Trooping the FX Colour

Last week, during the celebrations of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday, my son and I both accidentally watched the Trooping of the Colour on telly. We’d both just sat down for a break from the day’s activities, him in Winchester, me in Lincoln, and surfed until we found something which looked interesting. Steve, who is currently training for ordained pioneer ministry in the C of E, rang me later in the day and we got to reflecting on the event, which neither of us had seen before in all its glory. We got to asking the question, which I’m sure many of my readers must have pondered long and hard themselves,  ‘What would a Fresh Expression of the Trooping of the Colour’ look like?

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My immediate reaction was ‘You’ll be lucky!’ We’ve always done it this way, with its pomp, dressing up in ridiculous uniforms, outdated music, strange jargon, impenetrable hierarchy and unalterable precision. And all that, of course, is exactly what people love, and why the crowds turn out to watch it. It’s what makes people feel ‘proud to be British’, with our history of military domination and imperialism. I simply couldn’t imagine (and to be fair neither could Steve) what a Fresh Expression would look like.

On further reflection, however, one motif from this ceremony really struck me. Many of the people marching around  Horseguards’ Parade had, a few months earlier, been on active service in some of the most troubled parts of our world. The point was made more than once that the skills learned on the parade ground were the same skills which made soldiers so effective, and indeed might even have saved their lives,  on the battlefield. Not of course that they march around the mountains of Afghanistan wearing bright red tunics and playing the tuba, but character attributes like discipline, teamwork, precision, unquestioning obedience, pride in quality and so on are exactly the things which, when learned on the square, can prove so vital in war.

There is a very big question around helping the strange and arcane things we do in the churches of our land on Sunday mornings to be expressed in some fresh ways, and whether that is even possible, given our attraction to ‘the way we’ve always done it’. But I wonder whether there is a prior question. What are we instilling into Christian disciples on a Sunday morning which might quite literally be life-savers when they get onto the battlefield?

Reflections on Discipleship – A Chance to Shine

This morning my son phoned me from the city where he is living whilst training for Ordained Pioneer Ministry. He said that he had discovered many many people who were wanting to donate food and clothes towards the Syrian refugee crisis, but there were no collection points at all in the city. He was spending the day doing the rounds of different church leaders asking if they could use their churches as foci for the goodwill of those people desperate to help.

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I am aware that the crisis is complex and that people disagree about appropriate solutions, but meanwhile refugees are sick, homeless and starving, and a Christ-like response must surely be to do something to help. On the basis that churches are far more likely to grow if they are perceived by the communities in which they are set as ‘useful’, it seems that we have a golden opportunity to do something which benefits the poor and which raises our goodwill in the community. Whether we’re in a tiny village or a town centre, whether we’re catholic, evangelical or whatever, whether we’re large and bustling or small and struggling this is something we can do, and maybe something we can do together as mission communities. But the opportunity won’t be there for ever: we need to mobilise for action as soon as we can.

For further information on setting up a collection point, you might like to try contacting action@calaisaction.com although other organisations such as Oxfam are involved too.

Who is willing to step up to the challenge?

Image: By Voice of America News: Margaret Besheer reports from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli; “Syrian Refugees Seek Out Smugglers”. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Old Folks’ Club’ Part 1

OK, I’ve got my protective headgear on. This one’s going to get me into trouble. I want to have a bit of a rant about the culture of ‘church’ which, I have discovered, is overwhelmingly elderly. My text or icon for this is the word ‘refreshments’. Who under the age of 60 ever uses the word ‘refreshments’? Yet in church it’s a regular part of our vocab, and for me it has become symbolic of the whole way in which the church has an elderly culture and feel.

