Category Archives: Practical Theology

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.

A New Religious Right???

Hannah Mudge who is part of the new wave of Christian Feminists has posted this interesting critique of the new Theos Think Tank report looking at “Is there a ‘Religious Right’ Emerging in Britain?” which was produced by Andy Walton with Andrea Hatcher and Nick Spencer.

The Theos report used a mix of quantiative and qualitative data to look at whether the view put forward in the media and elsewhere, (including in the Guardian by Bishop Alan – our local bishop here), that there is a new religious right emerging is accurate or not. The introduction of the report indicates this is complex and that you need to read through the full report to understand the complete and nuanced picture.

The report begins by looking at the differences which exist between some of the groups emerging in the UK and those which are associated with the religious right in the US. It looks at the way in which the economic perspective of the groups in the two countries differ. In the US the focus is on liberalism and free market economic whilst in the UK a majority of those in groups which might be associated with the Religious Right have a belief in the UK based welfare system.

With regards to the issues they focus upon it makes the point whilst there are points of overlap there are also additional concerns in the UK such as those related to various forms of addictive behaviour and the sex trade. Also the Zionist agenda of the US groups is largely missing from the UK groups.

The nature of worshippers within the UK is greater than the US and this country has undergone a much greater process of secularisation. The impact of having an established church in the UK is also discussed.

The Theos report gave a brief history of the rise of the political religious right in the US coming to the conclusion that whilst  there appears to have been a decline in their influence they are not totally gone yet. The report identifies white evangelical protestants as the key group who have comprised the Religious Right.

The report goes on to make the point that issues such as gay marriage don’t define political debate in the UK in the same way in which they do in the UK.

There is an overview of the key organisations which have been accused of being part of the Christian Right in the past. These groups are diverse in nature and cover a spectrum of thought from the Evangelical Alliance on one end to Christian Voice on the other with groups such as CARE and Christian Concern in between.

One interesting observation made is the way in which the Evangelical Alliance leadership is less ready “to criticise or repudiate the tactics of British-based groups like Christian Voice” than in the past.

It concludes by making the point that in the UK the groups are focused around a small number of concerns, with some exception they don’t have the same ties to a particular political party in the UK as in the US,  that whilst the income of such groups is not insignificant they don’t have the same funding as in the US, that there is broader support for these groups than just within the those who might be associated with the religious right, that they have a limited access to political power in the UK . The key conclusion is that the US and UK are in many ways not comparable – in part because of the different structure of the broadcasting industry within this country.

The report makes the point that those groups which have most access to the political powerbase are those which are most moderate in their approach and views and those which are most extreme and perhaps most hungry for political power are furthest from it.

It goes on to counsel the media and others that they need to be careful in their use of the term “Religious Right”.

Hannah Mudge’s response commends the report, as I do. She shows how in the UK feminists and socially conservative groups are working on similar issues, all be it from differing positions, citing lads mags and the sexualisation of childhood as an example.

She argues that we need to proceed with caution because whilst the majority of groups do have less resources and influence they are setting themselves up as having the “true biblical response”.

Mudge ends with a series of challenges.

The first of these is a challenge to journalists that right-wing groups must not dominate the media narrative on Christian issues. To this I would argue that neither should the liberals who are in many ways in direct opposition to the right-wing groups. Part of what creates the climate of fundamentalism is fear and if the voice of the moderate evangelicals is not heard the myth of two sides, rather than a broad spectrum of opinion, is reinforced. This is the reason why Christianity Magazine publishing the Chalke article and their own editorial was so important. It brings into the public space the truth of the diversity of opinion which does exist.

The second challenge is that moderate and progressive believers need to make themselves heard. Again the Chalke story feeds into this. Steve Chalke has spoken of the fear he felt in being honest about his opinions. That culture of fear needs to be removed and that can only happen when more people have the courage to speak out. The don’t ask, don’t say culture which exists in evangelicalism and results in a gap between public rhetoric and pastoral practice on a range of issues needs to be removed. There needs to be a new honesty so that the two can begin to match each other more.

The third challenge she gives is for Christians to be discerning about the organisations we support. This requires Christians to seek information but the problem here is where is the information coming from? If it is churches giving Christians the information they are more likely to trust it.

I came to reading this report and Mudge’s response at the end of the week when Christian groups and others had been meeting with a local MP to give their views on the same sex marriage bill. I want to outline what has happened locally to illustrate why the report is right but also why there are other issues to be thought about which are not mentioned, and which may explain some of the differences which exist between the UK and US.

The MP had a meeting set up with local faith leaders who were opposed to the same sex marriage bill, through one of his office employees. The information of this meeting was diseminated through professional and social networks, primarily through the office of one of the new churches. The meeting with the MP was apparently well attended, with all but two of the participants being from the new churches – which in MK includes the black majority churches.

The email also went through to some people who weren’t in opposition to the bill. The result is some people had a seperate meeting with the MP and one of them, from a mainstream denomination, went to the meeting which was mainly attended by the new church leaders.

