Who left who, Learning from Pigs and Dragons

In the last post on the Prodigal I posted about the postures we may need when emergents return. One of the things I want to tease out here is did the prodigal leave or perhaps more accurately, who left who.

Im a big fan of stories and parables, particularly in how they stretch. I am left wondering if the parables work, as Jesus did as the still point in a turning world, but as Elliott says that’s where the dance is. So I am starting to see the parables maybe acting as a pivot point reconnecting Israel as a blessing to nations and Peters vision.

When Abraham was called as the father of Israel, he agreed to go with what he had, which probably wasn’t that much in terms of material wealth or in terms of knowledge of where he was going. As Jonny Baker brilliantly put he is commended in Hebrews for basically saying “I don’t know where Im going but whos up for coming with me!” In the light of what we said about the prodigal picking up ideas and wisdom from the culture that hosted him, did Abram do the same. Did he go through some rites of passage in his 70 and 80s? Was there a link between the journey of Abram and the destination of becoming Abraham, that one couldn’t happen without the other? And importantly wasn’t being blessed by Melchizedek all about the inclusiveness and presence of God in the culture (ie Abraham was told he would be the blessing to the nations but some dude turns up to bless him, and shares bread and wine with him)?

The trajectory of Israel being a blessing to other cultures is wrapped up in Abram being embraced by and embracing the gift from other cultures, and this more universal embracing shows us something about who and how God is revealed.

In the story of the prodigal the pigs weren’t unclean in the culture that the prodigal had entered. In my world it’s about the journey off the map to the spot marked here be dragons. Pigs were only unclean in his old land. He had crossed so many boundaries, and yet they were artificial boundaries that had been put up by law makers. So much so that God has to emphasise the point to Peter later on by giving him vision on the roof, and instructing him not to call unclean what God has called clean. Perhaps the embrace at the end is as much repentance on the fathers side as on the sons. The tearing of the curtain broke these boundaries ushered in the kingdom which was always the trajectory of Isreal. In killing the fatted calf, (the Christ) and eating together a new world without boundaries is created, the old walls are called to dust, the father and the son are Called to repentance and a new place.

so maybe it’s less about leaving and returning and more about a pivot around which shalom is formed as all things are made new, relationships restored and boundaries pulled down. Don’t forget the prodigal is part of a trio of stories and lost coin doesn’t have to shout “help” it simply sits there and waits to be found.

When emergents return

It seems several people from the emerging church are taking roles on the inside edge of the institution, some are embraced and others hesitantly recieved. So with a Hat tip to the wonderful Simon Succliffe for the spark and Johnny Sertin for the brief brainstorming session, This is going to be a couple of posts maybe even a mini series of posts putting an emerging spin on the prodigal. I’m going to be pretty playful with the text so don’t expect some sort of textual exegesis.

Firstly I don’t think those of us that left the insistutional church are prodigals in the sense of backsliders or any of those traditional interpretations, many of us left as part of a faithful search and found faith reinvigorated, and a depth of encounter with the Christ of today of the here and now, rather than yesterday or tomorrow.

So the leaving is part of the return. What if the prodigal leaving is part of a rite of passage and wether it is planned as in a formal rite, eg the boy who goes out to face the challenges in the wild and comes back when they are ready, or culturally normative eg an Amish young person on rumspringa, or for the middle class heading to uni. Perhaps in the prodigal it was more an unplanned rite of passage and like many people a series of encounters take place that help you grow up. So when it says “he came to his senses” was this the move from the youth, a coming of age, a recognition of adulthood. This raises the question what had he encountered, and how was his new sense of personhood going to be a gift and service to the community. NB I think this question of what he was able to offer still stands if you don’t think he had in anyway been involved in a rite of passage.

Coming to his senses and like a Masai warrior having walked through his exile here was a young man with gifts and talents and a different spirit, someone who had known the highs and lows, real hardship and starvation. There’s also a lovely hint in Luke that perhaps the father was open to this. The son had prepared three stances for his return, an acknowledgement of sin, a lack of worthiness, and a willingness to be treated as a servant. Yet the father only let him blurt out the first two before the re-embrace. So Once the party was over how did he re-inhabit the space he was given. Having been away to distant land had he picked up new farming techniques, was his renewed spirit of humility and way of being a gift, was he able to simply see things from a different perspective and offer these ideas to the family. As a son he was able to bring in these ideas whereas as a servant he might not.

