by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
A brief Twitter conversation last week between Madeleine Davies, Andrew Graystone and me, and a reflection from Rachel Mann which was prompted by that conversation – these things form the backdrop to this blog.
Madeleine tweeted as follows:
That sounded right to me so I replied:
And Andrew’s comment was:
Rachel reflected on this by painting a picture of the life and ministry she and her community share in Burnage, and you can read it here (it’s well worth reading): The Rachel Mann Blogspot: In Praise of ‘Church’: the Parish as a Place of Glory & Grace
Anyway all this got me thinking about the general and the particular: “How the general can so often get it wrong, and how the particular can so often rescue us all – and how we may need the general just the same.”
When I was a curate in the Newcastle Diocese, at the end of the 70s, there was only one black guy in the youth club. He was a second or third generation Geordie and he sounded like it. He was a tall young man and the rest of the kids called him “Chokka” which stood for “chocolate man”. Apart from this racist tag they seemed to treat him like any other person in the club. One Sunday another club member brought a leaflet to our meeting. He had been given this by a member of the National Front outside the local football ground. It spoke in very abusive and lurid terms of the threat of the UK being “swamped” by people of colour. The kid had been persuaded by this leaflet and he used the “N” word freely and angrily. Chokka, overhearing this, said mildly “Howay man, you’re talking about me”. To which the kid replied, “Nah, Chokka, nah, it’s not about you man. It’s about all these n*****s in the country.” And the conversation, and conversion, began there.
An aunt of mine lives in Bradford, where I was born and grew up. For many years, fed by her newspaper and its constant harping on “immigrants”, she had expressed discomfort about the growth of the Asian community there. All these Asians, all these Asians. At the same time she uses local taxi services, almost all of which are staffed by Asian drivers. Every single driver she has ever met has, she reports, been kind and helpful and courteous, “a right nice person”. And the conversation, and conversion, began there.
In a world where it is in the interests of so many to emphasise division and to foment distrust, it seems that this is most often how change happens and the conversation and conversion begins. The hard and general falsehoods of racism and ageism and sexism and homophobia are dissolved by connection with real people in a real place.
This is because the local and the particular is all we will ever see with our eyes. If I enter the real local life of a place I will see the unique rainbow of the particular, the old and the young, the people of colour, the LGBTI+ people, the people together. In their faces and lives the word “inclusion” becomes concrete and real and the abstractions of a hateful rhetoric or of a dry and scholastic book-learning dissipate, as they did when Jesus walked among us in a particular place and we woke up to God’s presence on our doorsteps, in our neighbour’s face, surprising, local.
God in Jesus chose to be there and not here, then and not now. God in Christ is everywhere by the Spirit, but God in Jesus Christ had once been somewhere in the flesh. And so when the Church acts as an institution, the institution is constantly and rightly measured against the specific and against the local. Measured, and found wanting. “The Church” bad, “my church” good.
Our Twitter conversation underlined this. In its institutional life, when it is remote from the particular, when it seems to have what Andrew called “power”, the church loses what Andrew called “effectiveness”.
And yet the specific and the local is somehow not enough. If it were, why would we bother to be angry with “The Church”? Why not simply and joyfully leave it, or disband it, or destroy it? Isn’t this institution – aren’t all institutions – good for nothing?
This is a wider question, asked by millions today. When it comes to institution and structure disappointment, leading often to casual contempt, is marked these days – and goodness knows it is often well-earned. But this contempt – “Drain the swamp!” – does not always lead to good. In the US and across Europe today, institutional contempt has connected with a growing desire on the part of millions to surrender their lives and their authority to populists and autocrats or to the tyranny of the majority, no matter how small the majority may be.
All this makes for social turbulence and for personal pain. But it seems to me that as Christians, with our own disappointing institution to handle, our theology and our history provides us with tools to handle this turbulence properly and wisely – not colluding with institutional power and yet not despising the poor but real efforts of a community to shape an accountable and honest common life.
As a bishop I believe I am called to add to these poor efforts – to gather Christian people trans-locally, to care for them and share with them, to reflect with them the love of Christ, to lament with them when we fail and fall short, as we do daily. I am a particular guy in a particular (Liverpool! – fab) place, and yet I am also called to be a general guy, not a General mind you, but a general guy who wants to connect the local, to link, to relate, to honour and to share the local with all the other localities that can be enriched and blessed by it, that can enrich and bless it.
This general stuff is not a calling for everyone. It is not at all a calling restricted to bishops, though bishops often hold it, and more often than not receive the anger that comes upon it when it falls short. All who offer themselves to the counsels and the councils and the synods of the general Church share it – in our Church of England for example, lay people and clergy alike, more lay people than clergy in fact, as it should be.
And I hope, if you’re the praying sort, that you will spare some prayer for all those who are called to the general, called to be human there, called to oppose a general harshness, a general fear, a general and impersonal aloofness, called to bless and attempt a general love, called in the end to enrich the particular and to bless it. Spare some prayer for them, of your charity.