Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Category: killgeorge (Page 3 of 6)

Towards a new, sustainable model of parochial ministry for the Church of England. If you meet George Herbert on the road… kill him!

My favourite American town?

It has to be Pasadena…

My favourite American institute of higher education?

It has to be Caltech…


Because last night, following my appearance on Thinking Anglicans, someone with an IP address belonging to Caltech (yes, you know who you are, DHCP-64-192.gps.caltech.edu!), spent 2 hours 22 mins 25 secs working his/her/their way through the Kill George series on this blog.

Not even my mother has devoted 2 hours 22 mins 25 secs to my writing. Ever. In the whole of my life. Combined!

Thank you, whoever is behind DHCP-64-192.gps.caltech.edu (may I call you DHCP?). I appreciate your interest, and I hope you were sufficiently rewarded for your efforts

KGH: Memento Mori II

George Herbert, R.I.P

Today, 27 February, is, of course, the feast day of George Herbert, priest, poet, who died this day in 1633.

King of glory, King of peace,
who called your servant George Herbert
from the pursuit of worldly honours
to be a priest in the temple of his God and King:
grant us also the grace to offer ourselves
with singleness of heart in humble obedience to your service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

God give him grace to rest in peace, and rise in glory…

(and may his false memory stop bugging those of us who are left to follow in his footsteps!)

Ozymandias, Part II

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the desert…

May I draw your attention to the following, which appeared on Amazon.co.uk today:


Further down the Amazon listing we see this little piece of humility:


It is curious the number of people who try to tell me that I will never make any money from writing. I know! the evidence is there right in front of my eyes! (515,762nd best selling book!)

Kill George, the blog, becomes Kill George, the book

“If you meet George Herbert on the road… kill him!” is finally beginning to emerge into the world. The manuscript for the book has been completed, and is with the publishers. A series of draft covers has been prepared, improved upon and tweaked, until an excellent and striking cover (I wish I knew the name of my designer) has been agreed. We even have a subtitle: “Radically Rethinking Priestly Ministry”. There is a blurb prepared for catalogues, and a date for publication: 1 June 2009.

I don’t intend, therefore, to publish any more from “Kill George” in this forum. This means that the final third of the book, the practical application of the “Kill George” methodology, will have to wait until next summer before readers get their hands on it. Blame the nervousness of the author or blame the necessities of publishing.

This doesn’t mean that, if you are interested in “Kill George”, if my ideas have resonated with you, that “Kill George” has to go completely silent. If you are “clerge”, and live in the UK, and would like me to come and talk to your chapter / deanery / diocesan synod / clergy support group, then I will be very happy to come. (If you don’t live in the UK, and are willing to pay for my travel expenses, then I am also very willing to come to see you). If you follow the publication of learned journals, then a future issue of the George Herbert Journal will see printed a paper which I presented to the international “George Herbert’s Travels” conference, recently held at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (and more on that anon).

In the meantime, until 1 June or we meet, if you feel the weight and oppression of Herbertism, then please do keep in touch. It began as a movement of one. It needn’t continue that way.

KGH : Weaver — Weaving, Worship and Worth

Vincent Donovan, in his experiences with the Masai, discovered the importance of the ‘community focus person’, the man whose job “in a very real way is to enable that community to function”.1

Part of that community functioning is in worship. Rowan Williams quote approvingly the Romanian theologian, Dumitru Staniloae, who said that “the priest’s role was to ‘assemble and concentrate’ the Christian people at prayer.”2

But weaving, building a “differentiated unity”, does not stop with presiding at worship3. Paul tells the church in Corinth that although Christ’s ministry is that of reconciliation, he has entrusted that ministry to his church (2 Corinthians 5:18f). This reconciliation may take many different forms, perhaps as many forms as there are individual Christian communities and individual priests, but all forms will share a sense of making connections between people who may otherwise feel themselves to be disconnected. This is what Williams calls “the gift of helping people make sense to and of each other”

