Sunday, 10 June 2018

We've come a long, long way together: community, depth & 'wow' moments

This week has been a remarkable one in the life of our neighbourhood.

Why? Because in the midst of our day-to-day labour of love, care and friendship, of knocking on doors, of opening up our regular 'places of welcome', of sharing food and having fun and doing stuff together, of making new friends and deepening existing friendships... in the midst of all of that, we paused a couple of times this week - firstly to reflect together on where we've got to and how it's going, and secondly to celebrate some of the breathtakingly wonderful talent among us.

I want to just record here a little of what's happened. And also draw in a few other voices, reflecting on the same thing from different angles.

Reflecting together

On Wednesday, 21 friends and neighbours spent a couple of hours together, with a couple of visitors (who are also dear friends and travelling companions): Cormac Russell and Jane Perry. The 21 of us were there because we've all properly swept up in the movement of community-building here. Our two visitors were there for good reasons too: Cormac to offer a few simple questions to invite us into reflection and conversation, and Jane to listen carefully to what we said, and to write some of it down to help us not forget!

We began with naming what we loved about living and spending time in our neighbourhood. People mentioned the passion, enthusiasm and commitment they saw around them; seeing people grow and flourish through getting involved with each other; walking down the street and always bumping into people to talk to; knowing you can come to any of our community places and find a warm, non-judgmental, 'overwhelming' welcome, a place to belong; and a 'community spirit' where everyone pulls together to make stuff happen.

But what is it that has made this happen? In some neighbourhoods, disasters like floods can 'precipitate' people coming together, at least for a time. What is the 'positive flood' that has 'precipitated' the growth of community in our neighbourhood? And how will we get more stories of involvement and belonging here? We talked about the importance of visibility - getting really close to people's doorsteps and walking routes - so that passers-by can see what's happening, and be drawn in out of curiosity. We named the importance of invitation, of telling our stories of life-changing experiences of community and inviting others to come and experience it too. We talked about the infectiousness of community - "caring is catching", someone said - and the way what people see, they might try to copy: "maybe I could do that", or "I want a bit of that!". And we reflected on how that desire, once caught, makes us want to go deeper: we experience welcome, we discover we can contribute, and we want more of it... One of the golden threads through it all was that we were never trying to 'sell' something, never trying to 'fix' people, but simply wanting to say, always: "you're welcome - we can't do without you". And we finished our time together by saying that to each other, in gratitude - with the specifics of the particular gifts that we've seen, that we've received, in and from each of those present.

As someone who's shared this journey with my neighbours for the last 8 years (some of my friends and neighbours have been at it longer!), it moved me to tears to be reminded how far we've come together, as a neighbourhood. And to hear individual stories of their journeys into greater confidence in themselves, connection to their neighbours, and belonging to this thing we call 'community'.

"ABCD is about the creation of authentic community life, where everyone is welcomed; gifts are discovered & fragility is accepted. It recognizes life’s challenges & with audacity seeks connection.
It’s that authenticity that rang true for me, again today, in the community of Firs & Bromford, where local residents spoke of a renewal of community life. They shared stories about how they are re-hatching and re-weaving community spirit: conversation by conversation, street party by street party, and through indoor and outdoor places of welcome. It’s an uncommon story which is not about fixing, funding or fighting. But rather, is about care, compassion and connection. I am both honoured and moved every time I visit this community, it gives me hope that an alternative future is just two door knocks away. It starts on our street, not Wall Street. Go Firs & Bromford!" (Cormac)


Celebrating talent

And then on Friday night (in between Wednesday and Friday one of our wonderful Muslim neighbours, a co-leader of 'Flavours of Hodge Hill', put on a fabulous Iftar for her friends and neighbours - but that's a story for another day), we had our very first 'First & Bromford's Got Talent'. It's an event we've been talking about for a few years here, but now was its time. Looking back, we could trace the journey from the beginnings of the Bromford Theatre Group (which continues to flourish and surprise!), through a fragile, fun but short-lived community choir, into some ad hoc jamming sessions in the corner of a weekly cookery group, which germinated a monthly 'open mic night' at St Wilfrid's Community Centre, which in turn became a weekly 'family disco'... and finally this glorious evening celebrating the gifts of Firs & Bromford in music, dance and poetry.


Hosted again in the wonderful St Wilf's, the
talent and creativity (children and adults alike) on show was impressive by any standards. What left me an emotional wreck by the end of the night, though, was much more than the stunning talent. Knowing
even a little of the journeys and battles that many of the contestants (both adults and children) had been on to get onto that stage on that Friday night, I was in awe and wonder at their courage and determination, their raw vulnerability and yet the sheer dignity and pride of standing up there, showing us something of their spirit, their soul, their God-given essence. Some of those who got up and performed had fought more than just nerves to do what they did. And in the end, the 'competition' wasn't really a competition at all: each and every one of them was cheered on - willed on, hoped and prayed on - by each and every one of us in the audience, and we were heart-burstingly proud of all of them - we'd have made them all joint winners if we could have done. Our role, collectively, was encourager, cheerleader, celebrant of the wonderful gifts of our neighbours - the wonderful gifts that are our neighbours. We've come a long, long way together.


"Wow what an amazing and emotional night celebrating all the talent in our community. Songs, dance, poetry by children and adults. … We came to live in this community hoping we could make a difference but whatever we’ve managed to contribute is absolutely nothing compared to what this community has done for me. Learning to receive the gifts of my neighbours has been one of the revelations of my life. When I’m here I genuinely believe another world is possible." (Tim)


"It was a brilliant night. And everyone was amazing. When we go to things like this it's like one big family - everyone is happy, talking, playing, just how it should be I love it, well done to everyone xx" (Louise)


"I don't think I've felt so many emotions in one evening since I had my children, I've laughed, I've cried, I've felt happy, sad, overwhelmed, blessed, in awe..........." (Julie)


A little bit of theology

Just about holding back the tears, at the end of our reflection session on Wednesday I observed that so much of what I'd heard, seen, witnessed in our conversations, and in what those conversations described, was what some of us dreamed for church to be. Not that I remotely wanted to impose the term 'church' on something magical in its own right - more that there was so much that 'church' can learn from, be enriched and challenged by, what we're discovering in our neighbourhood here.

"Been pondering this (on and off): I feel like what I witnessed yesterday was an encapsulation of 15 years of committed, patient, fragile yet passionate, intentional (re)building of community by [among others] a small group of people drawn together by their (in this case) Christian faith and underpinned by painstaking (and painful) dedication to a journey of exploring theology-practice. Does that ‘count’ as ‘church’ or not? Do I care? Does it matter?" (Jane)


"Amazing we are talking about something so beautiful. I’m less worried about whether it’s ‘church', as an experience and infiltration of the kingdom of God into the world, a thin place - and ‘church’ is wherever there is a prophetic reflection of that in the world as embodied in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus." (Tim)


It's something I'm pondering a lot at the moment: what are the deep connections between 'community' as we're witnessing it here, and 'church' in any recognisable sense? It's certainly not the case that the former is a direct product of the latter - nor that the latter is emerging in any straightforward way from the former. Some fascinating things are emerging that look a bit like 'church' - weekly prayers after our Real Junk Food Kitchen lunch-time shift being just one of them. But the ground on which our Wednesday reflections happened, and Friday's talent show, was inescapably holy ground in its own right.

I like Tim's words 'prophetic reflection' as a description of something that might be distinctive about 'church' in all of this. Cormac and Jane, in our reflective gathering, played a vital - if understated - role in helping us to see, to offer, and to remember. And I've been playing with another word - the ancient Christian practice of 'contemplation': attending deeply to what is - a sustained, even disciplined attention.

For much of the last few years, in my practice and relationships here, and in my reflection in more disciplined theological modes, I've found profound resonances with the stories of encounters in Mark's gospel between Jesus and women. In each of those encounters, Jesus gets interrupted and disrupted, challenged and changed, by the initiatives, words and gifts of women - on the very edges of Jesus' world (Mark 7), on the road from one place to another (Mark 5), and even breaking in to a supposedly private gathering (Mark 14). These themes have spoken, for me, to the interruption and disruption, challenge and change, that the church has, when we've been most radically receptive, received from our neighbours here.

But I'm beginning to find myself drawn now to a different way of living out the Jesus story - alongside Mark's version, not replacing it. In the gospel of John, I'm discovering a counterpart to action and interruption: a sustained abiding, an attentive contemplation, that invites us to see something more deeply, to witness 'holy ground', to see God's glory in human flesh (John 1). This kind of seeing is not obvious, or easy, or quick. You and I can look at the same thing, the same event, the same person, the same encounter, and see it in very different ways. But I have a hunch that the invitation in John's gospel, for our community here, is to 'come and see': not to 'come to church', but to look at what is happening in our neighbourhood - in the often fragile, often torn, human flesh - and to look with eyes that are able to see God's glory. To be moved to tears, to be rendered speechless, to have our breath taken away by the 'wow' moment.

