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Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Sharing good news

There has been plenty happening at St John's over the past few weeks. On Sunday 22nd July we welcomed back the New Covenant Singers. This was the group’s fourth visit to St John's and we are always very pleased to welcome them back. As a multi-racial congregation with a real appreciation for the way our shared faith can be expressed in and through many different cultures, we enjoy the warmth and skill of their harmonies and are challenged by the message that accompanies their songs.

The group were on their fourth UK tour singing at 25 different venues throughout July. At St John's they sang four songs including Have A Little Talk With Jesus and You've Got To Walk Right, Talk Right, Act Right, Live Right. Rev. Christopher Arulanand then preached on the importance of God being our main priority in life.

The Holiday Club at St John's Seven Kings happened last week. Over 80 children attended and enjoyed a programme that included: bible stories, bouncy castle, crafts, drama, games, quizzes, and songs. The craft activities included: beadwork, card making, cooking, painting, and woodwork, among others. The children had the opportunity to make: badges, bags, bracelets, door plaques, light-catchers, pinwheels, and tiaras, among others. On the final day of the Club there was also a bouncy castle.

The theme of the Club was 'Living with Jesus' and through the drama, quizzes and songs, the children heard about the importance of following, believing, worshipping and loving Jesus. In the daily drama, two humorous detectives helped the disciple Peter to find out more about Jesus with lots of fish jokes and slapstick along the way.

Thanks to our Holiday Club organiser, Margaret Amann, and her brilliant team of volunteers, the Holiday Club was great fun from beginning to end. Parents said that their children were getting up early and getting themselves ready in the mornings because they really wanted to come. Recommendations don't come any better than that! St John's has been running Holiday Clubs for many years and people here love the opportunity to give children a fun time at the same time as sharing the good news about Jesus.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Funding a kidney transplant

A former member of St John's, Naomi Michuki, is appealing for funds to enable her to have a kidney transplant in India. Her prolonged wait for a suitable donor has been hampered by a chronic shortage of back and ethnic minority donors. Black and Asian transplant patients often have to wait twice as long for suitable donors. Last year 60 people died while waiting for donors. Naomi needs to raise £20,000 and is well on the way to doing so but still needs more donations to reach her target. For more details of her situation and information about how to donate please click here.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Favourite writers on faith and belief (2)

What follows is my inadequate attempt to describe briefly why I think the ideas of the seven writers I listed in my previous post are so significant. Taken together aspects of their ideas enable us to see the work of Christ as opening up, for human beings, a conversational partnership with God which embraces pain and imagines possibility.

Gabriel Josipovici has suggested, that the scriptures work “by way of minimal units laid alongside each other, the narrative being built up by slotting these together where necessary” (G. Josipovici, The Book Of God: A Response To the Bible, Yale University Press, 1988). This form then affects the content because “events are laid out alongside each other, without comment, and we are never allowed to know whether the pattern we see emerging at one point is the true pattern”.

But Josipovici also identifies a narrative thread that holds together the disparate fragments which form the Bible:

“It’s a magnificent conception, spread over thousands of pages and encompassing the entire history of the universe. There is both perfect correspondence between Old and New Testaments and a continuous forward drive from Creation to the end of time: ‘It begins where time begins, with the creation of the world; it ends where time ends, with the Apocalypse, and it surveys human history in between, or the aspect of history it is interested in, under the symbolic names of Adam and Israel’. Earlier ages had no difficulty in grasping this design, though our own, more bookish age, obsessed with both history and immediacy, has tended to lose sight of it. Neither theologians nor biblical scholars have stood back enough to see it as a whole. Yet it is a whole and quite unlike any other book.”

What we have then in the scriptures is a both/and. A linear narrative thrust combined with the laying of fragments side by side so that each fragment adds to and challenges the others. The Bible’s narrative thrust is essentially structure-legitimating, a pledge of the stability of the cosmic order, while the laying of fragments side by side constitutes a refusal of closure.

Interestingly, this both/and is also the conclusion that Walter Brueggemann has reached in developing his theology of the Old Testament. Patrick Miller explains:

“A somewhat different ... dialectic is found in [Brueggemann’s] proposed structure for understanding Old Testament theology - the dialectic between the majority voice that is creation-oriented, a voice that assumes an ordered world under the governance of a sovereign God and so serves to legitimate the structures of the universe, and a minority voice that is in tension with the legitimation of structure, a voice embracing the pain that is present in the world and protesting against an order that allows such to be. Brueggemann’s dialectical approach, which assumes an ongoing tension between voices “above the fray” and those “in the fray” is fundamental to his reading of the Old Testament” (P. D. Miller, ‘Introduction’ in W. Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: Essays on Structure, Theme and Text, Augsburg Fortress, 1992).

It seems, then, that there is an internal conversation within the Bible between the voices ‘above the fray’ and those ‘in the fray’, between structure-legitimation and the embrace of pain, between a narrative thread and a lack of closure. As a result, the Bible can be seen as the record of a conversation between God and a human race which has, as a whole, rejected this conversation but which, in a remnant (mainly Israel and the Church), continues to oscillate between dialogue and independent rejection. This is why the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is finally so decisive. Jesus lives fully in the counter-testimony, the conversation with God which embraces pain and imagines possibility, and he then enables humanity to consistently enter in to that conversation too.

Rene Girard has described this radical reversal in terms of God first taking the side of the victim and then, in Christ, becoming the victim:

“The desire that lives through imitation almost always leads to conflict, and this conflict frequently leads to violence. The Bible unveils this process of imitative desire leading to conflict, and its distinctive narratives reveal at the same time that God takes the part of victims. In the Gospels the process of unveiling or revelation is radicalized: God himself, the Word become flesh in Jesus, becomes the victim … The New Testament Gospels are the starting point for a new science or knowledge of humanity. This new knowledge begins with faith in Christ the innocent victim, and it becomes the leaven that will work itself out and expand to the point that the concern for victims becomes the absolute value in all societies moulded or affected by the spread of Christianity” (J. G. Williams, ‘Foreword’ in R. Girard, I see Satan fall like lightning, Orbis Books, 2001).

