Category Archives: Community

The Return

It’s been a while, I know. I’m afraid I had to let this blog lapse whilst I did the whole returning to work after kids thing, which involved a great deal of puzzling out as to what I could do that would fit in with all the other things that I already did.

I think I may have come up with a working solution, which is in its early stages but nevertheless is looking hopeful. However just as I begin to establish a new career, of course, we happen to experience political upheaval in Britain such as I have never known before. Whilst on the one hand vaguely hoping that the outcome of the referendum won’t affect my business plan (such as it is), on the other I am acutely aware of the shock experienced by a political establishment whose complacent expectations were proved so misguided given the referendum result.

So that is why I am here again. There are so many, many questions raised in the wake of what you might call a cataclysmic event, and I want this to be a place where I and anyone else can ask those questions. It is in many ways a selfish project, since for me it is therapeutic to launch my thoughts into a public space, but I hope whoever ends up reading this will find it helpful in opening up and exploring their own questions as well. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has experienced restless nights and stress-infused days since the result came out. Nor am I the only one who wants to see a stronger, more compassionate and courageous Britain emerge from the chaos of what has just happened. Perhaps this blog can, in some small way, help to bring that about. I look forward to giving it a try, at any rate.

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Greenbelt questions

Another August Bank Holiday weekend at Greenbelt Festival has come and gone, and as usual has thrown up a whole host of questions, such as; why do we take three young children camping for six nights with limited washing facilities? Will it ever take less than four hours to get us all up, dressed, breakfasted and ready for the festival day? Will there ever be a year that I don’t cry when I see the breathtaking number and spectrum of people present at the Sunday morning communion service? What on earth are people doing wandering around dressed as sofas? Where did the giant policemen come from? And so on.

From all the things that got thrown up at Greenbelt, there was one question that I thought important enough to write down in order to come back to. I can’t even remember where it came from, but it’s essentially about becoming a member of a church: what is the best path to becoming fully integrated into a church community, i.e. to feel comfortable with both giving and receiving one’s time, energy, compassion and commitment?

On the one hand, there are those in public ministry in a church such as the incumbent, the curate or the youth worker. Beginning work in a parish in such a role results in what could almost be described as ‘forced entry’ into the church community. From the very outset you’re in a fairly central position within the life of the church, you quickly get to know those with influence and involvement, and having a specific role to play you begin immediately to implement that role, in the ways that best seem fit to you and others in authority.

On the other hand there are those who begin coming to church for various reasons – they have a friend who goes, they’re curious, they feel drawn, they’ve had contact through a wedding, baptism or funeral – who probably begin by knowing one or two people at the most. If they don’t feel socially confident, or remain unsure of the church’s particular idiosyncrasies (e.g. its language or worship style) they may remain known to only a few people and never feel they have the opportunity or even the ability to participate.

Of course those are two extreme examples of the process of integration, but even for those somewhere in the middle, how many who do play a role in the church community are actually doing what they are built to do? How comfortable are they in the work they are doing? It does sometimes have to be the case that people take the jobs that need doing because there really is no-one else to do them, but I think it’s very unfortunate if people aren’t able to engage with the kind of work that really inspires and fulfils them. And I think it’s possible for a church to have a vision where everyone has the opportunity, should they want it, to explore their gifts and abilities safely as they get to know the congregation, the rhythm of church life and themselves.

What the implications of this question are for church leaders is also part of the question, though we can hope that they have had some measure of preparation for the way in which they integrate into church life, having already had opportunities to explore their strengths and weaknesses, their gifts and abilities. The better they have been prepared, the more equipped they will hopefully be to enable church members, new and old, to explore and develop their involvement in the living, breathing entity that is the Body of Christ.

The Twitter Debate

In the wake of the riots in England I’ve heard many opinions on the credibility of Twitter and other social networking sites. Social networking played a significant role both in fanning the flames of the riots, and also in the clear-up afterwards as well as support for some of those whose livelihoods had been destroyed. It seems that whether you applaud Twitter for its usefulness or deplore it for how unhelpful it’s been, it’s simplest just to disregard how Twitter performed on the other side of the argument.

But what if we tried to take both perspectives into account at the same time? How can we hold together those two views in some sort of creative tension? Or is it really worth the effort?