And then what...??


[Our fantastic Street Connector Mentor, Paul Wright, has written up his own reflections on the past week, here.]

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Different kinds of darkness: a sermon for Trinity Sunday


There are different kinds of darkness.

There is the darkness of Nicodemus. He came to Jesus ‘by night’. Under cover of darkness. In secret. Out of the public eye, that he, a leader and teacher, would be so conscious of in the daytime. Coming to talk to someone he could not afford to be seen with. By night. For the sake of his reputation, and that of his fellow Pharisees. There is fearfulness in this darkness – the fear of being found, exposed, found out. But it’s not unlike another kind of fearfulness that darkness can bring – the kind of darkness that a young child – and the young child in each of us – is scared of: the darkness in which monsters lurk, or burglars; the darkness that makes us quicken our pace when we’re walking alone.

And then there is the darkness of Isaiah. A darkness in the middle of the temple, as it filled with smoke. Filled with smoke, and angels, and a throne on which God himself was seated. God himself. Isaiah’s darkness is the ‘thick darkness in which God was’, as the storyteller describes another face-to-face encounter with God – Moses’ darkness, on God’s mountain, receiving the commandments. This is the darkness of the billowing clouds of God’s glory, a darkness that reduces even the most eloquent of prophets (let alone the church’s fire safety officer) to awe-struck silence.

And let’s not forget the darkness of the beginning. The darkness of before the beginning. When there was nothing. No earth, no sun, no moon, no stars, no universe. Nothing but God. The darkness before light ever was, before the first ever ‘let there be’.

There are different kinds of darkness.

But there is only one God. Something worth reminding ourselves of, on Trinity Sunday of all Sundays. Something our Muslim sisters and brothers can be forgiven for getting confused about Christians, because we are sometimes confused ourselves. There is only one God. Not three gods. One God. The mystery that we celebrate today though, is that God does not just love us, love the creation, the universe that she has made with her decisive ‘let there be’… The mystery is that in the darkness before the beginning of time; in ‘the thick darkness’ on the mountain, and in the temple, where God was; at the heart of God’s very being, God is love. God is community. Life, relation, love, longing, delight – are all within God.

But is it perhaps an even greater mystery, that from that thick darkness, from the billowing clouds of glory, the life, relation, love, longing, delight that is God – the community that is God – reaches out… stretches out her arms and touches us – with a burning coal, with word made flesh, with her Spirit, praying in us, yearning in us, opening us up to cry ‘Abba! Father! Here I am! Your child!’

Long before the acrimonious Councils of the Church insisted on trying to get our trinitarian grammar ‘right’, the 2nd Century theologian Irenaeus described the Son and the Spirit as the two arms of God, making the world, and reaching out to draw the world into the divine embrace. Like a parent pulling their children in close to them, out of love, protection, delight – in the two arms of God that reach out to embrace us and envelop us, we discover that we are nothing less than beloved children of God. That is the good news. For Trinity Sunday, for every Sunday, for every second of every minute of every hour of every day. God is love, and God embraces us as her beloved children. And as an African-American bishop who a week ago became in 13 ½ minutes quite possibly the most famous preacher of the 21st Century put it:

When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well … like we are actually family.”

There is a little ‘but’. For those of us sitting in this place – and the longer we’ve been coming here, the more dangerous this little ‘but’ becomes – for those of us sitting in this place the danger is that we think we know it. The clouds of smoke in the temple have cleared, the ‘thick darkness where God was’ has become as clear as day. We know God is love. We know “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. We know we are God’s children. We know we come to church every Sunday to find community, to hear God’s word, to meet God here. We’ve been so well-schooled in the mystery that – somewhere along the line it’s stopped being a mystery any more.

That seems to be where Nicodemus is at. “Rabbi,” he says, kicking off his pre-prepared speech to Jesus. “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” We know. We know how God works. We know what God-at-work looks like. But Jesus says No, Nicodemus, you must become like a little child. You must start all over again. The Spirit is un-pin-downable, un-tameable – like the wind, it blows where it wants to, and you don’t ‘know’, Nicodemus. You don’t know where it’s come from, or where it’s going. You need to let the Spirit help you begin again, Nicodemus – help you catch glimpses of the mystery of God at work, and follow where it leads – help you seek and search for the God who loves playing hide-and-seek with you.

Nicodemus came to Jesus, by night, with his little boxes all pre-drawn, ready to be ticked as he questioned Jesus. And Jesus blew his boxes wide open. For those of us who’ve been Christians for more than a little while, we have a pretty good idea of where, and how, we expect to see God to be at work. And God says to us, as he said to Nicodemus, No – you must become like a little child. You must start all over again. You need to let the Spirit help you begin again – help you catch glimpses of the mystery of God at work, and follow where it leads – help you seek and search for the God who loves playing hide-and-seek with you. There’s a good Latin phrase that we theologians have for this – we call it the missio dei, the mission of God – it means, simply, that God is getting on with being God in the big wide world that God made and that God loves and that God longs for. Beyond our church buildings. Beyond our community organisations. Beyond our denominations. Beyond our theological reading and PhD research. Beyond our plans and programmes and politics. God is getting on with being God. Not indifferent to us, but often in spite of us. Always reaching out to invite us to join her – but getting on with being God whether we respond to her invitation or not.

Today, we enter the season of the Christian year that we call ‘Ordinary Time’. The long stretch of the year from now until November when nothing much happens – no times of careful preparation like Advent and Lent, no wonderful festivals like Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Ordinary Time. Green time. Growing time. The time between the resurrection of Jesus and the liberation and redemption of all creation. The time when the new life has begun, but we aren’t yet living it in all its fullness. The time when ‘making new’ and ‘making do’ have to co-exist, alongside each other. The time, to develop the ecological image a bit further, when the Spirit helps us put down our roots deeper, helps us grow our branches up and out, helps us bud and blossom and bear fruit, helps all kinds of unpredictable cross-pollination happen between us and our neighbouring plants and flowers and trees and bushes.

What does this mean for us in our life here and now, in Hodge Hill? Our conversations over the next few weeks about different expressions of church, different forms of worship, are part of our willingness to follow the movement of the Spirit among us. The flourishing of our ventures of building community with our neighbours, through Open Door and The Real Junk Food Kitchen, Street Connecting, Knit & Natter, the Old Rectory and Coffee Mornings here, are signs of the Spirit bringing to life glimpses of God’s loving community, through the church, invitations to the church from beyond us, and sometimes springing up in spite of the church. In some of what we’re involved in in our neighbourhoods here, we’re learning new ways of being community, across divisions of nationality, ethnicity, faith, class and age. And there are places, and encounters, and moments where it’s our neighbours who are encouraging us to pray, and deepen and widen our prayers – rather than, as we might expect, the other way round. The Spirit is at work here in Hodge Hill, and that’s exciting, and encouraging – as well, sometimes, as it is challenging. ‘We know,’ we’re sometimes, like Nicodemus, tempted to tell ourselves. And then we encounter the free Spirit of God, and like Isaiah, we’re reduced to speechless awe and wonder.

This long stretch of ordinary time is a time to practise our faith, then – to renew our rhythms of prayer and bible-reading, of care and conversation, of deep hospitality and neighbouring well, of lament and justice-seeking. We, the church, are a community of practice: of living out our faith, and of seeking to do that more faithfully, more authentically, with more integrity than we did it last year, or the year before, or the year before that. But we must also, as church, be a community of discernment: patiently, painstakingly, sometimes painfully, seeking for what is God’s will, rather than our own agenda; seeking to listen for God’s call to us now, rather than what it was last time we listened for it; seeking to let go of our ‘we knows’ – so that we can be taught by God’s Spirit afresh. That is the work of ordinary time, as much as the doing. And God knows we’re trying to engage in that work here now, however much we might be hesitant or unsure about it.

Vincent Donovan was a missionary who went from America to the Masai peoples of east Africa. One day, after he had told them much about the story of Abraham and Jesus, one of the Masai elders asked him a question: “This story of Abraham,” asked the elder, “does it speak only to the Masai? Or does it speak also to you? Has your tribe found the High God? Have you known him?” Donovan sat there for a long time in silence, and when he finally spoke, he was surprised at how small his voice sounded. “I said something I had no intention of saying when I had come to speak to the Masai that morning: ‘No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together, we will find him.’”

