Changing the Conversation: God-talk and messy lives

The success of a conversation is ultimately determined, I think, not by the answers we receive but by the questions we choose to ask. In the realm of dating, for instance, it is obvious that a romantic relationship cannot be built on small talk alone: since love requires knowledge, sooner or later we’re going to have to ask the questions that enable us to really know the other person. To communicate what is most important to us, we rely on being asked the right questions – or inviting those questions ourselves.

I sometimes wonder whether the Church’s problem in engaging with secular society is that it answers the wrong questions. There are two questions which contemporary culture commonly asks of religion in the public sphere: ‘Is it true?’ and ‘How should we behave?. These questions derive from the way that ‘religion’ is conceived in contemporary discourse: as a set of ideas about God, which influences our moral decision-making. ‘Religion’, in other words, is simply a tool that enables the autonomous individual to make choices and attain satisfaction. Religious Education in schools, for instance, commonly focuses on intellectual arguments for and against God’s existence, and on moral decision-making: religious faith is thus presented as an intellectual and moral framework, to be adopted in the manner of consumer choice – like putting on glasses.

Christianity will always struggle in a conversation which begins with these questions, because the New Testament shows relatively little interest in them. The contemporary conception of religious faith is very far from the message of Jesus in the Gospels, who invited his followers not to ‘bolt on’ a set of intellectual or ethical attitudes, but to something much deeper: a journey of loss and dispossession through which a new and radical life is discovered – ‘those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’ (Matt. 10.39). St Paul likewise conceptualised the Christian life as an experience of deep transformation, through which we relate to ourselves in radical new ways – ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. 2.20).

So, what question should the Church be inviting instead? My suggestion is the following: ‘What does religious faith feel like?’. If Christians are those who, in the words of Rowan Williams, ‘have tasted the reality of new life’[1], then this question should yield fascinating and fruitful responses. Indeed, it is the question that I most enjoy answering, since I find the Christian life to be an experience of living more deeply: faith does not draw me principally to words and ideas about God, but to a fresh apprehension of the rich and varied texture of life. Because it frees me from fear, it allows me to face open-handedly the mysterious, complex and difficult feelings that life involves – shame, pride, sexual desire, grief, anxiety and anger: all these become much more interesting and easy to talk about! Indeed, perceptive theologians have noted that lived experience is where God-talk has most purchase: Luke Timothy Johnson insists for instance that ‘the human body is the preeminent arena for God’s revelation in the world’.[2] According to this understanding, words about God in Scripture exist not as abstract ideas to be grasped, but as resources for comprehending more fully the reality of our lives. Beginning the conversation with the question of what faith feels like thus allows us to place the question of ‘truth’ in a proper context: the ‘truth’ of religious claims lie not in their intellectual coherence but in their capacity to account for and reimagine human lived experience in all its depth and complexity. Doctrine that has no purchase on lived reality cannot be said to be ‘true’.

So, confronted by the deep missionary challenges of our time, I wish the Church would start talking more frankly about what faith actually feels like. But isn’t this a risky conversation? Asking about God’s reality in human lives begins a messy process: life – not least the life of faith – is complex and bewildering, and so the answers we receive will not always sound comfortable, orthodox or systematic. But herein lies an opportunity: beginning this messy conversation invites us to become more fully the Church – it invites churches to become inclusive and fearless communities where there are no ‘wrong’ answers; places where our confidence in the Gospel allows us to welcome, without judgement or anxiety, the witness of all those people whose lives God has touched.

And so perhaps inviting the right questions isn’t the only important thing; perhaps we also need to give honest answers. Maybe then we’ll be having a proper conversation.


 

[1] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, 3rd ed., (2014), p. 12.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art, (2015), p. 1.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Frustration and Resurrection

I recall once, as a child, being told that I seemed to have ‘a great sense of injustice’. I forget the exact incident that prompted this remark, but I am sure that it followed an outburst of frustration – objecting vehemently to a situation that I felt was unfair or unjust. In my teenage years, my involvement in party politics was driven in large part, I think, by a deep sense of frustration.

Frustration is not a feeling we often talk about in church – perhaps because we assume it to be a negative or ‘un-Christian’ feeling. But I want to challenge that, and ask: what role might frustration play in our spiritual lives and discipleship? How might it bring us closer to God?

