Thinning it at Ffald-y-Brenin

I was sitting in the chapel at Ffald-y-Brenin, when I began to wonder how the rocks in it – which are such a striking and unusual feature – arrived there in the first place. The door and windows were far too small, and I couldn’t see any cut marks on the stone. Perhaps the boulders were dragged into place and then built around? But as the chapel has an ancient feel to it, I was particularly puzzled, and was intrigued to find out more.

The chapel at Ffald-y-Brenin

The chapel at Ffald-y-Brenin

The chapel was actually built fairly recently, around 1987. When the ground was being levelled and cleared, it was discovered that the large rocks were not boulders that could be shifted, but part of the bedrock of the hill itself. They considered blasting it with dynamite, but then decided to make the rocks a feature instead. In this they were completely successful! While in the chapel it is not hard to think of scriptures like Psalm 62:

Truly my soul finds rest in God;
    my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
    he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

In Celtic spirituality, there is a concept of ‘thin places’, where the veil between Earth and Heaven appears to be very thin. Frankly, I was sceptical about this and wasn’t sure that such places existed. However, the chapel at Ffald-y-Brenin is one: it’s a place where it feels easy to rest in God’s presence while there.

But there is a place close by where the veil is even thinner: this is the High Cross. I went with some scepticism but was unexpectedly amazed by the experience there – even though it was a damp, grey day! It’s quite hard to explain what it felt it like there: I’ve been on enough hilltops and seen enough views to know that this was not a case of ‘Wow, what a view’, but really felt that the Celtic concept of a thin place was highly applicable.

The warden at Ffald-y-Brenin, Roy Godwin, describes the placement of the cross in his book, ‘The Grace Outpouring’. While praying one day in 2004 he had a vision from God of a cross that was to placed at a particular spot. He asked the groundsman, who strongly objected that the location was solid rock, and set out to prove the point. Instead the ground gave way at the exact point Roy had specified, and the groundsman extracted a cone of rock that left a ready-made hole in which to insert the cross.

The High Cross also seems to reinforce the ‘rock’ theme of Ffald-y-Brenin: the solid bedrock in the chapel and at the outcrop graphically symbolises the steadfastness and trustworthiness of God – but the God of the cross is sovereign even over seemingly impenetrable geology.

The High Cross at Ffald-y-Brenin

The High Cross at Ffald-y-Brenin

Had the weather not been so grim I would have lingered longer – but I am hoping to return there with Jen in the new year!

Thinking about communion

The dodo and the communion set: so which is interpreting the other?

The dodo and the communion set: so which is interpreting the other?

There’s an excellent sculpture exhibition, Crucible2, at Gloucester Cathedral at the moment. I was intrigued, though, that of the one hundred sculptures, four were of dodos… it’s curious that there should be such a high number of an extinct flightless bird, which is often used as a symbol of an inability to adapt! It occurred to me that the exhibition curator might be taking the mick… However there was an intriguing juxtaposition in the blue chapel, where a priest had left a communion set right next to a sculpture of a dodo skeleton. This set me thinking.

The dodo could, of course, be intended as a critique of religion: hugging ancient traditions in a way that belongs to a past era, and – like a flightless bird – can’t adapt to the new cultural realities around. But the communion set is a symbol of resurrection from the dead – of the son of God rising again after being executed. Death is a biological reality, not a cultural statement. Therefore, a message of resurrection from the dead – that death is not the end – is an eternal message, not a cultural commentary.

I’d been thinking about communion recently, having been asked to write an essay on ‘Being a priest at the Eucharist’. The challenge for me as a Pentecostal Anglican is that, when Jesus broke bread and gave it to his disciples, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me”. If we are to be obedient to Jesus’s command, and to do so with appropriate reverence and meaning, we need to do some liturgy: the key question now is how to do this in a meaningful way in the 21st century. How do we make sure that the liturgy does not become flightless?

One of the biggest surprises to me in my first year of being a priest is how much I have been impacted by doing communion services from the Book of Common Prayer. I remain as unconvinced as ever about the sense of using 17th century language in the 21st century – but I have learned to admire and respect Cranmer’s liturgy.