Some months later, Donovan was challenged again. The Kiswahili word he’d been using for ‘believe’ was too weak, too distanced, too tied up with the head, said one of the elders. They needed better words for faith – faith that was like a lion going after its prey, using its nose and eyes and ears to pick up the prey, his legs to give him the speed to catch it, all the power of his body in the leap and his front paws to deliver the death blow. And as the animal goes down, the elder explained, the lion envelops it in his arms, pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is what faith is like, he said. But there was more. “We have not searched for [God],” he said. “He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.

So with Vincent Donovan, with Nicodemus, with Isaiah – may we be startled afresh by God’s reaching out to us. May we let ourselves be gathered up in God’s arms, the warm embrace of God who is love. And may we, caught up in God’s love, and life, and longing and delight, discover the courage to say, afresh: ‘Here I am, send me’.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Church 'outside-in': what if...

I want to try out a little 'thought experiment' on you, dear reader(s)...

It begins with a suggestion or two about how the Church (with a big 'C', but with an acknowledgment that I write from within the Church of England, and so that is the 'Church' I mean primarily) imagines itself, and therefore functions practically. And then it wonders, what if it imagined itself differently.

Specifically, I want to wonder, what if the Church imagined the flow (I'll flesh out that term a bit more shortly) as moving from the 'outside', in - rather than from the 'inside', out...

Let me explain.

'Inside-out' Church

It's often clearest when we're thinking about money (which is where a previous blog post on this topic started). For many of us involved in the Church (with a big 'C'), most of the money that's visible seems to come 'from the centre' ('the Diocese', and even more centrally 'the Church Commissioners') and then trickle (or maybe pour - depending partly on where you're located) outwards, towards 'the parishes' - usually in the form of paid ministers. A lot of our collective frustrations (arguments, if we're daring enough to vocalise them) focus on how fairly, or otherwise, that investment (in paid ministry) is distributed. Those frustrations, or arguments, are often complicated by a bit of a 'feedback loop': some parishes are able to pay back into the 'pot' rather more money than others - and some argue that these parishes should have more central investment in them as a result. Some churches argue that they are getting more people through their doors than others - one way of measuring 'success' - and therefore they need, or deserve (financial judgments are not far from moral judgments in this way of imagining things), more investment than others.

But it's not just about money. On a more local level, we often imagine that what we do when we gather as 'church' (on a Sunday morning, typically) is about 'filling us up' for the week ahead, as we go about our lives in the world: feeding us, to feed others; preaching to us, to preach to others; enlightening us, to enlighten others. One of our (CofE) post-communion prayers makes this very explicit: "may we who drink his cup, bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world". In our gathered worship (in our local 'centres') we are filled to overflowing with something that then pours (or trickles - depending partly on where you're located) out into the world around us. Again, this dynamic is complicated by actual or desired 'feedback loops': when we 'give out' what we've received 'in church', what do we expect to 'get back'? Do we perceive our neighbours as 'potential Christians', who at some point will, God-willing, come and join us on a Sunday morning? Do we see our neighbours as 'empty vessels', waiting or needing to be filled with what we bring them (whether it's love, or hope, or food, or 'the gospel')?

Couple those two levels together - 'the diocese' and the local - and there's a powerful imagination, profoundly coloured by the role of money, that shapes the way we think about, and perform, the practices and relationships we call 'Church'. It's the kind of imagination that construes 'the centre' (including bishops, diocesan officers, cathedrals and the like) as 'powerful' (or 'helpful') and 'the edges' (including many 'estate parishes' like my own) as relatively 'powerless' (or 'helpless') - that can label some local churches as 'failing' (if they're decreasing numerically and/or unable to 'pay their share') or 'needy' (if they're lacking paid clergy, or a certain kind of 'enlightenment'), and other churches (often positioned more 'centrally' in the imagined economy) as 'resource churches' (with a designated role to channel a certain kind of 'resource' from the 'centre' towards particular kinds of 'edges').

The trouble is, just as the way we perceive our neighbours actually shapes the way we treat them (and how they perceive themselves as being treated by us), so the way our churches are labelled shapes the way we perceive ourselves. It's a reality that we've experienced on our estate over the years: if powerful people tell stories about estates like ours, loudly enough and repeatedly, then those of us who live on such estates begin to believe those stories about ourselves - and that shapes how we feel, how we relate to each other, how we live.

'Outside-in' Church

But what if we imagined it differently? What if we were able to interrupt, disrupt, the dominant sense of 'flow' with some alternatives? What if, for example (and it's certainly not the only option, but it's the starkest to illustrate the question I'm pushing at), we were to reverse the flow - to move from the 'outside', in?

This is, on one level, just a 'thought experiment' - a 'what if...?' What follows is a series of pointers to possibilities, fragmentary glimpses of what could be. This is not entirely hypothetical, though. I've seen some of this in the flesh, and I've heard others tell stories of it happening, here and there, from time to time. This too is part of our 'reality'. But what if these fragmentary glimpses became a story we told more often, more confidently? What if they began to shape our imaginations more significantly?

Neighbours

First, then, we would begin with our neighbours. Rather than 'potential Christians' (let alone 'potential financial givers') or 'empty vessels' waiting to be filled, what if we were to see our neighbours as abundantly gifted (gifted by God, of course): with wonderful, surprising, awkward, unsettling, transformative gifts, waiting for us to receive them, be challenged by them, be changed by them? Those gifts might include hospitality and kindness, stories and wisdom, challenges and questions, prayerfulness and playfulness - among many others. How richly blessed would we find ourselves to be, when we began to receive the gifts of our neighbours (and often from those neighbours who, seen through a financial lens, have little that can be counted)?

The 'laos' - the whole people of God

The 'outside-in' flow makes its way, then, from our neighbours to the 'laos' - the whole people of God, as we Christians sometimes dare to call ourselves (although in a multi-faith area like my own neighbourhood, such a label sounds desperately arrogant). The Church of England is beginning to talk about 'setting God's people free' - by which it means to say that it recognises that the primary way that Christians participate in the mission of God is by living their daily lives, in the company of their neighbours, in the world of God's making. I want to push this a step further, though. 'Setting God's People Free' has a concern for how 'God's people' can be formed ('in church') for their lives in the world. Reversing the flow, I wonder how much we may know ourselves formed by God's Spirit precisely in and through our daily lives among our neighbours. If we understand 'mission' as first of all a receptive endeavour, then it happens precisely in those places where we encounter, and open ourselves to, the giftedness and challenges of our neighbours.

Deacons

Working our way 'inwards', we rediscover one of the under-valued treasures of our inheritance. The role of the deacon - one which is much more significant than one simply of 'service'. In my friend and colleague Jess Foster, a distinctive deacon in the diocese of Birmingham, I most clearly see this vocation lived out and expressed theologically, and I'm immensely grateful to Jess for that. "My calling became clear to me when I was asked where I saw myself standing in church. I said I don't see myself standing at the altar but at the door. I see my calling as enabling people to come into church, but also enabling people to go out into the community to build relationships that are mutually transformative." In Jess, who has developed a rich ministry particularly through her friendships with people of many different faiths, I see the role of deacon as both symbolising and enabling the 'feeding back into church' of those 'mutually transformative' encounters that have happened between the people of God and their neighbours in the world.

...and Children

I have a hunch there's something significant here about children too. We are learning, in our church, to receive our children's 'wonderings' (questions but also insights, however tentatively expressed) as potential bearers of God's deep wisdom, and God's unsettling Spirit. Far from being 'empty vessels' to be filled and formed, the children in our midst, as a congregation (and beyond the church), have a vast and mysterious capacity to interrupt and disrupt, deepen and enrich, our reflecting and our worshipping in ways that speak of God. Is it to say too much (or too little?) to suggest that they too, in some sense, inhabit a diaconal role?

Priests - and the importance of 'gathering'

Over the last couple of decades (perhaps even since the infamous 'Decade of Evangelism'), we've become accustomed to attending to the importance, within worship of the 'sending out'. Worship is about 'equipping' us (the laos, the whole people of God) for mission in the world. We are fed around the table, to go out and feed others. We receive the word of God, to go out and speak that word to others.

But what if we were to turn this around? If we are, in fact, profoundly formed (and transformed) by our encounters with our neighbours in the world, then how do we 'bring these into church' with us? How do we bring our thankfulness for the gifts we have received in the world? How do we bring our penitence and longing-to-be-different that has been dislodged in us by the challenges we have received in the world? We need, I suggest, to attend much more profoundly to our gathering. How do we begin our 'gathered' acts of worship? In Hodge Hill, we make a habit of inviting people to talk to their neighbours, and then to share more widely, what we bring with us from the world, into church, that we want to thank God for - and what we bring that weighs heavy on us, that we need to bring to God in prayers of concern or penitence. Most weeks the conversations in 2s and 3s flow easily. Sometimes, when I offer the microphone for people to share within the wider congregation, the response comes as a trickle - at other times, it is more like a flood. At its best, this act of 'gathering' shapes and re-shapes the rest of our worship together.

And in this, I suggest, is a vital part of the priestly role. As parish priest in Hodge Hill, I see myself as symbolising and facilitating this 'gathering'. It is part of my role to open the space, to hold it so that it is safe, inviting and even a little unsettling, to 'hear to speech' those testimonies of moments of transformation in the world. It is part of my role to receive them, to be changed by them myself, and to help us as a gathered body to receive their challenge and their gifting in ways that changes us corporately.

Which also means, that when I stand behind the altar, or behind the lectern, I see my role not just as being a channel through which God feeds and teaches - but also as a means by which God deepens in us all a hunger and a thirst, which we take out into the world with us, ready to be fed around 'other tables', not of our hosting, not in our control. Not just to light our candles to take the light out into the world - but to open our eyes and ears to look and listen for God in the faces and voices of our neighbours.

And lastly (I am a priest - forgive me for spending the most time on this section, but it's the bit that perhaps I feel I most know what I'm talking about!), I wonder if there is something vital to the priestly role, within the 'economy' of the wider diocese and wider Church, to both symbolise and facilitate the 'speaking towards the centre' of what we have seen, and heard, and touched, and experienced, 'on the edges' - to be not the spokespeople for our congregation members, but to find ways of enabling them to speak with their own voices to the wider Church - to share their gifts with the wider Church - to present their challenges to the wider Church - borne of their lives in the world, and their encounters with their neighbours.

Bishops

Which brings me to the role of bishops. Something I know little about, other than glimpses I have caught from a distance. Here, perhaps, my 'what if's' are at their most speculative. They focus around a possible alternative focus to what is often called 'the teaching office of the bishop'. What if, instead, we attended to 'the listening office of the bishop'? What if bishops saw their role, first and foremost, as that of paying the most profound attention to what the parish churches within their dioceses are witnessing, and wanting to say to, and share with, the wider Church? What if, alongside their role in distributing the central resources throughout their diocese, they committed to gathering up the abundant gifts and challenges that come from the people of God dispersed across that diocesan area, and reflecting, embodying, how those gifts and challenges transform the body corporate? What if they, themselves, rather than 'speaking for' their dioceses in the corridors of power, were to find ways, again (for a bishop is also a priest and a deacon, we remember), of both symbolising and facilitating those voices from 'the edges' to find a hearing in such 'central' places?

Such suggestions might be unremarkable. But I do wonder if they might still have some way to go before being fully enfleshed in our midst. They might, perhaps, have implications for how we select, train, and support deacons, priests and bishops in the Church (see this post for a very specific reflection on the appointment of bishops). They might have implications for who we select and appoint to such roles.

What if we were to nurture an 'outside-in' Church...?

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

'Can anybody hear me?' Political Theology after #Brexit & #Grenfell

Pasted below is the text of a lecture I gave recently in the Faculty of Theology at VU University of Amsterdam on 13th March, in the company of Professor Graham Ward (who was immensely gracious in his response!). A fascinating conversation followed, one particularly striking feature of which were the observations from several South African students that many of the issues Great Britain is currently wrestling with have been wrestled with in South Africa for a generation, albeit in much more visible ways. It's a lead I'd love to follow up further...

'Can anybody hear me?' Doing political theology in Brexit Britain, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower
1.       Brexit Britain
We are living in times of profound fragmentation. In the United Kingdom, the referendum on withdrawing from the EU divided the country between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ (with a wafer-thin majority to the former), but it also exposed divisions between people from different generations, different ethnic backgrounds, and different socio-economic classes. Politicians’ claims that ‘the people have spoken’ immediately begged the question, ‘which people are you listening to?’ While Leave voters were, overall, more likely to come from poorer than more affluent backgrounds, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ might well have been more decisive for Leave than the ‘left out’ (Rosenbaum 2017; Antonucci et al 2017), and even clearer was the evidence that the Leave vote was overwhelmingly older, and more white, than the vote for Remain.
More than any other issue, the vote to leave the EU has been linked to concerns about immigration, concerns which have certainly been intensified, even if not purely manufactured, by pro-Leave politicians and media (Snyder 2012:118). The Leave campaign’s slogan of ‘taking back control’ put immigration front and central, summoning up images of Great Britain at the heart of an apparently glorious empire, securing its own borders against its quasi-mythical European enemy. ‘Two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah,’ as some English football fans still chant at matches against Germany (Gilroy 2004:117).
Beneath the ‘ethno-nationalism’ peddled by the Brexiteers, however, lie deeper and more complex issues. There is what Paul Gilroy names a ‘post-imperial melancholia’ that profoundly problematises white British identity narratives: an ‘inability to face, never mind actually mourn’ the ‘profound change … that followed the end of the Empire’, the ‘loss of imperial prestige’, and ‘the shock and anxiety that followed from a loss of any sense that the national collective was bound by a coherent and distinctive culture’ (Gilroy 2004:98). Lurking under this melancholia, Gilroy goes on to argue, is a further inability to ‘work through’ the feelings of ‘discomfort, shame, and perplexity’ at the horrors of that imperial history itself, and its white supremacist ideology (Gilroy 2004:98, 102; cf also Reddie 2017).
Also profoundly significant for the Leave vote are class-related (and by no means simply ‘white’) precarities related to housing and jobs, and an unyielding and often punitive welfare regime. That such class issues have become channelled into anti-immigration politics is, as Kjartan Sveinsson observes, due in large part to the discursive formation (and often demonization) of ‘the white working class’ as a quasi-ethnic group, pitting its interests against those of ‘ethnic minorities and immigrants’, and obscuring structural inequalities – effects not just of current austerity policies, but also the longer-term legacy of ‘Thatcherism, deindustrialization [and] the rise of the super-rich’ (Sveinsson 2009:3-5).
Digging even deeper into the fractures exposed by Brexit, we find the bedrock itself crumbling away: the disintegration of the bonds of society and community in our post-industrial, postmodern world. At this level, the EU referendum turns out to be a perverse parable of our times, a mirror that both shows us who we are, and presents us with a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Anna Rowlands notes wryly, in the face of social fragmentation, the crumbling ruins of the civic institutions that were meant to unite us in seeking the common good, and the ‘gradual polarisation of our political culture’, ‘[t]he considered political response … was to ask a binary question, and then be pained when the fault lines emerge in sharp relief’ (Rowlands 2016).

2.       In the shadow of Grenfell Tower
And then, in the early hours of 14th June 2017, a 24-storey tower block in west London caught fire. The fire spread with terrifying speed and ferocity, and despite a massive fire-fighting operation, 71 people lost their lives. In the days that followed the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we discovered that residents of the Tower, members of the Grenfell Action Group, had been issuing repeated warnings for several years before, that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord . . . and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants’ (Grenfell Action Group 2016).
Why had their warnings not been heeded? Why had their voices not been heard? In a lecture two months after the fire, journalist Jon Snow articulated the profound and dangerous ‘disconnect’ between those who are part of ‘the elite’ (within which he includes himself and his journalist colleagues), and ‘the lives, concerns, and needs of those who are not’:
Amid the demonstrations around the tower after the fire there were cries of “Where were you? Why didn’t you come here before?” Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we have contact? Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell Tower – and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain, to find pathways to talk to us and for us to expose their story? . . . We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves. We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell and who, across the country, now live on amid the combustible cladding, the lack of sprinklers, the absence of centralised fire alarms and more, revealed by the Grenfell Tower.
For Snow, from a profession of communicators, the pressing issue was one of disconnection. Rather than seeing their role as simply ‘communicating to’ the wider population, journalists – as part of what Snow calls the ‘narrow elite’ – should be bridging divides of class and background to get to know their audience – not as two-dimensional stereotypes, as victims or villains, but in all their three-dimensional complexity as fellow human beings. ‘So casually written off as nameless migrants, scroungers, and the rest,’ Snow remarks, ‘actually, and it should be no shock to us, the Tower was full of talent’ (Snow 2017). How might he and fellow journalists have come to truly see the talent of the Tower’s residents, how might he have thoroughly heard their voices, in those years before the devastating fire – the years of what we might call ‘ordinary time’ – before Grenfell Tower became tragic headline news?
Theologians, like journalists, are a profession of communicators. And those of us who are paid to do theology are, inescapably, however rooted in particular contexts, a narrow elite. So how are we to do our theology in a context of profound fragmentation and disconnection? How are we to do our theology, in the ‘ordinary time’ after the EU referendum and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, so that the voices we pay attention to are not just those in positions of opinion-forming power, or those of tragic victims, but also and most particularly those who, with their talents and passions, their struggles and their hopes, live daily on the geographical, economic, cultural and social edges of precarity? That is the question I want to explore in the remainder of this talk.


