Stepping into Grace

stepping-into-grace-frontSo I’m pleased to be able to say my book ‘Stepping into Grace’ is published today by Bible Reading Fellowship. This blog was the training ground for many of ideas that made their way into the book. So it seemed apt to explain a little of what the book’s about and why I wrote it.

Most simply Stepping into Grace is a book about the beautifully formed and mysterious book of Jonah. About Jonah and his journey from Israel to Ninevah. A picaresque journey which is not primarily an external journey but an internal journey where Jonah’s faith, vocation and identity are all transformed.

But it’s the context of Jonah that makes it all the more interesting for our time and our situation as the church. Jonah is written after the exile and is a ‘diaspora advice tale’ – a story written by exiles to grapple with the challenge of exile. Who are we? Where is God? Can he be present amongst these people in this place? How do we continue to be the people of God living in a foreign land within a dominant culture suspicious of our faith and practices?

When we are living through the complexities of a crisis, we tell stories. Stories are good in a crisis. They are open forms to help us wrestle with the issues without closing them down. They are participative forms that draw us in and engage with the story in ways which enable us to engage with the challenge we face.  And it seems to me that Jonah is an exceptionally good story to help us reflect on the challenges and anxieties we face as the people of God today.

Before Jonah is called by God to preach to the Ninevites at the beginning of the book he is fully involved in a plan of restoration under the king of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Under this king (Jeroboam II) Israel experienced a small reversal of fortunes against the Assyrians and re-established its borders to a previous point of security. Of course, from the point of view of the later experience of exile this now looked ridiculous. Everyone knows it didn’t last. And when the inevitable came and the Assyrians exiled the Jews of the northern kingdom it was brutal.  It’s like that footage of Neville Chamberlaine coming down the steps of his airplane in 1938 waving that scrap of paper and declaring ‘peace in our time’. Hopeful at the time, but ultimately futile.

Jonah is stripped of this illusion of safety and security however when he is called to preach to the Ninevites – the very people who are Israel’s greatest enemy. He is forced in the story to confront what the exiles were already confronting – life as the people of God exiled from the land and face to face with the enemy.

And what transpires is a journey that maps out the journey of soul searching, lament, anguish and reformation that Israel went through as they dwelt in exile.

As I’ve written about on the blog before – I think exile is a pretty helpful and apposite metaphor for our experience as the Christian church in post-Christian Britain today. In many ways we are offered the same choice as Jonah – continue to attempt a programme of nostalgic restoration based on our own will and our own resources, or venture out into the call of God to participate with him in a movement of reform which is happening by the initiative of his Spirit.

And the thing is that if we, like Jonah, willingly or reluctantly, take on that call to venture beyond safety and security, face up to the challenge of mission to people who are not like us, we will find that it will change us, and stretch us and deepen our understanding and faith in this unboxable God of grace. Our vocation is not simply to do what God has called us to do, but to allow ourselves to be shaped into the people God would have us be, and that takes courage.

That has been my, sometimes painful, experience as a pioneer minister in Poole, Dorset. Given the role of creating something new that would connect with unchurched people I found myself travelling a very similar journey to Jonah, a journey that took me from confidence and ambition, through something of a dark night of the soul, to a renewed understanding of God’s grace.

Which is why the book is called ‘Stepping into Grace’. Because grace is not primarily a status, a kind of kite mark of authenticity. Grace is a flow of God’s life that he invites us to enter into, step into, be embraced by and led by. Grace aims to encapsulate and transform all that we are, our doing and our being throughout the course of our journey with God. And one of grace’s key modes of transformation is invitation – invitation to venture beyond ourselves and take on challenges that seem impossible and impractical, invitation to be vulnerable, stupid, in danger, without a plan or a strategy, so that the work of grace can get to those places where we cling on to the ridiculous illusion that we know what we are doing.

