Thursday, 19 October 2017

Trying to find the right question

Over the next few months, in our ecumenical church congregation in Hodge Hill we're going to be doing a concerted bit of listening. Our plan is for every household in our congregation to be visited by a couple of people (we have a new 'Pastoral Care and Community-Building team' in training, in addition to our full-time clergy, to do these visits), and we're going to be trying to listen as carefully as we can to our sister and brother Christians here.

We're going through a time of significant change here: the demographics of our area is continuing to change at some pace; we're seeing lots of new and exciting growth in friendships between neighbours, and groups and activities growing and thriving in our neighbourhoods; as a church, we're committed to 'going deeper' in uniting two historically quite different congregations; and we're facing acute challenges around the sustainability of our finances and building which, we know, are challenges that our wider denominational structures are feeling even more sharply than we are locally.

In all of this, the potential for anxiety is high. It would be all too easy to get immersed in structural and strategic questions, driven by concerns for money and/or numbers, and either dig our heels in in fear, or lose sight of the point of it all in our focus on the 'mechanics'. Alternatively, it would be quite possible to have lovely conversations about our hopes and dreams, without naming our fears, or grappling with the very real challenges which, if not already on top of us, are at best just around the corner.

Our listening process is an attempt, then, to re-focus on the point of it all, the heart of our Christian faith - and to create space to individually and collectively articulate that afresh. It's also an opportunity to rediscover those spaces of joy - and to re-centre ourselves to live out of those, rather than be driven by all kinds of anxiety. It's a chance to begin to think creatively about other possible paths (other than the road well travelled), into the future that God is beckoning us towards. And it's an invitation to faithful Christians here to bring their hearts, their gifts, and their time, to that journey - not to fill the pre-defined 'boxes' that always need filling, but to re-shape the 'boxes' in the image of the people God has made, and is still making and re-making, in this very particular place and time.

That's the plan, at least. I have little faith in authoritarian 'leadership from the front' ("let me tell you: this is the vision, this is where we're going, this is what we're going to do"), but equally I'm less convinced that the process of finding direction through consensus decision-making is as fruitful, let alone as straightforward, as it's sometimes imagined. My hope is that as we go around listening to people, we're not just in the business of persuading people, but neither are we simply 'hearing what they think'. My hope is that our listening process will create spaces for genuinely hearing into expression "a new thing" - beyond what any of us currently think, believe or imagine.

Part of the art of this listening will be to find the right questions to open up those spaces to imagine a new thing. These are the questions that we're currently working with. They may not turn out to be the right questions. But they're where we're starting, at least...

  • Thinking about your faith...
    • what's at the heart of Christian faith, for you?
    • what gives you most joy, in your faith?
  • Thinking about church here in Hodge Hill...
    • tell us a story of a time when the church here in Hodge Hill has been at its very best...
    • tell us a story of a time when you've glimpsed the kingdom of God here in Hodge Hill, beyond the church's doors...
    • what are your dreams for the future of church in Hodge Hill?
    • what are your fears?
    • what would best help us grow together in the love of God and as followers of Jesus, deepening our faith together and living it out more fully?
  • Thinking about resourcing...
    • if we get to a point where we can't afford to maintain a church building any more, what might we do instead?
    • if we get to a point where we can't afford to pay for stipendiary ministry any more, what might we do instead?
    • what might we do differently, even before we get to one of those crisis points?
  • What are you prepared to give your passion and skills, your time and energy to, to help us move forward together?

(I'll let you know how we get on...!)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Where is the CofE going? Economies, Mission, Presence

The Church of England, nationally and more locally, is asking big questions about its future shape. Does the parish have a future? What might the church's calling to place look like in the next generation? How might the church of the future (or, indeed, the near present) be resourced, if its income is drastically diminished?

Some of these questions come out of a place of deep institutional anxiety. Others emerge from a more joyful enthusiasm for re-imagining the old in a radically new context. But there are often deeper questions behind the 'surface' questions, and it's these deeper, more theological questions that interest me most. I want to explore three of them here: questions of theological economics, questions of missiology, and questions of presence.

Framing the conversation: overlapping economies

From my own sustained reflection on my practice and experience in Hodge Hill, I want to offer brief descriptions of three different economies which I have discovered often seem to ‘frame’ how I think, feel, talk and pray about the kind of questions we’re considering here. We might understand an economy as a system in which things are used, move around and are exchanged (given and received) in ways which create and develop a sense that certain things are valued.

1.       A financial-numerical economy

This economy is perhaps the most familiar to all of us. It places a high value on counting (people, money) and keeping accounts. It sees ‘resources expended’ primarily in terms of how much money they have cost, and will tend to look for ‘value for money’ in how it evaluates its spending, understanding that primarily as ‘bringing back in’ a financial return, helping it ‘balance the books’. It cannot help looking at ‘church growth’ at least in part as a means of increasing its financial income: more people in church means more money in the plate. (Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone in the CofE or beyond thinks exclusively like this, but simply acknowledging that this is, at least, one of the economies that is operative in the thinking of many of us.) The two most regular instruments of reporting from parish to diocese – the annual statistical and financial returns – are firmly embedded within this economy, even if they occasionally make space for comments gesturing in a different direction.

2.       A kenotic-Kingdom economy

Within this second economy, the calculation is different. The growth of the Kingdom of God is what is valued above all else, whether understood as flourishing communities, new and deepening journeys of discipleship, healing in lives and relationships, friendships across differences, etc. This economy is ‘kenotic’ because the primary dynamic is one of kenosis: giving of what we have for the benefit of others. This kenotic dynamic is captured perfectly in these words from Bishop Duleep de Chickera:

“here is the crux of Anglican identity and Anglican spirituality: we do not live for ourselves, and all our energy, all our gifts, are directed to abundant life for the other”

‘Serving others’, ‘preaching the gospel’ – these are done by the church because they are what God calls and commands us to do, for the sake of the Kingdom. Resources are expended in the process – primarily in the form of time and energy, but often also money (given away, or paid to those who give of their time, energy and expertise). Change may well happen as a result of our actions, our resources expended – but that will not necessarily result in a financial or numerical ‘return’. The Jesus of Matthew 25 (‘I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you welcomed me’), Teresa of Avila’s ‘Christ has no body but ours...’, or the mantra ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, perhaps often offer some kind of guiding principle here.

This second kind of economy adds a significant complexity to our financial-numerical thinking. In a time of ongoing austerity and deepening financial inequality, many people in our neighbourhoods are struggling more and more with the most basic needs in life – a home, food, clothes, etc – at the same time as much of the vital support to negotiate the systems is being stripped away. The church, in many financially poor neighbourhoods, is often the only organisation left for people to turn to. And even when ‘church growth’ comes out of such interactions, those who are joining church congregations are often financially poor, physically and/or emotionally fragile, and immensely vulnerable. Welcoming them and embracing them as ‘members of the body of Christ’ can often be a hugely costly act in itself.

3.       A radically receptive Kingdom economy

A third kind of economy is a bit like the second, in that what is valued above all else is the growth of the Kingdom of God. But it is unlike the second because the primary ‘flow’ is anything but one-way. In this, it has something in common with the financial-numerical economy (which looks for a ‘return’ on ‘expenditure’), but in other ways it is radically different. In this radically receptive Kingdom economy (one that we have been discovering in profound ways in Hodge Hill over the last 7 years), church members often go into the world with empty hands and open eyes, looking for treasure,[1] ready to receive, thirsting for relationship with their neighbours. In this economy, the church often resists ‘taking the initiative’ or starting ‘projects’. That doesn’t mean there are no resources spent, but they are often in the form of time and energy given to just ‘being around’, listening and learning from our neighbours. What we receive in the process might often first and foremost be a new friendship, but will often also be a wealth of stories, a passion or skill (cooking, gardening, reaching out to others, plumbing, you name it!), a question or challenge to the status quo (“why is the world like this, and what are we going to do about it?!”), and often deep, hard-won, earthed, spiritual and theological wisdom. As church in Hodge Hill, we have been enriched by all of these, and more, beyond our most daring imaginings. The relationships of mutuality within our local community have grown a hundred-fold (even if, numerically at least, our church congregation hasn’t), and we Christians have learnt and received so much.

What does mission look like in these ‘economies’?

The Anglican Communion's ‘Five Marks of Mission’ are perhaps the definitive Anglican touchstone for understanding the breadth of the church's participating in the missio Dei (the mission of God). How might these five marks relate to the economies outlined above?

Of the five marks, only one seems to have any kind of obvious connection to the ‘financial-numerical’ economy: ‘to teach, baptise and nurture new believers’ (#2, ‘TEACH’). Even there, if ‘baptism’ is the point of ‘counting’ (and it is quite obviously so much more than that), ‘teaching’ and ‘nurturing’ point to a kind of growth (in depth of discipleship, we might say), that sits on a different axis to the numerical.

The ‘kenotic-Kingdom’ economy is much more visible in four of the Five Marks:
·         ‘to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom’ (#1, ‘TELL’)
·         ‘to respond to human need by loving service (#3, ‘TEND’)
·         ‘to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation’ (#4, ‘TRANSFORM’)
·         ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’ (#5, ‘TREASURE’)[2]

In each of these, there is no direct ‘return’ for the church; rather, there is a clear sense of a ‘movement outwards’, expending time, energy and more for the sake of the mission of the world and the Kingdom of God.

So how does my third economy, the ‘radically receptive Kingdom economy’, relate to mission? In part, it affirms the insight of missio dei theology that the church is but a participant in ‘God’s mission here on earth’, and that God’s mission is wider than the church’s activity. But where the church’s part in the missio dei has often been characterised as ‘finding out what God is doing, and joining in’, in the third economy the church is also called to focus particularly on the first part of that phrase: to discover what God is doing – by receiving it, from our neighbours, as both gift and challenge. Perhaps the key biblical words here are seeking ‘shalom’, recognising that our own ‘shalom’ is linked to the ‘shalom’ of the place where we live:

‘But seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare [shalom] you will find your welfare [shalom].’ (Jeremiah 29:7)

In the language of the New Testament, we see something very similar in Matthew 6:33: ‘But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [i.e. food, drink, clothes] will be given to you as well’. So when we seek justice, pursue peace and reconciliation (#4), and strive for the earth’s renewal (#5), we are not just ‘giving out’, but also opening ourselves to discover and receive the abundance of God’s shalom, God’s Kingdom, coming to us in and with our neighbours. This in turn enables us to understand ‘proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom’ (#1) not simply as ‘going out with a message’, but as naming the Kingdom where we see it in the world: where justice, peace and reconciliation are happening, where the life of the earth is being renewed, and where others (not just us Christian do-gooders) are ‘responding to human need in loving service’ (#2). The Kingdom of God we see in the parables of Jesus is, as Paula Gooder has recently put it, ‘subversive, tenacious and rampant’: it comes to us and transforms us, as much if not more than any contribution we make to growing it.

