Who has pottered by this way, then?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

St. Paul, hamsters and the Twitter joke trial

I sometimes think that reading St. Paul's pastoral letters is a bit like this. 

St. Paul's letters were certainly powered by the Holy Spirit, but sometimes we lack perspective on why he was writing what he was to the particular church to whom he wrote. Just like Hattie, St. Paul is no longer around to explain exactly how all that he wrote was to be taken. When we take this and that extract from Paul's writings, are we looking at core theology, pastoral advice, chastisement for making a bad call on something cultural or something else? We have to remember that we are often coming in halfway through a conversation and that Paul had lived among these communities he was writing to, so a shared experience, a relationship, a history and a known cultural context is unwritten. We have a lot of Church tradition to help us unpick this, as well as historical research and secondary sources from the early Church, but looking at the texts alone is to hear only part of what is going on. I am sure we sometimes misunderstand Paul because of this.

There's a social media analogy for this kind of thing which happened to me this week. A person I follow on Twitter (disability campaigner Sue Marsh whose blog 'Benefit Scrounging Scum' you can read on my links on the right - and please do, she is incredibly well-informed on these issues and a hero of mine) posted a tweet saying "if I wrote about most of what I actually do, I think people would just think I was a delusional glory-whore". I replied "Memoirs of a Delusional Glory Whore would be an eye-catching title tho". Sue replied "Hey! Good point!! Wouldn't it?" then retweeted my comment, as did a few of their followers. It was a light-hearted bit of banter. Something and nothing and, in the grand scheme of things (especially given the really important issues Sue tweets on) an insignificant bit of pleasant human interaction on Twitter. However, one person who came late to the conversation and read just my response but hadn't seen the original tweet assumed I was insulting Sue (and you can see how they would think that, to be fair). They told me off and ordered me to apologise. Now this was very quickly smoothed over by Sue who explained the context - the offending phrase was something she herself had said and it was just banter. There was no harm done and we all came away not thinking ill of each other as far as I can tell, but it did make me think about the importance of context when we come into conversations part way. 

The current Twitter joke trial is another case in point: a flippant remark which the Twitter followers of the plaintiff would have clearly known to be a joke was later seen by someone in airport security who didn't consider it to be a threat but passed it onto the police anyway as a matter of routine. They seem to have then read it out of context as a literal threat to blow up Finningley airport. Unwise to tweet this, given the anti-terrorism paranoia surrounding airports at the time? Perhaps. But seen in the context of a series of increasingly frustrated tweets about flight delays and allowing for a typically British sense of humour, context should have informed the authorities that this was an annoyed and frustrated traveller rather than a terrorist. As the Independent reported it John Cooper, QC, for Mr Chambers said it was wrong to read any terrorist connotation into the message. “If that be the case, and I don't mean to be flippant, John Betjeman would be concerned when he said 'Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough', or Shakespeare when he said 'Let's kill all the lawyers’," Mr Cooper said. He added that the tweet was clearly a joke. “It was an expression of humour, it might be the humour of an acquired taste, but not even a threat.” Let us never become so po-faced as a nation that we end up stifling this very British way of expressing ourselves.

Being authentic online is often discussed in the online Christian community, but I hope we never become too afraid of being fun and lighthearted in case we offend. We have to be ourselves online rather than just donning a suitably respectable, holy disguise. If we're salt and light, we need to be rock salt and daylight rather than refined table salt and fairy lights. (My bid for clumsiest Christian blogging analogy of 2012, strategically released halfway through the year...)

It's fair to say that St. Paul drops some bombs in his epistles. Nearly 2000 years on and he's still challenging his readers. I'm not saying we should not be challenged by them and I'm deliberately not picking out particular knotty texts here. All I'm asking is: are we sure we're always reading what he's actually saying? 

Context doesn't mean brushing away things we're uncomfortable reading. But it does mean doing Paul the honour of listening to what he is truly saying, not just reading his words without engaging with how the Holy Spirit was using this obedient servant of Christ to pastor the very earliest Christian communities in truly tricky circumstances very different to our own.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What you won't read in the papers this week

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe in Sheep's brain, the following was splashed across the national press one morning this week...

Church of England Criticised by Tories

In a harshly worded statement, David Cameron launched a blistering attack on the Church of England today. This follows yesterday's press release based on a report into the consultation by the Archbishops' Council into Anglican attitudes on government policy.

"The Church of England should stick to what it does best," blasted a clearly unchillaxed Prime Minister, "namely responding to voice the concerns of its most reactionary elements on issues regarding human sexuality, inclusivity and the role of women. While I do not often agree with their views, this is an appropriate area of discourse between matters of faith and matters of politics. But by straying into the areas of policy addressed in this report which are quite beyond the remit of the established Church, the Archbishops' Council is threatening the relationship between Church and State in a way which we have not seen for over 500 years."

The report found that the majority of Anglicans were incensed by government attacks on the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the vulnerable and children. In the words of the Council, "our members overwhelmingly believe that this is such a disgraceful and sustained attack on the very weakest in society that, when asked "What Would Jesus Do?", the most popular response was "Disestablish the Church of England to completely dissociate ourselves from the hellish vision of eugenics and social cleansing which this nation state is rapidly descending into.". This surprised us as it wasn't actually one of the tick boxes we offered in the consultation."

House prices in solidly Anglican areas, such as the South London HTB-Church-Plant belt, are expected to plummet.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

What about unity? Lindsay Southern on Women Bishops legislation

In Sheep's first guest blog, Anglican curate and WATCH member Lindsay Southern challenges the logic behind amendments to the Women Bishops legislation.

'Like all walls, legislation is the lowest
common denominator of relationship.'

What about unity? 

The amendment to clause 5 will not promote unity - it fosters a church within a church where we define ourselves by the theologies on which we disagree, rather than the ones we hold in common, or our shared identity as children of God and heirs of Christ. At best it will allow us to live apart. 
I am old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, I have lived in Cyprus and walked the green mile and in Northern Ireland where communities lived apart. Like all walls, legislation is the lowest common denominator of relationship, further provision will create additional barriers to working together, to learning to respect difference, to celebrating all that we do hold in common. I suspect it will lead to segregation and ghettoisation within the Church of England.

Provision mutated

When provision was first proposed this was not what was intended. In 1993 during Synod debates about the Act of Synod the then Bishop of Birmingham Mark Santer said "we must not build walls or dig ditches that people find they cannot cross".

John Hapgood, then Archbishop of York, also said that "what we seek to provide are opportunities and safeguards which we hope will be used in a pastoral rather than a legalistic way so that none of us is trapped in unnecessarily rigid divisions..." and Archbishop Carey in 1993 debates made it clear that there was no intent to set up parallel episcopal jurisdiction stating that the provision was designed to provide appropriate pastoral care "working with and through diocesan bishops" "without undermining the authority of diocesan bishops".

So the legislation we had before us was in keeping with the spirit of the Act of Synod, but the amendment will go far beyond it and create something that our predecessors wished to avoid. 

Lord Runcie saw the special provision even then as "symptoms of an illness which replaces trust and good will with the flawed logic of two integrities" It is time to move towards restoring our spiritual health, rather than perpetuating further illness.

I am not sure they would recognise what 'provision' has mutated into now.

Clause 5 and unity

As an assistant curate in training I have benefitted from the insight, wisdom, encouragement and faith of those who do not agree with my ordained ministry. It is precisely because I value the ministry of those members of our church who disagree with this development, because I wish to remain as close a relationship as possible, because I think there needs to be space for us to demonstrate genuine generosity to one another rather than mere adherence to law, that I supported the original legislation that was approved by 42/44 dioceses. The more I look at the implications of the amendment to clause 5, the more disturbing it is and the less I want the Church of England to journey further down this path under the delusion that it will foster unity and inclusivity.

Lindsay Southern is a curate in a rural North Yorkshire parish in the diocese of Ripon and Leeds and her open letter to the Archbishops on the subject of Women Bishops in 2010 was published in the Guardian.

WATCH's press release about its members' response to the House of Bishops legislation can be downloaded from their website and the texts of the actual amendments themselves are reproduced on the Thinking Anglicans site.

Photo credits: Hadrian's Wall - Nick Morgan, General Synod - Getty Images

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Space invaders. When to blast through and when not.

