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Letters to the Editor

04 August 2017


Growth and the personality profile of the clergy


From the Revd Peter Ould

Sir, — The claims that Dr Henry Ratter makes (Comment, 28 July) about the key factors in church growth do not hold up to statistical scrutiny. When you examine the data tables in his thesis, there is not a single personality-type variable that shows a statistically significant difference between priests leading a growing or declining church.

The key characteristic that you drew out in your headline — collaboration (“collectivist”) — is, in fact, one of the least predictive of a difference between growing and declining churches, with a t value of just –0.6. To base recommendations for recruitment on such shaky evidence is questionable.

Where Dr Ratter does excel, however, is in his willingness to open up the finer detail of his research to third parties. Previous research sponsored by Church House, Westminster, has tended to avoid any critical analysis of reported findings — indeed, sometimes creating spurious reasons to avoid sharing data, for example, “data-protection” reasons when research data can be easily anonymised and agreements with subjects can be easily worded to allow the sharing of their anonymised data. This leads me, and others, to suspect that some of the reported findings may be less statistically robust than first thought.

Many of us with professional statistical experience are looking to use our expertise to help the Church of England tease out real significant findings from research in this area in order to help the mission of the church. A commitment, as we have seen from Dr Ratter, to making all such data open-access would go a long way in helping members of the wider body of Christ bring their skills to bear for the good of the wider Church.


3 Goudhurst Close

Canterbury CT2 7TU


From the Revd Richard Impey

Sir, — I found Dr Henry Ratter’s article stimulating, but I can’t help thinking that it tells only half the story. So much depends on who you might be trying to collaborate with. It is not simply a matter of the leader’s personality.

Many congregations are reluctant to change, or even to grow. One reason is that they have become too comfortable with where they are, often with strong, even entrenched, lay leaders who are very happy with the present set-up, and have no wish for that to change.

A less obvious but perhaps more significant reason is that growth of any magnitude usually requires a change of structure and role. This applies in particular to the clergy, but also to lay members: a medium-size congregation (the most common in the Church of England) is big enough to do things and small enough for everyone to know everyone, but when it grows larger (150 is a typical tipping-point), it has to begin to organise itself differently if it is to sustain the larger numbers. The incumbent as well as the members themselves can no longer know everyone, and efficient organisation has to take the place of ad hoc arrangements.

There is another great enemy of collaboration, and that is busyness, coupled with the knowledge that we already have a way of doing most things. I have been invited to collaborate in specific church-centred tasks only to discover later that “In the end there wasn’t time to bring you in.” Collaboration frequently takes longer than doing it yourself: the clergy do whatever it is themselves to save time, and lay people are often content to have it so.

Like Dr Ratter, I am not happy to leave things as they are, but for me the crucial thing is to challenge clergy and congregation together; for that is the decisive place where collaborative leadership has to happen. This calls for training and support of a kind quite different from much that we are currently used to. The central question is not, How do we grow? But, How do we together build up the body of Christ?


22 Hala Grove

Lancaster LA1 4PS


Implications of the use of artificial intelligence


From the Revd David Paterson

Sir, — The Sea of Faith Network’s annual conference last week explored the implications of artificial intelligence. On returning home, I read your report “Bishops identify benefits and risks of artificial intelligence” (News, 28 July). The theme of our conference was “Being Human: Can our feelings of compassion, empathy, ethics, mortality, survive in the face of the increasing and seemingly dehumanising pressures and demands of the IT age?”

Our main speakers were a Humanist, an expert in the sociology of religion, and a Muslim. While we wouldn’t claim to have formulated any answers, we certainly explored some of the questions that need to be addressed. They are questions of human flourishing, centred on the kindness, compassion, and empathy that have evolved through history and are strongly linked to the founders of the world religions. This is the “broader debate” to which Dr Croft refers, valuing the long traditions of the faith communities and philosophies.

To be human is to experience beauty, love, worship, suffering, and death, and to have a poetic vision as well as rationality and technical skill. One of our workshops described the present age as one in which “We know kindness brings peace, but power and riches come with cruelty. And we’re so clever.”

This, perhaps, is the danger we face: that, while rejoicing in human cleverness, we fail to address the misuse of our inventions, which threatens to destroy the kindness that is the very essence of our humanity.

The challenges of the amazing power of IT and the developments in AI are global ones. We hope that the Church of England bishops will unite in common cause with the religions and humanitarian philosophies of the world, sharing insights and valuing difference.


Flat 8 Tatmarsh House

2 Gladstone Avenue

Loughborough LE11 1NP


From Mr Alan Bartley

Sir, — While it is right for the Church to consider the moral, ethical, and legal implications of the use of artificial-intelligence technology, what is most surprising is that the wider fruits of this multi-disciplinary study have been ignored in training our clergy.

Books such as Understanding Computers and Cognition: A new foundation for design by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores (1986) can be really breathtaking in their scope, challenge, and insights.

Today those studying AI are synthesising cognitive and general psychology, biology, neuroscience, linguistics, semantics, hermeneutics, traditional and computational logic, various aspects of engineering, and expert systems, to mention but a few. In fact, there is a real parallel between the comprehensive nature of AI studies and what used to be the all-embracing nature of theology, with its study of God, man, and the rest of Creation.

One area where the Church really needs to contribute is when considering the ultimate questions of our existence: whether we can be explained in terms of our being evolved biological robots controlled by biological computers.

Should John Searle’s conclusion of his “Chinese Room” thought experiment be accepted, and I think it has to be, then materialism is not enough: it simply cannot explain our self-conscious existence.


17 Francis Road

Greenford UB6 7AD


Re-emergent religion?


From the Revd Daniel Njuguna

Sir, — Professor Chris Baker (Comment, 28 July) suggests that one way in which the story of Grenfell Tower resonates with the wider issues in the British society “is about the confident re-emergence of religion and belief in public life”. He goes on to point out: “When religious people proudly but unassertively wear the badges of office — making themselves publicly accountable to implement the values and ethics of their professional and religious identity — this sends an important message.”

Let’s rewind to a few weeks ago. Tim Farron’s announcement that he was quitting as leader of the Liberal Democrats, saying that he had been torn between his religious faith and his political office, came on the same fateful night as the Grenfell Tower fire. The Times reported: “Farron resigns after his faith made leadership impossible”. Mr Farron’s resignation followed a turbulent General Election campaign during which he was questioned by media relentlessly on a subject that clearly is a matter of personal faith and belief.

I agree with Professor Baker that there is a kind of public square in which religion is resurgent, but, on the other hand, Mr Farron’s story is a stark reminder that the legitimacy of religion as a form of public reason continues to be hotly contested.

In some circles, especially political, this resurgence continues to represent a toxic breach of the supposed neutrality of the public sphere. It reveals the tensions between government agents and faith-based groups in the delivery of public services, especially at the grass-roots; and the latter in danger of colluding with agendas imposed by the former to benefit from statutory resources.

Without doubt, the visibility of religious leaders in public life sends out an important message and must be encouraged and supported. While the part that they play is representative of the whole people, I would echo Professor Baker’s exhortation to faith communities and non-faith communities: since we belong to the human race, we all wear a clerical collar or a badge allowing us to be a vibrant presence in public life, identifying with those in great need, enabling their voices to be heard, and showing that everyday lives and struggle count — challenging those powers that seek to run public life with an opportunistic market logic.


St Paul’s Vicarage

68 Wood Green Road

Wednesbury WS10 9QT


Shepherd or sheepdog, visiting still matters


From the Revd Stephen Stavrou

Sir, — There is much to agree with in the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall’s article (Comment, 21 July), particularly his reminder that a parish priest is not an inward-facing chaplain to a congregation, but a minister to the whole parish community.

The article could, however, be construed as a discouragement to parochial visiting. As an assistant curate and now as a vicar, I have always found visiting to be foundational to parish life. It is through visiting that I have come across some of the most profound questions and difficult situations of people’s lives — their hopes, fears, dreams, and sorrows — and this has provided an opportunity for prayer and a closer relationship.

For a parishioner, the priest taking the time to visit them demonstrates God’s love for them as individuals. For the priest (often in the midst of paperwork and managerial activities), it restores a sense of priesthood as the personal ministry of Christ we see in the Gospels.

Sadly, the days of systematic visiting by fleets of curates to every house in the parish is no longer possible, or indeed appropriate, but the evangelistic principle of visiting remains the same. To visit is to be “out there”, particularly when the person visited is not a “core” or regular member of the congregation, but someone more peripheral, who is drawn by that engagement further into the life of the church.

