Sep 202013
 

“In the beginning, when God created…”

The opening verses/chapters of Genesis are almost guaranteed to excite debate. Whether it is science v. creationism, or poetry v. history, interpreting the opening part of Genesis seems to cause splits between Christians and atheists, and Christians and other Christians.

Creationism (and its associated ‘young earth’ and ‘seven literal days’ doctrines) has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons (actually, maybe for all the right reasons) in recent weeks here in Scotland. A Christian group, working in primary school chaplaincy, were handing out creationist literature to the pupils, even the very youngest. Chaplaincy is a privileged position in schools. Chaplains are allowed in only at the invitation of the Head Teacher. It is clearly understood that proselytising is not acceptable, although that is not to say that we cannot share an understanding of our Christian faith. Handing out faith tracts which represent a fairly marginal position to children who do not have the critical faculties to assess it is, I would suggest, an abuse of that privilege.

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Sep 202013
 

This is just a short post to re-establish my blogging habit.

I had intended starting to blog again a while ago but struggled to work out what to write about, and what direction to take this blog. I’ve previously used it to reflect on ministry, but that’s perhaps a bit too close to home now that I have responsibility for two congregations and two parishes. There’s only so much you can say without it getting very personal, very quickly.

However, I was cycling with a friend recently and I was saying that the one thing I really miss from my period of supervision is the opportunity to chew the fat on theological issues. I’m a (not so) closet academic. Not that I’d ever want to teach/lecture, but in the sense that I enjoy exploring theology in a more academic, almost detached manner. Coming back to parish work always keeps that well-grounded though, but it’s too easy to get caught up in just ‘doing’ and not take a step back to ask ‘why?’ every now and again.

Student placement and probation reports encouraged us to think theologically in our reflections on ministry. But I want to do more than just that. We don’t stop learning, and theology, albeit that it flows like treacle at times, also doesn’t stand still. I want to get my brain working again  and discuss the ‘angels on pinheads’ stuff as well as the genuinely challenging theological issues.

Given that it’s not going to be done on a Sunday morning in a sermon, or at a Bible study group, I need to find other outlets. Online discussions are useful, but, ultimately, get messy and unfulfilling. Nevertheless, blogging is a useful outlet for brain-dumping, and sorting through thoughts and ideas, so this is a re-start to blogging again.

As always, the primary purpose is for my own benefit, sorting through thoughts and ideas. But if I can be presumptuous enough to expect some people to read what I’m writing, then you are welcome to contribute your thoughts.

So, write then!

Sep 242012
 

Apologies up front – this is yet another ‘brain-dump’ post as I attempt to get my head round some thoughts.

One thing I miss about not having a supervisor is the opportunity for theological discussion. And since I haven’t been blogging much either then I’ve not had an opportunity to engage through that medium either. That’s not to say there hasn’t been ongoing theological engagement, but it’s been in settings where the topics up for discussion have tended to be the same old contentious chestnuts – and it’s fair to say that it’s getting a tad wearisome.

However, I have been dipping in and out of some other theological reflection areas, and one that has my old grey-cells working at the moment comes from some of the writings of Andrew Perriman. In particular, his Kindle book, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, has got me thinking about all sorts of issues. The Kindle book is a collection of selected blog posts, so it’s not really necessary to purchase it, but it does help having it all in one volume, and with a bit of editorial gloss.

His key premise is that scriptural interpretation of crucial parts of the New Testament ought to be approached with what he refers to as a ‘narrative-historical’ hermeneutic. This, he suggests, is a paradigm shift in approaching these texts. And, to be fair, I’m having a hard time readjusting my perspective to see the texts in that light. And I’m attempting to do so, because I think his approach has some merit.

My own theological progression has moved through a number of stages, and is now a significant distance from the conservative-evangelical approach I was primarily exposed to in my early years as a Christian. I can identify a ‘paradigm shift’ when I first read NT Wright. His writings had a major impact on my eschatological understanding. Exposure to Barth at university reshaped my outlook on revelation. The blog and books of Scot McKnight had a further impact on my understanding of ‘God’s Kingdom’, and also refined what was already my general approach to scriptural interpretation.

Perriman’s work though, challenges me in a new way. If I’m reading him correctly (and this is part of the issue of getting my head round his approach) what he seems to be suggesting is that much of the ‘future-focused’ aspects Jesus’ teaching in particular have already come to pass (but with resonances for a future still to happen). Jesus’ teaching, he is suggesting, is about the consequences of conflict with Rome, and holds a much stronger ‘corporate’ dimension than most western evangelical teaching allows.

