The thorny issue of pastoral visiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From religion to spirituality: what is really going on?

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

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

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

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

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

Woodhead argues that:

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

So where is God in all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a vision and a challenge for the future

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

Treasure in clay jars image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

making our mission and ministry Jesus-shaped

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

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

Stepping out into the unfamiliar

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

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

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

Facilitating transformation with a commitment to the long term

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

Trusting that God works beyond the bounds of church congregations

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

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

 

Incarnation and divine experience: finding inspiration in the pages of the Bible

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… or, why a load of words written thousands of year ago inspire me today.

One of the currently in-vogue words among mission-type people is ‘incarnational’. Whenever it is used there is always lots of nodding.  For the first several years I heard it bandied around, the term troubled me. I wasn’t sure I truly understood what it meant. I knew God became ‘incarnate’ in Christ – so it obviously had something to do with God taking on bodily form. But what did that have to do with me? And how could my ministry be described as ‘incarnational’?

In the past months I have reflected on the term at length. This is the first in a short series of articles, through which I intend to tease out what I understand by the term ‘incarnational’. I will explain why I consider it so important in the context of twenty-first church mission and ministry, and how it has been outworked in my particular context.  As is my habit (partly because it reflects the theological tradition from which I come) I will begin exploration in the pages of scripture.

Incarnation and Identity in the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament

Essentially the Bible is a book about relationship: between human beings and a God who loves them. Described in the first book of the Bible as the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings, from the earliest times, let God down, both in their obedience to God and love for one another.  The story known as The Fall, in which Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent to take a bite from the forbidden fruit, is symbolic of the breakdown in relationship between creator and created.  When God searches for them in the garden,  Adam (the name means human being) and Eve (whose name means alive) hide, ashamed and exposed. This is their last physical encounter with God. The result of their disobedience is expulsion from the Garden of Eden and a recalibration of their relationship with a now-distant God.  The journey towards redemption and reconciliation with their creator, who still loves them, will be an timeless one, with many twists and turns along the way.

The Hebrew scriptures – the Jewish Bible and Old Testament of the Christian one – tell the story of that journey. There are swashbuckling heroes and and nasty villains;  paupers, prophets, priests and kings; all searching for the redemption that will bring them back into full relationship with an elusive and at times seemingly fickle God.

These people, whose stories are recorded in scripture, are the Jewish ancestors of Jesus and his first disciples, a people whose self-identity was as a holy nation. Despite their propensity to sin, they understood themselves to be chosen by this God, who communicated with them through a variety of means.  Although generally a distant deity, God could, and did, respond to the people when called upon.  Over the generations a cycle of rites of passage, worship practices and feasts and festivals developed, during which the stories of their ancestors were retold in a way that gave shape to people’s lives and helped build both their corporate and individual identity as people of God.

An important element of that corporate worship life was the burnt offering or sacrifice of animals.  In burning all or part of an animal or plant, the smoke emitted was believed to create an odour ‘pleasing to the Lord’, transforming it into a heavenly substance, and providing a link between heaven and earth (Lev.1.14-17).  When they are burned, God responds.  An example of this is in the incredibly moving interaction between Jacob (also called Israel) and God when he is on his way to Egypt in search of his lost son Joseph (the one with the ‘amazing technicolour dreamcoat’):

When Israel set out on his journey with all that he had and came to Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Then he said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.’ (Gen. 44.1-4)

Through Jacob’s sacrificial activity, God breaks ineffably into his human consciousness, assuring both his identity and legacy, in just the same way God did with his Grandfather, Abraham.

Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures, at times when all appears lost, God breaks ineffably into the human consciousness of the people of Israel, acting to assure their salvation.  And in first century Palestine, when the punishing rule of Roman occupation seemed an inevitable future, God broke ineffably into human consciousness once again. Only this time the form God took was human.

Incarnated identity in the New Testament

God, taking on bodily form in the person of Jesus, signifies the beginning of the fundamental restoration of the relationship between God and humanity.  The God who walks in the garden of Eden, searching for the shamed Adam and Eve, is the same God who befriends, heals, serves and commands in the everyday ordinariness of first century Palestine.  No longer is there a need for burnt offerings to thin the divide between heaven and earth. It has been permanently breached in the most glorious way; for in Jesus the ability to see God is opened to all.

This concept of bodily redemption is then modelled in the earliest Jesus-believing communities, who describe themselves as the ‘Body of Christ’ (1 Cor. 12).  This corporate embodiment is outworked, both through their tangible attachment to each other, and the way they reach out together to the world around them.  Rather than making sacrifices of animals, the followers of Jesus reaffirm their identity as God’s chosen through the sharing of bread and wine together; and it is not long before this possibility is opened far beyond the reaches of those born into the Jewish bloodline.

