Not The Future I See, Nor Want To See

In 2013, I heard that some groups were putting together a vision of what Reading could be in 2050. Four years later, a large glossy document has been released with much fanfare. And my only response was to ask: Is that it? How can a group of such well-resourced, intelligent people create a vision that is so superficial?

Don’t get me wrong, wanting to see more green spaces, community allotments, and arts venues is a good thing. They are things that I am so passionate about that I have worked with people to turn one of my Churches into a theatre space, and my parish hall garden into a community allotment. These things do make a difference, but they need to be a part of a bigger picture. And the bigger picture of Reading 2050 is the biggest flaw in the document.

Whether the writers meant this or not, this comes across as a vision for the wealthy, the connected, and those who do not struggle with physicial and mental difficulties. According to this docuemnt, by 2050 Reading looks like it will be the City of the Ubermensch, Nietzsche’s hideous view of the Strongman who will run the world. It is a view of a town in which the economically, socially, and culturally disenfranchised and unpopular will be marginalised to such a degree that they will be invisible. Perhaps some will say ‘Thank God for that,’ except you won’t be able to say it in a Church, only in a listed historic building that once was a Church, because obviously we’ll have grown out of all of that faith nonsense by then.

I find it completely incomprehensible that this is the best vision of the future of Reading. Loneliness, isolation, and mental health are impacting more people of all ages than ever before, yet there is nothing in this vision about the necessity of togetherness and how that will be enabled. There is nothing about holistic health care, and actually, there is nothing about care full stop. This vision looks at Reading’s current economic status, and simply draws an upward line toward more and more unfettered economic growth. Without any mention of what such ‘growth’ costs people and their communities, if indeed such growth is possible.

The document wishes to have a future in which cultural diversity is celebrated, but has no idea how to enable that to happen. Why would it, when the Reading of 2050 has no mention of enabling unity in difference. Important to this are the interwoven philosophical, political, and religious beliefs that exist around the world. If people are to arrive in Reading from across the world, bringing with them the gifts of their own cultures and faiths, we need an already-existing culture of togetherness that will invite them into the heart of the communities of this town, not force people into silos.

Perhaps the writers of this document can attempt a mark 2. Or perhaps this document can actually act as a catalyst to all people and groups from across the town to find a way to come together and explore an alternative future. A future in which loneliness and care is given at least as much attention as wealth and leisure. Perhaps this could be a moment when we ask how to create a more active culture of togetherness in our town.

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After Brexit

I’m struck by the number of people saying they neither expected Brexit, nor understand why people voted for it, especially as the people they had spoken to about it were voting remain. This seems to exemplify the network society we live in, characterised by small groups we elect to join which are made up of People Like Me. The challenge for each of us, and perhaps especially for those of us who work in community roles, is what to learn from this, and what we might do in response.

Name-calling has been used through the campaign and in the last 24 hours of reaction to the result. Behind that, it seems there is a deep-seated culture of estrangement and blame. Estrangement because, though we each desire community, we also fear community and being vulnerable with others. And because we do not know our neighbours, we can only blame them for what we imagine were their reasons to have different opinions to our own.

The problem I hit in my job time and again is that people don’t trust the Church; religion is the enemy, we’re told. People are estranged from it, and blame it for all sort of evils. The thing is, what I see from the reactions to this referendum, is that the reaction to the Church is part of a larger reaction. The culture of estrangement and blame has played a part in breaking our trust of all kinds of public bodies, and even local neighbourhoods: we trust only ourselves and People Like Me.

I am challenged to ask what I can do in response to this as the vicar of a parish. Unfashionable as it is, and often part of the problem as it may be, it seems to me that the Church actually has something really positive to offer to our nation, especially at this time. I am often struck by the way the parish Church can gather an extraordinary diversity of people in one community in a way few other places can. My own Churches in Reading are made up of people from right across the world, various ages, employed, unemployed, and retired, members/councillors belonging to Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, and Green Parties, sexualities and views on Equal Marriage, to name but a few. I wonder how we can share this in order to bring more people together, so that strangers would become neighbours, and neighbours become friends.

