Jarndyce’ and nearly lost the will to live.

You are all engaged in pastoral practice of various kinds, as am I. We can perhaps translate organisational wisdom into an important pastoral principle which perhaps does not get stated as often as it should.  It is this: that organisations and structures need and deserve pastoral care every bit as much as individual people. In particular, the tasks of caring for the whole church, or our local expression of it, cannot be made less of a priority than exercising pastoral ministry towards individuals. This is a familiar tension for anyone leading or managing in every organisation. When someone has to be disciplined, made redundant or dismissed, the cry goes up: ‘you only care about the organisation, not the people’.  So in the church and in other person-centered organisations, senior teams agonise about applying difficult processes to individuals in case that should appear (as it is often presented) as a lack of pastoral care for them personally. On the other hand, too many benign institutions, churches among them, refuse to take necessary action against employees because it may damage the organisation. And this is often a form of cowardice. How the church negotiates this difficult boundary between being over-forgiving and unduly rigorous is an important aspect of its wisdom, and its corporate mental and spiritual health.

Here is a current example. I am told that the Church of England is now going to require every candidate for the episcopate to answer a questionnaire on his (and one day her) sexual history. This exercise is to be supervised by a current bishop and reported to the Archbishop of the province. This is meant to ensure that bishops are monogamous, and if they are single, or are gay and in civil partnerships, that they are celibate. I am sure we all understand the anxieties that are driving this process, not all of them fuelled by debates in England.  But I want to ask whether this presumption of suspicion about clergy who will already be senior leaders in the church, and the intrusive way it sounds as though it will be enacted, is the way to raise confidence? I hardly think so. It worries me that the church is becoming such a low-trust organisation.

How much of accepted pastoral practice is transferrable from individual to collective pastoral care, I wonder?  I am thinking of client-led approaches to the talking therapies of counselling and psychotherapy, for example, where the primary task is to listen attentively, learn the person’s story, understand the context and try to offer interpretation that will help both the direction the narrative takes and the language used about it. How do we listen to the ‘story’ an institution tells and allow it to inform our pastoral response? In the words of our conference title, how does an organisation not only become wise but also more human? I have been struck by a book from the 1980s by James Hopewell, Congregation: Story and Structure. Informed by both social anthropology and theology, it argued that local churches have their own distinct narratives that need to be understood before any effective ministry can be offered in them. He linked this with the angels of the seven churches in the Apocalypse, which he took to mean that churches, like all organisations, have their own ‘personality types’ which we should not ignore, their own ‘grain’ that needs to be well-understood if effective ministry is to take place within them. Insofar as wisdom means insight, understanding, seeing into the life of things, this could be a question we could usefully discuss.

Digital Wisdom: the Bird

The second aspect of practical wisdom I want to explore is digital wisdom. Like the organisations we belong to, the digital world brings us into structures and networks that far transcend our own intimate relationships. The difference is that it does this without our always being fully conscious of it. There is a wisdom text in the 10th chapter of Qoheleth that is made for the Twitter age. ‘Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature may tell the matter.’ So bird-wisdom means being careful what we disclose, where, and to whom. Even where I think I am most alone, most anonymous, reckon I am seen by no-one and leave no traces, some little creature with wings can exploit my laptop, my phone, my tablet and give me away.

Our need for digital wisdom is not simply important, but urgent. Ours is the first generation to be living with the real and complex changes that are happening to us as a result of almost universal electronic connectivity. That the invention of the internet has brought us huge benefits is something I do not need to argue today. Access to information on a scale undreamed-of to any previous generation is an asset without price. But neither do I need to remind you of its dark side. The well-publicised exploitation of the web to fuel ideological extremism, terrorism, violence and pornography is well known. We don’t need anyone to tell us not to venture into places with big red ‘keep out’ signs. If we go there and come to harm, we have only ourselves to blame.