The way of life lived by the Jesus-believing communities, recorded in the Book of Acts, demonstrates how this body of otherwise unremarkable fishermen, zealots, wives and mothers become exemplars of what it is to live as people with God ineffably present among them:

 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2.42-47)

Through a combination of Biblical, literary and archeological evidence, it is possible to piece together a picture of how the earliest Christians lived.  The image is of small communities popping up throughout the Near East and Mediterranean Europe. They gathered to share food and friendship, to learn more about Jesus, and to commit themselves to modelling a way of life which was gracious, generous, egalitarian and compelling. For more on communal eating and worship practices in the earliest Christian communities click here.

Relevance for Today

Of course all the events referred to above were said or spoken between two and four thousand years ago, and canonised (selected and ordered) almost 2,000 years ago. There are those who say it is out of date, that it has no relevance to, or bearing on, our lives today.  But regardless of how literally the words in the Bible are taken (and in ancient times many words were meant figuratively rather than literally), there are universal truths to find amongst the pages.

Without doubt, the human race is fatally and fundamentally flawed. What we have done to each other and to our planet in recent history is enough to testify to that. And if, as a species, we were able to obey the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the Pentateuch , strive to learn from the ancient teachings in the wisdom literature (books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), and follow Jesus’ example and teachings from the New Testament, the world might look very different.

As it is we can only make a difference where we are, in our own realm.  At the end of the Bible is a future vision of a new heaven and new earth.  In that new world the nations, identifiable in their uniqueness, live in harmony. There is food enough for everyone, and love reigns.  And we do live on a planet where that is humanly possible.  It is also our ‘humanness’, flawed as it is, which prevents that happening.

But…

The Bible teaches me that it is not all hopeless. The picture of goodness, painted in the words and deeds of Jesus and his followers, is inspiration enough to make me want to try and model it, both in my personal life and in my professional dealings. So therein lies the basis for my incarnational theology.  I am called to ’embody’ the person and teachings of Jesus, to see others through the eyes of God incarnated, and to love my planet and its inhabitants, however hard they sometimes make it.

More next time…

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.

When theory becomes experience in the breaking of bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing Holy Communion at the meal table

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

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

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

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

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

‘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 Two

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

…or, what to consider when bringing a new church into being through the sacrament of Baptism

Shortly after our little community Hug Cullompton began to meet, I had my first request for Baptism.  The candidate was a woman I met when leading a carol service at the local pub.

I explained that Baptism is a Sacrament – a sacred act – during which a candidate declares their faith and makes promises to play their part in the life of the church

“It will take time to prepare,” I said.

“That’s fine,” she replied. “It’s something I really want to do.”

So began a time of Baptismal preparation. Three of us met regularly, and gradually we made our way through a document called the Statement Concerning the Nature, Faith and Order of United Reformed Church.  It explains how we define God and the church, what is distinctive about our denomination and what it means to be a Christian in our tradition.  “If you’re going to be Baptised into the United Reformed Church,” I told her, “You need to understand what you’re signing up to.”

By June she was ready. We set the date for early September and found a venue – a river bank on the edge of the town.  The two of us who were already members of the United Reformed Church decided we would like to renew our Baptismal vows, and formally commit to this new church community taking shape.

It was then that the question came: “Can you do this?”

In our tradition a candidate for Baptism usually becomes a member of a URC congregation who can support and nurture them in the faith.  We weren’t a constituted congregation of the United Reformed Church, and this was to be our first formal ‘service’.

It turns out that whoever wrote the URC Manual (our rule book) hadn’t considered what would happen when a new church came into being through the sacrament of Baptism.  In fact, the URC doesn’t really have any guidance or procedures suited to church planting.

However, that doesn’t mean new things aren’t possible. In the aforementioned Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order it says:

we affirm our right and readiness, if the need arises, to change the Basis of Union and to make new statements of faith in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.

We weren’t asking to change the Basis of Union, our foundational document, but we were asking the church to review its practices.  Our request was forwarded to the committee which deals with matters of doctrine. A conversation took place between the members, during which agreement emerged that, in the case of a new church community, Baptism was possible.  Biblical precedents were found in the stories of both an Ethiopian Eunuch baptised by a road (Acts 8.28-40), and Lydia, mainland Europe’s first Christian (Acts 16.10-16).

Although it was rather frustrating at the time, I am glad the question was asked.  It ensured we did it ‘properly’, and we also drew attention to the need for appropriate responses to the new things God is doing in our midst.

The Baptism service was fantastic. More than 40 people came, family, friends and local church folk.  Gathering on the banks of the river Culm that day felt like a milestone – and so it was.

To read more about Baptism click here.