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Saturday, 24 March 2012

AFL and the Lake Wobegon syndrome

Perusing the commentators prognostications on the eve of that important religious festival, the commencement of a new AFL season I am reminded of Garrison Keillor's sign off line at the end of his weekly monologue from Lake Wobegon, "where all the men are strong, all the women are beautiful and all the children are above average".

According to the commentators virtually all the teams in the competition this year are "above average" in that I can find looking at the suggested trajectory for each club that hardly any club is tipped to move backwards down the ladder. This is going to be wonderful to watch. All the "above average" teams levitating up the ladder, while no-one goes backwards.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Should communities of faith be safe?

The previous blog did not do full justice due to the length of the post to the issue of how the church deals with issues of sexual abuse and power, one of the issues that the Declaration process for people exercising leadership in parishes was designed to address.

Some of the processes developed by denominations to deal with failings in this area seem to me to be clearly appropriate, particularly those are targeted at training people exercising responsibility for teaching, training and leadership of the vulnerable, particularly children. The Diocesan leaflet Safe Communities of Faith highlights some of the basic requirements and processes.

The concern to prevent sexual and emotional abuse of the vulnerable and the unconscionable abuse of power by those in leadership in the church is absolutely right. The use of the language of safety in an unqualified way runs the risk that it can become overriding and culturally shaped in a way that occludes some elements of the characteristics of discipleship and community that are not, in the terms of the prevailing culture, safe. Let me see if I can unpack my concerns.

The leaflet commences with reference to the two great commandments of loving God with all our heart, soul and mind and loving our neighbour as ourselves. It then goes on to say:
These commands guide our behaviour in our relationships and provide the basis for the establishment and exercising of safe activities and events, run in safe environments in an abuse-free Christian community. We seek to build and maintain safe communities of faith by:
  • fostering relationships between members and those of the wider community based on the teachings of Jesus Christ;
  • providing a safe and secure environment where all people can feel respected;
  • providing responsible and loving Christian leadership and management practices built on a scriptural base; and 
  • ensuring that cases of alleged abuse, neglect or ministry misconduct are handled in a consistent, unbiased and thorough manner.
The language of "safety" carries the obvious meaning of freedom from harm, and abuse of power, particularly by those claiming to be motivated by love of God and neighbour. The term carries the wider connotation of freedom from danger that is wider than the particular issues of abuse that are being addressed and carries a wider cultural connotation that we ought to be able to ensure control over all our circumstances and that nothing should go wrong. 

Rather than safety being the term of choice, should the Christian community be concerned to develop a community that is characterised by mutual accountability and trust, so as to accept the responsibility to call one another to account and to be able to rely on each other's presence as in the process outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18?  The problem with the language of "safety' in a community called to follow Jesus is that he seemed to think that following him would not be a safe process and was more than likely to bring one into conflict with family and the broader society.

Kimberley K Smith in the context of reflecting on Wendell Berry's discussion of the significance of 9/11 to Americans gets close to what I am trying to argue for here when she comments that ... the world is not and never will be a safe place. We must learn how to live awfully human life in a dangerous and unpredictable environment - not by seeking godlike control over the conditions of our existence but by cultivating those virtues (moderation, prudence, propriety, fidelity) that allow us to live gracefully in the presence of fear. (p.49)  ("Wendell Berry's Political Vision" in Wendell Berry : His Life and Work edited by Jason Peters)

Friday, 16 March 2012

Bureaucracy, Law and Grace

Episodes that exemplify a relationship of tension between churches and 'the powers that be', of bureaucracy, law and community expectations are not always of the clear dramatic character of Luther appearing before the Diet of Worms, with his "Here I stand, I can do none else." They often surface in much more subtle ways in which the tension between the claims of the Gospel on the church and the bureaucratic demands associated with being an institution is often not immediately clear. One of those episodes that brings the tension to the surface drifted into my view this week through the medium of the Parish Leadership Statutory Declaration that accompanied in the pew sheet from the local Anglican parish the call for nominations for the positions of Warden and Members of the Parish Council.