3.       Graham Ward: political theology for fractured times
There are many ways in which Graham Ward’s work over the last 20 years stands out from the crowd of contemporary theology, but one of the most important is that he has taken seriously the fragmentation and disconnection of our times. Pointing to the demise of traditional industry and the ‘decentralising’ of manufacturing, ‘the growth of multinational corporations’ in search of ‘superprofits’, the ‘erosion of Keynesian welfare systems and historically developed social contracts between governments, corporations and organised labour’, and the development of ‘flexible’, ‘migratory’ and unstable employment,[1] Ward highlights the ‘dramatic dismemberment of the social and industrial body’.[2] This dismemberment he traces through the geography of the city itself, which separates highly-surveillanced sites of consumerism and entertainment, and luxury housing in gated communities for the affluent, from the places where those who service them (‘pools of cheap labour in low-skilled, low-paid jobs’) are able to live: a ‘[s]egmentation, segregation, polarisation, ghettoisation’ which also ‘maps onto class, gender, ethnic and racial divisions’.[3]
Politically, Ward describes four interrelated dimensions of the ‘postdemocratic condition’ afflicting Western societies, following the analysis of Colin Crouch among others. First is the ‘aestheticization of politics’: politics has become just one more cultural product for consumption, dominated by the myth-generation of ‘media presentation’, such that ‘the will of the people’ is ‘created’ as much, if not more, than it is discerned.[4] Second politics has collapsed into economics, where a ‘market-oriented authoritarianism’ (Fukuyama) views democracy as, if anything, ‘a drag on economic efficiency’, and a ‘self-referential political class’ is ‘more concerned with forging links with wealthy business interests than with pursuing political programs’, frequently profiting itself from the outsourcing and privatisation of public-service delivery.[5] A third dimension understands depoliticization as beginning with the social atomization engendered and accelerated by laissez-faire capitalism, where priority is given, systemically and culturally, to the ‘entrepreneur’ and the ‘customer’ rather than the ‘citizen’, and ‘intermediate’ political institutions (churches, unions, and the like), and public spaces for ‘dialogue’, ‘discussion’ and ‘contestation’, have been sharply eroded.[6] Fourthly, Ward observes a ‘crisis of representation’, such that ‘powerful minority interests obtain far more attention than their numbers would secure in a ballot’, ‘government [is ] becom[ing] increasingly opaque’, and ‘the poor and [economically] marginalized’ are further marginalized politically in ‘the absence of an autonomous political profile’ of their own,[7] and where their interests are often calculated, in the rhetoric of welfare in particular, as a ‘zero-sum game’ with the middle-class.[8]
To counter the ‘advanced atomism’ of the postmodern city, then, Ward argues that we need ‘a new way of seeing’ the world: ‘changes to processes, economic or political, have to be preceded by, and grounded on, changes in transcending values and vision. This means the creation of a new anthropology, a new way of seeing ourselves, our purposes and desires, our bodies, hopes, expectations, and teleologies.’[9] Fundamental to this ‘new way of seeing’, for Ward, is ‘a strong doctrine of participation.’[10] Drawing deeply on neo-Platonism, Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers, Ward outlines an ‘analogical worldview’, which understands different kinds of ‘bodies’ – ‘physical, social, political, [and] ecclesial’ – as participating in the (eucharistic) body of Christ, and made ‘heavy with meaning’ through that participation.[11] Furthermore, Ward goes on to claim, that eucharistic body provides the ‘new political community’ that democracy has been searching for, the ‘ontologically founded community’ that was eclipsed by modernity’s turn to the individual – ‘a community rooted in a sense of belonging to one another, to a social order, to a cosmic order ordained and sustained by God.’[12]
At the heart of what Ward calls ‘the struggle for the soul of the city’ is a struggle of desires. ‘Postmodern desire’, for the Augustinian Ward, ‘dismembers’ the social, ‘atomising’ us into ‘monadic consumers’, cultivates a willed ignorance of the human, social and environmental costs of consumption, ‘preys on others for its own satisfaction’,[13] and yet, ultimately, can ‘never be satisfied’. It ‘can never come to an end – or the market would cease’. Postmodern desire is caught between ‘having’ and ‘not-having’: between ‘a lust that only consuming the other would satisfy’, and the ‘endless sacrifice of self-abnegation’. It is, Ward suggests, ‘sado-masochistic’, ‘akin to being suspended on the brink of orgasm without being allowed the final release of coming’.[14]
Where postmodern desire operates on the logic of constantly unfulfilled ‘lack’, ‘Christian desire’, by contrast, operates within an economy of abundance, of ‘giftedness’. Founded as it is ‘upon God as triune, … a community of love fore-given and given lavishly’ – Christian desire ‘moves beyond the fulfilment of its own needs’, ‘is always excessive, generous beyond what is asked’, ‘is a desire not to consume the other, but to let the other be in the perfection they are called to grow into’.[15] In contrast to the ‘infinite kenōsis’ of Emmanuel Levinas among others, that ‘unending emptying of oneself’ in the ‘movement out to the other’, Ward insists that such ‘outpouring’ is ‘only possible, … only sustainable’ in the context of what St Paul calls plērōma, the ‘infinite, divine generosity’ of God’s ‘plenitudinous grace’.[16] In eucharistic terms, this is, for Ward, the outward-reaching ‘logic of the fracture’: ‘both celebrating the intimacy of oneness and taking that celebration out into the world: “we break this bread to share”.’[17]
The Church, then, as an ‘alternative erotic community’, is a body constituted, ‘made to appear’, through this eucharistic ‘activity’.[18] ‘The eucharistic We’ is ‘a network of actors’, ‘a pluralised and pluralising body that overspills defined places’, ‘exceeds’ and ‘transgresses’ the boundaries of ‘the institutional Church’, as it ‘offers itself to perform in fields of activity far from chancels and cloisters’, reaching out through ‘all creation’, ‘disseminating’ the body of Christ ‘through a myriad of other bodies’, with a ‘love that desires, that draws, that seeks [the] participation’ of all things ‘in God’.[19] And it is in this expansive, eucharistic vision that Ward locates the mending of the divisions and fragmentations of our postmodern world: the geographical segregation of different parts of the urban fabric,[20] the cultural divisions wrought by ‘racism, sexism, class and ageism’,[21] the social and political withdrawal Ward sees in both ‘neo-tribalist’ ecclesiologies[22] and the  secularist privatisation of the ‘sacred’. Ward’s is a theology of ‘the layperson’ who (more than the supposedly sanctuary-dwelling clergy), ‘enact[s] the incarnation of Christ’ – ‘performs Christ’, even – by ‘dwell[ing] deeply within the material orders to which [s/he] has been given, surrendered to Christ’, seeking ‘to creat[e], or participat[e] in the creation of, conditions maximally closest to communion’.[23]
4.       Graham Ward’s gifts to the contemporary Church of England
I want to suggest that Graham Ward’s political theology offers at least three valuable gifts to the contemporary Church of England, as that institution wrestles with its place and its mission within ‘Brexit Britain’.
Firstly, Ward affirms the vocation of the laos, the whole people of God, and most especially the 98% of the Church of England who are not ordained. In this, it resonates profoundly with the CofE’s 2017 report ‘Setting God’s People Free’ which, in its own words, ‘calls for a shift in culture’ which ‘looks beyond and outside Church structures to the whole people of God at work in communities and wider society – not to “fixing” the institutional Church’. The challenge outlined by the report, ‘to find a way to form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the Gospel’,[24] is a challenge Ward takes up and develops as what he calls ‘the politics of discipleship’ – a politics which emphasises the importance of speaking faith, as well as enacting it.[25]
Secondly, Ward offers a vision of ecclesial expansiveness rooted in the divine plērōma, which has potential to re-frame current anxieties about institutional survival. ‘Significant and continuing decline[s]’ in church attendance and stipendiary clergy numbers, the ‘unsustainability of certain patterns of ministry’, the ‘lack of capacity in at least some dioceses to envision, develop and implement strategies for a more hopeful future’, and ‘the lack of leadership capacity in some places to respond effectively to current and future challenges’, are part of the ‘realistic assessment’ presented in the Church of England’s ‘Renewal and Reform’ agenda.[26] As Jeremy Worthen has pointed out, ‘mission’ and ‘church growth’ have often, in Renewal and Reform’s documentation, appeared as an inseparable pair in a way that ties the goal of the missio dei to the preservation and growth of the institutional church, and participation in the missio dei to techniques and strategies for achieving such growth.[27] Rather than getting trapped in ‘means-end’ ways of framing the relationship between church and mission, Worthen turns to Anglican theologian Daniel Hardy, to suggest ‘that both church and mission have a common source in worship, and that mission should be seen as the “overflow” of our praise and thanks to God’.[28] Ward, I think, is wanting to say something similar.
Thirdly, unlike contemporary missiologies which make church growth their primary goal, Ward’s political theology addresses the divisions and fragmentations of our society head on. The work of overcoming division, creating communion (or in Ward’s careful phrase, ‘the conditions maximally closest to communion’) is the mission of God in which the Church is called to participate. It is what ‘performing Christ’ looks like in practice. It is not a means to another end, or a spin-off from a more central activity of the Church. Ward would surely echo the words of Sam Wells which have been repeatedly quoted by Archbishop Justin Welby: “Far from being an essential, tiresome, and time-consuming precursor to the gospel, reconciliation is the gospel. There isn’t anything more important to which reconciliation is but the prologue.”[29]
There is a timeliness, then, in receiving Graham Ward’s contribution within current conversations in the Church of England, and an urgency in what he has to say in a country in which Brexit has exposed wounds that run along the fault-lines of age, class and ethnicity, among others.
5.       Problems with Ward’s missiology
There is, however, a problem. It is a problem Ward has in common with much contemporary missiological thinking – but it comes to a particularly sharp visibility in Ward’s work, thanks to his explicit attention to the dynamics of desire. And for that exposure, and the critique it invites, we should be immensely thankful. Space here permits me just two illustrations of the problem, but they are, I argue, illustrations which exemplify one of the general thrusts (and I use that word deliberately) of Ward’s wider project.
