How far are we from Rotherham?

Gaby Hinsliff has suggested that the newly appointed chair of the inquiry into historic child abuse looks at Louise Casey’s inspection report on the Rotherham child abuse scandal. Louise Casey points out the failings of council, police, childrens’ services suggesting that people and agencies were far more concerned about their reputations than about the victims. For Hinsliff the tragedy in Rotherham was made possible by the most ordinary of things. By this, she means that it is ordinary organisation that makes for such tragedies: “Ordinary people, doing ordinary jobs, ordinarily badly”. She writes, “what leaps out from the report isn’t the influence of politics with a big P so much as office politics; all the surprisingly humdrum, niggling things about status and hierarchy and process that determine who counts in an organisation and who is heard.”

The Rotherham Council who presided over the whole very sorry affair have been accused of being over-sensitive in a politically correct sort of way. They were, in fact, not sensitive enough. They were dismissive of uncomfortable truth and bullied disagreeable voices into silence and hundreds of girls and families have suffered as result of these ordinary people doing ordinary jobs ordinarily badly.

But how far are we from Rotherham? Uncomfortable truth and disagreeable voices are hard to hear and easy to ignore. We like the sound of our own voice, and we like the ones who are like us and form them into our company. So, how far removed is our ordinary organising (intrapersonal and interpersonal) from the folly of Rotherham?

Louise Carey’s report focusses on Rotherham, but is more than Rotherham. It’s about all ordinary organisation that doesn’t listen to the “wrong” people and that is insensitive to the plight of the wronged people. It’s about government, institutional life, the office, family and my own self-ish ways. It’s about intentional and unintentional victims and how we listen to them and how we listen to each other.

The church also, and perhaps particularly, is not a million miles from Rotherham in doing an ordinarily bad job of not listening to uncomfortable truth and allowing abuse to flourish unchecked. Pope Francis, in his exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (just reading) is conscious of this background. He encourages a better sort of organisation in which the right and wronged people are heard, in which the poor are the evangelisers and in which the church and pastoral workers continue to be evangelised and changed. He yearns for a a church which is poor (not so bothered by its own reputation?) and for the poor (198) and he begs the Lord “to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor”. Hinsliff’s appeal rings the same bells: “all institutions need faintly oddball, stubborn, counter-cultural people who may well be irritating to work with but ask the questions others don’t.”

Rotherham is our own backyard. Rotherham is in our mind. Rotherham is only extraordinary in the scale of its terrible consequences. A lot of our organisation is ordinarily bad, lacking sensitivity, intelligence and curiosity.

A word in edgeways

blogging

I was blogging, then I wasn’t. Then Euan Semple reminded me of the importance of sharing thoughts and opinions in his book Organisations don’t tweet, people do. He asks: “how does the world ever change except by people sharing their opinions?”

I was preoccupied with business, forgetting that my business is sharing ideas.  My responsibility is to support the (professional) development of ministers, and my mind had flitted from one frame of mind to another – from the frame of mind in which there is organic development through community sharing to the less productive frame of mind governed by the metaphor of the machine. It’s working our way out of one skin into another.

I belong to an organisation that, rightly, takes itself seriously. It cares about risk and dangers – among them the risks involved in social media. Organisations don’t tweet, people do is a powerful argument for overcoming the fear of engagement with social media. One of those reasons is to make the virtual space of the web inhabitable for our children. “If we leave it to the gunslingers and the pornographers it will stay uninhabitable” writes Euan Semple. He continues, “If we want to make it habitable we have to make it so by being in there behaving in productive and positive ways and showing that it can be a tool for good.”

And so it is. I wasn’t blogging, but now I am.

The strapline to the Prologue to John’s Gospel could be “a Word in Edgeways” as John describes Jesus as God’s word “that became flesh and dwelt among us”. It’s important that we get our word in edgeways in as many ways and spaces as possible. None of this is new. Getting our word in edgeways has been a responsibility since we began to use language. Responsible citizens have been using it ever since to name names, to make sense, to work things out, to share opinions and to make peace (and their opposites). There is now a new space for exploration which is the virtual space of the worldwide web. How can we live well there?

The image is from John Sutton’s photostream
Euan Semple’s blog

Big ain’t beautiful

Richard Beck, in Experimental Theology, quotes William James:

“I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.” William James

Richard Beck’s blog is well worth following. He has helpfully organised his blog into series of posts. One of them is A Walk with William JamesRichard regards James as one who anticipated the leading ideas of the emergent church movement as well as the “greatest American psychologist”.

I am increasingly struck by the big significance of the small, and the tiny significance of the big. The large institutions are increasingly seen as disappointing. It is the tiniest interactions which constitute nature and these are becoming our trusted teachers.  This subversion was already realised in Jesus. His subjects included a mustard seed, a small child, a raven. His relationships were in the margins of the alienating big society.

Frazzled institutions

NetWork

The photograph by Cea is Branching Morphogenesis, a walk-through installation by Jenny Sabin, consisting of 75,000 cable ties resembling neural net of the brain. This is a pattern and organising structure at the heart of our nature – and a far cry from institutional patterns highlighted by the likes of Virginia Woolf in an earlier post.

Diarmuid O’Murchu calls institutions “frazzled” in Adult FaithThe financial crisis of 2008 has reminded us that “banking institutions are more vulnerable than anybody had suspected”. O’Murchu’s observation that “all major institutions are in a state of identity crisis” reflects Dee Hock’s view of “organisations increasingly unable to achieve the purpose for which they were created, yet continuing to expand as they devour scarce resources, demean the human spirit and destroy the environment.” (Birth of the Chaordic Age, p 28). He lists:

  • Schools that can’t teach
  • universities far from universal
  • corporations that can neither cooperate or compete, only consolidate
  • unhealthy health-care systems
  • welfare systems in which no one fares well
  • farming systems that destroy soil and poison food
  • families far from familial
  • police that can’t enforce the law
  • judicial systems without justice
  • governments that can’t govern
  • economies that can’t economise

Hock’s comment on this is that “such universal, ever accelerated institutional failure suggests there is some deep, pervasive question we have not asked.”

