Sep 2005 Beware bizspeak

Aged care is core business.” That’s how an Anglicare press release described their commitment to hundreds of staff and patients last month.

This press release was aimed mostly at Christians. But we are strangers and pilgrims in this world. And we speak a traveller’s dialect.

What about ‘we are committed to our aged care ministry because 1 Timothy 5 makes it clear that Christians must care for the elderly’? Or ‘providing aged care is how we honour the elderly’?

Biz speak is easy – ready made clichés for every situation. But maybe Christian organisations should not rush to use it. For Christians business is never ‘business as usual’.

‘World’s best practice’ is something we should be suspicious of, because the world is passing away. We have something better than the world’s best practice!

Business and church are different. Humility is prized in one, and not so much in the other. Biz speak is the language of measurement and control, which sometimes are magnificent tools. But they should not determine the vocabulary we use to talk about each other. We have a richer language, the language of the Bible.

We don’t have bosses and customers. We have deeper relationships: we have shepherds or servant-leaders and brothers and sisters. Our leaders don’t lord it over us. Yet it is a rare CEO that doesn’t have the big office or the big car. I know there are some and I hope Southern Cross readers are among them.

The Bible uses language that reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into our world. Sometimes, to this pew sitter, the deadly, bland language of biz speak reminds me of that other place.

Now some of you might be thinking I am too hard on biz speak. It is the language many of us use at work. Considering the demographics of Sydney Anglicanism that is almost certainly true for pew sitters, more than clergy.

But for every person in this town for whom the language of business has formed a soundtrack to some success in their career there are those for whom its circumlocutions have delivered much pain. The ‘downsized’ person, for example.

They may not figure as much as they should in our denominational rolls, but those who are poor in the eyes of the world have been chosen to be rich in faith. And such people are the focus of Anglicare. 

The Bible reaches people biz speak never will. So Anglicare, I must crave your patience in being twitted about your language. But we wouldn’t be Sydney Anglicans if we didn’t care so much about words, would we? 

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August 2005 Is there an empty pew that needs you?

The warden from the Western Suburbs church was blunt. “Mate, it’s like being the ugly sheila at the dance.” He was answering a question from an assistant minister who had asked him how a church’s search for a parish minister was going.

“It was that comment that made me look hard at this church,” he says now, talking about the church he has since become minister of. He went home asking “Who needs me more: X [where he was happy as assistant minister] or Y [in the West]?

It’s a story that does this minister much credit, which is why he doesn’t want me to use his name. He doesn’t want to come across as a hero. That’s because he enjoys ministering to his people.

The dance goes on. Of the 12 parishes which missed out on hiring an assistant minister this year, six were in the West and three were in Wollongong.

This pew-sitter is forced to the reluctant conclusion that there are unfashionable pulpits in our Diocese. A moment’s thought is all it takes to begin to understand why. Some parishes are hard: poorly resourced with money and talent. With the new emphasis on mission and measuring numbers there is a new disincentive to serve in places where growth will be difficult.

Now just around the corner there’s the ‘Brendan Nelson’ solution. Just like the forceful Minister for Education, who has founded new medical schools to solve the country doctor shortage problem, Sydney has ramped up production of ministers. SMBC and Moore are bulging. And that’s really good news.

There’s 35 ‘candidates’ for Sydney ministry graduating next year from Moore. A bumper harvest.

Numerically, it appears that the problem will be fixed. Does this mean everyone gets to dance?

Yes, a dance or two. But we need longer-term romances. There’s a tendency for clergy not to stay in the West or other unfashionable places. To some extent they reflect the rest of us, moving house for better schools, or because of burnout.

Thankfully, some senior clergy have moved West. Dudley Foord (St Ives to Liverpool via South Africa) and Jim Ramsey (Bexley North to Liverpool) come to mind. Good on you.

Now some clergy persist in reading this pew-sitter’s column. So I know some readers will be thinking; “What about you lot there. Want to make a difference? Come to a parish that needs you.”

All of us in the pews should wonder whether there is a plastic chair that needs us more. Really.

