We don’t get one another

I went to London this week and sat in my seat of choice – a table seat, facing forward, next to the window for the view and the socket to power my laptop. Now getting a table seat means that you are in for an adventure as you don’t know who your 3 companions will be. This is the other reason for my chosen seat, because then my good hearing ear is facing the other three seats so I am ready for the conversations that may come.

On this trip, a pinstriped man got on at Leeds, sat opposite and was all computer spreadsheets and mobile calls back to the office. When we got to Peterborough the other two spaces were taken by two extrovert women who were plotting their day’s shopping in Oxford Street. They were incessantly chatty covering topics ranging from the attractiveness of the train guard to how you would remove the emergency window, the strawberry scent in the toilet and the scary things on their Facebook. Their breathless chatter sounded all the more southern on the 08.45 from West Yorkshire.

We never got talking because we all felt so different and didn’t have a clue what we would say to one another. Maybe we were lost in our own worlds.

This is a big problem in our society. We don’t understand people who are different from us. The white working classes are incomprehensible to the upper middle classes, young Asians are a mystery to people who have been living in the same seaside town for generations. When we are faced with this we stereotype or view others with a sense of condescension or threat.

This is only exacerbated by the ways we choose to relate today. Instead of meeting in mixed local communities we interact through interest groups and follow those we like. By definition, this tends to exclude those who are different and only serve to entrench ignorance of the other.

Such mutual unfamiliarity isn’t new. I remember family Christmases in the early 1970s when my paternal grandad from Doncaster would share a week with my maternal grandmother from Kent. He would sit at one end of the lounge smoking his Woodbines as the cloud of nicotine descended to knee height while she would sit by the opposite window, rubbing her eyes as she read her People’s Friend.

Of course, as a middle-class Christian orientated toward inclusion I have the right attitudes and won’t excuse prejudice. On top of this, I will pray and donate to alleviate poverty and discrimination. But doing that doesn’t mean that I am at home with or welcoming to others, it just means that I care at a distance.

We live in a globally interconnected world, yet as individuals we struggle to “get” people in our own country who are different from us. This is important at this time. In an election, we are asked to vote for politicians who don’t really believe or understand us and will “get” us even less when they are sent to Westminster. We are offered policies that often appeal to our differences rather than what brings us together. The people we vote for will have a responsibility to engage with international challenges, like climate change, migration, care for an ageing populations etc. and not just to vote for tribal vested interests.

A local church is a good place to bridge differences and build a common understanding. Finding growing diversity in our church is a good thing. This is fragile for two reasons – people often select the church that meets their taste which works against variety and secondly, the diversity can remain superficial and therefore uninspiring in the long run. That is why it is vital to try to relate more deeply within our church and to interact with other groups.

There are hopeful signs are when we not only meet people different from us, but when we share deeper conversations, laughter, tears and experiences together.

In the past year, I have enjoyed playing local cricket and meeting young Asians and local people from West Yorkshire villages and sharing sport and relaxation after the games. And we don’t just talk about sport!

I imagine we can learn so much by reading widely and watching a variety of films, in order to be stimulated by different views.

I have found it exciting to get involved with groups campaigning for a better Leeds because I meet people unlike me who are not being polite, but engaged in something they are passionate about.

One of the most dispiriting things I see is people lecturing other people, whom they don’t understand and haven’t listened to, on how they should live and vote and what they should believe.

On the other hand, one of the most exciting things is witnessing people coming together, forming relationships and discovering what they care about in the world.

I wonder how we give time to meet people unlike us and take the opportunity to share fun, tears and deeper things of life.

Graham Brownlee

27 April 2017


Power ‘with’ not power ‘over’

Last Sunday morning we were reminded that in the desert when he was tempted, Jesus faced a choice about power. The choice he made was to exercise power with and alongside people and not over people. He chose sacrifice and to be alongside instead of self-serving celebrity. This was a watershed moment.

This choice is both a watershed moment for the hope of all who benefited from Jesus ministry, especially on the cross, but also a model of the choice that we all can make in our own lives.

We do not avoid power in our lives but we can choose how to exercise it. This is more than a personal decision it is also a challenge to any institution that exercises power and is tempted to do so for its own ends or remotely.

