the publisher scm gave cms permission to publish the foreword i wrote to the go between god by john taylor - fire in the bones
i got a copy in the post of missio dei in a digital age edited by jonas kurlberg and peter phillips. i attended a conference back in april 2019 on the theme and presented a paper there which i called mission: an adventure of the (digital) imagination. all those have been worked up into this volume. at the time no one knew that reflecting on mission in relation to digital communication and connection and community would be such a big thing come 2020.
in my chapter i explore how the currency of mission is imagination in relation to culture. the wisdom gleaned from intercultural work is a great resource to reflect on in relation to digital spaces. in a section called imagination, seeing and inventiveness i look at examples from winson green and nomad podcast. my chapter is also a dialogue or riff on pete ward's liquid ecclesiology. love to know what you think if you read it!
it's the kind of book you can dive in where you like and where your interests lie - i found it a really interesting read and think my takeaway was katherine schmidt's down to earth suggestion that "most Christians should be in digital spaces as themselves witnessing to God's mercy through relationships".
that's me done for a while on books i have contributed to (apart from the one i am working on right now of course!)
i seem to be on a liturgy theme this week. so in that vein one of the most natural things to do when crafting prayers, liturgy, a service is to play with the words to make them fit well with the context and with the moment. with technologies of cut and paste this is of course so easy to do. so i was delighted when martin wroe who is a wonderful poet and writer and crafter of words sent me a rework of the communion prayer jesus and the powers that i wrote in july - st luke's holloway have used it in their worship.
if you want or need a practical theology frame of reference or two for this doug gay in his book remixing the church has a brilliant schema of audit | retrieval | unbundling | sampling | remixing and pete ward in introduction to practical theology talks about the processes of remembering | absorbing | noticing | selecting/editing | expressing.
that's not to say everything needs to be messed with - some things are beautifully made and crafted and are artful in their own right. but in the tradition i am in there is not enough play - there is an assumption that there are the 'right words' to use which often ends up being one more area of defendedness rather than open source gift of a tradition that is alive. the reality i suspect is that everyone gets on and remixes anyway - i hope so. most weeks i listen to craig charles funk and soul show on bbc 6 music which is an interesting comparison. the tradition, the old classics get played again and again but they also forever being played with, remixed, reworked, resurfaced. the tradition is a living thing.
martin's email ended by saying
I’ll probably remix it more as time passes… probably you’ll remix it too
exactly! anyway all that to say here is martin's latest remix of the eucharist prayer i wrote back in july. see what you think and by all means download, edit, remix, sample and upload/share...
The Prayer of Thanks
The Lord be with you.
All And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
All We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
All It is right to give God thanks and praise
We give thanks for your life, on this earth, walking by our side.
How you announced a new heaven and a new earth, found at the margins of this world,
an offensive against the strongholds of oppression, the dawn of liberation.
With signs of healing and deliverance
You proclaimed news of another commonwealth,
you chose a life of nonviolent confrontation with the powers of the age.
You restored wholeness to the sick
and those called impure.
You tore down the boundaries of tribe, gender and sexuality
of black and brown and white,
All the walls we build to exclude those whose difference makes us uncomfortable.
You overturned the dynamics of status and honour,
insider and outsider.
With you there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.
Patriarchy, slavery and racism have no place in your new world.
All are made in the divine image,
Everyone included in the revolution
where the last are first.
The powers that be opposed you
We still do.
You chose love over fear.
You were put to death,
lynched and hung on a tree.
In the great reversal of all history,
on the cross you overcame the powers of this world and broke the power of death.
You sang a song of a new heaven and a new earth.
And with angels and saints and all who walk your way.
Still, we join with you, in that song...
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth
are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
When we forget this song, remind us of the tune.
When we lose sight of your way, guide us.
When we despair and are overwhelmed,
send your Spirit to comfort us.
You call us to a conversion of heart,
to turn away from the seductions of empire,
To turn towards a new heaven and earth,
a community of resistance and healing,
gathering at a table where you promise to meet us.
God of all life,
lighten our path to your new commonwealth,
when there is bread and wine, shelter and security,
for all people in all places
when the good earth breathes easy again
and violence and greed are made history.
May our homes be open, our tables welcome,
May this table today be such a place.
May we live from love and not fear.
Gracious God, present with us now in every place and time,
bless this bread and wine with the presence of Jesus.
Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died:
Christ is risen:
Christ will come again.
Among friends, gathered round a table,
Jesus took bread; and when he had blessed it, he broke it and said,
‘Take this and eat it. It is my body. It is given for you.
...Do this to remember me.’
Then later, during the meal,
he took a cup of wine, and when he had given thanks, he said,
‘In this cup is the new relationship with God made possible because of my death.
...Take this, all of you, to remember me.’
We break this bread
To share in the body of Christ.
Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread.
