26.2.15

Meek? Nice?

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I was interviewed on UCB radio this morning (United Christian Broadcasting) about the difference between meekness and weakness.

I challenged that sense of our being 'nice.'

Here's my 7 minutes (Click UCB logo):


19.2.15

Progressives

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Doug Pagitt writes his 10 things I wish everyone knew about Progressive Evangelicals but with something of an 'over the pond' flavour and so I wonder what his ten might look like for UK progressives.


  1. We are often members of a range of networks and are only recently converging in a more obvious, organised and strategic way. Working with Christians across other streams of the faith we find we can learn from one another. 
  2. We are uncomfortable with labels when they close down, exist only to perpetuate straw (wo)men or limit scope in conversation. Because we are those re-imagining our faith, labels are not always helpful. We believe Scripture is less propositional truth than an invitation into relationship with a person who is Truth: Jesus Christ. 
  3. Conversation about our structures, style, theology and ways of thinking are important as we listen to the Spirit, understanding at the same time that the Spirit does not behave in ways that are contrary to the Scriptures. 
  4. Progressive evangelicals are willing to re-evaluate their stance on issues through the study of the Scriptures in community. Progressive evangelicals champion the idea of the interdependence between systems and institutions and daily life and faith and so plug faith in to economics, politics, the environment and other fragile enterprises. We are hoping always to read the Bible honestly, confessing not only our faith but also our inability to be right about our faith due to the suppositions and baggage that we bring to the Bible: we are not neutral readers, hence community discernment is key. 
  5. We are anchored into historical Christianity but also Global Christianity, understanding again our interdependence, that the way faith operates in the West has significance for the way it operates in the Global South, for example, and vice versa. We find safe spaces for constructive theological conversation across difference and disparities, often online and then seek to root that thinking in practical action. 
  6. We are people of vision, less interested in religious structures and systems and more inspired by seeking ways to engage the human spirit with the Holy Spirit for the transformation of present structures and systems that define and control life as we know it so that we might live with more harmony between God and one another. 
  7. We are optimists anticipating new ways for churches to form Christlike people who join God in the healing of the world. We embrace fun and joy and sense limitless possibilities for people of faith, co-working with God. Jesus is our ultimate reality and we seek to advance his Kingdom as we await his return. 
  8. We see Christ's light in the world and the sciences and the arts and look for what God might be saying to us there about himself. We celebrate human uniqueness and seek to make room for the various love languages with which unique individuals speak with God, we will not all wear our faith in the same way. Our churches cater for diversity. 
  9. We don’t assume we have the answers. We are not naive about sin and darkness and that is why we understand the imperative of inner transformation through the Spirit as a precursor to the transformation of human systems and institutions. We will need to grow networks across diverse groups to bring in the Kingdom and so collaboration is important even if it sometimes feels difficult. 
  10. We are excited by the Good News of a radical Jesus and seek God's economy, reign, rule and governing of the cosmos by praying that like him we might become capable of an audacious generosity towards all people.  
So that's my attempt at a UK ten for progressive evangelicalism. There was quite a thread about this over on facebook so I am grateful to conversation partners there. 

15.2.15

Speak (not) of the devil?

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Christian Today runs the story of those potential changes to the baptism liturgy for the Church of England that I have reflected upon for Church Society

Recently (February 2015) the debate went to General Synod and discussion ensued regarding whether references to sin and the devil are appropriate against the backdrop of a modern, western, twenty-first century, enlightened, rationale.

Are we to accommodate the liturgy to the context we find ourselves in?

Ruth Gledhill describes how the 'Bishop of Truro, Timothy Thornton, said the new baptism texts were being drafted because of concerns that the present services were too "complex and inaccessible" to non-churchgoers.'

I am not sure that this is really the case. 

Surely people are able to use their minds to conceive of ideas in the liturgy. I prepare candidates of all ages and have rarely come across a person misunderstanding the imagery of drowning to the old identity and rising to the new, putting on armour to stand valiantly against all that the world and sin and the devil throws at us. 

In fact, it is just this kind of language that we should be safeguarding. 

On Monday I spoke on Premier radio about the feminisation of the church. Many commentators on such a phenomenon describe how a gospel without power, without the language of radicalism, battle and armour, without the sense of revolution and counter-culturalism; without that sense of having something very real for which to contest, is perhaps one of the reasons behind the church's hemorrhaging men.

