Between 2004 and 2009 I visited Zimbabwe a number of times. The first visit exposed me to some of the realities and challenges of a beautiful country that Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF were turning into a nightmare. By my final visit inflation was around 10,000%, unemployment was sky high, and the bread basket of Africa had become a basket case.

I visited because the Diocese of Southwark (where I was the Bishop of Croydon) had longstanding partnership links with the Anglican dioceses in Zimbabwe. Croydon was linked with Central Zimbabwe, and I developed a friendship (based on huge admiration) with the Bishop, Ishmael Mukuwanda. I posted on this blog many times from and on Zimbabwe – simply put it in the search box and loads should come up.

So, watching the news now is heartening to an extent. At last, action has been taken to rid this country of its liberating tyrant and his Lady Macbeth wife whose name – Grace – is not matched by her character. It is no wonder that thousands of people are celebrating in the streets and that the Party is thought to be ready to dismiss Mugabe as party leader tomorrow. There can be no going back.

But, to what might the country be going forward? This is the hard question. It is easy to celebrate the end of Mugabe’s reign; but, what will now follow? Freedom from is not the hard bit; freedom to or for demands far more.

Ten years ago I was clear that the key to Zimbabwe’s future had to be the reestablishment of the rule of law – not just any law, but law as internationally recognised. Without the rule of law, nothing could be relied on. And, yet, now, we see the dethronement of Mugabe … but only by his own party. The same party will appoint a new leader, and this leader will continue the rule of ZANU PF. It will take someone brave or reckless to bring democracy back to Zimbabwe; in the meantime, Mugabe’s departure will not change much at all in terms of who is in charge, how they will run the country, and whose interests will be protected.

Clearly, today is for celebrating an ending. But, tomorrow will bring a beginning. And that beginning will probably be a continuing of what has gone before. It is too early to celebrate a new world for the wonderful people of this wonderful country. What we can be sure of, however, that the Anglican Church, with all its fallibilities and fragilities, will keep on plugging away imaginatively and creatively, serving communities and people in quiet, unsung ways, silently tilling the ground for a harvest they believe will one day come.

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Following on from my last post – which was sparked by a visit to Sudan and the reading of Walter Brueggemann (again) – it is important to move on from the phenomenon of how we face potential change to addressing the content of those changes. Objections to change often appear in two forms: (a) a natural, but false, comparison between the status quo (arrived at after years of development) and the potential birth of something new (which, by definition, can only be imagined or envisaged) arising from it; and (b) a natural and right caution that we should never engage in change for the mere sake of change itself.

Since coming to Bradford in May 2011 I have deliberately not instigated any great change. I might be wrong, but it seemed silly to initiate necessary change in some areas when a greater, more wholesale, change might be coming down the line with the Dioceses Commission proposals – if agreed in March 2013 – kicking in relatively soon. So, I have paid attention to structural clarity, missional encouragement and confidence building among clergy and lay people. I cannot be the judge of whether that policy has been effective or not. Nevertheless, the point is that I do not believe in wasting time changing things that do not need to be changed. I seriously resist that old recourse of fantasists or the fearful: to avoid the serious challenge by simply re-engineering or re-ordering the furniture. At the heart of any change worth doing lies the fundamental question of vision: what is the end that this means is intended to achieve?

So, objections to the scheme before us are not trivial and, indeed, are necessary if we are to effectively (but realistically) stress-test the proposals for an alternative way of being. That is to say, any proposals for change need to be poked, pulled, prodded and stretched in order to identify where they are sound, where they lack, or where they open up potential that cannot yet be measured. Yet, going back to the point of my last post on this, objection should always be on the basis of an imaginative engagement with the proposals and not simply a reactive resistance arising from pique or fear.

A number of objections to the Dioceses Scheme are obvious and I will look at some of them in turn here.

