Anatomy of an outrage (or, a prayerful revolution)

The Church of England thought it would be good to record one of the ancient prayers of the Christian faith for a new generation to hear as a prequel to watching about a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

It was rejected by the largest agency distributing adverts to cinemas meaning it will not be seen in Odeon, Cineworld or Vue screens. The agency, DCM, referred to their policy which clearly states they that they reject religious adverts because of the potential they have to offend people of different or no faiths.

Cue outrage.

    1. Saturday night as the first front pages hit twitter the outrage began, how dare they stop us from praying the Lord’s prayer. Well, they’re not actually stopping it, they just have no obligation to screen it. Some of the early outrage suggested discrimination that wasn’t actually taking place.
    2. The National Secular Society never miss a chance to miss the point: “The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience.” Presumably they will be leading the campaign against all adverts and trailers before films .
    3. People with different beliefs speak up for the prayer being shown, the Muslim Council of Britain, atheist MPs, Stephen Fry, even Richard Dawkins got in on the act. Which both reminded me of the strong cultural memory of Christianity in the UK, and the passivity towards it’s infusion across society. The latter is not necessarily a good thing.
    4. Enough time had passed for people to start writing blogs about it. Nonsense on stilts opined Giles Fraser.
    5. Eagled eyed observers who looked at the DCM policy realised it was no surprise that the advert was rejected. Although the Church of England state that the policy wasn’t in existence when they first inquired about running the advert.
    6. But the Lord’s Prayer is offensive. If I’d been quicker off the mark I’d have gone with this angle but Stephen Croft and Andrew Wilson beat me to it.
    7. Over 200,000 people have watched the advert on YouTube, and a similar number from the Church of England’s facebook account.

Two very brief comments on this fandango: first, I initially thought this advert had been designed to be rejected, however, this wasn’t the case: when the Church of England first put the advert forward for publication it was accepted before being declined later. The new policy from the DCM is abundantly clear – it may be ‘nonsense on stilts’ but it is clear. The policy may warrant a legal challenge in that it privileges non-religious beliefs over religious beliefs, but from my non-legal perspective I think that would be a hard case to make.

This was a brilliant piece of marketing, it’s been all over the news yesterday and today. I had wondered if this was all part of a grand stategy, but instead seems to be a great example of a PR victory coming out of the censor’s jaws of defeat. Far more people will see it than if ever it was run before Star Wars. In season 6 of the West Wing when Santos’ primary campaign is running very short of cash they can afford one TV spot. They know they need to leverage it to get people to cover the coverage, and thereby exponentially increasing the impact. That’s exactly what’s happened here.

Second, I hope it helps Christians to think about what they pray. The words of the Lord’s prayer are offensive. They are counter-cultural, they do offend the norms by which our society runs. They should provoke and challenge us, they should disrupt and disturb, they are about a King whose Kingdom is yet to fully come, it is about a God in heaven who is above all other rulers. It’s a prayerful revolution.

[UPDATE: I’ve amended the paragraph beginning two very brief comments to take account of things I’ve read and picked up today.]

Mulling over Mulberry and the power of adverts

  This week the onslaught has begun. It started with the Christmas tree made of red cups in the centre of King’s Cross station. Then I saw Pret have a website counting down the hours until the launch of their Christmas sandwich. I like their Christmas sandwich, but really, it’s only 5 November. John Lewis will ‘premiere’ their Christmas ad this weekend and no doubt it will be the media event of the month. Finally, for now at least, I saw Mulberry’s advert this morning. I’m not ready for it to be Christmas yet, and to there derision of colleagues have spent a lot of this week moaning about the tsunami of Christmas related marketing surging towards me.

No doubt someone somewhere is denouncing the #mulberrymiracle advert for blasphemy but I think it’s more interesting than that. Advertising both reflects the values and priorities of culture and seeks to lead them as well – it seeks to tell us what is important. Sometimes this is done subtly, sometimes self-consciously self-deprecatingly, and other time explicit to the point of being surreal. An example of the latter is an Audi Quattro advert I saw in the cinema last weekend. A group of nomadic people in a snow blizzard encompassed landscape have constantly been battling a beast, but no more! For the Audi Quattro has come to their rescue. If a car can do that it can do anything you want it to, it’ll be your hero.

