Musings of the Jazzgoat Blog

“Encouraging Gamaliel” Building a more expansive vision for Fresh Expressions of Church in ACSA
January 6, 2017, 7:06 am
Filed under: Fresh Expressions | Tags: , ,

I’m in the fortunate position to have been given a month away from the demands of Parish ministry to be here in McGregor in the Western Cape and write some provisional parts of my PhD. I have a very rough draft of chapter 1 and 2 and it’s my intention to write a first draft of chapter 3 which is essentially my literature review on Fresh Expressions of Church and something of how Fresh Expressions has come to be in South Africa and the way it has grown and developed. Generally Fresh Expressions in South Africa has been dominated by low church evangelicals, has been taken up with great enthusiasm by the DRC and the Presbyterians but been only mildly embrace by Anglicans. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly the majority of Anglicans in our province are Anglo Catholic sacramentally and ecclesially. I will always remember Bishop Rubin’s response to my description of St Martins (low church evangelical and charismatic) as not being very Anglican. “Yes”, he said, “you barely have any ecclesiology.” Or his comment that Fresh Expressions sounded like a bakery product! I would have a much sharper response today but on those particular occasions I was lost for words. That was probably fortuitous. The last thing that Fresh Expressions of church needs is an apologetic which might be cagily defensive but as a movement it does need advocates who can gently persuade whilst listening to genuine fears and concerns.

Too often the language and examples of Fresh Expressions of church really do not resonate with many Bishops, Priests and Deacons from an Anglo Catholic persuasion (although they may be more appealing to lay people). Many of the examples of Fresh Expressions that are shared at MSM courses and vision days look too informal, too evangelical and frankly too white and middle class – a grouping of malcontents and disenfranchised moaners. Very especially in our context these things lead to calcification of any initial interest because we have neglected to use more appropriate examples of contemplative, sacramental and liturgically shaped FXoC.

The language we use is important. If we are going to build bridges and help people see that Fresh Expressions of Church are just one of the tools in the missio Dei rather than the latest Alpha then we will need to step back and examine the way we speak and stop being so evangelical for a moment. There is rich and important stream of Anglo Catholic missiology that if we can tap into and re-appropriate and re-imagine we may have better opportunities of helping our brothers and sisters from other theological traditions to see Fresh Expressions as less of a neo-colonial threat and more as an opening up and way of seeing their tradition in a new light.

Generally we might say that the Anglican church in South Africa in its best incarnation is Anglo Catholic, prophetic and contextual. I can work with all of those areas and I think help others onto a journey of seeing the value in retrieving the best in the tradition. Many of our Anglo Catholic brothers and sisters are not blind to the changes in culture or the decline of attendance in their Sunday morning congregations or the hemorrhaging of young people from the pews.

In this blog I’m drawing on a number of articles by Croft (2009), Cotterell (2009) and Tilby (2008) who all advocate for a richer catholic approach to mission shaped ministry. There are others too. Hull’s (2006) little theological response is helpful.

The history of the Anglican church in South Africa doesn’t need to be rehearsed again in any detail here other than to remind us that in 1821 USPG came to the Cape whilst CMS ventured into Zululand. That evangelical inheritance remains to a large extent in Zululand with little outposts of evangelicalism flying their flags across parts of the country. Of course the Oxford movement sought to redefine its relationship with Roman calling for an understanding that the Anglican church was a ‘branch’ of the Roman church. It was also an important attempt to disentangle the Anglican church’s compromised relationship with the state (the conservative party at prayer) and to reaffirm its independent spiritual authority. Besides the focus of worship being on the Eucharist with Vestments and a whole host of other Roman paraphernalia there was an important incarnational principle at work in its missiology.

Mattis (2016) reminds us that, “the immediate practical workings-out of the theology and liturgy of the [Oxford] movement beyond the dreaming spires happened in the slums. High-church liturgy and a commitment to serve the (often Roman Catholic) poor went inextricably together: this at a time when anti-Catholic prejudice in the establishment was dying but by no means dead in England. This was not a vague aspiration toward “justice” broadly defined or vaguely synonymous with a progressive political agenda, but the combating of the very present ills of industrialization: the lack of workers’ rights, outbreaks of cholera, lack of education, alongside the pastoral work of marrying, baptizing, burying the poor, and being present. It is the labor and sacrifice of the slum priests that gave real moral heft to the Oxford Movement and saved it from the insularity of which it has stood accused ever since.”

There are numerous stories of slum priests in the 20th century who sacrificed comfort in order to ‘pitch their tents’ in the most deprived parts of cities across the UK. That continued in the story of Anglicanism of South African in Township churches across the country and continues to happen today. There is no denial of some of the sacrificial incarnational postures of clergy from the Anglo Catholic tradition. Indeed in helping to combat the notion that Fresh Expressions of Church is a kind of evangelical take over Croft (2009:42) affirms 3 areas of Catholic mission that resonate with FXoC.

The first is the holistic nature of mission. The Catholic rendering of mission, or a reading of the missio Dei is ‘God in his very nature is a God of mission who is constantly active in the whole of creation.’ (:42) This is also affirmed by critics of FXoC like Hull. FXoC can often be short sighted or have a diminished vision for God’s work in the world. There have been consistent criticisms that the movement is more church shaped than mission shaped. We need to commend this more rounded and holist vision of the missio Dei from a Catholic perspective without segueing into a toothless universalism. Discernment of the Spirit is vital in assessing just what really is marked as God at work.

