Sunday, February 10, 2013

Aberdeen practical theology

I’m flying up to Aberdeen today. It will be nice to be back, after being based there for three months in 2001, in my last UK sabbatical, working on my PhD. It’s only a flying visit.

I am presenting at a Research seminar on Practical Theology on Monday. I will use the opportunity to explore some of an initial chapter I am writing, introducing practical theology, linking it with ecclesiology and ethnography and outlining how I proceed in my study of emerging churches. I sort of like the mix involved when last week I am leading worship with pioneer leaders and with the mission shaped ministry board, and this week presenting at post-graduate seminars.

Last time I presented in Aberdeen (2003) the result was a journal article – “Doing practical research downunder: a methodological reflection on recent trends in Aberdonian practical theology,” Contact 142, 1 (2003): 2-21. I doubt that will happen again, but who knows.

I said yes because presenting ideas to post-graduate students is a great way to test them. In this case I want to try out a few ideas, including the Mary and Elizabeth story in Luke 1 as a way to appreciate the doing of practical theology, in particular as a study of embodiment. This includes two art works – The Visitation by Rogier Van Der Weyden and The Visitation Icon. I also want to outline the place of anecdote and story in constructing our ecclesiologies and get some feedback.

I tend to find that talking my ideas out, both in presentation and during question and answer, is a very helpful experience – part of my aural learning preference! Plus catching up with John Swinton and doing an interview with Paul Thomson, who pioneered the Club Culture Project in Edinburgh back in the day!

Posted by steve at 06:40 PM

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

folded beauty: napkin folding and fresh expressions

I was in Bath on Sunday to do some research – attend an alt.worship event and interview a group I first met ten years ago, called Sanctuary.

Expecting to get lost, as has been my usual pattern to date in the UK, I left with time to spare. Unexpectedly not getting lost, I found myself with time to spare. Driving past a Museum, I decided to stop and have a look. On the second floor, I found Folded Beauty: Masterpieces in linen.

This is a mountain range – made out of folded napkins!

Here is a castle, complete with bird and rabbit. Again, made out of napkins.

The artist Joan Sallas is from Spain. Originally working with origami, he became intrigued by napkin and linen folding. It is a forgotten art, very popular in the 18th century, to decorate tables. So popular that richly illustrated books were produced. The art died. But Joan somehow became aware of it, did some research and learnt to master this forgotten art.

I’m still trying to work out why I found it so moving. Partly because of their beauty, these extraordinary, pure white creations. Partly because here was beauty made from the ordinary and domestic. Art from napkins! Creativity around food. Perhaps partly because it was a forgotten art and so it is another way of considering Fresh Expressions – a recovery of what has been forgotten. Doug Gay brings this out really well in his book, Remixing The Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology. He argues that the “Emerging Church can perhaps best be understood as an irreverent new wave of grassroots ecumenism,” pointing to the rediscovery of the church year, set prayers, rituals, icons. So here is another example of fresh expressions.

Posted by steve at 06:04 AM

Monday, February 04, 2013

Sustainability in mission

Sustainability in mission is not about preservation, whether of mission, pioneer or denomination.

This is certainly so if you consider the use of the word “sustainability” in other disciplines. In Ken Greenberg’s Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder he defines the term in relation to development. The term was popularised in 1983, by a United Nations body concerned about the environment. The commission asked all nations to establish sustainable development approaches. The invitation was “to take a completely new view of damaging practices we have developed.” What is needed is a “fresh vocabulary that is about synthesis and overlap. And conservation – using less in the first place, not consumption and planned obsolence.”

So when one begins to consider sustainability and fresh expressions, the focus must be on damaging practices. And the lens must fall on the entire system: denominations, training colleges, leadership both denominational, local and lay, church gatherings and the people of God in mission. The aim must be a fresh vocabulary and the seeking of synthesis.

This was brought home to me the first time I visited the mouth of the Murray River (see here and here, with some practical followup here and here):

Suddenly our guide bent down and started digging. In a few minutes, he offered us fresh water. In the middle of these desolate sand dunes, there was water. A bit further on, he showed us the piles of cockles, and the eating place of the Ngarrindjeri people, who have been the traditional custodians of these sand dunes for over 6,000 years.

I stood there astounded. Put me in that place, amid those barren sand dunes and I would die. Yet other humans have learnt to live within this environment.

I pondered the implications for spirituality.

It led to the change in my blog – to sustain-if-able – and to this study, of new forms of church ten years on.

Posted by steve at 12:25 AM

Friday, February 01, 2013

three R’s – Ridley – Rowan – Ripon

I’m off the Cambridge in a few hours. My first destination is Ridley Hall, where I will be with the Pioneer stream and Dave Male. It’s a first “flash” of my sustainability of fresh expressions 10 years on data. Very initial, but a chance to get some discussion going and get a UK take on the data.

