Saturday, 29 December 2012

Success at any price, Victory without Honour: Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United as the antithesis of “be imitators of me.”

So Sir Alex Ferguson is in trouble again for an on-field, verbal clash with a Premier League referee ( And after a few days of media commentary, and some criticism from two of his fellow Premier League managers in particular, he’s now taking a swing at the lot of them – the media, his colleagues, and anyone else who dares question the behavior of one of the longest serving, and most successful managers, in English football history. There is no doubt that Manchester United were completely transformed by the arrival of Ferguson, from Aberdeen, as a relatively unknown manager in 1986. Since then, the trophy cabinet has been filled with silverware, Manchester United have become the most consistently successful club in England, and a world powerhouse in the game, and Ferguson has won just about every award there is to win as manager. On just about any indicator, his tenure has been wildly successful, and outrageously prosperous, for the city, the club, his players, and the shareholders. But there is one indicator on which the veteran Scot, for me, fails the most crucial test of all – the leadership one! Let me explain, drawing on the biblical tradition, which informs and shapes my worldview, and did for the vast majority of the followers of English football too, right up until just a few decades ago.   

One of the costliest statements in the New Testament, in regards to leadership, is that of St Paul’s directive, to the Corinthians, “be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 11.1). The apostle, in this sentence, in these four words, offers himself - his character, his words, and actions - as the exemplar of the qualities and character to which they should aspire in their own lives. The direct implication, and consequence, of holding one’s self up as worthy of emulation, is of course, that one must then be worthy of emulation. Christian leaders know this, and enter the ordained ministry, God and (arch)bishop willing, knowing that they will be held accountable for their conduct by the church authorities, by the recipients of their ministry, and most solemnly, ultimately by God. Football managers are not accountable to bishops and parishioners, and possibly not to God; but they are accountable to the boardroom, the fans, and, crucially, to the viewing public. Football managers, and players, do not have the same calling and the same responsibility as Christian ministers, but, like it or not, children all over the world, not just in Britain, but from Santiago to Singapore, and from Seoul to the Sudan, watch, idolize, and emulate, the practitioners of the greatest game of all, and aspire to one day walk out of the players tunnel and onto the “theatre of dreams” in Manchester, wearing the iconic red shirt. Manchester United, the club, its manager, and its players, are looked up to by millions, around the world, many of whom, especially the impressionable young, desire most of all to emulate their heroes in red. What do the viewers, of all ages and backgrounds, from every corner of the globe, witness then in the conduct of their heroes? Too often, from the manager, who is the face of the club in the public spotlight, it’s a face wrinkled in anger, delivering yet another verbal tirade directed at the hapless referee or other officials, who have earned his displeasure, whether the decision is wrong, correct, or inconclusive. In Fergie’s world, it seems, watching him over many years and listening to his post game interviews (now that the Football Association has forced him to do them again after years of refusing), every decision that goes against United is a poor one, and any United loss is invariably unduly influenced by refereeing decisions, not by the superior ability or play of the opposing team. And if proven to be wrong, out of line, or unduly petulant – forget about an apology - it's a media beat up more likely. On the field, his team are a direct reflection of their manager. Petulant, outraged at any decision that might go against them, even to the point of physically jostling the referee, refusing to shake hands with opponents over long held grudges…. The list goes on, the examples far too abundant to document here. Anyone who has watched the game for any length of time, as I have, can call to mind any number of examples, stretching back over many years, of boorish, unsportsmanlike, and intimidating behaviour. All of this is in spite of the well known propensity for Manchester United to be awarded penalties, and other favorable decisions, especially when playing at home; for referees to award the outrageous antics of players like Ashley Young whom it seems a puff of wind would blow over when in the penalty box; and to ignore much more blatant offences committed by United players in their own penalty box; and to remarkably extend games well beyond their usual end point to give United the extra minutes it might need to get a result or at least push for one (the fabled ‘Fergie time’). Yet still, viewed from Old Trafford, the FA, the officials, the media, nay the entire world, are stacked against Manchester United! And an outraged, intimidating, loud, and aggressive response, is completely, and fully justified,

I admire success, but not without honour. Manchester United’s success, under Sir Alex Ferguson, has all too frequently been ugly, confrontational, at times unsportsmanlike, and, most of all, lacking in the most important quality of all, that of worthiness to emulate. The trophy cabinet may be full, and if winning was all there was, that would be good enough. But true champions are worthy of emulation, and real leaders can say with conviction, to their followers, “be imitators of me” - do as I say, and act as I act. No one could, or should, say this of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.   

