Sunday, 31 May 2009

pentecost 09

Woke up this morning to the sound of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of flame outside the bedroom window; it’s Pentecost! Turns out the Holy Spirit hadn’t descended on the house but a Virgin hot air balloon had. These balloons are frequent visitors and occasionally one comes down very low over the fields, always a bit risky given the phone lines and power cables.

Anyway, it is Pentecost when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, so here’s another Brueggemann prayer:

To make things new that never were

We name you wind, power, force, and then,
imaginatively, ‘Third Person.’
We name you and you blow…
blow hard,
blow cold,
blow hot,
blow strong,
blow gentle,
blow new…
Blowing the world out of nothing to abundance,
blowing the church out of despair to new life,
blowing little David from shepherd boy to messiah,
blowing to make things new that never were.
So, blow this day, wind,
blow here and there, power,
blow even us, force,
Rush us beyond ourselves,
Rush us beyond our hopes,
Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.
Come, come Spirit. Amen.

Walter Brueggemann: Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

spotting the enemy

I first read The Gravedigger File by Os Guinness when it came out in the mid 1980s. The book is not unlike C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and explores the decline of the Church’s influence in the West. What really struck me were the cartoons which introduced each chapter; they seemed to encapsulate the issues addressed by Guinness and the one above is my favourite. It came to mind as I read +Nick Baines’ recent blog Borrowing from the Neighbours in which he comments on syncretism and the church. Nick observes the way in which some Christians and churches are very good at identifying the syncretistic compromises of others, while being completely ignorant of their own syncretistic tendencies.

In the midst of the upheaval created by the recent economic tsunami, the collapse of politics and the unremitting cynicism of the media, it does seem important for us as Christians to take time to reflect on the influences which shape our relationship with society and the responses we make to the issues of the day.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

and then you - walter brueggemann

We arrange our lives as best we can,

to keep your holiness at bay,

with our pieties,

our doctrines,

our liturgies,

our moralities,

our secret ideologies,

Safe, virtuous, settled.

And then you –

you and your dreams,

you and your visions,

you and your purposes,

you and your commands,

you and our neighbours.

We find your holiness not at bay,

but probing, pervading,

insisting, demanding.

And we yield, sometimes gladly,

sometimes resentfully,

sometimes late…or soon.

We yield because you, beyond us, are our God.

We are your creatures met by your holiness,

by your holiness made our true selves.

And we yield. Amen.

This is the first of a collection of prayers by Walter Brueggemann from a book called Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. What is so remarkable about these prayers is that they were uttered by Brueggemann before his seminary class; the lecturer humbly committing himself and his students to God.

Edwin Searcy the editor of Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth makes the following comment:
'The care that Brueggemann gives to his prayers testifies to the crucial importance that he places on the living covenantal conversation. For him biblical texts offer the mother tongue of the divine-human conversation. In his prayers for class and for worship, Brueggemann speaks his mother tongue of praise and confession, lament and gratitude, despair and faithfulness. Listening to his practiced voice we rediscover ancient ways of speaking honestly before God.'

Bruggemann, reflecting on a life spent in teaching, identifies something crucial that those of us who are involved in theological education and training for ministry constantly need to remember:
'The church at prayer is the only adequate matrix for theological education.'

And Then You
is a prayer that I read again today and it spoke to the frustration I feel about so many of the debates and arguments, controversies and petty squabbles that we get caught up in as the church. God calls us to yield before him in awe and reverence, humbled by his holiness and grace.

Monday, 25 May 2009

layer marney tower

Spent a pleasant bank holiday Monday lunchtime visiting Layer Marney Tower near Tiptree in Essex. It's Britain's tallest Tudor gatehouse and was built by Henry Marney in the 1520s. Marney was Lord Privy Seal to Henry VIII. You can climb to the top of the tower and there are fantastic views of the surrounding Essex countryside. Marney's aim was to surpass the splendour of Hampton Court in both size and grandeur, but having visited Hampton Court last summer I have to say he was well short of the mark. However, Layer Marney Tower is still an impressive building.