My own view is that looking at the role of social networking is not just interesting and helpful, but critical to understanding Western culture and the context in which we live today. It has become a massive phenomenon, and has been responsible for information being disseminated without the media companies ‘interpreting’ in their own style, for assisting incitement to violent behaviour, for enabling local people to offer support in the wake of the storm at the Pukkelpop festival this week, and even for publishing sheer banality on a very wide scale.

I think it might be important in this debate to consider the idea that objects, in and of themselves, have no intrinsic moral or ethical value, but rather it is the inclinations of the people using those objects that is the root of the issue. For example, you can use a frying pan to cook a meal or to knock someone unconscious, but it’s the person who holds it in their hands who determines its use. Perhaps there are some items that become so locked into a cycle of unhealthy usage that in human minds they become irredeemable, but I do wonder if that depends on the capacity of the human mind to be transformed, and how much acknowledgement we give to that potential.

If this is true then all that Twitter has done is to highlight the wide variety of responses that human beings naturally make when things go wrong. It suggests that the great breadth of human experience and development expresses itself in different ways, through whichever means of communication are available. True enough, it’s highly unlikely that Twitter will ever be transformed into something that is exclusively used for helpful and creative purposes. But I can’t help believing, somehow, that for all those who now fear Twitter for the part it played in the riots, it is possible to redeem the object of their fear by using it for better purposes, and by encouraging others to do the same. After all, the social networking phenomenon is becoming very well established, so it looks like we need to get used to it!

What’s in store for England?

Economic decline and rioting on the city streets of England are filling our newspapers at the moment, but very little attention is being paid to what things are going to be like when all the furore has died down and we have to rebuild what has been damaged and lost.

It feels as though we’re on a precipice, on the verge of ecomonic disaster and momentous social change. And not just us, I hasten to add – the USA, Spain, France, even China to some extent – one by one the economic powers are falling, and I haven’t heard anyone even allude to what the world is going to look like when the last power bloc falls.

England stands firmly within an international community, a complexity of economically interdependent relationships whose strength ultimately relies on the strength of the American economy. The plunge into ridiculous levels of debt since Bush’s decision to deregulate the financial industry has undermined those relationships, and those who have taken the dream of capitalism between the bit and galloped off in pursuit of perfect freedom are now miring themselves and others in the bog of being unable to extricate entire countries from this now unsupportable debt.

And so the worsening economic climate has been a major contribution to social disaffection. The police shooting of Mark Duggan was catalyst rather than cause of the ensuing violence, as discontent has been rumbling and building under the surface of our society for quite some time now, perhaps even generations. Unsurprisingly some of the major media-fed characteristics of our society – such as the drive to possess, and the centring of ones own world around oneself – have driven the wedge between the wealthy and the impoverished in England deeper and deeper every year. As a nation we are all, including myself, responsible for having created the mess we are in, being almost completely unable to see the value in caring for the wider society we ought to be a part of.

For some individuals, the immediate aftermath of the riots is clear. My heart goes out to those whose livelihoods have been destroyed, to those who have suffered injury or bereavement. They are ever-present in my prayers as they face the coming weeks and months and possibly years of coping with the fall-out of the awful events of this week. As a nation, staggering through a social crisis that no-one seems to have foreseen, and simultaneously suffering from the blows of international economic decline, it feels as though we have a long way to go before we reach any kind of stability. I wonder why it has to take a crisis this deep-running to bring people together; still, it is hopeful that we are now beginning to show, as a nation, our potential to see beyond our own individual needs. Witnessing the hordes of people cleaning up the damaged streets, and reading of the generosity of those helping affected people, is a tonic amidst so much suffering. If, as we rebuild businesses, homes and lives, we can build such expressions of generosity and good will into the fabric of our society, then whatever the future brings for England, we will be better resourced to deal with it.

What is it like on the borderlands?

I’ve just come back from holiday. We took the boat to Northern Ireland and spent a week visiting relatives, then drove north across the border to Donegal. As we drove across I suddenly had a very clear memory of myself as a teenager, being driven across one of the European country borders by my mum to some holiday destination. I vividly remember thinking how much I would dislike having to live on or near to a border between countries. Not being particularly discerning at the time I don’t think I managed to work out why that was; now I suspect it was to do with the fact that issues of geographical identity were particularly important to me, especially because I had no sense of belonging to a particular physical place.

