Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Deciding where to live

The first ministry decision I had to make when I was appointed to Cardiff was deciding where to live. And this really was a ministry decision, a theological decision, a spiritual decision. My work is, in its simplest form, to love my neighbours. To be true to that calling I really do need to be a neighbour.

My calling is to be a citizen: to live, work, shop, vote, walk in the city I'm called to serve. I could not do it any other way. My calling is to be as committed as I can be to a particular place; to be a neighbour.

I decided to live in Canton. Though it could have just easily have been neighbouring Riverside, it just depended what place was available when I was house-hunting. I wanted somewhere close to the city centre with stuff going on. A place that felt more like a neighbourhood and not just a place where people live.

Canton, I guess, is much like a lot of inner city areas. It is neither the "worst" area nor the "best" area in Cardiff. It is fairly diverse socio-economically with both larger suburban homes as well as smaller flats and houses. Compared to Bolton (where I have come from) the rent is much more expensive, I guess largely because it close to the city centre. It has a lot of restaurants and a certain artistic community around the Chapter Arts Centre. (That is a very quick summary of Canton, based on only a few months living here, no doubt I will have a different impression in a few years when I've got to know the place better).

I may not always be in Canton, but it is a good start. What I am committed to, though, is the city and the inner city. Paul Keeble, in his book Mission With talks about his experience living in inner city Manchester, and deciding to stay there as a spiritual decision, as a matter of Christian discipleship. He points out that in Britain Christianity is largely middle-class and perpetuates a middle-class culture. Christians, he argues, conform to a middle class culture by assuming that as you get more successful in life, you aspire to live in better houses in better neighbourhoods. He asks whether this is truly consistent with following Jesus. His local church, he said, really encouraged people to commit to the area and to live there long-term. That's what he and his family did.

Paul Keeble's book, however, really talks about the experience of inner city Manchester in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. And I wonder how this dynamic is changing as more and more people in Britain now live in city centres. Young, professional, often single people now fill our city centres, and probably will start now to spill out into the areas just outside city centres. It may be that such pressures push older, poorer communities out of "the inner city" in a process of gentrification.

I've been thinking of the danger of contributing to gentrification myself. I have moved to inner Cardiff as an outsider, a 30-something professional with (for the most part) the tastes of a 30-something professional. What does it mean to live in a such a way as to be a neighbour to other people in the city who are in some ways unlike me? What does it mean to resist gentrification and the forced removal of working class people from certain areas?

The answer is I really don't know. But what Paul Keeble's book has made me think about more deeply is the very act of deciding to live somewhere has theological significance. It may say more about us than our creeds or statements of belief. The Christian church should not abandon the working class inner city, for the middle class surburbs, though it has in some ways.

I was once part of a church in the inner city where every Sunday people drove in from 5- 10 miles away, largely from the suburbs. The church's relationship with the neighbourhood seemed to be one of mutual suspicion. It wasn't a healthy dynamic.

That's not the kind of community we need. Churches may attract people from further afield but they are still situated in a physical space, and they need to relate to the neighbourhood as an act of service and love and mutual benefit. This requires an intentional commitment to resist some aspects of middle class culture and to really work out what it means to love your neighbour.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Love where you live: this is how it starts...

(Published in The Inquirer, 2 June 2018)

It is Sunday morning and I am not in church. This is still a new experience for me. And a strange experience. Instead of being in church I am in the streets, with a litter-picker in one hand and a bin bag in the other. I have joined a local litter-picking group supported by Keep Wales Tidy and I am meeting other people who don't go to church, but who gladly give up their Sunday mornings to make where they live a better place.

My job as a pioneer minister is to be with these people. My job is to build relationships with the "unchurched" populations of this city, to be a citizen where I live, demonstrating my faith by committing to love where I live.

But what is the point of it? Am I trying to grow our church in Cardiff? Am I inviting people to come along to our afternoon service? Well, no. I am not trying to grow our church. I am not trying to fill up pews. I am not trying to get people to come to services. I am not trying to get people to come to events, to coffee mornings, meditation or discussion groups.

