Category Archives: Evangelicalism

Steve Chalke Continues the Conversation

Steve Chalke has done a follow up video to his recent article and responses to it. Within it he makes a number of appeals for people to move to an “open evangelicalism”.

From what he says it is clear that the view of “open evangelicalism” he is advocating is similar in most ways to what has been labelled “progressive evangelicalism” or “progressive Christianity” within the United States  (See the Progressive Christianity channel on Patheos for examples). In the US some such as Tony Campollo have eschewed this “progressive” label and have preferred to use Red Letter Christians – Chalke’s “open evangelicalism” is of this strand.

Looking at what he says it is clear that what he is talking about is a form of theology which blends mainstream evangelical thought with radical theology and wider source criticism of the biblical material.

This is not a new approach and in many ways it was exactly what Wesley was using with the Methodist Quadrilateral which blended tradition, scripture, reason and experience and others have used before and since. It is this type of approach which allows a pastoral response to be juxtaposed with theological response. It is not the easy approach which some of his critics claim. As Chalke says it involves wrestling with the bible to make sense of it as well as looking at experience and what wider culture and scholarship is saying.

In terms of there being one clear response in the bible he says if you study the critiques of his article without needing to explore widely you can see this is not true. He says there is a spectrum of understanding which is why we need to wrestle.

This approach to faith is not easy, it can lead to feelings of dissonance and even doubt that is why, as he says, it is painful for church leaders. It leads to disagreement and the possibility of being wrong which is painful, however as Chalke says it isn’t as painful as the rejection gay people have felt who have often had to deal with the same questions and issues but without support and without the ability to discuss the issues with detachment.

He then deals with criticism that his hermeneutic is wrong. Says that often this has been levelled at him by those who have seen soundbite but not looked at detail. He says his hermeneutic is not trajectory but centred. He takes a Jesus centred approach saying we should look through Jesus and his responses. This illustrates how the foundation of Chalke’s approach is using radical theology and where the problem lies. Radical theology lies beyond the boundaries which people seek to put up between evangelical, liberal, catholic and orthodox religion. Rather it overlays all of these whilst sitting comfortably in none.

Chalke’s video gives plenty of examples of where radical theology has been in conflict and influenced on specific issues. He does this whilst answering the allegation that he is trying to change tradition. He counters criticism by first pointing out nothing he is saying is new. Then he looks at variety of voices there have been throughout history, identifying that the dominant view has been the majority one but not the only one. In showing how paradigms do change he talks about Copernicus and Galileo  and how the view the world is not flat or centre of universe stood for 1500 years and then moves onto slavery and women in leadership. What he says is there has always been a minority view giving the alternative. He goes on further to say how views of divorce and remarriage have also changed.

He says we need to look at what are biblical views and what are cultural positions. I would argue  what we need, as much as a discussion on homosexuality, is an honest and open discussion about the nature and place of radical theology and the challenges and opportunities it poses for us. Often it is sidelined or characterised in an extreme form, but in practice it is a rich strand of theological thought which has sometimes influenced and sometimes been in direct conflict with other stands of thought.

With regards to the place of source criticism he makes the point the bible is not a private book. He makes the point that the church does not have a monopoly of ownership on it and so the church cannot say this is our private book and we have the right interpretation of it and everybody else looking at it is wrong. Within this he is talking about meaning of specific greek words.

With regards to gay people who have chosen to be celibate and those who have entered into heterosexual marriage he says they have made painful sacrifice with difficult consequences in many cases. In looking at this he looks at attitudes towards divorce in the past and how victims of domestic violence in the past suffered because they didn’t think they could leave unless adultery had been committed. He says it is good this has changed and he believes that thinking on gay faithful relationships needs to change too.

He says evangelicals always think God must agree with them and we have the truth but our views due change as we develop and get older. What we do is shift the truth in line with our thinking. Nobody has the whole truth. Like Brian McLaren and others it is clear that the academic deconstructionism of late (post) modernism and the related approach of critical realism have influenced his thought.

Within the content talking about previous evangelical approaches to the subject he makes a really important differentiation between toleration and inclusion. He makes clear one is positive whilst the other is more negative. One allows full participation whilst the other puts in barriers to participation which say “this person is viewed as less”.

In looking at where this view of the person having less value can lead he reminds us that homosexuality was something people got killed for in the holocaust. He uses this to explain homosexuality is not a choice.

A final question levelled against him and often against those who seek to follow a theological approach which seeks to blend radical theology with evangelicalism is that if you’re not condemning homosexuality (and various other activities) then what is church for? He says he finds that view confusing. Christians are defined by what they are for not what they are against he says.

What he says is he wants to call people to live faithfully and live well.

In this last point we have the other key difference between Chalke’s approach and that of more traditional or conservative evangelicals. It is some time now since Chalke was embroiled in another controversy when he said he didn’t agree with the idea of penal substitution. He does not require to see us all as bad people in need of punishment rather he comes from the perspective of seeing us all as people who need to be better connected to God so we might live more fully.

Strange Week

It’s been a strange week or so in which things I care about and which have a personal relevance have come into the media spotlight somewhat. In certain ways the axis of the world has turned a smidgen over the last week and certain conversations have opened up.

First there was the opening up of the trans debate. Whilst this has been messy and the fallout is yet to be fully seen (Observer publishing own comments later today apparently, and PCC now launching enquiry into Burchill article) according to this on the Greenslade blog it has I think achieved something. I think through articles such as Deborah Orr’s comment is free piece something has been added to people’s understanding of the issue and made them think more about the relationship between feminism and transgender issues. Certainly discussion has taken place. For those wondering what I’m talking about see what Karl wrote last week – although events have moved on, Observer removed Burchill piece and Moore apologised for initial remark – although she also put it in context in further article.

Then there was the whole discussion around the Steve Chalke article which has taken up quite alot of blog space on here this week. As I said in my initial post on the subject it was a definite breaking of a public silence, which saw what was being said publicly come into line with what was being said and done semi-publicly or privately.

The nature of response has varied. In addition to the EA/ Steve Clifford response I have referred to previously the EA have also put up this interesting article by Steve Holmes. In the States where Wendell Berry was publicly speaking out in a similar manner Tony Campollo put out this post on Red Letter Christians and Brian McLaren who also had the public coming into line with the widely known private knowledge in the Christianity editorial gave this response. In the UK Adrian Warnock responded with this post in response, Premier Christian Radio had this range of responses and so I could go on. Charlotte Norton summed up the significance well in this post when she said,

“People haven’t changed their minds, but they have become willing to talk about it.” .

