MTh Research

 

In August 2010 I completed a postgraduate year at the University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity. Following a Masters by Research course, I used the opportunity to investigate the Emerging Church movement particularly as it impacts on the Church of Scotland. I opted to do an essays + short dissertation route as it provided scope for wider and more varied study. The fruits of that year – the three research essays and the dissertation – may be downloaded from here.

They are not ground-breaking theology or cutting-edge research. Nor are they the work of a dedicated and gifted theologian. They were written largely from the point of view of my own interests as I tried to grasp a little of the bigger picture of the challenges facing the Church of Scotland in a changing society and how engaging with newer forms of church could influence that. In other words, bear this very specific context and background in mind if you wish to shred them ‘theologically’.

MTh Research

Download: Dissertation - Converging Conversations  Dissertation - Converging Conversations
» 480.7 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh dissertation. The need for 'intentional' dialogue if the Church of Scotland is to engage effectively with new forms of church.

Download: Essay - Tentative Steps towards an Emerging Kirk  Essay - Tentative Steps towards an Emerging Kirk
» 204.1 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh Research Essay 2 An analysis of the Church of Scotland's engagement with Emerging Church through a 2009 report from Ministries Council and Mission and Discipleship Council.

Download: Essay - Looking Beyond the Labels  Essay - Looking Beyond the Labels
» 206.2 KiB - August 20, 2010
MTh Research Essay 1 An investigation of some of the underlying issues behind some of the 'post-' labels commonly associated with Emerging Church.

Download: Essay - Unity In Diversity  Essay - Unity In Diversity
» 270.5 KiB - August 20, 2010
Mth Research Essay - Barth Course Using the creedal church mark of 'One', this essay critiques Emerging Church from a Barthian perspective.

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May 202010
 

I’ve been catching up on some reading recently (I’ve not long finished The Mystery of Christ by Robert Farrar Capon and Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell) and currently working my way through The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. When I’m not banging on about Emerging Church, one of my soapboxes is the need for Christians (especially Christian leaders) to be the ‘prophetic voice’ within society – pointing out its failings and pointing to a better way. This is at the heart of Brueggemann’s book and I came across a passage worth quoting:

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Thus I suggest that prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated.

The italics are Brueggemann’s and state the hypothesis for  the book. The extract, I believe, succinctly states the mission and problem for the church. The church needs to be counter-cultural. And that doesn’t mean that it decries culture, rather it should always be asking if this is the ‘best’ we can achieve. And by ‘best’, I would suggest that that means being more ‘Christ-like’; being fully human and fully spiritual creatures, living life in its fullest measure without fear of discrimination, oppression and injustice.

But the extract also highlights the biggest danger the church faces – becoming ‘co-opted and domesticated’. (The phrase, “Aslan is not a tame lion” has just sprung to mind). My biggest fear of Emerging Church is that the Christian distinctives get subsumed by a desire to be ‘relevant’ – faith and worship are co-opted to suit a context, rather than that happening the other way round. Domestication comes when the church is no longer proactive but reactive and is ‘used’ to provide social services or a place where religious-types can go on a Sunday morning. Or perhaps domestication has come through the church becoming a useful branch of Historic Scotland responsible for the upkeep of a bunch of old buildings. I’m sure there are many ways in which we have become ‘co-opted and domesticated’.

How easy is it though to rediscover our revolutionary voice?

May 112010
 

I don’t generally blog on politics. It’s not a subject which particularly enthuses me – at least in the traditional sense. I have no particular love of party politics. The confrontational Westminster style is just irritating and the negative campaigning is simply depressing. But this blog entry isn’t about any of those things anyway. Rather, it’s about a train of thought that was triggered by watching a programme from a few days ago.

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Mar 262010
 

My recent musings on Emerging Church have also been getting me thinking about some of the theological underpinnings of EC and, to a degree, traditional church. At the moment I’m still trying to get them straight in my head and one mechanism for me to do that is to do a bit of a brain-dump on here. That’s really just to serve as a warning that this particular blog post is probably going to be even more incoherent than usual and will almost certainly present a point of view which is far from fixed and will need considerable refinement.

It has also been prompted by a couple of questions from Scott, and in particular his most recent question about some of the underlying assumptions we make when ‘doing mission’. So, in no particular order, some thoughts on theology (and more to follow in subsequent posts).

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Mar 112010
 

I was a conference yesterday about Emerging Church within the context of the Church of Scotland. It was both inspirational and frustrating. Some of the projects are doing fantastic work and really growing as ‘church’ – and not just in the outreach work sense that I’ve been having a go at in recent posts. We’re seeing embryonic communities which are growing into worshipping communities and then hitting brick walls. Many of these projects are reaching unchurched people and making Christian faith relevant and meaningful. And yet there is a sense of ‘so far and no further’.

And, unfortunately, it’s the Church of Scotland’s law and structures that are often the problem. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t people who are trying, often creatively, to provide solutions, but there was still an underlying sense of not taking Emerging Church seriously. If I may parody it somewhat, it seemed that there was a willingness to set up a working party to look at the questions that would need to be addressed by a committee who could produce a report to create a task force who would consult widely to produce a report that could go to a council and be presented to GA for consideration by presbyteries to ascertain whether there was support for changes to develop a new style of ministry.

