Doing theology with a bible in one hand and an iPad in the other – the challenges

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At our curates’ weekend away we considered how the church engages with the world. A number of us gave short talks on a variety of topics such as should we be political in our preaching and how do we deal with the politics of fear and I chose to speak on this one. Here is the text of what I shared.

20170511_171811Is there any difference between doing our theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other (as Barth said) and doing our theology with the Bible in one hand and an iPad in the other?

I was chatting to a friend recently about the fact that 20 years ago I used to read a daily newspaper, then about 15 years ago I started to only buy a paper on occasion – quite often if I was going on a journey somewhere and wanted something to read, then since about 5 years ago I have all but stopped buying newspapers – except for occasionally the weekend papers (especially when on holiday). Why is this? Well I don’t know about you but when I read a printed paper these days I think, knew that, yes, know that, read it last week online, know that…it’s all yesterday’s news.

I consume news almost solely through the radio and my phone these days. The problem with my online consumption is it is no longer filtered by one organisation, I am fed news (funny that we talk about ‘feeds’ in social media parlance – as if we are eating information) through a combination of things my friends have shared and things that a faceless algorithm has decided I might like. More and more now on social media – mainly Facebook and Twitter for me – the blurring of the power of the algorithm with what my online networks share is only increasing and it is almost becoming sinister. This is because, of course, the wonderful social media platforms (which I joined in their early infancy) needed eventually to find a way to make money. The way they do that without charging for your use of their platforms is of course via advertising. I read a very disturbing article recently in the Guardian about a company called Cambridge Analytical who were instrumental in the Trump election campaign – they can psychoanalyse people using what they’ve shared on social media and then target vulnerable looking individuals with emotive content and fake news. I’m sure there is some of this going on in the current election. The terrifying thing is that it is so hidden and insidious.

So when I read a news article now online there are a huge number of factors that I have to consider – what is the source, which of my friends shared it or did it come via another route, why did this pop up in my feed, do I need to fact-check this?

So when we take Barth’s dictum about doing theology with the bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other it has a whole load of other layers when we replace the newspaper with a phone or tablet. When reading a newspaper the experience is fairly one dimensional. You read the article, think about it a bit, and then move on. The old fashioned way to deal with it if you felt particularly strongly, was to write a letter to the editor expressing your views. That process would take a few days. With an iPad the experience is much more three-dimensional. If you’re on Facebook those little reaction buttons are tantalising, almost without reading the full article they’re begging for a click – will you ‘like’ this or click the ‘wow’ button or the ‘angry’ button, go on, do it, click it! Then the next stage is to write a comment underneath it and then you very quickly get sucked in to the undercurrent of the comments feed – someone replies to your comment or you respond to someone else’s and before you know it it’s midnight and you have an early start in the morning. Then the next phase is to write your own rant or blogpost about the topic in question and the comment cycle continues. This can all happen within one minute of seeing the article appear in your feed.

Here are some guidelines I have formulated to ask myself when trying to do theology with my bible in one hand and a phone in the other:

  • Are most of the news articles I read from a single source or a single political perspective? Am I aware of this?
  • Who paid for this article?
  • What are my emotion levels like as I read this – has it been written to press particular buttons?
  • Do I need to do some more reading around?
  • Do I need to slow my reactions down? Think before you share/comment/react.
  • Do not comment or react to the article unless you have read it in full.
  • When commenting, why not use the THINK acronym, is it true, is it helpful, is it inspiring, is it necessary, is it kind?

Alternatively, to turn this on its head, what about the benefits of doing theology with a bible and newspaper in hand:

  • You have time and space to reflect and consider carefully
  • If you want to make a response, you need to find pen and paper and put your thoughts down in an orderly fashion as a letter
  • Then you need to wait to see if you get a response back – perhaps up to a week

Surely the best theology is done through prayer and reflection, not from quick fire, gut responses? So my challenge to myself (and maybe to you) is to build in reflection time and prayer time into my engagement with current affairs. I need to press pause more. Perhaps I need to react less, so that I can hear that still, small voice of calm.

Reflections on my Rural Mission Study Block in Ripon Deanery

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As part of my theological training at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham I took a Mission Study Block (MSB) looking at rural ministry in the Ripon Deanery. I chose this study block because I came with virtually no knowledge of the challenges and opportunities of rural ministry. I’ve always been a towny – I’ve visited the countryside on holiday but that was the extent of my knowledge. I don’t feel especially called to rural ministry but neither did I want to rule it out purely because I have no experience of it.

