Steve Chalke speaking at WLM’s Annual Meeting

Regular readers of R&R will know that I often post articles which relate to my work at West London Mission.  We are part of the Methodist Church and run a wide range of social and community projects for people affected by homelessness, poverty and trauma.

Activism and controversy

One of the ‘big characters’ from WLM’s history is Rev Donald Soper (right) who was Superintendent Minister of WLM for 30 years. Soper was an inspirational and energetic Methodist. Even when he was over 90 years old, he still preached every week at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. He established many of the social projects which WLM runs today.

He was also no stranger to controversy.  He was an ardent pacifist and was banned from broadcasting by the BBC during the Second World War.  He later played a significant role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and was Chairman of the homelessness campaigning group, Shelter.  His activism led him to taking a place in the House of Lord’s in the 1960s.

Whenever I speak anywhere about WLM, many older people remember Soper well. People remember his public speaking, his social concern – and his fondness for an argument!

Steve Chalke

In many ways, I think the church leader who is most like Donald Soper today is the Rev. Steve Chalke.

Like Soper, Steve Chalke oversees a major operation in the charity Oasis. This charity, which Chalke founded, today runs a wide range of community services, including 49 schools and employs over 5000 staff.  Alongside this, he has also remained a local church leader at the Oasis Church in Waterloo.

Like Soper, Chalke has been a significant spokesperson on issues of inclusion and social justice. He is a former UN Adviser on Human Trafficking and has written over 40 books many on social activism. I would say has been the most significant advocate for Christian social engagement in the UK in the last 20 years.

And like Soper, Chalke has generated controversy. His views, especially around gay relationships, the theology of inclusion and how we should read the Bible, have created huge debate within the Church.

WLM’s Annual Meeting

Finally, like Soper, Steve is also a highly engaging speaker. So I am really pleased to say that he is speaking at WLM’s Annual Celebration on Monday 2nd July 2018.  The evening will include an update on WLM’s work over the past year.

The evening will start with refreshments at Hinde Street Methodist Church (near Bond Street) at 6.30pm. Presentations and talk will commence at 7.00pm and finish by 8.30pm.

The event is free and if you want to book a place then please go to our Eventbrite page

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Royal wedding sermon: stop the internal church critique and use the opportunity

At my church on Sunday afternoons, I lead a youth group which mainly consists of children whose families don’t go to church.

Most of them are boys aged between 12-14 and many know me from a football club that I have run for many years.

Types of love

This Sunday our theme was love.  After a game and a quiz about songs with ‘love’ in their title, we talked about the things we love. Answers included ice cream, playing Fortnite and our Mums. We talked about how one word covers many different types of love.

Then we looked at some famous Bible passages about love. Using a flipchart, I sketched out the four different Greek words for love in the New Testament – Eros, Storge, Philia and Agape. It seemed to make sense to them (but then you can never be sure with 13 year olds).

The source of love

To end the session, I used a clip from opening section of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding:

Oh there’s power – power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love…And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant – and are meant – to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here. Ultimately the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives.

Most of them were aware of the sermon but none of them had actually watched it. But the charismatic preacher held the attention of this group of teenage boys – just as he held the attention of the world the day before.

Tribal tendencies

The sermon has enjoyed a profile which is probably unique in all history. But despite the widespread praise in the mainstream media, in the Christian world there has been a very mixed reaction. Many Christian commentators have been scathing in their criticism.

Tragically, the church is deeply tribal and has an enormous appetite for in-fighting. Like a dysfunctional political party, it spends an inordinate amount of time and energy criticising other parts of itself (for more see When Two Tribes Go to War). The positive popular reception of Bishop Curry’s sermon has super-charged these tribal tendencies.

I am weary of the kind of the kind of debating that I have seen going on within the Church. Our time could be spent so much better elsewhere.

Joy and freedom

On Saturday, Rev Curry spoke with brio and confidence to a global audience. Sure – he was a bit marmite. Some of my mates did not like him at all but many others loved his energy and passion. One of my friends who doesn’t regularly go to church wrote to me:

“I loved the sermon. I love the energy, happiness and celebration of life. Serious underlying messages but delivered with joy and a freedom you rarely feel in churches here. It makes such a difference.”

Just as I care deeply that the boys in my youth group come to know and follow Jesus, I have the same desire for my friends, most of whom don’t go to church. Seeing close friends become Christians has been one of the biggest joys in my life in recent years.

