Sunday, 29 June 2014

#OccupyWestminster and Common Worship

A few weeks ago I was in a room in Westminster Abbey from which a previous Archbishop of Canterbury was arrested and taken to be executed. I was there, in the company of some rather eminent theologians, to listen to American theologian William Cavanaugh give a robust defence of religion against its secularist critics, particularly addressing the charge of religious violence, by highlighting the inherent violence of the nation-state. The irony of the context was noted at the time, but none of us could imagine how much that irony could have been intensified in a matter of weeks.

For Cavanaugh, alongside other such leading lights in the theological world as Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank and Sam Wells (now Vicar of St Martin's-in-the-Fields in London, and also in the room at the Abbey that day), the worship of the Church shapes its participants in a kind of politics that is quite different to the dominant politics of the world that we live in, the politics of neoliberal capitalism, of democratically-sanctioned state violence and the all-consuming power of global corporations. More than that, the Church's worship doesn't just shape worshippers for political engagement in the world - the Church enacts a different, resistant, even revolutionary kind of politics in its worship. For Cavanaugh, "the Eucharist" is "an alternative imagining of space and time which builds up a body of resistance to violence, the body of Christ. This is a body that is wounded, broken by the powers and principalities [of the world] and poured out in blood offering upon this stricken earth. But this is also a body crossed by the resurrection, a sign of the startling irruption of the Kingdom into historical time and the disruptive presence of Christ the King to the politics of the world." (William T Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imgination, p.7)

And then I saw photos yesterday of Westminster Abbey, surrounded by a ring of police, 'protected' by the power of the State against a crowd of disabled people, protesting against the government's removal of the Independent Living Fund. Church staff had, it seems, called in the police when the protesters started setting up tents and gazebos on the lawn outside the Abbey.

The scenes were reminiscent of those outside St Paul's Cathedral a couple of years ago, when the Occupy LSX encampment was evicted by the police, at the request of the Cathedral authorities. At that time I'd felt not only embarrassed by the Church's stance, but deeply sad at an opportunity so spectacularly missed, for the Church of England, for once, to place itself on the right side of history, receiving the gift that the occupiers were offering them; offering hospitality, sanctuary, even, in the midst of London's privatised 'public squares'; but more than that too, humbly 'venturing out' into the tented city, not as host but as participants among others, engaging together in the globalizing wave of questioning and re-imagining of which the Occupy movement had been an iconic part.

This time, at Westminster Abbey, was worse - not just because the Church showed it had learnt nothing from the Occupy/St Paul's encounter, but because those who were setting up tents on the Abbey lawn could not so easily be dismissed as 'middle-class hippies' (however inaccurate that might have been of Occupy LSX), but were, very visibly, physically vulnerable disabled people, many in wheelchairs, whose access the police were able to restrict, even before the ubiquitous 'kettling' manoeuvre, simply by removing various makeshift ramps from the site in question. That was some of why I tweeted last night: "Yet again CofE’s public face is that of the oppressive, defensive neoliberal state and not the vulnerable."

The particular irony, of course, is that Westminster Abbey, like St Paul's Cathedral, is a place where Christian worship has taken place for hundreds of years, where the Eucharist - which Cavanaugh holds up as the 'resistant politics' of the Church - has been celebrated daily, tens of thousands of times over its history. Surely - at least if the logic of Cavanaugh et al is correct - these should be the places par excellence which have formed Christians in the habits of resisting the violence of the State, and of a Christlike solidarity with the vulnerable and excluded? Surely these should be the places where there is not even an 'ethical dilemma' in situations like this, where the response is instinctive, shaped by years of repeating the 'political' liturgies of the anti-Empire Church?

But of course, there are caveats from the theologians of 'liturgical politics': "All of this sounds wonderful," Cavanaugh admits, contrasting the liturgies of the Church with the blasphemous 'liturgies' of the State, "but we must confess that it is the shrivelling of this vision within the church that has allowed the flourishing of ersatz realities... [State] liturgies have succeeded in imagining communities because Christian liturgies have failed to do so in a fully public way. As the church expanded after Constantine, Christian worship was not centered on the parish but on the whole city... The church sought to replace the pagan cult of the city with the Christian liturgy. Therefore, Christian worship on the Lord's Day and other feasts generally took the form of a series of services in churches and public spaces, linked by public processions, totaling six to eight hours. Here was the church taking itself seriously as nothing less than 'the embodiment in the world of the World to come.' Much of this way of imagining the world has been lost as the liturgy has shrunken to a short semiprivate gathering." (Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, p.122)

When pressed, with concrete examples of liturgy's apparent failure to form counter-cultural Christians, Cavanaugh et al respond by telling us we're not doing the liturgy well enough, and if only we did it better, things would look very different. We're not taking it seriously enough. The church isn't taking itself seriously enough.

But yesterday's events at Westminster Abbey don't quite fit that script. If there's one thing Westminster Abbey does, it's take itself - and everything it does - seriously. It is, perhaps, the epitome of the Church of England taking itself seriously. And that, here, seems to be the problem, rather than the solution: here, cross and imperial crown nestle together, the liturgy of the Church and the liturgy of the State are indistinguishable, because they are one and the same. If there is revolutionary potential in Christian worship, it has been neutralised in Westminster Abbey.

Apart from, yet again, the pain and embarrassment of association, through the Church of England, with what 'we' did to a group of disabled protesters yesterday, what's disturbing for me, as Rector of Hodge Hill, is that since at least the 17th Century, the 'common prayer' or 'common worship' of the Church of England has decreed that what they do in Westminster Abbey, we do, in some kind of similar form, in our little Anglican church here. If Cavanaugh and friends are right, that there's something about our liturgies that profoundly shapes, if not actually constitutes, our 'political' habits and responses, then however much I might protest that here (in Hodge Hill) we're an inclusive church, here we're a politically radical church, here we're engaged in building new patterns of relationship and society as the neoliberal world crumbles around us - if we too are tied up in the 'common worship' of Church and State, then we're surely sunk.

But it's clearly not quite as simple as that. Hodge Hill Church is not Westminster Abbey (thank God!). We are not likely to host any coronations here in the near future. We are about as far from the 'centres of Empire' as you can get, demographically if not geographically. Our worship here looks, sounds, feels very different to what they do in Westminster Abbey (and, don't tell anyone, but we also sit rather loosely to the expectations of 'common worship', and that's not just because we're an Anglican-URC ecumenical partnership). But all of that is only half the story, I would suggest. Because I'm not convinced our worship is the only thing that shapes us, by any means. I think our engagements 'out there in the world' shape us just as much, if not more, than our worship in church does. And we have learnt - and are continuing to learn - here how to receive, with humility and expectation, the gifts offered to us in those encounters and engagements, even when those 'gifts' feel initially awkward, uncomfortable, or even hostile - from strangers, as well as friends.

And perhaps that's the most important difference between we Christians here in Hodge Hill and those who have been in charge of Westminster Abbey and St Paul's in their brushes with 'Occupiers' over the last few years. They, there, have had lots of practice at welcoming and honouring the rich and powerful (and, in a lesser way, anyone who is paying to come and look around their beautiful buildings). We've had lots of practice at being displaced, homeless, and dependent on the hospitality of our neighbours. And that, in turn, has shaped our worship, as much, if not more, than the other way round. Of course, we have much less 'symbolic capital' to play with in Hodge Hill - few people (even locally!) are going to notice, or care, if a few tents popped up on our church building's front lawn, and so any response we were to make, equally, would hardly make political waves. But we will, of course, continue our little, barely-noticed acts of hospitality and receptivity, solidarity and subversion, trusting in the power of tiny mustard seeds to grow, in the infectiousness of the microscopic germs of the kingdom of God. And, despite the shame of being Anglican on days like today, we will continue to hope and pray that our Christian sisters and brothers who find themselves in places of symbolic and political power, will rediscover in their own ways the subversive challenge of the gospel, and of the worship of the Christ who was crucified by the powers-that-be.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

#TrojanHorse, #BritishValues & troublesome faith

In the wake of OFSTED's publication, this week, of a series of weirdly incongruous reports on Birmingham schools (and nurseries) in the spotlight of the so-called 'Trojan Horse' investigation (downgrading a secondary school from 'Outstanding' to 'Requires Improvement' in a matter of months; slating a Nursery school for not including, in its Behaviour Policy, an alertness to "identifying and minimising extremist behaviour"), David Cameron has seized on the opportunity to argue that schools should be teaching and promoting 'British values'. And in case anyone was wondering, these values include "freedom, tolerance and respect for institutions".

Now, I think there's a real case, and opportunity, for a 'big conversation' here in the UK, particularly in England perhaps, about the kind of 'common ground' we (and I use 'we' knowing that that 'we' spans differences of class, ethnicity, faith, culture, age and much more) want to claim to inhabit, and to offer as a common heritage to our children. And I would be surprised if a British Prime Minister didn't air his or her opinions about what such 'common ground' might look like. But I do seriously think that David Cameron's 'values' miss the mark with a quite drastic naivety, if not something more sinister.

There is something unsurprising about an Eton-educated Conservative Prime Minister telling us that we should respect the institutions of the State, but I struggle to find a way of understanding it that doesn't make it sound like an order. Or perhaps it's a desperate plea? I'm not a great historian, but my sense of British history is that any respect we've ever had for institutions has always had a sense of irony about it (if not downright cynicism), and certainly in the last few decades that irony has slipped towards a very justified suspicion, if not contempt. Politicians, press, bankers, police, and yes, the Church too - all have revealed not just fallibilities, but to a greater or lesser extent systemic prejudice, greed, self-protection, abuse and corruption. Relationships of 'respect' have broken down significantly, and not because 'the British public' have somehow simply become less 'respectful'.

At the same time, with more than a little (unacknowledged) irony, we hear of Conservative MPs filing complaints to the Charity Commission against Oxfam, of all organisations, for 'getting political at home' when they should, apparently, be getting on with their proper job of 'feeding people abroad'. And we've heard more from the Trussell Trust about the angry threats from the heart of the Department for Work and Pensions to 'close them down' if they persist not just in feeding the hungry, but in asking why they are hungry in the first place. And of course at the heart of the 'Trojan Horse' investigation is an intense suspicion, by central government, of a whole collection of schools and their governing bodies, within a wider sustained attack, financially and politically, on Birmingham as a Local Authority. 'Respect for institutions' is, it seems, something we are expected to be rather selective about.

From a Christian faith perspective, I find myself with at least two pressing thoughts.

First is a sense that people like Cameron - and here he may well be representative of 'government in general', as exactly the same could be said of New Labour - fundamentally misunderstands and distorts what faith 'does', as they cast it in instrumentalising language. Faith, they seem to think, teaches (or should be teaching) 'freedom, tolerance, and respect for institutions'. Faith builds (or should be building) 'social capital' in our neighbourhoods and wider society, understood as helping people 'get along together', avoiding uncomfortable things like 'extremism' and 'rioting', and maintaining the social, economic and political status quo. The trouble for people like Cameron, is that in real life faith might sometimes do those things, but it also, often, does rather more awkward things like:
- opening up spaces for people to express strong emotions (anger, frustration, cynicism, weariness, fragility, to name but a few)
- promoting quite 'counter-cultural' (i.e. to marketplace or government) norms, values and 'rules' for living, such as self-emptying, forgiveness, transformation, risk-taking and openness to learn from others
- intentionally accepting those who have been rejected elsewhere
- challenging what others – including creators of theories - accept as the norm, as part of a critical rather than an uncritical consensus
- fostering the responsibility to be prophetic in situations of injustice, and a 'politics' that goes far beyond representative democracy