N.T. Wright has written of the Bible’s narrative thread in terms of a play:

“Among the detailed moves available within this model … is the possibility of seeing the biblical story as itself consisting of five acts. Thus: 1-Creation; 2-Fall; 3-Israel; 4-Jesus. The writing of the New Testament – including the writing of the gospels – would then form the first scene in the fifth act, and would simultaneously give hints (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end. The fact of Act 4 being what it is shows what sort of conclusion the drama should have, without making clear all of the intervening steps. The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer an improvisory performance of the final act as it leads up to and anticipates the intended conclusion. The church is designed, according to this model, as a stage in the creator’s work of art: as Paul says in Ephesians 2.10, autou gar esmen poiema, we are his artwork” (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, London, SPCK, 1997).

It is in the scope that the Church is offered for improvisation in Act 5 that the possibility arises of humanity working in partnership with God. Nicholas Mosley’s novel The Hesperides Tree is a fictional exploration of this possibility. His central character, while delving in a library, comes upon the writings of the ninth-century monk John Scotus Erigena who “said that it was in this life that one could if one chose have an experience of God; of God and humans going hand in hand, creating what happened hand in hand”. His understanding of Scotus is that:

“In this world God was dependent on humans for what He and they did, to them He had handed over freedom: He remained that by which their freedom could operate, so of course they were dependent on Him too. But what could be learned, practised, of freedom except through exposure, risk – through trying things out by casting oneself on the waters as it were and discovering what the outcome would be after many days. But John Scotus’s way of seeing things had for a thousand years been largely ignored, and freedom had been taken into custody by Church and State” (N. Mosley, The Hesperides Tree, Vintage, 2002).

But how is it in any sense possible that human beings could work in partnership with God? Wright’s idea of improvising under the authority of the extant story provides us with one means by which this could become possible. Paul Ricoeur and Colin Gunton provide us with two more.

Ricoeur suggests that humanity is made in the image of God because we enjoy the power of creativity: “… according to Ricouer, human being is possibility: “it does not yet appear what we shall be” (1 John 3: 2). Human existence is “forward-orientated,” constantly projecting itself in front of itself towards a possible way of being. Possibility is therefore intimately connected to the imagination which projects it, and to time, specifically the future. Human being, then, is not limited to the here and now, that is, to actuality … there is a “surplus of being” to human existence, and this surplus of being is nothing other than possibility. We are not as we shall be. Thanks to this surplus of being – possibility – humanity can hope” (K. J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: A Study in Hermeneutics and Theology, Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Kevin Vanhoozer notes that: “In his essay “The Image of God and the Epic of Man,” Ricoeur suggests that humans are in the image of God because they too enjoy the power of creativity. Thus the image of God, creativity, gives rise to the images of man, in the sense of the images that man makes. These images constitute “the sum total of the ways in which man projects his vision on things.”” Ricoeur suggests that through our imagination we can determine (God created) possibilities and define the (God created) essence of all that is around us. It may be that this is what is meant by the story of Adam naming the creatures in Eden (Genesis 2. 18-24).

Possibilities are, Ricoeur argues, real, although unactualised and it is through imagination that actualisation occurs and with it self-understanding:

“The point of phenomenology is to describe the meaning of “lived experience” rather than its factuality. Husserl calls the meaning of a thing its “essence” (eidos). We come to know the essence of a thing by exploring its various possibilities. These possibilities are explored in the workshop of the imagination. Ricoeur notes of phenomenology that “its favourite technique is the method of imaginative variations. It is in varying the possible realizations of the same essential structure that the fundamental articulation can be made manifest.” Husserl’s example of the meaning or “essence” of a table is helpful. By “free imaginative variation” we can alter its form, its color, its material. By then looking to see what there is in common among the various examples, we can determine its essence. We can also imagine possible uses of a table: we can eat a meal on it; we can write letters or do a jigsaw puzzle on it; we can stand on it to fix the lightbulb etc. These variations are not present, but they are imagined as possible. Phenomenological description is thus closely related to fiction and the realm of as if. As far as phenomenology is concerned, we may define the meaning or “essence” of something as the imagined ensemble of its possibilities”.

Colin Gunton then gives us a third means by which humanity can work in partnership with God. Gunton works with the idea that God is in relation within himself as Trinity. The Trinity is, he argues, the ‘ideas of ideas’ from which open transcendentals – relationality, substantiality and perichoresis – derive to underpin all pattern and connection within the created order:

“Personal beings are social beings, so that of both God and man it must be said that they have their being in their personal relatedness: their free relation-in-otherness. This is not so of the rest of the creation, which does not have the marks of love and freedom which are among the marks of the personal. Of the universe as a whole we should conclude that it is marked by relationality rather than sociality. All things are what they are by being particulars constituted by many and various forms of relation. Relationality is thus the transcendental which allows us to learn something of what it is to say that all created people and things are marked by their coming from and returning to God who is himself, in his essential and inmost being, a being in relation. And it is a transcendental which at the same time enables us to incorporate the insights gained from the discussion of the other two transcendentals, perichoresis and substantiality.

