On opening church buildings for private prayer

We should open our buildings for private prayer as soon as we can. Not for the members, but as a mission opportunity. This week it seems likely that the First Minister will announce that Scotland is moving to Phase 2 of our lifting of lockdown, which includes the opening of places of worship for private prayer—a move made this past weekend in the rather less orderly English system. I suspect that for most Baptists, the instinctive response will be to shrug; our spirituality does not have that sense of sacred space, or at least not of ecclesially-authorised sacred space. We might have our own ‘thin places’, where for us ‘prayer has been valid’, but they are probably not significantly connected to local church buildings. I think this response would be a mistake. There are a few Baptist churches around the UK that, before lockdown, were in the habit of keeping their buildings open for private prayer—I think of Bloomsbury Central B.C. in London as the example I perhaps know best; the doors are generally open, and a small room to the right of the front of the sanctuary—presumably once a vestry—is set aside as a space to pray. I’ve known the ministers of Bloomsbury over the past 20 years or so—Brian Haymes; Ruth Gouldbourne; Simon Woodman—and although I’ve never particularly discussed this aspect of their ministry with any of them, every passing reference they made suggested that it was not a facility offered for, or used by, the church members, but rather for passers by, seeking a quiet reflective space in the energy and noise of central London. Our buildings should be open, if they can be, not for members, but for non-members. I think of a friend, around my age, who recently rediscovered a faith she had walked away from as a child. She started to come to our church, but, having outgrown our building, we meet in a local school hall. Her searching spirit wanted a space that looked, felt sacred—the P.E. charts that we cheerfully ignore (and long to cheerfully ignore again…) were an impediment, a stumbling block, to her. Another church, lacking a building of their own, was borrowing our church building of a Sunday morning; she joined there. I think now if they moved out she would be happy enough; she has been well discipled into a broadly evangelical spirituality that emphasises the holiness of the community that meets, rather than that of the room it meets in. If someone wanted to narrate her recent story in Pauline terms of valuing the indifferent things that seem important to those of weak/immature faith, I suspect she would not be offended. Paul’s point in Rom. 14 is that we should in fact value these things, because nurturing nascent faith matters. Equally, although slightly differently, it matters that we provide seekers with comfortable ways to discover the truth of the gospel and the glory of our King Jesus. I suspect her spiritual sensibilities are not unusual: there are a significant number of people in the UK who, if moved to search for a genuine encounter with God, would look to a church building as the right place to begin that search. Some may have cultural memories of what church ‘should’ be; some may be coming from other religious traditions, and bringing those traditions’ assumptions about sacred space with them; some may just need to do something kinaesthetic to demonstrate to themselves that they are serious. Of course, as they find the truth, and as we have the privilege of discipling them into maturity, we will want to insist that being close to Jesus is what matters, and that being close to Jesus comes from being in covenant community, not from being in ecclesiastical buildings. But if stepping into the building is going to be the first step on that journey to Life for some, perhaps for many, we ought to do what we can to have the door of the building open, particularly if, as is being regularly suggested at the moment, there are significant signs of spiritual awakening across the U.K. just now. For some of us it will of course be impossible to open the building. Perhaps other urgent mission opportunities—running the local foodbank, e.g.—are taking all our efforts; perhaps we cannot, with the resources we have, open the building safely; perhaps, like the apostles, we have no building to open. But if we can open the building, I suggest that we should—for missional, not pastoral,...

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But what can I do? A beginner’s tool kit 1: knowing

[I’ve been wanting to write this all week, but our marking deadline was today…] Plenty of White British folk like me have this week been asking—but what can I do? It was a question I first asked myself seriously after watching the events in Charlestown, VA, in 2017. This post is a beginner’s tool kit, written by a beginner of almost three years’ experience, for beginners with even less, in the hope that it helps someone. This post is about knowing—knowing how to begin to understand white supremacy. I plan to add a couple more on ‘doing’ and ‘giving’ soon. This is specifically for people in the UK churches, and began from wanting to take seriously several conversations with Black British church leaders who expressed some concern/dissatisfaction with/over an assumption that the narrative of Black life in the UK could be simply assimilated to the US narrative. I was looking for a theorised account of oppression similar to the ones I knew about gender and sexuality, but wanted to honour the concerns of my Black British sisters and brothers, and so find an indigenous British version. I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert, but this is what I have found to be most helpful in the past three years of looking: 1. Know about The first task is to understand the reality: the history, cultural realities, and the facts of racial oppression, in UK culture and in the UK church: 1.1 History: David Olusoga, Black and British: A forgotten history (2016) is the best place I have found to start; it was based on a TV series, which I haven’t seen, but which I assume is equally excellent. I don’t know a good book covering all the history of Black Christianity in the UK, but Israel Olufinjana’s various studies of reverse mission offer interesting and varied snapshots. 1.2 Cultural Studies: Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2018) is the single best text I know here. this is just a must-read; in brief and simple chapters, she explains whiteness, and how it affects so much else. Looking backwards in history, the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies is seminal here. Almost anything by Stuart Hall is worth reading, but if you only pick one text, Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The cultural politics of race and nation (1987) is the one to go for. Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy collaborated on a photo-journalistic essay, Black Britain: A Photographic History (2011), which is powerful and profound. 1.3 Church life: Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk About Race: Understanding the Black experience in white majority churches (2019) is a brilliant and accessible introduction 1.4 Theology: I suggest you start with Anthony Reddie—he’s written loads, and there aren’t any bad ways in that I’ve discovered, but perhaps Faith, Stories, and the Experience of Black Elders (2001) is the place to start, maybe followed up by the collection he edited with Jagessar in 2007, Black Theology in Britain: A reader. These aren’t better than the rest, but they are broader, and so invite you into an overview which his many other writings fill out the details of. Robert Beckford is probably the next step–half a generation back in time. God of the Rahtid: Redeeming Rage (2001) is probably the way in. 2. Know: If the texts above are about informing the intellect, what follows is about addressing the heart. Art is key. Art speaks personal truth in personal ways. I list here material that I have found helpful in offering some sort of a window into what it actually feels like to be Black and British. (If a Black British person invites you to hear their story, that is a precious gift, and should be honoured as such, and will be better than most of this; but you cannot demand of your Black friends and colleagues that they open their hearts and wounds to you, and so art is important.) 2.1 Poetry: We are living in a golden age of British poetry, and immigrant and cross-cultural poets are probably leading the way. For those of us in Scotland, our national Makar, Jackie Kay, is the key voice, reflecting on experiences of immigration and adoption; Vahni Capildeo explores the identity of the immigrant profoundly and beautifully; Imtiaz Dharker brings the perspective of a subcontinental and Scottish heritage–one of her book blurbs describes her upbringing as ‘Muslim Calvinist’; Derek Walcott is of course one of the great Anglophone writers of the C20th, and his exploration of Caribbean life under the shadow of the memory of the British...

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