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  • Why does denominational identity matter?

    This is a question asked by my non-Baptist supervisor on reading my essay.  It's a good question - why does it matter?  We think it does (or we think it doesn't) but do we think about why?

    From my perspective as someone who is pretty committed to being a Baptist, it does matter (though twenty years ago I'd have said it didn't).  It matters, I think, maybe more in our post everything age, and perhaps especially in a Christian tradition where local autonomy and freedom of conscience are foot stamplingly defended. 

    It matters, for example, because we are a tradition that affirms the ordination of women but respects the freedom of local congregations not to allow women to hold preaching or teaching roles.  It matters because we see ordained ministry as having a translocal element (we are accredited by the Union) and that somehow creates a tension with congregational autonomy.  If we are to handle this tension well we need to understand ourselves and how we came to this strange situation.

    It matters, for example, when ministers transfer in from other traditions - perhaps because they have shifted their views on Baptism - and bring with them, subconsciously the baggage of another tradition in which, for example, governance is not congregational.

    It matters , for example, when individuals come from other traditions - perhaps because of a congregational fall out or perhaps because they like our worship style better - because they (as I did when I was part of a Methodist church) assume a whole heap of things that just aren't so.

    But, is this enough of a reason for it to matter?  Does it help or hamper mission?  Was Jesus a Baptist?  No, (old jokes notwithstanding) he was a Jew.  I think that I think that it matters (yes there are two 'I think that's there) because I need to know who I think I am in order to be able to critique that.  How can I comment on the strengths or weaknesses of being a Baptist if I don't actually know what a Baptist is?  I do, like many others, cringe at the expression 'Baptist DNA' because I don't really think I know what it means.  I like 'Baptistness' better because, I think, it is a little less determinist (I don't think that needs -ic on the end) in its intent.  I'm not really sure there is 'Baptist DNA' - we are too interbred with ideas pinched from other traditions and ideas, and I think that is a good thing (everyone knows that to much inbreeding makes for mental incapacity.. Hmm.  Discuss!) but we do still, at least officially, hold to some central principles.

    All of which gets me no further in addressing the comment on the essay, but does make me wonder what other people think.  So, why does denominational identity matter to you (or not)?

  • Dull grey matter

    This morning was going to be a productive time as I worked through the comments on my essay and turned it into something so much better than it currently is.  But after an hour and a half failing to rewrite one paragraph, two cups of coffee and 50g of extremely dark chocolate I am no further forward.  The grey matter is clearly very dull today.  So I have opted for plan B which is to do some reflecting on the whole thing - which is one of the things I'm meant to do anyway.

    The first observation is that the comments are really helpful, but it strikes me is that one of the threads is about style of writing, and how what I'm now being asked to do is what I spent four years being told off for doing!  If I'm honest, what I'm now being asked for is more the way I have traditionally written - tell them what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you've told 'em.  But for four years I was told 'remove all this connective stuff' or 'you don't need to to explain what you're going to do next.'  I find I am more bemused by all this than I would have anticipated.  Having adapted to one set of demands, it isn't so easy to change back even to what feels 'better.'

    Related to - or maybe intrinsic to - this is 'know your audience' and this is tricky too.  Just who am I writing for this time?  Is it the group of Baptists who will be the ultimate recipients or is it the university for whom it is a requirement?  This creates a strange kind of tension in the writing, because the same piece of work has to serve two different functions and two different audiences.  What I can 'take as read' in one context I can't in the other.  Allied to all this is that this piece is meant to be part of greater whole, a portfolio of work that will ultimately demonstrate (or fail to) a level of competence as an academic researcher.  How much should it 'stand alone' within that and how much can it implicitly build on or draw from the work of last year?  In other words, how much can it 'take as read' in the context of the portfolio?  In the end, I think I am going to have explain stuff that in the context of the overall project ought to be able to be taken as read, simply because a unique piece of writing can't assume the reader has a clue where I'm coming from.  I find myself wondering quite what the university is measuring here - is it solely the quality of my argument or is there some recognition of targeting a piece at a specific audience who requirements may be other than those of the marker? 

    There is something here, I think, about writing within a 'community' that relates to what I'm trying to research (and makes me think I should have opted for scientific research where I didn't have to ask this kind of questions in quite the same way).  I am wanting to challenge something about what seems to taken-for-grantedness in the audience and aims of writing denominational history, but I need some sort of taken-for-grantedness in which to be able to express my thoughts - no wonder my grey matter is so dull!

    I think that somewhere in what I've written is a reasonably good essay trying to get out, but that lots of factors are conspiring to make that difficult to achieve.  There is more to it than trying to find a writing style and a target audience, and there is more to it than me being tired, not having much time or not the world's greatest wordsmith.  There is also a whole heap of accumulated/assimilated stuff that conspires to undermine.  There are the comments of some that 'practical theology' is not real theology, that if one could do 'proper' theology (by which I assume they mean dogmatics/systematics) one wouldn't bother with this stuff.  On top of this are comments that a professional doctorate is 'taught' and 'not really a doctorate at all', that it is easier than a real PhD and somehow lesser.  Different, it seems, is not an option.  I begin to gain a glimpse of how teenagers feel when my generation dismisses GCSEs and new style modular A levels.  When you work hard to do the best you can within a given system and with unique constraints, the last thing you need is someone else to demean the end product.  So when the words aren't flowing, you can feeling triply fikk.

