Should the Church be more like a bramble?

This fourth-blog post has proved harder to write; indeed, I have skipped a week as I failed last week to finish a blog post I am still writing. Part of that has been finding it hard to change gear and start to make some positive sense of where I at least see church and what it might be amongst what still feels like awful lot of deconstruction and uncertainty. At least in the UK transitioning out of ‘lockdown’ to me feels harder than transitioning into it. It feels like we have an awfully tough recession ahead and the new ‘normal’ we find outselves in is very much not normal. At the same time I am trying to think through for myself what a more externally focussed less self-referencing church might look and feel like; and where a 21st century church might start therefore to look draw inspiration in the current contemporary cultural landscape… however more on that next week.

This week though an ode to the humble bramble and what the church can learn from it. At least in London we have now hit full blackberry picking session with plastic tubs clutched by those who know in the various parks, nooks and crannies that spring between the more manicured spaces. So here goes:

  1. Brambles occur despite human action; in fact, they often occur where humans vacate a place and leave it alone. It reminds me that God is at work despite ourselves, and it is the church’s role not to be God, rather to find where He is at work and join in with what He is doing.
  2. Brambles are messy, organic, unsightly, have hard thorns and basically can be said to lack elegance… perhaps the church at its best should have these qualities as well. If Covid-19 has taught us nothing else then the church is not about the beautiful buildings, even the music we sing together, and how we come together on a Sunday but it is very much amount the bigger more messy community that is built (good and bad).
  3. Brambles provide a brilliant protective eco-system for smaller animals and wildlife. They shelter and protect them from larger predators (including humans). Perhaps the church should play this role, rather than seeing itself for what it does itself, it should see success in a much wider way as to what it contributes to the ecosystem as a whole, what it protects and looks after… it should seek to be the yeast not the bread itself.
  4. Finally, brambles produce brilliant sweet fruit both for humans but also other wild life to feed off and does so freely and indiscriminately. Surely something for the church to think about as anti-dote to our increasingly curated and calibrated consumer orientated culture.

why everyone who cares about the Church of England should read ‘Ghost Ship’ by Father A.D.A. France-Williams.

After reading this book I feel in shock. In one way or other my whole life has been played out in the Church of England (‘C of E’). It is the church I grew up, came to faith through, got through university with and now attend with my family. I have regarded the church as essentially either at best a net contributor to building God’s kingdom or at worst at least benign. Personally, it has provided nourishment to my soul, the strength to get through hard times, somewhere between provocateur and comfort blanket. In times of trouble I have sat in churches as a point of security, a point of reference in an otherwise fast moving landscape. However, I have done so as a white male, and this book has made me realise that so much of what I feel towards the C of E would simply not be true were I not white. Worse the church might do more harm than good.

Father Williams has written a beautiful book, which mixes personal recollections from the author, stories of other individuals and their personal narratives with rich allegories that draw home how deceptive power structures can be. It is not though a positive book (as given its subject matter it perhaps cannot be); it is harrowing, this is not a good news story. Indeed, its epilogue paints an alternative vision from 1987 had different decisions been taken by the various institutions and power structures within the C of E. This is a book of grief, of mourning towards missed opportunities.

The main point that the book makes is that the C of E is essentially a ghost ship where passengers, particularly clergy, board it akin to the tragedy of the MV Christena. That the C of E is at its worst a grotesque club where the white (and mostly male) are inured against the worst elements of the tragedy that unfolds within it. The powerful twin themes being firstly that the C of E does not live up to its calling to serve God; that it has both been historically and still is compromised as part of the wider establishment with a supreme governor who remains the UK monarch. Secondly that the C of E is institutionally racist; where the governance and power structures play out with a white bias. The point made by Father France-Williams that whilst not always intentional, the net effect is that black individuals are meant to be grateful for being allowed to be involved and are expected to continue the power and subtle structures that have been formed within the church… they are meant to play along.