There was another car advert in the same pre-film reel for Toyota which took a very different approach. The theme was ‘take me for granted’, whether old or young, in blizzard or calm, on the school run or on the road trip, this car could be yours to take for granted. Almost as though it wasn’t trying to be anything spectacular (aka the Quattro) but a normal part of your life you don’t notice but can’t live without.

 In placing a handbag at the centre of a nativity tableau Mulberry know exactly what they are doing. They are taking something which people recognise and understand. This suggests there is still currency in the traditional scene of Mary, Joseph, a ‘baby’, shepherds, sheep and wiseman (even if they are wearing suits and Christmas cracker crowns). Even the lift of the camera at the end to the star at the close of the advert is an echo of something well known. This is why it’s interesting. In a society where it is increasingly suggested people are unaware of key Christian ideas, this one still resonates. The idea that two people have a child, are visited by strangers and given gifts beneath a star. Christians seeking to relate the birth of Jesus this Christmas may have slightly less work to do than perhaps they thought.

The Mulberry miracle advert is self-aware, it knows what it is doing, it is taking a cultural icon and reformulating it to its own ends. Without the line “It’s just a bag” from Joe towards the end it would be too far-fetched, but that abrupt break makes two connections at once. Firstly it shows that a bag isn’t the messiah, and second it suggests men don’t understand how important a bag is.

It does something else, which I am pandering to in writing this, it gets people talking: is it outrageous? Is it blasphemous? Is it a symbol of our decadence? Or, at the other end of the spectrum I expect it to spawn a slew of Christmas sermons using it as a cultural reference point to explain the real meaning of Christmas. It’s almost so obviously inviting that I can’t help but wonder if it was as much designed to be latched onto by Christians as a springboard, as produced to be denounced. Either way it’s a win-win situation for Mulberry, people are watching a handbag being opened. I didn’t really know who or what Mulberry were until this morning, so that’s already worked in one regard.

If I was to preach a Christmas sermon on this I’d return to Joe’s ‘It’s just a bag comment’. As he says that to looks of ridicule from the assembled crowd, so too do we too often say to baby Jesus, ‘it’s just a baby’. But the shepherds who came to worship knew it was more than that. The wisemen who brought gifts for the baby knew it was. Mary did too. And on the night after Jesus’s birth an angel of the Lord appeared Joseph to tell him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to keep them safe. We might like a new handbag for Christmas but would we become refugees in a foreign land to keep it safe?


The urgent necessity of failure


Used under CC 2.0 John Lui

No one likes it, no one looks for it. But if you don’t fail, you don’t learn. Part of the problem is that we’re taught that success is what matters most, we applaud achievements, we laud those who get things done. We hear about the time when everything works, but we rarely consider what happened in order to get there.

Any scientist will go through countless fruitless experiments before they hit the right formula. Thomas Edison is the person most frequently cited in this context: “I haven’t failed,” he said about his attempts to invent the light bulb, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.

Likewise we perhaps know in the back of our mind the stories of people who took numerous setbacks on their way to whatever it is that means we know of them now. JK Rowling was rejected by many publishers, George Washington lost five of his first seven battles. It is because of their success that we know their names, but it is due to their failures they were able to achieve what they did.

My personal favourite is a man who we today remember for his success. His family was forced from their property when he was 7, his mother died two years later. Aged 22 he failed in business, ran for the state legislature the next year and lost, then lost his job and failed to get into law school. At 26 he was engaged to be married for his fiancé to then die. He had a nervous breakdown and spent six months in bed. After getting into the state legislature he tried to become Speaker but lost. Aged 34 he ran for congress and lost, ran again a few years later and won, only to lose his seat two years after that. When he was 45 he ran for the senate, but lost. A couple of years later sought the nomination to the vice presidency, but received less than 100 votes. Two years after that at 49 tried again to become a senator and failed. Aged 51 in 1860 Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States.

