Wikio - Top Blogs - Religion and belief

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Past Life - Present Mission (4)

Chapter 3: Christian life and mission in the light of Celtic Christianity

St Edmunds Tyseley

Tyseley is a large geographical area in East Birmingham, 2½ miles from the city centre, known as ‘the forgotten triangle’. It is an older working-class area of mixed residential and industrial land use with high proportions of minority ethnic people together with a rapidly increasing young family population with a high birth rate. Social needs in Tyseley included high levels of unemployment, large numbers of elder people and lone parents, a lack of youth facilities, congested roads and heavy industrial traffic, a polluted atmosphere, high levels of illness, and few open or play spaces. On my arrival at St Edmunds in 1989, a social worker told me:

“The thing you will soon discover about Tyseley people is that they have no hope. If they are middle-aged and unemployed they will never be employed again. What they have got in life now, won’t really be added to before they eventually die.”

The Church buildings and site were in need of refurbishment although the facilities were used by the community and the Church members viewed themselves as being an extended Christian family committed to being a church for their community. Change occurred in our situation as major building works were financed and completed and through an experimental Neighbourhood Project, StEdicare – Tyseley. The building works and StEdicare created an environment where, by the mid 1990s, we were motivated to search for a fresh and relevant set of Christian mission principles that applied both to our own lifestyle and were relevant to the local community. The use of Celtic materials in worship and study were a key part of developing this fresh approach.

Using the Biblical themes

Mitton’s biblical themes were used by three housegroups and several individuals (45 starters, 40 completers) as a set of notes with the following format:

1. Consider an historical story about one or more of the Celtic Saints which illustrates each Biblical theme.

2. Interpret the story and its theme and apply it to the Church of today.

3. Read a relevant Bible Passage for each theme.

4. Discuss questions arising from the text.

5. Conclude with prayer.

When each group had finished studying the material I visited them and discussed their response. Behind my approach lay the question: “Is it possible for an ancient form of indigenous Christianity to act as an important guide line for Christians living and mission in a deprived UPA 1500 years later?”


Category 1 responses: This included the majority of participants (a total of 32 out of 40), most of whom were long-term residents of Tyseley. As a group, Category 1 people were untroubled and perhaps unaware that there could be a problem in accepting, that an ancient, indigenous, Christian approach could be relevant to their own spiritual growth and awareness. In general they set aside what one might call the structural and historic differences between rural, agrarian people and themselves as urban dwellers immersed in the culture of Tyseley and St. Edmund’s Church. They were prepared to consider what the biblical theme itself offered. As a part of that, they accepted themes and aspects of themes that affirmed existing Christian life-style, and any challenge toward new ways for them, to live out that theme.

Category 1 people coped with the ‘Woven Cord’ programme notes through the strength of the story approach, and the sense of concreteness it brought to their discussions. The success and centrality of the story approach with its visual and descriptive imagery should not be lost sight of. Neither should the use of biographical content and illustrative testimony by group members, which became a positive part of their own involvement with the notes. The notes were totally focussed on examples of Celtic Christian principles and practices. So this was what participants accepted and applied to their lives. Equally themes which were not accepted reflect positive decisions as these emerged from the exploratory process they had practised.

People in this first category were warmed by stories of Celtic Christians and connected with them at a feeling level.

Category 2 responses: These people were a minority (8) of participants in the ‘Woven Cord’ programme. Category 2 people found the issue of responding to cultural knowledge and life style from an ancient Christian people somewhat difficult. They perceived the Celtic way to be ‘romantic’ and rural and, therefore, irrelevant. Their reasoning was academic and the question arose as to whether the use of ‘non-academic’ faculties such as intuition, story and art was viewed as a threat.

This also raised the question, are well-educated Christians who occupy a high social class but choose to live in or near a UPA and worship within it, less motivated to consider alternative Christian life-styles than the ones they currently live out? Whilst this is merely a possibility it could be relevant to the way mission was planned and structured in UPA parishes. After a lifetime’s involvement in working class areas, I am of the view that well-educated, professional people are needed to worship and live in UPAs. They have lots of gifts to offer, but the essential question is how effectively they relate to Christian living and life-style of local people who are long-term residents. In this instance the two categories seemed to be within two different worlds.

