Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Baptismal vows

I am regularly approached by parents wishing to have their children baptised. Alongside this, I’ve been marking papers written by ordinands (trainee vicars) on the pastoral (i.e. responding to human need) and missiological (i.e. pertaining to the mandate, message and mission of the church) challenges and opportunities presented by those who are seeking to engage with the Church for baptisms, with reference to the spiritual, social and psychological dimensions involved. And so, among other things, I’ve been thinking about the baptismal vows and what it might mean to live them out.

At baptism we make certain vows, either for ourselves or on behalf of our children. These vows concern a turning away, and a turning towards. In other words, a change of orientation, or perspective, a metanoia or change of mind. Though there is some variation in wording, the vows may be as follows:

Do you turn away from sin? I do.
Do you reject evil? I do.
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? I do.
Do you trust in him as Lord? I do.

Sin is largely self-centredness, and we all know what it is like to wrestle with that. In the context of being a parent—the context in which many people approach me regarding baptism—I love my children and genuinely want to be a good father to them…but when they want my attention when it is fixed on something ‘more important’ or ‘more pressing’ (such as the tv drama I am trying to watch, or the facebook feed I am scrolling down, or work, or…) they may get brushed aside, until the day comes when I want them to talk to me but they have learnt that whatever they are doing is more important. Or, again, I know that our love of fossil fuels and plastics is destroying the planet…but I love the convenience of electricity and do not really want to reduce my habits of consumption. While we can recognise sin in our own lives, vowing to turn away from sin, embracing this as habitual behaviour, is far harder.

Evil is largely the absence of love. Human beings traffick other human beings, or enslave them to drug addiction, or kill strangers, because of an absence of loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. And it is easy to paint certain people as evil, somehow different from the rest of us. And yet, we all know the impact of unresisted evil in creating division, as certain groups of people are dehumanised and the call goes up to strip them of rights, and responsibilities. But to reject evil is an active stance: to resist and resist and resist, in how we think and what we say and what we do. And again, it is far easier to recognise evil than it is to commit ourselves to embracing the rejection of evil.

To turn to Christ as Saviour is, firstly, to recognise that we need saving and cannot save ourselves. And in the immediate context of these vows, that we need saving from sin and from our complicity in evil. I reckon most people I know recognise that they need saving from something that, at root, comes back to sin and evil, and that they cannot save themselves. It may be loneliness, the consequence of the breakdown of relationships into isolated individualism (and, hence, we recognise that individualism is not the answer, and so go looking for salvation in a friendship group). It may be cancer, a complex consequence of our collective modern lives including what we put into our food and our air. From a Christian perspective, I would suggest that running is a poor saviour (I need only get injured to be cast back out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; or, I may become addicted to running, and use it as an excuse to avoid relationships that need attending to) but that it is a great means by which Christ is at work to save me. Or, again, medical science is a poor saviour (people still die; and even if we eradicate all cancers, we’ll only die of something else) but also a great means by which Christ may work to bring salvation to some. But the baptismal vow grounds salvation in Christ, as the only dependable source and completion of my salvation.

And on that basis, we come to the final vow, to trust him as Lord. That is to say that he is over all things, at work despite sin and even in the face of evil—that he opposes and will ultimately overcome—to bring about salvation not only for me and for my children but for self-destructive humanity and the tragically scarred natural environment. Such a belief is not passive, but, like turning away and rejecting and turning to, trusting calls us to step into the vow we have made. To respond to his voice, that drives out fear and calls forth courage from deep within us, courage we never knew was there. To trust the good purposes of one who is greater than our own self-centredness, the endemic lack of love of neighbour, and our spiritual, social and psychological need for salvation is a daily act of resistance, of refusal to go with the flow.