In case anybody thinks that this calling of priest as weaver sounds a little vague, or comfortable, or prissy (a kind of ‘knit-your-own-Christianity’ ministry), Williams points out exactly how difficult and demanding it is and will be. If the priest is to help “people make sense to and of each other”, occasionally that will be making sense of alienation or threat. When people feel threatened or alienated, then they can be at their most volatile. Making the connections between separated people means, following Bonhoeffer, showing the connections between people who have been initially separated from Christ, making Christ known, in the mission statement of the Archbishop’s Cathedral4. This is something more than a sentimental “I’m OK, you’re OK, Jesus is OK” introduction. Encountering Jesus Christ means encountering the healing and absolving Jesus, but also the judging and dying Jesus. Occasionally the word of Jesus to his disciple is a word of rebuke; occasionally the parish priest may be the means of speaking that rebuke. Encountering Jesus means meeting him in his birth, and his refugee status, in the poverty of his adult life, in the deeply demanding content of his teaching, and the (properly) awful circumstances of his passion and his death. It means a puzzling meeting with the gardener outside an empty tomb, and not quite getting, not quite understanding, what the power of the resurrection means to either Christ himself or to his followers. It is the task of the parish priest (among others) to prepare people to meet Jesus in all these places, just as they are, “without one plea”, and without the barriers and defences and rationalisations that human beings use to protect themselves from what is real and important5. As Williams says, acknowledging the boldness of his formulation: “the priest sometimes has to speak not only as parent to the prodigal son, but as parent to the elder brother who can only see his brother’s forgiveness as his own humiliation and loss.”

And helping people to divest themselves of these unnecessary defences, or to recognise their unaccustomed relations, can be a painful process: “to be yourself a place where lines of force intersect, where diverse interests and passions converge is one of the hardest aspects of that dimension of priestly life which is about living in the fantasies and expectations of others.”

  1. Donovan, Christianity rediscovered, p. 146. []
  2. Williams, ‘The Christian Priest Today’. []
  3. For another description of this community differentiation, see Tom Wright, Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2006), pp. 180-181. []
  4. Canterbury Cathedral Mission Statement, based on John 12:20 []
  5. A memorable scene from a modern comedy of manners: MICHAEL: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex. SAM: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex. MICHAEL: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization? (The Big Chill, written by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, Columbia Pictures, 1983). []

KGH : Weaver — An insight from the Masai

Bonhoeffer’s experience, if not his writing, confirmed the importance of a “head of house” (hausvater) in the community in Pomerania. We find confirmation of the importance of this role in the experiences of Vincent Donovan, in his experiences as a missionary priest in the early 1960s in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Donovan followed in the footsteps of scores, if not hundreds, of European Christian priests before him. The Christian churches had been evangelising in East Africa for a hundred years, and, on the face of it, their achievements were great. They had helped to stamp out slavery; through preaching, teaching, political pressure, and, when all else failed, buying the slaves from the slavers and giving them their freedom. They had helped set up an impressive system of western-style schools: buildings, compounds, curriculum and examinations. They had taught, and baptized, and confirmed, married, and celebrated the eucharist, heard confessions and buried the people of East Africa. A great achievement indeed.

Christianity rediscoveredBut Donovan found a puzzling thing. Despite all this effort, good will, thoughtful and prayerful action, Christianity had not caught in Tanganyika. By independence, in 1961, there was only one African bishop in the diocese of Tanganyika; there were no African clergy at all in the diocese of Nairobi. In a letter to a bishop in May 1966 Donovan wrote: “The best way to describe realistically the state of this Christian mission is the number zero… up to this date no Catholic child, on leaving school, has continued to practice his religion, and there is no indication that any of the present students will do so.”1 Donovan realised that the previous approaches to evangelising East Africa were doomed to failure, and a different method was needed: the story of how he stumbled into the new method is immensely moving and exciting, and the book he wrote as a result of his experience has become a modern day classic: Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai (1978).

His subtitle is a significant one, for Donovan discovered that there was something in the Masai’s approach to religion, and Christianity in particular, which could profitably be reflected and acted upon by the prosperous and complacent churches of the west. He saw that the Masai operated as a community: a real community, and not a lip-service community that the churches in the west have become. “A community, a group like this, will act as a unit, accepting you or rejecting you together. I found out that change, deep meaningful change, like the acceptance of a hopeful, expectant world vision, does not take place in one individual at a time. Groups adopt changes as groups, or they do not adopt them at all.”2

