Saturday, 29 March 2014

On dirty blogs & messy church

I've been quiet here for a little while. Not for a lack of thinking about stuff. If anything, it might be a result of too much thinking going on - throwing loads of pieces of the jigsaw up in the air and waiting for them to land in a nice, coherent pattern. But of course, coherent patterns tend to take a long old time to form, and often the only way to find them - especially with jigsaws - is to work piece by piece.

So, inspired by the approach of a new-ish and rather wiser friend and travelling companion along the way, Laura 'Mole' Chapman, fellow blogger and faculty member of ABCD Europe, I feel the need to try what Mole calls a 'quick and dirty' blog. No time to finesse the rough edges. Little in the way of references, academic or otherwise. But an attempt, however messy and vulnerable (in all kinds of ways), to 'reflect aloud', and see what comes of it...

I want to talk about messy church.

Not 'Messy Church', that hugely infectious movement promising a 'new way of being church for families', however irrepressibly attractive its values of 'creativity, hospitality and celebration' might be. 'Messy Church' as a movement has been quite good at articulating its theology from the beginning, and last year saw the publication of 'Messy Church Theology', which not only expressed the theological significance of 'messiness' in the fallibility and unfinishedness of even 'Christ-centred' human life in the present, but kept on returning the question of how we might decide whether 'Messy Church' is really 'church'. There's something about that question that is both intriguing and troubling for me. It feels both worth asking, for the kind of issues it opens up, but also disturbing to make too prominent, as if which side of the line the answer falls, in any given context, is somehow of ultimate importance.

So, No, I'm not particularly interested in here in 'Messy Church' with capital letters. I'm wanting to explore something much more modest, much less 'brandable': something that we might be able to call church, but which is unavoidably messy - and more messy than 'Messy Church Theology' seems, as yet, to allow for.

And I don't think I'm talking about what Archbishop Justin Welby recently referred to, at a recent gathering of the Church of England's General Synod, as the 'untidy church' that lies ahead of us, particularly in the aftermath of deciding - finally! - to ordain women as bishops:
It has incoherence, inconsistency between dioceses and between different places.  It’s not a church that says we do this and we don’t do that.  It’s a church that says we do this and we do that and actually quite a lot of us don’t like that but we are still going to do it because of love.  It’s a church that speaks to the world and says that consistency and coherence is not the ultimate virtue, that is found in holy  grace. 
A church that loves those with whom the majority deeply disagree is a church that will be unpleasantly challenging to a world where disagreement is either banned within a given group or removed and expelled.  The absolute of holy grace challenges the absolutism of a world that says there are no absolutes except the statement that there are no absolutes.
Now, the part of me that is embedded in, and dependent on, the institution that is the Church of England warms to Archbishop Justin's description of 'untidiness'. But it remains an essentially introspective description, an internal conversation. The boundaries between 'church' and 'world' are still drawn sharply, and the 'rightness' of the former still very much asserted. That's still not nearly messy enough, I would suggest.

I'm attracted, too, to what theologian Nicolas Healy calls 'practical-prophetic ecclesiology': the 'grand, never-ending experiment' involving 'ongoing and self-critical evaluation of our ecclesial thought and action', of attention not to allegedly authoritative 'blueprints', but to the complex, fallible 'everyday activity' of what Healy calls the 'concrete church' in each local context in which it is embodied.

But it needs to get messier still, because even though Healy reminds us that 'church' is a messy old mixture of good and really-not-very-good stuff, there's still a working assumption that it's fairly easy to work out what counts as 'church' and what is what Healy calls 'non-church'.

And then there's a quote from Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, writer, social activist and much more. Well, it's not quite a quote, more a half-remembered paraphrase, but the gist of it is this:
"forget about defining and drawing boundaries around 'church', let's just talk about a bunch of people who love each other, doing stuff together".
That's just about messy enough for me. It may well horrify many of my colleagues and sister and brother Christians for not being remotely 'Christian' enough. But in playing with it, I'm not remotely wanting to suggest that the Christian faith has no great gifts to bring to the table, not at all. Just that the kind of spaces I'm interested in, and the human interactions that happen in those spaces, don't in any obvious way map on to an easy separation of 'church' and 'non-church'. I'm interested in spaces where there are "people who love each other, doing stuff together" - people caught up in what theologians John Reader and Chris Baker name 'entangled fidelities', some of whom might name themselves Christians (amongst other things), and others who don't; and doing things that might occasionally look recognisably 'Christian things to do', and at other times don't.