I'm not trying to grow the church. Why not? Because in not trying to grow a church I am forced to get to the naked, vulnerable heart of the matter. I am forced to be out in the world spiritually naked, without any of the usual clothings of ministry.

In not trying to grow the church I have to discover what my faith is, what our faith is, what our good news is, because that is all I have. All I have is faith. And I have to start with faith, rather than starting with church.

For the next two or three years we are running an experiment in evangelism: what happens when all you have is faith? When all you have is good news? What happens when you take that faith, that good news into the mystery, mess, wonder, and chaos of a large modern city?

What is that faith? What is it that I actually think I'm trying to do? As a pioneer minister I do need to be able to answer that question. All I have is faith, and if I don't have that, I can't do my job. I have found that as a pioneer minister my first priority has to be prayer. I need to be deeply rooted in a rhythm of prayer that roots my life and work. For me, being a pioneer minister is an act of complete trust in God. I find the job before me too big. I know I can't do it by myself. I can only do it trusting in the power of God. I can only do it if I believe that faith is in fact what the world needs most urgently. And I do.

As Paul Rasor at the Annual Meetings told us, we live in a neoliberal society. This means a society that believes that competition is the defining characteristic of human relationships; that society is a market, not a community; that we are consumers, not citizens, and not children of God. It is a society based on the values of extreme individualism, greed, and competitiveness.

This ideology, that has come to dominate us since the 1980s, is killing us. It ultimately makes us dissatisfied, miserable, and isolated from each other. It asks us to put more and more trust in our possessions and less and less in each other. And it creates an epidemic of loneliness and bad mental health.

Not only that, it is destroying our natural environment as constant consumption drives the wheels of a system that spews out carbon dioxide and is leading us into a climate catastrophe.

The global problem of the twenty-first century is climate change: an urgent and massive problem that nevertheless develops slowly enough for us to be able to ignore it. But if we ignore it until it's really noticeable in an everyday sense, it will be too late. Human activity, pushed on by the ideology of neoliberalism, is creating massive shifts in the climate that will cause untold misery and death to billions of people and millions of other species on earth. Right now we are living through a mass extinction event equivalent to the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Scientists keep telling us about this, but there's only so much scientists can do. Gus Speth, environmental lawyer, has said, "I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy... and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation - and we scientists don't know how to do that."

Scientists don't know how to do that. But guess who does know how to do that? Religion does. Faith does.

This idea has been taken up by American Unitarian Universalist minister Ian White Maher. He has argued convincingly that the climate crisis is ultimately a spiritual crisis. It's not a problem that can be solved by more and better technology - that is the kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. Rather it is a problem that must be addressed by a kind of a Twelve Step approach.

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programmes you have to admit you are powerless over the problem - that your life has become unmanageable; and you have to trust a Power greater than yourself to restore you to sanity. Similarly Ian White Maher says that in order to address the the spiritual crisis that is causing the climate crisis, we must confess our need for help from something greater:

"The first step towards a solution is to admit that we are beyond the point of avoiding calamitous climate change... The second step is admitting that we need help. Specifically... humanity needs help from the divine and creative life force that is greater than the selfish interests of our individual egos. Anything shy of this confession will leave us with the illusion that we will somehow, through our own power and ingenuity, solve the problem. But we cannot solve a spiritual problem with intellectual solutions."

We need nothing less than confession and conversion. We need religion. We need more religion, not less religion. Religion is the only thing with the proven ability to cause massive cultural and spiritual shifts, to transform human beings and their values, and we need nothing less than this. We need to change how we live, how we think, what we value. We need to find meaning and satisfaction in life in something other than earning money and buying things and expensive experiences.

It's a challenging idea, but I have become convinced of it.

I think this really challenges us as Unitarians. I think, frankly, we no longer have the luxury to be only about a wishy washy liberalism that says, "well maybe this or maybe not, we don't know." We no longer have the luxury to be about every person pursuing their individual personalised spiritual journey. Indeed I increasingly see that kind of approach as part of the problem, not the solution.

