You never know when a story’s over … especially when you’re in it … perhaps most especially when you’re trying to tell it …

Nearly every week, a church story seems to scream out from the front page of the News Letter or the Belfast Telegraph. Religious views are being discussed in the public square. It’s not all wholesome. And it’s not all presented with a great deal of context. But it’s a trend, and circulation figures will prove to the editors whether the stories are selling papers.

All Souls Brian McLaren Gareth Higgins from aboveGareth Higgins and Brian McLaren are over in Northern Ireland from the US to lead a week-long spirituality and peace-building retreat in Northern Ireland. On Sunday night, before the retreat started, the pair spoke in All Souls Church on Elmwood Avenue. The recordings of their talks are echoey – due to my poor placement of the recorder! – but are audible if you concentrate.

The evening was organised by the Progressive Christianity NI group who explained the purpose of the event:

For centuries, Christianity has presented itself as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences – from colonialism to environmental destruction, from subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBT people. What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith – not as a system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in action, that makes amends for its mistakes, and is dedicated to beloved community for all?

Belfast-born social scientist, writer, film buff, festival curator  and dreamer Gareth Higgins began the evening by telling a story about an experience in Paris near the Eiffel Tower 18 years ago. Later he reflected:

We’re a community bound by the idea that there was a teacher two thousand years ago that had something profound to say that transcends everything else. We’re a community, many of us who have been wounded by our attempts to follow that teacher within the structures that we got born into, or that we got saved into, or that we got landed into, or that we founded and we tried to lead. We’re telling the story …

One of the lessons he said he had learnt from that night in Paris in the late 1990s was:

You never know when a story’s over … especially when you’re in it … perhaps most especially when you’re trying to tell it …

You don’t have to control the story. The story can change and things that you once held dear float away and things you thought you’d never believe can become the most obvious manifestation of love.

He added:

While church institutions and individuals have done much harm over the years, many damaged people still feel a connection to Christianity and their story is not yet at an end.

Some of Brian McLaren’s books have been weighing down my bedside table for a long time: some completed, some still in a half-finished state. For some his book A New Kind of Christian was liberating, filled with keen insights that threw off the fatigue of evangelical busyness and dogmatism.

The US author shared three conversions that are already happening in Christian communities around the world, sometimes just beginning, sometimes well under way.

  1. Christianity converting from a system of belief to a way of life.
  2. Conversion in our understanding of God.
  3. Conversation from institutions to movements (that will continually challenge and transform institutions).

Coming back to the lectern, Gareth Higgins outlined four pillars of authentic religious practice that he wants to participate in:

  • to lament our sorrows and celebrate our joys, and to do that in community;
  • to educate for the realities of the world – not overstating how bad things are – in its hopes as well as its challenges;
  • to make communities gather in a way that marks the important moments of our lives: our births, our marriages, our divorces, our deaths;
  • to inspire change in the world.

The great thing is that these traditions already exist.

Gareth explained that he feels called to …

  1. participate in rituals that create a sense of the sacred and support human struggle and celebrate achievement. He explained how this could apply to dealing with the past;
  2. celebrate community and bind wounds and celebrate joy together;
  3. religion which is not politics and is not the media but has a public role is called to – what scripture names as – prophetic witness.

He finished by commenting on two contemporary issues. Firstly:

The impact of welfare reform is a Gospel issue and the people suffering from it need to be heard, just as much or even more so than the public leaders.

And secondly:

The LGBT community doesn’t just need to be supported, affirmed and sometimes defended by the majority community. We who are members of the LGBT community may actually have gifts to share with everyone. Gifts about courage, about friendship, about becoming comfortable with complexity and paradox.

During the Q&A afterwards, Brian and Gareth were asked about how to deal with theological disagreements in churches. Brian responded with a model of stating that you disagree (“Wow, I don’t agree with that!”) but not immediately jumping in with your alternative opinion, deferring any explanation until the other party comes back to discuss with, starting a genuine deliberative conversation rather than an instant heated debate.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly – its decision making body – voted at the close of its June 2015 annual meeting not to send the Moderator over to Edinburgh to the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly next year. While the number of delegates – ministers and elders – present for the debate and vote was small in comparison with sessions earlier in the day, a majority of those left in the hall took umbrage with the Church of Scotland’s recent acceptance of the ordination of ministers in same sex civil partnerships.

It was as if some at PCI had never heard of Relate and had no clue about relationship counselling, perhaps forgetting that communication is at the heart of relationship. Snubbing the Church of Scotland and staying away is akin to dropping eye contact and deciding not to bother putting any effort into a personal relationship that in this case has lasted more than any one person’s lifetime. If only there had been a decision to explore the tension between the Irish and Scottish reformers over coffee in Edinburgh rather than in a vacuum.

While both Gareth and Brian have their detractors – and one was standing outside on the pavement wearing a sandwich board on Sunday evening – in a season in which conservative views and methods seem to dominate the public narrative about Christianity in Ireland, Gareth and Brian offer a much more generous and grace-filled approach to exploring difficult issues and dealing with the tensions that need to be addressed.

The Christian church’s influence in the public square will be fundamentally affected by the tone of voice it adopts, its ability to relate to society, and how it is seen to deal with difference.

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