Posted in Books, Church of England, Poverty and Justice

Parochial ministry: lessons from an unlikely teacher

Earlier this year, I spent a couple of weeks in the US and Canada, and rather to my surprise found myself learning from a true expert what parish ministry is all about. Churches in N America are all (stereotypically) gathered congregations of the like-minded and often the like-skinned – but amidst that there has been a return to the idea of “the parish” – driven not by the churches you might expect, but by a motley collection of Anabaptists, Presbyterians and – in particular for me – a Baptist minister.

Grandview Calvary Baptist Church doesn’t to UK ears sound like it’s going to be a place of radical hospitality, a rich and disciplined common life of prayer and service, and deep commitment to a local community in all its variety and diversity. I wasn’t expecting to see the Stations of the Cross either. But all of those things were there. I took the Skytrain over to what is now an increasingly trendy part of Vancouver, in the same way that Hackney is a trendy part of London. That is to say, there is an overlay of young professionals, but the majority of the people are poor and there is a great diversity of ethnicities and social groups. After fifteen years in Islington and then Stoke Newington, I felt right at home.

Tim Dickau has been the minister at GCBC since 1989. He describes the question that faced the church at the time he arrived this way:

We were at a crossroads that many churches at the end of Christendom have had to face. Would we continue on as a chaplaincy supporting the present members until their death? Or would we face this death, which after all is so entwined with the story of Jesus, and share in the larger mission of Christ by living out the gospel in our changing neighbourhood?

GCBC did face up to the death of Christendom, and it has found new life. And lest UK readers think “it’s OK for them, there are loads of Christians in N America” – this is an area which recorded 31% ‘no religion’ in the 1981 Census. I wonder what it’s up to now?

Tim took me for a walk around the neighbourhood. He knew pretty well everyone, and they knew him: it was like being with a parish priest in the CofE who really knows, loves and walks their patch. But for him and for his community, discovering a local, neighbourhood, ‘parish’ ministry has been a voyage of deliberate discovery and exploration. It has involved huge change and a commitment to keep going through significant downs as well as ups. It’s been no quick fix. Among other things, it has made me question the now-conventional wisdom that clergy ‘should’ move on after say, seven to ten years. I don’t think any of what I saw at GCBC would have taken root without Tim’s constancy of vision and commitment to that place.

As I left, Tim generously gave me a copy of his book Plunging into the Kingdom Way (from which the quotation above is taken). One of the joys of being on sabbatical is catching up on some of those books which accumulate unread; as I’ve been reading Tim’s book, I’ve been struck once again and even more, how he has a huge amount to teach us in the CofE about renewing our parish life in a post-Christendom setting. (I’ve also been reminded not to judge a book by its cover or title!)

Parishes, and all our structures around them, were constructed for a world in which the services of the church were a natural part of the life of the community. That just doesn’t apply any more in most places. In the parishes under my care, especially the suburban ones, Christendom church is now a living reality only for the older generation (though the part of my patch south of the M25 seems to be an exception). Last year’s Church Times survey found that parish clergy were, perhaps unsurprisingly, deeply committed to the parish system. So am I. But that doesn’t mean it will be the same in another generation as it is now. In fact, if it is to exist in another generation, it will have to be on the path to a radical transformation.

We need to be taught how to renew our parishes, and this word from someone who carries none of our baggage is I think hugely important. But don’t just take my word for it: read, mark, learn, inwardly digest.

Posted in Books, Poverty and Justice

What would you give in exchange for your soul?

The most depressing thing about Michael Sandel’s book, What money can’t Buy is that the list is so short. You name it, there’s a market for it. What’s even more depressing – there are respectable and authoritative figures ready to argue that the market is the right and proper place for discerning the value of unborn children, or for trading on the probability of a terrorist attack.

The connection that Sandel made for me, more clearly than I’d seen it before, is the one between the economically orthodox view of human beings, and the ethical degradation it drags in its wake. Through many examples, he shows how a view of human beings as ‘rational actors always looking to maximise their utility’ (sorry, I didn’t come up with the definition) carries with is an unacknowledged ethic of individualist satisfaction at the expense of any public good or commonly held ethical standards.

I heard about this book through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article about it in Prospect: he sums up the ethical problem thus:

A world in which every object is instantly capable of being rendered in terms of what it can be exchanged for is one in which there is nothing worth looking at for itself, a world systematically ‘de-realised’.

How do we make the world real again: how to extract the market from those parts of our society into which it has wormed its way? Maybe the other book the Archbishop was reviewing will help with some answers. But I am also reminded of a meeting a few days ago in my area, at which we were discussing educational achievement for excluded young people. When we began to discuss the importance of a wider and deeper sense of purpose in life, as a crucial factor in young people’s lives, there was no dissent – I’m sure a few years ago it would have been written off. Maybe a tide is turning? In which case, will the churches be brave enough to articulate what Christian faith has to offer, not as a private lifestyle option but as a gift to the whole of society?

Posted in Books, politics

Ill fares the Land, indeed

I’m becoming a bit of a Tony Judt junkie. After The Memory Chalet and Postwar, my eye was inevitably drawn towards Ill fares the Land: and though Postwar was a great book, this is the really timely one. It’s that rare thing, a concentrated outburst of intelligent anger – a true polemic. Judt doesn’t waste emotional energy in trashing his enemies, but rather challenges his friends to get off our collective backsides and do something. No doubt the fact that he was writing after his terminal diagnosis has something to do with it; without ever making the point crassly explicit, he’s saying ‘I won’t be around to do this – but it has to be done’.

It does have to be done – from every direction the call seems to come for a new way of doing politics which creates a new set of possibilities, new disagreements. We’ve had our fling with neo-liberalism, but as yet we don’t know what else to do, how else to look to run our societies. Tony Judt reminds us that the last time people thought the globalisation of trade had carried us beyond nationalism, the First World War was only a few years away. We have real work to do if the latest re-configuration of world power is not to create war – real shooting war – and not just in nasty dusty places a long way away. When people feel threatened, they retreat to where they feel safe, and get violent when that security feels threatened.

The way forward isn’t exactly the way back. The alternative to free market capitalism isn’t state socialism. Remember communitarianism? Tony Blair was pretty keen on it for a while: maybe it was his version of David Cameron’s Big Society – a genuine political idea. Communitarianism soon disappeared under the pressures of day to day politics, and possibly the attractions of the cash cow that the City of London was during the Blair years. Or maybe it was the cynicism that always looks for a base motive in any apparently high ideal – as particularly exhibited by the British press. As with so many things, the media can bring about their own prophecies of doom, gradually wearing down anything which tries to shift the terms of debate away from their preferred territory of deceit and scandal.

We need to change, to find a way of bringing values back into political debate as areas for argument and aspiration. But how do you rebuild trust? Only a common basis of values which it is assumed that all the parties hold, even while disagreeing about much else. Now that would be a really interesting exercise – to get leaders together from all parties and walks of life to try to define genuinely commonly held values. I wonder how many there would be?

Posted in Books


Cartoon from the NY Times reviewI’ve just (finally) finished Charles Taylor’s remarkable and very long book, A Secular Age. It really does match up to the hype: if you want to think more deeply than you ever have before about the nature of religion and secularity in the present age, read it and enjoy!

But this isn’t a book review: it’s my own reflection on the revelatory experience of the final chapter of the book, and especially Taylor’s concept of ‘excarnation’.

Excarnation as Taylor uses the word is “the transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it comes more and more to reside ‘in the head'” (p613). Both Catholic and Protestant Reform, Taylor argues, colluded with the very secularisation they attempted to defeat, by participating in the process by which the equilibrium that sustained them was destroyed. That equilibrium held the tension between the high demand of faith for a transformed life, and eventually a transformed world – and the desire for a religion which provided some shape to a dangerous, sacred ‘enchanted world’ – and which let people get on with living ordinary lives within it. Not only Christianity but the other religions which emerged from ‘paganism’ – Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Judaism, and much later Islam, all partake in different ways of this desire to find a transformation “in which we would find our deepest and fullest end in this higher good” (p611).

The irony is that the very impulse which led much of Western society away from faith was also the one which led the classical faiths to emerge from the magical religions of early human history. In particular, the modern “exaltation of disengaged reason as the royal road to knowledge” (p746) is the most complete step yet away from the immersion of religion in subjective experience; and also in its own account of itself leads away from religion into ‘the sunlight of reason’.

So what do we do, as Christians? We rediscover the incarnation: the paradoxical place where the divine and the human occupy the same space without either being diminished by the other: “Christianity, as the faith of the Incarnate God, is denying something essential to itself as long as it remains wedded to forms which excarnate” (p771). And that was what really clicked for me – it made sense of an important part of my own spiritual pilgrimage into the Catholic tradition within the Church of England. What I’ve been looking for – and still am – is that ‘still centre of the turning world’ (as TS Eliot put it), where these opposites meet and find a unity which is beyond anything we can conceptualise in words.

Posted in Books

Post Post

I was just old enough to vote in Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory; that wasn’t a great start to my political life. It’s something in my upbringing – I think if I were to try to vote Tory my own hand would rebel against me, like Wormtail’s in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows (I like to keep my literary references high brow).

But I’m beginning to see why other people think differently, and it’s not just advancing years. Part of it is because I’ve just got round to reading Tony Judt’s Postwar – what an amazing book. I feel like I’m beginning to understand my own history for the first time, and realise what motivates people towards such different political positions. Like all really powerful books, he doesn’t just recount facts, he tells a story, a really convincing story about the way in which different currents wove together after WW II to make Europe into whatever it is now. Once upon a time I knew everything there was to know about the military history of WW II – and then I switched off. Even now history syllabuses have a weird fascination with Hitler: my children seemed to go over the Third Reich every year. But it’s what happened after that cataclysm, when much of Europe really was laid bare, that formed where we are now, for good and for ill.

The characters in Judt’s account aren’t individuals, nor really nations, but currents of thought, political possibilities. The triumph, and then the slow death of belief in the state as the arbiter for society; the renascence of neo-liberalism as soon as the generation that had seen the Great Depression started to get past retirement age; the agonising transformation of left-wing parties as the communist ideal was revealed to be a cruel parody of its own rhetoric. It’s better than a novel!

Posted in Books, spirituality

Letting God back into the city?

Just begun to read Discovering the Spirit in the City. Even though I’ve only read the first chapter, it’s already started me thinking. Philip Sheldrake writes on ‘Rebuilding the Human City’ – looking at some of the dehumanising forces in modern cities and how we can counteract them. I’m sure he’s right that the city needs humanising, but I think at the same time we’re also divinising it: not making it divine, but recognising again the presence of god and the city’s potential as a place for revealing God to us.

Sheldrake mentions the work of Michel de Certeau, and especially his essay ‘Walking in the City’. Though I’d already read it, I’d done so in purely political terms – I’d never really connected it before with the spirituality of the city. But starting to think in that way, it made me realise what strange and potentially transformative spaces churches are in the life of a city. As environments become more and more controlled: either private, locked, alarmed, or if public, patrolled and photographed – what do you make of an anomalous space that refuses to be either?

A church, for instance, which is open to all comers. No CCTV, no guards, a space open for anyone to come into on their own terms. Somewhere you can wander into and commit small arson in the form of lighting a candle; somewhere you could steal the hymn books if you wanted. Somewhere you can pray in whichever way you feel comfortable, or just go to sleep.

After a long period of consideration, that’s what we did here in Stoke Newington. We know that sometime someone’s going to damage things, but eighteen months in it hasn’t happened yet. What has happened is a constant trickle of people coming and finding to their surprise that they are trusted with our church. One lady has started cleaning the votive candle stand every week – she has no other connection with the congregation.

I hesitate to say it, but I think opening the church is as powerful a witness to the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith as is anything else we do here; and we do it just by failing to lock a couple of doors.

Posted in Books

Crossover City: Resources for Urban Mission and Transformation

Another day, another book (I like Bank Holidays). I came across this book through the London event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Faith in the City. What’s really encouraging about it is the way it brings together writers from a variety of different church backgrounds, all eager to get beyond ecclesiastical in-fighting in order to serve people in urban areas. To pick out two, Jon Kuhrt’s two contributions and Mandy Ford’s reflection on ‘bring and share’ and the Eucharist both resonate with my own experience in Hackney. People working in areas of pressing social need are – in my personal experience here in London – more ready than most to look beyond the tribal boundaries and the theological shibboleths.

But that won’t be enough to resource urban mission. The unarticulated challenge of this book is to the rest of the Church. Taking up again the Archbishop’s comments on economic life that I alluded to in my previous post, the resources for urban mission and transformation can only come from the resource-rich areas of the Church. They only will come, though, if people across the whole Church become less suspicious of those who are different from themselves. Theological discrimination is rife within the Church of England, but if it is to be true (as the Bishop of London says among others) that ‘the poor are our teachers’, maybe this is what the rest of the Church has to learn from the churches in inner urban areas.

it would be encouraging if this book were to serve to reduce the mutual back-biting of different factions in the Church, as one of the forces behind its production was a response from evangelical members of General Synod to the 2006 report Faithful Cities. The report was criticised for its perceived failure to address issues of mission and proclamation in inner urban ministry. Crossover City certainly meets that criticism, in my view, but will there now be a more whole-hearted support across the whole church for ministry in areas of deprivation?

Posted in Books

Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice

I’ve just finished this fascinating collection of essays – particularly fascinating for me because they bring together contributors from different parts of the political spectrum, but with a common concern that economic life needs to (?re)discover an ethical base which goes beyond mere economics. The book has been well reviewed by John Gray in The Guardian. Gray points out that the various articles add up to a compelling judgment that we can’t go on the way we are – and an equally difficult conundrum as to how we start operating differently.

One very practical essay by Andrew Whittaker (General Counsel to the board at the Financial Services Authority) suggests ways in which cultures can be changed within institutions, but other writers point out that what we need is cultural change on the scale of our whole culture. You can change one part of a culture, particularly if its views are out of alignment with everyone else’s – and I think most people agree that the values of the investment banking sector need changing. But what if they only represent a particularly successful version of a common cultural change? Do the rest of us feel real moral indignation at their actions, or resentment that we’re paying for their mistakes? There’s a significant difference.

The Archbishop and several of the other writers suggest that we need a common ethical base, and in particular they propose a new form of virtue ethics. But as Gray says, ‘Is this imaginable at a time when globalisation has created a market that includes not only countries shaped by monotheism but also those moulded by Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions?’ – and I would add, the secular religions which posit equally various and conflicting basic principles of life.

For me, the Archbishop’s essay points towards a starting point with which all might not agree, but which nevertheless are so basic to my own understanding of human life that I would argue that they should provide a basis for social life. Archbishop Rowan argues that from a Biblical perspective ‘ the model of human existence that is taken for granted is one in which each person is both needy and needed, both dependent on others and endowed with gifts for others’ (p25). In which case, ‘a global economic ethic in which the indefinitely continuing poverty or disadvantage of some is taken fro granted has to be decisively left behind’ (p26). Economic systems cannot be exempt from ethics: we have to reject the arguments which try to describe them as objective fact; human choice is still at work, and to pretend otherwise is nothing but moral cowardice.

Archbishop Rowan talks about one of my favourite recent books, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, as a pointer towards a different way of thinking about our relationship with work, one which gets beyond the scary idea of the ‘work/life balance’ (I thought it was ‘death’ that was the natural other term to ‘life’?). The sceptical side of me remembers William Morris’ News from Nowhere, a vision of a socialist heaven of craft and free exchange – and wonders if we are becoming entirely utopian. But maybe that’s exactly what we need – a vision that is clearly not attainable in the sense of being reducible to an economic programme, and which is not derived solely from one religious or philosophical framework, but which can help us to tell a new story about the sort of world we want to live in – economic life included.