Social media or not in Lent?

Should we advocate fasting from social media over Lent given that so many faithful believers with disabilities rely on digital social media threads to connect them to worship, and to life?

In watching a small storm unfold over this social media or not in Lent issue and seeing public figures and bodies in various churches posting both web reflections at the same time as advice that perhaps we should consider abstaining the digital world during Lent. I’ve been struck how we risk falling into the great trap on social media, of seeking a ‘digital, or binary mindset’: that is seeking dichotomous solutions to every problem.

In this discussion I’d like to appeal to the community to remember that we have advice on this very situation straight from Romans 14 which includes the admonition: ‘Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains’ and vice versa.

The parallel with the text in Romans should be clear: food is vital to long term survival, and eating together is at the heart of community. These are the two arguments being put about how abstaining from social media can hurt the disabled community. I understand both perspectives and I’m writing as someone affected by disabilities, and I implore you let’s heed the advice given by Paul: don’t quarrel about it.

In thinking further about this I suggest that as followers of the Christ we should urgently resist this trend towards seeking a digital or binary outcome to every problem in society, politics, ethics and faith:

First, we don’t worship a God whose being is anyway simple. The economy of the Trinity is very clearly not straightforward. In fact it often seems irreducibly complex, the very opposite of binary.

Second, we should rejoice that @churchofengland and other churches are including the digital sphere both in their provision of resources to help disciples journey in Lent, and in their consideration of what and appropriate Lenten discipline might be.

Third, the nature of our personal journey in faith should mean that God is calling us to be made more holy day by day. That means change and growth. This journey of sanctification to use the posh word, demands different changes from each of us according to the issues God wants to touch in our lives. So it seems credible that without contradiction God can at the same time be calling one to abstain from Social Media and another to engage with it.

Fourth I’ve come to be an advocate for Lenten discipline. I’ve come to find this yearly season a treasure. Fasting is a biblically commended, valuable and powerful act. How it works and exactly what it does I have no idea. I do know that I’m sad that disease puts me in that group of people for whom the classic biblical fast from food is a very bad idea. I’m coming to learn that fasting from other natures of input can bring growth and blessings to my soul.

For the record, I don’t recommend anyone affected by chronic health conditions or serious disease fasts without serious consideration and medical advice. 

So finally, please sisters and brothers in the church let’s not fight, or even have a storm in a tea cup about this. It’s not worth it, and there are many, many things out there that can hurt the body of Christ and the very being of this United Kingdom. Let’s attend to those, to the cure of souls, the welfare of our communities – on or offline, and being the witness that this nation needs right now.

This isn’t a deeply considered post, its just a reminder that we worship the God who made all things, whose character and being is complex and wonderful beyond all things. I’m sure there are many theologians, academics and clergy who could share views on this to the benefit of us all.

Ordinands: disabled under-represented?

Only four percent of candidates sponsored for a BAP (the gateway process in selection for ordination) declare a disability. Relative to national proportions of disability in working age adults there seems to be massive under-representation in the selection process. Is pernicious, cumulative and hidden discrimination to blame, or does poor measurement and lack of focus by the Ministry Division bear the blame?

4% of those sponsored for a BAP declared a disability… 

Bishop Seeley (St Edmundsbury and Ipswich), as chair of the Ministry Council

In written questions at Synod on 20th February 2019 Mr Williams asked the Chair of the. Ministry Council about the proportion of candidates with disability at four points in the process of discernment surrounding ordination and appointment

  • Entering the vocations process for ordained ministry;
  • Being recommended for training;
  • Completing training; and
  • Receiving a stipendiary vs non-stipendiary title post?

His question is perceptive since since the potential for filtering as a function of the protected characteristics the candidate expresses during the discernment process could poses a discriminatory force on ordinations, and the published data does not suggest the issue has high visibility for the Church of England.

A further necessary question Mr Williams neglects

Based on my personal experience of the Vocations system in the Church of England Mr Williams might also have useful added a fifth point at which the proportion of disabled candidates could usefully be recorded:

  • when their Vicar recommends them to meet with the DDO

This is necessary because this might in fact be the point at which the greatest effort needs to be focused on combatting discrimination.

 Response at Synod from Bishop Seeley

In a written response the Bishop Seeley (St Edmundsbury and Ipswich), as chair of the Ministry Council said

In the 2017/2018 academic year, 4% of those sponsored for a BAP declared a disability, the same percentage were recommended for training and a slightly higher percentage, 5%, sponsored for a stipendiary post.

I have no doubt that the answer given by Mr Seeley is accurate in the terms given. It is in fact those terms which causes most concern

Self declaration results in under identification of disabled candidates

Specifically the answer refers to candidates ‘declaring a disability’. In the 2014 report on Ordained Vocation Statistics it was clear that disability was being assessed based on ‘self declaration’ for reasonable adjustment at a panel. Assessing on this basis is known to result in under reporting, as the report acknowledges

As those declaring a disability are only doing so if it is relevant to BAP, the numbers are low and do not reflect the likely number of ordinands with a disability. This makes the data unreliable and indicates a need to take steps to improve the monitoring process.

The similarity in the 2014 and 2019 language ‘declaring a disability’ suggests a continued reliance on self declaration as a method for monitoring levels of disabled candidates in the discernment process. Relying on self declaration almost always fails to identify significant proportions of the disabled community. The reasons for under-declaration are complex but are thought to include applicants:

  • Believing their condition or disability has nothing to do with your ability to perform the role
  • not wanting an ‘employer’ to focus on the disability during a selection process
  • assuming that the ‘employer’ will expect you to have difficulties, need more time off, or support.

