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A Church Bell Vision

David Kitchingman


We reprint a stimulating paper presented recently by David Kitchingman  to the Explorers Group at Mornington. It's a demanding read,   as it  draws out some lessons from the traditional bell curve.   To continue the analogy  -   this paper is a "ringing" endorsement of the inclusive calling of the Church.   David calls for the Church to ring its bells again,  and proclaim  the diversity which is the gift of God.  


I have a vision of the Church which is quite clear – as clear as a bell. Not so much the sound of the bell, as its shape.

The distinctively curved, flaring shape of a bell has given rise to the phrase, ‘the bell-shaped curve’, or ‘bell curve’ for short. The phrase has a common but specialized meaning in maths and statistics. That usage needs to be introduced before expounding on the vision of a church bell curve.

An example will explain the term. Suppose you were interested, as I once was, in comparing the sizes of books. There are some really miniature books, whose height would have to be measured in mere millimetres. There are some enormously oversized books, a metre or more in height. But the vast majority of books are between about 20 and 40 centimetres high. If the various sizes of every book in a vast library were plotted on a graph there would be a concentration of measurements in the 20-40 cm range. A line connecting the frequency of each size would start off very low at one end (say, for the miniatures), rise steeply for the average sizes, and fall away just as quickly at the other end (for the oversize books). The resulting shape would be close to a symmetrical bell curve. See Figure 1.

In statistics, a bell curve is more formally known as a ‘normal curve’, i.e. what we might commonly expect from a set of observations. The pattern of dispersion is also known as a ‘normal distribution’. Bell or normal curves apply to many natural phenomena. Often when a number of things are measured, the measurements tend to cluster around some central point, with progressively fewer as one moves away from the average. Comparisons of the length of leaves or the average temperatures for cities would be two examples.

The possible extension of application into areas of human life is almost endless. Whether it’s average cricket scores or risks associated with various investments there may be potential for normal (or near-normal) distribution analysis. Sociology is an area of frequent application. A particularly prominent application arose with the publication of a book in 1994 entitled, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. This caused a storm of controversy on the connection among genes, race and intelligence, giving rise to many subsequent publications including, The Bell Curve Wars. This paper does not deal at all with that particular issue.

Nor, for that matter, will it attempt any formal probability statements. I simply don’t have the data to speak with any precision. And even if I did, a very recent book, The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, would caution against it. All I want to do is to apply the concept of a bell curve in a general way to religious faith and to church life in particular. ‘Standard deviations’ and similar statistical phrases will not feature, but I consider that some useful analogies can be drawn from the theory behind ‘normal distribution’ and the bell curve. There are three main propositions I wish to make:


These three scenarios will be examined in turn.

1. The initial mix in any church – the ingredients of a bell curve
Suppose that in a typical congregation we could take the spiritual pulse of each member. We would be likely to find a few whose faith is, for want of a better phrase, very strong. The majority would presumably be somewhere in the middle. A few would be, to borrow the Biblical phrase, of little faith. If the data from such a survey were tabulated and graphed the result would at least approximate to a bell curve. See Figure 2.

Central in any bell curve is the peak indicating the mean or average. In religious terms we might equate that position with orthodoxy. Of course, the definition and content of orthodoxy will vary from church to church, but its place will always be significant. In some churches, such as Catholicism, the orthodoxy will be very formal and highly specific. In others, such as Methodism, it will be far less so, but that doesn’t mean it ceases to be important. It still has much to say about the general tenor of the Church’s faith and life.

If hard data were available for different churches the approximations to a normal curve would vary in shape. In technical terms this is known as kurtosis, the extent to which the curve is flatter or more peaked than a normal distribution. Thus, for the Exclusive Brethren the shape would be likely to be much more peaked, representing a set of beliefs tightly packed around their particular brand of orthodoxy. In liberal Methodism, by contrast, the curve could be much flatter than normal, in line with the latitude (or in this case longitude?) allowed for individual interpretations of church doctrine.

In looking at a bell curve it is tempting to see it as having left and right hand limits, and to equate those with the politico-religious labels of radical on the one hand and fundamentalist on the other. Such a distinction between opposing ends of the curve is too simplistic in the context of people’s spiritual values. This is where a real bell with no left or right is more suggestive than a linearly shaped graph. Imagine a bell as seen from a bellbird’s-eye view! That allows for a much more varied set of attitudes on the fringes, e.g. conservative, evangelical, charismatic, liberal, progressive, mystical. See Figure 3.

I am reminded of the quirky Gunn’s Camp on the Hollyford Road in Fiordland. In the middle of the camp is a signpost pointing in three directions: ‘This way’, That way’ and ‘The other way’. There are simply more variables on the outer boundaries of spirituality than there are labels to fit them.