The two most profound stories I found were ones directly from the authors experience. Firstly, his experience preaching at St Pauls and seeing the inscription ‘to God and Empire’ and what that meant to him as a black person. I reflected just how different my response would be to such an inscription; as a white male. That would not have had the negative connotations of subjugation, in fact it would feel almost of a friendly quaint hang over from a more friendly and certain time. It was challenging to see how the remains of our history act as a reminder, be they our statues, our inscriptions, our buildings or indeed our institutions. Secondly, he speaks of an encounter with a retired bishop and a white colleage at a Quaker service and implicit power structures and silent narratives that are presumed to take part as they talk after the meeting. In one of the few rays of hope that story ends with a reflection of regret by the bishop that perhaps he should have been done. I can relate to seeing countless similar interactions, the endless need to understand that ‘the game’ has to continue and regret that more challenge was not forthcoming when it is often too late.

As someone who professionally works within a Royal Charter institution I can see many of the common themes and subtleties. Indeed, my own organisation is in many ways similarly challenged. However, there are within that institution concrete levers that can be concretely pulled to initiate change, and indeed that are being pulled. The governance processes though are far less complex and not so reliant on serving one’s time and playing ‘the game’. What has shocked me on reading this book is that I should have seen this. Governance is my area of expertise; to have influence within the C of E you have to learn to play the game, to get in step… it becomes self-perpetuating. In a nutshell the problem the C of E has is that it almost exclusively recruits internally, either to its leadership or governance structures; there is very little (if any) external perspective. At the same time it is overly complex made up of a myriad of parishes, diocese… even the national body is made up of seven seperate but interconnected ‘National Church Institutions’. In short in terms of governance it is setup to be self-perpetuating; locked into statsis.

Please do read this book, but do not expect a happily ever after story… or even dare I say it any sense of hope. I left feeling very down about just how much work needs to be done and just how unlikely that is to happen. Exchanging messages with a friend (who is a black member of clergy within the C of E) I wondered what I can do; he suggested that a starting point is to be at least honest at a parish level. So if you are a church member please do read this and go back to your parish church with new eyes. That somehow does not feel enough but if nothing else it’s a starting point. I go into the week, holding on to the hope that I know so many amazing people who live and work within the C of E (many I have had the privilege to work alongside), but my simple message to you whether lay or ordained is please read this book.

This is the most helpful prayer I could find as a response:

Have mercy on me, O Lord.

I have blinded my eyes. In spite of the clear evidence of deeply embedded racism all around me, I have looked the other way. Too many have died. Too many have suffered. Too many have been locked out and cast aside. Too many indignities. Too many injustices. And still I looked the other way.

Have mercy on me, O Lord.

I have hardened my heart. Believing the lie that blacks have the same opportunities as whites, I could not allow myself to admit that my life was shaped as much by racism as theirs—mine to benefit and theirs to harm. But it was and it is and it will continue to be. I have cared too little. I have grieved too little.

Have mercy on me, O Lord.

I have silenced my tongue. My voice has not been raised in prophetic rebuke and anger. My feet have not stepped out for justice alongside those who have more courage than I. And in my silence I am an accomplice to bigotry.

Forgive me, O Lord.

I have sinned against you and against those who suffer the evil of racism. Indifference has smothered my soul and snuffed out fleeting impulses for reconciliation. I ask for your forgiveness and I will appropriately seek their forgiveness.

Empower me, O Lord.

I need your strength to step beyond blindness, indifference and fear; to step toward those whom I have sinned against. I make no grandiose promises or plans today for I know how easily these can be made and forgotten. But this I know. I cannot be the same. And I will not.

Amen!

Mark Young, Denver Seminary

why the Church needs to lose its persecution complex and find its fragility…

On the morning of the 2nd June I woke up to see this image and different versions of it splashed across my news streams and social media accounts. I felt physically sick. A man who epitomises a set of values opposite to mine standing outside a church and aligning himself to the same Anglican Communion I am part of and claiming a symbolic relationship to me that I did not accept (something the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington quite rightly publicly disavowed).