Secondly Croft (2009:43), as has been pointed out previously, notes the focus of the incarnation as the pattern and type of Christian mission. “The incarnational pattern, whereby missionaries go first and bless and serve a particular section of society, is emerging as the most authentic and helpful model for the development of FXoC.”

Thirdly Croft (:43) speaks of the “vital and deeply catholic principle of formation of disciples in community.” Evangelicals Croft says often focus on calling out where as the catholic tendency is making of disciples in existing community. This seems a little unclear to me.

Cottrell (2009) uses the phrase “enabling Catholic Christians to think their way into the challenge of becoming a ‘mixed economy’ and see how Fresh Expressions might make sense within the tradition.” He makes a number of suggestions which we should be using in the South African context…helping our Gamaliel be less suspicious. For example he says If you have two services in your church on a Sunday morning (we have a 7.45 and 9.30 which are catering to two quite different congregations with different needs, cultures and expectations) why not 3 or 4? Cottrell (2009:69) suggests that even though a catholic notion might be to draw all people to one table eucharistically pragmatically there is need and justification for other ways of being church. Stretch this a little and it’s not impossible to envision something that draws on rich streams of liturgy but is re-imagined. A great example of a FXoC in the Anglo catholic tradition exists in Moot. I visited the church in 2013 and met Aaron Kennedy then going forward for ordination but there are other excellent examples that draw on monastic and contemplative traditions that actually we evangelicals could do well to muse on in our listening and service to communities.

Cotterell also notes the cynicism that overt evangelism and church planting can foster in Anglo Catholics. Yet all churches have a inception, a birth, a start date. There was a great flurry of church planting in South Africa amongst Anglicans in the mid 19th century. Why are we not planting again. My suspicion is that most clergy and desperately trying to not let the wheels fall of their current Parish setting and therefore cannot fathom how planting is possible. This is in a sense the pastoral/maintenance posture which is the default setting for many Anglican clergy…mission shaped ministry acts as a corrective and enables apostolic giftings to come to the fore.

Perhaps as we see the FXoC movement growing ecumenically across ZAR we can be a bit more imaginative in approaching our Anglo Catholic brothers and sisters?

For some great stories of radical Anglo catholic out the box thinking see this excellent church army report


Decolonisation: Some thoughts
October 24, 2016, 9:27 am
Filed under: decolonisation

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching with interest, bemusement and not a little despair the current decolonisation debate. Calling it a debate is a bit rich as it seems that parties on both ends of the scale cannot hear the other. Which is the problem in South Africa. We just can’t seem to “see” each other or hear another perspective with out jumping to defend ourselves. Yes I have watched the science must fall youtube clip and for whatever one may make of it there is a deeper cry to be heard.

I am well aware that there is a whole body of literature on decolonisation and I’m not drawing on it in this opinion piece. I am however drawing on some of the postcolonial writers I am currently engaging with for part of my chapter two of my PhD. They mostly come from the practical theological sphere for which I make no apology.

I hear the call from the born free generation to decolonise the topography of Higher Education. It’s certainly true that epistemically South African Universities by and large continue to operate in a western framework and that needs to be reappraised and re-imagined but there are some important parameters that need to be set up if decolonisation is going to be a meaningful exercise. I offer three thoughts around the call for decolonisation. They are preliminary and embryonic but I offer them in the spirit of learning and dialoging together. I offer them in the spirit of Proverbs 10:19

Decolonisation is a process
The calls for decolonisation by students is important I don’t deny that. How instantaneous that can really be is anyones guess. The complete dismantling of the Western colonial project is probably impossible. That doesn’t mean that it should not be attempted. But the reality is that an attempt to knock down the colonial edifice of knowledge and untangle its administration simply is not achieved overnight. When I hear phrase like “you’ve got to decolonise your mind” I hear the intentions behind the sentiment but it can sound a bit like a call for re-education. Those of you who have read any accounts of the cultural revolution in China from 1966-1976 or lived in the post genocide landscape of Cambodia in 1975-1979 will know the that the process of re-education for the so called bourgeois became an exercise that eventually destroyed not only valuable cultural artefacts but people in the most barbaric way. I’m NOT drawing a parallel. But I am genuinely asking what decolonisation of the mind will mean? If it means being humbled and open to accepting that there are other ways to generate and curate knowledge then I am all for it. But it is process and needs to be done in the spirit of Ubuntu.

If decolonisation is a process and a subversive strategy to break western and white hegemony then I am genuinely interested in being a participant. As part of my academic work I’ve been reading theologian Sugirtharajah (2003). Although decolonisation and post colonialism are different there is some overlap. I see postcolonialism as a strategy for decolonisation. In speaking of postcolonial strategies he says there should be, ‘an active confrontation with the dominant system of thought, its lopsidedness and its inadequacies, and underlies its unsuitability for us. Hence it is a process of cultural and discursive emancipation from all dominant structures whether they be political, linguistic or ideological.’ (2003:15)

Decolonisation is not a return to a pre-colonial state or era. That doesn’t exist but it is a recovery of identity.
In a recent article by Oliver he offers an important insight. ‘The truth about decolonisation: it is NOT to return to some mythical state that supposedly existed before the arrival of the colonising settlers; it is to reclaim your own independence, to refuse the domination of the colonising power. The question therefore arises: What is the colonising power that one should refuse today?’ (Oliver 2016) This quote for me opens up the complex question of whose colonialism are we resisting and deconstructing? South Africa has suffered from a complex wonky internal colonialism from the Dutch, the British, the Afrikaner. Certainly Biko’s analysis of South Africa some 40 years ago still resonates as being largely true. White power and racism continues to exist in every sphere of life both institutionally and anecdotally. But it’s not simply white power (although this is deeply problematic) that needs to be deconstructed and decolonised. Any form of coercive power needs rejecting and replacing that might well be political power or our current worrying issue around state capture. Is there an colonialist attitude and posture in the governing party the ANC?

