alternativeworship.org and the future

Steve Collins has been the genius behind the content of alternativeworship.org since the site opened around 2001. From the outset, it was designed as a portal to allow access to the various things which were happening under the ‘alternative worship’ title across the world. Now Steve, quite rightly, thinks it’s time to officially call it a day on future developments to the site, partly because alternative worship no longer exists as a discrete movement, and partly because the form of activities identified under that title are now fairly diverse and dispersed. As the hoster, I’m intending to keep the site live as a repository for at least another couple of years, so that an archive continues to exist. In the meantime, I’m echoing Jonny Baker’s credit for all Steve has done over the years.

America and Britain: some comments arising from Phyllis Tickle on an 18-month window

Phyllis Tickle has written an intriguing post on the Emergent Village Blog.  Here’s a sample:

Within the next eighteen to twenty-four months, denominations and established communions and the Christians who constitute them will decide, consciously or simply by default, whether “church” is first and foremost an experience of communal bonding, spiritual and religious expression, growth in concert with the ages, radical obedience, adoration, and transport or whether it is first and foremost an institution—one that does business and has structure and also structures which are to be supported, and one that is a means for organized interface with, and shaping of, the world external to it as the best means of effecting the Gospel’s principles upon and within culture.

She points out that these aren’t an either/or option, but a question of where the spiritual emphasis will lie – institutional survival or, if I summarize correctly, ‘pragmatic spiritual community’. She then points out the significance of those Emerging Christians who have opted to stay in their denominations as a context for doing Emerging Church. (Sorry to be so passé using that phrase. If you’re offended, just pretend it’s 2005 and you’ll feel OK…).  Phyllis Tickle continues:

Whether one calls this third body of folk the hyphenateds or by their sect-specific names of Methomergents, Luthermergents, Presbymergents, etc. matters not. What matters is that they are the “X” factor at the moment, What matter is that they are peeling off in increasing numbers from the institutionalized bodies out of which they have come. As they withdraw, they leave those inherited bodies more and more stripped of their resources and energy, certainly. More importantly, however, they also leave those established, inherited communions devoid of disparate voices and arguably more temporally relevant points of view.

America is always changing, so although it’s only just under a year since I last visited, there seems to be a changing of the waters in regard to the place of Emerging Christians in the established denominations. I would be interested to find out from some of my contacts within such circles whether they agree with Phyllis Tickle’s analysis.

The British situation seems considerably distant from these developments.  For several reasons:

  • Although we have had new, non-denominational churches for decades, they have not really eclipsed the continued significance of denominational Churches; the Church of England in particular.
  • The denominational Churches in Britain seem to have been far better at admitting and welcoming Emergent and Fresh Expression forms of Church; again, the Church of England in particular.
  • For those who are interested in Emerging Church, the denominational route (and, boringly again, the Church of England in particular) is at least as viable as an independent option, if not more so

Among Emerging (oops, there I go again! Think ‘2005’ people…) pioneers in Britain, the more pressing question pertains to what Phyllis Tickle describes as the ‘adolescence’ of Emergent Christianity (in the sense that it has left behind its ‘childhood’ and stands on the brink of adult public engagement). This particularly focusses on the question of whether, in Britain, Fresh Expressions/Emerging forms of Church run the risk of losing some of their cutting edge by being absorbed into the life of larger expressions of Church by the welcome and support they have received. A key commentator on this question has been Ben Edson. (See his recent piece on ShareTheGuide.org.)

A key factor in responding to this sort of questioning must surely be whether Fresh Expressions / Emerging Churches are becoming more or less effective missional communities by their continued engagement with denominational (or established non-denominational) churches. That’s a very difficult issue to judge, because, in contrast to the picture being painted by Phyllis Tickle of Emerging Churches in the USA, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of any other game in town in this country.

