Thursday, 21 September 2017

Where is the CofE going? Economies, Mission, Presence

The Church of England, nationally and more locally, is asking big questions about its future shape. Does the parish have a future? What might the church's calling to place look like in the next generation? How might the church of the future (or, indeed, the near present) be resourced, if its income is drastically diminished?

Some of these questions come out of a place of deep institutional anxiety. Others emerge from a more joyful enthusiasm for re-imagining the old in a radically new context. But there are often deeper questions behind the 'surface' questions, and it's these deeper, more theological questions that interest me most. I want to explore three of them here: questions of theological economics, questions of missiology, and questions of presence.

Framing the conversation: overlapping economies

From my own sustained reflection on my practice and experience in Hodge Hill, I want to offer brief descriptions of three different economies which I have discovered often seem to ‘frame’ how I think, feel, talk and pray about the kind of questions we’re considering here. We might understand an economy as a system in which things are used, move around and are exchanged (given and received) in ways which create and develop a sense that certain things are valued.

1.       A financial-numerical economy

This economy is perhaps the most familiar to all of us. It places a high value on counting (people, money) and keeping accounts. It sees ‘resources expended’ primarily in terms of how much money they have cost, and will tend to look for ‘value for money’ in how it evaluates its spending, understanding that primarily as ‘bringing back in’ a financial return, helping it ‘balance the books’. It cannot help looking at ‘church growth’ at least in part as a means of increasing its financial income: more people in church means more money in the plate. (Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone in the CofE or beyond thinks exclusively like this, but simply acknowledging that this is, at least, one of the economies that is operative in the thinking of many of us.) The two most regular instruments of reporting from parish to diocese – the annual statistical and financial returns – are firmly embedded within this economy, even if they occasionally make space for comments gesturing in a different direction.

2.       A kenotic-Kingdom economy

Within this second economy, the calculation is different. The growth of the Kingdom of God is what is valued above all else, whether understood as flourishing communities, new and deepening journeys of discipleship, healing in lives and relationships, friendships across differences, etc. This economy is ‘kenotic’ because the primary dynamic is one of kenosis: giving of what we have for the benefit of others. This kenotic dynamic is captured perfectly in these words from Bishop Duleep de Chickera:

“here is the crux of Anglican identity and Anglican spirituality: we do not live for ourselves, and all our energy, all our gifts, are directed to abundant life for the other”

‘Serving others’, ‘preaching the gospel’ – these are done by the church because they are what God calls and commands us to do, for the sake of the Kingdom. Resources are expended in the process – primarily in the form of time and energy, but often also money (given away, or paid to those who give of their time, energy and expertise). Change may well happen as a result of our actions, our resources expended – but that will not necessarily result in a financial or numerical ‘return’. The Jesus of Matthew 25 (‘I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you welcomed me’), Teresa of Avila’s ‘Christ has no body but ours...’, or the mantra ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, perhaps often offer some kind of guiding principle here.

This second kind of economy adds a significant complexity to our financial-numerical thinking. In a time of ongoing austerity and deepening financial inequality, many people in our neighbourhoods are struggling more and more with the most basic needs in life – a home, food, clothes, etc – at the same time as much of the vital support to negotiate the systems is being stripped away. The church, in many financially poor neighbourhoods, is often the only organisation left for people to turn to. And even when ‘church growth’ comes out of such interactions, those who are joining church congregations are often financially poor, physically and/or emotionally fragile, and immensely vulnerable. Welcoming them and embracing them as ‘members of the body of Christ’ can often be a hugely costly act in itself.

3.       A radically receptive Kingdom economy

A third kind of economy is a bit like the second, in that what is valued above all else is the growth of the Kingdom of God. But it is unlike the second because the primary ‘flow’ is anything but one-way. In this, it has something in common with the financial-numerical economy (which looks for a ‘return’ on ‘expenditure’), but in other ways it is radically different. In this radically receptive Kingdom economy (one that we have been discovering in profound ways in Hodge Hill over the last 7 years), church members often go into the world with empty hands and open eyes, looking for treasure,[1] ready to receive, thirsting for relationship with their neighbours. In this economy, the church often resists ‘taking the initiative’ or starting ‘projects’. That doesn’t mean there are no resources spent, but they are often in the form of time and energy given to just ‘being around’, listening and learning from our neighbours. What we receive in the process might often first and foremost be a new friendship, but will often also be a wealth of stories, a passion or skill (cooking, gardening, reaching out to others, plumbing, you name it!), a question or challenge to the status quo (“why is the world like this, and what are we going to do about it?!”), and often deep, hard-won, earthed, spiritual and theological wisdom. As church in Hodge Hill, we have been enriched by all of these, and more, beyond our most daring imaginings. The relationships of mutuality within our local community have grown a hundred-fold (even if, numerically at least, our church congregation hasn’t), and we Christians have learnt and received so much.

What does mission look like in these ‘economies’?

The Anglican Communion's ‘Five Marks of Mission’ are perhaps the definitive Anglican touchstone for understanding the breadth of the church's participating in the missio Dei (the mission of God). How might these five marks relate to the economies outlined above?

Of the five marks, only one seems to have any kind of obvious connection to the ‘financial-numerical’ economy: ‘to teach, baptise and nurture new believers’ (#2, ‘TEACH’). Even there, if ‘baptism’ is the point of ‘counting’ (and it is quite obviously so much more than that), ‘teaching’ and ‘nurturing’ point to a kind of growth (in depth of discipleship, we might say), that sits on a different axis to the numerical.

The ‘kenotic-Kingdom’ economy is much more visible in four of the Five Marks:
·         ‘to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom’ (#1, ‘TELL’)
·         ‘to respond to human need by loving service (#3, ‘TEND’)
·         ‘to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation’ (#4, ‘TRANSFORM’)
·         ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’ (#5, ‘TREASURE’)[2]

In each of these, there is no direct ‘return’ for the church; rather, there is a clear sense of a ‘movement outwards’, expending time, energy and more for the sake of the mission of the world and the Kingdom of God.

So how does my third economy, the ‘radically receptive Kingdom economy’, relate to mission? In part, it affirms the insight of missio dei theology that the church is but a participant in ‘God’s mission here on earth’, and that God’s mission is wider than the church’s activity. But where the church’s part in the missio dei has often been characterised as ‘finding out what God is doing, and joining in’, in the third economy the church is also called to focus particularly on the first part of that phrase: to discover what God is doing – by receiving it, from our neighbours, as both gift and challenge. Perhaps the key biblical words here are seeking ‘shalom’, recognising that our own ‘shalom’ is linked to the ‘shalom’ of the place where we live:

‘But seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare [shalom] you will find your welfare [shalom].’ (Jeremiah 29:7)

In the language of the New Testament, we see something very similar in Matthew 6:33: ‘But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [i.e. food, drink, clothes] will be given to you as well’. So when we seek justice, pursue peace and reconciliation (#4), and strive for the earth’s renewal (#5), we are not just ‘giving out’, but also opening ourselves to discover and receive the abundance of God’s shalom, God’s Kingdom, coming to us in and with our neighbours. This in turn enables us to understand ‘proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom’ (#1) not simply as ‘going out with a message’, but as naming the Kingdom where we see it in the world: where justice, peace and reconciliation are happening, where the life of the earth is being renewed, and where others (not just us Christian do-gooders) are ‘responding to human need in loving service’ (#2). The Kingdom of God we see in the parables of Jesus is, as Paula Gooder has recently put it, ‘subversive, tenacious and rampant’: it comes to us and transforms us, as much if not more than any contribution we make to growing it.

Remaining present in the urban margins

From first-hand experience and my doctoral research, I feel better placed to offer reflections on the church’s calling to place in ‘the urban margins’[4] (and in Hodge Hill most particularly) than in other contexts in which the church finds itself. Thinking of the wider church as an economy, however, means that questions of presence in some contexts cannot be disconnected from questions of presence elsewhere. If we’re in an economy, then we’re all in it together. What kind of economic thinking we deploy in one place is connected to the kind of economy we imagine, and live out, in another. If we consider ‘re-thinking’ necessary in one place, then the same re-thinking cannot be avoided elsewhere. Starting from the urban margins, then, I want to briefly consider five different reasons for remaining present, and the kind of presence they imply.

