Downtime

25 07 2009

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Hi. This blog will go [even more?] quiet for the next week or so while I take some time out.





Can I stop being a Christian now, please?

18 07 2009

It was Constantine what messed it up. I’ve heard it said. I’ve said it myself. Perhaps, if he hadn’t Christianity wouldn’t be a world faith. But I think there is something in the idea that the way he brought the church and the state together kind of changed Christianity and made it something different to what Jesus had been about. And so maybe the world faith that Christianity became wasn’t proper no more.

I think the problem might go back a lot, lot further though. I think things might have gone askew in Antioch. Because it was in Antioch that ‘the disciples were first called Christians’. Before that, as I’ve said on this blog before they were called ‘followers of the way’.

The problem I see with the switch is that it changes from something dynamic to something static. It goes from a description of your direction of travel to a statement of your arrival.

And it opens up that whole notion of conversion. One minute you are not. The next minute you are. You’ve reached the end point.

‘Metanioa’ — repentance — on the other hand is the word used for bringing a boat about. It’s about a change in direction. It’s about the way you travel being different than it was before but it leaves open the possibility that you may come about again. Maybe travelling on the way is, as Richard Passmore says, about tacking — moving in a direction but tangentally, repeatedly coming about to bring you back on course.

Christian means little Christ. That’s not something you can be. It can only ever be something you’re becoming.

If we’re followers on the way, fellow travellers, it’s much harder to determine who’s in and who’s out. Because none of us has arrived. Even baptism becomes a waymarker on the journey. So maybe that encourages us to be more humble.

The other question though is whether there is only the way. But that’s a whole other can of worms!





Surprised by joy (and chicken kebabs)

16 07 2009

1066287_barbecueTonight as I was preparing a meal, I experienced a moment of sheer joy and connectedness. What was going on? This was the second time that day I had cooked the same meal. Earlier, my kids, who had been moaning as they saw their herb-covered chicken kebabs going into the oven, actually tucked into what I finally lay before them and then followed it up by eating loads of fruit. I couldn’t quite believe it. My little junk food junkies were eating real food. And loving it. It’s like the usual order of the universe had been inverted for some short period. It was a real Doctor Who moment. (Doctor Who and not Torchwood because if it had been Torchwood they would probably have instantaneously combusted immediately after eating their healthy supper.)

So that was the first thing that contributed. Second, José González’s Heartbeats was playing on the CD player. I challenge anyone to feel bad listening to that track. But this was something more than just feeling good. This was a moment of being overtaken by joy. Not just happiness or contentment. Joy. What’s the difference? It wasn’t just about a happy feeling. It was about feeling that everything is connected and that everything is pure gift.

It hit me when I was chopping tomatoes for the salad that Barbara and I would share with our dinner guest – a colleague from Barbara’s school who is shortly to leave for a new job in Spain. So there was a sense of being able to provide for the people I love – first the kids and then Barbara and to be able to sustain and support her in a relationship that matters to her (and so to me).

And then there was the beautiful redness and fullness of the tomatoes I was chopping. Just the goodness of these gifts in front of me. Chopping them felt like a ritual action (in a good way). It was like an act of worship or thanksgiving to prepare them. It was fulfilling in itself but I was also anticipating that greater fulfilment to come when I would eat these tomatoes and I would experience their taste as well as the resistance of their physical presence against the action of my knife. I’m starting to sound a bit mad now. But this is honestly how I felt. It took me by surprise because I am physically very tired and not quite 100% well I suspect but I was just aware of feeling really great.

And there was also the thought that I was doing something both profoundly and simply creative. I was taking the stuff of the earth and reshaping it in a way such that others could enjoy and experience it. It was a moment of artistic expression. [This must sound so pretentious!]

The sad thing was I thought how rarely such an experience happens in the context of Christian worship. It made me think that Christian worship might offer more of this sort of experience if it gets more basic and grounded in these sorts of real, everyday human experience. It reminded me how preparing and sharing meals has been central to my thinking in the past and on occasion more recently. Before I was ordained, I remember saying to someone once that I wanted to be remembered as the ‘cooking curate’. I have just this week started cooking again after months (years?) of just heating stuff from the supermarket. This whole (quite freaky) experience has reminded me that this might be a real feature of my vocation and what I think human community and the faith community might be all about.





