Venturing into unknown spiritual territory

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…or, a reflection on pioneering in a time of religious and social change

A wise person once said that what marks out a pioneer is their ability to allow the Holy Spirit to guide them, then fill in a back story afterwards. That’s definitely me.

From early on in this ministry I have been encouraged to make sense of the way it has been shaped.  I knew early on that I was called to inhabit a space Christian Ministers are rarely called to: in the midst of people who practice alternative spiritualities. But I was unaware of how much it would stretch me, both in terms of my doctrinal beliefs and worship life.  I could never have predicted how bereft I would feel not having a sacramental community to belong to; and I never would have realised just how orthodox many of my beliefs are, had I not been asked to explain and defend them so many times over the years.

As this particular ministry draws to an end I find myself asking what it is I have learned from this journey; and what questions would be most helpful to ask as a consequence.  This article is the result of that.

In order to reflect in depth on what it is to pioneer in this time of religious and social change,  I have found it necessary to understand the landscape against which this spiritual path has been set.  And to do that I have had to look back over the history of religious change, particularly in England.  I have had to ask myself:

  • Why are those who engage with what might be called New Age Spiritualities treated with such suspicion by the church – and is it justified?
  • What does it mean to walk this path alongside them, and how has it changed me?
  • What questions might I offer to churches thinking of engaging in a ministry of their own alongside those on a spiritual journey but not a traditional Christian one.

Religious Change in the Age of Modernity

In his comparative thesis on Christianity and New Age spirituality / Neo-Paganism, Steve Hollinghurst suggests that all religious developments are subject to a process (1996, 5-6). As patterns of behaviour begin to alter and traditions change or start to be lost, those deeply immersed in them feel threatened.  As new ideas gain credibility, levels of suspicion reduce, and an opportunity for engagement opens up.  Eventually the new practice will be rejected or accepted – but this time on the basis of a mutual understanding that has previously not existed.  Some ideas might even be accepted into the mainstream and become the ‘norm’.  When another new idea or concept emerges, this cycle, which can take several hundred years, begins again.

Hollinghurst suggests the current period of major religious change has its roots in the Enlightenment, but it first became apparent in the Romanticism of the late Victorian era. While British missionaries were imposing Victorian religious values on, and teaching Moody and Sankey songs to, populations at the far corners of the globe, a significant number at home were engaging in what Linda Woodhead describes as re-engagement with “the magical” (2012, 179-180).  At a popular level illusionists, escapologists and magicians became what Hollinghurst describes as the “scientist[s] of the spiritual world” (1996, 5-6), while prominent intellectuals such as Arthur Conan Doyle became huge advocates of Spiritualism – the belief that, through the art of clairvoyance, it is possible to communicate with the spirits of those who have died or “passed over” into the spirit world. The difficulty was how to identify where magic (the art of illusion) ended and true spiritual engagement began. How could one be sure someone claiming to have spiritual gifts weren’t con artists becoming rich on the backs of those desperately seeking answers to questions the living could never give them? It is a question I ponder now in a similar way it was asked back then.

Religious Change in the 20th Century

In 1910 the General Assembly (national governing body) of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), became embroiled in what was known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.  They agreed to adopt a Doctrinal Deliverance, consisting of the following Five Fundamentals “necessary and essential to the Christian faith”.  In the decades that followed there were huge arguments over the extent to which the five points had to be taken literally.  By the 1930s the Modernists (who believed that the fundamentals of the faith should be interpreted in a way contextually relevant to the age) appeared to triumph over the literalists.  It wasn’t until much later that Christian Fundamentalism came back into vogue.

One proponent of fundamentalism was the highly influential evangelist Billy Graham, whose simple message of salvation through a personal belief in Christ caused a revival across continents.  Graham first visited the UK in 1954.  New choruses and informal liturgies were introduced, combining a focus on the working of the Holy Spirit with a sense of joy, hope and renewal.  Meanwhile the theologian and Bishop John AT Robinson published his ground-breaking Honest to God (1963).  His writings opened the way to the acceptance of a belief in a liberal God, who was gender neutral, egalitarian, and a spur to social action, to be related to through a less hierarchical church structure and more informal worship.  Suddenly the distant, sovereign, and judgemental God promulgated by the traditional church seemed outdated and irrelevant  Attendance at traditional church services started to plummet, while new congregations, shaped by the Billy Graham experience, encouraged charismatic worship not seen in the churches in England for a long time – if ever.

During this period an influx of immigrants brought with them their own faith traditions. There were the formal religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, but also numerous informal spiritual traditions and religious practices founded in Eastern philosophy and herbal medicines.

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Emerging from this came a new found interest in Paganism, distinctly different and rooted in ancient British culture. It appealed particularly to those with British Christian backgrounds, looking for spiritual practises relating to ecology and creativity, and with a focus on the feminine attributes of the divine.

In the meantime, Linda Woodhead suggests, belief for some was transferred entirely outwith the spiritual realm.  With the advent of the welfare state, and ending of church provision of health and social care, the British nation had a new ‘God’ to believe in: the National Health Service (2012, 159-160). Spiritual practices founded in the use of plants and energetic techniques straddled both the sacred and secular realms, satisfying those who had lost faith in the church, but weren’t yet ready to leave a spiritual path entirely behind.

