So, Modern Church went to Greenbelt. I realise that lots of Modern Church members go – I met quite a few of them there. Some – for whom we are very grateful – volunteered to help on the stall we shared with Inclusive Church and WATCH. But Modern Church was there as a Partner: we sponsored three of the acts: Vicky Beeching, Peterson Toscano, and Welcome Wagon.
I had the privilege of representing Modern Church when the opportunity arose, even though – and this is a big admission – it was my first time at Greenbelt (GB). Thankfully, I was guided into this novel experience by some old hands: friends we met there, Modern Church’s Administrator Diane, and the very helpful volunteers who make the whole festival work.
It’s a fair question to ask why Modern Church, as it were, went at all, and there’s a number of ways of answering that. Our Communications Strategy operates under three broad headings – the things we would like to do through it: broadening our reach, deepening our impact, and creating engagement, and I think our presence at GB helped with all three.
As a small organisation we don’t always reach a very wide audience of people for whom the liberal, open and non-dogmatic approach of Modern Church might be both helpful and encouraging. Being present at GB helped reach people we don’t normally reach. First, 12,000 people attended and saw and heard that Modern Church was there as a Partner – that’s more than 34 times our current membership. And second, the diversity of the people who attended GB means that those for whom Modern Church is a mystery went away at least aware that we exist and can do and be involved in interesting things, in things that matter to them.
We also had a chance to speak to people and give out some literature. This is proper engagement, and those of us who spent time on the stall can attest to the good conversations we had with people about their faith, or the questions they have about the church, or simply about the fact that they had never heard of Modern Church and were glad that we exist and wished us well. I guess you could say we planted seeds which I hope will grow into a mature and thoughtful faith. Time will tell (and we may never know).
Did we deepen our impact as an organisation? That’s hard to tell, and numbers won’t tell the whole tale. That said, because I was tweeting about our presence there and the wonderful acts we sponsored during the festival, my own number of followers on Twitter went up by about 35%. We’ll soon know if traffic to our website has increased. Perhaps more importantly, I was able to meet with a rich range of people who wanted their organisations to work with us in the future, and those contacts are being nurtured. I think we can say that GB offered Modern Church an opportunity to create a platform on which we can build for the future.
It might be that the most important thing for Modern Church was that we were there at all, that we were seen to be engaged with an organisation and an event which for many who go is more important than church itself. Greenbelt is an event where no one tries to control what you think but offers you food for thought. Greenbelt is an event which reaches those who are often marginalised by the church, without abandoning faith, and where worship plays an integral part. Greenbelt is an event which puts justice at the heart of Christian engagement without relegating spirituality, and Pussy Riot was a good example of how faith can engage with justice in a powerful – and sometimes costly – way. GB is also a great example of how the arts, a commitment to justice and open engagement with faith can add up to some powerful theology. I think Modern Church can learn from GB how deep and profound theology can take many and varied forms.
It is, in itself, a good thing that Modern Church was seen to be a part of Greenbelt. Being there and being seen to be a part of such a rich and varied offering was noticed and opened new possibilities for us. The programme of building on those possibilities has now begun.
General Secretary of Modern Church
Acts of the Imagination: Part 3 – The Leap to the heart
I recently had the interesting experience of watching Mission Impossible: Fallout and Mamma Mia!2 on consecutive evenings. The first paints a dark picture of the violence, danger and injustice in the world; the second warms the heart. While the fight against the darkness of this world must never end, we also need to remember that the fight for justice is also a matter of the heart.
Our hearts, as John Wesley knew, can be warmed in many kinds of ways. And when our hearts are warmed we can see more clearly, we can feel more deeply, and the resolve to change – the world, ourselves – becomes more possible. Music, throughout all of human history, has been a universal means of warming the heart, and so it is that Modern Church is delighted to sponsor a duo – The Welcome Wagon – who do just that: warm the heart and open the mind with music sung from the heart,and from the heart of the Gospel.
The warming of our hearts is not a fluffy thing: as our emotions are engaged, often unbidden, understanding and insight can emerge. We can not only see more clearly, our minds are also engaged in a different kind of way, because our whole being is fully alive. The left and right sides of our brains engage with each other: art informs thought; thought responds to art – action is shaped in wholeness, we begin to live in the full way God intends, as we see in Jesus.
