Thursday, May 31, 2007

Present Challenges: Conclusion

I have been Vicar of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong for 7 years. In this series of posts, I have been trying to examine some of the Challenges that I see facing myself and the Church.

On the positive side, Christ Church is a Church with a tradition and strong roots in the local community. Given that we are an English-speaking Church this is very important. We have a wide circle of adherents, that is, people who feel attached to the Church even if they are not regulars at the services. We also have a committed core who support the regualr life of the Church. Services are well-attended. We are in a good position financially with our buildings in a sound condition. We attract many young families because of the Schools, one of the benefits of which is a thriving Sunday School. People who come to Christ Church frequently comment on the friendliness and the warmth of welcome they experience here. Meetings are free from acrimony and there is little argument or divisiveness. This, and much more besides, is a cause for thankfulness.

However, as I have said, I do still think there are serious challenges that need to be faced. Essentially, they all come down to the question of how we can grow spiritually and avoid the danger, as I wrote last time, of being simply a successful, spiritual club. Growing spiritually, as I see it, means 'growing in knowledge and love of the Lord' and engaging in mission. We have amazing opportunities for mission because of the numbers of people seeking baptism and places at the Schools. The problem here occurs because those in this position seem to be uninterested in anything other than advancing their children’s educational careers.

It would help if I had some help. It would make a huge difference to have some clergy support. This need not be full-time stipendiary support. What we call a NSM (a non-stipendiary minister) would make a great deal of difference. There are such people around in Hong Kong; unfortunately, they are attracted to ministry at the Cathedral, which makes for a real imbalance in clergy provision amongst the English-speaking Anglican Churches here. I don’t wish to complain, but being the only clergyman in a Church of this size is very demanding, and means that most of my time and energy is spent on maintenance rather than mission. So while we have the financial and material resources we need as a Church, we do not have the ministerial resources we need to meet the challenges that face us.

Perhaps I am being unduly pessimistic. If I am, then it is only because I find it tragic that we are not fulfilling our spiritual potential and as the spiritual leader of the Church, I must bare the responsibility for our failure to do so. I am convinced that renewing the Church spiritually must now and in the next few years be our priority just as renewing the buildings has been in the past few years. Quite how to achieve this is another question altogether! I’ll keep you informed as to how we get on.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Present Challenges: 5. The Problem of Inclusivity

When I began blogging, Blogger did not allow you to label posts. This changed some time ago, and I have been going back giving labels to previous posts. This means it is possible to find posts on similar subjects or in a series. So clicking Personal Journey will display all the blogs in this ongoing series together. It also means I can refer to previous posts more easily. Seasoned bloggers will know all this already, of course. Others are far more sophisticated in their blogging than me. I hope the relative simplicity of this blog does not spoil it for anyone. I really do appreciate the time people spend reading what I have to say even though my posts are not always as regular as I would like them to be. I am working on this - I promise!

In recent posts labelled Present Challenges, I have been trying to face honestly some of the specific challenges here in Hong Kong that I find myself facing in this stage of my personal journey. I have identified four so far:

1. Baptism
2. The Schools
3. The Congregation
4. The Buildings

I will make the last post about present challenges today before I get completely depressed! I am calling it the Challenge of Inclusivity. Appropriately it will bring me back, after a short detour, to my Personal Journey.

In my next blog, I will offer a conclusion to this short series. After that, I will attempt to explain where I personally am now and where I see myself going. This is going to be interesting because while I think I know where I am, I am not so sure I know where I am going! I know where I would like to go, but that is another matter!

Present Challenges: 5. The Challenge of Inclusivity

Depending on how many of my previous blogs you have read, you will know that my Christian origins lay in a very evangelical and charismatic context. Over the years, I have found myself ministering outside of this context while remaining sympathetic to many of its emphases. The advantage of ministering in a definite theological context is that you know where you are and where your congregation is. You can reasonably confidently make assumptions about what people believe, think, and experience.