1.       Equity of presence

The simplest reason for remaining in the urban margins is one of fairness, or equity. This might, for example, look to establish roughly equal ratios between stipendiary clergy and the population of their parishes. While ‘equity’ is almost by definition devoid of content, the kind of presence implied has something to do with a direct relationship between the stipendiary clergyperson and their parishioners: closest, perhaps, to the model set out in George Herbert’s (16th-17th Century) The Country Parson, visiting parishioners from week to week, ‘present for every activity in a community, whether “church” or “civic”’.[6]

2.       Local need

A second reason for remaining in the urban margins might be linked to the levels of ‘deprivation’ and/or ‘social need’ in an area. The ‘kenotic-Kingdom economy’ in action, expressed here the church is ‘respond[ing] to human need by loving service’ (#2), through foodbanks, job clubs and other community projects. Such presence often demands funding for places where such activities can happen, and staff to deliver, or at the very least, coordinate the volunteers who deliver them. The local church congregation might supply some of those volunteers, but often challenges of capacity and fragility mean that much of the burden falls on a stipendiary clergy person – liberated from raising money for their own livelihood, so that they can give much time and effort to sustaining those of others. We might also here investigate need in terms of social isolation (more difficult to quantify), and see church as a primary means for addressing that need. Framed in these terms, the accessibility of the church’s places (church building? community centre? Community house?) and its services (in the broadest sense), including the distance parishioners might need to travel, becomes significant.[8]

3.       Divine presence / preferential option

A third reason is less pragmatic and more theological: we need to remain present in the urban margins because that is where God is. Call it command or vocation, we need to remain in the company of “the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased” because this is the company Christ keeps.[9] ‘Being there’, and ‘being with’ those who live there, is not an ‘option’ that we, the church, can choose to take or leave – this is God’s preferential option for ‘the poor’, a fundamental and unavoidable aspect of discipleship for all Christians. This does not necessarily require stipendiary clergy, but ‘being with’ does demand the capacity for long-term presence and patient relationship-building. Small congregations can do this, with the right support. Houses might often be as valuable resources as church buildings. Small missional communities, so long as they are prepared for the ‘long haul’, could be faithful responses to this divine summons.

4.       The church’s need

Linked to the third reason, and the flip-side of the second, a fourth reason for remaining in the urban margins is that the church needs the marginalized. St Laurence, famously, when instructed to bring out the church’s treasures by the Prefect of Rome, gathered together the poor of the city and presented them to the Prefect: “here are the church’s treasures”. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Community, has spent a lifetime showing us why those who appear to be ‘the strong’ need those who the world considers ‘weak’.[10] Far from platitudes, the church needs ‘the poor’ because the church itself is entangled in the sin of the world: the ‘unjust structures of society’ (#4) which include systemic racism, and the dynamics of capitalism which ‘expels’ those it deems ‘useless’ from the economy and from mainstream society.[11] The church needs to remain in areas with significant Muslim populations, if it is to challenge wider society’s Islamophobia and witness to the possibility of encounters with Muslims marked by hospitality and friendship.[12] The church needs to remain in areas with significant populations of people of colour (both within and beyond the church) if it is to have any chance of facing up to its own ongoing institutional racism.[13] And the church needs to remain in areas with significant levels of deprivation if it is to tackle its own complicity in structures and systems (both within and beyond the church) which benefit the middle-classes at the expense of the poor.[14] The church needs the marginalized precisely because they hold the keys to the church’s own reform and renewal. As Bishop Philip North has recently reminded us, ‘[e]very effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and marginalised’.[15] Here the role of clergy is significant: as those who can listen deeply in the local, and speak prophetically to the structures of the church, they occupy a crucial ‘middle ground’, without which the wider church is unlikely to hear the challenges that the urban margins present.

5.       The abundance of the kingdom

A fifth reason for the church to remain in the urban margins is, like the first, quite simple – but unlike the rather sterile equity argument, this last reason is rooted in a radically receptive economy: the church should remain in the urban margins because there it will discover the abundance of the Kingdom of God, abundant gifts not, perhaps, of money, but of friendships and stories, passions and skills, struggles and wisdom. Church buildings may be the least important asset for this kind of approach. A radically receptive Kingdom economy is adept at finding alternative spaces for gathering – indeed, is dependent on finding the spaces where people bump into each other already, rather than expecting them to come into ‘our’ spaces. As in the third approach above, small missional communities, committed to long-term presence, might well prove a worthwhile investment. A radically receptive Kingdom economy is, almost by definition, more focused on lay people in their daily lives than on clergy who at most times have at least one foot inside the church door.[16] In terms of paid personnel, however, I have already suggested that deacons, as ordained leaders in and co-ordinators of the work of ‘treasure-seeking’, may offer something distinctive and crucial to this kind of presence. But again, the priestly ministry of ‘gathering in’ also remains significant: investing in clergy with a radically receptive disposition, to put down roots in the urban margins, may enable the church to unleash the abundant gifts to be found in the margins, for the enrichment of both the wider church and the wider world.

6.       Growing the church?

In the financial-numerical economy, growing the number of people who participate in the life of the church – or at the very least sustaining it – is the over-riding priority. In neither the ‘kenotic Kingdom economy’ nor the ‘radically receptive Kingdom economy’ does this feature as a direct focus, but may arise indirectly. ‘How can we serve the needs of a neighbourhood if we don’t have any Christians left there to do so?’, we might well ask. Or alternatively, ‘surely we can be more attentive to, and receptive of, the abundant gifts of a neighbourhood if there’s more of us there with eyes and ears and hearts open to our neighbours?’ Pragmatically, these suggestions are surely both true. If we consider how our imaginations are shaped, however, both anxieties about survival and ambitions for expansion are likely to risk distracting us significantly from the missio dei, the Kingdom of God, bubbling up beyond the church’s own activities. There might, however, be a way of thinking about church growth that is more in line with the radically receptive Kingdom economy as outlined here. 

What if we thought of the church’s welcome less in terms of inclusion (making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the church’s life to ensure all who come are able to participate), and more in terms of transfusion: we need our neighbours to become part of our bloodstream as a church for us to truly live. The metaphor quickly falls down, because a blood transfusion requires blood of the same type for it to be successful. Here I want to suggest, beyond human biology, that it precisely different blood types that the church needs within its bloodstream, so that, for example, a predominantly middle-class church is not just learning to receive the gifts and challenges of its working-class neighbours at the edges of church, but is changing fundamentally because ‘they’ are now a growing part of ‘us’. This is the most radical challenge recently issued by Pope Francis: not simply to be ‘church for the poor’ or ‘church with the poor’, but ‘church of the poor’. Something similar could be said of a predominantly white church engaging with neighbours of colour: how much more transformed would that church be if it had people of colour in its bloodstream, in its worship, in its decision-making bodies, in its leadership? In this final dimension of the church’s presence in the urban margins, the local church community needs ministers (lay and ordained) not just gifted at ‘sharing the gospel’ and ‘inviting people in’, but ministers who are alert to hear the gospel afresh from those neighbours with whom they engage, and who can enable the established congregation to be open to be changed radically by those who join them. Those ministers will also (as with both the fourth and fifth approach above) need to have the boldness to challenge the wider church to change too: to receive a ‘return on its investment’ that may be anything but financial, to receive new and often challenging blood into its ancient bloodstream.

[1] In Revd Dr Kate Bruce’s sermon at the Ordination of Deacons in Birmingham Cathedral this year, ‘treasure-seeker’ was one of the four images she offered as summing up the role of the ordained deacon. That is, I would suggest, a vital ‘diaconal’ role also to be shared by the whole people of God.
[4] See Al Barrett, Interrupting the Church’s flow: Engaging Graham Ward and Romand Coles in a radically receptive political theology in the urban margins (Amsterdam: VU University of Amsterdam, 2017).
[8] This would make a particular case for ongoing presence in rural parishes, in terms of some form of building, but not necessarily in terms of a paid clergyperson.
[9] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples, p.11.
[11] See e.g. Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014).
[12] As Richard Sudworth has recently put it: ‘[t]he financial vista of the Church of England suggests that many inner-city parishes for which that formative encounter with Islam is a daily reality are under threat. Many of these parish churches have small, dwindling congregations and are in some of the most deprived communities in the country. There are very real possibilities that the unique ways that religion in the public square is negotiated in the Christian-Muslim encounter will be lost to the Church within a generation. This would be a travesty for any remaining integrity that the Church of England retains for speaking into the national consciousness, and demands creativity, imagination and strategic sacrifice in the training and deployment of ministers in the future. The question is perhaps not whether the Church of England can afford to be present in such areas, rather whether it can afford not to be present to the Christian-Muslim encounter in our inner cities and towns’ (Sudworth 2017:187).
[13] White Anglican theologian Jenny Daggers invites other white Anglicans to acknowledge with contrition ‘our still-colonized minds’ – ‘our unacknowledged racism and our reinscription of colonial patterns’ – and to place a (‘decolonized’) commitment to evangelism ‘within [rather than alongside] the church’s wider mission to work for the common good of contemporary English society’. White British Anglicans need to receive postcolonial diversity as a gift, she argues: we need to learn ‘to be transformed, rather than to transform’ (Jenny Daggers, ‘Postcolonializing “Mission-Shaped Church”: The Church of England and Postcolonial Diversity’ in Kwok Pui-Lan & Stephen Burns (eds.), Postcolonial Practice of Ministry: Leadership, Liturgy and Interfaith Engagement (2016) pp.191-3).
[14] Anglican theologian Andrew Davey has recently noted the tendency for middle-class, suburban models and agendas for mission to become ‘normative’ within the Church of England (Andrew Davey, ‘Introduction: Deep Theology for a Spacious City?’, in Andrew Davey (ed.), Crossover City: Resources for Urban Mission and Transformation (2010), p.x).
[15] ‘Hope for the Poor’, talk to New Wine ‘United’ Conference 2017, p.3
[16] While the focus of my PhD thesis is primarily on why and how we might practice a ‘radically receptive ecclesiology in the urban margins’, I do at a number of points return to the question of who.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Holding off Tiamat - the gift of "taking time"

"I decided to try and have the house clean and organized by Easter. One of our interns told me of a Jewish friend who explained keeping kosher as participating in the act of creation. According to the friend, order in the kitchen keeps chaos at bay. In the Genesis account, God wrests creation from watery chaos or tehom, a close relation to the ancient sea monster, Tiamat. So I'm battling Tiamat in our closets and under our furniture. Tiamat wreaks havoc in my date book, too. I'm in an ever-losing battle trying to wrest time to clean, pray, write, be with the children, be with Gregorio, be a pastor, pay bills, shop, cook, enter stuff into the computer to be more organized, etc. Then, when I try to remember everything I am supposed to be doing, I forget. Sometimes we find ourselves in ridiculous positions. Shall we make love or vacuum? The dust balls multiply."

(Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, p.231)

We regularly battle Tiamat in our house too (I'm not going to comment on the state of our dust balls). In fact, holding off the forces of chaos feels like not just a regular Barrett family challenge, but something very familiar to my friends and colleagues in their daily work in our neighbourhood, and to many of my friends and neighbours here too. So much is good here, hopeful and inspiring. But so much is also fragile, just one minor event away from being stretched to breaking-point, overwhelmed by the pressures and daily injustices of life.

This is not a book review (or perhaps it is the first in a series which, together, might constitute something like one). But it is inspired and energised by Heidi Neumark's brilliant book, which with breathtaking poetry and raw honesty weaves together the narratives of her ministry and family life, of Transfiguration Lutheran Church of which she is minister, of the wider neighbourhood of South Bronx in which they are passionately entangled, and of the story of the Christian faith, enfleshed most vividly through the cycle of the liturgical year, from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, into Lent and Eastertide up to Pentecost, and then expanding out into the generous territory of Ordinary Time before the cycle begins again.

We talk a lot in Hodge Hill, as we attempt to describe what we're about here, of seeking to "make space" for neighbours to encounter each other, especially across our differences - spaces for people to be heard to speech, to discover their passions and gifts, to share something of themselves, to grow in confidence and connections, to feel a real sense of belonging. Spaces, in short, for community to grow and flourish.

There is much in Heidi's book about space. One of the threads woven through the book is that of the construction - the painfully slow, often precarious construction - of a new "Space for Grace" on the side of the existing church building. But the book is also profoundly about time: in particular, the way the Christian year re-shapes the passing of time, and in the process enables profound (if often also small) transfigurations to happen. This different way of "taking time" is, perhaps, one of the most significant factors in enabling Heidi, her congregation, and at least some of her neighbours, to hold off the forces of chaos which the monster Tiamat wields.

Heidi's book left me wondering whether the ways we Christians in Hodge Hill "take time" might not, together, be one of the most significant things about who we are, what we do, and the particular, distinctive gift we might have to offer our neighbours. Part 2 of this wondering (when I get the time in the next little while!) will explore some of those time-taking ways for us here, and what difference they might just possibly make...

Friday, 23 June 2017

"More awake": receiving the gifts of my Muslim neighbours

As my Muslim neighbours approach Eid, I find myself more deeply thankful for them and their faithfulness than ever before.

I am thankful for the countless stories I hear from my non-Muslim parishioners, often people living on their own, of Muslim neighbours who regularly call at their door with gifts of food - for the abundant generosity and neighbourliness of those small actions. And I am thankful for my Muslim friends who bring my own family immensely generous Christmas presents, every year - rejoicing in the celebrations they know we Christians are preparing for.

I am thankful for those in my own neighbourhood who, working with the wonderful 'Meet Your Muslim Neighbours' organisation, have begun to open up local places of worship to curious visitors, with warm and welcoming hospitality, and have sought to share their love for their faith in ways that are clear, accessible and humble - a way of sharing from which many of us Christians have a lot to learn.

I am thankful for the recent Easter Day invitation from a local Muslim councillor, to walk with her one of the high streets of our area, expressing together our solidarity as neighbours and people of faith, where the media and far-right groups have sought to spread suspicion, hatred and division. I am thankful for that privilege, on Easter Day of all days, to have been able to give and receive the greeting, "peace be with you", in English and in Arabic ("asalaam-u-alaikum"), and to have known that the God we Christians have met in Jesus - the God my Muslim friends worship too - was yet again present in our midst.

I am thankful for the incredible witness to faithful nonviolence of Mohammed Mahmoud, the Imam at Finsbury Park mosque. In the midst of the van attack that killed one, injured many more and brought terror to the crowd of worshippers, Imam Mahmoud protected the attacker from a crowd who were, understandably, shocked and angry at what had just happened. "No one touch him - no one!" Mahmoud shouted. "By God's grace we managed to surround him and protect him from any harm," he said later. There are tears in my eyes even as I write those words.

I am thankful for those Muslims who, eating at 2am before their daily Ramadan fast began, were awake when the Grenfell Tower blaze started, and ran up and down the tower knocking on doors and alerting people to the imminent danger. Most others would have been sleeping at that time in the morning. In the midst of this desperate tragedy, who knows how many lives were saved because of these men and women, whose faithful habits of prayer enabled them to be alert to the needs of their neighbours.

And I am thankful for the invitations that have come my way this Ramadan, from Muslim friends and neighbours, to break fast together at the end of these long, hot summer days that have - all too often recently - been filled with tragic and disturbing news. I am thankful for the overwhelming, gracious, gently hospitality, the joyful welcomes and the most beautiful meals. I am thankful for the 10-year-old boy who showed me how to cup my hands in prayer, at the right time, who answered all my curious questions and was equally curious about the job that I did. I am thankful for the conversations about fasting, and the testimony's to its power to heighten all the senses, to make the fasting person more awake, more alert to God's presence in the world around us, and in their neighbours, and to enlarge the space within them for compassion. I am thankful for the reverence that my fasting Muslim friends have for the simple fact of food and water, and for the deep thankfulness to God that it renews within them. I am thankful for their invitation to me to join them as they pray - to watch them line up, side by side, and use their whole bodies to express their longing for God, their praise of God, their commitment to seek God's will with all that they are. And I am thankful that their prayers have re-kindled in me a similar longing, and praise, and commitment.

I am thankful for the privilege of being invited into spaces that are not mine, as honoured guest (not because of my own status, but because of their abundant hospitality). I am thankful for the privilege that many of my brothers and sisters in faith are beginning to count me among their friends. I am thankful that we are discovering together, as Jo Cox put it, that we have so much more in common than that which divides us. I am thankful that the shared moments of the past few weeks promise to be only the beginning of journeys of deepened relationship, deepened understanding, deepened shared commitment to community-building and justice-seeking together.

