In perspective

How do we keep some perspective on life when every day we are bombarded by some tragedy, disaster or act of senseless violence.   These can make us doubt whether our world will ever get its act together.  The mess that we make of living together is not new of course.  It’s been going on since ever humans appeared on this planet.  But I guess in my innocence I thought that when I reached my time of life (it was my 84th birthday last Friday!) that we might have got a little further along the road to creating and sustaining a global community founded on justice and peace.
But despair is not a virtue.   We have moved a good way towards health and happiness as a world – and there are many fantastic acts of kindness and sacrifice which occur daily.
And then there is the small matter of Christian faith which is founded on what David Jenkins many years ago called belief in ‘the glory of man’.  The language would today seem a bit sexists, but what he was saying is important.  At its best the creation of the world we have is a massive achievement undertaken in an open partnership with a God who has offered us the gifts of a kingdom community – life, liberation, love and learning at their fullest.
We will get saddened and discouraged by Syria and Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Venezuela, and a host of other inhuman situations.  Yet, without contracting out, we also need to keep some perspective on the forces that at times seem to be so destructive.  How do we do that?

Three ways to get things in perspective
Three ways work for me.  The first is not to take ourselves too seriously.  In The Book of Joy which narrates an extended conversation between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, it is the chapter on the importance of laughter which struck a chord with me.
The second bringer of perspective is music.  As Sue, my wife, would say, Bach restores her sanity.  And the third experience which, in my case, gives me confidence that love is ultimately unassailable, are the many times I have been able to experience the power of beauty and the depth of timelessness in the Peak National Park on our weekly walks.
Perspective is not the whole bringer of peace – but it is mighty important if humankind is not only to survive but to flourish as God means us to.

‘Divide and rule’

‘Divide and rule’ is the new political mantra.   Evan Davis on BBC Newsnight recently made the pertinent comment that the new politics is not about ‘one nation’ nor even ‘make America, Russia, Britain…. great again’.   It is in fact ‘divide and rule’.   When Margaret Thatcher first came to power, she stood outside No 10 and recited the prayer of St Francis, which includes phrases such as ‘where there is hatred let me sow love’.   This sentiment was the norm for every politician of her generation – utopian, but at least inclusive.

As Boris Johnson revealed in his speech on wearing the burka (in fact he meant the niqab), the intention to-day is deliberately to make a bid for that section of the population which can give you power – the rest, and especially very small and vulnerable minorities, don’t matter.   They are simply alien and thus a threat, or stupid.  So it is with Donald Trump – disparage and devalue (or in some countries remove from sight) those who are not going to vote for you.   Publicly and deliberately nurture the prejudices of those whose votes on which you are counting.
So it is with the Brexiteers – equate ‘the will of the people’ with 52% of the population who voted leave, and dismiss the concerns of the rest as scaremongering or naive.

‘Divide and rule’ is a disastrous approach to building the one world we need if humankind is to survive.  We don’t require the latest indicators of global warming – let alone the many other global threats – to warn us that apart, we won’t make it – together, we might.  But that ‘together’ is a tough ask – so hard to create and sustain, so easy to destroy.   I believe that without something like the gifts of Christian faith at its best – as in 1 Corinthians 13 – to inspire and empower (or the communal riches of other faiths, including Islam) – ‘divide and rule’ will easily win the day.   That is in the short term – in the long term, it will have hugely destructive consequences.

The power of love, as Bishop Michael Curry reminded us at Harry and Meghan’s wedding, is one of the hall-marks of the kingdom community – life, liberation and learning are the others.  These are the only genuine foundations of a sustainable communal world – and it is the task of a servant church – a diaconal church – to witness to that fact.  I wish we were doing that better.



Musings in a maze

It’s been a while since I got round to this blog – but in the meantime the world moves on apace.   More like a maze to negotiate than a road to travel.

Parliament’s recess for the summer doesn’t seem to slow things down – only giving MPs the chance to kick the can down the road for a few weeks.  So here are just a few musings on how I see things – secular and sacred (though those two are inevitably intertwined) at this point in time.