Nowhere to run to?

15 07 2009

418898_hiding_-_2Is there any place that’s just for ‘us’? That’s the issue I’m grappling with just now.

I’ve been asking the little congregation I’m with to effectively give up our Sunday gathering. Not to stop coming. I’m asking if we can do something else with the time together. I’m asking them to give it over to mission. Some are really up for it. Others are struggling to let go of something that has sustained them spiritually and that they have worked hard to sustain through some difficult times. I understand that.

But I think this is a push worth making for the sake of mission.

But maybe it was a step too far to ask those who were there at our Tuesday night gathering if they would be willing to give up those Tuesdays as we do them now in order to be part of something new in the week too. I had thought they’d be up for it. They really weren’t. And actually, though I was a little taken aback and disappointed then, I can empathise. Because this isn’t about hanging on to a worship style that suits. It’s been about building relationships and conversation that can really be safe space.

A number of us are, in one way or another, refugees from more conservative churches. A common thread that emerges in conversation is how often people didn’t feel able to be truly themselves. We have felt under pressure to say or do the expected thing. Where we have said what we really think, we have been made to feel, by well-meaning people, that it is not acceptable to either hold or express a particular viewpoint. We have managed to create in our Tuesday night gathering a place where people can be themselves; where they can be real and genuine without being slapped down with a quote from the Bible. That’s not to say there’s no Bible in our gathering. There is. It’s a partner in our dialogue. We find it embraces, encourages, challenges and frustrates us in equal measure. We don’t spend our time necessarily looking at a particular text, asking setup questions and then finding the answer where we’ve been told to look. Instead, we can draw on those parts of the Bible that have seeped deep into our souls and shaped us, as well as confronting and grappling with those parts that we find it harder to reconcile with our experience of life or our knowledge of the world. Our conversation is honest, compassionate and enlightening. We all grow and are fed through it. We’ve got something precious — space to be ourselves and to grow in faith and discipleship in a grown up and honest way.

The issue with conservatism is not conservative theology per se, but how some of us have experienced it. There would be plenty of space for a conservative viewpoint in our conversation as long as that viewpoint was expressed in a compassionate way that valued the relationships in the group above the ‘right’ view prevailing.

There’s not really a fear of engaging with people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘christian’. In the experience of most of the members of the group, conversations about faith are often more real in this setting than in the churches we’ve known. The fear that was expressed was because my invitation was to be part of something else with some other christians we don’t yet know so well. People understandably were reluctant to risk a return to unreality or disapproval. And, given the relaxed, conversational feel of our gathering, they were reluctant to have to do something that felt very much more structured or formal or to have to do heavy Bible study as they’d experienced it in the past. There is also a feeling that if the intimacy of our small group is lost, we would find it hard to have the same quality or depth of conversation as we currently enjoy.

So I think all that is good. It’s encouraging to me that people value so much where we’ve got to as a group. What I find harder to reconcile is the potential exclusivity that might foster. We invite new people on our terms.

But actually is that so bad?
What are our terms?

  • Be real.
  • Don’t judge others.
  • Be compassionate in conversation.

These are not things, having achieved them to quite a degree, that we should recklessly give up. At the moment, this is a gathering that includes some people who don’t call themselves ‘christian’ or who are less certain about what that might mean for them. This offers a safe place for them to explore without any pressure. There is a growing sense of commitment, one to another. The challenge is how we can continue to reach out and be inclusive, perhaps to some who would find the views expressed at times difficult.

It has been helpful to me to consider the gospel for this coming Sunday as I’ve prepared to share my reflections on it on Sunday morning. In that episode, the apostles Jesus has sent out on mission come back excited but tired and hungry. Jesus invites them to come away with him – to find some space just to be with him. It doesn’t quite go to plan: they don’t even find the space to satisfy their hunger. But these twelve hungry men are the ones who serve bread and fish to the enormous crowd that gathers. And at the end, there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. This suggests three things to me.

  1. Jesus does invite those who have responded most fully to his call to spend time alone with him. But…
  2. That time is snatched along the way – they get a bit of time in the boat with him before they’re right back in it. And…
  3. Their needs are met when they are stuck into mission; when they’re feeding the crowd, they get fed.