Then an interview with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and a key figure in the birth of Fresh expressions in the UK. It was John and Olive Drane who suggested I seek an interview. I laughed and said he was much to busy. But they encouraged me, so I did. And I will. 🙂

What it will do is create a 3 way dialogue – first between the communities on the ground, second between the Colleges who train leaders and are part of denominational systems and third, between the actual leaders of the system. In the fresh expression case, all are innovators. All are seeking to birth something. All have different roles.

Yet systems are funny things. Probably because they are full of people. Who do unexpected things. So, what happens when different parts of a system get involved in the same, yet different, innovation?

Then back to Ridley. For a weekend to recover from Bristol-London-Cambridge, from 7 interviews. And in between trying to keep writing up the other project – Innovation: Ethnography. I’ve managed about 5,200 words this week, so progress continues.

Posted by steve at 12:24 AM

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

mission as the great learning experience of Western Christianity

Following on from my mission as a “converting” ordinance, here is related wisdom from one of the finest missiologists the world has seen, Andrew Walls. Saying the same thing, as mission as a “converting” ordinance, just applied to the whole of Christianity!

The missionary movement was the great learning experience of Western Christianity. By its very nature it brought the Christian faith, when it had become thoroughly accommodated to the life and thought of the West and the conceptual categories of western Europe, into massive interaction with totally different styles of life and thought. (Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith, 238)

This is what is happening (or needs to happen) with Fresh and emerging expressions of church. It is bringing of missionary learnings, that are distant, over their, far away, into our suburbs, networks and homes.

Posted by steve at 08:40 AM

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

back from Bristol

Just back from a productive trip to Bristol. Two aims.

First, as part of alt.worship ten years on research project. Some ten years ago I visited an alt.worship group called Resonance, meeting in the Cotham Parish Church. I joined them for worship and interviewed the then Vicar, Paul Roberts.

Ten years later, Resonance no longer exists. But Foundation meets in the same church, similar time, similar ethos. So as part of the ten years on research project, I went back to visit, again to join them for worship. And this time to interview two people, the current leader, Tim Summers and the former Vicar, Paul Roberts. And to explore what was same, what was different, and what they’ve learnt about sustainability. Lots of wisdom in those two people and lots of learning from the story. A privilege to listen to.

Second, to visit Trinity College. To put on my Principal of Uniting College hat and ask what they are learning about forming leaders in mission. They are one of six Colleges I am trying to connect with here in the UK. Again lots of wisdom and a privilege to listen.

Then back home. The only downside was the driving. Yesterday I got my right and left mixed up and got lost. Today I got my east and west mixed up and nearly ended up in Wales. A relief to finally be back at base.

Posted by steve at 06:05 AM

Saturday, January 26, 2013

a (UK) sabbatical update 2

Well first, sadly, some more of team Taylor departed, leaving me alone in UK for next 4 weeks. The very isolating part of the UK sabbatical has begun.

This week I began trying to implement my book proposal and test if my method would work. In essence, I’m trying to think about the wisdom of experimentation by telling stories. Specifically, stories of churches doing things differently. The stories are congregational studies, and I am placing them in conversation, to see what themes emerge, what wisdom they can learn from each other. It’s an attempt to implement an approach to understanding church by Nicholas Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine), who argues that the most life-giving way to be the church is through being the church, what he calls a “theodramatic” approach.

So we gain more insight about being the church on mission today by storytelling among communities who have lived it. The stories have to be ethnographic, based on people living with churches and surveying participants, not just interviews with a leader likely to spin and spruik. There is one major continuous story, my data on Cityside over 10 years, and ten other selected stories, from four countries.

So this week I was immersed in two concrete stories.

First, Matthew Guest’s study of one of the largest and most influential evangelical charismatic churches in the UK, St Michael le Belfrey, in York, in which is also nestled an emerging church called Visions. His book Evangelical Identity and Contemporary Culture: A Congregational Study in Innovation (Studies in Evangelical History and Thought) based on living with the church for 12 months, attending worship, interviewing, surveying. It’s a wonderful book, full of rich and perceptive insights into being church based on lived experience, not theory.

Second, Tracy Robinson who wrote a Masters thesis, based on participant observation and interview methods to explore a Fresh Expression in Oxford. She concluded that the worship of this emerging church emphasised movement and change rather than rootedness and stability, which is better for some types of people than others.

So a week of note taking and writing up what learnings emerge as these two churches talk to each other, and to my main case study, Cityside Baptist over 10 years.

Plus a week of organising – pulling together trips in the week coming to Bristol on Sunday/Monday and a trip to Cambridge on Thursday/Friday to do research on UK experiments 10 years on.

