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Just a super quick note to say that problems with a building program have swamped any opportunities for developing thoughts on an election narrative.

I’ve mostly finished the summary chapter of Dying of the Light, and it has some surprising but unexpected insights for our context.

Hopefully next week.


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In the previous post, I outlined a narrative which exercises a powerful, and politically guiding, influence in the Diocese. It’s connected to a history of some US colleges and universities, and traces the drift from conservatism to liberalism via what it calls soft or open conservatism. And the key moment, according to this narrative, is the move from hard to soft conservatism. That is the moment when all is lost. Why? Because, so the story goes, the move from soft conservatism to liberalism is perfectly predictable, and in fact inevitable and inexorable.

logicAnd like all stories, it leads to action. In this case, the action is exclusion. The only way to preserve the purity of the gospel in the life of an institution is to exclude soft conservatives, as though they were in fact liberals.

At the end of the last post, I indicated that I thought this narrative, and the way that it is used, was deeply flawed, and now it’s time to explain why.

There are 3 reasons, which build on each other.

  1. In terms of its logic, it rests on a common logical fallacy.
  2. In terms of historical precedent, it claims far too much.
  3. And in terms of the way it’s used, it has more to do with political power than theological purity.

I’ll look at each of these in successive posts.

So, logic.

The logic of the argument hinges specifically on the claim of the inevitable and unstoppable drift from soft conservative to liberalism. Put formally, it runs like this.

All institutions that go liberal allowed soft conservative leadership.

Institution X is considering person Y (regarded as a soft conservative)

Therefore Institution X will go liberal.

Conclusion: Don’t vote for Y!

This is the same argument as:

All cats have 4 legs, Fido the dog has 4 legs, therefore Fido is a cat (with adjustments for the predictive factor in the narrative). The fallacy is called ‘affirming the consequent’, and as soon as it’s pointed out to you, it becomes obvious.

The major premise of the valid form of the argument would be: ‘All institutions that have allowed soft conservative leadership have gone liberal’. In which case, given the same minor premise (Institution X is considering person Y (regarded as a soft conservative)), the conclusion would follow.

But do you see the problem? That revised major premise, which would make the argument logically valid, is much, much more difficult to prove! In fact, it seems to me to be patently false. Is anyone really prepared to argue for it? The way you can check this is to ask someone who agrees with this narrative to identify, say 10, people currently in the Diocese they regard as soft conservatives, and see just how liberal the institutions / churches they lead have gone. (You’ll have to do that in private – no name-calling allowed on this blog!)

Which leads to the second part of the the illogic of the argument.

It is simplistic to the point of failure to think that people can be divided up into 2 categories like this, especially over something as fine grained as ‘softness’ or ‘openness’. As instruments for understanding the world, these categories are blunt to the point of useless.

The fact is that even the hardest of the hard tolerate some level of diversity, otherwise they would only exist in a church of 1! Or another way to put it: not all hard conservatives are schismatic fundamentalists (even if all schismatic fundamentalists are hard conservatives – see the previous point for the significance of this difference)!

Likewise, even the most open of open conservatives will draw the line somewhere, and, in the Diocese that will often enough be at the same point that the hard conservative does, but will just do it a little more slowly. In fact, typically, the soft conservative understands that softness as nothing other than Christian virtue, taking the possibility of their own sin and the work of the Spirit in others a little more seriously, and so engaging in a little more Christian conversation, because of what is called epistemic humility – that is, not assuming they understand the other person’s position without talking to them, and so talking to them!

In other words, we’re all to some extent soft and open in being hard and closed, and hard and closed in being soft and open, and if someone’s going to identify a person in terms of the narrative as a soft / open conservative, they will have to really do their homework; they’ll have to be really clear that the person’s openness does in fact draw boundary lines at different places from them – sub-evangelical places – and back that up with substantive evidence, not just rumour.

Otherwise, you might be slandering a Christian sister or brother who is simply different in personality from you, or even worse, just not part of your tribe!

And that would be a lousy way to conduct ourselves.

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An election narrative

bookStories have great power – we all know that. The Bible is full of them.

Partly their power comes by helping us make sense of the world, bring mental order to it. Partly they have power by clarifying what needs to happen next, and sometimes, therefore, who is best qualified that lead that change.

There is a powerful story that is told in and about our Diocese. It goes like this.

Human sinfulness means that all people, and therefore all organisations and institutions tend to depart and drift from godliness. That’s just the way things are until glory.

The way this drift happens is observable and inevitable. Even when an organisation has good, gospel-minded, theologically sound and godly leadership, a change can take place. It is a subtle but decisive change. The change is the move from what could be called ‘closed’, or ‘hard’ conservatism, to ‘open’ or ‘soft’ conservatism.

The difference between the two might not necessarily be in terms of the content of their convictions, but in the manner in which they are held. Open or soft conservatives are, well, more open to new ideas, and softer towards difference; this is their way by temperament. They tend to be centre defined, not boundary defined.

But that very openness, softness, tolerance, means that there is an inevitable move from soft conservatism to liberalism. It can’t be helped, and it can’t be stopped. It will as a matter of necessity happen.