Donovan came away from his time in East Africa with a burning desire to see how God works with communities: not organizations, nor groups, nor collections of individuals, but communities, for a community is “a group of people… so vitally interrelated that their very fate is in the hands of others in the community”.3 He had realised that at the centre of every Masai community was a single man, who was able to gather the community around him. He wouldn’t necessarily be the most educated man in the village, he wouldn’t be the richest man, but he “had the talent and the ability to call these people—this community—together, and to hold them together.”4:

… he would be the focal point of the whole community, the one who would enable the community to act, whether in worship or in service. He would be the animator of the individual members of the community, enabling them to make their various contributions, enabling the preacher to preach, and the teacher to teach and the pray-er to pray and the prophet to prophesy. He would be the necessary sign of unity that exists among them. He would be their link with the outside, the sign of their union with the outside, universal church. He would be their priest. …His job in a very real way is to enable that community to function.5

  1. Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity rediscovered : an epistle from the Masai, 2nd ed. (London : SCM, 1982), p. {???}. []
  2. Donovan, Christianity rediscovered, p. 86. []
  3. Donovan, Christianity rediscovered, p. 146. []
  4. Donovan, Christianity rediscovered, p. 143. []
  5. Donovan, Christianity rediscovered, p. 145, 146. []

KGH : Weaver — The Head of the House

It will have been noted that again and again in Life Together we see Bonhoeffer’s abiding commitment to the person and authority of Jesus Christ: it is Jesus Christ who is the leader and authority of the community. In fact, it almost seems from Bonhoeffer’s description that apart from Jesus Christ, a Christian community is a leaderless community: it is wrong for one person to act as confessor to all the community, because that would place an unnecessary burden upon the shoulders of the confessor, which may lead to “the exercise of spiritual tyranny over souls.”1 Although Bonhoeffer mentions “head of the house” (hausvater), he only does so once, and in the context of the person offering extemporaneous prayer at evening prayer2. If we accept that Bonhoeffer’s description of Christian community is a valid one for parish ministry, then where does that leave the parish priest, as hausvater or Weaver?

The first point to make is that although the seminary in Finkenwalde might appear to be a leaderless community from the description in Life Together, in practice, it was anything but. Eberhard Bethge’s memoir of Bonhoeffer shows the reality. Bonhoeffer, we are told, “did not look kindly on attempts to evade [the necessary] daily routine”. His capacity for hard work and “his ability to interrupt work for play without ever falling behind sometimes made him unjust towards others who were toiling night and day in preparation for some examination.” His manner, like his preaching style, was “startlingly direct”3. And yet, most of Bonhoeffer’s leadership was modelled by example:

A request arrived from the kitchen for help with the washing-up but there were no immediate volunteers. Without saying a word Bonhoeffer arose from the table, disappeared into the kitchen and refused admission to those who hastened to follow suit. Later, when he rejoined the students on the beach, he made no comment. And in Finkenwalde many a student was to discover with shame that someone else had made his bed in the big dormitory.4

Bonhoeffer’s role as hausvater enabled the Finkenwalde community to begin the transformation from a collection of individuals to a community. Bonhoeffer was the pump-primer, allowing the community to place itself, penultimately and ultimately (to use a favourite Bonhoeffer motif), under the authority of Christ.

  1. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 116. []
  2. “The extemporaneous prayer at the close of daily worship normally will be said by the head of the house. But in any case it is best that it is always said by the same person. That places an unexpected responsibility on this person…”. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 69. []
  3. Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pp. 349, 351, 363. []
  4. Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 350. []

KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 5

5. Confession and the Lord’s Supper

Bonhoeffer believed that one of the pernicious effects of sin and sinfulness is to drive human beings into isolation: “those who remain alone with their evil are left utterly alone.”1 Confession is a means of overcoming this isolation, and it works in four related ways: it is a breakthrough to community (transferring the burden of the sin from the individual to the community); a breakthrough to the cross (marking the confessing sinner with the humiliation of his sin and drawing him to the “promise and glory of such humiliation”2); a breakthrough to new life (“Everything has become new”, 2 Cor 5.17, Bonhoeffer quotes approvingly); and a breakthrough to assurance (if we are able to confess our sins to another sinful Christian, how much more meaningful does the forgiveness of the sinless and ever-loving God become?). Bonhoeffer makes it clear that confession works most effectively, that is, is most effectively a medium for God’s grace, when it deals with “concrete sins”, rather than a general and unspecific sense of sinfulness: “Jesus dealt with people whose sins were obvious, with tax collectors and prostitutes. They knew why they needed forgiveness, and they received it as forgiveness of their specific sins. … it is in confessing these particular sins that we receive the forgiveness of all our sins, both known and unknown.”3 So confession can become, in the words of Kelly and Nelson, “a unique way for Christians vicariously to experience the cross of Jesus Christ as they themselves, with some pain, contribute to their deliverance from the sins that could tear a community apart.”4

