Saturday, 25 March 2017

Gen X Curators With a Responsibility to Build Bridges

The local Methodist circuit Facebook page had an article by Sam Eaton entitled 59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church HaveDropped Out—And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why” shared on it yesterday. Just after I read it I picked up another article, this time on the BBC, by Lindsey Baker entitled “Whatever happened toGeneration X?” This latter piece is a book review for Tiffanie Darke’s, new offering “Now We Are 40: Whatever Happened to Generation X?” (a book I definitely want to get hold of). I came across these as I was revisiting Jonny Baker’s 2010 text, “Curating Worship”. In my mind there was a thread running through my mind as I read all of these things and that’s what I want to explore, in a rough form here.

The “Whatever happened to Generation X?” article is looking at that generation Douglas Coupland was talking about in his 1991 classic. It’s talking about my generation, the generation which theorists such as Liz Clutterbuck and Monica Janowski identified as the first “missing generation”. We’re the generation to whom those talking in “curating worship” belong and who their alt-worship initiatives were aimed at.

Within Baker’s there was a quote which really struck and resonated with me. She said:
In Darke’s opinion, Generation Xers should be on a mission to provide a “bridge” between millennials and boomers, especially now that it has largely gone from being anti-establishment to being part of it. Generation X can play a healing role and help promote tolerance, is Darke’s message. “We all need to remember what was important in the pre-digital world, and before the toxic smartphone culture.”

As I read and reflected on Curating Worship I had to smile to myself. What was being described as being anti-establishment in that book has indeed largely become part of the establishment within the church. Jonny Baker has his key role with CMS and Michael Volland (not mentioned in the book but part of that whole group is now principal at Ridley). Me, I was somebody on the edge of that whole scene, not involved directly but picking up much of what was going on through Greenbelt and the web. These days I’m a chaplain who’s now reflecting on how in my job I use the skills I learnt back then from this whole genre. I'm also theologically working on how I mix that with what I’ve learnt from chaplaincy studies, contextual theology and the Methodist Church to produce a model of chaplaincy which enables me to engage with mission in a post-Christian culture.

As I read the material on the millennials leaving the church I realise that those of us who are Gen X and have now been absorbed to differing extents into the establishment do have an important role. We have something important to offer, in terms of working as a bridge particularly between people inside and outside the church. We are a generation who can talk two languages and interpret between them. We can listen with empathy and act as mentors. In spaces where the millennials don't yet have a voice we can act as the advocates to have them given a space at the table where they can then heard themselves. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Flourishing at Newman

I’m currently reading Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice forAmbitious Women by Heather McGregor. It’s a book which is stimulating and helping me think through some important decisions as we prepare to move on in the summer as Karl starts his probationer minister appointment.
Reading chapter one she talks of the importance of qualifications and thinking about where you study. She also says that you should share what has been good about your awarding institution. Thinking about this in light of my own experience I want to explore why I disagree with her regarding the most prestigious is going to be the best.

I’ve recently gone down study wise and done a PG Cert in Chaplaincy and Young People Studies at Newman University. I did this course because I wanted to do a vocational course which gave me some kind of formal accreditation and training as a chaplain.

Now, Newman has an excellent reputation for teaching training and so on but it is fair to say Durham where I did my M Litt has a better overall reputation. However, I have flourished at Newman in a way I didn’t at Durham. Yes, I gained a qualification from both but the confidence and so on she talks about being more important than the qualification itself was definitely developed at Newman in a way it hadn’t been up north.

The reasons for this may be to do with the differences in my personal situation now compared to then but I think it is also that they are very different institutions with different focuses. Durham is a knowledge centered university whilst Newman takes a more holistic view to learning and development. 

The course at Newman allowed me to take my thinking out of the traditional box through a focus on reflective practice. I was able to weave together chaplaincy studies and contextual theology in an imaginative way focused on my own experience. The course involved studying a module on Spirituality and Faith Development in Young People, another on Chaplaincy and doing a placement module (in my case in the chaplaincy where I work). 

The nature of the course is such that you are encouraged to look at what you are doing in light of your own faith tradition. Thus, in studying this I have also had the chance to wrestle with my own faith identity and have gained a much deeper understanding of what it means to me to be a Methodist and think about how this relates to both my view of chaplaincy and my practice. I have found this incredibly useful.