In exile God’s people discovered grace anew. They thought they knew all about grace, what it was and how to get it. Exile blew that all apart. That is where we are. Challenged to wrestle again with how to be people faithful to a God of grace without shrink-wrapping grace into presentable and manageable forms for the consumption of others. The challenge is enormous and it will take leaders of humility, vulnerability, obedience and courage to help us find our way. If in some small way this book helps people navigate this challenge, then I will be glad to have written it.

 

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My name is Paul and I’m a Christian melancholic

Half-empty-glass-I have recently returned from a Christian festival. I have spent the last week camping in close proximity amongst 10,000 other people and have filled my days with large gatherings, seminars, conversations and non-stop human contact. As an introvert who needs a heavy dose of personal space and reflection every day just to function well this was a challenge. But it is one I generally relish after the initial shock. For the past 10 years this annual gathering has refreshed me, challenged me and nurtured both my faith and ministry.  I am hugely grateful for all that this gathering, and the movement that it represents stands for. I shall be returning again next year.

There is however one element about this gathering, and perhaps others like it, and I suppose the general culture of the evangelical charismatic movement, that I continue to wrestle with. And it is this. I always spend the whole week feeling like the Cinderella at the ball, the Eeyore of the story, the killjoy and the party-pooper. There is an overwhelming positivity to these weeks that is intoxicating – a wave of smiles, and applause, ‘amazing’s and ‘fanastic’s that in themselves are great but as an almost unbroken experience just start to feel a little incongruous. And I spend the week struggling with it in a sea of people who all seem to simply lap it up.

I am a self-confessed melancholic. By which I mean, not that I suffer from depression in the sense we use it and which used to be called melancholia, but that I do tend to see the world rather glass-half-empty rather than full. I have spent years as a Christian wrestling with this disposition, even praying that somehow the joy that I am supposed to possess would be a little more exterior. But as the years have gone by, and an ever deeper appreciation of joy and grace have come without any fundamental change in this aspect of my character, I have come to see my melancholia, my sensitivity to the negative experiences and feelings of the lives of many people, as something of a gift.

So I want to stand up, in the manner of an AA meeting and confess that ‘my name is Paul and I am a Christian melancholic’. Not, to divert from the analogy, because I am unhealthily attached to seeing life so negatively, but to make a positive stand and admit for myself and to others that it might actually be good for me and the church.

The church needs melancholics. We need people who are sensitive to the negative emotions and experiences of the world around us. I love the passion and intention with which the charismatic movement of which I am a part shines a light on the inaugurated reality of the Kingdom of God. The Good News of the Kingdom is that it is here, and it is heralded by sign of wonders of the Kingdom, healings, deliverance, supernatural gifts. But, as one speaker this week helpfully put it, ‘we must continue to journey with those who still wait for healing’, or deliverance, of whatever it is they hope for. And so we need people who can ‘mourn with those who mourn’, who can empathise with those in pain, who will notice those caught up more in the ‘not yet’ of the Kingdom more than the ‘now’.

But I believe melancholics offer more than just empathy whilst we wait for the fulfilment of the Kingdom. Mary Oliver puts it beautifully:

‘Someone I loved once gave me

A box full of darkness.’ 

It took me years to understand

That this, too, was a gift’ 

While the world avoids negativity and darkness at all costs, dulling its pain and vulnerability with an assortment of narcotics, alcohol, work, busyness, sex (what Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘artificial lights’), the Christian Gospel of hope is one that believes the darkness of our lives is not an experience where God cannot be, or an experience to be feared and avoided. Darkness is a place where God is. Indeed darkness it often the place where God does some of his best work in our lives. Darkness is even the place where God does some the work that cannot be done any other way!

A culture of fist-bumping positivity, so much the feel of the 24 – hour TV entertainment world we live in and the Facebook profile story we write for ourselves, is therefore an anaesthetic to the grace of God in these situations. It steamrollers over them. It suppresses and denies truth and the possibility of grace for those living in the shadow of death. Darkness really is a gift. But one we must discover by digging. There really are diamonds in the darkness but we must learn to mine for them.