Remaining present in the urban margins

From first-hand experience and my doctoral research, I feel better placed to offer reflections on the church’s calling to place in ‘the urban margins’[4] (and in Hodge Hill most particularly) than in other contexts in which the church finds itself. Thinking of the wider church as an economy, however, means that questions of presence in some contexts cannot be disconnected from questions of presence elsewhere. If we’re in an economy, then we’re all in it together. What kind of economic thinking we deploy in one place is connected to the kind of economy we imagine, and live out, in another. If we consider ‘re-thinking’ necessary in one place, then the same re-thinking cannot be avoided elsewhere. Starting from the urban margins, then, I want to briefly consider five different reasons for remaining present, and the kind of presence they imply.

1.       Equity of presence

The simplest reason for remaining in the urban margins is one of fairness, or equity. This might, for example, look to establish roughly equal ratios between stipendiary clergy and the population of their parishes. While ‘equity’ is almost by definition devoid of content, the kind of presence implied has something to do with a direct relationship between the stipendiary clergyperson and their parishioners: closest, perhaps, to the model set out in George Herbert’s (16th-17th Century) The Country Parson, visiting parishioners from week to week, ‘present for every activity in a community, whether “church” or “civic”’.[6]

2.       Local need

A second reason for remaining in the urban margins might be linked to the levels of ‘deprivation’ and/or ‘social need’ in an area. The ‘kenotic-Kingdom economy’ in action, expressed here the church is ‘respond[ing] to human need by loving service’ (#2), through foodbanks, job clubs and other community projects. Such presence often demands funding for places where such activities can happen, and staff to deliver, or at the very least, coordinate the volunteers who deliver them. The local church congregation might supply some of those volunteers, but often challenges of capacity and fragility mean that much of the burden falls on a stipendiary clergy person – liberated from raising money for their own livelihood, so that they can give much time and effort to sustaining those of others. We might also here investigate need in terms of social isolation (more difficult to quantify), and see church as a primary means for addressing that need. Framed in these terms, the accessibility of the church’s places (church building? community centre? Community house?) and its services (in the broadest sense), including the distance parishioners might need to travel, becomes significant.[8]

3.       Divine presence / preferential option

A third reason is less pragmatic and more theological: we need to remain present in the urban margins because that is where God is. Call it command or vocation, we need to remain in the company of “the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased” because this is the company Christ keeps.[9] ‘Being there’, and ‘being with’ those who live there, is not an ‘option’ that we, the church, can choose to take or leave – this is God’s preferential option for ‘the poor’, a fundamental and unavoidable aspect of discipleship for all Christians. This does not necessarily require stipendiary clergy, but ‘being with’ does demand the capacity for long-term presence and patient relationship-building. Small congregations can do this, with the right support. Houses might often be as valuable resources as church buildings. Small missional communities, so long as they are prepared for the ‘long haul’, could be faithful responses to this divine summons.

4.       The church’s need

Linked to the third reason, and the flip-side of the second, a fourth reason for remaining in the urban margins is that the church needs the marginalized. St Laurence, famously, when instructed to bring out the church’s treasures by the Prefect of Rome, gathered together the poor of the city and presented them to the Prefect: “here are the church’s treasures”. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Community, has spent a lifetime showing us why those who appear to be ‘the strong’ need those who the world considers ‘weak’.[10] Far from platitudes, the church needs ‘the poor’ because the church itself is entangled in the sin of the world: the ‘unjust structures of society’ (#4) which include systemic racism, and the dynamics of capitalism which ‘expels’ those it deems ‘useless’ from the economy and from mainstream society.[11] The church needs to remain in areas with significant Muslim populations, if it is to challenge wider society’s Islamophobia and witness to the possibility of encounters with Muslims marked by hospitality and friendship.[12] The church needs to remain in areas with significant populations of people of colour (both within and beyond the church) if it is to have any chance of facing up to its own ongoing institutional racism.[13] And the church needs to remain in areas with significant levels of deprivation if it is to tackle its own complicity in structures and systems (both within and beyond the church) which benefit the middle-classes at the expense of the poor.[14] The church needs the marginalized precisely because they hold the keys to the church’s own reform and renewal. As Bishop Philip North has recently reminded us, ‘[e]very effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and marginalised’.[15] Here the role of clergy is significant: as those who can listen deeply in the local, and speak prophetically to the structures of the church, they occupy a crucial ‘middle ground’, without which the wider church is unlikely to hear the challenges that the urban margins present.

5.       The abundance of the kingdom

A fifth reason for the church to remain in the urban margins is, like the first, quite simple – but unlike the rather sterile equity argument, this last reason is rooted in a radically receptive economy: the church should remain in the urban margins because there it will discover the abundance of the Kingdom of God, abundant gifts not, perhaps, of money, but of friendships and stories, passions and skills, struggles and wisdom. Church buildings may be the least important asset for this kind of approach. A radically receptive Kingdom economy is adept at finding alternative spaces for gathering – indeed, is dependent on finding the spaces where people bump into each other already, rather than expecting them to come into ‘our’ spaces. As in the third approach above, small missional communities, committed to long-term presence, might well prove a worthwhile investment. A radically receptive Kingdom economy is, almost by definition, more focused on lay people in their daily lives than on clergy who at most times have at least one foot inside the church door.[16] In terms of paid personnel, however, I have already suggested that deacons, as ordained leaders in and co-ordinators of the work of ‘treasure-seeking’, may offer something distinctive and crucial to this kind of presence. But again, the priestly ministry of ‘gathering in’ also remains significant: investing in clergy with a radically receptive disposition, to put down roots in the urban margins, may enable the church to unleash the abundant gifts to be found in the margins, for the enrichment of both the wider church and the wider world.

6.       Growing the church?

In the financial-numerical economy, growing the number of people who participate in the life of the church – or at the very least sustaining it – is the over-riding priority. In neither the ‘kenotic Kingdom economy’ nor the ‘radically receptive Kingdom economy’ does this feature as a direct focus, but may arise indirectly. ‘How can we serve the needs of a neighbourhood if we don’t have any Christians left there to do so?’, we might well ask. Or alternatively, ‘surely we can be more attentive to, and receptive of, the abundant gifts of a neighbourhood if there’s more of us there with eyes and ears and hearts open to our neighbours?’ Pragmatically, these suggestions are surely both true. If we consider how our imaginations are shaped, however, both anxieties about survival and ambitions for expansion are likely to risk distracting us significantly from the missio dei, the Kingdom of God, bubbling up beyond the church’s own activities. There might, however, be a way of thinking about church growth that is more in line with the radically receptive Kingdom economy as outlined here. 

What if we thought of the church’s welcome less in terms of inclusion (making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the church’s life to ensure all who come are able to participate), and more in terms of transfusion: we need our neighbours to become part of our bloodstream as a church for us to truly live. The metaphor quickly falls down, because a blood transfusion requires blood of the same type for it to be successful. Here I want to suggest, beyond human biology, that it precisely different blood types that the church needs within its bloodstream, so that, for example, a predominantly middle-class church is not just learning to receive the gifts and challenges of its working-class neighbours at the edges of church, but is changing fundamentally because ‘they’ are now a growing part of ‘us’. This is the most radical challenge recently issued by Pope Francis: not simply to be ‘church for the poor’ or ‘church with the poor’, but ‘church of the poor’. Something similar could be said of a predominantly white church engaging with neighbours of colour: how much more transformed would that church be if it had people of colour in its bloodstream, in its worship, in its decision-making bodies, in its leadership? In this final dimension of the church’s presence in the urban margins, the local church community needs ministers (lay and ordained) not just gifted at ‘sharing the gospel’ and ‘inviting people in’, but ministers who are alert to hear the gospel afresh from those neighbours with whom they engage, and who can enable the established congregation to be open to be changed radically by those who join them. Those ministers will also (as with both the fourth and fifth approach above) need to have the boldness to challenge the wider church to change too: to receive a ‘return on its investment’ that may be anything but financial, to receive new and often challenging blood into its ancient bloodstream.



[1] In Revd Dr Kate Bruce’s sermon at the Ordination of Deacons in Birmingham Cathedral this year, ‘treasure-seeker’ was one of the four images she offered as summing up the role of the ordained deacon. That is, I would suggest, a vital ‘diaconal’ role also to be shared by the whole people of God.
[4] See Al Barrett, Interrupting the Church’s flow: Engaging Graham Ward and Romand Coles in a radically receptive political theology in the urban margins (Amsterdam: VU University of Amsterdam, 2017).
[8] This would make a particular case for ongoing presence in rural parishes, in terms of some form of building, but not necessarily in terms of a paid clergyperson.
[9] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples, p.11.
[11] See e.g. Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014).
[12] As Richard Sudworth has recently put it: ‘[t]he financial vista of the Church of England suggests that many inner-city parishes for which that formative encounter with Islam is a daily reality are under threat. Many of these parish churches have small, dwindling congregations and are in some of the most deprived communities in the country. There are very real possibilities that the unique ways that religion in the public square is negotiated in the Christian-Muslim encounter will be lost to the Church within a generation. This would be a travesty for any remaining integrity that the Church of England retains for speaking into the national consciousness, and demands creativity, imagination and strategic sacrifice in the training and deployment of ministers in the future. The question is perhaps not whether the Church of England can afford to be present in such areas, rather whether it can afford not to be present to the Christian-Muslim encounter in our inner cities and towns’ (Sudworth 2017:187).
[13] White Anglican theologian Jenny Daggers invites other white Anglicans to acknowledge with contrition ‘our still-colonized minds’ – ‘our unacknowledged racism and our reinscription of colonial patterns’ – and to place a (‘decolonized’) commitment to evangelism ‘within [rather than alongside] the church’s wider mission to work for the common good of contemporary English society’. White British Anglicans need to receive postcolonial diversity as a gift, she argues: we need to learn ‘to be transformed, rather than to transform’ (Jenny Daggers, ‘Postcolonializing “Mission-Shaped Church”: The Church of England and Postcolonial Diversity’ in Kwok Pui-Lan & Stephen Burns (eds.), Postcolonial Practice of Ministry: Leadership, Liturgy and Interfaith Engagement (2016) pp.191-3).
[14] Anglican theologian Andrew Davey has recently noted the tendency for middle-class, suburban models and agendas for mission to become ‘normative’ within the Church of England (Andrew Davey, ‘Introduction: Deep Theology for a Spacious City?’, in Andrew Davey (ed.), Crossover City: Resources for Urban Mission and Transformation (2010), p.x).
[15] ‘Hope for the Poor’, talk to New Wine ‘United’ Conference 2017, p.3
[16] While the focus of my PhD thesis is primarily on why and how we might practice a ‘radically receptive ecclesiology in the urban margins’, I do at a number of points return to the question of who.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Holding off Tiamat - the gift of "taking time"

"I decided to try and have the house clean and organized by Easter. One of our interns told me of a Jewish friend who explained keeping kosher as participating in the act of creation. According to the friend, order in the kitchen keeps chaos at bay. In the Genesis account, God wrests creation from watery chaos or tehom, a close relation to the ancient sea monster, Tiamat. So I'm battling Tiamat in our closets and under our furniture. Tiamat wreaks havoc in my date book, too. I'm in an ever-losing battle trying to wrest time to clean, pray, write, be with the children, be with Gregorio, be a pastor, pay bills, shop, cook, enter stuff into the computer to be more organized, etc. Then, when I try to remember everything I am supposed to be doing, I forget. Sometimes we find ourselves in ridiculous positions. Shall we make love or vacuum? The dust balls multiply."

(Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, p.231)

We regularly battle Tiamat in our house too (I'm not going to comment on the state of our dust balls). In fact, holding off the forces of chaos feels like not just a regular Barrett family challenge, but something very familiar to my friends and colleagues in their daily work in our neighbourhood, and to many of my friends and neighbours here too. So much is good here, hopeful and inspiring. But so much is also fragile, just one minor event away from being stretched to breaking-point, overwhelmed by the pressures and daily injustices of life.

This is not a book review (or perhaps it is the first in a series which, together, might constitute something like one). But it is inspired and energised by Heidi Neumark's brilliant book, which with breathtaking poetry and raw honesty weaves together the narratives of her ministry and family life, of Transfiguration Lutheran Church of which she is minister, of the wider neighbourhood of South Bronx in which they are passionately entangled, and of the story of the Christian faith, enfleshed most vividly through the cycle of the liturgical year, from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, into Lent and Eastertide up to Pentecost, and then expanding out into the generous territory of Ordinary Time before the cycle begins again.

We talk a lot in Hodge Hill, as we attempt to describe what we're about here, of seeking to "make space" for neighbours to encounter each other, especially across our differences - spaces for people to be heard to speech, to discover their passions and gifts, to share something of themselves, to grow in confidence and connections, to feel a real sense of belonging. Spaces, in short, for community to grow and flourish.

There is much in Heidi's book about space. One of the threads woven through the book is that of the construction - the painfully slow, often precarious construction - of a new "Space for Grace" on the side of the existing church building. But the book is also profoundly about time: in particular, the way the Christian year re-shapes the passing of time, and in the process enables profound (if often also small) transfigurations to happen. This different way of "taking time" is, perhaps, one of the most significant factors in enabling Heidi, her congregation, and at least some of her neighbours, to hold off the forces of chaos which the monster Tiamat wields.

Heidi's book left me wondering whether the ways we Christians in Hodge Hill "take time" might not, together, be one of the most significant things about who we are, what we do, and the particular, distinctive gift we might have to offer our neighbours. Part 2 of this wondering (when I get the time in the next little while!) will explore some of those time-taking ways for us here, and what difference they might just possibly make...

Friday, 23 June 2017

"More awake": receiving the gifts of my Muslim neighbours

As my Muslim neighbours approach Eid, I find myself more deeply thankful for them and their faithfulness than ever before.

I am thankful for the countless stories I hear from my non-Muslim parishioners, often people living on their own, of Muslim neighbours who regularly call at their door with gifts of food - for the abundant generosity and neighbourliness of those small actions. And I am thankful for my Muslim friends who bring my own family immensely generous Christmas presents, every year - rejoicing in the celebrations they know we Christians are preparing for.

I am thankful for those in my own neighbourhood who, working with the wonderful 'Meet Your Muslim Neighbours' organisation, have begun to open up local places of worship to curious visitors, with warm and welcoming hospitality, and have sought to share their love for their faith in ways that are clear, accessible and humble - a way of sharing from which many of us Christians have a lot to learn.

I am thankful for the recent Easter Day invitation from a local Muslim councillor, to walk with her one of the high streets of our area, expressing together our solidarity as neighbours and people of faith, where the media and far-right groups have sought to spread suspicion, hatred and division. I am thankful for that privilege, on Easter Day of all days, to have been able to give and receive the greeting, "peace be with you", in English and in Arabic ("asalaam-u-alaikum"), and to have known that the God we Christians have met in Jesus - the God my Muslim friends worship too - was yet again present in our midst.

I am thankful for the incredible witness to faithful nonviolence of Mohammed Mahmoud, the Imam at Finsbury Park mosque. In the midst of the van attack that killed one, injured many more and brought terror to the crowd of worshippers, Imam Mahmoud protected the attacker from a crowd who were, understandably, shocked and angry at what had just happened. "No one touch him - no one!" Mahmoud shouted. "By God's grace we managed to surround him and protect him from any harm," he said later. There are tears in my eyes even as I write those words.

I am thankful for those Muslims who, eating at 2am before their daily Ramadan fast began, were awake when the Grenfell Tower blaze started, and ran up and down the tower knocking on doors and alerting people to the imminent danger. Most others would have been sleeping at that time in the morning. In the midst of this desperate tragedy, who knows how many lives were saved because of these men and women, whose faithful habits of prayer enabled them to be alert to the needs of their neighbours.

And I am thankful for the invitations that have come my way this Ramadan, from Muslim friends and neighbours, to break fast together at the end of these long, hot summer days that have - all too often recently - been filled with tragic and disturbing news. I am thankful for the overwhelming, gracious, gently hospitality, the joyful welcomes and the most beautiful meals. I am thankful for the 10-year-old boy who showed me how to cup my hands in prayer, at the right time, who answered all my curious questions and was equally curious about the job that I did. I am thankful for the conversations about fasting, and the testimony's to its power to heighten all the senses, to make the fasting person more awake, more alert to God's presence in the world around us, and in their neighbours, and to enlarge the space within them for compassion. I am thankful for the reverence that my fasting Muslim friends have for the simple fact of food and water, and for the deep thankfulness to God that it renews within them. I am thankful for their invitation to me to join them as they pray - to watch them line up, side by side, and use their whole bodies to express their longing for God, their praise of God, their commitment to seek God's will with all that they are. And I am thankful that their prayers have re-kindled in me a similar longing, and praise, and commitment.

I am thankful for the privilege of being invited into spaces that are not mine, as honoured guest (not because of my own status, but because of their abundant hospitality). I am thankful for the privilege that many of my brothers and sisters in faith are beginning to count me among their friends. I am thankful that we are discovering together, as Jo Cox put it, that we have so much more in common than that which divides us. I am thankful that the shared moments of the past few weeks promise to be only the beginning of journeys of deepened relationship, deepened understanding, deepened shared commitment to community-building and justice-seeking together.