Undoubtedly many of the institutional churches have had a sorry record in recent times of dealing with issues of the misuse of power and sexual abuse, and are working to deal with the fallout of those events and the consequent lost of community trust. Is there a risk though that some of the processes being set in train to ensure trust is rebuilt, such as through this declaration, may have unintended consequences that undermine some of the basic elements of the character of the church, and are in potential conflict with its fundamental "good news"?

A look at the "Parish Leadership Statutory Declaration" that has to be filled in by those nominating for positions of parish councillor and warden for parishes within the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, raises concerns that the Diocese might be moving into such a space. Let me try and unpack some sociological and theological questions that emerged for me as I thought about the contents of  the declaration that I reproduce below. I should declare at this stage that I am of Brethren background and Anabaptist theological commitments, but have churched with Anglican communities for extended periods of time over the years, have many friends there. I offer the following reflections out of concern for the implications of the Declaration.

I tried to scan the declaration in but it would not remain stable when published on the blog. I have typed the contents in without trying to duplicate the format too closely.

I ....... (name) of ....  (address) do solemnly and sincerely declare that:

1. This declaration is made in support of my nomination for the position of church warden/parish council member (delete whichever is applicable)
2. I was born on ...
3. I am a member of the Anglican Church of Australia and not a member of any church that is not in communion with that Church and I attend public worship at .....
4. I declare I am 18 years or over and have been a communicant member of this ministry unit for at least 12 months.
5. I declare that I am not a disqualified person in that I am not:

  • An undischarged bankrupt, or
  • A prohibited person, or
  • A person who, if they were resident in NSW would be a prohibited person, or
  • A person in respect of whom information has been entered on the National Register, or
  • A person who has been convicted of an offence punishable by more that 10 years imprisonment, or
  • A person who has been convicted or found guilty of a sexual offence.
6. I further declare that I am not mentally incapacitated.
7. I understand that checks may be made to verify the above and hereby give permission for any police checks that may be necessary.
8. If there are any changes in regard to the above I will notify church authorities.

And I make this declaration conscientiously believing ti to be true and in accordance with the provisions of the Statutory Declarations Act 1959.

Signed at: ..... this day of .... year .....
Signature: ...........
Rector: Name: ......... Signature: ........

i. If your rector is not available to witness you signing the form, please contact the Diocesan office  for a list of people before whom a Statutory Declaration may be made.
ii. A prohibited person is a registrable person as defined in the Child Protection (Offenders Registration) Act 2000 or who has been convicted of the following offences:
  • murder of a child;
  • serious sexual offence, including carnal knowledge;
  • child-related personal violence offence (an offence committed by an adult involving intentionally wounding or causing grievous bodily harm to a child;
  • indecency offence punishable by imprisonment of 12 months, or more;
  • kidnapping (unless the offender is or has been the child's parent or carer);
  • offences connected with child prostitution;
  • possession, distribution or publication of child pornography;
  • attempt, conspiracy or incitement to commit the above offences.
iii. Mental incapacity means a person who has a mental incapacity within the meaning of the Mental Health Act 2007 (NSW) or Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act 2004 (ACT), or a person who is a managed person within the meaning of Chapter 4 of the NSW Trustee and Guardianship Act 2009 (NSW) or a person for whom a guardian has been appointed because the person has an impaired decision-making ability within the meaning of the Guardianship and Management of Property Act 1991 (ACT).

It is clear that the declaration is intended to provide legal coverage for the Diocese to prove that it has taken all reasonable precautions in the case for future legal action on the grounds of sexual abuse by people in leadership positions in the parish. The Diocese is thus functioning in a manner that is completely consistent with corporate requirements, and has acted on the basis of legal advice, to ensure the survival of the diocese as a corporate entity by minimising the risk of it being sued out of existence. Is that responsible? Well from a perspective shaped by risk management it is. But for an organisation that claims to be shaped by the mandate of the Gospel there may be more to say or at least more tension between a range of differing claims on the church.
Let me start with the sociological issues raised by the processes involved in the operation of the declaration, before moving on to the theological issues that I think are raised by this process.
Sociologists use the term 'isomorphism to describe what happens when an organisation is reshaped in its practices and vision by the process of engaging with another differing form of organisation and reshaping itself to conform to that organisation. The risk suggested by this process is that the diocese, and parishes, will become conformed in character and understanding to the bureaucratic and corporate patterns of self understanding and institutional survival that have shaped these legal requirements.

