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  • Lessons from C20 secular views of the church

    In the last week or so I have been reading a couple of books on Christianity in Britain in the C20: Grace Davie’s Religion in Britain since 1945 and Callum G Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain.  If you want to feel insignificant these are a great read!  Seriously though, I found them both interesting, informative and challenging. 
    Despite acknowledging that Anglicans account for only about a third of practising Christians and that there are significant numbers of ‘other faith’ groups, Davie’s work (which aims to be sociology rather than only history) seems to me to be predicated on the assumption that religion = Anglican.  We Bappys don’t qualify for a mention other than as part of the ‘free churches’ so our insignificance to the wider world is quite clear!  It is an interesting read, if only because it is written from outside the narrow confines of the world of church and theology and reminds us of our minority status in Britain- or more specifically England – today.
    Brown is a historian using oral history, fiction, popular magazines and denominational publications as primary sources.  He quotes some New Connexion General Baptist sources in his discourse on feminisation of piety but the Particulars don’t warrant more than a passing reference.  
    Brown’s work made intriguing reading, challenging many assumptions about secularisation and even the worldviews of historians reflecting back on religious topics.  On the one hand there is the portrayal in the ‘evangelical narrative’ fiction of the 19th and early 20th century of women as paragons of virtue, through whose forbearance and piety the fallen man comes to realise his need of salvation and – even if on his deathbed – makes a confession of faith.  On the other hand is the reality of the women who cannot make it to morning services because, with the demise of servants, they have to cook dinner; those who bring their children to Sunday School and then stop attending once they have grown up; the link between church-going and respectability; the views of men who see church as women’s business or are driven away to fulfil the roles they are portrayed as having.  I was fascinated by this account, which was so very different from the views of feminist theologians I have heard/read.  Whilst there are undoubtedly links between the two perspectives, they seem to have rather different views of the role of women in the church, and possibly different implications for grass roots working.
    Maybe more alarming than amusing is the fact that this culture, ostensibly dying by the 1950’s is still very much alive in this little backwater.  I do have women who wouldn’t come to morning worship because they have to peel carrots and a few who have returned in their (much) later years having previously opted out at marriage or when their children left home.  The sense that religion is for women is also evident.  The real challenge seems to be heeding the consequences of what happened in the early C20 elsewhere and allowing it to inform what happens here a century later.

  • New Year, New Hope

    One of the more unusual aspects of being a minister in EMBA is the opportunity to lead worship at Center Parcs, Sherwood Forest.  I landed New Year's Day and decided I'd like to include communion in the service.  Based on past experience I knew congregations tend to be around 20 so prepared accordingly.  In the end I had only three people but it turned out to be a very special experience - though I only realised quite how significant it was when driving away afterwards!

    At one minute to start time a couple came in and introduced themselves - Rachel and Andrew from Liverpool, who turned out to be Roman Catholic.  We began the service and about 10 minutes later - as is the way of the CP services - another woman came in, who turned out to be a Methodist.  As I finished the 'sermonette' and announced the next piece of recorded music, the Methodist asked if we could do communion now as she needed to get back to give her son his medication.  Rachel & Andrew graciously agreed and we juggled everything around whilst still somehow holding it all together.

    As I left, I was pondering this amazing sense of ecumenism, the fact that denominations had been irrelevant and that people had loved enough to allow liturgy to give way to expressed needs.  Then it finally sunk in - that two practcising Roman Catholics had accepted communion from an ordained protestant woman with a Zwinglian theology of communion.  I had chosen my wording carefully, saying "Jesus said 'this is my body....'  '... my blood....'" but even so, it was far, far away from their usual experience.

    Whilst at college I had chosen to spend a year working with an RC parish to gain an understanding of that tradition - a very informative and in some ways formative year, strengthening my Baptist convictions and my Zwinglian eucharistic theology!  Above all the exclusion from communion had had a profound and wounding effect.  Yet in this moment, driving away from Center Parcs, the wound was healed and new hope given that one day we will all be one in Christ.

    Many despair of tiny congregations or quote the Matt 18 'gathering of two or three' text out of context to make it seem that it's alright really.  But yes, amidst the differences that divide Baptist from Roman from Methodist, in the unconsecrated bread roll and the unfermented grape juice, the medical needs of a child and the grace of strangers, the Shekina glory was revealed!  Our service had focussed on new beginnings and God's promises - but the blessing of strangers I received this New Year was far beyond anything I gave them.  The year ahead is a mystery but God's hope, healing and promises are there where we least expect to find them. 

    Thank you Rachel, Andrew and the 'un-named Methodist woman' you have given me far more than you will ever know or imagine.