Monday, November 04, 2013

Men, Women, Children and the new Bishop of Durham

It's a really big question: Why are there more women than men in the British church? I could, and have, write lots about this subject, but I was forcibly struck by one possible answer to it last Saturday. The occasion was the East Midlands Baptist Association Day and our main speaker was Bishop of Durham Elect, Rt Rev Paul Butler. This question was raised and he talked about reaching out to men, but stated very clearly that he didn't believe that the so called 'feminisation' of the church was the cause of the problem.

After the main session, I was leading a workshop on children's ministry and I think part of the answer might be found in that seminar. Of the twenty or so attenders only three were male. John Westerhoff talks about the 'hidden curriculum'; in other words our practice sometimes doesn't match our words, and it's our practice that teaches children what we are about. If little boys are taught that church is 'women's business' from their earliest days, they will struggle to see it as something for everyone regardless of gender when they are older.

It's a challenge to the men in our congregations: do you ever consider working in the Sunday School? Or is that women's work? Patterns of child care in the home are changing so where once men would actually be incompetent with children because they never looked after even their own children, they now regular care for, and spend time with small children. Is the problem to do with safeguarding? Perhaps men feel that they might be regarded with suspicion if they work with small children.

Whatever the problem is we need to address it, and we made a good start on Saturday. I'm pleased to say that one of the three men in my workshop was Bishop Paul. Given that he started his ministry in children's work with Scripture Union and has continued to prioritise this side of his ministry, I did feel pretty nervous about having him there - talk about teaching your grandmother to suck eggs! But most of all I think it sends a message that this workshop was as valuable and important as the others, because children are valuable and important, whether they are boys or girls.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A book review: 'To such as these' The child in Baptist thought by Andrew Goodliff

Here's a copy of a review I wrote of a colleague's recent book about children in baptist theology.  It's almost essential reading if you're a person working in a baptist context with children and young people, but pretty useful if you work with them in other denominations.  The review originally appeared in Regents Reviews here:'s%20Reviews%204.2%20May.pdf 

Annie Dillard wrote 
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)
As a Youth and Children’s Pastor I often listen to the words we say in Baptist churches when we present an infant soon after its birth and experience a similar sensation to the one described by Annie Dillard.   Along with the family of the child, congregations make a series of promises to support both the family and the child in the task of reaching mature adulthood, and hopefully growing in Christian faith.  I think about the various approaches these same congregations then have to the child in later years when she or he throws up on the new carpet, runs about during services, asks awkward questions, smokes in the toilets, speaks prophetically about what Jesus is saying and all the other things children do as they grow.  I wonder whether they didn’t realise what they were promising, or whether they have forgotten that they did.

In this slim volume Andrew Goodliff has looked at the words Baptists have used over their history in services of Infant Dedication or Presentation and asked some key questions about what we mean theologically when we say them.  He has thoroughly summarised Baptist theological approaches to the child and his work contains a useful discussion of those approaches.  He notes that usually these approaches have been responses to the question “Where is the child?”  This question has been asked by Baptists since our earliest days, because of our belief that salvation can only be received by those professing personal faith, signified by believer’s baptism, and that the church is made up of these believers gathered together.  This raises questions for us about where the child is in relation to Kingdom, salvation and the church.  The book contains chapters discussing the theological issues raise by each of these questions.

The chapter on the child in relation to the Kingdom focusses mainly on Jesus’ response to children in Mark 10:13-16, arguing that this is the text Baptists use to support the rite of Infant Presentation, although there is a variety of interpretations of its meaning; are children simply signs of the kingdom, or are they included within it?  What is it about the child that makes them a sign of it?  Most of the writers quoted argue that it is the child’s deficit, its weakness and vulnerability that make it a sign of how the Kingdom is to be entered, but Goodliff argues that most readings have been defensive, whereas a creative approach might be more helpful.

