Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Talking Jesus

Durham Diocese is about to embark on a four day mission event, with 20 of the bishops of the Northern Province ascending to our county to lead, inspire and assist with all sorts of evangelistic events. Each parish was asked to put on an event, and almost all have responded, with events ranging from the modest (a coffee morning, a school assembly) to the inventive and even bizarre!

In Durham Deanery we have a huge range of events going on, from 'What the Actress said to the Bishop' (hosted by Shincliffe church - where they have a local actress in conversation with a bussed in bishop!) to a night of stand up comedy by two of the north east's finest comedy revs, Kate Bruce and John Sinclair. From two 'crafternoons' - one in my own church, one the other side of the Deanery - to a pet blessing service. (The brave vicar who agreed to host the pet blessing service that a brainstorming session generated said 'but I'm scared of animals!' but the visiting bishop seems pretty clear what to do!). From attending Durham Park Run to a debate on science and religion in the university.

All these things should be great, but they rely on two things to really work on their own terms:

Firstly, people need to invite people who aren't already churchgoers to attend them! This should be obvious....but its amazing how many churchgoers have signed up for tickets to events and seem taken aback, and on occasion even offended, when reminded that the point is really for them to get tickets for themselves AND A FRIEND!

And secondly, we need to actually talk about Jesus at these events. Not just leave that to the visiting bishop or ordinand, but be prepared to talk about our own faith and why we find Jesus interesting, inspiring, puzzling, intriguing, captivating, attractive ....(insert your own word here). We don't need to preach - in fact, I and many others have been at pains to reassure people that they can invite their friends to these events without any fear that they will suddenly be pounced on with a crashing gear change of the conversation from friendly chat to overt conversion mode! But we do need to get more confident at naming Jesus easily and confidently in our conversations.

Most of us find that this does not come easily. 'Church' seems much easier to say than 'Jesus'. But all the research is that most people who do not come to church find Jesus a much more attractive proposition than church!

The most common reason I've identified when I've asked my congregation members what holds them back from talking about their faith with their family and friends is the fear that people will be offended.

People ARE offended if you try to force them to share your beliefs, or imply that they are inferior for not believing or behaving in the same way as they imagine Christians do. But people are NOT offended by you happening to mention that you have a faith in Jesus, and leaving it to them to ask more if they wish. In fact, people tend to be fascinated if once they realise that they can ask you about your faith without you being offended or pushy.

Our Deanery Co-ordinator for the Talking Jesus event found this out at work a few months ago, when her boss asked her if she'd had a good weekend. She found herself answering honestly that it had been very busy with the preparations for a diocesan event called Talking Jesus that she'd got herself involved in organising. He was fascinated, and she reported that she had had the longest conversation she'd ever had about faith at work as a result!

So....come to the events! Invite people to the events! And talk about the events. Maybe just telling people that there's a Talking Jesus diocesan event happening is a good way to mention the name Jesus in a non-threatening way? And maybe practice to yourself, at home, in the shower, in the car, how you might answer a follow up question about what Jesus means to you?

Friday, 27 January 2017

Sex and the bishops

The report of the House of Bishops on where we go from here on same sex marriage and relationships is now out, and I'm wondering how to respond to it - both now, and in General Synod in ten days time.

On the one hand, I feel a bit fraudulent saying anything at all - after all, I'm not gay, I'm not in a same sex relationship, and I worry that talking about my feelings or my views will just be the response of cis-privilege. But then I think that I shouldn't stay silent, just because its not primarily me who is being hurt here. I might blunder, but better to blunder than to be complicit.

So, caveats aside, my primary feeling on reading the document was 'here we go again'.

I don't want to go through each paragraph or recommendation of the report, such as they are. That would be too depressing. So let's talk about 'tone'. The report is very keen on 'tone'.

Emotionally and ecclesiologically, the tone throughout is all too familiar from the interminable reports on women's ordination that we had to wade through. From the basic assumption that these people are an inconvenience, a problem to be solved, a difficulty we would much rather not have to deal with, to the carefully crafted tone of agonised eirenicism throughout. The report is at pains to emphasise just how difficult and painful all this has been - FOR THE BISHOPS! - and begs us to sympathise with them in their hard task of steering the ship between two extremes.

This really isn't good enough. And I say that as someone who has been part of the Shared Conversation process in Synod, and so is not particularly surprised by the actual proposals (basically not to do anything, although with a few hopeful noises about changing the tone and being a bit more permissive).

But how do you change the tone without changing the tone? The tone of this report is exactly what we have come to expect. Agonised reporting of your own pain at a difficult decision and pleas for patience are not tone-changing.

