Thursday, June 12, 2014

Got goats, high horses, and sacred cows

Two posts today got my goat. (If you think you can work out which posts, don’t bother, you’re probably wrong - and what would it profit you to be right?)

The first was a quote on a ‘moral issue’ that a friend posted up on a social media site, which I took serious issue with. In my view the moral point it was trying to make was, in fact, immoral. The second was a longer post from another friend, lionizing a Christian from long ago, and defending (or at least excusing) this particular luminary’s – in my view – execrable views.

Christians, I find, when they get on their high horse, so often choose the wrong horse.

In my opinion.

Which is the dilemma, isn’t it? It’s so easy, in disagreeing with what I see as self-righteousness or preachiness, to get - well - self-righteous and preachy about it in return.

Later today, I was reading and writing about some of what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans. ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law’ he wrote.

Relevant to my got goat? I think so.

Paul is addressing a particular problem – differences of outlook in the Roman church on vexed questions of Jewish food laws and festivals.

Not situations we generally face in our non-Jewish church context. But the principle Paul lays down is still relevant: 'If your brother is grieved (by your actions or attitude) you are no longer walking in love'.

So sometimes we may have differences of opinion or outlook. (Indeed, in my experiences, it’s what Christians are good at.)

The crucial thing is that we can learn to ‘disagree well’.

That is, to make love our highest priority, even as we work through our differences (and let’s not pretend that that is always easy!)

In it all, we must avoid hurting 'one for whom Christ died'. Love will 'pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding'. Or as he put it in another letter: ‘Love does not insist on its own way’.

Love actively seeks to encourage, to join people in brotherhood, and to build a church of compassion and generosity.

There are several issues I can think of straight away that my friends and brethren and I need to find a way ‘disagree well’ on. Give me five minutes and I’ll think of several more.

Oh God: help us slay our sacred cows. Help us get off our high horses. Help us unget our got goats.

Help us make love our highest aim.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Ghost story

Everyone loves a ghost story, right? Especially if told round a fire, or in a tent, in the woods, at night, with a group of friends...

Yesterday a friend took me to the Staffordshire theme park, Alton Towers. Between rollercoasters, we went on the 21st century equivalent of what, back in the days of yore (i.e. my childhood), would have been called a ghost train. This ride is based on a local Staffordshire legend (classic stuff of late night campfire goosebumps): ‘the chained oak’.

The story goes something like this...

One night in 1821, the Earl of Shrewsbury was riding home to Alton Towers in his coach when a man on the roadside (in some versions an old woman) hailed him. The coach stopped and the man begged a coin for charity. The Earl harshly refused him, so the old man uttered a terrible curse: ‘For every branch on the Old Oak Tree here that falls – a member of the Earl’s family will die.’

The Earl dismissed him and carried on his way... (And this is where the campfire teller’s voice would change to a suitably chilling tone.) But that night, a terrible storm struck the old oak, and a single branch broke and fell. Later that very same night, a member of the Earl’s family suddenly, mysteriously, died. The next day, the Earl ordered his servants to chain every branch together to prevent other branches from falling.

The 'chained oak' can still be seen, not far from Alton Towers...

At the oak: can you spot the chains?
My friend and I went to see the chained oak that afternoon, and later he sent me a link to a local BBC page about the story.

Looking at it, what struck me most were the comments from large numbers of people who basically believed the story to be true.

‘Can somebody die when a branch falls off today?’ asks Darren. ‘We'll never really know if it’s true or not true’ says Stefan. ‘I thinks it’s true because when you go it doesn't feel right’ admits HK. Pete adds ‘I live near the tree, and won’t go near it, seems spooky enough for me.’ ‘I believe that it is all true’ says Sam. Dominic replies ‘I do believe in curses and the dark arts so the tree may well be cursed.’ Alexandra says ‘I think the curse is still intact. When I went to see the tree last time, I still felt this strange, dark, unfriendly presence surrounding the tree like there is someone or something there watching in anger... be very careful, be aware of the oak tree’s surroundings and don't go alone.’ Sophie meanwhile asserts ‘as a good historian’ that she thinks ‘it is true, but more research needs to be done and a test on the oak tree to see if it is really cursed.’

And on it goes.

It may be that you, dear reasonable reader, are aghast (I use the word advisedly) by all this silly superstition. Perhaps it has given you a rather dim view of Staffordshire people. Perhaps you are tutting and rolling rational eyes as you read.

But following my last post about how church decline statistics do not necessarily mean a more secular Britain, this struck a chord. Many, possibly most, people in Britain believe in spiritual things. It may be a bit of a muddle. It may be more influenced by Alton Towers than the Faith Once Delivered Unto The Saints. More ghosts and ghouls than Holy Ghost. But nevertheless: UK people are inclined to be spiritual believers.

So I repeat yesterday’s hesitant assertion: the church needs to morph, to flex, to adapt to meet this spiritual interest, this hunger for the unseen.

Never mind curses, let’s get blessing people.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Lies, damned lies and church decline statistics

‘The UK church is in decline’: today’s truism. You’ll see it breezily stated by tabloid editors. You’ll hear it complacently croaked by Professor So-and-so and Doctor Doodah on Radio 4 phone-ins. It’s tweeted, Facebooked and blogged. It’s all over the media – often with that thinly-veiled, quasi-secularist tone: ‘We-knew-it-all-along-how-could-anything-as-silly-as-religion-last-in-our-superior-age’.

‘The UK church is in decline.’

And yes, the published stats on UK church attendance are – let us say – not encouraging for church enthusiasts. Not heartening for those of us who contend that the church just might be good for more than providing pretty buildings in which to tie the knot. Not promising for those of us who posit that Christian faith might just have something to say to the UK beyond the utterances of cranky, phobic, UKIP-at-prayer types. (Though, goodness knows, the media always seem to find airtime for these odious individuals. Not in my name, I wince at the radio.)

In 2005, just under 6 million people in the UK were members of a church. That figure was projected to decline by one and a half million to 4.5 million by 2025. In 2010, this rate of decline seemed on course. But now, not so, says the forthcoming second edition of UK Church Statistics.

Future First, a Christian stats newsletter, summed up the situation thus: ‘The rate of decline has lessened significantly and the membership levels previously anticipated for 2020 will now most likely not be evident till 2025’.

I grant you, this is not yet a reason to hang bunting from every spire between Land’s End and John O’Groats. We’re talking delayed decline, not sudden growth. But what interested me was the analysis of the reasons for this change of fortune.

The first was the increase in black and other immigrant churches (shh, nobody tell the aforementioned ecclesiastical right-wingers). It remains to be seen what lasting change this will bring to the spiritual landscape of the UK. Personally, I welcome the spiritual vigour such churches inject into our nation’s bloodstream, but am wary of modernist messages in a post-modern society – and alarmed by some of the (im)moral and (un)ethical messages I hear coming out of Africa. Subject for another post, perhaps.

Cartoon from Future First
But what particularly interested me was the second reason for arrested decline: ‘the increasing success of new gatherings often called ‘Fresh Expressions’, which is becoming a generic name for all kinds of usually fairly informal gatherings like Messy Church, pub groups or cafĂ© churches, mission-minded churches...’.

Not decline, so much as a change of direction. Traditional church attendance is giving way to smaller, mission-minded groups meeting, befriending and helping people on their own turf, forming and fostering community, engaging with and salting their neighbourhoods? Sounds like good news to me.

Could it be, dashing those radio 4 secularists’ hopes, that the church has an ability to morph and adapt, to regenerate? (Christians’ word, that one. I reclaim it forthwith.) That the church may be inhabited by a creative spirit (indeed, by the Creative Spirit) that will not die?

I relate these thoughts to my own church experience. Our whole church, with its emphasis on community and engagement with society’s fringes, might be termed a ‘fresh expression’. Nevertheless, in our short (45-year) story, we’ve reached something of a hiatus. Growth has flatlined, our residential community all-too-often feels over institutional and is not currently attracting many new generation members. But missional, relational (why do so many current buzz words and in 'al'?) groups are springing up at our grassroots. They carry life and imagination. They’re growing (though rather less obsessed with measuring such growth than in previous times). They’re flexible and people-friendly. They are, I believe, the future.

But they’re not only the future. They’re also the past – no, not the halcyon days of the 1950s, when everyone went to church before their roast beef. I mean the ancient past, when the church met from house to house, and enjoyed the favour of the people, and shared with glad and generous hearts, and met in his house and her house, and multiplied greatly.

So don’t believe everything Professor So-and-so and Doctor Doodah say. The church has a future, even if it needs to shed some skins to get there. It’ll be about love, about people, about community.

There’s life in the old God yet.