Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Limits of Good Disagreement

Today's gospel reading (Mark 3:20-35) shows Jesus reaching the end of his patience, and snapping out a very hard limit to the edges of good disagreement.

He's under pressure both from those who are following him - whose demands are wearing him out - and from those who are opposing him. He's hungry - we're told he hasn't even been able to eat due to the crowds pressing round. In fact, the implication is that he is 'hangry'. And he snaps, into one of those occasional really fierce statements:

"people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin".

Its one of those statements that we often glide over - surely Jesus can forgive everyone, he is basically nice? But it suddenly seems relevant in a new way. It seems to me that, as we struggle in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion to find ways of doing disagreement well, 'good disagreement', this morning's gospel offers a firm boundary for that.

Jesus is provoked into saying this because people are accusing him of doing his miracles, healings, etc by demonic power. Looking at the Holy Spirit and calling it demonic is, he declares, the unforgiveable sin.

That doesn't mean people have to immediately recognise the Holy Spirit at work, or even acknowledge it. And Jesus carefully prefaces this bombshell by saying that everything else - even blasphemies - can and will be forgiven.

So as we try to model 'good disagreement', have 'shared conversations', and so on - just don't, ever, label something that might, just might, be of the Holy Spirit as demonic. You don't have to think it is of the Holy Spirit - you're free to think (and say) that you believe your interlocutor to be deluded.

So in the 'woman debate' - I can happily coexist with colleagues who don't think I should be ordained, though I will of course argue vigorously with them. But it goes too far if someone claims that a woman who thinks she has heard the call of the Holy Spirit to be ordained must be suffering from a demonic spirit. It goes too far if someone tries to cast out a 'spirit of rebellion' from a woman who speaks out in ways they disagree with. It goes too far if someone equates feminism with satanism or demonic temptation.

And in the 'gay debate' - in the shared conversations that are currently underway - by all means robustly argue your point of view. I'm an academic - I love a good argument. But it goes too far to be within the limits of a Christian discourse if you accuse the love that two people share, which they believe to be holy, of being satanic. It goes too far if you accuse people of being the anti-Christ for interpreting the Scriptures differently to you. It goes too far if you try to deliver them from evil spirits, or refuse to be in the same room as them because you fear satanic contamination.

You may, of course, sincerely believe that these things are in fact true. You may believe that it is those who hold views that seem to you perverse are the ones who are blaspheming. Presumably those outside the house where Jesus was teaching thought the same thing. But if you hold that view then I assume you take the Scriptures very seriously indeed - and note that here Jesus says people will be forgiven their sins, and whatever blasphemies they utter - but don't blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.  
I'll say that again - Jesus says here that Whatever we do or say that may be wrong, or sinful, is forgiveable - except accusing the Holy Spirit of being demonic. Even when you don't realise that it is the Holy Spirit, and genuinely think this is a disruptive, satanic influence.

So: good disagreement. Disagree, by all means. Disagree vigorously. But don't drag the devil into it, to be on the safe side.

And make sure you eat well.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Towards a Theology of Church Growth

Is Church Growth even more contentious a topic than Same Sex Marriage? On the day that Ireland votes on same sex marriage, it may seem provocative to suggest this.


But I think this is the case. The Church of England talks of little else, and it is surprisingly contentious.

Now if you don't go to church you may wonder why on earth the church wanting to grow would be controversial. Most organisations nowadays exist at least in part to evangelise and grow - that is the norm in our capitalist society. Most people also think of personal growth and development as a good thing.

Yet when leaders in the church talk about church growth, they are often decried - not by the angry atheists, but by members of that same church. So why is church growth, as a concept, so controversial?

Partly, this is because we clergy feel under considerable pressure to deliver this growth, and we fear failure.

Partly, it is because we know that growth is not just about numbers - it is as much about depth as breadth.