At the same time a wish to recover some utopian pre-colonial state is probably impossible. The undoing of history is not possible. Again that doesn’t mean it can’t be critiqued and parts of it rejected. The totalising influence of western epistemic hegemony clearly needs challenging but there is perhaps a third way? Where indigenous and precolonial forms of knowledge exist in tandem or in complimentary ways to western forms of knowledge and other times where those totalising forms western forms of knowledge need to be set aside.

In my own research there is important overlap or convergence around epistemic issues in postcolonialism and practical theology. As I attempt to show in my writing in an authentic practical theology human experiences and practice are a valid source for the construction of knowledge. Theory can arise from the ‘lived’. In postcolonialism there is push toward building alternative constructs of knowledge from the experience of the colonised. As Young (2003:20) reminds us, ‘postcolonialism is a name for these insurgent knowledges that come from the subaltern, the dispossessed, and seek to change the terms and values under which they live.’ My research seeks to uncover the voices that during the apartheid era were marginalised, constricted, brutalised and often annihilated. It is sensitive to those who identify themselves as the colonised and disenfranchised; in short those who live with a subalternality about them.

Decolonisation is a strategy for singing out against hegemony
The decolonisation project is not just a benefit for previously excluded people. Postcolonial readings subvert the dominant narrative and attempt to give ‘voice’ to those subjugated by hegemony. The problem is that in the past colonisers have constructed the identity of the “other”, of the subaltern (in the words of Spivak). A recent article from Mgqwashu in the Mail and Guardian reminds us of that this strategy of, ‘decolonisation is not a project over which one racial group can claim sole custodianship. South Africans, as a people, must agree that colonialism and apartheid robbed the country of ideas, skills, creativity, originality, talent and knowledge. These attributes got lost through legislated discrimination of black people, most of whom could have enriched the country even further. But some people who have benefited directly from the ills of colonialism and apartheid still struggle to accept this fact. They have developed a false need to defend a system that maimed, dehumanised, oppressed and stripped generation after generation of the South African majority. These groups should be the first to be genuinely repentant and to openly acknowledge what’s become a common lie.’ (Mgqwashu 2016)

There has been something profoundly powerful when students have protested through song, through presence, where they have spoken eloquently for free education. Where they have ‘sung up’ and ‘out – against’ oppression. Where their voices have broken preconceived ideas about protestors, where voices throw off the shackles of colonial objectification, where students are narrating and improvising into a new future we must rejoice. The challenge will be as with improvise (as with all good jazz) we listen, respond with subtlety, learning to play better and more beautifully.

Don’t just stand there pray something [People’s sermon series 1]
October 2, 2016, 12:20 pm
Filed under: St Johns | Tags: , , ,

2nd October 2016
St Johns Church, Wynberg
Luke 11:1-13, Psalm 86:1-10, 2 Chronicles 7:14


One summer in 1999 I got to spend 6 weeks working in Las Vegas training high school students how to do street evangelism. On Sunday’s we would visit different churches across the city. Of all the places we attended one experience still stays with me. It was a church full of musicians from the cities casinos so the music was amazing. Especially if you like lounge acts. But despite this it was actually the prayer that blew me away. The church was small maybe 60-70 but 75% got to church early and prayed together for 40 mins before the service started. People were fighting each other to pray out. There wasn’t space or gap before someone else started to pray. There was no shampoo position prayers.

The great English preacher Spurgeon repeatedly acknowledged his success as the direct result of his congregation’s faithful prayers. “It has often been remarked that the whole church helped produce Spurgeon.” When visitors would come to Spurgeon’s church he would take them to the basement prayer-room where people were always on their knees interceding. Then Spurgeon would declare, “Here is the powerhouse of this church.”

I’m wondering how important prayer is for us individually and corporately? For example last week we had over 200 people in church but when it’s Monday night (4th Monday of the month) prayer meeting I’m on my own pray walking around the campus. How seriously are we really taking prayer? – now I recognise that some of us need to be reminded when prayer meetings are on…that’s ok. That’s communication fault or my fault. When we started to meet on a Monday in January 2014 to pray and to fast we had a core of 12-20 people for the first 6 months and slowly but slowly it’s tailed off to the point where this year on a number of occasion I’ve been the only person to turn up. Prayer is vital for the life of the church. For us to turn our attention to the needs of the world and our community.

I wondered what the issue is besides the obvious forgetting. Is that people are afraid to pray out loud (I know that’s true for some)? Is it boring? Is it they don’t have time? That they are too busy? Is that for many Church life is nothing more than Sunday? And what do our individual prayer lives look like?

So how do we put prayer back on the agenda? Perhaps we have prayer all wrong? I learnt about prayer, about hearing God – about praying scripture – praying prophetically when I was 14/15 Monday night youth prayer meeting every week.

