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Separate Beds And Separate Tables For The Anglican Communion?


Copyright: sutsaiy via Shutterstock. Image ID: 309126473

If asked to describe through an image what it has hitherto meant to be a member of the Anglican Communion, most of us would pick, I think, not the compass rose used by the ACO (from the four corners of the earth) but a version of The Last Supper, at which all of its members are welcome to sit together at The Lord’s Table.

Yesterday, the still new-ish Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a revolution, as he invited the 37 primates to a ‘gathering’ in Canterbury from 11-16 January, 1916. No decennial summer outing, this, but a gathering scheduled between Epiphany and Candlemas, when daylight is at its shortest, and the ground may be under snow. The pathetic fallacy is not always fallacious (hence its ubiquitous use in literature), and the timing is surely a theatrical device designed to set a sombre mood of ‘bleak mid-winter’.

In brief, Archbishop Justin is suggesting that we cease to fall over backwards to hold on to the Anglican Communion as a force seeking to hold everything revolving around the centre (which, had the Anglican Covenant been passed, would have acted as the reference point). Instead, we could aim to be a force seeking to spread out into the world, according to broadly agreed principles (based on the understanding of the Bible by each Church in the Communion). {The Archbishop does not describe it thus, this is my interpretation}.



The immediate press and public reaction is well summarised on Thinking Anglicans. The meeting is to be an opportunity for a “review of the structures of the Anglican Communion.” In an interview with the Anglican Journal, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the invitation was “not a surprise,” and nor was Welby’s stated desire to review the structures of the communion. “He’s been quite open about that from early on.”

 The Guardian ran an article under the headline, “Archbishop of Canterbury urges breakup of divided Anglican Communion,” to which Lambeth Palace responded by tweeting “Just to clarify, the Archbishop of Canterbury is NOT planning to break up the Anglican Communion.” The headline has since been changed. The Guardian reported that the archbishop would propose that the worldwide grouping be reorganized “as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other.” It quoted an unnamed Lambeth Palace source as saying the proposal would allow Welby to maintain relations with both liberal and conservative churches in the Communion, which have been deeply divided over the issue of human sexuality.


Lay Anglicana Interpretation

Bearing in mind that I am writing only 24 hours after the news broke, and reserve the right to change my mind later…

  • This is almost entirely good news for the liberal catholic churches in the Communion.
  • All those Churches who self-identify as Anglican will be invited to be in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, should they so wish, but would still be able to call themselves Anglican if they did not so wish; the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury would derive solely from his occupation of the post and buildings which were the first so to call themselves, and the bilateral relations between the Church of England and each other Anglican Church would be fluid and determined solely by the two parties.
  • The Anglican Communion would no longer be recognisable as we currently know it: not only are separate bedrooms and beds being talked of by the archbishop’s spokesman, but separate tables would logically follow, and some would eat in the dining room, some in the kitchen, some off their knees in the drawing room, and some on the verandah – as in my illustration.
  • This loose federation  would allow like-minded Anglicans across the world to form loose alliances – not necessarily de jure, but de facto.
  • The Church of England would finally be enabled to consider issues like the admittance of LGBT people to the priesthood and episcopate, and same sex marriages, without feeling constrained by the views of GAFCON etc.
  • Members of The Episcopal Church have expressed disquiet over the invitation of ACNA to at least part of the 2016 conference. As the Anglican Communion is presently constituted, this is indeed odd: only TEC officially represents Anglicans from the US. For the sake of consistency, it is to be hoped that Archbishop Justin has also invited AMiE, which represents a similar threat to the hegemony of the Church of England. But, if the looser, federated, Anglican Communion is accepted, any number of groups might spring up which describe themselves as Anglican – it would not matter to the rest because we would not be obliged to agree detailed doctrine with each other. Breakaway groups would be allowed to form ad infinitum.
  • The loose federation envisaged by Archbishop Justin is not a new idea – so far as I can see it represents a return to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/8 which includes”The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.” This consummation, devoutly to be wished, has long been called for by Lay Anglicana, most recently in November 2013.



What could possibly go wrong?

I leave it to you, dear readers, to fill in this section. The archbishop’s spokesman is said to regard a successful outcome as by no means guaranteed. Luckily, the Archbishop of Canterbury spends much of his day in prayer.




‘Downton Church — Season 2: Eight Lessons the Church Could Learn from Downton Abbey’ by Dr Wendy Dackson


Downton Abbey Church Logo

by Ken Howard and Wendy Dackson

Alrighty then! Our recent blog post “10 Ways the Church is Like Downton Abbey” got quite a lot of views. So, like our friends in Public Television, we decided to renew Downton Church for a second “season.” And the theme for season two is “Eight Lessons the Church Could Learn from Downton Abbey.”

Indeed, there much agreement in the comments we received that Downton Abbey – both the story and the production – was an excellent metaphor for the organized Church. Both are centuries-old institutions, both have a tendency toward aristocratic organization and behavior, both are steeped in tradition and stymied by traditionalism, both have a higher opinion of their own inherent holiness than their histories reveal. In other words, as institutions, both Downton Abbey and the Church are prone to similar mistakes.

Yet as the historical premise of Downton Abbey and the current cultural context of the Church (“in a world where everything is changing, an institution struggles for relevance…”) reveal, both institutions are capable – albeit reluctantly and imperfectly – of learning and change. So taking the metaphor a step further, what are some lessons that the Church can learn (or perhaps remember) from looking in the mirror of Downton Abbey.

Lesson #1 Noblesse oblige (with nobility, obligation). One thing that the various members of the Crawley family learn again and again, each in different ways, is that with positions of social power and influence comes social obligations: an understanding of their responsibility for those whose lives and livelihoods depend upon them. Lord Robert always seems keenly aware of the house’s obligation to provide economic sustenance and social stability (maybe too much of the latter) to both those directly employed by the house, and those on the wider estate and in the village. Lady Cora seems more attentive – though in a somewhat naïve fashion – to the emotional lives of those who depend on them. Lady Mary, on the other hand, makes a transition from self-centered debutante to more of a socialite with a conscience, who understands that part of their responsibility to those around them is to remain relevant to their needs in a time when those needs are changing in big ways.

What might the Church learn? Despite the claim that churches are somehow under siege from the prevailing culture (at least in North America and western Europe), they still hold a privileged position. Whether as employers of lay professionals (educators, administrators, musicians, and a variety of others), or as shapers of public opinion and policy (as evidenced in the new-but-contested RIFRA laws in Indiana), they influence people well beyond who shows up in any given congregation on Sundays. That influence shapes public perception of the Church –for good or ill. Churches might be better attuned to how their actions affect those with whom they have little if any contact.

