St Bride's: Sermon Series

Creative in Reaching New Places

Creative in Reaching New Places

I presume that for each of us the news that we live in a world marked by postmodernity is something akin to very old news!

In such a world, truth is not something that is outside ourselves, something we journey towards within our religious experience and desire, but something that is self-determined. Each of us constructs our own private, personal realities. What's 'true' for you is not 'true' for me. What's real for me is not necessarily real for you!

So, how do we break into the lives of people who are immersed in this postmodern reality? How do we reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ - that good news for all? Do we find ways to show them how the gospel is existentially satisfying? Do we offer cosy entertainment to draw them in? Do we standardise and homogenise the offer to make it more readily acceptable in a doubting and relative environment?

Well you will be pleased to know it's not at all possible to answer those points in a brief homily on a Sunday morning - and in any case the answers can only be found in the living out of these mind struggles in praxis - in applying our faith to the context we find ourselves living, Working and moving within!

I have always been struck by the very simple and yet profound words of St Francis of Assisi when addressing his sisters and brothers he simply stated 'preach the Gospel always, with words if necessary'.

With words if necessary. Well I guess a part of equipping us to reach those new places, those touching places and points of humankinds very life and existence we do need a few words - words of encouragement born out of experience and tested in the refiners fire!

A part of our mission in this great city of ours, each congregation, chaplaincy and individual Christian, is to engage others in the faith - to reach out to others - not necessarily to give them something but to engage with what is already there, latent, undisturbed - and stir up the atoms of life the very stuff of our faith so that its energy is realised and acted upon.

Of course this differs for each and everyone of us depending upon where we find ourselves ministering - and each and everyone of us does mission in our own way - some in daily witness of a life lived for others - some in a professional capacity having been instructed and sent by the church. In whatever way we are each charged with sharing the good news and in brining others to faith in the one true God and our saviour Jesus Christ.

I have spent most of my ministry in a parish setting but latterly in the University context with the pressures and challenges this brings. The multi faith. Multi-cultural dimension is very evident and there is also a strong current of post, post modernity running through the academic world.

The entire 'economy of salvation' the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and all that ensued between those different but interrelated events is concerned with the practical working out of Gods purpose for humankind and the universe and the immediate world that we inhabit.

The incarnation, God becoming one of us in the very substance of our flesh, has for the Christian, shaped and moulded our understanding of our time on the cosmic scale. In ancient societies time was often perceived as cyclical, an eternal repeating cycle which was viewed from a faith perspective as being particularly fatalistic if not a little dreary for the wonderful marvel that is creation.

The incarnation breaks this cycle and breaks into our world view, and now for the Christian theologian and Christian person generally time is perceived as linear which in itself implies progress - a movement along a line towards a goal - for the person of faith eternity and eternal life.

Past and future are no longer something of the same or a given. They are distinct and organic and require attention and interpretation over what is for us an extended period of time, each period having its own issues,pressures,concerns and disputes to grapple with.

If theology can be described as the study of the concepts of God and the nature of religious truths, involving reasoning and discussion, then it follows that this exploration and debate will necessarily
lead us to ask questions of ourselves in relation to this and questions regarding the very nature of the whole of the created order and its very meaning, unless one is completely closed to the prompts of an enquiring mind! This may bring us to seek answers regarding issues such as ways of interpreting the changing and evolving world, exploring the religious world view in differing contexts, and seeking possible answers or pointers to issues and concerns of the current time and perhaps beyond it.

'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.'  It is obvious that this process or action of thinking and questioning and interpreting in the light of the salvific 'offer' and then perhaps applying the answers to different scenarios is in its very nature a practical outworking of the academic discipline of the study of theology as a subject.

The Churches ministry and mission need to be focussed upon what is actually going on in our contemporary culture and why, and begin to reflect on what God is saying and doing through this. A profound engagement is required with the complexities of current ministerial situations to understand them and develop wider awareness and praxis.

In their new book on researching practice in ministry  Helen Cameron and Catherine Duce mark out four main areas or voices that need to be listened too and heard in the working out of theology in practice: Operant (what people do), espoused (what they say they do), normative (what tradition teaches), and formal (theologians attempt to produce a whole picture). At this stage one has moved on from a mere 'reading' as an end in itself to an 'application' of what is read and learnt, in its simplest model - practical theology! Theology like the life of humanity becomes relational in that it cannot exist for itself but does so in God and for God and for our greater understanding and growth as individuals related to each other by virtue of our common humanity (not people which implies an homogenous group much beloved by authoritarian regimes), but equally we are no longer isolated egos, tribes or consumers but persons related to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.

It is necessary to tease out what I mean by pastoral or practical theology before I proceed to outline the role of pastor and minister in the context that I have chosen to explore which is the one I find myself working within as a Christian Priest working in Higher Education. This understanding of the practical application of academic theology is important but also requires some degree of checks and balances to ensure that I am not merely seeking to fit the task of the practical theologian to my own requirements but that I am actively interpreting, applying and reasoning with my own experience in praxis and the developed understanding of others who have done so over the course of the Churches history.

