Friday, December 28, 2007

Keeping a Spiritual Journal

The other day a friend said to me that he was thinking about starting the practice of keeping a journal and I had kept one for a while, hadn’t I? We chatted a little about it, but it was neither the time nor the place to go into any depth. Since we had that conversation Christmas has passed, the Kews have moved with animals across a wide ocean, and now we have a long weekend to adjust to being a family of husband, wife, dog, and cat together in our English home before I get back to work and Rosemary begins teaching online.

As I couldn’t talk to David while in Tennessee I am going to talk to him through this entry – and allow anyone who wants to eavesdrop on what I say. With the New Year beginning, starting to keep a journal might be something that others want to do.

I got into the business of journaling forty years ago. I didn’t set out on my journal for any highfaluting reason but because I was having trouble concentrating on my prayers. Praying has never been an easy business for me as I have one of those minds that zips off after every red herring. While sometimes red herrings can be substance for prayer, most of the time they are distractions and diversions with little to do with the task in hand. My journal began as an act of desperation: the only way I could keep my mind on my prayers was writing down what I wanted to say to God.

So, having purchased a modest notebook I set about the process. It wasn’t clever or sophisticated, but it did the trick because I find myself writing jibberish if I don’t keep my mind on the task. I really envy those for whom prayer seems to come naturally, with a flow of words between themselves and God that is akin to a conversation!

I guess from that point onward what I was doing evolved, and over the years it has been on the pages of several dozen rather ordinary notebooks that I have wrestled through my relationship with God. Here’s the first important point about keeping a journal, what you write in it is between you and God, and is certainly not the business of anyone else, even your nearest and dearest.

A few years ago I was reading a biography of Tolstoy. The great Russian novelist kept a journal for many years, but his biographer suggested that he wrote with one mind on eventual publication and so there was some posturing. Also, as his relationship with his wife deteriorated he realized that she was reading it after he went to bed, which then prompted him to use it to poke at her knowing that she would never admit to peeping. This was obviously a man engaging in keeping a journal for questionable reasons!

What began for me as a place to record my petitions gradually moved beyond that. Certainly all these years later I write out my prayers like I always did, and it is obvious that the journal is addressed to God, but it is also the place where I bring into the presence of God far more of myself than that.

I am writing this the day after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan, a cause for great anxiety and much grief both in her homeland and beyond. Her death will definitely have a profound impact upon the world and I found myself writing and praying about that, but I went beyond looking at parallels in history and the meaning of God’s providence in such tragic circumstances. My journal entry became about God’s nature and purpose, enabling me to ponder the mysteries of the divinity as they intersect with the fallenness, evil, and foolishness of humankind. I said nothing new and definitely did not develop my own understanding of the Lord any further, but it enabled me to grapple with and lift to God a tragedy within the context of my praying.

Sometimes my journal is fed by the Scripture that I am studying in my own devotional life, and I might meditate on a the whole passage or just one tiny fragment of it. At other times I find myself ruminating on something someone has said or an insight (pleasant or otherwise) about myself. My journal is a place where I can bare my soul not only to God, but also to myself for I find myself able to identify and tussle with things about me and my personality that I would often prefer to avoid.

Yes, my journal is filled with joy and delight, but it is often a place of confession and penitence, and there have been occasions when the writing has been accompanied by tears and deep heartrending. It is because my journal is designed for the Audience of One that I am able to do this, pulling no punches about myself as I do so. I hate let’s pretend religion, and have discovered that this spiritual diary has the capacity to keep me honest not only in God’s presence but with myself and with others.

If a journal is a place of confession and penitence, it is also a place where the immensity of life is agonized over. One of the problems for many of us is that we tend to live life on the surface, either ignoring or avoiding some of the deeper and more tangled challenges. There are many doubts and fears that I find myself mulling over and trying to work through. I loved what Os Guinness wrote years ago that doubts are the growing pains of the soul, and my journal is definitely a place where doubts of all kinds surface and are explored.

Sometimes, like a sore in my mouth that my tongue refuses to leave alone, I will come back to these issues ad infinitum, kicking them around, poking at them, and trying to get inside why it is that this thing might be troubling me. But this is what God intends for us. Our faith does not grow and deepen if our life remains unexamined, and a component of prayer is examining ourselves and our mind in the presence of the Most High God.

What is fascinating when going through journals years or even decades later is how things that seemed insurmountable issues back then have now either melted away or been put into an entirely different perspective. In addition, requests are made and there is a record of those prayers being answered. Diaries and journals that have a prayer-related orientation are a wonderful record of God’s dealings with each of us. One of the pleasures of keeping such journals is going back over them and discovering not only how we have grown and changed, but also how within the context of this happening we have gained a clearer understanding of what God is truly like in the manner that he confronts, cares for, and shapes us.

Just as I am bound to spend time with Scripture each day, because my journal and prayer life are now so closely interwoven I also try to spend daily time with it. Now there are days when I don’t manage it, and I don’t put myself onto a guilt trip for missing this important part of my life. It is when I go two or three days in a row without getting into my journal that I start getting anxious because it tells me that I am letting my spiritual disciplines slip. But there is more to it than that, because when I avoid my journal it is evidence to me that I am seeking to avoid something in my life that needs to be dealt with: be it sin, shame, confusion, guilt, a relationship gone bad, or whatever. I probably know in my heart what it is, but I am not necessarily eager to see what my heart thinks there in blue-and-white upon the page.

And it is important to me that it is written on the page because I know I would never do it properly if I used my laptop. Others might be different, but just as it is important to me to receive communion kneeling if I possibly can, so it is important to me to have the white, lined page before me and the pen in my hand. There is an indelibility when the words are on the page, while on the computer it can be erased or edited until I think I have got it right. Often what goes on the page, even if the spelling is rotten and the grammar awful, is the heart truly speaking.

Sometimes I will open my journal not knowing what I will be writing about, at other times the subject matter may have been on my mind for days and now I am letting it out to see the light of day. On those days when I don’t know where to begin I just start writing, seeking God to guide me into all truth. It is often amazing what come flowing out and some of those entries are the most fruitful.

Entries don’t have to be long. Sometimes I will write no more than half a dozen sentences, and there are rare occasions when I might write several pages, but most of the time it is 300-500 words. This works for me, but others may go about this in an entirely different way.

Not long after C. S. Lewis’s death, his brother, Warren, was discovered making a mighty bonfire in the garden at The Kilns of letters and journals by his brother. While some were retrieved, others were lost. I like to think that my journals will be destroyed in the same way by my survivors after I am gone from this world because there is much in there that is between me and my Maker. Through my journals I have learned to pray, and praying can at times be a raw and messy business, as are some of these books.

So, David, I hope that will get you started…

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Going down to the sea in ships

For nearly two and a half years I have lived in the company of several remarkable men. I met the first of them in a chance encounter with an audio book which I listened to on a long car ride, and this set me off on an odyssey that almost three dozen novels later is nearly over. The men I am talking about are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the product of Patrick O'Brian's productive mind, then more recently I've come back into contact with C. S. Forester's hero, Horatio Hornblower.

It was Patrick O'Brian who launched me on this journey that has given me such delight while feeding my own imagination -- something that I have always believed especially important for a preacher to do. I am not a nautical person. My father-in-law was a civil servant with the Royal Navy so my wife has always had this yearning for the sea, but I am a landsman who will get a touch of seasickness on the shortest ferry journey. Yet I have found myself deeply stimulated by my immersion in the period of the long drawn out conflict that was the Napoleonic Wars.

Because we had read O'Brian's Master and Commander series Rosemary and I went on to read the whole Horatio Hornblower saga. The Hornblower stories were written by C. S. Forester during the years that straddled World War Two. I had tried them when I was a kid and had not acquired the taste, but fifty years later I came back to them with gusto, and reveled as much in the glorious tapestry of adventure and interrelationship as I did in the Aubrey-Maturin tales.

Now, as this epic spasm of novel reading draws to a close I find myself determined to learn a great deal more about the Napoleonic conflicts against whose backdrop our fictional heroes lived out their lives, fighting, prevailing, and often grieving deep wounds and loses. I had never actually been able to place the Napoleonic Wars when it came to their importance in world or British history, but now I realize them to have been a major turning point. They enthrall me -- as have the fictional characters on whose lives I have eavesdropped.

