Category Archives: Future church

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.


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!


Discerning the future: the Parable of the Jelly Shoe and the Gecko

Asleep in a sparsely furnished bedroom in a Nepali flat I became aware of something running over my uncovered body.  My mind jumped quickly into action to interpret this audacious invasion of my night privacy, and presented my now-conscious mind with an image of the invader:  it was a pink jelly shoe.

A cerise jelly shoe, made of rubber strips, cool, flexible and waterproof.  Was running across my stomach and up my arm, and gone.

I shot out of bed, fumbled for a light switch and my glasses (not sure in what order), and looked for the offending piece of footwear.  No shoe.  Nothing pink at all.  But half-way up the wall, moving at speed, was a gecko.  An ordinary Nepali gJelly shoe or ..... ?ecko who probably thought of me as the intruder.

I often think about this encounter when I’m trying to discern what God is up to.  We receive impressions, intuitions, images and inexplicable urges in the process of trying to allow the Holy Spirit to direct us into the newness that is coming.  But if it is truly a new newness, something that hasn’t been before, then our finite human brains have no way of conceptualizing or naming it.  All our minds can do is find an approximate comparison based on our previous experience for the idea that’s housed in the mind of God.

Which is what happened to me in Nepal.  All my brain could do when my body got in the way of the gecko’s path was interpret what had happened as closely as possible in the light of its existing bank of experience.  And my brain decided to choose a jelly shoe as an approximate comparison to convey the idea of a creature that was rubbery, quick, flexible and probably impregnated with glitter!  An amazing piece of neur0-gymnastics….

And a great metaphor for what goes on when God tries to communicate to us what is in his mind for our future.  He has in mind a gecko – but we’ve never seen a gecko.  So we perceive a jelly shoe. Some important information is passed on in this transaction – something new we’ve never seen, something moving across a landscape, lithe motion, and robust but malleable sparkly material.  But the facts cannot be accurately translated and misunderstandings are bound to arise – we might try to put the gecko on our foot and wear it to the beach or to the ball.

It seems this is the nature of God-human communications, even at their most finely-tuned.  We see it in the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah.  God had in mind a new, unrepeatable kind of human being and revealed him to the prophets, who reached for words and metaphors to express what they understood.  But people had never met a Messiah, a Godman.  So they interpreted the prophecy in the light of their bank of experience, and came up with the idea of a Maccabean Jelly Shoe Saviour rather than a Messianic Gecko One.

Trying – with many of you – to discern the medium and the message for present and future generations, I am increasingly awGeckosare of the disconnect between what God shows us and what we understand.  We need to handle our intimations circumspectly, aware of all that will be lost in translation.  And we can expect to to be surprised because when the newness comes we will see both the authenticity and accuracy of the communication, as well as the difference between the idea we received and the emerged reality, which will I expect be as distinct from each other as a gecko from a jelly shoe.


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.


Birthing prayer

Broad-shouldered, muscly men walked faster.  One crossed to the other side of the unlit path to avoid me.  I’m not surprised.  I was a bit worried too.  I’d started involuntarily talking out loud to God, expressing my frustration and sense of isolation in aggressive, repetitive mantras.  Appealing desperately to an invisible audience with my hands, using plenty of colourful language, I walked my regular prayer route.  And scared people.

I was never taught to pray like that, and either I am losing my mind (I’m not excluding the possibility) or I’m slowly learning what real prayer is.  Like the inexplicable ravings of someone with mental illness.

What I was saying?  I can’t tell you the words… You’d be shocked.  But about the difficulty of birthing the new thing God is doing.  And the possibility he’s not doing anything new, and I’m just deluded.  Speaking about something others can’t see.  That’s the definition of deluded, right?

Raving like a woman in labour.  Swearing like a woman in pain, trying to get through this moment.  But missing something to push against.

I met Richard, who stopped for a chat….  We talked about Christmas, and we considered Mary, who when she said ‘Yes’ to be mother of God’s child, didn’t know most of her support systems, everything that was familiar and reassuring, would be withdrawn.  She didn’t know she’d be pregnant and in labour in circumstances that would challenge her physical, emotional and spiritual strength to the limit.  She didn’t know she’d be compelled to carry out her task on very thin resources, pretty much on her own, without a script or a map.

And so it is, I suppose, with all the new things God does.  The invisible and unknown have few fans.  God doesn’t do a big media launch for his fresh initiatives with a prior press release sharing the aims of the new strategy. He gives hints and intimations of the possible for ordinary, hidden people to bring to birth.  In unprivileged circumstances.

And it’s hard.  Resources are thin.  The pregnant are tested to the limit of their physical, emotional and spiritual strength.  If you’re pregnant you need people who resist you, perhaps, to push against, to get the baby out.  And you need to swear, to scream, to yell at the God who’s put you in this situation and apparently left you to get on with it.


Mary’s mum finds out she’s pregnant

Mary and her Mum Christmas 2013

Quick-and-easy (although best if well-rehearsed) sketch on newness and change for your Christmas service picking up Messianic prophecies…  Aftertones of weepy mother-daughter bonding sessions.  Goes well with the annunciation reading…

A: Mary….

B: What? (Muffled, sounds as if she has been crying)

A: I’m sorry I lost my temper. I shouldn’t have shouted.

B: indistinguishable noise – someone trying to say something, but too weepy to control voice.

A: I just… (long pause)…. Well, it’s just so unbelievable. It’s …not the sort of thing that happens.

B: (sniffing) Do you think I don’t know that?! I didn’t ask for it. It’s not something I want. (in a small voice) But it is something He wants. And it was so beautiful, what he said. I told you.

A: I don’t know how we’re going to tell your cousin. She and Zechariah’ve been trying for years and no baby. How we explain you falling pregnant…. I don’t understand why the Lord would give you a baby you don’t want before you’ve been with a man, but can’t give her a child when she’s decently married and so desperate to be a mum. Mind you, if she had a daughter like you she’d have her work cut out…

B: That’s not fair! When have I ever been in trouble before?!

A: Mary, why? Tell me what – the man…

B: …the messenger…

A: What the strange man said.

B: Mum, I’ve told you what he said. But I’ve been thinking… about some of the prophecies… ‘A virgin shall be with child and give birth to a Son and call him Emmanuel.’ I’m a virgin….. Mum, no, really, I know it’s hard to believe, but I swear to you… I am!

And there’s another one…. ‘a root shall come forth from Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its shoots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him’. We’re descended from Jesse, aren’t we? And from King David? Couldn’t it be possible? Possible this baby is God’s anointed one? Inside me?

A: I don’t know, Mary. I really don’t know…. I’ve been thinking about when I was pregnant with you. Your dad and I were so excited. We’d been together for a while, and things had settled into a pattern. We were ready for something new… Ready for a new phase of life. And we waited quite a long time before you came along, and didn’t dare imagine what it’d be like when you did. But once I was expecting, we were always imagining the future. Seeing you for the first time, holding you, feeding you… watching your dad teach you to walk, your first words… first friends, the games you liked playing… You weren’t even there and we were so full of hope for the future. And life seemed full of promise and possibility.

B: Are you going to tell me I’ve let you down? Because I can’t bear it.

A: … (slowly, thoughtfully) … No, no… I suppose I’m just thinking about the other stories in the Scriptures… all the baby stories. Moses was rescued from the Nile, Isaac was born when Abraham and Sarah were nearly dead, Samuel was born to barren Hannah when she did a deal with God… Somehow they all brought in a new era for the people of Israel. So it makes sense the Messiah might have an unusual birth. Tho’ I can’t say I’d ever have imagined anything like this!!! And with my daughter!

B: So you believe me? It’s important you believe me. I expect everyone else to think the worst, but I don’t think I can do this on my own.

A: You won’t have to, my love…. God will be with you. And I will. But it won’t be easy. When you’re pregnant, everything changes. Your body, family, your relationship with your husband. You have to make room for the newborn – not just in your house or in your belly, in your marriage too. It won’t be easy. Specially under the circumstances. But then, change never is.

B: But this is God’s change. This is God fulfilling his promise to his people. Surely we can make room for God, for the new thing he’s doing. My baby is a new life, and he’ll bring everyone a future full of hope. The messenger told me not to be frightened, because God is with me. We just need to trust and believe that what happens is for our good. Whatever it is….
And by the way…

A: What?

