“As humans, we have to see the ways of God through others. We can’t really comprehend virtues like forgiveness or love or compassion in the abstract; we have to have experienced them through other human beings.”
from “St. Benedict’s Rule: An Inclusive Translation and Daily Commentary” by Judith Sutera
The quote above may well remind you of
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
St Theresa Avila (Attributed)
But I want to make a different couple of points, the second following from the first.
Firstly the fact is that at its core language has analogy. When we say that something is a dog we mean that in some sense it is like other being that we know to be dogs. So the meaning comes to language from the use we put it too and that we learn it from the use other people put it to. It also means with abstract ideas such as virtues we understand them as we see them performed. If someone says “they love you” then the way they treat you alters your understanding of love. It is one of the big problems of talking about God in language at all. The analogies are far more tenuous than when applied to other creatures either human or animals. God in this sense does not exist within human parameters and to talk of God is to mislead as much as it is to make clear. However, we need some manner of talking about God, so we use human words. As Christians we are therefore faced with a duty that when we want people to know about God’s attributes that we should share, e.g. loving, forgiving, wise then we need to try to bring our human attribute in line with God’s. To seek to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, is not to get everything right but to seek to reflect out to the world the characteristics of God. That is to make them flesh.
The second is that we need to take seriously the fact that the Bible is a material book. There is no language that is not human language. We thus see in the Bible is not a pure output of the divine brain but the struggle of the divine to communicate through human experience. It is not that through reading the Bible we can get a perfect transplant of the knowledge God intend to leave to humans. There is if you like a treble embodiement of the Word in the Bible. The first is the embodiement that comes through the experience of the divine. There is the the second embodiement which is that of those who are inspired by the divine to record the priors engagement. They are not necessarily the same people. The third is the fact that the person reading the Bible is a body and part of human society. In all situation we have to take seriously the humanity of all three groups of people engaged. Divine inspiration is therefore not simply a matter of divine dictation but a matter of living in contact with the divine. We therefore need to struggle with those texts where others have found the divine until they yield their light. That light will take time and effort.
A friend posted that she did not have much hope but somehow had to get through the night next Tuesday which is the date of the Presidential election in the United States of America. It has to be seen what will happen and this is not about politics but about hope.
It seems to me that there are two meanings of the word ‘hope’ the first is as defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary
to cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true
Which is all very well but I am not good at it. I am not whether it was my father’s cultivated cynicism, my lousy experience in my first high school or the fact that I am drawn to Urban Mission but somewhere along the way I stopped building up for events. I look forward to things in the sense I am not looking back at them. Yes somethings are good and something are bad but they all need meeting.
If you can meet with Triumph or Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same
If by Rudyard Kipling
In other words, my attitude is what happens on Tuesday will happen and some how I need to get out of bed the next morning and get on with life whether the outcome is the one I would like or the other. Now that brings me to a second type of hope.
Hope can also be a discipline. Regardless of the outcome I will get out of bed and I will need to act to make the world a better place. I believe that humanity can make the world a better place and the more who work towards it, the better the world will be. Sounds idealistic, but I also acknowledge that I cannot make anyone do this except myself. Mother Theresa is right when she says:
However, my reasoning is not about me being accountable to God, I am but that is not the short term reason for doing them. Rather that my positive choices help others to make positive choices and that God’s intention is in the end for Dame Julian is right.
All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well
Julian of Norwich 1342-1416
So about making positive choices for myself and others and aligning with God’s will. With that in view, hope is that me trying to help build a better world for everyone. Hope is not a feeling but an active discipline.
There are some codicils, my attempts to build a better world rarely work out but somewhere on the way things do happen, quite often by completely other agencies than I would expect that make good things happen. If you had told me or anyone else in 1985 that by 1995 both the Berlin Wall would have fallen and Apartheid been confined to the history books, we would not have believed you. I did not bring that about
Then there is the long view. There is not a single tyrant in history who has not passed on eventually. I am not sure how the present crop will fall but fall they will. The Transatlantic Slave no longer exists. There are many inequalities that result from it but it no longer exists. Far more children are in education than a century ago and the average person on the planet has a longer life span. Yes, we have challenges including finding ways to level the playing field in international trade, sorting out wealth distribution more fairly and tackling climate change. Yes, the poor will be with us always not least because being poor is often a relative calculation. That does not diminish the gains that have been made.
