Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Time to End the Nanny Church?

One of the frequent complaints of the last decade or more has been about the growth of the ‘nanny state’. At one level, this reflects a concern about intrusion, for example into childcare arrangements of the kind that used to be entirely informal between friends. At another level, it is about the imposition of restrictions ostensibly on the grounds of concern about standards or safety but which actually prevent people taking risks or accepting limitations they themselves are willing to accept.
Both concerns come back to the same thing: the conflict between social responsibility and personal liberty. And part of the problem is that these are profound issues. It is easy to poke fun at the ‘’elf and safety’ brigade, but there is nothing funny about a serious injury or accident. And yet the risk-free life is impossible and in any case the desire for personal liberty surely reflects something important about the human character.
Fundamentally, we ought to be free.
This is why freedom movements have always attracted a following and why nationalism is such a powerful political force. It is also why, when Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” it created such controversy, for his audience thought they already were free (cf Jn 8:32-33).
Freedom has to do with maturity, with growing up. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote as he did to the Galatian churches:
... as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. 4 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5 to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Gal 4:1-5)
To become a ‘son of God’ is not only to enter into a spiritual relationship with God, but to attain a spiritual status as an ‘adult’: “Brothers,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults” — or as the AV put it, “in understanding, be men.”
To be held back from proper maturity is, we say, to be ‘infantilized’. The sad truth, however, is that there are few organizations more infantilizing than the Church, and few Churches more infantilizing than the Church of England.
The Church of England is a ‘nanny church’ which just loves to tell its children what to do.
Let me give a small example. To give out the bread and wine at Holy Communion is relatively straightforward. It is not, to be honest, a highly skilled task. This, though, is what the ‘Chelmsford File’ which gives official directions for those in the Diocese of Chelmsford, has to say on the matter:
Lay Assistance at Holy Communion can be authorised by the Bishop but no one else. The Bishop will need to know that the incumbent and the Parochial Church Council support the application. Persons so nominated should be mature and of good standing. Cards of Authorisation will be issued by the Bishop and the permission will need to be reviewed when a new incumbent arrives.
There is more, but that should give you the idea. Basically, I cannot give anyone in the parishes in which I serve permission to help me give out communion — the Bishop has to do it. Moreover, I can’t just phone him up and OK it, I have to get the Parochial Church Council to ratify the request. And when the request has been made, this person cannot actually help me until we have received a certificate back from the Bishop. (One church I know has a wall covered with them in its church offices.) Moreover, when a new incumbent is installed, someone has to ‘review’ all the permissions.
It is, of course, as daft as the law which now requires us to display no smoking signs outside churches in which no one smokes. It is beyond parody, but more seriously it is beyond the gospel. The truth of the gospel is supposed to have made us free, but if I were Jewish I would have more freedom in this regard under the Law of Moses than I would under the laws of the Church of England and the Diocese of Chelmsford.
And there is a more serious aspect to this when it comes to mission and ministry. In our area, for example, we have been told to come up with a deanery mission strategy. But we cannot control our budget and we cannot control our staff — the ‘quota’ we pay to diocesan central funds is set by the diocesan centre, and is increasingly beyond the reach of dwindling congregations of elderly people. But we are rated as a ‘rich’ area, so the level is set accordingly. At the same time, however, the number of clergy we are allowed to deploy is restricted to what we are allowed by the bishops, so we cannot increase the workforce who might increase the membership.
Now at this point someone will say, “Why not use laypeople more?”
Friend, they won’t even allow you to give out bread and wine at communion without a certificate from the bishop! How do you think they’ll react when you want to use laypeople to do anything serious?
The Church of England seems to be stuck in some Freudian ‘warp’, telling others what to do, and being told what to do in its turn. Is it surprising that when the ‘system’ is resisted, this resistance often takes the form of ‘teenage rebellion’, rather than mature process?
Yet it could, and should, be very different. The Church of England is rich in resources and rich in resourceful people. It has an extraordinary ‘presence in every place’. It ought to be full of empowered people, equipped and enabled to live for Christ and to witness to him. Instead, it hobbles along, getting older and smaller by the day.
Is it worth rescuing? Yes, for sure! Can it be rescued? Of that, I am much less certain.
John Richardson
19 May 2010
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  1. my favourite comment was our Archdeacon, who when asked could a lay person preach a sermon with suitable oversight from the clergy,
    'no because diocesan training means no heresy will be spoken from the pulpit' I simply asked him whether he had actually been in any churches in our diocese or indeed this country, where diocesan training almost guarantees dubious theology!!

