Who has pottered by this way, then?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Table

A video version of a poem written on Christmas Eve, 2011 which appeared in this blog back then,

You are welcome to use this at no cost in churches, schools, home groups etc. There are subtitles available (by clicking the CC button, bottom right to turn these on and off). It works best if you set the resolution to HD.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Twitter as a bridge to the contemplative

Twitter as a Bridge to the Contemplative

A short paper presented on September 4th 2014, at St John's College, Durham during Mystical Theology: Renewing the Contemplative Tradition, a three-day conference exploring the tradition of mystical theology from contemporary academic and practitioner perspectives. Organised by Durham University (Project for Spirituality, Theology and Health, and the Centre for Catholic Studies) in collaboration with St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

The following is a presentation which includes extracts from research, some illustrative Tweets and some additional notes. The text of the paper is posted below, together with a link to download the text as a Word doc. (The asterisks are merely reminders to the author to click the presentation to advance it!)

Link to Prezi presentation for download

Link to Word doc of paper

Twitter as a bridge to the contemplative

reflections based on Ripon Cathedral’s online Twitter ministry
Nick Morgan, August 2014 

Ripon Cathedral has developed a distinctive online presence using social media over the past couple of years: on Facebook and Twitter in particular.  This is a preliminary paper which takes as its starting point some aspects of the experience of the Cathedral’s use of Twitter and attempts to address how, if at all, this has helped people to re-engage with the contemplative.

The obvious thing to acknowledge right at the start is that Twitter is, by its very nature, not a contemplative medium. Socially speaking, it is often the equivalent of being in a rather noisy pub.  For the uninitiated, in brief, this is how it works:

A Twitter user will write a message of up to 140 characters in length. Other Twitter users who follow that Twitter account may see that message appear in their Twitter feed. I say “may” because it will be one message among an often very busy stream of messages, so followers may not see a particular Tweet at all. There is a large degree of serendipity involved in which messages you read. People don’t, as a rule, scroll down through the hundreds of Tweets which come into their Twitter feed throughout the day – it is generally used casually. In the pub analogy, this is akin to popping into the part of the pub where people you have chosen to follow hang out and overhearing what they are saying at a particular moment in time. And, just as you might in the pub, you can reply to them and end up in a conversation. If you like what they say, you might repeat what they say yourself and rebroadcast it to those around you – this is called ReTweeting.  You might want the person to know you like what they say, or it might be something you want to think about later so you can mark it with a star – this is called favouriting a Tweet. So, from this you can see that the medium is untidy, noisy and transitory – because most Tweets do not get engaged with by others.   Not the most promising medium in which to engage with the contemplative, you might think. Yet it is exactly because Twitter mirrors the disarray of a fallen world, and is full of people struggling to engage meaningfully with others amid the noise, that a still, small voice, prayerfully introduced, can be an instrument of a sense of mystery and ‘the other’.

Case study *
Ripon Cathedral every night at around 11pm sends a single Tweet which is an excerpt from the Compline service. It carries the hashtag #compline (a hashtag is a form of indexing on Twitter, so people can search for Tweets which include a specific hashtag to read what users worldwide are Tweeting on that subject). Over the last two years, these Tweets have proven to be the most popular and engaged-with Tweets * sent by Ripon Cathedral,(examples) * * so research was undertaken to see how Twitter users themselves perceive these Tweets, and how they respond to them.

Over a single week in August 2014, followers of Ripon Cathedral on Twitter were invited to participate in a survey. * There were 39 respondents, only 69% of whom self-identified as Christians, and 46% were regular churchgoers. We recruited respondents using Twitter itself, tweeting requests to participate at different times of day over a 6 day period. We also posted a link to the survey on the Ripon Cathedral Facebook page.

* We asked people what kinds of material they remembered seeing among Ripon Cathedral’s Tweets. By far the most memorable was our prayerful material such as the #Compline tweets. Memory is an important marker of the impact the material has. Whether people can remember specific Tweets which are prayerful, or specific #Compline Tweets, these have left an impression on them. Bearing in mind that reading a specific Tweet has an element of chance and serendipity about it, and the Compline tweets are only posted once per day, this is a remarkably high figure: 36 out of 39 respondents.

More interesting was the response when we asked how they felt about these different kinds of Tweets. * The most markedly positive response was to the prayerful tweets

So, we see that prayerful material, exemplified by these #Compline tweets, has an impact on memory, and is largely received positively. Digging a little deeper, we asked about how people had specifically responded to these prayerful tweets, and the response indicates a contemplative theme. * People could choose as many of these responses as they wanted:

Note the most popular responses: almost ¾ of respondents paused to reflect. Around half had an emotional response or smiled as a result of reading a compline tweet. ¼ of them prayed, and a few reported some kind of spiritual experience. Note that nobody said it prompted them to visit a church, and only one person read the Bible as a result. These results point to a response which is often deeply personal and immediate. * In addition to knowing that #compline tweets are memorable and elicit a positive internal response, we see in the variety of specific responses, there is a sense of the whole self being engaged: a physical smile, emotions, prayer, and the significance of pausing to reflect in the midst of the often noisy, argumentative and chaotic medium of Twitter. Some kind of personal sacred space is possible to imagine being created here, engaging not at the level of the typed words alone.