And partly, it is a reaction against what is often seen as an increasingly managerial approach to the theology of church (ecclesiology). We know that being a good vicar (chaplain, priest, minister...) doesn't always simply equate to extra bums on seats, and we fear the introduction of an Ofsted-culture into the church. Church growth is often derided for being not really concerned with the Kingdom of Heaven but with management metrics. 'Where is the theology?' the cry goes up.


And yet....all the imagery in the Bible for the church implies growth, development, fruiting, building.


A couple of years ago, Durham University held a day conference entitled 'Towards a Theology of Church Growth', and the book arising out of that conference has now been published by Ashgate. You can find it here.


The idea behind the conference was that, although the church leaders who talked about growth were sure that the claims that this was un-theological were unfounded, nevertheless it was a fair criticism to say that the theology had not been fully considered and explained.

I was asked to speak on what medieval theologians said about church growth.One of the key things that the organiser of the conference (David Goodhew) wanted to challenge was the claim that this obsession with church growth was a purely modern concept, and had no counterpart in the historic theology of the church. 'After all', the argument runs, 'In medieval times everyone went to church'. Was this true? he asked me. If so, and even more if not, was there any concept of church growth in the period of medieval 'Christendom'?


This was a fascinating challenge! First of all I had to work out where to look - it was not a question I had considered before, and working out what evidence could be brought to bear on the question took some time. My first idea was to look at archaeological evidence - were church buildings constructed with growth in mind? But as you'll find if you read my full chapter, I quickly had to discard that line of enquiry - there is very little correlation indeed between church building and congregation size in the medieval period. Bigger church buildings said as much or more about the wealth and status of their patron as about the number of people expected to fill them.


There are, however, plenty of examples of local people building additional chapels of ease or places of local worship, nearer to where they lived than the parish church that they legally had to attend and support. These were built, staffed and supported out of the pockets of the laity they served, and provide good evidence for a flourishing lay spirituality.


But the best evidence that I found was in the writings of and about the Friars, and in pastoral letters from bishops to clergy exhorting them to growth. These did not assume that everyone went to church - far from it. Indeed, they sometimes didn't even assume that the clergy knew the basics of their faith! And the passion with which they spoke about growing the church is infectious.

The example that has most stuck in my mind is that of Robert Grosseteste, the famously reforming Bishop of Lincoln in the mid thirteenth century. In 1244 or early 1245, he went on a trip to Rome, and wrote a letter to his archdeacons exhorting them to grow the church in his absence. I wonder how they felt when they read this letter - perhaps a similar rising panic and apprehension to that so many clergy feel now at the latest diocesan directive to grow?

Grosseteste uses very similar 'business' or 'management' imagery to that which is so often decried now. Drawing on the parable of the talents, he uses the image of doing business with the wealth entrusted to you with the aim of making a profit explicitly to refer to seeking and working for numerical church growth.`

I do encourage you to read the whole chapter, and indeed the whole book! You will probably find lots to disagree with, but lots to ponder too.

You may be reassured or appalled to know that an obsession with numerical church growth is certainly not uniquely modern, and that there is indeed a medieval theology of church growth.



Thursday, 23 April 2015

Jelly bean Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

For those people who have asked for an outline of this!

I took an assembly today on the value of 'Fairness'. Being the vicar, in my assemblies I try to always relate a Bible story that sheds light on the school's theme of the week. For 'Fairness', the story that came to mind was the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

This was a whole primary school assembly for key stages 1&2, and would also work as a all-age talk I think.

Equipment needed: a pot of jelly beans (at least 120), and 6 bags to put them in.

Adults, in my experience, tend to really dislike this story! I wondered how children would react, and thought it would be a good way into exploring what our ideas of fairness really mean.

I began by asking them what they thought fairness meant. Answers included 'being kind', 'sharing', and 'having even teams, like in tug of war it woukd be unfair to have ten on one side and twenty on the other'.

Jesus told a story about fairness, I said.

Imagine a farmer. S/he has lots of work to do on the farm - far more than s/he can manage on her own. So s/he goes to find some people to pay to do the work with her. Explain we cant actually do digging in the hall, so i'm going to ask my workers to do star jumps instead to represent work.

A brief explanation of the way people stood in the marketplace if they were looking for work - then I took the role of the farmer and imagined the children were the workers. What a lot of people waiting to be hired! I need some strong people to help me in my farm. (Pick 2)


Now, (i said to my workers) the deal is, you work for me by doing star jumps for the rest of the assembly, and I'll pay you 20 jelly beans. Is that a fair deal? They acceot eagerly, and off they go.

After a minute or so, I stop them. Hmmm, I say. We have got half way through the day, and it doesn't look to me as if we are going to get all this work done with just two workers. I'd better go back to the marketplace and get some more. (A forest of hands flies up! I pick two more).

Ok you two. How about you work for me for what's left of the day, and I'll pay you what's fair. OK? They agree and all four start doing star jumps. After another minute I stop them.

Hmmm. We are half way through the afternoon and it doesn't look to me as if we are going to get all this work done woth just 4 workers. I'd better go back to the marketplace.

I choose one more volunteer (you could choose two but I wanted to limit the amount of time I spent  counting out beans!). Again, I offer them the deal that they work for the couple of hours left, and I will pay them whats fair....

After maybe 30 swconds more of all 5 doing star jumps, I repeat the process, emphasising that there is only an hour left of the day. My final volunteer gets offered the deal again, and they all start doing star jumps again.

After maybe 10 seconds, I stoo them all and announce it is the end of the working day and they've all done a really good job. Now its paytime. Please could they line up in order of how long they have been working for me.

I take the pot of jelly beans, musing aloud that I had said I'd give the workers 20 beans for the whole day's work, and had said I would pay the others what was fair. I open the box, and start counting jelly beans into a bag.

2...4...6........20.

I hand the bag of beans to the last volunteer. Here you are! Thank you for working for me for that hour, we got the job done!

Then I turn to the next person. You worked for me for 2 hours, didn't you? Hang on, I will just count out your pay....again, count 20 jelly beans into a bag and give it to them.

And so on all down the line.

When I get to the first two, I remind them of their contract and cheerfully count 20 beans out into bags for each of them. (For the last few counts, the whole school joined in counting in twos).

Then i asked the last two (the ones who had worked all day) if they felt they had been fairly paid.

I asked the whole school to think for a moment, then raise their hands if they thought that was fair - or  not. (In this case the vote was about 40/60 fair/unfair).

I then said that Jesus had told this story when some of his disciples had asked what they would get in heaven, since they had given up everything - homes, families, work - to follow him. And Jesus told that story in reply.

I often find people think that God might prefer people who go to church a lot. Because I am a vicar, sometimes people ask me to say a prayer for them because they think my prayers might be put higher up the queue by God! But the great news for those of us who feel other people are probably a lot better at religion than us, is that in this story Jesus tells us that God doesn't have any favourites in heaven. There aren't any special rewards for people who have been more religious, because God loves all of us equally, however much we do for him.

Prayer: thanking God for the difficult bits of the Bible, that make us think, and for giving us minds to think with.
Thanking God for Jesus showing us how much God loves us, and that he has no favourites.
Praying for all those who are not so fortunate as us around the world, and for all those who try to make the world a fairer place for everyone.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Oasis

We recently established a Shared Ministry Development Team at Belmont church. A couple of months ago, the team came up with the idea of trialling a new evening gathering. After some discussion, the name Oasis emerged - along with the idea that this was to be an oasis of peace, a place of refreshment, and a refuelling point for life - an oasis on Sunday evening before a busy week starts again on Monday. A place to relax, reflect, be restored and refreshed.


We met to plan. And we came up with too many ideas that we couldn't decide between! So we have decided that for this three month trial, we will try three different approaches. At the end, we will evaluate and ask for feedback - we might not continue, we might decide one approach worked best and stick with that in the future, or we might decide to continue with a mix of styles from month to month. Who knows?!

