Searching through my old computer files this morning, I came across this: the text of a Lent talk that I gave at St.Gabriel's, Heaton in 2004! It develops ideas that I began thinking about after completing my PhD on late medieval monastic administration.
(warning: this is long!)
Your Work and Your Spirituality
Your work and your spirituality. That could cover a whole range of things, so I’ll start by saying what I’m not going to be talking about. I’m not going to be talking about the kind of work that we can easily understand as vocational – about being a teacher or doctor or nurse or priest. Not about specifically paid work. And not about how to pray for or at work, even. I’m talking here about dull, routine, boring, humdrum work, and how we see it. What has it got to do with God? Because if we don’t really think our work has anything to do with God, it can’t fit into our spirituality at all, we can’t pray for it with integrity and we end up feeling that we have two selves, a religious self that goes to church, prays for friends and maybe sits on the PCC, and a secular self that goes to work. This is true even if we aren’t actually working, are unemployed or retired. If collecting a pension, checking the heating bill and dusting behind the cupboards is nothing to do with God, we are only half people of God – or maybe rather less than half. So I want to talk tonight about what work has to do with God. And the test case for a theology of work (to give it its grand title), is what we think about routine administration – paperwork. Even those teachers and nurses whose jobs we think are easily part of God’s plan have a problem here - Hospitals and schools are always complaining about the rise in paperwork. And we all have to do it even if we’re retired with only ourselves to look after – we still have to pay bills, deal with council tax demands and electoral roll forms, etc. So our question tonight is really, where is God in paperwork? Or what has paperwork got to do with God?
There is a tendency in the press and in theological circles too to decry bureaucracy and paperwork as a function of modern life, and to hark back to a fictitious ‘golden age’ in which people undertook ‘real work’. This sort of idea really took hold with the Victorian Gothic revival, and the Arts and Crafts movement, with people like William Morris, was part of an attempt to get back to this pre-industrial golden age of real craftsmanship and proper work.
But this kind of view of the past is unsustainable when the realities of medieval life are examined. It is clear from a close reading of history that a large administrative burden is by no means a new phenomenon. (my phd, etc. parish registers; monastic accounts; household accounts etc. Development of writing in Ancient world, pre-Biblical, seems to have happened as a function of the need to keep accounts!) Since administrative work is so ubiquitious, it is worth devoting some consideration to how it should best be approached and understood theologically, as something all Christians have to do.
In this talk I’m going to firstly look at administration in the bible, and then look briefly at the history of the church and the impact that has had on our understanding of work as part of the Christian life. I’m then going to suggest that there are four main ways of understanding paperwork theologically, and briefly outline each one, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Administration in the Bible
On the whole, the Old Testament has more to say about the practical details of administration than the New. In keeping with its emphasis on the story of a people, issues of good government such as taxation, record keeping, and food storage and distribution are scattered throughout the Old Testament. The most famous example is probably the story of Joseph in Genesis, which has as its turning point Joseph’s advice to Pharoah to ‘appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvestof Egypt during the seven years of abundance…to be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine’ (Genesis 41: 34-36). Secretarial and accountancy work are implicitly assumed in many episodes, such as in the long and detailed lists of the materials used in the construction of the tent of meeting and its furnishings in Exodus 35-9 and in the census described in Numbers 26. Administrators and their tasks are also mentioned explicitly on occasion, such as in 1 Kings 4:1-28, which lists all King Solomon’s officials, including secretaries and a recorder, and also records the daily provisions required by the royal household and who was responsible for providing these things.
Because the Old Testament presents the story of a people as the record of God’s activity in the world, it is generally holistic in its approach to life. This is of course an overly sweeping statement, and the different books of the Old Testament clearly present many different approaches. Nevertheless, a spirituality can be discerned throughout the Old Testament writings which treats the whole of life as the religious sphere. Questions of what to eat, what to wear, who to marry and generally of how to live one’s day to day life are not set aside from the religious aspect of life but are seen as comprising it. The purity laws of Leviticus, and the sayings of Proverbs, for example, make no distinction between their moral, ritual and common sense instructions. Administration at all levels and in all guises, from good government of the nation, to faithfully copying the book of the law, to accurately accounting for every shekel donated to the construction of the tabernacle, was thus simply one more aspect of every day life which was done under God.
Turning to the New Testament, this sense of administration being a natural part of human life can be seen in the gospels, though less so in the other books. Jesus is frequently recorded in the gospels to have used imagery and examples drawn from the worlds of business, accountancy and administration. Many of the great parables use this sort of imagery, to powerful effect. For example, the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) tells the story of a master delegating administrative powers to his servants and then settling accounts with them. Whilst the point made in this story has become a commonplace in our society, this was by no means the case at the time the story was first told. Well-known rabbinic maxims and parables clearly taught that burial was the best means of safeguarding money which had been given to you on trust; the idea of speculating with it would probably, therefore, have been regarded as wildly irresponsible. Jesus was not therefore simply using the language of commerce and administration to give background colour to his story, but rather was drawing a substantial example from the business world of his day.
