Monday, May 24, 2010

Holy Spirit in the World Today - Part 1(b)

After lunch we headed off into our seminars. There was a pretty wide choice and I headed off to Spirit and Mission seminar. I chose this because my church has totally restructured and reoriented in the last 8 months to missional expressions (MEs) clustered around missional foci that the members themselves came up with, inspired by the Spirit and not dictated by the church leadership. That's another post in its own right but its not for now.

Again, let me acknowledge gratefully some of the words below from Jonathan Evens who had clearly had more than three hours sleep... in the afternoon I struggled a little in the heat of the Hot, sorry, I mean, Hut, as I had barely slept on the overnight train . I remember clearly seeing Mike Pilavachi snuggling deep into some beanbags on the other side of the room!

(Bishop?) Graham Cray from Fresh Expressions drew on John V. Taylor's The Go-Between God to identify criteria for discerning the work of the Spirit in leading God's mission and the part that the Church plays within it.

I found the following quote from Clark Pinnock very thought provoking:
"our theology would improve if we thought more of the church being given to the Spirit rather than the Spirit being given to the church".

and I absolutely LOVED this quote from Prof David Ford:
"The Holy Spirit is quintessentially a gift of God and one that is not simply possessed when given, rather the mark of having received is to continually ask..."
This reminds me of the way children respond to God and ask for more of him anytime this is offered or encouraged.

The presence of the Holy Spirit stirs up desire and longing for the coming kingdom (Colin Gunton) - that's exactly how I feel. I feel as if I could burst with longing and desire for more. At the same time as processing all of this information I have been praying for a very sick friend (whilst reading God on Mute - try that for a total snotfest) and I feel a desire for the kingdom to come wake me in the middle of the night, bring hot tears to my eyes, permeate my thoughts regularly throughout the day.

Back to what Graham Cray said: Discernment involves learning of what God is doing and learning to do it with him. This means understanding the shape of the Spirit's ministry. The Spirit is essentially relational and arranges the meaningless pieces of reality until they suddenly fall into shape. (note: I feel this is what I see throughout the Alpha course. The Holy Spirit works in such power every single time so that, by NOT answering people's questions the minute they ask them, pieces which form in the guests' minds fall into shape).

The Spirit anticipates in the present, things which are still to come. The Church is, therefore, to live in each culture as an anticipation of the future. Christ-likeness is the ultimate test of the Spirit's presence and where the Spirit is making Jesus more real neither caution nor convention or reputation ought to make us resist his possession of us.

Cray's specific criteria for discernment were: charism, character, content, characteristics, community, cultivation, and experience. He mentioned that if you get your image of God wrong then you get the rest wrong. And if you have any questions about this session (which I do as I was tired), Graham Cray is about to publish all of this in a Grove booklet. I asked him about the tensions between "programmed" and "spontaneous, Spirit led" missional initiatives and Graham answered really helpfully that the Spirit often gives births to "patterns" which culminate in success and fruitfulness.

Paul Weston from Ridley Hall helpfully summarised Lesslie Newbigin's understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in mission. Now I did not study Newbigin at all in my past so I listened but didn't follow everything that was said - and if I had a criticism of this session it was that it sped by - the two speakers felt like they were "rushing" a bit. For those who are interested in what was said, here are Jonathan's notes: Newbigin blazed a trinitarian trail in thinking about mission as he responded to the changing thinking seen at the major mission conferences of the twentieth century. For Newbigin pneumatology is mission, as the gifts of the Spirit are always for mission. It is the Spirit which takes the initiative bringing the Church after, in contrast to the Church-centric focus of the 1938 mission conference in India. The Spirit brings new forms of Church into being and by doing so works towards unity which is the deepest expression of the Gospel.

Miroslav Volf posed the key question in a globalised world of whether and how religious exclusivists can live comfortably with each other i.e. is monotheism by its very nature exclusivist? He answered this question by arguing that Christian monotheism contains democratising and universalist aspects which justify political pluralism, including the Spirit of justice and of many languages/cultures, so that a consistent religious exclusivist ought to be a political pluralist.

As a Scottish Baptist, I found his view that the state to have its hands off religion convincing. It seemed to me that 90%+ of the conference attenders were Anglican (and mainly clergy) and so I understand that, having had the Archbishop present earlier in the day, the assertion that pluralism was good and indeed desirable may not have been a popular one. Volf pointed out that the state does not favour one religion over another in religious pluralism and seemed to me to be advancing the Baptist distinctives of separation of church and state and freedom of religion for all. I fought as hard against dawn raids happening in the homes of Muslim asylum seekers as Christians, for example. I do believe that if we have private Christian schools then private Muslim schools should also be allowed (I worked beside one some years ago, it was shut down for breaching standards!) We don't have the English situation of RC schools AND C of E schools so there is no direct comparison for us up here.

I liked Volf's assertion that religious pluralism means that people come in freedom to the one true God. He stayed away from going too much into the universalist question, probably due to the audience he was speaking to, but I have found Volf to be quite clear in the past that people can reject the gift offered to them (forgiveness and the forgiver).

In the last daytime session, Prof Tom Greggs reflected on the day so far:-
1. that pneumatology is an engagement with theology from the middle
2. it is the doctrine with which we engage most fully with the church but pneumatology is not to be reduced to ecclesiology. We need the Spirit to have the church but we don't need to have the church to have the Spirit (I love that line!)
3. the contemporaneity and futurity of the Spirit - there are connections between the world in which we live and the Spirit. I love this idea too - the ability to be part of the realisation of God's future promise. Being able to yearn for what we were made for.
4. the holiness of the Spirit - to never reduce him in any way
5. the intensity and extensity of the Spirit - we cannot have a dividing line between the church and the world.

I was delighted to come back for the evening session which was Rev Sandy Millar (I'm sure he's got another title now, probably tending towards the bish end of the spectrum) explaining why academic theologians needed not only to know of the Holy Spirit but to experience his power. I just love this kind of evening, for those who know me know I like nothing better than time to my quiet self before God....ahem.
I sensed his presence very powerfully and it was just great to have some time that wasn't sitting down at all but allowed for kneeling and crying/shouting/singing/offering up heart, mind and body. Just a great end to Day one.


  1. Love the connections you make between the speaker's ideas and your own ministry.

    I'm glad that you also thought that Volf was arguing that because Christian monotheism justifies political pluralism, a consistent religious exclusivist ought to be a political pluralist. Surely, that only means that a Christian exclusivist ought to be a political pluralist and that he needs to make a separate case for jewish and muslim political pluralists?

    I'd zoned out by the time we got to Tom Greggs and wasn't there for the evening worship, so am grateful for your comments and reactions to them.

  2. Absolutely (to your second paragraph)....but I personally haven't had experience of jewish and muslim political pluralists unless they are non-practising in their faith and beliefs. As you will be aware (Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam sect and the tragic examples of ethnic cleansing) there have been many muslims who have demanded a separate muslim state.

    I was utterly persuaded by the thought that monotheistic belief stands out head and shoulders amongst a level playing field of plurality. I picked up from Volf that the one true God drew people to himself from such an unhindered, uncluttered view. I realise, as I said before, that my view won't be held by others but I am writing from the Dissenters perspective!


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