July 2005 Why Southern Cross is a load of propaganda

We’re defensive about failure and this newspaper isn’t helping

“Lake Woebegon. Where all the children are above average.”

That’s the sign-off to US raconteur Garrison Keilor’s monologues about fictional small town life. It also fits the way we think in the un-fictional small town called Sydney Diocese.

“Southern Cross is just a load of propaganda” – the words came hurtling across my dinner table a few weeks ago. From a theological college lecturer, no less. I gave a feeble answer – much like this column – but I knew instantly they had a point.

All the children are above average in Southern Cross: the church plants never fail, evangelism always works, people in profiles never stuff up, and the Mission rolls on.

But we all know that isn’t true. It is time we had more failure in SC.

More stories of failure. More on how not to do things.

Some of this problem IS Southern Cross’s fault. Tougher questions – “What’s been your biggest mistake so far Archbishop?” – could be asked with more warts painted on the portrait.

But some of it goes to a curious defensiveness we Sydney Anglicans have.

An example is the reaction to the ‘Uluru’ survey that has been doing the rounds in some regions of Sydney. That’s based on the curious graph which looks like Uluru that has appeared a few times in this paper.

The survey divides churches into growing, plateauing and declining groups based on attendances and finances.

It is not a tough test. To be a growing church you need a 15 per cent increase in people and dollars over five years.

However, the results are a rude shock to some, and simply rude to others.

And boy did Southern Cross get a fierce reaction when it reported that certain parishes were in the not-so-good categories in the first two regional surveys.

So when a third round of Uluru came out this paper wimped out and only reported the parishes that did well. All the children were above average that month.

Nobody was well served by that. Not even those whose blushes were spared. Mission involves moving out of our comfort zones. So a newspaper that serves the Diocesan Mission will give us pew-sitters a true picture about what is going on.

It is unedifying to read only success stories. It not only discourages those of us who stuff up (like me) it also induces complacency in the rest. And finally it breeds cynicism.

A little brutal honesty would do more than spark up Southern Cross. It would make us more effective in mission as we deal with reality not fantasy. 
Let’s learn to celebrate our mistakes then learn from them. Then let’s go out and make some new mistakes.

June 2005 Agree to disagree

Is silence the only option for dissenting Sydney Anglicans?

When the New York Times predictably portrayed the new Pope as a tyrant, conservative polemicist Michael Novak riposted: “Catholics do not praise, admire, or aspire to unquestioned obedience… since God implanted in us the drive to understand (even little children are born with the drive to raise questions) it would be a sin against nature to stifle questions”.

Can we substitute Sydney Anglicans in Novak’s statement? Like the new Pope we are painted by some as narrow and controlling. Like him we have strong views that are unpopular in the world.

Sometimes being in an organisation while holding strong views can be uncomfortable. At the end of a Moore College lecture on women’s ordination I caught up with a fellow student outside. “I wanted to ask a question,” she said, “but my husband is a Sydney candidate”. For her, holding strong opinions was definitely uncomfortable at that time.

It would take a surveillance organisation as large as East Germany’s Stasi secret police to remember every lecture room question at Moore. But it’s fair to say that setting up a branch of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in the college would not win you a popularity award.

On the other hand, wise leaders in Sydney Diocese see the dangers in trying to have too narrow a focus. Long time Anglican Church League guru Bruce Ballantine-Jones told Chris McGillion (in McGillion’s new book The Chosen Ones) ‘hotheads’ made a major error in leaving supporters of Harry Goodhew off their ticket for Standing Committee in 1993. As predicted it lead to the formation of a rival ‘blue ticket’ in the elections.

If you happen to disagree with what you perceive as the ‘Sydney Line’ from time to time – and realistically, who doesn’t? – then you have a couple of options.

The first is to be aware that you may be wrong. When I have been in this situation I have got stuck into the Bible to really check things out. Secondly – a distant second in the case of this columnist – you might still be convinced you are right after a fair bit of step one. Then you will need a place to express your point of view and hammer things out.

A third option is ‘silence is dissent’: You may have a minority view – for example a belief in seven-day creation in a church that doesn’t tend that way – and for the sake of unity you choose not to talk about it. This is true submission.

