December 2007


An earlier article in the Times claiming that more people logged on to the internet on Christmas Day than went to church has provoked a robust defence in the Letters columns today:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article3097009.ece

The correspondents make their points well and the Communications Officer from the Diocese of Bath and Wells reflects anecdotally that there might have been more people in church than in recent years. Certainly that would be reflected in my guestimate of what went on in our Cathedral.  Midnight Communion, despite a potentially disastrous shower of rain at about 11pm, produced a mammoth congregation, whilst the main service on Christmas Day morning more than held its own.  Anecdotally, even when you factor out exaggerated claims, evidence from clergy would seem to indicate larger congregations this year.

Again this year, grumpy old men (myself included!) and women have reacted strongly to those who suggest that Christmas should be downplayed for fear of offending adherents of other religions.  One wonders whether the Dawkins/Hitchins claim to be evangelists of atheism hasn’t provoked the very opposite of what they intended.  The most surprising newspaper columnists have been falling over themselves to leap to God’s defence.

All this is positive, but in the end I had to ask myself how much it would matter to me if the Times were right?  Would I care that much if more people logged on, on Christmas Day than went to church.  I have to say that such a stat would neither encourage nor discourage me.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that the Church is very important.  I buy the view that, to quote Bill Hybels, “the local church is the hope of the world.”  At least I buy it insofar as the local church is meant to point beyond itself to that bigger reality that Jesus preached about, which He called the Kingdom of God.

In a way I think the real question we need to be asking as 2007 comes to an end is whether we are beginning 2008 with a better world?  And there the evidence becomes a little more ambivalent…..

Earlier this year I heard an address by Professor Michael Porter, Professor of Strategic Management at Harvard.  He regards himself as an ‘outsider’ in relation to looking at faith groups, charitable organisations etc.  After expressing some genuine appreciation for the work of such groups in society, he offered this interesting insight.

“As someone looking in from the outside, the impression you give, is that a lot of what you do is related to your own need rather than those you serve.”  He went on to talk about some of the outcomes that this brings, notably that our efforts seemed to lack co-ordination and consequently undermined efficient delivery.

What he said made my heart skip a beat. I knew exactly what he was talking about.  I thought about:

  • how unaware we can be about our need to be needed, leading to a slightly over optimistic understanding of our perceived significance in wider society
  • the huge amount of wasteful duplication  that takes place with anyone and everyone setting up their charitable trust to enshrine their own interest (need?).  This is Porter’s point about lack of co-ordination.  Surely the best reason for a new trust or piece of work is that it is new.  ie. No-one else is doing it.
  • our pre-occupation with acting as though the world could still be understood as Christendom, which hugely undermines our strategic thinking.  Probably unfairly, I think that a lot of our “fresh thinking” seems a bit like a map publisher, publishing maps with the assumption that the world is flat.  Maybe this is as much psychological as theological.  For to allow that our culture is post-Christian might bring with it the paralysing fear that we are a pretty marginalised group in contemporary society seeking to cling on to old structures and power bases.

The more I have thought about this, the more I  see Porter’s words as tantamount to prophecy.  I wonder if anyone else can hear what he is saying.  Something about old wineskins here?

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