Church Plants – Are They ‘Relevant’?

The furore surrounding Angela Tilby’s Church Times article ‘Deliver us from the Evangelical Takeover’ (Church Times 27th April, 2018) has given rise to what many people probably see as a very large storm occurring, once again, in a very small teacup. They are right insofar as it can be felt as a more compact, and therefore more intense, re-working of the murderous Church differences that prevailed in this country and on the continent in the sixteenth century, and thereafter in other guises. But they would be wrong to see them as another reason for dismissing the Church, and the Christian faith to which it witnesses, as ‘irrelevant’.

Irrelevance is what Christianity is often accused of when there is nothing else left to blame for suffering and injustice, including the injustices perpetrated by the Church. But blame, merited or not, has never brought renewed life or hope, and the Church, with all its internecine conflicts, is badly in need of both new life and hope. It could even be said that the Church of England, in its more traditional form, has dropped below the critical mass needed for its very survival. It is for this reason that the idea of a takeover – Evangelical or otherwise, is frightening.

‘Takeover’ is really another word for conquest, and conquerors usually succeed in obliterating whoever they have conquered. ‘Takeover’ also resonates with the crude competitiveness of the market place, that whoever can occupy a coveted commercial space most quickly and efficiently is entitled to it. The church plant is legitimized in being quick and efficient. It appears to produce almost instantaneous results, so it is apparently worth a small amount of collateral damage in the shape of the people it displaces. By virtue of its success, the relevance, or irrelevance, of the plant takeover is no longer up for discussion.

But these two words are also deeply misleading. The idea of irrelevance is not an accurate description of the ways in which the Church can be found wanting. If the Church is seen to be irrelevant it is likely to be because the way that it goes about doing evangelism fails to connect with what matters to people, what we are all really yearning for, and which many people find it hard to give voice to. In other words, some way of naming, or giving meaning to, the concept of God.

The response to a perceived ‘takeover’ of the Church by Evangelicals is really an objection to the way one group appears to be taking it upon itself to name the unnameable for everyone else. Here, it has to be said that not all Evangelicals are sympathetic to church plants. There is also a sense of pressure and competitive hype driving certain kinds of worship and teaching which leaves some people feeling patronized, often to the point of exclusion. If you cannot join in the hymn or song, with its music, or with the theology it is expressing, you experience a sense of disconnect and exclusion and you are further disempowered in your desire to name and know the God whom you so deeply need.

This sense of disconnection and exclusion contributes to what Angela Tilby calls “existential distress.” Existential distress is the result of religious alienation. In the context of public worship, alienation is experienced as an inability to identify with those around you. The words being said or sung by a particular church do not express or connect with the fears and loneliness of the individual who may come from a different church background, or no church at all. They may even exacerbate them. This suggests that what is needed in all worshipping contexts is space in which to name our fears and own our loneliness, together and before God. At the more Catholic end of Anglican life, this is done implicitly through liturgy which draws the worshippers together into God. In Evangelical contexts a less formally defined and open way of praying does the same work, but more explicitly, so it requires greater self discipline in regard to how it affects others.

To this end, those who lead church worship must facilitate an encounter. They must enable those they serve to give shape to their need for God, as Jesus does with all those who ask the questions that really matter to them. A theologian visits him at night because he wants to know the real meaning of new life in the spirit. A woman is honoured in her genuine quest for truth as it is to be known in worship. Others, like Peter and Mary Magdalen, have few if any words for what is being revealed to them in a moment of profound understanding and relatedness with God. They simply “worship him”, as Peter did, or utter the name by which they know him best, as Mary Magdalene did in the garden of the Resurrection.

This is the relevance of connection with God that the Church of England, in both its Protestant and Catholic manifestations, so badly needs to have for the times we live in.

Testing Times

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Source: Eleanor Bentall Corbis

Public exams almost always coincide with the season of Pentecost although this year, given the early positioning of Easter, this happy coincidence may not quite happen. The official starting date for GCSE’s is the 14th of May, just a few days after the Feast of the Ascension and still a few days short of Pentecost.

