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CENTRE NEWS - September 2008

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Copies of New Loyalties: Christian Faith and the Protestant Working Class may be purchased from Centre for Contemporary Christianity, priced £9.99

To order a copy, please contact the office:
21 Ormeau Ave
Belfast
BT2 8HD

T: 028 90325258
info@contemporarychristianity.org

Recently a friend of mine, who attends a well-known Belfast city centre church, mentioned how on consecutive Sundays there had been guest speakers. One was a visitor from Africa who talked about his life and his faith community in his home country. The other was a man with a secular background from a nearby working-class street who was asked to talk about the issues facing his community. My friend told me that he felt he had a great deal more in common with the African who lived two thousand miles away than he did with the fellow-Ulsterman who lived half a mile down the road.

In May 2008, I completed a project for the Centre which tried to address the huge social gulf which had just become apparent to my friend. I began by examining the very real social, economic and cultural deprivation which has dogged many Protestant working-class communities, while so many middle-class people have not only survived but thrived. I then looked at the evidence for withdrawal by many churches from working-class engagement, a process accelerated by the Troubles. I also attempted to assess the function of Loyalism in Protestant working-class areas and in particular to grasp the status of the paramilitaries – a status which has made many church workers extremely wary of community involvement.

If my study thus far confirmed the gulf which was referred to in the first paragraph of this article, then further research offered some more positive results. I looked at the role of Loyalist ex-combatant, Billy Mitchell in creating both a theology and a local practice of community restoration. I examined some of the innovative Christian community work being done in other parts of the world to see what lessons might be learnt here in Northern Ireland. Finally I visited a number of Christians who, within our own society, have refused to abandon the Protestant working-class and who are finding ways to combine an Evangelical ethos with a 'no strings attached' involvement with the needs and aspirations of ordinary people in their particular neighbourhood.

At time of publication of this issue of Centre News half of the copies which we printed in June 2008 have already gone out, indicating considerable interest in the topic. However my hope would be that New Loyalties will do more than 'stir interest'. The real fruit would be in stirring churches to the radical action which is so desperately needed if the gulf of social class is not to grow continually wider, placing many working-class communities beyond the reach of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom values of Justice, Well-being and Peace.

Philip Orr
Centre Associate


Elaine Storkey
Union Theological College, 108 Botanic Ave, Belfast
Tuesday, 14th October 2008, 8pm

For further details click here


During a morning workshop hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Christianity at East Belfast Mission, Centre News took the opportunity to talk to Marva Dawn about frailty and the purposes of God. What follows is a transcript of the conversation.

CN: You're very open about your illnesses and your frailties. I wonder, do you feel yourself at odds with the general flow of the Christian community?

Marva: I find myself at odds with the general ethos. But I also find that as soon as people find out I have handicaps, and that I'm open about them, then those who have handicaps come around to talking about it because they can't find many people to talk to about them.

There's a tendency, and this is probably more prominent in the US, to have a gospel that's health and wealth centred, that if you're a Christian, things will go well for you and you won't have many troubles. Whereas I think the opposite, that if you want to follow Jesus that will get you into trouble. I think that physical ailments can be a part of that in that they form us and they are helpful to us, but they're not generally understood by people who have never experienced them.

People who have not experienced persecution can't imagine what that would be like and how that could coexist with being a Christian. But when you're in the midst of being persecuted for being a true Christian then you discover that that's a way to follow Jesus and that there is a new strength in witnessing from that.
Well in the same way with illnesses. In general they don't seem to match the flow of Christian community, but when you're open about them you discover that there are many people on the same path. It's a human tendency to have illness because we live in a broken world.

CN: What resources have you found within the Christian tradition?

Marva: One thing for sure is praying the Psalms. In fact my newest book is about this. It's called Being Well When We're Ill, and I found myself constantly referring to the Psalms through that book.

I have been in the habit of praying through the Psalms every seven weeks, according to the Anglican pattern in the Book of Common Prayer. I find that really helpful.

That's why in the books I've written about worship I emphasise using the whole music of the church because more modern songs tend to be more triumphalistic.

But older material seems to have more diversity. Like Martin Luther's 'Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord'. Now he's referring to lamenting over sin, but there's plenty of Christian hymnody that refers to suffering and affliction and of how God is there in our suffering and affliction.

And that's why I mention the Psalms, because there are actually more lament Psalms than there are thanksgiving Psalms although all the lament psalms except one turn to thanksgiving and praise by the end.

CN: I've been intrigued by the title of your book and this idea of being well in the midst of illness. What is your understanding of wellness and how does it contrast with cure and healing?

