On being a ‘Church leader’

rembrandt-christ-before-caiaphas-c-1649-50

‘It is a paradox that the one thing a “Church leader” cannot very often do is to lead. He [or she] sees [their] task more as one of preservation. Not always, I agree, but often enough to make the Johannine Caiaphas intelligible not as providing a shallow excuse for anti-semitism but for understanding the ultimate tragedy of Jesus of Nazareth’.

– Mr MacKinnon

[Image: Rembrandt, ‘Christ before Caiaphas’ (c. 1649–50)]

Rowan Williams: An Interview

Rowan Williams 12In this insightful and encouraging interview, conducted with Terence Handley MacMath and first published in the Church Times, Rowan Williams ruminates on teaching, church leadership, theological education, funding, experiencing God, faith, the theological task, reporting on charities, his greatest influences, and reassuring and loved sounds. His comments – particularly those about the relationship between Christ and the world – are all the more pertinent given recently-published pieces in the mainstream media about what most of us, I suspect, have known for so long now, about Britain’s ‘disappearing Christianity’ and Christian extinction’.

My work is teaching, writing, studying, plus lots of administration and raising funds for the college, and chairing Christian Aid. Probably most of my time goes on college, and a variety of teaching events for churches and schools.

I’m currently giving a series of lectures here on the history of the doctrine of Christ, trying to tease out how thinking about Christ clarifies the relation between God and creation overall.

As Archbishop, you’re constantly responding to things, and even if you do get some writing done — as I did, a bit — it tends to be issue-focused. I like having the chance of some longer breaths for thinking through questions.

When I was in post, the urgent questions were often serious theological ones, if rather heavily disguised at times; so I found myself reflecting hard about the nature of authority in the Church, and what it meant to speak about the interdependent life of the Body of Christ. That latter point continues to be absorbing for me, and I think that this term’s lectures will have reflected that a bit — thinking about the inseparable connection between what we say about Jesus Christ, and what we say about the community that lives in him.

A bishop has to be a teacher of the faith. That is, he or she has to be someone who is animated by theology and eager to share it — animated by theology in the sense of longing to inhabit the language and world of faith with greater and greater intelligence, insight, and joy. So, yes, bishops need that animation and desire to help others make sense of their commitment.

Arguments about priestly training go round and round, don’t they? Too theoretical, too pragmatic, not enough of this, not enough of that. . . My worry is, if we focus too much on curriculum — what should the modules be? — we may somehow fail to connect things up in a big picture in which pastoral care, sacramental life, prayer, scripture, social and political perspective, and doctrine all interweave. We need to have that interconnectedness in our minds constantly, as we seek to shape future ordained ministry, because that is what provides the deepest resource for arid and frustrating times. And that is what guarantees that we have something to offer our society that’s more than simply religious uplift, moral inspiration, or nice experiences.

A lot of debate in and out of the Church is shadow-boxing, because people don’t recognise what the questions are. Of course, recognising what the questions are does not remotely guarantee that you will agree, but it helps to know what you’re disagreeing about, and stops you resorting to tribal slogans, whether secular or religious. My old friend and colleague Oliver O’Donovan is particularly good at this excavation of basic questions, and has been a great help and inspiration.

In an ideal world, government and educational establishments would recognise that theology is as significant a study as other humanities. But, given that the study of the humanities in general is so badly supported these days, I’m not holding my breath. It’s anything but an ideal world.

This means that I would plead with the Church to take seriously the need for investing in theological education at all levels — to recognise that there is a huge appetite for theology among so many laypeople, and thus a need for clergy who can respond and engage intelligently. The middle-term future may need to be one where there are more independent centres of theological study outside universities, given the erosion of resources in higher education, and I think it’s time more people started thinking about what that might entail in terms of funding.

British theology is more cosmopolitan than when I started studying it. In the Sixties, people writing about doctrine in the UK were not very enthusiastic about Continental writers (though it was different for New Testament scholars); and modern Roman Catholic theology was largely ignored. Now we read far more widely, I think, and we’re more ready to take time over the intricacies of historical arguments rather than dismiss them as tiresome and unnecessary complications.

There’s more critical interest in the history of spirituality, and more willingness to let it come into the territory of doctrine. All this is to the good. My sadness is the decline of institutional resources for theology in the UK: limited funds for research, and theology departments under threat.

It’s hard to pin down my first experience of God, but I suppose [it was] through shared worship in the Presbyterian chapel of my childhood, and a strong sense — when I was around eight, and my grandmother, who lived with us, was dying — of God’s care and providence, and the presence of the crucified Christ. Shared worship is still a major part of how I encounter God, but, from my teens, this has been balanced by a growing hunger for silence before God.

I’ve never felt any real disjunction between academic theology and faith. I’ve found that studying the development of Christian doctrine has excited me, and helped me see something of the veins and sinews of faith. My research has arisen out of my desire to understand better what we say as people of faith.

Apart from the obvious question about how we Anglicans manage the tension of living in a diverse global church — where we need a more robust theology of what interdependence does and doesn’t mean — I think my biggest concern is that we don’t have a rich enough Anglican theological consensus on the sacramental nature of the Church. That’s eucharistic ecclesiology, to put it in technical language.

Underrated theologians? John Bowker, Olivier Clément, Andrew Shanks.

Theology has a modest but vital part to play in the Church’s mission. We need to keep asking questions about how we’re using our language, so that we don’t get stuck with unexamined habits of speech, don’t assume that true formulations about God tell us everything about him, don’t forget the sheer scale of what we are daring to speak about. Theology helps with all this. And it helps clarify what we believe about human nature and destiny, which is of real importance for a world that is often deeply unsure or confused about the roots of human dignity.

Theologians don’t necessarily ask the same questions as others do, but there is a continuity, and theologians need the skill and patience to draw out those continuities. That’s why it is important that there are writers who try to work in the boundaries between academic theology and secular culture, and those who try to put the great governing themes of classical theology into plainer words. Mike Lloyd is a good example.

I was an only child. My father worked as an engineer, and my mother had lifelong health and mobility problems. They were both Christians, though reticent and sometimes uncertain about it. My wife, Jane, of course, is well-known in her own right as a teacher and writer. We have a daughter who teaches in an inner-city primary school, and a son studying drama at university. Both would still call themselves Christian, though they slip in and out of the institutional life of the Church.

The most reassuring, loved sound to me is the door opening when my wife or children come home.

Some irresponsible and hostile reporting about charities was the last thing that made me angry. Nationally and internationally, charities are expected to pick up the slack where statutory provision drops away — yet they’re subjected not just to proper demands for accountability, but often to what looks like wilfully negative and undermining reporting, focused on excessive salaries, inadequate monitoring of expenditure, intrusive fund-raising, and so on. These things all happen, and need to stop happening; but just how representative are the hostile headline stories, especially where international aid is concerned?

I’m happiest when I’m at the Pembrokeshire coast on family holidays.

Augustine has probably been the greatest theological influence above all, but also Vladimir Lossky, who was the focus of my doctoral research; Barth, Bonhoeffer, Austin Farrer, Donald MacKinnon, James Alison. I don’t know if Simone Weil is allowed to count as a theologian; I don’t always agree with her by any means, but she was a huge influence at several points. Among specific books, I remember Bonhoeffer’s prison letters; Charles Williams’s He Came Down From Heaven; Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations.

The greatest influences in my life have been the parish priest in my teenage years; the Benedictine monk who was my spiritual director; and Jane and the children.

I pray most for patience, freedom to forgive and let go of hurt — for myself and for the whole Church and human family — and for the rescue of the vulnerable: the abused, hungry, terrified, wherever they are.

If I had to choose a companion to be locked in a church with for a few hours, I’d toss up between St Augustine, T. S. Eliot, and Bonhoeffer, from the past. In the present — family apart — Salley Vickers, Michael Symmons Roberts, or Kathleen Norris.

Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life – 2

Lipsey - Hammarskjold. A LifeJim Gordon’s recent post asks some good questions about the nature of leadership. He insightfully compares two figures – Steve Jobs and Dag Hammarskjöld – and asks which of these represents the brand of leadership most commensurate with the ministry of the viva vox dei of which the church is a creature. While words like ‘perseverance’, ‘attractive’, ‘impressive’, ‘innovative’ and ‘successful’ dominate airport bookshops’ literature on the subject of leadership, and go some way to describing Jobs’ own unique set of giftings, what is less apparent is a lexicon required to describe the manner of leadership modelled by Hammarskjöld, where the grammar of ‘servanthood’ and ‘trust’ and ‘relationships’ proves to be both indispensable and to be ends in themselves, and where the whole is motivated by a particular vision of reconciliatory being at the centre of all reality, the patient Thou apart from whom life makes no sense, and hope in the possibilities of human communities in which the many (and not the few) flourish is kept alive.

I am thus far only about half way through Lipsey’s gentle, spiritual and stimulating biography on Hammarskjöld, but already there has been hardly a page in which Jim’s assessment of the Swedish diplomat and economist is not confirmed, and that perhaps in no chapter more so than that which attends to tensions in late 1957 when the Maoist Chinese announced that they had sentenced to prison eleven American airmen, plus two CIA agents, shot down near the Korean border. The details of the so-called ‘Peking negotiation’ are carefully retold in Chapter 10 of Lispey’s book, ‘Un Chinois aux Yeux Bleus’ (pp. 210–36), and do not need to be rehashed here except to say, with some understatement, that the level of trust and understanding between the USA and mainland China was at sometime of a low ebb in the aftermath of the Korean War, the UN was still in many ways writing its own job description (something which was among Hammarskjöld’s greatest and most lasting contributions as Secretary General), and China was ardent about finding a seat as a UN member nation. What strikes me most about Hammarskjöld’s leadership in this environment fraught with cultural and political sensitivities (as was the case at other times too such as the tumultuous period of 1956-57 in the Middle East, a region ‘churning with anger and mistrust, conspiracy and threat, outside pressures and a partially concealed but grim arms race’ (p. 237)) was the risky and vulnerable shape of his commitment to practical reconciliation, his refusal to sacrifice deeply help principles on the altar of short-term political point scoring, his personal dedication to the possibility of a certain vision of the future in which international relations might be characterised not by a life-defeating defensiveness and abstraction but by patient and deeply personal trust and search for mutual understanding which for Hammarskjöld, at this particularly volatile point in twentieth century history, meant wading gently through a political, legal, historical and organisational morass. It was, to be sure, an act of careful diplomacy – and the favourable outcome was, in many ways, a triumph of such – but if by that we mean something like an act of a clever stuntman, we will have completely missed an astonishing achievement of an extraordinarily hopeful human being among us. To recall words he spoke in May 1955 at a press conference on nuclear disarmament, and which in many ways characterise his own leadership: ‘There have been no precedents or experiences which entitle us not to try again’.

That the church too is burdened with passionately-defended lines of demarcation that sponsor a silence towards and lies about those who hold to different positions on all manner of subjects, and with a widespread absence of porosity – and so a desire to grow with and vis-à-vis the other – means that she too is desperately in need of the kind of leadership that Hammarskjöld embodies.

‘Uneasy Rider? The Challenge to a Ministry of Word and Sacrament in a Post-Christendom Missional Climate’

The Inaugural Lecture for the 2012 academic year for students at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership was delivered by my colleague the Rev Mark Johnston. A copy of the lecture – ‘Uneasy Rider? The Challenge to a Ministry of Word and Sacrament in a Post-Christendom Missional Climate’ – is now available for download (pdf,ppt). Previous inaugural lectures can be downloaded by visiting here.

Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations: A Review

Anthony B. Robinson, Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 199 pp; ISBN 978-0-8028-0759-5.

Changing the Conversation is a sequel to Anthony Robinson‘s most recent books Transforming Congregational Culture (2003) and What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church (2006). It builds upon and complements work done by Diana Butler Bass, Darrell Guder, Michael Foss, Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren and others in their quest for the Church to find ‘a third way’ of being that moves beyond stereotyped polarities all-too-typical of its life and seeks a redefinition from a new centre which finds its pulse in its defining narrative – that is, in the divine economy. Robinson invites congregations to walk upon a way paved by the rediscovery of fresh language (which includes a rediscovery of ‘older words and concepts of the living tradition of our faith’ (p. 2)), the development of new conceptual frameworks, the formulation of new agendas and imaginings for being and doing church, and the fostering of new ways of framing both internal and external challenges and relations.

Robinson (who has served as an ordained Minister of the United Church of Christ and has remained in touch with the realities of congregational life), understands that change is an inevitable and indispensable part of congregational life, that good leaders know and embrace this, and that a significant part of healthy change involves ceasing the typically dead-end conversations that congregations engage in, embracing reality accurately, and framing the challenges adequately. Drawing upon Ron Heifetz’s distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges, and rehearsing Peter Drucker’s two simple questions – ‘What business are you in?’ and ‘How’s business?’ – this book identifies and is shaped around ten conversations that Robinson believes are requisite in order to initiate, deepen, sustain and grow congregational and denominational life.

The opening chapter is concerned to map in broad outline some of the important historical and cultural shifts that have shaped, and been shaped by, the Church’s baptism of and in Christendom, and how the emergence of a post-Christendom North America is impacting historically mainline Protestant congregations and their ministry from one of chaplaincy to one of mission. One feature of Church that he believes will need to undergo a significant shift in both conceptuality and praxis concerns the role of pastors: ‘Instead of being chaplains to church and community, they will be congregational leaders and spiritual directors. They will not do most or all of their ministry on behalf of the larger church. They will support that ministry through preaching and teaching, mentoring and guiding’ (p. 29).

William Stringfellow once observed, ‘These are harsh days for Protestants in America. American Protestants suffer the pathetic anxieties of a people once ascendant and reigning, but now defensive and in retreat’. How congregations might respond creatively (and in ways that move beyond lament and complaint, bewilderment and apathy) to the challenges and opportunities of this post-Christendom situation is the subject of Chapter Two. Rather than denying or bemoaning the sea change, Robinson asks if congregations might find a way to discern God at work among them and to respond by birthing new and more productive conversations and hopeful, engaged responses. He reminds us that ‘the word “Protestant” does not mean perpetual protest’ but rather derives from pro (‘for’) and testari (‘to testify). So, he asks, ‘what testimony do we offer about God and about God’s work in our midst?’ (p. 44).

The third conversation, ‘A New Heart’, is an invitation to think about how the renewal of hearts and minds is at the centre of mainline Protestant congregations, is not reducible to a formula or recipe, and is always more important than any technique or program.

In Chapter Four, Robinson turns to the issue of leadership, arguing that the work of leadership in the post-Christendom period is to assist congregations to face their own most important challenges and make progress on them. He defines pastoral leadership as ‘mobilizing a congregation … to engage its own most pressing problems and deepest challenges’ (p. 84). Part of the task of leadership (not necessarily of the ‘ordained’) is to read the context and congregation, to name and describe the challenges accurately, and to ‘remind a congregation (or other group) of its theologically and biblically informed purpose and core values. In other words, leadership should keep before the congregation the issues of “who are we?” (core values) and “why are we here?” (purpose)’ (pp. 85–6). Robinson observes that many congregations suffer a ‘leadership vacuum’, that instead of pastoral leaders and governing boards, they have chaplains and a group that is either ‘listening to endless reports or trying to micro-manage the operational administration of the congregation. The future’, he continues, ‘belongs to congregations that call and empower pastors who are leaders, and then also call and prepare governing boards that provide effective policy direction and leadership’ (p. 96).

This directly raises the question of purpose, which is the concern of Chapter Five. The ‘Why are we here?’ question is, according to Robinson, always the most important question to begin with. He avers that congregations need reasonable clarity about their core purpose if they are to foster any new vitality and to shift, as Foss believes, from ‘a culture of membership to a culture of discipleship’ (p. 101). In making the important distinction between purpose and vision, Robinson, following C. Kirk Hadaway, contends that purpose is more important than vision, the former both precedes and shapes the latter: ‘Without a fairly clear sense of purpose, congregations can get caught up in the game of cultural catch-up or what’s newest and latest’ (p. 105).

Robinson continues to labour this distinction and its logic of priority in chapters six to eight, drawing upon Heifetz’s notions on ‘adaptive challenges’. In Chapter Six, the concern is to explore the relationship between vision and purpose, on how congregations move from naming their raison d’être, to identifying the key challenges and then authoring a vision statement or strategic plan that serves their ministry. One vital emphasis here is that the work of the congregation does not fall to experts or authorities, nor to the pastor, or a consultant, or a small group designated to solve their problems for them. Rather, Robinson insists that ‘it is the people with the problem themselves, the people facing the challenge, who do the work. If the work is “discovering again God’s purpose (mission) for our church,” we can’t simply assign that to a mission committee’ (p. 122). While he acknowledges that most congregations face a combination of technical problems and adaptive challenges, to the extent that they understand those challenges as technical problems only, they will fail. Moreover, they would have ‘missed important, God-given opportunities to experience new hearts and minds’ (p. 123).

In some ways Chapter Seven represents the book’s thesis most clearly: that the governance and organisation that many congregations are working with are outmoded and incompetent because designed for, and assuming of, a Christendom rapidly passing away. Here’s his basic point:

Underlying the Christendom-era structures of church life are two notions: (1) the best way to involve people in Christian life and church participation is to get them serving on a board or committee of the church; and (2) the job of laity is to manage the church. If your church assumes that the best way to involve people in Christian life and the church is to get them on a board or committee, there’s a good chance that your congregation will have a lot of boards and committees to accommodate them. The result is often structures that are either Byzantine in complexity or Catch-22-like in absurdity. The second unhelpful assumption is that the really important job of lay Christians is to manage the church, its buildings, finances, property, and personnel. This effectively takes the team off the playing field and gives it the task of managing the clubhouse. Instead of inviting people to do ministry, current systems invite them to manage the ministry. You put these two assumptions together and let the whole thing settle for some decades, and the result would make for a good Monty Python skit … Could it be that the real job of dedicated Christians is not to manage the work of the ordained or the operational administration of the church facility, but to represent Christ to the world? I suspect that many would affirm this in theory, yet our church structures tend not to support the theory (pp. 137–8, 140).

The eighth conversation attends to another arena of adaptive work facing mainline congregations; namely, public theology. It asks what shape and what voice the Church might embody in the public square in an age of redefined relations. ‘Death and Resurrection’ is the title of Chapter Nine. Here Robinson suggests that while, for some situations, congregational renewal is possible, sometimes a death – or something that looks and feels very much like death – is required before a resurrection is possible. The final conversation is a bit of a ‘Where to from now?’ chapter.

Changing the Conversation will be read with profit by denominational staff, seminarians studying congregational life, and leaders of congregations. It offers a clear vocalization of some important theses and synthesises some valuable material on mission and vision. That said, some readers will want to question whether Robinson himself offers a decisive enough severing from the Christendom mindset that he is so properly concerned about. At the very least, the book’s pages frequently require some translation from a North American congregational context into other local dialects. Finally, how one assesses this book depends largely on whether one is seeking a handbook of tools or nutrition for a renewing of ecclesiological imagination. While there are indications that Robinson is seeking to offer both, it is more of the former rather than the latter that is to be found in this book.

The Reverend Michael Scott

Tom Arthur asks pastors if they would rather be like Donald Trump or Michael Scott. His own preference, unsurprisingly, is for Michael Scott, and here’s why:

‘I couldn’t put my finger on my preference for Michael Scott over Donald Trump until the most recent episode of “The Office.” Cohesion in the office falls apart as the sales department becomes more important in the company and ends up getting bigger paychecks. All of a sudden money and success come into the story. Michael says that this office breakdown is because they used to “make friends first, make sales second.”

Here’s my leadership takeaway. “The Office” is the kind of place where friendship takes precedence over almost every other goal. When I first started watching I wondered why the characters didn’t just quit and go work someplace else. But then I realized that there is a deep honesty in the show, and honesty leads to commitment. People are who they are, even in all their embarrassing glory, and somehow they keep working together (but do they ever actually do any work?). Somehow Michael Scott holds all these people together amidst their eccentric personalities and crazy dysfunctions.

That’s a different kind of success than the kind that Trump symbolizes, and it’s the kind of success that a pastor should be aiming for. Sometimes successful pastoral leadership looks quite different than what the world calls success. Sometimes it looks like Michael Scott’.