It has been said that the worst sin of the Church is to make God boring.  No one could accuse Rev. Curry of that. Perhaps we should be more concerned about the staid and dreary way that the Dean of Windsor introduced the service. But this is easily overlooked because so many people are used to hearing clergy speak like that.

Opportunity

Much of the internal Christian critique and endless debating misses the wood for the trees. Even if you believe he got the emphasis wrong or missed out key things, he shared a powerful message about God, Jesus and love. And the world listened.

Whatever your shade of Christian belief, this sermon gives the Church a huge opportunity.

Every Christian can speak to people they know about what they thought of the sermon. They can talk about it with mates in the pub, with their neighbours, with colleagues at work or with their hairdresser. Never before have we had an opportunity quite like this.

The really interesting views on Rev Michael Curry’s sermon come not from other preachers, theologians or even regular church goers (like me).

The interesting views are those who are outside the church. Let’s listen to them and engage them. We can learn from what they say and take hold of the opportunity that this remarkable sermon has given us.

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged | 12 Comments

Rev. Curry’s sermon summed up why I am a Christian 

There has been an incredible reaction to Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding today.

Both the content and the manner of his talk broke the formality which so easily straight-jackets Anglican services and especially any religious events involving the Royalty.

There was power, authority and a bold confidence in the way that Bishop Curry spoke.  As the world listened to him, I realised he was summing up why I am a Christian.

He spoke personally – so often, vicars, priests and ministers can lose people with religious jargon or abstract terms,  but straight away Rev Curry connected the theme of his talk to the experience of everyone listening:

There’s power – power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved.

He spoke passionately – there was an urgency to his words as he spoke about a power (or fire) that was desperately needed if we are to heal the world we live in.  It was not overly intellectualised but rooted in an urgent struggle for justice and change:

The late Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. once said and I quote: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

He spoke about justice – surrounded by the wealth and power of Royalty, Hollywood and a sea of military uniforms, he spoke boldly about poverty, war and the injustices that scar the world:

When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

He shook things up – good preaching should always comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.  A very British blend of bemusement and mild discomfort was obvious in members of the Royal family as he spoke. Perhaps they had never heard a sermon like that ever before.  But actually people want to hear someone who is really saying something – not safe, bland platitudes that no-one could disagree with.

He spoke about Jesus – even in church circles, especially at the more formal end, it can be controversial to actually talk about Jesus. The person at the heart of the Christian faith is easily smothered in liturgy, theology or religious cliche. But Jesus is the only person who can save Christianity from irrelevance. We have to use the J-word just as Rev Curry did today:

Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in human history: a movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world – and a movement mandating people to live that love…

He died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He didn’t… he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life, for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the wellbeing of the world… for us.

Power and relevance

Bishop Curry preached the gospel to the widest possible audience today – the world was his congregation and they heard the good news.  He showed the power and relevance of the Christian faith.

The former leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, a confirmed atheist, tweeted in response:

Rev Michael Curry could almost make me a believer

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged | 21 Comments

The nonsense surrounding weddings undermine marriage

A royal wedding is simply the über example of the extravagance, hype and nonsense that has overtaken the contemporary concept of getting married.

This culture is fuelled by an industry dedicated to ramping up costs.

It knows how much money people are willing to waste for ‘the perfect day’ and a ‘fairy tale experience’ (the latest ‘average cost’ banded around is £27,161).

Bloated by consumerism

The culture around weddings has become bloated and corrupted by consumerism.  Too many people have been taken in by the lie that a lavish and expensive event equals depth of value and significance.

When it comes to weddings, too often we live out Oscar Wilde’s famous words: we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Undermining

This all leads to the deeply ironic situation where weddings are actually undermining the very concept that they are supposed to be celebrating: the love and commitment between two people.

Many couples are avoid or delay getting married because of the cost of the wedding.  They are having to save for years in order to get married – but not in the old-fashioned sense to order to buy furniture or get a mortgage – but in order to pay for a big celebration.

Increasing pressure  

It means that more pressure is applied to families at a time when this is the last thing they need.  Increased expectations mean that people feel they need a lavish event which can lead to incurring huge debts.

And we know how much debt is a major cause of relationship and family breakdown. So, the expense of weddings actually increases the pressure on families and contributes to more children are growing up in less secure situations.

Simple joy

All this is tragic.  I love going to the weddings of friends and family and the best ones are when the simple joy of celebrating and supporting a commitment between two people shines through the day.

Of course, what people eat and what the bride and groom is wearing is all nice – but these are all essentially decorative frills.

Counter-cultural

Far, far more important than the cake, the dress or the menu are the simple but powerful promises which lie at the heart of the wedding service.

