Into the future; navigating a time of change

by Sally Coleman.

The Church of Christ in every age,
Beset by change, but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage
And keep on rising from the dead
(Fred Pratt-Green) 

Times of change are challenging and difficult, producing all kinds of resistance and anxieties within us, and yet, we all know they are quite simply a part of life. Over the last decades we have become more and more aware of a change in the life of the church; numbers have fallen, churches have ceased to meet, and the demands of church life and ministry have become too much for some.

Recently one of our Church Stewards returned from holiday with news for the local congregation, “it seems to be the same everywhere” he said, “churches are struggling with questions about their future. Even if they go into stationing for a minister it seems unlikely that they will get one. We are going to have to start thinking differently.”

Could this then be the time for us to begin to ask and imagine what rising from the dead might look like in the myriad of local contexts that we inhabit? This demands that we might be willing to let go, and to die to the way that things have been; “anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal” (John 12: 24 The Message).

Change is always happening; people come and go, people die, others are born. Life is a constant reminder of the cycle of birth and death, and this is normal, yet so often when it comes to our institutions we look for constancy and security, something to keep us fixed and sure, a stronghold in times of trouble. Do we look to the church for our security, substituting it for God? Does our desire to cling on to what is, hinder us from becoming, and even desiring what might be? Are we missing the move and call of the Spirit, who longs to lead us through the desert of loss and lament to a new place where life begins again, where we literally rise from the dead?

Again and again the Psalmist finds hope in the darkness; consolation and help from God when he (sic) gets to the end of himself. Or to put it another way:

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
(Matthew 5:3 The Message) 

Lament has the power to release and re-orientate ourselves. While many see the gift of lament in the context of exile and return, it can also relate to the situation between the Crucifixion and Pentecost. Can we place ourselves into the shoes of the early followers whose world has been turned upside down; the shock of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the confusion and slow dawning of Easter day and all that lay between those days and the total change that Pentecost brought?

Not much happened in those days. The disciples met with Jesus on and off between Easter Day and Ascension Day, but even then, they were in a space of waiting, watching and praying, preparing for something they could not name, and for a future they couldn’t anticipate. It takes serious commitment to sit with such discomfort, and two things marked out this waiting time: firstly they met together and, secondly, they committed themselves to prayer. In days such as these the underpinning of basic spiritual disciplines is essential. They will help us through the storming times and prepare us for what is to come. To quote the popular C.S. Lewis mis-quote, “Prayer does not change God it changes me.”

We know prayer can change and re-orientate us, and yet we often feel that it is nothing. How many times have you heard somebody say, “I can’t do anything but pray,” as if prayer is our last resort and not the first option? Prayer releases in us new possibilities and potentials, and even more remarkably frees us from fear as it connects us to the perfect love of God.

So we are called to set out upon an uncertain road. As with any journey what we want is a map and clear directions, a destination in sight, but that is often not the pattern for the people of God. From Abraham to the disciples the call was to move and to follow, and yet no immediate destination was made clear.

Elaine Heath writes an open letter to the church:

“Change happens all the time so that every generation, every community, every person can experience God in their world, their context, their time. And what about the wave of change that is upon us… that looks different from the church that we grew up in? These are from God… Beloved church, can we agree to let God have our anxiety? God knows how hard it is for us to let go. We simply have to be willing to be made willing. Just a tiny degree of openness allows God to work with us…”[1]

 

 

[1] Elaine Heath, God Unbound  Upper Room Books 2016  pg. 98

Reflection and Resilience

by Jennie Hurd.

I realised recently that it is thirty years since I candidated for the ordained ministry of the Methodist Church. How did that happen? It’s more than half my lifetime ago, yet elements of the experience are as fresh to me as yesterday, if not fresher, given the effects of muddle (sorry – middle) age.

It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that my initial ministerial training took place in the early 1990s. This was at what was then still Queen’s College, Birmingham.  I’m more than prepared to stand corrected, but I believe the cohort of which I was part was among the first to be intentionally trained as reflective practitioners. I think I’m also right in saying that such an approach was pretty much still in its infancy. Although South American liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérez and Leonardo Boff had already introduced us to the hermeneutical or pastoral cycle as a reflective theological method, Duncan B Forrester ‘s edited collection of essays, Theology and Practice[1], had only just been published, as had Laurie Green’s Let’s Do Theology[2]. We were still years away from Graham, Walton and Ward’s Theological Reflection: Methods[3] and Theological Reflection: Sources[4], never mind the SCM Studyguide to Theological Reflection[5]. As students in the early 90s, we were assigned to Theological Reflection Groups and encouraged to reflect. I’ll be honest with you that there were some of us who were never really sure what we were being asked to do. However, something must have happened as I now can’t imagine any other approach to life, faith or ministry apart from a theologically reflective one. It’s part of who I am. I seek to make it my praxis.

I was reminded of this not long ago by chance in conversation with a contemporary from Queen’s. We were reflecting (yes!) on how one ‘r’ word – ‘reflection’ – seems to have been supplemented (or maybe even supplanted, we wondered?) in ministerial formation and practice by another ‘r’ word, namely ‘resilience’.  Has over-emphasis on reflection led to the need for a new focus on resilience, or is it lack of reflection on our practice that means we need to work on our resilience for ministry in the twenty first century?  I cannot believe it’s only the same first letter that links reflection and resilience in pastoral practice, and while these thoughts are only very tentative, I thought I’d share them in the hope of receiving some wisdom in return (or at risk of being told all the thinking’s been done already, and I need to “Get with it, Grandma”…)

Reflecting on experience, I now appreciate the value of those groups at Queen’s. Our reflection is most beneficial for our practice when it’s enfolded in prayer and carried out with others. Part of the genius of early Methodism was the Class Meeting, and you are fortunate indeed if you belong to such a group today. For ordained people, Ministerial Development Review and pastoral supervision offer the opportunity for sharing in reflection on practice. Spiritual direction or accompaniment offers the possibility of something similar for all. Often, books and their authors become our conversation partners in reflective practice, as well as conversations with colleagues, where that is possible. Good reflection which strengthens our resilience in life and ministry is for me, by definition, carried out in conjunction with others, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the context. The corollary to this, then, is that reflection can become detrimental to our resilience, undermining it or perhaps even damaging it, when it is carried out in isolation. I wonder if this tendency has sometimes been allowed to take hold. Reflection is not necessarily the enemy of resilience – it’s not an either/or (and I doubt anyone ever suggested it was) – but it follows that reflection which comes from too individualistic a focus may be more likely to lead to distorted thinking and harmful self-criticism. When carried out as a collaborative exercise, as through this website, theological reflection is intended to build resilience and strengthen our practice. It is a tool for our flourishing, and we need both, inextricably linked.

 

 

[1] Forrester, Duncan B (ed) 1990, Theology and Practice, London: Epworth Press

[2] Green, Laurie 1990, Let’s Do Theology: A Pastoral Cycle Resource Book, London: Mowbray

[3] Graham, Elaine, Walton, Heather and Ward, Frances 2005, Theological Reflection: Methods, London: SCM Press

[4] _______ 2007, Theological Reflection: Sources, London: SCM Press

[5] Thompson, Judith, Pattison, Stephen, Thompson, Ross 2008, SCM Studyguide to Theological Reflection, London: SCM Press

Inspiring Service

by Frances Young.

Back in the autumn I was asked to join a panel on the topic ‘Inspiring Service’, the audience being University students. As I reflected on what to offer, I found myself tackling a question both personal and vocational – why had I, a theologian and ordained minister, got involved in the governance and management of large public sector institutions?

I ended my presentation with some pretty standard statements:

The theological undergirding of public service is surely commitment to the fact that this is God’s world, despite the way things seem. Sin (meaning not simply sex, nor individual misdemeanours, but rather the way human affairs in general have gone somewhat pearshaped) – sin in that sense, it’s been said, is the only empirically grounded doctrine! Christian faith proclaims that God has taken action in Jesus Christ to put things to rights, and calls us to play our part in the process. That’s why commitment to making the world a better place lies at the heart of Christian service.

But if I’m honest, such statements were hardly what ‘inspired’ the course that my career took, nor my principal current retirement activity. So I began in a very different place, telling the story of my father, and my dawning recognition that it was his example of Christian commitment to public service which explains some of the odd decisions I made in the latter stages of my career:

Head of Department, Dean of Faculty, Pro-Vice-Chancellor?  What were those years about? Was it just ambition, nothing to do with – perhaps indeed contrary to – my Christian commitment? It certainly was a response to the moral pressure of being the first woman to hold those positions: if one wasn’t prepared to do it, how would things ever change? But how did all this relate to ministry? In an overtly secular University how could Christian commitment be expressed? What was I doing struggling with the frustrations of University politics? Practically everything I managed to achieve back then has by now been overtaken … There’s no permanent legacy in running things day to day…

I was honest in articulating those recurring questions. I confessed that by tradition Methodists are activists, and I’ve spent much of my life feeling guilty that I’ve done so little good in world – I’ve not fed the hungry, healed the sick, welcomed the homeless, visited those in prison, etc. But now, I affirmed, I could reclaim the importance of public service to secular institutions, and grasp more of its theological grounding.

Reading the earliest Christian documents, both in and beyond the New Testament, what is striking is the claim of this little underground, sometimes persecuted, group that their God is the God of the whole created order, and that everybody is accountable to this God, who actually sees into the heart, knows the secrets of inner motivations, and expects everyone to do good, to be generous, to live honourable lives, accepting the authority of human institutions: the pagan Emperor himself was appointed by this one and only God to ensure justice and peace.

At this point in history such subservience appears highly problematical. But, for all our current individualism, we are social animals; we need each other, and society still requires well-run institutions to govern competing interests, to ensure peace and justice,  to foster human flourishing in body, mind and spirit.  And with right discernment you find that God is there ahead of you, and that service involves not top down control,  but humility and counting others more worthy than oneself. We need people who are open to others to be the servants of all in our public life.

Now, in my retirement, my previous institutional experience is feeding into another such commitment. I’m an elected public Governor of the Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. The object is to be a constructive and critical friend, enabling responsiveness to patient needs, whilst also fulfilling statutory duties on behalf of the public and the taxpayer. Basically those duties are appointing the non-executive Directors, and then making sure they do their job. The Council of Governors, all unpaid volunteers, becomes the body to which the management Board is locally accountable. And yes – it’s frustratingly difficult to see what difference we make, and the endless papers and quantities of data and meetings to go to do not always thrill me. But the work of the Trust really matters – my own family has been, and doubtless will continue to be, beneficiaries of the services provided.

The Language We Use

by David Easton.

The language that people use can sometimes be quite indicative. For example, in the endless Brexit debate whether people say ‘them’ when referring to Europe, or ‘us’ probably says something about where they see our nation’s place and, indeed their own, in relation to the other twenty-seven countries.

If I ask someone about their church, I notice whether they say ‘them’ or ‘we’. And in Scotland, where I live, does ‘the Parliament’ refer to what goes on in Westminster or in Holyrood? In one sense it doesn’t matter very much maybe, beyond being sometimes quite irritating as in when someone refers to ‘England’ when you know perfectly well that they should be saying the United Kingdom or Great Britain – and it’s amazing how many people don’t seem to grasp the difference between these last two titles.

As I, this year, approach retirement from active ministry, I sometimes find myself in reflective mood and one of the things I have been reflecting on is the changing use of language in and about the Church. I hope the following isn’t going to sound too much like an old man’s rant.

The default term that is now used across the Church when referring to one another – especially when ministers speak of each other – seems to be ‘colleague’. I even use it myself sometimes. Looking back, I couldn’t say when this term first became common and then usual. I do know that when I entered circuit ministry thirty-eight years ago that I could not have imagined any minister referring to another in such a way. The usual term would have been ‘sister’ or ‘brother’.

Is this all part of the Church simply getting more professional and on the ball:

our buildings now have to have professionally conducted quinquennial inspections – this never used to be the case;

our circuits are encouraged to have ‘mission statements’ – an interesting example of religious language being requisitioned by the business world and then reclaimed by the Church. You will be able to think of other examples.

So what about the use of ‘colleague’? As I have confessed, I use it myself sometimes but when I do and when I realise I have and when I stop to think about it, I feel that I have been less than true to the nature of the Church and our relationship within it. We are in essence, surely, the body of Christ and children of God, something we affirm every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. In one way it doesn’t matter much if I call another Christian ‘colleague’ but in another I do feel that I have in some way demeaned them. It’s a bit like the story of Martha and Mary where the former refers to ‘my sister’ not warmly but as a way of expressing how she feels about her supposed laziness. You, dear reader, whether I’ve met you or not, are my sister or brother in Christ. And, if I am to be true to my ecclesiology and theological understanding of the nature of our relationship to God then surely my language should begin to reflect that.

I have a sense that increasingly we are keen to rediscover our Methodist roots and essence. One of the marks that we have is in the call to be in fellowship one with another. The early class meetings weren’t just about collecting the penny for the work of God, they could also be occasions of a brotherly/sisterly bonding. Some asked to be buried with their class tickets, so deeply did they value this ‘fellowship below’ and which they believed would find its full expression ‘when round his throne’ they met.

In a society where there is often a sense of ‘unbelonging’ and disconnectedness, is it not possible that those of us in the Methodist tradition with our belief in a loving and affirming fellowship may have, by this means and, yes, in the language we use, a possibility of making what we believe, real for those for whom it is often just a meaningless stream of words.

What happened to theology?

by Aaron Edwards.

Something has happened to the thing we called theology. It no longer seems to matter. And not only do most people not care that it no longer seems to matter, but they don’t even know they were ever supposed to have cared in the first place. When doing my PhD in Aberdeen a few years ago, I was often asked what my subject was. When I replied, ‘theology’, more than ninety percent of the time the person thought I was studying something to do with rocks. After a while I got into a habit of pre-empting this response by pointing my finger from the ground towards the heavens: “Think up, not down…” I began to wonder about what the frequency of this kind of exchange demonstrated and that it probably owed less to the ignorance of the average person than to the innocuously irrelevant work of much contemporary academic theology.

Despite having been the primary reason for which most premodern universities were founded, today many theological departments across the academy find themselves hopelessly doggy-paddling to keep up with a ginormous mercantile liner that has long since sailed on without them. ‘Why on earth are you lot still here? What do you actually do…?’ is a common thought insinuated in awkward inter-departmental meetings in many institutions. Some within academic theology manage this identity crisis more effectively than others, justifying their existence by pointing to the ‘social impact’ of the Church (which they might otherwise prefer to ignore), or by merging with other departments to showcase their ‘interdisciplinary value’. But wherever short-term survival has been achieved it has usually not come without some form of essential compromise. We migrate to talking about society, or geo-politics, or religion, but only because these things are really about what humans do; and humans seem far more interesting than God.

The result of this great attempt to save academic face ends up not only making theology a fairly pointless add-on to other ethically-minded disciplines which could say roughly the same things anyway, but renders it evermore inaudible to the Church. And the proof of theology is in the hearing, just as the proof of hearing is in the doing (Jam. 1:19-27). For an accurate gauge, just ask the average pastor or minister how many new journal articles they’ve read in the last year (or perhaps the last decade…). One way or another, the Church grows deaf to the voices of strangers (John 10:4-5).

Having all but lost the ears of the Church, then, the former ‘queen of the sciences’ may even still be politely ushered to the exit doors of the academy. If this ever does happen, it will not be because the theologians were making too much of a disturbance to the show, but more because the seats are becoming ever-pricier and theologians can no longer afford to sit in them. Even those few who seem to bridge the church-academy divide unusually well rarely make any actually significant difference to the academic or societal world. Theologians who might be seen as luminaries at academic conferences are usually little-known beyond their own specialist fields, let alone other disciplines altogether. It is quite literally the case that the work of a geologist is far more likely to reach the front pages of a newspaper than the work of a theologian.

To put this in perspective, a century-and-a-half ago the University of Zürich attempted to appoint the famously heterodox theologian David Friedrich Strauss to a chair in theology, and the news caused a public riot in the streets. Just stop and ponder that for a moment. I am not suggesting that public riots on doctrinal issues would be a necessarily welcome reality, but the fact that such an event would seem so utterly absurd today is not because theology is doing something right. It might also be remembered that the first theologians of the Church literally did cause street riots based upon the content of their theology (Acts 19:23-41). These theologians did so few of the things their academic equivalents spend their time doing today; and yet somehow their theology seemed to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). It mattered. And in a very real sense, their theology ultimately led – through centuries of steadfast mission and witness – to the founding of scores of major universities around the world. These are the same universities which, centuries later, gasp that such an apparently matterless subject as theology still has a home within their de-hallowed walls.

Things are supposed to happen because of theology: nations changed, lives transformed, societies challenged, peoples enriched, wonderful things built, terrible things hauled down. And all of it done not in the name of human progress or achievement, but in thankful worship to the One who first gave theology its voice, and its place. Indeed if theology is the speech of God in the mouth of the Church, then it ought to matter – to everyone – that theology no longer seems to matter.

Free grace with ongoing cost

by Will Fletcher.

My first encounter with St Francis of Assisi came from reading this Ladybird book of Saints. The image I had was of someone who preached to animals and released captive birds – a real-life Dr Doolittle.

stfrancis

As an animal lover he became something of a hero for me. Then, as with many other people, my next encounter came with singing the hymn supposedly based upon his words – Make me a channel of your peace. Whether or not these words are the authentic words of Francis, it furthered my image of St Francis as someone who sought peace and harmony between humanity and the natural world.

Over the years, I have obviously come to realise that Francis’ character is far more complex, and that nearly all the information we have of him comes from others many years after the events of his life. My wife and I are currently in the middle of reading a daily devotional A Month with St Francis and the image presented is very different from this meek and mild saint that I grew up reading about.

In the early days of this devotional it includes words about poverty and austerity, about what it means to be crucified to the world, and about Francis considering himself the vilest of all humans. Is this really an example we should continue to follow today? Is it really going to attract people to the Christian faith? Would it be better only to focus on his words about nature and quietly let slip all these harsh words?

This may well seem a tempting approach. The Church is constantly trying to find ways of engaging with a society largely alienated from it, we attempt to find easy ways of relating to people where they are and to not place large expectations on people early on. In addition, we recognise the importance of celebrating who we are in God, and wish to build people up, rather than bring them down. Indeed, these difficult words of St Francis seem to come far more from a time when the physical and the body were looked down upon by many in Western society, and denial of the flesh was the appropriate course of action.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them. I wonder whether, in an attempt to encourage people to engage with Church and Christianity, we have made it too easy with too few expectations? If we fail to speak of the cost of discipleship, are we in danger of making Christianity appear to be just another commodity that people can choose or ignore? As soon as the commodity stops providing our needs, or we recognise that this commodity is now costing us, we may make the decision to stop making use of it, secure in the knowledge that God loves us anyway and it doesn’t really matter.

If we make Christianity only about building people up and ensuring them of God’s love for them as they are, what do we say when people don’t feel that love? Is it all nonsense? Has it all been imagined or made up? Having an expectation of cost and difficulty, alongside the message of God’s grace and love, suggests times when the predominant experience is love, but also times when it feels harder.

Finally to resist calling all people to have a humble view of themselves (even if we may not want to go to the extremes of Francis’ vileness), is to fail to address those who need to hear that they are not perfect now, but change is possible; as well as allowing others to think about themselves far more highly than they ought. That we have all fallen short of the glory of God is one of the great equalising factors in life. Is not the heart of the good news that God’s love for us came ‘while we still were sinners.’[1] And there are people who really need the opportunity to acknowledge that they have sinned, and then to hear those words of forgiveness.

This is not to say that we should return fully to the days of condemnation and seeking everyone to see themselves as miserable sinners. However, let’s not throw it out completely. Let’s not offer cheap grace, but rather free grace that comes with an ongoing cost. I wonder how Church would be different if we placed expectations on people and openly talked about the cost of discipleship?

 

[1] Romans 5.8

Making sense of our past

by Stephen Wigley.

As we come to the end of this first month of 2019, it seems that we’re left facing many of the same old and apparently irresolvable problems carried over from 2018.  But amidst all the crises, there has at least been one bright spot in the news. That’s come with the success of the British film and entertainment industry in recent awards, with January’s Golden Globes, the strong showing in this month’s Bafta’s and the prospects of Oscar nominations to come.

I appreciate that this good news is not just about honours and accolades, and that behind the glamour lies a significant industry making a major contribution to the UK economy. However, for all the contributions British artists bring to the technological aspects of film-making, it seems to me that such awards also reveal a fascination with revisiting stories from our past. Last year it was Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Winston Churchill. This year, Olivia Colman has already won a Golden Globe for her role as Queen Anne in ‘The Favourite’, and there are a range of other nominations coming the way of the latest historical drama to be released a fortnight ago in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.

Now I confess to being a history graduate with a soft spot for such historical re-constructions. I’ve seen and enjoyed all three films and I can recognise some of the questions which have been raised by practising historians about them. Does the depiction of court life surrounding Queen Anne fit in with what we know from historical sources? What is the point of creating an imaginary collection of 17 rabbits (one for each child that she lost)? And what are we to make of the momentous (but fictitious) scene in which Elizabeth and Mary confront each other and their respective fates?

But then I reflect on how historical dramas work and why they retain a fascination for us. How they offer not just an opportunity to see how in earlier times people faced similar crises to those which we face today (for example the pressure to make momentous decisions at a time of national and international crisis when no outcome seems clear-cut); and also how the retelling of stories allows us to explore questions that were not able to be asked then – but are clearly important now (for example how it is that women were able to survive, thrive and negotiate positions of power and influence in a patriarchally dominated world).

To explore such questions requires a degree of creative imagination as well as a knowledge of the historic texts, in order that the stories we know can be explored beyond the boundaries of the sources available to us. That’s what’s happening in these films; and reflecting on them, it seems to me to be not unlike what happens in the pages of the Bible.

Over recent weeks our lectionary readings have been taken from the Second Book of Samuel, dealing with the complex business of succession planning in the house of David. The Old Testament is full of stories about kings and queens and their complex relationships with the prophets who advised and challenged them. Such stories take place over centuries, and yet are constantly being reinterpreted by later chroniclers and prophets seeking to find a new meaning for subsequent generations.

So it is, for example, in the book of the prophet Isaiah that we find messages warning of imminent disaster addressed to King Ahaz son of Uzziah, which are then interpreted afresh as a message of hope for a later generation preparing to return from exile in Babylon at the command of a new emperor Cyrus, and then in turn as an encouragement to persevere for yet another subsequent generation, as following that return they struggle to rebuild the city walls and restore the temple.

Nor does it end there; for in time some of those same passages will be read again to discover a fresh message of hope, pointing to a new promise of God’s dwelling with his people but in a way which perhaps the original eight century prophet could never have imagined. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it; ‘Long ago God spoke in many and various ways to our ancestors by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son.’ For this is where God’s presence and our history meet and come alive – and who knows where that future may lead.