Art, whether it is music, the visual arts, or the spoken/written word, can fuel the imagination, which is where the heart and the head come together. Greenbelt, of course, is designed to be a place where that can happen. And the stimulated imagination is where we come to think outside the box, where we begin to understand that the world need not be the way it is, because we can imagine a different or a better way of being.
The critical thing about the Christian imagination (though it is not limited to Christians or even people of faith) is that it is open to change. The default status of the Christian is that we need to be changed: we find no resting place, no sense of arrival in our understanding of ourselves, the world or God. Change is no once-for-all experience, it is, rather, a way of life. Allowing ourselves to be open to change, open to the insights, views and experience of others, is integral to the Christian life, to Christian spirituality, and Christian thought. Certainty is a luxury none of us has; it is an illusion.
It is easy to be taken in by the siren voices who tell you that we can know the mind of God with clarity, coherence, and simplicity. That can only be true if we choose to ignore the things that are unclear, the things that don’t stand well together, the things that are complex and difficult. We need the reminder of Paul Tillich that we live on the boundary: between the human and the divine, between knowing much and knowing little, between understanding and ignorance, between what is good and what is evil, between beauty and ugliness, between hope and despair.
We don’t have much choice about that. So, we can revel in the possibilities that living on the boundary brings, or we can fret about it wishing things were clearer. We can live with uncertainty, or we can opt to close our eyes and live with the illusion of certainty.
Living with heart and mind and eyes open is what we are called to do; that is what it means to be attentive to the Spirit of God who is as uncontrollable as wind and fire, who leads us from where we are to new places and new ideas, who challenges our complacency and our pretence to certainty. It will lead us to the place of faith.
I’m writing this as the tributes to Aretha Franklin are pouring out and dominating the news. I, like so many others, am privileged that she was a part of the soundtrack of my life. Apart from the sheer quality of her voice, many of these tributes also point to the emotional depth of her music, and the powerful voice she gave for justice, especially racial justice. It is no coincidence that both these arose out of her faith and the rich tradition of Gospel music in which she grew and developed and was formed. It is also no coincidence that the churches in which she grew up, and of which her father was a pastor, were also deeply involved – as a matter of Christian faith – with the struggle for justice and equality. The heart and mind and the resolve to change were one.
Greenbelt offers us a great opportunity for the imagination to leap to the heart, to allow ourselves to be enriched, challenged and changed in so many ways. We look forward to seeing you there, to being enriched together.
Over the past couple of months I’ve had the privilege of writing three blogs for Greenbelt about the involvement of Modern Church in the Festival this year.
Acts of the Imagination: Part 2 – The Leap to Justice
A lot has happened in the world recently. President Trump has visited the UK, and been off to see President Putin. Our government has been shedding ministers like a snake sheds its skin. Our European friends look at us in disbelief as self-serving politicians, well, serve themselves and seem to not to care very much about the future of the country. Brutal war continues in Syria; homophobia continues its reign in many of our churches; the poor keep getting poorer. Underneath it all, behind all the headlines and the tripe, injustice grows in leaps and bounds.
Justice is a major theme of the work of Peterson Toscano, one of the people that Modern Church is supporting at Greenbelt this year. There’s a piece on Peterson’s website (petersontoscano.com) entitled ‘Everything is connected’ and it’s a really good place to get hold of where Peterson is coming from, and to get a sense of his unique style; have a look before you come to Greenbelt and join in the conversation while you’re there.
I don’t remember now if it was Vladimir Illych Lenin or John Lennon who quipped once that ‘everything is related to everything else’, and Peterson gets this really well. Everything is related to everything else. You cannot act in isolation, we cannot live without complicity in the world’s great problems (or the problems of the woman next door). What happens to me, or what I do, happens/is done to everyone.
All the things that matter most to our politicians seem to be the things that God hates the most, and they’re all forms of injustice: despising and maltreating the foreigners in our midst; picking on the least able or least well in our society; grinding the face of the poor into their own poverty; treating the earth as if it was disposable; cheating, lying, corruption. Not doing these things is not only a measure of a good society, it’s a measure of godliness.