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‘So what’s so bad about being elderly?’ I hear you cry. Nothing at all. I know we have a cult of youth and beauty in our current Western culture, and I know that we have little respect for the experience and accumulated wisdom of older people. This is tragic. But I think there is all the difference in the world between being ‘old’ and being ‘elderly’. I got my B&Q Diamond card nearly two years ago, but I don’t yet feel anywhere near ready to be elderly. It’s all about mindset, not chronological age. We all know people who are 40 going on 70, and we all know amazing people in their 80s and 90s who listen to Dubstep and are most at home with teenagers. So please don’t read this as a slagging off of senior citizens. But it all becomes a problem when we grieve over the absence of young families and 30-somethings from our churches but continue to invite the congregation for ‘refreshments’ after the service. The whole mindset and culture of the church, or at least my Anglican bit of it, cries out ‘We’re a club for senior citizens!’

So how, apart from the R-word, does this elderly mindset manifest itself? Of course any culture will tend to perpetuate itself as it gathers to it those who feel comfortable with the status quo. But that means that we will have to work extra hard at communicating with a younger age-group. In one church I worked in some years ago we were beginning to engage with modern technology by recording talks and putting them up on the website. One member of staff used to announce regularly that people could listen to the service on cassette or ‘through some new-fangled electronic means which I don’t understand’. However much I tried to tell her that the world was ‘online’, there was a refusal to embrace what was obviously an unfamiliar piece of technology, and instead to turn it into a shared joke for others who weren’t quite up to speed with the 21st century. In fact what this did was to communicate, far more eloquently than any of my sermons ever did, and what it communicated was that we are a church for the elderly and proud of it. And then we wonder why we have no young families. Durr!

It isn’t just about technology: it’s about humour and what we expect people to find funny; it’s about references, or the lack of them, to the current TV programmes, films or chart-topping music; it’s about our social programmes and outings … there are so many manifestations of elderliness. But there is a deeper problem. Elderly culture is perpetuated by elderly people, and who are Anglican churches led by? You’ve got it in one. We have, I believe, two problems which contribute to this issue: we don’t fundamentally believe in having young leaders (I’ll defend this outrageous statement next time), and we have no real culture of retirement. I want to tackle these twin problems in future episodes of this blog, but before I end this one I need to affirm the vitally important role of older people in the life of the church. We all know faithful prayer-warriors, practical servants, wise counsellors and so on who might not be able to get physically to services any more but without whom we would be so much worse off. I’m not advocating a cull at age 50. But I do want to question the I’m sure unthought-out policies which as a church we seem to have fallen into, whilst at the same time bewailing the lack of contact with a whole generation of younger people. More next week, but for now I’m going to crawl into my bunker and hide.

What’s Church For? Luke 10 Church

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at some different models and understandings of church, both biblical and not-quite-so. I haven’t anywhere near finished with church yet, and I’m aiming to get a bit more gritty as we continue this series, but first I thought I might try out on my dear readers a model which is certainly drawn from Scripture, and which I believe ought to capture the essence of what church is for.

I can’t claim this will be a scholarly exegesis of Luke 10, nor am I even sure that what I am about to describe suggests as clear a paradigm as I might wish it would, so I simply want to say that this model is to me a highly suggestive one, which we might do well to think about.

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The story goes that in the previous chapter Jesus has sent out his 12 disciples to drive out demons, heal the sick and preach the kingdom (in that order). Then at the start of Luke 10 he sends out a larger group, of 70 or 72 depending on which manuscripts you read. Again they were to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom, although this time Jesus recognised in his instructions that there might be the possibility of them facing a bit of opposition (was this something he learnt from feedback when the 12 returned? Discuss).

Anyway, and here comes the church model, the 72 return in v 17, obviously delighted at how their deliverance ministry had gone. Jesus seems thrilled too, and in v 21, enabled by the Holy Spirit, he is filled with joy, not, interestingly, because some demons had been kicked out, but because this newly-formed team of beginners had learnt so much from the experience. But in between these two verses Jesus is found giving further teaching to the disciples, both to reassure them about their authority in him, but also to direct their enthusiasm more correctly. The section ends with him again telling his disciples how privileged they are to have been a part of this ministry.

That’s all we get, but bear with me, because it seems to me that this might have been more than a one-off occasion, and if so might provide a radical vision for the nature of church, or at least church services. Just imagine a Sunday morning meeting which looked like this:

Everybody gathers full of the Holy Spirit and joy because of what they have seen God doing through them during the previous week to heal, set free, and give new life. The church leader shares in their enthusiasm, but also gives them a bit more teaching. Then they’re all sent out again to see what God is going to do in the week ahead. The next Sunday they come and celebrate together again, receive more teaching, and so it goes on, as more and more people experience the new life of the kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that most weeks when we gather we haven’t actually seen God do anything, nor, quite honestly, do we have any expectation that he’s going to do very much in the week ahead. So all we have left is ‘church’: the celebration is non-existent, so we just sing hymns and say liturgy; the teaching is pointless so we just listen to platitudes or academic theology, and then we go home to our lunch.

I’m not sure where we break into this cycle, but wouldn’t it be interesting to try?

What’s Church For? Church as Body

So far we’ve been on a very brief and highly selective and impressionistic trip down the last few decades to look at how the church (or at least my bit of it) has changed and developed. Now it’s time to get more biblical, as we look at how the church is described within the NT (mainly). It’s worth noting that there are many different terms used of the gathering of those who are followers of Jesus, and that the Bible contains some which are clear descriptions, and others which are more vague allusions or pictures. So let’s begin with perhaps the clearest – the Church as the Body of Christ. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a church community which thinks of itself in these terms?

 

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The first thing to say is that it is one of the most biblical pictures. In 1 Cor 12, the key passage, Paul states clearly that ‘you are the body of Christ’ (v 27). You can’t get clearer than that! He uses the same language in Rom 12:4-5, and, if you believe he also wrote Ephesians and Colossians, a couple of times there. The idea is that all of us who are in Christ, the head of the body, are bits with different roles to play. As I’ve already mentioned the church rediscovered this notion along with charismatic renewal in the mid-70s, and it really was a liberation from centuries of clericalism and priestly domination. Along with the mood of the times it encouraged people to find their niche and grow to their full potential, and it released into the church an army (see later!) of lay ministries without which we might never have survived. It is an organic model, rather than a mechanistic one (although the NT has those as well), and it emphasises the importance of all, not just a few.

However, as we will see with all the different models, it is not without its problems. Indeed Paul anticipated some of them and addressed them head on in 1 Cor 12. Basically there are two issues: ‘I’m more important than you!’ and ‘You’re more important than me!’ The fact is that as in any area of life some jobs or roles feel more important than others. However much you big up the deputy washer of the church tea-towels, the worship-leader or preacher seems to be far more important. Paul addresses this too, illustrating his words with some different bits of the human body, some of which, vital though they may be, are usually less visible! To cultivate a culture where everyone is equally valued is nevertheless not an easy thing to do, and this may be where some other models become more helpful.

The other great weakness of the ‘body’ model, though, is that it tells us little about what the body is there to do. Churches which major on this model in their self-identification may find that it doesn’t help them to be purposeful, and whilst it does have a growth imperative, that growth is only in the direction of personal and corporate maturity, and not necessarily in size. A human body which started growing new members, an extra leg or two or a few more fingers, would be a grotesque thing indeed. It does not take seriously the Lord who adds to our number: it seems to be merely about how to make a self-sufficient closed system work better.

That’s why we need all the different biblical models, and not just one. Next week – Church as Qahal and Ekklesia (bet you can’t wait!)

 

OT Lectionary 2nd Feb Candlemas Malachi 3:1-5

As is so often the case, we have to read back a little way in order to understand this passage in its own context. In fact a new section begins in 2:17 with the prophet telling the people that they have worn God out with their complaining. Apparently the idea was gaining currency that because they couldn’t see bad people getting the comeuppance they deserved, God must be approving what they were doing. They looked for a God of justice, a God who would punish evil and reward goodness, but instead all they found was a God who let nasty people get away with it. So we hear again the eternal question ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’

When someone says something about us which is just so blatantly untrue and unfair, we can’t help but respond to put them right. That’s exactly what the prophet does in God’s name. He will indeed do something. After an introductory herald, the Lord will appear in his Temple. The word ‘suddenly’ contains a hidden sense of threat, as though God is going to catch out the wicked red-handed, with their smoking guns.