In terms of online presence, Ripon Cathedral on Twitter seeks to embody a sense of abiding: conforming to Christ’s life and living from God into the world. The Cathedral’s online interactions with people provide an opportunity for them to encounter Jesus and therefore the use of the Twitter account has to be seen as an exercise in Incarnational ministry.  The mutual nature of abiding also means that @RiponCathedral needs actively to see and seek Christ in others. The Benedictine concept of hospitality (on which Ripon Cathedral itself was originally founded) has a strong tradition of seeing Christ in guest as well as host.  * The mutual indwelling of the Godhead (Perichoresis)  described in John 14 is reflected in this sense of abiding with the world. The presence of divine love in the disciples is to mirror the mutual indwelling of the Trinity which, as John of Damascus puts it, is “ without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other.”  We are called to abide with the world as God abides with and in us; yet, at the same time,*  to follow Christ means we have nowhere in the world to lay our heads.  Online spaces, if anything, make this easier to deal with: in the constantly shifting environment of Twitter, we are called to be God’s presence among others there, abiding as a divine presence alongside others in a dynamic environment. This also resonates with the Old Testament sense of God’s Shechinah presence which both moves and can be fixed: the tent and the temple.  Ripon Cathedral’s Twitter presence seeks to extend its role as a sacred space beyond its physical confines, to take God’s presence online in a moveable tent model.

However, postcolonial theologians such as Tod Swanson have questioned whether the holiness of sacred places can ever extend beyond their physical space. Swanson, in his exploration on Johannine Christianity and the collapse of ethnic territory concludes that “the meaning of sacred places cannot really be extracted and captured in a text or a photograph or a recording. Photographs and recordings taken from holy places and arranged into the morphological patterns of the imagination cannot really capture the meaning of a place. In fact, they will only make pilgrims feel the absence of the place more acutely. And therefore the best comparisons will happen when the pictures and the texts are recognized for what they are: the comparative signs of the absence of irreplaceable places.”   While Swanson has in mind the colonial appropriation of sacred places and artefacts, the same principle applies to the question of whether sacred spaces can exist online. If Swanson is correct, then any online presentation of Ripon Cathedral is merely a sign of its absence to the reader of its Tweets.

I take a different view to Swanson. There is of course a long history of various media being used to encourage contemplative spirituality.  I’m thinking of media such as the architecture of sacred spaces, devotional and mystical writings, or Gregorian chant. Twitter as a medium to encourage the contemplative lies in a slightly different tradition of the Immanence of God being found among the ordinary, sometimes in essentially secular media. Think about shrines at a roadside, encounters with people whose simple acts of gentleness or kindness remind us of divine love, or even examples in opera, where the sacred or mystical is used for dramatic effect in a secular storyline: Massenet’s use of an offstage children’s chorus in his opera Werther as a dramatic foil to Werther’s death in the foreground, for instance.  This kind of effect is part of what we see in the response to prayerful Tweets I believe: an emotional, personal response carries a spiritual weight for many in the audience.  A variety of forms of expression – both secular and sacred in their nature - have mediated between native secular cultures and sacred inner spaces of contemplation for a very long time.

I contend that the cultural resonance of the Cathedral as ‘sacred space’ is likely to be a factor in the response of people to the Compline tweets and it would therefore be interesting to undertake further research, comparing the response to individuals who Tweeted identical Compline material to @RiponCathedral, to see whether the resonance of a sacred space (i.e. the Cathedral) was indeed a decisive factor in their responses. However, the remainder of this paper works on the assumption that this resonance does exist and puts forward the beginnings of an explanation of how we might encourage the exploration of sacred spaces online. What follows is my own personal take on this which, I hope, will encourage further explorations.

Ripon Cathedral, very visibly an ancient place of Christian worship in its profile picture, creates on Twitter a cultural resonance beyond those who self-identify as Christians.  Only 69% of respondents to our survey identified themselves as Christians, yet the response from those who did not identify themselves as such was not significantly different.  I suspect that part of the success of Ripon Cathedral’s Compline tweets stems from the emotional response results: a Cathedral is recognised and understood culturally as a sacred space.   Clearly place and space are important in themselves as bridges to the contemplative, and locations which are dedicated places of prayer, such as monastic foundations and Cathedrals cannot be simply translated into exact equivalents online. We need to recognise that something different is happening in online spaces:  the cultural, emotional and spiritual resonances of a physical sacred space seem to work at a personal level in drawing people into creating some kind of personal sacred space.  The mystical, emotional and contemplative response of some of those who follow Ripon Cathedral on Twitter can be understood in terms of them finding an internal sacred space in which they encounter God’s abiding presence.

So, what are people doing when they respond to the Compline tweets of Ripon Cathedral? Brief compline tweets do not throw intellectual meat for people to grapple with. Some of the imagery does create external imagery to be engaged with, e.g. “He shall cover you with his wings and you shall be safe under his feathers; his faithfulness shall be your shield and buckler”. * However, most of the tweets abstracted from the full liturgy offer at the very least some resonance with the act of Night Prayer, or acknowledge, or invoke God’s presence: “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us”, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. For you have redeemed me, Lord God of truth. I commend my spirit”. Because the text is so abstracted from the full liturgy of Night Prayer, but presented with resonance of the contemplative embodied by a Cathedral, for some people, there is the possibility of a sense of Immanence amid the noise of Twitter: being suddenly aware that we are, indeed, immersed in the Divine, and in our emotional, prayerful, or spiritually-aware responses, we are prompted to engage with the Divine in deeply personal ways. There is a tapping into awareness of God, and of the deeper self.

