Thursday, January 31, 2008

Latest CofE Attendance stats

can be found here, with the details here. I love the fact that here we are in 2008 and the CofE still has 'provisional' data for 2006. My own Diocese, Bath and Wells, shows a staggering jump of over 25% in average childrens weekly attendance from 2005-2006. I don't know if that comes from counting schools who have their assemblies in a church as 'weekly attendance', or whether some mighty work of God is happening amongst us.

I'll probably do a bit more number crunching in the next few days, as time permits. It'll be interesting to see if there's any correlation between a Diocese making church growth a priority (e.g. Lichfield, London), and actual growth as shown by the figures.

One cautionary note in all of this - we collect our figures in October, when there's often a harvest service. It's quite hard to identify a 'normal' month for collecting figures that doesn't have anything that distorts them - June is the only one I can think of that doesn't have a major festival (Christmas, Harvest, Remembrance, Easter, Lent, Mothering Sunday) or a major holiday.

Rowan Williams on Blasphemy

The AB of C did a lecture on Tuesday about the blasphemy law, and Dave Walker has a piece on some of the reactions to it. Matt Wardman encouraged me to blog on this, so here goes.

As someone with a full-time job, I don't have the 3 days necessary to grapple with every sentence in the lecture. It is what it is: a lecture, not an article in the Sun. It's all the more disappointing that some of the reports and reactions haven't taken this into account. The Times report gives just as much airtime to Terry Sanderson, the president of the rent-a-quote National Secular Society (membership 7,000), who called the lecture a 'blatant pitch for new legislation to replace the blasphemy laws'. Sorry Mr. S, but the one thing you can't accuse Rowan Williams of being is blatant. Nuanced, dense, impenetrable even (I don't know if this got a laugh at the lecture - he at one stage restates one of his phrases 'in plainer English'), but not blatant.

There seem to me to be two reasons to have a blasphemy law:

a) A society based on a religious worldview, which sees blasphemy as an offence to God, and therefore enshrines it in their law code. In this view, God's existence is taken for granted, and he is seen as a party in moral questions. The UK blasphemy law is premised on Christendom, i.e. that the UK is a Christian society with established church, Christian monarch, and a Christian moral code underpinning it's laws, freedoms and understandings of the person and society. Blasphemy is not offence against religion, but against God himself, and is seen as an evil thing in a 'godly' society

b) A society based on a pluralist worldview, which takes a pragmatic approach, seeing a blasphemy law as a way of protecting religious people from insult and abuse. In this case it is not God who is being 'protected', but the person of faith.

My understanding of the UK is that we originally had a blasphemy law because of a, but in a post-Christian, multi-faith society the ground and justification of the blasphemy law has shifted to b. A law based on 'a' would be a clear statement of the Christian values at the root of our society and constitution, but the abc seems to be arguing on the basis of b, i.e. he has given up on a 'Christendom' justification and is relying on a pragmatic one.

At one level this is fair enough. Rowan Williams recognises that we are in a liberal, not a Christian society now,

I have attempted to go a little below the surface in the discussion about what protection religious believers should enjoy from the law of the land, in order to pinpoint some of the related issues around what is actually desirable and morally defensible in a society that is 'procedurally secular' but genuinely open to the audibility of religious voices in public debate. It is clear that the old blasphemy law is unworkable and that its assumptions are not those of contemporary lawmakers and citizens overall (emphasis mine)

Williams is therefore trying to argue for some kind of defense against the sensibilities of Christians, Muslims etc. on the basis of a liberal worldview, rather than a Christian one. You will read the article in vain for an explicitly Chrisitan theology of law and public morality - at one level I'm disappointed by this, but it's not what Williams is trying to do. He is starting from the assumptions of society at large, and arguing from there. That way, he has to be engaged with, rather than ignored and put into a religious pigeon hole.

This is a tricky issue: we are a post-Christian society, so to hang on to laws and values which date from the time when we were a Christian society can be archaic. However, many of those laws are good, and we have suffered as a society from liberalising them. We are in a transition between two worldviews, and Christians are both fighting to preserve what was good in the old order, whilst trying to engage with the new: abortion, attitudes to family, blasphemy, embryology, euthanasia - it's the issues where liberal secular and Christian values diverge that the plates rub against each other. On other issues: care for the poor, tolerance, environmentalism, justice, there is less friction, because there is more agreement between Christians and secularists.

I'm sure God is big enough not to need our protection, but those of us who believe God is real, and has will purpose and goodness, find it hard to accept a society which throws out blasphemy altogether. We love God, and to hear and see him insulted is as deep an offense to us as racist language is to people who suffer racist abuse. The statement we make by abolishing the blasphemy law is effectively saying to God 'you're on your own mate, we're not rooting for you any more.' As a Christian I think it's sad that we've got to that point, but if we have got to that point then that's the reality, and we have to deal with it. In his own way, that is what Rowan Williams is trying to do.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Gene Hunt vs Derek Conway

Tory MP Derek Conway has had the whip removed after paying his son £40k of taxpayers money, yet 'no record' had been found of said son doing any work for him. Inquiries are still pending, but this is the latest in a long line of dodgy financial stories coming out of Westminster. A few months ago it seemed that the North-East was the epicentre of financial scandal (the 'dead' canoeist who's life insurance bankrolled his wife's flat in Panama, a Labour financer who had donated via a proxy etc.). That epicentre has moved down to London.

Meanwhile, several million people are cancelling all engagements for Thursday 7th Feb, as Gene Hunt returns to our screens, in Ashes to Ashes, the sequel the magnificent Life on Mars. What has this got to do with Derek Conway? Bear with me.

The core plot to Life on Mars, and Ashes to Ashes, is a police officer who ends up 'back in time' - in Life on Mars it turned out to be (we think!) just Sam Tyler's vivid dreams whilst in a coma. The challenge for Ashes to Ashes will be to lay a different trail of clues for how Alex Drake got to be in 1981. For both of them, catapulted into Gene Hunts sexist, brutal, no-nonsense world from the form-filling, psychological profiling noughties, the challenge is a) how to get back home and b) how to maintain their integrity and values in a world which works in a completely different way to what they're used to.

The classic story of Ulysses and the Sirens tells of how Ulysses had himself bound to the mast of his ship, so that the Sirens call wouldn't tempt him to his death. It's a great parable about temptation, and how we need to master it. Ulysses needs not only the willpower - to decide in advance (not the heat of the moment) that he will not be drawn off course - but also the help of his crew, who tie him up and refuse to let him go even when the Sirens cry is yanking his soul out of his body.

In some ways it's easier for Sam Tyler (Life on Mars) and Alex Drake (Ashes to Ashes) to maintain integrity. They know they are in an alien world, and that they don't belong there. But every MP in Westminster is part of the club, and unless you've decided in advance what your standards are, and found other people to help you keep them, it's easy to lose your integrity, and let standards drop. It's the same in the playground, the workplace, even a church.

It's back to whether we are thermostats or thermometers: do we 'set the temperature' and influence the world around us, or do we merely reflect the environment we are in? There does seem to be a Westminster culture that has forgotten that MP's expenses are taxpayers money, and that honesty is a non-negotiable, not something that can be traded in for, say, the deputy leadership of the Labour party.

And if you ring me next Thursday between 9-10pm and get the answerphone, it's because I'm somewhere in 1981 with Gene Hunt. 'Lets fire up the Quattro.'

Monday, January 28, 2008

Messy Church goes online

Messy Church is what it says on the tin: a form of all-age church which involves plenty of mess, but which is ideally suited for running midweek, Saturday afternoons, after school etc. The 'normal' format includes a craft/activity/play time where parents and carers get stuck in playing with their kids, then a short time of worship, then a meal together. Several churches are picking this up as a monthly outreach, and it's been quite effective in reaching people who normally don't go to Sunday worship. "I don't see it as a stepping stone into Sunday services... it needs to be valid in its own right."

