Monthly Archives: January 2010

More On Methodists And Social Media

The debate I mentioned on Tuesday continues. To mention some:

Richard Hall interviewed Toby Scott on Wednesday. Fat Prophet sees the document as similar to standard policies issued by ‘secular’ employers. Pete Phillips was consulted (as Secretary of the Faith and Order Committee) but isn’t happy. Like Pete, Matt Wardman contrasts the lengthy Methodist document with the much briefer Civil Service guidelines, which concentrate on principles and permission rather than details. Steve Jones, observing from South Africa, knows that such guidelines are normal in industry but wonders how we distinguish between legitimate debate and bringing the church into disrepute.

Other figures with something to say haven’t done so on their blogs, but in comments on other people’s posts. For example, Dave Warnock and Dave Perry. Both are members of the Methodist Council and may have therefore felt it tactful not to post before the meeting next Monday.

It seems to have escalated today. David Hallam, who got the debate going with a controversial post, has written about it passionately again today. In it, we learn more of why David is so upset:

I know of two cases already where blogging Methodists have face harassment and bullying by certain senior church officials (I stress certain, many senior Connexional officials would be shocked if they knew the full story). In the case that I know best extensive efforts were made to resolve the issue by the blogger concerned but to no avail. The Matthew 18 procedure was exhausted.

If true, this is worrying. I do know of one person who felt they were being implicitly criticised in the paper, but I don’t know anything that would fit the ‘harassment and bullying’ description David talks about. I’m still not sure I like some of David’s language – he compares the Methodist Church to Iran and China towards the end of the post – but if he has come across cases of bullying, it is little surprise he is angry.

So where are we up to, before Methodist Council discusses this issue?

Firstly, there remains disagreement on the transparency issue. Broadly speaking, those who are favourable towards the policy see the naming of the bloggers who were consulted as a red herring, while those who have reservations see it as important. In my limited surfing, I have only seen some Methodist bloggers say they weren’t consulted. I have not yet seen anyone say they were. Please let me know if I am mistaken.

Secondly, the debate so far illustrates the problems we have with confidentiality, privacy and Internet openness. In today’s piece, David Hallam fears that Dave Warnock is alluding to a potential retreat from publishing papers online as a result. I hadn’t read Dave that way, and I don’t see him as ‘authoritarian’ as David describes him – that’s not the Dave I know at all. But perhaps we need to distinguish between confidentiality and privacy, if that doesn’t sound too strange. What I mean is this: as a minister, I am committed to confidentiality apart from in exceptional circumstances (for example, if someone made an allegation about child abuse). However, even if the discussion papers for Methodist Council were once private, it must have been the Council that agreed to them being publicly available ahead of time on the web. Once you’ve done that on the Internet, the genie is out of the bottle, and any retreat – if that is indeed contemplated – will look very bad indeed.

Thirdly, we have an issue about acceptable behaviour in meetings. Can you text, tweet or surf during a council, committee or conference? I am no multi-tasker and I would find that difficult. However, I have to accept that others can – unlike me – multi-task. Everyone will agree it is important to give attention to the business being discussed, but we have to face up to personality differences – and to the fact that not everyone can find every minute of every business meeting riveting. And yes, as a young minister I’m afraid it was my practice to take a good book to District Synod!

Finally, in the long run, this may prove to be a storm in a green Methodist tea cup, or it may involve serious issues of principle and practice. My prayer is that we can all ‘speak the truth in love’ as we work through it. One commenter on Richard’s original post is worried about the tone he has seen on Methodist blogs, so it’s incumbent upon us to consider carefully how we conduct ourselves. If we turn this debate into a flame war, there could be every reason or occasion for the church authorities to consider strong guidelines. We need an authentic Christian witness in blogging that carries passion without flaming and love without wimping out. Surely we can do that?

How Many Friends Can You Have?

