Sunday, 28 March 2010

Mere Christianity

God Loves Atheists

Two blogs in one week. Lucky readers. All will become clear a little later on.

Whilst residing in Peter and Miriam's loo the other evening, (as one does), I started reading in a Christian magazine, about the reaction of a group of atheists in being taken to a service in a large, 'successful'  church in London.

In this group there was a man whose wife is a committed Christian and who fully supports what his wife is doing and often accompanies her to church. Another was a guy whose wife had died of cancer and though he finds it hard to believe in a God of compassion nevertheless enjoys discussing matters of faith and religion. The third person was someone who had been very committed in the church youth group and in local ministry yet within 6 months of being at University, and exposed to a wider world of choice, had declared that he no longer accepted the basic tenets of the faith.
The writer goes onto to make the point that these people are not demons, they are not all in the Dawkins or Hitchens 'rottweiler' mode  but are ordinary people with the same fears, hopes, doubts, temptations etc that are part of being human. We need to hear what they say.

One view expressed - and I am working from memory here - was that the worship and teaching they experienced seemed very 'in house' and 'doctrinaire' rather than being life oriented, less 'certain' and geared towards becoming better people who want to make a difference.
One person insightfully noted that Jesus didn't spend a lot of time teaching 'doctrine' but sought, with his followers, to teach and model a life of love, acceptance, prayer, forgiveness, healing etc amongst the wider community .

I don't think we should ignore doctrine and teaching the basics of faith as long as it is in the context of relationship and real life 'out there' discipleship. Being a Christ centred community must make a difference rather than simply be a spiritual consumer choice for certain types of people. The weddings project, (Oh how I miss you already), in its research showed that there is a desire 'out there' for the church to show what it means to be spiritual and Christian in life and relationships. (This desire sometimes gets lost in translation but it is there - honest). Realise this is so banal and obvious. Maybe I am grasping for a vision that C S Lewis in answer to the question whether he was high or low church said that he was 'deep church'. That rather off the cuff response has been the peg for a lot of talking and writing and has spawned the 'Deep Church' movement. I think Lewis was simply wanting us to get back to being 'Mere Christians' where the Summary of the Law and the Great Commission are the bottom line and the rest is determined and shaped by these fundamental statements.


Friday, 26 March 2010

Keeping the Lights on.

Interesting time with Oxford clergy on the project this week. As with all the 'gigs' we've done there seems to be a certain amount of cynicism and disdain amongst leaders. For example it is amazing that once you start talking about wedding fees the whole idea of 'mission opportunity' can go out of the window. The language tends towards being about 'them' and ensuring 'they' do not take us for a ride, rather than about seeking to be generous and graceful. After all if 'they' are going to spend thousands of pounds on cars, photographs, video, hotel and honeymoon why shouldn't 'we' get 'them' to pay as much as possible. The wedding becomes more or less a transactional arrangement and not always an open transaction.
I am not saying there are not fees to be paid or that services provided should be carefully explained and options given. What I sensed was a little cynicism about the potential opportunities for welcome, hospitality and belonging. A number of clergy even expressed the view that if weddings were 'promoted' it would only mean more work that they simply did not need or want.

I know I have expressed a certain frustration with 'church as we know it' (??!!) and believe that we are entering 'Post Christendom' big time, but I also think that Weddings and similar life occasions are one of the few 'Christendom' opportunities that we have left to us.  Research shows that people do want to get married in church if their wedding can be made personal and there is a sense of it really being 'their wedding'.

It is well documented that there is a relationship between tiredness, burn out and the loss of vision and enthusiasm. The lights go out and a keeping the show on the road mentality with accompanying cynicism seeps in and replaces a mission enthusiasm. How we keep leaders' lights on without telling them simply to do more is, I think, the major challenge for the church, if it is to keep its missionary agenda at the forefront. Cynicism will kill mission endeavour and imaginative risk taking if we don't make this a priority.

