Since my arrival in the Chelmsford Diocese I have harboured the hope that there might be in the Bradwell Episcopal Area a modest journal for clergy and lay workers, and indeed for any others interested to read it, in which we might share our deeper thoughts about matters of theological and ministerial significance. I am therefore very pleased to send to you this first edition of what I have called the Bradwell Papers, in which we have included, as requested, the input papers from our 1993 Area Clergy Study Day on Culture and Christian Faith. I hope that you find them interesting to ponder upon.
My hope of course is that this first edition will stimulate others to write. I have already invited a few Bradwell clergy to put pen to paper on matters which I know concern them and I would very much welcome any contributions, or indications that you would like to contribute, on a particular theme. It is important that we should encourage one another in this way to think theologically about our world and the ministry in which we are engaged.
Do please let me know if you feel that this is a useful enterprise and even more, please let me have your ideas for contributions for later editions. The length of each article will vary significantly, I suspect, depending upon the type of contribution, because I hope that everything theological, from fun anecdotes to poems and lengthier articles, may play their part in these Bradwell Papers.
With best wishes to all.
Christ and Culture, Bishop Laurie (Bradwell Clergy Study Day 1993)
Theology and the Rural, Canon John Brown, Bishop's Rural Officer
Chops and Tomato Sauce, Bishop Laurie
Church in Black and White, Book Review, Andrew Cozens
Bishop Laurie, Bradwell Area Clergy Study Day 1993
My task is to do some scene-setting for our time together at this conference as we address our theme for the day, which we might call - to use the title of Richard Niebuhr's classic - "Christ and Culture". Many of us will be surprised to realise that that famous book was published as long ago as 1951. But perhaps that is significant for us because it reminds us that this issue of Culture was brought alive again for many by the post World War II realisation that Western European, so-called 'Christian', Culture had just taken a profound knock in its estimation of its own worth. So some preliminary thoughts about "Christ and Culture".
The Preface to the Oaths of Allegiance and Canonical Obedience, the favourite bedtime reading of every cleric of the Church of England, includes these words: "The Church of England ... professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation."
Now, we are a generation with a considerable problem - for we find ourselves living in a period of profound cultural shift. Let me share what I perceive to be seven marks of this present predicament. This profound cultural shift. Seven marks ... and I name them without, at this stage, making judgement upon them.
First, we are witnessing the death throes of Eastern European Communism, and the Stalinesque culture that went with it. That, in turn, means that the global triangle of East, West and South is in flux. I'm told by British defence planners that today we literally do not know in which direction to point our armouries. Indeed, it seems that we are looking for the new enemy. We may even be in the process of creating one.
Second, our pre-First World War certainties about 'Development' and 'Progress' towards an ideal have proved to be an illusion. Trench warfare and the Holocaust were just the beginning. Such experiences have shattered the naive optimism which we can still glimpse, but with knowing nostalgia, in some of those old 1930's films as they grace our late night TV screens.
Third, modern computer-chip technology has radically changed our commercial life and the means of production in our industries. More than that, it has changed our very pattern of thinking about the world. We seem instinctively now to veer away from well-worn mechanistic models of thought and understanding, and we substitute digital pulsing concepts of time and space. We prefer now organic models of society and even of how we perceive thought processes to behave. We sit glued to screens not books and, in our church life, O.H.P. no longer stands for the Order of the Holy Paraclete, but the ubiquitous Over Head Projector.
The Fourth mark: cultural shift. We are told that philosophically, we are all "post-modernists now". Everyone seems agreed on that. There's just one problem, and that is that no one seems sure of what on earth 'Post-modernism' might be. It is supposed to mean, among other things, that we no longer trust our reason. Rationality, that arbiter of truth, honoured since the Age of Enlightenment, has now given way to a trust in human experience. And that's good because reason can be arid. But on the other hand, the enthusiasm of experience leaves itself open to the manipulation we have learnt to call "hype". And along with reason has gone objectivity, which we are now expected to see as but a cloaked form of communal subjectivity. And this means that to judge a fact as objectively true, is today to sound a touch naive. So there are no more value-free facts. And that means that secularisation is old hat, for if human experience is now the arbiter for the post-modernist, he or she can believe in the supernatural without demur. Even the President of the USA can invite an astrologer to the White House!
Fifth, as we all know well, there is a new cultural emphasis upon the importance of the individual, the personal and the supremacy of individual choice that goes with it. I don't need to say any more about that.
