Some notes on church worship in Chile

One thing I often like to do when I’m travelling is to visit places of religious worship, whether such be Buddhist, Baha’i, or Hindu temples, or Muslim mosques, or Jewish synagogues, or Christian houses of worship. Among other reasons, this is partly because understanding the cultus (i.e., those convictions and values embodied in ritual and ceremony) of a place is a window into better understanding its broader culture, and partly because I’m fascinated by how such strange creatures as we constantly seek to orient our lives around, from, and towards things transcendent. We are, after all, homo religiosus, as St Augustine taught. One way that this is manifest is in the erection of little shrines around the country, such as this one pictured on the left – a phenomena prevalent in every part of the world I’ve visited.

Currently, I’m in Chile. It’s a country where about 61% of the population describe ‘religion’ as being either ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’ in their lives, and where somewhere in the order of 70% of those over the age of 14 identify themselves as ‘Christian’, the majority of whom (60–70%) are Roman Catholic, and around 15% identify as ‘evangelical’. 90% of evangelicals tick the box that says ‘Pentecostal’. The remaining 10% of Protestants are a smorgasbord of mostly Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Methodists. While the numbers are debatable, Mormons claim to be the second largest religious group in the country, after Roman Catholics. There are only around 17,000 Jews, and 3,000–4,000 Muslims in the entire country.

During my time here, I’ve visited a number of churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Last Sunday, for example, I was in Santiago and spent time at the Primera Iglesia Bautista de Santiago (pictured on the right), a large Baptist church with strong links to the Southern Baptist Convention. It was an interesting experience, although I must say that an hour of 80s-style rock ‘n’ roll – even when led by a delightful worship leader, as it was – followed by a sermon that goes for over an hour is hard work on the crowd, especially since it seemed like all the important stuff was happening ‘up the front’ as it were. Still, it seemed that most people like it this way. Open Bibles and the provision of a detailed sermon outline indicated that here were people wanting to be schooled in Christ. That said, judging by the queues for the loo after the service it also seems like many were literally busting to get out of there. I know I was. And yet, at the same time I very much welcomed this connection with my Baptist sisters and brothers.

During the week, I also visited a number of Roman Catholic churches, mostly in Santiago’s inner city. These were near empty on Sunday morning, but during the week these cold, dark, dusty, and musty buildings were frequently occupied by somewhere between 40–100 or so people who were praying, mostly at the various side chapels, a couple of which in each place were clearly more important – or more interesting, or more something else – than the others. People stood to pray, knelt to pray, sat to pray. I was struck by how expressive much of this prayer was. (To be sure, it was on par with other forms of physical expression I observed in countless public places.) Apart from the sidelines of sporting fields or the endless checkouts of shopping malls, such out-in-the-open demonstration of one’s religion is rarely seen in Australia, where we tend to keep our religion more private and where public displays of such are likely to attract the unforgivable accusation of ‘hypocrite’ or ‘religious wanker’.

Today, when the church marked Pentecost, I attended two church services in San Pedro de Atacama, in northern Chile. The first was at the Ministerio Iglesia Apostolica Internacional. Here a small, friendly, and welcoming congregation of just under 20 devoted worshippers meet each Sunday morning in a very small and minimally-adorned room on the edge of town. I too heard the Call to Worship here:

Here, there were no song sheets or data projector to be had (what a relief!), and a sole musician strummed a nylon-string guitar, simply. It was beautiful.

These were humble and decent folk. For two-and-a-half hours, they loved Jesús nuestro Señor together (it was unclear who ‘the’ pastor was, as most adults seemed to take various leadership responsibilities) through some very loud singing and prayers and constant sharing of potato chips, through the reading of Holy Scripture (they stood for the Gospel reading. The preacher read the full text, and then the congregation all read it together), and through an impassioned 20-minute sermon on Matthew 13.45–46, during which time the kids and two women went to a house up the street for Sunday School. Together, they prayed as if ‘God’ might be able to hear them. They prayed like people desperate to find a rare pearl in a field of weeds. They prayed as if their entire world depended on these two hopes. They prayed like they lived – expectantly.

​​The sermon was immediately followed by most people falling onto their knees and praying – led loudly by the preacher; I did wonder at times if some of the men here imagined that God was deaf – and by the mysteriously-coordinated return of the children and their teachers. I wondered about Barth’s warnings about giving ‘no opportunity for enthusiastic rhapsody’, but it was not my task here to make that call; and anyway, if he was serious about that then he should never have written IV/2.

This was followed by a time of laying-on-of-hands and of mutual blessing.

Overall, the gathered seemed to go through an enormous number of tissues, wiping eyes and blowing noses that had been stimulated by some very emotional worship.

Did I mention that it was beautiful?

Not yet worshipped out, an hour or so later I attended Mass at the beautiful Iglesia San Pedro de Atacama, probably the second oldest church building in Chile. The church building is made principally of mud and algarrobo and cacti woods, and bound together by llama leather. It was first constructed during the seventeenth century, and has undergone various modifications and additions since. Here, two priests adorned in Pentecost red, a few nuns, and an impressive music group, led a packed cathedral in worship. I was grateful for the moments of silence here, silence shared with so many devoted people who were seeking connection with things transcendent.

And as the handsome priest placed the wafer on my tongue, I found myself joining them. It was as if the entire week – indeed my entire life, including all those worship events – was simply the prelude to this moment when the Body of God might be consumed.

‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’

The latest issue of the International Journal of Practical Theology includes a little essay I wrote titled ‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’.

[Image: ‘Irregularities of Discernment’, by theflickerees. Source]

Doug Gay on reforming Scottish Presbyterianism

Doug Gay has been in Edinburgh giving the Chalmers Lectures. The first two of these are now available online (see below), and the third and final lecture will be given later this week (I’ll link to it once it’s available). Together, they are an informed, intelligent, lucid, timely, and hope-filled challenge not only to Scottish Presbyterianism (the prime focus of his reflections) but also to the wider church.

