Friday, March 13, 2015

Revolution, Evolution or Good Disagreement?

This post is prompted by a number of things that have left me pondering how as Christians we are to bring about change in our churches.  When we strongly believe in an issue of justice and yet find that opposed. It is one thing to fight for justice against a government or institution, but what if the struggle is within your own institution? Indeed among the very people who share the faith that inspires our desire to see change? When those we oppose are our brothers and sisters in that faith?

The Church of England, which I am a part of, has just allowed women to be bishops. This is follows efforts to bring around an acceptance of women as ministers and bishop that has spanned several decades. At various points through our synod system in which three houses of lay people, priests and Bishops must all support any change by a 2/3rds majority the move was almost made and then lost by only one group note voting in favour by a big enough margin. In reality for years a minority stopped the change that most desired. And yet now we have finally got there. Are there still those opposed? Yes, and not without controversy most have stayed in the church but with provision made for them whilst acknowledging that women are now bishops to largely avoid their ministry. It is still too early to know how this compromise will work, but for now it is working. Those who strongly disagree are finding some way forward together, if it is yet still a fragile path.

The issue of equal recognition for those in same sex relationships and equal marriage is much further back. There is a strong growing voice seeking change but at present in the church structures this is a minority voice. Amid strong feelings on both sides the church is trying to facilitate what it is calling ‘good disagreement’. The hope is that those on differing sides of the discussion can listen to each other and find some place of understanding those and acknowledging the faith of those whom they disagree with. I have recently been part of an informal online discussion seeking to put this into practice.  It has not been easy! On the one hand are many who have been marginalised, rejected and deeply wounded because of their belief that they are called to be Christians in same sex relationships. Many of these are angry and don’t want to hear anymore the words and attitudes they have faced. On the other people who believe that the acceptance of same sex relationships is a fundamental abandonment of morality.  With such a backdrop it was perhaps no surprise if some of the disagreement was anything but ‘good’. Indeed from both sides there a voices suspicious that ‘good disagreement’ is just an attempt to brush the issue under the carpet. There are also those on both sides who think the only solution is for the church to split. The only way forward for us not to be in the same church. Indeed it is clear some on both sides can no longer really accept that the others are even Christian. Moving on to a place in which change might happen and this find support with provision for those who disagreed so they could remain together seems at best a long way off, let alone good disagreement. In spite of this there was also much good from many people of all positions in that discussion and therefore some hope. 

Working for change is not easy, indeed it can be very costly and take great courage. The film Selma, about the US Civil Rights Movement, has been showing recently in the UK. The trailer poster boldly proclaims ‘one dream can change the world’. This connects us to one of the 20th century’s great speeches, Martin Luther King declaring ‘I have a dream…’ This is full of famous passages often quoted and played, indeed even used in pop songs. We remember it not just for the great rhetoric, but because it encapsulates a way of working for civil rights that was both prepared to have courage and yet also sought peaceful change. A terrorist movement was a real alternative.  When King gave that speech in Washington in 1963 he had already been campaigning for desegregation for 8 years. In 1964 this led to a bill ending desegregation in the south but on the ground in many places it was not implemented. The Selma marches that the film is named after happened in response to segregation in 1965. King was still campaigning when he was shot dead in 1968.

I wonder what King would say to those who dream of justice in our churches and the end of segregation on account of sexual orientation? Perhaps these words from that speech are ones that he might echo?

‘There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back’.

It is King’s passion not to give up, yet to go on embracing those who would oppose, even with violence that gives the ‘soul force’ to his dream. The realisation that they cannot walk alone, and yet cannot turn back. This is a hard road and one that must at times have seemed intolerable, but it is the road that reflects the one who called us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, let alone when we feel those are members of our own family of faith.

Good disagreement? As part of learning to understand and love the other perhaps. As a long term solution? No. yet revolution cannot be the answer either, the overcoming or expelling of the other is not an option for those who follow Christ the one who seeks to reconcile and include all. And so with King we are called to the slow and painful path that does not turn back, but seeks to draw all together not through violence or power, but with love and a strong belief that we truly are brothers and sisters in Christ.