But there are less visible hazards out there too. I am thinking of the threats posed to personal privacy and security through digital surveillance, something we have heard a lot about in recent weeks. Not only are smartphones sophisticated tracking devices, but we leave indelible traces in cyberspace through our emails, our visits to websites and the content we share through social networking sites. We are right to worry about the as-yet unforeseen consequences of this for politics and society in the 21st century. And it should make us think very carefully about how we behave in a world where there are no secrets, where everything is in principle open, public and disclosed. This is where bird-wisdom comes in: be careful what you say when you think you are on your own. Someone is probably listening.

In the history of ideas, it may turn out that whenever any new invention or discovery leads to an intellectual revolution and significantly shifts a culture into new ways of thought, the risks are greatest in the first and second generations. It was in the aftermath of the invention of nuclear weapons that the cold war posed a particular threat.  The mechanisation of labour that the industrial revolution ushered in is another example of the inevitable time-lag in realising the threats it brought as well as the opportunities. The inventions of printing and photography may other instances. Technology always accelerates away from our ability not only to use it responsibly and manage it safely, but even more importantly, to give it shape and discipline by placing it a landscape of values and ethics. 

Wisdom has a special emphasis on the care, nurture and protection of the vulnerable. Among these are the young. Their formation and upbringing is a major, perhaps the major preoccupation of this kind of reflective biblical literature. In the first few chapters of Proverbs, the writer develops the imagery of a young man walking along the street trying to find his way through life. From houses on either side, two ladies call out to him and attempt to entice him into their homes. The one is Lady Wisdom, who promises a life-giving banquet of bread and wine, an environment in which to flourish and grow as a human being. The other is Dame Folly.  She also offers a feast of a kind to delight the senses and promises immediate and easy rewards. But her way leads inevitably to corruption and death. The trouble is, they both sound plausible to a young man who is easily led. These chapters tell us what the purpose of Proverbs is: to educate the young by informing their hearts and consciences and minds. This it does partly by encouragement and promise, partly by warning.  How we protect young people in the largely ungoverned environment of the internet, how to steer them towards Lady Wisdom rather than Dame Folly, is already a very major concern to policy-makers and parents alike. At the same time as the web builds up and plants, it also destroys and overthrows.

I need to declare at this point that I am an enthusiastic user of social media, especially tweeting and blogging. The little tweeting bird Ecclesiastes warns us about is my symbol of the gifts and dangers of social media. I have been reading about a book I have not yet seen called The Psychodynamics of Social Media by Aaron Balick. He argues that a tweet is more like a thought than a statement, and yet, as we have seen when things de-rail in spectacularly public ways, it is also a statement that has legal existence and carries consequences, specifically libel; and if not that, then outcomes that can damage reputations, including your own, for good. We are not used to a world where thinking aloud can put us at risk; but as psychologists recognise, it is the way in which the instant feedback of social media acts as a kind of addictive intoxicant that raises the stakes alarmingly. It does this because it privileges the instant over the longer-term: this minute over the next half-hour let alone tomorrow or next week. Add to that the disinhibiting aspects of being, as we imagine, alone with our computer.  As Ecclesiastes says, a little bird is waiting to carry messages far and wide.

Earlier this year, I encountered this worrying aspect of social media for myself. Having married into a Sunderland-supporting family 40 years ago, I was concerned, with many others, about the appointment of their new manager Paolo di Canio. As you know, he had proclaimed himself as ‘not a racist but a fascist’, had given a notorious fascist salute at a match in Italy, and proudly wore a tattoo honouring Mussolini. I wrote an open letter on my blog asking him to clarify his position. I don’t say that the blog ‘went viral’ but it was picked up by the national and local media and evidently put him under some pressure. His helpful clarification came the next day. So in a sense, the story is over. All the nationals welcomed it, some of them making uncalled-for flattering comments such as ‘the Dean hitched up his cassock, took aim, and scored spectacular goal’. I had a lot of grateful emails and tweets from supporters. 

