Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cranky, Beautiful Faith - A Review

Cranky, Beautiful Faith by Nadia Bolz-Weber is the story of a contemporary female Lutheran priest based in Denver. It is a fairly standard Christian autobiography on one hand being a set of stories and anecdotes which give the reader a controlled level of insight into the life and experience of somebody who is a major Christian speaker. There are the transformative experiences, ministering to those who are seen as marginal by the rest of society and the frustrations of ministry which seem to be part and parcel of these types of books. Yet this isn't your standard Christian paperback because Bolz-Weber is a heavily tattooed pioneer minister and nothing is quite standard in her life it seems.

 The endorsement from Gordon Gano, lead singer of the Violent Femmes, which comes before the main text says "For anyone who is Chrisitian, interested in Christianity, anti-Christian (or anti-Religion) I recommend this book" . This sums up who the book is for, at least in theory...everybody.  

The likely readership for a book published by a Christian publisher however provides a paradox but it is a paradox which Bolz-Weber deals with herself in the book. She is pastor at the House of Saints and Sinners a pioneer community/ church and it is a church which was set up to minister to the sorts of people who couldn't deal with traditional (inherited) church or more to the point those types of churches couldn't deal with. There came a point when the group started to get publicity and those who responded to the publicity were the people who turned up in their Dockers and got their news from papers not online sources. Bolz-Weber recounts how she had her heart turned about the need to include these people too. This book is like that. Clearly written for people who don't do church or feel the church can't cope with them yet likely to be read by nice middle class Christians.

Before it gets to the point of talking about this paradox at the end of the book Bolz-Weber begins by talking about her own experience of rejecting the fundamentalist church she had grown up in and becoming an alcoholic stand up comic. She moves on to getting clean and falling in love with a seminary student and finding herself at a point where she ends up training to become a minister. It's an engaging description which feels a bit like it has come out of a Douglas Coupland novel. In fact the whole thing reads a bit like it could have been written by Coupland.

As she talks about her ministry at The House of Saints and Sinners the types of people she is talking about will perhaps be challenging or alien to some of her readers. I didn't find it challenging in that way though.  I don't know if it is because there are aspects which I could identify with, which are part of the world I live in particularly relating to LGBandT stuff and the people who part of her congregation. She talks for example about a trans naming ceremony in one chapter. The liturgy which Bolz-Weber put on the net was what Karl adapted and used when he was putting together the naming ceremony he had at the very mainstream church he goes to, a couple of years ago.  Or perhaps it was because I am an avid Coupland reader but this book felt comfortable rather than shocking. However, as I say this book with its use of the F word every so often and descriptions of chaotic lives would have more of a shock value for the type of Christians who would find it an insight into the type of world they know nothing of or really are challenged by.

The book does highlight how Bolz-Weber has a real heart for and ability to minister to those who society would regard as being on the margins and how creative her ministry is. Whilst being rooted in liturgy there is a creative edge to it, as with many pioneer communities and that is what comes through. She also talks in a real way about the ways in which she has been challenged by a range of people and the place the support of good friends, family and colleagues has had.

The stories of journeying with and ministering to those on described as being on the edges and to those who are part of the institution (she tells the story of talking to a bunch of ministers and being honest about an event she'd put on which didn't work out) have deep theology and meaning within them put forward in a deceptively easy read. The story just referred to together with a story about when she found herself getting ripped off by somebody pretending to be a Hurricane Katrina survivor have something deep in them which I think make this book useful for Christians involved in ministry at various levels. Those people who get held up as successful suffer all the same sorts of issues as others.

What I liked about this book is that it is an easy read which makes you think. It's not a classic but it is well worth a look.
Cranky, Beautiful Faith by Nadia Bolz-Weber is published by Canterbury Press. ISBN 978-1-84825-531-9

Sunday, 19 October 2014

AE & Outcome prompted reflection

Yesterday I attended the Accepting Evangelicals (AE) AGM and ten year celebration in London where Vicky Beeching and Steve Chalke were speaking. The AE account of this event is available on line at their website and includes access to a recording of Steve's talk which was outstanding. This morning I read the Outcome post reflecting on the findings of their survey which came out of their co-ordinating committee meeting yesterday and which invites further discussion and debate as they finalise their strategy.

 What follows is informed by the former but is in many ways a response to the latter, drawing in part on a recent Fresh Expressions article by practical theologian Michael Moynagh exploring on how the mixed economy of church develops. It acts as a solidification of some thoughts I have been having in recent months as I have been observing what has been happening within the English context which may be the basis for some serious writing in the future. I make no apology for this being somewhat more lengthy than an average blog post. I will use sub-heading to help the reader decide what they wish to skip if necessary. I also make note I am paraphrasing a large body of work within this post but cannot reference every point in this type of post....I hope at no point I fall into plagiarism.

