Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas thoughts and greetings

It's Christmas Eve - one of my favourite days of the year. This year being a Sunday, it'll also be a busy one. We have two services and this afternoon will be serving mince pies, mulled (non-alcoholic) wine, tea and coffee to shoppers wending their way home, inviting them to pause and worship with us.

This evening I'm reflecting on Joseph - the 'redundant groom' in John Bell's wonderful phrase. I'm looking at what the Christmas story might say to ordinary, decent blokes.

I'd intended to focus on Jo already but my train of thought was sent off in a more focussed direction by Timothy Garton Ash's column in the Guardian last Thursday where he reports going to Christmas services, finding them moving but not believing a word of it. More than that, he finds the story and the person behind it has nothing to say to his life or to the world in which he lives it.

I'll reflect on that this evening. It's worth reading - everything by Garton Ash is.

I'll also be referring to Bill Mallonee's Christmas album. Bill, former front man of the Vigilantes of Love, has penned some beautiful songs over the years; he is the most thoughtful and searching of Christian singer songwriters. Check Yonder Shines the Infant Light out - a snip at £5.50 to download - and especially listen to the beautiful Every Father Knows, a meditation on the power of the Christmas story to reach the lost wherever they are. You'll find it at - you won't be sorry.

I'll return to membership, community and mission in the New Year. In the mean time have a great Christmas everyone. I hope you all meet Jesus in the midst of the celebrations and that you know his presence with you throughout 2007.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dark Fire and Happy Feet

I finished C J Sansom's Dark Fire last night. It's his second Matthew Shardlake mystery set in 1540 around the time of the fall of Thomas Cromwell.

It's not only a rivetting thriller, gloriously well written, but it's also based on a sound reading of the events surrounding the demise of the King's right hand man in reform. He has some interesting things to say about faith on the way through as well - which I'll leave you to find out for yourselves.

The family went to see Happy Feet last night - the eco cartoon about a dancing penguin. It's great fun! There are one or two plot gaps but the animation and characterisation are terrific and we all left the cinema wanting to adopt a penguin (it'll pass!)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Elusive community

Liz, Wulf and Anthony raise the key issue of community. There's been a lot of talk recently around elusive terms such as 'welcome' (what is it? how do we do it well?), 'hospitality' (how and where do we offer it? does the church receive hospitality from those outside it?), 'belonging' (what creates a sense of belonging somewhere?) and 'community' (how do you know when you're part of one?)

I'd love to see more of that research that Anthony talks about. Certainly the Gone but Not Forgotten study published in the late 1990s identified relationships (or lack of them) as a reason why people disengaged from church. A key finding was that in 92% of cases when someone stopped going to a particular church, no one visited them to find out why. Isn't that incredible?

Yet that seems to have been Liz's friend's experience - and I've no doubt we could all recount similar stories.

There are two responses to this, however. One is to set up a structure of pastoral care with everyone on a list, everyone being checked on if they are missing. It's efficient. it probably makes sure that if people do miss a Sunday or two, someone finds out why. But is it enough?

I think it's a big jump from 'a pastoral care structure' to 'a mutually supportive community' and that the former can prevent the latter from being created. I think some churches put a structure in place and invest all their energy in making it work, only to discover that they've no energy left for making relationships, getting to know people, building community. In these churches, we don't have relationships, we have dealings or transactions with other people, much as we do in a bank or supermarket.

I was at the barbers this morning having my pre-Christmas tidy-up. I conversed at a superficial level with the girl with the scissors - just enough to be polite (after all, it's hard to be that close to another human being and say nothing!) - but I do not think for all the banter that goes on, that my barbers is a 'community'; the chat is a by-product of getting a job done.

Church sometimes feels like that. We get the job done - everyone knows where everyone is. But we are not a community - no one really knows how anyone else feels.

It's an interesting exercise to ask members what others do for a living, how many children they have, whether they are married, have they always lived in the area, how long have they been a Christian. The answers tell you a lot about community - whether your church is one.

This is a particular problem for larger churches, I think. I'm pretty sure we don't have relational space for more than 30-50 people. In a large church we're on nodding acquaintance with a much larger number than that, but do we have any kind of relationship with 30-50 of them? And where are those relationships formed? I don't believe they can be formed in our current Sunday services and probably not over coffee afterwards - though that helps.

Perhaps we need to invest in community-building activities - meals, days out, coffee mornings, social events, small group activities.

Of course, there might be people from my church reading this wondering what planet I'm from(!) who could tell me that they are in community relationships with a good group of people, a community that they find fun and supportive - and challenging.

Go on, amaze me!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Needful provocation

I've been finishing the light revisions to Why bother with church? this afternoon. And apart from being pleasantly surprised at how much I still agree with(!), the thing that struck me was that the model of creative and critical participation in church life depends on the church being of sufficient size to be able to cope with multiple things going on.

So I recognize Stuart's point about smaller churches being disempowered by the models on offer here. And I'm not sure what to do about it either.

I agree 100% with Stuart about creating gatherings that are 'places of challenge and commitment to one another and Christ.' In fact that is a key motive in exploring change. At the moment I think we settle for a middle of the road mush where everyone feels comfortable and any challenge comes through cosy and predictable channels. I'm not just talking about my church; I think this is true up and down the land and possibly accounts for the lacklustre quality of British Christianity.

I think it's probably pretty difficult creating gatherings that scratch where people itch and lead them into a place where their values and lifestyles can be challenged and unsettled. But that's what I want to do, I think.

So, as we unpacked the theme of grace using the movie Chocolat, one of the things we were doing was asking whether we are people of grace and whether our church was a place where people found grace. What we hoped was that the film would provoke attenders to think and feel differently about themselves and their church than they would have done had we just talked about being all things to all people from 1 Corinthians 9 and suggested we need to be a welcoming community.

Some in the congregation warmed to the approach, others didn't. Those who did were clearly challenged and unsettled - even as they enjoyed the evening. Those who don't get films probably left with mixed feelings but majored on disappointment with the way the evening turned out.

The advantage of offering a variety of ways of accessing the same theme through a single day is that people who get a buzz out of talking about the spiritual messages in movies will come to one gathering, while those more comfortable with a more traditional linear approach consisting of singing and sermons will attend a different one. Both groups, hopefully, would be comforted and built up in their faith and challenged to live a more Christ-like life.

And those who were interested in exploring the spiritual life and who came to either gathering - though probably the film evening would suit them better - will be helped to think and feel about life, the world and God in a different and distinctly Christian way. And hopefully they too would find themselves provoked and unsettled.

I guess what I'm arguing for is a set of different entry points to hearing and experiencing the challenge of Jesus' word. But everyone attending whichever gathering ought to experience needful provocation of the kind that might lead to change through the grace of Christ.

I shall respond to the parallel, related and equally important issue of community and how the creation of community - and people feeling a sense of belonging to it - is essential to them being in a place where they are open to the challenge of discipleship.

But that's for another post....

Monday, December 18, 2006

Fault lines revisited

Great comments on the previous post. Keep them coming...

Yes, it's more work but this can be shared - as Liz said. The teaching component can be done by the same team that currently do two services on a Sunday. For example, the morning 'teaching' could well consist of the same sermon being delivered by the same person albeit in different styles. Doing the same sermon twice is not twice the work.

The work can also be shared by drafting more people into being involved in the services -reading, praying, announcing songs, etc.

Stuart's point about pandering to consumerism is one I wrestle with. It's related to the question 'what is church for?' which I toy with in Why Bother with Church? I think church ought to be a place where people meet God, learn about him and are equipped to live a life that reflects his character. It can happen anywhere - in homes, cafes, pubs and special buildings we call 'churches'. It can involve singing and funky powerpoints and sermons and set-piece liturgies. But it doesn't have to.

My focus is on mission. I want to create opportunities for people to engage with the Christian faith in a way they find acceptable and challenging. I want people to meet and follow Jesus. Church is a place where that can happen. I guess the target for this mission is primarily those who have accessed church but do so no longer - or are in danger of not doing so. So it's young people and young adults who find church increasingly disconnected from the rest of their lives and middle aged people who've done church one way for a lifetime and now find it curiously dissatisfying and unengaging (I think I put myself in this camp - but don't tell my leaders!!!)

So, in one sense my proposal is consumerist in that I am hoping to create opportunities for people engage with church in a way that suits their tastes and sensibilities. But isn't all mission consumerist in that way?

Exposing the fault lines

Last night we finished a three week advent series using film as a way into exploring certain big advent words - Signs helped us look at losing and finding faith; Chocolat gave us the opportunity of examining rejecting and finding grace; and The Shawshank Redemption of giving and receiving hope.

It was an interesting series to prepare for - Jonathan and I team-preached the theme and we tried to allow the films to move the argument on. Many people found the approach stimulating with a good number saying that if we do it again, they will bring friends who are exploring faith for themselves.

The series has exposed the fault lines in the church, however, with many older, more traditional members reacting very negatively to the whole approach.

This clearly gives us some questions to ask in the new year. At the top of the list is 'can you meet everyone needs in one service format?' The obvious answer is 'no' (the question really is a no-brainer!) but it's amazing how many churches - including ours - continue to believe the Holy Grail of one-size-fits-all service formats are just within reach. I think this brief series has told me (again) that it's not.

