For now

29 06 2010

I’ve decided to pause on the blogging till after the summer. Partly, because I’ve got a very hectic summer coming up; I’m working in Ghana, taking a wedding in Ireland, speaking at Greenbelt and moving house!!! But also because I have so much going on in my head that I’m struggling to crystallise it in written form (a common problem for a dyslexic!). So I’ve decided to give myself July and August off and return in September.

Have a good summer!

To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity…. not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide.

From Rilke, Rainer Maria and Herter Norton M.D. (trs) (1954) Letters to a Young Poet





Jesus The Good Man and Christ The Scoundrel

23 04 2010

I’ve just finished reading Pullman’s latest book. Let me say from the outset – it is brilliant! Kester Brewin gave it a review here and I agree with much of what he said and won’t repeat on this blog.

It reads like the good news bible which makes it easy to get thru (I read it in two days which isn’t bad for a dyslexic!) and works brilliantly for this genre. The story is a retelling of the Gospels but with a slight twist – Mary had twins. One called Jesus the other called Christ. Like the Gospels, its brilliance lies in what is unsaid but leaves the reader license to play. So for instance, you are never quite sure if the Immaculate Conception is just that, or whether a cheeky young man has manipulated an innocent Mary into bed! The temptation and Gethsemane scenes are also brilliantly written and imagined.

Pullman is trying to show the reader how truth can be manipulated into myth and has a lot to contribute to the Historical Jesus debate. However, I doubt (sadly) that many scholars will take him seriously just because he’s not in the club!

One interesting point amongst many: the story is held together by a stranger whose name and origin are unknown. Again the reader is left to draw her own conclusions. The stranger takes the role of the redactive process; dictating (or rather manipulating) how the story is to be told and what ought to be missed out. For me, the stranger was both the strength and the weakness of the story. It showed, with almost terrifying clarity, how the story has and can be manipulated by those who have a vested interest in the narrative. (Ironically Pullman has done just the same for his own purposes!). But I would have liked to have seen what happens when more than one interpretive community gets hold of the story. I don’t doubt for one moment that the church has held the keys to scriptural interpretation. But I also suspect that the stories were told in small communities, possibly independently at first, like gossip circles. So whereas Pullman has the story recorded ‘as it happens’ in journalistic mode; I am just as convinced that the story was mythologised through oral tradition and communication. Each village, community, group used their own interpretative framework to hear and articulate the story. Choosing what to embellish, add, and miss out. It would have been good if Pullman had told the story of how the story was told and retold as well as how it was constructed. But I suspect that wasn’t in his brief. Or is it the sequel?

Whatever you think of the bible- its well worth a read and should leave the reader with questions reverberating long after the final page is turned.





Chasing Francis [Part 6]: Meaning

15 04 2010

This is the last post on Cron (for now!). It’s taken a while but I’m getting there

Cron’s final theme is meaning. I have no better words than the ones he uses

My Uncle Kenny made me read an author named Wendell Berry. Here’s what he says:’The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined bu our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.’ For years I thought of the Bible not as a story but as a black-and-white photograph, something you could use in a court of law to prove that our doctrines and propositions were rational and true. … Now I see the Story more like a painting filled with glory, poetry and even blurry lines…. open to a wide variety of interpretation, depending on who’s looking… and the situation those viewers live in. Seeing the bible this way could lead to things getting messy from time to time – but the Word is living, not static. Our job is to invite people to inhabit our story, to be part of what God’s doing in history. And we don’t need to feel constant pressure to defend it against its critics.

I know that Cron is concentrating mainly on the biblical story, but I love the sense of narrative; that each of us participates in a story that is bigger than our own. My own experience is that my sense of identity develops when I come to appreciate more fully a larger picture (Karl Marx (if I understand him right) recognised that the proletariat were exploited when they were seen as cogs in a machine rather than given an appreciation of a larger machine. It was this lack of narrative that dehumanised the working class)

I’ve set myself a target  – my job, for 12 months, is to discern and articulate the narrative of Hanley. I will know when my discernment is coming close to reality when it begins to resonate with those from Hanley to whom I articulate it. (this, for those who like such things, is a primary condition within ethnography).

Enough blogging about Cron – it’s time for me to get on living those things I found transformational within it. Anyone up for the journey?