In this sense Hope is what drives Puddleglum when he says:
One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world that licks your world hollow
C.S. Lewis The Silver Chair
He is choosing to hang onto the greater story of life in the face of the bleakness of the present.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:48 (NRSVA)
Confession time; I am a perfectionist. For those that know me and know how hard I drive myself this will come as no surprise. For me, a task is never finished only every abandoned and I have got really good at abandoning tasks when they will do. Few people realise I have to abandon them or I will continue to adapt them in attempts to reach perfection. Actually, I acknowledged it about a year ago when I read Perfectionism is a Spectrum Disorder by the Thesis Whisperer. Like most perfectionists, I have a tendency towards scrupulosity, unlike many Catholics, I seem to get that these sins are not deal breakers with God. That does NOT stop be noticing them.
The problem is that being a perfectionist means that the above Bible verse just plays to all my scrupulous tendencies. Articles such as this one from Ligonier Ministries do nothing to reduce the angst, the stretching, the overdrive. I want to be perfect because God wants me to be perfect and I will bust a gut trying to do so.
Let me take as read God is as in Jesus. We can argue the niceties of that statement elsewhere if we like. Among Catholic devotions are the Stations of the Cross which focuses on Jesus carrying the Cross to his crucifixion. It is a moving practice to carry out particularly in Lent but here I want to focus on one question. Does Jesus do this perfectly? Well, the answer is simply, No. As in the picture above Jesus falls on route. Indeed he does not fall once, he falls three times. This is not the perfection in the normal sense of the word.
I had already done the switch that ‘to be perfect’ is to be like God not some earthly idea of perfectionism but what I am finding is there is more. The first hint I got of this was Paula Gooder’s article What does Jesus mean when he says ‘be perfect‘. In it she argues that ‘perfect’ is not a good translation but is the best translation we have. Elsewhere in the Bible, the word translated ‘perfect’ is translated ‘mature’ but God being mature is not something that makes any sense.
Then I went and looked at translations of the verse on Biblehub and I noticed something interesting. A number of the more literal translations (NKJV, ERV, YLT) tended to translate it with a future conditional. So now I needed to go back to the Interlinear Bible and an analytic Lexicon, my Greek is limited and rusty). The thing is they are right. This is how we shall be. So it is what we are becoming not what we are to be. Not only that it has the sense of arriving at fullness. Not an easy concept to translate into English.
So we have something somewhere like perfection, completeness, accomplished maturity, ripeness, holiness (thank you St Luke) mayby wholiness and this is not something we are but something we will be. Let me therefore tell you about magic.
Alright, I do not mean magic in the usual sense. When I staying with my Goddaughter’s I once said that magic is real it is just not easy to access. You see magic is what gives the competent the WOW factor. You know the factor, the thing that takes a dance routine from being technically good and makes it spectacular, the thing that makes a professors lecture not just the good giving of information but pulls the students in. The difference between being able to work out what is wrong in a spreadsheet and looking at it for six seconds and knowing where the error is. The ability of someone doing parkour not just to clear a fantastic jump but to make it look easy. The thing is that the difference between the competent and these experts is that the experts have practised until it has become part of who they are! In many cases, the difference is the person has failed more often than the merely competent.
So lets go back to the Bible passage and look slightly wider:
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSVA)
Now I think Jesus is saying is keep on loving your enemies, pray for those who persecute you and greet strangers for in practicing doing these you shall become perfect as your father is perfect. In other words, the road to perfection are in the paragraph above. It is not about getting everything absolutely right, but about practicing the love of God in practical ways. Of course we will fail even at that. Humans in a world such as this are bound to fail. There will be the times when we get loving our enemies wrong because we do the wrong thing or the times when our greeting is not heard by the stranger because of the noise of traffic. Even Christ fell carrying the cross. As we are sinful then we will fail because of that, but if we keep on practicing then God has promised that we shall be perfect just like him.
I am regularly hearing the line that goes something like this “we as Nonconformist do not use our churches for private prayer we do that at home” The implication being that Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholics only pray in church buildings. I am needing to call you out on this. It is not true, personal devotion in church does not discourage personal devotion at home. Indeed the two go hand in hand.
Firstly I left the URC recently after over Forty years of attending and having had a deep attachment. Indeed I still keep a role for the URC and at times act on its behalf. I had worshipped in all sorts of URC churches. I have been to evangelical ones and to liberal ones. I have been to ones with Presbyterian heritage and ones with Congregational heritage. I have been to small churches and large churches.