 

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The picture then changes to two related images: that of a refiner of metal, and a launderer. The idea in both is of getting rid of impurities, either by burning them away or washing them clean. But interestingly it is not the ‘wicked’ who are to be subjected to a good scrubbing or burning, but the Levites, the religious leaders who ought to have known better. In fact their corrupt lifestyle has meant that the sacrifices of the people have not been acceptable to God. But after they have been refined the Levites will be able, as in the past, to offer acceptable sacrifices. So what have they been up to? The list in v 5 seems pretty unbecoming at the least for religious leaders, but of course sounds remarkably up-to-date.

So what are we to make of this passage? It is difficult to see a single fulfilment for it. The lectionary’s use of it for Candlemas, when Jesus is presented in the Temple and meets Anna and Simeon seems only marginally appropriate: although Simeon could prophetically spot the coming judgement, the violence of the Malachi passage seems far from a small helpless baby. The reference to ‘my messenger’ (Hebrew ‘malachi’), along with the message of judgement, suggests much more John the Baptist followed by the cleansing of the Temple (early as in John’s gospel rather than the Synoptics’ Holy Week), although none of the gospels pick up Malachi as an OT reference.

So maybe this passage, rather than being a ‘prophecy’ about John and Jesus, provides us with a warning never to attribute to God characteristics which fly in the face of all we know about him really, and never to allow our standards of behaviour to fall below what would be pleasing to him. This is a call to holy thinking and holy living, and a promise of refinement and cleansing for those who seek it.

OT Lectionary Christmas 1 Isaiah 63:7-9

One of the things about the Anglican lectionary with which some people feel really unhappy is the practice of ‘filleting’ or cutting out verses or paragraphs, usually because they are not ‘nice’. The church has an amazing ability to want to make everything lovely, so verses about dashing children’s heads against the rocks aren’t quite the sort of thing we want to read during Evensong. Christmas is a great time for this, being the time of ‘peace on earth, goodwill towards men’ (or, as the text actually says, ‘goodwill to those on whom God’s favour rests’, which is a very different thing.

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Today’s OT reading is a song of praise to God for all his goodness to Israel, for his kindness in choosing them and saving them. He has recognised in them a people who will be faithful to him, and he has been good to them through good times and bad. When things went badly for them, he felt their distress and acted in their favour. He truly is a great God to them. It doesn’t take much to see why this passage in chosen in the aftermath of Christmas, when we celebrate again the kindness of the God who has felt our distress, chosen to step into our world and save us, acted for our salvation, and invited us into relationship with him. But then the compliers of the lectionary, in their wisdom, stop there, rather than going on to verse 10:

Yet they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
    and he himself fought against them.

It seems to me that this is one of the central dilemmas of preaching and living the Christian faith: we do try to make it a lot nicer than it actually is. Today in my cathedral (well not mine, just the one I go to) they will be celebrating the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170). Yesterday was the celebration of the Holy Innocents, the ‘collateral damage’ children slaughtered by Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. I have rarely found churches who did anything about this festival: after all it kind of spoils the mood of Christmas a bit, doesn’t it?

But the truth of today’s passage is a truth which runs deeply through the biblical record at all levels: God’s kindness demands a response. The reason there is still not peace on earth or goodwill to all is that human beings have chosen war and cruelty instead. God can be kind to us until he is blue in the face but unless we respond positively to him it will be worth nothing. And perhaps we need to hear that particularly during the time of greatest sentimentality, and resist the temptation to make the good news nicer than it actually is, or God kinder than he actually it.