I am grateful to Doug for giving these courageous public lectures, and to The Church of Scotland for making them available to a wider audience. I look forward to reading his forthcoming book on the same subject, Reforming The Kirk: the Future of the Church of Scotland.

The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality

Seven Baptist theologians in the UK have penned a very good piece of constructive work, and a clear articulation of Baptist ecclesiology, in this statement ‘The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality’ [pdf].

They describe the Statement as ‘a call to Baptist churches to face our present disagreements over same-sex marriage by being faithful to a Baptist way of being church’.

The full Statement, plus some supporting documentation, can be accessed via this dedicated website.

Depression and the Gift of Christian Community

depressionA minister reflects on her living with the black dog, and on the gift that the Christian community can, at its best, be:

Depression causes a variety of bizarre symptoms … But the most horrible symptom of depression that I experience is my feeling that I am useless and worthless and that the people who love me would be better off without me. When I’m well I know how ludicrous that is, but when I’m sick it feels absolutely plausible … Worst of all for me is that when I’m depressed I cannot believe that God loves me, I can’t sense God’s presence, and I can’t pray. That for me is the biggest difference between depression and grief … In the midst of depression it feels as though I am alone.

This is when I need the Christian community most. When I can’t pray, I desperately need to know that other people are praying for me. When there’s a God-shaped hole in my life, I need the faith of the church to fill it. When I’m well I love casual, friendly, informal worship services in which we all get to chat to each other and to God, but when I’m sick I can’t worship like that. In the first month of sick leave I went to a Uniting Church that used a very formal liturgy because at that worship it didn’t matter how I felt. What mattered was what the whole church believed. All I needed to do was listen and recite words that Christians have been using for centuries. When I repeated the Apostles’ Creed with the rest of the congregation it didn’t matter that those weren’t my words. I was held by the belief of Christians throughout all of space and time who have said those words. When all I could sense was the absence of God, I had to rely on the church telling me that God was still present even when I felt alone.

Today is World Mental Health Day.

On being a ‘Church leader’

rembrandt-christ-before-caiaphas-c-1649-50

‘It is a paradox that the one thing a “Church leader” cannot very often do is to lead. He [or she] sees [their] task more as one of preservation. Not always, I agree, but often enough to make the Johannine Caiaphas intelligible not as providing a shallow excuse for anti-semitism but for understanding the ultimate tragedy of Jesus of Nazareth’.

– Mr MacKinnon

[Image: Rembrandt, ‘Christ before Caiaphas’ (c. 1649–50)]

On not singing the national anthem

Anthem 1

A friend in Tweetland (and Zuckerland) is wondering whether his kids, who are Christians and who are about to start school, should be encouraged or discouraged to sing the Australian National Anthem – ‘Advance Australia Fair’. I couldn’t resist a quick reply.

I’ve threatened my kids with homelessness and disinheritance if I ever learn that they’ve sung the Australian national anthem, or encouraged others to do so. Even standing during such, were I to hear about it, would be met with their pocket money being docked. Put simply, you can’t sing the national anthem and celebrate the Eucharist. Not only is the theological disconnect as huge (in a Pythonesque kind of way) as one could imagine, but bread and wine are simply so much more interesting than any anthem, and one should set one’s mind, heart, and voice unreservedly upon the most interesting things. The only reasonable alternative I can think of is to deliberately sing the anthem very badly, as out of tune and as out of time as one can muster, to do with it what Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd once did with a Colt Python .357 Magnum. To do otherwise is to put your salvation in doubt.

There is also the matter of the song being an appalling and anaemic piece of writing. That a school should torment its students with such horrid literature is tantamount to nothing short of abuse (something, to be sure, that the country is getting very good at). That a Christian – a Christian for God’s sake! – would let such a situation pass as if it were neither here nor there is probably best explained by the fact that most churchgoers have been made immune to such heresy though years of being fed a liturgical diet of equally squalid and giddy songs and prayers. Mornings of the Lord’s Day might be much better kept by reading Shakespeare or Robinson or Flanagan while listening to Springsteen on the couch in one’s pyjamas than by enduring such torment; unless of course one believes that such activity might function as a kind of training ground, a kind of school perhaps, for the purgatory that awaits the saints. Indeed, this might be among the best of reasons to go to church. But that an institution set apart to teach literature (as laughable as that sounds in today’s climate) should promote the singing of such vacuity is reason enough to have the entire school’s curriculum reviewed by a state parliamentary committee. Her majesty could not possibly expect anything less of her government.

On another note, I understand that the anthem’s election was the fruit of a plebiscite. Enough said.

Rowan Williams: An Interview

Rowan Williams 12In this insightful and encouraging interview, conducted with Terence Handley MacMath and first published in the Church Times, Rowan Williams ruminates on teaching, church leadership, theological education, funding, experiencing God, faith, the theological task, reporting on charities, his greatest influences, and reassuring and loved sounds. His comments – particularly those about the relationship between Christ and the world – are all the more pertinent given recently-published pieces in the mainstream media about what most of us, I suspect, have known for so long now, about Britain’s ‘disappearing Christianity’ and Christian extinction’.

My work is teaching, writing, studying, plus lots of administration and raising funds for the college, and chairing Christian Aid. Probably most of my time goes on college, and a variety of teaching events for churches and schools.

I’m currently giving a series of lectures here on the history of the doctrine of Christ, trying to tease out how thinking about Christ clarifies the relation between God and creation overall.

As Archbishop, you’re constantly responding to things, and even if you do get some writing done — as I did, a bit — it tends to be issue-focused. I like having the chance of some longer breaths for thinking through questions.

When I was in post, the urgent questions were often serious theological ones, if rather heavily disguised at times; so I found myself reflecting hard about the nature of authority in the Church, and what it meant to speak about the interdependent life of the Body of Christ. That latter point continues to be absorbing for me, and I think that this term’s lectures will have reflected that a bit — thinking about the inseparable connection between what we say about Jesus Christ, and what we say about the community that lives in him.

