Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Good News and Honesty

 As most of you who are likely to read this know I am a queer, Chrisitian, disabled woman (dyslexic and dyspraxic) who supports Ipswich Town FC who is married to a trans masculine, disabled, bi Methodist Minister who supports Man U. I found myself choosing to get arrested on Waterloo Bridge when I took breakfast down to the Extinction Rebellion peeps a couple of years ago and I am generally a bit of a leftie. If we went back a while I'd have been called a single mum too, and I was divorced. For some this mixture is a bit of a mind f**k because they see these things as contradictory. For others they worry because the church has not always been good news for those with this type of identity mix. 

The thing I have found over the years though, is that God's good news is that he loves us whatever labels we put on ourselves or have put on by others. 

God wants us to flourish and I've found he helps us do that by leading us to a place where we can put our energy into being ourselves not trying to live by others expectations. Now I'm not saying he says absolutely anything goes, rather that God's healthy intentions for each one of us are slightly less rigid than some faith traditions would have us believe.

The good news which God offers is being able to live in openess and honesty. It's about integrity not putting on masks. Too often though that is what people have been led to believe about God, that it involves pretending to be who you're not. Well the thing about this is if, as I believe, God knows all about us then he can see through us all anyway. There is no point trying to pretend to God our identity is anything other than it is because he knows anyway. And he wants us to flourish in that identity, as long as it is not doing harm to others. 

You might be saying, oh do you know. Well I'll be honest I tried way too long to pretend I was someone I wasn't and it didn't work. The energy I was putting into that was wasted. When I stopped trying and accepted who I was and I found a new partner that I was in love with my life began to change dramatically. It was through not repressing myself, not being ashamed of labels, (and getting medical support for depression), that I was set free to serve God in ways I couldn't have imagined. There is a similar story for my husband and it was through saying yes to who God intended us to be as well as to his call on our lives that He was able to take us on a new adventure, a few years ago when my husband was called to be a Methodist minister. 

Is it always easy? No, we follow somebody who ultimately ended up going to the cross because he was too radical for the authorities, (as well as choosing to go there because of his love for us). Do I always get it right? No, that's why it is good I can say sorry to God and let him know I want his help and support moving forward in the right direction. 

Why am I writing this today. Honest answer is partly for a Methodist course I'm doing on Evangelism for Leaders. Other bit of the answer though is because I still know alot of people who have similar labels are taught God is only good news for them if they will deny who they are. This isn't right it's abusive and why I believe we need to stop conversion therapy in all it's forms, (including when it comes in the guise of discussions about living a more Godly life). I want you to know that God's good news is he loves you and wants you to flourish. 

Saturday, 20 February 2021

10. Things we can learn from The Church Who Needs It? We Do!

This week I've been reading The Church, Who Needs it? We Do! by Yvonne Bennett and the Women of Mummies Republic. I want to reflect on 10 things I have learnt from this book

1. That the experience of black, women, pioneers in the church and the communities they are forming are being written about. Note here, I reckon there may be some saying what black, women pioneers? The data shows that pioneers are most likely to be white males this book makes visible some work going on you might not be aware of.

2. That sometimes it's not the academic level of the book it's the content and experience in being given voice that matters. I'll be honest this book which falls into the realm of sociology of religion is not the most academic book on the I've read. It has a clear lit review and good reflexivity by the writer but it's not your usual academic text. What this does do very well though is give voice to the lived experience of the women in this book.

3. That sometimes you have to look outside the usual suspects to find good theology and sociology of religion texts. If I who published the stuff in this area I would quickly say, SCM Press, Canterbury Press, DLT and Routledge and these are the main publishers I look at in terms of what's new. This book isn't published by any of them; it's by Clink Press. I was lucky to see a tweet a friend, who is the husband of the pioneer in this book, had written. Otherwise it would have taken much longer to hit my radar.

4. That this book has the power of an early punk record by having the power and DIY ethos whilst being highly political and being a voice speaking truth to power. This book is not just by the academic who studied them, it's written in collaboration with them to give them voice. It is telling the truth about their experience with Universal Credit and the problems with the system as well as telling the story of how this pioneer community works and what people get from it. The fact that it has the points mentioned in 1-3 all contribute to this.