12 of us from Cranmer Hall spent 2 weeks together in and around the Ripon Deanery undertaking a combination of teaching, trips out and time on placement with local clergy and churches. It was a very formative experience in all senses of the word and I am sure everything I learned will be applicable to wherever I end up in ministry in the future.

I will share here some of the status updates I made on Facebook throughout the MSB  and try to summarise some of the key things I learnt about rural ministry. At the bottom is a collection of photos I took some of which probably speak more loudly than these words! This is all part of my theological reflection – if you have anything to add or challenge, please do, as it will help me to learn more.

17 June

Today we prayed in a T shaped chapel (St Lawrence Aldfield with Studley), held some tiny piglets, had an ice cream in the sun and said evening prayer in Ripon Cathedral. Joy!

19 June

Today I was inspired to hear Sally Gaze talk about being Mission-shaped and Rural; overwhelmed at the wonderful place that is Jennyruth Workshops by the fab staff (who have learning disabilities) and the quality of woodwork they produce, finishing the day at a priest’s induction in the beautiful Pateley Bridge. A good day.

20 June

Today I helped with a graveyard survey, discovered that the one thing they don’t teach you at theological college is that being a deacon is great fun, spent the afternoon learning about tourism and the rural economy at the beautiful Newby Hall & Gardens (over afternoon tea) finishing off with a meal at a parishioner’s house playing Monopoly and then reading the chapter about the Quidditch World Cup in HP book 4 to her two children. What a great day! I could get used to this!

24 June

Today I learnt about the challenges of rural ministry from the wonderful Bishop James, visited the Yorkshire Showground, said evening prayer in a lovely Methodist chapel and watched the Ripon wakeman sound the watch at 9pm – something done in the square every night since 886AD!

25 June

I spent today in beautiful Swaledale and learnt about rural spirituality from two inspirational priests. Then had a fab lunch in Reeth and then went to Marrick Priory – the coolest outdoor activity centre that’s actually a converted medieval priory. We went climbing in a quarry – proud of myself for doing it. Finished the day having dinner with a lovely retired URC minister & his wife. I am tired but happy!

What I learnt about rural ministry from the experience (in no particular order):

Please note that all of the below are gleaned from just 2 weeks in one particular (but quite diverse) deanery – so please don’t take these as generalisations or as applicable only to rural contexts.

  • Visibility: being visible in rural ministry is really important, even if it is not possible to personally visit everyone in your benefice. You are often known by your car – Caroline, priest in Swaledale has a Land Rover with a badge on the wheel on the back saying ‘Parish of Swaledale’. One of the Methodist ministers we met talked of the importance of shopping locally – even if it is inconvenient – in your dog collar you are seen – and of course you can catch up on local news. Hanging around at bus stops is also an opportunity to engage with people. Finding out where people are and then going there works. Bishop James Bell called it ‘strategic visibility’.
  • Rootedness: People in rural communities are very much rooted to the land, its heritage and their ancestors. Often, everyone is related to everyone else. One farmer showed us Roman finds from his farm. There is a sense of continuity and rootedness that you simply don’t get in cities. There is a real sense that the land is just ‘on loan’ and that many people have preceded you and many will come after you.
  • Hospitality: this can also be evident in towns and cities of course but rural ministry does seem to run on tea and cake! Food and making people feel welcome is an integral part of what happens in rural communities.
  • Ecumenism: tied to ecumenism is the lack of any extreme churchmanship. When an anglican church is the only church in a community (which is often the case) the congregation will comprise of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. This means that you will not get ‘niche’ churches that serve a particular flavour of Christianity – such as you get in towns and cities. As a minister it’s important to take into account the different backgrounds of the congregation. A simple suggestion made was to say such things as, “let’s sing that great Wesley hymn…” in introducing hymns – nodding to the Methodist heritage of some people. Working across denominational boundaries is essential in rural areas and some of the best examples of ecumenical work can be found in rural areas.
  • Seasons: This is an obvious one but the seasons have a more powerful impact on rural communities – especially farming communities. A way the church can be more involved is in using the old rural church calendar traditions such as Plough Sunday, Clypping and Rogation Sunday. One priest said she spent a lot of time blessing farming equipment and her church has been praying for the yield of local farmers – one farmer saying they’d noticed a lack of disease in the flock this year!
  • Relationships: this is true for all ministry – it is about relationships. However, because so many in rural areas are connected to each other by family links this does change things somewhat. For example, attending an Alpha course with family members is awkward and not necessarily appropriate. Spirituality is more expressed corporately than individually. This shows how urban-centric many evangelism programmes are – so many are focused on coming to a personal faith on one’s own – rather than as part of a community over a period of time. My reflection on this is that more ‘organic’ forms of discipleship growth need to be used in a rural area (and perhaps in cities actually).
  • Cross cultural: rural ministry is cross cultural mission – working with incomers and landowners, farmers and artists…
  • Creative: far from being ‘behind’ what is happening in the church in urban areas there is a huge amount of creativity in rural churches – perhaps because of the restrictions and lack of resources that are common in rural churches. I was really inspired by how Caroline, vicar of Swaledale, turned a ‘bat problem’ into an opportunity.

There was much more that I learnt but this is a simple summary of some of the things I noted. At the end of the placement we were encouraged to spend some time writing a Collect (prayer) for the Rural Church. Here is mine, a little rough around the edges:

Creator Lord,

in the deep memory that the land holds,

may we remember your faithfulness through the generations.

In our deep knowledge of the people in our community,

may we deepen in our relationship with you.

For in you is perfect relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen

Here is a collection of images I took whilst on the placement, click on the images to see a full slideshow (24 photos). I think the piglet probably wins it!

Tired out after a beautiful day in Swaledale.Ripon hornblower. This has been going on at 9pm every night in Ripon market place since 886AD!South side of Ripon Cathedral at dusk on the longest day of the yearIn the memorial garden at Newby HallOne of the gardens at Newby HallStatue of Christ the Consoler at the church of the same name (a William Burges gothic revival church)
Lovely morning in RiponMorning Prayer in the tiny St Lawrence church Oldfield with StudleyMorning Prayer at T shaped chapel of St Lawrence - Oldfield with StudleyPiglet!

Which books should I read before going to Theological College?

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Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry aka Durham Cathedral CloistersSo, I’ve been recommended for training for ordination in the Anglican Church and I’m going to be studying a BA in Theology and Ministry at Cranmer Hall, Durham from this Autumn. All exciting stuff! I’ve been sent a pre-course reading list to work my way through this summer.

This is where you might be able to help me:

  • Which of the books on the list below do you think are essential reading?
  • Which one book would you recommend I read before starting my course? (it doesn’t have to be on the list!)
  • Do you have any of the books on the list that you’d be willing to lend or give to me?
  • Do you have any other tips on what to do before I go or even what to take with me? (I’ll be a weekly boarder)

Feel free to leave a comment below this post or email me. Thanks so much for your help. Now, which looks the easiest to read on that list…

The List

View on Amazon here (I made a wish list in case a random stranger wanted to buy any of them for me!): http://www.amazon.co.uk/registry/wishlist/2SCFN5BXYKNU4/ref=cm_wl_rlist_go_o

Steve Croft & Roger Walton, Learning for Ministry (Church House Publishing, 2005)

Steven Croft, Ministry in Three Dimensions. Ordination and Leadership in the Local Church (DLT, 1999) – READ THIS ALREADY! YAY!

Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God : Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cowley , 2001)

Richard S. Briggs, Reading the Bible Wisely: An Introduction to Taking Scripture Seriously (Revised edition; Wipf and Stock, 2011)

Michael Lloyd Café Theology (Alpha, 2005)

Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? (DLT, 2003)

Jean Comby, How to Read Church History (2 vols, SCM, 1985, 1989)

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: the Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Eerdmans, 1993)

John Pritchard, The Life and Work of a Priest (SPCK, 2007)  – READ THIS ALREADY! YAY!

John Barton & Julia Bowden, The Original Story: God, Israel and the World (DLT, 2004)

Richard A. Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? (2nd ed, SPCK, 2005)

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (SPCK, 2000) – I’VE ALREADY GOT THIS ONE, HAVEN’T READ IT YET THOUGH

T. Grass, Modern Church History, (London: SCM Press 2008)

Mark Mckintosh, Divine Teaching (Blackwell, 2008)

Bob Jackson, Hope for the Church: Contemporary Strategies for Growth (Church House, 2002)

Stephen Spencer, SCM Studyguide to Christian Mission (SCM Press, 2007)

David Day, Embodying the Word: A Preacher’s Guide (SPCK, 2005)

Paul Goodliff, Care in a Confused Climate (DLT, 1998)

Judy Hirst, Struggling to be Holy (DLT, 2006)

David Runcorn, Spirituality Workbook. A Guide for Explorers, Pilgrims and Seekers (SPCK, 2006)