Justice is one of the golden threads that runs through the whole of the Jewish and Christian understanding of God. Nowhere is this spelled out more clearly than in the writings of the great Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. God, it seems, is not very interested in the forms of religious practice we have, or the religious words we use, or how well we follow the bishops. God, it seems, wants God’s view of the world to be written on our hearts. It has to become instinctive. And justice becomes instinctive only when it is grounded in love.
Learning the instincts of justice and love grow out of acting in just and loving ways. An Anglican thinker in the 1500s, Richard Hooker, thought that holiness – acting in just and loving, that is godly ways – comes before the knowledge of God. What he means by that is that as we act in just and loving ways, so we will begin to understand a God who is justice and love. If you try to wait to act in loving justice until you understand God, you will wait a long time…
Acting, living justice takes serious imagination. We have to think outside the usual boxes. When injustice is not addressed, and those with power shrug and say ‘that’s just how the world is’, we need to remember that love and justice say the world need not be the way it is. When the vast inequalities of wealth in our society and our world are not addressed, and the rich say ‘that’s the way markets work’, love and justice say that markets need not be the way they are. Whatever the injustice, our God – love and justice incarnate – says the world need not be the way it is: love justice, act mercifully, walk humbly with God.
The world need not be the way it is. Where will your imagination take you (come and tell us on the stand Modern Church is sharing with Inclusive Church and Watch)? But living out loving justice is not just a practical thing; there’s a spiritual dimension to it as well, to opening your imagination to the possibilities of God. Opening yourself to the God of justice and love, is to open yourself to the work of God’s Spirit in the world; it is to open ourselves to the same Spirit who leads us from where we are to truth, to where God would have us be. But, as we feed our spirits, so we also feed our minds: we learn – to see differently, to think differently, to act differently. Feed your spirit and feed your mind: see, think, act.
Greenbelt this year has much that can help us think outside the box, to use our imagination to see beyond the usual. Look forward to seeing you there.
Over the past couple of months I’ve had the privilege of writing three blogs for Greenbelt about the involvement of Modern Church in the Festival this year.
Acts of the Imagination: Part 1 – The Leap
Modern Church is thrilled to be supporting the Greenbelt festival this summer. For us it is a real leap of imagination – out of our comfort zone and into a place where anything might happen. For two generations Greenbelt has stood for open, thoughtful, imaginative, and inclusive faith, and we are proud to be even a small part of its work and witness.
Being imaginative about faith takes some courage. One of the people we are supporting at Greenbelt this year is Vicky Beeching – a woman who has shown imagination and courage in abundance, taking risks for herself and for her faith. Her journey has been moving and profound, and a read of her new book, her memoir, Undivided is a must.
Theology is an act of the imagination, and therefore risky, and has been since the beginning. It doesn’t take too much to argue that some of the best theology of the past 3000 years has been done by poets and musicians and artists (just think of the Psalms). These are prime theological expressions since our thinking and our formulations can only take us so far. As Victor Hugo put it: Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent. That will do for all these art forms.
Taking risks, ‘speaking’ in unconventional ways through poetry, music or art, may be the only way in which we can communicate with a generation (or two) of people who have little idea of what the conventional words of theology might mean or who have little experience of what the Christian faith might be (except for the terrible things they read about abuse, homophobia, misogyny and so on in the news). Showing the best of what faith is will mean taking risks.
So these ‘acts of the imagination’ need also to lead us to acts of justice, and this is where our faith will speak most loudly. Feeding the poor, giving shelter and clothing and food to those fleeing the effects of war or climate change, standing against the abuse of power, working for the liberation and flourishing of all people: these will speak more loudly and clearly than any amount of words we might use.
In conventional language, this is what incarnation is about. God takes the risk of becoming what we are. More than that, what we are becomes capable of bearing God to the world. It is the great act of inclusion and shows that imagination stands at the heart of reality. When our faith is embodied in the world anything is possible. When love is our meaning, when love judges all we do, when love is the measure of our thinking and speaking and acting, when love drives our imagination, then we are living God in the world and speaking a language all can hear.