Failure is more than a bad thing that might happen. It is inevitable and it is essential, it’s the thing that pushes us forward, if it was easy where would the challenge be? Handling failure is at the heart of developing character, but character is more than just being stubborn. It’s not in our natural instinct to do a lot of the things that we need to do to build our character, we are not always diligent, we’re not always charitable, not always slow to anger or quick to love.

We need something to change, to switch our mind set. Paul writes Romans 12: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

As Tom Wright says in Virtue Reborn: “Many people expect that virtue will happen to them automatically simply because they take part in the practices discussed here. But the practices aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works. The key to virtue lies precisely, as we have seen, in the transformation of the mind.”

Failure drives us forward when we have an idea of what we want to achieve. Failure tells us that we haven’t made it. But for that failure to prompt us to press forward we have to have a clear idea of what we are striving for. David Brooks, in his book Road to Character, looks at a series of people who throughout history have paid attention to the development of character over and above personal achievement – some of whom went on to achieve quite incredible things. It’s an illuminating book, and one which inspires the reader to prioritise eulogy virtues, the things we want to be remembered for, over resume virtues, the things we put on our CV. But it’s also a book with a hole at its core. Brooks sometimes alludes to the belief systems that provoke people to develop good character, yet he views them really as only a prompt towards a stoic almost Churchillian never-give-in attitude. This sort of attitude is crucial in many circumstances, in fact I’m in the middle of a new biography of Churchill which focuses on the role of his Christian motivation, but it isn’t enough.

If recalcitrant obstinacy is all that drive us forward, the thing which is our goal will become all consuming, failure will hurt each time it comes and success will be the end of the road – even if it is an end with a stunning panorama. But if the thing we aim for is only ever the second most important thing, we will keep perspective: when we fail it won’t be the end of the world, when we succeed we will continue to look beyond.

That’s why prioritising the growth of character is crucial but not for its own sake. We don’t act with integrity so at our funeral someone will eulogise about our honesty. We don’t prioritise relationships just so we are remembered as a great father, husband, brother and friend, as though the remembrance is what matters most. Building character can become just another thing which we strive to achieve. Without a perspective that stretches beyond our own accomplishments and failures character can become about making me into the best me. And that distorts the heart of good character. Character requires failure, and for that failure to mean something it needs a goal which is above and beyond us all.

The cost of show and tell blogging

Used under CC 2.0 Propinquity

Used under CC 2.0 Propinquity

I’ve written before about my experience of blogging and my crazed, ill thought through, entry into a particular avenue of the internet. I started out writing about relationships because I had something to say in reaction to something someone else had written and wanted a platform to air my disagreement. Before I knew it I had written four posts in four days on relationships in the Christian world, and all from a guy’s perspective. In the UK at least no one else was doing this. I had found my niche.

Soon enough my abstract pontificating was too shallow. I was writing words about other people’s experience channelled through my eyes, my opinions, my inexperience. I felt I needed to peel back my own covers. What I didn’t consider, and what has taken me some time to come to grips with, was the cost it had on me. As I wrote over a year ago, I bled onto the screen so people could see it was the real me. I didn’t think it was doing any harm, I thought it was the necessary fuel to give power to my words. And it gave power, it garnered readers, but it hurt me.

Hannah Mudge wrote last week of the boom of first person writing on the internet, the growing trend of people sharing more and more shocking essays of their own experiences, with some websites building platforms upon the tear stained stories that shock the reader.

Vulnerability becomes a drug. I loved the effect of hitting publish and watching the stats soar. I remember one night while away at a conference when I put the finishing touches to my greatest self-expose yet. Writers don’t often talk about stats, it seems to be the taboo of internet writing. But here’s a range of mine: I’ve written posts which have only ever had twenty views, and I’ve written others with thousands. A reasonably successful post will get 2-300 hits. That particular night in a room on the outskirts of Birmingham I watched as hundreds read my confession in the first hours. I woke up the next morning with a vulnerability hang over.

