Tag Archives: Sydney Anglicans

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Returning to the table: on being the church, and disagreement, in an inhospitable age

There’s a beautiful metaphor of unity in the Gospels.

The table.

This is a particular thread in Luke’s Gospel where we witness Jesus going as a guest into the house of sinners, feeding people abundantly, and eating with his disciples and offering bread and wine as a picture of our participation in his death and resurrection and being made children of God who can eat at his heavenly table. The table, and who has access to it, has been a powerful picture of belonging in church history — different church traditions have different approaches to the table, some open it to all, as an invitation to be part of God’s family — an altar call of sorts, others ‘fence’ it, offering it to those members of the community the leaders of the community know to be Christians — taking seriously Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about ‘discerning the body’ in the meal (and understanding that both being about discerning the body of Jesus in the bread, and the body of Jesus being the community one shares the meal with — believing a person must be able to do both to truly be celebrating unity with Christ and his people).

There’s a backstory to this idea of sharing at the table that goes right back to the Garden at the start of the story of the Bible; the Garden where God as host declared all the fruit of the trees he’d put in the garden ‘good for food’ — except for one tree — and Adam and Eve decided that despite God’s prohibition, despite God being the good and generous host of an abundant table, they would declare what he called evil “good for food,” and they took it, and they ate it, and they were expelled from the table. God’s abundant provision of hospitality and a feast was celebrated through Israel’s history in various ways, including at the temple and through feasts and festivals, and Psalm 23 is a poetic picture of God’s abundant, overflowing, hospitality that must surely have had Israel salivating when they too found themselves cut off from God’s table during exile. Jesus restoring people to God’s table is a big deal; a deal the tables we operate in our churches points to — a return from being banished from the garden and exiled from God.

The table is a powerful picture of God’s hospitality to his family. But it’s also a powerful picture of relationships where difference is acknowledged. The tables Jesus eats at in Luke — those of the pharisees and tax collectors — are not the table Jesus operates as host. His presence there does not make the people he eats with part of God’s family, but it makes them people he loves and wants to eat with in order to love his neighbours and his enemies and invite them to the greater feast. This culminates, of course, with Zacchaeus, the lost tax collector who comes home to God as he invites Jesus to eat at his table. This difference is a really significant feature; we Christians sit at tables with different people at different times and express different things in that sitting; the table I eat with my church family and the table I share with my family in our home, and the tables I host with my friends, and the tables I am hosted at in public place, or the tables in the homes of other people all mean different things, and I occupy a different seat and a different role each time. To invite someone into my home, or to share in the Lord’s Supper (or communion) in church, is to invite people into the life of my family or the family of God, and the latter is in a different way to the way we might invite people to share dinner with us at church.

I wrote a few things during the debate about same sex marriage in Australia, and around the position the church was occupying as scandals around church abuse and domestic violence broke in the media to make the point that Christians now don’t occupy the place of honour at the public table we might have once assumed. We need to relearn the art of receiving hospitality in the Australian community, and indeed, it’s possible we’re now so on the nose, and that our social capital is so low, that we might need to learn what it looks like to be excluded from that table all together; it’s not a table that operates with the same grace that our Lord’s table operates with, we actually might need to earn our place at the ‘public table’ in the public square.

The table also has some interesting dynamics in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church beyond how Christians treat the table when it comes to sharing dinner and sharing the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the Eucharist, depending on your theological tradition) (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The sorts of tables Christians eat at as guests matter; how joining a table is perceived and what it represents to others, and for themselves, matters.

Christians are not to eat in idol temples or share at tables of idol temples in Corinth because they belong to God and his kingdom; to eat at an idol’s table is to unite yourself, to commune, with that idol — or to be seen to by others, whether the idol is nothing (which is why Paul is happy to eat meat bought in the markets that had been sacrificed to idols), or there is something more substantial going on (which is why Paul says not to ‘share in the cup of demons’ in the idol temple). Christians shouldn’t participate in the hospitality of other gods, and eat at their tables — both because of whatever Spiritual reality is at play, and the perception that would create about the exclusivity of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:16-21) — but they should enjoy the hospitality of those who follow other gods, their neighbours. We’re also to put the unity experienced at God’s table above all other forms of unity — his table shapes our approach to all other tables. We’re not to eat at tables we might feel free to if it destroys the conscience of the members of the body of Christ who share God’s table with us (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). So Paul expects Corinthian Christians to eat in the homes of their neighbours as guests and do so freely until their host tries to make the table a table belonging to an idol, so that to eat is to participate in idolatry, or express a ‘belonging’ to that god’s table (1 Corinthians 10:27-28). We’re not, with our table manners or our eating to call evil “good” with our actions, but nor should we call what God has declared good “evil.” This is the line Jesus trod so artfully as he ate with sinners, despite the Pharisees believing that ‘bad company’ corrupted. Israel had some pretty intense table fellowship laws that ruled out ever eating with gentiles and especially ever eating ‘unclean’ or idol food.

David Fitch has this really great picture of three types of table we Christians participate in as individuals, that maps nicely onto a corporate metaphor of the table — how we run tables, and participate at them in a more ‘institutional’ way. In his book Faithful Presence: Seven habits that will shape your church for mission, He talks about this in terms of ‘circles’

The first table

He talks about our churches operating the table where the Lord’s Supper is served as a practice that forms us as Christians, where we invite people to put their trust in Jesus, return from exile from God, and receive his hospitality as children. It’s like Jesus holding the Last Supper with his people, those who belonged to him who share in his body and blood and will share in the heavenly table. There’s a picture in the Gospel of someone who is grumpy at just how far the invitation to this first table extends — the older brother in the story of the prodigal son who grumbles that the father will let anybody who comes home and is recognised as part of the family eat, no matter how far into the world of exile they’ve wandered (partying it up in gentile cities and then wanting to eat pig food is about as far from Eden or the promised land as it gets).