Mashable reports on the work of British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar, who says your brain can only cope with one hundred and fifty friends. (This is supposed to be the link to the interview in The Times but I can’t make it work.) The Mashable piece applies this to the (ridiculous?) number of people some folk ‘friend’ on Facebook, but also gives examples from industry of companies that know and understand this principle, for example Gore and its breaking down of employees into small teams so that people still know each other.

But if Dunbar is right, what are the implications for church life? The size, structure and leadership of churches would all be affected, and perhaps we already know this implicitly in Christian circles.

So currently when stationing ministers (something of which I’ve had recent experience) my denomination looks for an appointment where a minister looks after about one hundred and eighty church members. A probationer minister’s appointment ideally has one hundred and fifty. (These are figures my Chair of District told me.) Even if these ratios have been arrived at out of necessity, simply by dividing the number of members nationally by the total number of ministers, pragmatically we have ended up in quite a good place if members want to feel known.

It isn’t quite as simple as that, of course, at least speaking from the minister’s side. It is complicated by other factors. One is the number of churches the members are spread across: three churches of fifty members create more bureaucracy for a minister than one of a hundred and fifty.

Also, a minister has a huge number of existing friends from outside the current locality as a result of all that has preceded in his or her life. I’m not generally one who makes tons of friends in ‘real life’ – usually it’s a few deep friends. However my moves and travels in life mean I currently have 278 friends on Facebook. Some while ago, Debbie and I said that before we move on from Chelmsford this coming summer, we will delete some of our Facebook friends with whom we don’t expect to continue having any meaningful contact. We’d rather use Facebook largely for keeping in contact with people we really know rather than seeing it as some kind of competition to prove we have lots of friends.

Dunbar’s 150 may also help explain why some churches stop growing around that figure. Church Growth literature used to affirm in the 1970s and 80s that this was the numerical limit to which a sole minister could generally grow a church. (Not that I wish to downplay the rôle of the Holy Spirit, you understand.) More staff would be needed. Equally, it is a point of resistance in some congregations, because some members say they don’t want a church to grow to the kind of size where not everybody knows everyone else. Therefore at this stage important questions of strategy come into play. How does the church continue to grow while honouring the need for relationships? Does it grow as one entity with a lot of smaller units, like Gore? Does it divide into more than one church?

I’d be intrigued to know if anyone reading this has any experiences or observations on this matter. Does this sound about right to you, or are there glaring holes?

Pope Benedict: Thou Shalt Blog

I picked up from Mashable the Pope’s message of three days ago encouraging and urging Catholic priests to use the digital realm and especially social media as tools for the Gospel. His whole message is here. I just thought I’d pick out one of two things I liked about Benedict’s approach:

Firstly, in addition to all the language of ‘proclamation’ and ‘catechesis’, he talks about ‘dialogue’ and being ‘faithful witnesses’. It seems to me these are important approaches on the web, especially in the social media. They are digital conversation tools more than digital proclamation tools. Within that, he sees the opportunity for the use of ancient wisdom.

Secondly, there was an image that I think builds helpfully on that attitude. Near the end he says,

Just as the prophet Isaiah envisioned a house of prayer for all peoples (cf. Is 56:7), can we not see the web as also offering a space – like the “Court of the Gentiles” of the Temple of Jerusalem – for those who have not yet come to know God?

I like that idea. Jesus was so taken with the ‘Court of the Gentiles’ that he defended it against the moneychangers.

With all this, the Pope brings a healthy Christian ethic to the Internet and social media. Elsewhere, he says:

In my Message last year, I encouraged leaders in the world of communications to promote a culture of respect for the dignity and value of the human person. This is one of the ways in which the Church is called to exercise a “diaconia of culture” on today’s “digital continent”.

Again, all good stuff.  He calls for competence and spirituality to go hand in hand, the latter leading the former, for he calls priests

to use these technologies in a competent and appropriate way, shaped by sound theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in constant dialogue with the Lord.

OK, as a ‘Protestant’ I’d express it slightly differently, but the core point would be the same.

So a big thumbs-up from me to Benedict XVI today. Let’s hope other Christian traditions can be as positive as he is.