In this sense melancholics can be ministers of hope, pausing in the darkness with those who struggle and those who weep. Melancholics can be those whose ears and hearts are attuned to the pain and anguish of the world and who can therefore help others to listen to their own pain long enough to find the voice of God within it. Melancholics need not be the Cinderella to the annual summer parties of the church – they are a profound gift to the church in this age between the now and the not-yet and we must learn to embrace the ministry that they bring.

 

 

Beasts of the Northern Wild

Stranded whalesLike so many people I was really moved by the pictures of sperm whales washed up on beaches at Skegness and Hunstanton this last week. One picture (left) moved me profoundly –  the two enormous whales, captured as though nestled into one another in a final embrace, their huge levered mouths open as though at the end of a final long exhalation, their small grey eyes caught in a kind of eternal look of surprise. And all around them ordinary people picking around their sheer size, looking utterly insignificant by comparison.

Huge numbers of people travelled out to see these amazing beasts. Some were similarly moved and awed by the spectacle. Others took the inevitable selfie. Jeremy Vine tweeted his disbelief wondering what the world has come to when out immediate reaction to such an awe inspiring sight is to trophy the event by taking a photo of ourselves in it. Perhaps he is right. But I am left wondering what drew people out onto the sands to cry, to wonder, to experience the spectacle of two dead beasts.

I suggest three reasons

  1. Transcendence.

We experience a kind of transcendence when we are confronted by an experience so strange, so overwhelming, even mysterious. This is fascinating when any number of documentaries or online material can give us access to footage or imagery of a sperm whale. But there is of course nothing like experiencing the real thing. Witnessing these beasts in all their utter size and scale is a zoological equivalent of going to space, or standing on a mountain with the Milky Way streaking above our heads. These are transcendent experiences. And for all science’s ability to explain them and tell us what these are, we still experience them as something akin to a spiritual experience.

  1. (Re)Connection

These monsters of the deep remind us that we are connected to the rest of creation in an incredibly integral way. That connection, intrinsic to generations of humanity has been stretched and stretched by the powerful forces at work in the world over the last few hundred years. Perhaps the tide is turning with movements emphasizing the disconnecting practices of our supermarkets, tourism, and our urban way of life. However, for vast numbers of our majority city dwelling population it is not just whales that are a mystery in our experience, it is the local beach, the farm where our milk comes from, the bees that pollinate our fruit trees. When people cry at the sight of whales dead on a beach they express the unfelt grief of a society for a relationship with nature that has been utterly broken.

  1. The deep

The whale has a long cultural and literary history. Whales capture our imagination, they symbolise something profound for us. They stand for everything overwhelming, beyond us, frightening, dangerous. And they emerge mysteriously and fleetingly from that chaotic swirl of the sea, which despite our progress, remain very much that uncharted and undiscovered territory which we have yet to truly master. Old maps used drift off into uncharted areas ‘where there be monsters’. Nothing has really changed.  The sea, the deep, is still a place of darkness and mystery which from time to time throws up reminders of our frailty and finitude.

And the thing is that the deep, its chaos, its darkness, its propensity for producing forces that are beyond us, is critical for our thriving as human beings. Our thirst for control, for bringing everything ‘down to size’, in our grip, under our command, is ultimately unhealthy. There is an appropriate smallness to our place in the universe, the forgetting of which has the propensity to make us very unpleasant indeed. The famous whale story of the Bible is the book of Jonah where the ‘great fish’ is provided by God to save Jonah, thrown from his ship of convenience, as he sinks into the chaos of the sea. Three nights in the dark and skanky belly of this great beast is exactly what Jonah needs to reset his own particular version of hubris and renew his relationship with God.

Whether you believe in the literal truth of Jonah’s whale or not, the lesson of Jonah is that our growth as human beings sometimes requires precisely those places that we would rather not connect with at all. The darkness. The deep. The belly of a whale. But connect we must if we are to kick the habit of growing too big for ourselves, grasping too much false control.