A bishop has to be a teacher of the faith. That is, he or she has to be someone who is animated by theology and eager to share it — animated by theology in the sense of longing to inhabit the language and world of faith with greater and greater intelligence, insight, and joy. So, yes, bishops need that animation and desire to help others make sense of their commitment.

Arguments about priestly training go round and round, don’t they? Too theoretical, too pragmatic, not enough of this, not enough of that. . . My worry is, if we focus too much on curriculum — what should the modules be? — we may somehow fail to connect things up in a big picture in which pastoral care, sacramental life, prayer, scripture, social and political perspective, and doctrine all interweave. We need to have that interconnectedness in our minds constantly, as we seek to shape future ordained ministry, because that is what provides the deepest resource for arid and frustrating times. And that is what guarantees that we have something to offer our society that’s more than simply religious uplift, moral inspiration, or nice experiences.

A lot of debate in and out of the Church is shadow-boxing, because people don’t recognise what the questions are. Of course, recognising what the questions are does not remotely guarantee that you will agree, but it helps to know what you’re disagreeing about, and stops you resorting to tribal slogans, whether secular or religious. My old friend and colleague Oliver O’Donovan is particularly good at this excavation of basic questions, and has been a great help and inspiration.

In an ideal world, government and educational establishments would recognise that theology is as significant a study as other humanities. But, given that the study of the humanities in general is so badly supported these days, I’m not holding my breath. It’s anything but an ideal world.

This means that I would plead with the Church to take seriously the need for investing in theological education at all levels — to recognise that there is a huge appetite for theology among so many laypeople, and thus a need for clergy who can respond and engage intelligently. The middle-term future may need to be one where there are more independent centres of theological study outside universities, given the erosion of resources in higher education, and I think it’s time more people started thinking about what that might entail in terms of funding.

British theology is more cosmopolitan than when I started studying it. In the Sixties, people writing about doctrine in the UK were not very enthusiastic about Continental writers (though it was different for New Testament scholars); and modern Roman Catholic theology was largely ignored. Now we read far more widely, I think, and we’re more ready to take time over the intricacies of historical arguments rather than dismiss them as tiresome and unnecessary complications.

There’s more critical interest in the history of spirituality, and more willingness to let it come into the territory of doctrine. All this is to the good. My sadness is the decline of institutional resources for theology in the UK: limited funds for research, and theology departments under threat.

It’s hard to pin down my first experience of God, but I suppose [it was] through shared worship in the Presbyterian chapel of my childhood, and a strong sense — when I was around eight, and my grandmother, who lived with us, was dying — of God’s care and providence, and the presence of the crucified Christ. Shared worship is still a major part of how I encounter God, but, from my teens, this has been balanced by a growing hunger for silence before God.

I’ve never felt any real disjunction between academic theology and faith. I’ve found that studying the development of Christian doctrine has excited me, and helped me see something of the veins and sinews of faith. My research has arisen out of my desire to understand better what we say as people of faith.

Apart from the obvious question about how we Anglicans manage the tension of living in a diverse global church — where we need a more robust theology of what interdependence does and doesn’t mean — I think my biggest concern is that we don’t have a rich enough Anglican theological consensus on the sacramental nature of the Church. That’s eucharistic ecclesiology, to put it in technical language.

Underrated theologians? John Bowker, Olivier Clément, Andrew Shanks.

Theology has a modest but vital part to play in the Church’s mission. We need to keep asking questions about how we’re using our language, so that we don’t get stuck with unexamined habits of speech, don’t assume that true formulations about God tell us everything about him, don’t forget the sheer scale of what we are daring to speak about. Theology helps with all this. And it helps clarify what we believe about human nature and destiny, which is of real importance for a world that is often deeply unsure or confused about the roots of human dignity.

Theologians don’t necessarily ask the same questions as others do, but there is a continuity, and theologians need the skill and patience to draw out those continuities. That’s why it is important that there are writers who try to work in the boundaries between academic theology and secular culture, and those who try to put the great governing themes of classical theology into plainer words. Mike Lloyd is a good example.

I was an only child. My father worked as an engineer, and my mother had lifelong health and mobility problems. They were both Christians, though reticent and sometimes uncertain about it. My wife, Jane, of course, is well-known in her own right as a teacher and writer. We have a daughter who teaches in an inner-city primary school, and a son studying drama at university. Both would still call themselves Christian, though they slip in and out of the institutional life of the Church.

The most reassuring, loved sound to me is the door opening when my wife or children come home.

Some irresponsible and hostile reporting about charities was the last thing that made me angry. Nationally and internationally, charities are expected to pick up the slack where statutory provision drops away — yet they’re subjected not just to proper demands for accountability, but often to what looks like wilfully negative and undermining reporting, focused on excessive salaries, inadequate monitoring of expenditure, intrusive fund-raising, and so on. These things all happen, and need to stop happening; but just how representative are the hostile headline stories, especially where international aid is concerned?

I’m happiest when I’m at the Pembrokeshire coast on family holidays.

Augustine has probably been the greatest theological influence above all, but also Vladimir Lossky, who was the focus of my doctoral research; Barth, Bonhoeffer, Austin Farrer, Donald MacKinnon, James Alison. I don’t know if Simone Weil is allowed to count as a theologian; I don’t always agree with her by any means, but she was a huge influence at several points. Among specific books, I remember Bonhoeffer’s prison letters; Charles Williams’s He Came Down From Heaven; Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations.

The greatest influences in my life have been the parish priest in my teenage years; the Benedictine monk who was my spiritual director; and Jane and the children.

I pray most for patience, freedom to forgive and let go of hurt — for myself and for the whole Church and human family — and for the rescue of the vulnerable: the abused, hungry, terrified, wherever they are.

If I had to choose a companion to be locked in a church with for a few hours, I’d toss up between St Augustine, T. S. Eliot, and Bonhoeffer, from the past. In the present — family apart — Salley Vickers, Michael Symmons Roberts, or Kathleen Norris.

Pastors can’t win

Can't win

This all seems to ring true for women clergy too, for whom I’m sure that a number of further statements might be added. I’m not confident, brave, or stupid enough to speak for them, but invite their comments below.