Both are academic but Newman has a more vocational focus than Durham, I think. Now at this point I want to point out the tutors at both were excellent and the standard of teaching at both was extremely high. My supervisors at Durham were absolutely brilliant as were my lectures at Newman. Yet, it was the wider institutional environment which differed for me. Newman provides a more welcoming environment than "the department" in Durham.

The point I am seeking to get across is that the institution which may enable the person to flourish most may not always be the one which has the best reputation overall. The choice of institution has to be right for the person involved. My husband turned down Cambridge University for his undergraduate after getting a place because upon visiting he knew it was not the right place for him to study.

Making this sort of decision can obviously not be taken lightly but I want to encourage you if you make the right decisions it can help you in the long run. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear Reviewed

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in The Obama White Houseabout the Future of Faith in America is the new book from Michael Wear. It was the title of the a lecture he recently gave at the University of Birmingham, where he is a Honorary Research Fellow in the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion.

I must admit I was wondering, after the lecture where Wear was clearly jet lagged, what the book would be like. I found it an easy but thought provoking read and not at all the academic text I was perhaps expecting.

This book can be described as part memoir, part political and social analysis and part reflection on Obama. It might be best described as thoughts from a reflective practitioner. 

The relationship between evangelicals, Catholics, staff in the Office of Faith Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships and more secular staff in other parts of the Obama team is examined here from the perspective an insider located in a particular place.

He is an evangelical and by virtue of his Democratic involvement, clearly a more progressive one. He also has a Catholic background coming from an Italian Heritage background. These aspects of identity which he outlines in the book clearly shape his perspective on a range of issues he looks at, particularly those which might be described as moral issues.

As an English reader I found this book useful to highlight where similarities and differences lie between our two cultures and the political and religious landscapes within them. Some like the way in which our welfare system means some of the debates have been dealt with and put to bed for many years (such as on the funding for contraception) are widely known and discussed.

Others like the similarities between the place Obama found himself on with regard to same sex marriage in his initial campaign and where many in the British system are now were enlightening. This latter issue is one where my analysis differs from the conclusions which Wear came from and perhaps also stem from the fact we appear to have different positions on the issue.

For Wear the fact that Obama appears to have had a different personal and professional position on same sex marriage during the first election campaign and part of that candidacy and then appears to reverse it when advocating the legitimacy of same sex marriage is very problematic. It is, he argues, an example of why we might then find ourselves questioning what is said by Obama on other issues. I want to argue that whilst there is some truth in that it is actually emblematic of how many evangelicals (and others) have behaved on this issue. It also illustrates how some of the problems that Bishops in the CofE (following synod’s decision not to take note face).]

If we go back to 2008 there were known to be many people, including some cis het national evangelical leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, who were privately of the view that same sex marriage in monogamous, loving relationships was ok, but none had broken ranks. Publicly, they towed the line they were opposed to these and so Obama was simply taking the standard line. He wasn’t lying as such….rather he was separating his private and public view on it.

Coming back to 2017, this tension between the private and the public view does not hold in the way it did. However, in some groups such as the CofE there has been a tacit approval of this being the way to hold consensus on an apparently controversial issue.
Whilst I don’t agree this is ideal it is why I don’t condemn Obama on this in the way Wear appears to. For those who might fall into this category of having “private” and contradicting “professional” views reading Wear’s analysis may be useful in seeing exactly what the problems with this are.

With regard to the subject of Hope, Wear ends with some thoughts regarding where we have come to. Within this section he talks about how in an increasingly secularised world we have put hope into politics which becomes problematic and turns politics itself into a religion. Within this thinking he gives an indication of how we have reached our current polarised situation with regard to politics and how we might move on from this.

Is this a book I would recommend? The answer is yes as a quite interesting book which can be quickly consumed by somebody with a general interest in politics and or religion. For those who might be looking at this in light of his work at Birmingham University and expecting something meaty, probably not. I enjoyed the book and learnt some things from it but it did not give the depth I hoped it would.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Some Lent Ideas

So I’ve eaten the pancakes and am ready to start the journey of Lent. This year it has a double purpose for me. In addition to preparing for Easter it will also give me the space to prepare for the change in life I’m going to be undertaking in the summer. I’m giving up my current job and heading to a new city where my husband will be taking up his new role as a probationary minister in the Methodist Church.