And how do you change the tone without changing the underlying assumptions, doctrines and rules? The very reason that the current tone is so negative towards gay people is because those who wish to be negative can perfectly correctly point to their position as upholding the Church's teaching. Those who wish to be unwelcoming can perfectly truthfully talk about definitions of sin. The point of rules is not primarily to punish, but to set tone - unless you change the rules, it is very hard indeed to see how the tone gets to change. That's one reason why we campaigned so hard for Women Bishops - not for a few women to have a particular job, but because of what the change means for the whole tone of how our church talks about and to women.

Tone does matter. But to set the tone, you need to begin by setting it in reports like this - and all this report does is bolster the hand-wringing 'oh, it's all very difficult to balance, isn't it' tone that we have got so used to. 

There is a welcome moment of light relief at the end of the report, though, when we are asked to suggest ways in which the House of Bishops could make a new report on sex and marriage and relationships more useful beyond the church. As if anyone beyond the church cares, or is likely to listen. Frankly, the mind boggles at what such a report might say.

But just in case the House are serious in asking, here are some suggestions:

1. Stop talking about sex outside marriage being inherently sinful. Celebrate it as the gift it is, as something that can lead to a deepening of relationship and may in time lead to marriage/committed relationship. Recognise that virtually every heterosexual couple we marry has been living together for years. They do not see this as sinful. If you talk about it as such, they will stop listening and assume that the rest of what you have to say is irrelevant too.

2. Understand that these couples - ie, virtually everyone that gets married - see their marriage as the 'crown upon the head' of their relationship - it is because of the quality of their relationship that they want to marry, not the other way around. Marriage isn't primarily creating something new, it is celebrating what already exists.

3. Admit that most of our morality surrounding marriage is historically to do with controlling conception, the possession of women, and inheritance of property. Take seriously the difference that first the legal changes to the status of women (from the nineteenth century), and more recently the widespread availability of safe contraception (coupled with the decrease in infant and maternal mortality) have had.

4. Recognise that perceptions, images and understandings of marriage are historically, geographically and socially context-bound and changeable. Take academic advice on this, and learn from it. I still shudder when I remember the fiasco the Church centrally made of Linda Woodhead's point that the arguments used against equal marriage were near-identical to those used against the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. She was right. She quoted from Hansard. The church completely ignored her and simply denied what she was saying, in a way reminiscent of the 'alternative facts' debacle last week.

5. Stop talking about 'biblical marriage' and be honest about the mess that so many of the Biblical characters make of their marriages, the many different forms of relationship that that title is used for, and the variety of sexual moralities that the Bible reflects from its several thousand year history.

6. Then you can start talking about when sex IS sinful. At the moment, the mantra of 'sex is bad unless in a heterosexual marriage' is stopping us saying or being heard to say anything constructive about the full spectrum of sexual abuse, addiction, degrees of and uses of porn, marital rape/coercion, what happens when sex dies off but one of you still wants it, viagra, etc, etc, etc. The only decent thing written on this recently was the preamble to the Pilling report by Jessica Martin, but that was largely buried due to being attached to Pilling.

7. Be very, very careful about what you say about gender. There has been a worrying tendency in recent years for statements about equal marriage or same sex relationships to parrot the line 'one man and one woman', and go on to emphasis that this is about complementarity or some such post-hoc justification, without (at least, I hope it wasn't deliberate) thinking about what statements about men and women and gender relations are being accidentally made in the heat of trying to fend off the same sex 'issue'. The two are linked - and they are linked because of this.

8.Take love seriously. 1 Corinthians 13 describes it as being even greater than faith - an amazing claim. Let's discuss this more. Frame discussion of human relationships in terms of them being mirrors in which we see something of God's love for us reflected.

9. Take forgiveness seriously. Christ died for us while we were still sinners - stop colluding with a 'conservative' view that we need to be perfect to be acceptable.

10. And finally, for goodness sake, start taking the Bible more seriously - or using it more intelligently. Some of the discussion of the Bible that I heard at Synod last July appalled me in its literalism and ineptness of exegesis. Talk of marriage as a 'creation ordinance' 'because it says so in Genesis' is no more valid than seven-day Creationism. The Bible is an extraordinary collection of sacred writings, and we need to take seriously the variety of genre, historical period, context and aim of each piece in aiming to understand its meaning for us. The Church seems to have gone backwards in understanding this in the 20 years that I've been a Christian - show some leadership here, bishops!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Baptising Aliens

A fascinating radio review in the Church Times this week asks 'Would you baptise an extra-terrestial?'. Apparently this is a question addressed by a Steven J.Dick, who has the job of coming up with protocols to govern NASAs engagement with any alien life forms they may encounter. The Jesuit answer, we are told, is: only if it asks to be baptised.

