Category Archives: Research

Following on from Hagar

Following on from my last post this talks about what Hagar’s experience would have been likely to be like as a single parent engaging with church today. It was the part b of the sermon which got cut due to “good practice” guidelines re time and length of time you can expect people to concentrate for kicking in.

We’re now going to move on and think about what Hagar’s experience might have been if she had been around today and were part of a church community now and what the church may have been able to have done to support her. Most of this thinking comes from the academic research I’ve done into this subject over the last few years.

Firstly, if she were part of a church community she would have found that she were in a clear minority. Peter Brierley who has produced all sorts of statistics about church attendance in recent years has calculated that approximately 6% of all families with dependent children who attend church are single parent families, this compares to about 20% of families with dependent children in wider society being single parent families.

The statistics also tell us it is likely that she would have been part of a larger congregation where there were other single parents.

Whilst she may have heard sermons about family life these would have been likely to have been talking about married family life. It is likely her experience as a single parent would not have been talked about. Certainly, she would not have heard her own story unless somebody had chosen to move away from the lectionary reading for that week. Whilst black majority churches are comfortable talking about Hagar and her story white majority churches, particularly those following the lectionary have made her a largely invisible figure within the bible.

In terms of how well her experiences and needs were understood by the church leadership, this like the level of involvement she could have in church would have more to do with the attitudes of the church towards women in leadership than anything else.

The majority (90%) of single parents in this country are women, and so churches that bar women from holding positions of either lay or ordained leadership over men are less likely to have the voices and experiences of a single parents heard in their discussions.

Whether her church was engaged in mission, evangelism and outreach to other single parents would have depended upon a range of factors. These would have included whether they felt outreach and evangelism was best done through relationally reaching out to the community around them or through friendship evangelism and inviting friends and family to social events and seeker style courses like Alpha.

If they reached out into their local communities through kids clubs, messy church and this type of thing then they are likely to have been building up relationships with other single parents.

However, if they had gone for the approach of focusing on what is known as “friendship evangelism” where people invite their friends and family it is unlikely that single parents would have been engaged with in the same way.

This is because churches are more likely to contain married, middle aged middle class couples and older couples and young professionals. Their social networks are likely to be focused around similar people – because we tend to have friends who are like us and so single parents are less likely to be invited to church.

Hagar would have been likely to be attracted to being part of a small group and this would have been the most positive part of church life for her. The small group would provide somewhere where she could share with others about what was going on in her life. This could be either through informal discussion or through being able to share her experience and how the passage/ spiritual issue being discussed related to it. The ability to share prayer requests would have been useful for her too.

She would have also benefited from the group because it would be a space where she could support others too. Hagar, as we already know would have had a lot to offer and small groups are somewhere she would have been able to build relationships which would have allowed her to find out how she could help others.

In technical language Hagar would have found a small group to be a transformational space. Attending a small group would have been easier for Hagar if it met in the church building and she could have bought her child with her. It would have been helpful if it could have started mid-evening finished by about 9 o’clock at latest so she could get her child home for bed. It would have also been helpful if there was an understanding Hagar wouldn’t have been able to attend every week, it would depend on what was going on at home.

Hagar would have had various physical and emotional needs in her life. She is likely although not automatically going to have been surviving on a relatively low income. However, she would also be quite proud. As such support in getting a part-time job which fitted in with school hours, help doing odd jobs at home and a little help with food or a food parcel at Christmas would have been useful whilst she were at the stage of her life of needing support and help finding resources. Although it’s important to remember that for Hagar this were just one stage in her life. By the time she provides the dowry she has obviously become financially strong and independent.

However, Hagar would also be very proud and reluctant to take what she would regard as charity. She would be unlikely to ask for help, even if she needed it – preferring to prove she could manage. This is where being part of a small group would be important for her. Small groups allow for relationship and would allow her to start trusting again, something she’d find hard….this would make it easier for the church and people within it to provide the pastoral care she requires as part of the congregation.

A final song which you might want to listen to as you reflect on what life might have been like for Hagar if she had been a single mother now is One Day by Brenda Freed  from her Until Daylight CD (performed by her group Texas Hot Flash in this performance which can be found on You Tube).

Visionary Parenting – A Review

Visionary ParentingAt the moment as part of my research I am looking at some parenting course type materials, (yes the irony). This gives me a dual role; researcher and parent. To be honest going through some of the material, particularly with Third Party in ultimate Kevin mood during part of it, has made me see the value of my “sanity fieldwork diary”. The “sanity fieldwork diary” being the seperate fieldwork journal I was told to keep, for my eyes only, which I record and reflect on my feelings during the fieldwork in. I find it fairly easy to detach myself and be “the academic” whilst I’m working now and handle the dual role of researcher and worshipper during services, but some of the material I’m working with now needs looking at on two levels, the academic and the personal.
It is in this second role, the parent, that I am reviewing Visionary Parenting by Dr. Rob Rienow today. The academic comments may be quite different, but I wanted to share my view of this material as a parent.
The book can be used either discreetly or in conjunction with a DVD based parenting course, which is available from the Visionary Parenting website.

The theme is parenting but the key within this is the generational transmission of faith. This generational transmission is talked about in terms of the parent/child relationship, ancestoral heritage and a vision for future generations. It refers to family as a “discipleship centre” which I found an interesting and challenging description.

Within this book there are ten chapters, corresponding to eight DVD sessions. These include chapters on biblical fatherhood and motherhood. They are clearly written from a patriarchal perspective, but one which is rooted in spiritual and scriptual understandings of positive patriarchy. By positive patriarchy, which may seem like a paradoxical and contradictory statement, I mean they recognise the differences between genders and do put forward an order where the husband is seen to be above the wife, but they also highlight mutual submission and respect. As a single parent obviously this has issues, ones which the writer recognises in a wink towards us, but never adequatley addresses. Perhaps a seperate chapter addressing the way single parents need to approach biblical parenting, rather than a couple of paragraphs acknowleging us would be useful for any future edition.

Within the text there are a variety of references to spiritual warfare and the devil, which at times left me feeling uneasy. This was particularly the case when he was talking about teenagers. A passage which both hit home and left me feeling uneasy was the following, (p48):
If satan can get a teenager to pull his heart away from his parents and, at the same time, decieve his parents into accepting that a distant relationship with their teen son is normal and appropriate, the seeds are planted for broken relationship. God’s plan for the teen years is very different from Satan’s lies and the picture the world gives us.”

I think it is a book which is useful for making you think about how you pass your faith onto your kids. It showed me where I have done some things right with Third Party aswell as where I might want to think again. It gave some ideas of stuff I might try to integrate into our family life.

However, it is also a book which should be handled with care. There is material within it which if uncritically taken at face value could lead to possible emotional abuse. This is clearly not the intention of the writers, who are obviously a very loving couple, but in the wrong hands I believe the material could lead to misuse. Aswell as the bits on gender roles and spiritual warfare I have already mentioned some of the stuff on discipline got me a tad worried aswell. “If you call your sibling a name then you get a dab of soap on your tongue” seemed to relate to the type of punishments we have moved beyond….although I fully support the if/then model of discipline. The other thing that made me going um…….related to “heart rebellion“. Sometimes I’d love Third Party to do stuff with the right attitude, but if I’m honest I’m just greatful she’ll do it atall and I’m not about to discipline for her for doing it grumpily.

With all the worrying aspects I have highlighted I think the thing is the text makes some interesting and useful points which highlight some of the problems in contemporary culture and the need for people, particularly Christians, to be counter cultural sometimes. However, in all these un-nerving bits of the book if the reader were not careful to read everything being said in the book and think about their implementation of the material it could lead to abusive interpretations.

So overall, I think it’s an interesting and at times provocative book which teaches us, effectively, how to evangelise to our children and through them to future generations. It is clearly a product of the US conservative evangelical sub-culture it was produced in and as such has elements which need to be examined and critiqued, by a careful reading of the text. I didn’t agree with it all but I do feel that it had some useful ideas to offer and has particular value in promoting the discussion of Christian parenting and how we pass our faith onto our children through our everyday life.

Panel Games

Later today I’m going to be on a panel with some other guys from the department, informally sharing a bit of our journeys and hopefully sharing some “good advice” with some new post-grads. The questions won’t necessarily be your usual though, the person putting the panel together has come up with some which really made me think. The questions we’ve been asked to think about in advance are these:
– What have been some of the most stressful parts of the process, and how have you dealt with them?
– How do you strike a balance between work and the rest of your life?
– What has made you most excited in your studies?
– How do you see theological work relating to the wider world?
– How do you see your own work as part of your calling?
– How has your own faith been part of your work?
– What advice would you give beginning students? What might you do differently if you could start again?

Brief answers I’ve come up with thinking through these are:
•Most stressful bits have been the lack of funding and having to balance more hours at work than I wanted last year with the course, the not knowing if I was going for an upgrade or not and the length of time it took to refine my question and fieldwork proposal into something workable which would pass the ethics committee. Dealt with by finding out everybody who could help me and getting advice and help. Talking stuff through with trusted friends also useful. Being totally honest with supervisors was vital.
•I fail miserably to strike a balance between work and life. It just sort of comes together and sometimes gets close to falling apart. I have made sure I have a network of friends to keep me focused and hold me accountable when they see it totally getting out of balance. Being part of a faith community, networking over coffee with friends also studying, and having an internet community outside Durham has kept me sane. Blogging and Facebook have been important for me in this as it has given me a forum to shout “help” when it all seems to be getting totally out of balance. However, they have also been problems for me as I tend to procrastinate too much.
•Most exciting things have been the getting stuck into the American studies on family and seeing that there are “proper academics” starting to address some similar things and getting to meet one of my “heroes” at the BSA Religion study group conference last year.
•I see my theological world relating to the wider world because my topic is rooted in the wider world. Whilst I want to produce a good high quality academic study I do practical theology which does not see a huge distinction between the academic and the wider world.
•I see my work as being part of my calling because it is giving me knowledge which I might oneday be able to use in a practical way, somehow. It’s about looking at and trying to identify what is good and bad practice and about what gives single parents a good and a bad experience of church. I see myself as an interpreter with a passion for effective and appropriate mission in 21st century Britain rather than an academic and I think this ties into that.
•My own faith has been part of the work in terms of giving me the motivation to undertake this research. I am v. much of the view that there are certain silences in theology and sociology of religion which will only be addressed when people of faith stand up and ask why a lot of research is not touching on their lives and experiences. I have had to learn to hold onto my faith but also to distance myself from it in my research, becoming more objective. This is no bad thing as it helps us engage with the faith of the other aswell as critique our own faith more effectively.
•My advice to others is (i) find good friends in the department to network with and sometimes moan with over coffee…having people going through it too is really important, (ii) if you having problems go and see your supervisor sooner rather than later, (iii) work out why you are doing this and where you want to go, (iv) it’s ok to give yourself a break and (v) take advantage of all the opportunities being here might offer you.
•If I could start again I would have settled for the M Litt from the beginning, not even thinking about the possibility of the upgrade. I would not panic like I did about Durham and have reduced the culture shock. I would not focus on my differences with people but rather just get to know them. I would have smiled more. Oh and I would have been more focused on my research question from the beginning.

As you can probably pick up here I am currently back in one of my “I love Durham” and “I love my research phases”. For those who know what I’ve been feeling in recent times in terms of my research just to reassure you I’ve finally refound my motivation!!!!!!

Whilst not intended as a meme as it was just preparing for the post-grad lunch I would invite other students, particularly post-grads reading this to take up the challenge and answer the same questions. Particularly tagging: JTL and Knitting, Sex and God.

