Rowan Williams on spirituality and whinging Christians…

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He always was worth listening to carefully. Sure he never got used to packaging up media friendly sound bites, and even though many counted this in a list of his faults whilst in office, I always loved the fact that there was depth and intellect in everything he said. I have wondered how his voice might develop after being released from all the pressure of his post.

Early signs seem to be business as usual. Here are a couple of extracts, courtesy of The Guardian;

Firstly on whinging Christians, by which I mean those who see Christians in this country as under some kind of attack from the forces of evil. Check out the pages of Christian Voice and you will see what I mean;

Christians in Britain and the US who claim that they are persecuted should “grow up” and not exaggerate what amounts to feeling “mildly uncomfortable”, according to Rowan Williams, who last year stepped down as archbishop of Canterbury after an often turbulent decade.

“When you’ve had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely,” he said. “Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. ‘For goodness sake, grow up,’ I want to say.”

True persecution was “systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day”. He cited the experience of a woman he met in India “who had seen her husband butchered by a mob”.

Nothing confirms some Christians in their sense of persecution more than issues around homosexuality- it is almost as if every legal/social step forward offered to gay people is seen as some kind of prod of the devil-horns into the side of the church. Considering the fact that gay people have suffered (and still suffer) actual persecution this always seems to me to be a terrible miss-representation of the Gospel.

Rowan Williams then started out on a wider theme- that of ‘Spirituality’;

Sharing a platform at the Edinburgh international book festival with Julia Neuberger, president of the Liberal Judaism movement, Williams launched a withering critique of popular ideas about spirituality. “The last thing it is about is the placid hum of a well-conducted meditation,” he said.

He said the word “spiritual” in today’s society was frequently misused in two ways: either to mean “unworldly and useless, which is probably the sense in which it has been used about me”, or “meaning ‘I’m serious about my inner life, I want to cultivate my sensibility'”.

He added: “Speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity and Judaism spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is.” Neuberger said she found some uses of the word self-indulgent and offensive. Williams argued that true spirituality was not simply about fostering the inner life but was about the individual’s interaction with others.

I am still working on a collection of ‘Spiritual’ poetry. I think I just found a quote for the introduction!

 

Leadership, networking and the trajectory of pioneering groups…

network

 

I am part of a small ‘missional’ group. We had ‘emerging church‘ conversations, flirted with ‘new monasticism‘. We found the old ‘paradigms’ restrictive and so wanted to do a new thing, using new ‘alternative worship‘ styles.

There you go; I have established my credentials- the badges and trendy buzz words that have allowed me to find a groove to travel in, no matter how shallow and indistinct.

The reality is that this language has often felt contrived and pompous, and the journey of our group has been one of ordinary people trying to get along, whilst searching for a way to live out faith that has some integrity and authenticity. Groups like ours are not unusual, even if they are ephemeral, fragile.

Many small groups like ours set out with pioneering passion- they have this idea of the purity of community releasing a power in them to achieve something special. Often they are right- but very soon it will get messy. The enforced intimacy of small community will crack things open quickly- there is no place to hide at times.

Then there is the inevitable reduction in passion that comes over time; things that were exciting always feel stale with repetition. How do you refresh, revitalise and renew. How do you avoid creating a new narrow liturgy that ensnares every bit as much as the ones we gratefully left behind?

This is the trajectory of most small groups- excited start, success, stagnation, crisis, reinvention (or destruction.)

If we are to be sustainable, if we are to make the longer journeys together, then we will probably need some help in the form of some external connections- we will need to speak to people who understand, who have made some of the same mistakes and dreamed the same dreams. Sometimes we may need others to listen to our pain or laugh with our small absurdity.

Groups like ours are inoculated against organised booted-and-suited religion for the most part. However I remember some interesting research from my old group work days within social work.  I nforget the references (I will try to add them later) but it goes something like this;

The success of a group depends to a large extent on the external context it is embedded within. An example of this might be an encounter group within a hospital or a prison. If the group lacks the support of the establishment this might be a plus at first- people feel embattled and react against their context – but it is simply less likely to be successful in the longer term. However, a little external validation seems to go a long way. So if the staff in the wider hospital speak positively of the group, see it as valuable and helpful, the group absorbs it all, and thrives.

