Monday, 8 April 2013

Why I won't be celebrating tonight

I've come out of hiding, briefly, to comment on what is a monumentally important day for our country. Many have awaited the day of her death for many years, and undoubtedly there will be those cheering in the streets tonight, and some even lining up for a chance to dance on her grave.

I am, I must admit, one of the millions who despised her. I believe that, though I was certainly too young to have known Britain during her time in office, I felt the repercussions of her decisions, I lived through the poverty my family were forced into, and I felt the despair of my parents searching and seeing no way out. I have no way of knowing if the abuse that took place in my family home would have occurred without the constant financial stress, I have no way of knowing if my parents marriage would have deteriorated as quickly and as toxically had they not had to fight for survival the way that they did, had they not had to make the choice between heating or food on a regular basis. I know some will think it ludicrous to even suggest such a thing, but last week I listened to people suggest that six children were killed because their father was on benefits, so it seems all things are up for grabs. All I know is that, despite many calling out "you weren't even there", I feel that I have inherited the right to comment, inherited the right to hate what she did to me and my family.

Despite all this, however, there will be no champagne corks popping in my living room this evening (and not just because I'm pregnant), just as I was not amongst those who celebrated when we "got Osama". I hope there will never come a day when I celebrate the death of another human being. I was genuinely heartened today to see the moderate, respectful and compassionate words being used by Facebook 'friends' in regard to her death. Though many have more cause than me to hate her, on the whole, I am proud to say, my associates' messages were those of respect for a woman's life, and concern for her family.

But that isn't the only reason I shan't be calling up my friends for an impromptu celebration. The legacy of her government has by no means died with her. I am, it has been reported, part of the first generation since World War II to face a worse lot than our parents. Cuts to welfare, disability allowance, tax credits, a tax on bedrooms as ridiculous and unfair as the poll tax she herself introduced, few prospects of buying an affordable house and even fewer prospects of being approved for a mortgage, all seem to make for an extremely scary world into which I am soon to bring my child.

I will not be celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher this evening because I know, along with many others who hold on to the tarnished reputation of being 'left wing', that the death of Thatcher was never what any of us wanted or needed. While Thatcherism is still the dominating influence for the country's economic policy, while more children are plunged needlessly into crippling poverty in the name of austerity, while more families are left without hope of working their way out, none of us has any reason to celebrate.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What is Church?

It's been an extraordinarily long time since my last post... I wonder if I remember how to do it? I can only apologise for my absence in the blogging world, I've been trying very hard to concentrate on a piece of work that I'm doing for my NAM (Newly Accredited Minister) studies. In fact, the only reason I'm allowing myself and brief repartee to write this post now, is that I'm going to write about my essay.

You see, I'm stuck. I didn't give myself the most specific topic in the world, but I had in mind the specific area I wanted to write about. So I've been trying to answer the question "What is Church?"
Broadly, that doesn't seem like too difficult a question to answer; I can hear you all now saying things like "Church is the people of God", or "Church is the sacred act of worship", or "Church is that really dull place that my Grandma used to take me". And the truth is, none of you would be wrong. But that's not quite what I'm getting at.

When we walk into the sacred space, we each come with our own set of expectations. And despite what we may think, these expectations don’t differ a great deal from person to person; very often they are simply degrees of the same thing. Some may feel more comfortable with an hour long expository sermon, for example, while others prefer a discussion approach, while still others are looking for something more interactive, kinaesthetic experience. On the surface these seem like different expectations, but in reality, all of these are expecting some form of teaching. Similarly, it is important for some to spend the first forty minutes of a service singing worship songs, led by a group of talented musicians in order to get ‘lost in worship’, whereas others require the robust theology found in the hymns of old, and others still find their peace in singing the great Psalms. All have an expectation of sung worship. Again, some enter the sacred space with a desire to speak the words that are familiar to them, to follow a liturgy that is well used and well known, while others expect to be led in extempore prayer, drawing on the emotions that have been built up in the preceding song, and others find the church service to be a place where the silence pervades, and their conversation with God can be personal and self-governed.

