Thursday, 31 March 2011

Where are the poet priests?

Today we are asked to remember John Donne (1572-1631), poet, priest and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. As I was thinking about Donne’s life and work I started to ask ‘where are today’s poet priests?’. I’m aware of a few, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, but I can’t help wondering whether we have lost something in our understanding of priestly calling and ministry. Part of the role of the priest is to help others to see things in a different light, from an alternative perspective, and in the Church of England we have a rich tradition of priests who fulfilled this part of their vocation through poetry. In all the discussions about the future of the ordained ministry, and I have sat through too many hours of debate about that subject, I have not once heard anyone ask:

'Where are the poet priests and how will they be encouraged, nurtured and sustained?'.

Update: Check our this excellent follow up blog post developing the theme from Changing Worship The Church and the Arts.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Holy Spirit in the World Today 2011

In 2010 Holy Trinity Brompton hosted a major two day conference on The Holy Spirit in the World Today. On 3rd June 2011 HTB will be hosting a follow-up conference bringing together theologians and church leaders in the context of a dynamic local church to think about the person, role and work of the Holy Spirit in the church and the world today.


This year the line up includes:
  • Professor David Ford: Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge - one of the most widely-respected theologians in the world, and author of many books, most notably and recently Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (CUP, 2007)
  • Dr Wonsuk Ma: David Yonggi Cho Research Tutor in Global Christianity, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies - a Pentecostal missionary and specialist in Old Testament Pneumatology and Asian Pentecostalism. He is the author, among other books, of Mission in the Spirit: Towards a Pentecostal/Charismatic Missiology (Regnum 2010)
  • Jane Williams: Tutor in Theology St Paul’s Theological Centre and St Mellitus College. She is the author of several books, including most recently, Faces of Christ: Jesus in Art (Lion, 2011)
  • Professor Tom Greggs: Tom is one of the youngest Professors of Theology in the UK. He is currently Professor at the University of Chester, and about to take up a new post in the summer as Professor of Historical and Doctrinal Theology in the University of Aberdeen. He is the author of, among others, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity (OUP 2009)
  • Ken Costa: Chairman of Lazard Investment Bank, Chairman of Alpha International, Church Warden of Holy Trinity Brompton, and one of the most widely-known lay Christian leaders in London.
I attended last year’s conference and it was a very stimulating event, though by the end of two days my brain was fried and I needed to lie down in a dark room. The structure of the conference ensured that the theological discussions were grounded in the context of worship and ministry and the programme this year is planned in the same way.

Further details about the conference can be found here and I think there may be a discount for those booking before 14th April. I understand tickets are selling well so book early to avoid disappointment.

The conference can be followed on Twitter here.

Carling Theology

I have been doing a bit of research on Peter Rollins in preparation for a discussion about Rob Bell (Love Wins) and Rollins’s (Pyro-theology) theology in a few days time. There’s quite a lot of material from Rollins on Youtube and he is an engaging speaker. Of course I'm biased since my family, like Rollins, come from Belfast. A particular clip caught my attention entitled I Deny the Resurrection and I warmed to Rollins's main point about the ways in which we deny and affirm the resurrection of Jesus by the way we live.

Watching the clip I found myself reflecting on the story Rollins tells about a friend standing at the gates of heaven. The story sounded strangely familiar and then I remembered this:

So there you have it, Carling Theology.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The cards you’re dealt

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the last few days about a Spirit of Life festival taking place in Manchester Cathedral at the beginning of May. The usual suspects were in full cry, led by the Daily Mail with its ‘Church of England row as cathedral opens doors to tarot card readers and crystal healers in 'new age' festival’ headline. When you read what the festival is about then it is a lot less controversial than desperate journalists in search of a story would suggest.
Contrary to media reports, the Spirit of Life is a Christian festival offering a balanced programme of different spiritual traditions including Taize, choral evensong and contemporary spiritualities. There are workshops which will discuss spiritualities outside the Christian tradition. There will be no tarot card reading or fortune telling at the event. All contributors are Christians and have undergone a rigorous application process.
Doug Chaplin has raised an interesting question on his blog: Would St  Paul read Tarot cards? and he goes on to discuss the merits and concerns about the use of Tarot cards and The Jesus Deck in Christian outreach. I’m interested to know what others think of the Jesus Deck as a colleague of mine, Penny Horseman, is seeking to get it produced in this country. Penny has set up a website and Facebook page and describes what the deck is about:
The Jesus Deck is a set of 52 + 2 (the Jokers) cards originally designed as a Christian education tool in the 1970’s. It has been published by a US games manufacturer, and was available on the internet.
In the 1990’s some Christians realised that for many people outside the church the reading of tarot cards has enormous interest. While they could not in any way condone the use of tarot cards as future telling , they did see opportunity for talking to people and using them  as a starting point.   Using regular tarot cards they began to engage with people to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
As an alternative to using the regular tarot cards some of us started to use the Jesus Deck cards. They provided a useful tool for speaking to people about Jesus Christ in a flexible and accessible way in one to one situation. People who were seeking to find out more about Jesus  could have a conversation based around the cards.
I confess to a certain ambivalence about the enterprise and I am not sure how big the market is, however, I do know that Penny and others have found The Jesus Deck to be an effective outreach resource in their work at exhibitions and festivals.