Methodists And The Use Of Social Media

Richard Hall and David Hallam take differing views on a proposal coming to the Methodist Council laying down policies for how Methodist ministers and officials use social media – blogging, Twitter, Facebook and so on.

My own opinion of the document is somewhere in between Richard and David’s. Basically, it’s a paper that reads as if it is worried about protecting the church’s reputation.  Of course, in today’s online world anyone can gain an online presence and express their opinions. Naturally, there could be dangers in that. The paper is right to remind people that principles of confidentiality and so on should still be observed. With that I am with Richard – it doesn’t much change the existing situation, it simply applies it to a new situation.

Yet with David I have some reservations. I wish he wouldn’t use inflammatory language such as ‘fatwa’, but in a document that expects those who use social media to be transparent about their identity there are issues of transparency to raise about it. Not about the author – that is clear. It is Toby Scott, our Director of Communications and Campaigns. But there are two areas that seem vague to me. Firstly, the identity of the ‘selection of existing Methodist bloggers’ who were consulted (page 1). Who were they, who selected them and what selection criteria were used? The answers to these questions may be entirely honest, but without further explanation the online community is bound to start wondering.

Secondly, we know that the report ‘comes at the request of the Strategic Leaders and the Connexional Leaders Forum’ (page 2). However, it would be good to know the reasons why these informal private bodies requested a report. Without knowing the terms of reference, we cannot entirely evaluate the appropriateness of the document.

We live in a culture of suspicion that sometimes goes over the top, but without further explication of what has been posted as a public online source, it is little surprise that David Hallam (and others?) become suspicious. After all, there is much in the report that seeks to prevent church officers from tweeting during meetings. I can instantly think of one church officer who does this. Was this person a target for some of the report? Hopefully not.

It is certainly a paper that has a benign understanding of ‘old media’ in contrast to ‘new media’ – see the references to the Methodist Recorder moderating its letters page. Times have changed. The last time I read the Recorder (about two years ago, admittedly) it couldn’t get newsworthy press releases into its pages until three to four weeks after their publication. I know, I compared the date one appeared in the newspaper with when it had been reported in a blog.

This issue brings to mind something that happened while I was training for the ministry at theological college. Older Methodists may know there was an old tradition that the moment you began training for the ministry you were entitled to wear a clerical collar and be addressed as ‘Reverend’, in contrast to other denominations. During my training, that policy changed. There was an incident, we were told, where a ministerial student at another college had abused this. One friend of mine asked, ‘Is this the reason or the occasion for the change of policy?’ Given the questions Tony Buglass has raised in comments on both Richard and David’s posts about the negative publicity afforded to our denomination through the TV show ‘An Island Parish‘, I do at least think this question needs asking, even if it turns out this document has arisen for entirely good reasons. Once again, it’s the question of transparency.

UPDATE, WEDNESDAY 27TH JANUARY, 9:00 PM: Please also read Pete Phillips’ trenchant critique of the paper.

Sermon: Imitating Missional Jesus

Quite a difference this week. Last Sunday I was invited to preach in a Baptist church and was given half an hour for the sermon. You may have noticed the sermon was longer than usual. Tomorrow it’s an Anglican church where a friend is the priest in charge, and my limit is fifteen minutes.

Luke 4:14-21

When my sister left home for college, she went to study in York. It wasn’t very long before her North London accent gained a North Yorkshire twang. We seem to have a knack for picking up other people’s accents in our family.

Then one summer she went on placement to Ipswich. One Saturday afternoon I took a phone call. There was a strange-sounding young woman on the other line. It took me a minute or two to realise this was my sister. London plus Yorkshire plus East Anglia made for a confusing accent, further magnified by the telephone line. Perhaps my sister above all exemplifies this family trait of picking up accents.

As Christians, we are called to pick up an accent, too – the accent of Jesus. Not that I mean we should speak in a first century Palestinian dialect – as if we could know what that sounded like anyway. But rather, our calling as disciples is to pick up the accent of his life. The New Testament says we are to imitate him.

So I want to take today’s Gospel reading and ask about the ways in which we might imitate Jesus.