'Big is not always beautiful'

The objection is that a larger diocese must be remote, unwieldy and unfamiliar – a far cry from the 'family-like' nature of the existing three smaller dioceses. Well, yes, a large diocese does feel different and brings certain challenges (as well as opportunities) not faced by smaller ones. But, sometimes big is beautiful – in the sense that it provides a wider canvas on which to paint a bigger picture.

I think I am the only senior staff member of any of the three dioceses who has direct and long experience of such a large diocese working with an area system. I spent eleven years in the Diocese of Southwark, three as Archdeacon of Lambeth and eight as (area) Bishop of Croydon. I learned a huge amount about communication, coherence, 'brand identification', structural identity and effective use of resources. The particular model of an area system worked well, but was under constant review – as will any shape emerging, if approved, in West Yorkshire and the Dales.

The suggestion that the current scheme should put in place a structure that must work completely on day one and be guaranteed to remain successfully intact for the next ten years is a complete nonsense: any shape devised will need to be re-thought as time goes by and as change happens around us. What we have to focus on is the potential of a larger diocese, broken down into an area system, to enable a larger vision for the resourcing and encouragement of parish mission and ministry, better development potential for clergy, a more coherent engagement with the area covered by the new diocese (civic, political, social, economic, etc.), and clear profiling of the Church of England in its unique vocation (working with ecumenical partners, who, incidentally, support this scheme).

Ecclesiology and area bishops

The scheme proposes a diocesan bishop (who would also be the Area Bishop of Leeds – a mistake, in my view) and four other area bishops (Bradford, Ripon, Wakefield and Huddersfield). How would the diocesan bishop know and be known by the people in his parishes?

Well, that is an interesting one. Of course, it begs the question how well known are the diocesan bishops by the parishes in the existing dioceses – and the judges of this should not be the diocesan bishops themselves! If I have 165 churches in around 130 parishes and aim to be in at least one of them every week,… work it out. Yet, we speak of 'knowing' and 'being known'. We need a bit of realism here: the diocesan bishop needs to 'order' the diocese in such a way that (a) clergy are properly appointed and pastorally resourced – and let's not romanticise the limitations of that, (b) communicate effectively with all parts of the diocese, using all the resources available judiciously and adventurously, (c) be out and about in the parishes and institutions – listening, learning, questioning, encouraging, challenging, articulating the good news and inspiring (which comes down to more than just role, office and structure). This involves systematic and realistic prioritising – nothing new there, then.

Currently, the diocesan bishop cannot be everywhere and, so, exercises his episkope through colleagues such as suffragan bishops (except in Bradford where I don't have one), archdeacons, area deans, diocesan secretaries, and so on. Indeed, the parish system assumes that a 'vicar' is exercising in the particular parish the ministry that belongs essentially to the bishop. So, how would the area system proposed be any different in kind?

In a larger diocese the ordering of these matters is done through having smaller episcopal areas, each led by an area bishop (who is as much a bishop as the diocesan bishop!) working with a cathedral dean/minster vicar and an archdeacon. If the right people are appointed to these posts (and the same question applies if we retain three dioceses), this offers clergy and parishes a strategic and pastoral leadership team that is closer to the ground, oversees a smaller territory and number, can apply itself to the particularities of that (more homogeneous) area, offer more accessible pastoral care of clergy, and inspire mission at a more local level. In practice, this means that one episcopal area might drive initiatives that would not be as applicable or effective in others… but would bring that experience and drive to the wider diocese. Such cross-fertilisation is challenging and inspiring when you work in such a context.

Of course, this allows a larger diocese to deploy people in areas who bring to the diocese as a whole their particular expertise – thus allowing the whole diocese to benefit from the particular spread of gifts and experience deployed in the areas.

There are two other elements of an area system that are worth mentioning: (a) area bishops are not automatically on the General Synod, are not in the House of Bishops, do not find themselves committed to work beyond the diocese in the same way as diocesan bishops, and, can, therefore, be more present in their area and diocese. In other words, the clergy and parishes get a better deal; (b) the bishops work as an episcopal team, ensuring both stronger mutual support/challenge and imposing a check on wild ideas, plans or judgements.

So, parishes and civic areas get two bishops: one local and one 'regional' who gain an intimate and informed understanding of life on the ground. One can be a check on the other.

Of course, as I keep saying, no structure of itself achieves anything; it all depends on how the structure is populated, led and exploited… and that comes down to the nature and abilities of the people you appoint to do it. Which, of course, is no different from the challenge we have if we remain as three separate dioceses.

Practicalities

That said, a large diocese (and before thinking this proposal is dangerously radical and untested, we need to look at the dioceses of London, Southwark, Chelmsford, Lichfield, Oxford… to name a few) means further to travel for diocesan meetings, and so on. Well, potentially, yes, of course it might. But this is hardly unique and is an odd objection. People are different – some won't travel more than to the next-door parish for a deanery meeting and others will travel further because they believe in the importance of what they are doing. There seems to be an assumption around that all diocesan meetings would be held in Leeds – but it is unclear where that assumption comes from. In other dioceses with area systems, 'central' meetings move around – partly in order to acquaint the decision-makers, both clergy and lay, of the nature of the parts of the whole diocese.

This of all other practical objections is the one that seems to me to be clutching at 'resistance straws'. How these things will work out will depend simply on the breadth of vision, sense of adventure, creative imagination and visionary energy of those who lead the new diocese. And that can't be laid down in detail before the thing comes to be.

Enough now. Change is inevitable. If the scheme does not go through, it will not be 'business as usual' in any of the three dioceses. And the (in some people's minds)'reserve option' of Bradford and Ripon& Leeds going ahead together without Wakefield is a non-starter – it does not answer in any way the question addressed by the Dioceses Commission in bringing their proposals in the first place. Going forward the questions will not go away and the need for change will not evaporate in a cloud of safety, imagined certainty or wishful thinking.

As I have kept saying, we either see ourselves as victims of change (compelled by the decisions of other people) or we shape our future by choosing change. And that means having the sort of courage to recognise that choosing anything new will bring problems, challenges, unforeseen difficulties and the perpetual pain of those people who look for opportunities to say “I told you so”. But, courageous leadership arising from vision has to be big enough to handle all that, bracket the personal stuff, press on, take responsibility… and take the incalculable risk of inspiring both church and society that we can do what Jesus always invited people to do: leave something behind in order to walk in a different direction in order to go somewhere unpredicted… and to do it all with some sense of adventure as well s attention to detail.

More anon.

It’s amazing how easily people romanticise the past. Even in the Church.

The ‘golden age’ was always the one we remember from our childhood and usually turns out to be like many childhood memories – a fantasy. John Bell used to speak about the ‘teddy bear theology’ of middle-aged (wo)men who look back rather than forwards and, like the Israelites who whinged about the food only days after being released from 400 years of captivity in Egypt, mis-remember reality. (Is that a Bush-ism?)

Well, have a look at this clip of the Diocese of Southwark Clergy Conference from several decades ago (I can’t find the precise date). Er… the good old days?

[Update 8/9/10: 1961 – it says it on the clip!]

When I posted Lesson 1 the other day, it clearly slipped the notice of one or two people that my target was readers, not writers. I have given up hoping that journalists are driven by anything other than the clamour for column inches. And that is OK by me. I wish it was otherwise, but we have to live in the real world and get on with it. Anyway, I have added to it in the Guardian.

But, just as we have to get on with it, so do journalists have to get on with having their work critiqued by readers. Jonathan Wynne-Jones got a great scoop with his Southwark story and should be demanding royalties from all the other journalists who have simply lifted his story and his words, put them under their own name and given his story legs. And that brings us to the first part of this lesson in media literacy.

