learning the art of not fitting in

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One year, two perspectives. This image is part of a 365(+1) project, my friend Tilo and I are working on. If you want to see more, check out our website zweisichtig.de.

…or, when being beyond the fringe of the church becomes a bit uncomfortable

Shortly after writing our Hug Prayer in 2015 we decided to renew our window display. The prayer, smartly framed, took pride of place alongside a number of other eye-catching items, including some beautifully coloured and shaped crystals.

A week or two later one of the huggers came into the Hug Hub looking distressed. She had been at a Christian study group the evening before, and someone had drawn attention to the crystals in our window.  Apparently there had been absolutely no conversation about the contents of our new prayer, but everyone had an opinion about the crystals.

Apparently we were “dabbling in the occult.”

Our first instinct was to laugh – partly because the notion that we “dabbled in the occult” as an organisation was completely ridiculous, but also because they hadn’t credited at all the sentiments behind our prayer, the main elements of which were, after all, given to us by Jesus himself.

However, there was a more serious aspect to this.  The conversation demonstrated that the Christians in this particular group (and possibly others in the town) might think that we were somehow trying to corrupt others into following harmful ways.

Hug Cullompton has intentionally chosen to identify itself as a community of welcome for all, including those who have either suffered rejection by the church, or who do not relate to, or have any interest in it.  As a community we accept that people find God in lots of different ways and through a variety of practices.

Because of this we have come into contact with, and ministered to, vulnerable individuals who have been manipulated by people claiming to have particular spiritual gifts. Often their mental wellbeing has been seriously affected. It is a privilege to walk alongside these folk, to advise them, pray with them, help them achieve healing and assist them in finding peace in a God who loves them.

One consequence of the comments from the Bible Study group was that we removed the crystals from the window; not because we didn’t think we had a perfect right to put them there, but because ultimately we are a community which desires peace, reconciliation and empowerment in our town. We didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.

I hope that by now the people present at that group (many of whom I know and work alongside regularly) have realised how unconsidered and hurtful their accusation was – and that they have changed their minds.

I tell this story, not to name and shame the people in the Christian study group, but to illustrate how difficult (and hurtful) it can be to ‘be the Body of Christ’ at or beyond the fringes of the institutional church.  I used to joke that the church people in the town thought we weren’t ‘proper Christians’, while the non-church people we worked with in the community assumed we were a Christian group. In some ways they’re probably both right.

The truth is that we just don’t fit into a box. And intentionally so. My fellow Huggers are much better at feeling comfortable with it than I am, and it has taken a long time for me to realise that fitting into a box isn’t important.  What matters to me is that we are faithful to God and to each other, that we act with integrity, and that we are alive to what God is calling us to be and do… and I’d say we do that in spades!

making our mission and ministry Jesus-shaped

anonymous-blur-boy-572463… or, learning, through reading the Bible, how to serve others as Jesus did.

Since handing in my notice last week (I am about to move to pastures new), I have been reflecting, not only on what has been achieved through my ministry, but why and how.  To do so I have returned to a Bible passage I used for a piece of Ministerial Theological Reflection several years ago. It is the story of an encounter between Jesus and a man called Legion, and can be found at Mark 5.1-20. Below is a summary of four main features  of Jesus-shaped mission and ministry I have drawn from the passage:

Stepping out into the unfamiliar

  • Jesus and his disciples have crossed Lake Galilee to  “the country of the Gerasenes”. Not only is this unfamiliar geographical territory, it is Gentile, so the religious and cultural background of the people is very different to that of the Jesus and his disciples, who are Jewish.
  • Location and cultural identity is important. If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, it is not just for those to whom we comfortably relate to in our familiar day to day lives.  Venturing into the unfamiliar, among those who cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

Seeing Christ in everyone, and expecting to learn from our encounters with them

  • Legion, whom Jesus encounters when he first arrives, has significant mental health issues, such that he has been forced to live in the graveyard outside the village for the safety of himself and others.  There is not a less likely candidate for the accolade of ‘first person to identify the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Although there is no reason why he should know who Jesus is, Legion approaches and bows down before him, addressing him both by name and title: “Jesus, Son of the most High God.”
  • Sometimes we need to be challenged to see the world from  a different spiritual perspective. To be open to learning from, and being surprised by, such encounters are evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, and can be symbiotic – a process resulting in positive change on both sides.

Facilitating transformation with a commitment to the long term

  • As Jesus sets about healing Legion’s afflictions, Legion suddenly becomes afraid. He is unsure of his future identity without the accursed mental afflictions which have tortured him for so long.  And yet, when his fellow villagers arrive at the scene, they find him “clothed and in his right mind.”  Jesus entrusts him into the care of those who know him best and can support him longterm.
  • This is a process I have seen many times in my chaplaincy ministry. Change can be a slow business. Presented with the possibility of change, people who are so used to things the way things they are, face an unknown reality stretching into the future. It can be terrifying. Genuine transformative change is a lengthy process, and requires more than a single quick-fix solution. Ongoing support needs to be facilitated, not always under the auspices of the church community.