For example, we have a patch of unused land that we’ve turned into a community allotment. We’re also looking at how we might be able to bring people together to cook and serve lunch together each Sunday for and with anyone who wants to come. Of course, offering this is the easy bit; enabling people to take initial steps out of estrangement and blame to join in with a community that is as mistrusted as much as it is misunderstood, is far more difficult. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and the mood following the Brexit vote compels me to seek partners in building communities that will challenge and break down the estrangement and blame we’ve all become too accustomed to, and which hold us all back from being all we might be.

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Review of ‘Way To Water: A Theopoetics Primer’, by Callid Keefe-Perry

This review copy of the book was sent by Wipf & Stock.

In studying the idea of love, definitions can be offered; when one actually encounters love, definitions fail, sparks fly, one of which is poetry. Poetry is able to express the experience of love in a way that few other things can.

In studying the idea of God, definitions can be offered; when one actually encounters God, definitions fail, sparks fly, one of which is poetry.

In this beautifully-written book, Callid Keefe-Perry asks, ‘Why should we nurture the development of poetic sensibilities in theological discourse?’ My interpretation of his answer is that poetry makes the impossibility of theology, more possible. Theopoetics is a speaking of God, within the traditions of the church, but primarily out of an encounter with the living God. Its purpose is to open dialogue, poetically, with the traditions in and around oneself, the church, and the world. This is a wholly necessary enterprise, as too many professional theologians continue to miss the irony of their own endeavours, writing about the God who is for all people, in language so technical only the chosen few can understand what they are saying.

Theopoetics is not, however, about making things simplistic, or ‘plain’; quite the reverse. Keefe-Perry takes his readers through a wonderful collection of rich writing from Stanley Hopper and Rubem Alves, to Scott Holland, Catherine Keller, and John Caputo. He explains the complexities of this writing with ease and, sometimes even beauty, inviting the reader to go beyond this ‘primer’ to read the original texts.

His argument that sings from the pages is both a warning and a promise: to be wary of how language ossifies God, but also how language is essential in responding to one’s encountering of God. The language that is transformational is not institutional aphorism learned by rote, but embodied poetry that emerges from an open dialogue with the traditions and one’s contemporary context. As Churches continue to consume off-the-shelf courses in order to learn what to believe, Keefe-Perry’s words serve as a timely reminder to use such resources with care, if at all.

There is a sense that Keefe-Perry is writing very specifically for a North American readership, and specifically a Protestant one that is struggling with its sense of identity. His comments on preaching, worship and pastoral care all seemed to be aimed at the kinds of discussions that are going on in those communities. Throughout the book, though, I did feel that his direction of travel felt rather Anglican; even more than that, it felt like his presentation of an hospitable church that embraces uncertainty and humility was pointing toward the Church of England. It’s not often I get that feeling, and I wonder how such a comment sits with Keefe-Perry.

There was a sense that the sort of spoken and structural theopoetics being espoused, is that which the Anglican Church attempts, and fails, to live. Having thought that out loud, as it were, I began to realise the number of poets within the Church of England who have shaped the way we, as an institution, try to understand our encounters with God. Whether it is John Donne or Rowan Williams, the Church of England seems to be a Church in which the concept of Theopoetics deserves to thrive, if it hasn’t already been thriving for the past 400 years.

This book deserves a wide readership; having heard of deconstruction for so many years, it is possible to suggest that, with theopoetics, the Church may well find news ways to speak of the living God:

‘Deconstruction may well help to break apart damaging constructs of a coercive and idolotrous god, but it is theopoetics that wades into the rubble, not to build anew, but to sing of what might have been and what might yet be, encouraging others to imagine beginning again, nearby, and listening.’

‘Theopoetics is a method of encouraging exactly those moments when the strange reveals itself as familiar, when the gardener is seen as Jesus, and there is some momentary realization, eruption, and momentary in-breaking of the kingdom of God.’

Review of ‘Way To Water: A Theopoetics Primer’, by Callid Keefe-Perry, is published by Cascade Books. More reviews of this book will be published here, this coming week:

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What I call God: What Miranda might teach us about the weakness of God

The Vicarage is on the edge of its seat; this is the year we say farewell to that Miranda off of the telly. We have loved following her and her bizarre, clumsy ways, her ridiculous story lines, and most of all, ‘What I call her mother’.

I love Miranda’s frustrated responses to her mother’s constant prefacing of obvious and universally-understood words with ‘what I call’. Rather ridiculously, this phrase helps me stumble upon the revealing of God at Christmas – though I recognise that may seem, initially, a bit of a jump.

You see, people do God at Christmas; well, if they don’t actually do God, they certainly do the idea of God. This is the time of year when people remember, think about, sing about, sometimes talk about ‘What I call God,’ ‘What you call God,’ What they call God.’

But what do you call God?

Sitting in prayer, I often become aware that the Idea of God, the being of God, is beyond the comprehension of my mind – yet Christmas is a celebration of God in flesh, God in the stuff that I can see, and encounter, and understand. Christmas is an invitation for us all to begin to explore again, even meet for the first time, the God who is behind and above what I call God.

‘What has come into being in him was life.’

There had been stories of gods becoming human before, but they were normally hero stories; but not so, this Christmas story. Here, in the Incarnation, we have God revealed in human form. Actually, it can feel like an all too-human manner. It is so earthly, so mundane a way that whilst it certainly makes God approachable, it perhaps disappoints or even scares us. What God is this, that can be seen and touched, that relies on an earthly mother, that is so easily threatened by a despotic King, that could so easily be killed? How can God be immanent, fleshy, vulnerable? Is that really what I call God?

What particularly stops me in my tracks about the revelation of God in Christ is considering whether this limiting of God in human form is neither temporary nor new for God. Rather, perhaps what we encounter at Christmas, that has been made safe by Victorian and Georgian carols, is that the God of the crib is not ‘What I call God’.

What the prophet Isaiah called God was one with a Holy Arm – I suppose that will smite the enemies of peace. In Christmas, though, this holy arm does not reach out to us through the strength of heaven’s militia, but wrapped in swaddling cloths.
Despite what the Jewish and Roman people of Jesus’ day called God, the God revealed at Christmas did not come to fix things on our behalf. God is not revealed as a cosmic Santa Claus who gives the good children what they want – much as we might want that to be the case.

Jesus lifted the veil that shrouded God in a way that was suppose to stop the powerful from employing him in their armies – which worked for a few centuries.
What Christ called God is not violent and does not come with military strength. Much to my surprise, the God of Jesus Christ is weak, dependent on others accepting an invitation to resist the lies of the strong and make our home with the weak and despised; a life that seeks the joy of the many rather than the pleasure of a few.

‘What has come into being in him was life.’

For life to be all that it can be, it must be free – free to grow, to be creative, to make choices, to develop. A life that has been planned and specifically-ordered by a bureaucratic God of terrifying detail and design can only enjoy or curse its preordained place in the cosmos. Similarly, an accidental life bears no need for responsibility for any other accidental lives and mutations; dog eat dog, unless every now and again you have a feeling of what I call charity. Counter-intuitively, only life that is seen to flow from such a weak God like that of Jesus Christ can be free, sharing the responsibility with God and all creation to seek the freedom of life for all.

Of course, this life needs to be nurtured, fed, given light. And on this, God has intervened in Jesus Christ, in whom life dwelt so fully, so beautifully, that his life still calls people today. Jesus grew up trusting in the Spirit of life so much that he believed, even in the times of terrible anguish, loss, and death, that nothing could not bring it to an end. That life was far more than just the material, physical thing that we all take for granted. Rather, life is something that endures; just as life was not something any of us chose but came from beyond us, so Jesus believed life would be held by God, even in and beyond death. I wonder if this was the faith that gave Jesus the ability to stand up to the autocrats of his own day, knowing what he would eventually face if he were to do so.

‘What has come into being in him was life.’

