Thursday, February 07, 2019

The congregation as good news?

So, here I am contemplating a Devon rain-scape, the low sky a single shade of grey, drizzle making the pavements shimmer, and I’m thinking about the church. There are probably a host of reasons for this - not least my role in helping to form minsters at a Baptist college - but chief among them are two recent experiences still reverberating in my mind. 

The first is church on Sunday where in the context of a wonderfully informal cafe setting, we sang a set of bewildering Bethel songs that seemed connected to nothing, not the life experience of the congregation, not the content of the Christian message, not the culture within which this church existed. These people were grieving because a young man associated with them had died on the Friday evening before in circumstances that are far from clear. And having sung the songs, a group left the building to go and pray in the areas the town’s young people hang out and enter whatever conversations might transpire. As people left - including me - it struck me that this is what church is really all about. After we’d gone, the remaining congregants talked and prayed and drank coffee, and shared their pain and bewilderment, again what church is for. 

The second was a half-day conference I had attended a week earlier at King’s College on a new book called The Desecularisation of the City, a collection of essays looking at church growth, the emergence of new churches and the persistence of old ones, across London. The essays in the book tell a single story which could be read entirely optimistically. The persistence of church attendance, the growth in some congregations, the fact that there are twice as many churches in the capital now than in 1979, all suggest that the secularisation thesis, so popular among sociologists from the 1960s onwards - and still staunchly defended by such luminaries as Steve Bruce of Aberdeen - does not tell the whole story. Indeed, maybe the essays in this collection are evidence of desecularisation.

The critical friends who took up the second half of the afternoon did not think so. Secularisation is not just about the numbers attending worship services or the numbers ticking ‘Christian’ in survey boxes. It is also about the enduring influence of religion in cultural and public life. And it is in relation to this that the critical friends were unsure that desecularisation is taking place at all.

One, Daniel Dehanas, is a lecturer in politics and religion at King’s. He has studied the faith journeys of young people in both church and mosque across the capital. He told the story of a significant ministry in south London - significant in the sense that it made a lot of noise about itself - that drew large numbers to the estate on which it was based. Large numbers of young people were affected by the ministry. But the neighbourhood in which the ministry was located seemed entirely untouched by it. For all the numbers being converted or otherwise influenced by the ministry, there seemed little impact on the surrounding estates. Indeed, he seemed to suggest, for all the good news stories contained in The Desecularisation of the City, there seemed precious little evidence that all these new and growing churches were having the kind of cultural or political impact you would expect if genuine desecularisation were taking place.

The other critical friend, historian Michael Ledger-Lomas, suggested that the book told him that SE15 has the largest concentration of African Christianity outside of Africa, but who knew? He and I both live within that London postal district and I agree with him that the growth of these churches is important and tells an interesting story but often the only time they have an impact on their neighbours is when a planning application goes in for a building’s change of use or congestion around people’s homes leads to mutterings.

He suggested that few of the chapters were about identity among the churches featured, what does it feel like to be part of these congregations? He and Dehanas agree that the faith espoused and promoted is very personal, about me and Jesus. But Ledger-Lomas wanted to know how the adherents of these congregations felt about their neighbourhoods. It led to his astute observation that many of these stories are about how attending these churches is often a coping mechanism for migrants of all kinds in a slightly hostile and often difficult world.

There’s so much here that provokes thought. But two issues come to the fore for me. One is about the implied relationship between a congregation and its neighbourhood. Who knows churches, Christians are in their midst? How do they know it? The other is the idea of the congregation as coping mechanism for those who attend, which has a bearing on the palette of music on offer in our churches.

The friendly critics of the book seem to suggest that desecularisation will only be seen to be happening if there is a shift in the culture, the political atmosphere, if the Christian faith returns to a place of central influence over social mores and morality. Perhaps this is what the classical sociological theory would take as evidence of its error. But I wonder if this is a measure we are interested in, a measure of the Kingdom worming its way round our neighbourhoods. When I went out to pray in the town I’m visiting at the moment, I did not expect anyone to notice. I did it in a way that would not attract the attention of anyone but God. And what would the effect of such praying be? Well, when combined with the ongoing presence of members of this congregation with the town’s young people, offering support and encouragement, accompanying them through the pitfalls of adolescence, working with families and schools to help them find themselves in a welter of competing voices, the effect could be profound, life-changing, life-stabilising, a little glimmer of God’s Kingdom. But evidence of deseculariation? I’m not so sure.

