learning the art of going fishing

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… or, reflections on creating spaces for missional conversations

A short time after I arrived in Cullompton I received a telephone call from the secretary of a church nearby.  They had recently refurbished their building and wanted me to go and give them some pointers on how best to use it to ‘get new people in’. 

“We have thought of doing cafe church,” she said, “But we’re not sure how.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I couldn’t even begin to unpack with her how thoroughly mistaken I thought her church’s attitude was to conceiving their future mission.  It seemed  they wanted to learn ‘the art of fishing’ without even leaving the building.

At the heart of the Christian faith is relationship: with God and each other.  This does not happen in a vacuum, nor does it always happen in a church building, and certainly not (although there are occasional exceptions) during an act of worship.

I have often heard faithful church members bemoan the fact that no-one new joins their rapidly declining congregation.  “They don’t come,” said one woman to me at a recent Sunday morning service, when I asked her whether her church had reached out to the newbuild estates down the road. “The local evangelical church knocked on every single door, and they only got a few.”

It saddened me. They were a lovely, warm, welcoming group of people, and their church building was potentially a vital community resource.  But they hadn’t yet grasped the twenty-first century reality, that people generally do not just start ‘going to church’.

If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, we have to be it ‘in‘ the world – not just in the church building. This requires venturing into the unfamiliar, both location-wise and context-wise.  Whether we like it or not, forming and developing relationships among those whose cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

The process of ‘fishing for people’ as Jesus called it, does not take place in the fisherman’s hut. It involves working out where the fish are and going to that location, before even considering casting a line or net. And even then, we can’t expect the fish to just ‘bite’ the line or swim into the net. They have to think there is something worth swimming that way for.

Creating a ‘bait’ – a means of engaging those who might otherwise not be interested in becoming ‘fish’ – requires creative thinking.  It is not easy to step outside of one’s own horizons to imagine what might attract a non-church person to become a follower-of-Jesus.  It requires, first, understanding oneself: what it is that fires and inspires us as Christians that might be attractive to others, but also what are the assumptions of which we need to be aware when trying to communicate our dearly held faith?

The second stage is creating the ‘line’ or ‘net’ – the hook that will attract the catch.  Is it an activity? a venture? or simply a conversation starter?  What it is will depend both on the fisher and fish – it will have to have potential to work for both, and as already established, it is unlikely that the location will be a church building.

And then there’s the vital stage – that bit where Jesus is mentioned.  And God. And faith. And what it means. And the hope that they won’t run a mile…

… in my experience they usually don’t, and all things considered, things turn out okay. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They say no. And you can try again with them another time… or not.

The thing about fishing is that a fisher can never guarantee a catch. I guess the life of an evangelist is just the same…

To read more about creating spaces for connecting with people who don’t go to church go here.

Read more about relocating mission here.

the art of starting out on a new mission journey…

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

… or, creating liminal spaces for those ‘outside the church’

My experience, working in the main with people who do not go to church, is that people are on all sorts of different stages of a faith journey. And they by no means follow a trajectory the zenith of which is church membership – or even faith in Jesus. I have encountered a plethora of experience during my ministry, from those who have never really considered engaging in a spiritual life, to others whose decades-long quest to find a way of living in genuine relationship with the divine has resulted in a rather unusual range of beliefs and practices.

I would suggest that the church has, until now, been relatively ill at ease with this increasingly complex religious and spiritual milieu, only now beginning to wake up to the fact that there are as many expressions of faith and spirituality as there are individuals in the world. 

I have used the term “those ‘outside the church'” deliberately with a sense of challenge. For I would suggest that such an assumption – that there are those who are ‘in’ and others who are ‘out’ of the church – is, in this day and age, a questionable one.  A ‘MissionWith‘ theology – one which requires a person of faith to walk alongside others, providing a transformative presence regardless of their credal adherence – makes far more sense to me than a doctrine of election.  And in Post-Christian Britain, where we have the freedom to choose Christ or not, it seems more loving, and more Christian, to provide that narrative through example, so that others might experience it, and come to know the love of Jesus, for themselves.