The website has ideas for services, lists of who's trying 'Messy Church', training events, and is a networking site for people who are trying it. One of the holy grails of Fresh Expressions of church is a way of 'doing church' which can be replicated in various settings without masses of effort. It's very hard going completely back to the drawing board with every new form of Christian community, mission or worship.
There's also a book (pictured), details via the website, or via Barnabas in Churches.

British Social Attitudes Survey: Giving up the daily paper for premarital sex

The latest British Social Attitudes survey was published last week, and there's a very useful headline page plus a summary of each of the chapters here, if you don't have a couple of weeks of time and £50 spare for the full report.

Strangely, the headline figure is that 70% of us now think there's nothing wrong with sex before marriage, against 48% in 1984. Personally I'm surprised the figure is that low, there is clearly a bit more residual Christian morality around than we thought. However, most of those who think they shouldn't probably are - apparently though 80% of us know driving our cars is bad for the environment, only 45% are actually doing something about it.

The report also covers family life, gender roles, 'Britishness', politics, citizenship and use of the media. Those of us who read a daily paper have fallen from 77% to 50% since 1984, and the slack hasn't been taken up by the internet. Many more of us feel we're 'living comfortably', and unemployment has become almost invisible as an issue.

The report is based on interviews with over 3,000 people, so a decent sized sample, and lots to chew on.


Hat tip to Richard Frank for this cracking clip from ER. Not a show I ever watch, but the scenario here is a new hospital chaplain (very liberal and postmodern) at the bedside of a dying man who oversaw a death row execution of a man who later turned out to be innocent.

"I need answers. And all your questions and your uncertainties are only making things worse... I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness, because I am running out of time."

Original source is Mark Meynells blog, which and looks worth a read, especially if you're into TV and mass culture.

new Touching Base

Further musings on sadness and society in the latest Touching Base over at the Wardman Wire, following on from Blue Monday last week. A brief flavour:

(After Genesis 2) When things go wrong in the next chapter, work becomes frustrating, relationships break down, God becomes distant, and Adam becomes dis-eased within himself and starts to experience shame and guilt. The breakdown of key relationships, loss of purpose in life and loss of fulfillment in activity, all are corrosive of happiness.

The next generation faces the crucial choice: be happy for what you have and thank God (Abel), or get angry about what you haven’t got and lash out (Cain).

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Yeovil to grow 60% by 2026?

If you're not Yeovil or Somerset-based, this may not interest you, so skip it!!

An official inspectors response has just been published (big file, broadband recommended) to the Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West. The Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) is a region-wide planning document which sketches out the next 20 or so years in terms of housing, transport, environment, employment etc.

The original RSS, published in 2006, planned for growth of 300 houses a year in Yeovil urban area, to meet it's share of regional housebuilding, which in turn was based on national projections. The national projections have since risen, and this has come through in the inspectors report - it equates to an extra 2500 houses per year across the region, on top of what was already planned.

Pages 179-183 of the full report - which seems to be pretty much accepted by the South West regional authoritites deal with the Yeovil area, and project growth of 9,100 new jobs (about 30%) in the Yeovil and district area. To house the extra workers and their dependants, the RSS looks more to urban centres than rural ones to bear the brunt of the housing. So Yeovil's housing projection has been revised upwards from 6,400 to 11,400. The report accepts that finding land for an extra 5,000 houses (i.e. a town the size of Wells) is 'a daunting task', and may involve the Yeovil urban area crossing the Dorset border.

11,400 houses, at normal occupancy levels of an average of 2.3 people per house, translates into 26220 extra people, on top of the existing Yeovil population of just over 40,000. So by 2030 we will be the size of Taunton, and still growing. This will radically change the nature of the town, and it's surrounds, and presents a massive challenge for our urban planners, as well as for the church. It makes the work we're doing to draw together teams for the 3 new housing estates currently in the pipeline (2000 houses between them) look quite modest, considering that over 5 times that number of houses could be built within the next generation.

If you're part of a church in an urban centre anywhere in the SW of England, you need to read the report. This will define the future shape of your community, and the number of people living there.

Consumer church

Very interesting post, 'we're all customers now' on the way the Anglican church has changed over the last generation, by a blogging vicar who's been around a bit longer than I have, and communicates well the sense of bewilderment at how church, culture, the role of the priest, and everything else, has changed.

On consumerism, here's a video clip (tried and failed to embed it here, sorry folks)I'm planning to use in a talk tomorrow on cultural change. King of the Hill is an excellent cartoon, and this great clip reflects perfectly the way church has become a consumer experience we shop around for, rather than a community we're part of. It also shows in a couple of perfect little snapshots some of the things which people find so alienating about our ways of worshipping.

Hank "That place is too big. What's that megachurch got, 5,000 members?"
Peggy (approvingly) "Yes, and it pampers all of them

Am I Missing Something:?

This from the Christian Resources Exhibition website:

Gabriel Communicator Sparks New Generation Of Mobile Evangelists
24 January 2008
A new device that could spawn a generation of mobile evangelists will be unveiled at the Heart of England Christian Resources Exhibition next month (21-23 Feb 08).

The tiny Gabriel Communicator from Txttouch, which can be placed in a backpack or handbag, uses Bluetooth technology to beam text messages to all mobile phones within a 100-metre radius.

'Bible verses or even digital gospel tracts can be sent to local mobile phones from this device.' explains Txttouch managing director Nicholas Maguire, who has been involved in Church leadership for nearly 15 years. 'This is a culturally relevant way to contact people regardless of their age.'

Ok it may use up to date technology, but that doesn't make it culturally relevant. Unsolicited texts and emails are a great pestilence to mobile users, and all the more irritating if they turn out to be Bible verses rather than a free muffin at Starbucks. THIS WILL PUT EVERYONE WITHIN 100 METRES OFF CHRISTIANITY and once everyone twigs to what's going on, look out. I wouldn't want to be surrounded to a depth of 100 metres by people I'd simultaneously ticked off all at the same time.

Avoid this like the plague. It will not make you a mobile evangelist. It will make you a nuisance.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

From Surviving to Thriving 2: Accountability

A week or so later than planned, here's part 2 of 'From Surviving to Thriving', part 1 is here.

As a Christian, and a leader, it's very easy to end up treading water. A recent Willow Creek CD focused on the fact that if a leader isn't growing, it's very likely his/her organisation isn't growing too. Some churches even have a small committee whose sole task is to make sure the leader is developing and growing. My guess is they're mostly large American ones!

How do we move from surviving to thriving? How do we stop treading water and start making waves (to use a slightly corny illustration!)? 4 things:
- Time out
- Accountability
- Spiritual disciplines
- Learning

Currently all the rage in business, youth work, etc., under the title of mentoring, Crocodile Dundee's famous observation about US society is relevant here. On hearing that lots of people went to talk to psychiatrists about their problems, he remarked 'why's that? Haven't they got any mates?' Mentoring in schools is often a substitute for the absence of a father or responsible parent.

One problem of leadership is that it's lonely. It's easy to end up with lot of acquaintances, but not many friends, especially if you're regularly moving post. Our Christmas card list is getting on for 150 now, and we divide it into sections, according to the 3-5 years we've spent in different places: Shepton Mallet, Nottingham, Yeovil, Darlington etc.

The trouble with this is that not many people know you well, there can be folk who know the public face, but don't know if this is the real you, or a persona. Here's a helpful little grid:

1. What we know & what others know = public
2. What we know & what others don't know - secrets
3. What we don't know & others do know - blind spots
4. What we don't know & others don't know - mysteries

1: there are things known to both us and to others. These are public facts. Ideally, what's in this line should be as much of us as possible.

2: we know plenty about ourselves that others don't know. These things only become public by disclosure - i.e. if we choose to make them known. It's a bad thing for a leader, a Christian, in fact anyone, to have the majority of their life hidden below the waterline. Particularly for extrovert personalities, who work out what they feel and think by talking about things, we need to stay in the habit of letting trusted friends know what's going on inside us. There are too many casualties of people who tried to handle a secret on their own - sexual, financial or power temptations - and failed. If there aren't friendships where these things can be talked about or given attention, a mentor is a good idea. I have a spiritual director - after about 12 years of being encouraged to do so - and to have a couple of hours every 3 months where the quality of my prayer life and walk with God is the sole topic of conversation forces me to be honest about what's going on, and gives the chance to hold that part of me up to the light and see it for what it is.

Writer and speaker John Powell talks about 5 levels of communication: pleasantries, facts, opinions, emotions, and 'gut level'. Level 1 (pleasantries) is the easiest and least demanding, but it's only at levels 4 and 5 where we are really challenged to be self-aware, honest and transparent. Unless we hit these levels of communication with someone, a gap opens up between who we are on the outside, and who we are on the inside. This is, literally, dis-integration. Integrity is about being the same person in private as in public, who you are when no-one is looking. If we get out of practice of disclosure about ourselves to trusted people - lovers, friends, mentors - then we create a dangerous distance within ourselves.

3. There are things about us that others can see and we can't. Blind spots. The only way we will come to see many of these things is by feedback - letting other people speak honestly to us. Not many of us are good at this: we brush off praise and take criticism personally. But it's vital to development: if I'm to become a better husband, father, preacher, or blogger, I need to know where I'm going wrong. I'll work some of that out for myself, but someone else can usually see things much more clearly than I can. So feedback is essential. Again, a mentor can point out things that they see in us which raise questions for them.

The 'huddle' system at St. Thomas's in Sheffield does this in a structured way with small group leaders - there are set questions which groups of leaders use to help each other be accountable. A good resource for this is John Mallinson's book 'Mentoring', which has some searching questions in the appendix for use either alone or with others. In a way this is not that different from Wesleys old class system - a group of Christians getting together for the main purpose of encouraging each other as disciples. From Jesus onwards, the standard mode of Christian discipleship has been community, because it's in community that other people can see who we really are, and help us to face it, and encourage us to grow.

4. There are some things that neither we nor our mates will catch on to. Only God can see them, and we rely on God to point them out by revelation. Which is where this topic links to the last topic - it's Time Out to pray, listen and be with God where these things come to light. It also links to topic 4: study - God often speaks through the stuff we're reading and wrestling with, and it's in that process that truth comes through. Study is a way of putting ourselves in the place where God can speak to us.

Some of the mentoring literature talks about a 'constellation' of mentors - people to mentor you in all the different aspects of life (a coach for skills, a teacher for knowledge, a spiritual guide for prayer and discipleship etc.). I'm not sure we need all of these if we've got friends and Christian community to do it for us, but maybe the emergence of mentors is symptomatic of the fact that geniune, well-functioning Christian community is scarce.

Where it is worth having structured relationships is in areas where we've dedicated ourselves to growth, or where we know we're out of our depth. So, to illustrate, I have:
- a spiritual director, to help me focus on prayer and my walk with God
- a mentor for the work I'm doing as a missioner, since I've never done this kind of thing before, there is so much to learn, and having someone with more experience who I can take things to every 3 months is a great safety net.
- a prayer partner (fairly recent): to regularly talk over what's going on and pray with each other.
- a group which oversees my work and meets every few months to help me sort out priorities. (I've also used a work consultant - provided free by the Diocese, yippee! - on a couple of
occasions to help work out my work priorities. I'd recommend this to any leader)
- food and coffee with fellow leaders and other people I respect, just to chew the fat. It's also a great chance to explore the legendary Somerset pub food.
- books: bluntly put, we can be mentored and inspired by dead people. Simon Peter, George Whitefield, Winston Churchill, St Antony of Egypt - anyone who's in print by their own hand or someone elses can become part of our 'great crowd of witnesses' who inspire us and keep us going.

This sounds like a lot, but in reality (apart from the prayer partner) it's roughly 1 meeting every month or so, and on top of the practical help and wisdom I get from it all, there's a deep sense of reassurance from knowing that this 'scaffolding' is in place.

Spiritual disciplines next week, just in time for Lent!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Fame at Last

My piece about Jeremy Clarksons bank account and our attitude to risk was picked up in this weeks Britblog roundup (see Jan 21), and even got a mention on the 5 live pods and blogs website review. They even said that I looked young, lovely people. What's surprising about all this is that I don't think I said anything very original or profound. "This could be an interesting development, I don't know how many blogging vicars there are." Quite a few mate! Perhaps that's a future posting, or you could just visit the Anglican Bloggers group on Facebook and see if you can guess which ones are the vicars.

So that's my 15 meg of fame over and done with, now what's next? Oh yes, curry and Fair Trade wine from the Co-op (free plug, none of the other supermarkets has a decent range). That's reality.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Gospel According to the Simpsons

It's such a trial this job - I spent a large part of the afternoon trying to speed-watch Simpsons episodes from seasons 2 and 5 (available in the Woolworths sale at £20 each, which was good value for 20+ episodes each). No, I'm not slacking, our Cafe Service will be doing a mini-series on the Simpsons in the next few months. The tricky bit is finding clips that don't have mild swearing or a sudden appearance from the devil - there's quite a few small kids come along and we don't want to be the cause of nightmares!

It's amazing that a family which prays, goes to church every week, and where the husband and wife stay together and work through their difficulties, is the most popular TV show of the turn of the century. Mark Pinsky's book on the show, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, is a fascinating account of how God, prayer, Christianity and other faiths are presented, as well as looking at the spiritual traditions represented by the different characters.

Frustratingly the book hardly ever tells you which episode certain events or quotes occur in. Never mind, it was a good excuse to watch loads of episodes to try to find them myself. The longlist of possible clips includes:

'Bart Gets an F' great one on prayer - Bart asks God to give him an extra day to study for his final test of the year, and in answer it snows, and school is closed. As Bart heads for the door with his skateboard Lisa confronts him: ‘I don’t know who or what God is exactly, all I know is that he’s a force bigger than Mum or Dad put together and you owe him big’

Homer the Heretic: Homer decides not to go to church, and ends up face to face with God.

Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment: Homer gets cable illegally, and Lisa is convicted after hearing a Sunday school talk on 'thou shalt not steal', so she boycotts the TV. Homer is troubled: "there's something wrong with that kid, she's so moral". Lots of potential avenues, not just on the commandments but whether some sins are small enough to be allowed, what example parents set their children (or not), etc.

Homer Loves Flanders: 'if everyone were like Ned Flanders, there'd be no need for heaven' - on friendship, loyalty, forgiveness, and what to do when people wind you up.

In Marge We Trust: which traces how Rev. Lovejoy got to be boring. What makes Christians give up and lose their enthusiasm?

Sadly Alone Again Natura-Diddly isn't available on DVD yet, where Flanders wife dies and he almost loses his faith, but then gets it back again. Not only funny, but genuinely moving and powerful.

I've tried and failed to find any other churches on the web who have done this, but there must be some out there. All links gratefully accepted.

Blue Monday

Thanks to Bishop Alan for unearthing this formula on why yesterday (Jan 21st) was officially the most depressing day of 2008:

The formula for the day of misery reads 1/8W+(D-d) 3/8xTQ MxNA.
Where W is weather, D is debt - minus the money (d) due on January's pay day - and T is the time since Christmas. Q is the period since the failure to quit a bad habit, M stands for general motivational levels and NA is the need to take action and do something about it.