Meanwhile community projects are being slapped on the wrist for overstepping parish boundaries or are unable to share the sacraments because their eminently qualified leader doesn’t have the ‘right sort’ of theology degree and isn’t ordained. There was much talk about training and the need for a new focus on missional skills for ordained ministries. But I can’t help but feel that a more open approach to development of lay leaders or the already qualified members needs a better look at. Why do we allow someone to ‘preach and teach’ at a youth club yet become very cagey when they might do it from the pulpit, as it were? There was also talk of a more modular approach to training, building on existing skills. So how about an approved ‘sacramental theology’ bolt-on to make sure it’s all done above board and with theological rigour and that makes sure the appropriate box is ticked for church law? And maybe it’s time to get over the suspicion and angst about it that has persisted for several hundred years since the Reformation.

So, what’s the solution? A presbyterian church with flexible structures, “boundary blindness” (thanks to Peter Neilson for that one) when it comes to parishes and a real commitment to training its people to become the body of Christ in the community. And maybe a church that relaxes its ecclesiology and grasps more of the kingdom instead. Shouldn’t be too tall an order. Maybe a report to GA is called for.

Mar 092010
 

I’ve been working my way through Emerging Churches, a very useful book giving a survey of what Emerging Church is all about. I came across a reflection from Doug Pagitt who sees three ‘types’ of EC and one of them really struck a chord with me. He doesn’t see the church as “necessarily the center (sic) of God’s attentions” and that God is already at work in the world; the church “has the option to join God or not”.

As I read it I was reminded of an observation from Barth which I think I’ve previously mentioned – that the church has always been a minority. The implication is that it always will be, and that that’s no bad thing. In the light of Pagitt’s comments it even makes sense (to me anyway). It opens up the whole question of the purpose of the church. In a sense it only ever needs to be a minority if it sees its purpose as finding where God is at work and joining in. ‘Church’ then becomes the place where church members are spiritually renewed and sustained and sent out to mission again. Their mission purpose is to make disciples of all nations. But does that need to mean growing a church congregation? OK, so it raises issues of ‘Christian imperialism’ when we count those who are working for ‘the good’ to be disciples, but then the issue is about the kingdom, and not the church. It also ‘meets the requirement’ for the church to be ‘in the world, but not of it’. And it has a somewhat liberal, vaguely universalist, soteriology. But that’s just theology and a few proof texts will soon take care of that. 😉

But it also throws into question the whole issue of the EC movement. Is it actually necessary to establish churches to do mission work? The answer must be, “no,” but what then is EC for? It seems to me that EC is, in a sense, a by-product of missional work. Or, at least, it can be. It can also be a project in and of itself. Context is the key, I suppose.

It also raises some interesting questions for the Church of Scotland, particularly at this cash-strapped time and as it considers its ability to meet its Third Article and be a presence in every part of Scotland. Maybe by trying to be ‘church’ everywhere it will never succeed; but as the missional bringer of the kingdom, that may be a different story. A lot of joined-up thinking required I think.

Mar 032010
 

No surprise there then.

Having spent some of this afternoon discussing Emerging Church, I got the names of a few projects to follow up on as possible research subjects for my dissertation. I’ve just spent some time looking at their websites and I’m left with the feeling that either I’ve completely missed the point of Emerging Church or someone else has (or I’m missing something very obvious).

The projects I’ve looked at are what I would refer to as ‘detached youth work’. Or, in one case, ‘semi-detached youth work’. One project doesn’t restrict its outreach to any particular age-group, but its focus seems mainly to be pastoral care, in the very broadest sense. None of this means that the projects aren’t worthwhile. In fact, they are all doing a great work in their community and all praise to them for it.

But I’m left wondering what makes this ‘Emerging Church’. Yes, I understand that EC is characterised by its very missional outlook, but missional outlook alone does make a project EC. It must go hand-in-hand with a number of other factors, otherwise, surely, it is ‘just’ mission?

Or maybe these are simply the first tentative steps towards finding an expression of EC for their particular communities. Get alongside people first, earn their trust and respect, then begin to think about spiritual guidance. But isn’t this just ‘church’ and the sensible (only?) way of outreach into a community – itself an imperative of the gospel?

But that still leaves me confused because it doesn’t, in my mind, adequately deal with what EC is. In fact, these projects, arguably, are not ‘church’ – merely the work of the church.

Or am I simply too impatient? Is it unrealistic to expect to see ‘church’ in these projects at these early stages? But is anything else not being a bit ‘dishonest’? Shouldn’t an EC project be characterised by aiming to be ‘church’ – that is, a worshipping community’ – as part of its project work?

Ah well, plenty of food for thought there for an essay or two and a dissertation.

Mar 012010
 

I had a very useful discussion last week with my academic supervisor. Very shortly I will have two research essays due and a presentation to do for what my dissertation will be about. All well and good if I knew where I was going, which is where the discussion ended up being very useful.

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Jan 122010
 

I’ve been working through some reading for my first research essay and it’s starting to take shape in my head. Just need it to start taking shape on paper now. Anyway, it’s part of my overall investigations into the theology of emerging church (my research direction wandered off at a tangent and is now heading in a somewhat different direction from its original intent). This initial research subject is about ‘unity’. Its direction is somewhat set by having to consider the topic with more than a passing nod to Barth (as I opted to do the Barth course for credit rather than audit it). But that’s not a problem. Barth has more than enough to say on the subject of church unity.

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Oct 212009
 

I had a very fruitful meeting with my academic supervisor today. It wasn’t intended as anything other than a bit of a catch up, but it turned out to be a most useful boost. I know that I’m only 5 weeks into the Masters course, but I was already feeling that I was lacking focus and direction. I knew where one 5k-word essay was coming from but the others were still somewhat vague (nebulous even and at risk of ending up in a quagmire). I’m not saying that the revised track is better focused, but it does seem to fit well and is a bit more interesting than what I had planned originally. Continue reading »