Connections between healing and wholeness have always existed; but in recent years they have started to gain credibility within the healthcare profession. In Cullompton the surgery opened in 2010 was built with an ‘integrated complimentary care’ centre attached.  The Managing Partner, a practising Christian, has been advocating for many years the use of non-invasive complimentary therapies alongside what is generally known as ‘traditional medicine’ in the treatment of patients. Interestingly they have now begun to issue ‘social prescriptions’ and started a Community Life Hub.  The aim is to tackle loneliness and isolation through the provision of interesting and stimulating activities rather than prescribe anti-depressants and pain killers en masse.

Navigating today’s religious and spiritual milieu

To a certain extent the history of religious change explains why those who engage with what might be called New Age Spiritualities are treated with such suspicion by the church. For many Christians belief is not simply about experience. It is also about the adoption of a certain set of doctrines which combine with experience to create belief.  Refusing to accept those doctrines is like challenging the validity of a Christian belief system in its entirety.  For the average Christian this is an uncomfortable business.

During this ministry I have adopted a policy of never telling anyone they are wrong. There are times I have been profoundly challenged by the beliefs of those with whom I engage – sometimes fellow Christians as well as others.  But in challenging myself to listen openly to the views of others I have been able to work out what I truly believe, as well as being able to share in creative conversations about faith and spirituality.

However, there are some practises I have chosen never to engage with, either because I am simply not convinced they are genuine, or because they make me feel uncomfortable.  We call it “the line I won’t cross”. For me these have mainly been to do with mediumship and clairvoyance.  Although I have an open mind, I am not convinced I can tell where illusion ends and genuine spiritual practise begins.  And it works both ways. There are Christian activities I would never expect another member of Hug Cullompton to join in with, although I could, and sometimes do, invite them.

My principle is that if I practise a faith founded in the belief that the Holy Spirit can work through any encounter, why shouldn’t I be influenced by someone on a different spiritual path to mine, as long as I feel it is a genuine path and there is no danger or malice in it? And what might I learn that I didn’t know before that might help me understand myself and my relationship with Jesus better?

Suggested Reading

Woodhead, Linda and Catto, Rebecca, 2012, Religion and Change in Modern Britain (London, Routledge)

Hollinghurst, Steve, 2003, New Age, Paganism and Christian Mission (Grove Booklet)

Cudby, Paul, 2017, The Shaken Path: A Christian Priest’s Exploration of Modern Pagan Belief and Practice (Winchester, Christian Alternative)

The thorny issue of pastoral visiting

fullsizeoutput_1587… or, understanding why pastoral visiting is an issue of such contention.

In the letters section of the past two issues of Reform (the United Reformed Church’s national magazine), pastoral visiting by ministers (or lack thereof) has once again become the subject of attention.  Ever since I was at ‘Minister School’ it was an issue: what pattern of pastoral ministry should one adopt? How should we decide who to visit? And what if we’re called to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments, but have no gifting in, or flair for it?

The weight given to pastoral visiting of congregations by ministers seems peculiar to our tradition/denomination.  I am a member of several forums for clergy/church leaders, and very rarely do I ever see posts from participants of other denominations concerning pastoral visiting.  I do not wish to downgrade its importance  – it is one of our particular treasures – but I do think there is a distinction to be made between pastoral care (which is the responsibility of the congregation as a whole) and spiritual development (which requires more expertise).  I would like to suggest that understanding their subtle differences requires exploring their rootedness, both in Reformed Theology and the age of modernity.

A Biblical perspective on the issue might involve turning to 1 Corinthians 12 (Paul’s description of the Body of Christ).  The Reformed understanding of Church locates the fully formed Body within the local congregation, requiring it to take on the care and wellbeing of every member: a commendable thing.  But as Paul also reminds us in Ephesians 4, not everyone is called to be a pastor; and as members of the priesthood of all believers, caring should be a communal effort, not the sole preserve of an individual whose job title is actually to proclaim the Word and celebrate the Sacraments.

However, it must also be understood that Reformed Theology has emerged within Modernity, an age during which religion was considered a private pastime and spiritual development an intensely personal activity. I therefore have some sympathy with those reluctant to invite anyone other than a Minister, trained in theology and with the weight of perceived authority resting on his or her shoulders, into their personal space.

As the age of modernity passes, the concept of spiritual development founded in conversation between an individual and perceived expert is also passing. Universal education, international travel and technological developments have given individuals easy access to a plethora of materials aiding personal growth.  How this is impacting on society is an issue for another day; but suffice to say it has a huge effect on how younger people view spirituality.

For most people home remains a personal domain, a place where one might explore spirituality, but certainly not engage in conversation about it.  I am far more likely to explore such ideas over coffee or within the context of a toddler group.  I would like to suggest that the pattern of pastoral visiting  appropriate when I first trained for ministry twenty years ago is no longer so.  Instead I suggest we heed the wise words of a minister who wrote in a letter to Reform magazine (Dec/Jan 2019):

Once again, it appears favourable to re-advocate old and currently impossible models [of pastoral visiting]. But those models have sadly put us where we are today. We must share the care of our existing fellowships whilst seeking varied ways to engage with our changing society to ensure an effective witness of God’s love for the future.

what’s really going on when sacred and secular collide?

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Last week a Remembrance sermon preached in Hinckley, Leicestershire, went viral.  Some have condemned it as a tirade, entirely inappropriate for such an occasion, while others see it as a faithful representation of what Jesus taught.  The social media response has ranged from outright disgust to full agreement.

Such a variety of responses demonstrates the nation’s lack of common agreement on what is appropriate when secular meets sacred in the public realm.  I would suggest this is representative of a far bigger issue facing, not just those of us engaged in Christian mission and ministry, but every aspect of society.

There can be no denying that the political and social influence of the institutional church in Great Britain is waining.  The modern age and its quest for certainty and scientific truth has given way to a new era, as yet unnamed and undefined. This post-postmodern paradigm, characterised by constant technological, social, political and economic change, has created a milieu of ideas that render old certainties null and void, not least in the field of religion.  Churches in the inherited model faithfully maintain a set of traditions, doctrines and practices shaped for a modern age,  while generations of spiritual seekers explore ideas of faith and belief almost entirely outside these parameters.

The result is an ever increasing gap between what the church offers and public perception of what the church is there for.  A good example of this is how Great Britain as a nation deals with grief.

Public displays of grief as a signifier of a change in religious perspectives

It is now more than twenty years since public grief over Princess Diana’s death spilled out onto the square in front of Kensington Palace in the form of flowers, candles and soft toys.  What might be remembered as mass hysteria highlighted an issue that the church had already slowly been coming to terms with: that the spiritual thirst of a huge swathe of the British population is not being quenched in any way by organised religion.

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Differences in perceptions of how people can appropriately grieve are huge. In the past decade there have been many news stories of arguments between families and cemetery authorities over what constitutes a dignified symbol of mourning. I would like to suggest that the reason for this is a lack of joint understanding about what is sacred and what is profane. Where once families would have placed crosses and angels on headstones – symbols of their confidence in the departed’s passing to a better place – it is now not uncommon to see symbols of their life here on earth: teddies, windmills, and even football shirts.

In the case of Princess Diana, informal outpourings of grief over her death gave way to a formal act of mourning.  A televised state funeral took place, with all the pomp and ceremony the Palace and Church of England could muster. But Elton John sang at the service and Diana’s brother took the opportunity to pillory the Royal Family. In the meantime books of condolence were set up around in town halls around the country so that the population in its entirety – religious or not – could pay tribute.

Since then a curious practice of combining the sacred and profane at moments of public grief has become normalised in England.  Across the country roadside shrines have been springing up where fatalities have occurred – a noticeable one being over the M5 after a terrible accident near Taunton in 2011. There is currently one just north of Cullompton which has as its centrepiece a huge cross.

Increasingly human rites of passage are celebrated outside the context of  the church, and placed either in the hands of the state or the mourners themselves.   Civil celebrants now regularly take funerals, and weddings in hotels now outnumber church weddings.  During a recent preschool visit to my local parish church, one parent said of the font: “Well I don’t suppose it’s really needed anymore.”

From religion to spirituality: what is really going on?

For many decades sociologists have described the process of decline of the institutional church as ‘secularisation’, claiming that the decline in church attendance is evidence of a waining interest in faith and religion.  However, in recent years this assumption has been challenged.  It has been suggested that, while traditional church practice is declining, new ways of exploring faith and expressing spirituality are on the rise.

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In 2012 Religion and Change in Modern Britain, the culmination of the government funded Religion and Society Programme, was published.  In its introduction, Linda Woodhead, the co-editor of the book, questions the validity of the secularisation debate. She suggests that assumptions made by scholars about the faith of the British population, and the questions they have been trying to answer regarding religion, have been the wrong ones. Rather than counting people who are engaged with organised religion, Woodhead suggests that sociologists should be seeking to understand  how political, social and economic developments impact on religious thought and vice versa, examining how changes in religious practice reflect and relate to other aspects of life and exploring the extent to which belief underpins or holds back social change.

Woodhead uses the example of healthcare to demonstrate the changing role of the British church, both formally and informally.  During the pre-modern and early modern period there was a clear link between faith and healing.  Public health and social care was provided by practitioners such a midwives and deacons on behalf of the church.  Throughout the modern period the influence of science increased, reducing the perceived value of faith-based care provision and casting doubt on its efficacy.

The ultimate expression of this was the formation of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom in 1948, and those who worked outside the parameters of scientific endeavour were increasingly ostracised, with their knowledge and expertise called into question.  Woodhead argues that, while the Labour government was furnishing the British population with hopes of a socialist utopia, religiosity, perceived as being in decline due to the loss of power in the traditional church, was transforming.  From the 1960s onwards, within Christianity, a new form of evangelicalism took hold, with the likes of Billy Graham playing to stadia of tens of thousands.  Seemingly by contrast, but also symbolic of the privatisation of religion, interest in New Age and neo-Pagan spiritualities was on the rise.

Often connected with both evangelicalism and alternative spiritualities is a focus on personal healing, salvation and human growth.  Since around 1990 there has been a huge increase in the influence of holistic approaches to healing, many of which are founded in Eastern religious belief rather than Western science.  In Cullompton, for example, as well as the Natural Health Care Centre which exists totally apart from the National Health Service, is the Culm Valley Integrated Health Centre.  The vision of a local GP who also happens to be a practising Christian, it combines both NHS services and complimentary therapies on one site.

Woodhead argues that:

religion returns to healthcare under the market regime – but in a new form… It is not simply a case of religion taking up where it left off before the NHS, because it is significantly changed under the new conditions under which it arises… This is no ‘folk religion’. It is a form of religion which is as inseparable from advanced consumer capitalism, popular culture and the media as the Church of England is from the nation state. (pp21-22)

So where is God in all this?

Woodhead’s observations and call for her peers to question their own underlying assumptions holds merit.  Analysis which moves from simply counting patterns of human activity to considering the impact on religiosity of myriad social, political and economic influences and trends, and its impact on them, has to be a good thing.

However, I do find the perspectives of Woodhead et al lacking in one thing: a focus on God – or should I say, revelation?  When Woodhead suggests that belief in the NHS has replaced belief in God I think she is mistaken.  The NHS might be one thing to believe in. But if her initial premise is correct, and there is much more to faith and belief than attendance at church, should she not consider that there might be a revelatory force driving it?

I started going to church as a young adult in the days when Peter Mandelson said, “We don’t do God.”  I have trained and ministered against a backdrop which I always assumed was hostile to faith, and was afraid to bring it up in conversation (“Never talk about sex, politics of religion”).  I believed the white (predominantly male) middle class minority who controlled the media when they said that people had no time for, or interest in, religion anymore.

But my experience of people, both in Manchester where I previously worked and now in Devon is very different.  Whether it be in prisons, toddler groups, art exhibitions or Mind, Body Spirit fairs, I find there is a yearning for conversation about God, faith, belief and the universe (although they might well not have the language to articulate it); a conversation between two equals, where we can explore together what it means to have faith.  Unfortunately it is very rarely assumed by those I encounter that such a conversation would ever take place in a church.

I would like to suggest that the secularisation of certain spheres in the public realm has given a false picture of the levels of faith in this nation.  It has assumed that a population which no longer attends church no longer believes.  And while it might be that what people believe falls outside the realms of traditional doctrine, that does not necessarily make it untrue.

And so we return to the Remembrance Sunday sermon preached in Hinckley, Leicestershire. The comments made in response to the publication of the full text are pretty much polarised.  This may not be convenient for those researching levels of religiosity in Great Britain, but they certainly do demonstrate one thing: people care enough to respond – meaning they have some sense of the spiritual significance of Remembrance Sunday.

Whether genuine levels of interest in faith and God in the complicated milieu that is twenty-first century British life will ever be truly fathomed remains to be seen. It is certainly my hope that they will.

a vision and a challenge for the future

.. or, the call to break open the jars containing our Christian treasures and share them with others.

Treasure in clay jars image

When I was exploring a possible move to Cullompton I visited a number of local groups and individuals to test whether it was the right decision.  One meeting I had was with two female clergy members who ministered in the area.

After a time of conversation we prayed together. One of the clergywomen shared with me a vision she had seen about a piece of clay.  The clay began shaped as a jar, but gradually the person moulding it pressed it outwards and outwards until it became a very different shape.

“I think it means your ministry is going to challenge the shape of the church,” she told me, “And challenge the churches in this area. But it is being shaped by God and will be an answer to prayer.”

I have never forgotten what that clergywoman said, and have reflected on it often.

The image of treasure in clay jars is one used by the Apostle Paul in a letter to church members in Corinth (2 Corinthians 4.1-12).  He is explaining how difficult it is to be the church in a world that does not understand  it or its message.

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

From what Paul writes it is clear that the Corinthians are struggling.  They are being threatened and persecuted, and their way of life is at risk.  The gift of their faith is like treasure in clay jars, safe and contained, a precious commodity to sustain them during these very difficult times.

But in my colleague’s modern day vision the clay was very different, reshaped so that any treasure contained in it would be on show for all to see and spilling out for anyone to take.  For me it was, and is, a powerful image and a very real challenge.  It says to me that the time has come to break the mould and allow the treasure of our faith to glisten and gleam for all to see, on offer for anyone who wants to take it.

The Reformed Tradition has many treasures. Some are fundamentals for any church faithful in its call to love God and walk with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  But there are things which make us unique, the particular treasures which shine: our relationship to scripture; our commitment to unity, justice, equality and inclusivity; our belief in living out the call to be one body of equal parts in a particular way, centred in the community where we live.

Perhaps now is the time to break the jars containing our particular treasures, or at least to make a radical remould of them. It’s a scary thought, relinquishing that which has kept us feeling safe and secure for so many generations. But Jesus challenged the rich to give away everything they owned in order to follow him.  Maybe the time has come for us to do that too.

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This is the first in a series of blogs and articles related to how we might share our treasures. The first article is ‘What’s really going on when sacred and secular collide?’

Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

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… or, the art of choosing words carefully when we speak of God.

One of the most fascinating conversations I have had in recent years was about what to call God. We were writing our prayer, which is a response to the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is the term Jesus himself used, we really didn’t feel comfortable with using the term translated into English as ‘Our Father.’

I suspect that, when we hear the word ‘God’, each of us conjures up a different image. It might be negative or positive, one that either we have had since childhood or which has developed over the years, and it might be visual or otherwise, depending on how our mind works.

