Sin is sin is sin is …

Brian Turner, from Dothan, Alabama has an interesting OOZE piece on what happens when ‘being real’ in our identification with culture is actually an excuse for indulging in, well let’s face it, SIN. His basic point is simple – however important it is for Christians to engage more fully with the (postmodern) culture of which they are part, that does not mean that issues of sin, right and wrong behaviour are not important.

OK – I’m against sin too, so Amen to that. But does this discussion need to go a bit further perhaps? To step outside existing well-established social patterns of being Church and move into new ways of being a missional community inevitably brings with it a challenge to the moral, ethical narrative inherited (or not) from older established church forms.

To take an obvious example (because it’s about sex!): in a society which has largely forgotten the biblical reason for marrying and has adopted, instead, a consumerist model, what do we say to people who have been living a faithful, sexual shared life without taking on the razzmatazz and cost of a wedding? And at what point in their missional/formative journey would the question be raised? And who by? The Pastor? The community ethical council? A reformed perspective would be looking for a discipline structure within emerging churches as a keynote of their authenticity. But how many groups have developed ethical structures in a contextualised way, rather than falling back on existing models from the previous culture?

Once Church life moves outside the social boxes of existing forms, these ethical questions are neither posed nor answered in exactly the way that they were in the previous context. One would hope that an emerging community would go back to the Bible and work out what its values of faithfulness, love and total union mean in practical terms for contemporary sexual lifestyles. Somewhere in the background to their search would be the existing example of more usual forms of Church, but should we assume that these would be modelled identically by the new community?

Another question arising from Brian Turner’s article is the way we engage with sin once we’ve named it as such. Like many churches, his article seems to be concerned with there ‘not being sin’ around in the community. But in fact, the presence of sin in all Christians is a given. Sometimes, it’s not merely a case of saying sorry to God and trying not to make the same mistake again. Often, repentance involves learning to love our sinful self as much as God does. (ie. a reflexive form of ‘loving the sinner and hating the sin’). Instead of running from our sins, they can often teach us things about our inner selves and our relationship with God that too-hasty a turning away and moving on would obscure. That’s not to say we should indulge in sin, but we can love ourselves as sinners and through our sin learn more about ourselves in the light of God’s love. I would hope that emerging communities are providing more scope for this kind of growth than the all-too-superficial engagement with sin provided by many models available in the mainstream.

Recovery from a happy Pentecost

Sunday was a busy day, and to be honest I’m only really now surfacing enough to blog about it.

Morning worship – and I was racking my brains on how to put together two themes in the preaching. With the start of Christian Aid Week, we used this Sunday as the opportunity to launch our churches’ response to Make Poverty History. So my homiletical challenge was trying to link Pentecost with the crazy endeavour of hoisting an enormous Make Poverty History banner up the church tower, where it’s going to be very visible along the main roads which encircle Cotham. So I cheated. I changed the Old Testament reading from the lectionary to Genesis 11 (the story of the Tower of Babel) and talked about the power, for good or evil, of human organising – of how God confused the tongues, then used the diversity of those tongues to show a new vision for the human race. This includes the justice and relief of poverty which God dreams of, because poverty destroys humanity, and has no place in God’s kingdom.

After the service, we hoisted the banner up the tower. The organising team had done their homework in regard to publicity, and we had a photographer from the Bristol Evening Post show up on cue. Great plan. Then I got attacked by some of the members of the youth group who tied me up in Make Poverty History event tape. The photographer was delighted. I’m now nervously watching the newspaper to see the results… (POSTSCRIPT: And, yes, it was duly published. You can read the story here, but fortunately, the pictures aren’t on the web!)

Down at my other church, they had invited Nick Park (him of Aardman Animations and Wallace and Gromit fame) to ‘launch’ their MPH banner which is hanging over the front door. He’d been at the Cannes Film Festival all last week, and pointed out that St Paul’s was pretty much the same as Cannes, only a bit more glamorous. The local TV news came and it was broadcast on the evening bulletin. My colleague Simon said later that they had a good number of people along and it was a fun service.

Evening – and our big alternative worship service. Previous years’ Pentecost services were notorious for things going wrong (I won’t go into it), so when I was reminded about this by email, I had circulated an ‘email exorcism’ with LOTS OF WORDS IN CAPITAL LETTERS and EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!!! before we started the planning. Most of the service had been put together while I was in Pasadena, so when I got back it looked like a good event was in the making.

It went better than we ever could have imagined. The planning was leisurely, we got time for a proper run-through and had half an hour to gather our wits over some tea before returning to open up. Great singing of a new song written by Richard and Tracey Wheeler, a huge frame suspended over the service holding white fabric trailers onto which were stapled spirals with prayers people had written. Then candles were lit underneath to create an updraft, and they spiralled in the wind of the spirit. Had about 70 people along, wine served after the service and then took off down to the pub. Good links, motivated attenders, lots of questions about what else we should be doing. Need to think our next move through properly. Pub meeting? How should we further seed community?

So it was lively Sunday. Some weeks at church it all feels like we’re doing something right. Evidently capital letters and exclamation marks work wonders, so HAVE A NICE DAY!!!!!!

Criticisms of alt/emerging church

Andrew Jones’ blog is currently carrying a fascinating dialogue between himself and Michael Horton, who has offered some friendly criticism of emerging churches from a reformed perspective. Although most of the discussion is of particular relevant to the situation in the US, some of the criticisms sound strangely familiar.