There was, on the part of the MP, a clear desire to be seen to hear all the voices of his constituents.

His expressed view on the bill is that in current form he has major concerns. He agrees that the inequalities which currently exist between civil partnership and marriage and between couples where one is trans and others need to be sorted out so that equality is achieved. However, he is also concerned about the way in which this is being done and whether the bill will have unexpected consequences in the future.

He has clearly read the bill and is not homophobic. However, he has had letters from the pro-gay side which have apparently implied he is homophobic if he votes against. This has understandably annoyed him.

What I want to draw out of this is the role of new church denominations and black majority churches in the UK as well as the way in which non-religious and more liberal people need to think about their language.

Taking the last point first. The language of secularists and those who have set themselves up against the socially conservative evangelicals (within and beyond the church) and others is sometimes as extreme as that coming from some religious groups who appear to be on the right. The impact of these words needs to be recognised as does the fact religion is a protected diversity strand, alongside others, and equality issues being promoted by faith based groups will be taken equally seriously to other diversity and inclusion issues.

The white majority new church networks have often been socially conservative but have also been involved in social entreprenurialship and social justice in a way that the US churches haven’t. These new churches, (such as New Frontiers), do have international links including to the US and are encouraging people to get politically involved but not in the same way as in the US. They understand the importance, in the UK context, of working with local authorities and so on. They are also part of wider networks such as Street Pastors and so the picture is quite complex.

In terms of the black majority church they are an increasingly significant group within the UK, particularly in the face of secularisation and whilst they may be socially conservative they are often not politically conservative. This element is important if we are to understand the true picture of what is happening in the UK and at the moment they are being marginalised. Race issues which remain in the US may also be important in making sure that the Religious Right does not emerge as a significant force in the UK. For organisations such as the EA the black majority churches are clearly being seen as a constituency to court.

So to conclude it’s complicated. We do need to be watchful as Mudge suggests and we do need to take her challenges seriously, as we do the Theos report. However, we also need to look at the full picture of what is happening in the UK taking the role of the new churches as seriously as that of political parachurch groups which the report focuses on.

Think, Speak, Act Conference Review

The cynical might have described Think, Speak, Act as a Christian Guardianista day out to whinge about Coalition. The cynical would have been wrong about this conference organised by the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT).

True the first key note speaker was Giles Fraser, a Christian contributor to the Guardian and there was literature and comment about the immorality of the forthcoming benefit changes, especially in relation to housing and the bedroom tax floating around but it was about far more than that.

Giles Fraser, who it had to be said looked a little like the accused prior to the event – sitting on the side seats with loosened tie making notes and looking uncomfortable in the shirt and tie he had on with his jeans, was talking on ‘Theology in Action: St Paul’s and Occupy’.

This title led to the best comment I heard all day. The lady behind me was looking at the programme before the kick off and turned to her husband and asked in all innocence, “where is St. Paul’s and Occupy? I’ve not heard of that church.”

Anyway back to Giles Fraser. It was primarily an intelligent and thoughtful critique on the philosophy of perpetual economic growth. It was linked to this recent Guardian article he has written.

Within his talk Fraser explained the Church has something distinctive to offer to the debate on this issue. The distinctive messages we have to offer are (i) the idea that what we have is a gift entrusted to us and (ii) there is such a thing as having enough. He used the picture of the manna given to the Israelites in the desert during the exodus.

He also argued the church has generally had a bad theology  of economics, despite it being the main moral issue addressed in the bible.

Two striking sound bites within his talk were “money is the sacrament of seriousness” and “the best way to tell our attitude to money is to look at our bank statement.”

The film shown during the plenary session with a variety of delegates saying what was most memorable illustrated the impact these two soundbites had had on many of those present.

In terms of the whole Occupy thing relatively little was actually said. What Fraser did say was often framed within a “us” and “them” language, as was some of the comment made on where we go from here. This was something I picked him up on within the q&a which followed his presentation. His response recognised something of the real complexity of the situation, but I still felt he was too focused on emphasising the institutional nature of the church.

If, as I’ve said, Fraser looked a bit like the accused sitting there uncomfortable in his shirt and tie then Martyn Atkins looked like he might be the solicitor representing him. The differences in appearance reflected something of the differences between the talks.

Where Fraser had been the streetwise vicar reflecting on what he’d heard and experienced Atkins approach was much more academic and book based.

Using scripture from Jeremiah and John he reflected on a range of images and motifs of what being a Christian is like. These ideas were taken from books by Margaret Myers(didn’t catch title)  and Donald Messer  (A Conspiracy of Goodness).

For me the first two motifs of Myers he used were the most striking. The first was ‘resident alien’ and the second was ‘the pilgrim’.

In regards to the ‘resident alien’ he made the point we need to work out what justice is in a complex world.

