Sunday 27 September 2015

Be Proud To Be Humble

Humility and humiliation are pretty much opposites, even though they sound so similar.

As are self-respect and arrogance. Pride, confusingly, can cover both of the latter, so one needs to be careful when talking about it.

One of the traumas of the Thatcherite eighties came about because her government destroyed much of the, traditionally male, industrial sector of the British economy, replacing it with service jobs, many of them taken by women. So whole swathes of British society, where the men had taken pride in their role as breadwinners, were turned upside-down, and many of the men felt deeply humiliated.

I used to know (slightly) a female rower. She was physically stronger than any of the men around, yet some of them still spoke about men and women having different roles in life, because "women are the weaker sex".

Back in the day I was, I reckoned, a pretty good team leader at work. I was lucky enough to have some good people in my teams, who went on to become team leaders themselves. My aim and hope was that they would be at least as good as me, in their own ways, preferably better. That's part of how I saw the team leader's role, and I took pride in it - pride in seeing my pupils become greater than their teacher, if you want a slightly up-ended Biblical reference.

These days I take a certain amount of pride in having a decent working knowledge of the Bible, especially in terms of its contexts and how it fits together. A while back I went to a quiet day led by David Winter and was struck by how much greater his knowledge was. I was humbled, even slightly envious perhaps, but not humiliated. Why would I be? One encouragement was that maybe there is some purpose in the otherwise unpleasant process of getting older after all (David Winter must be well into his eighties, I reckon).

One final example: long ago, when my wife and I were young, we both used to play our guitar for young people's groups and for a monthly evening service. I worked very hard indeed on developing some basic competence on the guitar - I am not by any means a natural musician - whilst my wife was held back by a certain lack of confidence, in spite of being naturally far more musical . Over the years her guitar playing inevitably far outstripped mine, and she regularly uses it to lead worship. I take pride in feeling that I was part of the process of her developing her talent.

Marriage has enough challenges and pitfalls, it seems to me, without getting hung up over who is best at what, and which are men's and women's 'natural' roles.

Marriage is about partnership: if one is better at child-rearing and the other at paid work that is a blessing, whichever way around these skills fall (which has relevance, incidentally, to the arguments about gay marriage). If the skills are more ambiguous then it is necessary to work together to find the best way forward. But no-one should be humiliated by the role they find themselves in - challenged and stretched maybe, but never demeaned.

I'm not sure this ramble has quite gone the way I intended when I started ... that sometimes happens when I take physical rambles too, especially if I try a 'short cut'. But I think the picture at the top highlights something of what I wanted to say.

It is not really the tasks and roles we carry out which are humiliating; it is our attitude to them. If we take pride in our work and in our lives; if we recognise in ourselves that we are God's dearly beloved children, for all our perceived flaws; if we look at others and see past the stereotypes to the individuals, each with their own unique combination of giftings; if we live as followers of Jesus, who humbled himself to save us ... then we can learn to be truly humble without being humilated.

It is our arrogance, really, which ends up humiliating us. If we avoid hubris and prejudice, and truly value our neighbours as ourselves, then it is good to be proud to be humble.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Partnership For Missional Church: Initial Impression

PMC kicked off this weekend, with representatives from churches across Reading and Berkshire meeting together for the first big session. Coming at the end of a long hard week, it took me much too far beyond overtired. So, was it worth it?

It'll be a while before I get my brain into gear well enough to really get to grips with it, but my early impressions are generally good.

Some of the publicity earlier in the year was concerning: they quoted statistics for "churches who completed the programme", which is a big no-no statistically, and some of the language was reminiscent of the many 'big-church' programmes which have come out of the US over the years.

One of the main speakers at this weekends launch was from the USA, where the programme was developed, but he was careful to point out that PCM was based, at least in part, on the work of Lesslie Newbigin, the British theologian who emphasised the need for mission within our own communities long before that became fashionable.

Over the past twenty or thirty years I have been involved in a lot of mission initiatives amidst the general decline in church congregations in Caversham and beyond. In all that the only serious church growth I have experienced came, not as a result of a mission programme but, it seems to me, as a direct result of one good minister following another in a church, who focused on serving God in our community as best we could. Even then it didn't really stick: after he left the church returned to slow decline.

Common features of such mission programmes have included them being centrally driven, process-led, with a general attitude of helping 'them' to see the truths that 'we' hold, and often focused on a big early push, typically without much follow-through.

One thing about PMC which impressed me early on is the idea that God is already at work outside the church congregations, in the surrounding communities. Part of the 'partnership' idea in PMC is that we can find 'partners for peace' amongst people who may have no direct contact with church at all. The hope is that we can find ways to work with them so that both parties gain.

