Wednesday 27 September 2017

Hospitable cultures

It has to be recognised that some cultures are more hospitable to the Gospel than others, that Gospel possibilities spoken into them are more likely to resonate in some than others. 

It is something I remember talking about at my interview for coming here. 

The example was late Victorian and early twentieth century Anglo-Catholic mission in parts of the Pacific and in Japan (the latter including service by one of my father’s aunts, but that isn’t relevant). 
The personnel, churchmanship and approach was roughly the same.  But in one place the queues of those coming for Baptism sometimes spread towards the river down the whole side of a valley.  In the other the impact was comparatively negligible. 

And a (possibly superficial) explanation is that the communal assumptions of one culture and the ‘honour’ culture of the other was the most significant factor in the different levels of engagement and impact.

It seemed relevant at interview because it is worth exploring at least the possibilty that post-war cultural shifts in England are one factor in the decline of mainstream Christianity; we would simply expect the church to be smaller in the culture which has emerged.  If so, some far from superficial analysis of this is urgently needed.

I’ve thought of all this again this month because of one hint given on the ‘faithful neighbours’ training all clergy new to the diocese of Leeds are asked to undertake to equip them for appropriate ministry in what are often multi-faith settings. 

The hint was that conversion to Christianity from Shia Islam is a greater possibility than from Sunni Islam.  It is certainly true that there are Anglican churches which find they need to read the Gospel in Farsi at services (that is, churches which have a significant number of members who originate in Iran), including one down the road from us in Keighley.   

The tentative suggestion was that minority and frequently persecuted Shia may know more within themselves about ‘passion’, while the majority dominant  Sunni may be more habituated to a triumphalist religious experience; in certain contexts the first might encounter the Gospel as speaking into their situation while the other might be much more likely to find it alien.

Meanwhile, a little ahead of myself, I’ve been looking for illustrations for Advent orders of service and have been touched by the grasped hand and held gaze in this encounter between young Mary pregnant with Jesus and her cousin older Elizabeth pregnant with John the Baptist (perhaps the moment John leapt in her womb at hearing Mary’s news) in a window at St Michael’s, Haworth.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Ten lepers

Updated 22nd September

I’ve been exploring the 132 words (in one translation) of Luke 17.11-19 with eight members of a long established but lapsed Bible Study Group from St Michael’s, Haworth.  It is the Gospel reading which we’ll be using at Harvest services in our three churches early next month.

We used a simple technique I’d picked up from Christian Aid last year designed to make sure we pay real attention to every detail.  This involves writing out as much of the story as people could remember before looking at the passage.  What impression had many past readings, studies and sermons left?  What details had we got wrong or had missed, and what are the particular significances of these?

Between us, we remembered that a journey had been taking place when ten lepers living in isolation from their communities asked Jesus for healing and were granted it.  Jesus told them to show themselves to the religious authorities to demonstrate that they were healed and could be reintegrated into society.  Only one of the ten came back praising God and saying ‘thank you’.  (One person had a feeling that a cave had something to do with it, which isn’t in the Bible passage but which is here.)

So what did we then really notice when we read the passage?  There were three things in particular.

One was how noisy it was.  The lepers lifted up their voices from a distance to call for Jesus’ mercy.  The one leper who returned used a great voice to praise. 

So, if Jesus intended passing as unnoticed as possible through potentially hostile territory towards a dangerous destination (which is what we shall notice in a moment) then this noisy attention would not have helped much.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we’d totally forgotten that a Samaritan was involved.  Jesus was journeying to Jerusalem and along the edge of Samaritan territory (both of which indicated the risks alluded to in the previous paragraph).  The one who came back to give thanks was a Samaritan, and Jesus’ comment was that it was only ‘this foreigner’ (I’ve now looked it up – allo-genes which is literally ‘other-bred’ and may be somewhere between ‘mis-begotten’ and ‘people not like us’) who did so. 

So, the impression left by the way we’d been told the story so often was simply the pious message that we should remember to be thankful, but we’d not been marked by the real bite of the passage at this point that is the despised other who did so.

Finally, and most movingly for some, we noticed that they found that were cleansed in going on their way.  It wasn’t that they were cleansed and then sent to the priests.  It was in going to the priests that they found themselves cleansed. 

So, Jesus’ final words to the one who came back was ‘your faith has healed you’ (I’ve now looked it up and it is ‘you’ in the singular) and it felt to us that it was the act of calling out to Jesus’ as master and trusting him to go straight away to do as he said which is where he found healing.

Meanwhile, the picture is simply a face I’ve enjoyed finding carved into the choir stalls at St James’, Cross Roads.

Paragraphs added 22nd September:

This whole process is potentially a really significant help in developing an indigenous preaching ministry: knowing how a representative sample of the congregation relate to a biblical passage before preaching about it.  If so, I should be engaging in it much more often.

My prompted sermon-preparation reflection so far this time is that the ‘remember to be thankful’ use of the passage has been either preached or heard so well because it ties in with Victorian and twentieth century middle class culture: people like me and respectable church-goers more generally resonate with this message.

But there is clearly another message Luke has for us which is something like ‘those whose religion we are tempted to despise (whose versions of Christianity are least attractive to us, or those who are ‘other-bred’ culturally or literally) can be where we find both examples of trust in God and some specific human qualities which we sometime lack ourselves’. 

