Friday, April 30, 2010

Denomination by Association

My first response to the night of theological reflection, and to Frank’s paper is rightly determined to be too theoretical. In retrospect it is my effort to put some parameters around the nature of theological reflection, and to underline that our capacity to determine what God is doing in the present is enhanced by our knowledge of what God has done in the past and of the hope which calls us into God’s future. The question, “What are the implications?” is an important one, but must always be answered with the realisation that all actions and structures express values and embody particular futures. In this light I turn my attention to the Baptist tradition of Association.
From the earliest days Baptists were drawn into association with one another. We need to consider what the nature and purpose of association meant at that time, and how association became denomination…
It is something of a catch cry that the reason for denomination is that there are things that we can do together that we can’t do separately. While acknowledging the truth in such a statement, it does need clarification. Over time it has amounted to a deferral to the denomination rather than the cooperative spirit which undergirds the notion of association. In association, churches found support as they grappled with the implications of the theological convictions which drove them to establish Baptist churches in the first place. In the same way that Paul’s mission to the Gentile world raised questions related to practices such as circumcision, so the embrace of liberty of conscience and commitment to corporate discernment of God’s call pressed the new church to consider the implications. We have studied these movements around theological conviction: General vs Particular Baptist distinctives are but one example, but the ways in which they developed the practices at a local level are as formative as the theological statements produced. Association was about shared conviction, commitment to exploration of this call and its implications, and about supporting one another in this journey, so that individual churches did not feel isolated and alone in the struggle. I do not get the sense of an “Association office” being established to support the work. Rather the Association itself was engaged in the struggle and questions emerging at the local level. They were local church practitioners together. And one would assume, not in large churches by modern standards.
The purpose of Association was directed towards empowering and supporting the local church. This was enhanced by the development of theological frameworks for understanding their mission, although the coming together as Association was arguably founded on this.
One of the arguable outcomes of the shift towards “doing things together” is an increasing disconnect with that which is done corporately from the local experience, to the effect that it looks more like outsourcing than cooperative ministry. By way of example, our Baptist social service and missional ventures are now quite distinct from the local church and disconnected from a significant proportion of those who make up our churches. The major connection, if it exists at all, is through funding rather than an identified partnership in mission and ministry together.
The problem of distance is one which plagues all denominational offices. Ministry at the local church level engages at a different perspective than a denominational office. Not only are they shaped by different concerns, the engagement interface is different. In hindsight, this is one of the troubling thoughts which plagued me on the night and since – the theological reflection undertaken appeared to be largely from the inside-out. That is, we seemed to be reflecting on what is and how to make it better/more effective, rather than taking up the call to reflect on what God is doing in the world and asking how we might align with it. Here I would respectfully disagree with Jeff Pugh’s contention that this is limited to “in those places and with those people who are preaching his message and where the message of the Cross and resurrection is bearing fruit.” Such a limited view of God’s work in the world implies that God is only at work in the church, or in terms which the church readily understands and identifies. If we are to learn anything from the history of the early church and the mission of Jesus it is that God often appears at the margins – even of religious life, inviting us to see His work in new ways and new perspectives. If we limit our theological reflection to what God is doing in the church we risk becoming increasingly insular and inward-focussed. Theological reflection has always been on what God is doing in the world, and where God is leading creation, and those who would follow the call of God.
It is beyond contention that the ministry interface at the local level has changed considerably over the last forty years, perhaps with increasing pace over the last decade. The metaphors and narratives which inform people’s lives are increasingly disconnected from the ones which have nurtured the church’s history and, until recently, Western culture. The risks of and frameworks for ministry have changed considerably. How do we negotiate these in the context of the world and not merely in terms of the risk exposure of the denomination? How do we engage with these in ways which open us up to the new possibilities which God is already creating? How do we prepare ourselves for different ways of being and doing that reflect God’s call in the present and towards the future which God has called us to?
The shift from association to denomination has created a structure where a disconnect between the view from a denominational framework and that from the local pastoral office is not only possible but extremely likely. One potential outcome is the drifting apart of the member churches as they engage more intentionally with their local settings, formulating responses which might be informed by any combination of scripture, Baptist tradition (from the local to the global), openness to God in the present, and understanding of what the future of God looks like. As each develops their own matrix of these (and other) backgrounds into their local church culture, the overarching denominational distinctive gets lost.
Some might argue that the capacity of a denominational body to engage in meaningful ways across the whole state is limited (echoing something of the argument in Federation about the redundancy of the states). As we look back to our associational heritage, we must ask ourselves whether its culture and approach is worth recovering and in what way. Let me offer some food for thought.

An Association view of our Union of Churches could see:
A move to having say 8-10 Part-time area ministers each with 20-25 churches in their locality to care for the pastors. This would enable regional pastors to engage with ministry at the local level, possibly into smaller churches, thereby putting leadership skills to work where most needed. It could also establish a sense of equality and partnership between pastors and their area minister, knowing that the interface of ministry is fresh for all, that many of the challenges being felt by the area minister are direct and not vicarious, creating a sense of mutuality of support and care in ministry. Area ministers would be based at the local level, and therefore have local understanding of issues and context.
In this scenario, the role of the Director of Ministries would have a significant responsibility for leading/mentoring/pastorally caring for the area ministers, modelling the type of care and support which is hopefully reflected in the local settings. This could enhance the environment whereby the process of theological reflection begins to inform wider aspects of denominational life, and the local level engagement with the wider denominational level is enhanced. Rethinking of denominational funding arrangements might also release funds and other resources to the different areas where decision-making around its use is also enabled. Resources shifted back from supporting denominational initiatives towards initiatives at the local level, with particular emphasis on those conducted in association.
As the listening ear to all that is happening across the various regions within the state, the potential for prophetic leadership role by the denomination, both to the churches and the wider community, speaking to missional and into cultural issues such that the church’s engagement through public theology is enabled and enhanced. Whilst recognising that there will be evident tensions as a consequence of doing so, providing a framework in which engagement with the wider culture and community can be modelled enables the public aspect of theological reflection and engagement to develop.
It might be worth reflecting on how the particular associational groupings are established at a local level, and whether a uniform size for each association is appropriate. One might also want to examine whether the area minister was employed by the denomination, or resourced by the denomination through the local church, or even the local association. In any case, such an approach may well place support into the local context where it is needed, with a degree of mutuality amongst pastoral leaders in the area.
And then there are issues around the operation and culture of the denominational office which I haven’t yet begun to articulate...
Another time, perhaps.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Theological Reflections on Re-imagining

The Baptist Union of Victoria is presently undertaking a phase of ‘re-imagining’, which provided the foundation for a time of theological reflection in a session earlier this week. Principal of Whitley College, Frank Rees, was invited to present a paper, which he has published on his blog. Carolyn Francis, Jeff Pugh, and Alan Marr offered responses. I found it difficult to find the appropriate point of connection to the conversation, partly because of the “so what” question which lingered in the back of my mind, and partly because of the confusion about whether the focus is on the denominational office, or on the Union of Churches themselves. Frank identified this important distinction. Frank’s starting point, however, was one which is worth underlining:
“Frankly it is deeply concerning that so little of our decision-making seems to be guided by any overt theological consideration at all.”
What sort of theological reflection do we need? Two aspects of our theological reflection are perhaps on more solid foundations than the other. We need an historical theological reflection: one which looks back to the scriptural foundations, both the text of scripture and the life and teaching of Christ. While this apparently rests on a sure foundation, there are issues to be addressed not only in relation to the way that particular texts are interpreted, but also to the particular texts we choose to interpret. Keeping the entire corpus in the conversation and reflection is more of a challenge than we like to admit. Certain texts often are chosen as interpretive grids through which all other aspects are filtered. There are uncomfortable tensions within scripture that we need to keep alive. These must also find consistency with the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, through whom our understanding of God and his work in the world is ultimately shaped.

But our historical theological reflection must also embrace our own Baptist history, looking back to its foundations and its journey through the centuries. As long as we claim to be re-imagining the future of the Baptist church in Victoria, we must be clear about what we imagined it to be in the first place. Again, this is not as simple as it sounds. Not only do we need to hear our founders’ call to liberty of conscience, even to the point of protecting those who choose not to believe, we must hear also the calls of our Victorian founders, whose unusual step to seek government regulation of our constitution sits oddly with the commitment to separation of church and state. And still more recently we must grapple with the source of the unique diversity which our denominational ties represent, forged on the anvil of some difficult debates in Assemblies, but arguably given a mere nod in the present.

Historical theological reflection is important to our understanding of the present. We cannot hope to understand where we are without examining the journey to this point.

The second aspect of theological reflection which perhaps rests on more solid foundations is that of the future. The eschatological hope which calls us forward. At the core this is clear – the reign of Christ and the restoration of God’s order. We believe that God’s future is clearly established in the just reign of Christ. It is hope which shapes our action in the present. It gives us something to work towards, even if we do believe that the end interrupts rather than fulfils the directions of creation. Our task and call is to work consistently with God’s purposes, which are spelled out for us. But again, this is more complex than initially apparent. Interpretations about the way the end will come cloud the apparent consistencies we uphold about what that future might look like – at least in terms of the internal values it represents: justice, peace, grace. Eschatology asks us to articulate what we believe God is calling us to become. This is grounded in scripture, and in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which if it confirms anything tells us that the purposes of God are stronger and more sure than any systems which earth can array against them.