Lesson #2 – Willingness to change. Speaking of change, another thing the members of the Crawley household all seem to learn – albeit reluctantly – is that change (sometimes profound change) is often a necessity. And they display willingness (if under duress) to listen to and act on (if sometimes fumblingly) voices other than their own about better ways forward. Indeed, one by one each of the family members seem to learn the painful lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around their comfortable traditions, and that awareness of the changing needs of the world around them often requires them to adapt – not just by adding electricity, telephones, radios, and other new-fangled technology, or sporting new fashions at social occasions, but by making deeper changes and finding new reasons for being.

What might the Church learn? That “modernizing” is more than trying to be “trendy” or “relevant” to a particular generation – right now, the millennials. Concentrating on new music that sounds more like what young people hear on the radio, or being more “cool” in the language used in preaching, or using “contemporary” forms of worship isn’t enough – worse than not enough, in some cases it may actually be harmful: like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, when we really need to be getting people into lifeboats. This is not a new problem. Every generation in From the very beginning, every generation in Church has faced the challenge of translating the Gospel for a new generation. The problem arises when, instead of offering the new generation a true translation in words they understand, we instead sugarcoat it with passing cultural affections in order to make it easier to swallow. True modernizing means discovering what are the public perceptions and beliefs about the faith are and addressing them honestly and directly, without compromising the core of Christian faith or cheapening the tough demands that being a follower of Jesus entails. It isn’t easy or quick, the way changing up the music or adding projection screens might be.

Lesson #3 – A Sense of Family. At Downton, the servants are more than simply support staff to the family and the house. By and large, there is a palpable sense of family between the upstairs Crawleys and the downstairs servants: a feeling of connection and interrelatedness. And while the relationship is not always pleasant – or healthy, for that matter – it is deep and strong… How else could a character like Thomas survive for all these seasons? And how else could the Dowager and Isobell become such a mutually (and lovingly) irritating odd couple.

What might the Church learn? William Temple is frequently misquoted as saying that “the church is the only institution that exists primarily for those outside it” (click here to read what he actually said), how Christians behave toward other Christians is important. When the Church treats its loyal members badly – especially when longtime, committed lay people are treated badly – it does more than encourage those individuals to leave. It undermines the public perception of the Church as a benevolent institution. Because when church is important to people, they share all the reasons why. But when church loses its luster, people share those reasons, too.

Lesson #4 –Willingness to “bend the rules” in order to “do the right thing.” There is a ongoing tension at Downton Abbey between the need to respect the rules (or follow tradition, which is harder) societally and the need to do what is right in individual cases. And example of this was the case of Mrs. Patmore’s dead nephew, Archie, and his exclusion from the war memorial, which Lord Grantham resolved by erecting a special memorial to honor Archie’s sacrifice. This goes to the heart of the tension in the church between tradition (honoring things that have been tested by time) and traditionalism (worshipping tradition for its own sake), which the Church has had to learn century after century.

What might the Church learn? First, we might learn that some rules just shouldn’t exist in at all. Second, we might learn that service doesn’t have to be perfect to be sincere and devoted, and that the people who render service also don’t have to be perfect, either. Finally, we might learn that we will garner more loyalty by finding ways to show appreciation than we will by finding ways to withhold it.

Lesson #5 – Willingness to find humane ways to outplace members of the downstairs household when continued relationship becomes untenable. Time and again, the Crawley family finds ways to part ways with servants who have become too difficult or embarrassing to endure. On the plus side, they realize that in an “incestuous” institution like the aristocracy one has to take great care in the way that people are let go, since termination without reference is tantamount to a sentence of lifelong poverty or worse (in the case of pregnant Ivy), and even laying off a person due to the elimination of a specialized position (in the case of Mosley) may render an otherwise loyal and competent former employee without honorable work. They have learned from painful experience not to throw anybody “under the bus.”

What might the Church learn? Don’t throw people under the bus. See Lessons #1 and #3. ‘Nuff said….

Would you like to know what Lessons 6, 7 and 8 might be? Please follow the link here:

An American Thinks about the Royal Baptism: Wendy Dackson

Baptistry ceiling of Neon, Ravenna

Baptistry ceiling of Neon, Ravenna



Two days after my knee surgery, I woke up early to catch the coverage of infant Prince George of Cambridge’s baptism on Good Morning America.  Really, it wasn’t much to get up for—watching people arrive, but no actual broadcast of the service itself.  The real interest for me has been my Facebook feed, and the commentary by American friends (over whom the Supreme Governor of the Church of England has no jurisdiction) concerning this liturgical event.


After more than four years living in England, and working with churches, I found nothing remarkable about the occasion.  It was what I have come to expect as a typical Church of England baptism, despite the notoriety of the main participants.  The family gathered at a place of worship with which there is a significant connection, with family and friends with whom they share spiritual values and convictions.  The clergy invited to officiate have important relationships with the parents.  It was not an enormous gathering, but done at a time when the people who share the family’s spiritual journey could assemble to witness the event, and to welcome and encourage the new Christian to the household of God.  In many ways, there was absolutely nothing remarkable about Prince George’s baptismal service.


So, I was a bit taken aback with some criticisms I saw leveled, by otherwise open-minded people.  People who ordinarily would take to task anyone who inappropriately applied one cultural or theological norm to a situation where another was called for.  People who would ordinarily recognize a sort of cultural imperialism if the economically and socially privileged world imposed its standards on developing nations–but who did not recognize that it is equally imperialist to apply a US norm to the Church of England.  I found it especially disturbing, because these are people who, despite high levels of education, have not really taken the time to examine why the principles they insisted upon were not applicable.  There were two instances of critique which I attempted (unsuccessfully) to engage, but the discussion fell short of what I had hoped.  This reflection stems from those instances.


The first was when someone expressed gladness that the prince had been baptized, but wished that Archbishop Oscar Romero‘s insistance that “all people, regardless of their position in society, receive the sacrament equally and without exception.”  I asked what was meant by this, and how it was applicable to the situation of the baptism of an English infant prince.  The response, initially, was that I received instruction to go watch a video with Raul Julia entitled “Romero“.  (I am unable at the moment to go to libraries to hunt up videos and will not be able for a few more weeks—sorry.)  When pressed, my interlocutor cited the objection raised in the film to the ruling class custom of “private baptisms”, held outside the usual worship times and where only those invited could be present for the ceremony.  This may have been a problem in Latin America; my English experience is that most baptisms are conducted outside of Sunday morning worship, and are relatively small services where family and friends attend.  This is not just for certain classes, and the fact that the royal baptism was one of these typically small English ceremonies was probably what confused my interlocutor to the point of equating it with the aristocratic private baptisms in San Salvador.  This person did not realize that low-key baptism is an option available to most English families–not just the upper classes.