It is amazing to see some of the things people will engage with when it comes to matters of spirituality. At last year’s Greenbelt festival my favourite stall was The Gong Shower. This comprised of a large gong (didn’t get the make) in front of which the punter sits while a chap bangs the gong. His partner sits cross legged by the gong and seems to be chanting during the process. I was most impressed with the way that this couple managed to get people to part with £20 for the ‘shower’. Simon Parke describes his experience of The Gong Shower at Greenbelt in 2008:
For the Gong Shower, I sit upright with my eyes closed behind a large shiny gong, which Colin beats repeatedly and in different styles. He says it is a pioneering work which cuts out the head. This is my experience, as the noise passes wonderfully though me. I have the sensation of walking around the vast hallways of my inner self – caverns of possibility.
I don’t have a gong but I do have a drum kit with some glorious sounding cymbals. Is there still time to book a stall at Greenbelt for this year? Must be worth £50 a go to sit in front of my bass drum as I deliver a version of Cozy Powell’s Dance with the Devil.

Monday, 28 March 2011

A hermeneutic of wonder

This is the phrase that has been buzzing round my head since Saturday when Maggi Dawn came to Chelmsford to lead a day based on her book The Writing on the Wall. Through a series of lectures, discussions, a quiz and various reflections, Maggi opened up for us an exploration of the Bible maggiand it’s relationship with high art and popular culture. This was much more than just a dip into her book, as Maggi used worked examples to illustrate her themes and interact with a very engaged and enthused group of over fifty people.

The first session began with an introduction exploring the influence of the Bible on western culture and the importance of knowing the biblical text in understanding art, film and literature. This was followed by a reflection and discussion on the way in which artists have interpreted the stories and illuminated them in different and often contrasting ways. An exercise comparing depictions of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to Thomas by Caravaggio and Granville Gregory provoked a lively discussion.

MitorajMaggi then took us into an exploration of The Annunciation. We began with the text from Luke 1:26-38, with people sharing their images and understanding of the story, before looking at how various artists have explored and interpreted the story. Reflections on the paintings by Fra Angelico and Millet, Igor Mitoraj’s wonderful sculpture The Doors of the Annunciation and the poetry of Muir and Rowe helped us to look at the story in different ways and to question our own presuppositions. The session was a carefully crafted and illuminating example of the question:
What if we allow art to be a lens through which we revisit our theology?
I found myself reflecting on the cycle of interpretation that we are drawn into as Christians and how important it is to surface this process not only to examine what we impose on the text but to open ourselves to glimpse fresh insights through the eyes of the artist. So the story of The Annunciation inspires great works of art and those works of art influence how we interpret the story; a classic simple example is the image of Gabriel with wings depicted in Renaissance portrayals of the story. Other artists then challenge that image and take us back to the text. A good contemporary example would be the portrayal of Gabriel as an ordinary man in the BBC production The Nativity. Other themes we looked at in the story included the responses of Mary and the passage of time.

After lunch we kicked off with a quiz that served to further illustrate the influence of the Bible on our culture and language (and highlighted my ignorance). The main session in the afternoon was a sustained reflection on the way that art can change how we see the world and in the Christian context illumine the way in which we engage with scripture. At the heart of this session was a fascinating case study on the life of Abraham. This was rich material for a sermon series or set of Bible studies as we considered depictions of key moments in the story and works on the theme. Maggi drew on insights from Coleridge, T.S Elliot, Kierkegaard, Phyllis Trible, Rublev, Caravaggio, Segal, Rembrandt amongst others. The afternoon concluded with responses to interpretations of The Crucifixion and Jacob Wrestling the Angel from a wide range of artists. The quality of the contributions from the discussions reflected the high level of engagement with Maggi’s themes.

Having let a couple of days pass before recording my responses to the event, I am left with the phrase ‘the hermeneutic of wonder’ (Wordsworth?). As we allow a conversation to develop between the Bible, the artist and ourselves so we are opened up to new possibilities, to creative and challenging insights. Familiar stories and texts from scripture come alive as we learn to sit with layers of meaning and wrestle with questions and ambiguities raised and explored by the artist. The Arts, as Maggi so ably demonstrated, are not there just to decorate, make pretty or illustrate, but to communicate and reveal things that otherwise might remain unseen or constrained.