In Moreton, for example, as a curate, I could assume that people believed the Bible to be reliable and authoritative and that the Holy Spirit could be experienced in a certain way in the present. In Banchory, the congregation was far more diverse. Some did indeed believe that the Bible was reliable and authoritative, but others saw it merely as one source of authority and one that needed to be interpreted and applied with caution.

At Banchory I decided to make a virtue out of necessity, namely, out of the diversity. While at Bedford, working in a secular context, I had seen first-hand how irrelevant the Church was to most people’s lives. It wasn’t that people weren’t interested in spiritual things; it was just that they did not go to the Church to find out about them. I had come to feel that the Church needed to be far more outward looking and less focused on internal disputes.

I also came to believe that the emphasis on 'theme' churches was bad. By 'theme' churches I mean congregations that follow one theological tradition whether it be liberal, Catholic, evangelical, or whatever. In my preaching and teaching. I stressed tolerance, inclusivity, and open-mindedness. This did not mean that we couldn’t have strongly held views of our own, but that we should also be accepting of other people’s strongly held views.

In my own ministry, I began from the assumption that the Creeds were true and that I did not have to cross my fingers when saying them and that the Bible was reliable and, therefore, should be the basis for my preaching and teaching. Liturgically, I worked with a Catholic approach centred on the Eucharist. I encouraged people to think and to discuss without dividing and separating. How successful or otherwise this approach was is for others to judge, but I felt it was right and provided the foundation for mission and Church growth. My overwhelming concern was to ‘invite, welcome, and include’ those outside the Church.

When I came to Hong Kong, I brought these principles and attitudes with me. The worship at Christ Church was very similar in focus to how it had been at Banchory. That is, a fairly conservative liturgy, Catholic in nature, centred on the Eucharist. Christ Church itself was, by tradition and choice, open and liberal in attitude so in many ways it should have been business as normal in my own ministry. Increasingly, however I have become concerned about the way an emphasis on inclusivity can be used as a cover for blandness and indifference.

I still believe passionately in being inclusive in our welcome of people. I also believe in tolerance and openness to one another. The problem I see with this approach, however, is the way it leads to an abandoning of aspects of the Christian message that sound exclusive or may be thought to put people off and also in the way it can result in a modification of our view of God. (See my series on Changing our View of God). In my own spiritual life, I think I avoided this, at least to an extent, by continuing to believe in the Bible and the Creeds, but I am not sure I was very successful in helping others to avoid it.

Furthermore, in a congregation that is not particularly focused on teaching and faith, and which is not especially motivated to meet together for Bible study (see my recent post on Buildings), tolerance and acceptance can be no more than indifference and apathy. That is, we get on with one another not because we respect each others views and opinions, but because we can’t be bothered having any views or opinions of our own, and still less bothered in finding out about other people’s.

It is easier in a theme church because everyone is left in no doubt about the terms on which they are there. If you are part of such a Church there are certain things you must believe and do – or not do – to be accepted as part of the community. The challenge for me is to know how to accept diversity and, at the same time, to encourage spiritual growth.

A feature of Hong Kong life is that many people are members of social clubs. This is because of the size and nature of the places where people live. Clubs make it possible for people to socialize and have access to facilities that there just isn’t the space for in high rise apartments in a crowded city. Each club has their own identity, but you don’t have to sign up to any statement of belief to belong to one. You just pay your monthly membership fee. I am very worried that both here, and elsewhere in the Christian world, Churches are just becoming clubs. There is a vague spirituality about them, but as along as you pay your fees no-one is going to question or challenge you.