Chasing Francis [Part 5]: Dignity

14 04 2010

Sorry for not blogging for a while. I’ve been away for a week and have only just got back.

Anyway – I continue with Cron’s book Chasing Francis.

When I was in South Africa I learnt two new words. The first was Ubuntu. It’s a difficult word to define in English. It means something like humaness. It’s the art of being able to live on the earth fully human in partnership with creation (as opposed to lording over it).

Another word closely related to Ubuntu is Istunzi. It literally means shadow. However, if you said that a man or woman ‘walked with their Istunzi’ it meant they had dignity. I love that idea. The idea that my shadow , my visible presence, my mark on creation, my Istunzi – is my dignity.

I also love the idea that my dignity is directly related to my humaness. It seems that ancient tribes of Africa understood only too well what it was to be human – an understanding I suspect we forget all too readily in our post modern world.

Dignity is the fourth theme that Cron identifies as a principle for the emerging church. He asks the question ‘how do we give dignity back to others?’ he suggests that the messy business of loving people for who they are rather than for what they might become is a good start. He also makes it clear that this isn’t simply hospitality. This is radical hospitality amongst people who are very different to us.

I was chatting to Anthony, a homeless guy in Hanley, recently. He said to me ‘the one thing I hate the most, the thing that really pisses me off … Is when people don’t even look at you!’ then, almost under his breath, he said, ‘especially when I can’t look at myself’.

My heart bled.

One last thing – Cron reminds us that we also have a responsibilty to give dignity back to creation.

This is one way that I have tried – I have got rid of my car! I gave it up for lent and have decided to try for the whole year (I’ll blog more about it later). I know it’s not much and I know it won’t change the world; but it’s an attempt to become the change I long for the world.

So what does dignity for individuals and creation look like in Hanley? Do people already walk with their shadow or is their a role for me to help them restore their Istunzi? What is Ubuntu in Hanley?





Chasing Francis [Part 4]: Beauty

2 04 2010

I love walking! I remember walking in Snowdonia when, walking round llyn gwynant, I saw a full rainbow span the lake. I looked round the Lake and couldn’t see anyone else (it was chucking it down so nobody else would be mad enough to be there) and suddenly realised that I may have been the only person in the world that saw that rainbow. It was as if it was mine, painted for me.

Cron’s third principle to guide an emerging church is beauty.

I wish I knew more about the arts … but I do know this: Beauty can break a heart and make it think about something more spiritual than the mindless routine we go through day after day to get by. (Cron pg 198)

I too wish I knew more about the arts. I am the least arty person I know. The closest I get to art is writing sermons and doing theology. However, I do know that lot’s of folk who are capable of the arts often struggle in the church. Church does not easily offer space to express yourself (unless you are the preacher) and yet faith, as I have said before, is of the heart and the mind. Somehow, we have to find ways of allowing others to express their faith, their sense of otherness, their alterity.

But more than that, I need to seek out beauty. I need to go to art galleries, museums, watch films and theatre, go and see shows I’d never normally watch, walk mountains, find quaint villages, and walk canals.

But more than that, I need to find ways to express myself.

But more than that, I need to seek beauty, not just in the galleries and the fields, but in the places that I’d least expect to find it.

What does Beauty look like in Hanley? And for the folk of Hanley? How do I help the folk of Hanley express themselves?

You can make art about the Light, or you can make art that shows what the Light reveals about the world. I think the latter is what we want to do. In a fallen world beauty is a form of protest, a way to push back the darkness. (Cron pg 198ff)





Chasing Francis [Part 3]: Community

31 03 2010

The second principle Cron holds before us for an emerging church is community. And here, I think, I’m struggling. It’s not so much that I don’t understand it … it’s more that I can’t do it – or at least it costs me so much to do it properly. I have often preached at baptisms of children whose families barely darken the door of a church. It is a difficult context. Do you offer something that will attract them to come again? Or do you offer something that will feed the regular worshippers and reassure the baptism party of all their prejudices? (I know that the dynamics are far more complicated, but you get my jist). I usually end up saying something like this

If you are searching for a way through life, money problems, relationship problems, lack of self confidence, worry about kids, stress at work – anything that makes life a long, hard haul rather than a Fabreze advert. Then come and journey with us. We too are trying to figure out the best way to live, we too are struggling through life (desperately trying to move from survival to living) and we too are engaged in the messy business of being.