Posted by steve at 09:31 AM

Friday, January 25, 2013

a rural fresh expression: the Glebe at Luss

A highlight of staying with John and Olive Drane was a visit to Loch Lomond, specifically Luss. A small rural town, which has a rich history (1500 years of continuous Christian presence, being originally founded by Saint Kessog.) And a fascinating fresh expression. Here is the pilgrim cross that marks the start of the Glebe.

A glebe is a name for a piece of land owned historically by the church, used to fund the minister. In the case of Luss, the land was across a creek and inaccessible, being washed away in a storm in 1993. Soldiers from the Royal Engineers were persuaded to rebuild it and it is becoming a place of pilgrimage. Here is an introduction from the minister, Dane Sherrard

There is also a social justice dimension. The church has linked with young people from the cities of Scotland, who come to work on the Glebe, take part in leadership training and outdoor recreation. Local business have become involved, with finance and materials.

There is also a public-prophetic theology, given that with more and more land around Loch Lomond being used for exclusive resort accommodation, this is also about providing public space for public recreation.

The minister, Dane Sherrard, moved to Luss in 1998. Now this is some years before all the talk about pioneering, fresh expressions and network churches. Dane is certainly not young or hip looking. But he knows the internet. He’s got an online internet presence, his own LussTV youtube channel. And here is him using the internet to discuss the Presbytery Strategic Plan!

Have a listen. It’s very good missiology – strategic thinking, networks, community partnership, pilgrimage, hospitality, missio Dei. Which left me reassured, that fresh expressions and pioneering are not only for the young nor the urban. Go Dane. Go rural communities.

Posted by steve at 10:10 AM

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Faith in the midst of violence: the La Faruk Madonna

In a side room at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, is placed the La Faruk Madonna. At first glance, it looks your standard religious fare, three paintings, an angel either side of a Madonna.

But the story behind the paintings is extraordinary, for they are painted on old flour bags in the middle of World War 2. The artist, Giuseppe Baldan, was by a prisoner of war. Hence the backdrop behind the angels and the Madonna is a prisoner of war camp, including the prison fence, the Sudanese desert, a washing line and the huts that held prisoners.

The story is that Italian prisoners of war, captured by the British in North Africa, sought permission in the camp to build a chapel. A chapel needs decoration and so the La Faruk Madonna was painted, an aid for prayer, a source of hope.

As the war ended, the paintings were saved from the camp and were given to the British commander for safe keeping. It was a mark of respect for the humane way he had treated the prisoners and honoured the art.

It is both comforting and disturbing. Comforting in the creativity of humans, even in bleak times. Disturbing in that here were British and Italians worshipping the same God, yet finding ways to kill each other. What did the British think as they saw the angels being painted and as they watched the prisoners turn up for worship week by week, as they heard the prayers to “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Posted by steve at 11:13 PM

Friday, January 18, 2013

a (UK) sabbatical update

Well first, importantly, it snowed. Very important experience for a UK sabbatical.

I’ve been back at work writing for a week. It’s been productive, with a 5,200 word book proposal now with an editorial board. That feels a significant milestone, and has involved 3 significant re-edits over the last few months, while I try to work out exactly what I wanted to say. Now the nervous wait begins, but in the meantime, there is clarity on each chapter, a clear plan for the way ahead, which will greatly focus the writing over the coming weeks. Time to stop analysing data and produce some conclusions!

I’ve continued to read: a refresh on recent trends in practical theology plus working my way through congregational studies. The highlight has been discovering Nicholas Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine) (thanks Pete Ward). It is a critique of the ideal (what he calls blueprint) church, any approaches that systematise and idealise. Instead he argues for “concrete” church, fallible, open to critique, always seeking to grow.

This week I’ve also begun to organise the research phase of the sabbatical, trying to set up around 20 interviews around England, Wales and Scotland. The research is in two parts. First, wearing my Principal hat, is talking with a some theological colleges about how they are training leaders in mission, what they are learning, how they are resourcing their staff for that challenge. Second, is to seek to interview again the alt.worship groups I interviewed back in 2001 in the UK. My hope is to reflect with them on their mission learnings, to glean from fragile edges.

Now we’re off to Glasgow for the weekend – snow willing! – to catch up with John and Olive Drane. Which will be great.

Posted by steve at 09:14 AM

Monday, January 14, 2013

A prayer for writers (for me)

Having returned from holiday over this weekend, my main task for the next 12 weeks is to write. (I have some research to do, but that takes second place behind my hope of completing a book – on sustainability in emerging and fresh expressions.) I face the 12 weeks with mixed feelings. It’s been 7 years since my first book and that breeds a certain sense of anxiety. I feel quite unsure if I can capture what I want to say. Will I be clear enough? Sustained enough? Academically able enough?

Writing is such an individual experience. It feels so egotistical, this individual pursuit to be heard. Why might my words be worthy of being read? Why, in a world of so many books, should I pollute with yet more information?

There are a whole lot of academic pressures at work – to publish, to get the right press, to be recognised. Again, a complex set of emotions and motives to sift.

So this morning I found some phrases from Philippians 1:9 helpful.

“And this is my prayer:”
“love” – and so to write out of love for God, church, people and world
“knowledge” – and so to write respectful of the tradition, of those who’ve gone before and my contemporary colleagues in scholarship, all the while conscious of the intuitions and feelings that are learnings within myself
“depth of insight” – to write something that might, through God’s mercy, shine some light on the yet simply complex and complexly simple task of being a disciple in this contemporary world.

And so, to writing I will go …

Posted by steve at 09:08 AM

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Art and creativity as acts in community

Walking art galleries. Something I’ve done a lot of in recent days. There is a pattern. Payment. Coat removal. The signs – no flash, no backpacks. The rooms patrolled. Pictures framed. Ropes to divide, cameras to watch.

But it turns out such an approach to art is cultural. At least according to A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Of the 100 objects that are the focus of the book, number 39 is a painting from China. Called the Admonitions Scroll, dated around AD 400, it introduces a very, very different way of understanding art appreciation.

“each imperial ruler has left their mark on (the art piece), in the form of a stamp carefully placed in the blank spaces around the paintings … Some of the previous owners have also added their own comments to the scroll. This brings a kind of pleasure you can never find looking at European painting: the sense that you are now joining a community of discerning art lovers who have cherished this painting over centuries.” (A History of the World in 100 Objects, page 213-4)

So this is another approach to art. You make it with interactive borders, a white space for viewers to engage. In doing so, you allow, expect even, participation. All very different from the wonderful solo artist who produces solo art works. Instead we have a work for community.

Which sounds like an early form of blogging to me, that deliberate attempt, at least for those who allow comments (!) to encourage participation, to expect work to be modified and affirmed.

There is one caveat. In the case of Object 39, the participating community is elitist, in this case the emperors. In contrast, any can blog and any can comment.

Still, the challenge remains. Who is art and creativity for?

(This links with the work of Thomas Struth – which I’ve blogged about here) and his exploration of how people engage galleries and museums, and how museums and galleries actually control people.)

Posted by steve at 02:16 AM

Friday, January 11, 2013

Middle-aged Cathedrals as cultural mirrors

In order to help me process Europe, and its accompanying museums, galleries and cathedrals, I’ve been reading A History of the World in 100 Objects. It’s a great book. It takes 100 objects from the British museum. Not just high profile items, but also ordinary things like wine jugs and loose change. And places them in context and culture. And so provides windows into cultures and patterns and ways of being through time and space.

Object number 20 was the statue of Ramesses II. I read it the day we visited the Cathedral at Cologne. Described as an Everest among cathedrals, it is one of the largest in the world in floor area. I must confess to having a rather allergic reaction to cathedrals. I struggle with the fusion with military conquest, with the way God is imaged as remote, so inaccessible in the height of roof and distant altar.

So what does this have to do with the Statue of Ramses II?

This serenely smiling sculpture is not the creation of an individual artist, but the achievement of a whole society – the result of a huge, complex process of engineering and logistics – in many ways much closer to building a motorway than making a work of art.

So a cathedral is much more than a reflection of God and church. It’s also about society. How a town can show off their organisation and culture, their ability to plan, resource, be a team.

It’s also a way for artists to participate. I mean, there were no galleries back then. So you can have your work locked up in kings collections. Or brought by wealthy benefactors. All remove your work from the public. Or participate in cathedrals, thus engaging the public.

In other words, I need to understand cathedrals within their cultural context. And to appreciate how they flow within a society, in community rather than through an individual “God and me” lens. They are mirrors not just off the church, but of the whole of society.

Posted by steve at 04:56 AM

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

A New Years spirituality – Amsterdam Festival of Lights

The Amstersdam Festival of Lights has been an unexpected treat. For those travelling from a Southern Hemisphere, having darkness fall from 4 pm onwards takes some adjustment. The up side is the chance to play with light.

For the last few years, Amsterdam has maximised this climatic advantage with a Festival of Lights, inviting artists to mount installations in key locations.

Ovo is one installation. In the shape of an egg, it thus suggests new birth. With over 700 lights, each individually able to respond to changes in light, temperature and fog, it proves itself flexible and adaptable. New birth is not a one size fits all, but a uniquely beautiful response to changing environments.

Seeing it today, on the first day of a new year, it became a prayer, for new life in a new year, for beauty that responds to the uniqueness of my changing environment, our changing world.

A time lapse video of the making is here, with the Ovo in full colour, from about 2.11 on.

Amsterdam Light festival: the making of timelapse from Amsterdam Light Festival on Vimeo.

Posted by steve at 07:37 AM