Marney also built a church which stands next to the gatehouse and on a wall inside the church is an original fresco of St. Christopher dating back to the 1520s. The painting was painted over during the reformation and discovered during restoration work in the 1870s.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

twitter - the purple patch

Still using Twitter and one of the more interesting and expanding groups to follow is what I have called The Purple Patch. These are episcopal Twitterers whose tweets range from banter about the latest football to updates on the Kirchentag. So if you want to find out more about what some of our bishops are up to you might want to check out the following:

Alan Wilson @alantlwilson
Nick Baines @nickbaines
Pete Broadbent @pete173
David Thompson @bpdt
John Sentamu @johnsentamu
David Rossdale @fishbish
David Hamid @eurobishop
Steven Croft @Steven_Croft

Details about other twittering clergy, known as The Twurch of England, can be found at Peter Ould Online and The Church Mouse.

My own contribution to Twitter is @philritchie and why I tweet can be found here.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

in defence of church schools (1)

I’ve followed the debate about the place of Church Schools in the education system for many years and I am continually disappointed by the way in which church schools are misrepresented both by sections of the national press and by some Christians and Christian organisations pushing an agenda of secularisation. In recent weeks the discussion has become more heated and one of the aspects of the debate which I find concerning is the apparent ignorance of, or deliberate distortions about, church schools by some of those commenting on the issue.

I need to be clear about my own experience of church schools and the state education system. As a child I attended a mixture of church and state schools and during my ministry I have been involved in a variety of ways including:

  • 1990 – 1994 I was Chair of Governors of a Church of England Voluntary Controlled Junior School.
  • 19946 – 2001 Governor and Vice-Chair of Governors of a local authority Primary School in London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. During this period I also chaired school appeals panels on behalf of the education authority.
  • 2001-present day. Governor and Vice-Chair of Governors of a Voluntary Aided Church of England Primary School.

Now what is the substance of some of the complaints about church schools? An organisation that has spearheaded opposition to church schools is the think tank Ekklesia. One of the directors of Ekklesia, Jonathan Bartley recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled The church must not discriminate. The article was in response to a new website Christianvalues4schools set up by the Church of England to communicate the Christian ethos of Church Schools. One of the values espoused on the website is Justice and in response Bartley asks the following question:
‘So how exactly does the church square "never showing partiality", "dealing with everyone fairly" and "not insisting on their own rights at the expense of others" with discriminatory admissions and employment policies that prioritise church children over non-church attenders and refuse to allow non-Christians to apply for jobs? It tries to claim itself as a "special case", but to most people this will be seen as special pleading. In reality, discriminatory practises undermine and contradict the very Christian ethos they are supposed to protect.’

The simple response to this accusation of discrimination is that all schools have a discriminatory policy. Every school has an admissions policy with a set of criteria by which children are admitted and that means that some children are discriminated against, unless every school has an infinite capacity to admit children. The admissions policy may be set by the education authority or in the case of voluntary aided church schools by the governing body. In some schools priority is given to those living nearest to the school; in some priority is given to those with siblings at the school; in some priority is given to children in care or those with special needs; in the case of some church schools church attendance may be one of the criteria.

What Bartley and Ekklesia are complaining about is not that schools' admissions policies are discriminatory, they all are, they just don’t like the particular criteria applied by some church schools. Why is it more discriminatory to prioritise those who share the ethos of an institution, but not discriminatory to prioritise those who live nearest to that institution?

The church school where I presently serve as vice chair of governors has the following admissions criteria:

  1. All children looked after.
  2. Children living in the parishes of …….
  3. Children with sibling at the school not in year 6.
  4. Children with a parent who joins in the worship of one of the parish churches.
  5. Children with parents active in another Christian church where the school is the nearest church school.
  6. In the event of over subscription in any of these criteria, priority will be determined by straight line distance from home to school.

As can be seen from the criteria above, church children are not prioritised over those living within the school’s catchment area and this is true of many church schools, though you wouldn’t know it from the way this issue is discussed in the national media. However, if church attendance was further up the list of criteria what would be wrong with that? The only complaint could be that, while happy to discriminate on grounds of geography, personal circumstances or relationships, religious affiliation is not considered legitimate. Now how is that not discrimination?