The over-emotionalism of songs that require participators to call on a Jesus whom they are desperate for, in love with and can not breathe without, is doing little to keep men in the pews.

Instead the daring and adventurous, the black and white real language of the baptism rite is an important way to counteract this phenomenon of a church that leaks men. I wrote about the importance of the retention of radical language in the baptism rite when I knew that baptism-lite was being tested in a few parishes. I draw your attention again to my thoughts over at Crossway magazine and ask you to consider whether in the continual adaptation of our liturgies to contemporary culture's social mores we might be in very grave danger of completely changing the gospel message to placate the god of our times: a kind of political correctness gone mad.

14.2.15

Heads off to St Valentine! (Thoughts about marriage)

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As Robert Walsh explores 'Anyone in a romantic relationship on Valentine’s Day is aware of the pitfalls surrounding it.'

Romantic love will always be something that the Church handles carefully. The Marriage preface in the Church of England's Common Worship Marriage service references our sexual lives and is unabashed about doing so with the words:

The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together

in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.

In a recent talk I gave, I explored the distinctiveness of the love we teach about as Church. Church should teach a redeemed sexuality and perhaps then on St Valentine's Day this is worth an exploration.

It would seem that our culture is obsessed with sex, with our partnerings ever more being scrutinised. People are defining themselves these days in terms of their sexuality. The Bible certainly has a lot to say about this aspect of of our personhood; what quite it says is being heavily contested, of late.

J W Paris, in The End of Sexual Identity says, “The major problem for Christians with ... sexual identity... is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes. ... “Christianizing” sexual identity—whether by affirming or negating the morality of various sexual identities—doesn’t help, because it doesn’t address the faulty connections that sexual identity categories make between human desire and identity... Desire is not a trustworthy indicator of human identity...” 


The challenge then is for the church to not capitulate to culture but to create culture. 


We have to ask ourselves what it means to be in Christ. 


Is Jesus as concerned with our sexuality as we are?

In Jesus' teaching the church family takes precedence over the human family and so we must be careful that we do not place too much onus on the good gift that is Christian marriage. 

W J Paris explores the ways in which, 
Jesus disturbed people’s understanding of normal sexuality in his day; he was born to a woman who became pregnant without having sex, and he never married or had children. Believers from then until now struggle to understand Jesus’ conception, birth, life and death, because each upsets taken-for-granted understandings of what it means to be human. The Christian religion is grounded in cultural disturbance, a rattling of what people take for granted.”

Despite this disturbance, the church sits within culture and indeed creates its own in ways that do not necessarily echo Christ.  

Alan Wilson's – More Perfect Union has had an impact on my theology of marriage and has raised for me the value of covenanted relationship as something keenly distinct from contractual relationship. I now ask myself more frequently, as a consequence, what it is I am to teach during marriage preparation. I feel called by More Perfect Union to reinforce the good godly gifts and expectations that are permanent, stable and faithful for Christian marriage. Reading this book has caused me to place a higher value on Church of England Christian Marriage as it is currently defined.

If our sexualities present moral difficulties across sexuality's spectrum in what ways can the church better prepare its couples to live out a God-honouring sexuality, especially in the wake of interest in such books as "50 Shades of Grey" which normalises a very fallen sexuality? 

Does the church even have a remit in today's culture to speak into such things when many would prefer it didn't?

I am also to find ways of better pastorally attuning myself to single people; to being careful that church does not give the impression that single people are somehow incomplete without a partner. They are complete because they are in Christ. Community with him and others is a constant invitation to us all. Life in all its fullness is realised in the lives of single people. 

I also find myself challenged to develop a new theology of sexuality: ‘A sexually embodied celibacy is the search for union with God, mediated in human relationships other than sexual partnership.’ (D Goergen, The Sexual Celibate (London: SPCK, 1974) p 157) There has to be room for the voice of those called to manifest this charism to be heard.

As the Rev'd David Harris (Rector of St Giles' Church, Reading) explores: 

'Marriage is not the opposite of the life of celibacy - or better said ... it is not something substantially different from it...both express a similar negation and affirmation, but in different ways. [The latter] is eros set free from the natural constraint of lust and pleasure, and that same eros is set free within...the aesthetic of Holy Matrimony.' (D Harris, Eros Transfigured: Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer.)

