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We have moved…

The Contextual Theology Centre blog has now moved to http://theology-centre.org/ctc-blog

We look forward to seeing you there…

Prayers for Day 19 of Lent

On this day of worship and of rest, give thanks for the work the Contextual Theology Centre is doing to ground Christian social action more deeply in stillness and prayer.  Materials from our recent afternoon Silence: The Contemplative Way are now online.  Pray that they will be useful to many.  Pray also for our home at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine (a Christian Conference & Retreat Centre), and for its new Master, the Revd Mark Aitken, as he develops its ministries of worship, hospitality and service.

Pray also for SixtyEightFive, a project in Middlesborough which aims to promote and support the role of fathers while providing positive male role models to men and boys who have been raised in a fatherless environment. The Church Urban Fund is helping those involved in the project to befriend and mentor young offenders prior to their release from prison – so that they can have a support network and opportunities to aid their resettlement.

Prayers for Day 13 of Lent

Pray for West Cumbria Money Advice (WCMA), who are responding to need idenitified by Allerdale Borough Council and deliver financial and budget training to local vulnerable groups. Support from the Church Urban Fund is enabling WCMA to purchase materials to deliver the training sessions.

Pray also for the Community Bible Studies CTC is organising in different parts of London this year – taking the Word of God into the wider community, and enabling a deeper engagement between Scripture and the inner-city contexts of its partner churches.

Money’s too tight not to mention – ‘Seeing Change’ Lent course released

We live in tough times. As queues at Food Banks grow and benefits are cut, more and more people in Britain are finding that there’s ‘far too much month left at the end of their money’. At the same time gambling shops are sucking £5bn a year from poor communities, over a million Britons are without access to basic banking services, and payday lenders are raking in enormous profits by trapping people in spirals of debt. With Lent nearly upon us, CTC is calling on churches to become pro-active in combating these depressing signs of our unjust economic system.

Pounds

If the Church wants to offer hope to those around, it needs to find ways to talk about these issues. That’s why the Contextual Theology Centre has partnered with the Church Urban Fund to produce a five-week Lent Course to help churches explore the deep Biblical tradition on money and connect it to the experiences of ordinary people today. The course is called Seeing Change and combines studies of the story of Nehemiah with an event called a Money Talk which is designed to help gather evidence of local people’s experiences of the economic situation and what they’d like to see the Church do about it.

Depford High St FMoS7.jpg

Go to www.theology-centre.org/ to download the Leader’s Guide and a Guide to Holding a Money Talk. If you have any questions about the course and how your Church might use it, please get in touch with David Barclay, the Faith in Public Life Officer at the Contextual Theology Centre, at davidb@theology-centre.org or on 07791633117.

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Olympic Graffiti in east London

Near Neighbours has been embracing the opportunities presented by the Olympic and Paralympic Games being on our doorstep. One of the projects we have supported has seen young people of different backgrounds coming together to paint a graffiti mural.

Street artist Mohammed Ali is the creative talent behind murals in New York, Melbourne and Chicago. To celebrate the Olympics he wanted to create a special work in east London which was

  • International in flavor fusing Eastern and Western traditions.
  • Community based.
  • Engaging with Olympic visitors on all levels.
  • Challenging perceptions on art and culture

He was also keen to bring together different groups to achieve his goal. He says, “The world might have come together for the Olympics but this time last year London was a place of riots and factions, this project is a perfect opportunity to transcend class, race, and faith to bring all peoples together through art.”

The project involves young people from youth organisation Adventure Quest, Leyton Scouts and arts organisation Soul City Arts.

Here’s what the wall looked like before they got to work: (click for larger image)

And here’s what it looked like after a few days of hard work, team building and creative direction from Mohammed:

You can go to visit the mural in Leyton on the corner of Huxley Road and Leyton High Road. Find out more about Mohammed’s work here.

You can also watch a short video about the project here:

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Music Migrations

Here’s a wonderful example of a project supported by Near Neighbours.

Music Migrations was a series of three concerts featuring music from around the world. The idea was to bring together different parts of the community in a diverse area of east London. Food was shared, and as you’ll see and hear, a great time was had by all, as people of many different backgrounds came together.

This was all made possible by the hard work of Alice and her team, the support of Near Neighbours and the hosting of St Barnabas Church, Bethnal Green.

Here’s just a flavour of the atmosphere:

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The Primacy of the Social and Ethical: Blue Labour Midlands Seminar

A number of CTC Fellows are involved in an upcoming seminar on Blue Labour.  Details, including how to RSVP to attend, are below.  The event organisers write..

The Primacy of the Social and Ethical – How Blue Labour speaks to the social, political and economic situation in the UK in 2012.

6 July 2012, 9.30am to 17.00pm at the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, University of Nottingham

Out of what materials can Labour fashion a compelling vision of the type of country we wish to govern and offer an effective orientation for assured political action?

The Labour tradition is not best understood as the living embodiment of the liberal/communitarian debate, or as a variant of the European Marxist/Social Democratic tension.  Labour is robustly national and international, conservative and reforming, Christian and secular, republican and monarchical, democratic and elitist, radical and traditional,and it is most transformative and effective when it defies the status quo in the name of ancient as well as modern values.

(‘Labour as a Radical Tradition’, Maurice Glasman, 2011)

The aim of this seminar is to gather Blue Labour thinkers, supporters and activists to explore and discuss substantive Blue Labour themes. The aim would be to deepen, enrich and expand upon the themes that constitute the emerging Blue Labour narrative.

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From Ascension to Pentecost: A Reflection

This sermon was preached yesterday by Angus Ritchie (founder of the Jellicoe Community) at Magdalen College, Oxford.  The readings were 1 John 4.11-16 and John 17.11-19

There are very few statues or sculptures of our Lord’s Ascension.  It’s always difficult to convey movement in a statue.  How on earth do you depict Jesus going up into the heavens?  Painters certainly show it as a stately and seemly movement – so the sculptor cannot show hair or clothes being ruffled by high speed, upward travel.  How, then is movement to be expressed?

A number of churches have tried to rise to this artistic challenge. One congregation has commissioned a vast helium balloon of Jesus in a cloud.  The Shrine Church at Walsingham adopts a different approach.  Its Chapel of the Ascension has a cloud sculpted into its roof, with two feet sticking out.

I must confess, when I first saw the Chapel roof, my reaction was to collapse in fits of giggles.   Because sculpture cannot easily convey movement, there is an unfortunate ambiguity.  It isn’t entirely clear whether the feet are on their way up or down.  It rather looks as if the ceiling has fallen in, and someone’s feet are now dangling through the roof.

But once you’ve got over its unintended comedy, the sculpture conveys some fundamental truths about the nature of the Ascension.

For it shows us who and what has gone, without telling us precisely where he has gone.  We know who has gone: Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord.  In the Walsingham sculpture, the feet ear the wounds of the cross.  We know what has gone: Christ’s physical body.  In the Easter season the Gospels have been emphasising over and over again the physicality of Christ’s resurrection.  Our risen Lord is not simply some spirit who has shuffled off his mortal coil.  In the resurrection God not abandon our physicality – he rescues it from death.

So we know who and what has gone – but where exactly has our ascended Lord gone?  Christians disagree on whether the story of the Ascension should be taken literally.  But even if we take it completely literally, we cannot imagine that Jesus’ body continued to ascend on the other side of the cloud.   Today’s Gospel reading makes that clear: Jesus tells his disciples he is going back to the Father, not on an extended voyage into outer space.

That’s what I like most about the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham.  We only see the feet.  When we think about what lies on the other side of the cloud, words and images begin to fail, and so they should.

The Christian faith is that human beings have a physical and spiritual future.  Our story does not end with death, and its continuation is not merely about some kind of half-life in a world of ghostly shadows.  Our story – our whole being – is taken into God; the God who holds the world in being, but whose presence in this world is obscured by sin and death.  

The Bible is somewhat reticent about what this future will be like.  It is of necessity a mystery, because our future with God is beyond human understanding.

That shouldn’t surprise or trouble us.  I don’t know how many of you saw last term’s debate between Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins in the Sheldonian Theatre.  (If you didn’t, but are still interested, the footage remains online at archbishopofcanterbury.org)   One thing that this debate made clear is that the difference between Williams and Dawkins lies in the ambition and scope as well as the content of their picture of reality.

Richard Dawkins longs for a day when an exhaustive and comprehensible explanation of everything is on offer – a scientific theory which will account for and describe reality without remainder.  Rowan Williams thinks the world is more mysterious than that. 

The position of Archbishop Rowan, and indeed of any thoughtful Christian, is that there is an inexpressible depth to the world.  As Christians, we’re not in the business of offering a comprehensive explanation of every detail of reality.  We recognise that many aspects of reality can be researched and understood, but others pass human understanding.  As one writer has put it, life is not simply puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced, a gift to be lived.

This is not a plea for blind faith.  As the Archbishop’s dialogue with Dawkins made clear, Christians can give good reason for thinking the world has this kind of depth.  There is a genuine argument to be had between those who think science can one day explain everything, and those who think that the scientific account of the world leaves open some further question about the origin and destiny of our world.  This is the true boundary between faith and reason. If there is a God who passes all human understanding, our knowledge of that God will depend not only on our reasoning, but on his self-revelation.  And the Christian faith is that God’s self-revelation is centred on Jesus Christ, His Word made Flesh.

The Letter to the Hebrews talks of Jesus as the ‘pioneer of our salvation’.  A pioneer leads the way through uncharted territory.  Jesus, who lives the life we ought to have lived, and dies the death we ought to have died, shows us that there is a hope beyond the grave.  In his resurrection, we see that our personality and our physicality have a future.

In a moment, we will recite the Creed, which sketches out the shape of this future hope.  It speaks of Christ ascending into heaven, of him coming again in glory, establishing a kingdom which shall have no end.  But beyond this the Creeds, and the Bible, do not go into huge amounts of detail.  We are given an array of pictures of what lies beyond, but they are just that: images and metaphors, glimpses of a glorious future that is beyond our understanding.

These glimpses of the future are given so that we might have the confidence to live with love and courage here and now.  As St Luke recounts the Ascension, angelic figures ask the disciples “why do you stand looking at the clouds?”  And in today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of his disciples not being of the world, but being sent into the world – sent to proclaim and embody the love that flows within the heart of God.  As we heard in our Epistle, No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

How does God abide in us, now that our risen Lord no longer walks among us?  How are we to have the grace and power to embody the very love of God?  The answer is in the next verse of the Epistle: By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.

That is why these days between the Feast of the Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost have a special significance in the life of the church.  We rejoice that the pioneer of our salvation has borne our wounded humanity into the life of God – with the hope that gives us, both of the safe keeping of those who have gone before us, and of a day when the whole creation will be renewed in love, in beauty and in justice.  And we rejoice that God has sent his Holy Spirit, that the love, the beauty and the justice of Christ might take flesh in this world, here and now.

This year, Christian Aid Week overlaps with these days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost.  This is a good reminder – that the hope of an eternal future with God does not leave us gazing fondly into the heavens.  Rather, God calls us to be inspired by that hope, and sends us the Holy Spirit, that Christ may be made present here and now.  As Christian Aid’s slogan puts it, we are called to believe in life before death as well as afterwards.

After we have said the Creed, offered our Intercessions and shared the Peace of Christ, Fr Michael will lead us in the Eucharistic Prayer: taking bread and wine, ordinary elements of the physical creation, and praying these words

grant that, by the power of thy Holy Spirit, we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed body and blood;


The Holy Spirit enables the Church – through the sacraments, through our common life, through acts of love, mercy and justice – to embody as well as proclaim her ascended Lord.  So as we gather at the altar, we another of today’s prayers has already been answered  For earlier in the service, Fr Michael sang today’s Collect:

we beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Spirit to comfort us and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before.


In this Eucharist, we are both comforted and exalted.  We are lifted to glimpse something of our glorious future in Christ.  It  a future in grow in communion with God and all his children  – those we see here, and those from whom we are now divided by distance or by death.  And this foretaste, this glimpse of glory, is not given not to distract us from our earthly pilgrimage.  Rather, it gives that pilgrimage its direction, its  confidence and its power.