Modern Church is an ‘old dog’, but we are looking forward to learning new tricks. We are committed, with you, to exploring all that the human heart and mind has to offer as together we try to live and speak our faith in the world, using words if we must. Faith is an act of the imagination for us all.
This blog was originally written for Inclusive Church: http://www.inclusive-church.org
A TEDxExeter talk got me thinking. A young deaf woman came on the stage and started signing her talk. This went on for long enough for us all to begin to feel uncomfortable. She then signed for her interpreter to come on stage. She apologised for forgetting that most of us didn’t sign and she wanted us to feel included. It was a nice moment and a proper lesson.
A week later I went on a wonderful trip to Sweden and the Diocese of Stockholm with Inclusive Church to attend a conference on ‘Inclusion and Accessibility’. Here the hospitality was generous and the encounters were more personal. We experienced creative and imaginative work in a poor suburb of Stockholm where the Church and the Mosque are not only working together in the community, but a looking to build a Mosque next to the church with shared spaces: ‘Gudshus’ – God’s House. Nearer the centre of Stockholm, we visited a parish where fantastic work with young people with Down’s Syndrome was being done, and where they were not only routinely included in activities, but in the Mass. ‘En kyrka för och med alla’: A church for and with all.
Inclusion in all these experiences meant more than being nice. For most of us, of course, inclusion feels the right thing to do. For me, it became clear that inclusion is also the Gospel thing to do. Not because it is nice, but because it speaks of the nature of God: God who demonstrates in Jesus Christ that God is ‘for all and with all’.
The incarnation of our God is, perhaps, the most profound act of inclusion. For God not only takes on our humanity, but also brings our humanity into God’s self. Without confusion, separation or division, the human and divine are included in one another, and each bears witness with the other to the love that stands at the heart of God, the universe, ourselves and everything.
Inclusion is not an add on but is the heart of the Gospel; not an add on to mission, but the heart of mission. Inclusion is not (just) about loops and ramps, but is about being with and for everyone, learning from each and every person what God means and is. It’s not about ‘normal’ and ‘needy’; inclusion is not something the majority patronisingly confers on the minority. Ultimately, inclusion is what God is.
A common misconception about inclusion is that it is something I do for you or you do for me. Another is that inclusion is about views and ideas or practices. Inclusion is much more significant than that. It is about believing that at a deep and profound level each person, as they are, is the place and person where God is found and to be understood. And each person, as they are, is the place and person where humanity is found and to be understood.
Jean Vanier put it this way:
Each human being, however small or weak, has something to bring to humanity. As we start to really get to know others, as we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change. We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgment and prejudice to forgiveness and understanding. It is a movement of the heart.
We might even go further and say that ‘each human being, however small or weak, has something to bring to God’.
There should be something redundant about saying ‘inclusive church’. A church which is not inclusive, in that ‘for all and with all’ sense, isn’t, probably, much of a church. By the same token, a church which is trying to be the Body Christ, a living witness to the love of God as expressed in the incarnation, will be inclusive. If we, as church, are not being what we proclaim, then we haven’t much of a mission either.
I felt honoured to be included in the trip to Sweden. My inclusion was a learning experience; being included enlarged my sympathies and understanding: it was empowering. The simple act of inclusion taught me something of God. Inclusion, incarnation, church, and mission all define one another.
General Secretary of Modern Church
Partner Trustee of Inclusive Church
The strangest Ascension Sunday I ever experienced was while I was at theological college preparing for ordination. We had as one of the readings a bit from Ephesians 4 where St Paul is talking about the risen and ascended Christ giving gifts to his people. He wrote:
When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people. (When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens so that he might fill all things.)
On hearing this, the group of ordinands I was with was convulsed by nervous laughter as we were just about to make a parachute jump in aid of charity. We were not entirely convinced about what ‘descended to the lower parts of the earth’ might mean. We all survived.
I have difficulties with the language in which the ascension is described. It’s all rather too like the Ascension chapel at Walsingham, where we have a cloud out of which hang the feet of Jesus as he is taken up to heaven with the disciples looking up in wonder and amazement.