Furthermore, it seems a theological nonsense to say that baptism is somehow not the same depending on the character (whether public or private) of the ceremony.  One is not “more baptized” if the sacrament is administered by the archbishop in the presence of a handful of witnesses—nor is one any less baptized in that setting.  The grace of baptism is not something that can be quantified, and so to speak of baptism not being “equal” makes no sense.  Finally, the assertion that it should be “without exception” is unfathomable in anything resembling a religiously plural society (such as the United Kingdom, or the US, for that matter).  Baptism is the liturgical recognition of membership in the Christian community.  Its exact significance and timing will differ from one denominational group to another, but it is only for those who choose to enter (on their own, or through their sponsors).  The only “without exception” that can be imagined is that baptism will be provided without exception for those who wish it.  This side of the eschaton, we cannot expect a community of nothing but baptised Christians–and we may be surprised if we arrive on the other side of that divide and find that even there, baptism without exception does not exist.  If the church holds (as it generally does) that all people should seek the benefits of baptism, and does not have the power to require people to do it, the church needs to ask what are we doing or not doing to make the life with God in the community of the church a desirable good.  And then the church needs to do something about the answers to that question.


Those were my concerns with the critiques raised by one conversation partner.  Equally disturbing were the pronouncements made by an Episcopal priest in how a service of baptism held outside the Sunday worship of the congregation did not live up to the liturgiology of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer—and how “far behind the times” the Church of England is (which may have some merits, but is not applicable in this instance).  Objections to the way the service was conducted (and remember, nobody in the conversation actually was privy to what went on—not even me) circled around the failure to welcome the newly baptized into the community of faithful; to do proper preparation and reflection prior to and after the administration of the sacrament; and to provide adequate pastoral care for the baptismal candidate and family.


I found this line of reasoning to be invalid.  First, we cannot judge what preparation occurred prior to the event, as we do not know.  What we can say with a fair amount of confidence is that the Duchess of Cambridge was confirmed shortly before her wedding in 2011, by one of the bishops who presided at her infant son’s baptism.  Her preparation was seen to be adequate by a senior bishop in her church, and there is no reason to assume that the private nature of the ceremony indicates a lack of preparation.  Secondly, the child was baptized in a worship space that is meaningful to the family, where they regularly receive spiritual nurture, and amongst people whose values are consistent with those of the parents of the newly baptized.  It is particularly interesting to note that the choice of sponsors was not a pro forma selection of who would be honored to be a royal godparent, but people who the Duke and Duchess trust with their child’s spiritual formation. This indicates a fairly sophisticated reflective process on the meaning of baptism and the role of faith in the life of a potential monarch.  The question of reflection subsequent to the baptism is, to my mind, a non-starter:  when do you know it has been enough, or done to a satisfactory degree?  The answer is very simply that it is not knowable.  It is a lifetime process, and cannot be captured or controlled by priest or community (and not every community is adequate to the task of baptismal reflection).  Finally, the question of pastoral care for the family is silly.  If any family was more in need of a quiet, low-key baptismal celebration, in the presence of those who mean the most to the parents and child, than the Duke, Duchess and their baby prince, I can hardly imagine who that might be.  But the main problem is to evaluate a Church of England service through the lens of the Episcopal Church (USA) 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and to make pronouncements that the service has failed to be something it never claimed.


What might have been an advantage, if any can be imagined, of the baptism of the newest royal being more public in its character?  I think there is a theological nuance that most have missed.  At least, I have not seen anyone other than myself make a claim for it.  It is that society has asked the church to help it transform into something better, nobler, more holy than it is.  The symbolism of the royal family—the highest echelon of English society—has submitted itself to the authority of God’s gentle and just rule.  Society, represented by a helpless infant, has asked to become what it is not yet.  It is a start for Prince George, and a re-start, a reaffirmation of aspiration to the Kingdom that we pray will come on earth, made in his person on behalf of the social order of the nation.  That is what we should be reflecting on as the significance of the royal baptism this past week.  That is what we should grieve that we did not witness.  The adequacy of post-baptismal reflection about this event is not just the task of the Duke, Duchess, their son and his sponsors.  The question of societal transformation under the guidance of and in partnership with the church needs all of our participation.  Critique from the cheap seats is not an option.

1930s Advice for the 21st Century Church: Dr Wendy Dackson


[ After our late summer ‘skeleton editions’, we resume the publication today of Wendy Dackson’s thoughts on the ‘spiritual but not religious‘ – how did you get on at Back to Church Sunday on 29th September? Ed.]



The Church exists, first and foremost, to be the fellowship of those who worship God in Christ.  It is, therefore, in this earth, the representation of the life of Heaven.  Of course, it is easy for anyone who stands outside to look at us and say, “In that case we don’t much want to go to heaven.”  Well, that is our own fault and not the fault of the call which the Church has received.

(William Temple, The Church and its Teaching Today, the William Belden Noble Lectures at the Memorial Church, Harvard University, December 17-19, 1935, boldface my own)




If people who are seeking a deeper connection to what is divine and eternal, and do not see a reflection of higher values in the Church, who is to blame?  William Temple, Archbishop of York at the time this lecture was delivered (and thus a senior figure in an established church that still had some reason to believe that it had a moral and spiritual authority over the nation), hit the nail on the had–not just for his own time, but for decades into the future.  The Christian message is still excellent, it was in 1935, and it remains so now (although I do think that people engage it differently, emphasizing different aspects than we did almost 80 years ago).  But if it is not presented well, or by the life of the assembly, most importantly in their interactions with each other and the world outside of the time set aside for communal worship, then those outside the church have every right to say this is not where they will find the spiritual nurture and community they seek.


