B.E.L.L.S. without whistles for mission


Surprise the World: The Five Habits of…


Reviewed by Ted Witham

Under $10 online. $6.95 from Christ’s Church, Anglican Parish of Mandurah. Digital version at Exponential (free)

ISBN 9781631465161

Michael Frost, Surprise the World: the five habits of missional people, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016.

Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We Christians at the beginning of the 21st Century should recognise that kind of insanity: if we expect our usual patterns of worship, however contemporary and relevant,  to continue to draw people into Christ, then we shall continue to be disappointed by the Church.

There is a place for ministry to Baby Boomers using traditional worship, but every member of the congregation is aware that the mean age of our fellow church-goers is increasing. In other words, Baby Boomers are aging, dying and not being replaced by younger people. Older people in their eighties continue trying to keep up the level of Christian activity that had when younger, and are experiencing burnout and disillusionment.

Photo courtesy St John the Divine Anglican Church, 
Courtneay, British Columbia 

The answer is not more of the same. The Anglican pattern of gathering everyone for the Sunday Eucharist is only 60 years old, going back to the Parish and People Movement of the 1950s. We can dare to envisage new ways of being church.

Bunbury’s new Bishop, Ian Coutts, has been circulating copies of Surprise the World! as he visits parishes in his diocese. Bishop Ian states that responding to the Good News of Christ is pretty simple, really. Loving each other so that we want to reach out and love others.

He has chosen a book that all Anglicans can use and act on. The book is about “shar[ing] your faith in surprisingly simple ways.”
Australian evangelist Michael Frost, Co-founder of the Forge Mission Training Network, encourages us to follow his model of B.E.L.L.S.: “We BLESS people, both inside and outside the church.  We EAT together, sharing meals with believers and non-believers alike.  We LISTEN to the … Holy Spirit. We intimately LEARN CHRIST, … [and] we see ourselves as SENT by God to everywhere life takes us.”

The strength of this model is that it does not assume that every Christian is a gifted evangelist. Few Christians are: most of us are to live our lives so that they provoke questions, “living a questionable life”, and answer them simply and directly as they arise out of our mixing with nonbelievers.

Frost emphasises that the B.E.L.L.S. model is not a one-off program, but the cultivation of life-long habits that will feed this evangelistic lifestyle. The model as described is not difficult or complicated, and it sounds fun, social justice will be practised and beauty will be encountered.

I am impressed by this little book. As a Franciscan tertiary, my first aim is to “make Christ known and loved everywhere”. These habits will speed my steps to opening doors to conversations about the Good News.

I am also in ongoing pain, a misfiring of my nervous system. Pain is closely related to depression: if you have pain, the pain will eventually make you depressed. Two spiritual strategies to defeat the depression, and so modulate the pain, are to reach out to others in need and put yourself out in the community (and not hide away in dangerous isolation). B.E.L.L.S. gives me means to do that (BLESSing and EATing) and also shows how to nurture these activities through prayer and Bible study (LISTENing and LEARNing Christ).

There are questions for discussion for each chapter of Surprise the World! These will help readers take in what they have discovered and put the five habits into practise.

I am delighted that Bishop Ian recommended the book to me, and that he is encouraging others to discover B.E.L.L.S. and whistles (no whistles actually!) I read the book in three hours. Now I want to find three people to meet with, discuss the book, and get busy. Hopefully, B.E.L.L.S. will lead away from insanity!

Taxing the church


I grow tired of the Atheist Foundation and others whingeing that the churches don’t pay tax. Their claim is false.For me it’s personal.

I received a salary from the church for 30 years. This salary was the major portion of parishioners’ donations to the church. I was very happy to pay tax out of this salary. At a quick calculation, I contributed between $150,000 and $200,000 to the nation’s tax revenue over those 30 years. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (God bless them) put the number of ministers of religion in Australia in 2001 as just over 12,000. If we count these as 6,000 full-time equivalent employees, then their contribution to Australia’s tax revenue over 30 years is between 9 and 12 billion dollars.

The churches do pay tax.

The Anglican Church, as a responsible employer, put aside part of my salary into superannuation. Our super fund started before the Super Guarantee, and enabled me later in my career to put additional savings into the fund. This means now in retirement I live partly off my super. Without super, I would be receiving a bigger pension. My super fund makes a contribution by saving the expenditure of tax.