But the unpleasant surprise was how much digital vitriol was flung in my face, this too mainly from fans. How dare the church interfere in something it knows nothing about. How dare I take on the role of the North East’s thought-police. How dare I assume that the club’s fans weren’t able to think for themselves. And so on. If you read the blog, I dare say some of this stuff is still there in the comments. I didn’t respond to the abuse, but I did try to engage in dialogue with the more measured critics. I said that all I was doing was to point to what di Canio had said and done on the record and, given the vast influence football has on the young, this was a matter of public interest. I mentioned my own German-Jewish ancestry, with my particular awareness of the fascism poses to the world. Some of this has become an intelligent debate about football, politics and faith and of course I welcome this. If you follower The Secret Footballer in the Guardian, or have read the book, you will find that there is at least one thoughtful Premier League player somewhere who asks himself these kinds of questions, and this evidence of reflective football is most welcome.

I am telling you this because the boundary between the supposedly safe internet domains we tend to inhabit and the places of hatred, abuse, trolling and bullying is gossamer thin. Touch it, and it is as if the entire web trembles. I am not saying that sometimes, social responsibility may need to take us close to a dangerous edge: there are always risks in trying to do something good. ‘Evil happens when good men and women do nothing’ said Edmund Burke famously. But I have learned that even a relatively blunt tool like a personal blog can get caught in an undertow that can quickly drag you away from the safety of the shore into very turbulent waters indeed.

We need, says Balick, to become acutely self-aware in our use of social media, to retain our sense of individual responsibility and educate our consciences rather than lose our own identities to the digital black hole. The internet is very much a place where we are in danger of gaining the whole world and losing our own souls, our deepest selves. So where is digital wisdom to be found? Last year I wrote another blog called The Responsible Tweeter. This was an attempt to frame some basic principles of good tweeting, not only how to get the best out of 140 characters, but to draw proper boundaries around the use of a tool which, because it is so powerful, also poses significant risks. It seems to me that we simply have to know not only what is legal and what isn’t, and what is ethical and what isn’t, but what is wholesome, life-affirming and wise. I love Twitter for its elegant miniaturism, how so much can be said in so little.  This is wholly in the spirit of wisdom literature: most of Proverbs could be encapsulated in tweets, as could the Beatitudes and many other sayings of Jesus. Like photography, the discipline puts a frame round the content and powerfully focuses its point. But this can be for good or ill – and for interesting or boring. So I thought I would try my hand at twelve principles or commandments of Tweeting.  Others have offered good online guides to Twitter that contain many or all of these.  However I’ve encapsulated each principle in 140 characters or less so they can be lifted out of the blog and tweeted self-referentially in the very medium for which they are, not so much a set of imperatives as a series of hints and nudges. The emphasis is on the positive: mostly 'dos', a few 'don'ts'.  And while they were written for a particular form of social networking, most of the principles can I think be transferred to any other.

Here then are twelve precepts.

1        Be judicious. Powerful tools need careful handling. You are on a public stage.  Apply the same criteria as you would to any public medium.
2        Be chaste. Promiscuous tweeting suggests addiction. Only press ‘send’ when you have something to say. If not stay silent.
3        Be courteous. Don’t disparage or insult others (you risk libel as in any print medium). In dissent, be questioning rather than assertive.
4        Be disciplined. 140 characters impose a verbal boundary. Stick to it and don't sprawl lazily across multiple tweets on the same topic.
5        Be conversational. The art of tweeting is to engage with others, not hurl speeches into the void. Invite responses and give them.
6        Be interesting. Life is not all information, observation, profundity or humour, but don’t bore followers with trivia. Try to be original. 
7        Be tentative. The question-mark is a great way of turning bald statement into an invitation to explore. Better to travel than stand still.
8        Be communitarian. Social media are at their best in creating online communities and relationships. It is good not to be alone. Join in.
9        Be discreet. Don't break confidences, substitute for meeting, hold private conversations publicly or disclose improperly. Keep boundaries.
10      Be self-aware. Twitter can raise awareness, affirm spiritual and humane values and inspire others. Serve wisdom, truth, goodness, justice and wholeness.
11      Be generous. Share your own good things: stories, photos, blogs etc., and others' too.  Retweet/favourite the best. But don't self-promote.
12      Be relaxed. Don't obsess about follower numbers (sins of pride or envy). Small communities are often the best. Learn, grow, chuckle, enjoy. 