And (although, of course, there are plenty of Christian people who embrace this second message without flinching) this has either not been preached or not been heard so well because it sits less easily alongside the habitual Victorian and twentieth century middle class instincts of many people like me in the culture from which respectable church-goers are largely drawn?

Thursday 14 September 2017

From Haworth Church Tower

My first trip up.  Almost all of Cross Roads village appears in the penultimate picture.  The Bronte Parsonage, albeit next door to the church, wasn't visible through the trees; I look forward to going up again in the winter.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Marks of the Cross

An ecumenical neighbour has been in touch about exploring the Anglican Communion’s ‘Five Marks of Mission’. 

I suppose, at its best, these would be intended as the equivalent of a ‘Bird Spotter's Guide’: if you see a church with these markings then you can be sure the species you are observing is a missional one.

Here is the official list:
to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom;
to teach, baptise and nurture new believers;
to respond to human need by loving service;
to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation;
to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

All mainstream and worthy, although getting a bit clunky and a bit more like a Committee product as one works through the list.

I’ve always assumed that the structure of the five ‘translates’ something like
we want to attract more people to God's ways
and we want Christians to grow
so that they make a difference to their neighbours,
to society,
and to the world.

I’m certainly less fond of the official habit of summarising the ‘Five Marks’ as
because ‘tell’ and ‘teach’ as isolated words seem pretty instructional compared with discovering and being enthused by Good News and by the Kingdom possibilities, ‘tend’ doesn’t sound sacrificial enough, ‘transform’ on its own has a touch of hubris, and ‘treasure’ on its own a touch of self satisfaction.

Attention to what the New Testament encourages might instead mean pulling out from the ‘Five Marks’ something more like:
seek Kingdom,
grow disciples,
love neighbour,
pursue justice,
protect creation.

1.  Seek Kingdom
Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; tell the stories which so enrapture us we are impelled to go on searching them out; we want other people to be as attracted to God's ways.

2.  Grow disciples
Teach, baptise and nurture believers; teach the ways to which God beckons us; we want to grow alongside all Christian people.

3.  Love neighbour
Respond to human need by loving service; tend the hurts all around us; we want to make a difference to our neighbours.

4.  Pursue justice
To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation; change the places where we live; we want to make a difference to society.

5.  Protect creation
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth; treasure the spoilt environment which God entrusts to us; we want to make a difference to our world.

But even a summary like that doesn’t do proper justice to the Gospel passage we read on Sunday:
take up your cross every day.  It would be striking if a church ever adopted that as its public 'mission statement'.

Friday 1 September 2017

Master Gardener

There was a striking moment at a recent London Livery Company event when ‘the Master Carpenter’ was called forward - striking at least for those familiar with and fond of the prayer (either produced by or at least popularised by the Iona Community):

O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
who at the last, through wood and nails,
purchased our whole salvation;
wield well your tools in the workshop of your world,
so that we, who come rough-hewn to your bench,
may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand.

We thought of it again the other day when a visitor mentioned the theme of her church’s summer Holiday Club as being ‘the Master Gardener’, so I had a first go at rewriting the prayer for my own benefit:

Risen Christ, first taken for a gardener,
who had by then, through tears and sweat,
tilled our whole salvation;
wield well your tools in the wastes of your world,
so that we, who are sown in rough ground,
may here be nurtured to a fruitful beauty by your hand.

So much depends on context.

The Iona Community began in the 1930s with trainee Scots Presbyterian Ministers working alongside unemployed Glasgow craftsmen, just as Anglican Industrial Mission began in the 1940s in Sheffield factories from which the Church of England felt fatally disconnected, and the Catholic Church established a feast of Joseph the Worker in the 1950s (on May Day, which was being widely celebrated as International Workers’ Day).  So the fresh and pressing images included God as craftman, Christ as master carpenter, the world as a workshop, and our Christian living as being forged.

Meanwhile, most of a century later, it is ‘master gardener’ which caught our attention; my wife recalled a recent radio item which suggested precisely that that the job of parents is more like being a gardener than a carpenter, and I recalled a recent article suggesting that images for training wild horses has shifted from those involving things like ‘breaking in’ to those involving things like ‘horse whispering’.  Our sympathy moves towards images of nurture and fostering growth.  We know the biblical image of God as potter re-shaping at will, but we prefer the more common New Testament image of God as sower and patient farmer.

The pictures are the details from my new favourite window which I’ve used on a recent service sheet (which is why they are in black and white).

Added 3rd September:

I’ve now seen reviews of Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter which is clearly what was being discussed on the radio recently.

A better written version of this post might well have had the same title.

It would have highlighted her plea that bringing up children should be a form of love rather than a form of work, a form of care rather than a form of goal-orientated labour.

It would have been clearer that this seems to be closer to how God works with us (and might have gone on to suggest that church ‘mission statements’ and ‘growth strategies’ ought to be closer to this too).

It would have been clearer that there is an vital and separate point about the way the cultural assumptions around us seduce us (the dominance of narrow targets is one side of this coin, and the possibility that future generations will see an emphasis on growth through playful exploration and messy results as being equally cultural conditioned might be the other side of the same coin).