It never works. They see through it straight away. I think they know that if they came to church and proclaimed their stuff (‘me and the wife had an argument yesterday because she caught me looking at porn!’ – kind of stuff) then the church would blush, then get very defensive (or offensive – attack is always the best form of defence), then begin to quote scripture (or something like that!). I once heard a minister recounting a session she had led with other women on faith development. As she turned to write something on the whiteboard, she heard a woman say ‘the problem is, there just isn’t any love in the Church’. She said that she felt her heart had just been crushed.

Cron wants us to consider other aspects of kingdom community. He suggests that we are peacemakers and that we reject any notion of just war theory. He wants us to be very wary of the money we have and to ask ourselves if we buy into the ‘I shop therefore I am’ philosophy. I was a t a conference recently where Bishop Graham Cray suggested that if the church doesn’t make disciples then the world will through consumerism. We were all nodding in a kind of ‘he’s-right-thank-God-I’m-different’ kind of way. He then said ‘let he or she who hasn’t bought themselves something to make themselves feel better cast the first stone’. I felt like I’d just being caught lying by my dad! Cron goes onto ask if we can live radically generous lives. To give away all we can both in physical and personal resource. To give to others in such a way that it is clearly a radical alternative to the predominant way of living.

I know this stuff. I want to belong to a radically generous, peacemaking, journeying community. A group of people that can be so honest with one another and love one another into being. A community that loves people for who they are rather than for what they might be But I can’t! Why? My theology gets in the way, my ethics get in the way, my own fragile self gets in the way.

But that’s no reason for me to stop trying or longing for it. There are Christian communities out there that live such radical lives, and I yearn to be part of one in Hanley. Whether I pioneer it or find it already nestled in the mud and thorns of life.

So I keep journeying … always attentive … finding others who are travelling in a similar direction.





Chasing Francis [Part 2]: Transcendence

30 03 2010

In a previous church I began to create Labyrinth’s in the worship space during Advent and Lent. After the first attempt a few others joined in and eventually a team of us became quite good at creating God-Space. The labyrinths weren’t brilliant (you wouldn’t take them on tour!) and they weren’t new (about 1500 years or so too late!) but they were effective. Those who journeyed the Labyrinth were moved, some quite visibly, and many had to journey towards difficult territories of the heart and mind as well as deal with inhibitions and a fear of the new and strange. My purpose, I thought then, was to enable people to travel further into the heart of God and to meet him in a place that was closer to their hearts than their minds. Reflecting on it now, I think I still payed homage to the God of Church growth! I did want people to experience something revelationary, but I also longed for people outside the church to start coming to church because of it.

In Cron’s Chasing Francis, the first of five principles he identifies in an emerging church is Transcendence. It seems to me that the Protestant Church needs to rediscover this facet of spiritual life a little more intentionally. Cron makes a case that we will not convince people’s minds of God, but there is a chance to persuade people’s hearts. We do that by creating Space for encounter. Space for Otherness (Elaine Graham calls it Alterity in Transforming Practice). At a recent conference I heard Rowan Williams speak of the need to enable others to enter into the space that God creates.

I knew this way back when I was learning the art of Labyrinth. But somehow it had moved into the back of the church growth cupboard. I’m a theologian at heart – I love to deal with God in my cranium and hope that he trickles through my soul. I don’t want to lose my ability to reason and think theologically, but nor do I want to think my heart out of existence. I need to find a way to compliment both my head and my heart.

As Cleopas and the unnamed one walked to Emmaus, they found themselves in the company of an Other. The Other explained to them the scriptures and later they reflected that their hearts ‘were set ablaze’. Head and Heart – someone capable of reason and yet attentive to the Spirit – a Reasonable Charismatic!

Another challenge I face, in pioneer ministry, is how do I create moments of encounter and alterity for those who have yet to discover the riches of the Christian tradition and narrative? John Wesley claimed that Holy Communion (The Eucharist) was a converting ordinance … but somehow I can’t see that being entirely relevant in Hanley. Or at least I would have to do a lot of creative thinking to help it be.