Like no other event: last night’s Mayoral Assembly

Andy Walton – a Jellicoe Intern at St Peter’s Bethnal Green, and the Contextual Theology Centre’s Communications officer – blogs on a unique piece of political action:

 Three of the candidates have done this all before. In fact, as Ken Livingstone reminded us, some of them have been doing London politics for more than 30 years. During the run-up to the Mayoral election they spend most nights of the week sparring with each other and fielding questions from experienced interviewers, broadcast to millions of viewers and have their every move analysed by the newspapers.
So why, exactly, were the candidates on edge? Why was this far from the usual experience for them? And why did many of us come away from the evening feeling that the race for Mayor had been injected with a whole new energy and impetus?
Well, simply put, because a London Citizens Mayoral Accountability Assembly is like no other event on the campaign calendar.
For a start, it’s the biggest audience the candidates have addressed. 2,000 people from across London’s diverse communities packed out the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. Young and not-so-young sat alongside each other. Londoners old and new were represented – those who’ve lived and worked in the city their whole lives and those who’ve arrived very recently. Delegations from churches, mosques, temples and synagogues formed a part of the audience, but non-faith groups were well represented too – charities, social enterprises, students unions and school groups.

This diverse audience made for a carnival atmosphere, a choir sang and we saw amazing football skills on the stage. But that’s only the beginning of what made this a unique experience.

The real difference between this and all the other Mayoral hustings was that this was an ‘accountability assembly.’ We were there to assess how Boris Johnson had performed as Mayor over the last four years and examine his record, based on the agenda London Citizens had produced in 2008. He was praised for the effort he’d put in and the achievements made, but also told where he’d fallen short.

And then, the evening’s main event: the Citizens Agenda 2012. We asked all four main candidates to respond to our agenda, and heard amazing testimony from those whose real life experiences had helped to form it. The agenda began a year ago. London Citizens has 243 member institutions across 24 boroughs of London, gathered in five chapters (North, South, East, West and Shoreditch).
Thousands of one-to-one conversations took place. Members of our churches, parents at the school gate and students at our universities were asked what their main concerns and problems were. These conversations were collated, the answers tallied up and a series of policy areas were identified on which many of our members felt very strongly. Then, our five chapters met in huge assemblies to vote on which of these priority areas would make the final agenda.
Once this democratic process had been completed, the agenda was honed and refined. We were asking for five things from the candidates: safer streets, better wages, more opportunities for young people, housing improvements, and a better governed city. These aims may sound vague, but the agenda was carefully crafted, with specific policies we were requesting the Mayor to carry out, and the commitments we, as London Citizens, would carry out.
Throughout the course of the evening, we heard stories from ordinary Londoners about why these areas were so important to focus on. Barbara, who’s a cleaner for a top hotel chain, broke down as she told us she could barely afford to live on the wage she was paid. Lorriane gave her story – as a mother whose son was cruelly taken away in a violent attack in North London. We heard about young people struggling to get jobs, damp housing conditions and Londoners who can’t afford to pay their exorbitant rent. If this all sounds heartbreaking, it was. In a room of 2,000 people, we could have heard a pin drop at times.
But the testimonies didn’t stop there. We heard about the amazing improvements which have been brought about through London Citizens. Huge corporations have begun paying a Living Wage. Housing Associations have begun to improve accommodation after pressure from local residents working together. We heard wonderful stories of teamwork among different groups who’ve come together to make their streets safer through the CitySafe programme.
The candidates had a tough act to follow. But they rose to the occasion. Jenny Jones, Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and Brian Paddick were called forward to respond to our agenda. They were given the chance to say how they would enact our policy ideas and then questioned by ordinary people from our member institutions. We were impressed at how many of our ideas were praised by the candidates. Our Community Land Trust programme won universal support from them. The City Safe scheme was held up as a beacon by all candidates. This was politics at its most raw – ideas formulated on the streets of London, being adopted in the corridors of power.

The whole event was organised, presented, chaired and staffed by volunteer leaders from across our City, ably assisted by the team of London Citizens staff. The 2,000 people in the room, the 12,000 people we signed up to promise to vote, the 250,000 people who have some contact with our member institutions and the many who watched the event online are now better informed. They’ll make a more-informed decision when they go into the polling booth.
This, of course, isn’t the end. In fact, it’s just the beginning of another cycle of working to improve London alongside our politicians. Whoever is elected and becomes the next Mayor of London knows that London Citizens will be watching for the next four years and will hold that person to account in 2016. London will be a better place because of it.