On a more serious note, I’m really glad that pastors can’t win. Their job is, after all, meant to be impossible.

[Image: via Peter Weeks on Facebook]

Living betwixt and between muddle and ambiguity

Royal Cave, Buchan Caves Reserve. © Jason Goroncy, 2016

‘Royal Cave’, Buchan Caves Reserve. © Jason Goroncy, 2016

Over these past days, I have been reminded again that at our best, to be human, and to be human community, is to live betwixt and between muddle and ambiguity. We are, unavoidably, marked by profound inconsistencies and misdirected hopes. We are an enigma – even, and perhaps especially, to ourselves.

A few months ago, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave an outstanding lecture on what George Orwell can teach us about the language of terror and war. In that lecture, he drew not only upon Orwell’s work but also upon that of the Trappist monk, poet, and social activist Thomas Merton, and he argued that each in their own way were concerned with the power and the misuse of language. Williams suggested that ‘our current panics about causing “offence” are, at their best and most generous, an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations’.

Certainly, the spirit of the age in which we live is characterised by efforts to entrench unquestionable power, power that makes unwelcome voices of dissent, and which feels little or no responsibility to those who do not serve its own proximate interests.

According to Williams, our thoughts and wrestles and debates about those questions which really matter for the flourishing of life often expose ‘a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not to be found in the silencing of disagreement but rather in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense “civil” disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds’.

Isn’t that one of the reasons that we place ourselves in communities of faith? I often tell my children that one of the main reasons we go to church is so that we can learn and practice loving people that we don’t really like that much – people who irritate us, people who we find odd and who we’d never be seen dead with otherwise, people who frustrate us and hurt us and disappoint us. We belong to the church because that is how we hope to learn the truth that is required for our being truthful about ourselves and about one another. What is the Christian community if it is not a unique training ground for learning the lessons of being the kind of community that God intends for all humanity – for learning that to be truly human is to belong to and to relate to and to do life with those who are other than ourselves, those whom God has joined together?

And so we eat and drink – not only with friends, but also with strangers, with enemies and with betrayers … and with our own inner demons. For that is the context in which Christ makes himself available to us.

Baptists and life in covenant

WalkingPaul Fiddes has written a nice little reflection on the nature of covenant and how it relates to Baptist ecclesiology. Here’s a section:

It is essential to realise that this covenant is not a legal contract. The ‘way’ in which covenant partners walk can only be one of mutual trust. This is where Baptists have given an insight to the universal church which is a true gift. In the local congregation, covenanted together, all the members ‘watch over’ each other, and this ‘oversight’ happens in the church meeting as they seek to find the mind and purpose of Christ for them. At the same time, Baptists have always believed that Christ calls some of these members to exercise ‘oversight’ (or a ‘watching over’) in a spiritual leadership of the congregation. Among Baptists there is no legal provision, no church law, which regulates the relation between these two forms of ‘oversight’, the one corporate and other personal. Congregations must therefore learn to live in the bonds of trust between the people and their ministers. Oversight flows to and fro freely between the whole congregation and its spiritual leaders.

In the same way, oversight flows to and fro between the local congregation and the association of churches. The single congregation lives in a covenant made by Christ, and Christ is present among them to make his purpose known. The congregation is his body, where Christ becomes visible in the world today. This is why the congregation has ‘freedom’ to make decisions about its life and mission, and cannot be coerced or imposed upon by any church authorities outside it. The congregation is not ‘autonomous’, which means ‘making laws for itself’. Christ makes its laws, and the church has the freedom and responsibility to discern his ways.  It is free because it is ruled only by Christ.

But Christ also calls local congregations together into covenant, in association. Where churches are assembled through their representatives, there too Christ is present, there he becomes visible to the world in the body of his people, there his mind can be known through the help of the Holy Spirit. Local congregations are thus ‘interdependent’, needing each other’s spiritual gifts and understanding if they are to share in God’s mission in the world.

Yet in the covenant principle there is no legal contract, only the way of trust. In their search for the mind of Christ the local church meeting must listen to what the churches say as they seek to listen to Christ together. It must take with complete seriousness the decisions made at an association level, and will need good reason not to adopt them for itself. But in the end it has freedom to order its own life as a covenant community which stands under the rule of Christ. It needs the insights of other churches to find the mind of Christ, but then it has the freedom to test whether what is claimed to have been found is truly his mind. It might feel called to make a prophetic stand on some issue, and will stand under the judgment only of Christ as it does so.

Other churches may think that this covenantal approach of mutual trust is hopelessly impracticable, and that it would be better to regulate the relation between people and clergy, between churches and diocese or province. Baptists have learned over the years to live with the risks of trust and love. Here there is plenty of opportunity for muddles, mistakes and frustrations, but also room for all to flourish.

You can read the full piece here.

A few thoughts on that Hillsong piece …

Sausage & bacon nativity scene… in the previous post:

  1. Yes, the musos are fabulous! While I certainly could do without the singers and the dancers, that music is a gift from a place that is very familiar to God. That it is apparently quite unfamiliar to many who profess to like and practice the kind of stuff that God likes and practices is something very near tragic. A spirit of celebration and praise is near the heart of all worship characterised by the gifts and promises of one literally pushed into the world kicking, farting, and screaming.
  2. Of course, every good thing has its ape, but apes are only apes and it seems only fair that they be allowed to have some fun too.
  3. But I concur with those who note the incongruence between the message and the medium. It’s like seeing an athletic woman selling ‘health drinks’ or muesli bars; you suspect that you’re being sold bullshit. More on this in a moment (see #6).
  4. However, far from seeing this performance as something that I ought to therefore dismiss out of hand, which may be an understandable first reaction, I feel drawn to ask further questions. I want to know, for example, what happens before, and after, this song. How am I to interpret this single performance in the context of a larger event and story and witness, and of a culture largely foreign to me? Maybe it’s simply – whether partly or mostly – a piece of shallow and money-making glitz and that’s all. But I can’t even begin to form that judgement unless I have some broader context – and some other stories – in which to evaluate it, lest my judgement be held hostage to simply another set of cultural manifestations. (Some, of course, might well argue that much of that context is already provided for us in other stories that we have heard and/or experienced first hand about Hillsong’s modus operandi. But I want to know more, and I’ve long learnt that the truth ain’t the facts.)
  5. That the piece doesn’t work in the cultures with which I identify and am most familiar and conversant doesn’t mean that it’s necessary discordant with the actions of God. After all, God isn’t a Christian, let alone a male Aussie with wog parents. Hell, I’m not even sure God speaks English. Indeed, one might make the argument that the stranger and more unfamiliar and more difficult it is to understand and interpret, the closer it may be to the stuff of God. (I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is Hillsong’s motivation here.) Nathanael’s observation about the Caribbean context, and that GQ article too, raise some perennial questions for me about the relationship between gospel and culture, of the temptations to make an ideology out of the former and of making indiscriminate familiarity with the latter the precondition for the gospel’s reception.
  6. Watching the performance of this single song, online, nearly 17,000 kilometres from where it was performed, I have the same kind of confusion I experience whenever I worship in a building with a national flag in it; or an Honour Roll commemorating those who gave their lives in ‘the service of freedom’ and ‘for God, King and Country’, some of whom, it is noted (sometimes with the sign of a little cross!), ‘paid the supreme sacrifice’; or whenever I see a reference, in my ecclesiological territory, to ‘senior pastor’; or when I hear that a qualification for being a bishop (in some other ecclesiological territories) is proof of a penis; or whenever I see an innocent bunch of carnations perched on a baptismal font; or whenever congregations celebrate the Lord’s Supper not with a common cup but with those hideous little shot glasses; or when I see a funeral casket draped with the flag of a football team; or when I see church children get shuffled off out of ‘adult church’ so that they can engage in some more ‘age-appropriate’ activites; or when I visit a church worship centre in rural Thailand that is, visually speaking, entirely indistinguishable from the Buddhist temple down the road save for a presence of a small crucifix. I could go on …
  7. A hearty thank you to all who have taken up my invitation. If to embark on theology is to be unstable bearers of live questions (as Mike Higton puts it), then I welcome the invitations that this clip offers, and the conversations that it has encouraged. May both continue.

[Image: source]

‘Silent Night’, Hillsong style

In recent years, Hillsong London has marked the coming of Christmas in ways reminiscent of what lots of churches do – an evening of carol singing marketed as ‘a night that is focused on celebrating what Christmas is really about – JESUS!’

Last year’s event included this unique performance of ‘Silent Night’:

Some of us found the performance to be quite confusing, on so very many levels. This is not a bad thing. (Of course, a quick Google search reveals that there are no shortage of people who confess no such confusion at all.) When those whose experience across a wide range of ecclesiastical supermarkets together find that their hermeneutical skills are up against it, this is a time to embrace the questions.

So this post. I have my own developing thoughts, which I may post at some stage. But consider the comments box below my invitation to you, dear reader, to help me interpret what the Willy Wonka that was all about. [NB. I want this to be constructive, so vitriolic comments are likely to find my delete button.]

–––––––

Update: For those who may be interested, I’ve posted a few follow-up scribbles here.

Leonardo Boff on Papa Francisco: Iglesia en salida, ¿de dónde y hacia dónde?

Leonardo BoffIt was probably over twenty-five years ago, but I can still remember the moment when I first read Leonardo Boff. I can’t now remember if it was his Introducing Liberation Theology or his Jesus Christ Liberator, or something else. I can hardly even remember what any of his main arguments were. I can, however, remember being struck by a way of approaching the theological task itself that I had hardly ever encountered before. I wondered, is it really possible for theology to be so unenslaved to dogmatic minutiae, to bear so few signs of the overly-apologetic anxiety that so marks the discipline, to appear so unhindered by the opinions of his protagonists, to care so deeply and so courageously for the world, to so reek of Christ? I wondered, is this really theology at all? And while I did (and do) not share Boff’s mind on a number of subjects, there could be no doubting that here was a dear brother and teacher in Christ, labouring with that same bold freedom and disembarrassment and urgency and risk that I also encountered in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.

I relived some of those same moments again tonight when I happened across this recent statement (3 July 2015) from Boff, now 76. It is testimony to life’s celebration in the thick of fossilising death, to joy’s protesting hope amidst despair, and a summons to the Christian community to heed Pope Francis’ call to turn away from those patterns of non-cruciform power and self-service and self-preservation and religiosity that so often characterise its life and to turn towards the compassionate and thoroughly-worldly tradition of Jesus; a summons, put otherwise, to become contemporary with Christ. I thought it worth reposting:

Celebrando todavía la extraordinaria encíclica sobre “el cuidado de la Casa Común”, volvemos a reflexionar sobre una perspectiva importante del Papa Francisco, un verdadero logotipo de su comprensión de la Iglesia como “una Iglesia en salida”. Esta expresión encierra una velada crítica al modelo anterior de Iglesia que era una Iglesia “sin salida” debido a los diversos escándalos de orden moral y financiero, que forzaron a renunciar al Papa Benedicto XVI, una Iglesia que había perdido su mejor capital: la moralidad y la credibilidad de los cristianos y del mundo secular.