Sunday, 21 October 2012

(Synod) size does matter

One of the more vigorously discussed and debated motions to come before this year’s, otherwise uneventful, Melbourne diocesan synod, was a progress report from the committee empowered to examine ways and means of reducing  the number of people eligible to attend synod – at present around 880. Listening to the presentation of the report, hearing the discussion, and later, reading the papers in more detail, it began to dawn upon me that the proposed mechanism for reducing the size of the synod would potentially take us into murky ecclesiastical waters. I will explain, but first, two points about the proposal itself.

The committee charged with this task had clearly done a lot of work and reported the following:

o   It could not make any recommendation about the number of clergy eligible to attend synod, as this apparently requires legislative change (however the committee said it will make some sort of recommendation pursuant to clergy representation at the next session of synod)
o   In terms of the number of lay people eligible to attend synod, the committee recommended that the number of lay representatives be proportionate to the number of stipendiary (paid) ministry positions sustained by a parish

It should be noted that the progress report was just that – a progress report. The committee sought, and received, the support of synod to continue their work, with a view to bringing something tangible before the next session of synod. No doubt there will be opportunity for a more fulsome debate then, and I hope to contribute to that debate at the appropriate time.

But  here is my issue with the principle outlined above – after adhering (thankfully) to the foundational principle of one lay representative for each parish, it then seeks to use a calculation based on the number of equivalent full time stipendiary positions a parish can sustain, in order to arrive at the number of further lay representatives. If this proposal is ever adopted, lay representation at synod will consist of every parish electing one lay representative, but some parishes more than one. If a parish has, for example, three full time clerics (or licensed lay ministers), its representation will presumably rise to three or possibly four lay people. The assumption is that the parish able to fund three full time ministry positions has a greater number of committed, regular worshippers, and, therefore, should have greater representation on the floor of synod, or at least, a representation that is broadly proportionate to its numerical size. There is already one flaw in this assumption – some parishes have substantial property income derived from leases or other commercial ventures, and may be able to fund ministry positions quite disproportionate to the number of Sunday worshippers. But, nonetheless, I can understand why the committee is using the number of paid ministry positions a parish can sustain as a measure – there will always be exceptions and anomalies in any system.

What concerns me much more than the anomalies, however, is the ecclesiology inherent in this proposal. By using the number of worshippers on a Sunday, or the numerical size of the congregation, as the yardstick for representation at synod, the committee is taking us into an ecclesiology that is foreign to Anglicanism. The basic unit of the Anglican communion has always been the parish, defined – importantly - as a geographical unit. That is, the concept of the parish, in Anglican ecclesiology, does not equate to the number of people who actually attend a given church, but the geographical area defined by the parish boundaries. A parish can even exist regardless of whether anyone actually attends the parish church, or not. Furthermore, in the traditional Church of England understanding of the parish (which has, admittedly, never been as strong a feature of the non-established Australian church as it has historically in England), the parish included everyone living within the geographical entity, whether they attended the church frequently, rarely, or never, and even whether they adhered to another faith or none. Accordingly, everyone within the parish entity had, and still have (in England), a right to be baptized, married, or buried in their parish church, whatever their attendance record over the years. They were regarded as parishioners, simply by virtue of residing in the parish boundaries. The church exists, then, for the whole of the parish and everyone in it – not only, or even primarily, for those who make up the congregation Sunday by Sunday. This is, indisputably, the classic formulation of Anglican ecclesiology, and, as inadequate and irrelevant as it may be today, it continues to inform our Anglican way of understanding the church, the parish, and its community. A model or way of understanding and measuring, church and parish, that takes the size of the congregation as its starting point, is quite different, and frankly alien, to the Anglican way, for an ecclesiology that equates the number of Sunday worshippers directly with the church or parish, is, basically, congregationalist. The congregationalist approach looks much more at who actually attends a given church, and how many, and pays much less attention to the geographical boundary, or parish area, in which a church exists. For good reason, many large churches informed by congregationalist ecclesiology, most visibly the so-called ‘mega churches’, draw worshippers from a vast geographical area. In congregational ecclesiology, then, the Sunday worshippers are the church, or parish; whereas in Anglican ecclesiology, the parish and the parishioners are defined by the geographical unit or boundaries in which the church exists.

