Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Being Changed

Warning: this post is deeply theological and may be of limited interest to most people!

This coming Sunday, I shall be ordained a deacon in the Church of England; and, God willing, a year later I shall be ordained a priest.

Within Anglicanism, there exists a range of views as to what happens when you are ordained. At the more Anglo-Catholic end of the spectrum, there is the belief that you undergo an Ontological Change: that is, that your fundamental being is changed, from one kind of being to another. At the more Evangelical end of the spectrum, many (most?) reject the idea of Ontological Change, whether they see ordination as a particular calling within the people (‘laos’) of God (i.e. the clergy are a distinct subset within the laity, but not separate from it; a different nature of doing but not a different nature of being) or as a purely pragmatic designation.

The Principal of the theological college where I studied (and, to be fair to the college, I use ‘study’ in a fairly loose sense to describe what I did: they should not be held liable) is of the opinion that there is an Ontological Change, but that it takes place not at ordination but at baptism. This view recognises that all who are ‘in Christ’ – baptism is the sign of being in Covenant relationship with God through Jesus – are now a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

My own view is that we undergo, or at least are meant to undergo, a continual series of ontological changes. Consider the following:
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Yes, we are already a new creation; in a fundamental sense we have undergone an ontological change, have gone from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. But that change is not the final ontological change we will experience (1 John 3:2). Nor is this change of nature merely a two-step event, but an ongoing process (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is the ongoing process of being changed from what we are into what we were intended to be; a restoration of the original unbroken unity-in-diversity between God and humans, and between human and human.

The latter is witnessed to by another ontological change that some people experience: the change that takes place when two people marry, when two distinct human beings become ‘one flesh’ - or, one ‘earth creature,’ for, in the Genesis 2 account, the gender-neutral earthling was split in half to form two human beings, male and female (much of this is lost in English translations). That does not imply that those who are married are any more fully human; but that the nature of their being, and therefore how they relate to the other, is different from that of those who are not married. Not more fully human, but differently human.

So, just as I underwent an ontological change when I married, so I believe that I will undergo an ontological change (though not an Ontological Change) on Sunday, when a Bishop will lay his hands on my head in the cavernous Liverpool Cathedral. It is a step of faith, and an encountering God, that will leave me changed. I am aware that I do not know in what way I will be changed, and that, while I need to take responsibility for my actions – that as I grow into my changed and changing being, I act in ways consistent with the one who is changing me – I have no control over the changes God chooses to work in me. And I am also aware that none of this will make much sense to many of my friends, including many who are ordained. C’est la vie. While I want to make Jesus known more clearly, I care very little whether I as a person am understood...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hair Today

James Hudson Taylor came to the decision that CIM missionaries ought to wear their hair shaved on top and in a long pony tail at the back, and dress in silk jackets and trousers, in accordance to local Chinese custom. This was in contrast to missionary convention, which had maintained western dress.

This is an ongoing missional question: when entering a new context, to what extent do we embrace local norms in regard to universals (such as what people eat, wear, the language they speak; this approach is often called ‘incarnational’) and to what extent to we acknowledge our difference?

There are no hard and fast rights and wrongs. The outsider who comes into a culture is different from the locals, and will remain different in many ways however long they stay and however much they immerse themselves in the host culture. Difference is not only unavoidable; it has a positive side: to choose to live somewhere, not because you were born there or grew up there but because you chose to move there, is to pay a real complement to a community. But difference has a negative side, too: if the incomer believes that their values in relation to universals are better than, rather than simply different to, local values. Diversity is good; colonialism bad.

One of the first things I have noticed here is that most (though not all) men have their hair cropped short, in a crew cut. I’m also noting what they wear. Hence Hudson Taylor: ought I to have my hair cut short? Is that necessary, or at least helpful, if I want to be able to build relationships here? And if so, when should I get my hair cut? To do so too quickly is, perhaps, attempting to be seen as an insider before I have been accepted as (not an insider but) a welcome incomer. And that might have as negative an impact as getting my hair cut short at the right time could have a positive impact.

I am not going to go out and get a Liverpool makeover: that would be false. You can’t wear another man’s shoes until you have some understanding of the streets he has walked on. But, I suspect that what I wear, what I eat, how I speak, and even how I cut my hair, will change over time to reflect this new context: for, conversely, you can’t understand a man until you have walked in his shoes. And the incremental changes will chart my journey into this community...

Everything Matters

One of the reasons why moving to a totally new city is so tiring is that everything matters.

