In defence of Church attendance (by one who does not.)

The former Home Secretary, Charles Clark chaired some debates on the place of faith in our society recently. He argued that church attendance (in decline in the UK for decades, with some minor fluctuations) was not a good way to judge the importance of faith in the life of our society.

You can hear what Clark had to say here.

He argued that if we focus just on two polar opposites – the ‘Richard Dawkins’ position (there is no God, all religion is dangerous superstition and should be stamped out) and those who would firmly believe in the existence of a divine deity at the centre of the universe – we miss the obvious fact that most people are somewhere in between.

Most people instinctively dislike the extreme position. On the one side we have the God shouters- the Evangelical truth dealers and hell threateners. And on the other side we have the Dawkins brand of religion- elitist condescending rationalism that cuts the colour from human experience.

But in the middle we have millions seeking their own understandings of what it means to be body mind and spirit. 

What we know is that in order to make our spiritual enquiries- or journeys- many of us need a vehicle in which to travel. We need the shapes around us made by the journey of others.

And because we are social animals, we also need to make these journeys in community. We need to find ways of marking our anniversaries, our life boundaries, our coming and going in company. Ceremony and liturgy have their place too in allowing us into the depth of things.

Which brings us back to Church.

I no longer attend formal church services regularly- at least in terms of the sort that gather beneath steeples. That is not to say I never go, but rather that our ways of churching in Aoradh tend towards the informal. I am blessed with a community of friends who journey with me, and this is all the church I need for the most part.

Along the way I have spent a lot of time critiquing church, because Lord knows there is a lot to criticise. Most institutions lumber along with a weary momentum that appears to suppress life and vitality. But this would be a false stereotype- Churches are also places of light. Places where we might learn to be light givers.

So here is my defence of arch and steeple, font and choir stalls, Priest and Pastor, organ and acoustic guitar, parish committee and conference, flower rota and Sunday school, back pew sitter and pulpit preacher.

If you are weary of soul and spirit, if you are hungry to encounter God, you may seek him in the mountains, or in a city train station, and you may find him there.

Or you could go to Church and sit on the back row.

New belief…

Over the past few years, often charted on this blog, the defining codes of faith on which I have sought to live my life has changed considerably.

At first it fragmented. I was no longer sure if I believed at all, let alone had confidence in the traditions I was part of. This was sometimes traumatic. Later however faith began to emerge again less as a set of resounding assertions about the nature of the divine but more as a process of faithful questioning.

In other words, it could be regarded as faith not as the opposite of doubt but rather doubt as an integral part of a living faith journey. I wrote about this before, here.

Along the way, the emphases I place have shifted considerably. I do not think that the correct goal for the life of faith is perfecting our theology- either from the point of view of knowledge, or narrowing down our understanding of ancient text until we have nailed down every errant verse to fit an integrated whole. Rather I think that attempts to do this will always be futile, and distractions from the real business of faith, which is all about how it releases us to live.

This has led me to worry far less about all those ‘questions-in-a-bubble’ theological arguments- the sort that no one really cares about apart from theologians. Such intellectual sparring can be entertaining, but when it is mixed with angry defensiveness or attack in the name of truth I walk away.

But to suggest that what we believe does not matter is foolish.

Our actions are driven in both subtle and obvious ways by the core ideas that we build our lives on. Here is an example from a psychological point of view.

>Core belief;  People are inherently evil and untrustworthy, particularly those who are ‘different’.

>Leading to guiding assumptions; I am at risk, my family needs to be defended, you are a threat, I need to prepare for hostilities.

>Leading to instinctive interactions; Distrust, hostility, defensiveness, aggression, tendency to isolation  and separation.

Everything that Jesus taught us about love is based on the idea that if this becomes the core of everything we believe then our core assumptions about the world and our instinctive reactions to it are all affected. In this way, love is not weak, nebulous and irrational, rather it can change the whole world.

But (unfortunately perhaps) life involves a whole lot of other questions to which we have to at least form working theories, if not absolute conclusions.

So back to the point of this post- the forming of new tenants of faith out of all of the questioning. It is another regular theme on this blog- what to construct after all the deconstruction. There comes a point (or at least there has for me) when I start to feel more comfortable with making tentative statements about what you believe again.