Frustration occurs when our deeply-held convictions about what is right, true or necessary are ignored or dismissed by those more powerful than us: to be frustrated is thus to experience a sense of powerlessness, injustice and thwarted potential. It is first experienced in childhood, when we realise the ability of parents to say ‘no’ to our wishes and desires. As adults, those who experience discrimination or exclusion in society will continue to have an especially sharp experience of frustration: women, disabled people, ethnic and sexual minorities. But of course we all experience frustration – including those of us who are Christians. The divisions and disagreements which surround the meeting of Anglican Primates in Canterbury this week have been a painful reminder of this.

So how might Christians respond to experiences of frustration? For me, being part of the Church involves being trained and formed to respond in new ways to difficult feelings and experiences – to have my character changed, such that I act differently to how I would have responded when God was not in the picture. My instinctive response to frustration (shaped during childhood and adolescence) is to become combative and vocal. But as a Christian there is now something in the dynamic of faith which makes me pause, and attend more patiently to the deeper call of the Spirit.

In this attentive listening I am reminded of the Gospel story of the bleeding woman, which can be found in all three synoptic Gospels. It strikes me that her life was likely to have been a continual experience of frustration: her condition meant that she had lived for years in a state of uncleanness, which carried with it social exclusion. Doubtless she felt frustrated at being ignored and excluded, not least in her religious life: in the story we sense her daring faith and openness to God, which those in good religious standing were blind to. But in Jesus she encountered someone who understood her frustration, who looked at her and affirmed that her instincts and convictions were true after all. Importantly however, she first had to confront her frustration, to bare herself in honesty and trembling before Jesus: ‘the woman saw that she could not remain hidden’. She had to be unafraid of meeting Jesus’ gaze and explaining to him the knotted part of herself: ‘she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him’ (Luke 8. 47).

So what might a Christian response to frustration look like? For me, it involves embracing the feeling, not running from it – experiencing and acknowledging it in all its searing pain and destructiveness – and then meeting Jesus’ gaze in the middle of it. To do this is to experience transformation and resurrection. It is an experience St Paul seemed to capture when he wrote of ‘carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies’ (2 Cor. 4. 10): to face up to our experience of death and desolation is create room for Jesus to come alive in us through them. At this point I begin to perceive how frustration might in fact become a gift: an invitation to experience afresh the penetrating gaze of Jesus fixed on us and to be transformed by that gaze – to experience afresh the wonder of resurrection.

Healing God, may I never become so powerful, privileged or successful that I avoid the experience of frustration. Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Making Christmas work

I’ll be honest: I’ve never quite ‘got’ the Christmas story. It has never really moved me. Perhaps it’s because the Church tries so hard to make the story sound appealing and relevant to the public, by churning out endless ‘Christmas messages’ (Google ‘christmas message bishop’ – you’ll see what I mean…) or, even worse, slick publicity campaigns and sentimental videos. Though doubtless well-intentioned, these messages – and all the clichéd images, stock-phrases and joyful exhortations which they contain – do little to excite me. Frankly, the Christmas story as typically narrated leaves me feeling quite unmoved; it somehow doesn’t ‘connect’ with me. It’s terrible I know – I’m basically Scrooge.

But suddenly, to my surprise, I find that Christmas ‘works’ for me this year. It works because I have taken a step back from the story. Rather than concentrating on the narrative details – the Annunciation and Visitation, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, the visits of the shepherds and Magi etc – I have contemplated instead the idea at the heart of the story, the Incarnation: the idea that God came and dwelt with humanity in Jesus, amidst the messy material reality of the world. As I ponder my life over the last few weeks in the light of this strange idea, I find that Christmas ‘works’ in the most wonderful way. It works because the strangeness of the Incarnation echoes and affirms what I experience, quite startlingly, to be true in my own life: that God shows up not when I try to summon or imagine him, but within and beneath the very fabric of life itself. As the Christmas story affirms that God was indeed ‘veiled in flesh’, it encourages me to take seriously those veiled impressions of God in the ordinary – the stubbornly silent but tantalisingly tangible moments when God seems to impinge on day-to-day life, inspiring wonder and longing. In other words, the Christmas story encourages me to trust that the God whom I experience in the material and ordinary is the God who binds himself to the material and ordinary in Jesus.

