Discussing the sinking ship…

That post the other day with the text of my piece that had gone missing from Threads? Turns out it had been pulled – temporarily – and when it returned on Thursday morning, it was minus the article to which it was responding.

Sinking Ship Recruiting Now

Chine Mbubaegbu (Director of Communications for the EA, who publishes Threads) explained on Twitter why this turn of events occurred – she hadn’t seen the piece prior to publication and when she did, she felt strongly that it was completely the wrong tone for the site. The page where the article once was now features an apology.

“We’re all for asking questions and critiquing but in all of our questioning and doubts and critique, we want to look for the better way – just like Jesus did. And when we’re writing about the Church; our hope is that it can become all it’s called to be. We knew many would disagree with the post – like we did – so we had tried to pre-empt that by commissioning a more hopeful response. But for some things, a response just doesn’t cut it.”

I completely agree with their decision. Turns out a response piece makes no difference when it’s on a different page; when the link to the controversial piece is being tweeted around with no reference to a follow up. The piece was very dark, which is why I agreed to Threads’ suggestion that I write a reply, I knew it was too angry to be on its own.Perhaps if we’d written the article together, kind of dialogue or Q&A style, it might have worked better? Hindsight is a marvellous thing… But, life over the last couple of days would have been a lot simpler if this had been realised before publication!

The piece in question is no longer online, but I’ve taken the decision to include a link to a PDF of it here. I wasn’t going to, but its author has been unwilling to put it up elsewhere (although he is sending it out to people who DM him about it). It’s the version Threads sent to me and I’m pretty sure it’s exactly as it was published. At least now those who have been keen to make their own judgement on it, can.

It’s an angry article, but in amongst some of the less than attractive imagery (anyone met a vicar who creeps around like ‘Gollum at an orgy’??) is a really valid point: Christianity is virtually irrelevant to British society today, what is it doing to change this and is recruiting more clergy really going to help?

This point was why I felt compelled to write the response. If someone had asked me this in the pub, I would have willingly had a discussion with them about it. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that I love being part of Matryoshka Haus – the variety of the community means that questions like this can and do crop up on a regular basis. Close friends of mine have been hurt and disillusioned by the church and conversations with them have been a hugely important element of my journey towards ordination. The church NEEDS this kind of a discussion, it can’t just hide away under a pew and think that it will go away!! [In fact, note to DDO’s and Theological College tutors: writing a response to this article would be an excellent formation exercise for any potential church leader.]

When the articles were published, I’d hoped for some constructive discussion. I know that this can be hard on social media, but the Threads comments often prove to be fruitful and Facebook is easier. (Twitter is a flipping nightmare, you can’t have a good discussion via 140 character comments!) In my mind, I envisaged the kind of discussion I have from time to time with an atheist friend on Facebook, who maturely asks interesting questions and treats my responses with respect – as I do his. (Interestingly, we met via a church youth group…)

Unfortunately, productive discussion didn’t really ensue. Apparently Alex, my ‘opposition’, has something of a reputation on Threads and on Twitter for being antagonistically controversial. (Had I realised this, I don’t think I’d have agreed to write the response.) Some people (ordained people in fact) made some rather misguided comments about him, which was wrong – although they apologised pretty quickly. Lots of people simply felt that the article was entirely inappropriate for a Christian website.

I wasn’t expecting things to get particularly nasty on Twitter, especially as before publication, Alex had said that he ‘bloody loved’ my piece. But by yesterday morning, I was rueing the day I’d ever had an email from Threads! The disappearance of the articles without (initial) explanation caused a bit of a kerfuffle. By the time I went to bed, someone I follow on Twitter was effectively being trolled by Alex for expressing an opinion on the piece without having read it – what she had read was a very interesting analysis of it that Mark Hewerdine blogged before it had been removed. 36 hours later, she was still receiving what I can only describe as abuse, because she hadn’t read it but was still discussing it – the fact that she could not read it because the author chose not to make it available was apparently irrelevant!

Nothing I’m saying here should be news to Alex. I tweeted him yesterday to explain that I agreed with Threads’ decision, and that I wouldn’t have agreed to write the piece had I known that he was going behave so immaturely. I love Twitter and hate when it gets stirred up with a lot of ill feeling! One of his replies was that he hoped I’d find a ‘nice’ writer to write with. You know what, nice is a bonus, what I’m really after is mature and respectful – which is exactly what I got from my atheist Facebook friend this morning regarding my article.

