An Update: Where Have I Been?

So, it’s been a while. Are we all well? I haven’t posted anything here for a period of time which begins to look somewhat negligent. What have I been up to? Here’s a short update:

I appeared on Friday Night Theology at the end of September with a post about Football and Treasure. Read it here.

I’ve been writing a few music reviews for Drowned in Sound. You can see what I’ve been up to there by clicking on this sentence.

The blog post I put here a few months ago about the wedding of my friends Matt and Ruth has been on something of a journey. It was presented at a conference at The Vatican called Living Fully, and is now to appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Disability & Religion, which is great. This journal is the arena in which most of the most current discussion of theology and disability takes place. I’m pretty honoured to be featured in such a publication.

There are exciting developments in the conversation in the Church of England regarding leadership and people with impairments and disabilities, particularly after a recent breakthrough at General Synod, brought about at least in part by some sterling work and impressive speeches from several colleagues in ministry. It feels like a time for change is coming. It’s a real joy to be part of the Disability Task Group, led by Roy McCloughry and featuring some of the finest people in this field (and me). A lot of things happen behind the scenes, in the quiet, out of the public eye, but things are happening. It’s exciting.

I’ve been away from my regular role as Curate at Emmanuel Church for the last month or so. Instead, I’ve been privileged to have a placement with the Chaplaincy Team at St Andrews Healthcare. I could write so much about being there. Suffice to say that I have a newfound and developing passion for the place of what is commonly called Sector Ministry. I’m so thankful to the team there for welcoming me so warmly, and for my colleagues at Emmanuel for releasing me for this time.

I’ve also written a few songs. Sorry for the breakdown in my A Song A Month plan. The tracks will appear soon. Earnest discussions are taking place about what to do with them all…

So, that’s your update for now. I don’t think I’ve missed anything, but perhaps I have. More soon!


Talk Text: Northampton Civic Service 2016

Yesterday I had the great privilege of leading and preaching at the service to mark the beginning of the Mayoralty of Cllr Chris Malpas at All Saints, Northampton. I’m his chaplain for the year. I’m already finding the role fascinating and stretching. I thought I’d post the notes my talk was based on here, in case they are of interest. The readings were Micah 4:1-4 and Matthew 5:1-12

I wonder, do you still like to learn? We’re told aren’t we that it’s good, important, crucial even, to learn, continually. We live in an age of lifelong learning. Continuing Professional Development, or in my case, Curate Training and Continuing Ministerial Development, is all the rage. If you’re fortunate enough to have reached the stage where you’ve retired from work, you can fill your time with new experiences and knowledge in the University of the Third Age. The opportunities for learning are endless. Knowledge is power, we’re told, and who wants to be powerless in this day and age (or any day or age for that matter?). Knowing things, knowing that we’re right, and, all too often, ensuring that others know that we are right, have become key touchstones of our age. We’re not good at being wrong either. On Monday I prayed for the first time at a Borough Council meeting. From the wrong place. The Mayor was very gracious and said it didn’t matter, but I didn’t like feeling that I’d got it wrong and turned what should have been a sombre moment into a game of Where’s Wally or Where’s Chaplain? I’ve learnt for next time now!

Our first reading this morning from the prophet Micah talks of a time when people will go to the house of God and he will teach them his ways. His ways of peace, of disarmament, of a new way of life for all. Now, as rose-tinted as my spectacles may be, I know that not everybody who has come here this morning will set much stall by what the ways of God may be. However, I would hope that there are none amongst us this morning who would not seek for peace in our families and our communities, locally, nationally and internationally. The words in this reading, well known as they may be, about turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, are challenges for us as people who lead. What are the swords and spears, literal and figurative of our day? How can we lead in such a way that we set an example of a new way of living, one of justice, peace and joy, for all? It is not weak to act justly, to love mercy and to walk with humility, whether you believe you do so with God or not. To lead as a servant is one of the strongest acts a person can perform.

