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 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…

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… 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?

Walking where Christians fear to tread

fullsizeoutput_159a…or, exploring faith with people who practise ‘alternative spiritualities’

I have already written about the first time the group which became Hug Cullompton met. What I haven’t written about is what happened the evening before.

I had been at the town’s intercessory prayer group.  It was an ‘invitation only’ group, and as I was quite vociferous about my need to pray I was invited to become a member.  During the meeting we had been reading Ephesians 5.6-11, which speaks about being ‘children of light’, committed to ‘tak[ing] no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expos[ing] them.’

At the end of the meeting, having heard me describe the spiritual support meeting I was attending the next day, the participants gathered round me and laid hands on me to pray that God would go with me into the darkness.  It wasn’t until after I got home I realised they genuinely thought I was taking part in “the unfruitful works of darkness.’

I find it fascinating that, in many church traditions, there is a desire to understand and partner with people practising other faiths (known in the trade as Inter-Faith Dialogue), while those who engage in what are labelled ‘alternative spiritualities’ are treated with far less dignity and acceptance.  Certainly I was brought up to believe they had no proper grounding other than a leaning towards the occult.

My experience has been entirely the opposite.  The people I have encountered during this particular walk of faith have been gracious, generous and accepting of my beliefs in a way that many of my fellow Christians would never reciprocate.  I have learned much about the basis for what they believe and do, some of which is centred in spiritualities more ancient than Judaism, and which predate the coming of Christ by at least 2,000 years.

I have learned how important it is to treat our bodies with respect, to listen to them, and to relate all that we think and feel to our ‘createdness’.  I have learned about the close relationship between body, mind and spirit, and how it is connected to the past present and future in ways we do not understand, but which God does.   I have watched radical healing take place before my eyes, and I have wondered how this can NOT be of God.  I have read my Bible, trying to work out how all this might contravene what is written there, but have found no condemnation, only affirmation.

And in doing so I have found a stability in my own faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, orthodox as it is; and a renewed confidence in talking about Christ Jesus,  who accompanies me in every aspect of my life – as saviour, friend and guide.

The three most important lessons I have learned in my years walking alongside the other members of hug Cullompton:

  • that the expressions of love, grace and acceptance we see practised and recorded in scripture can sometimes be more evident in faith communities that wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘church’ than those that would.
  • the importance of learning to value what I believe, and drawing a line between those beliefs and those with which I cannot adhere (both in Christian and alternative spiritual traditions). In doing so I can act with integrity and without fear, opening myself to learning more about how God works through relationships, both inside and outside the church.
  • that God is good, faithful and just; and will reward those who walk the way of Christ, whether they adhere to traditional church doctrine or not.

For a deeper reflection on my time working with people who practise alternative spiritualities click here

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.

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!

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.

‘Mission With’ – more than just a theoretical concept

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…or, ‘coincidence’ as a mark of God’s presence in community

It is nearly six years since a leaflet advertising a United Reformed Church initiative called ‘ArtTalk’ happened to float across my desk at a committee meeting. I shall call it ‘Coincidence’ Number 1.  It was the first of number of ‘coincidences’ which help shaped my ministry.  Looking back on it, I’m convinced it must have been more than that.

‘Coincidence’ Number 1

ArtTalk was an initiative for local URC congregations wishing to host art exhibitions.  Hug Cullompton wasn’t officially a congregation of the URC, we didn’t have a church building and none of us were artists.  But a spark of imagination lit up my mind, and within days I was on the phone to the minister behind the project, making enquiries.

In the days that followed I wrestled with how to make such an event take place. I knew God was calling us to this, but I had no idea how to get started. Eventually I decided to go out and have a look to see what venues might be available.

‘Coincidence’ Number 2

As I walked under some scaffolding in the main street, a workman dropped a tool. I picked it up and handed it back. “Is this your building?” I asked. “No, but the owner is inside,” he said.  “Pop in if you want to see him.”  It had previously been a fabric shop. It was large, light and spacious – perfect for an art gallery.  The owner welcomed me.  I explained my idea to him and, without hesitation, he said he thought an art exhibition would be an excellent way to publicise his renovation. He needed three months to get it finished, so we set a date.

‘Coincidence’ Number 3

The next day I saw an advertisement for a local exhibition about the Turin Shroud.  The woman running it was a local fine art painter. She had recently become a Christian and was hosting the Turin Shroud exhibit alongside her own work.  One painting – not quite finished – was of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was incredible. “We need some advice,” I said, and explained our idea. “I’ll help you,” she said, “I can even use it to launch my new painting.”

And so the ‘Hug Cullompton Community Gallery’ took shape. Alongside our exhibition we ran a number of workshops and seminars on the theme “connecting art and spirituality”. 48 local artists exhibited, and more than 1,000 people visited. Residents were uplifted by the presence of a gallery in town, and through it a vision emerged for a longer term initiative promoting the arts locally. Eventually it became embodied in the charity Cullompton Arts House.

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This type of work is an example of what the missiologist Paul Keeble describes as ‘Mission With‘.  Contrasting with ‘Mission To’ (traditional evangelism) and ‘Mission For’ (Christian service), ‘Mission With’ is a simple act of presence.  It is a way of living intentionally alongside members of a community, listening to their stories, sharing their aspirations, and showing the difference being a Christian can make.  It is a form of mission which demonstrates God’s love and invites conversation without expectation, other than believing God is at work through encounter, and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through it.

Last week this particular piece of mission work came to an end as I finished my term as Chair of Trustees for ‘Cullompton Arts House – but only sort of… because the relationships I have made, the doors that have opened, the conversations I have had and the community transformation which has been inspired through resultant artistic endeavours, still remain.

And much of it will continue to do so long after I have gone…

 

The trouble with Baptism: Part One

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

…or, the dilemma of how to welcome non-practising Christians into church to have their Baby ‘Christened’.

In the year or so after giving birth to my daughter, it felt as though I had cornered the ‘Naming Ceremony’ market in my local area.  I got to know quite a few of the parents of babies born around the same time and, when they discovered my profession, asked if I was ‘licensed to do Christenings.’

The answer is that, as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the United Reformed Church, I am.  My call by God to preside at both adult and infant Baptisms (the ceremony at the heart of a child’s Christening service) has been recognised, and I have been formally trained.  At my previous church I baptised many babies, with the majority of the parents choosing to maintain or develop their relationship further with the congregation afterwards.

Not all did though, and there was a prevailing attitude that it was the fault of the parents – that they had somehow ‘used’ the church to get their baby ‘done’ under false pretences.

As a new parent myself, and as a minister in a role far away from the institutional norms of the church, I have come to the conclusion that this is not at all the case.  Generally speaking, parents love and want the best for their baby.  By having them ‘Christened’ they see the opportunity to mark an important rite of passage, celebrate the birth with family and friends, and do all they can to ensure their child is protected and cared for in the event that anything should happen to them.

Not all churches have the same tradition when it comes to the Sacraments (sacred ceremonies that mark God’s activity in human lives), but generally speaking, Baptism marks the candidate’s initiation into the Church. If they are adults they declare their faith and make promises to obey God and play their part in the life of the church.  For babies, unable to speak for themselves, the parents make the promises on their behalf, nominating Godparents who will assist them in the task.

I would like to suggest that the gap between the church’s formal understanding of the sacrament of Baptism, and the prevailing cultural understanding of ‘Christening’, is absolutely massive.  Parents who are not practising Christians, but have a sense that bringing their child for God’s blessing and protection, are not at fault.  They simply want to celebrate the new life they are miraculously holding in their arms, and receive God’s blessing on themselves and their child.

I do not blame church congregations for feeling used when their normally quiet Sunday morning services are invaded by a family they have barely even met before, hoards of noisy children, and inappropriately (in their eyes) dressed adults.  But I also do not hold it against those who are delighted to be in church, wearing their best new outfit, and anticipating a moving ceremony followed by a great big party.  Why shouldn’t they go to church? And why shouldn’t they be able to celebrate before God? Aren’t they God’s children just as much as those who have been attending week in, week out, for the best part of eighty years?

Sacraments are not an irrelevance. I should know, I’m in the middle of writing a book about them! But neither are they an excuse for those within the church to assume an air of scathing superiority.  ‘Christenings’ are a genuine opportunity to engage with people who may not have thought about faith before but who, on looking for the first time at that tiny bundle for which they are totally responsible, feel a stirring of something beyond themselves which might be vaguely recognised as ‘spiritual’.

The question is, how do we, within the church, help new parents harness that emotion and start to make the journey from vague spiritual stirrings to full-blown faith in Christ? If it is the first time in years (or ever) that they have thought about God, perhaps it is a bit much to expect them to be ready, within a few weeks and after a few ‘lessons’, to declare their own faith and promise to bring their child up in the life of the church.

I suspect that, in practical terms, Church baptismal traditions which have developed over centuries or, in some cases, millennia, are unlikely to be changed overnight because of one blog piece.

My experience is that, by setting the conversation about the ‘Baptism’ ceremony within the context of the ‘Christening’ event, it is possible to have conversations with new parents about what Baptism actually means and requires. They can then make an informed choice about the most appropriate way to celebrate the birth of, and ask God’s blessing on, their child.

They may well still choose Baptism (because culturally a ‘Christening’ does require ‘water’), but at least they will have a better understanding of what the water and sign of the cross on their child’s head signifies. And who knows, the ceremony which should really be a key marker on a journey of faith, might well, by the grace of God, become the initial signpost.

To read some background about the Sacrament of Baptism click here