Pero el logotipo “Iglesia en salida” posee un significado más profundo, hecho posible porque viene de un Papa fuera de los cuadros institucionales de la vieja y cansada cristiandad europea. Esta había encerrado a la Iglesia dentro de una comprensión que la volvía prácticamente inaceptable para los modernos, rehén de tradiciones fosilizadas y con un mensaje que no mordía los problemas de los cristianos y del mundo actual. La “Iglesia en salida” quiere marcar una ruptura con aquel estado de cosas. Esta palabra “ruptura” irrita a los representantes del stablishment eclesiástico, pero no por eso deja de ser verdadera. Y entonces surge la pregunta: “salida” de dónde y hacia dónde? Veamos algunos pasos:

  • Salida de una Iglesia-fortaleza que protegía a los fieles de las libertades modernas hacia una Iglesia-hospital de campaña que atiende a toda persona que la busca, sin importar su estado moral o ideológico.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-institución absolutista, centrada en sí misma hacia una Iglesia-movimiento, abierta al diálogo universal, con otras Iglesias, religiones e ideologías.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-jerarquía, creadora de desigualdades hacia una Iglesia-pueblo de Dios, que hace de todos hermanos y hermanas: una inmensa comunidad fraternal.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-autoridad eclesiástica, distanciada de los fieles o incluso de espaldas a ellos, hacia una Iglesia-pastor que anda en medio del pueblo, con olor a oveja y misericordiosa.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-Papa de todos los cristianos y obispos que gobierna con el rígido derecho canónico hacia una Iglesia-obispo de Roma, que preside en la caridad y sólo a partir de ella se hace papa de la Iglesia universal.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-maestra de doctrinas y normas hacia una Iglesia-de prácticas sorprendentes y de encuentro afectuoso con las personas más allá de su pertenencia religiosa, moral o ideológica. Las periferias existenciales ganan centralidad.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-de poder sagrado, de pompa y circunstancia, de palacios pontificios y titulaciones de nobleza renacentista hacia una Iglesia-pobre y para los pobres, despojada de símbolos de honor, servidora y portavoz profética contra el sistema de acumulación de dinero, el ídolo que produce sufrimiento y miseria y mata a las personas.
  • Salida de la Iglesia-que habla de los pobres hacia una Iglesia-que va a los pobres, conversa con ellos, los abraza y los defiende.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-equidistante de los sistemas políticos y económicos hacia una Iglesia-que toma partido a favor de las víctimas y que llama por su nombre a los causantes de las injusticias e invita a Roma a representantes de los movimientos sociales mundiales para discutir con ellos cómo buscar alternativas.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-automagnificadora y acrítica hacia una Iglesia-de verdad sobre sí misma y contra cardenales, obispos y teólogos celosos de su status pero con cara de “vinagre o de viernes santo”, “tristes como si fuesen a su propio entierro”, una Iglesia, en fin, hecha de personas humanas.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-del orden y del rigorismo hacia una Iglesia-de la revolución de la ternura, de la misericordia y del cuidado.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-de devotos, como esos que aparecen en los programas televisivos, con curas artistas del mercado religioso, hacia una Iglesia-compromiso con la justicia social y con la liberación de los oprimidos.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-obediencia y de la reverencia hacia una Iglesia-alegría del evangelio y de esperanza todavía para este mundo.
  • Salida de una Iglesia-sin el mundo que permitió que surgiese un mundo sin Iglesia hacia una Iglesia-mundo, sensible al problema de la ecología y del futuro de la Casa Común, la madre Tierra.

Estas y otras salidas muestran que la Iglesia no se reduce solamente a una misión religiosa, acantonada en una parte privada de la realidad. Ella posee además una misión político-social en el mejor sentido de la palabra, como fuente de inspiración para las trasformaciones necesarias que rescaten a la humanidad para una civilización del amor y de la compasión, que sea menos individualista, materialista, cínica y desprovista de solidaridad.

Esta Iglesia-en-salida ha devuelto alegría y esperanza a los cristianos y reconquistado el sentimiento de ser un hogar espiritual. Por su sencillez, despojamiento y acogida con amor y ternura se ha granjeado la estima de muchas personas de otras confesiones, de simples ciudadanos del mundo e incluso de jefes de Estado que admiran la figura y las prácticas sorprendentes del Papa Francisco en favor de la paz, del diálogo entre los pueblos, de la renuncia a toda violencia y a la guerra.

Más que doctrinas y dogmas es la Tradición de Jesús, hecha de amor incondicional, de misericordia y de compasión que por él se actualiza y revela su inagotable energía humanizadora. Pues, entre otras cosas, este es el mensaje central de Jesús, aceptable por todas las personas de todos los rincones.

Seeking hospitality in Melbourne

There is a Christian missionary family (of 5), including three young children, who are currently serving in Siberia with Pioneers. They will be returning to Melbourne on furlough for six months from 11 January, and they are looking for a place (min 2 bedrooms) to stay, preferably somewhere in either Melbourne’s North, East, or South (including Mornington Peninsula) which is where their main supporter base is. They would prefer to remain in the one place so that their kids could attend the one school.

If you or someone you know may be able to help, then please get in touch with me via the Contact page

If you’re a Facebooker, then please feel free to spread the word too.

faithfulness, through a glass darkly

Through a glass darkly

To think about love as that which is sourced in God, which moves us towards healing, which is open to others, which refuses the bondage of disembodiment, which takes risks, and which carries with it certain responsibilities, is to recall that love is not too far removed from that other fruit of the Spirit that ought to characterise the Christian community; namely, faith. For the Christian community, to faith is to risk the entirety of its existence by leaning unreservedly into the Word who addresses it and who calls it away from its own life-less patterns of self-reliance and into God’s true freedom.

It is important to remember that faith is neither the ‘idolatry of certainty’ (Monika Hilder) nor the same as belief. To believe is part of faith, but faith also involves not believing, questioning, doubting, exploring, or not knowing what to believe. A faithful response to God includes the courage to explore further, to value mystery rather than carrying the burden of knowing all that is to be known. And a faithful community is one that welcomes and holds together all of these dimensions of faith – rejoicing, resting, anguishing, risking, exploring, being unstable bearers of live questions. Faith communities devoid of such dimensions are communities in danger, or worse, of not growing up at all.

It is not insignificant that the Bible has no arguments for the existence of God. It is not insignificant that the Bible offers little reason to think that faith should be facile and unambiguous. Indeed, the Bible is unfilled by comfortable and reassuring words about the life of belief and trust. It is unfilled by presentations of a God who expects or demands doubtless faith. If Abraham and Moses and Hannah and Job and Mary and Jesus and Simeon and Paul suggest any pattern, then our knowledge of God and of God’s ways is characterised not by epistemological certainty but by being found caught up in a reality planned and constrained only by mysterious love, love which appears to have little difficulty in making space for angst and struggle and disbelief, and which is at home looking through a glass darkly. Indeed, in a sense these are a kind of argument for God.