Sixth, there is a new awareness of the environment. We are expected to see ourselves no longer as over against nature but as part and parcel of it. And with environmentalism there flows contextualism. The context that surrounds us is paramount. Nothing can have meaning without context. Not even the human being, not even the Christian Faith.
Seventh, capital has become fully international. Vast resources of capital (nine times the GNP of all the world's nations, unknown before in human history) are now existing independently of nations; and even more ominously, some would say, this capital is living independently of any human control.
These are just seven of the marks which I perceive of profound cultural shift. And we could go on adding together yet more examples of extraordinary recent change.
Some changes are excitingly positive but there is much that sounds all sorts of alarm bells too. We are left with a confusing picture, for things are changing at different rates and in different directions. Some changes are not complete, others may never come to pass. We seem to be in a period of intense transition when we find ourselves engaging with any number of changing cultures and sub-cultures at one and the same time. It is not at all clear where it will all lead.
Maybe what I have said will prove to be an inaccurate description of the dominant culture to which we are being drawn. But however we describe it, I feel convinced that we are living through a period of profound cultural shift.
Now it is important that, as a Church, we should not in any way think of ourselves as beaten by these cultural shifts. Rather, we should see them as an exciting challenge to us "to profess the faith afresh in this generation".
But if we are to do this, we will first need to engage in some tough analysis and to ask the important question: "What is God doing? What is God about in these new phenomena?"
This question is being addressed in the current work of Bishops Leslie Newbiggin and Hugh Montefiore and by Dan Beeby, and some of their books are on sale here today. But I believe we have a responsibility, whilst being cognisant of their research, to work all this through at the pastoral and practical level for our Church and our people.
So it is that the Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales met in the Lake District in September  to prayerfully consider the role of the Church in today's culture. We might note what they said.
They began by saying that their desire to be a witness and servant in the world demands that they should both study the world and love it. I quote: "Despite its evils, many features of our age demonstrate the innate dignity of the person and a real capacity for both compassion and contemplation ... there are many seeds of the Word to be found in our society ..."
So they see the Church as having responsibility to affirm all that is positive in culture and society as well as seeking to correct the ways in which the truth is distorted or denied.
On the other hand, yet more recently, the Pope published the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, in which he very clearly, as the Tablet has it, "makes not even a nod towards secular moral philosophy. Indeed, it goes in the direction of denying that there can ever be such a philosophy. ... This is bad news for theologians who have been trying to enter into dialogue with the secular world."
Now this difference of emphasis places the Catholic Church in a bit of a quandary. The encyclical itself says: "It would be a very serious error to conclude that the Church's ethical teaching is essentially only an ideal". And yet on the day of its publication in Britain, Cardinal Basil Hume said on BBC radio that the encyclical's teaching on contraception was indeed just such an ideal, so not really the "intrinsic evil" of which the encyclical spoke.
Well, it's good to know that the Roman Catholic hierarchy, like any thinking Christians, find themselves in a bit of a dilemma, not to say a muddle, whether to be thankful for the present cultural context or to be antagonistic to it.
Hence our conference today. For whether we are essentially thankful or wary, we must surely be very concerned when we see the outworkings of these cultural shifts in the everyday lives of our people. For example, how, for heaven's sake, are we to respond to Essex Man and Woman? For if they do exist anywhere, they certainly exhibit some of the modern cultural elements of which we have been speaking.
And what of divorce and cohabitation?
What of the personal choice that leads some to rethink their sexual orientation?
What of Biblical relativism? Is the Bible culture-free or should it be interpreted in relation to its originating culture? Or, even more bluntly, are its precepts culturally conditioned?
And what of Catholic Order? The same questions apply. Is Catholic Order culture free? What is it to be "in communion" in a pluralistic age such as this? And then there is Fundamentalism; there is the question of the Multi-Faith culture; there is Folk Religion.
Oh yes, the practical implications of this issue of culture are staggering and such as to make study of it imperative.
I now want to say four things about the problem, and later in the day open up some ideas about what might be an appropriate Christian response to it. And in what I now have to say I have been greatly helped by my reading of the recent work of Graham Cray. So, first, four major issues to be faced.
1. The Nature of Truth
I was pleased to hear that the pop singer Peter Gabriel recently had his child baptised. Pleased, that is, until I heard that in the service the baby had been baptised into six different religions. The word "sampling" is used today in pop music to denote snatched phrases from famous well-known recordings cleverly edited together into a new disk. But sampling is more than just a pop-music phenomenon; it is a way of life in this new pick-and-mix culture. You may sample what beliefs you like, where you like and without having to swallow the whole bundle.