The great danger for Unitarianism is that it simply becomes the church of neoliberalism. A church that preaches individualism and makes spirituality into a "product" personalised to our own whims and tastes to be "consumed". The danger is Unitarianism becomes exactly the kind of religion that re-enforces neoliberalism and climate change, rather than fights against it.

But as Susan Frederick-Gray, the new President of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the US, has said: this is no time for casual faith.

This is no time for a faith that just copies our consumerist, individualist culture; this is no time for a faith that is casual, wishy-washy, or uncommitted. Spiritual transformation cannot happen if we are just a watered-down version of religion. We need more religion, not less. Religion that addresses the spiritual crisis that is causing the climate crisis.

That spiritual crisis is ultimately alienation. Neoliberalism makes us alienated, isolated, cut off from each other, and from the source of life. Neoliberalism makes us spiritually, psychologically, politically, economically, and ecologically alienated.

But it's a lie! The truth, the spiritual truth our tradition stands for, is that we are deeply connected within an interdependent web of existence - but we must awaken to this reality. We must restore a sacred relationship to our planet and all that is.

In 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed a class of newly qualified Unitarian ministers, and he told them that their mission was to acquaint people first-hand with Deity. That remains exactly what my pioneer ministry is about. It is my mission to help people realise and to live as if the fundamental reality of the universe is relationship, not isolation.

We are not alone, but part of a mysterious reality, a Power greater than ourselves, that holds us all together in a greater Oneness. And we can't save the world, and we can't save ourselves, by going it alone, but we have to feel and experience for ourselves this sacred relationship; to realise through worship and prayer that we are part of a mystical reality of Oneness, and that we are all held within an embrace of Love. I call that reality God. God as both the One it is possible to enter into relationship with, and the Relationship itself with all that is. But this is not something to believe, but something to experience.

My mission is not to grow Unitarianism. My mission is to help people experience Sacred Relationship, and to find fulfilment in relationship, in connection, in community; not in competing, and consuming, individualism, and isolation.

I believe religious community is one of the places where this can happen. But I'm starting with the mission, and seeing what community can grow out of that mission, rather than starting with the community and trying to get people to attend to ensure institutional survival.

I'm not concerned with the institutional survival of Unitarianism. Ultimately I'm concerned with the survival of the human race and the planet. And I'm concerned with creating communities of resistance to our earth-destroying culture. I'm concerned with making disciples committed to spiritual practices that resist neoliberalism, and alienation, and create deeper experiences of sacred relationship. I'm concerned with making disciples of Love committed to sacred activism.

One of those practices, for now, is simply picking up litter in my inner-city street. But this is how it starts. Not (as Mother Teresa said) doing great things, but doing small things with great love. That's how we build the resistance.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

The army on the streets of my city

I always shudder when I see the military. I just can't get past the institutionalisation of killing; I can never feel comfortable with an organisation who's primary purpose is violence. It makes me very uncomfortable, frankly it scares the hell out of me.

This week I was made to feel this way when I saw the army outside Cardiff Castle, with a climbing wall being used by small children. I saw children and parents queuing up to use the wall. It was half term outside a major tourist attraction.

I saw families being shown a massive artillery gun. I saw a child look curiously at a rifle on a table apparently unsupervised (I'm sure it wasn't loaded). I felt sick.

I don't want to see weapons of death on a lovely sunny day in my city. It disturbs me to see children being socialised into thinking this is normal, this is OK. This is a kind of a soft PR exercise, an opening for the recruitment of children into the military.

It made me feel literally queasy. I felt it in the pit of my stomach. Being a follower of Jesus means my consciousness of such things is heightened. My "normal" is the Christian vision of the kindom of God, the "peaceable kingdom" and so when I see something like this it brings me up as deeply deeply abnormal. I find it abnormal to see objects designed to rip apart human flesh being shown to children. It shocks me. And I look around and wonder how anyone else can think it normal.

All I could do was manage a silent prayer on the spot. I prayed for the people there and for peace and earth, then I kept walking. What more is there to do?

Saturday, May 19, 2018

God is Everything and God is Someone

I think I have come up with a definition of God that is incredibly simple, and yet pretty much says everything I want to say about God. Yes of course, "definition" is tricky, language is tricky, but with the caveat that we are talking about mystery here, I feel like this is a useful way to think about God.

God is Everything and God is Someone.

God is Everything - not one particular being, one particular object in the universe, but the very ground of being. Omnipresent - God is not in one particular place more than any other, not limited to one country of one sacred object or temple or religion. God is contained in none of these things. God is always bigger. God is Everything.

To me this is what Incarnation and the Christian sacraments point to - they very experience of God in the physical. God is this person in front of me. God is this morsel of bread, this sip of wine, this water of blessing. But God is Everything. Sacraments are only designed to open us to this experience in all of the world. The taste of coffee, the encounter with a stranger, the power of music, the glory of sex, all these things are divine.

The idea of God as creator has never made a huge amount of sense to me, other than as a symbol pointing to the goodness and glory of the world. I'm happy to do without it and speak of God in pantheistic terms. God is Everything.

This is the witness of the mystics. That experience of deep Oneness with All That Is. That sense of dissolving barriers between me and you and everything else. In the end All is One. God is Everything.

But there is more to say than this. God is also Someone. I have always experienced God as Someone, but I've been more afraid of making this case in the past, in case it comes across as hopelessly naive. But my spiritual journey has been leading me to a place that is really about a closer and closer walk with a God who is a Someone.

Also some of the reading I've done recently, such as Thomas Oord's The Nature of Love and Derek Guiton's A Man That Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), has helped me to grow in confidence in defending the idea of a personal God.

Religious liberals have been much more interested in describing God in impersonal terms in recent years. It's easy to see why. A personal God can easily become an idol - a tribal deity defending a narrow vision of religious or national identity, or naively literal anthropomorphic "man in the sky." God is seen as "he" which both reinforces patriarchy and gives us a hopelessly literal image (if God is a "he" we can imagine "him" as a bodied being with a penis or a beard).

It seems to make a lot more sense to describe God in impersonal terms. It seems more grown up somehow. But here's the problem - God can only love if God is Someone. Only someones can love. We can talk about a vaguely positive force, a force for love in the world - but stop to ask - what does that actually mean? Does "aligning with a force for goodness and love in the world" actually mean anything? Does it actually work? Does it comfort us in sorrow and make us grow in our commitment to one another? I'm not convinced it does. I'm not convinced it makes any sense to speak of love without speaking of a Lover.

An impersonal God, a pantheistic "it" can easily drop into a general monism and then to a religious naturalism/atheism. We may still use a theistic language, but we will act like in reality, no one listens to our prayers, no one actually cares, we can only change the world with our own grit and determination, but there is no reason to suppose we will (or that we can) succeed. There is no grace and there is no power of love behind us.

Again my foundation for saying this is the witness of mystics as well as my own spiritual experience. In the moments of deep connection with prayer there is an apprehension not just that we are a being deeply connected to the universe but that there is an actual Someone who reaches out to us in love. We are seeking but we discover there is a One who has been seeking us for longer. There is a One who genuinely reaches out to us with an embrace of love. We discover that God is wildly, passionately in love with us.

This is increasingly my experience. The best words I've found to describe this companionable relationship are the words of Hafiz (interpreted by Daniel Ladinsky): "God and I are like two giant fat people in a boat. We keep bumping into each other and laughing."

The experience is not like a rational contemplation of the universe. It is like being taken hold off in passion and made love to. It is personal, and it can be no other.

God is Someone. Now of course if we leave it there we can drop into all the idolatry I've already mentioned. We can too easily associate the Someone with a particular language, religion, name, experience. Which is why we need to keep the idea of "Someone" balanced by the idea of "Everything" because although we encounter God as Someone, there is more to God than that.

God is Everything and God is Someone.

I know that in some ways this really doesn't make sense. How can Everything love us like it is a Someone? And yet this is what the inner experience of prayer has led many to know experientially. It is increasingly the very foundation of my life.

It feels important to me to embrace this understanding. I think it may explain a lot. It may explain in fact why evangelical charismatic churches are generally growing and liberal and mainstream churches are generally in decline. Is it as simple as that? Have we considered that it might be as simple as the fact that Evangelical charismatic churches believe in God? That they actual act as if God is actually real and expect to find a real experience of the Living God in their worship? Meanwhile mainstream and liberal churches offer intellectual ideas, and a discussion about social issues, but are really embarrassed to actually get into the intimacy of a personal relationship with God.

The fact is clever nuanced theology is never going to attract a mass movement as much as "here is God, God loves you." That's always going to be a more powerful message than your page long mission statement that talks about "individual freedom, equality for all, and rational thought."

That is, perhaps, a separate discussion. But for now it feels important for me personally to live into the simple theology that God is Everything and God is Someone.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

I dream of a church...

I dream of a church that joins in with God's laughing 
as she rocks in her rapture enjoying her art: 
she's glad of her world, in its risking and growing: 
'tis the child she has borne and holds close to her heart. 

I dream of a church that joins in with God's weeping 
as she crouches, weighed down by the sorrow she sees: 
she cries for the hostile, the cold and no hoping, 
for she bears in herself our despair and disease. 

I dream of a church that joins in with God's dancing 
as she moves like the wind and the wave and the fire: 
a church that can pick up its skirts, pirouetting, 
with the steps that can signal God's deepest desire. 

I dream of a church that joins in with God's loving 
as she bends to embrace the unlovely and lost, 
a church that can free, by its sharing and daring, 
the imprisoned and poor, and then shoulder the cost. 

God, make us a church that joins in with your living, 
as you cherish and challenge, rein in and release, 
a church that is winsome, impassioned, inspiring: 
lioness of your justice, and lamb of your peace.

(by Kate Compston)

Do you dream of a church like this? If you do, if you dream of a church in Cardiff that is progressive, pluralist, mystical, charismatic, queer, feminist, and rooted in Jesus' vision of justice then please get in touch with me.

I would love to plant a new church like that with you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Why I moved to Cardiff

I moved to Cardiff to become a pioneer minister because I wanted to face the coming culture head-on.

If we're moving to a post-religious culture in western Europe I want to face it head-on.

If the future is empty church buildings being turned into restaurants and climbing wall centres, then I want to face it head-on.

If we're heading into the least religious culture planet Earth has ever seen, then I want to be fully immersed in that culture.

If the future of the church is 5 people meeting in a living room, then I want to start doing that now.

I don't want to spend the next 40 years serving a conventional church and seeing it slowly decline.

I don't want to spend my career managing decline.

If the future of religion is being a tiny tiny minority in a non-religious indifferent post-Christendom culture then I want to start working out how to do that now.

I don't want to try to outrun the coming tide of non-religious culture. I don't want to spend my life running away from it, with it slowly catching up with me over decades.

I want to run towards the coming non-religious culture. I want to face it head-on and run directly into it.

This is why I choose to leave a relatively healthy, relatively large congregation for a tiny one struggling to survive. Why I am investing most of my time in pioneer ministry to the unchurched culture of a large modern city.

It's because if this culture-change is coming I want to live in it right now, and work out where the calling of God is in it.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

What is Unitarian Christianity? Some distinctive features (video)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

"If I was going to go to a church, I would go to your church."

This is an anecdote I heard recently. It wasn't from a Unitarian, but from a progressive Christian:

"I was talking to my neighbour who's an atheist. And she said to me, 'I'm not religious, but you know what? If I was going to go to a church, I would go to your church.'"

This is the kind of thing that is said by Unitarians, and other religious progressives as a satisfying kind of story that enables us to say to ourselves, "see, we are on the right path, lot's of rational people really agree with us!" I've probably said something like that myself in the past.

The problem is that pesky "if".

That "if" has become louder and louder in my mind. Because if we really hear that "if" we would hear what the sentence really says, "If I was going to go to a church, I would go to your church... but I'm not. I never will and it's not something that interests me in the slightest. I vaguely approve of what you're doing, but it will always remain entirely irrelevant to my life."

I no longer see this as something that comforts me as a religious liberal. It will really be no use to be vaguely approved off by the majority of people as our communities die out because they attract no commitment or real interest. Meanwhile a minority of religious conservatives will be vaguely disapproved of my the majority, while remaining a dynamic force which a minority of people give their heart, soul, and lives to.

Which is better?

The need for liberals is not to get people to agree with us. They already do. The need for liberals is to give anyone a coherent reason to come to church. The need for liberals is to offer a genuine spiritual healing for the ills of the world. To be able to say what spiritual solutions we actually offer to the world's problems.

This requires us to shift from constantly talking about what makes us different from conservative religion to be able to say what makes us different from not being religious.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

What is Unitarian Christianity? (Video)

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

What if there are different Unitarianisms?

I keep coming back to the idea that there might be two or more mutually incompatible visions of Unitarianism in Britain.

I'm very aware, for example, that there are several different strands of Quakerism in the United States - Liberal Friends, Pastoral Friends, Conservative Friends, and Evangelical Friends. They share the same roots but are today quite radically different from one another in worship, organisation, and theology.

I'm wondering if something like that exists, under the surface, in British Unitarianism. If there are, perhaps, two Unitarianisms.

Unitarianism A defines Unitarianism as an individualistic, liberal movement that is defined by values but tries to remain neutral in matters of belief.

Unitarianism B defines Unitarianism as a basically heretical form of Christianity that has taken on Anabaptist radicalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and Emersonian individualism, but is still basically Christian.

It is interesting to note that the General Assembly, on paper, is defined as Unitarianism B - the object of the GA says the purpose of the denomination includes "the worship of God" and "upholding the liberal Christian tradition".

However, the General Assembly in fact operates as if it is promoting Unitarianism A. If you look at the unitarian.org.uk website, or at leaflets or videos produced by the GA, they very much promote a vision of Unitarianism that is about liberalism and individualism without religious language.

What frustrates me as someone who is situated in Unitarianism B is I find all the publicity material produced by the GA unusable. I read all the leaflets produced by the GA, and nowadays I think "this is not the kind of stuff that I want to promote." I don't want to give those leaflets to anyone.

What solves this problem? One solution is schism, to admit there really are different things going on here, and that they are mutually exclusive and so we should recognise this reality.

There is no reason that there can't be two, three, or more different Unitarian denominations in the UK. Would that really be so bad? They could still share some resources, some institutions, but admit that they are not of one mind on all matters.

In a way that is already the case. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is essentially a definitely Christian liberal/Unitarian church. It shares much with the Unitarians, but it is definitely a Christian denomination. It could, conceivably, operate in England, Scotland and Wales. Or something like it could.

But if we don't schism, and there are good reason not to, perhaps it's worth admitting that we are different theological projects sheltering under the same administrative roof.

That would mean that the GA would either give up producing any publicity material OR that it would produce a more deliberately diverse range of materials.

Because here's the kind of thing that set me off on this kind of thought process: I really really dislike this video. It simply does not describe my faith, or the religious project I am in anyway interested in. It describes Unitarianism A, but it does not describe Unitarianism B. And if the GA is going to produce a video promoting Unitarianism A then it needs to produce a video describing Unitarianism B. It needs to produce a video that says "Unitarianism is a radical way of following Jesus and connecting with God".

If the GA says, "we don't want to produce such a video, we don't think we should" then my conclusion is that you're not serving some of your constituents and they would be better off forming a different denomination that does. 

I say this not to be argumentative, or because I'm particularly hacked off with the denomination. I'm not in the slightest. Rather I sort of think we all might get on better if we were just honest and admitted that we don't share the same faith. I wonder if we would all be happier if we stopped trying to fit two things together that, perhaps, are simply not compatible any more.