Jack Aubrey, Patrick O'Brian's creation, is a complex personality, a gentlemanly mixture of swagger and kindness. He is an extrovert, a man's man, someone who grabs life with both hands, and seemingly loves nothing better than a good fight -- especially if it helps him acquire prizes by capturing other vessels and their cargoes with the result that he and his crew get a percentage of their value. His foil is Stephen Maturin, the ship's doctor, who is an even more complex individual, an Irishman with a Catalan father who aligns with Britain because of his loathing for Napoleon and the evil that he wreaked in the Iberian peninsula.

Jack Aubrey is shrewd and cunning at sea, but he is also a lamb for the slaughter when on land -- a fool who is easily parted from his money by those who promise to make him richer quicker. He knows how to fight and inspire men, but you always sense that he is a little at a loss when he is in the company of his wife, family, and polite society. I suspect that his shortcomings on land was fairly typical of sailors of that age used to tours of duty that would be months or even years in length.

But there's another side to Jack Aubrey, for he is the man of war who loves music. In this he is a complete contrast to Horatio Hornblower for whose wooden ear turns music into a raucous din to be endured rather than enjoyed. Aubrey is a halfway decent violinist, and it is music that cements his deep, brotherly friendship with Stephen Maturin. There's many an evening when they have sat in the captain's cabin playing string duets, for Maturin was a pretty good cellist. If other musicians happen along, then they are dragged into this business of music-making, even music writing.

While Jack Aubrey is bluff and hearty, Horatio Hornblower continually fights internal battles with himself. Like his hero and namesake, Horatio Nelson, a little while on land and he has lost his sea legs, so seasickness is his unwanted companion whenever he gets back on board a ship after time a-land. Then there are these inner uncertainties that dog him even as he rapidly ascends the ladder of naval promotions, proving himself a strong and courageous leader. It is as if Hornblower never really grows out of being the uncertain boy who was rowed across Portsmouth Harbour to the HMS Indefatigable, where he became a midshipman.

He creates a kind of shell around himself to protect his seemingly fragile psyche, with the result that he barks at subordinates unnecessarily and cannot even tell his best friends his appreciation of them. He makes decisions well, but then in the quiet of his cabin second guesses himself, scared that if the action goes wrong or if the unexpected happens his career will be at an end and the respect that people have for him will evaporate. What thoughtful leader, if honest, has not had such fears and anxieties in the dark of the night after hard decisions have been made?

While Jack Aubrey has a lusty appetite when it comes to the opposite sex, Hornblower doesn't have much of a clue about women. He stumbles backwards into his first marriage to Maria, seemingly unable to walk away from a kind young lady who is the first to show him feminine affection. It is an inappropriate marriage, and throughout he wrestles to hide his pitying true feelings from this poor creature who is his adoring wife. Maria has a sad life, losing two children to smallpox, then dying in the process of giving her husband his son, Richard (what an excellent choice of name!).

Hornblower is off fighting Bonaparte when this tragedy takes place, but it sets him up to marry a woman who he believes is so far above him both socially and in every other way that she is beyond reach. He has the good fortune to become the husband of Lady Barbara Wellesley, the younger sister of the soon-to-be Duke of Wellington, England's greatest general. With such a match to a woman he adores, his continued rise is almost guaranteed.

I have loved the interplay of warfare, the hard life of sailors in those days, the relationships with wives, sweethearts, naval bigwigs, politicians, and the enemy, to name but a few of the factors that are so artfully woven together. Hornblower emerged from the leftovers of a film script that C. S. Forester, an English resident in California for much of his life, was writing. The Master and Commander sequel was imagined into existence by Patrick O'Brian, an Englishman who wished he were Irish and lived much of his adult life in Southern France with his wife. How is it that two determined exiles should write such glorious books about this England about which they had such mixed feelings?

The naval escapades of the Napoleonic Wars were in many ways the climax of the age of wooden ships. For millennia when men went down to the sea in ships and carried out their business in the great waters they had done so in small and by our standards flimsy vessels. The ships that fought in the early Nineteenth Century might have been the climax of wooden ship technology, but although their sailors did not know it within a generation or two they would be replaced by metal creatures driven by steam engines and requiring coaling stations all over the world.

O'Brian and Forster capture the squalor of those old boats: the close quarters in which men lived, the stench between decks, the ghastly food, the damp cold of wintery oceans, the terror of storms tossing them all over the place, the hard work and the countless hardships endured by officers and men alike. The authors have great respect for these tars, for they were a tough race, beyond anything most of us are likely to experience today, and the discipline with which they lived could be cruel and harsh.

But it was upon their backs that the British Empire blossomed. By prevailing at sea against Napoleon's navy, the Britain that emerged from those years of endless warfare was poised to become the preeminent global power. The British developed a supreme confidence, gathered colonies so that the sun never set on the Union Jack, and they were both the dominant trading nation and manufacturing power. The British were to be feared and envied after Napoleon had been finally defeated in 1815, and although not without challenges, they remained the world's top dog for a full century. That dominance slipping from their hands first in the trenches of Flanders and later in the battle to the death against Hitler and his Nazis. In those conflicts British and French were not enemies but fought side-by-side.

The Royal Navy remained the premier sea force for nearly 150 years, finally surrendering this privilege to the Americans during World War Two. Alas, it has continued to shrink and atrophy, and today is a mere shadow of its former self. I don't think the Royal Navy is worried about playing a supporting role to the Americans, but perhaps the tragedy today is that it continues to be pruned and reduced as once Great Britain adjusts to being Little England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

I have enjoyed my thirty months spent with fictional characters who represent beings who laid the foundations of something proud and significant. While these individuals have warts and shortcomings they also reflect an ideal -- men of honor prepared to die for the cause for which they were fighting if that is required of them. We live in an age that glorifies self-interest, and old-fashioned notions like this are either unknown, unrecognized, or unappreciated. I have no desire to romanticize war, and in one of the Hornblower books Forester launches into a tirade against it, but the real battles of life are ultimately only won by men and women of enduring honor and integrity. Furthermore, honor and integrity add touches of civility to a society that has become a dog-eat-dog affair.

Good fiction should stimulate rumination over these and larger concerns. I think that these naval sagas are good fiction and do just that. Characters are given time in book after book to develop, much as personalities grow and mature in real life. I suspect that some of the facets of these players that I have met in my reading have influenced me, and will continue to shape my thinking for a long time to come.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The View from the Bleachers

My memories of the many games of rugby that I played when I was younger were of the tackles, the bumps, the bruises, and those occasional wonderful moments when I could tuck the ball under my arm and run. Because I was on the field my experience of the game was just what my own eyes saw and my own body felt. When I watch a game today, whether live or on television, I have a much better picture of what is actually going on, and can tell you with far greater accuracy what is really happening.

I feel that having moved to ministry in the UK I am now watching the fate of North American Anglicanism working itself out from a seat in the bleachers. In some ways, because I am no longer involved on a day-to-day basis and experiencing the rough and tumble, I can step back a little and try and work out exactly what is going on. Obviously, it is a very personal set of observations, but they come from someone who spent many years, as it were, on the field of play.

When you have an opportunity to stand back from what is going on, you are better able to see all the players in action, and it is a little easier to measure their play against a common set of reference points. Quite honestly, it seems to me that denial of the realities is standard at both ends of the spectrum. The voices of those who ally themselves with the "establishment" and the National Church seem as determined to read the situation through their own set of colored lenses as those at the other end of spectrum to put their own spin on the realities. While those who want everyone to kiss and make up are more sentimental than realistic.

If Kevin Martin is correct, and I think he has been fairer in his analysis of what is going on than most, then for those who continue as part of the Episcopal Church a crunch point is fast approaching when declining numbers and funds will no longer be capable of upholding the infrastructure that presently exists. You might have been able to say until now that its only a relatively small number of parishes that are causing all this upset and, by and large, other than them everything is fine and dandy, but it is no longer just parishes heading for the exit. When dioceses start doing the same then you have to change your tune.

But then, those who are conservative, orthodox, or whatever other label you want to give them, have their own blinkers on when it comes to looking at the realities. It might be a wonderful sense of relief for those leaving to get out from under the antagonistic leadership of the Episcopal Church, but it is incredibly hard and grueling work to create a whole new infrastructure in which to be church. Having been at the front end of a number of new ventures in my time, I know from personal experience the grinding agony of having limited financial resources, relatively little land or property, and how incapacitating it can be to do pioneer work after you have got over the euphoria of getting the new ministry (or whatever) up and started. It requires guts and a special mix of gifts to be a pioneer.

If you look at those who split away from the denominations at the time of the Fundamentalist Crisis in the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1970s that they were in a position to move forward having put a complete new set of structures, seminaries, and so forth, in place. While the parallels between the 20th and the 21st Centuries are not precise, there is plenty of evidence from history that movements take at least a generation to take root and much longer than that to make a systemic difference.