One of my favourite things about Jesus and his leadership is that he, like me, wasn’t fashionable. I mean, just look at me. But still, moving on, listen again to some of the key lines from the reading Mayor Malpas gave to us just now. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. You might think that’s all well and good, that leaves the earth for those of us who aren’t weak, fragile or vulnerable. But no, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, we’re told. Later, we’re told that the merciful shall obtain mercy, and that peacemakers will be called children of God.

It’s not the most strident or tubthumping of manifestos is it. Not the sort of thing to get those popularity ratings sky-rocketing. It’s all too easy for people who pursue peace and justice for those they lead and serve as weak, to be taken advantage of. After all, this happened to Jesus. He was unfairly killed, so that the authorities could silence someone they considered an irritating, potentially dangerous political revolutionary. Except, of course, that it was in dying, giving up all of himself, that he gave each and every one of us the opportunity to have a relationship with God. It is only in this relationship that our lives can find their ultimate fulfilment, only in this relationship that we can be the people that we were always meant to be. God invites you this morning, whether for the first time, or again, to accept his gift of life in all its fullness, today. Walking with God, the leader of all, every moment of every day is an opportunity to learn again the privilege it is to live the lives that we do and to follow his example in pouring ourselves out for the good and benefit of all.

Leadership, of whatever sort, is always a sacrifice. It is costly. Those of you who hold office in the Borough, the County, or in any other civic role, will know that you give up a great deal to be who you are, in the roles you have. Thank you for the service you have given, and for that which you will give in the coming year. I pray for you that will learn the ways of God this year and that peace, justice and joy may be the hallmarks of our town.



Disability and Leadership – Some Tentative Thoughts

At the recent Enabling Church Conference, I was asked if I had any thoughts or recommendations regarding the issue of disability and leadership. From my understanding the question was posed both in terms of being about how best to encourage disabled people to best participate to the fullness of their potential in Church leadership as they are called and equipped, and also regarding how a leader who might be considered “abled” might go about leading those who are disabled within their faith community.

I don’t have a straightforward easy answer, and I haven’t seen much in the literature on disability and Church/theology regarding this issue.  It is approached in Tony Phelps-Jones’s excellent book, “Making Church Accessible to All” ( a good starting point of thinking about varius aspects of working with and for disabled people in Church life), in which he and others strongly contend for an honest seeking of true, every-member, ministry. This is ministry where the gifts and callings of each person (for of course, first every person must be seen as exactly that, a person, beloved and cherished of God and whom we too are called to love) are encouraged to flourish. It might seem that the ministry of people who are weaker, or less able can only be managed, or facilitated by those who are more able, but in fact this would raise a key question for me: on whose terms is ministry in Church, and participation in Church life, being undertaken? If it is on our terms then the first issue that we have to address, I would suggest, is whether thsoe terms themselves need to change, whether our vision of what it is to be a part of the body of Christ, a leader in it to whatever extent, is too small.

If you want to encourage every-member ministry, I think it should be feasible to make it happen, on the provisio that:

  • You have good relationships with those who you are leading and they are keen to be led by you, or by your team
  • Out of those good relationships, you are able to discern, with each other and with God, what that person is called to be and to do. This might require some humility all round. It might require the leader or leadership team to let go of an aspect of community life, so that someone else is able to flourish. As James Lawrence suggests in “Growing Leaders”, we are all leaders, because we lead our own lives, if nothing else, and most of us actually lead more than jsut our own lives if we stop and think. It semes to be human nature to make things hierarchical and to submit to authority. Even people who say they don’t submit are instinctively aware of where power and influence lie and react against it.
  • The last key aspect of  this part of things, I would contend, is to have a wide enough vision of what a person offers. Many people who don’t have the ability to communicate, or have the potential for self-awareness, or self-determination are able to lead people into the very throne room of God, simply through even a smile or a joyful glance. If only we’d let them. As we live in, to coin John Swinton’s phrase, “a hyper-cognitive age” so I think we run the risk of rendring the whole concept of Christian community and life together a pipedream by living as if only certain people, or types of people, are capable of offering us anything which speaks of God. In practice, this might prove difficult, as we are built to expect Church and Church life to look, sound and feel a particular way. But what if God, in forcing us to embrace the diversity of the hear and now, the joys, sorrows, hopes and dreams, suffering and everything else that we see before us, is actually challenging us as a body of Christ not just to be more inclusive and participatorily open, but to have our visions of who He is blown wide open.