Now it could be argued that the Anglican church in its fundamental ecclesiological understanding and structures was profoundly shaped by the Christendom settlement through its engagement with the civil powers and its accompanying sense of responsibility for supporting the maintenance of social order as a whole. It certainly has  been shaped by this and still carries that particular DNA deep into its worship and life. The risk I think is that the process of implementing this further corporate, bureaucratic process will continue to powerfully shape the self understanding of the church through its pattern of limiting who and how can be members of the parish leadership. The result will be that the church will simply become, even more that it is at the moment, a chaplain to, and sustainer of the social order and a paragon of middle class, social respectability.

On the issue of conformity of the church to corporate life more generally, its worth taking a look at the issues raised by Michael L. Budde in "The Rational Shepherd: Corporate Practices and the Church" Studies in Christian Ethics (2008) when he states that: 

... I am persuaded that, while the church has a great many problems, more managerial expertise and rationality as exemplified by for-profit corporations are not the solution for most of them.  Rather, given its considerable formative powers – its capacity to shape attitudes, dispositions, and ways of inhabiting the world – managerialism threatens to transform the church more than serve it, accelerating the already deep accommodation of the church to the non-Christian world in ways detrimental to the gospel and way of life it establishes in the world. (99-10
The next stage in my argument or perhaps probe into the implications of the declaration involves another sociological speculation this time linked to a theological concern. The requirements spelled out in the declaration that a person has to meet to become a member of the leadership in a parish can do nothing but reinforce the perception and reality that the Anglican Church is the preserve of middle class respectability. In short, parish leadership places a series of hurdles to leadership with which the Pharisees would have been completely comfortable. In saying that I am not trying to take a cheap shot at the Pharisees. The Pharisees of the New Testament period were zealous for faithfulness to the Law and seekers of holiness in everyday life, not just the Temple, and were concerned for separation from anything that would defile the faithful. That said the Anglican Church is instituting here, for all the most worthy reasons, a filter that will enforce a new form of purity code that embodies social respectability at its heart. 
Leaving aside the issue of child abuse for a moment. The drawing of the lines against those who are not eligible to stand for parish leadership is interesting. Why the limit restricting from standing those who have been convicted of an offence punishable by more than ten years imprisonment rather than say eight years or 15 years? The problem with getting into this sort of quantum setting as a basis for ensuring the worthiness of parish leaders is that the length of imprisonment related to specific offences shifts over time, depending upon political pressures and social values. This is something that lawyers feel comfortable with, but is difficult to justify on theological terms. The church is here setting its standards for participation in leadership on a very shaky, and inevitably shifting, community standard. The basis for restricting office to those who have been convicted of offences related to sexual behaviour is at least clearer and consistent. If, for other offences, a person has served their sentence, sought reconciliation with the victim(s) and forgiveness within their faith community why should they not be eligible to serve in leadership if they are acknowledged to be appropriately gifted?

Here the theological issues start to surface. At the heart of the "good news" of the Jesus movement was not respectability, purity codes, or social conformity but a grace which opened up the door to those who were impure, marginal and lacked respectability. Jesus' ministry was characterised by the offer of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. This is clear on just about every page of the Gospels. The Gospels' accounts of Jesus point to a deep conflict between him and those to whom he was closest in so many ways, the Pharisees over precisely this issue.

What the requirements for the declaration imply is that those who are impure, fallen and sinners, even if they are welcomed into the church's life, are not going to be welcomed into leadership, even if their gifts testify to the working of the Spirit in their lives and this has been confirmed by the community of the faithful. The legal requirements that prevent this taking place are set up for the protection of an institution and its holdings of property. Now there is one way to get around this limitation and that is to argue that the gifts of the Spirit can be exercised outside of and in parallel to the formal leadership structure and the conversations that shape parish life are conducted outside the formal processes. That's an interesting argument, but what it implies is that the formal leadership structure of the church may be fenced off from the actual exercise of the gifts of the Spirit in the community. I don't know that Anglicans given their ecclesiology would want to go in that direction.

I don't have a solution to offer, and you might be right to be wary about advice from someone of my ecclesial views but I think there is a real issue there which needs to be thought further about.

To return briefly to the issue of protection of vulnerable people, particularly children and young people, I agree that the issue is a serious one and my questions on the Declaration are not intended to downplay the seriousness of them. I am not clear though that a declaration process relating to parish leadership goes to the heart of the pastoral and gospel issues that are at stake. A declaration process related to leadership is not of itself going to necessarily prevent abuse by people within the life of the church who do not seek leadership positions.

On the gospel side of the equation, welcoming those with behavioural problems who do want to be part of a community of disciples, while protecting the vulnerable is an issue that has to be faced by any church that wishes to be truly evangelical. There are some really difficult questions to be faced by church communities who wish to be a truly "inclusive" church and this process does not help the issue. It is hard to interpret this set of procedures as being about anything other than institutional self preservation. For a starting point on thinking about the issues that are at stake here I would recommend the article by Carol Penner "How inclusive is the church?" in the anthology At Peace and Unafraid: Public Order, Security, and the Wisdom of the Cross edited by Duane K. Friesen and Gerald W. Schlabach. (Herald Press, 2005)

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps, but the document is clearly sternly legal in character and shows few signs that it has been influenced by reflection on the ecclesiological implications of going down the track of bureaucratic compliance.

On a somewhat unrelated issue that relates to a different element in the declaration that in addition to being a member of the Anglican Church of australia, the person must guarantee that they are not a member of a church, that is not in communion with the Anglican church of Australia. I have one suggestion, that might assist people filling in this part of the Declaration and that is that the Diocese   provides a link to an authoritative list of churches with whom the Anglican Church of Australia is not "in communion". There is a list that I found under Anglicans Online, of churches that are not in the Communion of the Anglican Church, which may, or may not, be the same thing as the declaration has in mind. I'm not sure. I have some friends who are experts in the finer points of Anglican ecclesiology who I am sure will be happy to give me, as one of the detested anabaptists as the Thirty Nine Articles puts it, an explanation of the issues at stake. The advice should be readily accessible by way of explanation if people are to make an informed declaration. That is one of the risks of going down this very formal legally structured path. You have to go all the way, or else you run the risk of people raising legal issues if they think the process has not been properly followed. Once you embark on such a path you are constrained to follow it to the end.

Beyond that issue, some guidance on what is intended by this question would be particularly useful in a time in which denominational loyalties are no longer what they used to be and many people have been in the habit of worshipping in a range of wildly differing ecclesial contexts during the course of their life.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

The DNA of Christendom

Attending an ordination and induction service at an Anglican church yesterday evening, I was struck by the extent to which the DNA of Christendom is still powerfully embodied in the liturgy of the service and the self understanding of the structure of the church.

What do I mean by the DNA of Christendom? Not having an established church tied to the state, but rather the imprint of assumptions about relationships of power and structured order that church received during the Christendom period and that it has continued to carry with it even when the politico-legag settlement has been untangled. The Anglican church carries this imprint with it in its governance, appellate tribunals, canon law, ecclesiastical structure and its liturgy.

If you examine the language of the ordination liturgy it carries within it still the implicit assumption of a structured order in which priest is placed 'over' a geographically limited group of people, who have a lesser level of biblical and theological knowledge and may not even be very spiritually committed. There was no assumption of mutual learning together under the guidance of the spirit, no sense of mutual accountability and a strong sense of institutional maintenance rather than mutual commissioning for ministry among a group of fellow disciples.

The 'top down' character of the role to which a priest is being commissioned is perhaps made clear by the language of the commissioning service I attended at a Baptist church recently, where the incoming minister was commissioned to join in the ministry currently being undertaken by the congregation. Very different understanding and relationship.