The church generates very strong feelings, in all sorts of directions, from a lot of people. There needs to be a place for healthy discussion, that hopefully yields really productive results. The church can’t turn around its fortunes on its own – it needs to listen to those who disagree with what it’s done in the past and accept that it has made mistakes. I really hope that the beginning of helpful discussions that Alex’s article generated will see some positive outcomes. Voices like his do need to be heard, but perhaps in a slightly less antagonistic tone. 

At some point Alex is intending to publish a 20,000 piece expanding his views on what the church needs to do and I genuinely look forward to reading it. Hopefully, the church will take notice…

Boarding the Sinking Ship

Boarding the sinking ship

This morning, an article with the above title went up on Threads – but for some reason it’s currently not available. It was a response to another article (published at exactly the same time) entitled ‘A sinking ship we should abandon?’ – a reference to a church that is quickly disappearing. The article to which I was responding proved to be very controversial and at points today I’ve pondered whether agreeing to write a response was a good thing. (There is a whole blogpost about that which I composed in my head earlier…)

The missing posts may be owing to a glitch on the super-shiny new website that launched yesterday, or it could be that someone at Threads thought better of publishing it. I’ve had a few requests on Twitter for the text, so I’m posting it here. (My version may be slightly different from the one Threads posted, as I know they edited it for length!) It’s possible it’ll reappear on Threads, in which case this post may come down. I won’t post the other article here, even though I have the text, as I don’t think that would be fair. Hopefully it’ll resurface tomorrow. 

Apparently, I’ve made a bad move, career-wise. On July 4th, I was ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral, into an institution that may as well be irrelevant the majority of the population who don’t believe in the God I’ve committed my life to. I’m not so much a new curate, more a new curator at the ‘faith museum’ that is the Church of England.

I know the stats: the 2011 census showed a drop of 13% in the number of Brits identifying themselves as Christian since 2001. Since 1960, attendance at Church of England churches has halved. Methodist membership’s declined by nearly two-thirds since 1980. The numbers are bleak.

Am I kidding myself that the pension fund I began paying into last month will still exist by the time I retire in 30 or 40 years time? Will I even have a job in my 60’s? How about some more stats: I trained at a college that didn’t even exist ten years ago, and next month, it will welcome a record number of ordinands (over 70). My diocese is aiming to have doubled the number of people entering ordained ministry by 2020. Is this a last ditch attempt to rescue the institution? I think not.

The church got things wrong in the past, but it’s by no means irrelevant today. In parish ministry, I get to meet people at the highest and lowest points of their lives and everything in between – from weddings and celebrating new life, to the funeral of a child that was barely two. I have witnessed how, when the worst of life happens, church communities come together in response. Clergy have a unique role in those spaces and no matter the statistics, society doesn’t seem to be ready to let them go yet.

That’s part of what makes up my ‘calling’. To serve society. It’s not about the Sundays, or being a local celeb. It’s about serving as Christ first served. I know that’ll I never match his sacrifice. I know that many in society don’t give a toss about why I do what I do, but it doesn’t stop me. It doesn’t end at the church door, or the parish boundary, but stretches out far ahead of me – wherever I end up and in whatever role within my vocation.

Countless people question this calling. Some have the right and duty to do so, others are curious. Total strangers, intrigued by my answer to their polite “So, what do you do?” quiz me about my motivations. Often they’re not interested in ‘the church’ – but are curious as to how God impacts someone. “It’s a calling” is never the end of a conversation, often it’s just the beginning.

I could stay hidden amongst those who share these out-dated beliefs, in the security of an emptying church building, but I don’t. I out myself as a ‘professional’ Christian in my dog collar, and get landed with stereotypes, high expectations and abuse. Rather than offering protection, it brands me as one of ‘them’. Not so much a status symbol, as an object of ridicule.

But I carry on wearing it, tucked under my ‘normal’ clothes. I’m just trying to be me, living out what I think God wants me to do. I’m not edgy or trendy (although potentially marginally more so that the kind of vicar Sara Cox had in mind when banning them from wearing trainers). I’m this curate, in this place at this time, looking for God to use me. I’m a feminist who’s made the conscious decision to become Anglican in order to fight the church’s patriarchy – the stained-glass ceiling may have been broken, but it’s left behind shards that can cut those attempting to travel through it.

I’m anxious not to get caught up in a Christian bubble – I’m more interested in getting out into the ‘real’ world than inviting people into ours. If the church is to survive it has to make that its mission. It’s not an easy ride. When things didn’t go to plan and I screamed at God in anger and frustration, the message came back loud and clear that ordination was the way forward.

I don’t know how we avoid the iceburg, but I do know that abandoning ship isn’t right either – someone’s got to be on the bridge to steer a new course.