Category Archives: ministry
I consider it a bittersweet honour to conduct funerals. I have the opportunity to model hope and love in the darkest of times. Today, upon visiting one of my church members who had lost her husband, I discovered that some decades ago she had been secretary to one of my theological heroes – Lesslie Newbigin. I was glad only to discover that at the end of the visit, otherwise I fear the time might have been derailed.
But also today, a friend who is an Anglican priest shared on Facebook this obituary of a Catholic woman from Wisconsin. Rarely have I come across an obit quite like this one. Whether or not you express your faith in the same way as this lady, I invite you to read it, enjoy it and be challenged by it.
In many a sermon, I have urged congregations to engage with the Bible devotionally, even if it doesn’t seem exciting all of the time. I have used metaphors relating to food: in one, I point out that not every one of your three meals a day has to be memorable, but you need to take in nutrition for health. In another, I compare it to the actions of Joseph in Genesis urging Pharaoh to store up food in the seven years of plenty, ready for the seven years of famine.
With that in mind, read this testimony by Gordon MacDonald. Here is a clear illustration of the ‘Joseph’ approach. What MacDonald learned as a teenager has resourced him spiritually in old age. Read and heed.
Back in the days when the now-famous Ship Of Fools website was a print magazine thirty-odd years ago (aagh!), it printed in Issue 3 (June 1979) this cartoon strip. I reproduce it below with permission from the editor, Simon Jenkins, and Ship Of Fools.
How apposite this seems in the light of the Tony Anthony story. For those who have not heard, Anthony, an evangelist, had a book called ‘Taming the Tiger’ ghost-written by a journalist called Angela Little. Ever since its publication in 2004, some have been sceptical about claims Anthony makes in there about significant details of his life. Now, following the resignation of one of Anthony’s trustees, Mike Hancock, an investigation has indeed shown that large parts of the book are untrue. Journalist Gavin Drake has many of the details. The Evangelical Alliance and Avanti Ministries issued this statement. Ghost writer Angela Little revealed some possibly surprising approaches and attitudes to research and verification in a conversation with someone on a martial arts discussion board. The publisher, Authentic Media, have issued a statement, but it is hard to detect any sense of them taking any responsibility for the debacle in their words.
But my purpose here is not to analyse this specific case. It isn’t hard to find those on the Internet who are doing so. The reason for posting this is to ask what kind of culture promotes the lust for spectacular testimony books, such as Anthony’s.
I suggest there are at least two reasons. The first, briefly, is that evangelical Christianity is too obsessed with celebrity. And if we haven’t got any celebrities, we’ll make some. In this respect, we mindlessly accept the values of the world. I have no wish to decry those who genuinely have become disciples of Jesus Christ through a dramatic route. God bless them. But celebrities are not more valuable than the unknown. Indeed, we believe – surely? – in a Jesus who was and is on the side of the marginalised.
But secondly, we have a huge issue over privileging dramatic conversions, and this troubles me pastorally. So often I hear Christians feeling inferior because they have not had a ‘Damascus Road experience’. It may even make them doubt whether they are Christians at all. I tend to say, “Do you have to remember when you were born to know you are alive? No! You just need to notice the signs of life. And it is the same in spiritual matters.”
In the early 1990s, Churches Together in England commissioned some work on conversion. It was published in 1992 by the British and Foreign Bible Society under the title ‘Finding Faith Today‘, and was authored by John Finney. 54% of the 601 Christians interviewed said they knew of a time when they were not Christians,46% had ‘always been Christians’. Of the former category, 38% spoke of a sudden conversion, and 62% gradual. Of the latter category, 80% had a gradual commitment, 20% sudden. Among evangelicals, it was as I reported: 37% sudden, 63% gradual. Among non-evangelicals, it was 80% gradual, 20% sudden. On average across all Christians, 31% had a datable conversion and 69% did not.
So if datable conversions are a minority experience among Christians, then dramatic datable ones must be an even smaller percentage. And I therefore have to ask how helpful they are, when ordinary Christians feel demeaned by them. I think publishers are partly responsible, and need to rethink their policies. I also think the wider Christian culture is possible, because whatever we say about these contributing to evangelism, in reality they are often treated as Christian entertainment with a spiritual veneer.