So if, like me, the Nativity story leaves you cold, here’s my tentative suggestion: rather than examining it too closely, perhaps it’s wiser to just contemplate the heart of the story – ‘God made flesh’ – alongside the story of your own life, in all its depth, difficulty and complexity. And then see what happens. You never know, perhaps Christmas will work for you too.

Merry Christmas!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Not simple, but strange? Justin Welby and ‘just’ praying.

If, like me, you take some interest in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweets, you may have noticed a common theme in recent weeks: an emphasis on the simplicity of ‘meeting’ God in prayer. A few days ago for instance, Justin Welby tweeted that: ‘There’s a simple way of meeting Jesus, every day, at any moment. It’s called prayer’. Similar encouragements to pray were tweeted in previous weeks – see here, here, here, here, and here! At the same time we have witnessed the launch of the Church of England’s ‘Just Pray’ website; amidst the controversy generated over its ‘Lord’s Prayer’ video, few have paused to dwell on its simple claim that ‘prayer is for everyone’.

Beneath these public statements there seems to lie an interesting assumption: encountering God in prayer – ‘meeting Jesus’ – is essentially quite easy: to believe we ‘just’ need to pray.  Jesus is a person who is easy to ‘meet’, and prayer is the magic key that unlocks his presence. Faith, in other words, is straightforward – we just need to pray, and await the instant results. As an idea it sounds disarmingly simple… But is it true?

On one level, the message is indeed a valuable one: so often prayer can seem like the preserve of ‘experts’ – a task for priests and other ‘professional’ religious people. It is easy to assume that God is accessible to other people: people who are more holy, more special or more educated than me. The reality, of course, is that prayer is the most democratic of human experiences: we do not need to be experts to pray! Indeed, one of the most important tasks of theology is to remind us of this fact.[1]

On another level, however, I wonder whether the message implied in these statements isn’t altogether too simple. Let’s face it: a lot of the time ‘meeting Jesus’ isn’t an automatic outcome of ‘just’ praying. Those of us who are engaged in prayer know that sometimes it can be powerful and dramatic, but sometimes it can be the opposite: filled with boredom, anxiety, distraction and doubt. As Rowan Williams puts it bluntly: ‘at the prosaic and daily level, it can involve a great deal of sitting there facing frustration and self-doubt of the most acute sort’.[2] To suggest uncritically that Christians ‘meet Jesus’ by ‘just’ praying is to ignore the lifelong, transformative process of aching, seeking and struggling that constitutes the life of faith. Indeed, when we examine the New Testament we observe the very real difficulty of faith: the cry of the father seeking healing for his son in Chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel – ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ – is echoed in the yearning of St Paul, who recognises that ‘meeting’ Christ is not a once-for-all encounter but a lifelong struggling after mystery: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…’ (Philippians 3. 10).

To my mind, the most helpful Christian voices in the public sphere are those who are prepared to face up to the difficulty of faith – to what a former Archbishop of Canterbury described as ‘the constant process of wrestling, of losing and finding, of alternating night and day’.[3] In his recently-published book, How to Believe, the philosopher John Cottingham for instance makes it clear that the journey of faith is a demanding project, encompassing the whole of life: faith develops through a commitment to certain embodied practices, which ‘open up enriched perceptions of the reality that is being confronted’.[4] Mature religious faith requires commitment and discipline over time. Though these may be unfashionable virtues in our impatient modern culture, we shouldn’t be embarrassed by them, since the process of struggling, longing and waiting is a life-giving and transformative one. By presenting the practice of prayer as unrealistically simple, isn’t the Church at risk of discrediting it among those very people whom it seeks to attract?