So that's all cleared up then. If it really has got to you, then you could do worse than get hold of I Had a Black Dog by Matthew Johnstone which is a superb book exploring depression using cartoons. One reviewer on Amazon puts it well: "This book can be read in about 5 minutes, page to page, but it says what a 300 page book says, with pictures and clear simple statements. So much simpler for loved ones and friends to understand quickly but with understanding. "

Interestingly, the thoroughly odd video for New Order's 1988 remix of Blue Monday features a large black dog. I don't know what that means.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Monks, and Monday links

Since posting on Friday's Extreme Pilgrim the traffic on this blog has doubled. A little widget tells me how people found the blog, and it looks like the vast majority were searching, not for Extreme Pilgrim, or Peter Owen Jones, but Father Lazarus. This mirrors what happened after 'The Monastery' a couple of years ago - so many people were struck not only by the stories of the men taking part, but by the life of Worth Abbey itself, that they had a massive rise in enquiries about the monastic and spiritual life, and the Abbot was prompted to write the superb Finding Sanctuary in response. This ties in with what I blogged about research a few days ago - though people are less interested in the pre-packaged meals of institutional religion, there is a spiritual hunger our there. Gandhi is reported to have said that he would have become a Christian if he'd actually met one - the inference being that the Christians he did meet weren't living lives which reflected the life of their Lord. Father Lazarus reminds us that to be better Christians we don't need more information, or the latest book, or the latest worship CD, we just need a relentless and unquenchable desire for God, and to overcome our fear of letting God have mastery over us.

If you're interested 'Ulrich''s comment below posted me this link to 'monasterion' a web group for those interested in monasticism, with links to various other resouce sites.

Meanwhile, a couple of other links:
The latest Sheffield Centre bulletin on ministry with older people is out. 5 pages, easy to read, worth a look if you have an average demographic in your church!!

The Passion, a new BBC production on the last week of the life of Jesus, is being screened on the Beeb during Holy Week, and there's a new website to go with it. It will be good to have an account of the life of Jesus that's not unwatchable because of the levels of graphic violence (Mel Gibson) or flaky theology (Robert Beckford on Channel 4)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Family Services

Fascinating discussion thread on Family Services/All-Age worship opened up by Dave Walker, yielding a completely unscientific, but very educational cross-section of opinion. Commenter 11 does a good job of getting the debate back on track, but it's worth reading, just for people's insights and reactions.

A helpful place to go is Barnabas in Churches (not to be confused with the Barnabas Fund, who campaign on behalf of the persecuted church). Here's their checklist:

1. What to avoid?
All-age worship is not …
- entertainment
- a potpourri of contributions
- just for the children; or just for the adults
- just for the outsider or the insider
- a Sunday school with adults present
- a standard service but with children present

2. What do we need?
for all-age learning…
- involvement, inclusion, intelligible language
- all the senses, all the richness of our world-wide faith
- one theme, explored throughout, in short sections
- group work, questions, stories for all-age worship…
- welcome and wonder
- sign and symbol
- patterns and a programme
- space and silence
- image and imagination
- rhythms and rhyme

3. What elements should we try to include?
- story… interaction… question and answer…
- celebration of community ( laughter and lament )…
- different voices… pictures… silence
- movement… involvement of the five senses…
- celebration of faith in action…
- short sections…
- accessible language … time to respond to God…
- space for wonder…
- a clear framework using familiar signpost language from the usual liturgy of your church, such as the Welcome, the Lord’s Prayer, Responses, Reading, Prayers, Communion Words, Blessing
- a variety of styles of hymns and songs, carrying the theme

Which actually all sounds to me like good practice in worship anyway, whether there are children present or not.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Extreme Pilgrim 3

The last Extreme Pilgrim took Peter Owen Jones to the Egyptian desert, to follow in the footsteps of St. Anthony, father of the monastic movement.

Looking at the vastness and bleakness of the desert, you can see why Anthony chose it to get away from it all, after answering God's call to sell everything and give his money to the poor. Owen-Jones was aiming to spend 3 weeks in solitude in a cave in the hills - a mere nothing compared to the decades Anthony spent up there, but most of the people he spoke to reckoned he would struggle.

I was looking forward to this one most of all, because of it's focus on Christian practice and devotion. It was a mixed bag - we met the almost luminous Father Lazarus, with a depth of wisdom and prayer hewn from decades in the desert, but spent just as long looking at camels and tracing the journey to St. Anthony's monastery. The programme was 2/3 through before POJ even got to his cave (2 doors, a narrow one into the prayer cell, a wide one into the food cell). And though the focus of monastic devotion is Jesus, the programme was more interested (as in the previous two episodes) with self-discovery rather than discovering God.

That said, there were some fascinating moments: Lazarus' first question 'how conscious are you of your own sin?' A question rarely asked but a key one. How much better would our politicians, church leaders, mothers and fathers, (in fact pretty much everyone) be if they'd spent time wrestling with that one? Or POJ's realisation "When I got here I was numb. I've only just realised that (3 weeks of solitude and prayer later), and now I'm starting to come alive." How many of the rest of us are numb but don't know it?

And the fascinating question POJ throws into the desert sky, at God, 'why is it all about you?' Well I guess there are 2 choices. Either it's all about God (and therefore Jesus, because that's how we know what God's like), or it's all about ourselves. A narcissistic, self-absorbed Western society has made self into its tribal god, and we are numb, depressed, frantic and restless. Maybe we need to get to the end of ourselves to get to the beginning of God's grace.

Again, there wasn't much reflection at the end. I would have loved to see POJ, back in England a few months later, reflecting on the 3 different pilgrimages, and what he's brought back into daily life. Because God isn't merely a 3 week adventure holiday experience, God is here and present all the time, and what we find of him in the desert is still true back in the city. Jesus took himself away to pray in order to be fully present and alive when he was with people. Good Christian monasticism, like Jesus, withdraws in order to engage, rather than withdrawing purely for the salvation of the individual. It's a rhythm taken to its limit by monks, but one which breathes life into every Christian if they can embrace it. In the series, what was notable was that Christianity was the only one of the 3 faiths to take POJ out of himself and lift his eyes to the world.

The focus (as Lazarus beautifully put it) is not ourselves, but God and other people. When we pray, we stand before God representing humanity, so if we pray all of humanity prays, and if we don't pray all of humanity turns from God, so prayer is of desperate importance.
Update: if you want to explore a bit more, there's a book on St Anthony's monastery and Father Lazarus reviewed here , and a good post about E.P. on the Mercy Blog. Strangely (or not?) posting on 'Extreme Pilgrim' has generated more hits to this blog than anything previously. I don't know what that means, but reading people's reviews of last nights programme, several were powerfully moved by Fr. Lazarus and his words. At one point I knelt in front of the TV and followed his instructions on prayer posture, which isn't something I normally do!

Lent Resources 2: Lent Leaflet

Here's the text of the Lent leaflet we produced last year, feel free to copy. It should fit onto 2 sides of A5, or you could make a bigger leaflet by adding in daily readings for the 40 days.

Lent is the season of 40 days from Ash Wednesday (6th February this year) to Palm Sunday. It recalls the 40 days of fasting and prayer which Jesus spent in the wilderness before his ministry began.
The day before Lent is traditionally a Carnival day (‘carnival’ literally means ‘farewell to meat’). Lent itself is a season of penitence, restraint, and reflection, and a preparation for the joyful celebration of Easter. It is a breathing out, in order to breathe in again, emptying out in order to be filled.
Traditionally, Lent is the time for looking more deeply at our own lives, in order that we become more like Jesus. It is a time for changing our ways to become more like Christ. The focus of all this is Good Friday and the Cross, to which Lent is the route.

Lent practices fall into 3 groups:
Detachment & Simplicity: giving up things which have a hold on us, and embracing a simpler lifestyle.
Repentance: examining ourselves, facing up to our sin and turning away from it. Jesus first words after returning from the wilderness are “Repent, and believe the good news!”
Spiritual practice: taking up things which will deepen our spiritual roots.

Below are some suggested ways in which you might keep Lent. Pick one or two, don’t try to do all of them! On the back page is a suggested Bible reading plan for the 40 days of Lent.

Some Suggestions for Keeping Lent
Detachment & Simplicity
- Fast on Fridays (if it’s medically ok for you to do so), or if fasting is not advisable, abstain from meat on that day.
- Abstain from meat for the whole of Lent
- Identify one thing that has a hold over you (e.g. surfing the Internet, watching TV, gossip, compulsive shopping, your mobile phone) and abstain from it.
- Only buy things with cash, in face-to-face situations.
- Don’t eat out/spend money on entertainment (make your own!), and give away the money you save.
- Go through your clothes and give away anything you’ve not worn in the last 12 months.
- Do a ‘creation tithe’ – cut down by 10% the burden you put on the earth in using fuel, creating pollution, consuming goods.
- Abstain from having the first word, or the last word, in conversation.
- Put a jar in an obvious place and put in 1 coin a day for charity, (good for kids!)

- Spend time each day confessing your sins (you could use the Lord’s Prayer, and pause when you get to ‘forgive us our sins’, or the Jesus Prayer ‘ Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’)
- Wear something black or purple each day (the colours of mourning) as a sign of repentance.
- Think about someone whom you have wronged, and find a way to apologise and make amends.

Spiritual Practice
- Make the sign of the cross over your forehead, eyes, mouth, heart and hands each morning, placing Christ over what you think, see, say, feel and do.
- Put a cross in a prominent position in your house.
- Give thanks for every meal
- Spend 5m in silence each day – a good way to do this is to simply listen to your own breathing. Then let each breath out be a breathing out of sin and disobedience, and each breath in become a breathing in of forgiveness, grace, and the Holy Spirit.
- Identify something ordinary you do each day (e.g. boiling the kettle, walking the dog), and try to think about God as you do it.
- Do kind things for people, for no reason whatsoever.
- Come to worship 5m earlier, and spend time in prayer and preparation for the service. At the end of the service, spend a moment in prayer bringing to mind what God has said to you.
- Read a book that will deepen your faith.
- Listen to worship music in the car (or the bath!)

Remember: only pick one or two things. This is not a set of laws, it is about opening ourselves to the grace of God.

new Touching Base

If you want to find out what Yeovil dentists, the only Devonian who didn't drive past on the other side, and a Tyneside schoolboy who went to Poland to get a better education have in common, have a look at the Wardman Wire later today.

Final Extreme Pilgrim review to follow later.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Captialism Makes You Miserable

Can it really be the case that as we've become more comfortable, we've also become mentally ill?

"The citizens of selfish capitalist countries are twice as likely to suffer from a mental illness as the citizens of countries in mainland western Europe, which practise 'unselfish capitalism'," argues psychiatrist Oliver James.

He says studies show that 23% of Americans, Britons, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians - all English-speaking "selfish capitalist" nations - suffered mental ill-health in the past 12 months. But only 11.5% of Germans, Italians, French, Belgians, Spaniards and Dutch experienced mental problems.

"The media, advertising, reality TV shows and so on, they give people unrealistic aspirations that they simply cannot meet with their wages and living standards. As a result, people get sucked into competitiveness and workaholism.

"We end up tirelessly striving for material wealth and valuing it over family and friendships. This really heaps pressure on people, damaging their health."

The message is clear, he says: "Selfish capitalism is bad for your mental health."

Read the rest of the story here.

Embryology Bill Report

From the CCFON report on Tuesday's vote:

Tuesday’s votes in the House of Lords
On Tuesday 15th January the House of Lords voted against on a ban on the creation of animal-human hybrids for research purposes. A proposed ban on embryo selection for ‘saviour siblings’ was also lost. Further issues, including the child’s need for a father and abortion, are due to be debated and voted upon in the Lords on Monday 21st January. Then the amended Bill will have its 3rd Reading before being sent to the Commons for further debate.

If the Bill is not amended in the Commons it will become law that embryonic stem cell researchers will be allowed to mix animal sperm with human eggs or human sperm with animal eggs, in order to create a hybrid embryo. This embryo can be experimented upon and then must be destroyed within 14 days. The UK is alone amongst Western democracies in allowing such research to take place. This legislation, which holds many other worrying provisions besides hybrids, is attacking the very core of who we are as a society, what we value as human beings, how we view the unique dignity of humanity and the lengths we are prepared to go to in perverting nature for our own selfish and often misguided desires.

If the nation is still capable of being shocked, then this Bill – if its contents were more widely known and understood – would certainly do just that. It is the church’s responsibility to speak up for God’s intention for His creation, and in the absence of a wider understanding of the Bill it falls to the church to speak on behalf the nation, to act as lookouts in the watch tower warning of the approaching dangers. Please continue to pray and tell your friends about this Bill, and read on to find out what further action can be taken...

To read the debate in full, use this link

Animal Human Hybrid Embryo vote
Lord Alton’s proposed amendment to the Bill that would have banned the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos was defeated in the House of Lords last night by 96 to 268. These hybrid embryos are now referred to in the Bill as ‘human admixed embryos’ due to a Government amendment.

Several peers spoke in favour of a ban, arguing that such research was both unnecessary and crossed an ethical boundary.

Lord Alton stated “As Parliament is dazzled with misleading claims about therapies and cures, there have been none anywhere in the world... If we permit the creation of these predominantly human interspecies embryos and full hybrids, we will be crossing an important ethical line—crossing human and animal. But for what? For the sake of a technology that we know will not be the future.”

Lord Tebbit argued “Once we get into the business of creating entities which are halfway, or somewhere along that spectrum, between animal and human, we have a deep ethical dilemma... I am also worried about the attitude of the scientific community which, while it is always willing to accept that there should be limits placed on it on ethical grounds, always seems to assume that the limits should be somewhere just beyond what is scientifically possible and what it wants to do and those limits keep moving.”

“The matters we are discussing are more of ethics than of technology. Because it is scientifically possible to do something does not mean it should be done. Because it might bring great benefit to particular people does not mean that it should be done. If we accept arguments of that kind, we are essentially accepting the argument that the end justifies the means.”

The next stage of the bill may include a government move to remove the need for a biological father in the 'creation' of embryos during fertility treatment. And todays innovation is tomorrows starting point.

Update: Nadine Dorries MP has some good stuff to say on her blog. "Whenever there is a bad decision in parliament, you will often find money at the bottom of it."

Lent Resources 1

Various links to Lent resources:

The Methodist church have just launched a 'buy less' credit card for lent, full story here.

The Shaver of Mustard Seeds has a couple of good ideas.

If you want some prayers to use daily or weekly in Lent, have a look at this site. There's nothing quite like praying the same prayer for 40 days to get it into your bones.

Embody has some great ideas, not the usual sort of Lent stuff, around the theme of God, friends and enemies.

Churches together in Britain and Ireland have produced an interesting study resource, Pathways of Prayer, which explores different prayer traditions over the 6 weeks of Lent, and is linked in to some BBC programming during Lent. There are online group study notes for each week, Lenten daily readings, and links to sites on discipleship and spiritual seeking. Good resource.

CRI/Voice, who I'd never heard of (but then that goes for 99.9% of US religious organisations) have an excellent page on Lenten symbolism and practices. Unfortunately the link to daily readings hasn't been updated to 2008.

Finally Barnabas in Churches has lots of ideas for Lent - worship, school assemblies, practical things to do, and has a resouce 'A-Cross the World' looking at the cross in 40 different cultures and various stories from Christians in those places. Helpfully, the images of the crosses are available online for you to copy and use. Here's one of them.

In a couple of days I may post the text from a Lent leaflet we did last year, with a brief introduction to Lent and suggestions for what people might take up/give up.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tom Cruise Scientology Video

"We are the only ones who can help"

Tom Cruise has been in the news for an unauthorised biography which 'reveals' that he's 2nd in command of Scientologists in the US. Whether or not that's true, if you want to see Cruise saying what a great thing Scientology is, follow this link. The vid was posted briefly on Youtube, before being removed, but thankfully it's been preserved elsewhere in cyberspace.

A few random thoughts:

- I found Cruise increasingly incoherent as the vid went on, and using more and more jargon and in-phrases. It just made me wonder how much we do this in church, and whether there comes a point at which we just stop making sense. I think Christians are better at toning down the jargon than we used to be, but for some folk the 'language of Zion' is still a kind of boundary marker - use certain phrases and they show that you're 'one of us'.