So come to this table,
you who have much faith
and you who would like to have more;
you who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus
and you who feel you have failed;
It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.
this book is simply brilliant. you have to get it! one of our students put me on to it last week and i ordered it straight away and it does not disappoint. if you want to get a feel for it and indeed access lots of the liturgies for free head to reimagingworship.com . these are liturgies in the context of empire written from its margins in places of oppression, poverty, injustice. it's a project of the council of world mission.
i write and curate liturgies and love that in grace the community i am part of that is part of what we do rather than just take worship off some centralised shelf. as i have reflected on why that is impotant i have come over the years to think of liturgy as world making. we live in a world and indeed church that is run on particular logics and imaginaries. where do we find spaces where the world gets unmade and remade? where dominant narratives get subverted and resisted? one place is the arts. but another should be the church. this collection is most definitely world making. as sudipta singh says in the preface
the book is an invitation to resist the temptation to be co-opted by the empire and to find the nerve to come out of the empire creating counter imperial alternatives
honestly this book is so refreshing. so much worship and liturgy can frankly be vacuous. this is anything but.
i submitted my communion prayer on jesus and the powers and it has been accepted on the web site which i am pretty chuffed about too. it feels an honour to contribute to such a project.
one thing that is intriguing is that there are two covers and subtitles - one is praying with people at the ends of the world and the other is prayers in defiance of empire. i love both but the one that arrived for me has the former - does that mean that the uk and usa can't cope with the second title? i have no idea...
thank you to claudio carvalhaes who is the artful curator of this collection and project.
i always mean to blog about brilliant books i read. i add them to a list of ideas for blog posts but it seems to take an age to get onto that with everything else there is to do! but i finally have written a review of anna ruddick's wonderful book reimagining mission from urban places on what she calls missional pastoral care for the latest edition of anvil journal. you have to download the whole thing to get to book reviews so i am posting the review here.
Reimagining Mission From Urban Places by Anna Ruddick
Anna Ruddick was part of the Eden network who, motivated by their faith, moved into urban estates to share the gospel. It was a movement of young adults whose energy and motivation grew out of evangelical festivals and parachurch organisations. Over several years Anna pursued practical theology research to reflect on that movement and mission practice through a blend of ethnographic research, interviews and doing practical theology. Practical theology is paying attention through the research to the lived experience and putting that in conversation with scripture and resources of theology and other disciplines to discern what God is doing or where God is at work. Through that process she develops a framework for mission she names ‘missional pastoral care’ which is intentional missional living shared by seven elements - being among people who are different, living locally, being available, taking practical action, log term commitment, consistency and love. The interviews are with members of the teams and those they got to know.
At the core of her work is the exploration of the gap between the rhetoric of mission that she went with from the evangelical community that sent the teams with its accompanying expectations of what results might look like, and the reality of what actually happened on the ground. All sorts of good things took place which led to flourishing and genuine transformation but those that went on mission found that both mission and their evangelicalism were changed in the process.
If you are a practitioner or pioneer in a context like this this book will be invaluable. The approach makes so much sense. And it’s a relief because there is an honesty about the reality of what mission is like perhaps summed up in one of the chapter titles “If it’s messy, slow and complicated you’re probably doing something right.”. Through her interviews and reflections on them Anna pays attention to how lives change in slow and messy ways. The changes are real and blend shifts in perspective and meaning making alongside or within an environment that loves and affirms people for who they are over the long term. It’s an approach that chimes well with Sam Wells discussion of being with rather than fixing people. And I really liked the way the whole was framed with mission as what God is doing in the world which we join in with.
However it is not just a book for practitioners. Anna’s discussion over two chapters of what good news is and of evangelicals’ tribe and identity and how it could respond to the mission challenges and context we are in is so good and so important. I fear it may not get the audience it deserves because it’s tucked in what looks like a book for practitioners. She writes as an insider to the tribe which is important to say so it’s written in a tone of careful consideration and appeal to that community. She unpacks the evangelical mission narrative and says that there is a mismatch between that and the realities of mission engagement on the ground. This arises because there is a rejection of context. She then develops an alternative mission narrative which I found compelling framed as it is with the discovery that God is present and at work in the world with people in the community who are made in God’s image. She then unpacks evangelical identity and where it has come from and suggests it could evolve in four ways - firstly revisiting epistemology in response to our time and place (rather the time and place from which it arose); secondly relaxing a concern for protecting evangelical identity and aligning with the incoming kingdom of God in the world; thirdly good-newsness in mission impulse and passionate piety; and lastly a bigger story reframing the doctrinal priorities of evangelical theology. There is not space to elaborate on these here but I really commend that section of the book and hope it gets picked up for wider conversation. There has always been a strain of evangelicalism with which that would all resonate - CMS at its best has been in that flow in my opinion. There were a couple of points where Anna’s writing reminded me of John Taylor’s writing for example.