As I have reflected on this, over a month later; I wonder whether as a Christian I should have been surprised. Indeed this picture is actually simply the logical conclusion of the dangerous narrative that the church has sought to broker in terms of the power and privilege that it wields on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean while repeatedly protesting that it is in fact weak, powerless and on the backfoot. This is uncomfortable journey to take, it is one of fragility but needs to be thought through at both an individual and coporate level.

One of the podcasts I listen to, On the Media shortly after this took place interviewed Candida Moss (a Christian and professor of church history) for her reflection on this moment and she makes the point wisely (I think) that the interesting point about Trump is on the one hand he wields the power of the most powerful nation in the world but at the same has built his support on the insecurity of those who long for a nation that seeks to reassert its past glory, that seeks to turn the clock back and therefore seeks to see its nation through the lens of faded glory and powerlessness that needs a political saviour (aka Trump) to reawaken it.

This danger in this of course is that this narrative of ignores the truth that the US is still the world’s largest economy, is dominating the world through its tech companies and that the decisions over inequality are largely because of internal ones around the distribution of wealth. It is also a misnomer that there was ever a period of unparalleled universal wealth and prosperity. We can also safely say that in today’s world the US and its policies affect billions of people around the world in profound ways, often in ways which are devastating.

The challenging point that Moss makes though is that this deal is mirrored in Trump’s relationship with the church where he has managed to hook into its own insecurity and sense of persecution, threat and powerlessnes. Particularly for Trump with many ‘evangelical’ Christians in the US; where leaders and congregations have been persuaded to ignore some of Trump’s more dubious value based credentials for a narrative of potential future greatness and a restoration of what has been in the past.

Moss makes the point that we should not be surprised by this; the Church in its very broadest sense has repeatedly built a narrative of persecution at odds with its true position of strength and power; more often and not completely false premisse. Indeed, reflecting on my own upbringing, I have sat through countless sermons talking about the dangerous times we find ourselves in and bemoaning the world we now find ourselves within with the underlying threat of being a persecuted minority. I am not a historian but Moss’ book is worth a read as she develops how entrenched the persecution myth is.

It seems to me in responding to challenges raised in our time, not least the Black Lives Matters movement the Church and all who are Jesus pilgraims must be clear that in the western world Christianity is still central to the institutions of power. Christianity is not a persecuted faith; its failings therefore are fully and squarely of its own making. Just in the US alone evangelicalism (and a narrow interpretation at that) remains at the heart of the US narrative and church attendance in many parts seen as the norm. In the UK the Church of England remains firmly an established state church with at least £6 billion of investment reserves through the Church Commissioners and significant other income as well as reserves locked nationally within its cathedrals, diocese and parishes.

So what am I suggesting? Personally, I think these are my three starting points:

  • Let’s stop with the persecution rhetoric and reflect that gospel message is one above all else of faith, hope and love as Paul writes. If we believe in a God that is real and at work today we do not need figures who promise to pass the right laws, promise to look after Christian interests or preserve our influence – in any political environment. We need the discipline to remember that God (often despite the Church) will be at work, in ways we simply do not see.
  • We need stop avoiding political questions from out pulpits and platforms but to do so wisely; to make value-based decisions about the people we chose to support give our platforms to. Jesus chose to engage with people on this basis and so should we. Jesus chose to highlight examples of Kingdom building behaviour outside his own narrow Jewish perspective; often casting the hero in his stories as the reprehensible in that society and so should we. He chose to call out behaviour across the political spectrum that was unjust, disempowering and inconsistent and so should we. He did so particularly of the Romans and their behaviour as the dominant empire of the time and called out religious leaders who chose to preserve their place in the system and the status quo over championing God’s values.
  • Let’s start thinking through what the gospel positively brings to the table in the world we live in. We live in a starkly polarised world yet the Christian faith from its Jewish roots has been able to hold a huge tent of views including some stark cultural differences while remaining in meaningful relationship.