Accordingly, of both God and the world it must be said that they have their being in relation. In the case of God, the transcendentals are functions of the eternal and free relations of the persons, each of whom has, in inseparable relation to the others, his particular manner of being and acting. This does not mean that we have a private view into the being of God, but that the general characteristics of God’s eternal being, as persons in relation, communion, may be known from what he has done and does in the actions that we call the economy of creation and salvation. In turn, the doctrine of God derived from the economy enables us to see that the creation bears in different ways the marks of its making, so that the transcendentals qualify people and things, too, in a way appropriate to what they are. In sum, the transcendentals are functions of the finitely free relations of persons and of the contingent relations of things” (C. E. Gunton, The One, The Three And The Many: God, Creation And The Culture Of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 1998).

For more on the idea of Christianity as a five-act drama see April, May and June's post at the journey home.

Favourite writers on faith and belief

Here is a quick list of some of the writers on issues of faith and belief that I find most challenging with links to websites that provide comprehensive information about their thinking:

Saturday, 28 July 2007

The sacred and the human

A post on the 'signs of emergence [the complex christ]' blog is well worth a read. Thanks to Huw for the link. The post summarises Roger Scruton's essay in this month's Prospect magazine which outlines arguments against Hitchens, Dawkins et al: 'the evangelical atheists, shouting from their pulpits'.

Most interestingly, Scruton uses the essay to highlight the work of Rene Girard in order to argue that "religion is not primarily about God but about the sacred, and that the experience of the sacred can be suppressed, ignored and even desecrated (the routine tribute paid to it in modern societies) but never destroyed."

Girard has some fascinating theories on the way in which Christianity is not the source of violence but the solution to it; as God, in Christ, becomes the ultimate victim of our human need to scapegoat others. Scruton's article provides a useful way into Girard's writings, which hold out hope for a way out of our propensity for scapegoating and violence.

Exploring the neighbourhood

Ron Ratliff, a US friend, passed me these thoughts on literature as windows to other (and our own) worlds by Jill Carattini who is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia:

"We demand windows," said C.S. Lewis speaking of the role of literature in our lives. Why occupy our time and hearts with accounts of characters and events that are not real? Why enter vicariously into the fictional life of one who behaves in ways we wouldn't or shouldn't? Lewis explains, "We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.... We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors...."(1)

The literature I have loved most has taken me to windows of other worlds and other countries. Whether a Hobbit in the Shire or a rationalist in 19th century Russia, I have been a thousand characters in a thousand places and know more about myself and my world because of it. Crossing the bridge into Terabithia, I was introduced to another world and my own at once. The characters that came bounding out of Katherine Paterson's pages pulled me through their window and voiced my very first questions about life, death, and my own mortality. When I first followed Charles Wallace and Meg through a wrinkle in time and a window to Camazotz, I saw that darkness can overwhelm, but there is light that cannot be overcome. Likewise, Lewis' own wardrobe provided the door that carried me to Narnia, a world that taught me to see the signs and possibilities of another Kingdom within my own.

The windows we find in our literature teach us to see windows in our own worlds. The stories and places that pull us in and spit us out again show us our own lives as stories, our own place in a bigger story, our role in a better country. Perhaps we demand windows into other worlds though we remain foreigners because we are foreigners looking for another world. Thus, the psalmist cries with the identity of one who belongs in another country, "Hear my prayer, O LORD, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping. For I dwell with you as an alien, a stranger, as all my fathers were" (39:12). And the author of Hebrews writes of Abraham, "By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country... For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (11:8-10). "God made man" said Elie Wiesel "because He loves stories."

As we wake to life, whether in our own story or vicariously in other, we wake with questions. "How did we get here?" the Pevensie children ask with good reason. "And why are we here?" Of course, they got to Narnia through the wardrobe, but how they didn't know. And what did it all mean? Who among us has at times not been floored with the same questions of our own world: How did we get here? Why are we here? And where are we going?

Our questions of this world are as valid as our questions of any other. Had the Pevensies' settled into Narnia without asking questions such as these, a great deal of the story would have been missed. Likewise, Annie Dillard writes of life in this place, "Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, even if we can't learn why."(1) We are citizens in a world that would be easy to settle into and go about our lives. But what crucial part of the story would we miss by doing so?

God's Word imagines a world where there are windows and doors that open to the Kingdom of God all around us. There are places where heaven and earth meet at great crossroads, moments when we are given opportunities to see things beyond us, to see things as they really are. God is always leading us toward the many-roomed house Christ left us to imagine. The question is whether or not we are taking the time to thoroughly explore the neighborhood.

(1) "We Demand Windows," Leland Ryken, ed. The Christian Imagination, (Colorado Springs: Shaw, 2002), 51. (2) Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (Bantam, 1977), 12.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Christian Art

Christian Art by Rowena Loverance (The British Museum Press, 2007, £20, ISBN-13: 978-0-7141-5053-6)

Rowena Loverance’s book is both an accessible introduction to Christian Art and a stimulating exploration of the way in which art from the Christian tradition can speak to our condition today. To achieve both within the pages of one book is a considerable achievement.

Loverance’s scope is broad, covering Christian Art from its inception to the contemporary in a way that is genuinely global and which takes in the decorative as well as the fine arts. She begins with a brief chronological survey in which she notes the way in which different aspects of Christian Art emerge from the different periods and cultures of Church history. The majority of the book, however, explores Christian Art thematically, noting the way in which the visual arts have engaged with the themes and imagery of Christian scripture and tradition. While necessarily concise through covering a lot of ground, Loverance writes with the sensitivity to art that one should expect of an art historian and with a similar appreciation of theology that comes from one writing, as a Quaker, out of her own faith tradition.

It is in her thematic survey that Loverance provides real substance for those with a concern for the way in which art from the Christian tradition can speak to our condition today. Her approach defines Christian art as that which engages with the themes and imagery of Christian scripture and tradition. This is a broad definition that enables her to escape the constrictions of dealing only with art created by those possessing Christian convictions.