The first comes in Ward’s 2009 discussion of the ‘struggle for the soul’ of the postmodern city. ‘The church,’ he insists, ‘must not allow areas of the city to be walled up. Ghettos and gated communities must be entered; the no-go zones riddled with racial and economic tensions and ruled by violence must be penetrated and linked back to the wider civic society; and the Christians in these places must be hospitable, opening the possibilities for transit, for the flow of communications necessary for freedom. The church must work alongside other agencies at every level ... to [help] those who fall beneath the city’s ambitions, those dwarfed and rendered insignificant by its towering achievements.’[30]
I want to observe three things about this passage in relation to Ward’s wider work. Firstly, there is a prioritising here, of action and initiative over reception, of the agency of the ‘helpers’ over the agency of the ones cast as ‘needy’ – and an unquestioning identification of ‘the church’ with the former. Secondly, there is an implicit class assumption here: we are presented with a church whose centre of gravity is presumably so much outside such ‘walled up’ urban areas (located firmly in middle-class suburbia, perhaps?), such that it has to ‘enter’ and ‘penetrate’ them; and those (presumably few) Christians who are in ‘these places’ are commanded to be ‘hospitable’ to that penetration. Thirdly, I am troubled by the explicitly sexual language at work here. At best, perhaps it indicates a burning desire, from Ward’s largely middle-class church, for relationship with and participation in these urban ‘no-go zones’, and an overcoming of the uneven distributions of wealth and power within the city. At worst, however, and particularly if the middle-class church’s own power remains unexamined, there is something that sounds unnervingly like sexual violence in the language of ‘penetration’ here.[31]
My second illustration comes in Ward’s earlier (2005) discussion of the ‘cultural politics’ that happens when Christian disciples ‘rewrite the Christian tradition back into contemporary culture’ through our ‘social and cultural engagement[s]’, ‘performing Christ’ through ‘all the micropractices of Christian living’. ‘[T]he work and words of the living community’ of Christians, says Ward, ‘extend out’ into what, quoting Barth, he calls ‘the “deepest, darkest immanence”’. Christians ‘go forth’, commissioned and commanded by Jesus (as in Matthew 28:19-20), ‘teleologically driven’, ‘tracing and performing ... “the march of God in the world”’ (Hegel’s phrase). Ward does acknowledge that ‘[w]e may not like Hegel’s metaphor’, and that the words of Jesus’ missionary imperative are ‘not only stirring and challenging ... but dangerous ... as a continuing history of colonialism, zealotry, hatred, prejudice and violence ... testifies’, and yet it seems the danger is unavoidable: it is ‘upon this basis’, he insists, upon ‘[t]his movement in, through and beyond the Church’, that a Christian cultural politics, must proceed.[32]
Ward is insistent, elsewhere, that there is ‘no room for Christian imperialism’ or ‘crusades’ in the ‘expansive’ dynamic of the body of Christ.[33] Nevertheless, alongside the unavoidably expansive christological dynamic in Ward’s work I suggest there are also often a couple of dangerous slippages – which again, are far from unique to Ward. One is a slippage towards an identification between Christ and the church (highlighted in the language of ‘performing Christ’). The other is related: despite his explicit disavowals of binary oppositions between ‘church’ and ‘world’, he does at times slip into exactly such oppositions, depicting the church as the place of order, and the world as a chaotic place of ‘squalid allies, neon-lights, plasma-screens, crowded tenements, seductions, excitements and destitutions’.[34] The resonances with the imagery which drove previous generations of Christian mission, themselves inextricably implicated in colonial expansion, are, I suggest, hard to miss.
To summarise my argument so far, then: Ward offers an acute analysis of our contemporary social and political fragmentation, and in response proposes a profoundly embodied and expansive ecclesiological vision, rooted in the pleroma of God, which both affirms the worldly vocation of the whole people of God, and directs that vocation towards the reconciliation of our divided world. In the process, however, his tendency towards identifying Christ with the church, coupled with a deeply pessimistic portrayal of the postmodern city, a passionate prioritising of the church’s agency and voice, and implicit assumptions about the church’s largely middle-class location, leave us with a missiology which, at worst, has both sexually penetrative and colonialist undertones. Sigridur Gudmarsdottir observes in Ward’s christology a one-way flow (‘a flow from God to humans’, through Jesus, in which Jesus’ human others receive, but he himself does not).[35] What seems to happen in Ward’s ecclesiology is that this one-way flow is mapped from Christ onto the church: a flow from God, ‘in, through and beyond the Church’, into the world – a flow in which the Church’s ‘others’ receive from it, but the Church is resistant to receiving from its ‘others’.
It is not hard to find echoes of this dynamic from the opposite end of the Church of England’s theological spectrum. Evangelicals leading the planting of large, youthful ‘city-centre resource churches’ describe ‘a missional flow of ministry that will … resource the church across the whole city’, as such centralised, well-resourced churches ‘energise a city vision that other churches can get behind’ (Thorpe, 2015). The closest ‘resource church’ to me, St Luke’s Gas Street in the centre of Birmingham, states that its vision is ‘to be a church that generates light for the city of Birmingham’, and prays that that light ‘will pour out of [its million pound city centre] building’.[36]
6.       Facing tragedy – attending to the cracks
If the alternative to institutional anxiety about the church’s survival is not to be found exclusively in an expansive, overflowing ecclesial confidence, then what other options have we got? I want to suggest, perhaps slightly strangely, that we need to stare tragedy more squarely in the face. To be more precise about this, I am proposing that in Brexit Britain, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, Christian political theologians adopt what radical democrat Romand Coles calls a ‘tragic sensibility’ which ‘stretches’ us between, on the one hand the work of ‘articulating, mediating, and striving toward the highest values of a community’, and on the other hand, ‘painful evocations of the unacknowledged suffering often wrought by a community’s ideals (or constitutive failure in light of them)’. Crucially, for Coles, those ‘painful evocations’ of our tragic failures come with ‘the inextinguishable need to be transformed through receptive engagements with those a community marginalizes and subjugates’ (Coles 2005a:2). Tragedy thus ‘interrupts the church’s flow’ with a summons to attend to the voices of the church’s ‘others’.
I suggest there is more than a mere analogy here with Paul Gilroy’s diagnosis of the ‘postimperial melancholia’ in white British identity, that inability ‘to face, never mind actually mourn’, both the ‘loss of imperial prestige’ and the ‘repressed and buried knowledge of the cruelty and injustice’ of the British empire (itself entwined with the history of Christian mission). Could it be that the Church of England’s anxieties about institutional survival, and its expansive missiologies both catholic and evangelical, are, firstly, rooted in this same unacknowledged sense of loss of prestige, and are also, secondly, either unable or unwilling to grapple with the tragic consequences of expansionist approaches to mission both past and present?
Here I offer three brief critiques, from other parts of the Christian tradition, which both highlight what is at stake, and also point towards ways in which we might ‘work through’ some of what Coles calls our ‘tragic remainders’ towards a more healthy missiology for our times.
i.                     Speaking without listening
The first critique comes via a Quaker feminist theologian, Rachel Muers, who herself draws on the philosophical analysis of Gemma Corradi Fiumara. In Western culture, Fiumara argues, ‘the logos we inhabit is “halved”… we know how to speak but have forgotten how to listen’.[37] Furthermore, this ‘non-listening culture’ has ‘divide[d] itself into separate discourses, which are free from the desire or obligation to listen to others’. On the contrary, characteristic of a ‘powerful’ and ‘productive’ discourse is that it ‘seeks to expand its territory through the silencing of others and the ever-closer determination and definition of objects of knowledge’.[38] Written almost 30 years before the Trump presidency in the USA, Fiumara’s analysis is prophetic. It is also a challenge to the church in Brexit Britain: where many are adopting the survival tactic Fiumara names ‘benumbment’ – the ‘refusal to listen or be listened to, as a means of defending one’s own discursive space against the predatory invasion of other discourses’ – the church cannot afford simply to be yet another speaker, however persuasive, in the ‘war of words’.
ii.                   Identifying with the divine
The second critique, from American critical white theologian Jennifer Harvey, picks up on Ward’s language of ‘performing Christ’, but most directly addresses the recent linking, among many young evangelical American Christians, of the mantra ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ (‘WWJD?’) to a ‘social justice Jesus’ with a prophetic, political significance beyond individual, spiritual salvation. Harvey highlights a fundamental problem with white Christians identifying themselves with such a Jesus:
It just so happens that identifying with or as the central agent in the narratives we embody is one of the broken ways of being toward which white people are prone. It just so happens that being inclined to do “for” in postures that are paternalistic is another damaged side-effect of white racialization. And it just so happens that these tendencies are valorized in the social justice Jesus who is the central power-agent in his saga. Social justice Jesus is like a superhero standing up to evil forces around him and attempting to inveigh on behalf of suffering others. And, thus, while it is laudable that he stands with or works on behalf of the marginalized, it, therefore, just so happens that the broken ways of being toward which white people are already inclined are likely to be triggered, maybe even amplified, by identifying with such a figure. ... Simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a white person whose life is embedded in white-supremacist structures should be doing.[39]
Harvey’s words here, I would suggest, translate into the register of class (and gender) relations as well as race, and serve as a sharp warning to those of us, occupying privileged social locations in an unjust (and patriarchal) socio-economic system, who might be tempted to imagine our words and actions as ‘performing Christ’.