As we approach Eid together, I am deeply thankful.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Doing theology after Grenfell Tower?

How must we do our theology after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower? And by 'do', I mean live, and speak, and act, as much as read or write.

This must, surely, be a turning point. A moment which will not let us leave things as they have been. A moment which finds the 'status quo' not just wanting, but bankrupt.

This is about builders, and property management companies, and local Councils, and national government, and political and economic systems, and our all-pervasive, taken-for-granted worldviews. But for those of us who are Christians, it must also be about us. How do we live out our faith, how do we do our theology, after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower?

To ask about "after", though, begs questions about "before".

In the wake of the fire, I am profoundly thankful for the response of Christians (among countless people of all kinds of faith and none) in the Kensington area, not just meeting people's basic needs, but on the streets offering listening ears and prayers. Revd Gabby Thomas, a nearby curate, articulated a sense that local people have perceived the church, in the midst of this disaster, as "a body of people who cared about the injustice they [the victims] had suffered and would stand by them", providing also "a public space for lament and prayer", "a space to ask the questions, to name the injustices and to shout to God". For all of this, I give deep and heartfelt thanks. And as part of the body of Christ beyond Kensington, their calling there resonates deeply with our calling here in Hodge Hill.

But what about before? What about before the fire? The question that seems to echo around the charred ruins and far beyond, getting louder every time it is repeated, is this: how were the voices of Grenfell Tower residents not heard before? The cries for help and for justice, the warnings of catastrophe, were being voiced years ago, but seemed to fall on deaf ears.

This is not a judgment on the local churches of Kensington. But it is a judgment on the Church as a whole. I'm not asking "where were you?" - I'm asking a devastated, heart-broken, guilt-ridden "where were we?". How can we do theology "after", hearing for the first time - and tragically too late, for so many of them - the voices unheard "before"? What do those voices call us to do, or to be? What kind of vocations do they summon from us?

They call us to be present. But present where? On the estate, as much as in the city centre. In the tower block, as much as in the church. Because God is to be found at the edges. We're called to passionate, long-term living-alongside, not to make occasional forays in the name of 'mission'.

They call us to listen, before we speak. Where we are the ones with more power and privilege, let's put a brake on our need for new 'initiatives', so that we, first, can be challenged and changed by our neighbours. Let's hear their cries and their struggles (as well as their joys and delights) so that it's them that determine our agendas.

They teach us to lament: how to lament, and what to lament for. In 'hearing to speech' their cries to God, we learn how we should be praying.

They call for researchers: those dogged seekers after the longer, deeper, wider story; those who with their carefully-crafted tools are able to trace the workings, structures and flows of power; those who can show us where and how things are complex, and how a decision made in one place can affect the lives of many people elsewhere.

They call us to confess - clear-sighted confession, emerging from our lament, schooled by our neighbours, clarified by those who've done the hard yards of research. Confessing our complicity, not to be paralysed in it, but to change.

They call us to invest ourselves differently: our time, our energy, our money, our attention, our passion, our worship, our talking, our action - all of these, in a million tiny changes, tip the scales of justice.

They call us to accompany our neighbours to the 'centres of power' - political power, cultural power, financial power, ecclesial power - to present their own insights and challenges, with their own bodies and in their own words - with us cheerleading from the sidelines and resisting 'doing for'.

They call us to put our bodies in the way - on the streets, at the council offices (not inside them, deploying our privilege in polite board room chats, as if we alone can make all the difference), in the protests, in the public squares - halting 'business as usual', issuing the challenge, and anticipating the raucous, multi-coloured street parties of the kingdom of heaven.

They call us to join a movement that is bigger than any of us, and our organisations and institutions and Churches - but which finds its way through the cracks in those, topples their pillars and breaks down their dividing walls; a movement which connects London to Birmingham, Kensington to Westminster, Hodge Hill to the City, Ladywood to Lambeth Palace. The movement is one that unleashes timid voices, and enables people to hear and understand across language barriers; it sets hearts on fire and justice rolling down like mighty waters.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Dear Archbishops (a response) #GE2017

9/5/17 Thank you for all the positive comments, and additional names for the letter. I'm now struggling to keep up with adding new names to the body of the letter itself, but do leave your name in the comments below if you'd like to.
There are also articles in The Guardian today, and on the Premier website late yesterday.
Alan Storkey has also written a very thorough and considered response to the Archbishops letter here.
8/5/17 There's a write-up of this letter (pretty verbatim) by Christian Today online here]

Dear Archbishops Justin and Sentamu,

Thank you for your pastoral letter, which many of us read eagerly when we received it. We do indeed live in 'frantic and fraught' times, and deeply-rooted Christian wisdom in the lead-up to this most critical of General Elections has the potential to make a valuable, even crucial contribution. As those who share with you both the weighty responsibility for helping Christian congregations reflect on the current political challenges with Christian faithfulness, your efforts to support and resource us are appreciated.

Thank you also for highlighting the vital issues of education and housing, of community-building and healthcare, of overseas aid and campaigns against slavery, trafficking and sexual violence. Thank you for pointing to the need for justice in our economic and financial systems, and for "a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants". All of these we welcome, as crucial issues to be placed at the centre of our political conversations and decisions.

There were, however, aspects of your pastoral letter which have given us cause for deep concern, and which have driven us to respond to it with urgency.

Most prominently among those concerns is your use of the word 'stability'. We appreciate the word's Benedictine roots, and the critical contemporary challenge of "living well with change". However, words also acquire meaning from their common usage in the present, and it is impossible to escape the fact that the leader of one of the major political parties competing in this General Election has used the phrase "strong and stable" almost as a mantra throughout the election campaign thus far. For your pastoral letter to focus so positively on such a politically freighted word seems to us, at best, as a case of desperate political naivety, and at worst, an implicit endorsement of one party in this election.

Our concern goes deeper than the level of perception, however. Your focus not just on 'stability', but also on 'cohesion' (as "what holds us together"), your commodification of 'courage' as "aspiration, competition and ambition", and your conflation of the deeply-contested discourses of "our Christian heritage" and "our shared British values" (a conflation often appropriated by far-right nationalist groups) are also all deeply troubling. The quest for reconciliation and unity of course has a vital place within both the Christian tradition and the work of politics, but at this point in the history of the United Kingdom, politicians issuing calls to 'unite' risk concealing deep divisions under a banner of conformity, rather than addressing these divisions at their roots. The emphases on stability and cohesion in your pastoral letter risk colluding with such dangerous political rhetoric. As you will of course know, the Benedictine vow of 'stability' goes hand in hand with the vow of 'conversion of life' - an ongoing process of allowing our hearts to be changed. That process often involves plunging into the heart of our divisions and conflicts, coming face to face with our 'others' and our 'enemies', and confronting our own tendencies towards self-deception, greed, exclusion and violence. There is a prophetic calling for the church here, that goes well beyond appeals to shared values.

The third Benedictine vow is that of 'obedience'. Understood in a purely hierarchical way, it could be argued that this response to your pastoral letter is an act of disobedience. Our understanding of Benedictine obedience, however, is more mutual: as Rowan Williams has put it, "[n]ovice and senior monk are ‘obeying’ one another if they are attending with discernment to one another and the habits that shape their lives are habits of listening, attention and the willingness to take seriously the perspective of the other, the stranger". At a time when the voices of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and the most marginalised are being ignored, silenced, even demonised, we want to respond to Benedict's call to obedience with our whole hearts, and listen most attentively to those voices, not in the centres of power, but in its margins. When those voices are not being heard at the heart of our deliberations and decision-making, Jesus himself is being silenced.

You remind us at the beginning of your pastoral letter that we are currently in the season of Eastertide. We pray, with you, that the risen Christ will be seen and welcomed among us, as in the stranger on the Emmaus Road, that hearts will be changed, and that the peace of Christ will break down all our dividing walls.

In joyful obedience to our Risen Lord,

Revd Al Barrett, Rector
Revd Dr Sally Nash, Associate Minister
Revd Dr Genny Tunbridge, Common Ground Community
Penny Hall, Church Warden
Sarah Maxfield, Community Development Worker
Paul Wright, Street Connector Mentor
Jane Barrett, Youth & Community Worker
Bob Maxfield, Julia Bingham, Jo Bull
(all of Hodge Hill Church, Birmingham Diocese)

Revd Dr Richard Sudworth, Christ Church Sparkbrook, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr John White, Kingsbury, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Priscilla White, St Faith & St Laurence Harborne, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Kathryn Evans, St Paul Blackheath, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Andy Delmege, St Bede Brandwood, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr Susannah Snyder, Oxford Diocese
Revd Kate Pearson, Coventry Diocese
Revd Canon Kathryn Fleming, Coventry Cathedral
Revd Elaine Evans, Vicar, St Bertelin Stafford St John the Evangelist Whitgreave, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Judith Jessop,  Methodist Pioneer Minister, Parson Cross, Sheffield
Revd Ray Gaston, Team Vicar, St Chad & St Mark, Parish of Central Wolverhampton , Lichfield Diocese
Revd Simon Douglas, Team Vicar, Parish of Tettenhall Regis, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Mark Hewerdine, Priest-in-Charge, St Chad's Ladybarn / Fresh Expressions Enabler, Manchester Diocese
Revd Jo Musson, Claines and St George's Parish Churches, Worcester Diocese
Revd Dr Keith Hebden, Leicester Diocese
Revd Paul Nicolson, Taxpayers Against Poverty
Brother Barnabas-Francis OSF, St Barnabas Bethnal Green, London Diocese
Fr Damian Feeney, Vicar, Holy Trinity Ettingshall & Catholic Missioner, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Pam Smith,
Revd John Hayes, Tower Hamlets Methodist Circuit
Revd Simon Nicholls, Markfield, Leicestershire
Revd Jonathan Clatworthy, St Brides Liverpool
Revd Claire Turner, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr Kevin Ellis, Vicar Bro Cybi, Bangor Diocese
Revd Canon Barry Naylor, Leicester
Revd Malcolm Liles, Sheffield Cathedral
Revd Naomi Nixon, Coventry Diocese
Revd Michael Futers, Associate Priest, St Mark's Derby, Derby Diocese
Revd Mark Nash-Williams, Vicar, Alston Moor, Newcastle Diocese
Revd Sarah Bick, Vicar, Mid-Wyedean Churches, Gloucester Diocese
Revd Rosie Austin, Team Rector, Shirwell Mission Community, Exeter Diocese
Revd Deborah Scott-Bromley
Revd Jonnie Parkin, Ely
Revd Dr Catrin Harland-Davies, Methodist Chaplain, Sheffield University
Revd Victoria Ashdown, Vicar, Ampfield Chilworth & North Baddesley
Revd Helena del Pino, Church of the Holy Spirit, Bretton, Peterborough Diocese
Revd Mark Coleman, Vicar, Rochdale St Chad, St Mary in the Baum & St Edmund
Revd Mark Rodel, All Hallows Lady Bay, Southwell & Nottingham Diocese
Revd Susan Height, Priest in charge, St Faith North Dulwich, Area Dean Dulwich
Revd Sally Coleman, Wesley Ebenezer, Sheffield
Revd Richard Cattley, retired priest, Maidenhead
Mother Carrie Thompson, Vicar, Forton St John the Evangelist, Portsmouth Diocese
Revd Ali Dorey, North Sheffield Estates
Revd Nick Jones, Rector, Acton
Revd Claire Carson, Lead Chaplain, St George's Hospital, London
Revd Tony Whatmough, Team Rector, Headingley Team Ministry, Leeds
Revd Stella Bailey, Vicar, Kenilworth, Coventry Diocese
Revd Andy McMullon, Parish of Sedbergh, Carlise Diocese
Revd Elaine Dando, Chichester Diocese
Revd Patricia Holmes, retired priest, Leeds Diocese
Revd Lesley Crawley, Parish of Badshot Lea and Hale
Revd Denise Harding, Methodist presbyter, Cheshire South Methodist Circuit
Ven Alastair McCollum, Archdeacon of Tolmie, Rector St John the Divine, Victoria BC
Revd Fiona Haworth, Associate Priest, St Peter Mancroft, Norwich Diocese
Revd David Bouskill, Chichester Diocese
Revd Mark Abrey, Chase Benefice, Oxford Diocese
Revd Jeanette Hartwell, Director of Reader Training, Lichfield Diocese
Revd David Kirk Beedon, Southwell & Nottingham Diocese
Revd Dr Chris Shannahan, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University
Revd Steve Ingrouille, Methodist presbyter, Isle of Man
Revd Nick Jowett, retired priest, Dinnington, South Yorkshire
Revd Dr John Peet, Leeds Diocese
Revd Dr Graham Southgate, Team Rector, Nadder Valley, Salisbury Diocese
Bishop Laurie Green
Revd Wendy Wale, Chaplain, Wadham College, Oxford

Mark Bond-Webster, Norwich Cathedral Jane Hyde, soon-to-be-licensed Reader, St Mary in the Baum / St Chad Rochdale
Andy Macqueen OblSB, All Saints Basingstoke
Margaret Townsend, All Saints Bath
Rob Ellis, St John the Baptist CofE, Wonersh
Stephen Davy, London Jane Perry, Social Policy Researcher / Trainee Lay Pioneer, Lewes, Chichester Diocese
Patricia Hardman, Baptist
Hannah Land, Nottingham
Marie Holmes
Craig Nobbs, LLM, Parish of Badshot Lea and Hale
David Rhodes, writer
Anne Roberts, Bolton
Ian Wood, Local Preacher, Nottingham (East) Methodist Circuit
Laura Whitmarsh, Ordinand, Bristol
Sue Peach, Reader, Christ Church Shooters Hill, London Alison Kaan
Wendy Edwards, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
Aidan Greenwood, Manchester Diocese
Sarah Claire-Swift, Stoke on Trent
Toby Forward
Lisa Adams, Portsmouth
Ruth Wilde, Selly Oak Quaker Meeting, Birmingham
Anne Roberts, Bolton Dr Nigel Pimlott
Liam Massey, St Paul Stockongford, Coventry Diocese
Erika Baker, St Andrew's Blagdon, Bath & Wells Diocese
Kath Rogers, All Saints with St Frideswyde, Liverpool Diocese
Jennie Liebenberg (ALM in training), St Matthew's New Waltham, Lincoln Diocese
James Ballantyne, North East pioneer development worker, Frontier Youth Trust Dr Simon John Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform
Savi Hensman, ekklesia
Simon Barrow, ekklesia
Carrie Pemberton Ford
Barbara Wheeler
Matthew Arnold, LLM for FxC St Augustine, Mansfield & St Barnabas, Pleasley Hill, Southwell & Nottingham Diocese
Marion West, Local Preacher, Purley Methodist Circuit, London District
Tom Skinner, Manchester
Mark Bick, Pioneer Reader, Coleford, Gloucester Diocese
Angela Partoon, All Saints Walsall
Paul Keeble, Manchester
Mel Parkin, Cambridge Jessica Holmes-Stanley, Birmingham Diocese Susi Liles, Sheffield Cathedral
Ruth Harley, Children's Youth & Families' Minister, All Saints High Wycombe, Oxford Diocese
Rachel Holdforth, All Saints High Wycombe
Karin McDonald, St Mark's Godalming
Sue Williams, Lay Worship Leader, Sheffield Manor Parish
Jenny Sills, Reader, Ladywood, Birmingham Diocese
Kathryn Rose, Harrow Green, London
Ray Leonard, St Andrew Blackhall, Durham Diocese
Ann Marie Gallagher, Roman Catholic, Birmingham
Adam North, St Peter's Hall Green, Birmingham Diocese
Nick Waterfield, Methodist, Chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty
Kim E Lafferty, St Stephen's, Kearsley, Manchester
Dr Charles Pemberton and Ms Irene Roding, St Margarets Church, Durham
Jo Chamberlain, All Saints Ecclesall, Sheffield Diocese
Annie Weatherley-Barton, St Peter & St Paul Gosberton, Lincoln Diocese
Antony Lowe, St Christopher's, Springfield, Birmingham Diocese
Simon Cross, Oasis, Grimsby
Symon Hill, Oxfordshire
Greg Smith, Lancashire
Simon Foster, Birmingham
Jenny Richardson, Sheffield
Jacob Theunisz, Reader, The Netherlands
Paul Magnall, Church Warden, All Hallows' Leeds
David Carter, Church of Martyrs, Leicester
Denis Beaumont, Methodist Local Preacher, Wombourne

Thursday, 27 April 2017

An Anglican missiology for #Brexit Britain? Practising radical receptivity by dis-identifying with Jesus


(1) This is an 'academic' piece - presented to the SST (Society for the Study of Theology) annual conference. So it might not be quite as accessible as the average blogpost on here.

