Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Questions and more questions

In England everyone has recently received the 2011 Census form. We’re supposed to fill in these forms on the 27th of March, but I’ve read the form all the way through already because the questions asked and the data generated from it is of great interest to me. I’ve used census data before in research and I will use the data from this year’s census in future research, especially as it helps sketch a picture of each parish and of the nation. It is compulsory for everyone to complete the census, to the point where you could be fined if you do not. But I find it fascinating that there is one question that is ‘voluntary’. Which question is that? It's the one about religion. Every other question is compulsory, including who you have staying overnight on the night of 27th March. Why is the religion question voluntary? Maybe it’s considered too personal, or maybe it’s too controversial.

Another question I find interesting is number 37: ‘At your workplace, what is the main activity of your employer or business?’ Well, I am paid by the Church of England. So what is the main activity of the Church of England? I know some people could come up with a few sarcastic answers to that one. But what should be the Church of England's main activity (in no more than 50 characters)? I was going to put 'The Cure of Souls'. My daughter thinks that sounds really naff.


In the past couple of days I’ve read two rather disturbing articles on the BBC News website. The first one is about a survey carried out by the British Humanist Association that suggests that two-thirds of Britons are not religious. You can read that one here.

The second article is about a study that uses census data from nine countries that shows religion will become 'extinct'. You can read it here.

What are we to make of all this? I'm mulling it over.

Thursday, 17 March 2011


Among my usual curacy activities of sermon and service preparation, visiting, chaplaincy, funerals, meetings, IME coursework and teaching the confirmation class, I've been involved in a particularly intense ongoing pastoral situation for the past six months that has greatly challenged my personal emotional, physical and spiritual resources. As part of my continuing education, I'm currently writing a paper on pastoral ministry and through this a question has come up: what is sustaining me through all of this?

Well, the short answer, in my view, is: the Holy Spirit. I know the Spirit is sustaining me and equipping me because I know I couldn't do this on my own. My faith is as strong as ever. But because of this particularly challenging ongoing situation, I've been finding it very difficult to focus during prayer time. I'm more easily distracted than usual. I find music very helpful for this, especially instrumental music. I'm not as chatty with God in prayer at the moment - I often just need to sit still in God's presence and not say too much apart from the occasional lifting up names of people who are in need.

The bible has always been significant in sustaining me and that's not changed, though I only seem to be able to manage small bites lately. I have less energy and often need a nap to sustain me. I often stay up too late and I'm not sleeping very well. I'm my own worst enemy, though, and I know I need to get more exercise (or at least some exercise) and make better eating choices, which would help all around.

I would like to say that my family also sustains me, but I'm not too sure at the moment! Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don't. That's the reality of family, of course... I couldn't live without them. I am really looking forward to our holiday back home to California in the summer. I haven't met with my Spiritual Director for quite a while. I think I really should set up a meeting with her. My training incumbent deserves a mention here, too, as he helps me to reflect on ministry and offers a listening ear.

In this role I have witnessed the effects of some of the worst things humans can do to others, but also I've witnessed some of the best things of humanity. My heart alternates between swelling with love and joy and throbbing with pain for another. But I remain hopeful. My fundamentally optimistic nature helps. But really what sustains me is my faith - faith in a good God, in a God who does care - faith in a God who is making all things new, even though it is painful. We do need sustenance to persevere. St. Paul teaches us a lot about perseverance and endurance. I think I'll go read him right now.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Ring Bell for Church Renewal

Thank God for people like John Bell. We had an 'optional' IME day today (IME = Initial Ministerial Education, or curate training day) with John Bell of the Iona Community and I'm sure glad I took the option to attend. Bell's easy and authentic way of communicating was warming and inspiring.

The theme was something along the lines of sacred spaces and symbols, and discussion revolved initially around things like church architecture, reordering the space so that it speaks of such important qualities as welcome, gathered community, singing praise, word & table & heavenly kingdom. Some of our churches are a product of their time, architecturally speaking. Individual private worship in rigid pews, austere aesthetics, high distant altar, etc. Bell talked about ways churches can change (eek! change???) to become more meaningful authentic worship spaces that reflect Jesus as being right there among his people. Chairs instead of pews, arranged in the round with a central table seems to be Bell's vision, and this happens in places. I'm quite attracted to the idea. The solid arguments for change must be based on the need to welcome all, for the sake of effective mission and evangelism.

A question was brought up from the audience about projector screens. I think the asker was asking about the screen as a central focal point and Bell's views on this, but his reply was interesting. His concern was the fleeting nature of song lyrics on a screen, as opposed to the permanence of black ink on a service sheet or songbook. People cannot reflect as easily on song lyrics that vanish immediately from sight after being sung as they can when, perhaps during the sermon, they can revisit the text of the lyrics on the sheet or in a book. They can often see who wrote the song or hymn, and when it was written, too. Bell spoke of the ability of the words to minister to us, and asks whether this ministry is as effective if the words just disappear. He suggests if a screen is used to also use books or song sheets as well, and don't worry about the trees in this instance, it is worth it. If you're concerned about the trees, protest against all the junk mail or free 'news' papers everywhere, he said.

In the second half of the day Bell focussed on symbols. First, using the wedding service as an example, he asked us to think about what the actions are really symbolising. If a couple who already have been living together decide to wed in the traditional manner of father 'giving away' the bride, what is this meaning? People do like tradition, though, for its own sake, even if they haven't thought much about the meaning at all. And why do the congregation, who after all are there as 'witnesses', only get to see the backsides of the bride and groom during the ceremony? Apparently this has origins in the days when weddings were much quieter and smaller affairs, often held in the parsonage with only a couple of witnesses.

Music is also a symbolic thing. Our God is a symbolic God - this is shown in the bible when God asks his people, for example, to build rock cairns at places of significance. Jesus gave us the most potent symbols of bread and wine as his body and his blood. Bell cautioned against the use of symbolic actions in worship if it hasn't got relevance - there is a difference between symbolic action and gimmicry.

Finally, Bell demonstrated how the wonderful songs from the Iona Community can be used in a liturgical setting, especially the short songs, which are like chants, really. Prayers or bible readings can be interspersed with these short songs, and we tried out a few and they were lovely. 'Church renewal' is what the Iona Community says its about, and John Bell is a wonderful, inspirational spokesperson. God bless him.