The third aspect of theological reflections is somewhat more contentions: reflection on what God is doing in the world today. It is a tenet of mission: to find where God is working and partner with it. How are we to do this? It is important that we undertake the first two aspects of theological reflection before entering this phase. We cannot know where we are without understanding where we have come from (how we got where we are), and where we are going. Any interpretation of the present must find its orientation between these two points. And it must be done in partnership with some form of sociological reflection: an understanding of what is happening in the world around us. Jesus once rebuked his hearers for not being able to read the signs of the times. The temptation is to paint this picture in two colours, rather than to engage the nuances of God’s work in the world today. The world is both getting worse and getting better. This curious admixture of good and evil is ever the challenge for the church to negotiate. For the purposes of our own denominational journey, we must constrain our focus at some point to reflection within the churches which make up the BUV, and the denominational office itself. (As much as I support Frank’s contention that the denomination is the churches, we must recognise and articulate the disconnect and individuality of identity. It is the only way we can work to realign them.)

I hesitate at this point to offer some pithy insights which such a reflection might bring, as the complexity of the task is one which requires more than one person. I will, however, make some observations.

First, there is no such beast as “value-free action.” We wonder whether the BUV should lead the churches. It does. The actions it has taken have always conveyed a message to its member churches. One of the best ways to identify the values of anyone or anything is to evaluate its actions. The statement about intentions should always be measured against the actions which are undertaken, and vice versa. Are we doing today that which reinforces the values we espouse? the calling we confess? On Tuesday night I found myself pondering this when the statement was made by someone that smaller churches seem to be grappling most and coming up with the most creative responses to the present missional challenges, and considered the parallel denominational discussions about the viability of small churches. The disconsonant ring between these two points echoed in my ear. Similarly we speak of the BUV as the union of churches, yet our new governance structure seems to reflect a governance model which moves away from empowering churches in this regard.

Second, I had some difficulty understanding whether the focus on re-imagining is about new ways of being church, new ways of being a denomination, or new ways of structuring the denominational office and function. The conversation on Tuesday night left me in somewhat of a quandary here. Perhaps the issue relates to articulating the primary purpose of our churches and structuring our denominational office so that churches can achieve that. Arguably the greatest challenge to be faced is how we build the bridge between our scriptural and denominational heritage and our present setting. With Frank, I believe that our Baptist heritage leaves us well-placed to engage the public realm. Many tenets of Western belief systems are found within our own: liberty of conscience, commitments to freedoms, and to just action. Losing grasp of our denominational heritage has hampered us somewhat here.

The third comment emerges from what appears to be an elephant in the room. Not one conversation picked up on Frank’s observation that “churches in general, including Baptists, will continue to experience significant decline in numbers, finances and viability.” If any piece of information should cause us to pause and reflect, surely this is one. This is a challenge of imagination as much as anything else, something which perhaps requires a paradigmatic shift in our thinking about church properties and denominational assets. Currently about half of our denominational office is funded from a source whose original charter proscribed its use for such a purpose. This has the dual impact of reducing funds available to churches for the original purpose of the fund, and covers up a question related to the longer-term viability of our collective ministry through the denominational office.

This is an important conversation, and a welcome initiative from the BUV leadership. Getting one’s head about its complexity perhaps requires that we be less focussed on the immediate structural responses and more about articulating the correct questions to be asking. I thank those who presented their reflections on Tuesday night, and who engaged in response. I would say, however, that the demographic in the room also gave some pause for reflection…

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Back yard - Places Where our Stories are Formed

The back yard of a family home is a place filled with memories. When conducting a wedding recently in such a setting, I was drawn to reflect on the ways in which certain places impact our spirituality, our identity, and our journey in life. The choice of a back yard for a wedding potentially symbolises a love grounded in the realities of relationships, not only that of husband and wife, but the wider family and community, recognising that love is planted firmly among family and friends, and grows out of the reality of our daily lives. It is a place where ordinary experiences are made ever richer by shared love, and shared in subsequent years as the family gathers again. But in the back yard we are reminded that love is also open to the sky… a place where friendship can take wings in love; which opens up enormous possibilities together. But in the back yard we are also exposed to the elements, requiring us to let go of some control and enjoying the exploration and randomness which nature can often bring, and which relationships with family and friends can often bring.

Back yards are rich and creative places: Walk around most back yards and you will see very creative use of often discarded materials: they are living testaments to recycling. Back yards are also collections of family stories, each place bearing a memory on which life has been built. Most of us build our lives and values on recycling these values – in at least two ways.