I am not contending that congregational models of church are wrong or flawed – but I am contending that they are not Anglican. For this reason, the average number of worshippers attending any one church in a given year, or period of years, should not have any bearing or relation to the number of  lay representatives on the floor of diocesan synod. It would be more in keeping with Anglican ecclesiology simply to limit representation to one lay person and one cleric for each one of the 220 or so parishes in the diocese. This would not only reflect Anglican ecclesiology, but would also ensure the full spectrum of the wonderful diversity that exists across the Diocese of Melbourne is preserved, and properly represented, in our main corporate, decision making forum. 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Shame that tarnishes us all

Some time ago, whilst walking along a busy street, dressed in black clerical attire, I became aware that a passing car was slowing as it drew alongside me. I didn't take much notice until one of the rear windows was wound down and a young man’s voice angrily and loudly, proclaimed his view that all clergy are child abusers (that is a heavily sanitized version of what was actually said). I stopped, shocked. Numerous passers-by also heard this (how could they not). One voiced her agreement with the occupants of the car. I moved on, quickly, ashamed and embarrassed. When I got home, I took out the dog collar, and removed the black shirt I wore. I have rarely worn it outside the church since. At one level, I was upset and angered by the accusation. For I can say with absolute conviction that a thought of that nature has never passed through my mind, and, like every person of decency, I have read with horror and disgust about the actions of  priests involved in this sort of behavior, as they have been reported over the past few decades, not only here in Australia of course, but around the world. Whilst our Anglican Church is not without blame, for we have had a small number of priests and church workers exposed for this sort of behavior, it is the case, as has been widely reported over the weekend, that the vast majority of the instances of clerical abuse of children, and the most shocking examples, have involved Roman Catholic clergy and religious orders. The evidence given to the current Victorian governmental enquiry into child abuse in church settings, reported in ‘The Age’ newspaper is highly disturbing, and completely damning of the Catholic church. My first thought, when tarnished with this smear on the street that day, was to call out and protest – “I’m not a Catholic priest.” But, of course, the young men in that car, and the others on the street who heard the insult, together with the readers of ‘The Age’, primarily see only one thing – a Christian priest. Just as, when they pass a church building, they see only one thing – a Christian church. Most, very generally speaking, do not distinguish between Anglican, Catholic, or other clergy – they are all ‘priests’. Most do not distinguish between churches of various brand and denomination, even if the name is clearly there on the sign out the front – they see only a Christian church. The catalogue of sickening crimes perpetuated mainly by Roman Catholic clergy, and the wholly inadequate response to it by the church authorities, is, therefore, something that shames all Christians, in the eyes and the understanding of most of our fellow citizens. It is unfair that our church is tarnished in this way, by the actions of others, over whom we have no authority or control. It is wrong and offensive that I can’t now walk along a street in a clerical shirt without risking abuse, because of the actions of clerics in another church that I have never been a part of, nor had any direct involvement in. Far more catastrophic is the manner in which this shame and these disgraceful actions have brought the name of Christ into disrepute and damaged the witness of his people in the world. I take no pleasure at all in writing this reflection, and I feel deeply for the several Roman Catholic priests and people I know and respect, and who recoil in horror at the actions of some within their own church, as I do. But there is no doubt this shame, which tarnishes us all, is having a detrimental impact on our standing and reputation in the broader community as a Christian church, and on our mission and our witness. We need to be aware of this, and be prepared to distinguish ourselves from the perpetrators of this shame. For me, it means not wearing clerical attire in public. That saddens me deeply, for I well remember the day of my ordination, and the pride with which I put on a black clerical shirt and white dog collar for the first time. I am now of the view that it is better not to identify myself in this way in public, but to first gain the respect and trust of people I do not know, whilst dressed as any one else, lest they arbitrarily associate me, however unfairly and unjustly, with the actions of others who have shamed and disgraced the priesthood of Christ. I never thought the day would come when I would be ashamed to be identified as a priest of the Christian church, but the actions of others, chillingly recounted in public now for several years and in all their manifest horror this week before the present State government enquiry, have meant that day has come.  

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Address on St Mark 8.27-36 (September 16th)

Who do people say that I am?
Who do you say that I am?
The question of identity has been bubbling away, throughout the narrative of St Mark’s gospel
And reaches the critical moment here in ch. 8
Jesus has not been identified nor described as “the Christ” since the very first verses of the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel
But the moment Peter makes his famous declaration here – “you are the Christ”
The focus changes
There is a clear moment of transition
Up until this point
Mark has been describing the ministry of Jesus – what he did and what he said
The remainder of the Gospel will be concerned with the path to Jerusalem and to the suffering, the dying, and the rising of the Christ 
The hinge point
Or the fork in the road
Is Peter’s declaration –
His recognition
That Jesus is the Christ –
The word “Christ” or properly Christos in the Greek means “the anointed one” – in the Hebrew, the Messiah
So those two words – Messiah and Christ – are inter changeable
Peter is here recognizing that Jesus is the one promised by the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible
Once he has made that declaration
And had that moment of insight
The narrative of St Mark’s Gospel then begins to describe how the Christ or the Messiah will in fact fulfill his mission to save to reconcile human beings back to God

