Sunday, 22 February 2015

JPIT - Think, Pray, Vote Event Review

Yesterday we headed off to Coventry for the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) bi-annual event Love Your Neighbour: Think, Pray, Vote where the speakers included the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

JPIT is a group doing work for and representing the Baptist, Methodist and United Reform Churches in the UK. They are headed by Rachel Lampard who introduced the day. Within her introduction to this day which focused on Christian involvement in politics she made the point that whilst there might be some focus on the election what happens before and after is also important. She said, "we shouldn't fetishise the vote".

The Archbishop received an enthusiastic welcome for his speech, which has been put on line. Within it there was some defensiveness reflecting that he had obviously been somewhat stung by some of the reaction there had been to the Bishops Pastoral Letter Who Is My Neighbour last week. He explored why we should build a society which is focused upon the common good making the point that evangelism and social action/involvement are two sides of the same coin. He urged us to be positive and celebrate our freedoms.

He was at pains to make clear the church disagrees with all governments at times but can also see good within some actions of most. With regard to our current government and economic situation he said we should be rejoicing that unemployment has been falling and the number of small businesses are building. Yet he also made the point that the living wage should be supported as much as anything else because deflation is dangerous and a higher wage will help kick start demand.  Within this part of his talk, as with others, his knowledge of economic history as well as policy was clear and refreshing.

He then moved on to ways we could and needed to get involved and one important aspect was the need to challenge cynicism and to see voting as part of our responsibility. With regard to the fact that the over 65's are more likely to vote he saw this unhealthy because it means one sector of society is able to ensure their interests dominate at the expense of others. He made the important point the more people who vote the fairer society will be.

The first workshop I attended was on Preaching and Praying Social Justice. This was one of those short workshops which would ideally have been a half day or more itself and so was somewhat rushed and left you wanting more. The session was useful for me as a local preacher because it involved some basic reminders of what makes good preaching. As with the Archbishops speech it was clear there was a biblical focus on emphasising both evangelism and social action.

After lunch it was on to a session on immigration and the issues around that. This was perhaps the most disappointing session of the day because I went hoping I would be given some serious advice on how to engage with UKIP and the arguments they are making around immigration particularly. However, whilst there were some useful figures and a small amount of interesting story it felt was lacking substance somewhat. It felt like this is still an issue JPIT is struggling to get a hold on to some extent.

The final part of the afternoon was a keynote sermon from Ruth Gee. I approached listening to this as an extension of the morning session on how to preach on social justice and it was a master class. Ruth took as her two texts Micah 6:8 and Mathew 22: 34-40 and wove a clear, relevant, contemporary sermon from these.

Overall an interesting and useful day which provided some good continued development for those of us who are preachers as well as some important food for action as well as thought for us as citizens.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Preach Magazine - Review

Recently I reviewed the new Methodist magazine - the connexion - which to be honest wasn't the most favourable review I have ever written. One of the reasons I think I was so under-whelmed with it was because I was comparing it to Preach, the recently launched LWPT magazine which we receive. This  magazine also has good electronic material on it's website.  In this review I am going to be looking at Preach and contrasting it with the connexion because I think there are important lessons to be learnt here.

The first is the paper. Whilst the connexion is a thin publication on that shiny paper which you hope you don't spill coffee onto because you just know it will go right through Preach is on a thick good quality paper which feels much better to handle.
The cover of Preach is bright and vibrant being turquoise with a contemporary type face and image. It invites you to pick it up and read it.

In this second edition of Preach the dominant theme is the environment and how to engage with and preach on this theme. However there is also good practical advice on how to use and look after your voice as a preacher amongst other things.

With regard to contributors they come from a range of denominational backgrounds and include names familiar to those who inhabit the Twittersphere including Baptist minister and blogger Richard Littledale and Gogglebox vicar Kate Bottley.

The environmentally themed articles include Waking the Sleeping Giant: Creation and your Congregation by Will and Pip Campbell-Clause, founders of Cactus and initiative to help church communities engage with the mission of creation care which could be seen as a useful beginners guide through the creation texts. There is also an interview with Peter Harris who is the founder and president of A Rocha International. Margot Hodson a vicar in Buckinghamshire and specialist in environmental theology gives some practical advice on preaching on several specific passages of scripture. Dave Bookless who is Director for Theology, Churches and Sustainable Development at A Rocha challenges our understanding and engagement with this issue through an in depth testimony article. Nigel Hopper, another A Rocha staff  member talks about eco congregations giving some examples including a Baptist Church in Tring and a Methodist Church in Nottingham.