Baptism, ordination and God’s calling forth of faith

ServantBen’s recent post on Baptism and ordination reminded me of some stuff that Ray Anderson once prepared on the relationship between the two. Anderson cautioned that we understand ‘ordination’ not only in relation to baptism, but also in relation to God’s work of calling forth faith, God’s work of guiding and enabling the whole community of faith, God’s care for all people. Ordination must be seen in the light of this broader movement of the divine will – that is, in the context of God’s good purposes for creation. So, the ministry to which a pastor is ordained is deeply and inherently about a life in God, and it means participation in that life. This means that ordination makes no sense not merely apart from baptism but – and more fundamentally – apart from Jesus Christ, and apart from his service to the Father on behalf of the world. So T.F. Torrance (who is not a particularly great friend of Ben’s):

Christ was Himself the diakonos par excellence whose office it was not only to prompt the people of God in their response to the divine mercy and to be merciful themselves, not only to stand out as the perfect model or example of compassionate service to the needy and distressed, but to provide in Himself and in His own deeds of mercy the creative ground and source of all such diakonia. He was able to do that because in Him God Himself condescended to share with men their misery and distress, absorbed the sharpness of their hurt and suffering into Himself, and poured Himself out in infinite love to relieve their need, and He remains able to do that because He is Himself the outgoing of the innermost Being of God toward men in active sympathy and compassion, the boundless mercy of God at work in human existence, unlimited in His capacity to deliver them out of all their troubles. – Thomas F. Torrance, ‘Service in Jesus Christ’ in Theological Foundations for Ministry: Selected Readings for a Theology of the Church in Ministry (ed. Ray S. Anderson; Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 718.

Ben’s post, and the comments that follow (particularly those from the Revd Bruce Hamill who laments ordination ‘to a kind of generic “leadership” which covers all the bases of being a “professional Christian”), reminded me of a powerful essay that I read just last week by Dietrich Bonhoeffer wherein he warns against leadership becoming vested in the concept of the Leader (der Führer), where the humanity of the leader becomes concealed in a role:

Where there is community there is leadership … The group is the womb of the Leader. It gives him everything, even his authority. It is his person to which all the authority, all the honour and all the glory of the group is transferred. The Leader holds no office independent of the group. The group expects the Leader who derives from the group in this way to be the bodily incorporation of its ideal. This task, impossible in itself, is made easier for the Leader by the fact that the group which produced him now sees him already bathed completely in the light of its ideals. It sees him, not in his reality but in his vocation. It is essential for the image of the Leader that the group does not see the face of the one who goes before, but sees him only from behind as the figure stepping out ahead. His humanity is veiled in his Leader’s form … The Leader is what no other person can be, an individual, a personality. The relationship between those led and their leader is that the former transfer their own rights to him. It is this one form of collectivism which turns into intensified individualism. For that reason, the true concept of community, which rests on responsibility, on the recognition that individuals belong responsibly one to another, finds no fulfillment here. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘The Nazi Rise to Power’ in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (ed. John Bowden; London: Collins, 1970), 191, 192, 195.

Now I really need to get back to my reading on Celtic Christianity … some of us have lectures to prepare.

A plea for more theological fools

‘Every king needs at least one fool. The fool is meant to disturb with glimpses of confounding truths that elude rational formulation. To herald the advent of cosmic shifts and to apprehend their significance. To challenge by jest and conundrum all that is sacred and all that the savants have proved to be true and immutable. Every leader, like King Lear, needs at least one Fool. (Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, p. 196).

The painting, Jester with a Lute, is by Frans Hals from c. 1620-5. Oil on wood, 71 x 62 cm; Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The shameful silence of Christian leaders

Why is Pope Benedict virtually alone among Christian leaders to have spoken out against what is being done to Lebanese Christians and Muslims? I know that the issues are complex (and I am not a pacifist), but it seems to me that Israel’s policy of imposing deliberate suffering on the Lebanese population to force them to do something they are powerless to do (disarm the gunmen among them) violates not only international law and common sense, but is, more importantly, at odds with the gospel itself. Any thoughts?