Some may feel I am talking from personal experience - uh well yes and thrice yes! But also from the conversations and observations over the past weeks in a variety of diocesan contexts around the country.

Are there some quick wins to help us. My starter for ten:

Make sure leaders get proper time out each week from pastoral and organisational work. I would suggest two days a week. In our network, e mail culture this is getting harder as those in positions of leadership will acknowledge. Keep leaders fresh. The arguement that 'because I work all hours and am dog tired and have no quality time for family, hobbies, shopping, keeping other bits of life together and to pray therefore the leader shouldn't have' is  daft. She/he is there to lead, to have a prophetic edge, to inspire, to counsel etc etc  Keep their tank full and they will be more able to keep yours full as well.

Ensure leaders are getting professional development. Dioceses provide this but there is a lot out there of high quality. Regular reviews and appraisals can identify strengths to be nurtured and weaknesses to be informed. Again some dioceses are doing this but it is still a bit 'ad hoc' and requires the leader to 'co-operate', and there is nothing like something on a local level as well. But let's make it of high quality, well resourced and fun. (The Weddings Project has been rightly praised for all three).

Make sure leaders have time to explore and develop their passions. If they are passionate about leadership, spirituality, preaching, sports evangelism etc then give them time to work on this. Maybe that is what they bring to the table. There is enough of stuff that has to be done but church communities need to be aware of what is it that they do and are (as opposed to their predecessor) that is, maybe, God's gift to the body of Christ at this time.
I could twitter on about paid retreats, membership of fitness clubs, proper holidays, mentoring etc etc

The big thing for me when I was working in Bristol with newly ordained curates was to support them relationally rather than simply seek to educate them. Though we did a lot of development work it supplemented the group times we shared. A key aspect of what is called 'ministerial formation' must be that of keeping the 'warm glow' of calling alive and at the heart of fruitful ministry. This is what I am talking about. Other organisations pay bonuses and offer various perks. We can't do this but we can give time and relationship. It must be worth it for the sake of mission.

'I call you friends'. Phew....Thank you Lord.

Keeping the lights on - let's have your responses and ideas.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Let God do it.....

A mega thank you to all those who have let me have their thoughts in response to these rambles. Whether we agree or not is irrelevant - to engage with you in the conversation is a real joy. The blogs that have got a lot of us going have been the one on trust and the last one on marriage and relationships. I was personally encouraged by those who didn't judge me when I wrote and said that I was finding trusting God a challenge at the moment. I realise in some people's eyes Vicars should probably keep this sort of thing to themselves and live lives of perfected faith and purity, but it has certainly been helpful to me to have promises and words of prayer and support. To me this is the Body of Christ at work.
The blog on marriage and relationships brought forth a variety of views - but what I found encouraging was that there are a growing number of people from a more 'evangelical' perspective, who are acknowledging the context in which we now live, and feel that it is more important that all people are given the opportunity to respond to God's love in Christ. What happens in their lives after that, is something that God does in and through them, and nothing about human pressure, judgement or church expectation. If it doesn't equate to what some people think should be 'right' in our limited and culturally shaped worlds, then maybe we will have to live with that and continually seek God's grace and mercy.

I am an admirer of Bishop James Jones of Liverpool who, coming from a fairly conservative evangelical stance on human sexuality, has embarked on a journey of reflection and change. He likens this to what is meant by being a member of the Anglican community in this day and age. We live amongst diversity, and maybe our church communities need to affirm the value of diversity more - not just in style and practice, but more fundamentally in issues relating to morality and sexuality. I would encourage you to go onto the Liverpool Dicoesan site and read his presidential address for March 2010.

As Bishop called to “maintain the spirit of unity in the bond of peace” in the Diocese of Liverpool where we have the full spectrum of moral opinion on human sexuality I believe that to have “diversity without enmity”, as the Dean put it at the Bishop’s Council, provides a safe and a spiritually and emotionally healthy place for Christians of differing convictions to discern the will of God for our lives. To know and to do God’s will is our calling. The place for that discernment is the Body of Christ where the different members, differentiated by the diversity of our graces, gifts and experiences, are called to be in harmony and love with one another.  It is also offered in the hope that we will let nothing deflect us from mission, the sending out of us all to embrace the world in the love of God.

It is key to God's mission that church communities are safe places for all people and their relationships. That is why I welcome a Bishop who has realised that without Gospel inclusivity there is no mission. Yancey's story of the 3.00am party for Hawaian prostitute ends with the punch line: 'What sort of church throws a party for a prostitute at 3.00am in the morning?' Acceptance and grace... period. The rest is up to God... thank goodness. He's had a lot of practice.

Oxford - well Cuddesdon actually- for the Weddings project at the crack of dawn.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

OK folks a slightly more controversial blog this week. Need your help in this.

Weddings project in Bolton went well. Two things occured to me that I think are worth exploring.

A number of clergy over the past few weeks have made the obvious observation that most couples from outside the church come for marriage, having already been in a committed relationship for some time- a number have children. It gives a fresh slant to marriage preparation. (by the way what a lousy title and how presumptious!). One guy at Bolton was still in 'cold turkey' about this, and felt the need the to use the language of the 'dangers' of co-habiting etc  I suspect he is not alone on this. On the project we simply present the research - or in other words the blindingly obvious - that many couples see marriage as the more like the finishing rather than the starting line. The crown of the relationship. For some if there was the option for baptising their children at the same time then that would make it even better. I would value thoughts about all this.

The other thing that struck me happened outside Manchester station making a phone call. Two female couples walked by me - obviously couples and chatting with others. All seemed very normal.

Both these highlight for me where society and culture is. For me the issue is not about judgement, corrective programmes - but how on earth for God's sake do we live and share the Goood News of Jesus with and among all people. How do we do church now rather than in 1960? Discuss!

Saturday, 13 March 2010 Give it a hit and see what you think!

A great time with the Weddings Project this week. How solid some of these Yorkshire towns and cities are - large public and commercial buildings, squares, public art together with a landscape that speaks of solidity and permanence. Yet it is obvious that it is also a story of cultural diversity in a changing, consumer shaped world.

One of the key issues that keeps emerging through all our sessions is that of the role of the ordained leader in this changing cultural landscape. The Weddings project, on the basis of quality research, makes the point that the 'Vicar' makes the difference. A warm and relational Vicar to be honest. A Vicar who doesn;t just stand at the altar, in the pulpit or even at the door but  spends quality time outside the confines of church.

Jean, a staunch Mother's Union member in a Midlands Diocese, fully on board with what we were saying, made the point: 'the church people in our villages would never put up with Vicars who spent more of their time with those outside the church - we pay for the vicar to look after us.....'  But surely the Pastor/ Priest is there to look after 'us'? Sounds quite reasonable in 'parish share andconsumer churchland' - except when you factor in Jesus. 

The answer is yes and no. I use the example of Jesus and the disciples. They were 'looked after' but always within the context of becoming a sign of the Kingdom of God through being fairly hands on in terms of 'doing' the kingdom. Their life as Christ Followers was shaped by concepts like risk, trust, relationship, community, healing, justice, love, 'go', 'hands on' and so on.

The idea that Christian leaders should be there for 'us' - like our own personal chaplains - is really a product of a settled view of the church rather than that of a journeying people seeking to be active signs of the Kingdom of God in the world of today. 

It's not that congregations don't want their Vicars to be 'out there', it's when they start taking it too seriously that the problems can occur. The ordained should be beyond the door as long as they are always at the altar/pulpit and everywhere in between. To be honest a lot of books I asked potential ordinands to read about ordained ministry seemed to be re-inforcing this idea. To me it seems to be taking the concept of elasticity to breaking point. And to be honest leaders will make a choice - either by default, compromise, ill-health, the pressure of unrealistic expectations or a combination of all these.

