Join us for a week exploring Celtic spirituality

June 11, 2010

On September 20-24 we will be leading a course on Celtic Spirituality as part of Fuller Seminary’s DMin program.  Based on the island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland, we will have sessions on Lindisfarne history, spirituality, as well as hands-on workshop on Celtic art, worship, reflection on mission issues, and sharing stories.   In addition to sessions led by us, we have recruited some significant speakers who live and work on Lindisfarne itself. 

As well as those who are formally enrolled in Fuller’s DMin program, we can also accommodate others as ‘audits’ (which roughly speaking means you have the experience without doing the work – and pay a lot less for the privilege!).  For details, see   And to enrol (or enquire more), email Julia at

Emerging Politics

May 12, 2010

This blog has been deliberately silent during the UK election campaign, and now the dust is starting to settle and we have a coalition government for the first time in living memory, it is fascinating to see the responses not only of the wider public but of those Christians who like to make pronouncements about such things.  Can ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ ever live and work together in harmony?  Many Christians seem to regard this as completely impossible – maybe because the very words themselves echo so closely the battle lines that have marred the churches for so long.  For at least the last hundred years – maybe more – ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ have been at each other’s throats about theology and church practice, and their strident disagreements have arguably contributed to the disillusion of many people with the church itself. 

We have often been asked which side of this theological debate we are on, but the reality is that we haven’t a clue – and what’s more, we don’t care.  The terminology itself is well past its sell-by date, and the notion that life can be so simple as to be categorized like this is naive in the extreme.  It might have worked fifty years ago, but no longer.  One of the characteristics of post-modernity is that everything is in flux, and the old certainties (and enmities) of the past no longer make sense.  The rise of the emerging church is only one manifestation of that, and is a key reason why some people dislike it so much, because it is (on the old paradigm) eclectic and illogical.  Viewed from this angle, the coalition of ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ in government looks like a version of the same thing – emerging government, perhaps?  Just like the emerging church, it will be loved and hated in equal measure.  Those who still prefer the old certainties and tribal identities will be especially cynical.  Which should mean that no emergent Christians will be among them, but you never know.  Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Narrow-minded faith in politics

April 16, 2010

With the election campaign now well under way in Britain, it has been interesting to see the responses and reactions of Christians.  Of course, there will always be those who peddle their narrow agendas and demand that the government acknowledge their own perspective on whatever they think a Christian society should look like.  But what has been more surprising is the way that otherwise open-minded, even liberal,  Christians are emerging as covert fundamentalists, only prepared to listen to (never mind take seriously) those politicians who they think they already approve of.  People who are quite happy to think outside the box on all sorts of issues to do with church and faith are taking up what can only be described as tribal (even feral) positions, not through discussions of the issues but just telling the rest of us which party leaders they will listen to and which ones are to be dismissed without any sort of hearing.  The country is in such a mess that it seems highly unlikely that any one individual of whatever political colour is going to have all the answers.  And of course from a Scottish perspective, there are more than just three parties of significance, which is especially relevant given that the fourth party is the current Scottish government!

Divine Beauty

March 9, 2010

We wouldn’t deny that we seem to have a nose for sniffing out the unusual, but even the church mice didn’t expect to find this website with beauty tips for female clergy.  One of the more reasonably quotable bits of the blurb declares that “if clergypeople believe that religious life is vital, relevant and beautiful, they should look the part” – you’ll have to look yourself to find the full story from PeaceBang, who describes herself as “stage mother to the clergy”.  Aimed especially at females (though we did notice a reference to shaving creams, so – unless we’re missing something else! – the male variety aren’t altogether excluded), this website offers advice on everything from the appropriate clergy lipstick to robes that can be worn in bed as well as in church.  Can they be serious?  Well, apparently yes.  Now the church mice wouldn’t wish to appear in public in a dishevelled and dirty state, and we would also recognize that the medium is indeed the message, in ministry as in everything else, and that God deserves our best …. etc etc.  But ….

It’s easy to question all this from a feminist perspective, and note that here is yet one more expectation that female clergy now have to live up to – not just being spiritual superstars, but looking like fashionistas as well.  It brings to mind all those male ministers we’ve encountered, whose robes not only hide a multitude of fashion crimes but also bear testimony to years of untreated BO.  One law for the … well, you can write the rest of that sentence yourself!  More importantly, perhaps, whatever happened to all those scriptural references to inner beauty and the importance of integrity, truthfulness, honesty, and goodness?  And do you think Jesus would be regarded as suitable material for the cover of one of today’s fashion mags?