I did pray at home while I was a URC member but the support I got from the local church to do so (excluding my parents’ own practice) was practically nil. I got support to study the bible as a teenager at home although I cannot remember much of that as an adult. I did the TLS course which included a personal year and a social year but that again was not the local church. Encouragement to be involved in social action was widespread, encouragement to join with corporate meetings including prayer meetings happened. Occasionally courses on how to pray. But things that supported private devotion at home was nil, indeed it seemed to be a taboo topic. As if to talk about it makes us automatically hypocritical.
I am now in an Anglo-Catholic church. I meet weekly to pray the rosary with others. This is the prayer meeting that is there. This is where the needs of the church are prayed for, where we pray the church will be guided by God and not led into times of trial. This is where personal prayer requests are shared. However, this is not a coming together for doing our weekly prayer slot. The rosary is the ‘office of the people’. The group teaches people to pray the rosary and then encourages them to pray it at other times. You can pray it up to four times a day. One member prays it at least every day and for me, it is a way to connect in with a worldwide network of prayer when I am highly anxious but I try to pray it at other times weekly as well. All those times are not in church. The church gives away rosaries to anyone interested in praying it with no requirement to come to the rosary group. In other words, the rosary is a pattern of prayer people are encouraged to pray at home.
The other part of the “office of the People” is the Angelus which gives three times of prayer daily, rising, noon and 6:00 pm but takes a couple of minutes. Some Catholic and Anglo-Catholic church will ring the bells for this to remind people.
Let me next take you to my style of prayer, the office. For those who do not know the terminology, this is following a formal pattern of prayer at least once a day but up to seven times. Since I was a teenager this for me has meant at least morning and evening prayer. Now for those who think this means that I have been joining Mattins and Evensong each day, let me assure you that public celebration at this congregation as with most CofE congregations is not a daily occurrence. Just before lockdown, we had evening prayer twice a week and morning prayer once. That had grown over the previous year from just evening prayer once a week and I never made the morning prayer. The vicar however does try to be faithful to his Office and we know this, partly because he will put up a prayer on social from it when he has appreciated it, partly because he mentions when he struggles and partly because he is open about saying the office when we are at church for a long time during the day e.g. over Easter. Other people in the congregation have slowly caught on and are trying the office for size. Plus we have a few like myself who naturally are drawn to the office. It is organic and largely at home but we are aware we are praying with others in so doing.
Add onto this that the vicar has run an Advent course on prayer and then there have been two meditation courses. Also, the vicar will mention occasionally suggested ways of prayer during the sermon. One is simply to invoke the Trinity on rising and going to bed as a way of giving the whole day to God. Plus there are leaflets on prayer at the back of the church for anyone to pick up.
That gives some idea of how prior to the current pandemic private prayer at home was encouraged in an Anglo-Catholic congregation. I now need to deal with how lockdown affected it. There were two issues at lockdown. Firstly to keep contact with the sacramental life of the church primarily with Communion and secondly to develop people’s personal prayer lives at home.
With respect to the Mass two things happened. Firstly the vicar started streaming mass every day! It is do-able but tough on the vicar. The face he was streaming mass meant that we also picked up other streamed services such as the Pope’s exceptional Urbi et Orbi in March. However, the vicar also just before lockdown started encouraging us to think about making spiritual communion. This did two things. One it gave us a way to feel we were not simply watching but participating in the Eucharist. It also pointed us to preparing for Eucharist by reading and meditating on the words of scripture for the day at home. As a result I think many people are actually praying more often at home.
The second was a deliberate attempt to encourage personal private prayer. Two packs went out during the intense period of lockdown with resources for personal prayer. Including such things:
as a Divine Mercies Poster, the poster bears the signature “Jesus I trust in you” and is for display;
a copy of the parish rosary booklet with a litany specifically written by a member for these times
an act of contrition, which was an essential addition for those who avail themselves of the confession and therefore would want a way to do the preparation for confession even when not able avail oneself of it.
The second thing we did on Zoom, after the weekly business church wardens meeting, was to continue the rosary group which immediately increased by one individual who was furloughed. The vicar also in the early days made a practice of saying evening prayer with individuals each evening. This might be from within the congregation or without the congregation. Then the Church Union put up a page with resources for people and parish during the pandemic. Also the weekly newsletter each week encourages us to share something about our personal devotional life whether it is where we pray at home, our favourite hymn, saints who have influenced us or something that brought us joy. In other words, we are encouraged to share something of our devotional life.
Let me be clear this has not been our sole response to the pandemic. The Parish Nurses have been busy in unexpected ways and the church has set up a discretionary fund to help people in financial difficulties, the congregation rings around all members each week, there are coffee and catechism meetings after Sunday Mass by Zoom and there is developing a book club for spiritual reading. We are fortunate that nobody has died within the congregation but we do have members who are shielding and members who suddenly were income less with the lockdown. What I want to make clear is the prominence of personal prayer at home has played both before the pandemic and in the congregation’s response to it.
Yes, we will be pleased to have the ability to open churches for personal prayer. Some of us have been deliberately shaping our walks so we pass by the church as part of our personal devotion. The reason is not the building, so much as that it contains the blessed sacrament. Symbolically the blessed sacrament plays the role that the URC so often uses the Bible for, a sign of what is central to our faith. However, personal prayer in church is not something we do instead of personal prayer at home. To my parish, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The practice of one supports the practice of the other.
My experience would suggest that there is more personal prayer happening in the homes of Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics than URCs simply because we are being supported in doing it. So my challenge for those who claim that “we have homes for personal prayer” is how have you supported your members in doing so during these times?
Friday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I would have thought they were uneasy feast day sharers, Paul’s strident certainty must grate on Peter’s impetuosity of faith and visa versa. It is too simplistic to see Peter as all emotion and Paul as all intellect. A careful reading of Paul will show plenty of emotion hidden behind rational words. Equally, Peter is quite capable of intellectual religious insight. However, that is not the coupling I want to draw attention to. What I want to draw attention to is the way St Matthew has coupled together two episodes the first of which is often read on this Saints’ day. Continue reading Twin star Biblical Interpretation
This is a late addition to a series of posts I made and it is in response to Bishop Philip North’s Hope for the Poor which he gave at New Wine in August. It is a good piece of writing and thought-provoking. I am for urban ministry and if you got this far in this series you will not be in any doubt about that. I am for those articles that encourages us to look at what people bring to the Church in more than monetary ways. The problem I want to address is one that is brought by a hidden change of topics in the article. He starts by arguing for an acknowledgement of what the poor bring to the church and ends up with arguing for the greater development of churches ministry to the poor. Without a doubt, the poor need help if their ministry to the church is to be received. It is not easy to draw the poor into the institutions of power and the Church is often too similar to other institutions. It would do the Church no harm to focus. However, I actually want to address here what the poor bring to the Church that is distinctive and why the Church should welcome it.
Let me be clear the Church has a long tradition of holding the poor in high esteem. In the letter from James (James 2:1-6), the Christians are chastised for not welcoming a poor man as they welcome rich. In verse 5 we read “has God not chosen the poor to be rich in faith”. Charity towards them is important enough for it to be a sign of unity to for the Church (Galatians 2:10). The opening of Jesus’ ministry includes ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18). Jesus asks us that when we have a feast we should invite the poor (Luke 14:13) and in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes it is simply “Blessed are you poor” (Luke 6:20-21). Matthew 25:40 has the rebuke for not doing it for the “least of these”. Indeed we are told if we are to be perfect we must “sell all we have and give to the poor” Matthew 19:21.
Now not many of us take that seriously but there has been a long tradition in the Church of doing so. Most notably with the Franciscans. St Francis is revered even today for the extent which he sought to be poor and one of the early classics of Franciscan spirituality is an allegorical exchange between St Francis and Lady Poverty. What is more, most monastic orders keep the vow of poverty or the practice of not having personal possessions.
More modern communities where the radical adoption of poverty has featured include Sojourners and Bob Holman. There are others particularly among evangelicals but you almost have to specifically know who they are to be able to identify them. The radical choice of evangelical poverty is not just a call to minimalism and an absence of stuff but to something deeper. A joining with the poor so as to be one alongside them. The Church is not called to help the poor but to join with the poor. It is different. There is much written about the advantages of poverty as a spiritual discipline but there is a world of difference between poverty chosen and embraced and poverty thrust upon you. The poor in the Biblical sense are those who have it thrust upon them.