Trusting that God works beyond the bounds of church congregations

  • The villagers ask Jesus and his disciples to leave. We are not told whether it is because they are afraid of his healing power or annoyed because he has chased a perfectly good heard of pigs to their death in the lake.  One thing we do know is that, when Legion asks Jesus to take him with him, Jesus says, “No,” asking him instead to go and tell the people in his own village what Jesus has done.
  • Our ministry in the world doesn’t always result in new church members.  We cannot see into the future of those we serve, nor can we guarantee that those who cross our paths will continue along them with us.  All we can do is bless them as they go, asking that they tell their story of transformation as they do so.

What I call ‘Jesus-shaped mission and ministry’ is also known as ‘incarnational theology’. To read more about the scriptural background for my incarnational theology click here.

 

The reality of growing up English

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or, reflections on how we construct our understanding of the world (and our churches)

The Secret Scripture, a novel by Sebastian Barry (made into a 2015 film), tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, an old woman who has been in an Irish psychiatric institution for more than sixty years.

Through her diary entries, existent scraps of hospital records, reports from the parish priest and conversations between Roseanne and her psychiatrist, the reader is invited to piece together the story of Roseanne’s life. On several occasions Roseanne and the parish priest give very different accounts of the same event.

One might assume someone is lying; but who? The protagonist – an old woman who has been labelled mentally ill – or a respected man of God? In reality both parties are telling the truth as they remember it. It is simply that their memories – and perspectives – are so different.

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Everyone has their own story and lens through which they view the world. Our personal narrative is constructed from myriad events and experiences, things we have been taught and assumptions we have made; and it is no different when it comes to our sacred beliefs. The way we worship, pray, interpret the Bible and understand our spirituality are all flavoured by who we are, where we come from and the life we’ve lived.

I am a product of a culture still affected by Colonial Imperialism. Although we no longer promulgate the values reflected in the song Rule Britannia, there does still seem to be a subliminal assumption in the English psyche that our way is the ‘right’ way, even if that is not actually the same ‘way’ as our (English) neighbours.

Whether it is an aspect of our particular psyche, or simply human nature, I would like to suggest that this assumption, manifested most obviously in our political system, is just as prevalent in our churches, particularly in attitudes towards other church traditions. Throughout history these attitudes have caused division, even schism. Today we are left with a legacy of dualisms which might seem insurmountable: liberal/evangelical, Catholic/Protestant, Biblical fundamentalism/relativism, ‘high up the candle’/’so low down the candle I’ve fallen off’ (to do with worship traditions). The last one might sound ridiculous to someone not versed in Anglican phraseology – but I have heard it used often.

In whichever unnamed age we currently live (post-postmodernism?) such dualisms seem both dated and increasingly irrelevant. It is no longer necessary to adhere to all the views of one side or the other. We can accept that we construct our own narrative,  and as we do so we can affirm those whose way of worshipping, praying, interpreting the Bible and understanding spirituality don’t relate to our own.

The readers of The Secret Scripture never will find out the whole truth about what happened to Roseanne McNulty, because she is a fictional character. But people in churches of very different traditions (and none) are not. Perhaps there is a need to listen a bit harder to different narratives, trying to understand where they have come from. By doing this, those holding what might appear to be opposing views might find enough common ground to begin to appreciate difference rather than fearing it, and actually live out Paul’s words to the earliest Christians in Rome:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?…
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

An example of Living creatively with difference can be found in a previous blog.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”

…or, the Biblical precedent for breaking bread together round a table

Today, many churches are adopting table fellowship – or the practice of sharing food and drink round a table – as a way of attracting people to explore faith in Jesus.  One example is how this ideas is impacting the church is the Eating Together book in the Holy Habits series by Andrew Roberts.

Far from being a novel idea, this practice models that of the first century Jesus-believers and earliest Christian communities.  I would like to suggest that the close relationship between eating together and the formation of early Christian identity referred to in the Bible, makes a compelling argument for adopting eating together as a way of forging Christian community in the twenty first century.

Banqueting, or more particularly sharing food and drink, is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. According to the writer of John’s Gospel Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding banquet (John 2.1-10); he is invited to a ‘great banquet’ by Levi , where tax collectors and others are reclining with him (Luke 5.29-32); and John sets the Last Supper within the context of banquet (John 13.1-26). By combining scriptural accounts with archaeological and other written evidence, Biblical scholars have suggested that sharing meals was a key aspect of the worship life of first century Christians.

First century banquets – a model for early Christian gatherings

From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (2003), Dennis Smith’s exhaustive study of Greco-Roman banquet practice in the first century CE, demonstrates that sharing food and drink in a social and religious context played an important role in both Jewish and Gentile communities. Archaeological evidence suggests that synagogue architecture of the first century was based on the Greco Roman dining model, and many Jewish festival practices followed the same pattern.

Banquets held in the first century followed a model detected in Assyria as early as the sixth century BCE and adopted by the Hellenics 300 years later. As great admirers of Hellenistic culture, the Romans could to see for themselves the benefit of encouraging a banqueting model which built a sense of community at a time when traditional tribal and ethnic groupings were being challenged. Through the medium of eating together, individuals were able to reinforce social status whilst enabling social mobility and, in one to of the earliest examples of charitable fundraising, banqueting provided a means for poorer members of the community to organise and pay for their own funeral.

