Monday, December 31, 2012

Let's have some sensible discussion on welfare and wages

So, Ian Duncan Smith supports the paying of poverty wages by Britain's public and private enterprises and does not really believe that employment is the solution to poverty - only that the public purse should not be supporting those in need. This is the implication of his imbecilic and opportunist attack on the tax credits system.

If employers paid the living wage - not mentioned in his Telegraph article - the tax credits bill would fall by £2bn (according to the Resolution Foundation). More importantly the vital social contract between the nation and business would be healed to some extent. Businesses have a responsibility not just to make profits for shareholders but to pay wages that make life above the poverty line possible for their workforces.

We all want the day when no one in work needs their wages supported by the state.

Duncan Smith's fraud argument is the usual scare-mongering sideshow as it accounts for 5% of tax credits on his own inflated figures. What he should be doing is putting pressure on business to pay the living wage and above to all their employees and campaign for business to play its proper part in overcoming poverty in our country.

All his article does is demonstrate how woefully ill-equipped he is to be in the job he's currently got.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Saving art for the nation

Well, this is a hoot. Bromley Council is claiming ownership of the Henry Moore sculpture that Tower Hamlets council wants to sell to off-set funding cuts. I was touched by our leader's new-found interest in and commitment to public art.

Stephen Carr said in a letter to Tower Hamlets "This sculpture must remain in public ownership which is line with the original principles of Henry Moore himself. The idea that selling this internationally recognised sculpture will somehow tackle the financial situation facing Tower Hamlets is flawed. Local authorities need to face financial reality and look at the longer-term challenges.The monies raised would not protect frontline services for very long and would stop future generations appreciating this national treasure."

I am heartened by Councillor Carr's new-found commitment to public ownership and I look forward to Bromley Council ring-fencing public assets - such as libraries - not to mention their support for an arts and cultural centre in the midst of the retail wasteland that is our town centre.

Sadly, I'm not sure the letter has anything to do with a love of art, public or otherwise. It's  rather a restatement of austerity thinking dressed up as concern for people's cultural lives. I wonder if Mr Carr will be adding his voice to those from the North East decrying the slashing of arts spending in that region or to those raising concerns that the lack of arts in the curriculum of Gove's English Baccalaureate will lead to an impoverishing of the nation's soul. I'm not hopeful.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The good news in the census numbers

The census numbers are in and they confirm what many of have long suspected. There has been a collapse in allegiance to the Christian faith. It's down from 72% to 59% in a decade. And the number claiming no religious faith is up from 14% to 25%.

What the numbers don't tell us about is church attendance. That continues to bump along the bottom of a 1500 year low. What it does confirm is the ebbing of the Christian story from the wider culture. Fewer people feel the need to claim any allegiance to it - hence the fall in those claiming affinity with the Christian religion and the rise in those eschewing religion altogether.

The numbers are probably good news. Of course, there'll be wild scare stories about an imminent Muslim take-over of the land (after all, they now account for just under 5% of the population). But the good news lies in the fact that we are, at last, seeing the stripping away of the carapace of Christendom, that smoke-screen that the church has hidden behind for too long.

Now we see for real that we are in a missional situation in the UK. The old rules do not apply; old forms of church and outreach look increasingly antique and so, whether they have any aesthetic appeal or museum value, they are no longer fit for the purpose of making Jesus known in twenty-first century Britain.

So, it's time to follow Jesus and invite others to join us and see what kind of communities form as we do so. Who'd have thought the census could make such exciting reading!

Monday, December 10, 2012

My favourite music of 2012

It’s the time of year when for no reason other than I want to know what I’ve shelled out for new music this year, I offer my pick of the albums that have brought me the most joy over the past twelve months.

It’s been a good year for unexpected comebacks and vintage acts producing their best work in years. With so much good stuff around it’s been a little tricky picking an outright winner but one album has consistently risen to the top of the pile, constantly and invariably putting a smile on my face and making me feel good to be alive every time I listen. More on that later.