When I was thinking through Lent this year and what to do I was struck by the vast array of resources which are available on the internet. Which one to choose?

Well, this year I am going to be taking a pick and mix approach to it all. Putting together a toolbox of resources to take with me on this journey of preparation.

To get me thinking about what Lent is all about before I start out I’ve been using a really useful You Tube talk from Maggi Dawn which is a few years old now and was put out by Church Next. It’s called IntroducingLent with Maggi Dawn and puts the foundations in place.

Then there is the resource I’ll be trying to use everyday. That’s going to be #share40 which has been put together by the Birmingham Methodist Circuit to accompany their Holy Habits programme. This one I’m using partly because I was encouraged to and as I’m part of the circuit it makes sense. However, I’m also using it because it contains 40 things which happen to be ordered but are not really associated with particular days. Over all they help you prepare but they allow a freedom to use them in a way which works with you and actually helps you prepare by thinking about your place in community with others.

Scripture wise I’m going to be focusing on different things. Some of the online groups I’m part of are doing Lent meditations and I'm sure they'll be interesting to listen to and reflect on. Then I think the Church Urban Fund has some interesting material linked to the lectionary which is going to be useful to take a glance at, at least on a weekly basis.

Then they’ll be reading and watching films. My reading is going to start with A Good African Story: How a Small Company Built a Global Coffee Brand and then from there it will be progressing on to a biography on Bonhoeffer. Film wise some of the films coming out during Lent which seem like they will be interesting to reflect on are: Trespass against Us, Viceroy’s House and Rules Don’t Apply. I Daniel Blake, which I haven’t yet seen is also out on DVD and so that’s something else I want to catch up on over Lent.
Note I'm a book and film buff and so for me it's not about doing more than I normally would, but actually weaving in what I'm doing to the rhythm of the season we're in. Similarly with the SHARE40 what I'm going to be doing is looking at where my day automatically gives opportunity for some of this stuff, and then if nothing fits look at how I can intentionally do something else. Where it does overlap, so for example tomorrow I'm going to a networking breakfast and that will enable me to have breakfast with somebody I don't normally, I'll seek to reflect on that what I was doing.

The common theme coming out of these for me this year is thinking about my relationship with God in relation to how I relate to others in the world around me, especially those I don’t know well.

I share this all to give you an idea of some of the things available for you this Lent. We live in a time with more resources than any other….choose 1 or choose several it’s up to you, but I encourage you to take time to do a little Lenten preparation this year.

Friday, 24 February 2017

What Transferable Skills Are You Gaining from Your Worshipping Community?

If you are part of a worshipping community and are seeking to refresh your C.V this post is for you.

Have you thought of specific transferable skills you may have picked up in church life which employers might be interested in?

For example: if you have been on a welcome team you have an example of team work where you have regularly used verbal communication to put people at their ease.

Or maybe you’ve been involved in planning an event for your church which has involved catering. You’re likely to have used budgeting skills, marketing skills and team working skills. You will have quantitative information to give regarding how many people attended and if appropriate how much was raised for charity.

I float this because in a project I’ve been developing professionally, within the chaplaincy, around this where I also get students to look at their personal values and think how these match what employers are looking for. I never fail to be surprised by the way that many people seem to find it a revelation that what they have been doing in the context of a worshipping community relevant to the development of their professional careers, particularly when they’re first developing their C.Vs.  

Now I could write chapter and verse, using appropriate theory, on why I think this is something which needs to be further developed by the church but that’s for elsewhere. All I want to do in this post is to encourage you to think of the wider value of what you are doing in your worshipping community. Yes, you are serving but God is also enabling to develop your skills in various areas and you are gaining those transferable skills through what you’re doing.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America Reviewed

Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America edited by Kristin Aune and Jacqueline Stevenson is a book focused primarily on research from the UK and the USA, although as the title suggests there are interesting chapters that look at the European context more widely and include Canada. It is an interesting and useful interdisciplinary text which brings together the world of Higher Education practice the sociology of religion which reflects both the editors and contributors’ fields of specialisation.
What I particularly liked about this book is that it contains chapters looking at a range of different faith groups and their interaction with Higher Education. Jasjit Singh’s chapter “Samosas and simran: university Sikh societies in Britain” gave an interesting overview of their development and current position. As a chaplain who interacts with a range of users of the university multi-faith centre in which I am based this gave me a useful insight.