Of course, the links to groups like ours is rather tenuous, but it is no surprise to me that many of the pioneers of missional groups that I know arrived at their adventure after many years of established churching. Despite their maturity, experience and a degree of reaction-formation against the context they escaped from, many of them still look back. Some return.

And this is no bad thing.

In Englandshire, there are good supportive links now for ephemeral groups- there is a wider recognition of the value of micro church through movements like CMS and Fresh Expressions. This is much less the case north of the Border in Scotland.

Last night (and this morning) I had a long discussion with David from Garioch Church, around this kind of stuff. We talked about the possibility of a new kind of network- an old theme for me. 5 years ago we tried to start such a network (see here and here for example) but things did not work out for various reasons.

So here is a question to people north of the border who find themselves on the ragged edge of organised church- where do you find your connections, and is it time to try this networking thing again?

Ways to pray in public places…

pints of beer

It has been a long day. I was off early to Lochgilphead as I was a trainer on a course for social workers who are about to participate in our emergency out of hours duty rotas across Argyll. Part of todays task was to look at some child protection issues- including the inevitable photographs of injuries that been inflicted on kids- little boys with cigarette burns on their feet and tiny girls with finger bruises wrapped around their faces. I am always broken a little bit when I see these photographs.

So I should be- but this relates also to my own childhood memories, fractured as they are.

However, in the midst of all this, I had a transcendent moment. Don’t get me wrong- no angels sang, there was no whiff of incense or pure white lights. What I was captured by was the sudden depth of the Kingdom of God- woven through everything, and this thing called the shalom of God. What might it mean to hope for a future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, and in which all things are made new?

A world in which parents do not damage children, and damaged children do not do damage in turn? A world where love sets the agenda in more things than not?

Come the evening I was sat in a pub with some friends. We have been meeting to discuss a book by Brian McLaren called A New Kind of Christianity. Tonight however we did discuss the book, but I suggested we try to find a way, in the busyness of the public bar, to pray.

I started with something that we had used on an island recently, in the middle of a wilderness with eagles riding the late spring storms over our heads. I thought that if God was there, then he was here too.

  • I asked people to find a place of quietness inside themselves- to find a neutral spot on wall or table to look at, and to focus on their breathing
  • Next I asked them to listen to the sounds all around them in the pub. The hubbub of conversation, the chink of glasses, the scrape of knives of plates, phones ringing jokes raising burst of laughter. I asked them to notice as many different sounds as possible and acknowledge each one
  • Then I asked them to listen again to deeper sounds- the sounds behind the sounds. As we do this, a remarkable thing happens. The hubbub kind of fades and blurs together- it ebbs and flows like the sea, and behind it all are other noises- the hum of all creation. Some people still noticed things like the ringing of a bell on the till, or the footsteps of a lovely friendly waitress
  • I then asked people to imagine that the sound behind the sounds was the music of God. God in and through it all, rejoicing in the beauty of us all. Rejoicing in the drinks, the food and the lives being shared. It was not hard to do so.

Next I passed round a pen and paper, and asked people imagine what God might want for all these people in the bar. What might he hope for them. I asked people to write something down, and to fold the paper over so the next person could not see it, then pass it on.

This is what people wrote, in no particular order;

Eternal life

Freedom!

I see your heart and know your sadness and want to bring you my peace.

Peace, hope, love and understanding

Shalom

Peace

And there, with a pint in my hand, it was holy.

Christianity and Capitalism- to resist or to accommodate?

I have been dwelling on economics over the past few weeks. One of the things that has often troubled me has been the role that Christianity has had to play in developing a culture of enforced inequality, both locally and globally. At best we have become guilty by association, at worst we provided the moral justification for the whole shebang and then enshrined it in liturgy.

I have written about this before- if you are interested you might like to check out these posts;

Capitalism; a conspiracy against the common good?

Capitalism and Durkheim

capitalismrocks

Jason Clark has an interesting piece on his blog about the relationship between Evangelicalism and Capitalism, particularly in the US. It is a tough read, but basically, he contrasts two potential kinds of analysis which he characterises as ‘Cultural dispisers’ and ‘Cultural accomodators’.