Finally this week I have become through several conversations even more aware of what is happening and what has the potential to happen as a result of the cuts. That is one conversation which needs to open up much more widely and I hope other conversations aren’t used to obscure this.

That all said we need to remember these conversations will have little or no significance to many people and will have passed them by. I was reminded of this yesterday when I was very grateful for having caught a couple of episodes of Celebrity Big Brother this week and so being able to chat about that with somebody for whom life doesn’t revolve around either the Guardian or evangelical sub-culture debates.

Open Debate

Another blog which I need to say comes very much as personal response on a personal blog.

Recently I blogged about the safe spaces for LGBandT Christians mainly providing for people who were already connected with faith communities or who had been. The post illustrated that there are networks and communities which exist both in physical and online spaces. Part of what happens within these spaces is the discussion of where have been found good and bad churches to be part of and who is/ isn’t positive about LGBandT people. What this sharing of knowledge gives is an understanding that there is a much wider debate and spread of ideas within evangelicalism (and other strands of theology and churchmanship) than is often recognised.

Some high profile figures have publicly acknowledged that this diversity of views exists and a few have shared their known opinions publicly.Many of these were mentioned within this recent Independent article. Some other figures have not publicly commented on the issues involved but are known to be supportive, through their practice. Others are known to be privately supportive but unwilling or more often unable to say so publicly for a range of reasons.

The new issue of Christianity Magazine, which is the main evangelical magazine in the UK, has brought the diversity of opinion which exists within the evangelical movement into focus. One of the articles comes from Steve Chalke whose church has been long known to be an affirming church for evangelical LGBandT Christians but who has not thus far publicly spoken out. The term affirming used in relation to churches means a non-exclusive safe space where LGBandT Christians are actively welcomed, as themselves, and encouraged to fully participate at all levels.

This appears to a highly choreographed breaking of the silence, perhaps taking lessons from the last time in which Chalke decided to show the diversity of thought which exists in evangelicalism when he gave his views on the penal substitution theory of atonement. Greg Downes who is Christianity’s theologian in residence gives another response. The Evangelical Alliance’s Steve Clifford has also published an article in response on the EA website and has put up a statement of response. What is interesting about the EA response is the way in which Clifford has signposted people to the Evangelical Relationships Commitment. This is a statement which highlights how there are issues which divide people and in discussing these issues people need to recognise that they cannot question whether people are not Christians simply because they differ in their opinions.

One part of the statement makes the point: “We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time.”

The statement then goes on to give a set of principles outlining how discussions where there is disagreement should be conducted. I think that these are useful principals.

I want to turn my attention now to to the content of the various articles and responses.

Ruth Dickinson’s editorial outlines how the culture of public silence which I referred to earlier has operated within evangelicalism. There is an acknowledgement of the fear of reaction which public figures have faced. There is also reference to the fear of driving people away from the church. Brian McLaren is quoted as saying, ‘I’m sensitive to [the silence of many Church leaders], because I struggled with that for many years myself,’ he told Christianity. ‘I was tacitly complicit in the conservative view, even though I didn’t hold it – ever, really. I never was [fully] conservative on the gay issue, but I tried to walk a pastoral road, where I would not drive either gay people away from the Church or conservatives away from the Church. So I think it’s a hard road to walk.’

What is interesting with this last quote is that McLaren’s son is gay, as the editorial says McLaren blessed his sons gay wedding in 2012. As this shows the whole debate hasn’t been just an academic issue for some evangelical leaders it’s been something very personal.

The editorial goes on to talk about the way in which conservatives also fear speaking out and giving their opinion.

What comes out is that we need an honest debate where people can be honest without fear and without it turning into a slagging match.

Steve Chalke’s article takes the approach of looking at inclusion and what this means from a Christian perspective. He also looks at it from a realistic perspective.

One point he makes within this relates to the way in which the church has at times promoted, through the culture it has encouraged, promiscuity rather than commitment. He says,’One tragic outworking of the Church’s historical rejection of faithful gay relationships is our failure to provide homosexual people with any model of how to cope with their sexuality, except for those who have the gift of, or capacity for, celibacy. In this way we have left people vulnerable and isolated. When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneliness, secrecy, fear and even of deceit.  It’s one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle – but shouldn’t the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?’

This is something I think is really important to be recognised, but it has to be recognised that for some it does not lead to promiscuity. Self-harm, depression and turning in on yourself through abuse of work or food are other ways of dealing with  it.

He then makes the point that he has blessed a civil partnership because he judged it right to do so. The debates about whether it is marriage or not he says are secondary and whilst I know others would disagree I personally stand with him on that. What matters is that people are making a commitment to each other, (and in a Christian context before God), not what you call it.

Chalke then goes on to look at biblical passages and seeks to look at tradition as well as scripture.

He makes the final point that he is so passionate about the issue because of the way health and safety as well as lives are at stake. Some may think that this is alarmist but it is based on evidence.

As he says, “Numerous studies show that suicide rates among gay people, especially young people, are comparatively high.[23] Church leaders sometimes use this data to argue that homosexuality is unhealthy when tragically it’s anti-gay stigma, propped up by Church attitudes, which, all too often, drives these statistics.”

He then goes on to give some of the stories he is aware of, stories I recognise all to well.

The counter response is given by Greg Downes who is Christianity Magazines Theologian in residence. He goes through the range of alternative arguments using scripture, tradition and experience. It is this final section that I want to focus upon.

In looking at experience he makes the important point that the voices of gay Christians who have been called to be celibate or who have apparently gone through the ex-gay movement have often not been properly heard. I agree with him, too often their voices have not been heard and I think that due respect has not always been given to them.

I have sat in the safe spaces and heard the pain of those who feel that their position has not respected and that the struggles involved in their celibacy has not been respected. I have a strong belief that they need to be honoured as people doing what they feel is right and some of whom have been given a specific gift of celibacy. I also think those struggling with it should be helped to find positive strategies and support in living out this position if they feel it is right to do so.

He goes on to say, “One concern is that many of the vocal comments in today’s Church on the issue are from Christians who have embraced the gay lifestyle and are very much advocating a change of theology.”

This is something I guess Downes would include myself and this blog within. I therefore feel the need to explain myself.

Firstly, whilst I have entered a committed relationship which was same sex prior to Karl coming out as trans I did not choose to embrace a gay lifestyle. The idea of the ‘gay lifestyle’ is on one level a myth, there are a diversity of lifestyles amongst LGBandT people just as there are other groups.

What I did was go through a long process of prayer and soul searching where I believe God healed me by bringing me to a point of peace with myself as I am. I came to a place after long soul searching and prayer where I believed that a committed relationship was something I could enter into and I happened to fall in love with somebody I believe that God bought into my life.