What makes it more tricky for those who are attempting to plough a new furrow is that in many circumstances they are facing crippling legal challenges. I almost gagged when I heard the size of the legal bills facing the CANA congregations in Northern Virginia. If you are starting afresh sums of the size they are having to cough up to the attorneys are crucial in the launching of new initiatives and the firmer establishment of what is there already. It is very handy to blame these lawsuits on Dr. Schori and her legal advisors, but when you take the action of separating from the denomination, knowing what the situation is regarding the ownership of the property, then you have to admit that you walked into this one with eyes wide open.

It is handy to blame what has happened on other people, and certainly the disastrous decisions of the 2003 General Convention were the climax of a long build-up to this crisis, but scapegoating those who you believe caused the problem does not find a way forward, neither does it seem to square with the spirit of Scripture's teaching about finding reconciliation. There is a dysfunctionality on all sides, let's call it fallenness, that has intensified the depths of this tragedy. Put in the language of heaven and earth, the Devil has been having a field day and we have all cooperated with him.

Watching the Rugby World Cup in September and October, what struck me about the way England played was their ferocious determination after a terrible start in the tournament not to let their opponents score. They were dogged in their defensive play, but their problem was that instead of going out to score tries and goals, they tended to play to prevent the other side from scoring against them. When in the final they came up against South Africa, they encountered a team who played a different kind of rugby and knew how to sidestep England's defensiveness.

What I see in the American church right now is that same dogged defensiveness. Each side is saying, "We are not going to let those who are against us win." The result is unappetizing, a war of attrition, which ultimately no one can win, and from which only the lawyers and those who nay say the gospel are benefiting.

Right now the orthodox/conservatives are winning nothing, in the medium and long-term the Episcopal Church loyalists are going to be really digging a deep hole for themselves, and meanwhile the Anglican Communion teeters on the brink of division and, worse, extinction. Clearly, the Anglican experiment as we have known it is floundering in deep water and the outcome for the advance of the Gospel is hardly very encouraging. I am sure that those who are passionate that they are right are going to stomp all over me for what I have just said, but that is what the game looks like from someone who is no longer actively involved. All I can do is grieve and pray, and ask God that at some point he will raise up wiser heads whose voices will be heard above the din.

It is because there are no easy answers that I write as I do. The church as we have known it probably is way beyond any kind of repair, but the dynamics now in place seem to me to promise further rending, further parting of friends, and further bloodlettings. Such a course is one that only leads steadily downward. Each time through history that major crises have shaken American Anglicanism the result has been to further weaken the witness of the church. Isn't it about time that we started to learn from the mistakes of the past while attempting to create a Kingdom future? This isn't about compromise, this is about what does it mean to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The End of Term

Looking forward to seeing my animals again!

It seems amazing, but my first term as Development Director at Ridley Hall is now drawing to a close. In a few days I will be boarding a plane back to the USA, and will be reunited with my wife, Rosemary, after our longest time away from one another in nearly forty years of marriage. One of the things that these fourteen weeks apart has re-emphasized to me again is that I am not constitutionally suited to bachelordom and the single life. As Scripture says, "It is not good for man to be alone..." I say "Amen" to that!

What has been interesting, and it came up in a conversation this morning, is how I am perceived by the students and my colleagues here. In the USA I am very obviously English, but here folks are not sure of that at all, and over breakfast with the Principal, an American, and a Canadian student, it became obvious that in this community I am perceived to be an American. That will probably make some of my American friends chuckle, but that's the way it is in perfidious Albion.

This very much came out yesterday at a trustees meeting of the seminary. I will not bore you with the details, but apparently from the way I presented my report, and from a slap across the wrist that I received from one of the bishops, I had forgotten in such situations how to be haved with necessary English reserve. I would hasten to add that I have no desire whatsoever to rediscover how to become English like that again, although perhaps I will have to be a little more careful. There is nothing wrong with a little brashness every now and again, especially if it keeps people thinking and discourages them from being stuffy.

It fascinates me what I have missed in these last few months. Obviously, I have missed Rosemary very, very much, but I have also missed my dog and cat, too. I am looking forward to having them all here in Cambridge with me. But almost as much, I have missed what can only be described as the priestly rhythm of life. It is now more than four months since I last presided over a Communion service, and nearly as long as that since I last preached the Word. These activities, the ministry of Word and Sacraments to which I was ordained in the late 1960s, have shaped the pattern of my life and suddenly they were taken away which left me floundering.

Here I have had no opportunity to exercise these tasks, merely to sit in the congregation and be ministered to. Perhaps that did me a world of good. Certainly, I have learned to squirm as parishioners do, and last Sunday if I had not been a visitor at the church where I was worshiping I would have been tempted to walk out because of the vacuous error that was being proclaimed angrily from the pulpit. Sitting as the recipient of ministry in a congregation is a good place to learn some fundamental lessons about humility and self-control!

I mentioned how empty life could seem without celebrating and preaching to our fellowship group on Monday morning. We were pondering and praying over the high points and low points of this first term of the academic year, and the Principal and I were the only two ordained members of the group. I wasn't fishing, but within minutes I was asked if I would be the celebrant of the end-of-term eucharist for the group, and that was a great joy. Then within 24 hours my phone rang and I was asked to preach and celebrate on a regular basis at St. Andrew's, the village church that I have been attending. Suddenly, after this enforced lay-off I was being given back something that I realize is much more precious to me than I had previously imagined.

So, I return home to Tennessee for two last weeks on Monday. I say home because I realize that home for me on earth is where Rosemary is. It is also my home because that is where one of my houses is, for our beautiful Tennessee homestead is like so many tens of thousands of others, trapped high and dry by the sub-prime crisis. There are nights when I have lain awake getting quite mad at the greed that has created the mortgage crisis that is now enveloping the markets here. I pray that we won't be paying two mortgages for too long.

What has been an interesting phenomenon is that as far as I can recall, I have not dreamed about once about England the whole time that I have been living back here. Instead, I have been dreaming about America -- perhaps that says something about where a large part of my soul is lodged.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Is the worm turning?

There is a piece on today's BBC website in which Tony Blair, Britain's former Prime Minister, admits that his Christian faith is hugely important to him, that when traveling he always sought a church in which to worship on Sundays, but that he kept quiet about it when he was in office because people might think him "a nutter." The program in which he says this is to be aired later this evening, and if I can stay awake until then, I will watch it!

In that one comment Blair summed up the way the British have been enculturated over several generations to assume that a forthright affirmation of Christian faith by anyone, whether they have influence or not, is a somewhat screw loose kind of thing. Richard Dawkins, whose book about God's apparent non-existence was ironically on the Christmas-buys shelf at Borders in Cambridge the other day when I was in there, plugs into that mentality and represents it at the elite end of the spectrum.

This notion that Britain and Europe have shed every last vestige of their Christian heritage is accepted all over the place as the right way of interpreting the facts, but I would suggest that folks should be a little more cautious before drawing such conclusions.

When I was meeting in London this last week, a contact close to the hub of things, told me that actually there are now more churchgoers in the Cabinet that an any time in probably more than a century. While that doesn't prove anything it is certainly worth pondering. In addition, there is regular creative contact between 10 Downing Street and Lambeth Palace, just across the River Thames, and it ought to be remembered that the present Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a Preacher's Kid who affirms many of the lessons he learned growing up in a Presbyterian manse.

It isn't only in secular Britain that this is happening. When I made my one trip to Australia more than twenty years ago there was a book going the rounds at that time entitled, "Can God Survive in Australia?" With the phenomenon of churches like Hillsong, it is clear that God is surviving, and now the Australians have elected a Prime Minister who makes no secret of his Christian profession. Is the worm turning, and could such a thing happen in other places in the secularized West?

The United States is unique in the openness of its prominent leaders to faith, but most of the rest of the western world is embarrassed when Presidents, senators, members of Congress, or governors talk freely about such things. The chattering classes here see such overt religiosity as gauche, naive, simplistic, reflecting an unthinking childishness that is altogether irrelevant in today's complex and increasingly troublesome world. They wonder what is wrong with such people, which illustrates the anxieties of Tony Blair, and his concern to his faith be under wraps for fear that he would be considered weak in the head -- and therefore unfit to govern.