I would suggest that applying geographical criteria in a schools admissions policy is in some cases much more discriminatory than church affiliation. Popular schools often create distorted housing markets within catchment areas, with the wealthy being able to access the school because they can afford the housing prices nearest the school. It could be argued that a church school placing church affiliation as a high selection criterion opens the school to those on lower economic means living further from the school. In such cases the church school is less discriminatory in terms of wealth and class than some state schools.

The question is really 'what values determine school selection criteria?' and here I believe we get to the heart of the matter. Ekklesia and Bartley are not just concerned about justice and fairness in access to education; they are supporters of a body that is seeking to promote the secularisation of the education system. Ekklesia states that it is 'a founder member of the Accord Coalition which seeks to make faith schools better. Accord also includes the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the British Humanist Association.'

This statement is rather disingenuous as examination of Accord’s aims make clear.

We believe that all state funded schools should:
1. Operate admissions policies that take no account of pupils’ – or their parents’ – religion or beliefs.
2. Operate recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on the grounds of religion or belief.
3. Follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education about religious and non-religious beliefs – whether determined by their local authority or by any future national syllabus or curriculum for RE.
4. Be made accountable under a single inspection regime for RE, Personal, Social & Health Education (PSHE) and Citizenship.
5. Provide their pupils with inclusive, inspiring and stimulating assemblies in place of compulsory acts of worship.

What Ekklesia and Accord really mean when they say they want to make faith schools better is that they wish to remove the Christian and religious influence and ethos from schools. They are seeking secularisation so that Christianity is no more than a subject to be studied, stripping out the underlying ethos which permeates the whole of a church school community. Presumably, according to these aims, it would be OK. to study why Christians celebrate Harvest Festival but not OK. to have an assembly which was a Harvest Festival.

Bartley also complained in his article about church school discrimination in employment practices. I have to say that the church schools that I have been involved with have not discriminated regarding recruitment or employment on the grounds of church affiliation or attendance. However, there is an expectation that those applying to work in the school will be sympathetic to the ethos of the school and in the case of the teaching staff and senior management of the school, willing to attend and participate in the activities of the school. This may include attendance at acts of worship in assembly or at the local church as part of the school’s life. If someone was opposed to what the school represented in terms of its Christian ethos and was unwilling to engage in the life the school community then I find it difficult to understand how the school could be expected to employ that person.

I was the Chair of Governors of a church school that went through a difficult period with a rapid turnover of head teachers. To address the problems we appointed a very experienced man who would not have described himself as a Christian; his religion was Tottenham Hotspur F.C.! Yet, he was just what the school needed to address the problems at the time; he was fully supportive of what the school was seeking to do in serving a community with some very challenging problems and he was sympathetic to the ethos of the school.

If Ekklesia is arguing that it would be discriminatory for a church school to expect its teaching and senior management staff to be sympathetic to the Christian ethos of the school, then what they are really saying is that the school should not have an ethos that any teacher, including a secularist or atheist, could not sign up to. In other words you cannot have a church school with a particular emphasis on the Christian faith as part of its ethos because that would be to discriminate against a potential employee.

Why not just come clean Ekklesia and admit that you are opposed to the existence of church schools because that is what your policy means in practice? And while you are at it can you please explain how such as stance is not discriminatory.

I plan to post some good news stories about Church Schools in the future but for now check out Bishop Alan Wilson’s post Living Strategy for Learning in Oakley.

I have posted about the formation of Accord in Accord out of tune.

Giles Fraser has also written about Church Schools and discrimination in his Church Times column.

Ruth Gledhill has posted about Christian Values 4 Schools in her blog Articles of Faith for The Times and wrote a piece In defence of faith schools for The Times' education blog School Gate.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

man utd premier league champions again!

Manchester United are crowned champions of the Premier League for the third season in succession. It wasn't a great match but Utd did what was needed; one point against Arsenal to ensure Liverpool, their nearest rivals, could not catch them. This season the squad has really come in to its own, with fantastic contributions from the not so famous names including Anderson, Fletcher, O'Shea and the youngsters. Now all attention is focused on the Champions League Final in Rome against Barcelona and the possibility of winning the cup in back to back tournaments.

This victory brings Utd level with Liverpool in the number of league titles won (18) and is another great achievement for manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Honourable mention to those great servants of the club Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.

Only two slight regrets: not seeing off Everton in the FA Cup semi final to have a shot at an unprecedented quintuple and not sorting out the Carlos Tevez situation before now (Fergie, Fergie, sign him up). Still mustn't be greedy.

Glory, Glory, Man Utd and the reds go marching on, on, on!

Friday, 15 May 2009

hang 'em high

I caught a brief part of Question Time on BBC1 last night and it was very disturbing. No surprise that the focus of the questions was about MPs' expenses and there was real anger and resentment on the airwaves. The two unfortunate MPs in the stocks for the few minutes I watched were Ming Campbell and Margaret Becket both of whom I have always considered to be parliamentarians of the highest calibre. What was so unsettling was the audience doing a good impression of an angry mob as they harried and heckled the speakers before they had the opportunity to give their answers and explanations. The audience was egged on by David Dimbleby in what I considered to be one of his poorest performances. I had this image in my mind of a scene from an old cowboy film in which the good townsfolk, outraged at some perceived crime, storm the sheriff's office and drag the suspected criminal out to be strung up without a trial. In the end I turned the T.V. off because it was so unpleasant.

There is no doubt that something rotten has been going on in parliament and the speed with which MPs have been whipping out their cheque books to repay some of their expenses is clear evidence of that. The problems range from the sort of stupid oversight that all of us can be guilty of, through to acts of what appear to be fraud and deception. The Daily Telegraph, which published the scoop, is squeezing every last ounce of juice from the story as it seeks to turn what looks like being a considerable outlay on purchasing the information into profit and raised circulation figures.

However, it is also clear that many innocent MPs are being caught up in the maelstrom that has descended on Westminster. Over the coming months they may be able to demonstrate how their expenses were legitimately and reasonably claimed but at the moment no-one or at least very few people seem to be listening. MPs have not had the opportunity to present all the facts of their individual cases, nor to challenge details that have been inaccurately or wrongly reported. The public, led by the press and increasingly hysterical broadcasters, are baying for blood. Don’t get me wrong, I am really angry about some of what seems to have gone on and can understand how others are feeling, but when I’m angry I know I need to be very careful.

The whole sorry saga reminds me of the incident recorded in John’s Gospel 8:1-11 where a group of the ‘righteous’ bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and demand that he pass judgement on her. The response of Jesus is very telling; he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. The evangelist doesn’t record what Jesus wrote although many have speculated; only that he didn’t immediately respond with a pronouncement. Rowan Williams in Writing in the Dust, a short reflection following the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States, suggests that Jesus is creating a pause, a breathing space, to consider and reflect rather than to immediately respond in a way that will exacerbate the situation.

I can’t help feeling that what we need now in the present crisis over MPs' expenses is a period of calm reflection. Time to allow the full facts to be gathered, not leaked out drip by drip in a way that can neither be checked nor challenged. Time to develop an appropriate means of examining and holding to account those who have done wrong and exonerating those who have done nothing wrong. Time to reflect on what we really expect from those who serve in public office. Time to ask what we are prepared to pay our politicians to ensure we encourage those best equipped to govern. Time to reflect on the wider damage being caused to the body politic and society in general. Time to consider the culture of cynicism that now pervades the way the media handles politics and the motives behind that cynicism. Time to think about the impact on politics in the future as polls already indicate a turn towards the smaller and in some cases extreme political parties.

Perhaps the best response we can make to the scandal over MPs' expenses is to follow the example of Jesus and take time out to write in the dust.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

son of rambow

In the midst of all the cynicism swirling around it was refreshing to spend a couple of hours watching a highly amusing story about the developing friendship of two misfits. Son of Rambow was a birthday present I hadn’t got round to watching but it was well worth the wait.

