Greenbelt 2013…


Will and I are just back from GB 13- the 40th year anniversary of the first festival, back in 1973. We had a lovely time. I spent time with some old friends and as ever immersed myself in new music and ideas.

I did not take a camera this year- we were on the train as far as Preston and so took a minimalist approach (the photos here are all pinched from the GB website.) However, I thought I would pick a couple of highlights from each day;

On Thursday Will and I were picked up at Preston station by Andy and Hannah, and set off down the M6 into bank holiday traffic. The inevitable happened- and accident closed the motorway in both ways and so we all got out of our cars and had a chat to one another. In fact, Will and I went over onto the empty opposite carriageway and had a game of cricket. That evening we really enjoyed Eliza Cathy and Jim Moray.

Saturday, rather amazingly belonged to Graham Kendrick. Firstly he did a worship set- all the old favourites, including the dreaded ‘Shine Jesus Shine’. Kendrick was charming, in a geeky slightly fey kind of way. We even had a ‘give God a round of applause’ moment. Hands were waved and (please do not judge me) I cried.

I think I cried for what I was, what I loved, what has gone, but was (despite all the foolish edges) still beautiful. Music does that to you.

Later Kendrick did an acoustic set of his folk songs- the things I listened to back in the early 80s when you were listening to the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

The other highlight for me was Dave Andrews– telling stories of a life of community activism- trying to live a life motivated towards the poor.

Sunday highlights would be; Jim Wallis, another man living a life of protest against those in power. I also enjoyed John Bell’s talk about the operation of power. Musically, the Moulettes were simply stunning- unusual, quirky, gorgeous music, including the use of a Bassoon.

I really enjoyed the wall of noise that was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club too…


Monday morning saw Will and I listening to Pete Rollins, weaving stories, jokes, theology and philosophy together. He is very entertaining, and some of his points hit home. There is a knowingness about Rollins that has an elitist edge however which I do not warm to. He seems to be at his most creative out beyond the edge, looking at us all with a sardonic grin. It is an approach that excludes and intimidates me a little.

Finally, I might as well mention the Greenbelt institution that is Martin Joseph. Songs that are mixed out of fragile emotion. Each one teeters and might fall on each note, but in spite (or because) of this it all soars heavenward.


The Holy Atheist Church…


I am sure many of you have heard of the Atheist church services put on by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in London. Around 600 non-believers have been gathering in Bethnal Green since January to listen to inspirational talks, sing songs accompanied by a live band, make friends and volunteer for good causes. Meetings are about to move from monthly to fortnightly.

It now seems that they are taking the idea to international heights- there is already a monthly event in New York, with ‘services’  to begin soon in Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.

A ‘religious’ service without God, I hear you ask- what is the point? This from here; 

The Sunday Assembly was created after Jones attended a Christmas carol service and enjoyed the sense of community: “There were so many wonderful things about it, but at the centre of it there was something I didn’t believe in. And for me, life is such an absolute gift so why can’t we talk about that?”

He added: “I’d always thought there’d be people in other parts of the world who would like this. It was picked up by the media and more than 750 people around the world have written to us saying they’d like a Sunday Assembly in their town.” At the New York meeting, the congregation sang songs by the Beatles and Queen, and closed with Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Guest speaker was Chris Stedman, a humanist chaplain at Harvard.

It coincided with the city’s Gay Pride march, so the theme was “coming out”. Jones said: “People in the US talk about coming out as atheists. I’d think, what’s an ‘out’ atheist? That’s bonkers.”

Jones visited nine other US cities where people asked for advice on setting up assemblies. In the UK, branches will launch in Bristol this weekend and Exeter and Brighton in September. Jones and Evans kick off a global roadshow on October 20, with 40 assemblies in 60 days. Locations, decided by demand via their website, include Australia, France and Scandinavia.

Evans, a Christian until she was 17, said: “When I stopped believing in God, I didn’t miss God but I did miss church. And that’s the point of the assembly, meeting like-minded people and bolstering each other up.”

Jones added: “Atheists are very good on reason, and science, but that doesn’t get you jumping out of bed in the morning. This is about being alive.”

All of which sounds quite lovely to be honest- anything that celebrates community, encourages people to do good things and to live life in a deeper and fuller way is OK with me.

I suspect that God might agree too.