So what stances do we need to take now. When and how we offer the new learning that has emerged from the emerging church experiences and what postures should we take. I think because the leaving is part of the returning I want to encourage those of on the inside of the edge to be themselves. This was the key advice my referees gave the bishop when I applied for the post, that I needed space and they would get the best out of me if they let me be me.

In the next post I’m going to riff on the importance of the son crossing boundaries.

Networking The lone Nuts or plotting our own downfall

So one of the things I explored in this post was the role the institution might play in helping those on the edge network in order to build a level of resilience that stops said institution crushing the emerging change taking place.

I think that the early days of the emerging church people networked well, but as things developed people got busier and stuff got harder. The energy levels needed to organise and stay on the edge were immense, so most people seemed to invest in there own networks. It was great to have Steve Collins stay for a few days and get some his take on those early networks and conversations, how people wrestled with theology and practice in private email groups, before the ubiquitous Facebook. It seemed clear that in early days the networks did help some people survive and probably build enough momentum and longevity, for things like Fresh Expressions, VFx, CMS pioneers etc to start that were more centralised. Yet many of us have reservations about the direction that some of these more centralised movements are taking, some of the colonialising approaches, and some of the roots in organisational anxiety.

So how can we support and network the lone nuts recognising in doing so that organised religion might be plotting its own downfall. Which I think is key part of the christian story unless a seed falls….

https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement

Perhaps there are few places that might resource drawing the lone nuts together, for example there are first followers now within the institution (thinking of pioneers into some of the institutional networks I have encountered like Tina Hoggitt, Paul Bradbury, Nigel Pimlott, Ian Bell, Ian Mosby, Mark Berry Janet Sutton webb) or there are a few places left like Greenbelt that could develop something. One of the things that has shifted is that there are different voices and voices in different places. As ever youth work seems to be at at the forefront of R&D for church, so we need those voices but there are also several networks on the edge of organised church, like VFX, CMS, Incarnate. At the last national FX thing I was at, Andy Freeman talked FX about being a Network of networks, but Im not if this is what they had in mind or even maybe there is a role for Nick to develop if the CofE is serious about setting Gods people free.

Change the script

Some time ago (6 years) I posted THIS, as I was riffing on how change happens, borrowing from Transitology and emerging theology. I concluded that post with “the growth of fresh expressions could be viewed as the wealthy institutions colonialising the grass roots, and so (not intentionally) suppressing the voice of the actors and those on the edge who were and still are, key to helping make change happen.”

So I wanted to revisit that post now I’m in my new role. I am particularly interested in how Tranisitology interfaces with the double loop of change. (Watch THIS 8 minute video if you are familiar)

To recap Transitology (derived from political science and initially examining change in latin america) identifies 4 elements to the change process. 1, structural factors are inadequate by themselves, they need actors to help make change, 2 change happens at times uncertainty, 3 Actors are assumed self interested, 4, Property rights of the wealthy need to be challenged.
The institutional system of the church have travelled over the top of the first loop, it has gone beyond its peak. The emerging church and voices from the edge offered alternatives but the dominant system either crushed them intentionally, or unwittingly enticed the edges and in the process the distinctiveness of their voice lost.

So taking each of the 4 elements above let’s explore how alternative change or the new loop might be fostered:
1, The structures (and here I mainly mean the institutions and denominations) recognise the need for change and that they cannot not make the shift happen by themselves. They needed and still need actors on the edge of and preferably (in my mind) outside themselves to help make change happen. So their new role in change could be support and proactively help these groups network and form community so that the new voices are resilient enough to foster the new change loop. This is something we are hopefully working on up here.

2, The uncertainty and backdrop of the cultural shift to post (hyper) modernity is obvious, and the challenges it wrought both in terms of thinking and theological processes have seen some great stuff happen at the edge as the old walls are called to dust. So churches systems need to embrace the possibilities that uncertainty offers as a gift not a threat, and find ways to embed this into how they function, develop flexible structures that ebb and flow, develop information flow that shares ideas and models from across the network in an open source way thus helping people on the ground navigate the great emergence we are seeing.

3, Initial emergence was quite egalitarian, and practice driven by actors, working out what to do on the ground in the shifting context they found themselves. This flew in the face of self interest and created a platform for voices from the margin to be seen and heard. As the movement matured the voices shifted from the group to the individual, (which is needed as Actors play a key role), and more recently either into roles of public theology or marginalised. Perhaps the next phase is for the dominant system to rediscover, apologise and embrace the dissenting voices in real dialogue. I also think the individual voices need to resdiscover the communitas present in the early years.