The other big positive is the timescale. PMC basically runs over three years, but with the intention of creating permanent changes over those years, so that mission becomes an ongoing part of church life beyond that.

The first year is labelled as a 'listening', or 'discovery', phase, although the activities seem very much aimed at improving communications both within church congregations and between congregations and their neighbours.

Because PMC is a long-term thing, it obviously needs to run in parallel with our other mission work, although maybe encouraging us to a greater awareness of what we are trying to achieve and why.

Someone once told me that if you want to push a destroyer away from a dock wall, there is no point giving it a short hard shove, you'll just put your back out. The secret is to give a long steady push, which will slowly give the movement you want ... unless the wind is blowing the other way.

My first impression of PMC is that it is trying to be a long steady push, whilst helping us discern which way the wind is blowing so we can work with it not against it.

Time will tell if I'm correct.

Saturday 12 September 2015

All-Age Worship For All Ages? Ramble

Let's Dance Together
Who else would all-age worship be for? Ah, if only things were that simple!

These posts are all rambles, of course, but this one is even more than usual a setting down of initial thoughts on a subject. My views are very much subject to change. You could always use the comments section below to help with that ;)

The trouble with 'all-age worship' in the Church of England is that it's often used as a euphemism for 'family worship', which itself is often a euphemism for 'children's church'. Which is often ... childish.

On top of that, St Johns has had the problem of the CTM Parish losing clergy just as the all-age service started development, resulting in a loss of vision and coherence, along with a balance of ages at the service which has been highly variable. Some months we have been heaving with children, and the challenge is to involve them all, other months there were very few, and they didn't want to be involved anyway.

We now have a clear idea where we are for clergy over the next six months or so, after Jeremy has moved up north: decidedly lacking. Therefore there is a lay team who will be responsible for the monthly all-age service, from next month. I am part of that team, hence my desire to explore a vision for a reboot.

I think we should start by going back to the basics of gathered worship: praising God together and listening to God together - praise and prayer.

So I think we start by finding out the favourite hymns and songs of the congregation and using them: we are a small congregation so we need everyone to really put some oomph into their singing. People have got used to action songs at all-age worship and all ages seem to enjoy them - if not overdone - so that is an addition to help create  a sense of movement and involvement. Given a foundation of good singing, we can gradually introduce some good newer songs, in order to stop things getting stale and to find new favourites.

The intercessory prayer slot in the basic Anglican service outline is a suitable place to build something a bit different from the usual fare. Because all-age services don't include a Eucharist there is time and space for being a bit more adventurous here. Although prayertime is probably something we will need to prepare variations for, depending on who comes that morning. If there are lots of young children then prolonged silence is going to be tricky to achieve, if there are almost none then lots of running around will find few takers.

Initial thoughts include Taizé chants, Celtic prayers - even healing prayers - and using icons. We have quite a few icons scattered around St John's and moving the congregation around a few of them (vaguely after the manner of stations of the cross) may be engaging.

One piece of feedback that has come through clearly is that people like movement and they like involvement, whatever their age.

One basic I haven't mentioned yet is the Bible: sharing together in the word of God. This isn't because I don't think it is important - far from it - but because I am currently short of ideas. In general lay people don't have permission to preach in Anglican services, unless they are LLMs. As I'm the only LLM in the parish that is limiting in one sense, although liberating in another.

Traditional preaching, even with visuals and a bit of question-and-answer interaction, is not the only way to engage with God's word. It's probably not even the best way. The challenge is to somehow combine giving the context of a passage with helping people draw out for themselves, maybe in small groups, the meaning in their lives. But it's not just about words: talking about the Bible is one thing, responding to it, creatively and actively, is another.

So, developing all-age worship, for all ages, around the basics of praise, prayer and the word seems to me to be the way to go.

The next step, I think, is clear: hymns and songs 'by request'. The step after that is slightly hazier, but is to do with a more interactive, engaged approach to praying together. The third step is downright fuzzy: engaging together with God's word. That's okay, fuzziness is where faith comes in. So long as the first step is clear we trust that the steps after will be ready once we have actually stepped out in faith.

I am working to a mental timescale of 6 months to get these three steps, or something a bit like them, up and running. That is roughly how long we expect it to take to recruit a new priest into the parish, bringing us up to our clergy complement. Having all-age worship which works by then opens up opportunities and challenges for the future.

Postscript: When looking on Google for a suitable picture for this post, I found the above which I thought looked good. When I followed up on its link I was surprised to find it led me to a church in West Warrington, the place Jeremy Tear, our previous community priest, has just moved to. The wonder of coincidence!