5. That the system needs to be worked with as well as fought to build relationship and trust. Ok so I didn't learn this from the book, I already knew it but this book reinforces it especially in a particularly powerful section about mental health issues.

6. That some of the findings I got from my own research on Single Parents in Evangelical Churches almost a decade ago now also relate to single parents in this pioneer community. In my study on single parent hood in evangelical churches I found that small groups were the key place of support and I talked about the way that these could take different forms. Those which took a holistic approach were those I identified as helping people share information and support each other best. That's what this community is doing.

7. We focus on learning black history without taking on that we need to also be learning about black experience now. Might seem daft and I don't know about you but I have been challenged to learn more about black history through the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. Yet, I have not balanced that with the importance of finding out about black lives now.

8. We need to be careful about pigeon holing those who are black and/ or on universal credit. The women in this book are on the whole part-time workers struggling to survive on universal credit. However, they are more than that and the pioneer in this book, who is doing some amazing work from a different position is also a black woman of a similar age. This book highlights similarities in experience but we must and should not generalise from them, except to say Universal Credit isn't working as it should.

9. Church isn't just Sunday mornings.

10. This book is a breath of fresh air please buy it and let others know about it, all monies raised through it go to Mummies Republic.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

From Social Media to Social Ministry Review

Randomly, in a conversation this lunchtime, I was given some encouragement about the book reviews I put on here and so these are now going to be the focus of this blog. Today I'm focusing on From Social Media to Social Ministry: A Guide to Digital Discipleship by Nona Jones.

I first came across Nona's work on a Citizen's UK training call a few months ago, when she was on there as the Facebook Faith liaison person and was talking about some of the stuff in this book. The fact that she has a Facebook role is relevant to this book, it's why she talks about how to use their platforms, primarily. The first part of the book goes through "The Why" including "Why Facebook?" in chapter four and makes a compelling argument for using the platform. 

Within the first part of the book the message is clear, if you think of your digital congregation and participants as an audience in the traditional sense then you're missing the purpose of fellowship and building disciples. Churches need to not only put out content but more importantly engage relationship. This is why a clear tip of the book is it will be useful to have a social media pastor to head up this sort of work. 

The second and third part of the book go through how you move from Social Media to Social Ministry talking through the way a Facebook Campus works, (it is an American book) and then how you launch, lead and grow your Facebook Campus.

Now I have to say that I found it a good book, and the best on this type of subject I have come across. Yet, and this is the important part I'm not sure how many churches in the UK, who are currently having to think about how they keep things going on the reduced resources they're facing can go for this in the way outlined.

What I think they can do is perhaps use the principles to grow small groups and new missional communities. 

To do this there are a few things which come from the book which they will need to think about seriously:

1) Our churches have traditionally been formed around geographic areas, do we want to stay wedded to that model? If the answer is yes then this is not the road to go down.

2) Do we have the resources to put into doing this properly and are we ready to invest over the long term ? If the answer is no then this is not the road to go down.

3) Will we see this the poor relation to the main church building work? If the answer is yes then this is not the road to go down.

4) Do we want to build relationship or improve our communications strategy? If the answer is the latter then this is not the road to go down, it does not preclude the first approach but it will be separate from it.

5) Are we ready to build buy in around this and treat them as a community within our wider community but one which is also separate? If the answer is no then this is not the road to go down.

So where does that leave us? Well, I think it leaves us in an interesting place where we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions for the future as we come out of lockdown:

1) Do we expect people to attend a local church in person? Or at least go to one which they can travel to physically? - The answer may be yes, but in reality I think many of us have gotten comfortable with digital worship and may choose to stay with that as our main form of relationship with church. It might be that we still go to Sunday mornings but we've found how much easier it is not to have to travel to meetings, how we can engage with people from a wider range of locations on line and so on. I think the reality is we are going to have to develop a real hybrid approach.

2) Can we expect every church to provide this type of hybrid approach - the simple answer is no. Many were on the brink before lockdown and may find themselves over the edge now. Hybrid by one church, connected to a group of local churches who can only resource physical could be the way forward. Alternatively, a range of churches across the country with similar styles of worship might want to work together.