This is the story told in the book The dying of the Light, about 17 US colleges and universities which started out as theologically reformed, orthodox and conservative, but have since entirely lost their way.

And because this move is unavoidable, it means that the only way to stop the drift to liberalism is to oppose soft conservatism as though it were in fact liberalism – with the same vigour and passion. Here is where the story clarifies action.

So, do you recognise this narrative? Does it make sense of some parts of our Diocese?

And finally, what’s wrong with it? Because it is my conviction that this is a deeply flawed account.

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One year, two elections

It is a rule that if you let a blog go without posting for more than 12 months, you get officially sacked from the blogosphere. I’m not sure who’s rule it is, but it is.Election

So, after 351 days of blogging silence, it’s time.

And what better time, than in a year with 2 elections -federal and arch-episcopal.

The thing about elections is that they are won or lost on the basis of who can tell the most convincing narrative, the story that sums up where we are and therefore where we need to head, and so who to elect to take us there.

There are at least two basic narratives about the Sydney Diocese – which we’ll begin to look at later in the week.


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For a long time, I’ve been unsure about that actual impact of the fair trade coffee scheme. Great sounding idea, but did it actually make a difference.

from flickr, by Christian Cable

Here is a quote from a Christianity Today article.

Fair-trade coffee isn’t a scam, but it is hard to find a development program that has attracted so much attention while having so little real impact. The most recent rigorous academic study, carried out by a group of researchers at the University of California, finds zero average impact on coffee grower incomes over 13 years of participation in a fair-trade coffee network.

The whole article is worth a read – it rates poverty reduction measures, where it’s important to be wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove!

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Check it out – and don’t miss out on the conference!


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Once upon a time, in an Anglican Diocese far, far away (crunching literary genres horribly), the Synod of that Diocese lived its life and mission with no endowment at all – what decision making process for its budget did it employ? It meant that parishes paid for everything, starting with the costs of their own ministry, and also:
  • the essentials of being an Anglican Diocese (essential in the sense of ‘you have to do these’) – an archbishop, General Synod assessments etc
  • some highly desirable things, considered so desirable that it was worth worth adding to the financial burden on parishes to do these things, and thereby reducing their ministry – a theological college etc

However, there were also other desirable things – good ministry activities which were proposed to be funded by the parishes but undertaken centrally – but not so desirable as to further burden parishes, and so they didn’t get funded.

Notice how the thinking goes, in this sad little Diocese with no endowments but clear thinking – there are parish expenses, and in addition, necessary central expenditures, plus some other discretionary expenditure, which are screened according to criteria – namely, whether the proposed centrally funded activity was so important that it complete successfully with the alternative expenditure at the front line of the parish. And all of it is paid for by the parishes. In other words, the issue was central expenditure versus parish expenditure. That was the decision; not very sentimental, but that’s how it goes.
The result was that this poor Diocese had a very honed budget – it stopped precisely at the point where it decided that the next proposed activity proposed was not more important than front line parish work. That was the exact amount that the parishes sent into head office.
But then, a wonderful thing happened. This sad Diocese got a donor – who gave exactly the same amount as the central activities cost (about $8M) – call them Mr D and Mrs EOS Dowment.
What did it do? It did the only thing that made sense; it accepted the donation gratefully, and released the parishes from all their contribution, except for the expenditures that were incurred directly on behalf of the parishes.
Why? Because it had already decided that those were the activities that were worth diminishing parish ministry for, and no others. That’s what it already figured out. (For those who understand economic theory, it had done its marginal cost / benefit analysis).
It was a tough Synod meeting when this decision was made. Lots of people came up with new ideas, and wanted to add to the central expenditure beyond the donation. That’s great, and in order to justify it being included in the budget beyond the donation, they would have to make the same argument – that it’s worth taking those resources from the parishes. That was the core issue, that was the only issue. The issue was not how important the activity was as such; it’s how important it is as compared to parish ministry expenditure, because that’s where the money was coming from. (Again, for those who understand economic theory, this Diocese understood the opportunity cost of funding those additional central activities).
And then an even more wonderful thing happened. Those donors increased their donation – they were doing very well on the market.
What happened? Some of the previous suggestions (that had not been funded) were now able to be implemented, other ideas were suggested, and again, the same process ensued. The only issue was, is the suggestion more strategically important than parish ministry? Or perhaps with the increased donation, some money might flow directly from the center to the parishes to support new ministries. So the budget again went up, but as before, since there was a donor, parishes were only paying by way of reimbursement for those expenditures that are directly incurred on their behalf.
Then tragedy struck – a PFC, a personal financial crisis, and the donation plunges – what happened? They were a thoughtful Diocese, that didn’t get carried along with rhetoric and emotive appeals; they understood that it was pretty clear, they simply unwound the process.
The only thing that made sense to do was to keep paring down the central activities until they got to a specific point – not the point of saying that an activity was important, because they were all important!
Rather, they unwound precisely to the point that they were sufficiently important relative to front line parish ministry, that it was worth reducing the resources given to parish ministry for the sake of this central activity.
That was the only relevant discussion.
It’s the one discussion another Diocese seems unwilling to have!

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