Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Stories that lead us

We're well stuck in to our journey of "hearing to speech" the faith and joys, dreams and fears, ideals and pragmatism of our congregation members in Hodge Hill. There are already some fascinating themes and tensions emerging - but it's too early to issue a "report from the front". Alongside the listening process, one or two things that I've read recently have struck deep and resonant chords with what we've been hearing, and I want to share those here.

The first is from a newly-published book, 'Leading by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership', by Vaughan Roberts (a parish priest) and David Sims (a Professor of Organizational Behaviour).

One thing I take from Roberts & Sims' book is that "we all follow ... stories as much as we follow people. 'People join with the narrative, rather than follow the leader.'" Rather than ideas of leadership that cluster around skilled individuals (ideas still popular in recent Church of England reports, for example), here is a concept of the story as the 'leader', and all kinds of roles that different people inhabit in relation to shaping, telling, questioning and re-forming the story. Just as there is no one 'leader', neither is there ever only one story - something very obvious in communities that are made up of multiple, overlapping sub-groups of one kind or another. "The task for those leading is to hear these different stories without getting so caught up in any one of them that they ignore the others. Then it is to build collaboration between the different groups to form a story that all can work with. This seems to happen best not by setting up storytelling sessions, but by getting members of the groups that sustain the different stories working on projects together."

Perhaps the most vivid image from the book is that of an "ecology" of stories, which acknowledges that dominant stories in organisations always co-exist with counter-narratives, which both contest and creatively develop the dominant story, and without which the dominant story dies. Yiannis Gabriel's work points to different "narrative ecologies", different ways that groups of stories live with each other. It's quite an extensive 'map', so I'm going to paste a couple of pages here:

"Gabriel identifies narrative temperate regions, where lots of things can grow, where stories are profuse and varied, and where storytellers are fairly tolerant of one another. This would be the case in socially complex and diverse places, and where people felt reasonably free to tell their own stories. Many stories can flourish in the temperate region, because these are very healthy regions in terms of their nourishing of diverse stories, but they are not easy places to control or to plan. The 'planned' church, with its mission statements, strategies and so on, may not want to be a narrative temperate region, because that sounds too chaotic for the taste of the senior management. 
Then there are narrative deserts, where only a few narratives can grow, and they are relatively scratty, struggling affairs. In the narrative desert the struggle for stories to survive is not because of the competition from other stories, but instead is because of a harsh environment which is not conducive to the survival of any story. There may be a taboo against stories, or it may be that the connections between people are not strong and trusting enough to promote the telling and hearing of stories. 
Then there are narrative monocultures, places where there are some stories around, but they are all very similar. These places lack counter-narratives, and fit in well with a totalitarian organization. There are certainly churches like this, where everyone tells very much the same story and where any other story struggles to survive. Think of a field of wheat, a monoculture, where any weeds (counter-narratives) are very obvious, and will be torn out quickly. Then imagine an insecure, anxious church where house-group leaders are reporting back on any inappropriate stories from their members, who will then be told why they are wrong. At the extreme, this becomes a cult. 
Narrative mountains can grow only a few feeble stories which cling on but show no vigour. Gabriel applies the term particularly to loosely structured places that meet only occasionally to do a particular task, but do not have enough life of their own for strong narratives to take root. No one cares enough about these environments to lavish their narrative energy on them. Think the local branch of 'Churches Together', or the Diocesan Synod. 
Narrative marshlands are also often networks rather than structured organizations. In the marshland many stories can grow and develop, but they risk sinking into the mud. The culture of stories is rich, but they do not necessarily survive all that long. This could be the realm of the task group or ad hoc committee, which meets, tells plenty of stories, and reaches a conclusion at which point the group has done its job, so the stories are not preserved. Sadly, those setting up such groups are not usually interested in collecting and preserving these stories, so the narrative richness is quickly lost and absorbed into the peat bog. 
Narrative jungles are a little like temperate regions, but hotter, with everything growing faster and competing more openly for light and space. They are dangerous places, with strange animals lurking in the undergrowth, and all sorts of wild stories being told - conspiracy theories, gossip about other people, alongside benevolent stories which could bear good fruit. They are hard to control, although, because of the sheer profusion of stories and the potential threat, it may be that much easier for an authoritarian to take charge of them, as people begin to look for clarity amid the chaos. 
Narrative allotments or gardens are where people grow their own private collection of narratives, carefully protecting them from counter-narratives. People's stories are treated with great interest and concern, and listened to carefully. The atmosphere on the allotment is warm and loving, and conflict is rare. At this point we might conclude that Gabriel has never owned an allotment, but never mind, we can see what he means by the metaphor. Narrative allotments work well if the objective is comfort, not so well if the development of better stories and an organization that learns are the objective. Narrative allotments can be planned and controlled, and the owner can keep up with the weeding. 
Stories are generally more like gardening that like sculpture. Many of the popular management techniques of 20 years ago, which are still being brought into the church, are like subtractive sculpture. You chip things off a block of stone or wood until you think it is the right shape. This does not fit with many people's experience of organizations, where you plant, water, weed, prune and so on, but you are never fully in control. The gardener cannot cause the growth. The best thing they can do is to try to give the plant as good a chance as they can to find its own pattern of growth." [pp.70-72]