Brexit – I cannot fathom why Theresa May thinks that her Chequers plan has a hope of being favourably received by the RU.  The latter’s standpoint has been crystal clear for nearly two years – be part of the single market and/or customs union or you are out of the club.   That seems absolutely reasonable to me.   Britain has pulled out so Britain must face the consequences.   For leavers to complain that Europe is being inflexible is nonsense – we cannot have our cake and eat it or, in the EU’s words, ‘cherry pick’.  However, where that leaves us I have no idea – except that I see a massive bust up coming in the autumn or soon after.  The only way to avoid this mess is for both Britain and the EU to agree to postpone our leaving in March 2019 and the status quo remain in place until there is some kind of positive agreement.   Any hope?
Trump has come and gone to and from the UK.   What an unstable and immature character.  He cannot talk sense for more than a few moments at a time.   But everyone now knows that.   So he is being used by all and sundry to further their own political ends.  He remains a pawn in the hands of the power-brokers – but with the danger that at some point he may become a (c)rook and do something highly destructive which cannot be undone.   He has rehearsed that scenario by separating children and parents on the Mexican border who are still not, and may never be reunited.
Books continue to tumble out trying to appraise the state of the world – from Madeleine Alrbight’s Fascism – a warning to David Runciman’s  How Democracy Ends (the believes that to talk of a return of fascism is historically misguided).  However, there is no doubt that how we govern ourselves is becoming a crucial issue for humankind.  That’s exciting as well as scarey.
And where’s the church in all this?    A usual our worship at Bakewell Methodist Church this morning made no reference whatsoever to what was going on in the wider world – not even on this occasion in the intercessions where we normally have a sentence or two of concern about refugees or the homeless.   I am increasingly convinced that many Methodist worship leaders live in an enclosed ecclesiastical bubble – but are addressing anxious congregations who live in the real world of personal, social and political challenges, if not crises.   As a result the latter get very little  spiritual help from the former.   No wonder Methodist worship, with a few exceptions, is so irrelevant and, frankly, boring and no wonder Methodism is in steep decline.   We are nowhere near being a diaconal church – the real hope of the future.

The Christian life – a journey

I always imagined that the older I got, the more I would know about what makes society tick and, not least, how religion makes sense of it all. I now realize that, at 83, it could take me several lives – all as long – even to begin to get some real understanding of how we as human beings got to where we are. And, more baffling still, to get a glimpse of where ‘on earth’ we are going.
One thing is for sure. Humankind is still in its infancy. You don’t need to be a Simon Sharma to know that we keep on and on repeating the mistakes of the past. We assume, as has every generation, that our generation is the wisest that has ever been born. In our case, we think – because we now have access to an unlimited amount of data – that we are far wiser than any previous generation. What a load of nonsense! Knowledge and wisdom are very different things.
Still there may be some hope that we are slowly learning a little from experience – even if the twentieth century was the most bloody that humankind has ever known. And there may be glimpses that we are recognizing that every human life is of value – even if, as in Syria and Yemen – and many other situations – we cannot prevent millions of our fellow creatures being seen as totally expendable.
So does the Christian faith help us along the journey to greater wisdom and maturity? I think it does – but only when it is seen as a journey of discovery and not as a comfort blanket or a ‘creed’ to impose on others. And to make the most of that journey we have to recognize that we are just beginners in understanding what life and death, what beauty and ugliness, what love and hate are all about. That means not only knowing a bit about the world and how it ticks – but a lot about ourselves because it is our response to the ups and downs of life, especially how we relate to others, that helps us understand a bit more of who we are and thus what makes human beings what they are.                                                                                                         Cressbrookdale in Derbyshire – sometimes the                                                                    journey can be breath-taking. We need some                                                                               encouragement on the way!

To help us on that journey the church must be a learning community – which recognizes that it does not have all the answers but is, like every one of us, on a demanding journey of discovery. The problem is that most institutions do not learn – they fossilize. So, in order to grow in wisdom and maturity, we have to break clear of the old models of being church – not least that of Christendom which still holds us chained to the past.  We have to become a new form of community – on the move and always open. It has to be a community which reflects the kingdom which Christ lived and died for.
That is almost the reverse of the type of organization which has become the norm since Constantine offered Christians power and prestige if they would help him hold his empire together. The transformation required of the church in the years ahead will be enormous – the nature of which few of us have even begun to glimpse.  But so it is also with our society and world – if humankind is to continue the journey towards what Christ taught us that we as human beings – individuals and together – are meant to be.