Achieving a realistic estimate

It’s almost certain that there is a problem with the statistics being reported, both in the 2014 report and Mr Seeley’s answer. The Papworth Trust’s disability stats reference 2018 suggests 18% of the working age population has a ‘disability’ of some sort.

 Do we know what pool the church is picking its ordinands from?

We don’t know what proportion of worshippers experience a disability. That matters, because we can’t assess whether the figures given in 2014 and by Mr Seeley are helpful without understanding the population the process is selecting from. Sadly discrimination in ‘right to access worship’ may mean that the pool the Church of England is choosing its ordinands from differs substantially in respect of type and severity of disability in respect to the wider population.

What should we want the answer to be?

I hope I worship in a church where there is a commitment to the poor, the excluded and the disabled. That care for, and responsibility to the ‘outsider’ is something that jumps out at me from the whole of scripture. So for the church to be finding that only four percent of those sponsored for a BAP declared a disability fills me with horror. Even if that answer is 100% below the actual, i.e. 8% of the BAP population is disabled, the proportion of candidates with a disability is still far below the proportion of disabled people in the working age population. Something is probably going very badly wrong

Is sufficient attention being paid to this by the Church of England?

Since it’s been known that the Church of England’s understanding of the potential problem of discrimination in it selection of candidates for ordination is incomplete since 2014 (nine years after the Disability Discrimination Act) passed, reasonable questions should be asked as to whether sufficient priority has been given to what is an important statistic.

Aliens from the planet #WeHaveBudget

The most profound call towards ‘local church’ that I know is: The word became flesh and moved into our neighbourhood. For generations the Church of England has been committed to the land and its people in the parish system. To be ‘a church near you’ is a profound calling. But I have to tell you it’s not working. We are flying into terrain at a frightening rate. Solidarity as the people of God is threatened as larger parish churches function as network churches, resource churches land in nearby cities like aliens from the planet #WeHaveBudget, and pastoral reorganisations put duty upon duty.

Down here in the weeds of the local parishes it feels a very long way away from Church House in London from Synod, from Renewal and Reform, even from the Diocese. In a lot of places we are out of choices and local church is quietly ejecting itself into the river and drowning. Increasingly it doesn’t matter whether the parish is a well functioning unit or a multi headed nightmare who’ve needed six ‘services of reconciliation’ in four years, like our friends in the Benefice of Maple Syrup and Cracked Eggs, with Peculiar Mill and Leaky Churn, commonly known as the Benefice of the Pancakes

The revitalisation of the A Church Near You service is amazing. It Just Works™ It hits the spot for users and meets the web needs of many parishes outright. A Church Near You is a blessing firstly because the service reflects popular understanding that the Church of England is a church near you, whatever you think that means. Literally and metaphorically that’s what people are searching for. The hitch is that too many rounds of pastoral reorganisation have left communities too often with a church near you every third Tuesday in the afternoon. Oops.

A Church Near You is orientated by parish. That might be the greatest gift to the missions of God through the Church of England for years. It says: look local, be local, love locally. Be a church near the people that your bishop and vicar share ‘the cure for souls’ of. It might be inconvenient if you run a multi-headed benefice. But understanding of these larger groups is poor among irregular churchgoers, non-christians, and those exploring faith. We haven’t shared the full facts about what these re-organisations mean into our communities. So why not take this opportunity to use the best of technology to mesh with the understanding that people already have of our church.

As a communicator everything about the A Church Near You approach seems right. It’s research led, has ‘meeting user needs’ as the first priority, and speaks to specific constituencies. I’m a church communications volunteer in a reasonable well functioning benefice of three parishes. Our communications reflect how we the church are organised: as a shared team across three parishes. I suddenly shudder, and wonder if my practice is being shaped as much by the structure I inherit as the Victorians’ were by their lovely impractical and expensive buildings. Because that would be a bad thing right?

It’s painfully evident that a lot of vulnerable people have been abused sexually, or otherwise by churches or while in the orbit of churches. I confess that, as a junior bod in the regional church, I didn’t take this nightmare seriously enough. Neither did I make an adequate linkage of the prevalence of abuse with the number of people who had been execrably treated on account of their mental health, differences in physicality or sexuality. The linkages between the behaviour that permits spiritual abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse are disturbingly clear. I worry about this because I don’t think it’s fixed. Too many churches seem to be in denial that ‘people can get spiritually hurt here’ and live with an unspoken understanding that so long as leavers = joiners-1% then things are ok. I’m still persistently shocked by number of people who I speak to whose mental health, physical differences or sexuality has been cause for deliberate exclusion and discrimination by churches

The problem is the urgent need for the re-evangelisation of England. This isn’t a few churches here or there not doing so well. I don’t think this will come from from large planting operations – whoever sponsors them. Looking around the world I don’t know any other way to do that than hard labour and possibly martyrdom, in it’s many forms, for many evangelists, priests, missionaries, prophets and teachers – working in chaplaincies; in prisons; among those grieving badly; in schools and in every place where people spend money, take leisure, and do work. Improving our communications, digitally and in the flesh is critical to understanding how people in our parishes see the world. Understanding that worldview is key to truthful performance of gospel speaking and gospel acting. What truthful performance means in a postmodern world is tricky. But it is only in the love and truth of God that the holy community can be holy and safe for all.

In a time of national and regional church projects with big budgets, uncertain outcomes, and variable approval or consent between different sectors of the church, The fact A Church Near You and the regular national seasonal campaigns are effective, freely given and tangibly working so short a time after they were first mooted gives them importance beyond their immediate purpose. Look: ‘it says, here are resources, services, and facilities that respect the theological width of the church’. These national things truly gifts given for the common good at local level. They recognise, like the Bishop’s Commission for Mission in the Diocese of Winchester that the time is now, the need is now, and the recent past can be no template for the near future.