I have become an activist of sorts, but for me it is not a “gay rights” type of activism. Rather it has been seeking to share my story honesty in order to try and build understanding of Christianity amongst the gay community as much as in order to build understanding of the gay community amongst Christians.

Regarding advocating a change in theology I have discovered that whilst there may be dominant interpretations there is not a single theological position on this issue. I wrestled with scripture and looked long and hard at this, as well as praying through on this issue. I am prepared to admit that I may have come to the wrong interpretation but looking at this in the same way as I do other biblical issues and passages I don’t think I have. I respect though others do see things differently. Just as I know others see issues related to communion and the nature of the sacrament differently from me due to differences in theology and interpretations of scripture so it is with this issue.

In terms of the EA response it is as expected and is giving the response which reflects where they are coming from and the views of many they represent. The language of disappointment again has echoes of the past and the whole penal substitution debate.

Looking overall at these articles on one level I am encouraged, public silences have been broken. However there are a few things which I find worrying about the way in which the debate is being framed and the language being used:

1) The way in which there is no acknowledgement of bisexuality. The debate is framed in a polarised way which does not acknowledge the spectrum of human sexuality.

2) The masculine nature of the language used. The debate has focused around ‘homosexuality’ and ‘gay people’. This is all gendered language.

3) The discussion of the gay lifestyle. I have already talked about the diversity of experience amongst the LGBandT community. The idea one chooses a gay lifestyle is misleading.

4) The way in which the framing of the debate acts to further marginalise the experience of transgender people. Whilst gender issues are separate to those of sexual orientation they fit into a wider discussion. The debates around same sex marriage include a trans element.

5) The way in which the missional aspect of the discussion has not been looked at.





Evangelism: Tell.Show.Be

Today I’ve been involved in an evangelism consultation which the Methodists are running at the moment. It was interesting discussing some of the barriers to evangelism which we think people face both internal and external and how they might be overcome.

The Tell.Show.Be website gives a short film which is useful to get people thinking about the subject. It makes the important points there is no formula to be followed and it doesn’t matter if you don’t always have the answers. It’s about sharing a message through what we say and do.

Connected Worship Conference Review

I want you to imagine a pile of crap. On this occasion it can be labelled: frustration, weariness, hopelessness, broken dreams, misunderstandings, doubt, fear, dis-connection, loss and monotony. You are charged with working out what to do with layers of this stuff.

You work out there are various possibilities:

You can get a blunt edged spade and call it a shovel. To brighten it up you might tie some ribbons around it. You can use it to dig a hole to deposit some of the crap in, burning  the rest. Then you might dig another hole to place something new in.

Another approach is to put the junk into a cupboard and pretend it isn’t there as you party on next door.

Alternatively you can examine how others have dealt with this junk and come together to discuss this before going away and disseminating your knowledge to others.

Then you could always acknowledge the crap. You could give stories of situations where this crap has somewhat miraculously disappeared in the past. Then you can return to having a party, after you’ve put barriers up to keep people away from the reality of the offending mess.

There is a final option left open to you. You might get a team together and resource them with good quality cleaning materials. They can approach the crap carefully and gently from different angles seeking to remove that top layer to reveal and restore what is underneath.

The team who put on Connected Worship an event primarily aimed at local preachers and worship leaders within the Methodist Church decided to take that last option.

There were various things about Connected Worship which made it different from many if not all of the various Christian conferences I’d been to over the years and these are the things which reflected how and why that last approach is discernibly different.

The first was the conference wasn’t at a conference centre or site where we came together to communally live. Rather whilst the majority of the event was held in two venues within Warrington we were required to get our own accommodation sorted and engage, however briefly, with the city beyond the conference both physically and economically. This was refreshing and whilst I know there are negatives to this way of doing things as well as positives I found it, on this occasion, helpful.

The second aspect which was discernibly different was the way those attending the conference were valued as people rather than as consumers and potential purchasers of product. There was only one person noticeably promoting his books and even that was done in a low key, “they’re here but they are discounted” way.

We were given “goody bags” when we got there as our conference packs and it has to be said they were random, surreal and useful in equal measure. Beyond the usual programme, map and so on Fair Trade chocolate and cereal bars mixed with mountains of stationary and resources from the local council and crematorium. By the end of the weekend Co-op funeral care bingo dobbers were floating around too.

Friday evening began with worship. Contemporary music and more traditional hymns mixed with gentle liturgy and in your face reflection, poetry and narrative, visuals and silence within the worship sessions. Carefully planned and curated but infused with integrity rather than fake energy. By the end of the weekend the need for sleep was being acknowledged from the stage as well as the seats.

The food was incredible and whilst we’re used to church people doing food well what we consumed in the venue can only be described as extreme church catering. Don’t know if it’s a wonderfully northern thing or what but it was also good old fashioned plain but tasty grub being provided which meant even fussy eaters such as myself were able to over indulge.

Friday evening continued with Sheridan Voysey , an Aussie writer and broadcaster now living in Oxford doing a session on listening to the soul of community. Now I have to admit that Sheridan is obviously a Mac guy and one of the social networking i-pad types who normally I have a mixture of respect for and irritation with. However, he did a good presentation and has gone to the trouble of putting up an area of his web-space linked to the Connected content with resources to help people explore the themes he was talking about further. My conclusion on him was surprisingly that he was a great guy and somebody it was a pleasure to connect with who God is using in a particular way.

The evening finished with more worship and what Karl later told me was something called Compline which the Anglicans use. I thought it was cool.

Saturday was a packed day, with perhaps a little too much in. That said it was all great content as we found our souls being restored. First off worship, then into the first of three workshop sessions. Karl went off to the much praised preaching sessions with Ron Willoughby. Apparently they were brilliant being insightful and useful and with all of the sessions dealing with people where they were.

I was engaging with the world outside and found myself listening to Jonathan Green who is one of the chaplaincy development officers for the Methodist Church and the person who had put together the Chaplaincy Everywhere course I had recently reviewed on here. He started off overly apologetic at stepping in at short notice and so not being as prepared as he might be…although he felt that might be useful. What he actually did was provide space for alot of people who were already practitioners to share. I knew a few people in that group and there were deacons, lay children’s and youth workers, prison chaplains and presbyters all present. What we found ourselves receiving was space to think and talk as people who were already engaging in our various ways with life and communities beyond church. Going back to the cleaning/ restoration analogy it was interesting to see the dirt being loosened during the first session and then to see the hope gleaming through by the last of these workshops.

Ok slight aside here….in light of recent events (which I have blogged here) I was wary of these sessions whilst really looking forward to meeting and thanking the person who had sent me a really encouraging direct message after reading the “not getting the job post”. At the beginning of the weekend I kind of felt God/ life force/ a.n.other was taking the piss somewhat by having me sitting through a set of workshops on chaplaincy. At the end of the weekend and after a major 4am argument with God on Sunday morning I was clearer on a whole load of stuff and thankful rather than irritated I’d been in those sessions.

Anyway I digress and this is already too long a post…still I’m indulging and this is a post I want to have there to look back on and reflect on as well as to encourage others with.

Back to the conference. Saturday afternoon involved major input from Jackie Bellfield who was presbyter of the church we were using as one venue and the worship leader, Roger Walton who is one of the most intelligent, gentle and generally godly men it has ever been my pleasure to know and Helen Cameron who in many ways came across as a female version of Roger but with her Yorkshireness being somewhat stronger.

The session where Roger was the main speaker was talking about reflective listening and faithful theology. It was material I was familiar with having read and cherished his book The Reflective Disciple  but material it was good to revisit. The key text they were working from on Saturday afternoon was Luke 2:19, focusing specifically on what it meant/ means to treasure and ponder.

The next part of this was a “New Song Network” experience, which was worship we were encouraged to reflect on whilst participating in. Have to admit I went into participant observation mode and ended up with 8 pages of notes. Sufficient to summarise that this was a community worshipping together using contemporary material which for me moved in turns from feeling like I was at Spring Harvest, in the middle of a Jazz club and that I was in the middle of one of the James Corden worship sketches from the Horne and Corden show a few years back. That said, the thing was this wasn’t cheese there were the whispered “friends” and change of sounds and moods which are part of a particular type of worship leading but it was different. What was most moving was what was said in between particularly and the interaction with the regulars. This included laughter and heckling but also included a note of apology if anybody found a story she had shared painful. Within the formula there was an unusual level of vulnerability from the worship leader. What particularly moved me was singing Carol of the Star by Andrew M Rudd. It evoked the memory of Cambridge Folk Festival fringe tent on Coldhams Common late in the evening when the main music has finished and people sing along together with the talented open mic performers.

Before the last session 115 of us headed off to a local Chinese buffet. If you’re ever in Warrington I can highly recommend the East Orient. This was a genius bit of conference organisation. Again very unusual and highly refreshing part of the planning.

We were encouraged to reflect on what we’d experienced within the Pyramid arts centre venue, (and not just the gorgeous cakes), in the next session led by Helen Cameron – who I’d not encountered before. Beyond this we looked at a poem by Thomas Lux which was called Refrigerator 1957. I found this particularly moving as it took me back to my childhood and a realisation I was part of the last bit of that generation. Karl, who is younger, found it mind blowing what we talking about whilst the other couple we were sitting about could take it back further and put a number of my childhood memories in a wider historical context. It was a special time which God used to make me think back and smile.

Then there was a bit more worship. By this time to put it bluntly everybody was shattered and whilst it was good because we got to hear some of the creative writing project Sheridan had been working on with some participants it was in many ways a session too far. Was moving but slightly ironic moment on the way home when we saw the pub which we’d just heard about Jesus sitting in being raided by the police. Not sure nearly getting run over by a police van and a police car full of men and women who are getting a chance to re-enact the Sweeney whilst raiding a pub which we’d found lovely when we’d popped in for a drink the night before is meant to be that funny.

Apart a final workshop session Sunday morning was, rightly, dominated by worship. There was an initial session and then later a choice of “traditional” and “contemporary” communion services. Karl headed over to Bold Street to listen to the Chair of the Liverpool Circuit preach whilst I found myself deeply moved in the more contemporary worship. It was space to be with God and receive from him. I can’t describe what happened entirely, but it was like I suddenly had space to simply be in an environment which felt like home…..a home made up of elements from various previous “homes”. By that I mean the songs and worship band were reminiscent of the more evo part of my life, the art and prayer station bits were echoes of the more recent past and present. I was in a space I understood and in which I was fully able to simply relax with God. It was special.

The final session was led by Jo Cox and was one of the best concluding session I’ve ever attended. It wasn’t a hyped up session it was another time where worship and conference talk merged with reflection. Within it Jo made the point that the conference hadn’t been intended to be a package deal. Connected Worship was about giving permission to do stuff where you are and to give tools. It was also, as somebody had said at some point in the weekend, about giving hope.

The restorers had cleaned carefully, through valuing us and sending the message that local preachers and worship leaders are cherished and that as we go about our ministries we need to engage with hope as we seek to help the church engage with God and the culture beyond church he and we are also part of. The difficulties faced in our contexts were never minimised and the focus wasn’t on trite answers, it was on valuing us and giving us space to both connect and worship.

8 Years of Changing Religious Culture?

Faith has been a central topic within this blog and as I spend some time reflecting on the posts it would be wrong not to include a post on this. I want to see what, if anything, can be seen about the changing nature of religious culture in the UK from what I’ve blogged and from the books, conferences,talks and websites which informed those blogs.

My blogging birth in October 1994 was at a time when I was taking some time out of church, unsure whether I was going to return to institutional church or not. I discovered this blogging community as a result of searching around for links which might help me feel connected whilst moving out of the evangelical subculture. There was, as I have already explained this week, some element of this related to the journey I was on of reconciling my faith and my sexuality but it went beyond this. I had come to a point where the songs being sung and traditional evangelical messages I was hearing felt in conflict with the theology I was developing. I would go to Greenbelt and experience the worship / listen to the theology being taught and then find it very difficult to go back to the evangelical, guarded charismatic, church where I increasingly felt like the heretic in the corner. It was only when my wonderfully understanding minister passed me a copy of Alan Jamieson’s seminal text A Churchless Faith to read that I understood that what I was experiencing was part of something larger going on, although at that point I couldn’t place it within a wider framework.

The post-evangelical discussion had been going on since the mid 1990’s (Dave Tomlinson explains how the Post Evangelical was born in 1993 and published in 1995 on his website) although to some extent it can be traced back earlier – as with all of these things there is a strand which can be followed back through history if you look closely enough. The roots of this movement were firmly planted in 1980’s evangelicalism which in turn was highly influenced by a range of things which happened in the 1960’s and had led to the housechurches and new streams. (Rob Warner’s work is good to read if you want to understand the wider evangelical culture which this movement grew up in).