Meanwhile, if the statistics are to be taken seriously Christian (and Jewish) religious observance in Britain continues to bump along the bottom. The question is how should such figures be interpreted, and should they be allowed to stand alone without prodding or questions being asked of them? Could it be that higher levels of Christian observance by those in political leadership here and elsewhere in the world are merely straws in the wind of something larger that is happening, or are they mere coincidences that mean little? Perhaps it is too soon to answer such a question, but a few years hence we may have a better perspective on a whole array of realities -- and this could suggest that it is the line pushed by the popular media that is amiss.

I have been guilty of over-optimism regarding all sorts of issues and concerns in the past, so it is necessary to keep that side of myself in check. However, as I re-acclimate to the British environment there are other factors that I see. Certainly, there is an undercurrent of distrust of organized religion, but I find myself asking fundamental questions about whether this means that faith itself has been flushed down the toilet.

One of the things that has impressed me is the potential long-term impact of Alpha. While well over two million people have attended an Alpha Course in the UK since 1993, and while Alpha may not be growing as fast as perhaps it once was, there is certainly no evidence of it fading away. Living and working as I do in the heart of one of Britain's healthiest theological colleges there is plenty of evidence that we are seeing some of the fruit of Alpha coming through our doors.

Just as in earlier generations there was a bubble of candidates seeking ordination several years after a Billy Graham Crusade had been held in Britain (some of my contemporaries at seminary came to Christ through Graham), today there is this steady surge coming from the ranks of those whose lives have been touched by Christ through Alpha. Last year, for example, and no one seems to have a clear explanation for it, there was a significant and unexpected increase in those seeking ordination.

A quarter of the British population knows about Alpha, and one person in thirty has attended Alpha, which would suggest that something has to be going on -- and will continue for a while. When I was first ordained the Diocese of London was the fastest shrinking when it came to church attendance, now it is seeing healthy growth in membership and average Sunday attendance. Alpha seems to have been one of the causes of this, together with a diocesan bishop who is willing to think strategically and use tools like Alpha to improve the health of his diocese.

If Alpha is a work of God, then we can expect some kind of long-term impact in altered lives, enriched families, and strengthened moral values. It takes only a relatively small critical mass to experience a transforming faith for that to filter through into wider society. I am not suggesting that Alpha is the one and only reason for spiritual advance, but it is certainly evidence that something is going on, which belies a wooden interpretation of the statistics which might lead us to think God is permanently on the back burner in Britain.

I suspect that Alpha has received the kind of response that it has because of a lot more than clever marketing and Nicky Gumbel's way with words and winning smile. I suspect that Alpha is one of several things that has touched a deep chord of longing in the British heart and psyche. In America, especially the American South, there is a general assumption within the wider culture that life is about a lot more than being a consumer, but that assumption is nowhere near as strong here. This leaves people fishing around for something more.

In Britain you see people living from one self-indulgence to the next. Right now it is Jingle Bells time, but as soon as that is over the television will be shouting to people to start booking their holidays -- a time when sun-starved Brits can turn themselves into sweaty lobsters in Florida, the Mediterranean, or some more exotic spot, convincing themselves that they are having lots and lots of fun, and this is what life is about. And so the cycle continues. I sense that a small but growing number are stopping and asking themselves whether life is about more than this. It only takes so many to do so before the pendulum starts swinging.

Furthermore, I have also found myself in conversations about the Christian faith since being here, where ordinary secular folks are trying to make sense of it in light of the Islam that they see around them. I don't think many native British people find Islam particularly attractive, but I sense that although it is hidden at the moment there are growing numbers asking how Christ stacks up when compared to Mohammad. Such popular comparative religion is probably at an early stages, but I sense we will hear more about it in the years to come.

Then there is this other fascinating phenomenon of Christian in-migration to the UK. We hear an awful lot about Muslims flocking here, as they are, but it could very well be that even more overt Christians are finding their way to these shores. 600,000-700,000 Poles have revitalized the Roman Catholic church in this land, and many of those who have come from Africa or Asia are themselves strongly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. While the ethnic variety of Britain is far greater than it was thirty years ago when I left this country, within this new diversity are followers of Christ who in the years to come will have a lot to say and do here.

Maybe I am a Pollyanna, but maybe also a worm is turning. Certainly, it can no longer be assumed that Europe is speeding inexorably down a secular highway, although the voice of those who have no religious belief will be loud and strong. Neither can it be assumed that Christianity has lost all its dynamic and spine in the face of secularism and other faiths moving onto its turf. Something seems to be happening here. The Christian church has been written off far too many times in the past and then has popped back for me to want to do such a thing now.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Culture of Possibility or Culture of Scarcity?

Portrait of Handley Moule, First Principal of Ridley Hall and later Bishop of Durham. This hangs in the Ridley dining hall

Since the beginning of September I have been attempting to get under the skin of the institution within which I now minister so that I can serve it better. I have wanted to know where it came from, what makes it tick, what is its institutional DNA, and so forth. I guess that as I have been discovering things I have been asking a lot of why questions.

I struggle for words because it is hard to describe what it is like to return to your homeland as a stranger. While much that is going on around you is very familiar, you see it through very different eyes and ask some startlingly different questions of the reality. This is what has been happening to me as I have dug into getting to grips with Ridley Hall. From this has come a whole series of interesting thoughts about the nature of Britain itself since the latter part of Victoria's reign.

Ridley is the result of a huge surge of self-confidence and generosity in this country in the 1870s and 1880s. Given the spiritual awakening that had occurred a generation earlier I would have to suggest that it was probably part of the knock-on effect of that. One of the things I learned from the great missionary statesman, Max Warren, was that we should never disconnect actions that demonstrate the advance of the Gospel from God's initiative -- especially those initiatives that had an extraordinary focus and intensity like awakenings, renewals, revivals.

Neither was Ridley Hall the only thing that happened during this period. Essentially the same networks of people were establishing and Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, simultaneously, and colossal sums of money were raised not only for these two ventures but all sorts of other godly activities, social care, public education, and so on, and so on.

Britain was at that time riding high in the world, and while some of that confidence was the product of Gospel incentive and its accompanying empowerment, some was the outcome of the wealth and influence that had been accumulating. A can-do mentality seemed to prevail, and in the years that followed Ridley's founding, for example, significant amounts of money by the standard of any age were raised to enlarge and improve the college's facilities.

Everywhere you look in Britain you find buildings and institutions from that time. Great investments were being made in what was believed to be the nation's robust future, and it was often the Christian faith that was a major driving force behind this movement. But that era of philanthropy and expansiveness evaporated within a few decades. I have little doubt that there was some kind of relationship between the ebbing of generosity and the ebbing of the Christian faith.

The Twentieth Century was also a period during which Britain received what might be described as a treble whammy. It began with World War One which, as we have been hearing today, Remembrance Sunday, decimated the flower of a generation. The brightest and best of British, French, German, and other nations' manhood gave their lives in the bloodbath that was the Western Front. It is impossible to assess just how much spiritual and psychological damage that war did to the capacity of the nations involved to think well of themselves.

There followed first the Great Depression and then a mere twenty years after the first World War had ended a second, the war in which my father fought -- and many of his contemporaries died. Winston Churchill knew as he entered that conflict for what he described as "Christian civilization," that even if Britain was on the winning side it would be impoverished. By 1945, the year in which I was born, there were few fortunes left to fund philanthropy, and the church itself had been deeply wounded by the course of events together with its own loss of spiritual and theological nerve.

During World War Two the government had taken control of almost every aspect of life so that everything possible could be directed at the business of winning the conflict against Hitler and his dreams of world domination. When the war ended that sense of the government being the one who gathered and then divided out the goodies was embedded in the national psyche. It didn't help that the nation was penniless, its empire was dribbling away, and the people were weary from the slog that the Twentieth Century had to that point been to them.

It was sometime during that first half of the last century that the culture of possibility which had accompanied plenty gave way to a culture of scarcity which would rather fight to protect just a tiny portion of what it already had, rather than losing everything altogether. The habits of such a dependent culture do not disappear readily, and Brits are still far readier, even if they constantly moan about it, to allow the state to eavesdrop and intrude upon its life than is healthy. This is one of the areas where I realize how differently I now see things than when I first left these shores.

Yet Britain has little excuse these days to plead poverty and continue hiding from the challenges by wallowing in this culture of scarcity. This is a wealthy country, one of the richest in the world. While there are certainly pockets of need and disadvantage (some of them quite large), the vast majority of the population are more prosperous than ever before: why else would a large portion of the European population and half of Africa and Asia want to migrate here?

Something that is required now is for a larger portion of the British to relearn the grace of possibility-thinking, and the philanthropy that goes with it. Christians need to learn it just as much as the general population, and I wonder whether part of the weakness of the faith here is that we still tend to give God a tip rather than at least a tithe. That is not to say that money would solve all the problems, but didn't someone once say that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also?

I have been wondering (my line of thought following a suggestion in Philip Jenkins' book, God's Continent, that I reviewed a couple of months ago), whether the arrival of a dynamic Islam on these shores might actually be a blessing in disguise because its presence forces the native population to think seriously about God, faith, morals, values, and so forth. What a challenge for the Gospel Britain is today. We here could well be on the front line of something big. The question is will we rise to the challenge?

What is required is a vision and an imagination that is huge, as big as the Lord God himself. Such a vision and imagination would has such Kingdom implications that we would all stand back in amazement and astonishment.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Why the American Church crisis is not front and center

St. Andrew's Church, Impington, where I am worshiping

Watching the goings on in the American church from a distance of 3,000 miles, is an eerie, almost out-of-body experience. It is like sitting on the window sill and looking across at the being you once inhabited while a melee of people work on it, and you are not quite sure which ones are doing the healing and which ones are doing the ripping apart!

What is more intriguing and a little disconcerting is that apart from a few enthusiasts, ecclesiastical events on the landmass that sits between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans do not seem to be high on most lists of priorities here in Britain.

Part of me understands that response, because when I log into various of the blogs and read the pronouncements of bishops or the Episcopal News Service, the bit of me that is getting absorbed back into the English church and the new ministry before me is distancing from the crisis in an attempt to protect myself from the on-going pain. The other part of me, the part that is still a priest of the Diocese of Tennessee, rings my hands, prays, gets anxious about what is going on and how people I love are being treated (or hurt); but most of this I have to do in private -- because there is an entirely different set of agendas and priorities here.

Now, I confess, that I have not traveled much out of Cambridge since arriving here, so my insights are limited to the sliver of opinion in the little bubble in which I function, but the world in which I live is pretty engaged with broader circumstances so what is happening here is probably not much different from what is happening in a lot of other places. Everyone knows that things are not easy in the American or Canadian churches, but either they have a different set of pressing concerns, or they don't want to know about it. Although I haven't heard it said, I suspect some are shaking heads and a muttering to themselves something about those crazy Americans.

Yet, I suspect there is more going on beneath the surface than just this. In Britain there is now this huge sense that the Christian perspective on things is very much a minority taste that should be neither seen nor heard. Regarding the tussle to shape postmodern culture, a relativistic utilitarian approach to living and decision-making prevails, and attitudes which are rooted in an omnipotent God who has revealed himself are often condemned as irrelevant, intolerant, or both.

Nevertheless, in many hearts there is this yearning, and people find it difficult to put their finger on it. Yesterday afternoon I was talking to a totally unchurched family whose daughter had completed some graduate studies, and the graduation ceremony had taken place a few days earlier in the cathedral of the city where she had been studying. There was, it seemed, something about the building, the prayer, the graduation exercises, that had grabbed at the soul and heartstrings of these folks: they were aware of their need for the transcendent, but did not have the language with which to express it.

Thus it is that the Church of England and others are concentrating increasing amounts of attention on how to reach the unreached: folks who are three, four, five, or more generations removed from any kind of faith expression or church involvement. There are now folks in my own extended family who are four or five generations removed from any kind of Christian profession or church membership. What the Christian gospel is about is a mystery to the vast majority of the British (and I would have to add broader European) native population.

I suspect that what people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are doing in their best-selling frontal attacks on belief in God is both shaping public attitudes as well as amplifying the prevailing popular mindset. One American Christian visiting here that I was talking to the other day was describing a very interesting conversation with a taxi driver in which he expressed many of the same opinions as Professor Dawkins, although he had probably never heard of him. The general drift of his argument was that "no one believes that stuff any longer," something that is eagerly reflected back to folks through the media.

Thus the challenge before the churches is huge. Just how do you coax people into a relationship with the believing community when a large part of it either seems totally inept, or might affirm ideas and values that the popular culture either does not understand or sees as petty and narrow-minded. My own commitment to biblical Christian values has already been roundly condemned as such by some of my nearest and dearest, even though I have overtly said very little.

Last Sunday evening I attended the village church to which I have chosen to attach myself and delighted in the office of Evening Prayer, together with eleven others. As one who has spent his whole adult life hanging around the church and soaking up the liturgy, it was a joy to be part of that act of worship, however, what we were doing in that ancient building would not have made much sense to the vast majority in the homes that cluster around St. Andrew's Church. To them this was about as relevant to daily life as the strange secret ceremonies of the Freemasons.

It isn't that there aren't gifted and godly people attempting to find the way to bring Christ into the lives of the unchurched population of this land. To my delight I have been discovering some of the most committed and creative people imaginable who are seeking to respond to today's challenge, but there are few parts of England where the seed when planted sprouts forth thirty, fifty, a hundredfold. In most places the going is much tougher than that, and apart from this wistfulness that there must be something more to existence than this, there is little evidence of the spiritual tide turning.

Thus, the goings on in the United States are not going to be on the front burner. What is happening in America is a bit of static, there in the background, irritating, but like someone else's civil war of which we here are spectators. It is almost as if the English church is saying, "We're sorry, we have bigger fish to fry."

Yet when one part of the Body is troubled there is no way that another part can responsibly wash its hands of the problems. If you were to ask me what is the biggest problem facing the English church at this time, it is that in so many ways it has taken on the relativistic utilitarianism that prevails in so much British thinking. Thus, instead of expressing conviction and living it out, it shrugs its shoulders and says we must be tolerant, committed to diversity, non-judgmental, living and letting live. While some of this may be admirable, it should not take place at the expense of biblical standards and values, however unpopular they might be in the prevailing culture.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Falling into the Sub-Prime Pit

It would appear that the Kews have fallen into the pit created by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the consequent slowing of the economy, and the slump in the housing market. Other than a nibble or two, very little interest has been shown in our house in Tennessee by potential buyers, and with winter coming on this is not the time of the year when people traditionally spend a lot of time and effort trying to find a new roof to put over their heads. We aren't alone, tens of thousands of sellers are in the same boat even in fast-growing counties like ours.

Meanwhile, within the next ten day we complete the purchase of a house here in England, and face the prospect of two mortgages to pay every month for a while. I don't like the idea at all, but there is little I can do about it. I had lunch with an old friend the other day who was caught in the same bind of owning two houses for several years in the recession of fifteen years or so ago -- something I hope and pray does not happen to us!

It seems only yesterday that folks were saying that there should be no reason at all why people wouldn't snap up our home in Williamson County, Tennessee, set as it is overlooking a beautiful view that will never be spoiled by building, a home that is energy smart, beautifully finished, and has been a delight and joy to ourselves. But that was before we found ourselves on the receiving end of a financial crisis that has been partly triggered by a major failure on the part of the banking system when it comes to making loans to families wanting a home of their own.

The tragedy of this whole banking crisis is that so many who aspired to the American dream of their own rather than a rented roof have now lost what they yearned for in the downward spiral that has taken place. I suspect we will be able to find our way financially through the impact of this crisis upon ourselves although will lose quite a lot as a result, but others have had their lives ruined for years to come, sometimes as a result of their own collusion with the less-than-honest practices of the mortgage companies.

I love my solar home in Tennessee, and so does Rosemary, my wife, and we built it in an effort to be environmentally responsible. We love it so much that we want to pass it on as a trust to some other family who will take care of it and use it to make the point that there are ways of living comfortably but having a minimal impact upon the world's climate.

If God had not called us to the new work which I am now doing in Cambridge, England, there is no way in the world that we would have left this house so soon. But following God's clear leading sometimes means making painful sacrifices, and that is what we are in the process of doing. The problem is that the sacrifice is now even more painful than we had anticipated.

What has happened in the USA regarding sub-prime mortgages, their packaging, and their selling on to other lenders, is now having an impact here in Britain. This crisis is truly global. Last month I saw the very first bank run of my life, when thousands lined up outside offices of the once much-respected British bank, Northern Rock, to retrieve savings which they thought they might lose. Watching the line snaking along the street in Cambridge was like seeing live the run on the family savings and loan in the Jimmy Stewart classic, "Its A Wonderful Life."

Then there was the news this week that over 65% of mortgage applications were turned down in this country last month -- which is one reason, I think, why my bank has been dragging its feet, and turning over every stone before issuing the loan that I need here. In these last couple of months I have learned a lot about the knock on effect of sin, and the disappointment of seeing something that is precious to me waiting forlornly for a new owner.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thoughts on Transitions and Change

The other afternoon I grabbed a book off my shelf and headed round the corner to an old-fashioned barber's shop to get my first haircut since arriving in Cambridge. They don't take appointments, you just have to sit until it is your turn to be shorn, so I needed something to while the waiting time away. The book I picked up was William Bridges' Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.

This is a book I have read several times before, as well as dipping into from time to time because the writer understands transitions, my life has been shaped by a series of difficult transitions, and I have not always navigated them well. Indeed, I think that I have developed this abiding interest in the future because I sometimes transition so badly that I have hoped it would give me a leg up, as it were! As I flipped through the pages and looked at my previous underlinings I realized that perhaps I was not as far down the transitional road back into English life as I had thought.

Bridges identifies several stages to a transition, the first being making a good ending of what you have been and what you have been doing. You cannot get on with a constructive transition until you have given decent Christian burial to your past. When you move forward into something new, there are always losses and with those losses come a tangle of emotions, awkward feelings, and ambivalences, all of which require your best attention.

The day after my haircut I received an email from someone who because of the health of a child has had to leave in mid-stream a ministry that he loved in order to be in a place where his kid is going to receive absolutely vital health care. Of course, he and his wife were battered and bewildered by his internal responses to all they found themselves going through. I understand some of those feelings, because that is where part of me is right now. Put simply, I am not yet able to be fully engaged in my ministry in Cambridge because there are still so many factors of my life in Tennessee that, quite honestly, I am finding trouble letting go of.

Individuals, organizations, cultures all have trouble saying farewell to the past and moving on into the kind of neutral zone where they are able to reorient, and which is the beginning of so many elements of growth that can take place when transitioning. Abandoning our past is not the way to healthily handle transition, because abandonment aborts the process of leaving and grieving. To put it crudely, it is a bit like not bothering to go to a parent or sibling's funeral, however much you were at odds with that family member. If we are to make a fresh beginning then it is essential that we manage a good ending to the old.

Transition has the capacity make you into a very different kind of person. Handle it well and you grow, handle it badly and you either stagnate or fester. William Bridges wrote another much more personal book about his own transitions which he sub-titled "embracing life's most difficult moments." The message of this book is loud and clear that if you fail to embrace such moments then it is possible that maturities of which you are capable will pass you by. He echoes the opening words of Moby Dick, where Herman Melville writes about "the damp, drizzly November of my soul." I guess that journeys of transition often feel like this, and it is necessary for us to gird ourselves up and grasp them appropriately.

The transition I am making is not only from the USA to England, but is also from parish ministry to seminary work, from maintaining the life of a congregation to advancing the life of a theological college that has an exciting future. I feel at sea in that I no longer have a congregation, which to me has always been a bit like an extended family to which I belong, but I am in the process of becoming part of a team in the rather intense little communities that seminaries often tend to be. Meanwhile, for the first time in nearly forty years I find myself temporarily living not as part of a couple but a single life - which means I am learning all sorts of interesting things about myself as I wait for my wife to arrive.

In the midst of all that is going on in my own life I am reading a recent history of Ridley Hall, commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the college. The Sixties and Seventies, were a painful period when the whole future of Ridley was up for grabs, and the college struggled to make a difficult transition either into oblivion, or a merger, or into something different. One of the reasons it was so difficult was because these were difficult years for the Christian faith in Britain.

Elements of the mood of that period I recall as if it was yesterday, because it was when I was preparing for and starting out on my ordained life. While our seminary was relatively healthy, when I got into parish life I found myself confronted with all sorts of things I had not been expecting because so much was changing. We had been trained for one kind of ministry, but so much happened during the four years I was in process that by the time I came out a different kind of world was being born. The fabric of the church was being stretched within a context where the fabric of the culture was being radically altered. I am certain that some of my peers have spent their whole ministries with heads buried in the sand trying to ignore what is happening.

The truth is that Ridley Hall came within a whisker of dying in the early Seventies. By God's grace that didn't quite happen, and while reading the story of the college's trials is agony, the story of its rebirth makes fascinating reading. Now, several decades later this is a place of grace that is full to overflowing with men and women eager to serve Christ with heart, soul, mind, and strength in the church. Yet some of the seeds that are blossoming today were planted during that 'near death' experience that took place a couple of generations ago.

The transition that Ridley has made has not been easy, and the veterans here would perhaps agree that there is still a long way to go, but out of that era has come something potentially very beautiful for God. Valuable lessons were learned in those dark years that so far have not been forgotten, and I sense that no one rests on their laurels here. There is something extraordinarily robust about this theological college as it focuses on Christ, his truth, and how these impact the nation and nations during this postmodern time.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned about transitioning is that these periods cannot be forced, any more than a child can be encouraged to be born on its due date! Our lives don't straighten out after a transition for months for any number of reasons, but out of these in-between-times can come great and glorious blessings.

As I flicked the pages of Managing Transitions as I waited for a little boy to finish having his hair cut the other afternoon I rediscovered a quote from the French novelist Andre Gide that rings bells with me: "One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time."

I suspect that in the church today we have lost sight of the shore, but if we can accept that we are being led forward under the sovereign hand of God, then in due course and by his grace we will discover new lands.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Month After Returning to Britain

This picture was taken by the webcam in the market square in Cambridge just a couple of minutes after I had finished writing this (

It is now more than a month since I returned to Britain and am already in certain ways reverting to type and complaining vociferously about the weather, as is the habit of all the people of this land. After a long hot dry summer in Tennessee it was at first nice to feel the gentle breezes and little showers, but when the gently breezes turn damp and cold, and the showers keep coming for days on end, it doesn't do a lot for a person's spirits!

Then what is fascinating is to discover the North American sub-culture that exists in a place like Cambridge where there are literally thousands of Americans and Canadians. As we get together with one another each has his or her own very interesting take on the place, recognizing that there is a certain resistance to change here that can be either quaint or infuriating, depending on your mood or your circumstances. This innate conservatism is, I suppose, inevitable in the context of a university and city as deep-rooted as this is, but it contrasts fascinatingly with the rush to change that have taken place in Britain's overall culture during the three decades that I was away, and how this relates to the Christian community.

Cambridge probably has a higher density of churches and active Christians than most other places in the UK, and I am functioning within the context of a Christian community, but despite this fundamental to all thinking seems to be that by its very nature the prevailing culture and Christian faith and values are at odds with one another. So many of the normative responses of the mainstream culture now are those that began to gain credence during the 1960s as part of the counter-culture; in most people's minds here the church and Christian responses to the challenges of our times are dismissed as the product of dessicated minds that live in a cozy backwater.

This is an increasingly common European attitude, and showed itself off significantly when the erstwhile European Union constitution that died at the hands of referenda in France and Netherlands several years ago, baulked at mentioning the Christian heritage of this continent as part of the antecedent forces that have shaped Europe. For the vast majority of the elite, their Christian past embarrasses them, filtering down from and out of the popular culture.

Yet strangely enough, religious news and the activities of such as the Archbishop of Canterbury garner much more coverage than one would expect in a post-Christian, assertively secular environment. Add to this the fact that the Prime Minister of the UK is a son of the parsonage and his predecessor openly professes a Christian faith, and it is easy to see that there are a lot of ambivalences and ambiguities that are still in the process of playing themselves out.

In addition, the lines are drawn very differently than in the USA. Right now there are rumblings of a General Election in Britain in the next few weeks and this was a topic of conversation the other evening in the Roman Catholic theological institute where I am temporarily rooming. I shrugged and said that I was glad I was not registered to vote because I am not sure where I would cast it. One very traditional Catholic woman pushed me and I said that despite a past voting history elsewhere, I found the more family-friendly policies of the Conservative Party rather attractive. She was horrified, walked away from me, and refused to talk to me for the rest of the evening.

The reason for her horror was a visceral perception that the Conservative Party is weak on issues of social justice, the environment, and other concerns that do not ruffle the feathers of traditional people that much in the USA. It hardly seemed worth telling her that in many respects by American standards I am politically rather liberal, I doubt whether she would have believed it. I had always known that there was a much tighter relationship between conservative political attitudes and traditional/conservative religious ones in the USA than is the case in the UK, but this interchange enabled me to see just how far the center of gravity has shifted here in the last generation or two.

Let me go back to the issue of the family, which I think from my observation of life here, is going to be increasingly crucial. There has been a tremendous erosion since 1976. When I left the UK for the States, while traditional notions of family were under pressure, children out of wedlock were still a pretty big no-no and divorce while rising was nowhere near as prevalent as it is now. Neither was co-habiting, or experimental configurations of "familial" relationships involving both sexes and just one. When I go with my daughter and son-in-law to take my granddaughter for a walk in the lovely park behind their home in Birmingham, I would estimate that perhaps as many as 50% of the parents with children in the playgrounds are raising children alone, and many may never have known two parents, certainly two parents married to one another.

