This is the year which holds the writer

This text was originally posted in the entry ‘I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book’ by A Clerk of Oxford. I think its appropriate to post this on All Saints Day.

This is the year which holds the writer: the thirty fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry, king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The year of grace 1135.

This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity… this computation will show what point in Time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord’s incarnation. We are leading our lives, or – to put it more accurately – we are holding back death, in what is the 135th year of the second millennium.

Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. In those days, of course, Antoninus ruled Rome with his brother Lucius Aurelius, and Pius the Roman was pope. Lucius, who was of British birth, ruled this island, and not long after this time, while those emperors were still in power, he was the first of the British to become a Christian, and through him the whole of Britain was converted to faith in Christ. For this he is worthy of eternal record.

But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and dukes, tyrants and princes, church leaders and earls, commanders and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men – let them tell me: who were in command and held office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time.

I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.118-9.

The church and gender disparity

The church and gender disparity

Its not exactly news to say the Church of England (CofE), overall, is still in decline in the UK. The question of where this decline is coming from however is something normally associated with age. Its really obvious in many churches, even independent churches, that the older generations are generally the more faithful in their observance compared to a group like Millenials. However this is compounded in the CofE with the exception of newer church plants in the mould of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) which disproportionately attract young people. The divide which is still more broadly consistent however is that of gender.

In the UK women are 50% more likely to attend church than men. At times this figure can grow to as much as 66%. Even out of all those who attend in the CofE only 16% are ‘convinced’ their belief in God is true, drastically lagging behind the conviction of 71% of self-identifying Evangelicals and 88% of British Muslims. This is interesting in that globally the places in the world which are typically associated with Islam show much higher rates of male over female participation despite women overall globally being more active in a faith. We can assume therefore that Muslim men in the UK are far more likely to be active in their observance than their Christian counterparts. The only other male dominated group like this in our society are Atheists.

If men disappeared from church life altogether, aside from the issues regarding the priesthood the church would still be able to function. However if women disappeared from the church it wouldn’t be able to practically function from the moment such a vanishing were to take place. Yet the real significance of gender disparity in a church is that it correlates with its decline over time. As a result the lack of gender disparity is a good indicator of the long term health of both a local church and a faith overall. For many Christians therefore, this should be a cause for concern. In the words of one writer..

Women may be the backbone of a congregation, but the presence of a significant number of men is often a clear indicator of spiritual health.

George Gallup Jr., “Why Are Women More Religious?” 17 December 2002, Gallup Tuesday Briefing, Religion and Values

Even in many of the newer HTB plants around London whilst they manage to attract young people the gender divide is still present. The style of Christianity is described by New Frontiers minister Andrew Wilson  as “middle-class, charismatic, non-confessional, low church, generic evangelicalism” which statistically and anecdotally, in my own experience, still appeals to more women than men. Realistically however its all but confirmed that if the CofE is to endure in any fashion its likely it will look like HTB due to its success in both ‘revitalising’ existing churches and the success of courses like Alpha. Despite this it still divides the population at large by both economic class and gender. It also arguably contributes  towards a culture of decreasing doctrinal clarity as Andrew Wilson expounds..

Perhaps it’s the breadth of Alpha’s appeal, perhaps it’s the elevation of Justin Welby, perhaps it’s the genial personalities and inspirational styles of the key leaders (Nicky Gumbel’s tweets resemble, and even quote, Joyce Meyer an awful lot of the time), or perhaps it’s something else entirely – but it seems to me that externally, HTB has avoided taking a “position” on a number of controversial contemporary issues (much more so than the centre of American evangelicalism in the last generation, Billy Graham, and in this one, Rick Warren), and that their doctrinal boundaries internally are much less defined than most local churches’ (they have numerous staff members and even worship leaders, let alone church members, who do not agree with each other on all sorts of doctrinal issues, including some that Christians in previous generations have died over, and allow huge theological diversity to be represented by speakers in their church, conferences and Focus weekends). How many people who run Alpha or the Marriage Course, I wonder, know what view (if any) HTB have of penal substitution, or hell, or predestination, or gay marriage, or any number of other contentious issues in the contemporary church?