The second table

This formative practice of sharing at what is essentially God’s table, where we extend his hospitality, then shapes how we operate the tables in our homes, or the meals we conduct as hosts. We get caught up in the hospitality of God and generously invite all comers to our tables, not just those who might give us something (like increased status — which was a sort of Roman hospitality practice the Corinthians were falling into), but those who can’t, and not just those who belong to our household or family (another Corinthian practice) but those who don’t. This table though doesn’t mark out the people of God; it marks out the people we extend love to and invite; it’s perhaps more like Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a picture of being the good shepherd who ends exile. It isn’t really just our neighbours either, the great act of Christian love is that we, like Jesus, invite our enemies to the table with us, to practice hospitality at this table is to invite all comers, to not draw lines or boundaries, to not exclude but to welcome, include, and to feed. There’s a picture in Luke’s Gospel of the sort of person who refuses to share this sort of table with others who belong — the Pharisees who mutter and complain that Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, or that he lets an immoral woman wash his feet. They don’t want this sort of relationship building with others to happen. This doesn’t mean turning our guests into co-hosts though, that’s a different sort of table.

Everybody worships; everybody has a ‘temple,’ but not every table is a temple; not every meal is an ‘idol feast’ — not every one of our meals is ‘the Lord’s supper’ — we are called to share a table with all sorts of people. Like Jesus did.

The third table

Fitch says our practices at these first two tables also shape how we operate in situations where we are guests — and I’d suggest where we are co-hosts (those times where it is not so clear that hospitality is being extended, but where participation at a table is mutual). When we eat as guests, with our neighbours, like Jesus with both the Pharisees and the tax collectors, our eating does not signify that we belong to their ways of seeing the world, we eat as those who belong to another table, bringing the virtues and values shaped by experiencing that love and hospitality, and being prepared to lovingly challenge the sin of those we eat with, but also to invite them to enjoy a taste of God’s hospitality at the other two tables.

The tables and the institutional church

When it comes to public, institutional, Christianity, church institutions or organisations decide who and how the first table operates — whether it is open to all without prior expression of faith and an indication of belonging to God’s people, or fenced; normally requiring baptism or membership in a particular community.

Church institutions, through their leadership and history (depending on the structure of the church), “discern the body” and decide what marks out someone as ‘included’ in the body or not — this can be justified along the lines of the church having the keys to the kingdom, or the table. If the church is to be an institution, as it has become through history, someone or some set of rules, ends up guiding the use of these keys or access to the table.

Different church communities, and different denominations, apply all sorts of different standards on who is seen to be part of the body — the line is drawn through discernment. This seems to be a totally normal function of our creaturely limits and church history. There are significant disagreements within the church — amongst Christians — around significant questions such that some churches would not let me share at their table, while I am given (by ‘ordination’) the ability to decide who gets to participate at this table in our community.

The first table, Biblically, is one that it is right to limit to Christians because of what we participate in as we eat (but I think it is legitimate to invite people to express their trust in Jesus and participation in the Gospel by sharing in the Lord’s supper as a first step, and to wrap baptism up in this sacramental package). This means that churches have to decide who they believe is a part of the body, and who isn’t. Again, different churches have different ways of drawing this line — different understandings of the Gospel and the way it works to unite people to Jesus, and different understandings of the sort of maturity required before one participates in the sacraments (so lots of Christians don’t baptise infants, and don’t invite them to participate at the table for various theological reasons). Those I am prepared to share at this first table with are those I consider to be Christians eating at the Lord’s table, not idolaters sharing in idol worship. This, too, requires discernment. My Presbyterian tradition (and the broader Protestant tradition) considered the Catholic Mass and the Catholic Eucharist to be in the latter category; if I were to visit an Anglican, Pentecostal, or Baptist church while communion were being taken, and I was invited, I would participate, just as I invite people from traditions outside of Presbyterianism to participate, based on an articulation of the Gospel, if they come to our table.

The church also participates in ‘second tables’ — and where it gets tricky is that we participate at second tables with each other, through ecumenical partnerships in politics, mission, or just seeking to acknowledge unity in the Gospel that might be expressed in something other than the table we run in our churches. To host, or participate at, a ‘second table’ doesn’t say anything substantial about the faith of the other, or whether they belong to God’s table or not. Such a table should be, if it is shaped by the Gospel, broad and inclusive. We don’t do anything to fence the dinners we host at our church every week; we invite all comers — we show that we are ‘hosts’ though by giving thanks to God for the food we receive and share. When I’m eating, and praying with, my friends who pastor Baptist, Uniting, and Anglican churches in Brisbane’s city I don’t lose my Presbyterian distinctives nor do I insist they become like me; there is differentiation and there is a pluralism at play in such gatherings that is not present when I invite people to table 1 at church. If we were jointly operating a ‘table 1’ type deal in some sort of combined service we could only do that (I think) if we agreed on some of the parameters; some parts of the ecumenical movement, historically, have — I think — failed because they failed to realise that these commonalities couldn’t be assumed and were legitimate distinctives. To that extent I think ecumenical cross-denominational boundaries fellowship should operate at ‘table 2’ acknowledging the capacity for many of us to share relationships at table 1 in different circumstances. We can also share table 2 with people who are not Christians at all — and indeed we should, but our operation of table 2 as hosts which is alway shaped by our table 1 practice should also have table 1 as its telos; we should want people joining with us in union with God. The ultimate expression of Table 1 is not in the church gathering, but in the heavenly feast those gatherings anticipate.

The institutional church can still sometimes participate in ‘third tables’ — examples are when institutional leaders speak ‘institutionally’ into public discussions, like contributions to debates about political issues. Sometimes third party groups — like lobby groups — represent a sort of ‘table 2’ Christianity; whether that’s a good idea or not depends on how deep the unity is, and how much such a contribution inevitably eradicates important distinctions and ends up pretending there’s a table 1 unity on political or social or moral issues where there is not (and where there isn’t even a table 2 type unity). Churches, and Christians, can sometimes even host third tables and invite other churches, and other neighbours, to participate at this table as guests, this happens when the emphasis of the table is not that the Christians are hosting as Christians, but as citizens — with some sort of ‘political’ ends not oriented (directly) to the heavenly table.

Our time’s table problems

We are, as Christians, and society at large, facing some major problems operating around various tables. Our society increasingly buys into a sort of ‘cancel culture’ such that people running table 2 and table 3 type tables are very prone to exclude others from the table where those others don’t buy into a particular way of seeing the world. There is no ecumenical spirit outside the church even with public catch cries of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity’ — these are extended so long as people obey the table manners our age expects.