What does all that mean for us – this little group of pilgrims on the way? It suggests to me that I’m right to ask this bunch to give up Sunday for the sake of mission. And it suggests that they were right to refuse to give up Tuesday so that they preserve their special, intimate time away from the crowd: a place to share our stories and be with the one who calls and sends us.





Beer, Bread, Bible, Boosh

10 07 2009

BBBBThis was the liturgical shape of the Safespace gathering I was privileged to be part of. It was intriguing on both a literal and metaphorical level. What do I mean? Manuel, let me explain…

BEER
The evening began with a shared meal. Mark and Lou had provided some of the food but members of the community also brought food and drink too. So the space for and the staple basis of the meal were provided by the Berry family as hosts. But the final form and content of the meal was shaped by those gathered. As well as sharing food, this was the point where people shared their stories – just the ordinary events of their lives in the past week, including how they were trying to make sense of faith within that. There was a sharing of beer too. It was interesting because that seemed to be about trying new things. The beers on offer weren’t standard. It wasn’t about having your ‘usual’. It was definitely about exploring the unusual. I particularly enjoyed a welsh dark ale. Kind of like my usual Guinness and yet different. 🙂

BREAD
Following the meal, we shared bread and wine. Mark presided over that sharing. They had a really nice earthenware chalice and paten set, embossed with the cross of St Brendan. So this moment was special and charged with symbolism. Could we call this Holy Communion?

Technically, from an Anglican standpoint, we should call it an agape meal. The words of the prayer before the sharing and the words at the distribution were quite close in some ways to what would be recognisable in a trad church setting as a eucharist. Technically, I should be more worried about the distinction than I am. But lay presidency is a whole can of worms. It’s one of those issues that exposes fractures within the Anglican Communion and would test our relationships with the wider (small ‘c’) catholic church. But it’s also one of those issues that means very little to anybody outside the church or even to a lot of people within it. That doesn’t mean I think we’re free to just ignore all that churchy stuff and just go with the flow. But neither can we provide each and every little missional community that emerges with a priest to administer the sacraments – certainly not with our current models of ordained ministry.

Actually I wonder whether other people ever lead the bread and wine ritual. If not, I will definitely be needing to pull Mark’s ordination-skeptical leg.

What I do think is that sharing food levels and unites us (as long as we don’t create special places at the table [arguing against myself here?]) and is therefore essential to true community. And I think that the symbolism of bread and wine can function in [at least] two directions. I see those expressed in two shared meals from the gospels: Jesus feeding the 5,000 and the passover meal with the disciples (note it’s that broader group of the disciples, not just the apostles as is so often pictured). In the first, the table is open for the crowd and is abundant and reckless in its generosity and welcome. In the second, there is a sort of special recognition of the place of the apostles and a preparation for the crossward road: the way of uncompromising surrender to love’s agenda.

So maybe we need two sorts of symbolic meals. If we want to call the first agape and the second eucharist for the sake of ecclesiastical expediency, well so be it. Both re-member us in Jesus – one in his profligate welcome into God’s kingdom and the other in our inherited apostolic connection to his call to sacrificial discipleship (lived out in mission). The first could and should be shared regularly in each little gathering. The second on those occasions where we’re getting into the (small ‘c’) catholic vibe and presided over by those whose ordination puts them in the place of representing the apostolic inheritance.

At this point I really need to apologise to those I know who read this who aren’t in the least bit churchy. Bear with me. I know this seems like a whole bunch of flimflam. It is. But it is important at some, highly churchy, level. 😉

BIBLE
Next – or was it before bread and wine? – anyway, at some point there was a Bible reading and reflection. It was one of the lectionary (set) readings for the day and it was from the book of Genesis. It was the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. Mark gave some space (accompanied by chilled, ambient music) for people’s own quiet reflection and also offered some input on this reading. Again, I wonder if others sometimes lead this sort of reflection, or whether Mark or the others in the community see this as his role.

This is a hugely problematic text. I thought Mark’s take on it was quite ‘straight’. I wondered if in a gathering that is seeking to challenge itself, a more critical reading could have provoked a deeper reflection. That’s not to criticise Mark. Maybe I just like throwing hand grenades too much, but I would have wanted to question the appropriateness of Abe’s response to YHWH’s request to do his son in. It’s interesting to compare it, as one contributor to Start the Week did recently, to the Abe that is pictured arguing with his deity about YHWH’s proposal to nuke Sodom and Gomorrah. No such unquestioning obedience on that occasion. Which is the more faithful response? (Clue: Israel means ‘contends with God’).