Why do we need super conversion stories to proclaim the gospel? Isn’t the gospel dramatic enough??
So – does an addiction to dramatic celebrity testimony indicate that we don’t really believe in the Gospel?
Today’s Supreme Court decision confirms that Methodist ministers are office holders, not employees, and as such have no redress to Employment Tribunals for claims to unfair or constructive dismissal. I have blogged about this particular case twice before. The court has pointed out three issues in support of this judgement:
1. Our relationship with the Church cannot be analysed in ‘contract of employment’ terms;
2. Our receipt of a stipend and a manse are by virtue of being ‘received into full connexion’ and ordination, they do not constitute payment for duties;
3. We ministers cannot unilaterally resign, even if we give notice, because we need the consent of Conference, the Stationing Committee or a disciplinary body.
The official Methodist statement from Revd Gareth Powell, Assistant Secretary of the Conference, says:
“The judgement of the Supreme Court has determined that an Employment Tribunal does not have jurisdiction over Methodist Ministers. It sets out very clearly the nature of the relationship that exists and that such a relationship is defined by the Standing Orders of the Conference. It is important that we read the judgement with great care as we continue to ensure that our practices reflect the calling of the Church.
“No court ruling could change the gratitude I have for the immense amount of work undertaken by our ministers, now and in the past. Those in ordained ministry, as well as those in lay ministry, continue to be vital to the Church as we share the Gospel and seek to live faithfully in response to the call of God. I ask you please to pray for those who have been part of this case and for all who are affected by its outcome.”
What are we to make of this? While I am partly relieved by the judgement, I do not think it solves the problems our denomination clearly has. I am happy not to be an employee in that church life is vulnerable to tinpot Hitlers throwing their weight around. It shouldn’t be like that, and I certainly don’t experience anything like that in my current appointment, but I am afraid it does happen. Had we become employees, then depending on who was deemed to employ us, that was a risk.
Where I am I less than happy? I admit this is more about the experiences of friends than my own story, but this leaves Methodist ministers entirely dependent upon the ‘covenant relationship’ with the church, and no protection if that goes wrong. I know of instances where ministers have been left exposed to abuse, and where there has been no redress. One commenter on the UK Methodists page of Facebook describes the covenant relationship as an ‘empty promise’ and calls for a system of independent arbitration. Essentially, the church – should it so choose – is free to sweep uncomfortable things under the carpet. There is certainly now a risk that things could be loaded against ministers. I do not know whether this is true, but there is one other comment (which I can’t immediately find again) suggesting that only ministers ‘in stationing’ (i.e., looking for a new appointment) who are unwilling to put any geographical restrictions on where they serve will be guaranteed a manse and stipend if no appointment can be found for them. We are supposed to be at the disposal of Conference for stationing, it is true, but that same Conference promises to bear all sorts of personal circumstances in mind. Geography is by no means the only limit some ministers request.
Tonight, there will be some ministers feeling a sense of relief at the judgement, and others feeling more vulnerable and afraid. I can certainly understand those of my colleagues who have joined the Faith Workers’ Branch of the Unite union. It certainly seems uncomfortable that our denomination has shown no willingness to let the ‘covenant relationship’ be scrutinised by outsiders, so that justice is not only done, but seen to be done.
For many years now, one of my favourite quotes has been the late John Wimber‘s statement that ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. So it was a pleasure this morning while watching the live stream of the HTB Leadership Conference was to hear Archbishop Justin Welby say that ‘The church should be a safe place to do risky things in the service of Christ.’ How appropriate after that, then, to find myself listening to Esther Alexander‘s song ‘The End of the Land’, where she sings,
Is this the end of the land here
Or the beginning of the sea?
(You can listen to the song and download it here.)
Perhaps that’s our dilemma. We are more scared by being at the end of the land than we are by being at the beginning of the sea. What will it take for us to change, and why would we change? Too many churches want to change in order to save their skins. ‘We must reach out in order to keep this church going.’
Heaven help us. Really.
Welby also said this morning, ‘We cannot live for our cause to win, we have to live for his cause to win.’ May it be so.
