Monthly Archives: March 2022

Lent 3: Who needs the church? – We do!

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In my last post I spoke of how we seem to be hardwired into criticising the institutions we rely on in civil society and I included the church in this. Yet we cannot escape institutions, and nor should we continue to try. We need the institutions within which we already live to serve as the backgrounds of our minds and our lives, giving shape and form to who we are. In his book “On Thinking Institutionally,” political scientist Hugh Heclo argues that institutions enable us to be “mindful in certain ways, exercising a particular form of attentiveness to meaning in the world.” Vibrant institutions are crucial to sustaining meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world. As a Christian I would also want to say that vibrant churches are also necessary to sustain meaning and purpose in our spiritual lives and in the Kingdom that we inhabit.

For our churches to become vibrant institutions rather than bureaucracies we need to change the conversation we have about the church. However the headlines about corruption, clergy sexual abuse, financial misconduct, give us “performance-based” reasons for wariness. Some churches are, indeed, bureaucracies of the worst sort; some institutional leaders have been careerist bureaucrats who have betrayed the public trust and damaged our common life as a church.

Even more damaging, though, is what Heclo calls our “culture-based” distrust of institutions. Our romanticized search for “personal meaning” places institutions in the way of our quests. We become increasingly bitter when we learn that institutions are so powerful we cannot escape them.

One would think Christianity offers a way beyond the impasse. Christian wisdom illustrates our need for the church institution to shape and form us, as well as recognising the vulnerability of churches and their leaders to corruption. The reality and persistence of sin, understood as self-deception, ought to make us wary of the romantic quest for “personal meaning” through individualistic personal fulfilment. And our persistent capacity for sin reveals our need for the church to teach and train us, through faithful practices and holy friendships, to unlearn sin and learn holiness.

Unfortunately, many Christians have drunk too deeply from the well of romantic individualism. In todays world sin has not disappeared and we have suddenly become virtuous. Rather, we Christians have lost our own vocabulary and become seduced into thinking we can discover our best selves through introspection and self-help manuals. We have pretended that authentic Christianity can occur solely between an individual and God, or, for evangelicals, an individual and Jesus.

Some Christians who want to overcome individualism turn to modern expressions of monastic communities as an alternative. Yet even these communities and their practices cannot exist for long without institutions, so those romantic quests are caught in the same impasse.

Too many modern christians suffer from a neglect of “institutional thinking,” or appreciating from within just how and why the church is crucial to a flourishing faith and thriving communities. Institutional thinking requires an interpretive standpoint of affirmation and trust rather than thinking “about” the church as an observer or critic. Institutional thinking still requires critical attention to the failures of the church, but with “respect” of the institution of the church.

Christian institutional leaders, model the practice of thinking institutionally when we focus attention on the larger purposes our churches serve other than just existing. We advance this practice when we love enemies in our leadership and when we engage in discernment that keeps us aware of our own, as well as our churches, capacity for sin as well as redemption.

We need a richer Christian account of vibrant churches that is mindful of personal as well as institutional sin and redemption. As Christians we should have a clear sense of the end for which we live and move and have our being. We are well-equipped to narrate the vices and virtues that are intrinsic to thinking institutionally.

In this time of cultural turmoil, when economic challenges are troubling to even the strongest churches, we cannot afford any longer to be cynical about or hate institutions. It is time to develop a robust Christian theological imagination for, and understanding of, them. Indeed, we need to learn, by God, to love the institutions we need.

God bless your Lenten journey. Alan.

Facing Disaster!

This week I have been denied an opportunity to preach in person because I have tested positive. Be warned sisters and brothers! It’s still out there.

So instead here is my offering for Sunday based on Luke 13:1-9.

Sometimes when we read a familiar passage in the Bible it can reveal something quite new to us. At other times though the lectionary points us to a passage that we’d never read before so that we find in the old book something entirely new to us-something quite amazing!  One of those passages they don’t mention in Sunday School.

Today’s passage in Luke is to my mind rather like that. It’s concerned with our responses to disaster.  We are told that some people questioned Jesus about the deaths of apparently innocent people who had been caught up in a civil disturbance. Were their deaths a judgement upon them-a form of divine punishment? What is our response to be to events like this? Jesus’ answer is quite clear. He says, No their deaths were not a judgment upon them. No ifs or buts, no hesitation just a simple short word. No. I find that rather refreshing.