Coming out and coming in

Back in July last year I put up this blog post which discussed my sexuality and ended with this paragraph:
“I know I hold a position which cannot be justified, and that the secular is sensible enough not to find virtuous therefore, I can’t discuss it with them. The effect of this means I walk around with “the wardrobe on my back”, as the poem says, because it is helping me balance on the fence. It is society’s negative views on evangelical Christianity, rather than society’s more positive, (or atleast indifferent), views on LGBT issues which keeps me with one foot in the closet, but also it is the dominant public messages within evangelical Christianity which keep me holding onto that wardrobe. Yet, through it all I know I am not carrying the wardrobe alone and that each time I feel that I have to deny who I am or ensure that discussion is avoided God who created me fully (and who has intended me to be exactly who I am – both queer and evangelical in a largely secular time and place) is there beside me, absorbing my pain.”

A year on and I find myself in a different place. Largely through the way God has worked and my faith journey has developed this year I am more comfortable with the juxstaposition between my views on sexuality and faith. I have been able to put the wardrobe down. This has meant I have recently got to the position where not only was I in the right place to be in a relationship but I was able to have an honest conversation with somebody very special about how I felt about them. The result of this I am now part of a couple.

This has implications, not least there is now a public coming out to those outside of the church I chose not to discuss my sexuality with because I was worried that it would give them more amunition against the faith I hold as the most important thing in life, and wish to give them every positive reason to engage with. This has raised some questions about why I couldn’t just be honest with them before…after all these are the people for whom it is definately not an issue. I have sought to explain the religion thing, but realise within this I am sending out a negative message about the church – which I don’t want to. I have realised that in my approach I was colluding with the lack of integrity that exists in our culture in many issues around faith and sexuality. I made a mistake, but one which I feel too many of us do.

In our attempts to have a missional focus we become over sensitive, just as in our position in ecclesiological debates we may also suffer from similar problems. Sensitivity is important and within this I do believe that there is a rightful place for discretion and sometimes silence. However, there is also a place for truth telling and for letting go of the fear. If we truly believe in the ability of the Spirit to work within people’s hearts and our own responsibility to be sensitive to the Spirit working within us we should not make value judgements about what we tell and don’t tell people because of the impression it may give of the church. That is not, to reiterate, pushing a total disclosure and spill your guts approach but it is saying we shouldn’t take approaches like the one I did.

For me, taking a trinitarian approach, mission stems from an understanding of the role of God: father, son and spirit in my life and in the life of the wider community, both worshipping and wider. This in turn means that the combined role of bible, tradition, reason, experience (Methodist quadrilatural for those of you into such things) is important for me. What I am increasingly aware of is the need to look at our interactions with others aswell as our own lives in relation to that quadrilateral.

The impact of taking this approach is something that I feel is very important and something to be thought through. Taking this approach involves a process of theological reflection. So as individuals, as well as worshipping communities, we need to be aware of how to reflect theologically and relate this to missional activity. This involves us in thinking about issues of faith and practice and how those are engaged in from an accademic, worshipping and social networking perspective.

Here in lies a problem, in our world of professionalised clergy and academics this activity which we all seek to engage in has been largely put into the field of career development for clergy or climbing the career ladder within the academy. I say this because I have, yet again, become aware of the way in which discussions are held between people of faith in social situations and the way the same issues are taken up within “professional study”.

This week I am extremely privilidged to be attending a conference which I am effectively gatecrashing. It is a linked to a qualification which is effectively a professional development qualification for clergy or theological educators. My supervisors suggested I attend because they knew I would find it useful and interesting. Everybody is being lovely and I am really enjoying it. The thing which has struck me most is the way that during the week we have been able to engage intelligently, (using reason), with practical theology (where we have been looking at data gathered as a result of reflecting upon peoples’ experience), but seeking to frame this within a faith based discussion where tradition and scripture have both been referred to during the week.

The types of issues that I have most often found myself discussing with networks of friends I have come to know, primarily, from interenet communities are being discussed within the academic setting. The discussions are almost identical in nature, except for the fact that this week they are involving a bunch of people who have been in a position to gain the evidence and have a greater voice in the discussion. They are the people whose work and discussions will inform the practice that the rest of us have to choose to (or not to) engage in.

Yet again I am wondering why the gap in these discussions exists. I am here largely because I have been extremely lucky and given the chance, to some extent, to ignore the boundaries which exist. The debates and discussions I am hearing though are ones which need the imput of all sides. They are issues which effect and would equally benefit from the critical imput of the layity aswell as professionals.

Greenbelt is great because it allows for some conversation to take place but what I am aware of is the need for smaller scale discussion to take place on a range of issues relating to missional and ecclesiastical issues. Similarly I am becoming increasingly convinced of the need to encourage more lay people to engage in practical theology. Churches are / should be missional centres where the people as a whole reflect on issues of ecclesiology and missiology and how these relate to our current cultures. At the moment I fear that what is happening amongst the layity and “professionals” is a split between “ordianary theology” and “professional theology” which is disenabling mission and is increasing the move to the “professionalisation” of church activity.

Linking this back to where I started, the issue about the expression of my faith and sexuality related to the interplay between missiology and ecclesiology. I cared about how those outside the church would view the practices and beliefs of the church and how this would or wouldn’t point them towards Jesus. Missiology and ecclesiology were important issues for me as a lay person, and not just things for the “professionals”. Similarly in the research I am currently doing, that stems out of my desire to scream out about the need for the church to take mission to single parents seriously and to invest some time and money in the research necessary to underpin good mission initiatives to people who happen to be single parents.

Anyway rant and thinking out loud over.

Worship and Fieldwork

There appears to be quite alot written about the effect of being an “insider” or “outsider” on fieldwork, and similarly the effect of “having faith” or “not having faith”, on the final product, if you are researching religious experience. It’s a facinating subject and one which I have had to start to seriously think about in relation to what I’m doing. What is exercising my mind though, is the effect on your “corporate worship” / “praise” experience when you are a researcher, with faith, going in to conduct field work.

To put in context last week and this I have been out doing some field work, attending one of the local churches I want to gain access to do research in. I’ve gone in, openly, as somebody who is there primarily doing fieldwork. Yet, it’s also been my visit to formal church that week and as such I have engaged with the praise times, etc as a worshipper, all be it a slightly wary one as I have been going to a church which puts me outside my comfort zone.

Thus, the dilemma for me is not how to conduct myself as a researcher engaged in participant observation, that I can to some extent read books to learn, although as with any researcher I’m going to make mistakes. The issue I’m dealing with is how to deal with the idea of “here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that your my God but actually God  here I am to do research”. Now, I know that being the sort of person who views the whole of life as an act of worship one way or another my research is worship in it’s own way, but being there to look at what’s happening does change the dynamic of what you’re doing. At what point does trying to identify and observe what’s going on get in the way of authentically worshipping and if one is faced with the dilemma of getting to the point where you lose yourself in a spiritual experience or possibly getting some really good research data by noting everything else going on around you how does that work? I guess it’ll come down to the fact the Holy Spirit knows the situation and so will be sensitive to the research, in terms of if and when I get bought to that place where I am not really aware of the going ons around me.

Anyway, so far it’s all been good and to be honest much to my surprise I’ve found it quite liberating. Being there with a purpose other than just praise and worship has enabled me to be a bit more objective about some of the stuff I have had issues with in the past. It’s also enabled me to move into just “acting the part”  and so participate in what I’m observing at times when previously I would have felt unable to participate, or more specifically sing some lines I find somewhat unsound, and so have would have just excluded myself from what was going on.

Together with some of the reading I’m doing it’s also allowed me to recognise some of the positives in the charismatic movement and re-engage with experiencing the more charismatic workings of The Spirit in my own worship alittle more. Now, at this point I don’t want people to worry, (or put out the flags – depending on your view), I’m not going native. What I am doing is re-evaluating my prejudices and seeing more of what is good and, even in my own experience, has been positive from these types of groups. However, I am also holding on to what hasn’t been so good in my own and others experiences aswell.

The upshot of all this will remain to be seen, and is going to be a process. Whatever, it is all showing me that by the end of the research my faith is definately not going to be in the same place as it was in the beginning. So just as we have to think about the impact of having faith on research and recognise the issues that gives us it’s important to think about the impact of research on faith.

If anybody knows of any readings or anything I might explore regarding this issue of the impact of field work / research on the researchers spiritual life I’d be greatful if you could leave a comment.