Not only that, but relationships are fluid and realities are covered up in the typically post-modern way with words. Whether married or living together or what, people here tend to refer to their significant other as their "partner," a word that can be given all sorts of connotations. I was in a public building the other day engaging with the bureaucracy and saw there waiting in line those who have been badly hurt by such domestic fluidity, listened in on their noisy conversations, and recognized the despair in their faces as they brought their concerns to the various officials in the building. I suspect from what I have read systematically and gathered informally, that these folks are merely the tip of a colossal iceberg.

Suffice it to say that what has for a long time been the norm is no longer the norm, the culture is in uncharted territory, and the outcome of that is right now hard to predict -- and, personally, I do not feel sanguine.

In addition when I take my granddaughter on one of those walks I see the huge impact that immigration from around the world is having on Britain. Unlike the USA, Britain has not been the migrant's destiny to anything like the same degree over the last couple of centuries, until this period since World War Two. As I watch our two-year-old happily jaunting around the swings and slides, she does so in the company of kids from all over Asia, the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and various corners of Europe.

From the dress and style of the parents gathered with them, this means a huge religious variety. Certainly the Muslims are the most prominent, some women with everything but their eyes covered, but there are obviously a lot of Hindus and Sikhs as well. Of the native population it is hard to tell how many would profess a Christian faith of any kind, but from language and behavior it is not difficult to work out those who do not!

What does this mean for the future? At apocalyptic moments I find myself getting quite frightened for the wellbeing of my kids and grandkids, but this observation of a changing reality has certainly fed my praying in the last few weeks. It could be that we are seeing a genuinely multi-cultural Britain emerging from which great richness could flow, but this is not necessarily the case and we are too early in the process to see what the pie being baked will look and taste like.

Whichever way we interpret the changing situation, the challenge before the Christian community is enormous. Functioning in the setting of a theological college (the British for a seminary), what I am seeing on the part of students and teachers alike is an eagerness to confront the issues modern Britain throws in the face of the Kingdom, and not to run away. I came to Ridley knowing that something remarkable was going on here, but what I have discovered has more than met my expectations.

Some weeks ago I was accused by an American detractor of going and burying myself in obscurity in Cambridge, which suggests an unrealistic and romantic notion of what this city is actually about! Indeed, one of the things that I have sensed since being here is that I am now in one of the "hot spots" that is playing a significant role in shaping our world, both in terms of ideas and in terms of technology.

If the Christian faith is to advance in this bracing spiritual and intellectual climate in which it finds itself then it is going to need the brightest and best in leadership, and these leaders, lay and ordained, are going to require the sort of training and resourcing that will enable them to be affect the changes required. I am increasingly certain this is what Ridley Hall is all about, since its foundation and until now.

As I look at the honor roll, as it were, of this place, I keep coming across names that have fought the good fight with great tenacity, skill, grace, and courage. John Stott was an alumnus of this place, but so were many other key leaders, not least John Sentamu, Archbishop of York. Graduates from Ridley literally helped plant the Anglican Communion, and have served God everywhere from the Houses of Commons and the Lords, as well as Britain's industrial jungles, and cities and real jungles in every corner of this planet -- and still do.

The task of a seminary like Ridley Hall is to raise up the next generation to follow in their footsteps, and as I look at the men and women in chapel in the morning, or talk to them over lunch, I find myself wondering which of these is destined for greatness, and how many of them will dig in, get on with the job, and serve Christ with all their heart, mind, and sinew, receiving very little applause for their faithfulness. Because we live in a global culture, a place like this is for the whole world, not just for Britain alone. This is certainly an exciting place to be, and I think that we heard God's call aright when he offered us the chance to be here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Well, here I am

Granddaughter, Hannah, on her swing

Fiction and reality sometimes collude, and that seems to be happening in my life. Over the last two years I have, with gaps, been steadily working my way through the Patrick O'Brian "Master and Commander" series of books. These novels, set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars trace the friendship of a rising British naval officer, Jack Aubrey, and his close friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, who sails with him as the ship's surgeon.

What makes these stories so fascinating is the developing relationship between the two men, their marriages, their children, their shipmates, even their enemies. Written by O'Brian late in his career, they represent the mature fruit of an author who is a master craftsman, someone who is an acute observer of people. The last book in the series is simply entitled "21." This wasn't what O'Brian intended, but he passed away at the age of 85 leaving 65 pages of typewritten manuscript and a further dozen more of rough draft. We are literally left in the middle of a sentence as Aubrey and Maturin leave the reader's life without any idea of what happens next, how their lives would continue to evolve, and where the tides of time and fortune would take them.

I tell this at such length because that is much how I am feeling at the moment. On September 3 I got onto a plane at Nashville and left behind my old life in Tennessee, arriving here in Cambridge on September 4, and beginning my new life at Ridley Hall on September 5. The threads of the past which had always been so important were suddenly severed, and new threads and relationships needed immediately to be crafted. What made it more difficult was that I left my wife, dog, cat, and home behind, and found myself living in a single room in a Roman Catholic institution just round the corner from the seminary. It was like being back in boarding school!

It was as if I had slipped through a wrinkle in time and been stripped of my identity. Just as I lost my friends, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, in mid-sentence, so it seems to be in my own life.

One very helpful woman, a retired priest's wife, gave me a several page piece written by a Japanese woman who had spent fifteen years in Britain before returning home, and she was talking about the reverse culture shock she was experiencing. As soon as I read it, it rang bells with me. You come back to your place of origin a very different person from the one that left so many years before, and in reality your home is now the place from which you came. There is grieving that needs to be done, not the least for me over the business of trying to sell our American home which I love dearly.

During my first couple of weeks here there was a strong impulse to break my contract, jump straight on a plane, and go back to Tennessee where we have lived for so long. I miss its climate (Cambridge is already getting awfully damp and cold); I miss its people (I am realizing just how dear some of my friends there actually are); and I miss the familiar word where I knew who I was, what was my place, and how I fitted.

I think I am over that now, helped along by large doses of daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law, but I recognize that I am still in survival mode in what is, by and large, an alien world and culture. I am getting into my work and discovering just how huge the challenge is, and that is engaging my creative energies, and I must say that I am enjoying that sense of rootedness which is inevitably there in a city as old and significant as Cambridge.

Last Sunday I went church-shopping. I didn't want to be part of one of the big congregations in Cambridge that cater overwhelmingly to students and the young, but I wanted to find somewhere for Rosemary (when she gets here) and myself where we can be part of a loving fellowship and make our contribution to the advance of the Kingdom. I found my way to St. Andrew's Church, Impington, a delightful village on the north side of Cambridge, and next door to the one in which I will soon be living.

After having been part of two congregations in Tennessee, each of which was under 25 years old, I now found myself worshiping in a village whose existence was first recorded in the 10th Century, and whose church is a 14th Century foundation. The congregation of fifty or so was older rather than younger, and there was a faithfulness about the whole thing that I appreciated and found a great blessing. In the coffee hour afterwards I was made to feel more welcome than almost anywhere I have ever gone. I have promised to go back, and I have this funny feeling that this is going to be a place where we could have a part to play. (

Several people have been asking what's happening to me, so there's my first report. Perhaps in later items I will go into some of the other things that I am adjusting to, one of them being thousands of miles from the maelstrom that is the Episcopal Church, but that's for another time.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Revd. Dr. Robert D. "Chip" Nix

I learned when I logged on to my email yesterday morning that my friend of thirty-five years, Robert "Chip" Nix was promoted to glory, taken home by the Lord yesterday evening. Chip had been ill for several months fighting cancerous lesions in the brain. I was in the midst of having my haircut on a hot July Saturday when my phone rang and Chip broke his news to me. He said then that it didn't look good.

I had hoped that I would be able to see Chip before leaving the USA for my new work and ministry here in England, but try as I might to arrange a quick visit to Texas, such a thing proved impossible, so I had to make do with phone calls. Actually, I had been planning to call him from England today, but that is now not possible. I continue to wish that somehow I had managed to get to Austin, and share one of the precious days with him.

Chip Nix appeared in my life in the early 1970s when I had just become the assistant at St. Mary Magdalene Church, Stoke Bishop, a leafy suburb of Bristol, England, and he arrived as a seminarian at Trinity Theological College, just a few hundred yards from our church. He was there as part of a triumvirate of young Episcopal evangelicals whose lives had been influenced for Christ by John Guest, then Rector of Chip's home church, St. Stephen's, Sewickley, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, PA. Chip had a lot of hair in those days, a droopy mustache, and was a Vietnam Vet.

And so our lives became entwined, but I thought when he returned to the US with his newly-acquired English wife, Carol, that this was just about the last I would see of him. I never at that time expected that America would be in my future, but several years after we first met my life took its American turn, and on my first visit I spent a night with the Nixes in their Manhattan apartment when Chip was doing his Episcopal year of studies at General Theological Seminary.

From then on our paths continued to cross. As is often the case in the Episcopal Church spread across a huge continent, we would stay in touch, but there would often be several years between being able to see each other, although we talk on the phone, exchange emails and occasional instant messages.

Chip's ministry, like all of us had its highs and lows. He worked in various corners of the USA in parishes large and small, and there is a trail of lives who have been shaped positively by his ministry. But it has seemed to be that it has been during his latter years that he found a role that so well fitted his extraordinary array of gifts -- that of an interim minister. There are several congregations today who have been profoundly blessed because the Nixes have been there, and Chip has been their rector for a while.

Perhaps the fairest thing that could be said about Chip was that he was someone whose life was devoted to Jesus Christ with passion, and he lived out that discipleship to his very last breath. He was certainly one of the kindest men that I have known, and always had a listening ear and shared good counsel when this friend was struggling or in trouble. We would talk about ministry and its struggles, share titles of books that ought to be read, and would just sometimes shoot the breeze. He prayed for me often, I know, and I prayed for him, and have prayed constantly for him during these last couple of months of his life.

Chip had his weaknesses and shortcomings, which of us doesn't, but if I were to find a way of summing this person up it would be as a man who sought to be mastered by God. He will be sorely missed. He now shares the joy of eternity with the Lord he has served wholeheartedly, and for that we can be glad. Yet he leaves a wife and two daughters who are bereft without him, in addition to those many, many friends that he accumulated.

I am thankful for the privilege of knowing this delightful man, and I pray that he will remain an example to me as someone who I should seek to emulate.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

God's Continent - A Review

A Review of Philip Jenkins' book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) US$28.00 ( $13.00)

I am writing this as I seek to adjust to the fact that after more than three decades my homeland, England, is once again truly my home -- although in many ways I feel a total stranger. I finished reading Philip Jenkins' latest book, God's Continent, as I traveled back to Britain to take up my new position at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and coming here added urgency to the task. Not only have I worked harder than I might sifting Jenkins' words, but often this has been accompanied by long moments of staring into empty space attempting to grasp the implication of what he has written.

Philip Jenkins, the Welshman who is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, is one of those rare individuals who is capable of digesting huge quantities of information, and from his synthesis of it emerges theses that are calm, considered, and sensible, and sometimes slightly contrarian. There has been an awful lot written and said during recent years about the rise of Islam in secularized Europe, some of it frightening, much of it hysterical, and often seemingly designed more to sell books than to enlighten.
God's Continent comes, therefore, as a delightful relief. Philip Jenkins, instead of fanning flames of anxiety tries to digest the realities as they are on the ground and to put them into some kind of historical perspective. Jenkins sees it as his task to enlighten rather than to terrify, believing that responding to the facts as they can be ascertained is far the best way of proceeding. God's Continent is chock full of facts, while the endnotes suggest many, many more are stored away in the recesses of the author's brain!

As he has gathered these facts Jenkins has obviously asked of them endless questions, and then sought to put them in some kind of perspective. Jenkins sees his task as enlightening rather than terrifying, and builds his case from the facts as they are on the ground. God's Continent is chock full of facts about what Europe is like, how secularism has become so influential in Europe, yet how vibrant are certain strains of Christianity, coupled with the vibrancy of many less mainstream forms of the faith. The other morning I was driving early through the industrial town of Luton (where it happened I had been born), and was surprised to see that one of the huge old movie theatres is now the UK headquarters for what I suspect is an African, Afro-Carribean denomination.

Then there are facts about Islam in Europe, whose dynamic growth in numbers and influence is the unexpected outcome of post-World War Two immigration policies, coupled with the decline in birthrates of the domestic populations. Britain and France, for example, allowed significant immigration of workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Algeria, never having thought through the consequences for second, third, and fourth generation descendants of these eager newcomers.

Unlike Britain and France, Germany did not have an empire from which to import people to do the menial jobs, so guest workers were imported from countries such as Turkey, the expectation being that they would return home when their time in Germany was up. This did not happen, and so there is now a growing Turkish and Islamic group within the heart of German culture and society. In the last dozen years or so Europe has woken up to the fact that there is a whole new challenge before it, the nature of which Jenkins spells out using demonstrable facts and circumstances to make his case rather than appealing to emotion and fear to make his point.

First of all he debunks the notion that the Islamic crescent flag is going to flutter in dominance over European skies any time soon -- if ever. The statistics of past, present, and future immigration from the Islamic world, he contends, do not support such a notion. This is not to say that Islam won't be a significant minority in Europe but it radically overstates the case that Westminster Abbey's future is as a mosque or that the fashionable Champs d'Elysee in Paris will be peopled by women wearing head scarves and burkas!

Secondly, he encourages his readers not to write off Christianity so quickly. Yes, its traditional forms and liberal theologies are in trouble, but there is a great deal more to the faith in Europe than that. Many of those immigrants from Africa and Asia are often mistakenly labeled as Muslims when in fact they are Christians, and vibrantly so. Some of the largest congregations in Europe, in fact, are to be found in the minority communities (thus the old Odean theatre in Luton), and don't write off fresh energies in the Catholic or mainstream Protestant churches, coming in flavors and packages like Alpha.

And bear in mind the nature of Christianity, he encourages us, for as it is challenged in what has historically been its home territory there is the likelihood that it will perk up considerably. "Viewed over the centuries, perhaps the best indicator that Christianity is about to expand or revive is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its last days... nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands and that they urgently need to make up these losses farther afiled, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home (pages 288-289).

What is clear is that Europe's secular elites, after having dismissed religion as a curiosity for the best part of half a century, are just starting to wake up to the fact that religion is not withering away, but that there are two major religions each with a significant sense of identity in their very own backyard. Yes, Jenkins tells us, as Islam takes root in Europe it is going to be changed by its encounter with modernity, secularity, and being a minority movement in an unsympathetic culture, but this "Islamic Revolution" is not going to change it into the empty and vacuous affair that has so gutted liberal Christianity, which is the elitist model of the way it ought to go.

Philip Jenkins works hard to tease out the various issues that Europeans, whether Christian, Muslim, secular, or something else, have to address in the coming years. These will include issues of sexuality, gender, freedom of speech, censorship, self-censorship, and so forth. Then there is the huge one of Islam being given great freedom to express itself in what has been the Christian heartland, freedoms that are utterly denied Christians in Islam's own heartland, a point brought home strongly to me in a conversation yesterday evening with a student who has come from one of those countries. Saudis, for example, are free to finance a $65 million mosque in Rome, while as one priest puts it, Christians in the Arabian peninsular function in something akin to the catacombs.

Then there is the whole issue of blasphemy, and what can be portrayed on screen, stage, and in the written word. The most significant and legitimate question related to this is whether it is appropriate for Christianity to be openly pilloried, as it often is in Europe, because Christians do not threaten violence and even murder when attacked in this way in a free society. However, society tiptoes around Muslims, censoring itself, because it fears that if treated as Christians are they would resort to violence.

I always feel much better when facts are out because then we can address them, Jenkins
deliberately puts the facts on the table. Some of the facts I personally do not like, some are not as bad as I feared, but all of them are grist for the mill of what is a remarkable book that ought to be taken seriously by thoughtful Christians -- especially any who have a deep concern for the future of Europe. I would add that the thoughtful Muslim would also have much to gain from reading this helpful volume.

That secular Europeans are now asking important questions about their religious heritage is itself an encouragement. That there is an alternative forceful challenge being mounted for people's hearts is something Christians need to take with the utmost seriousness. Perhaps there are signs that this is happening and there could be some very interesting fruit being borne in the days ahead. I cannot help thinking that God's providence is preparing the ground for something that could be very significant as Europe moves forward into the future.

On a personal note, I find myself pondering that maybe... perhaps... God has drawn us back to Europe at just such a time as this, and that the ministry ahead of me is a small part of a bigger Kingdom response to this huge challenge (and opportunity) that will shape the future of Europe, and therefore of the whole world.