iii.                 ‘Formation’ and the ‘insufficient’ subject
My third and final witness to some of the tragic consequences of our current missiologies is American Methodist theologian Joerg Rieger. If Ward and other postliberal political theologians are seeking to reject (and reverse) modernity’s turn to the individual (and the resulting ‘social atomism’ of ‘the postmodern city’), and return to the church as an ‘ontologically founded community’, then Rieger worries that ‘the individualist narcissisms of the modern era’ risk being ‘simply converted into collective narcissisms in the postmodern era’.[40] Drawing on the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, Rieger argues that the turn to the church, the focus on the formation of Christian disciples (primarily through worship), construes human beings as fundamentally insufficient, as subjects that the church ‘can teach and mould into its own image’: ‘[t]he goal of this model,’ he suggests, ‘is to integrate the uninitiated … into the system, enabling them to repeat and reproduce the language and tradition of the church’, the ‘overall purpose’ being (in words that resonate with Ward’s) ‘the production of culture’.[41]
Most of my neighbours, however, like the residents of Grenfell Tower written off by Jon Snow’s journalist colleagues, have already had their fill of being labelled by more powerful voices as lacking, deficient, problematic, before the church has got anywhere near them. As Rieger reads Lacan, what a the postliberal focus on the struggle between the self and the tradition, the imaginary and symbolic orders, misses Lacan’s third term, ‘the real’ – that which, when ‘repressed and excluded … comes back to haunt us’. What we urgently need, Rieger argues, is a Christian theology which ‘grow[s] out of “attention to the continual tendency of ... the church not-to-see things.”’ ‘“Who is the stranger?”’, is the question we should be asking, and ‘“Who is ‘unintelligible’ now?”’[42] Whose talents, whose gifts, whose passions, we might add, are we overlooking? Such theology, Rieger goes on, sees ‘receptivity, listening, and reflecting [as] more important initially than establishing foundations and identities’.[43] Attending with care to the ‘fissures and cracks’ in ‘faith’s reading of reality’, we are opened up to encounter the divine Other afresh – that’s how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen reminded us.[44] Or, as Rieger concludes, ‘“the terms of good news we might receive if we were formed to receive from the other will surprise even those of us who tell stories about the oppressed”’.[45]
7.       An alternative performance?
In my own conclusion, then, I want to briefly sketch some of the contours of a political theology for multiply privileged Christians in Brexit Britain, that is attentive to the lasting shadow of the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, and thus radically receptive to the voices and agency of those on the edges of our fragmented society.
i.                     Performing and being formed – receptively
First, I agree with Graham Ward and other ecclesial theologians that we Christians should engage in a particular kind of ‘performance’ in the world, a performance that is formed – at least in part – liturgically. But I want to suggest, with Rachel Muers and with Nelle Morton before her, that the Church in its local presence, among the silenced, the unheard and the benumbed, might learn to see its primary vocation as one of ‘hearing to speech’, as Morton put it: a hearing that ‘evokes speech – new speech that has never been spoken before’. Such hearing might be understood as ‘hearing with God’s ears’, setting off a chain reaction of listening (‘Once a person is heard to speech, she becomes a hearing person’) (Morton 1986:205, Muers 2004:51) – it must also surely be an act which transforms the hearer herself, as she receives both the gifts and the challenges of the one heard.
Such listening in Brexit Britain, must, as Anna Rowlands argues, transgress our entrenched ‘silos’: it must find or create ‘new spaces of civic encounter’ where we can begin to ‘form bonds of affection and a sense of shared life across different classes, ethnicities and faiths’. In such spaces, we might begin to acknowledge that ‘the fault lines’ exposed by the likes of Brexit ‘run through the human heart, not simply between classes and communities’ – as we learn ‘to handle the presence of both a felt sense of loss and aspiration, suspicion and resilience, betrayal and pride, as Augustine might say – ad permixtum’ (Rowlands 2016). Such spaces need not be grand – they can often be found in our neighbourhoods in coffee mornings, community cafés, and other ‘Places of Welcome’ where participation is encouraged as much as provision is offered.[46]
We must also make space for such listening at the heart of our gatherings as church. And paying attention precisely to the way we gather is surely critical here – just as we have been learning, in recent decades, to pay more attention to our mission-focused sending. What if the first ten minutes of our worship intentionally ‘heard to speech’ the stories of encounter, surprise and struggle that our fellow congregation members bring with them from their daily living? What if they were allowed to shape the rest of our worship – the questions with which we approach the biblical text, or the way we come to God in penitence and intercession? How might our gathering re-form and trans-form the body of Christ before it is sent out into the world afresh – to listen as well as to speak, to be fed at other tables as well as sharing what we have received from the church’s table?
ii.                   ‘Working through’ tragedy – with our ‘others’
Talking of penitence, a second dimension to a radically receptive political theology will be to listen not so much with God’s ears, but very deliberately and self-consciously with our own complex and compromised subjectivities (Reddie 2017), attending to our own blind-spots, and embracing the challenges that our hearing brings us. I have already quoted Rom Coles’ insistence that the ‘painful evocations’ of our tragic failures must come with ‘the inextinguishable need to be transformed through receptive engagements with those [our] community [has] marginalize[d] and subjugate[d]’. To Coles’ insight I add that of Jim Perkinson, another critical white theologian, who argues that the necessary ‘radical redoing of white identity and expectations’ requires ‘a shaking of white “being” to the core’ which ‘cannot be accomplished simply by remaining in one’s (white) room and “thinking thoughts.” Ultimately,’ he insists, ‘it can only be accomplished as a “grace from without”’ – through a physical ‘dislocation’ from ‘the centres of institutional power’ to ‘peripheral’ places in which ‘other bodies have worked out other postures and potencies not beholden to the white male norm’ (Perkinson 2004:239, 232, 215). How do we respond to Jon Snow’s lamenting the disconnection of journalists and other members of the ‘narrow elite’, from the cries of Grenfell Tower residents for better, safer housing, or the concerns underneath many votes for Brexit, rooted in precarity, demonization, and a loss of a sense of community? Re-locating and hearing deeply is not enough. Working through, in the company of our marginalized and silenced neighbours, our own complicity, and our own need to change, must follow. As with Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, our journeys out to the edges, if we go with sufficient receptivity, will both challenge us and change us.
iii.                 Re-locating Christ
So, thirdly, maybe there are ways of ‘performing Christ’, in radically receptive mode. Mark’s story of Jesus’ anointing (Mk. 14) offers another example of Jesus receiving the initiative of another – a woman again, this time a gate-crasher at a private meal. Despite Judas’ economic protestations, Jesus defends her extravagant interruption and receives it for what it is: a prophetic declaration that he is ‘the anointed one’. He receives from her his commissioning for the way of the cross.
But perhaps, as Jennifer Harvey suggests, we who are multiply privileged should dis-identify with Jesus, and ask instead ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’, finding ourselves on the receiving end of Jesus’ challenge, and summoned, as Harvey puts it, to ‘figure out ways to become … race [and, I would add, class] traitors’, choosing the path of ‘radical conversion’, embodied in ‘humility’, ‘repentance’ and ‘reparation’ (Harvey 2012:98-9).
Or could it ultimately be profoundly unhelpful, in these times of deep fragmentation, to locate Christ on one ‘side’ or the other of our divides? Perhaps we are invited neither to ‘perform Christ’ nor to identify Christ with the neighbours who challenge us most acutely – but to discover Christ as ‘taking place’ in the space of encounter between us and our neighbours, in the ‘interplay’, as Ward himself puts it, of ‘attraction and desire’, of ‘revelation’ and ‘reconciliation’ (Ward 1996:231-2). It is Christ who draws us to our neighbours, and it is Christ whom we discover – both creative and unsettling – in the encounters with them.
iv.                 Receptivity against the machine
Lastly, in the face of desperate tragedy I want to hold onto a glimmer of hope. It may be that a church reoriented towards radical receptivity simply gives more of our neighbours ‘a good listening to’ – and that in itself may be of unimaginable value. But I believe it may have more significance than that. Rom Coles describes the prevailing ‘spiritual ethos’ of western societies as one in which ‘extreme inequality, fundamentalism, generalized ressentiment toward difference and ambiguity, as well as bellicosity and indifference toward future generations, the poor, foreigners, and the planet often intensify one another’ (Coles 2016:37-8). And we’ve certainly seen plenty of all of those over the past couple of years. This ‘spiritual ethos’ is not the product of one referendum result, or one American president – rather, it has been engendered over a much longer time by what Coles (following William Connolly) calls ‘a resonant assemblage’ made up of many different, interrelated components (corporations, institutions, media, practices, experiences, attitudes), that interact, interpenetrate, and generate ‘flows’ and ‘circulations’ which transcend the lines of simple, deterministic ‘cause and effect’, and in which we are all inescapably participants. I am not convinced that a church which is anxiously strategizing its survival, or a church which is over-confidently proclaiming its expansiveness, are well-placed to resist the workings of Connolly’s ‘evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’. I do wonder, however, whether a church which, in Coles’ words, ‘cultivate[s] a more radical notion of [its own] insufficiency’, embodying, dramatizing and performing its need of the gifts and the challenges of its – often quite different – neighbours at the margins, might not just prove to be a significant component of a ‘counter-machine’ which, in Coles’ terms, ‘generate[s] resonant relational energies’ that ‘turn up … our receiving volume’: receptive counter-flows which ‘re-assemble’ our social organisation, and intensify our receptivity both to each other and to the ‘not yet’ of God’s future (Coles 2016:37-9, 2008a:40-43).