There is another opportunity to explore The Writing on the Wall with Maggi in Barking on May 7th. Places are still available and details can be found here.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Heaven in ordinary – Duffy, Herbert & Berryman

This morning was given over to a very stimulating session with the students on our Living the Story course. Jonathan Evens was leading the session on poetry and we looked at the work of Carol Ann Duffy, George Herbert and John Berryman. I don’t want to steal Jonathan's thunder and will put in a link if he choses to blog in more detail, but I do want to give a taste of what we covered. (Update: link to Jonathan's reflection on the session.)

carol-ann-duffy-image-LST063272_thumbFirst up was Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Prayer. As Jonathan explained, Duffy was once asked if she thinks poetry has to some extent taken the place of religion in our society. Her response was to say ‘It does for me: I don’t believe in God.’ So her sonnet Prayer has been described as the voice of a secular spirituality.
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
Mean Time (Anvil, 1994)
herbertWe explored Duffy’s poem in relation to one of George Herbert’s poems on the subject Prayer (1). Not surprisingly more overtly Christian than Duffy, Herbert’s poem is no less rich with imagery and contains some phrases that have become part of our cultural landscape. It seemed to some of us as if Duffy’s Prayer was a reflection on Herbert’s phrase ‘Heaven in ordinarie’.
Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angel's age.
          God's breath in man returning to his birth,
          The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
          Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
          The six days' world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.
          Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
          Heaven in ordinary, men well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,
          Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
          The land of spices, something understood.
The Poetical Works Of George Herbert, ed. George Gilfillan. Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1853
berrymanLater in the session Jon invited the students to compare two poems by the American post-war confessional poet John Berryman (though the students didn’t know they were by the same author at the time). I hadn’t read Berryman so enjoyed engaging with something fresh and challenging. Again so much to explore in a short space of time and I look forward to spending more time reading Berryman’s work. The first poem is Dream Song 201 one of several hundred Berryman poems in the Dream Song cycle featuring the principal character Henry.
Hung by a thread more moments instant Henry’s mind
super-subtle, which he knew blunt & empty & incurious
but when he compared it with his fellows’
finding it keen & full, he didn’t know what to think
apart from typewriters & print & ink.
On the philosophical side
plus religious, he lay at a loss.
Mostly he knew the ones he would not follow
into their burning systems
or polar systems, Wittgenstein being boss,
Augustine general manager. A universal hollow
most of the rest seems;
so Henry in twilight is on his own:
marrying, childing, slogging, shelling taxes,
pondering, making.
It’s rained all day. His wife has been away
with genuine difficulty he fought madness
whose breast came close to breaking.
The second Berryman poem is called Eleven Addresses to the Lord (6)
Under new management, Your Majesty:
Thine. I have solo'd mine since childhood, since
my father's blow-it-all when I was twelve
blew out my most bright candle faith, and look at me.
I served at Mass six dawns a week from five,
adoring Father Boniface & you,
memorizing the Latin he explained.
Mostly we worked alone. One or two women.
Then my poor father frantic. Confusions & afflictions
followed my days. Wives left me.
Bankrupt I closed my doors. You pierced the roof
twice & again. Finally you opened my eyes.
My double nature fused in that point of time
three weeks ago day before yesterday.
Now, brooding thro' a history of the early Church,
I identify with everybody, even the heresiarchs.
As with the first two poems it seemed as if Dream Song 201 was a meditation on the line ‘Confusions & afflictions followed my days'’ from Eleven Addresses (6).

So, yet more examples of the way in which artists have engaged with Living the Story from within and without. One thing I immediately responded to was the way in which Duffy’s poem recognised the moments of gift or grace in the everyday. It reminded me of the need to step back and be alert to what is going on around me, instead of striving to see glimpses of heaven in the extraordinary. Of course the glimpses of heaven in the extraordinary are fantastic when they come along.

One final comment. The final stanza of Duffy's poem referencing 'the radio's prayer' reminded me of this classic from Blur.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Don’t you know it? Bible Year 2011 (10)

I have a Bible on my Blackberry. In fact, I have lots of versions on my phone thanks to Youversion. However, I sometimes feel embarrassed getting my Blackberry out during a service as it looks like I’ve had enough of the liturgy and started to check my emails. I have a mate whose wife wants to get a sign which says ‘It’s O.K. he’s reading the Bible on his iPhone’ to avoid the scowls of disgruntled worshippers.

A couple of days ago I was chatting to a colleague and one of our area bishops and the conversation turned to Bibles on phones and iPads. My colleague explained that in the parish he had encountered a problem with reading the Bible on his phone when visiting parishioners. No sooner has he turned to an appropriate passage than the parishioner says something like ‘Oh, that’s very clever, what sort of phone is that? Can I have a look please?’ Accessing his Bible on his mobile became a distraction in such circumstances and so he has reverted to the printed word. The bishop joked that only the Word of God on the printed page was good enough, before going on to quip that more preferable still would be a scroll or perhaps a wax tablet.

As a wet behind the ears curate I learnt an important lesson while visiting an elderly housebound member of the congregation. I asked her what she would like me to read and she requested Psalm 121. I explained that I only had my New Testament with me. For some bizarre reason you are only given the New Testament when ordained deacon and get the whole enchilada when ordained priest. ‘Don’t you know it?’ my parishioner asked, before proceeding to recite Psalm 121 word for word. She then went on to various evening prayer collects by which time I was in a cold sweat. Needless to say, I never left the house without a Bible and a small copy of the Book of Common Prayer tucked in my jacket pocket after that experience.

