Sunday, 30 August 2015

Is religion good?

The other evening I listened to an interview with a well known Christian singer song writer and one of the questions to her was, 'So how can we keep Jesus and religion apart?' It was a depressingly familiar take on the usual dichotomy between religion (bad) and spirituality (good). Surely (I thought to myself, switching channels) we need to have Jesus and religion as connected as we can?

People sometimes say to me 'I'm not very religious', which is code for 'I don't go to church and I think I might feel uncomfortable if you start talking about religious things to me (usually in the context of preparing a funeral). At least you know where you are. Was Jesus religious? Yes. He identified as a Jew, was brought for religious dedication at birth, taught in the synagogue and knew the Jewish Scriptures inside out. He prayed, taught and lived God.

The Letter of James, which was set as a reading this morning in church, doesn't shy away from the word: 'Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world' (James 1:27). It's not a warm fuzzy spirituality developed in your front room with the latest diet/self help book, but sustained practical action for people whom society has forgotten, along with the implication that the pursuit of holiness is not to be neglected either.

Are we religious in Britain? The secularisation thesis posited that as the technologically advanced Western world increasingly turned away from formal affiliation to the Church, religion in Britain would die out. In the 60s, it looked like this might come true, but several things hadn't been factored in. One was the rise in interest through the 60s and 70s in Eastern religions; another, the advent of politicised Islam, and finally the effect of waves of immigration to places like the UK from other parts of the world where religion was still alive and well. All this of course continues today. 

So far from dying out in Britain, religion in daily life is instead complex and multi-faceted. A speaker at New Wine who is a journalist pointed out that in Fleet Street, the attitude towards religion is changing rapidly. Religion can no longer be ignored - clearly it makes a life changing difference to millions of people. In fact, in the history of the world, not to be religious is actually a strange 21st century Western anomaly.

As Graham Ward helpfully shows, today religion is on the news agenda and in the cultural domain more than ever before and people are having to make complex decisions about whether religion is a force for good or evil. I suppose it's like food - there's good food and bad food; but bad food is not a reason to stop eating. As the practical, often acerbic and no-nonsense Letter of James points out (Martin Luther called it the Epistle of Straw), don't drop religion; just make sure your religion is good religion.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

New Wine matures

What happens when a new movement of the Spirit enters middle age? 

I was left wondering this recently as we celebrated ten years of attending New Wine, the summer camp that has grown out of the evangelical charismatic wing of the C of E, with its origins in St. Andrew's Chorleywood, UK. From small beginnings in the late 80s, some Christian friends in a field, the movement has grown to number 24,000 attendees, all eager to pump some kingdom renewal and encouragement into their veins before returning to their churches and communities to make a difference.

Every stream of Christianity has its weak points and blind spots, and the charismatic movement is no exception. New Wine is on its third generation of leaders, people now more our less our age. What has changed, what has developed and what has felt like a growing up? Three things stood out this summer for me.

1. Diversity.
I'll be honest: New Wine hasn't always been the most affirming place for an aspiring woman bible teacher/preacher/leader. A plethora of male role models seems to have (at last) given way to something more diverse. For the first time this year I was obliged to choose between women speakers of an evening, across three different venues. I don't recall this happening before. From conversations about the circular problem of why there aren't many women bible teachers/speakers (women don't want to put themselves forward, therefore there aren't many women speaking; nothing can be done about this) we seem to have arrived at the happy position of having a really good number. Even my mornings were spent happily listening to a woman bring the bible to life, alongside a man: different approaches, different blessing. It meant that through the 6 days of morning and evening teaching, I listened to a total of 6 women and 7 men. To some this won't be an issue, but to me, just right now, it is still important. The women were always out there, of course; these things are often problems of imagination, as much as problems of reality. I was left thinking (happily) 'well that wasn't so difficult...'