Andrew Wilson, The New Centre of British Evangelicalism

All of which casts questions for over the long term health of HTB churches. This is something I struggled with, and I know many other guys who are still in places touched by HTB do too. The lack of clarity on doctrinal issues is difficult, as is trying to engage constructively with the unspoken assumptions and theology evident in the style and structure of HTB gatherings. What you believe pertaining to something like ‘penal substitution’ isn’t the issue so much as the fact that your onboard with their style of service and its contents. There are guys for who this is fine, but there are plenty of guys who also just go through the motions. They don’t bother to sing the songs, don’t come forward for prayer and just leave church altogether to their wives and girlfriends only turning up occasionally or at social events (if that). Many still believe its just that church, aside from the relationships, is something to otherwise be winced through and often isn’t compelling or relatable to many of them. Let alone anyone they’d consider sharing their faith with.

The exception to this within Christianity seems to come from two places..

These observations say nothing to the the accuracy of the belief found in those places. Yet at its most basic quantifiable level, ideas about inherent gender traits aside, this numerical disparity in gender is something that needs addressing if the church is to see growth in any sort of healthy, widespread way. Europe several times has been rebaptised by the works of the monastics, of men (and women) who were willing to sacrifice way more than many of us do today. Today believers struggle at times to pray consistently, read scripture and to make it to worship once on a Sunday. I don’t think its even that the church has become ‘feminised’ because many of the expressions of Christianity seemingly popular with men (I’ve broadly outlined two forms in the points above) seem just as popular with women. We shouldn’t be looking for masculine christianity necessarily, but one that can achieve equal gender parity, because that isn’t happening currently and we need to move beyond seeing this as a binary his and hers issue of gender stereotypes. Particular when one gender comes across as alienated from the church to a greater degree than another, the honest answer is that currently both genders are experiencing alienation given attendance numbers. The well known quote ‘Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets’ seems appropriate here. The system isn’t functioning as intended but it is functioning per design.

Its something of a conundrum that Christianity today is at times accused of being patriarchal. Men dominate the leadership yes but women make up the bulk of its members and many men are distancing themselves from it. How we respond to reaching better gender parity depends on our outlook on subjects like gender. In talking to others about the issue of gender disparity one of the more common glib responses I saw was “Jesus either appeals to some people or doesn’t” and that most discussions on the subject can be attributed to sloppy gender dualism. The implicit implication here however is that more men than women are less willing to humble themselves in obedience to God and the church which is reflected in their lower attendance. Arguably this itself actually reinforces a measure of gender dualism whilst attempting to skirt an issue which is consistently played out around the world. Ultimately if we believe gender determines behaviour, we will approach this differently to believing that gender is a purely sociological construct. Yet I think pragmatically we must concede that there is perhaps a measure of both taking place. We see this concession in the business world with their unashamedly, albeit generally successful, gendered product marketing. On this note, as I’ve written previously, the impact of the free market on the church today has changed how we perceive church, and if the majority of church attendees are female it stands to reason that the church is viewed in terms more acceptable to women than men as a result of the material marketed to us within it, if that is the audience being drawn.

We live in a post-industrial service based society where many men struggle academically, financially and emotionally being far more likely to die of suicide today than any other means. The advent of innovations like widespread and affordable contraception also mean people are having families later, or not at all. We wish to live life on our terms, even if such actions prove self-destructive at an individual and societal level. Any solution to addressing gender disparity is rightly condemning the trajectory of the society around us which perpetrates the struggles both genders experience today. Many of us have little prospect of stable careers, homes and family life. They’ll be no singular solution which will address gender disparity in church, but its about time we recognise that such a thing exists and needs to be addressed.

A Swiss study conducted in 1994 concluded overwhelming that one of the greatest contributing factors to children inheriting the faith of their parents is the role of faith in the life of the father. This is actually compounded further when the father attends church regularly and the mother does not where 44% of all such children went on to become regular church goers themselves. When the opposite is considered, the mother was devout but the father not, only 2% would go on to be regular church goers. Whatever you think of the study this suggests a clear link setting up fathers as lead role models to their children, particular in the area of belief. Also on this theme researchers Paul Hill, David Anderson, and Roland Martinson in their book ‘Coming of Age: Exploring the Spirituality and Identity of Younger Men‘ also highlighted that many men listed their parents, male mentors and friends as the key relationships which helped them grow in their faith. I’m sure the equivalent is applicable for women too but if this is true, perhaps it follows that these things are missing from many churches today particularly for men if they’re the ones missing. We can’t do much about biological parents, but we can provide spiritual fathers, mentors and friendship.

On a personal note the idea of gender disparity is something I’ve been noticing for awhile. It’s not palatable in society to be a Christian, that’s one thing, but there’s been a number of times where I’m sat in the pub with male friends, both believing and otherwise, who confess they either don’t understand it or see the point in it. Yet deep down I understand it and see the point in it. Despite this to be honest my internal and private religious life and how I imagine it should be expressed differs quite significantly from my public religious life. That’s partly the reason for this blog. The disconnect is that I want to share my private religious life with others but the only thing ‘present’ is the public side which at times feels the ‘least bad’ option of whats going on in public that I can join in with. By public I mean church, public prayer, worship etc. the only point where my public and private meet fully are in the blood and wine of communion. In private I want to spend more time talking (or thinking) through ideas, I pray in a very different way privately (I struggle with long open prayers, lose focus and find reading written liturgical prayers easier), my areas of interest in the faith differ sometimes wildly from what I might see on a Sunday or in a study group and am perhaps more political, practical or socially minded. I also would give way more of my week to sharing, working out and discussing my faith with others in a more down to earth environment given the opportunity. I feel the lack of role models and mentors in the church and I wish there were more out there available. I know I’m not the only one who thinks like this thanks to the internet, but the internet isn’t the public sphere, not really.

Trying to address gender disparity doesn’t mean we need to buy into a specific cultural ideas of what a man is. The men who saved Christian Europe in the past were monks, men who don’t exactly fit our classical stereotypes of masculinity. Yet the absence of many men raises challenging questions we need to address. This is a sensitive subject for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, so we need to be gracious in how we go about this but the status quo isn’t working. Something needs to change.

Anabaptists, Anglicans and Violence

Anabaptists, Anglicans and Violence

 

I’m not an Anabaptist, although I am sympathetic to their ideals. The Anglican church however has several tenants in direct opposition to a number of key Anabaptist tenants. I do not have an issue with these Anabaptist assertions, which leaves conflicted as someone who largely identifies as an Anglican. The Anglican points of opposition are..

No common goods..

XXXVIII. OF CHRISTIAN MEN’S GOODS, WHICH ARE NOT COMMON

THE Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

Article 28 of the 39 Articles

Infant baptism..

No Minister shall refuse or, save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents, delay to baptize any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptized, provided that due notice has been given and the provisions relating to godparents are observed. If the Minister shall refuse or unduly delay to baptize any such infant, the parents or guardians may apply to the Bishop of the diocese who shall, after consultation with the Minister, give such directions as he thinks fit.

The Ministration of Public Baptism of Infants to be used in the church, From the Book of Common Prayer

Institutional support of the state, a Monarch as head of the Church, the death penalty and state advocacy of war..

XXXVII. OF THE CIVIL MAGISTRATES

THE King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.
Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly

Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.

Article 37 of the 39 Articles

All of which the Anabaptists oppose, and I guess if pushed I do too. Yet the biggest differences between the Anglican and Anabaptist church, to me, is their vision of the Church in society. The Anglican church historically has been wedded to the English state as long as it has been reformed, the Anabaptists have been (in)famous for their rejection of the state everywhere and all that it entails (excluding that one time in Munster). In this light the Anglican church is positioned as an insider on the workings of society, the Anabaptist as the perpetual outsider. The Anglicans a majority movement, the Anabaptists a minority. This isn’t to say one is good the other bad, merely they have different visions of how they interact with society.

For a long time I considered myself a pacifist, yet watching all the violence in the world I’m left wondering what I would do if I was in the Ukraine, Syria or Iraq right now. I wonder if pacifism in this setting is guilty of selfishness for the same reason as suicide. You don’t consider the people around you, the people who depend on you, and I’m saying this coming into a time in my life where people for the first time depend on me. More than that, people make a culture, a society, a church and to offer no hard defence of those things is to give no value to the aforementioned things. Violence isn’t the only ways to protect these things of course, but can I really offer those alternatives to the Assyrian people or the Kurds who were stuck on Mount Sinjar? We might be willing to become refugees or to live as peaceably as possible under extortion by groups like the Islamic State, or practice non-violent civil disobedience but ultimately to do so is to give up our agency and rely on those outside the church for our assurances of safety and peace. Our safety in this instance will be assured by their willingness to use violence when we no longer are. Our safety then comes at the price of ensuring their are always people outside the Church, outside of salvation willing to do what we dare not. This is a cynical, utilitarian and exploitative outlook that bears no real love for the salvation and redemption of these people we are utilising to protect the church.