There is a lot in this text
It's a very rich text
Packed full of theology
There are emphatic pronouns here that would warm the heart of any student working in the Greek
It’s a gold mine for those who study these things
The theologian I most admire – Karl Barth who I mentioned before from this pulpit – gets several pages in small font out of each verse here
But I’m not going to do any of that this morning
Instead – I’m going to pose for you
Three questions
And invite you to reflect on them in the time ahead today and perhaps during the coming week as well
And they are not even my questions
They are the three questions Jesus himself poses in this passage from St Mark ch. 8 that has just been read to us

1. Who do people say that I am?

The first questions is –
Who do you say that I am?
So we read in Mark 8.27 –
“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’”
it’s a question that has been simmering beneath the surface of the narrative up until this point
Who is this man?
He commands even the wind and the sea?
He performs in our very presence the mighty acts of God?
He speaks with authority – unlike the Pharisees and the scribes?
Who is this man?
Is this not the very human son of Joseph the carpenter and Mary his wife?
It's a question that is still asked today
Should be asked
Must be asked
Of each and every person
Who is the person of Jesus Christ?
Some say he was just a man
A good man
A great man even
A great moral teacher
Some say he was more than this
Some even deny that he existed at all
People say all sorts of things about this person
This Jesus
just as they did when he walked among them
So we read in St Mark ch 8 the disciples answered Jesus saying
Well some people think you are John the Baptist, back from the dead
others Elijah or another of the prophets
they didn't know
they were guessing, wondering

2. But who do you say that I am?

And so Jesus then nails them down with this emphatic second question
and the grammar is emphatic here –
it's very clear in the Greek but hard to see in English
in English the only way to really represent this would be to put a few exclamation marks after it
or perhaps print it in capitals
v.  29 “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’”
Who do you say that I am?
You have heard and you know what other people say about this Jesus
But who do you say that I am?
You may have an answer to that
Perhaps your answer as a good, Anglican Christian, is the answer given by the Creeds of the church
“the only son of God… of one being with the Father… true God of true God”
if so – as a priest of the church I would say that is the right answer
it’s the answer – in essence – that Peter gives
in this moment of spontaneous and God given insight
“you are the Christ”
that is – you are the anointed one – the Messiah
the one sent by God
and immediately we read
Jesus began to then teach about his imminent suffering and death, and his resurrection
His Passion
The events of the first Easter
The saving events in and through which Jesus as the Messiah will bring salvation to the world

3. What are you going to do about?

The third and final question now follows
And this is my paraphrase
What are you going to do about it?
So we read in v. 34 - Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
The call to discipleship here is a call to follow
It's one thing to confess that Jesus is the Christ – as Peter does
It's quite another to follow him
And it’s still another thing to take up your own cross and follow
The questions posed by Jesus have a logical sequence
they issue a challenge
and they call for a response
that through the medium of the gospel
comes to you and to me today
it goes like this -
who do people say that Jesus is?
Well – some say a good man, a great teacher, a spiritual master
Others say just a man
The Christian tradition says – the very Son of God, begotten not made, of one being with God the Father
But what about you
Who do you say that Jesus is?
And what are you going to do about it anyway?
Every week we say the Creed together
And when you say those words
You are making a confession
Rather like Peter’s confession here in Mark ch. 8
You are saying and confessing that Jesus is the Christ
That he is the very Son of God
That he is begotten not made
True God of true God…
We will say it soon
Hopefully we are all aware of what we are actually saying or proclaiming when we say the Creed as we will this morning
In those words of the Nicene Creed
We are actually proclaiming and professing the Christian understanding that in the person of Jesus the Christ
The fullness of God is present
That is – that this human person Jesus, born to Mary, and who grew up and walked about on earth
Is at the same time – God in the flesh
God incarnate – that is, God in the flesh
We proclaim this (those of us who may come here often) many times
But what are you going to do about it?
It's one thing to confess, to say it, to form words with ones mouth and lips
It's quite another to follow
That’s why Jesus issues this challenge and calls for this response
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
so – in the spirit of that challenge
have you begun to follow?
and how is your following going?
is that cross heavy to bear?
Or is it easy to carry?

I’m going to finish today with some words of spiritual wisdom
About discipleship, about following Jesus
About putting the Creed into action
From the Medieval writer Thomas a Kempis –
Words that I find, personally challenging and confronting
And which you may as well
He writes this
“Jesus has many today who love his heavenly kingdom
but few who carry his cross;
many who yearn for comfort,
few who long for distress.
Plenty of people he finds to share his banquet
Few to share his fast.
Everyone desires to take part in his rejoicing
But few are willing to suffer anything for his sake.
There are many who follow Jesus as far as the breaking of the bread
But few as far as drinking the cup of suffering.
Many are they who love Jesus
As long as nothing runs counter to them”