The question of hospitality and who it is extended to is used to exclude when a Rugby player shares a religious meme consistent with his sectarian views and is excluded from the ‘table’ of the national Rugby team, or when a TV talk show host goes to a football match with a former U.S President (who some believe should be tried for war crimes), or when a U.S political aide is asked to leave a restaurant as a result of her politics, or when a football player’s cousin is removed from employment from a religious institution he calls a synagogue of Satan, or when a religious school wants to hire or fire staff based on their personal convictions and behaviour, or when a Christian political lobby invites said Rugby player to share their public platform when that player explicitly denies the Trinity, or when an Archbishop of a diocese gives $1 million to a campaign about who our society will recognise as married, or when that same Archbishop asks people within his denomination who wish to change the platform to keep with public pressure to leave and start their own table… the issue is that in each of these issues, especially as they relate to how Christian relate to others (whether other Christians, or those we don’t consider to be Christians as we discern the body), there’s a different sort of ‘table’ at play and there are different principles governing who should and shouldn’t participate.

When Israel Folau instagrammed his meme I had an argument with a progressive Christian friend about whether or not it was legitimate for the National Rugby League (note, a different code) to pre-emptively refuse to register him as a player again on the basis of its ‘inclusivity policy’ while they were happy to re-register a player convicted of serious violence against women (Matt Lodge). I had an argument with a conservative Christian friend about whether or not Israel’s stance on the Trinity was a significant issue. In both cases those friends ‘cancelled’ me — blocking and unfollowing me — or uninviting me from a certain sort of table (a virtual table 2). I believe both would still welcome me at a table 1 situation if they were operating as host, but I suspect both would like me also not to have a seat at the ‘public’ table, sharing my particular views on the matter in the public square (given that the conflict arose in both cases because I did so, not because of the merit of the actual point I was making in each case). I would, for what it’s worth on the Folau case, exclude Israel Folau from my ‘Table 1’ scenario (because he denies the Trinity), invite him to ‘Table 2,’ and am happy for him to have a seat at Table 3 (in the Rugby team and on social media), so long as it isn’t labelled ‘Representative of Christianity.’

What happens in these virtual, personal, relationships happens on a wider, tribal, scale when it comes to denominations, but also theological movements — progressive and conservative — within denominations. Conservative denominations seem to be responding to pressure from outside their bounds by tightening the boundaries, while some people within such denominations — either because they see this change happening and want to preserve something good, or because they are compelled to change for reasons of progress or reform — are looking to push for change. Both forms involve change to who gets a seat at the table. Progressives in positions of power in denominations have often silenced, excluded, or expelled those with conservative convictions; or, in the course of progress, made belonging so untenable or a lack of welcome so clear, that more conservative people and churches have been pushed out. Conservatives do the same. There’s, though painful, a legitimate Table 1 reason to push for such change, and opposing parties, would, I believe, be better off generously parting ways, and sharing table 2 relationships (pluralism) rather than having different approaches to God (polytheism) under the same umbrella (which at times might be tantamount to creating circumstances that are the equivalent of ‘sharing the cup’ in idol temples — and I’ve seen plenty of rhetoric from progressive Christians suggesting Davies and the Sydney Anglicans have departed from the Gospel).

When Glenn Davies gave $1 million to the No Campaign it was, I believe, a bad decision because it was a decision that seemed to me to be seeking to hold a position close to the head of table 3; a position Christians no longer occupy in a post-royal commission world. It was a decision to invest not just financial capital, but social capital, in a cause that sought to exclude people from a type of table 3 (the public institution of marriage), in a way that communicated such people were not welcome at table 2, or table 1. It prevented the problem, in many cases, of having to navigate table 1 fellowship with the LGBTIQ+ community — whether married or single — by functionally communicating a lack of welcome. The Anglican church does historically have a place at Table 3 in a Commonwealth nation that other denominations do not; it is an establishment church. The Queen is its head. I think this was a mistake because it was essentially an act of inhospitality in those tables that are not closed off to the people of God, or invitations for people to join the people of God. Tables 2 and 3 should be, as a matter of participating in a civil way in a pluralist society, as open, inclusive, and hospitable as possible and we should model that. Table 1, on the other hand, should be welcoming in a way that is not as inclusive because it excludes those who are not part of the body of Jesus.

For me the way I think this paradigm plays out, where Table 1 shapes one’s participation in table 2 and 3 (and where one does not participate), I think ‘Table 1’ is a feast for God’s family, with an invitation to come home. Not all are included. Table 2 is a feast for all to ‘taste and see’ that God is loving and hospitable, and all are not just welcomed but included at the table. Table 3, which isn’t our table to host, is our table to serve not to run, and where we have power or influence our job is to look to those being excluded and find ways to include them at that table, by giving them space at our table 2s (this is why I think the line the institutional churches in Australia ran in the postal survey, on the back of a history of Christians excluding LGBTIQ+ people, particularly in terms of legal recognition and protection, was such a problem). Where there is disagreement amongst those operating table 1s it is a matter of discernment; we have a responsible to be part of a table 1 that we believe ‘discerns the body’ appropriately, and leaders have a responsibility to set clear boundaries (by teaching and shepherding), and also by identifying ‘idol temples’ (like, for example, Folau’s church). Where one discerns that a ‘table 1’ is not an expression of the body, one must not share ‘table 1’ type fellowship, but one must still share table 2 and 3 type fellowship (Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors).

The Anglican church is often described as a ‘communion’ — and that presents interesting challenges when it comes to the question of table 1 and the discerning of the body. Lines have to be drawn. I’m much more sympathetic to Archbishop Davies in the furore around his speech to synod which I believe was a (clumsy) attempt to ‘fence’ table 1 in a particular way, consistent with his appointed duties, and appropriately in a table 1 setting. Davies, as Archbishop, occupies a challenging position in that he has a sort of authority invested in him when he speaks on Table 1 matters for his diocese, that might communicate things about who he (and they) are prepared to sit down with in table 2 scenarios (as hosts or guests), and what tables they might avoid in table 1 scenarios as ‘idol temples.’ He also, for good or for ill, is often an authoritative, representative, Christian voice in table 3 settings — like the $1 million donation scenario — and that inevitably frames how his public proclamations about Table 1 are heard.