At both a conscious and unconscious level, you are constantly taking in everything – because you don’t know which pieces of information are significant and which aren’t. So, to give a trivial example, you note a post-box as important information, but if you discover another one closer to your house, you downgrade the importance of the first post-box: it becomes filed in your background memory, as opposed to your working memory.

Everything matters, until you are in a position to determine which things don’t matter. That means you don’t take anything for granted. And that comes with a real positive: with fresh, outsiders eyes, you see things that the indigenous population don’t see any more, things that will fade into the background until you don’t see them either. Such people ask questions that might be significant, that might lead to constructive change – and at the very least, lead to a greater understanding of the new-to-them context. But the downside is that it takes so much mental and emotional energy that it leaves you feeling physically tired – whether you find new environments mentally stimulating or draining.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I thought I'd play around with the banner at the top of my blog. I've never included a photo before, but taking photographs is so significant for me, and I thought it might be a way of marking this new chapter.

The image is of St Andrew's, the church where I will be curate as of 5 July. It was built in the late 1920s, in brick, but in the style of a (scaled-down) cathedral, with rose windows, flying buttresses, and a high ceiling. The reinterpretation of that particular tradition in a new material (brick, not stone) is interesting - and incongruous. A lot of the local churches, Anglican and Roman Catholic, appear to be built on an equally grand scale. And I think Liverpool is unique in England in that both the Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals are themselves twentieth-century buildings. We've not made it into the city centre yet, but I'm looking forward to it...

Day Seven In The Lisburn Lane House

It is seven days since we arrived, and we are beginning to discover our new world. Where you can get milk, or post letters. Where the bank is, and the bigger shops. The nearest supermarkets. (Once upon a time the collective intelligence of thousands-strong swarms of starlings traced ever-changing screen-savers in the sky all across England. In recent years, they have vanished: I can't remember when I last saw one. It turns out they have all relocated to the car-park of Tesco in Old Swan, where signs plead with the patrons "Please do not feed the birds"...)

Inside the house, one trip's worth of IKEA flat-pack furniture has been assembled; a second trip's worth has been bought and will (hopefully) be assembled tomorrow. Outside the house, the frame has gone up on the walls of the conservatory that will be my study. Tomorrow the glazing should go in. (Once it is finished, inside and out, there will be another trip to IKEA.)


We've started to explore the neighbourhood. Yesterday, I took the kids to the local park, just around the corner. There is a lake in the middle, and in the lake, running most of the way around it, is what looks like the remains of a fishing jetty: there are structural pylons, but no walkway. It makes for striking images, and a story to find out...

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Well, we have moved to Liverpool. Today S & N started at their new school. (Yes, that is a palm tree at the bottom of our garden.)

Our house is lovely, and lots of people from the church have been involved in getting it ready for our arrival. But it will be some time before we have unpacked all the boxes...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Aggressive Informality | Evangelical Alzheimer’s

Yesterday’s Commissioning marked the end of our time at St John’s. One of the joys of the Leavers’ Course has been input from part-time member of faculty, David Runcorn, a man of great gentleness and wisdom. Something he has mentioned a couple of times over the past fortnight what he refers to as the “aggressive informality” of our culture.

Since the 1960s, our society has sought to dismantle the deference of the class system. We have moved away from a formality that would today be caricatured as stuffiness – though such a view may well be anachronistic. For example, we have moved from BBC presenters being required to speak in RP (Received Pronunciation, or the Queen’s English) to a greater diversity of regional accents. There is good in this: certain things have been honoured and so allowed to flourish. But over time we have, arguably, replaced one set of evils with another.

Informality fosters familiarity – and familiarity, as the saying goes, breeds contempt. We have moved from a culture where certain people were respected for the role they performed on behalf of society – teachers, doctors, police officers, vicars, for example – to a culture where we respect no-one. From a culture where respect can be lost, to one where it has to be earned: where our childrens teachers have to prove themselves to us, and, moreover, we will not permit their teacher-training or years of experience in the classroom to be considered admissible evidence.

Again, people who performed certain roles on behalf of society – roles that needed to be performed for society to function smoothly, to live with day-to-day confidence – were generally identifiable by the clothes they wore. Indeed, the clothes they wore were part of the symbolic world they helped to create, a symbolic world that created meaning. So, the teacher’s black cloak, the doctor’s white coat, the police officer’s uniform, the vicar’s clerical robes and collar, were in themselves signifiers of trust. They helped us to navigate life, to know where to go to for direction.

In our informal culture, teachers no longer wear cloaks, and, in the highly informal evangelical tradition, vicars see robes as a barrier between themselves and their parishioners, and collars as provoking a deferential response among older parishioners that the vicar feels uncomfortable with. (Doctors no longer wear white coats, as a preventative measure in the combat of hospital superbugs.) Now, while it is completely inappropriate to seek to create a power hierarchy (“I am more important than you because I wear this sign of my importance”), in removing the outward signifiers of trust is it not possible that vicars – along with teachers, and doctors – are colluding with an aggressive informality and denying the population the symbolic world by which almost every culture has made sense of the world? When a culture loses such symbols, it becomes senile: it has a disjointed recollection of its past, but can’t remember what it did only yesterday.


St John's Commissioning, 13/06/09

From top:
the "triumvirate of introverts": me, Ben Fulford, Michael Leyden
(photograph taken by Laura Montgomery)

me, Mark Meardon
(photograph taken by Woan Meardon)

Jo (photographs taken by me)

More photos here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

St John's 2008-09

Faculty and students, 08-09 (well, those who happened to be around when we took the shot).

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What Makes A House A Home?

Seven days from now, we move to Liverpool.
Jo and I have been married for 12 years. For the first six years, we lived in one house. We are about to relocate for the sixth time in six years. That’s two markedly different seasons of life!

1996-2002: Crookesmoor, Sheffield, UK
Our first home, a little two-up, two-down end-terrace house, sharing a rear yard with three other houses. Tiny – but we still had a succession of lodgers. To this day we have friends who shared our yard or the next yard down at the time. We bought the house to start married life in: three days before our wedding it was burgled, almost certainly by someone from the tower-blocks further down the road, with a drug habit to feed. Before we moved out, Susannah had joined us, and Noah was on the way: more space required...

2002-2005: Hillsborough, Sheffield, UK
A terrace house on three floors, on a cul-de-sac behind the shops, overlooking the park. Secure back garden. Great neighbourhood – even if a lad out to celebrate turning 18 did get beaten into a coma by the locals of the pub on the corner – undergoing significant social transition. Noah was born in the dining room of this house. Before we moved on – a move we hadn’t expected at the time God’s call came - we’d been joined in the area by a number of friends...

2005: Perth, Western Australia
I’m counting this as one big move, but within that we stayed at more addresses than I can remember! Three months with the world between us and where we’d come from. An up-side-down time: God putting together our past and our future, in a present-moment that was both absolutely right and incredibly hard. Again, we made friends we still keep in touch with. When we returned, we smuggled Elijah into the UK, smaller than a grain of rice...

2006: Broomhill, Sheffield, UK
Homeless, but with a tentative direction ahead, we stayed in an annex flat connected to the house of friends through the back of a wardrobe (aka Narnia). From this address, Susannah started school...

2006-2007: Crookes, Sheffield, UK
Another terraced house, this time rented, on three floors (attic conversions are common in Sheffield) but smaller than our house in Hillsborough. This one never really felt like a home: we didn’t own it, and were only there for as long as it took to go through the selection process for ordained ministry within the Church of England; Jo was in the pregnancy/small baby stage, and I worked two very part-time jobs. But on the plus-side, Elijah was born in the kitchen, and we had good friends just along the street (who are coming to my ordination)...

2007-2009: Bramcote, Nottingham, UK

A two-floor semi-detached house, on a quiet square, gardens at front (open) and back (secure). Open-L-plan living/dining room spaces, very light. Off-road parking: a novelty after all those years in Sheffield. Too far from any shops for ‘just popping out to the shops’ on foot. School just around the corner. Noah started school, did (just short of) two academic years. Here for twenty-two months, while I have been an ordinand at St John’s College. Again, we came here ‘in order to leave’ – but this time, so did everybody else. Again, we’ve made some good friends here, some of whom left last summer, some of whom leave as we do...

2009-...: Clubmoor, Liverpool, UK

A two-floor semi-detached house – with a ground-floor extension currently being built on the back. Garden at the back. School just around the corner. The neighbourhood is an estate in an Urban Priority Area. I’m going to be the curate at St Andrew’s, a post that will last between 3.5-4 years. Elijah will start school next year (and that will free Jo up for...?). Susannah will probably have completed a year of secondary education by the time we move again...
This house, too, will be our home.
I am very aware that the stories of several of the people who read this blog are woven into this story, that our story is woven into yours. Thank you for your encouragement along the Way.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


This post is a deconstruction of the commonly employed SWOT analytical tool, and reconstruction using biblical principles, and summarises/engages with some thoughts recently shared by my friend Mike Breen. The approach taken is a recognition that, as children of God, we are free to learn from anything, but privileged to have scripture to help us assess and improve – to take apart and rebuild better – those things.

SWOT stands for Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat, and is used to examine circumstances, from business strategy to personal decision-making. It provides four areas to consider: your (individual or corporate) strengths and weakness, and the opportunities and threats you (individually or corporately) face.

The first step of deconstruction is to put strength and weakness onto a continuum, as opposed to two separate categories.

Opportunity and threat are also represented as a continuum. Hopefully, the reasons for this will become clear below.

Now, according to SWOT analysis, if you have an opportunity that is matched by a strength, we can expect potential success. For example, if I have a great product that lots of people want, and I am a great salesman, I might reasonably expect to sell a lot of that product.

On the other hand, if we face a threat but that threat is matched by a strength, we would expect a battle or struggle. For example, if someone opposes you or sets themselves in direct competition to you but you believe that you have the resources to withstand their challenge, you are unlikely to roll over and give up without a fight.

Then again, where opportunity is matched with weakness, we are likely to experience frustration. As Jesus put it, the harvest is plentiful (opportunity) but the workers are few (weakness). We’ll come back to what he says next a little later...

Turning to the final quadrant, where threat is matched with weakness, we are likely to experience failure. If an alcoholic goes to a party where they are offered a drink, they are likely to succumb to the temptation.

Now we have our four quadrants, the next step in deconstructing SWOT is to replace ‘strength’ with an interchangeable biblical word: power...

...this clarifies why weakness and strength are a continuum: 2 Cor 12:9 records the revelation to Paul that God’s grace is sufficient in the face of our weakness, for – indeed – his power is made perfect in our weakness. Our weakness is the container for God’s power.

Now let us take a look at the word ‘opportunity,’ and again replace it with a biblical word: authority...

Why would we consider ‘opportunity’ and ‘authority’ to equate? Well, the picture-language the Bile employs to describe authority is the language of keys, doors, and gates...and an opportunity is, likewise, a threshold into a new thing.

So now we can re-frame ‘potential success’ in biblical terms, as Kingdom breakthrough.

Why? Because the Kingdom is defined by the King giving power and authority. Jesus gives his disciples power and authority, and sends them out to demonstrate the experienced signs of the Kingdom...

Now we can start to ask the questions, how can I move from the place of frustration, or battle, or failure, to the experience of Kingdom breakthrough? In terms of our diagram, how do we move from the other three quadrants to the one in the top right?

If we want to move from the place of frustration to the place of Kingdom breakthrough, we need more power in our lives. Frustration turns out to be a God-given gift, which prompts us to take our weakness to God, and to give it to him in order that it may become the vessel for his power. Jesus, faced with the frustration of a plentiful harvest but few workers encourages his disciples to pray that the lord of the harvest would send out more workers. And Paul so grasps the connection between weakness and power that he moves from wanting the weakness to be removed to boasting in his weakness.

Note: this is in marked contrast to the legalism trap we so easily fall into that tells us that God could only trust us with increased power if our weaknesses were first dealt with, that is if we were a ‘better’ person. But power is not earned through works, it is given as grace: and in fact we need more power in order to be more obedient...

Let us take another look at battle or struggle. Remember, we have placed threat on a continuum with authority. Consider the account of Jesus’ temptation by satan in the wilderness, immediately following Jesus’ baptism. At his baptism, Jesus had been affirmed as the Son of the Father. Satan’s attack is in terms of identity: ‘if you are the son of God...’ In fact, that is always the heart of any battle:

threat is an attack on our identity...

authority is a function of identity...

and growing in identity results in increased authority.

So Jesus is able to resist the threat he faces because he is secure in his identity and can exercise authority.

Now let us return to the place of failure. What is our hope here? We need to go to the Father with our failure and hear him affirm our identity as his child, and increase our power and authority. So failure may turn into frustration, or into battle, on the way to experiencing Kingdom breakthrough: but Kingdom breakthrough is the ultimate destination God intends for us, as he redeems our failure.

To summarise:

To move from frustration to Kingdom breakthrough we need to receive more power from Jesus. How do we do that? By giving our weakness to God; by boasting in our weakness.

To turn battle into Kingdom breakthrough we need to increase our authority. How do we do that? Battle is about identity. If I am a child of the King, a co-heir with Christ, I can’t have (and don’t need) any more authority than I already have.

And so the final question is, where do I want to see Kingdom breakthrough?