In terms of the wider picture on Twitter, is there a sense of sacred space being created in which the mystical and the contemplative might find expression? Members of the Body of Christ are engaging with each other and with the wider world online in a variety of ways. There is some sense of Christians “gathering” online which increasingly is crossing traditional boundaries of denomination and churchmanship which is very encouraging.  There is an opportunity online to call people out of their native cultures, and out of whatever conversational cultures they are engaging in on Twitter, and to call them into encounters with God.  There is sending out and drawing in going on online: the Church engaging in mainstream culture, but also presenting the Christian counter-culture which God calls people into: the Body of Christ which has the worship of God as its missional focus.  This is not a Fresh Expression of Church – it is simply a calling into the Church: into focus on God and worship. This is why I bring the wider picture in: because there is scope in online interactions, in our online presence, to put worship and mystical encounter at the heart of Christian mission as we express it in these online spaces.  We do this by abiding with people, perhaps also by overt sharing of faith and having deep discussions, but also by encouraging reflective and contemplative encounters with “the other”.  As we have seen in the case of the Ripon Cathedral #Compline Tweets, it is possible to present a window into a sacred space, a space in which the contemplative, the meditative and the mystical can be engaged with, even in an often profane and argumentative medium such as Twitter. In itself, this is worship: a focus on God which is beyond the typed text, a focus expressed in prayer, perhaps, but also in a moment of reflection, or in an emotional response such as a smile, or in embodying love in ones response to others, in the way we abide online.

The following section was omitted from the presentation on September 4th for reasons of time:
These moments of worship can happen on Twitter. I have a personal example of this which does not involve Ripon Cathedral, but which, as you will see, shows a different example of creating sacred space online. During the Greenbelt Festival of 2013, a number of people who were not attending the Festival used the hashtag #notGB40 (mirroring the official festival hashtag of #gb40). These people were drawn from many different denominations and traditions, and they were brought together simply by being non-attendees of a Festival. The #notgb40 hashtag was mainly used for jokes and lighthearted conversation through the weekend and there was a sense of a group of people who were Christians of very disparate kinds culturally, but thrown together in an apparently random way through following the #notgb40 hashtag. However, on the Saturday night, quite late, a Compline service was suggested on the #notgb40 hashtag . There was a lot of interest, and I asked if someone would share the leading of it with me. A curate in the south of England volunteered. I chose a Northumbrian Compline which was available online and we arranged that we would Tweet the liturgy antiphonally. That is to say, one of us would Tweet a sentence, then the other would. The version of compline we used had short sentences which lent themselves to this with minimal additional editing to make it fit the medium of Twitter. We announced that the service was to begin. The #notGB40 hashtag stream went silent except for the two of us. There were long pauses between the Tweets as we carefully cut and pasted the next sentence each time. Silence reigned in these pauses. When we reached the prayer section of the service, we asked people to tweet names of people or places they wished to pray for. The response showed us that dozens of people were following this service of Compline. At the end, a priest among the group pronounced the blessing and silence followed, as if we were departing in silence as per the rubric. Later in the weekend, many said this had been a special time of worship for them. The limitations of the medium had created a very distinctive and contemplative act, mainly due to the long pauses between sentences.  The Cathedral resonance was obviously not present when this happened. This was individuals leading an experimental act of worship. However, there was a sense of a gathered worshipping community which itself was the sacred space. We felt God among us as we shared liturgy, as we shared long pauses between Tweets, as we experienced togetherness borne of focus on God.  What we had shared was worship: experiencing the presence of God among us as the gathered people of God and finding ourselves focussed entirely on God.

It is clear to me that there is scope to seek sacred spaces online. It relies on us as the Body of Christ to place ourselves there, abide with people by giving of ourselves to them, and to actively invite people to worship. At its heart, that is what we are doing when we Tweet these excerpts from Compline.  Through our Twitter ministry at Ripon Cathedral, we hope, by the grace of God, to challenge people to pause amid the noise of online spaces; and in that pause, to reflect, to pray, to invite God to abide with them and to glimpse the unknown in an unexpectedly sacred space.

Select Bibliography
Avis, P. Reshaping Ecumenical Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2010) p.62-65
trans. Barry, P. Saint Benedict’s Rule (Ampleforth: Ampleforth Abbey Press, 1997)
Davison, A.  and Milbank, A. For the Parish: a critique of Fresh Expressions (London: SCM Press, 2010)
Inge, J. A Christian Theology of Place (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003)
Quash, B. Abiding: the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2013 (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)
See especially p151-160
Swanson, T.D. To Prepare a Place: Johannine Christianity and the Collapse of Ethnic Territory, from Shomanah, M.W.D. &  Staley, J.  John and Postcolonialism: Travel, Space, and Power (London: Bloomsbury, 2002) p.31

Online resources and further reading
An overview of Twitter (note that Twitter tweaks the way it operates occasionally so this is not entirely up to date, but remains a useful series of primers for the uninitiated:
Taylor, B.  http://bryonytaylor.com/twitterguide/
The DigiDisciple project at St John’s, Durham:
Articles posted under the #DigiDisciple category:  http://bigbible.org.uk/category/digidiscipleship/
A brief overview of what a #DigiDisciple is: http://bigbible.org.uk/digidisciple/

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dropping offline? Ripon dwellers need to report it

Superfast Broadband in Ripon?

Andy Ryland over at Superfast Broadband North Yorkshire sent me the following advice after I'd been talking about broadband in Ripon.

First thing to note is that Ripon is geared up for superfast broadband. If you live in Ripon and want it, ask your current supplier (or take the opportunity to shop around) and see what deals are to be had. I'm told it might not be much more expensive (and if you shop around, it might even end up being cheaper if you're on a pricey deal at the moment!). There's info on the various suppliers on the Superfast North Yorkshire website.

Broadband cutting out in Ripon

The main thing I wanted to flag up though is about some people in Ripon who have a problem with their broadband dropping out whenever their landline gets used for a phonecall. I remember some chatter on Twitter about this about 2 years ago, and got the impression this was a widespread problem locally at the time, but haven't heard people complain about it much since.

Then, over the last couple of weeks, we've started to have the same problem at our home close to the centre of Ripon. Every time the landline gets used either to dial out, or to receive a phonecall, broadband disappears for a good few minutes. We've taken to never answering the phone in the evenings and just calling people back using our mobiles. If we ring BT, they confirm that there is "no fault". It looked like there was nothing we could so... but apparently there is.

If you have a similar problem, Andy advises the following:

The problem of cutting out has been experienced elsewhere.
In some villages the promotion of broadband has precipitated people making
comments about their phone lines and has resulted in BT relaying the telephone
lines.  This is first time that the issue has been raised in a town and the team
were interested, if it's still a problem and how extensive it is. If it is still
a problem and is extensive they can take the issue up with the BT engineers.
If you can get people to send the comments to Carole Haywood-Pool at
info@superfastnorthyorkshire.com she will try and see if there is a pattern in
Ripon and if necessary make inquiries with the BT engineers.
Ripon was again raised as a town they would like to raise the number of people
signing up to superfast so they can hit the 20% target.

So there you have it. Please email info@superfastnorthyorkshire.com if you have this problem of broadband cutting out in Ripon and it might get sorted out. I must admit that the reliability of the actual phone line is one reason I've not been interested in exploring superfast broadband - if the infrastructure here couldn't cope with a phone call and a game of Candy Crush at the same time, I didn't hold out hope for a reliable superfast service!

So thanks to Andy for raising the issue with the Superfast Broadband team.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley: A New MBTI(AC) Method

The best response so far to my previous blog about Myers-Briggs...

Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley: A New MBTI(AC) Method: Unshaun Sheep has been burning them up with his view of Myers-Briggs Typothingy I-something (can never remember what the last two stand for...

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Church of England's Personality Test Disorder

The Church of England uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test pretty widely. This is a psychometric test designed to probe your decision-making processes and to help you reflect on how you come to decisions and what that tells you about your personality. Which all sounds perfectly reasonable. Part of the process of "formation" - i.e. the training which clergy go through - involves developing self-awareness, reflecting on one's practice and how this impacts on leadership style, group dynamics and so on.

To be honest, I had assumed the MBTI was something which must have been and gone (I remember hearing it being derided back in the early 90s by psychology students when I was at university) but it seems that it has since continued to build itself up as quite a brand, beloved of human resources departments, business leaders and management consultants. Somewhere along the line, the CofE bought into it and invested heavily in it. So we now have a widely-used test which the majority of our clergy will have had to undergo at some point. But there are several shortcomings with both the test itself and how it is often used by test subjects themselves and by some parts of the Church of England.

How it works
The MBTI seeks to discover a person’s preferences using four pairs of personality variables: two basic attitudes / sources of personal energy (Extroversion or Introversion), two kinds of perception (Sensing or Intuiting), two styles of seeking order (Thinking or Feeling), and two kinds of orientation towards the outer world (Perceptive or Judging). This produces sixteen possible combinations (personality types) which are expressed in shorthand by a four-letter code. The contention is that, while everybody uses all of the eight preference-poles at some time or other, each of us will tend to prefer one of each of these opposites for each of the four pairs depending on what kind of personality we have. The objective of an MBTI is to identify these preferences. All the questions are presented in a forced-choice format so that the respondent must choose between two mental functions or attitudes each time.

Self-knowledge is actually a good thing
The Positive Side of the Process
What is good in the process of undergoing a Myers-Briggs test is the act of reflective thought. We gain insights into ourselves and others when we are encouraged to step back and consider our thought processes and become more self-aware and conscious of how we approach problems and mental processes. As the Spirituality and Worship tutor of one clergy-training course puts it, ordinands undertake a Myers-Briggs test as "part of that process whereby we grow towards God, inwardly to our deepest selves and outwards to other people...  Clearly, this is a process that begins long before training and continues for life. While we will always remain a mystery to ourselves, it’s especially vital for those entering ordained ministry to desire and discern self-awareness, without which a relationship with God and others is impaired."

Self-understanding is indeed a Biblical concept in the context of recognising oneself before God. Paul speaks of this journey into self-knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."   But this reflective process has to be done with humility and in recognition that our self / soul / person is fully knowable by God alone. It is God who is the key to self-knowledge: to knowing our personhood. We are a sacred mystery which defies simplistic description. Psalm 139 recognises that God alone knows us fully, better than we ever know ourselves; who knows us even at the most primal level before we have articulated our thoughts or our responses to the world around us. The Psalmist acknowledges that we do indeed have a self - since God knows us as individuals - and should therefore strive toward a similar knowledge of self.  And it is God to whom the Psalmist turns at the end for help in transformation: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

However, it is not the act of reflection, nor the quest for self-awareness which is the problem with MBTI but rather what is surmised from the data collected as a result. The science and the theology of Myers-Briggs are both cause for concern.