Wednesday 9 September 2015

People Like Us

About a month ago I did a post - A Quiet Life - looking at a couple of comments I had received about church services, and commenting on the second of them. It's well nigh time to look at the other one:
"Our Sunday service should be for everyone in the local community; but really it's for people like us."
To some extent 'people like us' could be seen in terms of standard things like age, race or class - and at St John's age in particular is a big factor. But I think there is another another sense of the term which has relevance to churches well beyond St John's, or even Caversham.

John Pritchard, in his book Beginning Again, makes the point that people have very different personal styles, which include different natural approaches to prayer and worship. Some have a very verbal, unemotional style: for them relating to God through words given in a controlled, formalised setting brings most satisfaction. Others need to be more emotional to fully engage, to express their hearts and to relate to God through feelings and desires. Then there are those who express themselves naturally in action and movement, those whose natural worship involves creativity and wonder, and so on.

I suggest that the vast majority of churches in the Reading area, and probably across the country, focus very tightly on the verbal and unemotional. Even those churches who sing modern "I love Jesus and he loves me" style choruses are, I would say, really only providing ersatz, prepackaged imitations of true emotion. Those who are used to such can use them, of course, to express something real, as can those who are used to formal prayers and liturgies. But that is really for the 'people like us' who are attracted enough to stick around in the first place.

Where is the space in our regular patterns of church worship for artists? Or for lively dancers? For prophets and healers to give God's blessing in the Spirit's time not ours?

It seems to me that the vast majority of church services in the UK are based around the idea that most worshippers sit passively to be talked to (at?) by one or more leaders, sit or stand to say words chosen by those same leaders or by some overarching organisation, and stand to sing songs chosen by one or more other leaders. Little corporate church worship is truly participative, or active, or truly engaging. Much, probably most, collective worship in UK churches is for consumers not for active members.

Inevitably most people who go to such services do so because they like it that way, more or less. Arguments and pressures are about details, about small variations in delivery ('happy-clappy' songs or 'dirgelike' hymns), and about ways of rearranging the deck-chairs ... well, furniture anyway. So most services remain for 'people like us'.

I write blog posts, so it is fairly obvious that I like working with words (along with the odd picture). I enjoy sitting and listening to a good sermon, although there are few preachers skilled enough to work without some form of visual input, I think. I generally prefer a style which is cool and thoughtful to one which is emotive and loud.

So, when it comes to 'people like us', I count as one of 'us'. But I value immensely different viewpoints and different styles, and I don't understand how anyone can function without a sense of wonder and an appreciation of creativity - even if it is other people's creativity.

Diversity is a vital part of human communities (indeed in non-human ones too), and part of the richness of the fullness of life Jesus offers lies in its range and inclusion of difference.

Having a restrictive church style is all very well and good for those who like it, but if we want to engage properly with the majority whose styles are different we need a rethink.

Maybe it's one church with several different congregations, maybe it is one congregation with a range of different experiences; maybe it is something else entirely.

God cares deeply for all those around who are 'not like us' - we are called to do the same.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Jeremy Goes North

Jeremy Tear and family have now left Caversham to head up north to West Warrington, sadly for us but, I anticipate, a blessing for Warrington.

Jeremy and his family were with us in Caversham for five years; looking back it is remarkable what has been achieved in that time.

The photo above shows the opening of the Caversham Community Cafe - based in St John's but run by the Lower Caversham Community Partnership - which typifies Jeremy's focus on outward looking projects and on working in partnership with other organisations.

If you click on the photo it will take you to a very brief summary of other things that the Tear family (not just Jeremy) have achieved in their time here.

I arrived at St John's about 2-3 years ago, so I have only seen part of this change. A couple of things do strike me though, in terms of Jeremy's legacy.

The first is that St John's, in particular, is now a lot more ready for, and accepting of, change than it was five years ago. You could say that Jeremy's has been a ground-breaking role, preparing St John's, and to some extent the parish as a whole, for further necessary change under his successor.

The second is that I am not sure five years was long enough to 'bed in' a lot of the work done. A great deal has been achieved, but it seems to me that lasting change is a long-term thing, rather than something which can be done quickly. Especially as Jeremy's time here was very disrupted, particularly by an interregnum after our Rector was poached to Bristol.

Looking to the future, in many ways the vacancy here is an opportunity to try new things out and to keep moving on in God's Kingdom. St John's and the CTM Parish as a whole need to come together to face issues and engage with opportunities; early signs are that the will to progress this is present.

Meanwhile every blessing to the Tears in their new home and ministry.