The startling contrast was that driving over the border from Northern to Southern Ireland, I found myself revelling in being in a place between places, where somehow the physical identities of each country merged seamlessly together; one flowed into the other, rather than experiencing an abrupt change. I enjoyed the sense of being in a place where you could live on one side of the border but perhaps identify more with those across the ‘invisible line’ than with those fifty miles away in your own country. It felt good to be in a place that seemed to point more towards the commonalities between people – whichever social group they belong to – than their differences.

The question I asked myself in response to this inner revelation was about how people feel who do live on or near a border.  I suppose I was thinking particularly about the European borders of my own experience, where there are no severe political tensions or open warfare; simply people living side by side who are born into different cultural traditions. Is living in such a space more likely to produce someone who is happier to dwell on the borders in other respects, not always feeling as though they need the safety of black and white answers to the difficult questions? Allowing people to be first of all people, so that other things which define them don’t draw unnecessary limits around who they are or what they have the potential to be?

I have no idea whether there is any connection between living on physical borders and being enabled to live in the borderlands of human experience, but to me they certainly have in common a sense of risk and excitement, as well as the potential to open us up to the possibility of our own transformation into a better version of ourselves. To learn to be comfortable with ourselves in a state of change, and withhold judgement on others; perhaps those are achievements worthy of a lifetime of living in the borderlands.

Is individuality enough for a Christian?

It’s interesting how a few chance conversational snippets can cause a train a thought that leads to such a deep question. I realised quite recently that within my own experience, my overwhelming sense is that the Christian faith is between God and the individual. The idea that faith can and should be experienced as part of a wider group of people – even beyond the circle of those with whom we directly connect – seems to be either a thing of the past, or perhaps never existed in the first place. I don’t mean in the sense of people attending church services together, because there is clear evidence of truly deep and moving experiences of communal worship in churches all over the world, but rather I think I mean that there is little sense in which for each of us, our faith belongs to others in the Christian family as much as to God. While many Christians do regularly gather together, and feel a sense of belonging to particular Christian communities, it feels as though there is a sense in which we isolate ourselves either because we are unable or unwilling to reveal too much. I think if there is any evidence of this sense of individuality, it is in, for example, a person’s desire to pursue their own ministry within their church without reference to the needs of whole community, or the Anglican churches who choose not to pay their parish share, or even the lack of interest in Christians from other denominations.

There is a strong sense of group faith in the Old Testament as the story of the Israelite community unfolds and it eventually becomes a great nation which (at least some of the time) worships Yahweh together; their religion is central to their national identity. A reading of the New Testament I suppose could indicate that the need for one’s faith to belong to other people as well as to God is no longer an issue. However I recently read a passage in Matthew (verses 20 to 24 of chapter 11) which suggest that Jesus is holding entire Jewish cities to account for their lack of repentance. The New Testament reports that Jesus’ message was spreading in each of the cities mentioned, so they weren’t lacking in individuals who believed. I tentatively wonder whether Jesus was referring to dishonesty and corruption running deep through the strata of public governance, which could have referred to the Roman occupiers but also the Jewish community leaders such as the teachers of the law. I can’t at the moment come up with any other ideas about what he could have meant, but I do know that Jesus was never vague – his words always had very precise meaning, even if those listening weren’t always able to grasp it! This particular passage is very brief, but does suggest that Jesus feels there certainly is a corporate dimension to what it means to follow him.

I do think it is important to recognise that a full experience of the Christian faith cannot be had simply by relying on other Christians to get you where you want to go. Hiding from God behind other people is unhelpful, if not damaging. Anyone desiring to follow Jesus hopefully recognises that we are called as individuals and therefore can experience an individual relationship with him. However I begin to wonder about how much more enriched our individual faith could be if we were to open ourselves more honestly and more lovingly within our church communities – be they formal or informal – and allow ourselves to be transformed not just by God working directly in us through his Spirit, but by the needs and gifts and hurts and difficult times and joys of the Christians with whom we fellowship and worship. There is a cost to integrating ourselves so deeply within a community,  perhaps a sacrifice of independence or pride or privacy, but cost is part of a genuine faith, and if we’re willing to pay, the rewards of growth and maturity and wisdom – and above all, a greater capacity to love others – are there waiting for us.