The Science Bit
Appreciating one's own abilities and limitations is an
important part of formation for the priesthood.
The science of the MBTI is dubious on several counts. In terms of its scientific usefulness in measuring personality, it fits neatly alongside horoscopes and Facebook quizzes such as "Which My Little Pony Are You?" Both horoscopes and the My Little Pony Quiz offer a fixed set of categories as outcomes which people find useful and which seem positive. The MBTI is of course more useful than either, simply because the act of considering the decision-making questions which form the test is obviously a useful piece of reflection on one's mental processes. However, its outcome (the 4-letter personality type) is arguably no more useful than knowing that I am a Scorpio. But then, us Scorpios are deep and intense types, so you'd expect me to say that, wouldn't you? 

The Myers-Briggs test gives an output of 4 letters which denote a personality type. These are strictly either-or outcomes. The test does offer a more nuanced, individualised set of results to show how far one way or the other you are between each of the pair of poles on average, but the fact remains that one of sixteen 4-letter personality types is the output of the test.

A big concern with Myers-Briggs is that it implies a rigid and inflexible approach to personality that, in the field of clinical psychology, would normally only be associated with individuals with severe psychological and emotional difficulties, for example, individuals diagnosed with so-called ‘personality disorders’.  These individuals are so-described due to the rigidity and poor adaptability of their beliefs, thinking styles and behavioural patterns which often lead to extreme distress and dysfunction. Please tell me that the Church of England does not assume its clergy to be similarly afflicted as a matter of course? 

Modern theories of personality stress the importance of psychological flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances as a feature of a healthy personality.  However, the bimodal (yes/no) response style of the Myers-Briggs assumes that people rigidly respond in only one way or another in all situations (e.g. I prefer to be alone/I prefer to be with others) rather than recognising that healthy individuals have a range of cognitive and behavioural responses to adapt to different situations.  When people are then ‘diagnosed’ with their personality type, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: “Well, of course, I’m an INTJ so I will be doing X”.  Even more worryingly, people start to judge each other on the basis of their diagnosed personality types: “Oh, you’re such a typical ESFP…”.   This is similarly heard in discussions about astrology. “Of course I did that, I’m a typical Gemini”, or “She’s always such a Capricorn”.  These comparisons between astrology and Myers-Briggs are too strong to ignore.  They are both pseudo-science and neither have a place in the Church.  In the words of the mental health service user movement: labels are for jars, not for people.   And probably the most damning indictment of an alleged psychometric assessment is that psychologists do not use it within their own profession.

Everyone's a winner with MBTI
Incidentally, this self-affirmation is partly how the whole MBTI system works. Any disconnect between what we actually see and what we think we see is explained away if it does not fit our paradigm of thought. In the case of the MBTI test, subjects are likely to self-fit into categories which they are predisposed to think they belong to, using cues from the questions themselves. We "feel" the result is right: we have been asked to consider how we respond and think in specific situations, are told this is to help us identify how we respond and think, and get a result which states how we respond and think. Basically, we have told ourselves what we want to hear about ourselves. Everyone's a winner in their own minds. So where is the prophetic voice in this? Where is the voice of God challenging us about how we perceive ourselves? Psychometric testing offers static reflection, not the dynamic, challenging transformation demanded by encountering and responding to the risen Christ.

Is the MBTI fit for purpose as a psychological test?
Professor David Pittenger, a professor of psychology who has undertaken a survey of statistical and other research on MBTI, comes to the conclusion that: “it appears that the MBTI does not conform to many of the basic standards expected of psychological tests. Many very specific predictions about the MBTI have not been confirmed or have been proved wrong. There is no obvious evidence that there are 16 unique categories in which all people can be placed. There is no evidence that scores generated by the MBTI reflect the stable and unchanging personality traits that are claimed to be measured. Finally, there is no evidence that the MBTI measures anything of value.

The Theology Bit
Isabel Briggs asserts that Jung’s theory of psychological types (and therefore MBTI) will be helpful for clergy (see the preface to Briggs & Meyers 1980). Romans 12:4-8 is cited (Briggs & Meyers 1980 p211) so clearly the authors believe that the test is compatible with scripture and see these eight preference indicators as a means of helping the individual, made uniquely and in the image of God, find their place in the Body of Christ.

However there is a fundamental problem with attempts to measure the personalities of human beings. To be fair, Jung himself rejected this idea: "the very concept of personality is so vague and badly defined in common usage that hardly two minds will take the word in the same sense. I should like to consider everything that I say… as a mere attempt to approach the problem of personality, without making any claim to solve it" (Jung 1940 p281-2). Later in the same chapter, Jung also writes that it is only our actions which reveal who we are, and in this we can see the echo of Matthew 7:15-29 in which Jesus points out that our actions reveal us to be his followers (and conversely, that false prophets can be judged by their fruits). Myers-Briggs goes far beyond Jung's intentions for his system of psychological types and seeks to define personality in terms of decision-making preferences alone.
Myers-Briggs is frequently used to guide clergy, readers and
pastoral workers in developing their team-working