What does it mean however to call yourself an Atheist? It suggests a little more than just indifference to the idea of a supreme being at the centre of it all.

Perhaps some might describe it as a religion that sets out to describe all other religions as wrong. There are after all a lot of those kind of religions.

As a Christian, I was brought up to see atheists as evil, deluded, the enemy. Agnostics were perhaps redeemable, but atheists were active opponents of God. They were sticking two fingers up at the divine and would have eternity to regret their foolishness. Militant atheists like Dawkins have done nothing to erode the battle lines.

I found this article by Andrew Brown in the Guardian really helpful, in which he describes six kinds of atheism (based on American research);

The largest group (37%) was what I would call “cultural non-believers”, and what they call “academic” or “intellectual atheists”: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers. I call them “cultural” because they are at home in a secular culture which takes as axiomatic that exclusive religious truth claims must be false. Essentially, they are how I imagined the majority readership of Comment is free’s belief section.

They are more than twice as common as the “anti-theists” whose characteristics hardly need spelling out here:

If any subset of our non-belief sample fit the “angry, argumentative, dogmatic” stereotype, it is the anti-theists. This group scored the highest amongst our other typologies on empirical psychometric measures of anger, autonomy, agreeableness, narcissism, and dogmatism while scoring lowest on measures of positive relations with others … the assertive anti-theist both proactively and aggressively asserts their views towards others when appropriate, seeking to educate the theists in the passé nature of belief and theology.

Nonetheless, these people made up only 14% of their sample, and all other research that I know of would place their proportion much lower.

The other two noteworthy groups are those to whom religion is completely and entirely irrelevant, “non-theists”, and what the researchers call “ritual atheists“, who overlap quite a lot with “seeker-agnostics”, both of whom might be targeted under the marketing category known as “spiritual but not religious”. What defines them is the ability to treat religious practices as something like acupuncture or Chinese medicine: something that works even though the explanation is obviously nonsense:

One of the defining characteristics regarding ritual atheists/agnostics is that they may find utility in the teachings of some religious traditions. They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation. Ritual atheist/agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual.

As the authors observe, this covers a large spectrum of American Jewry.

(One further category, “activist“, is used to label those who hold strong beliefs on ethical and environmental issues. Pretty much what the term means in lay parlance.)

I think the English, or more generally European results, would be different. The typologies are broadly the same, but since Christianity is much less of a marker in European culture wars, and certainly not an active one in the UK, you would expect the distribution of categories to be different, and for people to be very much less self-conscious about unbelief and less likely to regard it as a salient feature of their personalities.

Atheism is an honest response to lack of belief.

However, most of us who continue to try to live with faith in God have to admit to the presence of doubt, and I for one think we should be honest about this.

I liked the perenthetical trickery of  Pete Rollins who talks about (a)theism. Contained in all our ideas about God is also the idea that what we know is always incomplete, imperfect and error-strewn. He would contend that the only honest way to approach God is to start from the point of (a)theism- where our theories about God are confronted with our unknowing.

Gravity gets us all in the end my friends, and may we all fall into the arms of a loving God.

That word- ‘Faith’…

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
Hebrews 11:1-3

I think the word ‘faith’ is one that I overuse.

This is possibly because it can be a rather generous, non-specific word with which to describe personal, private belief. I use it in this way more as a badge of introspective spirituality rather than a declaration of religious conviction.

Because conviction, certainty and clarity of belief have simply never come easy to me. The words of Hebrews above easily rang out as evidence of my failure- my lack of faith. Others seem to have no such spiritual weakness. They are like St Paul. I am like St Thomas.

Today however, an analogy came to me.

I was thinking about another noble human characteristic- courage. Most of my generation have never had their measure of courage tested by war or extreme adversity- but we are all stirred by stories of those who have.

The spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain who took to the skies against overwhelming odds. The men steeling themselves to climb a wooden ladder to almost certain death as the whistle blew to start an attack in the Somme.

And if these images are a little too martial for your tastes, then we might also mention the man who stood before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square armed with nothing more than a flower, or those who push themselves beyond the outer limits of human endurance in the high Himalayas, or the polar icecaps.

Some of these people seem to be over blessed with courage. Or perhaps under concerned with fear.

