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.

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