We are only fully human when we forget to take ourselves seriously.The same goes for solemn occasions involving large numbers of serious individuals.
In fact, one could argue that serious individuals coalescing into solemn enclaves create what we call a self interested and self sustaining system. Systems are not fully human, and this week’s Church of England Synod gathering was an example of how inhuman systems can ultimately be their own undoing.
For one thing, it revealed, if only for a moment, that a person’s underlying fallible humanity will occasionally slip through the cracks in the system and appear in broad daylight as, for example, when an individual makes an all too human mistake. Truth is often revealed through paradox; a bishop acting through some kind of subliminal divine prompting, presses the wrong button when the crucial vote is taken, thereby making the system look a little more human and, as a result, even more ridiculous than he himself must have felt on realising his mistake. I have some sympathy for Bishop Christopher Cocksworth. He was technically challenged (something which happens to most of us from time to time) so that for a moment his humanity broke through and led him to inadvertently do the right thing, even though he apologised for it profusely later on.
Perhaps all great changes in history begin with such minor mistakes. In this case it was a kind of inversion of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘for want of a nail, the battle is lost’. Such mistakes at least reveal the thinness of the glass casing which keeps the system together in a spurious kind of unity, requiring that the humanity and integrity of the individuals involved be trussed up and kept out of sight.
Bishop Christopher Cocksworth’s all too human mistake also invites us to question at what point does the system as a whole cease to be human? At what point, and why, did it cease to function in the way it was ordained to by its founder? The purpose of the Church, and the authority given to its bishops, being surely to preserve and cherish the whole human race, beginning with its own members, as the embodiment and revelation of Jesus Christ. Somewhere, the system has overtaken and enslaved, or ‘bound’, the true Church.
This being the case, I think it is safe to say that many of us would like to see a Church whose authority system has been turned upside down and inside out by its founder – for its own greater good. In other words, many of us would like to see a commitment to loving service of all God’s people which begins with the de-systemisation of power. A humble questioning of the nature and purpose of real authority in the Church might be a good place to begin.
One of the symptoms of systemic power at work in the Church is the idea that power is to be exercised primarily in the interest of maintaining unity, something of an anachronism when we remember that the Triune unity, on which we base our Christian faith, is one of inter-relatedness and dynamic, or continual movement into a deeper knowledge and love of the other.
This is the knowledge which admits to itself that it understands, empathises or, to use today’s vernacular, ‘gets’ who that person is. ‘Getting’ something about someone means touching on the truth of that person in a way which can only cause us to love them more. When persons, powerful or not, have been swallowed up by the system they themselves have created, they need the rest of us to minister to them in the deepest sense. Ministry is about being as Christ for the other, irrespective of their power status or lack of it.
So we look at the powerful from the same vantage point as that which enables us to ‘get’ what it means to be powerless and marginalised. The powerful, as we see them in formal synod settings, or fail to see them because much of the real work goes on in closed meetings, are as needy as the powerless, but in a different way. Their minds need ‘re-clothing’, so that when they come to sit at the feet of Christ, like the man described in Luke 8:35, they need not feel ashamed at having lost touch with their own humanity. They have literally ‘come to their senses’. It is their senses which need re-clothing.
The senses, understood in this way, are what lead us to take reactive measures, to act ‘instinctively’ towards those who are on the margins of our common life, not because we fear them (although we do sometimes) but because their freed humanity threatens the personal security which the existing system affords the powerful. This is at the heart of the controversy which currently divides us. The security, and the system itself, depends on doing things in the way they have always been done, including adhering to outdated Church law and to habits of mind which come with lifeless, loveless ways of reading scripture. All of these things are done by appealing to authority and thereby asserting power.