Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Sabbatical reflections #10: a guest at the table

Day 2

One of my visits on my second day in South Africa was to the Tshwane Leadership Foundation in central Pretoria. Describing itself as "an inner city community organization committed to socially inclusive urban transformation", TLF tackles poverty at its roots - including a major focus on accessible housing provision and other forms of community-rooted empowerment - seeking, as this beautiful poster puts it, to "increase the seats at the table, and even to help create new tables".

I was so grateful to have been connected with TLF - this was precisely the kind of opportunity to look, and listen, and learn that I'd been hoping for during my time in South Africa.

What I'd not been expecting was to be invited to "lead devotions" as my first act on arriving at their offices. No hiding quietly in the corner, observing what went on, listening in on conversations! This was what they expected of "guests" - to come and share something of oneself, to bring something to the table.

Luckily, I had something up my sleeve that enabled me to share a little of where I come from (I told the story of our community passion play), but also start a conversation among the 100 or so people gathered that morning. This is mostly not about me, but let me explain briefly what I did.

On the whiteboard at the front of the room I drew a series of concentric circles, labelled "our lives" (in the centre), "neighbourhood", "city", "land/country", and "world". And then, simply, asked the question, "what is going on?". It's a question more and more of us seem to be asking, in these troubled and troubling times - with more and more exasperation. The only constraint I put on the responses to the question was that they had to be in the form of verbs: "doing words", as our school teachers used to call them. We're often more practised at answer the question with nouns (homelessness, poverty, Brexit, violence, etc). In the abstract. But verbs force us to describe relationships - the agency of human beings, as well as those on the receiving end of those actions.

As you can see, the question sparked plenty of responses. People in the room who were homeless told stories of friends who had been killed. Others spoke of corrupt officials who dealt in lies and bribes. Yet others shared their own stories of coping, sometimes barely surviving, and sometimes losing hope, amidst the life-denying challenges of poverty and injustice. Alongside the stories of desperation, however, there were also profoundly hope-full statements: people named the power of sharing, of eating together, of weeping together, praying together; others talked about the loving labour of encouraging, comforting, supporting, advocating for and with their neighbours and friends.

Next, I asked them to identify which of these verbs reminds them of a bible story, or something we believe or know about God. In the picture above, you'll see some verbs underlined. They were words that rang bells with the story of the people of Israel, the story of Jesus and those around him, the story of the early church. And those words that are circled are just some of the verbs that people recognized as words associated with God - God with the people of Israel, and/or God seen in Jesus.

And by this point in the conversation, it was inescapably clear that we were on holy ground. Through our conversation together, our sharing of our stories and experiences, we had named just some of the many, profoundly tangible ways, in which God was at work in our midst - in us, with us, and to us through others.

The last part of the 'exercise', if you can call it that, was to ask people whether there were any other verbs that describe the way God is at work in the world, that we needed, longed, to see in the emerging picture. Sometimes when I've done this in other places, this has taken significant extra time. But here (if I remember rightly), there was little to add. Here, in this gathering of lives, relationships, experiences, stories; here, in inner city Pretoria in a South Africa wrestling with the lasting legacy of apartheid and the ongoing inequalities of global capitalism; here, where we had just heard first-hand stories of lying, stealing, oppressing, killing, we heard the same voices witnessing to where God was seen, working through people's lives, weeping, forgiving, sharing, mending, restoring. At least one person told a story of eyes being opened - a biblical verb, a verb speaking of God at work, if ever there was one - and in the midst of the struggle and the longing for a better world, we heard echoes of Mary's song of the future already becoming present: "he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty".

After the morning gathering, in my conversation with Wilna de Beer, TLF's CEO, Wilna described for me a "third sector organisation" with 80 staff, tackling poverty in the city in all kinds of concrete and structural ways (not least among them building housing, nurturing forms of mutual support and community, and engaging with local government), but also an organisation which knew the importance of "beauty, play, dreaming"; which encouraged "practitioner-scholars", whose critical and creative reflections were firmly rooted in their work in local neighbourhoods; and which, increasingly, was wanting to pay attention to "spiritual formation" in urban contexts, practices, rhythms, ways of being that would shape communities - members, volunteers and staff together - to reflect and evaluate together, mourn and celebrate together, dream and plan together, pray and lead together.

