Lord Truro and the “Undeserving Poor”

Once more all decent folk found themselves under attack from the ever hungry and multiheaded mythological beast. Fortunately Lord Freud was able to defend us all once more from the onslaught of the “undeserving poor”.

20130703-074824.jpgThe daemonisation of the poor is a well documented phenomenon and a tool that is being used to drive ideological political change. “Why don’t they help themselves out of poverty?” We have a situation in the UK where food bank use has trebled in the past year. Lord Freud seems to be of the opinion that food banks are one of the many choices that people mmakes when planning their weekly shop. “We can get some cold cuts from the farmers market, they do that lovely Brussels Pâté. We need to make sure we get to Waitrose on the way home for the loo roll and dishwasher tablets. Ooooo, and we’d best stop at the Food Bank and get some beans for the kids”.

The Bishop of Truro challenged Lord Freud on his statements to The Lords. Church Action on Poverty challenged these ideological beliefs five weeks ago. Oxfam challenge this ideological belief daily. Everyone who works with people in poverty challenges this blame culture, designed to shift the focus of blame for the current global economic climate to the most vulnerable in our society. The people who aren’t challenging this are those who are using the myth to drive ideological political change.

The growth in food aid demonstrates that the social safety net Is failing in its basic duty to ensure that families have access to sufficient income to feed themselves adequately. The exponential rise in the creation of food banks reflects a growing problem and only delivers mitigation. Food banks provide a vital emergency service to the people they support but they do not address the underlying structural causes for the growth of food poverty. – Walking the Breadline

Advertisements

Hey Vicar: Who Are You Writing That For?

blogThis morning I blogged about how The Church ™ so often fail to engage with people in the age bracket 20-40.  Statistically The Church ™ is not good with people in this age group.  A small group of us met to discuss how we could connect people to the ongoing story of God without worrying particularly about The Church ™ side of things.  For lots of people it can feel like engaging with The Church ™ is a bit like jumping on a moving train whereas there is often an openness to “faith”.

Whilst we were discussing how to do this through online content I had an epiphany that starts at a bit of a tangent.  I have been designing the new website for our church, Holy Nativity.  When stuck in the car for 5 hours Ruth and I were discussing content for it.  The essential information began to come together but we kept dreaming up epic descriptions and justifications to add to each page.  A description of “morning prayer” began a conversation about “why we pray, what we pray, how we pray”….

“Why are we putting this on the website?  It feels more like we’re putting it up to justify ourselves to other Christians in the area rather than for people who are just discovering us for the first time.  We seem to be saying that we are ‘sound’”.

You have been to websites dear reader.  How many times do you find opening phrases like “we are a bible believing church…” or other long phrases in christianese and jargon?  Perhaps the front page has giant lettering of Revd Kirk’s bold statement: “Our ongoing mission to make disciples of Christ where no one has made disciples of Christ before”.  Things that are purely designed to show how ‘sound’ we are to the other Christians.  We probably don’t even realise we are doing it.  And it doesn’t matter which particular flavour of “sound” we are – just so long as other Christians know it!  “We are a forward in mission shaped, biblically based, congregation of the Father’s heart”.

As I recounted this to our small gathering I searched the annals of my mind for content I’ve encountered that is purely for engaging people outside of The Church ™ with God’s story.  Surely there must be some good straightforward online content for people of no faith background that invites us and our modern context to engage with Jesus life and this strange thing we call ‘faith’.

I couldn’t think of anything.  When we engage, we tend to engage with each other.  Christian Leaders blogging for other Christian leaders.  Pontificating for the approval of our peers.  Vicars blogging for other vicars to show how good we are at being vicars.  Heck, I’m doing it right now. 

You dear reader, YES YOU!:  if you have got this far you are a Christian leader of some shape or form or you are very strange indeed.  I mean, why would anyone else read this content?  It’s a vicar talking about vicaring.

When I reflect on what I have written, I have written stuff for other Christians.  I talk about engaging with people outside of the church but what I write is in essence an instruction manual or theological reflection for other leaders.  OK, probably 90%.

But it is not all doom and gloom!!  Whilst this epiphany took place during our meeting, we did look at how we can buck the trend and create meaningful encounters for people online.  In the next few weeks I will ask you for your help to bring the story of God to life in the modern world.

Personal Identity 2: Aren’t You That Goth Vicar?

This is the second in my series on identity. Coming out of a series of conversations I’ve had over the last week with friends about “being ‘goth'”. Today I’m bringing “goth” and “priest” together. If I am mentioned in the press I am usually referred to as ‘The Rocking Revered Robb’. My favourite headline was next to a photo of me carrying a life sized cross: The Road To Golgotha. Both puntastic and theologically deep.

Aren’t You Making a Statement?

20130502-125330.jpg
Every so often for someone who is “alternative” the conversation will inevitably turn to this question. Aren’t you making a statement with the way you wear your hair? Don’t you wear your earrings to prove a point? But the way you dress must surely mean you are going against society? But aren’t you being countercultural? How do you square what you wear with being a priest?

Here is the shocking truth. I haven’t changed my hairstyle in 20 years. I wake up in the morning and pull on the same style of jeans I’ve worn every day for 12 years. My boots were worn every day until they fell apart at which point I bought an identical pair. I have been contemplating changing one of my earrings for the past fortnight but the ones I’ve been wearing since 2002 seem to be doing ok. My first thought when I wake up and look in the mirror is not that I make a statement, more that Robb looks back through the looking glass at me. If there is any statement being made by my general appearance it is through the ’78 tour t-shirt I’m wearing. Incidentally, the year I was born. A pretty ancient statement.

On Friday at Whitby Goth Weekend the A Level sociology students asked us if anything we were wearing was “significant”. My response was “Yes, I’m wearing a cross around my neck and a wedding ring”. As a metalhead I’m part of a rather large sub culture. It’s not a tiny minority in the western world until you go deeper and begin to look within a smaller cultural group: the church.

Yes, I am being counter cultural. Regularly I make a statement that goes against the grain. Every day I make people do a double take as I wear clothes that “go against society”. I put on a dog collar each morning. I often wear a cassock as I perform my duties because it depersonalises me; this is important when performing a funeral for example. I stand before the world and make a truly counter cultural statement: Jesus is God.

We all belong to some form of subculture but with an increasingly elderly church culture there is often an increase perception of “difference” when someone younger is in church who isn’t a child. The 20’s-40’s are often the lost tribe of Anglicanism so when we do come to church it can be a culture shock. The real challenge is to enable people and support people as they go against the pervading culture and follow Christ. I wonder if it is harder to ‘admit’ being a Christian to a bunch of metalheads than it is to admit being a metalhead to a bunch of christians?

Tomorrow I’ll have a look at Christian culture.

Sitting at the Table: A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

When I was younger there was a church I used to walk past every day in the center of town.  It was called St Thomas’ Church.  And as a small boy what an impressive place it was.  There were huge vertical lines that were accentuated by the spacing of ornately carved pillars.  Each window consisted of intricately cut coloured glass creating beautifully illustrated scenes from the bible.  In one window there was ‘The Good Samaritan’ placing the beaten and robbed man upon the back of his donkey.  He was then shown taking the man to be looked after.  Then little gold coins were depicted as little yellow discs of glass being handed over to the innkeeper for his trouble.  In another window there was the last supper.  A simple shared meal between friends that symbolized the relationship God has with the world.  There was this huge table at which people were invited to come and share the Passover.  Jesus sat with his disciples as he welcomed them to come and eat with the God-man.  St Thomas’ was an impressive place.  It was a spectacular place.  When the summer sun shone through the windows and the incense was wafting between the pillars it created a dazzling sight as streaks of reds and blues and greens danced through the air.

Anybody who was anybody would be found there on a Sunday morning.  The Mayor would be there two rows from the front.  Behind him would sit the headmaster in the next pew.  Everyone was highly polished and neatly trimmed.  Partings were always worn and suits were neatly pressed.  Sunday best was the order of the day.  All of the people from the town we lived in who had any kind of status could be found there.  Everyone was ‘just so’.  As you looked around the congregation each Sunday morning you could see lots of white faces and nuclear families.  Mum and dad would bring the two point four children through the big oak doors each week.  In this congregation everyone was the “right type of person”.  There was no one in this place who could really be called “poor”.  Over the years plenty of people had come in and quickly gone back out because they soon realized that they weren’t the “right type of person”.  Here at St Thomas’, people in need were out of the question.  People with the wrong kind of accent need not apply.  If you are going to grace a pew, make sure your surname isn’t Unpronounceableovic.  Heaven forbid you would have a different coloured skin!

There was one family who attended for many years.  Mum and dad and 2.4 children happily coming to church each Sunday.  Dad had a good job and a company car.  Mum stayed at home and looked after the children.  The cracks started to appear when dad was made redundant.  Gone was the company car. Then one thing led to another and their marriage broke down.  It is hard work going to church when you find out that after ten years you are no longer the “right kind of people”.  Suddenly mum was taking the 2.4 children to St Thomas’ by herself.  No one said anything directly to her but she could tell.  There were conversations that would suddenly stop whenever she approached.  There were cups of tea passed to her with a knowing smile.  After a couple of weeks the energy it required to get the kids out of bed, dressed and ready for church was just not there.  The small nuclear family stopped being the “right sort of people” each Sunday morning.  As you might imagine, St Thomas’ did not receive many new members.  Its members simply grew older.

Years later as an adult I learned that St Thomas’ Church had closed.  There just weren’t enough of the “right type” of people.  They just didn’t exist, I guess.  One time I went back to that town and there I was passing beside the familiar gothic architecture and the ornately carved pillars.  St Thomas’ church building was still standing only now it was a restaurant.  Oddly given the history of the previous occupants of the building it was a curry house called the Indian Cottage.  I walked in through those massive gothic doors and where there had once been pews, now there were tables, waiters, and people eating dinner.  Candles were lit at each table and people were eagerly tearing naan breads and pouring fresh glasses of wine.  The familiar hubbub of community meals was all around as the sound of glass upon glass clanking together and laughter filled the building.  As I looked down the nave of the ancient gothic church to where the altar had once sat underneath the image of the last supper, now there were tables. 

A young waiter came over to us and asked if we’d like a table for two.  My wife and I exchanged a glance as I responded to his question with a simple “yes please”.  We were escorted to a table at the back of the restaurant where the sanctuary had once been.  The young man took our coats and pulled out a chair for my wife to sit at.  He asked if we would like to order drinks and I asked for a bottle of the house white.  As he went to get our drinks I began to unfold my serviette and turned to my wife.  As I pulled myself closer to her over the table with said with a hushed tone “Now, I guess everybody is finally welcome to eat at this table”.

What is “The Gospel”?

20130424-064539.jpg

There is an inherent inner tension that consumes many followers of the way. So many feel the conviction in their beliefs about Jesus but are unsure of how to articulate them to a quizzical world. Surely there must be an easy way to justify our deeply held beliefs? It must be possible to reduce the Christian faith into a suitably strong concentrated form that we can keep in the cupboard like stock cubes. Everyone is looking for something beefy that they can easily unwrap when they need it.

Here Tom Wright subtly reframes the questions people are keen to ask.

Instead of the formulaic reductionism that people seek, Wright frames “the gospel” in the context of something much bigger; the whole story. He sets the life of the Christian within the ongoing narrative of God’s interaction with humanity focussing on the person of Jesus Christ. Can you live with the unending quest for that illusive superficial “cure all”? The easily unwrapped gospel flavouring? Or would you rather focus on something much deeper and richer?

The Silent Conspiracy

For the first six weeks of my new role in North Halifax I’ve sounded a bit like a cracked record. As we celebrate the incarnation, we’ve been talking about the incarnate God who steps into the world to bring transformation. The words of Mary in the Magnificat set out the stall for a kingdom where the least in society are held up. At the main celebrations of Christmas I shared Howard Thurman’s poem calling the gathered people to putting their faith in action.

Little did I know that in the coming days I would be amazed to discover that a member of our community was awarded an MBE for just that, a lifetime of work for the good of the community. Archbishop Rowan’s last New Years message is dedicated to encouraging people to “join this silent conspiracy of generous dedication”. This is the work of the local church, a faith in action bringing transformation to the lives of the people we live amongst.

In 2012 we have had a year where the media have been writing their own narrative of The Church (TM) and it is not a story I recognise in the reality of our lives.  We need to continue to faithfully tell our story of God who cares so much about the lives of the least that He inspires us to action in the communities we live in.

The Hobbit

Gandalf

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.

Many people are scared of their calling to follow The Christ.  Surely the Christian life is a super human task carried out by extraordinary individuals like Mother Theresa of Calcutta or Martin Luther King?  A little one like me can’t just slip in quietly by the backdoor and expect to do anything for God!!

This morning’s lectionary reading from Colossians 3:12-17 turns that familiar tale of feelings of inadequacy on its head.  The Christian journey is one of humble compassion, kindness and gentleness binding people together in unity.  We are called to do whatever we do, whether in word or deed in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.