I think back to my pastoral visits some 20+ years ago and reflect on how much easier it would have been if I’d had my Blackberry with Bible and daily prayer at the click of a couple of buttons. Then I remember that lovely faithful elderly lady I used to visit and I begin to shake as I think about what she would have said if I’d got my mobile out in the middle of our chat.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Am I religious?

Some interesting reactions to a survey conducted recently by the British Humanist Association. The BHA are in a bit of a strop about the religious question in the National Census being conducted on 27th March and so have decided to ask their own questions connected with religious affiliation. Two good critiques of the BHA survey are offered by Doug Chaplin and Church Mouse.

The BHA asked the census question ‘What religion are you?’ and 61% ticked a religious box, 39% ticked to indicate no religion. The next question, not in the census, asked ‘Are you religious?’ and only 29% of those completing the survey responded ‘yes’. This got me wondering how I would have responded to these two questions and the answer is I am not sure.

Yesterday, in church we prayed the Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent:
Almighty God,
you show to those who are in error the light of your truth,
that they may return to the way of righteousness:
grant to all those who are admitted
      into the fellowship of Christ's religion,
that they may reject those things
      that are contrary to their profession,
and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
I have to confess I really don’t like this prayer for, as my wife commented on the way home from church, it reads like a badly drafted legal contract. I also baulk at the phrase ‘the fellowship of Christ’s religion’. What does that actually mean? It can’t mean the religion of Jesus which was Judaism. I presume the phrase means the religion founded on belief in Jesus as the Christ which is Christianity, but that’s not what it says. I would prefer to speak about my faith rather than my religion.

If I’m honest my problem with the word ‘religious’ is that it speaks to me of a disposition and in that sense I am not very religious. Let me give an example, I am not one for dressing in religious clothes; the first time I put a clerical collar on I felt physically sick and I wear robes because I’m supposed to when leading public acts of worship, not because I like to wear robes or vestments. Some of my colleagues love all the dressing up, movement and gesture in worship, while I could happily do without all the flummery. I am not saying my colleagues, many of whom I greatly respect, are any more or less faithful than me, just pointing out that this is an aspect of being religious that I don’t easily relate to. I am not religious in the sense that I don’t like dressing in ‘religious’ clothes. This might seem a silly example but what it shows is that I am not predisposed to something that might be expected of a religious person.

One of the things I find appealing about the Jesus I encounter in the Gospels is that he was continually being criticised for sitting light to the religious paraphernalia of his faith, in short he didn’t appear to be very religious. The followers of Jesus were also criticised for failing to conduct themselves in a manner associated with prescribed religious behaviour. Jesus went further and criticised those who did a good job of appearing to be religious, yet, in their hearts did not seem to have a very Godly attitude towards others. So was Jesus religious?

Saturday, 19 March 2011

What time is it?

Lots of people getting excited about the Super Moon this weekend. If you don’t know what this is about, basically the moon is going to look bigger in the sky for all sorts of scientific reasons. For a more erudite explanation check out the Beaker Folk, though personally I find this explanation from Bruce Almighty more convincing.

My blog isn’t particularly known for its scientific content, however, I have been taking a close interest in the question of time and relativity. My interest has been aroused by my close observations of an extraordinary and empirically verifiable phenomena known as Fergie Time. FT refers to the way in which Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, is able to bend time with the use of his watch.

SAF Briefly, if Man Utd are in need of extra time in order to score a goal then by tapping his watch and pointing at the referee SAF is able to cause time to stand still. When the requisite goal is scored normal time resumes. FT also works the other way round. If Man Utd are holding on and under pressure towards the end of a game then SAF taps his watch and points at the referee and the final whistle is blown. Scientific opinion is divided on whether SAF’s habits of mastication also affect the passage of time; it is certainly an observable fact that he chews his gum more frantically when deploying Fergie Time. The other aspect of FT is the fact that it works more effectively at Old Trafford Man Utd’s stadium.

In order to develop my understanding of Time I have turned to a rising star in the firmament of television scientists. This man manages to make even the most complicated aspects of cosmology accessible to the average viewer and he combines his intellectual prowess with a sharp dress sense and a cool haircut. Rather than say any more I’ll let you judge for yourself. Oh, in case you are interested the other guy is Professor Brian Cox.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Beer fast