Respectful disagreement in a church community can be a good thing. As the Proverb has it, ‘men sharpen men as iron sharpens iron’. Our clergy are well trained to debate whatever we pew-sitters can throw up. A mission-oriented church has to be good at inviting questions, so start practicing now.

John Sandeman has been making smart remarks about Sydney Anglicans for years. This column might force him to be more careful. But as a long term Fairfax employee he is used to being put on trial for his faith, sometimes gently. His regular pew is at St James’, Croydon, which is not to blame for his attitudes.

May 2005 Preachers do’nt read this okay

When was the last time you cried in Church? When was the last time you got angry – or embarrassed?

If the answer is ‘never’ or ‘a long time ago’ then I suspect it will sadden your minister’s heart. (It’s okay, they are not reading this).

The sermon is at the heart of Sydney Anglicanism, and the focus of our meetings or services (choose the word according to your regional dialect), yet it’s not a subject that I have ever read much about in this journal.

The sermon is big business. We will spend two million hours this year listening to sermons according to the back of an envelope on my desk. Hundreds of thousands of hours are involved in writing them. A lot of the dollars given in this Diocese goes to pay for sermon production; it’s a labour intensive industry. And they do it to move our hearts and minds, fellow pew-sitters.

This column is about listening to this vast output. The art of listening to sermons is talked about a lot less than the science of giving them. Unless we listen to parliament for fun the only other time we listen to a speech for as long is the classroom or lecture theatre.

But preaching is not lecturing. It doesn’t matter if the guy who lectured me at university loved me or not. But it makes all the difference at church.

So we should cry. We should get angry. Even incredulous. Emotion isn’t for the Pentecostals alone. If we believe the truth content of our sermons is higher, then so much more should we be moved.

Yet I am as guilty as the guy in the next pew at adopting a merely intellectually curious approach to a sermon. “I wonder if I will find out what 2 Peter is all about?”

The trick is that I might find out more than I bargain for: the Bible has a habit of being full of good advice. I cut myself on it all the time.

The Sydney style of preaching – expositional – has certain advantages for the listener. It can help you stay awake. That’s not one of the reasons it is promoted at Moore College as far as I am aware. If you have nodded off you can get back on track quite easily. 
Now what about boring preachers? In typically frank style, Phillip Jensen wrote recently, “If students are just out of college, they’re boring.  If you’re not boring just out of college, you didn’t learn enough in college. It’s when you’re five years out and you’re still boring that you have a problem.” So we have it on good authority that there will be boring preachers. How do we do that?

If they are long on facts and short on application – ask them “What does this mean to my life?’ or ‘can you give some examples?’. You are probably more tactful than this column so you can say these things gently. But it’s the congregation’s job to train their preacher too (it’s okay, they are not reading this). 

John Sandeman has been making smart remarks about Sydney Anglicans for years. This column might force him to be more careful. But as a long term Fairfax employee he is used to being put on trial for his faith, sometimes gently. His regular pew is at St James’, Croydon, which is not to blame for his attitudes. 

The black man’s burden

Sitting in the same pew week by week there’s an illusion that evangelical Christianity never changes. I’m not referring to the ‘evangel’, the gospel, but ‘evangelicalism’, the type of Christianity that goes on in most churches where this paper is handed out. And that’s okay. This pewsitter is mostly a happy pewsitter. 
But then a whiff of change stirs the nostrils and warns the pewsitter that somewhere tectonic plates are shifting.

From an unlikely place – the op-ed pages of the Washington Post – comes a message of change, by an unlikely writer.

Michael Gerson was the evangelical staffer closest to President George W Bush, famous for crafting biblical-sounding language into his speeches.

He was a real West Winger, the chief speech writer. He invented ‘axis of evil’. But also wrote for Bush after 9/11: “Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time.

Goodness, remembrance and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die, and all who mourn.”

So from my Sydney pew it was easy to write Gerson off as an engaging but right wing American evangelical. In Bush’s Washington it has been politically correct to go to church and a number of government high-flyers are pewsitters.