A decade on when I was encountering Jamieson’s, Tomlinson’s and Gordon Lynch’s work the trickle down effect had happened as the books had been published, the websites had started to appear and the talks had become a strong rhetoric. At the same time there were a range of small scale worship initiatives had emerged which were seen to be offering ‘alternative’ or alt. worship or just space to discuss faith in different spaces which were more culturally relevant. In the UK many of these were influenced in some way by the ill fated Nine O’Clock Service in Sheffield as Matthew Guest explains in this paper  ‘The Post-Evangelical Emerging Church: Innovations in New Zealand and the UK published in the International Journey for the study of the Christian Church in 2006 which was  jointly authored with Steve Taylor. In the US something similar slightly different was happening. To understand the full picture Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger’s book Emerging Churches is probably best to refer to, especially the short stories of fifty leaders in their own words which is found in Appendix A.

So by the time we get to 2004 the individual spiritual journey’s, alt worship groups, academic work and intellectual discussions amongst church leaders were coming together and in the UK there were a growing number of ‘ordinary’ Christians who were connecting with this in some form or another….I was just one of them – another person in their early ’30’s who was educated to degree level, working in the public sector who was uncomfortable in the mainstream evangelical sub-culture(s) of the time. On the wibsite, Ship and at Greenbelt I found myself connecting with others who were trying to work it out.

The trickle down recognition was also leading at the same time to an official recognition of what was going on and in 2005 the Church of England and Methodist Church launched Fresh Expressions  led by Stephen Croft (as explained in this Fresh Expressions article).

At the same time in the late 1990’s in the mainstream church in the UK and beyond there was a renewed emphasis on social justice emerging as a result of the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns, (the latter of which this blog covered in July 2005 when the G8 came to Scotland).

As I see it and I think this blog may have reflected (although it varied at different points) the angst and frustration element which had fuelled much of the post evangelical, alt worship/ emerging church discussion burnt out a little and the aspects focused more on creativity and mission grew stronger.

This is where I think the Fresh Expressions element fed in because together with the Mission Shaped Church report which the Church of England had published in 2004 it meant that within the mainstream UK church and the media/ conferences supporting it there was a change in the dominant conversation and thinking. There appeared to become a greater understanding that whilst those churches were losing members to new church streams (particularly New Frontiers) they were also losing members by the back door as well as failing to adequately grasp and combat secularisation. At the same time I think there was also a realisation of what we already had and what we might be losing if we through the baby out with the bath water.

The upshot is many of those of us who were angsty actually re-engaged with church but often moving to mainstream rather than evangelical churches. For myself it meant moving into Methodism, (something which was a God thing but also I think is typical of what others I am aware of have done in moving from highly evangelical/ charismatic churches into more mainstream churches).

At the same time the evangelical sub-culture itself has changed. There have been various splits and alliances going on which have seen some divisions being left behind and others becoming seen as more important.

The result of these shifting sands have interestingly seen, (if one reads the books) a number of those who were at one point post-evangelical or part of the alt. worship scene offering themselves for ministry in traditional denominations (myself included as regular readers who followed my candidating journey will be aware of). Additionally those denominations and the training institutions they work with are also increasingly offering training and accreditation in pioneer ministry now.

So where does this leave us now? The short answer is in a time of change as a recent post from Jonny Baker (a sort of god-father of the UK emerging church/ Fresh Expressions movement) has highlighted.

The longer answer can be found in 3 recent posts I have put up which combined together I think outline the overall picture:

The first post is a response to a Kurt Willems post which focuses on the development of the emerging church and the way the language/ form of that movement has changed.

The second post outlines the talk on secularisation and follow up discussion which Michael Moynagh gave to Milton Keynes Theology Forum recently. His conclusion is that we are on a knife-edge and it could go either way.

The final post is on evangelicalism and was a response to Adrian Warnock’s post and looks at whether progressives can still claim that Evangelical identity or whether we are now at a place where evangelicalism needs to be more narrowly defined. Warnock’s attempt to refine and narrow the definition can be seen in many ways as an attempt to protect the very aspects which one or two decades many people were seeking to move away from. Warnock is essentially saying as we have moved more into the mainstream the term Progressive Evangelical which has emerged, especially in the US, for those of us who do not want to let go of that Evangelical element of our identity is at best meaningless and at worse something which can cause confusion and stops traditional, conservative Evangelicals such as himself so easily publicly defining themselves.

Evangelicalism – social movement or not?

Adrian Warnock has put up a blog post on “What is an Evangelical” which follows on from his post a few days ago entitled “What is a Christian?“. Methodist minister Dave Warnock (who isn’t related to the former blogger) who has regularly debated with Adrian on a range of issues has posted a response to the “What is a Christian?” post.

Adrian’s main aim is to seek to narrow the definition of Evangelical by moving away from definitions linked to it being a broad social movement and talking about it being a way of thinking and acting which has 6 discernible features:

1. A literal (where appropriate) approach to the whole Bible as the sole source of authority in the believer’s life (=  ”Biblicism” or “Sola Sciptura,” which means “Only Scripture”)

2. A strong focus on personal response of faith to the gospel (= Conversionism and Sola Fide, which means “Faith Alone”)

3. Activity to promote the conversion of others. (=Activism)

4. A focus on the cross of Jesus as the only means of salvation.  (=Crucicentrism and Sola Christa, which means “Only Christ”)

5. Grace alone (=Sola Gratia)

6. To God alone belongs glory.  (=Soli deo gloria)

Within his post he seems particularly keen to draw the line between “evangelicals” and “progressives” who may seek to retain association with Evangelicalism whilst having moved away from their “traditional” roots and those with a more high-church theology who may wish to identify as Evangelicals.

Whilst not a Patheos Blogger, I would regard myself as coming within the neo-liberal or progressive category and so will give my own view, towards the end of this post, regarding whether I would resent a narrow definition which would seek to exclude me from his definition of Evangelical.

Before I do that though I want to outline what I believe Evangelicalism to be.

To establish what is meant by an Evangelical, as Adrian did I begin by looking at David Bebbington’s work, which is widely recognised as yielding the ‘standard’ definition.[1] His historical study on Evangelicalism in Modern Britain  identifies four specific aspects of Evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, Biblicism and crucicentrism.[2]

Bebbington argues that the emphasis placed on them has changed over time and differs between strands of Evangelicals. Moreover, the way in which they are expressed differs according to where and when one is examining them; such differences of expression are linked to the influence of wider environmental and cultural factors.

Following on from Bebbington’s research it is useful to look at other Sociological studies. Rob Warner and Mathew Guest have both produced studies which have looked at the contemporary state of Evangelicalism in the UK. Warner did this, primarily, by tracing the development of the Evangelical Alliance and its influence between 1966 and 2001. He also conducted two case studies; one of Spring Harvest (a Christian festival), and the other of the Alpha Course. He sought to assess how successful the Evangelical tradition was at end of the last century, and how it might move forward into the twenty-first century.