It’s the logical structure that most impresses me. To take one example, there is the famous prayer:

“We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies”.


Ecce homo

The location of this prayer in Cranmer’s BCP makes perfect sense, as it comes just after we’ve confessed our sins (therefore acknowledging that we can’t trust in our own righteousness), and just before the eucharistic prayer (preparing to come to the Lord’s table). By contrast, in Common Worship it is tacked on long after the end of the eucharistic prayer, even after the words, ‘Draw near with faith’ – which should be an invitation to come to the altar rail. This is a very poor location for a beautiful prayer, and merely distends the time from the eucharistic prayer to receiving the bread and wine.

This has made me realise the importance of having a clear theology underlying a liturgy. Using contemporary language is essential – but the effect of it is undermined if the theology is not properly thought through.

Cranmer’s liturgy was written in English so that it might be accessible to lay people – rather than in the Latin of the Catholic church of the time. I cannot help thinking that he would be horrified to discover that significant numbers of churches still use his liturgy, thus making it inaccessible to many people today. Clinging to 17th language is like a bird clinging to the ground and refusing to take flight: it may survive for a time, but is poorly equipped to adapt to changing circumstances.

The challenge today is to produce liturgies that are meaningful in a culture which is increasingly post-modern and post-Christendom: the old assumption that everyone had at least a basic understanding of Christianity is no longer valid. The message of the gospel of Christ is as relevant as it has ever been – but the way it is packaged and presented needs to be adapted. Liturgy is part of that wrapping.

Not being an expert on liturgy (my Pentecostal background remains a major influence on me!), I am conscious that there are probably good examples of which I am not aware of. If so – I would appreciate readers adding a comment below, as this will help me in my own thinking.

The dodo became extinct partly because it had lost its ability to fly. Liturgy that no longer flies will also go extinct. Yesterday morning while having breakfast, I watched a flock of racing pigeons just after they had been released: a bird which is a strong flyer with a clear sense of direction. The Holy Spirit is often symbolised as a dove: let those racing pigeons be a more appropriate symbol of Christian faith in the 21st century than a dodo!

Racing pigeons by Mike Hazzledine (from here)

Racing pigeons by Mike Hazzledine (from here)

Getting inspiration from the right source

Last week I was up in Harrogate for a few days at the New Wine Leaders’ conference. Never having been to one before, I was unsure what it would be like – but it was actually very inspiring.

Christy Wimber at the New Wine leaders' conference

Christy Wimber was passionate about leaders keeping God as the top priority of their lives

Christy Wimber’s opening talk stressed how important it is for leaders to get their joy and satisfaction primarily from God. If we don’t receive from the Lord enough, we risk placing too much pressure on those around us. Then we are in danger of things like burnout and disillusionment – and we end up as one of the many leaders who fail to finish well. God’s voice has to be the one which is loudest in our lives.

For me Christy’s talk set exactly the right tone for the rest of the conference – but I was surprised at the number who just didn’t connect with what she was saying. I did wonder whether this reflected the fact that too many leaders fall into the very trap that she was warning against…

Jon Tyson was advocating thoughtful cultural engagement

Jon Tyson was advocating thoughtful cultural engagement

One speaker who made a big impression on most people was Jon Tyson, an Australian pastor at Trinity Grace Church in New York. His passion is for churches to engage thoughtfully with the surrounding culture. Too often, evangelical Christians have rejected secular culture where a more intelligent engagement would be far more constructive. He rooted this in a critique of the prevailing theology: evangelicals have held to a truncated view of God’s plans for the world, emphasising the Fall of man and God’s redemption, while neglecting God’s creation and his plans for restoration. This resonated with me because I have read NT Wright making the same basic point.

The most handsomest dude in Harrogate. Who else would I want to photograph?

The most handsomest dude in Harrogate. Who else would I want to photograph?

In practical terms, the seminars on church planting (in one of the ministry streams) were particularly helpful. Michael Moynagh gave a talk based on research that he’s done on Fresh Expressions – and he enthused about their effectiveness at outreach. Thus he found, from studying those in ten dioceses, that 40% regularly attending Fresh Expressions have had no significant church experience before.

One of the central achievements of Moyhagh’s talk was not getting ensnared by the big church versus small church debate which clouds much discussion on this and similar issues. He pointed out that the traditional church planting model – of a large church sending out a team of about 50 to a new area – is highly effective, under certain limited circumstances. Nevertheless, the model which is probably most broadly applicable is one which relies on smaller teams of 6-12 moving into an area, serving the community, listening, and demonstrating God’s love by practical action.

New Wine is seeking to become more effective at resourcing pioneer ministry. I found both Moyngah’s talk and the subsequent one by Gareth Robinson very helpful in enabling me to think through these issues.

The three days there were most enjoyable. There were of course other delights while there – not least sharing enormous naan breads at a local Indian restaurant with Geraint and Debra Hill from CFM in Dine’s Green!

Michael Moynagh enthused about the effectiveness of Fresh Expressions

Michael Moynagh enthused about the effectiveness of Fresh Expressions

Why Lent is good news

For many years I have reacted against Lent.

Part of the reason for this is the excessively penitential nature of some Anglican liturgy. It is one thing to confess one’s sins; but quite another to keep on about it obsessively, as appears to be particularly the case in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’. Surely at some point we need to accept God’s grace and forgiveness?

I also felt the church year was a bit lop-sided… Jesus’ birth and baptism given the full treatment, then the forty days of Lent following, to the day, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – and then we end up at Good Friday! Whatever happened to the three years of Jesus’ ministry on Earth? – when he proclaimed the good news of God’s kingship, healed the sick and performed many miracles? I even wondered whether the Church could only cope with certain parts of the gospel – the baby, the fasting and the cross – but not the supernatural parts, like the healings.

However, over the last couple of years I have been re-thinking my attitude. It’s come about partly because I have recognised how counter-cultural Lent is. The cultural context in which we live seems to insist that if you have a desire, you have the right to gratify it – and no-one has the right to tell you not to. This has never been what the gospel is about: Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, under the compulsion of the Holy Spirit,  was precisely to experience desires that he was to overcome and not give in to.

I guess it was my neighbour in college in Durham, Tom Hiney, who first began to whittle away at my Lenten resistance. He was obsessed with Cuthbert, the seventh century Celtic monk who lived as a hermit in the Farne Islands, battling demons and contemplating the presence of Christ. He was therefore following the example – so I discovered later – of the desert fathers, like Antony the Great.

One wintry February morning Tom and I headed up the coast to visit the Farnes. The deal was that he was going in Cuthbert’s footsteps, while I was there to see seabirds. We didn’t plan the journey too well – in fact, if we’d had any sense, we’d have realised that trips to the Farnes in February were few and far between. But we were lucky, and a round-island trip departed shortly after we arrived at Seahouses.

The sea was rough and the weather rather bleak. I was duly satisfied with guillemots, razorbills and eider ducks. Meanwhile, Tom found the whole experience very sobering. He had glimpsed what Cuthbert must have endured on the bare rock of Inner Farne. On returning to land, he said ‘I went on the trip as a fan of Cuthbert. I came back frightened of him’.

I am not about to advocate heading to the desert or to remote, windswept, rocky islands – but these saints of the early church recognised something about following Christ that we in the 21st century dismiss all too hastily. They understood that a key part of following Christ was the quest for holiness and purity – not as an act  of spiritual self-indulgence, but so that they could love God and love other people far better. It’s not for nothing that both Antony and Cuthbert were renowned both for their compassion and their healings.

Thus inspired, I am taking the Lent discipline more seriously this year. I had thought it was going to be easy – but ten days in, I am amazed how often I am being offered cakes and biscuits!

NT Wright on why bad things happen to good people

I’ve just read Tom Wright’s brilliant treatment of the problem of evil.

Cartoon downloaded from here.

People often ask about why bad things happen to good people. In particular: “if the God who created the universe is good, why does he allow evil to take place?”. We don’t need to watch the daily news for long before we are confronted with more examples of brutal murders, or – on a national level – of atrocities committed against whole groups of people.

This is often perceived to be a particular problem for Christians: after all, we say that God is love, and that he loves all of his children, so it appears that the presence of evil within his creation doesn’t fit the picture. But when I have read Christian discussions of this issue, I have usually been left thinking that there is something important seriously missing: that there has been an insufficient understanding of the significance of the cross. Somehow, God’s answer to the problem of evil is expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross – and then in his resurrection.

Cartoon downloaded from here

The trouble is that this answer doesn’t come in the form we would like – it doesn’t give a logical explanation for why particular people suffer in particular ways. The challenge is to enable people to see that God’s answer is deeper and ultimately more profoundly satisfying. However, I had not developed these thoughts much further, leaving them for another time.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised, when reading Tom Wright’s tome on Paul the apostle, “Paul and the faithfulness of God”, to find a section in chapter 9 which discusses this very issue. I was even more delighted when I read it and discovered that it was a much more profound treatment of the problem than I had read elsewhere.

For a faithful Jew in the first century, such as Paul (Saul) undoubtedly had been, evil was represented by the pagan nations surrounding and trying to oppress Israel, the chosen people of God. Thus, the solution to the problem of evil was for Israel to drive out, or otherwise overcome, the pagan nations. As the scriptures had long promised a Messiah figure, it was a logical step to assume that he would enable Israel to do this.

Tom Wright's tome, "Paul and the Faithfulness of God"

Tom Wright’s tome, “Paul and the Faithfulness of God

However, when Paul met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he was forced to realise that God was doing something different: he was fulfilling these scriptures in a way that neither he nor his fellow Jews had anticipated. He was doing so through the death and resurrection of the Messiah – the same Jesus whose followers he had been intent on persecuting – and not through the Messiah leading a resurgent Jewish nation.

If the crucified and risen Christ was the solution to the evil in the world, then the problem couldn’t have been the presence of pagan nations oppressing Israel. If that had been the case, it would not have been necessary for the Messiah to die and rise again. Instead, Jesus’ death and resurrection showed that the deeper problem was the presence of evil within the hearts of both gentiles and Jews.

This led Paul, in his letter to the Romans, to go back not to the father of the nation, Abraham, but to the origins of all humans. For Paul, this meant going back to Adam. For God’s solution to be expressed through the crucified and risen Christ, there had to be something inherent to human nature – whether gentile or Jew – that was so badly flawed that it needed this particular solution.

Tom Wright’s argument got me excited because he expressed, more clearly and forcefully than I’d seen expressed before, the centrality of Christ and the cross for addressing the problem of evil. This is God’s answer: it may not be the logical argument that we would prefer, but it is much deeper and, ultimately, much more life-sustaining.

Barber shop theology

I was chatting with the barber while having my mop chopped, and happened to mention what I do for a living. Immediately, he grabbed one of the morning’s tabloids and showed me a headline that had appeared, “Church ‘is on brink of extinction'”. The article was provoked by a talk given by the former archbishop, Lord Carey, to a group of churches in Shrewsbury.

This sparked a good discussion: I mentioned the new ways of doing church in this area, such as cafe church in Wichenford, and the thriving churches in the centre of Worcester (for example, here). He then recalled a conversation he’d had recently: “I was standing with my wife, and said to her ‘here, what does this mean, Hallowed be thy name?'”.

He was genuinely puzzled, but I assumed that the question was rhetorical. Instead, he turned to the rest of the room – two other barbers and a handful of customers – and repeated the question, adding “do any of you know what it means?”. All of them denied knowledge, with one barber quipping, “I thought it meant, ‘How loud can I say your name?'”.

The question illustrates how the traditional church became detached from the wider community. The barber – aged about 60 – is from the generation which, we’re often told in certain church circles, need the re-assurance of the traditional language, but was himself clearly alienated by it. It is hardly surprising that the church is often perceived to be an institution stuck with antiquated forms of impenetrable language.

I mumbled something about the phrase meaning ‘your name is holy’, and realised that that wasn’t a helpful explanation for a non-church person. I wish I’d known how the New International Readers Version interprets the phrase: “may your name be honored” [NIrV] – which makes the least assumptions about what people would understand today.

I have since discovered that the tabloid concerned – and indeed the subsequent coverage elsewhere in the media – substantially distorts what the archbishop had actually said. The aim of his talk, entitled ‘Re-imagining the church‘, was to inspire and energise a group of churches into radically re-thinking the way church is done; it was far from being a melancholy tirade. He did warn the churches about the danger of neglecting youth ministry, and this is what prompted the comment which was picked up by the tabloid; but ironically, the sentence actually reads (with my italics) “As I have repeated many times in the past ‘we are one generation away from extinction’.” It must have been a slow news day for the newspaper to pick up and distort this comment!

It’s a pity the tabloid concerned didn’t read what the archbishop had actually said; but a greater pity that the church wasn’t properly attuned to these issues forty years ago. Still, the church may still benefit if the headline sparked discussions in other barbers’ shops across the country!

Theological reflections on a dance floor

One of the highlights of this summer’s New Wine was Martin Smith leading us in singing his own song, “God’s great dance floor” – an exuberant song that was brilliant to sing along with five thousand others. The video (here) is even better than the live worship – because it shows more clearly how the song is a reflection on the story of the Prodigal Son. There is a long build-up at the start where the errant son contemplates his hopelessness, before running back to his father – whereupon the song changes tempo to being an incredibly upbeat and catchy anthem.

Worship in the main arena at New Wine

Worship in the main arena at New Wine

However, the theologian in me needed to check the actual text. I was pleasantly surprised to see that ‘dancing’ is explicitly mentioned in the parable (here)! Thus the song led me into a deeper understanding of the story itself.

All too often there are songs written that are sloppy in their theology – a catchy tune seems to outweigh the need to think through what is being written. There are a few which tend to get me into a theological huff, at least for a line or two. One of these happens to be another Martin Smith song, which begins, “If faith can move the mountains, let the mountains move!” – the words are wonderfully easy to sing with faithful ardour, but the Malvern Hills still won’t shift to the M5.

But the song that really bugs me, which was also popular at New Wine, is one which includes the recurring line, addressed to God, “Your mercy is a miracle”. This is a category error, like saying that a chocolate is intelligent, or that a parsnip is left-footed.

I was refreshed to find a modern worship leader, Stuart Townend, expressing similar thoughts. He writes,

a significant minority of new songs… are little more than a re-ordering of stock phrases in circulation among existing songs, just married to a new tune. It feels to me like the energy and skill has gone into creating a dynamic, memorable melody, and the words are something of an afterthought, which sound ‘right’ but say little. [full article here]

The problem here is that ‘your mercy is a miracle’ may sound right, but fails to understand ‘mercy’ or ‘miracle’.

‘Miracle’ is one of the most abused words in the English language. The OED defines ‘miracle’ as “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency”. This would apply to Jesus feeding the five thousand, or people being healed through prayer today (for example here).

Too often, unusual events with entirely natural causes are described as miracles: for example, Wigan’s FA cup win last May attracted plenty of ‘miracle’ accolades (see for example here in the Daily Mirror and here on Channel 4 – where the goalkeeper is even credited with working miracles ‘time and again’!) It is depressing when Christians are equally sloppy in using the word. If we want to communicate the reality of God’s power revealed in miracles, we must not start by degrading the actual word.

God’s mercy is a characteristic of his, like his grace, or love, or holiness: it describes his compassion and forgiveness when justice demands punishment. As such, his mercy inspires gratitude, worship and awe of God. However, it remains a characteristic, unlike a miracle, which is an event.

What makes “God’s great dance floor” such a good song is that not only is it musically compelling, but it is evidently the product of deep reflection on scripture: it is theologically sound. This is why I have used the video a couple of times in worship at meetings, and will probably continue to do so.

The hymns and songs which last are those for which both the words and the music are carefully crafted. Charles Wesley’s hymns have become classics because he aimed to use the musical idiom of the day to teach about the Christian faith. Some of the ones being written today equally deserve to become classics. Those that fall by the wayside are likely to be those which are catchy but haven’t been thought through properly.

Emerging song writers would do well to craft their lyrics as carefully as their music – otherwise their work will do little more than entertain for a short while.

Here is Martin Smith’s video of God’s great dance floor…