Sloppy philosophy: inadequate appreciation of and criticism of postmodern thought
Demographically separated: ie. not for older people, therefore inadequately reflecting the diversity of the body of Christ (at least in age-range)
Anti-seminary – perhaps more accurately, anti-academic theology
Vague and avoids certainty – this seems more a comment on tentative spirituality than on intellectual approach

I found myself resonating with some of these friendly criticisms, even though I have been involved in emergent-type groups since 1993. The manifestation of some of these potential weakness in British contexts indicates a need to take them seriously.

Philosophy – the high-water-mark of postmodern philosophy has been passed, and it’s difficult to see what the abiding value of its critique really is. Certainly, there was far too much being published about postmodern thought in the 1990s. These days, the philosophy section of academic bookshops looks quite different. Perhaps given that the dust is being allowed to settle in philosophical thinking, the Church needs to realise that the postmodern critique of modernity isn’t the last or latest word (indeed, Lyotard’s seminal The condition of postmodernity is over 25 years old now.)

Demographically separated – from my experience, I think this is one of the most limiting factors on the authenticity and long-term viability of alt/emerging groups. The story goes like this: the group sets up with people mostly in their 20s. They have lots of time and energy and much creativity ensues. Then some move away. Others decide that the disenchantment which led them out of ‘ordinary church’ is deeper than that and they need to leave church altogether. Others have kids (or a more intensive job) and find it difficult to raise them in the alt/emerging setting. What’s missing in all of this? – age diversity and range of life-experience. To what extent are we working out a delayed adolescence in the face of other churches where leadership and vision is being steered by an older generation?

Anti-seminary – I think the UK groups tend to be less dismissive of theology than perhaps our American counterparts. Indeed, there seems to be a higher incidence of theological (over-?) qualification within alt/emerging groups in UK than other, more ‘normal’, church forms. Whether this is a good thing or not, I am less sure of. However, I have enjoyed a more thorough experience of theological exploration within alt/emerging churches than in all other types of Church to which I have belonged.

Vague, and avoids certainty – perhaps we ought to plead guilty m’lud. The kind of certainty which drives a lot of growing, mainly boomer-type churches locates the certainty ‘outside’ the experience of the person of faith, in some kind of shared fiduciary deposit box. This does not cohere well with most contemporary understandings of authentic existence, so it is not surprising that alt/emerging is reacting against this: many big-church-dropouts are to be found within our number. It doesn’t really cohere with the gospel call to follow Jesus, focussed as it is more on conceptuality than exploration and the challenge to obey him relationally. I reckon that one of the best reasons to take Jesus seriously is because life is complicated and confusing, incapable of being addressed by a prior set of answers. I’d rather follow him than trust to some prior-digested form of ‘certainty’, which someone else has put together for me. This exploratory approach does not rule out certainty, but perhaps ‘conviction’ would be a better word for it, which is nurtured through doing, rather than reading-up in advance of living. Those who accuse alt/emerging groups of vagueness have perhaps missed the point about a dynamic action-listening-reflection which is located within the ‘liturgical’ heartbeat of alt/emerging Christianity. To have one’s ears open to hearing God in the midst of a life lived ‘raw’ is inevitably going to involve asking questions all the time, as well as learning to live faithfully with some of the answers.


We watched The Monastery on BBC2 last night. I don’t watch very much TV – partly because evenings are generally work time for me, and partly because there seems to be little worth watching. This one was an exception. Jonny has already blogged the background to the series (sadly just three shows). Two things stood out for me: the first was the variation between the outlook of the younger volunteers and the older ones. Two of the younger ones were from very secular backgrounds and both were high-earning and quite hedonistic. Initially, they seemed the most bemused by the benedictine environment. The challenge for them seemed to be to move from the almost deliberately-chosen superficiality of their lives to take themselves more seriously. The third younger volunteer came over as an obvious monk-in-waiting (former buddhist, now anglican returnee). However, as the programme continued, it seemed to me as though his challenge was to rediscover a commitment to community, not just the personal focus on God in separation. The other thing which stood out came towards the end of the programme, when a conflict broke out between two of the younger volunteers. It took place within a group meeting, in the presence of the abbot. Some direct speaking took place, and neither of them found it easy. The others, together with the abbot, stayed silent while the interaction took place. Afterwards, we saw the abbot listening to both of them individually. He carefully helped them discover more about themselves through the conflict situation, pointing out that it is through rubbing up against others in community that they can give us the gift of knowing ourselves. I found this very challenging. It was this conflict, and the way it was handled, that created a huge contrast between this programme and Big Brother. In BB, conflict is encouraged and stimulated between the ‘contestants’. However, it is exploited for cheap entertainment purposes, with others in the house encouraged to ‘take sides’. The benedictine community used conflict as an opportunity for deeper healing and greater self-knowledge. BB uses conflict to entertain the onlooker, so that the whole programme becomes a kind of amphitheatre of human misery, incomprehension and brokenness. It is rare to see one television programme act as an unintentional judgment upon another.

I’m also left wondering whether the benedictine and other religious communities realize what is likely to be unleashed by the programme: I’m sure there’ll be many people wanting to try out the novitiate, or at least stay on retreat at monastic foundations, as a result of the impact of the programme. Perhaps copies of The Rule of St Benedict will run out in the bookshops – quotes from it appear throughout the programme. For what it’s worth, there’s an online copy at: