Malcolm Gordon on music, liturgy, and the cadence of God’s story

Irina Lesik - Three Musicians
Irina Lesik, ‘Three Musicians’

Criticising contemporary worship songs has become pretty old hat. It’s such an easy target, with favourite gripes including (but not limited to): the lack of good theology, the ever-increasing prominence of ‘me, myself and I’, and the combination of complex musical arrangements with simplistic melody lines, or complicated melody lines with predictable arrangements, depending which side of the bed we emerge from.

But I think we are wrong. While I agree there are problems with contemporary worship music; I don’t agree that this is the sum total of the problem. There is a problem, but it may not be the music’s fault.

If you went back sixty years to many churches, you had people singing from hymn books, accompanied by an organist, perhaps strengthened by a choir, and in between the singing they were led through the service by a pastor, priest or minister. This person led prayers, said blessings, and ushered the congregation through the story-line that is worship. God welcomes us, we praise and confess, God speaks to us, God feeds us, we respond in prayer and offering, God sends, we go. The hymns belonged in the midst of this well-worn journey. Yes the hymns were richer in doctrine, or perhaps ‘thicker’ is a better word sometimes. And how could they not be when they have five to seven verses and no repetition?! But like then, as now, I don’t think the hymns were doing all the heavy lifting for giving the worship services its depth and meaning. Rather it was this careful curation through the worship journey of God encountering people, people responding, God blessing, people going – which was punctuated with spoken prayer, acts of blessing, celebrating sacraments and passing the peace as well as sung worship. Music was certainly part of that, but it was only part of it.

Recently I went to a seminary to teach some ministry students about worship. I asked them what their standard church services looked like. To be truthful, I asked them for their ‘liturgy’. This was their response:

  • two to three upbeat songs
  • Welcome
  • two more upbeat songs plus prayer
  • Notices. Kids go out
  • two more reflective songs plus prayer
  • Message
  • one more reflective song, ministry time

As you can see, they covered some of the ‘how’ of worship, but they left the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ untouched. They weren’t able to tell me if the opening songs were functioning as a Call to Worship or as songs of adoration and praise. The prayers were not routinely prayers of confession or intercession, just whatever was ‘on the worship leader’s heart’. I don’t actually think it’s their fault, much like I don’t think it’s the fault of a generation of contemporary worship songwriters who have written theologically impoverished songs. Because the music was never meant to carry the liturgy, the liturgy was meant to carry the music. The liturgy is the order of what we do and why we do it, which was the task of the pastor, priest, minister, and it gave meaning to the songs we sang, the responses we made, the prayers we offered, and the gifts we brought. The old hymns didn’t exist in a theological vacuum, but most of our contemporary worship songs are expected to. We betray this when we ask the congregation to stand and sing with the words, ‘let’s worship’ – because music is now the only worshipful activity that remains to us. Perhaps what we are remembering when we recall the hymns, is not just the richness of the pieces of music themselves, but the general coherence of the service as a whole.

Now our worship songs (which are, let’s face it, more theologically lightweight than their forebears) are framed in a significantly vaguer space than before. We might know how many songs we do before the welcome, and then how many more before the notices, but we no longer remember what function those songs are meant to perform. Is it any wonder our songwriters struggle for depth? We have them playing in the paddling pool!

Now I’m not advocating a return to worship how it was ‘back in the good ol’ days’. I’m advocating that pastors, priests and ministers reclaim their role as liturgical theologians. Given the influence of the charismatic movement initially, compounded later by a shift in priorities for pastoral leaders as well as a heightened consumeristic expectations from church folk, pastors have largely abdicated having direct input into the worship service apart from the message, and they have handed that role over to musicians. One might ask, have those musicians begun to receive resourcing and training to enable them to lead the congregation in worship, to give voice to the spirituality of a whole community before God? In my experience, no. This situation may not strike us as odd because we are so used to it, but consider this scenario. How weird would it have been, ‘back in the good ol’ days’ to have let the organist lead the service, pick their favourite songs, and lead all the prayers (off the cuff) from the console? It didn’t make sense then, and I’m not sure it makes sense now.

Pastors are uniquely qualified to give logic and coherence to a worship service. They are pastorally linked in to what is happening in the congregation, they are theologically astute in order to let the great themes of Scripture seep through a whole service, and they are wordsmiths. Just the sort of people to craft prayers which gather up our hopes and our fears, and hold them alongside the promises of God. When the pastor abdicates this role to the guitarist, or leaves the guitarist with too few resources to draw upon, then the worship service starts to feel like a variety concert, rather than a pilgrimage into the heart of God, and then with God into the world.

What am I suggesting? If you’re in a church where the worship service is completely in the hands of the musicians, perhaps it’s a matter of sparking up some conversations with your key leaders, helping them to move beyond their own spirituality and into facilitating a experience of worship that is hospitable for the whole congregation, linking them with the cadence of God’s story. Introduce them to the rhythms of worship, the back and forward nature of God calling and people answering.

When we share the liturgical load across the service, I suspect we won’t find so many things lacking with our songs anymore. The strength of the contemporary worship song is that they are often simple; offering space to allow a truth to sink deep within us, or for us to reflect or wonder. Exactly the kind of liturgical experience that will deepen and enrich a thoughtfully tailored worshipping journey. These songs belong in a rich tapestry of artful worship, not hung out on their own.

When there is a coherence to our worship, and depth and meaning to our prayers, prayers where the word ‘amen’ comes out of us with conviction rather than out of habit, words of welcome and sending that draw people out of their small, fractured worlds, into the wide-open spaces of God, then I think we’ll be in a place to write even better songs as well.

Malcolm Gordon is the Worship, Music and Arts Enabler at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. [Reposted from Candour.]

Chris Ellis on short-term mission trips

‘I would have thought those who have shared the bread and cup with, or worked alongside, brothers and sisters from Latin America would be pushing back against the dehumanization of people labeled in high places as “animals” and “invaders.” I would have thought they would be generously supporting groups that are helping to provide for the needs of those in the “caravan.” I would have thought they would be advocating for more judges and translators to be sent to the border to process asylum claims.

Sadly, these things, by and large, have not been happening. That leads me to wonder what this says about the role of STM [short-term mission trips] trips in helping to change lives and produce disciples who care about the plight of those whom they served. And what it says about the state of the Church in America’.

– Chris Ellis, ‘Have all our short-term mission trips to Latin America shaped our response to the migrant “caravan”?’

Art/s and Theology Australia

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Recently, a wee menagerie of art lovers and theologians met to imagine some ways that we might together provoke theological reflection, and to promote research and networking, on the conversations that occur between the arts (broadly conceived) and Christian theology/spirituality.

This led to a commitment to pursue some modest experiments – joint publications, organise some conferences, offer some courses, and develop a new website, Art/s and Theology Australia.

We are now looking for writers, poets, composers, academics, artists, theologians, and other creatives and endangered species who might be willing to share their work and to help build this network and public depository. If you’re interested to be involved, check out the website and get in touch.

You can also subscribe to posts via email, and/or follow the site via Twitter.

church: a wounded and wounding body

Bruceherman - Elegy for St. Catherine (2004)‘If I conclude that my Christian brothers or sisters are deeply and damagingly mistaken in their decisions, I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds, just as those who disagree with me are wounded by what they consider to be my failure or even betrayal. So long as we still have a language in common and the “grammar of obedience” in common, we have, I believe, to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and to embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided. The communion’s need for health and mercy is inseparable from my own need for health and mercy. To remain in communion is to remain in solidarity with those who are wounded as well as wounding the Church, in the trust that within the Body of Christ the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing’.

– Rowan Williams

Image: Bruce Herman, ‘Elegy for St. Catherine’ (2004).

 

Voluntary Assisted Dying Forum

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On Writing Essays: A Little Resource for (my) Theological Students

I recently created a little video offering some general advice about writing, and about writing essays. It is intended to be a basic resource for students enrolled in my Beginning Theological Studies class. It may be that parts of it are of some help to other students also. You should feel free to use/share it if you think it is suitable for your mob too.

A little note on the freedom of the conscience

The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.jpgWhen, in 1644, the great Baptist pastor Roger Williams defended the claim that Christ is King alone over conscience ‘was and is the summe of all true preaching of the Gospell or glad newes’ (The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution), he was articulating a basic tenet of what it means to do faith in the Free Church tradition. He was also signalling that as noble as the human conscience is, its freedom is not achieved by its being made into an idol. Rather, the conscience is free – and faith is truly voluntaristic – only insofar as it recognises the final authority of Another.

A few centuries later, another Free Churchman, one P. T. Forsyth, made the same point in his own way:

It is one of the fundamental mistakes we make about our own Protestantism to say that the authority is the conscience, and the Christian conscience in particular. Not so. The authority is nothing in us, but something in history. It is something given us. What is in us only recognises it. And the conscience which now recognises it has long been created by it. The conscience recognises the tone of injunction, but what is enjoined is given by history, and has passed into the historic consciousness. We have the inner intuition of what is really a great historic teleology. But it is not gathered up from all history by an induction, which, as history is far from finished, could never give us anything final or authoritative. It is defined in it at a fixed point by faith in the experienced revelation of final purpose within God’s act of Gospel there. The authority is not the conscience [or the Bible, or the Pope, or Magistrate, or State, or human experience, or culture, or vote, no matter how democratic] but it is offered to it. The conscience of God is not latent in our conscience, but revealed to it in history. It is history centred in Christ, it is not conscience, that is the real court of morals. And it is there accordingly that we find the authority for Christian faith and Christian theology, for faith and theology both. (The Principle of Authority)

On the humanities in an Apollonian age

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Ross Douthat has written a good little piece about the humanities in the NYT in which he riffs on W. H. Auden and Alan Jacobs’ recent book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in An Age of Crisis. The entire (short) piece is worth reading, but here’s a snippet:

In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

At the moment both efforts look like failed attempts. But is there an alternative? ….

– Ross Douthat, ‘Oh, the Humanities!’. The New York Times, 8 August (2018).

Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Apollo and Python’ (exhibited 1811). Tate.

Book Launch: A Dialogue Between Haizi’s Poetry and the Gospel of Luke

Whitley College has the pleasure to host the launch of Dr Xiaoli Yang’s recent book A Dialogue Between Haizi’s Poetry and the Gospel of Luke: Chinese Homecoming and the Relationship with Jesus Christ. 

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The book has been well received by a wide range of scholars:

“This is no mere correlationist project wherein Haizi provides the questions and Luke(‘s Jesus) responds. Instead, there is a dizzying multi-directionality through which various chasms – East-West, Yin-Yang, ancient-contemporary, modern-postmodern, rural-urban, terrestrial-cosmic, poetic-philosophical, symbolic-discursive, epistemological-ontological, immanence-transcendence – are bridged, irreversibly through the Dao of Haizi’s suicide and ultimately through the way of Jesus’ cross. Yang herself emerges as poet giving profound expression to the contemporary global (dis)location, as prophet naming and diagnosing its instable homelessness, and as priest mediating the possibility of a fresh gospel homecoming precisely in and through the desolation of late modernity’s interface with the post-Mao Chinese soul. The word Dialogue in the title is too modest; be forewarned of the tremors this book will unleash to those who think philosophy and theology are mostly discursive Western undertakings.” — Amos Yong, Professor of Theology & Mission, Fuller Seminary

” A Dialogue between Haizi’s Poetry and the Gospel of Luke is a welcome contribution to the field of intercultural theology. It skillfully employs together four lenses for hermeneutical reading – the historical, literary, philosophical, and religious — to see freshly Luke and the message of Jesus, now heard along with the poetry of Haizi (1964-1989), a voice still new in the West. Drawing poetry into the work of intercultural learning, Xiaoli Yang also brings new resources from the Chinese context into theological reflection, giving new substance to the ideals and practices of an Asian Christian theology. Comparative theologians too will enjoy learning from Yang’s methods and purposes, broadening our repertoire for the work of interreligious theological learning today.” — Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology, Harvard University

“This book offers us an insight into the souls of the contemporary Chinese genuine intellectuals, who have lost their cultural and spiritual home. Through the unique approach combining literary study, intercultural dialogue and comparative theology, Ms. Yang helps us get to such a highland, where we could see clearly the home way of an honest genius poet who committed suicide but never ‘died’, and more importantly, see why millions of Chinese people today are struggling to leave their homeland for new home in foreign land, and for the heavenly home to be with Jesus Christ.” — He Guanghu, Professor of Religious Studies, Renmin University of China

“Historical events claim our attention and can generate a desire to rethink our own philosophical stance. Haizi agonized over social realities of his day through his poetry and ultimately through suicide. This is a fascinating yet tragic personal revelation. The advantage of this tragedy is that it opens up for the reader an opportunity to reflect on one’s own ideas. Dr Xiaoli Yang’s book provides some assistance in this by outlining how one can dialogue with Haizi’s poetry and compare the thinking with another historical figure, Jesus, who also challenged attitudes of the day and finally was killed for his revelations.” —David Claydon, OAM; previous International Director of the Lausanne Movement; author & theological lecturer

Does Australia want its own story?

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‘[F]reedom exists in the space of memory, and only by walking back into the shadows is it possible for us all to finally be free’.

What an insightful, gracious, intelligent, and profoundly-hopeful speech Richard Flanagan gave at this year’s Garma festival.

A must-read for all Aussies.

[Image: Mick Tsikas/EPA, for The Guardian]

David Bentley Hart on ‘America’

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‘America — with its decaying infrastructure, its third-world public transit, its shrinking labor market, its evaporating middle class, its expanding gulf between rich and poor, its heartless health insurance system, its mindless indifference to a dying ecology, its predatory credit agencies, its looming Social Security collapse, its interminable war, its metastasizing national debt and all the social pathologies that gave it a degenerate imbecile and child-abducting sadist as its president — remains the only developed economy in the world that believes it wrong to use civic wealth for civic goods. Its absurdly engorged military budget diverts hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the public weal to those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Its plutocratic policies and libertarian ethos are immune to all appeals of human solidarity. It towers over the world, but promises secure shelter only to the fortunate few’.

– David Bentley Hart, ‘The New York Yankees Are a Moral Abomination’. The New York Times, 14 July 2018.

[Image: Gustave Doré, ‘Pantagruel’s meal’ (1854)]

Jacob Stratman, ‘a poem for my sons when they yell at God’

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Jan Brueghel the Elder, ‘Jonah Leaving the Whale’ (c. 1600)

In candied red, the white-bearded
prophet emerges hands still clasped in prayer,
clean, really clean, maybe too clean, first-day-
of-school clean, baptism clean. It is a childish
painting, perhaps, the punished coming up
for air after a three-day, divine timeout,
his begging and pleading inside this flesh
box, sincere or not, but he’s out, old and fresh
in a world around him, Brueghel is sure
to make clear, swirling blue-black and solid
brown, the earth’s bruising, perhaps a wish
of healing yellow in the distance, a light
faded behind the eye’s focus. The dogfish
eyes big and rolling back mouth open

like the cave like the tomb like the brown creek
carp we refuse to touch hate to catch squishy
and formless but counted nonetheless. But
he will dirty himself again after Nineveh
under the vine cussing at God telling
God His own business, and he will forget
the welcoming red the fresh fruit color
of that cloak—the thin (or thinning) clearing
in the background beyond sea and storm,
even the mouth as exit as release.
He will soon forget to consider how
suspicious it is for a man like him
sitting in death’s darkness for three days
to come out so clean so bright so forgiven.

– Jacob Stratman, ‘a poem for my sons when they yell at God’, 2018. (Source)

Mae La Refugee Camp under flood

In the last 48 hours, Zone C1A in Mae La Refugee Camp on the Thai-Burma border, and which is home to some 40–50,000 refugees, mostly Karen, has been hit with a big flood. As if life in the camp isn’t hard enough as it is …

Thankfully, there has been no loss of life. The damage at this stage has been mostly to school furniture and books.

If you’re the praying kind, then folk in the camp would greatly value your prayers at this time.

And if you’re able to help out financially, then donations marked ‘Mae La Refugee Camp Flood Fund’ can be made via PayPal (contact me for details) or directly to this bank account:

Name: Moe Win Tun Kin
Bank: Commonwealth Bank of Australia
SWIFT code: CTBAAU2S
BSB number: 063 622
Account number: 1024 8600

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On Geoff Thompson’s A Genuinely Theological Church

A Genuinely Theological Church.jpgThis afternoon, I had the joy of being at the wonderful Pilgrim Theological College and to share some words at the launch of Geoff Thompson’s fabulous new book, A Genuinely Theological Church. Below’s what I said, more or less.

Thank you to Geoff and to folk here at Pilgrim for the kind invitation and privilege to be here today to help launch Geoff’s latest book, A Genuinely Theological Church.[1] I wish to acknowledge that we meet on Wurundjeri land, of the Kulin nation with whom there have yet been no treaties and whose sovereignty has never been ceded. I pay my respects to any elders past, present, and emerging who may be here among us.

Well, what a wonderful gift to the church Geoff Thompson is! He keeps summoning us to love God and neighbour with our minds, and does so without the levels of anxiety that tend to characterise a great many church discussions. As an expression of Geoff’s love for the Uniting Church, this very timely book is an invitation to develop an explicit rationale for the study of theology in ministerial education. It is also an invitation to the church to understand itself as a theological community, ever renewed by rediscovering its life rooted ‘within the history of Jesus Christ’ (72).

It is difficult to imagine anyone better placed to write such a book. It reflects the wisdom of one who has wrestled long with questions about ‘the highly contested nature of theological education in the Uniting Church’ (7) and beyond.[2] Geoff maps the recent history of theological education against the background of ‘almost incalculable’ (23) cultural and intellectual change in the global church, and he calls upon the church to not retreat from but rather to engage with such realities with the full resources of the Gospel. To this end, Geoff argues that theological colleges ought to be located in ‘larger communities responsible for developing a culture of debate, research, resourcing, advocacy and public engagement’ (68).

He laments that while the demands, orientations, and contexts of ministry and of ministerial training have changed, there has been very little reflection on the role of theology in the church, and about why theology should assume the constant place it does. He surmises that this ‘suggests that we’re convinced that theology is important, but we’re not entirely sure why’, and that this absence of clarity means that ‘theology tends to become little more than a hoop that must be jumped [through] on the way to something else’ (24). He accepts that ‘theologians … have to take some of the blame for this situation’. ‘We have’, he says, ‘been either too defensive or … too confident that people will simply know what to do with a theological education and that the church … will know what to do with its theologically-educated leaders …. who are often appointed leaders for their expertise in other areas’ (25).

Geoff wants us to scrutinise what he and other theological educators have been doing, to ask if we have gotten the ‘questions about theological education right’, and to interrogate that question ‘with meaningful criteria’ (7–8). Drawing upon the extraordinary witness of the Basis of Union, he invites us to reflect on more basic questions, like: why does the church bother with theology at all? Indeed, why is there a church at all? What is this strangely ‘embodied way of life sustained and normed by the novel message of the gospel’ (9) of which Geoff speaks?

Of course, Geoff has been talking about this stuff for a long time. Some might say that he has a bit of ‘thing’ for it. Indeed, in an article in this month’s Crosslight he again advances the claim that ‘theological education is not about developing a theological “position”’ but is, rather, ‘about shaping a theological imagination. It involves learning to see and experience God [and] the world … through an ongoing critical but constructive engagement with the tension-filled biblical material, an immersion in the ebb and flow of the history of Christian doctrine, and a ruthlessly honest familiarity with Christianity’s history and its diverse practices’.[3] This book too is a call to see in the ordinary work of theology that which cultivates the church’s ‘collective imagination’ (73). It therefore rejects as unhelpful the ‘sharp contrast between scholarship and practice’ (14) as, in Geoff’s words, ‘a furphy’ (27). He laments ‘the ease with which’ members of the Uniting Church have allowed ‘scholarship to define theology’, or to ‘reduce theology to scholarly theology …. Theology … is much larger and far more important to the church than its scholarly forms’ (15).

The reduction of theology to the purview of church ‘ministry’ – whether lay or ordained – is another part of the problem that Geoff is keen to diagnose. He does not follow the worn path of thinking that ‘everyone is a theologian’, however. Indeed, he judges this to be ‘one of the more unhelpful slogans at play in the Uniting Church’ (43). Instead, he argues that the theologian is one who ‘relates to particular features of the social imaginary by attending in an explicit way to what otherwise remains implicit’ (46), and who does so with attention to biblical texts, to analysing historical doctrinal developments, to debating contested interpretations, to generating constructive theological proposals, to writing and presenting papers and preaching sermons about such matters, and to critically articulating the faith in public fora (42–43).

Geoff’s reference to theologians clearly preferences those whose work is concerned almost exclusively with words. If I was to venture a small criticism of this terrific book, it would be that it might have donated more ink to the ways that words do not exhaust the making explicit what otherwise remains implicit; that engagement in the joyous burden of enquiry and witness to the hope born of a faith that Easters us is not done with words alone. Yes, theology does much of its critical work through ‘exegesis, analysis, construction, writing and debating’ (50) and so on, but unlike work on say dogma and doctrinetheology does these with more than words. What of cultural myths, ritual, image, architecture, time, music, hospitality? I wish that Geoff had also explored some such ways in this book.

For those, like Geoff and myself, committed to serving God through the atmosphere of the Reformed project, the dynamic and free character of the living Word is as uncompromising a priority as is the hope that faith communities are ever born through its hearing. But it is very easy to be blind-sighted by such a commitment. Edwin Muir’s criticism of King Calvin’s kirk comes readily to mind. Muir, a Scottish poet, spoke of how ‘the Word made flesh … is made word again’,[4] exposing an enduring proclivity in Reformed Christianity to attempt to secure the truth of the Gospel through words alone.

Don’t get me wrong: I love words, and theology can’t do without them. But language has a tendency to pretend ‘to a precision, a finality that it cannot deliver, and this, ironically, is what makes it potentially more idolatrous than the images of which it is so suspicious’.[5] Responsible theological education must constantly underscore this fact by undertaking its work in an abundance of performative modes. This is indeed to take seriously Geoff’s own claim that theological work ought to correspond to the modes by which divine revelation has come into the world. It is also to underscore the theological community’s ‘vocation’, in Geoff’s words, ‘to counter the myth that reason is the only legitimate mode of truth-telling’ (60). Or, to cite Luther: ‘It’s not reading books that makes a theologian, but living, dying, and being damned!’

A Genuinely Theological Church is a welcome challenge to those faith communities still breathing late-Christendom air to imagine that the church’s ‘validity is derived [solely] from its availability to Jesus Christ’ (29–30). It is this that assists the church to counter the ever-present temptations of abstraction and domestication. And it is this, primarily, that makes the Christian community to be stranger than we hardly ever dare imagine. How fitting, for its sole existence is to bear witness to the peculiarity of God’s own strangeness among us in Jesus Christ. This is part of the novel gift that the ‘decline of Christendom allows us in the West’ (34–35). And it is theology’s role, Geoff believes, ‘to help shape the church’s collective imagination around’ this strange and novel story of the crucified God ‘with which Christianity launched itself into the world’ (38). Geoff believes that this calls for ‘leadership which is embedded in a post-Christendom [or we might be better to say late-Christendom[6]] theological imagination which can articulate and shape the Christian faith in the midst of the other social imaginaries that make up the cultural plurality of Australian society’ (82).[7] Geoff’s book made me pause and ask myself the question: What would it take for the UCA to produce another kind of Davis McCaughey, but for today’s Australia?

A few years ago, the Church of England produced a consultation document called Resourcing Ministerial Education. Among other things, it argued that the Church needs a ‘significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders’ to meet its new challenges. One thing that it highlighted is that, as one commentator put it:

To be asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about) … is like being told to make bricks without straw …. We cannot evade discussion of issues of finance, resourcing, and patterns of ministerial education. Yet there is a risk that we may fail to ask the right questions – particularly if we allow the institutional needs of the Church to trump the spiritual and pastoral needs of congregations, or lose sight of the importance of a theological vision in inspiring and sustaining Christian ministry.[8]Geoff’s book is concerned to articulate and to invite engagement with many of these ‘right questions’.

You know, many scholars write excellent fat books. Very few get read. Many, however, do a most admirable job at elevating computer monitors. Geoff’s book would make a useless computer monitor stand! A few years ago, when Julian Barnes’ short novel The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize, readers and critics were reminded that form matters as well as content. At 88 pages, A Genuinely Theological Church frees its readers – and its author – of the burden of being comprehensive. Like Walter Benjamin’s 38-page The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Geoff’s fabulously-hobbit-sized book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only material its reader has at hand. Of course, short books are only very rarely indeed a substitute for more complex works that advance challenging arguments. But they can certainly delight in piquing curiosity and in provoking further thought, and perhaps even action. Geoff’s book seeks such ends, and for that the church is again truly in his debt.

[1] Geoff Thompson, A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018).

[2] While Geoff properly resists the temptation to commit on other parts of the church, the relevance of this book clearly extends beyond the bounds of the UCA.

[3] Geoff Thompson, ‘Forming Disciples – Theologically’, Crosslight, June 2018, 18.

[4] Edwin Muir, ‘The Incarnate One’, in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 228–29.

[5] Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 11.

[6] The judgement that we are living in a ‘post-Christendom’ context is debatable in my view and, as Geoff notes, a not-entirely-accurate description of the Australian scene.

[7] Geoff is right to argue that ‘a simplistically-formulated faith, and a faith reflected on only simplistically, will betray its own substance’ (39). Unremitting and unqualified silence is not a final option for those called to discipleship in the world because such would mark a retreat into pure subjectivity at the very point when those so called find themselves already committed to the world. But as Kierkegaard diagnosed in his own context, the most carefully parsed words offer no guarantee that the truth of Christianity might be rendered more or less meaningful.

[8] Alistair E. McGrath, ‘It’s the theology, stupid’, Church Times, 17 April (2015), https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/17-april/comment/opinion/it-s-the-theology-stupid.

‘Reformation and Secularity’

SuspendedMy paper on ‘Reformation and Secularity’ has now been published in the Journal of Reformed Theology. The abstract reads:

Among a growing body of recent scholarship that has shown interest in the geneses, definitions, and assessments of secularism is Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation. This essay begins with a brief assessment of Gregory’s thesis. By way of response, it then offers four reflections on what are live challenges for those Christian communities committed to a refusal to withdraw from sharing and creating common life with others, and for whom the various reformations of the sixteenth century remain critical for the formation of their identities. The reflections concern (1) the character and conditions of belief; (2) the existence of the church in late Christendom; (3) the church’s worldliness; and (4) the character of faithful public life. Each of these themes has pressing implications for the ongoing life of the reformed project.

I understand that there are plans afoot to have a version of the paper translated into Spanish too. More on that to come.

Christmas, and not lying about the world

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Ghouta, Syria, 21 August 2013
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2.16–18)

 

I think a lot these days of those perpetually incomplete lives, beautiful and made tragic; and I wonder how they speak for God, or not for God; how they participate in the divine pathos, or at least the divine silence; and how their parents have ‘borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’, sharing in the divine labor itself.

Often, hope leads to just despair – of faith, of the church, of God, of life itself. This too, it seems, is part of the kind of faith that Christmas makes possible, and that threatens to be transformed in the fullness of time.

Speaking of that horrible text in Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas is right to turn to Donald MacKinnon:

Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem “can be redeemed” by Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. Donald MacKinnon, however, insists that such a reading of the gospels, in particular the destruction of the innocents of Bethlehem, is perverse. For MacKinnon, the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed.

A prayer:

Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ,
de Pétra desérti ad móntem fíliæ Síon:
ut áuferat ípse júgum captivitátis nóstræ.

James Denney on Christmas celebrations

‘The Christmas celebrations in many churches … are an appeal to anything and everything in man except that to which the gospel is designed to appeal’. – James Denney, 1902.

When church architects experiment with ‘untheological ideas’

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Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, Mogno, Ticino, Switzerland

This morning, I’ve been packing up books, making ready some space for what promises to be a new whizz-bang modern office that will appear sometime over the Summer. This offers the perfect opportunity for procrastination – for blogging, for example – and for opening up some dusty tomes long neglected by all but the various arthropods who have died under their weight. One such example is Peter Hammonds’s Liturgy and Architecture (published in 1960) under whose spine a huntsman spider took its last breaths, and among whose pages I happened upon these words lamenting, in tones more sanguine than one might employ today, the absence of theological and liturgical wisdom in architectural decisions about spaces designated for worship. Those pastors and others who have grieved when many of the most important decisions about such things are left in the hands of some 17-year-old salesman at the sound system shop, or by the church bean counter, will understand why these words struck a note:

‘Whereas on the Continent church architecture has been in deep communication with theology and liturgy since the early ‘twenties, in this country it has been carried on in an æsthetic vacuum and treated as something quite peripheral to the Church’s pastoral and missionary task: the preserve of antiquarians, archdeacons, secretaries of boards of finance and church-furnishers. Though ample resources of fresh thinking have been available, they have not been brought to bear on the design of our new churches. Those who have been building have held little converse with those who have been theologising or liturgising. The results have been disastrous. Lacking the brief which only the theologian and the liturgist could supply, architects have experimented with untheological ideas, and for want of any guidance as to fundamental principles have been forced to rely upon fashionable clichés culled from the architectural periodicals, or from a Scandinavian holiday, to give their churches a superficial modernity’.

Talkin’ ’bout the Reformation

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Geoff Thompson (Pilgrim Theological College) and I were recently interviewed by Penny Mulvey for a little article in Crosslight.

The topic? The Reformation project – what it was about once, and what it might still be about today. I had great fun chatting with Penny about this stuff.

You can read the piece here.

[Image: Beverly Brown, ‘A Flock Of Pigeons 2’ (2011)]

A little pre-Advent, Advent, and post-Advent ecclesiology

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‘The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which he will bring; she is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here she does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds her with Word and Sacraments, and she has the gift of the Spirit in order that she may not lose the way’.

 – Uniting Church in Australia. The Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1992), §3.