- It's bizarre that there are rich and influential Americans like Cruise who believe all this nonsense, but then money and fame seems to have a disintegrating effect on the personality of celebrities, whether mentally or emotionally/behaviourally (e.g. Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Lindsey Lohan) . But even if Andrew Morton's book is a load of old cobblers, at least it's put Scientology back under the spotlight where it belongs.

- Cruise makes some outlandish statements in the video - e.g. that when he's driving past a car accident he knows he's the only one who can help (didn't know you were a paramedic too Tom). It made me think about the claims of the gospel - we can't sell short what Jesus did, and the fact that he is the only one who can sort us out and reconnect us with God as his children, but how do we put across these amazing things without sounding like nutters? Or maybe that's it, if we love Jesus we'll just have to cope with whatever people say: he went through it, so will we. We love God with all our minds, and think hard about our faith, what it means, how to present it well, how to make the case for Christ, but to some people it will still sound like nonsense. That's life.

Update: Religion News have helpfully provided a glossary to help people understand what Cruise is on about. And there's now another video.

Meanwhile, whilst we're on film stars, well done to the British film industry and acting profession for a cracking start to the awards season. Even one of the most fancied American stars, Johnny Depp, is up for awards for an Englishman as Sweeney Todd (surrounded by UK thesps like Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall). Makes me proud to be British.

Embryology Bill update

Sadly the challenge to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill failed in the Lords yesterday.

This means that we have given our scientists permission to create new human-animal species, for research purposes. Adult stem cell research, which is yielding many results in new treatments for disease, may be bypassed in favour of research into chimeras. Embryonic lives are being created purely for the purposes of research - Rowan Williams rightly slates this as turning people into mere instruments, rather than creatures with innate value and God-given worth.

My life expectancy of 75+ is down to scientific advances in the cure of disease, for which I'm deeply thankful. It means I should live to see my childrens children (if they have any, and if we don't melt ourselves into oblivion first). But there's a cultural change in attitudes to suffering and death - we believe we're the first generation that can live free of these things, and pursue eternal youth at the gym and under the cosmetic surgeons knife. There's no disease we should simply sit back and accept, but we do seem to be in denial about the fact that we will get older, get sick, and die. Is avoiding this such an absolute moral imperative that it justifies pretty much anything the researchers want to try? If saving life and postponing death is so important, that must be premised on human life having value, yet we're giving our scientists permission to play around with embryo humans at will.

Jesus "shared in our humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death— that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." (Hebrews 2:15) What happens when a whole culture fears death?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

More from Lichfield Diocese

After yesterdays post on growth in Lichfield Diocese, digging around reveals this on their website:

and an excellent mission resource section here. Lichfield Diocese seems to have grasped the nettle of providing proper leadership, setting a direction for the whole Diocese and asking parishes and Deaneries to follow. The Anglican church is not easily led, and Dioceses are generally much more prone to initiatives than strategies. Our local clergy discussion this afternoon touched on the need for good leadership to make something effective: a clear vision and purpose releases energy, clarifies what's expected of people, and makes it much more likely that something will be achieved.

'40' by Si Smith, great Lent resource

I know, we've barely said 'cheerio' to the Magi and it's nearly Lent. That's the lunar calendar for you. With 3 weeks to Ash Wednesday, here's a link to the brilliant '40' by illustrator Si Smith.
The full series is available as a download from the Proost website. If you go via the new improved CMS, you get it at the utterly scandalous price of 99p.
More Lent links in the next week or two.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

This Bill goes before the Lords today, here's what the CARE website has to say:

Currently there are three major problems with the bill.
The bill will allow the creation of embryos for research which are part human and part animal. This is to further the human embryonic stem cell project in the absence of sufficient human eggs. It is an extremely morally questionable undertaking which will bridge the barrier between animal and human DNA. Furthermore it is a distraction from adult stem cell research which has to date given rise to over 70 therapies whilst human embryonic stem cell research has given rise to none.

Second the Bill will legalise the creation of ‘saviour siblings’. This
means that IVF embryos will be screened to enable a child to be born who
genetically matches a sick person within the family. They can then provide a
supply of body tissue to be used for treating the sibling. Quite apart from the
fact that any embryos that don’t have the right genetic match must be discarded,
facilitating the creation of saviour siblings raises questions about
psychological and physical harm. What are the implications for a child who knows
they were brought into the world to save a sick relative? It suggests that they
are a means to an end. What are the physical implications of having to provide
tissue or even heart organs?

Finally, the Bill proposes that IVF clinics will no longer need to consider 'the need of the child for a father' when considering a treatment application. The Bill also prevents children conceived by IVF to a same sex couple from having a father from before their birth until they reach adulthood, when they will only be able to find out the identity of the father

I'm struggling to think of a single instance where the bioethics law has been
tightened, rather than liberalised, at a later date. It's therefore
reasonable to assume that there will be future legislation, looking for
even more scope to create animal-human hybrids (in an excercise in
Newspeak the lobbyists for the bill are trying to rename these 'human admixed' embryos).

We can't afford to let science (and don't assume this is 'pure' science - there's no such thing. There is lots of money to be made here, and lots of prestige attached to being at the cutting edge of these things) set our moral boundaries for us according to what is technologically possible.

"it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be." (Einstein) . Just because we can do it doesn't mean that we should. History is littered with tragic examples of the times we have violated this principle. In issues as fundamental as what makes us human, Christians have to make their voices heard, and scientists need to listen.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Good News

Thanks to the Ugley Vicar for spotting this Epiphany message from Lichfield Diocese Part of the explanation for the growth in that Diocese can be found here, and they've also taken seriously Bob Jackson's work (after all, he is an Archdeacon there) on what helps churches to grow.

Christian Research and Statistics on the Web

Having just skimmed through Linda Barley (CofE stats head honcho)'s 'Christian Roots, Contemporary Spirituality', where she does a good job of pulling together various bits of social attitudes research, I thought I'd post on the various bits of research available online...

Anglican Church
Church of England Statistics homepage: links to recent attendance stats, and ORB opinion surveys on church schools, Christmas etc.,

Church Statistics - also hosted by the CofE, has everything from the age of parish clergy to giving levels in the CofE, and you can look back to 2001. It'll tell you the size and population of your diocese, number of churches etc.

Fresh Expressions research, which has a useful summary of some other stats collected by Tear Fund (see below), Richter & Francis and others looking at how open to Christian faith the general population is, and the proportions of (to use the jargon) churched, dechurched, and unchurched.

The Sheffield Centre have a new Research Bulletin which you can get online: short and to the point, looks like a good resource.

Christian Research, are the publishers of the UK Christian Handbook, and the yearly Religious Trends survey. It's a great site to dig around in, and you can also subscribe to a monthly email bulletin.

TEAR Fund did a substantial piece of research on churchgoing last year, which found that the number of non-churchgoers who'd be open to giving it a go was much smaller than previously thought. The link gives a summary, and a link to the full report. They also did a survey on prayer last month which quizzed people on how often they prayed and the effects they experienced. It made it clear, among other things, that stacks more people pray than go to church.

David Couchmans excellent site has a summary of the Soul of Britain survey (done by the BBC a few years ago), and sections reviewing some of the key research books of recent years: e.g. Gone but Not Forgotten (Richter & Francis) and Alan Jamieson's A Churchless Faith (currently in my reading pile)

David Hay & Kate Hunt have done some important work on 'Understanding the Spirituality of Those Who Don't Go to Church' Pages 9-10 of the report summarise the research done by others, and the whole report analyses interviews done with non-churchgoers about their religious experiences and beliefs. The most striking statistical bit is this (apologies for the formatting - hopefully you can work it out!!):

1987 2000

A patterning of events 29% 55%
Awareness of the presence of God 27% 38%
Awareness of prayer being answered 25% 37%
Awareness of a sacred presence in nature 16% 29%
Awareness of the presence of the dead 18% 25%
Awareness of an evil presence 12% 25%

CUMULATIVE TOTAL 48% 76% someone recently observed: Christians were praying for God to be at work in revival all through this period, maybe it just happened outside the church rather than inside....

