Friday, 21 January 2011

Stewards of the Future

I was struck by something I read on Nick Baines' blog. In his 13th January post What the Church is Really For about a recent theological conference at Meissen, he quotes from a lecture given by Graham Cray on ecclesiology, culture and mission,

'Perhaps we have given too much uncritical emphasis on the church as steward of the inheritance of the past and too little on the church as an anticipation of the future.'

Graham has always had a way of putting his finger on something important. His great phrase 'roots down, walls down' which was originally crafted to describe the ecumenical opportunities for learning in the Cambridge Theological Federation now echoes around the churches wherever people are trying to be both true to themselves and open to others. So I was intrigued by this idea of the church as, as much steward of anticipation of the future as steward of past inheritance. It has been jangling around in my head ever since, tapping into something very deep that I have felt since I was a teenager first consciously doing theology. 

Perhaps I should confess that whenever I do personality tests I always come out as being more future-focused and risk-taking than past-conscious and conserving, so there is clearly a psychological predisposition to want to hear something, here. I can remember, as a young person, being deeply frustrated by the fact that in so many theological traditions creativity and the freedom to explore - to think the previously unthinkable, to ask the unacceptable question - is curtailed by such a respect for a rather static view of tradition that everything has to be limited by what has already been held to be true and by what it was possible to experience in the past. That is not to say that I don't think that truth can emerge from tradition. However, when tradition is given too prominent and uncritical a place in the life of the church, problems of imbalance arise. For example, questions of how history is written and who makes the selection of what is preserved are often overlooked; emerging world views and seismic cultural shifts throw up possibilities of thought and behaviour with which tradition does not necessarily connect in straight forward ways. Obviously all this causes problems in areas like the dialogue between theology, science and medicine, in liberation theology and for the new ethical dilemmas we face as a result of things like increased awareness of other cultures, genetic research, the information explosion and new means to preserve life and predict disease.

So, retruning to Graham Cray's statement, I find myself asking, where, in the Christian tradition, do we see the church actively behaving as a 'steward of the anticipation of the future?' What does a good steward do? In Jesus' parables he or she looks after, looks out for, manages, builds up, ensures fruitfulness, capitalizes, makes sure a thing has its place, pays attention to something on behalf of another person, keeps an estate or a vinyard moving forward and not just viable but profitable, grows and multiplies things. In contempoaray thinking, stewardship is often about creating more resources or wealth, being responsible and generous, passing on an inheritance. Much of church life has become an attempt to conserve, to sustain and keep things as they have been, yet these are not the primary aspirations of the steward.

How different might it be if churches spent a bit more time actively picturing the future? By this, I mean using every means at our disposal to do so. Instead of just discipleship courses that are grounded in history and tradition, courses which explore contemporary developments in ethics and prayer, economics and world church growth and which use contemporary issues as a prism to examine our faith (rather than vice versa - the usual approach). As well as the usual magazine articles and sermons on age old stories about saints, stories about contemporary individuals facing challenges. Why don't we make much more use of the research that is done about social trends and trends in church life? Admittedly some of it is pretty scarey and holds out huge challenges to the numerically declining churches in the west. There's a bimonthly publication Future First produced by the Brierley Consultancy which locates statistics based on research about church life within research about wider social trends. While this publication does embody some particular theological assumptions, it often debunks assumptions which almost all Christians make about the impact of church life on wider society. And then, in the churches' calendar and lectionary, as well as the usual round of commemoration, there ought to be a season dedicated to the lives of prophets - old and new - and to interpretation of prophecy, and prayer for the future.

So where and when does the church anticipate? If you think about it, many of the eucharistic prayers we use look forward and long to see the full coming of God's kingdom. The old, old practice of anamnesis (remembering) is all about re-enacting the past story of God's dealings with humans in the present in order to shape the future. In other words, remembering in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is all about the future! Aspects of penetcostal and charismatic worship long for and attend to the tangible difference the presence of the Holy Spirit will make in the immediate future. The mystics are people who see beyond what is and has been - often they are ostracised, misunderstood and silenced by the church because of the unacceptable quality of their message. The ecological movement within the churches is one that is based on future oriented (albeit disputed) research.

To think of the future takes imagination and creative exploration and is a speculative and therefore risky exercise. To dwell too much on the past is to allow a failure of imagination. One way for the churches to become more focused on and motivated by what will be is for us to give a deeper place to the imagination in our work. Perhaps the churches rely too much on what is called left brained thinking. Things which depend more on right brained activity such as poetry, story telling, sculpture, painting and music open us up to possibilities we did not know exist. (I recently went to a tarining day where 'notes' on the sessions were recorded by an artist as huge cartoons. The plenary session at the end was a great deal more interactive, humourous and lively than usual, everybody in the room participated and I can remember a lot more about what happened than I usually can after a conference!) Another way is to listen; wherever voices that come of disciplined thinking speak, take notice and ponder before dismissing. Strange words, unfamiliar ways of doing things always teach us something, challenge us to re-assess what we are doing and make us uncomfortable in ways that open us up to change. 

Of course, Graham Cray was thinking about mission in his lecture. I recently heard a sermon from Mark Bryant, the Bishop of Jarrow. It was preached at Michael Volland's licensing as a lecturer in mission at Cranmer Hall, Durham. In it, he spoke of how the North East had grown and changed out of all recogntition in the nineteenth century, during the Industrial Revolution. As people migrated to the towns, pit villages and cities, the church had had to respond quickly and find new ways of doing things that took account of huge numbers of people, poorly educated, living lives of hard work and poverty in crowded urban areas. The largely rural Church of England had adapted. If people like Graham Cray are right, the cultural shift we face today is probably even more profound. In terms of the communication revolution and the clash of absolutist cultures with cultures that espouse relativity, it is more akin to the invention of printing and the Copernican revolution. Is the fact that so many 'fresh expressions' of church look really quite like 'old expresssions' of church due to a failure of imagination on our part and a lack of time spent listening to cultural clues and to God? If God is asking us to do something new, it will surely come out of sustained interaction with what is new in our culture, it will probably be led by those most of us find a bit 'off the wall' and challenging and, like a new baby in a family, it will disrupt us and require revised priorities and structures.

I think that one of the greatest treatises on change that we have in the churches is the Fourth Gospel. Tradition says that is was written by, or depends on, the distilled thought of John, the long-lived 'favourite disciple'. Many would argue that is is in some ways more profound in its appreciation of Jewish tradition than the other gospels. It shows a depth of reflection, intuitive percpetion and creativity in its expression of the meaning of God's self revelation through Jesus Christ that is perhaps unique in the New Testament
scriptures. Yet, it also shows what a new community can become in a relatively short space of history by opening up to the demands and opportunities of the cultures around. We are stewards of the anticipation of future as well as of the past. We have a responsibility to prepare the ground for the future in such a way that our inheritance as Christians is handed on and not fossilised or poured into the sand. 

Nick Baines' blog

Future First can be obtained via 

The Revd Michael Volland is Dirctoer of Mission and Pioneer Ministry at Cranmer Hall, Durham He poineered the feig community        

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