1. Prayer flows from an intimate relationship with the Father…like breathing

Prayer starts with us knowing there is a Father behind this world. As Helmut Thielicke reminds us. Jesus invites his disciples into a relationship with the Father that he himself exemplifies and practices. Other Jewish Rabbis often gave their followers special forms of prayer but Jesus introduces his disciples to a form of intimacy that was scandalous in some ways. So prayer has to start with us knowing that we are coming not to a big, angry, stick wielding sadistic uncle but a loving Father. I remember a number of years ago getting to know a South African doctor and his wife she was Chinese Malaysian and inviting them to have a meal with us in our tiny flat in Plumstead. At the end of the evening Frank said lets pray together which seemed like a good idea. The first thing that came out of his mouth was “Daddy”. It’s struck me that this was the first time I had heard an adult actually obeying Jesus’ way of praying. We have made the our father quite a solemn serious prayer but actually…Someone at st johns asked me once “what else can you pray besides the Lord’s prayer?” seems strange. My response was “What else do you want to say to your Dad?” Written prayers from the saints of history are vital and saysvaluable. Last week Teresa of Avila from the 16th century but prayers should be and can be spontaneous too.

Meda Stamper says, “elsewhere in Luke we find that the Father loves mercifully (Luke 6:27-36) beyond the limits of human reason or fairness and beyond our ability to meet God’s love with our own — although to do so is life and our highest calling (10:25-28). The Father’s love unfolds most vividly in the parable of the compassionate father (15:11-32): whether our tendency is to squander God’s gifts or to hoard them, however we may be lacking in love for God and neighbor, still the Father loves us relentlessly. We are pushing against an open door when we pray. In a sense, we are already inside, children tucked in for the night, not merely the friend of a friend, not even merely the friend of the Son, but sons and daughters ourselves with the same Spirit, the same love.”

In that same light there are things that my children ask me for that I refuse to give them because I know it is ultimately not good for them. There are things that I delay because I know they need to learn patience and to be more gracious. There are things I give them instantly because I know they will struggle.

If we have central to our understanding prayer as a way of being with our Father, with our Dad it makes it a necessity rather than a duty. I want to share with him all my wrestles, all my concerns, all my frustrations.

2. Prayer is often time consuming and costly

Jesus prays regularly in Luke, beginning with his first appearance as an adult when the Spirit descends on him (Luke 3:21-22; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18). He withdraws from the crowds, from the onslaught of ministry to be alone. We don’t have much of a record of how or what Jesus prayed in those instances but surely he was praying for his disciples, by name, praying for his family, his enemies and if Luke 22:41 is anything to go by he was wrestling with the Father to. Read the biographies of any great men or women of faith prayer plays a vital role. Wesley spent hours praying each morning, Tutu was getting up and praying by his bedside at 4.30am each day. My Korean colleagues would invariably get up at 4am. In Neak Leoung we had a prayer meeting every day from 5am. Very often I didn’t feel like going.

Prayer is not a formula. Not magic words or incantations. Prayer is not transactional. Prayer is relational. Some of us think prayer works like a vending machine. If we put the right coins in we get what we want out – a coke or a chocolate bar. “I’ve done my part Lord. What are you doing about this situation, problem or need?” Prayer is about relationship and presence. About opening up intimacy. God does change circumstances and situations and rectify problems but more often than not prayer changes us. Brings transformation in us.

3. Prayer should seek to be prophetic, practical and persistent

This Lord’s prayer is deceptively simple. Yet it’s packed with explosive phrases. It’s prophetic. “Your Kingdom come – your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.” writes Matthew. How many of us have actually thought about what we pray, if not every day, but mostly every Sunday? Praying prophetically is praying what we don’t yet see as a reality in our lives and in our world coming to pass. In Heaven justice and peace and joy and gladness and freedom reign. May your Kingdom come in our University campuses, in our parliament, in our schools, hospitals, police stations, prisons. Where there is violence and chaos bring peace and clear thinking.

Jesus urges his followers to be practical. “Give us each day the food we need” being practical and specific is important when we pray for other and for ourselves. I pray for the staff, EXCO and pastorate regularly. And I try to pray specific and practical things. There are things I want to see happen in people’s lives. And because I know them I know the situations and problems they face. When we pray it helps to be specific and focused. I hear prayers like we pray for peace in the world Lord. Of course we do. That’s taken for granted. But where? For whom. Rather than be overwhelmed choose some one and some where. We have so much access to specific sufferings and challenges of Christians across the world. Don’t be too parochial. I know we have massive challenges on our door steps but we are not the only country in the world with challenges with corruption, inequality or education problems.

Thirdly we are called to be persistent. That can be hard especially when we see little or not progress in a situation or person. Jesus’ parable ends with a phrase “shameless persistence.” like an insurance telesales person who just refused to give up until you have bought a policy. Keep on keeping on. I’ve been praying I have to admit not very persistently for one of my best friends who gave up on Jesus and the church 21 years ago. Still he seems a way off. In fact he seems to be drifting further from Jesus in a very respectable middle class English kind of way…

4. Prayer is listening to God and seeking to join in with his plans

Prayer is listening. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “A man prayed and at first he through that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized prayer was listening.” Prayer is not a one way street. Some prayers are full of words. A lot is said. Perhaps not that much is communicated. You don’t go to the doctor and tell him all your ailments and get up and leave your appointment. We expect our physician to respond with words of advice, comfort and honesty. So in the vein of the parable “how much more” we shouldn’t we be cognizant that God wants to speak to us. If we are living in a mode of listening , if as Paul urges us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and being attuned to God’s spirit he can speak to us in a snap, in a moment. I remember in Durban one day walking along the road with my Tally and Ami and a man came towards us with no shoes. I sensed God saying take off your shoes and give them to that man. My response was, “no Lord” but I did it anyway. They were really nice quicksilver flip flops.

All of us live with the reality of unanswered prayer. Perhaps people we have been praying for for years who seemingly never change. Situations local and international that look terrifying. Why does God answer some prayers and not others? I don’t know. I’m not going to give hackneyed answer. I can’t tell you why a young Vietnamese woman from our community in Cambodia was died of cancer even though we spent days praying at her bedside. I don’t know why the 18 old son of a a Khmer American couple died even though 1000’s of people across the world mobilized into prayer vigils night and day. I don’t know why God seems so silent.

Jesus starts this advice on prayer with the Father but he ends it with the Spirit. Again the Triune God at work in the world. But he he ends with the Spirit because all effective, meaningful prayer is to the Father through Jesus the son enabled and empowered by the Spirit. The Spirit helps us in our weakness – when we don’t know how to pray. When only groans and moans and cries are all we can manage. Earlier this year I told you that I get to St Johns most Sunday mornings by 6.15am and as I get things ready I’m praying. Very often I’m not sure what to pray. So I pray for a greater increase in God’s spirit at work in me.

This past two days I’ve has to deal with two pretty difficult pastoral issues and at both times I’ve found myself unable to know how to pray in some ways. I’ve been praying Dad help me. Show me what to do even if I don’t want to follow that course of action because it’s hard or uncomfortable. He spirit helps us in our weakness. Strengthens us. Prayers for for us in a way. For those of you of us who don’t know what to pray I think in part it’s about opening our mouths and trusting God will do his part.

Taking note of practice: Wrestling with theories of Practice in Bourdieu
July 31, 2016, 2:11 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

How we got here
In her opening introduction of the Wiley Blackwell companion to Practical Theology Bonnie J. Miller McLemore (2012:1) outlines the shifts that took place in the 50’s and 60’s when “scholars in the study of theology and religion began to challenge a structure of theological knowing particular to modernity that restricted practical theology to the application of doctrine to pastoral situations.” She notes that within the social sciences there was a renewed interest in practice (:2) In this blog I outline the contours of this renewed interest and how particularly the work of Bourdieu has been significant for practical theologians like Ward (2008), Scharen (2014) and Hearlson (2014). Bourdieu as both philosopher and anthropologist rooted his work in the ‘actual’ or ‘lived’ through a number of ethnographic studies most based in Algeria. Since my own research is rooted in ethnography, ecclesiology and missiology understanding something of the meta-theoretical framework of theories of practice I believe is important. Before wrestling with Bourdieu’s thinking (which is generally difficult to read with its sinewy syntax) I ask a more historical question about what has led to the split between theory and practice that still has ramifications in our post-modern context.

In the history of philosophy Rene Descartes is regarded at the Father of modern philosophy (Collinson 1987:52, Magee 1987:78) Descartes’ objective was to create a new indubitable starting point for philosophy. Descartes began with the pursuit of what could be actually known with absolute certainty by asking thorough questions about what he perceived. Through his systematic thinking in his meditations he subjected his memory, his own sense experience, the existence of the world around him and his own body to interrogation and comes to the conclusion that he cannot with any certainty extract indubitable knowledge from these spaces. What he cannot doubt, however, is that he is thinking. His famous cogito “I think therefore I am” Collinson (1987:53) says, “is the certainty that he is a thinking thing and gives Descartes the basis he requires for constructing his edifice of knowledge.”

In that process of a newly claimed axiom for the construction of knowledge there was a highly dualistic tendency to split theory from practice to make assumptions about the validity of knowledge gained from concrete experience. Descartes’ work paved the way for the rise of scientific rationalism as a more appropriate way of understanding the world. As Scharen (2014:35) notes, “Descartes influence on generations of scientists was enormous especially in relationship between two areas epistemology and scientific method.”

The rise in theories of practice comes on the back of the epistemic turn in which philosophers and social scientists rejected the notion of the meta-narratives (Lyotard, Foucault and others) and previous ways in which knowledge was generated and curated as naive. This in turn began to erode the idea that indubitable knowledge could be construed from objective approaches because the notion of objectivity was ultimately false.

I think a helpful way to approach Bourdieu is to follow Ghassan Hage ( who suggests that although Bourdieu played an enormous role in shaping sociological and anthropological theory he is essentially a philosopher dealing in philosophical categories. Bourdieu is ultimately interested in dealing with being-in-the-world, or asking questions about the economy of social being. How do we deploy being? How do we accumulate being? Being for Bourdieu is a ‘how much question?’ He saw that there was a economy of being (ie the accumulation and distribution of being) there was gross maldistribution. Ultimately he asks how we can actualise being in order to live a fulfilling life.

As Scharen (2014) has shown Bourdieu was also (like us all) shaped by the period of history he lived in. As a French intellectual he was trying to navigate a way through the structuralism of Levi Strauss and the phenomenology of Sartre. This essentially was an attempt to collapse dualisms of the subject/object divide. Bourdieu not wishing to reject objectivism outright Scharen (2014:18) reminds was seeking to find, “a middle ground between objectivism and subjectivism.” In the opening of his Outline of a theory of Practice Bourdieu (1977:1-4) speaks of the objective limits of objectivism. Part of Bourdieu’s complex analysis of objectivist theories of knowledge is outlined below.