In Jesus, we are invited to see again What I call God and What I call life. Our lives can be frustratingly limited – physically, materially, mentally. Yet, seeing our lives through the One who is born this night, who is revealed in such weakness, invites us to see our life as a connection – a connection to others who also have life, and a connection to the divine, to God, who is not only the source of life, but is life itself. God’s Spirit moves through all life, and for those who dare to build on the promises of Jesus that life will endure even death, this Spirit will embolden us to be weak with him, and resist the strength of the scaremongers with their armies. Weakness, which any strongman masks with the might of wealth, muscles, armies, and success, turns out to be the very character trait that connects all of humanity, and God. Living a weak, vulnerable, undefended life that seeks friendship with the support of the downtrodden and the marginalised, turns out to be the beginning of living a fearless and flourishing life, and the darkness will not overcome it.

‘What has come into being in him was life.’

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God is not your trump card: a parable of the king’s servants

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a banquet for his son. He sent his servants to call all those who had been invited. On reading the invitation list, his servants were appalled to see among the numbers people in prison, known-gamblers, drinkers and drug-addicts, and disgraced politicians. Surely, the chief servant said, there has been a mistake. Our master has forgotten to separate the invites from the barred list.
So the servants burned the invitations of those who would bring shame on their master were they to attend, and invited only those whose reputations would increase the fame of their king.
At the wedding banquet, the king was confused as to why so few people had come, and asked the most junior of his servants. On hearing what had happened, the King took aside his son, asked him to leave his own banquet, and go and find those whose invitations had been destroyed.
Having seen the son leave, the servants became nervous, disguised themselves, and followed the son, in order to prove the unworthiness of the other invitees. They loudly mocked the son and those he was inviting to the banquet, so that no-one would follow him.
The more the son met with these people, the more they began to celebrate that they, too, were invited to the King’s banquet. The party did not wait until they could get to the palace; it began in the streets, celebrating with the son.
Realising they could no longer stop this, the servants retreated and formed a second plan. Whilst the son was touring the far country, they built a new palace – identical in appearance to the King’s, but just a few miles closer to the son’s procession.
The son and his band of followers entered the castle of the servants, where they sat at the banquet tables waiting for the feast.
“The feast is ready,” shouted the chief servant, “for those who are worthy.” And the servants gave the son his food, and served themselves.
The son complained that he could not eat while others remained hungry. So the servants took away the son’s food also. Seeing what had happened, the son tried to leave to raise his father. But the servants were cunning, and locked the son in their own prison.
The people, who had heard the son’s invitation and celebrated with him, felt tricked, and began to leave, until only a few remained who wanted to learn from the servants how they might become worthy.

Let those who have ears, hear.

In this morning’s epistle reading from Philippians, St Paul powerfully reminded the first Church that their oneness with God was not something to be exploited –
being a Christian has never been there for one’s selfish, personal gain.
Yet, far too often, Churches are places where people use the language of faith to conceal their prejudices and fears – which underlies the phrases of ‘I am saved and you are not’, or, ‘in order to be saved, you must become like me.’
Too often, usually without fully thinking it through, Churches offer courses in which people can go through a social lobotomy, so that everyone thinks, and looks, and vacantly smiles in the same way.

These are power games that do not belong in the Church of Christ, the one for whom equality with God was not something to be exploited.
From within humanity, God raised up Jesus, to show us all who we might be, as well who God is. In Jesus Christ we are shown a God, not who demands sacrifice or submission; rather, the God shown to us in Jesus Christ raises humanity from the dust to join in more deeply with the wonder and joy of being fully alive.

We can see this whenever Jesus sat and shared a meal with people. It’s extraordinary that when he sat with those who were sure of their own salvation and the damnation of others, he argued and told them to watch out for hell. Yet he seemed to seek out and enjoy the company of tax collectors, prostitutes, drunks, and others who were considered the lost, and told them they were going to be first in the Kingdom of heaven.