But the problem with drugs is that even when you know the negative effects, you still want more. You come back for the hit. With writing popularity is addictive, it becomes your validation. As a writer I wanted people to read the words I put on the screen, and I had learnt a way of ensuring they gave me attention. Like all drugs public vulnerability comes with diminishing returns. Each subsequent post demands more exposure and results in less shock and as a result less readers. The things I had to say as a single Christian guy lacked the punch they held on their first outing. I needed something more.

The diminishing returns are only part of the story. The impact of etching my life on the internet stretched beyond the boundaries of my digital life. It affected the real me. Vulnerability is an incredibly powerful thing. When I open up to a friend and say that my life’s not all sorted, I give them permission to speak into my life. Even if I speak to a crowd and say that I sometimes feel like a fraud when everyone thinks my life is sorted, I give them permission to know that they are not alone. But when I put words into the ether without a relationship with those who are hearing, without the chance to look into their eyes after I have spoken, my vulnerability is a tear in my skin that pulls open even wider. Vulnerability can help us heal, but exposure can kill.

I felt my life was atrophying. I had a story which many people read and knew about. It’s still there, I can’t change that. The impact on my day to day life was that I spoke less about my vulnerability to those who I had a relationship with, and it became harder to admit that the challenges I had so nakedly shared were not the only things that were going on in my life. 

The other unexpected consequence was that most possibilities for plausible future romantic relationships were asymmetrical. People could know what was going on in my life long before I got to know them. I told myself that it was helping to lay the groundwork for future developments but in truth it was stunting my growth.

In the last two years I’ve come close to stopping blogging, and never really by design. I always thought I’d find my game again, that I was going through a rough patch, that the words which were failing to flow would soon begin to ease onto the screen once again. I thought it was the quality of my writing that meant posts were getting ignored. I’d write the occasional witty piece about the dysfunctions of the Christian world which would meet with moderate acclaim, but anytime I tried to write something more serious my viewing stats would have a clear, but negative, correlation to the amount of time spent on the post. A few thousand words on Charleston and Confederate flags? Well all I can say is thank you to the 63 of you who may have taken the time to read it. On growing up following the fall of the Berlin Wall? Even fewer clicked that link. The anomaly to my declining readers illustrated this correlation all too clearly, I hammered out an angry post in dizzy minutes earlier in the year about things our Prime Minister said about Easter and it broke all previous records.

In the last month I posted twice, on learning to stop hurrying and attempting to define leadership. Neither of those posts got as many views in the past month as a several year old piece about why guys don’t ask girls out.

What I haven’t been able to bring myself to do was write the vulnerable-emotional-tear-forming-story type post which had served my early days so well. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop, I simply didn’t have the energy, or the words to describe the depth I felt I needed to delve to elicit the response which would make it seemingly worth the effort.

And yet, a tap on the shoulder at a Christian event made a lot of this anguish more palatable. I had written with the aim of helping other people navigate their own challenges with relationships in church, and apparently I had helped this person. That’s the kind of validation which means numbers don’t matter so much.

This isn’t a resignation from the world of first person story blogging, but it’s a caveat, don’t expect it too much. And it is a warning to myself to think long and hard what I say online. Even these words above have taken a few days to chew over and decide to commit.

Eliminating hurry – notes from the mountains

It’s a dreadful cliché. I found God on a mountain top. But to avoid the very worst of it, it wasn’t on the top that my epiphany came but about halfway up the side of my third Munro of the morning.

Five Sisters of KintailTowards the end of the nineteenth century Hugh Munro decided to list all of the peaks in Scotland over 3000 foot, along with their subsidiary peaks. In true British fashion he didn’t set out clear criteria for what distinguished a Munro from a top, and over the last century many impassioned debates have raged over whether a particular peak is a Munro or a top. Every ten years or so the list is reassessed and the task of reaching all the summits becomes either a little easier or just a bit harder.