So, here’s a thirteen of the best of the best in no particular order, followed by a top five:

Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball demonstrated that the boss is still at the top of his game. It’s an album driven by anger at what the bankers have done to the ordinary people of America. But it’s also a record that’s brimming with reflections on what it means to be a man of faith in troubled times. The closing track is an amazing affirmation of resurrection in the teeth of injustice.

Clock Opera is a British band who’ve been bubbling around for a while. Their keyboard-driven debut album, Ways to forget, is full of quirky, jerky rhythms, dead pan humour and great tunes.

Dead Can Dance came back from the dead – or at least a decade or so away – with an album named after the resurrection, Anastasis. The trade mark epic mix of dance rhythms and eastern flavours is present and correct giving rise to a truly satisfying 56 minutes.

Damon Albarn cemented his place as all-round renaissance artist with an opera based on the life of Elizabeth 1’s conjurer Dr Dee. We went to see it performed at the ENO. It is a truly magnificent piece of work, Blur meets John Donne in a gorgeous suite of songs about the nature of Englishness in both Elizabethan ages.

Patti Smith’s Banga is everything you expect from the queen of punk and a lot you wouldn’t. My copy came in a hardback book, giving me the opportunity to read the words, which stand on their own as musings on the absurdity of life and the reality of faith. Only a couple of tracks misfire but overall the journey is worth the taking.

Richard Hawley dropped the croon for something more psychedelic and gave us Standing at the Sky’s Edge rolling in on waves of distorted guitars and angry reflections on the state of the nation. Hawley has an eye for detail and the ability to conjure tunes from nowhere. Wonderful.

Tracey Thorn has done the near impossible which is to produce a Christmas album that you might listen to in May. Tinsel and Lights is a beautiful collection of mainly covers – including the most gorgeous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s River – with two self-penned originals; it is bold and beautiful. It is also one of the few Christmas albums that does not contain a cheesy take on a Christmas carol. It almost replaces Low’s magnificent Christmas in my affections…almost, you understand!

Smoke Fairies returned with a second collection Blood Speaks, full of their trade mark lush vocals over edgy guitar. It’s the work of a band hitting their stride and promising great things for the future as their writing matures.

Deacon Blue is the unlikeliest comeback of the year. The Hipsters could well be the best thing they’ve ever done, awash with great tunes and jaunty reflections on the passing years.

Soulsavers, after two albums with Mark Lanegan, produced a collection of songs with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan. And a thing of wonder it is too. Called The Light the Dead See, it’s a brooding set about life, love, death and what it all adds up to. Presence of God is the stand-out track with its observation ‘I can feel the presence of god/In need of my attention/In this room and in your words/In too many ways to mention’

Talking of Mark Lanegan, he produced the best album he’s done under his own name. Blues Funeral, as the name suggests, is not a collection of jaunty ditties, but no one does gothic gloom like Lanegan… 

Then of course, there’s the irrepressible Bob Dylan. Sounding brighter than he has for a decade, he returned this year with Tempest, an album full of shuffle, groove and great stories. He can’t recapture the impact of the great albums of the 60s – they changed the art form forever – but this is a danceable collection from an old master.

And finally, the hugely accomplished debut from Alt-J, An Awesome Wave, deserved winner of the Mercury Prize came my way via a recommendation from my 16 year old niece (who says I'm not down with the kids?!!). Baffling but affecting lyrics, lovely tunes, great rhythms – what more could you ask for?

And so to the top five.

The year opened with Leonard Cohen, a man old enough to know better, giving us Old Ideas, an album bristling with new insights into life and faith, wrapped in some good tunes and great arrangements by a band at the top of its form.

Anais Mitchell released a storming folk opera a couple years ago based on the myth of Orpheus in the underworld. This year she topped that achievement with a collection of songs called Young Man in America. She combines a childlike reverie with a wise eye for the world we live in. The stripped down arrangements and startling vocals draw you in and great story telling – especially on the title track (a song worth the price of the download on its own) – does the rest. She’s a reminder – if one were needed – that keeping it simple always packs the most powerful punch.