For those familiar with Christian language there is an ocean of imagery to draw on. For a start we describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Trinity).  We hear the prologue of John’s Gospel which tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Jesus called God “Abba”, meaning Father, and in the letters of John at the end of the Bible we read that “God is love.”

But strip away all that Biblical foreknowledge and what do we have? I would like to suggest that the most famous image of God is Michelangelo’s in the Sistene Chapel at the Vatican.  In his ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God is a depicted as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch Adam. Such an image hardly correlates to a creative, loving God who, through the Word, gives shape and meaning to life.

The members of Hug Cullompton who participated in the six week process of creating the Hug Prayer agonised for many hours, days and weeks over how we would address the divine creative power who is entirely beyond us and yet in our midst.  In the end we settled for ‘Divine Embrace’, because no noun seemed adequate. The only option left was to use a term that summed up our collective experience of him/her/it.

It might seem this post is about language, but actually it is an attempt to raise a far deeper and more profound issue we in the church face: not only how we articulate the shared concepts which have shaped our understanding of the world and the one whom we believe created it, but the very concepts themselves.

I know very few Christians who, when shown the picture of Michelangelo’s picture of God, think it’s an accurate depiction of what God is like.  And yet, the way in which many Christians name, address and speak of God gives the impression to the outsider that the God we believe in is imperialistic, judgemental and very, very male.

So what are we to do? Should we abandon all those terms we have grown up using, and which roll off our tongues comfortably? Should those who pray addressing God as “heavenly Father,” be told they can no longer do so?

Of course not.  I would not dream of robbing anyone of the essential elements of their faith and the way in which they name it.

But we do have to realise that such terminology could be alienating to others who have already considered and rejected the image of God as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch humanity.  Using terms such as ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ and ‘heavenly Father’ with them could be positively unhelpful.

Language is a powerful thing. Terminology comes with a lifetime’s back-story, rendering the phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me” null and void.  Let us choose it carefully, lest we unwittingly turn away those who most need to experience God’s ‘Divine Embrace’ for themselves.

learning the art of not fitting in

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One year, two perspectives. This image is part of a 365(+1) project, my friend Tilo and I are working on. If you want to see more, check out our website zweisichtig.de.

…or, when being beyond the fringe of the church becomes a bit uncomfortable

Shortly after writing our Hug Prayer in 2015 we decided to renew our window display. The prayer, smartly framed, took pride of place alongside a number of other eye-catching items, including some beautifully coloured and shaped crystals.

A week or two later one of the huggers came into the Hug Hub looking distressed. She had been at a Christian study group the evening before, and someone had drawn attention to the crystals in our window.  Apparently there had been absolutely no conversation about the contents of our new prayer, but everyone had an opinion about the crystals.

Apparently we were “dabbling in the occult.”

Our first instinct was to laugh – partly because the notion that we “dabbled in the occult” as an organisation was completely ridiculous, but also because they hadn’t credited at all the sentiments behind our prayer, the main elements of which were, after all, given to us by Jesus himself.

However, there was a more serious aspect to this.  The conversation demonstrated that the Christians in this particular group (and possibly others in the town) might think that we were somehow trying to corrupt others into following harmful ways.

Hug Cullompton has intentionally chosen to identify itself as a community of welcome for all, including those who have either suffered rejection by the church, or who do not relate to, or have any interest in it.  As a community we accept that people find God in lots of different ways and through a variety of practices.

Because of this we have come into contact with, and ministered to, vulnerable individuals who have been manipulated by people claiming to have particular spiritual gifts. Often their mental wellbeing has been seriously affected. It is a privilege to walk alongside these folk, to advise them, pray with them, help them achieve healing and assist them in finding peace in a God who loves them.

One consequence of the comments from the Bible Study group was that we removed the crystals from the window; not because we didn’t think we had a perfect right to put them there, but because ultimately we are a community which desires peace, reconciliation and empowerment in our town. We didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.

I hope that by now the people present at that group (many of whom I know and work alongside regularly) have realised how unconsidered and hurtful their accusation was – and that they have changed their minds.

I tell this story, not to name and shame the people in the Christian study group, but to illustrate how difficult (and hurtful) it can be to ‘be the Body of Christ’ at or beyond the fringes of the institutional church.  I used to joke that the church people in the town thought we weren’t ‘proper Christians’, while the non-church people we worked with in the community assumed we were a Christian group. In some ways they’re probably both right.

The truth is that we just don’t fit into a box. And intentionally so. My fellow Huggers are much better at feeling comfortable with it than I am, and it has taken a long time for me to realise that fitting into a box isn’t important.  What matters to me is that we are faithful to God and to each other, that we act with integrity, and that we are alive to what God is calling us to be and do… and I’d say we do that in spades!

making our mission and ministry Jesus-shaped

anonymous-blur-boy-572463… or, learning, through reading the Bible, how to serve others as Jesus did.