3) Are our denominations ready for this change? No, thinking about the way in Methodism the circuit, district and Connexion are set up. They are based on geographic boundaries and ways of being. Ironically, the Connexional relationship is a network based one and so may provide us with the best hope of moving forward. The Connexional model may now see more single congregations or groups of congregation which take a different form, acknowledging that they have members and congregants outside the immediate geographical area. This already happens in some places but we need to develop a way that people can work beyond geographical areas to access training and so on. This is something through Webinars, etc the Learning Network is starting to address.

So is the book worth reading? Most definitely, if only to think about why this approach sounds great but may not work for us now. It is a book which highlights how we need to change and adapt to the increasingly networked society we find ourselves in.

Monday, 8 February 2021

7 Killer Resources for Clergy Partners / Spouses

 I'm now three and a half years in to being a clergy spouse; five and a half if you include the training period and I want to share seven resources I've found really useful in helping me. 

1. The Daily Menu Board - This enables you to menu plan according to the evening appointments that your clergy person and maybe yourself will have. You can note on the time you're going to eat, fitting in with everybody's diary and if it's a day you need to get the slow cooker out because diaries don't allow you to eat together.

2. Membership to the cinema or a local amenity like a gallery, garden or museum
Budgeting is important but so is being able to slip away somewhere nice and nearby if you find yourself having a few hours together. It also means the day off is likely to be used well, even if the weather isn't so good.

When we were training at Queen's in Birmingham Winterbourne Gardens and their tea room were our little place of refuge. Now in London, and with a little more money Historic Royal Palaces and Tate Gallery membership are two of our key memberships. Hampton Court is in walking distance and in non-covid times membership also gives hubby somewhere a little different to go and sermon write sometimes. Tate Membership gives us free entry to all the exhibitions at the London Tate galleries, which over the year adds up.

3. A Diary for updates and initialling a date with each other

Diaries can often seem the enemy of the clergy partner, particularly the clergy person's diary. But it can be a friend, sort of. 

Regularly sitting down and comparing diaries allows you to identify where there are gaps you can use for a date night, for example. In this case get him to diary "meeting with initials" so nobody can say it is only your partner you're meeting with. 

Diary checking can also ensure nothing has slipped in on the day off and if it has that it is really unavoidable.

Finally, as shown above, it can be really helpful in meal planning.

4. The inspiration board

Being a clergy partner can sometimes seem hard, when everybody else seems to get the other halves attention apart from you. It's important to remember you matter. This is one reason I have an inspiration board. It also helps me stay motivated and develop my own spirituality.

5. Little Treats for yourself

It can be the little things which remind you that you matter. For me getting a Starbucks on my exercise route is something which falls into this category. It doesn't cost and arm and a leg to give yourself little treats like this which remind you that you matter and have value even if it seems you feel like second fiddle at times.

6. Books and articles by and for clergy spouses 

There are books and booklets by clergy spouses and partners. The Grove Booklet, Living as a Clergy Spouse by Matthew Caminer is just one of them. 

7. Clergy Spice - FB group for clergy partners

There are groups which exist for clergy partners and my personal favourite is Clergy Spice, a Facebook group which brings people together online and occasionally offline, with meetups at festivals like Greenbelt.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Review of Fragments for Fractured Times by Nicola Slee

 Fragments for Fractured Times: What Feminist Practical Theology Brings to the Table, by Nicola Slee, London: SCM Press, 2020, 274+xiii pp., £25.00 (PBK). ISBN: 978-0-334-05908-0

This a book which seeks to explain what Feminist Practical Theology brings to the table through being Feminist Practical Theology rather than seeking to define it. This is a collection of papers, poems and theological reflections given by Professor Slee over the course of twelve years in different settings ranging from student conferences, international theological journals, social movement gatherings to sermons. It is unsurprising that the collection appears at times unpredictable and a little eccentric because that sums up the uniqueness of the author. She makes no pretence that this book is written in anything other than her authentic voice, because that is at the centre of what being a feminist practical theologian means.

There is a short introduction when she explains that the richness and diversity of what is described above was an intentional decision in putting this book together. This diversity means I would recommend it to a diverse readership: students of practical theology, particularly at post-grad level; feminist and other church goers who need to be given stimulation to explore beyond the boundaries they have sometimes been given, and finally poets and dreamers interested in spirituality.

 Chapter one is a version of the lecture she gave as she was inaugurated into the Queen’s Chair in Feminist Practical Theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The most important aspect of this chapter is to seek to locate Feminist Practical Theology in a place between systematics and identity-based liberation theories, (particularly queer and post-colonial theory). One could argue that she is seeking to have her cake and eat it by placing herself, and others in a position of fluidity which lies between poles she places at either end. One could also suggest that, particularly in view of the multiple forms of feminist theology she acknowledges that she is being somewhat harsh lumping queer and post-colonial theology in an extreme place which she at times wants to identify with and other times distance herself from. The truth, which this book most visibly illustrates in chapter eight, The Work of Standing, The Joy of Dancing: A Spirituality to Sustain the Long Haul which is a paper given to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement AGM in 2008 is that today intersectionality means that whilst one may define oneself as a “feminist” ,rather than a “queer” theologian, categories are more complex than her initial positioning of theories other than feminism suggests. Indeed, her identity and expression of feminism, as expressed in this book, seems heavily weighted in a late, second-wave form of feminism. It would be interesting to have her interviewed by the writers of Magnify Magazine and see what their points of agreement and divergence would be, for example.

All that said however, one should not lose sight of the massive contribution this book makes and what it has to teach. The second section of the book, (chapters two-five), look at A Feminist Practical Theology of Liturgy and Prayer. This makes one take a real look at the intensity of spiritual practice and how at times it is sensual and physical in nature. She has an interesting, more traditionally academic article in chapter four which was published in Theology and Sexuality on God-language in Public and Private: A Place for Integrating Gender, Sexuality and Faith. As is the nature of the journal it was published in this was perhaps the most complex piece in the book.

Part three of the book, (chapters six-eight) looked at A Feminist Practical Spirituality and had a raw realness to it, as she sought to wrestle and theologically reflect on the reality of the Brexit vote in its immediate aftermath amongst other things. The strength of theological reflection in the book is one of its strengths. Theological reflection is talked about lots but for some reason many people find it hard to do well. Slee is a master and anybody who wants to understand it as an art should be encouraged to read this book.

Chapters nine-eleven, part four of the book look at A Feminist Practical Theological Poetics. Nicola Slee is a gifted poet and the spirituality within this and use within theological reflection is unpacked here in a way which yet again oozes both realness and slight eccentricity.

As I read part 5 of the work and particularly chapters thirteen on Research as Transformative Spiritual Practice and fourteen on Reading and Writing as Transformative Spiritual Practice I personally wanted to hug the author and ensure this book is mandatory for all doctoral practical theology students. I’m currently part way through my Dth (professional doctorate in Practical Theology) and have been working out why I’m doing it and how to get myself motivated again. This book gave me the kick up the backside I needed and helped me find the motivation I need. Yes, I want to be taken seriously and get the qualification but more than that I have a deep need to study this stuff and be part of the professional community talking about it all. I’m doing my study because I’m still the same person who has blagged their way into conferences when skint by helping on the bookstall or acting as a steward when skint in the past. I’m the person who is writing this review because I’ve spent way too much recently on practical theological and missiological books because I have a need to read and think about this stuff. Slee’s chapters helped me see I need to keep going because I can do no other and if I could I wouldn’t continue to do the studying and putting myself through all this. After a prolonged patch of needing to get my backside moving this book has explained to me why I’m going to keep going and why it will be a slog, particularly as my dyslexia doesn’t make academic writing easy. Anyway, this review is about the book, not my academic struggles but it does illustrate why I think this book is invaluable reading for those about to embark on doctoral studies.

The final part is about A Feminist Practical Theology of the Christa and chapters sixteen to nineteen talk about imagining Christ and God as woman amongst a number of other identities which many would find shocking. Now I have to admit if somebody put some of these ideas to me on a Sunday morning I might find them shocking, but in this context I didn’t. They seemed comfortably what one would expect.