This questioning of objectivism is liable to be understood at first as a rehabilitation of subjectivism and to be merged with the critique that naive humanism levels at scientific objectification in the name of “lived experience ” and the rights of “subjectivity”. In reality, the theory of practice and of the practical mode of knowledge inherent in all practice which is the precondition for a rigorous science of practices carries out a new reversal of the problematic which objectivism has to construct in order to constitute the social world as a system of objective relations independent of individual consciousnesses and wills. (Bourdieu 1977:4)

In building a theory of practice Bourdieu constructs an equation that is helpful to unpack. Hearlson (2014:12) says that this Bourdieu’s way of “exposing the complex relationship between agency and structure.” In fact there is a symbiotic relationship between human agency and institutional structures which Hearlson (2014:12) calls “the dance of a never ending cultural tango” The equation in question for Bourdieu is summed up as “(habitus + capital) x field = practice” (Ward 2008:169, Hearlson 2014:12, Scharen 2014:15). It needs to be noted that there is a degree of ambiguity in Bourdieu’s concepts and in the vein of good French narcissistic intellectuals being difficult to read and generally obtuse is a sign of

These terms are important so I will unpack them. Firstly Bourdieu (1977:73) says “The habitus is the source of these series of moves which are objectively organized as strategies without being the product of a genuine strategic intention.”

“The habitus, the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvi­sations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in the objective conditions of the production of their generative principle, while adjusting to the demands inscribed as objective potentialities in the situation, as defined by the cognitive and motivating structures making up the habitus.” (Bourdieu 1977:78)

Scharen (2014:15) describes this idea of habitus using Sartrian category of mode-of-being or more simply the way in which “we practically navigate day to day life.” The word habitus in Latin means the general constitution of something. Bourdieu in typical French intellectual obscurity means to endow this term with new meaning. Habitus is more than Scharen’s simplistic the ‘practical way in which we navigate everyday life.’ Habitus relates to the internal embodiment of external social structures acquired over the course of a life time or as Hearlson (2014:12) expands, “Habitus is the set of bodily disposition and actions handed down to the actor (agent) by history, structuring the present and influencing the future sets of practice.” As a social constructivist Bourdieu’s premise is what is real is relational. Habitus “links the individual and the social by positing that whilst the content of the life of any individual is unique the social structure that she inhabits is shared. I particularly like Bourdieu’s sentence the habitus is the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvi­sations (1977:78). By this I think Bourdieu means that habitus impacts upon the agent to generate creative, improvised responses to the field. Bourdieu seeks to break down the false dualisms that often pervade our understanding in this regard. As Scharen (2014:12) notes “it is a false dilemma to say one’s choices are either determined by a dominant social structure or totally free to one’s conscious intention.” Bourdieu wants to set up a dialogue between the objective and subjective in a non Cartesian epistemology. His habits concept should not be seen as deterministic (Scharen 2014:18) since the habits has within it improvisatory and generative potential.
“Capital is that which can be exchanged in order to achieve the interest of the actor. Social networks, past accomplishments, and particular skills are valuable capital in the right context.” (Hearlson 2014:13) or as Ward (2008:170) submits, “capital refers to what is required to in order to play in particular fields.” For Bourdieu there are a number of ways of classifying capital. It can be social, educational or cultural. Cultural capital is used by Bourdieu to expand the theory of power relations to cultural activities (Ward 2008:170).

The bounded space in which the habitus and capital intersect and dialogue might be called field. As Hearlson (2014:13) notes, “Bourdieu’s conception of field is provides a framework for observing the dynamics of a particular context.” Moreover, “actors (or agents) use the available strategies afforded to them by their habitus to gain their individual interests within a specific field.” (2014:13)

Moving to practical theology
Both Ward (2008) and Scharen (2014) explore Bourdieu and attempt to use the categories above to help move into speaking meaningfully about actual practice in relation to the church. Ward (2008:169) suggests using Bourdieu’s categories in the following way. “The church is a field; within the field individuals are shaped, they embody the habitus. To operate and manoeuvre within and through the field of the Christian community it is necessary to acquire and make use of cultural capital.” Whilst this is provisional and appears as a way of using terms in the the concluding chapter of Ward’s book I want to suggest that the usage of these terms is perhaps a little more ambiguous and complex than we might care to admit.
I am particularly interested in exploring the notion of habitus more closely and asking what it might really mean in ethnographic and ecclesial research? I am also interested in Bourdieu suggesting that habitus is not deterministic since it has not only generative potential but improvisatory capacity. Again the relationship between habitus and capital doesn’t appear as clear but to me in Bourdieu as some commentators make out. But theories of practice certainly have value in the journey of historically situating practical theology. Next I grapple with Clifford Geertz and particularly his ideas of Thick description.

Searching for performance metaphors in practical theology

In my last blog I began thinking very briefly about metaphors that might guide and shape my central understanding of practical theology for my PhD. For a considerable time I’ve been thinking about how ideas from music might help shape a central metaphor for my reflections on Fresh Expressions in Southern Africa. If a simple definition of Practical theology is ‘critical theological reflection on practice’ we have to ask what might be happening in the practice of faith in real, ‘lived’ communities as they ‘sing out’ or ‘play up’ the gospel. Both Swinton and Mowat (2008) and Healy (2000) have used the idea of ‘performing’ the faith to open up new categories of language for explaining how faith communities ‘act out’ the gospel.

The metaphor of performance can be further refined and developed in another direction. As a musician/musicologist and one time composer I like the notion of performing. Performance has a variety of modes. It’s not in the scope of this blog to investigate them all. I give two elementary examples here.