It should come as no surprise that this is what parents want for their children. At the same time, these vows become so much harder to live out when we attempt to do so on our own. God knows, the church is an imperfect community, but we live out our vows imperfectly together.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

APEST and organisational ethos

‘APEST’—shorthand for apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers—proposes that human beings bear the image, or likeness, of God in a combination of five ways; and that, collectively, these give expression to five functions of human community, culture or society. These might be described as:

the impulse to innovate, to explore, to push (beyond) boundaries, to create and populate new ‘worlds’…
the impulse to agitate, to reform, to call into question, to oppose injustice, to paint alternative futures…
the impulse to connect, to recruit to a cause, to tell stories, to share news…
the impulse to care, to attend to wellbeing, to pursue communal health…
the impulse to instruction, to gather and systematise knowledge and wisdom and pass this on to the next generation.

These are the five functions of human community, culture or society, as expressed (for example) in:
innovation in all forms of technology, the sciences, music and art…
civil rights movements…
sales and recruitment, story-telling in all its forms…
health-care and hospitals, peace-keeping and stability…
schools and universities…

While any organisation might have a primary purpose, it must attend to all five functions if it is to flourish. The primary purpose of a university is teaching, but it must also attend to pioneering research, to investing in alternative futures beyond the university, to recruiting new students, and to the well-being of academic and support staff and students as well as nurturing links with alumni.

Or to give another example, we are seeing Google, as a pioneering company, come under fire for their performance in relation to care of their employees, and the level of tax they pay (a prophetic concern of justice and injustice), and their perceived need to tell a good news story about themselves…

APEST profile case study

‘APEST’—shorthand for apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers—proposes that human beings bear the image, or likeness, of God in a combination of five ways; and that, collectively, these give expression to five functions of human community, culture or society. These might be described as:

the impulse to innovate, to explore, to push (beyond) boundaries, to create and populate new ‘worlds’…
the impulse to agitate, to reform, to call into question, to oppose injustice, to paint alternative futures…
the impulse to connect, to recruit to a cause, to tell stories, to share news…
the impulse to care, to attend to well-being, to pursue communal health…
the impulse to instruction, to gather and systematise knowledge and wisdom and pass this on to the next generation.

The APEST profile is a personality profiling tool that measures the relative weighting of these five aspects, and considers how they interact; and, by extension, how we might interact with other people.

Profiling tools give a snapshot of a moment in time, and current circumstances have their own impact. Nonetheless, regular profiling over time is likely to establish a more stable profile. My own profile is (most often) PATSE.

Our primary impulse is the ‘lens’ through which we see the world. Just as we don’t see our contact lenses or the lenses of our glasses, but see everything else through them, we do not ‘see’ our primary impulse—and the primary impulse as identified by profiling often comes as a surprise to the individual concerned. My primary impulse is prophetic. I see things from an angle or perspective that many people experience as different from their own, and yet find insightful, creative in a way that is simultaneously encouraging and challenging. I am a disturber of the status quo, a painter of alternative futures. This comes naturally to me.

Our secondary impulse is the one that ‘gives voice to’ our primary impulse. My secondary impulse is apostolic. This impulse is concerned with movement, with innovation, with change. I get ‘itchy feet’ on a regular basis, and especially where I find myself in communities that are resistant to change, or are rightly stable; I respond positively to new opportunities or challenges, but prefer to establish something new and hand it on than to maintain something that is already established (whether by someone else or by me). Though this is my second greatest impulse, it is much less developed than either my third or fourth impulses. This is in part because the church values and invests in and gives opportunity for teaching and shepherding (pastoral care), and in part because most of the apostolic role-models I have known are very extrovert whereas I am very introvert, and their approach does not sit well with me. However, this means that the impulse with which I ‘speak’ is under-developed, and lacks maturity: ‘You need to move! You need to change! ... Why aren’t you changing?’ It can lead to a cycle of frustration, for me and for those around me. I need to identify those who can help me to invest-in and develop my secondary impulse.

My tertiary impulse is teaching. However, this facet of being-human-made-in-the-likeness-of-God is well-developed in me, partly because the church has tended to place a higher emphasis on teaching and pastoral care and so I have had considerable opportunity for training to teach and for exercising a teaching role. Many people would consider me to be a teacher, but it is not my primary or even secondary impulse. It is, on balance, more life-draining than life-giving to me; and, in-and-of-itself, not necessarily the best way that I can serve others.

For me, the impulse to care, and to recruit, are much less prominent. This does not mean that I do not care about people (I do, and deeply; but in short time-spans), or that I cannot communicate passionately about things that engage me (such as APEST, or my running club); simply that these are less instinctive to me, relative to the others. And that is okay, but requires that I work with others towards communal regeneration and well-being.

APEST and Anglicans, part 3

Continuing an occasional series of technical posts:

‘APEST’ refers to an understanding of personality profile as a combination of five impulses—apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding, and teaching—that interact with the personality profiles of everyone else towards five corresponding functions of human community, culture or society: innovation, agitation/reform, promotion/recruiting, care, and instruction.
The five ‘Marks of Mission’ have been adopted by Anglicans (and, indeed, a number of other church traditions since) as expressing ‘the Anglican Communion’s common commitment to, and understanding of, God’s holistic and integral mission.’ The five marks of mission are:

1. to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
2. to teach, baptise and nurture new believers
3. to respond to human need by loving service
4. to transform unjust structures in society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
5. to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Here are some reflections on the interplay between APEST and the Five Marks of Mission.
The five Marks of Mission are not (in my opinion) an organising principle; but they are the evidence of a healthy outworking of unity and diversity in the body of Christ. All five people-gifts—apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers—get to play in each mark of mission; but it may be that different gifts are best suited to help the church by giving a lead in different areas.
The first mark is clearly evangelistic, and here the evangelists might take a lead, but need apostles to open up new frontiers; and, in fact, all the others get to join in.
In the second mark, the teachers might take an obvious lead, supported by the shepherds in a nurturing role. Nonetheless, all the others must be involved, because without them, the mark is incomplete, its ‘outcome’ partial or distorted.
The third mark calls for the shepherds to lead us; but needs the insight of the prophets, and, yet again, the others to join in, not abdicating responsibility for care by outsourcing it to the shepherds alone.
In the fourth mark, the prophets might lead us in engaging social in/justice; supported by the shepherds in order that we move beyond speaking out against injustice to the work of reconciliation. But, yet again, it will take the whole body working together to see true and lasting transformation.
The fifth mark points to an apostolic lead, supported by teachers who might systematise and help embed our learning to live in a new way. The apostolic impulse is concerned with environment and the ‘architecture’ of our lives. Immature expressions of apostolic gifting have pioneered the cultural changes that have been so devastatingly detrimental to the natural environment over the past 100 years (with massive acceleration over the past 30 years). Conversely (perhaps ironically; perhaps, correcting an irony), mature expressions of apostolic gifting will pioneer the cultural changes that are now needed to address this global crisis. Nonetheless, within the church, thinking about apostolic calling remains largely unapplied to safeguarding the integrity of creation: this needs to change.

Essentially, APEST is not a different structure for thinking about mission, one that is ‘other’ or outside from an Anglican perspective; but, rather, healthy APEST diversity-in-unity is essential to the five Marks of Mission becoming a lived experience.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

What makes the church the church?

Recently, I asked one of my congregations what made the church the church?

They responded, ‘the people,’ and ‘ritual.’

Important though people are (especially against a backdrop of endemic isolation) and important as ritual is for human flourishing (and all the more-so in chaotic times of rapid, discontinuous upheaval) if this is what makes the church the church then it is no different from (and in so many ways not as good as) the running club.*

When I ask my Iranian sisters and brothers what makes the church the church, they speak of Jesus. Of how Jesus found them; and exchanged their anger for his love, their anxiety for his peace (in, frankly, circumstances that would cause anxiety). And of the church as the community that introduced them to Jesus and helps them to follow him (sometimes, on the good days, by modelling love and peace; and sometimes, on the bad days, by making us angry and anxious and giving opportunity for Jesus to say, again, Let me do your heavy lifting).

If you have been part of the church for seventy-plus years and cannot articulate something about Jesus in answer to the question, What makes the church the church?, then something has gone badly wrong, for most of that time.

No wonder my friends prefer the running club.

*parkrun, for example, is highly ritualistic. We meet at the same time each week. There is a first-timers’ briefing (churches could learn from that). We acknowledge first-timers, visiting tourists, the volunteers making today happen, and milestone runs. We remind ourselves that we are not sole users of the park, that dogs should be kept on a short lead, and that children under the age of eleven must keep within arms-length of their responsible adult. We walk/jog/run 5K, and afterwards we share coffee and eat together. And every parkrun in the world inhabits this prescribed ritual practice in their own way.

On their way rejoicing?

Lectionary reading for Holy Communion today: Acts 8:26-40.

Here is a person who not only believes in the God revealed to us in the Bible, but who goes to great lengths in order to join others in worshipping God. But as a gentile and a eunuch, he is doubly excluded. Gentiles were only allowed in the outer-most court of the temple—and as a eunuch, he may have had difficulty accessing even this margin. Even if he was able to, other people had set up a market in that space, robbing the gentiles of room within the ‘house of prayer for all peoples’.

Yet, he persists, even as he returns home, perhaps with a heavy heart. And as he reads from the Bible, he sees there someone he identifies with. A royal servant, who leaves behind no offspring, no heirs of his own.

And the Lord sends Philip, to make sure that this person is included; to affirm that his personhood is seen and welcome. Even to hold out hope that, though he will have no biological children, he could yet have many spiritual children (the Christian community in Ethiopia is as ancient a continuous church as you will find).

In these past few days, the world has lost two great heroes in the likeness of Philip, a young woman and an old man. Rachel Held Evans, who made room for those marginalised in the church and the wider society because of their gender, their sexuality, their hard questions and honest doubts, who would not sit down and be quiet and accept simplistic answers or downright rejection. And Jean Vanier, who made room for those marginalised in the church and the wider society because of intellectual disabilities; who made room for us all in our human weakness that we so demand we all hide from one another, and in so doing, disable our own personal and collective humanity.

We—the church, the world—need more like Philip, like RHE, like Jean Vanier; that more may go on their way rejoicing.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday

When a nameless soldier pushed a spear between Jesus’ ribs, rupturing his heart, Mary’s heart had already been pierced with a sword. Run through as she stood her ground, refusing to move—“What are you going to do? Kill a defenceless woman? You already have.”

Mary was dead. But not just any old dead, not common-or-garden dead. Mary was dead, but unbowed. Still breathing. Walking. Would keep breathing. Death gets to have its day—announced long ago—but not the final word.

If Jesus’ resurrection, on the third day, was a seismic event—and it was—Mary was the foreshock, the warning-sign that it was coming.

I believe in the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus...and that, one day, we will experience the same gift of divine grace. But I also believe that, as Mary was the, many since have experienced foreshocks. Where your heart has been pierced, may you be one of them.

May you be as Mary today.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday

A large, framed print of Sieger Köder’s Fußwaschung (The Washing of Feet) hangs on the wall of my study.

I am struck by how Peter simultaneously leans into Jesus and pushes him away...

presses into and pulls away from Jesus...

and in this liminal space, he, like the bread on the paten behind him, is taken, blessed, broken, and given to and for others.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Holy Week, part 5

The more I gaze upon Evetts’ windows, the more I am struck by his use of fired black paint. Of, grime. Of ugliness, if you will. All the grime and ugliness of the world, transcended by the presence of God-with-us. All things reconciled, resulting in beauty.

I am saddened by the call, sounded and taken up by various voices in the wake of the Notre Dame fire, that we should choose justice over beauty. It is hackneyed, a false dichotomy; and, indeed, a heresy. There is no justice without beauty, no beauty without justice. One of the tragedies of the Grenfell fire was that low-income families were not considered worthy of quality materials brought together for the flourishing of life, to the glory of God. Another is that the survivors are still waiting.

(One of the ironies of this social media debate is that it is those prophets who lead with a ‘social issues’ beat who are denouncing those prophets who lead with a ‘creativity’ beat! The prophetic calling has always embraced both. But, more: this is why we need all the voices—apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers—and not just our own.)

Only when we embrace justice and beauty, beauty and justice, will we tell stories worth telling; stories worthy of women and men, whose lives, diminished by sin, are being redeemed.

Evetts, and self-effacing artists like him, are a gift from God. In company with others, possessing other callings, they help show us the way.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Holy Week, part 4

We might not be a World Heritage Site, but, these windows!

I’m struck by the linen strips.

The new-born Jesus, wrapped in swaddling bands by his mother, Mary, and laid in a manger (which would have been a shallow bowl hollowed from a stone ledge)...

The infant Jesus, still wrapped tight against the night chill, carried off by his parents to Egypt, in search of asylum from a tyrannical ruler. Held close by his mother...

The man Jesus stretched on the execution-scaffold. His linen unravelled, only just (and a-historically) preserving his modesty...

We are not shown the corpse, taken down from the cross; washed and wrapped for one last time in linen strips by his mother; cradled in her arms; carried off to a safe place; laid in the tomb (again, on a shallow depression on a stone ledge: so many echoes); kissed goodnight xxx

But we are led there, in our imagination, step-by-step by-linen-strip by the genius of the artist-of-faith Leonard Evetts.

We are not shown the linen strips left by the risen Lord when he walked out of the tomb. Leaving them as a sign to be discovered, a sign not only of life but also of love.

Then again, perhaps we are.

Holy Week, part 3

Yesterday I sat with a man approaching his seventieth birthday. As a teenaged police cadet, he had been knocked out in a rugby match. When he came around, the first aiders wanted to take him safely home; but he, suffering from concussion, gave them his early childhood address, from where the family had moved many years earlier.

It was stunning—that is, concussion-like—to see a crowd gather in what is arguably the most secular city in the world, to sing hymns and bear witness to the destruction of Our Lady of Paris. Have we not moved on, years ago?

Church buildings are depositories of faith; reliquaries, if you will. I am an icon of Christ, and a True Nail that once held him to the Cross. The church building holds out the gathered Church for the benefit of pilgrims, and tourists; those who come in search of something too great a mystery to articulate, too real a presence to ignore.

Sometimes the building burns, the deposit of faith—in building and pilgrim alike—is tested and purified, like gold in the fire.

Sometimes what we manage to rescue becomes even more precious. And what is lost, opportunity to begin again.

And sometimes concussion brings us to our senses.

This is not the end, for Notre Dame de Paris, or for any of us who gazed upon her terrible glory.

Holy Week, part 2


I have been sitting in front of a jug overflowing with ‘water’ and reflecting on Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

Feet that had followed him, for three years, almost to the end. Feet that would follow him, a little later, to the place where he would be arrested; and then flee. Simon Peter’s feet, that would walk into the very house where Jesus was being tried illegally; would stay as near as he was brave enough to go; and then carry him off in despair. Judas’ feet, that would soon dangle below a suicidal noose.

And Jesus’ hands, washing, and drying their feet. Hands that would soon enough be twisted by giant nails. Jesus’ feet, too.

Feet, and hands. It is a very bodily religion, Christianity. An embodied faith.

The vessel I am sitting in front of is old and tarnished and battered, just like the Church. The water, plentiful, just like the Holy Spirit. We are called to wash one another’s feet, to serve one another. The water, for dusty feet, does not run out.

Today, I have sat with a widow, and a man who lost his son forty years ago, and a man whose wife is very ill. Sat, and listened, to them talk or to the silence. Sat with them, noting their hands and feet. I have sat, praying for them, and asking for the grace to serve them as best I can, as they, indeed, serve others as best as they are able.

A very bodily faith. And one deeply concerned with memory. With memory, carried in the body—both personal and corporate, as we remember together. Our stories, woven into His story, woven into one another’s stories.

Memory and body. Aging bodies, and memory loss. Jars of water, and people willing to remember together and to embrace the indignity of serving another, or of being served by another.

It’s not a faith for those who aren’t interested in bodies or memory, those who choose to live in the moment as though they were immortal. No, being a Christian is not for everyone. But I commend it to you.