Sad Little Circles

Today I got wind of what I think is a very sad story. I see it akin to one of those Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse stories. Sad because it is a story of ignorance and control in a church where one would expect enlightenment and grace.

I recall a conversation I had with my Rabbi friend some years ago. She had volunteered to be part of a multi-faith team invited to a regional city as part of Project Abraham. This was an ecumenical initiative to encourage respect between Jews, Christians and Muslims, seeking to promote inter-religious understanding and respect following the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City – remembered as 9/11.

We were having a coffee together the week after she returned from this visit. She told me how amazed she was that the young people they engaged with in schools were totally ignorant of the Bible. They appeared never to have heard about Noah or Moses; and Jesus was simply a swear word. She is American. So I suppose I was not totally surprised at how stunned she was that Australia, having its roots in a Christian past, had been so careless in its disregard for the sources of its moral heritage.

The problem we have, illustrated in the story I am about to share, is not that we have lost religion. It is that where we have religion, it is often uninformed. It is no wonder that young firebrands declare themselves qualified to be leaders, whether they be upstart, untrained Muslim clerics or so-called Christian (Youth) pastors who seem to claim they have all the answers. It has ever been so. But, as we are beginning to discover, our modern society ignores its ramifications at its peril – and at huge cost.

Here is a largish Uniting Church whose youth leaders have signed a covenant. It commits them to uphold a narrow view, including a rejection of homosexuality. And it claims to be ‘biblical’!

In days gone by, my first response would be to demonstrate that any number of the propositions put forward in the ‘covenant’ are actually ‘unbiblical’, particularly when lined up against the values displayed by Jesus and by his emphasis on love of God and neighbour, and his passion for inclusion of the marginalised.

But I now think there is a more fundamental dynamic at play.

I am informed by the missiologist, Paul Hiebert, who wrote a paper on a thorny issue facing Christian missionaries. Could an uneducated peasant, who couldn’t read the Bible or pass a catechism test, ever become a Christian? Reaching to a missiologist might seem a far stretch, but bear with me.

In my soon to be launched book on Radical Hospitality, I quote large sections of Hiebert’s paper as an appendix to make some points about exclusion and inclusion. Ironically, inclusion-exclusion is exactly what is at the heart of this ‘covenant’ approach. Culturally control and protecting religious purity are attained in one hit. It is classic Phariseism.

The untidy scribble below, an outcome of a coffee discussion with friends about organisational management, draws on Hiebert’s set theory modelling, applied to a discussion about ‘New Wave’ organisation.

The circle on the left, with its list of ‘rules’, represents the ‘covenant’ approach, whether it be churches or other institutional or business regulations.  To enter the circle, there is a recruitment process and then an agreement to the demands of the culture inside the circle. You are either in or out. And if you break the rules inside, you are thrown out. The line of the circle and the rigid demands it protects keeps those who won’t play the inside game, out; and those who submit to them, in.

BTW, this was never the picture I get of Jesus as one reads the Gospels.

The mess on the right of the scribble represents an alternative model. Obviously we had quite a conversation about it! There is a centre. Our belonging in an organisation depends on our direction with respect to the centre. The nature of the centre itself is not necessarily settled. The centre itself is also dynamic, itself moving in a direction determined by the centre’s vision and values, carrying along those who belong by their relational connection to the centre.

Enlightened organisations support this second ‘centred’ model. It is a model that builds responsibility and releases freedom for creativity. It is risky (Jesus called this ‘faith’). Commitment to the vision and values of the centre relativises ‘rules’. ‘Purity’ becomes irrelevant. Change is inherent. Re-evaluation, both about the centre itself and its vision and values, is continuous.

Those who, for whatever reason, join the inside group in the closed circle will one day feel de-personalised. It is a sad outcome that their own spirit will become a spirit of conformity. Their human potential is captured in a bubble that is not interested in what lies outside its own interest. It is ultimately selfish.

Those who take the experimental risk of commitment to a vision and values centre that is moving into the unknown will know they are alive!

What a pity any institutional church with an intent on religious purity, or any business intent on protecting its brand, promotes an ‘in-out’ protectionist consciousness. Coping with present realities of pluralism for social inclusion becomes near impossible.

Perhaps the most exciting thing for me that came out of our coffee conversation was the suggestion: what if there are multiple centres heading in the same direction? I think that is worth further conversation.


3 thoughts on “Sad Little Circles

    1. Robert, I am so delighted to be travelling with you in the same direction. It is so joyful, this non-demanding companionship. Your life gives me courage.

    2. As I continue in my.own joirney of reatoration I keep havimg unexpected moments of feeling described and thereby heard and met in a solitary place. What you describe has been my experience in each and every workplace within the Church in which I have served. Maintaining an openness in the circle requires for each member to leave and look in from the outside. Or get far enough away to look into other worlds all together. As I am looking back on my different teams I can see the reality of your theory in all sharpness. Thanks for sharing it Geoff. Beatrice Panne

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