Sunday, 28 February 2010

United: The Religion

Went to the Carling Cup Final at Wembley today. United were the deserved winners, even though Vidic was a tad lucky not to be sent off early on. Rooney is sheer class - even with a bad knee and a stomach bug he was still the best player on the pitch. He is the complete player - scores goals, a great passer of the ball, reads the game so well. Carrick and Fletcher were in control in midfield and Valencia was always a threat. 

This came after leading a good Communion Service at college this morning (not good because I led it, but it had a great sermon from Simon Downham and some good prayer ministry too). It's not often these two big bits of my life - God and football - come together quite so adjacent to each other. I feel like I ought to come up with some deep thought to connect the two, but I'm not sure I can. Both make me feel more alive. Faith does so in deeper ways, with less danger of aggression and resentment. but football does still stir deep things. I'm just grateful the world contains such a thing (though I'm not sure you'd quite feel that way if you're a Villa fan tonight...)

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Tom Wright was at our School of Theology this morning. He did his usual 'New Creation' thing, but then spoke about his new book, 'Virtue Reborn'. Its interesting that a focus on eschatology leads to thinking about virtue. Once you start thinking about our future and the future of the planet, you have to think about the kind of people we are and will be. Its a link that was very much in my mind when writing my Spiritual Fitness, which also looked at virtue. The language of virtue is a fairly universal one and connects to both religious and secular contexts today. You don't have to be a Christian to realise you need to learn patience, courage and generosity. It's also language the NT uses quite a bit too, with the lists of virtues that comes towards the end of virtually ever NT letter. Virtue is the language that speaks most powerfully about discipleship today, adn Tom's book will do a great job at highlighting it.

Friday, 19 February 2010

American Beauty

Just spent a very good week in the USA. I love being in America and Americans, but they do perplex me sometimes. Browsing through the bookshop in Charleston airport this week, I found all the Christian books (Rick Warren, Joel Osteen etc.) under the ‘Self-Help’ section. No trace of irony of course. It’s telling though: American Christianity has a fair amount of the ‘self-help’ variety: ‘Seven keys to improving your life every day”, ‘Six steps to build a healthy marriage’ and so on.
I guess a lot of it can be explained by American origins – a land where everyone came to seek fortune and prosperity. The ancestors were the ones with the initiative to get up and leave their home countries to look for a better life (unless, that is, they were slaves and didn’t have much choice). Built into the American psyche therefore is a self-made, you-can-do-it attitude, which explains why it has been such a phenomenally successful nation. It also explains the quick-fix make-it-simple approach: if you don’t help yourself, no one else will, so you need to take responsibility, get there as soon as you can.
That sense of needing to do it yourself is maybe why they are so reluctant to accept universal healthcare, which we Brits just take for granted. Even the more politically conservative British think the NHS is a good thing, and we just can’t understand why the Americans don’t want it.
Funnily enough, however, Americans also value character (witness Tiger Woods’ words this afternoon), and yet character takes time to build. It takes a sense of surrender – it starts with the recognition that we lack goodness, with the humility that recognises true Christian character as the work of the Holy Spirit not human effort. Its only when we know we need God’s help not self-help. It can only come through the work of God is us as we submit to the disciplines of the Christian life. Character doesn’t come in six easy steps. That is the dilemma: D-I-Y religion or the slow steady growth of faith-based virtue and Christian character – which one will win the day?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


I'm writing this in Washington Dulles Airport, waiting for a delayed
plane to Charleston (already 2 and 1/2 hours late), surrounded by lots
of frustrated passengers. It's snowing outside, which, added to the 3
feet of snow they've already had, is the problem. In airports life
seems suspended for a while. Everyone is waiting, in transit, nothing
is permanent. No-one wants to stay. It's a preparation for something
else to come. Relationships and conversations are temporary. It has a
superficial attraction to begin with - the delights of independence,
but after a while it just gets very boring. We need to know we are
rooted, we belong, that this world is not just a waiting room for
something else.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The End of the Pew?

What is the biggest obstacle to the growth of the church in Britain today? Creeping secularisation? Richard Dawkins? Infighting over women bishops or gay clergy? Let me make another suggestion: how about the continued existence of pews?