The whales of Skegness and Hunstanton of course were very real indeed. They were super-real. Almost supernatural. But perhaps that is a rather apt word to use. In their unnatural dying, on the sands of an English beach, they offer us a needed reminder of the depths of life, physical, spiritual and eternal, we are rapidly losing touch with.

A song of the wild

Nightingale‘There is a tendency for us to flee from our wild silence and the wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods into idols, to kowtow before them and approach their precincts only in official robes of office. And when we are in the temples then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness? Who will hear the reed shaken in the wind?’ Chet Raymo

I recently invited a group of people via Facebook to come and listen to nightingales. It was on a bit of a whim. I didn’t really expect anyone else to drive an hour from where I live to listen to a bird signing from the depths of a bush. I was also careful not to guarantee even hearing one at all. Nevertheless about 12 of us wandered into a wood in north Dorset at dusk and were treated to 10 minutes of a single nightingale unfurling his full and utterly fantastic repertoire. Some of his vocal acrobatics made us gasp with astonishment, others made us laugh. It just doesn’t seem possible for one small brown insignificant bird to be able to unleash such a symphony of sound.

It really was quite an evening. Most of us had never heard a nightingale before. The faces of most of the urban dwellers we were with opened up in wonder. It was magical and utterly life-giving.

And it reminded me of why I took up birdwatching 10 years ago. A counsellor I was seeing at the time asked me about life outside of work. The reality was at that stage in my life that time for interests that had sustained me at other times had been squeezed out. ‘So why not take up something else?’ ‘What would you do if you decided to do something you’ve never done?’

So I began birdwatching with a cheap pair of sports binoculars and it was one of the best decision I’ve ever made. Perhaps the greatest revelation in this growing passion was the world that opened up to me when I began to learn the songs and calls of birds. Suddenly the background sound world of birds that lies there unobtrusively but consistently in even the most unwild of environments began to reveal its secrets. It was like learning a new language. Like switching to short wave and discovering a foreign station suddenly making sense. It was as though this dimension of wilderness that had seemed so distant had crept closer and I was party to its presence whilst others carried on regardless. It was a transforming discovery.

Much has been made of the loss of darkness in our urban world. But less has been made of the loss of the sounds of the wild in a world increasingly noisy with the drone of traffic and the roar of jet planes. A recent article however argues for birdsong to be taught in schools as a means of trying to reconnect us with a wilderness we are increasingly estranged from. This is in response to a sense that we are losing the ability to hear, recognise and appreciate the sounds of the natural world. It argues; “We are conditioning ourselves to ignore the information coming into our ears, and as a consequence we are losing the ability to engage with the environment in the way we were built to”

I agree. It’s not just that those sounds are being pushed more and more to the margins, though that is part of it. There is still an abundance of birdsong in even the most intensely built environment, indeed some birds (swifts, gulls, even peregrines) have learnt to thrive in it. It is that our senses have become dulled to the point of deafness to these sounds that were once part of the very day experience and knowledge of most people. The sheer volume of noise we encounter everyday means that our ears and brains make a choice and our attentiveness to the irrelevant noises of birds gets unlearned.

And with it something else gets lost. Something of our humanity, something of our soul, that is made to engage with the natural world. All spirituality starts with attentiveness. It starts when we lift our attention away from our little universes, stop and pay attention to something beyond us, something which doesn’t need us, something that just is. For me learning birdsong opened up a world that helped me reconnect with the wonder and diversity of the natural world that had been there all the time if only I had stopped to listen. It also helped me enhance my ability to forget myself and my petty concerns and pay attention to something else.

As the world of birdsong continued to open up to me I was constantly reminded of those words of Jesus in concluding many of his parables; ‘He who has ears to hear, listen…’. It is not that we cannot hear the call of the wild, the invitation of the natural world, the beckoning of something sacred in creation. It is simply that we have stopped listening. And when we stop listening the danger is we actually lose the ability to listen at all. I wonder to what extent along with birdsong we are losing the ability to hear other things, our true selves, others, and even God himself.