Feasting on Forsyth and Bonhoeffer

First, here’s what I’ve been reflecting on today. Two Forsyth quotes:

‘The supreme task for the last reality, if it be holy, is to assert and secure itself against the last challenge of it. It is to cope with moral evil, which is its absolute antithesis and mortal foe. If man can do that he is his own reality and his own God. If he cannot, his only footing is in the God who can – who indeed must, or He is not God.’ (PT Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, 185)

‘Faith can be confounded only if God fail.’ (PT Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, 350)

Next, the latest IJST is out and includes some promising articles:

‘Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism’, by Bruce Mccormack

‘Violence in Bloomsbury: A Theological Challenge’, by Oliver Davies

‘Accommodation to What? Univocity of Being, Pure Nature, and the Anthropology of St Irenaeus’, by Hans Boersma

‘The Trinity, Election and God’s Ontological Freedom: A Response to Kevin W. Hector’, by Paul Molnar

‘Actualism and Incarnation: The High Christology of Friedrich Schleiermacher’, by Kevin Hector

There’s also some interesting reviews, including one that I reproduce here by Peter Manley Scott on Kelly and Nelson’s book on Moral leadership in Bonheoffer.

Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, xvii + 300pp.

What is to be done with Bonhoeffer’s literary legacy? In this excellent book, Kelly and Nelson give an emphatic answer: by his writings, Bonhoeffer is to be taken as a political theologian. By concentrating on his exercise of moral leadership, and his criticism of the leadership failures of others, Kelly and Nelson re-contextualize Bonhoeffer’s theology into the example of his life. In other words, Bonhoeffer is a political theologian with a difference: Kelly and Nelson narrate his efforts at responsible church leadership in a crisis situation by attending to the interaction between Bonhoeffer’s theological work and his free decisions. As Bonhoeffer noted in one of his last letters, it is example that gives words their power. Kelly and Nelson implicitly take this as a hermeneutical clue for their splendid presentation of Bonhoeffer: no abstracted theology, no thoughtless leadership but instead the highly intelligent work of being a disciple in a politically dangerous situation in which the truth of the gospel is at stake and responsible action is required; political theology in the service of Christ.

Furthermore, they make insightful suggestions about an additional recontextualization: how such an example of moral leadership might inform and criticise the moral leadership currently being practised by the Western churches. Thus an abiding subtext of the book is the failures in moral leadership in our present-day churches. Put positively, ‘It is not surprising that students of Bonhoeffer’s thought today see so many parallels in his challenges to the churches of Germany and their own churches’ efforts to promote peace, justice and liberation among the people they represent and among those who have no one to speak up for them’ (p. 148).

The organizing principle of the book is thematic rather than chronological. After an opening chapter that offers an account of Bonhoeffer’s life, the remaining chapters imaginatively explore aspects of Bonhoeffer’s spirituality. The commitment to justice or to peace, siding with the poor and the oppressed, following the way of the cross, living in church community: these are among the aspects discussed by Kelly and Nelson. The sources from which this presentation is drawn are mostly Bonhoeffer’s more theological writings; however, the two final chapters draw extensively on Bonhoeffer’s sermons and poems. Much of this discussion will be familiar to those who have read widely in Bonhoeffer and know the biography by Eberhard Bethge. Nonetheless, arranging the material thematically and concentrating on the matter of leadership does serve to highlight the convergence of discipleship and responsible action in Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. Additionally, we get a clearer sense of the resources – prayer, reading the Bible, community, family – on which Bonhoeffer himself drew. Through all this, there may also be a tendency to abstract Bonhoeffer a little from his context: the moral leadership of his contemporaries in the Confessing Church is not discussed in detail; when Bonhoeffer is compared to other Christian leaders, the ones selected are Romero and King. Martyrdom – to which I shall return – thereby emerges as an important theme. Moreover, there are some theological surprises: for example, Kelly and Nelson argue for the importance of the Spirit in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Indeed, it may be the case that attention to the path of discipleship allows a clearer view of the pneumatological dimension of Bonhoeffer’s work. Whether Bonhoeffer’s theology may be described as adequately trinitarian, and how some of his theological judgements might be altered if developed in a trinitarian direction, are questions worth pursuing, although they do not receive attention in this book. Nonetheless, this is a well-researched, creative, beautifully written, thought-provoking and moving presentation of Bonhoeffer as Christian radical.