In our current social climate, marriage vows of fidelity and commitment are increasingly radical and counter-cultural.  In direct contrast to consumerism of the wedding industry, these vows represent what we need more of in society.

Let’s not let the nonsense about weddings drown out the main point of marriage.

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged | 2 Comments

I love being a dad, its being a son that I’ve struggled with – by Michael Palin

I have been reflecting for a number of years on what it means to be a dad. But to do this, I have had to work through the struggles I have faced in being a son.

It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with my dad. It was more that he didn’t really do ‘dad type’ things with me.

As I spend time with my joy-filled boy, I find myself lamenting on what I did not have for myself. Maybe its unhelpful, but I am trying to raise my son in a completely different way to the way I was raised.

Shaped

I have found myself reflecting on how we are shaped as dads – as this shapes how we raise our sons. My dad grew up in the war and his dad was a very strict and ‘cold’ character, so that shaped part of who he was. He was shaped by his relationship with his father.

I can’t blame my dad as this was the environment he grew up in but I do want to raise my own son with less of the struggles that I experienced (and still do!)

Getting together

I believe that dads today need to get together, to support each other and to consider what it means to be dads and to be raising sons.

I think together there are a few obvious things it would be helpful to work through as a group of dads and sons. Like:

  • How do we express ourselves with real emotions that are not just anger?
  • How do we listen more rather than automatically wanting to fix things?
  • How do we help our sons to see girls as unique, precious and beautiful daughters of God, and then treat them accordingly?
  • As dads, how do we work through, even during our 40’s, some of the things we still hold onto from the relationships with own dads?

So this is where I am at.  I find myself inspired by my good friend Rachel Gardner who has invested a stunning amount of time and energy in helping girls to see themselves as fierce, gifted and truly and deeply beautiful

Starting a conversation

So today I am beginning this conversation and journey and I would really like some company. I have no doubt we will come across some difficult subjects and will need to be courageous and honest with one another. But surely that is itself a great thing to model to our sons; courage, honesty and accountability.

Later this year I will be getting some dads together and begin this journey properly. It’s important, vital, essential that we raise our sons to seek wholeness. If we show our own pursuit of wholeness then surely that will be a great starting point and example to them.  Psalm 127 says:

“Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court” (v3-5)

Blessed

I feel so utterly, utterly blessed to be a dad. As hard as some days are it brings me a huge amount of joy. I was at a point a few years back where I didn’t even think I’d get married, let alone be a dad. God has been so good – like the Psalmist says; my son is a gift, a gift from God himself. As with any precious gift it must be protected.

I love being a dad but I have found being a son really hard. For too long I have not taken time to work through this. But for my own son’s future and growth, I must.

Do you need to join me?

Michael Palin is Director of the the267project which supports and encourages Christian youth and children’s work. See here for contact details.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | 2 Comments

The Only Way Is Ethics: ‘Christian Today’ has to drop dodgy adverts

Over the last few years the website Christian Today has grown in prominence in the UK. It carries a wide range of religious news and commentary and high profile Christian leaders, like Krish Kandiah and Youthscape’s Martin Saunders, regularly write on the site. Ruth Mawhinney, a former Editor, is now Head of Media for Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Major problem

But there is a major problem with Christian Today.

And these are the adverts which litter its webpages. These adverts promote get-rich-quick schemes, crash-diet pills and dubious debt-solutions. It means that whatever good content the pages contain, they are all massively undermined by the unethical and corrupt advertising which surrounds them.

These are a selection of typical adverts which appear on Christian Today pages:christian-today-ads-e1525700721402.pngI clicked through on the one titled ‘Is there a Faster Way to Get Rich in Croydon?’ It took me to a site about Tesler Investments run by ‘CEO Stephen Abrahams’ In a video, Abrahams promises that anyone can make $5700 a day using his ‘special investment techniques’.

He repeatedly emphasises that he can make a ‘life-changing amount of money’ for anyone and appeals specifically to people who are struggling with debt worries. He states baldly:

“I love money and I love everything that comes with it”

Abrahams explains how he is worth $384 million but he has given half of his money to charity and good causes. And, perhaps with an eye on the Christian market, one of the video ‘testimonies’ is from someone claiming to be a missionary in Somalia who is aiming to use the funds he has made to build a hospital.

The truth

But the truth is that Stephen Abrahams is not worth millions of dollars. In fact he is not real, he is just an actor. And there is no such company as Tesler Investments.

Its just a scam. Tesler Investments entices naive people into handing over $250 with the promise of making huge amounts.  The web is full of reviews which expose them.

I work with people affected by debt and I know how vulnerable people are when they are desperately seeking solutions for their money worries. But these adverts exist because they work – the scammers and the platforms they advertise on, make a lot of money from ripping people off.

Frankly, it makes me sick to see this being promoted on a Christian website.

Christian Media Corporation

The business behind Christian Today is the Christian Media Corporation (CMC) based in the US. The CMC Group promotes itself as ‘the global Christian news leader’ and says:

“As the largest, premium all-digital media platform for the and religious audiences…Our primary investment objective is to amplify our growth to accomplish our mission with rapidity and scale.”

Quick growth is obviously vital to CMC. Even, it seems, by helping to rip off their Christian readers.

Integrity

I believe that Christians should communicate well and share their message effectively – but never at the expense of our integrity.

Being faithful is more important than accomplishing things ‘with rapidity and scale’.  After all, what good does it profit a website to gain all the readers in the world, yet forfeit its very soul? (as Jesus may well have said).

Shallow theology

CMC’s Statement of Faith is telling and illustrates the ethical weakness of US Evangelical theology. It is jammed full of propositional, doctrinal statements, referring to Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, atoning death and resurrection.

But it says nothing about God’s concern for justice or the kingdom of God.

It is a world away from the Jesus’ recorded in the gospels – with his burning concern for righteousness, justice and standing up against the abuse of power, money and religion.

It is a shallow theology which sits comfortably with powerful business interests.

Dissonance

There is a massive dissonance between much of the good content of Christian Today and these appalling adverts. I am sure that many of the staff and contributors would agree with me.  It will be the bosses at CMC who will need persuading.

So I have written to Mr William C. Anderson, the CEO of CMC Group, to ask him to change CMC’s advertising policy. I’ll keep you updated as to what he says.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | 6 Comments

What are the best ways of helping people?

helping-handsEvery Tuesday at WLM’s centre for homeless people at Seymour Place in central London, we have a Spirituality Discussion Group for our homeless clients. Even though membership of the group changes frequently, the group decides themselves the topics it wants to discuss. Its one the highlights of my job when I am invited to lead a session.

Last week, I led a discussion on ‘What are the best ways to help people?’

We started off by discussing what parts of the Bible refer to helping others. We brainstormed a list of stories, teachings and commandments which relate to this question. The group showed a rich knowledge of verses and passages from both the Old Testament, as well as Jesus’ example and teaching and the life of the early Church.

We then discussed, what makes helping people difficult?  The group was very honest and we listed things like not knowing what to do, not having the resources, some people’s problems being too big, addictions, mental health problems and the difficulties of enforcing our agenda onto someone else.

I then asked the group for their top tips for helping people and we wrote them up and discussed them as a group.  We agreed that it was good to avoid being naive on one hand – but also avoiding being cynical on the other. Both of these responses are not very helpful. A word that was used a number of times was wisdom. We needed wisdom to know how to really help people in a way that actually helps them.


So this is the wisdom shared by the group of homeless people:

  1. Point people to where they can get the right help for the issues they face

  2. Be ‘with’ people and be available

  3. Help them get to a place where they want help – it has to come from them

  4. Accept them for who they are – don’t avoid or threaten if they don’t take the help

  5. Be truthful and genuine

  6. Take time and build relationships

  7. Be aware of your own motives – why are you helping?

  8. Speak up for the underlying causes behind the issues e.g. London needs more basic accommodation


I think these responses are really worth reflecting on.  It was not a scientific study – there were just 6 homeless people part of the group that day and I am aware that my presence could have influenced what was discussed. But I think there is real wisdom in what was shared and I was struck by the humanity and thoughtfulness of what was said.

I shared this list with colleagues and my church home group the next day and it sparked a really honest and helpful discussion about how we respond to people around us.  Maybe you could do something similar with a group or team you are part of?

Posted in Homelessness | Tagged | 1 Comment

Crisis of faith in social action: keeping Christian distinctiveness

A huge number charities have been started by committed Christians.

One example is my former employer, the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint. It was started in the late 1960s by the Rev Kenneth Leech in St Anne’s Church in Soho. But by the time I worked there in the 1990s, Centrepoint had virtually no connection with the church. It was just a foot-note in its history.

Tensions and splits

It’s an example of a split that so easily emerges between the faith which originally inspires the start of a social action initiative and the on-going management of this work.

It is a tension that I have seen continually played out in church-based social and community projects – especially when they grow and acquire resources.