Yet, it turns out that Gerson attends one of the large Episcopalian (that’s the American word for Anglican) churches in the Virginian suburbs of Washington that has defected. They have joined a new missionary movement set up by Nigerians to give evangelical Anglicans an alternative structure to the liberal US church. Our Sydney bishops will be meeting with the Nigerians and these American dissidents this month in Jerusalem at GAFCON.

History has been turned on its head, the rich West is receiving missionaries out of Africa. The black man’s burden: returning the gospel to the West.

The Nigerians recently installed a bishop for their US churches, yet the relationship seemed tenuous to me.

Then I read in one of Gerson’s columns: “Some American religious conservatives have embraced ties with this emerging Christianity, including the church I attend. But there are adjustments in becoming a junior partner. The ideological package of the Global South includes not only moral conservatism but also an emphasis on social justice, an openness to state intervention in markets, and a suspicion of American economic and military power. The emerging Christian majority is not the Moral Majority.”

And it hit me. This guy takes the Nigerians seriously. He accepts that importing leadership from the Global South will impact his American evangelicalism. 
More US evangelicals have begun to question the wisdom of being identified with right wing politics. They issued a manifesto last month saying that evangelicals should be identified by their theology, not their politics.

When this pewsitter first heard Episcopalian churches like Gerson’s calling on Third World bishops to help them in the wake of the election of a gay bishop in 2003, I wondered if the rich whites were manipulating the Africans. But Gerson changed this pewsitter’s mind.

Out of the chaos of the Anglican Communion might come a blessing: American evangelicals taking on the values of social justice that have been part of evangelicalism outside the States all along. The tectonic plates are shifting.

Take the plunge!

It was the morning of the Episcopal visitation. We all knew we would be gently chided about something. So we had painted the church, fixed the lights – this time it was going to be something else.

Trapped between a purple shirt and the morning tea table the hapless pewsitter found out what was next on the hit-list.

The Bishop picked up a tin with a well-known multinational label on it. 

“You have to fix the coffee,” came the Episcopal command.

It was time to hit the phone and find a church that had already tackled the coffee issue. A few calls later and Heather McKay from St Luke’s, Liverpool assured me that proper coffee really is a spiritual issue. 

“Bad coffee hinders fellowship,” she says. “Especially for newcomers.”

Heather has seen a newcomer throw a cup of ‘lukewarm brown coloured water’ on a pot plant. Their church is right on the mall, and people will stream away from church in search of something better.

“They are paying a fortune for coffee but not sticking around. Liverpool has bought a large percolator to dramatically improve their coffee. They are moving upmarket to Lavazza coffee; no half measures for them. They’ve taken advice from a church across town that has serious coffee experience, St Augustine’s, Neutral Bay.

“Six years ago I inherited four kilos of Pablo and International Roast,” says Neutral Bay’s senior minister Craig Roberts.

When they began brewing coffee at the back of the church in dripolators (the coffee makers with round glass beakers and a hot plate), there was a dramatic improvement. Instead of the church being empty 15 minutes after the meeting, people stayed for an hour “having conversations of varying significance” says Craig.

He trained welcomers and got the Sunday School to kick on longer to encourage the parents to talk.

Boiling water in glass flasks got too hard eventually for Neutral Bay. They tried liquefied instant coffee machines that gave a coffee “rated at 4.5 if instant is zero and plunger coffee is ten” says Craig.

It wasn’t quite good enough and they lost the inviting smell of the brew. Now they use percolators which Craig says is just as good as plunger coffee. 
“It’s not espresso. but that’s when the coffee becomes important rather than the Lord Jesus” says the minister who the pewsitter suspects. would rather his parish gets a write up for something more serious than coffee.

But the prize for coffee central goes to Moore College for using coffee machines that grind beans on the spot.

Moore’s high volume means they get the machines for free. But Moore College’s head chef Warren Darwall knows he can’t win. There’s a steady stream of coffee freaks down Carillion Avenue to Campos coffee which draws judges and barristers as well as Moore students.

Which goes to warn the pewsitter that this generation of coffee-fussy bishops is not going to die out in a hurry.

The pewsitter’s next challenge – can the parish coffee be fair trade as well as tasty before the bishop’s next visit?