Other parables do seem to use business imagery in a more illustrative, rather than a substantive, way. In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:23-35), Jesus uses the example of a king settling accounts with his servants to emphasise his teaching on forgiveness, whilst the parable of the tenants (Luke 20:9-16) uses the idea of an absentee landlord being defrauded by his tenants to make several indirect points, such as about Jesus’s identity as God’s son. Sometimes the expected paradigms of the business world are deliberately subverted for ironic effect, as in the humorous parable of the shrewd manager or the dishonest servant (Luke 16:1-12), in which a sacked manager is praised for safeguarding his own future by some well-directed corruption. Jesus’s frequent and neutral use of such imagery gives the impression that these administrative activities were considered a natural part of human life. The only point at which such activities are critiqued are when they take place in the Temple. This is in stark contrast with the modern tendency to talk down such activites as inherently sinful.
Similarly, the need for effective administration appears to have been well recognised in the early church. The communitarian ideal outlined in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35 clearly required some degree of organisation, and although this is not at first spelt out the need to reform it is made explicit in the appointment of the seven in Acts 6:1-6. This episode provides a rare glimpse of the mechanics of early church organisation, and whether this represents an historical reality or an ideal that Luke wishes to present, it is notable that the prayerful and efficient administration of such practical matters as the administration of alms is considered worthy of mention as an important part of the establishment of the early church. Barrett argues that what Luke intends to communicate to his reader in Acts 6:1-6 is precisely that ‘a minor deficiency in administration is immediately set right…and the consequence is a great increase in the number of believers.’
The only other mention of administration in the New Testament comes in one of Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts, in 1 Cor.12:28: ‘in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.’ The greek word translated here as ‘those with gifts of administration’ is which literally refers to steersmen, pilots or captains. This term, and that immediately preceding it, have puzzled generations of commentators since they do not appear in other lists of spiritual gifts and seem to be of a different order to the other gifts that they appear alongside. The Vulgate and early modern translations into the vernacular such as the King James Version, rendered as ‘governments’.
Contemporary commentators tend to give more weight to the naval basis of . as referring to ‘the ability to hold the helm of the church’, perhaps leadership or vision, but the most detailed studies have agreed that practical leadership skills are the point here, with Paul deliberately setting the practical skills of leadership alongside the more ‘spiritual’ gifts of leadership such as teaching, and speaking in tongues, which the Corinthians were mistakenly exalting.
Administration in the early church
Although very little evidence survives about the running of the early church it is clear that it was highly organised and that individuals were appointed to specific roles with particular administrative responsibilities. For early Christianity, however, there was a clear tension between the practical and the spiritual. Part of the church’s coming to terms with the continued failure of the expected end times to arrive was a need to understand how Christianity could be lived out in society.
On a practical note, too, administration becomes necessary with the acquisition of property, even if it is only used to give that property away again as speedily and fairly as possible (as in Acts). Whilst the church had certainly had property prior to Constantine’s conversion, the amount involved increased dramatically in the years and centuries following. Property belonging to the church which had been confiscated under the various persectutions was restored, and Constantine himself – along, no doubt, with many others – made donations to the church. Over the following centuries the church became wealthy, and in particular the various monastic movements, begun in poverty, attracted donations of land, money and ornamentation from members of the church who admired their aims and hoped to benefit from their prayers. Alongside this change in the circumstances of the church went the development not only of administrative and legal structures, but also of theological rationales for the church owning property at all.
The sudden shift that the church experienced on Constantine’s conversion, from being a small beleagured minority to suddenly becoming an approved religion and soon becoming a sine qua non for advancement, had a profound impact on the self understanding of the church and on its spirituality. A self understanding based on purity and martyrdom was swiftly replaced with one which sought to recreate that original purity by the test of asceticism; martyrdom reinterpreted for a church that was no longer the target of persecution. Yet the fact that the church had become wealthy, and the fact that many wealthy people became members of the church as it became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, also needed to be addressed.
The phenomenon of desert monasticism and the debate which raged over whether virginity and marriage were equally allowable both produced a large amount of literature arguing that an ideal Christian spirituality required freedom or withdrawal from the day to day concerns of married life (with marriage essentially defined as the socio-economic state of householder, rather than in terms of sexual relationships per se). Even those who argued that marriage could be an authentically Christian way of life were at pains to point out the many disadvantages of the distractions of marriage for one’s spirituality. This council of perfection had to be reconciled with the reality of a state church of which most people were to become members, and over the period from the late second to the fourth century A.D. a concept of two types of Christian follower was worked out, the first excluding marriage and property, the second allowing a full range of interaction with society including even involvement with the government or army.
