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.

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!

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

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

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

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

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

First century banquets – a model for early Christian gatherings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radical practices for a radical new faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship round the table: its relevance for today

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

‘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.

Version 3

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…

 

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

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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.

 

forming community through (a) prayer

lords-prayer-statueThe story of the ‘Hug Prayer’

A friend recently asked me, “Why do they keep changing what they put in the Bible?”

I was confused. As far as I was concerned the contents of the Bible were more or less fixed in the second century, give or take the odd section, and a bit of arguing over the ordering of it its contents.

The person with whom I was speaking was actually referring to the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer. She couldn’t understand why the ‘proper’ one was no longer used in her local parish church. I explained the history of the Lord’s Prayer, the words of which were originally spoken by Jesus, probably in Aramaic (a dialect from the first century CE),  then later recorded in Greek.  By about the fourth century most people who could read the Bible, read a Latin translation of it.  It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that the Bible began to be translated into the vernacular (national languages, including English), with what we now know as the Authorised, or King James version, being used from 1611. The version to which my friend was referring, using a modern translation from Greek into English, is the one formally adopted by the Church of England in 1989.

The Lord’s Prayer has played an important role within the life of Hug Cullompton.  In February, 2015, while we were starting to think of putting some of our values onto paper,   we decided that, rather than write a vision or values statement, we would compose a prayer, outlining our beliefs and motivations as a community.  One of the Huggers came across an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer  online.  It is written by Mark Hathaway, who describes it as “something between a poetic translation and “midrash” based on the ancient roots of the Aramaic words of the prayer.” 

Mark Hathaway’s interpretation helped us think about our own understanding and response to the words of Jesus and, after much debate (including a three month email conversation making sure we were all happy with the terminology we used), we adopted our own ‘Hug Prayer’ in May, 2015.

The process we went through might sound simple and short-lived. The reality is that the prayer was three years in the making.  Until we had relaxed into a way of being and thinking together, respecting each others’ very different spiritual views, it would have been impossible, even to open up such a conversation, much less to write a prayer we could all agree on.  The issue of the way language is used to understand and communicate ideas about faith is a huge one, which is probably why I will return to it again and again. This was a mere example of the complexity.

I await permission to reproduce Mark Hathaway’s interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, so in the meantime, here is The Hug Prayer without it:

Hug Prayer copy

 

 

 

‘Imaginality’ as the key to transformation

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One evening in September 2011, six women met in a room in Cullompton High Street.  All of them had either been personally invited or responded to a poster in a shop window. The meeting was to explore the possibility of starting a spiritual support group “for the world, for the town, for you.”

We began by introducing ourselves and saying why we were there. All of us were interested in mutual spiritual support;  but just as importantly, we wanted to be part of a group that existed for the benefit of others.

After the introductions, we held a time of silence.  Participants were invited to pray, reflect, meditate, practice mindfulness – whatever was their habit. It lasted about ten minutes; then afterwards we shared what we had discerned.  We had a flip-chart, on which the aspirations of the group were recorded. The images we shared after the prayer time were also drawn on the paper.  It quickly became clear that Cullompton was to be focus of our energy: to bring about transformation through prayer and action.

Over the months we continued to fill our flip-chart paper with words, images, pictures and diagrams.  The image which emerged became the basis for our name (Hug Cullompton), our logo (a hug heart) and our mission (one-off projects through which we could serve and touch the hearts of others).

As an organisation our habit has been to focus on one key activity at a time: a community fair, an art exhibition for local artists, a venue for the new food and drink festival, a Men in Sheds initiative. Once a project gains momentum and a life of its own, we will bless it and let it go.  Our one exception is ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’. Each week we throw open our room, offering refreshments, hugs, friendship, holistic treatments and prayer.  In addition to our community projects, each of us has our own personal discipleship, serving the town in different ways.

One of the Hug Cullompton members likens our way of working to the ‘imago’ process through which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  The caterpillar enters the pupa, a place of transformation, enabling it to spread its wings and leave the pupa behind.  The butterfly then blesses the area which first facilitated its existence, pollenating the plants on which it once fed as a caterpillar.  

‘Imaginality’ provides a good analogy for this pioneering story.  I’m not saying Hug Cullompton should take all the credit – everything we do is in partnership with others, and there is a host of amazing people doing incredible things for the sake of the town – and anyway, we are simply joining in with what God is already doing in our community. But I do think that the way we function is worth sharing, as it is such a positive example of transformational activity.

I have learned so much from my fellow huggers: about grace, patience, dignity, generosity, inclusion and most of all, love.  We certainly wouldn’t qualify to become an official congregation of a traditional church denomination, nor would we want to.  But if ‘church’ is about being called out to be Christ in the world – about living in relationship with others and sharing the love of God – then Hug Cullompton has it sussed.

For more about how Hug Cullompton has influenced my ecclesiology, click here.

In the footsteps of Ezekiel…

fullsizeoutput_138e… creating a mission methodology for emerging new church communities

In September 2009, I sat down at my desk and tried to work out what I was going to do. I was the first official URC Pioneer, tasked with making sense of this new fangled concept ‘Emerging Church’.  It seems such a dated term now, but then it was all very new.  My remit was to emerge a new church community, preferably one that had some resemblance to the United Reformed Church, of which I am a minister.  The question was, how on earth was I going to get started?

At that time I happened to be reading through the book of Ezekiel in my Bible for my daily devotions. I identified in him a true pioneer, someone called out by God from his religious institution, to be a lone voice in the wilderness.  His actions are at times most bizarre. Yet Ezekiel is marked out by his faithfulness, and after a time of isolation he is given a vision of hope for the future – a picture of a new community, with new life breathed into it by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

The key turning point for Ezekiel is a vision in which he wanders through a valley strewn with dry bones, a picture of lifelessness and despair (Ezek. 37.1-14). It is God who then asks the question one might expect Ezekiel to utter: “Can these bones live?”  Thus begins a cyclical process of engagement, prayer, prophecy and activity, through which the process of restoration begins.

I identified within the passage a missional process consisting of dialogue with God, intervention by the Holy Spirit, and periods of activity (movement, observation and prophecy).  It presented me with a mission model holding together a close personal relationship with God, dependence on the activity of the Holy Spirit and the anticipation of transformation of a community. It held a strong appeal so I decided to adopt it.

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The next stage was to decide how to start.  The amazing Richard Passmore, then working with the Frontiers Youth Trust, was on my strategy group.  He let me have a copy of his soon-to-be-published book, ‘Here Be Dragons: Youth Work and Mission Off the Map‘. The book suggested a nine stage process for emerging churches with young people, using a method called symbiosis.

Symbiotic youth work is an experiment in cultural mission, which holds humility as a core value, alongside the desire to learn from those we are engaging with.  At a time when the notion of ‘church’ and the connotations surrounding this notion are often negative, restrictive and prescriptive, it is a reimagining of what community, informed by Shalom principles could be… It is living out, engaging in and wading into the messy stuff that is important, not just trying to bring ‘truth’ to a situation or even trying to journey to a fixed destination.

(Passmore and Passmore, 2013, pp.12,14)

For a pioneer with a mission methodology founded on prayer, discernment and allowing the Holy Spirit to work, this principle seemed a natural next step.

And so I began. After a time of observation I began to start identifying people with whom I might emerge a new ecclesial community.  It was here I learned a valuable first lesson: mission cannot be hurried.  All of my reading had counselled patience. Bishop Graham Cray, who was at that time the Archbishop’s Missioner, had advocated taking time to “listen to God and listen to the community”.  Another very experienced pioneer for whom I had great respect advised me “not to expect there to be anything to look at for at least two years.”  They were both right  The activity God wanted at this stage was relationship building, not action.  Ezekiel’s role is to observe, to prophesy,  to speak of God’s promise, and to allow the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into the situation – not kneel down and try to identify which bones should go with which. (Ezekiel 37.1-4)

In training I had been taught to conduct a community audit. This consisted of meeting with, and talking to, key figures in the town: the vicar, the manager of the doctor’s practice, the community police, the town clerk.  The Synod Moderator, who was my line manager at the time, also suggested this.  Somehow  this didn’t fit with a  symbiotic mission method.  Instead of listening to those who already had a voice, I wanted to get alongside the voiceless, hearing their stories.  I attended pubs, hung out in local shops, walked my dog, took up yoga and joined the Community Association. In addition I joined a book group and started a film club. After a few months I began a pub discussion group. 

And yet, after almost a year in Cullompton I still hadn’t worked out what I was ultimately there to do. I very much liked living in Cullompton.  It was incredibly welcoming with lots of talented residents, all of whom had interesting stories to tell.  However there were also stark contrasts in the community. Paradoxically, Cullompton was both growing and declining.  It was growing in population but losing its historical identity as a rural market town. 

As I got to know different people and listened to what they said, I could sense a yearning for something new to happen, for Cullompton to rediscover its heart.  With a population of just over 8,000 at that time Cullompton had seven pubs, six hairdressers, several beauticians and three alternative health practices.  The local surgery had just opened what it described as an ‘integrated practice’, offering complimentary as well as traditional health treatments.  There was also a not insignificant minority exploring what might be described as ‘alternative spiritualities’. All of these were a stark contrast to what was on offer at the churches and there was a huge gap. It was in that gap that I felt a call to locate my mission.

In the summer of 2011 I wanted to carry out a piece of research for my MA on the spiritual activities of the town. The study I wanted to undertake was based on the research of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead in Kendal. One of my proposed research subjects was Cullompton’s Natural Care Centre. I phoned the number on the website and the owner, Sue Keeping, invited me over for a cup of tea.  And, in that hour, over a cuppa and a chat, the idea for what eventually became Hug Cullompton took form.

More next time …