The challenge for the rest of us in parsing the reaction to Davies’ Synod speech on social media is that there are lots of different denominations and even local communities who operate their ‘table 1’ in very different ways to the Anglican communion, and it’s easy to apply our own standards to him and his speech in ways that might exclude him from any table. I recognise too, that his speech is a pitch to run the Anglican table — at least in Australia — in a particular way (one that is narrower than currently seems to be its mode). It’s not just that we hear him excluding vulnerable others from tables 1-3 as host — and he has been heard that way — others both inside and outside the Anglican communion have since turned around and sought to exclude him from tables 2 and 3. Davies has a particular responsibility for ‘his table,’ and it is within that responsibility, and the discerning of the body, that he made the speech he made. The reaction from the more progressive wing of Christianity has been stunning to me; mirroring the reaction to Ellen for daring share a table with Bush (and I’m sympathetic to the idea that Bush, in exercising the office of President, did some things that office required of him that were evil, I’m just not sure you can occupy any sort of office in a modern military state and not commit evil), perhaps because part of the progressive view of the world is seeing reality in systemic rather than individual terms, hospitality is something offered categorically rather than personally, there’s also an echo in the progressive celebration of a restaurant in the U.S refusing to serve Trump staffer Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There were think pieces pondering whether Jesus would eat with Sanders (I believe he would, at the very least in a table 2 and 3 way), and whether it’s ever right to share hospitality with an ideological enemy (it is if you’re a Christian so that person is also your neighbour). The New Yorker ran a piece asking ‘Who deserves a place at the table’ (the nice thing about Christianity is it starts with the assumption that nobody does). It noted:

“Jesus—at least as he is reported, or invented, by the author of the Gospel of Mark—was the Kropotkin of commensality, blowing up the long history of Jewish food rules by feasting with publicans and tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners of all kinds. It was nearly the whole point of his ministry.”

It’s a piece that ultimately explores the paradox of tolerance, and lands on the solution proposed by the political theorist who proposed it, that a tolerant society cannot tolerate — or make space at the table for — the intolerant. I’m not sure the Gospel conforms to that paradox. Jesus did, indeed, blow up the food rules and eat with everybody — both pharisees, and tax collectors and sinners. But he also established a table that had boundary markers; the people who put their faith and trust in him and so received a spot at the father’s heavenly table, and those who don’t. He broke Jewish table fellowship rules in order to create a table that included gentiles; but it excluded plenty of Jews (the Pharisees, for example), and gentile idolaters. It’d be a mistake to see Jesus’ dining practices solely in terms of eating with sinners and tax collectors; he ate with people previously excluded to show they might be included in his kingdom by grace. Table 1 sets the agenda for Table 2, and Table 2 practices are a gateway to Table 1, but they are not the same table.

I’m also not suggesting Conservatives are better at hospitality; they tend to run ‘Table 2’ institutions as though they are ‘Table 1’ ones and to occupy positions of influence in Table 3 scenarios that don’t match up with reality (the ACL has a particular approach to this that could be its own post). I’m also not suggesting that Table 2 type hospitality is about denying difference or patching over serious disagreement; civility is not the goal, persuasion is, love is, unity is, and civility is the means. To not sit at the table together, whether for the pursuit of common cause, or to hear one another, is guaranteed to entrench polarised communities of ‘others.’ If, for example, Bush is a war criminal who should repent and be tried, but he belongs to a tribe that views him as a champion, how will his views about himself ever change without hearing voices outside his tribe in a context that recognises his humanity?

For the record, I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ parishioners to leave, unless they are part of the movement to shift the boundaries the Anglican communion has traditionally established for those who can participate at table 1. Those outside the Anglican communion who practice a broader table 1 than Davies does (or than I would) have already made the decision Davies called for; there’s also a movement in Australia that has taken almost exactly the step Davies is now encouraging members of the Anglican church to take; one that absolutely fits an inclusive ethos that merges tables 1 and 2 — the Uniting Church. I’ve read comments from a stack of Baptists and Anglicans this week that basically just boil down to a wish for their denominations to become the Uniting Church, and were they all to do that, leaving those who want a distinction between tables 1 and 2 maintained, you know what they’d get… Presbyterians (just with worse forms of government). I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ members to leave, because I’ll take him at his word — but I can’t help but agree with those hurt by his words that there is a context that frames them particularly negatively and compounds the hurt they cause.

Lots of my progressive Christian friends commenting on the Davies speech on Facebook seem to want ‘table 2’ type fellowship operating in a table 1 scenario; a broader unity and an extension of charity that goes beyond one’s (or an institution’s) discerning of the body; an eradication of a particular sort of discernment in favour of unity. There’s a danger there, at least from Corinthians, that believers eat and drink judgment on themselves, or participate in ‘the cup of idols.’ Table 2 fellowship amongst Christians of different traditions is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing precisely when it is properly differentiated and we can discern areas of disagreement, and listen well to ideas that challenge us to be humble and broader than we might otherwise be at Table 1. Table 2 gatherings of Christians won’t work if we start insisting, or trying to, that table 1 should be shaped by the hospitality we’d like to see extended in the public space of table 3, or in our private gatherings around table 2s. Table 2s will collapse under that pressure; and the formative direction of the table, for Christians, is only really meant to work one way (though we might be formed to see the beauty and welcome of Table 1 by experiencing it at other tables). How we understand the Gospel, and the Jesus it reveals, should shape how we host and participate in tables beyond his; the tables we eat at in the world aren’t meant to cause us to revise our understanding of Jesus. The idea that ‘Table 1’ type fellowship should happen at Table 2 is cut from the same cloth as the ecumenical movement; we might, for eternity, eat and drink from the same table and we should be open to that possibility and rejoice, but the worst thing we could do is convince someone that is the case and then spend an eternity separated from them because we never challenged someone outside the body to move inside it.

For my Sydney Anglican friends…

I’ve been watching the unfolding campaigns for the election of the new Archbishop of Sydney with great interest. It’s kind of an intersection of many of the things I’m passionate about – public Christianity, politics, social media, campaigning. It seems like there are two good candidates, and as an outsider, it’s not really my job to have a preference. My only preference would be that the campaigns don’t leave both candidates (and their bands of merry men) with a mess that is hard to clean up. As Kevin Rudd can attest, the most harmful and damaging criticisms come from your own team.

As an outsider, I’ve got to say, there’s nothing really appealing (except if you’re a politics nerd like me) about watching two men not campaign for high office, while their self-appointed champions trade barbs on social media. There’s been some pretty bizarre stuff going around – like fights over unattributed editorials in church publications, loaded throw away lines in articles, and arguments over statistics, which I guess is what happens in an adversarial approach to an appointment where the only thing splitting the candidates is age/youth and experience. Without knowing either of the candidates personally, it’s hard not to read one campaign’s affirmation of a candidate’s credentials or gifts as anything other than a tacit condemnation of the other candidate’s gifts in that area.

I guess, while I’m enjoying the show, I reckon this is the sort of campaigning that happens best off social media, and in a personal context, or behind closed doors.

So few people actually vote that it seems counter productive to involve thousands of Facebook onlookers from outside the denomination in some of the discussions that are happening.

I can’t actually figure out why the discussion is happening the way it is. Maybe one side set up a Facebook page and then the other followed suit. Maybe some nominators of one candidate had a discussion that needed a response – but it’s escalating in a crazy way, and it’s not pretty. You know the campaign has gone off the big issues when a Presbyterian in Brisbane is reading something like this:

“We are glad that something in writing has been produced by the [redacted] team; however, we feel that the statistics used in the document, whilst true in the limited perspective in which they are couched, are so misleading that they need to be addressed and placed in their proper context.”

I don’t need to associate a potential Archbishop with dodgy counting in a campaign. Even if it wasn’t him. Those outside the room aren’t aware of some of the nuances (unless they research). The candidates don’t nominate themselves, they don’t “campaign,” and what’s happening is coming from third parties. The candidates themselves, and most of the campaigning, is warm and gracious, and most of the people campaigning for either side like each other and agree on the big issues. But. I only know this because I could be bothered researching etc – there are myriad people up here in Queensland who are very confused by what’s going on. It’s a bad look.

So, Sydney Anglican friends and readers – I get the need to campaign. But keep it off the parts of the internet that aren’t opt-in. If people want to know the context and participate in the conversation, that is fine. Start up a Synod Group on Facebook where the discussion is private, and go at it hammer and tongs.

The more you talk (publicly) about the campaign tactics of the other team and not purely about each candidate’s vision for the future of the diocese and love for Jesus, the less those of us outside the diocese are inclined to take any sort of evangelical leadership from the guy who eventually gets the big hat, the nice house, and the long title.

When the campaign is about numbers, not issues, or qualifications, not character, and the past, not the future, you’re veering into really unhelpful territory for those watching at home.

I just wanted to issue this pictorial word of caution. This is what the campaign looks like to this outsider, on social media.

dogfight

While this is what is happening in the lives of the candidates. At least according to this interview.

playing-dogs

This is also why I think I’ll be happy the sky isn’t going to fall down in Sydney whoever gets appointed.

Glenn Davies

“In elections some candidates are hungry for the job. Others are prepared to do the job if the Synod calls them to it, believing that God’s will is manifest through the decision of the Synod. Therefore Rick and I believe that, while not aspiring to this office, we are trusting God will supply the requisite wisdom and strength to fulfill the office should the Synod decide to elect us.

At our recent Northern Regional Conference there were two elephants in the room, if you like, so Rick and I thought we would interview each other about how we were going, how our wives are going and then thoughts on the process. And then we prayed for each other, because – especially with social media, which provides a great temptation for immoderate, unedifying discourse – we wanted to model godly and edifying discourse. One person came up to me afterwards and said, “I’m so glad you did that, because I’d be happy for either of you to be archbishop”.

I consider prayer to be a wonderful way in which God has blessed me, because I am completely at peace about the whole process. The number of people who say, “We’re praying for you and Di” is overwhelming and very encouraging. If you really do trust God’s sovereignty, it’s under control.”

Rick Smith

“Glenn has been a great friend and brother for many years. Michelle [my wife] and Di Davies also met up for coffee yesterday, which they have done many times over the years. I long for the election process to reflect our warm fellowship and for people to be aware we have an opportunity to adorn the gospel and endear the process to a watching world in our manner, the questions we pursue and the issues we raise.

Lots of people ask, “Why should we vote for you?” and I don’t think either of us wants to answer that question. Ask me questions about who I am, about my personal convictions, ministry priorities and experience, and then Synod members will need to be prayerfully discerning about who to vote for. Nobody’s campaigning because nobody’s really aspiring to the role, although that’s not diminishing the importance of the role in shaping the mission of the Diocese. Because it’s not about what we want – it’s about where we are called to serve with the strength God gives.

I serve because I love the Lord Jesus and I continue to think God’s grace is amazing, so I’m happy to share that grace, proclaiming Jesus Christ and him crucified, in whatever role I’m asked to perform.”

It’s a shame there isn’t more of that being displayed for those of us who are relationally removed from the candidates and their troops, but connected to a few people involved in the process through the Christian network.”

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Famously good last words from Peter Jensen

Peter Jensen is leaving some pretty big shoes to fill in the Sydney diocese. His final speech to synod as Archbishop is a cracker – it’s a model of engaging with the problems of our world, and presenting Jesus as the solution.

“If the gospel contrasts so favourably with individualism in community, family and death, why is evangelism hard? Precisely because it is a spiritual matter and human individualism is the love of self which it takes the Holy Spirit to make us abandon. Our society is even more in the grip of a malign individualism than ever before and its resistance to all relationships and especially an all demanding relationship with God is powerful indeed. But there us another side to this. I think that many people are tiring of the fruit of individualism and want to know the God who brings order and family and acceptance and relationship into the community.”

“I have never had such good opportunities in speaking to people about Jesus as in the last few three or four years. Our theory of Connect 09 is true – there are people everywhere who would like to know the gospel and will want us to befriend them. In particular lay people are ideally placed to quietly but confidently share Christ and show what a difference he makes. It may be that the evils of individualism will become so apparent that the world will be more open to the gospel, especially a gospel which stresses love in the face of community and family breakdown and hope in the face of death. In the meantime we preach a gospel which offers a radically different view of the world. After all this Lord did seize another communications revolution and turn it to good. He did hear Tyndale’s last Prayer and he did open the King of England’s eyes and so we have our English Bible and so here we are tonight.”