When unpacking what it means to be a pilgrim he focused on how pilgrims don’t travel alone, they are partnered. He said we need to be partnered ecumenically and with others outside of churches who are ahead of us in reflecting God’s values. Within this part of his talk he emphasised the need to learn from and partner with those who can show us how to embrace inclusion through their equality and diversity practices. He also said we need to partner locally, not seeking superiority because our buildings or staff may be involved.

He finished his talk, which was the last of the afternoon, by reflecting on how in the past evangelicalism and social action were seen as separate but now they’re not. He explained the importance of taking a holistic approach.

The keynote speech was interesting and I agreed with what was being said but I did wonder how this would all work out in practice, particularly the partnering and speaking out. Methodism is to some extent constrained by what Conference have and haven’t said and done. The inability of the denomination to respond to the parts of the same sex marriage consultation which related to gender identity because there was no mention of the subject in the CPD illustrates the constraints the denomination faces.

Beyond the keynote speakers were workshops which we’d previously booked into. There was lots of group work involved in the workshops which sometimes worked well and at other times not so well in the sessions I was in.

The morning workshop I went to was on ‘what does my local area really need’. It was an ok seminar, but within a few minutes I realised that it was wrong for me as it was about things with which I was somewhat familiar.

The afternoon session on preaching and praying for justice was fantastic though. It was focused and Janet Morely facilitated us very professionally as we identified the key aspects of good and bad practice in preaching for justice and praying for justice and fed back. This was workshop that I would recommend for any conference aimed at preachers or worship leaders. (If Connected Worship were being repeated I would highly recommend considering booking Janet).

All in all a good conference but one I felt could have been improved by having an activist session led by the JPIT themselves. I think it would have been useful to discuss how we campaign alongside them on global and national issues as well as locally in our contexts. Groups like this have a key role in connecting the hyper local with the wider networks and national/international campaigns they feed into. This is something I think would have been good to explore further.

That last bit said it was good and the JPIT had worked hard putting it together, as they do on everything – it is no suprise this conference was a sell out.

They are an important resource to the Baptists, URC and Methodists who they represent and this needs recognising more widely than I think it sometimes is. Hurrah for the JPIT.

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.

Church for Every Context – Review

Church For Every Context by Michael Moynagh with Philip Harrold, published by SCM came out earlier in 2012 and was one of three books published this year which can be seen as official assessments of where Fresh Expressions and Pioneer ministry are as we come to the end of the first phase of official backing. The other two are: Fresh by David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts and Michael Volland and  Fresh Expressions in the Mission of  the Church a report by the joint Anglican and Methodist Working Party. (This is the first I have been able to get my hands on – having had Third Party get it out of the college library for me to read whilst she was home).

This text takes a theological look at the movement as well as providing a sociological framework to examine the structural basis of the movement.

At 21 chapters and 447 pages of actual text it is on one level very, perhaps too, comprehensive. However, as each chapter takes a different theme it could, in some ways, be argued not to have the depth that it appears on the surface to have. However, it is designed like this for good reason. It is essentially a text book and each chapter ends with questions for reflection as well as signposting the reader who is looking for that extra depth towards further reading.

In taking a macro rather than a micro approach to the subject the book lacks much of the ethnographic material which can be found within other books in the subject including those within the Ancient Faith Future Mission series. That is not to say it is missing but rather mention to it is brief and where reference is made it is to illustrate a much larger point rather than to reflect on a specific form of Fresh Expression or Pioneer Mission.

The key term which Moynagh focuses on within the book is “contextual church” as opposed to Fresh Expressions or Pioneer Ministry, thus getting to the root of what they are talking about.

The first two chapters give a persuasive argument that “contextual church” was the from that new testament worshipping communities took.

Chapter three describes how through the Fresh Expressions movement in particular “contextual church” has re-emerged as a way of approaching church within contemporary Britain.

Chapter four seeks to outline, using sociological material, the nature of culture shift in late modernity and the move to network societies. It is also where a sub-text of debate, which is obviously an ongoing discussion, between the author and academics from the University of Nottingham who have advocated a more radical orthodoxy starts to emerge. This critique of their work and of their criticisms of the Fresh Expressions movement is interesting in that it highlights the way in which academic reaction has not been as homogeneously positive as sometimes portrayed.

Chapters five to ten deal with ecclesiology, the nature of church. Within this section the discussion relating to what is mission and what its relationship to worship should be are particularly interesting.

The book changes nature and tone half way through. It moves from a focus on the foundational theology and theory to examining the theory surrounding and hallmarks of good practice.  The writer reflects on the Fresh Expressions organisation and the wider fresh expressions/pioneer movement together with social entrepreneurial to draw out a set of principles of good practice. In doing this section three essentially becomes a six chapter manual on how to approach forming and sustaining a fresh expression/pioneer initiative.