BOOSH
Finally, after all that, the conversation somehow turned to Stuart Hall and Jeux Sans Frontières. That led to us spending the rest of the evening watching clips of British comedy, in theory for the benefit of a Texan student who was also visiting. We took in Blackadder, Python and the Might Boosh along the way. The last of those proving somewhat challenging for our visitor and some regulars but hugely entertaining for those of us unhinged enough to appreciate the frankly lunatic humour of the Boosh.

None of these liturgical moments – and I’m being serious here – was any more important than any other. The common feature of all these moments was sharing and all, in their own way, offered a challenge; a moment, an opportunity to move out of our comfort zone and grow. Good times.





Hanging with the abbot

8 07 2009

MarkBerryPortraitMark Berry speaks passionately about the values of the ‘Safespace’ community in Telford– hospitality and mission, diversity and inclusion, openness and commitment. Those are my words for what I heard Mark articulating in several different conversations — with me, with an American journalist, and with the community itself.

I wonder to what extent those are Mark’s values and how much they are understood and owned by the individual members of the community. What I’ve outlined above is broad and open enough for anyone to find a home within it. That’s not to say it’s vacuous. It does have content. In fact it is best expressed not systematically, but narratively. The bible and particularly the gospels are normative for all Christian communities (although sometimes you wonder if people are reading the same gospels as you are!). But in addition to the Bible, the story of St Brendan is particularly formational for this community. And in one sense it doesn’t matter if every individual is completely sold on every aspect. The creeds represent the Church’s corporate affirmation of faith but there’s probably not one individual who would go to the stake for each and every line. So people in this community can recognise and affirm their corporate story without being subsumed within it.

I suppose I‘d like to explore with Mark how that story came to be part of this community’s story. Did Mark’s articulation of this set of values and the story of Brendan lead to the forming of a community around that narrative? Or did Mark bring the story into a community that grew out of relationships? The two are not mutually exclusive of course. But the reason I would like to explore this is twofold – first because of Mark’s skepticism about leadership, and second because the question of how a community determines its values/vision is a live one for me and the community I *lead*.

I think Mark gives quite a strong lead to this community. I don’t mean that negatively. It’s not that he imposes his will. It’s more that they look to Mark for direction and inspiration. At least that’s my impression after the few days I spent with Mark and his community.

Mark spoke about being guardian of the community rather than its leader. He seems to me to be more like an abbot. This is a community that models itself on the monasticism of previous times. So in this regard it perhaps matters more than in other sorts of ecclesial community whether individual members buy into its vision and identity. The members of this community are asked to live out the values, not just in what they do together but to take them on as a ‘rule of life’ wherever they are as individuals too. So they do stuff together and they do stuff apart but still trying to live out the values when they are apart. All the members I met, apart from Mark and his family, are members of churches. There are some, whom I didn’t meet on this occasion, who are leaders of churches. But the members of the community are also involved in running Sank•tuary together – an initiative which Mark says grew out of the community. And though it’s very open and welcoming of new people, whether as fellow travellers for a time or as new members, there is a sort of novitiate of a year, after which people are given a St Brendan cross to indicate their belonging and adoption of the community’s shared values. The interesting question is the extent to which the community adapts its identity and values to accommodate new members and the extent to which new members are required to adapt themselves to join the community.

If I have to write the word ‘community’ one more time, I will be physically sick. It has to be the most overused word ever. I find myself using it far too much when I talk about our two parishes’ involvement in Somers Town. I said to someone just yesterday that we want to ‘engage with the community’.

Oh dear, there I go. Excuse me a second. Bleeuurrghh!

Actually one of the things about Somers Town is that it isn’t a c*******y. It doesn’t have that social coherence that would make it a… you know what. I should start using the word ‘locality’. That would be a much more accurate word to describe the social situation in the… erm… locality.