Marva: I think sometimes we can trust God for physical wellness, but more important than physical wellness is emotional, mental, spiritual and intellectual wellness. A wellness that doesn't depend on my body being in good shape, but I can be at home with God and be in deep prayer with God, in conversation with God, aware of his presence and still not be in perfect shape.

My teaching today is not because I'm in great shape, I'm struggling with certain physical limitations but the wellness is a wellness of mind and spirit where we know we are in God's hands and trust that he will bring out of our work whatever he will, and we try not to be in the way.

It is a wellness that trusts God. And sometimes I really lack that wellness. I don't trust as well as I should. No, I don't want to make it a 'should'. I don't trust as well as I want to.

CN: What role do people who are ill or frail play in the body of the church?

Marva: There is a very huge role for the church and that has been taught to us by Jean Vanier and his L'Arche Communities. They always pair a person who is physically, mentally well with someone who is physically not so well or mentally challenged. And usually the person who thought they were well, they discover that they themselves are formed by the handicapped people.

We have a couple of friends who have Down's syndrome. They are the deepest lovers. Even if you have done something wrong they love you to the hilt and they teach me so much about God – things that I couldn't learn no matter how mentally unchallenged one is. There is something about our friends that appeals to me, a simple hearted reliance on God and a great display of God's love. So enfolding.

CN: Our churches struggle to accommodate more diverse expressions of wellness, children, visually impaired, hearing, but we don't adjust the format of worship. Technology is about adaptation but it is not about changing HOW we do things and how we who are physically well are challenged.

Marva: I was deeply affected by a sermon that was heard by six people with Down's syndrome. This was in a congregation that was very accepting of those who were mentally challenged and allowed them to participate in worship and they all sat in the front. I said something in my sermon and one man said out loud, 'what did you mean by that?' And I answered him. And then he asked another question, and then another. I ended up throwing away the rest of the sermon and answered his questions. Afterwards people said, 'that was a wonderful sermon', and I said, 'but he wrote it! He planned it!' He just led me into some very good questions and the answers were what people needed.

CN: What about the future, Marva? What is your eschatological vision of heaven and a renewed world and a renewed body? Is that important for you, sustaining for you?

Marva: It's part of it. The eschatological vision of God restoring the whole earth is much larger than my own personal restoration. It is my most viable source of hope, because I know God will bring creation to completion and I'm sure that at that time all things will be made new and restored. But in the meanwhile that gives me courage for the day-to-day stuff.

I need to rely on daily sustenance. It's why praying the Psalms is important to me. One of the reasons I do that is that the early Christian saints prayed the psalms because they knew they were the prayer book of Jesus and that Jesus drew great sustenance from the Psalms.

We know that all the Psalms that say 'for the choir director/leader of worship' were used in public worship. We also know that he participated in the public worship of his day and made it his Sabbath custom. So we know he heard those psalms again and again when he participated in public worship. This makes the practice very important for me.

The other practice is using my own spiritual gifts. I do much better when I'm out teaching than when I'm at home and start feeling sorry for myself. I do much better when I'm with the community than when I'm by myself.

CN: So you take your frailties with you into the public realm in the exercise of your gift, rather than hide them away.

Marva: It's a funny dialectic. I have to rest much more now than I used to, since my kidney transplant, and that's been three years. And I often feel guilty when I have to take a nap after breakfast. But Myron keeps assuring me that if that's what I need, that's what I need. I must make a better job of listening to my body and giving it the rest that it needs. I can't do everything I used to. I work slower now.

CN: Is there anything else you want to say in closing Marva?

Marva: I want to speak especially to those who know that they won't ever get better. A lot of times the temptation is to feel that their life is wasted.
I want to assure every person that our lives are part of God's great meta-narrative and that God is using even our immobility, our not-being-able-to do anything. God is using those times too, to form us and to form other people. I think that too much of the ethos of contemporary christianity is 'you gotta get well! you gotta get well!', which causes people who are not made well to think that they are useless.

That's never true for Jesus people, if we love him and desire to follow him, then by the power of the spirit we can still live to the glory of God. I want to stress that.

Northern Ireland is changing. We are experiencing an increase in social diversity in terms of ethnicity, religion and sexual identity. We are emerging out of a paradigm of sectarian division between two populations into a society that now recognises the presence of minority populations. This increasing social diversity presents the churches sector with realities that challenge their norms of culture, religion and morality, norms that, in the past, have been influential in shaping social attitudes and behaviour. The churches sector must now relate to a civic framework of equality, rights and inclusion that seeks to protect the participation of members of minority populations. With this comes responsibility.

This research report is not about what Christians expect from others, but about the character and behaviour of Christians as individuals and communities. Christians do not get to choose the diversity with which they live. The only choice is how to live with that diversity.