You may take images out of the context of their original meanings, till they become 'images' of whatever you want. Madonna has done this very professionally with the Roman Catholic images of her youth and childhood. Hence her name.
I find Narrative Theology very interesting, but we cannot escape the question of whether or not the Narrative Theologians have done the same with the Biblical text, by allowing us a seemingly reasoned way of treating the narrative all very subjectively.
Whatever our answers, in this individualistic, pluralistic, pick-and-mix culture, we have to ask, "Where does Truth now reside?" [Answers on a (post-modernist) post-card please.]
2. The Nature of Authority
If truth is now up for grabs, then it follows, so too is authority.
The Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion, after its 1993 meeting in Canterbury said this: "...Western society has debunked and despises all authority. Traditional Western concepts of authority always required correcting by the Bible's concept of authority based on love and the suffering of the cross. Today, the very category "authority" has been lost. The idea of the Bible's authority has become unintelligible."
Time was when scientific knowledge was regarded as factual and value free and therefore authoritative. Even Biblical interpretation was subjected to the rigours of scientific Biblical Criticism in search of the historical Jesus or in pursuit of the genius of the redactor.
But now that we know that there are no value-free facts, and that not all problems are necessarily solvable on the basis of rationality. Is it not true that our generation turns instead to "ask for a sign"? It desperately seeks the authoritative line and strong leadership, and takes refuge in irrational fundamentalism, and nationalism.
3. The Nature of Community
"There is no such thing as society, only the individual and the family." So once said Margaret Thatcher. I hope you don't mind me quoting in the next breath some words of a Runwell Hospital inmate. He recently said to his nurse. "Care in the community? But there's more community in here than out there."
We live already in a culture in which 28% of babies are born outside the marriage partnership in the UK. The old-fashioned notion of the "traditional family" of husband at work with wife at home with the children, now accounts for only 7% of the population. It seems then that such old ideas of community are being radically rethought already. But what do we believe about community? And what of the Church as community?
The recent publication of Michael Perham's The Renewal of Common Prayer reminds us that liturgy traditionally has been the place where we identify ourselves with our continuing culture. For in our shared liturgy we should be able to find familiar landmarks providing bonds between Anglicans both nationally and Internationally.
But the Prayer Book of 1662, which for so long gave us a sense of communality, is largely redundant in our churches. And at the other extreme, the folksy 1970's music of most modern revivalism does not have the breadth of appeal to take its place as a unifier. Even in our church worship then, and more broadly in our church life, we need to rediscover the essence of community. Hence the need for such documents as "The Bonds of Peace".
4. The Nature of Freedom.
Post-Modernism brings fragmentation to society. But, conversely, international capital, of which I earlier spoke, brings the heaviness of central organisation and structure. It is strange then that these two have teamed up and are proving to be one of the most powerful duos that history has ever experienced. And this partnership of post-modernist fragmentation and capital has provided us with a new primary cultural pursuit - shopping. And "Shopping is perfect freedom". Market forces are brought to bear upon every area of our life In the name of Freedom. Market Forces appear more and more to determine our health, education, sexuality, our homes, even our church strategies.
We have entered a brave new world where the prime medium, TV, is dominated by the new culture for the sake of the Market. Can you believe that 98% of British people today watch TV for more than 25 hours a week? And a great deal of that time is owned by advertisers. And as our eyes watch the disembodied 'images', so our ears hear the 'sound-bytes'. The media bombards us with a newspeak of Babel language. We get used to phrases such as 'ethnic Cleansing', and 'friendly fire'.
How right Marshall McLuhan was, the author of "The Medium is the Message", when he called his next book. "The Medium is the Massage".
We have indeed even been conditioned to think that the Market does in fact lead to free choice. But we must be critically conscious of the fact that in our new society, where the rich and poor become increasingly polarised, is it not this new dominant culture of free choice which is marginalising even further those who do not have the means even to participate properly in the so-called "free market", let alone to have choice within it? The assumption that choice exists because of the existence of an uncontrolled market is surely a wilfully false and marginalising doctrine.
Thus far I have tried briefly only to set the scene. We live in this transition of cultures, and yet already a dominant culture is making its presence powerfully felt. What are the issues? How should we respond?
One thing of which I feel certain, if we are to evangelise within this new post-modern culture, we must not simply despise it, nor feel intimidated by, nor fearful of it. We must engage it and bring the tools of theology and faith to bear upon it. But to do that successfully, we must first endeavour to understand it.