Lastly just to state the obvious, this is a UK book on mission. This is significant because it chimes with the UK context really well in ways that say American books on mission (of which there are many more) simply don’t. It is gritty and missiologically brilliant. It’s also a very welcome counter voice to the results driven approach that seems to be dominating for example the Church of England’s investment in mission through the Church Commissioners monies. I think Anna is a wonderful practical theologian and this is exactly the sort of thinking that the church needs right now.
a new issue of anvil journal has landed exploring mission and the arts. the articles, reflections and video interviews all came out of the pioneer conversations day last year. it was the first one i have missed as i was in new zealand (a good excuse!) so it's great to be able to catch up on it. it's edited by sarah clarke who put the day together. as you'll know if you follow my blog or just if you know me, the arts and creativity are something i am passionate about. there are lots of really interesting articles and video interviews.
unusually for me i started with the videos and really enjoyed the video interview with david benjamin blower which i have embedded above where he explores the connection between artists and prophets. i love his article as well - artists in a time of challenge and collapse where he explores the importance of artists freedom from serving an institutions structures and aims. he has a four track album apocalyptic lockdown blues that really catches the moment we are in too that you might want to check out.
i am delighted to say that a new edition of the go between god by john taylor is out this weekend. it is a magnificent book on the holy spirit in mission. this is john taylor's best known book and scm have decided to re-issue it in the wake of imagining mission drawing attention to his work.
i have written the foreword to this edition which i was so happy to be asked to do. i confess i have never written a foreword before and found it quite a daunting thing to write for such a beautiful book. i hope i have done it justice but in the end who remembers a foreword anyway so i think i can relax - the task is to point to the book itself! do have a read if you have not come across it. here's one short excerpt from my foreword which highlights taylor's thinking about little congregations being a forerunner to fresh expressions perhaps?
In an extraordinary passage that foresees the fresh expressions movement, Taylor goes on to suggest that expressions of church should be as close to the life of people as possible. The ideal shape of church is that which provides the least possible withdrawal of Christians from life in the world. He envisages little congregations that are small enough for mutual awareness and large enough to embody the kingdom in their fellowship. These should not be seen collectively as a halfway house to draw people back into proper church or as an interim structure ‒ they are church. It is also the perfect place to share bread and wine round a coffee table without religiosity, the normal way the majority of Christians can make communion central to their lives. And with a sense of urgency he says he is not talking about twenty years’ time, but now. The Spirit is on the move at the growing edges, and the church should recognize it and make it easy for people by taking away red tape. Too many people view these little congregations as peripheral or subnormal, he says. He imagines the parish like a cathedral or a minster, gathering the varied smaller units so they are not too ingrown. But for him small is normative if the church is to respond to the life of the Spirit in the world. It is a truly remarkable chapter both in its imagining of what has come to pass and of the way the church has continued to struggle with the ‘sin of rigidity’, and we are fifty years on.
we had cms pioneer graduation on zoom this year. it's tough for students not being able to gather but the group that had planned it did an amazing job and i thought it was a wonderful occasion. this is cathy and i talking to the screen! there's a write up on the pioneer blog here
every year we give those graduating a gift to remember the pioneer journey. iain cotton who is a sculptor has makes a set of tiles which each represents a new pathway across a landscape. it also looks like a script, a new language. every year he gives it a different twist. the theme of this year's celebration was shifting sands and this is what he says about this year's design...
This years awards take on this theme of shifting sands.The stones themselves are cut from Capton Red Sandstone. Ancient compressed desert. Carved into tough landscapes with shifting dune topographies. These stones are traversed by gilded texts; fragments of an ancient prayer of the Church that seems a good fit for these strange days. Kyrie Eleison. Kyrie Eleison. Kyrie eleison.
there were video messages from friends round the world, some lovely montages, the graduation itself and the planning group had commissioned harry baker to write a poem on the theme which was poignant as ever...
Shifting Sands [by Harry Baker]
The ground beneath our feet is unfamiliar
That is not to say we’ve not been here before
Our frames of reference may have shifted,
Or indeed still be shifting But may you bring us in to land on the un-shore
May we not mourn for what is lost but find new form from what it was
Not see before as something gone but something we can springboard from,
What if we saw this new terrain as new training ground
What if it’s not the way we came so much the way we‘re changed that counts
It’s not how we got here but how we get from here that takes us now
May we embrace that close relationship of faith and doubt
When every single one of us has come from the unknown
As we re-enter may we sense that we’ve come home
What if instead of investing in the specifics of the route
We could remember what we did and how we felt that got us through
What if the measure wasn’t what we knew but what we chose to do
What if the limit wasn’t if we could but if we wanted to
When the ground moves beneath us, may it not be beneath us to be moved
May all that is contained in you make you able to continue
The fact this is unsettling is barely worth a mention
Since when has settling been the intention?