Augustine of Hippo (354AD-430AD) helps us to focus upon what is useful in a given situation that can be used and adapted by the Christian in an apologetic manner to give reason to faith and rise to discernment 'if those who are called philosophers, particularly the Platonists, have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use....' Inevitably the task of the practical theologian will be shaped by their context and cultural exposure. Therefore I guess it could be argued that there are as many applications of practical theology as there are theologies of any kind. The fundamental however is to seek to understand and to reflect whilst acknowledging ones starting point 'fides quaerens intellectum'  

Our cultural context informs us by engaging our senses and experiences and exposes us to the deep impact of images upon our development, from birth through to end life moments. Image is very powerful and can bypass what one may view as a more rational approach to any given situation/issue. Indeed the entire body of Christian literature exposes us to image at every moment. Biblical images abound and even those who are seemingly unfamiliar with the Christian story as we may realise it know of the image of the good shepherd or the prodigal son.

Scriptures use image because it is impossible for us to know our awesome God in all his (I will refer to God as him/his although this does not exclude my own appreciation of God as embodying humanity in its entirety, male and female and my understanding that any attribution of sexuality to God is a reversion to paganism) glory and greatness with our limited capacity - he is indeed a god who passes all our understanding. This is the understanding of God and creation and our role in salvation history that image can speak too so deeply.

Calvin and others would state that this is God adapting himself to our ability to understand him. God accommodates himself to our capacity to comprehend. Calvin states '...forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate our knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness'  The use of imagery is therefore useful to understanding the role of the practical theologian as is the use of analogy.

Analogy assists us in deepening our understanding in terms that speak more freely to us. An example of this may be the use of the terms King and Servant in the Bible for Jesus - clearly they aren't identities as we would know them but are a way of helping us to use human images to imagine God in Christian thought and experience. Image, analogy, accommodation and application (or interpretation) are all aspects of the practical theologians' task regarding the practical application of ministry in given contexts - some contexts may be described as geographical others may be more broadly conceived.

It is this task to which I shall now move on to explore as a chaplain to and within a higher educational institute!

I have often described to others the role of the University chaplain as being one of a ministry of shadows. One finds oneself functioning as a Christian minister in an environment that requires constant justification of function, presence and worth! It is a practical ministry seeking to engage on a multi-facetted level considering communities of interest which may include various cultural as well as religious groups and the cyber/virtual community.  It can be a ministry and outworking of theology in an atmosphere of regular analysis both in regard to self-importance and use and in the wider talk of communities within a large and complex institution. It is a ministry that must challenge accepted notions of the idea of community as presented to internal and external stakeholders both religious and 'secular'.

The challenge being one of opening up horizons of discovery regarding community and not just allowing for an excuse of fuzzy thinking and the concealing and reinforcing of power inequality and conflicts of interest religious, cultural or otherwise.

The university chaplain as I 'model' it is a person within, but not of, this given context and this allows for the challenge to take place and gives rise through prayer, engagement and analysis to the reality of Gods self-disclosure as we seek to realise something of the kingdom in an alien land. It aims to assist and encourage the diversity of voices to be heard in the life of the institution and hopefully gives expression to the concept of differing communities speaking the truth in love to one and each other. 'Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him, who is the head, Christ......'.  

The idea of community is strong and powerful in any setting and this is evidenced by the fact that it is deployed in a wide range of settings and contexts. Such power and potency must have direct and equally as powerful social consequences. Ideas about a community don't just stay as a concept in the mind they can and often do have concrete effects and influence directly upon different political and religious programmes of thought/ideas. Ideas of community also offer a strong sense of what's good and valued in any given situation - often associated with implicit value judgments that one needs to be aware of as a minister in this complex, competing and judgemental environment!  

One of the joys of university chaplaincy is the ability to function in this dynamic and alien land in a prophetic mode as well as a pastoral one. Within a parish/parochial setting too often churches make the mistake of talking of community when they actually mean something more along the lines of locality. Ambiguous statements are then trotted out regarding community, and mission statements invariably have the line inserted that states that 'we seek to serve the community'.

I would venture to suggest that in today's society and in large institutions such as higher education community is better expressed along the lines of networks rather than territory - as individuals we all seem to relate too and belong to a series of networks. The individuals to whom I find myself ministering with and to seem to derive a sense of community from more than one network. Within the university these may be family, peers, faith groups, cultural groups and courses, student societies and clubs etcetera.

All this makes the task of ministry and of relating theological truths in a practical manner difficult. The Christian Priest, me, has to critically reflect and stand back and ask questions like 1. How stable are these relationships and connections? 2. How and have these relationships changed? 3. What influences these changes both internally and externally and spiritually and from a secular stand point? 4. What does this mean for the task of the Christian missionary today?

The New Delhi assembly of the World Council of Churches (1961) heard a report from its Department of Evangelism which stated: '[We are] convinced that one of the main hindrances in the pursuit of the evangelistic calling of the Church lies in the traditional structure of the local congregation.

"Whenever the church has a vested interest in the status quo - politically, economically, socially - it can easily be captivated by the powers, the institutions, the spirits, and the authorities of the world. And whenever the church becomes captivated by the powers, it loses the ability to identify and name evil."

"Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny."
W Bruggerman

Therefore we are charged in seeking and being creative in reaching new places for the greater glory of the Christian faith and the salvation of humankind.

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