A REFLECTION: MARTYN PERCY’S 95 THESES, BISHOPS & THE TRANSCENDENT

A few days ago Martyn Percy nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Church of England. His nail was aimed at the Bishops of the Church. In many and various ways Percy called for the return of the ‘Bishop-Theologian’. The ’95 Theses’ was meant to pierce, cut, and tear; not (presumably) as a means of destruction, but as a means of discernment. His rhetoric is, in places, way over the top; in many places maybe un-nuanced. Those who pushed back on Percy’s piece let him know all of the above, some likening him to a small child who is really just hurt that he was not picked for the team (episcopate). I have voiced my concern with those who decided to attack Percy in this manner. I thought it was nasty; maybe nastier than some of the things Percy suggested in his piece?

After reading Percy’s ’95 Theses’, I took to twitter to express ‘resonance’. Resonance does not mean total agreement, it means that Percy hit the gong and the sound of it was reverberating in me, whether I liked it or not. For myself, I have had the opportunity to meet and have in-depth conversations with five Bishops in the Church of England. In my view, for what it is worth, I don’t think Percy describes the people who I have come to know. I am not saying there is not reason to reflect on his theses; I am saying, I don’t see it. In some ways I feel that Percy’s frustration may be misdirected. But I am probably the least qualified to assess this.

So what about Percy’s 95 Theses resonated with me? If the main aim of Percy’s critique — Bishops — didn’t hit the mark, what is left? For me, Percy hit a nerve, and provoked reaction, because he is touching on a general mood in the church — some people resonating with Percy’s description of the mood and others feeling deeply offended by his articulation. Some that felt resonance undoubtedly won’t be able to articulate why. In my view, critique must go further and deeper than a critique of Bishops if we are to get at the why. They are always the easy target; an easy focus of ‘unity’ for all things — especially a critique.

The Church is, in my mind, in an interesting place. New statistics are always hot off the press – prophecy of the imminent decline of the church. Increasingly older congregations, dwindling financial resource, and a host of other things have shaped the feel of the present. (I was recently in a training session for ordination where we were encouraged to do better funerals; encouraged in this direction because the church is losing marketshare — more people are opting for non-religious funerals. Wasn’t a terribly compelling argument for me.) We are aware of our decline and the challenges of being a smaller church, that will potentially have less impact (for good or for ill!).

What I have been watching closely — with my heart and my mind — is the response to this reality. How does the church respond? What are the tools at our disposal? What is the way forward?

Shifting gears a bit…

Charles Taylor, Canadian (interdisciplinary) Philosopher, and one of the foremost articulators of the nature of western society draws attention to what he calls the ‘social imaginary’. The social imaginary is the pre-reflective way in which ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social existence. It is the stuff that goes deeper than we cognitively reflect on much of the time. Importantly, Taylor says, the social imaginary is what ‘legitimises certain social practices and ways of being’; it is the pre-reflective substance, or background, against which our actions make sense. For instance, you don’t protest in a world where you can’t imagine that protest might bring about change. It is the idea of democracy that legitimizes something like protest — the people have a voice.

Taylor suggests that our moral order — our way of ‘being’ a cohesive society — is undergirded by a few different aspects of our social imaginary, one of which is ‘economic’. By economic, Taylor is not talking only about monetary economy (although not less), but a society built on ‘mutual benefit and exchange’. (The account Taylor gives regarding how this type of a society emerged is fascinating, but I can’t delve into that in this short piece.) The way we make decisions in a mutual benefit society is through negotiation, dialogue and a belief that benefit to the individual is beneficial to the whole. In many ways I think this aspect of the social imaginary is helpful, and Taylor seems to see the benefits also.

But one thing that is highlighted in Taylor’s work is the way in which this social imaginary has caused and/or cultivated the conditions for a world that buffers itself, wittingly or unwittingly, from the transcendent. It is assumed that what is needed to fix problems is simple collaboration, shifting of the pieces, and that if we do this — if we perfect our system — then all will be well, all manner of things will be well. There is a way of being in the modern world that is ‘flat’, its possible to live our lives without transcendent reference points; without transcendent solutions. We got this, right?

Before we point our fingers at the big, bad, anti-transcendent world, it is critical that we acknowledge that we are not beyond reproach. We, too, inhale this social imaginary — we, too, have too often believed (consciously and/or subconsciously) that if we just have a little dialogue, move the pieces around a bit, find a better model, and work a bit harder, this is an apropriate strategy for stemming church decline. I would suggest, that the church, too, is sometimes guilty of working in a flat world. In a flat, anti-trancendent world, theology (speaking from God and about God in the life of the church and the world) is monetized; it is a thing (among other things) at our disposal to get the job done. It is part of the economy.

What resonated with me in Percy’s ‘Theses’ was not his tone, nor was it his target, but his (maybe subconscious?) call to resist the draw to immanence. I think Percy, and others, realize that we are moving continually towards an economic model of the church that puts the transcendent at risk. We are moving toward a model of church in which the voice of prophecy risks being sidelined and turned into a ‘thing’ within the economy, rather than the beating heart and lifeblood of the church. The Green Report tried to think helpfully about rectifying the decline of the church and the development of its leaders. The downfall of the report is not what it suggested, but the language it used. What it seems to be suggesting is the need for the cultivation of virtue — practical wisdom in leadership. But its language betrayed its capitulation to a social imaginary cordoned into the immanent frame. Eugene Peterson once said, “We begin by using language, and then language begins using us.” So for all the good it might do, we must not imbibe it quickly.

My spiritual theology professor used to always commend the phrase “It is is written in letters too big to read”. He meant by this that we are too close to the writing on the wall; it is difficult to back off far enough to get a clear view of what is actually there; too close to make sense of what is happening. Maybe Taylor gives us some of the tools to see the writing on the wall, I dunno.

As I do my daily life as a member of a Christian community and chaplain to two universities, I sense a hunger in people. The hunger is not to join a social club; the hunger is not to preserve an institution. The hunger is for Jesus; the hunger is for the voice of prophecy — a shattering of the immanent frame people have been cordoned into. Somehow I hope that this is front and center in the way we as the church talk about and embody our strategies for the future. Bishops can’t stop the decline of the church, it’s not within their power. But the church’s attention to the voice of a transcendent God — sovereign, free, creative, overflowing with love and goodness — will get us a long way, I think. Theology is a means of puncturing the immanent frame to allow this voice to be heard. If Percy is reminding us of this, I want to hear him.

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