As humans, we have the unique ability to be in fellowship with God as well as with each other. As followers of Jesus, we continue the Incarnation: this is what it means to be the Body of Christ. We don't commune with God, we commune with each other and God. That is why we have the Peace: we come to the Lord's Table corporately. Personality type is only one factor which influences our behaviour and decision-making as humans, and it certainly does not define our personhood as part of the Body of Christ. Myers-Briggs does not claim to assess anything to do with interpersonal or team working styles. Worrying, then, that within the Church of England, we frequently see the use of MBTI as the basis for workshops on leadership or team working styles. In some Dioceses, clergy, readers and pastoral workers are required to undergo this assessment in order to promote team working in churches.  One Diocese even ran a prayer event last year based around Myers-Briggs types.  Clearly, the huge investment made by the Church of England in this system is leading to its use in areas it was never designed for and in which it has never claimed competence. Myers-Briggs could almost be said to have the status of a cult within the denomination: we use it because... we use it. To question its use is often equated with a reluctance to be self-reflective at all. While it may be the case that some clergy are averse to any kind of self-reflection (and this is indeed a problem where it occurs), my observation of discussions involving clergy in social media settings indicate that it is concerns about the misuse of Myers-Briggs by the CofE together with its dubious scientific value which are far more common reasons for disquiet. Lloyd's analysis of Christian opposition to Myers-Briggs "showed five principal areas of concern: misuse of personality typing in spiritual formation; personality typing as a simplistic analysis; personality typing as a restrictive pigeon‐holing; unethical use of personality typing; and the Jungian derivation of personality type theory." (Lloyd, 2007)

Our inter-relationships with other members of the Body of Christ and with people outside the Church are far more revealing of our personality and leadership styles than anything in the realm of psychometric testing.  MBTI is an individualistic test and says nothing about the way our personality expresses itself communally. 

Personality Types should not be confused with personality itself as the latter is connected to our personhood: our soul, our being, our reflection of the image of God. If MBTI is presented as a personality type indicator which in any sense defines or underpins our personality, I question whether this is appropriate for a Christian context at all. And, despite being misapplied to the field of team development and group dynamics (including leadership styles), it is an individualitic view of personhood which completely overlooks the communal nature of our being. As humans, we are a communal creation: created for communion with our Creator, with each other, and with the whole of creation. This is something which defines what is is to be human and therefore defining of what personhood and personality are. MBTI ignores this fundamental aspect of our being.

Individual, or part of something?
Being a Christian means doing things with 
other people. It's a "Church" thing.
Since the mid-twentieth century, Western society has, according to Küng and others, experienced increasing individualism alongside a decreased sense of community (see Küng 1996 p763). Some have sensed that individual identity is undergoing a crisis in confidence alongside this (see Kirkpatrick 1995 p11). This has created a cultural paradigm for the western church in which the quest for personal meaning has taken centre stage. Church has, in some contexts, become a lifestyle choice with its members thought of as consumers and styles of liturgy and worship as a product to be marketed. The Church of England's embrace of psychometric testing is another such echo of the wider culture's quest for personal, individual validation.  This means that the MBTI types, which are all presented as optimistic, fit neatly into this quest for assurance and validation (see Long 1992 p294). MBTI is actively encouraging a worldview in which Christian leaders (remember that clergy were explicitly identified as target consumers of the MBTI product) embrace these familiar values of the world. The 16 types all resonate with thought and behavioural patterns which are familiar and seem acceptable to most people. This means that the test falls foul of the Forer (Barnum) effect: i.e. the tendency of people to consider statements about their personality as highly accurate, even though these same statements could apply to almost everyone else. This is also generally true of astrological readings.

The assumption that our personality type is fixed is also dubious theologically. Throughout scripture and Church history, we see personal transformation as the norm: those who follow Jesus receive new life, become a new creation in Christ, changed. When Briggs & Myers quoted Romans 12 (see Briggs & Myers 1980 p211), had they looked a few verses earlier they would have also read "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Rom.12:2).  Renewed minds, open to complete transformation by God to conform to the Divine Will is what we should be about. Our culture around us changes us profoundly, as do our experiences, our companions on life's journey, and indeed the Holy Spirit as we are transformed into the likeness of the Lord. (2 Cor.3:18)

Black's foreword to Briggs & Myers (1980) states that career, marriage and the very meaning of life itself are affected by MBTI-defined personality types. This is similarly problematic. The concept that personality types are unchanging, can be measured, and are innate is not one I recognise and seems incompatible with scripture. I am reminded of the world of Blakes 7, in which the Terran Federation categorise their subjects with terms such as Alpha grade (used of Blake himself) or Delta grade (used of Vila, a member of the criminal underclass) to categorise, utilise and control the population*. Interestingly, Vila claimed to have faked his personality test to avoid being drafted as a spaceship captain - so even in the futuristic world of the Federation, psychometric testing is not infallible! A church which categorizes its members in similarly unchanging and limited terms is not taking sufficiently seriously the transforming power of the Holy Spirit among the people of God.

*For the uninitiated, Blakes 7 was a piece of dystopian sci-fi, not a blueprint for church organisation.