The first in contemporary classical music. Simply there are performances of works already composed. Highly composed works. For example Boulez’ 2nd piano Sonata is a piece of total serialism. Every note has been precisely calculated and positioned. With this example of a highly composed piece of music there is virtually no interpretive scope in one sense. In this mode of performance the score is the ‘given’ musical text which is then interpreted by the players/musicians/performers. This ‘given’ already existing material can be interpreted in a number of ways but the parameters are constrained by the composers original intentions. Sometimes in extreme ways as is the case with Boulez (Bach’s preludes and fugues are a different type of ‘given’ with more space for the interpretive). Performances are all unique but constrained. All sorts of nuanced and subtle variations can occur of course but to a large extent the ‘performance’ appears to be much the same to the untrained listener.

The second notion of performance we might use as a helpful metaphor is the idea of a contemporary Jazz trio or quartet playing a jazz standard. Standards are usually a single page of manuscript with a melodic line and chord changes written above. This ‘given’ is then interpreted and improvised upon by any group of instruments. An example might be any number of renderings of “Moon River” by Henry Mancini. Improvisation is embedded into the DNA of Jazz. In all it’s variety of descriptors perhaps the idea of the entrepreneurial, making-it-up as you go along aspects of improvisation set it aside from other types or music and therefore performance. This ‘given’ material is much more flexible and malleable. It is loose jointed. The number of permutations are infinitesimal. No musical possibility is closed. Every part of the improvisation process has an infinite number of decisions that can bring a faithful yet unusual or perhaps disturbing rendering of the original ‘given’ material. It’s an inherent tension between freedom and constraint that brings new life.

This second notion of performance rooted in improvisation is, I think, helpful for the practical theological reflection on Fresh Expressions of Church. Following work by Begbie (2000) around improvisation and human freedom I suggest that the notion of improvisation can be used as a way of thinking about how new ecclesial communities perform the gospel in their context. These might be seen as intuitive adventures in ecclesial improvisation.

True improvisation is always fragile and never repeatable. Improvisation creates moments of transcendence that are non replicable. Even though the parameters and settings can be replicated the actual spontaneity – what is created in the moment is unique.

Improvisation is relational. There is deep reciprocity involved. In a Trio setting each player is alert and attentive to the other. Improvisation is about change, adjustment, development and exploration as each seeks to respond intuitively to variations set by one player. It involves dialogue and trialoging.

Improvisation counters ideas of commodification, replication and consumption which are dominant factors in capitalist modern western culture. Improvisation moves us away from standardization, predictability, quantifying and rationality. It applauds moments of spontaneity, often looks accidental and rejoices unpredictable combinations. Improvisation lives comfortably with open ended-ness. As Bailey (1991:142) says, “In all its roles and appearances, improvisation can be considered as the celebration of the moment.”

I hope these ideas around performance and improvisation will vitalize talk of Fresh Expressions in the practical theological arena.


Narcissism, propaganda and “performing” the faith

I have not been blogging for a few months partly because I have been reading quite a lot of practical theology and trying to orientate myself in a slightly different theological sphere to be able to anchor my research and methodology in a new (to me at least) academic sub discipline. But I’ve been thinking and reflecting never the less on recent events in the UK and the US and wondering what on earth is happening?

I’m not going to spill anymore digital ink on the Brexit affair other than to say I would have voted emphatically to remain (although I hold slightly unorthodox views on the right of the Cornish to self determination – these are badly thought through and essentially romantic and maverick).

What is worrying me however is the leadership quality that seems to be coming to the fore of narcissism. Don’t get me wrong I’m narcissistic to a degree I think it’s inherent in fallen human nature but my fear is that it is a serious character trait of two potential leaders. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Both display disturbing narcissistic tendencies which are embedded in a belief that you are generally quite wonderful, made it all on your own and have extremely low levels of empathy. Narcissus, according to Greek mythology, fell in love with his own image whilst staring at himself in a lake. Caught up with his own beauty he eventually turned into a flower.

The selfie generation (of which I am shamefully a part) have taken the 15 mins of fame and stretched it into oblivion. We have made the mundane into the exceptional. Narcissists tend to believe they are exceptional when in fact they tend to be fairly average. That’s the tragedy. Johnson and Trump are experts in self aggrandizement. Johnson clearly has some intellectual muscle but he and Trump tend to prefer vacuous generalizing propaganda, hair that looks like a furry lobster and vitriolic tirades against foreigners.

An article in the Guardian published a few months ago by Zoe Williams charts the rise in narcissistic traits,

American academics Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell found that narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present, with the shift in women particularly marked. Scores have risen faster since the turn of this century.

But the paragraph I found most illuminating was the one cited below. It made me reflect on the role the church might have in pulling down the facade of narcissistic self indulgence. It’s the church that has the potential to be a detox centre for the crippling self centeredness that shapes much of our society.

The damage narcissism brings can be quite amorphous and ill-defined. “Much of our distress,” MacDonald notes, “comes from a sense of disconnection. We have a narcissistic society where self-promotion and individuality seem to be essential, yet in our hearts that’s not what we want. We want to be part of a community, we want to be supported when we’re struggling, we want a sense of belonging. Being extraordinary is not a necessary component to being loved.”

One of the metaphors I’ve been thinking about in the sphere of practical theology is of theodrama. This idea comes from the work of Swiss Catholic theologian Balthasar but has been written about by Nell, Healy and Swinton and Mowat too. It centers on the idea that living, concrete communities of faith are essentially ‘performing’ the gospel. For many of us this idea of ‘performing’ in the ecclesial setting might smack of inauthentic modes of existence. Perhaps we associate it with ‘playing up’ or ‘acting out’. But what if we saw the idea of performing as an authentic and faithful way of living beliefs out. Practical theology is concerned with reflecting on actual practice of the ‘lived’, concrete and often messy church. Ray Anderson says, “practical theology is grounded in theological reflection.” Meaning at its heart practical theology allows space to do reflexive work with and for the ‘real’ church.

This might seem somewhat tangential to the previous paragraphs about narcissism. The growing traits of narcissism in international leadership and in the population at large might be met with an antidote of the messy inconsistent love of the local congregation. I’m a big Lesslie Newbigin fan. One of his famous edicts is, “the only hermeneutic of the the gospel is the community of men and women who live by it.” I’ve seen, and continue to see, that the local congregation can be an place where our narcissism can be met with the mundane ordinariness of men and women attempting to authentically follow Jesus despite their frailties. It’s a place where the sacred ordinary can exist. Where our ill founded beliefs about our own goodness, strength and power might be meted out by Jesus call to come and die. Where little acts of kindness and simple obedience are recognized. Where the words we say in praise, confession and adoration bind us together and allows the work of God’s spirit to transform us from selfishness to servanthood.

I see this faith ‘performance’ every week in very ordinary but God shaped ways. My aim in the work I do academically over the next few years is to take seriously the performances of congregations who following the Spirit are improvising and spontaneously creating new places and space for people to encounter Jesus.


We never improvise…we always improvise
April 17, 2016, 2:53 pm
Filed under: jazz, mission, spirit, church

During the Fresh Expressions conference here in Cape Town in February a highlight quote for me came in the words of Dave Male who said, “God’s work, humanly, looks accidental”. As many of you who regularly read this blog will know I’m particularly interested in the how musical ideas around improvisation, spontaneity, collaboration, intuition and pioneering can help us reconsider and affirm theological elements.

At the same time doing a bit of prep work on a lecture for the Cornerstone Winter school called “Mission as jazz – spontaneity, improvisation and the unexpected in the missio Dei” set for the 24th June.

Since being a kid the music of Weather Report has been part of the landscape of my aural imagination. My Dad and I played our vinyl copy of Heavy Weather album a great deal and my early attempts at poetry were responses to tracks from that album as I listened. Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul started the group in 1970 and from the beginning (largely shaped by their interaction and time together as members of Miles Davis’ band) took improvisation to be a constituent part of the consort. Right from the outset the music changed at each turn like the daily reports of the weather. Originally pieces functioned in a very free way with little predetermined structures. The idea was to create sound scapes or tone poems. Even in the development of the late 70’s and early 80’s where the music was much more structured and conventional there remained a dynamism and explosiveness to live performances. There was an incredible ability to listen and respond in each player.

Wayne Shorter has been called by the New York Times “The world’s greatest living improviser”. In interviews it seems that Wayne was always attracted to literature and art that pushed him to abandon preset rules and boundaries. Joe, a classically trained pianist and migrant from Vienna was one of the early pioneers, along with Herbie Hancock, in using electric pianos and synthesizers. After initial work in the jazz-soul sphere with Canonball Adderley he enmeshed, sonically, snatches of Austrian folk song with Afro-Cuban rhythms, RnB and musics from the Middle East and North Africa. It was polystylistic and spontaneous. This grew into Weather Report but later for Joe a journey into World music. Improvisation was the very life blood of the band. Hence their Joe Zawinul’s classic quote, “We never improvise. We always improve.”

I’ve written about this before (link) but spontaneity and improvisation are not characteristics that the church usually (if ever) takes very seriously. In fact they are often not taken very seriously but the mission community either. So my question is; What if they are dear to God? What if they are fundamental to God’s modus operandi? Is God a God of order and control or is there a suppleness in His being. Is the creative fecundity of his identity risk taking, spontaneity and improvisation?

At the heart of the Triune God, I would argue, is a dynamic swirl of love relationships. Self giving, ever flowing patterns of sacrificial love and joy between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. This picture is not given over to control, or order, or to systems but to the dance of joy. Life giving and reciprocal. A perichoretic vision of a divine dance.

Yet some theology, influenced by classical Greek thought highlighted the immovability of God, his unchanging nature and therefore his immutability. This fixes Him, perhaps chains Him? The unchanging dynamic of his nature is a deep comfort for many especially in a world full of unpredictability and terrifying change. But what if the idea of God as immovable is a little bit idolatrous? Aspects of being constant and unchanging sit uncomfortably with the potential for improvisation and pioneering activity. Surely the incarnation is an example of improvisation and change? Responding to messy human beings in all their unpredictability?

Or maybe it’s that the seeming paradoxical constant and unchanging versus the spontaneous, improvisatory and free can sit together. In jazz the opportunity to take something known and to some extent predictable (a series of chords, a rhythmic device or melody) and mutate it, re-organize it, re-render or reharmonise can lead to fresh undiscovered beauty. Lead to passion.

This passage from Nadine Gordimer’s book World of Strangers I read this week made me smile,

“But the jazz in this room was not a frenzy. It was a fulfillment, a passion of jazz. Here they danced for joy. They danced out of wholeness, as children roll screaming down a grass bank.”

We looked briefly with Brett Fish Anderson this morning at St John’s at a gospel passage that speaks of weather reports. Matthew 16:1-4 Jesus challenges the Pharisees and the teachers of the law over their weather reporting. He tells them that they know how to predict what’s on the horizon meteorologically but that they have no idea how to read the signs of the times. Reading culture and responding in a way that honours Jesus’ church is imperative for us. But I get the sense that it will call out to never improvise but always improvise. Navigates with out a map but via the stars.