You May be United Reformed If

  • You think the right colour to paint a church is blue
  • Your Church sells Marmalade to raise money
  • Your Church has a walking group
  • On receiving an important document you first proof read it
  • You regularly make soup in large quantities
  • Psalm 23 is ok but nothing compared with the Scottish Psalters version of Psalm 24 or Isaac Watts version of Psalm 122 it really is just another psalm
  • The right tune to any hymn is that which is sung by your own congregation
  • You put your hymnbook down to sing “When I survey..”
  • Having candles in church is heatedly debated on the grounds of fire risk

I will add as I think of fresh ones

A Doctor in the Church?

There has been a blog discussed on facebook suggesting that it might be a good idea for congregations to employ theologians. The blog was taken down, but I did find this article on Christian Century describing Theologians in Residence. Now before we go any further let me be clear I have a vested interest. I am a lay person just about to complete my doctoral studies in theology. So it looks as if the church is about to create positions for people like me. O this is America so it may come about in the UK about the time I am due to retire, so I am not holding my breath.

However I want to question the whole idea, but not for the usual arguments. The usual two are as follows. Firstly that all Christians (Muslims, Jews and Atheist as well) are theologians. That is they have a conceptual frame work that works around the idea of God (even if in the case of most* Atheists this is God’s non-existence).  I am quite happy with that, I would encourage such people to work at and thus clarify their understanding as much as possible. Trying to speak honestly about the nature of God is in my opinion a good thing. The second is that the cleric/minister/priest is a theologian in residence, and to an extent they are right. That is the cleric/minister/priest will have spent time in theological education, should have an understanding of the wider debates within Christianity and has a role in helping members of the local church grow in their understanding as well as action, character and devotion to the faith.

However “the Theologian” is not new, not within Reformed circles, it goes right back to at least John Calvin. His five fold ministry was Apostles, Prophet, Minister, Doctor and Elder (yes no Deacon although the role is explained in the Institutes).  What I am interested in is the office called “Doctor”. This is what I take a theologian of the Church to be. One thing should be immediately clear, those offices are in order of seniority, “Doctor” is lower than “Minister”. You technically would expect to be more of them, but there have been fewer recognised. Oddly enough it never go to none but you needed to listen carefully to discover who is Doctor and not a Minister. They also tended to fill roles that looked senior to ministers such as being involved in ministerial training.

Apostles and Prophets arise in time of crisis; the Apostles providing leadership and the Prophets warnings. However on a day to day basis they are not needed. He however then folds them back so that Ministers are the common place equivalent of Apostles and Doctors are thus common or garden prophets. Lets look at the two senior roles in ancient Israel Priest and Prophet. The Apostle would map to priest roughly. In one important aspect at least, the priest was entitled to income for his religious role. This is acknowledged for ministers. The snag for this is that the prophet isn’t. If a prophet was a priest then he did get the income as a priest to enable him to fulfil that role but he did not get it for being a prophet. The prophet needed independency to fulfil their role as prophet in ancient Israel. The doctor/theologian needs independency to fulfil their role in the church and the congregation needs an independency from them. A theologian is only as good as the insights that they bring.

So no a theologian in residency is not the way to go. In fact in some ways if a theologian takes such a post then they are compromising their role. They become over reliant on the hand that feeds them and can end up saying what it wants them to say rather than struggling with the word of God.

Remember I said that Doctors of the church should be more numerous than ministers, but few are recognised. They are there, indeed they exist already in every congregation in my experience. They quite possibly have done some extra study, fulfil teaching roles e.g. lay preacher, head of junior church and are known in the congregation for their deep spirituality. They probably make up the core members of your bible study groups. They may or may not be elders and not all elders are Doctors of the Church. Some ministers are, and some are not; just as some priests were prophets and some were not.

*I am aware that there are individuals who would use the badge Atheist, but do not make such a clear statement.

The Positively Attentional Living

I have not written for ages on this blog. I simply have been too full with my thesis but something has started bugging me and I think it is time I put it up. I have been reading quite a few Puritan writers on or off over the last couple of years and I am beginning to unearth a spiritual practice I think has been lost. We know of the Roman Catholic practice of confession, with its effort to note the sins in one lives, confess them to a confessor and then through repentance move on from them. It is also known Puritans quite often went in for a detailed examination of their lives that echoed this. What has not been asked is how the Puritans understood it. The Puritans seem to have turned the emphasis around 180 degrees.

Lets start one step back. There are many sets of techniques for assuring oneself of ones salvation. You may have come across the sinners prayer, or the conversion testimony if you have had contact with Evangelicals. You might equally find people who are concerned that their belief system matches as closely as possibly that of orthodox Christianity. Equally the more sacramental can be concerned about receiving communion and baptism. I am not suggesting one of these is right and others wrong, they are all partial. That is they grasp part of the truth about Salvation but not the whole. What the Puritans had was another such technique. It relied on the classical Reformed doctrine of Sanctification. The idea being that this was the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the believers life. The close examination was therefore not to detect sin and repent of it, but to detect the activity of the Holy Spirit and thus to rejoice at this assurance of salvation and also to help it bear fruit.

Now there is a lot to be said for this as one of the techniques. Firstly it points people towards the positive in their lives rather than the negative. Concentrating on the positive gives people energy. Secondly it changes our perspective of sin. While sin is not to be welcomed, awareness of it and repentance are; as these are signs of the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting us and healing us. I am not sure how to put it into practicebut there does seem something good about watching for where the Holy Spirit is working in our lives and those around us.

How Green are the Reformed?

I can remember when I was seventeen giving a brief talk on the pros and cons of nuclear power which was largely informed by information provided by Friends of the Earth. I was not a member of Friends of the Earth but the information had been given by a friend of the family and I read it and digested it. It was a hot green issue in those days and friend was a URC member.

Yet if you had asked me five years ago what was new in the URC I would have said a concern around green issues. This has been slowly but surely climbing up the agenda both in terms of personal behaviour (how often do you share lifts, recycle paper, tins and plastic or participate in other green initiative) and nationally within the denomination.

I suppose I was accepting the obvious, the way the Reformed tradition is credited with being an activist tradition. That is we are an industrious people. To give you some idea look at what the Scots did in “Wha’s like us” but then it was English who largely made up the New England Puritans, which were the driving force in the US as well as a good few industries England. It is hardly surprising being good bible readers we have taken perhaps too literally Genesis 1:28  “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”(KJV).

Yet the more I look into it the more there seems to have been an undercurrent of ecological sensitivity. It is John Calvin who talks of world as “theatre of God’s creation” and Jonathan Edwards (17th Century New England Congregational Minister famous for his Hell fire sermons) who had a sense of rapture in the surrounding countryside. It looked rather as if it was something we had lost and rediscovered in this century. Then however T A Leonard with his walking holidays came along for the late nineteenth early twentieth century. I think it is safer to assume it has always been there.

So when Iona Community is seen as having Celtic Spirituality or the fact that perhaps the first book on the Green character of God was “God is Green” by Ian Bradley a Church of Scotland minister back in 1992 is not that surprising. They are giving voice to a secondary discourse that has run almost as a stream underground within the Reformed tradition.

The Reformed Look

This church should feel very familiar to many people in the URC; the plain wood, the clear glass the white washed walls, and the communion table at the centre in the front with a pulpit above and the Bible open. If it was not for the red carpet you’d almost be sure you were in a URC.

However look closer and you see the heating systems a bit different to what we are used and there is writing on the wall which is not in English. You are actually looking at a Waldensian Church in the Alps in Italy. If you click on the link it should take you to a webpage that tells you more about the Waldensians. However it is enough to say they are the Italian branch of the Reformed family of churches.
 
Some of the more ornate traditions within the faith look at us and see cheapness, they are of course wrong. The chairs and furnishings may be plain wood but they high quality oak, the windows may let through plenty of light but if you look carefully you see they are not plain glass, the drape across the door may not be spectacularly embroidered but is of heaviest quality velvet. This is not cheapness but a deliberate aesthetic and the quality of the goods use belies their plainness.

I have heard a number of theories, some suggest it is iconoclasm, if that is the case it is to Zwingli in Zurich it comes from not Calvin in Geneva, for whom candles and such were irrelevancy. It might have been a reaction against those who would enforce ritual upon us that we chose to be plain just to contrary, or perhaps as in many places the early churches were barns we have chosen to remember those times by keeping as similar sort of aesthetic. I suspect it is kept today largely because to us it feels right.

In what is often a light calm space comes a specific arrangement of items. At the focus is the communion table and not the cross (empty or otherwise) which puts our action in the context of a God who choose to connect with us. In quite a few churches although the communion table is the focal point the congregation is arranged so that we see each other emphasising the communal nature of worship. The lectern and pulpit are also prominent at the front, sometimes above the communion table, sometimes to the side to remind us visually of the importance of the Word. The lack of paintings and other artwork has not made the space lacking symbols but one where distractions are eliminated to allow the central symbols a more clear space in which to speak. It encourages us to pay attention to these things.

A Restless People

Firstly I have reached a bit of an impasse. I seem to be totally confused about what has been put into my local congregations Newsletter. So what I am going to do is keep posting them to the editor when finished and putting up Monthly one here, but the order will not be the same as in the Magazine. Now onto this month’s piece

It is one of the oft forgotten things that John Calvin was a refugee in Geneva to the day he died, he never took Genevan citizenship. In fact Geneva at the time had a large émigré population of Protestants from France, as well as attracting others from as far away as Scotland.  It was also a faction ridden city, not really a comfortable place to settle. John Calvin is therefore unique amongst the Reformers in not serving within his own homeland but always as an alien.

This odd coincidence has become a repeated pattern of travel and dislocation within the Reformed tradition.  There are the Pilgrim Fathers, who travelled from North East Lincolnshire to Holland, then back to the UK and onto found Plymouth Colony in what is now the United States. Gainsborough URC claims direct descent from the congregation that they belonged to. The Waldensians travelled from their valleys in Northern Italy to Geneva to escape persecution in the seventeenth century. The five mile act making people walk five miles from their homes to worship. John Bunyan’s work, Pilgrim’s Progress was very much a creation of those days. More recently, the continual moving across the Scottish border of more fervent Presbyterians, which supported the former Presbyterian churches in what is now Northern Synod and then the Industrial revolution pulling Scots south into England to provide the management for the factories. The burning bush is the start of the story of the Exodus. Reformed Christians seem to be on the move whether voluntarily, force  or in the imagination.

This seems to have entered our psyche in the URC we even imagine our buildings as connected with travel. Some think of the church building as a meeting tent that moves with the congregation; if the congregation moves, then you need a new building where they now are. Or perhaps it is a caravanserai, a place where people who are travelling, could come together from their wanderings, a place of relative safety and companionship with other travellers.  It is hardly surprising we often struggle with being a local church, somehow we are never quite at home rather we echo the writer to the Hebrews:

For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 
(Hebrews 13:14)

Responding through the tradition

The coupling of powerful ideas
with each able to stir the imagination
that pull against the other
falling into no easy rest
a turbulent route that
has dangerous falls on one side
a whirlpool that will suck us in
there is no quiet water between
the only way to move forward
is to use the force of one
to balance the other.

Is it surprising that
those who will navigate
these waters
speak in measured tone
the risk of a missed balanced
is not the slight wobble
but an infatuation
that sends you spiralling
into the whirlpool of
a God so loving that
we can not conceive him
of him judging anyone
is beyond him
or head towards the falls
of a God who is so holy
that we are so base material
that we are destroyed
by the temerity even to approach.

However there is a third monster
that travels with the careful
tried and tested navigator
that captures the unwary sailors heart
by saying there are no monsters glories
and with careful line of thought
final safety may be assured
thus giving us deadly words
that do not speak to the heart
which sucked many careful people
dry of the blood of passion
for we have lost more to it
than too the others.

Struggling with Easter

I long ago fell out with the liberal Christian group or atheist who want to ask questions about how the resurrection really happened. Whether the talk is of “conjuring tricks with bones”, questions of the physicality of the resurrection, body snatching or the idea that some how Christ was in a coma. It is not that I want to argue with them, it just is not a question that I see as answerable or being really of interest. My God is certainly capable of doing it, whether he did or not is lost in the midst of times. What I am struggling with is why he did whatever he did.

First let me be honest where I am coming from. I do not want eternal life, thank you! The idea that my life might end and there be nothing more seems desirable. Indeed so desirable that if I had genuinely believed that was an option I would have been dead over twenty years ago. To me and I suspect some others with mental health problems, the simple act of existing feels wearisome. Do not get me wrong, I can feel joy, can participate in events, join in celebration and enjoy a quiet read. But I know I will come back to reality of me and how tired I am of it. When I am down this tends to sap the energy to do anything. When I am moderate I find silence and low activity levels totally absorbing. When I am up as at present, it acts more as a fantasy.

Now I struggle with Easter in two ways. Firstly the tendency to view it as the “happy ever after” end to the story. In most atonement theories it looks as if Christ’s action on Good Friday was enough. The Easter Sunday is an add on that seems to be the implausible ending to make a happy ending. There is one exception and that is the exemplar of God’s love theory. The argument would go that Christ went through the worst of human experience, was given the option to not come back and did. When I meet that one, the resurrection to me becomes mind blowing, its just not something I can imagine myself doing. I am not sure that I love anyone enough to be given an out and still come back. It makes no sense and yet in some ways it shows me something I can only just grasp.

However having got that far, I then run into the talk of eternal life. You think this is good news, well to this individual it is not. My personal idea of Hell I suspect is pretty close to a continuation of this life with the daily task of existing. Yet on Easter day I am supposed to get excited about that. Well I am not and no amount of jumping up and down will make it so. Yes I have lost people I care about to death, but I also did not want to hold onto them, keep them here. My Grandparents on my father’s side were really quite cross with God for letting them live so long. People walk out of my life for a whole host of reasons and death is only one of them. I have learnt to accept that though they will not be replaced yet I will find new friendships and different ways of living without them.

Here are some things that might just appeal. If the resurrection means that there will be a final reckoning when we will face the total of our lives, when the injustice, cruelty and such will finally be called to account, I can actually see something worthwhile in that. I need to face the hurt and pain I have caused to others, to not do so is to be deluded about who I am. I do not expect it to be pleasant but I do expect the integrity that goes with it to be a good worth savouring.

However there is another thing that I feel that if I could glimpse more than just mentally stretch towards might somehow make it and that is the experience of living a life shaped absolutely by the worship of God. Do not get me wrong I do not mean one where all day every day is a praise service. Our worship of God is wider and deeper than that. I mean one where for a while I am simply caught up in living so as to honour God. To focus not on existing but on the creator. I occasionally get moments of wonder, but the wonder is fleeting and I move on, as if nothing has happened. I want the tensions that seem part of living to be resolved for a short while and somehow they never are. Therefore if somehow I can imagine that eternal life is to be the briefest of flickers in the molten love of God and caught up in the heavenly praise then I begin to find images of eternal life that promise me not the endless dull tiredness but a relief from having to exist.

Walking

DSCF0001As I write this I am about to go on holiday (yes it was written well in advance) and amongst my plans are to do a few walks, not particularly difficult walks, maybe one out to take photos of a lighthouse, a walk around a RSPB site I have not visited before, a couple of afternoons Geocaching with my Goddaughters, that sort of thing, dry weather would be nice.

This has got me back pondering the restless nature of the Reformed, but particularly our attraction to walking. St Andrew’s has its own walking group. In that it is not unusual for a URC, the majority of those I have been in do. Indeed up until fairly recently I just assumed that having a walking group was something churches tended to do. Then for some reason I checked it out. Other traditions just don’t do it in the same way.

However by the mid-nineteenth Century many Non-Conformist churches had walking groups. These were aimed a people in the towns to provide an alternative to more hedonistic attractions for their spare time. The idea was closely linked in with the work of Wordsworth and Ruskin and seeing in nature a more spiritual connectedness than there was pleasure attractions. One Sunday in 1891 T A Leonard at the time a Congregational Minister in Colne in Lancashire got up preach a sermon extolling the advantages of a walking holiday when compared with more commercial pleasures of Blackpool. It was a sermon that was to change a life and that life was his.

The church meeting took him at his word, and he ended up leading a holiday for young men. It got heard about by a prominent Congregationalist minister and Social Reformer, John Brown Paton, who was looking for a way to keep the Book Clubs he’d set up going over the summer. The result was he approached T A Leonard about running holidays connected with the book clubs and thus the Cooperative Holiday Association (1894). T A Leonard went on to form the Holiday Fellowship (1913) and Glasgow HF Outdoor Club (1917, while serving as a minister in Glasgow) among other things. He is also credited with being one of the founders of the Ramblers Association and influential on the Youth Hostelling Association. Walking was chosen not simply because it washealthy exercise, but because the pace of it allowed a person to connect more deeply with the countryside around. It was therefore not simply a physical exercise but a spiritual one as well, and I pretty sure that the fact that they were walking together meant an emphasis on the communal and the enjoyment of being with each other. Indeed now I can say why the chores on Iona are so reminiscent of Youth Hostelling holidays in my youth, the same Reformed piety of all sharing in the work and keeping down the cost was behind both.

Journey

This month I am doing something different as no article appeared in my congregations magazine. Back in the summer I attended a conference on Reformed Spirituality. Two meditative pieces of writing came out of the conference. I have chosen the one that picks up journey as there is something very restless about Reformed spirituality. However there is another reason for this, in writing this I started to find ways of speaking from the tradition that seemed to capture the multiplicity of its threads. These meditations look as if they flow tidily through and yet with careful reading of this one you will find that in actual fact there are jumps and incongruities that slightly jar with each other:

Journey
 
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory”*

Its a long way back
along the river where perch rise
beside the trolley from last week’s shopping
past the barges named Jerusalem and Salome
the path-dirt dusts our feet
as we step between the thin bank grass
we pass youths gathered under
the generous shade of a horse chestnut
to share the dregs in a lager can
their dog barks at our imprudent approach
but is distracted by a passing cox’s yell
Still there is far to go
Past the fun fair stalls on the edge of town
selling bows for babies and lurid coloured clothes
our feet twist on the bicycle rutted path
until they hit unyielding concrete of slabs
bordered by a high walls
a heavy church door clunks closed
and coffee drinkers stare out of cafe window
while their iphones recharge in front of them
a bible carrying nun greets us
as she mounts her bicycle and rides away.
Still there is farther to go
the bridge rises to another road
that leads us by garden fence and hedges
until they are replaced by stone topped walls
a gate opens leading to a rising path which leads
across bog cotton where dark earth crumbles
as our too heavy feet make uncertain progress
and sheep drinking from peat-orange stream
are all who observe our progress.
Still we must go on.

*Psalm 63:1-2 English Standard Version