2. Charismatic/contemplative worship.
The 'Acoustic' Venue (quite a departure from the big Arena norm) is my natural millieu. Here are no massive drum kits, electric guitars, people jumping up and down or famous Christian bands selling their CDs. Instead there are musicians whom no one has heard of, just doing their thing and getting out of the way when necessary. We experimented in worship with 'psalm surfing', i.e. singing the refrain of a psalm over and over, interspersed with short songs and tongues singing, but always coming back to the psalm, the effect of which was not unlike how I imagine the chanting at Taize, the Roman Catholic monastery in France. We sang lament, never far form the Psalmist's repertoire, because lament is the natural response of looking at injustice and crying out to God as to why he appears to be absent. As Richard Foster has pointed out in Streams of Living Water, joyouslythe charismatic and the contemplative are not as far apart as one might imagine, and sometimes worship brings us eventually to silence (see an earlier post on 'either/or' spirituality

3. Theologies of suffering alongside healing.
A third and major theological stumbling block for me within the charismatic movement (until recently) has been the insistence on miraculous physical healing, when for the most part my experience has been that good people, people you pray for, people who fill our churches, regularly get ill and die. I understand that when you are trying to redress the balance (the equally erroneous view that God is always silent on healing) you have to put the other side of the story forcefully, especially in the light of the example of Jesus. But in the past I have struggled with stories of miraculous healings of people who've slipped over in the shower on the campsite, etc. What about those who get cancer and die, like the person whose miraculous recovery from something terminal we all cried out for one year in the main meeting, fervently, ardently; all 6000 of us. I think she was married to one of the leaders. She died in the autumn. 

But the stories had more authenticity this year, resulting in me coming home (weirdly) with a stronger conviction than ever, that God does bring healing, in whatever way he wills, and wanting to take that into church and community. The stories were much more, yes, someone was prayed for; they appeared to get better but then the illness returned and they died. But the years had shown that the faithfulness of God had not failed - he had worked out his purposes in succeeding generations and prayer always made a difference. In other words, reality. 

In these three ways  - diversity, contemplation and balancing healing/suffering, I wonder if, alongside New Wine, now in its 26th year, I might be growing up, maturing, like good wine is supposed to....?

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Songs of Praise does Calais

Migrants Church in Calais

There's a recurring sketch on the Catherine Tate Show where she plays a neurotic middle class mother (Aga Saga Woman) who lives in fear of taking her two neurotic children anywhere, in case they have to rub shoulders with anyone outside their very restricted, protected social circle. One day, driving along in their SUV, they take a wrong turn into a rougher part of London ('Good God in heaven above... we seem to have driven into a place called "Tott-en-ham"') and start to panic when a man with long hair approaches with a bucket of water to wash their windscreen as they sit at the traffic lights.

I had a neurotic middle class woman moment on holiday this summer, so I'm not going to judge Aga Saga Woman. Returning via the Eurotunnel from France in the middle of the so called 'Migrant Crisis', we saw migrants in small groups walking the sides of roads near the Calais motorway as we tried to find out how to exit 'Cite Europe' (our compulsory pre-tunnel middle class shopping trip for all things French). I suppose I imagined desperate people seeing an opportunity, an English car going slowly round a French roundabout, and I had one of those anxious travel moments and blurted out, 'do you think we should lock the doors?', to which I received the terse reply 'don't be ridiculous'. I feel pretty embarrassed about it now.

So well done the BBC, who this evening broadcast part of their long running Christian programme, 'Songs of Praise', from the migrant camp in Calais, a place where focus and hope are centred on something much more important even than life, as one of the migrants explained - that is, in the heart of their makeshift church. Well done, because the political is apt to eclipse the personal and without alternative coverage, this time from a specifically religious viewpoint, one is in danger of picking up the media whiff of panic, the fear that 'the swarm' is about to descend our borders, the swarm of faceless, unnerving foreigners...

Songs of Praise is often criticised for being twee - shots of older people singing hymns is hardly going to set the world on fire....or is it? The juxtaposition of scenes of migrants worshipping amid the uncertainty and mess of life, with the hymn 'There's a wideness to God's mercy' and Revd. Giles Fraser, a priest from London emerging from the makeshift church, announcing 'these are my brothers and sisters in Christ', topped of by a very middle class lady from a church in Kent explaining that if it weren't for Jesus, she wouldn't be there; and you did get the strange idea that actually this Christian gospel, this thing we sing and pray each Sunday in church, is in fact radical, inclusive and potentially world changing.

So while some Politicians have felt compelled 'not to do God', I'm glad that the BBC 'did Calais', and proud to be part of the universal Church of Christ, the church that meets in tents on the sides of motorways, the one where we are one through the One who became a refugee as a child and who once declared 'foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head'.