PACIFIST. Those who “abjure” violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.

George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism

One criticism of this is that perhaps it takes a poor view of Gods sovereignty and the agency of his Spirit in the world. That we are making the same mistake as Abraham in initially choosing Hagar over Sarah. That all things are according to his will and happen exactly as he intends and we just need to be faithful in our maintaining peace with all people. In this case we must be blunt about the fatalistic nature of this. That we must not even value the Church and its preservation as we live in the expectation that God will intervene in some other means. That we cannot trust our own reason or understanding of a situation no matter how dire. Yet we do not take this approach to Evangelism in general (unless of course we are hyper-calvinists) and firmly believe that God has placed us in a role in others coming to faith. The church is his hands and feet as scripture tells us. Likewise, with the progressive disappearance of the church in the middle east, who will be there to preach the Gospel to the Muslims, Jews and others left behind? We might say ‘there will be others’ but just as with the attempted destruction of Palmyra, can such things ever be replaced once they have disappeared? Are these communities and cultures not living artefacts in a fashion? If we do not value such communities, are we complicit in a fashion for their disappearance? To be truly a pacifist is to believe nothing in this world is ultimately worth saving. That might be fine for a Buddhist, is it fine for the Christian?

Yet the Anabaptist didn’t emerge in a vacuum, they came about in a period in the Middle Ages when the church aligned itself too closely to the state to the great detriment of the church. The anabaptists expressed a heartbreaking love for their enemies which lead to them being persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike and yet still exist today despite their earlier sufferings. Much of their theology has trickled down into much of contemporary Protestant Christianity such that the practice of credo baptism is positively normative in Evangelicalism as is its distrust of secular power.

We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.

 Justin the Martyr

Historically the aligning of the church to a single political power distances itself from other centres of power and compromises its witness in all areas apart from the region it was allied to. A Christian Constantinople emerged at the detriment of the Persian Church who came to be seen as a 5th column by the ruling Sassanid Empire. However,  even if the church is decentralised we find ourselves in a place where in both World Wars we had Christians on both sides willing to slaughter one another. A tragedy and a gross error in judgement, yet if such a thing had never of occurred would the world look more like that depicted in Philip Dick’s novel ‘The Man in the High Tower‘? A Reich on which the Sun never sets? There are no easy answers to these questions but it seems like a blanket answer one way or the other on this is simply a refusal to engage with these questions altogether. To opt out of all possibility of violence will mean you will never regret its consequences, but you’ll also never be invested enough to really bring about a change in the fundamental nature of the society you find yourself in because society itself is inherently violent.

The early church, to my understanding, was united in its rejection of violence. This has been moderated over time but the words of the Church fathers are convicting even today. The act of violence is one thing, but it is the existential implications of the act that we need to wrestle with. This is important because to get it wrong in either direction I think would be a gross error.

As the Church is in decline in the West the outsider theology of the Anabaptists is no doubt likely to appeal to an increasing number of Christians. Talk of the Benedict option in the US is a good example of this. Its uses the language of monasteries but really doesn’t seem too radically different from what the Mennonites have been practicing since their conception. How will this impact the Anglican church, a church that in the UK has always been close to the state? Could there ever be a meeting of minds between Anglicans and Anabaptist theologians? How will the Church of England respond to a England that doesn’t know Christ? Can the church ever marry the best of both the Anglican and the Anabaptist?

I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.

St. John Chrysostom

Meritocracy and Cosmopolitanism

Meritocracy and Cosmopolitanism

Meritocracy is on the surface a thing that seems indisputably good. The idea that people should be appraised and awarded positions on competency alone seems obvious to us today. However this assertion, on closer inspection, belies the increasing narrowness that defines the competencies that we value as a society. The fact that these things we value are largely determined by those who have such attributes or means in abundance is also generally taken for granted. We use the language of merit but on consideration this sounds very close to the idea of an aristocracy.

I recently listened to an interesting discussion on the subject which was helpfully condensed in the brief article entitled ‘The New Aristocracy‘. The article in question draws on the novel ‘Animal Farm’ in which one set of elites is overthrown by a group which eventually takes up the same role as those they overthrew.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

George Orwell, Animal Farm

In our own settings these new elites take the form of those who assert that their possession of unique sets of skills and insights position them as qualified to discern and represent the will of the majority in society. The means to obtain these skills, and their associated values, over time become stratified, hardened and protected through a mix of education, breeding and accreditation. This is nothing new in many ways but the distinguishing aspects of these elites is their cosmopolitan makeup and advocacy of what they refer to as liberalism. There are different kinds of liberalism of course but what is advocated today is of a very particular kind. Ross Douthat expands on this in a recent piece in the New York Times..

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools. They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

Ross Douthat, The Myth of Cosmopolitanism

What he describes reminds me in many ways of a Magpie, a bird who collects baubles of exotic or interesting items in order to construct its nest. The nest in this instance might be the mind of the cosmopolitan in question. The fundamental underlying structure however, the worldview, of the nest doesn’t change, in fact the collection of baubles from elsewhere is one of its defining characteristics. In this light the provincially minded individual is more accepting in that they recognise the existence of radical differences to their own way of life which are outside themselves, the cosmopolitan in comparison possesses a will to mould all it encounters into its own image, a colonial outlook. Douthart’s assertion of this worldview being akin a ‘liberal Christianity without Christ’ I think was particularly adept and for better or worse made me think of the liberal wings of the Anglican church today.

The idea of a cosmopolitan aristocracy isn’t new but perhaps its global scope is. We could say ‘accept it, embrace it and reform it‘ and to be honest I know little alternative. The alternative does seem to be a form of localism, a particularism of sorts. I’m conscious that I am found in a subset of this cosmopolitan class and when abroad have previously espoused a ‘ich bin ein berliner’ attitude about the cultures I encountered, which did no favours to those cultures and in reality I think distanced me from encountering them as they really were. However over time I have become acutely aware of what I missed about England and my place in it. I realise now that whatever I do I’m British, and it isn’t a decision its just a plain fact. It may not seem that much of a revelation, but it was to me. Before this I assumed everyone was ‘British’ in a fashion and we just differed on the details.

This word particularism to describe an alternative to modern cosmopolitanism is something which today has a poor reputation. Such discussion locally might turn thoughts to Football Hooligans, White Vans, the English flag, the British National Party and alcoholism. Giving a fair summation of the ‘particularly British’ is a difficult task which I won’t do here. More so because in the last century Britain has undergone dramatic changes which have left it radically different in its values and makeup on one end compared to the other. Particularism then is being used to describe a preference for the area in which you have a shared history and embrace the local narrative as part of your own. Not just the people in it but the place itself. This is generally seen as ‘provincialism’ by some when used in a rural setting but I think the same thinking is at work in the London regarding the current state of Brixton, Camden, NewhamNotting Hill and Tower Hamlets and their gentrification. It isn’t just an economic act of replacing one set of people with another, its the erosion of the character and history of place which local individuals have little to no say in. Particularism then favours giving agency to the people within the area they live and the responsibility to care for the land so that both are sustainable. It also operates with an understanding that the two are deeply connected and unique.

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1939 enlistment poster – this is how the government chose to inspire people to fight.

Particularism is reflected quite strongly in the work of J.R.R Tolkien and his depiction of the Shire in contrast to Mordor. This is particularly highlighted in the ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ found in the closing pages of the Lord of the Rings narrative. In it the wizard Saruman takes over the Shire and instead of ransacking it begins a process of administration that tears down the old landscape, pollutes the rivers and takes control of the resources in the area to be administered out as Saruman sees fit. The Hobbits as species survive but the disaster is that they have been dispossessed of their relationship with the land and external agents have robbed them of their agency as a community and character. Tolkien, its assumed, wrote this inspired by his own experience of returning to his childhood home..

[On the occasion of driving his family to visit relatives in Birmingham:] “I pass over the pangs to me of passing through Hall Green – become a huge tram-ridden meaningless suburb, where I actually lost my way – and eventually down what is left of beloved lanes of childhood, and past the very gate of our cottage, now in the midst of a sea of new red-brick. The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill; but the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool, where the bluebell lane ran down into the mill lane, is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house (which the children were excited to see) is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has not been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change

Excerpt from the diary of J.R.R Tolkien written in 1933 found in Humphrey Carpenter’s  “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography”

Tolkien’s envy is directed towards those whose environment hasn’t been uprooted in the same way as his own. Yet the administering that brought about those changes did so at the instigation of people who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing.

Meritocracy is a popular idea which at first has little to be objected at, but in practice provides a means for a new, more invasive, aristocracy to supplant its predecessors. Governance by meritocracy has fed cosmopolitanism resulting in an a decidedly narrow and overbearing attitude at the heart of much of contemporary politics and popular social values. This thinking denigrates local knowledge and direct investment in a community in favour of increased bureaucracy. This hinders our understanding of our own local communities, our neighbours and leads to our alienation from the land itself. We outsource our responsibilities and our environmental and social ills become someone else’s problem. We solve problems increasingly through several degrees of separation from the issues themselves and no longer abide long enough, if at all, to see their consequences.

We have a God who is called Emmanuel, God with us, he came into our world and lived, suffered, died and rose again amongst us. He wasn’t far away and even now has left his spirit with us. Our God is particular, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Among other things, perhaps the rise in this homogenising attitude is that we as a nation have forgotten this.

Whatever happened to discipleship?

Whatever happened to discipleship?

The morning of writing this I watched a squat young blackbird following its parent through my cramped back garden. They’d often visited, at first the parent would leave and fetch food for its offspring, now they are looking for food together. Soon the young bird will be looking for food by itself, until it has its own children and the cycle repeats. This is natures discipleship, the elder apprenticing the younger until the disciple becomes an elder in their own right.

In the church we call our Archbishops respectfully Patriarchs but more affectionately (in some circles) Popes. Both are related to greek terms for ‘Father’. The Desert Fathers were called ‘Abba’ and ‘Amma’ aramaic for ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ which gives us ‘Abbot’ and ‘Abbess’. Jesus himself used familial language to describe believers and their relationships to one another..

He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’

Matthew 12:48-50

Paul likewise wrote to Timothy..

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

1 Timothy 5:1-2

Even in the community of Israel, the Levites passed their responsibility from generation to generation. The elders teaching the next generation how to administer their duties and stewarding their inheritance until it was time to pass on. Did the church, a ‘holy priesthood’, abandon this pattern or have no need of it?

We keep up this language and idea today, particularly when we focus on particular passages which place emphasis on this pattern, but I wonder to what degree discipleship is currently present in the British Church. I think the trend is more likely that many are to understand discipleship as the growth of our relationship between us and God our Father. This is important, this is our ultimate aim, but are we confusing our terms here? Aren’t we called Christians because we imitate and follow Christ? Is Christ himself not the visible image of the invisible God? Are we likewise called to be in turn visible images of Christ to the world, and one another? Jesus called us not to go into all the world and make ‘believers’, he called us to go and make disciples. Theres a distinction, that distinction is the great commission.

Brother, let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

Verse 1 of ‘The Servant Song’ by Richard Gillard

We might agree then that it is not perhaps so general. Many places I have witnessed see the small/study group pattern as a means to discipleship. However even here they fall short. Mike Breen, an Anglican minister and discipleship advocate defines these insufficiencies as the following..

  • Small groups are usually much lower commitment.
  • They are usually looking to grow by adding new members.
  • Anyone can be part of it.
  • Challenge is not a regular fixture in most small groups because the emphasis is much more on sharing, contributing and creating as warm an environment as possible so that newcomers feel welcome.
  • Small groups are usually led by facilitators who are looking to create space for everyone to share and contribute.
  • Small groups multiply when they are too large, and usually it’s through splitting them (every Small Group Pastor in the world just cringed that I used the word “split”). It’s growth by addition.
  • Small groups tend to lean towards the lowest common denominator in terms of spiritual content so that anyone can step into it (again, we’re not saying all small groups do. But in general, many do).

That isn’t to say these small groups are bad, its just we need to recognise that whatever is going on in these meetings isn’t discipleship, at least not within itself.

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Discipleship as Guilds and Family

Discipleship I believe ultimately is a term that can be considered synonymous with apprenticeship. Their are differences but I think when you read letters like 1 and 2 Timothy, Timothy the (young) man is clearly an apprentice to Paul. Thats the relational context in which he emerges in the New Testament, we might caveat this by stating that this is the process for the training of leaders alone but I think in doing so we are drawing an artificial distinction between those who head up a spiritual community and the community itself. Paul in the book of Hebrews rebukes Jewish background believers for refusing to step into the leadership role expected of mature believers by adopting ignorance.

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:11-14

Paul’s phrasing ‘by this time you ought to be teachers‘ touches on a perceived logical progression in his mind on the part of the believer. That ultimately, given time, all believers might progress to be teachers in some fashion if they are sincere and able. Likewise his use of the word ‘infant’ and his imagery of milk and solids draws on the example of child being fed over time by a parent, a Father (Abba) or a Mother (Amma).

All of this to me reminds me in a fashion of the old guild system. Timothy for me strikes me as a Journeyman minister, who having completed his apprenticeship under the Master Paul is sent out to train and educate others on his journey to become a Master in his own right by the process of training others. This sort of practice, in my personal experience, has disappeared from the Church in many places, especially for the laity. If it occurs at all I think there is a tacit expectation that such practices happen purely within the biological family, but this is often without any vested interest taken in the state of such mentoring by the broader church. Family in many ways is the natural place for such a thing, however this apprenticeship is entirely dependent on the sufficiency of the parents to ‘distinguish good from evil’ and not only distinguish it but teach others to do so. It also assumes that it is normative for Christianity to be passed generationally in a steady static fashion with no obvious provision for adult conversion, which is no longer the case in Britain. What we need is a more robust and scalable model of discipleship that isn’t based on biological familial lines but on the idea of the church as family. Our elders are fathers and mothers, our peers brothers and sisters, our children sons and daughters.

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Discipleship as Sponsorship

Another parallel for Discipleship is that of Sponsorship. In my mind I’m thinking specifically of the kinds seen in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Before I lived in London, whilst not involved myself, I knew a great many people who had gone through AA and greatly respected the community it created. One outline of the role of a Sponsor (worth reading in full) details the responsibilities as follows..

  • This is an individual who will usually have more experience in the program than the sponsee. This means that they will be able to share their wisdom and experience.
  • Most sponsors will tell their sponsee to contact them at any time of the day or night if it is an emergency. The urge to relapse can come at any time, and having somebody to contact can make all the difference.
  • A sponsor can just be a good friend. One of the things that people worry about when they first enter recovery is that they will never be able to form meaningful relationships without their chemical crutch. What they learn is that friendships in sobriety can be stronger than anything they have ever experienced previously. One of their most important relationships may be with their sponsor.
  • This is an individual who will offer encouragement and provide praise for achievements.
  • A sponsor should be able to provide honest feedback.
  • A more experienced person in recovery will be able to spot the warning signs of an approaching relapse. They may be able to guide the sponsee back to safety.
  • This is someone who can be a good role model for their sponsee
  • It is often the job of the sponsor to help the sponsee work their way through the 12 steps

These principles can be adapted for education, mentoring and growth of disciples. This is a practice which requires no money from its participants and only some oversight to guard against abuse. The 12 steps in this instance we might treat as synonymous with Pauls ‘teaching about righteousness’ he mentions in Hebrews. Practically this could take the form of walking a sponsee through the Catechism and serving as an confidant as they are inducted and brought up into the faith, the life it entails and the acceptance of sponsee’s of their own. This is something easy in the sense that Jesus’s yoke is easy for us, it is only requiring the will of the parties involved. Something which I think, to be honest, is in short supply today.

Discipleship is essential, yet often missing

We ask why our young people leave church when they leave home, we also ask why men are not involved in church to the same degree as women. I genuinely believe a forsaking of discipleship is one of the major roots for this. People groups forget their native languages when they do not see a benefit in the next generation learning it. Likewise religious communities inevitably disappear when they do not see a benefit in making sure the next generation knows their faith. Talking from a pulpit isn’t discipleship no matter what the content and if we are unwilling or unable to take the time to disciple others as a community, the community will simply disappear.

What does the Sunday Assembly mean for Church?

What does the Sunday Assembly mean for Church?