This slide presentation introduces the idea: more details below!
Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Roughly speaking, we have decided that the 'shape' of each of the three trials will be similar, following a threefold pattern: relax, reflect, restore. That is, first a section facilitating the particpants to relax into God's presence; then a section of 'input' and reflection; then a section which facilitates returning to everyday life, refreshed by the experience and hopefully taking new insights, or going out having made some new connections between faith and life.

We are loosely inspired by the way in which Messy Church plays with and deconstructs liturgical structure and elements. We want to see if that can be done in a more contemplative, even 'mystical' (dare I say, to quote Mark Tanner, an 'introvert charismatic') way.

 I'll post more in the future about how each of the three sessions are going to be done, and how each went!

Anglo Nordic Baltic Theology Conference/House Party!

One of the things that I love is going to the Anglo Nordic Baltic theology conference!

It is a biennial conference that takes the form of a 'theological house party'. It was founded in the early decades of the 20th century to foster understanding and build relationships between members of the Anglican and Lutheran churches of Northern Europe. That clearly worked really well, as it led to the Porvoo agreement! You can read more about the history of the conference here.

The first time I went was to the 2009 conference in Sweden, and we had such a good time. It makes a refreshing change from other conferences as it is attended by a mix of academics and practitioners, lay and ordained. It also makes a refreshing change from other ecumenical gatherings and church summits, as it has no aim to produce anything official - so there is no pressure to agree a text or communique. The aim is simply to have a good time together gathering around discussion of a common theme.

If you haven't heard of it before, that may be because the conference used to be by invitation only!  However, since 2013 we have re-launched the conference on a new footing and it is now open to anyone who wishes to attend. It is currently convened by a small group of us: myself from England, Mika Pajunen from Finland, and Archbishop Michael Jackson from Ireland.

The language of the conference is English and papers are short (20 minutes) to act as discussion starters, rather than being the last word on a subject.

The theme for 2015 is Theology in the Public Square. Do take a look at the emerging programme, think about coming, and if you wish, get in touch with me about a paper if you'd like to offer one!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Sermon: 'Woman, Why are you Weeping?'




One of the infuriating things about Jesus was that he had an annoying habit of speaking in questions. He rarely gave a straight answer when anyone questioned him. Instead he asked a question back. Or remained silent. Or did something weird like draw in the sand with his finger, while someone’s life hung in the balance. Or said nothing at all, as when he was questioned before Herod and Pilate on Good Friday. Or he told odd stories, that raised more questions than they answered.

It’s no wonder the disciples so often didn’t get it. At our service here on Maundy Thursday, as we thought about the first Last Supper, we looked at what Jesus asked the disciples then – ‘do you understand what I have done for you?’ And no, they didn’t. Not then. It was just too much to take in, and until the resurrection, just too unbelievable.

Sometimes reading the gospels we might think ‘Oh come ON, Peter! Come ON disciples! How can you possibly not get it when you’ve got Jesus there in front of you? How on earth are we meant to manage?’

But on that first Easter morning, even the least charitable of us might reasonably expect Mary and the other disciples to need some sort of explanation of what’s going on. 

But no. Even the angels, Gods messengers, often the ones who spell God’s messages out, here in John’s gospel join Jesus in speaking in questions.

And not even sensible questions.

‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ask the angels.

And ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Jesus asks.

Isn’t it obvious why Mary is weeping, and who she is looking for? Isn’t it weird that Jesus doesn’t just come right out and comfort her, tell her, explain what has happened? ‘Mary! No need to worry. Here I am! This is what I was trying to get at the other night. I had to go through death so that I could conquer its power for ever, for everyone else. But God has raised me, as I always knew and trusted that he would. So everyone can now live for ever with God in heaven – there is no more condemnation for sin, no more need for trying to appease God, and you can now know how much God loves you! Now, go, tell everyone the good news!’