As I discovered for myself last December (when I ‘banned’ Christmas – apparently), the initial story is taken as accurate, embellished in repetition and broadcast without question or critique. So, JW-J’s article on the Southwark saga has been lifted wholesale by other journalists who have asked no questions, checked no facts, done no further critique. The response, therefore, is to the story as presented and not necessarily to the facts of the case. My point is simply that readers need to be aware of what they are reading, where it has come from and at least think that some of it might be based on questionable assumptions.

We need a reality check here. JW-J says on his blog – with reference to me and one other bishop:

Then there are the bishops who have decided to put their heads in the sand by blaming it all on the media. Yawn. Why not blame the weather for the rain? Whether they are deluded or deliberately disingenuous, it is a sad indictment of their failure to face the real issues at the heart of the story. In an attempt to shift the focus, one bonkers bishop suggested that the initial story was written “out of ignorant mischief-making”. Talk about condemned by his own words. If anyone looks ignorant here, it is the bishops who have lost touch with reality and are happy to point the finger anywhere rather than at their Church. Because the truth is that the Jeffrey John saga has once again exposed the mess it’s in, but they’re just too blind or embarrassed to face it.

Yawn. I thought we were past this sort of stuff. There are worse places to put your head – such as up the backside of your own hubris. But for JW-J to confuse critique of his story with delusion about the facts underlying it is … er … disingenuous at best. Let’s be serious:

  • The Church of England is not a papal autocracy, so we have open debate about serious matters and the resulting conflict is a scandal for the church and a gift for the media;
  • The ways in which these debates are handled is sometimes appalling – people are too ready to jump to a microphone on the basis of reportage rather than truth;
  • The Church does damage to itself without help from the media and it is the Church that has to address this.

However, that is not all. Journalists who tell our stories are not disinterested, objective observers. They are part of the story and, indeed, shape it by the way they tell it. They do not occupy neutral territory – hence the importance of the words they use (‘frontunner’, ‘favoured candidate’, ‘blocked’, etc.).

Is that really so hard to grasp?

JW-J needs better advice on choosing examples: we don’t blame the weather for the rain – but we do know that the rain is part of the weather. And it is clear that to at least some of the 3,000 people who have read my last post that the shaping of the Southwark story itself begged questions – questions JW-J avoids with a dismissive yawn.

This evening we had a reception for those being ordained as Deacons and Priests in the Diocese of Southwark next Sunday, 4 June. They are a mixed bunch of people – evidence that God doesn’t call clones and honours the flawed humanity we bring to the party. As I left I wondered what the future will hold for these people who have given up much in order to respond the call of God on their lives. Where will they be (and what will they be like) in ten or twenty years from now?

No idea. Not a clue. I have given up trying to imagine people’s future trajectories – experience has taught me to be open to surprise. But it has also taught me to be open to hope. I was reminded of Jürgen Moltmann‘s wisdom:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

These people soon to be ordained will need to discover (if they haven’t done already) the need for hope to be a wide space and not narrowed down by their own prejudices or theological/ideological straitjackets. Experience (as well as our reading of the Bible) tells us that God will not be pinned down to suit our own comforts; we must beware of trying to shape God in our own image.

Tomorrow I will be leading a Quiet Day for clergy at Worth Abbey and will be basing my addresses on the story of Jonah from the Old Testament. Many people think it is a kiddy’s story about a weird bloke being sicked out of a whale’s stomach; it isn’t. It is about a man discovering (but not very well or willingly) that God’s love and mercy cannot be limited by our own limitations or desire for God only to behave well to the people of whom we happen to approve. God has a habit of never sticking to our moral formulae – which can sometimes be embarrassing.

I recently read the book about Anglicanism and the future, called The Hope of Things to Come. Like most edited books, it is a mixed bag. The first two chapters by Dr Charlotte Methuen are very interesting, but spoiled by lack of proofreading by an editor: there are loads of typos and words transposed. But, these chapters and the book as a whole repay careful consideration as they address a generally Christian and specifically Anglican approach to tradition and change in both world and church. Charlotte Methuen quotes Sir Thomas More (1478-1535):

Tradition is not holding onto the ashes but passing on the flame.