I asked myself the question, why were the Category 2 people so unaccepting of the Celtic themes? Various possibilities seemed relevant: What was their commitment to living in a UPA, was it for ‘Romantic’ reasons? Was their response related to the kind of worldview they implicitly accepted, which (perhaps) made receptivity to the past difficult? What theological position had they adopted with respect to tradition? Had they thought through the question of ancient text (the Bible) or story (the Celtic) in relation to contemporary life? Did they assume the Biblical text transcends the historical and cultural in a way which other texts do not?

Themes that resonated

The following are themes that particularly resonated with the Category 1 participants. They are themes that were transposed directly into their approach to Christian living, and are not presented in any particular order:
  • The importance of authenticity, simplicity of life-style and holiness within daily Christian living.
  • The centrality of the Bible and the commitment to living out its teaching in a direct manner.
  • The acceptance of the presence of illness, death and dying and the significance of faith in relation to that awareness. ‘Life’ beyond the grave.
  • The sense of unity with the world of creation.
  • The reality of spiritual powers, including those of evil, and the fact of spiritual battle.
  • The place, work and gifts of the Holy Spirit...Discernment, prophecy and healing.
  • Acceptance of the ministry of women, and the place of children within the Christian setting.
  • The importance of prayer in the daily life and worship of Christians.
Other themes that strongly emerged included:

  • The possibility of experiencing peace, quietness of spirit and hope in the living out of faith.
  • The sense of freedom in Christian living and worship.
  • The awareness of Christian belonging and sharing faith with others.
Themes that did not resonate

In the main these were as follows:
  • Celibacy seemed to be regarded as irrelevant to their lives. In terms of gender, their view and assumption was the acceptance of heterosexual family life as being the norm. 
  • Asceticism was regarded as strange and irrelevant. They were aware of the challenge toward discipleship but now saw that in terms of direct Christian living within their daily lives. Asceticism was not applicable to their view of growing in holiness. 
  • Poverty was a matter most knew something about. For them it had not involved choice. As a factor that was chosen as part of a Celt’s life of faith, it did not appeal to participants in the ‘Woven Cord’ programme. 
  • Christian Monastic Community was ignored as significant to their lives. In general the response of participants was biased towards direct examples of Christian living as demonstrated in the ‘story’ approach. This particular theme illustrated their unreadiness to approach issues from the basis of Institutional life.
  • Peregrinatio was discussed with interest and felt to be Biblical. We have already established that with most themes that resonated, they were then applied directly to people’s lives, especially any scriptural teaching. The fact this theme did not resonate related to the lack of feasibility for them to practice peregrinatio i.e. it was a Celtic Christian practice that did not transpose into their social structure. The fact it did not resonate, thereby showed the critical ability of Category 1 participants to show that not everything about Celtic Christianity was suitable for them.
The common denominator in these negative responses was that even where they were individual practices, they had a particular link with the institutional structure of the Celtic Church. As a result, there was not the same acceptance by the Category 1 participants.

