A Trip to Llandaff

A few weeks ago now (sorry, other things got in the way of blogging about this) I went on a day trip down to St. Michael’s Theological College run by the Anglican Chaplain here.  The idea being to give people considering ordained ministry, a flavour of what “vicar school” is like.  Given that this blog will still function to be a public forum for my thoughts as I consider vocation, and what mine might be it seems appropriate to share some key snapshots.  This won’t be an extensive narrative of the time.  If you desperately want to know about the teashop on the way down or what the lasagne was like, get in touch!

Some background
St. Michael’s College (St. Mike’s) is the Church In Wales’ training college, with Methodist Ecumenical links and a good relationship with the Baptists.  It is based in Llandaff, Cardiff.  It has a mix of residential and non-residential students who hail from a range of Christian backgrounds; welsh-language, English-language, Charismatic, Anglo-Catholic, Low Church, Reformed, not-so-reformed, Conservative, Liberal etc.  It offers training at a number of academic levels depending on an ordinand’s ability and background. So on to the realisations …

Their approach to “formation” 
We arrived for lunch (very nice) and then after that the first port of call was an introductory talk by the vice-principle (a very lovely man who was very gracious and seemed to take a genuine interest us as people).  One of the main thrusts was their view on “formation” which made a lot of sense.  Like other similar institutions there is an emphasis not on imparting knowledge, or training in skills (although both are integral) but about developing people.   Stephen Roberts gave such a better explanation of this.  You’ll have to settle with, “I was very impressed with the approach they took for their students”.

On small communities
When I was choosing where to study my undergrad degree the size of the student body was a key factor; I wanted somewhere not overwhelmingly big, but not so small that it felt invasive.  I would hold that the size of the student body will be a factor in the order that I rank my preferences for training institutions (assuming I candidate and am accepted and that the single “Hub” Methodism is planning doesn’t exist by then).  If you’d asked me the day before going down to St. Mike’s I’d have said that I accept none of our colleges are huge, but the bigger the better because I’d find a small community to claustrophobic.  The community of students at St. Mike’s felt tiny (maybe 20?) but it didn’t feel claustrophobic or invasive.  Admittedly all we got was a snap-shot but it felt far better than I was expecting.  I had an overwhelming sense that I could actually fit into a group like that.
In no small way that was because everyone I met was so lovely.  I’m sure not every community that size has that feel, and praise is owed to the students we met, but I am no revising how important I think the size is.

This was so so lovely.  Partly I was shattered after a manic week and so a time to sit down in some quiet was delightful, but also it was a wonderful service, well conducted, by the students.  One of those beautifully refreshing services where I was certain I’d met with God, not because of how I’d felt, but because of the way I left in some way different.  Also the chapel was really beautiful.  It was probably an acquired taste, but I could have spent half a day there.  I also liked the idea that the style of worship changed with the students leading to reflect the diversity of the college; what a lovely idea and what a great way to foster understanding.

The next two points are a little bit more of gut-feelings that any real response.

A Call to Ordination and Further Theological Training
Whilst it is extremely unlikely I’d ever train at St. Mike’s it felt right being there, in the sense that it felt right I get a better feel of what a training college is like.  It confirmed the sense that this would be part of my future.  That I have been called to ordained ministry and to further training.  Whilst the two come together they can also be separated, and it was in different ways that I felt called to both, but at the same time that they’d come together.  Discussions on practical things like how one would deal with certain situations confirmed a sense of calling to be a Minister and theological discussion and the talk of Masters excited me that this would come with part of that.

A Call to be Ordained a Presbyter
Within British Methodism there are two orders of Ordained Ministry; Presbyters and Deacons.  So with a sense of call to ordained ministry one must discern which form of ministry one is called to.  The students lead worship, including communion with the exception of the special bit that only ministers can do (the days of lay presidency can’t get here soon enough for my liking) and because I was so tired I even missed the subtle swap between the that bit, so it looked to me as if the students had lead communion.  This bit gets very wishy washy, but when I saw them I felt a sense of empathy and that *that* was what I was supposed to do.  So it felt like a definitive confirmation that if I am called to ordained ministry it is to presbyteral ministry; a ministry of Word and Sacrament.  This is something I’ve always felt, but could never justify, which might have proven tricky come candidating.  But now I have a small experience which might support this “assumption” although it’d be lovely if God could send some more.