It is this ’embedded in (already happened) history’ which shapes Perriman’s hermeneutic. And it does pretty much make sense as he presents it. One can see how the NT’s warnings on future ‘consequences’ have already been played out in the early centuries AD. The implications of this for thoughts on hell in particular are especially crucial. The ‘destruction’ and distress can be found, quite readily, in the historical events of the Jewish revolt (and remember, these warnings have a Jewish context, first and foremost) and its aftermath.

Perriman is not, I think, suggesting that these warnings, and the teachings we derive from them, are ‘time-limited’ – they are pertinent in all ages, I’d suggest. But his eschatology takes a quite different shape as a consequence. Where I’m struggling is how this impacts on our teaching of the Bible in our present day and age. In one sense, there is the danger of history repeating itself, and so that certainly becomes a focus. And his thoughts on hell and heaven fit into those I already hold as a consequence of other theological development. But I guess where I am struggling is how to present such a ‘paradigm shift’ to ‘the pew’. And I think that that is because I’m not fully clear on the implications yet of such a hermeneutic. More thinking required.

Jan 222012
 

I suppose that over the next wee while I will experience lots of ‘firsts’ as I take up the reins in my first charge.

But there can be few ‘firsts’ quite so special as being invited to officiate at the wedding of a family member. One of the slight added pressures of getting into a charge was the request to conduct the wedding of my brother-in-law and his fiancée. However, the charge has arrived in good time and so I will be able to do the honours in due course.

So, last night was an opportunity to sit down with them and go through the order of service. Of course, never having done one of my own before, it was an interesting experience working out what was to be included in the liturgy, and why (and where). I know the CofS doesn’t hold to a sacramental view of marriage, and I’m happy with that, but I’ve recently been wondering about how we lift a marriage service beyond the ‘legalities with frills’.

I was slightly surprised to discover that the couple wanted something solidly Christian and with ‘gravitas’ (not the word used, but fitting). I was also keen to create the liturgy in such a way that the ‘congregation’ were more involved, or ‘invested’ in what was happening.

I think what we’ve come up with works really well. I suppose it’s loosely based on the 2nd order in Common Order, but definitely only loosely and with other bits thrown in. Broadly speaking, after the first hymn, and a short preamble, we’re into a reading (1Co 13:1-8, nothing original, but by request). This is followed by a short reflection setting the context of Christian marriage in the bigger picture of God’s love and restored relationships (a bit of a hobby-horse theme of mine at the moment) – relationships we are all part of. This then leads to the unifying recital of the Apostles’ Creed. On this basis of God-reflecting, loving relationship, we move into the marriage ceremony itself, finishing that part with a sung Aaronic blessing. There’s then a specially written choral piece during which we may or may not go and sign the schedule, then it’s a prayer, Lord’s prayer, 2nd hymn and benediction.

I like the ‘shape’ – the way it establishes a Christian foundation that is inclusive. I like the way it encourages participation – this is not ‘just’ about two people, but of a much bigger set of relationships. I also like the way that it manages to combine a ‘high’ approach with inclusivity (well, I think it does).

Downside is that it is quite lengthy, but the view of the bride is that it is this part that is the focal point of the day and if that means shaving 10 minutes off the drinks reception immediately afterwards, then so be it.

I doubt that this will become my standard liturgy, but having had this first go at one, and ensuring that it is ‘special’ for people I particularly care about, it has been a very helpful ‘first’. I think it’s really only when you do your first liturgy for anything that you really question why something is there, and why you are using particular words, and why it flows the way it does.

Like I say, it’s the first of what, I’m sure, will be many firsts. Not all will be so pleasurable, but all will be a challenge to ensure God is properly ‘included’ and given His proper place.

Oh, I didn’t mention that the wedding is on the Saturday of the Easter Weekend. Hopefully that will be a first, and last.

Nov 262011
 

Apologies up front. This is a bit of a ‘brain-dump’ post as I try and sort out some thoughts that have been running around my head. It largely draws on a number of different strands of thought coming from books I’ve read recently, sermons, and just general thoughts that are always lurking around. It’s also an opportunity to engage critically with one of those ‘light-bulb’ moments when things, for an instant, seem to make a little more sense.

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Jun 172011
 

The past umpteen years have been marked by many milestones as I make progress towards ordained ministry. Today’s was a significant one – the end of the final probationers’ conference. Although there are further conferences and retreat days after ordination, this conference, in particular, is worth noting. This is the one where much of the ‘practical’ information is imparted. There’s almost a sense of leaving it until now, because if you knew then…
Well, not really. I don’t think there are too many who go into ministry these days wearing rose-tinted spectacles.