Similarly, Charlotte Shira Schallie’s chapter looking at Jewish student identity and the politics of identification in Canada was useful in giving an insight into the experiences of students from that faith. Whilst primarily focusing on the debate within British Universities on Israel-Palestine Ruth Sheldon’s chapter gave a complementary insight into Jewish student identity.

These chapters came within section two of the book: “The religious student experience: learning from qualitative studies”, which was for me the most interesting part of the book. It also contained a paper from Aune and Guest developing some of the material from the research study and book Christianity and the University Experience which they were involved in.

The most enlightening chapter within this section was Invisible Islam: Muslim student migrant’s everyday practices in French secular universities by Anna Virkama. The portrayal of the French Secularism tends to be stereotyped within British media and discussion as does the way it is negotiated. This article reminded the reader that the construction of identity and the negotiation of context is complicated and differs according to individuals. The reductionist approach many of us take towards that situation is shown to be reductionist by this chapter.

Qualitative research and case studies are interesting and have much to teach us but it is also useful to examine the wider scope of the landscape and this is what the first part of the book does, using more quantitative methods coming from survey data.

The United States has more data available and so it is not surprising that two of the three chapters in this part of the book focused upon them. Jonathon P. Hill sought again to caution people against reaching reductionist conclusions about the secularising impact of secular universities by arguing for people to look at a wider range of variables in relation to religious affiliation and belief by students. This chapter adds a useful new piece to the pile of material relating to the secularisation debate.

This common theme of “it’s complicated and varied” was echoed by Paul Weller and Tristram Hooley looking at How religion or belief frame participation and access in UK higher education. The argument they gives argues that with regard to the core concerns of education, retention and achievement / teaching and learning / the university experience religion is important and there should be far more data being gathered, analysed and acted upon in relation to it.

This argument that much more notice should be taken of religion in relation to the policies and planning of universities is taken up in the final third of the book “The place of policies, structures and curricula”. This chapter focused more upon the UK and Europe and dealt explicitly with some of the issues which come out of us living in the era of PREVENT and the events which are argued to have made it necessary.

The chapter by Sariya Cheruvalli-Contractor and Alison Scott-Baumann about Islamic Studies in UK universities: challenging the curricula did this more implicitly than other papers in this chapter. They looked at the way many courses still have their roots in Orientalism and the way in which the courses need to update themselves to deal with the lived experience of Muslims and Muslim young people today. This goes back to the earlier themes this book dealt with so well, the importance in recognising the diversity of religious identities and negotiation of context. This theme is further underlined by Joke van Saane who looks at “the role of religion and personal life orientation in curriculum development processes within the domain of religious studies”.

Adam Dinham’s chapter calls loudly for higher education institutions (HEI’s) and society more broadly to deal with the urgent need for an increase in religious literacy. This call coming loudly from within practical theology and the sociology of religion community and beyond is one which we need to take seriously. Doing this would enable HEI’s and others to do what Duna Sabri is calling for when she talks of the need for us to take the religion part of the 2010 Equality Act as seriously as we do other parts.

The conclusion and overall recommendations coming from this text come within the introductory chapter from Stevenson and Aune where they give 12 practical recommendations about how HEI’s could move further towards being “religiously inclusive”.

Is this book worth getting hold of? Yes, most definitely, if you have any kind of role in planning, policy formation or teaching and learning within universities or are involved in HE Chaplaincy work. It is a unique book which was published as part of the Society for Research into HigherEducation (SRHE) series. The breadth of the book, the multi-faith contributions and the fact it is the most contemporary text available with a range of contributions from top researchers in the field make it, I would argue, an indispensable text for those currently seeking to develop medium term plans in the current HEI context with all its shifting sands. 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Political Night Prayer....Disturbing the Soul

120 + people turning out on a cold November evening in Birmingham for Political Night Prayer was not what I expected when I decided to go along. When I got there, I looked around and noted the faces I recognised and the “look” of those I didn’t. The room was full of those who might be described as veterans of activism. Yet, I think most of us were there because we were thinking “what now?” and none of us are quite sure how to deal with the current situation. We wanted Keith Hebden of the Urban Theology Unit/ Union (they’re in the middle of a name change) and others to guide us.