And this courage can be like a force of nature- it can be transformative, inspirational and raise for us an ideal that we can all aspire to. Or at least admire from afar.

At the same time though, this kind of courage can be blind, foolish and self seeking. It can be abused by others (and ourselves) and is easily allied to causes far less noble. In this way, perhaps courage can be dangerous.

And it can also be deceptive- because courage is an entirely subjective experience. Who knows what measure of fear was overcome by the people who achieved such admirable feats in the face of adversity? Were they naive and uninformed? Dulled by some kind of narcotic? Driven by deeper demons?

Or was their courage merely a front- a means to force down the fear, and despite all their lack of confidence and self belief- to press ahead anyhow?

Does this work for you as an analogy of how faith might also be an active force in our lives?

In his book ‘How (not) to speak of God’ (which I loved) Pete Rollins talks about (a)theism. Contained in all our ideas about God is also the fact that what we know is incomplete, imperfect and error strewn. He would contend that the only honest way to approach God is to start from the point of (a)theism- where our theories about God are confronted with our unknowing.

I too have come to believe that belief in God is an amalgam of all these things-

Our faith and our doubt

Our knowledge and our uncertainties

Our crowning confidence and crippling fears about the future

Our theology and the place where theories fail

Our transcendent experiences of the divine and our plunges into Godless darkness

Times of declarative joyful certainty, and nights of lonely doubt

Times when the fragrance of the presence of God hangs in the air, and times when all is meaningless and barren

Times just to hold on to the hem of hope

And after it all, there is still


Rollins on leadership…

Alistair pointed me at this clip.

A bit more of the familiar Rollins technique of taking a concept and saying it’s only value is in rejecting it.

But in this case, I think I agree with most of what he says.

There are still a lot of BUTS though. The absence of Leadership leaves a vacuum that requires- leadership. (Note the subtle lack of a capital letter!) It is not whether we have leaders that exercises my thoughts at the moment, but rather what kind, and how they lead- particularly in the way of church.

I am (not) inspired by Pete Rollins…

I have been reading another of Pete Rollins’ books on and off through this past year- this one- ‘The fidelity of betrayal’.


It has some great stuff in it, but to honest, I have struggled a bit more than I thought I would to get through it. This surprised me, as I devoured his last book- ‘How (not) to speak of God’.

Perhaps I did not give it a fair crack of the whip, as I read it in something of a piecemeal fashion.

But I think too I may have seen a bit too much of his gig. It goes something like this-

The life of faith is a life of contradiction. Therefore all things we think we know about God, when we really stop and think- we do not really know after all.

All the tenets of faith we were given as absolutes are (not) true.

Faith is formed as we learn to become faithful betrayers of our inherited traditions.

Faith is formed as we  learn our status as (A)theists.

Now I kind of see where he is going with this, and I think the commentary on faith is important and thought provoking. But I can not help feeling just a little weary with the ‘let’s turn this upside down and then see how it looks from the other side’ kind of style. I find myself kind of seeing it coming, then chuckling to myself when it surely arrives.

But then again, I do think this man is an important contributor to the theological and philosophical debate in our time. Let me quote a passage for you to kind of illustrate my dilemma with this book…

In a chapter called ‘forging faith communities with/out God’ (there he goes again- get it?) he has this to say-

…once this is understood, and people are invited to begin to deconstruct their religious systems, individuals will either be brought to a deeper understanding and appreciation of their faith, or they may find they never really had faith in the first place. In the former case the deconstruction will enable the individual to delve deeper into an appreciation of his or her faith, while in the latter the individual will leave such things behind. Both of these are preferable to either mistaking the true miracle of faith for a system of thought or of using that system as a way of hiding from oneself a lack of faith.

Well I guess… I certainly have found myself to be in the former case most of the time, although I have to acknowledge that some of the time I perhaps slipped towards the latter.

Rollins goes on to give some consideration to the creation of spaces that allow people to explore and deconstruct.

Following on from this there is a need to continue the long Christian tradition of forming spaces in which we collectively invite, affirm and celebrate the miracle that lies behind the miraculous, beyond magic, beyond the sacred, and beyond the secular. We need to continue forming places that can render these ideas accessible at an immediate level- a level that does not depend on the contingencies of one’s education or the ability to think in abstract ways (this from Rollins?!)