Voluntary sector

Much social action exists in the overlap between church and ‘the voluntary sector’.

In my experience, the voluntary sector tends to become the dominant influence. It’s access to funding, good practice and its secular ideology, especially around equal opportunities, is often far more confidently stated than the church’s theology.

Often this means that even when the resources of church buildings and the faith of many volunteers are hugely significant factors in a community project, a distinctively Christian perspective is easily marginalised or entirely absent.

We have to be honest. Often our Christianity is lost in our caring.

Complimentary

The challenge of this managing the relationship between faith/church and highly diverse social and community projects has been a key focus of my work in the last 15 years.

I developed this model as a way of thinking about how the Christian faith can distinctively and confidently be expressed within the social action it starts. At the centre of this issue is understanding the complimentary relationship between implicit and explicit expressions of faith. Both are vital, legitimate and need to work together.

Implicit faith

In a Christian social action, we want our work to be hallmarked by the kinds of qualities we see listed on the inside of this circle below: good practice, inclusivity, welcome and acceptance etc.  Those we are accountable to; funders, local authorities and other regulators, are primarily interested in how much our work embodies these kinds of qualities:

Quite rightly, many community activists would say that faith is being illustrated through these qualities. But these are generally implicit expressions of faith – God may not be explicitly mentioned but He is at work in how people are acting and in the organisational commitment to care and help people.

It is this form of faith which is so powerfully expressed when a church runs a food bank, a debt relief centre, opens a night shelter or runs great work for kids, older people or those with disabilities. Faith is being expressed through what is done.

Explicit faith

For many of us, most of our work is in this implicit domain. But it is not enough if we want to maintain a Christian distinctive.

A key challenge for Christian charities is how they connect these implicit expressions of faith to explicit encounters. Where God is named, Jesus is talked about, where prayer is offered, where theology and church rituals are made relevant and connected to the practical work.

These explicit expressions are represented by this inner circle:

Maintaining this inner circle – in positive relationship with the outer circle – is fundamental to keeping the Christian distinctive. We must be ready to articulate what we believe and make it accessible and relevant to those we serve. The ‘roots’ of faith must connect to the ‘fruits’ of action.

Secularising current

We are swimming in a strong current. If we don’t actively swim against it our services will secularise.  These are my top 5 tips of what is required:

1. Conviction: those in leadership (trustees or management) need have a strong, personal faith. But also they need conviction that faith is relevant to the needs of those you are serving rather than ‘just something we do in church’.

2. Commitment: time and resources need to be given to this area and Christian organisations need to ‘go the hard yards’ of committed engagement. WLM’s Chaplain made 208 visits last year to the homelessness services we run and this builds respect and consistency.

3. Connection: the explicit faith needs to connect well alongside the good practice of complex care work and not jar with them. Key practical areas such as confidentiality need to be worked through. See the the Charter for Christian Homelessness Agencies which was developed to articulate the connection.

4. Creativity: we can’t just rely on old methods – like throwing in a ‘God-slot’ into the middle of an activity. We need to be creative – listening and responding to client’s needs, shaping what we do around their preferences. Time spent prayerfully in the implicit domain helps us see opportunities for faith to be made explicit.

5. Confidence: most of all we need what Leslie Newbigin described as ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel.  Its a confidence that means we reject having any hidden agendas or coercive activity but that we can also face down secular opposition gently and assertively.  We need a confidence in the work of Christ and in its relevance for each and every person.

This is taken from the talk I gave at the conference ‘Have we lost our Christianity in our caring?’ in April 2018 at Hinde Street Methodist Church. If you want the above model on powerpoint slides then please email me at mrjonkuhrt@gmail.com

Posted in Social action | Tagged | 12 Comments

Labelling ‘Leave’ voters as racist is wrong – by Danny Kuhrt

My grandparents, who have lived in London almost their entire lives, voted to leave the European Union last year. They have also been accepting and open-minded towards people of all cultures, beliefs and ethnicities.

These two facts seem to clash with many people today.

Stereotyping

It has become ingrained in many people that a vote against the EU was a vote against immigration and foreigners and a vote for UKIP and xenophobia.

If I could vote I would certainly have voted to Remain, but even so, I think this kind of stereotyping is ridiculous.

‘The dark side’

All too often, I hear people say things like “The Brexit vote really showed the dark side of our country” or “The Brexit vote shows that Britain is more divided and racist than ever.” Many Remainers want to blame their loss on evil motives – they can’t accept that many people had very intelligent and informed reasons for wanting to leave the EU.