The focus on the practical brought it home, perhaps more than many other conferences, that it will get ‘real’ very soon. I was absolutely shattered today as I hadn’t slept well. I rarely remember dreams, although I suppose I must dream, but I had a very disturbed night having a classic anxiety dream. That said, in true, modest, presbyterian style, I did not find myself lacking clothing – maybe I wasn’t as anxious as I thought.

The dream has a pretty obvious interpretation. I, in the company of a number of my fellow probationers, was attempting to get to an airport, but I simply could not find the way in. The signs were all there, but they never seemed to lead me to a door. I somehow always seemed to find myself trying to wade through a crowd going the other way, or discovering shops and market stalls in my way. Or I would turn in to what was a dead end. I knew I was near the airport – I could see planes taking off overhead, but I just couldn’t seem to get close to it. My fellow probationers all seemed to make progress, but I just kept getting lost. But they’re a good bunch and some of them kept coming back to find me and point me in the right direction again. Again, they would make progress, but I never seemed to. I guess I’ll never end up as an airport chaplain, anyway.

My lack of sleep was probably a contributing factor to me picking an argument with a professor of theology who was delivering the last session of the conference (but only because he got his diary date wrong and didn’t turn up when he was expected the day before). The ‘confrontation’ was an interesting experience. The ‘prof’ has quite an intimidating style, spearing you with an intense, direct gaze while challenging, quite robustly, what you are suggesting. In many respects it was quite out of keeping with the rather more gracious engagement in discussion that tends to happen in conference sessions. This was not, after all, a lecture or academic debate. Nevertheless, my tiredness, or maybe just my woolly theology, resulted in me backing off (although the debate was rather a tangent from the main purpose of the session anyway). I did spend the car journey home rehearsing all the arguments I could/should have used – but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

But it did serve to remind me of who I am and how I am. I don’t do well in such ‘up front’ debates. I like time to consider things; to work them through more slowly and carefully. As I’ve discussed before, I would consider my theology to be ‘restless theology’. I am happy to exist in the tensions of theological opinions. I can accept the ‘contradictions’ of scripture without having to find convoluted ways to reconcile them. I can even, graciously and with some sympathy, understand the reasons and rationale behind deeply held theological positions, even to the point of granting them acceptability. But my theological outlook (or maybe just the weird wiring in my brain) doesn’t allow me to stop at any of those positions, however well-argued and justified they may be, but insists that I give due weight and consideration to other views.

Such an approach may come across as indecisive or too accommodating or even just downright contradictory, but it works for me and allows me to reconcile such things as the ‘difficult texts’ (which that particular session was on) or the ecumenical interactions which take place in communities. I should point out that I still have limits and boundaries – they’re maybe just a little further apart than many.

So, if I’ve discovered nothing else at this particular milestone, I do at least acknowledge who I am and what I know of myself. Even if that means that I can’t figure out how to get to where I need to go.

May 232011
 

Today, at the Kirk’s General Assembly, a pretty hefty debate took place over the Kirk’s future direction in its relationship with partnered homosexuals in ordained leadership. Unfortunately, due to ‘real’ church business, I was unable to sit through the entire debate, but caught the gist of it and the key vote.

The GA was presented with two ‘trajectories’. One kept to the traditionalist position and extended the moratorium on ordination of partnered homosexuals for an indefinite period. The other set out on a revisionist path which aims to lead to reconciliation with the LGBT community and to open leadership doors to those who are in a same-sex relationship.

It’s not quite the liberal triumph some may be suggesting (nor, for that matter, is it the road to doom and destruction others are suggesting). It simply sets out a possible path towards that reconciliation and opening up of leadership.

The decision allows for a theological commission to explore the issues around what this decision means. From the beginning of this phase of the debate I’ve always advocated the need for the Kirk to set in order its understanding of marriage and partnership as a prerequisite for any decision. If heterosexual marriage and same-sex partnerships can be brought to an equitable footing then there is no further debate to be had. This, I think, was the understanding behind the former Principal Clerk’s amendment to the ‘trajectory choice’ deliverance. I would have been happy for this to have been approved – it would satisfy the systematic theologian in me and help lay the theological foundations for further progress. Just to be clear – it has always been on this point that I have objected to same-sex partnerships in the manse, just as I would object to an unmarried heterosexual couple in the manse. Marriage is the defining structure within which we place committed partnerships. It’s not scriptural – it’s a legal issue. So, unless the Kirk was to make a serious u-turn on its approach to marriage then I always saw this as the primary issue to be addressed.

However, I also note that such a delay would have been entirely unsatisfactory on a number of fronts. Any opportunity to move away from discrimination and oppression ought to be taken at the earliest opportunity. The choice made today doesn’t quite meet that need either, but there is at least a glimmer of hope where there was little or nothing before. And certainly the other choice would pretty much have snuffed it out entirely.

One bigger candle of hope from today was the affirmation of sexual orientation not being a bar to ordination and training. Although it does raise interesting issues on what should happen if a subsequent partnership were to form. Do I detect the rattle of small pebbles precipitating an avalanche?

My biggest fear though is the threat of schism. There have already been rumblings that a vote for the revisionist trajectory would prompt some departures from the Church of Scotland. I’m not sure that a ‘trajectory’ really justifies that and would far prefer to see those voices stay with the Kirk, participate in the ongoing debates which need to happen and hopefully, along with everyone else, grow in grace. I don’t mean that to be ‘Christian-ese’ for ‘agree with me or you’re not a real Christian’, but rather work out how we can agree to disagree yet remain one. I know that there will be some who would say ‘good riddance’, but I think it would be very sad if any sort of schism were to happen.

So, back to the title. Is the trajectory set out upon today enough to satisfy those of a revisionist persuasion? Will there be patience to see through the next couple of years. working towards a more harmonious goal? And will a trajectory be enough to maintain a degree of unity in the Kirk?

Jan 102011
 

I’ve just finished Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet and have thoroughly enjoyed it, both as a challenge and an affirmation. His basic premise is that we all read the Bible with our own bias and preconceptions – and we should all be honest about that. Nothing new there really – except perhaps the call for honesty from all readers and interpreters.

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Dec 212010
 

There’s been plenty of chat on Facebook and on blogs about the new dramatisation of the nativity on the BBC. I’ve seen the first two and have been pleasantly surprised. Obviously it’s highly speculative, but in seeking to tell the human story behind the events so well-known to Christians, it has, I think, brought a fresh dimension to it.

I think when we visit the story we focus so much on the ‘Christian’ aspects (because that is, rightly so, the important part for believers) that we forget there is a very human story there. Can we really expect Joseph to just accept, unquestioningly, what he has been told in a dream, regardless of how devout he may be? Putting the human face on the story makes it, I would suggest, even more ‘believable’.

Of course, that assumes the historicity of events in the first instance and I was interested to discover that one of my former lecturers at new College was an historical advisor to the programme. Dr Helen Bond writes about her take on the adaptation here. She makes the wise observation that the historical accuracy is, in a sense, a secondary consideration, because it is the story in all its dimensions – the theological, the historical, the human – that is important. To separate out the parts may make for a more acceptable story to the more ‘rational’- or ‘secularly’-minded, but it is only as a whole that it makes sense, because it is a story which must, by virtue of it being a story of faith, contain all of those elements.

The Nativity helps, I would suggest, give that nudge back towards remembering the human story behind it all.

Dec 062010
 

Of the point behind my Masters thesis that is.

My mate Bryan at Greyfriars Parish Church, Lanark, has recently started streaming the Sunday morning services. No bad thing and on, Sunday’s snowy morning, an ideal opportunity for those unable to get to church to do more than just listen in, but to get to see what was going on. Undoubtedly, using video technology allows people to feel more part of something than simply listening to the audio.

Sunday had a slight twist to it – it was communion. A short flurry of discussion on Facebook certainly gave the impression that some who were tuned in from home shared in communion using what they had in the house. I somewhat cheekily wondered if epiclesis worked through cyberspace and that comment triggered a little bit of a (gentle) bashing.

But it’s a serious question (even though it makes something that ought to be simple, more complicated) and, in my opinion, impacts on our understanding of sacramental ministry. Bryan suggested that it was sufficient to rely on Jesus’ promise that where two or three are gathered in His name, He will be with them. Which begs the question, “Why do you need an ordained minister to pronounce an invocation, when it’s God who does all the work?” This was the core of my thesis – the Church of Scotland needs to get its brain round sacramental ministry if it is going to encourage more innovative forms of worship – and video-streaming services isn’t exactly at the extreme end of the innovation spectrum.

Someone else wondered whether it would therefore be possible to perform a baptism over the airways, so to speak. It’s exactly the same issue. Is there some sort of ‘essential presence’ that a minister, and only a minister, brings to these sacramental acts? Or is it simply a case of the practical consideration that it gets done ‘properly’, with no under-the-table jiggery-pokery?

The point I made in my thesis was that conversations around these issues really need to be happening right now, otherwise we end up with a free-for-all which will, ultimately, cause further argument within an organisations which could well do without further cause for dissension in the ranks. And these conversations need to be focused on what is happening in churches now and not just at some academic, ivory-tower, theological level.