And who is to blame?  Not God, not Jesus Christ.  Those who are in the fellowship of the church who are representing the life of Heaven in ways that people outside the fellowship reject–they may be more responsible for giving the church a repuation that the church doesn’t want.  Too often, church “insiders”, whether clergy, lay leadership, or the “average” person in the pew, create problems for the church’s image.  It isn’t just the major scandals, like sexual abuse or financial dishonesty, either; nor can it all be blamed on the historic wrongs ascribed (rightly and wrongly) to the church.  It can have more to do with a member of a church’s governing body, who regales his or her co-workers with stories of the bitter arguments that happened during the last  meeting. Or the new member of the altar guild who feels bossed and belittled by the guild president–because she–and altar guilds have historically been, and remain, over 90% female–who vents to a non-churchgoing neighbor about how impossible it is to please some people, and all the new member really wants to do is serve God and the worshipping community.  It can be the architect on his congregation’s building committee, whose expertise is over-ridden to accommodate the whim of the biggest donor.  It can be the gossip about the young, single, female pastor who is seen holding hands in the cinema with a man from outside the congregation (clergy ethics almost always forbid single ministers from dating within the congregation).  Most of all, it can be about the smugness some Christians demonstrate when they speak to non-churchgoers about the superiority of pursuing a spiritual path within the church, rather than going it alone.  So much of what happens in the holy community looks hellish to those who would never enter its doors.


If Archbishop Temple were writing today, what might he have said?  I imagine that the quote above could stand almost unchanged, but I will add a bit to it.


The Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) are not your problem.  They did not cause your church to decline in its membership or giving.  They are not why your vestry, consistory, or whatever your governing body is called, is fighting.  They are not why members of your congregation do not get along with one another. They are not why your building needs paint, your choir needs new robes, your organ is out of tune, your altar flowers are wilting, or your youth group is not much more than a clique with ugly t-shirts that say “WWJD”. They are not why your pastor is burned out, and taking it out on the congregation.


And that is far from saying that they are looking for a perfect church, with completely godly people who are free from human pettiness, who are always going to be able to conduct their lives together in perfect perfect harmony and flawless grace.  People are realistic in their expectations about what human groups are like. If the SBNR, in all their glorious spiritual diversity, are looking for a faith community at all (some are, others are not), they are looking for a place to grow in godliness, amongst people who are also trying to do so, who lovingly help each other to come to some kind of appreciation of the classic philosophical goods of beauty, truth, and goodness than any one individual or group can appreciate.  And yet, they want to do it in ways, and amongst people, who appreciate and honor the individuality and gifts they will bring to the community.  They want to ask the tough questions about life in a rapidly-changing world, but they also ask the tough questions about why there need to be four churches at the corner of Main and Maple Streets, selling five different versions of Christianity, all hoping to convince people that their way is the best (or even only) way.


The SBNR are also not the solution to your problems.  An influx of unchurched people is not going to help you be a better church quickly.  Even a wealthy new member is not going to drop a huge pledge on you the second time they attend and solve all your financial woes.  If people come to church for the first time, or come back after a long absence, they will be looking to feel their way into the community’s life, and find the places where they can participate most authentically, for their own benefit and that of the church.  Rejoice at finding them, yes–but everyone (God included) will be better served if you treat them more like lost sheep than lost coins.


However, I would also want to say the following:  The Spiritual But Not Religious are not your problem, but they are your concern.  Listen carefully to their objections to the church, and for those things that can be changed without compromising the integrity of Christianity, work on them.  We are told to “preach the gospel to every living creature.”  But we preach an anti-gospel if our churches are places of in-fighting, power struggles, and blame-games where we claim that our problems have causes that don’t make any sense.  If we look bad to those outside the church, that is our fault, not theirs.


Not all Spiritual but Not Religious people are looking for a church, and some are not even looking at the church.  But if the church wants to reach them, and is not doing so, perhaps it is time to look inward and put some energy into making the life of the Christian community into the representation of heaven which it is meant to be.


The Big Bang Theory of Faith: Dr Wendy Dackson



Faith is not always religious in its content or context. . .Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life.  It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives.  Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith:  The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning

Probably one of the most intelligently entertaining American situation comedies of the last 15 years is the Big Bang Theory.  Although it is perfect light viewing early on a Thursday evening (in the US, new episodes air on the CBS network at 8 pm eastern time, and there are multiple broadcasts of reruns on cable stations), Big Bang has some of the most thoughtfully developed characters and story lines, and perfectly-timed acting, of any half-hour comedy I can remember over the course of my lifetime.  The series, for those who have not watched it, is focused on the lives of four male colleagues at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstader, experimental and theoretical physicists, are roommates.  Although Sheldon, a child prodigy, has a supposedly slightly higher IQ than Leonard, he lacks his roommate’s social and life-skills.  Rajesh Koothrappali, a particle astrophysicist from New Delhi, experiences such social anxiety that he cannot converse with women without the help of alchohol; his best friend, Howard Wolowitz, is an aerospace engineer, and the only member of the group whose academic credentials do not include a doctoral degree.


I have not been a devotee of the show from its inception (it began in 2007, while I was living in England, and was not available on terrestrial British television during my time there).  However, having been laid up for several months earlier this year, unable to do very much other than watch television, I believe I have seen just about every episode.


Religion is not a major or explicit theme in the Big Bang Theory.  There are references to Howard’s Jewish upbringing, to Raj’s Hindu heritage, and to the “hell” which was the Christian fundamentalist childhood Sheldon endured.  But with little explicit reference to major spiritual traditions, it is fair to ask why, on a re-reading of James Fowler’s classic book on faith stages, I am led to reflect on the inner lives of these four young, hilarious, fictional men.


 Fowler’s stages of faith

The quote that starts off this little exploration is key:  For Fowler, “faith” is not about religious belief, the acceptance of a metaphysical system, or subscription to a particular philosophy. Faith, as Fowler describes it, is how one is oriented to the world and others, the values that one holds as ultimate, and how all lesser values are ordered.  Fowler describes six “stages” of faith, based on (but not exactly correlating with) the developmental models of Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, beginning in early childhood (around age 2, with a pre-stage of “undifferentiated” faith), and through adulthood.  I summarize them, as follows, using Fowler’s categories, but condensing the descriptions:


Stage 1:  Intuitive-Projective Faith

Fantasy-filled, imitative.  Thought patterns are fluid, with no logical thought to inhibit and restrain imagination and fantasy.  Self-awareness is almost completely ego-centric, although the child can be permanently influenced by the moods and actions of closely-related adults.  The gift of this stage is the birth of imagination, but the danger is that the imagination can be taken over by unrestrained images of terror, or the reinforcement of taboos.  (Pp.133-34)


Stage 2:  Mythic-Literal Faith

This is the stage in which a person starts to take on the stories, beliefs and observances that indicate s/he is a member of a particular community, although usually in a very literal, rule-following manner.  Concrete operations begin to order the imaginative construction of experience.  The sense of reciprocal justice emerges, as does the rise of narrative capacity. The danger is the limitations of literalness and the excessive reliance on reciprocity for constructing relationships, which can lead to an over controlling perfectionism.(pp.140-150)