As we approach Eid together, I am deeply thankful.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Doing theology after Grenfell Tower?

How must we do our theology after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower? And by 'do', I mean live, and speak, and act, as much as read or write.

This must, surely, be a turning point. A moment which will not let us leave things as they have been. A moment which finds the 'status quo' not just wanting, but bankrupt.

This is about builders, and property management companies, and local Councils, and national government, and political and economic systems, and our all-pervasive, taken-for-granted worldviews. But for those of us who are Christians, it must also be about us. How do we live out our faith, how do we do our theology, after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower?

To ask about "after", though, begs questions about "before".

In the wake of the fire, I am profoundly thankful for the response of Christians (among countless people of all kinds of faith and none) in the Kensington area, not just meeting people's basic needs, but on the streets offering listening ears and prayers. Revd Gabby Thomas, a nearby curate, articulated a sense that local people have perceived the church, in the midst of this disaster, as "a body of people who cared about the injustice they [the victims] had suffered and would stand by them", providing also "a public space for lament and prayer", "a space to ask the questions, to name the injustices and to shout to God". For all of this, I give deep and heartfelt thanks. And as part of the body of Christ beyond Kensington, their calling there resonates deeply with our calling here in Hodge Hill.

But what about before? What about before the fire? The question that seems to echo around the charred ruins and far beyond, getting louder every time it is repeated, is this: how were the voices of Grenfell Tower residents not heard before? The cries for help and for justice, the warnings of catastrophe, were being voiced years ago, but seemed to fall on deaf ears.

This is not a judgment on the local churches of Kensington. But it is a judgment on the Church as a whole. I'm not asking "where were you?" - I'm asking a devastated, heart-broken, guilt-ridden "where were we?". How can we do theology "after", hearing for the first time - and tragically too late, for so many of them - the voices unheard "before"? What do those voices call us to do, or to be? What kind of vocations do they summon from us?

They call us to be present. But present where? On the estate, as much as in the city centre. In the tower block, as much as in the church. Because God is to be found at the edges. We're called to passionate, long-term living-alongside, not to make occasional forays in the name of 'mission'.

They call us to listen, before we speak. Where we are the ones with more power and privilege, let's put a brake on our need for new 'initiatives', so that we, first, can be challenged and changed by our neighbours. Let's hear their cries and their struggles (as well as their joys and delights) so that it's them that determine our agendas.

They teach us to lament: how to lament, and what to lament for. In 'hearing to speech' their cries to God, we learn how we should be praying.

They call for researchers: those dogged seekers after the longer, deeper, wider story; those who with their carefully-crafted tools are able to trace the workings, structures and flows of power; those who can show us where and how things are complex, and how a decision made in one place can affect the lives of many people elsewhere.

They call us to confess - clear-sighted confession, emerging from our lament, schooled by our neighbours, clarified by those who've done the hard yards of research. Confessing our complicity, not to be paralysed in it, but to change.

They call us to invest ourselves differently: our time, our energy, our money, our attention, our passion, our worship, our talking, our action - all of these, in a million tiny changes, tip the scales of justice.

They call us to accompany our neighbours to the 'centres of power' - political power, cultural power, financial power, ecclesial power - to present their own insights and challenges, with their own bodies and in their own words - with us cheerleading from the sidelines and resisting 'doing for'.

They call us to put our bodies in the way - on the streets, at the council offices (not inside them, deploying our privilege in polite board room chats, as if we alone can make all the difference), in the protests, in the public squares - halting 'business as usual', issuing the challenge, and anticipating the raucous, multi-coloured street parties of the kingdom of heaven.

They call us to join a movement that is bigger than any of us, and our organisations and institutions and Churches - but which finds its way through the cracks in those, topples their pillars and breaks down their dividing walls; a movement which connects London to Birmingham, Kensington to Westminster, Hodge Hill to the City, Ladywood to Lambeth Palace. The movement is one that unleashes timid voices, and enables people to hear and understand across language barriers; it sets hearts on fire and justice rolling down like mighty waters.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Dear Archbishops (a response) #GE2017

[UPDATES:
9/5/17 Thank you for all the positive comments, and additional names for the letter. I'm now struggling to keep up with adding new names to the body of the letter itself, but do leave your name in the comments below if you'd like to.
There are also articles in The Guardian today, and on the Premier website late yesterday.
Alan Storkey has also written a very thorough and considered response to the Archbishops letter here.
8/5/17 There's a write-up of this letter (pretty verbatim) by Christian Today online here]

Dear Archbishops Justin and Sentamu,

Thank you for your pastoral letter, which many of us read eagerly when we received it. We do indeed live in 'frantic and fraught' times, and deeply-rooted Christian wisdom in the lead-up to this most critical of General Elections has the potential to make a valuable, even crucial contribution. As those who share with you both the weighty responsibility for helping Christian congregations reflect on the current political challenges with Christian faithfulness, your efforts to support and resource us are appreciated.

Thank you also for highlighting the vital issues of education and housing, of community-building and healthcare, of overseas aid and campaigns against slavery, trafficking and sexual violence. Thank you for pointing to the need for justice in our economic and financial systems, and for "a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants". All of these we welcome, as crucial issues to be placed at the centre of our political conversations and decisions.

There were, however, aspects of your pastoral letter which have given us cause for deep concern, and which have driven us to respond to it with urgency.