I love this ecological image. It helps me greatly in considering what kind of narrative environments I inhabit, and help shape, from day to day in the parish of Hodge Hill (and wider). It also reminds me of the wonderful community allotment outside Ambridge House, on our estate, created by children and older people working together, and tended, irregularly but attentively, by a whole community of people. It's not like Gabriel's 'private' allotments - it's much more shared and messy. And it draws me back to a central image in my doctoral research, that of the ecotone: the 'borderland' between two different habitats - a place where differences rub up against each other, and where some of the most fruitful and diverse life is nurtured. It got me wondering how much of our time locally is spent inhabiting 'narrative ecotones' - embracing those borderland interactions between quite different stories, and looking for the life which those interactions generate.


The second thing I read recently that resonated profoundly for me with what I'm hearing in our listening process (and what, over a much longer time-span in Hodge Hill, I'm sensing might be unfolding here), came in the daily email from Richard Rohr's Centre for Action and Contemplation - an extended quote from an article by Brian McLaren. It points towards the kind of stories that might lead us forward in liberating and creative ways - but it also examines, with a healthy dose of self-criticism, how tempting and easy it is to craft and tell those stories in ways that foster resentment and frustration, idealism and arrogance...

“We are on a quest for a new kind of Christianity—a faith liberated from the institutional and dogmatic straightjackets we inherited, a way of life that integrates the personal and the social dimensions of spirituality, a practice that integrates centered contemplation and dynamic action. In our quest, we must remember how easy it is to self-sabotage; we must remember that how we get there will determine where we will be. 
. . . I see four areas where many of us need to pay special attention to the how, so we can be examples and midwives of emerging Christianity instead of its accidental saboteurs.
First, we need to process our pain, anger, and frustration with the institutional or inherited forms of church. . . . [If] we learn to process our pain, if we join Jesus in the way of redemptive suffering and gracious forgiveness, we will become sweeter and better, not meaner and bitter, and we will become the kinds of people who embody an emerging Christian faith indeed. 
Second, we need to manage our idealism. . . . The emerging church will never be a perfect church; it will always be a community of sinner-saints and stumbling bumblers touched by radical grace. Liberated by grace from a perfectionistic idealism, we can celebrate the beauty of what is emerging instead of letting its imperfections frustrate us. 
Third, we need to focus our circle of responsibility. . . . That means letting go of the things you can’t control—which includes the decisions that popes, bishops, pastors, councils, and church boards may make. . . . [If] you can’t get your congregation to care about homeless people, you can get involved yourself. If you can’t get your congregation to treat gay folks with respect, you can do so around your kitchen table. If you can’t get your church to focus on cross-racial relationships, you can take a step this Sunday and visit a church where you’re the minority, and from there, begin to build relationships. You don’t need anyone’s vote or permission to do these things: you only need to exercise your own responsibility and freedom. . . . 
Finally, we need to start small and celebrate small gains. One of the curses of late modernity was the belief that unless something was big and well-publicized, it didn’t count. . . . [Jesus] spoke of tiny mustard seeds, of a little yeast in a lot of dough, of a little flock, of the greatness of smallness, of a secret good deed and a simple cup of cold water given to one in need. 
As we process our pain, manage our idealism, do what’s doable, and celebrate the small and beautiful, we discover that all around us, new forms and expressions of Christian faith are emerging. Through a better how, a better where is possible.” 
[Brian McLaren, “Emerging Christianity: How We Get There Determines Where We Arrive,” Radical Grace, vol. 23, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), 4-5]

