Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A new vision for the church - problems

This is something I have been working on for a while, and will, I am sure, prompt a number of posts over time. The problem I have is that the church system as it currently is doesn't work. I have a "vision" if you want about how the church might organise itself - not as a definitive new pattern, just as a starting point. A place for discussion, a suggestion for alternatives.

The core problem with the existing church think is, it seems, the hierarchical structure that is present in every church I have experienced. What is more, it is a patriarchal hierarchy, even when there are women in the structure. By this, I mean that the structure is one of power and control, not of support and enabling. It is about keeping people in line, rather than about making things happen, allowing people to explore and grow.

The problem is that the only response taken is for the leaders to "allow" more exploratory work and ideas to happen. This can produce some good results, but it doesn't address the core problem. I should not have to get "permission" to try things out, to explore new directions. What I want from leadership is not control, but support. I don;t want to be told what to believe or do, I want to be provided with the support and help to explore my own journey, because only I can actually find the right path for me.

This does not mean that I want anything that I happen to enjoy to be considered my "Christian" journey. I have a responsibility, if I am going to call my walk "Christian" to engage with the rest of Christianity and find my way within this. But that gives me the whole of worldwide and historical Christendom to explore, not the particular small aspect of it that the leadership of a church happen to know and support.

Just to make this clear, even when I have been in church leadership, I would include myself in this. While I might have a wider and more tolerant range of understanding and knowledge than some, I would still not wish to limit someone elses spiritual journey to something that I have met, can understand or support.

In the end, the point is that everyones spiritual journey is different. Any sense of control will tend to limit people to have a particular direction and focus to their journey, to ensure that all those under one control will have certain directions, certain emphases. Many people will accept this, because it is the cost of belonging.

This is where I differ, because I believe that an individuals spiritual journey is paramount. The church, in any form, should be there to help peoples journeys, not to define them.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Total Perspective Vortex

I was reading an interesting passage in Maggi Dawns book "The Accidental Pilgrim", which is my lenten read. She had found a thin place on Lindisfarne, and it gave her a sense of her own position in the universe "
Not too important, yet not too insignificant either".

I was reminded on the Total Perspective Vortex from the "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy". This device extrapolates the entire universe from a small piece of matter. When you are put in it, you are given a sense of your own size within the entire universe, the result of which will blow your mind. It is a cruel form of near-execution, and a clear reminder that the one thing we cannot afford to have is a sense of perspective.

I think it is important to have a proper sense of your own position and role in the universe. But which view is correct? The TPV does, quite rightly, make it clear that we are a minor speck of dust on a minor speck of dust, and in terms of the whole of existence, we are nothing. We live for a blink of an eye in the history of the Earth, never mind the universe as a whole. People who want to make their mark in history should remember that our history is an insignificant blip in the story of the earth.

If we accept the current understanding of the universes future, the history of life in the universe - complete from the earliest emergence of life to the complete extermination of life across the universe - is a minor episode in the whole lifecycle of reality. Our existence is a speck of dust on a speck of dust for a mere blink of an eye.

And yet Maggis insights are also important. The Christian message is that, despite this apparent insignificance, we are important. We have a significance, we have a meaning. Is that just wishful thinking? I don't believe so - we are more than just dust. We have something that makes us different, a sense of the divine inside us. Putting these two perspectives alongside each other - taking Maggis perspective and understanding it properly - should give us a proper humility, but a proper respect for ourselves and others.

We are not too important. But we are also not too insignificant. If we lose either side of this then we lose a true view about who we are, which can lead us into arrogance and egotism, or despair.We are not nothing, meaningless, worthless. We should be in awe of the size, scale and magnificence of the universe, but we should also be in awe of the reality that is ourselves. We - you - are fantastic. Never forget it.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Hilary Mantel and Kate Middleton

If you have had any connection to social networks at all, you will probably have heard some of the fuss over an essay that Hilary Mantel (award winning novelist) wrote, and its supposed criticism of the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton). I have found this an interesting experiment in social media.

There are a number of important issues about this whole episode. Not least that the reports of what she said were rather mis-reported. The entire article was actually a balanced and interesting exploration of royalty and fashion. It was not critical of Kate Middleton, rather, it was supportive of her position and place, an acknowledgement of the difficulties she has. In fact the comments and supposed criticisms have more to them than appears - more than David Camerons naive comments about them.