So whilst the growth of fresh expressions could be viewed as the wealthy institutions colonialising the grass roots, and in so suppressing the voice of the actors and those on the edge, perhaps releasing resources without strings, targets, outcomes, and crucially not from a sense of institutional anxiety about the future (which there is quite a lot of in the CoE) might be a way ahead. Particularly if those resources are used to foster, resource and support the three areas mentioned above.

It’s a love thing

It’s been a tough couple of days reading the Bishops report on Marriage and Same Sex relations after the Shared Conversations. I find myself in a strange place with many questions. Much has been written about the report already with an excellent reponse from Miranda Threlfall Holmes Here. However I want to take a different look.
Over the last 25 years or so I have actively been seeking a more inclusive welcoming open space, one that goes beyond gender, sexuality, age and race. This wasn’t something that came from reading theology, it was something something that came from encountering theology on the streets (primarily with young people). It changed my views and opinions, it forced me back to reading the bible, looking at the Christian tradition and what God was doing in the culture. This love of people drove me from orthodoxy to orthopraxis, something I see implicit and explicitly in Jesus’ ministry. It has shaped my understanding, the way I read the bible, encounter my neighbour, talk to my children and follow my vocation.
Perhaps I exist in an echo chamber but when I see my friends and coworkers around the globe loving people, I see inclusion a growing part of that process. Most of The leaders of the fresh expressions churches (and all the leaders of emerging churches) I know are open and inclusive, their creative orthopraxis is often in contradiction to the orthodoxy of the COE. They find ways to support and at times celebrate with People in same sex committed relationships, see people come to faith, and impact their communities as they grow together. AND let’s not forget this one of the fast growing Jesus movements in the west and according to recent research “Nothing else, as a whole, in the Church of England has this level of missional impact and contributes to the re-imagination of Church”
So it was with dismay that my reading of the Bishops report seemed to place orthodoxy over practice, and I heard the cries of many LGBTI friends who felt unloved, unwelcomed and betrayed. The further potential for the report to put rules before love (and I would argue it already has) with talk of teaching documents, the rehetoric that is already being spouted, and news coverage, makes love all the more important but just that little bit harder, as our neighbours once again see the church as disconnected and distant, and a place where love is neither celebrated or practiced.

The graceful heretic and Mary

I have been moved to blog after six months off by the grace filled actions of a friend. I needed record my incoherent thoughts
there are times when the grace shown by the supposed heretic shines through revealing the truth beyond. As the institution continues to oppress and try to sweep the prophetic voices from the edge further to the margins the grace filled heretic does more than speak truth to violence of being silenced. They enter into a holy space beyond the notions of right and wrong, a space that only they can create by their grace filled response, and yet the risk to oppressed and oppressor remains. When the space created is seen as a battle ground, both parties may loose, but one thing is sure the insitituon will always loose if tries weald its power. When a venier of silence is held the truth beyond becomes a flicker. The complexity of the way forward is compounded when previous words from the institution called forth hope and now their actions undermine those words, when insitituional memory trumps the truth shown by the grace filled response, a chance is lost. This Christmas as we remember Mary, whose response to the news of the Christ child was a public, subversive, political poem, let us continue to honour the radical artists and poets in our midst, that the living truth might be birthed amongst us.

Institutional prophets

Time and time again the prophets called out for justice, mercy and love. On occasion they acted and orchestrated acts of justice that brought their calls for justice to the lived experience of those suffering injustice. They acted knowing that what they did was out of love and thet their actions were more important than their words. They knew their action challenged the words written down on tablets of stone as the law, and they knew that at times these tablets had been so consumed by those in power that people hearts has also turned to stone. So the prophets spoke out, the prophets acted knowing there would be consequences and they would face exclusion and be misunderstood. The presence and practice of Jesus is clear in the actions of the Old Testament prophets, and the modern justice seekers who put orthopraxis before orthodoxy.

I see the person of Christ, and the prophetic call to a new way of being and acting in the Episcopal Church and its primate Michael Curry. His statement to the primates is full of grace, and reaches back beyond the roots of slavery to a love that was embodied in the person of Christ, and it keeps me hanging their by my fingernails.

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he said. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”
Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.
“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.”

