Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The T(w)eenage Prayer Experiment

I'd like to invite you to have a look at my latest project, The Teenage Prayer Experiment

This week I tried to buy confirmation presents for a 10 and 13 year old from my church. I asked the Cathedral book shop for a book suitable for each age, that would help them to begin to develop a regular pattern and habit of prayer. But apparently, no such thing exists.

So, my son and I decided to write one.

Here's how it is going to work. I am meant to come up with a suggestion for a way of praying - a technique, a method, whatever you want to call it - each week.

He is going to try them. And then he is going to write a review of them, and give them marks out of 10 for ease of use, interest, and how close to God/religious/challenged/whatever they made him feel. Or those categories might change!

We'd love it if others tried them too, especially teenagers, and let us know through the comments how they were for you. You can give them marks out of 10 too.

If all goes well, we're hoping to write this up and compile a book in a year or so of the ones that worked best (and maybe the ones that were a disaster too). It seems to us that there really should be a book available out  there that can be given as a confirmation present to, say, 11-16 year olds, that shows and talks about different ways of praying, and developing a habit of prayer.

If you know of a such a book, or have suggestions for things for us to try, I'd love to hear from you. And do point and t(w)eenagers you know who might be interested to the project website, and encourage them to get involved too.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Synod voting and 2/3 majorities: A discussion paper

If we were going to turn down the Women Bishops legislation, we should have done so earlier. Here's how.

In the immediate aftermath of November's rejection of the Women Bishops legislation by General Synod, there were many mutterings about the voting system and the requirement for a 2/3 majority. I did not join in with these, as knee-jerk suggestions that we change the system to try to get the result we wanted are rarely the best reaction to a disappointing outcome.

I have, though, spent some time thinking about the whole process that had taken us to that point. And in particular, I have tried since November to analyse why people felt let down by the voting system, not just the result, and whether there are lessons to be learned for the future. My suggestion would not have changed the outcome, but I think it would have saved much wasted time.

It seems to me that the mistake in our procedures lay not so much in requiring a 2/3 majority, but in requiring that 2/3 majority in the wrong place in the process. There was a great sense of anger and disillusionment amongst members of deanery and diocesan synods, who had discussed and agreed the legislation, that it could then be rejected. There seemed little point asking the dioceses' opinion, if it were to be ignored in the final voting.

Presumably the purpose of requiring a special majority is to ensure that any changes command broad support. It means there is an inherent prejudice in favour of the status quo, on any issue, which some may find reassuring. However, I think the experience of the Women Bishops debacle has demonstrated that the Final Approval stage is the wrong point for that majority to be needed.

There were many stages that the legislation had to pass through. A each stage, other than the final approval debate, the legislation needed to gain 50% of the votes cast (in Houses, if such was demanded) if it were to proceed to the next stage. At the final approval stage, it needed a 2/3 majority in each House.

The legislation proceeded smoothly (albeit via some major and stressful debates) to the reference to the diocesan synods. This reference is required of any 'Article 8' business (business that involves changing Canons of the Church of England).The Reference stage is designed to prevent General Synod from passing legislation that does not meet with the general approval of the members of the church at a more local level.

Let's look at what happened at the most critical of these stages:

Revision Stage (July 2010): Synod voted to 'take note' of the Revision Committee report,  and then in a separate debate underwent detailed consideration of and voting on a series of amendments, which resulted in the legislation being substantially unchanged. The key vote was that 'Clause 2 stand part of the measure' - effectively, a vote on whether this legislation should be referred to the dioceses, and this passed:
Yes 373, No 14 (17 abstentions).

Article 8 Reference to Dioceses    Passed with 42 dioceses in favour, 2 against

Final Drafting (Feb 2012) Passed, in houses:
                             Bishops: Yes 28, No 0. Clergy: Yes 149, No 14. Laity: Yes 132, No 37.

Reference to the House of Bishops   Passed (with amendments, voting unrecorded)

Final Approval     Rejected, voting in houses and needing a 2/3 majority:
                             Bishops:Yes 44, No 3. Clergy: Yes 148, No 45. Laity: Yes 132, No 74.

What strikes me, looking at those figures, is that the serious anomaly came at the Revision stage. Many people must have voted then to send it to the dioceses, who later voted against it. This, it seems to me, is the root of the anger and disenfranchisement felt by 'people in the pews'.