In chapter 4, Goodliff explores the relationship between theologies of sin and salvation and approaches to the child, seeking a new language to discuss the development of faith that places more emphasis on salvation as a process rather than an event.  This leads on to a discussion in Chapter 5 of the child in relation to the church and here the problems inherent in a very binary in-or-out approach become even more obvious.  Goodliff notes Nigel Wright’s use of the term “gathering” rather than “gathered” in relation to the community of the church; again taking a process view and applying it not just to children but all those growing in faith.

In his conclusion Goodliff returns to the rite of infant presentation, examining it in more detail in light of the discussion so far.  He invites us to look at the rite afresh and to imbue it with deeper meaning and significance, with a focus on the child, rather than is often the case, the adults.  As a Youth and Children’s Pastor, the final Post Script section offered the most interesting and challenging thinking.  Goodliff draws on his experience as a Youth Pastor and now Pastor and looks at some examples of what it would mean for churches to take seriously the promises made at infant presentation and become more radically all-age congregations.

This is a helpful book for those wanting to take seriously the place of children and young people in Baptist churches.  It would make useful companion reading to the “Today Not Tomorrow” material recently produced by Arise Ministries in conjunction with the  BU Mission Dept (See:, offering a thorough theological background to it.  Goodliff has also helpfully added an amended version of the liturgy for infant presentation taking his thinking into account.  Although much has been written by Baptists on this subject over the years, this book may encourage not just youth and children’s workers but congregations more widely to think afresh about what they mean when they participate in an infant presentation.

If you want to buy a copy they are available here: //

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Spiritual Disciplines in a Digital Age No. 1

This short blog is the first in an occasional series that might only contain one entry!!!

Anyhoo...I twitter - I like twitter; I think it encourages people to be creative, it doesn't seem to take up too much time.  It's simple and very obvious that it's public, so you shouldn't do drama on it (although some do, a la Facebook!)

I like that my friends 'follow' me and I 'follow' them and a few other folks 'follow' me and I choose not to follow them.  By teenager standards I'm a bit of a 'billy no mates' because I only have 157 followers...or at least I did until about half an hour ago!  Now I've only got 156.  When I first started on twitter and had 10 'followers' it was easy to spot who had dropped out, but now it would mean I would have to obsess so much over my 'follower' list in order to know who it was.

My spiritual discipline is to decide not to.  I see the changing number and I have a tweak of fear that it's someone I really value that has left me, but it won't be, will it!  It will be one of a few spammish 'followers' and I shouldn't worry about them.

You might be saying "If you didn't do Twitter in the first place you wouldn't have the problem" but that's a bit like saying you shouldn't have friends because they'll hurt you.  The discipline comes in conquering the deep fear that I'm not loved, when I am loved by many people, and by God.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Over past few weeks I have felt a surge of pride in being a Baptist, what with the JPIT paper on poverty ( ) and the St. Georges Day declaration of unity ( ).  

I felt proud to be part of a movement that was prepared to speak out prophetically to our culture to call us to see things in new ways.  I felt that we might be reclaiming some of our radical heritage, being prepared to build church and community in a different way that allowed all voices to be heard and freed people to be who they are in Christ without recourse to stereotypes and out dated oppressions.

So when I read an article in the Baptist Times with a picture of a speaker standing in front of a poster that says the group want to be a “catalyst for change in a hurting world” and whose keynote speaker apparently says: “We tend to put God and people in to packages”   I think it can only be a good thing, yes? 

Apparently not.  The Baptist Men’s Movement, whose conference this article is reporting, then goes on to suggest that the reason men don’t come to church any more is because the church is “too feminine”  and go on to suggest a range of stereotypically “manly” activities to attract more men in.  

I’ve blogged on this “Feminisation of the church” this before (see here: ) and I can’t help but feel that if the report in the BT reflects the mentality of the BMM then it’s a pretty sad state of affairs.  The report finishes with what I assume are the closing remarks, or summing up of the conference are as follows:  

We need to lay down the old ways, to start to dream a bigger dream and to challenge the impossible. Don't be afraid to ask for a bigger vision.” 

Exactly BMM…we need to lay down the old sexist stereotypes that demean men and women, challenge the packing of people into little boxes, and dream a bigger dream…how about this for your bigger vision:  

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”  

You know where it’s from and it’s the vision I’m asking for.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Confession

Those of you who know me well already know this, but it might come as a surprise to some of you to learn that I have a guilty pleasure.  And I’m going to confess it now!  I love vampire stories.  There, I said it…and the world keeps turning, although you may already have suspected as much from the way I went to see the marathon five-film premier of Twilight: Breaking Dawn 2.  I tried to pretend it was something I was doing for my daughter’s sake but really she came along as my carer!

Needless to say, this on-going fascination with the supernatural/fantasy genre has caused me much reflection: Is this right?  Can it be appropriate for someone like me to like such a thing?  Isn’t that what fourteen year old girls do?  Maybe…but I think there is something about these stories that conveys some profound ideas that interest me, and they interest me because I’m a Christian…or I’m a Christian because these ideas interest me.

My latest musing about the genre (fuelled at the moment by The Vampire Diaries!*) is on the scene that occurs in most of these stories.  It’s the scene where somebody ordinary, a ‘muggle’ to use a term from another incarnation of the genre, is suddenly faced with the reality and truth of the existence of the supernatural.  They get a letter to Hogwarts, fall in love with a vampire, discover they are actually a Shadowhunter, and suddenly they have to look at themselves and their world with new eyes.  I had an experience similar to this when I first realised that Jesus was real, and that he did love me, and that he would give up his own life to save mine.  This realisation then sent me on an epic quest, to be part of a Fellowship, to face up to the reality of the existence of the Volturi.  

Having seen the new reality I couldn’t go back and pretend it wasn’t there anymore.  When I watch Bella Swan, or Elena Gilbert, or even Bilbo Baggins as they negotiate this paradigm shift, I’m reflecting on my own journey into a new story, and that’s why it’s fascinating.

*OK for the genre-not high art but entertaining. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

What if…

I was talking with a group of youth work students the other day and we were discussing the different roles youth workers adopt when working with young people.  One of the roles we were discussing was the advocate; the youth worker speaking to others on behalf of the young people they work with.  As we were talking I started to think about the role and what it implies. 

Firstly it is a role that’s needed because the structures are such that the young people in question can’t speak for themselves.  Why is this?  What is wrong with a structure that renders a member of it voiceless?  Can that be a just and fair structure?

Secondly it suggests that power imbalances are at work.  The young people are voiceless because someone else has more power than they, and uses that power to silence them in some way.  What kind of a structure creates and then sustains this kind of power imbalance?

Thirdly it implies that the young people have some kind of deficit that disqualifies them from speaking.  What could that be?  Could it be that they don’t have enough understanding?   Is their language insufficient?  Who makes that judgement?   Why does a deficit mean that some are excluded?

I should perhaps contextualise the conversation: we were talking about the way youth workers advocate for young people in church life.  The discussion caused me to think again about how the church includes (or excludes) children and young people.  The need for an advocate says some very disturbing things about how we view the role of the child in church, but I think it also says some very disturbing things about our churches.

This led me to ask myself the question: What would our churches have to look like for there to be no need for an advocate to speak for children and young people? 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Grey sky thinking

At a group I was part of today we were led in some acts of worship by one of the members.  She played this video clip: and invited us to reflect on the verse from Psalm 19 that says “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” 

I love dramatic skies and they do cause my soul to respond to the mighty works of god’s hand so I was able to respond to this.  I then moved to another room with a big window and I noticed that the sky was a flat uniform grey.  It’s cold here, below freezing and we’re waiting for more snow, so the sky is covered with thick cloud, there’s no wind and it’s just a solid mass of grey, with no differentiation.

As I sat reflecting on the Psalm 19 verse, I suddenly realised that even this sky declares the glory of the Lord.  Somehow in this flat, monochrome greyness the Lord is present.  And that’s just as well, because glorious sunsets are few and far between…most of the time the skies above where I live are some shade of grey.  Spiritual life is like that too; there are moments of richness and glory, but most days we’re just getting on with getting on.  Things are a bit grey, a bit uniform, a bit static; not very inspiring at all – but God’s glory is still being declared by this sky, if I only have eyes to see it.