Will is a young boy separated from the surrounding culture by his family’s commitment to the Plymouth Brethren. Whenever his school class watches a T.V. programme Will has to leave the room and he has no experience of popular entertainment. Lee, the school trouble maker, starts out seeking to manipulate Will into helping him make a film and they end up forming a close friendship.

Son of Rambow revolves around the making of a sequel to the 80s adventure Rambo: First Blood. Lee wants to enter his masterpiece for a Screen Test competition and after showing Will a pirate copy of Rambo, convinces him to act as his central character and stunt man. There are some wonderful moments including Eric Sykes as an old man in a home, dressed up as Rambo and filmed while completely oblivious to what is going on. My wife’s favourite scenes feature a French exchange student, Didier Revol, who exudes a cool sophistication and is hero worshipped by many of the young boys at school. Didier, weighed down by existential boredom, finds out about the film project and insists on joining in and using his followers as the production crew.

The soundtrack of 1980s hits reminds me just how bad so much of the music from that period was. Themes explored include the nature of friendship and the relationship between religion and culture. The film is heart-warming, nostalgic and fun; a good antidote to the jaundiced world view offered by so much entertainment around at the moment.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

sign of the times (5) - art in shops

One of the most depressing features of the present economic climate is the number of town centre shops that are left vacant. So it is great to see some shops in Chelmsford town centre are being used for a creative venture organised by the council. Called Art in Shops, the initiative provides the opportunity for artists to display their work in shop windows and inside empty premises. Chelmsford Borough Council has a good track record of displaying art in public places and this is one more example of that commitment. Art in Shops is part of the council's Arts Development programme.

Other examples of public art in Chelmsford include the commissioning of an art installation each year for the 80ft high atrium at County Hall; exhibition spaces in the libraries, civic centre, theatres and hospitals and a virtual online gallery.

Initiatives like Art in Shops are signs of hope amongst the more negative signs of the times in our town centres.

Reminded me of that saying of Jesus (OK I know its dodgy hermeneutics):
Let your light so shine before before others that they may see your good works and and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

I'm mad as hell......

In the film Network T.V. presenter Howard Beale (Peter Finch) breaks down live on air. He rails against all the problems of society and finishes with the cry ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore’. Beale then invites his viewers to go to their windows and shout the same response and many do. The UBS T.V. network give Beale his own show which becomes a ratings winner as he pours out his invective and the ‘mad as hell’ line becomes his catchphrase.

Network is an excoriating satire on the ills of the broadcasting media. The T.V. network isn’t interested in the message or the effect it has on viewers and on society, they are only interested in ratings. Eventually Beale begins to lose viewers as his message becomes more depressing and he calls for the public to oppose a UBS merger. In the search for even higher ratings producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) arranges with a terrorist group to have Beale assassinated. The film ends with Beale being shot to death live on air and as the narrator states that Beale was the first man ever murdered because of bad ratings, an array of televisions play newscasts reporting the incident matter-of-factly, intermixed with the noise of commercials.

Network won four Oscars including a posthumous award for Peter Finch and its message seems as relevant today as it did back in 1976. I couldn't help thinking about the film as I reflected on the frustrations many people are feeling and expressing over the issues facing our society. The film also seems relevant with the questions it raises about the way the media handle coverage of those issues. Anyway, check out Finch's brilliant performance.

Monday, 11 May 2009

hit the ground kneeling (5)

I spent a very enjoyable time a couple of Saturday mornings ago with some other twits on Twitter. We ended up in a conversation comprised of quotes from The Italian Job. There was one particular quote which stuck in my mind:
Charlie Croker (Michael Caine): It's a very difficult job and the only way to get through it is we all work together as a team. And that means you do everything I say.