Guest’s research was concerned with how individuals in Evangelical congregations relate a range of cultural and social forces to their individual and collective identities. Guest focused his research on one church that had two types of congregation associated with it; one was engaged in mainstream church, and the other was an alternative worship group.

Despite their different emphases, these two studies complement one another and reinforce several points about Evangelicalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century in the UK. The first, to which Brasher refers in her study of Fundamentalism in the US, is that Evangelicalism is both a tradition and a movement. As a theological tradition, it has the central tenants which Bebbington described, and can thus be used as a unifying term. However, it can, despite what Adrian would argue, also be regarded as a movement because it has experienced historical waves and sometimes conflicting agendas. Secondly, there is a diversity of thought in Evangelicalism, which is increasingly being highlighted by differences between the traditional (conservative) wing, the ‘entrepreneurs’ (as Warner classes them) who are often associated with broad Evangelicalism, and the progressive Evangelicals who are often associated with the Emerging Church movement and post-Evangelicalism. Within his critique Adrian clearly seeks to exclude the progressives but whilst there is some implicit critique and criticism of the ‘entrepreneurs’ it is not clear whether they would fall within or beyond his definition.

These theorists and others have identified the way that Evangelical churches are split between those more closely aligned with traditional denominations, and those which associated with ‘new church’ streams. Joseph Tamney’s study of five congregations included two which illustrate this division. Both were conservative Evangelical churches, but one was more focused on Spirit, and the other on Truth. The Spirit-based church was charismatic in nature, and had a restorationist theology, reflecting that of many of the ‘new churches’. The ‘Truth church’ was more Calvinist in its theology and solemn in character, with a strong institutional and denominational outlook.[3]  That is not to say that denominational churches are not also charismatic; indeed, many which are part of the established denominations do use charismatic practices, but it is more often a prominent part of the ‘new churches’. Adrian seeks to get around this issue by talking about people having two loyalties, a denominational loyalty and an Evangelical loyalty. Whilst I would argue this is true to some extent I think the loyalties go beyond this and reflect why there was a trend at one time to talk about ‘the tribes of Evangelicalism’. This to me would suggest the argument that Evangelicalism is a social movement continues to hold currency even if the progressives are excluded from the definition.

Moving beyond the debate as to whether Evangelicalism can be regarded as a social movement or not and on to the 6 features which Adrian identifies as being the test of Evangelical orthodoxy. They reflect in many ways the basis of faith statements which can be found amongst a range of Evangelical organisations who seek to clarify what they regard Evangelicalism to be:

Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith

UCCF statement of Faith

The Lausanne Covenant

The emphasis that different Evangelicals tend to put on each element of the basis of their beliefs does differ between individuals and churches and this is what gives us the diversity previously referred to. Adrian’s attempt to narrow the definition would still present that problem and so there may still be Evangelicals who he felt he was talking past.
That said the essential question he is seeking to raise is important. Can progressives who have as much if not more in common with “mainstream” Christians as they do with Evangelicals still describe themselves as Evangelical? Or should they give up and leave the label and leave it as a marker of identity for a narrower group of people?
It is a question I have wrestled with to some extent myself over the years as regular readers will be aware. (Cue those who have on each occasion said that we need to move beyond the labels and stick with Christian only as an identifier).
My argument is that as a progressive I still have much in common with ‘traditional’ Evangelicals even though they would not recognise my Christian beliefs as Evangelical and I value much of the cultural heritage which I have in common with them.
Each of the six headings which Warnock identifies is important to me, but I would differ with him on some of the definitions attached and would also sometimes be using a different set of language when talking about these things. My emphasis on the order of importance of each of these would also be highly likely to differ from his. Thus, even using this list we would be likely to be talking across each other.
So should I just walk away from the term Evangelical and would I resent it if Adrian were able to make me do so? The answer is yes I would resent it. I am an Evangelical Christian by heritage and many of my current beliefs still reflect this. The term Progressive Evangelical is an identity marker for me which is important. The difference between my beliefs and other “mainstream” Christians may be lesser than the difference between myself and many traditional or conservative Evangelicals but I still believe in and my life is influenced by the importance of much of what Adrian is talking about.
Additionally if progressives give up the term Evangelical and leave it to those who wish to apply it to a narrower group of people then it becomes more likely to be applied in a way which is political. I refer here to a particular type of identity politics rather than party politics because I agree with what Adrian says about the inaccuracy of the view that Evangelical automatically relates to particular political perspectives, particularly within the UK.

[1] Guest, M, Evangelical Identity and Contemporary Culture A Congregational Study in Innovation, Milton Keynes, Paternoster, (2007), Warner (2007and Jamieson, A, A Churchless Faith. Faith Journeys Beyond the Churches, London, SPCK, (2003) amongst others use this definition as the basis for defining Evangelicalism within their work.

 [2]Bebbington, D, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730’s to the 1980’s, London, Routledge, (1999).

[3]Tamney, J, The Resilience of Conservative Religion, The Case of Popular, Protestant Congregations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, (2002).




Choosing my Faith

Last week I was sitting in church and at the end of the prayer of intercessions I had to say, “Amen, except the bit I can’t say it to”. The bit I had to exempt myself from agreeing to related to praying for our Christian country and against the demise of it, oh and against the de-establishment of the church. Now, don’t get me wrong it’s not that I support secularisation or the attacks on Christianity which some people are undoubtedly engaging in…however hard they protest otherwise but it is I think that alot of the debate at the moment is at best misguided and at worst dangerous. So at the end of the week when Channel Four News had an intelligent “pub” discussion between a Christian, Muslim and Jew who all discussed the subtle issues involved in the debate in a way which was grown up and mature; The Baroness Warsi has been on a trip to Rome and spoken out against agressive secularism; the Telegraph has reported that Eric Pickles has signed a change in the law to enable councils to keep prayer on agenda’s – and so sidestepped the ruling against Bideford last week, Trevor Phillips has spoken out about those who want to sidestep the national law in the name of religion;  Christian Concern has come back saying atheism is being put in the place of Christianity in the public square and Durham has apparently been having it’s own battle between the humanists who have had their “Reason Week” going  head to head with the Christians who have been calling their main mission “Exchanged” I’m going to have my say on where we’re at.