University exams in the UK often coincide with the May bank holiday, or what used to be known as Whitsun, and with the first, and possibly only, summer weather. Trying to tell yourself that you’re revising when you are actually dozing in the sun leaves you feeling guilty, and even less confident about what you have understood than when you started. Added to this, some revisers will have been dreading the exam season since Christmas.

I have often found myself asking whether this kind of testing is really appropriate, whether it proves anything about a person’s innate intelligence, allowing for certain scientific disciplines, such as medicine and engineering, when it really is important that you know certain concrete facts, and how to go about establishing that they are correct. But do exams, for the most part, prove a person’s ability to stay task-focused and work to deadlines (important in any real-life working context), their usefulness and adaptability in terms of what subjects they have studied, and their general appearance of having some sort of a ‘grip’ on life as it is now, and on whatever it may have dealt them in the way of surprises, good or bad, so far? A brilliant person may have none of these attributes, even if they come away from their exams with a First or with straight A’s.

Another brilliant person, who has them all, may fail exams and thereby consider themselves to be a failure in life. They will live with the idea that their very existence is a mistake. The feeling of having failed as a person is one they will no doubt have had to live with since the first ‘put down’ experienced in childhood. ‘Put downs’, jokes taken too far, being marked out as different in even the most trivial detail of dress or personality, or of the weightier difference of gender orientation, sets a person up for failure long before they sit any exam. How then can such a person live?

Two things are needed here: First, that the idea of testing, which is always a narrow form of judgment, be re-assessed. Is it really the only criterion for deciding a person’s innate worth or suitability for a given profession or course of life? Second, that those who are sitting exams, and most of us have to at one time or another, know their own innate giftedness.

This is something they must ‘mark, learn, and inwardly digest’ (to borrow part of a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer) from the minute they open a book or a file of notes with a view to revising for exams. Laying hold of one’s giftedness is a form of prayer. It involves an ‘inward digesting’ of what might be called grace, or wisdom, a coming to terms with deep knowledge from within the hidden self. That hidden self is often where most of our goodness and giftedness lie, so we need to shed or remove the lies and delusions which obscure them from us when we are busy feeling afraid of failure, or giving into it. In other words, we have to ‘die’ to these often cherished delusions. This is probably best done while lying on that patch of grass in the sun – if the sun is still there, May being a fickle month. This being achieved, even if only for a nanogram of a second, it is time to return to those revision notes.

Those who have read this post so far may have noticed that I omitted a word from the phrase I quoted from the Book of Common Prayer. The full quote should be ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’. So now the reviser needs to pick up their notes and start ‘reading’ them in a different way. In order to do this, she or he will need to first give themselves permission to rediscover what they once loved about the subject (before their anxiety about exams took over), or about this particular aspect of it. We have to love what we are learning, or it will never become part of us and we shall never learn in the fullest sense.

If we can be open to our innate worth, our deeper intelligence, and to our belonging, where belonging means our fitness for the task set before us, we can begin to be a blessing to others. Passing exams is a part of this beginning and in certain chosen professions it is absolutely essential. But there is always something else that must come with it and that is the quiet confidence that we are already counted worthy, that there are things that we are chosen to do or become, but for which we may need qualifications. The qualification is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. That end, or purpose, is, for the moment, hidden in the life of God, where we are loved, honoured, and ‘enlivened’, which is perhaps why the exam season broadly coincides with Pentecost.

 

The Benefit of the Doubt

The notorious bombing of the abbey of Montecassino and its monastery in January, 1944 left 2000 casualties and 400 civilians dead. Delayed or wrong information contributed to this unnecessary massacre, but so did confused priorities. In the mayhem of battle it was assumed that the Germans were occupying the abbey, and firing from within its precincts, when they were in fact trying to defend it from outside and signalling to the allies that they did not wish to destroy it. The allies, misunderstanding the signals, bombed the abbey to destruction. Holding back on the bombing in order to save the monastery might, it was also thought, tie up allied forces in Italy when they would have been better placed in France. This particular hunch was correct, as it turned out. But did it justify the destruction?