The parishes where I worked have parish centres with rooms that community groups use, either for free or at much less than the commercial rate. While it is true that the parishes were partially exempt from rates, they made a contribution to the community through the sharing of their facilities – again saving the expenditure of rates and taxes. Many self-help groups, political clubs and community organisations could not meet if it were not for the churches.

The churches do save tax.

It’s true that the tax situation of the churches is complex; there may be some unfair exemptions for the churches; there are churches that rort the system. If our community were designing this from scratch they would almost certainly do it differently. But we can only live with our history.

From 1788 Australia has had a ‘love-hate’ relationship with religion. Many convicts and early settlers had good reason to dislike the church. On the other hand, most Australians in the 19th and 20th Century considered themselves believers. Australian Governments look to the churches to provide services that the churches can offer more cheaply and hopefully with more compassion than Government bureaucracy.

Section 116 in our Constitution does not declare Australia to be a secular nation. Rather it acknowledges the existence of both church and state and proclaims that they are to be kept distinct, but not necessarily for the church to be kept out of public life. The church’s contribution to our public life is different from the state’s.

And in the meantime, we can get our facts straight. The churches do pay tax, and they do save taxes.

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Presentation


Presentation

Bush church of my childhood: see server and priest
In tiny vestry; vestment-chest of oak,
White robes laid out immaculately creased,
Christ’s purity, and his mother’s, evoke.

The albs are bordered in fine crafted lace,
Stole and chasuble crisply ironed and laid,
Emptied of sound, in silence of place
The server hears as his precursors prayed.

Inside the small church a reed organ sounds,
On, into the sanctuary the server leads on,
He bashful bows deep then processes ‘round,
He offers water and wine: the Dreaming’s white swan.

My mother and grandma with pride are stilled;
They watch from the pews the now and the willed.

  • Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 84, Luke 2:22-40

 

In Native American stories, Dragonfly persuades Swan to surrender to the power of the river so that she can, in a state of grace, be taken into the future. (http://www.swansongs.org/who-we-are/swan-mythology/)
altar-boy-solo

Image courtesy Joe Laufer’s Blog – Memories of a Life Adventure https://burlcohistorian.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/it-takes-a-village-part-ii/

Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book Renews Engagement


Looking through the Cross

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.

Good stocks at St John’s Books, Fremantle. $19.95
Kindle edition available from Amazon for $10.88

Reviewed by Ted Witham. First published in Anglican Messenger, February 2014

Being a Christian requires personal engagement – with God, with Jesus Christ, with neighbour and stranger, with truth, with good and evil. For most of us, being a Christian can be complex and demanding, but we remain committed because we believe that God is eternally committed to us.

A good Lent book refreshes this sense of personal engagement with Christian living. It should encourage, inspire and inform by taking readers both back to when they fell in love with the faith and forward by challenging readers to grow spiritually. Good Lent books are often about the Cross and Resurrection clueing us into the liturgical movement of Lent and the Paschal mystery at its climax.

Graham Tomlin’s Looking through the Cross is a very good Lent book. It is about the Cross. Tomlin tells us that his early chapters are looking at the cross, trying to understand more deeply its meaning for us, and the later chapters are looking through the cross, using the cross as a lens on the world.

In the chapter headings, ‘The Cross and Wisdom’, ‘The Cross and Evil’, ‘The Cross and Power’, ‘The Cross and Identity’, ‘The Cross and Suffering’, ‘The Cross and Ambition’, ‘The Cross and Failure’, ‘The Cross and Reconciliation’, and ‘The Cross and Life’, it is not entirely clear when we change from looking at to looking through. I am sure that ambiguity is deliberate: the cross always both teaches us about itself and reveals how it has changed God’s world.

Graham Tomlin writes clearly. Reading his book is like sitting with the most patient teacher, sharing with us his understanding of how the cross comes alive for him. His explanation of the connection between the cross of Christ and our personal sin is the clearest I’ve encountered in 40 years of reading books about Christianity. ‘Those who have perpetrated evil must be held to account,’ he writes. ‘The evil that has disrupted the world cannot simply be ignored or glossed over: it must be banished, dealt with, put right. Restoration is possible, but only when sin is somehow atoned for.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams commissioned The Reverend Dr Graham Tomlin to write this year’s Lent book. His successor in Canterbury, Justin Welby, ‘could not be more pleased’ with the choice. Centred in scripture, scholarship and pastoral experience, this book seems to me to bridge some of the divides in contemporary Anglican thinking.