Most prominently among those concerns is your use of the word 'stability'. We appreciate the word's Benedictine roots, and the critical contemporary challenge of "living well with change". However, words also acquire meaning from their common usage in the present, and it is impossible to escape the fact that the leader of one of the major political parties competing in this General Election has used the phrase "strong and stable" almost as a mantra throughout the election campaign thus far. For your pastoral letter to focus so positively on such a politically freighted word seems to us, at best, as a case of desperate political naivety, and at worst, an implicit endorsement of one party in this election.

Our concern goes deeper than the level of perception, however. Your focus not just on 'stability', but also on 'cohesion' (as "what holds us together"), your commodification of 'courage' as "aspiration, competition and ambition", and your conflation of the deeply-contested discourses of "our Christian heritage" and "our shared British values" (a conflation often appropriated by far-right nationalist groups) are also all deeply troubling. The quest for reconciliation and unity of course has a vital place within both the Christian tradition and the work of politics, but at this point in the history of the United Kingdom, politicians issuing calls to 'unite' risk concealing deep divisions under a banner of conformity, rather than addressing these divisions at their roots. The emphases on stability and cohesion in your pastoral letter risk colluding with such dangerous political rhetoric. As you will of course know, the Benedictine vow of 'stability' goes hand in hand with the vow of 'conversion of life' - an ongoing process of allowing our hearts to be changed. That process often involves plunging into the heart of our divisions and conflicts, coming face to face with our 'others' and our 'enemies', and confronting our own tendencies towards self-deception, greed, exclusion and violence. There is a prophetic calling for the church here, that goes well beyond appeals to shared values.

The third Benedictine vow is that of 'obedience'. Understood in a purely hierarchical way, it could be argued that this response to your pastoral letter is an act of disobedience. Our understanding of Benedictine obedience, however, is more mutual: as Rowan Williams has put it, "[n]ovice and senior monk are ‘obeying’ one another if they are attending with discernment to one another and the habits that shape their lives are habits of listening, attention and the willingness to take seriously the perspective of the other, the stranger". At a time when the voices of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and the most marginalised are being ignored, silenced, even demonised, we want to respond to Benedict's call to obedience with our whole hearts, and listen most attentively to those voices, not in the centres of power, but in its margins. When those voices are not being heard at the heart of our deliberations and decision-making, Jesus himself is being silenced.

You remind us at the beginning of your pastoral letter that we are currently in the season of Eastertide. We pray, with you, that the risen Christ will be seen and welcomed among us, as in the stranger on the Emmaus Road, that hearts will be changed, and that the peace of Christ will break down all our dividing walls.

In joyful obedience to our Risen Lord,

Revd Al Barrett, Rector
Revd Dr Sally Nash, Associate Minister
Revd Dr Genny Tunbridge, Common Ground Community
Penny Hall, Church Warden
Sarah Maxfield, Community Development Worker
Paul Wright, Street Connector Mentor
Jane Barrett, Youth & Community Worker
Bob Maxfield, Julia Bingham, Jo Bull
(all of Hodge Hill Church, Birmingham Diocese)

Revd Dr Richard Sudworth, Christ Church Sparkbrook, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr John White, Kingsbury, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Priscilla White, St Faith & St Laurence Harborne, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Kathryn Evans, St Paul Blackheath, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Andy Delmege, St Bede Brandwood, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr Susannah Snyder, Oxford Diocese
Revd Kate Pearson, Coventry Diocese
Revd Canon Kathryn Fleming, Coventry Cathedral
Revd Elaine Evans, Vicar, St Bertelin Stafford St John the Evangelist Whitgreave, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Judith Jessop,  Methodist Pioneer Minister, Parson Cross, Sheffield
Revd Ray Gaston, Team Vicar, St Chad & St Mark, Parish of Central Wolverhampton , Lichfield Diocese
Revd Simon Douglas, Team Vicar, Parish of Tettenhall Regis, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Mark Hewerdine, Priest-in-Charge, St Chad's Ladybarn / Fresh Expressions Enabler, Manchester Diocese
Revd Jo Musson, Claines and St George's Parish Churches, Worcester Diocese
Revd Dr Keith Hebden, Leicester Diocese
Revd Paul Nicolson, Taxpayers Against Poverty
Brother Barnabas-Francis OSF, St Barnabas Bethnal Green, London Diocese
Fr Damian Feeney, Vicar, Holy Trinity Ettingshall & Catholic Missioner, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Pam Smith, i-church.org
Revd John Hayes, Tower Hamlets Methodist Circuit
Revd Simon Nicholls, Markfield, Leicestershire
Revd Jonathan Clatworthy, St Brides Liverpool
Revd Claire Turner, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr Kevin Ellis, Vicar Bro Cybi, Bangor Diocese
Revd Canon Barry Naylor, Leicester
Revd Malcolm Liles, Sheffield Cathedral
Revd Naomi Nixon, Coventry Diocese
Revd Michael Futers, Associate Priest, St Mark's Derby, Derby Diocese
Revd Mark Nash-Williams, Vicar, Alston Moor, Newcastle Diocese
Revd Sarah Bick, Vicar, Mid-Wyedean Churches, Gloucester Diocese
Revd Rosie Austin, Team Rector, Shirwell Mission Community, Exeter Diocese
Revd Deborah Scott-Bromley
Revd Jonnie Parkin, Ely
Revd Dr Catrin Harland-Davies, Methodist Chaplain, Sheffield University
Revd Victoria Ashdown, Vicar, Ampfield Chilworth & North Baddesley
Revd Helena del Pino, Church of the Holy Spirit, Bretton, Peterborough Diocese
Revd Mark Coleman, Vicar, Rochdale St Chad, St Mary in the Baum & St Edmund
Revd Mark Rodel, All Hallows Lady Bay, Southwell & Nottingham Diocese
Revd Susan Height, Priest in charge, St Faith North Dulwich, Area Dean Dulwich
Revd Sally Coleman, Wesley Ebenezer, Sheffield
Revd Richard Cattley, retired priest, Maidenhead
Mother Carrie Thompson, Vicar, Forton St John the Evangelist, Portsmouth Diocese
Revd Ali Dorey, North Sheffield Estates
Revd Nick Jones, Rector, Acton
Revd Claire Carson, Lead Chaplain, St George's Hospital, London
Revd Tony Whatmough, Team Rector, Headingley Team Ministry, Leeds
Revd Stella Bailey, Vicar, Kenilworth, Coventry Diocese
Revd Andy McMullon, Parish of Sedbergh, Carlise Diocese
Revd Elaine Dando, Chichester Diocese
Revd Patricia Holmes, retired priest, Leeds Diocese
Revd Lesley Crawley, Parish of Badshot Lea and Hale
Revd Denise Harding, Methodist presbyter, Cheshire South Methodist Circuit
Ven Alastair McCollum, Archdeacon of Tolmie, Rector St John the Divine, Victoria BC
Revd Fiona Haworth, Associate Priest, St Peter Mancroft, Norwich Diocese
Revd David Bouskill, Chichester Diocese
Revd Mark Abrey, Chase Benefice, Oxford Diocese
Revd Jeanette Hartwell, Director of Reader Training, Lichfield Diocese
Revd David Kirk Beedon, Southwell & Nottingham Diocese
Revd Dr Chris Shannahan, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University
Revd Steve Ingrouille, Methodist presbyter, Isle of Man
Revd Nick Jowett, retired priest, Dinnington, South Yorkshire
Revd Dr John Peet, Leeds Diocese
Revd Dr Graham Southgate, Team Rector, Nadder Valley, Salisbury Diocese
Bishop Laurie Green
Revd Wendy Wale, Chaplain, Wadham College, Oxford

Mark Bond-Webster, Norwich Cathedral Jane Hyde, soon-to-be-licensed Reader, St Mary in the Baum / St Chad Rochdale
Andy Macqueen OblSB, All Saints Basingstoke
Margaret Townsend, All Saints Bath
Rob Ellis, St John the Baptist CofE, Wonersh
Stephen Davy, London Jane Perry, Social Policy Researcher / Trainee Lay Pioneer, Lewes, Chichester Diocese
Patricia Hardman, Baptist
Hannah Land, Nottingham
Marie Holmes
Craig Nobbs, LLM, Parish of Badshot Lea and Hale
David Rhodes, writer
Anne Roberts, Bolton
Ian Wood, Local Preacher, Nottingham (East) Methodist Circuit
Laura Whitmarsh, Ordinand, Bristol
Sue Peach, Reader, Christ Church Shooters Hill, London Alison Kaan
Wendy Edwards, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
Aidan Greenwood, Manchester Diocese
Sarah Claire-Swift, Stoke on Trent
Toby Forward
Lisa Adams, Portsmouth
Ruth Wilde, Selly Oak Quaker Meeting, Birmingham
Anne Roberts, Bolton Dr Nigel Pimlott
Liam Massey, St Paul Stockongford, Coventry Diocese
Erika Baker, St Andrew's Blagdon, Bath & Wells Diocese
Kath Rogers, All Saints with St Frideswyde, Liverpool Diocese
Jennie Liebenberg (ALM in training), St Matthew's New Waltham, Lincoln Diocese
James Ballantyne, North East pioneer development worker, Frontier Youth Trust Dr Simon John Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform
Savi Hensman, ekklesia
Simon Barrow, ekklesia
Carrie Pemberton Ford
Barbara Wheeler
Matthew Arnold, LLM for FxC St Augustine, Mansfield & St Barnabas, Pleasley Hill, Southwell & Nottingham Diocese
Marion West, Local Preacher, Purley Methodist Circuit, London District
Tom Skinner, Manchester
Mark Bick, Pioneer Reader, Coleford, Gloucester Diocese
Angela Partoon, All Saints Walsall
Paul Keeble, Manchester
Mel Parkin, Cambridge Jessica Holmes-Stanley, Birmingham Diocese Susi Liles, Sheffield Cathedral
Ruth Harley, Children's Youth & Families' Minister, All Saints High Wycombe, Oxford Diocese
Rachel Holdforth, All Saints High Wycombe
Karin McDonald, St Mark's Godalming
Sue Williams, Lay Worship Leader, Sheffield Manor Parish
Jenny Sills, Reader, Ladywood, Birmingham Diocese
Kathryn Rose, Harrow Green, London
Ray Leonard, St Andrew Blackhall, Durham Diocese
Ann Marie Gallagher, Roman Catholic, Birmingham
Adam North, St Peter's Hall Green, Birmingham Diocese
Nick Waterfield, Methodist, Chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty
Kim E Lafferty, St Stephen's, Kearsley, Manchester
Dr Charles Pemberton and Ms Irene Roding, St Margarets Church, Durham
Jo Chamberlain, All Saints Ecclesall, Sheffield Diocese
Annie Weatherley-Barton, St Peter & St Paul Gosberton, Lincoln Diocese
Antony Lowe, St Christopher's, Springfield, Birmingham Diocese
Simon Cross, Oasis, Grimsby
Symon Hill, Oxfordshire
Greg Smith, Lancashire
Simon Foster, Birmingham
Jenny Richardson, Sheffield
Jacob Theunisz, Reader, The Netherlands
Paul Magnall, Church Warden, All Hallows' Leeds
David Carter, Church of Martyrs, Leicester
Denis Beaumont, Methodist Local Preacher, Wombourne