For the past nine years I have been tasked with exploring whether it is possible to ‘do’ church differently, in ways which are both true to the Reformed Tradition and contextually relevant in today’s world.
The experiment, I am afraid to say, has proved inconclusive. What has emerged from my ministry might be described as ‘church’ but equally it might not. There are those who would say that, because Hug Cullompton is a community of faith, who all believe in Jesus in one way or another and have a sense of call to discipleship, we must be ‘church’. Others would suggest that, because we are non-credal and have no expectation of adherence to particular doctrines, we cannot be. The most appealing response is: ‘it is what it is – do we have to define it?’ but, attractive as it sounds, that doesn’t really answer the question either.
I have always liked Calvin’s definition of ‘church’. It is about activity rather than place:
Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.
Unfortunately in this instance the quote does not particularly help. For in the 21st century, with its technological advances and changes in learning styles, preaching need no longer be the main vehicle by which the Word of God is proclaimed. Certainly Hug Cullompton has celebrated both sacraments to which Calvin refers (Baptism and Communion), and we are no strangers to picking up a Bible and exploring what God might be saying to us through the words on the page, but does that make us ‘church’ in the Reformed Tradition?
My intention in this article is not so much to give a firm answer to the central question, but rather to share some reflections that might help ministers, congregations and others reflect on their own sense of calling to walk alongside others who do not yet know Christ, or whose understanding of God varies from the norms expounded within our church walls.
I have been encouraged by my strategy group to ‘wonder’ rather than to ‘offer solutions’. So here it is. Just one thing, a sort of health warning: this is not a paper with all the answers to the problems of the church. Nor does it suggest how the United Reformed Church might alter its course in the light of my research post. I would never be arrogant enough to suggest that might be possible, even if it were desirable. The reader is fully entitled to disagree with part or all of what I write. I am simply recording observations borne out of real life experience – with quite a bit of theologising thrown in.
The first time I met the woman whose vision for a support group became Hug Cullompton, we sat and had tea in her treatment room. She explained her ethos, borne of a belief that all the energetic power we harness and use in our daily lives is of God.
“We are all connected by the same power or energy,” she said, “What you might call the Holy Spirit. It is the energy I use to help people heal themselves. At the end of the day it isn’t me who does the healing – it is the divine power working within someone that enables them to heal – to become whole.”
I had heard this sort of theorising many years before, but it wasn’t a concept I had particularly engaged with. I thought about the Holy Spirit, moving as a wind over the unformed earth before creation (Gen.1.1), as the force necessary to maintain human life (Gen. 6.3) and inspiration that fills an individual with “skill, intelligence and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (Ex. 35.31). I considered the feminine Spirit of Wisdom recorded in Proverbs 8, the Holy Spirit that impregnated Mary (Luke 1.35), that came upon Jesus during his Baptism (Mark 1.10), went out of him as he healed the woman who grasped at his cloak (Luke 8.46) and touched the apostles with tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.3). Why shouldn’t this also be the energy of which Sue spoke?
The sort of religiosity articulated and demonstrated by my colleague in her healing ministry is what Chapman, Naguib and Woodhead call Holistic Spirituality, one of three titles under which they categorise ‘Alternative Spiritualities’ (2012, 183). Unlike Paganism, which is distinctively British and polytheistic, Chapman et al distinguish, but also make comparisons between, Holistic and New Age spiritualities. They suggest that common threads exist between the two:
- Their approach to religiosity is more to do with personal experience than knowledge. They tend to understand God in “practical, immediate, embodied and emotional” ways rather than gaining theological knowledge through texts.
- Their perception is of an immanent, caring God, in whom the feminine aspects of care, healing and nourishment are recognised. This contrasts with the remote, judgemental, male God found in the pages of the Bible and doctrines of the church.
- They often have a deep connection with nature, perceiving an inter-connectedness between the creator and created. This sort of spirituality is often outworked through activity or social activism.
I would like to suggest that these connecting threads provide a good springboard for my reflections on my experience of Hug Cullompton. I have reordered and refined them slightly in order to provide an appropriate framework for my reflections, and added a fourth:
- Reconsidering how we understand and experience God;
- Shaping faith communities in the image of a Trinitarian God;
- Taking our faith out onto the streets; and
- Reconsidering how we engage with those ‘outside’ the church
Experience and ‘Knowledge’ of God
John Calvin, the theologian who is probably most famously associated with Reformed Theology, epitomised both his time and theological approach by writing a treatise more than 1500 pages long. In it he outlined everything he felt needed to be known by Christian congregations to enable them to become ‘true’ church – modelled, as he saw it, on the basis of the Biblical text.
Calvin’s first chapter is entitled ‘Knowledge of God’, and it forms the framework of the rest of his book. In it he argues that the individual Christian is responsible for developing their own relationship with the divine. This isn’t just through book learning – although Calvin did maintain that knowing the contents of the Bible was vital to knowing true faith. For Calvin knowing God is about both head and heart. And it is through that deep, expressive relationship with God that one grows as an individual and becomes what God has created them to be.
Unfortunately the ‘heart’ bit of Reformed Theology can be somewhat under-represented, lurking underneath reams of bookish learning, so that one might end up with an incredible knowledge of the Biblical text, but less idea of how to absorb its teaching in a way that deepens one’s spiritual life. By contrast those who practise alternative spiritualities might be accused of doing exactly the opposite: developing such an experiential approach to understanding God that the accompanying teachings and disciplines, key to living a spiritually mature life, can be neglected.
My view is that a balance of the two is vital if one is to develop a lasting faith. To gain spiritual maturity requires a deep, fulfilled relationship with the Divine; being able to dwell in their presence, but also learning to walk the way of Jesus in the day to day. It is this outward facing aspect of faith that enables individuals and groups to become missional, seeing their role as faithful accompaniers, walking life’s path alongside, and hand in hand with, others.
Being a member of a community, for whom this inward/outward attitude to belief is an imperative, has been both a delight and a challenge: a delight because there is no need to push the organisation to think missionally; but also a challenge, because the way we order the organisation, frame our language and open ourselves up to listening to the beliefs and ideas of all those we encounter can be difficult to get used to, particularly for any new person coming in.
Shaping faith communities in the image of a Trinitarian God
An example of this how theory works in practice is last year’s AGM. Until recently Hug Cullompton has attracted predominantly women. For the first time last year we had two male Huggers participating. We operated in our usual way, with a few minutes of silent reflection, followed by the official reports and sharing out of offices for the year. We then had a vision session to consider ideas for a new community project. There was no formal presentation, and each person spoke in turn, with the pictures, words and phrases that came to mind drawn on a flip chart.
The meeting was as formal as we ever get – which, to our new Huggers, was far more informal that they were accustomed to. During the silence one read papers and played with notebooks. When we reported absolutely no activity on our bank account they were both extremely surprised. That our major plan for the year consisted of a collection of meanderings on a piece of A2 paper appeared to them extremely haphazard. And yet, a year later, when we returned to that piece of flip-chart paper, we could see on it the shaping of our main project for the year – starting Culm Valley Men in Sheds. It was all there, the culmination of months of prayer, preparation and activity marked out in glorious technicolor.
Members of my strategy group have been fascinated by the way Hug Cullompton orders itself and shapes its common life. There is no hierarchy. Instead each equal member brings what they have to offer and, through a sense of true mutuality, receives what they need in return. We have always invited participants to come and go as they desire, accepting that sometimes the stresses and strains of everyday life prevent people from having the capacity to do more than simply cope. At such times Huggers are invited to step back and let others take charge. As a consequence our officers are only ever appointed for a year, more or less on a revolving basis, and our activities are limited to those we can successfully manage using the resources which come our way. Yes I am ‘a minister’, but I am regarded first and foremost as a Hugger, an equal, with a particular set of giftings which go with that calling.
I would like to suggest that the way Hug Cullompton works is both counter-cultural and incredibly healthy. One Hugger describes it as ‘right-brained’, a creative and intuitive process, often associated with the feminine. It seems to me that this modus operandum might be considered perichoretic – a theological term which describes how the persons of the Trinity (God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit) relate. There is a mutuality and unity within our organisation which enables different personalities to thrive, each with their own identity and skill set which comes to the fore at different times. Our expectations of what can be achieved are based on an assessment of need, availability of talent, and trust in a God who will provide what is required (in that order). Yes, we meet all the legal requirements of a charity, but the ways we structure ourselves and carry out our business are exceptionally fluid. Those who are comfortable functioning in a traditional business, academic or public service setting can find it quite unsettling to start with, but usually they do get used to it.
Taking faith onto the streets
Hug Cullompton’s ‘Mission Statement’, the Hug Prayer, is an active and considered response to the Lord’s Prayer. It demonstrates very clearly that the motivation behind the organisation is more than simply a commitment to good works. The result of lengthy negotiations regarding language and understandings of God, the process itself, which I have already detailed in a former article, was a way formalising that which we already knew: that a faith community was only truly active if it was acting in the world.
For me this sentiment goes to the heart of what the Christian faith is all about. We are called by God to walk the way of Jesus, utilising every aspect of our lives and harnessing our skills in order to become more faithful, more loving, and more Jesus-shaped. This understanding of what it means to be Christians in the world is termed Incarnational Theology, and I have already written about it at length. My experience is that this is achieved, not by sitting in a church listening to sermons and singing songs with fellow Christians, but by following the example of Jesus: getting out there, sharing giftings, skills, enthusiasm, love – and in Hug Cullompton’s case – hugs.
My challenge has been how to interpret this theology outside the parameters of the institution of the church; and it has been one of the most enlightening aspects of my ministry. I have learned three very important things:
- ‘Being Christ’ in the world means being alongside people in the world, regardless of their faith, background or views about Jesus.
