Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kate Bottley flashmob wedding is 100% good news

First things first. If you have spent the last 48 hours on Mars, or not on Twitter, watch it now:



Kate posted links to this yesterday and I think she was beginning to wonder if anyone was interested. She need not have. Today the internet has gone bonkers over it, in its usual frenzied way and she is the news-worthy vicar of the week, which is a good result in itself, keeping the usual embezzlers and philanderers out of the press, and giving the church a rare good news story on the clergy front.

Inevitably, then, the backlash has followed, with various individuals lining up to ping epithets like "irreverent" at her, and explaining how they like a good laugh as much as the next man but apparently not within 10 miles of a church, since this is "not an appropriate moment in the liturgy" and other such important-sounding things. Tomorrow there will be a rash of newspaper columns shouting about it and telling us that this is why the Church of England is doomed. Apparently someone has even told Mrs B that this proves that women should never become bishops (presumably because there would be too much danger of having fun).

Always Hope wants everyone to know, then, that there is nothing bad here, and a battery of things that are good, nay brilliant.  To begin: this is completely appropriate to the liturgy. What better point in the service to do this than the one where the congregation inevitably start cheering and the groom already expects a quick snog, as we see here? A bit of choreographed waving and wiggling is hardly going to detract any further from the dignity of the moment. And in case the critics (mostly clergy, who perhaps ban kissing in their services too) hadn't noticed, the liturgy is a celebration of love, human as well as divine, the clue being in the word "celebration".

And that is the crux here. People go to weddings to have fun and celebrate the two principals. Most have no great affection for the religious bit, and churchpeople who insist on turning it into a po-faced ritual which apparently has nothing to do with the rest of the day are only making it worse. The average wedding guest endures the service in the hope that it will be over quickly so the good bit can start, and so is deprived of the chance of celebrating the third person in the contract -  God. (Who, we can assume, is not as easily offended as some of his servants).

What Kate has done here is to give a couple back some ownership of their wedding from a church that has been used to telling people what they want. It worked a hundred, maybe even thirty years ago, but not any more. She's made herself, and the Church of England a tiny bit less irrelevant. Read Andrew Brown today. And she has also sent away a whole crowd of people thinking that the God bit might be worth listening to after all. Read the Richardson's comment underneath their YouTube video: "a fantastic vicar, church and congregation, and a bit of faith!".

That's what mission looks like in unchurched Britain today. Well done Kate.

I just hope nobody ever asks me do this.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Church for the world - 1

The way I'm thinking about church was clarified in an instant this Sunday, in the unlikely setting of an 8.00 am BCP service.  Or perhaps not so unlikely, because unlike some clergy, I find the communion service of 1662 to be a liturgy that powerfully expresses the liberality of the gospel, built as it is around the explosive declaration that "God so loved the world".  God didn't just love the 5 of us who did him a favour by turning up to the service, but the whole world, even the ones who don't seem that bothered about him.

This was brought home to me by the Gospel reading (completely different to the one that non-17th century congregations were reading): 

Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?  And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
(sensible version here)

Would a shepherd really leave ninety-nine sheep to their own devices in order to go after just one? This shepherd would. The God that Jesus reveals to us is a restlessly questing one, who loves with a passion that will not be quenched until the last sheep comes home.

Of course, if the shepherd had consulted with his churchwardens first, he would never have got out of the fold.

That is horribly unfair to many churchwardens, but as a general point it is sadly true. Many congregations have very little interest in the sheep outside their own little fold, and actively resent the time "their" clergy spend on community work, visiting non-church members, and evangelism.  The irony that in the modern Church of England there is only one sheep left, and it's the ninety-nine who have done a bunk, is lost on these myopic Christians who would rather we spent our final days as a denomination looking after the tiny minority who are "in", and leaving the rest outside.

Sunday by Sunday we worship a God who is totally unrecognisable in a church that exists only for itself.  If there is any future for us, it's time to reconnect with the Shepherd who leaves us behind and goes out to those who aren't tucked up in the cosy building where he keeps the sheep.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Part time clergy short of cash shock

Reverend Martyn Pinnock has taken a job as a Sainsbury's delivery driver because he is short of cash



A vicar in Cornwall has taken up driving for Sainsbury's delivery service. [warning to readers of a delicate constitution: links to Daily Mail website]. Of course the idea of the worker priest, or minister in secular employment, is a well-established and noble one. We've long benefited from the ministry of priests who earn their living in other jobs, taking their vocation to work, and bringing back their multi-faceted experience to the Lord's Table. What sets the Revd Martyn Pinnock aside is that he offers a less theologically nuanced reason for his new job, ie. he needs the cash. In fact he is not officially a Minister in Secular Employment at all, because he is a stipendiary priest, paid by the church. Or, to be precise, half-stipendiary.