Confession is an appropriate preparation for participating in the Lord’s Supper. All malice and envy and wickedness are to be set aside so that the feast may be celebrated, in the resurrection presence of Jesus (1 Cor 5.8): “what takes place in the Christian community [is] in the power of the present Jesus Christ.” Once reconciled to one another in their reconciliation to God, the Christian community is then able to receive
the gift of Jesus Christ’s body and blood, therein receiving forgiveness, new life and salvation. New community with God and one another is given to it. …Here joy in Christ and Christ’s community is complete. The life together of Christians under the Word has reached its fulfillment in the sacrament.5

The source of all life within the community is the person of Jesus Christ: it is only in seeking to follow Christ that the building blocks of the community’s life together can find expression:

Such commitment to Jesus Christ opens up a number of elementary Christian concepts: community, solitude, service, Scripture reading, prayer, intercession, meditation, the ability to listen, forgiveness, confession and the forgiveness of sins, Christians’ breaking of bread together, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the church of Christ, as well as the hope of breaking bread together eternally.6

Which seems an admirable summary of Bonhoeffer’s concept of Christian community (in the particularity of Finkenwalde, and in general).

  1. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 108. []
  2. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 111. []
  3. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pp. 113-114. []
  4. Kelly and Nelson, Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 171. []
  5. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 118. []
  6. Gerhard Ludwig Müller and Albrecht Schönherr, ‘Editors’ Afterword to the German Edition’, in Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 128. []

KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 4

4. Service

And yet, for all this, Bonhoeffer was a realist, one of the few in the German church of his day. He knew that if we rely on human will then any Christian community will fail. He begins his section on service with Luke’s report of the dissension among the disciples as to who should be greatest in the kingdom of heaven: “no Christian community ever comes together without this argument appearing as a seed of discord”1. As soon as Christians come together they begin to classify and judge and condemn each other2. There is only one solution to this dynamic, which begins so naturally and so inevitably. That solution is service.

Service begins by simply refusing to verbalise the ‘odorous comparisons’: the Epistle of James tells us this (James 3.3ff). Once we refuse to speak the comparison, we begin to refuse to play the harmful game of jockeying for position and status and power3. Then we can begin to see in our brothers and sisters opportunities to serve them, and in serving them, serve God.

The true, humble service of one Christian sinner to another takes three forms. First, be prepared simply to listen to your brother or sister: “We do God’s work for our brothers or sisters when we learn to listen to them”4. Anyone who is not prepared to surrender this time to the other members of the Christian community is not prepared to surrender the time to God. Second, be prepared to live in “active helpfulness… [where] nobody is too good for the lowest service. Those who worry about the loss of time entailed by such small, external acts of helpfulness are usually taking their own work too seriously.”56

Third, Christian service is expressed by forbearance: Galatians tells us “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2). For Bonhoeffer forbearance is an expression of the mutuality of the Christian community, the interconnectedness of the Body of Christ. The strong and the weak, the healthy and the sick, the learned and the ignorant, the dedicated and the slack should all seek ways in which each may help in the building up of the other. Even sinners should be forgiven daily7.

  1. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 93. []
  2. Rather like George Bernard Shaw’s comment in the preface to Pygmalion (1912): “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Which was a fine thing for an Irishman to say. []
  3. Bonhoeffer instructed the seminarians of Finkenwalde never to speak of a brother in his absence, or, if they did so, to explain it to him afterwards: “almost as much was learned from the failure to observe this simple rule and from the renewed resolution to keep it as from sermons and exegeses”, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 349. []
  4. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 98. []
  5. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 99. []
  6. I’d like to interject a caveat into this precept (or, in other words, disagree): it will only work when there is a recognition of mutual accountability. Often what happens in parish Christian communities is that the priest’s time is regarded as a public resource available to all, and, if we get him moving tables or unblocking drains, then that is a reminder for him to be humble. []
  7. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 95, 100-102. []
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