Friday, September 23, 2016

Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for Dying & Divided Churches by Brian Croft

Christian Focus, 2016, 133pp

There has been a lot of emphasis on church planting in recent years, and rightly so. Where villages, towns, or areas of cities are without a gospel church, planting one there is a vital means of discipling believers in the locality and reaching the community for Christ.

But what of places where there already is a gospel church, but the work is in danger of fizzling out? That is where church revitalisation comes in. Which, I would venture to suggest in an urgent priority for many churches in the UK at this time.

Churches may be in need of revitalisation for a number of reasons. Brian Croft's book is directed at helping pastors turn around churches that have become badly dysfunctional in the way they are run, and as a result have become spiritually stunted and inward looking.

Croft was called to  Southern Baptist Church in the USA that had a reputation for chewing up and spitting out pastor after pastor. By the grace of God the situation was transformed and the church is now in a much more healthy place.

The writer does not offer a 'silver bullet' formula for breathing new life into moribund churches. He acknowledges that ultimately only the power of God can do that. But the Lord is pleased to use the means laid down in the Scriptures. Pastors involved in church revitalisation need to be men who are dedicated to God-dependent prayer and the authoritative preaching of the Word. They must be willing to give loving pastoral care to believers who may have been left bruised and broken by their involvement in a difficult church. In some situations biblical patterns of authority and leadership may need to be recovered, such as the plurality of elders who share in the pastoral oversight of the flock. Somewhat confusingly, but for reasons he explains, Croft speaks of the 'plurality of pastors'. 

The book offers a healthy dose of realism. Some of the examples Croft gives of just how bad things were in the early days of his pastorate are hair raising. Plots were hatched to oust him. Some church members were bitterly critical of his ministry.  But as he prayerfully persevered, things began to change. 

Croft emphasises that men involved in church revitalisation work don't need to be super-pastors. The Lord is pleased to use broken people to turn around broken churches. But pastors in difficult situations are going to need spiritual resilience, grit and determination if they are going to stay around for long enough to see the Lord work to turn the church around. 

The writer acknowledges that mistakes were made along the way and patience was needed on both sides. I'm not sure that he acted wisely when he saw off an opponent with a threat to block his future ministry prospects unless he backed down from causing trouble in a members' meeting. To my mind, a man with such an ungracious attitude was an unsuitable candidate for church ministry full stop. The person in question should have been blocked from ministry as a matter of principle, unless a change of heart was in evidence. It's a reminder that no pastor gets it right every time. Especially when fighting on all fronts it isn't always easy to pick our battles. Thankfully, it it Christ's church, not ours and he is able to overrule our blunders.  

Aspiring pastors considering a call to a 'challenging' church will be able to do so with their eyes open having read this book. They will find encouragement here to look to Lord in their struggles, knowing that his strength is made perfect in weakness. That said, no book can fully prepare a man for the sometimes harsh reality of the ministry. In a way all pastoral ministry is church revitalisation work, and brings with it suffering and trials, as well as great joys. 

This volume on church revitalisation will not provide answer for every ailing fellowship. Some may be dying because they have become inward looking and out of touch with their local communities. Others may be making every endevour to reach out, but, as yet have seen little discernible fruit. Croft does not address those kinds of scenarios. 

But as this book shows, difficult churches should not simply be written off. Dry bones can live by power of God's Word and Spirit.

The text could have done with a bit of de-Americanisation for the UK market. E.g. I was surprised to learn that Southern Baptist Churches are unique in having a congregational form of church government. That will come as news to FIEC and Grace Baptist Churches in the UK, to say no more.

None the less... 

A good one for men who are training for pastoral ministry.

An encouragement to brave souls battling it out to revitalise a dying and divided church. 

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Friday, September 09, 2016

Reading John Owen Evangelical Library Conference

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great Puritan theologian and Independent Church leader. 

On Monday, September 26, 2016, there will be a special one day conference on Reading John Owen. 

The conference will take place at the Evangelical Library and will be from 10 am to 4.30 pm.

The main focus will be on key themes in Owen's 16 volume Works


10.00 Coffee
10.30 John Owen, Preacher, theologian and writer Nigel Graham
11.20 Owen on Christ and the Holy Spirit (Volumes 1-4) Jeremy Walker
12.10 Owen on justification, sanctification and apostasy (Volumes 5-8) Robert Strivens
1.00 Lunch
1.40 Owen the preacher and Calvinist (Volumes 9-12) Gary Brady
2.30 Break
3.00 Owen pastors, churches and Romanism (Volumes 13-16) Guy Davies
3.50 Final panel question session
4.30 Close

Hot drinks provided. Bring your own lunch.

The cost will be £25 for the day.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Building MAT-land

OK, guv'nor, so you're contemplating heading for MAT-land? Eventually, so we're told, we're all going to have to make that journey into the, if not unknown, at lest the not very well researched. That much was evident from this week's Education Committee's session on MATs.