But no. First the angels, then Jesus, start by asking a question – ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’
We don’t know, of course, what tone of voice Jesus asked this question in, how we should read it.
Was it perhaps sympathetic? ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ 

The nice thing about imagining that, is how it seems to symbolise Jesus coming alongside us in our sufferings and grief. We know he understands what human sadness and desolation are like – he has gone through them himself, not just in his own suffering, but in for example his grief at the death of his friend Lazarus. If he said it like that, maybe this simply means that God, in Jesus, comes alongside us and meets us in our own pain, empathising with it, sympathising with us, before attempting any theologising comfort. God, like a good friend, simply sitting down next to us and putting a metaphorical arm around us when we are sad. And even though he has the best news in the world – the news that does, in this case at least, totally remove the cause for the sadness – he doesn’t rush to share it, but takes the time to take her grief seriously.

Or maybe it was said with affectionate exasperation? ‘Woman! Why (on earth) are you weeping? Here I am standing in front of you!’ 

Sometimes I feel that is the tone of voice that God uses with me when I’m praying: ‘Oh for goodness sake, Miranda! I do love you, but per-lease, you can be slow to catch on sometimes!’

Or perhaps the emphasis is on the ‘why?’. It seems obvious to us, that Mary is weeping because she is distraught at the death of Jesus, and now feels totally lost and helpless because his body is gone and so she can’t even do the simple but important things for his body that she came for. As if you had gone to the cemetery to lay flowers, and simply couldn’t find the grave, and stood weeping with frustration and rage and grief and confusion.

But I wonder… do you remember the last time Jesus spoke to some women about weeping?
In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, he includes the detail that among the crowd following Jesus on the road to the place of crucifixion were many women:

‘women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. [And] Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” 3Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” 3For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’

So I just wonder, if perhaps Jesus wasn’t just asking a rhetorical question when he asked Mary ‘why’ she was weeping? Was he genuinely asking – why are you crying? Because I said the other day, don’t weep for me – weep for yourselves, for the future, because it is going to get pretty bleak. Which is this? 

As we look around the world and hear some of the horrific stories of persecution coming from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, people being crucified now, or beheaded, whole families and villages and church communities fleeing for their lives and now living -  if they managed to escape - in refugee camps for the foreseeable future – Jesus’ question seems pretty relevant. As relevant as it would have been to the early Christians for whom the gospels were first written down, in the midst of persecutions and uncertainty.

We can all too easily slip into reading the Easter story, and talking about it, as if the ending is so obvious it is banal. Jesus dies, God raises him from the dead, nobody has to worry about anything any more. Sin sorted, world put to rights, Kingdom ushered in, job done.

But that is to ignore the two millennia of women who have been weeping ever since, and who are still weeping now around the world. Weeping over children dying in infancy. Weeping because they are unable to feed their families. Weeping with sheer, mind-numbing exhaustion and hopelessness at the end of a 16 or 18 hour working day, at the end of which they are as poor, as enslaved, as indebted as they were at the beginning. Weeping over war, over injustice, over death, persecution, weeping with fear, weeping with shame, weeping with loneliness.

Jesus, and the angels, both ask – ‘woman, why are you weeping?’ And I thank God for them taking her – our – all humanity’s - grief seriously, respecting it, recognising it. Not rushing to answer it, or tell her why she is wrong to feel it. God doesn’t just know our sorrows, he notices them. God doesn’t just tell us its all OK, but comes alongside us in our grief and asks us to tell him about it.

Only then does Jesus say something that isn’t a question – but it isn’t an answer either. it’s not even an explanation. It is simply her name. ‘Mary’. And at that, she recognises him, and we imagine, from his next words – ‘don’t hold onto me!’ that she reaches out and hugs him in joy, in recognition, in relief.

And then he sends her out to proclaim the good news that she has seen him, alive, to the rest of their friends. 

(Reference to our new banner of Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles)

The pattern of Jesus’ meeting with Mary on that first Easter morning is the pattern that I recognise from my own experiences of encountering God, and I wonder if it is one you recognise too?

God meets us when and where we least expect it, in ways we often don’t recognise at first. He is more interested in asking us about ourselves than telling us about himself.  He takes our feelings, positive or negative, seriously. He doesn’t tend to explain. He asks more questions than he answers. And far sooner than we feel ready, he asks us to go and tell other people – tell them things we are hardly sure of ourselves, announce things we feel very unprepared for proclaiming, proclaim things that we really hope we aren’t asked questions about because we don’t feel we know any more than the little we have been told to share.

As the people of Mary Magdalene’s church, let’s hear for ourselves this morning the words that Jesus spoke to her. 

Why are you weeping? What are you sorrows? God hears, and listens, and takes your worries and your pain seriously.

Who are you looking for? Do you want to find Jesus here today? Do you want to meet him in prayer, in bread and wine, in your neighbour? It might seem obvious, but maybe Jesus wants us to articulate it, to name him to ourselves, to be explicit that we are here to find Jesus.

And then he speaks your name. And says:

Now go. Go to my friends, to my brothers and sisters, and tell them that you have seen the Lord.


Monday, 23 March 2015

Schools Easter Service: Frozen


Here's an Easter Service I've just put together with Liz Hollis (a Durham student with me for a few days) for the various schools services we will be having in church this week.

Feel free to use/adapt  if it is helpful!

Frozen: Love Conquers Fear and Death



Opening Song (school bringing)

Show film clip (the bit where Ana stumbles across the ice, nearly frozen, but then swerves away from Christoff to save Elsa)

Get several children to act out the scene:
a.       Hans (with sword)
b.      Christoff (with reindeer soft toy)
c.       Ana
d.      Elsa
e.      Storm! 6+ with strips of blue voile/white flags to wave.

(Storm perform; then Christoff running in slow motion up the aisle from the back; Ana running in slow motion from the altar; hans about to kill Elsa in the middle of the dais.
Ana sees them, diverts from running to Christoof and flings up her arm to stop Hans’ sword.
Storm dies down. Elsa flings arms round Ana.)

Freeze!

Ask the children: Who is showing love? Ask character by character if necessary.
Ask How each character is showing it/what are they doing to show love?

Draw out: Hans just concerned for himself;
                Christoff – running into storm to save Ana, not thinking about his own safety.
                Elsa – forgets her own fears (hence the storm dies down - the snow/ice is an external manifestation of Elsa's fear) when she’s thinking about her grief for Ana/realises how much Ana loves her/realises how much she loves Ana. Ie, isn’t thinking about herself.
                Ana – sacrifices her own chance to live (eg chooses not to run to Christoff) to save Elsa. (Key insight here is that the 'act of true love' that saves Ana is her OWN act of self-sacrifice - not Elsa's hug. She starts to thaw/come back to life almost as soon as she freezes, because her own choice to save Rlsa rather than herself has that redemptive dynamic)

Ask: How is Ana like Jesus here?
Draw out – self sacrifice; death and resurrection.

Bible verse – John 15:13 – ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.

So what? God loves us so much that he was prepared to become human for us and die for us.
-          God’s love is stronger than death and bigger than our fears.
-          Frozen is just a lovely story that helps us feel what this is like, but although the story of Jesus is written in a book and films have been made about it, it isn’t just fiction, its something that really happened. Jesus really did die to save us and that love was so strong that it broke through death itself. This happening in real life was something that was so amazing that people are still telling each other about it 2000 years later.

Prayer: either school do, or:
-thank you God for loving us so much;
-thank you for Jesus showing us that your love is stronger than death and all our fears
- help us to love each other as you loved us
- pray for people living in fear, that your love will surround and save them
- pray for the things we are afraid of, that you will keep us safe.

Final song.