Faith & Church

The bishop’s wobbly bridge

A little wobbly bridge is in the garden of the Bishop of Leeds. I like to think it is where he practices keeping a balance in particularly precarious situations. This idyllic garden made me think about how we see the world and where beauty is to be found – especially since I spend much of my time visiting highly deprived areas.

Even in the darkest of places there can be hope, I really believe that.  

It’s difficult to say that when there is so much brutality in the world.  Life seems relentlessly unfair to many of the most vulnerable people, and over time individuals and whole communities can become collectively resentful of life, the universe and everything. Why me? Why us? What’s going on?

I find myself making crass suggestions like, “think positively and things might work out better”, or “count your blessings”.  These kind of responses to awful situations can be highly patronising and show a lack of empathy with those who are genuinely suffering.  So how can we see desperate situations in a more positive and constructive way?

The platitudes we come up with are not helpful because they mask reality and create an impression that things are not as bad as we might think. Likewise the kind of spin we see in politics heavily manipulates how we see the world and what we think is going on. What we think, feel and believe about the world is really very important because it is on this basis that we make decisions about how we live and work together – the Brexit decision may possibly illustrate this.  

The first challenge is to be as honest as we possibly can be about what is actually happening; what is real.  If the boat is about to sink then face up to it; If there is a troll under the bridge don’t just whistle and close your eyes; if we are about to perish then let’s do so with our eyes wide open. But conversely if there is genuine beauty to behold, then let’s behold it.  If we close our eyes tightly in the darkness we might miss the light that is there to guide us to safety.

Now, more than ever, there is a role for the sense makers – the artists and poets, the media, the story tellers, musicians, preachers and theologians who can reveal truth and help us to find the light.  We really need to train our eyes to see what might be the positive opportunities hidden in difficult situations and to recognise redeeming beauty.  I would say seeing  through the eyes of the imagination informed by truth.

So what am I concluding?  Well, maybe it’s that when things are difficult it’s best not to retreat from reality – if we open our eyes wide enough we may also see a special kind of beauty which coexists with suffering. This is a particular challenge for some in the church who seek comfort and see the world as they would like it to be rather than as it is.  The church can’t be a cosy refuge for like-minded people but better I think when it is an uncomfortable mix of unlike-mined people. Therein we will find hope and beauty.I rather like the image of the church as a wobbly bridge.

Faith & Church

On Church Growth

If you spend all your time getting the house ready for the party but don’t invite any guests there will be no party. If you pin your hopes on the idea that people will turn up simply by baking a cake and putting up balloons you will be disappointed.

I want to make a case for the critical importance of going out into the world and getting to know people with kindness and mercy; and I want to suggest that so called social engagement is not about rescuing people but about rescuing ourselves.

Robin Gamble, my dear friend in the Diocese of Leeds, has said to me that if we don’t make disciples and see growing congregations then there will be no one to do good works in the community.  I agree with this if we see social engagement as a service we provide or a useful way of keeping our buildings open during the week. This is not how I see it.

Social engagement to me is a direct response to God’s call for us to go out into the world; It is the kind of engagement that is modelled on Christ’s own coming into the world. Jesus became vulnerable and allowed himself to be transformed by those he was brought up with, imperfect as they were. He came to bring eternal life but was also open to being transformed as a human being, to grow in relationship with those around him.

We are not service providers or rescuers. The image of the church as a lifeboat on the choppy seas of life ready to pull unfortunate souls out of the water is not so helpful in my view.  I don’t see myself as a hero who goes out to rescue others – that seems to me a popular fantasy that is formed out of insecurity. Of course I want people to be saved and to be involved – but not get a medal for it.

I think we are being asked to acknowledge our frailty and yet go towards danger in order to save ourselves. The very people we look down on and call lost are the ones on whom our salvation and transformation relies.  It is as if we are being asked to become the people we objectify as “the poor”.

So what does this mean when we form our plans and strategies for church growth?

I can’t see that we will ever grow the church unless we build bridges of friendship and kindness into the communities in which we live. I don’t think the church will be transformed by a top down corporate strategy or marketing campaigns – helpful though they may be. The church’s presence in our communities is expressed though many small sparks of light which are carried in the hearts of people in the day to day. Those sparks of light are not just carried by people we call committed Christians or church members; God is in every one of the people we encounter.

What we can do as a church is help people recognise that light and see the world differently, but we can only do that if we find ways of building genuine loving relationships with people unlike ourselves. These relationships will be forged by establishing places of welcome, looking after our Muslim neighbour, feeding our children, tackling homelessness, freeing the modern day slaves and so on.

Church growth has to come from somewhere,  it is not going to happen if we simply put up balloons and rehearse our party tricks.  Church growth will come through a gathering of new and unusual friends that we have come to know though social engagement. Transforming lives and communities together.

Community, Faith & Church

Bread Church

This is an image I like. In took it at St Augustine’s in Bradford as The Bread Church was setting up. This is a small congregation made up of local people some of whom don’t have any other connection with the church. There I met Ann Challenger who led the group and has since died. Ann was like a mother figure to the group and each week would oversee the making of bread and the shared meal.

The group was in the process of changing its name to One Table and although the group was not made up of regular worshippers necessarily, this was a group living in a way inspired by the faith of its leader. These everyday activities – making bread, setting the table, eating together – are rituals which can help connect people into the meaning and values of the Christian faith in a way that some church formats struggle.

It was deeply moved by Ann’s little church and the conversations that went on over bread and soup.

Community, Faith & Church

Hope on the Edge – Prayer Our City

Wellsprings Together Bradford and Welfare Reform Impact Bradford are local organisation (or which I’m a part) help inspire and coordinate poverty responses among the faith groups. Twice a year they put on an event called Hope on the Edge at Bradford Cathedral which aims to bring together those working to alleviate poverty and transform communities.

On Sunday May the 7th our gathering this time will focus on HOPE for our Bradford Episcopal Area. Representatives of churches, groups and organisations from across the district are invited for a time of creative reflection and prayer.

You will be able to engage with a range of varied prayer styles – explore stillness; reflect through art and music; pray corporately, urgently and creatively.  Listen to Stories of Hope emerging in Bradford – seeds that indicate the new potential in times of adversity and disappointment.

Join us for an evening of creative prayer in Bradford Cathedral on Sunday May 7th from 7.00 pm to 8.30 pm.

Just turn up or let us know you’re coming on this link

More info info@wellspringstogetherbradford.org.uk