Jesus goes on to speak about the deaths of eighteen people killed when a tower in a Jerusalem suburb collapsed. Were they worse sinners than all the others in the city? Again Jesus says no, quite emphatically. It might be convenient for you to blame the victims of these things and sometimes the victims like to blame themselves. Perverse but true. The truth is that we are all equally at risk and we need not fear that it is some judgment upon us if we caught up in a disaster. That is good news!

We usually associate the good news with the word “yes” but this time the good news is “no.”

But what else has Jesus to say to us.

The commentary on St Luke that I read in preparing this describes both episodes as tragedies. It was a tragedy that these innocent people were killed. It was a tragedy that the Tower in Siloam collapsed and eighteen people died.

Is this notion of tragedy correct? I don’t think so. Tragedy suggests to me the outcome of a hopeless struggle against blind fate. This isn’t a Christian response. For a Christian the struggle against evil and suffering is never hopeless even though those who struggle may suffer and fall. There is always a Christian response to evil-it begins with repentance- a turning around- an embrace of the good. To say something is a tragedy is too passive-it’s not to make a response at all.

When we listen to the readings on Good Friday we might say to ourselves-that’s a sad story and we’d be right. However to say it’s a tragedy is quite wrong. Good Friday is not a tragedy-it’s the account of a struggle but also the prelude to a victory. It’s not called Good for nothing.

My own view is that there’s too much use of the word tragedy in our world. Bad things happen, often in the area of personal relationships and family life. People say-it’s a tragedy for everyone involved. It’s often just a way of avoiding responsibility. The option for repentance is always there-Jesus says so.

So tragedy won’t do but what about bad luck- or as people say these days –just one of those things. On the question of luck I would refer you to the remark of Napoleon who said he would only have lucky Generals. In other words you make your own luck.

Just one of those things. Another popular remark that allows us to evade all responsibility. When some time ago I backed my car into the Circuit Stewards car and dented it I could have said, it was just one of those things. The truth is though that I was careless and should be more careful in future.

References to bad luck or just one of those things are not very helpful to us. It’s too deterministic, too fatalistic.

So bad luck won’t do either Some Christians with high views of the providence of God want to attribute everything that happens however trivial, however evil to God’s personal intervention. Those who questioned Jesus about these two incidents may well have been of that mind themselves. God purposes everything so if bad things happen to innocent people perhaps they weren’t so innocent after all. You can meet with this kind of opinion in the book of Job. Oddly enough you meet the same sort of thing in the Book of Common Prayer in the order for the visitation of the sick. The priest is supposed to say to the sick person and here I quote: Whatsoever your sickness is know you surely that it is God’s visitation. Thereafter the priest is to call the sick person to repent of their sins. I can confidently say that your own minister does not do this or at least not in quite that way.

Jesus won’t have it. He won’t let this kind of perverted logic turn God into a monster. Jesus admits that these incidents were accidents-that yes an element of chance was involved. Bad luck no but accident yes.

Accidents will continue to happen but after each accident we are reminded of our need of repentance otherwise as Jesus said we may be caught unawares and then we shall all perish with our sins unforgiven and with rancorous bitterness still in our hearts. That would be terrible for us and for those closest to us.  None of us would want to die unrepentant with hurts unhealed and grievances still fresh.

This is Jesus’ second word. His first word was “no” and that in this context is a good word but there is also a need for a response. That’s also a necessary response. One such response would be repentance and a call for repentance is peculiarly appropriate for Lent

In our time people have been much preoccupied with the problem of evil. How can evil be reconciled with a God of love. Why do bad things keep on happening? This is a stock question in house groups. These are questions that the New Testament isn’t really bothered about. Explanations are not offered, the problem is not discussed. It’s almost as if the writers of the gospels and the epistles want to say that the philosophers and the theologians might want to understand the world but our task as Christians is to change it. The question is always not why did God allow this evil to happen but how did God turn this evil to good. The first Christians sought to overcome evil rather than explain it. Prayer and action were the means to bring this about. Persecutions and trials were expected almost welcomed. The question is never: Why do these things happen but how are we going to respond to them as Christians.

In the Venerable Bede’s history of the Church in England the story is told of how the plague came to the monks and nuns of Barking Abbey. The men were affected first and the women were spared enabling them to care for and pray day and night for the sick and bereaved. The Abbess knew that the plague would get to the nuns eventually so she asked them where they wished to be buried. The nuns prayed for guidance. Their prayers were answered one night just before dawn. As usual they had gathered in the chapel to sing God’s praises. Then the Abbess asked them to follow her out to the cemetery where the monks were already buried. The Abbess led the prayers for the monk’s souls. As she did so the sun began to shine on the eastern horizon. The air was so clear that the sun shone even more brightly than it does at noon and its rays bathed the south side of the Church in a warm orange light. The nuns knew at once that this is where they wished to be buried. The following day the plague struck the women’s part of the Abbey and soon the south side of the Church was filled with the nun’s graves.

To the modern mind this is an odd story particularly as its set in Barking of all places. And yet as we wait for the next flu pandemic not such an odd one after all. And they know its coming- at Hong Kong airport there are screens that measure your body temperature. In Britain local authorities have emergency plans for coping with a greater number of deaths than is usual.  (This was first composed over ten years ago) We need to remember that as Christians we need not be overcome and that there is nothing to be afraid of. In the story from Bede the Nuns don’t ask why and they don’t have any physical resources to fight the disease. They can only respond with prayer and love and this they do. To my mind they are not overcome-they achieve victory of a kind. They knew they were going to die quite soon but in dying well they would achieve a kind of victory. Nobody would describe their deaths as a tragedy.

Once upon a time there was a TV programme in the God slot entitled the Question Why. Why suffering? Why war and famine? The attempt was always to find or seek for an explanation. To be honest though the New Testament never goes in for this kind of thing. It never asks why? The key question in the New Testament is always how. How are we to live in the face of evil? How does God bring good out of all the evil in the world? How do we respond to the good news of God’s love? This is the question the nuns asked and they came up with an answer. A response is always possible although it may not produce visible fruit very quickly. That surely is the message of the parable of the fig tree.

In the power of the Holy Spirit we can embrace God’s way of suffering love and look for the changes God wants for the world and by seeking the changes God wants for the world we shall be changed ourselves. Prayer leads to action and action strengthens our hope.

Thanks be to God, says St Paul, who gives us the victory through our lord Jesus Christ.

Lent2: God save(s through) the Church!

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In the world we live in today institutions are as easy to dislike as they are difficult to get rid of. In the western world we seem to have an ingrained suspicions of the institutions we need and use. The government, NHS, schools even the church all can provoke a level of suspicion that ‘they’, the institution are out to get ‘us’! Yet some of us seem, wonder of wonders, to see the good they have wrought and are called to lead them — from the hospitals where we were born to the schools where we were educated to the churches where we worship. How do we reconcile the good institutions do (even the ones we lead) with the bad of which they inarguably are capable (even the ones we lead)?

We often are called to pray for the institutions that affect our daily lives. We pray for schools and colleges at the beginning of a new academic year. We have been praying fervently for our hospitals over the last two years. Occasionally we pray for our Parliament, although I have yet to see a thunderbolt strike the Palace of Westminster!

Of course we pray for our churches, both at a local and a national level. However when we pray for our churches there are three possible paths we can take.

One path prays, “God save our church.” For this group, institutions are so important to human life generally that their collapse is unthinkable. We may find in this group leaders and financial supporters of our churches, particularly those under duress.

The strength of this position is that it acknowledges that the health of a society depends, to great degree, on the health of all its institutions. Just as it is extremely hard to have a functioning economy, let alone a healthy one, without healthy banks, so for our congregations to function as a missional community we need healthy churches and denominations.

In their eagerness to help society, those who back this position might overlook instances when it is necessary to overhaul existing institutions. Such overhauls can be painful, especially in the interim between the eclipse of one form of church and the birth of the next. Christians need only to think of the difficulty in the transition from a temple of stone to the temple of Jesus’ body. And perhaps more damagingly, adherents to this prayer can forget institutions should not exist only for their own sake, but for the sake of those they serve.

The second path prays, “God save us from institutions.” This group sees only malice. Its backers would read the current financial difficulties, for example, as evidence that banks, markets and corporations have only their own interests at heart, and that these come at the expense of all other interests. This group also may feel harmed by the church, leading them to conclude that institutional religion is essentially bad.

Those who take this line would agree with Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation: human beings tend to be good as individuals but bad in groups. We know churches that have scarred some people and have systematically oppressed others.

The position’s weakness is that it overlooks the fact that human life depends on institutions. The goods of human life — education, faith, health care, art, music — are social. The Church is defined by its congregation as much as its’s traditions or structures. There is an individual aspects to the church, but no one can pursue mission to its fullest without other people — trained people, dependent on knowledge passed down for centuries, enabled by gifts (monetary and otherwise) given by strangers and friends. Without people, a vision, a mission, money and perhaps buildings, the mission of the church tends to dissipate like water through open fingers.

The third way of prayer incorporates the strengths of the first two and avoids their weaknesses. It calls for the church to be a flourishing institution for the sake of the whole of human life in communion. The prayer is, “God save us through your church.” This prayer recognizes the deep pit of human need from which we all approach God: it is we who need saving, but not from institutions like the church.

God has no blessing for us mortals that is not institutionally mediated. God saves through Israel, ever-wrestling with God’s chosen people just as God wrestled with their father Jacob by the Jabbok. And God saves through the church: a people called out from the world to be joined in baptism to God and nurtured through Eucharist. One may judge others’ “organised” religions from the safety and isolation of one’s easy chair or the rigour of one’s study (the key word here: “one”). But Christianity joins us in Christ to one another in and through the church to a concern for the thriving of all of God’s creation.

This position will also recognise that while institutions are indispensable to God’s work, they are never frozen, unchanging, in their current form. Institutions are essential, but not static. The church may take many different forms, as dramatically different as Israel’s magnificent temple and Jesus’ vulnerable flesh, but it still is a necessary vibrant institution for God’s mission to be fulfilled here on earth.

God’s blessing through this Lenten season, Alan.

Lent 1: The Church is dead – long live the church.

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A time before there was South Parade Church? You couldn’t imagine it but there are some people, who are now in their 90’s, who remember a patch of land where bulrushes grew which is now the site of South Parade.

But South Parade has always had been here. Hasn’t it? It only has been here, as it turns out, since the early 1930s, when some of the older members and others watched its construction. People had to figure out the location as well as the design, not to mention several years of painstaking construction. Because of a wide variety of people’s vision and care, we now have a space that looms across the landscape, a sanctuary for worship and music, a visible symbol of the Methodist commitment to the importance of Christian ministry. All the churches in our circuit could tell a similar story of vision, planning and construction.

Modern Christians too often celebrate community without attending to the critically important roles that vibrant institutions play in enabling a community’s practices to flourish. Too often we take vibrant institutions for granted, forgetting they are crucial for creating spaces that shape and pattern human life and address fundamental human needs and yearnings. Because we have ignored the crucial difference that vibrant institutions make in our lives and in the ecology of our wider social existence, we too often have allowed vibrant institutions to become lifeless bureaucracies. We have watched once-glorious church spaces deteriorate and become shells of the vitality they once represented. Christian life suffers as a result.

By contrast, vibrant spaces, and more broadly vibrant houses of worship, continually make room for Christian wisdom to be nurtured over the course of time. We tend to underestimate how institutional spaces “speak” to people. Over the years, I have heard story after story about vocations discovered and renewed, relationships developed and reconciled, spiritual life developed and deepened, all occasioned by particular Christian worship spaces.

But not only the space. It is also the way of life those churches nurture. At their best, churches communicate and nurture vibrancy as bearers of tradition, laboratories for learning and incubators of leadership. Christian institutions give form and structure to our convictions, enabling us to cultivate thriving communities to be signs, foretastes and instruments of the reign of God. Seen in this light, faithful Christian living depends significantly on our ability not only to think about churches but also to think appreciatively from within them, to cultivate the practice of thinking institutionally rather than bureaucratically.

Vibrant churches are bearers of tradition. These traditions are found in the architecture, in the rhythms of daily schedules, in the formal and informal norms of the people who work and pray there, in the ways positions are described, in the ways decisions are made. This is most obviously evident in monastic communities that have lasted for decades and even centuries, but it is no less true of such institutions as theological colleges, congregations, L’Arche communities or hospices.

Vibrant churches nurture ‘traditioned innovation’* as a way of thinking and acting and make central the practice of ongoing learning. This includes honouring the gifts of our personal and collective pasts as well as repenting of sin, both personally and institutionally. Traditioned innovation focuses on the future to which the Holy Spirit is calling us, reminding us simultaneously that we need to be a learning organization if that future is to be faithful. Rather than pitting romanticized community over against sterile bureaucracy, or traditionalism over against newness, vibrant churches are spaces for learning traditioned innovation that bears witness to the Holy Spirit who is conforming us to Christ. Vibrant churches create spaces in which people unlearn sin and learn faithfulness as a way of life.