It was unfair, misleading, and wasteful of people's time and church resources to commit the legislation for debate by Diocesan Synods, if a third of the members of any house of General Synod was prepared to disregard their views.

I suggest, therefore, that if we wish to keep a 2/3 majority requirement for Article 8 business, that we move it to an earlier point in the process.

One option would be to require a 2/3 majority in General Synod at the end of the Revision Stage. This would mean that legislation was only sent to the diocese if it achieved the 2/3 requirement for the support of synod.

A second option - and my preference - would be to require a 2/3 majority of diocesan synods. In this case, when General Synod sent legislation to the dioceses, if 2/3 of them accepted it the legislation would then be deemed passed. In the first case, only a simple majority of diocesan synods would have to approve it for it to be deemed passed.

A third option would require a 2/3 majority at both of the above stages.

There would be no need for a further Final Approval stage: or if there was, for technical reasons, it should be a technicality only and would only require a simple majority.

Finally, it is very important that no further changes (other than technical drafting amendments, perhaps) should be made to the legislation after it has been sent to the dioceses. I can well understand that, when Synodical government was first introduced, the bishops didn't feel able to relinquish full control over matters of doctrine. I feel that is now an outdated attitude, but even if the bishops wish to retain the right to make amendments, that too should be moved to an earlier stage in the process. Perhaps, for example, the bishops might wish to make changes after synod had approved the legislation but before it went to the dioceses, though I think this would be a mistake. The bishops of course will always retain a veto on any legislation, since by voting in houses a simple majority of bishops can always defeat any proposal.

These proposals would mean that only legislation that General Synod was happy to see passed would be referred to the Diocesan Synods, avoiding the wasted time, money and goodwill that has been involved in this process.

General Synod is a fairly young institution, and so we shouldn't be surprised if glitches in its systems are sometimes discovered. Standing Orders are revised quite often, and it would be a simple matter to make these changes, itself requiring just a simple majority in General Synod.

In making this proposal I am trying to be as neutral as possible on the presenting issue. That is, I don't think - and it isn't my plan - that the change I am proposing would have made it more likely that the Women Bishops legislation would have got through. Instead, it would have meant it fell earlier, wasting considerably less time and energy in the process.

Any suggestions for changing Standing Orders need to be thought through. If changed, the new rules would apply to all future debates, not simply this one. You will all have your own particular bugbears that you can test my suggestion on by asking how it might affect issues that you care about deeply. My personal test has been to think about the Anglican Communion Covenant debate. I don't want to suggest any changes that, applied retrospectively, would have got the Women Bishops legislation through at the cost of also making it more likely that the Covenant would have been passed. But I don't think this suggestion would affect the outcome of any votes, simply move the point at which a special majority is required to prevent another debacle like that of November.

I would be very grateful for any feedback on this proposal; and perhaps, if it is found helpful, for someone who is currently a Member to formally propose it to General Synod for debate.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth

Here is my sermon given at St Laurence Pittington this morning, on Acts 16:9-16:

The New Testament is full of walk on parts. Characters that we hear about briefly, maybe something amazing happens to them, or they have a conversation that we overhear, and then we never hear of them again. We have two of them this morning - the paralysed man by the pool of Bethzatha - and Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth and one of the earliest house church leaders.

I want to focus first of all on the story of Lydia. It is a brief story, but full of significance for us.

For someone with one of these walk-on parts in the New Testament, we actually know quite a lot about Lydia. For a start, we know her name: that might not seem much, but its quite a contrast with the story of the paralysed man in John, where we are told the name of the pool, but not his name!

We know what she did - she was a merchant, specifically a dealer in purple cloth. It wasn't particularly unusual for a woman to run a successful business in the ancient Roman world, and the writer of Acts doesn't make anything of her gender. Purple cloth was the elite fabric of the day, rather like being a dealer in silks or fine wine rather than just running a dress shop or off licence. The implication is that Lydia was a fairly wealthy woman.she was certainly well off enough to run her own household, and for it to be big enough to house Paul and his companions, and later be used as the local church meeting place. After Paul and his companions are imprisoned and then set free, at the end of this chapter we learn that they went to Lydia's house, and met with the still very new Christian community there.

We are also told that Lydia was a 'worshipper of God'. That is, although she was a Gentile not a Jew, she was one of the many gentiles who were attracted to the Jewish belief in one God, and worshipped with the synagogue without going so far as to formally convert to Judaism. Historians think that this was a very significant group of people at the time that Christianity began to spread. It may well be that the presence of so many people who believed and worshipped God, but without wanting to be part of the official religious institution that was Judaism, was a major factor in enabling Christianity to spread so far and so fast.

