Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Time to Dump Mission and Embrace Evangelism?

During the ‘break-out’ discussion at Manchester Diocese’s recent clergy formation day I said something that raised a few eyebrows. In a moment of hyperbolic flourish I lost my head and suggested that ‘the age of mission is over, we’ve now entered the age of evangelism’. I think this took some evangelical colleagues by surprise and made some of the old hands who'd lived through the ultimately bleak ‘Decade of Evangelism’ want to gather up the jerseys, deflate the football and go home.

Much as I love a provocative flourish I’m actually quite serious. Truth is, I’m not sure I even know what ‘mission’ is anymore, let alone ‘mission-shaped church’. Frankly, I think it’s time we stopped talking about it.

Ok, so I was formed for ministry at Queen’s. This might explain why I’m a bit bewildered about the notion of mission.  At Queen’s one got the impression that ‘mission’ could be pretty much anything as long as it was done with an eye for God, love and grace. I left Queen’s feeling that just going out of the house and walking down the street, as long as it is done in a non-defensive manner, is mission. And maybe it is.

Words are tricksy things. We pile words on words to disguise the erosion of meaning. Perhaps that’s what’s happened with the notion of mission. Mission-shaped church has become a way of buttressing both ‘mission’ and ‘church’, hoping to retain semantic grip. Mission Action Plans can leave us feeling we, as church, are outward-looking when we’re really just formalizing our insularity (‘how can we increase our numbers?’ ‘how can we look busy?’). I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, but I worry this is what they’ve become.

By contrast, I’m drawn to the notion of ‘evangelism’ because it requires we think about what good news ‘we’ (let’s leave that open for the moment) have to offer.

Evangelism gets stereotyped as people knocking on doors or asking questions like, ‘Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ?’ (One is always tempted to ask, ‘Oh, is he doing a farewell tour?’). Evangelism can be reduced, on this picture, to a kind of horrifying sincerity that’s crass, embarrassing and intrusive. Such an approach to evangelism is not my style, but if I dare ask why I’m/we’re uncomfortable about talking about and embody ‘good news’ I suspect it’s revealing.

By thinking in terms of evangelism – as an activity of sharing and participating in the good news of God – other interesting fault lines emerge. It’s exposing.

For, if I’m honest, I think there are serious questions about what kind of ‘good news’ the church and I, as one of its representatives, has to offer women, LGBT people, people of colour and so on.

I want to say that God in Jesus Christ is good news for all, but only an idiot would suggest that we can completely disentangle that from the realities of being and living church.

So what am I trying to say? I want to say that when we think of mission we tend to quickly turn that into the ‘mission of the church’. This has the spaciousness (amorphousness??) to give all traditions wriggle room. It liberates us from the crass and quite possibly useless notions of evangelism many of us are horrified by.

But talk of ‘the church’s mission’ tends to be uncritical of the notion of ‘the church’ as we’ve received it. As many have argued, including the rather wonderful John Hull, the notion of ‘mission-shaped church’ tends to treat the notion of church as the primary focus for God’s Kingdom and a kind of good in itself.

By contrast, to force ourselves to think about evangelism is a jolt. To concentrate, however temporarily, on what it means to communicate and share in the evangelion – the good news – invites us to take a long hard look at what we, as church, actually think we have to offer.

What actually got me excited, passionate and fired up in the first place – as a Christian and then as a priest – was not the church.  It was not mission. It was good news. It was the good news that this often sucktacular world we live in is exceeded by the Kingdom. It was the good news that that Christ cannot be reduced to the church. It was the good news that if the church can model reconciliation, love, etc. it only does so insofar as the Body is a living, breathing embodiment of Christ. It was the good news of Jesus Christ.

And – do I need to tell you again? – all too often the church is offering bad news to those who don’t fit its normative pictures of human being. It’s time we all got serious about good news. It’s time we got serious about what God in Christ is up to in this compromised world.

Monday, 26 January 2015

A Prayer for Libby

A few people were asking for the prayer the Ven. Sarah Bullock used at the end of her sermon for Libby Lane’s consecration. It was a privilege to be asked to write it and make a small offering to a magnificent day. So, here it is:

Prayer for Libby

God of the Dawn, Morning Star,
Mother and Father of All,
we bless your holy name!
Sing through your creation
as you did on the First Day!
Enfold your servant Libby
with your encouragement, hope, and grace.
Inspire her and your whole Church
to embrace the wholeness of your Kingdom,
the promise of your love. Amen

Rachel Mann

Friday, 23 January 2015

Taking God's Creativity Seriously

“As for the nature of the Church, and the priorities for its recovery, it is simply assumed that the improvement depends on more and better clergy; that only congregations can fund it (with a fillip from the Commissioners); and that being a Christian is a matter of "discipleship".”

I found Linda Woodhead’s reflections in The Church Times on the C of E’s recent reports on reform, mission and discipleship both challenging and impressive. The way they point up the church’s tendency to focus on the clerical and the congregational over the lay and societal are, as some of my rock and roll friends might put it, ‘truth bullets’.

One section was particularly striking for me. Linda says,

How different it would have been if the reports had a more glorious vision of life in the Spirit, in which we are no longer mere disciples, but "partakers in the divine nature", capable of having "the mind of Christ". The gifts that we are given allow us, together, to make up the mystical body of Christ. God present not only in churches; the Spirit is poured out not only on the clergy; and leadership appears in many places.

