Tunnel Vision

Peter Anthony explores why a recently published House of Bishops’ mission diagram has attracted disquiet, and asks how such graphics might be used better to enhance our thinking.  

Finally, we have found something that everyone in the Church of England agrees on. 

It is fascinating that every opinion I have heard expressed on the diagram that accompanies the House of Bishops’ recent report, ‘Vision for the Church of England in the 2020s’ (1) is one of united confusion and perplexity.

The diagram itself is supposed to reveal, through its interlocking dials, whirling arrows, and spinning vortices a strategic vision for how the Church can grow over the next ten years. The problem is that it has produced a veritable cottage industry of satire, parody, and ridicule on social media. It has been referred to in different places as the ‘Nestorian Twirler of Doom’, ‘The Plughole of Progress’, ‘The Cartwheel of Chaos’, and ‘The Jiggling Gyrator of Mission’.

Dozens of spoofs have arisen, comparing it with a kitchen sink (cue jokes about the C of E disappearing down the plughole), a washing machine drum (cue jokes about being wet and going round in circles), and the ancient mythical creature the Ouroboros (cue jokes about the Church disappearing up its own backside).

Others have compared it to depictions of Dante’s circles of hell, the dome of a mausoleum, the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, the console of the 70s children’s game Simon, the spooky red eye of Hal from Space Odyssey, and even the transfixing gaze of the Demon Headmaster from the 1990s cult children’s classic.

I have yet to come across a single comment of approbation or defence for the bishops’ diagram. Some see it as confusing and opaque. Others see it as the expression of an alleged stranglehold that management consultants and advertising agencies have over the House of Bishops’ thinking. Others simply see it as funny, and have exploited its comedy value in the face of what they perceive to be the humourless corporate culture of ‘C of E Plc.’

The great psychotherapist and rabbi Edwin Friedman worked in Washington DC in the second half of the Twentieth Century applying Murray Bowen’s ‘family systems theory’ to church and synagogue congregations. (2) I find Friedman’s thinking extremely interesting and endlessly useful. A key insight I come back to time and time again is his idea that organisations experiencing anxiety tend to lose the capacity for humour and irony very swiftly. One of the characteristics of emotionally functional leadership in Friedman’s model is one which actually rejoices in humour and paradox as a way of disrupting dysfunctional relationships and responses. The House of Bishops at the moment would appear to be a classic example, in Friedman’s terms, of an “anxious system” that has lost the capacity for humour and paradox, where nobody foresaw the way in which this diagram would be lampooned and parodied.

So why has this little diagram prompted such a visceral response of criticism and dismay? Perhaps some perspectives from Antiquity and the Medieval period might help us.

Over the years, I have found the work of Mary Caruthers (3) on Medieval notions of memory to be hugely fascinating and able to unlock all sorts of conundrums. One of the most important ideas she propagates is that memory in the ancient and Medieval world was understood to be a hugely creative, dynamic, and fundamentally visual process. Our modern world perceives memory to be simply about the soulless recalling of ideas from the brain, like files from a computer. Our Medieval brothers and sisters, by contrast, thought about memory as a much more emotional process, orientated towards growth in virtue, fruitful imagination, and speculative, expansive reflection.

When the ancients remembered something, they imagined sense data was turned into phantasmai, a thumb nail image or aide-memoire, which then lodged the idea or experience in the brain. Recalling an idea, therefore, was about the retrieval of something which had been visualised. The phantasma, however, didn’t have to look like the thing remembered, it simply had to prompt the necessary emotional connections, referred to in medieval discourse as intentio, to allow the brain to recall the information.

If we use that language to examine this House of Bishops’ diagram, it is clear nothing about it allows the ideas it represents to be remembered. A number of people have commented to me how the diagram simply doesn’t do the job it is intended to – it doesn’t help them remember or visualise anything at all about the ideas being proposed in the report it accompanies. It is precisely incapable of triggering the intentio – the emotional context – needed to help the mind recall and imagine the ideas behind it.

You don’t have to be an expert semiotician to know that all symbols are presented and work within a cultural context. They only have power because the context they are presented in gives them that. Certain colours express key emotions in one culture and different ones in another, for example. Certain shapes and styles are perceived to be harsh or ugly in one age, and attractive in another. Certain fonts can be easy for some people to read in one place, and difficult for others in another.

It is clear from the response to this diagram that it emerges from a context completely divorced from that in which it is designed to operate. The culture of the Church is so distanced from that of corporate management, that the diagram is unable to communicate or say anything to the audience it is intended for. The idiom of church culture is liturgical and scriptural, local and incarnational, narrative and historical, allusive and prayerful. It doesn’t connect well with the disembodied theory expressed in flow charts and diagrams. It’s a little like writing the report in Klingon and expecting members of the Church of England to be able to read it.

Many people, myself included, welcome an opportunity to think sensitively and courageously about the future of the Church’s mission and ministry. I would like to suggest, however, that any more diagrams issued in the future to help that process might need to be constructed with the people in mind whom they are intended to address, and the culture within which they will be expected to operate.

The Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony

  1. https://www.churchofengland.org/about/leadership-and-governance/emerging-church-england/vision-church-england-2020s
  2.  His thinking lies behind all the splendid leadership and reconciliation work done by the excellent organisation Bridge Builders, which many may have heard of.
  3.  E.g., Carruthers, Mary, The Book of Memory (CUP: 1990); The Craft of Thought (CUP: 1998).

2 thoughts on “Tunnel Vision

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful blog. Like many others I found the post insightful and intelligent. The quote I struggle with is, ‘The idiom of church culture is liturgical and scriptural, local and incarnational, narrative and historical, allusive and prayerful.’ Not because I object to the terms of reference but because the church appears often complicit in a form of inverse contextualisation that does not support the idiom in context but rather embalms such notions in its cultural heritage. This mutation of time/space incites idolatry of the past which displaces the present. The future thus becomes a replication of all that was as opposed to a regenerative emergence of all that is. This does not appear to be good methodology for how tradition and context can hold sway together allowing the tension to generate creative agency for both tradition and transition. My concern is without such discursive practice the vision of a transformed world is muted by the the language of the dead. Yaraslov Pelkin wrote, ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.’ I worry we rule ourselves out of meaningful critiques if our assumptions as to the idiom of the church are more rhetoric than reality.

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