The question here is not “how do we make these ideas intelligible”, for the miracle itself can be rendered intelligible only as unintelligible. What this means is that the miracle of faith is a happening, an event, that defines reduction to the realm of rational dissection…

…In contrast to forming space that will make sense only to people who are highly educated, we must endeavour to form spaces that make sense to NOBODY, regardless of the level of education- spaces that rupture everyone and cause us all to rethink


Again- I get it. Faith discovered/encountered/inspired/agitated through performance art. Or as Rollins calls it- Transformance art.

And then I think of my own community, and our experiments with worship curation. The process that Rollins describes seems so far beyond us. It is too hip, too serious, too absorbed in it’s own rhythm somehow… and I find myself slightly and surprisingly alienated.

And I find myself longing for something much simpler- where deconstruction is not the only language we use, but we also construct things that are small, but beautiful.

But I still think we need Rollins- and I am looking forward to what Ikon have to offer at Greenbelt festival this year…

Phyllis Tickle- The great emergence… and emerging church.

Following on from my earlier post about this word ’emerging’, I thought I would get hold of this book, that has been doing the rounds for a few months, by the wonderfully named Phyllis Tickle. I think I passed it by earlier as it seemed to be engaging with an issue- the step shifts in culture, and how faith engages with it- that was one I felt I had talked to death.


However, I came across a post today (thanks Corbus!) that contained a publicity clip, and so I hit Amazon. Here is the clip;

And for a bonus- here is a bit of dsicussion between Pete Rollins and Phyllis…

And finally- this one is very much worth listening to- it captures something that I have been chewing on for a while.

There seems to me to have been a retreat from the early radicalism of the ’emerging church discussion’. Is the’missional’ thing a way of making this safe- bringing it into the safe folds of organisation, and so neutering those who would bring disruption?

Or is ‘missional’ rather a conduit for life giving fresh air for the body of Christ?

How do we come to our understandings of God?

I have been thinking a lot about how we come to hold a set of beliefs and understandings towards God.

I have found Pete Rollins (part of the Belfast based IKON group) two books really challenging- he has this way of using parenthesis or slashes to convey something of the complexity and essential unknowabilty of our fumblings towards theology. Check these out if your head can cope with this;

One of the problems/blessings (to get all Rollins-esque!) of my particular personality is that I tend to see more gray than black and white. Where others see a simple issue- he is wrong, that is truth, this is what the Bible means by this, this is what is wrong with the world/the organisation/the church- I find myself always saying yes, but…

This is not always helpful. It can result in lack of clarity and prevarication. It can skew me towards a fence sitting position that has lots of questions, but finds no firm ground for to walk forward on. Kind of like some critics would categorise the emerging church do you think?

But how about theology? Is this not all about TRUTH? If we loose sight of the essential propositions that we hold in common, then all is lost, surely? This is how I was brought up. There were some gray areas, but these were overshadowed by the towering edifices of truth that we were given and encouraged to stand on like high stone walls.

So faith converted to theology (our theory and thoughts towards God) in this way;

Except, for me, this never really worked. I spend too much time with people to ever think that simple answers to complex human questions will suffice.

This sometimes leaves me at a place of dissonance with other more concrete but sincerely held theological positions all about me. At times it challenges my faith itself, but I have come to believe far from being a negative thing, this process of engagement, doubting and testing is in fact the very stuff of faith.

And that the ambiguities and difficulties brought to us by our reading of scripture and engagement with the wonders and mysteries of God will always result in a degree of uncertainty and struggle- and it is through honest engagement in this struggle that we encounter the Living God.

Or perhaps this just suits my personality, and so I make my theology accordingly?

This is the question that has been occupying my thoughts recently. Do we always tend to make an Icon out of our own perspective, and seek out others who will agree with us, and therefore make it seem more true, more dependable and therefore give it an illusion of universality?

Perhaps then, we form our theology a little like this;

If this is true, then does it matter?

Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a human trait- the gift of individual perspective.

Where It seems to become problematic is when we think that we are right, and everyone else is therefore wrong. It might be that you have been part of a group or denomination where version one of the theology-receiving model is enforced- leaving no room for any of your own exploration. This can be abusive and damaging.

So can the opposite- let us never be guilty of making God in our own image!

Which of course, unless you agree with me- you are/are not!