It seems to me that this question raises some really interesting points about what the incarnation means. Christians believe that Jesus took on human flesh, and that the combination of this incarnation and his subsequent death and resurrection somehow redeems/saves humanity. But there is debate at an academic level, and considerable vagueness at a popular level, about how much it matters what kind of flesh Jesus took on at the incarnation.

At one end of the spectrum, we have the kind of lazy racism that assumes Jesus redeemed white flesh and finds it inconceivable that he was of any other ethnicity! But the issue that I have most engaged with over the years is the question of whether it matters that Jesus was male.

Over the course of the many debates about women's ordination, some people clearly thought that because Jesus was male, men were in some special theological category of godliness - men could represent Jesus in a way that women couldn't. Ts is clearly nonsense, as the theological point of the incarnation is that Jesus assumed human flesh so that human flesh could be redeemed. If you take the fact of his maleness as not simply an incidental feature of his particularity (ie, in order to become fully human you have to be A PARTICULAR human, not generic 'humanity') but as of key salvific importance, then the logical implication is that women aren't as fully saved as men are, which no serious theologian would argue.

So I was really interested to see this question about extra terrestial life! It opens up a whole other area for discussion - which is, do we think that God in Jesus assumed HUMAN flesh, so PEOPLE are redeemed? Or do we think that, in assuming 'flesh', God became identified with the whole created order, so that what is redeemed is creation itself? The scriptural reflection on this is mixed, sometimes talking about 'man redeeming man', sometimes about 'creation'. Its a question that has pastoral implications for those of us who are clergy, who are surprisingly often asked about whether pets go to heaven, and similar conundrums.

So the thought experiment about alien life is fascinating. Few of us would now see 'creation' as simply involving this planet - the whole created order clearly involves all the universe. So do we think that the incarnation of Jesus as a Palestinian child about 2000 years ago sufficed to save the whole created order, or just humanity? What do you think?

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Church: Ice Dancing or Musical Statues?

Ever since reading Richard Holloway's book 'Dancing on the Edge' (when I first became a Christian at university), I've loved the idea of truth being found teetering on the knife edge between one false certainty and another.

That image became even more vibrant and alive for me when I started having ice skating lessons. I was about 25 and doing my doctorate, and needed some sort of active exercise to give me a complete change from my books. I lived in Newcastle at the time, just a few stops down from the ice rink on the metro, and I'd always loved Noel Streatfield's books as a child, so the idea of acting out my White Boots fantasy suddenly seemed a sensible one! Well, I was never any good, and I soon gave it up due to it being too expensive a hobby for me on my PhD grant.

But what I did discover was that ice skating blades are not flat - or even sharp - on the bottom, but are made up of a double blade (a bit like a double-hulled catamaran). You basically never skate on the whole blade, but on one edge or another - so you are always moving forwards in a series of curves, sweeping one way or another. And of course, like cycling, you are never balanced properly unless you are off balance but moving swiftly enough to create balance.

It seems to me that this is a good image for our faith, though I don't know if the specific ice skating image was in Richard Holloway's mind when he wrote that lovely title.

We only move forwards by being on the edge; we only create balance by moving fast enough not to come crashing down; we only make progress by sweeping curves.

I have seen some commentary recently on social media (and forgive me, but I can't remember where now - someone may helpfully put it in the comments?) suggesting that the point of faithful Christianity is to 'guard the deposit' of faith that has been handed on to us. This instantly set my historical antennae twitching. It's a sweeping generalisation, but broadly speaking the Western Christian tradition has seen faith as something that develops, whilst the Eastern Orthodox view has been that the tradition stopped developing at the last of the great Ecumenical Councils, and the task is now simply to pass it on intact. This was the fundamental point at issue in the 'filioque' debate for example - the Western (anachronistically, the Roman Catholic) Church claimed the right to add that small phrase to the creed that had been agreed by the Councils, whilst the Eastern church denied that was a valid thing to do.

Hence the title of this post. Is faith, for you, more like ice dancing or musical statues? Does the music stop sometimes - perhaps for the last few hundred years, or the last millenium - and until some cue says it should start again, the task is to hold still, faithfully in the position you were in when the music stopped? Or is it a continual dance, a backing and advancing, side to side swaying, dancing on the edge, beautiful as a dance rather than necessarily aiming at striking a particular pose

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The US Election, New Scientist, and Good Disagreement

My husband is a chemical engineer, and subscribes to New Scientist magazine. I tend to read it over lunch, and for a while now, I've been pondering starting a series on this blog, theologically reflecting on a New Scientist article each week. Because almost every single week there is at least one article that has fascinating theological implications, or that sheds new light on a knotty moral or theological question, or that just makes you wonder again at how amazing this world is.

