OK, let’s get the trivia over with first.
- The journey on the Piccadilly Line was horrendous both ways. Managed to get the first tube home but had to stand crushed in a corner the whole way. Far worse than when I used to commute to work many years ago.
- Eats and drinks were better at St Paul’s Hammersmith than Holy Trinity Brompton – brewed coffee, smoked salmon bagels and McCoys crisps beat instant coffee, Alpha International sandwiches and plain Walkers crisps.
- Same hard chairs though – do Anglican churches get them in a job lot?
- Curiously our opening and closing hymns today were identical to yesterday i.e. “How great thou art” and “Be thou my vision”. I presume this is because ‘Praise and Worship’ musicians feel obliged to chuck in a traditional hymn and there are few other hymns in the ‘Praise and Worship’ repertoire.
Now the serious stuff. Today’s conference was in three parts. First up was keynote speaker John Inge, Bishop of Worcester, whose address “A Christian theology of place” was based on his book of the same name. At a time when some Christian writers (particularly within the “Missional Church” school) are questioning whether place has been replaced by networks, Bishop Inge reasserts the importance of place, favourably quoting Foucault: “the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space”. In the Hebrew scriptures we find a three way relationship of God-people-place and it is important to hold all three in balance; if place is taken in isolation it takes on an idolatrous character. Place is related to a particular story – the story of people (Brueggemann uses the phrase “storied space” and gives the example of a house becoming a home). This sense of place is carried into the New Testament and given an eschatalogical dimension and direction. (Jesus: “I am going to prepare a place for you” John 14:2.)
How do we take God and people and place seriously today? Inge suggests it is primarily through listening – to God and to people’s stories. The Christian vision also needs to be rooted – and the bishop suggests it is through basic practices such as baptism, worship (especially the Eucharist), the reading of scripture and prayer.
An interesting question was raised by one of the audience as to whether the theme of journey is just as important as place and how this relates to place, which can seem in comparison a static concept. Bishop Inge suggested that we need to reappropriate the old concept of pilgrimage, which holds place and journey together.
An interesting presentation and I will have to get the book.
After a coffee break we had the fourth panel on the subject “Christian social and political engagement in multi-faith contexts”. To my mind this was by far the most interesting and helpful of the panels, which particularly focused on the experience of London Citizens (now expanding as a nationwide network Citizens UK) and its ‘broad based coalition’ approach to Community Organising. It was also a very honest session as practitioners reflected on the very real tensions involved for Christians engaging in a multifaith context.
The third and final session of the day was a roundtable and plenary discussion of Luke Bretherton’s book “Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness”. Luke Bretherton is an engaging Anglican scholar based at Kings College London and is obviously possessed of a Very Large Brain. A number of scholars responsed very favourably to the book, which has been hailed as a significant work that resists the distinction between church and world posited by theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and restates the possibility of Christian engagement with the world. In doing so Bretherton draws on his own experience of involvement in Community Organising.
Arriving in the middle of all this was Jim Wallis, who is presently on a speaking tour of the UK. I thought he looked tired, but we were treated to 20 minutes or so of vintage Wallis in a stream-of-consciousness talk which drew on anecdotes from his years of involvement in civil rights and community organising. It was an interesting and necessary contrast to the more academic presentations of the afternoon and a vital reminder that Urban Theology, as a Contextual Theology, must be firmly rooted in practice.