Some readers of this blog may be aware that I have given up drinking alcohol during Lent. There is a debate in our household about what constitutes Lent; do we include Sundays and do we finish on Good Friday or Easter morning? The first week has passed without too many problems. There was a tricky moment over Sunday evening’s roast chicken as my wife had left a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge but temptation was resisted and the wine returned to the cellar. I can see a couple of challenges up ahead, not least my leaving lunch at the Diocesan Office and it seems strange to forgo a pint of Guinness on St Patrick’s Day.
I am very grateful to Martin Beckford of The Telegraph for messaging me with a link to a story in The Catholic Herald. Apparently someone called J Wilson has taken a different approach to a beer fast during Lent. Wilson’s idea is to fast on beer rather than give it up. Inspired by 17th Century Bavarian friars, who refused to eat solid food during the penitential season and sustained themselves with a strong dark beer called Doppelbock, Wilson has brewed his own version of the drink and forsaken anything other than four bottles a day. The Herald explains the history of Doppelbock which enjoys Papal approval.
The beer, which is sweeter, stronger and darker than normal lager, is filled with nutrients and was called “liquid bread”. Doppelbock received papal approval in the late 1600s, so the legend goes, because the Paulaner friars sent a cask of the brew to Rome which turned sour on the long journey across the Alps. The pope tasted the sour liquid and decided that anything so disgusting must be good for penitents, giving it his sanction. The Paulaner doppelbock, which is a strengthened version of the original Lenten beer known as bockbier, was called Salvator, and the other Bavarian breweries which make doppelbock give the brew a name ending in the letters “-or”. Wilson’s beer is an Illuminator. Although hops play a minimal part in the flavour of doppelbock, Wilson has used a mixture of different hops, including a type originally grown in the Holledau region of Bavaria from where the friars would have harvested hops used in the Salvator beer.
Wilson is blogging his experience in A Diary of a Part Time Monk. He does seem determined not to shirk any detail in his daily account and today includes descriptions of his breath and experiences in the lavatory:
More interestingly, I thought you’d want to learn about my breath and stools! I’ve reached a new stage of detoxification, and I now awake in the morning with my mouth tasting of cooked cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. On the toilet front, everything still works; thanks for asking. Weight-wise, I’m holding pretty steady at this point, clocking in at 149.5 today, so eleven pounds shed as of day eight, but hovering in the 149-150 range for three days straight.
This is not just a gimmick and Wilson is taking the time to investigate aspects of monastic life. He  goes on to comment in today's entry:
Now that I’ve worked my way through my “Monk in the World” curriculum, I’m scooting more heavily into Psalms, which are an integral part of a monk’s daily life. They are an element of the Bible that I’ve largely ignored in my life. Songs, yet not as cool as “Whole Lotta Love,” I couldn’t quite get them as a kid. Looking at them through new lenses, however, I can suddenly understand the attraction, and why the Benedictines maintain(ed) such a strict regimen daily. Me, I’ve divided their total by the days I have left and will be doing four per day, two in the morning and two in the evening.
I look forward to dipping into Wilson’s blog from time to time to see how he progresses and I may even gain some ideas for next year. I wonder how long it takes to brew Doppelbock?

St Patrick's Day

In celebration of St Patrick's Day

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Never take it for granted. Bible Year 2011 (9)

A powerful reminder of what the Bible can mean for a community receiving it for the first time in their own language. In 2010 the Kimyal Tribe of West Papua, Indonesia celebrated the arrival of a plane carrying copies of the New Testament.

It is easy to forget what a precious gift it is to have the Bible in our language and so easy to take for granted. There are still many peoples who do not have the gift of the Bible in their own tongue. For more information check out Eddie and Sue Arthur’s blog including When will Bible translation be finished.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Phone box or mobile?

There was a very interesting observation made at a church leadership conference last week which I picked up via a re-tweet from Pete Phillips on Twitter:
We are standing at the phone kiosk in the age of the mobile phone.
phone boxThis powerful image has been buzzing round my head for the last few days and triggering all sorts of thoughts. I realise that the image relates to the church’s relationship with modernity and post modernity, however, one thing in particular occurs to me and it is linked in with the season of Lent. In the lead up to Ash Wednesday I noticed several people on both Twitter and Facebook saying they would be giving up using these social media networks for Lent. The question that this raises for me is:
Do we still regard social media networks as optional, a luxury and an indulgence even, or are they an essential aspect of communication and community in the culture we inhabit?
This is a serious question because my impression is that many in the church still regard forms of digital communication as an add on, something extra that can be engaged with or not as a matter of personal preference.  I am amazed at how many people regard me as an oddity as a blogging, tweeting member of the clergy. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to preface comments in a meeting with an explanation of the main forums for social networking because people have that blank expression of incomprehension on their faces.

I understand why some are still suspicious of social media networks and forms of digital communication. I appreciate the reasons why some have decided to disengage for a period of time. Blogging can become an obsession; more about the blogger and their status, influence and statistics, than about what is being communicated or discussed. Twitter can come across as another form of displacement activity. There is a danger that Facebook looks like any other forum for frittering time away, gossiping and, sadly, even cruel bullying. I recognise that some people can become so caught up in their online relationships that they are in danger of ignoring those they are in physical community with, including family and friends.

Yet, these criticisms are not about the medium, they are about the uses to which these networks are put by the user. Why have people not considered giving up speaking, listening, reading and writing for forty days? Are the only valid forms of enrichment and refreshment during Lent verbal face to face contact and pre internet forms of communication and cultural expression? The questions sound flippant but they are sincere.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Easter(Live) 2011 #EasterLIVE

Watch out for the pub landlord whose upper room was hired for a Passover party.

