Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advent Questions

Advent – a time of waiting.  A time of reflecting on what is to be.  I want to reflect a little on what this says to us about what we should be saying and doing in response to God’s call to us to be light and love within a messy and chaotic world.

Advent Sunday marks the beginning of that preparation time for Christmas.  At least that’s how I see it, but it does mean that the church needs to begin by playing catch-up because most of society around us in the UK has got its preparations for Christmas well under way.  It is not the same everywhere, of course.  I happen to have spent a little part of Advent both last year and the year before in Zimbabwe, visiting friends and churches in the Presbytery of Zimbabwe within the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa.  It is very different there with few indications that Christmas is imminent.  There are some, if you look, but they are not splashed all over the place.  But it is different when you are in a situation where real unemployment is massive – some would say at least 90%.  A situation where you never know when you will have a power cut, but you do know it will happen regularly.  They used to schedule where and when they would cut the power, but discovered gangs of thieves making use of this information, so decided a random approach was actually safer, though more inconvenient.  A situation where the water is also frequently turned off, and not safe to drink anyway.  Part of our thinking needs to remember those in such situations – and that is without mentioning the challenges of Ebola, faced in other parts of Africa.

But back to the UK.  What are we to say to a society where the headlines of preparing for Christmas all seem to be focussed on something called Black Friday?  What are we to say to a society in which most places have already switched on their Christmas lights ahead of Advent, where shops have had Christmas displays for some time, where Christmas trees, even the real ones, are already on sale?  What are we to say to a society where the main point of Christmas seems to be to keep the retail sector going?  Not, of course, that I don’t want to keep the retail sector going.  I just happen not to think that it’s the main point of Christmas.  What are we to say to a society in which the political landscape looks as though it may be changing, though less than six months away from a general election, it may change again post-election?  What are we to say to a global society which faces the challenges of Islamic State, terrorism, so called jihad – always recognising, of course, that these things which are too often used to demonise Islam are not part of Islam as the very vast majority of its followers would recognise it?  What are we to say to the peoples of Syria, of the Ukraine, of Afghanistan?  The questions go on and on, and almost overwhelm us.

If we were with Matthew last week, listening to the final contribution of his Gospel to the lectionary for the moment, we were reminded that how we treat the marginalised, the vulnerable, the outcast is the indicator of how we are responding to God’s call.  I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes ….  I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me!  It is a challenge to work out just what this means in terms of what we do and say, but that’s what we need to do.

If we look ahead, through the waiting and preparation period, some 25 days, and arrive at the celebration of Christmas, we can see and say all sorts of things about what that means and how it should make an impact on our thinking.  The incarnation, the coming to earth of God, is the essential demonstration of God’s getting alongside us.  There are so many things that we can take from the story – that he is the Prince of Peace, that he is the light of the world, that he is the greatest ever Christmas gift. 

What will we focus on this Advent?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Thinking Ecumenically

The ecumenical imperative has always been at the centre of how we are in the United Reformed Church, and I don’t think that has changed, but it is changing.  When I was on sabbatical in 2001 I entitled the piece of work I did: “Local Ecumenical Partnerships: are they the best way forward, one way forward, or now past their sell-by date?”  I concluded that LEPs have a large contribution to make, and that they are certainly not past their sell-by date.  I have not changed my mind, but the reality is that many church leaders in other denominations put far less emphasis on them, and some, other than in very particular circumstances, whilst happy to continue those that are there, would actively discourage the formation of new ones.  It is widely said that ecumenism has moved into a new phase.  The phrase is receptive ecumenism – in which we allow others to do things for us, receiving their gifts.  The other thing that is often said is that ecumenism that work is project ecumenism.  So Christians working together on foodbanks, street pastors, sometimes youth projects or cafes, is where there is energy to be found.  That is true, and there are some really good things going on – but I am interested in the fact that new LEPs do still spring up, sometimes with slightly new models, and I have yet to see any real evidence that they are not a critical part of mission strategy in many areas. 
Back in and around the 1980s there was a heightened expectation that mainline denominations were quite likely to come together in the UK.  However, as Stephen Orchard points out: “In place of these national reconciliations between denominations a form of local ecumenism has grown up, strong in some localities, weak in others,  Mutual service to the community, be it after-school clubs, counselling services or Christian Aid collections, to name a few examples, is often carried out through these local structures.”[1]
Let’s use what we have and work together on and in it – but not forgetting Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).