Now I suppose why it is that we have come to expect these things from "Church" is by the by (or at least the work of another section of this essay). The question I seek to answer is what, of this very long list of things that we have come to expect from church the world over, is actually non-negotiable. By which I mean, what are the things that we cannot throw away, we cannot strip back, without losing the very essence of “Church”. In some sense we live in a culture today in which all things are up for grabs. Generation ‘Y’ is a seeking generation, experimental, questioning, technological, sceptical and politically disillusioned. I'm not totally convinced that they are looking for the kind of structure that "Church" in this rigid form offers. I don't have any answers for this, and to be honest, I don't believe that there's just going to be some model that we can all copy which will rectify the problem once and for all. But I get the feeling that if we want to connect with Generation Y, it's going to be important to think like them (which is somewhat easier for me, being a part of that generation myself), and we're going to have to do church in a way that works with some of those attributes.

At EBC we recently opened a Craft Cafe. A bunch of us (some Christian, some not) get together, enjoy some home-cooked food (thanks to my good friend Tracy, who is a much better cook than I), have a chat over a brew, and get creative. Most of us are addicted to pinterest, so we usually just experiment with things we've seen on there. And we talk. We talk about all sorts of things; the news, our health (several of us suffer from depression, bi-polar and other mental health issues), our families, our neighbours, and very often we talk about where God fits into all of that mess. We don't sing, we don't pray, and we don't read the bible. But I can't shake the feeling that on a Friday afternoon, we're doing church. So far, though, no one agrees with me. At best it has been described as a stepping stone to church, like an Alpha course, to get people interested in coming to church. Except (and I probably shouldn't admit this), I don't really aim to get them to come on Sundays, because what we have at that cafe each Friday... works. It's relevant, and interesting, and fluid. 

Could it be that this is as much an expression of Church as St Paul's Cathedral, or St Aloysius Oratory, or Bloomsbury Baptist Church, or Spring Harvest? If the answer is yes, then it would seem that pretty much everything is up for grabs, and what gets the label "church" is much less obvious than we first would have imagined. If the answer is no, then I can't help but feel that the "Missing Generation" are going to be permanently AWOL.


Monday, 7 May 2012

Some thoughts on assembly

Well it's been a rather long weekend, and I'm still not quite back in the valley up north, but during my short stop over in Birmingham, I thought I'd spend some time reflecting on my second Baptist Assembly. I'm sure I'm just adding to many others out there already, and for what it's worth, Andy Goodliff has written much of what I want to say in his own post (here), but I hope that by echoing some of what he's said, the appropriate people might take notice, and see that those young people that the assembly wishes to engage and listen to, are indeed sharing their opinions.



  • Firstly, I too wish to express my disappointment at the 'bookshop' at assembly. What a load of claptrap. To find Wayne Grudem sitting on the shelves at our annual gathering whilst the union is trying to affirm women in ministry seems to send mixed messages to me. Are we encouraging our ministers in particular, and our churches in general, to read theology, to read about their baptist history, to read the work their baptist colleagues are writing? Or are we just wheeling out the crowd pleasing rubbish that doesn't really challenge anyone to think too hard about anything?

  • I know it's going to be unpopular, but what's the deal with Tony Campolo? He was a stand up comedian at best. And he wasn't funny to anyone under the age of 30. Seriously, don't make the point in one breath that more young people should come to assembly, and those young people should share the main services, and then in the next breath invite Tony Campolo to speak. Perhaps the reason younger people (young ministers especially) aren't interested in assembly is because we're still interested in the bible and in theology, and it seems to me that assembly doesn't seem too worried about engaging with that. Ironically, I think it was Tony Campolo that decided it was ludicrous for the young people to have a separate meeting. Hilarious.