The pace of change since the publication the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper has caught almost everybody on the hop. Politicians, policy wonks, governors and Headteachers found themselves struggling to take in the the idea of universal academisation by 2022. With most schools in Multi Academy Trusts. Even the NGA carried on with its 'Federations First' campaign when it was obvious that MATs, not Feds are the future. 

But what does that future hold?  

A formidable panel of educational researchers was assembled to tell the Education Committee how much they don't know about MATs. Not, I hasten to add because they couldn't be bothered to find out, but because no one seems to know an awful lot about MAT-land. We'll, National Schools Commissioner  Sir David Carter and his trusty team of Regional SCs reckon they do, but they're not telling anybody. 

Now, academics never knowingly overstate their case. They're so immersed in the details of their field of expertise that they cannot help but be conscious of evidence that calls into question received wisdom, or casts doubt on common assumptions. Things are rarely as straightforward as they seem.

Which is a bit vexing if you're a dilettante amateur looking for some clear cut answers. Which is what I am in education terms.

'Any evidence that joining a MAT improves school performance?' asked committee members. 'Difficult to say. Needs more research.' replied the expert witnesses. 'What makes a successful MAT?' Ditto. 'What might be learned from similar systems  overseas, like the US Charter Schools?' Ditto. Oh, but it seems that Labour academies were good, Tory ones not so much.

Now, I'm not affecting a Gove-like disdain for experts. Maybe it's simply too early to draw hard and fast conclusions from what's happening in MAT-land. More independent research undoubtedly needs to be done as we head towards a MAT-dominated, fully academised system. The fruit of that research then needs to be absorbed by policy makers. Not to mention governors and Headteachers who are looking to join or set up MATs.

Would be quite nice to find out what kind of pre-existing MAT set-up should not be touched with a board ruler. (Do teachers still use those long board ruler things?) Or what should the MAT we may be forming look like if it's going to be highly effective as opposed to utterly shambolic and totally dysfunctional? We need to know these things.

Some issues became clear, though, as the committee quizzed the researchers. It's quality of teaching that matters above all else, not structures and governance systems. Well, yes. But surely closer collaboration  will help spread best practice when it comes to teaching and learning, CPD, etc?

It looks like collaborative clustering within smaller geographical areas might be a goer, as opposed to large chains that stretch from one end of England to another. Having a shared vision and purpose is key. However, some schools in 'clustered' MATs ain't doing so well.

More research needs to be undertaken into what makes for an effective CEO, whole MAT outcomes, MATs and the % of SEN pupils, rates of exclusions, whether in some cases improved outcomes are at the expense of a narrowed curriculum, etc.

All rather ambiguous

Next up to give evidence was a number of representatives of Christian education providers; RC, CofE, Oasis Trust, a chap from FASNA, and a secular bloke, who didn't appear to be involved in running any educational body, but was most concerned about Christians doing so.

This panel was a bit more forthcoming when it came to the features of a successful MAT. Among them are things like a clear vision and strategy, good leadership, governance structures appropriate for the size of MAT, and the facilitation of school-to-school support.

It was agreed that some issues needed more thought, like the role of local governance in MATs, Ofsted's ability to inspect MATs in the context of a common framework, and how LAs will function in a fully academised system.

Listening to the evidence given, a number of points began to crystallise, at least in my mind, on what may make for a successful MAT. And by that I mean one that helps form rounded and grounded students with high aspirations for themselves, as well as in terms of exam results.

1. Unity in diversity matters 

MATs must offer an overarching vision and strategy that all its schools share. But at the same time, individual schools should be allowed to maintain their own character and ethos; faith or non-denominational, sporty, or arty, or whatever. 

2. The right systems matter 

Well motivated and highly capable people will founder in an ill thought out system. MATs need Schemes of Delegation that are fit for purpose, setting out what responsibilities lie at board and local governance levels, the powers of the CEO, what decisions may be made by individual Headteachers, and so on.

3. Sharing best practice matters 

At their best MATs will allow successful schools to spread good practice when it comes to teaching and learning. But that needs to be done with sensitivity and care, as what works well in one school (a town secondary, say), may not translate to another (a rural primary). At least not without being adapted to suit. Copy and paste jobs won't work. It's vital to understand the difference between sharing best practice and imposing uniform solutions 

4. The balance between accountability and autonomy matters

MAT boards and CEOs should know their schools and be prepared to intervene rapidly if standards slip. But hyperactive micromanagement squelches innovation and growth. Earned autonomy is what's needed.

5. People matter

The optimum MAT system will fail if it's operated by a bunch of knaves and fools. Knaves who want to use a seat on the board as a nice little earner. Fools who haven't a clue what they are meant to be doing. Boards should be comprised of skilled-up stakeholders. Local people, parents etc, who have the moral purpose to make sure funds are used to raise learning outcomes, not line their own pockets. People with the right mix of skills and experience to ensure the MAT works effectively for the benefit of all schools and their pupils.

The future of education is ours to shape. 

MAT-land has not yet been covered over by hard concrete and filled with immovable brick structures.

That lack of solidity is a bit scary. But it's also an opportunity to adapt and innovate. To a certain extent it'll be up to governors, Headteachers and CEOs to make of it what we will.

Let's make sure that we build the system with care so that MAT-land becomes a place where teachers excel and children flourish.

Monday, September 05, 2016

J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain H. Murray

 Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 273pp

A good biographer helps his readers to get under the skin of their subject so that you feel you get to know them. Almost personally. A good Christian biographer will do more that that. As well as setting their subject against the background of their times and offering a convincing psychological portrait, they will give readers a glimpse of a soul in its communion with God and dealings with people.

Iain H. Murray has often pulled off this feat in his many biographies of Christian men and women. Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, Archibald Brown, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Amy Carmichael among them. He has now done the same for J. C, Ryle.

Ryle was one of the most famous Evangelical Anglicans of his day. He became the first Bishop of Liverpool. His many tracts and books attracted avid readers all around the globe. Yet towards the end of his life and in the decades the followed he was regarded as something of a dinosaur. His 'old fashioned' beliefs and attitudes were dismissed as irrelevant for the times. 

In some ways Ryle was 'a man born out of due time'. A staunch Protestant, he seemed more like a Bishop from the days of Latimer and Ridley than Victorian Churchman. The Church of England of that period was in a state of flux. Newman and Pusey of the Oxford Movement were seeking to pull the Church in a Rome-ward direction. Theological liberalism was beginning to take hold, questioning the authority of Scripture in the name of the 'assured results of modern scholarship'. 

Against these trends Ryle dared to stand alone. He called the Church of England to remain true to its confessional heritage in the Thirty Nine Articles. But he was fighting a losing battle. When he became a Bishop, Ryle found himself torn between the need to be an ecclesiastical statesman, trying to hold together all the various parties in his diocese, and his principled stand for Protestant beliefs. 

Ryle never wanted to be a clergyman. It was only because his father's bank collapsed that he turned to the Church for employment. He was converted some years earlier when a student at Oxford University, but had no desire whatever to become a Minister. The Lord had other ideas. All doors closed to him bar one; that of becoming curate of a parish church in Exbury, Hampshire. Thereafter he served churches in Winchester, Helmingham, and Stradbroke, before being appointed Bishop of Liverpool. Just as his call to the ministry seemed a matter of financial expediency from a human point of view, so his becoming a Bishop was a political fix on the part of Tory Prime Minister, Disraeli. The politician was keen to avoid his Liberal opponent Gladsone imposing a ritualist on the growing city.  

But whatever man's motivations and machinations there can be no doubt that J. C. Ryle was called by God to proclaim the good old truths of the gospel to the people of his day. And it is those good old truths, held by the Reformers and Puritans so beloved by Ryle that have stood the test of time. For they are the mighty life-transforming doctrines of God's Word. Few bother to read the 'state of the art' works of nineteenth century theological liberalism these days, but Ryle's writings have been rediscovered and reprinted for a global audience. His Expository Thoughts on the Gospels are a model of straightforward applicatory exposition.  Historical  writings such as Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century have introduced readers to the mighty work of God that was the Evangelical Revival. His work on Holiness has helped to correct unhelpful emphases in Evangelical teaching on sanctification.

Although Ryle was a somewhat reluctant pastor, he threw himself unstintingly into the work. He was a diligent visitor of his flocks and a fully engaged in the life of the communities in which he served. He sought to preach with simplicity and verve, grabbing the attention of his people with lively illustrations. The preacher brought God's Word to bear upon his hearers' lives with punchy and direct application of the truth. In a day when Calvinism was rapidly going out of fashion, Ryle was not ashamed to identify himself with the Reformed faith, which he saw as essential for the life and witness of the Church. He seems, however, to have held to a 'hypothetical universalist' view of the atonement, rather than the 'definite atonement' view of full-blown Calvinism. 

Murray brings out the private trials and struggles of the public figure. A recently discovered memoir penned by Ryle for the benefit of his children has thrown new light on his early years. As a younger man, he was twice widowed and left in sole charge of small children. His time at Helmington was marked by tensions with the local bigwig who owned the living of the parish church he served. Throughout his long life he never really got over the shock and shame of his family losing everything when his father's bank collapsed. Although Ryle could be a combative figure, he felt himself lacking in social confidence. The 'man of granite' had his vulnerable side, which only served to make him a better pastor. 