The final five chapters entitled “Growing to Maturity” change gear again. These chapters engage with some of the critiques and practical issues relating to the Fresh Expressions/ pioneer mission movement which have emerged from within the wider church, (as opposed to within academic theology), over the last few years. Issues such as communion and discipleship are discussed and what is said is useful within a text giving the wider picture, as discussed earlier. However, to fully engage with the issues discussed in this final chapter the reader may find it more useful to look at the  Ancient Faith Future Mission  series which looks at the problems which have emerged through reflection from practitioners. (see here for my review of the most recent book, Fresh Expressions of Church and the Kingdom of God).

The final chapter Towards the Mixed Economy Church is essentially a call for the continued development of “contextual churches” within established denominations alongside “inherited” churches.

Overall I think it is an important and useful text which I highly commend and I agree with much, indeed most, within it.

However, reading this book did reinforce some concerns which have emerged in the wider context of looking at this movement over the last few years.

The first concern relates to the tension which exists between the DIY culture/ethos of the movement and the power exerted by the “permission givers”.  Is Fresh Expressions an organisation or a movement?  This debate is something Moynagh acknowledges, in passing, as an issue but he is firmly rooted in the language of the “permission giver”. It was something I found interesting comparing the content of the Fresh Expressions conference and ADVENTurous events I went to earlier this month.

The second concern relates to the mixed economy discussion and the way that the focus is almost exclusively centred on people going out to form churches in teams.

Whilst this is what Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministry have focused upon I think we are now at a stage where wider issues are emerging which need to be addressed but which are being lost. The key one is how do we help people navigate between spaces?

The discussion within this text and others has been almost exclusively based around how do we move to building “contextual church” but I think it is time to address how we help people who are philosophically and spiritually tied into the “contextual” mindset but who feel called to remain part of the established church to navigate between these spaces and incorporate fresh expression thinking, appropriately, into established church contexts.

Additionally, we need to explore what it means to be called to engage in fresh expressions and pioneer ministry without being called to start a church or community.  For example if looking at chaplaincy there are clear overlaps between this and fresh expression/pioneer mission as it is being articulated here. However, there are also differences as chaplains are external people who go in after negotiating access and who seek to support rather than build intentional new communities.

Then there is the question of how we help people develop their ministry within the cultural context in which they inhabit. What I mean by this is how do we help people who are seeking to simply live out your faith in a context which does not have the same gatekeepers to negotiate entry with, primarily because they already inhabit and are part of this context and they don’t wish to start a church within it. This is what Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger describe as “evangelism as a way of life, not an event.” In Emerging Churches  they have defined this as “evangelism that overcomes the sacred/ secular split of modernity [which] must be a natural part of one’s everyday life.”[i] How do people do this whilst also remaining part of established “inherited” congregations?

To illustrate what I mean regular readers will know that Karl and I live within the mixed economy. We are both “churched” and feel called to remain in and serve God within the “inherited church” through local preaching, amongst other things. Yet, our understanding of what it means to be Christians who are part of the wider church goes beyond this and is much more based upon what is associated with fresh expressions or pioneer ministry thinking. We get involved contextually and as a result find it difficult that we cannot transfer those skills easily into being local preachers, as the framework doesn’t exist to do the listening/ community building when you get sent around a circuit only going to a church once or twice a year.

This whole area is something which Moynagh touches on but doesn’t fully explore. It is something I would like to see somebody engage with because I think it is increasingly going to be important.

[i] Gibbs, E and Bolger, R, Emerging Churches, (2006), London, SPCK, pp79-80

Preaching after Difficult Events

In the short time I’ve been a local preacher I’ve been planned in twice for evening services which have taken place on the weekend after major news events which have left people wondering ‘why?’. The first was after the Japanese earthquake last year and the most recent was this weekend. Each time I’ve had the decision to make, do I mention it or not, do I mark it or not. My own instinct is not to major on it, but that it would be wrong not to acknowledge the event and the feelings that the congregation are bringing to worship concerning it as well as giving space to remember the victims.

On the first occasion I marked it by having some tea lights which people came and lit at the beginning of the service to remember those who had died. It enabled us, as a congregation, to bring our acknowledgement of what had happened and confusion about it.

Last night I was in a different smaller space, leading a service together with Karl. We decided that we would have a period of silence as the main part of the intercessory prayer and allow people to have time taking their own thoughts about it all to God before I summed up.

I did mention it briefly within my reflection. We were talking about the way Advent is a time of hope in the apparent darkness and so it seemed appropriate to reflect that at the moment with events like those we’ve seen in Conneticut it can be difficult to see the hope in the darkness but God is still there somewhere.

I have to be honest I didn’t really know what to say, I prayed about it, but it’s difficult. What do we say? Why does God allow the slaughter of the innocents now or back in the past. It’s one of the most difficult things I have with the whole Christmas story, we gloss over the murder of innocent children.

I was glad today to be able to listen to John Bell’s Radio 4 Thought For the Day reflection in which he talked about the way the bible which raises those questions is a book for pain rather than piety.

John Bell ends his reflection by saying “and only love can make it better”. And that’s true.

I personally find it useful to reflect through music as much as anything else, as I’ve said in the past. Particularly in my personal spirituality it somehow allows me emotionally connect in a way I can’t using my own words. Two clips which we’d planned in before the shootings became really important to me as I sat worshipping, dealing with my conflicting emotions about it all. The first was Simon and Garfunkels 7 O’Clock News/ Silent Night and the other was Jars of Clay Love Came Down at Christmas.

As I think I’ve indicated I still don’t really know what to do when I find myself preaching after those events. So any advice would be more than welcome.

Community sees People

The Guardian had this article on the changing nature of festivals and the way that the head of Live Nation John Probyn has said that the biggest challenge to the industry is that festival goers are becoming too fussy.

I read the article with interest, particularly the part where he talks of it being a good thing festivals getting bigger and control more centralised because it allows the costs including the artists fees to be lowered. He is talking of a particular type of festival and punter. The events he is talking about are the huge big name ones.

However, as David Binder reminds us in this recent TED talk about the changing nature of festivals it is just one model. There is a diversity within the festival market and different festivals attract different people for different reasons. Within his talk Binder describes, primarily, the type of festival which Milton Keynes had over the summer with its Summer of Culture and theInternational Festival which took place within it and which is coming back in 2014 with a large scale dance performance being planned by the new artist in residence Rosemary Lee according to the website. I reflected on the role that artists themselves had in this model, (MKIF for example has heavy involvement from The Stables ).

Then there are the embedded independent festivals like Greenbelt which have a niche market and a loyal following. The way in which most people just got on with the mud was indicative of the way in which this type of festival goer differs from the punter at the big event. There is a sense of community which exists amongst many who attend these festivals which, whilst there at some of the bigger more commercial events, is lost amongst most. I can’t imagine V asking for festival goers to contribute to this type of crowd sourced documentary project for their 40th birthday.

There has to be an acknowledgement that over recent years the festival market has become over saturated and this has put pressure upon many festivals and events of all kinds. However, there has also been as Binder indicates a shift and organic growth of community art which has taken place at the same time. This ties in with the point which one of the contributors at ADVENTurous, (which Jonny Baker has some brilliant photos of within a slide show which can be accessed via his blog), made. That is there is a link being made between the local or hyper local and the global. (See this post for more my take on that event).

It has always been there but in recent times it has emerged more obviously again, almost like a phoenix from the ashes. In part it appears to be a response to the recession and the economic situation people now find themselves in, in part it is because we have the tools of social media and the digital age and in part it is because of something which has been happening on the ground amongst artists and others.

Roger Kitchen gave a talk at a TEDx Milton Keynes event in September where he described the community he lived in. Within it he explained that Wolverton has a strong sense of community and it is a creative place which as old institutions and customs have died has put new events in place. It has benefited from grassroots involvement, including from artists who have often chosen to live in the area simply because of its affordability. There is that hyper local element of community engagement happening.

Reading the initial Guardian article I referred to I was struck by the way that the Live Nation guy just saw artists as another commodity to be obtained as cheaply as possible just like beer. The economic models he is using are those which refer to ‘labour’ rather than people and whose main purpose is to allow the entrepreneurs and owners to make as much profit as possible. In that scenario where art and artists are seen as little more than another supply and demand model variable the consumer will become more picky.

However, using other models where artists are valued as people with skills and something exciting to bring then something truly exciting can happen. Communities can be rebuilt and change can occur.

Within his talk Roger Kitchen What Makes A Community? made reference to the MK Christian Foundation and their social enterprises. This is one example of where the Christian community is working with the wider community and working on qualitative rather than quantitative growth.

The work En Gedi is doing with ADVENTurous, which is described by Gavin Mart 10 mins into this Fresh Expressions clip from the conference the other week, is another example of qualitative rather than quantitative engagement and of how secular artists are working with the those from faith communities. One interesting thing is the way that Mart (and others at the Following the Missionary Spirit conference) talked of permission giving taking place, whilst those doing stuff on the ground at ADVENTurous were making the point what is happening with alot of the new festivals and artistic NVDA projects is people are learning to just do it without seeking permission.

In looking at the arts world and thinking about these things, reflecting in part on my thesis conclusions, I see that what is happening in the festival culture is also happening within Christian culture.

The large churches focused on quantitative growth using market based strategies are still there. They are facing challenges specific to their context, including I would argue from some of the anecdotal evidence you find around the web, a greater pickiness amongst  those worshippers who attend them. If these consumers aren’t happy in one church they are quite happy to travel to another which meets their requirements.

However, at the same time there are several other things happening and a variety of models emerging. There are established churches and congregations changing the way they do things, taking a more relationally based approach which seeks qualitative as much as quantitative growth. These are the churches who are getting out into their local communities again and often coming together as the driving forces behind social enterprise movements. Food banks, (despite their problem of being organisations which meet need rather than challenging the causes of need), are another part of this whole move which is taking place..

Then there are the small micro-groups and communities who are coming together. The people who Studebaker and Lee, in their paper on Emerging Churches in Post Christian Canada describe as the pilgrims.