So, is the Archbishop of Canterbury right: do we just need to pray? Well yes, absolutely: God is nearer to us than our own heartbeat, and is always holding open his arms to us in the person of Jesus. But really believing this – really meeting Jesus – might be more demanding than we or the Archbishop of Canterbury are prepared to admit. After all, the life of prayer is not a simple one but – as Sarah Coakley again reminds us – a strange one:

‘This is [a] very strange thought: that the risen Christ, being God’s Son, is here all the time but that we have to “turn” and keep “turning” towards his gaze, until our senses and mind and soul and heart are so attuned and magnetized to his presence that we too can say Rabbouni – not to grasp and hold him, not to constrain him within our restricted human categories, but to worship and adore him’.[5]

This, then, is the invitation with which God confronts us: not an invitation to just pray when Jesus seems easy to find, but an invitation to keep praying when Jesus seems hidden or absent – and to wrestle, to struggle and to turn until we truly, finally, find him.


 

[1] For an approach to systematic theology which takes seriously the democratic nature of prayer, see Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self, (2013). Coakley’s robust understanding of prayer as something which ‘is not a highly mystical endeavour’ can also traced in her interview on ‘Prayer as Divine Propulsion’, accessible online here.

[2] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, (2007), p. 156.

[3] Michael Ramsey, Problems of Christian Belief, (1966), p. 7.

[4] John Cottingham, How to Believe, (2015), p. 64.

[5] Sarah Coakley, sermon at Salisbury Cathedral, Easter Day 2014 – text available here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Advent Musings: Confidence, Hope and the Church

What is ‘hope’? We use the word a lot in church, but what exactly do we mean? Well, I’d suggest that Christian hope is not so much a feeling as a disposition: an attitude, a way of seeing the world, that informs our actions. Hope is less something we feel internally, and more something we express externally.

I sometimes wonder whether the Church’s problem is that it expects hope to be a feeling. Christians sometimes seem to think that hope is a warm, fuzzy feeling – a sense of gladness that comes from being God’s special chosen ones in the world. Hope is conflated here with confidence, implicitly understood in secular terms: a feeling of assurance and certainty based on evidence and observation.

The problem with assuming that Christian hope is a feeling akin to worldly confidence is that it places the Church’s hope on a rocky foundation. Frankly, in secular terms the Church of England has little to be confident about at the moment: it is facing a crisis of confidence, prompted by the sustained decline of church-going in recent decades and marginalisation in the public sphere. As the evidence for confidence evaporates, so does the feeling of hope – replaced by feelings of anxiety, guilt and defensiveness.

As Christians we are not called to always be confident in worldly terms, but we are called to always be hopeful in Christ. This hope is a radical disposition akin to trust: trusting in the faithfulness of God even when evidence for confidence is lacking. St Paul wrote from prison that he was ‘confident’ of God’s continued faithfulness amongst the divided and anxious Philippians (Phil. 3.6 NRSV); this joyful, confident disposition might better be translated as ‘trust’ or ‘hope’ in God. It is the same radical, against-the-odds hope as that which was shown by Mary: ‘Let it be with me according to your word’ (Luke 1.38). It is the hope to which we are summoned in our Advent waiting.

Faithful God, though the grounds for confidence may be thin, the grounds of hope are endless in you. Renew your Church in a right spirit of hope this Advent, that we might trust in you for ever! Amen.


This reflection is adapted from ‘Experiments in Hope’: a collection of daily reflections for Advent produced by St Martin-in-the-Fields.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Embracing elephants: bafflement, longing and God

When I was a teacher I was often struck by the reluctance of pupils to admit that they didn’t understand something. I quickly learned not to ask the direct question – ‘Do you understand?’– because so few would answer it honestly. Even with much encouragement and kindness, many children would need to be coaxed at length before explaining to me why they were confused.

I think the same reluctance is widespread in churches. So often churchgoers hear Bible readings (and, indeed, whole sermons) which, at best, leave unanswered theological questions, and at worst seem downright strange or offensive. But rather than voice our bafflement, we respond with meek assent, or simply stay silent. This tendency to overlook the most baffling parts of the Christian tradition has struck me afresh recently, as I having been involved in putting together an ‘Advent booklet’ for our church. Advent contains complex theological ideas: I found myself writing for instance about ‘Christ’s future coming in judgement’ when, to be honest, I’m baffled by what this might mean. I likewise cited a number of scriptural passages, whilst feeling ignorant of their meaning and literary context. I do not think I am alone in feeling embarrassed to admit my confusion and limited understanding; often when I’m in church, the ambiguities, mysteries and discrepancies within the biblical narrative feel like the elephant in the room – or, perhaps, the elephants in the church.

