Stages of faith…

I was listening to a discussion about ‘adult faith’ the other day- Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser.

They were talking about how faith develops and changes over the course of a life, suggesting that most of us are pretty black and white (‘conservative’ in Americanese) at first- and in fact, we ought to be. It is important to decide where we stand, what we believe and who we are going to journey with.

But if spirituality is a journey home- then what? What do you do when you have formed your place of home? Do you just relax and play spiritual golf?

Or do you constantly replay the first-half-of-life journey? Rohr suggests that many Christians and many churches do just this- we play the same cycles of guilt/angst/truth/significance games. We continue to get caught up in comparing ourselves to others to find our own place of ascendancy- both as individuals and groups.

Rohr told a story of some old priest who said that he spent the first half of his life wrestling with the Devil- all that struggle with sinfulness- but as he got older, he described spending the second half of life wrestling with God, which was much harder. He started to ask questions, and encounter those things called mystery and doubt.

All this reminded me of many recent conversations with friends- including Paul, who told me about Fowler’s stages of faith development. The account as described on this link is all a bit mechanical- Paul told it better, so I am going to create my own version made up a bit of a mixture- some of Fowler, some of Paul and a lot of my own experience.

So, it goes something like this. I am not sure however that I would regard these stages as necessarily linear and progressive in nature, I wonder if we all move between different ones, whilst operating mostly out of one. Neither would I necessarily see these as a hierarchy, with the last one being superior to the others- although ultimately, we are all pilgrims, going home (wherever or whatever that might be.)

Primal faith

The world is a big and scary place- and if our primary need is for warmth, shelter, food and the security. The need for God is almost like a need to believe in the coming of spring during winter. So we make the God we need-from wood and stone if need be, or from individual portable components taken from the understanding of others. God is an invisible puppet master, or fairy god-father; mostly benign, but sometimes unpredictably wrathful and punishing. So we look for rhythmics patterns in the world about us, and transmit our hopes and dreams onto what we see.


Literal faith

The world is full of things that are RIGHT, and things that are WRONG. God is the bringer of justice- and is commissioned into a kind of faith that is made up of clear black and white boundaries. We, his followers, are active in our mapping of these boundaries, and in categorising those who lie outside of them. We then set up brightly lit gatehouses and invite those on the other side to travel through- in order that they might become just like us (right.)


Conventional faith

Safe within our boundaries, the question is- what next? We are ‘right’, but are some righter than others? Our task then becomes to conform. To homogenise. Faith as a journey is less important than faith as a process of ‘maturing’ spiritually- measured in terms of external conformity to the conventions of the religious institutions we belong to.


Reflective faith (crisis of faith?)

Is that all there is? Many of us find ourselves struggling with old certainties- re-examined by life. Faced with people whose experience challenges ours, or circumstances of suffering and loss, what had seemed so concrete is now revealed to be full of cracks and holes. Some seek to fill in these holes with remixed plaster- to make the whole seem whole again. Others pick at the cracks and overeemphasise them, alongside all the solid stones that they are embedded within. Some lose faith entirely. Others decide that the boundaries that seemed so secure need to be transcended.


Universal faith

By this, I do not mean necessarily faith that has no boundaries, no certainties- but for many, once the old ones become undermined, we have a reluctance to build new ones. We become captivated by the open, generous possibilities of the God of Mystery. Some call it enlightenment, but I think a better description is ‘being open to the falling of new light’. WHAT we believe becomes less important- as does the need to defend and protect what we once held as being ‘right’. Rather, let us become pilgrims again- heading towards as much as ever arriving. Grateful for company, and givers of hospitality.





A bit more on (un)belief…

Michaela noticed a little article in the Spirited Exchanges newsletter mentioning this book

Mark Vernon, an ex Anglican Priest, concludes that

“both mental health and spiritual flourishing appear to require a skilful toleration of darkness and doubt, which explains why people often prefer to cling to what they claim to know…Certainty sells in science and religion. But as Thomas Aquinas realised, the best we can do when talking about God is to understand what God is not, and be open to what God might be, beyond our comprehension. It’s also known as faith.”

There is also a radio programme which you can listen to here, with Mark Vernon in conversation with David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, Karen Armstrong, Ann Widdecombe and a variety of scientists and philosophers.

I particularly liked the discussion with David Jenkins- whose name I knew in the past as a kind of enemy because of his apparent questioning of many of the things which I was told were essential parts of being a follower of Jesus. “The most Christianity can be” he said, “is a pilgrimage.”

He appears to be the other side of whatever crisis of faith he had- and to be comfortable with doubt.

Which has some interesting parallels to my post here.

Aoradh daily meditations, Psalm 148, Sunday…

13 Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendour is above the earth and the heavens.
14 And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
Israel, the people close to his heart.

   Praise the LORD.


That is the wonder of this God of ours-


Majesty that is humble of heart

Favouritism that is not exclusive

Shaper of supernovas

Who also made-



Let the Hallelujahs ring

Aoradh meditations, Psalm 148, Saturday…

Praise the LORD from the earth…
11 kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
12 young men and women,
old men and children.

You powers of the government
Bow down
McDonalds and the CIA
Bow down
Economists of the IMF
Must bow down
You powers of the killing machines
Bow down
Pinochet and Stormin’ Norm
Bow down
You who live by the sword will all one day
Bow down
You powers of the media
Bow down
Makers and breakers of kings
Bow down
Celebrity cooks and reality Queens
Bow down
For I have walked the wild country
And watched the sun slipping slowly down
Turning green to gold
Working alchemy before my very eyes
I have seen the mountains
Lifting up their faces to the sky
Gathering in the starlight
So beautiful it makes me want to cry
And I can hear a voice- its calling me
Can you hear the voice?
It says-
Look upon my works you mighty

And weep



Sharon Shoesmith wins her appeal…

I do not often write about my day job on this blog. You could say that I am usually keen to leave it behind and think about other things. But I have been a social worker for over 20 years now- during a time when social work in the UK has changed dramatically.

One thing that has remained rather constant however has been the fact that the profession of social work is an easy target for media witch hunts- who portray us as a bunch of vegetarian, liberal, arty-farty, moralising layabouts who interfere in peoples lives for fun. They damn us if we do interfere and lynch us when the view is that we do not interfere enough. It is a familiar whinge in any staff room.

And in response to this kind of pressure, politicians have increasingly turned to regulation as a means of dealing with all aspects of social care. Regulation and performance targets have crept into everything that we do- supported by all sorts of recording systems.

I have always worked within mental health services, and increasingly, my staff have little time to put to what we used call ‘social work’- the soft therapeutic activities, community work and capacity building that we valued so highly. These things simply do not give outcomes that are measurable and so justifiable in the current climate.

At times, the pressure to cope with both the demands of the system, and the pain and distress of real people in crisis can be overwhelming. This might be a difficult thing for people outside the system doing other kinds of work to understand- but on a personal basis I have known countless colleagues suffer different kinds of emotional and physical breakdowns- few people manage to sustain front line social work beyond their 40’s, and in America, CNN announced that social work was about the most stress full job you can do.

Here are a couple of quotes I have used before. They date from 1998, but believe me, nothing has changed- and the current financial crisis in Local Authorities has made things worse.

“Modern social work is in a state of crisis. It has always been a profession towards which society has displayed ambivalence and it is now grossly underfunded and understaffed. Tragedies and subsequent vilification of social workers and their managers are reported with increasing frequency. The profession attempts to function in an environment of obstructive administrative ‘systems’, … severe financial restrictions and conflicting demands …” –Davies, p. 9, Stress in Social Work (1998, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

“Because they deal in actual and emotional injustice, and actual and psychic injury, the reality for social workers much of the time is that while they may bring about some relief or improvement, the most that they may hope for is some damage limitation, particularly in areas such as child abuse and criminality.” –Davies, p. 19, Stress in Social Work (1998, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

One thing that highlights the state of the profession as much as anything are the fairly frequent media outcries that surround tragic events involving the death of children or vulnerable people who are known to social work. The most infamous one in recent years has been the death of baby Peter Connolley at the hands of his mother and mothers boyfriend. It is a dreadful story that breaks your heart- a tiny boy whose whole life was characterised by pain and neglect, leading to his eventual death before his second birthday.

Inquiries revealed systematic failures on the part of social work, health and police. I wrote a lot about this at the time- see here and here for example.

Very quickly the story centred on the head of social work for the council responsible for Peter’s care- Sharon Shoesmith. She was previously regarded as an extremely competent and committed leader, praised by regulatory bodies, but now she had no chance. Trial first by media, then subjected to a shameful personal attack by government minister Ed Balls, and finally sacked by the council with next to no chance to defend herself. There were several other dismissals of workers after this event. Interestingly enough, despite all these contacts-

78 contacts with health workers, doctors, social workers and police
2 health visitors
3 doctors
1 mental health worker
1 policewoman
4 social workers
1 family friend;
1 childminder
10 hospital visits (to at least 3 hospitals)
4 visits to clinic
5 parenting classes (the last two weeks before his death)
Seen by GP 14 times
Seen by health visitor 7 times
Mother seen by mental health worker 4 times

…despite all these other agencies being actively involved and in a position to raise concerns that might have saved the life of this child, not one single worker from the other professions has been dismissed. The report was equally critical of both the health department and police- who had a joint responsibility to protect.

Perhaps this is for good reasons- I am not party to the facts of how individual workers performed their roles, but I do know a lot about how these large bureaucratic institutions work- how there are always a hundred demands for your attention, and how responsibility easily becomes diluted in the mess and pressure of it all.

I wrote a lot about my feelings about this at the time- here and here.

Since this event, the numbers of children removed from the care of their parents and injected into the all ready over pressured  child care system have doubled. There has been no public debate about this- in terms of whether this is desirable, whether the outcomes for our children are better, and whether the resources needed to achieve good outcomes are readily available (they are not.)

Well, today Sharon Shoesmith won her case in the Court of Appeal against her dismissal. I am not all surprised- I predicted she would win in my earlier post. The BBC’s account of how the case was won is here– it makes devastating reading.

In parliament, David Cameron launched a surprise attack on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who some say had not been well enough briefed.

Within minutes of their exchanges, a government minister was on the phone to the leader of Haringey Council George Meehan asking if he was going to suspend Ms Shoesmith. He refused.

Ed Balls had a completed serious case review on his desk, outlining the many mistakes and problems involved in the care of Peter Connelly.

But, apparently to head off a growing storm, he ordered another review led by Ofsted to look at safeguarding practice across the health agencies, police and children’s services in Haringey.

He demanded its inspection and report be completed in three weeks, an unprecedentedly short time for a process usually taking four months.

Normal procedures were dispensed with including the opportunity, usually given, for children’s services departments and their senior officials to read a draft report and challenge provisional findings.

During the inspection, the Sun newspaper delivered a petition and tens of thousands of letters to Downing Street, demanding Ms Shoesmith’s removal, with Mr Balls agreeing to be photographed receiving them gratefully.

Ed Balls has defended himself (here) and the government intend to challenge the decision. Balls seems to be saying that he (as minister) should be able to act as he thinks fit- in this instance, this amounts to ignoring employment law.

But the bottom line is this- the mess of wonderful humanity that makes up our societies will always contain dark secrets. Bad things will be done to innocents by damaged and despotic people. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, these things will not be preventable.

Sometimes we will make mistakes. These will be both systemic, organisation mistakes, and by individual workers in all the different professions. We need to learn from these experiences- and recognise the resource implications- in terms of training, money, personnel. Increased regulation will not achieve improvements alone.

To blame one profession (and individuals within it) in a knee jerk and blind fashion will not in any way contribute to the protection of children- if anything, it will make things worse. It will reduce the pool of talented individuals who want to do the job, and populate the social care machine with risk averse automatons whose role is to meet narrow performance targets and to restrict liability wherever possible.

Sometimes I think we are there already- but then I see a moment of real grace and kindness involving one of my colleagues, and I hope again…

Aoradh meditations, Psalm 148, Friday…

Praise the LORD from the earth…

wild animals and all cattle, 
small creatures and flying birds…


Sometimes I am an eagle

Catching the high cliff thermals

High and wild and free


Sometimes I am veal

Factory farmed and tenderised

Machine fed and chemically mutated


Sometimes I expand like the empty sky

Other times I burrow deep

Searching for a safe place


Wherever I go

You are there

Bible nasties- soft conclusions…

During April, I wrote a series of 5 posts (the first of which is here) chewing on how we might understand some of those difficult passages of the Bible which appear to portray God as a mass murderer, who commands rape, child sacrifice and even cannibalism.

For example, this one. Mass murder, mass rape- but the keeping of a trivial oath- all in the name of the living God.

I began by considering some apologetics- here. There were some glimmers of hope of explanation, but on the whole, I found the business of trying to explain away the contradictions of a violent, murderous loving God (as apparently described in the Bible) impossible.

Next I chewed a little on the way Jesus seemed to deal with the hard judgmental, ‘scriptural’ truth that religious people hit him with. I noted that when he talked about the truth that would set you free, he did not seem to define this truth by a narrow interpretation of the written words that were handed down to him.

Next, I wondered about this word ‘context’- and how we needed to attempt to understand the nature of the cultures and historical times that the Bible stories emerged from- often violent, bloody and dynastic. Inevitably reading the Bible like this is a slippery slope towards liberal re-interpretation (as any good Evangelical will tell you.) I am sliding…

Then I got into a bit of  a philosophical ramble about the nature of truth- which to be honest, did not help much. The basic conclusion that I suppose I might take from all this is that truth is almost always nuanced, subjective, debated and interpreted according to perspective.

Finally, I wondered about hell and listened to Francis Chan suggesting that our understanding of hell may well be a rather recent invention.

I am no theologian- although I have been trying to make sense of this stuff for most of my life, so I suppose this might give me some personal source material, even though I lack the breadth of study. But I think the time has come for me to commit myself to some soft conclusions arising from the above.

Soft- because they will be imperfect, and incomplete. They will need to be reviewed and be open to challenge and modification.

Soft too because it is so easy for conclusions to become self referential, self sustaining, and the bedrock for further and more lasting distortions. Perhaps it is even impossible for this NOT to happen.