A number of things strike me about this piece.

Firstly, McLaren highlights how those of us who have a hunch that we're riding the wave of something that is emerging from, within or beyond the institutional church as we've known it, can all too easily be ourselves saboteurs of that emergence. In our search for something new, in our enthusiasm to all-too-quickly grasp something that we are only just beginning to discern, it can be so tempting to fall into the temptations of adolescence or heroism, to name but two.

This insight is linked to a second point, that we can so easily get entangled in resentment and frustration that those embedded in established patterns (locally) and institutional structures (more widely) "just doesn't get it" - and McLaren invites us instead to face that squarely, to embrace it and work at it, to 'process' it rather than let it determine us. His related point about doing what we can, and not what we can't, reminds me of Dave Andrews' re-working of the 'Serenity Prayer': "Lord grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and wisdom to know that it's me."

Third is McLaren's gentle puncturing of our idealism, inviting us to relax into the grace of imperfection - in what is emerging, as much as in what is already established - and to celebrate the little good things, rather than be seduced by the 'big'. The stories we tell about the 'new' (how wonderful and shiny it is) can be as deadly as the stories we tell about the 'old' (how awful and stuck-in-the-mud it was).

Much of the wisdom here rings loud bells with what we've been trying to do intentionally, for some time, where we are - as much in the wider neighbourhood of Hodge Hill, as within the more explicitly 'church' context. But these are also lessons we can quickly forget, so McLaren's article is a timely, wise and grace-full reminder of the "how" of our journeying, as well as hinting at the "where" we might be journeying towards - the telling of the story of what has been, and what is, as much as the story of what will, should, or could be...

Saturday, 18 November 2017

"I dream of a church..."

In Hodge Hill we've started our journey of listening carefully to the faith and joy, hopes and fears, of our congregation members that I described in my last blog post.

One of the insights I've learnt from my community organising friends is that we find our common interest - the connection we discover between us - not just by listening, but by sharing something of our own passions - the things that bring us life and joy, the things that are giving us grief - and inviting our conversation-partner to do likewise. I often find myself a bit cautious about this kind of mutuality in a church context, as I'm also conscious of the unavoidable power imbalances in such conversations - of the power I have as a "leader" - and I don't want to overly pre-determine or prematurely limit the conversations we're currently having. I reckon my community organising friends will push back at me on this. And they might well have a point. Perhaps one reason for my reserve is that I'm avoiding putting in the hard work reflecting, articulating, owning up to my own faith and joys, hopes and fears, in all of this.

So as part of this process, I thought I'd give that a go here.

What's at the heart of my faith? What gives me most joy?

The answers to these two questions are intertwined for me. Faith without joy is dead, I think. The joys now are glimpses, for me, of where faith is pointing. And the joys are not beyond the struggles, but found in the midst of them.

Here's some of them...

Seeking 'shalom'...
- in people's lives (and in my own) - confidence, wholeness, connection, sharing, growing
- with my neighbours - growing community, spaces for encounter, connections, parties, stories
- with the earth - re-connecting, getting our hands dirty, living more simply
- in the wider world - prophetic challenge, systemic change, movement-building
- with God - habits of prayer, contemplation and wonder

- hearing people's stories into speech and growth
- growing shared 'community' stories
- inhabiting and developing the 'big story' - the source of life, a covenant of love, prophetic challenge, redemption of failure / brokenness, glimpses of kingdom / resurrection / shalom

Eating together...
- growing, and cooking and eating together
- giving and receiving
- no one hungry, all fed
- fun and laughter and stories and thankfulness and tears and hugs and forgiveness and silence and...
- strangers becoming friends
- and repeat...

What are my dreams for Hodge Hill?

- a thriving ecology of thriving and sustainable community spaces: of welcome, support, connection and participation
- deepening connections across differences and barriers
- a growing network of connectors and leaders
- an environment of possibility: for friendship, invitation, mutual hospitality, spirituality, creativity, and more...

What are my dreams for church in Hodge Hill?

- alert: 'we are open and expectant to see signs of God's kingdom in our midst'
- inclusive: 'all are welcome'
- receptive: 'where stories, struggles and dreams are heard'
- participative: 'where all play a part, make a contribution'
- honest: 'where struggle, brokenness and failure can be acknowledged and embraced'
- supportive: 'where people find companionship and support from each other to keep going, and explore and grow'
- embedded: 'we are "out there" in the midst of growing community locally'
- accessible: 'people can "walk into church" wherever they are locally'
- prayerful: 'we long to draw our whole lives into our prayers, and for prayer to run through our whole lives'
- storied: 'we inhabit more and more deeply a story we discover is more and more shared'

What might that (need to) look like?

- dispersed - "happening" in multiple places and spaces
- connected - there are ways of joining dispersed "happenings" (and the people involved in them) together
- communicative - people know where/when/how to find the dispersed "happenings"
- consistent - in shared values, not necessarily in form, language, etc; in "calendaring the story" (lectionary?); each space has an internally consistent "feel" (so "you know what you're getting here")
- leadership (people, and stories) - makes spaces to "hear to speech" and invite to participate / lead; listens to and connects people; shapes the culture / atmosphere with the shared values; sustains a sense of the connectedness between spaces; co-ordinates the calendar / storying and oversees the communication

I'm sure there's more. I'm looking forward to the conversations to come - as I'm pretty confident they will challenge, expand, and change everything that I've written here.

I dream of a church that joins in with God's laughing
as she rocks in her rapture enjoying her art:
she's glad of her world, in its risking and growing:
'tis the child she has borne and holds close to her heart.

I dream of a church that joins in with God's weeping
as she crouches, weighed down by the sorrow she sees:
she cries for the hostile, the cold and no hoping,
for she bears in herself our despair and disease.

I dream of a church that joins in with God's dancing
as she moves like the wind and the wave and the fire:
a church that can pick up its skirts, pirouetting,
with the steps that can signal God's deepest desire.

I dream of a church that joins in with God's loving
as she bends to embrace the unlovely and lost,
a church that can free, by its sharing and daring,
the imprisoned and poor, and then shoulder the cost.

God, make us a church that joins in with your living,
as you cherish and challenge, rein in and release,
a church that is winsome, impassioned, inspiring:
lioness of your justice, and lamb of your peace.
Kate Compston 
Words © 1994 Hope Publishing Company

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Trying to find the right question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Where is the CofE going? Economies, Mission, Presence

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

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

Framing the conversation: overlapping economies

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

1.       A financial-numerical economy

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

2.       A kenotic-Kingdom economy

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

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

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

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

3.       A radically receptive Kingdom economy

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

What does mission look like in these ‘economies’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remaining present in the urban margins

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

1.       Equity of presence

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

2.       Local need

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

3.       Divine presence / preferential option

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

4.       The church’s need

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

5.       The abundance of the kingdom

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

6.       Growing the church?

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Holding off Tiamat - the gift of "taking time"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we approach Eid together, I am deeply thankful.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Doing theology after Grenfell Tower?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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