Anyway, I digress. Safespace probably does justify that word that I’m no longer mentioning, because it’s intentional about being it. And in that regard it is further along the road than the congregation of St Luke’s is currently. I would love us to get to a point where our shared life provides a framework for each of us living missionally in every part of our lives as well as directly being involved together in the locality for which we have a responsibility. The Fresh Expressions/Pioneer Ministry agenda should encourage us to think beyond the parish system, but if we disconnect from ‘place’ as our locus for mission, we have forgotten the central and defining feature of what it means to be Anglican. Some of us may not care about that but this is where – to pick up on my previous post – my role as priest is to keep our connection to a wider story ever in front of us.





A pain in the neck?

3 07 2009

Last week I had a fantastic visit with Mark Berry, pioneer in Telford. One of the key values of his little community is hospitality. Mark and his wife and their son certainly lived that out as they made space in their home, their life and their community for me.

I followed Mark about a bit and got a bit of a sense of the place and the relationships he’s working with. But most valuable were our conversations.

collarParticularly challenging was a conversation Mark and I had about ordination. I was relating to Mark that I find it important in my work to be identifiable as a priest and so I wear a clerical collar wherever I go. I knew this might be provocative as Mark was featured earlier in the year on the Fresh Expressions Podcast expressing his doubts about the whole idea of permanent ordination. We probably don’t know each other well enough yet for the conversation to be as robust as it could be. I think Mark was quite gentle with me!

Still, he did make a point about the collar representing a power bid that I didn’t find easy to deal with at the time and cannot easily set aside now. And his assertion that ordination perpetuates an unhelpful identification of ‘the Church’ with its clergy instead of the whole community is similarly persistent. I’ve always felt it important to be identifiable in that way, so that when people meet me they know who I am. But do they know who I am? Or do they identify me with a role or a mis/understanding of the role or the wider church. As a ‘lay’ minister, Mark doesn’t have that issue. The only resource he has is himself as a human being. And that’s quite a strong suit.

So actually, as Mark was saying, the collar and the role it represents, could well be an obstacle to people knowing who I really am. Even if the aim is for people to know where I’m coming from, it could still be more likely to evoke misperceptions than a true appreciation of my take on the Christian tradition. And if I wear a ‘uniform’ and am clearly identified with a particular role, isn’t that always about making a grab for some sort of privilege or even power?

Think about people who wear a uniform in public life…

Maybe you thought about police officers or members of the armed forces, or nurses. All roles that confer power and/or authority.

But what about school uniform? Doesn’t that in fact represent a distinct lack of power and authority for those wearing it? Doesn’t it instead mean that those wearing it are identified with a particular community and are bound to some degree by the ‘rule’ of that community – its standards and way of life. Or maybe it’s more like the markers of religious affiliation that various faith communities adopt to express their identity. This is what I was saying in a conversation in a meeting where I was introducing myself to a Somers Town parent forum. I think probably it’s about all of those things.

Within the faith community, there is a degree of authority that is conferred by ordination. As I was saying in yet another conversation about this at the weekend, there is something about the ordained priesthood that is meant to represent, stand for, the catholicity (universality/oneness) of the church. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is incarnated locally but hasn’t spontaneously erupted into being in different localities. It is there because of the handing down of its shared story and its shared sacraments. The ordained priesthood is (meant to be) there to make that ‘sharedness’ apparent. That can be awkward at times. It can be really frustrating to be reminded that if we are to remain authentically ‘church’ we can’t just do whatever we like. We’re part of a bigger (though somewhat dysfunctional!) family.

It’s obviously much more problematic if the collar represents authority in public space and particularly as one is building relationships in those settings. At one time the established church did have that sort of public authority. Now of course, it does not. Much as people want to lament that, I think it’s a good thing. I have found in practice in public space that being identifiable as a Christian priest does not, by and large, convey any special power or authority. Indeed at times it has the opposite effect. It evokes suspicion and so means one needs to negotiate one’s presence in the public space.

There’s no denying that the collar is something to be gotten over. It can be a pain in the neck. But maybe there’s something important about that ‘getting over it’. It is in some sense an obstacle or trip hazard that can only be overcome as people really get to know me (and I them) but the church and even faith itself is similarly something to get over as I build relationships with people. Those things (the christian community and its faith) and my being set aside to represent them cannot be conveniently put out of the way. Their persistent awkwardness is part of who I am and what I’m about.