The key themes that she identifies (identity; divinity; incarnation; stewardship; service; Church; life and death) enable exploration of the way in which artists have responded to Christian perspectives on fundamental worldview questions such as: who we are; what is wrong with the world; how can it be put right; and where we are going.

In addition to surveying the themes and imagery with which artists have engaged, Loverance also identifies aspects of these themes that are not reflected in the history of Christian Art. Her survey is therefore peppered with helpful ideas for imagery and themes which are ripe for exploration by contemporary artists. Among her valuable conclusions, she notes that “despite Jesus’ penchant for teaching through parables and examples, many of the most vivid have gone unrepresented.”

Loverance has written an engaging, accessible survey of the diversity of Christian Art in which she clearly identifies the relevance of such art to our contemporary condition and identifies fruitful new avenues in the Christian tradition for possible exploration by contemporary artists. Well illustrated and designed, this is a book to inspire both the creation of new Christian art and appreciation of the wonderful heritage that we already possess.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Pressure on Portugal

Negotiation on trade agreements between the European Union (EU) and some of the world's poorest countries are at a critical stage, as the EU tries to get the agreements signed before the end of the year.

The EU promised that any new trade deal would prioritise sustainable development, but right now the texts on the table put the EU's own interests above those of millions of the world's poorest people and their environment.

Portugal has now taken over the Presidency of the EU from Germany and many Non-Governmental Organisations want Portugese Prime Minister, Jose Socrates to know that trade could lift millions of people out of poverty if the rules helped farming and industry in poor countries to grow sustainably. Your voice can make a difference. Time is running out to stop Europe's unfair trade deals. Take action now.

Join campaigners from across Europe and send a message to the president of the EU, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates asking him to listen to the concerns of poor nations and use his influence to make these trade agreements fair.

Click here to email Jose Socrates.

Monday, 23 July 2007

The boundary-breaking call of Jesus

Yesterday's Gospel reading was Luke 10. 38-42 and, as usual, Tom Wright in Luke for Everyone (SPCK, 2004) had some stunningly pertinent observations:

"... Mary was behaving as if she were a man. In that culture, as in many parts of the world to this day, houses were divided into male ‘space’ and female ‘space’, and male and female roles were strictly demarcated as well. Mary had crossed an invisible but very important boundary within the house, and another equally important boundary in the social world.

... to sit at the feet of a teacher was a decidedly male role. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. There is no thought here of learning for learning’s sake. Mary has quietly taken her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God.

Jesus affirms her right to do so. Jesus’ valuation of each human being is based on the overflowing love of God, which, like a great river breaking its banks into a parched countryside, irrigates those parts of human society which until now had remained barren and unfruitful. Mary stands for all those women who, when they hear Jesus speaking about the kingdom, know that God is calling them to listen carefully so that they can speak it too.

... we cannot escape the challenge of this passage by turning it into a comment about different types of Christian lifestyle. It is about the boundary-breaking call of Jesus. As he goes up to Jerusalem, he leaves behind him towns, villages, households and individuals who have glimpsed a new vision of the kingdom, and for whom life will never be the same again. God grant that as we read his story the same will be true for us."

Holiday Cottage

Members of my family have a holiday cottage newly available. Situated on the Somerset levels, Orchard View is a semi-detached cottage located on a working farm.
The cottage sleeps four in two bedrooms. One has a double bed; the other two single beds. One more mattress can be provided, if required. The cottage has an open plan lounge and dining area together with a fully functioning kitchen.
Orchard View Holiday Cottage is available throughout the year. For more information, prices or booking contact Jane Lloyd on: 07875623583 or .

Sunday, 22 July 2007

The Innocence Mission

The latest ImageUpdate has some good things to say about the most recent release from one of my favourite bands, The Innocence Mission:

"Having reached the end of their second decade together, The Innocence Mission recently released their seventh full length album, We Walked in Song. Masters of understatement, the band extends its oeuvre in this album by inhabiting the beauty of common things. “Oh, undeserved sweetness and light,” Karen Peris sings near the beginning of the album, “stay by my side. / We will go out in the morning now.” This statement, then, becomes the album’s trajectory. Throughout eleven songs—all written by Karen—the lyrics gaze at the dazzling grace of particular people and locales. On the album’s wistful opening track, “Brotherhood of Man,” the song’s narrator recalls airports, subways, and a certain girl from Spain. New York plays a central role on “Into Brooklyn, Early in the Morning,” a song dealing with the emotions of departures and arrivals: “Beautiful life, full of grieving, / so will sing the Russian choir, / they will sing in the square / as you come down through the Brooklyn air.” For all its geographical specificity, however, We Walked in Song remains an album focused on the human—and the human pondering the transcendent—in everyday life. With “My Sisters Return from Ireland,” the album concludes on a tenuous note of hope: “What did you see? / …If somebody calls to me / I’m hoping to not fear, not fear to answer. / How will it be?” Following in the footsteps of Befriended and Now the Day is Over, the new album has been well received by critics and fans alike. Pitchfork Media calls We Walked in Song “…a testament to the durable, slow-burn beauty of their work, and their softness of touch—a light that rarely feels lite.” Recorded in 2006 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, We Walked in Song was engineered and mixed by Don Peris, and features Karen and Don Peris and Mike Bitts. The band has recently concluded a brief tour of the East Coast."

A voyage of discovery

A few weeks ago I went to see the Dali and Film exhibition at Tate Modern with my friend Paul Trathen and, while at Bankside, found a copy of the exhibition catalogue for a South Bank Touring Exhibition from 1990 on the work of Patrick Hayman.

Philip Vann writes in the catalogue that Hayman "was a visionary artist, who worked mostly on a small, intimate scale, an instinctive grace and quizzical humour masking his quite devastating insights." He was "a man marked by vulnerability and suffering, but also by spiritual sweetness and humour."

