More of a party…less of a nightclub

This weekend has been full of parties. I love parties and find any excuse to hold them. In the last year I have had a 20th wedding anniversary party, a New Year party,  two birthday parties and numerous informal parties just because it’s the weekend.

So this weekend I thought I was going to 2.5 parties – about the right number. A 40th, a 50th and a school reunion (.5 because there were only 7 of us and I knew everyone there.) It turned out by the end of the weekend that I realised I had been to 4 parties – a 40th, a 50th, a school reunion and a Eucharist.

Dragging myself out of bed on Sunday morning I realised that the reasons I wanted to go to church were very similar to the reasons I wanted to go to parties.

  • I liked the host and wanted to spend time with them
  • There was something to celebrate
  • There were people I wanted to see
  • There was a chance of conversations that would enrich my understanding of the world
  • There was a meal involved

I had never before thought of church as a party. We don’t do bands and dancing at our church, people rarely dress up and the gathering is carefully ordered. I once went to a church that ostensibly felt and looked far more like a party and  the first chorus we sang included the line ‘We are all dancing on God’s dance floor.’ This somehow grated with me although I could not get the metaphor out of my head. But I think now that the reason it grated was it suggested Church is a nightclub rather than a party.

Nightclubs are not like church should be because:

  • You often have to pay to go in
  • You only really talk to the people you went with
  • There is no real shared focus to the gathering
  • You are not really celebrating anything (unless you are having a party in a nightclub)

While there are great things about the dance scene, fundamentally by going to a nightclub you are consuming an experience. Hopefully at a party you are creating something together and enacting something about generosity, community and trust.

One of the best parties I went to recently featured a band playing a set in someone’s front room. That evening, hosted by a fantastic couple of people, enacted so much generosity, community and trust that it somehow changed those of us that went – a little bit like they way you can be changed by church.

This couple opened their home to anyone who wanted to see the band – they left their door wide open in an area of Birmingham that is often associated with poverty and deprivation. They gave any money raised to a local charity and they baked fantasic cakes for those at the gig. They trusted the weather enough to move all their sitting room furniture into the garden and then provided those of us outside, watching through the window, with warm blankets. They welcome each person as if they were old friends and provided an environment where friendships were naturally created and deepened. It wasn’t God’s dance-floor but it was most certainly God’s party.

Jesus promised to show up when two or three gathered in his name. At the best gatherings God seems very present – wherever they happen and whoever is at them. My guess is that God likes a good party, especially those that enact generosity, community and trust and make spaces for friendships to flourish.

For Such A Time as This…

This phrase is taken from a crucial moment in the story of Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures when she is persuaded that she must use her royal position to speak out for justice and the end of threat – even though it may cost her everything.

It is also the title of a report presented to General Synod in 2001 presenting the case for a renewed diaconate, for people who want to be permanent deacons to be supported, trained and encouraged throughout the Church of England. It even has an outline job description. Sadly the report was not accepted by synod – but 14 years later we find ourselves still in a time described in the report as a kairos moment. Just like Esther’s time, this time of ours is, as the report says: “…a significant, pregnant moment, a decisive moment in God’s time.”

This morning we all woke up to a significant shift in our political landscape. The party of traditional  liberalism has all but disappeared, the party of fear-mongering had polled 13% of the vote. We know that, in cities like Birmingham, we face five years of cuts, the poorest and most vulnerable people will feel the squeeze of austerity measures the most keenly and the rhetoric around immigration is unlikely to change.

In the middle of this political maelstrom, I am plodding on with my dissertation about the diaconate and I am at the interesting moment where questionnaires I sent out over the last few weeks are coming back in. Many have been filled in by deacons, one from as far afield as Sweden, some Catholics, some Anglican and some Methodist. All doing amazing jobs in many different places.

One of these deacons sent me his homily this week – it was about another kairos moment. The homily outlines the origins of the renewed diaconate in the Catholic church. Drawing on the work of Bill Ditewig, it explains how Nazism was the driver for the church to take deacons seriously again.

He says that imprisoned Catholic clergy in Dachau realised that the Church had failed to warn the people of the danger of Nazism as it began to influence the German people. The Church had become too remote and inward looking to make the connections necessary to avert the crisis. And so, at the Second Vatican Council, the German Bishops, backed by the French Bishops, called for the re-instatement of the order of deacons who would be out and about in the world, connecting with the cares and concerns of family life and wider society.

Fifty years later, For Such A Time As This argued that: “…the diaconate has been particularly important in the Church’s mission at times of acute political and social change and upheaval.

“The special role of deacons is to make connections and build bridges between the distinctive life, the koinonia, of the Body of Christ and the needs of the world.”

The Church of England is making massive attempts to be active in the public square, to engage with civic and public life and to speak out against injustice. But working on the macro level is not enough to change a culture or turn fear into trust, misunderstanding into friendship.

My research has reminded me of the massive potential for a renewed diaconate – the potential of people trained, equipped and supported to build bridges and make connections and most importantly to encourage others to do the same.

Creating trust, enabling compassion, challenging injustice, loving enemies and strengthening communities is unglamorous, painstaking work that requires patience, time, energy and commitment. It is the work of deacons and it is the work of all of us who seek to live like Jesus Christ. It is the work for such a time as this.