Different models are emerging in different contexts in both the arts/festival world and the Christian world, and surprise surprise – as they both inhabit the same physical world – crossovers are occurring as communities are being (re)formed.

That’s my take I’d welcome your thoughts and comments.

Fresh Expressions of Church and the Kingdom of God – Review

Fresh Expressions of Church and The Kingdom of God edited by Graham Cray, Aaron Kennedy and Ian Mobsby is the third book in the Ancient Faith, Future Mission series. As with the other books in this series it is a collection of essays which mixes the theological reflections of practitioners with more academic theological writings on the subject.

Within it the authors are seeking to demonstrate that both ecclesiology and missiology are important and that the tension which sometimes exists between those focusing on Church and those for whom the Kingdom of God is primary is important to recognise but actually based upon a false dichotomy. The volume seeks to explore at how the Church is engaging with mission through fresh expressions.

The book is coming from a predominantly Anglican perspective and some of the debates about fresh expressions of church it refers to have to be seen as occurring within that denominational context. This Anglican dominance is apparent from the introduction onwards where reference is being made to the parish system before talking about the divisions between “high” and “low” church and the way the binary nature of the debate around fresh expressions has developed around the 2004 Mission Shaped Ministry report in particular. The list of contributors to this volume also demonstrates why one would expect it to be weighted in favour of this ecclesiastical perspective. However, most of the time this Anglican underpinning to the text is more implicit than explicit and it is a book which can be commended as an interesting, and at times useful read for anybody to engage with whatever their background.

Chapter I by Archbishop Rowan Williams is clearer and more accessible than some of his academic writings. Within the middle of this chapter he poses three questions which he says need to be carefully thought about “at least as a basis for honest and faithful discipleship.” These questions are:

  • How does the community enable its members to grow in prayer as to enter more fully into the ventral mystery of Christ’s relationship with his Father?
  • Can the community point to something in its collective life that makes a contribution to wider society which would not be made if there were no Christian presence around?
  • How far does the community encourage and enable its members to teach and learn from one another.[i]

Towards the end of his chapter he also talks about the role of communion and sacramentality. The point he effectively makes is that whatever the form of Christian community there are some common themes which they need to be thinking about and engaging with and that fresh expressions as with more traditional forms of Church sometimes make mistakes.

Chapter 2 Communities of the Kingdom by Bishop Graham Cray begins by outlining two competing critiques which have emerged in regards to the Mission Shaped Ministry report one of which basically says it’s too church based whilst the other says it gets in the way of what the Church should be doing. He says that his chapter is not looking to refute the critiques, but it can certainly be seen as responding to them. It can be seen in some ways as a continuation of what it seems he, (as a co-editor), has written for the introduction to the book.

Central to his chapter is discussion of ‘fresh expressions journey’ which he says has five key stages: listening, serving, forming community, evangelism and disciple-making (Jesus as king) and evolving worship.

Chapter 3 by Richard Sudworth who is a pioneer curate in Birmingham is a chapter of two halves. It begins in a very academic way taking the style of an journal paper examining the terminology of fresh expressions and context they emerge in through a mini-literature review. The second half draws on his own experience in Birmingham and tells the story of what his church is doing in the local context and why. This latter part of the chapter, which is can been seen as a good example of theological reflection is by far the stronger and more readable part.

Chapter 4 by Paul Kennedy which focuses on refresh@winnall is quite an in-depth theological reflection on the context in which the writer has been working within which the early church concepts of ekklesia and oikos are explored. It is probably the strongest example of theological reflection within the text.

Nadia Boltz Weber talks about her Denver based congregation “Saints and Sinners” within chapter 5. She gives examples of different activities which take place and through them explores them the complexity of what it means when we talk of being ‘church’. Within this she implicitly talks about the ecumenical aspect as well as the insider/ outsider divide which is often talked about but which in practice is hard to define. This chapter is complemented in many ways by the other chapters looking at North American experience. In Chapter 10 in which Andy Freeman theologically reflects on a visit to the 24-7 prayer movement and their boiler room in Vancouver. Mike Angell talks about the university chaplaincy he has been part of within chapter 11.

The strongest bit of academic theology comes from chapter 6 which is written by prominent theologian Phyllis Tickle. She looks at historical context (both of the early church and the more recent Pentecostal revival) to show how fresh expressions and the wider Emergance strand of Christianity have developed. She then outlines why these can cause the tensions between ecclesiology and the kingdom of God which the book is focusing upon.

Chapter 7 telling the story of CFC, an organisation in Northern Ireland, is the first of two which explicitly refers to addiction and working with those struggling with addiction. This is the most evangelical chapter within the book, and is an interesting case study. It contrasts well with Clare Catford’s chapter 14 ‘Addicted in the City’ which explores the variety of addictions which exist and some of the reasons behind them. She makes the point  we need to “take seriously the addictions we all carry, before seeking to save others.”[ii]

Chapter 8 which contains Diana Greenfield’s experience of working in Glastonbury and the surrounding area is an interesting read which gives one picture of what it means to be a minister today. Another, contrasting, sketch is drawn by Sam Wells a CofE vicar who describes his experience of working in a deprived area of Norwich in chapter 15. Toby Wright’s brief reflection on his experience of being a parish priest in Peckham (chapter 13) also fits into this aspect of the text.

