Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stoke-on-Trent unites against racism

I had to re-post this article about Stoke from Ekklesia. Although he's not mentioned in this article, my dad did organise this event at his church (have I mentioned on this blog before that my dad is an Anglican priest?)

Leaders from the main religious communities across Stoke-on-Trent are today (23 Jan) making a united stand against an anti-Muslim march which they believe is inciting racism, intolerance and xenophobia in the area.

The so-called English Defence League is due to march in Stoke on Saturday 23 January 2010, and the police and local authorities say they are worried about disturbances, with vigorous opposition protests planned.

Meanwhile, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh leaders will light a candle and sign a pledge of unity outside Stoke Minster (the church of St Peter ad Vincula) opposite Stoke Town Hall.

The Anglican Bishop of Stafford, Gordon Mursell, is one of those taking part in the united witness against racism He explained: “If Stoke-on-Trent is to have a good future, it is absolutely vital that all its citizens, irrespective of creed and background, work together for the common good."

Bishop Mursell added: "We believe that real diversity actually helps create a vibrant and attractive city. The English Defence League and the British National Party think the opposite. That is why we oppose them.”

The Catholic Auxiliary Bishop for North Staffordshire, David McGough, added: “We must all oppose any extremism that would play on people's fears and anxieties to divide our city and set one section of our community against another.”

Gurmeet Singh Kallar, a member of Stoke’s Gurdwara, said: “As Sikhs, we believe that all people are important to God and we are against the persecution of any group or minority.”

And Peter Barber, Chair of the Chester and Stoke-on-Trent Methodist Circuit said: “As faith leaders we have a special duty to show that different communities can live together is harmony and mutual respect. We oppose those who would try to divide us by hate and fear.”

Humanists in the area also plan to join the action against racism and division in Stoke.

The faith leaders are coming together using some famous words attributed to the anti-Nazi pastor, Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak out."

Niemoller was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, founder of the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) in 1934, and a president of the World Council of Churches from 1961 to 1968.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What does it mean to be a Christian?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Review: Evangelism after Christendom by Bryan Stone

So I've said it before, but I'll say it again: this is a very good book.

The vision of evangelism presented in this book is deeply challenging to both conservative, mainline and liberal Christians. The basic premise is that evangelism is not about giving an intellectual message, nor coercively persuading people of that message, and neither is evangelism about church growth. Rather evangelism is about witness: the shape of life that the church presents to the world.

He makes a compelling case that that witness is about equality and moving beyond old divisions (in Christ there is no Greek or Jew), enemy-love, the sharing of material goods, care for the poor and forgiveness. It is these practices that show to the world a pattern of life, and invite it to that life.

In a large part this is a work of ecclesiology (= the study of the church). He is deeply critical of modernity's concentration on the individual (and this is a characteristic of modern conservatism as much as modern liberalism) - where evangelism is seen as an individual's "decision for Christ" and where the church is an afterthought. Rather he argues that evangelism is all about the church, evangelism is what the church looks like to the world, evangelism is an invitation to a communal way of life patterned on certain virtues and practices.

Another central argument is that evangelism should be judged not on "effectiveness" in getting bums on pews or the number of conversions - but rather should be judged on its faithfulness to the gospel. The gospel may in fact be abhorent to some, but that doesn't mean the gospel should be changed to be more "appealing."

In the final chapter he gives more concrete examples of what this kind of evangelism looks like. He says that evangelism is characterised by the virtues of presence, patience, courage and humility. His examples from Latin and North America talk about communities and people who show solidarity with the poor, and courage to stand up against oppressive powers.

When talking about evangelism it is inevitable that your conversation patners are more likely to be in conservative Christianity, and North American conservative Christianity certainly comes in for a bashing here. But equally as a liberal I find this book very challenging and it gives me a huge amount to think about. I'll probably be thinking about it for some time yet.

I love the concentration on the community and not just the individual. I love the idea that evangelism is about people looking at my church and saying "can I see a distinctive way of life within this community that seems transforming and powerful?" I love the concentration on an entire way of life, not just intellectual doctrines. I love the insistence that evangelism has to come from a place of weakness, and never from a place of power and coercion.

What I still find difficult is that too little space is given for dialogue. This is hardly suprising as my theology of evangelism has always been about dialogue. Yes, it's true that evangelism should come from a deep connection to one's own tradition and it's life-transforming power, but it should also be about an openness to the other. It's true that Bryan Stone does say that evangelism should be about listening as well as speaking, and he does say that kingdom of God is bigger than the church. But for me he still does not acknowledge enough the possibility of the holy spirit working beyond the confines of the church, and that other communities may be building the kingdom of God too. Evangelism for me has to be open to the possibility of receiving something of the divine in the encounter with the other. We are not the sole possesors of God.

He makes truth claims about the work of God in Christ and in the church, and takes a post-liberal position that such truth can only be understood within the church, and cannot be justified on the world's terms. But as a liberal I kept coming back to same point, "How do you know? How do you know that God only works within the Christian church? How do you know that God's purposes are best expressed in the Christian story? How do you know that the Christian story really does capture divine truth?" As a Unitarian I have to keep coming back to mystery and agnosticism. I don't know these things for sure, and I'm not prepared to make bold universal truth claims like that. (If you read back on this blog and find me making bold truth claims, sorry, I'm not always consistent)

So my quarrel is largely philosophical. The pattern of life and way of the church described in this book is one I want to be a part of. And his description of evangelism as presence is a very good description of what we do here as Street Angels. We are a simple presence being alongside those in need in our neighbourhood. It would not be politic to describe what Street Angels do as evangelism, due to most people's understanding of the word, but understood as Bryan Stone understands the word, it is definitely evangelism: it is presence.

So probably the best book I've read in the last two years. Plus I had a pint with Bryan once, and he seemed a bloody nice bloke.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Two interesting maps of Britain

Happy new year. I thought it was worth commenting on two maps I've seen recently.

One is just to say "holy shih tzu! Look at all that snow."

The other is this map from the Unitarian Communications blog which shows the location of every Unitarian congregation in Britain:

I find it really interesting to look at this distribution, which is so obviously uneven. A few observations:

You can see the "Black Spot" from space! (small rural area in west of Wales containing many Unitarian chapels)

It's obvious that there are many more congregations in the northwest than in the southeast, even though the population in the southeast is much bigger.

It's easy to spot places with no Unitarian churches. What do you do if you're a Unitarian in Carlisle? Or somewhere like Bedford when you're pretty equally far from Cambridge, Northampton, and St Albans?

Conclusion: There's a lot of scope for church-planting.