And yes, some people did vote leave for very bad reasons and, yes, racism exists.  But I believe that the majority of the 52% who voted leave did so because of restrictive EU laws, EU taxes, the non-democratic nature of the EU and British Sovereignty.

In fact, a poll of over 12,000 leave voters showed that for 49% of them, the number 1 reason for voting leave was that “Decisions affecting the UK should be made in the UK”.

Legitimate beliefs

And even though many people voted to leave because of immigration, it is wrong to assume this was just blind bigotry – it was often about housing, jobs and the NHS. The Leave vote was a reasonable political movement and it should not be simply branded as extremist and offensive.

Just as I would have voted Remain, I would (if I was old enough) certainly vote Labour at the general election. But I think that a weakness of the left is that it assumes anyone with concerns about immigration is racist, or anyone who questions the free movement of people has offensive views. This attitude makes voting for Brexit seem automatically hateful, rather than a legitimate, informed belief.

Respect in disagreement

So Leave voters should not be shamed. Its fine to disagree – I do with my grandparents – but the Leave vote was no stain on our society and nothing to be ashamed of.

Let’s stop treating Brexit as a hate-fuelled movement, and start respecting those who went out and voted for what they believe in.

Posted in Social commentary | 6 Comments

Why Westminster Abbey is the wrong venue to remember Martin Luther King

On April 4th, I attended two events which marked the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

The first was a packed, lunchtime service at Westminster Abbey, just over the road from Parliament.

The second was a rare viewing of the 1970 documentary King: a filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis in a tiny cinema in Rotherhithe, south London.

One event was right in the centre of power and the other was very much on the periphery.

Imperial power

I had no issue with the content of the Westminster Abbey service. It was thoughtful and well-put together with contributions including a gospel choir, readings from Doreen Lawrence OBE and a sermon from Rt Revd Dr Karowei Dorgu, the Bishop of Woolwich.

My issue is more with the venue itself.  An intrinsic issue is that probably more than any other church building, Westminster Abbey is crammed with the legacy of imperial power, with its countless statues, memorials and stained glass windows dedicated to colonial and military leaders and campaigns. It puts me off.

Connection

But more significantly is that Westminster Abbey is a venue which provides such little connection between the speaker and the congregation. For starters, there is a rood-screen which blocks half the congregation from actually seeing and feeling a part of what goes on on the other side.

But also the incredibly high ceiling may inspire architectural appreciation but it is a disaster for any rhetorical inspiration.  It is a venue built for short Anglican homilies but not the passionate, rip-roaring preaching tradition that King was raised into and through which so inspired his followers.

Methodist Central Hall, just a stones throw over the road, would have been much more suitable.  The non-conformist venue would have enabled everyone to engage and respond to the service in a way much more in keeping with King’s approach.

Raw power

This contrast of responsiveness  struck me when I watched King: a filmed record…Montgomery to Memphis later that evening. It is 3 hours long but it went quickly because of the raw power of what has been recorded.  The film is further testimony to the Christian spirituality at the core of King’s work.

A crackly recording of the sermon that King delivered, aged only 26, at the start of the bus boycott movement in Montgomery is played in full near the start.

As well as the rhetorical eloquence of King, what struck me throughout the whole film was the inter-relationship between preacher and congregation. Almost every point is greeted with a response – whether an audible ‘Mmmmm’ or a shouted ‘Amen’ or ‘Preach it’. My favourite was ‘Make it plain, make it plain’.

Reactions

As I sat in the cinema, it was interesting to note the reactions of the audience. A black man sitting in front of me embodied the responsiveness we saw on the screen – continually shifting excitedly in his seat and vocalising appreciation for the power and authority of King’s words.

In contrast, the whites in the room tended to only voice reactions in a negative sense during the parts of the film which depicted the aggressive racism of counter-protesters, the violence of the police or when civic leaders are openly uses the N-word.

‘Beloved community’

It made me reflect that King’s movement was far deeper than just anti-racism.  Of course, it was about confronting structural racism, injustice and abuse of power. But it was a deeply spiritual search for the ‘beloved community’ to be manifested in concrete reality.

And of course, underpinning this journey was Martin Luther King’s belief in a personal God:

“More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God…it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have heard an inner voice saying, “Lo, I will be with you.” When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship.” (Strength to Love, p153)

Christian activists must never lose connection with this ‘cosmic companionship’. This is the source of our inspiration and power to change ourselves and the world around us. Its where we will find the strength to love.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged | 3 Comments
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