‘The power of love’

I want to add a word to my post yesterday on the address on ‘the power of love’ by Bishop Michael Curry at the royal wedding.   What impressed me was that the last thing he was doing was lecturing Harry and Meghan about keeping to their marriage vows.  He was helping his listeners – most not Christian – to discern that at that moment in that place the God-given power of love was present.    A gift of the kingdom community was there and on offer for all to grasp and use to transform an unjust and inhuman world into a ‘new heaven’.   Through his words and passion even the great and the good – so often self-sufficient – were helped to imagine the change that the power of love might bring about.
The address was not about love being ‘contained’ in the experience of the young couple getting married – but being liberated for all to experience and take hold of in pursuit of a better world.    And many people got it.  It was a vision of what might be born out what was already amongst them – a divine gift – and thus a message of hope and inspiration.   As Ed Milliband said (and not a few others implied) afterwards – ‘He almost made me a believer!’.   However, it was not becoming ‘a believer’ that mattered – it was the experience of feeling the immense potential of the power of love and glimpsing its unlimited source.  That’s what the kingdom community is all about – great news the church just cannot get across because it is consumed by right belief.

Discerning the gifts of the kingdom – another viewpoint

We’re just back from four gorgeous days in the Lake District – sunny yet cool weather made the spring colours vivid.   I was searching the web to see where was the best place to see bluebells.   To my surprise the top rated location was on the hillside near Rannerdale Knott at the top end of Buttermere.

I have been coming to the Lakes in the spring for scores of years but had never known about the Rannerdale bluebells before.  They are just off the beaten track and so cannot be seen from the lakeside road.   They are famous because bluebells normally flower in woods where there is dampness and ample shade.  But apparently these  have been flowering in their thousands on the sides of Rannerdale Knot for many years.

Just like the kingdom community.   Its gifts have for ever been appearing in unexpected locations for millennia – often hidden from the highway which most of us are too lazy to leave.   We can’t be bothered to get our of our cars and explore even a few hundred yards either side.   So we miss out on the hidden glory of life, liberation, love and learning because our eyes are always glued on the highway ahead.

Back home yesterday, I was persuaded by ‘public pressure’ to watch the wedding this morning of Harry and Meghan!   I am no royalist – but I thought the ‘address’ by Michael Curry, black Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, was spot on – an echo, decades later, of Martin Luther King.  I knew he had his finger on the pulse of faith when he referred to the precious God-given gifts of life, liberation and love – with love offering us the power to transform the world.   An address worth listening to again and again.

Discerning the gifts of the kingdom – don’t miss them!

This is a photo I took of a tree in early spring foliage near Beeley in Derbyshire  on a recent walk with Sue,my wife.   It was amazing to see it so fully clothed when many of those nearby had hardly a leaf on them.   But why put a picture of a tree on my blog about the diaconal church and kingdom community?   It’s here because in addition to the tree there is a crow perched at the top.   It’s not a very clear picture but you might just see it silhouetted against the sky.  I had no knowledge of the crow being there when I took the photo.
I think that’s rather like the presence of the gifts of the kingdom.   We have to discern and discover them – they are often tiny signs nearly submerged by everything else going on.   But they are there – alive and kicking – if we only have eyes to see.   They are in reality very important because they are often signs of divine energy – in its many different forms.

‘Deliver us from the Evangelical takeover’

This was the title of an article written by Angela Tilby in the Church Times on 27th April 2018.   It was a piece triggered by the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ call, originally made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to ten days of 24/7 prayer between Ascension and Pentecost   I referred to it my last post.  Angela Tilby saw this as the evangelical wing of the Church of England seeking to taking over the church calendar for the furtherance of a form of mission based on its own individualistic and exclusive ecclesiology.
Of course Methodism has taken up this call with equal energy because it, too, has in recent decades become dominated by those embracing an evangelical theology.  In fact virtually every Methodist initiative is now shot through with a call to ‘make disciples’.  ‘Fresh expressions’ is just one example of this evangelical dominance,
Naturally, this week the Church Times was plastered with letters denouncing Angela as a heretic, as well as denier of the true gospel message to humankind.
In my ministry I have seen the liberating and dynanmic society- engaged theology represented by such people as Mollie Batten of the William Temple College (now a small Christian agency in Manchester) and Bill Gowland of the Luton Industrial Mission (now closed) pushed aside by an exclusive evangelical tide.   The latter has done nothing to prevent the ongoing decline of the church in the West – in fact it has simply presided over the increasing secularization of society.   What it offers is just too simplistic and closed to have anything of real value to offer a world undergoing immense change.    Furthermore, the church has come to dominate the kingdom to the virtual exclusion of the latter.   The taming – or ignoring of the potential of the diaconate is only one disastrous outcome.
This blog is about an alternative way of being Christian and being church.  It is about building the kingdom community in a way that transforms corporate life – including that

of the church.    It offers the value-added dimension of Christian faith to an unjust, fragmented secular society and planet on the brink of self-destruction.   It is founded on the gifts of an inclusive and universal  kingdom community – life, liberation,                                                                                  love and learning.

‘Thy kingdom come’

Great news that the call for prayer that the two Archbishops initiated in 2016 has grown in its scope.  I have no problems with that – although I hesitate to make the heart of that prayer simply that ‘more people can come to know Jesus’ (as the official web site puts it).   This blog is all about the kingdom – in our case the kingdom community.   But that kingdom is already here – in the midst of every situation and present every day.   This is why the pictures that illustrate this blog are about the world and not just the church.  This is why I much prefer Justin Welby’s interpretation that ‘praying the kingdom’ represents a commitment ‘to playing our part in the renewal of nations and the transformation of communities’.
Another problem with the ‘Thy kingdom come’ project is that it confines the kingdom to ten days – between Ascension and Pentecost.  I believe that the church has down the ages so often missed the boat because it cannot accept that it is the servant of a kingdom.   And a kingdom which is here every day, of every week, of every month, of every year.  Helping to build the kingdom is what a diaconal church is all about – but only for ten days?!
I am still amazed in all that I read about church and society – including in Justin Welby’s latest book about Reimagining Britain – Foundations for Hope – that the kingdom barely gets a mention.   To try to proclaim the Gospel without putting the kingdom at the heart of that message is like a conductor trying to operate without an orchestra.
So ‘Your kingdom come’ – of course to be welcomed.   But a kingdom shaped and empowered by the gifts of the Trinity and already deep in the midst of suffering and joy, transforming the world and, of course, the church, now and every day.






Easter 2018

Two experiences this Easter – the TV broadcast from Kings College, Cambridge – music, readings and prayer – brilliant.   Utterly uplifting – the Church of England at its best.   I have many criticisms of the church today – but I also know that when it brings together superb architecture, music and liturgy – it hits the high spots.   In some ways this is what Easter is really about – the beauty of holiness which lifts our hearts to catch a glimpse of the wonder of creation and the love of God expressed in the life, death and life again of Christ.   I have not a clue what this means in human terms – its a mystery way beyond me – but I can feel that such experiences convey a reality that points to an ‘ultimate’ Reality.   And that Reality has love and compassion at its heart.
And the other Easter experience was at our local Methodist church in  Bakewell which was almost the reverse.   The worship leader – not our own minister – just hadn’t the ability to communicate the wonder and joy of what Easter is about.   Instead we had a long sermon trying to prove – with proof texts drawn from Scripture – that Christ rose from the dead.   It did nothing to help us enter into the real meaning of this season.   Though fortunately the music, the hymns and the loving decoration of the church with spring flowers compensated.   If only we could let the life-giving power of the Easter story tell itself – and not kill it by trying to retell it in our own limited and constricting words.

Hierarchy has had its day

Hierarchy (vertical ranks of authority) is not a problem as such – where decisions need to be taken rapidly – as in the case of the armed forces, police or fire service – it has a valid place.   But in institutions where careful thought based on the gathering of insights from a variety of sources is important, it is dangerous.   Too often it is shaped by the personality, rarely benevolent, of the leader concerned.   ‘Bottom up’ (sometimes called ‘democracy’) is never perfect, or even easy.   But ‘top down’ has frequently been a disaster, costing millions of innocent lives.   It can also create a dependent (not infrequently fearful) and naively passive public.

