Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Asset Sales & Faith in the Public Square

There is news that Archbishop Rowan Williams will have a new book (Faith in the Public Square) released before the end of this year when he stands down from Canterbury. It is reported to be a scathing critique of the public policy of the Conservative Government in England and, from what I have seen, many of his rumoured criticisms could be applied to our own government policies in New Zealand.

It seems that the ABC has denounced David Cameron's talk of a "big society" as aspirational waffle "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."   Now that sounds familiar and it could be used as a phrase to describe what our own government is doing, whether one listens to John Key or Paula Bennett.

Consider, after all, how chief executive pay has risen in New Zealand (2004-2010) by nearly 80% while, in the same period, the average workers wages rose by a bare 27%.  Add to that the tax cuts given to the wealthy on the one hand and, on the other hand, tougher measures on beneficiaries, increased prescription charges, higher Family Courts charges, reduced Working for Family Families provisions, labour laws giving less security to workers, a desperately overworked social services system, a Ministry where further cuts are required and Chief Executives will receive bonuses or cuts for success or failure in meeting targets - what is going on?

One dreadful irony is that in response to the ever-growing gap in our society, and the despair that is engendered, the Ministry of Health proposes, over the next four years, to put $8 million into a 'community suicide prevention scheme'.  What do you think of this as an example of 'aspirational waffle' : '(the scheme proposes that communities will) "work together and develop their own solutions to suicide, and access informed advice and support to implement local community action plans."  That looks and sounds to me as something "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."

It seems that the ABC's book also  delivers some strong challenges to the rampant materialism and the unquestioning pursuit of so-called 'economic growth' that seems to dominate our western economic assumptions.  I understand that he has questioned the concept of 'growth' and the consequences that it carries - for instance, "By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry.   By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing."   These are things we need to think on - deeply.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Asset Sales

This is a place of truth-telling ... before God
 Asset Sales are on the news again, so I have decided to revisit last Shrove Tuesday and the Asset Sales Debate the Cathedral hosted with Andrew Bradstock and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues. 

It's hard not feel  more than a little sad today; even to feel rather betrayed, as the Government ignores its lack of mandate on this issue and persists with what I see as the folly and immorality of selling assets that belong to all New Zealanders.  That these sales are being persisted with at a time when costs are rising and the gap between the well-heeled and the scraping-by is still widening, really sticks in my craw.

The panellists

One quirky detail of the Cathedral debate comes to mind.  Each of the panellists had been issued with a notepad and pen and after the meeting I collected these materials and was intrigued to see on one pad the note 'God?'   I assume the writer was picking up on my welcome and introduction where I had observed how the Cathedral was a place of 'truth-telling' where we saw all our living and activities as being accountable and before God.

It may be that the panellist concerned found that the mention of God raised more questions than it provided clear answers - I won't argue with that.   The proposition that lies at the foundation of faith always presents God as THE question.
Putting the Vote against asset sales
I believe it is our God-dimension that ultimately puts these asset sales under question, and that our panellist was more right than he /she might have appreciated.

As I see it, the asset sales raise a question of good stewardship of natural resources and this flows back ultimately into a recognition of who we are as stewards of creation under God. To understand ourselves in this way causes me to doubt whether we can give such natural resources over to private enterprise where a strong sense of stewardship tends to be subordinated to profit and the benefit of a few takes precedence over the benefit of all.   Of course public ownership does not in itself guarantee good stewardship of the creation or the interests of the many, but my hunch is that private ownership is not the better choice.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Diocese near 'Collapse'?

Back to the blog after weeks and now on a Monday (day-off of course) I'm trying to string some thoughts together in the light of the week just past.  The headline on the front page of the ODT and the Saturday editorial that followed it up have certainly put the 'little enemy' (as I am told Anglicans used to be called here)  in the news - though probably not quite as we'd have liked.  Well done however to Bishop Kelvin for telling it as it is. Dropping attendances and declining finances are all part of our post-Christian context but the consequences of the Christchurch earthquake (massive re-insurance costs, earthquake strengthening) have forced us to face the questions that have been with us for years.  Remember that change-management maxim, 'never waste a good crisis'?  It's good to see that we're not!

In the Archdeaconry meeting last week it was fascinating to hear how some worthy folk talked about our church buildings - as if they were hindrances to our 'mission'.  Of course there may be instances in which that is actually the case but I am unimpressed with the way the word 'mission' is generally bandied about.  It is a portmanteau of a word and as variable to fashions and shifts in meaning as the changes in our southern lights. Sometimes mission is simply 'being present' - and that is what we need to remember about our buildings - at their best they are signs and even 'sacraments' of presence, signs of the numinous in the midst of a society that has been drained of the sacred.  That is one aspect of mission.

But of course this is certainly not an argument that every church should be kept: it is merely a caution not to operate with a facile polarisation of mission or buildings. I think the truth is that we are probably 'over-churched' and some rationalisation of our buildings, while painful, could be productive. In the ODT this morning the report on the Presbyterian's sale of their redundant Roslyn church is an example of what we may have to do - I pray that we may do this well.

I have heard gloomy prophecies of congregations vacating their buildings as they fail the required safety standard: well I'm not so sure of the sense of that and hope we can ask some fundamental questions and test the assumptions.  Here in most of Dunedin and much of the South, the earthquake risk today is no greater than it was decades ago.  Certainly our buildings may not survive a major quake but they may already have lasted ninety or so years.  Rather than seeing our churches as a problem or (worse) as a block to our mission, we now have an opportunity for dialogue with councils and government on how to preserve our best - even to have such conversations in the community is itself an activity that has something of the missional about it.  In the sharing and the listening - who knows what we may discover?

The ODT editorial on Saturday 16 June tackled the deeper question of the post-Christian  environment and pondered how the church can become again 'relevant' in our society.  For goodness sake: who or what determines relevance?   What measures might one use?   For instance, in a time when market forces seem to be taking over our assumed values and the importance of the human is being diminished accordingly, the church has an especially critical role as a counter-cultural presence and accordingly must ask the questions, challenge what is happening and work for a better society. In word, in deed and just by our presence - I think we do that.  Does that make us relevant?  Who decides?  Those ancient gospel images for mission - salt, light - keep pressing at the back of my mind.