The importance of critical reflection

By Jonathan Bartley
March 18, 2010

We have been reflecting on some of the questions that have been raised recently about Ekklesia, the way we operate and what we are about. Critical reflection is something we try and do regularly, and we find it a very useful exercise.

Ekklesia finds itself in an interesting position. Deliberately independent of church denominations and structures, we examine and highlight some of the great things that the churches do, but also seek to challenge some of the areas in which we hope they will change for the better. It’s a balancing act. We don’t always get it right. But at present, we highlight far more that the church does which is good, than the bad.

For example, we have run six hundred or so items of news, comment and analysis since the beginning of this year. Somewhere in the region of 10 per cent of that might be viewed as ‘critical’ of churches – although we hope in a positive way, whether it be suggesting how church schools could be better, how bishops could play a more active part in democracy, or how the churches could see their investments as part of their mission, rather than something which funds it.

Our critical reflection also involves thinking about how we operate. Just yesterday for example, someone approached us about our promotion of schemes which aim to help people in the developing world, and challenged us about their sustainability and impact. We have over the last few years raised in excess of £1 million for good causes through schemes run by aid agencies to send ‘virtual’ gifts to the developing world. It may however be time to think again about what those schemes are doing, and we may well end up changing the ones we support in favour of others which we think are more positive.

Anyway, I am not going to critically reflect here. It was more to point out that we do listen to challenges and criticism, But some challenges to us are of a different sort. Yesterday also, Gavin Drake, a diocesan Church of England Communications officer for Litchfield Diocese, tweeted that he thought we were “anti-Christian” (NB not theologically wrong, not even un-christian, or non-Christian, but actually something not a million miles from the 'anti-Christ').

The contrast between the two types of challenge is stark. The former one over how we raise money was based on a concern for the impact our activities had on some of the world’s poorest people, and asked us to reconsider our policy positions, dealing with the substantive policy issues involved. The latter however was a personal attack, and in subsequent tweets sought to run Ekklesia down, and discredit what we do. As Gavin Drake put it “I am dismissive of Ekklesia as Ekklesia is dismissive of the church.”

Drake says we are the enemies of Christians. Our theology and commitment to follow Christ, of course, is the basis for all that we do. So I have also been reflecting on what was said in light of that. (Reflecting on the nature of his criticism, not critically reflecting on what he had to say which is utter nonsense).

In my 2005 book Subversive Manifesto for the Bible Reading Fellowship, which explored some theological approaches to politics, I devoted a chapter to looking at the spiritual dynamic behind this kind of attack.

Ched Myer’s commentary on Mark’s Gospel contains an excellent analysis of the story of Jesus in the Synagogue at Capernaum. For those unfamiliar with the story, Jesus is teaching there, and the Gospel writer reports that the religious leaders saw that he had an authority which the religious leaders didn’t possess. It would have been likely that he was challenging religious leaders as he did so. Suddenly, in the middle of that religious context a demon appears and challenges Jesus. “On whose behalf was the demon manifesting?” asks Myers. It was on behalf of the religious leaders whose authority Jesus was challenging, he suggests.

I am not equating Drake with a demon, or Ekklesia to Jesus (!!) The point is that it is a feature of post-Christendom that the churches can no longer rely on privilege and status for their authority. Their authority instead is increasingly being defined by the quality of their witness. But their authority is also being increasingly challenged, and when it is, it can provoke a strong reaction.

Of course, some vestiges of Christendom still remain. Drake’s attack came on the back of our challenge to bishops in the House of Lords, who we believe (on the basis of our readings of Jesus teachings in the Gospels) should not be there by virtue of historical privilege, but rather that religious leaders should be there on the same basis as everyone else.

Over 50,000 letters - including from many Christians - were emailed to bishops urging them to take a constructive approach in reform of the House of Lords which would not be based on privileged status. We also undertook some research with Power2010, which suggested that 70 per cent of those who self-identified as Christians believed that the bishop's privileged place in the House of Lords was ‘wrong’. Both these things clearly presented a challenge to the authority of the bishops, who have previously defended their position there on the basis of ‘representing all people of faith.’

As with the challenge to the authority of the religious leaders in Capernaum, Drake’s response was not to deal with the issues that were being raised, but instead to try and belittle those who were challenging authority.

Ched Myers points out that the demon used a similar strategy at the Synagogue at Capernaum. “I know who you are, Jesus of Nazareth” it says, Nazareth being a running joke at the time (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth”)

We are actually the first to accept that we are a small outfit, (although as thinktanks go, perhaps not that small!) There are three directors who do most of the public work for Ekklesia (as well as two other ‘legal’ directors who do less but help run the company on a not-for-profit basis). But that masks the tireless work that others do behind the scenes. Jill Segger works away diligently copy-editing and writing every day, James Vincent gets up very early each morning to do our daily news briefing, our interns give their time voluntarily at great personal expense, our researchers spend many hours working away and preparing reports, and there are dozens of associates who work with us. (You can see who exactly is involved in Ekklesia here). And these of course, according to Drake, are anti-Christian too.

Drake yesterday, also tried to suggest that we don’t produce any research. We would certainly like to do more. We have a research section online which you can visit and see what we have produced. You can also see the books that we have written, in our bookshop. But I think that his suggestion may have more to do with the fact that our output in other areas is colossal and so the research which underpins what we do often gets lost amongst it. (NB if you subscribe to our weekly research bulletin, you will receive it regularly).

To give a flavour: In the last year we have independently, and also in partnership, commissioned four surveys, (public attitudes to ‘independent’ politics, attitudes to church schools, remembrance and the latest one on religion in public life and the place of bishops). Lizzie Clifford, a Masters graduate in theo-liguistics from Cambridge published an excellent introductory report on Thought for the Day/ religious broadcasting, and has just finished another analysing Thought for the Day scripts which will be published soon. Noel Moules has given us a fantastic and lengthy report on the theological approaches to the ongoing sexuality debate within the Churches. Alex Kennedy produced an excellent briefing on the Equality Bill for the House of Lords Committee Stage in January, as part of our work with Accord, of which we were a founder member. Kate Guthrie produced an insightful report offering a framework for reimagining remembrance and examining how the churches approach issues of peace and war, which formed the basis of a Guardian editorial which backed our proposals as well as receiving extensive media coverage. The month before that, my co-director Simon Barrow produced an excellent paper, building on our work over several years with Christian Peacemaker Teams, examining the opportunities and constraints involved in highlighting non-violent interventions in situations of conflict for the general media. Savi Hensman who has worked with us for several years, has produced an extensive analysis of what the future might be for the Anglican Communion. Simon Beard, who has also been working with Lord Ali in the House of Lords over civil partnerships kicked off our work on spiritual capital, and I have also produced work on the church’s investments. The list goes on and on. And this is all in addition to the literally thousands of news items, comment pieces, analyses and features we have written, not to mention talks, debates a lectures we have given in the last year at churches, conferences and conventions.

There is certainly more that we could be doing. We recognise our limitations. And there is a cost to our decision to be structured and operate in the way that we do. We run on a co-operative basis and deliberately do not have large corporate donors in order to maintain our independence. But despite this we also find that we have huge interest in what we do, and many people clearly value it. Our daily news briefings and weekly research bulletins are taken by 11,000 people and we get 5,000 unique visitors to our website each day. It means too that the several hundred partners who financially support us see every pound they give us put to very efficient use.

So are we anti-Christian? I have explained how all our work is underpinned by strong theological convictions. We also receive a steady stream of messages from church leaders, Christians, and many others around the world, thanking us for what we are doing. But perhaps most heartening for me, is the wonderful times, often after TV and Radio interviews, when I have had emails and telephone calls from people who say they had left the church, often after being hurt and sometimes had lost their faith, but Ekklesia had helped them find it again. Some are now our good friends and supporters.

Well that’s more than I expected to write. No doubt some will take this as being ‘defensive’, ‘self-publicist’ or 'self-justification'. But for those who are interested in the issues I hope it sheds a bit of light on what we do.

One final thought however. To call a Christian brother or sister 'anti-Christian' is a very serious charge - particularly if you are employed by the Church of England, and you make it in a public context. We are all still reflecting how best to respond to this criticism.

[Update: 16.29 Phil Ritchie just tweeted me to say that this blog doesn't involve much 'critical reflection' so in case it's not clear this blog is not about critically reflecting over Ekklesia, but reflecting on the nature of the criticism we receive.]

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