  • It gets my back up when people complain about the futures process. Mainly because I've been following it quite closely and so it's become an issue that's quite close to my heart. I know I'm privileged to have access to a computer, and being in my 20s means that I can use all the technology needed to access as much information as is out there. And I get that some people feel that it's not that easy for them or their churches to get the information. The thing is, like many others, I'm the minister of an older congregation, many of whom are not on the internet and don't have computers. And yet my congregation know what's going on with the Union; they know about the deficit, they know there's discussions going on about the reshaping of the Union, they know that associations are going to look different soon, they know that Didcot will be shrinking, they know Home Mission grants will be changing. They know all this, not because of the internet, not because of the (excellent) beyond 400 blog, not because of Phil Jump's regular emailed updates and prayer calls, and not because the BUGB website has published all the papers and conversations on their website (though all of these things are helpful, and have been made available to them). They know what's going on because I talk about it. All the time. I tell them where things are and where things are going. I let them know what I've heard and what's being said. And I ask them what they think. Because if I'm talking to them about it, when they surveys come round, we can fill them in, together, and have some sort of consensus about what we think about all of this as a church. I can't help but feel if a church doesn't know what's going on, it's more of a reflection on the minister, rather than the futures group.

  • Not a big fan of the day conferences. Not because the one I went to wasn't engaging and interesting (it really was - the Whitley lecture was as excellent as always), but because it meant there was a lack of space. There wasn't time for conversation with others. Between Saturday being taken up by your choice of conference, and finishing on Sunday evening rather than Monday morning, it felt like there wasn't a lot of time to reflect on what was being said/heard. I think I'd prefer to go with the shorter and more varied options, allowing people to dip in and out during the day.

  • The lack of time to converse meant that I actually really appreciated the tweeting. It meant I was able to hear the opinions and thoughts of people in real time, who were sitting on the other side of the room. If we're going to pack that much into the weekend, I think it might be wise to keep some kind of virtual conversation going. However, I would prefer it if we didn't have to substitute real conversation with tweeting. Given the choice, I think I'd rather have the have the space to talk to other people in reality, rather than tweeting.

  • I think on paper London was a really good idea, but in practice it was a bit of a disaster. It was way out of our price range as a church, which meant we had to stay in a youth hostel. It was pretty disgusting, but we took the hit because we feel it's really important for the church to be represented at assembly. I got slightly annoyed at people talking about churches not coming to assembly, when it was a massive sacrifice for smaller churches north of Birmingham to be there. Travel was expensive, accommodation was expensive, food was expensive. And it was faaaaar. 2 hours from Rossendale to Tamworth (to drop the dog at the in-laws), 3 hours from Tamworth to London. Another hour from the station to where we were staying. I was tired before we'd even started the Assembly! Some of the other guys from the valley flew. Our budget didn't stretch to that. I don't know if there were people there who came from further north than East Lancs, but if they did, kudos to them, cause I'm not going again if it's in London.

  • Aradhna was awesome. I'm so impressed that assembly had them. More of that. I would have preferred that to Noel Robinson and his band. The band were great, but I'd like to see us stretch ourselves to learn new things and open ourselves to new experiences more often, rather than singing the same songs ad infinitum. And seriously, what's the thing with repeating lines and choruses of songs for ever and ever amen? It doesn't get more holy the more you sing it. You wanna know what'll get the youth interested? Aradhna. Something that's a bit different. Music that's an experience. We're a generation looking for spirituality, we're a generation that travels, and wants a connection with different cultures. More of that please.

  • This was the last George Beasley Murray lecture. I have nothing to say except how sad that it. And I really, truly hope that it'll be replaced by something equally as engaging and informative, which still gives voice to our brightest and best Baptist theologians.

Anyway, I think that's quite enough of that. I can only hope that after sitting through an entire session of people saying there weren't any young people present, and we need to hear the voices of the under 30's (must admit that was a little disenfranchising), that we'll actually do something about that, and  some people will start listening to those of us in the union who are screaming at the top of our lungs.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Happy Birthday Paul

Recently, Andy Goodliff published a blog post which attempted to compile a list of Baptist saints (if you haven't read it, you can find it here). It was a rather fun exercise in Baptist History and Heritage, and one thing Andy is excellent at is making that particular subject compelling. It got me thinking, at the time, about those Baptists that, for me, stand out as history makers, influencers, and indeed, true Baptist heroes. Obviously, there are some names that immediately spring to mind. Who can deny that Martin Luther King or Charles Spurgeon were truly great baptist men? And of course, for me, Violet Hedger, the first female to train for Baptist ministry in the UK had to be included in the list. John Smyth, our Baptist 'father' must be included, William Carey, Andrew Fuller, the list goes on.


But today, Baptists around the country should come together to celebrate the birthday of a man, who in a hundred years time will have left such a lasting impression that to exclude his name from this list would be nigh impossible. Today is the 65th birthday of Baptist theologian (and former principal of the college I attended) Professor Paul Fiddes. He is not simply one of the most renowned Baptist scholars of today; his contributions to Christian writing and scholarship would be difficult to parallel. And today I wish to add my voice to so many others (Andy Goodliff, Simon Woodman, Sean Winter, Louise Polhill, and Catriona Gorton to name a few) in wishing Paul a very happy birthday, and thanking him for his work, his effort, and his influence. I genuinely count myself as extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to study under his guidance.


Many people have already given some of their favourite quotes from Paul' works. The one I'd like to add to the pile comes from a chapter that Paul contributed to a book he edited; "Faith in the Centre", which has been a crucial part of my own formation and ministry:


The story [to which the Christian church bears witness] then is the result of meeting this speaking God in many times and places. It is the pattern that the community of God's people places upon the meetings of God with Abraham in the pains of Ur, with Moses at the burning bush, with prophets in the temple sanctuary out in the wilderness, with wise men in their schoolrooms, with people in the triumphant experience of exodus and in the despair of exile. Finally the story is shaped by meeting with God in the face of Jesus Christ, on the dusty roads of Galilee, at the humiliation of the cross in Jerusalem, and in the unconfined fellowship meals with the risen Lord. The story is human response to revelation, inspired by the Spirit of God. The story is also the place where God's people can encounter God again even as they tell it; the telling of the story is a rendez-vous with the God who desires to be open to us and draw us into the fellowship of God's own life.
As the church reflected upon this story it re-told it in a more doctrinal form, in the shape of the Trinity. The story was nothing less than God's mission from eternity; it was the story of the Father sending forth the Son into the turmoil of human history at a particular moment in the person of Jesus, and the gathering into God of many sons and daughters through the persuasion of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is the greatest story of all, the supreme meta-narrative.
The church of Christ therefore has a culture, which takes form in a structure of words. The story has come into being in a particular language, in particular places. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, the Christian community offers a 'plausibility structure' for explaining the world, as all cultures do. It has its own way of linking events together into a coherent whole, in which it finds hope for the future.
Paul Fiddes (ed.), Faith in the Centure: Christianity and Culture. Oxford: Regent's Park College. 2001, pp 79-80.
Happy birthday Paul, and thank you for sharing your inspiration with us so often, and so beautifully. 



Friday, 10 February 2012

What is leadership?

Recent events in my life have led me to question what it means to be an effective leader. After all, isn't that what I'm supposed to be - a leader? And an effective one, at that?
At church last Sunday we had an exercise which was not about leadership per say, but threw up a lot of questions about leadership in general, and, of course, my leadership in particular. The activity was an attempt to begin looking at the vision and mission of our church in Edgeside. To begin with we watched the following video:



After watching the video, the church split into three groups to try and pull apart what the video was saying and how we felt it might or might not relate to our mission in Edgeside.
And I found that, interestingly, the views were polarised into two clear groups. One group felt very strongly that a both/and approach needed to be used, that mission must happen both inside and outside of the church building, and that it is important that we work together as a team, minister and congregation, to do this.

The other group, however, (and I must stress that I was very clear that there were no wrong answers) were adamant that the church's mission was to draw people into the church, and get bums on seats, and most importantly, that doing that was my job as minister and leader of the church. Again, let me stress that I'm not make snap judgements about right and wrong here, merely opening the question as to what it means to be a leader in the church.

Because the truth is, that second option is really quite appealing to me. It means that the boundaries of my job are very clear. I'll know what success looks like, because I'll be counting my numbers (and the pennies in the collection plate) each week. I'll know to spend my time working on projects that bring people to church on a Sunday, on door knocking and leafleting and marketing. Our lovely new website (www.edgesidebaptist.co.uk), and the beautiful posters we make can be evidenced as me doing my job. How wonderfully easy that sounds. And even better than that, it means I don't really have to equip my congregation to do anything. I don't have to try and empower anyone, or relinquish control over anything. The most I need to ask of them is to take a few leaflets each week and push them through some letter boxes. Other than that, I can just do my own thing, and hope people follow. Simples.

But as I turn that prospect over in my head, I can't help but feel uneasy about it. Beth Alison's recent post on the beyond 400 blog (if you haven't read it, you can find it here: http://www.beyond400.net/entry/11-why-i-am-a-baptist) tries to explain something of what it means to choose to be a baptist, to be a part of this strange denomination of independent and interdependent local churches. As I reflect on what she's said, I can't help but be reminded of the reasons that I am a baptist, and primarily that is the church meeting, a place where any member of the church can speak and be heard, where the people of a local church come together and try to discern the will of God for themselves.

It strikes me then, that perhaps to be an effective "leader" of that church means being a bit backwards. I don't get to do my thing and try and get people to follow along and join in. Instead the emphasis gets turned, and my job begins to look a lot harder. Instead I have to help the congregation to articulate the direction that they need to go. Instead I have to help the people of the church find confidence in their own dreams and vision. Which means I have to relinquish control, and try to stretch the imaginations of the people who rely on me to dream for them.

So what does does it mean to be an "effective leader"? Well, as far as I can tell it means faith, obedience, and the ability to know when to lead and when to follow.

Monday, 30 January 2012

40 Beyond 400

There's a very interesting project going on at the moment within Baptist circles, in which 40 baptists from all over the country, and from very different situations are being asked to write a short reflection on the future of the Baptist Union. If the Baptist Union wasn't in a great deal of financial difficulty right now, I suspect this project wouldn't have happened, but I'm not convinced it wouldn't have needed it anyway. I think, if I've gathered it correctly, the point it to creatively reimagine a union for the future; to ask questions about our current structures and to prophetically create a picture of the BU which respects our 400 year history and sets us in good stead for the next 400 years!

I was privileged enough to be one of the 40 who was asked to contribute, and terrifyingly discovered that I would be among the first few to offer my thoughts. However, I am incapable of doing anything in a straight-forward manner, so I decided to write a poem, which attempted to encompass some of the questions I have about the way individual churches and the Union as a whole operates, and imagine a way forward from here. There was some extremely robust discussion surrounding it, for which I am thankful. I've copied the poem below, and hope that this might encourage those who are not a part of the Baptist Church, indeed not a part of the church at all, to join in a conversation about what church looks like today, and what it should look like in the future.