Lincoln Harvey is another academic, as well a vicar, and his chapter (9) is an interesting defence of the whole of the mixed economy and plea for people to move beyond the polarisation which has characterised many of the debates.

Damian Feeney’s contribution in chapter 12 sits slightly at odds with the other contributions, although complementing them. He looks, firstly, at the themes from much more of a ‘high’ church position discussing the way Roman Catholic social justice has and must influence some of the thinking on fresh expressions within other parts of the Church (universal). The chapter then moves on to examining the Corrymela Community as an example of good practice. What he implicitly does here, but which is never fully developed, is look at the place of the models of community which grew firstly out of the Edwardian era, but which were developed further in from the late 1960’s to the mid 1980’s. The influence of these groups including the Iona Community, Methodist Diaconal Order and others and the ways that they share characteristics with but still have unique elements which make them distinct from fresh expressions and new monastic communities is something which I think would make an interesting future study for somebody.

Overall a useful contribution to an expanding body of theological work in this area which isn’t a bad read either.

[i] page 4

[ii] page 159

Fresh Expressions Conference Review

Following the Missionary Spirt was the title of the Fresh Expressions conference held at Holy Trinity Brompton today. It was a conference intended to review where the fresh expressions movement is now and to help point the way forward. The target audience were those involved in Fresh Expressions and in pioneer ministry.

After a little promotional/ informative video explaining where the movement is now Jonny Baker stepped up to give a book review/ outline of the most recent literature. He gave verbal support for the following recent texts:

Fresh! by David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts and Michael Volland

Church for Every Context by Michael Moynagh

Fresh Expressions of Church and The Kingdom of God Edited by Graham Cray, Aaron Kennedy and Ian Mobsby, (which Baker has blogged a review of today – and which I intend to post a review of in a few days when I’ve finished reading it).

He also made reference to another recent post of his which outlined five things he’d learnt as a CMS pioneer trainer. In that he had noted “not fitting in is a wonderful gift.”

There were then a couple of speakers involved in FX projects in Germany and Barbados before a time of worship led by Tom Smith and the HTB band. Then it was on to the key note speech which came from Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. He spoke movingly on belonging and a quiet revolution which has been taking place about how we think of the word church. His talk contained the following key points:

Whilst church is renewed from the edges not the middle because no where was more edgy than the hill of Calvary God seems to be moving in from the edges to the centre.

He moved on to talking about missional opportunity and issues around how and why people connect. He made the point that the gospels are about Jesus reaching out to those who feel they don’t belong. When he calls for people to repent it isn’t about finger wagging, it’s more gentle asking people to turn around and seeing that they do belong and are welcome.

He continued that the early church was a network of belonging which could not be mapped to any particular social group. Then he bought it to the present. Fresh Expressions should have as a starting point the question “why should church be interesting for anybody?” If church in whatever form is just a hobby there is no point, we need to get back to missional opportunity where belonging is still an issue. In a society where people still panic about strangers there is a genuine issue of how we view the “other”. He said we need to have a biblical vision of being relational and belonging. He said in a church which speaks of possibility all can belong together and we need to turn around and trust.

At this point I was wondering in light of this weeks events and wider issues in the church whether he was being somewhat idealist, but Rowan is a realist with hope. He went on to make the point that we do still have to sometimes be careful about which churches we refer people to, which is why Fresh Expressions can be useful. However, without the steady, faithful, mainstream inherited church FX wouldn’t be possible. We need mixed economy or mixed ecology as some describe it.

Rowan said he enjoyed listening to stories of people in Fresh Expressions and finding out how people get there. He described how often acts of trust were involved.

Rowan was followed by Martyn Atkins who is the General Secretary of the Methodist Church of Great Britain. He said there is a tension of being on the edge and that there is a value in permission giving and letting people know it is ok to take holy risks. He said the really positive thing about FX has been saying in so many ways “it’s alright”.

He then went on to talk of trustees being gatekeepers with the primary role of holding things in trust and said in times like this it is particularly important. Trustees have a role in encouraging and permitting this holy risk taking but for this to happen a changing mindset has been required.

He was thankful that FX projects are gathering different people groups within and beyond inherited and new churches. The vision for FX isn’t just reaching disaffected radicals it’s also something the bemused regulars are getting. There is now a meeting place where vision and energy meet.

The most striking part of the talk was when he talked of how FX can’t and won’t be explored using traditional tools of theological discourse. At the moment we are analysing them in a way which is rather like using a tin opener to peel a banana. New theological systems need to emerge.