The wider changing context

The church in both local and nation sense is evolutionary and organic, even at times when institutions make it seem like it is static. As it evolves the central heart of having a good news to share remains the same but the way in which that good news is shared changes over time. The core texts found in the bible also remains the same on one level. However, the words used within that text and the ways we interpret it change over time as the wider society and its use of language develops. Each evolutionary cycle or paradigm shift (depending upon ones view) also adds something to a central body of tradition which develops along with the church. The experiences of those within the church on one hand remain the same, there are some things which I believe can be found in any society at any period in time. However, the way in which those emotions and actions are expressed tend to differ according to the specific context one is within. Thus, experience is contextual, particularly as changes within the church are often linked to wider socio-economic and political changes.

In the last 45 years we have seen an evolutionary cycle or paradigm shift occurring in wider society which has impacted the church and over the last decade the speed at which change has been occurring has increased due to our move into a digital age. As numerous theologians and social commentators have made clear that in Western Europe, Australasia and to a lesser extent North America has led to an increase in secularisation and a change in the way in which we do church, particularly in light of a reducing number of children and young people in church. We have moved into a mixed economy which Moynagh and others have been at the forefront of analysing and explaining.

This evolution in the church occurs on both a structural and a individual level and going back to classic Functionalist theory what often accompanies it times of rapid change as we are currently in is a sense of anomie, a loss of knowing what the norms and values are or a feeling of isolation. This can be linked to feelings of dissonance when what you "know" and what you "experience" don't match up. This is currently what many within the church are facing with regard to sexuality and gender identity issues as well as wider issues of theology.

Having listened to some of what he said yesterday at a earlier Two:23 meeting as well as yesterday I believe this is at the root of the experience of many people like Steve Chalke, who discussed within his AE talk how his attitudes have changed over a period of the last fifteen years or so.

The changing LGBT Christian Context

Over this current period of change part of the evolution within the church has included changes of thinking over the issue of sexuality and a growing understanding that this one area where norms and values in wider society are changing and that it is an area the church needs to address.

There have been several waves of groups working for the rights of and/or providing pastoral support for LGBTQI Christians emerging during this current evolutionary cycle. In the mid/late 1970's the group now known as Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement emerged as did the EvangelicalFellowship for Lesbian and Gay Christians. Whilst the latter seems to have been working more on providing safe networking opportunities and providing some level of support the former was involved more in working for structural change in the church and providing safe spaces for Christians to meet together in fellowship type groups. One of the fellowship type groups which developed out of LGCM was YLGCM for young lesbian and gay Christians. It was out of this stage of the movement many of the denominational groups seemed to have emerged.

It is also worth noting at this point that there was a binary focus within these groups which is reflected in their names and which have in some cases been the reason for embedded attitudes and language continuing until very recently.

From roughly the early 1990's up to the early millennium there was a shift going on in the evangelical wing of the church which saw the rise of  post-evangelicalism (see the work of Dave Tomlinson and others) and the emerging church movement and the beginning of a  challenging of the apparent consensus within the evangelical church on a range of issues including sexuality. It is apparent that at this point there were a number of people who left evangelical backgrounds and became part of mainstream denominations/ churches. It was at this point in history which Courage led by Jeremy Marks who is now one of the patrons of AE moved from being an ex-gay ministry to being an affirming ministry. It was also the time in which AE was founded by Benny Hazlehurst. As Hazlehurst says at this point whilst people were challenging the consensus thinking almost all were unwilling to do this publicly. At this point I believe Greenbelt also starts to become increasingly significant in providing a networking/ teaching space for the LGBT Christian community. Some local groups also emerged at this point.

Over the couple of years there has been another shift occurring which in part represents a handing over of power from one generation to another and also comes from the experiences of those people who left the evangelical churches in the previous wave but in many ways never gave up on evangelicalism. What has happened in this current wave reflects the type of mixed economy which Michael Moynagh refers to the church having moved into in his article. In this wave there has also been a change occurring within the movements which come out of the two earlier waves. It is this current wave which I want to reflect on now, having shown how the three waves have developed.

The Current Situation

Whilst in his article Moynagh refers to the way in which the mixed economy develops in a range of ways relating to Fresh Expressions I believe he provides a useful model to show what has been happening within the LGBTQI faith community.