Firstly, Jesus is filled with the Spirit. He has come out of the wilderness temptations and the first thing we hear is that ‘filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee’ and that created a stir (verse 14). When he enters the Nazareth synagogue, he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins reading from what we call chapter 61, with the words, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (verse 18).

And if you’ve been reading Luke not in little chunks like we do on Sundays, but from cover to cover, you’ll get this message even more clearly. Jesus has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and at his baptism he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. You just can’t get away from Luke telling us an important point: whatever Jesus’ special divine status, he conducts his entire ministry dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit.

And if he does, how much more do we need to do the same. If the Son of God needed to live this way on earth, what price us?

But what does this mean for us? After all, the Spirit of God dwells within each of us from the time our faith in Christ begins. We cannot allow that fact to lull us into complacency. Too many churches and Christians work on auto-pilot. So much of what we do and how we behave is little different from any other organisations or individuals.

So certainly we should all make it a matter of prayer that God would fill us with his Spirit, again and again. None of us can trade on past glories. As has often been said, the church is always just one generation from extinction.

Yet also we cannot sit around simply waiting for a powerful spiritual experience before doing anything for the kingdom of God. What strikes me about Jesus and the Spirit in this passage (and generally in Luke) is that, having received the Holy Spirit, Jesus gets on with what the Father wants him to do. There is no bargaining. He knows he has received the Spirit, and he sets to work. Perhaps some of us know perfectly well what God has called us to do, but we keep employing delaying tactics. Yet if we have received the Spirit when we found Christ, why are we doing that? Truly Spirit-filled people make a difference for the kingdom.

Secondly, Jesus has a message of freedom. It seems to me that ‘freedom’ is a major theme of the verses Jesus reads from Isaiah. The obvious examples are ‘release to the captives’ and ‘to let the oppressed go free’, but ‘good news to the poor’ and ‘recovery of sight to the blind’ are kinds of freedom, too. (Verse 18)

We know that Jesus put this manifesto into action. He dignified the poor by proclaiming the good news to those beyond the pale. He set the captives and oppressed free when he commanded demons to go. He healed the blind and the sick. His was a wide-ranging message of freedom that was proclaimed in word and deed. He evangelised. He healed and delivered. And while he wasn’t directly political, the implications for social justice are present in his ministry.

Our imitation of Christ, then, is to be bearers of a message of freedom. It comes in the gospel theme of forgiveness. The Greek word translated ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘set free’, and that is what forgiveness is. When we forgive somebody, we set them free from the obligations they are under to us. They are no longer bound to us. Not only that, when we forgive, we set ourselves free. For the alternative is bitterness, and that binds us tightly.

We bring freedom to others when our hearts are moved with the compassion of Christ for their plight. For some, that may involve the ‘miraculous’. For others, it may mean trailblazing a way forward in care for those in need. Why do we have hospitals today? Because Christians of earlier generations invented the infirmary. Why does Karen, your priest, conduct funerals for all and sundry in the parish? It isn’t simply because the Church of England is the Established Church in this country. It’s also because in the earliest days of Christianity, disciples of Jesus took pity on those who could not give their loved ones a proper burial.

Or what about this? The other day, our six-year-old daughter discovered that some of her friends wouldn’t play with another girl, because she was black. Our daughter set out to be the black girl’s friend. Even at six, she knows racism is wrong in the sight of God. Now if a six-year-old can do something in Christ’s name for justice, what about us? Ours is the precious message of freedom, as we imitate Christ and anticipate God’s new creation by showing glimpses of God’s kingdom.

Thirdly and finally, Jesus brings the fulfilment of God’s promises. In just over six months’ time, we shall be leaving Chelmsford for a new appointment. The profile of the appointment is very close to what I feel I can offer as a minister. My wife can see where she can get involved on behalf of the church in the community. The schools look quite promising. The manse (which being translated to Anglicans is ‘vicarage’) is more suitable than the one we live in here.

So there’s a level of excitement I feel – but we have to wait until early August when we move!