As the monasteries and churches acquired land and buildings so the need grew for both effective administrative structures and a spirituality which made sense of time devoted to such duties to be developed. The Benedictine Rule, which grew out of this context, managed to synthesis the material and practical with the spiritual and religious dimensions of life. Its success in doing so can be inferred from the fact that it has endured the test of time for around 1500 years, and is today the guiding rule of more than 1400 Benedictine and Cistercian communities. Benedictine spirituality offers a framework within which the need for paperwork and administrative duties to be undertaken by the churches’ ministers can be understood theologically and even treasured as a spiritual discipline. Life is to be well-ordered, even comfortable, and the discipline needed for accounting for tools and managing land is seen as part of the discipline needed for living in community, which in turn is understood as the best way to become as God intended us to be. Benedict’s rule spends as much time on the practical ordering of the monastery as on its prayer life, refusing to draw a distinction between the two.
This sense of the holiness of daily life is of course not exclusively Benedictine. It does, however, seem strangely inappropriate that a sense of the holiness and the idea of a spirituality of daily life should have been largely the preserve of monastic communities rather than the laity! I guess the women looking after twelve children and a farmyard whilst getting on with being Christians were just too busy to go about writing down how they did it.
Overall, I want to suggest that there are broadly four ways of understanding administration theologically, one negative and three approaches which are positive to varying degrees. The first of these is a ‘rejectionist’ approach. This is typically characterised by a suspicion of society and of all the trappings of participation in society, and in particular by a radical rejection of wealth and property. Those taking this view would tend to criticise all time spent on administrative tasks or worldly work as a distraction from higher things, and to reject attempts at better church administration as being a sign of the church compromising with the standards of the world. This approach can be seen throughout Christian history, and in many ways has right on its side. It certainly provides a powerful corrective to the human tendency to be seduced by wealth and power and be distracted by the pursuit of these from our calling to live our lives in God’s service. However, as an entire philosophy it is severely lacking, as the early church discovered very soon; we are called to live our lives in this world, for now at least. This approach is useful as a corrective, but must be kept in check if it is not to become life-denying.
The first of the positive approaches to work we might call the ‘enabling’ approach. This sees administration as something that it is worth doing well because this will enable other tasks to be done better or free up more time for those other tasks. This is typical of most theological writing in the late twentieth century on the subject of work. Typically, this advocates that the clergy adopt time management techniques and embrace technological advances such as word processing and accountancy software packages, in order to enable their “real” work (their pastoral and perhaps their liturgical duties) to be done more effectively. Although advocates of this approach do not follow the rejectionist line of thinking to its conclusion, nevertheless they are aware of and in sympathy with many of its precepts, and wish to guard against the possibility of their positive approach to worldly wisdom going too far. They stress that ‘administration...is always secondary to the main purpose’, that it is a means to an end.
The third approach to administration is the ‘spiritual’ understanding. Under this heading I include the ideas that it is important to do one’s work well, whatever it may be, in order to honour God; that God can be encountered in any work that is done wholeheartedly, well, and with the aim of honouring God in mind; and finally the ascetic idea that doing unpleasant or uncongenial tasks can be a valuable spiritual discipline, training the Christian to deny the self. All of these ideas see spiritual value in many kinds of work, and as such are a useful element in the Christian tradition, which has generally had little to say about day to day life in the workplace. Again, however, the value placed on work is essentially secondary, as with the ‘enabling’ approach. Although this third approach dignifies administration as a spiritual discipline and a place where worship can happen, the positive value given to administrative tasks is still seen as deriving from what they lead to, rather than from any inherent value in the work itself.
So this brings me on to the fourth approach, which I call the ‘anthropological’ understanding of work. This approach sees inherent value in administrative work, which on this understanding forms an essential part of what it is to be human. Human beings are understood as inherently social creatures, and the construction of systems and societies and their ensuing administration can then be seen as an essential expression of our created nature, even as one aspect of our being created in the image of God.
I wonder if we can develop this idea – can we see God as an administrator? For example, it might be possible to read Genesis 1 not just as about God creating, but about God as the One who also orders, sorts, and systematises?
Each of these four approaches to administration clearly has its merits, and a full understanding and location of our work within our Christian lives will draw on the insights of all four. The rejectionist approach warns of the dangers of embracing the world and our culture without critiquing them in the light of what has been revealed of the Kingdom. The enabling approach provides a practical rationale for improved administration and the motivation for continual striving for improved efficiency. The spiritual approach provides for even the dullest tasks to be redeemed by a conscious decision to do them well, and dignifies the common round by seeing it as a location both for epiphanies and prayer. The anthropological approach liberates us from thinking of our day to day administrative tasks as inherently contradictory to our human nature and divine calling. It means we can see our paperwork as an expression of our human creation as social and structuring beings, and as a means of human flourishing.