Of course, circumstances differ, and the vicar of a large parish may have to relinquish largely the joy of visiting to another minister, ordained or lay, but surely it should never cease entirely? An inspiring team rector who greatly influenced my vocation once said to me that if he didn’t visit at least one parishioner every week, he didn’t believe he was a good parish priest. I think he was right; and there is nothing “soft” or “inward-facing” about it.


St Michael’s Vicarage

39 Elm Bank Gardens

London SW13 0NX


The point of Dunkirk


From the Revd Professor James H. Grayson

Sir, — Your leader comment “On the beaches” (28 July) misses the point about the film Dunkirk. It is a powerful and focused reflection on the experiences of ordinary British people, civilian and military, on sea, air, and land.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Churchill and the generals, the French, and even the Germans are not portrayed. The film is a comment on the experienced inhumanity of war.

Your connection of it with the decision taken by referendum to leave the European Union is an egregious non sequitur. Seeking a new political arrangement with the nations of Europe is not the same as fighting against an aggressive totalitarian regime.


25 Whitfield Road

Sheffield S10 4GJ


Dean’s new chapter


From the Very Revd Charles Taylor

Sir, — I am delighted that Canon Tim Sledge, has been appointed to succeed me as Dean of Peterborough (News, 21 July), and I wish him every blessing in his new ministry. Although he happens to be my current parish priest (a fact one could not invent in a Barchester novel), people ought to be assured that this is pure coincidence, and not conspiracy.

Your report suggests, however, that my departure from Peterborough was as a result of the Bishop’s Visitation. This is not the case. The Bishop’s Visitation was not conducted, nor his recommendations published, until after I had left.


Dean Emeritus of Peterborough

69 Greatbridge Road

Romsey, Hants SO51 8FE


Make selectors accountable for their comments


From Mr Michael Wyatt

Sir, — Back in 2006, I, too, attended a Bishops’ Advisory Panel and was rejected. The nature of that rejection caused me to write to this publication on a number of occasions without being published.

It is pleasing that Terry J. Wright’s letter was published (14 July), and the subsequent responses (Letters, 21 July).

I write again now because it appears that very little, if anything at all, has improved in the process. It is my opinion that the selection of potential ordinands, whether for stipendiary or non-stipendiary ministry, needs root-and-branch reform, beginning with making the examiners responsible and accountable for their comments in the reports they write.

The pain and injustice that I felt 11 years ago has not really diminished. It lies just below the surface of my consciousness, and frequently bubbles to the surface. It has seriously affected my faith, and the total lack of pastoral care throughout is beyond disgraceful: it is shameful.

I wish Mr Wright comfort and joy in the years ahead.


60 Tintern Avenue, Whitefield

Manchester M45 8WY


Cuddesdon’s college — an island of loveliness


From the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon

Sir, — I am glad that, given the date of its publication, Prebendary Gillean Craig’s likening of the círcumstances of Love Island contestants to those of ordinands at Cuddesdon (TV, 28 July) cannot be written off as a bit of “silly season” nonsense.

While the promise of double beds for all is a bit of an exaggeration, newly refurbished and highly comfortable accommodation, much of it with en suite facilities, awaits anyone who comes here, either as a student or a guest, along with our legendarily delicious and copious food and (I hope, equally legendary) warm welcome.

That all the denizens of this place are, by the grace of God and in the eyes of God, every bit as beautiful as the stars whom Prebendary Craig admires naturally goes without saying. I hope many of your readers — and especially those with a developing sense of vocation to ordained ministry — will come and visit to test these claims for themselves.


Ripon College, Cuddesdon

Oxford OX44 9EX


Don’t diminish the MCWPs and their history


From David Perry

Sir, — Gwen Bevington claims in her letter that it is not for “us middle-class white people” to assert or claim what the experience of others has been.

I grow increasingly tired of such statements, because they seem to try diminish us middle-class white people and our history. Middle-class white people in this country are a product of a race that has been brutalised by Romans, Vikings, Saxons, Normans, and various Germanics. We have been enslaved by them all and fought for our lives against invasion by Nazis, besides surviving fierce infighting among ourselves, secular and religious.

Mrs Bevington seems to want to suggest that middle-class white people (perhaps in these times we ought to be known as MCWPs) somehow popped up ready made. We did not. We are as much a product of a violent forging as any other “peoples” and, to follow her argument, we ought to be claiming victim status. It is a nonsense.


11 St Lawrence Close


Salisbury SP1 3LW

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