However, the flame of hope – indeed, of confidence – can only be passed on if it has first been received and held. And that confidence has to be rooted not in a particular tradition, but in the person of the God whose character and activity the tradition is supposed to be about.

My own hope for these ordinands is that their experience of the church will blow oxygen onto the flame and make it dance… and not let the flame die out in order to preserve and honour the wick. I hope they will play like Brazil against Chile (full of flair, creativity, enjoyment and imagination) and not like England against Germany (er… you know what I mean…).

The job of the bishop is to fan the flames, keep the fire burning, feed the embers when they are in danger of dying. In the words of the great Bruce Cockburn song/prayer (sort of):

Love that fires the sun keep them burning.

The Southwark Diocesan Clergy Conference ends this morning and then we get our specially chartered train back to London. It has been excellent – something I can happily attest to as I had nothing to do with the planning of it.

We had a wide range of speakers from a range of perspectives addressing themes around the basic Renew, Revive, Refresh idea. Every speaker brought something challenging and encouraging – and the fact that different people got upset by different elements means that we probably got it about right. The great thing is that (probably with one or two exceptions) the wide variety of clergy coped with walking together throught the minefields of their theological or ecclesiological differences. No one had a hissy fit – or, at least, not in public.

One speaker came from another diocese and had the rather unplanned effect of making our clergy glad to be in the Diocese of Southwark and not in his diocese. Dr Paula Gooder set our hearts and minds on fire with her Bible studies and Bishop James Jones surprised many with a passionate, thoughtful and deeply (and realistically) pastoral sermon yesterday – wonderful stuff.

Two things among many, many good elements stand out for me from this conference. First, Paula Gooder demonstrating from Philippians 2 that when Jesus ’emptied himself’, coming as one of us, he chose to do so. This might sound obvious, but we human beings (and Christians are not exempt) love to shift responsibility onto someone else – especially if there is a risk of something going wrong. Those who follow Christ must do so because they choose to do so and they must be people who take responsibility and not shirk it or shift it. We need to grow up.

Secondly, last night brought the conference to a social head with a quiz night, a showing (and discussion) of Slumdog Millionaire, and a Singalongamammamia. I had a team in the quiz until we heard about the Mamma Mia… It was a scream. Over 100 of us sang, danced and laughed our way through it and then kept the dancing going for a long time. It was the funniest night I have had for a long time and a welcome conclusion to several weeks of conferences.

James Jones had talked (as an aside, obviously) about the place of humour and laughter in a healthy community. Today we go back to South London and East Surrey having worshipped, studied, listened, discussed, prayed, danced and laughed together for a few days in Derbyshire. Which sounds pretty healthy to me.

Monday 3 August 2009

Today I leave for just over a week in Zimbabwe. On the phone last night my daughter asked me why I am going there again. Another friend asked me if I ever go anywhere normal. How rude of both of them!

A bit of history might be useful, starting with the recent political and economic situation and following on with the story of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe in the last decade. Then the reason for my visit will make more sense. I will be brief and run the risk of giving an incomplete and subjective survey.

When Robert Mugabe became President of the new Republic of Zimbabwe in 1979 he was a hero. Even Ian Smith, the deposed white Prime Minister of Rhodesia, commented positively on the early days of Mugabe’s rule. As the decades went by, people became frustrated with the lack of progress in some areas of economic life and Mugabe resorted to a disastrous redistribution of land from white farmers to black indigenous ‘war veterans’. The violence and injustice of the methods used (even if the need for the redistribution was acknowledged) turned the world against Mugabe, who then became increasingly extreme in his opposition to the West that was now isolating him politically and economically. Apart from genocidal slaughter of the Ndebele, corrupt fiddling of elections, disastrous economic policies and a victim complex that allowed everybody in Zimbabwe to suffer other than himself and his cronies, he reduced his once thriving country to a ruin. Last year, having stolen the election, he oversaw starvation, cholera, rampant inflation (they stopped counting at 231,000,000%) and almost total unemployment.

Lozane 017The world watched in disgust as this breadbasket of Africa became a basket case. When I was here two years ago inflation was a mere 10,000% and we thought it couldn’t get worse. There were power cuts that went on for days, water stopped being pumped, schools couldn’t function and the economy packed up. Then Mugabe reluctantly acceded to a Unity Government, bringing in the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, as Prime Minister. This was a risky move and invited the suspicion of a worried ZanuPF elite and the charge of treachery from elements of the MDC. Yet this single move is probably responsible for the turn-around in Zimbabwe’s fortunes that is now evident.

The Zim Dollar is dead. Now the main currency is the US Dollar, but other currencies are also legitimate (Sterling, the South African Rand, the Euro). Allowances being paid to workers (instead of salaries) have allowed work to resume. Supermarkets are full of produce, transport is working again, life has re-started for many people. Yes, there are still massive health problems and serious questions about management of the economy; the rule of law has yet to be re-established and justice restored; the life expectancy of this HIV/Aids-devastated country is still in the mid-30s for both men and women; many ordinary people do not find it easy to get hold of US Dollars and food programmes are still needed. But the schools are open again, teachers are teaching, factories are beginning to open again and trade is resuming.

Within that politico-economic context the Anglican Church had a particular role to play. Opposition to Mugabe’s cruelties and insane economic policies was led by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, until he was compromised by the CIO (secret police). The Anglican Church had been rendered impotent by its own internal scandals – principally the election of Nolbert Kunonga as Bishop of Harare in (I think) 2002. Kunonga was a Mugabe henchman who was rewarded for his loyalty with a formerly white-owned farm. Kunonga was a disaster of epic proportions who regarded the Church (and its assets) as his personal property and managed to prevent the Anglican Church offering a coherent opposition voice to Mugabe. It was only in 2007 that Kunonga (and the newly-elected Bishop of Manicaland, Elson Jakazi) made a wrong move, was excommunicated from the Province of Central Africa and regarded as persona non grata by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion.

The Church is now re-building its effectiveness across the country, but it is far from out of the woods. Despite numerous court rulings, Kunonga still holds onto the assets of the Diocese of Harare and (although it looks as if this might be changing) is backed by the police.

So, why am I bothered? The Diocese of Southwark is divided into three Episcopal Areas: Kingston, Woolwich and Croydon. Each Episcopal Area is linked with one of the five dioceses in Zimbabwe (Harare being linked with Rochester in England and Masvingo with Southwark Cathedral). When I became Bishop of Croydon in 2003 I walked straight into the link with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe and its bishop, Ishmael Mukuwanda. I visited Gweru with my wife in 2004, then took a group of 20 for a two-week visit in 2007 – a visit that was fraught with difficulties including constant harassment from the secret police and misrepresentation in the Zimbabwean media (and, subsequently, across the world via the Internet).

Zimbabwe mapThe Croydon-Zimbabwe Link Team does fantastic work partnering parishes in my Episcopal Area with parishes in Central Zimbabwe, raising funds for very practical projects in Central Zimbabwe aimed at securing long-term growth and financial self-sufficiency for the diocese. We pray for our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe daily and weekly in our churches and we know that we are prayed for, too. This is a relationship that has grown through testing times – one that has mutual benefits and is carefully trying to avoid being characterised as a donor-receiver relationship.

I am going out to Zimbabwe from 3-11 August to visit the bishop (who is now a very good friend), to catch up on projects and people, to see for myself what is happening in the country, to do whatever I am asked to do while I am there and to discuss future direction and priorities. Maybe the impressions gained during hard times will now be revised – or maybe not. But, at least I will see for myself and not have to rely on third-hand news reports.

I am not sure whether or not I will be able to blog from there or not. I am not sure about broadband internet availability. So, it is entirely possible that I will be publishing a large number of posts in one go when I return. We will see.