Cynics will be inclined to say, ‘Ah this is easy, high-flown rhetoric’. And, in some respects it is. Many of us love to take off into the stratosphere and spin a picture in language.  It was the kind of stuff I reckon Jesus was quite good at and I wish we, as an institution, were more attentive to and prepared to try.  For how something is spoken of and written about shapes our imaginative possibilities. We are, in so many ways, the stories and poems we tell. The ancients knew that better than us I think. And those of us who put a lot of energy into the craft of making stories, songs and poems are (if we’re lucky) called poets and storytellers. If we’re unlucky, we get called less flattering things.

There’s no doubt the church of God needs a wake-up call. Linda Woodhead acknowledges that. But I reckon she’s asking for a little more of that stuff that got me excited about God and the kingdom (and – sometimes, just sometimes – the church) in the first place: imagination, creativity and attentiveness to the terrifyingly bold Divine Nature.

As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t flimsy, dreamy stuff. This isn’t the kind of stuff some of our more macho co-religionists might dismiss as ‘mimsy nonsense’. If God is the creator and is in creation and creativity, it is in a disciplined, sustained and sustaining way. That’s what I see anyway when I reflect on the universe we’re part of. Our participation in God’s calling is, like that of a serious poet or writer, about the disciplined hard work of attention, discernment and craft.

My modest work as a poet and occasional teacher of creative things suggests to me that often the stuff of God – the works of imagination and creativity I reckon most of us are capable of and are certainly capable of being part of – is not the special preserve of anyone. There is nothing as exhilarating as witnessing someone who thinks they're uncreative or untalented beginning to find their voice. The imaginative hope of the church no more lies in a special class of people (clergy) than in a special class of uniquely gifted individuals we might label ‘artists’. Participating in the mind of Christ or the Godhead – the fierce love that sustains creation and unfolds redemption – is something that can happen both inside and outside the church, among both lay and ordained.

However, like all creative work it flourishes under conditions where it is intentional and encouraged. As a writer, I’m not terribly interested in sitting around ‘waiting for inspiration’ or ‘expressing my feelings or thoughts’; I want to keep plugging away, being attentive to the shifts and play of language, participating in a creative and critical community of writers and thinkers. I’m not saying that everyone in the church needs to be writing poetry (well, if you pushed me…I certainly think we should all be reading more poetry…yes, ok, and writing it…) or painting and so on. But I wonder what the church might be like if more of us orientated our realities around stuff that might broadly be called 'creative arts', play and imaginative and creative responses to living. It would certainly make a change from the grind of keeping the church on the road.

If we really started looking beyond the functional and the technological (i.e. that which offers a technique for getting to 'x', e.g. producing disciples) I suspect we might take the world, other people and the unconventional a little more seriously. Hell, we might even start taking the Godhead herself a wee bit more seriously too.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Magi Vagantes - A poem for Epiphany

I thought it would be fun to post a poem for Epiphany. I wrote this poem over the past couple of weeks. Horror of horrors, it's a sestina! (If you don't know the form, more info here.) I've never attempted a sestina before (and, if I'm honest, I'll probably never try one again!).

This sestina's genesis lies in a conversation I had recently with Michael Symmons Roberts about 'form' and its problems and opportunities. He compared writing poetry to the work of a composer. He suggested that, as poets, if we're serious about 'making' and 'craft' we should be open to the varieties of form. Just as a musical composer will explore all forms and avenues during her/his formation, so should the poet. We should 'practice the scales' and be cognisant with all the forms, even if we cannot ultimately 'own' them.

Form imposes limits. Certain possibilities are revealed and some cut off. Michael challenged me to work more seriously with form. As a lyric poet often trapped in what Helena Nelson calls 'Contem Po' this is a proper challenge.

I wrote the following as a 'serious joke'. That is, I thought I'd take Michael's points seriously, but try a form I'd never normally even consider, for the lols.

Given that sestinas are part of the troubadour singing tradition, I found myself writing what is effective a folk tale, with lots of folk-style song references. I can't pretend it's great, even by the standards of sestinas (Which ain't everyone's cup of tea and which may even be a 'dead' form), but as an exercise it was exhilarating. Have fun! And have a 'revealing' Epiphany!

Magi Vagantes

A bone, God wot! Sticks in my throat —
Without I have a draught of cornie ale,
Nappy and stale, my life lies in great waste.’ – Old Drinking Carol

In the version I heard they weren’t kings,
but beggars drawn by the rumour of drink,
the chance to warm their feet for a night.
And for gifts? They carried nowt,
but herpes and fleas and armfuls of rags,
singing Tosse the Pot and divers filthy tunes

while the good tried to sleep. Dance tunes
fiddled through the faded city of kings,
courtesy of The Guising Company of Rags,
as the old lags – desperate to score a drink –
rattled tavern and church door, turned up nowt.
(For who really welcomes sots at night?)

But beggars have hymns to Old Mother Night,
and so they sang, Send sack and merrie tunes!
Send comfort, ever wild and free! For nowt
in this vile lyfe, O Mother of Kings,
compares to thee! Grant skinfulles of drink,
send your star, your bright son, The Prince of Rags!

For when your world's been turned to rags,
what’s left but a cup of comfort at night,
a fire and some grog to drink?
It’s no sin to be cheered by bawdy tunes,
to search in grubby places for kings,
knowing that palaces promise nowt.

Did they find the place where those with nowt
receive robes of grace, raiment for wet rags?
You judge. They found fire worthy of kings,
a family hiding out for the night,
and The Company sang divers raucous tunes
and all took turns to hold the kid. To drink

in the blaze from his eyes, the fiery drink
which fixes stars to the blackened nowt
of the skies, calls forth angel tunes,
makes you forget you’ll only ever wear rags.
Tells you if life offers you nowt, but ice and night
sometimes in song you’re warmer than kings.

In the version I heard they were beggars in rags
mumming tunes for drink in the night,
pockets full of nowt, richer than kings.