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

living creatively with difference

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or, getting to the heart of what really matters

When I started training for ministry in 1999 I was introduced to a whole new range of terms – well, not introduced, actually.  I was expected to know them. They included the words conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, evangelical and open. I knew the first two – although I associated them with political voting preferences rather than types of theology – the others were new to me.

I realised very quickly that I was supposed to select one or two of these terms to describe ‘where I stood’ theologically. Whichever combination  I chose would also tell people what style of worship I preferred.  Invariably people would say, “Well, I don’t like boxes, but I suppose I would describe myself as…”, immediately putting themselves in whichever shaped box most suited.

My introduction to those terms also signalled the start of my education in how much the Church struggles with difference.  I have observed over two decades how using such labels creates divides within churches and denominations.  Even today there remains a legacy of suspicion, deflecting the church from its main task of demonstrating, and introducing people to, the joy of a faith in Christ.

One of my most inspiring theological discussion partners is a local Christian about my age.  There are fundamental differences between us.  She would probably describe herself as an ‘evangelical’, while I hail from the more ‘liberal’ end of the tradition. Embarking on a missiological journey alongside non-Christians has enabled us to set aside those differences which, in other circumstances, might have caused problems.  We can accept that only one of us believes in creationism (the idea that God made the world in six days), and we can agree to differ on whether the image of the future as depicted in the book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally or not. What might potentially divide us pales into insignificance when set alongside what really matters: following Jesus and enabling others to do the same.

Moving beyond such issues, in order to hear what God might be calling us to do and be, has been profoundly important for both of us.  Working alongside people, for whom these sets of labels have no meaning, has exposed how theological difference has impacted on the Church’s sense unity, and inspired in us a greater determination to follow the path that God has set for us – to be disciples of Christ in communion, each in our own way.

I am saddened when I hear of faithful Christians seemingly unable to move beyond the unhelpful divisions of the late twentieth century.  I am not saying that the issues on which churches differ don’t matter; but I wish they could work more creatively to resolve them, adopting an attitude of openness and listening rather than barely disguised hostility.

Perhaps then we could focus on reaching the 94% of people in Britain who don’t go to church, rather than tying ourselves up in knots over what divides the 6% who do.

For an article about reaching the 94% of British people who don’t go to church click  here.

learning to search for common ground

two red heart decoration on ground
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

…or, delving beneath the surface of linguistic difference

One Easter the local Baptist Church hall was transformed from preschool into Art Exhibition. On Good Friday, I agreed to steward, on the proviso I could nip out when the joint churches ‘Walk of Witness’ arrived so I could do a reading.

That morning the other volunteer steward arrived to be greeted by crowds at the door. She hurried inside, wondering what was going on.  On finding the exhibition deserted, she came out just in time to see me, sporting my clerical collar, reading the story of the Crucifixion.

Afterwards, we sat and talked. We had met through a previous Hug Cullompton art exhibition, and had become friends. Over previous cups of tea she had shared with me her childhood experiences of church – where she was told not to ask such awkward questions, and was sent off to play elsewhere as she was thought disruptive to the other children.

Her questions had, in my view, been quite typical ones. She had wondered why God should be described as a man and how ‘he’ had created the universe.  What I would consider a healthy curiosity had been deemed by her Sunday School teachers insolent.  As a consequence my friend had rejected the church, much as the church rejected her, and taken her own, rich, spiritual path, totally away from formal Christianity.

As we drank tea and ate the homemade cakes she had brought, we discussed the meaning of the Easter story. She said:

“If you’d told me two years ago that I would be sat here talking about Jesus, I would have laughed in your face. Nowadays I even find myself praying to him.”

What my friend described was not a ‘conversion’ experience. That’s not what this was. Fundamentally my friend’s views had not changed. Her belief in a divine, benevolent, creative power remains, as does her passion for nature. She continues to understand Jesus as a powerful energy to whom she can pray. Her issue is not belief; it is the accompanying doctrines of the church with which she cannot identify.

I have found it is often the doctrines and practices, which we ‘in the church’ take for granted, that present huge problems for those struggling to articulate and make sense of their beliefs. Language that rolls off our tongues without a second thought can alienate and exclude, to the extent that many walk away from Jesus, rather than try to work out what they consider to be unfathomable concepts.

I have often been heard to say, “I find that what people believe tends to vary a lot less than the differences in the way they describe it.”

As fewer and fewer people associate with the Church and its way of articulating itself, missional conversations are increasingly going to require delving beneath the surface, listening for what people actually mean by the language they use.  I often find that people who speak about their beliefs in very different ways to me actually believe the same things.  If Christians are to communicate successfully what they hold dear, it is for them to step outside the comfort of their own doctrines and traditions, and listen without judging. I suspect that, if they did, they would often find they are standing on common ground.

For more about the how to go about sharing the faith in secular England, click here.

 

Walking the journey from despair to hope…

beach-sea-coast-sand-ocean-horizon-531737-pxhere.com… or, facing the reality that the church needs change and working out how

I remember the day I first discovered that the church in Great Britain is in decline.  The year was 2007 and I was sitting in my first MA seminar.  The module was entitled Secularisation and the Church, and on the screen was a graph charting the decline of the different denominations. The United Reformed Church (URC) line was the steepest.