The Jewish people had been waiting, not for six months, but for centuries, for the promised Deliverer, the Messiah. Now Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). You don’t have to wait any longer, he says.

We imitate Jesus by bringing a message of fulfilment, too. All around our communities and across the world are people waiting for something or someone that will give them hope. They may be damaged by the hurtful actions of loved ones. They – or someone they love – may be bound by dreadful illness or bereavement. They may be victims of injustice. There may just be an aching emptiness in their hearts, because they have believed our society and bought one possession after another in pursuit of happiness, only to find they might as well be chasing the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.

And we have the privilege to say to such people, you don’t have to wait any longer. Your emptiness, your pain or your brokenness can be healed, because there is a God who loves you. He loves you enough to give up his only Son for you.

Now that is exactly why we hear calls to be a ‘Mission Shaped Church’ – because unless the church is about mission, she is not truly the church. It is why our two denominations – and now also joined by the United Reformed Church – co-operate on the Fresh Expressions project to reach out to people within their own cultures. It’s why although not every Christian is an evangelist, every Christian is a witness. Each one of us can speak about our experience of Christ.

Because that’s what happens when – like Jesus – we are filled with the Spirit and have a message of freedom. The time is now.

links for 2010-01-23

Cadbury’s RIP

To hear about the takeover of Cadbury’s by Kraft Foods is making many of us Brits deeply sad. The loss of another iconic British company to a foreign one is painful. It is the inevitable consequence of untrammelled capitalism, where the greed interests of the shareholders come first. As the BBC reports, the deal is a formality due to the large majority of institutional investors. It all seems to be a crude way for Kraft to spend to get out of debt – something that’s been fashionable in government circles these last couple of years.

The BBC report to which I linked above contains this paragraph:

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said Kraft’s chairman and chief executive Irene Rosenfeld had already written to him to assure him of Kraft’s “respect for Cadbury’s heritage and employees”.

Well, of course we’re all reassured by Peter Mandelson, aren’t we?

But maybe it’s time to mourn the fact that the Cadbury’s heritage was long ago killed off by unrestrained capitalism, even if there was a glimmer of the old Cadbury’s recently when their famous Dairy Milk bar went Fairtrade. In its origins, the business was Christian, founded by the nineteenth century Quaker John Cadbury, who opened a shop selling tea, coffee and hot chocolate as alternatives to alcohol.

It reminded me of the sermon illustration I once heard – I think it was Brian Hoare who told it – which went something like this.  A major department store in Birmingham wanted to expand their premises, but to do so they needed to purchase the adjacent Quaker meeting house. They sent a letter to the trustees saying they wished to purchase their property. ‘Name your price,’ they said, ‘and we will write you a cheque.’

To their surprise they received a reply along the following lines. ‘We too have major plans for expansion and would like to purchase your store. Name your price and we will write you a cheque.’

The management of the department store rolled around laughing when they read it – until they noticed the signature at the bottom. ‘J Cadbury’.

If only he had still been around to write like that to Kraft.

links for 2010-01-19

Of The Reviewing Of Books There Is No End

Anyone who knows me remotely well knows I am a book lover. One of the joys I have in serving on the board of Ministry Today is that I get to review books for the journal/website. (Search for me on the site and  you’ll find them.)

I have now come across another source of Christian books to review: Book Sneeze. Thomas Nelson, the American publishers, have set this up. If your application is accepted, you may ask to review one of their books from a limited list. The conditions are that you write reviews of at least two hundred words and post them on your blog and on a commercial site such as Amazon. There is no censorship of your opinion by the publishers.

I am about to send off for my first book. When I review them on this site, I will make a point of openly declaring that it is a title I have received under this scheme.

In the meantime, perhaps some of my blogging friends who read this might be interested in the scheme. (No, I don’t get anything for plugging it.)

The Crowd Or The Cross

When I preached at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford on Sunday, their assistant pastor, Nicholas Tuohy, used this video during Holy Communion. I found it very powerful. See what you think.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “The Crowd Or The Cross“, posted with vodpod