Vibrant churches nurture the gifts of leadership. Their dynamic internal cultures attend to the diversity of people’s gifts, nurturing people in their variety to develop the virtues, skills and perspectives that make transformative leadership possible. Not all participants in an organisation will have the gifts for transformative leadership, but all participants play indispensable roles in the overall vibrancy of an institution’s leadership. That is nurturing leadership makes each of the various parts of the church stronger and makes the sum of those parts even greater. By contrast, bureaucracies, not to mention toxic organizations, can take even the best leadership capacities and turn them into mediocre mush or sinful sludge.

Vibrant churches are not always born in vibrant times. South Parade emerged from the ground amid a national financial crisis. It began its ministry at a time when the world order crumbled into a world war. That story serves as a reminder that a crucial way of thinking institutionally is taking the risk to found new institutions that meet our deepest human needs; for worship, education, shelter, hunger, beauty, joy, community. As with South Parade, we ought to be willing to found them even in less than ideal circumstances, or especially in challenging circumstances. For it is when we recognise that churches are crucial spaces for nurturing faithful and joy-filled living that we will be even more likely to take the risks of founding fresh expressions of church and for caring for them in practices and commitments that enable their continual birth and rebirth over time.

God’s blessing in this Lenten season, Alan.

*A way of thinking and being that holds the past and future in tension, not in opposition, is crucial to the growth and vitality of churches.

The Prayers we pray – and those we avoid.

As a student a group of us attended Spring Harvest as Student Helpers We all shared a chalet and we catered for our evening meal together. We took it in turn to offer a blessing for the meal, it was Helen’s turn to say grace, “God, help us know when we have eaten enough and stop.” Those words stunned us. We had all been up early to help set up venues. A can of pop and biscuit grabbed running from one task to another through the day. We were starving, why could she be so cruel? There are some prayers which simply should not be prayed! We know to avoid prayers for those things we have no intention of changing.

Hunger, for instance, is one of the subjects about which we’ve learned to be careful. If you pray too seriously for hungry people you’ll end up skipping meals and giving your money away.

That’s why most of us are careful not to pray too seriously for the homeless. It’s awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have empty bedrooms.

We avoid praying about things that we don’t want to change. It’s frightening to pray about our careers. Does the law student with good career prospects in international tax law want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker? Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?

We’re especially careful about praying for people we don’t like. Think of the person whose presence bothers you the most, who gets on your nerves and probably always will. When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies,” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we don’t want to say.

Most of the time we are afraid to pray about what we could be or what we could do because we prefer the life of comfort we have chosen rather than a life of prayer which allows God to choose for us. We are afraid to pray not because our prayers will be unanswered but because the will!

We’ve learned to pray, “God, make me a better person, but not so much better that I have to change the way I live.” Prayer is hard because we don’t want to start doing what God invites us to do or stop doing what we are used to doing.

King David went a long time without really praying. One afternoon a look turned into lust, and David didn’t pray about it. The lust turned into manipulation, and David acted in ways that he never would have considered if he had the courage to pray. David was able to keep from admitting what he had done or what he needed to do for a long time. He didn’t pray, because he didn’t want to face the harsh realities.

After being confronted by Nathan the Prophet David began to pray again. His words are recorded in Psalm 51. This is an honest psalm of a man struggling to pray honestly to God. The amazing thing about this psalm is that for all of its agony, there’s also a sense of relief. What David ignored for so long is finally brought out into the open. It couldn’t have been any easier for David to tell the truth about himself than it is for any of us. There is no painless way to stop protecting our easy lives and be honest to God.

Psalm 51 is the psalm set for Ash Wednesday when we begin our Lenten Pilgrimage. Lent should be time of self examination, of honest prayer not just a few weeks to give up some trifling luxury and pretend we are doing the will of God

People who pray passionately don’t have easy lives, but they have abundant lives. God has dreams for us that we’ve been afraid to imagine.

What would happen if we made a searching, fearless inventory of how much more we could be if we asked God for the courage to change and take chances?

God’s blessings for this Lenten season, Alan.