Chase, the minister in Cron’s story says

To create faith producing moments, we need to reacquire some of the practices and attitudes Francis did. We also need to learn from other Christian traditions that emphasize different ways of encountering God, and integrate the best of their practice into the life of our church. No, we’re not going to abandon theology …. but the days when we could rely only on rational argument as the entry point to a relationship with God are fading fast





Chasing Francis [part 1]: A personal response

30 03 2010

I have finally finished reading Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis (Navpress 2006) (ISBN 13:978-1-57683-812-9).

This is my story: I was at a Fresh Expression Conference in Lincoln. In Archbishop Rowan Williams’ speech he mentioned the book by Cron. At first I thought he had said Crom so I came away from the conference searching frantically for a book by Crom about St Francis. Eventually, (after about a week) I discovered my error and found the right book on Amazon. By now, there was something deep within me that yearned for this book that I couldn’t find; my joy at discovering the book is ludicrously indescribable! It was as if I knew that it would be a major building brick in my continual formation. I ordered the book from one of the Amazon suppliers only to be sent an email 2 days later telling me they were out of stock (why do they put it on Amazon??!!). I re-ordered from another supplier only to be told the same thing (this time a week later); eventually I found a stockist and within 2 days received the coveted book!

As I read, it immediately had an impact on me. It is a novel about a young minister (39) who had a crisis of faith. It wasn’t the fact that he stopped believing in God, it was more that the Jesus he thought he believed in was beginning to unravel. He had a growing sense that there must be more to this faith business than what he was currently experiencing. In the end the minister broke down in front of a packed church and declared his faith-less faith. He then, through a complicated twist of events, ended up spending time in Italy with Franciscan Monks retracing the steps of St Francis of Assisi. By the end of the book he identifies 5 principles he wants to see within a church transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, and meaning.

The beginning of the story so mirrored my own that at times it began to scare me! But, I will always remember this book for reminding me why I got into this Church thing in the beginning. I learnt a lot about St Francis, but I didn’t really learn anything new about what I believed about Jesus, faith, and church. Rather, I rediscovered something of the beauty and wonder of faith that somehow got lost in institutional church. I reclaimed for myself the Jesus that I came to know so many years ago and ditched the one that the church had coerced me into adopting. When I say the church I mean those in local churches who, with my help, managed to get lost in an internal logic that turned Jesus into some kind of egotistical, worship needing deity and the church into a group of people who loved property, increasing, worship fuelled adrenaline rushes, and winning tickets into heaven.

For those struggling to find home in the church and desperately trying to hang onto a faith perspective framed by the character of Jesus of Nazareth – this is well worth a read. It would have been easy for Chase (the main character and minister in the book) to take one of two options; to abandon the idea of a deity and the narrative of Jesus or to carry on believing the same story he and the church had been peddling for years. Instead, he took the brave (and most difficult) decision – to rediscover Jesus in a new context in the light of experience. In doing so he has to unlearn that which he took for granted; he has to challenge his own assumptions, prejudice, motive and desire; and he has to get his hands dirty as he (Re)discovers that being a disciple of Jesus can only be learnt on the job.

As you can see – I’m a bit of a fan! And this is not the most critical of reviews; but I wanted to lay a bit of a path so that I could spend some time blogging on each of the 5 principles that Cron outlines.

You can read the series of reviews here:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6





Divine Imagination

14 03 2010

If you click on the re-imagining the church link above you can see a paper I gave at the Chester and Stoke Methodist District Synod last year. The paper was offered as an attempt to begin to think more theologically about the ‘mapping the way forward – regrouping for mission’ process within our district. For those not in the know – mapping the way forward is a course of action that the Methodist Church has being on for some time now. It is primarily about restructuring the church in order to make it more efficient and effective in mission and over the last year the emphasis has moved away from mapping and towards mission. However, there is, in my experience, a lot of resistance. The process demands circuits and churches to ask questions of themselves about their ability and capacity for mission. This obviously raises some concerns and even doubts for loyal members of local churches. Instead of embracing a bold new future, they would rather sit out the present (even if it is a death fulfilling present). This paper was an attempt to encourage others that God has not finished with us yet! Or as one fine writer once put it

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.








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