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‘God’s Brilliant Idea’: Gerard Kelly


‘Framing Collioure’

When I visited Collioure in 2008, I was deeply struck by the ‘Chemin du Fauvisme’ exhibition. Like thousands of tourists before, I stood looking at a grey church through an empty golden frame and was convicted of my own lack of vision and imagination. What would it take, I wondered, for me to see the colours a great artist might see? What courage would I need to celebrate what I saw, even as others around me, more rationally defined and fearing excess, named me wild?

A student more of mission than of art, more familiar with churches than galleries, I accepted this rebuke at the very heart of my faith…this has become a vital metaphor to me in recent years as I have wrestled with the loss of colour that so many people describe in their experience of the Christian faith…in the century since Derain and Matisse first painted in Collioure, tens of millions of people have walked away from commitment to the Christian churches of the West…And those walking away from faith often experience their journey as a kind of liberation. Looking back over their shoulder to see what they have left behind, they see grey. Old buildings; empty creeds; bland faith. What they do not see is colour and life.

And yet the church is, in its origins, God’s brilliant idea…It is a sparkling idea, a concept radiant with light and joy. Words like ‘brilliant’, ‘bright’ and ‘beautiful’ can legitimately be used to describe it…What happened to the fountain of colour God switched on at Pentecost? Where did the explosion of joy go? How did a movement of life and exuberance become, for so many, a source of greyness in our world?

…Can we break out of the greyness of our church experience to discover the riot of colour God intended? Is there a route back to the brilliance of God’s plan? Like Mark Figueres with his empty frames, I want to ask you, ‘What do you see?’ and challenge you, perhaps, to see more.


God’s brilliant idea #1: ‘Shine through them’

The church exists because God has committed himself to work through people. This is the fulfilment of the Creator’s long-held intention to shine wisdom through his human creatures into the world he has made. We will explore this as a prismatic plan: the many colours of God’s wisdom displayed through redeemed human lives…What does it take to shine God’s light into every corner of our culture?

God’s brilliant idea #2: ‘Give them power’

A second biblical metaphor for the church is… a human community indwelt by the Holy Spirit…What is God doing in us that will empower and resource what he plans to do through us?

God’s brilliant idea #3: ‘Help them love’

The third brilliant idea, perhaps the New Testament’s most dramatic metaphor for the church is ‘the body of Christ‘…We will ask whether the recovery of servant love as the very mark of the church might not lead to a renewal of its life and mission, asserting that God’s kingdom runs on meekonomics – the subverting of power and wealth that brings the margins to the centre. How might a tidal wave of small acts of love change the direction of our over-consuming culture? What does it mean for us to incarnate anew the very life of Christ?

God’s brilliant idea #4: ‘Make them one’

Lastly, we will discover the New Testament’s future-focused vision of the church as ‘the bride of Christ‘, a body resplendent with beauty reflecting the colours and contributions of every culture on the planet. ..What does it mean to truly celebrate diversity?


I want to suggest that in our quest for [a truly missional church] there are colours we will need to recover; wavelengths of God’s mission to which we have perhaps become blind.
It is significant that science, and not aesthetics alone, played a part in shaping the work of the Fauvists and the colour-revolution they gladly joined. Their work was, in part, a response to changes in their cultural landscape.

In the closing years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, two areas of research were moving ahead at such a pace as to make new experiments in art not only possible but inevitable. The first was the development of photography and the associated experimentation in the behaviour of light. Early discoveries in photographic processing showed as never before the relationship between sight and light and revealed much that had never before been so fully understood. This led to discoveries about refraction and the nature of colour that gave avant-garde artists new confidence in their experimentation. They were freed to ‘see’ more than they had ever seen before, understanding that the light pouring into their eyes carried many more colours than their rational minds had previously acknowledge.

In parallel to this, developments in the manufacture and import of pigments were offering to the painter unprecedented power to reproduce the colours he was seeing. Year by year new pigments became available or affordable, and each one added to the artist’s armoury. The Impressionists, most notably Monet, were the first to take advantage of these developments and break into new areas of experimentation with colour. The journey was taken further by the Post-Impressionists and by Seurat and the Pointillists – who painted by applying thousands of tiny dots of disparate colours – until the baton was passed by the Fauvists and beyond.

All in all, the art world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a carnival of  colour, a global celebration of polychromatic light. As representatives of this period, Matisse and Derain, honoured to this day in the town of Collioure, stand as ambassadors of colour – prophets of a technicolour future. The wildness of their paintings should not be dismissed as naive and over-imaginative playfulness: it is underpinned by a deep and essentially scientific interaction with colour. The Fauves are not Surrealists. They are not trying to tell us what they have dreamed or imagined. They are trying to tell us what they see. Colour, for them, is reality. It is our paler, more monochrome view that is imagined, imposed on our vision by a cold rationalism that insists on informing us that stone ‘is’ grey. Derain and Matisse want to break open the limited and limiting exceptions that dull our senses. They are artists engaging with a changing world. They want to free us to see all the colours light has for us.

Can you hear the Holy Spirit, through them, calling you to a fuller vision of the church?

This is an abbreviated version of the introduction to ‘Church Actually: Rediscovering the brilliance of God’s plan’ by Gerard Kelly, published in 2011.

The author acknowledges Bishop Pete Broadbent as the source of the phrase ‘God’s brilliant idea’: Bishop Pete in turn says about this book: ‘Gerard helps us re-own our puzzling, sometimes frustrating, church and see it in all its glorious technicolour. Enjoy!’

The Two Integrities: Andrew Phair


These notes, or reflections, come with a massive health warning. I am not a member of Synod; I don’t follow this argument closely in the press and I am quite sure I have got my wires crossed on many issues. But the nature of this web site speaks of securing the views of lay people from the pews of Anglican churches. Well, that sums me up. A very ordinary person sitting in a pew, mystified by what I recently saw at the altar; and the subsequent processes I then went through to make sense of it and to achieve some sort of peace within myself. I feel I can now cope with the behaviour of the traditionalists such that it does not rankle so much and disturb my prayerful approach to the Sacraments.

The Two Integrities

In 1992 an accord was made concerning the ordination of women that those traditionalists who could not accept the decision could remain in the Anglican Church,  would still be valued and would have their own Bishops.

Like many, I applauded the decision to ordain women and could not even conceive of anyone objecting to the change. How naive I was! After that, women became a quite normal presence at the altar. It was one of those moments that sort of passes, an important watershed moment, but nevertheless a passing one. I did not notice the silent, quiet unrest among the traditionalists. I never noticed their refusal to accept consecrated bread and wine from a woman Celebrant. But, when I did notice it (only a few weeks ago) I was incensed. All the usual objections were made (to my wife): how dare they; society has moved on; Jesus welcomed women as much as men; their behaviour is an example of all that is wrong with religion (but not with believing); what about equality between the sexes and so on. I railed against the issue; raised it at a PCC meeting; tweeted on the subject (and got back some helpful, reassuring responses); searched the web and quietly fumed.

With nothing to lose, I tackled one of the said traditional priests and he patiently walked me through the issues and the arguments as he saw it. It was a Damascene moment for me. It certainly reminded me of the merits of listening to all sides of an argument before fulminating in my armchair. Whilst acknowledging his position, I also have to firmly state I am still wholly of a mind that women priests bring many benefits to ministry and I welcome them as Bishops (in other words as equal to men in every regard) within the Anglican church.

But my kindly traditionalist priest-friend helped me to see the importance of being obedient to God’s truth, wherever that might take one. He spoke of it not being about majority votes in Synod or elsewhere but about searching for truth and integrity. In respect to ‘voting’ he argued this cannot apply to all aspects of faith: would I vote for a fascist party even if the majority of people were doing so but which I knew to be wrong? In responding to the inner voice (the Holy Spirit?) we may well be prompted to take an opposing position to the majority. It is clear that the Holy Spirit has guided peoples’ faith journeys down many different expressions from Quakers, to Methodists, to Baptists, to evangelical house churches and so on.  None of us can dogmatically say their church is exclusively the right way. I was clearly demonstrating appalling inflexibility of mind and personal arrogance.