Stage 3:  Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Experience of the world extends beyond the family, with multiple spheres (school, work, peers, etc) demanding attention and loyalty.  Faith provides a coherent orientation for this more complex environment, as well as a basis of identity and outlook.  Usually this stage arises in adolescence, and it is important to note that Fowler believes many adults find their point of permanent equilibrium here.  The gift of the stage is the formation of a personal myth of one’s own place in the past and anticipated future of their ultimate environment, and a unification of personality characteristics.  The deficiencies are that (a) the expectations and assessments of others become internalized so that autonomy and judgment can be impaired, and Interpersonal betrayals can either give rise to a nihilistic despair or over-reliance on whatever one holds as God (including science) which is unrelated to mundane relations. (Pp.172-173)

Fowler also notes that most American (and I suspect, European) church communities and their ordained leaders are oriented toward bringing people to this stage of faith and no further.


Stage 4:  Individuative-Reflective Faith

If (and it is a big ‘if’) this stage occurs, it is where the person begins to assume responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.  This will be a time of tensions between self and the community to which the person belongs.  It may even occasion a temporary or permanent breach with the community.  (This is where I think it is important for churches to take special notice.)  Fowler says it is “most appropriate” to young adulthood, although it may be delayed until later, and may never happen at all.  The strength of this stage is the increase in capacity for critical reflection on identity and outlook, but these can be offset by an excessive confidence that results in a narcissism. Unlike Stage 3, it seems rarely to be a stopping place in faith development.  My own thought is that either the Stage 4 person will return to a more synthetic-conventional form of faith (although often in a different setting, but almost always with a deeper capacity for critical reflection) or s/he will progress to Stage 5.(pp.182-183)


Stage 5:  Conjunctive Faith

This is perhaps the most difficult stage to pin down with a short description.  Fowler gives a few analogies as to what its emergence is like; my favorite among them is it is something like “Discovering that a guest, if invited to do so, will generously reveal the treasured wisdom of a lifetime of experience” (pp. 184-85).  Conjunctive faith is characterized by giving up the “either/or” of earlier stages, and the person at this stage can understand many sides of an issue simultaneously.  Fowler claims that conjunctive faith “suspects that things are organically related to each other; it attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting to its own prior mind set.”; there is attention to the ” ‘wisdom’ evolved in things as they are, before seeking to modify, control or order them to fit prior categories”(p. 185). There is a sense here that Rowan Williams, in his 1993 essay “On Theological Integrity“, was hinting at this when he claimed that theological integrity demanded that we talk about what we say we are talking about, without coming to foregone conclusions. Conjunctive faith requires a “conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality”, as well as a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past (p. 197). Because it “knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts”, this fifth stage is unusual before mid-life.  It recognizes the powerful symbols and meanings of one’s group, while :understanding that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” It can, however, result in a “paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth.”  It “lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision.” (198)


Stage 6:  Universalizing Faith

It is important to note that Fowler considers this to be extremely rare, and most of us will have little personal contact with those who have reached this stage–examples he cites are people such as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi.  I suspect that time will tell if Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis might be among those at Stage 6.  Universalizing Faith is not an indication that someone is a perfect human being.  Fowler claims that this is almost always achieved within the context of a religious outlook (although my personal suspicion is that it need not be).  It is known more in the impact of their vision and leadership than in a particular way of life, and especially in the way they relate to the ordinary person (Fowler’s example for this is King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which was written to moderate/liberal religious leaders–his colleagues, rather than his adversaries). Their visions are not abstract, but “radical acts of identifications with persons and circumstances where the futurity of being is being crushed, blocked, or exploited.”  They are not self-formed, but have been through formation in church (or possibly non-religious communities) and familial relations, and education.  There are multiple acknowledged influences, which have been subjected to critical reflection and consciously chosen or rejected. This is the highest achievement of the life of faith, which all formative institutions should aspire their adherents reach.


Before engaging in a lighthearted categorization of our fictional friends, a few further important points from Fowler should be noted.  First, progression along the stages has nothing to do with the intensity of devotion or knowledge. Someone at Stage 2 is as likely to attend a large number of religious services as someone at a more developed level (possibly more likely); furthermore, the stages (except possibly the sixth) are independent of mastery of the content of belief.  Secondly,  change in the content of faith (whether between religions or secular sources, or a combination), is how Fowler defines conversion. Conversion does not always, or even often, mean that a person’s faith stage changes.  It is entirely possible (even likely) that conversion is lateral or even regressive in terms of stage. Finally, except for the possibility of Stage 6, “goodness”, or even likeability, do not necessarily increase as a person progresses from one stage to another.


It should also be noted that, unlike many personality assessments (such as the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram), Fowler’s six-stage faith development has not been widely adopted as a measurement device by the churches (let alone those for whom “faith” is a somehow suspect word).  Fowler does not encourage his readers to assess others or themselves–and if it were to be done (and the subjects made aware of it), people would probably be quite upset with the analysis.  Personally, I think it could be more widely and productively used than it has been, but for the moment, I will satisfy myself with assessing fictional characters.


 Back to The Big Bang Theory      

So, what can we make of the faith stages of Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj? None of them are particularly religious, in the popular sense of observing the rituals and ethos of any particular faith tradition.  But they are all faithful devotees of the sciences, and their community of meaning is the higher educational institution.  Three–Sheldon, Howard, and Raj–can be said to be converts from the meaning-systems of their families of origin (although Howard and Raj still identifiy to some level with those mythologies as well as the master-narrative of the physical sciences).  Leonard has, in some ways, never left the community of intellectual inquiry in which he was (rather alarmingly) raised; achievement in academic pursuits has defined him from an early age. Let me make some observations about each of these four young men, using James Fowler’s faith stage analysis as an interpretative lens.