The one that has finally made me crack and give this is a go is this New Scientist article by Aviva Rutkin on ways in which Americans are trying to crack the 'good disagreement' nut.

How to do disagreement better has become something of a key theme in the Church of England in recent years. It has been repeatedly suggested that, if we can do this, it is something important that we can offer to the rest of society. The Shared Conversations process that dioceses and Synod have been through over the past few years on the issue of how the church should respond to same sex relationships have been a concerted attempt to put this into practice.

Important elements of this have been listening well; focusing on understanding others positions and making your own understood, rather than focusing on arguments; and reminding ourselves of what we hold in common, not simply what divides us.

What I hadn't appreciated until I read this article in New Scientist was just how many other people are also working on similar processes in very different contexts. Rutkin's headline example is of the US election, and how some groups are already thinking ahead to try to build bridges between Republicans and Democrats whatever the result, in an election in which both candidates are 'both parties' most disliked candidates in recent history'. Other examples take on racial prejudice and attempts to get the pro-choice and anti-abortion lobbyists talking to each other.

The stories are encouraging ones, but what struck me most was how similar the processes described were to what we have been doing in our own Shared Conversations. On the one hand, this is pleasing - it suggests that such techniques do indeed work - not to change participants' deeply held views, but to change the way they go about expressing them and the extent to which they relate to those of other views as people rather than as simply 'other'. On the other hand, it rather punctures any nascent sense that we may as the CofE have something new to offer!

But the main feeling I am left with from reading this article is a sense of relief and pleasure that at least some people of good will, all around the world, think that reconciliation, communication, and bridge building is important. Reading about science, and evolution, and politics, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sense of 'original sin' in humanity, seeking our own advantage at the expense of others. (Reading politics and economics, it is depressing to realise just how much capitalism makes this into a prime virtue rather than a sin). But then there is always a shaft of light, like this - the reminder that there are always some people, perhaps just a few, working to build rather than to destroy, to communicate rather than to win. And not even doing so primarily for themselves, but helping others to do so in the hope of a better society for all.

The Church and the World are not always in opposition (as one commentator on a previous blog post here argued): how can they be, when the World is the one that we believe that God created (no, not in seven days, but created nonetheless), loves, declares to be good, and died to save? Things like this are a healthy reminder that God's spirit of peace and love and joy is working just as much 'out there' as 'in here'.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Talking Jesus and the natural grammar of evangelism

It is really fascinating just how reluctant we Christians tend to be in talking about Jesus to our friends and workmates. I've been asking people what stops them, and there is a general feeling that people might feel put off, might not like you anymore, or it might make future conversations and socialising awkward if they think you might be about to pounce on them again.

Of course, we've all experienced the kind of evangelism - whether from a Christian or a telesales person - that feels like a 'hard sell', and puts our backs up rather than attracting us.

But we've also all 'evangelised' to our friends about things that excite us, that we've found out about and enjoyed, and that we think they would enjoy to. There is a 'natural grammar' of evangelism in our day to day lives.

We don't feel embarrassed saying, or hearing, sentences like:

 'I went to that new coffee shop last week! It was great, really fab cakes. You'd love it!'.


'Have you seen that a new branch of [whatever shop you like] has opened up in town? I went in to have a look and it was BRILLIANT! You should SO go in next time you're in town.'


'You know that garden centre that you pass on the way to the supermarket? Have you ever been in it? I've passed it so many times and never given it another thought. But I couldn't find what I was looking for anywhere else so I gave it a try and that had such a great range! You should try it!'


'Thanks for the compliment! Yes, I'm feeling great - I've been going to that gym down the road for a couple of years now, I love it! Never felt so good. Do you want to join me one day?'

We naturally evangelise about new things we've discovered that we love and think others would love. And what we say tends to go something like:


That is, we tend to say: 'I've found a new thing! I loved it/had this experience. I think you'd love it/would you like to come with me?'

(Sorry those initials don't make a catchy acronym, but I'm not changing them just so they do!)

It seems to me that one of the difficulties we have in the Church of England is that so many of our churchgoers have been attending for so long that it isn't NEW to us anymore. The most natural evangelists in my experience are children and new churchgoers. Most of the people who have joined my church in recent years have been invited by a friend who is themselves new to church.

The natural way to evangelise is to share new discoveries, and one reason that it can feel 'creepy' to share our faith normally is because sharing 'old news' is not part of our social grammar.