But to return to the centre. Just how inarguable is the bell curve implication for religion that most people gravitate toward the middle or average and avoid the extremes? A contributor to a blog on Christianity Today puts a counter view. He maintains that the bulge in the middle of the curve that represents the great mass of both citizens and churchgoers is getting squeezed. The result is the shrinking of the middle and the swelling of the ends. The Church is moving theologically liberal and conservative, with the disappearance of the moderate. The distribution for some of our choices and convictions is therefore seen as an inverted bell curve, or a ‘well curve’. See Figure 4.

There is surely some truth in that, but chiefly, I suspect, at the macro level. Methodism itself on the national level appears to be the victim of such a trend, but I would still maintain that at the congregational level on which this paper focuses, the groupings still follow the bell curve pattern. Congregations may vary between themselves, but within any one fellowship you would find a majority clustering around the particular ethos that characterises it. In any case, the most important point to recognise is the sheer breadth of the total spread which is always likely to exceed any casual impression. 

2. The trimming and narrowing effect – from bell curve to pipe organ model
I have suggested that churches, like other social groups, coalesce around a central theme and the membership immediately demonstrates something of the characteristics of a ‘normal distribution’. But whether each member will also make a normal contribution is another matter. That depends on several factors, many of which are widely recognised, including the member’s talents and commitment. Much less acknowledged, but at least as critical, is the position they occupy on the normal curve. Those on the crest of the curve will normally encounter no impediment. Those out to the side of the line at either base will often enough be, well, sidelined.

This is only to be expected, going by standard group dynamics. Practically any interest group will focus its activities and emphases on those whose profiles are the most widely shared. Those on the margins tend to be least catered for and are most likely to feel unappreciated and fade away. Churches tend to operate in the same way, but unfortunately have had a history of often doing much worse.

With what type of bodies does one associate the following terms – nonconformism, excommunication, shunning, disfellowshipping? Churches of all brands (even peaceful Quakers!) have been guilty at times of cutting off those on the extremities. Our own denomination is itself the product of a failure of the Church of England to include the marginal Methodists. Or was it that Methodism itself was too bent on establishing its own hegemony? In the 19th century wayward Methodists could be refused admission tickets to the band meetings.

So much for the past and the extremes. We now pride ourselves on being reconciling and inclusive. But we mustn’t be too smug. As already noted, there are umpteen ways of being off-centre, and there are subtle ways of nudging people off the edge. It can happen by stealth. Consider the way leaves appear to fall of their own accord, whereas, by the quiet process of abscission, it is actually the plant’s doing. Corporate forces at work in a church can ensure that marginal thinkers or operators on the sides of the core are, in effect, squeezed into submission or out of allegiance. Instead of being shaped like a bell, the church community begins to resemble an arched doorway with more or less vertical sides. Or a pipe organ as seen from the front. That’s not a ‘normal distribution’. See Figure 5.

Have I been too dramatic? For our immediate purposes quite possibly. So let’s consider a very low key situation that may be more relevant to us. There was an interesting case in the April 2008 issue of Touchstone, describing how a study group at a Masterton church now sits outside the church. I am not suggesting that this was in any sense a case of excommunication – in fact, the church continues to support the group now known as XplorationNZ. But something of the dynamics I have been referring to inevitably come into play in such situations. The more some people’s thinking stretches way-out on the lower edges of the bell curve the more difficult it is to contain them within the ambit of the main group.

Whether in similar situations people jump or are pushed is not the main issue. Tension between centre and circumference works both ways. What is really significant is that, despite its charter of non-judgmental acceptance, the Church can seldom cope with the true expanse of a ‘normal distribution’.  
3. Ringing the changes - bell curving the Church
What a rich source of metaphor church bells provide. ‘Ringing the changes’ refers primarily to bell-ringing, using all possible variations, thousands upon thousands with a full set of bells. Figuratively, it means to vary the ways of expressing or doing something. How appropriate! There is such a wealth in the full sweep of spiritual resources if the bell curve is seen as something to celebrate rather than control.

Hence the verbal use of ‘bell curve’. According to a recent book, The Language of Mathematics, there are languages in which shapes do behave as verbs. So let’s allow the bell curve to come alive, with the peak and the troughs interacting dynamically with each other. Each actually needs the other.

Let’s therefore recognise the importance of the middle. It really is crucial. The mean value, the point of orthodoxy, the vertical line around which the bell curve is symmetrical, could be taken as the spot where in Christianity the cross stands. It is capable of many interpretations but it has to occupy center stage and it is the role of traditional faith to ensure that it is not displaced. In practical terms also, the centre is indispensable. By definition it is where the numbers are. Without it there would barely be a church. Every church can be expected to have a norm of worship, theology and ethos, supported by most of its members.