This isn't a criticism of my old diocese, Truro. Or at least, not a criticism of Truro in particular. But without a doubt, there will be people around in Mr Pinnock's parish and his diocese who will frown on this as an inappropriate and selfish move by a man who, in their eyes, ought to be devoting himself to the work of the church. Whereas the correct response should be simply to note that, as a staff worker effectively employed for 50% of full-time, what he does with the other half of his work hours is entirely his business.

And could we blame him? The Mail's given explanation for his employment move is that he was recently divorced and needed the money for legal fees. But probably a more direct explanation is that a half stipend is about £12,000 a year. As we noted already, he needed the cash. Given his circumstances, it's very unlikely that he took a half-stipendiary post by choice, but because there was no realistic chance of getting a full-time one.

And there's the thing which should give pause for thought for anyone interested in the future of ordained ministry. Over the years Dioceses have elevated to a virtue the pursuit of knocking money off the bill for clergy pay. The latest of a long list of cunning plans is the half-stipendiary appointment. Diocesan leaderships like it because it helps them eke out the meagre number of clergy posts they allow themselves, and because it is nice and cheap, especially if by some alchemy they can persuade the priest that being paid half a stipend means working two-thirds of the time. And in reality, many part-time paid priests put in the extra hours out of their own time, because that's the kind of people they are, and because congregations, who have often been used to having a full-timer, have not scaled down their expectations. So everybody's happy.

Except, as it turns out, the priest. It's quite easy for a hypothetical Archdeacon in a hypothetical diocese somewhere to convince himself that because he gets applicants for the half-time posts he creates, that there are lots of clergy who really want to work for half pay. This enables Archdeacons to sleep at night but isn't a rigorous analysis of the situation. Of course there are some ministers whose circumstances mean that a part-time appointment suits them better (assuming they are able to manage their boundaries strictly) but there are many others like Mr Pinnock, who would like a full-time post but can't get one.

This is serious because it begs the question of what we as a church want from our ministers. I imagine that most churches would like to think that their parish priest is wholeheartedly devoted to their work, energised by a call from Christ and a desire to serve. And clearly this is what any Bishop would hope for the clergy in their diocese too. On the other hand, if you offered them a priest who was disgruntled about being forced into an appointment they didn't really want or exhausted from holding down two jobs to make ends meet, they probably wouldn't be too keen. But this is the path that "part-stipendiary" is taking us down now. It's not an attractive prospect, leaving parishes ill-served and opening us up to the charge of exploiting our staff. Dioceses need a serious think about whether cheaper appointments are always the best ones, and how we manage the demands on priests in part-time appointments.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

We sometimes think of the Christmas story as being tinged with stardust and a little magic, especially late on Christmas Day when the memory has been blended with Doctor Who and the Strictly Christmas special. And yes, there are angels and glory and and a star in the East. But the event itself is uncompromisingly ordinary. The blood and pain of childbirth, the everyday miracle of a baby's first breath, a young mum making the best of what she had in difficult circumstances.

And it is the wrapping of the Incarnation in ordinariness that makes it such a powerful challenge to the materialistic view of life. We are told that life goes on, day by day, following rules that cannot be broken. There are high points along the way, like our annual winter celebration that lifts the spirits, but they are just variations in the pattern. There is no escape from our journey from birth to death, and the stern humanists are waiting to whip us back into line if we try to lift our eyes away from that road.  And so we live our ordinary lives - we eat, sleep, shop. We laugh and love, we cry and die.

How curious then, that the miracle takes place in the midst of all that. Not in a different world, but in our world, that we were told had nothing else to it. If this was a fantasy it would not be told this way. It is too plain, too commonplace. If we didn't read the rest of Luke's book, we would think that nothing happened at all.

The early church who placed Christmas at the same time as the ancient midwinter feasts did the right thing (although possibly for the wrong reasons). Christmas belongs right in the middle of the shopping, the parties, the family fun and feuds.  Because the Nativity shows us that God is not afraid to get dirty. He cannot be kept sealed up in a precious heavenly dimension, even if we want him to. Our ordinary, messy and very human lives are where we meet God, just as much as in any sacred space. And in those ordinary lives we find him at work, and we find it's all right to be ordinary, because that is not all there is, after all.

God is with us. It's more than a promise, because he is.

Happy Christmas.



Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve



O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

These words will be sung by thousands tonight, and regarded by most of them as harmless sentimentality, which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on your point of view.  But I've always found it the most profound and challenging of Christmas Carols.

I've noted this year, having more time for observation than I used to, the controversies stirred up in the media by opponents and defenders of religion. The Advent season brings Richard Dawkins out of the woodwork as reliably as daybreak makes the birds sing, and everybody else joins in the fun. Media pundits queue up to offer their views on the state of the Christian religion, the Church of England, and the future of Christmas itself, and meanwhile the churches engage in an advertising blitz to rival the apparently secular one which calls us to the shopping centres every December day.

It isn't surprising that Christmas stirs such strong passions when we remember what is at stake. Christmas and Easter, the two great celebrations, show up, like nothing else, the huge gap between the Christian view of the world and the atheistic, purely material one.  Many of us sense this, and value the annual trip to church not just for childish reasons, but because it puts in touch with something deeper, something which goes beyond the world we can touch and see.  But few realise just how deep, and how far beyond.

As we sing the words of the carol, it tells us that there was a moment in space and time when the whole of human history turned on its axis. The destiny of each and every one of us, a mystery which even the greatest minds could not solve, was written for all to see in stars and song and the moment of childbirth at Bethlehem. We are not just here for a time before we dissolve again into nothing. The moment we live in is not the only reality.  Christmas changes everything, heart and soul, life and death and everything in between. "Heaven touches earth", in the words of the prayer. And at the moment it touches, Jesus is here, Do we dare to believe that as we sing, and allow the one who is from heaven to reach out to us tonight?


Picture by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic from Cagua, Venezuela (Sirius) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, December 10, 2012

Student Christian Unions & women in ministry

In another century, many years ago (let's just say "20 or more"), I was young, confident, and impetuous. Like so many young people in any age, I wanted to change the world and I was sure I knew how to do it. I had drifted into a place at Bristol University without much idea of what to do with life. But the summer before, I had, as we used to say, "made a commitment" at a youth camp. I decided that I was going to be a Christian. When I arrived at Bristol, confronted at once with the full range of excitements and opportunities that University life offers, it dawned on me that this decision was going to have implications.  Gradually during my first year, something that had previously compelled me intellectually began to convict me at a more visceral level: following Christ was something to be done 100%, or not at all.  I threw myself into all things Christian, did my best to live out my faith in practice, and in the process became more and more involved in the evangelical scene at Bristol. Gradually, I suppose, this made an impact on those around me. What the impact was in some cases I shudder to think, but one effect was, that half way through my second year I was amazed to be asked to become the president of Bristol University Christian Union.

Some might be surprised to hear this, but know that it's not my intention to somehow recant of this phase of my past. Unlike some, after 20 or more years I'm not a "post" evangelical, but still just plain evangelical. I value my spiritual roots and wouldn't exchange my CU experience for anything, because of what I learned and the foundation it gave me for all that came after. But still, there are so many things I wish I knew then, that I know now. All this was brought back to me forcefully last week, when I read about BUCU and their decision (possibly since rescinded) to "ban" women from speaking at their meetings.  I've no intention of defending that policy, which I think was wrong both in principle and on its own terms. In fact, that was one of the mistakes I didn't make during my year in the hotseat. But I did feel deeply for the young man who is the current occupant of that chair. 

Did I mention that I was young, confident, and impetuous? I was twenty years old. I've never been more confident in my own abilities than when I was twenty. I could do anything (in my own opinion). I wasn't arrogant, I just didn't know better, because I had no idea of the huge range of human experience, of success and failure, of the complex interplay of hope and disappointment, of the multiple ways we react to each other and indeed, to God. I was young, confident, and impetuous, and I think I was fairly typical of the twenty-year old human, a combination which is both exhilarating and profoundly dangerous.  Young people really can change the world, but they can also make a huge mess along the way. At this point in my life I was given the leadership of an organisation that encompassed an extraordinary range of views within its membership, which was under pressure from a huge number of external vested interests, and which represented evangelical Christianity in one of the UK's largest Universities.

The conclusion of this should be fairly obvious, but it's one that has escaped the multitude of commentators who have rushed to hit the keyboards this week.  But before we get there, there are a couple of observations that will suffice as my two-penn'orth on the subject:

1. is that it is much more likely that a CU would adopt a "no women teaching" policy now than it was 20 or more years ago.  At that time, CUs could still make some sort of claim to be what they say they are, ie. a union of all kinds of Christians who signed up to the basis of faith. In my time at Bristol, solemn and sound Baptists rubbed shoulders with frothy house-churchers and tidy Anglicans. What might appear narrow from the outside housed a range of opinions which the Church of England itself could hardly match. We invited all kinds of speakers, including women, and nobody flounced out because they were the wrong gender, or the wrong anything else. It worked, somehow. But in the intervening years, British evangelicalism has fractured like thin ice into myriad groups, factions and movements. One of the results is that there are alternatives (some would say rivals) to UCCF (the parent group of CUs) on University campuses now. This means that the Uni CU is now more likely to be a gathering of those from conservative churches than it used to be. Not certain to be, but more likely.

2. is that much of the criticism aimed at BUCU last week was wide of the mark, because it assumed that the CU leadership somehow acted in isolation. Of course, as was pointed out, individual CUs are independent and make their own decisions. But however young, confident, and impetuous CU leaders are, they aren't really operating in a bubble. They all belong to local churches, where their values and understanding of their faith are formed. And their position brings them into contact with all kinds of people with strong opinions on what they should be doing. My time at BUCU was punctuated by constant advice, some of it benevolent, some of it less so.

3. Painful though it is to say, UCCF must think about its role in all of this. It's really not enough to say that they have no control, and there's nothing they can do about it.  This is not the first time a CU has thought of taking this line, and it won't be the last.  At the very least, some sort of advice about dealing with these difficult issues should have been in place. What does an advisory group do if it can't advise that a story like this would light up the national media? In any case, the time-honoured line of "they sign the doctrinal basis, and after that it's up to them" was looking less like a policy, and more like an excuse last week.  UCCF's line has always been that CUs are all about mission, and everything else is secondary and should be left aside. If that means anything, it means they should coach CU's to avoid controversy and stay in the mainstream.

It's been strange to reflect on this from opposite ends of a 20 or more year gap.  I'm not young any more. You might think I'm confident and impetuous, but you should have seen me then.  I've learned a bit more about people, about myself, and about God. There's still a load of things I wish I knew, but I don't know what they are yet. But one thing I do know is that sometimes it's better to show a bit of tolerance than to rush to judgement. And if you think I'm soft for letting young people off the hook, then I've got good reason. One of them is me, 20 or more years ago.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Synod is broke - disagree if you dare

Yesterday's vote in General Synod, which kicks the possibility of women becoming bishops into the long grass again, was the wrong decision. Not because it is right to have women at all levels in the church (although I personally believe that it is). But because the final decision does not reflect the intention of the church. As Tim Hind wrote in the run-up (I think in a national newspaper), the people of the churches are expecting to have women as bishops and expecting that soon. That expectation was based on a long and careful process that has clearly demonstrated that the Church of England is ready for this. What we saw yesterday was a failure on the part of General Synod, a catastrophic failure of process and of the body itself.

Synod is not, as many commentators are saying, the Church of England. (As in "Church of England rejects women bishops"). The Church of England is where I was last night, with a group of baffled women and men who worship in their local churches week by week, who work tirelessly to serve their communities in the name of Christ, and who see no connection between their lives and what happens in the Synod chamber. The Church of England has been saddled with a governing body which has only a tenuous connection with the body of the Church itself.

The synodical system was born in 1970, a product of the same post-war bureaucratic impulse which gave us Ted Heath's restructuring of local government and a whole culture of little committees and procedural rectitude throughout the nation's life. Business has long since moved on from this, the public sector is moving, but the Church remains wedded to it. Our system of governance is locked down by statutes, procedural rules, and glacial ponderings in interminable committees. General Synod yesterday epitomised this, as 7 hours of debate produced over a hundred speeches, largely saying what had already been said before, ending in an arcane vote which left us exactly where we were 10 years ago. Andrew Brown called it a "long and boring suicide note".