The autumn brought us Neil Young’s blistering return to form, the 86 minute Psychedelic Pill with its opening 27 minute track that rambles across his life bringing surprisingly moving insights into what it’s like to be inside his head. It’s the best thing he’s done with Crazy Horse since Sleeps with Angels almost twenty years ago and it demonstrates that he’s not run out energy yet; long may he run…

Bill Mallonee’s fiftieth album, Amber Waves, finally came out in November. It’s his best collection in ages, world weary, insightful, faith-affirming; great tunes and a guitar sound to die for.

Album of the year, however, is Bill Fay’s Life is People. This is also a come-back album from an artist who had a couple of albums out in the early 70s (not that he crossed my radar then). This is a collection of songs about life, faith and hope played by a great set of musicians. There isn’t a wasted note or syllable here; it’s a collection that makes you feel good to be alive and thanking God that you can hear such tender and lovely music. If you buy only one record this Christmas, you should buy this one.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Paul and women (some tentative first thoughts...)

Following interest on my Facebook page about a class I was teaching this morning on 1 Corinthians 11 and what Paul says about women, here are some notes  produced a while ago for my church on the passage in question.

They are not the last word.... They might not even be the first word! They are an attempt to place Paul's words in a recognisable first century context and then see how what he says might apply today.

Worship and social climbing
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
The church exists in culture and culture always affects the church: hence Karen Baptists take off their shoes when they go into church (they take off their shoes whenever they go into a building) but their churches have benches (a gift from our culture via missionaries as their homes don’t have chairs at all!). 

1 Corinthians 11 is baffling until we grasp two things: the gospel and first century Corinth

1) under new management...
i) Good news: King Jesus reigns and as we come under his rule, our lives change in every way: devotional, work, home, shopping, politics. We’re new people in Jesus, called to live in a new way to a new agenda: our king’s glory. It's what much of 1 Corinthians has been about up to this point.

ii) Gathering together: the message is earthed in small communities of believing people – maybe 20 to 30 gathering in workshops in the city's back streets  – meeting to build each other up: 14:3-5,12,26. In the church we learn how to live for Jesus in world and we model the lifestyle of the kingdom to those outside looking on. 1 Corinthians 11-14 is a single section of the letter dealing with the etiquette of the gathering - the why and how of assembling together.

2) the same old world
The trouble is, Paul's hearers have been Corinthians longer than they've been followers of Jesus and so they brought their old attitudes and aspirations into the church: the rich are superior to the poor; one is either a patron or a client, ethnic differences cause tensions, etc. How can we live according to King Jesus’ pattern in the world, if we’re hopelessly divided in church? This is Paul’s theme in 11-14: Division between rich & poor at Lord’s table (11:17ff); division between the elite and rest in the body (12-13); division over spiritual gifts (14)

There are three things to note about 11:2-16:
i) Husbands and wives or men and women – same Greek words are used for both and how we render the word has massive bearing on how we understand the text. Although Paul bases his teaching on Genesis 1-3 and so could be generally talking about ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’, the likelihood is he’s  being more specific. This is likely because…

ii) Home churches: the community met in homes – about 25 in each: for example, Chloe (1:11) and Stephanus (16:15). Within the household wives would have had more freedom than they had in public – but what happened when a public gathering happened in their private space: which rules apply? This matters because:

iii) Honour and shame in the Roman world. This was a society with very strict rules regarding honour and shame and a new movement risked great danger if it disregarded those rules. This section is awash with the language of honour and shame - some words that we think are religious actually come from this pool of meaning: praise (v2); glory (v7, 15), shame (v6), disgrace (v4-5) and dishonour (v14). That's quite a concentration. And it's important to remember that however we understand these words, they would have been heard by their original audience as having to do with matters of honour and shame, a key social issue for people in the ancient world.

And there are two other things to note - one a word in the passage and the other, part of the background for Paul's teaching:

Messengers (v10) – not ‘angels’ but people coming to see if this regular meeting was observing the rules of good order and reporting back to their patrons or even those charged with ensuring women obeyed the dress code when in public. This was the usual meaning of the word ‘angelos’ in secular use. Homes in the ancient world tended to be more open to the public - people came in collecting goods, dropping off supplies, seeking work, were visiting from out of town, were clients or relatives or neighbours. People came and went for all kinds of reasons and Paul wanted to ensure the gatherings didn't put them off the new faith.

Mission – always in the background of what Paul says when it's not in the foreground. It was key to his teaching on attitudes on meat and dinners in chapters 8-10 and it's important here. Basically, the outsiders mustn’t be repelled by what they see – see the key verse 14:23. Paul’s concern is that people meet Jesus. In Nepal Christians take off their shoes and men and women separate to the right and left of the building, so that non-Christian Nepalis aren’t repelled by any ‘shame’ in the gathering – this the tension of 9:19-23 in action

3) A distinctive way of life
With that in mind, what Paul says is fairly clear!

i) women and men/husbands and wives are equal: v11: key verse ‘in the Lord’ means ‘from a Christian point of view’ or ‘in church’ as in 2 Cor 5:16; see Gal 3:28.

ii) women play a full part in ministry  prophesying and praying in public along with men – this is part of the ‘custom’ (v16 applies to whole shooting match). So Phoebe, Priscilla and all other women mentioned in Romans 16; Euodia and Syntyche in Phil 4:2f. And no doubt Chloe and other women in Corinth. Notice that Paul doesn't justify women taking part; he takes that as read. His concern is how both sexes participate in the gathering.

iii) good order: wives – in accordance with the accepted social norms of the day should have their heads covered when praying/prophesying because they are in public gathering. That gives her authority (or the right) to pray because with her head covered she reflects God’s glory not her husband’s (v7bf after Genesis 2). Husbands/men shouldn’t have their heads covered (Paul says as much about them as the wives/women) – why? Elite men covered their heads if they were praying at a pagan shrine in order to show to everyone else that they were somebody. Paul’s point here is that we are all equal in the church, social divisions do not belong in body of Christ – worship is not a forum for social climbing. As Tom Wright says: ‘Let us not settle for a gospel which allows the world’s power games to proceed without challenge’

iv) the glory of God. This is where we need to think about what the word does kephale (rendered head) means? It is clearly linked to ‘glory’ and hence ‘honour’ – because so much ‘dis-honour’ attends improper covering/uncovering of the head. So perhaps the best sense here would be ‘pride and joy’ – what brings honour to the other party and hence what the other party delights (glories) in:
women with their heads uncovered in first century Corinth were either prostitutes, promiscuous ‘new wives’ or pagans in some ecstatic ritual and men with their heads covered at prayer were social climber.Neither commended God’s glory (brought him honour) in the church and that was Paul’s overriding concern. Of course, both are cultural concerns – it is probably true that in today’s western culture outsiders would be put off the gospel more by the lack of participation by women in what we do than by them participating bare-headed! All we do should honour Christ, the head of the church and the focus of our worship and commend him to the watching world: 10:31-11:1

4) A word for the wise
Why does Paul address this here?  He’s relating a key theme of the letter – Corinthian divisions because of their immaturity – to gathering of churches: the key verses of 3:1-4 are seen here in men flaunting their status in church and women abusing their freedom. Rather they should be seeking to build one another up and commend the gospel to the outsider. 

The question for us is how much is our worship driven by similar attitudes: the desire to look good? wield influence? flaunt my knowledge? Is that all I’ve done: prove I’m better the next guy? Or is my overriding concern when I gather with other believers that God is glorified and my brothers and sisters are built up to better live for king Jesus this week?

Friday, November 30, 2012

A sad story that might be a wake-up call

So, it turns out that the young woman who died when a tree fell on her tent in the recent storms, was a rough sleeper, known to people in Exeter, but struggling to find a place in so-called 'regular' society.

Her tragic death highlights the plight of those who for a variety of reasons - and Michelle Conroy (for she had a name) had no addiction problems, being known by a night cafe run for the homeless as the 'orange squash girl' - cannot find anything approaching settled accommodation.

