The humanity of Manchester – and us all.

In the wake of the horrific act of terrorism in Manchester on Monday evening, a wave of inspiring stories of altruism and humanity have emerged. Of the taxi drivers offering free lifts, the medical staff voluntarily returning to their place of work on hearing of the incident, of homeless men caring for the injured and dying, of Manchester residents offering their homes as a place to stay to people caught up in the chaos. We have all been stirred by this wave of compassion, of generosity, of altruism – of humanity, in the wake of the utterly inhuman act of one individual.

George Monbiot is right however to point out that we shouldn’t be surprised by these acts. They are part of what it means to be human. The ability to empathise and relate closely to the predicament or another, even someone unknown to us, is part of what makes us unique as a species. It is in our very nature to act as so many have acted in the past 48 hours. That does not make it any less laudable that people do. Nor should it refrain us from praising and highlighting these acts of generosity. They may be natural, but they are worth celebrating all the same, especially in the face of an act designed to erode our solidarity and abuse our humanity.

A Monbiot says:

‘Altrusim and empathy are what binds us together, and what defines us. We should let no one distract us from the central fact if our nature: neither terrorists not those who, in response to them, demand we slam our doors in the faces of an entire community or an entire religion’  

We must believe in the innate nature of our altruism in an age when political forces prey on our tendency to favour fear over trust. We must live and act in faith that to be human is to experience and empathy and offer love. That means not only being empathetic and loving ourselves, but living on the basis that we will receive it from others.

Which is why I was alerted yesterday by a friend’s testimony from some work he was doing in our own community. We are exploring the possibility of setting up a community resource called a Street Association. These are groups of 5 -6 people in streets and small neighbourhoods who work together to bring greater neighbourliness by throwing street parties and BBQs and addressing some of the felt needs of that street. In Birmingham 7 have been set up with the support of the local council. A recent analysis suggests that in one year they have saved the Council £36,000 in public resources through greater neighbourliness, experienced as reduction in the use of police time on issues of neighbourhood disrupted, anti-social behaviour etc. In other words, by at least this measure, they work.

My friend asked residents in a local social housing tower bloc two simple questions: ”How many of your neighbours do you know? Would you like to know more of your neighbours?” The answer in a depressingly high proportion of cases was; “very few” and “no”, respectively. This area, of a coastal Dorset town, not exactly a centre of cultural and ethnic diversity, shows the need for faith in the humanity of humanity. And it shows perhaps the silent work of fear, created not so much by terrorists but by the same forces that have brought us into a place where Brexit was possible and the rise of far-right parties a reality.  Which is perhaps why we shout all the louder when we see acts of humanity from stranger to stranger, from the homeless man to the affluent woman, from the Muslim taxi-driver to the white-British man. For it takes an attack on a whole community to bring that latent humanity to a level that, for a period at least, seems to embrace the whole community. And that is something we long for.

So what do we need? We need leaders. People who believe in the inherent worth of community and solidarity that they will lead others in the reinforcing the local networks and other forms of social capital that have been eroded in the past few generations. We need people who will perhaps forgo or adjust the atomised life of the affluent commuter in order to plant their feet firmly in their own community for the common good. We need organisers who will not allow the insidious effects of individualism and consumerism stop them from believing in the innate value all human-beings place on community and solidarity. We need people who will remind us again what community looks like by showing how to get there again.

The American farmer and poet Wendell Berry once said ‘what I stand for is what I stand on’. We all stand with Manchester this week. Let us also commit to standing with and standing for the communities, neighbourhoods and gatherings of  humanity that inhabit the same ground we stand on.



The future’s no longer orange…it’s teal.

cathedral-processionI recently came across a fascinating article on organisational management. It described a growing movement in some organisations which seems to herald perhaps a paradigm shift in the way they will be run in the future.

The piece built on a developmental theory of organisations which argues that organisations have experienced a series of evolutionary breakthroughs to achieve new levels of achievement and complexity (see figure below).

