Thursday, 29 July 2010

A post in which I am rude about the Church of England

First of all let me say that some of my best friends are Anglicans … and now you know straight away that this week’s offering is going to be slagging off the Church of England.  Nonetheless that first sentence is not just a formality.  I really mean it.  We even have one of them on the staff here at NBLC.  Nope, I definitely like Anglicans.  As a matter of fact my wife was thinking of becoming an Anglican nun until we met.  Seriously.

What’s more not only are some of my best friends Anglicans but there are all manner of things about the established church that I really admire: things like their habit of reading big dollops of scripture in their services; things like their commitment to serve the entire country, every community and every square inch, as best they can;  things like the way they do communion and things like their bishops, well some of them anyway.

But then there’s the other stuff.  The stuff that gets up my nose and makes me want to tear my hair out.  The stuff that means that even if I wanted to become an Anglican (and there have been moments) I simply couldn’t bring my self to do it.

The stuff I have in mind is the priestly stuff, the deferential stuff, the hierarchical stuff.  Take the way they do church leadership for example. I mean to say, “My Lord Bishop”; “Lambeth Palace”.  Did I miss something the last time I read the gospels? Am I being simplistic?  Is it just me?

Then there’s the  whole clerical caste system thing.   “We get to dress up because we are special.”  Yes I know that’s not what they intend to say but it is what the fancy togs and the rest of the paraphernalia of the priesthood actually communicates, intentionally or otherwise.  And don’t get me wrong here, it’s not that I object to dressing up, but why can’t everyone join in?  Chasubles all round!

But hang on a minute why bang on about this in a newspaper aimed at Baptists?  Preaching to the converted?  A cheap and easy way of winning back a bit of approval after upsetting people with the last three columns?  Not really, more a concern that we as Baptists don’t become blind to similar tendencies in our own midst. 

You see, there’s much about Baptist church culture that irks me (as you might have spotted) but our avowed commitment to the priesthood of all believers and our anti-establishment, anti-hierarchical, inclusive, congregational ethos are not among them.  But how easily we forget these things. When we venerate pastors because of the position they hold, when we lust after ministries because of the power and status they will afford us, when we fail to do everything we can to mitigate the inherent tendency of fallen humanity to fall in love with status and position, then we betray our own heritage. 

We also fail in our ecumenical responsibility to serve the wider body of Christ by holding firm and holding out to others one of the treasures of our tradition.  You see this C of E bashing is really a way of being a good ecumenical.  No, really.  If relationships between different branches of the family are going to count for anything we’ve got to go on  sharpening our distinctives and using them to help each other to identify our blind spots.

Now, where’s my Church Times?  I wonder if it has an article on how to screw up the gospel … Baptist style.

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Why we should ban evangelism

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.
I’m really pleased that Chris Duffet is going to become president of the Baptist Union.  Chris is an evangelist.  His love for Jesus and his love for other people are truly infectious. He’s also an innovative thinker and a bold practitioner.  Those of you who know him will agree that he doesn’t need any advice from me when it comes to evangelism.  Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I’m going to give him some anyway.

I think Chris should use his presidential year to promote a total ban on evangelism, a moratorium of at least five years. Let’s see if he can’t get us to cancel our Alpha courses, tear up our Back to Church Sunday leaflets, forget all about friendship evangelism (please God let’s forget about friendship evangelism) and call off the search for the next Billy Graham immediately – there isn’t one.

Evangelising is so central to following Christ that we have to ban evangelism.  Unless we do we will never learn what it’s all about.  You see we have a problem.  Evangelism has become something it was never meant to be.  It’s become a thing.  Worse than that it’s become a particular thing. A special thing.  Something that requires a method (preferably one that “works”) and ideally a programme (the very latest if at all possible).

Over the years since big Billy Graham style rallies became unfashionable and unworkable I’ve lost count of the various projects and schemes that have been heralded as the next big thing: JiM, Minus to Plus, Power Evangelism, Challenge 2000, Alpha, Fresh Expressions.  Each one was seen as the answer. None of them “worked” – not really.  And in the process we’ve lost sight of something truly precious:  the idea that all of us are called to bear witness to the good news every day of our lives. 

Evangelism has come to be seen (first and foremost) as the domain of the specialist organisation and the uniquely gifted individual.  Something they do and which from time to time the enthusiastic among us get to join in, for a while.  It’s nothing of the sort. 

Each and every follower of Christ is called to bear witness.  The things we say, the stuff we do and the way we are, these are the beating heart of goodnewsing, helping people to hear, see and experience gospel for themselves.  It’s meant to be a part of who are, our very identity: witnesses of Christ.

We could learn a thing or two here from our cousins, Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Not only is the word in their name, it’s how they see themselves, it’s written right through their sense of who they are, it’s why they draw breath.

As Baptists with our rightful insistence on the Priesthood Of All Believers we should be the first to champion that  other great reformation doctrine, the Evangelisthood Of All Believers. 

OK, so I made that last bit up.  And yes, it will never catch on as a title.  But I still think I’m right.  This is too important to be left to the experts.  It’s a job for amateurs – literally those who do it out of love, even if they are not especially skilful.

And no, of course evangelistic programmes and special events are not ultimately incompatible with personal witness but I am serious in my belief that our obsession with method has ripped the heart out of goodnewsing.  And my tongue is poised but certainly not fully planted in my cheek when I suggest that a moratorium would be good for us.

So, how about it Mr. President?

Monday, 19 July 2010


Inception is a very good film but it's not a great film.  Inception could have been a truly awful film. 

You can easily imagine the production process setting out to tick as many boxes as possible.  Love story? Tick.  Car chase? Tick  Cool special effects? Tick.  Psychological drama? Tick?  Dash of James Bond?  Tick.  Leading man who can be relied upon to provide a solid performance?  Tick.  Cameo from loveable old English actor for added likeability? Tick.  Cameo from much respected senior English actor for a bit of added gravitas?  Tick.  Sexy female lead?  Tick.  Youthful central character for the younger audience to identify with?  Tick.

The astounding thing is that despite this, the film worked on so many levels (no pun intended) all at once.  It could have been a complete mess.  I could so easily have been left wondering, "Why on earth didn't you make your mind up what kind of film you want to be."  Could have, but wasn't.  Thriller, action movie, special effects fest, love story.  Yes, yes, yes and yes.  All of these in one very effective and coherent package just148 minutes long.  Top notch directing. 

So why not great?  The central theme of the subconscious. 

While the film plays around with dreams and the virtually inaccessible depths of the human mind in an intriguing way it doesn't seem to me to present any particularly new big ideas.  Some people have made comparisons with the Matrix.  The Matrix was better.  Whereas both films examine issues of perception and reality the Matrix was far more zeitgeisty.  The notion of the subconscious has indeed been a world view shifter.  But it's a concept that's been around for yonks and has probably already done most of the shifting it's going to do.  Artificial intelligence and the relationship between humanity technology, truth and reality on the other hand; loads more mileage.

Then there's the film's particular vision of the subconscious.  Seems to me that most people's mental nether regions are probably considerably darker and weirder than the film allows.  It's nowhere near as dark as The Dark Night.  Perhaps Terry Gilliam should be given the sequel - and told to forget the 12A rating.

So, while I found the film entertaining, moving and intriguing - not quite the full five stars.  Still the best film I've seen this year though.

Friday, 16 July 2010

A really short post on the mission of the church

Etre is not our raison d'etre.

Piccadilly Gardens and Christ the Windhover

While I'm going on about urban retreats I thought I'd share this with you.  The week before our little experiment I was chatting with my daughter about the idea of seeking the presence of God in the City.  She got a bit excited.  She reached into her bag and pulled out her sketch book to show me the picture that accompanies this post.

It's a quick sketch she'd done a few weeks earlier while she was in Piccadilly Gardens in the heart of Manchester when everything went "quiet".  A police helicopter was hovering right over the gardens.  Everything stopped.  Everyone looked up.  Including her.  She noticed that the helicopter was kind of cruciform, so, as she is wont to do, she scribbled down a quick sketch to catch the image.

What my daughter didn't know was that there's a Christian tradition of seeing the Kestrel as an image of Christ.  Another cruciform hoverer on high.  To accompany the sketch here's Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Windhover.

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

City Centre Retreat

I posted recently about an encounter with God in the heart of Manchester city centre.  The experience prompted me to suggest that it would be good if we put a bit of effort into encouraging organising and resourcing urban retreats.  For once instead of just shooting off my mouth I did something about it.  Last week as part of our Summer School at Luther King House I taught a session on Urban Spirituality and I organised an afternoon's city centre retreat.  Not much I know but hopefully a beginning.  Here's an extract from the introductory hand-out.

This afternoon’s field trip is an experiment in urban spirituality.  You will spend  a couple of hours in Manchester city centre following a particular spiritual exercise.  The aim is to see if and how the urban setting might become a doorway to spiritual insight.

At the heart of each of the exercises is the need to attend, in other words to became aware by giving yourself to a particular aspect of life in the city.  The art of attending is a core element of classic spirituality.  This applies whether we are thinking of one of the Christian spiritual traditions, the traditions of other faiths, or more broadly spirituality by way of aesthetic experience.

To discern we must attend, give ourselves to the object of our attention.  The question that you will each be asked to carry with you at all times throughout the experiment is, “What am I experiencing?”

In other words the retreat was essentially an exercise in meditation.  We sought to attend to various aspects of city-centre life - the artefacts, the built environment, the people.  Judging by the feedback most of the participants appreciated it.

I'm blogging about this as a way of offering the resources that I developed for the retreat to any who might be interested.  If you happen to live in the Manchester area they will provide you with all you need for a semi-structured afternoon of urban meditation.  If you are not fortunate enough to live round here they might provide a template for doing something similar in your own neck of the woods.  Just drop me a line.

Others offering urban retreats include The Church Urban Fund and their Retreat on the Street.  Sounds well worth checking out.

Let's Be Generous

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.
Am I the only person who thinks that evangelicalism could do with a generosity transfusion?  Well, actually, no, I’m not.  I know I’m not because I’ve read Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and I remember Nigel Wright’s splendid chapter on the subject in his.  The Radical Evangelical  Also I know I’m not because I recently read a blog post form Krish Kandiah on the same theme.

Krish speaks of his experience of meeting with church leaders while travelling the country on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance.  What struck me was Krish’s description of how he often feels when he is introduced to a new group: guilty until proven innocent.  I know exactly what he means.  We evangelicals can be a suspicious, defensive bunch. And it’s not pretty.

It wasn’t pretty when a fellow church leader with whom I had worked closely for a number of years came to see me because he had heard that I held a different point of view to him on what he regarded as a key evangelical shibboleth.   “If that’s what you believe and teach then I can no longer be your friend.”  It would seem that loving your enemies is one thing but loving your brother who has suddenly become non-kosher is a different matter.

Now, in part, I think I know where this attitude comes from.  One of the strengths of the evangelical movement is its refusal to capitulate too quickly to pressure to conform to the spirit of the age.  I like this.  What’s more I realise that maintaining a minority world view takes a good deal of effort but the trouble is, if we are not careful, it can also make us pretty mean spirited not unlike the kind of Pharisee we meet in the gospels.

To view truth and holiness as delicate things, brittle, in need of our protection is profoundly unhealthy.  Militantly patrolling of the border fence of evangelical orthodoxy is less a sign of concern for the truth and more an evidence of profound insecurity, or, in other words, a lack of faith.

It seems to me that it would do both us and our witness to the gospel a power of good if we asked the Holy Spirit of our prodigal God to bless us with a lavish does of generosity. You know the kind of attitude that gives people the benefit of the doubt that makes us more likely to welcome them in than to rule them out; the sort of good grace that enables us to embrace those with whom disagree.

One of my United Reformed Church colleagues here at Luther King House doesn’t hover over the same patch of theological territory as I do.  Just yesterday he introduced me to one of our external examiners.  “This is Glen, he’s an evangelical, but we are praying for him.”  To which I replied, “But you’re a liberal which means there’s no chance your prayers will be answered.”  The external examiner only hesitated briefly before joining in the laughter. It’s one of the things I like about this place.  I get to work with people with whom I disagree quite profoundly but we somehow seem to manage to like each other. 

Now of course I’m not saying that either my colleague or I have got this thing sussed.  But I am saying that on those occasions that I stumble upon generous acceptance on the part of those who see things differently it does feel an awful lot closer to stumbling across Jesus than it does when I bump into the mean spirited orthodoxy of some of my fellow evangelicals.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Prophetic Voices Day Conference With Roy Searle and Stuart Murray Williams

Advance notice of a tasty-looking day conference.  Northern Baptist Learning Community and Luther King House are jointly sponsoring the Northern leg of the Voices From The Margins national tour.  Roy Searle and Stuart Murray Williams will lead us as we look at what today's church can learn from the prophetic voices of three radical church groups: Celtic Missionary Monasticism, Anabaptism and the contemporary movement known as New Monasticism.  It promises to be a stimulating event.  Click here to book.

Thursday, 8 July 2010


Morris dancers 1
Originally uploaded by frscspd
My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.
I got quite a shock last week. A regional minister asked to look at my body. Recently quite a few people have made similar requests: friends in the pub; a woman at a ninetieth birthday party; most of the Mainstream North leadership team during a meeting and my aunty round her house. You see word’s out that I’ve got myself a tattoo.

Now why would I want to share this with you dear reader? Well, it’s not the tattoo that interests me but people’s reactions and the assumptions that these reactions betray. More than one person has put it down to mid-life crisis. They might have a point, but I don’t think so. Others are convinced that it’s just the latest manifestation of my exhibitionist tendencies – first preaching, now this! Once again, wide of the mark – not that I’m entirely free of such tendencies, but the tattoo just happens to be hidden away under my shirt sleeve.

For what it’s worth the motivation (or at least the part of it of which I am aware) was to celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary. It’s a big red heart with my wife’s name in a banner being trailed by a bluebird. Corny can be good don’t you think?

The comment that really grabbed my attention though was when someone told me that her friend also had a tattoo. He likes it because it reminds him of the time before he became a Christian. When he sees it he gives thanks to God for turning his life round. The implication was as plain as the ink on David Beckham: tattoo’s are pre-christian, sub-christian. Interesting.

So interesting I decided to write about it. You see this is not about me and my tattoo. It’s about the tendency of too many Christians to assume that certain innocent forms of cultural expression aren’t appropriate. I still remember the shock on the faces of one suburban congregation back in the 80’s when one of the young people walked in having had a very striking punk makeover. How out of place! How unsuitable! How odd!

How embarrassing. No, not the safety pins and the green Mohican, the attitude of the congregation. That kind of thing is a shame. I choose my words carefully. Not only does it show how blind we are, confusing Christianity with respectability and church culture with middle class propriety, it also means we have a much poorer, blander, duller, church.

At a time when our society is more varied, more fascinating than at any time in its history, most of our congregations still look like gatherings of refugees from a Christian Endeavour holiday home, the very incarnation of M&S-standard smart casual. Not that there’s anything wrong with these things. I’m hardly that colourful myself. It’s just that it’s not enough, there’s more out there, far more but not in our churches.

Where’s the beauty of Indian saris or the vibrancy traditional African dress or bikers in their leathers? For goodness sake I’d even welcome the odd hairy morris dancer with bells on just to brighten the place up. And yes I know there are congregations that are exceptions, but there aren’t enough.

You see Christ died for all manner of people and until we break out of our cultural captivity, examine our assumptions and tear up our hand-me-down Daily Mail stereotypes; until we start to reach, welcome and integrate the wonderful spectrum of human life on our doorsteps we are showing the world a pale shadow of the new humanity that God seems to have in mind for us. And that is a shame, a real shame.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Why Swearing Is Funny

Incest warning.  No, not real incest.  Just the "you link my post and I'll link yours" kind.

Rob Reed is my friend.  Rob Reed is a very entertaining man.  Rob Reed knows stuff about film and media.  Rob Reed writes an interesting blog.  Rob Reed has just learned how to insert hyperlinks in his posts.  Bless. 

Rob Reed was prompted by my recent post on 18 rated films to share his thoughts on why swearing is funny.  Don't blame me.  Some of you will be interested.  Some of you won't like it.  Some of you who won't like it will still be interested and read it anyway. 

Just thought I should let you know.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Blue Like Jazz

Just spent most of the weekend sitting by a river at the foot of Wales' highest waterfall reading Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz.  I'm writing this because I can't make my mind up about the book.

Miller can clearly write.  I found myself laughing out loud more than once.  I think this opener to his chapter, Magic gives you the flavour,
When I was a child my mother took me to see David Copperfield the Magician.  I think she had a crush on him.  It was the same year he made the Statue of Liberty disappear on national television.  Later he made a plane disappear and later still he got engaged to Claudia Schiffer.
On the other hand he's a bit too fond of certain stylistic cliches.  Like the one where you start a chapter with a seemingly insignificant anecdote as a way into your subject then complete the circle at the very end of the chapter by coming back to some aspect of the anecdote as neat closer.

Miller's insights on human nature and Christian spirituality are often spot on.  Trouble is most of these arise out of rather too much petty introspection for my liking.  Is he self-aware or self-obsessed?  Not sure.

The chapter on evangelism, where Miller and his mates turn the idea of confessing your sins on its head, is sheer genius.  The one on marriage though struck me as pretentious faux intellectualism.  A bit like using the worked faux.

I loved his liberal cultural attitudes.  Couldn't help wondering though why his basic theology is quite so unreconstructed-conservative-evangelical.  Way too sin-centered to my mind.  Also he keeps banging on about the Devil.  The whole book bounces back and forth between a refreshing world-affirming perspective and good old-fashioned fundamentalist dualism.  Also, too much time spent slagging off the Republican party.  Not that the Republicans under Bush didn't need slagging off, but it did get boring.  Too many of the people he describes are cute or beautiful.  And way too much about smoking pipes.

There are lots of  good stories, personal stories, of course.  Sometimes though I did find myself wondering if they were true.  I had the sneaking suspicion they must have been embellished.  Maybe though that says more about my failings than Miller's.  We always spot faults in others (real or imagined) that we know we are prone to ourselves.

The book is a collection of essays/reflections on a range of life issues from the perspective of Christian spirituality.  It clearly has evangelistic as well as didactic intent.  I can imagine it working for some people.

It's always a good sign when I irritate my wife by repeatedly asking her to put down her Reginald Hill while I reader her a paragraph.  Did this quite a bit.  Also kept wondering what certain friends would make of it.  Wondered this so much that I'm going to buy a copy for a couple of people in the hope that they might read at and give me their feedback.

When all's said and done I reckon the most important thing is that the book got through to me.  Helped me connect with God.  So I really ought not to complain.  Maybe it's because I liked it so much that it irritated me so much.  Tends to work that way with people as well as books, don't your find?

Anyhow there you have it.  That's what I made of Blue Like Jazz.  (Oh, yes that's another thing, there's virtually nothing about Jazz, which can't be good.)  If you've read it, I'd be really interested to know what you think.  Go on, help me out, make a comment.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Why 18 Certificate Films are Good For Christians

The brief for this column is to provoke discussion.   It’s called Outside Edge because it’s meant to be edgy.  OK then, here goes.  Christians ought to watch more films.  Is that edgy enough for you?  No?  OK then let me say what I’m really thinking.  Christians ought to watch more films, including those with swearing, violence and sex.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m preparing for our MA summer school on contemporary spirituality when I’ll be leading a session on spirituality and film.  I’m planning to show a recent film that deals with spiritual issues.  But which one?  Turns out that most of the leading contenders include the kind of content that offends some Christians. I understand this and I don’t want to cause gratuitous offence. But it bugs me.  It bugs me because I don’t think we should be offended – at least not in a “tut, tut turn it off quickly before I’m corrupted” kind of way. 

Part of the value of films is that they introduce us to the reality of our world or at least the reality as seen by film-makers and their audience of millions.  At its best film is unquestionably important art.  You know, the kind of creative production that helps us see deeper into our world.  Think The Lives of Others, think Shawshank Redmption, think Magnolia. Even so-called escapist films give us insight into the desires, longings and fantasies playing out in people’s hearts and souls.

Now I know that some readers will already be reaching for Philippians 4:8 “ … whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” I know this verse well; it was used to prod me into the Christian ghetto shortly after my conversion.  I know it and I affirm it.  Of course, we should be inspired by and aspire to such qualities but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make ourselves aware of the shadow side that is part of our world, part of ourselves.

If we are to love our world and those with whom we share it, the better we understand and feel its issues, the better our loving.  Not necessarily easier, but truer.  At one recent showing of Clint Eastwood’s wonderful Gran Torino one person commented that there was no need for film makers to “rub our noses in the seamier side of life”.  I disagree.  That’s precisely what we need.

This is not about tittering behind our hands like an eleven-year-old who has just heard a naughty word, it’s not about voyeurism, it’s not about greedily gobbling lashings of violence.  Nor is it about mindlessly approving everything that passes before our eyes.  One of the shallowest ways of dismissing a film is to assume that the film-makers approve that which they depict.  The Colour Purple was not a tract in favour of domestic violence.

Our call in Christ is to love this world of his and to love it as it is, not to hide from that which we find unpleasant, not to love some fantasy of the world as we would like it be to.  You can’t tell me that Danny’s powerful speech at the end of Brassed Off was very moving but would have been better without the swearing.  No it wouldn’t, it would have been sanitised pap, a lie.  Of course watching films is no substitute for proper, flesh and blood, dirty-handed encounter with reality but it just might help to introduce us to the world for which Christ died – the real world.


My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.