In the afternoon Rowan Williams, Martyn Atkins and Graham Cray formed a panel to answer some questions submitted by the audience over lunch. There was only limited time for these and the FX website will display some wider answers, (one presumes from Graham Cray). Within this section a key point made was that a creative approach to unity is required.

This led on to a “goodbye and thank you Rowan” session which was very moving because the point was made that Fresh Expressions is a significant part of Rowan’s legacy. In view of the way he was robbed of another part of his legacy earlier in the week it needs underlining, what Rowan has achieved with the Fresh Expressions movement is significant. He gave permission and whilst there are debates about what that aspect means for FX projects the truth is permission is linked to resources and without the support of Rowan and others those resources wouldn’t have been available.

Before Moot ended the session with some liturgical FX worship Stephen Lindridge (the Methodist FX missioner) spoke as did some pioneers before Graham Cray wrapped up with a speech which was largely a repeat of his article in last weeks Church of England newspaper. The most engaging of these speakers was a Venture FX pioneer called Gavin who is working with an arts project in Colwyn Bay.

All in all an interesting day which was useful for putting into context how FX are “officially viewed” and how those on the ground and in certain positions of authority,(gained through their knowledge and roles as practitioners and trainers), interact with the authorising hierarchy. People watching was fascinating.

Clarity in Emotion

The Transgender Day of Remembrance event I’ve blogged about recently was last night. It was a moving event which about 20 people including the local mayor attended. There were poems (one of which was written by a member of the local trans community), a reflection, a prayer and we all read out together the names of those we know about who have died as a result of transphobic violence over the last year. At the end of the event Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong was played.

It was an emotional event and whilst the reading of the names was extremely moving it was the prayer, (which is the second one down on this link and which Karl amended for a secular, mainly non-Jewish audience) and song which hit me.  As I sat at the back of the room I could see around me a number of trans people whose stories I knew something of, as well as people who I didn’t know. I could also see the local police woman who is in charge of dealing with hate crime locally. Finally I had in my mind a couple of people who couldn’t be there for various reasons, whose stories and struggles again I knew something of. Listening to the song I knew the reality of the lyrics, these people do really have something inside so strong which enables them to carry on in the face of prejudice and injustice.

This event then was not just an act of remembrance it was also an act of solidarity and in a strange way also a celebration of hope.

After everybody had left and we had cleared away Karl and I walked out of the small hall hired for the event and into the main church reception, the lovely guy on reception gave us the news. “They’ve said no to women bishops.” (Making an Ass of Myself has posted the figures and his reaction, he clearly makes the point that the majority of the church is in favour.) I managed to hold it vaguely together and not burst into floods until I got outside the building, but it hurt. Karl commented that he was surprised by the force of my reaction seeing as I didn’t even believe in bishops. The thing is though this isn’t about bishops entirely, it’s much wider, it’s about women in the church and how they are viewed. It’s about the continuation of struggles over a century old, it’s also about whether in reality there is any way in which closer ecumenical ties can happen, it’s about having a barrier to credible mission and witness removed and so I could go on.

For me it’s also about knowing that whilst it’s a problem for some who provision was being made for it’s something which the majority of ordinary CofE attenders are not opposed to – something yesterday’s figures have confirmed. Whenever this issue is discussed I think back to a conversation I had with my grandma about 10 years ago. My grandma was a dyed in the wool Book of Common Prayer, 8 o’clock communion type who in many ways typified a certain type of rural church attender. She was a woman who had strong views about what women could and couldn’t do. She was of the opinion that women most definitely should not be serving on the front line or going to sea with the navy, they were not designed to be refuse collectors and there were various other things they shouldn’t be doing but she could see no reason why they could not be bishops. In fact she commented one of the local clergy, who was amongst the first ordained as a women priest, would make a very good bishop.

Where do we go from here? None of us know and it will be interesting to see what happens later this morning. All I would say is that this is clearly now about what provision is provided for those who cannot accept women bishops rather than the idea of women bishops. The debate yesterday afternoon was mainly focused around this and I know that over the last couple of years it is what both sides have been arguing about. I hope and pray a solution is found and that the fear expressed in some of the speeches yesterday can be overcome.

I think this is where I go in a circle and to those who are reconsidering their future in the CofE after this vote, and various Facebook status’s I have read are indicative that some are doing just this, I would go back to the TDOR event and the Labi Siffre song. In the face of opposition it is important to hold on to that thing inside which is so strong and which has kept you there thus far. I’d also point you towards this post from Artsy Honker which contains much wisdom.

This morning, just as I stood last night (and continue to stand) with my transgender friends, so I stand in solidarity with my sisters (and brothers) in the CofE who are continuing their struggle for justice and the ability to be all that they truly are and were designed to be. Just as TDOR was in a strange way a celebration of hope after the emotional numbness of yesterday I now see the vote as a strange celebration of hope….the majority voted yes, the will of synod and the wider church is clearly yes and one day it will happen because there is something inside so strong.