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’?

Christmas for real

Like many of us, I am currently immersed in the welter of carol concerts and services which lead up to Christmas.  I find it increasingly hard work to sing many un-singable carols – too high or too long or both – and to find some meaning in many Christmas stories and related poems when I can’t hear a quarter of what is being delivered because reading aloud is such an underrated skill.   So what does the cornucopia of Christmas stories and decorations and trees and lights and mince pies and cards and…… really add up to?   Well, I guess what comes through to me as real is the attempt by the gospel and hymn writers – via all the myths mixed up with the truth – to say, quite simply, that the Creator of the cosmos and all else is ‘in it with us’.   He (or she) has ‘incomprehensively’ become a person – initially as a real baby born to a real mother in a real place within real time – and to endure real suffering and a real death.

And that happening – though we cannot hope here and now to imagine what it was like there and then – has given hope to humankind – whether Christmas as a ‘coming together’ is acknowledged or not.   Christmas is the giver of energy and meaning to a world which often ploughs on, not knowing or caring where it is going.   It gives us not only a glimmer of light at  the end of a long tunnel called human history.   For a brief moment it is also a fire-work display which illuminates and energises a self-absorbed and self-centred world with awe, beauty, hope and power.

The precise meaning of that experience will be different for everyone – not least because of what has happened to each of us since last Christmas.  But at its heart – and at its richest – it is a message that the kingdom of life, liberation, love and learning cannot be obliterated – and is ours for the taking.

All is well!

Sue and I belong to a small discussion group which meets every six weeks or so to discuss important issues from a faith perspective.   Last week we had a go at the searching question: ‘Why bother with Advent?’   This raised the issue of where society, our world and indeed our universe are going – what in the New Testament is discussed at some length under the symbolic title of ‘the last days’ or ‘the second coming’.  They are not matters which feature much in church worship because of our pre-occupation with the first coming.   But the nature of the end times was certainly an issue for the NT writers.

We felt that the reason the last judgement (another title for the end times) mattered to them was probably because they had a much more realistic grasp than we have of the power of evil at work in our world, after as well as before ‘the first coming’.  Perhaps we get a glimpse of that power when we consider the holocaust, or the waves of ethnic cleansing since then – Rwanda, Bosnia, Yemen, the Rohingya and so on.   Yet for many of us those events are just images on our TV screen or ipad.

It seems to me there are two ‘realities’ to Advent – one is that trying to work for the common good in our world is not an option – it is a deadly serious and immensely important task.   And if we neglect it, we allow evil to get a grip, first in seemingly minor but ultimately in disastrous ways.   For example, most of us sit back whilst the Welfare State is dismantled around us – and as those who were not that long ago recognized as our fellow citizens in genuine need are now labelled scroungers. That is a judgement on all of  us – akin to the judgement to which Advent points us.

However, the second ‘reality’ of Advent is that, despite our failures and blatant wrong doing, we are offered forgiveness and the chance to pick up the pieces – like the prodigal son.   And that can only happen because, in the end – despite the cruelty and ugliness of our society and world – divine love was, is and remains supreme.   In short, the Advent message is ultimately ‘All is well’.

Two very different people bet their lives on that affirmation.  Julian of Norwich – a fourteenth century woman of immense power and even greater humility – based her life on her conviction that ‘All is well; and all manner of things are well.’   Many centuries later, Edward Wilson, a deeply Christian person, who died in Scott’s expedition to the Pole in 2012, wrote time and time again in his last letters to his wife and family, and knowing there was no hope of reaching safety – do not grieve,  ‘all is well’.

So I want to go though this Advent not ignoring the mess the world is in, and how little I have done to make it a better place, but also reflecting on that amazing and humbling declaration of faith by those far better than me that – here, now and in the future – ‘all is well’.