Following on from the popular and successful Natwivity, Easter(Live) is a diverse collection of passion stories being told live on Twitter this Easter. Tweeps can sign up, create their own stories and follow others and tell the Easter story in new ways.

EasterLIVELogo I’ve signed up and my intention is to explore an approach which is a mix of Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean and Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The idea of stories in which Jesus is one step ahead or just off stage have always appealed to me. I’ll try and use a popular cultural approach with music, video and anything else that offers a sideways slant on the Easter story. I may also try and link in with some of what is going on with our Beer and Bible project, with a particular focus on reading the Bible in pubs during Holy Week.

Right, I’m off to sort out the orders for Passover week. Still embarrassed about that wedding gig when we ran out of wine:(

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Beer and Bible Video

Here's a short video about Beer and Bible.


With thanks to Big Bible for promoting the initiative and Pete Phillips for recording the video with me at #Ashmedia.

Although Beer and Bible was developed by Chelmsford Diocese there is no reason why other churches and organisations can’t have a go, so feel free to get in contact for more information.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

ashes to ashes

My offering for Ash Wednesday.

My mama said to get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom!

For a more erudite Ash Wednesday comment check out Maggi's reflection.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Beer and Bible mats

After a fair bit of hassle the Beer and Bible beer mats have finally arrived and are ready for distribution to parishes sharing in this diocesan initiative. In the Diocese of Chelmsford we have a whole range of events to celebrate Bible Year 2011 and through Beer and Bible we are encouraging the public reading of scripture in pubs around the diocese. Any parish participating in Beer and Bible will receive a pack of free beer mats for distribution in their local pubs. Here’s what they look like front and back (the purple border denotes the actual shape of the mats). The Bible is open at Ephesians 3.



The local press have been very interested in Beer and Bible and are planning to run some stories in connection with the initiative. We are hoping that +Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, will be reading in various hostelries during Holy Week. One of the hardships of my job is that I had to meet a press photographer to set up a picture for an article on Beer and Bible. Here I am with Dave Chesney, curate of Holy Trinity Springfield in Chelmsford, and the pub is The Oddfellows Arms!


Someone commented: ‘I can see what version of the Bible you are reading but what is the ale?’ The answer is a very pleasant Adnams Broadside.

I have a dilemma, for I shall be giving up alcohol for Lent. Should I not be excused abstinence when my work demands I down a pint in the cause of Beer and Bible?

It’s Pancake Day… again.

Here’s the excellent Maid Marian and her Merry Men to remind us what today is all about.

I posted this last year but make no apologies for a repeat.

Monday, 7 March 2011


I love skiing though I haven’t been able to hit the slopes for a few years, but now I’ve discovered that I can snowboard and count it as work! The Vancouver Sun reports that an Anglican priest living in British Colombia has just completed his PhD on the spirituality of snowboarding.
snowboarderRev. Neil Elliot of St. Andrews Anglican Church in Trail began his studies 10 years ago in England, pulling together a love of snowboarding, an interest in spirituality and a desire to understand the relationship between spirituality and religion.
It was the word "soulriding" that first captured his attention more than a dozen years ago, while he was living in England and snowboarding in the Alps in Europe. The term made him wonder if there was a spiritual dimension to carving a path down a mountain.
"It's not a well-used term [and] it's kind of vague. I was interested in this term possibly as some kind of indicator of what was happening about spirituality. Was soulriding some kind of spirituality? Was it organized in some way? I had a whole bunch of questions about it," he said on Friday in an interview.
"It seemed to provide a very good excuse for me to do some field research -- and you have to remember, at that time I was in Birmingham, England, without a mountain in sight and feeling fairly itchy to get out for more than just a week or two to the mountains."
He began his studies at the University of Central England in Birmingham, but his research brought him to the B.C. Interior in 2003-04, where he fell in love with Red Mountain in the Kootenays. When an Anglican bishop in the area offered him a job in nearby Trail, he and his wife were thrilled. "We love, love being here. It's the most wonderful spot."
On a more serious note Neil discovered during his research that though snowboarders where happy to talk about spirituality they didn’t see where God fitted into the picture.
"One thing that was very clear in the research that I did is that people didn't see any necessity to include God or any kind of structure in their understanding of spirituality. In fact, a number of people said it's about spirituality; it's not about God.
"That's quite challenging, coming from an institutional church which very much sees God as key in spirituality."
One of Neil’s conclusions is that what people are seeking is community not institution, which raises the challenging question as to why church isn’t seen as community?
"We need to help people see that we're a community and not an institution," Elliot said. "Ironically, the challenges that we're facing in terms of finances and congregations are actually helping us to do that, because we haven't got the money to prop up the institutional stuff [any more]."
Interesting and thought provoking material which resonates with other research doing the rounds, particularly in the area of Fresh Expressions. A more detailed account of the background to Neil’s research can be found in this working paper and a summary of his conclusions here.

Thanks to fellow pilgrim Jenn Strawbridge for drawing my attention to the story. Time I think to firm up a research proposal on the spirituality of football with particular reference to Manchester United and the Theatre of Dreams. Suggestions for potential funding streams gratefully received.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The President’s Speech

Here’s an early front runner for next year’s Oscars. Probably about as accurate as The King’s Speech according to Christopher Hitchens!

h/t Chris Newlands.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Commit your way to the Lord

Cracking Presidential Address from +Stephen at 
Chelmsford Diocesan Synod, 5 March 2011.

Trust in the Lord and be doing good;
Dwell in the land and be nourished with truth.
Let your delight be in the Lord
And he will give you your heart‟s desire.
Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him,
And he will bring it to pass.
He will make your righteousness as clear as the light
And your just dealing as the noonday.
Be still before the Lord and wait for him.
Psalm 37. 4-7a

Since my installation in this Cathedral Church last November I have met with many individuals and spent a day in eleven of our twenty-six deaneries. As you may recall, I have come to the Diocese without a vision, still less a plan. This is for three reasons. First, it happens to be true. Why pretend otherwise? Secondly, I believe that good decisions arise out of good relationships. For me this is a fundamental principle about how we do business together and seek the mind of Christ. It is you, the people of God in this great Diocese, who have much to teach me about what God is already doing and what our priorities for the future should be. This is why I am spending these first few months travelling around the Diocese asking clergy and lay people what they think I should be doing. I hope to have begun a conversation with the Diocese asking what kind of Church does God want us to be and what our priorities should be for the future; I believe this conversation will bear fruit. But thirdly, and most importantly, in the Christian faith, vision is given. It is not our task to make up the Christian faith for this generation, but to proclaim it afresh. As our Diocesan Vision Statement already puts it, “Our Passion is Jesus”. In Jesus God has already done everything that is necessary for us to know and receive eternal life. In Jesus God has revealed to us what true humanity looks like. In Jesus we discover the purposes of life. Our job is to live this truth joyfully and to communicate it effectively, making the most of the opportunities we are given and making the best of the resources that we have.

This is where Bishops and Diocesan Synods come in. And it is to these two issues, and what we as a Synod and I as your Bishop can do about them, that I will now turn.

1. Communicating the faith effectively
The single biggest challenge facing the church in Europe is that of evangelism. That is, how can we commend the Christian faith - our passion and what we have received from Christ - in such a way that people respond to God‟s call, give their lives in God‟s service, and so contribute to the building of God‟s kingdom in the world. And because the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ is good news for every person and every community, we cannot shirk from rising to the challenge of sharing and communicating our faith, even if it is hard - which it is - and even if the response is mixed, even negative - which is often the case. In Athens Paul preached in the Areopagus and we are told some scoffed; but others said “we will hear you again about this”… and some of them joined him and became believers.” (Acts 17. 32 &33) Should we expect different results in the all too similar smorgasbord of Essex and East London? But because there is not time in one Address to say more about this vital ministry, let me turn to the second issue.

2. Living the faith joyfully
Time and time again what has impressed me about the parishes I have already visited and the clergy and people I have already spoken to is that the best evangelism, the best communication of the Christian faith, is the Christ-like witness of ordinary Christian people in their ordinary daily lives. I am thinking of a priest in Waltham Forest who told me that having worked as a chaplain to the Fire Service for several years, he now felt God was calling him to be a fire-starter, an arsonist of the Spirit, bringing God‟s joy to the world; of a group of young adults in South Weald telling the story of how baptism preparation for their children had led them to faith; of a church school in Weeley where the evident faith of the Headteacher and the Chair of the Governing Body, and the involvement of the parish church, meant that this school and these children were alive - on fire - with the love of God. When the Christian faith is lived joyfully the witness of a transformed life transforms others and raises questions that demand exploration.

Therefore in the next phase of my conversation with the Diocese - and I recognise that I still have fifteen deaneries to visit - I plan to put to the forthcoming away-day of the Bishop‟s Council and the Bishop‟s Staff residential, these questions.

Inhabiting the world distinctively.
What could we do to help parishes enable people to grow in their Christian faith so that the faith that we celebrate on Sundays overflows joyfully into the lives we live on Monday. And chief amongst this growth in discipleship will be nurturing a life of prayer, including teaching people how to pray in the first place.
And what else could be woven into daily life, what habits of virtue and what rituals could we rediscover, that could enable the Christian life to be lived distinctively; fully engaged in the world and yet evidently Christian? Wouldn‟t this cause people to pause and wonder? And without it won‟t people just assume that Christian faith is our hobby? And if this happened, might it also be the key to enabling so much more to happen, for as we grow in discipleship so we become part of the apostolic church, hungry for God‟s righteousness, challenging the unjust structures of the world, longing to live peacefully and sustainably, and seeking God‟s kingdom on earth?