(2) It's also a hastily cobbled-together piece, written just before Easter, with much cut-and-pasting from the recently-submitted PhD. It's got a polemical edge to it - it argues something it doesn't fully justify. So as an academic piece, it's a bit patchy (including in its referencing). At some point I'll do something about that.

(3) It also, perhaps surprisingly, happens to feature the odd bit of sexually explicit language / imagery. If that's something that might offend / trigger you, you may want to avoid reading it in its entirety.


In one corner of the Firs & Bromford estate where I live and work, almost underneath the M6 motorway as it stretches on stilts away from Spaghetti Junction, is what we locals call ‘the wasteland’. In the 1960s, Birmingham City Council built 3 tower blocks on the land, which instantly started sinking into the mud – it was, and still is, a flood plain. The tower blocks demolished in the ‘90s, the land has been abandoned ever since, even though many local people walk through it every day to get to shops and schools.

One wintry April afternoon, framed by the concrete pillars that support the motorway, we crucified Jesus, in the very first Bromford Community Passion Play, an initiative not from the church, but from one of our passionate and gifted neighbours. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,’ cried the dying man – and the echoes seemed to resonate with some of the deepest cries of our neighbourhood. And out of the silence that followed the crucifixion, these defiant words of Maya Angelou sang out:

Now did you want to see me broken
Bowed head and lowered eyes
Shoulders fallen down like tear drops
Weakened by my soulful cries
Does my confidence upset you
Don’t you take it awful hard
Cause I walk like I’ve got a diamond mine
Breakin’ up in my front yard
So you may shoot me with your words
You may cut me with your eyes
And I’ll rise, I’ll rise, I’ll rise
Out of the shacks of history’s shame
Up from a past rooted in pain
I’ll rise, I’ll rise, I’ll rise[1]


As a country, Britain – and more specifically England – finds itself deeply divided right now. And estates like mine find themselves, ironically, at the same time on the periphery economically, geographically and culturally, and yet also at the centre of the ‘dramas of division’ played out in the rhetoric of the powerful, the politicians and the media. On the one hand, we see widespread classism and contempt for low-income white people and their perceived ‘culture’ (from ‘chavs’ to ‘Benefits Street’);[2] and on the other hand, we see an intensifying ‘ecology of fear’ and hostility towards migrants and asylum-seekers, coupled to international geopolitical insecurity.[3] Much public discourse powerfully brings these two together, pitting the interests of ‘the white working class’ against those of ‘minority ethnic groups and immigrants’, turning the former into a quasi-ethnic group, dividing people on low incomes from one another, and evading necessarily sharp questions of class inequality itself, the legacy of deindustrialization, and the manipulative interests of the super-rich.[4]

In the 2016 EU referendum and Trump presidential campaigns, political slogans of ‘taking back control’ and ‘making your voice heard’ were aimed particularly at white people on low incomes, intensifying such divisive discourse. They also tapped into something much much deeper in Western culture, as philosopher of language Gemma Corradi Fiumara has highlighted: ‘we know how to speak but have forgotten to listen’, she argues;[5] and our ‘non-listening culture’ has ‘divide[d] itself into separate discourses, which are free from the desire or obligation to listen to others’. ‘Powerful’ discourses have sought ‘to expand [their] territory through the silencing of others’, and in the process determine and define what counts as truth. One response from those on the receiving end is what Fiumara calls ‘benumbment’: a deliberate dulling of one’s receptive capacities; ‘a means of defending one’s own discursive space against the predatory invasion of other discourses’ by refusing either ‘to listen or [to] be listened to’.[6]


The Church of England, while not necessarily tempted by ‘benumbment’ as a mission strategy, nevertheless also currently shows signs of struggling with the anxieties associated with not being listened to any more. Deepening economic inequality,[7] a widespread political commitment to fiscal austerity (hitting already poor communities disproportionately harder), and the accelerated dismantling of the welfare state tempt the church towards what we might call ‘the power of the provider’, seizing on the opportunity presented by the Church’s ‘unique position’ to ‘fill the gap’ left by apparently ‘failing’ public services.[8] A deep institutional anxiety about numerical decline in both church attendance and church affiliation,[9] with its direct implications for ecclesiastical resourcing (finances, staffing, buildings), sees the church yearning for ‘the power of the performer’, prioritising ‘going for growth’,[10] ‘new initiatives’, and the need to ‘demonstrate impact’. And finally, the combination of England’s increasing ethnic and cultural diversity,[11] its long-established tension between secular and religious (or ‘post-secular’) instincts, and the now sharply-focused question of national identity, leaves the CofE uncertain of its place in society more widely, but no less tempted by the allure of ‘the power of the possessor’, to be found in a paranoid defensiveness against ‘secularist assaults on Easter’, for example, nostalgic re-assertions of the country’s ‘Christian heritage’,[12] and even – albeit more in the halls of academia than in the CofE’s press office, bold claims that Christianity – in some cases, Anglicanism even – is in fact ‘the answer’ to the crises of modernity.[13] Pragmatic insistences that the church should at the very least retain its place at the table of power mingle with more theological suggestions that the real table of power has in fact been the altar table all along.

To put it in christological terms, the anxious 21st century Church of England seems on the whole to want to locate itself on an axis of passionate activity, between ‘performing’ the Christ of Teresa of Avila (who ‘has no body now but [ours], no hands, no feet on earth but [ours]... [Ours] are the feet with which he walks to do good, [ours] are the hands, with which he blesses all the world[14]), and meeting the needs of the Jesus of Matthew 25 (‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in...’).

‘Active’ axis:
A = ‘What would Jesus do?’ / ‘Christ has no body but ours...’ (Teresa of Avila)
B = ‘I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25)


Among contemporary English Anglican theologians, few are more thorough in their diagnosis of our current context, or bold in their prescriptions for it, than Graham Ward, Anglo-Catholic, Radical Orthodox, Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford. Ward has described in depth the economic and geographic fragmentation that have resulted from deindustrialization and globalization, and the depoliticization brought about by the collapsing of the political and the social into the cultural and the economic, the erosion of intermediate associations and spaces for contestation, and the crisis of representation driven by the interests of the richest. For Ward these crises have cultural roots: we have all been reduced to ‘atomised consumers’, our physical bodies have been rendered ‘mere flesh’, and our social bodies dissolved.

For these multiple ailments Ward prescribes an ‘analogical’, and ultimately eucharistic worldview, that understands different kinds of ‘bodies’ – ‘physical, social, political, [and] ecclesial’ – as participating in the (eucharistic) body of Christ, and made ‘heavy with meaning’ through that participation. That body provides the ‘new political community’ that democracy has been searching for, an ‘ontologically founded community ... rooted in a sense of belonging to one another, to a social order, to a cosmic order ordained and sustained by God’. Within that worldview, participating in that body, our desire can be ‘re-schooled’, from the never-satisfied desire of postmodernity, which ‘commodifies’ love into ‘having’ and ‘not-having’, to an Augustinian ‘Christian desire’, ‘love fore-given and given lavishly’, which ‘moves beyond the fulfilment of its own needs’ as ‘a desire not to consume the other, but to let the other be in the perfection they are called to grow into’. The calling of the church is to an expansive ‘re-schooling of the cultural imaginary’, then, primarily through performing eucharist and acts of service, overcoming divisions through interdependence and mutual vulnerability, ‘incorporating’ both actors and recipients into the body of Christ. The role of the church as ‘erotic community’ is, in Ward’s words, ‘not only to participate in but to perform the presence of Christ’.


I want to suggest that there are at least three problematic aspects to Ward’s ‘erotic’ ecclesiology, and that these might just highlight problems in contemporary Church of England missiology more widely.