Tactical questions are invariably best answered with the wisdom of hindsight, as are some ethical ones. I remember my mother saying that the loss of life and injury at Montecassino were worth it, and that she profoundly disagreed with someone who had declared that the life of a single GI was worth more than this particular heritage site. My sister and I were in the back of the car listening to the conversation, unaware of the facts and of the wider context. We were children and we found her response disturbing. I remember asking her, that if we had been among the dead or injured, would she still think that our lives were worth less than the survival of the abbey. “Yes”, she replied as, I suppose, we knew she would. I like to think that she did not know the full story of the muddle, mixed motives and undue haste which led to the attack on Montecassino and that she should perhaps be given the benefit of the doubt.

I am reminded of Montecassino, and of my mother’s response, when I think of Syria and the recent bombing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. I think of the mothers of those suffocating children, of the dead fathers and brothers, and of the ravished homes. I doubt any of them are thinking as my mother did. They are thinking of their dead children and of the ones still left to them, if they are lucky enough to have any.

I am a peacenik at heart but I cannot condemn the decision taken by Theresa May, even though I wish she had sought the support of parliament first. Her reasons for not doing so were probably a mixture of judicious expediency, time being of the essence, and of political self interest; she might have been voted down, and she owed one to the French and the Americans in any case.

At the same time, I find myself wondering if the Syrian mothers of small children are spending much time dwelling on these political nice-ities and on the desirability of due process. Perhaps they are thinking that if there were to be yet more bombs, let them at least aim at the evil of Assad’s weaponry and do so quickly, accurately and with no human collateral damage, all of which was accomplished. The mothers are probably hoping that this will end the war and rid them of the tyrant.

That is the hope in which we all share. But hope is not hope when it is tinged with cynicism, or compromised by doubt. By doubt I do not mean the questioning of means and methods, which have been deployed and which may or may not be justified in view of the ends sought. No one in a position of ‘last word, last resource’ decision-making can be expected to know for sure what is, or may be, the ‘right thing’ to do in such circumstances, but I think it is important to give them the benefit of whatever doubt there is, at least in regard to their own motives; that the ‘right thing’ is what they really want and that they are prepared to take political risks in order to bring it about.

There are times when the wisdom of hindsight belongs strictly to hindsight. In the case of the bombing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, the doubt seems weighted in Mrs. May’s favour.

 

 

 

The Why? Question

A great cosmologist dies and is buried on March 31st, Easter Eve, as it is kept by Western churches. For the Orthodox churches, Easter comes a week later. This year, partly due to the disparity which exists between the Eastern Julian calendar and the Western one, the Western celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation was moved to April 9th. It often falls in the latter part of Lent or in Holy Week itself. This year it would have fallen on Palm Sunday. So the Western church allows it to be a ‘moveable’ feast.

This year the Russian Orthodox church kept the feast of the Annunciation of the birth of Christ on Holy Saturday, the dark day of the tomb, while this year, in the West, it falls at the beginning of the second week of Easter itself. Either way, there is only the shortest of intervals between the sombreness of Holy Saturday, the exhaustion and joy of Easter and the day that we celebrate the becoming of the Word Incarnate. There is barely a moment between the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. All of this, as I said before, coincides with the passing of possibly the greatest cosmologist we have known.

Professor Hawking was somewhat ambivalent about God, at least the God of the bible, as many people read it. He was constantly being pressed for a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about God’s existence, but he declined to give an answer. This was probably because he knew that he was being asked the wrong question. His work, and the work of scientists before him, was more concerned with why there should be anything at all, let alone a consciously creating higher power. I think he was right. If scientists and theologians are going to make progress in making sense of the universe and of the meaning of human existence, the question which they, and the rest of us, need to ask is ‘why?’

When it comes to an answer, it will be those with the uncluttered minds of children who will probably supply it. I would hazard a guess that these are most likely to be poets, artists, and perhaps even priests. The latter is a risky guess, given the Church’s standing in the eyes of many people at the moment. But I do believe that there are priests, both official and unofficial, who minister into the world’s need to make sense of life. These ‘ministers’ do it through simply being present to its pain, both in prayer and in the business of everyday life, without succumbing to the urge to supply answers.