As someone involved both in leading a church community, and in helping a neighbourhood-focused community-building partnership to find rhythms of reflecting and celebrating together, this was music to my ears. As someone who had travelled from post-Christian Britain to a South Africa where around 80% of the population call themselves Christian, I was aware that our differences of cultural context raise different kinds of challenge for this possibility of integrating inclusive community-building work with what practices of spiritual formation. But in both contexts, it feels to me like this is one of the most profoundly important possibilities of our time.

Of all the questions I wanted to ask Wilna and her colleagues, one seemed particularly to "stick" - in our conversation at the time, and in my reflections since. Was what she was describing at TLF becoming - or already - "church"? Her reply was cautious, hesitant, in just the way that I find myself responding about some of the forms of community emerging in our neighbourhood in Hodge Hill. In South Africa as in the UK, "Sunday morning worship" is still the definitive way in which imaginations of "church" are shaped. Denominational structures are still, overwhelmingly, geared towards sustaining that kind of ecclesial imagination. And even when churches and denominations are invested in community-building and tackling poverty, the investment is largely in terms of the impressive scale of "service-provision" which the church is able to offer. Could these messy experiments in bringing human beings together across boundaries of race and class, nationality and language, culture and even faith, attentive to practices and rhythms which nurture spiritual depth - could these be called "church" in any commonly understood sense of the word? A conversation later that day helped to sharpen the question, to ask it alongside the sacramental questions - what about communion? baptism? But despite the qualifiers, despite the tentative caution, that day in Pretoria I heard the quiet beginnings of a "yes..."

Friday, 18 October 2019

Sabbatical reflections #9: arriving a stranger

Day 1

After a day and night of travelling from North to South across the planet, Johannesburg airport didn't feel dramatically different to the Newcastle airport I'd left the previous day. 'Non-places', a world apart. The smooth and sparkling clean GAU train from Johannesburg to Pretoria was not too strange either - apart from the visible presence of armed security guards, that is. My first host of this trip, waiting for me at the station in Pretoria, was a welcome, and welcoming, familiar face - Cobus van Wyngaard and I had met briefly in an academic context in Amsterdam, a couple of years ago, and it was he who'd suggested I come to South Africa. Just as I was questioning white middle-class privilege in the context of the Church of England in Brexit Britain, he was asking similar questions of the Dutch Reformed Church in 'post-apartheid' South Africa. We had sensed common ground in our first encounter, and I was excited to explore further, on his home turf.

But despite some fleeting familiarities, I was acutely aware, arriving in South Africa, of being a stranger. This was my first visit to anywhere on the continent of Africa, and although my itinerary for the next two weeks was thrillingly full, Cobus was one of only two people I would spend time with that I had ever met before, and both of those were conversations that had lasted less than an hour. I had had all kinds of introductions made for me, through mutual friends, but I came as an unknown guest, and a largely unprepared traveller.

And although my 'strangerness' was repeatedly, and often rapidly, transformed into something deeper, more intimate - as will hopefully become clear as these next few blog posts unfold - returning home I brought back with me many rich stories of encounter, but only at best impressionistic, very partial, glimpses of South Africa in 2019. So please don't take whatever follows to be any kind of authoritative account. And please (especially if you know South Africa much better than me) bear with me - and ideally tell me - when I get it wrong!

Cobus drove me to his home not far from the centre of Pretoria, and in the following hours I was welcomed warmly by every member of his family. My 'strangerness' dawned on me again though, when I realised - of course! - that while all of them spoke perfect English, their mother tongue, their family language, was Afrikaans - of which I knew not a word. Over the next few days I came to see one of South Africa's many complexities: a nation of multiple languages, with no 'lingua franca' free from ethnic division, or oppressive, colonial, historical baggage. While Afrikaans can never be disentangled from Dutch colonialism and the white supremacist apartheid regime, my own English language in South Africa holds within it just as long and sordid a history of invasion, violence and 'ethnic cleansing'. I would also discover, as my time in South African went on, the sheer number and diversity of 'indigenous' African languages spoken across the country too.

Later that afternoon, I was driven to another suburb of Pretoria by Klippies Kritzinger, missiologist, critical white theologian, and minister in the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa (which in 1994 brought together the two denominations that historically were created out of the white-dominated Dutch Reformed Church, for black and so-called 'coloured' members). Klippies and his wife Alta welcomed me into their home with joyful, generous hospitality, and shared with me just a little of their life story, infused with deep solidarity with their black and so-called 'coloured' neighbours, and their radical resistance to the divisions and oppressions of the apartheid regime, and its 'Christian' theological legitimisers.

Alta pointed me in the direction of the South African heartlands, way beyond the urban centres that I would be spending my time in, where human civilization itself began - 'prehistoric' burial chambers with evidence suggesting the possibility of co-habiting pre-human hominid species, hundreds of thousands of years ago - and the ancient traditions of profoundly embodied wisdom rooted in that deep ancestry. "The arrogance of white newcomers," Alta exclaimed, "imagining themselves superior!"

From Klippies, among much wisdom, I learnt two new words that made my heart sing.

Klippies is less interested, he told me, in ecclesiology (the study of the church's life), or missiology (the study of the church's mission), than in encounterology: an attentiveness to (and careful, multidimensional analysis of) encounters - encounters between Christians and 'others', but also a much broader horizon of encounters, both within and beyond the Christian community - and how they transform each of us.

In an academic article about Klippies' work, Cobus (van Wyngaard 2016) highlights a personal encounter in 1986, a moment of challenging friendship between Klippies and black theologian Dr Mpho Ntoane, that changed the course of the former's theological journey:

'Mpho enquired about my research and then asked whether I was giving the same attention to my own white history and identity as I was giving to the struggle of black Christians with their black history and identity. I had to admit that I was not, and realised that I had to add a chapter on white responses to Black Theology and to situate my whole study as a particular type of white response to it.'

Out of this conversation, Klippies 'became convinced that the only credible way to pursue my theological vision was to come to terms with my whiteness, religiously as a Reformed Christian, culturally as an Afrikaner, economically as a member of the privileged middle class, and politically as a person who was legally allowed to vote under apartheid.' (Kritzinger 2001:247)

'A self-effacing concern of white people to achieve only black liberation,' Klippies argues, 'cannot escape the trap of paternalism, since it contains the tacit assumption that white people do not need to be liberated.' (Kritzinger 1988:296)

As Cobus observes, 'the challenge that Kritzinger picks up from Black theologians is to consciously give attention to his own history and identity as white in the midst of a racialised society. Key to this is that Kritzinger allows Black theologians to become his primary interlocutors in an attempt at analysing whiteness.' (van Wyngaard 2016).


As first Cobus, and then Klippies, drove me around Pretoria on that first day of my South Africa trip, I got my first glimpse of the stubbornly enduring effects of the geographical dimension of apartheid: the big cities like Pretoria organised with a central business district - the centre of (still white-dominated) business, finance and power - surrounded by a ring of still-largely-white suburbia, itself ringed by the city's industrial zone, and furthest out, the 'townships' created by the apartheid government to house the city's black residents (mostly forcibly re-located from across the city). The geography - sustained now not so much by racist policy but by that policy's lasting effects, and ongoing class inequality - still means that black cleaners living in the townships have to travel 120km every day to clean offices in the CBD, to give but one example. And self-proclaimed 'progressive' white South Africans often end up living in ethnically homogenous gated communities, separated from their neighbours out of a 'fear of crime'.

Talking with Cobus about the ongoing challenges of the geography, he suggested that there's no 'programme' that will somehow 'solve' it. White people need to acknowledge that the racism goes deep, he said. That a white fear of intimacy with black people is deep in the subconscious of racialized whiteness; visceral, bordering on disgust, even. And that there is only one way to change that: "We just need to spend lots of time, over a long time, together." Encounter. Difficult, patient, persevering, humble, hopeful encounter.


The second word I learnt from Klippies is a South African answer to the neoliberal mantra "There Is No Alternative" (TINA for short). Instead, Klippies insisted, "THEre Must Be an Alternative" (THEMBA). And guess what? 'Themba' is the Zulu word for 'hope'.


Kritzinger, J.N.J., 1988, 'Black Theology: a challenge to mission', DTh thesis, Dept of Missiology, University of South Africa

Kritzinger, J.N.J. 2001, 'Becoming aware of racism in the church', in M.T. Speckman & L.T. Kaufmann (eds.), Towards an agenda for contextual theology, pp.231-275, Cluster Publications, Pietermartizburg

van Wyngaard, G.J., 2016, 'White theology in dialogue with Black Theology: exploring the contribution of Klippies Kritzinger', HTS Theological Studies 72:1

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Sabbatical reflections #8: in between Mirfield and South Africa

The sharp-eyed followers of this blog will notice that so far my 'sabbatical reflections' reached the end of Week 1 (of 12), and then stopped. The first week - on 'individual guided retreat' in silence at the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield - was intense, and generously spacious, enough to generate seven substantial chunks of reflection here, and to effect that 'changing gear', and 'letting go', that I had hoped for.

The five weeks that followed were of quite a different character. I was back home, but not 'working' - while my wife Janey, and the two kids, continued their daily routines of work and school, and the living webs of relationship in our neighbourhood, in which I'm normally significantly entangled, carried on without me.

'Stuff happened' in that time: I wrote a journal article (on 'hosting' and 'commoning' - in the latest issue of Crucible: the Journal of Christian Social Ethics); we visited friends in Liverpool (for a weekend! including an actual Sunday!!); I delivered a day's training on community-building to church folk in Bristol; we welcomed some community-builders from Singapore to our neighbourhood for a couple of days; I joined some of my friends and neighbours on an overnight trip to see the fantastic community growing project that calls itself 'Incredible Edible Todmorden'; we had fab friends from the USA to stay for a few nights; we celebrated both the kids' birthdays (11 and 8); I went to a great friend's ordination to the priesthood and then preached at her first eucharist; I spent several days having conversations with various interesting people I rarely get to spend time with normally; I spent a day in Oxford at a gathering for missional theological educators (I was a bit of an interloper!); and thanks to wonderful in-laws, Janey and I even got a couple of nights away together, on an island in the middle of the Thames!

But believe it or not, the 'slowing of pace' that began in Mirfield was a feature of those five weeks. With just one or two exceptions, I was able to take the kids to school in the morning (the normal pattern in our household) and pick them up at the end of their day (much less common for me). And not having any evening meetings (bliss!), many of our evenings were spent playing games, and - especially with our 11 year-old - baking ever-more-ambitious cakes. And the day - the oh-so-short day! - between school drop-off and pick-up managed to fill itself easily with a bit of reading, a bit of cycling, and the day-to-day domestic necessities of keeping the house going (while in 'normal life' I do my very best to take a fair share of the domestics, I'm very aware that the reality is often somewhat less than a decent 50% - at least in this sabbatical time, the balance was able to shift substantially in the other direction).

And I really, really enjoyed it. Not just the noticeably lower stress levels of not having to do the usual juggling of 101 tasks, and the mental 'holding of stuff' that normally lasts all the way to sleep, and resurfaces in the first waking moments in the morning. But the positive living of a different kind of life - the revitalization of aspects of my vocation (the call to live the whole, particular, fully human life-in-relationship that is uniquely mine and not anyone else's) that had been at best marginalized, and at worst forgotten: the call to be dad, husband and home-maker, the call to play and to bake, the call to take time to read and to give time to listen to others well beyond the local, the call to tread lightly on the earth and to take time out to rest.

The tantalising challenge, of course, is how to give good time to these other aspects of vocation, when sabbatical is over and 'the day job' resumes?

But that was a question deferred, for the moment. Because after those five weeks of 'a different kind of normal', the next phase of the sabbatical adventure would take me to the other side of the world...

Sunday, 13 October 2019

theological ecology - something new

Meanwhile... you might be interested in theologicalecology.blogspot.com - a new blog I'm starting, in parallel with this one. You could click on the link above - or read the first post here...

I'm going to try something new.

Since 2010, I've been writing a blog, on and off, rooted in my outer estate neighbourhood on the edge of the city of Birmingham. Often its subject matter has stretched wider - touching at times on national politics, and the internal politics of the Church of England - but its focus has been, and remains, the labour of love that we call "community-building", often across dividing lines of race and class, but with a focus on nurturing relationships between neighbours rooted in particular places. Much of what I've written there over the years has been about what we've been doing in our own neighbourhood (the Firs & Bromford estate, Hodge Hill), and what we've been learning through that doing. Some of that learning became a PhD (developing a "radically receptive" political theology from the urban margins), and that in turn has turned out to be a springboard for some writing and speaking and some fascinating, stretching conversations in the wider world.

This is something different.

This is venturing into terrain that I, personally, don't know remotely well. It will be following the footsteps (and, at times, paw-prints) of people (and other creatures) that know the ground much better than me. I come as a late arrival to a "party" - or perhaps it's a walk in the woods, a picnic, a protest, a dance, a lament - that many others have been at for years.

But better late than never. And better something than nothing. As the public-theologians / comedy-rap-jazz-duo Harry and Chris put it:

"They say it's a drop in the ocean / as if that's a reason to stop.
Well maybe they've forgotten the ocean / is literally made up of drops."

So what is it?

When theology is divided into sub-disciplines, it's often labelled "eco-theology".

But many practitioners of "eco-theology" would argue, I think, that compartmentalising it as a sub-discipline is, itself, part of the problem.

An earth-centred (rather than human-centred) theology should change everything: not just the way we think about creation and salvation, but the way we think about God, and Jesus, and the gospel, and discipleship, and church, and mission, and... everything...

Eco-theology reminds us that everything that is, is connected. Interrelated. Entangled. Interdependent.

In Western theology, over the last couple of centuries, the idea that everything in theology is connected to everything else has been expressed in the sub-discipline called "systematic theology".

But the "systems" of "systematic theology" have too often been overly rigid, fixed, rational. Drawn only in straight lines. "Mind over matter", imposing their intellectual categories on messy reality. And captive to a profoundly white, Western, heterosexual male way of thinking about the world.

What if we were to think about theology not as a "system" but as an "ecology"? Where the connections and interrelations are rarely in straight lines, and are often more mysterious, hidden, buried deep beneath the surface? Where nothing is fixed - where everything grows, changes, evolves, dies? Where one thing changing, changes everything else? Where "matter" is what matters, and what thinks, and breathes, and communicates... and grows, changes, evolves, dies...?

This is what I want to call the "theological ecology".

And the blog posts that follow will not attempt, as systematic theology has often claimed, to offer a comprehensive description of all the ecology's elements and interrelations. The ecology is too wonderful, too mysterious, too complex for that to be even possible. And even if it were, I am - as I've already said - a late arrival, a novice, a stumbling beginner in this unfamiliar terrain. Here, then, I'll just offer a handful of fragments, whether picked up from others or glimpsed for myself - fragments of beauty, wonder (and sometimes terror) that I find myself turning over and over in my hand, or straining my eyes to see from a distance.

Some connections between the fragments may emerge over time. I'm expecting this to be a place, though, not just to sit back and marvel at the complex connections. But a place that calls us to jump in with both feet - to immerse ourselves in the overwhelming realities of the one world that we live in - and to action: to be changed and to change; to grow and evolve; to live and to die...