For Jesus, the eternal banquet began in the here and now, and all were invited. Any mention of hell was reserved for those who would seek to alter God’s invitation list according to their own priorities. And too often, that is exactly what Churches do. I’ve sat in Churches where salvation is judged on debt, sexuality, incorrect reading of scripture, wrong king of baptism… The list goes on.

This doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t care about sin; quite the opposite. It does mean, though, that perhaps we focus on the wrong sins – and deciding on who’s in and who’s out appears to be one of the worst. That might seem odd at first, but on reflection, deciding on who is in and who is out might be such a terrible sin because it puts human judgment in place of God’s wonderful grace that was revealed in Jesus.

The church is not something that can happen behind closed doors, for a private and elite club; even if it often appears to function that way.
The church is a public belief that in Christ all are God’s children,
a public hope that through Christ all may unite as one family,
and a public search that with Christ all may find a deeper sense of peace and truth.

Next week we launch a four year vision for our Parish. ‘Creating space for life’ is an attempt to use our physical resources to form public places that function like the tables around which Jesus gathered with people. Places to which we all can invite our neighbours and colleagues. Places where, we pray, we would see a deepening of human flourishing, including our own.

One of the five projects is to turn one of our Churches into a professional-grade theatre. This not intended to become a home to second-rate Christian theatre that would never get a showing anywhere else. The hope is that it will, quite simply, be a really good theatre. Sometimes there will be plays that will chime with the Christian Gospel. Other times, the plays will be discordant with our vision of the world. Both, though, should deepen and inform the outlooks of all who come, and stimulate rich dialogues in the post-performance bar.

Thinking back to the parable at the beginning, the end of the story is up to us. It is so easy to imprison the grace of God and become like those servants who built a Church of their own preference. As flawed an partially-sighted as we all are, ‘creating space for life’ is not intended to be a vision to bring more people in to become like us, but for us all to grow more deeply in the love and grace of God, and to live more fully in Christ’s resurrection life.

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Mixed doubles are an abomination

Apparently it was newsworthy enough for there to be a discussion on this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 around Andy Murray’s decision to hire a female coach. At first, I didn’t really understand why it was a story at all, until it was explained that this was the first time a male player had hired a female coach. Listeners were told that this was a bad move because women’s tennis is a totally different game to men’s tennis. Not only that, but she wouldn’t be allowed in the changing rooms to give him a pep talk which, apparently, is the most important moment between a player and a coach.

Just as I was beginning to drift off and think about what I had to do for the day, one of the commentators caught my attention by revealing that it was, of course, perfectly acceptable for women to be coached by men. What? Had I heard that correctly? Apparently, I had. I thought they played ‘different’ games…?

What made this even more shocking to me, was that this double-standard was not picked up by the presenter, as if it was obvious that women had something to learn from men, but not the other way around. 

For many decades the Church of England has lived with all kinds of criticisms about the way it views women – often facing very tough criticism on the Today programme, with the underlying suggestion that the Church is out of touch because of its institutional sexism. Campaigners within and outside of the Church have been asking how the Church can uphold ancient practises from cultures where women were viewed very differently to the way they are now. Quite rightly. And because it is (eventually) beginning to listen to the prophetic truth of those complaints, it is changing for the better. Too slowly, admittedly, and not without enormous pain and damage having been caused; but it is changing.

It is worth noting that whilst the Church is striving to make radical changes to its structures (all of the dioceses that make up the Church of England are in favour of women as Bishops), other, much larger and culturally-dominating industries that shape our common social thinking, are continuing to treat women as the weaker, less-interesting, but prettier sex. Often when asked about women’s sport, people still seem to be able to say: women just aren’t as good as men. 

That was certainly the underlying narrative of this morning’s interview. And that in a sport that is positively egalitarian by the standards of other sports.

A top-earning male footballer in the Premiership, for example, can be paid £250,000 per week, and the average in that league is £25,000 per week. (BBC) Compare that to the newly-formed Women’s Super League, in which the very best players are lucky to receive £20,000 per year. I can’t imagine any other industry getting away with such a gender-based inequality without a well-deserved public outcry.