More than that, I think I've learned that everyone is very intolerant of styles they don't like. We all know that the young vote with their feet, going to meetings, services, events that capture their imagination and look as if they'll scratch where they itch rather more than what's on offer at their home church this week.

Indeed, some of our own young people were at an event across town that featured a band and visiting roadshow. I hope it was good.

What I've seen over the past three weeks is that older, more mature Christian people are equally intolerant and picky about what service format they'll put up with. Some have boycotted the advent series saying they don't like movies, that they come to church to hear the bible read and preached on in a traditional way (well, in a way that's been traditional since Victorian times).

One size does not fit all. And churches that try to stick to this model will wither and die. The reason is simple. If we allow what we do to be determined by those who want the traditional menu - albeit tinkered with at the edges - those wanting more radical change will look elsewhere or more likely stop coming to church altogether, reasoning that the Christian faith offers nothing to help them navigate their way through the world they live in from Monday to Friday.

Eventually, those who champion the traditional model, will die and the church will be empty.

So, it seems to me that we need to revisit conversations we had a year or so ago about having a variety of styles of Sunday service, meeting the needs or suiting the tastes (take your pick which) of those who attend.

Our proposal then was that we have four services on a Sunday morning with fewer people attending each - thus enabling greater interaction between attenders. Each service would have a different feel and focus - though the teaching programme would be common across the day. So those who want a classic style service can have one; likewise those who want a swinging from the chandeliers celebration. There'll be opportunity for a quieter, more reflective service and for a more exploratory, liquid worship style.

Inevitably everyone will have to give a little. For example, timings will change, so people will have come to church at a different time on a Sunday. We'll have to think about the needs of families and which service (or services) has Sunday school provision. But hopefully, everyone would gain more than they would have to give up.

Of course, even this amount of change is only a half-way house to a much more flexible, smaller more federal church structure that I think most churches will have to move towards in the coming generation. But it's a start.

Watch this space as the debate kicks off again next year. Pray for us. And join in the discussion.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Why is Christmas so busy...?

Christmas is coming and the work is piling up. It doesn't seem to matter how carefully I plan my Christmas preparations, I always seem to run out of time.

This year I want to explore what Christmas says to and about families. What's the significance of the fact that God entrusted his Son to human parents - a teenage(?) mum and a carpenter dad - and what does that tell us about God's commitment to families in today's world?

There's been a lot of talk about families recently - notably the huge Ian Duncan-Smith report that's just come out defending the traditional conservative view that marriage is the best basis for family life and that government should invest in marriage - through tax incentives - and bolster families through various forms of help.

It's always wonderful to see the conversion of politicians late in the day - and usually long after they have any chance of actually doing anything through holding public office (enter Al Gore as the primary witness here)!

I'm not sure IDS has all the answers but 300,000 words worth of analysis and policy ideas ought to be taken very seriously. Clearly something is wrong with the way families are nurtured and supported in Britain today.

I think Christmas is an opportunity to ask what God thinks about families and what resources he makes available for them.

I am also reworking Why Bother with Church for Authentic Media with a view to it being republished next March in time for Spring Harvest. As I've worked my way through the chapters, I've been pleasantly surprised at how well it's stood the test of time - many of its arguments still seem fresh and the issues it addresses are still all too pertinent.

If I was starting the book from scratch, I wouldn't write it the way it's written, but I think one more reprint is worthwhile. I'm pondering turning my reflections on Philippians and McWorld into a book at some stage. I've tested the thinking out over the past three years at various church conferences and might well preach on it at home late next year.

Still loving the new Iona album, The Circling Hour and Beirut's Gulag Orkestar - an album of rare beauty and creativity.

Friday, December 08, 2006


I'm enjoying discovering a new writer. He's C J Sansom, author of three crime novels set in the reign of Henry VIII and featuring a lawyer/sleuth called Matthew Shardlake. I've finished Dissolution and am half way through Dark Fire. I can't wait for sovereign to come out in paperback.

These are terrific books. Sansom captures the sense of time and place wonderfully and weaves entirely believable and gripping thriller plots around real events. At £7 a pop, they're a good stocking filler.

I'm also enjoying the new Iona album - usual blend of celtic folk and prog rock with mesmerising vocals from Joanne Hogg. There's a particularly good track - factory of magnificient souls - with lyrics by the peerless Steve Stockman. His words and Dave Bainbridge's guitar were born for each other

And I've been enjoying Chocolat - as we're doing an advent evening service on it - and the Straight Story (which I wish I was doing an advent evening service on!). The latter is a David Lynch film about septuagenarian who crosses Iowa on a lawnmower to be reconciled with his brother who's had a stroke. Seriously, it's a blinder. One of the loveliest, funniest, quirkyist and most satisfying films I've seen, full of insights into what it means to be human and part of a family.

I'm enjoying thinking about membership and what it means to belong. Perhaps we should all watch the Straight story and ponder that says about community and the nature of the church. It would be unusual to view David Lynch as a theologian!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tear it down ... and build it up

I agree with Wulf that tearing down is a lot easier than building up - though it is the essential prerequisite for building anything.

But tinkering at the edges leaves us with more anomalies and exceptions. So tear the whole thing down - what do we lose?

I think we lose a rigid 'them and us' mentality.

I think we lose a 'first' and 'second' class attender mentality

I think we lose the distinction between joining the Body of Christ through Baptism and joining the church because an unrepresentative minority of members voted you in on a wet Wednesday evening.

I think we lose the impenetrable wall between member and non-member that can only be navigated around by a member helping the non-member to appropriate 'our way of doing things'.

I'm not convinced any of these things are worth keeping anymore.

What we gain is the opportunity to replace our current pattern with something simpler and more flexible.

Early Baptists were people of covenants. They covenanted together to be church in a particular place and at a particular time. Can't we get back to doing that?

I know of one Baptist church that has an annual covenant service at which everyone covenanting together to be in relationship and serve the community in the mission of the church is counted as a member for the following year.

I like the sound of that. This is a model of membership that captures Mike Thomas' principles: it's based on relationships, it recognises that the choice of whether to be a member for the coming year rests solely with the individual - will they commit themselves to fellowship and working with this group of Christians in the church's mission? If yes, then welcome aboard.

It also makes the BUGB body count simple - how many covenanted together to be church? Everyone who signed the covenant. That's how many members we have this year.

There is the issue of how you join the church in June - but I'd have thought it happens by the same principle: give the person the covenant, ask if this is what they're looking for; if they say 'yes' invite them to the next members meeting and give them a mop and bucket and welcome them aboard...

I'm sure it's shot full of flaws and needs a thousand caveats entered, but.... like democracy, it's the worst way of organising a church - except all the other ways.

Yet more membership thoughts

For those of you still thinking about membership issues, there's a great piece in the Baptist Times (30 November issue) by Michael Thomas. How rare it is that 'great' and 'baptist times' appear in the same sentence.

But I recommend you get hold of it. I don't know whether it's available on line.

Mike's argument is that the current way we do things is broke and we need a radical overhaul. I don't know how many will go the whole way with him - I think I do. But I'm certain that his first principle is one that we must seek embody in our membership practices.

It is simply this: 'membership is not something for us to initiate, but to recognise'. In other words - if I read him aright - people come to our churches, join in, make relationships, find support and look for ways of serving alongside us and we recognise them as members.

Mike's key point about the New Testament emphasis being on relationships and not structures is absolutely spot on. 'Where people are relating to each other as brothers and sisters, there is membership,' he says.

And I say amen to that.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Mistakes make perfect...

Ah Wulf - who is the finest bass player I know, a man with dexterous fingers and great musical sensitivity - asks the right question: will mistakes be part of our new song?

Well, I think possibly they will. It opens up a whole theological discussion about the relationship between mistakes and sin - they can't be the same, can they? And so there must have been mistakes before there was disobedience in the garden...

Even more heretical(?) Jesus must have made mistakes as he learned to be a carpenter. You can just see Joseph's exasperated expression as Jesus messed up a mitre joint (whatever one of those is!) and his patient retelling of his apprentice son how it's done.

So, in the jam session I hope to have with Wulf after the resurrection - when I will have had time to sit and perfect my guitar technique - I've no doubt we'll make lots of mistakes. But the music we make by the end of that session will be sublime!

Living with longing

The reason Gulag Orkestar is such wonderful music is because it is suffused with a deep longing. It's straining for something that will complete life but which, though in view on the distant horizon, is completely out of reach.

Which raises the question: will we still have this feeling when the Kingdom comes in all its fulness and we know as we are known. Will that happen in an instant or will part of the adventure of living on the new earth be about exploring the height and depth and breadth and length of the mind of the God expressed in this fabulous creation?

I don't know.

Part of me hopes that the longing doesn't die at the resurrection. Part of me thinks that being human is asking questions, probing what we don't know. In the resurrection we will still be finite beings and thus limited in our knowledge and able to learn.

We find all our answers in God. The trouble is that we haven't yet learned all the questions and I assume we won't even after the resurrection.

Am I being dangerously heretical? Please don't tell me if I am because in some areas, ignorance really is bliss!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dreaming of new worlds

I'm preparing for Thursday break listening to Beirut's Gulag Orchestar - and dreaming of new worlds.

Thursday Break is our lunch time service for mainly older people - though it does attract a couple of local office workers. This term, we're doing a series on encouragement and I'm speaking this week on encouraging one another with talk of our eternal destiny. I'm using 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 as my launch pad.

At the same time I'm listening to Zach condon's wonderful music. He records under the name Beirut and is a riotous mixture of indie sensibility and east european soundscapes - gypsy guitars, violins, trumpets, accordions, ukuleles and farfisa organs.

It set me thinking, no dreaming, of new worlds. When the Kingdom comes in all its fullness, will I be able to explore and interact with all the music of this world? When I hear an album like Gulag orchestar it makes me want to set off in search of its roots, the music that inspired it. I'm an indie pop and rock man but I love African, middle eastern and eastern european sounds. I listen to Tinariwen and Amadou & Mariam and ache with a longing to know about where this amazing music comes from. But I don't have time because I've people to see, sermons to write, projects to organise and lots of other things to do.

When Jesus returns and the world is renewed and all the glories of the nations are brought into the Holy City - as Isaiah saw it would - I hope I get the chance to explore it all. What a new world that will be. I'd also love to be able to play some of these strange instruments and jam with musicians of all cultures.

A flight of fancy? I hope not.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Quality service

Well, I have to sing the praises of Amazon. It took all of five minutes to produce return labels, fix up for DHL to come and collect my faulty item and re-order it. A couple of hours later confirmation arrived that a (hopefully) pristine version of Jewett's book will be with me very early in the New Year - a wonderful post-Christmas pick-me-up!

I have to say, that as I was preparing a sermon on Romans 8 for Sunday as part of a day looking at lessons in prayer, so I sneaked a peak at what Robert had to say about the passage. His prose is gorgeous, the layout is clear and the quality of commentary is exceptionally high.

This evening we're out street pastoring, so the forecast of gales around midnight in the South east is not greatly encouraging!

Waiting for a scholar

Well, after weeks of waiting since I ordered it and a decade of anticipation before then that it was coming, I finally took delivery of my copy of Robert Jewett's Hermeneia commentary on Romans, 1140 pages distilling the scholarship of a lifetime on the apostle and this letter. It looks fabulous, except...

Except my copy was mangled in the post and it's got to go back! I was gutted - sad boy that I am! Still, I suppose having waited so long, I can wait another month or two....

I'll have to read the festschrift edited by Sheila McGinn published ahead of the commentary to continue to whet my appetite.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Stuff happens

Lots of meetings this week - joint assembly planning (a Baptist thing), training sessions for our housing project and the JusB annual bash - the latter two are back-to-back repeated sessions, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

So, I'm having to a fair amount of prep and then present the material twice. Going ok so far - I'm about half-way through!

This coming Sunday I'm going to be talking about membership issues with our young families home group. I hope to air some of the things I've blogged about over recent weeks and see how they react to them.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of discussion we have. I'll let you know. In particular, I want to talk about baptism and membership and how they feel about our way of doing things. I'll wait until I hear their views before I share my own - with them and you!

Otherwise, I'm reading Rodney stark's new book Cities of God: the real story of how Christianity became an urban movement and conquered Rome. Stark is a sociologist who writes a lot about religious movements, an agnostic who believes that Christianity is responsible for the rise of science and the flowering of democracy. He's written about Christian origins before in a book called The Rise of Christianity which is readable and fascinating.

He is prone to make sweeping statements - which could be why I really like his stuff - and he is very dismissive of people who don't take the New Testament (especially Acts) seriously as a historical record. So, he's hugely stimulating and I have to say that 80 effortless pages in, this new book is proving hugely entertaining and informative (it's also pretty cheap from Amazon!)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Celebrating arrivals

We had a great day yesterday inducting our new minister for youth and young adults. Our prayer is that Jonathan will become a key part of our team here helping us imagine new ways of being and doing church - especially amongst most alienated from our inherited forms of church.

I've also been listening to the new Magic Numbers album, those the brokes. Yet more West coast harmonies, liquid guitar playing and some nifty bass lines. It's music that makes you smile. Yet there is a lyrical edge that belies the breezy tunes making the album an increasingly rewarding listen.

And I took delivery in the week of Alan Jamieson's new book, Church Leavers: Faith journeys five years on. Alan is a New Zealand baptist minister who five years ago produced a book called The Churchless Faith, based on his PhD research among people leaving evangelical, charismatic and pentecostal churches. Now he's revisited many of those interviews to see where people are in their faith and their engagement with church or post-church groups. Should be fascinating.

I keep telling myself that this week will be less frantic than last - fat chance!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Serving one another

We were looking at Galatians 5:13-15 in church this morning.

It's simple stuff - Christ has set us free (from sin, religion and the Law) so that we can serve (actually the word is 'be slaves of') one another. So that's simple, then!

The context is interesting, however. He urges us not to devour one another - something he says in 5:15 and repeats in 5:26 at the end of his discussion of living in the Spirit, so it clearly matters to him. But he's also concerned that we aren't led astray by people who ought to know better.

And Paul is not polite about them - if they're so keen on circumcision, he says, let them go the whole hog and lop off their private parts altogether (5:12). In what sense isn't this Paul devouring his enemies?

Good question.

The answer lies in whether we've grasped how important it is to serve one another. The point of our freedom is not that we serve God but that we serve one another (which is the evidence that we are relatring properly to God). Paul's rivals were not serving the interests of the Galatians, but their own desire to exercise power, have followers. They were devouring the Galatians' freedom by their desire to control their behaviour. So Paul gives them short shrift.

Part of being family, being church together is that we will serve one another, help one another grow in freedom and understanding of the good news about Jesus, support one another as we live our Christian lives in the world.

This makes Galatians 5:13-15 a key membership text - because whatever words we use to describe our belonging together, our belonging should be marked by mutual service.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Making church family-shaped

I've been putting together the winter issue of Talk - the magazine of the Mainstream movement - this week. It's on the conference theme of intentional discipleship. One of the key components is examining LifeShapes - Mike Breen is one of the speakers and Paul Maconochie is leading a seminar strand.

I've begun to think about how some components of LifeShapes can begin to mould the basic relationship life of our church - helping people to support and be accountable to one another in small groups (threes and fours). If this happens I think it would have a profound impact on how we do membership.

In conversations - as well as comments on this blog - the issue of how we relate to one another has been bubbling around. Certainly over a great Sunday lunch last week, we had quite an animated discussion about how unhelpful membership language was - it tended to create barriers between Christian people (namely those who were 'in' and those who were 'out') and it suggested the church was more of a business than a family.

If people are in supportive and mutually accountable relationships because that's basic to the shape of our church, regardless of whether they're members, maybe it'll help us to be more inclusive in the way we treat one another. Maybe we'll begin to know better how each other sees things, so charting direction and making decisions becomes more intuitive.

I certainly think that Mike Breen and Walt Kallestad are right when they say 'High control/low accountability church leadership systems are not working. The preoccupation with programmes, property and products is missing the mark.'

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Welcoming communities

I came upon an interesting US blog (doing my usual morning trawl of my favourite blogsites and links from them) by a US southern baptist minister called Michael Bryant. He can be found at

apropos of nothing as far as I could tell, he blogged this quote last Thursday:

'[C]entral to the Baptist vision of the church is the insistence that the church
must be composed of believers only. That is the distinctive mark of the church
for Baptists and others who fall within the stream of those who advocate what is
sometimes called the gathered church, or more often today, the believers'
church. This mark may also be called the principle of regenerate church
membership.' (Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 81-82)

This has always been the distinction between the gathered church and the parish model. The latter argues the church in a neighbourhood if for everyone who lives there, the former that the church is really for believers who covenant to worship together and live lives that are accountable to one another.

In some senses, the gathered model is more New Testament than the parish one. Church was for believers - indeed by the second century when following Jesus was illegal and punishable by death, the key role of deacons was to keep outsiders out.

But in our day, this model is less easy to follow and less attractive. People are more mobile, they choose church from a wide menu of options on the basis of preference (worship style, quality of Sunday School, emphasis in teaching, etc). On top of that, as churches we want to be open so that people who drop in are not only welcomed but drawn in by what we do.

This in turn feeds into any conversation we have about membership. If we make everyone who comes feel welcome, go out of our way to include them as fully as possible in the life of the church (inviting them to home groups, asking them to share in the financial upkeep of the fellowship, enabling them to volunteer in exercising ministry in some way through the church), how can we restrict 'membership' to a close inner circle of people who've jumped through a set of hoops we've erected for the purpose?

I want to run as open a fellowship as possible. I hold firmly to the view that people need to belong before they believe (and believe before they behave) and I hold firmly to the view that our fellowship is enriched by Christians with a variety of backgrounds.

So how do I make membership work in the light of this? Answers on a postcard, please...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Catching an exhibition

Went to see the Rodin exhibition at the Royal Academy today. I don't know much about him - except the kiss and the thinker - but was impressed by his ability to breathe life into stone. I went with a delightful member of my congregation who made the trip a real joy.

Picked up Philip Jenkins' new book. He wrote The Next Christendom a couple of years ago which is a compelling analysis of the rise of the church in the south. His new one is more of the same, looking at the use of the Bible in the Christianity of the southern hemisphere and coming to some surprising conclusions (apparently). I'm looking forward to it. It's in the qua after I've finished Horrell and a book by Paul McKechnie, a New Zealand-based ancient historian, called The First Three Centuries: perspectives on the Early Church. It's very readable.

We'll be experimenting with new ways of doing members meetings in the new year - following last night's leaders' meeting - in as much as we're going to try having one on a Sunday over lunch.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reading and viewing

I've been listening to David Bowie's recent Heathen - an excellent return to form after a decade or so of indifferent output. I'm also reading CJ Samson's Dissolution, a thriller set in the days of the Henrician Reformation. It's wonderful.

I am also working my way through David Horrell's Solidarity and Difference: a contemporary reading of Paul's Ethics. This is an accessible yet scholarly investigation of Paul's moral teaching. At base Horrell argues that Paul's ethics were rooted in community and therefore much of what wrote was about the creation and maintenance of Christian community. Further, he demonstrates that for Paul Christian living is impossible without the support of a community of fellow-believers. It has much to say about our current discussion on membership.

Not sure what to make of Torchwood which started on BBC3 on Sunday evening. A Dr Who spin-off with weird creatures and adult content. Good one-liners couldn't quite fill the gaps in the script - but it was hugely entertaining. It's like a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the X Files.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Levels of language

Sharp as ever, Wulf quotes 2 Peter to suggest that Paul's language isn't always clear or simple. And having recently completed a short commentary on Galatians (due out in the Crossway Bible Guide series in mid-November), I'd have to agree.

My point in the previous post was a slightly different one. It is that Paul chose words to describe the gatherings and leadership of the groups he was planting around the Mediterranean rim that were not 'religious' but were drawn from the business and social world of his day.

After all, the message (euanggelion another case in point, as Philip notes) was in places hard enough. So Paul appears to have been keen to put no stumbling blocks in the way of people hearing and having the chance to respond to that message.

Sometimes I think there's a danger that we do the opposite: our language about membership gives the impression that the good news about Jesus is for a special group of enthusiasts who know what the words mean and we use those words to exclude rather than include.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More on language

When Paul wanted a language to talk about the gatherings of the followers of Jesus, he didn't mine his religious heritage for it. Rather he used the vocabulary of the market place.

The word ekklesia (which we translate 'church') was a word used to describe gatherings of all kinds - especially political ones. Famously in Acts 19, the magistrates in Ephesus use the word to describe the riot of the silversmiths (v32, 40) and the gathering of the people in council (v39) - where both times 'assembly' (in the NRSV) is a translation of ekklesia.

Then when Paul uses words to describe leadership, he is infuriatingly fluid in his use of language. Sometimes he speaks of elders (a Jewish leadership word) and sometimes he uses episkopos (the Greek word we get bishop from but which was used in the first century to describe a leader in a voluntary association). Maybe his use is determined by who's reading his words - those of a Jewish background would recognise 'elder' as a leadership word, while those from Gentile background would know 'episkopos' was someone with a leadership role in the community.

Paul seems to have gone out of his way to find language to describe church that his readers would have found familiar from their context. New Testament scholar Andrew Clarke says: 'It is clear that these early Christians were already operating with the expectation that the characteristics of leadership within the Christian ekklesia should parallel those characteristics of leadership in the civic ekklesia'.

But while Paul used familiar language to describe his gatherings and the leadership in them, he spent a lot of time describing how those gatherings should function and how leaders would operate within them. In other words he used familiar words and then gave that language a Christian twist through how he talked of them.

I think the genius of this is that it helped people to feel unthreatened and at home as they came into churches because the words used to describe how things were done were familiar to them. Over time, the meaning of this language was filled out with a particular Christian take on it.

Perhaps we need to learn to use language to talk about membership in our churches today in a similar way.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The language we use

Much of the discussion on membership over the past few days has been about the language we use. How right our final correspondent is to say that so much of what we do in church is opaque and therefore unwelcoming; people come and go without really knowing what is going on.

We used to joke that some old fashioned Christians used the 'language of Zion' to describe their faith and explain it to baffled outsiders. But I fear that we still use language people don't get and assume knowledge that people don't have. And we don't realise how this excludes people.

If I come to church and find the experience baffling or feel that there's an in-group who gets what's going on and the rest - almost like spectators watching from outside - I'll struggle to connect.

The same is true of talk about membership business meetings. I might have felt included in the services I have come to, even the home group I've attended. But the language we use about membership and business meetings still leaves me feeling like an outsider. The danger with this is that it raises a question about the reality of the welcome I've received: if I'm not really a part of this central, decision-making activity, am I really a part of anything else?

The problem here is the language we use to answer the question 'why should I join? What difference to my sense of belonging and my contribution to the church would becoming a member make?'

Often we talk in terms of mutual accountability. And frequently, this is the first time we use this kind of language. Perhaps a way of bridging the gap would be to talk about mutual support for and accountability to one another from the moment people arrive in church.

We have begun to talk about the need for everyone who comes to our church, who wants to follow Jesus, needs to be in a mentoring relationship where they get support and are held accountable for the way they live their life in the world.

If everyone in our churches was in such a relationship, maybe the language of membership would not appear so opaque. However, if this kind of mentoring were on offer, what would it do to our understanding of membership?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Douglas McBain

I've just received the very sad news that my friend and mentor, Douglas McBain has died unexpectly. Please pray for Christine and the rest of the family.

Douglas was a phenomenon. He took me under his wing when I was new to ministry and he was London Superintendent and enabled to have a voice and a wider ministry as well as helping me to focus on what mattered in my ministry locally.

I'll miss him

In Christ and in membership

There have been really excellent comments posted recently in response to this discussion about membership. None more so than this one: 'it can at times appear that someone being in Christ is not as important as being in membership.'

The correspondent went on to share their feelings of being somehow second class because they were not a member, concluding 'the fact that I have a real and active life in my Lord Jesus didn't seem to give me permission to see myself as part of my new church family, it was membership that gave that which I found very sad and still do.' I have to say, so do I.

I have always believed that when people are baptised in a church they should automatically become members of that church. After all, we are baptising people into Christ, declaring that by their faith they are members of Christ's body, so surely by this act they are also members of this local expression of his body? Sadly we baptists have separated theology from practice and ended up with a system that can cause pain and misuderstanding.

But there is another point here too. And that concerns people attending our churches from other traditions, people who are 'in Christ' by virtue of their faith and yet are not 'in membership' and therefore can't participate in key areas of their new church's life. It's this area I'm keen to do something about in terms of how quickly and on what terms we include them fully in the life of the church.

Jane's comment about having a mentor is a key one too. I am about to preach on that and am keen to see some kind of mentoring system established in our church. It seems to me to be key to creating disciples whose lives make an impact. I'll be exploring what patterns are available out there - I'm quite interested in Lifeshapes, but there are others. What I'm keen to see is people in my church in mutually supportive and accountable relationships, growing in their walk with God, becoming intentionally missional.

Thoughts on this would be great.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Disciples and membership

I am enjoying this discussion - thanks to everyone's who's commented; plenty of room for more. I think the passion and intelligence of the comments suggests that this is a key issue facing our Baptist churches.

I agree with Stuart that we want to promote participation, that meeting is about more than just consultation. We need to unpack what the word 'congregation' means, I guess, so that we can put flesh of the bones of belonging and discerning the mind of Christ together.

I get nervous when I hear talk of leaders leading and churches being envisioned by them. I've met too many walking wounded from such situations to think that the model's basically ok providing it's properly managed. I think it's flawed. I just can't quite put my finger on why!

At the same time, I'm beginning to think that our decision making is a but thin when a two thirds majority of members present and voting actually represents only 10% of the church membership. Of course, I have reservations about 'voting' as such but rules and charity law mean that certain things have to be decided by a recordable consensus (a vote by any other word!)

We're planning to try the idea of meeting over lunch on a Sunday to see if we get more participation.

But my key concern is not so much about how we do 'business' (though that's important), it's about how we get participation so that our church becomes a place that makes disciples who in turn are disciple-makers. It seems to me that that is what church is for at a fundamental level and that membership and meetings of members are a way of organising things to make that central purpose happen.

So I agree with Wulf that we need to get back to talking about this so that we are able to reflect Jesus to our neighbours in a meaningful way. Everything we do as a church should aim for that - including how we organise belonging and how we make decisions as churches.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Members, meetings and ownership

Over a cuppa yesterday afternoon, a friend quipped that membership was really all about ownership. And I thought, 'yes, she's right.' However, she had meant the quip negatively, whereas I was looking at it as a positive thing. Wonderful thing the English language!

Her argument is that some members think they own the church and, more particularly, its ministers. She's right, of course. Many Baptists do think membership and church meetings are a way of exercising power and ensuring that the church and its ministers do exactly what they want - hence giving them ownership over the church. And this is what leads many people to throw their hands up in horror and exclaim their antipathy to church meetings and membership in all their forms.

My immediate thought when she said it was that ownership is a key word in this discussion about belonging and membership. How do we create a sense of 'ownership' among those who belong to our churches? Of what does such 'ownership' consist? It seems to me that people express their belonging to an organisation by feeling that in some way they own its programme - ownership often being expressed in a willingness to fund the programme.

So, where does this word fit in our thinking about membership?

Friday, September 29, 2006

Membership - what's at stake?

Membership and church meeting matters appear to be rising up the agenda of a number of groups within Baptist life at the moment. Some other bloggers - notably Andy Goodliff and Sean Winter - are addressing it and the mainstream network has raised it as one of the issues to be faced by an apostolically-focused movement.

For me the issues still boil to two big questions. Firstly, how can everyone who feels that they have a stake in a church be included in decision-making. And secondly, what decisions ought to be being made when the church gathers to talk 'business' (I don't like that term, but you hopefully know what I mean!)

I don't think that everyone who could be defined as a stakeholder should have a say in what the church does. For example, the parents of children who come to brigades could be said to be stakeholders in that they have a stake in brigades running well. But they do not have sufficient involvement in the rest of the life of the church to have a say in how it's run.

But there are people who join in church activities regularly - attending services, home groups - and give to the offering whenever they are there who, it could be argued, ought to be heard or consulted in some way about what we do. After all, something has attracted them to the church, something is keeping them - at the very least we should be having a conversation about what that is.

Perhaps their views can be represented by well-informed and in touch leaders who are mixing with those on the fringe and slightly further in.

Some suggest that churches are not democracies and argue that leaders should lead. After all, they say, God has anointed them for a task, they have been appointed to it by the church, so the church should let them get on and do it. The church meeting is then about vision-casting - the appointed leadership informing and enthusing the gathered church about where they feel God is taking them.

This is an attractive model and it clearly works in some groups. But it's not without problems. It's all very well casting vision but what do we do when the church throws it back at us and tells us it doesn't think we've listened hard enough to what God is saying?

The church is not a democracy - though I'm not sure democracy is such a dirty word, is it? After all, our Baptist forbears were among those who campaigned for greater political democracy during the English Revolution on the basis of their belief in the equality of all men (women tended not to be included!).

But vision needs to be owned by those who are expected to fund it and do at least half the work required to make it happen. At the very least common sense suggests we ask them beforehand if they think it's a good idea.

At a more theological level, of course, Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 2 is that we have the mind of Christ between us, not in us individually. I never cease to be amazed that Paul in that letter never once tells the leaders to sort the church out. He tells them all to unite and come to a common mind about how they should live based on what he says.

Indeed I have a feeling that our views of leadership are out of step with the New Testament, based as they are on a reading back into those texts, of practices derived from much later times. I'll blog about this separately.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Gathering and listening

I'm just back from a stimulating church weekend away with a neighbouring church. I was leading the conversation on how we live as Christians and do church in Mcworld. As well as me talking, the church worked in groups applying the message from Philippians to their local situation.

So much, so common - it happens at church weekend up and down the land.

But I started wondering half-way through the weekend - in the light of the discussion on this blog about membership and church meetings - how this process differed from a regular church meeting where God's people gather to discern the way ahead.

Stuart from Kirkintilloch Baptist Church (hi Stuart - really nice to hear from you - greetings to everyone there!) points out that church meetings are more than a check and balance. They should be places of creativity and insight. He suggests that leaders ought to be creating a culture of participation and teaching participation as a spiritual discipline (I like that phrase very much).

I think the spiritual discipline of participation was on view over the weekend I've just returned from. People seriously and intelligently wrestled with what the Scriptures were saying to them in their particular context. And it was not just general stuff. Some of the feedback from the groups indicated that people were really seeking to apply insights to decisions the church has to make about its future direction, structure and organization.

It was like being at an exciting, extended church meeting.

Of course we were away for a whole weekend, eating together, walking and playing together, laughing over coffee and chocolate late into the night. Out of these relationships came honesty and engagement. That can't be replicated in an hour on wet Wednesday in the church's back hall.

But the group work part of this can. What if church meetings become just part of a consultation process that also includes home groups and other small group gathering where people share out deepening relationships. Creativity and insight can be encouraged there far more easily than at church meetings. Participation can be taught and modeled over a long period of time. People cane share in the security of knowing they are doing so among friends (sadly, not always true at church meetings).

Perhaps no important business relating to the direction or the mission of the church should come to church meetings until it has been thrashed out in home groups over a couple of sessions. Would that improve participation and decision-making?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Who are we?

I'm off to Ashburnham in beautiful Sussex later today to do a weekend away for a neighbouring church. Yesterday it was 28 degrees, deep blue skies and summer; today it's grey and wet and 10 degrees colder. I was looking forward to afternoons on the lawns, discussions by the lake; now I envisage groups huddled round the central heating. Oh well.

I'm working with my Christians in McWorld material based on Philippians - I love that letter. I've revamped it a lot (the material that is, not Philippians!), added a whole session and, I think, made it a lot better. I'm wondering if there might be a book in it. I might trail some of it here through the autumn.

One of the key things I'm looking at is Christian identity in McWorld - who tells us who we are? In Philippi the empire told people who they were, the Jews had a separate identity and people found a sense of belonging through cults and associations. How did the Christians fit in?

It struck me that having opened by calling his first hearers 'holy ones' (saints, 1:1), his usual greeting, he goes on to remind them time and time again that they are 'in Christ'; 20 times he uses that phrase (or the related 'in the Lord'). Such a concentration of spiritual-geographical boundary markers in such a short letter indicates something about Paul's intent, I think.

I suspect it's no more than this: he wants to remind them that whatever pressures they're under from the surrounding culture, their neighbours and possibly the political authorities (though there's not much evidence of any official interest in the followers of Jesus on the part of the governing powers in Philippi), they are to see themselves as citizens of heaven whose true identity is found in Jesus.

This accounts for the amazing poem about Jesus in chapter 2, introduced with the call to think about our lives as Jesus thought about his and the equally amazing testimony of how Paul has modeled his life on that of Jesus and invites his hearers to do the same. Our identity then is found in our destiny - 3:14, 20f - and our location 'in Christ', a suggestion that Christian identity is simultaneously individual and corporate.

And that individually and corporately, we live out our citizenship - politeuesthe (1:27) - in a way that honours Christ. This speaks of the kinds of communities we create in McWorld and the kind of politics in which we engage.

I'm looking forward to having a stimulating time...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Belonging and membership revisited

'The challenge is to encourage people to be congregants rather than consumers.' So says Wulf and I think he's put his finger on a key issue.

We come at most things in life these days as consumers. But belonging to a church requires that we come with different expectations. There's nothing wrong in wanting to get something out of belonging. But there has also got to be a desire to give something of ourselves. I suspect this is what lies behind the term 'congregant' in Wulf's post.

I think he's also right to question whether church meetings are about discerning God's will from scratch. I think he's suggesting that their role is to discern whether leaders have themselves correctly discerned where God wants to take us. In that sense they operate as a check and balance against excessive ministerial domination of churches - and are probably a good thing.

Baptists have often seemed uncomfortable with 'leadership', feeling that every decision must be made by the gathered congregation. That is, of course, a recipe for paralysis and an invitation to the loud to dominate proceedings. It puts a lot of people off participating in meetings. I've spoken to a number of church members who stay away from church meetings because their voice wouldn't be heard in the hubbub and the clamour of those who always feel the need to express themselves - whether or not they have something useful to say.

If some members view the church meeting as a place where they have the right to speak, are they acting as congregants or consumers. Sometimes, I think, they are acting as the latter.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Gareth Davies-Jones

We had a gig with Gartehr Davies-Jones at church last night. It was a blast. He is a great guitarist, very good somgwriter and gifted comunicator. If you want to check him out then visit

Choosing to join

Wulf's comment highlights an important point in the Baptist understanding of church and that's that belonging has to have a measure of 'demonstrable consent' on the part of each person who wants to belong. So this means, he suggests, that not everyone affected by the ministry of a church is a stakeholder.

I'd certainly agree with that - though I'm interested to know where stakeholder-dom starts in relation to a church.

But I do wonder whether the church meeting as currently set up can be the only way we gather to determine where God is leading us a congregation. It would certainly be good if people sent their apologies for not attending - it suggests two things: they know there's a meeting and they know they should be there.

But I really wonder whether we need to think in terms of having a variety of forums where views can be expressed and God's will discerned. Is it very unbaptist to suggest that God might lead two separate gatherings of the members of a single baptist church in the same direction? After all, we tend to take 1 Corinthians 2 as determinative for what's happening at a church meeting (at its best) and yet that was written to a community that for the most part met in small, scattered groups across the city of Corinth.

Friday, September 15, 2006

belonging and membership (part 2)

If what I said in my previous is anything like accurate - and I think it probably is - it raises a number of fundamental questions about membership of our churches.

Here are a few I raised with my leadership team at recent get-together by the seaside.

Many people feel they ‘belong’ to our church but they don’t see any need to become ‘a member’ – and they might walk away if ‘membership’ in the formal sense were pressed.

At the same time, many long-standing ‘members’ feel that they no longer ‘belong’ in the way they once did because the church has changed in ways they aren’t sure they like they like since they joined it.

Then, more and more people are coming from traditions that practice Christian initiation in a way different from Baptists. After all, denominational loyalties appear to be decaying. So how do we help such to 'belong' and come into 'membership'?

Lots of churches are finding that many members are unable or unwilling to come to members’ meetings for a whole variety of reasons. If only 70 out of 400 come to a church meeting, what is the quality of the decision-making? How might members who can’t/don’t come be heard?

Many who ‘belong’ but haven’t become ‘members’ feel disenfranchised, even second class, because they are not allowed to come to members’ meetings. How do we involve newcomers in helping to create the kind of church that keeps them (having attracted them in the first place) and attracts others like them when it is only ‘members’ who can vote at church meetings?

And maybe the most pressing - though invariably unasked question - is this: what does financial giving do to a person's relationship with the church? If I give on a regular basis because I feel as though I belong but have not become a member, does that give me the right to a voice in how that money is used? Those who live in a consumer culture would suggest that it does. Those wedded to the traditional baptist view of membership might think the question to be in very poor taste indeed.

I wonder if John Drane might not be on to something when he suggests that we use the language of stakeholding to talk about involvement in church.

If we understand stakeholders to refer to ‘all those inside or outside an organization who are directly affected by what it does’, Drane asks ‘who are our stakeholders?’ And he offers this list – God, people who come to church, their friends and relatives, church members, Sunday school teachers, ministers, leaders, children and young people who come on Sunday or mid-week, people who come to mid-week activities (parent and toddler groups, social projects, lunch clubs, etc). It’s a big and diverse list.

And it brings a fresh set of intriguing questions: are all these people really stakeholders? If so, in what way? And, maybe most importantly, how do we hear their views and take them into account in our decisions about how we develop the life and work of the church?

Answers on a postcard please...

belonging and membership

In common with a lot of baptist churches we are having a think about what it measn to belong and what that has to do with being a 'member'. Chatting with a mate this afternoon, he told me his fiance - an anglican - was extremely puzzled by our baptist way of doing things. Well, join the club, love...

Here are some reflections on where I think we are and what the implcations are. They'll appear in a couple of posts - just to keep it manageable.

Some suggest we live in a low-commitment culture and that this has had an effect on people’s willingness to commit themselves to anything. We see it in the shortage of volunteers for church programmes and offices; we see it in the patterns of attendance at church – twicers used to refer to people who came twice on a Sunday but now tends to refer to those who come to a service twice a month. Many lament the passing of a generation – now in their 70s and 80s – who were very committed to the traditional structures of our Baptist churches and who are not being replaced the generations rising behind them.

So-called ‘low commitment’ is seen in all kinds of areas of life. Will Hutton uncovered it among shareholders who have no commitment to the long-term health of companies but only an eye to a quick return and a desire to keep their investment options open. Others point to the divorce rate and, more significantly, the falling number of marriages to indicate that we have a different attitude to long-term relationships than previous generations. On top of that, cohabiting couples are four-times as likely as married couples to split up. A study of choirs and music groups in Milton Keynes showed declining membership in all of them and even steeper declines in the actual attendance of those members at rehearsals and performances. And in Bromley, Community Links has lamented recently how difficult it is to get volunteers for all sorts of groups that used to be well-supported.

No wonder churches are struggling, then. In common with other organizations, we are affected by changing patterns of commitment which themselves are products of wider and deeper changes in the way people live their lives – longer working hours, greater travel times to work, more diverse and widely spread families, greater participation in all kinds of entertainment (cinema, gigs, theatre, eating out, working out – all of which have grown more popular over the past generation).

One of the key cultural shifts in the past 30 years has become something of a clich̩. It is called consumerism. Once this described the practice of shopping and applied to a few wealthy people who had the levels of disposable income that allowed them to shop for fun. Since the 1980s such consumption has become the focus of the British economy Рspending in the high streets and especially on our homes and gardens has become the bell-weather of economic health; property values have become the prime measure of individual wealth and investing in our properties is not only a key leisure activity but also an industry employing many thousands. One of the key facets of consumerism is that it suggests anyone can become an expert, anyone can determine what is best for them and their family, choice is king.

And consumerism has spilled over into the way we regard other areas of life that once would have been talked of in terms of ‘service’. For example, opticians used to be part of the health sector, providing a ‘service’ to ‘patients’; now they are shops selling glasses and other devices to customers. Such a change has happened in all areas of public service – health, education, social services, housing, etc. We increasingly want these services to meet our needs not an agenda set by others. We used to say ‘doctor knows best’, now we demand that doctors do what we ask them; the health services is said to be more ‘patient-focused’; the doctor as ‘expert’ has been replaced as the doctor as provider of what the patient – who has become the ‘expert’ (no one knows me like I do) – wants. Likewise in schools we’ve seen the rise of parental choice; they are the consumers of educational services for their children. This might or might not be a good thing, but it is a product of a consumer mentality.

Not surprisingly this change in the way we think about these core activities, affects how we think and feel about other commitments – including religious ones. The rise of new spiritualities through the 1990s is indicative of a desire to have a spiritual dimension to our lives that is driven by the same desire to have something tailor-made, that fits me like a glove. The authors of the major study of the town of Kendal published last year under the title The Spiritual Revolution, subtitled their work ‘why religion is giving way to spirituality’. In their view religion was an organized activity where the agenda and rules were set by religious hierarchies and especially by experts known as priests, whereas spirituality is an individually-tailored response to the transcendent.

Does this have any bearing on church membership? I think is raises some pretty fundamental issues. What do you think?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Simple strategic questions...

It was really to good to catch up with people at church this morning. My mate Steve, in particular, was there. He's a missionary in North London and it's always a joy to see and pray with him. He's bringing a group to our church in October to do a bit of training.

In the course of our conversation about strategies, it dawned on me that we need a strategy that deals with three key issues we face as churches: visibility, credibility and the what's-in-it-for-me? factor.

Most people in our communities don't see our churches. How often have you described where your church is and people have said 'oh I didn't realise there was a church there.' I often used to say to Christians that people outside the church don't see the church as irrelevant, they don't see the church - fullstop. I still thinks that true.

Over this summer we've done a couple of things to raise our profile and make us more visible. One was to put a bouncy castle in the high street and invite kids to play. This was led by another church in our community but we were glad to join in. The other was to run a holiday club for senior citizens. Both these events were about getting the church seen. And a few more people saw us.

Then, there's our credibility - when we do things are we competent, do we do what we advertise, do we deliver what we claim we're going to? This is vital in today's world. I think it means churches ought to do less, but to do the few they do really well.

finally, there's the dreadful consumer question - what's in it for me? We might bemoan the fact that we live in a consumer society, but we do; it's one of the circumstances in which we have to do mission (I'll be blogging about circumstances later in the week because I'm thinking a lot about this word at the moment).

So everything we do has to meet a need of some kind if it's going to attract people who think the church is both invisible and incredible.

Does this sound like a good trio of factors to consider every time we do something in our communities? I think so. Maybe it would lead us to do things that are both more fun and more relational. And who knows, we might find ourselves meeting real needs and seeing people come to faith as a result.

Catching up again...

I've been doing some planning over the past week for the autumn - summer is often less frantic in churches (though my colleague, Brian, had a really busy week last week running a holiday club for 60 or so senior citizens).

I'm doing two weekend aways for churches - one in September, the other in October - and I've been pondering themes and getting some stories together.

We're really looking forward to Gareth Davies-Jones visiting Bromley Baptist on 16 September. He's a really talented Christian singer-songwriter with a keen eye for issue of justice. He'll be kicking off our harvest weekend - and hopefully will go down a storm. If you're in the neighbourhood, drop in - kick off is 7:30pm...

Been watching the extensive coverage of Reading on BBC3. Looks to have been a good festival. Inn particular sets by Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys were excellent. But I was also impressed by Feeder and the Spinto Band. Franz Ferdinand were also pretty amazing headlining on the first night. My daughter's actually there, so I'll have to see what she made of them all.

Meanwhile on the decks I ave the new Bruce Cockburn album - Life Short Call Now. Check it out, it's great - his best for a while. Great playing including the introduction of solo brass instruments on a couple of songs which are particularly effective. He treats his usual themes - global politics, love and spirituality - with his usual mixture of insight and wit. But there is a gentleness and warmth about this collection that seemed to be missing on his last outing.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sri Lanka reflections (part 2)

One of the surreal things about Sri Lanka is to visit the tourist resorts on the South West coast. We spent four days in Hikkaduwa at a really well-appointed hotel. The pool was beautiful and warm, the view from our balcony was of the breakers of the Indian Ocean rolling on to a palm-tree lined beach, the service was excellent, the sun shone...

The surreal thing was that the hotel next door was still a pile of rubble from the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Indeed as you walked around from Hikkaduwa to a temple with a little island chapel, the effects of the tsunami are still plain to see: ruined buildings, half rebuilt homes, shattered boats, even flip-flops and toothbrushes lying in the grass indicating the presence of people until catastrophe came.

Everywhere you go in Sri Lanka - and especially along the coastline - there's evidence of the tsunami and its aftermath. And yet it's hard to get your head round just how enormous it was.

There's a memorial on the road out of Hikkaduwa to the 1200 passengers who died on an express train that was hit by the wave. Opposite and across the road, the railway line has been relaid and trains rumble by pretty regularly. But all along the line, piles of rubble indicate where homes stood on either side of the tracks.

Before going to Hikkaduwa, we'd spent a day with a friend who's a pastor in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa. He'd been involved in providing immediate relief to hundreds of families left destitute and homeless by the tsunami and more recently in helping fishing communities along the coast to rebuild and get their lives back to some semblance of normal.

As he walked us around one of the redevelopments, I was struck by how basic it all was: wooden buildings, outside toilet blocks and rudimentary sanitation. Our church had helped towards the cost of all this and it was great to see families rehoused and delighted with their new homes.

But one of the frustrations that William and his team faced is that the government and local authorities refuse to run any utilities into the area because it's too near the sea. The government is insisting that all rebuilding take place getting on for a kilometre from the coast. But many of the fishing communities have lived for generations just yards from the sea from which they earn their living. They do not want to move inland. So they would rather live in new wooden houses (brick houses aren't allowed so near the shore-line) with only basic services than the brick homes being built inland.

The nonsense of the policy is that right next door to where William and his team are building wooden homes for fishermen, the Chinese government is building a huge concrete and brick port development which will include moorings for these fishermen and a fish market. Ah well!

What impressed me about William was the easy and calm way he went about undertaking the enormous task of helping these families put their lives back together. He is a model of Christian service - assessing need, listening to people's concerns, seeking their welfare and wanting them to experience the love of God in a tangible way.

It was humbling to see him in action.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sri Lanka reflections (part 1)

Well, life's been busy since getting back from Sri Lanka. Here's the first of my reflections on our trip.

Part of the reason for going was to teach a course at the Lanka Bible College. Its main campus is beautifully situated just outside the city of Kandy. So the climate's better than Colombo - not as humid. The campus itself is very well designed with a series of buildings clinging to the hillside. The lecture rooms and study areas are excellent and the library is improving - though it lacks the resources to keep pace with the plethora of good theology and biblical studies coming out.

I had 25 students in my BTh group. The degree course is taught in English and all the reading is in English. It's clear that some students struggled with this. For many English is their third language - after Tamil and singala. We mitigated the language problem by producing my lectures - which I'd fortunately written out pretty fully - as notes at the end of each day. I also guaranteed that the exam would be based solely on the notes. I shall be marking that week, so we'll see how people got on.

The students themselves were a fascinating cross-section of people - some well into retirement doing the course out of interest and to make themselves more useful to their churches; others young men and women who held down demanding ministries, often involving quite extensive travel in some difficult places.

Christians make up about 7% of the population of Sri Lanka - about the same proportion as Muslims. The majority of the population is Buddhist. There is a fair amount of low-level harassment of churches - burnings and ministers being beaten up - and there are parliamentary moves to outlaw conversion.

So the students tackling the social history of the New Testament - looking at such things as the influence of emperor worship on the religious environment of the first century, the size of congregations and where they met and the social position of the early believers - were doing so in a context that a number of similarities with the first century. We had some interesting conversations about those connections.

The college is trying to raise the standard of education among Sri Lanka's ministers, seeking to equip them to face the demands of ministry in a changing world. For the most part it does an excellent job and deserves the support and prayers of those in the more fortunate West.

In particular, it needs two things. Firstly, people willing to teach courses as visiting lecturers. As one who's done it, I can say it's a richly rewarding experience and I'm looking forward to going back and doing it again. Secondly, they need resources - books for the library in English and the material and money to translate good English material into Tamil and Singala. The college has its own publishing arm and is able to produce good resources in the local languages with the right levels of support.

It's a good work - do pray for them.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Back from paradise island...

I'm back!! Have you missed me.

Sri Lanka was amazing - lots of experiences, wonderful people, awful sights, eye-popping beauty... I'll try to unpack some of it over the next week.

I finished John Irving's A Prayer for owen Meany sitting by the pool in Hikkaduwa. What a truly terrific book it is - I think Irving's best (though I've just got his latest, so we'll see). The character of Owen Meany is heartbreaking, compelling and utterly magnetic. The novel charts his effect on those around him with a surgical skill - you can see and feel lives being cut up and not really being reassembled as he cuts a swathe through the community he grew up in.

If you've not read it, I urge you to... It's great beach reading but you will need a bit of space to digest the final scene - it's extremely powerful.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Diving into difficult texts

Frantically preparing for Sri Lanka - hence the lack of blogging recently. We're also doing a series on 1 Timothy at church, preparing for which is enabling me to finish lectures on the later period of Paul's life.

This Sunday we're doing 1 Timothy 2 and tackling head-on what this means for women in ministry.

It is fascinating to see how scholars on both sides construct their arguments - either that Paul's prohibition is temporary and linked to the false teaching in Ephesus or that Paul's prohibition is permanent and based on creation principles laid down in Genesis 1-3. I favour the former view for reasons that seem all-too obvious to me (but I would say that, wouldn't I?)

One key bone of contention is whether 1 Timothy 2 has to be read and interpreted in the light of other NT texts that are deemed to be more normative - for example Galatians 3:28 - or whether 1 Timothy 2 is itself normative for understanding other apparently more permissive cases.

I have always worked on the principle that we must somehow account for Paul's practice - hints and examples of which are layered through the whole Pauline corpus and can be read only to mean that Paul's team of co-workers (those who preached, led and supported his work) contained both men and women operating equally. One has only to look at Romans 16, Philippians 4:2f, 1 Corinthians 11. Add to this 2 Timothy 2:2 where Paul clearly means faithful people entrusted with the teaching to pass on to others, the fact that Timothy himself was taught by his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5f) and that Priscilla seems to take the lead in training up Apollos in Acts 18:24-28 (by virtue of the fact that she's named first - unusual in first century texts about husbands and wives).

So my view is that Paul's prohibition in 1 Timothy 2 is temporary and called for because women (possibly wives - the words could mean either) were unduly influenced by a heresy that appears to have been derived from the female cults all over Ephesus which, when mixed with esoteric Jewish readings of Genesis 1-3, led to a teaching that suggested Eve was Adam's mother as well as his wife and which taught the women of the city to trust Diana, the goddess who was mid-wife at her twin brother, Apollo's, birth when they were in labour. No wonder Paul said what he did.

His aim throughout 1 Timothy is that people learn the true Christian message, are mentored in the faith by those further along in the Christian life than they are, before they assume a role as teachers, mentors and leaders in the Ephesian house churches. This applied as much to men as women but Paul needed to highlight the particular problem of women because of their role in spreading the false teaching. This seems to be the implication of 2 Timothy 2:2

The clincher for this, it seems to me, is the reference to young widows going from house-to-house (1 Timothy 5:13) and talking of things they shouldn't be talking of - ie spreading false teaching. The word rendered 'gossip' doesn't mean tittle-tattle but rather nonsense or foolishness - a word close in meaning to the way Paul describes the false teaching in 1:6f; 4:7; 6:3f. They are idle purveyors of false teaching, as Gordon Fee puts it in his excellent commentary. And possibly that false teaching centred in their talk on how to approach giving birth - do we hang on to ancient superstitions or allow our new faith in Jesus to sweep them away?

And this is before you get the unusual Greek vocabulary of the passage - notably the word 'authentein' (meaning authority but used elsewhere with the sense of illegitimate or usurping authority, even murder in some Greek plays!) and the present tense of the verb 'permit' which suggests a temporary rather than permanent state of affairs. One excellent study of the passage by Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger suggests that the primal deity of Ephesus was a female god called Authentia - does that have a bearing on Paul's choice of words?

One of the problems of this whole discussion, of course, is whether we believe there is an enduring creation ordinance that means women are permanently subordinate to men - at home, in church and in the world. If you believe that, then taking the English of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 at face value is the obvious thing to do. If you don't, then you need to look behind the English and ask searching question about what Paul could possibly mean in the light of his usual practice and the particular circumstances in Ephesus.

No prizes for guessing which view I take on that question! As with a number of these things, the debate over this text would be better if people recognised that their interpretations were driven by their underlying view of the world as well as by their understanding of a set of a words in a particular context. It is this that makes New Testament studies so important and such fun.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Rediscovering treasure

I've been busy this week sorting my thoughts for Sri Lanka. I now have 26 lectures outlined; all I have to do is write them - that's next week's task!

In the meantime we're kicking off a series in 1 Timothy on Sunday evening which (by coincidence) raises fascinating issues of Pauline chronology which I will be covering in lecture 20 - just when did he write the pastorals (if he indeed did write them and they weren't composed after his death by those who continued to carry the torch for him - Luke, for instance)?

In the course of my reading, I turned to John Robinson's Redating the New Testament. This was the first work of serious academic theology I ever read. It was recommended to me by my then rector, Hugh Sylvester, back in 1978/79. It had an enormous impact on me. I remember feeling that two aspects of my life - my Christian faith and my love of history - were brought together by a writer of immense skill and historical imagination.

Reading Robinson's words again reminds me just what a good and sadly neglected book this is. His arguments are still compelling, 30 years after the book first appeared. It strikes me that scholars of all hues have found its thesis too difficult to integrate into their view of NT history and so it has been sidelined and ignored. Very few works seem to engage with it at all

It deserves better. His case that the whole New Testament was written prior to 70AD is certainly controversial but it's made with such gracious and clear-headed logic that it needs to be reckoned with in a way that most NT scholars shy away from.

When we know so little for certain about the history of the period from 33 (the resurrection) to the fall of Jerusalem in 70, it seems reckless to be so dogmatic about what can and can't have happened in those 37 years. It seems equally cavalier to dismiss as entirely untrustworthy the only narrative source we have, claiming to come from and cover those years (namely Acts - Paul Barnett in his recent book The Birth of Christianity - the first Twenty Years makes a good case for taking Acts seriously alongside Paul's letters as a source of reliable information)

And it seems overly dogmatic (as Robinson points out) to assert that Paul couldn't have written certain letters that bear his name on purely linguistic grounds. We have such a small corpus of writing from him that saying what is characteristically Pauline and what isn't, is tricky. We also don't know enough about his writing practices - how much did he dictate and how much leave to his secretaries to fashion his ideas into words for particular audiences? It's possible that because the pastorals are more personal, they are more not less reflective of Paul's normal turn of phrase.

Anyway, if you're looking for a good academic theology tome to take to the beach along with Dan brown this summer, I strongly recommend Robinson's Redating the New Testament.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Speaking and listening

It's Pentecost. We celebrate this as the birthday of the church, the coming of the Holy Spirit and rightly so.

Yet at its heart, the Acts 2 account is about God speaking to the world. The commotion of the early verses drew a crowd which is the focus for most of the chapter, the audience for Peter's explanation of what's going on and what it means.

God propelled his people out of their comfort zone - at some stage the disciples left the upper room where they felt safe and ended up in the temple where the opponents to Jesus had their base - so that people from all over the world could hear God's story in their own language (with Galilean accents!)

I wonder what would happen if God visited us in our churches in such a way that we had to take our singing and speaking out of our buildings and into the street - not because it appeared to be a good strategy and we'd got the PA organised, sought permission from the council to hold an open-air meeting, but simply because our buildings couldn't contain us in our excitement at encountering God.

Well, Joel did say 'you old men will dream dreams...'

Friday, June 02, 2006

Ending the week with a rush

I've finished going through my Galatians manuscript - most of my editor's comments improved things, though I ignored/disputed one or two - and my notes on Ecclesiastes are posted on the church website ( - just click on the sermon notes tab and it's there under the title Qoheleth - wit and wisdom among the people of God)

And I've prepared for Sunday (pretty much)

All this clears the decks for street pastoring tonight and street pastor training tomorrow.

Isn't life a blast!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Writer's pride

I was right about my editor's red-biro-marked copy of my Galatians manuscript. It's very depressing for two reasons. One is he's made a lot of suggestions and the other is that he has tiny, spidery handwriting that I find hard to decipher!

Many of his suggestions are making the text clearer and easier to read. But some are subtly changing the sense of things. I find myself bristling with a sort of writerly angst that changing a word or phrase is going to materially and substantially alter the meaning of what I've written.

So I have been very gingerly working through the suggestions made and questions raised, weighing each one carefully and then accepting most of them - editing usually improves things in my experience.

But seeing so much of one's writing crossed out, reworded or, even worse, underlined with a comment 'not clear what this means' inserted in the margin is a sobering sight for a writer. I'd chosen the words so carefully (mostly), thought what I was saying was crystal clear - as well as brimful of insight and wisdom - and feel my hackles rising as I consider so many changes.

Ah the writer's pride... Get over it!

I'm a third of the way through, so I should have it finished next week - given that I've got to fit it in with preparation for Sri Lanka - though because I'm using Galatians as the basis for one day, editing the book is good preparation in itself - reminding me what I think of Paul's most wonderful and passionate piece of writing.

passing on the news...

'Neighbour...I've got so much to tell you in so little time'

Editors were wonderful. It's the best gig I've been to this year. The playing was tight. Tom Smith's voice was angelic. And the lights were out of this world. It ws a flawless performance of passion and energy. If they are not a serious contender for biggest British band of 2006 then there's no justice.

The line's from Someone Says on the Back Room - a song of aggressive longing, fractured relationships and loss of community. 'If no one can help you/then how can I?'

My notes on Ecclesiastes are almost finished and I've just got back my Galatians manuscript with my editor's red biro all over it - it looks rather depressing but I'm sure he's been kind!

We had a very productive breakfast meeting yesterday thinking about a foyer in Bromley. I thought foyer's were yesterday's coming thing, but the good people at Broomleigh and Oasis made a powerful case for having one as a landmark project that puts the needs of homeless young people at the centre of our attention.

I hope something comes of it

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Catching up

Off to see Editors at Brixton Academy this evening. They are one of the cream of last year's break-through bands - sharp riffs, intelligent lyrics, plangent guitars; wonderful.

I used them a dialogue partner in my thinking about Ecclesiastes. In their song All Sparks, they have the line 'you burn like a bouncing cigarette on the road/all sparks will burn out in the end' which I think perfectly captures Qoheleth's view that life is short but wonderfully beautiful. It also has great advice for people sharing their faith 'you're answering questions/that have not yet been asked...'

The Ecclesiastes series finished last Sunday and I think went pretty well (all things considered). Good conversations resulted and hopefully people will make use of the study guide which will be posted on the website at the end of the week.

I'm now focusing on getting ready to lecture in Sri Lanka. I think it's all taking shape. I have a month to create notes flexible enough to take account of every eventuality (at least the ones I can think of)

In my chill time earlier, I watched the first episode of Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past - part of the box set that was a birthday gift earlier in the year. It's TV at its best. The story concerns a picture library about to be closed by an American multi-national. So it's really a meditation on the power of photographs. One of the strengths of the programme is that Poliakoff uses the pictures and his musical score to move the story on rather than conventional moving images and dialogue. It's truly mesmerising.

Pentecost on Sunday - a reminder that God speaks to us in fresh ways and often doesn't use words himself.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Decoding Da Vinci revisited

So on the afternoon after the evening before, did we decode Da Vinci?

We certainly had fun - many teams competing in our prize quiz. We had a good few texts raising interesting issues and asking sensible questions. And lots of people wanted to join in.

Concerns focused on two main areas. Firstly, the history - especially the Gnostic gospels and formation of the Christian canon. I've never been asked after a service to recommend quite so many history books!

Secondly, why the book is so popular. This is harder to answer but I suspect has something to do with Dan Brown capturing a mood. There have been lots of academic tomes questioning Christian origins - you have only to think Hugh Schonfield's The Passover Plot or john Allegro's book on scared mushrooms (I forget the title) or Barbara Tiering's Jesus the Man and a host of others. These came, caused a mild flutter and disappeared into the libraries only to emerge in footnotes in learned dissertations.

Brown's book landed in altogether different times. Institutions are no longer to be trusted so their version of events is automatically suspected. He capitalised on the success of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and a host of other books bedecking the mysteries and mind, body and spirit sections of our bookshops. Our culture is looking for new myths from the cult of celebrity and big brother to the sacred feminine. The Da Vinci Code is just one more

Maybe it's just good marketing.

What I want to know, though, is why messers Baigent, Leigh, Lincoln, Brown and Teabing make no mention of the writings of the Apostle Paul in their reconstruction of Christian origins. While dating the gospels is tricky, dating Paul's letters - especially Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians - isn't. They all come from the fifties and sixties of the first century and they all affirm three things about Jesus - his humanity, his divinity and his resurrection from the dead.

So there you have it, 275 years before Constantine and the Council of Nicea, Paul told us that Jesus was God's Son, human and divine, raised from death for the salvation and re-creation of the world and that joining his Kingdom made us part of God's solution to human folly.

What we think about Jesus appears to matter a great deal after all, Sir Leigh...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Decoding Da Vinci

Today we're devoting our cafe church to the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, so last night a group of us went to see the film.

I guess it's true to say that I had low expectations - and they weren't disappointed. The cast struggled with a leaden script and director Ron Howard's decision to play it absolutely straight rather than camping it up a bit. So the cardinals behaved like board members of dull multinational and all the policemen were plods who couldn't see what has happening in front of their eyes.

It all meant that Hanks and Tautou as the two leads spent the entire movie running, driving or catching their breath with a look of complete bafflement on their faces. I'm not sure if they were baffled by what was happening to them or why they were being asked to serve up such clunking dialogue.

Needless to say interest in the book and film has focused on what it alleges about Christian origins and in particular the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the suppression of any reference to that relationship by the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea.

It's a theory so full of holes that one barely knows where to begin in refuting it. Many more intelligent Christians have done the job very well. The best things I've read are the two Grove booklets by Steve Hollingshurst and Tom Wright (available as ebooks from and Robin Griffith-Jones The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple. Griffith-Jones is master of the Temple Church in London, one of the locations of the book and film.

The book's power is undoubtedly rooted in our culture's taste for conspiracy, coupled with its distrust of institutions and their 'official' stories and explanations. The more the church defends its position, the more the conspiracy theorists argue 'they would say that wouldn't they; it's evidence that they've got something to hide.'

It's the laughable treatment of the history of the early church that really irks me, the suggestion that it was a powerful, all-conquering institution able to suppress documents and movements it disapproved of. The Roman church really wasn't in this position until the high Middle Ages - say from the 12th century.

The suggestion, for instance, that the council of Nicea settled the date of Easter is rot. It was an issue still being debated between various parts of the church in the early 7th century, at the synod of Whitby for example. It still wasn't really settled when the schism between the Western and Eastern Church happened in the 10th century which is why Orthodox countries celebrate Easter at a different date from Western Christians.

It's a small point, I know. But it's indicative of a slipshod handling of history by Dan Brown and his sources - especially Baigent, Liegh and Lincoln in their hugely entertaining and in places hysterically funny The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.

It struck me that the film - for obvious reasons - simplified the 'history' to the point of making it a strident and harsh-sounding propaganda for an anti-Jesus movement. Leigh Teabing, as played by Ian Mckellen, is a deeply unsympathetic character, motivated by a settled hatred for the stories of orthodox Christianity and prepared to do anything to bring down the church that preserves that story. He was more subtle and complex than that in the book - not that any of Brown's characters have much depth or complexity.

Comments are always welcome. I'll tell you how cafe church went tomorrow.