So far I have argued that Christian relationship with the poor is not just about serving the poor. and also that voluntary poverty is different from being poor and, while a valid and useful religious discipline, is not the same as being actually poor. Equally, we are not called to idealise the poor as if they are automatically saints by virtue of not having enough to eat. We need to take off rose glinted glasses.
There is one thing that all people who are poor experience; that is that they are subject to institutions, forces and beings that they cannot control. Those forces may be represented by the debt collector, the people who give them substandard shelter at inflated prices, government agencies, charitable agencies, the local drug dealer. Basically, they experience daily lack of agency in their lives and have no illusion that they are masters of their fate. They know they are dependent on events and people they cannot subjugate to their will. They will still try and manipulate those events and people to their advantage but this feels more like playing Russian Roulette than solving the Cryptic Crossword. Get it wrong and you will end up in real trouble with only a limited knowledge of the outcome.
This is very different to anyone even slightly higher up the social scale. We are very much Cryptic Crossword solvers. We tend to believe that if we try hard enough, work long enough, or ask enough people we will eventually find the solution to life’s many riddles and be able to run our lives successfully on our own. We may acknowledge the Divine God who judges all but we tend to imagine him rewarding those who play well and punishing those who cheat at solving life’s riddles. We think what is more that the more money we have the less we are subject to vagaries that life brings.
The poor bear witness to the fact that we ultimately are not in control.
Faith actually begins when we realise this and put our trust in another. While we are trying
to micromanage our ways out of possible disaster or trying to put money aside for every eventuality we are in fact also creating an illusion for ourselves that we are in control. If this is the case then it is not surprising Jesus says that it is harder for rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). Usually the illusions stay until something pretty traumatic happens and then we work hard to regain the illussion. They are our safety net from an anxiety attack that would leave us unable to operate or so we believe. The poor know how to operate while permanently without the safety illusion and they know they often have to risk putting their trust in something they cannot control.
That is the poor know what it is to have faith. They rely on faith, perhaps not in God, though many do believe in God in some form but faith in institutions, the social worker or their mate to see them right. If they did not they would end up overwhelmed with anxiety. The rest of us therefore have some catching up to do when it comes to the technology of faith. While we may be experts at doctrine, have a thorough understanding of the Bible and regular in devotional practice we have little experience of trusting anyone with our existence.
It is the middle class and the rich who need to take the risk for faith, whether that is to embrace voluntary poverty or step out of comfort zone in some other way. Without it we are too shielded from our ephemerality, believing that what we purpose will happen and become self-orientated. Until we open ourselves to risk for faith we cannot know what faith is.
I see the enthusiasm of young people for hot topics: Climate Change, Politics, Immigration etc. I admire it, wish I was not so tired myself but…
Over twenty years ago, pre-new Labour, I sat in the Chapter House in Iona late September. The week was the first ever JPIC week. If you are wondering what the letters stand for that are Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. It was the first time that the Iona Community added Integrity of Creation to their Justice and Peace commitment.
I remember it as a wet day, the room was cold and like all Justice and Peace events the people there were two groups. There were the seasoned battle weary campaigners, there were the new enthusiastic recruits and there was me. Age wise I should have been in the new recruit group, but I was somewhere between struggling out of quite a severe bout of depression and I started young, really young. I was battle injured from the bouts when I had come to Iona ten years earlier. We were asked to list the story of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in the last fifty years. The process was dismal, as defeat after defeat was listed. So much so that I, of all people in that room, started to demand that we somehow hold a candle of light. I was close of suicidal but I knew we had to keep a light or there was no hope.
A decade later I watched many of the new recruits burn out. I was also in the long, still ongoing road, to trying to find a balance. I have never been a vocal campaigner but have spent much of my time engaged in the backroom. Trying to make things happen and improve the lot. I am still here, trying to light those candles. Sometimes I am more active than others but I never totally give up. Often it has involved trying to help people as they approach burn out. I have no illusion on the cost of engagement.
Maybe it is returning to Iona that set this off. Maybe it is that I am making contact with new recruits. If I was in that room I would say to the new recruits today:
we have been here before this is cyclic,
there will be times when we make progress (and yes forward is the direction overall)
long-term engagement with any of these issues is costly
short of the parousia there is not going to be a quick fix, you need to be in for the long haul
choose your battles, you can’t do everything and trying to just hastens burnout
weary campaigners often have wisdom, often hard won, so listen
but be ready to do things differently – you will at least fail for different reasons.
make sure that your spiritual oxygen supply is getting through. You cannot really help anyone else if you are suffocating.