Which strand to start with? Well – for me it is going to be the faith and public life thing. Prayers before council meetings are good BUT only if they are voluntary, inter-faith and not part of the formal agenda which people are expected to attend. Those who point back to the traditions are pointing back to a time where a lack of religion, or having the wrong type of religion resulted in barring from university (as anybody who has been to Cadbury World will know). Do we really want to go back to that type of belonging/ behaving without believing? I think not. Notions of this being a Christian Country and the priviledging of “the established church” go back to these types of attitudes and practices. The right to be a non-conformist and hold a different theological perspective to the dominant state norm or to proclaim oneself somebody without faith is something people in this country literally died for.

However, there is one area my own feelings contradict themselves in somewhat – and that is in relation to the House of Lords. I fully believe in a non-elected House of Lords which contains the aristocracy and “the church” (amongst others). The reasons for this are these people tend to bring knowledge and expertise which is beyond that of career politicians. Cross Benchers are to my mind the best assets we have as voters. My own feeling is that change should see all mainstream religious groups represented within a “faith” block, but equally there should be secularists represented too. By this I mean that I am of the view that rather than a bunch of Bishops there should be some bishops but also faith representatives from the Roman Catholics, the free churches,  the variety of different Muslim streams, Orthodox and Reformed Jews, Sikhs and so on who get seats in the Lords. In terms of why it is important these voices of potential dissent are there one only need look at the coverage of the passage of the recent Welfare Bill.

On to the Trevor Phillips comments – he has a point…but I think that the equalities agenda has been used by secularists who want to try and make sweeping generalisations about Christians which are unfair and push points which are basically saying one persons (predominantly gay rights) have more worth than another minority view (i.e. faith based). Conservative Christians particularly are also making counter claims and pushing their points to make the generalisations and try to push the point in the other direction. Having read the Week report of his comments I think what he says is largely true. However, the wider debate that follows is should more groups be allowed “loopholes” which allow them to practice their beliefs if in doing so people can still access goods and services perfectly well elsewhere? There is a bit of me which wants to say let the market decide…although as a Christian that logic is wrong and actually what we need to be looking for is the most compassionate course of action in these things.

In terms of Baroness Warsi’s comments she has a point….but it worries me that the agenda for making this point is actually nothing about religious freedom and everything about the Conservative Party continuing to promote a sense of nationalism as “social fact” which is actually based on socially constructed ideas of identity. I agree with what she says about, “unease with the rising tide of secularisation” but I think that we need to be more uneasy about the impact this is having on people of faiths other than Christianity. A Christian who decides to wear a cross but is asked not to is very different to a Muslim woman who feels that it she should wear a headscarf but is forbidden to by her the government of the country she is living in. Both should be allowed to display symbols of their faith but Christian symbols should not be given automatic right over other symbols of faith…otherwise are we back to wanting to celebrate the crusades?

Finally, is it getting harder to be a practising Christian? In my experience no…it is actually getting easier because people are seeking to question and challenge the misuse of faith rather than faith itself. I am finding that alot of people are actually careful to treat my beliefs with respect -even if they will mock them a bit. There are the aggressive secularists who view any religious view as wrong and will get vocal about it but many people in my experience tend to view Christianity with a kind of nostalgic fondness whilst being ready to denounce the way it has been misused. I don’t know if the fact people often know I’m gay as well as Christian helps…it means that when they start on the Christian attitudes to sexuality I can come in from a different angle and show why they have to be very careful about making generalisations because the truth is far more complex.

To conclude I want to  explain that whilst I would love to live in a country where loads of people had chosen to become Christians I would never want to live in a Christian country. For me the choice to connect with Christ and live out a life recognising the full impact of his grace, (shown through His death and ressurection) is the greatest gift we have. Central to that gift for me is the fact it is a choice, and we are given free will to choose our faith. I want to celebrate our heritage and recognise the role faith has had in that, but I don’t want to live in a country where one faith is given dominance and allowed to subject others to oppression (or to label/ view them as lesser beings). That path, in my understanding of theology, leads away from God and His intentions for us individually and corporately rather than towards Him.

Hope, dispair and questioning

I’m reading Ann Morisy’s book Journeying Out at the moment. I should only be up to chapter two, but have read some way ahead. (Note here, it’s our current reading group book which is why I should only be up to chapter two). It’s a book which is challenging me and disturbing  me as well as encouraging me. The key reason I think it’s having the effect on me it is is because of the contradictions in my own life at the moment where hope, dispair and questioning are interlinking and also forcing me to face up to questions about power and access.

I want to start by hope. Morisy’s book on one level is a book of hope because it tells what ordinary people do and have been doing. In places it talks about “random acts of kindness” but refers to them in relation to “social capital”. It also talks about the transforming power of volunteering and involvement upon the person who’s doing something. This made me think back outside the church again to my encounter with the Dundee LGBT group, which I blogged about recently. They’ve asked me to plug an event they’re doing soon and it gave me hope…emphasising how the acts of individuals in different places are helping change the world.

DLGBT are joining with Dundee Action Palestine to present the Bubble, (see the FB group), and are going to be doing a Skype chat with some people in the area where the film is set afterwards. The reason this gave me hope, and relates to the book is the event is really about story telling. The Skype chat after the film will, I guess, involve some story telling and will allow some stories from Tel Aviv to flow over to Scotland. Stories and storytelling as Morisy points out within her book have a huge power for transformation.

The dispair part of the post comes from some of my own feelings at the moment about life and more specifically about the lives of people who are not as fortunate as I am. I am currently feeling the effects both materially and emotionally of being skint and feeling squeezed. I am currently finding out what it is like to be trained and encouraged in one area but having, for a moment atleast, to take a job which does not use those skills. This is something I know alot of others are also struggling with at the moment. My biggest worry is about those at the bottom, like those single parents with children in junior school who are from today being forced to look for work and change the benefit they are on – see Gingerbread press release. My worry is that if graduates like me are being forced into the lowest sector jobs what are many of those with few or no qualifications (which single parents disproportionately make up) going to do? I am also just starting to get my head around what the spending cuts mean for me and my friends….I am currently more scared, I think than I have been for some time.

In Morisy’s book she talks about the way churches moved more into the “social outreach” and “professional services” sphere during the last recession, and may have inadvertantly secularised themselves. This move showed churches are good at this type of thing…something we already knew. Thus, the government strategy seems dependant on churches increasing this type of work and providing another safety net again. Something, we have shown we do well. However, things have changed. I honestly don’t think we understand how the current uncertainty and cuts are going to impact upon our churches as many of our members become unemployed, face cuts in their income in very real terms  or face huge uncertainty in their jobs, (bearing in mind the number of church members involved in the public services). Also I don’t think that the churches themselves have – in declaring their expertise in this area – been realistic about the effects which secularisation has had upon their membership and the demographic of many of their members. The sad fact is that alot of our church members are rapidly reaching their forth age, (another term Morisy talks about). I am starting to dispair about the reality of the situation we find ourselves in and how utterly unprepared we are for it.