Search for an authentic church

March 4, 2010

Jim and Casper go to Church is the title of a fascinating little book that came our way recently.  Written by two friends, Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, the book documents their visits to churches of all shapes and sizes in their US homeland.  Nothing surprising in that, you may think, except that Jim is a fervent Christian and Casper is an atheist.  They agreed to suspend their preconceptions and to engage in honest dialogue about their experiences.  Their trip included megachurches such as Saddleback and Willow Creek, as well as more ordinary traditional congregations and some emerging ones (Mars Hill, among others).  Amazingly, they managed to keep their bargain, and the book is one of the most honest dialogues you could imagine.  They both learn something along the way, but the most interesting thing is Casper’s take on what he experiences.  At Saddleback he tries to roll the stone back from the door of the replica of Jesus’ tomb, only to discover it’s locked – and wrly expresses the hope that they will unlock it in time for Easter (yes, they really do have a life-size replica of Calvary perched on top of an artificial tomb).  At Mars Hill, he finds himself somewhat repelled by Mark Driscoll’s aggressive style and is puzzled as to why ‘he likes to talk about sex a lot … at least once every minute’ (p102) when he could be talking about Jesus.  And at those two and all the others they visit, he wonders why there is so much emphasis on self-improvement when his reading of the Gospels suggests that disciples are supposed to care for other people, not themselves – summed up in his big unanswered questions addressed to Jim, ‘Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?’  Jim, for his part, is challenged because all the things that churches do to make themselves more attractive to outsiders actually turn Casper off – not just the kitschy environment at Saddleback, but the drumkits, noisy music and worship leaders that seem to be everywhere.

By way of a contrast, this online volume came through our computers this week.  The brainchild of Australian Jay Jeffries, it is billed as a Bible for spiritual searchers, and is gradually being released on the website in installments.  We both contributed to it, so we have a stake in seeing how it goes – but we can’t help wondering what Casper would make of it.  Because there are a lot more like him than there are Jims in this world.

Jim and Casper go to Church is written by Jim Henderson & Matt Casper, and published by BarnaBooks: ISBN 978-1-4143-1331-2

Resources for Research

February 17, 2010

An outspoken and eminent professor of philosophy at St Andrews University, the oldest in Scotland, has had the courage to say what the church mice have known to be true for a long time – that a lot of the ‘research’ that keeps people busy in universities is a waste of time and money.  For more on his arguments, take a look here.  Of course, there is some great work being done, but sadly much that passes for ‘practical theology’ is (as the old cynics have it) neither practical nor theology.  We were reminded of that last month at a conference of missiologists in Denmark, where the one thing that nobody seemed to know how to speak about was faith.  Some participants even expressed dismay when one of the speakers – leading a Bible study, no less – was bold enough to pray!  And there was a general consensus that, whatever practical theology might be about it is not really concerned to engage with God.  In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that the discipline easily descends into the sort of second rate social science that John Haldane complains about (though he targets the whole of the humanities, and includes the social sciences as well!).  Even worse when practical theologians claim to know something about medical science, which is much harder to bluff about when you know nothing!  Fortunately the two of us are now liberated from having to participate in this sort of charade, free to be both practical and (we hope) truly theological – and, even better, the only institution which we both work with most often regards the doing of theology (as distinct from talking about it) as something praiseworthy, not to mention the fact that there is a big market for it out there (which you might have thought would appeal to cash-strapped institutions like those that professor Haldane writes about).  If only the British theological establishment knew how to do the same, the criticisms coming from St Andrews might not stick so easily.  And maybe the use of ‘theology’ as a pejorative term in the wider public discourse might be toned down, if not disappear altogether (as when politicians dismiss pointless hair-splitting debates as ‘just a theological argument’).  Whatever happened to the ‘queen of sciences’?

Angry Christians

February 10, 2010

We’ve just come across this new blog, dedicated to telling us what’s wrong with emerging church and Fresh Expressions, complete with extensive sections naming and shaming the ringleaders.  If you’re one of them you’ll probably want to check it out to see if what they’re saying about you is true.  Lucky for the church mice, we don’t get a mention, which either means that we’re too insignificant to bother with or so totally heretical that they wouldn’t know where to start.  The only question we have is what makes these people so angry?  Which bits of the gospel do they not get?  Who do they imagine might be attracted to a faith that seems to consist of putting other people right?  Or maybe there is an alternative version of the fruits of the Spirit or the Sermon on the Mount which includes acrimony and aggression as hallmarks of discipleship?

Hating Haiti

January 14, 2010

While the rest of the world is waking up to the horrors of the earthquake in Haiti and sending resources to help those unfortunate people, televangelist Pat Robertson is expressing the view that it’s really all their own fault because their ancestors made a ‘pact with the devil’.  It really is amazing what contortions some people will go to so as to absolve themselves from any feeling of sympathy or responsibility to the suffering millions in today’s world.  New agers have often been castigated for explaining such things as a consequence of people ‘choosing their own karma’, and including tragedy in that as a way of working through bad influences from previous lives.  Now a so-called ‘Christian’ evangelist appears to be saying more or less the same thing – though he’s also on record as saying that the New Age is also a demonic conspiracy!  Apart from that, though, it makes you wonder how Christians like Robertson who, in another time and place, would lay so much emphasis on everybody being personally responsible for their own wrongdoings, can at the same time hold the view that today’s people are also to blame for something that allegedly happened 300 years ago.  And his interpretation of that history is by no means widely accepted anyway.  It’s all a far cry from Jesus, who when he encountered suffering people showed compassion for them and resolutely refused to even countenance silly questions about whether they or their ancestors might be responsible for their own suffering.  But then, Robertson is also a premillennial dispensationalist, so for him the teaching of Jesus will presumably be an irrelevance only suited to some hypothetical future millennial kingdom.

Tattoos and spirituality

January 13, 2010

David Beckham has a new tattoo.  To add to his already extensive collection, he now has one based on a painting by Matthew R Brooks, entitled ‘The Man Of Sorrows’ and depicting Jesus in a reflective pose.  It’s not his first Christian-inspired tattoo (he already has a cross and a guardian angel), though the religious significance is evidently not important to him.  His spokesperson is quoted as saying that he ‘has an appreciation of religious art and iconography and the new tattoo reflects that’, while adding that ‘unlike a lot of his other designs, there is no specific meaning behind it’.  Further down the same article, though, the same friend assures us that ‘Each tattoo he opts for is very carefully considered’, before adding that ‘It’s more than a hobby for him – it’s almost spiritual’.

So there you have it, direct from one of today’s style icons: Jesus has no particular [religious] meaning but just may have something to do with being spiritual.  Some Christians have been trying to convince us recently that the culture is becoming more secular than spiritual (and by implication that we are making this stuff up).  Actually, we couldn’t have said it more eloquently ourselves, and where celebrities lead others invariably follow.

Oh Mrs Robinson

January 11, 2010

Until the last few days, virtually nobody in the UK – still less the rest of the world – had ever heard of Iris Robinson, wife of the first minister of the devolved assembly in Northern Ireland.  Today, the news is full of nothing else, and the reason is not hard to find.  In most circumstances, an older woman having an affair with a youth of nineteen would probably hardly merit a mention – just another example of how our relational preferences have changed.  A politician would perhaps make the headlines for a day (and she is a member of the Westminster parliament as well as of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and apparently of a local council as well), but the fuss would soon die down.  Except that in this case, it’s also overlaid with religion – and that makes it ever so interesting not only to the media but to the wider public.  Not only is Iris Robinson an ardent Protestant, and her lover a Roman Catholic (a surprising enough liaison in itself), but this is also the woman who, just a few weeks before she started the aforementioned affair, made a public denunciation of homosexual people and their lifestyle – something for which she was named ‘UK bigot of the year’ in 2008.

You can’t help feeling some sympathy for Mrs Robinson, whose strident religious beliefs and the conflict they created apparently led her to contemplate suicide when her double standards first came to light.  As one of those Christians who like to distinguish themselves from the rest of us by saying they are ‘Bible-believing’, she and her family will be well familiar with Jesus’ advice to the Pharisees not to throw stones at others if they themselves were less than perfect (John 8:7) – a truth which always comes back to haunt those who ignore it, as some commentators are now pointing out.  ‘Bible-believing’ Christians are usually less than enamoured of movies like ‘The Graduate, but the message of its iconic song might just be what this family need to hear right now: ‘here’s to you Mrs  Robinson – Jesus loves you more than you will know’.


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