Of course, it is not only sport that teaches us who we are, and moulds expectations.

Around 200m cinema tickets are sold each year in the UK. Yet, of all of those films that watched in 2013, women only had around 15% of the leading roles.

In business, women hold fewer than 1 in 5 senior management roles – and that isn’t improving.

In politics in the UK, only 22% of the MPs elected in the 2010 elections were women.

According to a recent THE article, only 1 in 5 University Professors are women, and in some institutions that is 1 in 10.

The message comes through time and again: women just aren’t very good at doing stuff, and they’re quite dull. They’re terribly good at making babies, though. They can do that very well. Except for the ones who can’t; we don’t really know what they are for. Unless they’re pretty; we know what they are for.

I am so bored of living in *that* world. I’m sick of it. I’m fed up of people, mainly men, saying that women just need to prove themselves in the arenas of sport, business, media, religion, politics, higher education, but then not giving them access. Cultural institutions that refuse to develop in such a way not only impoverish themselves and our world, but demonstrate how they are being used to serve those who currently control them. Fundamental changes need to be made to our institutions so that the hopes of the young need not turn to sarcastic smiles that condescend: “You’ll learn.”

Whilst I will nag them to change, I’m not going to hold my breath while they weigh up the cost. I think it’s down to those who see the world differently, to live in the world that they see; in this case, accepting that gender is important but does not limit who a person can seek to become. In doing so, the stiff-necked institutions get the opportunity to see how ridiculous they are being, and change. This is why I think Jesus so often taught in parables; the new creation and life Jesus spoke of would not be ushered in through a political scheme or new set of religious laws. Rather, these stories invited people to imagine a new world, to take into their hearts a time when the category of ‘other’ and ‘them’ was obliterated, and there was only ‘us’. And as they imagined it, to begin to follow and make that world, whatever the cost, so that all could know that God delights in their existence, and desires the mutual flourishing of all.

And that is a world apart from the one where it is newsworthy for a man to choose to learn from a woman.

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NT Wright and Equal Marriage: “You really should watch out.”

More important to me than being pro- or anti-Equal Marriage, is that a person’s position is considered and respectful. I genuinely thought somebody of NT Wright’s stature would be able to do better than this. Whether deliberate or not, his tone is patronising and his reasoning is fear-mongering. Whatever conclusions the Church of England comes to regarding Equal Marriage, we need to be more grown up in our discussions than this.

He begins with Hitler and Stalin, throws in that gender and complementarity are cross-cultural norms ‘without any particular Christian presuppositions at all’, and ends with Tony Blair (the final point being cut off, was to show how the public can be fooled by politicians needing to get on the ‘right’ side of history).

And nowhere does he talk about love or covenant. Not once.

Equal marriage? “It’s a nonsense; like a government voting that black should be white.”

The clip can be found here:

N T Wright on Equal Marriage

Do you agree, or am I being harsh?

To be fair, I am not a fan of NT Wright’s Big Story approach to the Bible. I think it’s all a bit too simplistic an approach to the Scriptures. Seeing that being applied yet again is a bit tiresome. More than that, though, it kind of reminds me why I shrink back from such an approach – just as his Big Story seems to dominate the diversity in the Scriptures, so it seeks to dominate the complexity of human life. Everything has to fit into the Story. I’m not sure the God who made such a complex cosmos can really be contained so easily, nor the creatures that he made.

Thing is, alluding to Hitler and Stalin doesn’t help answer the question, but frames it in a context of fear. Especially when he uses phrases and words like “You really should watch out,” and “chilling.”

Also, if a Christian wishes to argue the case for complimentarity, they really shouldn’t try to do that by saying it is cross-cultural, because it isn’t. Nor that gender is ‘given’, because it isn’t.

Whether for or against, to brand Equal Marriage “a nonsense” is to forget that what is being discussed in the Church is not primarily an academic argument involving a Greek word in Romans. It is about people who were made by God, and whom God has called us to love. If we can’t remember that, then it doesn’t matter what conclusion we come to; the Church is already lost.

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