In short my prayer today is to see a church that acknowledges its true resource and power and that lets go of the persecution and precariousness it wraps itself as a safety blanket. Instead it sees the role it has to heal, release and empower those it encounters… to build God’s Kingdom; perhaps dare I say it just like the example we see in Jesus.

why black lives MUST matter and what it means as a Jesus follower…

I find the Black Lives Matter movement uncomfortable, but I should; as a white privileged male the movement asks me to take a cold hard stare at the dark corners of my life and recognise the truths I would rather not see. I am biased. Importantly though I am as a Jesus follower reminded that’s exactly what I am called to do; I am asked as part of the regular rhythm of my life to understand that so much of my life is not what God longs for it to be; but through the practice of encountering God in confession and through his love for me I become changed.

Part of the discomfort though it is even harder when you extend that cold hard stare to the wider system, our workplaces, our communities; the day to day reality of our shared lived experience… including dare I say it… our religious communities. Black Lives Matters as a movement asks us to join in with the profound biblical prophetic movement (Old Testament and New) of taking a long hard look at the whole of society, to look and clearly announce the underlying prejudice and systemic inequality… to announce collectively in confession where we have got this wrong. The BLM movement does not just challenge those living in the US, but is a challenge to a wider western issue; for those convinced otherwise you should listen to this podcast which discusses the Amsterdam Fire Brigade/Department and any other number of blogs and personal accounts. We need to be honest about ourselves; how we personally and collectively recognise others – at both conscious and unconscious levels. It’s about facing truth, that the badges and identifiers that we choose, the signals we give that underline that we know the implied rules of the game really matter and they lock people out and exclude.

I have, nay must, recognise that I have power and privilege. My privilege is the ability to put on a suit, tie, and set of cuff-links which I can use to signal my apparent education and class. I can adapt to a way of behaving that indicates I understand the game that is being played and matter within it. I can drop into conversations my qualifications, my status as a lawyer. I can talk about football or rugby, my mortgage and house, my children or my pension to fit in – I as a white person in my society can be a cultural chameleon with the skills needed to get on. The truth is that I can do that freely only because of the colour of my skin. I would not have those same opportunities if my skin colour were not white. The police would not automatically see me as their friend, I would not be seen as ‘safe pair of hands’ – those in power would not be certain that I ‘get it’ when I am interviewed for a job or thought of for a position of responsibility.

The uncomfortable truth is that I, wider society and perhaps most pointedly asa Jesus follower the Church now have a prophetic calling and challenge that it needs to meet:

  1. I need to understand my bias and counteract it; on a personal level I need to choose to recognise the individual in front of me (whatever the colour or circumstance of that person) and I need to know that I have to cede space within the system to others, to give others a platform; not because I can… but because I must.
  2. On a wider level we all have to accept that aspects of the system we play our part in are unfair… systemically so and need to change… and change NOW! We need to use our positions of influence to ensure change and to speak out and speak truth.
  3. But as importantly for as a Christian and part of a wider community of Jesus followers across the world we have to take a long cold hard stare at Church in its broadest sense; (two great reads that are good starting point are this one by a friend Darius and this one looking at the US church. The church must be accountable for the platforms it creates, who does and does not get a voice; how it spends money and who it allows to use its resources, who it chooses to use its voice on behalf of… perhaps dare I say it just like Jesus did.

These are big challenges, ones that are hard to stomach and just like the prophetic tradition I come from has when at is best, it must make us uncomfortable. However we absolutely must yearn for this. A great reframing of what such a faith might mean can be found here by Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu but beware reading this is uncomfortable – it’s hard hitting stuff.

…And I still believe in kingdom come, that all the colors will bleed into one, yet I stand firmly against the idea that we need any more white saviors or privileged prophets, speaking over the voices of the oppressed…

Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu

The thing is that Covid-19 has proved (and dare I say it when white lives are at stake) that we can really do things differently. At least in a UK context we can bring about change in ways that were considered impossible before… that is called in religious speak a miracle… as we stare into a post-Covid-19 world and start to understand what that world might look like; as we learn to live with Covid-19 and the wider virus we must design systems where blacks lives DO matter.

If you want to explore this matter further from a Christian perspective this is a great podcast not least because the content creators have for this episode given their platform to individuals who can speak authentically on the subject.