Leonard Hofstadter, PhD:  Leonard’s world view–one shaped by empirical science in the context of the research-driven university–is the most predictable of the four principal male characters. Leonard_HofstadterHaving never really questioned whether this is the right place for him, and having done well at a young age in his field of physics, he appears in many ways to be a straightforward example of Conventional-Synthetic (Stage 3) faith.   He has a high level of mastery of the content of his master-story, and a strong commitment to membership in the academic community of meaning.  However, his widening circle of meaning–represented by his ongoing relationship with Penny, whose formational narratives have little in common with his own–may mean that Leonard is moving toward the more individuative-reflective mode of a Stage 4. Penny’s presence in his life, and her influence, also cause him to question the influence of several things he cherished prior to her arrival.  These include the comic books, video games, and science-fiction movies (and their attendant memorabiia) which were a shared passion with his friends.  He is the first in the group to recognize that they may be hindering him from achieving wider aspirations (including romantic connection).  Even when Leonard and Penny’s relationship was temporarily suspended, it became clear that the fantasy world of graphic novels and Comic-Con, as enjoyable as they might be, threatened his sense of self-worth.  This was most evident in the guilt produced by his truncated hookup with the promiscuous Agnes, a comic-book afficionado Leonard met while attempting a long-distance relationship with Priya, Raj’s sister.  In the way that many at the Individualtive-Reflective stage (4) do, Leonard became more critical of the influences he had chosen to allow to shape his identity and self-worth.


Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D: Sheldon is a classic convert, in the sense of his uncompromising rejection of the meaning-system in which he was raised, and unwavering embrace of one that is (to his, and his mother’s mind) almost mutually exclusive.  Beginning his higher education career at the age of 11, Sheldon precociously assumed an “adult” role in the academy by earning his doctorate when he was Sheldon_Cooper16. His extensive knowledge and raw talent, however, do not mean that he is advanced in the faith life of theoretical physics, or that he will likely be one of the great lights of the tradition.  Sheldon views the world from a narcissistic standpoint, characteristic of the Intuitive-Projective approach of Stage 1.  However, I would say that his is more a Mythic-Literal faith (stage 2), heavily dependent on an absolutely even reciprocity in social exchanges (and a lack of ability to identify and accept social behaviors, which will probably slow his moving into the Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith).  As well, the Mythic-Literal way in which Sheldon has appropriated his meaning system is uncritical.  This is most evident when he tells the story of Madame Curie to a group of middle-school girls to whom the young men have been invited to speak in the hope of encouraging them to careers in the empirical sciences.  Sheldon cannot stop at Madame Curie’s great achievements–he has to carry the story to its finish with her gruesome death from radiation poisoning.  Sheldon’s abilities for logical process and memorization were noticed early on, possibly by adults who confused his logical capacities and eidetic memory with a maturity he did not possess.  He is unlikely to move beyond a Mythic-Literal way of addressing the world and making it meaningful.  As a result, Sheldon will probably remain as something of a wunderkind, a bit of a freak and novelty, but probably never moving into a position of greater responsibility in which technical and relational skills need to be more closely integrated.  The possibility that this has occurred to him is evident in an episode where a 15 year old genius comes to visit Caltech, and Sheldon’s anxiety about no longer being the young prodigy surfaces. However, rather than moving him to greater self-awareness and a more mature approach to his situation, it illustrates how deeply invested he is in staying exactly as he is.


Rajesh “Raj” Koothrappali, PhD:  From New Delhi, on the “exotic subcontinent of India”, Raj has not, in Fowler’s terms, “converted” fully from his cultural and religious heritage to a scientific Rajesh_Koothrappalifaith.  Rather, he picks and chooses which elements of his upbringing he wishes to embrace and integrate into his newfound love of all things American (including the beef forbidden by the Hindu religion).  In terms of his native land, Raj has experienced a fairly privileged upbringing as the son of a gynaecologist, and does not identify with the crowded, noisy, impoverished city of his birth (and doesn’t cope well with Indian food, either).  However, he holds to some values of upper-middle class Indian families, including assuming a “man of the family” relationship with his younger sister Priya, and at one point asking his parents to find him a bride (even though he fully intends to stay in the United States).  Raj is aware and accepting of a number of identity-forming influences from his past and present, including his social anxiety which is so severe he has only recently acquired the ability to speak to women without consuming alcohol; he has a strongly developed feminine side which comes out most pointedly in his friendship with Howard (he self-defines as a metrosexual–“I like women, and their skincare products”). Probably, Raj’s ability to combine, if not integrate, a number of different influences on his identity indicates an Individuative-Reflective (Stage 4) faith.  This, however, is one of the most uncomfortable stages even when one is not in transition to or from another stage, but Raj will probably need to resolve this, either by regressing to a more conventional world view or by advancing to a more conjunctive faith.


Howard Wolowitz, MEng:  “And you were the most obnoxious person on a double date that included Howard Wolowitz,”  Penny snaps at Leonard after a dinner out with Howard and his new girlfriend Bernadette.  Howard is possibly the easiest target for ridicule of the four male principals on Big Bang Theory–given his sleazy approach to women and how that contrasts with his bizarre Howard-wolowitz-the-big-bang-theory-16865313-930-1246relationship with his never-seen (but definitely heard) mother.  But there is more to Howard than meets the eye.  Howard is the only one of the four who has family roots in Pasadena, but he obviously left California for at least long enough to earn a Master’s degree in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Leaving and return becomes a major theme in many personal mythologies at the level of Conjunctive (Stage 5) faith.  Howard acknowledges his Jewish roots, and claims them more explicitly than Raj claims his formation as a Hindu–there are frequent references to his Bar Mitzvah bonds, to the trials and misadventures of “my people”, and at least a minimal reference to his observance of Jewish law in his choice to wear “tat sleeves” to a Goth bar so he could pick up women but still be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  However, his frequent ordering of bacon cheeseburgers and shrimp dishes is something he acknowledges as a violation of religious dietary laws. Howard recognizes his formation as a Jew, but integrates it with a pragmatic, sometimes even playful, approach to science (there is a marvelous scene where the boys mix cornstarch and water to make a paste, and marvel at its action over a cling-film clad stereo speaker).  Possibly more than any of the others, he is able to hold in tension his codependent relationship with his mother and his passionate pursuit of women his own age—an ability which creates friction with his beloved Bernadette. Also in contrast to his male companions, Howard is past the conventional stage of participation in his scientific faith community. Of the four, he is the only one without an earned doctorate (the norm in academic research and teaching), and he is the only one whose work is recognized outside the academy–by no less an institution than NASA.  Indeed, Howard can participate without contradiction in more than one community of meaning–he is not only an academic researcher, but an astronaut.  His companions frequently belittle his lack of a PhD qualification, but they are somewhat jealous of his membership in this very small, elite subset of humanity. Without directly referring to it, it is clear that the questioning characteristic of the Individuative-Reflective stage (4) of faith took place during Howard’s time at MIT, and he has come home to integrate the various aspects of his meaning-making journey.  Howard will probably never reach the Universalizing Stage 6 of Fowler’s model (few people do), and there is a two-edged symbolism here.  His adventure as an astronaut on the International Space Station is as close to a universalizing experience as his peer group will ever get, but NASA’s recognition of his abilities is literally $#!+–he is there because he developed the human waste disposal system. (Which, when you think about it, *is* a universal concern…)