Since handing in my notice last week (I am about to move to pastures new), I have been reflecting, not only on what has been achieved through my ministry, but why and how.  To do so I have returned to a Bible passage I used for a piece of Ministerial Theological Reflection several years ago. It is the story of an encounter between Jesus and a man called Legion, and can be found at Mark 5.1-20. Below is a summary of four main features  of Jesus-shaped mission and ministry I have drawn from the passage:

Stepping out into the unfamiliar

  • Jesus and his disciples have crossed Lake Galilee to  “the country of the Gerasenes”. Not only is this unfamiliar geographical territory, it is Gentile, so the religious and cultural background of the people is very different to that of the Jesus and his disciples, who are Jewish.
  • Location and cultural identity is important. If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, it is not just for those to whom we comfortably relate to in our familiar day to day lives.  Venturing into the unfamiliar, among those who cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

Seeing Christ in everyone, and expecting to learn from our encounters with them

  • Legion, whom Jesus encounters when he first arrives, has significant mental health issues, such that he has been forced to live in the graveyard outside the village for the safety of himself and others.  There is not a less likely candidate for the accolade of ‘first person to identify the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Although there is no reason why he should know who Jesus is, Legion approaches and bows down before him, addressing him both by name and title: “Jesus, Son of the most High God.”
  • Sometimes we need to be challenged to see the world from  a different spiritual perspective. To be open to learning from, and being surprised by, such encounters are evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, and can be symbiotic – a process resulting in positive change on both sides.

Facilitating transformation with a commitment to the long term

  • As Jesus sets about healing Legion’s afflictions, Legion suddenly becomes afraid. He is unsure of his future identity without the accursed mental afflictions which have tortured him for so long.  And yet, when his fellow villagers arrive at the scene, they find him “clothed and in his right mind.”  Jesus entrusts him into the care of those who know him best and can support him longterm.
  • This is a process I have seen many times in my chaplaincy ministry. Change can be a slow business. Presented with the possibility of change, people who are so used to things the way things they are, face an unknown reality stretching into the future. It can be terrifying. Genuine transformative change is a lengthy process, and requires more than a single quick-fix solution. Ongoing support needs to be facilitated, not always under the auspices of the church community.

Trusting that God works beyond the bounds of church congregations

  • The villagers ask Jesus and his disciples to leave. We are not told whether it is because they are afraid of his healing power or annoyed because he has chased a perfectly good heard of pigs to their death in the lake.  One thing we do know is that, when Legion asks Jesus to take him with him, Jesus says, “No,” asking him instead to go and tell the people in his own village what Jesus has done.
  • Our ministry in the world doesn’t always result in new church members.  We cannot see into the future of those we serve, nor can we guarantee that those who cross our paths will continue along them with us.  All we can do is bless them as they go, asking that they tell their story of transformation as they do so.

What I call ‘Jesus-shaped mission and ministry’ is also known as ‘incarnational theology’. To read more about the scriptural background for my incarnational theology click here.

 

The reality of growing up English

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or, reflections on how we construct our understanding of the world (and our churches)

The Secret Scripture, a novel by Sebastian Barry (made into a 2015 film), tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, an old woman who has been in an Irish psychiatric institution for more than sixty years.

Through her diary entries, existent scraps of hospital records, reports from the parish priest and conversations between Roseanne and her psychiatrist, the reader is invited to piece together the story of Roseanne’s life. On several occasions Roseanne and the parish priest give very different accounts of the same event.

One might assume someone is lying; but who? The protagonist – an old woman who has been labelled mentally ill – or a respected man of God? In reality both parties are telling the truth as they remember it. It is simply that their memories – and perspectives – are so different.

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Everyone has their own story and lens through which they view the world. Our personal narrative is constructed from myriad events and experiences, things we have been taught and assumptions we have made; and it is no different when it comes to our sacred beliefs. The way we worship, pray, interpret the Bible and understand our spirituality are all flavoured by who we are, where we come from and the life we’ve lived.

I am a product of a culture still affected by Colonial Imperialism. Although we no longer promulgate the values reflected in the song Rule Britannia, there does still seem to be a subliminal assumption in the English psyche that our way is the ‘right’ way, even if that is not actually the same ‘way’ as our (English) neighbours.

Whether it is an aspect of our particular psyche, or simply human nature, I would like to suggest that this assumption, manifested most obviously in our political system, is just as prevalent in our churches, particularly in attitudes towards other church traditions. Throughout history these attitudes have caused division, even schism. Today we are left with a legacy of dualisms which might seem insurmountable: liberal/evangelical, Catholic/Protestant, Biblical fundamentalism/relativism, ‘high up the candle’/’so low down the candle I’ve fallen off’ (to do with worship traditions). The last one might sound ridiculous to someone not versed in Anglican phraseology – but I have heard it used often.

In whichever unnamed age we currently live (post-postmodernism?) such dualisms seem both dated and increasingly irrelevant. It is no longer necessary to adhere to all the views of one side or the other. We can accept that we construct our own narrative,  and as we do so we can affirm those whose way of worshipping, praying, interpreting the Bible and understanding spirituality don’t relate to our own.

The readers of The Secret Scripture never will find out the whole truth about what happened to Roseanne McNulty, because she is a fictional character. But people in churches of very different traditions (and none) are not. Perhaps there is a need to listen a bit harder to different narratives, trying to understand where they have come from. By doing this, those holding what might appear to be opposing views might find enough common ground to begin to appreciate difference rather than fearing it, and actually live out Paul’s words to the earliest Christians in Rome:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?…
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

An example of Living creatively with difference can be found in a previous blog.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”

…or, the Biblical precedent for breaking bread together round a table

Today, many churches are adopting table fellowship – or the practice of sharing food and drink round a table – as a way of attracting people to explore faith in Jesus.  One example is how this ideas is impacting the church is the Eating Together book in the Holy Habits series by Andrew Roberts.