The first aspect of recycling grows out of the reminder that it is out of old materials new things can come. Marriage is a setting where most recycling occurs – we sift through the gifts that our parents have given us, the values they have sown within us, the example they have set us. We have to learn from them, share them with our partner, then present them to our children, to our own friends and community, who will do the same. In fact, well before we come to marriage, we have spent our late adolescent years sifting the values which our parents have spoken to us about, and lived before us (the two not always consonant) as we begin to shape our own selves more intentionally.

When conflict arises in a relationship, we sift through it and pick out the lessons so that we understand ourselves and each other better, and learn to move forward together in love. Occasionally we have to clean up the back yard – go through and throw out that which now stands in the way, and create some new spaces. Married couples are still two very different people, and if handled well these differences can be the source of strength and creativity.

For me, the back yard was a place where I learned something about justice. Being the youngest in the family, I was often out-played or outweighed when it came to the rough-and-tumble of back yard matches. I learned to respond to apparent injustice, to rebound when I felt cheated or overwhelmed. I learned my own skills to deal with taller, faster, stronger siblings. I am sure that these skills have impacted me to this very day. I certainly knew how far to push, and when it was better to let things go. I learned to use my own assets in creative ways when a direct one-on-one contest was too daunting.

Back yards are also closed spaces. There are times when you can just chill out the back – away from the phone, from the front door, from neighbours. Here in the back yard it is your space. I remember times sitting in the back yard pondering the skies and my place in the universe, or the wonder of the myriad stars so far from the earth, illuminating the skies. Looking into history – for the light I could see twinkling left its source many years before – I pondered perspective and the bigger questions of life. And in more mature years I would sit in the back yard with my beloved, and share dreams and hopes together, pondering imponderables, and simply enjoying each other’s presence. These dreams could be something apparently mundane: we can plant this, we can build that… but the intimacy to be built finds its roots in common dreams, shared values, a mutual spirituality – the essence of all that we consider life to be about, and what we yearn to build for yourselves and for those we love. In our marriage relationship, it is this intimacy which moves into the kitchen, the family room, and the bedroom – where a real one-ness is shared – body, soul and spirit. Such places of intimacy need to be nurtured in our spirituality, in our marriages, and in other relationships.

There are many other ways in which we find our shape in the back yard. They are social spaces – places where you share with others, and they with you – around the barbecue, talking about the garden, and just getting outside to think in a quiet space; they are places where we experiment (I well remember almost burning down the family garage), and where we begin to build bridges with strangers (kicking or hitting a ball over the fence meant an introduction was necessary to retrieve it); they are places where our horizons are broadened with family, friends and acquaintances.

Many memories – stories – which shape who we are, how we perceive the world, and our capacities to create within it. Here is a place where the ultimate breaks into the penultimate; where our perceptions of life, love and God find their roots. It is arguably one of the most important places where our lives are shaped.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Places Where our Stories are Formed

As I prepared to conduct a wedding recently, which was celebrated in the back yard of a family home, I was given pause to think about the ways in which our identities and values are formed. The impact of setting and place - the context for our experiences - is significant on our understanding of the world and our place in it. Where we are born, our early childhood experiences, and the people who impact our lives are seminal in shaping values and identity, giving shape to the ways in which we view the world.

As those who live in the West, with access to a computer, we are clearly in the upper echolons of economic value in this world. Resources and opportunities are available to us which the majority of the world cannot imagine. Yet within our own subset, there is considerable diversity of perspective. This is due in no small part to the places where our stories were formed.

The back yard one such place filled with objects and reminiscences of life for most Victorians. But there are others. As I have returned to the routine of a daily run, the places where our stories are formed have been subject to reflection (yes, it is possible to think and run at the same time!)

I can think of a number of places where my sense of justice, value and identity were formed, and will reflect on these in the days to come. Are there particular places which stand out for you?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Changing Gear

The last week has seen me changing gear in a significant way. A week ago today I submitted my completed thesis - the result of 10 years' work. The past 6-9 months have been intense as I have sacrificed other things in order to bring it to a conclusion. Late nights fuelled with doses of caffeine in the form of chocolate and Coca Cola have left their mark upon me in many ways. Last Saturday, after conducting a wedding, I came home and went on a 20-minute run. It was pain free (well, except for the excessive huffing and puffing, the occasional break to get my breath back and allow my legs to recover) - as a long struggle with plantar fasciitis is now behind me. I have spent much of this week sifting through the detritis of filing, notes, and other resources in order to transfer them into a filing cabinet, both at home and the office. Time will come when I start to cut and dice the thesis for publication in different journals, but for now the focus is upon gaining control of my life again and restoring some balance.

It actually feels good to go for a run with a clear head.