Kirchentag BremenFunny old world. There I was, minding my own business walking through the Hauptbahnhof in Bremen with a couple of friends, when who do I spot sitting there with his laptop open and a bemused look on his face? While mere mortals like us were trying to find a sausage, Bishop Alan Wilson had researched the availability of free internet access in Bremen and managed to find the only spot (in front of the station) where it was available. And what was he doing? Blogging. What a star!

The Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag (literally, German Protestant Church Conference) takes over a city every two years and draws over 100,000 people. The programme is nearly 500 pages long and Thursday to Saturday is filled with hundreds of options for worship, Bible study, debate, discussion, lectures, theatre, etc. It has to be seen to be believed.

This year’s Kirchentag began this evening with an opening service in three venues. We went down to the banks of the River Weser and joined thousands of people of all ages and from (seemingly) everywhere for worship and a good sermon. It was warm and sunny and everyone was relaxed. The police are around, but there is no sense of anything other than pleasure and enjoyment. The city centre is full of stalls and tens of thousands of people mill around tasting the various foods, meeting (and making) friends, listening to live music, playing games and so on. The organisation is remarkable and it counts as one of the least threatening big events I have ever been to.

Walking through the city centre with the other Church of England representatives (Richard Parrish and Helen Azer), we spotted the ‘real Christian’ with his placard pointing out to the rest of us that we are probably damned. Which was mildly interesting.

I was musing about whether such an event could ever take place in England. I think the answer is ‘no’. What is remarkable in Germany is that Christians of all complexions come together and take Christian faith seriously – spiritually, intellectually, socially, environmentally, etc. I fear that this would simply not be possible in England because the church is to fragmented into ‘interest’ groups: New Wine, Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor, Keswick, Word Alive are some of the evangelical ones, but there are many more besides. I just could not see these having the courage to suspend themselves in the interest of all coming together to explore the faith in all its richness.

kirchentag-plakatMaybe that will be considered a little jaded. But, looking at the sheer diversity of provision in the programme, it is hard to see it happening. The Germans manage to bring together serious media professionals (for example, I will be attending a seminar moderated by the Editor of Die Zeit), top politicians (including the Bundeskanzler, Bundesprasident, Foreign Minister, Interior Minister and other leading politicians), artists, writers and actors as well as pastors, theologians, philosophers, cultural observers and ordinary curious punters.

I am here in two capacities: as English Co-chair of the Meissen Commission and leading a delegation from Churches Together in Britain & Ireland for an ecumenical exchange which will culminate in an academic conference in Paderborn on Sunday and Monday. I am leading and preaching at several ecumenical services, taking part in a podium discussion on church reform, doing media and book interviews and generally meeting people. We will be doing some Meissen business as well.

So, the Kirchentag is open. I hope to get in to a Bible study in the morning by Bishop Wolfgang Huber and then hear Angela Merkel do theology in relation to power and democracy. The theme of the Kirchentag is ‘Mensch, wo bist du?’ (Mortal, where are you?) – taken from God’s question to the hiding Adam in the Garden of Eden and posed to every human being and society ever since. The glib answer is: ‘I am in Bremen’. But I do not believe I will leave Bremen on Sunday unchanged.


Girly music in church? We’ve set a hare running here…

One of the things the Charismatic Movement did in the 1970s and ’80s was give expression to worship that engaged the emotions. This probably had more to do with style of music than mere lyrical content. But it opened some parts of the church up to more emotional songs and that was surely no bad thing. There must be a limit to how many times you can robustly tell God who he is in any one service – which is what a lot of traditional hymns involved us in doing. (I suspect we are telling God what he already knows anyway; so for whose benefit are we doing it? To prove our orthodoxy or otherwise? Discuss…)

As music has developed, however, it has been interesting to see what has longevity and what passes by quickly. Unfortunately, some nonsense has as great a shelf life as some good stuff. I am still not sure how Jesus is supposed to respond to our invitation to ‘fill your sheep’ – as one famous worship song has it: what with – sage and onion?

It is also surely too easy to see a vicious circle between the drift of worship music and what people are increasingly referring to as ‘the feminisation of the church’. Although there may be elements of connection and truth here, I suspect this is too easy a correlation. English blokes are not always the best at being fully rounded emotional beings; so, shaping a spirituality around their sometimes stunted emotional articulacy might not be the wisest of moves. To go back to what I said in my last post on this matter, we need in public worship a diet that feeds not only the whole individual, but the individual of different temperaments at different times of life – that takes the individual as part of a community on a journey that will not always feel the right one at that time.

In other words, ‘worship’ (which, we must remember, is primarily directed to and about God) should provide a vocabulary (for body, mind and spirit) that enables a massive variety of people in a particular community at a particular time in a particular social context to express the truth of their experience and their soul to God and each other.

John-BellThis is where I found the music of John Bell and the Iona Community‘s Wild Goose Worship (now ‘Resource’) Group revolutionary. Taking traditional (and, therefore, already known and loved) tunes, they put new words to them and opened up new expressions of worship. This meant starting where people really are and not pretending that worship starts where life is left behind. Rather than collude in the fantasy that has a worship leader announcing: ‘Let’s leave behind all the stuff of the week just gone – all the preoccupations, etc. – and focus our minds on God’, it encourages people precisely to bring to God their individual and communal experiences and NOT to forget or ignore them. That is why the singing of songs from the World Church (in their own languages) is so important: it helps us briefly enter into the experience of others who are not like us and learn to pray for them.

But two further points remain from comments on my last post. The first has to do with the ‘sacred/secular’ divide. The banality of some Christian worship music (both lyrically and musically), when set against the raw honesty and lyrical intelligence of some ‘secular’ music, is embarrassing.

leonard-cohenI contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary in November 2008 which was celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah – before it was desecrated by Simon Cowell’s pets – and trying to work out why the song had been covered by so many people. What was the appeal of the song? One of the questions put to me was: ‘Hasn’t Cohen simply stolen the language of religion and applied it to sex and physical experience?’ My response? ‘No, Cohen has understood what many Christians have failed to grasp: that God is interested in the whole of life and not just the ‘spiritual’ bits. When Cohen, reaching deep into the contradictions of sex and love and loss, recalls fallen biblical characters (who are also, and despite this, seen as heroes in the Bible) sings of the ‘broken hallelujah’, he is accepting that we all come to God as messed up people.

But this leads me to the question put to me in an interview with Ludovic Hunter-Tilney of the Financial Times (4/5 April 2009) about the concern of many rock musicians with spirituality. Ludo questioned whether the rock gig now replaces the ‘church’ experience of corporate worship. I think my response can be summarised as: the rock gig might engage with spirituality (seen as the ‘existential reality and experience/questioning’) of the audience, but it is not ‘worship’ insofar as it is not directed towards an object of ultimate value. But it is an experience of corporate questioning, valuing, affirming and questioning – however contradictory.

rock gigMaybe the rock gig has become the closest some people get to ‘common worship’ because the churches have failed to provide the space in which genuine (and often inadequate or contradictory) expression of life, emotion, affirmation and questioning can take place without the leader putting you right before the end of verse 4 of the final song/hymn.

Wesley said that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to rubbish and it will become popular – and it will soon have us believing rubbish as well as singing it. The ancient/modern debate in relation to worship is now redundant. The question that is pressing has more to do with whether we have clergy and other ‘worship leaders’ who understand what is going on in ‘services’ and are able to create the space in which people can find that the whole of life matters to God – and that, in expressing our individual and common experience, we find that we have been found by the God who is not surprised by what he sees and hears?

The Daily Mail has an amusing article today regarding music in churches. According to an online survey of 400 UK readers of the men’s magazine Sorted, the majority of blokes who responded said they ‘enjoyed singing – but added comments showing they preferred anthemic songs and ‘proclamational’ hymns as opposed to more emotional love songs.’ They also dislike flowers, embroidered banners, hugging, holding hands, dancing and ‘sitting in circles discussing their feelings in church’. Oh dear.

songs-of-praiseOne of the characteristics of much contemporary worship music is that it gives expression to the emotions that hymns do not always evoke. Directed straight to God, they express love, devotion and emotion – sometimes in terms that can only be described as ‘pseudo-erotic’. I remember someone describing it as ‘Jesus is my girlfriend’ music.