But conclude I will, because (as discussed in a previous post about (un)belief) I think it is time to step aside from the deconstruction of faith, and start to build again.

So here are my shallow, portable foundations- you could even say the flat surface for my fragiletent-

The stories in the Bible are open to our interpretation, to our questions even to our doubts. They are open in this way because God is open in this way. God is bigger than our understanding, or the understanding of the ancient writers of the Book.

There are many way to approach a reading of Bible passages- context is important, but Brian McLaren lists 10 other ways here– we have got stuck with a either/or approach- either literalism or myth. Perhaps we need to address this tired polarity by giving other things a try for a while.

This might steal away the mystique and sacred from the Bible for some- but this might be a good thing, as we could  have stumbled into a kind of idolatry, where we venerate a book, rather than who the book is about.

In trying to approach the book with this mindset, there are countless potential beartraps and cellar stairs to fall into. So we need to start with the body of knowledge within the church- both recently and more ancient. But be prepared also to work our understandings out as (Rollins again) “faithful skeptics”. And we should do this in community.

We do not need to have the answers to all of our questions. The questions too can be holy.

We are followers of Jesus- and we need to start with the stories about his life. This can be challenging enough after all! After that, we can then use our understanding of him to work backwards and forwards into history. But let us not try to make everything fit. It sometimes will not! And where it does not seem to fit- this can be a window for the Spirit too.

And speaking of the Spirit- he is present, NOW- not just in the pages of a book, but in all sorts of ways-



dreams and visions

Kindnesses and moments of sublime grace

Music and dancing


Gentle promptings of guilt and remorse, as well as longing for things to be better

In the midst of us, and also in wild places, stirring the waters



And because of this- we are not alone in this search. We are not powerless nor unenlightened. Rather we might expect the unexpected. The God of Surprises.

And finally- back to all that murdering and raping and child sacrificing. Did it happen in the way described? Well, perhaps. The times these things happened were full of such things. But as much of these stories were written down centuries after they happened, and survived through oral tradition, you would expect that there would be a reframing process- a self justification process. A God-on-our-side process.

Even if through the whole thing, there is a God-in-the-middle who still emerges as we read these stories.

Did it happen that way because it was what God commanded- what he demanded to assuage his lust for blood and vengeance?

My soft conclusion to this is-


You might not concur, which is fine- but don’t lynch me please.

Because the other useful fact that has emerged for me came from Helen’s comment on one of the previous posts in this series- regarding the fact that our faith had overemphasised hard belief and doctrine- whereas perhaps more important than this is how we live- how faith sets us on a journey.

Travel on.

Aoradh meditation, Thursday, Psalm 148…

(Praise the LORD from the earth…)
stormy winds that do his bidding,
9 you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars…

So I was thinking about wind-

The sort that fills a sail with purpose and

Cracks flags in front of the pavilion

That raises up a litter dervish from the gutter

And streaks hair across pretty faces

It choreographs the sway of the marram grass

And cools the evening rest


But there are other winds that scare me

Desert winds that strip the skin from bone

And clawing winds that rip the fruit from the summer trees

Shaking the cedars to their ancient roots

Katabatic acrobatic angry winds

Howling down the holy mountain


I am stirred like the sea by a distant storm

With more questions than answers

For this wind blows wherever it pleases

The sound of it is in the branches

But who knows where it comes from

Or where it is going?


So it is with every child born of your Spirit

Beckoned into the glorious uncertainty

Of the Kingdom

Gypsy boy…

Did anyone listen to this on the radio the other day?

A new series of The Choice begins this week with the story of Mikey Walsh.

He grew up in the closed world of the Romany gypsies.

Rarely at school, he seldom mixed with anyone outside his community with its colourful characters and strict family code. And despite its violence and hardships, it was the life that Mikey loved.

Eventually he was faced with the agonising decision of whether to turn his back on everyone and everything he knew …..and face an alien world with no education and support… knowing he would never be able to return.

What a powerful story- full of humanity and grace. A story of violence, community, love, prejudice and dealing with homophobia- a leading to a kind of reconciliation.

I defy anyone to listen to this programme (which you can do on the i player) and not be moved…

Walsh has written a book entitled Gypsy Boy- attracting rave reviews, and almost certain to become a film.

May he and his family flourish.

Aoradh meditation, Psalm 148, Wednesday…

7 Praise the LORD from the earth, 
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, 

I watch the waves in the distance, hoping for a glimpse of a sea monster

And ponder all that life down deep

All those colours invisible in indigo darkness

Alive in creations overflow

And it is all too big-




Alien flashing transparency

Reduced somehow to parrot food

In another world



So big that movement seems tectonic



And me- eyes watering in a wind whipped in from the arctic

Am a grain of blown sand