If promises were made in 1992 and since then about protecting and honouring the position of the traditionalist, then why are they now being broken or dismantled? Why are the traditionalists being discriminated against? Are they being squeezed out? I hope not. The Anglican Church is, if nothing else, an amalgam of masses of different forms of expression and none of us has the right to shoehorn everyone into one model, however attractive that sometimes might feel.  I would still want to argue my corner that there is nothing flawed with women priests presiding at the Eucharist; there is nothing lesser about the elements I receive which have been consecrated by a woman and -most importantly- I welcome the ministry they bring.

But my earlier seething has subsided and it served as a reminder of the need to hear all sides of an argument before getting on my high horse. It is clear that outside the UK the Anglican Church may well be more in tune with the traditional approaches, in particular in the African church. What right have I to impose my one-sided beliefs on those who choose to adopt a quite contrary position? The worldwide Church has changed dramatically over 2000 years but the traditionalists argue the male priesthood has been around since the time of Christ. All these issues made me stop and think a little more than a mere knee-jerk response that characterized my behaviour at first.  I would like to think this example has reminded me of the need to show greater tolerance than hitherto.

Will the liberals and evangelicals similarly show greater accommodation to the needs of the traditionalists?


Andrew phairI am becoming increasingly brave at pestering people who express interesting views on twitter to write for Lay Anglicana, and I must thank Andrew Phair for having good-humouredly (and promptly!) succumbed to my blandishments. Andrew sums himself for his twitter profile – @Andrew_Phair – as “Interests in healthcare, politics, literature and justice. Professed Christian often poor exponent. England” (Editor)

The illustration was chosen by me, partly because of the androgynous appearance of the priest.

 Note by editor on ‘The Two Integrities

As a reminder for anyone who has come late to the debate of what ‘the two integrities’ means,  the then Archdeacon of Richmond, the Ven Janet Henderson, summed it up in 2012 – no longer available on her blog, it survives on Kiwianglo’s website:

…For 18 years the Church of England has been trying out an approach that says, in effect, ‘both groups are right’. A lot of us thought we were doing this in the patient expectation that one or other group would eventually become less sustainable. How else are decisions made and people able to move forward? You pray, you argue the rationale, you try things out, you put it to the vote. In the Church of England, we seem now to be saying that however small the number of people who want to be protected from women priests becomes, we will continue to order the life of the church for their benefit and at the expense of all who want to see women in leadership.

Well, I can see that to pass legislation that is completely unacceptable to those who do not want women priests and bishops is a very hard decision to take (and not, at this point, one that is open to Synod) but let’s look at the cost of continuing with this ‘two integrities’ approach

It seriously endangers the coherence of episcopacy in the Church of England. The bishops will be trying to move in two directions at once over a good number of issues to do with gender and the ordering of the church.
It will cause arguments in parishes where there is a divergence of view about women’s ministry, particularly as the ‘supply’ (to use the bishops’ word) of clergy gets smaller.
It makes for a national church that treats women as second class, something parts of the church have to be protected from. How proud of that can we be?
It means that language about ‘taint’ and ‘the unsuitability of women having authority’ will continue to be a norm of church life. (As Desmond Tutu so famously pointed out, what you say about people in fact shapes the possibilities of your behaviour towards them.)
It endorses the notion of different churches within the Church of England needing different types of theological leadership – will other grounds for being able to petition for a different bishop begin to emerge? This leads to chaos!

1930s Advice for the 21st Century Church: Dr Wendy Dackson


[ After our late summer ‘skeleton editions’, we resume the publication today of Wendy Dackson’s thoughts on the ‘spiritual but not religious‘ – how did you get on at Back to Church Sunday on 29th September? Ed.]



The Church exists, first and foremost, to be the fellowship of those who worship God in Christ.  It is, therefore, in this earth, the representation of the life of Heaven.  Of course, it is easy for anyone who stands outside to look at us and say, “In that case we don’t much want to go to heaven.”  Well, that is our own fault and not the fault of the call which the Church has received.

(William Temple, The Church and its Teaching Today, the William Belden Noble Lectures at the Memorial Church, Harvard University, December 17-19, 1935, boldface my own)




If people who are seeking a deeper connection to what is divine and eternal, and do not see a reflection of higher values in the Church, who is to blame?  William Temple, Archbishop of York at the time this lecture was delivered (and thus a senior figure in an established church that still had some reason to believe that it had a moral and spiritual authority over the nation), hit the nail on the had–not just for his own time, but for decades into the future.  The Christian message is still excellent, it was in 1935, and it remains so now (although I do think that people engage it differently, emphasizing different aspects than we did almost 80 years ago).  But if it is not presented well, or by the life of the assembly, most importantly in their interactions with each other and the world outside of the time set aside for communal worship, then those outside the church have every right to say this is not where they will find the spiritual nurture and community they seek.


And who is to blame?  Not God, not Jesus Christ.  Those who are in the fellowship of the church who are representing the life of Heaven in ways that people outside the fellowship reject–they may be more responsible for giving the church a repuation that the church doesn’t want.  Too often, church “insiders”, whether clergy, lay leadership, or the “average” person in the pew, create problems for the church’s image.  It isn’t just the major scandals, like sexual abuse or financial dishonesty, either; nor can it all be blamed on the historic wrongs ascribed (rightly and wrongly) to the church.  It can have more to do with a member of a church’s governing body, who regales his or her co-workers with stories of the bitter arguments that happened during the last  meeting. Or the new member of the altar guild who feels bossed and belittled by the guild president–because she–and altar guilds have historically been, and remain, over 90% female–who vents to a non-churchgoing neighbor about how impossible it is to please some people, and all the new member really wants to do is serve God and the worshipping community.  It can be the architect on his congregation’s building committee, whose expertise is over-ridden to accommodate the whim of the biggest donor.  It can be the gossip about the young, single, female pastor who is seen holding hands in the cinema with a man from outside the congregation (clergy ethics almost always forbid single ministers from dating within the congregation).  Most of all, it can be about the smugness some Christians demonstrate when they speak to non-churchgoers about the superiority of pursuing a spiritual path within the church, rather than going it alone.  So much of what happens in the holy community looks hellish to those who would never enter its doors.


If Archbishop Temple were writing today, what might he have said?  I imagine that the quote above could stand almost unchanged, but I will add a bit to it.


The Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) are not your problem.  They did not cause your church to decline in its membership or giving.  They are not why your vestry, consistory, or whatever your governing body is called, is fighting.  They are not why members of your congregation do not get along with one another. They are not why your building needs paint, your choir needs new robes, your organ is out of tune, your altar flowers are wilting, or your youth group is not much more than a clique with ugly t-shirts that say “WWJD”. They are not why your pastor is burned out, and taking it out on the congregation.


And that is far from saying that they are looking for a perfect church, with completely godly people who are free from human pettiness, who are always going to be able to conduct their lives together in perfect perfect harmony and flawless grace.  People are realistic in their expectations about what human groups are like. If the SBNR, in all their glorious spiritual diversity, are looking for a faith community at all (some are, others are not), they are looking for a place to grow in godliness, amongst people who are also trying to do so, who lovingly help each other to come to some kind of appreciation of the classic philosophical goods of beauty, truth, and goodness than any one individual or group can appreciate.  And yet, they want to do it in ways, and amongst people, who appreciate and honor the individuality and gifts they will bring to the community.  They want to ask the tough questions about life in a rapidly-changing world, but they also ask the tough questions about why there need to be four churches at the corner of Main and Maple Streets, selling five different versions of Christianity, all hoping to convince people that their way is the best (or even only) way.


The SBNR are also not the solution to your problems.  An influx of unchurched people is not going to help you be a better church quickly.  Even a wealthy new member is not going to drop a huge pledge on you the second time they attend and solve all your financial woes.  If people come to church for the first time, or come back after a long absence, they will be looking to feel their way into the community’s life, and find the places where they can participate most authentically, for their own benefit and that of the church.  Rejoice at finding them, yes–but everyone (God included) will be better served if you treat them more like lost sheep than lost coins.


However, I would also want to say the following:  The Spiritual But Not Religious are not your problem, but they are your concern.  Listen carefully to their objections to the church, and for those things that can be changed without compromising the integrity of Christianity, work on them.  We are told to “preach the gospel to every living creature.”  But we preach an anti-gospel if our churches are places of in-fighting, power struggles, and blame-games where we claim that our problems have causes that don’t make any sense.  If we look bad to those outside the church, that is our fault, not theirs.