If you are interested in obtaining a copy of this report, please contact CCCI. The report is available free of charge.

 

The latest edition of lion&lamb is available online at www.contemporarychristianity.org/lionlamb and explores the topic, Faith in the City: Looking for God in an Urban Landscape. It includes articles looking at ministry in four very different settings in Ireland: Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Londonderry, as well as interviews with Houston McKelvey and Hugh Kennedy, the Administrators of Belfast's two cathedrals.

Previous editions of the magazine are also available on the website.

We know that you have appreciated receiving lion&lamb in the past and we would like to be able to publish further editions. However, due to staffing and funding issues, we are currently unsure of the future of the magazine. We will keep you informed of any future developments.

 

We are pleased to be re-launching p.s. It has been off-line since December 2007 during a time of transition at the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland. Our desire for p.s. is that it should ‘provide informed, credible and practical comment and analysis, rooted in Biblical reflection and theological thought’. We are aiming to stimulate Christian minds with issues in the public square (p.s.), to inject new perspectives and provoke discussion. Comments are posted on our website and on a ‘weblog’ – part of our website where readers can add their own thoughts.

‘Issues in the public square’ can include challenges in politics to media, education, climate change, to specific issues like ‘Christmas consumerism’; the topic simply has to relate to life and faith on this island. With the re-launch we aim to publish fortnightly and those who previously received p.s. via email will continue to do so. We have an editorial team who provide guidance, edit and proof the p.s. articles written by our team of contributors.

If you are either interested in contributing or would like to receive p.s., having not received it previously, please contact us via our website: www.contemporarychristianity.org



A new publication in our Soundings series will be launched in January. This publication is entitled Divided Past: Shared Future and contains two Essays on Churches addressing the legacy of the Troubles. Watch this space for more details on the launch.

 

The Board are grateful to all the team, volunteers, Advisory Council and active supporters for their commitment to the work of the Centre. In particular, we thank our Director, who indicated his intention to conclude his period of service at the Centre as of 31 March 2008. We believe that this year has taken us forward in advancing our objectives and serving the church and community in which we live and work.

We remain deeply grateful to those trusts and grant making bodies that provide substantial support to our programme. As with many similar organisations, financial sustainability is a significant challenge for us. This will increase in the year ahead. Grants that were available to us over the last ten years have come to an end. We need to find new sources of funding.

As we plan for the uncertainty this brings, we remain committed to equip the church in Ireland to serve the changing and diverse communities that call this island home. The Board will keep the developing situation under review and take necessary and effective decisions as required throughout the year.

The following is a summary financial statement of Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland Ltd.

 
Grant Making Bodies
£230,622
Trusts
£13,144

Voluntary Donations
(regular and appeal)

£36,698
Revenue and Gift Aid
£23,594
Designated Funding Carried Forward
(£2,449)

Total Income

£301,609
 

Leadership Development

£58,478

Peace & Reconciliation

£31,546

Living in a Plural Society

£29,913

Church in the Public Square

£83,881
Abigail Initiative
£9,630
Events
£17,326
Resources
£20,641
Central Support Services
£43,910
Total Expenditure
£295,325

 

We would like to acknowledge the support of a range of funders, both statutory bodies and charitable trusts, who have made grants towards various aspects of our work:
Community Relations Council (Core Funding & Peace 2.5), European Programme for Peace & Reconciliation (Peace 2 Extension), Community Bridges Programme (IFI), Department of Foreign Affairs, Ardbarron Trust, Sir Halley Stewart, St Stephen's Trust.

 

As an organisation, we will become increasingly dependent on donations from people keen to support our work.
If you wish to give, please contact the office for a Gift Aid form if this is appropriate.

DEVELOPMENT WORKER

Helen Smith was appointed as Development Worker in June this year to help sustain the organisation during this important time of transition and to work with the Board and Council as they discern the way forward for CCCI. She previously worked with the organisation as Learning Co-ordinator from 2002 - 2005.

 

As a reader of Centre News you will have been familiar with many of the staff who worked for the Centre for a number of years. You may be interested in where they are now.
David and Fran Porter have moved to Coventry where David will be Director of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral.
Derek Poole has become Director of LINC in York Street.
Lynda Gould is working as Family and Community Director with East Belfast Mission.
Anna Rankin is enjoying her new role as a mother following the birth of her baby daughter, Aoife.
Claire Martin is working part-time for both IFES Ireland and CCCI.
June Spindler is Volunteer Co-ordinator with North Down YMCA.

Howard House, 1 Brunswick Street, Belfast, BT2 7GE

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