In his 'A Painter's Notes', also included in the catalogue, Hayman writes that the artist is a creator "perhaps like Jacob who needed a ladder to see more." Painting, he writes, has "a quality of praise, of affirmation." "Any painting which is affirmative and comes from a heightened consciousness," he suggests, "may rightly be considered religious" but "one cannot look directly at the sun" and so an oblique approach is necessary. Irony and ambiguity, even perhaps humour, play their part in this approach and "to expose directly by name or suggestion the connection with miraculous events is to ask for trouble." To paint, he says, is to start on a voyage of discovery: "... one may forsee the end as with a sunrise or sunset. The light, waxing and waning, colour's one's thoughts. Those thoughts may permit the artist to see much or restrict him to seeing little, and if he tires of seeing too much of himself on the canvas it is possible to push beyond further into the unknown. There waiting to be discovered lie lands beyond one's usual experience of time and of matter. When that happens the voyage may possibly be said to have begun."

Born in London to Jewish parents who had emigrated from New Zealand, Hayman's formative experiences were both in New Zealand and Cornwall. His friendships with artists such as Colin McCahon, Jankel Adler, Lionel Miskin and Peter Lanyon, among others, fed his work at different stages. Public recognition in Britain was slow in coming but towards the end of his life he saw due recognition while, in Canada, his work stirred deep chords among collectors and academics. He commented that it had been a "strange Odyssey from NZ to London to St Ives to London to Canada: there seems an inner logic in it all - perhaps ... the search for a new world ..."

Friday, 20 July 2007

Stop the Traffik

Had a great session last night with the young people at St John's planning a Stop the Traffik service that will happen on Sunday 9th September.

Stop the Traffik, is a global coalition of organisations working together to fight against people trafficking; by raising awareness on a subject that is little known or understood Stop the Traffik will call for change and freedom. There are currently over 800 organisations, including businesses, faith groups, community groups and charities.

Through advocacy and education, Stop the Traffik will demonstrate to the public ways in which they can get involved and help change peoples futures. At the heart of the campaign is the Global Declaration Card, thousands of cards signed worldwide will be delivered to the United Nations; these aim to pressurise the U.N and individual governments to bring about a change in legislation and policies, resulting in protection from people trafficking.

More information, resources and a chance to sign the declaration are all available at the Stop the Traffik website.

Exhibition plans

Yesterday evening I was discussing plans for a joint exhibition with Rodney Bailey to take place at St John's over our Patronal Festival weekend (5th-7th October).

Rodney trained in Visual Arts and Design and Public Art at Chelsea College. His work is concerned with identity, communication and the difficulties we face in communicating our identity and nature to each other in a respectful and sincere way. In his work he hopes to give the audience an aspect of himself that is normally hidden from view.

Rodney works in a variety of media and styles, some of which can be viewed at his website. He will also be exhibiting in the Eye Play exhibition at Bankside Gallery from Wednesday 29th August to Sunday 9th September 2007. A preview of this exhibition can be viewed at the Eye Play myspace site.

Rodney is a District Leader with the Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai International (which means 'Value Creating Society'). He practices the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin and seeks through SGI to build bridges through dialogue and cultural exchange.

An interesting aspect of our collaboration will therefore be the dialogue between our two sets of beliefs. Our initial link has been Rodney's links with St John's; he is the son of one of our Churchwardens and came to services here as a child.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Jesus & Peter: A study in relationships

I've had two reasons recently for thinking about the relationship between Jesus and Peter.

First, our Holiday Club at St John's (which happens next week), is based on themes from Scripture Union's Light resources which explore the reasons why Peter followed, believed in, worshipped and loved Jesus. I've been thinking that through by writing scripts for the whole group part of the Holiday Club. These are fairly surreal with Inspector and Madame Clouseau helping Peter understand his calling, Jesus' identity, the Transfiguration and his own restoration. There are lots of fish jokes along the way. You would have to be there for the nonsense to make sense!

Second, the latest issue of Engage, the Jubilee Centre newsletter, has an article about Jesus' life-changing relationship with Simon Peter. The transformation of Simon, a Galilean fisherman, to Peter, leader of a religious movement prepared to challenge and defy the Jewish and Roman authorities, is a story of enduring power and has provided hope and inspiration for Christians throughout the ages. In his article, Chris Pain, highlights Peter's calling, walking on water, denial and restoration as key moments in the relationship that caused this transformation.

The article is an extract from the latest Jubilee Centre report, Towards an Understanding of Jesus' Relationships, in which Chris Pain argues that given Jesus’ teaching about the priority of relationships, we have much to gain from studying how Jesus conducted his own relationships. The report, which is available as a free download, makes initial suggestions as to the method by which the gospel accounts can be studied so as to open up more fully their relational insights.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Work-based email group

The Work-based email group is based at St John's Seven Kings but is open to all who wish to receive a weekly email containing a work-based prayer/reflection and brief information on resources to support them in bringing their faith to their work.

This week's reflection is taken from Alistair Maclean's Hebridean Altars (Grant & Murray Ltd, 1937) and is entitled 'What is happiness?':

"Labour and rest, work and ease, the busy hand, and then the stilled thought: this blending of opposites is not merely the great law of being; it is the secret of joy as well. For, after all, what is happiness but the balance between toil and quiet. The heart pauses in its beat. The pendulum, too, on the completion of its stroke. But the heart must beat; the pendulum move with absolute precision through the arc of distance.