I was thinking about the old-school type Space Invaders. You know (well, if you're a certain age you do), the ones before any kind of home computer that you'd get in arcades? Well, having seen a blimp flying above Ripon Cathedral earlier in the week, I was put in mind of Space Invaders and created this image:

The premise of the game (for anyone who didn't have a mis-spent youth in the 80s) is that you're defending yourself against aliens and have handy buildings to hide behind. These are there to defend you, protect you and give yourself something solid to retreat behind when there's too much incoming fire from above. One thing about Space Invaders is important to know, especially on the higher levels when the aliens start to zip along and fire more laser blasts at you: an effective tactic is to blast a hole through the buildings to get at the aliens, as seen in the pic. You're sheltered well from incoming fire at the expense of damaging your own defences.

With this in mind, my thought is: how do we use our church buildings and the outward signs of our church communities and even our human resources? 
Do we hide behind our traditions, rotas, buildings, ways of doing things? And, if we do, is this necessarily a bad thing?

Blasting through?
Sometimes it might seem useful to just blast through the stuff that's there to protect and defend us - there is something to be said for doing things which fly in the face of feeling too cosy if it is hampering our mission. For instance, if we are so concerned with the upkeep of buildings that our only contact with our communities is when we're seeking donations for a roof appeal, perhaps we need to find a way to turn this state of affairs around. I know from my experience as churchwarden of a lovely Grade II listed building how easily the upkeep of ancient monuments can threaten to eclipse effective ministry. 

And it's not just buildings. Changes to staffing patterns for clergy, especially common in rural areas where priests are increasingly thinly-spread, mean that church communities are challenged to question how much the laity need to take over roles traditionally done by clergy: around the country there are more lay-led services, home communions, hospital visits, pastoral visits, school assemblies etc. than there used to be, and especially so in rural areas. This is invariably and increasingly unquestioningly presented as a good thing: challenging all of God's people to share in the mission and ministry of the Church. The question which gets asked is: which aspects of the priestly role are appropriate for delegation and which need to be prioritised and staffed by the clergy? Any empowering of God's people for more active, considered and mission-shaped ministry is a good, and soundly Biblical concept, though the arguments used tend to be managerial and practical at heart rather than being borne of understanding the difference in role between priest and laity. An article on this by Carl. Olson - a Protestant evangelical turned Roman Catholic makes for challenging reading for those whose model for reorganising is principally practical and managerial rather than theological.

We can lose sight of the fact that the buildings and traditions we inherit are of value to our ministry in ways which might not be apparent if we're too focussed on a particular target. The things we inherit as Church were usually put there for good reasons. If we simply let our buildings rot, don't value them and don't keep them going, we can discover by its absence that the simple witness of a church building's ancient stones was actually one means in which the Holy Spirit was, unseen, moving in people's hearts. Maintaining buildings actually can be one simple means of outreach. Those outside the worshipping community who value the church building sometimes get involved practically and financially in keeping things going and feel they have some stake in things. Many of the key-holders in my previous parish (those who took turns on a rota to unlock the church for visitors during the day and lock up at dusk) were not members of the congregation but valued "their" church being open to all. Many families outside our benefice's congregations were greatly comforted by our vicar's presence and prayers at their loved-one's hospital bedside as they faced their final hours or days. Lay people could have offered prayer and presence just the same, but there is something sacramental and incarnational about the ministry of a priest which even those outside the Church instinctively sense and value at these crucial times in life. As Olson puts it, "Priests, by virtue of their ordination, are a living witness to the sacramental realm and the reality of the Incarnation." I know some parishes have a lay-ministry which does pretty much all the home and hospital visits and would love to hear from people who have found that this has been successful, and God bless anyone who does this difficult ministry, but my experience has been that visiting the very sick (and especially the terminally so) was a role which a priest did best as part of the overall ministry of our benefice. To put this role into the hands of a lay-ministry team would have, I believe, had weakened our witness and represented a misunderstanding of the role of the priest within our Christian community.

Where each church draws the line is different on this and where I would draw the line may not be where you would. All I'm saying is: be careful which bits of church and ministry get blasted through when you're trying to renew how you are doing things or reviewing your use of resources. Even in Space Invaders (which you can play on this link - yay!), being too focussed on a distant target, too focussed on blasting away and racking up a high score can lose you the game in the long run if you blast away too much at the very things which should be there to help.