I'm pleased that our church will be joining with others this winter to provide a night shelter for the rough sleepers in our area. I know this is just a tiny bit of the answer to the massive problem of homelessness in our society; but it's good to be part of the offer of help.

Michelle Conroy died in a city that has no permanent drop in hostel for rough sleepers, the kind of place she could have been encouraged to go when the forecast for the night she died was known. Bromley, similarly, has no permanent drop-in hostel either; the 90 day temporary shelter is all that's on offer in the borough.

Conroy's story is desperately sad. But I wonder how many more there are like her, balancing precariously on the edge of life, passing by unnoticed by those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our head, money in our pocket and a social safety net that gives us that treasured sense of belonging that she apparently lacked.

There are lots of headlines about how much everything costs, about how we cannot afford to take care of everyone, that people ave to stand on their own two feet. There aren't enough headlines about how society hangs together by the bonds of common affection and decency.

If anyone wants to get involved in our night shelter, then come to the Town Church at 3pm on 8 December; there's a whole range of things you could be doing.

Will the law help to regulate the press?

So, I wonder how many of us have put the book we're reading aside and downloaded the two thousand pages of the Leveson report. It's hardly bedtime reading but the few pages I've read are well crafted. But will I read more than a few pages?

I was struck in the storm of comment accompanying its publication yesterday how David Cameron used the same language to describe a statutory backing to press regulation that had been used repeatedly the day before by the chief executive of News International. They both spoke of it as crossing the rubicon.

Was there no one in Cameron's news management team who suggested that using the same terminology would appear unfortunate in a prime minister's statement about a major report that is fiercely critical of the popular press, especially those titles run by News International?

Having said that, however, I did find myself agreeing with Cameron. I find myself instinctively opposed to the law getting involved in the regulation of papers because it could lead to the stories that need to be told being suppressed while the stuff that has driven the popular press into the gutter will remain in the headlines.

What is needed is a culture change in newsrooms about what constitutes news and a moral and professional change among journalists about how they go about gathering the stories that are worth telling. I'm not the law can make either of those happen.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Maybe we can help our neighbours to see what Christmas is about

Well, if the shops and ad breaks are to be believed, it's almost Christmas. So here is my yuletide reflection that will be published in our church magazine (slightly edited) this weekend.

Maybe this Christmas will mean something more
Maybe this year love will appear
Deeper than ever before
And maybe forgiveness will ask us to call
Someone we love
Someone we’ve lost
For reasons we can’t quite recall
Mmm, maybe this Christmas
Maybe there’ll be an open door
Maybe the star that shone before
Will shine once more,

And maybe this Christmas will find us at last
In heavenly peace
Prayed for at least
For the love we’ve been shown in the past
Maybe this Christmas
Maybe this Christmas

Every year there seems to be good crop of Christmas albums. Some are little more than collections of saccharine versions of carols and Christmas classics produced to form the soundtrack to a thousand shopping trips as well as swell the coffers of the act involved. 

But over recent years a number of thoughtful artists have produced albums that capture something of the conflicted feelings associated with this time of year. In an increasingly secular society, Christmas is about parties and presents, families and memories of happy times and maybe celebrating the human capacity for being kind.
The Ron Sexsmith song Maybe this Christmas (above) appears on the album Tinsel and Lights by Tracey Thorn. It’s a beautiful, haunting track that expresses the longing for Christmas to mean something beyond a food-filled, present fest that gives us a week off a work and hangover that lasts through January.

What is striking about Thorn’s album is that it doesn't contain a single rendition of a Christmas carol. Perhaps we should applaud her honesty – after all, what is it with non-church-going artists feeling they need to produce indifferent versions of Christmas classics? But it is a reminder that for most of our neighbours Christmas has nothing to do with God. It is not about the birth of his Son or the angels singing the story of how Jesus has come to save the world.

Instead a theme of wistful longing pervades this record; perhaps the same mood that is the backdrop of so many people’s Christmas. It opens with a track that says ‘you loved it as a kid/now you need it more than you ever did/it’s because of the dark/we see the beauty in the spark/that’s why, that’s why/the carols make you cry…’ And the final line says ‘we must be alright if we could make up Christmas night’. Is this a hope of reconciliation? Or a hint that the original story might just be what our celebration of Christmas is lacking?

But it is the Sexsmith track that stands at the emotional heart of the album with its eye on what Christmas used to be about and what it might be about again, if only…

There is a sense that Christmas is a place to hide from the realities of life, a week of glitter and festivity that mask how we really feel, a moment that points to something that might actually make our lives better if only we could put our finger on precisely what it is.

We know that Christmas is a hard time for so many of our neighbours. It’s expensive at a time when money’s tight; it’s a time for family when we’re mourning the loss of a loved one; it’s a time of giving when we feel empty; it’s a time of joy when we feel gloomy. For a while we will be carried along by the tinsel and fairy lights, the soundtrack and re-runs of White Christmas. But as Tracey Thorn sings on Snowman we do all this ‘knowing how soon it'll fade away’.

At the heart of our celebration is the truth that Christmas changes everything. The message of the angels that a saviour is born in the midst of danger and poverty, in a time of war and high taxes is good news to all who struggle in the dark of winter, wondering whether there is any hope anywhere.

So, as we get ready for Christmas – no doubt caught up in some of the stress and angst of our neighbours – let us pause to remember what we are celebrating. And then let’s share our joy at the coming of the Christmas child with those around us – by inviting them to carol services (ours are on 23 December and feature Messy church, family carols and carols by candlelight; three opportunities to hear afresh the Christmas story) or inviting them into our homes for Christmas food and conversation (or both, of course).


maybe there’ll be an open door,
Maybe the star that shone before
Will shine once more,

and the light of God’s love will flood into all our lives, those who are near and those who seem to be so far away, lost in the dark. And then maybe ‘we’ll gather up our fears/and face down all the coming years/and all that they destroy/and in their face we’ll throw our joy.’ Maybe...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Not a good day for democracy

So 7% of Wiltshire's electorate actually voted for their new police commissioner which is considerably fewer than the number who voted for the councillors who made up the police authority he replaces. And this is democratic progress, why exactly??

Yesterday was not a good day for our democracy all round really. Good results in Cardiff and Manchester but the turnouts were woeful. Maybe we can blame the weather but I think we can also blame a broken system that leaves increasing numbers of people completely disconnected from the process. And the fact that public regard for politicians is so low doesn't help either.

When an MP thinks she will be taken more seriously by people by going on a jungle based reality TV show than doing the job she was elected by her constituents to do, you know that we in trouble. She is paid £60k (or thereabouts) + expenses so that she can serve her constituents not promote her agenda (that few voted for).

We seem to be attracting people to political office of all kinds who seek that office for what it does for them - their CV, their earning power, their ability to hog some limelight - rather than people who want that office to serve the needs of everyone in the constituency they represent.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Getting messy - big time!

Tomorrow we are having our extra messy church, so called because it's additional to our usual monthly messy church but also because it promises to be extra messy.

We shall be focusing on the banquet at Simon's house where Jesus is anointed by a woman who has been infected by the Kingdom.

And we'll be doing it in a whole variety of ways: there'll be crafts (the chance to decorate a jar or vase to fill with something suitably lavish), copious amounts of conversation fuelled by breakfast being served through the morning, some music to listen to and join in with, an opportunity create a Lego house and courtyard where Jesus is having dinner and the chance to catch up with one another.

I'm hoping that people will come and meet folk they've not met in church before, have a thoroughly good time and meet Jesus in a new way. Isn't that what church is all about?

If you're in or around Bromley tomorrow morning, you'd be very welcome to join us any time after 9:30am. Breakfast will be served until 11:30am and you'll be home in plenty time for lunch...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Once more with feeling, only please don't sing

I lost count of the number of people who asked me yesterday evening whether I'd watched Songs of Praise. I hadn't. I don't. One conversation morphed into a more general chat about singing in church. It's given rise to these preliminary reflections on music in church.

Now I'm writing as one who leads music in church. More importantly, I write as a lover of music (of a certain kind, of course - isn't that true of all of us? As I write this I'm listen to the blistering new Neil Young album). So I am aware that I might sound slightly hypocritical in what follows. So be it.

One of the people I was talking to last night said that they thought that Christians always want to get together and sing. I was gently disagreeing with him. I can think of a number of Christians who hate singing with others and avoid it wherever possible; and I can think of a range of new emerging church groups where singing is not the focus of what they do.

During the conversation I found myself wondering why I think this matters. Part of the reason is undoubtedly that almost everything we sing in church is on a spectrum from mediocre to truly ghastly. But this has been tackled by better minds than mine - read the books by Pete Ward and Nick Page for chapter and verse on this. The title of Nick's book nails this part of the issue succinctly. It's called And Now Let's Move into a Time of Nonsense: Why Worship Songs are failing the church.

But for me, it's not just that what we sing is sub-Cold Play and lyrically vacuous, it's that the very act of singing imposes a structure on our gathering that distorts the purpose for our being there. Events are put together round music - whether our service is a hymn-prayer sandwich or loose flow of songs punctuated by prayer and scripture. The whole thing is an exercise in passivity on the part of everyone there - except the musician(s) and person leading the service (be that a minister or worship leader). No one else is allowed to contribute to the structure; they just join in (or not) when invited.

And, of course, this act of passivity leads up to a single individual speaking for half an hour with no interruptions and rarely an opportunity to ask questions, let alone suggest alternative insights.

I wonder whether this has given rise to a church of those who sit and watch (and occasionally, stand and sing), a church where only a single voice is heard and where a form of the Christian life that is lived by experts and delivered to everyone else is modelled. It's little wonder that so many people are in church on a Sunday who have so little 'Christian' to contribute in their work places and homes during the week. We do not learn to be disciples by being passive learners in the hope that we'll be active doers when we're on our own in the world.

I wonder if, just as mission gives rise to the church (and never vice versa), so relationships should give rise to organisation (and not vice versa). We so often put organisation - making sure everything we do is well-planned and led, ticks all the boxes - so far ahead of relationships that it's no surprise that people come and go from our services without really connecting with anyone else beyond the blandly superficial.

If we put relationships first and allowed how we organise ourselves to grow out of them, then maybe we would sing - when someone found a song that expressed something that builds our relationships with God and one another - or maybe someone would sing to us - because a song best expressed what they want to communicate. But singing would not determine the shape of our gathering.

And perhaps that would help us to discover what church actually is and how we can be it rather more effectively than we are at the moment. It would, of course, bring us closer to what happened in the gatherings of the Jesus movement in its first 150 years but that's possibly the subject for a future reflection.

Monday, October 22, 2012

If Paul travelled back east...

Having made a few remarks about the style of 2 Timothy in my previous post, here I want to suggest where it fits into the life of Paul (as far as we can reconstruct that life).

There are two possible answers to this – one more satisfactory than the other. One of the problems is the fact that scholars tend to treat the so-called pastoral letters as though they were joined at the hip which is not entirely helpful (though the three do have a lot in common).

The first idea suggests that the Pastorals fit into a gap in Luke's account of Paul's ministry in Acts. The problem is determining where. John Robinson, for example, in his wonderful book Redating the New Testament, suggests that 1 Timothy was written in the autumn of 55 soon after 1 Corinthians, Titus in 57 soon after Romans and 2 Timothy a couple of months after the other so-called prison epistles in the autumn of 58. 

But this has all kinds of problems, the most serious of which is that it is hard to envisage Paul fitting in the travel itinerary envisaged by the pastoral letters. In particular, when would he have gone to Crete? 

So, the second answer argues that after Paul's two year captivity in Rome (Acts 28:30), he is released and able to travel or possibly he is expelled from Rome and forced into some kind of exile – a bit like the expulsion of some Jews following disturbances in 49AD. 

The question is where does he go? In Romans 15:28 he announced his firm intention to go to Spain from Rome – not that he was anticipating arriving in Rome a prisoner. Later tradition has it that he did go to Spain. So, Clement writing in the mid-90s says that Paul did 'reach the farthest limits of the west.' Later writers agree.

But three things count against this hypothesis. The first is that in Philippians 1:25f; 2:24, in a letter written while in prison and almost certainly from Rome (though some place the writing in Ephesus or Caesarea), Paul expresses his hope that he will be released and when he is, he'll travel to Philippi. Ahead of his visit he is intending to send Timothy. Philemon 22 also written from prison in Rome, also anticipates that upon release Paul will go East – this time to Colossae. We don't know if he made it. What this indicates that his Spanish ambitions appear to have been abandoned.

The second is that the Pastoral letters themselves make no mention of Spanish travel plans – they give no indication either that he has been or is planning to go to Spain. And finally, 2 Timothy 4:13-14 suggests that Paul was re-arrested in Troas – midway between Ephesus and Philippi. This suggests that for all the wishful thinking of later writers that Paul fulfilled his ambition to travel west, Paul in fact went back to the Eastern end of the empire when he was released. 

The problem, of course, is that we really have no idea of what he did. But if he was released from the imprisonment that Luke tells about at the end of Acts - and there are very strong, early traditions that he was - he may have settled in Corinth to direct operations among the troubled congregations at that end of the empire, arriving sometime in late 64AD. This would allow him to have fitted in a short Spanish trip if he was released from prison 12 months earlier – but why so short a visit? Perhaps it hadn’t gone as well as he’d hoped and he abandoned it to return to the more familiar culture of Roman east. 

The pastoral letters certainly suggest he travelled widely – Macedonia (Philippi? 1 Timothy 1:3), Crete (Titus 1:5), Nicopolis (Timothy 3:12), Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20) and, of course, Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3; 3:14; 4:13; 2 Timothy 1:15-18 – indicating that he faced personal difficulties in Ephesus, perhaps from the false teachers, especially Alexander – and 4:19 which might indicate a recent stay with his old friends Prisca and Aquila, but certainly tells us that they were now apparently settled back in Ephesus; perhaps Rome became too difficult a place for Jewish Christians at the time of Paul's imprisonment or in the early days of Nero's reign).

If Paul arrived back at the eastern end of the empire in late 64, he could have fitted in a mission trip to Crete, leaving Titus to get things established in the town where churches had been started (but the wording of Titus 1:5 doesn’t absolutely imply that Paul went to Crete, only that he sent Titus there and told him to remain until his task was finished), and a visit to Ephesus. He wintered in Nicopolis on the western side of Achaia – perhaps planting churches (Timothy 3:12) – in either 65/6 or 66/7. In between had he been to Corinth? If so, did he write from there to his co-workers in Ephesus and Crete sometime in the middle of 65? It’s possible.

In the late spring of 66 or 67 he travelled to Miletus and to Troas – since these two places are separated by Ephesus, did Paul sneak a visit there as well? He left essential stuff in Troas – including winter clothes and books – indicating that he either intended to return but was prevented or he left unexpectedly because he'd been arrested. 2 Timothy 4:20 suggests the latter. 

If he had been released from Roman imprisonment and told to stop doing what he'd been doing, then Alexander's informing on him could suggest that the silversmith told the local Roman officials that Paul was a bailed prisoner or one who'd been banished from Rome for doing precisely what he'd started doing in their city. If it was late 66, then the great fire of Rome had burned and Nero, blaming the Christians because they were a convenient scapegoat, had launched his wave of persecution against the church. Roman officials in other parts of the empire would soon have caught on – especially if it meant getting so prominent a figure as Paul.

Back in Rome – his citizenship almost certainly meaning that he would have appealed to Caesar in the hope of getting to preach once again in that city – Paul's prospects were bleak as Nero seemed to be out of control. So, he wrote 2 Timothy a few weeks before he met his death probably in the autumn of 67 – a few months before Nero himself took his own life.

Such a reconstruction of the possible setting of these letters is entirely plausible (though unprovable) and possibly serves to rescue them from being seen merely as manuals for running a church. They are so much more than that.