Rowan Williams: Challenging us to Listen

Centre Director Canon Dr Angus Ritchie reflects on the news that Archbishop Rowan is standing down:

Many people in the Church of England long for ‘stronger leadership’.  On closer examination, this usually turns out to be ‘strong leadership in the direction I already wanted to travel’.  We only want our leadership to be ‘prophetic’ and ‘challenging’ when someone else is going to be discomfited.

The real and paradoxical strength of Rowan Williams’ leadership is that he has discomfited us all.  For leadership was not driven by a desire to force the church in his direction of choice.  Rather, he has sought to help different voices and views – in the Church of England and in the wider Anglican Communion – to listen to each other with humility, honesty and love.

Most people might be tempted to trim their views to achieve promotion – and then, once they had secured a powerful position, to use it as the ‘bully pulpit’ from which to advance their owm opinions.  It is a measure of the man we are losing as head of the Anglican Communion that he did the exact opposite.

Rowan’s views on human sexuality were made clear in his essay ‘The Body’s Grace’ – a lecture given to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.  This was a refreshingly honest piece of writing which was hardly designed to maximise his chances of ecclesiastical promotion. Once Archbishop, he saw his role as one of helping the church in working out, with love and maturity, how to live with disagreement.  Not even Rowan’s most ardent defenders would claim he performed this task perfectly.   However, one of his great gifts to Anglican Communion was to help it recognise the central question.  The distinctive vocation of Anglicanism – its distinctive gift to the wider Church and world – is to bear witness to Jesus Christ through the affirmation of the central truths of the faith (on which Rowan is strikingly orthodox) and to negotiate diverse views on a range of other issues with grace, integrity and wisdom.  Rowan challenged us to consider whether we wanted to continue doing that, or to fragment into little enclaves of ‘right-minded’ purity.

The Anglican Communion needs to recognise that it is both possible (i) to affirm sexually active gay relationships without being a ‘heretic’ and (ii) to believe sexual intercourse should only take place within heterosexual marriage without being a ‘bigot’   Rowan has sought has to remind us both that there is an orthodox case for what is often mistakenly called the ‘liberal’ view of gay relationships – and  that to remind us that ‘inclusivity’ can sometimes be a cloak for permissiveness and a lack of seriousness about the Christian call to repentance and transformation.  To speak truth to all the warring factions in this debate has been a hugely difficult task.  We should be thankful for the patience and dignity with which he has sought to carry it out.

In our sadness at Rowan’s decision to stand down, there is something here we all need to mourn – and to repent of at real depth.  Despite his best efforts, we have not managed to move beyond name-calling and parody.  This failure of charity has been very harmful to our wider mission.  Each side is convinced that its victory will enable the church to have a more credible, honest witness.  In fact, the greatest damage to our witness has been the lack of love with which we have spoken to each other, and to the wider culture.

This damage comes at a time when the wider society shows signs of real hunger for the Gospel.  At his best, Rowan was able to speak into that hunger.  Just after his appointment, there was significant and sympathetic coverage of the questions he was asking of our culture – about its shallowness, its focus on materialism over relationships, the disturbing signs of failure in the formation and care of each new generation.  More recently, his engagements with Philip Pullman, A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins have given the lie to the notion Christianity has been ‘intellectually disproved’.  Like Pope Benedict, our Archbishop gives the lie to the notion faith must involve the abandonment of reason.

On the day Rowan’s resignation was announced, the Gospel set for the Eucharist was Mark 12.28-34.  In it, Jesus’ tells the scribes that ‘there is no commandment greater’ than that to love God and neighbour.  It is a salutary reading for us all.  For Rowan’s leadership reminds us that loving is a difficult task.  It love is not a matter of being easily inclusive. The love which Jesus embodies presents a challenge to every section of the church and of society.   We should pray not only for a worthy successor to our Archbishop of Canterbury, but for a willingness to hear that challenge for ourselves.