Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Spirituality for our times: Church in a Pub?

In truth, I always thought that Jesus believed storytelling was nebulous enough. What I mean by that is that He spoke in parables, which by nature are hazy and call upon us to peel off their layers - the consequence of which is that they tend to stick around our souls for a long time - they journey with us, sustain us and nourish our hungry hearts. All the songs and stories I loved as a boy I still love, those my grandparents told about anonymous people; miners, steel workers, farmers and builders really interested me. I loved hearing tales about the struggles and hardships of the labourers, the pioneers, and I loved the old gospel spirituals that my grandfather adored so much – songs with tragedy born out of hardship but that looked forward to a better day and a more redemptive time – they echoed his own struggle, a struggle I am proud to be connected to in some way to this day.

I was remembering today a conversation I had with His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. Over a drink he said that he saw ‘the failings of the Church in very stark terms’, and that, ‘the Church must always be reformed.’ Moreover, he stated that ‘the Church has nothing to lose by admitting its faults.’ Cormac is a remarkable man, and I find his humility intoxicating.

What impressed me most about him when he stayed in Guernsey was that even in his position he had lost none of his compassion for ordinary people. I found him to be at his most influential when he was out of the limelight - perhaps sharing a beer at the bar with those everyday folk he seems to have a real pastoral heart for. I say this with good reason.

The passive majority expect the church to be guardians of the Christian tradition. Most do not attend church themselves, primarily because they wish it would change. Few sit back and expect the church to perform various tasks on their behalf. Most post-Christian people no longer describe themselves as religious, but they do feel the need for a place of community that allows an articulation of their spiritual impulses. The wave of interest in spirituality from our post-modern culture has caught secularists by surprise. It’s as if (using evangelical language) we are in the midst of a revival.

As John Drane notes, ‘it is fashionable to be green and spiritual.’ We must stop castrating the emerging culture and become the incarnate community we are called to be, and so live among it. Too much Christian spirituality contains Hellenistic dualism of body/spirit. Mike Riddell suggests that the result of this is, ‘a spirituality which is disembodied, disengaged and ill at ease with normal human existence.’ If, as His Eminence suggests, the church should be willing to reform, it will need to find both the spirituality of physical life, and the physicality of spiritual expression.

I have friends who pioneer a remarkable church in Belfast. What is so extraordinary about it is this - it is a pub. I would describe it as a place specifically for those on the fringes of, or dropped out of, church for whatever reason. ‘Ikon’ aims to provide opportunity for expression of and enquiry into the Christian faith in a relaxed pub environment. It opens its doors to all comers. It is for those on the edge. It has attracted those who are hurting, those who have lost their way, and those who are unsure where they fit.

It has aimed to provide a forum that fosters friendship, listens to questions and strengthens frail faith. If anyone is now feeling a little uneasy it might be helpful to return to the life of a God-man who roamed this planet a couple of thousand years ago. Whilst Jesus was certainly someone who learned to let go of everything (including life itself) he also gained a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard. Now, ask yourselves how one earns that sort of reputation.

The truth is public houses have always been a focal point of community – a place of conversation, of feasting; in short, a place of celebration and belonging. Sure they’ve had their problems and dark days, but what hasn’t? To celebrate is to transform, to make the ordinary special – or maybe to recognise the extraordinariness of the everyday. Maybe, even today, as people sit around a bar, suddenly there is another punter, another voice, another presence…just maybe.

For those who are looking for a rhythm of spirituality that has roots but is not too ‘churchy’ Ikon seems to be a helpful signpost pointing on beyond itself. I would describe it as an excellent idea for connecting and relating to those who feel threatened by traditional church, and for those who have a had bad experiences and been let down. It also brings credibility to those who think that churches today have lost touch with modern times, and are stuck in the past. Ikon is an encouraging example of reformation, and those precious humans who nurture it are to be commended in encapsulating dynamic vision whilst holding a fresh vitality lacking in many churches today.

Quite naturally we judge the authenticity of the church by experiencing the community and mystery within it. What is it that people experience within church, and does that differ with what people share in the public house? Do both provide a sense of security and inclusiveness? Is one characterized by a concern for boundaries and controls, where most of the people are very much the same? And is the other characterized by its embracing of diverse types of people, who might be at different stages of their journey, but who are bound together by their commitment to one another? I am not suggesting any answers here, but merely provoking questions.