One minister told me that she struggles to be 'out there' as much as she would like or needs to be. The percieved needs and expectations of the congregation mean that her time is spent with services for those who like that sort of thing, meetings, sick visits, endless building issues. This means that time to engage personally with the wider community and then to work out how the church community can share in that engagement simply doesn't happen or comes a poor second. Worst of all this tension can often lead to disillusionment and even despair.

Another priest responsible for a large northern Abbey church, (in a tradional Anglican style), made the point that he felt his leadership was becoming defined by the word 'prophetic'. We both took that to mean 'bloody hard', always challenging people and often criticised for not being 'available'.  I know how he feels! He has done a great job in that place but it is obviously still very hard. He said that much of his time is now consciously spent in the wider community despite what the 'church members' think. I really pray for leaders like this, (often with young families), who are not going to give in easily but will continue striving to reshape introverted church communities. I call such people Missional leaders and we simply don't have enough of them. Even Pioneer Ministry seems to have been hi-jacked and shaped by too many with in house agendas.

However much I struggle with the thought, it is true that leaders must set the pace and the context for the mission of the church. This is a prophetic and pioneer ministry and can be both demanding and mis-understood especially from within the faithful at all levels.
Some of you reading who are involved in church leadership may wish to comment and share your own stories. Church members reading this may have their own perspectives to share. It is a conversation that the whole Church needs to have - for God's sake!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

We need help to stop us from sinking

Thinking about trust at the moment. For various reasons I am really struggling with the whole trusting God thing. I remember some years ago preaching on the story of Abraham and Issac and the journey they made as father and son so that Abraham could sacrifice that which was most precious to him. Somehow I found myself saying that as a parent I simply could not do what Abraham was asked to do. The whole scenario of building an alatar, collecting the wood, getting the knife ready went through my mind and to be honest I knew my trust in God would not stretch that far. I even wondered what sort of God would want to put anyone to that sort of test. Yes I realise the key text is probably 'God will provide a scarifice' and that this episode prefigures the Cross but that may also raise questions in our present culture as Steve Chalke has discovered.

I am feeling a bit that God seems to be playing games with us at the moment - I can't go into details - but please pray for Sheryl and myself as we look to the future. Hope is a bit dim so maybe we could share a bit of yours O reader. As Rembrandt's sketch of Peter getting out of the boat shows vividly - we all need help when the water gets a bit choppy and feels as if it's going over our heads.

To Wetherby for wedding project. Gosh these Yorkshire clergy are a canny bunch. When I arrived, soon after things had got started, I could feel the tension in the room. Who are these 'experts' from London and what do they think they can teach us? To be honest it was quite refreshing to work with this. We learnt a lot and they all seemed to as well. By the end of the second day the atmosphere was great and we were really humming. On the idea of sending anniversary cards to wedding couples someone was heard to say: 'It makes a change from just remembering the dead each year.' Amen - let's have a system that remembers and prays for those who have been married amongst us.

One other issue emerged was whether there is a need to do a 'Christenings project'. I discovered that there is a blossoming market in secular naming ceremonies. Done at home, totally personalised and customised - yours £180! Anyone know about this?
I realise Christenings/Baptisms can be controversial but maybe we need to tap into this market and have a naming ceremony which uses as much symbolism as possible - even water! And we'll do it for free.

The Baptism service is fairly spirutally advanced in its language and the life implications and is not where most people are. Let's understand that we cannot 'christianise' people but we can in someway tap into significant experiences their life journey's. Let's resurrect that old folk concept of 'naming a child' and blessing a family.

I am struggling with trusting God at the moment at what I believe to be a significant point in my life. Help me to go with the flow as it were.

Off to Mirfield on Monday for next stage of weddings project. Girding up my loins to engage with another wonderful group of Yorkshire clergy.