Separately, I had another insight on how we exercise power and aid from an incident in the Bible. At the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus encouraged everyone to sit down at a late hour with a lack of supplies. There was an option: to go and buy food. Considering this possibility Jesus’ friends said “That would take eight month’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread to give them something to eat?” This implies that they had that much money, to make it an option. In choosing a much more risky and miraculous strategy – based on how much have we got, thanksgiving and prayer – Jesus showed an amazing exercise of power.

Could this example be saying to us – don’t avoid throwing money at problems, indeed this is merited – but remember that radical and risky sharing to change circumstances is much more radical, and inclusive and a greater blessing.

So maybe we are called to give financial aid, but to consider this as a temporary stop on the way to something much better and more Christ like.

As middle class Christians let us give to emergency appeals but let us also allow risky and inclusive sharing, rather than aid, to grow on our doorsteps.

Ahead of our Environmental plan A series Graham shares some thoughts

The peril of our planet and society is much to the fore. If we pause to view and consider we are surely aware of the level of deforestation, pollution, hunger and displacement that litters our earth.

One wonders why we don’t act. Mark Hertsgaard wrote: “Many people tell themselves that dangers like global warming are so far off in the future that they don’t really exist. On some level, these people may know better than that, but the possibility that we humans are dooming ourselves is simply too terrible a thought to absorb. It is much easier to pretend the danger doesn’t exist, or adopt a childlike faith that everything will turn out all right in the end… and burrow back into the routine of paying bills, getting the kids off to school, and waiting for the weekend.” (Quoted in Beyond Homelessness, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh)

I usually despair at the debates I read that seem locked in arguments as to whether climate change exists or that it is so far gone that we are doomed. Now, as a reasonable and hopeful person, obviously I want to search for some middle ground.

There is another way of reviewing our reactions which may explain things and give us a way forward.

We find it hard to address environmental issues because we are locked into a human centred way of looking at the world – we do what is best for human beings. On top of that when we make decisions about what is possible based on new technology and what is best based upon the demands of global institutions. Then when we count the cost we base our calculations on market forces and values which do not factor in costs to the environment. I also find it hard because I know I am irrevocably implicated in the consumption of the earth – so I am in the overwhelmed hypocrite category!

So basically, arguments about tackling climate change will never win while we are hard wired to think according to global every expending technological markets. One alternative is to allow a different way of thinking to filter into our planning and action.

A Christian contribution to such thinking is to see the earth as gift and not a possession. As a God given place this world is holy and special: not only are humans wonderfully made, so too is the whole planet!

At times we slip into a view that God is only concerned with human beings. The Bible tells of God’s much wider concern. In Genesis, we learn that all the universe is created by God and all is seen by God as good. God forms humans out of the creation – the dust of the earth and commissions them to be carers of the earth and it’s flourishing. After the flood, God made a covenant with humans and every living creature. In the New Testament Jesus teaches us to pray for the Kingdom to come on earth as in heaven and later Jesus is seen not just as the saviour of humans but the one in whom all creation holds together.

So, this makes the environment a faith issue.

It seems to me that we have neglected this agenda because we have slipped into a very human centred view of the world and a very narrow view of salvation and a Saviour. It is God’s will to restore all that is made and Jesus is the peacemaker, judge and the one in whom all is held together.

This same Jesus took food, the things of life, and blessed them and they were shared with much to spare – in the feeding of the 5,000. This is a story of the wonderful presence and promise of Christ to be with us, take the things of life and offers new ways of sharing that bring abundance. This was a risky moment or uncertain but miraculous outcome. We should not shun such acts in our present age.

I believe that a Christian response to the environment is first and foremost not born of despair, resignation or complacency but of responsibility and promise.

Now before I go back to the daily routines of life, I pause to think about Hertgaard’s take on our apathy. There are many reasons that prevent us from concern – we may simply not care, we may think it will see us out and so what, we may be ignorant of the facts or denying the information.

A Christian view gently and persistently moves us from this stupor to consider an uncertain and yet more hopeful way. Born of the gift and promise of God, to challenge thinking that ignores our environment and to search for what next.

In some small way in 2017, with the help of informed and committed people among us we are aim to open the issues and suggest practical steps for action.

Graham Brownlee,

The 7 ages of being human and being a church

In Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” one character Jaques makes a speech describes ‘the seven ages of man’.

These are:

Infancy – being a helpless baby, feeling and feeding, dependent.
Childhood – all about playing, talking, learning and becoming independent.
Teenage – finding identity, forming views, experiencing disconcerting change, testing boundaries, being impatient
Young adult – passionate, powerful, forming depth and direction in work, love and independent home. Finding possibility in fearless ways.
Middle-age – enjoying experience and status, having a defined place in the world. Having well-formed views, expecting to be listened to, enjoying maximum resources, but still holding significant commitments.
Old age – senior in years, with great memory but less energy and drive to achieve even though this is still desired. Having less influence and being more dependent.
Dotage and death – dependence becomes the main thing alongside letting go or the senses and experience of life.

These are brief descriptions of the stages of life that just give you a flavour, or are experiences and expectations through living.
You can find the full speech here.

It strikes me that in a family, or community, we will include people at all these seven stages of life. Extended families and neighbourhoods are at their best when every stage of life is appreciated, and cared for. Back in 2011, we had a teaching series on what is means to find and follow Jesus Christ at different stages of life.

If every stage of life is natural and to be embraced it seems foolish to favour one stage of life over and other and not misunderstand people at one stage so as not allowing them to be themselves.

In society, we may be obsessed with teenagers and young adults in some arts and the media. In politics, we may neglect that same group because they lack a vote. We may also be inclined to pretend that we are at a stage of life which we haven’t yet reached or have passed long ago. It is time for some to stop wearing those tight jeans! It goes without saying that we fear and so hide the final stage of dotage / death.

It seems to me that now is the time to let people be the ages they are and to nurture them at that age. I believe that it is time to appreciate and speak well of each age and not favour one stage of life over another.

Applying this in another sphere, I think that we have individual churches at these seven stages of life. I would go further and say that it is good and natural to have churches at every age. We need child, teenage and young adult churches – but we should not obsess about such youthful churches to imply that they have everything. We need middle aged and older churches which offer so much but should not be taken for granted but nor hold onto all the strings of power and resource. We need to honour dotage churches as they let go.

I celebrate all growth and commitment to church planting and pioneer expressions of church. They are part of our tapestry and vibrancy of Christian community. But in championing them let us value the established and traditional. I hope that we can speak better and in a more informed way of the different ages of church, so that all belong and are celebrated. There is also much to be done understanding what each age of church needs and doesn’t need. For instance, let teenage and young adult churches explore and form identity but don’t burden them with too much institutional responsibility. Don’t take middle aged or older church for granted and assume they have nothing to offer – otherwise they will misuse their influence and try to hold it too tightly. Beware of the twin mistakes of neglecting or offering limitless resource to dotage church.

I have a sneaking feeling that we could understand more fully the ages of human life and church. I have a growing conviction that we need to speak better of one another at our different ages of life (human and church). I am sure that Christ holds and cares of every stage of life, even as the young shall have vision, and the old dream!

At the end of this, I realise that I have betrayed my stage of life. Who else would write 750 words and expect others to stop, read and take notice. Yes at 55 I am enjoying middle age with gusto.

Graham Brownlee, February 2017

Leadership – a Baptist way

I was thinking about leadership in two contexts:

I was meeting with other Baptists who were wondering if Baptist Churches have a clear and positive view of leadership, and whether the lack of a view is a reason why Baptist churches so often fail to follow through on growth and strategy?

Secondly, like many others I was reflecting upon the 2016 we have had; the widespread cynicism about institutions and their established leadership is one factor in the political shift which is sweeping the West.

I was musing whether if the first question can be answered it might offer something to help address the second point.

A Baptist View of Leadership

Authoritarian and hierarchical leadership is contrary to Baptist ethos. So, we cannot simply issue orders from the top. However, if we fail to offer another view we deny our history and experience as Baptists who have been served by leaders.

There is a familiar model of leadership which deploys character and charisma to develop and exercise a significant role. Baptist Churches and denominational structures have, and in many ways, continue to benefit from this way of leading. At times that can tip over in nepotism and over-reverence of the leader. In my experience, I have also observed that this form of leadership is very weak when it comes to succession. It often creates a vacuum in which weak and underdeveloped leadership follows an extended period of established leadership. We see this at play in many local churches and in our national denominational structures in recent years. (You can also see this playing out in businesses, football clubs and schools).

Now, I strongly support leadership of character and charisma and would not argue against affirming and supporting such leaders. I believe the weakness is that leaders become divorced from the communities they lead, and they lack a model which shows how strong and creative leaders can function with their communities in a Baptist way.

Here is one such model – a Baptist leader creates space in which the community can flourish. Such a leader offers the scope for people to practise and grow in their faith. The leader is the curator of the space in which we all explore understanding, express what we believe, and reach to those outside our space.

This leadership role is in an integral relationship with the people of the community. People will flourish when they are informed, challenged, cared for and listened to. Also, when they are nurtured, equipped, stretched and restored. A leader who creates space is not the only one who initiates input but is the one who takes responsibility to ensure the health of the space and the vitality of all the care, action, learning and growing that takes place in the space.

I have chosen the motif of the leader curating this space – by that I mean that such a leader will enable voices and creativity from amongst the community and from other contexts to be expressed.

The question for a leader then is not just how competent are you, or what gifts do you have? (Though these are invaluable questions) – but how healthy is the space given for the community in your care? Who is involved?

Now there are a couple of observations about this space which are helpful in defining the emphasis of the leader. I have talked about space. This is not a static space like a house, or a room. Rather it is a dynamic space a bit like a town square – always moving and developing. (I think of Millennium Square in my city of Leeds and the multiple forms and functions it takes in a year – from Christmas market to skating rink; from a viewing space for sporting events to an intimate location for rendezvous.)

Such a space has boundaries which are clear but always open. Such a space works well when it is safe and shared, but fails when it is inaccessible and fearful.

It is the responsibility of a Baptist leader to nurture boundaries of the community space. Without leadership, the boundaries of a Baptist church become too hardened and the church ossifies, or on the other extreme the boundaries disappear and the community loses any distinct identity. This takes wisdom and credibility on behalf of the leader – at times to remove barriers and at other times to retain boundaries, at times to curtail needless controversy and in other moments to open new debate.

It is the responsibility of the leader to encourage exciting and vibrant practices which always keep the community living, on the move and connected with the world around it. In this sense the community space will feel balanced, rooted in its past whilst embracing the present and future.

In looking after boundaries, leaders may foster some debates and discourage others, in encouraging practice the leader will encourage experimentation alongside the practice of old familiar ways. (Just like you see in a city square – annual remembrance alongside new celebrations.)

The question for a Baptist leader is how is the community enjoying clear but open boundaries, how is the community honouring the inherited way whilst embracing the new. How well do people interact? How is the relationship between the familiar and the new? Where you are heading?

So here is a model – a Baptist leader is a space creator, boundary nurturer and participation encourager. A model that is theologically literate, giving a clear role for the leader and thoroughly enmeshed in community.

I believe that this is a very strong and high role for a leader – a role that doesn’t dictate but shapes in crucial ways. We desperately need such leaders. Without these leaders, we will stagnate. This way of leadership demands real character and charisma. The thing is in this model that the leader is continually connected and in interrelationship with the community. In this way, it acknowledges that as Baptists we are gathered as believers in community.

This model of leadership has a strong role within the community but is also connected with the outside.

I think that the familiar motifs of deacons and elders relate well to this model. I believe that Baptists need such leadership. We should confidently encourage this leadership among us. This is not a leader who lacks a mandate and scope to lead – but one who has an exciting and challenging role. Our shared role is to trust and collaborate alongside our leaders so that together we may have direction and grow.

These are the questions I keep in mind as I serve as a minister of Moortown Baptist Church – for I am neither here to maintain an institution, nor fly solo.

This is a way to reflect on leadership in a local Baptist church. It is also a model to offer to those in training and formation as Baptist leaders. It is also a measure of healthy leadership that could be applied by those who lead our Baptist institutions.

Now here is the stretch to the second question – what has this to offer to the crisis of institutions and the politics of wider society? Well, I suggest that institutions and their leaders and gatekeepers have lost credibility in Western societies. At present, there is also such uncertainty about where those who lead in the West are taking us. So, a way of leading that creates space, nurtures boundaries and encourages participation, may be a Baptist contribution for more than just the church.

Graham Brownlee, January 2017

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