Category Archives: Contemporary society

A little lower than the angels

What’s all the activity for?  Why do we as members of the church spend so much time doing stuff?  There are so many spheres of activity, so many worthwhile events and initiatives, so many vital meetings, countless services of worship, acts of kindness and social responsibility, missions, conferences and charitable fundraisers…

All these things are valuable in themselves, but the activity and the demand for outcomes and progress often drives us to miss the main thing: each person we have to do with in all this work is a person made in the image of God, created a little lower than the angels.  When there is so much of everything and there are so many people involved, there simply isn’t time to relate to each person on a deep level… there isn’t time for encounter.  I wonder if we’re in such a panic about what has to be done in a cash-poor environment under pressure of time, and trying to work for maximum gains, that we aim for outcomes across a wide area of engagement and risk making a shallow impact that won’t be transformative in the way we would hope.  What if we just prioritised spending time one-to-one….?!

I watched a video today of two people sitting gazing at each other’s faces.  It was an act of performance art that took place in an art gallery.  What happens when two people simply sit in silence and encounter the other intensely through observation of their eyes, features, skin, body?  It seemed as if the experience was profoundly moving.

In an art gallery we stand and examine original pieces by talented artists.  We pay money for it – some works of art call in millions.  We are made in the image of God… we are each created, unique, easily damaged, mysterious and full of meaning, like most paintings or artefacts you’d find in a gallery.

What would church be like if we took our creation in the image of God more seriously?  How would it affect what we took time over?  How would it impact people who came through our doors?  Could we take time simply to sit and marvel at the face of the person sitting next to us, putting ourself into the imagination of God as he designed her (or him?).  What if our worship was more like a piece of performance art, open to a radical encounter with another human being?

Obviously it could send people screaming from the building.  Or it could encourage us to make church a place where we contemplate what it means to have been ‘made a little lower than the angels’ and re-orientate our focus on the other extraordinary (human) works God has made.


Blessing the apple trees after Paris terror

In this wintertime of violence and hatred

In this wintertime of bloody executionWassail 2014

In this wintertime of meanness and closedness

In this wintertime of ignorance and fear

We pray for a springtime flowering of tenderness and compassion

We pray for a summertime of leafy generosity and love

We pray for an autumn of crisp sweet fruit – the taste of justice, welcome and peace.

We ask you to awaken the apple trees to your call, o Creator of the seasons; bless them  and dress them with nourishing fruit!


Seth Godin: What’s ‘education’ for?

This post about public school in America, its industrial roots and lack of connection with the nature of contemporary society gives clues to how we might train people in theological colleges, how we ‘do’ mission and church, and how we disciple people today…  Enjoy!


No enthronement for the Bishop

I don’t want the new Bishop enthroned.  For all kinds of reasons.  Firstly, this: “You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.’  (Mark 10: 42-244)

I know Bishops see themselves as servants, and the term ‘enthronement’ is historical.  But it is an archeological relic of the days when church and state were politically interbred, and since the Bishop is no longer considered a prince, and he has (wisely in my view) decided not to live in the Palace, how can he be enthroned?

You might think it’s a fuss about nothing, but words are linguistic symbols.  The word represents something, the sign signifies a specific object, person or idea.  Enthroning someone must entail putting someone royal on a throne, and by inference, giving them the right to rule over their subjects.  This is not what bishopping is all about.  And so using the term ‘enthronement’ creates a gap between the word and what it signifies.  And if we’re telling the truth about who we are as church, we can’t have a gap between a word we use and the reality it is supposed to represent.

Could he be installed, then?  Well, no.  Not for my money.  These days we install software, fridge freezers and new bathrooms.  And unless the new Bishop is going eliminate our computer viruses, store our meat at a safe temperature, or give us a warm shower in the mornings, this isn’t appropriate language either.  I know the word ‘install’ refers to the fact that the Bishop has a ‘stall’ in the cathedral (quite a large one, rather like a throne), but that doesn’t help.  The primary and secondary meanings for ‘stall’ these days are both to do with housing cattle.  And although we are a rural Diocese, I doubt if we want to be telling the wider world that we keep our Bishop in a barn, charmingly Christmassy though that may be.

I also think being installed sounds very static:  ‘Our Bishop is going to sit here for a few years… ‘

So we’re left with ‘licensed’.   And you know what I’m going to say…   People are licensed to own dogs, to enjoy public broadcasting, and sell alcohol on their premises.  007 was licensed to kill….  Heaven forfend our Bishop should be licensed. Or the cathedral would be populated with beer-drinking canines watching ‘Beethoven’ on satellite.  With the possibility of the occasional unexplained shooting.

As I say, it’s not just about relevance.  It’s also about creating meaning.  The words we use must be skilfully chosen symbols for what they signify.  Or we lose meaning, and when we lose meaning, we lose listeners.