Banquets were held in temples, hired rooms or in individual people’s homes. In the first half of the century they were small in size, with dining rooms holding between seven and 11 people. Archaeological evidence shows that alterations were made to both houses and public buildings in the latter part of the first century CE to facilitate larger numbers of diners.

Only people who could afford to host them held banquets, although there is evidence that the nature of some associations enabled people from lower classes to participate. Hosts tended to invite people of a similar status similar to their own, and there would be a guest of honour, seated to the right of the host, whose role was to direct the proceedings. There is evidence that women attended as guests, but only infrequently and always at a low ranking place. When they arrived guests were placed in rank order on couches around the walls of the dining hall, reclining to reflect their status as being able to afford leisure time.  Slaves served food, washed guests’ hands between courses, and dealt with any drunken behaviour between guests. Dogs and uninvited guests might be tolerated, but arriving late was a taboo. Once the banquet started, no invited guest was permitted to enter.

Whether it was a religious festival, collegial gathering, association of tradespeople or funerary organisation, the format was always the same: a meal (deipnon) followed by entertainment (symposion), which often included a philosophical debate. In addition the Emperor Augustus had instituted an obligatory toast to be made to the Emperor, to reinforce his divine status and to promote cultural self-understanding as a subject of the Roman world.

During the deipnon the host would often provide food and drink, but sometimes guests would bring their own, to be distributed by servants. Portion sizes varied according to status, reinforcing the rank of each individual guest. During the symposion the guests would continue to drink and there was usually some form of musical entertainment. Often a flute girl would play, although in reality she would often double up as a courtesan. Discussions would take place on various themes, the participants would sing, and fellowship would be shared.

Radical practices for a radical new faith

Dennis Smith’s suggestion, that worship within the earliest Jesus believing communities was in the form of a symposion, has merit. At the Last Supper Jesus is the host, while the beloved disciple reclines next to him, and they share food and drink together, followed by a long period of discourse (John 13.1-26). Although this account may be more reflective of the experience of the writer than Jesus himself, that the banqueting model used in the narrative shows a familiarity with, and acceptance of, this form of commensality. Paul’s suggestion to the Corinthians that each person contribute “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” for the upbuilding of the community, also suggests this might be the case in the earliest churches (I Cor. 14.26).

Although on the face of it the common banquet pattern was followed,  in Paul’s letters we find a model of table fellowship which radically challenged accepted norms.  From fragments of information a picture emerges of myriad groups in a number of different places, each struggling to make sense of their new faith, and work out how to practice it in their own community/ies through their eating policies and practices.

Paul is clear that in the community of Jesus believers there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28). This in itself is a radical statement, for of course the Romans maintained strict control on social stratification, reinforced by banqueting practices.

When Paul challenges the Corinthian Jesus believers to wait until all are present before they begin to eat (I Cor. 11.33-34), it implies that members who are slaves and would finish work much later than the free, would miss out on the start of the meal unless it was delayed. Although Paul’s reference to the women in Corinth talking too much is not nice (and possibly a later addition), it does at least demonstrate that they were included as full members of the eating community (I Cor. 14.34-36).

Generally Jews would not share meals with Gentiles (non-Jews), even if they were liberal enough to attend banquets at which Gentiles were present. In defining themselves as members of the ekklesia (church), the Jewish members were released from strict observance of the Torah regarding food. However, Paul asks them to be courteous to those for whom this is an issue: “if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died (Rom. 14.2-15).  Similarly he writes to the Corinthians,”All things are lawful,” but not all things beneficial.  “All things are lawful, but not all things build up… Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10.23,31).

These differences were about more than demonstrating equality among members. For in reality those who arrived as slaves left as slaves, and those who were wealthy and had hosted the meals remained so after their guests had left.  Jews remained Jewish and Gentiles remained Gentile. My suggestion is that these practices reflected an eschatological understanding of what participants were entering into by becoming part of the fellowship of believers. This was no future ideal – it was a reality they saw very much in the present.  Where Greco-Roman society promoted inequality and maintained allegiance to Rome through table fellowship, the churches did the opposite; and by so doing created and performed rituals that reinforced that identity.

Worship round the table: its relevance for today

Fast forward two thousand years, and we find worship among most Christian communities very different. Fifteen hundred years of Christendom Church practice has, in many ways, caused a sanitised version of that radical existence, with services having more in common with assemblies or public meetings than times of deep, identity-forming fellowship. Congregations might share a cuppa before or after their service – and indeed it is an important aspect of relationship formation – but I would argue that the format of traditional Sunday morning worship reflects very little of the reality of worship as described in the Bible.

As Christendom fades and a new era as yet un-named begins, that assembly-style way of receiving and taking in information feels less and less relevant as a way of attracting people and forging community.  In response to this congregations up and down the country are exploring new ways of worship – or perhaps it might be said they are returning to ancient ones.

Today’s missiologists (such as Jim Belcher and Kester Brewin for example) suggest that ‘successful’ churches are ones which offer the opportunity to form a deep relationships with God; modelling lifestyles on the example and teachings of Jesus; and allow the Holy Spirit to fire and inspire every aspect of daily lives.  What’s more, commensality is a particularly effective way to achieve this.

