“Why do men no longer go to church?”

‘Beyond Belief’ on radio 4 asked this question today, quoting statistics that would suggest that 35% of the male members of congregations have stopped attending in the last 10 years. It is well worth a listen – here.

And as I confessed in my most recent post- I am one of them- at least as far as Sunday attendance at traditional church services goes.

This despite the continued male-domination of the religious machine, and the historic misogynistic flavour of many of our religious traditions (at odds with the way Jesus turned the tables on gender stereotypes.)

The questions I have often heard asked are-

What is about church that alienates men- even more so than women?

What is it about male spirituality that is no longer catered for within church?

How are healthy, holy versions of masculinity affirmed and modeled within church?

The spirituality of Jesus and his band of (male) disciples was one that tended to use words like these-

Risk taking,courage, self sacrifice, togetherness, adventure, mission, journey, loyalty, faithfulness in the long haul, friendship. ‘Taking a prophetic stance in order to change the world.’

The stories of the new men of the New Kingdom are full of tales of men fishing together. Learning and debating on the road. Living out practical God stuff in the presence of real human tragedy and ecstasy. The shadow of death and love of life in the middle of dangerousness.

What people like me have been forced to acknowledge is that our experience of church is often not like this at all.

We seem to have reduced spiritual practice to a very narrow band- as someone said on the programme- ‘Everything fixed by reading the Bible more and praying more.’ The problem is above all a moral one, and the answer to the problem easily results in  living more narrow, less colourful lives- less connected, less rounded, less real.


So- what is the answer?

There were stories of wilderness retreats on the programme, which is something we have been experimenting with for a few years too (here and here for example.) Dorothy recently sent me some information about a course being run at The Bield doing similar things too- along the lines of the Richard Rohr ‘Rites of Passage’ material.

The chance for us to go off on these kind of defined pilgrimages can be wonderful.

I have a mixed feeling about  male-only courses though. Some of this may relate to my own lack of clarity over what it means to be ‘masculine’- and what of my masculinity is praise worthy, positive and to be preserved.

I also am slightly suspicious of some of the language- the ‘warrior’ stuff, and the idea that at the heart of every man beats the heart of a hunter. I am not sure I ever want to fight or kill anything or any one- even in metaphor.

Richard Rohr describes his encounters with groups of nuclear scientists like this- “They don’t have a language to talk about faith.  They can’t discuss things, the chaplain says, unless they are objectified and given a law, order and structure.  But the language of inner states, inner movements, inner awareness, and inner consciousness is foreign to them.” I know men who are just like this- and many others who are entirely UNLIKE this.

I also strongly feel that male spirituality is substantively just the same as any other kind of spirituality. And I am not convinced that the answer to men leaving church is just to make what we already do more ‘butch’- tone down the love stuff and make it all less touchy-feely. As if women are not leaving church too.

Faith without works is dead- but ‘works’ without an inner awareness will almost always lead to damage- both to our self and to others. We need to be active and vital in how we live lives, but we also need to discover those soft supposedly feminine attributes and stop pretending that we can live like stones.

a final thought- I have come to believe that the obsession with getting men (and women) to come to church is entirely the wrong emphasis- rather we need to discover new/old ways to take church to them.

New/old ways to live out the mission of God in our context, and to learn to share this in community.

New/old ways to live authentic real lives.

And at the end of each day, new/old jokes to share around a fireside.



Sabbath beach…

I have a confession.

For most of my life, I have spent most of Sundays in Church- all those high pressure mornings in some leadership role or other, often followed by reluctant evenings (even if they did turn out to be a real blessing.) But that is not my confession.

Rather it is this- for the past few weeks, I have spend Sunday mornings playing cricket.

It still makes me feel guilty though. Despite the fact that we do ‘church’ differently- we meet in the week, as well as other times.

But this is a chance to do something I enjoy along with my cricket mad son. It is a chance to connect with some other blokes, and to get some good exercise.

And Sunday, I remind myself, is about rest. And all those years of busyness- they were certainly not restful.

After the training session this morning, we went for a picnic- to a local beach out beyond Tighnabruach on the other side of the Cowal peninsular. The sun shone, it was almost warm, and the scenery was stunning.

Lambs in the fields, snow on the Arran mountains, still waters beyond perfect sand. Catkins on the trees and frogs spawning in the ditches.

This will be a day to remember.

A real sabbath to remind us to stop- and to be grateful.


“The long failure of the enlightenment project”

One of my heroes was interviewed on radio 4 this morning- Bishop Tom Wright. You can listen again in this link-

Tom Wright on Enlightenment

He was asking questions about the nature of society, in what he described as an ‘increasingly religious age’- where the poor and rich are more divided than ever.

And particularly, what might be the place of the Church. And he said- do not look at the Church- Look at Jesus.