I listened to two men as they lay upon muran, the rough bent-grass of the Isles, and them watching the sun go down. Like a torch red-burning, held by unseen fingers, it flamed and flamed and flamed, encrimsoning the West. The sea beneath us was a mirror broken only by spears of amber light. Far off a speck of gold that was a bird flew toward the sun, like some belated angel winging upward to the Immortal Gate. Mystery and silence! We saw them lift imperious hands as daring us to speak. Yet the younger spoke at last. 'The sea,' he whispered, 'lies under a spell.' But the other would not have it so. 'The sea,' said he, 'is a living creature like you and me. And now it rests.'


Reveal to me the benediction that is mine in having work to do. Help me, each day, to do it with good-will and pride, as being the work Thou meanest me to do. And sometimes, and most of all when the day is overcast and my courage faints, may I hear Thy voice saying, 'Thou art my beloved one in whom I am well pleased."

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Learning how to entertain beliefs

I've been reading Dylan's Visions of Sin (Penguin 2004) in which Christopher Ricks, in writing about the benefit of listening to Dylan's 'born-again' songs, has the following pertinent warning, from one atheist to others, about the ease with which liberals can become illiberal:

"One of the ways in which art is invaluable is by giving us sympathetic access to systems of belief that are not our own. How else could it enlarge our sympathies? It is our responsibility not only to believe but to learn how to entertain beliefs. In the words of William Empson:

'It seems to me that the chief function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people are very various, many of them quite different from you, with different "systems of value" as well.

The main purpose of reading imaginative literature is to grasp a wide variety of experience, imagining people with codes and customs very unlike our own.

It strikes me that modern critics, whether as a result of the neo-Christian movement or not, have become oddly resistant to admitting that there is more than one code of morals in the world, whereas the central purpose of reading imaginative literature is accustom yourself to this basic fact.' ...

I am not myself a Christian believer, being an atheist. One delight of Dylan's Christian songs can arise from finding (to your surprise and not chagrin) that your own system of beliefs doesn't have a monopoly of intuition, sensitivity, scruple, and concern. Most Dylan-lovers are presumed to be liberals, and the big trap for liberals is always that our liberalism may make us very illiberal about other people's sometimes letting us all down by declining to be liberals ... You can believe whatever you like so long as it's liberal: this isn't any less dogmatic than Christianity, and has its own way of being menacingly coercive."

Ricks' warning is one that is generally not heeded by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Polly Toynbee. However, it is an argument that does not only apply to those who view themselves as atheists or liberals. Just as atheists can benefit from appreciation of the art of Christians, so Christians can benefit from the art of those of other and of no faith.

This, it seems to me, is an overlooked implication of todays Gospel reading (Luke 10. 25-37), the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable the Jewish character receives help from the Samaritan despite the differences of culture, faith and enmity between them. The contemporary parallel for us to draw may be that of Christians receiving from people of other faiths (or none). We tend to think of the parable only in terms of our giving help to others (and this is clearly a central element of Jesus' teaching here and elsewhere - our neighbour is anyone in need regardless of creed or colour) but the unexpected twist in the story in that the person who sees himself as part of God's chosen people receives help from a person that he thinks is outside of God's chosen people. The challenge of this is that we reflect on what it is that we can receive from people of other faiths and of none. Ricks' argument is one that can help us with this.

The Engaging with Faith Communities resource pack from the Contextual Theology Centre contains resources (including material on the parable of the Good Samaritan) that can help in reflecting of this issue.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Church calling

Just got the following from Tear Fund's monthly email and thought it was well worth posting on:

Have you noticed it? Are you part of it? There seems to be a growing movement of Christians who are passionate about taking God out of the pews and into the aching margins of society.

Church communities are perfectly placed to make a lasting difference in their towns, cities and villages. Cuthbert Gondwe is National Church Mobiliser for Tearfund’s partner Eagles in Malawi. He says, ‘You really have to go down to the ground to find the very poorest who have no voice in the village. We find that local churches work with everyone. They know who are the poorest people in the village, because the pastors and the members live there.’

In his book Velvet Elvis, repainting the Christian faith, Rob Bell writes, ‘The church is like a double edged sword. When it’s good, when it’s on, when it’s right, it’s like nothing on earth. A group of people committed to selflessly serving and loving the world around them? Great. But when it’s bad all that potential gets turned the other way...

‘But she will live on. She’s indestructible... And while she’s fragile, she’s going to endure. In every generation there will be those who see her beauty and give their lives to see her shine.’ (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis P172)

What would happen if you prayed for the love of God to motivate you and your church to selflessly love others? What would change in your life if you were willing to give your life to see the church shine?

‘For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:35-36. What would it cost to pray for opportunities to clothe and shelter a hungry and homeless God?

Faith IN Work

I have recently had a booklet called Faith IN Work posted on the Mission in London's Economy (MiLE) website. Faith IN Work is about taking faith to work and allowing it to make an impact there by transformations which are signs of the Kingdom of God.

Faith IN Work starts with the story of a project that took place in a Government Agency, Jobcentre Plus. This project, which I managed, involved preparing and piloting a Toolkit of information about faith communities that helped Jobcentre staff work more closely with local faith communities. The project opened up opportunities for staff belonging to faith communities to make use of their faith in their work and opportunities for faith groups to start working with Jobcentre Plus in a new way.

But that story is only the beginning of the booklet. By learning lessons from the story, the booklet explores different ways in which faith can make an impact in work. You will find ideas for a way of working that is transformative, practical suggestions for identifying areas at work where faith can be put to work to make creative changes, and biblical reasons for viewing work as a transformative activity. The movement of the booklet is outwards, like ripples from a stone thrown into water, from the initial case study through specific practical lessons to a way of transformative working and on to a set of biblical reasons for transformative working.

Work is where many of us spend 60-70% of our lives. If our faith is to affect the whole of our lives then it has to impact on the work that we do. There are many opportunities within all our workplaces for that to occur and this booklet aims to highlight where some of those opportunities are and how we can grasp them for God.