Sometimes I think the Kingdom is most present when we hardly notice it. What we notice is human community working well, the vulnerable supported, the voiceless listened to and helped to speak, and the strong learning life lessons from such as these. We see it when an alternative agenda to that espoused and expounded by the world’s elite is evidenced. But I’m not convinced that this would register even the faintest blip on the sociologists’ radar and that what does - mere assemblage of numbers, new locations, recent arrivals forming groups of their own - is not actually that important in Kingdom terms.

Which brings me to the congregation as coping mechanism. As I first heard Ledger-Lomas articulate this, I thought, ‘yeah, that’s right; and it’s not what church is for!’ ‘Coping’ is not a missional term; it is not part of the great commission of the church to go and help people cope. And it is ‘coping’ that often encourages a musical palette that is all about me and what God has done for me, and how he has helped/healed/supported/lifted/enabled (delete as appropriate) me.

But on slightly more mature reflection, I came to see that, of course, the church is a coping mechanism. It is the community of the congregation into which God has set us that does enable us to cope with the vicissitudes of living in a difficult, sometimes hostile world, where putting food on the table and paying the rent and maintaining family relationships is hard. If the congregation is not a coping mechanism, then what on earth is it?

In a book I wrote a while back called Building a Better Body, I argued that church was not about worship, not about singing and all that stuff. And I still believe that. Much of what we sing in church is execrable and people much cleverer and wittier than I have pointed this out (see Pete Ward and Nick Page). It matters what we sing in church, though that is not the point of our gathering, because music touches emotional recesses that conversation often doesn’t. So we need to sing our pain and anger as much as our joy and hope; indeed if worship song writers actually read the Psalms they claim to be emulating, their repertoire of topics would be a good deal bleaker and more earthbound than it currently is.

Maybe music helps us to cope, reminds us of who God is and what he has done for us; and that happens as we listen to performed songs as much as as in community singing. But congregations as coping mechanisms must be much more than this. My congregation must be the place I go to with my pain and bewilderment, the bruises from standing up to the powers that be, from standing with the vulnerable, from giving voice to the mute, for sharing my goods with the destitute. My congregation needs to be the place that helps me to cope with the call of God on my life to be like Jesus which is just too hard to manage on my own. And my congregation must help me to cope with the joys of seeing an exile settled, a court case won (as I heard when writing this), a home found for a homeless family, a teenager shown that life is navigable. In telling these and other stories in and to my congregation, it affirms that what I am doing is what Jesus smiles on and that affirmation tells me that I can do the same in the coming week, that this will be my spiritual and acceptable worship (Rom 12:1).

And, of course, the church I attended on Sunday, coming to terms with the tragic death of a young person, needed to be a coping mechanism for all the people who knew him, all those who had stood with him and his mates in the dark, played games, accompanied him through the turmoil of growing up and now had to cope with his premature death. Of course, praying out on the streets or sitting together and holding their grief before God was what congregations do in these times. The church is undoubtedly a coping mechanism.

I’m not sure such congregations are signs of desecularisation - though I’m really not sure what would be - but I am sure that they are little signs of the Kingdom, tiny evidences that there are groups of people who get what Jesus is about, pockets of resistance to the way of the world, shelters for those who cannot navigate the choppy waters alone, places that rejoice when they see the light of God’s reign break on the horizon.

And it’s still murky here, a slate grey sky darkening as evening draws closer, and my friends are out accompanying young people, and I sense Jesus smiling. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Words to sustain a journey

I came across these words the other day and they have burrowed their way into me.

'I lost my way. I forgot to call on your name. The raw heart beat against the world, and the tears were for lost victory. But you are here. You have always been here. The world is all forgetting and the heart is a rage of directions, but your name unifies the heart, and the world is lifted into its place. Blessed is the one who waits in the traveller's heart for his turning.'

They are by Leonard Cohen from a collection of his published in the Everyman's Library of Pocket Poets (Alfred Knopf 1993).

Cohen has been a constant companion on my journey since his first album became the second album I acquired when I was still at school (I still have it, though I generally play its songs on an iPod these days).

He is the poet of the journey, the surveyor of the human heart, and has frequently been able to put into words what I am feeling long before I can. I especially like the phrase in this piece, 'the heart is a rage of directions' that seems to capture the experience of being pulled in a range of directions about which we feel emotionally engaged; it nails the sense of wanting to focus on everything at once but feeling only impotent and angry at our ability to do so.

Cohen has also always been a poet of faith. His faith is never anything but vague and suggestive, a voice suggesting that God might be interested in us, but I have always found that he has helped me to connect with that God when some more traditional or contemporary faith songs have not.

I'm not sure any of today's hymn writers have come close to penning a line as suggestive of who and where God is as 'Blessed is the one who waits in the traveller's heart for his turning.'

Leonard is a reminder that we are not alone on the journey; he points us to the one who is our constant companion even when we are blissfully unaware of his presence with us, within us.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Some useful information

While the hysteria over the tiny numbers of people crossing the channel in small boats to claim asylum here continues, I thought I'd post a couple of really helpful sources of information.

One of the things that is happening in our country at the moment is that debate has been replaced by the strident assertion of positions, often based on little more than hearsay and wishful thinking. Some people take exception to what's happening, say it's wrong, say there's no solution other than extreme action and base it all on rumour and half truth.

We all need to be well-informed about the issues we express a view on. And when we express a view we need to be polite, civil, kind (in the sense that we allow others to express their views); we do not repay rudeness in kind, we seek to defuse anger by being calm and considerate. It is essential to bear in mind that people's opinions about stuff going on around them is often driven by anxiety and fear - fear of change, fear of the stranger, fear that lives already hard-pressed by forces they don't quite get might get worse and they are looking for someone to carry the can for that.

So here's a couple of good sources of information on the current migration situation as it affects our shores.

The first is the refugee council which has an excellent website, worth consulting regularly as it is full of useful, fact-based information. In particular, this recent posting is worth checking out and reflecting on.

And Refugee Rights Europe have produced some excellent research over the past couple of years, all of which can be found at their website (here). Today they posted on Facebook their response to the Government's recently announced new accommodation and support contracts for those in the UK asylum system (you can find it here; you need to scroll down to the Asylum: Written Statement link).

Being informed is key to having a voice in these crucial conversations happening all around us. We can help to shape and gently correct perceptions and opinions, help more people to find ways of reaching out in welcome to those forced to flee in search of refuge.

Monday, January 07, 2019

So, what is happening in Calais?

It is far too long since I blogged here. But my new year resolution is that I will blog as I did before. 

At Jim Gordon's suggestion we should all be reading Luke to brace ourselves for the days we are living through. So I had taken up Jim's challenge. 

I also want to reflect on some issues that are arising as I reflect on ministry formation. Recently (and not for the first time), I have been challenged by the work of David Graeber, this time his wonderful Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. I have been particularly drawn to reflect on how we understand vocation in the light of the growing phenomenon of bullshit jobs. So, watch this space.

But first, I am constantly asked what is happening in Calais these days, something that has taken on more urgency in the light of the attempts by a few to cross the channel in rubber boats. So here's a version of a report I wrote late last year for some of those who have supported our work. It's quite long (sorry)!

Life in the house
The safe house run by the Association Maria Skobtsova is now in its third year. Originally opened in February 2016 as a place to aid the work being done by Christian volunteers in the jungle, the house is now a refuge for some 25 mainly Eritrean boys and young men who would otherwise be living on the streets of the city. The situation in Calais continues to be tense and difficult for those would-be refugees trying to reach the UK and a new life, free from war and persecution. 

The house is run by brother Johannes, a Belgian monk, and a small team of volunteers and overseen by a management group that I have the privilege to be part of. As well as providing accommodation to a mobile community, it also provides hot food, showers and laundry services for around 50 people a week. Most of those making their home in the house are Christians from Eritrea, so the house a rhythm of daily prayer that reflects their orthodox tradition, with evening prayers in Tigrinya and Amharic led by the boys themselves. Though they have had traumatic journeys from their home countries, the residents of the house enjoy getting involved in the cooking and cleaning that needs to be done to ensure the community functions well.

These daily routines are supplemented by a fortnightly visit from a UK charity, Art Refuge, that uses creative arts to help them tell their stories and process their feelings. The volunteers also try to help the boys to consider where their future lies. Some have a claim to come to the UK because they already have family here (and they are put in touch with Safe Passage). Others might be better to try and claim asylum in France (though that is difficult from the Pas de Calais).

The needs of the house are pretty simple. We need money for food, paying utilities and laundry costs (we have two industrial washing machines and two tumble dryers but could do with one more of each), clothes and bedding, and a budget for educational and entertainment activities.

In early September 2018 we had to close the house because there was an infestation of bedbugs. We were advised that the only way to deal with this was to destroy all the existing bedding, strip the wallpaper from the walls and take up carpets and thoroughly disinfect all the rooms affected. This is a costly inconvenience but we hope the work will be completed by the end of the month. Sadly, the first cycle of eradication was not wholly successful and so the house is having to undergo three further cycles throughout November and December. This means that the house will be closed for four days at a time while professional pest-controllers do what they have to do. This is hugely disruptive to the smooth running of the house but is unavoidable if we are to have long-term viability as a place of safety. This has now been completed and we hope that the bugs are history!

One of the volunteers in the house, a retired French nun, recently described life in the house like this, ‘We always live in vigilance - who will be sick, injured, visited by the police, encounter trouble today? This means whenever we are at peace, we are living with tension.’ She adds that everyone in the house is always on the point of leaving. People might leave the community today. The fact of leaving is a constant everyone in the house lives with. Furthermore, everyone who arrives in the community has had a difficult journey and so comes with wounds - both physical and much more psychological’. 

But she continues that ‘the community is a dynamic place, full of life, hope and energy, full of young people keen to make something of their lives.’ And these young people are the ones who make the community what it is. The house is full of difference - different countries, and continents, different life experiences, different religious understanding and denominations. And yet together these young people, resourced by the association, are able to make a place of safety for all who come. It’s a place of laughter and learning, creativity and music.

A former resident now in London, says of the house, 'Your home is not where you come from but where you feel safe; I feel safe here.’ A volunteer tells the story of what she calls a present from Daniel, one of the young residents, to the house. One day he wrote Mt 11:28 in Tigrinya, applying those words to the house. ‘I think this was very important for Daniel,’ she says, ‘because he wrote it out again and put it back up when we had a periodic clean up of the walls!’ It is a lovely image to think of the house as the outworking of this saying of Jesus, suggestive of how scripture is fulfilled through the people who hear it, and act on it, often when they are not consciously trying! To see the house as the embodiment of Jesus says something deeply profound about what has been created in this ordinary Calais semi.

This lovely, fragile, creative community needs the continued support and prayers of people across Europe. So we are grateful for all the help that you have given us over the past months and hope that it will continue into the future.

What’s happening in Calais?
The situation across Calais continues to be difficult for those seeking refuge. At the last count (December 2018) there were 500-600 sleeping rough across the city. This is a reduction on the numbers in the summer but they do fluctuate. These people are helped with hot meals by the Refugee Community Kitchen and L’Auberge des Migrants who run the warehouse which supplies clothes and sleeping bags and some tents to those in need. The French authorities are struggling to know how to respond to this ongoing situation.

The British Government has recently decided to change the status to those children it accepted from the Jungle which gives them a more secure future. But it is still dragging its feet helping children and young people trapped in France who have family in the UK.

What’s happening in Dunkirk?
In October Simon, Juliet and Nathan from Peaceful Borders went to Dunkirk to get a clearer picture of what is happening in that port town. Since the camp in the railway yard at Grande Synthe was burned down over a year ago, there have been families in and around Dunkirk but over recent months those families have begun to live in parkland around a lake. 

When we visited it was estimated that there are around 1500 people living in tents and makeshift tarpaulin shelters in the wooded areas of this parkland. The population is still mainly Kurdish (many from Iran), but there are people from Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries.

On the afternoon of our visit Care for Calais was there offering residents the chance to charge their phones and Medicine du Mode were running a makeshift clinic. Charlie, a partner from a small grassroots support group, a seasoned volunteer having worked in the region for the last three years, took us round the camp. His assessment is that the numbers are growing quite quickly, the needs are many and various, and there are a lot of children, most of them in families, but some unaccompanied.

When we were walking around the camp with an Iranian guide, I was struck by seeing a veiled mother, about five foot four, pushing a wheel chair in which was sitting a boy, probably her son, aged about 12. He was dressed in a shabby brown track suit and was clearly severely affected by cerebral palsy. They had emerged from a wooded area where their tent was one of a handful pitched around a fire and kitchen area. I was struck by all the reasons why this family should not be living in the mud of Dunkirk with winter approaching. Charlie, however, thinks there is little chance of this family receiving the kind of help they need.

Sadly about two weeks after our visit, the French authorities moved in to clear the camp and bus the residents to a variety of centres across France. It is not the first time they have done this, so the likelihood is that after a while, people will drift back and the camp will reform somewhere in the area, though not necessarily in the same place. This is not a viable future for these people and we would urge the authorities to work with the associations and volunteers to come up with a way of meeting the daily needs of the migrants while their longer-term future is being assessed. 

In the run-up to Christmas there was a rise in the number of people from the area trying to reach the U.K. in small boats, a perilous undertaking for even the most experienced of sailors. This seems to be linked with continued French attempts to remove the presence of migrants from the camps in and around Dunkirk. Displaced people have been regularly tear-gassed, their possessions taken, and their shelters destroyed.  They are forced to move with no settled place provided for them. As people say, when the land is a shark, the sea seems a safe place.