We often describe church as the community of faith, but all too often (because of inherited definitions of institutional membership) it is the one thing that many people fail to find. Douglas Coupland alludes to this in much of his work, but particularly in Shampoo Planet, where he suggests that church community has ‘too many experiences but no relationships.’ Ultimately the search for an authentic spiritual life is to discover and feel part of something greater than ourselves. Whether that is found to a greater or lesser degree in church than public houses I’m not sure. I suspect it may be found in both. Maybe the most important discovery here is that we have much to learn from one another?

Oh, ps, for the record I won a gammon joint at the meat draw last week……I guess there is a God

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Cezanne once said that 'Shadow is a colour as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.'

.....sometimes though I guess we all wish for colour without shadow

.....just not sure it's possible

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


"Most true happiness comes from one's inner life, from the disposition of the mind and soul. Admittedly, a good inner life is difficult to achieve, especially in these trying times. It takes reflection and contemplation and self-discipline."
William L Shirer

i guess one of the greatest moments in anybody's growth and development as a human is when he or she no longer tries to hide from him or herself but determines to get acquainted with themselves as they really are...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The post with no title

You know I have no clue as to what to say (this is the 7th time i have started this post - who knows what number it might reach), the truth is of late I have been lazy - I have been using too many images from the trusty engine searches of the www and not enough of my own. One of the most inspiring, moving and brutally honest blogs out there has always been a sign post pointing on beyond itself to the landscape of my heart - the place where I, if I am honest, am afraid to sojourn to. Recently I have come across another intoxicating blog where original images enhance and sustain the narrative they are dovetailed too/to?

So, my narrative is, well non existant - the photographs are of the newly enhanced local (watering hole) - it's gone from being a sports bar to a North African delight...

...thanks Jen and Anna - here's to original photography

Saturday, February 10, 2007

From the mouths of babes

My son Samuel (just shy of 4) has always had a fascination with the epic depiction of life revealed by the creative genius of the blue planet. From an early age he has sat and watched Mr Attenborough wax lyrical about everything from blue whales to plangton - and loved every second - so for christmas he got the next chapter - Planet Earth

The makers of The Blue Planet present the epic story of life on Earth. Five years in production, over 2000 days in the field, using 40 cameramen filming across 200 locations, this is the ultimate portrait of our planet. A stunning television experience that combines rare action, unimaginable scale, impossible locations and intimate moments with our planet's best-loved, wildest and most elusive creatures. From the highest mountains to the deepest rivers, this series takes you on an unforgettable journey through the challenging seasons and the daily struggle for survival in Earth's most extreme habitats.

Where am I going with this? Well, the other day I read an article stating that there are just a few thousand tigers left, only seven hundred mountain gorillas and just one hundred Iberian lynx. Now Samuel loves animals and I mean LOVES them and was interested in the article I was reading. When I told him that if attitudes and systems didn't change then some of these animals may not exist when he was my age. He said nothing (which is unusual) just stared off into his imagination I guess.

Later that night whilst watching the afore mentioned planet earth he broke the silence by announcing that 'it was very good that he had this dvd because when I am your age daddy some of these animals may not exist'....then he looked straight at me and said, 'but I would rather them be alive than just on my television, that would be better wouldn't it daddy?'

.....yes, i said, it would

There are twice as many privately owned tigers in America as there are in the wild across the world. Maybe 3,000 to 4,500 Bengal tigers, 1,500 Indo-Chinese tigers and 500 Sumatran tigers and there may be 20-30 Souh China tigers left - if they aren't extinct already. In the past 150 years, 93% of tigers' original habitat has been lost; in the last 100 years the world's tiger population has declined by 95%.

There are thought to be around 30,000 orang-utans in the wild in Borneo and Sumatra; they tend to inhabit lowland forest, in fertile land coveted by farmers. Their habitats are fast disappearing as Indonesia expands its palm oil production (Palm oil is the second largest oil crop after soy)....I don't need to explain what will happen to the orang-utan if this continues

It seems a crime that the leatherback turtles, having been around for 150 million years (outliving dinosauurs and asteroid impacts) should decline 95% in just 20 years because of our fishing practice - longline fishing use a kind of hook (thousands of them) where turtles become trapped - evidently switching to a different type of hook would drastically reduce turtle by-catch

Ellen MacArthur last month said the albatross was "the most amazing bird i've been lucky enough to see" Well, 19 out of 21 species of these iconic birds are threatened with extinction - seems longline fishing does as much damage above the water as it does below

Cod is not the most attractive of fish, but we will miss it (particularly in Britain - fish and chip shops big business is cod and chips) when it's gone, and it's population rapidly decreasing. If we carry on fishing at the rate we do cod will be off our menus in less than 15 years.

Only 100 are left in the wild. The world's most endangered cat lives not in Africa, nor Asia but in Western Europe! If it becomes extinct it will be the first big cat the world has lost since the sabre-toothed tiger 10,000 years ago....

In the forests around Africa's Great Lakes (Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC) there are around 700 mountain gorillas left - poaching and habitat is an ongoing problem

There are only 100 Western Pacific grey whales left in our oceans - and only 2 dozen or so females of breeding age

They used to roam in colonies from Lebanon all the way to France, but now the Mediterranean monk seal survive in two main colonies - only between 300-500 have survived. Fishing again seems to be a problem

Sea ice is shrinking at a rate of 10% a year - in 30 years the arctic could have no ice at all during the summer. Polar bears live on this ice and drift for miles hunting - they have recently been seen swimming in 60 miles of open sea - at this rate by 2040 the ice back will have dropped back significantly enough to see a huge decline in the biggest of bears

I am no expert but could I suggest that we are not being good stewards of this precious gift called earth - I find it ironic that multinationals such as Nestle (again!) are part responsible for the decline of tigers (they buy coffee beans from illegal plantations which the tigers used to inhabit) - Shell and Gazpron whose gas and oil platform development is a threat to sea life. Not to mention that man in the White House who refuses to sign the kyoto agreement because there is no proof that global warming and gas emissions are connected - well last time i looked there was no proof that the Almighty exists either, but evidently he still believes in Him......sobering isn't it. I hope all these remarkable creatures are still around for our children and children's children to enjoy

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Our last best word

Scarcely a tribe of East Africa was left unaffected in one way or another from a suffering unimaginable when the slave traders arrived from Arabia backed by their European financers. They travelled many miles into the African Plains to abduct their slaves before heading back to the coast toward Zanzibar. The last stop on the mainland was (and still is) an eerie place called Bwagamoyo.

Legend says that Bwagamoyo takes its name from the two Swahili words, bwaga and moyo. Bwaga means to throw down or put down, and during the long safari (journey), the leader of the group of slaves would, at certain times, shout to the other porters, “Bwaga mizigo” which means put down your loads. Moyo means heart. Bwaga moyo literally means to put down your heart.

I remember standing at Bwagamoyo awaiting the arrival of a ferry to Zanzibar nearly two years ago. As I stood at the waters edge I realised the enormity of its name. It was the place a captured slave, after his gruelling journey from the plains of East Africa, would lay down his heart, it was the place all hope was lost, because this would be the last time he would stand on the soil of his homeland before his trip to Zanzibar and beyond to a lifetime of cruelty and despair.

Two hundred years ago, British politician William Wilberforce and a small group of loyal friends took on the most powerful forces of their day to end the slave trade. His mentor was John Newton, the slave-trader-turned-songwriter who wrote the world’s most popular hymn, "Amazing Grace."

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, but the work of justice and mercy continues. Today 27 million men, women, and children are still enslaved around the globe.

Watch this and if it does not make you weep then I doubt you have a Philip Yancey says, this is truly our last best word

* seems some are having problems with the link, if so, go to and play the trailer...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Love and Fear

"On his right hand Billy tattooed the word love,
and on his left hand the word fear.
And in which hand he held his faith,
was never clear..."
(Bruce Springsteen)

You know, I think without its opposite each is impotent, one can't exist without the other...

....I mean, Jesus blood never failed me, but sometimes we have to make a pillow from hard ground...