Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Faith foundations and dedicated dialogue

Something strange happened today. I went to a meeting. Okay, that's not particularly strange at all, since my life seems to be made up completely of meetings and making the most of the time in between. What was strange, however, was that I went to the meeting as a brand new member, having never met the majority of the people involved, and left as the chair of the group.

I'm somewhat unsure how it happened. I was asked last week by a fellow minister if I'd like to come along to meeting of the interfaith partnership in Rossendale (RFP). I was encouraged to hear that such a thing existed, and so jumped at the chance to meet some of the members of the large Muslim community here.

So off I went this evening, expecting... well, I don't know what I was expecting really. Whatever my expectations were, I found myself surprised when I arrived. It was a small room, but then as there were only 6 of us, it didn't matter a whole lot. There was 1 member of the local Muslim community present, the chair(a Methodist), the vice-chair (an Anglican), an Anglican minister, a member of the local community partnership trust who was there for support, and myself. The meeting began by the chairwoman announcing her resignation. The meeting had an air of tiredness, which was freely admitted by the members. In the busy lives of those in church leadership, they explained, interfaith work very often falls to the bottom of the list of priorities, and when it is done, it is done with the last modicum of energy that they can muster.

We moved on to discuss the annual interfaith walk, an event where each year between 50-100 people come together in dialogue, walk around the valley and end with a celebration of food and fun. As we discussed this, the group started talking about other events that had gone on in the past, the tireless micro-level relationships that had been nurtured, visits to one another's places of worship, meals together, conversations, youth work, and so much more. During that discussion there were real glimpses of glory, moments when I could see all its potential and all of the hard work that had gone into it.

So when the chairwoman explained that she was resigning due to her lack of energy, and that she felt the group needed an injection of enthusiasm that it wasn't likely to get, and that we would probably have to come to terms with this being the end for the partnership, I wasn't quite able to let it go.

So here I am. Fresh blood? Perhaps. New energy? I hope so. I'm not sure if I'm up to the task, I'm not sure that I have all the right ideas, I'm not sure that I know what I'm talking about at all, but I know that I am dedicated to inter faith dialogue, and I'm dedicated to seeing the interfaith partnership in Rossendale fulfil it's potential. Because it is an imperative part of our life of faith.

Dialogue provides access to windows of understanding of how others define themselves and challenges us to grow in our own faith through the experience of the other. It necessitates a shift in paradigm, asking us to embrace those we have previously excluded or demonized. There are many different ways in which we exclude or marginalize others in different ways, ranging from assimilation, abandonment, indifference, and domination of the other. And our exclusion is also conjoined with the distortion of rather than simply ignorance of the other. As Miroslav Volf states, "it is a willful misconstruction, not mere failure of knowledge."

Exclusion often entails cutting the bonds of humanity that connect us as moral human beings and can generate a wide range of emotional responses, from hatred to indifference, and even the cursing of or killing of the other. The other emerges as an inferior being that either must be assimilated by being made like the self or subjugated to the self.

Dialogue is the first step toward accommodating or making space within oneself for the other. The challenge for both Muslims and Christians when they converse is to seek opportunities for interpretations that can make a community see the enemy in a new way. It is essential that we move away from defining ourselves over and above an enemy "other". This seems to me to be the only way of establishing authentic, peaceful relationships. In this sense, I believe we need to go beyond tolerating or understanding the other. More than ever, there is a need to embrace the other. This suggests a different function of dialogue, one that can bring the hearts, rather than just the minds, of people together. For us at the RFP, that means more than 6 of us sitting around a table and talking. It means moving out of our comfort zones and attempting to make room in ourselves for the other. This is a difficult journey for us to go on. Good foundations have been laid, but now we have to build on these foundations in order to demonstrate to our communities that dialogue between religions is a positive thing; it does not only entail relating the intensity or depth of our own faith but also witnessing and growing in it while understanding and respecting the faith of the other.