B: The messenger said something else. A secret. About Elizabeth.

A: What? Tell me!

B: (Teasing) You won’t believe me…

A: I will! What is it? Is it…. Not another miracle baby?!… Mary!!! Please! Don’t be so mean…

B: She’s going to have a boy. She’s 6 months gone. Because nothing is impossible for God!!!

A: I don’t believe it. I really don’t believe it… It’s all too much (starts to weep)

B: That’s how I felt when the messenger left. Full of joy and totally wiped out!… Come on, have a hug. God thought so highly of you you’re going to be his grandma!!!! Now that should really make you cry!

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’.


Deluxe service

I’m not long back from the Bath and Wells Diocesan Gathering.

Three days of encounter, laughter, applied spiritual wisdom from varied speakers and sources, creativity in word, art, music, dance and (dare I say) theatre…  Worship, prayer, story-telling, carousing, and reflection.  It was great.

By the time of the farewell service of Holy Communion, the unseen bonds woven by a journey made in a spirit of openness and generosity were in place.  Consequently the symbolism of the whole bread divided between the many and the one cup shared had a power that was unusual in my experience.

As servants shortly returning to our posts, we were afforded – like long-neglected machinery – a deluxe level of service: nourished with bread and wine, sprinkled with cleansing water (lashed about by a determined bishop), oiled for our continuing ministry by our peers on forehead and hands (optional), warmed with the flame of a candle lit from a neighbour’s.  The sharing of the peace was characterised by a quiet tenderness; at other times a joyous spontaneity broke out in dancing and clapping to the spell of the songs.

Anglican worship at its very best.  Reconditioned, reunited, recalibrated, we set off for home.



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

Gospel Cocktails (3rd and last post): waitress service

It was a joy to see our church membeFiona Doughton, Brenda, Pauline Wigmore and a queue at the cocktail standrs serving the punters at the Flower Show.

It’s not part of our church culture or tradition to be so ‘out there’ in terms of pointing to an invisible Other.  Our congregations serve the local community in a myriad of valuable ways:  they raise money for the hospice, raise awareness of issues surrounding Alzheimer’s, support the Youth Centre, form the body of the Rotary Club, WI, Townswomen’s Guild and more…  They’re also comfortable generally promoting the church – the building, the services, anything tangible.  But ask them to talk explicitly to someone else about God, or their faith… that’s not something they’ve been used to.  They’re not particularly cocktail drinkers either, as far as I know…!

Preparing for the event, we reflected on some of the treasures of the Christian way:  joy, peace, hope, faith, forgiveness, life.  How could you express these qualities in terms of flavour, colour and texture?  It proved a creative activity involving experimentation with juices and mixers, and asking others for their opinions.  One of the men made the bar!  Then all the church team members learnt how to mix a cocktail…

Behind the bar they served, resolutely refusing payment.  Aged between 8 to 91, waiters and waitresses rose to the occasion and dressed in character – bow ties, pinnies, Hawaian shirts!  Again, trying to embody Biblical images of God, we were working with ‘I came not to be served, but to serve…’

They hawked their wares with ease, in a way they wouldn’t have wanted to if we’d been inviting people to church, or trying to ‘sell’ faith in some way.  I think many of them (us) got a buzz from putting across something of their faith in an imaginative, playful way without having to find their own words.

As far as the recipes are concerned, if you’re reading this and thinking of having a go I suggest you don’t use our recipes.  Deciding on the names and experimenting with the contents was a valuable part of the whole process:  an opportunity for everyone to reflect what we wanted to share with others of the riches of God, and what the experience of it might mean.

It took a while to get the cocktail idea off the ground.  It seems you have to model a new concept – put it in the domain of the concrete – before most people will buy in to what you’re proposing, however carefully you might try to explain what it involves.  ‘Gospel Cocktails’ were mooted in church for a year with no response at all.  Finally a group of about five people agreed to explore the possibilities, and we did a demonstration in a service one morning to put the concept across.  I was chuffed with the number of individuals who volunteered to do a stint behind the bar after that, and they did a great job.

I’ve already been told we’re doing it again, and we’ll make the most of it next time – we’ll have a whole Cocktail Day in preparation, learning about classic cocktail-making, and trying out some new products for Portishead summer events…