Though it is tempting to attempt to shape things how they were before
May we be brave enough to crave for something more
When every single one of us has come from the unknown
As we re-enter may we sense that we’ve come home
i have become more and more fascinated by processes of creativity and imagination. when we sent in the first draft of imagining mission we had some push back from the editor asking for some examples of how what we were describing played out. i actually like it when editors push back and think they should do so more to be honest. but i think we felt that wasn't the kind of book we were trying to write or at least some examples might limit the possibility of how peoples own thinking was provoked. but what it did lead to was us thinking that quite often church leaders feel pressure to be creative but don't necessarily know how to do that if they are not used to it or are not in environments where it is encouraged. so the change we did make was to write a section at the end of each chapter on exercising creativity taking a particular idea and then giving some exercises. i really love those parts and think they work as a standalone too.
as a sort of follow up to that and to celebrate the book i am running a series of free webinars in january just imagine one evening a week for an hour. in those i will have three different guests each time and we'll pick a theme for exercising creativity and play with it. go here to find out more and sign up. there are 500 places i think so hopefully room for everybody! now i need to think what do in the sessions!
when you publish a book it's quite common to invite respected writers and thinkers to read a copy and make a comment. it's weird pushing a book as it feels like showing off or something! but i am going to be very unenglish and say this. stephen bevans made a comment that is on the back of the book. he is one of my heroes and i am happy to say has become a good friend. his writing and thinking in contextual theology and mission is amazing. this is what he said about the book
This is one of the most significant books I have ever read. Cathy and Jonny have tapped into a source that can revolutionise our understanding of church, and the mission that calls church forth. Tylor's creativity and imagination and Cathy and Jonny's as well can stir up the creativity and imagination that is latent in us all to leap over the wall. [Stephen Bevans]
when i read that i thought i could retire as i probably can't top it - so kind!
the good news for those of you who expressed interest in the cards of quotes is that i have now ordered decks of cards. they will be delivered to me in early january and i'll be in touch as to how you can get them. there will be a few extras if you missed out but essentially it is a limited edition - i am quite excited about it! this is the top of the box. i have made a slide set of the cards on flickr which anyone is welcome to use - if you do please mention john taylor as the quotes are his and ideally the book that they are from - imagining mission. thanks!
we had a morning this week exploring what it might mean to decolonise the curriculum in the pioneer training we do at cms. anthony reddie led the conversation and was so helpful both through what he said but also by suggesting we were all in this together (though the reality of course is that he has processed this a lot more than the rest of us). i think it’s going to percolate and will take a while for us to work out what we do as a result.
decolonising is about deconstructing colonial ideologies of the superiority and privilege of western thought and approaches. for some this might seem a strange idea to apply to theology but it doesn’t take long to realise that along with the expansion of empire the west exported western theology as though it was universal. this has had to be unpicked all round the world and it is still an ongoing process. i was recently reminded of it through kimson nguyen’s fantastic book on contextual theology in vietnam where he is seeking to develop a contextual theology that the vietnamese connect with but without wanting to betray the theology of the vietnamese evangelical church whose theology is from a particular american evangelical mission organisation. i was also really provoked to think about this in my visit to new zealand earlier this year. of course there is nothing wrong with the west having theology or theologies. but the point is they are simply local or contextual theology. the challenge is when that way of theologising is imposed on others. it would be interesting if a doctrine class was labelled as modern european theology for example, or a class was taught labelled white theology. but it’s never labelled that way. this is to do with many things but the process of deconstruction is important because when you are in a position of power, dominance or simply privilege you tend not to see there is an issue - you just assume it’s just the way things are.
maybe an example will help. anthony reminded us of an article in the book voices from the margins called a native american perspective: canaanites, cowboys, and indians. in it by robert allen warrior writes from the perspective of indigenous first nation people in north america. he points out the story of exodus which is used as the story of liberation for many is a story of oppression if you are the ones who are being driven out of the land! i found the same to be true when i visited a centre for palestinian theology many years ago - they too identified with the canaanites in the story and turn to other narratives to find hope for freedom from oppression.
it’s the encounter with someone else and their take that enriches your perspective and helps you hold a bit more lightly to your own ways of seeing things. this is why multiplicity of views is so helpful - we learn from others and it reminds us that we see in part rather than have the right way of knowing or seeing or acting. that process can be painful when for example we get confronted with the realisation that our ways of knowing or acting have colluded with powers that oppress others and we have been blind to it. read any feminist, womanist, black, liberation, queer, disabled or whatever theology from the margins and that is bound to be challenging but it is also a wonderful gift.
we looked at modules we teach and i do think at cms we are exposed to multiple cultures so are very aware of contextual theology and being part of a global conversation but it is good to be pressed on how we construct learning spaces and curriculum for students and what voices we elevate in our recommendations for reading without realising it. it’s helpful to realise that it is important to expose them to multiple stories and takes and to show that theology is contested rather than just learning the right doctrine or whatever. i do think this is still a problem in the church in different streams whether the church culture and identity is constructed around believing particular truths which can easily mean a particular narrow take that is being universalised, or whether it is convinced that its way of doing church and liturgy and so on is the right way. as i said on a previous post this is a particular church of england problem which is easily on its high horse in this area. the superiority that is at the heart of a colonial mindset has shaped our imagination more than we like too admit i think. so anthony was helpfully suggesting that all of us need openness to be deconstructed ourselves and it is essential to hear from others.
cathy posted this week’s john taylor quote and image on her facebook page about academic ostriches which seems very apt - i think john taylor was thinking theology can have its head in the sand because it’s not engaged with practice on the ground. but it’s equally the case we can have our head in the sand because we are simply not looking around at other voices, stories and narratives. this is actually why at cms we try to frame our teaching of theology and mission through contextual and global theology rather than by teaching systematic theology or doctrine as the frame - our sense is it is more helpful that that gets located or framed as a local theology in a global conversation (and one that came from quite a different era).
anyway lots to ponder. i now have a load more books to read to help me think about it but it’s also about action
#ImaginingMission - still available here
the last issue of anvil journal faultlines in mission: reflections on race and colonialism is so interesting, so good and so challenging. i really do encourage you to have a read of it. i wrote a couple of book reviews for it. as the reviews come at the end i am not sure how many people make it that far! so i thought i'd pull out my book review of james cone's the cross and the lynching tree' and add it to the blog so here it is...
On June 3 2020 Chance the Rapper tweeted “Jesus was lynched”. This tweet was liked 62 000 times. He then proceeded to follow it up with some quotes from an article entitled the Cross and the Lynching Tree, which is the title of James Cone’s book from 2011. The article was by Steve Holloway and was a review of the book prompted by Cone’s death. I don’t think Chance the Rapper had read James Cone’s book but I suspect that probably it was the highest profile comment in pop culture about it. I hope it got some new readers as a result. Being America of course the comments were suitably polarised and ridiculous. One accused him of blasphemy saying Jesus wasn’t lynched he was crucified which was kind of missing the point! The reason I mention this as a way into a review is that I think my own education about racism and injustice has been in some significant part through black music - soul, reggae, hip hop, Afrobeat to name a few genres. Artists feel the culture and somehow find ways to articulate something of the pain, grief and mood of the times and where appropriate call forth a different vision, a different possibility. In this regard art and prophecy are close friends. The most helpful response for me personally after George Floyd’s death aside from Al Sharpton’s magnificent eulogy was actually Gilles Petersen’s selection of music and comments and guests on BBC6Music in the two weeks after. I found it a lot more helpful than what i heard in churches - in fact it struck me how few hymns or contemporary songs there are that really spoke into that moment in any concrete or grounded way.
Chapter 4 of James Cone’s book is about literary artists and the connections they made between the crucifixion and the lynching tree. For me it was the most moving chapter of the book and I followed it up by finding some of the pieces online which also led to finding illustrations of the black Christ identifying with the suffering of those lynched. What is particularly striking about that chapter is that it comes in the wake of a discussion about the absence of the connection between the cross and the lynching tree in the theologies of the best white theologians of the day and the pulpits in white churches. Cone devotes a chapter to Niebuhr and goes to great lengths to reflect on this absence in Niebuhr’s work because he was probably America’s most influential theologian, commented on social issues and Cone was very influenced by him following in his footsteps at Union Theological Seminary in New York. As Cone says, it is extraordinary that this connection was not made. He contrasts that with a moving chapter on Martin Luther King who makes those connections and whose life was one shaped by the way of the cross. I don’t know why I say that is a moving chapter because every chapter I mention I will say is moving! A case in point is the chapter on black women’s experience of suffering, their part in activism and black womanist theological perspectives. I was reminded by that of Billie Holliday’s rendition of Strange Fruit which I listened to several times as a result of the book (Nina Simone’s is powerful too).
The book opened my eyes to how prevalent lynching was. I knew about it but the scale and horror of the experience was really brought home to me by Cone’s book. Between 1880 to 1940 white Christians lynched 5000 black men and women. These lynchings drew huge crowds and families came out to watch. Photos of the event were turned into postcards that you could buy. Cone references an exhibition that shocked America by touring these postcards - I found some of the images online. It is so hard to believe and fathom the reality of that black experience in America and that white Christians did it - I found it important for me to look at it and try and see it as best I could without averting my gaze.
James Come is brutally honest about his own struggle - white supremacy tears faith to pieces he says. If God loves black people why do they suffer? And yet the heart of the gospel is struggle for freedom and liberation from oppression. The cross is an empowering sign for those who suffer because of God’s loving solidarity with them. It’s also where the powers and principalities are overcome. And it has to be related to our social reality rather than abstracted. So Cone is right to say that Jesus was a lynchee and make that connection. And he says that every time a white mob lynched a black person they lynched Jesus all over again. “The lynching tree is the cross in America”. At the same time he laments that many white theologians theology of atonement (which they are very defended about) fails to name or recognise white supremacy as America’s great sin. It is in danger of being sentimental abstract false piety.
In the conclusion he quotes from James Baldwin who says he is proud of the spiritual force and beauty of black people in America. Why? Because “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck”. I was in pieces at that point.
I love liberation theologies but it was actually as a result of twitter that I read it. It wasn’t Chance’s tweet but Bishop Emma Ineson said she was going to read it. At that point I was so upset about George Floyd’s murder and wondering what on earth i could or should do that I ordered the book and thought I’ll at least read that and try and get a bit better educated. It really has done that in a powerful way.
the latest issue of anvil journal (which is free online) is on faultlines in mission reflections on race and colonialism - sctroll to the bottom of the page to download the complete issue. in the wake of george floyd's murder as with other areas of society it seemed a good chance to shine a light on the area of mission and ponder it's history and practices and the degree to which they are framed and shaped by empire and colonialism. it's guest edited by harvey kwiyani, lusa nsenga-ngoy, and shemil matthew - huge thanks to them! it's powerful and hard hitting. there's a lot to digest.
i read harvey and lusa's articles at breakfast today. harvey says that mission as we think of it today is a european construct out of an era of empire and colonialism so it's logic and imagination are tied in to narratives of superiority. for example he says
In a nutshell then, the very concept of mission as we understand it today has racism and white supremacy in its DNA.
i love mission as a way of framing so this is a jolt but as paul thaxter reflects in his afterword i am definitely guilty of telling inspiring stories of those who have done mission on the inside of cultures well and resisted empire but i am sure that in doing so i have been blinder to and not told other equally true and real stories. i was wrestling with this issue in my visit to new zealand. harvey recounts the story of mission in malawi as one example. his article begs the question of what mission might look like after george floyd. this piece reminded me that i have not yet written the last blog post in the series of reflections on mission after my visit to new zealand which is due to be on post colonial mission and whether such a thing is possible... i'll get back to it before long - life took over!
lusa's article is wonderful. he explores how imagining a different kind of world and future is essential for there to be change. it's actually a piece that would have been perfect for the book future present. he suggest that imagination is a tool for resistance and has powered radical changes in history. our imagination is easily colonised by the iconography of the world around us but needs freeing and maybe it is artists and prophets and dreamers of a better world who will interrupt our imagining to reframe it. afrofuturism is just such a kind of imagining - think black panther for example.
i have plenty more articles to read...
do download it (or read it online). and we hope it sparks conversation, reflection, awareness, new imaginings of what world and future is possible for the church, christianity and mission and what changes might be required as steps towards that new world..
some years back i did an installation called red tape which had a bible wrapped in red tape, a dog collar made of red tape and bread and wine ring fenced by red tape. looking back i think it must have been a moment where i was particularly frustrated with the church and its controls! i am amazed cms let me get away with at a public event - the photos are here. anyway all that to say that this week's john taylor quote from our book imagining mission uses a photo from that.
here's cathy's reflection on it
There is no such thing as safe theology. I wonder why we ever thought there was! God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not safe! We know the Spirit is wild, free and unpredictable. How have we so domesticated Jesus and theology? How have we made it all so tame, mundane and frankly boring?! Is it centuries of patriarchy? Empire? White fragility? Certainly these did not help. But we all collude somehow. Let's free ourselves of trying to protect God, police boundaries and monitor sound theology. But is this anarchy? Is this relativism? Well what did we have before? Regulatory order? Conformity? Hierarchy? Conscious and unconscious bias? I realise this is rather binary but it is only a short post! Let's trust in the power and guidance of the Spirit and try to be free to dream more expansively, imagine more generatively and theologise boldly. Let's live by courageous faith and not by fear. If mission is an adventure of the imagination, then theology is no longer safe.
10 years ago today was the first teaching day of pioneer mission leadership training at cms! i honestly can't believe it has been ten years. i was asked by cms to set training up in response to an invitation from the church of england. i knew lots about mission practice and not a lot about theological education but i like a challenge and so dived in.
we began with 9 students on 25 sept 2010. it was a steep learning curve but has been a wonderful adventure. little by little we have grown what we do so that now there is a wonderful network/community of pioneers around the country doing amazing things and some really great training to help support them in our oxford centre and in hubs round the country. we have published books, articles, journals to keep the conversation moving forward.
and there is a story about 10 years of pioneers here.
thank you to everyone who has been part of that journey - team, pioneer students, cms, friends who have cheered us on. it has been good. i am very happy about what we have been able to create, and our contribution to the wider mission of the church. cms is such a great home for pioneers.
one of the parts of writing imagining mission that i really enjoyed were the sections at the end of each chapter on creativity and imagination. counter intuitively creativity can be helped by having limits within which to work. i was reminded of the quote above from john taylor when the rule of six was introduced. this is a limit but it calls for creative responses. taking church as an example how can church work, grow and be if limited to homes and groups of six? when you stop and think about it there have been loads of times and places where the church has only been able to meet in homes and has flourished. i think i would go so far as to say that households is the most natural habitat for communities of disciples. i realise the photo above is six people plus a foot if you look closely and it's not a home but you get the idea!!
if you'd like to find out a bit more about the book we have a book launch on october 1 which is online and free - register here - love to see you there.
we are having an online book launch on october 1 to celebrate imagining mission being published - you'll have to bring your own bubbly or other drink (sorry!). there are 100 places - click here to register and you will be emailed the link. john taylor's thinking is so relevant for now. in the book we soak ourselves in his mission thinking and respin it for today. we're delighted john's daughter joanna will be joining us. love to see you there.
"Cherish the weakness of limited means" is one of my favourite John Taylor quotations that we reflect on in the book with Jonny Baker. Taylor used it in the context as to how an institution could recapture its dynamism to become a movement again. This seems a word for our times. Let's cherish weakness and vulnerability, uncertainty and inability to fix things. This will put us in line with most of the rest of the world. Let's also use our imaginations instead of relying on assumed ways of doing things. Cherish weakness and we may be surprised what lies ahead.
you can order imagining mission here
it was a lot of of fun working on the book imagining mission. one of the things i did earlier this year when i was working on it was lift out some phrases that i really liked and put them with some of my photos. i think of taylor's phrases a bit like marshall mcluhan - provocations or discussion starters to ponder - that were ahead of their time and seem as poignant now as they were 50 years ago. it's also i hope a fun or creative way to give a flavour of the book. cathy and i will take turns in reflecting on those - probably twenty or so. i will add them to a photo album on flickr which you are welcome to downlaod photos from and use. i have made them into a set of moo cards for myself which make good discussion starters (though the fonts are a bit small on some - they work better on a full screen). if anyone is interested in a set of those let me know and i can order a few - they aren't that cheap but you can have them cost price. message me if that's of interest and i'll compile a list.
first up then: an adventure of the imagination.
this comes from a reflection on an extended time he spent in africa living in villages. taylor is thinking about how different the culture of paganism is on the african plains and he wonders if christ came into the world of africans in an african way whether the rest of the church would recognise him? he says that any attempt to look upon the world through african eyes must involve an adventure of the imagination. i absolutely love this way of conceiving of mission. as we are all too painfully aware the sharing of faith has often gone with the sharing of culture because we mistake the good news of jesus christ with the cultural clothes that the church expresses faith in. the challenge should be to simply share the story and let insiders to a culture respond to that in their way. that is essentially an imaginative act. and i do like the thought that it should be pushed to the degree that we might not even recognise it.
it's no longer news to say that the west is a context for mission. and we have exactly the kind of question taylor was pondering in africa here. church is foreign to many people - they way things are done is just different, strange, inaccessible - and that's the case whether it is pentecostal, liturgical, or contemporary. things need to be done in a way that is as close as possible to peoples natural way of being and doing life - it's obvious isn't it!? the adventure of the imagination is to let go of our way of doing things, our religious sweet tooth and simply go on an adventure of the imagination to see what emerges. the last 30 years or so in england and other western contexts have seen a wave of experimentation and a loosening of wider church structures with emerging churches, fresh expressions, alternative worship and so on but there is so much more possibility, so much more adventuring that could be done. and sad to say there is still way too much fear, anxiety, defendedness and control in the structures that make the simple error of confusing the gospel with the way we do things round here.
[i have some books and happy to sell you one if you are nearby but with coronavirus that is unlikely i guess but you can order here from the publisher or any other bookstore online i imagine]
with pioneer students who train with us at CMS we have observed an experience of theological homelessness. it was cathy ross who came up with this term and i have found it really helpful. it's probably true of any good education process that you need to let go of some of your old certainties and ways of understanding to be open to new vistas. this can be challenging for students because it can feel like the rug is pulled from under their feet but getting lost is an important practise in mission. with phones now it's much harder than it used to be to wander off the familiar path into the unknown and genuinely get lost. a key challenge in crossing borders in mission is to find ways of being, speaking and acting that make sense in that context and not in the one you have come from. that generally involves shutting up and listening and observing and finding people who become guides and friends in the new space otherwise the faith simply sounds like it's from somewhere else, i.e. it's foreign. that's why letting go is so important. students then begin to discover new conversation partners and find new language and new ways home in mission theology, hopefully that arise out of the communities they are pioneering in and with.
anyway all that is to say that cathy and i have published an article on it - theological homelessness:getting lost to find a new way home which involves some research with students and their experience. we actually wrote it a while back so i am glad it has finally come to see the light of day. we introduce what i think is a helpful and probably important idea of undefended theology - this is lifted from simon walker's term of undefended leadership. so much of the church's posture is defended around right ways of doing things, right belief, right theology (and right always seems to mean our way of doing things!). so how can we be much more undefended so that our take on things is open to be in conversation and share the wisdom from being round the table with other theologies and takes.
let me know what you think...
this is in the latest issue of anvil journal which has got some fantastic articles in it which nearly all came out of a gathering, the hui, we had with others last summer engaged in mission education geared towards the practice of mission and pioneering. i really love how anvil journal has turned out. it's a good issue that cathy has edited!
i really loved reading ghost ship by a d a france williams. i read through it in just over a day - in other words i didn't put it down a lot! it's addressing institutional racism in the church of england but it's not quite what you think. a book like that sounds like it's going to make a case, an argument and perhaps dare i say be a bit dry and perhaps overly earnest (sorry if that is a thought i shouldn't be having). but it's far from that...
first up i loved the style of writing of the book. it's playful, cheeky, provocative, powerful and has you nodding along and then slaps you round the head. it reminds me a bit of going to poetry gigs where that happens all the time - poets seem to move really fast from one mode to another like no other kind of speech in my experience. maybe that shouldn't be a surprise because azariah is a poet and there are several of his poems in the book. there's metaphor, poetry, story, anecdote, vulnerability, theology (that is inside the flow of local, contextual, liberation theology), exegesis, research, history, moving personal testimony with heart on the sleeve writing that is vulnerable and questioning with raw honesty. it's inspring, challenging and moving. it's a work of practical liberation theology if that is a genre (?!) in that it is very much a conversation between experience/context and the tradition/bible/theology and it's very much theology done from below through the eyes and experience of the oppressed calling for change, liberation, freedom, an end to the domination system. for me it's the kind of theologising i wish there was a whole lot more of.
one of the stylistic things i particularly loved was the way he sits inside a story or metaphor and sticks with that language and carries it through into a repeating motif almost - it's probably more commonly used in oratory than writing but it really worked for me to the degree that i have made a mental note to try and do it more myself both in writing and speaking. so for example he tells the story of samson in the bible, someone subjugated to a dominant aggressor. he reads it back through a lens of samson being a black slave and the philistines being the slaver class. this is a story black theologians in america in particular have often turned to so williams locates himself in the trajectory of black theology here. at one point in his telling of the story where samson sets a riddle he imagines the philistine slavers put their drinks down, wipe the froth of their mouth and have him repeat the riddle. later in the text when he describes discussing his writing with a white area bishop he says 'he put his drink down, wiped the froth off his mouth looked me in the eye and said...' . i loved those kind of moves which are playful in style but so powerful and well done. there are surprises all the way through. he follows up on samson with a spin on charlie and the chocolate factory - i won't do a plot spolier but it is a great piece of story telling and research.
the message which perhaps i should have led with is pretty clear and hits you from multiple directions and layers - the church of england has not done well when it comes to race and in the case of this book especially w.r.t. its ministers lay and ordained. black and brown people are not flourishing. racism is embedded in the systems and culture - in other words its institutionalised. in case we were unsure about this those experiences come through time and again through williams interviews with people in those positions with black and brown skin. that is their experience full stop. he also looks at the last 30 years or so of what has happened since the faith in the city report. that report was brilliant and i didn't know this but one recommendation was not picked up - all the others were. that was for a commission on black concerns. it's truly extraordinary to read the tale. williams catalogues occasion after occasion where decisions were deferred to a standing committee ('ronald and reggie' as he labels them - the c of e bouncers or gatekeepers) who basically don't do anything. he laments justin welby's reimagined britain and shares his own personal experiences in shiny church as he calls it (read powerful london evangelical charismatic church) where the only option seemed to be to perform as a puppet for dagon (back to the samson story) reduced to the role of entertainer for the show. anything else was not welcome - and just to be clear that anything else is the incredible gift of williams himself with his creative theologising, insights, care, love for the church, prophetic gifts, teaching gifts, the ability to see with black eyes, to write, to be a poet, a friend who cares and so on and so on - so much is missed.
this was a weird response in me i noticed. i began to wonder what is whiteness and what is entitlement. i am white heterosexual educated male so i have no idea what it is like to experience being invisible or shunned or mistreated or dominated because of skin tone (or sex or gender or sexuality or class and so on) and i like the challenge of interrogating whiteness. but i have always hated entitlement which is summed up by one passage where williams describes the public school network reuniting over a game of diocesan cricket as a light bulb moment where he realises he does not have access. to say it another way i identify with many of the issues around visibility, injustice and exclusion and access and they make me enraged and i suspect quite a lot of pioneers do too because for very different reasons they see differently and what they are saying is invisible to the system. perhaps it is simply that they hang around on the periphery - that was a kind of weird question for me that i wasn't expecting. but this book is about race and there is simply a different order to the injustice and experience which is brought home as williams shares movingly the experience of being heartbroken when his own child is struggling with their own sense of worth having been subjected to racist comments at school. i felt so upset about that. i know that for me as a parent and for my kids we will never experience that because of white privilege.
azariah does some future imagining and makes some suggestions. i thought they were great. i'd love to see a truth and reparations process. there is no reason i can see why there couldn't be some of the church commsisioners money that was set aside to invest in black and brown futures through grants, scholarships, and all sorts of other creative things - i thought that was a brilliant idea.
for me i found the book really helped my awareness, though i need ongoing sensitising and awareness so i hope through conversations and friends and reading i can continue to do that. but a particular challenge in my area of work is around what texts we use in theological and mission education and what voices contribute in teaching. so i intend to sharpen up that area. we are pretty unusual at cms i suspect in that we teach systematic theology as simply being one local (western) theology among many and try and expose students to multiple voices and authors from round the world. i am not a fan of a systematic approach at all really. but we can do better i am sure so we'll be chatting about that in our team over the months ahead.
writing a book is such a big effort especially when you make yourself vulnerable and put yourself on the line. so thank you azariah for your book and your gift and sharing it and so much of yourself. may we have ears to hear.