Thursday, 27 January 2011
Journeying Out - reflections on the book
According to the description of Journeying Out provided on the back jacket, the book ‘demonstrates just how much society needs the churches.’ It is an odd coincidence that, as I write this, a recent BBC news report has flagged up the toleration of the Church in Cuba, and that churches in Cuba are becoming much-needed places of care in the face of a collapsing governmental social care system. The report observes that ‘authorities are increasingly turning to the Church for help on social and other issues in recognition of the size and influence of organised religion in the country.’ In her book, Ann Morisy focuses on this influence, and on how the Church has the potential to be an instrument for the transformation of local communities: both an agent for change and an agent of mission. The title, Journeying Out, neatly summarises the philosophy of Morisy, namely, that God’s people are called to be risk-takers who journey out from the comfort and security of the walls of the Church/church and engage in meaningful, relation-oriented encounters with the people in their community/ies. Despite her assertions to the contrary, however, the problem that I continue to wrestle with, even after reading this book, is her seeming reduction of the Church to a type of social work agency.
In order to examine Morisy’s ‘new’ approach to mission this reflection is broken into three areas. The first section will focus upon those being approached: the target audience. Here, the post-Christian context will be discussed focusing on spirituality and society. The following section will explore Morisy’s understanding of how to approach mission and will focus upon obliquity versus overt mission. In the last section, the nature of discipleship will be considered, by examining Morisy’s 8-step process.
Section One/ Who is being approached? The target audience.
Morisy describes the society that we in Britain now live in as 'complex, multifaith, multicultural, fragmented.’  She further notes the post-Christian context of our society and its implications for mission, stating that ‘in a materialist earthbound culture we have to do prior work before people can contemplate the presence of God, let alone worship.’  First, I question her theological understanding of the nature of revelation, particularly the suggestion that revelation is caused through, or by, ‘our prior work’. The ‘prior work’ is not ‘ours’ but God’s: God reveals Godself; revelation comes through the divine initiative.
Second, although I agree that we live a post-Christian culture I disagree with Morisy with regard to contemplating the presence of God. Although Morisy draws on the work of Polanyi who posited that as humans we know more than we can say, it is a little surprising that she appears to dismiss the possibility of ‘contemplation of God’ by those out with the Church; it jars with Polanyi’s thesis. Further, she cites Levinas and his understanding of the ‘other’ with regard to human relational contexts, and so it is somewhat puzzling that she seems to ignore his work when it comes to matters spiritual. For Levinas, the ‘other’ can never be fully known – or can only be known through what they choose to reveal. This works within both the human to human relationship, as well as a God to human relationship. [see n. 1] With both Levinas and Polanyi, the logical conclusion to draw would rather be that a sense of mystery and spirituality within those outside of the Church should not come as a surprise, nor be so readily dismissed.
Morisy rejects too easily what I believe is an innate capacity for humans to have moments of otherness and the deep need to make ritual gestures at key life moments. While these expressions – such as the leaving of cards, toys, football strips, flowers by the place where a child may have been killed – may be described as a kind of ‘folk religion’ or ‘neo-paganism’, they are nevertheless possible useful entry points into meaningful spiritual encounter; I suspect if we dismiss them, we are foolish. What turns over in my mind as I observe such subconscious ritual gestures is the fascinating intersecting of a post-Christian, science, technology and ‘truth’ equals ‘fact’ society – its ‘earthboundness’ – with that spark of spirituality within the soul. Is there a point of connection that can be usefully made within the context of mission?
Section Two/ How are they being approached? Oblique versus overt approaches.
A key concept used by Morisy is the ‘principle of obliquity’, which she defines as ‘the notion that in complex situations pursuing an objective head-on may work against the achievement of that object, instead an indirect or “oblique” approach is required.’  She wonders if the best approach for doing mission in our society is:
'by way of an oblique route? And by way of this obliquity, which begins with solidarity with the poor, we might discover the means by which we are both being church and doing mission.' 
However both oblique and overt methods of approach have, throughout the history of the Church, been used; it is not a ‘new’ approach. Further, Morisy appears to present both approaches almost as polar opposites; either/or, as against both/and. Both approaches are part of a process, and both connected: to use one without the other would ultimately fail to pursue the holistic approach Morisy advocates.
The danger of focusing solely on the overt is, as Morisy herself observes, to miss the whole human being; talking of living bread is pointless if the person one is talking to is physically starving. Likewise, the danger of keeping one’s approach oblique may lead to physical nutrition but spiritual starvation. In addition, the oblique without the balance of the overt risks tipping into the very professionalised/ detached provision of social care with ‘service users’ and ‘clients’ that Morisy cautions against in her introduction. This raises a thorny question and cause of my rumbling disquiet expressed in the introduction to this paper: how do we as Church love our neighbour without getting caught up in a process leading to professionalization? In his blog, Duncan Macleod asks the other thorny question that follows from this:
'Do we therefore stop producing resources that help people with sharing faith? Do we just encourage people to spend time with their friends and hope that they’ll unconsciously make the connections? Do we tell people to forget the mission statements and priorities and get people to just ‘get out there’?'
Rather than falling into the trap, or cycle, of creating more social care agencies and structures, as followers of a God who is passionate about justice and who cries out against injustice, perhaps our role is to be advocates who cry out against injustice: who speak out, speak up on behalf of those who have been crushed and silenced by systemic structures of power? [see n. 2] This does not mean we cease to actively help those in need, but that help must not be in place of what wider society/the government should be providing; it is a stop-gap not an end in itself.
Section Three/ Who is doing the approaching? The nature of Discipleship.