Not all Spiritual but Not Religious people are looking for a church, and some are not even looking at the church.  But if the church wants to reach them, and is not doing so, perhaps it is time to look inward and put some energy into making the life of the Christian community into the representation of heaven which it is meant to be.


The Big Bang Theory of Faith: Dr Wendy Dackson



Faith is not always religious in its content or context. . .Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life.  It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives.  Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith:  The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning

Probably one of the most intelligently entertaining American situation comedies of the last 15 years is the Big Bang Theory.  Although it is perfect light viewing early on a Thursday evening (in the US, new episodes air on the CBS network at 8 pm eastern time, and there are multiple broadcasts of reruns on cable stations), Big Bang has some of the most thoughtfully developed characters and story lines, and perfectly-timed acting, of any half-hour comedy I can remember over the course of my lifetime.  The series, for those who have not watched it, is focused on the lives of four male colleagues at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstader, experimental and theoretical physicists, are roommates.  Although Sheldon, a child prodigy, has a supposedly slightly higher IQ than Leonard, he lacks his roommate’s social and life-skills.  Rajesh Koothrappali, a particle astrophysicist from New Delhi, experiences such social anxiety that he cannot converse with women without the help of alchohol; his best friend, Howard Wolowitz, is an aerospace engineer, and the only member of the group whose academic credentials do not include a doctoral degree.


I have not been a devotee of the show from its inception (it began in 2007, while I was living in England, and was not available on terrestrial British television during my time there).  However, having been laid up for several months earlier this year, unable to do very much other than watch television, I believe I have seen just about every episode.


Religion is not a major or explicit theme in the Big Bang Theory.  There are references to Howard’s Jewish upbringing, to Raj’s Hindu heritage, and to the “hell” which was the Christian fundamentalist childhood Sheldon endured.  But with little explicit reference to major spiritual traditions, it is fair to ask why, on a re-reading of James Fowler’s classic book on faith stages, I am led to reflect on the inner lives of these four young, hilarious, fictional men.


 Fowler’s stages of faith

The quote that starts off this little exploration is key:  For Fowler, “faith” is not about religious belief, the acceptance of a metaphysical system, or subscription to a particular philosophy. Faith, as Fowler describes it, is how one is oriented to the world and others, the values that one holds as ultimate, and how all lesser values are ordered.  Fowler describes six “stages” of faith, based on (but not exactly correlating with) the developmental models of Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, beginning in early childhood (around age 2, with a pre-stage of “undifferentiated” faith), and through adulthood.  I summarize them, as follows, using Fowler’s categories, but condensing the descriptions:


Stage 1:  Intuitive-Projective Faith

Fantasy-filled, imitative.  Thought patterns are fluid, with no logical thought to inhibit and restrain imagination and fantasy.  Self-awareness is almost completely ego-centric, although the child can be permanently influenced by the moods and actions of closely-related adults.  The gift of this stage is the birth of imagination, but the danger is that the imagination can be taken over by unrestrained images of terror, or the reinforcement of taboos.  (Pp.133-34)


Stage 2:  Mythic-Literal Faith

This is the stage in which a person starts to take on the stories, beliefs and observances that indicate s/he is a member of a particular community, although usually in a very literal, rule-following manner.  Concrete operations begin to order the imaginative construction of experience.  The sense of reciprocal justice emerges, as does the rise of narrative capacity. The danger is the limitations of literalness and the excessive reliance on reciprocity for constructing relationships, which can lead to an over controlling perfectionism.(pp.140-150)


Stage 3:  Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Experience of the world extends beyond the family, with multiple spheres (school, work, peers, etc) demanding attention and loyalty.  Faith provides a coherent orientation for this more complex environment, as well as a basis of identity and outlook.  Usually this stage arises in adolescence, and it is important to note that Fowler believes many adults find their point of permanent equilibrium here.  The gift of the stage is the formation of a personal myth of one’s own place in the past and anticipated future of their ultimate environment, and a unification of personality characteristics.  The deficiencies are that (a) the expectations and assessments of others become internalized so that autonomy and judgment can be impaired, and Interpersonal betrayals can either give rise to a nihilistic despair or over-reliance on whatever one holds as God (including science) which is unrelated to mundane relations. (Pp.172-173)

Fowler also notes that most American (and I suspect, European) church communities and their ordained leaders are oriented toward bringing people to this stage of faith and no further.


Stage 4:  Individuative-Reflective Faith

If (and it is a big ‘if’) this stage occurs, it is where the person begins to assume responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.  This will be a time of tensions between self and the community to which the person belongs.  It may even occasion a temporary or permanent breach with the community.  (This is where I think it is important for churches to take special notice.)  Fowler says it is “most appropriate” to young adulthood, although it may be delayed until later, and may never happen at all.  The strength of this stage is the increase in capacity for critical reflection on identity and outlook, but these can be offset by an excessive confidence that results in a narcissism. Unlike Stage 3, it seems rarely to be a stopping place in faith development.  My own thought is that either the Stage 4 person will return to a more synthetic-conventional form of faith (although often in a different setting, but almost always with a deeper capacity for critical reflection) or s/he will progress to Stage 5.(pp.182-183)


Stage 5:  Conjunctive Faith

This is perhaps the most difficult stage to pin down with a short description.  Fowler gives a few analogies as to what its emergence is like; my favorite among them is it is something like “Discovering that a guest, if invited to do so, will generously reveal the treasured wisdom of a lifetime of experience” (pp. 184-85).  Conjunctive faith is characterized by giving up the “either/or” of earlier stages, and the person at this stage can understand many sides of an issue simultaneously.  Fowler claims that conjunctive faith “suspects that things are organically related to each other; it attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting to its own prior mind set.”; there is attention to the ” ‘wisdom’ evolved in things as they are, before seeking to modify, control or order them to fit prior categories”(p. 185). There is a sense here that Rowan Williams, in his 1993 essay “On Theological Integrity“, was hinting at this when he claimed that theological integrity demanded that we talk about what we say we are talking about, without coming to foregone conclusions. Conjunctive faith requires a “conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality”, as well as a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past (p. 197). Because it “knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts”, this fifth stage is unusual before mid-life.  It recognizes the powerful symbols and meanings of one’s group, while :understanding that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” It can, however, result in a “paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth.”  It “lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision.” (198)


Stage 6:  Universalizing Faith

It is important to note that Fowler considers this to be extremely rare, and most of us will have little personal contact with those who have reached this stage–examples he cites are people such as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi.  I suspect that time will tell if Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis might be among those at Stage 6.  Universalizing Faith is not an indication that someone is a perfect human being.  Fowler claims that this is almost always achieved within the context of a religious outlook (although my personal suspicion is that it need not be).  It is known more in the impact of their vision and leadership than in a particular way of life, and especially in the way they relate to the ordinary person (Fowler’s example for this is King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which was written to moderate/liberal religious leaders–his colleagues, rather than his adversaries). Their visions are not abstract, but “radical acts of identifications with persons and circumstances where the futurity of being is being crushed, blocked, or exploited.”  They are not self-formed, but have been through formation in church (or possibly non-religious communities) and familial relations, and education.  There are multiple acknowledged influences, which have been subjected to critical reflection and consciously chosen or rejected. This is the highest achievement of the life of faith, which all formative institutions should aspire their adherents reach.


Before engaging in a lighthearted categorization of our fictional friends, a few further important points from Fowler should be noted.  First, progression along the stages has nothing to do with the intensity of devotion or knowledge. Someone at Stage 2 is as likely to attend a large number of religious services as someone at a more developed level (possibly more likely); furthermore, the stages (except possibly the sixth) are independent of mastery of the content of belief.  Secondly,  change in the content of faith (whether between religions or secular sources, or a combination), is how Fowler defines conversion. Conversion does not always, or even often, mean that a person’s faith stage changes.  It is entirely possible (even likely) that conversion is lateral or even regressive in terms of stage. Finally, except for the possibility of Stage 6, “goodness”, or even likeability, do not necessarily increase as a person progresses from one stage to another.