All in all the trip was a really lovely one, fascinating, informative and affirming.  I am very glad I went.


A belated Mothering Sunday Post

Fair warning: This post sounds very progressive and very feminist.  It may well make a load of people uncomfortable, but I’m OK with that.  Feel free to tell me the numerous ways you struggle with it in the comments.

In my last post I said I wanted to blog the feast days or high points in the church year.  I was going to write one of my longer “this is what I think and why” posts about mothering sunday, but it just wasn’t forming, so instead I’m going to try something different.  I’m going to write a prayerful poem on the theme and then possibly write a few lines after it.  This is a bit different, but let’s give it a go.

Divine Mother,
Who gave birth to this world,
whose words give life, like whispers of love.
and who tends and cares for me,
draw me close to your self, wrap your arms of love around me
Arms which, once, long ago, in a place quite far from me here, were pierced,
Let me suckle at your bosom,
taking in living water,
being nourished by the milk that is your word,
let me feast on you, be nourished by you.
Help me to grow and develop as a disciple in the same way a child does in a womb,

And a final note.  I am fortunate enough to have a super mum and in so many ways she has shown me Christ, revealed him and embodied him.  I am very grateful to her for the part she’s played in the development of my faith.

Feastly blogging

The Church of God has always celebrated things, and since its inception those celebrations have, in part, been linked to the calendar.  This is obviously not a unique element of Christian faith, most religions have a calendar with high points in it, but as our Tradition grew so too did the way we celebrated those important days, and indeed the days themselves changed; as other key events occurred they were added to the calendar (important Saint days for example) or as the church perceived a need to to mark occasions they were added too (Remembrance Day for example) or the example that inspires this post; Mothering Sunday (a more specifically mothering Sunday post may follow).

But in the same way that the church developed to add these festivals, the church is still developing; maybe we’ll add a new festival sometime, but certainly the way we mark these occasions is changing.

They key moments in the church year were, and still, are marked as “feasts” the church would gather and mark the occasion by having communion.  Depending on where in the Christian tradition one lies depends on how one marks these feasts, what one calls them, and which ones are observed, I do not see this practice of feasting changing.  But there is a technological development that I see occurring alongside this.  As an increasing number of Christians blog we, I believe not too intentionally, mark the church calendar and these feast days in our blogging; mainly because the feast days have an important meaning to us and we blog about things that are important; a great number of my Methodist friends blogged about Covenant services they’d attended, there are a few Mothering Sunday blogs knocking around, and I intend to add one, Christmas and Easter obviously get blogged about, as does Pentecost, those with a higher churchship may blog about key saints too.  It all makes sense.  If something is worth celebrating physically then it is worth marking in the virtual world as well, it is a natural progression.

In a number of things, we benefit from what comes naturally, but benefit more so if we consciously decide to do something. So I am consciously deciding to blog on feast days.  It won’t be every feast day (there’s at least one saint to commemorate each day) but the ones that I find important, given where I am in my faith tradition, and invite other bloggers to actively seek to do the same.

some greyness around labels

In the vestry of the chapel I grew up in, from conception through til I was 10-ish there was a poster that said “Labels tie your child down” and had an image with a child struggling to walk because there were lots of huge luggage labels tied to him.

Labels, when applied to us, and as a way of meaning that people don’t have to get to know us, are a bad thing, without a doubt.  But I also think labels can be a good thing, as a means of self-identification, and specifically within the Christian world I think labels, when we apply them to ourselves help us in the cause of Christian unity.

In most cases, labels highlight differences.  I am an Arminian because someone else is a Calvinist; Someone else is conservative because I am liberal; someone is a complimentarian because another is an egalitarian, some are charismatic because others are not, I have a friend who needs to say he’s an inerrantist because not everyone is.  I don’t know about other people, but often me and my friends will pre-fix a statement during a chat with “Well, I believe xxx, so” usually the xxx is something the other doesn’t believe. (for example a Roman Catholic might say to me “I believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary”).

I see two key advantages in describing ourselves in this way 1) it keeps our disagreements graceful 2) it reminds us of what we agree on

Disagreement is a natural part of life, and it is as natural part of being in a faith community.  I am reminded of the clips from The Life of Brian where there are disagreements over what various items Brian leaves mean, and how his “disciples” ought to follow him best; Christianity is no different, we produce a variety of of biblical interpretations, a range of doctrines and numerous ways of running churches.  No doubt somewhere in that melee is “the right answer” but there is no way of knowing for certain.  Using labels reminds us of that; it highlights that there is disagreement and that we cannot know the answer.  When someone introduces their ideas by saying “I’m a Universalist, so …” it reminds me that there are ways of reading the bible beside my own, and so inspires me to extend grace and courtesy to their ideas.

The use of labels also helps us recognise our own tendencies or preferences.  Whether it is because when I acknowledge I am an egalitarian I have to admit to myself at times this will colour my understanding, or whether it is because when someone describes themselves as Charismatic it pushes me to recognise I am not that Charismatic and so acknowledge I am more skeptical than others.  These tendencies or theological preferences are not necessarily bad things (although we need to check they don’t over-colour things) but we need to be aware of them if we can learn from other Christians and so we can make sure that they don’t affect things adversely.

Secondly, labels remind us of what we agree on and they do so by highlight divergent opinions.  If you can put a label or a caveat on it, then there is a range of opinions on it.  If not then it is something we can agree on.  You don’t get “Jesusists” – those Christians who believe in Jesus as opposed to those who don’t; because we all believe in Jesus.  If we can’t label it, then it must be pretty commonly shared, at least as a rule of thumb.

So what of those who reject the use of labels?  There are plenty of them “well, I’m just a Christian really” is a common phrase.  Sometimes this comes from a desire to be known for making individual, evaluated decisions, rather than accepting the normal position of this group or that group.  I know Calvinists who agree with all of TULIP but who don’t call themselves that because their doctrines were reached by reading scripture rather than working through mnemonic.   Which is a very reasonable position to take.  Although, of course those of us who use labels tend to have gone through the same process.  In these situations I respect people’s decision not to label themselves, but hope they can acknowledge how their position affects their understanding of biblical texts or of life situations.

Another, more worrying, situation, which thankfully is rare, is that people reject labels because of a narrow view of what we must agree on, or a short-sightedness of how we disagree.  They think that because they believe x, or y, everyone else must also, and to not brings into doubt whether they are a Christian.  This is a slim but worrying trend we must oppose.

790 words later, and this all sounded a lot greyer than I thought it would, but oh well, I have said I’ll try and embrace that, so feel free to use the comments button lots.  How am I wrong? Where do you disagree with me?  What do I take too far or not acknowledge?


Reading our prejudices into the bible

The last time I wrote about same-sex relations, and in particular the C4M petition I tried to remain neutral in relation on attitudes to same-sex relations in general, for that post my views on the matter were irrelevant.

In this post I shall address more closely my feelings on the matter.  In fact…

I do not think same-sex relationships or practices are wrong.  I do not think that heterosexual relationships are the only way God intended for couples to exist.

Now I’ve gone on record with my opinion on the matter.  You can all hold me to it if you want.

One of the common objections I experience to my view is that “But, but … but, the bible says they are wrong”.  And it is to this that we now turn our attention.

Yes, there are a few verses, in both the Old and New Testament that come out against same-sex relationships/practices.  I could go through and explain how in each circumstance I do not think they categorically condemn anything, but I don’t want to get into that game of proof-text tag.  Instead I want to look at the wider issue of why it is that people use the defense “But the bible says so” and some inherent flaws with this.

Firstly, living our lives by the authority of the bible, I believe, is a good thing.  So trying to work out what the bible says is a good thing, and using it to justify our opinions, in principle is a good thing.  But it also leads us into tricky water.  The bible is not monolithic or straight-forward.  It is multifaceted and contains many different opinions, even on the same matter.  Rachel Held Evans has been blogging about this issue too, (why not check out her series) and often concludes that there is not “a biblical view” on a subject, but a range of them.  This is inevitable for a Canon that is a collection of texts that have been written over such a long period, by some many authors in different cultures.  What qualifies them as Canonical, and what gives them authority. however, is their inspiration by the Spirit.

Given this what defines our understanding of “what the bible says” must be us.  We all share the same scriptures but reach different conclusions, so the thing that determines that, has to be us.  We all read different things into the text.  I read liberal and Arminian   values into texts, others read conservative and charismatic messages into the text.
Why do some people think  the bible is against gays, bisexuals, etc?  Because they are against gays, bisexuals etc?  They read their own prejudices into the text.

And it isn’t just in how they interpret verses, because if it was some verses might be inescapable, it is how we deal with the scriptures as a whole.  We are all guilty of selective reading.  I tend not to mention verses that talk about God pre-destining people.  Those who use the bible to suggest homo-sexuality and/or bisexuality are wrong do exactly the same, they give greater priority to the “anti-gay” verses and claim it as a biblical mandate.

There are 5 instructions in the NT to greet one another with a kiss (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12,  1 Thes 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14) and yet those who tell me that my views on sexuality are unbiblical have never kissed me when we’ve met.

For the sake of ease, let us focus on one book to further illustrate this point.  1 Corinthians works well.  The following verses are all taken from this one letter, of Paul to the church in Corinth.

Therefore do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (4:5)
I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. (5:3)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (6:9-10)
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. (7:8)
Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,  (11:14)
All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (16:20)

A command against judging, but an admission the author judges, commands against homosexuality, a command against marrying, a condemnation of men with long hair and an instruction to kiss each other.

People often take objection to same-sex relations and trot out this verse in their support, very few people have sincerely objected to the length of my hair (which now sits just above my shoulders) based on that verse, no-one has told me that I should be celibate, but they have said my non-hetero friends should be and no-one has greeted me with a kiss. Their reading of even this one book (and don’t get me onto slaves elsewhere) is selective.  Because we all read selectively.

The question then must be “why?”.  It is necessary for us to consider what leads to this selective reading over any other.  A suggest a number of reasons.

A bit of me feels uncomfortable writing this blog-post, I know a number of people whom I love and respect deeply disagree with me on the matter.  I am wary of sounding too overly-critical, for example I have written, and then deleted the word homophobic a number of times [I stand by my decision that it is an unhelpful label in this particular branch of the discussion].  Many of the people I hold in high regard are older than me.  I think in some cases, the prejudice comes from their generation.  As they grew up opposition to LGBT was the norm, to some extent they are unaware of their prejudice and the hurt they cause, and it is that upbringing and societal influence that affects their readings of these texts.  It fits with everything else they have been told, so they accept it.

Faith Tradition
There are plenty of churches that actively preach against same sex relationship and preach ardently on the virtues of marriage, how it is a God-given ideal for society and family life.  There are, therefore members of those traditions who have been conditioned to read the passages condemning same-sex relationships favourably, without much thought to their own conscience.  They have seen no need to question the verse because their is a clear teaching on it from their church.
There are, of course, the majority of people who have read the passages and heard their church’s teaching on the matter and have knowingly accepted or rejected it.  Making our own decisions on these matters is always favourable.

Wider Society
Wider society is better now than it was before at accepting orientations that aren’t straight, as valid and normal, or as no different to straight orientations, but there is still a horrifically long way to go.  The stats in my previous blog highlight that in a very painful way.   This does not help, it possibly tips the reader towards thinking that condemnations of same-sex relationships are acceptable, or normal, and therefore limits the critical thought that goes into the texts.  Again, this is not always the case.

This merges all of the above, church, society, parental attitudes etc all affect our reading of the scriptures.  If we are brought up in homes where heterosexuality is favoured, or where same-sex relationships are seen as wrong this can affect our reading.

Personal Conviction
So far it may sound as if I believe that anyone who opposes same-sex relationships has been conned or hoodwinked into the position.  This is far from the case.  The majority of my adversaries in this matter, most of whom are very close friends hold their views because of a personal conviction in the validity of principle.  As much as I bitterly disagree with these people I cannot help but respect that they have reached a conclusion based on their weighing of the evidence and which sits well with their conscience, much as I have.

However, when we boil it down, personally I do not think the bible condemns same-sex relationships, and people will have to do better than “because the bible says so” as their reasoning.  By all means disagree with me, but have a better argument than a prejudiced selective reading of our authoritative scriptures.