Firstly the dispisers;

William Connolly, in his 2008 work Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, sets out firstly to diagnose how the ‘capitalist project’ has been perverted and warped by its resonant relationship with conservative right-wing Christian religious beliefs.[1]

Connolly describes how this relationship between an Evangelical right-wing ethos and capitalism is best understood through ‘assemblages’ of media, churches, cultural consciousness, and a ‘spiral of resonances’ that produce the Evangelical capitalist resonance machine.[4]

Connolly’s response to this contention and diagnosis is to suggest that it is within an alternative and ‘counter political movement’,[6] a democratic and left-wing visualisation of a new ethos, that capitalism might be redeemed.[7]

Now for the accommodators;

Pete Ward, in his 2002 work Liquid Church, offers an account of the relationship with Evangelicalism to capitalism that contrasts starkly with those of Milbank and Connolly.

Where Milbank would warn us of the complicity of the Evangelical Church in conforming to the practices of capitalism, and Connolly of the pathologies of the Christian ethos that shapes those practices, Ward critiques the Church for failing to embrace commodification as a spiritual practice and suggests that the Church should be engaged with it even more. For ‘rather than condemn the shopper as materialist Liquid Church would take shopping seriously as a spiritual exercise.’[17] Where the underwriting of commodification by ecclesial practice is inherently evil for Milbank, according to Ward it is a vital and theologically necessary ecclesial practice to the Church.

I have not read Connolly’s book, but I have read Pete Ward’s Liquid Church- which is a great book, although I do not think the points made by Jason do it full justice. What Ward was seeking to do was to get the church to engage fully with the culture we are part of- to flow in its veins. He reckons that it is only by doing this that we understand, that we become relevant, that we can become part of the mission of God for our times. I am not sure that this is the same thing as ‘accommodation’.

Ward uses the example of advertising as a case in point- he suggested that rather than dismissing all such commercialism as ‘of the world’ and therefore having no spiritual significance for the followers of Jesus, rather we can learn so much about the collective spiritual yearnings of our age from advertising. Is this accommodation, or is it being engaged as thoughtful critics?

I am much more convinced by Mike Frost’s book Exiles, in which he compares Christians living in our post-modern, post-Chistendom world to the Jews exiled in Babylon. It is simply not possible to live lives of isolation- neither is it our calling. Rather we have to learn to live as engaged, loving, active agents of the Kingdom of God. This might involve the celebration of aspects of culture, or it might also require us to resist other elements- injustice, prejudice, the power of the strong over the weak. This also brings us into contact with the language of sin and evil- the ways of living that tear into each other and destroy us.

The other polarity that Jason proposes in his piece is that of the dispisers. This is not a word I would have chosen to apply to myself in relation to Capitalism- more because I do not think it would be honest. At the same time as asking my intellectual and theological questions about Capitalism I am very conscious that my whole lifestyle is wrapped up in it.

Back to the direct relationship between Christianity (particularly Evangelical Christianity) and Capitalism. How might we characterise the ways that faith has accommodated? I started making a list;

  1. By emphasising personal, individual salvation above all else. The only useful purpose of mission is to save people from hell after they die.
  2. By embracing success culture. We use the same corporate structures, we reward our religious successes as we would our CEO’s, we value hard measurable outcomes, we construct programmes.
  3. We make mission a kind of hostile take over. Business success involves out performing the opposition, and rejoicing in their bankruptcy. So it is that we see any form of religion not our own as our economic enemies.
  4. Christianity is a lifestyle choice that requires no change to the way we live our economic lives. Yes, I know there is the old ‘tithing’ argument around Evangelical churches, but we drive the same cars, live in the same houses, take the same holidays, fill our lives with the same gadgets- or (and here is the sting) even if we do not have these things, we aspire to them.
  5. We bought into lives characterised by individualism over the collective. The model given to us by the life of Jesus and the early church was all about the collective- how we live for one another, how we hold things in common, how we find ways of including the poor, the weak. Yet these things are not really part of our DNA.
  6. We failed to demonstrate any kind of radical alternative. The best that we have been able to offer is how to live as better Capitalists- more sensible, more responsible, with greater probity.
  7. We did not see injustice, inequality, poverty, unfair taxation, usury, over consumption, environmental destruction, as any of our business. Which relates to point 1.
  8. And where there was visible discomfort with Capitalism, we lacked any coherance, we lacked leadership, we did not become a critical movement. Rather we splintered and focused on totemic side shows live homosexuality and women bishops- all of which is destroying our credibility anyway.
  9. Our mission to the poor was conditional on redeeming them to become like us. Difficult one this, but stay with me. There is lots of wonderful Christian history of engagement with the poor from the Salvation Army right through to local soup kitchens. These activities clean up the edges of Capitalism- but also justify the dominant ethos. It encourages us to lift people back into becoming productive consumers. Like us. It does not suggest that the problem might be in any way systemic.
  10. We forgot that the Church exists not to give us a better life, but to serve the lost and the least. If we are serving the lost and the least, how can we have convinced ourselves that our unsustainable greedy lifestyles are God-given rewards for our moral superiority- which we Brits built an Empire on, and then passed the baton to the USA?

