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 RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
19 May 2010
19 May 2010