The fact is, at my tender age, I grew up on a different page
I don’t come from a position of tradition or division
Christianity is relatively new to me
But clearly something made me say “Hey, I like the Baptist Way”
Some people may not agree with me, my delivery or the way I see it
Cause I’m not inclined to grieve what is lost if all that is lost is how much it will cost
For this project or that – is that our way of giving back?
People feel like they’re the one nobody cares about
Maybe we could just be there to try and hear them out
Do we really listen to all the pain and the derision?
Do we then take the decision that a group will solve it all?
Is it mission or ambition that makes us count every baptism,
Every seat filled with another… Jesus lover or something other?
Maybe if we’re listening our witnessing won’t look like we’re trying hard at fitting in.
When we look at making changes are we doing it in stages?
When did minister become synonymous with leader?
Cause I thought our leadership came from the Teacher
When did doctrine become synonymous with dogma?
Because I thought my call came from God the Father
Are we open to being Spirit Led?
Or are we limited to being Sunday-fed.
Is this what Smyth and Helwys meant? Have we forgotten about dissent?
Does the extent of our dissent come down to being hell bent on voting rights
Who’s in, who’s out and if we have any doubt?
Can we have the tricky conversations about ‘sticky situations’?
Can we affirm what went before, but move towards a different door?
And on the other side we might find an open mind to other nations, relations, orientations
Building reconciliations to those whose beliefs bring us grief.
Maybe a Union of the future would facilitate hate for intolerance and love for the other
Maybe a Union of the future would not put themselves above us
But hear voices from the margins because that’s where Jesus stood and if I could I would
Want to listen to diversity not just you and me who studied Moltmann’s philosophy
Yet when I look at who shapes us it’s the same old faces
It’s the voices that I’ve heard before pointing towards the same old doors
We talk about priesthood of all believers; that God speaks through whom God will
But still do we hear those whom we fear, or steer clear of potential controversy?
The tree of Jesse grew out of a stump
Yet when it comes to inspiration, is the best we can do *Phil Jump?
To single out the names of people who can ‘lead’, succeed, exceed every standardised test,
Is that what’s best? What about the rest?
Who holds the Union up? The academics or the ones who make the cup
Of tea or coffee for the likes of you and me?
If we’re looking for a future that is brand new and improved, maybe it’s our attitude
Must we talk about ingratitude?
Maybe in our conversation we need a little variation
Could it be our idea to be here, to be a listening ear,
And not provide answers but ask the right questions?
Perhaps in all this confusion we could kill the institution and stay true to the movement
Moving forward a little more would give us room for the improvement
That is needed to succeed and find the future that we need.


So join in. Church isn't what it's supposed to be. We've messed it up in a whole host of ways - how do we go about redeeming it, and bringing it back to being a community of liberators, empowerers and radicals?


*Phil Jump, Regional Minister of the North Western Baptist Association (and all round stand up guy) has given permission for his name to be used.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Darkness

I was sitting alone, in the dark. In front of me I could see nothing, save for my breath misting out before my eyes in the cold air. There was an emptiness about this place, a feeling I couldn't shake. I didn't want to be alone. I didn't want to be in the dark.

I sat for some minutes. Too afraid to stand, too afraid to move. And after a while, there was a voice. At first I wondered if it had been my imagination, for it was so low I could barely hear it. But as the seconds wore on, the voice steadily grew louder, or at least, I found myself more able to hear it. At first I was unable to make out the words, but could hear there was a sweetness to it, and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It was velvety, luxurious, golden. As it got clearer I could make out the words. "Follow me" it said. "Follow me and I will switch the light on for you. Follow me and I will switch the light on and you will know all things. Follow me and I will show you the truth. All you need to do is follow"

As I was about to stand I heard another sound, a different voice becoming clear in the oppressive silence. This was different from the last; hard and coarse and strong like an un-plained piece of wood. It was saying something different. "I'm not asking you to follow me," it said "and I can't provide a light for you to see. But I can promise to always hold your hand and walk through the darkness with you."

So there I was, faced with two choices. To follow in the light, or to be accompanied in the dark. Slowly, I held out my hand. Just as I was wondering if I should say something (for how would the voices know which I'd chosen?), a rough hand grasped mine. Its skin was hard, like that of a workman, and yet I found it strangely comforting. We walked together for some time, chattering often at first, but then after a while we walked in silence more and more. As I stumbled and felt my way through the darkness, hand in hand with this... stranger, I wondered if I'd made the right decision. I asked the voice regularly why it wouldn't switch the light on. "The other voice offered me light... why did I choose this darkness?" I would ask.

More and more, as the days went on, I argued with the voice, resenting it for keeping me in the dark, asking what truth it was keeping from me that the other voice had offered.

Finally one day I snapped. Unable to take the overbearing darkness any more, I stopped, and demanded to know why it was necessary to walk in the dark, what truth it was that was being kept from me.

The voice was quiet for a moment. I held my breath, and realised how terrified I was that the voice would leave me. "You wish for me to tell you the truth?" the voice asked me. "I have walked with you hand in hand in the darkness all this time because the truth is, my friend, the light is already on."