I did not think when I posted the previous the blog on a need for liberals to look forward that it was the start of a series. It was a one-off blog but I have since been fleshing things out a lot more. Let me start with the question “When did social progress occur?” There seems to me to be two key times when that happened in relatively modern history. Quite a lot of social progress happened during mid to late Victorian times and then also post-World War II. First I need to make clear one critique here is not sustainable. These were not times when the “City of Gold” became a reality, they are times when moves were made that reflect what I see as the social reform was achieved towards something inspired by the imagery of it.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
It is a place without pain and suffering and where God dwells with humanity so things happen according to his will. At its core “imagining the city” must take seriously the reduction of pain and suffering and living in harmony with God. For me, harmony with God is not marked by religious fervour but by the way we treat other people as icons of Christ particularly the weak and the marginalised.
Before I tell you what in my opinion they have in common, let me tell you one significant difference. They are not both times of wealth in the UK. Yes, the British Empire was at its zenith during the Victorian times and we manufactured goods that the World wanted. However, the 1950s were post-World War II and for much of that time, the UK was experiencing austerity. What is more, the British Empire was largely being dismantled and in the words of 1066 and All That, “America was thus clearly top nation”, So this progress was made despite financial constraint rather than by extra.
What they have in common is both stand out as high tide marks of institutional strength. The Victorian model was that largely of philanthropy and campaigning, while the 1950s was state formalised institutionalism. If you like Victorian was bottom-up while 1950s was top-down. Both were followed by anti-institutional movements. Now institutionalism is not in itself what I think of as good, I think that for people to be busy creating institutions, there needs to be a good cohesive civil society. A society where the owner of the biggest conglomerate feels that they are connected to the sick child in a damp B&B.
Many of the old-fashioned civic institutions are failing. I do not mean state institutions like NHS; I mean things like Working Men’s Clubs, Trade Unions, Literary and Philosophy Societies, Local Professional Associations. These are groups that make up a lot of the third space. By this I mean a space between the Big Institutions – e.g. State, Finacial Markets and Business and the closed small space of family and friends. In this, I am picking quite strongly on what Ray Oldenburg calls “Third Space“. The difference is that whereas he talks of individual Third Spaces, I tend to talk of the whole as “Third Space”. His US argument and from what I know of the last fifty years in the UK would suggest a steady decline in the institutions in this space. The occasions where we function outside the two sphere’s of family and work has decreased because of this.
With the failure of these broad-based civic institutions, many activities formally done by them have been taken over by professional bodies. I freely acknowledge that the number of charities in the United Kingdom has stayed broadly static in the last twenty years as shown in this briefing paper. What has to be understood is the nature of the charity has also changed. It is no longer a group of like-minded individuals who get together to accomplish a task and may raise money with respect to it. There is a separation between those who do the work and are financially paid to do so and those who raise the money. To belong to many of these charities involves no more than putting your hand in your pocket. You never need to meet another silly faced human. If you decide to raise money that normally involves some interaction with others but often largely those individuals are colleagues and family. The others on the increase are small caring and support groups such as described by Robert Wuthnow. Although in Britain they are less likely to be Bible study and more likely to be hobby focused. Their problem is they often only attract a very specific demographic. Campaign groups which are also on the rise seem to adopt one or other of these two models. The medium-sized group that attracted people from a variety of settings to engage with its aims and more generally socialise is in steep decline. This is in line with Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which is often wrongly represented as portraying an overall fall.
This means that the following is largely true:
many people exist in a social bubble largely made up of family and colleagues with few friendships that go outside this
equally the charities, support groups and campaign groups also function in a bit of bubble and do not necessarily connect to those outside their sphere. What relationships there are tend to be with like. Writers groups will connect to other writers groups, feminist groups to other feminist groups, health charity to health charity etc.
the small support/hobby groups do not have the skill to grow much beyond their current base yet are probably the groups that engage most fully many people. People do not get experience in other groups to bring back to the group and given current legislative practise, there are major disincentives to doing so.
Many people are not engaged outside of work and family (close friends) networks. When these break down they can very easily lead to those individuals being isolated.
cohesion between this third space relies on a few individuals who are active in multiple organisations. These individuals are increasingly either becoming professionals or are facing burn-out.
that means that Milgram’s Six Degrees of Separation is only maintained by a small thread because it is these cross civic institution ties that are essential for the process to work. What we are getting is smaller more highly connected groups and then fewer links to wider groups.
I think I will leave to the next post why this is of concern. Let it just be stated is what I am describing is a thin gruel for sustaining a common life. However it is not good enough to know this is thin gruel, we need to imagine what it would be like to have a properly sustaining common life.
That title comes from a hymn whose first verse goes
God has given us a book full of stories,
Which was made for His people of old,
It begins with the tale of a garden,
And ends with the city of gold.
The verse captures rather succinctly the breadth of the Bible from creation to Revelation. The rest of the hymn focuses on the gospel but I want to look at the beginning and then end and relate them to politics. What I want to take is narratively we are between the Garden and the City. Politically we have a spectrum which I will characterize as conservative to liberal. What I think is that it is quite useful to see the two as trying to direct our attention to one of the ends.
Let me take the easy one first. The conservative end of the spectrum the aim is to return to the Garden of Eden. It will be only in the case of a few religious nutters that that is taken literally. Rather what the Garden of Eden stands for is an imagined perfect past which they want society to return to. They want to put the genie back in the lamp and the apple back on the tree for then we can live happily for they think then the lion will lie down with the lamb and we will live in a good society. The ideal for that society is built of images of the past and the aim is to return there.
If that is the conservative one, then the liberal one must be looking forward to the City of Gold. We are here talking revelation, judgment day and the new Jerusalem. In other words, liberals should have a well-developed eschatology. The problem is that on the whole they do not. I do not mean a cohesive single format, I am not really talking about Utopia here but a bricolage of the images, ideals, and principles that create a rich and desirable portrayal of a future reality. These ideas do not need to be compatible. I am not asking Liberals to be any more reasonable about their golden age than I think conservatives are. If you like we need stories of the city of Gold.
Unfortunately, my feeling at the moment is the entire eschatology is a combination of the formalism of human rights, a notion of equality and being nice or framed with if we campaign hard enough we will achieve it. We need to do better our stories need to grow.
My suggestions for getting there by liberal Christians
Drop the idea that we can bring about the Kingdom of God. This does two things. Firstly it leads to burnout with people carrying doing the same campaigning long after it has ceased to be effective. Secondly, it has watered down our vision to what may be possible. Though we should work towards the establishment of the Kingdom the ultimate responsibility for heralding its coming lies with God.
We need to rethink our theology. A theology that is anthropocentric tends to work in times of ease but leaves little to inspire in times of need. We need humility to acknowledge that while God has gifted us greatly, he has not handed the world over to us. It is time to become more theocentric again.
We need to visit the past. In WWII there were theologians who made sense of resistance even in dire circumstances. The Churches resistance to Hitler was not led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer but by Karl Barth. The isolationist USA was given a theology of engagement by Reinhold Niebuhr, not his brother Richard. I say this as a contextual Reformed theologian who believes that the faith needs restating for every age. However, we can only restate if we know our past and find the resources in it to re-imagine the future.
We need to think again of the nature of the Kingdom of God. We have made it too much in the image of Western civilization. with hard boundaries of territory and clear distinction drawn between them and us. God is Other, and those who are other uniquely challenge us to see the image of God in them. We do not have to like them; we do have to see the divine in them. If a real alternative to the current capitalist system is going to come about it is not going to be the work of wealthy white males (Sorry Marx and Lenin). They have too much opportunity under the present system. Crucially such a group will have a new anthropology (understanding of what it meant to be human) that empowers them.
We need to rethink our place in the World. If our theology is too anthropocentric then so is our views on creation. Indeed they tend to be highly egocentric as we view the world first through our concerns, then through the concerns of those close to us, and so on until the rest of creation comes way down the list. If we are called to be stewards of Creation (a reading of Genesis 1:26) then we are bad stewards (Matthew 24:48-51). I am not really happy with that, this planet is more than somewhere to look after while its true Master is away. We need to start telling the story when we are not the hero.
We need to take sin seriously in all its guises. I do not subscribe to the Garden of Eden story and I believe good is more firmly ingrained in the human psyche than evil. However, I find the narrative of the fall as the pervasive taint of evil in all human activity a good metaphor. That means we need to look for our own failings, we need to be aware of our partial sightedness (we still see but not clearly). The converse is also true, we need a theology that takes God’s judgment seriously. I believe is more interested in our humanity towards each other than in much that the church and society spout. That does not let us have a God where everything goes, it is just different things that are banned.
We need to start small, big prizes are all very well but it is the small scale that is going to make the difference. I do not really care who is in the Whitehouse as long as it is thinkable that someone who has spouted the views Trump has can be. I am not talking legislation or censorship; I am talking cultural change and that happens in hundreds of small incidences that occur every day. In a sense, I do not want to beat the conservative but to be such a way that they come alongside us. There is space for this, the small scale institution has been significantly undermined in recent decades.
Many will be calling for action and I can see the attraction in that. What I want to suggest is that at the moment we have work to do that needs doing before we can take that action. My concern is if we rush into action we will only gain a pyrrhic victory where the price is paid by the very people liberals are supposed to be seeking advancement for. That unless we are deliberate about imagining and re-imaging the Kingdom of God then in striving for our aims we will end up losing that which we count as central.
About a decade a book came out called “A Churchless Faith” which broadly argued that those who were leaving the Church were Stage IV in the Fowler Stages of Faith and that this made them less than docile sheep in the flock.
Now I am not convinced. Certainly I understand that there are congregations and traditions that like conformist sheep. I have two cautions. Firstly this is to overlook the role power plays in this situation. The transition between III and IV is often connected with a change in power dynamics. The desire is often to be more actively engaged in the decision-making process. Now it might be genuinely a difference of stage, or it might well be a situation of the abuse of power. If it is abuse we are being dishonest by referring to it as a stage difference, equally if it is power struggle does the stage actually matter? The second reason is that it typecasts all congregations as a certain type associated particularly strongly with independent Evangelicals and denominations with strong hierarchical control. There are a lot of congregations out there where this is not the norm. Indeed my experience of URC was that the desired church member was someone in stage IV. That is questioning and engagement with theological ideas and such was actively encouraged.
That said I am in the process of reassessing. Firstly I have come increasingly aware of the number of members in United Reformed Church congregations who were “Dones” and are testing the water again. Secondly, I am struck with how hard many “Dones” have worked to maintain a relationship with the institutional church. Quite often people who have given up have tried several congregations before finally leaving.
There are several things that I notice:
Unlike many “Nones”, “Dones” may have a fair grasp of the gospel. The idea that sending them on Alpha or another basic introduction to Christianity is they way to start them off is often a BAD Idea. It is a denial of where they are coming from.
They may indeed have a wrong understanding of the gospel but that is not the same as no understanding and what one congregation considers “wrong” another might accept. Correcting ideas that people have already accepted needs to be done carefully.
The like many people who have been hurt they are pastorally and politically difficult to handle. They are likely to have sensitivities that you know nothing about. They may be cautious about saying anything at all or go to the other extreme and always have loud views. Both approaches are methods of testing the water.
There is a good chance that they have some sort of involvement burn, whether that is burnout because too much has been expected of them or catching too much of the heat from a hot internal politics.
You need to consider that there has at least been a breakdown in fellowship in their Christian experience. Even if it is the case that the congregation they previously belonged to has had to close and they were happy with it right to the end.
A congregation which has a lot of former “Dones” can thus be very turbulent indeed. Ever so often things will get blown out of all proportion to the intention. It maybe something as simple as singing a hymn two Sundays running.
A congregation who wants to be a place where “Dones” can edge back into membership, and I happen to think many URCs could do this, needs to think seriously about how it deals with the following:
Good governance and open decision-making structures – You want to be trustworthy and seen to be trustworthy. Remember these people have been hurt in their encounters with power in the church previously. Be clear about what you expect from people with responsibility and make sure it applies to all. Work on having checks and balances.
A theology of restoration – partly a theology of healing, partly one of forgiveness and with something more as there is a need to get beyond the grievances and hurts that “Dones” carry. They have often made the first step but can you offer then something that is worth risking being hurt again for or are they better off in the safety of being done with Church
A big emphasis on pastoral care – as the place where restoration is worked through. I do not simply mean the building of the relationship between minister and “Done” or elder and “Done” but the care that the congregation gives each other. How does pastoral care fit within church arguments? It is worth thinking about because the one thing I can be certain of is these arguments will arise.
Jamieson, Alan. A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK, 2002. paperback.
Fowler, James W.. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995. Paperback.