The cross demands that we clearly separate Christian faith from the surrounding culture. In the powerful chapter on identity, Tomlin describes how our experience of family christenings obscures the radical change God makes in us in baptism when God gives us a new identity. Using the image of a protected witness or juvenile criminal with a new identity, he reminds us how hard it is to live out of a new identity, and how the old identity will continue to exert a pull on our lives.

But the cross is ultimately the path to life. We are made not to end in death, but in life. Tomlin reminds us of the leap in imagination we need in order to lay hold of this reality, but also rallies us with the knowledge that the new life of the cross and resurrection is ultimately God’s work and not only ours.

It is helpful if a Lent book has some guidance for its use: questions to provoke reflection or small group discussion, suggestions for art response, even a reading program. Looking through the Cross has none. This is a significant drawback in a book promoted for Lenten reading. Even without this, individual laity, clergy and groups will find Dr Tomlin’s book refreshing, challenging and clear. At the end of Lent, the book will help readers emerge at Eastertide re-engaged with their Christian faith.

Passing on the Faith?


It is a privilege to regularly post on the website of Dunsborough Anglican Church. I have just posted there today on passing on the faith. I’ve based some of the article on the ideas of Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave on communities of practice and situated peripheral learning, as I think they have a lot to offer our understandings of faith formation.

Francis the pastor


Of course the name chosen by the new Pope, Francis, has encouraged me to think that his ministry will be different from his predecessors. In his first 100 days Francis has behaved like a pastor, like a parish priest, encouraging his flock in following the Gospel.

In his informal style Francis has also used some charming and helpful images: while encouraging bishops to be exemplars to their people  of Christian living, the Pope also shows that he trusts the faithful to be the faithful: “they have the scent of the Gospel anyway,” he has said more than once. That’s refreshing.

I know that a faraway personality can become simply a blank screen on which to project our own hopes and values, I can see that his apparently off the cuff homilies are actually quite studied,  and I hear the warnings that despite the gestures of austerity, he is governing like an old-fashioned Jesuit (listening to all but making decisions by himself), and that his theology on issues I care about is still conservative (I am certain he disagrees with my views on the ordination of women, and the acceptance of LGBT people in the Church!), however, what counts is clear: Francis is a pastor encouraging all Christians in their faith.

In this address to the Cardinals Francis shows that he trusts God with the future of the church, and for that we can be encouraged:

Let us never give way to pessimism, to a sort of bitterness that the devil offers us each day; let us never give way to pessimism and discouragement: let us have the firm certainty that Holy Spirit gives to the Church, but her powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to look for new methods of evangelism to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth (cf Acts 1:8)

–          Pope Francis  at Rome, 15 March 2013

As an Anglican, I am in the nice position of being able to pick and choose what I like from the Pope’s leadership, and this Pope is showing forth Gospel values in his reported lifestyle and gestures, and is speaking about the Gospel from the heart. I thank God for him.

Keeping alive the rumour of God


One of the few vestiges of “Establishment” in the Anglican Church of Australia is the authority of clergy to act as Commissioners for Declarations. [This authority is unlikely to be withdrawn as it is one of the requirements of Marriage Celebrants.] Several times a year fellow residents of our retirement village ask me to witness their signatures on legal documents. I am glad to oblige. I have even had a stamp made to save me from having to write by hand “The Reverend Edward Peter Witham, Registered Minister of Religion W-ZZZZ.

As a CD, my responsibility is to witness that people have correctly signed their documents. For that I need to know the form of the document – will, passport photo, statutory declaration, bank business, etc. – but not the content. However, most people when they come to sign want to share the background to the document. For my part, I assure them of confidentiality.

So people in the Village do know now that I am a priest – or at least, a handy person for witnessing their signature!

However, when we moved into this village five years ago, we decided we would downplay our faith. We had heard an anecdote about one of the village owners who apparently declared that a public area in the Village Centre would be ideal “for Bible Study or the like”. This remark evoked a strong reaction, almost outrage, among some people.

We thought that if there are people outraged by the thought of Bible study, being public Christians in the village could be counter-productive.

We have discovered the other church-goers in the Village, and we encourage one another in conversation and with cards at Easter and Christmas. We continue all our practice of Christianity outside the Village, both in church attendance and in our involvement in the Franciscan Third Order.

But I treat the Village as though it were a country where wearing distinctive religious garb is banned. I have only once worn my dog-collar in the Village or twice, if you count my performance as the Vicar in the murder mystery one year! I rarely advertise church events within the Village, and if I do, I do it discreetly.

Our stance of being so coy about our faith has been challenged. Once a colleague at church loaned us a DVD of a Passion Play performed in the gardens of Government House. We watched it in our house. When we returned the DVD to our friend, he asked why we had not had a public showing of it in the Village cinema. That was his idea of evangelism. I tried to explain that it might be seen, in our Village, not as an invitation to the Gospel but as an intrusion.

Inspired by Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, we just try to keep alive the idea of God in our village. The challenge in that is to evangelise simply by presence requires great holiness. If I am not steeped in prayer, and if my lifestyle lacks integrity and sacrifice, then keeping my Christianity quiet in our relatively benign environment may just be an excuse not to talk about Jesus Christ at all.

I am encouraged that people ask me to witness them signing legal documents, and in doing so, to witness something of their trials and difficulties, but, as Lent begins, I am conscious that I have to use my praying and my decisions to be more transparent to God and the Gospel. Brother Charles de Foucauld has set a very high standard!

Christians need more than tolerance


The Government intends to make no changes to the exemptions for religious organisations in employing people. Today the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace boasted that the Prime Minister told him that she will not change these exemptions. Hardly something to boast about: the idea that the churches have a right to discriminate is arrogant and disappointing.

Secular views on tolerance may seem closer to a genuine Christian position. Jeff Sparrow assumes that the exemption is essentially against homosexuals in religious schools and hospitals. This commentator notes, “What message does this legislative loophole send, other than that discrimination against gays and lesbians doesn’t matter as much as other forms of bigotry? It’s a statement that homophobia is still OK; that gays and lesbians can still be bullied and harassed, in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated in respect of anyone else.” (Jeff Sparrow, “Religious Freedom Beats Your Rights at Work”, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4467310.html?WT.svl=theDrum, 16 January 2013.)

Many Christians have more sympathy for this than for Mr Wallace’s position. But for Christians it is essentially an empty position; a position which is nothing more than opposition to the ACL and groups like it.

I believe that churches should aspire to a higher standard than the community’s. Jesus included the unacceptable, the unclean and the immoral: the women who had had five relationships, the Roman centurion (and his ambiguously described ‘lad’), tax collectors and prostitutes. We should actively embrace many more people than a typical corporation.  Mr Wallace believes some people should be excluded. I cannot defend that view. But Mr Sparrow’s view that no-one should be excluded comes nowhere near the Gospel paradigm that everyone should be included.

St Francis embraces the leper

That there should be no discrimination is a secular standard, the best we can agree on in a diverse society. But the Church seeking to include every last person requires much more moral effort, and indeed, demands that we be receptive to much more of God’s grace.

We Christians should welcome any move to remove the exemptions for religious organisations. The church should be pleased in this case to submit to secular virtue.

Whether or not the law changes, Christian employers should choose to act according to higher standards and be as inclusive as possible. Of course, the specifics of each employment decision do not simply flow automatically from the principle of maximum inclusion; Christian employers must still wrestle with CVs and references to match the best person for each job. But I believe maximum inclusion is closer to the Gospel, and will be seen in our complex society as closer to the Gospel. We Christians are not merely tolerant, as the Government claims to be; we follow the Lord who is “loving unto every man and woman”. (Psalm 145:9)

Sing a new song to the Lord


Hymns – traditional hymns – have sculpted my theological and spiritual landscape. I’m happy to worship with Dan Schutte (“Holy Darkness‘), Graham McKendrick (‘Beauty for Brokenness’), George Bullock (‘The Power of Your Love‘), and all the other contemporary praise-singers, but they have not dripped steadily, obsessively and repetitively into my heart over 60 and more years as hymns have done.

There was a time in my life when I knew the number of every hymn in Hymns Ancient & Modern Revised. If I saw the number 372 on a bus or number plate, I would immediately think ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only Wise’, and often involuntarily blurt it out – to the amusement of friends.

Many hymns have been with me since childhood. I remember beefing out ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’ (A&MR 165) at Tambellup Primary School Anzac Day services, and singing – very slowly, with my Mum on the harmonium, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ (A&MR 160) in the little church of St Mary in Tambellup.

But there are other hymns that I remember by the person who introduced me to them: Irvin Phillips, organist extraordinaire at St Matthew’s, Armadale, thought my repertoire was incomplete without the tune ’Lucius’ and the lovely words of community that accompany it: ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord, // who joins us by his grace, // and bids us, each to each restored, // together seek his face.’ (TiS 442(i)).