Although as I think about it, as a young man raised in Evangelical/charismatic settings, saying what you believed was not  often necessary- it was obvious as we all kind of knew what was held in common to be ‘true’. The point at which belief was really defined was in the negative- that is when someone (usually outside out immediate group) got it wrong. We could then dissect their incorrect doctrine and discount it and in doing so we could also discount them.

I confess that there is this tendency in me still- I continue to strive towards grace in this as in many things.

What I am starting to construct however, I do not construct alone- everywhere I see a convergence of a new kind of consensus around some basic ways of approaching faith. It seems to me to be cross denominational, but typical of those of us who may have come through all of those ‘posts’ discussions (post modernity, post evangelical, post charismatic, post Christendom.)

So, here are a few of the things that I have come to believe, structured around the ancient Apostles Creed. I expect things to change- I will be carving nothing in stone, nor nailing anything to church doors- these theories are not external, they are made of flesh, some sinew, and even a little muscle.

1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I do. I believe that this unfolding universe began in the mind of God, and he let it all out in a burst of creativity. I also believe that we embody this god-quality of creativity as we are made out of the dust of the heavens, in the image of the Creator- and that this imposes deep responsibilities on us in relation to the heaven and the earth.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

If there is one thing of faith that lives in me, it is the idea, the hope, the person of Jesus. Immanuel, God-with-us, walking in our filth and turning every thing upside down. I believe in the New Kingdom he proclaimed as being here, and near.

And if I believe in Jesus, then what we know of his ways has to be the place that I start from in relation to all other belief. I have to start with the stories and parables he told, and the way he lived his life in relation to everyone around him.

And I have to concede that love is the most important thing- far more important than judgement, or doctrine, so if I am going to make any error, I am going to strive to make it on the side of love and grace. This will inform my relationships to everyone, particularly those who are marginalised or oppressed.

3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

To be honest, this is not something I think about often- but I rest on the stories I have inherited.

4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

5. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.

6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

These stories too live in me and inspire me.

7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Perhaps Jesus will come again- but I am not going to spend too much time thinking about this as we were not put on this earth just to hope for some kind of swift exit or heavenly Dunkirk. We are here to learn how to love, and how to put this into action.

I believe that we should not fear judgement from a loving God, and that all of us need grace.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

I do- despite all the charlatans and the hype. I believe in the Spirit of God within us.

9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,

I want to believe that the collectives of the followers of Jesus might be the conscience, the peace makers, the justice dealers, the healers, the party makers and the gardeners of this world. I hope for communities of people who support one another in this direction, whilst learning to love.

I believe that God is present in these gatherings, but also elsewhere. I believe that he reveals himself to people of other faiths, and none.

10. the forgiveness of sins,

Oh yes.

11. the resurrection of the body,

I was never quite sure what this meant- something to do with a day to come when all our bodies will be raised incorruptible. To be honest, I think this is another one of those that I will just shelve with a bit of a shrug.

12. and life everlasting.

Yes, I have this hope that we might be more than flesh but also Spirit, and that those Spirits that leave before us might yet be waiting for us elsewhere.

Is this ancient creed enough to define the central things of our faith now?

As I read it over, I do not think it is. Firstly, I continue to think that we have over emphasised right belief- even to the point of burning dissenters at the stake. The creed is all about belief, and very little to do with our response to it.

What I am hungry for is to see right ways of living and ideas of how love can be put into action.

So I would add to the list above a few of my own;

13. I believe in love

For those reasons above.

14. I believe that we are called to be active subjects of the Kingdom of God, and to participate with him in acts of creativity, healing, peace making, protesting, lamenting, redeeming and the formation of community.

15. I believe in the mission/adventure/pilgrimage that God releases us on.

16. I believe that my ideas of God are incomplete and imperfect, and that not every question can be answered. And that that is OK.

Good Shepherd Sunday…

It was today, according to the Lectionary.

It was also our Aoradh family worship day today, and it was lovely as ever. We used the general theme of Good Shepherd in our worship, then we ate together and sat round a fire in the garden until the spring rain set in.

Today we did a thing with some of Si Smith’s flat pack nativity figures– the shepherd, and lots of sheep. We asked people to write worries on the inside of the sheep, then add them to the flock- first feeling the better for the company, then we added in the shepherd. You get the picture.

Here are some of the flock;

‘Making missional communities’ podcasts…

Graham sent us a copy of the recording of our talk about making small missional communities at Calvary Christian Fellowship near Preston.