Over time, however, I have come to believe that these baffling ‘elephants’ are not to be feared. In fact, they are a gift that should be embraced. Why? Because in refusing to satisfy our desire for certainty and understanding, they bring us face-to-face with something at the heart of human experience: the experience of longing.

Longing, is, I think, a great taboo of our age. Desperate to appear carefree and self-sufficient, we avoid admitting that there are things which we deeply yearn for. Indeed, our lives are often so full of distraction that it is easy to ignore the deep-rooted desires that lie within us. But when we go looking for satisfying answers about God and draw a blank, when we seek certainty about God but find only uncertainty, we are brought unexpectedly face-to-face with a fundamental question of desire. It is as if God is presenting us with a challenge: ‘I won’t offer you the certainty you seek. So it’s up to you: will you keep on searching for me, even if you’re not sure that I’m there?’

Whether we are prepared to answer ‘yes’ to this question will vary from person to person. Our answer will require us to look deeply into ourselves and consider what really matters most to us: what we are prepared to struggle after, and stake our lives on. It is at this point that I realise that faith in God is not ultimately about understanding a set of ideas, or attaining a satisfying knowledge of God through reason. Instead, faith is about longing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that faith is longing, and that the life of faith is allowing this longing to open us up to God. I am not alone in suggesting this; the priest and writer Sam Wells for instance expresses a similar conviction, as he imagines a conversation with a friend who yearns to believe:

‘I want to say, wanting to believe is believing. Yearning, longing, aching to believe is entering into the passion and pathos of God’s love for the world – feeling for a moment what it feels like to be God. Faith begins where certainty ends’.[1]

It is worth noting that Jesus himself never required people to understand before they chose to follow. Instead, in his enigmatic self he somehow managed to meet people in their deepest frailties and longings, and invited them to follow. His most important questions did not probe people’s understanding, but probed their longings and desires: ‘What are you looking for?’, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’[2]

So in short, I am deeply grateful for these ‘elephants in the church’ – the awkward confusing uncertainties which spurn my attempts to intellectualise and rationalise faith. I embrace them because they return me again and again to the wellspring of faith: my longing for God. It is in living a life in which I return to this wellspring day by day, week by week, that I begin to grasp St Paul’s description of Christian faith: ‘the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’.[3]

Do I understand this? No. Do I long for it? Yes. Perhaps that’s all that really matters.

 


 

[1] Sam Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith, (2011), p. 167.

[2] See for instance Matthew 20.32, John 1.38.

[3] Ephesians 3.18-19.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Struggling to Believe

A few days ago I led a session in a day centre for homeless people. I asked the group a question, based on a couple of statements by St Paul: ‘What have you learnt from times of difficulty and weakness?’ One man, who I’ll call Daniel, sat thinking about my question for several minutes.  Daniel suffers from depression. He fled from his home country aged 16, travelling thousands of miles alone to the UK, where he became homeless. Eventually, after everyone else had spoken, Daniel lifted his eyes and looked at me with an unwavering gaze. He said simply:

‘When I’m struggling, I believe in God’.

He went on to explain that when things are going well, being a Christian – a lifelong cultural identity – meant little to him; he felt no inclination to practise his faith or to go to church. But when life was most difficult, and had landed him in the gutter, his faith mattered most; whilst God was ignored in the good times, in the difficult times God was needed. Daniel’s answer is striking because it contradicts the conventional wisdom that people lose their faith in times of struggle and difficulty. It suggest a different possibility: perhaps those who lose their faith in such circumstances have a misplaced faith in God, assuming that God’s primary activity is to keep us safe and happy – rather than to love us through all that threatens our safety and happiness.

Like most people I try very hard to avoid experiences of sadness and struggle – and generally (like most economically-secure, independent young people) I am successful. Sometimes I even delude myself in thinking that sadness is gone for good, banished by a warm, fuzzy feeling of ‘peace’ that is the entitlement of those who are Christian. And then I’m caught out: an experience or encounter will suddenly upturn my equilibrium. The ensuing wave of anxiety or stress or shame will plonk me mercilessly back into a place of difficulty, struggle and vulnerability. Gradually however, I have come to learn that this place is not to be feared: in fact, it is always, always, always a place to find God. Being a Christian has trained me to inhabit this place with open hands, and to lean into the knotted feelings of aching, longing or grieving, rather than trying to flee from them. And then, mysteriously, God happens. Somehow, my instinctive cry of ‘O God, take away this struggle!’ becomes a new and strange cry that seems to come from outside myself: ‘O God, keep my here forever!’ It is a place of wonder and humility in which God breaks through.

In trusting this experience, I remind myself that it has always been characteristic of God to work in this way: throughout Scripture we see God present in struggle, not least in the activity of Jesus himself, in whose life the ‘breaking through’ of God was glimpsed consistently by the broken, the yearning, the struggling and the shamed – and missed by those in comfortable security. His life was a living embodiment of where God’s reality is most tangible. As a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, neatly put it: ‘When things are very dark, when human possibilities are exhausted, when we are at the end of our tether, God acts’.

Sometimes I think that what we need to do most in our lives is to struggle in belief: to struggle through the obstacles until we find God. Daniel’s answer reminds me that the reverse is true. We need above all to believe in struggling: to trust that in our struggling God breaks through the obstacles and finds us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Taking God Seriously

‘You’re not taking it seriously!’

Few things were more frustrating to me, as a child at school, than group work. Like most diligent and high-achieving pupils, I found it exasperating to work with my peers – particularly those who messed around and seemed indifferent to the outcome of the task. ‘You’re not taking it seriously!’, I remember saying, with a defiant tone of righteous indignation, confident that I was occupying the moral high ground.

For the last month and a half I have been working for a church in central London. Keen and eager to please, I have been taking everything very seriously. After all, the business of a church affects people’s lives: worship, charitable work, pastoral care, forming community … So rotas, emails, deadlines and organisation are important. I need to be organised, efficient and well-prepared. Outcomes matter: a lot. Meanwhile, I have been observing with interest this week the results of elections to the Church of England’s General Synod (the Church’s governing body). Whatever you think of General Synod, it’s hard to deny that it is important: committees, measures, reports, canons, debates, votes… All. very. serious. stuff.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I read yesterday in Matthew 10 of Jesus briefing his senior staff: the twelve disciples. To say they were underprepared would seem to be an understatement; Jesus seemed content to send them out woefully ill-equipped, with a flippant disregard for efficiency and outcomes. There was no clear to-do list, or emphasis on forward planning. Instead, he advised them:

‘Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff… If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. … When they hand you over [to persecutions and trials], do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time…’.

At best, this advice seems impractical and naïve: surely more detailed instruction and plans were needed, to ensure successful outcomes? The instructions as they are recorded seem so inadequate that they are almost comical. Awkward as it might be, one is tempted to accuse Jesus of not taking things very seriously. Indeed, in much of its preaching and speaking the Church seems to tone down or sideline those parts of Jesus’ message where he apparently showed a flippant disregard for logical planning and successful outcomes – where his words seem naive, unrealistic and impractical. Surely, we insist, Jesus must have been exaggerating.

But what if Jesus was, in fact, deadly serious? What if he didn’t care much about efficiency and productivity – or even about outcomes? What if he was actually quite relaxed about the possibility of mistakes, dead ends, difficulties and surprises? Perhaps what mattered most to him was not the outcome but the attitude: inviting people to a radical trust in God which transcended common sense, reason, etiquette and success. Perhaps the most important instruction he gave was not his practical advice, but simply: ‘do not be afraid’.

Indeed, when I think about it, I realise that the more I stick around Jesus – as he appears mysteriously in the pages of Scripture, the rhythm of worship and the silence of prayer – the less serious I become: I am more flippant, carefree, relaxed and light-hearted. Faith feels like an adventure in which God continually shows me how ridiculous I am, being so serious, and invites me instead to a place of radical trust, rooted in humility and wonder. This is a place where God is close and surprising and enthralling, and I can learn to laugh at myself. In this place nothing really needs to be taken seriously except God himself.