David Overington, my mentor in the Franciscan Third Order, was surprised I did not know the tune ‘Blaenwern’. Together in Song suggests that we should sing ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ to ‘Blaenwern’,(TiS 590) and, David was right, it adds a depth to that old crusade song that you don’t find with the usual tunes. David also recommended singing ‘Once to every man and nation // comes the moment to decide’ to this tune; and it certainly gives the words a drive towards decision that the curly Welsh tune ‘Ton y Botel’ lacks.

Michael Pennington, Rector of Applecross when I was his curate, introduced me to Samuel Stanley’s great hymn of re-dedication: ‘O thou who camest from above // the pure celestial fire to impart…’ Michael chose it for the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, now 15 years ago. It deeply touched my own determination to continue as a priest, offering my life as a sacrifice and knowing that service brings its own reward. ‘Still let me guard the holy fire,// and still stir up the gift in me, // ready for all thy perfect will.’ (TiS 527)

I probably will never know the depth of spirituality that hymns have given me. I will continue to explore new worship music, and I will try to give new life, by giving new words, to old tunes. But it is the old hymns I credit with sustaining my faith through difficulties (‘Great is your faithfulness,’ – TiS 154) and joys (‘Hail thee festival day’, or ‘Christians, lift up your hearts’ in TiS – 423).

May the Lord grant me the joy of continuing to sing hymns; I do hope that they will be one of the options for praise in the eternal worship of the saints.

A “plain package” St Francis of Assisi


Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Cornell University Press (2012), Hardcover, 312 pages, $25 from online retailers.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Augustine Thompson’s biography is “new” in the obvious sense that it is the last in a long line of biographies of St Francis going back to Paul Sabatier’s 1893 Life. Thompson’s, however, is “new” also in that it aims to go back rigorously to historical sources. This approach is in line with other historians who recently have been sifting through historical records and chipping away at the pious accretions to produce a “plain package” St Francis.

William Hugo, for example, a Capuchin formation director produced in 1996 a “Beginner’s Workbook” Studying the Life of St Francis, which invites novices to evaluate the historicity  of early writings. The Melbourne conference in 2009, out of which came Interpreting Francis and Clare of Assisi, was also historical in ambition, using a variety of academic approaches – documentary, art history and so on – to develop a more historical picture of the saints in their world.

These new studies are pushing out the older Lives of St Francis, which were either pious or interpretive: they sought either to show Francis as an exemplar of the Christian life, or they observe St Francis through a particular lens: Jacques Dalarun on Francis and power and Francis and the feminine, and Leonardo Boff on Francis and liberation offer these interpretive visions of Francis.

Augustine Thompson is a Dominican friar, and this gives him an “insider-outsider” perspective. On one hand, he knows what it is to be a friar in an Order with a  charismatic founder. On the other hand, he has greater clarity of vision when he writes about Francis than do many Franciscans in their familiarity with their founder.

Fr Thompson tells a plain story of a man who had no agenda and who could articulate no particular vision for the movement that formed and swarmed around him. Thompson’s Francis simply wanted to live the Gospel. Even at the end of his life, Francis is still surprised, Thompson claims, that “the Lord gave me brothers”.

Even poverty, the Franciscan value that many believe to be the base of Francis’s vision, is held up to question by Thompson. There’s no doubt that poverty was a part of Francis’s vision, but Francis, as Thompson emphasises, mentions the Eucharist much more often than poverty. Francis’s devotion to churches and priests is because of the celebration of the Eucharist – all to be venerated because there God comes to earth in a perceptible form.

The central insight for me in this “new” biography was precisely Francis’s lack of a programme. Francis, at least in Thompson’s telling, was a man who simply wanted to live the Gospel, to be radically available for God. This, I suspect, is one of the main reasons for Francis’s ongoing attraction.

Thompson’s book also has its attractions. It is divided into two halves. In the first Thompson tells the story of Francis simply and without frills or academic apparatus of any kind. Then follow a helpful list of the major biographies of Francis since Sabatier’s and a bibliography of documents from the 12th Century. In the second half of the book, Thompson argues in detail why he has included some details and discarded others as non-historical. These chapters may be mainly for scholars: most of us, I suspect, will be glad to read the first half as a self-standing account of Francis’s life and be refreshed by it.