A small sub-theme through the more recent writing is Slee’s own aging, not that I personally think 60ish is particularly old, but that may be because I’m only a decade or so behind, Anyway, point is that the image of God as Feisty Crone is what she chooses to conclude with.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, particularly to two groups of people: 1) young women in  churches who are seeking to explore their feminist identities alongside their faith and 2) practical theology students. Is it value for money? Yes…..this is a book which has much that is rich to offer and it’s available in paperback.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Review of Missio Dei in A Digital Age


Missio Dei In A Digital Age, edited byJonas Kurlberg and Peter M. Phillips, London: SCM Press, 2020, 274+x pp., £25.00 (PBK). ISBN: 978-0-334-05847-2

The genesis of this book was a series of conference papers given in Durham in November 2018.  Thus, this book was written before the Covid 19 pandemic, although some chapters make fleeting reference to that. Thus, it would be interesting to look at how what is being talked about here relates to what we have seen in 2020. The book will be of particular interest to those who have a missiological interest, and those with an interest in the sociology of religion who have been charting the development of digital media. It would also be of interest to those who are interested in cultural studies.

After an introduction which sets the scene for the name checking of a lot of the key theorists of the late twentieth century which the book is peppered with part one looks at the Missiological Perspectives. Katherine G. Schmidt comes from a distinctly Catholic perspective which makes interesting use of pronouncements from successive pontiffs. Then comes a chapter from Jonny Baker about the place of imagination which I have to admit made me think deeply about one example of the what the digital sphere can achieve if imagination becomes action. Since the second week in lockdown a global community has grown with the World Story Telling Café. It is not a “religious” space, but it is one where the essence of God at work in the world might be recognised. The link with what is happening with the World Story Telling Café also came to mind in the following chapter by Rei Lumuel Crizaldo on Digital Theology: Practicing Local Theology in an Age of Global Technology. This chapter talks of the global south being able to disrupt the by sharing and developing their own theologies without having to continue to consume the constant dominant material from the north, particularly Europe and North America. The World Story Telling Café has developed in a way in which teller around the world are able to share their stories, and so their culture as well as sharing the influence of other cultures on them.

Baker, in the first part of the book is one of the first of what might be described as a group of elders who contribute to this collection. He is one of those who for over twenty years now has led discussion on missiology, coming in part from the post-evangelical and alt. worship movement. This linage becomes clearer in part two of the book on Missional Practices when we hear from Steve Hollinghurst, John Drane, Olive Fleming Drane and Maggi Dawn amongst others. Indeed it is something Maggi Dawn acknowledges directly within her chapter, where she looks at the parallel development of digital technology and the movement which grew from that latter 20th which began with alt. worship. This familiarity with the voices and their previous writings over a couple of decades now is what makes this section of the book feel, to some extent like listening in on fireside reflections as the old guard, look back at what’s happened and the place of technology within it. They talk about the positive and the negative and make me smile as the now ancient debate about “online” and “offline” life and “real” and “unreal” is referred to. Those who may remember me blogging many years ago on the Wibsite as Tractor Girl will get that I’ve been around on the edges of these circles long enough to smile a wry smile at how far away that debate now seems. And to some extent reading the debate about the missio dei, what it is and how we understand it which occurs in this chapter has a similarly nostalgic feel. There are no real references to the more modern critiques of Bosch which have occurred. Rather within these chapters there is a settledness of it is what it is; although we need to get a bit more precise about our wording about what we mean by missio dei because it has become so widely used now. There is throughout a feeling this “in group” who’ve been working with it for years and know Bosch and Bart inside out know though. Thus, it is interesting whilst the need for precision is discussed it never is quite defined.

Within this second section Christian Grund Sorensen looks at the place of Google and algorithms in a way which is thought provoking. He talks of a lack of objectivity in what people see, and whilst I appreciate that I wonder what he would describe objective views of religion as? After all whilst we have generally come to accept now that subjectivity in interpretation is part of the reality of things and contextuality is important. It does remind us an important thing though, that what one member of a congregation or community sees will be different to others.

The chapter by Ekki Sutinen and Anthony-Paul Cooper which explores Interactive Technologies, Missio Dei and Grass Roots Activism takes up another recurring theme in this book about the change in who is producer and audience.

Part Three Public Theology and The Common Good has a particularly strong chapter by Alexander Chow on the Chinese church. It gives an introduction to discussions on “the persecuted church” which I had not come across before, by looking at the development of religion and persecution in a way I had not come across before. It made me realise that many of my images of the Chinese Church are stuck in the late twentieth century as I suspect many others are.

Peter M. Phillips sums up by making the point that this is the beginning of a discussion not the end. I would be interested in hearing what it would sound like if new, emerging voices like Molly Boot, Al Barrett and Ruth Harley were to join in, and if it became, through this a more obviously inter-generational discussion.

To be honest I found this a comfortable book to read, in part because I am of a certain generation which is looks back fondly on DIY and rave culture, post-evangelical experiments in alt. worship and has been using older forms of digital technology for years now but also remembers life before. I also totally buy into the view of what the missio dei is that these theorists showed me, through the books and blog posts I devoured in the nineties and into the noughties. The work of Castells, Postman, Bosch and others are old friends to me who I revisited in this book.

Do I recommend it, yes, of course I do; these are the foundational elders at the campfire chatting via an academic book. Did I learn something? Yes, particularly from Chow. Do I think it could be far more radical? Yes, this is gentle, but as Pete Phillips points out it is the beginning of a wider conversation.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Holding on to the WTF? in Holy Week and Easter

My prayer life is characterised by saying WTF? to God at the moment in a variety of ways. WTF is going on? WTF is the point of faith when stuff like this still happens? WTF is the going to happen after this? You get the gist of my prayers.

As I got to the Wednesday of Holy Week and a particularly low ebb, I got to the point of saying WTF is the point of believing in God. That evening I got an answer, and not the one I expected. Karl and I had been invited to share the Seder meal with a local rabbi and her husband, together with some other guests - a meal that was shared via Zoom. It was a privilege that gave me some insight into the wideness of what Jesus did in his ministry. There we were, a queer gentile couple, sitting with the rabbi sharing the festival with them. Not so long ago so many elements of that would not have been able to happen, yet an important part of the gospels is Jesus breaking barriers and taboos.

The people joining around the meal had one thing in common, we were all activists whose faith included an emphasis on social justice. That was why we'd been invited. The liturgy the rabbi was using in Christian terms would have been defined as an example radical theology.

As we were led through the meal a quote that came up a couple of times was " what is important is not that you believe this but that you remember it and make sure each new generation remembers it too". Yet we were told it's not just remembering it's also about looking at the relevance and learning to be gained in the world you hear it.

That gave me a huge release, in my struggling through my doubt this Easter the important thing is to remember and share the story looking at what it has to say in our world.

I share this picture of the prayer for Orlando that Rachel Mann wrote and transposed over a picture by Ric Stott because for me it encapsulates the essence of that message of remembrance and relevance which I'm talking about .

So what is the story I want to pass on this year?

It is the story of a rabbi who was viewed as dangerous by the authorities for breaking boundaries and sharing the idea that all people are of equal worth and that systems needed changing to reflect that. This is the story of a man who was peaceful and effective through living an authentic life in a country under occupation. It was a man who showed that true religion is found in living out an authentic faith and at times that means breaking man made rules.

It is the story of a man who was knowingly betrayed by a friend. Jesus was a man who chose the difficult path rather than deciding to take the easy way out. It is the story who went out to pray but whose friends fell asleep waiting for him.

It is the story of a man who suffered death, viewed as a dangerous terrorist by some, humiliated and body abused.He died this death because he chose to put others first and not renounce the destiny he had.

It is the story of a man whose family and friends suffered as they watched what was happening to him die, distanced and unable to touch him. 

It is the story of a wait until the religious festival was over in order to go and finish tending to the body. A burial interrupted.

It is the story of more boundary breaking as women found the tomb empty. It is a feminist underscore which could not be written out. It is the story of women's voices not being believed but men having to acknowledge they were right. It is the story of empowerment mixed with fear and hiding. 

It's a time for seriousness yes, but as with the Seder meal it is a time for fun and rejoicing. It's a time for relationship and friendship. It's a time for sharing the story with others and adding new symbols to increase inclusion. The rabbi explained that they had an orange now as a symbol of increased inclusion of LGBT+ and others, and a spoon as a symbol of including those with unseen disabilities. 

It's a story of disbelief and eyes opened. Easter is the ultimate WTF? story which we need to pass on to each new generation.