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Negotiating Change

By Wesley Carr.

Amid the many disagreements that concern Christians and churches today, there would be no dispute that the churches are set in a changing environment and that ministries, too, are changing. Whether this is for better or worse it is too early to know. But it cannot be denied that we have to live with the impact and effect of major changes for some time, at least.

Experiencing Change

Most talk about change degenerates into cliche. Moans that the world is changing can be heard everywhere -church, school and pub. Historians know, too, that there has never been a time since records began when things were any different. There has always been reflection on change, almost always that it feels to be for worse:

'The lamentable change is from the best;

The worst returns to laughter' 1

So our experience today is normal, not different. Wherever we turn, rapid change is happening. Education is changing and schools, teachers, parents and pupils are all caught up in a whirl of adjustments. Politics may be changing -and not only in relation to internal party policies. The whole idea of exercising the democratic right to vote is being challenged as fewer people bother to go to the polls. The notion of nationhood is also again under scrutiny. Politically there is fin de siecle feeling. The government puts the comfortable institutions of the welfare state under scrutiny. The opposition does not offer a clear alternative programme.

The churches are not immune. My own, the Church of England, appears to some not to be what it was. The ordination of women to the priesthood has encouraged many and frightened a few. Ecumenically the churches face a transformed religious configuration. The era of inconclusive inter-church discussions may be past. For example, the Porvoo Common Statement by the British and Irish Anglican Churches and the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches offers an interpretation of 'tradition, that could stimulate new approaches between other churches2 . But whatever happens on this front, it may be unimportant compared with the prospect of serious inter-faith discussions. It may become more important for Christians to talk with Muslims than Anglicans with Methodists. We may truly feel, as did Alphonse Karrin 1849, 'plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose' - 'the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Difference Today

There are two major differences today in the way that we experience change. First, there is the influence of the mass media. And second, the fact that people in contemporary Western societies are more self-aware than ever before. The media are easily lambasted, often by church people. There are those who grumble about damage to morality and the way that the media (especially television) distort reality. The argument will continue, although. the complaint is often overdone. The greater difficulty for Christian ministry and the telling of the gospel story is the way in which what can be imagined is made 'real' on the screen'. There is currently (1995) a fascinating advertisement for a holiday firm that draws on the Christian story, whether consciously or not I do not know. It shows a man dressed in white sitting on a cloud. He wakes up and sees that he is needed on earth. He gently descends and meets a family on holiday. The children look momentarily demonic but he performs a miracle and charms them into joining him. The parents need a different salvation - peace and recreation. So he magically provides a beautiful drink for them. He keeps a watchful eye over their every need until the end of the day, when earth and heaven dissolve into one. The Christian story is not here imagined but portrayed to be observed, although perhaps not to be believed! But for better or worse the media are here, and the meaning and proclamation of the gospel have to be rethought in this context.

The reference to increased self -awareness is not another grumble about the so-called 'me generation'. The way that all of us see the world has itself been altered by the impact of new psychological ideas throughout this century. And these are not the preserve of a few. They have been popularised and have become part of our culture. A young mother, for instance, will probably know about bonding and bringing up a baby more from books by psychologically trained experts than from her own mother. In other words, our apperceptive 4 habits, the way we put information together, have themselves been and are being modified. There may be little measurable difference in the amount of change with which we live from that of many previous generations. But we cannot and do not perceive the world, and so face change within it, in anything like the same fashion. The result is that today we do not feel lost in an unfamiliar, changing world. That could be regarded as the normal human experience. Paradoxically it is in familiar places that we feel most lost. We acknowledge that the world changes. But we have become increasingly unsure of how to address it. For example, in the hymn , Abide with me' we sing, 'Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me' .H. F. Lyte had an acute sense of external disarray which still today rings bells with people at odd moments. But he had no question about the personal identity of the one who was observing that change. Today, however, we are uncomfortably aware, when we stop to think, that' change and decay' are as much within us as in what we see all around. This is the so-called 'post-modern dilemma' about which scholars write. But ministers encounter it daily with people influenced by the media and the assumptive world of popular psychology. These make addressing change so much more difficult. The basic question about living with change has today itself changed:

In this new and unfamiliar context, the questions we must ask have changed.

No longer is the individual query sufficient: 'How can I make sense of my own life

and the various roles I take up?'. A larger and more socially significant issue needs

to be addressed: 'Can we develop a shared interpretation of experience? And if so, how?'.

An approach to collaborative interpretation might allow each of us to discover our

connections to those contexts for human experience that are larger than ourselves.'

Negotiated Interpretation

One clue to living creatively with change rather than simply bemoaning it lies in the idea of negotiated interpretation. Instead of expounding the theory, let me begin with a simple example of how this process might work. Say that I am a white man and an ordained minister. As I live and work in a variety of contexts, but chiefly in my role as minister, I begin to perceive that other see me as powerful, racist, sexist or arrogant, or more often a mix of these. Sometimes they tell me these things. Or I might grasp them for myself as I reflect on what is happening to me. People truly seem to be assuming this about me as they deal with me. Some of these images even fit my own view of myself, but some do not. My picture of myself is that I actually feel quite small, shy and too liberal for my own or anyone else's good. If I stick here, however, I may decide I need therapy or become defensive or withdraw into some private notion of what a minister is. By contrast a negotiated interpretation requires work with others, not simply by myself. So I think about perceptions in terms of the church of which I am minister. Possibly in my role as leader I am being arrogant or powerful. Is there any evidence? If so, why is this happening? Is it me imposing a self? Is it the institution creating an image to which I am conforming? May I need such a leader and am not providing for that need? And so on.

Such an interpretive process represents only an initial individual contribution toward a shared interpretation. To take it any further, others must agree to work on developing negotiated interpretations.6

Negotiated interpretation is a way of thinking about living with change which gives due weight to the two factors of change in ourselves and change in our context. It focuses our attention on the interface between the two. How might such an approach enable us to live with change in the church?

Change in the Church

The church is an institution. However in detail we view our churches, they are expected ultimately to prove constant and reliable amid the chances of this world. People, both inside and outside the church, invest that hope or belief in it. Members and non-members alike exhibit distress when churches change. Churches no more decide what they are to be than any other body. They are continually being created as they interact with the world in which they are set and of which they are part. For example, many ordinands have written essays beginning 'The church is the Body of Christ, not a building'. But once ordained they soon discover that the distinction, while it has something to it, is so simplistic as to be almost false. The church is a complex of ideas in people's minds. Although some of these when scrutinized might seem logically exclusive, people can in practice hold them together. Indeed, those who are most committed to the image of the body of Christ are quite likely to be those who also argue most vehemently that they need the building. Indeed it is always salutary to ask, when frustrated by our buildings, why Christian communities have needed them virtually since the faith began.

The idea of a church is continually being created in the mind of both members and non-members as they live with one another. This is a negotiated interpretation. That is, incidentally, why one-way models of communication -'We have a message for you' -are rarely appropriate in the church's proclamation of the gospel. Unless those who make up the church, especially its leaders, grasp this, they will not hear the significance of this interpretation for the life and development of the church. The danger then will be that any change in the church 's circumstances will not be understood as evidence for that church's life in relation to those around. At the same time such an interpretation is not a massive, once-for-all effort, because it is a continuing process. It is cumulative.

The interactions between the church and its context are made up from many small points of contact -the pastoral encounter, an address, a funeral or baptism, or even a social occasion. Each of these has its own task to be achieved- a person comforted, teaching given, an important moment of ritual, a little celebration of life. But each of them is also potentially infused with the context of God. A major weakness of much of today's thinking about the church and ministry is that it tends to discount the messiness of human relations and consequently of religious activity. There are churches which are excessively reoccupied with the purity of the members. These offer training and induction courses to ensure that the faithful become and remain true to one particular way of believing. Other churches become excessively concerned with their management and how things are done. Efficiency in the service of the gospel is their motto. Obviously these are extremes. Most churches work around the middle of a spectrum between the two. But when the church ignores, or even denies, messiness in belief and practice, it underestimates how to live with change as the point of negotiated interpretation.

Change in Learning

Much of the current debate about ordination and lay training seems to focus around a dispute over the difference between education and training. But, again, adopting the stance towards change suggested here, we recognise that the distinction is not only false, it is damaging. A useful way of thinking about learning has been proposed by Gregory Bateson. He has discerned three levels in the learning process'. Learning I is trial and error learning through which we adapt to our environment. It is the sort of learning that we acquire through basic experience in a particularsituation. And it presupposes a recurring context. For example, children may learn that a fire is hot and not to be touched. Whenever they subsequently come across fire, they know they should avoid it. Newly ordained ministers learn a few tricks in the same way. Some years ago, for instance, ordinands were taught simple ways of distinguishing a psychotic penitent from a neurotic one. It resulted in a reflex approach rather than any profound understanding of a person's pathology. Learning II is a development of Learning I. It occurs when we discover how to extrapolate from a context and so make judgments about ourselves, our world and others. Through this we learn how to deal with a set of choices, select from them and adjust our own life accordingly. This comes through mature ministry when ministers learn to use themselves confidently.

For most purposes Learnings I and II are as much as many people need in order to survive and indeed prosper, so long as the world is reasonably predictable. Given this last condition, teachers have been able to devise programmes of education for life. Much educational debate is held in this area. But when we find ourselves caught up in rapid and largely incomprehensible change, this educational model suddenly proves vulnerable, even inadequate. That seems to be the position in which education as a public discipline finds itself today. As a result, the so-called debate, disputes over testing and curriculum, feels significant but at the same time not wholly important. We feel 'lost in familiar places'.