This article sets out some ways in which churches might engage with those beginning a journey of faith. I suggest that congregations first spend time reflecting on themselves, both as individuals and as a congregation, to discover what delights they find in their faith, and to highlight the assumptions they bring to the table . These insights can then be used to help discern how they are being called to shape new evangelistic endeavours.

1. Asking ‘What sort of church are we’?

The first stage of preparing for missional engagement is being realistic about oneself. This is true for both individuals and congregations as a whole. It requires starting with a certain level of honesty.  There is no point coming up with an amazing but unachievable mission strategy, or seeking to attract others who won’t want to engage with the church’s particular style of theology or worship.  Some questions churches might ask themselves:

  1. Who am I/are we as a congregation? What is my/our theological tradition? What tenets of the Christian faith are important to me/us as a congregation, and to what extent will I/we want to prioritise these as I/we share our faith with others?
  2. What am I/are we being called to do through this piece of work? What do we want to achieve? Is it to extend our current worshiping congregation or start a new one, or do we simply want to attract people to think about their spiritual life? What would success look like for me/us?
  3. When will I/we want to evangelise? Will it be on Sunday mornings, so we extend our worshipping congregation, or would it be better to do something else at a different time? What time realistically fits me/us, and how regularly should we do it (one-off, weekly, monthly, to fit with particular religious, local or national festivals)?
  4. Why am I/are we doing it? Do I/we simply want new people to carry on the practices I/we love, are we trying to do something totally new, or is it somewhere in between?
  5. How can I/we do this? Are we being realistic or are we just setting ourselves up to fail? Do we mind ‘failing’? Are we prepared for what we try to not work? What are the obstacles that might prevent us achieving what we want to? And how do we follow up initial successes, enabling new sojourners to move forward in their faith journey?

It is important to stress that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  For too long congregations have been made to feel as though they should be embarking on particular programmes or strategies to which they are not suited, as individuals or congregations. In my view this achieves nothing other than leaving them exhausted and discouraged: sometimes it might have been better not to try anything at all! 

2. Creating spaces for emerging conversations and inviting others to inhabit them

It has been suggested the Hug Cullompton provides a ‘liminal’ space – a community which exists to provide a spiritual link between the outside world and the church. While I believe this view does Hug Cullompton a disservice (it is a community in its own right with its own set of spiritual practices), and a ‘them and us’ theology is particularly unhelpful, it is certainly true that there are elements of Hug Cullompton’s experience that might inform how churches create opportunities for those wishing to explore faith.  Consideration might be given to providing, either temporarily or permanently:

  1. A ‘space’ (both physically and spiritually) where questioning can take place without any assumption that there is a right or wrong answer about matters of doctrine.  This might take the form of a drop-in, a discussion group based in a cafe, a pub open-mic session (‘ask the vicar’ style event), or other contextually relevant initiative.
  2. An experimental area where different forms of prayer and devotion can experimented with outside the parameters of ‘normal’ Sunday morning worship. This might take the form of midweek meditation in a village hall, a short service in a completely different style and venue to normal, or a drop-in prayer venue in an empty shop.
  3. A space which offers opportunities to think about the person and teachings of Jesus without being expected to become a ‘committed’ church member. This might take the form of a drop-in provision, cafe or pub discussion group, or session for adults dropping off kids for uniformed organisations.
  4. An activity or group which uses a particular hobby or medium (art, film, music?) through which faith can be explored, with a particular view to attracting those already engaged in that hobby/medium. Examples of this might be an art exhibition, community production, camera club, repair cafe, book group, or wine tasting course.

One fatal error churches have made in the past (and I have too as a pioneer minister) is to assume that by creating something amazing and advertising it well, people will automatically come.  In today’s Britain, where we are confronted at every turn by a plethora of words and images, and opportunities are endless, advertisements can get lost.  And besides, it is no accident that Jesus challenged the disciples to ‘go out’ to make disciples.  If they had continued sitting in their fishing boats and simply put up a poster advertising the Christian faith, the world would be a very different place!  I have come across many congregations who believe that, in refurbishing and developing their buildings, the resultant sense of missional endeavour will result in radically increased footfall at Sunday morning services.  This is rarely the case, not because the buildings are lacking, but because the assumption that there is an intrinsic link between buildings and evangelism is fundamentally flawed.

The only way to make new disciples is by instigating, maintaining and growing relationships; and, through them, sharing faith. The way to get people to come to missional activities, be they ‘liminal’ or otherwise, is by inviting them.  The way of attracting new people into liminal spaces is to see the spaces as relational, not physical.  Jesus made disciples by going entering their everyday – he called fishermen mending their nets and spoke with a woman out collecting water; Paul insisted on setting up his tent-making stall in the local market; early Christian communities grew through conversations among people and invitations to meals.  The New Testament is full of stories about people, not buildings. It is about the transformative power of Christ’s love, not a set of doctrines or worship practices.

If we are serious about sharing the good news of Jesus’ transformative love, then we have to be willing to share it – with everyone, not just those who choose to come through the church doors on a Sunday morning, and not through the medium of advertising.

For many in churches it takes new levels of courage to share what is most meaningful to them. There are lots of specialists to advise and help. Why not get in touch with one, and start the New Year with a new determination to share the good news of Jesus?

the end of an era… or on the threshold of something new…?

… a concluding reflection on my ‘Hug Cullompton’ years.

614921_511521685528553_1599187832_o At the weekend I said my goodbyes to those I have walked this journey with. This week my family and I will move on to pastures new.

Endings are often sad, and for me this ending is made all the more poignant by the fact I am leaving during what is clearly a time of transition for Hug Cullompton. Life moves on and people’s circumstances change.  For many of the Huggers change is something to be welcomed, but for others it is difficult to envision Hug Cullompton being any different.  They weren’t there to see it being conceived and birthed, and emerging into a shape which has altered as the organisation has grown.

So what is Hug Cullompton, and what might it become?  For many years I, along with many others, have been trying to it – but really it defies description: for it really is like nothing else. Part of that is because it is utterly contextual, created from nothing in a particular time at a place with a certain group of people; but it is also because it has been so experimental. It is the result of a shared vision of a group drawn together by their vastly different spiritual backgrounds and beliefs, reflecting the religious and social complexity of our time.

Together we have explored what it means to be in relationship, both with a God beyond human imagining and with each other; whilst at the same time sensing an urgent need for transformative change in our community and the world.  As a Christian I would summarise our raison d’être in the words of Jesus:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself. (Luke 10.27)

But we’re not all professing Christians by any means (although I think we all believe in Jesus); and to describe what we are as ‘a church’ would probably be to stretch the definition too far.  My strategy group has suggested that Hug Cullompton (and my ministry as a whole) might be described as having a liminal function: that is, one which offers the space and opportunity to explore faith and spirituality without the doctrinal and practical constraints of ‘traditional church’.  And in some ways that might well be true. Liminal is an interesting word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as 

“Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”

Were the purpose of my post, and declared reason for bringing Hug Cullompton into being, simply to create church, then this would be a fair enough assumption.  And I certainly see a desperate need for the church to create ‘liminal’ spaces – both physically and spiritually – where a journey of faith may be embarked upon at a far earlier stage than ‘going to church’.

But I wonder if describing Hug Cullompton as occupying a liminal space does it a disservice.  Liminality suggests standing on a threshold to something else – an intermediate stage for those who will move onto something different (better?).  Of course I will be moving on, as my post has been for a set time and I am now leaving to move back into more traditional church contexts.  But for the other members Hug Cullompton is not transitional. It is their spiritual home, a place where they are free to question, to explore, and to play their part in making the world a better place.