Morisy, in language not dissimilar to Church reformers down through the ages, observes that:
the Church, like the chronic alcoholic, has to go through a period of detox, clearing out from the system the toxins that would otherwise bring death. Power has been the poison that has prevented the institutional Church from understanding the Gospel.
Using the motif of AA she observes that ‘the Church has to face up to the fact that its life is unmanageable and take steps to reorder every aspect of its life.’ Noting that real power is found in being vulnerable, she states that ‘it is when we are stripped or our power that we discover a deep spirituality.’  This is a good reminder about God’s kindom values overturning worldly definitions of power, and that God’s people should seek to foster both vertical and horizontal relationships, not seek status. [see n. 3] That said, I am left wondering about where Morisy is placing the faith focus, particularly with regard to the 8-step process she models on the AA programme. Perhaps I am bandying semantics but the emphasis appears to sideline God as we focus on, and have faith in, the process: it appears less about God’s power and more about self-empowerment. She states ‘if we put our faith in the process... we rehearse...we practise... then grace.’  In Chapter Two of the book, she notes that:
our missionary endeavours, therefore, have to harness the enigmatic ability of the most unlikely and vulnerable to generate a force that moves us closer to the kingdom of God – and to God Himself. First, God is the ground of our being out of which our practice should emerge, it is not our endeavours that move us to God – God has already moved towards us in the incarnation. This comes back to the revelatory context discussed earlier: God acts and we respond. Second, the person of Christ and the practice are bound together, otherwise the focus becomes the practice, not Christ, and subsequently, what we do is therefore a work. Morisy’s 8-step formula of ‘we do x then grace follows’ becomes a theology of work and utterly loses the point of grace. Or perhaps I’ve been reading too much Calvin lately.
Morisy repeatedly berates the structure of the church, and highlights – rightly – its historical obsession with worldly power, calling Christ’s followers to dismantle the structure and demonstrate vulnerability as real power. The paradox, however, is that Morisy herself seems too institutionalised, too much in the system, seemingly in a love-hate relationship with systemic structures to fully journey out. In order to be truly vulnerable, we must be able to let go of protective structures that we can sometimes hold close like a security blanket. God is our security, not an 8-step process.
Further, the nature of discipleship appears to be boiled down to following a programme. She notes that:
Jesus has demonstrated and urged us to follow distinctive processes or steps that will enable our life to be different, and to be a life with fullness beyond anything we can contemplate. However, I suspect discipleship is both simpler and more difficult than this: Jesus says, ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people.' [Matt. 4:19ff] It is not necessarily an efficient way to approach mission – there is no blue-print and God uses imperfect human beings to carry out the task. We stumble on as flawed followers, empowered by the Spirit and grace cascades, because God is gracious, not because we are following a system. This does not mean disciples are called to be disorganised, but we must always be wary of falling into following a system and placing our faith in it, and not in God. Mission is done best is when it is relational, not mechanical – when God’s people understand that they are loved beyond their wildest imaginings and, empowered by that love, learn to love themselves and love their neighbour. Love is the starting point for mission.
Ultimately, I found Morisy presented what I would term ‘macramé’ theology: an approach full of holes, desperately trying to tick ‘right on’ politically correct boxes, being more ornament than substance, and not really a new thing at all. Further, her arguments were a contradictory mass of sociological knots couched in the kind of pseudo-academese one employs when not entirely clear of one’s arguments. [*grins*: it takes one to know one!] Whilst the author advocated a more accessible/ vulnerable approach, it did seem rather ironic that she appeared to hide behind a wall of academic jargon, written in a ponderously inaccessible style. On the other hand, that she chose to do so, whilst slightly infuriating, was strangely encouraging: it reminded me that no matter how much we know, whatever systems we might devise, that in the end there is an inherent mystery and simplicity when it comes to mission.
Mystery inasmuch as we do not journey out alone, but rather in relationship with God and the people of God; and mystery also in the way success is measured. Is the fruit of successful mission a church the size of five football stadiums and a tithing membership with an average age under fifty? Is it to be found in smaller ways: people noticing an increase of homelessness and responding to that localised need? Is it the result of a quiet conversation with someone over coffee in a shopping mall that many years later may lead to someone acknowledging the God-shaped hole inside? Mission is multi-layered: it is best approached contextually as opposed to a ‘one size fits all’ or 8-step, or ‘4 spiritual laws’ process. The approach will also be as diverse as the vastly diverse group of people that comprise the body of Christ and to the diversity of people to whom they are called to tell the old, old story. Simplicity in that, we are invited to respond to God’s mission initiative and, as part of that response, to share with others the story of a God who reveals Godself to humanity and who wants to be in relationship with us. We are to share that story honestly and vulnerably, admitting our own frailties and faults, and like one who has travelled the desert and finally come to the oasis, we journey out of the oasis, back into the desert, trusting in God that we find and help others to quench their thirst with living water. [c.f. John 4: 5-15; John 7: 37-38]
n.1/ Within the context of divine revelation, of course, there’s a paradox: God reveals Godself in Jesus and in this manner is fully known, and yet, can we as finite creatures fully know the infinite God? I think it becomes an ongoing knowing and learning, learning and knowing that takes us all our lives and moves into eternity. So, an inaugurated eschatology perhaps: yes, we know God and continue to get to know God for all eternity.
n.2/ Biblical passages that come to mind concerning God’s passion for justice: Jer. 7: 5-7 ‘For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.’ Deut. 24: 14-15; Ps. 41: 1-3; Is. 58: 1-9; Jer. 7: 5-7; Amos 5:24; Mic. 6: 6-8; Christ as stranger – Mat. 25: 31-46; on who is my neighbour – Luke 10: 25-37.
n.3/ ‘Kindom’ here is deliberate: it emphasises the relational context and moves away from a hierarchical power dynamic that ‘kingdom’ can have.