Pacifist tendencies but…..

I do not call myself a pacifist, my great grandfather was a pacifist, he would rather be beaten and his family’s income stolen than actual defend himself. That takes guts and strength of will. I am not saying I do not have it, but I do not feel that until there you genuinely know your will. So I would say I have pacifist tendencies, but they have never been tested when it counts.

However, when I hear stories such as American Soldiers on Food Stamps  I find myself getting angry. While that anger comes out of my pacifist tendencies, it is not an anger at the soldiers. It is anger at the hypocrisy of a society that can applaud men one minute and yet once they are demobbed will leave them to their plight. The world has not changed much since Rudyard Kipling wrote Tommy.

So let me say this now. I believe it is wrong for a country to ask young men and women to do the tasks that they ask people in the army, navy and airforce. I  believe that war is best avoided because of what it will cost and often than cost is born by the most vulnerable. This is not an argument against nuclear war, the number of children who die in conventional warfare is high. Some of the deeds done are horrendous. The US authorised the bombing of maternity hospitals in Africa twenty years ago so that the regime could not provide better facilities for women than had happened under British colonialism because it was communist. Do not worry the English invented concentration camps during the Boer War. War leads all nations to behave in vile ways.

However, it is one thing that says that war is not something we should plan for. It is another thing altogether to hold the soldiers who serve as responsible for these vile things they are ordered to do in our name. In many ways, they are as much a victim of war as the children who get killed by a stray bullet. We ask of them what we could not do ourselves, what we are not prepared to do ourselves. In the process of doing so, many come back with injuries both physical and mental that makes integrating into normal civilian life difficult. Indeed there is a sense in which the military, having its own code of behaviour, can institutionalise soldiers and make their return to civilian life difficult even without a disability.

Now if we ask people to do this. I know the government does, not me personally, but the government does on our behalf. Then I see as a basic quid pro quo, that we have a responsibility to look after them. In other words, when a young person signs up to join the services the nation takes responsibility for making sure they are cared for, not just while they serve, but for their life. Often that also includes responsibility for the family as well.

So I will not be there out cheering on the soldiers on parade, may well campaign against various wars and choose not to wear a red poppy. However, I will not be among those who berate soldiers, I will donate to charities that aim to look after them, and if ever there comes the opportunity to vote for better conditions for ex-servicemen and women, they can count on my vote.

I would rather they were not asked to serve, but given that they are, it is the least we can do.

Talking About Practical Piety

As part of my Ph D thesis I am having to write about the Reformed tradition, not as a theological tradition but as a social phenomenon. It is a challenge, there is a large quantity of work on Reformed Theology, there are some books on how to be a good church member and some that try to make the Reformed tradition a spiritual tradition in much the same way that Ignatian Spirituality is. None of these address the real question I am asking which is something like; “How does it differ in the day to day living to be a Reformed Christian rather than any other sort of Christian?”

I have chosen to call this ‘Living out the faith’ a piety. Therefore a piety lies somewhere between a morality in the broad sense of how do you make moral decisions in your life and a spirituality that explores how you understand yourself as relating to God. Everyone’s understanding will be different; there is nothing wrong with this; well at least for the Reformed there is nothing wrong with this. This is just my understanding.

I have chosen to call it practical. I think that “practical” is a better term than David Cornick’s choice of “worldly” but I believe we mean similar things. We expect a piety driven by faith to make a difference in the world not just for us as individual but those around and the wider community. In my thesis, I do not use “practical” in the title of the chapter, but I will have to have a section on why I think it is practical or worldly. Maybe the cultural aspect that Max Weber was trying to describe as the “Protestant work ethic” is far more closely allied to this very down to pragmatic approach to faith, than to a Lutheran doctrine but whether either relates to capitalism is anybody’s guess.

However that is for my thesis and I do not think that most of you will want to read my thesis chapter at this stage. Possibly you will wish to see the final version. Rather what I am doing here is to try and write a series of short articles on aspects of practical piety from a Reformed perspective that are aimed at those who are generally  interested rather than academic sociologists.

[Next Blog not until 1st October]

The Elements of Faith

I am going to try a new tack on the first five stages of faith by Fowler. I have known about Fowler’s stages of faith for over a decade now and for various reasons I have been unsatisfied with them as a model and yet have been drawn back to them as containing explanations of what I see happening around me. The two major problems I have are that I do not see faith development as the simple progression that is implied by his structure and I find the sixth stage too dependent on Liberal Christian hagiography.

Before I even start, the sense that I mean by faith here has almost nothing to do with salvation. Faith in this entries take is a human activity that most if not all humans partake in or at least most Western humans do. I am not defining what is correct to belief, I am rather describing those activities that create a person as a being of faith or at least a western person as a person of faith. There is space for the development of correct belief in the descriptions but that space could equally lead to false belief.

Equally too often in the past Christians have thought that what it is to belong to another faith is the same as what it is to belong to Christianity. There is a lot of room for different forms of faith, but I am no expert of different faiths, therefore my thinking and data which I have drawn on is at broadest a western perspective and at its narrowest a perspective from within a specific Christian Western tradition.

What I am going to suggest is that there are five elements of faith which are loosely characterised by Fowler’s stages 1 to 5 (I will leave the sixth for the present as I am not so sure about it). I have chosen elements rather than stages as I wish to make it clear that they are no successive, although I freely admit that it is possible for one element to be dominant at any stage of faith development. However, as I see it a fully developed faith would include parts of all five elements. However, it is not essential to develop all five equally or to keep a specific balance between them.

Moving onto the five elements:

  • The element I wish to draw from Fowler’s first stage (which he calls Intuitive-Projective faith), is what I call passive faith. This is perhaps the simplest. It is when the faith of others keep the faith for you. I think it is often derided and forgotten, treated as pre faith, but this simplest form of faith reminds us that at all times our faith is not ours alone but that shared with others. They hold us and we hold them. In this, I am picking up the projective part of his definition. That is the faith is projected onto us by the people around.
  • The second element I want to draw from the second stage (Mythic-Literal faith) is participatory faith. This is about performing the faith, when an individual starts to be involved in active listening and doing within the faith. It is this sort of faith that gets one to pray, read the bible, take communion, do acts of charity. This one concentrates on doing faith in a very active way. The evidence suggests that this is more basic and more important than is given credit. How one what one understands as happening when one performs will vary with age, faith stage and previous experience but the emphasis is on performing of the faith.
  • The third element that seems to predominate in Fowler’s Synthetic-Conventional faith, I call belonging faith as it stressed being part of a faith community. This really becomes about knowing what the group norms are and conforming to them. The norms can be both about the practice and about belief. Under this one also comes the developing of deeper relationships with other believers and participating in communal events. Perhaps to be understood as faith similar to that of a football team supporter.
  • The fourth element which I have drawn from Fowlers Individuative-Reflective faith is owned faith. I might well have called this is a questioning of faith, asking whether you agree with the communal norms. This is when it is no longer good enough to take other’s answers and you want to work out answers for yourself. However, as people inevitably do find answers for themselves by this process and by so doing come to ownership of faith I am referring to this as owned. It should be stressed that the process of developing an owned faith rather than just accepting what is taught often involves searching and asking awkward questions.
  • The fifth element drawn from Fowler’s Conjunctive faith stage is accepting faith; this is about learning to live with the unresolved. The struggle to understand and create a coherent faith, also in the end is doomed to failure. Things can never be that tidily sorted. There comes a stage where a person of faith needs to let go of the questions knowing they have pushed them as fully as they can and the answers that do exist are incomplete. Others may refer to this as learning to live with mystery. It is a coming to terms with the lack of answers, finding that despite not having everything tied down, that somehow faith continues and developing an ability to let go of the questions.

Now at any one stage, an individual’s faith will have different mixes of all five elements. However the lower number an element is the more basic it is. Yes, there are stories of people who have come to faith without contact with others, but I think our most find that something holds or draws them towards a faith, long before they actually make an active personal connection. Equally the second is often held to be the essence of any faith tradition. Please note at this point no intellectual assent is necessary. It is only with the third element that this starts to play a role. I suspect that for an active faith an adult needs some component of all of the first three.

Equally the final two elements are the harder ones to develop, I suspect that fifth is always a struggle and does not come easily to anyone. I am also suspicious that some people only ever have low requirements for these elements of faith. The conventional answers of their faith community, on the whole, satisfy them. For others, the very opposite happens and only when they are practising these elements do they find they can with integrity participate in the participatory and belonging elements of faith. I also suspect that some people with a tendency to approach things with their intelligence rather than emotions may find more need for owned faith than others. That is not to say people who approach things emotionally are without this struggle just that it plays a lesser role.

I also suspect that people who go through a conversion experience go through a process where different elements dominate at different stages of the process. I suspect that at the start people are developing the owned part of their faith, this leads them to question what they have received from their current community. They are then drawn to another community, passive faith if you like, as they start exploring it then participatory faith becomes dominant, finally as they make the commitment belonging faith dominates. I suspect this cycling happens to a lesser degree with those within faith traditions. Some will cycle many times, quite often moving in a consistent trajectory with each cycle, others will never need to make such big changes.

This cycling while distinctive of conversion experience but it is not the only way elements can change. For instance, I suspect that to the strengthening of owned faith leads to a weakening of belonging faith, although I suspect that for many belonging faith is important even when owned faith is quite strong. A growth in accepting faith may well produce a situation where the other four elements of faith can flourish as well.

All the church is called to do is to remain faithful

I have heard this several times. It sounds good even to me and if properly understood it is true but it is rarely understood. It is interpreted to mean “All we need to do is to keep going as we are.” That is dangerous, a false lie, it is the modern equivalent of the servant who was given one talent and chose to bury it in the ground.

The key word is Faithful. Most people associate faithfulness with things staying the same, with remaining as we are, with keeping the status quo. However faithfulness is one of relationship, it is not faithful to suggest inside a relationship that both people must remain the same to keep things as they are, there must in any relationship be space to grow and change. Indeed faithfulness is altering a relationship to accept the change in another. What would we think of mother who kept her baby in nappies as that was a way to faithful or insisted in carrying the child everywhere no matter how big they grew.  I think we would feel that such a person was psychologically in trouble. We know in our relationships with other people that being faithful is actually a matter of continual change.

So it is with God, the call for the church to be faithful is not a call for the church to be static but a call for the church to adapt its relationship to God as its circumstances and understandings of God change. Fighting to keep things the same because that is being faithful, is a failure of relationship, and far from being faithful it is highly unfaithful.

Theory of preparedness and snow

I have a theory about what makes a place cope or not with snow in the UK.

Firstly there are two factors, one is actual snow fall and the other is belief that they have snow fall. These are not identical. There are places that have snowfall that don’t believe they have snowfall and there are visa versa places that don’t have snowfall but do have snowfall.

Belief in snow fall is not simply a matter of looking at the statistics, running a model of what chance there is of heavy snow this year and planning accordingly, it is something deeper. It is given the model what sort of precautions you think are necessary. In a place that believes it gets snowfall, they will nearly always take greater precautions against snow than in a place which does not believe it gets snowfall under the same predicted circumstances.

This comes from having watched Sheffield and Manchester cope with snowfalls. Sheffield believes that it snows in Sheffield. It believes that when it snows the city is likely to grind to a halt and it believes therefore that snow needs planning for. Manchester doesn’t. It believes that sheltered by the Pennines, snow is a rare event due to its warmth and therefore it should not make provision.

As a rule snow is heavier in Sheffield than in Manchester. So there is some validity for these beliefs.

However also as a rule, Sheffield has better provision for coping with the snow that does fall than Manchester. It is normally functioning again more quickly and has stocks for dealing with important path ways as conditions ease.

What seems to me is that belief is quantum. There are levels to it. It is not a smooth line. However I don’t think these levels are a simple binary “have snow” “don’t have snow” rather they have levels like “We always get heavy snow”, “Snow is a nuisance most winters”, “If it snows we will need to adapt” “we only need minimal precautions for light snow” and “snow is irrelevant to our planning”.

As actual snowfall is on a continuum. The people who tend to go to the level above rather than the level below in their snow preparations, tend to fair better if it does snow and have extra expense when it doesn’t.

Another thing to note is the belief is communal. The fact is that people in Sheffield talk about snowy winters as if they were the norm. They expect snow, therefore if the council cut back on snow preparations and then there was a snowy winter, it would have a far higher price to pay in Sheffield than in Manchester where people tend to shrug and say “this is exceptional, they could not really have planned for it”.

Becoming a member of a congregation

Very few people wake up one Sunday morning and decide lets go to church today out of the blue. Even fewer then decide on a random congregation within ten miles of their home for that intial visit to a congregation, and very few decide at the first time of going that this is where they are going to settle. I am stating this as it is something we all really know but it is amazing how many congregations behave as if this is how people should behave.

What I want to do is to try and to get people first to re-imagine the way a person comes into membership.

I would suggest that there are two initial ways that a person may come into contact with a congregation. One is through a cultivated presence of the congregation, this covers everything from church noticeboards through social outreach to overt evangelism. What it does is make people think “Oh there is a church there!” The second thing is that the people either meet somebody or become aware that somebody they already know goes to that church. This tells them that “people like us go there”. Having been a church member I know there is nothing special about church members, but to the outsider I suspect they often feel like people from another planet. So for a person to consider going to a congregation they have to know something about the congregation and know somebody who belongs to the congregation.

There is however a third thing and that is there must be something that makes them think that Christianity is something they want to investigate or be involved in. If you want religious language some nudging of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that can simply be the feeling that those people who go there are nice people to know I would like to get to know them better but for the most part, people who decide to come through the doors on a Sunday to worship will have some idea that Christianity maybe for them. It maybe that there needs to be a social life to the church that gives a space where people who do not yet have this inkling that Christianity may be for them but who value the friendships they are developing with members of the congregation.

Of course the Holy Spirit can and does use members, there possibly also needs to be encouragement for people to share about their faith with this group. Now I do not mean that members need sermons telling them they must share their faith or else, but that there needs to be some sort of reward for people who do share about their faith. Now I am not sure how this is built in, the old evangelical practice of testimony, at its best gave people a space to try this out that was relatively non-threatening, i.e. the congregation are hardly going to be put out because you talk about God, and often brought rewards in their standing with the congregation. Some congregations might find it useful to have something to give someone and others may find that perhaps faith sharing groups might be useful as a place to share ones faith and to learn to share with others. Actually a good one, is to develop the practice of speaking of the times you see someone else sharing their faith.

Then comes the actual day the person decides, there are going to be reasons why they choose your congregation and the reasons are not probably going to be the ones you’d theoretically liked. They liked a Sunday lie in and your service was the one that allowed them that, or the opposite effect, that your service was early enough that it did not mean that the whole of Sunday morning wasn’t spent at church. It could be that a member is prepared to meet them and walk in with them, or even that they felt that so many people went to your congregation they would not be conspicious. 

However thats just the first week. This is when a welcome matters and that people are given the tools not to feel that they stand out like a sore thumb amongst the regulars.  Sometimes that might mean someone to explain the service to them, sometimes that might mean the quality of the greeting and sometimes that actually might mean that they don’t want any attention at all.

Often people then think the journey is over.  They have a new member but there are a lot of people who will drop out of church going at this point on. What you need is a culture that openly looks to integrate people into the congregation. That gives positive messages not just to the people who come in, but also to the congregation about the people who come in. How many churches could tell you how many attendees have started coming regularly in the last six months unless it is none? Do you make a point of noticing that a person has stopped being an occasional visitor and has started becoming regular. Do you know if such a person is someone who has had previous connections with the Christian faith (maybe someone whose active involvement with a congregation has lapsed but now wants to take on a new commitment) or is looking at it for the first time? How do you celebrate their coming in as part of the fellowship? How do you make sure they are visible to long term members and welcomed? I am not suggesting at this point particularly that they need to come into membership, but it is time they went on the adherents role! and that in itself is worth celebrating.

Then from there to church membership! Again positive work both on involving and educating them into the ways of the congregation. Time to them to evaluate properly whether they do want to belong and time for them to think about what it means to belong.

If a person has been attending regularly for two years then the question really needs to change as to why they are not member and there are legitimate reasons why not. However do congregation even know when someone has been attending for two years or does it all go unnoticed?

I hope what I have outlined is a process that is lot more complex than what is normally supposed. I also hope I have made clear that this process needs a lot more than just straight evangelistic technique, that both the congregation and the individual need to work at making this a path that is celebrated and seen as bringing rewards. Congregations are quick to seize on either the difficulties of new people, who don’t do things the way they always have been done, aren’t as reliable, meaning haven’t been attending for as long or perhaps are demanding meaning needing care and attention. If they do recognise people then it is more likely to be as somebody who helps us keep things going rather than an individual who will enrich the life of the congregation.

The challenge is to make it possible for people to assemble a route into a congregation and when they appear to be doing so, to create ways to support them in so doing.