I also think it more likely that the question will be answered in its own asking. Somewhere there are connections to be made between the ‘why’s’ that are wept and sighed in the pain and suffering of the individual, and especially of the innocent, and the moment of the Incarnation of the Word in the acceptance of a young woman’s fiat. We get our answers through letting go into the question. Perhaps Professor Stephen Hawking did this, as he allowed for infinite possibilities in the cosmos and in the nature of existence itself.

I sometimes wonder if cosmologists think of the question, and its possible answer, as hovering somewhere between the contingency of new life, its dependence on Mary’s ‘yes’, and the Cross as the gateway to eternal life, which we only know as death. Professor Stephen Hawking’s funeral took place on Holy Saturday, coincidentally the Orthodox feast of the Annunciation. So the day of his funeral marked the first ‘letting be’ and the last, the day after the final ‘letting be of Christ’, and the ‘why?’ question which Jesus spoke from the Cross, the place where human destiny is transformed.

Professor Stephen Hawking’s funeral took place on a day when the alpha and the omega meet, when a young woman’s fiat meets the summation of all life in her Son’s commending of his spirit to the Father and in his own ‘why?’ question. I wonder what Stephen Hawking is making of this dual contingency, coincidentally reflected in the timing of his own death.

 

 

True Resurrection

If you are someone who has to speak publicly about the events of Good Friday, and if you have done that with integrity and the conviction of faith, you will be feeling pretty wrung out by Saturday morning. A single day, the day we call Holy Saturday, is hardly enough time to gather shattered emotions together and turn a numb brain towards thoughts of the Resurrection, but it must be done, and it must be done with as much conviction as anything that was said on Friday.

The difficulty with speaking about the Resurrection lies not in its literal truth, but in the conviction of faith held by the one doing the speaking. Conviction has very little to do with belief. You can believe or not, as you choose. With conviction, the choice is made for you. In terms of doing theology, conviction is what shapes the message and drives the work. But by conviction, I do not mean trying to put across something that we don’t really believe in in a way that sounds convincing. It doesn’t even begin with trying to convict ourselves. Conviction is not about persuading ourselves, or anyone else, that something is true. Conviction lays hold of a person. It is not something we decide to do or become, either intellectually, or for that matter, spiritually, although it does entail a certain ‘assent’ in both these areas.

This begs a question. In the light of what empirical evidence, some of it dubious, that has been garnered over the centuries for the physical resurrection of Christ not having taken place at all, what are we to make of the event, for ourselves, as well as for others? Any number of arguments can be put forward in defence of its not having taken place. Some of these border on the absurd, such as the idea that Jesus having somehow survived the torture and the piercing with the soldier’s spear, was taken down from the Cross and then disappeared to India with Mary Magdalene. There are, for sure, slight variations in the gospel accounts, but these neither prove nor disprove the Resurrection having taken place. The altercations that have been around for centuries concerning this topic suggest, then, that something more is needed than simply believing, or proving, that the event was categorically true. Even if it could be proved categorically, it is part of a far wider salvation story, enmeshed in other stories, so if it is true, it is true on more than one level.

For those who have known its truth at a different level than simple belief, the Resurrection of Christ is pivotal. Without it, Christianity makes no sense and, as St. Paul suggests, we are no better off, than we were before God ever involved himself with the human predicament (a loose definition of ‘sin’) in the person of his Son. The categorical truth of something – of an event or of a related story, for example, does not invariably stop at the point where what we are talking about ceases to be a matter of whether or not particular words were spoken, or a particular event happened.

This is especially important in regard to how we read scripture. There are plenty of stories in the Old Testament which are true but unlikely to have taken place in precisely the way described, if at all. All reporting, all story writing, needs to be placed in a context which makes sense to the reader of the time. The real truth about the Resurrection, the test of its veracity, does not only consist in its having taken place. The most important thing about it is that it is still going on all around us. The truth is still going on for us in our time.

But to return to the issue as categorical truth, however we choose to read the Gospels of John and Matthew, it seems that there were other people involved in the event. Even if they were not conscious in the moment it took place – the stunned soldiers for example. Also, something was said. A verbal exchange took place between Christ and Mary Magdalene. The greeting, and Mary’s response, takes us beyond the empirical, or propositional truth of that moment because of the way it was said.