A rudderless nation

Philip Hammond’s budget yesterday was but one small example of a nation that has lost its way.   We are being ‘led’ by a party dominated by an economic myth – balance the books and all will be well – which has been accepted as ‘divine truth’ since the days of Thatcher.  Neither the Tories nor New Labour have offered us – and the wider world – a vision of a society which sees furthering the well-being of those at the bottom of the pile as a matter on which the health of the whole nation rests.  Symbolically, it is appalling that we have come to accept food-banks as normal.   It is an affront to everyone of us who simply puts our spare goods in the ‘bin’ and forgets what a commentary on our way of life as a society that is.

And what is true of our society is true of our world.   We have two massive tasks ahead of us which if we neglect will be the end of humankind as we know it.   One is eradicating poverty – the other is creating a just world.   Both of those should be  written into the DNA of every person – including every Christian and every church.   At the moment we are fiddling whilst ‘Rome’  burns.

I have no easy answers as to how those of goodwill can be mobilized in sufficient numbers in order to address the crisis increasingly evident across our world.   However, I know it has to be done.   All I can do is to try and get that mobilization underway by whatever small means I can – in Bakewell and beyond.

A time to forget not remember

Last Saturday was Remembrance Day.   I am late with my blog.   But I wanted to notch up that it is a day which causes me more anger and frustration than thanksgiving.   Of course I am immensely grateful that many people ‘laid down their lives’ and enabled this country to live reasonably peacefully even whilst others were devastated by the immediate effects of battle.   After all, my father served in the medical corps in WW1 even though he spoke about it very rarely.

But the wars we ‘remember’ had so many unintended causes – many of which were the result of the acts of power-seekers on all sides.   We only ‘won’ in the sense that other countries came to our assistance – or we could easily have ‘lost’.   The cost in human lives was appalling – with many young people being sent to their deaths – especially in WW1 – without the generals giving their slaughter a second thought.

And has ‘remembrance’ prevented other wars?   Of course not.   The nationalistic and militaristic underpinning of these ceremonies simply affirms the validity of war and the righteousness of our cause – when this is often deeply in doubt – Iraq?   Afghanistan? Syria?   ‘Remembrance’ can often perpetuate self-righteousness and hostility to past ‘enemies’.   It overlooks our own massive errors for which we should seek forgiveness.   It maintains a distorted nationalism and a ‘them and us’ mentality.   And so enmity, fear, hatred and resentment fester on, to burst to the surface again at the slightest new affront to national pride.   Let’s end ‘remembrance days’ for wars past (not least  those now a hundred years old!) and replace them with ‘peace days’, the red poppy with the white, the pomp with acts of humility, and a determination to hold on to a mythical past with a determination to build a new and truly human world order.

 

 

Quakers and Business

I’ve not produced a post for a while as I’ve been working on the Kingdom at Work Project’s next Bulletin.   I co-ordinate the project.  The Bulletin goes out to over 250 people concerned with how faith can inform work, and work inform faith, across all denominations in the UK – and to a few people abroad.   The Bulletin is published, free to download, about three times a year (see below).  It seeks to cover different issues relating to the value-added dimension of a faith approach to the world of work.  Each issue runs to about 15 A4 pages. We have teamed up with the Saltley Trust in Birmingham which puts all back copies of the Bulletin on its web site to be downloaded by anyone interested:
http://www.saltleytrust.org.uk/faith-and-work-in-theological-education-and-training/    Topics covered so far are:
No.12 (Nov, 2017)     Quakers and Business
No.11 (July 2017)      Ministers in Secular Employment
No.10 (Feb. 2017)      The Christian Entrepreneur
No.9   (Nov. 2016)      Servant Leadership
No.8   (July 2016)      Spirituality in the Workplace
No.7   (Feb. 2016)      Christian faith and the economy
No.6   (Oct. 2015)      Chaplains and Chaplaincy
No.5   (Jul. 2015)       The Common Good
No.4   (April 2015)    The Kingdom at Work project – ten key questions
No.3   (Dec. 2014)     ‘Educating for Mission in the World of Work’ conference report
No.2   (Oct. 2014)       Faith and work agencies in the UK and beyond
No.1   (Feb. 2014)      The Kingdom at Work Project and related initiatives

For the last few issues, the Kingdom at Work Project has teamed up with a number of faith agencies operating in this field and invited their members to write about the topic concerned.