I remember feeling angry. I was a relatively newly ordained minister, with a church maintaining its numbers, despite a number of deaths among older congregation members. As a church we generally blamed our lack of substantial growth on the church down the road, attendance there being a prerequisite for admission to the  local church school.  As I stared at the line-of-decline I felt as though I had been deluding myself. Our failure to attract new attenders had less to do with church school policy and more to do with societal and cultural changes to which we, as the church, weren’t responding . It seemed I had dedicated years of my life, and my future, to a failing organisation.

For the next few years debate continued on whether or not Britain had become secularised  – as though denying a truth would make it go away.  The way I see it now, even if it wasn’t the case then, we are living in a secular age – if we mean, by the term ‘secular’, an age in which British people generally no longer understand the world through the lens of formal religion.  What the sociologist Peter Berger (1990) termed the ‘sacred canopy’, under which people make meaning in England, has indeed been seriously compromised, if not fractured.

Which raises a question: what is the Church to do about it?

A book which tackles this subject is Mark Ireland and Mike Booker’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism (2015).  It is a follow up to Evangelism: Which Way Now? published in 2003, which outlines and assesses a variety of evangelistic courses.

In Making New Disciples Ireland and Booker begin by acknowledging the societal and cultural changes which have impacted the church since the publication of their first book:

  • Increasing secularisation in Britain has resulted in the marginalisation of the church in public life;*
  • Britons claiming to identify as Christians are now a minority, and even fewer align themselves with any particular denomination;
  • People are less likely to join institutions of any kind, including the church;
  • Many of those who do not relate to Christianity see the Church as “repressive, sexist, homophobic and often associated with child abuse”;
  • Research has shown that Christians are less likely to attach importance to passing on their faith than teaching manners and a moral code.

*although sociologists such as Grace Davie and theologians such as Elaine Graham are arguing for the reverse of this – labelling it a ‘post-secular age’

They suggest that what they call ‘standard’ churches no longer appeal to the majority of British people.  Grace Davie suggests that, for those now into a third generation of non-participance in institutional religious life and hardly any understanding of the Christian narrative at all, Church as a concept holds virtually no relevance.

Despite all these negative facts about the state of the institutional church, my personal experience is that there is still an interest in, if not thirst for, that which is beyond human understanding.  Whether it manifests itself in going to church, performing occasional internet searches, or attending Mind, Body, Spirit fairs, I have found that the urge to identify with, and find some comfort in, a benevolent creative power and sense of an afterlife, is very much alive and well in Mid-Devon.

The question, then, is how do we harness this interest in a belief system among those who wouldn’t even consider ‘going to church’ to find the answers? An even more profound a question is, do we need to?

For Ireland and Booker the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’. They are, after all, committed members of the Church of England.  Their suggested method is what might be called a ‘blended economy’ of church – a variety of different expressions, united in a relationship of mutual prayer and support:

Fresh Expressions and inherited mode churches together, listening to one another and working to see what God is doing, have the potential to grasp a new understanding of the Church of God. It is less a case of ‘traditional’ and ‘fresh’ running in parallel but separate from each other, and more one of a changing, emerging shape, with both old and new being changed by mutual understanding, respect, listening and care. The future could be a new shape of church for all of us. (pp.152-153)

Ireland and Booker are realistic about the ability of evangelistic courses, so popular a decade ago, to bring people into encounter with the church for the first time.  They suggest that people who have no church background are more likely to be attracted through being invited by someone whose faith inspires them, than by seeing a service or course advertised and being enticed in.  They also argue for a richer variety of means of delivering worship, citing Messy Church, New Monastic communities and other forms of Fresh Expressions (experimental ways of worshiping),  as valid ways of doing this.

In a society which is increasingly secularised, there is a need for the church to respond to the variety of beliefs expressed by those around us, with openness and grace. Through reading the book I have identified four key influencers for someone considering exploring the Christian faith for the first time:

  • Example: many of those who come to faith do so because they have been inspired by someone known personally to them, and want to know more about that person’s motivation.
  • Invitation: it is an immense step for anyone to walk into a church or activity which is completely unfamiliar to them. If they are invited by someone who will accompany them throughout it is made much easier.
  • Welcome: there isn’t a Christian I know who hasn’t had one of  those bone-crunchingly awful experiences of going to a new church and being made to feel wholly unwelcome.  Being accepteded and valued from the start is key to a successful introduction to church.
  • Accompaniment: the journey to faith is often a long and complicated one, made much less confusing and challenging for someone if walked alongside someone who is there to love, support and pray for them.

Making New Disciples is a great resource for those looking for ideas and initiatives to attract new people to the church.  The authors highlight the importance of prayer and spiritual development, alongside committing to following Jesus day-by-day (discipleship), and developing the habit of sharing faith with others.  At the heart of it is their assertion that the future of the church lies, not in developing church-shaped-disciples, but a disciple-shaped-church.

Suggested Reading:

Ireland, M. and Booker, M., 2015, Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism (London, SPCK)

Brown, C, 2009 (2nd ed.), The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (Abingdon, Routledge)

Berger, P, 1990 (2nd ed.), Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, Anchor)

Davie, Grace, “Religion in Public Life: Levelling the Ground” in Theos Think Tank, https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/research/2017/10/28/religion-in-public-life-levelling-the-ground, accessed 31/07/2018

Graham, E, 2017, Apologetics without Apology: Speaking of God in a World Troubled by Religion (Eugene, OR, Wipf & Stock)