[1] In his essay in “Free Churches and Society”, ed. Lesley Husselbee and Paul Ballard, Continuum, 2012,  p. 17.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Marks of the URC

I was recently asked to speak on the question: what's the point of the United Reformed Church?  I thought a good starting point might be the paper presented to this year's General Assembly by the Faith and Order Committee entitled 'Affirming the URC's Future'.

That paper offered a list of nine things that we can identify as key characteristics shaping our identity as a church.
These are:
a) Semper Reformanda – openly and intentionally stating our readiness to change in light of experience of the Holy Spirit;
b) our particular interpretation of the priesthood of all believers;
c) elders – ordained and set apart for shared leadership;
d) the church meeting, in which people together discern the leading of the Holy Spirit, and through which power is shared;
e) the ability to develop policies that embrace diversity, e.g. in recognising both infant and believers baptism, but not re-baptism;
f) upholding the rights of personal conviction;
g) the strong sense of social justice and action;
h) freedom in worship, centring on Scripture;

i) valuing the local church.

There is no doubt that all these things are to be found elsewhere within the Church universal.  However, like any church, we blend things in a unique way and offer that to the wider community.  Of course, the church would survive without our denomination, but we do have something distinctive to offer - though, like others, we don't always offer our gifts to the wider church as well and as generously as we ought.

Friday, 21 November 2014


Michael Moynagh's "Being Church, Doing Life" (Monarch, 2014) offers a stack of stories from the fresh expressions genre of church.  He supports these with comments and guidelines with respect to how to be church in a new way.  Traditional churches are needed and valued, but we need to discover new and different opportunities for forming appropriate Christian communities alongside the existing models.  A problem that has been around is the attempt to fit everything into what we know.

By contrast, Moynagh suggests (p. 323) that ""Success" is not Christian communities that conform to existing expressions of church, but communities that have the capacity, through the Spirit, to criticize existing church."

We need what has now often been called a "mixed economy" - and all need to value the place of others.  Let's listen to see where the Spirit is calling us to go!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

What is the URC up to?

What is the United Reformed Church in the UK up to?  What is the added value that we give to church in general?  One of the challenging things, in my view, is that it is fairly clear that, if in the period leading up to the formation of the original URC in 1972, it had been known that we would still be in existence today we, almost certainly, would never have happened.  [Of course, something else might have happened - who knows?]  People were prepared to compromise because they thought it was only temporary.  The fascinating mix of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism (as we originally were) would probably have proved impossible if they had known it would last.  The fruit of that is largely seen in our governance – and that frustratingly wonderful conciliar system that sometimes puts Church Meeting in the driving seat, on other occasions, though probably less often, the Synod Meeting and certainly, on other occasions, the General Assembly.  Of course, we do still struggle with how we do our conciliarity, though that’s nothing new.  This year's General Assembly received a paper from the Faith and Order Committee, entitled 'Affirming the URC's Future'.  That paper commented on how we do our Church Meetings – “The Church Meeting is an indispensable part of the church’s life. … But in many of our churches it has ceased to be a living force and is maintained, often only by a few faithful people, out of respect for a tradition which no one understands very clearly any longer.”  That was actually a quote of a quote – and it serves to illustrate that all our problems are not new.  It could be a contemporary quote, but it was actually said by Daniel Jenkins in 1944.