More of him on the radio please…


Humanity reshapes itself, so another little think about church…

I do not usually repost anything from Jonny Bakers blog- despite being a very frequent visitor- simply because I always assume that most of you have also already read it! However, I will make an exception today as he pointed (via Steve Collins) to an article about ‘Curated Membership Communities.’

Jonny’s interest in curation as applied to worship was the subject of his recent book, that takes a journey through communities whose experiments with worship have interesting parallels with how art might be shaped, curated and displayed.

But I am more interested in what implications these apparent changes in dominant social entrepreneurial groupings might have for church. That is, church in the broadest sense.

I liked this from the article-

even in a world of immensely powerful social technology, shared experience is what drives us to care about and contribute to others. As the social graph has come online, we’ve been able to keep better track not only of our friends, but all the amazing people we haven’t met yet. The explosion of curated membership communities is an attempt to create the shared experiences which bring us into contact with those people, giving us access to the amazing world which we can see, if not fully yet grasp.

We have become used to discussions about post modern society, shaken loose from the ordered structure of modernity by the coming of a new communication revolution, and perhaps characterised above all be individualism. It has been a regular theme on this blog too- as have my own grapplings with the feeling that I have that we post moderns still crave connection. And this has to be collectivised in some way beyond what might be possible on a computer screen because this is simply not enough- it is not human enough.

It has not been clear up till now what might replace our empty social clubs, community centres and (of course) churches. What might come to facilitate our shared journeys of faith? What channels might the Spirit of God find in which to travel through and in our society?

We have tried so hard to force some kind of solution- both to try to preserve the old, and also to convince ourselves that there is a methodological answer to evangelism in this new context. It is almost as if we forgot that we are followers of Jesus into culture, not his advance guard.

Meanwhile, it seems that the humanity shaped petri dish may indeed be producing some new organic shapes and formations.

Which brings us back to this idea of the ‘Curated Membership Community’. Here are a few thoughts that occur to me in relation to church-

  • Leadership- curation implies facilitation, encouragement, hospitality, nurturing and a celebration of creativity. It is far less interested in management, or hierarchical structure, or hard measurable outcomes. This sounds remarkably similar to the church-I-would-love-to-be-part-of.
  • Membership- this is an interesting concept.’ Belonging’ in this new context seems to come through friendship, aspiration, inspiration from those who have pioneered new ideas, and to be more driven by ethos than specific tasks. Membership is fluid, flexible, and might also be fairly shortlived, as streams of connection merge and cross-fertilise.
  • These new groupings are perhaps a re-invention of the idea that our collectives are more than just the sum of individual one to one relationships- rather that there is also an aspect of human character that emerges when we are part of something larger- when we share our hopes, passions and values, and when these things allow us to flow together- not as our primary purpose, but rather as a natural consequence of our togetherness.
  • The emphasis then is in the creation of ‘social capital’- “The benefits of participation tend to come in the form of the members sharing their extended network of skills, connections, and other resources with one another. In other words, it is other members more than the organizer or curator who provide value to each other.” So rather than becoming passive consumers of religious product, we might be learning to become co-conspirators with one another to discover and celebrate for ourselves, and in the process of doing this, carry each other forward.

None of this is really new thinking- it has been the very substance of the ’emerging conversation’ as we have called it- but what is more interested is how these ideas are playing out in the wider world- perhaps in particular in the commercial world, sick to death of megalithic faceless conglomerates, and looking for something on the human scale that they can once again believe in, and share with their friends.

What was on the edge, is becoming part of the mainstream.


Life is precious…

I did some real social work the other day.

It has been a rarity of late- mostly I just go to meetings. But on this day I was the duty mental health officer for Argyll, and was called into the Psychiatric Hospital to interview someone in order to decide whether to grant consent for their detention in hospital under our Mental Health Act.

For obvious reasons I will reveal no details, but suffice it to say that the person I then spent the next few hours speaking to and about was living in the shadow of a terrible bereavement and had decided to take their own life. In many ways these kinds of conversations are run of the mill to me- I have been having them for 20 years. But each and every one of them is real in a way that most other conversations are not.

Despite this person’s lack of initial success in bringing about their death, they were in no way convinced that life was worth giving another try. In fact they were determined to leave the ward at the first opportunity, and to go on hunger strike until then.

My role in this process is a legal one- in that I have all sorts of legal obligations and duties- but it is also a very human one. And in many of these conversations I have found myself praying as I searched for ways of connecting- ways of opening up some kind of bridge over which we can travel together.

And in the mess of it all, in the shabby soon-to-be-demolished psychiatric ward, there can be these transcendent moments.

I can not easily describe how or why they happen, unless I use these words-

Grace will fall

On these broken places

Strength may fail

But weakness

May become our beginning

Hope may have been crucified

But the story is not yet over

The tomb now lies empty

But none of these words can be spoken.