Faith is always being called into risky business. The faithful deal with shadows, partaking little of ‘the optimistic gleam of scientific progress’ (Catherine Keller). Faithful communities are therefore unavoidably characterised by some confusion, some doubt, and some ambiguity. Indeed, these are part of their gift and witness. And trusting this is a sign of their faithfulness to the One whose ways are not like ours.

[Image: David Mello]

The church as unstable community

SuspendedA little note about being Protestant: One deeply Protestant conviction is that in this world there exists nothing wholly reliable, nothing immune from absolute vulnerability. And indeed the most vulnerable of part of it is the church –­ that community ever in diaspora, that community that has been thrust into ‘an unprecedented history’, a ‘continuous risky adventure with always hazardous improvisations’ (Johannes Hoekendijk).

To be an apostolic community is to experience a profound letting go, an unmastering, a dispossession. It is to experience oneself as the unstable bearer of a live question – ‘the bearer of the question which the Gospel poses … The Church’s … task is to preserve this questioning’ – to receive and to discover forms and practices of life and language that will ‘keep alive the possibility of our hearing this disruption, and which will allow it to be felt deeper and far wider than the circle of its original impact’ (Mike Higton).

It was this kind of letting go that informed Vincent Donovan’s conviction, in his work among the Masai people in Tanzania. Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, understood the significance of not fixing the form of the church in advance, of not predetermining what the Christian community should look like. He had that deeply gospel-informed instinct that the missio Dei involves a quest for the emergence of the Word’s community in whatever forms and whatever shapes such might take. He understood that ‘because a missionary comes from another already existing church, that is the image of church [they] will have in mind, and if [their] job is to establish a church, that is the church [they] will establish’. But ‘the missionary’s job’, as Donovan put it, ‘is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he [or she] preaches Christ’, a ‘church may well result, may well appear, but it might not be the church [the missionary] had in mind’. (Little wonder he was not Rome’s best friend.) The missionary church must preach Christ, not the church. And the response – and the shape of that response – will be up to those who hear the message. They will have to do their own work, offer their own faithful responses to the Word they hear. The Word must have his own freedom to create or not to create whatever forms of community he chooses. And what he chooses might look entirely unfamiliar to all who have passed by his way before.

I am reminded here of Paul Tillich’s observation that ‘what makes Protestantism Protestant is the fact that it transcends its own religious and confessional character, that it cannot be identified wholly with any of its particular historical forms’. One implication of this is that pilgrim communities stay awake to the truth that their strength lies in the knowledge that they are, in principle, weak and fragile and homeless. To be Christian community is to be, as Ben Myers once put it, continuously suspended over the abyss of nonbeing, upheld solely by the voice of one before whom we stand utterly exposed, and who continually calls us into new being. It is a community, therefore, that always puts safety last. It is a community that, as another great Australian theologian put it, is ‘prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church’ (Davis McCaughey). It is a community that continually risks the judgement of God’s Word, and that lives in such a way that it is entirely uninterested and uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community that lives faithfully with the receding horizon of postponed dreams and made free thereby to throw itself entirely into the embarrassing service of Jesus, and that not for God’s sake but solely for the sake of the world. It is a community, therefore, that is always learning how to fail, always rediscovering its uneven record. It is a community that risks even its life with God so that it might become contemporary with Christ.

Rather than understanding its vocation as the extension or propagation of its own modes of being, the church’s vocation in and relation to the world is to be determined solely by its relation to the transposing and boundary-crossing Christ, the Word of its being. It is a community that ‘strives to show, to embody, the way in which the incalculable variety of human concerns can be “at home” in and with the confession of faith in Jesus. It does not seek to impose a uniform Christian culture or a preconceived Christian solution; it aims only to keep open and expanding the frontiers of the community as gift’ (Rowan Williams).

We are talking about a community that can never be completely at home and rooted anywhere in this world, a diaspora community constantly set out on a journey, opening itself up to the future; not any future, mind you, but the future of Jesus Christ. At every step of the way, it needs the forgiveness of its sins and the encouragement of the Spirit. In difficult circumstances, it will be a community that seeks, while sighing deeply, to do its task as well as it can in the expectation of the appearance of its Lord. Precisely so does it offer its witness in the world.

The fundamentally unstable nature of the community is an insight that is shared, it seems to me, by one of the early church’s greatest theologians – Mary. Mary reminds us of the pilgrim nature of being truly human – that one undertakes the life of faith, and indeed theology, with a sense of the agony of vocation, and with profound risk. Mary also understood that the smell of divine transcendence is not only born in unexpected encounters but that it is also ‘born in the guts’, literally. In Mary, we learn that the transcendent is imminent, closer to us than is our own breath and yet more foreign to us than our imaginations dare allow. Mary understood that the life of faith is undertaken by those who feel that they are being ‘pulled into God’s history’ and who have been ‘twisted by the shock of God’s visit’. And she understood that it is a life pursued in community with others, conscious that ‘the burden of vocation is too heavy to carry alone’. Mary also reminds us that faith ‘does not just give answers. It also asks questions’. And it ‘must learn to say “I don’t know”. It must learn to hear God saying that [God] owns the time’ (Valdir Steuernagel). She reminds us that faith’s vocations are undertaken not only in the wake of certain achievements but also in the confession of their own limits and uncertainties. The community gathered around her Son is a community whose life is marked by gut-wrenching ambiguity, a community that ever lives between Holy Friday’s experience of god-abandonment in death and the mystery of an empty sepulchre. It is a community that lives – literally lives, literally comes alive – in the experience of its own unstable dying, an experience in which the invisible Christ ­­– he for whom Holy Saturday is familiar territory ­­– stands among us, carrying us, and indeed the world, more deeply into God’s own movement of love and life.