The quote seems to sum up many people's approach to leadership and team working, not least in the church. The ideal leader is often presented as a charismatic, dynamic person who others are willing to follow or at least expected to follow. For a long time ordination training bought in to this understanding of leadership; the clergy person as the omnicompetent leader doing everything. Team working and collaboration were given lip service but often meant little more than the vicar having a few helpers who did what s/he said. My heart sinks every time I hear someone exploring a vocation to ministry utter the words ‘well the vicar needs a bit of help’. I hear it far too often and it is sadly sometimes perpetuated by clergy.

This style of leadership reflects an unhealthy symbiotic relationship between clergy and congregations. The vicar is affirmed in their sense of worth, purpose and need to be in charge and the congregation can sit back and let him or her get on with it and if it all goes wrong they have someone to blame. For those interested W. R. Bion has some very interesting inights into this type of behaviour in his work on Experiences in Groups.

Stephen Cottrell calls for a different approach to leadership. In Spoiling The Broth the fifth chapter in his book Hit The Ground Kneeling, +Stephen’s vision of Christian leadership ‘is one that is always drawing more people in, helping them discover their gifts, and constantly expanding and sharing leadership.’

However, this approach to leadership is not an easy option. It involves being prepared to take risks:
If we have decided that the only worthwhile goal of our enterprise is success, then it follows that the biggest enemy is failure. But if our goal is to enable each member of the organisation or community to discover their part within the whole – that is, if we hope to be successful and fruitful, but don’t turn it into an idol to which everything else must submit – then it is OK to fail; it is OK to make mistakes; it is OK to take risks.’

Leadership committed to working with others also recognises that everyone has gifts and a part to play. It celebrates the contribution that others make to the whole instead of seeing them as a threat. ‘The cherishing of the gifts of others – even if they outshine us in their own areas – is a vital gift of leadership.’

To return to the film with which I began this post; The Italian Job ends (spoiler alert) with Charlie and his gang in a coach balanced precariously over the edge of a cliff. The gold bullion they have stolen is at one end of the coach and they are all at the other end. No one can move because it will disturb the balance of the coach. How are they going to get out of this dilemma without loosing the gold or their lives? Well it might be that one of the gang has a brilliant idea but the question is this: will s/he have the confidence to share their idea and even if they did would Charlie listen or is he the only one allowed to say ‘Hang on lads; I’ve got a great idea’.

chelmsford cathedral - eco congregation status

One of the joys of working at Chelmsford Diocesan Office is the view from my desk; I look out on Chelmsford Cathedral.

It is great news to hear that the cathedral has just been awarded eco congregation status by the Groundwork Trust. It is the first cathedral in England and Wales to be granted this status. Not bad for one of the smallest cathedrals in one of the largest diocese.

David Hughes from the Groundwork Trust said he had been impressed by the amount of work which had been done to make “the entire estate of buildings so much greener”. He said: “This is often a very valuable witness to the community that the church takes seriously our call to be stewards of God's creation.”

Tony Allen, publicity officer for the cathedral, said it was hoped the 1,500 congregation would be inspired to make their own homes greener. He said: “What I think is encouraging is that it will help individuals in their own homes and own communities to give some priority to it as well. We are trying to do this so that those who worship with us look at their own homes and situation and we are trying to take the lead."

In the Chelmsford Diocese we are committed to the five marks of mission including:
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Sunday, 10 May 2009


I am delighted that Revd Jonathan Evens has written a guest post on an exciting initiative in mission and art.

Rosalind Hore

Local churches contemplating the possibility of commissioning contemporary art are often put off by what they think will be prohibitive costs, disputes in the congregation about appropriate styles, and arguments that there are more important priorities for the available money.

Since the mid point of the twentieth century, cathedrals in the UK began once again to regularly commission contemporary art but, for the reasons listed above, local churches have rarely followed their lead. commission4mission is a new arts organisation which is seeking to change that picture and to do so by making the commissioning of contemporary art an opportunity for mission and a means of fundraising for charities.

The visual arts can contribute to mission by: speaking eloquently of the Christian faith; providing a reason for people to visit a church; providing a link between churches and local arts organisations/initiatives; and providing a focus around which local people can come together for a shared activity. A good example of this occurring is St Albans Romford , where commission4mission was launched in March 2009 and where, as a direct result of its many commissions, the church is regularly visited by those from the local community and further afield who come to see Christianity differently through their visit.