    Paul Plymouth

  2. John

    The problem is that Protestantism, particularly evangelical Protestantism, cannot work within an episcopal framework.

    The Catholic church says, as I understand it, that it is the true church and all others are severely flawed or should not be considered to be Christian at all. Membership of this institution is, they say, desirable or possibly essential for salvation. So the idea of a top down episcopalian hierarchy can work - in simple terms, if you do not comply with the church, you are not saved.

    However, Evangelical Protestants, including Evangelical Anglicans, say that salvation is a matter between man and God with no priestly intermediary. So disobeying the church does not carry with it the same risks. Thus you can (rightly) object to this pettifogging nonsense about handing out communion.

    If you support episcopalianism until it does something you don't like, aren't you heading for congregationalism? In my view, there is no other future for the CofE. It is an organistion held together not by common beliefs, but common ownership of assets - and a desire by the directors to keep their jobs.

    Here is one Anglican who has no faith in ANY of the 44 incompetents running the business.

    Time for the people to rise up - and put their wallets back in their pockets


  3. @Paul-What a staggering comment from your Archdeacon!!!

    @David-I take most of your point but I think you're a bit too negative. In terms of diocesan bishops, do at least have a look at newly-consecrated Donald Allister at Peterborough, who has been excellent as a biblical and godly Archdeacon in Chester.

    And in terms of episcopal vs. protestant dichotomy... well that's an essay question really! Your argument that salvation is between man & God doesn't negate Bishops any more than it precludes ordination of deacons and presbyters. I believe there is a way of having accountable Bishops without reverting to congregationalism. The present CofE problem is unfaithfulness to scripture, not the episcopal principle itself.

    My own comment on John's piece is that I believe we (in CofE) need a revolution in every-member ministry within our churches. There is too much focus on official positions, and we chronically undervalue the "work of ministry" as in Ephesians 4v12.

  4. J. Coder, Belgium21 May 2010 at 12:24

    In order for me to be recognized in lay ministry beyond what I already do, I would have to take a diocesan course as a "Reader." I have been told (by an ordained friend) that, given my current knowledge of scripture and theology, this course would drive me to tears.

    I have also known priests whose level of biblical and theological education is bafflingly and embarassingly low, to the point that they not only can not compellingly argue against readings of scripture which respect its authority (when this seems to be their intent), but are futhermore unaware of the most convincing tactics for undermining its authority - or the rich tradition within the church of undermining scriptural authority. I.e., they don't know enough of that which they espouse to critique to offer a reasonably compelling critique, and they aren't even aware of those means which seem to have a track record of convincing people - they resort to emotional expressions and subtle ways of sidelining persons who are capable of helping them learn more about the core issues of faith, or even help them sharpen their minds in attempting to revise the core issues of faith into something more personally acceptable to them.

    This is not to say that such priests are not nice people and very helpful and friendly, and quite capable of offering moral support much like counselling.

    I can't help but think that many of our decisions in the last thirty years have brought us on a course in many ways similar to TEC.

  5. "I can't help but think that many of our decisions in the last thirty years have brought us on a course in many ways similar to TEC."

    ....if only that were true. Until 1970 the C of E was a bottom up organisation that encompassed a traditional church hierarchy. It is only since the introduction of the diocesan quota in 1970 and the confiscation of PCC land and property into the central pot that things have started to go really badly wrong for the Church of England. In 1970 the assets of the C of E were so huge that it could not only afford all the pensions for all of their clergy, but they could afford to pay the entire existing clergy out of interest from its assets.

    However, since 1970 The number of Bishops and diocesan staff has continued to grow rapidly whilst the number of clergy 'on the ground' in parishes, along with the congregational numbers has continued to fall significantly. The massive financial mismanagement of the clergy acting as financial experts known as the church commissioners has wiped out any financial security the C of E once possessed. Currently the C of E cannot afford to pay its current retired clergy pensions, let alone any clergy who hope to retire in the future.

    TEC retains the organisational model of congregations funding their priests and organising their own finances. Despite what other's imply about TEC's theological direction they continue to enjoy much larger weekly attendances (which in many places are growing) and massively higher annual giving than the C of E. Perhaps TEC theological direction is a true reflection of the Christianity practised by millions of ordinary Americans and outlined by their bishops, as opposed to the fudge created and endured by the C of E bishops.

    I can't help but think that the many of the decisions in the last thirty years have brought us on a course in most ways significantly different from the remainder of the Anglican communion, particularly our thriving and successful partners in TEC.

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