My experience is that table fellowship – gathering together round a table to share food and learn more about Jesus – is an exceptionally good way to do this.  Through eating and spending time together, engaging in deep conversation, and even sharing bread and wine in Remembrance of Jesus, community is formed, identity emerges, and people are literally fed, both physically and spiritually, to lead lives modelled on Jesus himself.

Further reading:

Andrew Roberts, Holy Habits: Eating Together (London, Bible Reading Fellowship)

Dennis Smith, 2003, From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, (Kindle version from Amazon)

Wayne Meeks, 2003, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale University Press)

Hal Taussig, 2009, In the Beginning Was The Meal (Minneapolis, Fortress)

Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal” in Clifford Geertz, 1971, Myth, Symbol and Culture (New York, Norton)

Jim Belcher, 2009, Deep Church (Downers Grove, IVP)

Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence (London, Baker Books)

 

 

 

When theory becomes experience in the breaking of bread

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… or, the joy of sharing Holy Communion round a table

A Bishop recently asked me if I thought the Church could exist without Sacraments.  The conversation we were having revolved around the Eucharist – also known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. It is the bit of the service, usually at the end, when people share bread and wine together “in Remembrance” of Jesus.

My experience (or rather, absence) of Holy Communion growing up

The United Reformed Church in which I grew up had Holy Communion once a month, tacked on at the end of the morning service . Small cubes of sliced white bread and thimbles of alcohol-free wine were distributed to the seated congregation and consumed with grave seriousness. As teenagers we used to ask each other, “Will you be staying for Communion?” And the answer was almost always, “No.”  Until we had made our ‘confession of faith’ and become church members we weren’t allowed to participate, and church was dull enough as it was without an extra 15 minutes tacked on the end!

I suppose, at that age, I was totally missing the point.  No-one explained to me the point of Holy Communion, and my observation of the practice hardly invoked the feeling of awe and holiness that the liturgy (had I bothered listening to it) implied as we ate and drank together.  By the time I was an adult I had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the Sacraments.

Nowadays my approach is entirely different. Practising and participating in Holy Communion as part of a meal has made it more meaningful and moving than I could ever have imagined when I was young.

Sharing Holy Communion at the meal table

My first Holy Communion as a member of Hug Cullompton is an occasion I will never forget.  A number of us gathered at my house and shared a meal. Each person had brought something. As we ate and drank we discussed our lives, our prayer requests and a piece of scripture that one of us had been reflecting on.  Towards the end we moved into a time of worship, still seated round the table.  I took a glass of wine and bread roll, told the story of what happened on the night Jesus was betrayed and said, by heart, the words of the prayer of thanksgiving. As we ate and drank, many of us were moved to tears. It was a truly holy moment, and there was an amazing corporate sense of God’s presence among us at that time in that place.

Looking back, I am sad that the sacramental life of the church used to have so little meaning for me.  Although I hesitate to say I love the thimble-and-cube method, my experience now of sharing bread and wine in the context of a faith community is totally different.  Not only does it fill me with the sense of awe and holiness I missed when I was young, it transports me ineffably to another place.

There is something very special about celebrating Holy Communion round a meal table with friends, something Biblical. It is what the first Christians did, and the way they did it was, in the first century Middle East, truly radical, marking them out both as a community of Jesus-believers and members of God’s eternal Kingdom.

That is what I believe Church should be – an experience which takes us beyond ourselves and into the realms of holiness; binding us together in community, so that we may in turn go out and ‘break bread’ with others.

To read more about the role of table fellowship in the earliest Jesus-believing communities, click here.

The trouble with Baptism: Part Two

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…or, what to consider when bringing a new church into being through the sacrament of Baptism

Shortly after our little community Hug Cullompton began to meet, I had my first request for Baptism.  The candidate was a woman I met when leading a carol service at the local pub.

I explained that Baptism is a Sacrament – a sacred act – during which a candidate declares their faith and makes promises to play their part in the life of the church

“It will take time to prepare,” I said.

“That’s fine,” she replied. “It’s something I really want to do.”

So began a time of Baptismal preparation. Three of us met regularly, and gradually we made our way through a document called the Statement Concerning the Nature, Faith and Order of United Reformed Church.  It explains how we define God and the church, what is distinctive about our denomination and what it means to be a Christian in our tradition.  “If you’re going to be Baptised into the United Reformed Church,” I told her, “You need to understand what you’re signing up to.”

By June she was ready. We set the date for early September and found a venue – a river bank on the edge of the town.  The two of us who were already members of the United Reformed Church decided we would like to renew our Baptismal vows, and formally commit to this new church community taking shape.

It was then that the question came: “Can you do this?”

In our tradition a candidate for Baptism usually becomes a member of a URC congregation who can support and nurture them in the faith.  We weren’t a constituted congregation of the United Reformed Church, and this was to be our first formal ‘service’.

It turns out that whoever wrote the URC Manual (our rule book) hadn’t considered what would happen when a new church came into being through the sacrament of Baptism.  In fact, the URC doesn’t really have any guidance or procedures suited to church planting.

However, that doesn’t mean new things aren’t possible. In the aforementioned Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order it says:

we affirm our right and readiness, if the need arises, to change the Basis of Union and to make new statements of faith in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.