What can we learn about wholeness from those called to celibacy?

It is thought that there is a plasticity regarding sexual identity and gender. Is this threatening or illuminating? 

I believe it can be both - carefully handled. 

In what ways does plasticity inform or sharpen Christ-likeness?

If being In Christ is the definition of right person-hood, what does Christ-likeness have to say to us about our gender and sexuality? That they are not to be all-consuming, certainly!

Each is to be submitted to Christ. 

Of neither gender nor sexuality must we make an idol. 

In heaven, of course, there will be no marriage. 

Is the 'Same-Sex-Marriage' debate calling us as church to a rediscovery of the importance of the ways in which we define ourselves?

The ‘mystery of individual vocation’ is seen in a call from God to be our true selves, where the true self is defined by God’s Word and not our own, and where the process of transformation is characterized by the judgement which he brings to bear on our lives in their many aspects, including the sexual.(Dave Leal, Marriage as vocation, Grove)

We need to ask ourselves what further moral standards we might be bringing to covenanted relationships that are beyond the circumscription of the biblical text? 

For example – 'family values' can conform to the external pattern – but often the family; the Christian marriage, is far from ideal. The church must not idolise marriage but prepare people for the reality of 'relationship' as best it can. 

If marriage is a parable of Christ and the Church, this then is why there is no marriage in heaven.We no longer need the parable when the parable has been fulfilled at the eschaton. Until then relationships will continue to prove difficult because the eschaton is 'not yet'. 

What Christians are called to step into until that day are right relationships - those made righteous through Christ, to know deeply at the level of personhood that we are persons belonging to him, that out of this relationship, other good relationships can be built.

Right person hood is found in him. And how do we know what that looks like? We have the canon of Scripture and we have the testimony of the Spirit to the canon of Scripture. Human person hood is there dignitas peccatoris: it is a sign of our worth, that at the level of our person hood, we are accounted sinners, and called to find our true selves in Christ. Or as the Saint Andrews Day statement (See Application 1) puts it: 

‘In [Christ] alone we know ourselves as we truly are. There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ.’

Rev'd Harris describes how Marriage, rightly understood, is 'an ecclesial event, realized...through the church herself, it becomes something that happens in Christ. The Marriage becomes a particular location, or manifestation, of the communion of Saints - not through the overcoming of the natural, but through its transformation in Christ. Even sex (that most probelmatic phenomenon for the theologians!) is set free from subjection to natural necessity and impulse, and becomes a real means of personal communion between two people. Sex, the ultimate expression of eros, becomes a means of Caritas.' (D Harris, Eros Transfigured: Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer.)

To give the last words of this reflection to Walsh. He explains how,

Valentine’s Day has always been about martyrdom...to properly express the depth of one’s love in the space of twenty-four hours... come home with flowers and your partner views it as validation that your relationship has been reduced to a five-minute visit to the florist.... nowhere are the unrealistic expectations for this day more unforgiving... there will always be martyrs on Valentine’s Day. Twenty-four hours is simply not enough to communicate ...[the] depth of my love...

By promoting the extension of forgiveness Robert Walsh might mitigate against the disappointments that are his readers this Valentine's Day. If the flowers haven't been delivered, we forgive, we are all 'works in progress,' with a rightness to appropriate: Christ's. In Him we know ourselves valued and loved. 

As a friend of mine says "it is never a bad deal to follow Jesus.” 

Here's the church's greatest challenge then: presenting the gospel in such a way that the Spirit can capture more people with the magnetism of Jesus in whom all our needs, whether they be sexual or not, are met.

Stanley Hauerwas points out how celibate Christians are asking that the church better become the eschatologically orientated family that it is supposed to be. (Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians are Doing it’ (1978), in, John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (eds), The Hauerwas Reader, Duke University Press, 2001, p. 499.)

The challenge for the church over the next two years particularly lies in what it is to teach about love, about marriage, about relationship but perhaps more fundamentally than that, how it is to communicate that in Christ all our desires meet their fulfilment. 

How is the church going to communicate the attractiveness of an identity in Christ?


You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

Mission - Really?