It should also be noted that, unlike many personality assessments (such as the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram), Fowler’s six-stage faith development has not been widely adopted as a measurement device by the churches (let alone those for whom “faith” is a somehow suspect word).  Fowler does not encourage his readers to assess others or themselves–and if it were to be done (and the subjects made aware of it), people would probably be quite upset with the analysis.  Personally, I think it could be more widely and productively used than it has been, but for the moment, I will satisfy myself with assessing fictional characters.


 Back to The Big Bang Theory      

So, what can we make of the faith stages of Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj? None of them are particularly religious, in the popular sense of observing the rituals and ethos of any particular faith tradition.  But they are all faithful devotees of the sciences, and their community of meaning is the higher educational institution.  Three–Sheldon, Howard, and Raj–can be said to be converts from the meaning-systems of their families of origin (although Howard and Raj still identifiy to some level with those mythologies as well as the master-narrative of the physical sciences).  Leonard has, in some ways, never left the community of intellectual inquiry in which he was (rather alarmingly) raised; achievement in academic pursuits has defined him from an early age. Let me make some observations about each of these four young men, using James Fowler’s faith stage analysis as an interpretative lens.


Leonard Hofstadter, PhD:  Leonard’s world view–one shaped by empirical science in the context of the research-driven university–is the most predictable of the four principal male characters. Leonard_HofstadterHaving never really questioned whether this is the right place for him, and having done well at a young age in his field of physics, he appears in many ways to be a straightforward example of Conventional-Synthetic (Stage 3) faith.   He has a high level of mastery of the content of his master-story, and a strong commitment to membership in the academic community of meaning.  However, his widening circle of meaning–represented by his ongoing relationship with Penny, whose formational narratives have little in common with his own–may mean that Leonard is moving toward the more individuative-reflective mode of a Stage 4. Penny’s presence in his life, and her influence, also cause him to question the influence of several things he cherished prior to her arrival.  These include the comic books, video games, and science-fiction movies (and their attendant memorabiia) which were a shared passion with his friends.  He is the first in the group to recognize that they may be hindering him from achieving wider aspirations (including romantic connection).  Even when Leonard and Penny’s relationship was temporarily suspended, it became clear that the fantasy world of graphic novels and Comic-Con, as enjoyable as they might be, threatened his sense of self-worth.  This was most evident in the guilt produced by his truncated hookup with the promiscuous Agnes, a comic-book afficionado Leonard met while attempting a long-distance relationship with Priya, Raj’s sister.  In the way that many at the Individualtive-Reflective stage (4) do, Leonard became more critical of the influences he had chosen to allow to shape his identity and self-worth.


Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D: Sheldon is a classic convert, in the sense of his uncompromising rejection of the meaning-system in which he was raised, and unwavering embrace of one that is (to his, and his mother’s mind) almost mutually exclusive.  Beginning his higher education career at the age of 11, Sheldon precociously assumed an “adult” role in the academy by earning his doctorate when he was Sheldon_Cooper16. His extensive knowledge and raw talent, however, do not mean that he is advanced in the faith life of theoretical physics, or that he will likely be one of the great lights of the tradition.  Sheldon views the world from a narcissistic standpoint, characteristic of the Intuitive-Projective approach of Stage 1.  However, I would say that his is more a Mythic-Literal faith (stage 2), heavily dependent on an absolutely even reciprocity in social exchanges (and a lack of ability to identify and accept social behaviors, which will probably slow his moving into the Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith).  As well, the Mythic-Literal way in which Sheldon has appropriated his meaning system is uncritical.  This is most evident when he tells the story of Madame Curie to a group of middle-school girls to whom the young men have been invited to speak in the hope of encouraging them to careers in the empirical sciences.  Sheldon cannot stop at Madame Curie’s great achievements–he has to carry the story to its finish with her gruesome death from radiation poisoning.  Sheldon’s abilities for logical process and memorization were noticed early on, possibly by adults who confused his logical capacities and eidetic memory with a maturity he did not possess.  He is unlikely to move beyond a Mythic-Literal way of addressing the world and making it meaningful.  As a result, Sheldon will probably remain as something of a wunderkind, a bit of a freak and novelty, but probably never moving into a position of greater responsibility in which technical and relational skills need to be more closely integrated.  The possibility that this has occurred to him is evident in an episode where a 15 year old genius comes to visit Caltech, and Sheldon’s anxiety about no longer being the young prodigy surfaces. However, rather than moving him to greater self-awareness and a more mature approach to his situation, it illustrates how deeply invested he is in staying exactly as he is.


Rajesh “Raj” Koothrappali, PhD:  From New Delhi, on the “exotic subcontinent of India”, Raj has not, in Fowler’s terms, “converted” fully from his cultural and religious heritage to a scientific Rajesh_Koothrappalifaith.  Rather, he picks and chooses which elements of his upbringing he wishes to embrace and integrate into his newfound love of all things American (including the beef forbidden by the Hindu religion).  In terms of his native land, Raj has experienced a fairly privileged upbringing as the son of a gynaecologist, and does not identify with the crowded, noisy, impoverished city of his birth (and doesn’t cope well with Indian food, either).  However, he holds to some values of upper-middle class Indian families, including assuming a “man of the family” relationship with his younger sister Priya, and at one point asking his parents to find him a bride (even though he fully intends to stay in the United States).  Raj is aware and accepting of a number of identity-forming influences from his past and present, including his social anxiety which is so severe he has only recently acquired the ability to speak to women without consuming alcohol; he has a strongly developed feminine side which comes out most pointedly in his friendship with Howard (he self-defines as a metrosexual–“I like women, and their skincare products”). Probably, Raj’s ability to combine, if not integrate, a number of different influences on his identity indicates an Individuative-Reflective (Stage 4) faith.  This, however, is one of the most uncomfortable stages even when one is not in transition to or from another stage, but Raj will probably need to resolve this, either by regressing to a more conventional world view or by advancing to a more conjunctive faith.


Howard Wolowitz, MEng:  “And you were the most obnoxious person on a double date that included Howard Wolowitz,”  Penny snaps at Leonard after a dinner out with Howard and his new girlfriend Bernadette.  Howard is possibly the easiest target for ridicule of the four male principals on Big Bang Theory–given his sleazy approach to women and how that contrasts with his bizarre Howard-wolowitz-the-big-bang-theory-16865313-930-1246relationship with his never-seen (but definitely heard) mother.  But there is more to Howard than meets the eye.  Howard is the only one of the four who has family roots in Pasadena, but he obviously left California for at least long enough to earn a Master’s degree in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Leaving and return becomes a major theme in many personal mythologies at the level of Conjunctive (Stage 5) faith.  Howard acknowledges his Jewish roots, and claims them more explicitly than Raj claims his formation as a Hindu–there are frequent references to his Bar Mitzvah bonds, to the trials and misadventures of “my people”, and at least a minimal reference to his observance of Jewish law in his choice to wear “tat sleeves” to a Goth bar so he could pick up women but still be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  However, his frequent ordering of bacon cheeseburgers and shrimp dishes is something he acknowledges as a violation of religious dietary laws. Howard recognizes his formation as a Jew, but integrates it with a pragmatic, sometimes even playful, approach to science (there is a marvelous scene where the boys mix cornstarch and water to make a paste, and marvel at its action over a cling-film clad stereo speaker).  Possibly more than any of the others, he is able to hold in tension his codependent relationship with his mother and his passionate pursuit of women his own age—an ability which creates friction with his beloved Bernadette. Also in contrast to his male companions, Howard is past the conventional stage of participation in his scientific faith community. Of the four, he is the only one without an earned doctorate (the norm in academic research and teaching), and he is the only one whose work is recognized outside the academy–by no less an institution than NASA.  Indeed, Howard can participate without contradiction in more than one community of meaning–he is not only an academic researcher, but an astronaut.  His companions frequently belittle his lack of a PhD qualification, but they are somewhat jealous of his membership in this very small, elite subset of humanity. Without directly referring to it, it is clear that the questioning characteristic of the Individuative-Reflective stage (4) of faith took place during Howard’s time at MIT, and he has come home to integrate the various aspects of his meaning-making journey.  Howard will probably never reach the Universalizing Stage 6 of Fowler’s model (few people do), and there is a two-edged symbolism here.  His adventure as an astronaut on the International Space Station is as close to a universalizing experience as his peer group will ever get, but NASA’s recognition of his abilities is literally $#!+–he is there because he developed the human waste disposal system. (Which, when you think about it, *is* a universal concern…)



The big question, I suppose, is what does any of this have to do with Christian faith communities in the twenty-first century? James Fowler indicates that the goal of all religious communities should be to help people as far along to a Universalizing faith as possible–but that most are geared toward keeping people at the Synthetic-Conventional (stage 3) level, and that most ordained clergy are themselves solidly entrenched at that stage.  I think an appropriate revival of Fowler’s Stages of Faith would be to quietly notice the signs of each stage in members of a congregation, and then find ways of providing people with the best way of moving to the next stage.  Especially in a world that is geared to questioning the influences that individuals accept as authoritative, and where a more internal locus of authority is common (what I would call a Stage 4 world), congregations geared for a Stage 3 church are likely to attract fewer new, and retain fewer existing, members.  This is a situation that the churches cannot sustain if they are to be faithful to their vocation in the human community.

Orienteering ‘The Pilgrim’s Course’: The Revd Peter Crumpler


Here is what Church House Publishing says about this major new initiative from the Church of England.

Pilgrim is a major new teaching and discipleship resource from the Church of England. It will help enquirers and new Christians explore what it means to travel through life with Jesus Christ.

A Christian course for the twenty-first century, Pilgrim offers an approach of participation, not persuasion. Enquirers are encouraged to practice the ancient disciplines of biblical reflection and prayer, exploring key texts that have helped people since the earliest days of the Christian faith.

Believing that the Christian faith is primarily about relationship, Pilgrim aims to lay a foundation for a lifetime of learning more about God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ and what it means to be his disciple. Assuming little or no knowledge of the Christian faith, Pilgrim can be used at any point on the journey of discipleship and by every tradition in the Church of England.

Pilgrim is made up of two parts: Follow and Grow. Each consists of four short courses and a leaders’ guide. Follow introduces the Christian faith for complete beginners, while Grow aims to develop a deeper level of discipleship in those who have turned to Christ.

Each short course contains six-sessions, supported by online audio-visual resources. All sessions combine a simple framework prayer, reflection on the Bible in the lectio divina style, an article by a modern writer, and time for questions and reflection.

This first book in the Follow Stage, Turning to Christ, explores the questions candidates are asked when they decide to become followers of Jesus.

I asked The Revd Peter Crumpler to share with us his initial reaction (which he was kind enough to agree to before having had a chance to try it out on his parishioners):

“I played a small part in the inception of what was to become The Pilgrim Course before I left the Archbishops’ Council to train for ordination just over two years ago. So I was eager to open the package that delivered the first booklets into my waiting hands.  I was not disappointed. I set aside time in the re-ordered Hudson Library at St Albans Abbey to look through the Leader’s Guide and the first two work books and was soon struck by the care that had been taken to put the course together.

But before jumping to the content, a word about the design. I was impressed by well laid-out pages and good use of white space to guide the eye through the sections and make the teaching accessible in bite-size chunks and easy-to-follow headings. There were no lengthy, dense paragraphs to deter the would-be pilgrim from signing up or weighty manuals that would put off any but the most determined group leader. Both are no small achievements.

So what of the content? The Church Times heralded Pilgrim’s arrival as “not the Alpha course”, highlighting Alpha’s position as the ‘brand leader’ in discipleship courses. But to describe Pilgrim’s attraction mainly as an alternative to the Holy Trinity Brompton-inspired course sells it far short.

The authors –Steven Croft, Stephen Cottrell, Paula Gooder, Robert Atwell, Nick Baines and Stephen Conway– bring with them much experience in communicating the Christian faith in a range of media. They demonstrate a keen understanding of what can be realistically achieved in around 75-90 minutes in a parish context, and helpfully set out a template for a group session.

A key feature of the sessions is what the authors describe as “the reflective and critical reading of Scripture.” The selected Bible passage is read through three times. After the first reading, the participants reflect on it in silence. Then the passage is read again and people are asked to say out loud a word or phrase from the passage that has struck them. After some silence, the passage is read aloud again and the participants discuss the passage together or in smaller groups.

The main teaching content of the sessions follows at this point, using short reflective articles written by a range of people.  Those taking part then discuss questions prompted by the reflection. The session ends, as it began, with prayer.

The authors state that “a key part of learning about the Christian faith in this kind of group is the opportunity for group members to ask the questions that are central to their search and journey.” My sense of this course is that the participants are learning together, going on a journey of faith together, exploring what it means to be a 21st century Christian. Guided and encouraged, but not directed. Orienteering rather than a route-march.

In a lengthy description of ‘the Pilgrim Way,’ the authors helpfully set out their thinking behind developing “material suitable for catechesis” including the course’s important focus on beginning with basics, whole-life discipleship, following Christ, the importance of the Scriptures and drawing deeply both from Christian tradition and ‘the Anglican way.’

This focus on Anglican values underlines the authors’ description of Pilgrim as “a specifically Anglican resource which follows Anglican belief and practice at every point.” In doing so, it may answer many people’s questions about what it actually means to be an Anglican today.

I’m excited by The Pilgrim Course. I can see that lots of careful preparation has been devoted to it. Much has been done to make it easy-to-use by all kinds of parishes in all kinds of settings – including online video and sound files. I’m looking forward to road-testing it in a parish setting and seeing how participants respond. For many, I believe, it will be an important step on their journey of faith.”


Courtesy Albans & Harpenden Review

Courtesy Albans & Harpenden Review


The Revd Peter Crumpler is Curate at St Leonard’s Church, Sandridge, Herts. He was Director of Communications for the Archbishops’ Council from 2004 to 2011.

He highlights: “PS. As a statement of mission, it was interesting to see Back to Church Sunday now listed in the Leader’s Guide right alongside Harvest, Remembrance, Christmas, Holy Week & Easter and Pentecost as key events in the Christian calendar.”

‘Brand New Church?’: Graeme Fancourt

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1. What inspired you to write ‘Brand New Church’?

This: the so-called emerging church movement is not as New as either its champions or its enemies would have us believe. It is not church 2.0, or whatever it is being called now. It is simply, the church, being the church. That such a mundane reality has been named as a movement, says more about today’s fascination with branding and power politics, than it does with the extraordinary nature of these bits of the church. To say it is mundane is not to say it is not radical, however; rather, it is an attempt to underscore the divine nature and calling of the church that has existed for almost two millennia. The church’s ordinary state of being is radical; it can be no other.

I should say that this wasn’t my first impulse. I believed that there was an entity called the emerging church. It was only after meeting with all kinds of church leaders in various places that I began to question whether what I was seeing was really that different than other, so-called ‘inherited’ forms of the church. By meeting ordained and lay people in this country and in the US, I began to realise that the ‘emerging church’ that lived and breathed was not the same as the emerging church that I had read about. That disjuncture really fuelled my desire to put something else, another view, in writing.

The narratives of emerging/inherited that abound are detrimental to the church as a whole. They patronise those less funky Churches that are not in the club, and they raise the expectations of emerging church groups and leaders to impossible heights. What is vital to recognise, is that many who work within emerging church movements do not consider themselves as different to other church groups, and are trying to break free of the ‘Brand New’ narratives in which they find themselves. I have even met some leaders who are fed up with being baptised as emerging or as a fresh expression, when in reality the work they are doing existed long before such movements were around.

Brand new Church? is an attempt to tell the emerging church story as I see it, but set within the broader context of the contemporary Church’s relationship with the postmodern West. I use the word ‘postmodern’ deliberately: it’s become rather battered over the last few years (largely because of poor understandings of what it might mean), but it remains for me a helpful descriptor of where we are. I basically follow Jean-Francois Lyotard who saw the postmodern condition as a sense of ‘incredulity’ toward metanarratives. What that means is very simple and very obvious, which is why it strikes me as a fairly accurate descriptor: it is the sense of exhaustion many feel toward the big promises made by institutions, companies, and people, that are supposed to lead the whole world into unity and equality. It isn’t giving up on the end goals, but it is having enough historical knowledge to be able to say that single, dominating solutions that try to gather all the differences and complexities of the world into one unified whole, often cause more harm than good. Postmodern thought (my interpretation and development of Lyotard, at least) is to seek ways of holding pluralities of viewpoints, not to contain them, but in a critical and living dialogue in which they can interact with the common goals of unity and equality, without seeking their own dominance.