My second thought returns to the question of 'institutions'. For Cameron, Gove et al, it seems the only real institutions are those of the market and the State, with the latter as servant to the former. 'Society' is imagined as what William Cavanaugh calls a 'unitary' or 'simple space', characterized by a duality of a powerful, centralized, hard-boundaried State on the one hand, and individual, property-owning, competing consumer-subjects on the other. In contrast, Cavanaugh offers a picture (drawn perhaps from an over-idealized reading of Medieval Europe), of 'complex space', where "authority was often marked by personal loyalties owed in complexly layered communal contexts", where "social space was completely refracted into a network of associations" not simply 'intermediate' between state and individual, but with their own particular 'ultimate loyalties'. The role of the church, Cavanaugh argues, is to "at every opportunity, 'complexify' space, that is, promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish." The nation state, he says, "is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces; rather, it originates and grows over against truly common forms of life... the nation-state is simply not in the common good business."

The 'Trojan Horse' saga is a product of, and an excuse for deepening, the British state's stripping away of 'intermediate' associations and institutions (such as governing bodies and Local Authorities) in favour of the kind of 'unitary, simple space' that Cavanaugh describes so forcefully and - I think, in our current context - convincingly. But it also highlights the misunderstanding - whether naive or wilful - that 'faith communities' can be, or should be, understood, treated, instrumentalised as such 'intermediate associations' themselves, rather than mediating a quite different form of sociality, and a quite different form of authority: for Christians, the God who calls not 'servants' but 'friends', who 'puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble and meek', who 'feeds the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty'.

- C Baker & H Skinner, Faith in Action: The dynamic connection between spiritual and religious capital, William Temple Foundation, 2006, pp.12-13
- William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church, 2011, pp.19, 32, 41-42

Sunday, 1 June 2014

So who's 'radical' then?

Last Friday/Saturday, I spent 24 hours in the company of some wonderful people, in the serene surroundings of Salisbury Cathedral Close - perhaps England's oldest 'gated community' - discussing the meaning(s) and future(s) of 'radical theology'.

And yes, the ironies were noted. And, to some extent, explored.

One of the things we wrestled with was who was there - and why - and who wasn't. I think without exception, none of us would have called ourselves 'radical theologians', even if some others might use the term of us. If anything, most of us struggled with a persistent, nagging feeling that we weren't half as 'radical' as we could/should be. And we could certainly think of, and name, plenty of people that weren't there who were much more 'radical' than we were. 'Radical theology', perhaps, is almost always a call from beyond ourselves, a call to include, to move, to push or stretch or struggle further.

Most of us, in one way or another, were enmeshed within institutions. Most of us were Anglicans - that in itself highlighted a whole load of 'radical Christians' from non-conformist (not to mention Catholic and Orthodox) traditions beyond our rather 'established Church' huddle - and many of us worked within the structures of the Church of England, or colleges and universities within institutional academia. But at the same time as we named those locations near to 'centres' of power, we also named our ambivalences, our dis-eases with those centres and structures, our sense of being simultaneously close to their 'edges', of resisting their weight, their pull, their dominance. And their were costs, hurts, pains that went with that sense of 'bi-location'. In that, perhaps, was a certain kind of 'radicalism'.

We were helped to chart some of the terrain of 20th Century 'radical theology' in the UK - particularly clustering around the focuses of (1) economic injustice; (2) the politics of identity (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, among others); and (3) questioning and deconstructing dominant theologies of God (e.g. through the non-realist tradition, but much broader than just that). We explored the intersections between these (if you're female and not 'white', for example, you're more likely to be poor; hierarchical theologies of an autonomous King-God have been used to legitimise poverty and manifold social exclusions), we asked how much these broad movements might be said to have 'succeeded' (do equalities legislation and international debt relief count as 'successes', even in a world that sees Food Banks and Nigel Farage both on the rise?), and we began to wonder what the new 'edges' were when some of what was once 'radical' has become 'mainstream'.

Although the tone of the gathering was warm, friendly, and overridingly positive, some 'others' did emerge, sometimes having to be named as 'elephants' in the room. One was the institutional Church's ever-growing obsession with numerical growth (aka institutional survival), and a 'strategic' management culture which presumes to be able to 'deliver' it - the peculiar mix of an outwardly confident evangelicalism and an unspoken, but apparent, desperation. Another was the apparently all-consuming dynamics of neoliberal global capitalism, however 'orchestrated' or otherwise we saw them to be. And a third was the movement that calls itself 'Radical Orthodoxy' - more tricky, this one, as one of RO's own primary targets is neoliberalism, but its fondness for an idealised medieval Church and its arrogant presumption to 'out-narrate' all other narratives and theologies left it with little in the way of enthusiastic support in this particular room.

So where did we get to? In many ways, it was 24 hours of 'throat-clearing', of 'readying the ground' ready for seeds to be planted. One seed that had just begun to germinate by the end of our time together was around the question of 'where we find our hope'. What are our sources, theologies, and practices of hope, in our contexts, at this point in the early 21st Century where hope seems to be pretty thin on the ground? We committed ourselves, together, to go away and intentionally attend to, and reflect on this question, to let it infiltrate and permeate our thinking and acting (for some of us that includes our reading, writing and teaching, but also our engaging, relating, listening and most practical 'doings'), and to seek to bring those fragments together, over the course of the next year. There are 'radical theologies and practices of hope' out there to be identified, gathered, shared and celebrated - and perhaps we can be some of those that do that work of identifying, gathering, sharing and celebrating.

But there were other questions too - related, almost certainly - that offered teasing loose ends to tug at...

Is attention to place 'radical', within the 'dis-placing' dynamics of global capitalism? Is place where economic injustice is seen most clearly, and yet also where a host of differing identities find themselves in contact, potentially in relationship and interdependence? Is place where God-talk can be challenged and re-invented in both its radical immanence and its radical transcendence?

Is 'church' something that we can just let get on with whatever it is it is doing, leaving - with liberated indifference - the 'desperately-managed-survival thing' to do its thing, and trust that 'church', in some form, might be unintended outcome rather than focus and direct objective of our struggles and creativity?

Is there a vital key to be found in the connection between 'mysticism' and 'activism' - that only in seeing, experiencing, practising our connection to everything that is, can we discover right and radical actions towards everything that is?

Does our faith give us the self-discipline to hold off the inclination to blame, even those who are giving obvious offence - not refusing action or resistance, but being able to identify within ourselves the same capacities that we see in those others, and to find ways to be penitent, publicly, which invite others - even our most difficult 'others' - to join us?

What are the nouns, the apparently 'fixed states', that we deploy in our everyday language and thinking, that need to be turned into verbs, dynamics which can change and be changed? What happens, for example, when we see 'poverty' as the dynamic of 'impoverishment' - or 'God' as the dynamic of 'Godding'?

Can we do radical theology from places of joy and beauty, as well as from places of pathos and suffering? Is it even possible to 'do radical theology' in the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral?!

I would add one more question. At times in our conversation, hopeful possibilities were offered as potential 'third ways' between two uncomfortable poles. Political 'Third Way' language also made its appearance once or twice. I found myself wondering how often 'third ways' are either possible or even desirable. It struck me that much of what we touched on - with our words and, in more vulnerable moments, with the wounds that we carried - did not allow for happy, easy 'third ways', but rather testified to the necessity of staying in, dwelling in, negotiating and bearing the pains of the 'broken middles', where we find ourselves inhabiting both the 'centre' and the 'edge' and know that the two cannot be brought together. Discovering a language, and embodiments, of hope in that - apparently endlessly - 'torn place' is perhaps our greatest challenge.