In my last appointment, an ecumenical church I served ran a ‘Week of Accompanied Prayer‘. I missed out somehow, and was jealous of the members who clearly had a wonderful spiritual experience. So when our Catholic friends here in Knaphill offered to put one on in the village, I was an enthusiastic supporter. It started today. It’s like a mini-retreat without going away, where you have the benefit of low-key spiritual direction in your prayer life from a ‘prayer guide’ each day.
We began with a simple service and got to meet our prayer guides this afternoon. I was invited to choose a Bible passage to pray on this evening before I meet my prayer guide for the first formal session tomorrow morning. I chose Isaiah 43:1-5 from the selection offered. It made me think of an old song by Andy Piercy and Dave Clifton, from the same CD as contained their more famous ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow’. I can’t find a video online of them singing this, so here is someone’s cover version of ‘Precious In Your Eyes’:
As for other reflections on the passage itself, I had thought I would just read it pietistically, but I can’t deny the ‘theological’ side of me. So I brought into my reflections the fact that this comes from the section of Isaiah that is directed to them in exile in Babylon, when the prophet tells them that God will bring them home. They are precious in God’s eyes despite their sin. God does not give up on his people. That is something for all God’s people – me included – to cherish.
I’ll see how tomorrow goes. One thing I’m looking forward to is this: I mentioned to my prayer guide today that I find it hard to enter for myself into the kinds of prayer where I am expected to imagine what my five senses tell me. I can lead those sessions for others, but they don’t work for me, and I think it’s because in Myers Briggs terms I’m an ‘N’ – an Intuitive. I am a ‘sixth sense’ person who sees the big picture, not an ‘S’ – a Sensory person who uses the ‘five senses’ and concentrates on fine detail. Yet I enjoy photography, which as Jerry Gilpin pointed out to me on my last sabbatical, is definitely an ‘S’ practice. On quiet days in the past I have been known to take my camera gear out and about, and use it to meditate on creation. My prayer guide mentioned something about knowing a retired Anglican priest who may have some material on using photography this way, so we’ll see.
The Daily Telegraph published a sensitive piece about the battle with depression fought by Katherine Welby, 26-year-old daughter of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Quoting largely from her blog, her faith shines through, but it is also apparent she has not always been treated well by the Christian church. God’s people don’t always stand by her, depressives fear what others might say, and churchpeople have to pretend everything is fine, despite a Bible filled with screwed-up people.
I am afraid I am not surprised by this account. Of course, I have known many compassionate Christians in the church, who may or may not understand illnesses some members of the church family have had, such as schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, or other conditions. But I have seen intolerance for the effects of medication upon sufferers. I have witnessed the damaging ‘Snap out of it!’ comments. I have come across a naïve reading of the Gospel which seems to think that simple belief in Christ will have an instant cognitive effect, and then we can resume the usual ‘happy ever after’ narrative.
It is awful that there is still a widespread failure to accept that depressive conditions are illnesses. I am not claiming the specialist knowledge that professionals in the field have, because I don’t have it, but I do know this. If someone contracts a commonly accepted physiological illness, there is usually compassion and concern. The failure to recognise mental health issues in a similar way is disastrous, for the way it not only involves a lack of understanding, it also causes a rise in judgmental attitudes. We are meant to be a community of grace.
I read a story that isn’t obviously related to this on Don Miller’s blog. Sarah Thebarge tells how, while suffering the ravages of radical treatment for breast cancer, she was travelling across her native USA by train when she came across a desperate Somali immigrant family. The father had left the mother to care for five young children in a strange land. Despite her own weakness, Sarah becomes involved in the care of this family:
God had loved me when my bald head and mastectomy scars made me feel unlovable. So I began to spend more time with the Somali girls, loving them when their stained clothes and broken English made them feel unlovable.
God had shown me that He was Immanuel, the God who dwelled with me — not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled. So I began spending most evenings at the girls’ apartments, sitting with them in their dark, cold apartment because their mom was worried they’d run out of money for food if she spent too much money on utilities.
‘The God who dwelled with me – not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled.’ Would it not be a beautiful thing if our churches could demonstrate that more with those who face depression and similar disorders?