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.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Today's New Testament dilemma...

So today's dilemma - who wrote 2 Timothy? The simple answer is Paul, dilemma resolved...

It's a dilemma for me today as over the next fortnight I have to write some material for a worship resource where the brief is that 2 Timothy represents second generation Christianity, the followers of Paul seeking to keep his version of the faith alive in the hearts of those who miss him. I hadn't realised how much of a dilemma this was for me until I saw the brief in black and white.

2 Timothy is part of the larger problem of the so-called pastoral letters. These three writings (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) seem very different in language and style from other letters of Paul (Romans, Galatians, Philippians, etc), they seem to presuppose a church structure very different from that in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians and they talk about journeys that cannot be fitted into the narrative framework of Acts.

But... Having just read 2 Timothy to check this is right, I find there is absolutely nothing about church organisation in this letter. It is a very personal defence of a life lived as a follower of Jesus, a life that stands on the brink of being snuffed out. It is shot through with a pathos you'd expect if the author was facing his imminent demise following the (legal) trial he is currently enduring.

There are turns of phrase that do not sound like the Paul of Romans and Galatians. But equally there are moments when that Paul is heard loud and clear. For example, when he says 'remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel...' (2:8) we are firmly in the introduction to Romans (1:3-4) where similarly Paul's gospel is about God's messiah (Christ), descended from David and raised from death. And the stress on following his example strongly echoes the same advice he gave the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:17; 11:1), interestingly citing Timothy as the one who will remind them of his teaching and way of life. And the anger he expresses in chapter 2 about false teachers is redolent of Galatians and 2 Corinthians.

Perhaps the difference of style is accounted for by two factors. The first is that 2 Timothy is the only genuinely personal letter of Paul's that we have. The letter to Philemon (plus 1 Timothy and Titus assuming those two are by Paul) were intended for public as well as private consumption. The second is that Luke could well have had a hand in the writing of the letter, acting as Paul's scribe. There has been a strong case made for the similarity of language between Acts and 2 Timothy suggesting the involvement of Luke in the composition of both. Luke is clearly with the author as he writes (2 Tim 4:11)

There could also be a third factor at play here. Paul knows he's at the end of his life, possibly days or weeks away from being executed. While there is a firm faith and confidence in God, there is an air of sombre regret about the letter, regret that he's not going to enjoy more times of fruitful mission. It is different in tone from Philippians where he was confident of being released from prison (see Phil 1:20-26). He knows that there will be no release for him this time, that he will only leave his cell to meet his death. That's bound to affect the way you express yourself - even for Paul.

That just leaves where 2 Timothy might fit into any chronology of Paul's life. That'll be the subject of a later post; suffice to say, I think there is a plausible way of understanding Paul's later life that finds room for 2 Timothy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Going way beyond any mandate?

Increasingly staking out a claim to be the go-to commentator on political economy, Aditya Chakrabortty in today's Guardian (here) is right on the money. Using IMF numbers he shows that the UK government has embarked on a policy to shrink the state to the size of the US by 2017.

It means that it is policy that we as a country spend less on pensions, education, healthcare, care of the elderly, social services, welfare, etc. Now I'm sure lots of people voted for a reduction in the deficit expecting that things would return to the pot-war norm in a few years time. But this goes beyond that.

Chakrabortty claims that the government has embarked on something much more radical and far-reaching. It wants to shrink the state so that it takes 40% or less of GDP. This is a massive reduction over a short space of time that will change the shape of the country in ways that I suspect no one voted for.

He points to David Cameron's conference speech that spoke us needing to emulate the rising economies like India and Nigeria rather than being 'fat, sclerotic, over-regulated' like we are. I assume he does want us returning to hunger levels currently on offer in India or levels of infant mortality in that country or deaths from easily treatable infections at the levels enjoyed by Nigeria.

The truth is that we cannot emulate such countries - even if we wanted to - because we have developed way beyond them and part of that development has been the creation of systems of social welfare and support that is part of being a citizen of an advanced capitalist country.

When you look across the Atlantic at the private sector welfare provision that is being overwhelmed by the rising numbers of those out of work, disabled and in other ways disadvantaged, I think you need to ask whether shrinking the state is a good thing. I've just come from our foodbank where I was involved in helping two families who have been overwhelmed by life's circumstances and are unable to buy food this week.

After they had gone, we sat around talking about the depths of the problems that these families faced. They will not be solved by our hand-out, but neither will they be solved by rhetoric about cutting welfare budgets to encourage people to find jobs.

Both these people have seen the help they were receiving cut because of budget cuts in both local and national government; the agencies who used to be there for them are no longer there. They do not have family who can help them (for a whole variety reasons that will be reproduced in countless thousands of households across the country - and the rhetoric that calls on families to do more is little short of a cruel joke). Neither of these were in a position to work even if there were jobs locally that were open to them.

Cutting the size of the state in a democracy is something that needs to be debated properly not introduced behind a veil of deficit reduction. Let the government come forward with properly costed policies that promote this idea so that we the electorate can assess them on their merits. Debate, of course, is in short supply in our country. A supine press does not debate ideas at all and movements like Occupy - who have a really important contribution to make - appear incoherent and for that reason tend to be dismissed as irrelevant and unworkable (they also frighten people a bit because of their approach).

What Chakrabortty has highlighted is just how much happens without the people affected by massive changes being consulted in any meaningful way. I'm not sure this is to anyone's long term benefit, is it?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Time for a little dialogue

I've been wondering on and off today what I would have done if protesters had chained themselves to my platform as I was about to deliver a sermon. This happened to the dean of St Paul's yesterday. As David Ison rose to deliver his sermon at evensong, four protesters from Occupy Faith chained themselves to the pulpit and shouted about the folly of welcoming the money changers into the church (a reference to the fact that bankers are part of the Institute that reflects on Christian approaches to key issues in society).

It seems to have been a good natured affair and a missed opportunity. After shouting a little, the four protesters remained quiet while Ison delivered his prepared text. It's not a bad sermon; it recognises that mistakes were made last year and that there is a need for dialogue to solve the major issues of injustice and division that we face.

But there was precious little dialogue last night. Invitations have been issued for the group to come and meet with the cathedral authorities. But why did Ison not abandon his script, leave the pulpit and have a conversation with his 'captive audience', chew over some of the issues that occupy has raised for the past year?

Even the Economist - not a journal known for its left-leaning inclinations - has a major report this week arguing that something urgently needs to be done about inequality in the major western economies. Occupy raised this issue a year ago and it will not go away. It demands the attention of politicians and community leaders. And it demands the attention of church leaders which is why yesterday evening was maybe a missed opportunity. Action begins with dialogue and where better to foster dialogue than in the church?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

marginalising the centre

We started a new series at church today looking at 1 Thessalonians and pondering some of the basics of the Christian faith. It was a good start - people were very positive about the message and there was a good atmosphere. So I have high hopes that God will use this letter to lead us into fresh encounters with him.

It was good after the service to talk to a church leader from another south London baptist church who are embarking on a neighbourhood groups policy like the one we've been considering, but who are much further along than we are. Indeed, in the new year they are hoping that their Sunday gathering will happen in a variety of places in small groups with a monthly central gathering to tell stories and encourage one another. Sounds great to me.

We joked about what 'central' means in this context. It seems to me that central to following Jesus is sharing his story where we are. So a small group of Christians and others out for a bike ride and pub lunch are at the centre of mission; as is a group organising a BBQ in their road; and another group doing the gardens of older people in the community who aren't as nimble as they used to be; as is a group of families gathered in Starbucks for brunch, conversation and mutual support. If each group exists to share the good news in some way, then it is the centre of 'church'. The centre is on the margins of the large group, at that place where faith is being experienced by those who don't yet believe.

A while back we had a Baptist Assembly on the subject of centring the margins. It was about creating inclusive communities where everyone had a voice. It was a good assembly (the first one with Prism!). But I wonder whether we ought to be thinking in terms of marginalising the centre, recognising that Jesus does his best work on and just beyond the edges of the community of faith.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Talking about church

Tony rightly observes 'Surely what you did over lunch was also 'church' and probably more accessible than a formal service' (see the previous post). I agree with everything in that sentence except the use of the word 'also'.

I am increasingly feeling that what we did over lunch is church, whereas what we did earlier is something else. As I read Paul in the context of the world of workshops and struggling to make a living in which he lived, I am more and more persuaded that sharing a meal with friends and talking about Jesus was church for him. There wasn't anything else.

This morning I was asked how we can be sure that people would have picked up Paul's allusions to and echoes of the Old Testament (as well as his direct quotes). 

It seems to me that part of the answer is that in an oral culture people retain more of the information that we hide away in books and on laptops. But another part of the answer is that the context in which Paul's letters were heard was a conversational one. Someone - probably the letter carrier would read (maybe he was the only person who could read it) - and everyone else would talk about it, asking questions, making suggestions about what it meant. In a conversation, everyone gets to contribute something to the understanding of the whole group.

I wonder what our churches would be like if this is what happened in them...