Myers-Briggs can be misused as a kind of
"sorting hat" for leadership styles
My Management Structure is Not of This World
The Church of England spent well over a year probing and testing me to check whether they agreed that God was calling me to be a priest. Among other things, my ability to develop as a leader was looked at as one key factor. I am now being trained with a view to eventually becoming a deacon and priest. Somehow I now find myself in danger of being labelled with a secular management category which is seen by some within the CofE as defining of my personality, my leadership style and my likely role and abilities within teams. I truly fear carrying 4 letters as an albatross around my neck for a future colleague, Archdeacon, Bishop or Diocesan Advisor to latch onto as a label to prejudge my likely calling, performance or role in a given situation, context or team.  Even if an MBTI outcome gives data which its subject finds useful, then the fact that subsequent retests may give quite different outcomes even after a short period should make its use in management generally questionable. Even after just five weeks, there is a 50% chance of one's personality type changing between tests. And in terms of the Body of Christ, to rely on such a blunt instrument of discernment would be a mistake. Can we not look to more Biblical models of leadership, of teamwork and of discipleship? And I repeat: where is our vision of the God who transforms, who equips, in whom we seek revelation, rest and knowledge of ourselves and our calling? And where is our vision of the Body of Christ - our Christian brothers and sisters being part of a shared journey of self-discovery, of growing into the image of Jesus together? Can we turn the commendable motivations behind using blunt instrument psychometric tests into something more flexible, more useful and more open to the transforming nature of life in Christ?

So what is the alternative?
Dr. Ruth Sutherland, a clinical psychologist who laments the Church of England's reliance on MBTI in clergy training, offers a way forward:
There are, however, alternatives.  For trainee priests, this should start with the recognition that they are starting a journey of developing a new identity (self-as-priest), and that this needs to be supported, both in terms of their own self awareness and development, but also within the context of their family, friends and community.  They need to be supported in developing resilience, self care and personal wellbeing, and in understanding the potential obstacles to these developments.  Personal therapy might be one option – an opportunity for exploring the life experiences that have already shaped them, the beliefs and thinking styles that inform their behavioural choices and emotional responses, and how these might impact their development as priests.  An all-too-obvious example is the preponderance of perfectionist beliefs and high expectations of the self among priests.  The impact of this can be catastrophic, especially when combined with the expectations of parishioners.  Physical and mental health problems are far too common among the ordained.  But this could be avoided with better preparation.  I don’t see any evidence that Myers-Briggs is doing anything useful for our priests and lay leaders.  It’s time for change.

I believe Dr Sutherland's approach reflects existing good practice in training establishments. Certainly I recognise that my current training as an ordinand puts a high emphasis on developing self-awareness and reflective practice, including lectures encouraging this, collaborative work in small groups and reflective tutorials with personal tutors.  Myers-Briggs is offered as merely one element among a wider programme which encourages the ongoing development of such practices. I question the wisdom of using Myers-Briggs at all, though. Its scientific shortcomings risk the Church of England inviting needless ridicule for using it. Its theological shortcomings call into question its suitability as a tool for the formation of Christian leaders.

Thinking about ordinand training more generally, perhaps some form of mentoring akin to that of a Spiritual Director, but which includes a strong element of personal therapy focussed on the areas Sutherland suggests (though with a focus which takes account of the theological issues of self- and communal-identity outlined above)  might replace reliance on this, and other, dubious forms of psychometric testing which are, when all is said and done, little more than an affirming, self-fulfilling form of horoscope dressed as science.

Note: The Myers-Briggs Type lndicator and MBTI are Registered Trademarks of Consulting Psychologists Press.

I am indebted to
Dr Ruth Sutherland for her insights from the world of professional clinical psychology
Clergy friends who have been willing to share their concerns and experiences of MBTI as used in the CofE
Anglicanmemes.com for most of the images used in this article.

Bibliography used in preparing this blog post:

Black, J.  Publisher’s Foreword in Isabel Briggs Myers and Peter B. Myers. Gifts Differing (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., 1980)

Briggs, I. & Myers, P. Gifts Differing. (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., 1980)

Francis, L. J. Psychological-type theory and Christian theology: a conflict between implicit and explicit religions? (Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 2013, Vol.16(9), p.964-974)

Jung, C. Psychological types (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, Ltd, 1938)

Jung, C. The integration of the Personality (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, Ltd, 1940)

Kirkpatrick, T. Small Groups in the Church (New York: The Alban Institute, 1995)

Küng, H. Christianity, Essence, History and Future (New York: Continuum, 1996)

Leech, K. Myers–Briggs. Some critical reflections (Croydon: The Jubilee Group, 1996)

Lloyd, J. B. Opposition from Christians to Myers-Briggs personality typing: an analysis and evaluation. (Journal of Beliefs & Values, 28(2):111-123, 2007)

Long, T. Myers-Briggs and Other Modern Astrologies (Theology Today 49(3):291-295., 1992)

Pittenger, D. Measuring the MBTI... and Coming Up Short  http://www.indiana.edu/~jobtalk/Articles/develop/mbti.pdf

ed. Rozensky, R.H. et al Psychology Builds a Healthy World: Opportunities for Research and Practice
(Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2004)

Tucker, A.R. An assessment of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator from a practical theological perspective (South Africa: Acta Theologica 2011, 31(2): p 295-314)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Pastoral Letter. No, not that one.

Following the publication of the House of Bishops Pastoral Letter regarding Same Sex Marriage, an unofficial Tent of Non-Bishops have issued their own pastoral letter.

Dear Same Sex Couples,
We (quite a few members of the Church of England) would like you to know the following:
1. We love you, albeit a pale reflection of how God loves you, but we're doing our best.
2. If you're in a civil partnership or married, we will do our best to support you and love you both, and affirm and celebrate your fidelity to each other.
3. Like those who oppose your relationship, we take sin seriously. So we look forward to continuing to confess our sins to you as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Fingerpointing works so much better when the finger is pointed (lovingly) towards oneself. *Mumble... mumble... splinter... eye... plank...*
4. For those of you whom the Holy Spirit calls to the priesthood who are in committed same-sex relationships, we regret that you will have to forswear marriage in order to pursue your anointed vocation. We will love and support you as best we are able.
5. Actually, now we come to read 4, for 'regret', please read 'are outraged and find it baffling'. Lord have mercy.
6. We will not define you by your same-sex relationship. If we define you at all, it will be on equal terms, as a a precious human, made in the image of your Creator God. We will seek to see and nurture all that is Christlike in you, as we seek to see it in ourselves and in each and every child of God.
7. We love God and we love you. We love because God first loved us. How can we do otherwise and call ourselves followers of Christ?
8. er... that's it.

And we're sorry that our Church is hurting you.
Did we say that we loved you yet?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Body of Christ - valuing all its members?

I've noticed, among the legitimate celebration of the Church Growth figures, notably among things labelled Fresh Expressions and Cathedrals, a strong seam of anti-clerical sentiment. There seems to be a sense that we are involved in niche-marketing of the faith in some respects. This isn't true of most Fresh Expressions, mind you - when you look at the more successful ones, they tend to be very aware of their local communities, meet local needs but integrate getting alongside people with gathering as a church across the whole communities.

However, alongside all that is worth celebrating in these figures have been comments which imply that clergy are no longer welcome in the Church of England, as reimagined by some lay-led groups. "Why do we need a priest or a bishop to do baptisms when our own elders can do it?". A bit of selective re-translation of episcopae into elder rather than bishop and Bob's your Church Leader. There is a sense in which whole-community churches on traditional models and clergy as leaders and overseers of mission are seen in some circles as problems to be overcome rather than intrinsic to God's Mission.

So where did this strand of anti-clerical sentiment originate in this latest form?

The Turnbull report's response to the Church Commissioners losing most of the C of E's money in the 80s and early 90s was to create a new narrative: one which means that the mission of the Church is equated with a marketing model. But we're not selling membership, we're about introducing people to Jesus and leading them in discipleship. The problem was that there was no pot of money to pay clergy pensions - even the existing ones - so the thought of recruiting clergy at traditional levels filled the accountants at Church House with dread. Understandable. But hardly missional as an approach. Alongside this, the very scriptural understanding of the 'priesthood of all believers', and the model of active discipleship rather than passive affiliation were widely discussed. Now the latter were, and remain, good things. Churches grow not when there is a Vicar-shaped Church but when the whole Body of Christ in that place discerns together how to communicate the Good News of Jesus and lets the Holy Spirit get to work through them. Alpha, Pilgrim and other courses emerged, at least in part, to re-energise the Church - to invite Christians into deeper discipleship and break away from any sense that faith was something best left to the clergy. And of course these helped church communities reach out to people too and they became followers of Christ as a result - praise God! So there were lots of things going on, parallel developments, but a deep financial malaise at the centre.

We now say we cannot afford clergy as if this is Gospel truth. It is only true if we make it so: it is a choice.  If we are serious about being a missional Church, serving our communities, we need to continue to discern who is being called to be priests - not forgetting that this is only one aspect of vocations: we need to help everyone in the Church listen to what their vocation is: "how do I serve? what now, Lord?" should be a prayer for all believers. It is not enough to look for managers, elders, marketers, group leaders, administrators, worship leaders, preachers, pastors etc and say that church leadership is all sorted.  These are important roles in the Body of Christ too. But so are those of priest, deacon and reader. The Holy Spirit is still ordaining deacons, priests and bishops and the Church is continuing to acknowledge and affirm these callings. We have certainly neglected the concept of "priesthood of all believers" and Church-as-Body-of-Christ will all called to a vocation of mission and ministry in the past.  It is a nonsense though to say of a body that, since we have historically undervalued elbows we now no longer need feet.

It is tempting I know, to rewrite early Church history in romanticised ways to pretend that an episcopally-led, sacramentally worshipping community led by deacons and priests was not part of how the Holy Spirit moulded the Church over the first few centuries. It is our heritage, which is not to say it is set in stone as how the Church must always be, but we need to have a reason to change better than simply "it's old". Reimagining the C of E as growing out of a Mediterranean housechurch movement with lay leaders does have a certain appeal, but it's a romance, at least in the way we now seem to be reimagining it.  Rewriting things that way does make us all feel more affirmed - and that does indeed highlight a problem: that we have ended up with a hierarchical view of the Church with lay people at the bottom and clergy (in a hierarchical structure at that) at the top. This is of course absolutely wrong, unscriptural, and FX has been an excellent way to challenge that mindset.

But if we ditch Anglicanism to embrace a lay-led housechurch only model, we will find that we're reaching out to people and welcoming them into an empty shell: a Church created in society's image alone and not that of Christ. We do need to pursue a generous vision of vocation for everyone in the Church: where do we fit in the Body of Christ? To what are we called as disciples and servants of Christ? Priests and Deacons are not any more indispensable than anyone else in the Church. But they are called to a specific function in the Church. They are no more indispensable to the Body of Christ than any other member. But they are no less.

Let's pray for a Body of Christ which grows, reaches out and nurtures each of its members to discern its vocation. Some leadership is lay and let us affirm that. But let's not continually discourage our clergy by denying their vocation to their place in the Body.