The big question, I suppose, is what does any of this have to do with Christian faith communities in the twenty-first century? James Fowler indicates that the goal of all religious communities should be to help people as far along to a Universalizing faith as possible–but that most are geared toward keeping people at the Synthetic-Conventional (stage 3) level, and that most ordained clergy are themselves solidly entrenched at that stage.  I think an appropriate revival of Fowler’s Stages of Faith would be to quietly notice the signs of each stage in members of a congregation, and then find ways of providing people with the best way of moving to the next stage.  Especially in a world that is geared to questioning the influences that individuals accept as authoritative, and where a more internal locus of authority is common (what I would call a Stage 4 world), congregations geared for a Stage 3 church are likely to attract fewer new, and retain fewer existing, members.  This is a situation that the churches cannot sustain if they are to be faithful to their vocation in the human community.

“Where God Hides Holiness: Thoughts on Grief, Joy & the Search for Fabulous Heels”: Review -Wendy Dackson

Where God hides holiness2

This is the debut book by the co-authors of the blog ‘Dirty, Sexy Ministry ’—and fabulous heels really do not feature at all. If you are looking for fashion advice or insights for ministers of religion, you’re better off with Beauty Tips for Ministers , where the author attempts a combination of theological insight with snarky, appearance-based judgmentalism worthy of Ugly Betty.

Laurie Brock and Mary Koppel are two (US) southern women ordained to the priesthood of the universal church under the worship, doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church (USA). In Where God Hides Holiness, each woman tells the story of her own heartbreak, occasioned by human relationships in all their complexity, but more tellingly, how the Church they serve was in some ways the worst heartbreaker of all.

‘We are beautiful messes, we two women. On a good day.’ These are the first words of the book’s introduction. Each woman, in turn, tells how she became a ‘beautiful (and sometimes not so beautiful) mess’ as she first attempted the corporate-ladder climbing of a career path in the Episcopal Church. Trying to be ‘perfect’ priests, especially as each was the sole woman on the staff of a church with multiple priests, and coping with being a modern woman (relationships, divorce, miscarriage, attempts at adoption, both failed and successful), each author has written approximately half the book and told her story of heartbreak in the service of the church. They both do this colloquially, eloquently, poignantly, and often shockingly. They tell of being diminished as women by having to play the role of ‘sassy girl priest’ even when it felt inauthentic to their truest selves, enduring sexual innuendoes from male priests while needing to maintain the faҫade of being ‘friends’ with their harrassers, having their competence questioned for no apparent reason, and (in an incident I found personally upsetting) being slapped by the rector of the parish. This is the story of how each of these women managed to keep their love of God and to feel safe in the presence of Jesus, even when the church that is supposed to be the Body of Christ was failing and abusing them. Moreover, it is the story of how they both found joy in their ministries when the odds were stacked against them.

Where God Hides Holiness is not a perfect book. The women claim to be best friends (and their blog would confirm that claim), but Mary figures far more prominently in Laurie’s narrative than is true of the reverse. I personally would have found more satisfaction if I had heard of the advice and support Laurie had given Mary during her divorce and the adoption of the child that Mary so desperately wanted, as well as the path to finding a new call. Laurie’s narrative includes far more of the friendship, and this gives an unbalanced feel. The book might have benefited from an afterword or a concluding chapter co-authored by the women; this omission leaves the reader with the feeling that the book stops, rather than finishes.

But the honesty, courage, and hope evidenced in the writing are positive attributes that far outweigh any criticisms. Although the book is by and about two female priests, it speaks to anyone whose heart has been broken by the church, especially anyone (lay or ordained) who has attempted to give the best of their talents and energies to the church and had them rejected, ridiculed or abused. It is a starting point of encouragement for people to find their own voices and name their own situations, which may be very different from those of Laurie Brock and Mary Koppel. That alone makes it worth reading.

Wendy Dackson

 By Laurie M. Brock and Mary E. Koppel. New York: Morehouse, 2012. 185 pp. $19.00 (paperback)

To Train Lay Worship Leaders, Do We Need To Start In Childhood?

The Body of Christ
When I was eight, my father gave me ‘the talk’. Maybe you know the one? He draw a sketch of our house, with pin men for its inhabitants. ‘What does Daddy do’? ‘He goes to work to make money to keep the family’. He went through the house’s inhabitants, one by one, until he got to me. ‘What does Laura do?’ I couldn’t think of anything, except doing my best to enjoy life. Somehow I knew that wasn’t the right answer, so kept quiet. ‘You need to go away and think about what you can do to play your part in family life.’ His tone was loving, but carried a hint of menace, I thought: he definitely meant business.

If the Church is to find volunteers among the adult congregation for all sorts of jobs, we need to have the equivalent of this talk with children at a similar age. We need to explore with them the part they might play in the Body of Christ.

In the Church of England, whether called Children’s Church or Sunday School, Children’s Ministry seems chiefly to mean ministry to children, not ministry by children. In contrast, The Episcopal Church’s webpage on Children’s Ministries says it seeks to engage children in the exploration of their own ministries:

‘Children are innately spiritual. Given the opportunity, their lively and passionate expressions of faith can help transform the church’.

In the words of Booker Washington:

Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility on him and to let him know that you trust him.

Many churches already do give children a role in services such as asking them to distribute hymn books and service sheets to the arriving congregation and to take the collection. Booker Washington’s advice is implicit in this allotment of tasks, but maybe it also needs to be stated explicitly. Perhaps we should copy the ‘monitor‘ idea from school? Just a thought!

Are Christians guilty of ‘brainwashing’?
Before going any further, we need to deal with the accusation often levelled at Christians  that we ‘brainwash’ our children. The idea that parents themselves damage their children by raising them as Christians is presented in this video (3.57 mins)  by ‘The Thinking Atheist‘. (The ‘Christianity’ described is of the ‘weird and wonderful’ variety, with a God in the clouds that takes care of everything. Unsurprisingly, when this version of Christianity is spurned as unreal, religion as a whole is also rejected).