So here’s my aim for this week: to try to notice how ridiculous and comical I am, in all my misdirected efficiency and intensity, and to take time to laugh about it; to chuckle in my confusions and rejoice in my mistakes and incompetence. Maybe then I’ll be taking God seriously.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Church and discipleship – a problem of expectations?

‘The soft bigotry of low expectations’. It’s a phrase oft-quoted in education circles: the idea that poorer pupils are disadvantaged by the well-meaning, but ultimately pernicious, attitudes of their teachers, who assume that certain students are unable to achieve highly – assumptions which then become self-fulfilling. Thankfully, considerable attention and resources have been committed in recent years to tackling this ‘soft bigotry’ in education, and there is evidence that these efforts are beginning to pay off: raising our expectations does result in real positive change.

What relevance does this have to the Church? Well, to put it bluntly: could it be that a similar problem of low expectations inhibits the mission of the Church of England? In our parishes and congregations, do we actually expect people to be transformed ‘from one degree of glory to another’? If this isn’t visibly happening, are we concerned about it? More fundamentally, do we actually believe in the transformative power of the gospel we seek to proclaim?

Reading accounts of the early Church and patristic writings, one cannot help but be struck by the dedication and perseverance displayed by the early Christians: through their wholehearted commitment to prayer, worship and community life, their lives attested to the demanding, countercultural nature of Christian discipleship. The Church grew as people encountered the mystery of God in Christ and orientated their lives around it, pursuing what St Paul described as ‘the renewing of your minds’. In contrast, much Anglican parish life today seems to ‘be conformed to this world’: lacklustre worship, a dearth of prayer and spirituality, and overstretched clergy contribute to a culture of low expectations, in which widespread theological illiteracy amongst the laity is tolerated. Recently I read through the ‘Grow Stage’ of the Church of England’s flagship Pilgrim resources, which seeks to help Christians ‘continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship’. As the material encouraged me to reflect on and establish a ‘pattern of worship and daily prayer’, it struck me that I almost never discuss my spiritual growth and discipleship at church: a culture of etiquette and small talk ensures that we – the laity – are rarely challenged to discuss the depth and development of our faith. A forceful speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury last week surprised me in its willingness to confront this culture of mediocrity: his uncompromising assertion that ‘the quality of our Christian lives matters very seriously to God’ took aim at the ‘cultural Christianity’ which implicitly views the laity as consumers to be satisfied, rather than ‘living stones’ to be built into ‘a spiritual house, a holy priesthood’. Low expectations are not clearly confined to one wing or tradition of the Church.

To state this critique plainly is not, of course, to invite blame and recrimination – particularly as I am aware of my own complicity in this culture of low expectations. I should also be wary of exaggeration: there are many examples of church communities who are committed to deepening the holiness and discipleship of the whole people of God. The Revd Dr Ian Mobsby has written at length about how ‘new monastic’ communities, for instance, are enabling ‘the empowering of the people of God, the laity, to be the Church, moving away from passivity and “church going” to participation and “church being”’.[1] Moreover, we are rightly suspicious of an overbearing clericalism which seeks to impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of discipleship, based on crude understandings of theology and spirituality; many Anglicans would push back firmly against such a model, emphasising instead the need for humility and freedom in discipleship, open to the promptings of the Spirit. Nonetheless, it is appropriate and necessary for clergy and lay leaders to provide resources, guidance and teaching to support ordinary Christians in their spiritual journeys. Often, this will involve explicit guidance in the practice of contemplative prayer – described by Rowan Williams as ‘the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit’.[2] Seeking to live as a Christian in today’s sceptical postmodern climate can be a difficult and bewildering task; providing spiritual guidance and direction is thus vital to the priestly role of guiding God’s people ‘through [the world’s] confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever’.[3] To affirm that Christian faith is ultimately a mystery does not mean abdicating responsibility for helping the faithful to plumb the depths of this mystery in prayer and wonder, and in doing so to grow into the likeness of Christ.

The Church of England is currently facing an existential crisis. Disagreements abound over whether the Church should be prioritising spiritual or numerical growth. The answer, of course, is that these priorities can’t be separated: the Church becomes attractive not through its hyperactive apologetics, or through the frantic multiplying of worship styles and ‘fresh expressions’ to meet consumer demand. Rather, the Church becomes attractive when it models a new way of living: when a gathered community of disciples worship God in faith, hope, and love, bearing witness to the image of God in Christ through their very being and living. ‘You are the light of the world’, said Jesus. Perhaps it’s time to raise our expectations.


 

[1] Ian Mobsby, God Unknown: The Trinity in contemporary spirituality and mission (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012), p. 65.

[2] Rowan Williams, ‘Archbishop’s Address to the Synod of Rome’, 10 October 2012, available here.

[3] Extract from the Church of England Ordinal for priests, available here.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Women bishops, sexuality, and when theology ignores people.

Today the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England, Rachel Treweek, will be consecrated in a service in Canterbury Cathedral. As the most senior female bishop, and the first to sit in the House of Lords, Treweek’s appointment is a landmark moment – a shattering of the ‘stained-glass ceiling’ that has been welcomed with joy by so many women and men in the Church.

Listening to the news on BBC Radio 4 this morning, I found myself reflecting on why female bishops matter so much to me, as a Christian. A few months ago, just before her appointment was announced, I attended an event organised by the Diocese of London at which Rachel Treweek – then Archdeacon of Hackney – was a guest speaker. The theme for the evening was ‘hot topics’, and Rachel reflected generously and diplomatically on how we might approach issues of disagreement within the Church. One comment, above all, stood out for me: questioned on how she would engage with those who oppose women’s ordination, Rachel replied that she would push them, as an ordained woman, to follow through fully the logic of their arguments to their (arguably absurd) conclusions: ‘What you’re really saying is that I’ve not been called to be a priest. I’ve misheard God’. The weakness of an opponent’s argument is thus exposed not by force of counter-argument, or by superior theological understanding, but by forcing it to confront its lived-out, practical implications for ordinary people – a process which soon makes obvious its deficiencies. In other words, the argument is brought up short by its failure to account for lived reality.

Rachel Treweek’s comment reminded me, then, of a point which is too often neglected in our theological disagreements: however carefully and beautifully constructed our theology may be, unless it has purchase on lived reality it will ultimately be deficient. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current fractious debates in the Church over sexuality: even the most beautifully constructed and philosophically coherent conservative theologies – Pope John Paul II’s elegant ‘Theology of the Body’ is a case in point – ultimately fall short, as they fail to account for the complex lived experiences of human beings. A ‘traditional’ view on human sexuality is impossible to maintain when confronted with the powerful witness of gay Christians, whose lives demonstrate so clearly the fruits of a deep commitment to Jesus Christ. Doing theology in isolation from lived experience is thus ultimately a form of idolatry, in which the ‘neatness’ and ‘beauty’ of one’s philosophical or ethical schema are prized over love and attentiveness to human beings.

To make this claim is not of course to argue that theology should simply be the slave of human ‘experience’. Lived experience cannot be the sole basis of theological enquiry; it is always brought into dialogue with the rich witness of Scripture and Christian tradition. But it must have a place. The Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley has been particularly helpful in drawing attention to this fact: her recent volume of systematic theology, God Sexuality and the Self, boldly proposes a théologie totale – a methodology in which systematic statements about God emerge from a rich dialogue between Scripture, tradition, culture and human experience (understood through sociological enquiry as well as through prayer).[1] Reading Coakley’s volume, I was struck by the realisation that this is nothing new: Christian theology has always been in dialogue with people’s lives. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged for instance not primarily from intellectual enquiry, but also through the lived experience of prayer and worship. Indeed, we frequently seem to forget that the truth of the New Testament itself is conveyed not principally through written rules and propositional statements, but though conversations and encounters: most obviously, the encounters of Jesus with specific individuals recorded in the gospels, and the encounters of St Paul with emerging Christian communities, made accessible through his letters. Theological thinking ignores lived experience at its peril!

So, as the most senior female bishop is consecrated in the Church of England, I am deeply thankful: thankful firstly for the extraordinary gift of our female priests and bishops. But I am also deeply thankful for the reminder that God’s reality is not abstract and distant, but incarnated in the witness of Rachel Treweek and countless other men and women, whose lives testify to the joyful, mysterious, captivating love of God in Jesus Christ.


 

[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity”, (2013).

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized