Relationships are not always good between Christian disciples. Among the most authentic of the New Testament accounts are those when the followers of Jesus disagreed. They argued about who was the greatest, and who would sit on his right or left hand in Glory. They denied they knew him at the time of his trial, and they disputed the authenticity of who first had seen the risen Christ. St Paul had to spend a great deal of his time and devote much space in his letters to new local communities in dispute. It seems to be a part of human nature to define ourselves by difference as well as by association. Through the centuries, whether by reform or by renewal, whether by schism or separation, emerging and established churches have found living alongside one-another a test of faith. So why now is anything different and why do we need to spend time and energy building a relational culture?
Both the Old and the New Testaments contain many examples of relational best practice between colleagues and across groups. Our Lord’s mentoring of his disciples will remain the foundational example. For this joint piece of work a key text has been chosen. It is both a reaction to past divisions and an encouragement towards what might be possible.
“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another . . .”Hebrews 10:24-25
A problem unmasked
How we order our church is a relational issue. Locally, it is about the nature of relationships between clergy and their congregations. Writ large, it is also about a cultural change within a denomination and between denominations. Theologically, a repeated challenge, from the earliest days to the present, has been the question of what our common life (koinonia) could and should look like
The starting point for this examination is a much more limited one, even though broad and challenging in its seriousness. It is about the common life within our own Church of England. Churches frequently, and with biblical and theological justification refer to themselves as parts of the Body of Christ. It is one of St Paul’s greatest examples – but it can be distorted and experienced as hierarchical and controlling. His emphasis is not on the qualities of the parts but on how they relate to one-another – and to the person of Jesus Christ as the head (I Corinthians 12.27). It is their relatedness which makes them part of one body. In an interesting development provoked by the enforced as well as voluntary use of digital technology during the COVID pandemic, Heidi A Campbell in Ecclesiology for a Digital Church (2022) suggests that, with ease of accessibility to worship and spiritual resources from around the world, the People of God relational concept might be more appropriate than the restricted and constrained metaphor of constituent parts of one body. How would that fit our understanding of Anglican ecclesiology?
Theological backgrounds to relational thinking
Relational theologies are relatively new but are being explored in some depth. Anna Case-Winters, in a new plea for the reinstatement of incarnational theology asks, ‘Just what does it mean when we claim that God is with us?’ Her answer is the rediscovery of a God modeled in the mutual relationality of the Trinity and ‘in dynamic relationality with the world’ (God will be all in all, 2021, p.30). Ten years before, Lisa Isherwood and Elaine Bellchambers with colleagues have looked at feminist theologies and set out how their contribution could influence ecclesiology in Through us, with us, in us. They say, ‘Relational theologies have many starting points, but they appear to turn traditional Christian theologies on their head, asserting, as they do, that it is between us and through our experiences that we intuit the God we profess to believe in who is within and among us’ (Isherwood and Bellchambers 2010, p. 2). In their Relational Christianity: a remarkable vision of God (2022) Wesley M Pinkham and Jeremiah Gruenberg argue that we need a balanced understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which they define as ‘interpersonal oneness’. They make the strong point that a theologically imbalanced leader will foster an imbalanced and ultimately a dysfunctional congregation or church.
In an early attempt to explore a rebalancing of relationship in ministry the Edward King Institute for Ministry Development held a series of consultations prior to the ordination of women to the priesthood of the Church of England. Hopes were expressed there that the church would become more collaborative, more relational, and less hierarchical (Grundy 2018 & 2019). There is now a need for research to determine if there has been any internal cultural change since the vote in 1994.
Relational oversight and the local church
One of the most important characteristics of local parish ministry, served in a variety of ways by stipendiary clergy and their staff colleagues is that pastoral care can be offered in an incarnational way with increased resources for those who have their ‘feet on the ground.’ Bishop Michael Marshall, in his recent biography of Edward King gives great emphasis to the nature of priestly formation which King thought fundamental. The local parish priest, he says, to be well equipped needs to be a person of prayer, well read in theology, knowledgeable about liturgy and experienced in pastoral practice. This concept of Anglican priesthood, King and his successors as theologians and spiritual guides, understood such formation to be the essential requirement for accompanying enquirers into a deeper faith and a life of service (Marshall, 2021).