The article then suggested that we are the process of a new breakthrough a movement into a new realm. In the colour categorisation of this evolutionary scheme these new organisations are called ‘teal organisations’. In this new realm, teal organisations embody three important values:

1.       Self-management – management is no longer a top-down process but is embedded throughout organisations giving people at every level the freedom to make decisions

2.       Wholeness – the organisation actively encourages people to express all that they are in the organisation rather than some professional part of themselves. The organisation sees itself as having a role in people development of wholeness

3.       Evolutionary purpose – organisations have a deep sense that they have a purpose beyond themselves that they must sense and respond to. The bottom line is not shareholder value, but on responding well to this sense of evolutionary purpose.

teal-orgsAn example of a teal organisation is Buurtzorg, a care provider in Holland. Founded in 2006 it took a completely different approach to providing care to the overstretched, centrally controlled care companies that have, much like in the UK, proliferated in Holland since the 1990’s. At Buurtzorg teams of 10 -12 nurses serve a clearly defined neighbourhood. These teams self-manage – they decide which patients to prioritise, they liaise with local doctors and pharmacies and collaborate with the local hospitals.  Instead of proving care in the narrowly defined way it often is –  washing patients, changing bandages, administering drugs – the purpose of Buutzorg is to help patients life well. Nurses sit down with their clients and help them design their own support networks to help them lives as well as they can.

Buurtzord has grown exponentially. After 8 years is market share was 60%. It is incredibly efficient, delivering care with 40% less hours than other care providers, because patients become self-sufficient so much quicker. Hospital admissions have been cut by a third making huge savings in terms of the governments health budgets. Buurtzorg is also a profitable company.  It is quite an incredible picture of an organisation doing things radically different.

Naturally I couldn’t help but think of the church as I read this article. Where is the church in the schema of organisational paradigms described? Whilst we might at least be able to discount the first paradigm (red) which describes brutal organisations like street gangs and organised crime, the church finds itself all too familiar with elements of the other paradigms. Organisations that are based on the principle of an army (Amber), a machine (orange) or a family (green) all have operational elements that can be found in the contemporary church.

Perhaps this is what you might expect. The church, once absorbed acquiescently into political empire in the 4th century, has been mimicing the dominant culture ever since.  The last half-century has seen the church import, with relatively little reflection of critique, the business practices of the successful organisation around it. And part of the challenge we face is that most denominations still operate with the structures of a medieval hierarchy in a world that is utterly different and utterly unpredictable. We have as Bishop JV Taylor put it ‘lost our nerve and our sense of direction and have turned the divine initiative into a human enterprise’. No wonder we are so entranced by the best human enterprises of our age.

The descriptions of teal organisations are fascinating however. They resonate with a sense of what the church was always called to be. The metaphor that best describes a teal organisation is that of living organism – there are resonances here of Jesus’ agrarian metaphors for the Kingdom and of course Paul’s metaphor of the body. Self-management and wholeness relate powerfully with the church’s call to enable human flourishing and personal development.

But perhaps it is with the idea of evolutionary purpose that a key connection is made. Teal organisations are openly embracing the idea that there is something greater than simply the market outside of themselves. They are deliberately seeing to connect with, sense and respond to something beyond themselves that is calling them to a higher purpose. For many this brings into play practices of silence and contemplation, or of what has become known as ‘presencing’, attending to something deeper than just spreadsheets, business plans and management targets. Teal organisations, and those who study them, begin to get very unbusiness-like with their language at this point, God rarely gets a mention, but suddenly the realm of the unseen is entering into the parlance and practice of reputable and profitable organisations.

So, business has entered postmodernity and the New Age. So what? The church’s call is to continually respond to the voice of its founder, not the chatter of the trends of our age. Absolutely, except that in teal organisations I see something fundamental to what the church is, and which it has lost. It has lost a central belief that it is an organism, not an organisation, that it is a community in relationship with a God who calls, not a thing, or an enterprise that just puts God’s name on the letterhead. It has most critically lost a willingness to listen to the voice of the Spirit which is constantly calling it into new places and into new forms. And to a voice that is so consistently challenging to our penchant for order because it is constantly speaking from out there in the world where things are changing and people lives will not fit the categories we would like them to.

Jurgen Moltmann has spoken of three paradigms in the church’s history – the hierarchical paradigm (think Christendom, think amber), the Christocentric paradigm (think reformed churches, think orange/green) and the charismatic paradigm (perhaps think teal?). He says ‘in the charismatic congregation Christians come of age, and acquire the courage to live out their own experience of faith and to bring themselves with their own powers into the community of the coming of the Kingdom of God’.  Yet have we not been in the charismastic paradigm since the day of Pentecost? Did we simply lose our way, our nerve, and get dragged along with the same cultural and organisational trends described by contemporary theorists. Whichever way surely now we are invited to boldly reembody the church’s call to be a genuine charismatic community; diverse, local, agile, that seeks to enable human flourishing and wholeness and which is deeply attentive to the Spirit of God that gives her life and calls her forward.



Our church I didn’t go to

derelict church

I am in a dilemma which has caught me by surprise. The church in the village in which I grew up is going to close. It is a small church in a small village of perhaps 120 houses. When I lived in the village 20 – 30 years ago the congregation was small. On some Sundays it now numbers 3.

When we first moved to this village in 1979 the pub had already closed down but there was a village shop, a garage, a village hall and the church. By the time I left home both shop and garage had closed and village life, though strong, centred around the hall, the annual village fete and the church.

In the churchyard are now the remains of my grandmother, my father and my sister. I never went to this church and nor did my family – it was our church that we didn’t go to. But it was, as for so many other villagers, our church. It holds a significance and a memory that unites me with all those with whom we shared life in those years. And so as I hear news of its demise I feel that this is undoubtedly a loss to a village and community which is slowly losing all of the communal resources that quietly make community life what it is.

And yet…there is a reality here that can’t be ignored. The 120 houses of this village were all leafleted and all given an opportunity to offer time and skill to keeping the church a village church. Only 3 people responded. The cost of maintaining and heating this building, even for the occasional service, on the basis of an electoral roll in single figures, is not sustainable. The local vicar has this, plus another 7 or 8 churches in the area to oversee. The clergy resource is being spread ever more thinly across these small villages and their historic buildings. This makes clergy less and less effective and more and more exhausted and liable to stress and burnout.

Since leaving home and the village church which I didn’t go to I have found faith and a vocation as a vicar in the Church of England. I have ministered so far in urban settings and now lead a ministry that is seeking to create church communities amongst people who are unlikely to engage with traditional forms of church. At present, certainly in my part of the CofE, I am seen as something of an experiment. I am not paid by my Diocese. And the future of the work I do and the kind of church communities that are emerging within the wider institution of the church is far from clear.

I am a little surprised then about my feelings toward the closure of a church I never went to. Except that perhaps it connects with the feelings so many feel toward the gradual erosion of something precious in villages up and down the country, the loss of a way of life that has survived for centuries. Even I am open to a dose of nostalgia for something that seemed boring when I was growing up, but which I now realise has immense value.

And yet… 2 principles tell me that this is the right thing to do, and indeed that we ought to be braver and do it more.

  1. The people of God are nomadic not sedentary and their gathering places should reflect that.

God’s people have always been sojourners, nomads, people called from place to place. We need structures. We need places to gather and places that can focus our worship and our sense of God’s presence. But once those places become so rooted, so fixed, that we cannot move on we risk losing something of who we are as God’s people. We are much more people of the tent than the temple – when we are truly living up to our call.

  1. The church is ultimately future oriented because it is animated by God’s Holy Spirit.

It is the Holy Spirit that births the church and then sends it out into the world and into the future. Of course there is an important dimension of celebrating and reflecting on the work of God in the past, but only is so much as we can be encouraged to move on into the future, in our own walk with God and as communities in mission. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world and then calls us to where He already is – so we are constantly moving into the place and time where God already is – not back to somewhere where God has been.

So in a small way I have to do what I believe the church constantly needs to do in order to continue to fulfil its call to be nomadic people of the Spirit – let go of the old structures, listen to the Spirit and move into God’s future. This is a death and so will be accompanied with pain and sadness. But that is what we must do if we are to truly be the church we are called to be.

Some might say that my old village church will just turn into a symbol of the demise both of the church and of the community. Well, perhaps it will. But in a world longing for community, but sometimes struggling to know how to recreate it, it must surely be an enlivened church that, listening to God’s Spirit, will discover new and more relevant ways of building community and creating new communities of faith in our historic rural villages.