This fits well with the social climate and mood of the day where judgement is out and acceptance is in and where all values and beliefs are relative. Christians are being seduced by it, which is why we prefer a Benevolent God who always loves us and forgives us to One who may occasionally disapprove of us and what we do. I think we have to face up to the extreme selectivity we are engaging in when we follow this line of thought. We stress Jesus’ eating and drinking with sinners and constantly tell and re-tell the parable of the sower, but keep quiet about Jesus saying he came to bring a sword and to divide families. And parables about eternal punishment rarely get an airing.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to return to the days when Christianity was more about fear than forgiveness. I am increasingly challenged, however, to find a way in which both themes can be kept together. I am especially challenged when I see individual Christians and, indeed, whole congregations not really thinking it matters what you believe or do as long as you get on with one another.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rained Off?

At Christ Church, we have two morning services, the first at 8.00am and the second at 10.00am. Yesterday it was raining very heavily, so heavily that I got soaked just walking the short distance from the Vicarage to Church. Despite the terrible weather, the congregation at 8.00am was completely normal in size. At 10.00am, however, it was at least one third down. I don’t quite know what this shows, but it is interesting, nevertheless.

My sermon at 10.00am was on the conversion of the Philippian gaoler and his question, What must I do to be saved? (The sermon is available in audio form on the Christ Church website so I won’t repeat it here). The question itself, somehow, sounds very old-fashioned. It shows how our way of understanding the Gospel is somewhat different to how it was understood in the past. I am not sure even us Christians think we need saving. Perhaps if we did, people wouldn’t stay away from Church because it is raining!

Anyway, the rainy season is well and truly upon us, and it looks like being wet for the rest of the week. Maybe it will encourage me, too, to stay in and write my blog!

Have a good week!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Brothers of our Lord

Readers of this blog may remember that I recently wrote about a book by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I enjoyed it so much that I bought his earlier book, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, which I am half way through. It, too, is a fascinating and enjoyable book.

Amongst other things, I must confess that 1 Corinthians 9:5 had not made the impact on me that perhaps it should have. Paul writes: ‘Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?’ The point is that he mentions the ‘brothers of the Lord’ as a distinct group who travelled around with their wives preaching and teaching for Jesus.

It reminds me of how much we don’t know about what was going on in the first years of the Church and how easy it is to impose a later perspective on it. It is so important to read the Bible in its historical context. This calls for some imagination as we try to picture what life really was like.

I remember the first time I went to Galilee. I was shocked by how small the Sea of Galilee was. I imagine that if we could travel back in time to the time of Jesus and the early days of the Church, there would be many such shocks and surprises! Time travel, sadly, is not an option, instead we must rely on the glimpses that work such as Bauckham’s gives us.
Christ Church: The Building - A Picture

I thought I would have a go at posting a picture following on from yesterday's blog.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Present Challenges: 4. Church Buildings

I had to work away from Hong Kong for a few days which has rather set me back on my work here and it has taken a little time to catch up. So here after some delay is the second part on church buildings.

Present Challenges: 4. Church Buildings

Part Two: Easier said than done

‘The Church is the people, not the building.’

How often have I heard this said in my Christian life and ministry? As I have tried to explain in part one of this blog, I think it is more complicated than that and that the relationship between the people, who form the congregation, with the building they meet in is not quite as simple as this saying suggests. It certainly is not simple for me here.

Space is fantastically at a premium in Hong Kong. My parish in Banchory covered an area of about 400 square miles with about 12,000 people. Hong Kong is also an area of 400 square miles, but with a population of 7 million people! Very few people live in houses, most live in apartments in high rise buildings, often what would be regarded as small apartments by people in the UK where I come from. This means that many Churches cannot afford a church building and meet instead in schools or even office space.

Christ Church, then, is extremely fortunate to have a building of its own and a relatively large one at that. It was built in the late 1930s and can seat 250 people comfortably. It is in every way like an English parish church building of the same period, which is not surprising given British influence on Hong Kong. Attached to the main church building is a smaller building with toilets, storage space and a multi-function room. We also have a larger church hall within a newly built block at the school next door. The school has use of this during the week, and the Church uses it only rarely because most of the time the multi-function room at the Church serves most of our needs.