So, the question at the head of this piece- to resist, or to accommodate?

I think we need to resist what should be resisted, and to where there are seeds of justice, of beauty, of grace- there we should plant ourselves alongside and accommodate for all we are worth.

And what would church look like if we took each of these 10 points above and reversed them?

 

The silliness of religion…

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Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” . . . The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

 

Richard Rohr

(Courtesy of yesterdays minimergent.)

The last word…

open door, rock chapel

Following on from my previous post, I have been thinking a lot about the grace of God recently. Hardly surprising, as I am frequently in need of huge doses of it, but also because I have been immersed in thoughts about our understandings of hell, redemption and atonement.

As part of this I re-read Brian McLaren’s book “The Last Word, and the Word After that” which adventures into this territory. I read the whole thing in one sleepless night, hungry as I was to try to come to some view of these things myself.

From this, I wrote this;

The last word

 

I was reading a story from the Gospel of Mark about

Jesus. It was one of the hard passages where he uses

words that bite – words that leave no space for

my failure.

Jesus told his disciples to stand up for him before men and

the angels will sing. However those who disown

him will be lost – sent out in

disgrace.

 

And then I remembered Peter.

Rock of the Church.

Three time sinner before the crow of the cock.

 

Then I remembered too the story of the Garden where

God tells Adam (and Eve) that if they eat the fruit of the tree they shall surely die.

Not in abstract; they had no concept of the legacy left by the origin of their sin.

Yet they do not die, and God

cares for them, clothes them, sends them out onto the human race

like an anxious parent.

 

There is God’s

last word –

and the

word

after

that

 

which is always

‘grace’.

 

(with apologies to Brian Mclaren for pinching his book title.)

Rediscovering silence…

spiritual_cinema_circle

On Friday (snowy conditions permitting!) I head off down to St Asaph, North Wales, to take an 8 day silent retreat at St Beunos Ignatian Spirituality Centre.  I suddenly know loads of people who are planning a retreat there this year- well, 4 or 5 anyway. It seems that the new direction of many of us who have been on a journey from evangelical/charismatic Christianity, via emerging/missional metamorphosis, is towards older forms of monastic contemplation- and silence in particular.

It is not surprising really when you think about it. People like me who have been immersed in leading worship have always been longing for a deeper connection with God. In the past the methods to connect have included the intense cauldron of ecstatic worship music, through to creating open spaces with non directive ‘stations’, or spending time in wild places watching the changing skies. The journey has been away from the large auditorium towards older, simpler traditions.

I do not think there is any kind of technique that gives us some kind of hot line to God. I do however remember the Abbot of Worth Abbey making statements about “silence being the window to the soul, and the soul being the window to God- it just works that way.”  It feels like the right time to test this theory- not just for me it seems.

Not without some apprehension however! 8 days in my own head. It might be an unpleasant place, a boring place, a dysfunctional place, a darn right depressing place. I expect to miss my home and family desperately. I expect to be tested and broken a little (or a lot.) Or worse than all of this, it could be an empty experience, a waste of time- a self absorbed narcissistic backwater.

Appropriately the Emergent Village minimergent yesterday was as follows;

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.

Pablo Neruda

Hmmmm.