Richard Littledale has a clever article entitled, reduce, reuse, recycle which is actually about the use of sermons you've used before. Whilst deceptive, appearing initially to be another eco piece it was really thought provoking. Another thought provoking piece was this edition's Preach the News article on Ebola from Martin Saunders former editor of Youthwork Magazine.

The point about the whole magazine was the theme was clear and constant - the magazine itself is for preachers of all levels of experience and this edition was focusing primarily on the environment. This clear focus even extended to the book reviews which were dominated by environmental theology books with some preaching and other Christian books thrown in. This did mean some of the books reviewed were somewhat dated, and I would like to see more contemporary reviews in here. However, they were clear and interesting reviews with a good staring system.

What I really like about this magazine is it felt like the people putting it together cared about the reader. I am not sure if this is an age thing or not because there was one letter included which indicated an older reader had found the format of the first edition inhibiting.

One final aspect which is a strength of both magazines is the poem and image towards the end. Oh and in Preach there was a Dave Walker cartoon entitled The Sermon. Dave's cartoon church work is always good for raising a smile.

Did I feel more of a community of preachers reading this magazine? Yes, I did and not just a community of LWPT preachers. I felt part of a wider ecumenical community serving God in this way. This community feeling starts from the first advert for Preach It! 2015 a one day event for preachers - when you see an event sponsored by a range of organisations including LWPT in Reigate on June 23rd. Yet, with an advert for MET (Methodist Evangelicals Together) at the end, it still retains a feeling of being, at least in part, a Methodist publication. I hope those producing the connexion read their copies of Preach and take note.....this is what a good, relevant magazine looks and indeed feels like.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Mission on the Road to Emmaus - A Review

Mission on the Road to Emmaus: Constants, Context and Prophetic Dialogue edited by Cathy Ross and Stephen B. Bevans is a contextual theology book focusing on the theme of prophetic dialogue. It contains essays by fifteen eminent theologians primarily but not exclusively based in the USA and UK; many of the US contributors are academics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. However, unlike many texts of this type it consciously seeks not to be overly ethnocentric in its approach. It was pleasing to see Baptist minister and theologian Joe Kapolyo amongst the contributors - he was recently identified by the Baptist Times as one of the emerging African theologians inBritain.

The book is co-edited by Cathy Ross who teaches with a range of institutions around Oxford including Ripon College, Cuddesdon and on the CMS Pioneer course who was also one of the editors of The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission, which I have also reviewed. It contains an essay from Jonny Baker, Mission Education Director of CMS, who was her co-editor on that project.

If at this point one starts to see a web of connection amongst the authors it is no coincidence. In the introduction to this book Bevans and Ross conclude "All these writers are our friends...."

Whilst there may be differences between them in approach and theology there are some strands which run throughout the book including a strong focus on the trinity and the relational nature of God and man. There is also the strong passion for mission each writer clearly has together with the influence of liberation theology on most of them in some form or another. There is also a feeling that much of the book is in some way a response to an earlier work Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004) by Roger Schroeder and Stephen Bevans. Indeed the final chapters of this text by firstly Schroeder and then Bevans appear to confirm this. Perhaps the present book might have been subtitled a reflection on contextual theology ten years on.

The book flows from what one might describe as the more academic and somewhat traditional academic style in the early chapters which focus on Christology, Ecclesiology and  Eschatology to the more narrative and conversational approach in the second half of the book which deals with Soteriology, Anthropology and Culture.

Whilst the book seeks to be accessible to those with differing levels of theological training and understanding the opening chapters are certainly helped by having some background knowledge of some of the key figures and debates in applied, practical or contextual theology over recent decades. That said a lack of familiarity with these should not be a barrier. Breaking all the rules of what is considered good practice I found myself using Wiki on more than one occasion to help me with my understanding of words/ concepts I was not already familiar with and quickly picking up what was being said. I would assume one might also do this with some of the theologians mentioned if one was not familiar.

The first chapter Prophetic Christology in the New Testament by vanThanh Nguyen, one of the Union based contributors, provides an insightful discussion based around Luke 4: 16-21 primarily. It establishes a specific portrait of Christ as one on a prophetic mission.