As the evening drew on I was struck by a range of things which both encouraged and disturbed me. First the encouraging: the room was full of people who wanted to come together prayerfully to look at where we go from here. The worship was well organised and in many ways beautiful. There was a clear will expressed amongst people to become co-ordinated in doing something to try and move forward from where we find ourselves at the moment. That was the positive…..

Now on to the stuff that disturbed me a bit, the stuff I want to use this post to help me unpack in my mind.

The key thing is we are looking at how to engage with a popularist uprising of the disengaged and the disenchanted. The “Islington Dinner Party” insult being used so much in the direction of the Labour Party leadership particularly is talking about an intellectual approach which is out of line with the thinking of many. Now, I want to say that I think, generally, this is an unfair slur on Corbyn. However, last night I got it a bit more. There is a relativism to things when it comes to class.

Hands up, I am middle class and in many ways might have that “Islington Dinner Party” insult thrown in my direction due to my academic background and that of many of my friends who I chat with on social media and so forth. Yet, last night I found myself feeling excluded and like I was in a room of “posh” people whose lives were obviously far removed from me.
In terms of worship one of the things was the singing Taize chants in a range of modern European languages, but none in English. Yes, the English subtitles were underneath but due to the complexity of the pronunciation, etc. I was unable to sing two of them. The short Latin one I could manage in full and then there was one where I could manage to sing one word over and over whilst leaving others to do the complicated bit. I did mutter to the person sitting next to me I wish I had a GCSE in some foreign language.

There was one folk style tune but nothing within the evening which might be described as “low culture”. I reflected on the difference between this and the way I had been able to really engage with the Shelter Carol Concert earlier in the week which for me had enabled me to comfortably engage than any faith based event I could remember. That event had included a bloke who had been in Dexy’s midnight runners singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as well as the Choir With No Name singing in a style which I could enjoy. It had also included some high culture, but unlike the night prayer it mixed both together and I had felt comfortable rather than excluded.

Now please don’t get me wrong I’m not talking about differences in styles of worship here I’m talking about something deeper……….that gulf which seems to be getting wider in society between the “elite” and “the ordinary person on the street”. If we are seeking to bridge that and bring people together we need to do it in our worship as well as in our conversations.

That takes me on to Keith Hebden and what he was saying. Now don’t get me wrong I have a lot of time and respect for Keith and his theology and authenticity. Yet, when he was talking the nagging feeling of “the gap” was there. It spiked when he was talking about going to Lourdes, because he was passing. Now, he said it in the same way as somebody like me who doesn’t go trotting round France might talk about popping into Next when going through Birmingham, to just have a look around. For me and those who are more economically challenged than me the thought of just passing Lourdes was a complete anathema. Again if we are going to engage with what is going on we need to think about who “we” are and who “we” want to include.

As Keith spoke about acts of solidarity he had been involved in as well as the need to organise in order to mobilise I had mixed feelings. My thoughts moved between ungracious ones about hippies and into positive ones about there was something in this. I was conscious of the material in “Blueprint for Revolution: How to use rice pudding, Lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanise communities, overthrow dictators or simply change the world” by Srdja Popovic (of Canvas) and Matthew Miller, which is a book I would highly recommend to you. The need to go through a series of steps in the right order to achieve the change you desire rather than a void other people can exploit is so important.

As I sat reflecting on all this, and later woke in the night with my mind mulling these things over I was disturbed….I am disturbed. I could see the social movement theory in what he was saying but I was not sure I could see Christ.

We’re currently in Advent and I have already heard a variety opinion given on what that means in the current context; some talking of journeying, some talking of living in the now as if it were the what we are awaiting and some talking of time to be and reflect.

Something is bubbling up, something is disturbing, where is it leading? I am not sure, for now the best response seems to be to gather when we can, searching together for the answer. Taking opportunities like this to pray, but also engaging in organised and random acts of kindness as well as listening. Listening and hearing the voices of those we “other” through our middle-class elitism. That is where I am grateful for social media.

In his talk Keith Hebden talked about the way it does not give freedom of speech, it involves power given by others. This might be true, but it does give opportunity for us to hear those different voices from time to time if we stay connected to them when we may not like their posts. As for the alternative platform, he is suggesting. It will still have gatekeepers……these things always do.

So you see I have no answers either……in fact day by day I have less answers and a more disturbed spirit, but equally and paradoxically I do have more hope. I look at the way in which people are coming together and looking for what to do….rather than just what to say & there I do see Christ.