Standby. I expect there will be much more on Interfaith dialogue to come...

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Fame and failure... It's all in a day's work

So, I've been ordained and inducted and am now undertaking my first official week as minister at Edgeside Baptist Church. And lo and behold I've found myself a bit of a local celebrity. Being the only woman in ministry in town, and apparently, wearing sparkly high heels a lot, gets you noticed round here. Needless to say, I'm being watched. Closely.

This doesn't bother me whole lot, except for the fact that it seems people are holding their breath to find out how I'm going to 'deal' with the other ministers in the area. Most especially the local Anglican vicar, who I met with a couple of days ago. He's a good guy, clearly passionate about the estate, and certainly doing a lot for it. He's a man with a deep commitment to live out the mission of God. Talking to him, I got a real sense that between us there could spring a fruitful partnership - we seemed to be on the same wavelength a lot of the time, and there seems to be a lot of opportunities for us to work together on initiatives for the good of the community.

'Well that's dandy,' I hear you say, 'what's the problem?' I hear you ask. Well it seems that such Ecumenical Partnerships are not the norm here. Not too unusual, I thought to myself, and decided that I would attempt to get to the bottom of why this has been - what exactly has been getting in the way of getting along. After all, there are several extremely important issues which sometimes make ecumenical work difficult. Our commitment to Believers Baptism, for example, being a non-negotiable for us, presents clear difficulties in trying to reach agreement about the meaning and practice of the sacrament within the life of the church, and what it's place in mission and church membership is.
There is the issue of ecclesiology. Being part of a union of churches, associations and colleges who covenant together, means that each Baptist church has freedom to order its own life and ministry. This has a knock on effect in several areas, not least that in Baptist Churches it generally takes a long time to get anything done - decisions go to deacons meetings to be agreed, then the church meetings to be discussed and agreed upon before anything can be started.

So yes, there are many reasons which ecumenical work becomes difficult, or simply falls to the bottom of the list of priorities, and so I decided to ask around to find out what it was that was stopping us from working together. The answer I received from 100% of the people I asked was not the one I expected. It seems that the Baptist Church here in Edgeside stopped working with their Anglican neighbours, because the Anglican Church was 'poaching all our recruits'.

And this is where I get confused. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact I haven't grown up in the church, or if its because I'm a relatively new Christian. The thing I don't understand is why mission is about bums on seats, rather than about building the kingdom. Am I the only one who doesn't care where people go to church? Does this make me disloyal? If the churches ecumenical mission was getting new people to ask questions about God, to want to belong to a fellowship of Christians, doesn't that mean it was a success? I didn't get into ministry to win any competition about who can get the most people into church, or to strike up rivalries with other ministers. I got into ministry to share the love and grace of God with the world. Am I a failure if they don't choose to worship at my church?

Because if that's the case, this is me, embracing being a failure. I don't think God takes much notice of ecumenical differences and so it doesn't seem to matter, as far as I'm concerned, where people choose to worship. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'll be the downfall of the church in Edgeside, but it seems to me that if we're worried about people not coming to "our" church, giving up engaging in mission with the local churches is only going to exacerbate the problem.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Hearts and Minds Conference, Regent's Park College

As I take my first steps into this new phase of life, where I push myself to be challenged and stretched as often as possible, it seems appropriate to begin my blog by reflecting on the conference I attended this week, Hearts and Minds: Baptists Doing Theology in Context.

I’m painfully new to this sort of setting, and had certainly braced myself for some of my more radical opinions to be jumped on and torn apart. But what I found there was a safe space in which, yes I was questioned, but also in which my voice was heard and thrown into an arena amongst those much more qualified and knowledgeable than myself with respect and interest, and I extend my thanks to all involved contributing towards such a supportive atmosphere.