I think this bit is especially nice.

“I see the gospel becoming visible in the media. We will engage with the ideas of this generation and refuse to accept the censorship which is so easily imposed on Christianity. We must find ways of putting our case for Christ and making it natural to speak about God in the general community. The large mail I received after the recent QandA program showed me that once the gospel is visible, Christians in the workplace can and will make use of opportunities.”

I still have some questions about why Sydney needs as many incredibly trained people for its mission, if it is the place where 1/5 of all Australians live, it’d be nice to see some sort of proportional approach to the distribution of reformed evangelical workers in Australia where the other 4/5 live (let alone globally) – but I realise that this isn’t how denominations, particularly Anglicanism, work.

Here are two pertinent comments:

“We have proliferated workers. Many denominations are declining in workers, with people becoming part time and being older. For us the reverse is happening. The biggest expansion of workers has been amongst the ordained clergy where the numbers have advanced by an astonishing increase of 26% from 480 to 604. Our workers are better trained and higher quality in gifts than ever before. Most parishes are now using teams of workers, including a very significant number of women.”

“Furthermore we have started to move forward in creating new parishes. For years we have been gently stagnating at around 260 parishes, quietly amalgamating the dying ones, leaving suburbs unpastored and letting buildings go. We have now begun to go forward, refusing to close parishes or amalgamate them without the hope of re-opening them in the future, finding new congregations and uses for buildings and doing what we had forgotten to do – inaugurate new parishes. This changed mind-set must be permanent.”

I’d say there’s an inefficiency at play here, and it might be based on the “small church in every suburb” mentality that appears to underpin some of the visions of the future, I’m not sure that this model of thinking about and doing church (ecclesiology) is necessarily the best fit for how modern Australians will meet Jesus (missiology), which the Archbishop suggests is his goal. I’m sympathetic for the need for small churches for the people who want small churches, but there’s a reason that corner stores are making way for big shopping centres. There’s something to be said for an “incarnational” approach to church – where being part of a suburb is how we minister to it, but I don’t think it follows that if a suburb doesn’t have a building with open doors operating in it that the church isn’t part of the suburb – especially if you’ve also got an incredibly able laity (which the Archbishop notes in his piece). This seems to deny most of the realities of life in modern Australia – we work, rest, play, and live in very different locations every day of the week.

I’m not sure that if every Christian in Australia adopted a completely fluid commitment to their time, resources, and approach to Christian community, in the interest of the gospel, that the current lay of the land would be what we’d produce – in terms of how we think about what we do on a Sunday, who does what, and where it’s done. I’m certain there are essential aspects of our ecclesiology that don’t make way for “contextualisation” – like clear articulations of the gospel in everything that we do, and some space for the sacraments, but I’m not sure that reproducing more of the same is the best response to the changing Australian landscape. But I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

In the last 15 years I’ve been part of a small and very faithful suburban church, a small and faithful rural church, a medium sized church in a regional centre, and two bigger and equally faithful churches seeking to reach bigger pockets of a city – and while God works through his gospel amongst all this faithfulness, and we should prayerfully expect him to, the economies of scale in the bigger churches create opportunities that were less than a dream in those smaller ones.

I’m very thankful for the Archbishop’s faithful and gospel centred approach to his work in the last ten years, he’s going to be incredibly hard to replace – his performance on Q&A recently is fairly typical of the way he’s discharged his responsibilities with the great gifts God has given, and he’s certainly (along with a couple of others) the model I look to, and point to, when it comes to engaging our culture with the gospel… but as an outsider looking in (albeit with incredible vestigial, substantial, and direct and indirect ties to the work of the diocese in the past, and the Jensens and others in particular) – I’d love to see the Sydney Diocese think a little bigger, and a little differently about the work of the gospel in Australia.

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Some holds barred

Did you know that the term “no holds barred” comes from wrestling? Not the fake stuff. The real ancient art.

I’ve been reading a bunch of articles and discussions online recently surrounding a Christian response to cagefighting. Craig started it in his column at SydneyAnglicans. He suggested we should be coming up with an articulate position on what appears to be a pretty divisive matter of conscience populated by two unbiblical extremes…

For many, their first gut reaction to the sport will define their position. But it may be worth spending some time to work through the issue properly. I predict this sport will become enormously popular in Australia over the next few years, especially amongst young men. If this happens, it will be good if we have done some proper thinking on the subject beforehand.

Now everywhere I turn on the interwebs I’m reading the debate.

Ben commented on it yesterday, the NY Times ran a story about cage fighting churches, Justin Taylor quoted this rebuttal to the kind of Christianity modeled in the times piece and Mark Driscoll has been banging on about UFC for years. Cage fighting is well and truly established there and I haven’t read a middle ground response from the Christian community – you’re either in the Jesus was a cage fighter camp or the sissy pacifist camp… which led to this quote.

It discourages and mocks godly men who aren’t macho. There is an undercurrent of disdain in all of this. Proponents of this testosterone Christianity can’t help but take shots at guys who wear pastels and drink cappuccino. You might not like guys with manicures, but there’s absolutely nothing morally wrong with it. A reserved, quiet, well-groomed man can be a good Christian. Believe it or not.

I think the debate is pretty silly and out of all the Christian interactions I’ve read or experienced they descend in to ad hominem non-arguments the quickest (though arguments about Genesis 1 and alcohol consumption are up there).

From the NY Times:

The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries — and into the image of Jesus — in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. “Compassion and love — we agree with all that stuff, too,” said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. “But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter.”

Some of the arguments for cage fighting are just stupid. Jesus was not a cage fighter. No matter how hard some of the Americans want to believe that to be the case. Being a cage fighter does not make one a man, it does not even make one more manly. If this is just a correction to the feminisation of the church then it’s an odd and ill directed attempt to get more men along – but Craig was right. This is a discussion we need to have. Cage fighting is huge.

While I think some of the extreme positions on the pro fighting side are silly I wonder how much of the bellicose criticism coming from the anti-violence side of the debate is just ill-conceived grandstanding.

Gentleness is a good thing. Sure. And Christians are called on to turn the other cheek. But to suggest that a sporting endeavour where two combatants engage in a competition with agreed upon rules and parameters is somehow definitively ruled out in the Bible just seems odd to me. It’s a conscience issue – surely.

I’m not out to change anybody’s opinion on this matter – if you think violent sports are wrong then don’t watch or take part in them. I watch boxing. I enjoy WWE (which isn’t real). I haven’t watched much UFC – but I don’t have a problem with it – really. It’s just not my preference. I’d rather watch a bunch of other sports. I love the violence and physicality of league. Anybody who says they don’t watch league for the collisions is just a touch football fan in disguise. Does this make me a bad person? Anybody who thinks that league players don’t go out of their way to “hurt” others has never seen a forward make a tackle or a hit up (and they certainly haven’t spoken to any successful league players).

Why are we pain averse? I don’t understand why causing other people pain it’s clearly expected and mitigated by rules is possibly wrong? Is it less good than not causing them pain? I don’t know… but lines drawn in this debate seem completely arbitrary. League is ok (or perhaps Union), UFC is not – where does the line fall? How do you decide? As an aside – in the comments on Craig’s post Kutz suggested we need a doctrine of sport. I like that idea.

The clincher (for me) came up in the Sydney Anglicans discussion. I love the stories of violence in the Old Testament – I don’t glory in them (too much) – but I see them as pictures of justice and of the struggle between good and evil. The Bible contains more violence from righteous men than UFC will ever produce.

If it comes down to a question of “purpose” and violence not being suitable for entertainment then I wonder how many of the brothers coming out against UFC enjoy violent movies or TV shows? How can one affirm the quality of the Godfather while decrying a sport?

If it’s a problem with the unholiness of the entertainment then what about every TV show that contains sexual immorality… if it’s that the sin is real and not imagined then what about game shows where contestants are motivated by greed?

I don’t see why the objections to this passion or interest are so heated and so different to the reactions to anything else – except perhaps for a declaration that one considers the earth to be billions, not thousands, of years old or the suggestion that beer is one of God’s best ideas.

The regional solution

I’ve ranted and raved a little bit previously about how Sydney is oversaturated with good, evangelical ministers. It’s not entirely true. Sydney needs good evangelical ministers. It’s the lifeblood of evangelical work in Australia. But it would be incredibly nice to have them donate some blood elsewhere occasionally.

I’d be really interested to see how a model like the one education departments around the country would work when applied to ministry – where graduates have to go out into rural and regional areas to serve and earn their stripes before heading to the city. I think the Anglican system precludes this a little – so it’s a great opportunity for the Pressies with our statewide system of governance.

Sam, from thefountainside, posted something yesterday about some of the unhelpful tactics us country people use when we’re trying to lure people away from the bright lights of Sydney. I can understand his frustration – and he suggests a much better way to appeal to people when it comes to serving God – the glorification of God. I’m with him on that.

What I’m not with him on is the idea that staying in Sydney is not the default position of most Sydney based students, particularly Sydney based students who are from Sydney. This is largely anecdotal and based purely on the handful of people I know – but looking at the people in ministry, that I know of, the vast majority of evangelical ministers serving outside of Sydney were not from Sydney originally. There must be a little bit to this. Because every country area I’ve lived in, and every country church I know of, feels this frustration to a degree.

Jesus called for his followers to go “to the world” with the gospel. The world includes, but is not limited to, Sydney.

I’ve said far more than I should, far more aggressively than I should, over at thefountainside (and I’ve apologised – this issue makes my blood boil like one of those berserkers who goes nuts at the first signs of battle) – and I should have posted this here much sooner. But here’s a little summary of my thinking.

  1. Sydney has an abundance of evangelical churches – I said there that they’re like 7/11. Almost on every corner. There’s even pseudo-emergent independent church plants catering for every cultural need. Sure, Sydney needs the gospel. But curious Sydneysiders have ample opportunity to wander down to their local Anglican church and be almost guaranteed to hear the Bible taught.
  2. Nobody argues that city ministry is not important. That’s why it’s the default. Because it is important. If you’re committed to urban ministry there are plenty of urban centres outside of Sydney with only a little, or no, evangelical ministry occurring. I used the word myopia to describe the Sydney focus – and I stand by that. Sure, Sydney is big. But there are other cities crying out for gospel workers without the existing base to produce them. For these cities to turn around they need workers to go and start things up.
  3. I like the idea of ministry graduates doing a country placement before moving to the city. I think both the country and the city benefit from that model. It’s also the model the Government chooses for education. It works pragmatically. Apparently pragmatism is on the nose a little bit though.
  4. It takes a special person, with special passion, and a special calling, to leave Sydney. In Sydney, or in any big city, the need is more obvious. There are myriad gospel opportunities literally at your doorstep. I can see how wanting to meet those needs would be a compelling calling. But all ministry glorifies Jesus.
  5. People won’t go to rural areas if they aren’t asked, shown the need and encouraged to glorify God by doing so. People should make these calls – and they should do so with whatever means are at their disposal.

Why Redeemer Lives

Justin Moffat (another one of my favourite bloggers – his series on things he’s learned about preaching is worth a read) has a list of ten things he observed about Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church during his time in New York (where he worked in a church plant).

Here are my favourite bits from his list:

3. Redeemer seeks to ‘exegete’ the city. They ‘walked the streets’ early on to breathe in and consider the needs, drives and fears of New Yorkers. They didn’t generalise, patronise, or assume that they knew the needs before they began their project. But when they decided, they were specific.
5. They assume that people can be involved in a ‘service project’ (Mercy Ministry) without sacrificing their commitment to the Gospel.
6. They speak in church as though new people and not-yet-Christians are always present.
7. Tim Keller is positive, insightful, and a good example of the new apologetic. He has clearly identified and articulated certain ‘defeater beliefs’, and he systematically goes about answering them.

It’s a useful reflection – though doesn’t touch on the whole theology/idolatry of the city issue (though he teases a future post on the matter in the comments.