When our name is called by someone we love and trust and who knows us well, it resonates with our true self. In the case of the exchange which took place between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene, the words suggest a kind of mutual knowing. The greeting took on an altogether different significance, and greater depth, than it would have done when he spoke it before he was crucified, as we sense he must have done on many occasions.

In these kind of exchanges it is not only what is said that matters, but how it is said and under what circumstances. These are in turn shaped by mood and possibly a person’s general state of health. Mary would have been both emotionally and physically exhausted. If the tomb really had been robbed, she would have had neither the physical strength or the reserves of courage needed to go and complain to the authorities, so, understandably, she appeals to the gardener. The ‘gardener’ does not proffer any useful information, or even offer assistance. He simply calls her by name, in a voice she has always known. He is unrecognizable at one level, disguised as a gardener, and yet profoundly recognizable at another.

What strikes me about this moment of truth is that he calls her by name in a quite normal way, not sounding broken or weird, as if he were a ghost or a hallucination. Neither does Mary’s response suggest she is afraid. He is simply fully and completely there in the fullness of the moment, a moment which is for all time. Part of the problem we have with the truth of the Resurrection is that it is often hard to see it as a reality with cosmic significance – of one particular time, one specific moment, but for all time, all moments, up to and including this one.

Perhaps the best way to verify the truth of the Resurrection is to seize this moment, as it belongs to that other moment, and hear the voice calling us by name – and answer…?

Judas

Betrayal is anachronistic. It is all about lies, and yet at the heart of the moment lies a kind of truth. Whatever form betrayal takes, the person being betrayed experiences something like shame – naked exposure, perhaps. In the moment of betrayal that person is defenceless, without ‘cover’ of any kind. They look and feel foolish because they have trusted their betrayer. It is their own trust which makes them feel defenceless and ashamed as much as the act of betrayal itself.

The one betraying, whatever their reason for doing so, needs to justify the lies involved and the pain caused by more lies. They must justify it to themselves, so that the betrayal seems in some way ‘necessary’ and therefore not of their choosing. “I had to do it” they will say. “I had no choice”. Apart from justifying the moment, or the act, they must maintain their integrity, at least to themselves, by distancing themselves from any direct responsibility for the damage they have done, and thereby exonerating themselves from being held in any way accountable for it.

All of this is the stuff of politics, of international relations, of the life of the Church and of our own experiences of betrayal, as victim or perpetrator. One could say that it is a universal principle, but it is also complex. Take, for example, corruption or betrayal in institutions whose integrity we need to take for granted, we need to trust; the fiddling of party election expenses (and in some countries the election process itself), police pay-offs for saying nothing in the context of organised crime relating to the grooming of young people for sex, the treatment of people held in police custody (especially if they are black), the power games and personal betrayals (both public and private) of government, sexual exploitation and cover up by the institutional Church along with the countless glossed-over betrayals of loyal and faithful clergy who have served it in good faith, often for years.

Betrayal leaves us dealing with truths we would perhaps rather not face because in the moment of betrayal we see ourselves and others differently. Two such moments occur within a very short space of time in the final hours of the life of Jesus. Neither came as a surprise, but that did not make the betrayal easier to bear. The first took place in a garden at night where one of his own friends shopped him to the religious police. His friend identified him with a kiss.

Betrayal so often comes masquerading as love. ‘I did this or said that because I love you.’ Or ‘I behaved in that way, but you know I really love you.’ Both are lies, of course. We do not harm others because we love them, no matter how justifiable the action may seem to be at the time. We do not abuse trust by exposing another to pain.

Judas was trying to force Jesus’s hand politically. He was prepared to take the risk of his master’s suffering (which Judas may have imagined would somehow be averted at the last minute) to turn Jesus into what he ‘should’ have been. It was about control and manipulation.

The control or manipulation of others, especially those who trust us, is always betrayal. In the moment of the kiss Judas knows that Jesus also knows the truth of the situation, and the truth about Judas. Jesus has known it for a long time in allowing Judas to be what he was, a pilferer of the common purse who had got his priorities all wrong.