However I want to explore something else first. The thing is, I first heard about the fuss on twitter. There were a few comments and links to people making a fuss. However there were also a number of people who had actually read the article and making sensible comments about what was actually in it. People making more reasoned arguments about the content of the article, and properly understanding it. The article itself is not one I would normally have read, but I have flicked through it, having had my attention drawn to it. Also, I can draw from a range of other people who appreciate and understand it better than I can, and I can draw from their wisdom about it. this wealth of informed, intelligent discussion helped me to realise that some people had got it wrong - and I could do that reasonably easily, because the comments and messages are short.

Of course it depends how you use twitter. It is quite easy to follow people whose posting style is "OMG!! Totes amazeballs!" - not that there is anything wrong in that - or people who just make stupid comments. I follow some of both types, but I also follow people who keep me in touch with other stuff that is going on, people who can give me an insight into events that are happening. It doesn't remove my responsibility to check things out properly, but it can help me to know what is significant, what is mere fluff, what is worth pursuing.

For example, I got a running commentary on the Brits this week, and realised that I didn't actually need to watch it on catch up. Discussing minority TV with others is also interesting and informative. It is like having all sorts of people with you, chatting about stuff.

But what of the comments made about Kate? The problem is that she is, to an extent, exactly what was being criticised. She is not ONLY that, but she is an attractive young lady in the very public eye. Her fashion choices will be discussed and dissected, her food and pregnancy will be a talking point, that is the society we have, where "celebrities" are constantly discussed and debated. It is not her fault, or her choice, it is ours - we decide that we like to know every nuance of her details. I think, in honesty, that she copes remarkably well with it.

What is more, one of her important roles is to have children. Rather like one of William's roles is to behave himself, to maintain the respect and dignity of the monarchy. Everyone has a role which they have to play, or have to reject and accept the consequences. Some people have more responsibilities, others have less; some people get more benefits from their role than others. Kate does get some significant perks from her role, let us not forget, and she made a choice to marry into the family. This is not to justify the intrusion, but it is part of the role.

The problems - and the core lessons form this debacle - is that we need to know and understand the truth. Twitter can help to get some insights, and give some pointers as to what is important, keep me in touch with events. But we also need to have a realistic view on facts, information, ideas. Some people talk rubbish, some don't. It is not always as easy as it should be to identify the difference.

Monday, 18 February 2013

I am not a coffee snob...

 You know the sort of people who ask for a coffee, and when you tell them it is instant decide that they want water instead? That is not me. But we have recently bought one of these, and my morning coffees have been revolutionised.

So why do I feel a need to blog about this? Because the design of this stove-top espresso maker is something worth commenting on. You see, we have had a cafetiere for many years, and it makes nice coffee. But I have not tended to use it, because I find it a lot of hassle to clean each time. This espresso maker does not have that problem.

It makes me a coffee in something like the time it takes me to get dressed in the morning, so I put it on, get dressed, and come down to pour my coffee. When it has cooled down, while making a cup of tea, I clean it up, ready for the next day (my diet regime means that I only have 1 coffee a day at the moment). Easy, simple, no problems.

What is more, the design dates back to 1933. The styling is definitely from that time, or at least some time before this century. Any yet it does not need updating - it works, it does what it is supposed to do, and it consists on just 1 moving part - the lid. Coffee - and style - has moved on in the last 60 years, but there is no need for changing something that does not need it. Making it "pretty" would me pointless, because it sits on a stove, and will get burn marks on it if you make it look clever. Changing the style at all would not help it, and would lose some of the classic look. There is, I think it is fair to say, nothing that could be done to make it better. Which is why it is exactly the same as it always has been.

Actually, that is not entirely true - they come in aluminum by default, but for induction hobs, they need to be steel, which is also an option.

Is there a point to all of this? Possibly. There are things that need to change with time. And yet there are things that don't. Trying to work out what falls into which category is the big challenge. This espresso maker looks like it could do with updating, but that is only superficial - the real important parts of this are the function pieces that actually work. They don't need changing.

Looking at this from a faith perspective, there are aspects that need to change - these are the externals. There is a core part of faith that is eternal. That is the message of a God who is and continues to be, and continues to care. Pretty much everything else is externals. Externals date things, but externals can be changed. changing externals just for the sake of it is mistaken, but changing externals to fit and make them more appropriate does not affect the important stuff. So aluminum or steel makes no core difference, just makes it more widely appropriate.

Oh, and it does make nice coffee.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

A return to Victorian values?

There is often talk amongst politicians, Christians, and other conservatives of a desire to return to the values of an earlier time. This has come up especially in the discussion about Same Sex Marriage, with calls for no "redefinition of marriage", with an assumption - tacit or explicit - that the concept of marriage as one man and one woman is something sacrosanct, divinely mandated, or similarly a perfect ideal that would make everything better.

This is, of course, utter drivel.

There seems to be a call for a return to a society where women and children have no rights at all. Where marriage is close to ownership of a wife by the husband. Where, for the vast majority of people, life expectancy is significantly lower, especially for the working classes. And child mortality is even higher. The only people who benefit are the few wealthy, white, males. The majority of people across the world were substantially worse off in this mythical time in the past.

So yes, hark back to these times if you are one of the wealthy, white, men for whom the society was supporting. But if you are not in this elite, life was difficult.

Ah, people say, but they did have a higher standard of morality then, didn't they?

Well, they proclaimed a different - maybe higher - morality, yes. Those who were educated mainly, who normally proclaimed a higher morality for others. On the whole, the morality proclaimed was not for the privileged, educated people declaring it, but for others. They did not always believe this moral standard should apply to them. Yes, there were exceptions, but the moral code they often taught was a moral standard that others needed to follow, for their betterment.

However, there is another reason why this call for a return to an earlier society is deeply flawed. The problem is, we are not "there", we are "here". It is all too easy to say that in another society, things were better, but we do not live in another society, we live in today. We need to apply our ideas and principles to the society that we live in now, otherwise, they are meaningless.

So the same sex marriage debate should not be conducted by saying that some other society was or is better. We live in the society we are in, where homosexuality is a significant part of our society, and we need to work with that, seek to help and support all the people in our society, whatever their sexual orientation, gender, race or whatever. We are where we are, and we need to deal with that, handle that, apply our theology/philosophy/morality to the world we live in, not a world we might wish we were living in (a world, that, usually, never actually existed).

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Feminism is not an issue

No, actually I mean it. Feminism is not an issue any more, not because there is equality but for a completely different reason.

Making feminism an issue - or even THE issue - is to assume that gender is the primary issue of prejudice in our society. It isn't.

Making sexism an issue is based on an assumption that sexuality is a primary issue of prejudice. It isn't.

The primary issue of prejudice in our society is other people, different people, a form of xenophobia. the answer is not to identify gender, sexuality, colour, faith, or ay other aspect of a person. Xenophobic means "a fear of those who are different", while normally used for those from foreign countries, it applies just as much to those who are different in any aspect.

The answer is to simply treat ALL others as human, with respect, with dignity.

The danger of identifying "...isms" as the indicators of prejudice is that people can identify that they are not ...ist, and not ...ist, and it becomes a list of things to not be. That is not very helpful, because there is always some other ...ism to worry about.

Let me be clear, I make jokes and comments that some people would consider sexist or racist or whatever. However I always do this in a humourous way, with people who understand my humour. That doesn't mean that I just say "I'm only joking", it means that those I am joking with know I am only joking too. And I would support these same people against any real ...ism even more strongly.

This joking would not work if people did not know that I was not ...ist. I will NEVER make a comment that is denigrating someone because of their gender, sexuality, race, whatever. This is not because I am very "right on", it is because I do not think that these issues define people. If someone is being a jerk, they are being a jerk because of who they are, not because they are a teenager or a Presbyterian. They are a jerk because they are a jerk.

So if I don't jump on you bandwagon against ...ism, this is not because I am an ...ist. It is because your vision is too small. It is because I believe in treating all people as humans made in the image of God. Even those who are ...ist.

To me that is an even bigger challenge. And, of course, I don't always get it right. But I still follow these principles as much as I can.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Spiritual Abuse

There is a lot of news about abuse of various sorts these days, but there is a type of abuse that fills my twitter timeline, but doesn't seem to make the news. That is spiritual abuse, and particularly spiritual abuse in mainstream churches. There is, every so often, a story of some strange cult that is abusing people, but I want to explore the issue of abuse within normal, ordinary, Christian churches. And the issues are common across churches, denominations, theologies, countries.