Murray brings to the fore key aspects of Ryle's teachings and considers what we may learn from him today. Ryle was a keen believer in the Establishment principle and believed that nations should recognise God and his law. He would have preferred Spurgeon as a Baptist equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than no Established Protestant Church at all. I trust Ryle's Baptist contemporary would have demurred on the grounds of Baptist belief in the separation of Church and State. Ryle's position in the Church of England made him a somewhat conflicted character, especially when he became Bishop of Liverpool, His hopes of bringing together a mainstream bulwark against Anglo Catholicism and Liberalism were misplaced. The Church of England is no longer bound to uphold the Thirty Nine Articles that Ryle fought to maintain. His policy for recovering Anglicanism for the gospel didn't work and cannot realistically be used as a model for today's Evangelical Anglicans. 

Ryle was catholic spirited enough to transcend denominational boundaries and had more spiritual affinity with Liverpool Nonconformist leaders than many of the Anglican clergy over whom he presided as Bishop. His was a generous orthodoxy. Valiant for truth, but without ever becoming sectarian. That's why his writings have a timeless quality that has recommended them to a new generation of readers. Murray's biography helpfully brings out the man, the grace-touched soul, behind the impressive beard and many instructive books.

Venice, Rome and Ryle. So ends my summer hols reading roundup. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Abacus, 2016, 512pp 

More summer holiday reading. Still on the theme of our Rome/Venice half term break.

Ever read the second half of Romans 1 and thought, 'Hey, Paul, that's laying it on a bit strong'? I mean, all that stuff about idolatry, sexual immorality, hatred, murder and the like. Surely those old Romans weren't that bad? Worse, actually. The apostle was sparing his readers' blushes. Holland doesn't.

In his latest historical blockbuster the historian tells the tale of the House of Caesar. Put simply, they weren't very nice people. What Senneca said regarding the worst of them, Caligula, might well be applied to the rest in some measure, 'Nature produced demonstrate just how far unlimited vice can go when combined with unlimited power.'

Holland unfolds the story of Augustus' dynasty with his customary flair for writing a well researched historical account that is borne along by a surging narrative flow. Full of detail and drama.

By his victory at the decisive battle of Philippi, Gaius Octavius brought an end to the civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. He then  claimed for himself the  ultimate prize in Rome. While Augustus (as Gaius became) paid lip service to the traditions of the Republic, he accrued to himself the powers of an absolute monarch. Anyone who stood in his way was eliminated. Plotters and would-be rivals were ruthlessly dispatched. Those who succeeded him; Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero followed suit.

You think the jostling for position among leading Tories after the Brexit vote was sharp elbowed; Gove and Johnson and all that? Playground fisticuffs compared with the deadly goings on in the House of Caesar.

Holland's work could be read as a meditation on human nature. An extended commentary on the saying, 'Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.' That certainly rings true for the Caesars. Not even their nearest and dearest were spared. Brothers had their sisters murdered, uncles their nephews and nieces. In the case of Nero, he had his own mother bumped off and in a fit of temper battered his pregnant wife, Poppaea to death. To say nothing of how they treated their enemies.

Ovid, for ever wanting to push the boundaries of taste and decency said, 'We always want what we're not allowed'. A profound commentary on human nature. Augustus passed a law against adultery, and yet demanded that his sexual appetites be sated by a steady supply of nubile young women. Tiberius posed as an upstanding embodiment of old Roman virtue, yet spent his last days living out his depraved sexual fantasies. Caligula openly reveled in excess of all kinds. Nero tried to replace the wife he murdered with a male eunuch.

Ovid was right. In his Letter to the Romans Paul wrote, "Now the law came in to increase the trespass" (Romans 5:20). The divine 'thou shalt not' provokes the response 'why shouldn't I?' Paul testified to own experience of this, "Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.'” (Romans 7:7).

But hang on a minute. Augustus and co didn't exactly have the Ten Commandments inscribed on their villa walls. How can they be said to be deliberately transgressing the law? A clue may be found in Ovid's statement cited above. His 'allowed' suggests moral force. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 argues that pagans knew right from wrong, and yet deliberately chose what was wrong; idols over God, unrighteousness over righteousness, what was unnatural over the natural etc.

The apostle elaborates in Romans 2:12-16. God had 'by nature' written the law on the hearts of Gentiles and their consciences bore witness to that law, accusing or excusing them accordingly. The problem wasn't that Ovid and Caligula didn't know any better when it came to immoral conduct. Rather, the very prohibitions of the 'light of nature' provoked them to want what they were not allowed. That is part and parcel of the perversity of human sinfulness. The history of the House of Caesar, indeed all human history bears witness to that sad fact.

That is why placing too much power into the hands of one person is always a recipe for disaster. Political systems need checks and balances in order to rein in the worst excesses of human nature. The period of the Roman Republic was hardly a Golden Age of love and peace, but at least the system that Augustine and his line supplanted had some checks and balances.

Dynasty is great background reading for the New Testament period. Holland references Jesus and his teaching and describes the persecution of Christians under Nero. The text is sprinkled with Bible references. Spookily, Holland brings his account to a conclusion with a nod to Revelations 17, which sprung to mind when reading Peter Ackroyd's Venice.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. Sometimes you feel like you are wading through blood and guts. Holland doesn't flinch at detailing the seamier side of Roman life either. A kind of 'Horrible History' for grown-ups, 'The Dreadful Dynasty'?

What made Augustus and his line so dreadful was the rampant power of human sinfulness let loose. The Caesars styled themselves as lords of their people and sons of a god. They attained their elevated status by ruthlessly grasping for power and keeping hold of it at all costs. Paul visited Philippi, site of the famous battle and planted a church there. Roman soldiers were given the right to settle in the city, which became a colony of Rome. Members of the church were both citizens of Rome and citizens of heaven. As citizens of heaven they acknowledged another Son of God, Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Philippians 3:20-21. Jesus showed an altogether different attitude to power and prestige to that of the Caesars, Phil 2:5-11. He who was in the form of God took the form of a slave to die for his people. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place of honour in the universe.

The apostle wrote to the believers in Philippi that they were to, 'Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus'. They were to eschew selfish ambition and seek honour through humility and service, Philippians 2:3-4. For the Caesars, especially Caligula and Nero, overweening pride came before a terrible fall. The Christian gospel turns the world upside down by teaching that down is the only way up. As Jesus taught, "The meek shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5).

As he wrote his letter to the Romans, Paul sensed the vulnerability of the Christian community under Nero. What chance did they have against the brutal princeps of Rome? Yet he assured them they they were held in the grip of something more powerful than the spite of the Emperor. Nero might label them as enemies of mankind and have them thrown to the lions, doused in pitch and set alight, but nothing would be able to "separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39).

The House that Caesar built lies in bloodsoaked ruins. Its legions have long perished. Its monstrous deeds stand condemned by history. The kingdom of the wolf is no more. The Lamb is in the midst of the throne. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

Vintage, 2010, 498pp

Venice. I confess that I've spent longer getting acquainted with the city through Ackroyd's book than in the actual place. Strange that it was on the sun scorched beaches of the Algarve that I got to know more about Venice than when we visited the place.

We were only there for a few days as May ebbed away and June began to flow. One half of a Rome/Venice  split break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Sarah and I left having been entranced by the Serene City,  determined to drop by again sometime.

Revisiting Venice with Ackroyd as a guide has added retrospective depth and interest to our fleeting stay. 

If depth is the right word for a city intent on sliding down the surface of things.

Ackroyd peers through the mists of time to trace the myth-shrouded origins of Venice. Founded by people seeking refuge from Barbarian hordes, the city rose from the sea on the back of countless wooden piles, driven into the ocean bed.

Numerous islets were melded into one island city. Ancient rivers and streams became the arterial canals that made Venice throb with life.

The very existence of the city is an act of defiance against the forces of nature. The sea ever threatening to return it to the marshy bog from whence it came. The siren's call alerts Venetians to the danger of flood. In 1966, the year of my birth, a great tidal deluge saw the  waters rise by almost 2 metres, inundating many properties. Cue renewed fear and  foreboding over the city's future.

A sense of being under threat from the elements helped to unite the populace from the beginning, making the people willing subjects of an intrusive political system, headed by the doge. Only as a united body could they hold out against the sea. Against all comers.

Venice exists distinct from and above the sea. It must. Yet it could not exist apart from the sea. Its buildings are clad in limestone and marble, products both of the force of the sea. Venice is famous for its glassware, especially the island of Murano. Ackroyd describes glass as 'material sea'. The light captured on canvas by the great painters of Venice shimmers and glitters like light dancing on the waves of the sea.

From the start Venice was a trading city. Sea trade. Goods were shipped from East to West and back, laden with all manner of goods, exotic and ordinary. Vast fortunes were made. Venice became a hive of industry, building ships at unprecedented speed in the Arsenal.

The juxtaposition of East and West can be seen to best effect in Saint Mark's Basilica. A Roman Catholic Church replete with golden icons and Orthodox domes. The four horses that adorn the top of the entrance way were plundered from Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. 

Sliding down the surface of things. Venice was synonymous for its processions, carnivals and masked balls. Cassanova and all that. The politics of the city in its Republican heyday was as theactrical as any play or opera. Venice was a place to see and be seen. Today it's in danger of existing only to be gazed at and serve as a splendid backdrop for tourists' selfies.

Its empire was not the expression of some noble idea of bringing enlightened civilisation to other poor, benighted lands.Trade was key. Careful diplomacy and when necessary a striking show of arms were deployed to that end.

The chapters vividly describing Venice's voracious appetite for trade put me on mind of Revelation 17-18. There John the Divine ransacks the old prophets' denunciation of Babylon, Tyre and Sidon to depict Rome and through Rome, the world. Her rapacious trade, bloodthirsty violence and seductive harlotry made the city ripe for a fall. Venice too is here. She used to sell to the world, now she merely sells herself. The artists of Venice loved colour. Titian-like, John shows us 'a woman clothed in purple and scarlet, the great harlot who is seated on many waters.' Do the campanile bells ring at that description, I wonder?

Venice is the very epitome of a city. 'Pure City' as Ackroyd calls it. Cities are the pinnacle of human achievement. They show what is possible under what Calvinist theologians have called you 'common grace'. Venice had its finely tuned political system, innovative industries, magnificent architecture, high arts, and enriching trade. To this day it really is a dazzling place. But you can't help notice that there is something slightly impure about it. Murky, even. The city's focus is on itself, lost Narcissus-like in its own watery reflection. Appearence is all. This is what the Bible calls the 'world', which is strangely attractive and yet repellent. Ackroyd can't quite hide his moral distaste for a city he evidently loves so much.

In one of his letters, John warns his readers not to love the world, 'the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions'. 1 John 2:15-17. He could have been describing Venice. The same words could be used to describe all cities, towns and villages,  for they are each the sum of their fallen human parts. Few cities match Venice for stately grandeur, yet it floats precariously on a grimy bog.

You can get lost in Venice. Spirituality and literally. We did in the latter sense; trapsing around seemingly endless streets in search of Saint Mark's Square, but never seeming to get anywhere. It was comforting to read that  Ackroyd has had the same experience. Only on water is it possible to find your way around. Via speedy vaporetta.

Better still by taking a gondola ride. At night. The darkness punctuated by points of gentle light. The gondolier's friendly patter, 'This is the Bridge of is Marco Polo's house..I love my Venice.' The sound of water under the boat. The splashing of oar in canal. Then silence. At that moment Venice becomes the Serene City once more. You couldn't think of anything more romantic

But the moment of peace is only temporary. There is money to be made. We had to engage in negotiations before our ride. Not on the price. There is no negotiating on price. I didn't have enough Euros left. That wasn't a problem said our gondolier. He knew of a charge-free cash point on route and could pause to let me get some money out. He knew aright, and so we had our ride. Maybe he'd been 'had' by British tourists doing a runner before. I had no intention of doing so once we had finished the tour, but our perfectly affable gondolier seemed worried that we might. 'You pay me!' he anxiously cried out after us. There speaks Venice.

On my study wall hangs a fine print of Titian's portrait of John Calvin as an older man. At lest he looks old as depicted. Lined face, graying beard, thoughtful, melancholy eyes. Although I discovered after buying the picture that the image may not be that of the Genevan Reformer after all. Just some random old bloke. The words 'Giovanni Calvino' were added later, apparently. In Venice not even Calvin is all that he seems.

The city was happy to tolerate Protestants. Trade links were forged with Holland, Germany and England. Cromwell's ambassador hoped that Venice would come to embrace the Reformation. But it was not to be.

If Venice may be likened to a prostitute, somewhat incongruously the city was wholly devoted to worshipping the Virgin Mary. Images of her are everywhere; churches, bridges, public spaces, private homes. Although tetchily independent of the Pope in Rome, Venice was thoroughly Roman Catholic in its Marian piety. Ackroyd quotes the impressions of seventeenth century evangelical visitor to Venice, William Bedell, who complained of the 'multitude of idolatrous statues, pictures, reliques, in every corner'. Idols. What the Old Testament prophets denounced as 'whoring after other gods'.  Machiavelli commented that Italians were 'irreligious and corrupt', to which Ackroyd adds the rejoinder that Venetians were 'religious and yet corrupt'.

For all that, what is to compare with the city which sits in decaying splendor on many waters? Its maze-like streets,  weave through the city like corridors through time. Every building seems pregnant with history; from the old houses that flank the Grand Canal to the magnificent doge's palace. Saint Mark's piazza at night. Disclosing its beauty twice, once to the direct gaze of its visitors and again as reflected in the waters that gather darkly on its flagstones. While the music plays. If the stones of Venice echo the words, 'pay me' they also resound to the sound of of Vivaldi.

But this town is becoming like a ghost town. Tourists staying on the island way outnumber residents, many of whom have drifted  to the mainland. The population has dropped from 174,000 in 1951 to 55,000 today. If the trend continues there will be hardly any local people left on the island. Venice will cease to be a living city.  Little more than a glorified museum. Existing simply to be looked at. Sad, but maybe there's something quite fitting in that. Recent news reports speak of residents fighting back, however, putting up signs saying, "Tourists go away!" Understandable, no doubt. But like that's going to happen. Venetians of all people should know better than to try and hold back the tide.

Ackroyd is a fine guide to the city. He seems to have captured the very essence of the place. Even at its most solid in brick, glass and stone, Venice sits uneasy, foreboding; for its essence is that of the sea. Restless, fickle, devouring.

The author struggles to see any purpose in it all beyond the primal instinct to survive. He discerns no guiding hand of Providence determining the rise and fall of nations, only a bewildering coming together of innumerable causes. As Calvin would have told him, the Lord works through secondary causes to advance his will. But his ways are often a mystery to us and  admit no trite interpretation. The psalmist testified, 'Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.' (Psalm 77:19).

Of one thing we can be sure. Contrary to its sometime vaunted claim, crumbling Venice is not the New Jerusalem. According to the Book of Revelation, that Pure City will not ascend from the sea, but descend from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband. Then the sea will be no more. (Revelation 21:1-4). We read that the glory and honour of the nations will be brought to the City of God. (Revelation 21:26). Does that mean there is some hope yet for sea-lapped Venice?

The blurb on the back cover of Ackroyd's book suggests that reading it is a holiday in itself. Reading it while on holiday perhaps made it doubly so. But it's one thing to study Venice and quite another to see her. Before the sea is no more and the cites of this world sink to dust and dregs, we would like one day to return and gaze upon the folorn beauty of Venice.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Armação de Pêra

Right, then. Sarah and I are off to Armação de Pêra on the Algarve for a bit. Looking forward to chilling, swimming, exploring and reading, etc. Only means of communication: speaking loudly and gesticulating wildly at the natives. Usually works. I'll hit 50 while we're away. Had better check holiday insurance to make sure we're covered for a midlife crisis. Grateful that Sarah's shingles cleared up in time for us to go. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Growing Smaller Churches talks now online

The three addresses from this helpful Grace Baptist Partnership conference are now available to stream or download from our church website:

Nigel Hoad - ‘Evangelism in a smaller church
Barry King  - Leadership in a smaller church
Jim Sayers - ‘Mission and the smaller church

It was an encouraging time. Not only in terms of the talks, but also in having an opportunity to engage with others who are serving in smaller church situations. So, if you couldn't join us on the day, or fancy a recap you're welcome to have a listen: Growing Smaller Churches conference

Monday, August 08, 2016

How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor,
by James K. A. Smith, Eerdmans, 2014, 148pp

It's commonplace to say that we live in a secular age. At least, 'we' in the West do. But what do we mean by 'secular' and how may Christians bear witness to their faith in the current existential environment? Well, Charles Taylor has written an influential book on just those things, A Secular Age. But it's a thumping big tome, weighing in at nigh on 800 pages. Can't be doing with that? Me neither. Slackers aren't we? Never mind, James K. A. Smith has done the job for us and produced a kind of 'bluffer's guide' to Taylor's work. It's more than that, but essentially he offers a neat summary of A Secular Age, with some insights of his own and a little critical engagement thrown in. Handy, eh?

Christians need to get to grips with all this secular stuff, as secularism is rapidly becoming the normative worldview in Western culture. As a result lack of belief in God is the natural default position for many/most. In the past it was the other way around and atheists rather than believers were the odd-bods. But that ain't the case just now. A recent survey showed that for the first time the number of people in the UK with 'no religion' (48%) has outstripped the number who regard themselves as Christians (44%) (see here). 

Now, according to Taylor's taxonomy 'secular' has three main meanings: Secular1 - as in this temporal, earthly realm in which some people pursue 'secular' vocations such as butcher, baker, candlestick maker, as opposed to religious ones like monk, priest, bishop. A bit medieval, that, I know. Secular2 which involved the disenchantment of the world in the face of Enlightenment-inspired empirical science and technological advancement. Out with faith, in with reason and all that. Religious belief pushed to the sidelines of life. Then there's Secular3, which is kind of where we are now. This is the world of exclusive humanism in which anything beyond the imminent frame is eclipsed. Human flourishing is sought at the this worldly level alone. In that context belief in God simply doesn't make sense. That kind of religious hokum is so last millennium. 

But that's not the end of the story. The secular self, safely buffered from transcendence within the imminent frame, finds itself strangely haunted by a sense that there must be something more to life than this. The writer Julian Barnes confessed, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson sighed, "All my life I have sought something I cannot name." (I supplied that quote, not Smith - got it from Twitter). We also find that sort of sentiment in some of the more thoughtful examples of modern pop music,

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don't, I don't know what that will be
I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

What's my name, what's my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
(Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes)

Such 'cross-pressures' reveal a longing for transcendence on the part of the Secular3 soul. This can't be satisfied by what Taylor calls 'subtraction stories' that offer a reductionist account of our lived experience. Whether of the type offered by 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins, or religious Fundamentalists. Neither is it simply a matter of marshaling the intellectual arguments of Christian apologetics. What we have to do is tell a story that makes sense of our cross-pressured existence. At least more sense than other 'takes' on reality, including the Secular3 one. 

Smith also references Radiohead somewhere, but I can't track it down just now. Decent taste in music, that man. I was interested to see this New York Times piece on Searching for Transcendence with Radiohead. More cross-pressures.  

Taylor's emphasis on speaking to the secular person's felt 'sense' of things as opposed to trying to reason them back to belief makes him something of a self-confessed Romantic; pitting sensibility against rationality. I'm all for a bit of Brahms and Bruckner, but Romanticism has its limits, as did the cold-eyed rationalism of the Enlightenment against which it reacted. As a Christianised apologetic strategy it has its flaws. Taylor's approach could easily be open to the postmodern riposte, 'I'm glad that you feel that way about God and the Christian faith, but that's not how it feels to me'. Reasoned argument on the cogency of Christian truth claims has its place in our witness, as well as an appeal to more experiential factors. 

At least judging from Smith's summary, Taylor is better at helping his readers get a feel for what it's like to live with the Secular3 sensibility than he is at showing the way out of it. Taylor is a Roman Catholic. His touchstone is Francis of Assisi rather than the biblical gospel. Smith explains his outlook,  "Tell me what you think of Saint Francis, Taylor suggests, and I'll tell you what your 'unthought' is." An 'unthought' is a "pretheoretical perspective that comes with a certain sensibility and outlook". (See p. 81). 

But, if anything, the 'unthought' perspective of cross-pressured Secular3 unbelief is best accounted for by Reformed presuppositional apologetics. Arguing along the lines of Romans 1, this approach holds that human beings cannot entirely eschew an inbuilt sense of God. We may try and retreat into an exclusively imminent zone, but cannot entirely suppress the knowledge of God. Barnes, Thompson, and Fleet Foxes testify to that. As old Augustine put it, 'You have made us for yourself and we can find no rest until we find our rest in you.' The Secular3 'take' on reality is consciously deficient because it cannot account for the fact that God has "placed eternity in their hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Not that belief in God removes all tensions, questions and challenges. Just like that. It was Ecclesiastes I cited. 

Yet Taylor sees the Reformation as part of the problem, rather than a gospel-retrieving movement that offers a solution. Started with Luther & Calvin denouncing the superstitions of popery; idolatry, invocation of the saints and what have you, and ended up with a disenchanted world that paved the way for the God-free zone of hardline secularism. I really don't know about that. At its best the Reformed theological vision smashed the secular/sacred divide and suffused the whole of life with divine glory. Pastors and ploughboys, ministers and mums were all servants of God. Sweeping a floor was as God honouring  an activity as preaching a sermon when carried out by a believer in the name of Jesus. The superstitions of the Old Religion's 'enchanted' life had to make way for a holistically sanctified one.

It seems that for Taylor the Reformed tradition lacks the deep spiritual sensibility needed to speak to our secular age. He sees it largely a shimmeringly cool system of theology. A world of excarnate ideas, loftily floating above the messiness of flesh and blood reality. But that is a 'subtraction story' if there ever was one. We also need to factor in Reformation spirituality, which is all about encountering the God of the Gospel as he draws near to us in our brokenness by his Word and through his Spirit. That takes place not in individualistic isolation, but in and through the life and worship of the church, spilling over into the whole of existence. The tendency towards excarnation might be better seen in the world-denying, flesh-mortifying  asceticism of Roman monasticism than the Reformation's call to whole life discipleship. 

In terms of Christian witness, the Reformation beckons the church back to the gospel of grace as disclosed in Holy Scripture. The Bible's Big Story of God/Creation/Fall/Redemption/Renewal makes sense of the glory and grime of reality. It explains our longing for transcendence and the failure to find it. Christians can testify to Secular3 men and women that inhabiting this Story offers a better 'take' on lived reality than attempting to withdraw into a wholly imminent realm, only to find that space too is haunted by a sense of God.

The gospel speaks to the ache and aspiration of the human heart more satisfyingly than any 'cross-pressured' secular perspective. We cannot escape from the transcendent, or find transcendent meaning within the imminent frame. Not even in a Radiohead concert. But in the person of Christ we encounter God in the flesh, the perfect union of transcendence and imminence. Through his redeeming work sin-broken people, dwelling in the imminent realm of time and space, can be reconciled to a transcendent and gloriously holy God. In other words, that 'something'  for which Hunter S. Thompson sought, but could not name is in fact someone; Jesus.

To sum up, this book is certainly worth a read. It will help Christians to understand the Secular3 mentality and encourage thought on how to engage secular-minded people with the gospel. But it's a bit like seeing a Doctor who correctly diagnoses your ailment, only to prescribe the wrong medicine. Ain't going to make you any better. In his conclusion Smith shows that the success of Taylor's project can be measured in so far as secular types come to see that all along they've been 'waiting for Saint Francis' (p. 139). What? Like that's going to help. 'Waiting for God in Christ' is the thing. It's the gospel that shows us how (not) to be secular.