The next issue (out next week) has been produced in partnership with the Quakers and Business Group.   It’s a really excellent issue because the Quakers are one of the few denominations in the UK which has really tried to get to grips with the value-added dimension of the contribution of faith to the workplace. Their members have a rich ethical heritage to draw on – Quakers were active and entrepreneurial business leaders, especially from the 19th century, bringing a breath of fresh air (often literally) to the often appalling conditions of the workplace.   How I wish other denominations could move away from their pre-occupation with survival and obsession with ‘making disciples’ and seek to engage with what Christian faith has to offer to the transformation of a consumer-dominated world of work – a hugely influential world – which is constantly distorting what being human is all about.

A new narrative

Just back from a week in Croatia – fascinating country steeped in history.   Among the places we visited was Split with its Diocletian Temple – built for the emperor’s retirement around 295 AD.   This was when the Christian community was still being persecuted – but only a few decades before Constantine co-opted the Christian church as a means of giving more stability to his far-flung empire.   That partnership of convenience has lasted in the West until the present day, albeit in an increasingly attenuated form.

However, the writing is now on the wall not only for termination of that partnership but of its hierarchical institutional principles and forms which have been taken as the norm over the last two millennia.   The social, economic, structural and religious foundations on which our institutions have been built are now being called into question by immensely powerful forces –  universal education, civil rights, globalization, climate change and the internet among others.

Our only way forward is for the creation of what George Monbiot describes in Out of the Wreckage as the discovery of ‘a new narrative’.   The old narratives have served a purpose – but they cannot be revived as the world of the third millennium will be fundamentally different from the past.

Any new narrative which can enable humankind to survive, as with those that have gone before it, has to be a combination of principles and practice – for world and church alike.   For the principles. I believe we need to re-visit the meaning and nature of what, in this blog, I call Christ’s vision of the kingdom community.   For the practice, I believe all institutions, sacred and secular, have to become ‘diaconal’, that is, the servant of that kingdom.   What  a new narrative will mean in terms of the shape and nature of those institutions, not least the form of their leadership, is a journey, with many dangerous blind alleys to be explored (as Trump and Erdogan remind us), that will have to go on for many generations to come.

 

 

Where we’re at – and it’s scary!

I’ve just been reading the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s book Life in Fragments written in 1995.   In it he speaks about the emergence of a postmodern age in which all the landmarks have gone.   In particular he sets out the challenge and dangers of living in a world in which the old authorities have collapsed – Christendom and, more recently, secular empires in particular.   This leaves a vacuum for ‘neo-tribalism’ to come centre stage – those collectives which can only find ‘security’ by dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, with ‘them’ being the unknown and threatening ‘stranger at the gate’.    The response to such strangers is to seek to build higher and higher walls to keep them out or, failing that, to eliminate them.   If this happens on a global scale, the future of humankind will be at risk.

Twenty years ahead of his time Bauman seems to be describing the world as we are (again) experiencing it.   Donald Trump’s speech to the UN this week simply indicates where we are at – not very far along the road to creating a global community of communities.   I have called it ‘the communal dilemma’.   But maybe that’s too gentle a term – ‘the communal disaster’ might be better.   Because the threat to nuke North Korea is no throw away line.   It is a wake up call to a world which needs to realize the immensity of what is at stake.   ‘Progress’ towards a just and peaceful world is not a given – it is an immensely difficult journey in which we continue to go backwards as well as forwards.