Moynagh says one way the mixed economy develops is through a blended church experience where some people will develop commitment to more than one church community. This, I would argue, is what some LGBTQI people have done and is one of the ways in which MCC has grown from the anecdotal evidence I have heard over the years.

The second aspect I want to pick up on from his article is church at large and I want to argue this has been a key aspect of what has been happening. As I say from the second wave onwards Greenbelt has provided a focal meeting point for many people and over the years residential weekends and retreats have been important for first wave groups. What has been happening more in recent times is the rise of specific meetings to which "lost generation" LGBT Christians have been travelling for worship as well as discussing LGBT issues. Two:23 is a specific example of this model and is something which has succeeded in attracting a mix of dechurched and churched evangelical Christians.

On line groups such as GCN and GCE and special interest forums on sites such as Ship of Fools have also had a specific role in the development of these types of relationship. There is one set of online relationships which have in many ways developed out of the second wave discussed and relate to Christians now in their late twenties to mid forties. Through the type of off line opportunities referred to in the previous paragraph and more leisure based gatherings relationships and networks have developed which are now seeing new leaders emerge.

The online element has also facilitated the rise of a new group of younger LGBTQI Christians specifically through the launch of DiverseChurch which is focusing on providing support for 18-30 year old evangelicals. Again this is taking on the type of model discussed previously which involves a mix of online and offline interaction.

The result of this for LGBTQI Christians is that denominational identity has become less important in some ways. Besides the fact that some have moved almost as refugees into denominations which are not their own there is also more ecumenical mixing and fellowship occurring. Therefore, it becomes problematic when denominational LGBTQI groups are not part of wider networks and when groups such as AE concentrate on building links with a narrow band of denominations. Methodism, for example, does contain an evangelical wing and we need to build links with them, rather than falling into old flawed understandings about who is liberal and who is not. (Moving away from these categories is something Chalke referred to in his talk).

The Outcome post asks about how to get in touch with the under 30's who are largely unrepresented in their survey. I would suggest that this can be done in two ways. Firstly, by connecting with those involved in denominational youth participation strategy and asking for their input and ideas. It may be the survey is the wrong way to engage with this group and what might be better is to hold a listening exercise at 3 Generate and/ or ECG for example. The second is by networking with groups such as Diverse Church who are working explicitly with this age group of LGBTQI young people and may include Methodists amongst their numbers.

 There is another element to the current wave which is important to note and that is there are a number of big names in the Christian sub-culture who are willing to associate themselves with the LGBTQI Christian cause. This has included those who have taken what Warner in his writing describes as a more entrepreneurial approach to church have broken their silence on the LGBTQI issue and become allies. Steve Chalke is probably the foremost amongst them. The place of straight allies is very important and I think we need to utilise them all we can whilst not falling into the trap of having straight cis people talking on our behalf. 
There have also been some significant coming outs by some very media savvy evangelicals, not least Vicky Beeching's. What this all seems to be resulting in is a long overdue more professional approach being taken by these organisations who have for many years been working on a shoestring and a handful of dedicated volunteers.

A note of warning here which I pick up on from yesterdays AE event and the moving interview with Vicky in particular. Coming out is not an easy process, particularly if you have aspects of your career or housing which could be effected. For many it has loss as well as relief associated with it. The support and pastoral care element of these groups or if they don't provide that themselves the signposting aspect is very important and must be a clear part of any strategy.
There is also the element of those who are LGBTQI and in authority not wanting to be labelled as being gay and so having the rest of their identity marginalised as a result. I think this is an important issue to wrestle with. We need to ensure that people don't become seen just via this element of their personality and we don't put pressure on them to be out or publically out if that is not right for them. We need to ensure that people have the option of being private or public members (as AE do) and that we respect the level of involvement they wish to have. Referring to the "glass ceiling" comments in the Outcome report this is what I think we need to address...we need to make people feel comfortable that in being members of Outcome the organisation will not seek to put them in difficult or compromising positions rather that we will seek to treat and support them as we would any other member with respect.

This professionalism I spoke of also seems to be coming from the fact institutionally the LGBTQI groups are now being taken seriously as voices who need to be heard within current discussions and we are at a point where we know we have to be working for change on an equal basis as those who are working against it. What I am pleased to note is that amateur doesn't seem good enough anymore, strategy, fundraising and growing membership are being put forward as important issues to wrestle with. This quality appears to be extending to the new groups which have been emerging over the past year or so.

This latter point is important, as I see it, because the current wave appears to have a edge to it focused on real discipleship building and being more missional which does require real resourcing. The current wave is not interested in licking wounds rather they are focused on building God's kingdom which will happen to include LGBTQI people. There is a real understanding that the exclusion of LGBTQI people has been one factor contributing to secularisation. An aspect Chalke picked up excellently in his talk.

A final aspect I want to bring out is that intersectionality is being taken seriously and the previous binary where the focus on lesbians and gays at the exclusion of others in the LGBTQI spectrum seems to be disappearing. Trans issues, for example, are being taken on board by these groups although as the language at the beginning of the Outcome article shows there is still some learning / refocusing required.

So where do we go from here?

As I see it the next two years are going to be a critical time and that is widely acknowledge by all. We need to all be working together to ensure that true and full inclusion occurs.

With regard to the Methodist situation which Outcome are addressing I believe that means working towards a situation where there are no spaces in Methodist churches which are unsafe for people to come out as LGBTQI in and no spaces where they will find they are not affirmed (and so working towards our current CPD being worked out in practice). This will mean having a specific goal of seeking to monitor practice and being able to call for accountability where the practice is not meeting what Conference has agreed. It also means being ready to support allies.

The building of alliances needs to continue so part of the focus of future strategy I would argue should be on building a coherent and well networked movement. This movement needs to continue to be based on sharing worship and fellowship as much as it does campaigning. As I see it the Spirit appears to be moving because what is happening in many of these movements also includes discipleship building and a focus on getting back to the bible. The need for good theology which Chalke refers to in his talk is not just to enable us to discuss with others but also because there is a need for us to grow as disciples of Christ.  

I would also say we need to work towards situations where ministers are able to treat marriages between people of the same sex exactly as they do ones including people who have been divorced, as a matter of conscience. We need to work to get inclusive liturgy which can be used by all.

In terms of these and other strategic goals the building of wider alliances with allies in our denominations and beyond both in religious organisations and secular ones such as Stonewall is also important. As the new AE strap line says we are "better with everyone".

Friday, 17 October 2014

Old Times, at Stantonbury Theatre, Review

Going to see The Play's The Thing Theatre Company production of Old Times by Harold Pinter at the Stantonbury Theatre in Milton Keynes last night was a thought provoking experience.

The story is set in a remote farmhouse, the first act in the lounge and the second in the bedroom. Anna (played by Beverley Longhurst) is an attractive and apparently sophisticated woman yet her speech appears to come from a bygone age. Anna unexpectedly visits the more homely Kate (Kathryn Worth) her old flatmate and Kate's husband Deeley (Alex Reece). As the play unfolds they reminisce about their experiences in London twenty years previously. However, as the evening moves on a dark web is woven revealing, as the programme synopsis put it, "a game of power and possession as memories unfold and are used as weapons of sinister manipulation".

The play which has some very amusing one liners in amongst the darkness ends but never fully concludes and you are left to come to your own conclusion as to what exactly you had seen and heard. Pinter, we discovered, is not for the lazy; it demands intellectual engagement and left Karl and I in deep conversation afterwards trying to figure it out.

It was a very well acted production with a strong cast. Beverley Longhurst stood out as having a particularly strong stage presence but one couldn't be sure how much of that was related to the character, particularly as Anna appeared to somewhat erotically flirt with Kate, and how much came from the actress herself.

For parts of the play the character of Kate is largely silent whilst she is being discussed by the other two and so the acting required relates largely to showing reaction through facial expression and body language. Kathryn Worth played the part wonderfully and was entirely believable as the middle-aged housewife.

Alex Reece played the part of Deeley very well but was never entirely convincing. Indeed in those places which consciously referred to the events being discussed being 20 years ago his presence was a distraction. The problem was not in his acting which was excellent, particularly towards the end of the play when he is required to sob, but rather in his casting. Reece simply looked too young and both Karl and I kept thinking but he would have been about 12 then, although a look at his biography online indicates he is of the right age for the part. It was just he looked far too young and fresh faced compared to the two women he was playing alongside.  

It was a play I was glad I had gone to see. It was well produced and directed by Rosemary Hill, a leading arts figure in Milton Keynes, who founded The Play's The Thing Theatre Company in 2008. Besides introducing me to Pinter's work which I enjoyed the challenge of it introduced me to a wonderful venue.

The Stantonbury Theatre is a modern well equipped building which is part of a wider community campus also containing a school, gallery, gym and church. Beyond Milton Keynes the venue itself would be described as an arts theatre being quite intimate and putting on relatively small scale professional performances, which seem to go between the educational (Shakespeare) and the challenging (Pinter). Now I have discovered this gem I look forward to seeing more work there.

