The Quantum Thomist

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The importance of Symmetry

On Incompetent Bishops and the measure of Success.
Last modified on Sun Mar 4 19:42:22 2018

I have listened to many sermons in my time. Some have been thought-provoking, others rather banal. Some have been exciting, others have sent me to sleep. Some have taught me things I didn't know before, others left me wishing that I could teach the preacher about all the things he missed. A few have been downright heretical (the "best" example being the one which proclaimed Simon Magus an example for us all to follow). One sticks in my mind as bringing out in me disappointed anger.

I had a workshop in the city of Liverpool. A quick google search failed to find any solid Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic parishes within walking distance of the city centre, so on the Sunday I decided to visit the Anglican Cathedral. I think (though am not certain; the passages certainly had these themes) that the lessons were Psalm 27, Jeremiah 15 from verse 10, and Romans 11, but the preacher, the Cathedral dean, based his message on Matthew 16 from verse 21. Jesus is at Caesarea Philippi (a place that represented Roman authority), and asks his disciples who he is, and Peter proclaims him as Christ, the Son of the living God. First part of his mission accomplished (for people to recognise the incarnation), Jesus now turns his attention to the second part (to give His life as a ransom for many): he announces to his disciples his forthcoming death and resurrection. Peter takes offence, and Jesus rebukes him in rather strong terms.

The preacher, the dean of the cathedral, was an engaging speaker, and certainly kept my attention as he spent most of his fifteen minutes discussing amusing anecdotes about his past work in the oil industry. When he got round to discussing the passage, his take on it was that Peter and Jesus had different ideas about what success meant. Peter imagined the Messiah as a great military leader who would kick the Romans out of Judea and Galilee and establish another golden age of mankind. Jesus' vision was of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. To Jesus, being sacrificed for the sins of the world was a successful ministry. So the key thing to understand Jesus' life is to ask what measure Jesus used for success. So far so good.

The preacher then turned to applications. Obviously few of his congregation had the goal of driving out the Romans (and I am not sure he would have approved of the modern day equivalent) or acting as a propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. So he turned to more practical issues. What makes a successful Church? What makes a successful Cathedral?

Now had this been merely the introduction to a 45 minute or hour long sermon, that dived into this topic in detail, it would have been great. The other Bible readings were, by a quirk of the lectionary, pretty much perfect to use as examples as he would expand the point. Jeremiah thought that success meant averting the disaster coming to Jerusalem, and thought himself a failure because nobody listened to him. God reminded him that his purpose was simply to preach, and not to surrender to the complacent culture around him. It didn't matter that Jeremiah was persecuted and his warnings ignored (by his generation): he preached, and didn't give in, and measured against what God had called him to do, he was a success. Paul looked at his failure to reach his own people with sadness; but nonetheless he did what he was called to do. The Psalmist speaks of his devotion to God in the face of adversity; his vision of a successful life.

But it wasn't an introduction. It was the opening fourteen and a half minutes of a fifteen minute sermon. And in the remaining thirty seconds, the speaker said words to the effect of "I don't know" and "That's not for me to say." You are the dean of the cathedral, for crying out loud. Pretty much as senior as it gets before becoming a Bishop, and one of the leaders of the church. If you can't answer such a simple question, what hope is there for your cathedral or the church as a whole?

So I have always wanted to do what that preacher didn't, and answer his question. I am never likely to be given the pulpit at Liverpool cathedral, so I will discuss it here.

Success means that you have fulfilled some task, goal or purpose. These goals can come from numerous different sources. Firstly, we can think of artificial (or perhaps accidental) goals. For example, your Boss asks you to make a sale to a particular customer, or fix a bug in a program, or teach a lecture on string theory. If you manage to do so, then great. You are a success. If you try and don't accomplish it (or accomplish it well enough), you are a failure. That's clear and easy enough. One can argue that that is the type of success/failure discussed in the gospel reading, or in Jeremiah 15. So before we can measure something's success, we must understand its purpose.

But then we have a second type of measure of success, and these are based around the natural, essential or defining purposes of a being. For example, a human being is a rational, social animal. A rational being is one defined as having the natural tendency towards the contemplative life, to acquire abstract knowledge and understanding and reason from it. That tendency defines a measure of success. The person who achieves that is successful; the one who doesn't a failure. Equally, the animal nature, social nature, and living nature all also defined in terms of certain tendencies or natural purposes. For everything, one first establishes the telos, and then determines which forms are best suited to fulfil that tendency or purpose. One thus has a purpose associated with each form, and from that one can define a measure of success (natural success is thus undefinable in an enlightenment philosophy, which denies formal and final causality -- one reason why our modern society is either rudderless, incoherent or authoritarian).

So to understand what makes a successful church, we have to first understand what the purposes of the Church are; what it was established to achieve. A number of things come to mind. I don't claim that this list is exhaustive (for example, I have left out worship and prayer), but certainly each component I list is necessary. These are not in any particular order of importance.

  1. To administer the sacraments (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
  2. To minister to the poor and needy in society (Matthew 25:34-45; this is just one of a vast number of passages I could cite).
  3. To guard the rule of faith as delivered, neither adding to it, nor taking anything away, nor changing anything (2 Timothy 1:14). Christianity is a revealed religion. To be a Christian means to accept that the most perfect manifestation of God is in the person of Jesus, and therefore that the rule of faith taught by Jesus and passed on through the apostles to the Church that they founded is a full and sufficient statement of what mankind needs to know to restore relationship with God. To take something away from that rule is to make it insufficient; to change something is to try to dictate terms to God; to add something is to place unnecessary, distracting and possibly incorrect burdens on God's people. That's not to say that all additions are bad: systematization, clarification and the provision of clear and precise definitions (such as in the creedal statements of the first ecumenical councils), even if they introduce new terminology to express ideas that were always believed, are good things, because they make the same message clearer and easier to express and understand. There is also some merit in adding additional disciplines to the Church; accepting that they are not necessary, but nonetheless good practice as they help people avoid mistake or error. Liturgies, lectionaries, vestments, and observance of the Church year fall into this category (as long as they they themselves don't become idols and are seen as more important in themselves than the purpose they were set up to achieve). Not all additions are bad; some are legitimate developments. But we have to be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate developments of the original rule of faith. And anything which changes the meaning of it or which contradicts what was originally set forth is illegitimate.
  4. To preach the good news of Jesus Christ to those who don't yet know it (Acts 1:8).
  5. To teach to members of the congregation, so that each individual may come into a stronger relationship with Jesus, repent, increase in knowledge and understanding, and be equipped for every good work (Titus 2:1).
  6. To raise up new leaders and workers in the congregation (Titus 1:5).
  7. To pastor the congregation, and help them in their emotional and psychological needs (1 Peter 5:2).

Now, I should comment to those who dislike the idea of guarding the deposit of faith on the grounds that our knowledge is always progressing and improving. The point is that we are discussing the role and function of the Church. The Church is founded on the assumption that Christianity is true. If that assumption holds, then the original rule of faith is at least part of the truth as a whole. To deviate from that rule is to introduce error. Thus under the assumption that Christianity is true, then to guard the deposit of faith is entirely a good thing. If you find evidence to say that the rule of faith is incorrect, then that is, of course, significant. But it is not evidence against the proposition that the Church should guard the deposit of faith. It is evidence that Jesus was wrong about something; in which case He wasn't God, and in that case Christianity would be false (since the incarnation is a central defining belief of Christianity). But if you believe that Christianity is false, then you have no business being part of the Church; and if you have no business being part of the Church, then you are in no position to dictate to it what its purposes should be.

There is also the second issue that we have to determine what is the deposit of faith we have to guard. I have pointed it back to Jesus; the incarnation (which, again, is something we are assuming in this discussion) then guarantees its accuracy. However, we don't have access to that original deposit of faith, but only what is recorded in the New Testament and other early Christian writings. There are numerous different people we need to consult: there is ambiguity when one writer emphasises one thing and another something else; and there is the possibility of distortion over time. If our earliest surviving record of some article is from the fifth century, then it is difficult to judge whether it genuinely came from an earlier tradition (and thus definitely part of the rule of faith), or an inescapable consequence of the rule of faith applied to a new situation, or distortion of some original article, or a wholly new invention. There is thus some imprecision in what it is the Church is to guard. But imprecision is not the same as inaccuracy or incoherence, and the bounds are sufficiently small that they can be negotiated. Those who dispute the record tend to be those who already decided that they didn't like the original message of the Church on other grounds.

This imprecision should not be overstated: on almost everything, there is pretty clear agreement (except among the "progressives" who have already abandoned the rule of faith by suggesting that they can improve on it). But on a few matters, there is a legitimate question. Different branches of Christianity deal with that question in different ways. Some simply acknowledge it, and say that each of the various options should be considered legitimate. Roman Catholics appeal to the teaching authority of the Church, both past (after two thousand years, there are no really new questions) and also present (albeit with the priviso that the current magisterium can't contradict what was said in the past without undermining its own claim to authority -- I wish that the current Bishop of Rome would heed that lesson). Protestants, on the other hand, tend to give the earliest documents the greatest weight (although, of course, whether they correctly express the uncertainty in these documents is often disputed by the Romans and brethren in the East), while being careful not to (intentionally) subtract, change or most importantly add anything to them. These Protestants would disagree mainly about what to do about those issues such as Church order which are ambiguous in the New Testament but more clearly defined in the next generation (what weight to give to early but post-apostolic documents). Also note that Protestants don't generally define the Church in terms of organisational unity but a confessional unity, or unity of belief. While Catholics place great emphasis on being under the authority of this figure or in communion with that figure, Protestants on the whole don't care. As long as you accept the basic marks of evangelicalism, you are part of the family no matter what you happen to call your branch of the church. Hence the large number of Protestant sects, all of which would immediately acknowledge (in most matters), work with were necessary, and accept any member or minister of any of the other groups. Evangelicals don't see the Church as an organisation, but as a vibrant and dynamic body and a community of like-minded people identified by their devotion to Jesus. And, of course, there are those, such as myself, who are something in the middle: treating the early documents as primary, and then what can be directly reasoned from them, but turning to the authority of the Church when things still remain unclear.

Still, nonetheless, we have a list of purposes. We can judge whether a Church is a success by how well it fulfils these purposes (and whichever others we would like to add to them).

Now, of these purposes, the first is the preserve of the Bishops (the successors of the apostles and holders of the apostolic ministry) and their licensed representatives, the presbyters. The remaining points are the responsibility of the whole body of Christians, but again the Bishops bear a particular responsibility for them, albeit with the pastoral care delegated to the presbytery and the care for the poor to the diaconate (following Acts chapter 6).

So a successful church is one which fulfils these purposes (as well as any others I have omitted). A successful Bishop is one who excels in several of these purposes, such as the whole house of Bishops and their clergy fulfils them all.

So let us now apply this to the modern Church of England, and see how it fares.

  1. Administer the sacraments. This should be the easy one (unless you accept the Roman position that Anglican orders are invalid due to the brief reorganisation of the Church under Oliver Cromwell and the puritans), if Anglican theology on the sacraments is correct. Whether the Church succeeds on this depends on where you stand with regards to the ordination of women to the episcopate and presbytery. Classical Anglican theology, following the New Testament, early church, and stated views of the reformed, believes that ordination of women to the roles of presbyter and bishop is invalid. In that case any sacraments they perform, or those they licence, are also invalid. So mark this down as a failure.
  2. To minister to the poor and needy. The church for the most part does a good job here, at least at parish level, and often flying under the radar of contemporary society. Could it do better? Unquestionably. The poor are always with us, and there is always more to do. But it does more and does it better than most other organs of society.
  3. To guard the rule of faith. With each synod guiding the church deeper into heresy and irrelevance, it is clear that this is not going well. The church of England was founded on the premise that the Church of Rome had erred by adding to the original rule of faith. The reformers would be somewhat disappointed to see their successors seeking to change it with every new passing fashion.
  4. To preach the good news. The contemporary Church faces three main ideological enemies: modernism, post-modernism and a resurgent Islam. By modernism, I mean people such as Richard Dawkins. They have a militant faith in the existence of truth, and that they know it, and believe that belief in God is both irrational and unscientific. They are, however, closer to Christianity than the post-modernists, who have adopted philosophical relativism and idealism. You are who you define yourself to be. Truth is whatever you make of it. Examples of this abound in the governmental and educational authorities. Then we have Islam, Christianity's traditional rival. It has always been a supremacist religion, and, seeing the weakness and contradictions of the post-modern West, is asserting itself boldly in parts of society.

    So you think that the Church would seek to concentrate on these three areas. Making use of its scientists to challenge the mindset behind people like Dawkins (the easiest one, since at least these people accept similar standards of evidence to Christians, even if, through their ignorance of Christianity, they don't realise it). Experts on Islam, to challenge the claim that Mohammed was a prophet (again, easy enough to do once you have a strong understanding of the hadith and Koran in addition to a good background knowledge in other areas and critical abilities). To challenge the post-modernists is in some sense harder, since they are furthest from Christianity (and you thus have to go very deep to reach some common ground from which to start the discussion), and in some sense most important, since this is the ideology being taught in most of our schools and university faculties (with the exception of the modernist mathematics and hard sciences; and even here the post-modernists are absurdly trying to worm their way in).

    Instead, the liberal church has accepted the premises of post-modernism, is ignorant of science reinforcing the stereotypes of the modernists, and joins post-modern society in lauding Islam, even though it stands in opposition to everything that that society stands for. The few times Bishops or clergymen appear in the media all we get are wishy-washy anecdotes that only reinforce the general opinion that you have to be an idiot to be a Christian. And thus the Church of England is rapidly losing membership, especially among the young. It's not that the Church of England doesn't have a strong message; it is not being spoken, at least not in a way that is getting heard.

  5. To teach. Again, a massive failure. Sure, we have the weekly sermon. Most of which are complete trite (albeit with some counterexamples where the preaching is top-rate). The Sunday schools again do a job, albeit varying in quality. Some Churches, perhaps through things such as the alpha course or Christianity Explored, do a good job of teaching the basics of Christianity. But I have rarely seen churches go further, and hold adult and believers courses to bring them to a stronger knowledge of the religion, and in particular to be able to answer the major criticisms levelled against the faith. How many Christians in the pews know the first thing about Textual Criticism, Biblical Archaeology, or Church History? How many can counter the form critics and the likes? How many know enough philosophy to show the errors in the standard arguments from the likes of Hume and Kant that the atheists keep trotting out? And how many of those know it through their own private studies rather than organised teaching from the Churches? The resources are out there, but they are not being taken advantage of.

    And this is particularly important because of the role that the laity have in the governance of the Church. Debates in general synod have been showing increasing theological ignorance and absurdity; in the diocesan and deanery synods it is even worse. How can the laity hold the Bishops to account when they are have an even worse theological education than the Bishops.

  6. To raise up new leaders. We are running out of presbyters. Another failure.

When we turn to the Bishops, the situation is even more dire, with only a couple of exceptions. The establishment of the Church has some advantages, but the main disadvantage is that Bishops are chosen by the crown nominations commission, whose members are partly selected by the prime minister and government of the country. When the government could be assumed to be strongly Christian, this is not such a bad thing: it offers another layer of accountability and protection. But in today's environment, where the politician's faith is about as strong as reception of magic FM in the Chilterns, it is disastrous. This article complains that one problem that has resulted is that the house of bishops is full of managerial types rather than academics. People are appointed because they toe the line, and don't raise up much of a fuss. This of course rules out strongly orthodox Christians. In an anti-Christian society, the job of the church is to challenge that society and show that it is profoundly wrong. How can the Bishops do that if only those who aren't disposed to challenge society are considered for selection?

I agree that more academic rigour in the house of Bishops would be an significant advantage. However, it is not the full answer. It is not too long ago that we had the likes of Rowan Williams and Tom Wright in prominent sees. Both were brilliant academics. I don't agree with everything that Tom Wright proposed; but there is no denying that he was both a brilliant academic and brilliant populariser or important Christian ideas. His popular and semi-popular works on the evidence for the resurrection are among the best available. That is the sort of Bishop we need in the Church of England. Archbishop Williams was considerably more ineffective. He was a exceptionally good academic in his field, but a poor public communicator, and a poor leader, with too strong a devotion to the likes of Hegel and too weak a devotion to the traditions, doctrines and scriptural basis of the Church. He did not accept his role of guarding the faith once delivered, and instead had the effect of constantly undermining it. Maybe in other times his steady hand would have been what the Church needed; but not in these times. In light of the purposes listed above, his time in the office has to be regarded as a failure.

So being academically rigorous (not necessarily a university professor, but somebody who can keep up with the professors, and wield what emerges from that environment that is good and refute that which is bad) is a necessary requirement for being a successful bishop in this age. However, it is not a sufficient requirement.

But appointing managers to the Church is not the answer. A good manager is someone who most of all provides vision and purpose to the company. He divides that purpose into various sub-goals, and ensures that the right people are on hand in each team to fulfil those tasks. He ensures that there is good communication between each team, and that everybody knows the overall goal of the company, is enthused by it, and knows their own essential part in bringing it about. And, of course, he knows his customers and suppliers and what they want.

But a Bishop does not need to set a vision, because the Church already has one: the gospel of Jesus Christ. They do not need to set an organisational structure, because the parish and deanery system is already in place. They do not need to be good administrators or financiers, because that's not their role in the Church (the Church needs such people, but not as Bishops). What we need are teachers, evangelists, prayer warriors, strongly virtuous, and most of all men firmly grounded and with a love of the genuine gospel. They need to be strong enough academically to flatten the Church's critics, which means that they need ties to the academic community who do the hard work of going into the details, but also strong communicators with the ability to present that work to the public and their congregations.

Bishops should be chosen to counter the main threats to a Church in a given time. In our time, those threats are Islam, scientism (modernism), post-modernism (in particular what passes for contemporary ethical thought), and higher biblical criticism and de-constructivism. Each of these provides a strong pull on the British population, or at least large segments of it. These world-views are popularised in the schools, media and universities, largely unchallenged (even when they contradict each other). Counter arguments to each point exist, but are not heard. Each are fundamentally opposed to the Christian message. So why aren't the Bishops and church leaders speaking out against these, and presenting authentic Anglican Christianity as the superior alternative that it is? Even if the public don't hear the message, then you would still hope that it would get through to the clergy and laity. Why don't we even have any Bishops qualified to discuss such matters? Why are there no evangelical or Anglo-Catholic scientists who could go toe to toe with the likes of Richard Dawkins and demolish him? It is not as though beating the popular new atheists such as Dawkins is particularly difficult. (Although there some atheist philosophers who deserve our respect. They are still wrong, but they deserve respect.)

Instead, we get a house of Bishops who have largely surrendered to the culture, betraying Christ in the process. One only has to look at the latest debates in general synod to see this. There is such pride and arrogance in people to think that their views, largely inspired by a culture which has become entirely hostile to God, closer represent the mind of God than those of the generation who walked this earth with Him. They set up idols such as "good disagreement" and "facilitated conversations". If Athanasius or Augustine had done the same, there wouldn't be a Church today. To even think of such things shows that you have no regard for the truth, or people's salvation, or what the Church was put on this earth to do. Which is the ultimate expression of hatred for the very people you think that you are helping by watering down the gospel.

Which brings me back to that preacher who didn't know what made a successful church. I wonder what happened to him, and to those he led?

Building blocks

Reader Comments:

1. Callum
Posted at 18:57:14 Wednesday March 7 2018

I always thought that Wright should have led the church

2. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 20:44:33 Thursday March 8 2018

He was certainly one of the best bishops of his generation. There were a few others who would also have done a good job. When Rowan Williams was appointed, I remember talk that Michael Nazir-Ali was another name in the running. But, given the current nature of the Church, genial centrists such as Williams or Welby are unsurprising choices. We aren't likely to get anyone on either extreme of the Church; destining us to a managed but slow decline.

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