But back to where we are.  If life begins at 40, then that happened a couple of years ago, and as for coming of age at 21, that is in the dim and distance past of 1993. The paper, to which I have referred, begins: “The United Reformed Church is here to live and not to die.”   … It goes on, in that first paragraph, to say that we are “not about dying, but about living more fruitfully, prophetically and adventurously, being re-energised by the power of the Holy Spirit in faithfulness to Jesus Christ.”  So we are here and we believe we have a role.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Beyond the Edge

Just finished reading Andrew Mayes' "Beyond the Edge: Spiritual Transitions for Adventurous Souls".  I was struck by a number of things, but not least his use of the John 4 story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman by the well as a model for spiritual direction.  Jesus is hot, tired and thirsty - but makes time to address the needs of this woman.  Mayes suggests that we can identify eight indicators that point to a good practice of spiritual direction.

First, Jesus places himself beside the woman.  It is a question of accompaniment.

Second, Jesus speaks with directness.  He is straight and to the point.

Third, Jesus affirms the woman as someone worthy of bearing the living water of the Spirit.  He sees her value.

Fourth, Jesus allows her to ask questions.  This is about engaging, not about just giving answers.

Fifth, Jesus challenges her.  Jesus knows she can move on and tries to get her thinking about that.

Sixth, Jesus speaks the truth.  There is no avoiding sensitive issues.

Seventh, Jesus teaches her.

And eighth, Jesus empowers us.  This is about equipping her to go and do what God is calling her to do.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

'Faith in the Public Square'

I have been reading Rowan Williams’ “Faith in the Public Square” which has lots of interesting stuff about how the church engages and should engage with society in general.  He explores various aspects of how we offer the sort of witness that is appropriate in a range of areas within the civic arena.  He touches on law, secularity, diversity, the environment and so much more.

I was particularly struck by the chapter entitled “Sustainable Communities” – “if we are going to plan sustainable communities, we have to have a good nose for what depletes human capital.”  He stresses the importance of place and what is put in place to form the environment in a particular locality.  “Functioning communities need to develop a sense of place, and that means developing variety, a real landscape, not just a territory covered with ‘machines for living’.”  He stresses the value of planning that fits the location and the need to ensure that there are appropriate and adequate facilities, like public transport.  “There are no infallible recipes for sustainable communities.  But there are ways of identifying what depletes our resources and of combating these factors with some urgency and energy.”

Let’s speak up for contexts that work, especially in new places, as we will then have a much better chance of communities that work. 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Spinning Gold

In "Travelling Light" Daniel O'Leary writes: "The Holy Spirit spins gold from the bare threads of our threadbare days.  Antonio Machado wrote 'I dreamt last night, oh marvellous error, that there were honeybees in my heart, making honey out of my old failures.'"

Of course, we make a mess of things.  At least, that is usually the case.  But God can make something good even out of our chaos.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Global Partnership

At Love's Farm, St. Neot's
It is hard to believe that it is a month ago today that, together with a few others from the Synod, I made my way to Gatwick Airport to meet the delegation coming to visit the Synod from the Presbytery of Zimbabwe.  Old friendships were quickly renewed and new ones established as we engaged in a few days’ of exploring the Synod and sharing something of our lives, ministries and missions.  We visited a range of churches and locations, trying to give a flavour of the Synod without spending all the time in the car.  So, for example, one day we started at the Synod Office in Whittlesford meeting the staff and then went to the churches in St. Ives, St. Neot’s (including stopping off at the Lover’s Farm Estate to hear something of the pioneering work there) and Cambourne.  Another day we went to Ipswich and met a number of people from different churches, and then on to Long Melford to hear about the rural side of Synod life. 

There were trips to Cambridge and London (which I missed as I had to be at a meeting in Windermere) and a lunch at Epping where we joined by a couple of Zimbabwean ministers now working in the United Reformed Church in the UK.  The visit included the Synod meeting at Witham and visits to a number of churches, especially those with twinning links, on the two Sundays. 

It is not always easy to work out the best approach to such partnership, but we were certainly left appreciative of the personal encounter that helps us learn from each other, pray for each other – and just be friends.
By Big Ben

Outside URC Church House, London

At Cambourne Church
Reception and Lunch at Gatwick Airport