One question I often bear in mind in relationships is “how big or small do I now feel?” Our usual answer is “small” in relation to institutional life. There’s not much we feel we can do except for the institution in which we walk tall and big ourselves up in relation to everyone else. We walk away, in increasing numbers, where we can.

For Hock, the problem is our “Industrial Age organisational concept” which is “a wrong concept of organisation and leadership based on a false metaphor with which we must deal. Until our consciousness of the relational aspect of the world and all life therein shall change, the problems that crush the young and make grown people cry will get progressively worse.”

For O’Murchu “all the major institutions we know today evolved as instruments for the implementation of patriarchal power. Many are beaking down and losing credibility, giving way to networks with a greater potential for collaboration and adult empowerment”. For O’Murchu institutions “inherently disempower” however democratic they may try to be. “No matter how democratic a hierarchical system is, it will fail to do justice to the aspirations of the people. People want to participate. They want to be involved; in a word, they want to exercise their adult creativity. And when that goal is jeopardised, it is then we need policing … the prevailing power – culturally, politically, religiously – feeds power. Only in a minimal and superficial way does it empower.”

Competition and control are the assumed guiding principles for institutions and our evolutionary history. But work done by micro-biologist Lynn Margulis suggests a paradigm shift to our thinking and our organisation. Margulis’s theory of symbiogenesis highlights an orientation for cooperation rather than competition.

Human imagination has been “domesticated” by institutions, according to O’Murchu, so that the “human being is seen primarily as a deviant creature whose behaviour has to be tightly controlled. Instead of being perceived as creative adults, whose long evolutionary history verifies … a heavy commitment to conviviality and collaboration, humans have been subjected to highly destructive imperial control.”

O’Murchu suggests that there are other “structural strategies” besides institutions with their “top-down hierarchical line of control, usually with clear distinctions between “us” (at the top) and “them” (at the base)”.

I suppose that our institutional framework has been shaped by the myth of The Fall. But there is a dangerous circularity to that assumption. The argument may be that the Fall accounts for human sinfulness which needs to be controlled (by institutions). But institutions (religious) account for the Fall. One depends on the other as is being increasingly recognised. The emperor/institution really is in the all together.

In some ways the church has been tarred with the same brush and there is decline in confidence and “bums on seats”. But then there is another more hopeful sense in which some Christians are behaving less like institutionalised “bums on seats” who are envisaging alternative structures for the sake of the least, last and lost.

Developing viable alternative structures seems vital (as well as inevitable) in a world in which  institutions have become so devalued. Alternative structures are already emerging in the form of networks but the context for that emergence is still governed by institutions who become ever more fearful and seem ever more remote from a (human) nature that is essentially cooperative, collaborative and convivial.

 

The Monday morning question

The whole globe is shook up, so what are you going to do when things are falling apart?

You’re either going to become more fundamentalist and try to hold things together, or you’re going to forsake the old ambitions and goals and live life as an experiment, making it up as you go along.

Perma Chödrön as quoted by Meg Wheatley in Finding our Way

No comment

royal exchange, london
In Leaving Alexandria Richard Holloway recalls Virginia Woolf’s tract Three Guineas  (originally published in 1937) in which she contrasts the private house (woman’s sphere) with public life (man’s sphere):

Your world then, the world of professional, of public life, seen from this angle, undoubtedly looks queer.

At first sight it is enormously impressive. Within a small space are crowded together St Paul’s, the Bank of England, the Mansion House, the massive if funereal battlements of the Law Courts: and on the other side, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. There we say to ourselves, pausing, in this moment of transition on the bridge, our fathers and brothers have spent their lives. All these hundreds of years they have been mounting those steps, passing in and out of those doors, ascending those pulpits, preaching, money making, administering justice. It is from this world that the private house … has derived its creeds, its laws, its clothes and carpets, its beef and mutton. And then, as is now permissible, cautiously pushing aside the swing doors of one of these temples, we enter on tiptoe and survey the scene in greater detail.

The first sensation of colossal size, of majestic masonry is broken into a myriad points of amazement mixed with interrogation. Your clothes in the first place make us gape with astonishment. How many, how splendid, how extremely ornate they are – the clothes worn by the educated man in his public capacity! Now you dress in violet; a jewelled crucifix swings on your breast; now your shoulders are covered with lace; now furred with ermine; now slung with many linked chains set with precious stones. Now you wear wigs on your heads; rows of graduated curls descend your necks. Now your hats are boat-shaped, or cocked; now they mount in cones of black fur; now they are made of brass and scuttle-shaped; now plumes of red, now of blue hair surmount them. Sometimes gowns cover your legs; sometimes gaiters. Tabards embroidered with lions and unicorns swing from your shoulders; metal objects cut in star shapes or in circles glitter and twinkle upon your breasts. Ribbons of all colours – blue, purple, crimson – cross from shoulder to shoulder.

Even stranger, however, than the symbolic splendour of your clothes are the ceremonies that take place when you wear them. here you kneel; there you bow; here you advance in procession behind a man carrying a silver poker; here you mount a carved chair; here you appear to do homage to a piece of painted wood; here you abase yourselves before tables covered with richly worked tapestry. And whatever these ceremonies may mean you perform them always together, always in step, always in the uniform proper to the man and the occasion.

The photo is of the Royal Exchange in London by Synwell