[1] Ward 2000a:55
[2] Ward 2000a:55
[3] Ward 2000a:58, 67-8, 241, citing Sassen 1991:317 (see also Sassen 1991:318-9, 334 & passim).
[4] Ward 2009:66-67
[5] Ward 2009:68-69, quoting Francis Fukuyama (1992:123).
[6] Ward acknowledges that some social scientists point to ‘levels of stability’ in ‘softer’ forms of social capital, such as ‘participation in voluntary associations and informal sociability’, but these are, he suggests (quoting Robert Putnam), ‘“narrower, less bridging, and less focused on collective or public-regarding purpose”’ (Ward 2009:65-6).
[7] Ward 2009:66-72, quoting Phil Burton-Cartledge (2005:372).
[8] Ward 2000a:58, 241, 67-8, citing Mike Davis (1990:115).
[9] Ward 2009:74 (my emphasis)
[10] Ward 2000a:75
[11] Ward 2000a:113
[12] Ward 2009:245, 226
[13] Ward 2000a:75, 56, 59-60; 2009:83
[14] Ward 2005b:79, 263-6 (see also 2005b:109-10 and 2000a:201-2 on the ‘demonic and nihilistic logic’ of ‘endless giving without reception’).
[15] Ward 2000a:76 (my emphasis)
[16] Ward 2005b:77, 79. Behind Ward’s use of kenosis is the ‘Christ hymn’ of Philippians 2:5-11 (see also Ward 1999). Critics of the recent ‘kenotic turn’ in theology (a move of which Ward is a significant representative) have challenged the apparently unproblematic translation from divine (christological) kenosis to human kenosis. As Linn Tonstad observes, for example, ‘[a]lthough Ward exegetes the Philippians hymn in order to discover “the kenotic economy,” he skips directly from there to modernity’s turn to kenosis, starting from Lutheran orthodoxy. This may be why he fails to note how far his own reading of kenosis is from that of the early church, where it – in most cases – expresses the act of assumption of humanity (the appearance of the God of glory in human form), rather than a general economy of sacrifice or representation’ (Tonstad 2016:89 n.24).
[17] Ward 2000a:174
[18] Ward 2000a:180, 2009:201-2 (see also 2013:329)
[19] Ward 2000a:176 (my emphasis), 180; 2009:184, 189.
[20] Ward 2000a:266 n.23
[21] Ward 2000a:92
[22] Ward 2000a:69 (as above), 92
[23] Ward 2013:330-1, 332; Ward 2009:188 (see also Ward 2000a:257).
[24] Archbishops’ Council 2017 [GS 2056]:1,3.
[25] Ward 2009, 2015
[26] Archbishops’ Council 2017 [GS 2038]:2
[27] Worthen 2017:3
[28] Worthen 2017:3 (cf Hardy 2001:24-40) [‘The Missionary Being of the Church’, in Finding the Church: the Dynamic Truth of Anglicanism (London: SCM)]
[29] Wells 2013:6 [‘The Exasperating Patience of God’, lecture at Faith in Conflict Conference, Coventry, Tuesday 26th February 2013], http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/wpsite/wp-downloads/Sermons%20and%20talks/2013-02-26-1%20Faith%20in%20Conflict%20-%20The%20Exasperating%20Patience%20of%20God%20%5BSam%20Wells%5D.pdf
[30] Ward 2009:219-20 (my emphasis)
[31] Compare this outworking of supposedly ‘Christian desire’ with, for example, Ward’s construal of postmodern desire as ‘akin to being suspended on the brink of orgasm without being allowed the final release of coming’ (see section 3.3.iv, above).
[32] Ward 2009:165-6, 2005a:55-6, 10
[33] ‘Crusades in the name of the triune love misconceive the kenosis of that love. That love is poured out externally on behalf of not against. It works alongside, transfiguring the ordinary, transforming the mundane. It persuades; it does not coerce’ (Ward 2000a:259, cf 257).
[34] Ward 2005a:59 (cf Graham 2013:129-30)
[35] Gudmarsdottir 2012:169-70
[37] Fiumara 1990:2, quoted in Muers 2004:53.
[38] Muers 2004:54-6
[39] Harvey 2012:86-9, 94-5.
[40] Rieger 2001:97, 94. When Rieger sketches the ecclesiologies of a few postliberal pastors and ‘church consultants, we might hear more than passing resonances with Ward’s own work: ‘On Sunday [people] feel as if they need to “receive something”... people are “desperate for meaning”... the turn to the presence of God in the reality of the church... “Before we can change the world, we must first submit to change ourselves. Call it conversion.”... “Healthy congregations turn on the lights in a dark world”... “Which people group in the circle around our church has the greatest needs?”... The church is in the center; it is the focal point. There is little doubt about the integrity of the church and its people, properly converted and formed, assuming not only that the church can indeed help others in need by reaching out (a mutual relationship does not seem to be required) but also that the church could not possibly be part of the problem that needs to be addressed’ (Rieger 2001:94-5).
[41] Rieger 2001:148
[42] Rieger 2001:106, quoting Fulkerson 1995:174.
[43] Rieger 2001:106
[44] Leonard Cohen, ‘The Crack’
[45] Rieger 2001:112, 111, quoting Fulkerson 1994:358, 395.
[46] www.placesofwelcome.org