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Mission – Really?
I went through a phase a few years ago of finding myself humming a particular theme-tune: the one to "Mission Impossible" and I started to think about why at certain times such a tune was popping into my head. It began to become evident that it was at the times when I felt my evangelistic zeal most frustrated by the situation I found myself in.
Becoming more conscious of this tune coming into my head, it began to draw my smiles, a joke I was having with myself and I felt solace - the mission of the Church was never supposed to be easy. Graham Hunter makes some very interesting observations on his blog (republished also on Fulcrum) distinguishing between Mission and Community Ministry. He wants us to understand that, naturally, he is a supporter of Community Ministry in all its various hues but there is a difference between the church hall being used to facilitate secular outreach to a variety of people and Mission, which it would be were those who were providing that outreach baptised members of the Christian community. He says:
I’m all for community ministry - there’s all kinds of valuable projects which serve and meet the needs of various communities. If an organisation which ran, for example, art classes for adults with learning difficulties, approached me and asked if they could use space in the church for their project, I would almost certainly do whatever I could to support them. We might offer a charitable rate for the venue hire, we might clear some cupboard space for them. It would be a valuable class and a valuable service to its particular constituency. However, in my mind it would still be very much community ministry rather than mission. This is where things can become slightly contentious - for some of my Anglican colleagues would count this amongst their mission projects, and if they were counting up the number of people they encounter in mission projects every year, they might include the number of people attending the classes. But I wouldn’t count this among the church’s mission projects.
He advocates that Community Ministry becomes Missional when the volunteers are 'seeking to bear witness in their lives, their words and their actions to the hospitable love of Christ.... clear that the ultimate need of every person there is to receive the grace of Christ, to come to a knowledge of his saving love, and to appropriate this gift by themselves by repentance and faith.'
Graham Hunter goes on to describe how:
The real and tangible need being addressed in the project is not elevated above the ultimate need to bring people into contact with Christ through relationship with his body - the church.None of this motivation is necessarily present in community ministry - indeed, at worst, certain forms of community ministry are self-serving - in that they fulfil my need to be useful and valuable to others. They may contribute to the development of a sense of self-righteousness in me as I meet others’ needs. They may create a dependency culture if we subconsciously ‘need to be needed’.
In essence what Graham seems to be saying is that the church must continue to act in obedience to Christ's call in Matthew 28 to make disciples for Him. This must be our primary motivator. You could say that Community Ministry is the third of the five marks of mission and if we are only about the third, we are missing the first two:
The Five Marks of Mission
to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God
to teach, baptize and nurture new believers
to respond to human need by loving service
to seek to transform unjust structures of society, and
to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth


In William Easum's 'Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers,'(Abingdon Press, 2011) "permission-giving leadership" is thought fundamental to a congregation's missional enterprise. Tendencies to control and restrain are among the sacred cows that must be sacrificed for people to rise to the challenge that is the evangelisation of their community. Easum would corroborate a view like Graham Hunter's that ministries must be underpinned by the disciple making mandate of Matthew 28.
Graham Hunter realises, no doubt, that his blog-post will cause a lot of discussion regarding that old nutshell that continues to crunch in the nut-crunchers of the Anglican Communion: what exactly do we mean by mission? An entire Global Indaba Listening Experiment was conducted in an attempt to find an answer to that question from 2011 to 2012.
One way forward for congregations, unsure about taking their cows to the burger splicer, would be study of the Mission Matrix. This is an idea put forward by Richard Bliese (president and associate professor of missions) in 'Word & World Volume 26, Number 3, Summer 2006,' who says:
Mission … characterized … by its relationship to church (missional), confession (confessional), gospel (evangelical), and vocation (vocational), functioning together as a circular framework ... help[s] define the mission that subsequently should drive a congregation's understanding of its identity, ministry, and organizational structure.
There are four distinctives then to Mission as Bliese sees it:

Sentness
Bliese describes how 'the church's 'very posture of sentness creates a missionary dymaic in the world,' and explores this activity of the Triune God: 'God sent the Son into the world with a mission; the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son with a mission; and now the church, baptized in the name of this Triune God, is being sent on a mission in the world under the direction of the Holy Spirit.'
Confessional
Bliese encourages the church in its 'uncompromising … public witness,' to God's promissory "yes" in Jesus Christ, in the face of that 'true martyria' which can lead to 'persecution and death.rue 'True confession rests on Christ alone, faith alone, and word alone.'
Evangelical
The Good News of our confession points to the promissory character of God's presence in the world. Mission embraces all of God's activities in the world; and these activities are centred on God's promises in Christ.
Graham Hunter is pushing towards this boldness of witness which will turn Community Ministries into Missionary ventures and yet Bliese's Mission Matrix helps us to appreciate that the church's generous welcome to hall group users has a part to play too in God's unfolding plan to make disciples of himself. The reason why I think Graham's post ends with such humility, open like Philip under the fig tree to being called to 'Come and see' is because God is at work even when our proclaimed confession of the Good News is weak. This is made obvious by the distinction that Bliese explores under his designation: Vocational
Vocational
'Vocation spans every kind of worldly relationship and transforms them into missionary agencies for how God loves the world. These relationships include the civil, familial, churchly, and occupational... and includes the entire scope of God's activity in the world.'
Graham Hunter is open finally to being surprised by God's initiative through those community ministries which might not at first seem quite missional enough!
Diagramatically the Mission Matrix is centred on the context out of which any church operates. It is essential that this is analysed as a part of the unfolding journey of discovery that is a church's regarding its identity and purpose.
What is helpful about Bliese's writing is that he provides a way by which churches might centre on WHO they are in Christ in a way that is fundamental:
A church's organizational structure should be based upon its understanding of its identity. Form follows function. But function and form should both follow identity. When they work together, they thrive together. Or, as many congregations experience, when identity, performance, and architecture don't function in sync, they don't function well at all.
Bliese draws up a chart so that the sense of integration and interdependence between different aspects of church can be understood and the church's functioning can be analysed:

1st Order Analysis
2nd Order Analysis
3rd Order Analysis
Identity
Narrative/Bible
Theology/Bible
Spirituality/Bible
Performance
Context
Systems
Ministries/Vocation
Architecture
Local Wisdom and Culture
Organisational Theory
Leadership


A church's identity in mission (top line) begins with the community telling its story in narratives. These communal narratives must be informed by the biblical narrative. We are not able to construct our own story, we must look to the Scriptures and grasp what it is God is saying about who we are as a people. This is vital to understand. Theology emerges from a community's story as it journeys into its identity in Christ. Finally, a community's spirituality, or its faith life, will flow out of its theology. The way a church journeys into such an identity will look different for each congregation. Worship styles, liturgical preferences and the giftings peculiar to that community will shape a shared spirituality. There will be a sense of journey for a people who by their very biblical nature, should always be on the move (Moses through the desert, the Apostles across the globe). If identity and spirituality are becoming more secure, changes in wisdom and culture, in organisational theory and leadership will be embraced rather than rejected. Because Architecture is frequently impacted by change, we read the matrix from left to right.
This is why it is absolutely incumbent on us to pose the kinds of questions Graham Hunter is asking of our churches; to constantly ask who do you think you are (in God?). This must be the starting place. Church leaders need to help people unfold their God-given identity from the Scriptures. In this way changing the Architecture should not result in the whole enterprise tumbling down: William Easum describes how committees and governing structures in churches need to seek again our missional God:
Life in Christ comes to us on its way to someone else, congregations should focus outward instead of inward, congregations exist for those who are not part of them, life is meant to be given away not kept, God does not honour congregations that seek merely to raise money and survive. (Sacred Cows, p7, Abingdon)
A prophetic challenge is issued to churches then from explorers like Richard Bliese and Graham Hunter to step more fully into becoming the sent and therefore missional people winning disciples for God. We need to uphold all the Marks of Mission and not to rest only in Mission Mark Three when there are at least four others to which it is essential to attend if we are going to be 'CHURCH' at all.
The final helpful idea Bliese offers us to complement his Mission Matrix draws upon the image of a tree for those of us more visual and less captured by the diagramatic.
The first order roots must be healthy for the tree to thrive. Attention, energy and prayer is essential here for the trunk and leaves to receive a necessary vitality.
The trunk of the tree, in this analogy, represents the systematic elements of a congregation's life, that is, its theology, its systems, and its organizational structure. This trunk will rise secure and strong from healthy first order distinctives.
The branches are the most visible and commented upon parts of the tree, changing in different seasons. A congregation's spirituality, ministry and leadership will change and are the results of the roots and the trunk.
Graham Hunter and Richard Bliese challenge leaders everywhere to contend for healthy roots and those first order identity-suring principles so that amongst the leaves the tree bears there mighty Missional bumper crop!

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A little background reading on the two theological integrities in the Church of England regarding women in ministry.