That’s a big and complicated vision that needs further unpacking than is possible in Brand new Church?. This book is a contemporary case study in asking what are the sources and resources of the church that, I hope, will stir thinking toward that larger vision of chaos-seeking-plurality and competition-seeking-cooperation.

2. What would you identify as the main threats facing the Church at present?

That the conflict model of ‘religion versus [fill in the blank here]’ continues to gain in popularity, as if all the truth we need we already have in our Scriptures and traditions. This has never been the case: truth is being further unpacked in all kinds of ways that are beyond the bounds of the church: in labs, in seminar rooms, in political movements, in everyday life. Sometimes, this demonstrates the wisdom in the church’s faith, and other times it cause us to question, even change, our credo. To grow in truth, the church certainly needs to study and live its own traditions, but in a way that listens and learns from those who live apart from the institution of the church. This is not to say anything new; were it not for the wisdom outside of the church, not only would the Church of England not be debating women in the episcopate, but women would still be viewed as the property of men.

3. What do you identify as the strengths of the Church as presently constituted (apart, one hopes, from the backing of the Almighty)?

Despite what certain fashionable thinkers might have us believe, the parish system is far from dead. Every locality has an altar, around which it is invited to gather and be fed, by Christ and his word, for the work of God in that place, and around the world. I genuinely cannot think of another group where there are so many sociological categories not only mixed up, but attempting to deepen their sense humanity and vision. This is good news, and I cannot understand why some in the Church of England take such a dim view of the parish. Midweek groups at skateparks and in knitting clubs are all a part of being the church, but they are not ends in themselves; being ‘incarnate’ is not in itself enough, for we also need to be redemptive. In the parish, this incarnation-redemption means meeting with people in their own networks, but drawing to see and participate in the wider world. The parish church has the potential to do this very well.

4. Do you have any solutions to propose?

I don’t know whether we need ‘solutions’ as such, but rather that we just take a step back and realise what a transformative entity is the parish Church. When it’s done ‘well’, then it becomes a catalyst within its community. Let me explain what I mean:

Parables are terrible things. Why, if Jesus’ intent was merely to teach people the meaning of the kingdom of God, would he use stories that deliberately mask any easy definition? Of course, rather than simply being a method of teaching, parables are an invitation to see the world and oneself again, not as a mere accident, but as shot through with the potential of God. In this sense, the parish Church is a parable: it is the world as it is, shot through with the world as it could be. It is a gathering for Mass and a beetle drive; a building in which to mourn, and to celebrate; a safe group with whom to share one’s pain, argue one’s disagreement, or campaign for local needs. It isn’t perfect, but that’s the point. So long as it is able to remain open to the stranger-that-is-Christ, then it will become an even more vibrant parable of all that could be, all that will be.

Within the setting of an inclusive understanding of the kingdom, as is the parish, asking who is in and who is out is not a terribly helpful question, and better suited to congregational Churches, with firmer understands of membership. Rather, in working out mission action plans and such like, it is good to discern what are the pathways to deeper participation in the life of the church. How might people move from where they are, to where they might participate more deeply in the life of God? This is as true for the wedding couple who want to ‘hire’ the pretty building, and the addicts who use the cellar steps, as it is for the faithful server, the pleasing-everyone-priest, and the pragmatic treasurer. And that can only be worked out in a local setting; very little that is taken off the shelf will transform life in the parish.

5. Would these solutions address the problem of attracting a younger generation?

There’s something rather hubristic about the word ‘attracting’, isn’t there? It’s what Hollister does when it puts half naked models on the doors of its shops.

You’re right, of course; it is important that the church is as much a place for the young as it is for all other people. The thing is, I’m not so sure that younger people are looking for anything so different from older people; and just as with other people, we need to ask whether what we are doing connects and makes sense, without patronising; liturgy and services that push us beyond our comfort zones, but not in a stuffy or cold manner; groups that are as committed to fun, as they are to wrestling with tough questions and choices. People of all ages are looking for this within our Churches.

6. What are the obstacles making it difficult for your proposed solutions to be adopted?

Apathy is our ever-present enemy. Apathy and fatigue: the attitudes that say it won’t work or it’s never worked erodes the imagination and can-do mindset that is vital to the health of the parish Church. It’s not enough for leaders in the local Church – both lay and ordained – simply to model the attitude (as that can become rather tiresome and sickly), but to keep encouraging the Church to stay focused on what they are hoping to see.

Things won’t always be the success that we’re hoping for. So it is important that we know how to deal with that, how to regroup, and how to continue being a permission-giving organisation that allows new things to be tried.

I’ve been in my current role for all of a week, so much of what I am saying is intentional rather than descriptive. As a parish priest I think there are two types of groups that I need in my parish Churches. I need good, focused committees of people with all kinds of experiences and talents who will work on particular aspects of our communal life. These groups do not need to be chaired by a priest, but by those who have the right kinds of gifts. I also want to see some wild card groups: random, one-off get togethers over a curry or a quiche, who will say it as they see it. These groups will have no agenda, they just ‘soapbox’ with one another for a couple of hours. That may well be very humbling and informative for me, and freeing for those in the Church (especially if they are not on a committee). We’ll see. The intention is not for these to be ‘focus groups’, but to be agenda-free opportunities to rant and affirm, to open participation to those who are not on committees and such like.

7. Is there any way you think that ‘the person in the pews’ could help bring about the changes you envisage?

Deeper participation in the life of God does not occur, is not even an option, without the cooperation and participation of everyone in the Church community. I hope that has come across in what I’ve been saying.

8. What factors do you need to be in place for your solutions to be implemented/workable?

Without apology, I believe we need to share in the Mass on a regular basis. At that service we attend to the Spirit of God in all that we hear and say and sing, that we would worship God with our whole lives. Furthermore, it is the body and blood of Christ which feeds us, which changes us from within, which draws us out of ourselves in order to delve more deeply into the life of God in the world around us.

Second to that, parish priests like me should be looking to empower people, not simply to take on tasks or fill a rota, but for those who are suitable, to share in the leadership of the parish. This is risky, but no more so than having ordained people run every committee. Standing Committees and PCCs are wonderful when there is a sense of sharing in ministry and vision for the parish, rather than simply trouble-shooting and worrying about money and buildings. If the latter is all there is, then PCCs are interminable things; but when they are the former, then the trouble-shooting and worrying is put into its place as part of a wider desire to see more people participate more fully in the life of God.


This is a post-modern book review(!)

I ‘met’ The Revd Graeme Fancourt at General Synod in York. Except that I was not at York, but both he and I were following what was happening on Twitter.  I knew of his book, which was published in May by SPCK. This is what the publisher says about it:

Brand New Church? aims to make sense of what ‘postmodern’ actually looks and feels like in real life, and to ask what this means for the church. Over the past few years, Graeme Fancourt has travelled around the UK and USA consulting with a wide range of church leaders. He writes: The church that I have encountered is thoughtful, active and confident in the gospel . . . Though holding many different views, these leaders all appear to take seriously the need for the church genuinely to engage (positively or negatively) with what it perceives to be the postmodern condition. The author reveals and explores the diversity of thinking found in local churches, in colleges and universities, and expressed in works of contemporary theology. The result is a vibrant read, which offers a broad understanding of how the church might participate fruitfully in dialogue and mission for the sake of all God’s people.

Regular readers of this blog will know that SPCK kindly send me books to review which they allow me to choose from a list. Although I found this an attractive-sounding publication, I did not ask for a copy on publication as I felt I did (do) not know enough about postmodernism and the Church to offer a sensible review. In conversation with Graeme, however, we arrived at this question and answer format (the questions are mine, the answers are Graeme’s), which I think works quite well. I hope you do too?

Dr. Graeme Fancourt was born in 1977 in Teesside. He studied at St John’s College Durham (BA 2000) (DThM 2011) & Ripon College Cuddesdon (2009) He was ordained Deacon in 2010 and priested in 2011. He is a parish priest in Reading and the Bishop of Reading’s Chaplain. He wrote Brand New Church about the church’s responses to postmodernism. He blogs at

General Synod:Not Just About Women Bishops : The Revd David Keen

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An old friend of Lay Anglicana, the Revd David Keen, blogs as ‘Opinionated Vicar‘. He has spotted what some of us (OK, I) missed, which is that the ‘re-imagining ministry’ part of the quinqennial aims has been dusted off and is being currently looked at seriously under the leadership of Bishop Steven Croft (ie the previous blogs here about evangelism were part of a larger picture). This is how David begins his blog post of 27th June; he has added further related posts on June 29th, referring to ‘Towards The Conversion of England’ under the heading ‘We don’t need any new intiatives’; then on 3rd July a post on Church Growth in the CofE – discussion paper and finally on 4th July Background Reading for General #Synod.

If you are interested in lay ministry in the Church of England, I urge you to read them all.


General Synod: Sneaking in a radical growth strategy whilst everyone is looking at women bishops

I’ve been critical in the past for the absence of mission from the agenda of General Synod. Looking at some of the papers for sessions starting next week, I’m quietly encouraged.

The full agenda is here, and most of the Saturday is going to be spent in small groups trying to thrash out the women bishops issue (again). The day closes with a 90 minute debate on GS1895. Stay awake at the back there! This is a half-time review of the Church of England’s 3 priorities for the current 5 year cycle. They are:
– contributing as the national Church to the common good;
– facilitating the growth of the Church;
– re-imagining the Church’s ministry.

Each of these will be the subject of a major General Synod debate in the next 12 months, with church growth kicking this off in November.

The paper makes it quite clear which of the 3 is considered to be top priority:

The opportunities for contributing to the common good at a time of considerable social and economic distress are enormous. But the Church of England’s capacity will be less than it would wish unless it can also make progress in reversing the long term decline in numbers and increase in the age profile of its membership. (p2)
(there is a)  ‘mistaken conflation of evangelism and evangelicalism…growth is an authentic priority for all the strands within Anglicansim and should be a practical priority for all’
from the conclusion: it is, rightly, the challenge of growth that is increasingly at the centre of the church’s agendas. As in New Testament days there is a sharp awareness of the challenge posed by an abundance of fields white to harvest and a relatively limited supply of labourers (p10)
Hidden away are some radical thoughts: in a section on vocations there is a growing sense that the current stress on the individual’s sense of vocation needs to be redressed to a greater extent by reference to the kind of clergy who are suited to the present mission challenge and especially to meet the need for greater diversity. I.e. the CofE is looking at rewriting the criteria for leadership selection to put mission leadership as a much higher priority.
The paper outlines some of the work being done under each of the 3 headings, and adds in a paper by Steve Croft, bishop of Sheffield. It’s worth a read, outlining some of the reasons why we don’t talk about church growth in the CofE:
“The agendas of bishops meetings and other meetings are dominated by questions of gender and ministry and human sexuality leaving little quality space for deeper engagement with evangelization”…
and suggests ‘7 disciplines of evangelisation’, which is a really interesting section: watch this space on this one. It’s classic Croft: take some practices and ideas which have been beyond the pale in Anglican circles and describe them in terms and ways which bring them into the fold. Thus ‘ecclesial formation’ (church growth) ‘forming new ecclesial communities’ (church planting). You may see a lot more of this quoted in the months and years to come.
The Croft paper is also here, on his blog as Bishop of Sheffield.
Finally, there is GS Misc 1054. Otherwise known as “Making new disciples: the Growth of the Church of England” I almost feel I need to repeat that title, just in case you thought you’d misread it first time round. It’s a companion paper to the Quinquennium review above, and makes the theological and practical case for prioritising church growth in the CofE. It recognises that decline can’t go on for much longer without the parish system ceasing to function, and that traditional Anglican outreach to the ‘church fringe’ is no longer enough. It’s the kind of honest appraisal of where we’re at as a church that I’ve been wittering on about for some time….
[Now please go to David’s blog to read the rest of the post ]

Can We Use Imagination More? – Simon Sutcliffe

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In a recent Lay Anglicana post we were introduced to some work that has been done by Bishop Steven Croft which can be read in full here. In his paper Bishop Croft outlines 7 disciplines of evangelisation which I have copied here but ought to be read in the context of the whole paper:

1.     The discipline of prayerful discernment and listening (contemplation)

2.     The discipline of apologetics (defending and commending the faith)

3.     The discipline of evangelism (initial proclamation)

4.     The discipline of catechesis (learning and teaching the faith)

5.     The discipline of ecclesial formation (growing the community of the church)

6.     The discipline of planting and forming new ecclesial communities (fresh expressions of the church)

7.     The discipline of incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)


Croft isn’t the first to come up with a list of points or words that might enable the church to grow, but if I’m honest I would rather go with Cron’s 5 words in the novel Chasing Francis and be a church that takes seriously, transcendence, community, beauty, dignity and meaning. But even then, the whole thing is just a lot more complex than hanging a movement on a number of hooks.

Steven Croft’s first and the seventh point I would want to completely agree with. A disciple of Jesus is called both to be attentive to a God who longs to be in relationship with God’s people (1) and to place ourselves into similar scenarios with a similar mindset as The One who calls us out into the world (7). Nor do I have a problem with 4, this is the business of discipleship and I, along with all followers of Jesus, have an obligation to learn from those who think differently and those who have gone before. So points 1,4 and 7, are, for me, part and parcel of being a Christian. They relate to evangelism in the sense that they are assumed prerequisites.

I am more cautious about the other disciplines. At this point I ought to declare my hand fully. I am an ordained Venture FX pioneer (the pioneer ministries scheme in the Methodist Church) and I am the Tutor for Evangelism and Church Growth at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. I am utterly in debt to the Church and to the work of Bishop Croft; my bread and butter is Fresh Expressions and I am so grateful for the Mission Shaped Church movement that has reshaped the landscape of British ecclesiology and our understanding of the mission and ministry of the whole people of God.

But you sense a ‘but’ ….

I think I have a number of questions about his other points. Firstly, it all seems a bit church-centric to me which feels like the wrong place to begin, and therefore we are likely to end up somewhere we never intended to be (which might not be a bad thing). Secondly, and related to the first, I’m not convinced that more churches leads to more Christians – I don’t think the evidence bears that out (Some work done by Dutch theologian Stefan Paas suggests something similar you can read some of his work here). Thirdly, I’m not persuaded apologetics will lead to ‘a new evangelisation’ – it demands me to out-think my atheist and other-faith friends, which seems a bit colonial to me.

This church-centric view is prevalent in most discussion around evangelism. In a paper going to the General Synod under the heading ‘The vital importance of making new disciples.’, it reads:

The simple fact is this: unless there is a significant increase in new people joining the Church over the coming years, that there will be an accelerating decline in the overall number of worshippers.

Para 15


I’m not overly surprised by this church-centric assumption. I spoke at the English version of the Roman Catholic conference Croft attended that began his thought process. Then, like now, I recognised an almost naive assumption that if the church only did what it does better, and if only we could convince people of the faith we share, then our churches will be full. But, like I said, this is my bread and butter – I know that it is simply much more difficult than that. My experience, and the narrative of other pioneers, tells me that we need more than ‘doing church better’ (Parish Renewal) nor can we rely on outsmarting some clever protagonist of new atheism in the local pub.

The problems lies, I suspect, in the telos, the end result, of evangelism. If we are to think that the chief aim of evangelism is salvation (whatever you might mean by that) and that the only expression of salvation is bound up in membership of a recognised mainstream church, then you will naturally assume that evangelism will lead to church growth and that we will know we are succeeding because our church grows and we will finally succeed when all the world becomes Christian.


What if we begin to see evangelism differently? What if, for instance,  the diverse mix that makes up the tapestry of human life and community is somehow God-inspired? So my ministry, as a pioneer, is not to try and mould people into the same shape as me, but to celebrate and point out the rich diversity that is God’s will for all creation.  So instead of lovingly creating a monochrome peoples known as the Church – it is part of my role to work with The Artist to bring together all the raw materials of Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, Theist and Atheist, Muslim and Sikh …. to form the most beautiful, radiant and glory-filled mosaic for all eternity. We might call it Kingdom.