Meanwhile the Evangelism UK website keeps track of latest research project, here are the ones they currently link to.

nearly Finally if you're into thinktanks, then try Theos or Ekklesia (both have a Christan ethos) or Civitas - their 'Factsheets' section has some powerful and worrying research on the effects of absent fathers on child development.

Finally, keeping it local - Christmas attendance at St. James (my local, counting all morning services in Advent, Christmas services, Carols, Nativities, Christingles etc.) rose from 840 in 2000 to 1060 in 2003 to 1135 in 2007 (roughly: we don't scan people through the door). That bears out the national stats showing a rise in Christmas attendance at other churches.

That'll do, I'll get my anorak....

Time for a Cartoon

and a very good one too...

courtesy of Dave Walker

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The One and Only?

A few friends went out the other night in Yeovil to see an Elton John tribute act. Not being a big Elton fan, I wasn't among them, but that, plus The One and Only (latest BBC music/phone vote/Graham Norton/talent show/vote 1 person off a week/throw them all up the air and see what programme you get this year) got me to thinking about this question

Do we put up with tribute acts because we've given up on seeing the real thing?

The contestants on 'The One and Only' are tribute acts. They depend for their success on doing a passable imitation of the real thing. This is big business now - look at the programme of any provincial theatre, and you'll find a clutch of tribute acts lined up alongside the usual parade of pantos, mediums, Alan Bennett plays and Chubby Brown. Lots of people are happy to pay good money to see tribute acts. Considering the price and rarity of chances to see the real thing live (U2, Robbie Williams, etc.), never mind how hard it is to get a ticket, you can see why people settle for less.

So I wonder, do we do this with church? We know what the real thing ought to be like - it's there in the Bible, and occasionally we might have experienced or glimpsed it for ourselves, but most of the time we fall short of being the loving, prayerful, forgiving, dynamic, Jesus-centred, sacrificial, courageous, holy people of God that we actually are.

Eventually, hoping for the ideal church becomes too painful - either we join the ranks of steeple-chasers, hopping from 1 church to another in the vain hope that the grass is greener in another pew/comfy seat, or we give up hoping altogether, and settle for the tribute act. It bears a passing resemblance to what church ought to be, it sings the same songs with the same lyrics, and it's probably the nearest thing on the market. But maybe the cost of being the real church is too high, maybe it's too much sustained effort to get there, maybe what we have is 'good enough'.

But what if it is a tribute act, rather than the real thing?

In a way it's easy to illustrate this with the church, but you could apply it to anything. Your marriage, your character (is it what it could be, or just what you've settled for?), your company, your community (great word 'community' - has the amazing magic power that if we use it often enough of a group of people they will miraculously become one. Or not), your life?

and religion in general too: a question Extreme Pilgrim throws up, and which has been debated for centuries, is whether all the faiths are geniune acts in their own right, or whether one is the real thing and the rest are tribute bands. (That's what the Koran effectively claims about Jesus: you Christians think he's the real thing, but actually he's the support act for Mohammed.) Maybe the great faiths of the world all playing the right kind of music, but only one song is going to save you. It's by The Carpenter.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Shameless Plug

Just discovered that my only (and pretty brief) contribution to academic theology can be found online here. It's a summary of my research degree on Matthew Fox. Fox is best known for his book 'Original Blessing', and is one of the more widely read spiritual thinkers on green issues, but his far from orthodox 'theology' is more akin to paganism than to Christianity.

Having originally been a RC priest, Fox was thrown out from the Roman Catholic church and welcomed with open arms as an Episcopal priest - which makes him a fellow Anglican.
So perhaps a split with the Episcopal church ain't such a bad idea after all....

Touching Base: 2007 and 2008

Challenged by my friends over at the Wardman Wire to do a 'review of 2007 and prospects for 2008' thingy, the latest Touching Base explores the meaning of this picture:

and this one:
in relation to the year gone by and the year ahead.

In case you don't recognise them, the first is Life on Mars, the second is Doctor Who, but for the rest you'll just have to go and look........

And I forgot to link to last weeks article, which was Questions Too Good to Answer.

666, 42, and the meaning of life

Ruth Gledhill has spotted that a parliamentary motion to disestablish the Church of England has been assigned the number 666. The best explanation I've heard of what the 'number of the beast' stands for (apart from the one equating it with Ronald Reagan), explains it in terms of Hebrew number symbolism:
6 = the number of man (created on the 6th day)
3 = the number of God (e.g. 'holy, holy, holy')
So 666 = man trying to be God whether the Caesars of New Testament times, or the current Korean dictatorship, each is a manifestation of the same spirit, all of which in turn goes back to the first words of the devil '...and you will be like God'

Whilst we're on the subject, you don't need a brain the size of a planet to work out why the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42.
6 = the number of man
7 = the number of perfection (creation completed on the 7th day and 'very good')
42 = 6x7, a perfect man.

....and we all know who that is...

Extreme Pilgrim 2

Caught most of Part 2 of the fascinating Extreme Pilgrim last night. There are clips from the episode and previews of next week here. After spending a month with the Shaolin Monks, Rev Peter Owen-Jones moves to the other side of the Himalayas to join a Hindu 'sadhu' (holy man) as he makes his pilgrimage to the Ganges along with several million others for the Kumbh Mela festival. "Forget Glastonbury, forget Piccadilly Circus, there are 7 million people here at this festival, a sea of seething humanity."

The programme was a fascinating exploration of Hinduism - Owen Jones gives us a good summary of the basic ideas of the religion, a bit on the pantheon of the gods (over 100,000 - that must take a heck of a lot of organising), and a lot simply watching the way it works.

At the same time you can't help but be impressed by the way he throws himself into it. There can't be many Anglican vicars (myself included) who'd happily wrap themselves in nothing but a thong and do bad headstands by a river whilst crowds of local kids watch, and a camera crew films it for national telly. It reminded me of Jesus saying about becoming like little children: trust and enthusiasm, rather than being too aware of reputation, status and what people think.

One thing towards the end struck me. POJ heads up into the mountains to live in a cave near a poor village as a sadhu (the day he arrives it rains for the first time in 3 months - very interesting!). He comments that its the first time for 15-20 years that he's really got away from it all and had time to think. But why? Okay he had a bad time at theological college, but hopefully at some stage someone talked about retreats, prayer, and having time to reflect. There's a really nice place near Tiverton I could point him to if he wants to get away from it all without having to go all the way to India.

I guess there was more to it than that - living in a cave, without a home, posessions, etc. is a level further in detachment than simply going on a retreat. However I'm convinced that every Christian leader has a duty to themselves, and to the people they lead, to get away from it all regularly and have time to think and pray.

Sadly, the programme finished rather abruptly: amoebic dysentry struck, and as we saw Peter trudge off in search of a toilet the voiceover for next week suddenly cut in. I was waiting for the bit where it all got summed up, but maybe it was ok not to have it - life isn't neat, discipleship isn't neat, and we do sometimes abruptly go from the mountain to the valley. Straight after his transfiguration, Jesus walks into an argument over why his disciples have failed to cast out an evil spirit.

There will be a big contrast next week. For two weeks the programme has focused on religions of detachment - the focus of Buddhism and Hinduism is to liberate the self from human life. I found it odd that a chap as life-affirming as POJ didn't pick up on the massive downer these two religions have on human life, basically seen as a prison to escape from. It also seemed quite individualistic, a personal quest to get enlightened. Next weeks Christian monks will (hopefully) focus on Jesus - the worship of God incarnate, and something that's not about us, but about Him. Jesus who deliberately chooses human life, in order not to liberate people from it, but to transform it.