Below is a link to Martin Luther King’s speech in full, it remains well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je Suis Charlie? what would Jesus do? exploring some slogans a little further

this is a re-post of my blog on Emerging Voices
in our social media age slogans with punch spread fast. following the07-charlie-hebdo-rallies-003.w529.h352.2x  events in Paris earlier this month it is not surprising that ‘Je Suis Charlie’ has been much used in solidarity with the cartoonists at satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo gunned down by Islamic fighters on account of their portrayals of Mohammed. Many of my Christian friends still have as their Facebook image the sign for a Christian used by ISIS to identify houses lived in by Christnunsymbol1ians before they are forced to pay taxes under a form of Shari law or be killed. both symbols are about the power of identification, a show of solidarity with those attacked by saying ‘I am one with you, I too am attacked’. Most powerfully both symbols have been used by Muslims to show their solidarity with others against those Muslims who are the perpetrators of the violence.  This response is understandable indeed in some cases very brave. People identifying with each other, especially across potential cultural, racial or religious divisions, is something i think we should all support. our world needs reconciliation when there is so much division and prejudice. Yet i have found myself sympathizing with a number of voices who want to condemn what happened in Paris bu questioning if they really want to  say ‘I am Charlie’. One of the most eloquent is this piece in the Huffington Post by Rabbi Michael Lerner he is editor of liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun. The word Tikkun means to mend or rectify and is often used in the phrase Tikkun Olam, the mending or healing of the world.  Yet as a liberal magazine it has often questioned the actions of the Israeli state and as a result has suffered terrorist attacks by Zionist Jews and Christians. These, Lerner notes, do not get the attention of attacks by Muslims in France. Others, myself included, have been uncomfortable about an apparent blanket support for all forms of free speech and particularity Charlie Hebdo’s covers which i think are often offensive to many more than Muslims . some notable examples would include a picture of the three persons of the Trinity having anal sex, depictions of Jews that look like Nazi propaganda as well as numerous portrayals of Mohammed in a similar vein. in response to this i think there is an intelligent debate about the value of free speech. we rightly value this and we do not want to live in societies in which arbitrary power and corruption thrive on the silencing of criticism, not in which petty lawsuits succeed off the back of honest comment or humour. Yet, in truth defamation cases abound in a society that deems some forms of free speech criminal, in some cases no doubt rightly so but often on the basis of the power and wealth of those offended. as many have pointed out Muslims in France are neither wealthy or powerful. i am here with Lerner when he says.
“And shouldn’t free speech and individual human liberties be our highest value? This value that is put into danger if you ask for some kind of responsibility from comedians.” Two responses: 1. No, individaul human liberties is not our highest value. Our highest value is treating human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect and see them as embodiments of the holy, and treating the earth as sacred. Individual liberty is a strategy to promote this highest value, but when that liberty gets abused (as for example in demeaning women, African Americans, gays in public discourse) we often insist that the articulators of racism, sexism and homophobia be publicly humiliated (not shut down, but using our free speech to vigorously challenge theirs). 2. Free speech is not defeated when we use it to try to marginalize hateful or demeaning speech. So lets call demeaning speech, including demeaning humor, what it really is — an assault on the dignity of human beings.
Charlie Hebdo have not surprisingly issued a massively sold post attack edition with a cartoon of Mohammed on the front. In a sense they had to. the cartoon however, is not straightforward. The depiction of Mohammed will offend many Muslims who believe the prophet must not be depicted, and the depiction is in classic Hebdo style with a large nose and funny coloured skin. so far so expected. The text though is more complex. The headline runs ‘all is forgiven’ and the prophet is depicted with a tear rolling down his cheek and carrying a sign that says ‘Je Suis Charlie’. A previous cartoon of the prophet had him being beheaded by an ISIS fighter. Both may be read, and i think are intended to be read, as suggesting Mohammed would not be on the side of groups like ISIS or the attackers of the Hebdo cartoonists. Indeed Muslims have carried ‘Je Suis Charlie’ signs because this is their belief. Yet in other cartoons Mohammed’s depiction is connected to elements of Islam the magazine is attacking. The cover is thus both ambiguous, provocative and intriguing. It led me however, to imagine the same cover with an Hebdo Jesus instead. Jesus, offensively drawn, stands under a headline that says all is forgiven, a tear rolls down his cheek and he carries a sign that reads ‘Je Suis Charlie’. Such an image would i think be profoundly Christian; even the offensive portrayal would speak of God’s identification with the marginalized in Jesus. We are with Jesus as he dies, disfigured and says ‘Father forgive them’.   What would Jesus do today? And if I am one of whom Jesus says ‘as the Father sent me I send you’, what should I do? Somehow this must involve identification with others, but this will be with all not just some, even in love of those who would kill us. If all can be forgiven can this lead us to reconciliation and not conflict? What ridicule might we be prepared to bear in its pursuit?

Read more:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

my advent post on Share the Hope do go and have a look and find out about my not so staring role in the pre-school nativity play

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Re-Indigenisation of Faith, Indigenous People Groups and Scottish Independence

i am now contributing to a new Emerging Voices blog - this is my first on that site and can be found here

Monday, March 31, 2014

Forest Church - an expression whose time has come?

On Saturday I was speaking at the museum in Wells at an event called 'Born in a Pagan Land' Bath and Wells mission open forum born in a Pagan Land the day was looking at the relationship between Paganism and Christianity in the UK with a special focus on Somerset. which of course meant a lot was said about Glastonbury.  another speaker was Liz Williams, a Pagan who runs the shop the Cat and the Cauldron in that town. i was also joined by local missioner Diana Greenfield and Helen Bradley who have just started Avalon Forest Church. I was struck again by how much the Forest Church idea resonates with people. Christians who find God in nature and don't feel at home in conventional churches, those involved in 'New Age' therapies and spiritual practices and those who are Pagans or have Pagan backgrounds find this new - or perhaps re-discovered? - approach to Christianity makes sense and is attractive when otherwise it has less appeal. this won;t be true for everyone of course, but the way new Forest Churches are springing up suggests there are a lot of people for whom this is so.

it is interesting to note that when the Roman's left Britain where in much of Europe the church took over the civic system the Romans left, in Britain there where a lot who returned to the countryside. rural monasteries and sacred sites in nature became central to early Christianity in these Isles. i wonder if there is still something in the British psyche that means the divine is sought in nature? perhaps this is part of the Forest Church growth?

see Mystic Christ/ Forest Church for more

Sunday, June 23, 2013

exposing the Church of England plan to recruit Pagans using a Pagan church

OK if you have been reading the press over the last few days you may have come to believe the Church of England has a new policy to recruit Pagans by training pioneer ministers expressly to do this by starting a Pagan church - and that i am one of the key people doing this. Well that's what this article in the Telegraph certainly implies and it has drawn a lot of comment both from Christians and Pagans.  But there is a big problem with this article - it is highly misleading and there is no such Church of England policy.  I thought it was about time to expose the spin and let the real story come out.

firstly it is not a piece of research based on interviews done by the Telegraph it is actually a rehash of a radio piece done by BBC religion correspondent Robert Piggott for the Today Programme - you can listen to it here for the next 5 days the piece comes about 1:25 into the recording - it went out just after 7.25 on the 21st June.  The background to this piece was that Robert had seen research by people like Linda Woodhead on the rise of spirituality outside of religion as a counterpoint to declining church numbers.  in particular she had recently written an article for the Church Times suggesting that the Anglican church should concentrate on the 50% of Anglicans who are non-churchgoing believers (this is the link but the full article can only be read by subscribers Robert wanted to explore this and particularly to find if there where ways the Anglican church was connecting with spiritual seekers. I was along with three others interviewed for this radio programme. it went out on the 21st June to link it to the Sumner Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge.

what happens in such interviews is that a several minute interview is used to produce a small piece as part of a larger article, I've done this before and knew what to expect. in the piece there was a comment from the very good Pagan academic Graham Harvey explaining that lots of people went to the solstice as well as Pagans including Christians who weren't tightly defined but more fluid. this was put in the context of growing numbers of spiritual seekers. Then the question of Anglican response was raised and i was introduced. i am an Anglican priest I research this area and work in evangelism so whilst i am not an official Anglican spokesperson on this i am often recommended as an Anglican to speak in this area.

two sentences were used from me firstly building on something that is a Church of England (along with a number of other churches) backed initiative to create fresh expressions of church within the different cultures of Britain recognizing that many people are culturally very distant from the church. This would indeed potentially include people of different religions and spiritualities as well as ethnicities, lifestyles, locations etc. we had talked about how one would do this for spiritual seekers or Pagans and I said that one would look to 'create an expression of christian faith within that culture almost a Pagan church but with Christ very much at the centre'. i was asked whether that would look like a traditional Anglican church - i suggested not, and offered as an example the Forest churches that several groups have set up and how they would meet outdoors, might have a circle or a fire chanting and prayers and things that were very Celtic in style.

other interviews were with Andrea Campanale of CMS who train pioneer ministers, among other things.  these ministers are likely to be helping create fresh expressions of church.  Andrea and I have worked together on a few occasions, we helped run a Christian stall at the London Mind Body Spirit festival in May for instance. the third interview was from a member of an Anglican church who also uses Angel cards but who as far as i can tell has no official church role and isn't part of any programme of church outreach.

so the radio interview showed there where Anglicans seeking to express christian faith in the cultural context of religion and spirituality outside of church and that might include Pagans.  i have no problem with the radio piece - it was well researched and Robert is i am convinced quite genuinely interested in exploring this area. I also think it is very important and have argued for a number of years that the church needs to learn lessons from those expressing spirituality and religion outside of the church - especially those with roots in the New Age Movement or contemporary Paganism. i do not think this amounts to the Church of England having a deliberate policy of creating a Pagan church to recruit Pagans and training pioneer ministers to do it - the Telegraph article makes two and two equal a lot more than five. it takes the facts that pioneer ministers are being trained, some Anglicans think it inportant to engage with non church spirituality and that  one of them talked of creating something that was 'almost a Pagan church with Christ at the centre'. it takes those and assumes this is all part of the same policy of the church. it is all influenced by fresh expressions thinking, but that was not mentioned in the radio piece or the Telegraph article - i guess some may think that fresh expresions might therefore be what the Telegraph was talking about - i simply suggest you look at the site i posted above and you will find very little if anything about Pagans or spiritual seekers.

i have no problem with the radio piece, but James Naughtie's introduction was i think a large part of what lead to the Telegraph story. as part of this, having suggested Pagans might meet to 'drink dew' at the solstice (yes it's that old 'daft Pagans' insult) he then went on to say the Church of England was seeking to recruit Pagans and spiritual seekers and was training pioneer ministers to create different kinds of churches that might appeal to spiritual seekers. OK i guess you have there the phrase 'recruit Pagans' and the elements the Telegraph built there story on. having rehashed the radio piece (and quoting me incorrectly) they also made matters worse with, the frankly patronizing suggestion that 'The new move could see famous druids such as druid leader Arthur Pendragon move to Anglicanism.' i am guessing that Arthur is killing himself laughing - at least i hope that is what he is doing. 

to fill in the picture there was also a piece in the Times, behind the pay wall of course. but at least Ruth Gledhill phoned me and this managed to straighten out some of the story - it still links things into a coherent plan but at least mentions fresh expressions

OK that i hope at least helps explain how the articles happened and why i think they have been misleading.

i have been watching what has been happening on blogs and tweets and facebook as best i can. in one sense i was tempted to let it play out - but i have become concerned about the possible harm and misunderstanding that may come from this. i am concerned that Christians will decide i am selling out the faith or someone who will do anything to recruit church members - i have no problem with Christians disagreeing with me but i'd rather they did so on the basis of what i really think and do. i am more worried about what Pagans may think , and indeed some are thinking, that i and others are creating some deceptive fake church in order to target Pagans and recruit them. i have a number of Pagan friends and i value being part of groups in which Pagans are included. so i was rather disturbed by a story growing up that i was simply deceiving these people in order to recruit them. and for this reason felt i needed to set the record straight.

i think i need to finish very briefly by explaining why i said what i did. my understanding is that in every age and culture authentic Christianity adapts to become at home in that new context. in the west for a century and half it has done this less due to the establishment of the church - something i think was damaging BTW. i think we have been going through major cultural change from the later part of last century and the church has not adapted to this and is therefore declining. at the same time new expressions of spirituality have grown.  at present i think such expressions of spirituality and religion are addressing the lives of many though not all people today far more effectively than the church and as a Christian i think we need to ask why and learn lessons from that. i do not believe that a Christian church could adopt Paganism and remain Christian nor that a Pagan group (or individual) could adopt Christianity and remain Pagan. i do think that Paganism has much to say and offer to the world today and much that Christians can adopt - for instance whilst Christianity isn't polytheistic, the Trinity does include the divine feminine as well as the divine masculine and those, including Pagans, who have criticized an apparently male lone christian deity are right to do so, and we as Christians need to acknowledge that and recover out own tradition of the divine feminine. similarly Pagans have often put Christians to shame when it comes to the environment when St Paul time and again talks of Jesus not saving people from the world but wanting to set the whole of creation free from suffering - we need to recover this ecological vision. i could go on but i hope you get the idea - that is what i meant by saying a Pagan church - on reflection i think i should have said a church in Pagan culture or one that learnt lessons from Paganism. i do think such a church would be far more attractive to many people. do i want people to 'join the church' put like that no - i am not interested in a church recruitment plan that sound slike getting people to join a social club. However, i find the vision Jesus outlined for life, society and the future of creation deeply attractive and my belief as a christian is that God can work to change us into the sort of people who can live that vision out and i want to share that vision with others and i hope they too are attracted to it - that would be what i would mean by evangelism. i also want to live in a society in which all faiths are tolerated and given equal status. i could say more but this has been long enough. i am happy to respond to further questions and comments