You might not agree with the last paragraph, and that’s fine, but is it possible to think of evangelism and discipleship (the two can never be far from each other) in such a way that the church is vital, but not the centrepiece of God’s missional activity? Or are we always bound to an old expression of theology for a Fresh Expression of Church?

Can we imagine more ….

The image is Imagination by: David Hollingsworth vi Seed Resources

Simon Sutcliffe


The Seven Disciplines of Evangelisation: Bishop Steven Croft


The following is an important paper on the future of the Church of England, which is to be discussed at General Synod next month. I am grateful to The Revd David Keen for alerting me to it, and for Bishop Steven Croft for generously suggesting that his readers share it widely to promote discussion throughout the Church.

Over the last six weeks I’ve been trying to develop a discussion paper on evangelisation in dialogue with a number of groups locally and nationally. The paper is a reflection arising from the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October.  It was originally prepared to introduce a discussion among diocesan bishops in the Church of England.  I developed it further after that conversation and have now presented the ideas in a couple of dioceses to groups of clergy and in a variety of other places.

The feedback has been largely positive and so I’m posting the latest version of the paper here as very much “work in progress”.  Feel free to reproduce it for discussion in any way that is helpful.

The Seven Disciplines of Evangelisation
A discussion paper
Steven Croft
June, 2013. 
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” John 3.16
In October 2012 I was the Anglican Fraternal Delegate to the Synod of Bishops in Rome: a three week gathering of Roman Catholic Cardinals and Bishops with Pope Benedict to explore the single theme of the new evangelization.
The Synod of Bishops was a rich experience of listening to another Church reflect on the challenge of growing the Church and of the role of Bishops in leading that process.
This paper is a reflection arising from sharing in the Synod and my own experience thus far of attempting to develop vision and strategy for growth within the Diocese of Sheffield and more widely.
The paper is framed as a series of brief propositions and questions for discussion.
The paper was originally prepared as a discussion paper for the annual meeting of Diocesan Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England on 10th April, 2013. I have made some revisions to the paper following discussion with fellow bishops.  The original paper had five disciplines. I have now added a sixth (placed first) following a suggestion made by the Bishop of London and a seventh (placed last) taking up a number of suggestions made by colleagues, including the Bishop of Connor whose diocese I visited the day after the English bishops meeting.
The original title of the paper was “How may bishops lead in growing the Church?”.  I have retained some of the emphasis on the role of bishops specifically in the text of this version of the paper.  However I believe the questions of how to give leadership in this area is relevant to all ordained and lay people who share in the oversight of God’s Church.*  I therefore hope that the paper will be relevant to a number of groups across the Church of England and not only bishops.
1.         Growing the Church in the present context is immensely challenging
I returned from the Synod of Bishops convinced that the Church all over the world is having the same conversation about the challenge and difficulty of evangelization.  I expected to hear about challenge and difficulty from Europe and North America and about growth and hope from Asia, Africa and South America.  There were some contrasts but in fact the picture was much more one of challenge in the face of a uniform, powerful, global secularizing culture.
The difficulty in the transmission of the faith in the face of this secularizing culture is at the root of many of the other difficulties we grapple with as Churches (apparent lack of finance, vocations, the need to re-imagine ministry, decreasing resources to serve the common good).
The questions we are grappling with in our dioceses and in the Church of England are not unique to Anglicans or to Christians in Britain or the Church in Europe.  They are global questions and, I would argue, the single most serious challenge the Church will face in the next generation.
How should we lead and guide the Church in this aspect of our life given this challenging context?
We need to be realistic about the challenges.  We need to practice and live hope as a key virtue in leadership.  We need to be deeply rooted in prayer and in the scriptures.  We need to be aware that the leadership we offer individually and bishops, clergy and lay people sets a tone and makes a difference to the whole church. We need to prioritise thinking and reflection around this issue.  We should beware of simplistic rhetoric and easy solutions. 
2.         We need a richer dialogue on evangelization and growing the Church
The Synod of Bishops was able to set aside three whole weeks to deal with a single issue and was itself part of a longer five year process leading up to and from the Synod.  This meant that there was in depth engagement with the subject over many hours of listening within a coherent and transformational process.   Major theological and practical resources will in due time emerge from this process.
By contrast, many discussions of growing the Church and evangelization at senior level in the Church of England are superficial, skate over the surface of the issues and make little progress.
Some of the reasons for this are:
·      The agendas of bishops meetings and other meetings are dominated by questions of gender and ministry and human sexuality leaving little quality space for deeper engagement with evangelization.
·      We feel a constant need to balance our agendas between serving the common good on the one hand and evangelization/growth on the other as if they were in competition (there was no evidence of this in Rome).  It becomes impossible to devote even a whole day to growth and evangelization.
·      The evangelization and growth agenda is seen as the province of a particular church tradition and which is regarded with suspicion by those not of that tradition (again there was no evidence of this in Rome).
·      It is also possible that, as individuals and as a body, we see the complexity of the call to grow the Church and we are in danger of being overwhelmed by that complexity.  It is easier to address the more specific questions.
·      At the same time there is a prevailing myth that we ought to be (and perhaps some are) competent at leading the Church into growth and therefore we don’t need to focus our conversation here.

How can we better develop this richer dialogue on evangelization and growing the Church to nourish our individual and corporate leadership as bishops?…


[Please now go to Bishop Steven’s blog to read the rest of this important piece…]

* The highlighting of this sentence, which seemed particularly relevant to Lay Anglicana, is my own. Ed.

The image is via Wikimedia.

C S Lewis, Dionysus and Christian Weddings


A version of Dionysus (or Bacchus) appears in C. S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, part of The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis depicts him as a dangerous-looking, androgynous young boy who helps Aslan awaken the spirits of the Narnian trees and rivers.

You have already surely seen this video of a wedding conducted in Nottinghamshire by The Revd Kate Bottley. It is worth noting that the dancing begins after the union has been solemnised. Also,  the first words of the song are ‘Everybody dance now’, and that the dancing is led by the vicar. Also, at the end of the dance, the vicar gathers the congregation together in final prayers. This is a visual enactment of the forces of Dionysus being channelled and contained by the forces of Apollo, with both representing aspects of the Christian God.

The relationship between Dionysus and Apollo is characterised as follows:

Apollo represents harmony, order, and reason—characteristics contrasted with those of Dionysus, god of wine, who represents ecstasy and disorder. The contrast between the roles of these gods is reflected in the adjectives Apollonian and Dionysian. However, the Greeks thought of the two qualities as complementary: the two gods are brothers, and when Apollo at winter left for Hyperborea, he would leave the Delphic oracle to Dionysus. This contrast appears to be shown on the two sides of the Borghese Vase. Apollo is often associated with the Golden Mean. This is the Greek ideal of moderation and a virtue that opposes gluttony.

In her 1998 book, C S Lewis In Context, Doris T. Myers says:

As god of both freedom and civilisation, Bacchus mediates between the just kingdom, which Peter seeks to restore, and the wildness, the otherness, the vitality of Nature that the Telmarines fear. The rationality of justice and the energy of physical being come together…Like Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Bacchus expresses the laughter and the conviviality that is one of the bases of civilisation…But the Dionysian side of humanity can create balance and joy under God. Thus Susan says, ‘I wouldn’t have felt very safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan’. As in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the revelry trains the feelings by showing that Aslan is on the side of freedom, celebration and plenteousness rather than uncomfortable Sunday clothes, long-faced piety, and self-denial.

Far from being a Sunday school lesson, most of Prince Caspian is concerned with…justice and the proper release of inhibition. The central Christian image of the book, the passage in which Lucy meets Aslan and then the others have to follow her by faith, must not be isolated from the example of kingship and the allegory of the bacchanal.

What is marriage if not the channelling of the energy and the ‘wildness, the otherness, the vitality’ of sex into the sanctity of ‘solid joys and lasting treasure’, of union with each other under and through God?

You may not subscribe to the more extreme identification of Dionysus and Our Lord, but Christ’s enthusiastic participation in the marriage at Cana suggests approval of marriage and its earthly celebration.

In my view, the Revd Kate Bottley has given us a physical demonstration of the attitude of the Church to marriage at its best.

The image is William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – The Youth of Bacchus (1884) via Wikimedia

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