Over the last 3 or 4 years, the ongoing conversation within what we call Hodge Hill Church has thrown up a way of describing what we're about here: 'Growing Loving Community - in the love of God, with all our neighbours, across Hodge Hill'. It's a good statement, I think, because it seems to describe fairly well what people see when they see 'Hodge Hill Church'. But it's also valuable, I think, because it allows us, very explicitly, to look for, and value, and celebrate those places and moments and glimpses of 'growing loving community' in Hodge Hill that don't in any conventional way look like 'church'. Not so that we can claim them as 'ours', but so that, at the very least, we can recognise a kind of 'family resemblance'. And in that recognition, all kinds of possibilities open up.

A little while ago, a couple of us here were exploring a new course offered nationally by Livability (what used to be the Shaftesbury Society) called 'The Happiness Course'. It's good stuff - drawing on the relatively new field of 'positive psychology' and also on the deep wells of the Christian tradition, but aimed to be accessible both for people 'with faith' and those 'without', and if it seeks to persuade, then it's seeking to persuade people of the value of intentional practices to develop their sense of wellbeing, rather than seeking to persuade people of the 'rightness' of the Christian faith. But there was one interesting divergence between those of us working here and the person we were exploring the course with: for him, there was a deep longing for participants to 'journey towards home' (a 'home' that, implicitly, those running the course had already found); for those of us based here in Hodge Hill, we couldn't get away from the sense that, if there was a 'journey towards home', we are all on it together - indeed, to push it a bit further, we are journeying towards 'the home we build together' (to use Jonathan Sacks' resonant phrase).

Friends and colleagues here, and further afield, rightly want to push me on this. Where is the place for what we traditionally call 'Christian discipleship'? Don't we, as Christians, long to see our neighbours growing deeper into their true humanity, 'in Christ'? Where is the space for 'we Christians' sharing our faith - one of our treasured gifts, perhaps our most treasured gift - with our friends, neighbours and travelling companions?

But in 'messy church', as I'm exploring it, I'm not so sure who the 'we Christians' refers to. Yes, there are some of us that seem to come to conversations with fairly hefty chunks of a faith that we have inherited and explored for ourselves, that might quite straightforwardly call ourselves 'Christians'. But there are others who come with at least fragments of something that looks and sounds very similar, whether 'Christian' is a label that they choose to use, or something they're very clearly 'not', or something that is just much more ambiguous and ambivalent than either of those. And in fact, in messy reality, none of us make complete sense, free of incoherence and contradictions and ambiguities. And those of us who intentionally and reflectively wrestle with this stuff have a sense that there is an ambiguity and a mystery that goes close to the heart of what 'faith' is anyway. So we work hard at working together to create spaces, environments, conversations where the sharing and the exploring and the wrestling can happen, and where we can all learn and grow - individually and together - and where relationships between us can deepen, and where we might more truly embody something of the 'home' that we sense we are journeying towards, and that others might glimpse it too, and that our journeys might join more intimately together.

So bring on the conversation about 'messy church' - whatever it is. It clearly needs a lot more thinking through...

[thanks to Gary Hall of the Queen's Foundation for the Merton 'quote' - he's working on digging out the actual quote, which will hopefully turn up in a future blog!]

Monday, 10 March 2014

Writing in the Dust: an Ash Wednesday sermon

When the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 11th Sept 2001, Rowan Williams, soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, was in Trinity Church, Wall St, just a couple of minutes’ walk away. He witnessed first-hand the destruction, death and dust all around. But, as George W Bush within hours of the attacks was already talking the language of ‘consequences’ (by which he meant ‘counter-attacks’) and a ‘war on terror’ (by which he meant more violence, destruction and death), Rowan Williams sensed the need for a ‘breathing space’. Some months later, he wrote a little book called Writing in the Dust, with some brief reflections that emerged from that ‘breathing space’:

“in that space there is the possibility of recognising that we have had an experience that is not just a nightmarish insult to us but a door into the suffering of countless other innocents, a suffering that is more or less routine for them in their less regularly protected environments. And in the face of extreme dread, we may become conscious, as people often do, of two very fundamental choices. We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity – a choice, finally, for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what’s there around us – to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged / and calmed (not denied). If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far. There is a global hospitality possible too in the presence of death.”

I was reminded of these reflections last week, on Ash Wednesday, as we began the journey of Lent with the story of ‘the woman caught in adultery’, in John chapter 8 (verses 1-11). It’s a heated moment, with an angry mob dragging the accused woman before Jesus, and reminding him (as if he needed to know) that the Law stated she should be stoned to death. Jesus knows they will seize on his response, whichever way he chooses to act. But Jesus, rather than entering into the heat of the moment, bends down and writes in the dust. We don’t know what he writes, but we do know that in doing so he refuses the quick response, he creates a ‘breathing space’, a pause, which allows some of the heat of the moment to dissipate. And then he responds to their demands with an invitation: ‘let the one of you who is without sin cast the first stone’. The question shifts the focus of attention, from the finger-pointing at the woman, to the accusers themselves. And one by one, they all walk away.

Just before our morning service in Hodge Hill on Ash Wednesday, I was painting the garden shed that had just taken up residence in the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral, the ‘Hunger Hut’, which will, throughout Lent, be a place of information and awareness-raising, a place of conversation and prayer, and a place where people can share their stories and pledge their commitments to act, on the desperate issue of food poverty in the UK, where half a million people last year were forced to use Food Banks to feed themselves and their families, and where 5,500 people last year were admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition.

My hands, when I turned up at the eucharist, were covered in grey and orange paint. There is an old tradition, in parts of the Church of England, that the priest washes his or her hands before leading the Eucharistic Prayer. It’s partly simply a hygiene thing, of course, touching bread that will soon be eaten. But it also comes, I think, out of a concern for a ‘theological hygiene’: a belief that the priest, before touching ‘holy things’ needs to have ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ (Psalm 24:4). As a priest, I have resisted this tradition, more or less intentionally. Nowadays, I think I’m clearer about why. I try to operate an ‘all or nothing’ (or ‘everyone or no one’) policy instead: sometimes, we will all wash our hands, in our prayers of penitence, as the broken body of Christ (the church), before together we touch and consume the broken body of Christ (the bread). But often, we don’t all get a chance to wash our hands, so I’m not sure I should either – at least, not in a ritualised way. It’s particularly clear on Ash Wednesday, when we are all smudged with black, oily, ashy crosses. But each and every time we come to the table, to the eucharist we celebrate together, we all come with dirty hands. Partly because we have deliberately got our hands dirty in the life of the world. Partly because we are fallible, broken human beings and we can’t help ourselves. ‘Let the one of you who is without sin cast the first stone.’

So Ash Wednesday, unfolding into the rest of Lent, offers us a ‘breathing space’. A space in which we can begin to leave behind our knee-jerk tendencies to point the finger of blame at others. A space where we discover that we all come with dirty hands – and in so doing, are able to begin to discover a real solidarity with one another, with our friends, neighbours, and even enemies. And a space where, despite our dirty hands, we are not condemned, but touched with God’s love; where we are given, into our dirty hands, the broken, healing body of Christ.

Friday, 7 March 2014

#EndHungerFast prayers for Ash Wednesday

Let us pray for our neighbours,
for the cross-scarred body of Christ,
and for all creation, saying:
God of life
hear our prayer.

For those among us who go hungry today:
that they may be fed.
God of life...

For those among us who hunger for justice today:
that they may be energised and sustained
in their restlessness to speak and act for change.
God of life...

For those among us who rest in satisfaction and security today:
that they may be unsettled and disturbed
by the calls from the wildernesses.
God of life...

For those among us who are treated as worthless today:
that they may be raised up with dignity and joy.
God of life...

For those among us who work to welcome, listen and support:
that they may be blessed with patience and grace.
God of life...

For those among us who hoard power and wealth for themselves,
and who make decisions indifferent to those they will affect:
that their hearts may be melted by the warm wind of your compassion.
God of life...

For those among us who will seek to keep this Lent
in solidarity with the poorest,
in contradiction to consumerism,
in the compromised, broken middles of our world,
and yet in hope of transformation within and without:
that we will all catch glimpses
of your face in our neighbours, near and far,
of your Spirit in the cracks in our systems,
and of your kingdom taking root and blossoming in our midst,
in Jesus Christ, our brother and Saviour.