If we are committed to every-member ministry, the flourishing of the ministry of disabled people will follow. Each person seen, as they are through the eyes of God, can be encouraged in the direction which best suits them, and the needs of the people. God did it with Moses, with Nicodemus, with Mephibosheth and others throughout Scripture and Church history. He can do it with us and the people that he has called us to lead. I say again, I don’t actually think it is an issue of , necessarily, building a programme, or a plan for the “integration” of disabled people into leadership, or such as this, as much as it is about being willing for God to challenge our views of what Church is, who He is, and what the purposes of our communities of faith are.

I realise this isn’t very practical. If you’re looking for practical stuff, here’re a few quick thoughts.

Most practical considerations can be overcome with some willingness, careful consideration and forward planning. Think ahead and communicate well.

Seeing a “weak” person involved in public leadership is a powerful signal for a community, particularly those who don’t consider themselves disabled. If a Church never receives ministry from a person who they know to be impaired this may well have subconscious effects that we would not seek, such as Christians growing in to the belief that only the strong can lead. Again we only need to look at Moses to see that people who had profound difficulties as far as the world was concerned were able to accomplish much when submitted to The Lord. Churches need to be given the opportunity to grow in their awareness of the vitality of the breadth of creation, and, perhaps controversially, to prepare for the time when they themselves might struggle and suffer. Seeing the presence and blessing of God in those who are disabled could be argued to be an important step in the growth of Christian maturity. We as a Church, exist to glorify God in the world and to prepare for the return of Christ, the Disabled God, to complete the glorious task set before Him by the Father, as the Kingdom is finally and ultimately victorious. In order to get to this point, Jesus made Himself ultimately weak for us. Even if He knew exactly what He was doing and was going to win all along in the resurrection and ascension, the weakness was real, and is something of the patten of how we are to live as His followers. Not necessarily to the ultimate extent of death or martyrdom, but we are to be ready to lose face, wealth, honour or whatever, to consider all of this and more foolishness in the face of the grace of Christ. We are to know Jesus, and in whatever way, to know the fellowship of His sufferings. Too many of us aren’t willing to do this. We want a nice, polished, comfortable, financially viable faith. Hardly anyone in the New Testament got this, so it seems odd that we should expect it, and live like that is our aim.

So how can we see more disabled people in Church leadership? I have no idea. But God calls and He equips. It’s for us to hear and put His call into action, not place barriers in the way of what He is already doing. Affirm the disabled people you already know as beloved, cherished, welcome, crucial to the life of your Churches. Let them minister to you simply by their presence. If they are to take on more formal roles of leadership, or to be trained for “professional” ministry, remove all the physical and attitudinal barriers you can, and encourage every step of the way. A Church in which disabled people are either not present or in which they are only ministered to, is impoverished. Play a part in bringing about the nourishing and flourishing of the Church. It’s what we’re all called to do.

Throughout society, we are seeing that, if a disabled person has the aptitude, the determination and the supportive environment necessary, there is absolutely no reason why anything which is sought cannot be achieved. How much more should this be the case in the Church, called as it is to proclaim the coming of The Lord? I have said time and time again that the Church has the imperative to be a primary actor in the cause of social change in this country, showing the way in welcome and full participation for all. Our vision of victory cannot and must not reach only as far as middle class suburban comfort and being “real” men and women of strength and success. Jesus inaugurated a new way of life, one whose economy requires that the first end up last and the last first. Let’s build Churches which live out this principle, where we don’t seek strength and flee from anything which looks weak, different or scares us, but instead rejoices in the gifts and offerings of all, whatever they are.

These are extremely embryonic thoughts. I don’t even really think I’ve answered the question I was posed. I’m still thinking about it! Please do come back to me for more, for clarification, or just to start a conversation!