I raised the question: are ant-wisdom and bird-wisdom different? Probably not. Both have to do with the practice of wisdom in life as it is lived in public, exposed, collective ways. The larger, ‘macro’ worlds we inhabit, both organisational and digital, need to be redeemed, and become wise and humane, something that can come about when they are populated by wise individuals. At the same time, we as persons inhabiting our ‘micro’ worlds can individually grow and flourish and become better human beings and better disciples as benign macro worlds help shape personal character and identity.

I have not given as much time to working out the exegesis of the relevant wisdom texts as I would have liked. However, I am sure it can be done, and indeed, if there is enough encouragement, I would love to develop some of these ideas in a future book. Today, I do not claim more than perhaps to have sown a few seeds that may bear fruit in our reflection and discussion. I am looking forward to hearing what you have to say in response, and hope that under God, we shall all become wiser for having been together here this week and tackled these elusive but vital aspects of being healthy, virtuous and wise within a healthy, virtuous and wise church.

At the Conference of the British and Irish Association for Practical Theology (BIAPT),
York University, July 2013

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Naming a Loco 'Durham Cathedral'

I am one of those clergy who have loved trains since I was in a pushchair.  As a London kid, I used to stand in my anorak on the end of the platform at King's Cross, Ian Allan train-spotter's book in hand, and watch the Gresley Pacifics setting out on their long journeys  towards exotic places like Durham and Newcastle.  I dreamed one day of travelling to this undiscovered country of the North. Far too late in life, I finally made it, as you can see.
So it's wonderful to be here to name and bless an East Coast class 91 electric locomotive 91114 Durham Cathedral and to link it with the Lindisfarne Gospels at Durham.  We were always clear that we wanted to bring the Gospels to Durham for the whole of the North East, to bring them back to Northumbria the cradle of English Christianity and the place of northern saints where the Gospels lived for so many centuries. Our being here today in Newcastle the regional capital symbolises that this is a real North Eastern occasion.  Both the Gospel book and our Cathedral were created in honour of St Cuthbert, the saint who belongs to all the people of the North East both north and south of the Tyne.
This locomotive will speak about this region everywhere it goes. I hope it will encourage people to discover the wealth and pleasures of the North East, not least by visiting the Gospels exhibition and coming to see the Cathedral, rated last week by Trip Adviser review as the UK’s top landmark destination. And because County Durham was the birthplace of the railways and is as rich in industrial heritage as it is in its Christian past, it’s especially appropriate to have the name Durham on the side of a railway locomotive.
The Great Western GWR was affectionately known as ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’.  I don’t see why that quirky broad-gauge line should have the monopoly on divinity or greatness. It was on this East Coast Main Line 75 years ago this very day that Gresley's A4 Mallard achieved the world speed record for a steam locomotive.  East Coast Main Line, ECML, is surely the Excellent, Classic and Most Magnificent Line. We are proud of it in this region, and I take today as meaning that the railway is proud of the region too. As a working cathedral of today and tomorrow, it is good to be linked with the 21st century railway system with all its positive messages about the part public transport plays in environmental responsibility and sustainability.
I’d like to end by thanking East Coast for their generosity in mounting this celebration today. A lot of hard work has gone into getting us to this point, and I want to express our deep gratitude to them for their wonderful hospitality this morning. They have been wonderful partners in this project.  I'd now like to ask the girl and boy head choristers, Patrin and Violet, to help me in this hugely enjoyable task of naming this locomotive DURHAM CATHEDRAL.