Evangelising effectively. As those who come to church find themselves changed into those who are sent by Christ into the world, so this too will raise questions; and as our parishes focus on the bread and butter ministry of worship and service so we will find, like Paul in Athens, that some people believe, and many will want to find out more. How can we help deaneries and parishes develop a ministry of evangelism that includes in every benefice a place of nurture where faith can be explored and Christian community experienced.

Serving with accountability.
What sort of church does God want us to be? How can we ensure that in every Christian community, be it inner-city parish church, Fresh Expression or rural multi-parish benefice, certain ministries are always present. Is there a bottom line? A set of ministries and activities that, although expressed differently, should be present in every community and about which we should be accountable? We would probably all agree on worship. But I am suggesting that evangelism and discipleship should be accorded equal footing. But what else?

Growing ministry. Here is the key question of all: What sort of ministry do we need to become this sort of church? We have got to move away from knock-out whist strategies of ministry where every time the cards are dealt there is one less in everyone‟s hand. We need to agree a ministry figure for each deanery and then ensure that those, probably stipendiary priests, who are placed in those parishes are strategic leaders with a clear brief for growing ministry in their benefice. This will mean ordaining more priests, but they will probably be self supporting ministers, and authorising more lay ministers, especially looking to nurture the specialised lay ministry of evangelist catechist, pastoral assistant, administrator and youth and children‟s worker. This will be a strategy for growing ministry that will grow the church. It will mean more ministers not less.

We need to work on all this together . We do not need a new vision - God has already given us one in Christ. But we do need to agree priorities for how we can live and communicate this vision today; and from this we need a strategic plan that would unashamedly declare that we believe God wants his church to grow: in numbers, in faithfulness, in impact, and in influence. Then we will truly become a church that has a transforming presence in every community of Essex and East London.

Once I have explored this again with the Bishop‟s Council and with colleagues on the Bishop‟s Staff, and completed my tour of all the deaneries, I intend to return to Synod in November with a proposal for strategic directions for the future growth and development of this Diocese under God that I hope we can all discuss, amend, own and then agree. And I ask you to pray for wisdom, for discernment and for growing consensus, that we may see clearly what God is asking us to say yes to in this time of challenge and opportunity.

Much of this is gathered together in those verses from Psalm 37 with which I began: we are invited to trust in the Lord, to be still before him and wait on him. We are told that it is the nourishing of truth that will enable us to inhabit the land. Not only will we then find out our heart‟s desire, rather than be endlessly side-tracked by the beguiling enchantments of the world, but we will receive that heart‟s desire.

My middle son asked me a very straight question the other day; he said, 'Dad, taken that clergy don‟t earn that much, why do you do it? What is your motivation?‟ And I said this: „It is my heart‟s desire to know Christ and to make Christ known; and I believe it is the knowing of Christ that alone can bring peace to the world and help us discover how to be human‟. That is why the church exists, so that we can participate in the purposes of the heart of God. It is this that must be at the centre of our plans. So: „commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.‟

+Stephen Chelmsford

Bishop Suheil

One of my most memorable Advent Sunday’s was spent in St George’s Cathedral Jerusalem while on sabbatical in 2008. The Bishops service was led by the Bishop of Jerusalem Suheil Dawani and the sermon was preached by Rt Revd Michael Jackson, recently elected Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough. It was a moving service, the highlight being the singing and praying in Arabic and English at the same time. I had the opportunity to chat to Bishops Suheil and Michael after the service while we enjoyed an excellent cup of coffee and macaroons.

Yesterday I read with sadness Stephen Bates’ report that Bishop Suheil has had to take legal action against the Israeli authorities who have refused to renew his residency visa for Jerusalem and required that he and his family leave the country. The authorities have accused the bishop of ‘acting with the Palestinian authority in transferring lands owned by the Jewish people to the Palestinians and also [helping] to register lands of the Jewish people in the name of the church’. As yet, Bishop Suheil has received no details about the accusations nor who has made them. This type of accusation is not uncommon and it is rather ironic that at the same time Israel continues in its failure to stop the illegal building of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

Bishop Suheil is not the only church leader to have faced visa problems, the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Israel has in the past faced a similar problem and this indicates something of the context in which the Christian churches minister in the land of the Holy One.

In December 2010 the Jerusalem Post published figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics that show Christian citizens of Israel make up roughly two percent of the country's population or 153,000 people out of the 7.5 million population. According to the report, 80.4% of the Christians in Israel are Arabs and the rest are immigrants that arrived in the country together with Jewish relatives under the Law of Return, including children who were born in the country. The majority of those under the second category of Christians reportedly arrived in Israel during the large waves of aliya from the former Soviet Union.

I continue to give thanks for my time in Jerusalem and the land of the Holy One and pray particularly for Bishop Suheil and those whom he shepherds during these challenging times.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Fairtrade fortnight

Fairtrade Fortnight began yesterday and to get you in the mood here’s Harry Hill talking about his nuts.

For more information about Fairtrade check out their site.