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.