We weren’t asking to change the Basis of Union, our foundational document, but we were asking the church to review its practices.  Our request was forwarded to the committee which deals with matters of doctrine. A conversation took place between the members, during which agreement emerged that, in the case of a new church community, Baptism was possible.  Biblical precedents were found in the stories of both an Ethiopian Eunuch baptised by a road (Acts 8.28-40), and Lydia, mainland Europe’s first Christian (Acts 16.10-16).

Although it was rather frustrating at the time, I am glad the question was asked.  It ensured we did it ‘properly’, and we also drew attention to the need for appropriate responses to the new things God is doing in our midst.

The Baptism service was fantastic. More than 40 people came, family, friends and local church folk.  Gathering on the banks of the river Culm that day felt like a milestone – and so it was.

To read more about Baptism click here.

 

The trouble with Baptism: Part One

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…or, the dilemma of how to welcome non-practising Christians into church to have their Baby ‘Christened’.

In the year or so after giving birth to my daughter, it felt as though I had cornered the ‘Naming Ceremony’ market in my local area.  I got to know quite a few of the parents of babies born around the same time and, when they discovered my profession, asked if I was ‘licensed to do Christenings.’

The answer is that, as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the United Reformed Church, I am.  My call by God to preside at both adult and infant Baptisms (the ceremony at the heart of a child’s Christening service) has been recognised, and I have been formally trained.  At my previous church I baptised many babies, with the majority of the parents choosing to maintain or develop their relationship further with the congregation afterwards.

Not all did though, and there was a prevailing attitude that it was the fault of the parents – that they had somehow ‘used’ the church to get their baby ‘done’ under false pretences.

As a new parent myself, and as a minister in a role far away from the institutional norms of the church, I have come to the conclusion that this is not at all the case.  Generally speaking, parents love and want the best for their baby.  By having them ‘Christened’ they see the opportunity to mark an important rite of passage, celebrate the birth with family and friends, and do all they can to ensure their child is protected and cared for in the event that anything should happen to them.

Not all churches have the same tradition when it comes to the Sacraments (sacred ceremonies that mark God’s activity in human lives), but generally speaking, Baptism marks the candidate’s initiation into the Church. If they are adults they declare their faith and make promises to obey God and play their part in the life of the church.  For babies, unable to speak for themselves, the parents make the promises on their behalf, nominating Godparents who will assist them in the task.

I would like to suggest that the gap between the church’s formal understanding of the sacrament of Baptism, and the prevailing cultural understanding of ‘Christening’, is absolutely massive.  Parents who are not practising Christians, but have a sense that bringing their child for God’s blessing and protection, are not at fault.  They simply want to celebrate the new life they are miraculously holding in their arms, and receive God’s blessing on themselves and their child.

I do not blame church congregations for feeling used when their normally quiet Sunday morning services are invaded by a family they have barely even met before, hoards of noisy children, and inappropriately (in their eyes) dressed adults.  But I also do not hold it against those who are delighted to be in church, wearing their best new outfit, and anticipating a moving ceremony followed by a great big party.  Why shouldn’t they go to church? And why shouldn’t they be able to celebrate before God? Aren’t they God’s children just as much as those who have been attending week in, week out, for the best part of eighty years?

Sacraments are not an irrelevance. I should know, I’m in the middle of writing a book about them! But neither are they an excuse for those within the church to assume an air of scathing superiority.  ‘Christenings’ are a genuine opportunity to engage with people who may not have thought about faith before but who, on looking for the first time at that tiny bundle for which they are totally responsible, feel a stirring of something beyond themselves which might be vaguely recognised as ‘spiritual’.

The question is, how do we, within the church, help new parents harness that emotion and start to make the journey from vague spiritual stirrings to full-blown faith in Christ? If it is the first time in years (or ever) that they have thought about God, perhaps it is a bit much to expect them to be ready, within a few weeks and after a few ‘lessons’, to declare their own faith and promise to bring their child up in the life of the church.

I suspect that, in practical terms, Church baptismal traditions which have developed over centuries or, in some cases, millennia, are unlikely to be changed overnight because of one blog piece.

My experience is that, by setting the conversation about the ‘Baptism’ ceremony within the context of the ‘Christening’ event, it is possible to have conversations with new parents about what Baptism actually means and requires. They can then make an informed choice about the most appropriate way to celebrate the birth of, and ask God’s blessing on, their child.

They may well still choose Baptism (because culturally a ‘Christening’ does require ‘water’), but at least they will have a better understanding of what the water and sign of the cross on their child’s head signifies. And who knows, the ceremony which should really be a key marker on a journey of faith, might well, by the grace of God, become the initial signpost.

To read some background about the Sacrament of Baptism click here

Baptism: navigating the waters

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… or, a simple guide to where Baptism comes from, what it is, and who can have it.

Four years ago my partner in marriage and I had our baby ‘Christened’.  The event itself was one of immense joy, and lots of people came from around the country to celebrate and share the occasion with us.  But the simplicity of the service in no way represented the agonising which took place beforehand.