It would be unprofessional. It would be patronising and would lack respect. The words would also not be believed.

But there was a moment when the person challenged me to give a reason why their decision to die was not a valid one- why this choice was one that people like me would use the force of law to declare invalid.

I could of talked about the nature of mental illness, and how depression steals our joy, then our energy, then our colour, then our light, then our reason, and finally all of our hope- but how also these things are temporary, and may yet return.

I could have discussed too the effect that such a choice has on those we leave behind. The generation who are condemned to years of guilt and pain in the wake of such an aggressive, final act.

Or I could have discussed my qualifications, legal obligations and the nature of mental health law (which I did a little- it is part of what I am obliged to do.)

But after the question was asked of me, I was silent for a while. And we stared at one another.

And into the silence I heard myself saying

Because life is just so precious.

And because you too are precious.

And for a while the air crackled with the Spirit.

I hope this time in a broken old hospital ward is a turning point, and a little more light is let in. We may never meet again.


It is there in me again- that pull towards Spring.

This morning the mountains are suffocated in another heavy fall of snow, and it is cold. Cold.

It will not last- the rain is already starting to mottle it into the hillside, but it sits there at the moment like repressed hope- and as the proverb says, hope deferred makes the heart sick.

So, by way of antidote, here is a song from the soundtrack of one of my favourite films…

Such is the way of the world
You can never know
Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow
Gonna rise up
Burning black holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold

Such is the passage of time
Too fast to fold
Suddenly swallowed by signs
Low and behold
Gonna rise up
Find my direction magnetically
Gonna rise up
Throw down my ace in the hole

Eddie Vedder- ‘Rise’ from the soundtrack of ‘Into the Wild’.

Fake (fake) Christmas…

I noticed this news article today concerning the conviction of two brothers who ran a spectacularly bad Christmas theme park in the New Forest.

They were convicted of misleading advertising.

Although in the eyes of the media they are guilty of something far worse- the trampling on the dreams of Children, robbing them of their innocence in the run up to Christmas 2008, and in so doing, bespoiling  the true meaning of Christmas in the name of grubby money making commercialism.

I find myself laughing out loud.

No one wants to upset kids at Christmas, and this does seem to have more than a dose of Faulty Towers about it, but does the irony of all this not smack you between the eyes?

The crime here was miss-selling Christmas product.

Or you could say being crap at monetizing Christmas.

They faked a fake Christmas.

Because this side of all the hype and the expense of another  Christmas (or Xmas) then we have to say that meaning,  as ever, was hard to come by for most of us in the mess of it all…

And to be honest- is this really any better at conveying meaning of any kind?

Aoradh meditation- renovation…


It is already Thursday- and still no mediation this week.

It is my fault.

But by way of explanation, I offer you some thoughts on renovation. You see, the beginning of this week was dominated by work on Paul’s new kitchen. Taking an empty, barren space, and starting to create a place of sustenance, of hospitality and creativity.

Which is, of course, a very spiritual thing. Here are a few things that Paul and I came up with as we were working-

  • Houses are essentially simple things- dig a hole, pile some stones, and frame them with wood. But we make them so complicated, and invest such power in them
  • Of course, it all starts with the foundations
  • Renovation requires destruction of some of the old, and preservation of other bits
  • It also always takes longer than you think- and will test you in ways you did not expect
  • It goes a lot easier if you have others who will work with you- particularly those with skill and experience.

But we are called to live in a way that stands in both celebration and in critique of our culture- and to do this, we have to also understand the Zeitgeist– the spirit of our age.

To understand how we came to idolise property acquisition- and to seek an empty lifestyle whose meaning was found via Ikea. All those makeover programmes which would have us believe that happiness is found in a tin of expensive paint and a new bathroom suite.


These things are good. But there is so much more that is better.


And in case you ever doubted it- the challenge this week is to take a look at where you live, and to deliberately re-imagine the spaces in which you spend much of your life.


There are lots of ways to do this-

  • To consider how they might be used in new ways
  • To be grateful for shelter and comfort again
  • To take an aspect of the space you live in and use it to deliberately turn to God
  • To consider whether it might be time to clear out, and perhaps to bless others
  • To consider whether it might be time to bring people in, to share the space


Take one room at a time.


Ask God to open it up for a while as a temple.




Happy Birthday to me…

The blog has been quiet for a few days because I have been busy helping a friend fit a kitchen. But today I am taking a day to do nice things, because-

…today I am 44.

Thanks for your good wishes friends!

Next year things will be changing again- which is no bad thing. Quite how and when is unclear, but change they will.

This time last year I nearly finished the adventure at the age of 43- which brings home the blessing of the road ahead, uncertain as it will surely be…