Friday, 10 October 2014

More Perfect Union? - A Review

More Perfect Union? Understanding Same-Sex Marriage by Alan Wilson, (Bishop of Buckingham), is being launched at the Church House Bookshop on Wednesday. It is an interesting exploration of scripture, tradition and reason which also touches upon experience. It is not the only new book on the market on this topic, Robert Song, (Professor of Christian Ethics at Durham University) has recently published Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same Sex Relationships. It will be interesting to compare the two texts and the differences between what they are saying.

Alan Wilson could be described as the modern turbulent priest. He has been the most outspoken Church of England bishop on the subject of same sex relationships. Thus it is no surprise that this book on one level is a polemic directed at those who would seek to maintain a status quo in which a gay clergyman may live with his partner but not marry him. However, it is certainly not a book filled with hyper-bole. There is a clear, well reasoned argument put forward in this book as to why the Church of England should accept same-sex marriage and allow gay clergy to marry as well as letting those priests who wish to do so marry same sex couples.

There are distinct elements to the book which guide the reader through a well constructed argument. Within the introduction he explains how he got to the stage of feeling that he had to come off the fence and speak out. Whilst he does not at any point say he felt he had to be the one to say the emperor has no clothes that is the implicit message within this text. What he does say explicitly is that he feels the legalisation of same sex marriage spells the end of the "don't ask, don't say" culture.

Whilst odd references are made to other denominations the book is unashamedly Anglican, reflecting the conversation it is seeking to specifically engage with. The first main chapter guides you through the recent history of the Church of England on LGBTQI issues touching on how wider societal issues weave into the story. There is a brief, interesting, reflection on how the Church of England initially reacted to the AIDS crisis which is an example of the type of useful anecdote which Bishop Alan can provide as a CofE insider who has over 30 years experience of public ministry including a decade as a bishop. This status as an institutional outsider gives him an authorative voice when he suggests that "by 2014 there were said to be a dozen or so gay bishops." He has made clear on social media and elsewhere that he does not believe that these bishops should be outed and I am glad for that. The book underlines that he understands a lot about the difficulties and pain these men, his colleagues, are wrestling with being based in the institution which is the Church of England.

Within his discussion of what is regarded as unnatural by some and explanation of why he disagrees with those views he relies strongly on reason. Within this part of the book he refers to sex and gender bringing in trans issues in a way which challenges the reader to think through the issues which exist and way they touch upon each other. It is in this part of the book he introduces his "Janet and John" description of the world many opponents are inhabiting, have inhabited. There are various statistics thrown in to back up his arguments which make interesting asides to think about.

The chapter on equality is perhaps the most bitter of the book and is certainly one where the humour becomes almost caustic. Wilson clearly feels alot of frustration.

Whilst many will be familiar with the biblical debate it is important to cover it in a book such as this and Wilson does this in a way which hits just the right tone. The discussion of biblical material covers three distinct chapters the final of which explores biblical marriage. This I would argue is the strongest part of the book as the bishop moves away from points scoring and on to clearly guiding the reader through the relevant biblical passages.

History is clearly a passion of the author and as he guides us through the history of Christian marriage it felt as if you were watching a BBC Four documentary, (and not just because at least one of the examples had also been used in a recent history programme I had watched).

The differing views in different parts of the world and in turn different parts of the Anglican Communion has been something many critics of gay people getting married has focused upon. Wilson explores this mixing contemporary statistics with historical understanding to give a commanding case.

The book ends by summing up the reality of the situation we now live in and in doing so sums up his convincing argument.

The book which is very readable builds up a specific argument intended to contribute to a specific debate and is carefully crafted on this basis. It therefore concentrates on the Church of England with minimal mention of other groups. Yet I believe this is a significant weakness in some ways. Within Bishop Alan's diocese lies one of the most ecumenical areas in the country and so he is well aware of the negotiations and discussions which apply to an increasing number of areas which contain LEP's and churches where the CofE is one of a number of partners. The law is framed in such a way that what is happening in the CofE does impact upon other denominations. This is something I believe could have been further explored, looking at where the development of CofE policy differs from other denominations not just the current point.

Additionally whilst he touches upon the way in which these debates are important in relation to mission he fails to really develop this. Thus, I think the 172 page book could do with about another 40 pages.  

Would I recommend it? Yes, definitely. Whatever your views it is useful to be guided through the arguments involved and this material does provide some food for thought even to those who are very familiar with the debate.

More Perfect Union? Is published by Darton, Longman and Todd. The ISBN is 978--0232-53125-1.