The details of the event itself were easy: in the community centre with a Devon cream tea to follow, and presided over by a local URC minister. Which ceremony we would choose was not such an easy decision to make: Baptism or Thanksgiving? What was the difference? As an ordained minister I knew what I wanted – but my desire to allow my daughter to choose Baptism for herself later was different to that of my husband.  He couldn’t see why we wouldn’t choose the option of having her properly initiated into the church.  It was one of those cases where theological knowledge didn’t actually help.

I don’t think ours is an uncommon experience, and I wish there had been a simple guide when we were deciding what we wanted.  Hopefully this quick guide to Baptism will help others with the same dilemma we had.

Baptism in the Bible

Baptism as a practice predates Christianity. It was undertaken in the first century by Jewish people who wished to recommit themselves to living a holy life. The ceremony would involve being immersed fully in water.  It signified the forgiveness of sins and a new chapter in a person’s spiritual journey.  John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was renowned for Baptising candidates in the river Jordan. He himself Baptised Jesus.  However, he was always clear that his Baptism would in no way equate to the one initiated by Jesus.

After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1.7-8)

Although Jesus is not recorded as Baptising anyone, his parting instructions before he ascends into heaven are, amongst other things, Baptising believers in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28.19). There are several incidences of Baptism recorded in the Book of Acts, and it is referred to frequently in the other books of the New Testament. Here are two examples:

  • According to the Bible, the first Christian convert on mainland Europe was a Macedonian cloth trader called Lydia.  She first encounters Paul, the persecutor turned evangelist, at the river on the outskirts of the town. Paul goes there to pray and meets a group of women, including Lydia. The author records how “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  (Acts 16.14)  In the next verse she and her entire ‘household’ are Baptised.
  • Paul himself went through a radical conversion experience which included Baptism. He was blinded by a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, then taught in the ways of the faith by Ananias, a Christian leader he was originally on his way to arrest. Paul (who is at that point called Saul) is recorded as being Baptised shortly afterwards. Ever the zealot, he begins to proclaim Jesus the ‘Son of God’ (Acts 9.20), so successfully that he becomes the subject of the arrest warrant he himself used to use.

So what is it all about? 

Baptism is a Sacrament, described by Thomas Cranmer, author of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, as:

visible signs, expressly commanded in the New Testament, which are joined with the promise of free forgiveness of our sin and of our holiness and union in Christ – there are but two: Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.  (1547)

The Reformed understanding of the sacraments, reflected in the words of Cranmer and in the theology and practice of the URC, is that there are two Gospel Sacraments – ceremonies or activities which Jesus commanded his followers to adopt. They are Baptism (Matt 28.19) and Holy Communion, also known as the Supper of the Lord or Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) (Matt 26.26-29//).

Through the immersion in, or pouring on of, water; the love and saving grace of God, offered so freely to all who believe, are acknowledged, celebrated and received.  participants are united with Christ and bound to each other, receiving through the power of the Holy Spirit the spiritual nourishment needed to empower them for the journey of faith ahead.

The water used is what is known as a ‘signifier’, a visible sign of the activity of God.  It is not simply a marker.  In the act of confessing faith and asking for God’s blessing, ordinary things are made holy, and God becomes present among those gathered as the water is poured or the candidate dunked.

Who can be Baptised?

There are two generally accepted kinds of Baptism:

  • Believer’s Baptism – when the candidate is of an age to make their own commitment to Christ. This can be done by full immersion (in a river, baptistry or pool), or over a font.
  • Infant Baptism – a ceremony sometimes known culturally as ‘Christening’, when an infant is brought by their parents to be Baptised, usually over a font.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, Baptism has been a key initiation ceremony, a signifier of a person’s sincere commitment to following Jesus.  The candidate is required to declare their faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then be immersed in water or have it poured on, as a symbol of the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit and their new identity as member of the Church. Whether infants were Baptised in Biblical times is unclear.  We do not know if the ‘household’ of Lydia, Baptised in its entirety, included minors, and other corporate references to Baptism are equally unclear (Acts 16.33, 1 Cor. 12.13, Gal 3.27, 1 Peter 3.21).  However we do know that, in the third century, Cyprian advocated infant Baptism, and by the fifth or sixth centuries it had become an accepted practice.

While all churches advocate Believers Baptism, not all offer the Baptism of infants. Roman Catholics and the Church of England routinely Baptise babies, while the Baptists, as their name suggests, hold Baptism in particularly high regard.  For them it is a key marker, an occasion during which a person demonstrates their commitment to following Christ, and is therefore only possible for those old enough to make that decision themselves.

Within the United Reformed Church, only two of the three contributing traditions practise infant Baptism (Congregationalist and Presbyterian). The Churches of Christ follow a tradition of Believers’ Baptism by full immersion – with ex-Churches of Christ URCs still in possession of their Baptistries.  One thing which unites all three is the conviction that, whenever it happens, and by whatever means, Baptism – the ceremony through which one enters the church – can only happen once.

Baptism or Thanksgiving/Dedication?

The journey to becoming a Christian can be a complicated one, and is unique for each person. For some it is a momentary experience, a sudden ‘being born again’, so powerful that a person is changed forever. For others it can take as a long as a lifetime.  Being Baptised, whether it is a choice made on a child’s behalf by their parents or by a believing adult, is just as individual, and the expectations of what is appropriate will be influenced by the practices adopted by the tradition with which they are most familiar.