There are, I think, two aspects to spiritual abuse that are linked but distinct. they are "this is what you should believe" and "this is what you should do/not do". Let me explore these one at a time.

I was in a church when the preacher - admittedly, a student at the local vicar factory - told us that PSA was the only acceptable understanding of atonement. I nearly walked out. The problem is that, with most of the important doctrines of faith, if you think you have understood them, you have not yet started on the path to understanding them. The concomitant errors of thinking you can explain them in 5 minutes of a sermon, and your certainty that this is the sum of the explanation, merely result from this initial error. MacQuarrie has outlined over 20 ways of interpreting atonement, and they are not all compatible. I would argue that they are, nonetheless, all partially true, all containing some aspect of the deeper truth about what this actually means.

This is the beautiful paradox of faith. If it was something we could understand with our limited minds, then it would be, in my view, less than divine. Theology is not a science, where we have to seek to find the One True Explanation - it is a journey, where we have to accept change and difference. Everybody doesn't drive the same sort of car, on the same route, and some people use trains, bicycles and feet. The same is true of the life of faith. Sometimes, I walk, sometimes I drive, and sometimes I drunkenly stagger from the train.

I have no problems with someone telling me that "this is what I believe to be the truth". I only have a problem when I am told that disagreeing is wrong. When I am told - usually implicitly - that disagreeing means that I am putting myself outside God, outside truth, outside hope. Because I think that the opposite is actually true - this questioning, this disagreement, this desire to continue to seek is the real path of God, of truth. Seeking to stop people exploring their faith in a manner that is true for the is spiritual abuse. I see my role in life as being to help people explore their faith in whatever way is right for them, to help them question, challenge, learn and grow. I am saddened that so many in church leadership - one presumes including this particular student - seem to feel the opposite.

The other aspect of spiritual abuse is being told what you can and can't do, or should or shouldn't do. By this, I don't mean the Commandments of your Church - Thou shalt not Drink; Thou shalt not Swear; Thou shalt not Use the Bible in an Argument. Actually, these are simply outworkings of the first type of abuse. What I am talking about here is far more serious.

There are certain stereotypes of people in churches, and these are regularly reinforced. A young mother will, of course, want to be involved in the creche. Someone 5 years younger than anyone else in the main congregation will want to work with the young people. Someone who plays an "acceptable" instrument will want to be involved in leading worship.

If you have a vision for doing something, especially something that doesn't fit with your stereotypes, then there is a good chance that you will encounter some resistance. So, you want to set up a coffee shop? Well, interesting idea, but I am not sure that this is the way our ministry is taking us these days. You want to preach? Well, I am not sure that this is the appropriate ministry for you in this church. You want to not come to church on Sunday mornings? Well, I think you will find that Sunday Morning Church Attendance is one of the crucial marks of a spiritually mature person. Why don't you look at volunteering for the Sunday School?

The thing is that a lot of church energy is spent on Continuing To Do The Things We Already Have. Very little is spent - mostly - on Doing New And Radical Things. Even less is spent on Stopping Doing Things That We Can No Longer Maintain. So the church continues to put people who fit into roles that exist, and people who don't fit will never be able to change the church.

In fact, if you don't fit, the chances are you will get the message that you are not really working for the Kingdom, you are a Problem, you are Wrong or Mistaken. And yet it is the people who don't fit who are the most important. these are the ones who might be hearing Gods newer directions, new ideas, new front lines.

I have spent most of my time encouraging people to do things, to try things out. More recently, I have not been able to, because I have been prevented by the churches and the church structures I have been involved in. This is one reason why I got out. We are so often concerned about things being good, things been smooth, things working well, that we don't like to let people try things. So often our systems seem to be more important than people.

This is abuse. Telling people that they haven't heard from God (when you have no clue whether they have or not) is abuse. Telling people that you have heard from God, when in fact you have just heard from the childrens work leaders about their lack of people is abuse. It doesn't have to be the words about hearing from God, but the message is the same.

If you want to do something, go ahead and do it. Yes, take the consequences. Yes put the work in yourself to make things happen. It is nicer if a church organisation can get behind you, provide some support, some insight, some expertise, but if not then you will probably find it much harder. That does not mean it was wrong. Yes, use other people to ensure that you are not just being a deluded idiot. But don't let people tell you what you can and cannot do.

You can do anything.