Finally I am questioning the whole issues around power and coming alongside people. In recent weeks I have had to acknowledge I am technically “poor” and am amongst the marginalised on one level in our society. However, at the same time I am through where I am and the opportunities I am being given amongst the most priviledged. There has been help offered to me which I should have taken, but which I couldn’t psychologically allow myself to take – which I may yet need to, and help offered to me which I am taking but am struggling with. The main area I have struggled with is a recognition I have fallen into various “client groups” which I am happy to engage with from the position of helping but which I struggle to be part of.

In the book Morisy engages with both Liberation Theology and Queer Theology to some extent, (although she quotes James Alison more generally on resentment giving no clue to the fact it comes from a book which is doing queer theology….because that might just have to admit to the reader that queer theology goes beyond LGBT people and has something to teach straight people too). Anyway this means she obviously talks about coming alongside people, but she still refers to “the poor” and “marginalised” in terms of “the other” and argues that in churches we take a power position. She also makes the point that the increasing professionalisation of volunteering and engagement with “the other” may be damaging.

Now this has all disturbed me and left me questioning as I say. On one  level I am back in that place which my research stems from….and which I find confuddling…using many of the definitions I am “the other”, “the marginalised” the person who the text speaks of in terms of the church going out to – yet I am very much part of the church. Being openly gay, a single parent and more recently obviously poor I am the apparently under-represented within our churches. However, I know that often I am the unrecognised rather than the absent. The financial situtations of many in our churches is not what it may first appear. There are many closeted gay people or people who operate on the don’t ask, don’t tell principal because they just see their sexual orientation as a small part of what they are and don’t want to get embroiled in the politics. At the same time I am though I am the provider, the teacher and the obviously middle class who wants to go out and do something to help “them” whoever “they are”.

Life at the moment is developing in such a way that I am increasingly moving towards the likelyhood of at some point becoming “a professional” yet…..I know the limitations that gives as well as the opportunities and security. At the moment I am being able to be involved in some incredibly exciting stuff – like launching Maze, like Streetlights, like Greenbelt because I can choose what I volunteer with and get my experience from. If I were paid I would not have this choice.

On one level I am not doing all this for totally alturistic motives. I know I am too old to get an internship, even if they one were available – which it’s not – and so I therefore having to do my own set of networking and cv building for when I finish the research….bearing in mind where I know God has shown he is and is not leading me. I need to be gaining the experience these opportunities are giving me.But they are reinforcing to me that volunteering as a possibility is set up for those who have the luxury of being able to offer their time and resources for little or nothing, it is for those who have the luxury of time between jobs and family, or who are retired…volunteering is something the middle class do to make themselves feel useful.

This conflict and the different feelings I have generated further reinforce to me I have become subject to exactly the issues  Morisy talks about in her second chapter. In order to carry on doing what I love and what is transforming me I am needing to get more professionalised so that I can get paid for it.  Also doing the volunteering keeps me “happily middle class” and stops me falling totally into the pit of dispair marked “marginalised” or “victim” or “scrounger”….all of which are I think unfair terms for those we seek to walk alongside. I know I am not better than those I am seeking to help because I know in reality I am one of those I am seeking to help. Yet, if I acknowledge that equality with the most marginalised in our society I know I lose power….I acknowledge that I have lost choice….I allow myself to become somebody who has to take rather than give and I reinforce the stereotypes.

I know God through Jesus intentionally identified with those who were marginalised….Jesus was a Nazarene and in his early life a refugee. Jesus was an rabbi who spent three years wandering and sent his disciples out with nothing but the gospel message. Yet I know Jesus also was the giver….God is power and it was the power Jesus had and gave which transformed lives. Yet, this power was not status indeed Jesus was often critical of the power that came with status. I am questioning how to engage in discipleship,mission and worship (because I feel the three cannot be removed from each other) in our current culture without getting involved in the issues around “power”. Again this is something which worries me about the effects of the spending review as they come through.

I know some of the attitudes I’ve spoken about here and some of the contridictions and questions highlight where in my own life I need to constantly seek forgiveness and refer to how I need to deal with pride. At the moment I am wrestling with my faith in a way which is useful but hard.

If you are still here at the end of my rambling on …thank you.

The wisdom of Blair related to the church

I’ve started working my way through Tony Blair’s autobiography and have been v. struck by one part of it. He has been talking about why he was so determined to create “New Labour” and what it was about. It struck a real chord with me in relation to the church and I want to pick up on it because I think it’s really important.

He says that there were two main strands of thought within the Labour movement; the strand which was made up of born and bred Labour supporters and the strand made up by those who took a theoretical approach to life. His argument was that both these strands failed to fully engage with the thoughts, desires, interests and lifestyles of those outside the Labour movement, i.e the majority of the electorate who cared about issues effecting their lives but not about politics as such.

I was immeadiately struck reading this section of the book by how what he believed the Labour Party needed to get hold of also relates to the church. We tend to be a mix of  people who have been bought up within the culture, (the “cradle to grave” brigade) and those who take a more theoretical approach who are those engaging in alot of the debates around the place of the church in modern society and the shape it should take.

I fully believe that as the church we do have a real lesson to learn here. Whatever we think of New Labour the fact is it did manage to engage with the middle ground and arguably the interests of the “ordinary voter” in a way which they hadn’t previously been able to. This took people beyond the “traditional”/ “theoretical” place and out of the “branch meeting” / “Islington dinner party discussion” debate. In order to do seriously do mission in contemporary society I really believe we need to do the same.

I know this is difficult, I’m a natural theoretical type who has immersed themselves in this culture. What I need to do, along with many others is to firstly find out what “ordinary people” are interested in. We then need to develop approaches and ethical frameworks which engage with their concerns. This will need a process of actually working out what our absolutes are and then what how these can be expressed with and through the concerns of the “ordinary person”.

I write this as I listen to the Apple 7 discussion on “Institutions an Outmoded Technology” and am struck by the fact we do have great leaders, but they are very much stuck in the theoretical approach. What I am looking for is the emergence of some Tony Blair type leaders in the church. I never thought I’d say that, not being a Blair fan….but I think we do need some people willing to stand up in the middle space betweent the centre and the edge to work outside the box within the established place in order to change the established way of doing things, but being willing to be shot from both sides. We need people to stand up and say Christianity is about mission and if we are serious about mission we need to engage with what the “middle mass” are actually concerned about.