Secular advice on parenting
Well, are we guilty? Anyone wanting to be a good parent these days might naturally turn to the web for advice. Here is Dr Stuart Crisp, a paediatrician, on net doctor:

‘Each person’s knowledge of how to bring up a child usually comes from their surroundings and their own upbringing…Parents should express their unconditional love for their children, as well as provide them with the continued support they need to become self-assured and happy…Discipline is crucial when bringing up a child. All children need and want reasonable boundaries. Through discipline your child learns that some kinds of behaviour are acceptable and others are not. Setting boundaries for children’s behaviour helps them to learn how to behave in society…Children like to have special days reserved for special activities…Such rituals and routines build strong families’.

This, although from a non-religious source, sounds very much like a prescription for Christian parenting, doesn’t it? Let us agree to regard the case against Christian upbringing as, at the very least, unproven!

Back to the question of training lay worship leaders
As we have seen in How do you find lay worship leaders from the congregation?, in many cases it is too late to train adults to be Marys, although it is much easier to find Marthas, serried ranks of whom down the centuries have polished the brass, laundered the linen and dusted the pews. Others have read the lesson or served as churchwardens. But finding potential worship leaders among the congregation is an uphill task. Why is this?

Well, partly perhaps because churches have always had steps dividing the chancel from the nave and those in clerical garb from those in ordinary dress: roles have been clearly defined. People have not been brought up with the expectation that they may have to take on liturgical roles as part of their lives as Christians. Is it a case of the herd instinct? If people accept that it is a case of ‘all hands to the pump’ and regard it as a matter of course that they may be called upon to take their turn, they will not stand out by doing so. But if it is seen as an esoteric calling, as it largely is at present, people are perhaps unwilling to look too ‘holy’ by joining this group? If, wherever possible, children are encouraged to take part in worship, they are more likely to take it in their stride as adults.

Education, education, education
‘Doing God in Education’  was the subject of a recent Theos report by Trevor Cooling which I recommend. If the training is reinforced at school, taking even a small part in leading worship is likely to be of great potential benefit to the children. First and foremost, it promotes their spiritual development: having to choose prayers around the readings for the day and even, with help and perhaps in groups, filling the ‘sermon slot’, teaches active participation rather than passive observance. But leading worship is also a great privilege and a great responsibility: fostering the personal growth needed to fill such positions of responsibility is in itself a definition of the ‘leading out’ that is at the root of the word ‘education’.

1. The illustration is ‘Little Girls At Church’ by Gwen John, via wiki gallery under creative commons licence.
2. Part of this blog is based on an article by me in ‘Conference and Common Room’ Vol 48 #2, Summer 2011 called ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls‘; grateful thanks to Alex Sharratt of John Catt Educational Ltd for copyright permission. 

Clericalism or Laicism

I must begin this piece with an apology to my several priestly friends (I hope they remain friends after reading it!). There are undoubtedly many places in the Anglican Communion where priest and laity work harmoniously together for the greater glory of God, at all times and in all circumstances. In the early church, such a balance did, one imagines, exist. The Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans may have moaned a bit from time to time but I can’t remember them actually complaining of being bullied by St Paul.

But there is also a parallel universe in which things do not always go that smoothly. According to a paper on the website of The Episcopal Church called Towards a Theology of Ministry:

In 1999, the Zacchaeus Project pointed to a theological truism in our community: when the trained clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) and all baptized persons work together in mutually empowering service in mission, then the church experiences significant success in ministry. In a wide range of theological settings—Anglo-Catholic to total ministry, progressive to evangelical—the Zacchaeus findings echoed oddly similar themes of mutuality, servanthood, respect, and shared ministry. The old dichotomy between “lay” and “ordained” is fading. It is being replaced with a vision of American religious history. In the Episcopal Church, the decline stopped in the early 1990s and membership has held steady for a number of years around 2.5 million. It should also be noted that in spite of the numerical decline, the Zacchaeus Project data identified greater vitality in terms of church attendance and giving in the Episcopal Church in the 1990s than anytime since the 1960s….
If mutuality between clergy and lay persons in ministry was identified by the Zacchaeus Project as key for healthy congregations, then two corresponding problems existed in troubled ones: clericalism or laicism. Clericalism is an often discussed problem. An inappropriate sense of clergy authority has led, sadly, to a host of issues regarding abuse and malpractice. The opposite problem, laicism, is less discussed. In the case of an inappropriate sense of lay authority, laity conceive of the church as their “property” and the clergy their “employees.” In such circumstances, lay persons commit abuses as well—undermining clerical ministries, refusing financially to support the church, forcing clergy from positions. In either case, clericalism or laicism, the church becomes a battle ground for power issues and any real sense of the mission of church is lost.

A major difference within the Anglican Communion has been highlighted by the present attempt to introduce the Covenant: whereas the Episcopal Church has since its inception recognised the laity as one of the four orders of ministry by virtue of baptism, the Church of England recognises only bishops, priests and deacons. Other churches in the Communion presumably take one view or the other. On the face of it, one might think that relations between the priesthood and the laity might be more harmonious in those churches which take the same line as TEC, but the above paper suggests this may not necessarily be the case. In a ‘Church Times’ article in the issue of 17 September 2010, the Revd Hugh Valentine argued that ‘Clericalism is the bigger problem for all Churches…ecclesiastical models of power infantilise lay people’.

The UK’s ‘Church Times’ reported on the first residential meeting of the Diocesan Lay Chairmen, which was held in 2008. Under the headline ‘Unease at attitudes to Laity’, Bill Bowder writes: they heard Professor Gordon Stirrat, lay chairman of Bristol diocesan synod, say that “the New Testament pattern of the ‘ministry of the many’ has been turned by the Church of England into ‘the ministry of the few’.” Terms such as “priest-in-charge” and “interregnum” implied clerical supremacy, he said… The co-convener of the meeting, David Hawkins, lay chairman in Worcester diocese, said afterwards that he and some of the others were “very desperate” about the state of the Church. “You only have to go north to see how desperate it is.” There was a problem of dislike. “Some of the bishops don’t like laity, just as some consultants don’t like patients; and the middle ranks of the clergy feel threatened by the laity.” But the laity were “enormously talented”. 

There is a debate going on at the Lay Anglicana discussion forum which gives more detail than I can here, including a successful  relationship in Norwich diocese between the Revd Fiona Newton and her Lay Elders.

There is undoubtedly at present a rising demand by the laity for an increased share in the running of the church, perhaps inspired by the increasing democratisation of other institutions. But it also comes down in the end to numbers. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do Anglican congregations around the world: if there are not enough priests to run each parish church, sharing the responsibility with the laity must be a better alternative than simply abandoning the task.

What do you think?

Note: The illustration ‘reverend2’ is by Lee Pirie, courtesy 12 Baskets.

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