The danger of going as an individual pilgrim through all this stuff is that you don't critique the system, and what it does to a society and a culture. I hope there's a bit of space next week to compare and contrast.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Putting the Ale into Alleluia

Quote of the Day

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." (Benjamin Franklin)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Word of Wisdom from Tom Wright

A very big thankyou (the bloggers in-phrase is 'hat tip' I think...) to Malcolm Chamberlain, newly discovered blog (via Steve Tilleys comments on what sort of evangelical is the right one) for this fantastic bit of wisdom from Tom Wright:

"In Christian theology, such phrases [as "the authority of Scripture"] regularly act as “portable stories”—that is, ways of packing up longer narratives about God, Jesus, the Church and the world, folding them away into convenient suitcases, and then carrying them about with us. Shorthands enable us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should never forget that the point in doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in the new location. Too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in a suitcase may have made some of the contents go moldy. They will benefit from fresh air, and perhaps a hot iron." (emphasis mine)

this is an extract from an interview with the excellent Wittenberg Door, the original Christian satire magazine.

Putting the venge into evangelical?

Good post from Ruth Gledhill today on the rumpus at Wycliffe Hall, one of the UK Anglican training colleges. Custardy, a Wycliffe Hall student, has some interesting comments. The national press has been following this one for a while. The latest development is that Elaine Storkey, a well regarded theologian and speaker, is going to court to claiming religious discrimination against the college, arguing that she was dismissed for being the wrong sort of evangelical.

By coincidence (?) I'm reading 1 Corinthians at the moment.
1 Corinthians 6
1 If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?
2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?
3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church!
5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?
6 But instead, one brother goes to law against another— and this in front of unbelievers!
7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.

It's very sad that we have evangelical Christians taking each other to court, which itself says something about the failure of the Wycliffe structures to deal with the issues in a satisfactory way.

There are hundreds of other blogs poring over the small print of evangelicalism, and I have no intention of this becoming one of them. I just think it's tragic that evangelicalism is the strongest it has been within the Church of England for generations, that mission has never been more on the CofE agenda than it is now, and that we have a historic opportunity to be at the heart of this church which God loves and to help it to move forward. It is foolishness to be fighting, and squandering energy on working out who belongs to which theological clique. And if our theological students and ordinands are so weak-minded that they can't cope with being taught by someone of a slightly different point of view, then God help us.

Elaine Storkey says:
I am bewildered as to why anyone would want to spend their energy doing this when there is a world out there we should be speaking to of the love of God. And we should not just be speaking it, we should be living it, first of all, in the way we love one another, and also in the way we love them.

'What is the point of going out and trying to find heretics, so we can shoot them down? It seems so unloving and so unproductive. I cannot figure it out.

'Never before in the history of the evangelical church have we had so many evangelicals and of such talent. The whole way we could pull together with other people and other traditions of the church, it could be fantastic. But rather than do that, we end up squabbling. It is appalling. It is ridiculous. There is no victory there. It is just daft.'

We are the Middlemen

2 or 3 things in the last day or so have made me think about how we handle information:

- talking with Bob and Mary Hopkins from Anglican Church Planting Initiatives in Sheffield yesterday, a consultation morning on our thoughts on growing new churches in Yeovil. It was good to have 2 people who knew most of what there is to know about church planting in the UK and could distil it and relate it to what we're thinking about here

- an item on the Today programme about a new book called something like 'how to talk about books you haven't read'. It's premised on the fact that there are far too many books to read, and that it's possible to have a conversation about books you've not read by knowing a few basic things about them. In fact, key in the title of most popular books to the web and you can get a plot summary, or at least dig out a couple of helpful reviews, which will help you to bluff your way through most cheese and wine functions.

- the same principle applies with films and TV - there are several sites devoted to keeping people up to date with the latest plot developments in TV serials and soaps, and the plot of most popular films is up on Wikepedia within a week or so of them being released.

- in the work I do as a missioner, I've taken to producing an occasional mission digest, 'Biscuit Tin', for the deanery. The basic idea is to distil the stuff that's coming out in books, research, mission thinking etc. into an edible form for folk who aren't going to read through Mission Shaped Church (read it in full via the link) or the latest research from TEAR Fund.

As information increases, the need for information middlemen, brokers, increases too. For those who want to stay abreast of what's going on (an increasingly exhausting task!), we need someone else to break it down into digestible form. This is what newspapers and TV have been doing for us for ages at a general level, but the sheer volume of information means that it's harder and harder to know something about everything, or even to know everything about something.

The internet has also broken the dominance of the secular media over news, so that if you're fed up with turning on the radio every morning to hear about the latest stabbing, it's now much easier to find news and content to match your interests and to avoid the depressing catalogue of death and violence that mainstream news editors seem to think we want. Bored with your newspaper leader columns? Well there are 100,000 bloggers every morning with a take on current events, go take your pick.

The other option is to opt out completely. There's a great Christian tradition of this, from Anthony of Egypt onwards, and it's a voice that needs to be heard. Todays news is tomorrows chip paper, todays blockbuster movie is tomorrows discount DVD, but the word of the Lord stands for ever. Perspective is important.

Where do Christian communicators fit into all this? After all, our congregations increasingly have access to all this stuff, so there's less and less a place (if there ever was) for the preacher/vicar as the sole interpreter of the world to their flock. But many are also lazy/pressed for time, and there is a role for someone to edit, distil and interpret; to call people's attention to stories that are significant, or which help us to focus on particular issues (hence the previous post on Clarkson and risk). Maybe it has to be a team game: bloggers and preachers nearer to the rapid response end, and theologians and mystics taking the longer view. Wisdom and discernment are gifts to the whole body of Christ, and when Paul says "we have the mind of Christ", he doesn't mean that lots of little individual Christians know what Jesus thinks, it's a corporate image.

Which links in to mentors and wisdom, which I'll post on in the next day or so.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Clarkson, Risk and Insurance

A further thought about yesterdays Jeremy Clarkson story - one thing that makes it newsworthy (apart from Clarkson getting egg on his face, which will have delighted most of the population), is the sheer brazen risk of putting your bank details in the biggest circulating 'newspaper' in the country.

It stands out because it's countercultural. Buy anything on the net now and if you don't carefully check all the little boxes on the screen you'll find you've paid an insurance premium for safe delivery, safe travel, safe sex or whatever. Buy anything electrical and the price of a warranty (insurance against it breaking down) is thrown in, because that's the main way the retailers make a profit. Insurance is a symptom of a risk-averse society. Our attitude to children is another barometer of this: we protect them from percieved risks, when in many ways it's safer for children now than it was a generation ago. In fact our very protecting of children (bundle them into the car rather than walk) creates risk for everyone else. It's a prime case of individualism working against what everybody wants.

But we also seem to have lost the middle ground on risk. It's either obsessive safety, or extreme sports. A few tentative forays, like 'the dangerous book for boys', have recognised that there was a healthy attitude to risk in previous generations that we've lost in our own. In some ways the petrolheads like Clarkson are the only prophets for risk in mainstream society. It's just a shame that it's wasted on something as boring, and dangerous, as cars. We seem to be great at taking risks in all the wrong areas - fast cars, binge drinking, excessive debt - whilst areas which deserve the odd risk or two: friendship, faith, telling the truth, standing up for the poor, protesting and campaigning, you can probably add dozens of examples - risks which pay off for the benefit of others - we have become timid.

So Jeremy, do it again. Sorry for having a pop at you for taking a risk. We need you.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Be a Better Debtor

The Church of England has produced a helpful new resource for people in debt, timed for the post-Christmas financial reckoning. At a time when 8m of us owe over £10,000, and 2m people don't even know how much debt they're in, debt is one of those icebergs that sinks a lot of people, and many more in an economic downturn.

The main resource page is here, with a 1-page 60 second questionnaire here to work out how much debt you're in and how big a problem it is. The resource page has lots of useful links, a powerpoint presentation ready to use in church or any sort of meeting, tips on saving money and wise budgeting, and some case studies.

The Ugley Vicar got there first. Meanwhile Jeremy Clarkson, who published his bank details in the Sun to make the point that we shouldn't get so worried about the Inland Revenue losing our personal data, has been eating his words after finding that someone had used the info to donate £500 of Clarksons money to charity.