Key factors

The key factors which made these themes of significant meaning were:
  • People’s identity and self-image: Many UPA Christian people do not have a strong identity or confident self-image in relation to the wider society. They are not confident about many roles. Roles that for example, most middle-class people are automatically prepared for by family and life experience. In the Christian context of St. Edmund Tyseley that included such common roles as: becoming a Sunday School Teacher; taking a Bible reading in a Church Service; or joining a visiting team. All of the themes that resonated had this linking strength. Acceptance of the themes aided that person’s identity and self-image as a Christian believer.
  • Direct applicability to everyday Christian life as a UPA person: The social context for the target group of Tyseley residents was one of ‘deprivation’ and marginalisation from affluent Britain. Within the Church context of St. Edmund’s there had been an absence of ‘hope’. The movement into using Celtic Christian principles and practices as a set of guide lines for spiritual growth within the Church reinforced in the mid 1990’s, a movement away from this no hope perception for the individual and the Church. As the ‘Woven Cord’ programme progressed there was an increasing awareness of the presence of God, a God who was at the centre of the new openness to directly apply the practice of Celtic spiritual material into daily living. The story of the way Celtic Christians saw and lived out their faith became relevant and accessible to participants. The manner in which this happened, suggested that Category 1 participant’s perception of renewed Christian living did not depend on institutional or social class definitions of the correct type of image or behaviour. One of the more significant changes in absorbing Celtic Christian practice, was the move away from coming to Church “to get your batteries charged” – to viewing Christian living as a daily affair involving prayer, worship and service to others. The themes that resonated had this “direct applicability” element to the participant’s everyday Christian life as a UPA person.
  • Need for a sense of belonging and to find their Christian roots: Within UPAs’ there is usually found a locality-based, neighbourhood sense of community. Social networks are often locally based also. This, together with family and friendship networks, link strongly into a person’s identity and self-image. Tyseley has been very much a white community with a great emphasis on extended families. That structure is now in rapid change into a multi-ethnic community, surrounded by the influence of contemporary social values and rapid social change. This means there are areas of new vulnerability within the local neighbourhood, within family, Church life and for the individual. The whole structure of belonging and the sense of roots has been dislocated through rapid social change. It is hardly surprising that for Christian UPA believers, anything that helps their sense of belonging and discovery of significant roots is welcomed. This programme and its Celtic Christian backcloth together with the themes that resonated, strengthened the participants sense of belonging to each other and to God through Christ. Their sense of dignity and worth as a child of God gained new roots through their identity with Celtic Christians. A significant factor in this was that their faith was no longer to be so determined by their UPA human context or definitions about them stemming from social class attitudes and behaviour.
In the earlier Chapters I noted two developmental stages in the evolution of Celtic Christianity. First, the age of the Sancti, where there was a major focus on the Saints of the 4th-6th centuries AD. These were the men who were the Christian equivalent of the Celtic war-lord heroes of which Ninian, Patrick and Columba were distinguished examples. Second, this was followed by the movement into structures that were to characterise the Celtic Church, in particular monasticism and Peregrinatio from the early 6th Century onwards. The Themes that resonated with UPA people were particularly illustrated by stories from the first time period of the Celtic Sancti. The Themes that were rejected or ignored, were generally related to the period when the focus was upon the characteristic structures found within Celtic Christianity and its practice. In terms of the wider study of Celtic Christianity, both divisions include major themes. For future programmes the different contemporary contexts within which such themes may be placed, will help to determine whether they are regarded as major or minor Themes.

Implications for developing future programmes

Some excellent material has surfaced in the last few years, that greatly improves the position. This comes, for example, from the Rev. Martin Wallace who initially published a series of low cost, samizdat publications based on Celtic style talks given at St. Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex. This was the Church St. Cedd built in 654 AD. Wallace’s basic value in writing such books was to “combine the lives of the Saints together with radical lessons for today.” These were followed in 1998 by Wallace’s “The Celtic Resource Book”. This excellent book uses the same type of worship resource material we used at St. Edmund’s, which included material from David Adam, the Carmina Gadelica, Wild Goose Publications (Iona), the Northumbrian Community and the like. Content is divided into sections that include: Liturgies; Prayers; Lessons from the Saints; Practical Meditation; Artistic Activities; and Going on Pilgrimage Today together with exploratory ideas on different ways of using the Resource book. Any future programmes about Celtic Christianity among UPA people would be helped by making use of Wallace’s ability to relate Celtic Spirituality into the context of modern urban living, particularly that of ‘deprived’ communities.

Learning patterns

The following were important to the way the Study developed:
  • Celtic Christian prayers, poems and meditations used within Church worship from 1994.
  • A series of sermons during 1996 that transposed Celtic approaches into life, living, and Christian faith within a UPA context. 
  • The use of everyday objects as visual aids or as a sacramental symbol. For example: offering the congregation, after a sermon about Columba’s life and ministry, a small pebble from the beach on Iona where he landed. It was offered on condition that if accepted, the pebble would be used as a symbol for that person of a commitment to share the Good News about Jesus with others. Another image used was that of the ‘Open Gate,’ signifying movement in our Christian pilgrimage individually and as a Church.
  • A series of visions that occurred at the time of a PCC Away Day in 1996 and their challenge about responding to the Spirit’s work in rebuilding Church relationships.

David Fitzgerald & Dave Bainbridge - I Arise Today.

No comments: