Thursday, 2 April 2015

The Table Church

From the Archive.

“The church is not an institution, the church is not a building, the church is not a programme, the church is people”.

It is often said in various forms, in different contexts, with different intentions. People however are a problem, a problem for which Christ is the solution, but that solution is very much a work in progress.

My own faith journey could be read in a number of ways. Baptised in secret as a baby (something I discovered in my twenties), grew up in a non-practising home but in English Christian Schools where we prayed and worshipped every day, a vocational call at 13 (although I had no idea then what it meant), commitment and adult baptism at 16, five years in a Reformed Charismatic congregation, then a few more in something more Pentecostal.

And then people happened. I had seen it before, the church I was part of in my teens had a break down in relationships between the eldership, but by then I wasn’t involved enough to be hurt by it. In my mid-twenties it was different, I was involved. What happened isn’t so important, the why maybe more so.

I suspect that often in church we get caught up in an unhealthy Parentalism. Expectations are placed on those in positions of responsibility that are unrealistic and in turn unrealistic demands are placed on others by those in positions of responsibility. Relationships become parent-infant, and when one party falls short the relationship can become toxic. Children rage at their pastors, parents emotionally discipline their congregation, pastoral colleagues fight over the children’s love. Sadly I have had folks tell me they want to be treated like children at church, I have heard ministers describe their flock as children, and I have seen congregations mercilessly turn on pastors when they admitted their mistakes – breaking the illusion of parental perfection.

I wish I could say that it was a problem only in churches with strong leadership, a charismatic spirituality, or an evangelical theology, yet although more hierarchical church groups can sometimes be insulated against it, they are not exempt. Jesus confidently said to his disciples ‘I have called you friends’, we find these words a far greater challenge.

So in my twenties I found myself hurting and cast adrift from the church that had sustained me for years. I wandered into somewhere very different, an ancient building, one with pews, robes, bells, smoke, standing and sitting, ritual and liturgy. I slowly fell in love with the richness of ancient shapes and forms of worship. At the time I hadn’t read the early Fathers of the Church hadn’t had the change of perception to see the liturgy of the ancient church crying out in the pages of the New Testament, and I hadn’t come to any theological conclusions. It was very much a shift of experience.

The table was at the centre of this new experience, this new way of worshipping. Holy Communion, the Offering, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, call it what you will. It was Jesus’ table that he shared with his friends. The depth of this was brought home to me one night in the Garden of Gethsemane, the garden of betrayal and pain.

Every Holy Week, the 7 days before Easter, the journey of Christ’s Passion was shared. On Maundy Thursday evening we celebrated the Last Supper as if we were there with the disciples, the ministers washed people’s feet and we shared Christ’s presence in bread and wine. Then with Christ we would go to the garden. The garden was just a side chapel, a table with a few flowers and plants. The bread and the wine blessed at communion were placed here and we were invited to watch and pray, just as Jesus had asked his friends to do. In John’s Gospel the Last Supper is described starting with the bread shared with the disciples and ending with the blood and water pouring from Jesus’ side on the cross, the last cup. So the bread and wine set aside in the garden, the body and blood of Christ, would be shared again on Good Friday as we gathered around the cross.

The strangeness of this practise for one whose experience of worship had been worship songs and uplifted hands was significant. But in a spirit of exploration, I gave it a go. I sat in the garden that Maundy Thursday night. ‘Just one hour’ I thought. At the end of the hour I intended to leave.

Over the years I had been in some fairly remarkable meetings. I had seen the Toronto or Father’s Blessing break like waves over the British church. I had experienced laughter, floor time and tears. I had expounded that this was a bursting forth of the Fruit of the Spirit, Love, Joy & Peace. But like others I had also grown suspicious, noticing the similarities between the supposed manifestations of the Spirit and the work of skilled hypnotists, unsure of the evidence of transformed lives. Faith may be emotional, even ecstatic, but we must never confuse a human experience with the Holy Spirit.

There in the garden there was no space for laughter, for shaking, for lying on the floor. There was no-one to blow on us, to lay hands and pray, to cry ‘more Lord’. There was just the table, the bread and the wine, Christ present. After the hour I went to get up and I could not, I am unsure if I could even move. The sense of the intimate presence of Christ was overwhelming in a way I had never touched upon in even the most charismatic of meetings. But it was also simple, free of hype, judgement or expectation. Whilst others came and went, Jesus had me wait and watch.

This was not the end of the story; eventually I was ordained in this small corner of the global church, the Church of England. Here too I have seen people hurt as I saw before, seen people struggle with faith and I almost lost my own. I am still in the Garden of Gethsemane; where we let one another down, betray one another, and tears of blood are wept. Yet at the centre is not building, institution, not even people as we have sometimes understood it, but rather the table.

The table were Jesus met with his friends and shared his body and blood, the table where he meets with us still and shares his body and blood when we gather around Him.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015


For those who missed it, this is my Facebook / Twitter April Fools letter in its original glory!

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Good Ship CofE

I came across this image on Facebook earlier today. The context was global inequality. The picture is by no means perfect. Everyone is a man for a start. But take a look.

And now think about the church.

There is a shift in thinking in the church that is long overdue. Rather than focussing on how well things are going at one end of the church (or multiple ends if you like) we are beginning to recognise that we are a single ship that will sink or float together. 

Of course in the church the people sitting pretty in the church are not just relaxing - they are working hard. As are the folks bailing out the end with the holes in. But the folks at the top end may not have the solutions - they may not even be able to see the real problems. Throwing money and resources at the successful end of the church does not fix the problems elsewhere. Equally those bailing like crazy may struggle to see the holes too. 

What is beginning to happen is the folks at the top end are willing to come down and help out in, work together with, those contexts and expressions that are struggling. There is a recognition too that those bailing have actually been keeping the boat afloat.

I will leave you with that to reflect upon. To ask where you see yourself and your expression of church in the picture. To think about how we can offer and accept help and support. To work with others to find the holes that threaten to sink us and get them fixed.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

What would you do with your Twenty Percent?

Our understanding of what helps congregations grow may need to be turned on its head.

According to the Telegraph, the clergy are under-worked and overpaid. Hang on scratch that, we are over-worked and underpaid!

But then Joey Barton (a footballer?) suggests in the Independent that if he were Prime Minister:
"I would cease to subsidise the livelihoods of Church of England bishops and priests.”
Which rather suggests that we are living in luxury using state owned buildings for our worship.

Which would be nice.

Of course clergy probably are subsidised by the state, like lots of other lower income professionals. Clergy do not earn the packages that enable the upper middle classes to afford independent education and private healthcare. We rely on the state to educate and care for our families supported through taxation. We live in a variety of neighbourhoods, so good state services contribute to our quality of life in an indirect way too. It's easy to argue against a link between social deprivation and crime if it isn't next door.

But the Church of England as a whole receives next to nothing from the state. Our charitable status may grind some people's gears, but they probably wouldn't relish paying for the care of disused medieval buildings if we really tightened our belts. Equally those same church buildings and halls are frequently used for a variety of community functions at well below commercial rates, not to mention all the other stuff the church does.

So what of the other perspective?

The problem with blanket statements about the church and clergy is that every single context and parish is different. Some rural posts are hugely demanding, as are some urban posts. Community and congregation expectations vary, which soon comes to the fore when clergy start discussing these issues. In one post you might be expected to be part of the weekly life of a number of schools, attend every community activity, take every funeral, lead worship 3 or 4 times on a Sunday and visit everyone. In another post you might find yourself banging on the doors of schools, community groups and undertakers seeking a way in, have less demand on a Sunday, and be greeted with surprise when you knock on a door.

The distinctions between posts may have nothing to do with rural or urban context, population size, congregation size or worshipping tradition of the congregations. These varying demands don't just effect clergy, they have implications for the whole church, especially lay volunteers.

I also suspect they have a significant implications on growth.

Google at its most creative has a 20% time policy, common in the booming technology sector. Employees (in discussion with managers) have the freedom to pursue creative projects and ideas for one day in five. Some of the most successful Google products started out as 20% projects, like Gmail.

Where a whole parish or team (not just the clergy) is operating up to its eyeballs there is no room for growth. Dioceses have various formulas for working out if a parish or team is a heavy or a light load, but we need to take into account the actual lay and ordained workload which is far more difficult.

But I would suggest that a key indicator that the balance isn't right is a lack of growth.

Rather than making the assumption that someone isn't working we need to look at how to create that 20% time in the life of the whole church. The solution isn't particular programmes that the church needs to do to grow, but rather cutting back what we do do to give us that 20% to respond creatively to the context and hunger around us.

So what would you do with your Twenty Percent?

Friday, 27 February 2015

700 Words on the 7 Minute Sermon

(From the Archives)

Kirsh Kandiah asks for advice for new preachers. My response – never go over 7 minutes.

Now I admit that I regularly preach for more than 7 minutes and in certain contexts can preach for many times that length, but often those longer sermons are based on a 7 minute core.

Context is important. The typical 7 minute sermon would be shared in the context of liturgical worship, principally a service of Holy Communion. Although the liturgy should be seen as a whole it can be divided into two parts, that of Word and Sacrament. The 7 minute sermon fits into that first part of the service.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Word

John 1.1-14 (NRSV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Words are strange things. They can have multiple meanings in different contexts. They can mean different things to different people. So what does it mean for Jesus to be the Word?

The Word in Greek is Logos. Like other words it has a variety of different meanings. It can mean word, but also it can mean discourse, or The Argument. For the stoic philosophers it was identified with the divine animating principle pervading the universe. John wasn’t the only Jewish writer to use the term Logos . Philo used the term writing “the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated”. Philo was building on Hebrew ideas. Further back in the Jewish tradition we have the testimony of Wisdom found in the Jewish Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek. Wisdom in active in creation from the beginning, and throughout the Old Testament is referred to as She.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

2015 the 3M's

Missional, Managerial or Maintenance?

As much of the church continues to decline in the UK, especially the Church of England we will continue to struggle with what models will reverse this trend. 

The maintenance model of carrying on with what we do well and hope people return to faith is only working for larger churches who do what we have always done really well. Transfer growth in Cathedrals is a clear example of this. 

Locally I see smaller evangelical churches struggling as much as liturgical congregations - indeed if anything in evangelical circles this tendency is more advanced. Unfortunately maintenance thinking can lead to lossy successes - if 10 small congregations of 60 are replaced with by a single congregation of 500 then it looks and feels successful but we have shrunk numerically and lost community engagement. 

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Awards 2014

So the thing is you pick people who have influenced you over the year, inspired you, encouraged you, made you think. And of course these lists are most useful if they are people who may not be known in the the circles you move in.

And are not your bessie m's.

So here are three:

Broderick Greer

seminarian | Beyoncé | liberation | politics | theology | 3/5 | pop culture | bow ties | slavery | liturgy | justice
Broderick is completing an M.Div Virginia Theological Seminary, and writes with theological, personal and spiritual insight. His work can be found on Huff Post.
"And on the heels of their jubilation, I walked to the site of Michael's death. There, leading up to our Golgotha, was a line of dead roses, telling signs of a life lost prematurely. And I stood there -- I stand here -- with a tumultuous stream of questions: read more