On being ecclesiastical tourists

Duane-Hansons-TouristsWhile in the mad throes of writing lectures for an upcoming course that I’ll be teaching on the church, I am grateful to be re-reading Michael Jinkins’s very fine book The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context. In one little section, subtitled ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Church’, Jinkins offers a great reminder of the challenge and danger that inherently lies in teaching a course on ecclesiology. It begins:

Roland Barthes’s essay “The Blue Guide” is suggestive for those who want to learn to reflect on the speech of the church about itself. His essay considers a popular series of tourist guidebooks (called Guide Bleu in French) to various European destinations. To be precise, his essay considers the presuppositions, one might almost say the prejudices, of the guidebook, which remain unstated by the editors and reduce the particularities of a country and its inhabitants to stereotypes, cliches, and sights (or monuments) to be seen, but not observed. The complex and real “human life of a country disappears,” he writes, “to the exclusive benefit of its monuments.” And the rich diversity of human existence is boiled down to a few picture postcard images. He writes:

In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a lighthearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a sentimental Highlander. We find again here this disease of thinking in essences, which is at the bottom of every bourgeois mythology of man (which is why we come across it so often). The ethnic reality of Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat commedia dell’arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes and professions. For the Blue Guide, men exist as social entities only in trains, where they fill a “very mixed” Third Class. Apart from that, they are a mere introduction, they constitute a charming and fanciful decor, meant to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of monuments.

Is there not a corresponding danger in ecclesiology to reduce the vast diversity of church, the ambiguities of this rich human-divine reality, to a few neat (noncontradictory) patterns, types, models, paradigms, definitions, or descriptions—to notice the monumental remains and to dismiss as irrelevant (and irrelevantly messy) the actual communities of faith that shape these monuments and that move within them and make sense of them? What would it entail, what would it require of us, to notice and take seriously the particularities of church, to go beyond phenomenology to phenomengnosis, to understand the ambiguous flux of existence as itself the sign that demands to be understood in its own terms? Barthes says, later in this essay:

Generally speaking, the Blue Guide testifies to the futility of all analytical descriptions, those which reject both explanations and phenomenology: it answers in fact none of the questions which a modern traveller can ask himself while crossing a countryside which is real and which exists in time. To select only monuments suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land and that of its people, it accounts for nothing of the present, that is, nothing historical, and as a consequence, the monuments themselves become undecipherable, therefore senseless. What is seen is thus constantly in the process of vanishing, and the Guide becomes, through an operation common to all mystifications, the very opposite of what it advertises, an agent of blindness.

Banksy - Tourist InformationA tourist, perhaps on one of those packaged coach tours, can visit a foreign country only to tick off the sights (the monuments): the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey, Edinburgh Castle. She envisions the people of these foreign countries she visits as stereotypes already firmly established in her head: Scot in kilt with bagpipes, Englishman with umbrella and bowler, Frenchman wearing beret, smoking cigarette, drinking wine. The tourist returns home having traveled but having only minimally encountered the countries toured and their inhabitants. The idiosyncratic, the eccentric reality of humanity, the exactness of place and time and circumstance, the life lived in ordinariness is easily ignored in the headlong rush to account for all stereotypes (thus never really knowing the people) and monuments (thus never understanding why the monuments are there or what they signify). One sees here the way in which the yearning for essence can alienate us from history; though this superficial tourist may be surrounded by “historical” monuments, she has little access to their meaning because they have been decontextualized; consequently, she is estranged from her own history of being present in that place. In the worst cases, the tourist takes her “home” on tour with her to the extent that she never enters into the foreign time and place at all—the ultimate jet lag.

The ecclesiastical tourist, likewise, can emerge from a “study of the doctrine of the Church” having never entered into church at all. While giving the impression of sailing to all the great ports of call, he may have only circumnavigated the stereotypes. What is clearly implied in such ecclesiological globetrotting is that the church is an idea, and that paying attention to the actuality of particular human communities of faith only distracts us from some divine ecclesiology, a neat analytical description that is (supposedly) forever and everywhere true.

Church: The Quest for Christian Community

One of the units that I’ll be teaching at Whitley College (University of Divinity) this coming semester (30 July–29 October) is called Church: The Quest for Christian Community. The unit can be taken at levels 2, 3, or 9, and all are welcome to enrol.

Over 12 sessions, we will consider the following broad themes:

1. The Quest for Christian Community: Approaches, Issues, Challenges
2. The Community in Kingdom and Spirit
3. The Community as the Body of Christ
4. The Community as Priesthood and People of God
5. The Community and the Missio Dei
6. The Community under water: Baptism
7. The Community at Table: Eucharist
8. The Community of the Word
9. The Community Growing in God
10. The Community at Work
11. The Community in the World
12. The Ethical Community

And here’s a little taster of what is in store:

If you are interested in joining us, or in simply finding out more about this course and others, contact Whitley College (by email or phone 03 9340 8100) for more information.

Whitley College School of Ministry: Peaceful People, Peaceful Church, Peaceful World

SOM 2015What does it mean to be agents of peace in a world of conflict?

Each year, my school, Whitley College, runs a School of Ministry. This year’s School – which is happening on 13–14 July – provides an opportunity to hear from two guest teachers who have worked in the area of peace making and peace building, and to reflect together on what it means ‘to become peaceful people, in peaceful churches, for a peaceful world’.

The two guests are Dr David R. Brubaker (Associate Professor of Organizational Studies, Eastern Mennonite University) and Dr Maung Maung Yin (The Vice Principal of Myanmar Institute of Theology and the inaugural Director of the Peace Studies Centre).

Program

Program

 

REGISTRATION FEE 

  • Full registration – $200 (Includes all meals and up to 2 nights accommodation* in the Residential College)
  • Non-residential registration – $135 (Includes all lunches and dinners)
  • Ordination Candidates – $85 (Includes all meals and up to 2 nights accommodation* in the Residential College)

* Monday and Tuesday night bed and breakfast accommodation

FURTHER INFORMATION

For further information, download the flyer here.

Please direct enquiries to Dorothy Morgan via email or phone 03 9340 8100

REGISTRATION

Please register before Monday, 6 July 2015.

Book online (requires credit card) or download the registration form.