We were invited to take a road trip to describe something of our experiences with Aoradh, and we structured the discussion into three main sections ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘up’ with me talking about some of the background and theory (such as it is!) behind what we do, and Michaela describing our activities in a bit more detail. We tried to be really honest about the difficult bits as well as all the great stuff.

I have uploaded it as a series of podcasts, partly because other folk in Aoradh might be interested to know what we said about them, and also because the issue of how we make and sustain community in these fluid postmodern times seems to be pretty important, so others might like to hear something of our story.

You should be able to download the different sections on these links, but I am told that ‘ourmedia’ sometimes takes a little while to make uploads ‘live’, so you may need to come back a little later…

Making missional communities 1

Making missional communities 2

Making missional communities 3

Making missional communities 4

Making missional communities 5

Making missional communities 6

Making missional communities 7

Making missional communities 8

Leadership in small missional communities…

It is an old theme- I was just re reading this old post here about Todd Bentley and all the madness around his leadership. There appears to be a similar storm gathering around Mark Discoll’s leadership of Mars Hill. Leadership, power, control- these are things that seem to be perpetual struggles for we humans as we seek to work out collective faith.

Last weekend we were speaking to a group of people about developing small missional communities, and of course we had to say something about leadership. Our small community (Aoradh) still has no ‘leader’. This is in part because we have simply deferred resolution of the issue, and also because we have sort of fallen into a different kind of process of decision making.

I read something the other day that seemed to describe what we do (or what we try to do) really well. Mark Stavlund, who is part of a community called ‘The common table‘ was describing a kind of process that he called ‘negative space’, that he described as follows;

individuals see a need for something, and say so.  As these voices start to harmonize, the leadership team– whose main purpose is to be attentive to the church and to protect its heart– will take notice and begin to clarify the need.  They will work to define it; to understand its parameters.  There might be a need for a different format for organizing the Sunday workflow, or a new way of doing service projects, or a financial concern, or an entirely new program of ministry.  But instead of leading some kind of charge, the leadership team will pull back a bit and simply organize the conversation that is brewing about the new thing or the reform that is needed…

It is a lot of work, and a lot of mess.  But it also generates a lot of creativity and ownership.  Supplying solutions in this way organically integrates the best people in the right places.  The people who step up are almost invariably the right ones for the jobs, and the solutions they find are amazingly exciting and durable. The hardest lesson for those of us with worrying tendencies or those who feel some sense of responsibility for all organizational systems to work flawlessly is that we need to sit with our discomfort and simply wait.  We’re learning that in church, sometimes the best thing to do when faced with an important need is to do nothing.

This is not necessarily about the absence of leadership, but is certainly about the laying down of power and control. There seems to me to be something of Jesus about this.

Travelling well with the Jones’s…

Image

Many of you will already follow the on going adventures of the Jones family- Andrew (aka TSK) Jones blog is after all essential reading for many of us who are interested in what is happening on the edges of the known (and not yet known) Christian world.

A year or so ago, the family were living in Orkney off the northern coast of Scotland, when they bought an old truck, converted it into a living/entertaining space for themselves and all sorts of others. You can read something of their adventures travelling through Europe, Asia and North Africa here.

The point of all this travelling was to connect with all those small beautiful projects, and small and beautiful people who were working out the mission of Jesus in the lesser known places, and to support and encourage them.

It is an adventure that many of us feel a combination of envy, admiration and incredulity in relation to. It seems both bonkers and wonderful at the same time.

Anyway, the point of this post is to give a plug to Andrew’s new book project- you can pre-order it in order to support the next phase of the Jones journey, into Asia.

Details of the book, and how to order are all here.

We need people like the Jones clan to remind us that other ways are possible, and that other lives in far away places might teach us much about our own, so go on- order the book now!

The bowl…

My mate Simon and I went for a pint the other day, which is actually something I do fairly infrequently these days as there is usually something that gets in the way.

The simple act of a pint or two and a table to sit and talk around has been about as close as most of we blokes get to a deep spiritual discussion – although this too seems to be a practice that is dying. Pubs here can not make a living unless they convert to restaurants. As we all know, this is not a sign of people drinking less but is more to do with the availability of cheap booze for consumption in our private spaces.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is because Simon and I were talking about our community (Aoradh) during our trip to the pub. We are thinking about offering a session to Greenbelt Festival in the ‘talks’ category under the strapline of something like ‘Don’t do it like us’.