Continuing looking at Christ Amos Young, a US based academic from Fuller, provides us with Christological Constants in Shifting Contexts: Jesus Christ, and Prophetic Dialogue and the Missio Spiritus in a Pluralistic World. The central thrust of this chapter appears to be that if we look at Jesus as the relational prophet we move away from classical exclusivist understandings to ones which are more able to facilitate meaningful interfaith dialogue.

The final chapter in this section comes from Kirsteen Kim. Within it this professor from Leeds Trinity focuses upon Jesus, Mission and the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts: Dialogue, Prophecy and Life. It is a chapter which focuses on Christ as both giver and receiver of the spirit and challenges the reader to engage with both Christ and Spirit.

As we move on we reach one of the most interesting and significant chapters in the book, in my opinion. Emma Wild-Wood who has taught in Uganda and the Congo before returning to Cambridge writes about Mission, Ecclesiology and Migration. Within this chapter she unpacks a range of issues facing churches and denominations regarding the challenges raised by migration and the relations between congregations and within them. She looks both at single or similar culture congregations and multicultural congregations as well as exploring resident-alien spirituality, ecclesial practice and mission. I would argue this chapter would make good discussion material for any group seeking to engage seriously with the implications of migration in their area.

Cathy Ross follows this with Hospitality: The Church as 'A Mother with an Open Heart'. It grapples with what is church and argues hospitality is at the centre of the household of God. This could come across as somewhat sentimental in tone but doesn't rather Ross identifies the difficulties and risks involved with taking this approach. In wrestling with these things Ross avoids promoting what De Beauvoir described in The Second Sex as a false gender consciousness, which I feared from the title she might.

Dawn Nothwehr, another Chicago academic, takes up eco theology with The Church's Mission of Ecojustice: A Prophetic Dialogue Approach. Whilst in some ways as polemic as Michael Northcott's work in this area it seemed less angry and frustrated, more patiently screaming out an important message for the church to hear.

There was a poetic start to his chapter as Tim Naish quoted Thomas Hardy as he began to discuss 'Continents of moil and misery': Mission, Justice and Prophetic Dialogue. This Cuddesdon based theorist explored the theme of justice by refering to a range of theorists. In particular he contrasts the differing approaches of Sagovsky and Hauerwas when looking at this from a theological perspective. One particularly interesting aspect of this chapter is Naish's brief discussion of his role as an assistant chaplain at a Immigration Removal Centre and of the challenges this poses in the discussion of justice and how to deal with different situations in the real world.

Moving into the forth section of the book we have Robert Schreiter's Reconciliation and Prophetic Dialogue. This was another particularly strong and challenging chapter from another of those based in Chicago. The nature of reconciliation and healing as part of that process is discussed in a way which shows a deep knowledge and understanding of those processes and much wisdom on the subject.

S. Mark Heim is a professor at the Newton Centre in the US and his chapter on Wounded Communion: Prophetic Dialogue and Salvation in Trinitarian Perspective focuses on exactly what the chapter would suggest. This is one of the more abstract chapters which I believe would benefit from further exploration.

As the book moves on to exploring Anthropology: Mission as What it Means to be Human Frances S. Adeney from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary gives a chapter which comes from a feminist/ womanist perspective. Within it Adeney looks from three different perspectives at the changes in women's mission theology since World War Two. It is an interesting chapter which whilst in many ways a summary arguing for a greater listening to the prophetic voices coming from women in this area also provides a solid foundation for anybody wanting to explore the recent history of women and mission more.

Maria Cimperman's An Anthology of Prophetic Dialogue: Rooted in Hope is a chapter which focuses on the need for us to hold on to hope in a world which would so often move away from it. This chapter from another of the Chicago stable reflects on a number of recent events and has a very contemporary feel to it.

Joe Kapolyo's chapter is an important one which needs to be heard. Within Prophetic Dialogue and the Human Condition he reflects on deep and surface culture and the need to understand what deep culture means in the African context. Through using his own African cultural background as an example this North London Baptist Minister shows how understanding of the holistic nature of this deep culture means that our understanding of African congregations may need to alter from what it may currently be. He makes the point that as these groups are the fastest growing and the baton of leadership is passing to them that, "The quality of that leadership, upon which the very outlook of the Church will hang, depends on the quality of the prophetic dialogue between the word of God and the deep cultures of the African people groups."

Jonny Baker begins the final section of the book talking about Prophetic Dialogue in Contemporary Culture. This chapter explores developing a cross cultural understanding for mission which does not just relate to ethnic cultures but can also relate to understanding different cultures within the same culture. He makes reference to the differences between high and low cultures and the way in which listening is required to understand alternative cultures. Within this he makes reference to the way in which art is often an important tool in this type of prophetic dialogue.

Then we get to Roger Schroeder and his focus on culture as one of the aspects from Constants in Context within the chapter Prophetic Dialogue and Interculturality. The  Chicago based professor explores aspects of the social sciences and missiology to argue for a transformative approach to prophetic dialogue and interculturality.

Finally Stephen Bevans, also of Chicago, brings it together with what might be described as a defence of contextual theology as an academic and theological approach.

Is it a book worth reading? I would say definitely, although at over £30 the cost may be to be prohibitive to many. I had to consider this very carefully, even with a marketing discount from Eden to put towards the cost. Yet I think it is worth it. It is a book which should be more widely read than just by theology students dipping into chapters for seminars or essays.

Divided into the six portions I am going to explore it in more detail over Lent.

Mission on the Road to Emmaus: Constants, Context and Prophetic Dialogue, Edited by Cathy Ross and Stephen B. Bevans, (2015), SCM Press - ISBN:978-0-334-0409-8

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Two Tate Exhibitions and Two:23

One of the locations which I find to act like a thin place for me is the Tate Modern. As I wander round the space I find myself encountering the spiritual in a way I don't in many other places. When life is tough and I really need to encounter the divine I find myself heading in that direction. I also find it useful that it is within a stones throw of where Two:23 meets and so I am able to combine the different forms of worship and reflection every so often individually refilling before I go and join in corporate worship. This spiritual aspect is one reason I find maintaining Tatemembership so enables me to go and fully enjoy what the gallery has to offer whilst I encounter the divine through art and space.

Recently I headed to the gallery to reflect and refill. I knew the Marlene Dumas exhibition The Image as Burden had started (it's on until May 10th) but I didn't know the Conflict Time Photography exhibition was on the same floor. Both are worth a visit.

The Conflict Time Photography exhibition is on until 15th March. It covers 12 rooms and contains work from Don McCullin, Simon Norfolk, Jo Racliffe, Pierre Antony-Thouret, Michael Schmidt, Harry Shrunk and Janos Kender, Stephen Shore and Chloe Dewe Matthews amongst others. It takes as it's theme Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Slaughterhouse-Five which is a book which seeks to look forward after war rather than looking back.

As you move around the exhibition which starts by looking at "Moments Later" you are taken around the world from the Crimea to Libya, America to Bosnia and France to Congo amongst other conflicts.

I was found the pictures of America after the American Civil War particularly interesting and the pictures from Congo most moving. The former reflected location and the latter people and this mix of geographical and physical is reflected throughout the exhibition.

One of the most striking elements of this exhibition is the Archive of Modern Conflict installation A Guide For The Protection Of The Public In Peace Time. This takes you into what essentially feels like a 1940's living room but is a space containing collages and objects from or reflecting conflicts around the world. It is thought provoking and striking.

The images show reflect horror, hope, rebuilding and resignation amongst them. They are striking and I would challenge anybody to wander round unmoved by what the exhibition shows and that is the point.

From this I moved across the third floor on to the Dumas exhibition which focuses on the body primarily. There are 14 rooms to move around, some of which are explicit and shocking. There are glimmers of hope as with the collages of black faces which are seeking to focus on the humanity of people whose bodies were the focus of the pictures which were the base for this piece. However, much of the exhibition feels dark and disturbing with it's roots in pornography. There is a tension which she acknowledges in her work between to show or not to show.

There were two paintings which were amongst the most striking to me which did not fit in with much of the rest of the exhibition and these were Solo which is based upon the crucifixion but according to the accompanying blurb moves beyond this to reflect the feelings of isolation which is felt by those who are sent by their fathers to war and death. It is a moving crucifixion which reflects the isolation which Jesus experienced on the cross. The second picture which struck me was The Wall which shows Orthodox Jews near the partition wall. It depicts them in a similar way as to if they were at the wailing wall which I found interesting.

The article accompanying this exhibition in this spring's Tate Etc magazine explains this is the most significant exhibition of her work to be held in Europe and moves from her early paintings to her most recent work on paper.

Again this an exhibition I would challenge anybody to go round without reacting to as it is striking and is one of those shows which demands some response.

After these experiences I moved up to the members room and sat reflecting with a pot of Earl Grey looking out over the river Thames and on to St. Pauls which dominates the view. I find it to be a relaxed but busy space where you can sit and meditate even though you are surrounded by a constant buzz.

From the gallery I moved on to Two:23 which continues to grow. After a vibrant and refreshing time of musical worship I listened to Greenbelt favourite and vicar of St. Luke's Holloway Dave Tomlinson talk, (now available online) of the way in which we make a mistake of trying to find God because he is everywhere around us and we are always in his presence. We have not lost the divine and (s)he has certainly not lost us according to Tomlinson whose talk was primarily based around reading extracts from his latest book The Bad Christian's Manifesto. As I listened to this I smiled and wondered. Whilst it may be true we do not have to search for God and neither we or (s)he is lost yet it is also true there are places where we are more aware of being in the presence of the divine. For me, as I've indicated, the Tate Modern is one of those spaces, somewhere where even when I am really struggling I can connect with that which is beyond me. God may not actually be any nearer to me there than elsewhere but I am certainly more aware of the presence of the divine there.

As a final aside on that occassion I took a different route to the gallery, and wandered up from Borough tube station. I found a cafe at the back of the gallery in Great Guildford Street called RoseTate where I was able to get a really tasty ham and cheese roll, a slice of cake and can of coke for under £4. As somebody who prefers plain food and so struggles in with the posh dishes that the Tate tends to offer this was a real find. Physical and soul food are both needed to replenish us and I was so pleased to benefit from both today.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Matador - Gaz Coombes Reviewed

Wandering through HMV at the moment is very much a blast to the past and Matador by former Supergrass singer Gaz Coombes which was released at the end of January on Hot Fruit Recordings seems one of the more contemporary offerings available at present. This album is very much the artists own work being written and produced by Coombes.

It has a dark, you might say atmospheric, feel to it from the opening track Buffalo onwards although tracks like the second tune 20/20 are initially deceptive.

There is a mix of acoustic and electronica going on in this album making tunes such as The English Ruse danceable in a '80's indie kind of way. This was a striking tune which I really enjoyed.

As the album moves on to the more dreamy The Girl Who Fell to Earth the Coombes is working to his strengths. He is clearly a talented acoustic guitarist and vocalist who seems strongest on this type of track which relies mainly on the combination of the two without interference from technology.
Detroit is a pleasant enough track, another dreamy one, but in some ways feels like a bit of a filler with the humming and strumming dominating until the drums and electronica break in.

The electronica continues with the intro to Needles eye but then Coombes voice breaks through like a fountain of water which flows gently through your being. Lyrically and tunefully this is the love song but with the Buggles type electronic voice interrupting at intervals it avoids falling into the sickly or sentimental.

Seven Walls takes us back to the initial darkness but this time with a smoky jazz sound mixed in. It sums up the fact that this is the sort of album you can imagine listening to curled up on the sofa with a large glass of wine and a good book having a chilled out night with.

Oscillate begins sounding like it might be a dance tune with more electronica but it falls into the overarching darkness of this album. It is another tune which is almost haunting in tone. It works but is one of the weaker tracks in my opinion, but perhaps that's because I prefer the less arty tracks.

To the Wire takes the lyrics where the music has been leading with the opening words. This could be incredibly depressing, and perhaps to some it will be, but there is a depth and beauty to this tune which breaks through because it is the most poetic song on here.

Is it On? begins with a tinkling piano and then the question is repeated in an echo for a short moment before leading into Matador the final and title track. This short tune is another one of the float away tracks and raises the tone slightly from Oscillate and To the Wire.

To be honest the last two tracks are so short you wonder if the metre ran out or if he just couldn't be bothered to finish it off. Although I guess the answer is it is art and that's the point with this album you only get 38 minutes of music on here, but it is a quality set of music which shows Coombes off as a talented artist. Well worth a listen if you get the chance.