Middle voice ministry

megachurchThere has been a lot of debate with the CofE over the past few months that orbits around the agenda of church growth. The Green Report which was made public earlier in the year, though not primarily about church growth but about preparing people for senior leadership and responsibility, drew a huge amount of criticism for what was thought to be an unhealthy emphasis on the language and techniques of enterprise and business.

More recently there was been a significant debate on the nature of church growth and the role of leadership to bring it about. On my own Twitter feed I was able to witness a sharp disagreement between Ian Paul and Giles Fraser on the relative roles of church, vicar and God in bringing about/or not bringing about growth.

One common response to the Green Report was to criticise its lack of theology. It was in my view unfairly accused of jettisoning theology in favour of the techniques of enterprise simply because the document contained little out and out theology. Defenders of the report replied that it did not set out to be a piece of reflective theology but a contribution to a conversation in which theology was clearly an inportant partner.

Theological reflection on these issues is precisely about dialoguing theologically with experiences learnt in other fields. That is one thing the church does so well, and Justin Welby’s leadership experience in the oil industry, which has been subtly maligned by some in the light of the Green Report, is something we should welcome at a strategically critical time.

But theologies can overreach themselves and become deaf to realities and experience, particularly when these threatenderelict church a strongly held position or expose a weakness or a wound. Whilst Giles Fraser’s piece on the theology of failure was a powerful and brilliant re-emphasis of the counterintuitive nature of Jesus’ Kingdom, it is not the whole story. Success and growth in the Kingdom have a gospel trajectory of downward mobility and resurrection. Success is not necessarily an empty church, with the weeds growing through the floor. Success is a church that has experienced failure, perhaps even emptiness, with courage, faith and the gospel of the cross and resurrection. Success is a church on a journey through the cross and the grave and out the other side (perhaps over and over again).

I would want to add another theme to the debate however. As well as good entrepreneurial leadership, and good theology we desperately need good spirituality, good Christian spirituality. This will be a many faceted thing. It will however be something unique, something particular to the nature of church leadership. In light of the current debates there is one aspect of this I would want to try and describe.

The church growth agenda does throw up huge challenges for church leaders. Not least the question – what might I do to enable my church to grow? There are no end of recent books written advising the church leader on what he or she might do. At the same time we are fond of praying in the light of Psalm 127:1 ‘unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain’. Work hard. Pray hard. Work and pray hard. And what will be the end result? Growth? Perhaps? But at what cost? Exhaustion, burnout, depression, disillusionment? A generation of church leaders who can produce results but no-one wants to imitate?

Much of the current language of growth errs far too much on our natural inclination to do something. To be the architects of our own success. We might give the nod to God for doing it all, but as something of an afterthought. Eugene Peterson explores this same dilemma through an insight from the nature of Greek verbs (well he would wouldn’t he!). Greek has passive and active tenses. But it also has a tense that is lacking in English, the active-passive tense. It is what you might call a ‘middle voice’. The middle voice describes activity where ‘I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates

Actively participating in the results of an action initiated by another –  that sounds a lot like ministry!? Ministry earthed in good theology. It is Christ’s Kingdom and Christ’s church which he has founded but which we are graciously invited to actively participate in. We therefore minister with a healthy scepticism toward too much activity rooted in the active tense, where it is ourselves constantly initiating. We are also not inclined to embrace a theology of complete passivity, for God’s grace suggests an invitation to join in. He has something for us to do! We therefore seek to practise an active-passivity, a ‘middle voice ministry’, that encourages us to hold our initiatives lightly, reflectively, humbly and honours the initiative of God highly and reverently.

Prayer handsFor me the key to practising this active-passivity is prayer, not so much prayer of the intercessory kind, though that is important too. No, prayer of the contemplative kind. Prayer whereby we are predominantly in listening mode, listening for God’s initiative so that in hearing it we might more confidently participate.

Bishop John V Taylor wrote a generation ago, ‘we have lost our nerve and our sense of direction and have turned divine initiative into a human enterprise’.