In that quest Christian faith has something hugely realistic to offer – a way of life based on the recognition that loving God and neighbour is very costly.   But also a vision of what can be – including being open to the stranger as potential friend – and the promise of the power to make it a reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edale Valley, Peak District

As usual on a Saturday morning, today Sue and I went out on our Derbyshire walk together.   The Peak District National Park has been a fantastic stamping ground since we arrived in Bakewell thirteen years ago, and we have now traversed most of it.   Today we climbed up to the west of the Derwent reservoirs from where you can get one of the best panoramas anywhere of the Dark Peak.   It was a day of light clouds and sunny intervals but, on this occasion, no wind.   So the whole area had an air of spaciousness and tranquility about it.   It was the sort of place to help you get the daily affairs of humankind into perspective.   Not that people leaving a bomb on a London tube train, as happened yesterday, doesn’t matter.   But somehow I believe that we have to hang on to the recognition that this universe has a far deeper meaning – which we have barely glimpsed – than all the ups and downs of life, sordid or glorious can reveal.   For some people that meaning can only be an impersonal and heartless cosmos.   For me that meaning, despite everything to the contrary, is the power of a love that ‘in the end’ is supreme.   Call it foolishness or faith – but after over eighty years – there I still stand.

Where’s the vision?

There is an ancient proverb in the Old Testament which states that ‘without a vision the people perish’. I fear that the Brexit negotiations, as the referendum campaign before it, appear immune to that salutary warning. Leavers seem obsessed with an agenda moulded by the naïve assumption that Britain can become great again through a return to Victorian isolationism and self-sufficiency. Remainers seem obsessed with the economic necessity of the free market and unrestricted customs regulations.  Where do we hear any reference to the vision of what a European union was about in the first place?  Maybe we are suffering from the fact that the horrific impact of two world wars is almost beyond living memory and has been sanitised by Remembrance Day mythologies. What we urgently need to regain is a vision of a human, integrated and open Europe if our children and their children are not to ‘perish’.

‘Small great things’

This is the title of Jodi Picoult’s latest book, sparked by the growth of racism in the States given impetus by the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers.   It is the story of a black nurse in a maternity hospital who has a court case brought against her because of alleged neglect of a white baby who dies whilst in her care.   The brilliance of the book lies in Picoult’s ability to recognise that racism is communicated not just by blatantly prejudiced people and language but by asides, ‘innocent’ words and involuntary gestures by all of us which carry racists messages hidden even to the user.   The book made me look much more carefully at my own racism which lies buried in attitudes picked up over the years and never rooted out – but latent in words and phrases I unconsciously use.  Small things can do great damage.

The theme of the book made me reflect on Christian spirituality – which also seems to be associated with small great things – in this case with an immense potential for good.   Spirituality is a word to describes how a loving Reality permeates our world – usually through a host of small and fleeting yet potentially powerful experiences.   It is the antidote to those other small great things which undermine our humanity.   But in the same way that I need to become aware of the small great things which are destructive, I need to try, with much greater awareness, to tune into those small great things which are creative and life-giving.

North Korea and the USA – new ‘Christendoms’

The problem we face is not only with the church in the West being unable to shake clear of the  mould of Christendom.   The same is true of secular collectives, not least the nation state.   We are currently confronted with two nations which, cloning Christendom, believe they have the right to dominate the world scene – North Korea and the USA.   The relative size of these two competitors is not the issue.   The problem is that megalomania creates a reality for their leaders which drives their attitude to every other nation, not to mention to the well-being of humankind.

The old forms of Christendom were destructive enough.   But add to their exploitation of military power the nuclear factor and our world begins to teeter on the edge of self-destruction.   We are being warned that, without a vision of the world as a global community and the will – of every nation – to make that vision a reality, humankind may soon be past its sell-by date.

The power of small groups

We are so often consumed with the power of large institutions that we neglect the power of small groups.   For many years sociologists have extolled the importance of the primary group – the nearest we come to a face-to-face collective – with the family as its most ubiquitous model.   Many institutions were originally given birth by small groups – the early Christian church and its many subsequent forms from the religious orders to Methodism – being just one example.

However, it would be simplistic to believe that the small group was the epitome of everything good and the institution of everything evil.   Small can be beautiful – it can also be ugly.   Over the years small groups have been the seed bed for the emergence of hugely destructive movements – from the Ku Klux Klan to ISIS – which have revealed humanity at its worst.   Small groups can be authoritarian, closed and grossly inhuman.   Thus, like all social collectives, they need to be transformed by the kingdom community’s gifts of life, liberation, love and learning, if they are to contribute to the creation of a communal world.