Not new in the rural church but an increasing trend in urban and suburban churches is the joining of parishes and congregations where one stipendiary minister has local oversight. Few if any clergy would offer themselves for ordination with this as their primary calling. Appropriate selection is a national issue across the denominations. It is often the large single minister congregations which produce ordinands. Many of these will have little experience of multi-congregation situations although given some exposure in their pre and post ordination training. Many will serve a curacy in a large church but will never work in one again. Whether and if most are trained, equipped, and supported for quite different local situations is one of the pressing reasons for this study. To build a relational culture in a relationally oriented church is one of the ministerial challenges of our time. There are many examples of good practice in local groupings of churches and congregations. The exchange of these, together with deanery and diocesan illustrations would begin to turn our prevailing culture around.
Some local examples
On the back page of the service booklet for our team ministry commissioning service I printed ‘Bear ye one-another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). Our Bishop of Ely, the scholarly and saintly Peter Walker opened his sermon by asking what other characteristic could there be for effective pastoral work? In that newly created four parish team ministry we worked at relationships with one-another and between parishes, with a Team Council for oversight and policy. We began pilgrimages which were coach outings organised by congregation members. We developed joint worship on the four occasions in the year when there was a fifth Sunday in the month with collections going to projects in the children’s ward of our local hospital. Soon we also had a Team Newspaper and a logo designed after a local competition. We were careful not to take away anything which was of value to each constituent congregation.
The local impact of a relational ministry across several parishes, with congregations, schools and denominational mission partners can be significant. It requires new skills. Collaborative or collegial relationships must be worked at. Local rivalries and competitive, divisive histories are hard to leave in appropriate memory banks. When a renewed relational ministry of local oversight is established, mutual benefit can be experienced. Joint engagement in mission has become of increasing importance as a decline in numbers and local impact have become apparent. Shared resources to enable pastoral care and social engagement seen as service to the community can earn respect and followers. An understanding of local and regional issues enables church leaders to be the voice of others and to use their public platform to enable or affirm change.
One non-relational observation which I make from personal experience is that regular face-to-face meetings have been in decline – and not because of COVID. Long before this pandemic struck, I have observed in my consultancy work and in my current membership of a group of parishes, that staff meetings have almost ceased to occur. Throughout my working life the Monday morning staff meeting was the foundation of the working week. Local demands may require a different pattern. The Eucharist, a shared breakfast or meal, bible study and business discussion were fundamental constituent elements. There were regular occasions where NSM’s, MSE’s and retired clergy were included. This is not a hint towards clerical domination. Such fundamental meetings serve to help understand one-another better, to explore theological resources and to share pastoral concerns. As ministry teams become much more diverse, constant interaction is essential.
At deanery and diocesan level, there is an even greater challenge, and much work to be done to re-establish a relational culture within English Anglicanism where secure and trusting relationships can become the norm. To only see the Bishop, Archdeacon, or Rural or Area Dean at a Synod or when there is a crisis does not build a relational church. Study, pastoral care, and an appropriate amount of socialising are essential ingredients. In my time as an archdeacon, I requested parish magazines be sent to me. If there was a local celebration, a concert or some significant community event mentioned, I made a point of trying to be there. It is all too easy for the diary of a bishop and an archdeacon to be filled with necessary business. It should be just as easy to free church leaders for increased local presence and engagement.
Oversight, personality, and power
It is right to ground any analysis of this plea for a renewed relational church by exploring both its ecclesiology, and its theology. Governance of episcopal churches is built on an original concept of oversight. Early Christian communities coming together to share their faith, their experience and for mutual support adopted a concept borrowed from Greek and Roman Provincial culture. They did not want a distant hierarchical system of leadership. They wanted a collaborative relational one and chose the concept of ‘seeing-over’ one-another (epi-skope) through the appointment of senior and acceptable members of their communities. Origins of the method of appointment are disputed but do not change the original intention. We are familiar with how this local and relational method of oversight which became governance was adapted, developed, and hijacked from the time of Constantine through medieval court hierarchies, royal patronage, and class systems to the present day.
What has gone wrong in recent adaptations and reforms to challenge our foundational principle of relational oversight? There is a strong sense in our emerging English Anglican culture that recent initiatives by church leaders are undermining rather that reinforcing the effectiveness of the parochial system. Extra-parochial initiatives have been resourced in order to reach individuals and groups in English society it was felt could not be touched by traditional ministries. This may or may not be a valid approach. Research evidence suggests that they are only effective when linked to social action on the ground. There is a concern about the theology underpinning or informing evangelism only initiatives, not that they are unworthy in themselves, but that they can be seen as separatist or sectarian in nature. This is a concern as it contrasts with a fundamental characteristic of inherited Anglicanism. From Richard Hooker to Martyn Percy, we have emphases that it is inclusive, tolerant, and comprehensive in its essence.
A colleague, commenting on an earlier draft of this chapter noted, ‘I would start to look at the mood of anxiety which has become heightened during the past decade, over numbers, finance, and reputation. It seems to me to have been harnessed by the leadership. The rhetoric then is about growth: the underlying message is threat, existential anxiety, and urgency. The vision is about transformation, which has an attractive ring to it, but is played out in several ways which accentuate discontent, uncertainty, and magical thinking. It is certainly a long way from St Paul and Philippians from glory to glory. In a similar vein, Angela Tilby, writing in the Church Times on March 4th, 2022, about the General Synod’s vote to enhance the place of dioceses and the power of bishops commented: The Bishops, in other words, were lined up almost unanimously in favour of this radical review of governance which would greatly enhance their position in the nation’s life while cutting the dioceses. And this in a system that, in spite of resembling Parliament, has neither Whips nor an Opposition. The shameful unanimity of the bishops in boosting their own status reveals a growing division between them and the rest of the Church. It is a part of wider changes in ecclesiology: the elevation of the diocese over the parish, the loss of local connection, the attempts to turn bishops into enforcers of top-down polity, and the subsequent current moves to coerce parishes into diocesan schemes that will rid them of their agency and reduce the clergy to puppets’.
Why a new relational breakdown?
There have been some external constraints put on the pastoral oversight role of church leaders. These have affected our internal workings, how we understand and experience a relational church, in negative and divisive ways. The implementation of safeguarding procedures has meant that an atmosphere of accusation, suspicion and mistrust has come to dominate. Some of the constraints are deserved as history now reveals a lack of integrity in dealing with alleged breaches in professional clerical conduct. Negotiations about pastoral reorganisation have also alienated parishioners and some local clergy. A telling observation is becoming commonplace, inside and outside parish life. It is that central and diocesan resources are being targeted on non-parochial appointments and this has led to a sense of alienation from a bishop and diocese rather than an affirmation of a shared sense of pastoral responsibility.
Personality, power, and a relational church
Paul Tillich in the second volume of his Systematic Theology (1964) called hubris ‘the greatest sin – wanting to be like God’. It is the enemy of teamwork and relationship building. Dr David Owen in his The Hubris Syndrome (2007) says this is not an illness but a consequence of long and often isolated responsibility. What has undermined the possibility of developing a relational church is the inability of those making appointments to know the difference between hubris and narcissism. In a review of ‘Sex, Power, Control: Responding to Abuse in the Institutional Church (2021), Linda Woodhead, now a Professor at King’s College, London, has written:
Narcissism being understood in clinical terms rather than simply as vanity. The narcissist buries shameful things that he or she cannot bear to face. Some of these may derive from childhood, some from later episodes and actions. In order to defend against horrible feelings, a false self is constructed. The more grandiose the self, the more it needs to be continually re-inflated. One way of doing so is by joining an institution that confers dignity. Dressing up, being given a title, and being treated as more ‘reverend’ than others, does the job very well. So – to take a further step – does controlling, demeaning, and even abusing other people. The smaller you make them, the bigger you feel. . . In sociological terms, abuse both exploits existing social inequalities and reinforces them.
One of the unfortunate features of the relational crisis in our church is that people are locked in roles, either by those around them or because of their own internal narcissistic understanding of the responsibilities they have been given. Secular models do not always ring true and only a few are relational. What Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline (1999) calls ‘mental models’ is important. He says that it is the relational ones which we need to reconstruct, ‘The discipline of team learning starts with “dialogue”, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together’ (p.10). Such thinking has always been the essence of the Church of England and is a unifying concept in what we still call the Anglican Communion. Today, episcopal churches through the understanding and practice of their leadership, need to discover or rediscover this unifying relational idea which will be stronger than the energy which is currently being diverted into their divisions.
One way in which we can be helped to fill this theological and ecclesiological vacuum by rediscovering a foundational ecumenical document. Often called the ‘Lima Agreement’, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1980) has the most concise and relevant analysis of the relational functions of oversight. It is helpful, even fundamental, because it helps us to move away both from collaborative and hierarchical concepts of leadership. It says that relational oversight is expressed personally, collegially, and communally.
I have found these three concepts helpful in the consultancy work I undertake. The first relational role of a leader is about how they understand themselves personally in the setting and responsibilities to which they have been called. Martyn Percy, in his The Humble Church (2020) has reminded us that humility is almost an expected approach to any calling and particularly to an ordained role in any denomination. Personal standards, spirituality and integrity are on public display. They should not be observed in the breach but in the life of a public person in role trying to understand themselves. Collegial working is of the essence of responsible leadership. Bishops need to work out, however inflated their egos, how to work together, and in a collegial relationship with other diocesan staff. It is a particular privilege of Anglican church leaders, but no longer exclusively so, that their office gives them a privileged place and a voice on the communal stage, often informed locally, and expressed regionally or nationally. This integrated relational understanding is all about intentional and negotiated pastoral relationships which when exercised with informed theological understanding can build a renewed church.
Can a relational church be rebuilt?
My answer is an emphatic YES! I say this because our Anglican Settlement, the birthplace of what became the Church of England was born on tolerance and on differing groups agreeing to be able to work together. Richard Hooker was able to produce his masterpiece of reflective relational theology to give credibility and legitimacy to such a way of working. Perhaps because of our adversarial or single-issue interest membership the General Synod, from its inception in 1970 has brought division rather than relational debate to the surface. There is no doubt that the lack of ‘balance’ in senior appointments and within senior staff teams has increased divisiveness and reduced the possibility of collegial decision making. If these issues, can be remedied, not with any further reorganisation, or with the creation of further specialised and often extra-parochial teams, but with a rediscovery of our basic Anglican ethos and spirituality much can be achieved. It can be achieved through our prayerfulness, our meeting together for the eucharist around the Lord’s Table and our deliberate resolve to develop non-hierarchical and informal ways in which we can follow the commendation in our key chosen text from the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews to – ‘not give up meeting together’. I am a passionate believer that we must address a pressing current need and draw from our cultural heritage so that together we can develop a more relational culture – a community of communities. My hope is that this joint piece of work will model our intention and help to transform our Church of England. It has the potential to become, perhaps for the first time, a relational community of faith in which new members are welcomed, its ministers affirmed, and where we all feel re-formed, renewed, and revitalised.
Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, WCC Faith and Order Paper No 111, 1982.
Campbell Heidi A and Dyer John (Ed), Ecclesiology for a Digital Church; Theological reflections on the New Normal, SCM, 2022.
Case-Winters, Anna, God will be all in all: Theology through the Lens of Incarnation. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2021.
Gardner, Fiona, Sex, Power, Control: Responding to abuse in the institutional Church, Lutterworth, 2021.
Grundy, Malcolm, The Edward King Institute for Ministry Development: 1986 to 2003, Rural Theology, Volume 16, 2018, Issue 2. Ministry, the Journal of the Edward King Institute for Ministry Development, Rural Theology, Volume 17, 2019, Issue 2.
Grundy, Malcolm, Multi-Congregation Ministry, Canterbury Press, 2015.
Isherwood, Linda and Elaine Bellchambers (Ed), Through us, with us, in us: relational theologies in the Twenty-First Century, SCM 2010.
Marshall, Michael, Edward King, Teacher, Pastor, Bishop, Saint, Gracewing, 2021.
Mountford, Brian, Church Going Gone: a biography of religion, doubt and faith, Christian Alternative Books, Winchester. 2021.
Owen, David, The Hubris Syndrome, Methuen, 2007.
Percy, Martyn, The Humble Church, becoming the Body of Christ, Canterbury Press Norwich, 2021.
Pinkham, Wesley M and Gruenberg, Jeremiah, Relational Christianity: a remarkable vision of God, WIPF & Stock, 2022.
Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline, Random House, 1999. p.10.
Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology, Vol II, James Nisbett & Co, 1964. pp. 54-58.