Far from being a novel idea, this practice models that of the first century Jesus-believers and earliest Christian communities.  I would like to suggest that the close relationship between eating together and the formation of early Christian identity referred to in the Bible, makes a compelling argument for adopting eating together as a way of forging Christian community in the twenty first century.

Banqueting, or more particularly sharing food and drink, is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. According to the writer of John’s Gospel Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding banquet (John 2.1-10); he is invited to a ‘great banquet’ by Levi , where tax collectors and others are reclining with him (Luke 5.29-32); and John sets the Last Supper within the context of banquet (John 13.1-26). By combining scriptural accounts with archaeological and other written evidence, Biblical scholars have suggested that sharing meals was a key aspect of the worship life of first century Christians.

First century banquets – a model for early Christian gatherings

From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (2003), Dennis Smith’s exhaustive study of Greco-Roman banquet practice in the first century CE, demonstrates that sharing food and drink in a social and religious context played an important role in both Jewish and Gentile communities. Archaeological evidence suggests that synagogue architecture of the first century was based on the Greco Roman dining model, and many Jewish festival practices followed the same pattern.

Banquets held in the first century followed a model detected in Assyria as early as the sixth century BCE and adopted by the Hellenics 300 years later. As great admirers of Hellenistic culture, the Romans could to see for themselves the benefit of encouraging a banqueting model which built a sense of community at a time when traditional tribal and ethnic groupings were being challenged. Through the medium of eating together, individuals were able to reinforce social status whilst enabling social mobility and, in one to of the earliest examples of charitable fundraising, banqueting provided a means for poorer members of the community to organise and pay for their own funeral.

Banquets were held in temples, hired rooms or in individual people’s homes. In the first half of the century they were small in size, with dining rooms holding between seven and 11 people. Archaeological evidence shows that alterations were made to both houses and public buildings in the latter part of the first century CE to facilitate larger numbers of diners.

Only people who could afford to host them held banquets, although there is evidence that the nature of some associations enabled people from lower classes to participate. Hosts tended to invite people of a similar status similar to their own, and there would be a guest of honour, seated to the right of the host, whose role was to direct the proceedings. There is evidence that women attended as guests, but only infrequently and always at a low ranking place. When they arrived guests were placed in rank order on couches around the walls of the dining hall, reclining to reflect their status as being able to afford leisure time.  Slaves served food, washed guests’ hands between courses, and dealt with any drunken behaviour between guests. Dogs and uninvited guests might be tolerated, but arriving late was a taboo. Once the banquet started, no invited guest was permitted to enter.

Whether it was a religious festival, collegial gathering, association of tradespeople or funerary organisation, the format was always the same: a meal (deipnon) followed by entertainment (symposion), which often included a philosophical debate. In addition the Emperor Augustus had instituted an obligatory toast to be made to the Emperor, to reinforce his divine status and to promote cultural self-understanding as a subject of the Roman world.

During the deipnon the host would often provide food and drink, but sometimes guests would bring their own, to be distributed by servants. Portion sizes varied according to status, reinforcing the rank of each individual guest. During the symposion the guests would continue to drink and there was usually some form of musical entertainment. Often a flute girl would play, although in reality she would often double up as a courtesan. Discussions would take place on various themes, the participants would sing, and fellowship would be shared.

Radical practices for a radical new faith

Dennis Smith’s suggestion, that worship within the earliest Jesus believing communities was in the form of a symposion, has merit. At the Last Supper Jesus is the host, while the beloved disciple reclines next to him, and they share food and drink together, followed by a long period of discourse (John 13.1-26). Although this account may be more reflective of the experience of the writer than Jesus himself, that the banqueting model used in the narrative shows a familiarity with, and acceptance of, this form of commensality. Paul’s suggestion to the Corinthians that each person contribute “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” for the upbuilding of the community, also suggests this might be the case in the earliest churches (I Cor. 14.26).

Although on the face of it the common banquet pattern was followed,  in Paul’s letters we find a model of table fellowship which radically challenged accepted norms.  From fragments of information a picture emerges of myriad groups in a number of different places, each struggling to make sense of their new faith, and work out how to practice it in their own community/ies through their eating policies and practices.

Paul is clear that in the community of Jesus believers there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28). This in itself is a radical statement, for of course the Romans maintained strict control on social stratification, reinforced by banqueting practices.

When Paul challenges the Corinthian Jesus believers to wait until all are present before they begin to eat (I Cor. 11.33-34), it implies that members who are slaves and would finish work much later than the free, would miss out on the start of the meal unless it was delayed. Although Paul’s reference to the women in Corinth talking too much is not nice (and possibly a later addition), it does at least demonstrate that they were included as full members of the eating community (I Cor. 14.34-36).

Generally Jews would not share meals with Gentiles (non-Jews), even if they were liberal enough to attend banquets at which Gentiles were present. In defining themselves as members of the ekklesia (church), the Jewish members were released from strict observance of the Torah regarding food. However, Paul asks them to be courteous to those for whom this is an issue: “if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died (Rom. 14.2-15).  Similarly he writes to the Corinthians,”All things are lawful,” but not all things beneficial.  “All things are lawful, but not all things build up… Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10.23,31).

These differences were about more than demonstrating equality among members. For in reality those who arrived as slaves left as slaves, and those who were wealthy and had hosted the meals remained so after their guests had left.  Jews remained Jewish and Gentiles remained Gentile. My suggestion is that these practices reflected an eschatological understanding of what participants were entering into by becoming part of the fellowship of believers. This was no future ideal – it was a reality they saw very much in the present.  Where Greco-Roman society promoted inequality and maintained allegiance to Rome through table fellowship, the churches did the opposite; and by so doing created and performed rituals that reinforced that identity.

Worship round the table: its relevance for today

Fast forward two thousand years, and we find worship among most Christian communities very different. Fifteen hundred years of Christendom Church practice has, in many ways, caused a sanitised version of that radical existence, with services having more in common with assemblies or public meetings than times of deep, identity-forming fellowship. Congregations might share a cuppa before or after their service – and indeed it is an important aspect of relationship formation – but I would argue that the format of traditional Sunday morning worship reflects very little of the reality of worship as described in the Bible.

As Christendom fades and a new era as yet un-named begins, that assembly-style way of receiving and taking in information feels less and less relevant as a way of attracting people and forging community.  In response to this congregations up and down the country are exploring new ways of worship – or perhaps it might be said they are returning to ancient ones.

Today’s missiologists (such as Jim Belcher and Kester Brewin for example) suggest that ‘successful’ churches are ones which offer the opportunity to form a deep relationships with God; modelling lifestyles on the example and teachings of Jesus; and allow the Holy Spirit to fire and inspire every aspect of daily lives.  What’s more, commensality is a particularly effective way to achieve this.

My experience is that table fellowship – gathering together round a table to share food and learn more about Jesus – is an exceptionally good way to do this.  Through eating and spending time together, engaging in deep conversation, and even sharing bread and wine in Remembrance of Jesus, community is formed, identity emerges, and people are literally fed, both physically and spiritually, to lead lives modelled on Jesus himself.

Further reading:

Andrew Roberts, Holy Habits: Eating Together (London, Bible Reading Fellowship)

Dennis Smith, 2003, From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, (Kindle version from Amazon)

Wayne Meeks, 2003, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale University Press)

Hal Taussig, 2009, In the Beginning Was The Meal (Minneapolis, Fortress)

Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal” in Clifford Geertz, 1971, Myth, Symbol and Culture (New York, Norton)

Jim Belcher, 2009, Deep Church (Downers Grove, IVP)

Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence (London, Baker Books)

 

 

 

When theory becomes experience in the breaking of bread

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… or, the joy of sharing Holy Communion round a table

A Bishop recently asked me if I thought the Church could exist without Sacraments.  The conversation we were having revolved around the Eucharist – also known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. It is the bit of the service, usually at the end, when people share bread and wine together “in Remembrance” of Jesus.

My experience (or rather, absence) of Holy Communion growing up

The United Reformed Church in which I grew up had Holy Communion once a month, tacked on at the end of the morning service . Small cubes of sliced white bread and thimbles of alcohol-free wine were distributed to the seated congregation and consumed with grave seriousness. As teenagers we used to ask each other, “Will you be staying for Communion?” And the answer was almost always, “No.”  Until we had made our ‘confession of faith’ and become church members we weren’t allowed to participate, and church was dull enough as it was without an extra 15 minutes tacked on the end!

I suppose, at that age, I was totally missing the point.  No-one explained to me the point of Holy Communion, and my observation of the practice hardly invoked the feeling of awe and holiness that the liturgy (had I bothered listening to it) implied as we ate and drank together.  By the time I was an adult I had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the Sacraments.

Nowadays my approach is entirely different. Practising and participating in Holy Communion as part of a meal has made it more meaningful and moving than I could ever have imagined when I was young.

Sharing Holy Communion at the meal table

My first Holy Communion as a member of Hug Cullompton is an occasion I will never forget.  A number of us gathered at my house and shared a meal. Each person had brought something. As we ate and drank we discussed our lives, our prayer requests and a piece of scripture that one of us had been reflecting on.  Towards the end we moved into a time of worship, still seated round the table.  I took a glass of wine and bread roll, told the story of what happened on the night Jesus was betrayed and said, by heart, the words of the prayer of thanksgiving. As we ate and drank, many of us were moved to tears. It was a truly holy moment, and there was an amazing corporate sense of God’s presence among us at that time in that place.

Looking back, I am sad that the sacramental life of the church used to have so little meaning for me.  Although I hesitate to say I love the thimble-and-cube method, my experience now of sharing bread and wine in the context of a faith community is totally different.  Not only does it fill me with the sense of awe and holiness I missed when I was young, it transports me ineffably to another place.

There is something very special about celebrating Holy Communion round a meal table with friends, something Biblical. It is what the first Christians did, and the way they did it was, in the first century Middle East, truly radical, marking them out both as a community of Jesus-believers and members of God’s eternal Kingdom.

That is what I believe Church should be – an experience which takes us beyond ourselves and into the realms of holiness; binding us together in community, so that we may in turn go out and ‘break bread’ with others.

To read more about the role of table fellowship in the earliest Jesus-believing communities, click here.