- Being ‘church’ in the world isn’t about growing huge congregations, creating rotas or building empires – in fact I would like to suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven is the opposite. Bringing hope, transforming communities and demonstrating Christ’s love can be achieved by exceptionally small groups of people. All they need is a willingness to share what God has given them partnered with a huge amount of faith that God will provide the rest.
- I have discovered that people with no active Christian faith actually find the subject fascinating. Unless we grow the confidence to be able to speak from the heart about what being a Christian adds to our life, we will never be able to persuade others to join us.
Evidence suggests that, in Britain today, people are most likely to be attracted to Christianity by knowing someone who is already involved, whose life is exemplary, and who holds a key to happiness that the searcher would love to try for themselves.
Reconsidering how we engage with those ‘outside’ the church
An important factor in engaging with those outside the church is learning to communicate in their language. I tend to say that it took me four years to ‘unlearn church-speak.’ Christians speak a language that seems foreign to those outside it, so much so that often we can confuse and turn off people who might otherwise be quite interested in engaging with us.
A key factor in learning to communicate with the now-members of Hug Cullompton has been revising the language I use to speak of God. In the church we are so used to speaking about God who is ‘Father’, we forget how excluding such language can be to those who simply don’t see God in that way. Chapman et al. suggest that, in the past century, some feminists have “viewed the male God and saviour of Christianity, mediated by a male priesthood, as central to the ‘patriarchy’ they were trying to overthrow” (2012, p.181).
However I would like to go further than simply recommending that we speak of God using ‘inclusive’ language. I would like to suggest that we are moving beyond a binary age in which God is experienced or spoken of as female/male. As we begin to hear the voices of those whose gender and sexuality is fluid, there must surely be a voice to say that they, too are created in the image of a God whose identity is recorded in the Biblical creation story (in the original Hebrew) as plural rather than male or female. (Gen. 1.27)
I have found Church language to be the defining factor in the decision by a huge number of women with whom I relate to leave the Christian faith behind. Not only have they found the structure, imagery and language of the church disempowering, they have found other spiritual paths which have been positively more affirming. Steve Hollinghurst and Paul Cudby both draw parallels between Christianity and neo-Paganism with regard to traditions and rituals, but contrast the Christian and Pagan ways of understanding and speaking of God, as well as the empowerment and leadership opportunities for women within these movements.
The tendency of many in churches in Cullompton has been to label all spiritualities which do not fit within the normal church parameters “the Occult”. The term itself, from the Latin root meaning ‘secret, hidden or covered over’, is equated with certain supernatural practices, powers and phenomena. While I agree that all of this exists – and is something to be wary of and avoided – it in no way reflects anything I have encountered during my journey with the members of Hug Cullompton. Interestingly, a fellow Hugger described recently how her experience of Wiccan ritualistic practices, which she ‘sampled’ at a festival, frightened her. “There was so much power in it, and I didn’t like it.” she said, “It felt as though God’s energy was being harnessed and mis-directed. I won’t have anything more to do with it.”
The question is, how do we relate to those who have already achieved spiritual maturity without feeling the need to join ‘the church’, those whose path is acknowledged as being heavily influenced by Jesus and Spirit-led, but whose experience of Christianity has, in direct opposition to the ministry Jesus modelled (Luke 8.1-3), been disempowering, disengaging, and totally unaffirming. Do they need to be ‘saved’ or ‘converted’; or is it just possible that God might have God’s way in the world, through them and alongside them, despite their rejection of church in the past?
I am nearing the end of a very long journey. It has been at times one of utter delight, but also at times one of misery. I have been at the same time loved, accepted, criticised and rejected because of this post. I have encountered beliefs that I never thought I would, and I have opened my mind to some, whilst closing the door firmly but gently on others.
Of all my experiences, the two most important things I have learned?
- That Jesus loves me. I can understand why Karl Barth, one of the most prolific and longwinded theologians of the twentieth century, said it. In the midst of all the confusion and challenge that pioneering brings, a sense of being loved and accepted, just as I am, both by God and those with whom I journeyed, has sustained me in my faith and carried me through some very dark times.
- The Christendom era, and the church as we know it, might be coming to an end; but the God we know, who cannot be contained within the pages of a book – even one as holy as the Bible – will always be alongside us. The challenge for us is work out how best to do it, then fall into step.
Chapman, M, Naguib, S and Woodhead, L., “God-Change” in Woodhead, Linda and Cato, Rebecca, 2012, Religion and Change in Modern Britain (Abingdon, Routledge)
Cudby, Paul, 2017, The Shaken Path: A Christian Priest’s Exploration of Modern Pagan Belief and Practice (Brighton, Christian Alternative)
Hollinghurst, Steve, 2003, New Age, Paganism and Christian Mission (Grove Booklet)