The church building is used for two services on a Sunday, for school services during the week, and whatever weddings or funerals there happen to be. The rest of the time it is locked up. It is quite a landmark on Waterloo Road on the way to the New Territories and to China. The multi-function room is known as the Committee Room and that gives the clue to its main use!

Seventy years old is old for a building in Hong Kong, and it has to be said that the climate is not kind to buildings like ours. There are, of course, always maintenance issues with any building, but maintenance is a particular issue for us. When I arrived the roofs of the buildings attached to the church and to the Vicarage were leaking like sieves in the rainy season. The Church itself, while in generally good condition, also needed some renovation.

What is more the government had made available a considerable amount of money for schools to improve their premises. For us at DPS, the School next to the Church, (about which I have written earlier at some length), this meant demolishing the existing stand alone church hall and building a new 5 storey block containing a new church hall. It was officially opened earlier this year. It was big project taking a few years to complete, but I won’t bore you with the details!

In other words, since being here I have found my time being taken up with buildings to a very significant extent. In addition to the work on the School and church hall, we have re-roofed the flat roofs, replaced all the windows in the church, repaired the external brickwork, repainted the exterior and interior of the church, installed a new pa system as well as all the minor ongoing repairs that have been needed - like replacing the electrics! I have been extremely fortunate in that the Church has given generously to finance this programme of work. Their continuing generosity is a mark of how committed people are to the church and its buildings. We are now about to embark on a major interior refurbishment of the buildings attached to the Church. It is also our hope to install stained glass in the church building itself to enhance its beauty. (Although we are having trouble finding an artist who is able to help!)

I believe in all this and am committed to making it work and to ensuring that the work is done and done well. It does, however, take a great deal of time. And this is where the challenge comes. Firstly, quite simply, work on buildings leaves less time for the work I have always felt most committed to doing, that is, preaching and teaching. Inevitably and rightly, the responsibility for getting the work done and supervising it while it is being done falls to me. The congregation is supportive, but they don’t live here, I do and it really is part of my job as the Vicar.

Secondly, though, it is extremely hard to get people to meet during the week. I think that this is a phenomenon in many churches both in and outside of Hong, especially in congregations where men and women have successful, professional careers.

In an age when often both partners are working, and are often working long hours, by the time they get home from work, see their children, and attend to domestic matters, the last thing they feel like doing is going out to a church meeting – many of which are boring and unnecessary anyway! If I had to spend a couple of hours sitting in traffic to get home after a long and demanding day’s work, I wouldn’t want to go out either.

But this raises the question of how we function as a Church and how those of us with pastoral responsibilities can encourage and help people to grow spiritually. I am concerned that I am spending so much time on the church building and not enough on building the Church. The challenge occurs because many want the building looked after and there for them when they need it, but don’t want much more besides. It suits people to see the Church as the building for if they ensure it is in good condition, then they can feel they have fulfilled a significant part of their Christian responsibility and don’t have to worry about spending additional time, they can ill afford, meeting during the week.

The fact that we do not meet much outside of regular Sunday worship, which is, of necessity, in the church building, and that so much of our time in Committees and the like is spent on discussing building matters, also, inevitably, reinforces the attitude that the building is the Church. Of course, it is more complex than that and I am generalizing horribly. But, I think it is inescapable that the time and emphasis spent on the building strengthens the reluctance for social reasons to meet in small groups during the week! It is a vicious circle: the feeling of being too busy to meet, justified because there is no need to meet anyway.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I, too, love our building and want to see well cared for. I do not want meetings for the sake of them. Many meetings I have to go to as a clergyman I find an unbelievable, even sinful, waste of time. But if a church is to be the body of Christ, a living temple, growing in the love and knowledge of the Lord then it needs fellowship and teaching. How can that teaching and fellowship be provided in a congregation where people have the lifestyles that people in my congregation have and where there is such a strong focus and emphasis on buildings?

It is a real challenge.