    I am really enjoying my work (even though the literature review last year was a bit of a drag!) and am learning lots of new things along the way.  I am enjoying working with a Anglican historian and a Baptist theologian, as each brings different insights and questions to my work.  I am enjoying finding out new information (the sort of 'banking' stuff that is sometimes disparaged by pedagogy people).  I am enjoying using my brain - even on the days it is very, very dull.

    I am told most post grad students live in perpetual fear of being 'found out' for the frauds we believe ourselves to be.  When I hear 'real PhD' students talking about their work and reeling off complicated ideas I become the more aware of my own limitations.  When I talk to ordinary 'people in the pew' about what I'm doing and they seem to get it, I feel reassured that the important 'edge' of practical theology - that it relates to real people who don't have a whole string of letters before/after their name - is there in some measure.

    Probably this amounts to several hundred words of self indulgent waffle that would better have been confined to a private folder.  But then I wonder, how many other people there are - competent, hard working, and some with amazing natural intelligence - who might actually benefit, as I do periodically, from hearing seemingly strong people admit to their struggles or insecurities?  One of the justified criticisms of Christians is our fake cheerfulness, of saying we are 'fine' when we are in fact Feeling Inadequate, Needing Encouragement.  My grey matter does feel rather dull today, and I still need to sort this essay into a better form before it can be submitted for marking. but I also know (i) that I remain convinced it is work worth doing (ii) that those who offer comments are 'on my side' and that (iii) if I'm honest, and with my past track record, I am capable of producing a decent essay!

  • In search of hymn words...

    This is a secondhand plea for help!

    A friend of mine has rung to ask if I have a version of 'Spirit of God unseen as the wind' with more verses than (or different verses from) that in BPW/Sing to God/Mission Praise/Common Ground etc.

    I have the Margaret Old version several times over and have found a version with two different verses by someone called Richard Irwin online, but nothing with more than two verses and chorus - my friend recalls it having 'loads of verses' - can any of you wonderful people help?  I have looked in all the above plus SOF/H&P/HTC/Youth Praise and my friend has tried cyber hymnal.

    Thank you in advance!

  • Grace and Mercy

    I have a Sunday off this week then two weeks of relatively normal services, then an outreach event, and then a clear enough run for a couple of short series interrupted by a couple of joint services and such like before my summer hols (three weeks far away from church....).

    I have been 'haunted,' in a good way, by the song 'Pretty Amazing Grace' and was very struck by watching the Radio concert with Neil Diamond via some 'press the red button now' thing on my freeview box.  During the course of said concert, he clearly attribute his singing ability to God's gifting (that's used correctly as verb by the way, in case anyone is checking).  I have also been been contemplating quite a lot how whenever the word 'justice' or 'judgement' pops up in the Bible the word 'mercy' is never far away.  Somewhere out of this has emerged the idea to explore these themes a little more in the next couple of services, one on grace, the other on mercy.

    My big challenge is picking passages to preach on, and the lectionary is not proving too helpful (though grace does get a brief mention the first week in the Epistle).  Anyone out there got any thoughts?

    Flipping through BPWs 'God's grace' section I came across a rather dated children's hymn which seems to have something useful to say about these two themes...

    You can't stop God from loving you

    Though you may disobey him;

    You can't stop God from loving you

    However you betray him;

    From love like this no power on earth

    The human heart can sever;

    You can't stop God from loving you,

    Not God, not now, nor ever.

    final verse of You can't stop rain from falling down, John Gowans (c) Salvationist Publishing Supplies Ltd


    Coupled with the likes of 'There's a wideness in God's mercy' and 'By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered' I am anticipating a couple of weeks of singing some good theology, however simply expressed.

  • From her memories...

    Today I met with a family to plan the funeral of their much loved mother.  They had already been sorting through her possessions and had found a box full of handwritten poems and verses, among them one which will be used at her funeral.  I have tried Google it to find online to no avail - maybe she even wrote it herself, I don't know.  What I like is that, although it is a bit Patience Strong like, it isn't too mawkish or too maudlin, but instead combines honesty about life with unquenchable hope. This woman knew life in the raw, believe me, yet right to the end her faith was strong... 


    We Can't Have a 'Crown' Without a 'Cross'

    We all have those days that are dismal and dreary

    And we feel sorta blue and lonely and weary,

    But we have to admit that life is worth living

    And God gives us the reason for daily thanksgiving.

    For life's experience God's children go through

    That's made up of gladness and much sadness too...

    But we have to know both the bitter and sweet

    If we want a good life that is full and complete;

    For each trial we suffer and every shed tear

    Just give us the strength to persevere.

    As we 'climb' the 'steep hills' along life's way

    That lead us at last to that wonderful day

    Where the 'cross' we have carried becomes a 'crown'

    And at last we can lay our burden down! 

    Author unknown.