Let us take time now to describe and investigate the particular cultural contexts in which we here today are severally engaged. And to start us off, three sketches for fun and for edification. We've asked three groups to present for us a little taste of the sorts of contexts and cultures within which we here might be living and working in the Bradwell Area.
First: the Suburban, next: the Rural and finally, the world of Industry and Commerce.
[After these three sketches there followed an introduction to reflection:]
We are moving towards a period of silent reflection now so you may wish to check that you have a scrap of paper on which to jot down any thoughts that come to you. But, first, another few words from me.
We have, thus far, been particularly concerned to acknowledge the extraordinary context of this, the final few years of the twentieth century. And I have suggested that we are living through a transitional period of profound cultural shift. We have also taken time to consider more carefully together the particular situations within which we ourselves live and work. But, we have not come at this discussion as if from nowhere. For we come as committed Christians. And we will inevitably have come at our discussion from our own perspective of faith. For we are all deeply immersed in the treasures of our faith. The treasures of Bible, creeds, prayer, liturgies, the lives of the saints, church history, the ongoing work of theology. We are steeped in these treasures of our faith.
We might picture this by saying that we are aware of two parallel tracks. One is the track of our daily situation and context, the things that are happening to us and about us in society and in our prevailing culture. The other, parallel track of our life, is the story of faith, and our immersion in the great Christian treasures, as I have said. And the person of faith does not want these two tracks to be mutually exclusive. Quite the reverse. The person of faith will want a coherent life where each track informs the other. Where they cohere. The person of faith will want to have the facility to look across from one track to the other parallel track and see there points of contact, points of meeting. To make the connections between faith and life, and move more and more towards the integration of the two tracks, so that our life becomes coherently faithful. The two tracks become as one.
But this morning we have only been concentrating on the one track. The context of our daily life and work. Now comes the time to concentrate on making the connections with the other track, the track of faith. We will soon be asked to spend about ten to fifteen minutes in quiet reflection here together in this room to see if the Holy Spirit will help us individually to make connections. To see if some of the thoughts and concerns about our situation, that have been raised in our minds so far today, resonate with thoughts and concerns in the Bible, in our faith history, in our liturgy, in the world of theology. Connections between life and faith.
You might like to begin your reflections in this way.
Imagine that you are alongside St Peter in his dream on the rooftop at Joppa. As you dream, so you see a great sheet lowered down to you from heaven. In it are those things which God has now declared clean. We asked you to bring to this conference an object which represents your own local culture.
Now, can you see that object in the sheet? Can you wholeheartedly sense that God has declared that what that object represents is good, good to consume? Or, failing that, what parts of it might be acceptable? In other words, can you sense how God feels about the prevailing culture in which you work?
When I was working in the heart of the East End, I had a dreadful struggle with that question. At times there seemed little there to take joy in. Little there that could ever be termed Holy. It was only by sensitive listening and prayer that I was able to get myself to a place where I could sense God in so much of it. For example: the people there had such a sense of Place. A sense of belonging even to this concrete jungle. And that helped me make a simple connection with the Biblical text. For I became, therefore, all the more struck by the sense of the holiness of place which is written so strongly in the hearts of the people of the Old Testament. The holiness of the desert, of the city, of the lakeside. And I tried to learn from that connection to appreciate a sense of place in the Inner City.
I was struck too by the experience of suffering in the Inner City. And in that I found an acknowledgement of the reality of the Cross. I re-read the writings of the Roman Catholic Order of Passionists, who have so much to teach us about staying by the cross. Especially, I read Austin Smith's "Passion for the Inner City".
So in the Inner City I learnt to understand more about suffering - I learnt more about the Cross. And the trial scenes of our Lord were great reservoirs of truth too, but mostly it was his Passion.
Also, I learnt in the Inner City of the sheer physicality of the urban experience. Life in the Inner City is passionate and it is very physical. That led me to reflect more upon the way in which God chooses to express himself to us in the physical, in the passion of the physical. Sacrament and Incarnation in all their physicality came home to me more and more.
At the same time I was puzzled by talk of 'God's Option for the Poor'. And not because I do not wish for it. It's just that sometimes the facts seemed to be saying that he had not opted for them but had deserted them. It was the feeling of desertion. So I read again the Psalms, and reflected upon the abject suffering of God's people and of Jesus Christ himself.
I looked again at those liturgical words: "In the same night that he was betrayed". Desertion.
So it was that by concentrating on those aspects of the Bible and other treasures of our faith which resonated most with the experience which God was giving me, I found his presence more and more obvious to me in my daily round and ministry. The faith illuminated my experience. The Bible informing and illuminating.
Sometimes and often I was left puzzled and even feeling impotent but so very often sensing and glimpsing clear signs of God's Kingdom breaking through, even in the Inner City.
Your place, your experience, will probably be different. It may be rural, suburban, seaside, commuter-land, or something entirely different. And of course you will have reflected often on all this. But now for some ten to fifteen minutes we're asked to reflect once again upon our own particular place and context of ministry, and to look for some of the connections which the Holy Spirit may guide us to make. Connections between those two tracks of the daily experience of our people, and the rich treasures of our Christian faith.
But first let us ask God to guide our reflection:
Dear Lord and Father, as we seek to serve you in our place of ministry, open our hearts and minds that we may see more clearly your presence with us and with your people. Guide our reflections upon your world and upon your word, that our faith may be coherent and that it may glorify you, our God and Father. Amen.
Canon John Brown, Bishop's Rural Officer
I prefer to think and to speak not so much of 'theology which is rural' but rather of theology which is 'inspired' by the rural, or theology which is 'enlightened' by the rural in the sense of 'offering light' to those who as yet find it difficult to, or do not quite, see; or theology which is 'proclaimed' by the rural in the sense of 'uttered for listening' by those who as yet find it difficult to, or do not quite, hear.
I give you an illustration of what I am suggesting.
We are all very familiar with Jesus' use of rural imagery - the parables of the Kingdom in the Synoptic Gospels are the obvious example or miracles such as the feeding of the 5,000 in a desert place - but after their being heard or experienced, we are presented with the inability of those who witnessed them to comprehend the message the parable or event had been intended to convey. So, his disciples came to him in the quiet afterwards and said: "Master, explain to us the meaning of the parable of the Sower"; or, the crowd's inability to appreciate that the meeting of the need for physical hunger to be satisfied is used by Jesus as a pointer to the meeting of the hungering of the human spirit in God.
But in using features of the natural world to enlighten about and to speak of God, Jesus was only following a tradition deep in the Old Testament - in so many of the Psalms for example - "The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament expresses his handiwork"; or, in the latter chapters of the book of Job, Job being invited to gaze not merely upon the myriad shapes of geographical features, but upon the universe itself, to contemplate answers to questions about origins, and, in the light of that, the validity of his own challenging of God.
In the New Testament it is not only Jesus who uses aspects of the natural world as pointers to the identity of God. St Paul, in the opening chapter of his letter to the Romans, condemns those who "having all that can be known of God plain before their eyes ... ever since the world began his invisible attributes, that is to say his everlasting power and deity have been visible to the eye of reason in the things he has made – yet, they have refused to honour him as God, or to render him thanks." (1.19-21). Or earlier in his famous Athens sermon recorded in Acts 17 he castigates his hearers: "The God who created the world and everything in it, who is the Lord of heaven and earth ... is himself the universal giver of life and breath ... He created from one stock every nation of men to inhabit the whole earth's surface ... They were to seek after God in the hope that, groping after him, they might find him; though indeed he is not far from each one of us." (17.24-27) - yet they could neither see nor hear him. It is when we stop and look and listen to the features and characteristics of the natural world, and of the whole rural scene, that we are provided with material illustrative: a) of the identity of God, b) of the not always so pleasant identity of man, and c) of a model of discipleship which is at the heart of Christian Faith.
First, rural illustrations of God.
I suggest it is important from time to time to stop and look and listen and wonder at the natural world, to be filled with amazement, for these are some of the pre-requisites of worship. In my cynical moments I interpret the behaviour of many in their manner of driving through the countryside as expressive of an attitude which can be stated as follows: Countryside is the word used to describe that sometimes regrettably large area of unoccupied space between town A and town B which has to be crossed in order to get on with the real business of life which is done within A or B and not between them. Stopping and looking and listening and wondering is one of the base pre-requisites of worship. Without it there can be no valuing, no awareness of worth, one's own, that of others, and of God. The object which draws forth a response of wonder does not have to be a brilliant dawn or sunset, or the view from a mountain top, it can be witnessed in a back garden as a bee penetrates an antirrhinum, or as a robin perches momentarily on a gardener's spade and fluffs out its brilliant breast feathers. Nearly always such a theophany will last for only a few minutes, as though one is given a glimpse of the indescribable which can never all be taken in at one sitting, a quality which is superior to all one usually encounters and which therefore takes on a superarching eternal tone. It's all provided free - man has no purchasing to do, but man can neither order it nor create it himself - so man's sense of power and ability to achieve is challenged by both the vast and the small and thereby seemingly insignificant.
Secondly, what the rural has to illustrate about man, and the not always so pleasant identity of man.
It's mighty hard work often digging a garden, but there's a tremendous thrill sowing seeds, watching green shoots pierce the soil, and ultimately harvesting. But man is first and foremost recipient, secondly participant, and thirdly benefactor. He has no ability to create 'ex nihilo', he is totally dependent upon the resources nature provides. But he does have total freedom to do whatever he wishes with those resources. I take all of that on the one hand as a picture of the generosity of God and on the other as the seeming foolishness of God. When I see how man, we, very often seem not merely incapable, but unwilling, to manage ourselves in relation to the riches of the world's resources in a way which will benefit us and our successors. I search hard for the evidence that we are indeed sane and not mad, that we love life, rather than hating it. Why are we for ever shooting ourselves in the foot. Leaching the soil of its nutrients, poisoning the rivers and seas with chemicals, polluting the air with obnoxious gases, destroying the habitats of wildlife: we seem to behave as though there is another planet called "Earth 2" on to which we can all jump when we have ransacked this one. How foolish is God not to have protected his generosity from irresponsible, incapable-of-managing-creatively-only-destructively, man? Why are we so intent on a pattern of destruction, which is the exact opposite of nature's way?
Think of a stalk of wheat - growing from one seed to produce one stem with a whole mass of seeds at its head to be ground into flour or to be sown to produce 20, 30 stalks, each with heads of 20, 30 seeds. The natural world is in the business of giving life: the human world seems to be in the business of giving death. But thank God the natural world's ability to give life is usually triumphant over man's ability to perpetrate death - think of the way scorched and scarred landscapes eventually produce evidence of new life.
Thirdly, what the rural has to say about discipleship - and not only about discipleship, but about life and living in general.
I am sorry that the chapter on Theology in "Faith in the Countryside" is written almost exclusively from a biblical perspective and not a rural contextual standpoint. Its authors seem not to have been willing to look at and listen to the rural very carefully or for very long and to hypothesise what it might be offering. I suggest that the rural faces us with realities we do not wish to see - maybe that's why rural areas are less populated than urban ones, and why when people come out to the rural from the urban it's only for a little while, then to return to where it's safe - but increasingly not safe from the evil intents of other humans. The rural scene is characterised by exposure, in the midst of which the reaction is a sense of vulnerability calling forth faith, but faith which is often not easy to exercise because the ability to control is elusive, though the desire to control is always there. The farmer sows his seed: down comes the rain " too much washes the seed away; out comes the sun - too much starves the plant of moisture. Exposure and vulnerability are at the heart of everyone's life experience - the risks, the unknowns, the lack of guarantees, the longing for security.
Secondly, the rural scene is very often a violent arena, an important antidote to bear in mind, balancing the tendency to romanticism. In the post-Mount Carmel Elijah vision, God on this occasion was not in the earthquake, the hurricane, the volcanic eruption, but in the eerie silence which often follows each of them. Earthquake, hurricane, volcanic eruption and flood are each examples of violence within the natural world, yet despite that characteristic, each also contributes to the renewing of creation. Or again, it would seem we have a very long way to go before the vision of Isaiah 11 becomes reality. I have two dogs. To me they are tame. Let them spot a rabbit or a squirrel and they immediately become intending killers. Life is about exposure to challenge, conflict, resisting or succumbing to the pressure to destroy rather than to create. In the rural scene "Nature red in tooth and claw" faces us with what is: the Isaiah vision, the Sermon on the Mount are intended to appetise as to what could be.
Thirdly, rural communities are communal composites: composites of those who have lived there for years and whose work is rooted in the locality; composites of those who have been moved out from towns to live in formerly and in many instances still, rented accommodation, who have, and still do, struggle to find a sense of community in what for many is a foreign land often deprived of most of the facilities one takes for granted in towns; and composites of those who wish to escape from the urban for their residence and sometimes leisure, while continuing to work within the urban, people who seemingly use the rural for their own benefit, and often contribute little to communities. Incarnation and Kingdom are about being in the midst for the well-being of all. Communities in rural areas are usually clearly geographically defined entities: the challenge to their occupants is to acknowledge mutual need for dependence while at the same time allowing all the freedom to be.
But I sense that one of the most fundamental insights for theology that the rural has to offer is about the process 'birth - death' being the process whereby death is the means of birth, but birth on a scale whereby an abundance of life is the result of death. You will recall Jesus' momentously powerful illustration from the natural world described in John 12: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit". Think again of a wheat stalk. One seed produces one stalk, on the top of which there are - who knows 20, 30, more seeds? Last Sunday in one of my three parishes we celebrated harvest festival, my third one! Someone brought in a ginormous marrow - I cradled it across both my arms as one would carry a sleeping child. Heaven knows how many seeds there were inside that one marrow, which was itself the result of one seed being sown. Nature produces in abundance, but at the cost of the death of the giver. That's an absolutely fundamental tenet of discipleship isn't it? And for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear I suggest that's one of the rural scene's constant and most fundamental contributions to theology.
But you do have to have eyes to see and ears to hear what the rural is offering to theology!
Sermon preached by Bishop Laurie at the Final Eucharist.
My text for this afternoon, "Chops and Tomato Sauce". A strange text you may think. "Chops and Tomato Sauce." These words are taken from an intriguing letter and these are the words which led a man to spend a term of imprisonment at the Fleet, London. "Chops and Tomato Sauce".
Written in 1831 or thereabouts by a certain Mr Pickwick to his landlady Mrs Bardell and cited in the case which she brought against him for breech of promise.
The case against Mr Pickwick hung upon a short note left for Mrs Bardell by Pickwick which read, "Dear Mrs B, Chops and Tomato Sauce. Yours, Pickwick."
But her solicitors, aptly named Dodson and Fogg, maintained that this must be some 'coded message' indicating his wish to marry Mrs Bardell. Pickwick denied the charge, claiming that the note referred to his preference regarding the menu for the day. Mr Pickwick's future depended upon proving the context of the note. When he wrote it, was he thinking of marriage or his supper? The court had no doubt where the truth lay. And off went the good Mr Pickwick to the Fleet prison with Sam Weller in tow.
Unless we understand the context there is little likelihood of understanding the text.
So today we have taken time to look more intently at the new cultural contexts in which we seek to minister. For if we don't try to understand our context, our text will be as ineffective as Pickwick's note. But I hope we do not feel daunted by the great shifts in contemporary culture which we have perceived.
For as we look at these challenging new cultural phenomena - post-modernism or whatever - do we not see, as well as the problems, clear examples of God at work already within? And also new opportunities for fresh incarnation of his Word?
Unfortunately, the Church often has felt daunted and has responded in reaction and defensiveness. It has sometimes constructed its own alternative 'cocooning culture' which wraps its members up in an isolating duvet of spiritual forgetfulness. Sometimes it's so cosy that we could evaluate some Churches on a scale of duvet togg-ratings.
But I want to see not cocooning, not withdrawal from the world, but more engagement with it!
The model of our Lord Jesus is not one of disengagement but one of Incarnation. The Word became fleshy flesh, and dwelt among us. So the Church should rightly stand within the world; ... and yet also over-against the world. And I yearn for the Church to be more within, and more over-against.
I have always been fascinated by the Book of Revelation, with its call to the Church not to be so lukewarm. The contemporary culture of Roman Imperialism is carefully analysed in that book, and its readers are called upon to combat the domination and fear which was its hallmark. And to put in its place a Christian culture of 'the Lamb' and of 'Jesus as Lord'. In a word, to offer an engaged Christian 'counter-culture'.
Now, given what we have described today of the new predominating cultures of our own age, what might it mean for our Church to be 'counter-cultural' in this way?
Well, to judge by modem advertising, the prevailing culture of our day assumes that 'meaning' is to be found in personal happiness and comfort. And if things are not comfortable then the application of the right technology or know-how will make everything All Right. 'The Appliance of Science', and 'I know a man who can'. It is a culture striving for comfort, control and success. And this is so powerful in our culture that if we are not careful, the Church finds its meanings being constituted by these cultural myths of comfort, control and success.
Take, for example, the flourishing publishing industry that has now grown up which presents prayer and spirituality as a personalised feel-good technology. 'Meditate and pray for five minutes a day, and you'll feel good with God.' Even prayer is made into a comfort technology. As well as comfort, the culture drives us towards thinking in terms of 'success'. Disappointments and failures are judged as merely temporary setbacks on the road to success.
So, for example, in the Church, if membership is not growing apace, it's just a matter of using the right techniques. After all, God wants you to have success in your ministry, success in our ministries, even though his own Son's ministry was to end on a cross. We live in a comfort culture, but the cross is not comfortable. And for us to remain counter-cultural we need to rediscover a faithfulness to Christ crucified.
The baptismal command "to confess the faith of Christ crucified" is today counter-cultural indeed!
For the cross of Christ Jesus is not about cut-priced success and quick fixes; on the contrary, it affirms those who are forgotten and despised; it brings those at the edges to the very centre; it focuses upon the downtrodden; it is written in nails and thorns - anything but comfort and success. The cross speaks of the authority of self-sacrifice. And of the single grain that dies to give birth. It speaks of the headship of the marginalised one. It speaks of divine, passionate love and the end of anything that seeks to fence in God's love with limitation, caveat and law. Divine, barrier-breaking love.
So the Counter-cultural Church will be a community of barrier-breaking love. With arms stretched wide to receive. A church that is broad and free - enriched and ennobled by the variety of the gifts, insights and personalities within.
In the present, dominant surrounding culture, differences are leading to fragmentation, disunity and polarisation. But in our Christian counter-culture, we should know that we belong together, saved by the cross. For the Church is held together not by law but by relationship. And relationship is what people are yearning for in today's fragmenting culture. People today yearn to be 'in touch' with one another and with the deeper meanings of life. People today are searching for things that the dominant culture is unable to provide - understanding, compassion, togetherness. And the Christian Church has all this and more - in the cross of our Lord Jesus – "the mystery of compassion and coherence amidst the brokenness", the mystery that is Divine Love.
In the past this Unity in Diversity has been the special gift of Anglicanism to the wider Church. Not by virtue of an authoritarian and oppressive Oneness, but by the love of the Trinitarian God bringing dynamic coherence to diversity. So the C of E should really be in the vanguard of showing this fragmentary culture that there can be unity and coherence even given such profusion and difference. Unity and coherence, for those who profess the faith of Christ crucified. The cross of Christ.
And finally, to come back to our own ministry, the ministry of the ordained and the ministry of the licensed lay-worker, trying to get it right for God in a culture which worships success.
Mother Julian of Norwich tells the story of the servant who is totally intent on serving his master. In his great enthusiasm to succeed he rushes out on his errand from the castle gate, across the drawbridge, slips in all his haste and lands head down in the sodden ditch. Abject failure in ministry. But the servant's master looks down from the tower window and sees how his servant's well-meant enthusiasm has ended in disaster. And the Master's response? His response is a broad, knowing smile. A smile of fatherly understanding and forgiveness. A smile of Divine Love. It is the smile of one who knows crucifixion.
For we follow in St Peter's footsteps. We serve, we fail, we even betray. But the crucified and resurrected Lord comes to us at the breakfast on the Sea shore and asks us simply. "Do you love me? Do you love me? You are weak to the point of betrayal but do you love me? In your ministry, since you love me, since you have come in penitence", says our Lord, "then feed my lambs." Go into the world of changing cultures and puzzling contexts and feed my lambs.
Book Review by Audrey Cozens
Church in Black and White: The Black Christian Tradition in "Mainstream" Anglican Churches in England: A White Response and Testimony, John L Wilkinson, Windows in Theology, St Andrew's Press/Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag. 1993. 249 pp.
This book is the result of John Wilkinson's reflection on his own experience in Aston, Birmingham, as, to use his words, "a priest and pastor at the point where the Black 'underside' of Christian history has 'collided' with White history."
During a sabbatical which involved sharing study, reflection and worship in the Caribbean, the United States and Canada, as well as with the Black Christian Studies students at Queen's College, Birmingham, Mr Wilkinson traced the roots of Black Christianity through emancipation and slavery to ancestral African identity. The story he tells is a shocking one: from the involvement of English Christians of all denominations in owning and trading in slaves; through a racism in which slaves were denied baptism and legal marriage; through the cold rejection of the "two mothers" - England and the Church of England - given to post-war Caribbean immigrants; to the lack of understanding of the relationship between Black identity and Black Christianity, which leaves the spiritual gifts of Black Christians hidden.
Mr Wilkinson begins with the experience which enabled him to see the pain, the liberation and the hope which the Black Christians bring to their worship and their theology; he ends on a note of hope that this experience and the context in which those who have in the past been victim and oppressor begin "to be truthful to each other in the presence of Christ" will enable the Church in mission, in particular in mission to other oppressed groups. The hope is a real one, but there is much pain to be gone through first. He is right when he writes:
"To speak of Black Christianity in the Church of England is to jolt the theological and conceptual framework of many Christians."