In what I call ‘the diaconal church’, the model of the church to come, hierarchy as a matter of church order has a place.   But regarded as a divine imperative, as often the case in Christendom, it undermines the profound importance of the church as the whole people of God.  This was a truth at last recognized by Vatican Two some fifty years ago – even if it has in practice still to impact on Roman Catholic ecclesiology.

There is another problem with a church which embraces an institutionalized form of hierarchy.   It is increasingly out of kilter with the type of world into which we are rapidly moving.   Management years ago drew away from a dominantly hierarchical model of governance, recognizing that all employees need to be validated as a resource and their views regularly gathered and acted upon.   The digital age has also demolished hierarchy and, despite the problems of social media, given a voice to every user.   It is true that we see a resurgence of dictatorship and autocracy in many contexts, but this holds out no hope for the future of humankind.   It is simply retrenchment by those in power playing on the fears of globalization and the apparent threat posed by a world on the move.

The Guardian recently (21/3/18) published an article entitled ‘The Christian era fades across Europe as youngsters reject the faith’.   It reported that the UK has the 5th worst statistic out of 21 countries for young people who no longer identify with any religion (70%).   It has the 4th worst statistic for 16-29-year-olds who never attended a religious service (59%).   I would be the first to argue that the relevance of Christian faith cannot be correlated with ostensible ‘belief’ or church going.   However, these figures (they are destined to get worse) show that the Christendom (and largely hierarchical) model of church in the West is well past its sell-by date.   The disturbing thing is that church leaders still fail to acknowledge this and assume it can be business as usual with a few tweaks here and there, misleadingly called ‘fresh expressions of church’.

The problems of hierarchy were starkly underlined this week (23/3/18) with the Guardian reporting on the child-abuse scandal in the Church of England.   A leading article expressed the view that ‘the picture that has emerged of the Church of England is an organization almost paralyzed by self-importance… (and) almost wholly unaccountable, even internally…  The clergy were held to be more important than the laity, and bishops far superior to the parish clergy.’   This situation is what can happen to hierarchy when seen as offering divine approval for every decision made by those ordained.  This model of church must change – we have to move towards servant leadership and a servant church focused on the kingdom not the church, as illustrated throughout by this blog.

A final word.   Methodism (my church) is now faced with a decision, in the name of Christian unity, as to whether it will buy into a hierarchical form of church leadership.   I have always recognized Christian unity as a divine imperative.   But I have come to believe that such unity must be unity in diversity, and not unity as uniformity.  Methodism is unusual in manifesting many hall-marks of the diaconal church.   If it succumbs to episcopal ordination for all future ministers, and to the Anglican form of sequential ordination which leaves the distinctive diaconate way out on a limb, it will be almost impossible for it not to surrender that of real communal worth which it has to offer to the church to come.

A new form of ‘United Kingdom’

Anthony Barnett reports a very telling fact in his excellent book on Brexit, The Lure of Greatness.

In the referendum on leaving the EU, the only ‘region’ which as such voted to leave was ‘England outside of London’.   Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland, London and many of the major cities voted to remain.  His point is that ‘the people’ did not vote to leave the EU, but only one region out of many.    It swung the vote simply because it had greater numbers.

This means that politicians are pleading in vain if they believe that the UK can in future be ‘one nation’, as it was in the past.   We are facing a new kind of UK in which each region will have an autonomy which must be recognized and respected.    The one ‘region’ at present out of step is England which, for its own sake, needs to become a self-governing entity in a way similar to the other regions, with its own English parliament in Westminster.

Only then will ‘Britain’ have any real meaningful again.   Only then will a new and realistic form of ‘United Kingdom’ appear.    It will be a new ‘nation’ which will need to reconsider its relation to the EU and, Barnett believes, will in all probability, rejoin it.   I believe he is right and ,if so, a great deal of Theresa May’s plea for us to come together as a single nation is focusing on an outdated form of togetherness.

Without a vision…..

My letter which appeared in the Church Times last Friday (February 23rd)

Well, not quite!  The letters’ editor decided to strike out the phrase in red below.  I am still wondering why?   I included the phrase because I believe that a transitional diaconate (priests being designated as deacons for only a year, if that) – and ‘sequential ordination’ which goes along with that arrangement (ordinations taking a hierarchical pattern) – places a barrier in the way of any understanding of what ‘the church to come’, and a renewed diaconate in particular, will (eventually!) look like.   The leadership of today’s church may give the appearance of being an immovable pyramid but, in reality, it cannot maintain that stance for much longer. We need a new vision of church – my vision is a ‘diaconal’ church – and a new vision was what my letter was intended to encourage.


Having been a Methodist presbyter for nearly forty years and, more recently, a Methodist deacon for twelve years, as well as a passionate life-long ecumenist, I believe Mission and Ministry in Covenant to be a dangerous distraction.  During my life-time, all mainstream churches in the West have been in steep decline.  One fundamental reason for this is that we remain stuck in the mould of Christendom and unable to respond to a completely different world.  We urgently need a vision of ‘the church to come’ and how we can begin to make that vision a reality.  Mission and Ministry fails to offer any such vision.  Worse still, it entrenches a model of the church and its ministry which is no longer fit for purpose.

Both the Methodist Church and the Church of England embody ‘foundations of hope’, but these have been missed or ignored.  Methodism’s most important contribution to the church to come lies in its Deed of Union’s core clause (1932 c14) that presbyters ‘hold no priesthood differing in kind from that which is common to all the Lord’s people.’  On this foundation of hope is built the primacy of the laity in mission, the profoundly communal nature of Methodism as a ‘Connexion’ and the collective authority of Conference.  On this foundation too is being built the vision of a renewed diaconate as a new and dynamic order of mission, unfettered by the real ‘anomaly’ of the transitional diaconate and sequential ordination.

I see the Church of England’s most important contribution to the church to come as being the pride of place it gives to liturgy and the Eucharist, the parish system with its insistence that every person is a child of God and the rich heritage it offers society through the splendours of architecture, art and music.

Mission and Ministry faces backwards not forwards.  The liberation of genuine unity is replaced by the stagnation of an enforced uniformity.  To my Methodist colleagues and many Anglican friends, I simply say – ‘Come on sisters and brethren, we can do far better than this!’  In his forthcoming book, Justin Welby urges us to ‘re-imagine Britain’.  It is also high time we began to ‘re-imagine the church’.








Why ‘the diaconal church’?

Why is this site entitled ‘the diaconal church’ ?   Because the task of ‘the diaconal church’ is to try and offer an example of what a society transformed by the gifts of what I call ‘the kingdom community’ might be like.   Why do societies need to be transformed?  Because, unless that happens, our world will continue to struggle to find any way of surviving and flourishing in the face of fragmentation and conflict.   We don’t have to listen to the news for very long to realise what a mess we are making of things.

In recent years, we have perhaps become a little more aware that our survival depends of humankind becoming a global community.  But the kind of globalization which currently rules the roost is decreed by the gods of economics, no commandments of which have the human potential to see us through.  Nor does serving the gods of an insular nationalism, now raising  its ugly head as many people react to a market-dominated form of globalization which is badly failing them, offer us any better hope of becoming one world.   We urgently need a new communal vision and the power to make that vision a reality.

This site is about how that vision might be fashioned and made real.   It is a hope founded on an amazing vision which took shape ‘on earth’ – through a person who taught about it, witnessed to it and died for it.   He called it ‘the kingdom of God’.   We call it ‘the kingdom community‘ – because it is also a vision about people for people and with people.

Down the years the church, with its many faults, has tried to discern and make known what the gifts of that kingdom – life, liberation, love and learning – are all about.  The church is not the kingdom community.   The church is the servant of the kingdom community.   And because ‘servant’ in Greek is translated by the world ‘diaconal’ – we call it ‘the diaconal church’.

So we look to the diaconal church to give us some insights into what community at its most purposeful, creative and powerful is all about.   The diaconal church is not yet here.  Its emergence is hindered by an institutional church which remains moulded by the culture of Christendom.   But slowly and agonisingly the diaconal church is being born.  Glimpses of what it looks life are all around us – for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.   On this site we try to discern some of those signs.

The task which faces all of us – whether we carry the label ‘Christian’ or not – is to work together to discern where the gifts of the kingdom are already at work – and to use those situations as our inspiration.   Empowered by what we have seen, our job is to build our fragmented and fractious world into a global community of communities.   One in which every society is being transformed by the gifts of the kingdom community – the ultimate community of life, liberation, love and learning.

Brexit – is it ‘the economy stupid’?