All of these buzz words that have been applied to communities like ours in the wake of what we used to call ’emerging church’- alternative worship community, missional community, new monastic community. They all feel slightly pretentious and self serving to be honest. It feels like these labels belong to others in an urban context – trendy people who have big glasses, sharp haircuts and jeans with a baggy gusset that hangs to the knee.

Yet Aoradh has now been around for almost 6 years. It has developed and changed, stumbled then got up again, and we continue to experiment with a form of faith community fairly rare (as far as we are able to understand) certainly in the Scottish context.

Something that Simon said the other day in the pub has stuck with me. As we tried to map what we were and what we have become, he said something like this;

“We are an unhealed community.”

Simon was thinking about the people in our group who have serious illnesses, and the fact that our life of faith has to contain the awareness of sickness, brokenness and imperfection.

As I have thought about this, it seemed  important. It is not that our group is characterised by sickness – far from it –  but rather that we all have to live with the idea of a God who is real in the ordinary. A God who is not a magic talisman of success, but rather walks with us through the difficult times too.

There is also within this a challenge for faith- because we are  forced to confront the idea of a God-who-does-not-heal. A God who abides within brokenness, and lives within the uneasy question and the honest doubt.

Or even more challenging- a God-who-heals-sometimes, and some people. But not me.

My Michaela had a long term incurable illness (Ulcerative Collitis) that affected her from the age of 14 until 34, when all symptoms abruptly disappeared.  It is an open question and a grateful acceptance all wrapped up together.

All of which leads me to the Bowl.

In the recent winter storms, an old tree at the bottom of our garden was blown down, unfortunately into our neighbours garden;

A friend of ours was borrowing my chainsaw (through our local ‘timebank‘), as he is a wood turner, and I mentioned some pieces of wood from this tree. Some of it was dried already by age and the effect of the ivy that had dried out and hardened the wood. When he heard this he was excited.

Peter took the wood and promised a bowl for us out of it.

Amazingly, later that same day, he turned up, with this-

It is a lovely thing. A tree from our own garden, grown over who knows how many years, then spelted with sickness and disease before finally being broken by a storm.

Transformed by the craftsman.

Not healed or restored, but shaped and made beautiful.

Carved into the shape of service and hospitality.

As good an image for the hopes of community as anything else I can come up with…

Giles Fraser talks about the Empire…

Good discussion on Start the Week this morning on the radio- a kind of ‘anti Xmas’ antidote.

The discussion was kicked off by Giles Fraser, former Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral (remember Occupy-London-Gate?) who suggested that the Christian Christmas was invented by the Emperor Constantine for political, not religious, reasons. It was Constantine that started to raise buildings in celebration of the holy sites such as the supposed place of Christ’s birth.

Constantine has a mixed reputation to say the least. He is regarded by some as a Saint, whose conversion to Christianity resulted in the inherited culture of faith that we in the west still stand upon. He was a saint, however, who also boiled his wife alive in her bath, and ruled by the sword and the dagger.

And there is another way to understand the influence of Constantine- which is to see his combination of church and state as the beginning of the time when the followers of Jesus were swallowed by Empire.

A time which gave us the Nicene Creed– which takes us straight from his birth to his death, with no mention of the messy teaching in between. Jesus fulfils a function of state- making way for Empire.

And a millennia and a half later, we still try to disentangle it all.

How it is that we came to believe that followers of Jesus can live so comfortably within an Empire that encapsulates everything that he encouraged us to move away from? An Empire that promotes wealth, power and conquest above all else? That defends the strong against the weak? That exists to ensure that some people remain poor, whilst others have far too much.

It is a paradox never more obvious than around Christmas time…

 

In-out-up…

My old friend Graham sent me some stuff about the theme of the teaching in our old church Calvary Christian Fellowship back in Preston. Graham is about to do a season looking again at making and forming small missional communities.

It is going to be an interesting journey for them, as they are starting out not as a disparate band who ‘find’ each other then start with all the forming and storming. Rather they are starting out as ‘Church’ and seeking to become ‘church’.

I wish them every blessing.

Graham shared this model which was their staring point-

This is not Graham’s picture though- this is from the middle of our table from the Aoradh meeting tonight. Because we had already been speaking about a similar dynamic.

We do this thing at our planning meetings that I like- we cover the table with paper, and the doodles and coffee spills and scribble become the record of our gathering.

Ok someone might need to pull out some action points and e-mail it round later, but we often do not take other notes.

Tonight I shared my sense of frustration that we were doing a lot of the inward stuff- the gathering and eating together and sharing (all of which is great) and also some of the upward stuff- in terms of worshipping together. But we were not doing so much ‘outward’ stuff- the uncomfortable business of ‘mission’. This is not really fair of course because we have been doing all sorts of things this year, but I am always longing for the next creative adventure.

Mission no longer means ‘evangelism’ for us. But I think it still means risk, vulnerability, and the deliberate connection with the other- in various kind of ways- seeking to serve, to make peace, to share art, to display love and to seek to be agents of the Kingdom of God.

Anyway, my friends pointed out gently that we all have different levels of need for this kind of adventure, and that the very fact of living our lives in the midst of all this messy humanity is always going to be ‘out’ there. And I said yes- BUT…

And bless them, we spent the rest of the night dreaming of missions we might adventure on. Art in the hillside, quiet gardens, meditation benches, trips away together, retreats etc…

Let the Spirit call us out.

But let us also be blessed in the togetherness.

As we worship.

 

 

The Zeitgeist Movement…

A little while ago, in response to my blog piece on the camp at St Paul’s, an old school friend sent me a link to something by The Zeitgeist Movement.

Specifically, Carol suggested I watch the clip below. It is quite long, but makes for rather interesting watching.

I had not heard of this movement before, so spent some time researching what I could about what they are about, their core beliefs and campaigning aims. At first I was pretty suspicious to be honest- there is something about their website that made me instantly uncomfortable- it is a little too slick, too shiny.

TZM is another one of these internet generation organisations that grows not along the lines of corporations that are led and controlled from the centre, but rather grows virally by a network of connections, and a set of common evolving principles. It has vague, fuzzy edges, and slightly non specific goals. Rather than ‘leaders’ who are appointed and recognised, there appear to be some key voices, but the structure is deliberately local.

This is a familiar organisational structure to me- as it reminds me very much of the ‘Emerging church’ movement. Such organisations are always difficult to get your head around from the outside- as they appear to lack structure and substance. There is more about these kinds of organisations here.

But back to the specifics of what BenMcLeish had to say above-

I liked much of what he had to say- particularly his analysis/critique of the state of our current economic/political/environmental situation, which I find myself largely in agreement with. I might also echo some of his concerns about religion- although unlike him,  I remain a believer.

I think the importance of a strong critical voice against the excess and over consumption of our wider culture is vital. I have been wondering for a while where this will come from, and where we might see examples of people living lives that are different- people that break from the flock and show a better way to live. I have been excited by these possibilities all my life, and so wherever I see these things being talked about, I am interested.

Unlike what Ben had to say above however, I have seen most of this kind of thing within faith based organisations. Sure, there are a lot of people within our churches and mosques and synagogues who are as sheep like as the rest of society, but there are also many whose beliefs lead them to aspire to something more. Within my own faith, I would point to the  New Monastic movement, towards which my own little community makes a slight nod.

CS Lewis used to talk about Communism being a ‘Christian heresy’- in the sense that the impulse towards good things was in many ways Jesus-like. I think you could perhaps say the same about TZM. I have described previously my belief that the job of Christians is to watch out for wherever there is truth and beauty, then to seek to shine light on it, and to salt it to bring out the flavours. On this basis alone, I intend to keep an eye on TZM.

Which makes what is happening in front of St Paul’s Cathedral all the more interesting. The grand old Church of England have got themselves in a bit of a cafuddle- they want to be ‘nice’ to the young activists, but can’t quite deal with the mess of it all.

Having said all that- TZM seems to espouse some macro economic and political solutions to our current woes- these I find myself less inspired or convinced by. A futurist perspective like this, with grand predictions of the fragmentation of the current mechanisms of state and society, seems to me to be highly speculative. The grand idea of a money-less society, with resources allocated according to need (and administrated by think tank and committee) just seems to be rather fanciful on a national scale.

But not necessarily so on a local small community scale. This is where my interests lie. Ben speaks at the end about what individuals and families might do to look at their own patterns of consumption and life choices- a list of things that are very familiar to the aspirations of my faith community.

Does this organisation offer a real alternatives to our Capitalist consumer economy? Not yet. What it does do however, is to push back– to offer a visible critical analysis of what we are.

Alleluia.