Hymns, by contrast, are often giving expression to thoughts about God rather than feelings towards God. Hymns were deliberately written in ways that could be easily learned and remembered by everyone, whereas many contemporary songs are defined by rhythm, not predictable melody. (I remember being asked by an elderly man what ‘kerof’ meant. He was struggling with the Graham Kendrick Creed which proclimed: ‘We / believe / in God the Father, / Ma /kerof /the universe’.)

hymn-singingThe real issue here is not primarily to do with style of music (which is often a matter of cultural taste or habit), but what vocabulary the music is giving to a congregation to articulate the common experience of life it brings in to worship. Jesus’s hymnbook was the Book of Psalms from the Hebrew Bible. Contrary to some perceptions of the Psalms, most are not words of praise to an egotistical God; rather, they give expression to individual and corporate experiences such as lament, complaint, questioning, and so on.

I guess the question here is: how does the diet of songs in our churches provide a vocabulary for the experiences and circumstances of the diversity of people in the congregation?

One of the great losses from the Anglican experience of worship is the recital of the Psalms. No, I don’t want to go back to chanting – I could never manage that anyway. But reading the Psalms in order meant that we were forced to read aloud expressions of ‘worship’ and experience that might not at that moment be mine. But it would remind me of the needs and reality of others in the church whose current experience was different. It might even feed or stimulate my prayers for them and awareness of them.

So, having spent years leading worship, teaching songs and playing in bands, I have come to this rather meek conclusion: ‘Wet’ songs are OK and have their place, but only as part of a diet of songs that ask questions, express regret and fear, recognise the variety of people in our midst, make statements about God and the world, and have some integrity theologically as well as emotionally.

Worship is a communal experience, not an individual indulgence. Which means that I often find myself singing songs I hate – but find myself coughing at the bits where I stare into Jesus’s eyes and tell him he is lovely…

The Top Ten hymns in the survey were:

  • wet-jesusOnward Christian Soldiers
  • And Can It Be
  • Guide Me O Thy Great Redeemer
  • All People That On Earth Do Dwell
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • How Great Thou Art
  • Amazing Grace
  • Eternal Father, Strong To Save (For Those On Peril On The Sea)
  • Our God Reigns
  • Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind Forgive Our Foolish Ways
  • Discuss!

    I guess lots of people have been waiting for the announcement of Jade Goody’s death before letting loose with their feelings. I am still staggered by the amount of vitriolic nastiness some people can pour out on blogs and in other media. I don’t know whether it comes from some sort of transferred self-loathing or some sort of bitterness about the world, but it is not pleasant to see.

    The emphasis Jade put on her sons and her concern for their future made it all the more sad that her death came in the early hours of Mothering Sunday. Many will question the values (especially in relation to money) she expressed regarding her children, but nobody can deny the seriousness with which she took motherhood and the responsibilities it brings.

    jade-goody1Jade Goody is surely an icon of our times. She was a poorly educated girl from South London who, when exposing her ignorances on global television, made a lot of people want to protect her from herself. She epitomised a culture that – in the infamous fantasy slogan of the National Lottery (‘It could be you!’) – promised instant wealth and fame without you having to do anything to earn it. It told the lie that the capricious finger of ‘God’ might choose you to have it all and have now. She was the face of a superficial culture of celebrity for its own sake, supported (and funded) by a public hungry for voyeuristic entertainment. It is clear that many commentators looked at Jade Goody in such a way as to betray a superior gratitude that they were not like her. Snobbery comes in many forms.

    But, despite the publicity-seeking girl who cashed in on her fame, Jade Goody also demonstrated that people need to take responsibility for their life and stop blaming everyone else for their lack of success, progress or acquisition. She grabbed an opportunity, exploited it mercilessly and then had the guts to see her dying and death as part of her life and let the world in on the action.

    I am not alone in wishing she had retreated sooner and learned the art of privacy. There is even something not quite right about a publicist, Max Clifford, asking for people to give the family privacy… while speaking to cameras and perpetuating the story with snippets of information from inside the dying girl’s home. But she chose not to and I respect that.

    What Jade Goody has done is confront an escapist culture with the reality of human mortality. Whatever the magazines and films tell us, we shall all die. And our living to some extent is shaped by our approach to and understanding of our dying. Jade let the world in on a young woman who knew she was going to die being able to give a vocabulary to her family and friends (as well as the watching world) for a part of their life they might otherwise not know how to handle. Some of us (in pastoral work) are used to preparing people (and their families) for their death and to helping the bereaved express their feelings while looking afresh at their own life and meaning. Jade has made that conversation easier for a lot of people.

    She wasn’t a plaster saint whose theology was thought through and carefully articulated; she was an ordinary woman who said it as it was and seemed incapable of dressing it up in ways others might find more acceptable.