There is nothing wrong with human enterprise, but everything wrong with it in terms of Christian leadership when it becomes untethered from or outpaces divine initiative. To guard against this happening we must rediscover our middle voice. We must become contemplative leaders, able to lead in an enterprising fashion, but from a place of deep listening.

Why we might all believe in fairies now

Fairy doorSome years ago, when we lived in Southampton, we used to visit Furzey Gardens on a regular basis. It was a perfect destination for a family with two small kids – compact, interesting gardens, big enough but not too big, and the essential café. The other big draw however, which resulted in minimal resistance from stubborn toddlers, were the fairy doors. Throughout the garden fairies had, we were told, gradually set up home, creating a Tolkienesque alternate world alongside the paths and the azaleas of the garden. The kids were entranced, and we were happy for them to be so, when it meant for a peaceful hour or so until all the houses had been rediscovered.

I was reminded of this when I read of a similar fairy colony that has emerged in Wayford Woods near Crewkerne in Somerset. Here fairies have by all accounts found the environment so much to their liking that 200 or so houses can now be discovered amidst the trees of this 20-acre wood. A fairy metropolis. A parallel world through the looking-glass, over the fence, down the rabbit hole, for those with eyes to see and imaginations open for business.

The proliferation of fairy houses in Wayford Woods has however started to cause a bit of concern from the authorities. Apparently there is no planning authority that has any jurisdiction over fairy doors – they just pop up seemingly overnight. And some are a little garish, less Tolkien, more Homebase – pink ply and glitter by all accounts. Oh dear.

But whilst the Wayford Woods wardens sought to bring some order to urban planning amongst the fairy community, they were also at pains to point out that they weren’t ‘anti-fairy’. In order to assure us of their tolerance and inclusive attitude to all things natural and supernatural they made clear that new guidelines were designed to protect the landscape rather than discriminate against the fairy community.

What I liked about this story then was a willingness to embrace superstition, imagination, make-believe on the part of the normally rather prosaic authorities. They probably knew they were likely to be on the wrong side of popular opinion if they just started banning fairy houses. Declaring their ‘pro-fairy’ stance was a brave piece of PR genius.

Whilst inviting ridicule from the wider scientific and conservation community it did however give tacit support to the value of make-believe in people’s lives. Such a stance does not go down well amongst Dawkins et al. When quasi-public bodies start suggesting that superstition is a good thing, or at least a thing to be tolerated, a small battle in the supposed war between secular and pluralist thinkers has been lost. Where will this end? Except in a new generation growing up thinking they can believe just about anything, and tolerate such beliefs in others too.

The new atheists of course think theirs is an enlightened view free from the constraints of superstition or the supernatural. But it is a view, a world view, and one that seems to have overreached itself by saying that everything in the universe can (or will be) explained by the scientific method of empirical research. What I believe we see in things like a Somerset wood full of fairy doors is evidence that that view has been tried and found wanting. We want superstition – ok, we say we want it for our kids and not for us, but we still embrace it to some extent – and in effect we are saying that we will not hold truck with the overconfident assertion of naturalism that only that which we sense, only that which we can attest as materially explicable, is really real.

There is something unsatisfactory about the naturalism of Dawkins and his disciples. You might argue that its deficiencies are only temporary and that science will eventually fill all the gaps where superstition, the supernatural, faith and religion rather annoyingly get in. Or you can see the irritating vitality of religion, faith and fairy doors as evidence that the human person, in all her complexity, material, psychological and spiritual, is made of more than atoms, molecules and other configurations of matter. And that we yearn for a deeper connection with ‘the other’, the world beyond the world we see, the spiritual dimension that is within touching distance of us if we only have eyes to see. That desire for the satisfaction of our spiritual yearnings is, for many, precisely the evidence that it exists. As CS Lewis wrote “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We are made of more than matter and we are all seeking a connection that satisfies our material and spiritual beings. The fairy-doors will not go away. Nor will religion or faith. We will continue our searching whether in the woods or in places of worship, not because we are ignorant or childish but because we are responding to a desire within us to reconnect with that part of us that science, has not and will not, be able to explain.