So my suggestion is that part of the reason that church planting, fresh expressions and so on work is precisely because they are new! Doing something even slightly differently gives people a natural reason to share their faith with others. This chimes with Bob Jackson's research, in which he found a strong correlation between churches that were growing and churches that had made a change - any change! - in the last five years.

What could you do differently in order to give your congregation something new to share with their friends and family?

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Infant Baptism: An Anglican Model for Same Sex Blessings?

No babies were harmed in the making of this blogpost
As I looked out over the crowded church, something struck me.

I was saying, to a 100 non-churchgoers who had gathered to celebrate little baby X,  that in the Church of England we baptise tiny babies because it shows that our acceptability to God doesn't depend on anything we achieve.

What struck me anew on Sunday, was that it might be able to help us through our current debates about same sex blessings. Why?

Baptising infants has long been a contested practice. Indeed, my own church here in Durham before I arrived had a policy of only baptising the children of churchgoers. Those denominations which believe in only baptising adults or those old enough to answer for themselves - 'believer's baptism' - have a great deal of sense on their side. Baptism makes you a member of the Church, so doesn't it make sense to wait until someone can say whether that's what they want? But the main churches of the Reformation - Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans - have always held fast to the principle that babies can indeed be baptised. Partly this is because these 'magisterial' denominations have always been partially concerned about civic cohesion as well as right belief, but partly it is due to the fundamental theological principle that we are saved by God's grace, not by our own 'works'.

That's a theological principle that was the bedrock of the Reformation - but it predates it by a long way. It was core to Augustine's understanding of Christianity, for example. The idea that we could, by working hard enough at being a good Christian, contribute to our own salvation was condemned as the Pelagian heresy by the early church councils.

So infant baptism quickly becomes a test case, almost a thought experiment, in whether we actually believe this or not. Do we actually believe that God's grace is enough, or do we think that we have to do something towards our own salvation? For the early reformers such as Luther, that was anathema. Infant baptism became a cause celebre because it was seen as proof that a church really believed, or didn't really believe, that God's grace was all-sufficient for our salvation.

I think this is still the case. Baptising babies in a church full of non-churchgoers, however much preparation you have done with the parents and godparents in advance, always feels like an act of pure faith in God's power to do something amazing with the tiny resources we offer.

Not doing so - insisting on the ability to make a coherent statement of faith, or insisting on a show of commitment from parents and family first - in many ways is more obvious. It is common sense. It is logical. Baptising a baby with none of this, just the bare minimum of parents and godparents being prepared to come to church and say or mumble some simple words of faith, feels risky. It feels transgressive. It is a powerful symbol of the Church's trust in God's power to save, regardless of how good or bad the individuals' faith or practice might be or seem.

So I wonder whether this Anglican heritage of infant baptism provides a fresh lens through which to examine the question of blessing same sex partnerships?

The problem we have come up against repeatedly in our debates so far is the seemingly intractable one of whether same sex (sexually active) relationships are inherently sinful or not. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I can't see our different views on that particularly fraught question being resolved anytime soon. And at the moment, our debates have been stuck there, with one side wanting blessings to prove that they aren't sinful, and the other side determined not to be seen to be blessing sin.

But what if we take the infant baptism approach, and ask instead  whether our practice in this matter reveals a theology of salvation by works, or by grace? Hard cases make bad law, we are told: yet in the case of infant baptism, that is exactly the approach that we have taken. Baptising babies is a 'hard case' in testing out whether we really believe that God can save regardless of any effort on our part.

At the risk of offending same sex couples who may feel hurt at being described as a hard case (I know I hated women being discussed as a problem, so I'm sorry), I suggest that a fruitful way forward in our current impasse may be to take this approach to blessing same sex relationships. That is, you might not think they are a good idea. You might think that they are sinful. You might think that they are not God's plan. In which case, blessing them or not is a good test of whether you really believe that our salvation depends on God's grace alone.

Personally, you see, I really think it does. I really think, and preach, that our salvation comes from what Jesus has done for us, not on what we earn for ourselves.

Believing that, it seems to me that baptising babies and blessing relationships that many in the church think are dodgy are both great ways of demonstrating that our belief as a Church is that God's blessing doesn't depend on our works-righteousness but on His grace alone.

Our statement that we were prepared to do these blessings as a Church could say explicitly that people remain divided about whether same sex relationships are sinful, but that we are taking this opportunity to make the point that it doesn't matter whether they are or not. Every one of us is complicit in sin, some we recognise, some we don't even see as sin, some we are ashamed of, some we are perversely proud of. We preach as a Church that God is greater than all this, and that what Jesus has done for us is sufficient for our salvation. Do we really believe that?