On a recent commute in I had the pleasure to listen to the recent BBC feature on the Sunday Assembly ‘Swapping Psalms for Pop Songs‘. The Sunday Assembly is a relatively recent phenomenon which originated as an ‘Atheist Church’ where individuals; get together, sing songs, listen to several readings and hear an inspirational talk. The idea is that it’s intended to be a collective affirmation of life that occurs under the motto ‘Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More’. They also run soup kitchens, food banks and offer their time to local authorities and the NHS in a voluntary capacity. They’ve since dispensed with the idea of an ‘Atheist Church’ and prefer the word ‘Secular’ in place of ‘Atheist’ which I think is a fairly damning indicator of the supposedly neutral loading that the word secular is meant to convey. It’s fairly obvious from the outset that its riffing on the contemporary Evangelical church service but without the spirituality or any mention of God in any sense.

The movement isn’t without controversy both within Atheist circles and a healthy number of Christians levelling their collective guns at the movement. The thing that stood out to me however is the degree to which the format of the Sunday Assembly mirrored so closely our current Evangelical arrangement in the UK. The removal  of any reference to the supernatural is obviously a glaring omission but with consideration of the form, their isn’t an overall difference. The function differs quite significantly but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the well known Marshall McLuhan quote “the medium is the message”. The medium of the Sunday Assembly is community, celebration and being part of something bigger than oneself, a ‘movement’. At a purely mechanistic functional perspective in what way does the Church differ? Or if it doesn’t how should it? It promotes a narrative that seeks to address and alleviate some of the fundamental existential questions we are all faced with today, in an approach that isn’t all too different in how things like the Alpha course market themselves. The Assembly differs in that its much more pragmatic and grounded in celebrating the every day.

One thing the documentary touched on was that whilst a significant proportion of individuals don’t subscribe to a particular religion in the UK. Only a minority of these are Atheists and the rise of something like the Sunday Assembly is that their exists a niche in the ‘market’ for these people who may be an Atheist, but probably aren’t and just don’t subscribe to a recognised, structured faith. Offering something that follows the form of a typical church gathering helps bridge the gap for a lot of people during the massive social shift in recent generations from being a majority Christian nation, to a majority Secular nation and many people still have in their collective memories some form of Church that appeals to a part of them. How long something like the Sunday Assembly endures will be interesting to see, as its appeal so far seems largely limited to WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) nations (England, N America, Australia, Germany etc). Perhaps over successive generations as people lose the exposure to church that previous generations had, the appeal of things like the Assembly will wain.

The Sunday Assembly also provides a new avenue for people to engage with something like a church service but take what they want and leave the rest behind, in the past we would call this nominalism. As church numbers continue to decline these people who, in previous generations, might of made up the broader body of a church but not engaged in any significant way find an appeal in something less demanding or exacting in its requirements to hold to a particular set of doctrinal views. This also means that those who still attend church, on average are expected to be more committed and more overtly religious than previous generations. The problem with this is if our church services begin to look increasingly like Sunday Assembly gatherings then any point of distinction to the outsider is diminished to the point of insignificance. We become increasingly willing to place less emphasise on doctrine, reduce our message to the lowest common denominator, tone down accountability and find ways for people to reduce the amount of ‘overhead’ engaging with a church might add to someones already busy life. If we just try to appeal to those who are nominally inclined towards the faith, its the faith, not the nominalism of the person in question that will suffer.

Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution…Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

I remember a discussion with a Chaplain where he compared the role of the Church to that of a Hospital. Today however, he continued, the Church more closely resembles a Health Spa. This is just anecdote, but their is a degree to which I’m reminded of this when I think about the Sunday Assembly and its appeal. Partly because it comes across as being rooted in a belief that people are fundamentally good. All we need is to help one another to be better and ultimately feel better about ourselves. A Hospital by comparison, doesn’t believe people are evil or poorly made, it is grounded in the view that people need healing. Their is something that needs addressing not just in people but all the world, and this should be the position of the church. It isn’t a quick fix and it isn’t about making us feel better but doing the right thing in response to God’s love.

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock

People are really very busy today, and people are distrustful of large narratives that will inevitably place expectations on their lives. This doesn’t mean therefore that we simply avoid such things. We seek out those people who see through the pretence of whats going on today and offer them the Gospel unashamedly. We work out what it means together and with the help of those who went before us. It’s demanding, it’s tough and it isn’t really all that seeker friendly, but it is relatively simple. We shouldn’t dismiss the Sunday Assembly out of hand but acknowledge the good things it does. Yet more so we should acknowledge that the Church is much more than a mere Assembly and get to grips with what that means for us today.