Casting bread on the waters…

sea weed circles

Each year, over the May bank holiday, I go off with some friends to a wild place for a few days to make what we call a ‘wilderness retreat’. Our favourite locations are usually small uninhabited Hebridean islands- we are fortunate to be in reach of many.

Last year, after many years of our community (Aoradh) running these for ourselves and invited guests, a few of us made an attempt to offer them on a more ‘commercial’ basis to people looking to escape into the wild places for contemplation, meditation and companionship. We had some interest, but not enough to make a trip viable- mainly because of the charter cost of a boat to get us out to the islands.

In the end, we invited these folk to join our ‘comminity retreat’ which be going to Eileach an Naoimh, a tiny island that is part of the Garvellachs in the Ross of Mull. It is the site of a monastery founded by St Brendan- the nautical adventurer thought to have visited the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus.

One of the guys who is coming, I discovered, was from Nottinghamshire- my home county. I inquired further, and found out he lives very close to where I grew up, and where some of my family still live.

I then found out that he is the current minister of the church that I grew up in- St Thomas, Kirkby-in-Ashfield.

I have many mixed memories of this time- complicated by the fact that childhood was a rather difficult for reasons I will not go into here. Also, back in the 70s and 80s St Thomas’s was part of a Charismatic revival movement sweeping through the Anglican church in the UK, led by people like David Watson, Colin Urquart, David Pawson. I look back with complex mixed emotions- in many ways I long for the simplicity of the faith I had then but I also remember some rather difficult and damaging experiences.

I have lots of very good memories too however- a lot of it about music, and good people. It was the place my spiritual journey began, and for this I am very grateful.

The connection back to these times has been a surprise however. I am suddenly small again.

It feels like a cricling back- in a good way- to something that has been adrift on the waters for a while…

To emphasise the point- here I am, in a picture from the website archive. The blond haired boy in the middle with the great big smile;



Reflections on the census- the end of Christendom…

a church under reconstruction?

So, there have been a number of articles and opinion pieces reflecting on the recent 2011 census data, and what it tells us about the nature of religious belief in the UK. Here are some of the head liners in case you missed them;

• The number identifying themselves as Christians is down 13 percentage points. In 2001, 72% (37.3 million) called themselves Christians. In 2011 that had dropped to 59% (33.2 million).

• Interestingly, Christianity is not down everywhere. Newham, Haringey, Brent, Boston and Lambeth have all shown increases in the Christian population.

• The number identifying themselves as having no religion has increased by 10 percentage points from 15% (7.7 million) in 2001 to 25% (14.1 million) last year.

In response, Humanist Nick Cohen, writing in The Guardian, said this;

The number of people who say they have no religion jumped from 15% in the 2001 census to 25% in 2011. If the remaining 75% were believers, this leap in free-thinking would be significant but not sensational. But those who say they are religious are not faithful to their creeds, or not in any sense that the believers of the past would have recognised. Church attendance is in constant decline. Every year that passes sees congregations become smaller and greyer…

…When millions of people tell the census takers they are “Christians”, therefore, they are muttering the title of a childhood story they only half remember. What is more, their spiritual “leaders” know it. Long before the census figures were in, you could hear the screams that always accompany ideologies and institutions history is leaving behind…

…while everything is changing in British society, nothing is changing in the British establishment. England still has a “national” church – even though in 2010 its average weekly attendance was down to 1,116,100 (or 1.8% of the nation’s population). Twenty-six Church of England bishops are automatically granted seats in the House of Lords to support or oppose any legislation they please. On top of the decaying heap sits Elizabeth II: a grumpy priestess-queen, who in theory at least is the state religion’s “supreme governor”. In the education system, almost one-third of state schools are run by religious authorities (and Michael Gove will ensure that number will rise).

This humanist perspective is not without merit. Much of the institutions of religion in the country are indeed relics of a time when religious power was inseparable from the power of the State. Church and Government were connected by bonds at every level. The Church marked out comings, our joinings and our endings. The shape of the religious calendar became the shape of our working life. The very law of the land was approached through (an often flawed) Biblical interpretation.

But this link between ordinary people and institutional Church has been in decline for years. Perhaps the last vestige of this kind of Christendom in the life of the UK was that people who otherwise had no connection to Church, and no active faith journey, would still describe themselves as ‘Christian’. People did this almost by some kind of inherited instinct. The be Christian was to be decent, British, middle class, well mannered, one of ‘us’.

However,  the rigidity exhibited by some parts of the religious hierarchy is increasingly at odds with the culture that it is part of. There are the totemic issues- homosexuality, gender equality. There is the lack of a critical or analytical voice in a time of consumerist economic meltdown. There is the swing towards ultra conservatism in the Catholic Church, and all the sexual abuse scandals that diminish all organisations of faith.

The time for hand wringing and desperate attempts to preserve what Church used to be is long gone, although there are still people who have a passion for preserving the traditions of our institutions. And perhaps we should be grateful to them as they are a repository for our organisational memories. Without them, we lose our connection to tradition, and all the rich variety of previous experience. But it is not enough for faith to be in a museum cage. It is not enough for faith to be an abstract historical curiosity.

I have been chewing on what this might mean for those of us who still try to follow in the way of Jesus. Here goes;

Lies and Statistics.

It is perfectly possible to understand these figures as a reduction in nominal Christianity. A reduction in people identifying with a label that has no relevance to life. In this sense, perhaps there has been no real change in the last ten years- apart from the words we chose to describe ourselves with.

The word ‘Christian’.

It is however significant that people no longer what to wear this as a badge. It is a devalued word, a word that appears to have gathered to it lots of connotations that people have less use for. Ideas of stuffy right-wing judgementalism. A word that has no relevance in the here and now. It is a word that even I use to describe myself with some discomfort. But a decision to walk in the way of Jesus is not an easy choice- he was very clear about that. It is a decision to make an ever new daily adventure, and this is so much more than wearing a comfortable middle class badge.


The Church is not the place where God resides in these islands- rather he lives in us. The Hebrew Temple was replaced by the human heart. He took on flesh and dwelt amongst us. In and over and through. Along with us and despite us. In the cracks of everything we are. This is not a numbers game- who cares how big your corporation has become?  This is now to be tested in new ways, in a new context.


At some point, probably around the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the Church became an instrument of the state. The mission of the Church was the mission of the State. God was co-opted by the people in power. We then spent Millenia trying to disentangle the mess of this- movements would rise, then they would fall, or become assimilated. But perhaps we are now in new territory- the mission of God can be set free again in the minds of we his followers. It is not to the strong that the Kingdom belongs, but to the week, the poor, the broken.

Finally however, I find myself taking a more sociological perspective. If nominal religion anchored in the State is in decline this may be no bad thing for faith- but I still wonder if it may be a bad thing for the State.

The Church contains us, or used to. Old Emile Durkheim captured this well- he suggested that people need to be part of something bigger- to be integrated and linked and that when this begins to break down the end result is anomie (a lack of social norms) leading to a time when the anchors and moorings that hold us together are gone.  He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life- which to my mind describes British society in 2012 pretty well. (There is a great article discussing some of these ideas here.)

Durkheim thought that religion was one of the key social mechanisms that created these bonding social norms. However, he also thought that these old bastions of society where in decline- that the institutions of faith were dying. However at the same time he also thought that they were being replaced by new forms of sacred passions.

The question is- where are these to be found in our society? It is easy for cynics like me to rail against consumerism, ephemeral celebrity entertainment and post modern fluidity of connection and belief, but the story is more complicated.

There is a groundswell of goodness in British society. Some of is might well have roots in Christian traditions and ideas, but we see a turning towards simple living, small community life, and a rising up against the power of the big banks through the Occupy Movement.

We the followers of Jesus always have to find our own mission, our own Peregrinatio.  Here is my prayer for the journey;

Lord stain me with salt

Brine me with the badge of the deep sea sailor

I have spent too long

On concrete ground.

If hope raises up these tattered sails

Will you send for me

A fair and steady wind?

The Church of England- “…a national embarrassment.”

…so said a Bishop after the recent failure of a Synod vote to allow women bishops.

I have just been reading through the comments on the Guardian article for a (possibly unrepresentative) straw poll. Here are a few highlights;

So the head of the C of E is the Queen, but they don’t want to have female bishops?

Nice one, institutionalised religion in this country failing to learn from the mistakes of US extreme right wing politics. Decreasing their markets. Perhaps they enjoy being irrelevant.

Are we not equal in the eye of the Lord? No. He’s saving the socialist paradise for the afterlife.

Bloody hell. I despair. Where now?

I’m sorry, but the Biblical prohibition(s) on women holding positions of authority and engaging in a regular teaching ministry within the Christian church do not embody ‘centuries of entrenched sexism’. It is, rather, the plain teaching of Scripture, which is why the vast majority of Christian denominations have held to this doctrine for centuries. There is clearly spiritual equality between men and women (Ephesians 5.33; 1 Peter 3:6; Galatians 3:28) and Matthew 22:30 also implies that gender distinctions will cease to exist in the next life (as souls have no biological sex). However, the Apostle Paul also forbids women from teaching and holding authority in the churches (1 Timothy 2:11-15). The Apostles were all male. People who do not take the Bible seriously really should question whether they are Christians at all for if we do not define the religion of Christ according to its foundational documents then there is absolutely no other way for it to be defined and we may as well make it up as we go along, as Welby and other supporters of women bishops and ministers are doing. How a woman organises her life in the secular sphere is entirely her own business, but in the Christian church leadership is clearly intended to be male.

Surely, Church in crisis as there is no God?

Life’s full of contradictions so is the Bible.
That’s what makes it so fascinating.
Look hard enough and the truth shines out.
Look out for the good bits.

A woman without a mitre is like bread and fishes with a delivery bike.

Rowan Williams resigns…

Today it was announced that Archbishop Rowan Williams is to resign as Archbishop of Canterbury and return to academia as master of Magdalene college, Cambridge from December of this year. I am not a member of the Anglican Communion, but my roots still reach back in this direction, and I feel a real sadness at the departure of this gentle, thoughtful and gracious man from his key leadership role.

His time as leader was marked by division- over women in ministry and homosexuality in particular. Time and again he has sought to be a bridge for debate and understanding, but the chasms remain between the liberal reformers and the Evangelical wing of the church.

Rowan Williams seems to have been criticised from both the liberal side (because of his reluctance to take on the theological conservatives in open warfare) and from the Evangelical side (because of his refusal to stand on a narrow interpretation of scripture on key issues.) But to me, there was always the feeling of deep integrity in all that he did. He has been a leader to be proud of. The Church in it’s widest sense will miss him greatly as it seeks to move into our new context.

As for the CofE- what next for the old girl? Who will be the next Archbishop? And what direction will he seek to steer? Can the Anglican Church survive in it’s current form?

The Guardian mentioned Archbishop Sentanu– who might yet be the first African born Black Archbishop. Another mentioned is Bishop Chartres, who has been opposed to the ordination of women, and was at the centre of the controversy over the way the church handled to recent protests outside St Paul’s Cathedral.

Whoever takes over, they will need our prayers, and could learn a lot from Rowan Williams.

Williams was never a popularist- there was little about what he said that could ever be reduced to a sound bite. It was always too thoughtful, too considered, to cerebral perhaps, or too poetic. So by way of grateful celebration for this man who truly has been an apostle in the fullest sense of the word, I will quote one of his poems.

It is slightly unseasonal, but nevertheless seems apposite for a man who seeks the depth of what it means to serve Jesus;

Advent Calendar

He will come like last fall’s leaf fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Rowan Williams

By the way- Greenbelt festival have just made all of their rich and varied back catalogue of downloadable talks free, including a couple by Rowan Williams here– well worth a listen.

Some words from the Archbishop…

There was a lovely interview by David Hare in the Guardian yesterday with Rowan Williams- here.

It reminded me again why this man is something of a hero of mine- his deep, thoughtful, compassionate stance on so many of the issues facing us, and his fierce intelligence. I thought it worth extracting a few quotes from the article…

When he observes that economic relations as they are currently played out threaten people’s sense of what life is and what reality means, surely what he’s really saying is that capitalism damages people. To my surprise, he agrees. Does he therefore think economic relations should be ordered in a different way? “Yes.” So is it fair to say, then, that he’s anti-free market capitalism? “Yes,” he says and roars with laughter. “Don’t you feel better for my having said it?”

He goes on to rehearse what he insists he’s said before (“I don’t mind saying it again”) about how no one can any longer regard the free market as a naturally beneficent mechanism, and how more sophisticated financial instruments have made it even harder to spot when the market’s causing real hurt.


Is he paying too high a price for keeping together people who believe different things about gender, priesthood and sexuality? “I’ve no sympathy for that view. I don’t want to see the church so balkanised that we talk only to people we like and agree with. Thirty years ago, little knowing what fate had in store, I wrote an article about the role of a bishop, saying a bishop is a person who has to make each side of a debate audible to the other. The words ‘irony’ and ‘prescience’ come to mind. And of course you attract the reproach that you lack the courage of leadership and so on. But to me it’s a question of what only the archbishop of Canterbury can do.”


“We must get to grips with the idea that we don’t contribute anything to God, that God would be the same God if we had never been created. God is simply and eternally happy to be God.” How on Earth can he possibly know such a thing? “My reason for saying that is to push back on what I see as a kind of sentimentality in theology. Our relationship with God is in many ways like an intimate human relationship, but it’s also deeply unlike. In no sense do I exist to solve God’s problems or to make God feel better.” In other words, I say, you hate the psychiatrist/patient therapy model that so many people adopt when thinking of God? “Exactly. I know it’s counterintuitive, but it’s what the classical understanding of God is about. God’s act in creating the world is gratuitous, so everything comes to me as a gift. God simply wills that there shall be joy for something other than himself. That is the lifeblood of what I believe.”


I ask him if he’s happy to be thought of in a tradition of Welsh poet-priests – George HerbertGerard Manley HopkinsRS Thomas? “I always get annoyed when people call RS Thomas a poet-priest. He’s a poet, dammit. And a very good one. The implication is that somehow a poet-priest can get away with things a real poet can’t, or a real priest can’t. I’m very huffy about that. But I do accept there’s something in the pastoral office that does express itself appropriately in poetry. And the curious kind of invitation to the most vulnerable places in people that is part of priesthood does come up somewhere in poetic terms.

“Herbert’s very important to me. Herbert’s the man. Partly because of the absolute candour when he says, I’m going to let rip, I’m feeling I can’t stand God, I’ve had more than enough of Him. OK, let it run, get it out there. And then, just as the vehicle is careering towards the cliff edge, there’s a squeal of brakes. ‘Methought I heard one calling Child!/And I replied My Lord.’ I love that ending, because it means, ‘Sorry, yes, OK, I’m not feeling any happier, but there’s nowhere else to go.’ Herbert is not sweet.”

“And you like that?”

“Non-sweetness? I do.”