Then there was the incident in the courtyard later that night, or possibly early the next morning. Peter, nicknamed ‘the rock’, the one who could be trusted, denies ever having known his closest friend. This moment, held in the meeting of their eyes as the cockerel crowed for the third time, also held every lie that has ever been told for the sake of saving one’s own life or reputation at the expense of the life or reputation of another.

The two moments I have just described are seminal. They are the soil in which the reversal of all betrayals germinates and takes root. Both reveal divine love at its source. They also reveal what that love looks and feels like. It looks like vulnerability and trust. In these two moments Jesus invites us not to look away, not to hide from our betrayals, or from the lies we have lived with for years, but to look quietly and bravely into his eyes, not asking for anything, but simply allowing ourselves to be seen, forgiven and healed.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

The ‘nones’ (those who, when responding to surveys, tick ‘none’ in the box marked ‘religion’ but who might possibly tick C of E if pressed) need look no further for a home. Bishop David Jenkins, that prophet of our time, once was heard to declare that God is not interested in the Church. God is all about the Kingdom.

It follows that if and when we stumble upon the Kingdom in the context of the Church, we do not need to look further to find God. The problem lies in defining the Kingdom, if such a thing is definable. You could say the same thing about the Church. It is not easy to describe what the Church is, still less what it ought to be, if it is to be true to its Kingdom calling.

The original commission to go out and make disciples has acquired a rather hollow tone, given the Church’s history of conquest and forced conversion, not to mention prejudice and plain hatred. But the kernel of truth remains at the heart of its true calling. If the Church is called to be anything at all, it is called to offer to the world the peace which only God can bring, the peace of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church is called to embody that peace. Peace is its garment, and peace is the substance of its members, the body it clothes. The Church is called to give that body to the world, as Christ gave his.

The Church cannot simply talk about peace in rather abstract terms overlaid with the clothing of piety. We need to tend the hurt body lest we be accused, like the Emperor who failed to realise that he had no clothes, of being completely naked.

The build-up of hurt, the collective betrayals, untruths and resistance to the goodness and giftedness in people, and its resistance to healing, make it difficult for the Church to truly embody peace. As with any physical body, allowing wounds to fester can render them life threatening. Could it be that this is what is happening in the life of the institutional Church? We keep knocking each other’s old wounds without pausing to consider the damage. We are more concerned with filling our churches and with preventing them from falling into disrepair than we are about healing the hurts which we inflict on ourselves.

At the more traditional end of the Church, we hide complacently behind beautiful but arcane (in the minds of many) liturgy, clerical dress and the kind of managerialism which consists mainly of moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. At the other end lies a mixture of naïveté and hubris, a blinkered reading of scripture which often goes with an implicit sense of superiority in regard to other faiths, or even other Christians. Neither of these scenarios provides a setting in which the ‘nones’ are likely to meet God in his Christ.

What is needed is for the Church to take ‘time out’, a couple of years’ sabbatical perhaps, on order to focus prayerfully and pastorally on its relationships, especially on those which relate to authority and to the pastoral care of its people, clergy and laity alike. During this sabbatical, those with the most power and authority would be subject to those with the least. In the current hierarchical and still patriarchal system, such a reversal of order could help to break down existing power blocks and help us all identify where true authority lies. So it is those with authority and power who must begin this re-structuring work of peace-making in the Church, because peace-making is both the mandate and the sign of true leadership.

Peace-making in the Churcb will entail the hard practical work of seeking forgiveness and the bridge-building which will follow. It will be hard because it will first require that everything that is not of love be burned away. Love must do the burning. This, incidentally, comes as close as it gets to a definition of hell. The fire of hell is the burning fire of love. Hell is hell insofar as it is the conflagration of consuming love, love burning up all the petty hatreds of life in community.

But the institutional Church as we know it is not all bad news. There are acts of heroic self giving which pass unnoticed in its life. Priests who minister in and for the love of Christ, and whose work is largely ignored by the Church’s critics, embody the healing fires of love. Their work endures in the hearts of those whose lives they have touched. Bishops who are true to their calling as peace-makers and as pastors to their clergy do the same. It will, nevertheless, take time for the Church to be transformed in such a way as to make the ‘nones’ want to tick a different box, but I am convinced that it will happen. Such is the nature of the faith we proclaim, that we will be changed ‘in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye’.