 

Finding sanctuary in a world of WiFi

Village churchWiFi logo

The Church Times this week ran a story about a plan to fit all Church of England buildings with WiFi. The idea had been promoted by none other than Andrew Lloyd-Webber and comes with the offer of funding from his own pocket. So what’s not to like? Ancient, often disengaged buildings, no longer at the centre of our worlds, physically or virtually, brought rapidly into the 21st century with a ready source of funding from a celeb to back it.

Well, I am ambiguous about it. I agree with the premise that churches need to act more and more like community buildings, in a way that (as is often cited) they were in medieval times. Indeed many village churches are being creatively reimagined to reengage with their communities, opening up Post Office counters, cafés etc. WiFi is undoubtedly part of our modern connected world and it would be a bit daft to deliberately disconnect ourselves even further by allowing this resource to bypass us. Except that the thousands of ecclesiastical buildings up and down the country are part of a Christian tradition of worship and witness that is both incarnational (engaged with its culture and seeking to be relevant within it) and radical (often living in in committed contradiction to the prevailing culture). And one of the ways in which Christian spirituality and Christian practise is increasingly offering a challenging but life-giving alternative to the modern age is in suggesting the need for non-engagement with the world, disconnection from a world of overwhelming connection in order to tend to an increasingly neglected part of who we are – our soul. The soul needs space, quiet, a gentler pace, the benefit of our full attention, in order to be refreshed and in order that it remains connected with the more external elements of our life, what we say and what we do.

In short we need sanctuary in the midst of all that life throws at us to attend to ourselves. In our modern culture where the value of ‘staying connected’ has been exalted to the status of an uncritiqued axiom, the value of places of disconnection, or solace and quiet, free from the distractions of the world becomes crucial. It is the distracting nature of the ubiquity of mobile internet technology that provides the greatest challenge to us, whether we want to disconnect or not. Those who break into a mild sweat whenever WiFi is unavailable, or whose first thought when entering a building or a train is ‘what’s the WiFi code?’ are challenging themselves to ever find a place of ease in themselves that is free from distraction. Or indeed from the thought of distraction, that something might be happening that I am unaware of and might either need to attend to or miss out on. For those who  value  the need to disconnect on a regular basis, the rolling tide of free WiFi that has swept the UK along with the near impossibility of doing life without a smart phone or other perpetually connected device, means that there is a constant need to work against the grain of a culture that would have us stay connected. As an example, as I wrote this my computer blooped at me to tell me that a message from Facebook had just come in. After a minute or so I found the setting that enabled me to turn this distraction off – but the point is that the default was to have this turned on rather than off. That is the reality, very soon the default of our culture will be a perpetual state of connectedness. Indeed in many places it is already.

So the question is to what extent churches want to remain places that offer sanctuary in the midst of modern life that is increasingly crying out for it? It is no small thing that the church offers, in the context of a rentlessly noisy and constantly accelerating world, a national resource of quiet places of sanctuary where it becomes easy to rest, undistracted from ourselves and therefore more able to attend to our souls and to the presence of God.  I am not arguing for a blanket resistance to the endless call for seamless wireless connection. There may well be a case for introducing WiFi to church buildings to enable greater connection with the community in which it sits. But surely it would be good to give individual churches, who know their communities, and who are listening to the needs of the people around them to discern the impact, for good or ill, that installing this technology would have. One of my particular places of sanctuary is a retreat centre that, because of its geographical location requires guests to walk to the top of a nearby hill just to send a text message. If by whatever means a 4G signal were made available I think I might go somewhere else. I go there precisely to disconnect not stay connected.

So perhaps we can resist the accelerating tide of WiFi and mobile connective technology a little, and not be seduced by the opinions and money of Lord Lloyd-Webber or anyone else.  Churches, PCCs etc. might do well to go somewhere quiet, free from distraction and discern with one another and with God whether this might be a good decision for their particular building or not.