Christians in the Workplace

Ever wondered whether your work matters to God? Ever wondered why you spend 60-70% of your waking life at work? Ever wondered what your work is for? Ever wanted to make connections between your faith and your work but have never heard work discussed seriously in your Church?

If you have thought any of these things, then the Christians in the Workplace resource pack is for you. It is full of ideas, information, stories, resources and study materials that will help you (and your parish or workplace) explore these and many other questions about being a Christian in the workplace.

The resource pack takes a broad non-prescriptive view of what being a Christian at work can mean by exploring ethics, mission, spirituality, transformation, values and witness among others issues and approaches.

The Christians in the Workplace Resource Pack includes leader's notes and resources, course outlines, photocopiable handouts for participants and a CD-Rom containing all the course material. The pack costs £10 and is available from:

The Diocesan Resource Centre
Diocesan Office
53 New Street
Tel: 01245 294405

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Engaging with faith communities

Engaging with faith communities is an informative and accessible resource pack designed to help churches decide how to engage with people of other faiths living in their areas.

Arising out of the Church of England's "Presence and Engagement" initiative, the pack provides a range of accessible materials that include stories of engagement, bible studies, case studies and information on the beliefs and practices of the main faith communities.

Materials are included for running study days and short courses. Congregations can use these independently but tutors from the Contextual Theology Centre in London (who have produced the pack) are also available to lead such events. The pack is available as a free download by clicking here.

Fight for Freedom

The latest Fight for Freedom campaign email from Anti-Slavery International suggests two ways of getting involved in tackling slavery today.

Undocumented North Korean migrants to China are being deported back to North Korea where they are held in prison camps and subjected to forced labour. Detainees are forced to carry out work such as farming, logging, and quarrying, working long hours without restdays. They are frequently beaten and subject to degrading treatment and punishment. Click here to write to the Chinese authorities to ask them to stop returning undocumented migrants to North Korea. You can read background information on forced labour in North Korea here.

Our Government has proposed changes to the domestic worker visa, in line with their immigration proposals published earlier this year. These include putting domestic workers on their employer's visa, restricting their stay to a maximum of six months, and removing their right to change employers. This amounts to a dramatic reversal of policies to give some protection to migrant domestics, which the Government introduced after coming to power, in 1998. The proposed changes would have a devastating effect on all migrant domestic workers currently in the UK and all newly arriving domestic workers to the UK. They would take away the rights of these workers, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and effectively legalising trafficking.

Early Day Motion 860 asks for the Government to drop the proposals and retain the current provisions. An Early Day Motion (EDM) operates like a petition for MPs and will run until the current session of Parliament ends in the autumn. If you are in the UK, you can write to your MP and ask them to sign EDM 860. You can find out who your MP is and email him/her at

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Interpreting and representing the world

Since the ACE conference, I've been reading Graham Howes' excellent book on the art of the sacred (I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2007). I was particularly taken with some comments from the final chapter on the interplay between 'theology' and 'the arts':

"'Theology' - and especially Christian theology - and 'the arts' - and especially the visual arts - are not two discrete entities. They can rather be seen as twin media by which the world is interpreted and represented. Both are ways of perceiving and articulating memory, aspiration, community, celebration, loss, and a heightened sense of the natural order. Both can enhance our existing perceptions, and generate fresh experiences for us ...

... theology finds in art a complement and not a rival in its task of understanding and giving expression to all created forms ... In this sense, therefore, good art and good theology can be powerful agents in the rebirth of an expressive celebration that is not bound by, and to, mere utility.

At the same time, good theology and good art can override the false dichotomies that so often stand in the way of such fullness of expression - dichotomies between, for example, sacred and secular 'realms', spiritual and material 'values', and the intellectual and the emotional. In doing so, they may again both find that they have a common vocation: to make inroads on the weakened and impoverished modern imagination, to break open its hidden resources and equip it for adaptation to change, for celebration, and for the envisioning of alternative futures. When they are properly engaged in this vocation, theology and art may not in fact be two separate, if related, entities, but essentially part of the same cultural enterprise after all."

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Keep it simple / Travel light

Keep it simple. Travel light. These are the key messages that we took today at St John's from Jesus’ instructions to his disciples (see Luke 10. 1-20 and Mark 6. 7-29).

Why? To keep us focussed on our message and mission and to tread lightly on the earth as we do so. Gerard Kelly writes in Humanifesto, one of his prayer-poems:

"I want to be untouched by my possessions
instead of being possessed
by what I touch,
to test the taste
of having nothing to call mine,
to hold consumption’s cravings back,
to be content with luck or lack,
to live as well on water as on wine.

I want to spend myself
on those I think might need me,
not spend
all I think I need on myself.
I want my heart
to be willing to make house calls.
Let those whose rope is at an end
find in me a faithful friend.
Let me be known as one who rebuilds broken walls."

New Covenant Singers

The New Covenant Singers will be singing and sharing the Word of God during the morning service on Sunday 22 July at 10 AM in St Johns Church.

In 1987, four young men got together in Chennai, India to form The New Covenant Singers, a male voice quartet. Since then for the last twenty years, the group has been singing gospel numbers to four part harmony and has performed in various churches, crusades, schools, colleges, music festivals and in Christian Institutions in many parts of the Indian Sub- Continent. The group has done three U.K tours to date singing in churches, concerts and Cathedrals from London to Dundee. In 2004 the group cut a Tamil Album called Entha Kalathilum. The group has since released their second CD in English entitled I am Hiding in His Presence.