The quality of the conversations were extremely high, and many highlights can be mentioned. Tim Presswood and Clare McBeath introduced us, in their creative paper, to the mischievous Dancing Scarecrow who goes with us in our suffering and playfully invites us to join the dance, and Tilii, who in our pain and suffering, gives us permission to ‘tell it like it is’. Anne Phillips’ ground breaking research ‘Daughters of God’ explored the faith of girls, and the metaphors and language use for our ‘tweenagers’. Sally Nelson’s paper on suffering was expertly handled, helping us to see the journey from bitterness to lament. Both plenary speakers provoked thoughtful and engaging discussion on different aspects of mission, with Stephen Holmes addressing why Mission needs Theology, and conversely, why Theology needs Mission.

For me, though, the best was saved to last, as Cathy Ross shared with us women’s perspectives of missiology. Her presentation was wide reaching, and provoked lively discussion, but it was her explanation of hospitality and mission that particularly struck me.

I really enjoy playing host, and over the past few years I have shared my dining table with a great many good friends, old and new. But Cathy’s exhortations reminded me of the difference between my situation now (which could probably be loosely defined as middle class) and my situation growing up (which was squarely lower working class). Though I now very much enjoy sharing company with people over a meal in my home, growing up I never invited friends home, never had parties at my house. I would have been mortified if my friends had found out I was poor, and more often than not we struggled to feed ourselves, let alone anyone else. We often had to choose between heat and food, and for a long time we didn’t have TV. I always felt bad that my friends would invite me over for tea or sleepovers and I could never reciprocate.

Why then, had it not struck me until hearing Cathy speak, that there are people in my congregation that feel the same? The church which I have the privilege of serving is on a council estate in the north, and its members come from a range of economic situations. Some play host often. Others never. Cathy’s suggestion that the Church become a place for this sort of hospitality, allowing all people to play their role in hosting seemed to me to be both simple and brilliant. Because of course the Church is meant to be a place of hospitality – radical hospitality, transcending barriers of gender, language, race, class, age and culture. All too often, hospitality is wrapped up in the idea of caring for so called ‘inferior people’ by those who are more advantaged and able to prove their superiority by being ‘generous’, rather than hospitality working on the notion of partnership and equality. On top of this, we usually limit our hospitality or welcome to those who are like us in terms of class, race, nationality, language, economic position, rather than practice the inclusivity of ‘unity without uniformity’. Jesus shared table with sinners and tax collectors, and that same radical hospitality shown by Jesus in the gospels must be our starting point. While the idea of hospitality sounds good, it is difficult to practice. It is an easy concept to embrace on the level of inviting friends over for dinner, but hospitality toward the stranger and the marginalised evokes a very different feeling.
As Letty Russell has put it, “God expects a unity that is rooted in our recognition that the growing diversity of the church and the world is a gift of God, rather than a threat to our own comfortable life and faith.”[1] She describes two models of unity, unity in tension, which assumes a dualist position of either unity or diversity, and unity in hospitality, which assumes that unity and difference belong together. True unity in Christ is not achieved through exclusion or domination, but by accepting the other and celebrating the other-ness.

So in my new post, that’s what I’m to shoot for. Piece of cake, right?

[1] Letty Russell, Just Hospitality: God’s welcome in a world of difference (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). p63.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


Well, after silently following so many bloggers who have inspired, challenged and sometimes even infuriated me, I have decided to join the blogosphere. I have been tempted to do this on several occasions in the past but have had a pervading sense that I have nothing of any import to say.
However. It seems appropriate, as I take a step into a new phase of my life, to push myself to do something that scares and challenges me. So now, two days before my Induction into Baptist Ministry at Edgeside Baptist Church, I am popping up to say hello, and I hope that over the coming months and years I can slowly begin to hone my theological reflection skills, and become, as they say, "a reflective practitioner".

Whilst I'm far from being stupid, I must admit that academia has come as rather a challenge for me, and I am a little slower analytically than so many I read and converse with. Please bear with me. Practice makes perfect.