For the first 1500 years of the church’s life, pews were extremely rare. In most medieval churches people stood or sat on the floor, with only a narrow bench around the edge of the building for seating. Eastern Orthodox churches never got around to having pews – still today in Russia and Greece, worshippers stand.

When they did gradually get introduced, pews were a mixed blessing. They were intimately connected with social division and hierarchy, with pews ranked according to social standing. The rich would have large grand stalls at the front and woe betide anyone who sat in the wrong one. They were exclusive then, and they are exclusive now. Pews today effectively exclude the 90% of people who are not regular attenders of services.

The problem is that pews render the space in churches virtually unusable for anything other than around two hour-long events a week. The building becomes a curiosity, hardly visited midweek except for a few ecclesiastical tourists who want to drop by, and the cleaners. A recent survey sent unchurched visitors to slip into churches up and down the country. 90% of them found the experience uplifting, finding a real sense of community. Three quarters said they would go back. Over 50% felt comfortable and welcomed. It suggests that half of the battle is actually getting people into a church in the first place. There is also evidence to suggest that one of the main helps in getting people to feel more inclined to visit their local church is if they are familiar with the building. Imagine for a moment we could wave a magic wand and all fixed pews could be removed from churches up and down the country. Churches could then develop into open, attractive space that could become a resource for their local community. This has a number of key benefits.

At the most basic level, it could become a source of income for the church that would help it fund extra staff, such as a youth worker, administrator or community pastor. Football clubs faced this same issue in the 1970s. Clubs began to realise they were sitting on stadia that were only used on Saturday afternoons and occasionally for night matches. So they began to excavate space under the stands and build on the car parks to provide conference facilities, cinemas, bars, anything that would increase revenue for the club, realising that it was a criminal waste of resources to sit on a building that was used so seldom.

Removing pews would also make churches more welcoming. With the best will in the world, whoever designed pews did not have comfort uppermost in their minds. Many clergy during a dull sermon have at least had the reassurance of knowing that pews are very hard to fall asleep in. When people are used to visiting pubs, cinemas and theatres the least they get is a padded comfortable seat. If they are expected to sit for over an hour in church, pews can come as a bit of a shock.

More importantly for the church itself, opening the building for local community use makes it friendly, rather than foreign, territory. Local groups - further education sessions, fitness classes, after-school clubs and the like - could begin using the building regularly. Increasing numbers of churches are taking out the pews and not looking back. They are now imaginatively reordered, well decorated and lit and provide flexible, attractive meeting space for all kinds of local uses. If local people are used to visiting the church for all kinds of other activities, as they did in the Middle Ages and before, the idea of entering the building for Christian worship rather than just the gardening club becomes a little less scary.

It also makes the space much easier to use for the church itself. Any church wanting to run its own prayer groups, meditative worship, after school club, Alpha course, fund-raising dinners, marriage preparation sessions, suddenly has flexible, pleasant space in which to do. Our church in London – St Paul’s Onslow Square - removed the pews so that at various times it operates as a drop-in homeless centre, a venue for marriage preparation courses, conferences, theology classes, and on Sunday of course for worship that attracts many in their 20s and 30s attracted at least partly by warm, open, attractive space.

Is this yet another example of the church forsaking its rich heritage for something trendy and fleeting? Nothing of the sort. How many cathedrals have pews? Precisely. Pews were a modern invention that served the mission of the church at one time, but arguably no longer do so today. As Sir Roy Strong, former Director of the V&A says: “until the twentieth century, the country church could be altered and adapted in response to the religious changes that affected the Church of England. Now the church is all too often frozen in time.” This is an argument for the return to proper old traditions of the church, with churches as genuine community spaces, for the service of the whole community and the mission of the church.

Such a change need not sacrifice a sense of the sacred. Sanctuaries and side chapels can be kept apart, almost as a reminder of the origins and true nature of the building for those who use it – a gentle nudge that this is not just another functional building, but a place where prayer has been offered for centuries, a reminder that even in the middle of an exercise class, we are in the presence of God. Art exhibitions, sensitive use of decoration, even noticeboards can all serve as semi-permanent witnesses to the faith for those who use the building. If we are serious about the survival and future of the church, we need to thank the pews for their sterling service, but tell them politely that their day is over.

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