I’m going for ‘welcomed and sworn in’.  I want the Bishop to know he is welcome, and to receive the gift of our hospitality.  I want to know, too, he has taken solemn vows before God and God’s people to serve us faithfully, as God inspires him and gives him grace.


Riff on Galatians 3:28

Led to reflect on what had made the Diocesan Gathering so generative of rich kingdom-flavoured outcomes I realised how significant the underlying structures had been.  The whole gathering was shaped by a large team drawn from different parts of the Diocese in terms of theology, geography, and position in the hierarchy.  There were equal numbers of men and women, and throughout the conference they shared out the upfront as well as the servant roles.  The Bishop gave only a short opening welcome and preached and presided at the final Eucharist, modelling a  permission-giving and enabling leadership.

No one apart from the Bishop and one female member of the planning team wore anything (yes, this sentence does continue) that signified their status or churchpersonship.  We were all in mufti all the time, and I can’t describe how liberating that was.  We met each other as human persons, rather than meeting each other as signposts of particular theological positions.  It struck me how much our ceremonial clothes in the Church of England act like placards proclaiming our educational background, our interpretation of the ecclesiastical past, our current ranking in the Anglican Premier League, and the church tribe we align ourselves with.  Our vestments act as barriers to true encounter – they are all statement and defence and proclamation of power.

I can’t see how a congregation, church or Diocese constructed from such exquisitely shaded gradations of status and role, belief and belonging, will ever connect with a society discipled on the open-source, democratic, egalitarian principles of our time.  It is impossible to explain to those outside the Anglican Communion why it’s a social solecism for a clergywoman to wear cerise.  Or why pastors parade around in an academiBaKGAzWIEAA1Mkac hood.  Or why obligatory stoles can be replaced by a preaching scarf.

Could we simply go without the sophisticated, somewhat barbed language of vestments, and just talk to one another?!

I met a number of new colleagues at the Gathering and got to know them as people.  I don’t know what kind of churches they come from or how important they are or how much studying they’ve done.  I got to know them as fellow travellers, as colleagues, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  I enjoyed the freedom of ‘seeing’ them without having to put on institutional spectacles.

So here’s my attempt at a riff on Galatians 3:28 as it applied to the Bath and Wells Diocesan Gathering:

‘For here there is neither ordained nor lay, curate or archdeacon, conservative or liberal, graduate or non-graduate, charismatic or contemplative, low church or high church.  Instead, Christ is all, and is in all.’ 

In this regard the Gathering modelled a way of being together than offers hope for the future.  I’m grateful to all who made it possible and showed us ‘a more excellent way’.



A group of ladies were making their way towards us along the corridor, a little unsteadily,  led by care assistants.  We’d started the worship-service-cum-hymn-singalong in the second floor lounge while they made their way up from the bottom floor: it was ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, known as ATB&B in the trade (Avoid This – Boring and Banal).

As I went to call a welcome, singing heartily, I saw the lady at the front moving in an odd way – in perfect time to the music, putting one foot to the other and taking a step forward.  Then repeating with the opposite foot. And back to the first….

Nicole* was dancing.

I can’t tell you often I want to dance in worship.  Not the ‘offer your hamster to the Lord’ other-worldly group dance, or the ‘caught up in the Spirit amongst a hall full of people’ dance, but the normal ‘kick your knees up and jig about in sheer unpracticed exuberance’ kind of dance. (Is that normal?!) I’m slowly introducing figures from country dancing into worship at our largely traditional Eucharistic church (strip-the-willow is a great image for the dance of the Trinity…).  And here was Nicole, from the ground floor where all the doors are security locked to discourage patients from wandering:  Nicole, void of speech, bright of eye, absolutely on the beat, dancing purposefully into the lounge for the service.

It’s not often I’m too choked to sing ATB&B – usually I’m thinking about the link to the next part of the service, and then find I’ve no idea what verse we’re on.  But Nicole and I held hands and danced.  I twirled her gently in a dignified way.  Her brilliant black eyes reached out to mine in delight.  I squeaked bits of the chorus, as I slowly processed the means God had used to answer my heart’s cry, and the trust he had placed in my hands.  ATB&B couldn’t have gone on too long.  It was redeemed for me in this moment, in this interchange of gifts: my need to dance being met so completely and beautifully by Nicole.

And I was reminded of a statement by Angela Shier-Jones that applies normally to pioneer ministry (which this wasn’t, although maybe those of us trying to pathfind a meaninful way of leading worship amongst people suffering with memory loss or dementia might be pioneering a little):  ‘Pioneering ministry cannot be done to a community by someone who knows what they need, it can only be done with a community by someone who shares that need.’

*not her real name


Does it matter how people hear the gospel?

Someone asked me recently why I don’t simply come straight out with a presentation of the Christian faith to the people I meet, describing an occasion when he’d done just that.  Out for a drink with an acquaintance, he’d asked for permission to explain his beliefs, and was gratified to spend the rest of the evening in a detailed discussion of Christian beliefs and practices.

The question was challenging: yes, why don’t I just come out with it?  Why do I spend time building relationships, exploring spirituality, trialling gatherings of different kinds to bring people together?  Why has it taken two years to begin to speak about Jesus with some of the people I’ve got to know?  Am I a coward, watering down the gospel, afraid of personal rejection, misguided about the nature of conversion, or doubtful of the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to people?  Well, yes…possibly all of the above!

But I wonder if the way people come to faith has an impact on the way they exercise faith later, and what they understand church to be.  My objective in growing a community through which people are invited into an encounter with Jesus is to try to keep the medium of the gospel as closely in line with the message as possible, and to give an accurate expectation of what it’s like to be part of a church.

It’s one of the most counter-cultural aspects of the gospel in our generation and the hardest for us to grasp:  that this business of salvation isn’t primarily ‘all about me’ (to misquote a well-known Christian chorus).  I think the translation of the New Testament into English is partly to blame, or the fact that the English language no longer distinguishes between singular and plural forms of ‘you’.  So generations of Christians in the English-speaking world have read Paul’s letters to the nascent churches around the Mediterranean as though they were written to them personally and individually, when they were actually addressed to whole communities and meant to be applied in the plural.

Add this to a highly individualistic consumerist culture, and a decision to follow Christ can be just one more expression of personal identity with no implications for post-decision life.  From a one-to-one discussion of the gospel an enquirer might construe that Christianity is an individual matter, a question of intellect and rationality that a person can assent to or dismiss, that can be kept separate from the rest of their life experience.

Faith is a communal matter.  It is caught from members of the community, its shape and character is learned from a community, and arguably, an equirer needs to have a taste of the community in question before committing to it.

Simply outlining theological concepts and personal beliefs seems a mono-dimensional way of inviting people into a new way of being.  What I’m trying to do is gather a load of people tentatively interested in exploring ‘the God thing’, and as if they were standing round in a circle with Jesus at the centre, help them to move closer to him by moving closer to each other.

It’s more like barn-raising than a kind of contractual exchange of ideas.  And I hope for multiple objectives achieved: relationships multiplied, community engendered, stories toldImage of people engaged in barn-raising, teams built, skills grown, gifts discovered, laughter shared, a distinctive expression of church posited that’s deeply rooted in life as it is lived day-to-day.  So the means of growing into faith is aligned  with the way it is lived out.

It’s altogether fuzzier, riskier, trickier and scarier than adding new believers to a known church entity one by one.  I still don’t know if this is just an ill-conceived idea or an inspired one.  I’ll post a photo of the barn if and when it’s up!




God leaves the temple?

Kate Tempest has a child-like girl-next-door innocence about her.  Fresh-faced and youthful in a sleeveless print cotton top, dark blue jeans and Kate Tempestwhite converse – how can she understand humankind’s inner world so intimately, and describe it with such simple artistry?  At the performance of  ‘Brand New Ancients’ at the Bristol Old Vic on Friday night I was assailed by a sense I often experience in non-church environments, that somehow we have been careless with our treasure, our heritage, our spirituality; so God has moved out of his temple for a more dynamic, truthful environment.

Kate cried out with a pain, poetry and urgency worthy of the Old Testament prophets, rapping from the depths of her belly the story of our capacity to be in one lifetime both gods and monsters.  As her body wrenched in compassion, in tune with the Greek chorus of tuba, violin, cello and drums framing the story, she called us with a striking authority to an almost desperate hope, and an identification with our fellow human beings who are trying like us to survive the sticky labyrinthine web of our life’s inheritance.

I cast my mind around for a memory of an experience this compelling, this compassionate, dare I say it? – this priestly – in any service of worship I have ever attended, and my net comes up empty.  She was on the stage, but in her heart she was with us on the floor of the theatre, one of us, caught in the same web, and gutsy enough to pray in a visceral way as though she were everywoman and everyman and our future hung upon her words.

Ezekiel describes the terrifying departure of God from his temple (Ezek 10): there is a precedent for him going AWOL under intolerable circumstances.  God is truth: not fixed, packageable, off-the-shelf ideological truth, but honesty, authenticity, integrity, rightness.  And he gives truth as a gift to anyone with the courage to face up to it: the truth about the extent of our lostness, and the truth about the extent of our foundness.  I’m not sure I do have the courage often to face up to the horror of the one or the searing glory of the other, but if I did, I might speak with the prophetic passion and authority of Kate Tempest.