When I was appointed to this post ten years ago, the then Moderator who appointed me told me, “Do not be afraid to fail.” I have often pondered these words.  What does failure look like, and was I always going to be expected to achieve nothing more than that?

I suppose if ‘success’ were to be measured in terms of numbers of bums on seats on a Sunday morning, I have failed utterly and miserably. But I really don’t think, in this case, that’s what the definition of success was meant to be. The whole point of the post was to be freed from traditional limitations and expectations in order to experiment with what church might one day become.  And I’ve certainly done that.

There will be one more blog before the year is out – my suggestions for churches wishing to create ‘liminal’ spaces for people thinking of beginning a faith journey.  For a deeper reflection on my experiences go here.

The Hug Cullompton years: a concluding reflection

fullsizeoutput_15f1For 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.

Introduction

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Reconsidering how we understand and experience God;
  2. Shaping faith communities in the image of a Trinitarian God;
  3. Taking our faith out onto the streets; and
  4. 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:

  1. ‘Being Christ’ in the world means being alongside people in the world, regardless of their faith, background or views about Jesus.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Conclusion

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

References

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)

 

What to do about angels…

christmas angel.jpg

… or, a reflection on what we understand by the term ‘angel’

Last week I took my final pub carol service at my current local, the Pony and Trap.  It was a fabulous occasion, with readings taken straight from the Bible and carol singing led by the community choir.

The theme of this year’s service was Angels.  We heard the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary and the choir of angels singing for the shepherds in the fields; and the choir led us in the singing of Angels from the Realms of Glory.

In my view Christmas really isn’t Christmas without angels.  They feature heavily in the Christmas story, as they do sporadically throughout the Bible. The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’, and describes a being, either in human or heavenly form, who appears in the world to impart the news that God is about to intervene to change human history.

‘Everyday Angels’

The angels in the Christmas story appear in a grand spectacle – they command their terrified recipients to “not be afraid.” Although their appearance may be far less remarkable, I’m convinced that all of us have experiences of angels in our lives, someone whose activity or message makes such a subtle change in our experience that if we are not alert we might miss it.

A member of Hug Cullompton once spoke about the ‘everyday angel’ who held a door open for her when, exhausted and laden with shopping, she had thought she could go no further.   At the carol service I described the landlord and landlady of the pub as ‘everyday angels’. They have what I call a ‘remarkable ministry’ to their customers, offering loving care (as well as serving a drink) to anyone who comes through the door, regardless of how they look, act and sometimes smell. If an angel is God’s messenger, and God is love, then (as I told the congregation gathered in the pub on Thursday night) the demonstration of unconditional love they demonstrate in their pub makes them ‘angels’ in my book.

Talking about Angels 

In my everyday work angels are a common topic of conversation.  Opinions on them are incredibly varied, probably as varied as those I encounter about the existence, nature and identity of God.  Some people think they are acts of the imagination – the creation of someone needing an emotional crutch to hold on to.  Others can describe what their Guardian Angel looks like, even down to the clothes they wear.  There are those who view angels as just another pie-in-the-sky idea of those peddling a ‘fake God’, and equally there are those who take seriously what the Bible says about them, believing them to be agents of God through which the direction of human history is changed forever.

Although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, I can quite well believe in angels. If I can believe that a man who walked this earth 2000 years ago and died on a cross was God in human form, why not believe God acts in other miraculous ways to save the world and/or its people?  The thing about belief is that it cannot be proved right or wrong – and anyone who says any different is mistaken.  My daughter recently asked how I know God is there. I replied:

You know when you are trying to go to sleep and I’m in the next room? You can’t see or hear me, but you know I’m there, you can sense my presence.  Well that’s what God is like for me.  I can’t see or hear God, but I know God is there. And just knowing God is there makes me feel better.

Perhaps angels are a bit like that – or perhaps not. Who knows? After all, isn’t everything to do with belief just a leap of faith?

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.