Harvey Bradley

When the visual arts are seen as integral to mission then the interest of congregations in commissioning is likely to grow but the issues of cost and other priorities still remain. As a result, commission4mission is building up a pool of artists (painters, sculptors, silversmiths, potters, jewellery makers etc.) able to work flexibly to available budgets and willing to allow a proportion of the cost of each commission to go to charity and is recommending that commissioned artworks are donated to churches by interested parties as memorials to loved ones. Our experience suggests that this combination of charitable fundraising and memorial donations overcomes many of the issues usually faced when considering the commissioning of contemporary art for local churches.

None of this means that quality is being compromised either. In the words of Henry Shelton , the founding artist member of commission4mission, what we offer is "quality work and craftsmanship, rather than mass-produced work, to continue the legacy of the Church as a great commissioner of art."

Henry Shelton

We are providing many opportunities to see the quality and originality of work available from commission4mission and its artists over the coming months. We will be exhibiting at the:

* Pentecost Festival - Saturday 30th May, 12 noon - 6.00pm, Methodist Central Hall, Storey's Gate, Westminster SW1 9NH;
* West Ham Festival - Saturday 20th - Sunday 28th June, 11.00am - 4.00pm, All Saints West Ham , Church Street, London E15 3HU;
* Leytonstone Festival and Arts Trail - Tuesday 7th – Thursday 16th July (Tuesday-Friday: 12-4 pm. Saturday: 10-4pm), St Andrews Leytonstone , Colworth Road, London E11 1JD; and
* Showcase exhibition - Monday 2nd - Saturday 7th November, Chelmsford Cathedral , New Street, Chelmsford CM1 1TY, Cathedral opening times.

We are also aiming to provide information, ideas and examples of contemporary Christian art and its use or display within church settings. To that end, we are organising a networking event at St Andrews Leytonstone on Thursday 9th July from 7.00pm. Three commission4mission artists will give brief presentations on 'Art & Spirituality' leading into space for open discussion and debate. A Study Day entitled 'Perspectives on commissioning Christian Art' has also been organised for Saturday 7th November at Chelmsford Cathedral (10.00am - 2.30pm) with contributions from the Bishop of Barking, the Dean of Chelmsford Cathedral, the Chair of Chelmsford DAC and commission4mission artists.

Colin Burns

Membership of commission4mission is open to any Christian artist (of any discipline) or those who are supporters of Christian Art. For more information about commission4mission, our activities and our artists, please see: commission4mission or email Jonathan Evens at

Our Patron, David Hawkins , the Bishop of Barking, says:
"There is a big need to re-engage with the Arts. The church has had a lengthy and happy marriage with the Arts in the past but this has eroded in recent times. I agree with Rowan Williams that the Church needs more artists and 'that artists are special people but every person is a special kind of artist.' I think that there is great scope in the Church encouraging creative expression in everyone as this is a way of helping us to be fully human."

Peter Webb

Friday, 8 May 2009

psalm sung blue

A fascinating discussion about singing in church has been developing on +Nick Baines blog on Girly music. One of the points that he makes and is picked up in the comments is that we no longer make use of the Psalms in worship. I have to confess that I was almost put off the Psalms for life after my experience as a choir boy having to chant my way through the Psalter at Evensong. I do try and read the Psalms regularly as part of my devotions and this morning it was Psalm 21. Because the discussion about psalms was in the back of my mind I paid particular attention to the words, rather than simply rattling them off which is often the danger. I found myself feeling very uncomfortable saying:

Your hand will find out all your enemies; Your right hand will find out those you hate.

You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear.

The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath; And fire will consume them.

You will destroy their offspring from the earth, And their children from among the sons of men. Psalm 21:8-10

Do I really want to use such words in worship of God? Do I want my children expressing such sentiments let alone using them to praise God? This does raise for me the important point that if we are going to recover our use of the Psalms in worship then we had better make sure we have some good teaching to accompany their use. It is simply no good suddenly getting the psalms out one day in church and chuntering our way through them. We need to explain and explore why these ancient songs can resource our worship today.

A few days ago I flicked through a booklet entitled Discovering The Lord’s Song by Anne Harrison. Her argument is ‘that congregational song in particular and Christian worship more broadly are impoverished without the singing of Scripture (and especially psalms) in some form on a fairly regular basis’. I found this a helpful little book exploring why it matters and why we should make the effort, though I felt these sections could have been longer. However, its real worth is in the practicalities of using the songs of Scripture in worship; the when and how questions. The booklet is also punctuated by very useful lists of resources from Taize through to selected choral resources. It’s well worth the £3.50, provides a good introduction to the subject and is a helpful reminder to those of us who have come to take the Psalms for granted.

A couple of quotes cited by Anne provide some food for thought:

The psalms ‘are inexhaustible, and deserve to be read, said, sung, chanted, whispered, learned by heart, and even shouted from rooftops. They express all the emotions we are ever likely to feel, including some we hope we may not, and they lay them, raw and open, in the presence of God.’ Tom Wright Simply Christian.

‘Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of God. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music. As a result, the book of Psalms always felt open to me…’ Bono Canongate’s Book of Psalms.

By the way, did you know that Graham Kendrick is listed by grumpy not so old man Quentin Letts in his book 50 People Who B******d Up Britian? Mind you, he also lists Sir Alex Ferguson so he clearly doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Friday, 1 May 2009

bad for the soul

Giles Fraser has used his column in The Church Times to criticise blogging in a piece entitled ‘Why blogs can be bad for the soul’. He does acknowledge that there are some good blogs and threads but most of the article is negative and his criticisms include:

‘too many contributors do not recognise that they are being unpleasant because they believe themselves to be justified by some higher cause’.

‘The other problem is that, on the internet, the other does not come with a face.’

Now Giles does have a point and there are plenty of blogs that I stay well clear of for the sake of my blood pressure. There are those who think they can pontificate and libel with impunity, often under the blanket of anonymity. However, this article annoyed me for several reasons and at the risk of confirming Giles’ opinions about blogs and bloggers here they are.

  1. It’s a bit rich for someone who is regularly given a platform in the national press, church press and on Radio 4 to complain about others sharing their views, usually with a much smaller audience or readership than him.
  2. The media through which Giles’ shares his opinions can also be used to be unpleasant in the belief that the comments are justified by a higher cause.
  3. Writers in print and broadcasters on the radio are also engaging with others who do not come with a face; they are broadcasting opinions not engaging in personal conversation and often without much accountability.

Over Easter Giles took the opportunity to share his views about the doctrine of atonement. He was given three major platforms for this: The Merciful Crucifixion in The Guardian, his Radio 4 Thought for the Day on Monday 13th April and in No Task Left for the Risen Jesus his Church Times column of 24th April. He took the opportunity to attack substitutionary atonement in general and penal substitution in particular. This is becoming almost an annual event for the media; wait until Easter comes around and find a prominent cleric to attack a central aspect of Christian doctrine. During Easter 2007 it was the Dean of St Alban’s Jeffrey John saying almost exactly the same things as Giles Fraser. Unfortunately, the full transcript of Dr John’s Radio 4 Lent talk is proving very hard to track down but I did listen to it at the time.

What I found unpleasant, manipulative and depressing about both Jeffrey John’s and Giles Fraser’s comments on the cross is that they didn’t use the occasions to proclaim good news but rather presented a caricature of atonement theology which they went on to attack. They didn’t seem too concerned about using a public platform to distort and undermine the beliefs of brothers and sisters in Christ during the most important period of the Christian calendar. Tom Wright responded to Jeffrey John in an excellent article entitled The Cross and The Caricatures and I think his critique holds for Giles’ comments about the cross.

So, yes Giles those of us who blog need to consider and reflect on what we post, but so do those who are given the privilege of writing and broadcasting in the mainstream national media. All these formats have the potential to be either good or bad for the soul.