Monthly Archives: July 2005

Fresh Expressions: Emerging Church And The Historic Denominations

Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!

But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.

For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?

(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)

How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.

Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.

So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.

Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.

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Authenticity And Creativity

Having just quoted in the last post from An Hour On Sunday by Nancy Beach, there is a quote from that book I have been meaning to post for reflection for ages. She includes it in her chapter on authenticity. It would also fit with what she says about creativity.

She tells on page 186 of how a friend had drawn her attention to an article in GQ magazine that was painful reading for Christians. Walter Kim, not a Christian disciple, had chosen to immerse himself in the evangelical subculture for a week – music, videos, even an exercise régime. His words were damning:

‘[Evangelical Christianity] is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some decision that to compete with them – to compete with ‘N Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie and Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street – the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music … and head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off, on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale. What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing … has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith.’

(Walter Kim, “What Would Jesus Do?”, GQ magazine, September 2002, p 496.)

Well, where to begin? Mall Christianity? (Love that ‘It’s been malled’ pun, by the way.) Yes: so much evangelical Christianity is consumerist, and thus in denial of the Gospel. What a tragedy when you think where the contemporary Christian music scene started out from: the revolutionaries of the Jesus Movement around the late 1960s and early 1970s who were committed to a radical lifestyle. Now it only matters if it sells. No wonder the likes of Larry Norman never fitted in with it.

The quote is also the best piece of writing for making me reflect on why the wider world has despised contemporary Christian music. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t get played on grounds of prejudice, and I don’t doubt that is partly true – the deliberate snubbing by the media of bands like Delirious? is a case in point. But what Kim makes us forcefully see here is the sheer problem of a lack of originality. You can read reviews of Christian music and there is a need to compare the sound with something on the ‘secular’ scene that readers may be familiar with (I know that, I write reviews myself for Cross Rhythms) but sometimes it’s a sad expression of the paucity of artistry. Although too many of the American artists are certainly not working ‘for scale': some command enormous fees. Material poverty isn’t absent from the US scene, but it’s far more common this side of the pond.

But what has stuck with me most since I first read this a few weeks ago is the way Kim latches on to the positive regard he and others have for our ‘centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music’. I knew ‘the world’ liked our ancient paintings, sculpture, stained glass windows and classical music, but I had assumed that was a spot of traditionalism. I knew there was a fondness for gospel music, but had assumed there was a certain stereotyping going on. (Think Kenny Everett and the large hands.) What Kim is saying here is that these art forms were original. Perhaps that’s why there is an innate respect today for U2, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, et al. Integrity and authenticity require honest creativity.

Kim’s writing leaves me wondering whether to label him what I have called elsewhere in a sermon on the arts and culture one of God’s unwitting prophets. We certainly need to hear his voice.

A Ministry Scrapbook

Regular blogging is quite difficult at present, as we get ready for our move next month. Last night I had my big circuit farewell service. Some had questioned my choice of venue, one of the ecumenical churches I have served. Why not the main church I had served, a small ordinary Methodist church? I didn’t mean to sound arrogant, but I thought that after eight years here and building up all sorts of networks there might be a lot of people who wanted to say goodbye. I thought we needed a larger venue.

I was right: I arrived twenty minutes before the service was due to start and I couldn’t get in the large car park. The whole service went brilliantly well. My sermon, which could have caused a few ruffled feathers, had an amazing response. I would estimate that about a quarter of the congregation came forward at the end to be anointed with oil.

There was a bunfight afterwards, except I never made it to the church hall even to get a cup of tea, due to the number of people wanting to speak to me. By the time I arrived home, around 9:15 pm, I was emotionally shattered. I felt the same when I woke up this morning: legs like jelly, plus a headache. (And no, it was the usual non-alcoholic Methodist communion wine.)

Some of these emotions made a bit more sense when I read the following wonderful words this morning from Nancy Beach’s beautiful book An Hour On Sunday:

‘Take a moment to mentally scroll through names and faces of people in your church. Think of someone who came to faith through your community. Now call to mind a few more people – someone who discovered spiritual gifts, someone else who found healing for family relationships, another who learned how to manage money, care for her body, or worship his Creator in new ways. Can you think of specific names? Those people, those eternal souls, are the fruit of your labor. And people are what matter most to God …

‘Every ministry is a scrapbook of faces, with new pages added every year. As we turn the pages of the scrapbook and look at each person’s eyes, we’re reminded of his or her story, of the impact of our church on that individual’s one and only life. Life change. There’s nothing more rewarding.’ (pp 254, 255)

So after eight years when I had really wondered whether what I had done here had been worth anything, when I had become painfully aware of my own failings (either true failings or those imposed by the unrealistic expectations of others) I think I’ve finally come to see that the jelly in my legs and the headache are about a realisation that I actually do have a ministry scrapbook I can take away from this place.

Choice Fatigue, Randomness And The iPod

Brian Eno has some interesting comments in August’s issue of Word Magazine:

‘The interesting thing about [the iPod Shuffle] is you can’t control the order. Suddenly some of the surprise of music reappears. It’s the first commercial product which uses randomness and this is a very interesting response to the oversupply of choice. We’ve had a whole generation of people saying, ‘You have more and more choice, anything you want.’ But there’s really been no attention to what happens when you have all that choice. How do you organise it? And what this little iPod says is, actually you don’t. You just let it surprise you.’

Psychologists talk about ‘choice fatigue’, something we Westerners hit at the supermarket. But we couldn’t shop via the shuffle method. Or could we?

Stephen Byers Lied To Parliament

According to today’s Guardian Stephen Byers’ admission in a court case that he lied to Parliament about Railtrack has scuppered his chances of a comeback to Government and risks him facing the wrath of “the Commons standards and privileges committee, the watchdog that guards the seven principles all MPs must uphold – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, openness, accountability, honesty and leadership”.

Those seven qualities are quite something. While the little bit of me that is postmodern is sceptical of how completely objective we can be, I just wonder how well we in the church do on this score.

The Debt Trap

Jon Ronson has a powerful column in today’s Guardian about the tragedy of the debt mountain in our nation. He traces it back, not only to the scandalous behaviour of financial institutions in the way they target the most vulnerable, but to one man who admits he thought he was doing something good but unleashed a monster. That man is the well known evangelical Christian Lord Griffiths. He sounds repentant. I hope he is.</p.

But Lord Griffiths is no longer in political power. (He was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher.) Might we dare hope that another Christian politician, Gordon Brown, might make tackling this a priority?

And might we Christians tackle the underlying issues with a witness that you can be fulfilled without having all the latest things? Of course that would undermine our entire economy, which is not based on need but upon want …

Blogs On The London Bombings (3)

And here is a piece from Pete Phillips that takes the thinking further in terms of the west as unholy empire. For those who have read Walsh and Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed it may have some echoes; I think it is also well worth reading after Lawrence’s comment earlier.

Blogs On The London Bombings (2)

I forgot an excellent post from Christianity Today, which takes an ‘Iraq plus’ interpretation. Here is an extract:

But two other factors were probably in play. Al Qaeda undoubtedly borrowed its strategy from the Madrid train bombing. There was another symmetry. Just as President Bush was absent from the U.S. capital during 9/11, so Blair was absent from the U.K. capital during (what may now be called) 7/7. Moreover, happening at the same time as the G8 summit, with Bush, Blair, and Putin present, it humiliated world leaders. The message being that they were trying to solve the world’s problems, and they can’t even solve this one. Moreover, Blair’s argument for invading and staying in Iraq-to give us security from terrorists-will look hollow as the dust settles.

Blogs On The London Bombings

Lawrence Moore has a perceptive piece: Let’s Stop Pretending Suicide Bombers Are Cowards.

Maggi Dawn has this prayer from Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford.

Then there’s this from Tall Skinny Kiwi. I wish I shared his confidence that it was because this nation was doing the will of God. Although in some sense we are, regarding international debt. But was it really a spiritual attack in the light of the G8?

Others can only talk about people who were miraculously protected. Jonny Baker is one who was at home when he should have been in central London. Well, yes, but I’ve heard of at least one known Christian who was killed.

Are we getting over-spiritual and forgetting the timing of the day after the Olympics and the thought that the Games could be disrupted? Is it not more likely due to reasons our nation is already hated, viz a viz Iraq, etc.? Maybe we’ve over-spiritualised the atrocity.

What Did The G8 Accomplish?

There is a useful summary of the ups and downs of the Gleneagles G8 summit here from TEAR Fund. Clearly the work goes on.

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