I was going to mention this the other day – but didn’t – but dad paid Redeemer a visit once upon a time during a whirlwind visit of the states – and wrote this useful article about Missional Churches (PDF) (back in 2004 before it the buzzword reached zeitgeist status) – he also wrote something about Redeemer that I can’t find on his old, abandoned blog (again in 2004 before blogging was cool – isn’t he such a trendy/geeky dad) … but I’ll keep looking.

Church sharing financial misery

There’s been a bit of online chatter about the impact that the financial crisis is going to have on churches – the Sydney Anglican Diocese is perhaps going to wear the consequences more than anywhere else – which is sad, given that they train and resource most evangelical ministries in Australia in some capacity.*

“THE world’s richest and largest Anglican diocese has lost more than $100 million on the sharemarket and is investigating ways to cut programs and ministries across Sydney.”

According to the SMH the losses have been compounded by the fact they borrowed to invest.

“The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, has written to clergy warning that the global financial crisis has caused significant losses. He said the diocese had borrowed money to invest and used the profits to build churches in 2007.”

In hindsight it’s easy to throw stones at that strategy – but is this ever “good stewardship” – the SMH headline makes accusations of “gambling” – which would seem inconsistent with their approach to investment in the business section.

*Though in my opinion too much stays in Sydney (this is purely to preempt accusations of backflipping following the discussion with Izaac a few weeks back…

That which divides

There’s nothing like politics for dividing Christian unity. Jeremy Halcrow writes for the Sydney Anglican website. He’s a writer I’ve largely appreciated and benefited from. We happen to disagree on the Government’s Clean Feed. Here’s his post and long discussion thread on the Sydney Anglican website. Interesting read if you’re looking to sort through various Christian responses to the debate and trying to sort out an ethical approach to online content. 

Here’s what Mr Halcrow had to say to me on another blog for daring to disagree with his position:

“Nathan, you don’t know what is the ACMA blacklist and neither does your extremist libertarian source you quote.

I’m not engaging with you any more for all I know your a Greens Party stooge or some other extremist libertarian group.

I don’t think you are discussing this in good faith.”

A Green Party stooge? Ouch. That’s hit a raw nerve. He follows with this little piece of irony (posted anonymously – but I’m pretty sure it’s him, it’s corroborated on the Sydney Anglican website at the bottom of the article)…

“You are wrong and I know you are wrong.

I am happy to say I have had an off-the record briefing with the Government.

I can’t say any more than that.

You are putting your faith in people who are out to spread mischief and misinformaton”

His information is as sensitive and secretive in nature as the Government blacklist he’s defending.

I did not respond in a loving manner.

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How do you think?

Have you ever thought about how you think about things? Is your stream of conscious thought in the style of a documentary? Do you narrate events in your life like a detective in a film noir piece? Or does your thinking mirror a monologue to the camera like those annoying spots in Malcolm in the Middle?

Trolling through the links on Dan’s blog I found myself at the home of Michael Jensen’s blog. He’s one of the famous Sydney Anglican Jensen tribe. He’s doing some sort of study in England – you can find it if you like, but I can’t be bothered searching for the link. He posted an entry on viewing life as a stream of narrative. He’s a pretty smart guy. I didn’t really read all that much but it got me thinking about thinking and how I frame my thoughts. I think my stream of thoughts often flows like a stream of narrative – I do things in time and space, interacting with other characters and these interactions lead to outcomes – problems are resolved, conflicts arise… and my thinking reflects that. I think about how to solve things – and the voice in my head (which I guess is consciousness not some weird psychological condition) follows the narrative, or even pre-empts and influences the narrative, when the interactive bits of life are happening.

News stories are taking bits of a stream of narrative and analysing the elements. The journalistic definition of “news” is information that is of some interest to the public. The approach journalists take when they report news is to answer the big 6 questions – known in the industry as the 5 Ws and 1 H – who, what, when, where, why, and how. If narrative is a stream of connected events occuring in space and time then all these elements will be addressed.

Being of a journalistic, inquisitive bent I find that my approach to the narrative of my life has been somewhat influenced by this paradigm (paradigm is one of my favourite words). Not only do I approach any “conflict” or events that arise in my narrative (life) through the framework provided by these questions – but I’ve started viewing every event that occurs in terms of its newsworthyness.

There are a number of jokes out there featuring different professions and how they see the world – or the simple things in life. A true story I heard recently featured a group of people watching the football – a dentistry student, a med student, and an excercise/sports science student. During the game there was an incident where a player collided with another player’s head. Play was stopped while the player received some medical attention. The dentist commented on the effect the impact would have on the player’s teeth, the med student named the bones that may have been fractured, and the sports science student pointed at a guy in the background and said “he’s doing that static stretch wrong.”

And here, after that complicated five paragraph intro is the story that prompted this post… last night I was driving home from Mission Beach (where I’d been for a work function featuring Beechworth bakery owner Tom O’Toole (an interesting character)) with one other member of the Townsville Enterprise team. It’s a 2.5 hour drive to Mission Beach from Townsville – some say 3. Just outside of town we were stopped by a collection of emergency service vehicles attending the scene of a major accident… and do you want to know what my first thought was? Where are the TV cameras… this is a news story. I had my phone in my hand calling WIN television’s news director with the hot tip before I’d even considered the possibility that people may have been seriously hurt by the crash. When did I become so callous? Have I been that desensitised by years of watching and reading the news? Tom O’Toole made a comment about watching the news that was funny enough to repeat:

“If a dog came into your house and pooed on the ground while you were eating dinner you wouldn’t just sit there and watch him – you’d kick it out of the house, or worse… but every night we let the news do the same thing – it feeds half an hour of crap into our living rooms and we just watch it without thinking. I stopped watching news 20 years ago, and now when I turn on the television it’s the same news anyway – same wars, same crimes, same politics… you may not be what you eat, but you are what you fill your head with.”

Has anyone else been so obviously scarred by their profession? Do the teachers out there see every event in life as an opportunity to fill a lesson plan? Do opera singers see every tragedy as a potential aria (the style of song not the Australian Recording Industry Award)? Do IT people ever see any events that happen in the wider world? and do proctologists just think the world is a bunch of (feel free to insert an appropriate colloquialism here – I’m not going to do your dirty work for you).