    Since learning of the terminal nature of her illness, Jade has read bits of the Bible (I don’t know which), been baptised, had her children baptised and then prepared her own funeral. I have no idea – and nor does anyone else – what she thought or understood about life and death and God and the meaning of life. I could not know what she thinks happens after death – she certainly came out with some weird folk-religion stuff about Jesus and stars. But, I think it is safe to say (as if it was any of our business, anyway) that she grasped the simple fact that a mortal human being needs to know she is loved infinitely and that the Lover will not let her or her children go. The only security left for her was that her death would not negate her life.

    My final word on this is simply that the root of Christian faith is the confidence that death itself cannot separate us from the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ. The narrative of this world says that violence, death and destruction have the final word and ultimate power: the cross and an empty tomb say appearances can be deceptive. God who creates, sustains, redeems and loves has the final word and that word is ‘resurrection’.

    Now we pray for Jade Goody’s family as they endure their public bereavement.

    Here in deepest Surrey, Ash Wednesday begins in murky, misty greyness. It seems peculiarly apt for the beginning of Lent with its associations of privation, discipline, funlessness and restriction.

    But Lent is not just about these things for the sake of being miserable or holy. The ‘end’ of Lent is greater holiness and a greater engagement with the reality of God, the world, of life and oneself in relation to God. It is a hard time of self-examination, an escape from fantasy and a stripping away of the illusions that get in the way.

    c-of-e-lentThe Church of England is offering two innovative ways of engaging with this – not as a quick fix, but as an aid to using Lent properly and helpfully –  especially for a generation brought up on a diet of self-fulfilment.

    Love Life Live Lent (via Facebook or website) offers simple, but creative ways of living positively through Lent. You can also use Twitter. Apparently.

    cockburn-lscn-coverI was listening to the last Bruce Cockburn CD, Life Short Call Now, in the car this morning. Stuck in a miserable traffic jam, I heard afresh the deceptively simple song Mystery and the poetry hit me again.

    ‘You can’t tell me there is no mystery… It’s everywhere I turn.’

    But it was the fourth verse that I had to play again and again: ‘Infinity always gives me vertigo… And fills me up with grace.’ Isn’t this precisely what the Psalmist was on about when he contemplated the vastness of the heavens and wondered aloud about the place and value of himself as a small human being? That’s the mystery that has to be lived with; when you think you’ve got that one nailed, you’ve almost certainly lost the plot.

    Cockburn ends with the invitation: ‘So all you stumblers who believe love rules… Stand up and let it shine.’

    cockburn_slice_o_life_cover(The new CD is released on 31 March 2009 and is called Slice o Life – a compilation of  live solo recordings.)

    The Bethlem Royal Hospital (from where we get the term ‘bedlam‘) in Croydon is an amazing place and I spent most of today there. I try to go there for a day each year (at least). I go for several reasons: firstly, to support the excellent chaplaincy staff; secondly, to support the excellent other staff and residents; thirdly, to keep abreast of what is happening in the whole area of mental health care provision. (There is also an excellent and intriguing museum which is well worth visiting.)

    225px-bethlemroyalhospital1Today involved a service of healing in the forensic wing, a Bible study with staff, volunteers and residents, and meetings with a variety of people. It concluded with a Eucharist in the chapel. And I loved every minute of it, meeting some wonderful (and some very challenging) people in the different contexts.

    I don’t want to say too much about the contents of the day, but do want to register the importance of this work. mental health work is sometimes seen as the bits of society most of us would prefer to pretend isn’t there. There is also a danger that bishops such as me think mainly of the Church as being the parishes and those that pay the Parish Share. But chaplaincy work here is both demanding and exhausting, relentless and integral to the ministry of Anglican churches. I don’t want the chaplains, the volunteers or the institution to fall of my radar or that of the wider church.

    At a quick meeting with the senior management I stressed the importance of religious identity (not just ‘spirituality’) being integral to any human being, thus observing that any holistic view of a human being must take seriously any religious identity or worldview. Religion is not and cannot be an ‘add-on’ once physical and psychological stuff has been addressed. It was very good to hear this affirmed by the professionals who, I think, do superb work.

    kurelekThe Bethlem is not only served by excellent chaplains, but also by volunteers who give of themselves to serve and help people whose lives are often pretty messed up. I have massive respect for them and for those organisations in this area that work hard for people with mental health problems – especially when many people wish they would simply be hidden away.