Three of the members of this group, although they are professionally qualified, are now involved in full time Ministry. The leader of the group, Christopher, a chemical engineer by profession, has been serving the Lord as a full time evangelist for almost 13 years. He is a powerful Bible teacher who has taken the Word of God to various parts of the world.

Fox's Farewell Tour

For the last eight years Michael Fox, the retiring Archdeacon of West Ham, has chaired the Diocesan Environmental Group. As part of his long farewell as he moves into retirement, he is going to a church in each of the Deaneries in the Barking Area (plus some others around the Diocese) showing the ex-Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore’s, remarkable film entitled An Inconvenient Truth. It is actually an Oscar-winning film, in spite of being basically a lecture that Al Gore has given around the world for many years.

If it sounds dull, come and see it. You are in for a shock. It explains and explores the results of the climate change we are personally undergoing. The film is 90 minutes long and Michael will spend just half an hour talking about, and answering questions on, why we as Christians should have any particular concerns about environmental issues.

In this Deanery, Michael will be at St Andrew's (The Drive, Ilford) at 7.30pm on Wednesday 1st August.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Allusive and Elusive

At the ACE Conference I had the opportunity to present a paper of my own entitled Allusive and elusive: Speaking significance, meaning and connections in art and religion. I used as my starting point for this paper the novelist Nicholas Mosley's recently re-issued lay essay in theology, Experience and Religion.

In his essay Mosley argues that modern works of art commonly reflect both the chaos of our world and our sense of helplessness about this chaos. The problem, he suggests, is our lack of a language in which to express our common experience of life. “This common experience,” he suggests, “is partly simply that there is an enormous amount of joy, energy, order, significance in the world that does not get expressed by artists and thinkers of any subtlety now, and which gets hopelessly vulgarised by those with none.”

“What is required," he thinks, "is a way of thinking which will take account of both the hope and hopelessness, responsibility and helplessness, the good not in spite of but together with the evil.”: “Because of its very complexity it will not be something argued, reasoned in a straight line as it were; but something of attempts, flashes, allusions – a to-and-fro between a person and whatever he has to do and to discover. What it will be saying will not be part of a comprehensive system but things-on-their-own, parables, paradoxes; the connections between which will have to be held and understood with difficulty, not justified.”

Mosley notes that both art and religion were once to do with such significance, meaning and connections and that lively religious languages have in fact been artistic languages; with religion being written in poems, parables and stories. He calls for a revival of religious and artistic languages that are “elusive, allusive; not didactic,” dealing with the patterns, connections, that facts and units of data, together with the minds that observe them, make. By this, he thinks, seeming opposites might be held from a higher point of view and “errors accepted as the purveyors of learning rather than traps.”

In the paper I tried to explore the way in which the form and content of the Bible and in the religious art of Marc Chagall, T.S. Eliot, and David Jones could form the basis for a revival of religious and artistic languages of the type for which Mosley has called. I suggested that the form of the Bible can be understood as mirroring that of a collage or patchwork quilt, as fragments of very different writings are stitched together, not in a linear, logical argument but by the use of a common narrative thread. The result being a paradoxical internal web of connections between writings combined with a forward narrative thrust. The paintings of Marc Chagall and David Jones together with the poetry of Jones and T.S. Eliot are created in a similar style to that of the Bible revealing a similar web of connections combined with a narrative dynamic.

Arts, Faiths and Culture

I spent a fair bit of the past week at the Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE) International Conference in Cambridge. What I hadn't realised before going was just how much of an international network ACE is. At the conference were artists, arts professionals, art and theology educators, and priests drawn from Australia, Finland, France, Germany and USA, as well as the UK. Among the organisations represented were Association Spiritualité et Art, the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine New York, Gustavus Adolphus College, the Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies (SARTS), and the University of Jyväskylän.

The conference had been organised by Graham Howes, ACE Trustee and Fellow of Trinity Hall Cambridge, and was entitled Art, Faiths and Culture - Convergence and Conflict. Professor Wilson Yates gave the keynote address which briefly surveyed the history of Christian Art before suggested ways of categorising Contemporary Religious Art. Many of the participants contributed papers to the conference and these included presentations on: Interfaith communication through the visual arts; Marc Chagall and the problem of a Jewish Crucifixion; Kandinsky's 'The Art of the Spiritual' revisited; Renzo Piano's dual project for the site of the Ronchamp Chapel; and The Religion of Modernism and the Problem of Beauty. Perhaps most interesting of all the presentations I heard was Professor Eamon Duffy's lecture on Images of Eve which explored the way in which Eve has been represented in Western Art. I came away with ideas for photomontages that I hope to be able to work on soon.

In addition to the presentations and discussions, there were also a number of visits to exhibitions and artworks. Most of these I missed due to other commitments but I was fortunate enough to be on the tour of Religious Art in Cambridge and the trip to Kettles Yard where, as well as viewing the collection in Jim Ede's house, we also heard from the current exhibiting artist Edmund De Waal. De Waal is a major ceramacist who arranges his pots into sculptures of varying sizes and locations to explore combinations of apertures, shadows, shapes and spaces.

Sunday, 1 July 2007


The other day I got the latest news email from Faith Action, the best way I find for keeping up-to-date on the involvement of faith and community organisations in the delivery of public services.

FaithAction is a national network that has received government funding to be the voice of faith and community organisations delivering public services. The network seeks to bring together grassroots organisations that are delivering or seeking to deliver public services and help them access funds, deliver contracts and create more effective partnerships with government at every level.

The weekly FaithAction email includes the latest news in the faith-based, community and voluntary sector, information about the latest funding opportunities, and training, events and resources available to faith and community organisations. To sign up click here.

This week's email included information about the NCVO's recent report which argues that government policies which treat faith-based organisations as separate may be divisive. To get informed about that debate visit the NCVO's website to download the report or Executive Summary.