When I first met Rowan Williams when he was archbishop I was so taken by his ability to listen, perhaps I was a little in awe but I sensed in him a willingness to stand with me on the edge. It is early days, so I do not want to jump to conclusions about what the decision to exclude the Episcopal church means, but struggle to see how such a fracturing move can be an act of grace. So I am keen to know how both Curry and the current ABC Justin will respond but My prayer for all the primates is that they will have the eyes to see and ears to hear and grace will find a way.

We need to talk about truth…

Last year there were a raft of posts, like “it’s not you its me” “we need to talk about church” all exploring why people are disenchanted with church, leaving church and why it is failing to connect with people anymore. Then this All of which are far more symptomatic of a far deeper issue. What we really need to talk about is truth, our approach to it, the false security people invest in mini truths, the lack of trust it can engender, and how our poor approach to it captivates and limits many rather than being liberated and freed.
I think much of the issue is we have tried to limit the truth, and think it can be singular, explained, preached and taught. The monologue sermon, at its core says this is what is true. Truth is something to be wrestled with as we are wrestling with G-d, it demands dialogue, community and lived experience. It calls forth a trust that takes us out of the pulpit and towards discovery, to uncovering, and journey.
The idea of a singular absolute truth is a crutch which if leant on too heavily breaks and brings down with it all it was meant to support. Truth helps us walk forward, in faltering, humble steps, it is discovered as we walk with others, and when we turn the crutch into weapon to ward off others we fall once again. In fact perhaps if we do away with the crutch and lean into the future with the support and help of others we may begin to discover something far more real than the imitations of Truth we have created.

When we wrestle with these deeper notions of truth it will demand a shift in practices that people are drifting away from, a reimagining of the the institution that is loosing its currency, and create a space of discovery and adventure where community is lived and people want to be.

fresh expression a technology

Has Fresh Expresssion become a technology built the knowledge bases of experimental mission and the emerging church of yesteryear? One of the definitions of technology is machinery or devices built on scientific knowledge. In youth work or social sciences academics are quite used to thinking about practice and processes as a technology, but like any technology the danger is the system becomes the end, it takes on a life of its own and and too easily be seen as THE answer.

In an age where church is struggling to connect with community, it is little wonder that the technology of Fresh Expresssions is being embraced. It is also not surprising That like technology of old, systems are being pulled together and new pathways being created to enable this technology to spread. When steam revolutionised farming, it spread quickly, and created a whole industry, that within a few years was wiped out by the tractor. Steam engines took time to build, new factories and systems were put in place and by the time many were ready for use, they were an obsolete technology, sold off cheaply and now consigned to museums, and wonderful Fred Dibner type characters.

The emerging church that gave birth to FE was more than a technological shift. It was a paradigm move of thinking and practice and the technology developed from it was often done so by those outside the field. It is too easy to see technology as the answer, a short cut and allow it to hide the deeper issues that the original thinkers and practitioners were trying to challenge so the paradigm shift still required remains masked to many by the technology around it. Perhaps even making real change much harder. To stick with the farming analogy, to put the cart before the horse!

The power of campervans and the type of church I long to see…

Often people of faith ask me what type of church I want to see, or to explain my take on mission or faith, sometimes more due to their own insecurities and the need to put that stuff in a box. Others who ask, I know it is about their own journey, and usually in both cases I do my best to be open real and honest. Then I sit with them in the sorrow these answers offer, as they come to terms with the fact that there is no easy path or as they put me in box that captures them more than it holds me.

There is a distinct shift happening around what is church and a shift happening around dialogue and acceptance within more general evangelicalism. When i read THIS my first reaction was probably to box each side,…. but maybe I will just keep that to myself because I am sure boxes and walls don’t matter… what I liked, was that it was localised, real, and gave you glimpses of the dialogue that must have been happening behind the scenes.

Recently we have been selling our campervan as we cant afford the move to Cumbria that we feel called to make, and the conversations with potential buyers have been interesting, as I explain to strangers the reason we are selling. More often than not, it opens discussions on the type of church and faith I want to see. These amazing humans who are fearfully and wonderfully made, open up as talk of journeys (real and metaphorical) are shared, and we joke about life, rust and holidays. I find little need to sit in the sorrow of being put in a box, but liberated to walk the road ahead knowing a few more people are tentatively exploring the path before them. Missionally trying to sell this bloodly van has provoked some of the most meaningful encounters I have had in a long time, yet i still struggle to explain myself.

In world dominated by boxes and walls often the only way to explain is to revert to types and models, so perhaps for those who need to put me in a box, or those who want to continue the journey I offer THIS as perspective on the emerging church as the type of church I want to see…