However, Bateson also proposed a further level, Learning III. This is a more self-reflective process. Learners discover how to step out of their present world view without discarding it. They expose themselves to a new perspective and so comprehend how to recognise their own dominant assumptions. This form of learning is not so much acquisition of further knowledge or even self-awareness. It is more profound: it requires the learner to discover how to doubt perceptions which seem unquestionably true. Significantly, in religious terms Learning ill approximates to the Christian concept of conversion. In other words, the force ofLearning III is to acknowledge the fundamental change in myself as I engage at both the personal and the contextual level. This may be the hardest change with which to live, but ultimately for me and for others the most significant.

Christian Belief and Negotiated Interpretation

These two instances, from church life and from training, illustrate what it is to live with change through an approach based on the idea of negotiated interpretation. The strength of this stance is that it requires us to address at the same time our inner and our outer worlds, not neglecting one for the other. It is additionally worth noting that it does not depend upon any particular understanding of the world or psychological theory. On the evidence of this century these are both likely to continue to change and alter rapidly and we shall all need ways of living with those changes too. The constraints in this approach are three. Each has a specifically Christian content.

1. Context. First it invites our constant attention to the context in which we experience every sense of change. For the Christian this environment includes both God and neighbour. They are always the first points of reference for Christian thought and action.

For example, the argument in the Church of England over the ordination of women to the priesthood demonstrates how we might perceive a specific context. Any church will seek to discern the will of God through study of the Scriptures and examination of its tradition. Throughout the years of debate these familiar contexts have been repeatedly scrutinized and argued about. Although some people dissent from the Synod's conclusion, no one denies that the process has been gone through. But there is also the question of the church's contemporary context. What is the significance of altered perceptions of the capacity of women in the modern world? Is God speaking also through this? Again, there has been dispute over the weight to be given to this factor. But it cannot be ignored. In the Anglican way of doing things, this is represented by the concept of reason. Reason is not knowledge. It is a dynamic activity of reflecting on every context and upon what we are believing within it. It is akin to Learning III in Bateson's scheme.

2. Ourselves. Second, we give careful attention to ourselves. Such a stance is not one of selfishness, even less of narcissism - both marks of the contemporary world. Within the Christian tradition there is constant emphasis on the need to be self aware, to examine oneself and guard against being deceived. This is usually, and appropriately, a warning not to trust our own judgment too readily. That is why every human judgment is subject to examination in the context of divine decision. When we are dealing with matters like belief and commitment, trust and love -the material of Christian faith -we know that there is no fixed reference point within ourselves. The church essentially consists of people with feelings, beliefs and emotions ministering to other people with similar attributes. Considered dispassionately this looks like a recipe for permanent confusion and regular disaster. Pastors, lay and ordained, soon discover that they are the key point of reference for interpretation. When ministering with people we have only our informed self. The crucial question for all ministers is, 'What is happening to me, and why?'. With an informed hypothesis about that, we can usually discover how best to proceed.

3. Divine Presence. The previous point leads naturally to this third and final one. The Christian's constant effort is to interpret what is happening and so discern the divine presence. This is the language of the Kingdom of God, that mysterious sense of the momentary irruption of God into life about which Jesus spoke in parables and illustrated through headings. None of his teaching or activity can be reduced to an ordered scheme. But that fact, as well as the content of the message, gives us a clue to the shape of the divine presence in the world. It is found in moments of discerned eternity, often unexpected and usually fragmentary. Nevertheless they are catalysts of change not only in those who so discern, but also in others with whom they live and among whom they work.


All things that we ordained festival,

Turn from their office to black funeral;

Our instruments to melancholy bells,

Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,

Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,

Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse,

And all things change them to the contrary.8

We cannot and need not dispute that this is the way life appears. We can, however, resist the cliches about change. Disequilibrium is the mark of a developing body. Change cannot be managed: it is given. But it is possible to live positively with our own lostness and the world's confusion when we recover the model of negotiated interpretation. That may be a modem idea. But when spelled out I wonder: is it so far from the model of living which Jesus himself offers?


1. Shakespeare, King Lear iv.l.3  Return 2. Together in Mission and Ministry. The Porvoo Common Statement. 1993  Return 3. Wesley Carr, Ministry and the Media. SPCK London 1990  Return 4. To apperceive means 'to unite and assimilate a perception to ideas already possessed, andso comprehend and interpret' -Oxford English Dictionary  Return 5. ER Shapiro and A W Carr, Lost in Familiar Places; Creating New Connexions between theIndividual and Society (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1991 p 5  Return 6. Shapiro & Carr, op cit p 179  Return 7. Gregory Bateson, Steps to and Ecology of Mind, Paladin St Alban's 1973  Return 8. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet iv.5.84  Return

The Revd Dr Wesley Carr has been Dean of Bristol since 1987. He has also served as Tutor and Chaplain at Ridley Hall, Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at Sheffield University, and Canon Residentiary at Chelmsford Cathedral

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You are reading Negotiating Change by Wesley Carr, part of Issue 7 of Ministry Today, published in June 1996.

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