I wonder what this might mean for Christianity today? We certainly encounter a lot of people who say they believe in 'something out there', or God, or 'a higher power', but don't feel the need or desire to join the old established churches. Is this an opportunity, rather than a threat, just as it was for Paul and the other early Christian missionaries?

But back to Lydia.  On this particular day, a Saturday, the Sabbath, she had gone out to the riverbanks wand met there with some friends. We don't know what they were doing, but Paul finds them there because he supposes that there might be a place of prayer there. It seems that there weren't enough Jews or gentile adherents to Judaism in the town for it to run to a synagogue. Paul's strategy in Acts was normally to go to the synagogue to proclaim Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy. In this case, in the absence of a synagogue building, he and his companions have put their heads together and thought - if there are some Jews, or some Gentile worshippers of God, in this city, where might they gather on the sabbath? And the first place they go to look is outside the city walls by the river, because such groups often apparently liked to meet near running water, and they strike gold. So the assumption is that Lydia and her group have indeed met for prayer and worship or some sort of spiritual discussion together in this spot. They presumably are delighted to welcome some Jewish visitors to their gathering, and Lydia at least listens with attention and enthusiasm to what they have to say.

And she takes it to heart. She and her household are baptised that same day, and she invites the missionaries to her house and wont take no for an answer. Within a few days or at most a few weeks, there is an established house church under her leadership, and Paul goes off to the next town leaving her to get on with it, as is his pattern.

There are two particular things that I think this story has to say to us today, two questions to ask ourselves. The first is about mission, the second about conversion.

The first thing that leaps from the page for me today is that Paul and the others went out to the river, where they thought there might be a place of prayer. When they got there, they sat down, and began to listen and talk with those they found there. Its the same pattern as Jesus follows throughout the gospels, and in our reading today: going to where people are interested in and hoping for healing, community, peace, though they certainly aren't expecting the version he gives them.

The question this leaves me with is, where are these places for us? Where in the places we live, or at work, do people go to talk, in the sort of conversations that might be open to faith being mentioned? Where and when do the people you know mention that they are worried about their mums cancer, or their daughters marriage, or discuss the reiki they saw on telly last night that Jordan had tried, and whether it works? All of those are the conversations of spiritual seekers but maybe without the vocabulary and concepts, certainly without the constraints of knowing what the right answers are meant to be according to the church.
Were do you hear those conversations, or where might you seek them out? Your kitchen table? The coffee room at work, or the water cooler? The gym? Smokers corner? The pub? On the golf course? At the knitting group?

(Just spend a minute or so discussing with your neighbour where those conversations happen for the people around you, either in this village, or at work, or among your family and friends.)

The challenge for us is threefold. to deliberately decide, like Paul, to go to those places;  to listen and genuinely join in with the conversations we hear there, and to speak explicitly of how what we have experienced of Christ is relevant to them.

(The congregation were then each given a piece of purple velvet, to keep in a pocket or handbag, the idea being that when they come across it there it will remind them of Lydia's story and remind them to ask if there is an opportunity to speak of their experiences of faith.)

Secondly, Lydia's story gives us another question, focused on ourselves rather than on others.

Lydia hears the message, is baptised, and immediately invites - well nigh forces - the evangelists to come and base themselves at her house. Within a very short time she is running a house church, the church in that place, and Paul and his companions leave to start again elsewhere, trusting the new Christians to get on with it.

There are echoes here again, like a shadow, with the healed man in our gospel reading. As so often in Jesus ministry, he is healed without any or hardly any show of interest or engagement on his part. He then goes off and we hardly hear of him again, except that later we are told he recognises Jesus teaching and tells the temple authorities that is the man who told him to break the Sabbath, and so contributes in a small way to Jesus' becoming a marked man.

As soon as Lydia is converted, she starts shaping and changing the future of the church, as happens again and again in Acts. As soon as someone encounters Jesus they start being part of its future story. Lydia's story shows very clearly that there is no time-served qualification for being a Christian who makes a difference, no sense that it should be left to the professionals or those who have been around longest.

Which leaves us with the question: how is the church different because you are a Christian? How does the fact that you come here week by week change this community, this church, or the world? Or if you don't think it does, how might it?