I mentioned earlier that the organization of this book is thematic rather than chronological. There is one sense in which this is not true. That is, the book hinges upon an assessment of Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in the assassination plots against Hitler. It is not quite clear when Bonhoeffer makes this decision but certainly by 1940 he is involved in working in support of the resistance movement in Germany. The nature of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism up to that point, and his change of heart regarding the absoluteness of his pacifism, are carefully documented in chapter 5. As it is this decision to enter into the conspiracy that lead to his arrest and execution, and also to an increasing distance from the Confessing Church, the issue of moral leadership is here presented in its most intensive form. Is it truly an exercise in moral leadership to make such a decision? Perhaps the determination to answer this question in the affirmative accounts for the boldness of the writing of this book. This apparent defence of Bonhoeffer’s decision, and therefore an acceptance of Bonhoeffer’s change of mind as moral development, is important for the case being made regarding Bonhoeffer’s relevance for us. As already noted, the authors wish to make a connection between Bonhoeffer’s moral leadership and the quality of moral leadership exercised today. To what extent, then, is Bonhoeffer’s example to be imitated? One move made by Kelly and Nelson is to relate his position to the current ‘war on terrorism’, specifically the attack on Afghanistan by the USA in 2001. In that Bonhoeffer appealed to the moral consideration of self-defence in defence of war, Kelly and Nelson appeal to the USA’s right of self-defence in the face of terrorist attack and thereby grant moral approval to the invasion of Afghanistan. (They also provide an excellent assessment of the moral basis of US actions at home and abroad; I am tempted to say that pp. 115–28 are a ‘must read’ for those concerned with Christian moral leadership today.)

Of course what must be persuasive here is the similarity of the Allies’ response to Nazi Germany in terms of self-defence with the US attack on Afghanistan (and, later, Iraq) in terms of self-defence. Are these two acts of self-defence comparable? On the second occasion, does self-defence require attack, or may it also support a different course of action? Was the attack by the US on Afghanistan truly motivated by a desire, of which Bonhoeffer would have approved, ‘to liberate the innocent from terror and death’ (p. 118)? To clinch their case, Kelly and Nelson quote Jean Bethke Elshtain: ‘If evil is permitted to grow, good goes into hiding.’ In its lack of precision and caution this strikes me as a very un-Bonhoefferean comment.

Moreover, almost any action could be justified in its light. After all, who apart from the depraved wants good to go into hiding? Moreover, we may ask why Bonhoeffer’s pacifism is now rescinded in favour of a critique based on the provisional defence of war? The analysis provides no answer. Yet for the comparison to work we need some account of how terrorist groups are like the Nazi state.

I have one further, related, misgiving. Can Bonhoeffer do no wrong? In this employment of Bonhoeffer as witness for all moral seasons, I fear that there is a subtle pressure to ‘instrumentalize’ his theology. By this means, the creativity of his theology is overstated also. This pressure can be seen in the theological as well as the ethical discussion. For example, Kelly and Nelson maintain that in his 1933 Christology lectures Bonhoeffer did not wish his students to get ‘bogged down in the heavy theological analyses of how the incarnation of the Word of God was possible’ (p. 38). Yet Bonhoeffer is also reported as maintaining the filioque as an important theological protocol against Nazi investment in the false construal of the orders of creation as predating the Word made flesh (p. 73). Is there not some inconsistency here: please do not worry about incarnation but, hey, we need to maintain the filioque! Moreover, are there not questions to be asked of the filioque itself: is there no other theological way of refusing the Nazification of the orders of creation and is the filioque still to be defended today?

That is, against instrumentalization, is it not at least plausible that his theology will need to be developed to engage issues such as the war on terrorism in a period of the West’s military and economic hegemony in a new, global context? Would not this be the only appropriate way to honour Bonhoeffer’s commitment to concretion in moral deliberation? Perhaps such development is what might be done with Bonhoeffer’s literary legacy. After the celebrations in 2006 to mark the centennial anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s birth would this not be a suitable issue to which Bonhoeffer scholarship might turn?