For those feeling unready to declare their faith and commit to following Jesus, but who want to celebrate the birth of a child and have him or her blessed, there are alternatives.  In the URC there is a Service of Thanksgiving, which includes the blessing of the child.  The benefit of choosing this ceremony is that the child is given the option of deciding for themselves later whether or not they want to be Baptised.  There are some for whom the presence of water is important.  It is a signifier – more than just a symbol of God’s love and blessing – and not having it just wouldn’t seem ‘proper’.

As can be seen from this outline, the sacrament of Baptism is a holy act, located at the very heart of church life.  Christians believe that through it, God is at work, so it is never to be taken lightly.  Anyone considering Baptism for themselves or their baby should contact the church they would like to conduct the ceremony, and should expect there to be some form of preparation before the ceremony can take place.

A theology of touch

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or, why Hug Cullompton hugs in the first place.

The Bible tells us that humankind is created in the image of God (Gen. 1.26-27) .  We are embodied, an immortal soul housed in a temporary shell (2 Cor.5.1-5).  Like Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 2, we are meant not to be alone, but to live in relationship with others; and living in relationship with others – whether we like it or not – necessarily includes physical touch.

The importance of touch

That Jesus’ way of revealing his messianic identity runs contrary to accepted cultural norms, should be no surprise to those who know their Bible.  He is renowned for dining with sinners and befriending the lost.  But the most revealing encounters of all, those which flesh out the identity of Jesus as the most unconventional of saviours, invariably include touch:

  • He demonstrates his priestly identity by laying his hands on and blessing children (Matthew 9.13-15 //);
  • He is anointed by a woman whose hair is hanging lose (a sign of disrepute), and who wipes the perfume away with mix of her hair and her tears (Mark 14.3-9, John 12.3-8 //); and
  • On the night of the Last Supper, when he institutes the sacramental practice of sharing bread and wine in remembrance of him, he first washes the feet of the disciples – an activity usually carried out only by the most lowly (John 13.3-14). The man, who is God made human, turns Kingship on its head in a supreme act of servanthood.

And when, following the meal,  Jesus is arrested, the ultimate betrayal is committed through the most intimate of touches – a kiss (Mark 14.43-46 //).

After the resurrection Mary Magdalene reaches for him in the garden (John 20.15-18), Thomas is invited to touch his hands and his side (John 20.26-29), Jesus is bodily present as he walks alongside a couple on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35), conversing and sharing a meal with them, and soon afterwards he appears on the beach, cooking for, and sharing breakfast with, his disciples (John 21.4-14).

A whole host of scholars, including Ched Myers, NT Wright, James DG Dunn and Andrew Harvey, have explored at length the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry (see ‘Suggested Reading’ Below).  Bob Johnson, in his book When Heaven Invades Earth, suggests that the true greatness of Christ is revealed, not in messiahship as understood by his first century peers (they expected a revolutionary overthrower of the Imperial Roman Power), but in his solidarity with the poor, the disempowered, the lost and the alone. The most remarkable thing is Christ’s willingness to touch those considered untouchable – because, as sacred creations knitted together in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139), no-one is beyond God’s touch.

Healing through touch

A major part of Jesus’ ministry was healing – bringing wholeness to others.  He cured physical diseases, but also relieved mental infirmities and offered forgiveness to those who needed it. Despite a cultural hesitancy to allow physical contact with people who were considered ‘unclean’ (due to illness or lack of morality)  Jesus was never hesitant in touching anyone. Early in the book of Luke, Jesus “lays hands” on all those who come to him at sundown for healing.  To heal a deaf man with speech difficulties he puts his fingers in the man’s ears, and spits on his hands then touches his tongue. Later a man’s sight is restored after Jesus mingles mud with spittle and rubs it on his eyes.  When a woman who has been suffering from menstrual problems for 18 years touches his cloak, Jesus feels the power go out of him. Although he has not seen who she is, it is the sense of touch which is important. Her reaching for him, combined with her faith in his ability to perform miracles, results in her miraculous healing from a longterm illness which, according to the culture of the time, had made her unclean in the eyes of her peers.

There is something both intimate and earthy about these physical expressions of loving service.  Jesus isn’t afraid of getting stuck in; of allowing human beings to be physically touched by God.  Although Jesus’ healing power is not dependent on touch –  he is recorded as both raising men from the dead and healing two children close to death without needing to be alongside the bodies or even present – there is an expectation that, by the laying on of hands, Jesus heals.

In acknowledging the importance of laying hands on someone, Jesus is being recognised by his peers as having more than a coincidental healing talent. His actions are equated with anointing. They are holy acts – acts which bring physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness to the person on which they are laid.

This focus on wholeness has been explored at length by the members of Hug Cullompton.  The way we eat, pray, exercise, laugh, live and worship, both together and in our daily lives, are discussed regularly. Wellbeing Wednesdays is our opportunity to extend our theology of touch to anyone who is in need of help, whether they come for regular ‘sessions’ or just pop in on the off-chance. The member who started Wellbeing Wednesdays is herself a healer and life coach, practising a variety of disciplines in order to help people look beyond physical symptoms to the emotional or spiritual issues might be at the root of their discomfort.