The system is no longer, if it ever was, fit for purpose. Synod is broke, and I dare anyone to say otherwise in the light of what happened yesterday. A majority, in the dioceses and in the chamber itself, voted in favour, but the measure was lost. Literally years of painstaking work was wasted because the rules say it cannot return to the Synod in the present 5-year term. The vote was decided by a small number of people who are in favour of women bishops but decided that the solution proposed was not sufficiently detailed. The will of the whole church was blocked by a minority who played the system more effectively than anybody else.  Nor should this have been a surprise to anyone who has watched the antics of the Synod in recent years. Its world is one of motion and counter-motion, block votes and backroom deals, dusty briefing papers and divisions by houses. This is no way to do governance in the 21st Century.

It's being said that new Archbishop of Canterbury's first priority is to get the issue of women in the episcopacy through the Synod. Surely as he casts his eye over this antiquated and self-serving institution, his very first act should be to tear down the whole edifice and build something new in its place.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Justin Welby: 105th Archbishop of Canterbury

Last year when Justin Welby was appointed to Durham, I posted a short reaction on this blog. It turned out to be one of my most popular efforts, presumably due to the number of people googling his name, so by way of an update, it is now time to congratulate him (if that is the right word) on being named as the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

(read the original post here).

Incidentally, at the same time, another blogger predicted that this would happen: tip your hats to the mad black sheep of Anglican blogging, Jonathan Hagger of Of Course, I Could Be Wrong. Not this time.

There doesn't seem much to add to what I wrote last year (which still seems a good assessment to me).  We know that he has demonstrated management and leadership skills in his brief tenure at Durham.  A year isn't long enough to test his success in this area, but an Archbishop with a strategy for the church may come as a rude shock to the institutions of Church House and Lambeth Palace, who have become accustomed to running the Church of England as they please, without any tiresome interference from above, in the manner of Sir Humphrey to Jim Hacker.

We know that he is what we must call a "conservative" on same-sex marriage. This will upset many of the more liberal wing of the Church, but intriguingly, we also know that liberal attack-dog Giles Fraser thinks he is a good bloke. Is this an early sign that Justin has the knack of leadership by consensus that Rowan, despite his many and huge gifts, was never quite able to pull off? Let's hope so.

And we know from various speeches and his appointment to the Parliamentary panel examining the ethics of banking, that he is literate in the language of finance and economics. The Crown Nominations Commission has given us an Archbishop who can speak about the most crucial political question of the day. Perhaps they did know what they were doing after all. Or at least, as somebody once said, "the fools have chosen the right man".

I don't know much, but it seems a good appointment to me. What I do know is that he'll need all the support he can get. You have our prayers, [nearly] Archbishop.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

How to really confuse people

I love this video clip from the BBC. Science correspondent Jonathan Amos explains the Higgs Boson by sharing an illustration that obviously makes perfect sense to him. Everybody else is left even more confused than they were to begin with.

Get Adobe Flash player

I particularly enjoyed the bit where, gripped with enthusiasm, he grabs the ball with a string and hurls it across the room. If you look carefully you can see the newscaster's eyes glazing over as it whizzes by.

Preachers should take note. There's a common assumption in preaching that if you construct something that can be mapped on to the point you're trying to make, then you have illustrated it. Sadly you may find that you have actually completely obscured your point. The classic example is Trinity Sunday, when a whole raft of inappropriate comparisons is floated by an army of preachers who imagine that because their example contains the word "three", then it must in some way illustrate the Trinity. It doesn't.




Friday, June 1, 2012

Blog service interrupted

To the three men and a dog who constitute this blog's loyal and devoted readership, I apologise for the even longer than usual gap since the last post. Generally I don't apologise, but the reasons may be of interest this time. Moving is disturbingly similar to dying. One becomes wholly absorbed in the process, and every sense turns inward, leaving very little to give to those around. What little I do have is necessarily used up by maintaining the routine of parish ministry, surprisingly demanding even with so little time to go. Yet it has been an extraordinary few weeks, which I hope to reflect on here over the next few months. If anyone finds my parallel with death distressing, don't forget that it is merely the prelude to resurrection - and Always Hope will rise from the ashes. However one thing is certain; having attempted to several times to establish a regular blogging routine, I now realise that strike blogging is more my style, and so it shall be from now on.

Anyway, a post is in the pipeline, but I thought I should post this first so it's not too much of a shock.