First, then, for all Ward’s ‘queering’ of sexuality in his work, his ecclesiology emerges as trapped in what Marcella Althaus-Reid identifies as the dominant (patriarchal) ‘logic of theology’: that is, it ‘follows models of spermatic flow, of ideas of male reproduction which defy modern science but are established firmly in the sexual symbolic of theology’. In Ward’s work we see the church as erotic community ‘overspill[ing] defined places’, ‘expand[ing] ever outward’, and ‘disseminat[ing]’ the body of Christ ‘through a myriad of other bodies’.

Most pertinent to urban neighbourhoods like mine, Ward insists that ‘ghettos and gated communities must be entered; the no-go zones riddled with racial and economic tensions and ruled by violence must be penetrated’. He acknowledges that there may be ‘Christians in these places’ already, but they ‘must [he demands] be hospitable’ – presumably to a church which largely ‘comes into’ such areas from elsewhere. His ecclesiology is not just gendered, then, but also implicitly classed, assuming that what is most significant about ‘church’ is largely external to the city’s social and economic margins, perhaps located instead in its cosmopolitan centres, or its affluent suburbs. (He may of course be on to something here, but it needs problematising.)

Third, then, Ward’s writing exposes a perspective trapped in white colonialism. Identifying what he calls his ‘cultural others’, he confesses his pain at ‘Afghans being bombed’, ‘people starving in Ethiopia’, ‘farmers and metalworkers in Senegal and Zambia losing their livelihood’.[15] More metaphorically, Ward insists that ‘the work and words’ of the church ‘extend out ... into the “deepest, darkest immanence”’ of the world (Barth’s phrase), as they ‘go forth’, ‘teleologically driven’, ‘tracing and performing [and here he quotes Hegel] “the march of God in the world”’. While Barth’s opposition of transcendent light and immanent darkness goes unquestioned, Ward does at least acknowledge that ‘[w]e may not like Hegel’s metaphor’, and also that the words of Jesus’ missionary imperative are ‘not only stirring and challenging ... but dangerous ... as a continuing history of colonialism, zealotry, hatred, prejudice and violence ... testifies’. However dangerous, he continues, it is nevertheless ‘upon this basis’, upon ‘[t]his movement in, through and beyond the Church’, that a Christian cultural politics, must proceed.

When Paul Gilroy argues that British (and more specifically white English) identity is entangled in a ‘postimperial melancholia’ which is unable ‘to face, never mind actually mourn’, both the ‘loss of imperial prestige’ and the ‘[r]epressed and buried knowledge of the cruelty and injustice’ of the British empire (itself entwined with the history of Christian mission),[16] I find myself wondering how much Ward’s ecclesiology, and the CofE’s current anxieties, are similarly entangled.


If our ecclesiologies and missiologies are trapped in patriarchy, class divisions, and white colonialism, then I want to argue that describing the church’s task as ‘perform[ing] the presence of Christ’ – whether via Graham Ward or Teresa of Avila – is to play a very dangerous game indeed. As critical white theologian Jennifer Harvey writes of the (‘enlightened’ evangelical, ‘social justice’-oriented) deployment of the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ question:

[i]t just so happens that identifying with or as the central agent in the narratives we embody is one of the broken ways of being toward which white people are prone. It just so happens that being inclined to do “for” in postures that are paternalistic is another damaged side-effect of white racialization. And it just so happens that these tendencies are valorized in the social justice Jesus who is the central power-agent in his saga. Social justice Jesus is like a superhero standing up to evil forces around him and attempting to inveigh on behalf of suffering others. And, thus, while it is laudable that he stands with or works on behalf of the marginalized, it, therefore, just so happens that the broken ways of being toward which white people are already inclined are likely to be triggered, maybe even amplified, by identifying with such a figure. ... Simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a white person whose life is embedded in white-supremacist structures should be doing.[17]

We might easily extend Harvey’s argument to include males embedded in patriarchal structures, and largely middle-class churches embedded in unjust socio-economic structures. The axis of ‘passionate activity’ risks reinforcing and intensifying the divisions, rather than healing them.


So ‘how can we [in Althaus-Reid’s provocative words] cool down this erection of the logos spermatikos in theology?’ How can we, a church still largely dominated by white, middle-class men, respond to the divisions and anxieties of our contemporary context, just as passionately, but in a way that is much more radically receptive to the gifts and challenges that come to us from marginal places; receptive, that is, to the voices that cry out from the wasteland with defiant hope?

1. Listening to the ghosts

We might start with a little Lacanian psychoanalysis, observing that Ward refers repeatedly to Lacan’s analysis of the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘symbolic’, but has little time for Lacan’s third term, ‘the real’. For Joerg Rieger, Lacan’s notion of the ‘real’ highlights ‘something [that] has been lost or, more precisely, repressed’ in the struggles in Western philosophy between the imaginary and the symbolic orders, and in theology between ‘the self’ and ‘the tradition’. What ‘the discourse of the tradition really wants’, Rieger argues (following Lacan), ‘is the “subject being built up as insufficiency,” a self that it can teach and mould into its own image.’ Central here is the task of ecclesial formation, ‘the production of culture’: ‘to integrate the uninitiated (students, non-Christians, and so on) into the system, enabling them to repeat and reproduce the language and tradition of the church’. However, Rieger argues, ‘unless we can reconnect with what we have repressed and excluded, it will always come back to haunt us.’ What we need, he continues, is a Christian theology which ‘grow[s] out of “attention to the continual tendency of ... the church not-to-see things”’; a theological approach where ‘receptivity, listening, and reflecting are more important initially than establishing foundations and identities’.[18] The key questions, Rieger suggests, are, ‘“Who is the stranger?” and “Who is ‘unintelligible’ now?”’[19]

Marcella Althaus-Reid shares with Ward a deeply politicized concern about ‘disembodiment’, but in Althaus-Reid’s work, we find not the ordered hierarchies of theological idealism but their disruption, a ‘fetishist’ theological methodology, an ‘aesthetics of the fragment’, which ‘foregrounds concrete experiences and material struggles’, and directs our attention to ‘unruly bodies and body parts’, to ‘bodies that refuse their places within the ordering structure of the socio-economic system’ – and often within dominant theological systems too.[20] Where Ward insists that ‘bodies only speak when they are made heavy with [theological] meaning’, Althaus-Reid insists we pay the closest attention to those human beings who appear to us as ‘ghostly apparitions, ... material bodies rendered barely perceptible by economic forces’, ‘poor, displaced people who haunt the living cities only in the shadows of the night’. We need to learn to listen to the ghosts, she suggests.

2. Dwelling in the tension

Out of a critically appreciative evaluation of both the ‘teleological’ directedness (or ‘tradition’) of MacIntyrean communities of virtue, and the ‘ateleological’ openness-to-the-other of Derridean deconstruction, political theorist Romand Coles argues that we need to seek ‘ethical modes of learning how to live that are stretched between’ the two, neither ‘collapsing’ the tension nor trying simply to ‘find the “right” tension’, but something ‘more like perpetual reanimation of our dis-adjustment’.[21] We need to develop, says Coles, a more genuinely ‘tragic sensibility’ which ‘stretches its listeners between calls to the importance of articulating, mediating, and striving toward the highest values of a community, on the one hand, and painful evocations of the unacknowledged suffering often wrought by a community’s ideals (or constitutive failure in light of them) and the inextinguishable need to be transformed through receptive engagements with those a community marginalizes and subjugates, on the other’[22] – a kind of ‘confession’, if you like, a genuine ‘mourning’ rather than an endless melancholia – but one that can be practised only with, and with the help of, those we have been complicit in marginalizing.

3. ‘Flipping the axis’

A third tactic for shifting our ecclesiology towards radical receptivity returns us to critical white theology’s christological critique that I raised earlier with Jennifer Harvey’s work. Rather than asking ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, Harvey argues that white Christians should seek to dis-identify with Jesus, perhaps reflecting instead on ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’, finding himself on the receiving end of Jesus’ call and challenge. Also writing from a critical white perspective, Jim Perkinson points us to a Jesus who is put on the back foot in his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, has his prejudices challenged and changed in her feisty exchanges with him, and leaves the interaction with signs of being ‘schooled’ by her. Whether through dis-identifying with the active Jesus, or identifying with a radically receptive Jesus, critical white theology seems to ‘flip’ our earlier christological axis, redescribing faithfulness for white Christians – and, to extend the argument, for male Christians, and middle-class Christians – as predominantly receptive to the initiatives of our ‘others’.

‘Active’ axis:
A = ‘What would Jesus do?’ / ‘Christ has no body but ours...’ (Teresa of Avila)
B = ‘I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25)
‘Receptive’ axis:
C = Jesus & the Syro-Phoenician woman (identifying with a ‘challenged’ Jesus)

D = ‘What would Zacchaeus do?’ (dis-identifying with Jesus)

Of course, few of us find ourselves in the position of greater power or privilege in all our relationships and interactions. If Luce Irigaray can be understood as practising a ‘strategic essentialism’ in her poetic development of a ‘feminine imaginary’ beyond a dominant ‘phallogocentrism’,[23] then from the ‘privileged side’ here I am proposing a ‘tactical essentialism’, grounded in a careful, relationship-specific, context-specific analysis of the multiple (and not all one-sided) power imbalances within any particular encounter between people.[24] ‘Tactical essentialism’ simply asks, ‘which of the many identity markers, or power imbalances, in this encounter, do we attend to first?’ While wanting to resist making any universalising prescriptions (even of the value of receptivity), I want to make the case here for the particular importance of introducing a radically receptive inflection into the kinds of theological discourse that are dominated by the experience of white, middle-class males (like me).[25] To digress for a moment to the film The Full Monty, we might reimagine our theological role less as the brave blokes getting their kit off in public, and more as what J.K. Gibson-Graham call the ‘constitutive outside’ to the group of men, those (largely women) who encounter them on the street, who gather to watch their rehearsal, who raise an eyebrow in the job centre, who ‘call forth’ through their teasing and wolf-whistling, their desires and delight, possibilities in the men, and solidarities between them, that none of them could ever have dreamed of.[26]

4. From ‘body of Christ’ to ‘flesh of Jesus’

Re-positioning ourselves as a ‘constitutive outside’ leads us to my final suggestion. Romand Coles identifies in the recent postliberal turn to ‘liturgical ethics’ a ‘concentric imaginary’ that:

constitutes the borders between church and world in a way that makes the border secondary to an interior volume that is at the center and that only prepares for rather than is itself partly constituted by the borders themselves. This accents in turn,’ he notes, ‘the voice of the church, its service to the world that it “leavens and nourishes”,’ construing itself as ‘the footwasher (but not also in need of being foot-washed by non-Christians), as Eucharistic host (but not also in need of following Jesus’s call to non-Christian tables and of sitting at the lowest spot), and as server more generally (but not also in need of being served by others beyond church walls in order to be able itself to serve). ... It is as if there is a people called and gathered prior to encountering others, rather than a people equiprimordially gathered and formed precisely at the borders of the encounter.[27]

Coles, drawing on Merleau-Ponty as well as a suggestive insight from Rowan Williams, points us to the possibility that ‘penumbral flesh’ – the thick yet vulnerable, porous ‘surface’ that we Christians share intimately with those not-so committed to the Christian faith – might be ‘elemental and constitutive of the body of Christ’, the place where we might find ‘intercorporeal illumination’.[28] Moving beyond the need to either ‘penetrate’ or ‘make space’ within a phallic ecclesial imaginary, a shift from the language of ‘the body of Christ’ to ‘the flesh of Jesus’, might illuminate, as Linn Tonstad highlights, the relational possibilities of ‘surface touch’ and ‘copresence’ – pleasure, as Tonstad labels it provocatively, that is ‘clitoral’ rather than ‘phallic’ in its shape – an enjoyment of relation where ‘[t]here need be no coming-from’ or coming-into.[29]


I am not sure what the current mission strategists of the Church of England would make of such a proposal, but I would suggest that it might mark the beginnings of a renewed and deepened missiology of ‘passionate presence’, beyond current phallic obsessions with ‘initiative’, ‘growth’ and ‘impact’. In an increasingly fragmented world, swirling with both indifference and hostilities, intensified by the divide-and-rule discourses of the powerful, where many choose ‘benumbment’ as a mode of survival, the church needs to find new ways not of ‘penetrating’ communities with the gospel and the eucharist, but rather of being radically receptive to the gifts and challenges, struggles and longings, deaths and resurrections, of our neighbours.

[1] Ben Harper, ‘I’ll Rise’ (1994), from the album Welcome to the Cruel World. Original words by Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’ (Angelou 1978:41-2).
[2] Skeggs 2009, Jones 2012, McKenzie 2015
[3] Snyder 2012:118
[4] Sveinsson 2009:5, 3
[5] Fiumara 1990:2, quoted in Muers 2004:53.
[6] Muers 2004:54-6
[7] See e.g. Krugman 2015, Dorling 2015, Berry 2016, Hastings et al 2015.
[8] Noyes & Blond 2013:3. See Milbank & Pabst’s bold claims: ‘in very practical terms, it is the Anglican establishment that today uniquely sustains in Britain a parish system that helps to structure and coordinate local life in diverse ways. This system provides a ready-made platform for a great extension of such involvement in the future by reaching further out into the spheres of education, welfare, health, business and finance. Such extension can potentially start to qualify the control of either the centralised bureaucratic state or the profit-seeking free market, both of which began to become dominant in part because of the Church’s historical retreat from its civil role and social action... It is just this extension that can help to restore the Church’s spiritual mission, by vividly demonstrating religious relevance in terms of a link between belief, practice and consequence’ (2016:238).
[9] Church attendance figures are notoriously difficult to find consensus on. Peter Brierley, a prominent statistician of religion, charts a decrease in attendance in the Church of England from 1,370,400 (3.0% of the population) in 1980 to 660,000 (1.2%) in 2015. People identifying themselves as ‘belonging to the Church of England’ decreased from 40% of the population in 1983 to 17% in 2014 (British Social Attitudes Survey). See
[10] Church of England 2011
[11] See e.g. Kenny 2012, MacPhee & Poddar 2010.
[12] See e.g. Cameron 2011, Welby 2016.‘David Cameron says the UK is a Christian country’.
[13] Dormor, McDonald & Caddick 2003. Milbank & Pabst name five ‘metacrises’ facing the 21st Century West – metacrises of ‘liberalism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘democracy’, ‘culture’ and ‘nationhood’ – and argue that ‘the only genuine alternative is a post-liberal politics of virtue’ rooted in Classical and Christian thought, ‘a novel and paradoxical blend of two older and nobler traditions: a combination of honourable, virtuous elites with greater popular participation’ (Milbank & Pabst 2016:1-3).
[14] Quoted in Markham & Warder 2016:124, in a section entitled ‘The Christological Basis of Pastoral Care’.
[15] Ward 2005a:135-6 (section 3.4.ii, above)
[16] Gilroy 2004:102, 98
[17] Harvey 2012:86-9, 94-5.
[18] Rieger 2001:106
[19] Rieger 2001:106, quoting Fulkerson 1995:174.
[20] Rivera 2010:87, 80-81.
[21] Coles 2005a:182 (my emphasis)
[22] Coles 2005a:2 (my emphasis). See also Williams 2016:142-151 for a similarly insightful summary into the value of tragedy (in conversation with Gillian Rose), and Williams 2016:112-115 & 124-127, which locates that within a specifically Christian theological conversation (in particular, that between Milbank and Donald MacKinnon).
[23] (section 4.3, above)
[24] Cf Gudmarsdottir 2012:170
[25] I would want to read Valerie Saiving’s foundational text for early feminist theology (Saiving 1960), which outlines ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ conceptions of ‘sin’, as much as a ‘tactical’ resistance to a universalising of the masculine conception, as a ‘strategic’ development of an essentialised ‘feminine’ conception.
[26] Gibson-Graham 2006:17-18 (my emphasis)
[27] Coles 2008c:212 (see also 2008c:222, 226).
[28] (section 5.5.ii, above)
[29] Tonstad 2015:106, 136 (see also p.48). Cf. Ward, for example: ‘If desire can only be desire through an economy of distance, then the economy of response is intertwined with an unfolding of distances, differences, exteriorities that pass in and out of interiorities. This movement in and out, separation and penetration, is not only the heartbeat of the economy of response; it is an exchange, a giving and reception, and a communication. One recalls that the word “intimate” in its verbal form comes from the Late Latin verb intimo – to flow into...’ (Ward 2005b:72).