None of this, of course, will do. The ascension is a major transition point for the Christian faith, and in the stories about it we read of Jesus bidding farewell to his disciples, then being taken up into a cloud to heaven to rule at God’s right hand in glory – but this is not the kind of language out of which literal sense can be made. The language of physical movement – ascending; of direction – up; of physical means – being caught up into a cloud; and of physical place – sitting at God’s right hand – is all very difficult. We don’t live in a universe where ‘up’ – whatever direction ‘up’ might be – is heaven, where ‘down’ is hell (unless you think that Austral-Asia is hell, at least from a parochial perspective…), and that the ‘middle’ is where we live. The understandings that we have of space and time are a great deal more complex than that – creationists not-withstanding – and so is, I think, our understanding of heaven. But expressing these difficulties is most emphatically not to say that the ascension of Christ is an unimportant event or untrue; but it is to say that attempts to understand this story literally are not generally very successful.
The ascension is a symbol of two great truths about the Christian faith and about our discipleship. On the one hand the ascension is, in traditional and perhaps no longer helpful language, a symbol of the lordship of Christ over all creation, the point St Paul was making in Ephesians. The language of lordship here is not about Jesus being some sort of king ruling over the universe rather in the manner of a human king ruling over a country, for that is clearly not true in any obvious sense. Lordship is, however, a symbol of the new reality that our humanity, which Jesus shared, is now taken into the life of God in a new and more intimate way. This makes the ascension an event by which both we and God are changed. Through the ascension of Christ the life of God is brought into our lives in this new and more intimate way than before with the sending and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Equally, through the ascension of Christ, what we are as human beings is brought into the life of God. What began with the incarnation – that God becomes one of us – is taken to a whole new level in the ascension as what we are is brought into the life of God. The relationship of creator and creature is changed as God and human beings become a part of each other.
On the other hand, the ascension is also a symbol of the beginning of our work in the world in Christ’s name. God in us – the new truth symbolised by the ascension – begins a new phase of work in the world, a phase in which we embody God to the world; through the Holy Spirit God dwells in us, transforming us and our communities into his very presence in the world. That’s where a throw away remark of that famous Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, makes some sense and can be of some help: the ascension, he said, ‘is neither here nor there’. This doesn’t indicate indifference to the ascension, but represents the paradox at the heart of the ascension. As Christ becomes freed from all the constraints of time and space, so Christ also becomes even more immediately present to us here and now in the indwelling of the Spirit and as we embody him to each other in our communities. The reality of the ascension is that Christ has never left us; he remains Immanuel, God with us, but in a new and more challenging way.
The ascension of Christ, however, needs to make more than a theological difference to our lives; the ascension needs to make some practical difference too, or it is just a nice, if slightly strange, idea. The practical difference the ascension makes is that it prepares us for and enables us to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit of God; and the gift, and the gifts, of the Holy Spirit are given to us for a practical purpose. St Paul, again, writing from his prison in Ephesus, gives us a good idea about what these gifts are for: they are given, he writes:
…to equip God’s people for work in his service, to the building up of the Body of Christ. So shall we at last attain to the unity inherent in our faith and our knowledge of the Son of God – to maturity, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.
We are those who are described as God’s people; we are the Body of Christ together with all those who call on his name and seek to do his will; unity and understanding are the goals towards which we strive; maturity, as measured by Christ, is the ultimate prize.
The ascension of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit are also ways of reminding us that with God there’s always more to come. Jesus’ followers had barely got used to the idea that Jesus was raised from the dead, and were all for making that the central focus of their lives, when he is taken from them again, this time with the promise of the coming of the Spirit and a vague promise about returning again. The disciples are not allowed to rest and soon discover that following Jesus is about constantly moving on. Neither the resurrection nor the ascension of Christ is the end of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people – there is more to come. And this, too, is significant for us, because no matter how important remembrance is to our faith, our orientation is not to be backward. To be a follower of Jesus is to look forward in anticipation of the new and sometimes shocking and surprising things God will do. Nowhere does Jesus indicate that whole story has been told; on the contrary the gift of the Spirit is promised precisely to lead us on from where we are to where God would have us be.
So the ascension of Christ is more than superior levitation; it is more than just an interesting theological idea. The ascension of Christ is, above all things, the way Christ becomes ever present to us and the means by which our hearts are prepared to receive the gift of God’s very self in our lives. The ascension is about Christ going on before us, leading us, empowering us, transforming us. It is about us taking the real risk of following a lord who is not only our friend, but who is also our judge; who not only feeds us as a mother feeds her children, but who also dismantles all of the structures we would build along the way in order to contain or restrain him. This is the risk of being a pilgrim people, the risk of being transformed, the risk of being completely liberated from all that enslaves us, including taking ourselves too seriously. Ascension is about being caught up into God, and of having God with us in a new and powerful way.
Theology matters. That’s been a theme running through many of the contributions we’ve heard at the annual Society for the Study of Theology conference in Nottingham this week. Whether it is in interpreting popular culture (including Dr Who, zombies, vampires and all), in confronting the great injustices of our world, thinking through the Cartesian dualism present in current thinking about AI, understanding thoughtful forms of atheism, or simply trying to bring pleasure and meaning together to create delight, theology matters.
As an erstwhile theologian and as General Secretary of a learned theological society (Modern Church: www.modernchhurch.org.uk ), it is nice to be in a context where theology matters. It’s been refreshing to talk theology and be able to use all the jargon and short cuts; it’s been good to hear many familiar theologians being used and quoted, and to learn of many more that have popped up since my time. It was especially good (and very moving) to have a panel discussion at the end of the conference with Robert Beckford on his book Documentary as Exorcism as we were led through the powerful ways in which Colonial Christianity continues to enslave and oppress black people (and white Christians) in this country and beyond and how new theological paradigms are needed. It’s good to find a couple of hundred people who, while rarely agreeing, can do so with civility, all believing that theology matters.
But looking out the windows of the university buildings through the murk towards the city of Nottingham, the question also arises of for whom theology matters. It matters professionally for most in the room, and it matters personally for many too. But for how many people outside the room does what we’re discussing matter, even in church circles? Not many is the short answer. Ours is not a society which, and ours is not a time (and perhaps ours is not a church) when the work of theologians has much impact on the world, let alone on the lives of the general population, or even on your average church-goer. So, really, theology doesn’t matter.
Part of the reason theology doesn’t matter in general terms has to do with the messenger. By that I don’t mean these very nice people who gathered in Nottingham who are professional theologians. They are not generally the people through whom theology is mediated to the world. What I really mean by that is the church, and especially its leadership. Sadly the medium and the message have diverged, and what people see is not what they need or want, or we want them to hear.
One contribution we had in the conference used a part of Aristotle’s Rhetoric to talk about how logos, the word or message you want to communicate, needs to be accompanied by ethos, the credibility of the speaker and the moral framework out of which he or she speaks, and pathos, the emotional content which might engage those with whom you would like to communicate. This is a good framework for communications and one that every aspiring communicator, especially inside the church, ought to learn.
However good your logos or message is, if it is not accompanied by credibility (as an individual or institution), then even if you get the pathos or engagement right, you will not be heard. As an institution, the church has lost so much of its ethos, its credibility, its moral framework even, in recent years – over its treatment of women, its approach to issues of gender and sexuality, its treatment of survivors of abuse, its failure to come clean aboout its colonial and even imperial past, and so on – that its logos, its message of God’s love for a broken world, is no longer heard. It speaks only to itself in ever diminishing circles of mutual handwringing. It really has become doing theology in La La Land, a fantasy world of inept pastoral letters, mission action plans, and institutional fear, in which there is an institutional inability to see that no one is listening to the noise they make.
I wish it were not so; I want theology to matter. I want the message of God’s love in Christ to be heard here and everywhere, and for theology to make its contribution to culture, politics, and policy, for theology to be the force for liberation that it could be. I want the world to know that God’s love is not only for those in La la Land, but for everyone, however it is that God has created them. But until our ethos matches our logos, until we rid ourselves of our ridiculous and pompous insincerity and hypocrisy, and our risible institutional insecurity, nobody’s going to listen, theology will continue not to matter. It’s not only a shame, it’s avoidable and it’s shameful. The world, especially today, needs theology to matter.
General Secretary, Modern Church (www.modernchurch.org.uk)