Christine Sine is blogging about gardens

Back in the 1990s, in the early days of the Third Sunday Service, we did a service on the theme of gardens. Obviously there are gardens in the Bible, but what’s perhaps of more interest is the relationship between the gardener and the creation. Gardening is an activity of working with, and against, nature. Gardens are articial spaces, in that they seek to control the natural forces of chaos in nature which would otherwise have their sway. At one level, there is nothing wrong with nature space at all. However, gardening offers human beings the chance to selective work with-and-against nature to create various desired effects. In some ways, it parallels the relationship which God has with creation: in Genesis 1 we see the Spirit of God brooding over the waters of chaos, and from gardening we get the insight that creation isn’t (unlike other parallel near-Eastern myths) a crushing of chaos, but a shaping of it. Creation happens when God becomes enmeshed in chaos for his own, creative, purposes.  So it was good to see the Christine Sine has been theologising and spiritualising about gardens.  You can catch this on the Emergent Village website and her own website.

Church + Bicycles: the ultimate fusion

posterRespect to Nadia Bolz-Weber and the House for All Sinners and Saints: they’re running the “1st Annual Blessing of the Bicycles” in Denver on Sunday 17th May.  Details are here.

How come the Pentecostals have all the fun?

We need more of this kind of stuff in the Anglican Church … BOH!

Foundation on Small Ritual

Steve Collins has done a write-up of the service put on by Foundation at this year’s Greenbelt on his excellent SmallRitual site. We’ve only just become aware of it (sorry Steve). He’s uploaded some videos of the event, one of which is below. Well done to all co-Foundationeers for all the hard work – sorry I couldn’t be with you this year.

foundation ‘babel’ – free from steve collins on Vimeo.

Emergents and postmodernism

Regular readers of this blog (are there any left?) will have gathered that I have become increasingly unconvinced about the whole postmodern thing that you still hear about and read about in Emerging circles. I’ve written down some rather scratchy notes about why I’m leaving the postmodern Faithful and pursuing a vision of Church which is not avowedly postmodern. Since it’s a bit of a long piece, I’ve decided to post it as a separate page, rather than as an article in the blog sequence. For any odd person who’d be remotely interested, you can read it here. It’s still thought in process, but I can’t see myself going back to describing our present culture as postmodern without gazillions of qualifiers.

Life for the next few months

This is the second post by way of an update. I’m currently blogging from Sacramento Youth Hostel, which is located in a lovely Victorian wooden mansion within the city – with distinctly non-Victorian high-speed wireless internet. I’m travelling around California with Sharon and the children on a grand 3-week tour of the state. We started in Pasadena, through the Sequoia National Park, Yosemite and today will travel to the north coast to the Redwoods National Park. The rest of the holiday will be heading South on Route 1 through San Francisco to end up in Los Angeles again.

Sharon and the children will then fly home. As for me, I have been lucky enough to be granted three months’ extended study leave. The first two months of this will be spent studying the relationship between the theology of worship and the theology of mission within Emerging Churches in the western USA. It’s part of a larger field of study, but as a Brit I needed a representative exposure to some part of the American Emerging Church context against which to base my study. The final two weeks at Fuller will be spent teaching a course called ‘MC508/608 – Reimagining Missional Worship’ which will aim to bring together some more-than-basic theological thinking about the relationship between worship/liturgy and mission theory and praxis. It’s a busy and exciting time, and I’m looking forward to teaching the course enormously.

The down-side of this opportunity will be that Sharon will not be with me as she has to go back to her duties as a head-teacher for the start of a new term. I’ve become a big fan of Skype as the best way of us keeping in touch during two months apart. I’ll also be missing some other important events in the UK: Greenbelt, my daughter Caroline’s 18th birthday (but I’ve already bought her a rather nice present for that) and my son going off to University. So the house I come home to will be very different and very transitional. Life, in general, seems quite transitional at the moment, but exciting too.

On having the armed forces

There’s an interesting, if badly-spelt, debate going on on the BBC Have Your Say website. This follows a recent news report of how personnel from RAF Wittering have been ordered not to wear uniform in the local town of Peterborough, following incidents of servicemen and women being insulted because of anti-war sentiment. The debate includes stories of similar incidents happening to forces personnel around the country (for example, staff from RAF Brize Norton denied entry to a petrol-station on the grounds that their uniforms would “offend the public”).

I find myself getting very angry at this for all sorts of different reasons. One reason is that it feels so unbelievably ungrateful to people who are putting their own lives at risk, and sometimes losing them, in the service of this country. The second is that ignorance on this scale always makes me angry. Because for me it is symptomatic of a deeper cultural, political and theological ignorance which is growing.

I deeply opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq and continue to believe that it did not fulfill the conditions for a Just War, so we should never have got in there in the first place. I believe that history since has borne those convictions out. BUT, once a war begins, the situation changes. We are years down the road now: the decision on whether and when to leave that country is an entirely different one – indeed it is a more difficult one, perhaps, than the decision ever to join war in the first place. So political voices raised in opposing the current occupation need to answer the question of how best to bring it to an end, and in so doing, must address the issue of the widest welfare for all human beings presently caught up in the situation.

And yet, none of these issues bear upon the morality or position of a single member of the armed forces, nor upon the armed forces themselves. These are political questions to be discussed in the wider context of public debate in Britain. They are particularly matters for the government of today. If people disagree with there being a single British soldier in Iraq, they need to bring that to the door of the people who are keeping them there – our government. They are there because we elected a government which decided to join war in Iraq. We also re-elected them afterwards. Maybe we made a mistake, but if so, then we need to own responsibility for that and exercise it in appropriate ways. Insulting service personnel is not an appropriate way.

But this raises the spectre of a much deeper ignorance which, sadly, I have encountered in Christian circles on occasions. Britain, like most nations, keeps a standing army, navy and air-force. Their responsibility is to follow the orders of our democratically-elected government and, when so ordered, to join conflict and in that arena to use a variety of methods demanded by it to bring about the wishes of our government according to rules of engagement set by our government. These include pursuasion, protection, coercion, and, where no other option remains, to kill. In the field of conflict, this also includes the real possibility of being killed in the process, since war is like that.

Having laid it out like that, we may feel revulsion at the prospect of war. Most civilized human beings normally do so, including members of the armed forces. War is a horrendous context to put any human being, but our armed forces have the duty, under the British constitution, to enter those contexts on our behalf and to carry out the will of our representatives in government. They are doing that right now, our our behalf, in Iraq. Wars are a bit like sewers: nobody wants to go into them, but someone in the end does so on everyone else’s behalf. Our armed forces are there and operating “in our name”. Whilst Britain maintains armed forces, they will continue to operate “in our name”.

Whatever the pros and cons of this, it is worth citing another example. A couple of years before going into Iraq, British forces went into Sierra Leone, where a civil war was leading to a systematic abuse of the weakest amongst its citizenry. Following an ineffective period of intervention by UN forces, the country was faced with the prospect of a takeover by the RUF. All the NGOs had had to flee because it was unsafe to remain, leaving the weakest people in the country exposed to terrible evil. The British Army invaded in 2000, and in a short period of time removed the influence of the RUF, demobbed child soldiers, made it safe for NGOs to return, and in a couple of years the country had changed from bloody chaos to democracy and peace, albeit with terrible scars. Again, the British forces did this “in our name”.

The fact is that we live in a world where, in places, people bear and brandish arms. They threaten others with these arms, including the weak in their land and any weak neighbouring countries. If you ask any person who has worked with a NGO in a country which is unstable or subject to civil war, they will tell you that they can only operate with the protection of either a stable and benign local army, or with the support of the armed forces from stable, democratic external countries who believe they have a responsibility for global peace. Sadly, the United Nations is sometimes highly ineffective at providing this support, as the case of Sierra Leone proved (and, arguably, is also being proved again at the moment in the lives of people in Darfur).

About three or so years ago, some time after the start of the present Iraq conflict, I was sitting in a field at the Greenbelt Festival at a service of Holy Communion. An entire litany had been constructed, protesting about the war, with the response “Not in our Name”. I love the Greenbelt Festival, but I found this nauseating. Here we were, a crowd of mostly middle-class, western Christians, few of whom had ever seen a gun fire a bullet, nor heard the sound of rifle-fire in real-life, chanting this liturgical response whilst thousands of British soldiers were risking their lives and carrying out the ugly task of war for precisely that: “in our name”. The “Not in our Name” chanting bandwagon had begun earlier that year, but, crucially, it had begun after the conflict had begun, and troops were already engaged. It was the wrong sentiment, wrapped up in the wrong catch-phrase: wrong, because instead of arguing for a precise course of action (such as “troops out now”) which could be subject to a political and moral debate over its wisdom and practicality, it was seeking to dissociate the protesters from the link with the armed conflict, and therefore the armed personnel who are out there “in our name”. It was a woolly phrase, whose imprecision was at best insulting, and at worst, immorally abandoning people who we, through our democratically-elected government, had contracted to work on our behalf in a dangerous situation. That was bad enough, but at Greenbelt it wasn’t even being chanted to the government, it was being chanted to God. So what on earth was going on?

My conclusion now, which I had dimly been aware of through my anger at the time, but am now much more clear about, was that it was a large-scale attempt at pious guilt-avoidance, founded on ignorance of how politics, and therefore the world, works. So what were we actually saying? There were a number of possibilities:

  • Dear God: We do not believe that Britain should keep or use any armed forces. We are therefore pacifists.
  • Dear God: We disagree with the British constitution and the concept of executive government acting on our behalf. We are therefore anarchists.
  • Dear God: we feel morally embarrassed about this, so we corporately wring our hands in your presence because we would “rather this not happen in our name”
  • Dear God: we feel angry about this, but we can’t be bothered to understand it, so we’re publicly washing our hands of culpability for this situation, because we hope that such ignorance is defence in the (moral) law
  • Dear God: We forgot to protest about the war when to do so might have made a difference, so we’re salving our consciences for the killing by saying these words to you now (hopefully, it will make us feel a bit better and more righteous having done so)

… or any number of the above.

The words of worship are sacred, and so it’s very important that they be subject to theological and moral scrutiny before people are asked to use them in the offering of the worship of the People of God. The use of slogans in liturgy is therefore a high-risk strategy. In this case, I believe the slogan failed theologically, politically, morally and ethically to speak truth to God, which is rather important in worship. But, hey, maybe most people there didn’t really know what they were doing or saying anyway.

And that’s the problem. There is a kind of growing, culpable ignorance regarding the way politics works. A generation of adults has grown up, formed by a popularist disenchantment with politics, which fails to appreciate that it only works properly when people realise that democracy is about everyone accepting responsibility for their own governance and therefore the governments which we elect. After we, the people, have elected them, we bear a certain responsibility for their actions, because we elect them to act on our behalf. When they send our soldiers into war, they do it “in our name”, and whilst we have a democracy, it will always be in our name. We will have an opportunity to change that government to one which offers an alternative. Some of us won’t get our way, but that’s democracy, and if anyone can come up with a better system, then let’s consider it.

There are three aspects of maturity which sometimes come slowly. One is to realise that sometimes you bear responsibility for situations which you didn’t directly, but only indirectly, bring about. The second is to learn that the act of living brings inevitable guilt. The only thing that can be done about this is to do what we can to avoid incurring guilt whilst we can, but once it is too late then we need to ask for forgiveness, rather than wash our hands of responsibility. The third thing is to realise that ‘no man is an island’ – we work as a society, and we bear responsibility for the actions of that society, because we are part of it.

It’s the sad failure to realise these facts that leads to well-meaning Christians piously indulging in act of (un-)ethical “handwashing” in a Gloucestershire field, and to people insulting uniformed personnel in Peterborough. We don’t want the responsibility, we don’t know what to do with the guilt, and we’d rather the whole world just go away.

St Paul had it easy

The first thing to say is that I think the whole shift of culture in the Church of England after the report Mission-shaped Church has been wonderful for anyone who wants to risk trying to plant Fresh Expressions of Church. When I think back just seven years, the Church of England was comparatively in the “dark ages” as far as church-planting is concerned. At this month’s General Synod, we discussed the final stage of the process which makes it culturally and legally possible for a group of Anglican Christians to plant a church outside of a single parish boundary, and not necessarily wedded to a Parish structure. This becomes possible through a mechanism called a “Bishop’s Mission Order”. It will mean many Fresh Expressions, Alternative Worship communities and Emerging Church groups have a vehicle, within Anglican structures, to exist, flourish and enjoy full legitimation. All great so far …

However, the “Code of Practice” which has been drawn up by the House of Bishops, and which governs how Bishop’s Mission Orders can work runs to 83 pages, six chapters and five appendices. Although essentially an enabling document, it speaks volumes about a large Church which is shackled to structures inherited from a past rooted in Christendom, and for whom the call to become truly missionary (or missional, if you prefer) has come late, perhaps too late, in its history.

How to get a BMOHere is a quick look at a simplified “Procedure Flowchart” which explains the process of how a mission initiative (actual or planned) would go about getting legitimation through a Bishop’s mission order. Pretty, isn’t it? Pretty complicated… (If you click on the image, it will download it in PDF).

Having read the document, I found myself thinking, again and again, “what are we afraid of?” The overwhelming fear seems to be that certain territorial or ecumenical feathers may be ruffled by the appearance in an area of a new, young, fast-changing form of church which people are attracted to, but which cannot be controlled by more established Christian power structures. A lesser fear also lurks, based on the assumption that spontaneity, innovation and rapid development will always end in tears, and the fear that this might besmirch the “good name” of the reliable product of the Church of England. Of course, once in a blue moon, this can actually happen (as it did in the case of Nine O’Clock Service).

I have to shrug my shoulders reluctantly and accept that megaliths such as the Church of England do have a low fear threshold when it comes to legitimating anything which is fast-moving, subject to change, hard to understand and therefore hard to control. But at the same time, I wish more people would recognize that we (ie. the CofE) have to be far more afraid of the haemorrhaging of attendance from so many parish churches who stick to the established script, for at the moment it looks like a slow and irreversible death from a thousand cuts. Although I do not believe the parish model to be completely broken from a missional point of view, I do think that it is holed below the waterline as a “default” mode of being church. My guess is that for every one example which works (from a mission point of view) there are probably about forty which are not working and have very little likelihood of ever working again. So the need for the Church to have a “mixed economy” of modes of being church is far more urgent than most people realize. The very kind of communities which we need are those which are fast-moving, subject to change, hard to understand outside their context and therefore hard to control. We need to trust the Holy Spirit a bit more when it comes to mission, and legal or quasi-legal structures a good bit less, because law – however useful it is – does not drive mission, but is there to cater for the odd occasion when things go wrong. So the document (which delights in the catchy title Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007: Part V: Mission Initiatives Code of Practice) had me with my head in my hands onHow to plant in Asia Minor occasion. I’m grateful that it makes possible what it makes possible, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy, nor does it necessarily make it possible in a short space of time – especially when it’s not operating in sympathetic or confident hands. I couldn’t help wondering what St Paul would have done in Asia Minor if he needed to go through this kind of rigamarole. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the whole Church of England (and, sadly, it would appear, the House of Bishops) also need to rediscover that generous Catholic missional spirit we see between people like St Paul, Apollos and others, which worried less about territory and ownership, and far more about the message getting out and transforming the world.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5-9)

It’s not difficult to redraw the version of the “Procedure Flowchart” which led to the planting of the Church of God amongst the Gentile communities in Asia Minor. Even with the co-existence of Judaizing opposition groups who were seeking to undo (or “correct”) their work, it still took off and became the womb of Eastern Christianity.

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