So the value and the power of the majority is a given. But what is critical is how that majority treats its margins, those who deviate in some way from the favoured middle ground. Remember too that normally there are multiple minorities. For that matter, it may be just as critical how one minority treats another. The value and the voice of each and every side must be equally affirmed. A revivalist has as much claim to be heard as a radical, and vice versa. At this point it becomes particularly difficult, but we need to be on guard against suggesting that viewpoints which seem poles apart from our own have no place in the mix.

I am reminded of the words of John Salmon in his 2005 Presidential Address:

What is significant today is to be on the margins between...cultures, or between theological perspectives, or between generations. The people who will help us move into the future are those who sit – uncomfortably – across such margins.

In fact, that’s how it always has been. That’s how we moved into the past! The prophets refused to toe the line. Jesus was ‘outside the camp’. Wesley broke ranks. The more one thinks about it, the more the bell curve needs to be seen as a parable in wave motion. Norms migrate over time. Previous margins become new orthodoxies. New margins appear. Churches do change, if ever so slowly.

Just how churches change is another matter, but it may be useful to note that it partly depends on a subtle and intriguing interplay between the opinions of those on the inner and those on the outer. The interdependence of positions on the bell curve is partly covered in these comments on normative and minority influence from the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology:

The weight of normative influence is felt most strongly by those who deviate from the group…Groups react to deviants by monitoring them, trying to bring them into the fold, and if that doesn’t work, rejecting them. Only people who have paid their dues by conforming to the group in the past, thus amassing what has been called idiosyncrasy credit, can express dissenting views with relative impunity... Deviants can disrupt normative influence and instead propagate their own views when they present those consistently and uncompromisingly, a phenomenon called minority influence. They can also loosen the grip of normative influence on others merely by the fact that they exist, regardless of their own message. Studies show that people are less likely to conform when someone else disagrees with the majority, even if their own position differs from the deviant’s.

All this shows how much the bell curve is a fact of life in any group. But how much better it can be if it is welcomed and seen as a path to growth, and even as a means of grace.

One of several properties of a bell curve is particularly instructive. In a normal distribution the curve never touches the horizontal (x) axis. There are no hard and fast boundaries. So with a church. If it fully embraces the gamut of its adherents, it will find that it is well on the way to encounter with the wider world. A church which claims to be welcoming towards its outer community but fails to engage creatively with aspects of dissent among its own ranks is not serious about its mission. 

By the same token, if I fail to include in this paper more tangible potential applications of the bell curve analogy, then I can hardly be serious about its usefulness. Here then are two examples of churches which, from what they are saying, seem to be serious (and playful) about taking steps to ring some changes and bell curve the Church:

(a) On a large banner recently hung in Cathedral Square, Christchurch:

No ordinary Sunday. This Sunday 7.30
Cathedral Worship for people who don’t go to church much [hardly ever – never anymore]
(b) From the website for Suquamish United Church of Christ, Washington, USA, these extracts from an article by the pastor, Tom Thresher:

A Startling Vision for the 21st Century Church
What we need today in the West is a mature Christianity...Wonderful things are happening in the progressive Christian movement, and we delight in the renewed vitality inspired by this vision. Yet we feel the need to point beyond even the progressive Christian movement to what we call the Integral Church.
Not only does it welcome those who doubt the trappings of the traditional church and gladly receive the wisdom of other faiths, it then integrates both modern doubt and postmodern pluralism with the mythic foundations of our faith. The Integral Church holds all of this simultaneously in a great celebratory dance...
The nascent Integral character of this church is celebrated most clearly in our regular Sunday morning worship. The roots of our Christian heritage are renewed in the consistent and fairly traditional “order of worship”, by the weekly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, by a regular time for prayers, and by at least one traditional hymn. These roots create a “safe space” for moving beyond tradition. This may include a direct challenge to Biblical authority, interpreting scripture through Zen eyes, 1960s rock songs for hymns, a Wicca priestess for Beltane, a contemplative walk into emptiness, meditation on the Aramaic words of Jesus, joint services with other faiths, [or] the outright questioning of all belief...-- all set in an atmosphere of sacred playfulness...
We see ourselves as scouts, charting a path of relevance for Christian faith in the 21st century. If we avoid taking ourselves too seriously we may have much to offer.
We, the Church, have a very normal bell curve, and often mess it up.

If we could but get real about the extent of our own diversity, we would have the opportunity, as no other institution, to embrace the wholeness of the human condition. The church bells that have largely fallen silent might have reason to peal once again if we could discover more unbounded understanding of one another, for that in itself might be the critical step towards reaching out to the thinking and experience of those outside the perimeter of the Church.


David Kitchingman
May 2008






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