We never suggest that people stop taking the advice, medication or treatment offered by their GP and other health professionals, and we will often give details of nutritionists, osteopaths or other professionally qualified practitioners who we think might be able to help. But while the NHS really only has only limited resources to address medical problems, at Hug Cullompton we can give the time needed for to a person to begin to explore finding wholeness.

The touch of the Holy Spirit

During his final evening with the disciples, Jesus promised them an advocate, the Holy Spirit (John 14.25-26, 15.26-27; Acts 1.6-8).  This is the aspect of God which came to the apostles on the day of Pentecost, and the person of the Trinity which remains present in the world to this day.  In the book of Acts the coming of the Holy Spirit is described as being like tongues of fire, touching each one on the believers (Acts 2.1-3).  Throughout history followers of Jesus have described a similar experience when they feel the power of the Holy Spirit. It may not be seen or heard, but it is certainly experienced as a tangible ‘thing’.

Bill Johnson’s theology of healing is a pneumatological one (meaning it is founded on an understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the world). He argues that, in becoming fully human, Jesus emptied himself of his divinity (Phil 2.5-10), and became entirely dependent on the power of Holy Spirit to carry out his work in the world.  It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that Christ heals infirmities, feeds thousands, stills storms and walks on water. Johnson’s conclusion is that, by the power of the same Spirit, all humans can equal this – a rather far fetched assumption to say the least!  However, the presumption that human empowerment, in the name of Christ and fuelled by the Holy Spirit, can achieve immeasurably more than can initially be envisaged, is not (Eph 3.20-21). Miracles do happen, healing does take place. I have seen with my own eyes, and experienced for myself, the healing power of prayer.

The Body of Christ in reaching out

From very early on in their history, Christian communities described themselves as  the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12).  This understanding of corporate embodiment is a fundamental aspect of the common Christian life, both in the way individual members feel a tangible sense of attachment to each other, and how they reach out together to the world around them.

Hug Cullompton has certainly adopted an attitude of corporate embodiment. We committed, from day one, to be there for ourselves, each other and out town.  We have initiated projects which address personal wholeness and healing, but also others which embrace and promulgate a holistic vision for residents. We have made tea, given hugs, prayed with and ministered to a multitude of people in the past five years. In addition we have promoted talent, encouraged people to explore the Arts, raised money for the local swimming pool campaign and started an organisation providing friendship and purpose, specifically for men.

Our name – Hug Cullompton – is no coincidence. Both the title and ministry attached to it are based on a great deal of prayer, reflection and mutual love.  As a body we reach out to touch others – both individuals and organisations.  In committing to bring about wholeness to our town and its residents, we practice what Jesus both preached and demonstrated:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

Suggested Reading:

Dunn, James DG, 2011, Jesus, Paul and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans)

Harvey, Andrew, 1999, Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ (New York, Putnam)

Johnson, Bill, 2003, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles (Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image)

Myers, Ched, 2008, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (New York, Orbis)

Wright, NT, 2012, How God became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (London, HarperOne)

 

 

 

 

living creatively with difference

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or, getting to the heart of what really matters

When I started training for ministry in 1999 I was introduced to a whole new range of terms – well, not introduced, actually.  I was expected to know them. They included the words conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, evangelical and open. I knew the first two – although I associated them with political voting preferences rather than types of theology – the others were new to me.

I realised very quickly that I was supposed to select one or two of these terms to describe ‘where I stood’ theologically. Whichever combination  I chose would also tell people what style of worship I preferred.  Invariably people would say, “Well, I don’t like boxes, but I suppose I would describe myself as…”, immediately putting themselves in whichever shaped box most suited.

My introduction to those terms also signalled the start of my education in how much the Church struggles with difference.  I have observed over two decades how using such labels creates divides within churches and denominations.  Even today there remains a legacy of suspicion, deflecting the church from its main task of demonstrating, and introducing people to, the joy of a faith in Christ.

One of my most inspiring theological discussion partners is a local Christian about my age.  There are fundamental differences between us.  She would probably describe herself as an ‘evangelical’, while I hail from the more ‘liberal’ end of the tradition. Embarking on a missiological journey alongside non-Christians has enabled us to set aside those differences which, in other circumstances, might have caused problems.  We can accept that only one of us believes in creationism (the idea that God made the world in six days), and we can agree to differ on whether the image of the future as depicted in the book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally or not. What might potentially divide us pales into insignificance when set alongside what really matters: following Jesus and enabling others to do the same.

Moving beyond such issues, in order to hear what God might be calling us to do and be, has been profoundly important for both of us.  Working alongside people, for whom these sets of labels have no meaning, has exposed how theological difference has impacted on the Church’s sense unity, and inspired in us a greater determination to follow the path that God has set for us – to be disciples of Christ in communion, each in our own way.

I am saddened when I hear of faithful Christians seemingly unable to move beyond the unhelpful divisions of the late twentieth century.  I am not saying that the issues on which churches differ don’t matter; but I wish they could work more creatively to resolve them, adopting an attitude of openness and listening rather than barely disguised hostility.

Perhaps then we could focus on reaching the 94% of people in Britain who don’t go to church, rather than tying ourselves up in knots over what divides the 6% who do.

For an article about reaching the 94% of British people who don’t go to church click  here.