Across Scotland there are 282 Munros, from those that just squeak over the threshold to Ben Nevis which at 4,409 feet is the highest point in the UK. While wandering over a few peaks, and talking to other walkers, I came across the challenge to climb them all. It’s a natural sort of endeavour – there are a lot of peaks, and people want to have reached the summit of them all. But 282 is quite a lot. During my week in Scotland I climbed eight, if I took such a trip every year it will take me 35 years, if by the age of 66 I’m walking up my last Munro, I will have achieved something both petty and significant.


Hills are not changed by walking up them. Most of them do not have clearly marked paths up their route, they may have a slight trail that ebbs and flows and disintegrates into a wide scree slope before emerging once again. If each year I tick a few more off my list my calves will stay in shape and I will hopefully retain some of my fitness, but apart from the achievement of getting to all of the places over an arbitrary height I will have achieved very little.

But walking up hills is constantly teaching me lessons. When in June my friends and I failed the Welsh 3000s I learnt a little about the burden of leadership. And a further lesson that was birthed then and grew a little more this past week in Scotland was that going slow is not a weakness.

In fact, when it comes to mountain walking, going slow is the fastest approach. I’m not a seasoned hill walker, but I like to think that I’m learning a few important lessons pretty quickly, and the one that makes the most difference is to walk slower than you think is necessary. The first walk I took in Scotland, over the Five Sisters of Kintail, was quite an initiation. I parked the car, looked at the map and instructions and saw the ridge towering above me and a wooden sign leading to a narrow path (which would frequently disappear) heading up 700 metres of steep grassy slope. And from the ridge I climbed the first summit, and then the next, and I think on the fourth or fifth occasion actually reached the top of my first Munro. And inevitably, to reach the next I had to first go down, and then up, and then down, and then up. By the end of the first day I’d covered over 20 miles, waded through bog, probably trespassed across a farmer’s land, listened to a couple of sermons and a couple of episodes of the NPR All Songs Considered podcast, and I was tired.

Loch Ossian

After a day’s break I set off to climb another two Munros. This time I was based at the most remote Youth Hostel in the UK, a mile walk from Corrour station, where there’s no public road access, the Ordnance Survey map of the region has just two tiny bits of road clipping the corners. Here, by Loch Ossian, with millions of midges for company, in a hostel powered by solar and wind power alone, with strict instructions to take out everything you bring in, I set out on my own once again. I met just a couple of other walkers that day. One who had walked in the night before, stayed at an even more remote bothy before climbing the hard to reach Ben Alder before walking back to the station on the second day. Getting to some of the 282 Munros is not an easy business. It’s not the sort of thing you can race around and do (although, of course, some do: the record for a round of all the summits is about 40 days).

With Rannoch Moor stretching to the south and east, the Ben Nevis range to the west, and the Great Glen to the north this is the closest to the middle of nowhere you can get in the UK. To find the hostel the site of drunken escapades in the middle of the following night was a little unexpected. Fire alarm set off at four in the morning, sick on the front porch, empty bottles scattered by picnic tables on the edge of the loch. Unconfirmed report that one of the late night revellers had fallen into the loch. It was dissonant.

Rannoch Moor

The final day’s walking was based out of the Glen Nevis youth hostel – from the lack of civilisation to the lack of tranquillity. Ben Nevis is a tourist’s mountain. The main track leading from the glen up to the peak is variously known as the pony track, the mountain track, or, the tourist track. I was glad to be not walking up on a weekend. I also opted to start early and take an alternative route, which meant another gruelling ascent up onto the first subsidiary peaks of Carn Mor Dearg, Ben Nevis’s far lesser known neighbour – but at over 4,000 foot still a considerable climb, and a far more interesting one that it’s more prominent neighbour.

Ben Nevis is basically just a giant lump of rock, Carn Mor Dearg is a proper peak, which rises and falls before reaching its final height. What attracted me to this route, but also set my nerves sparking as I approached, was the transition between the two Munros known as the CMD Arête. This is a ridge that curves around for over a kilometre before presenting the walker with a final rocky scramble to Ben Nevis’s peak. The ridge wasn’t as precarious as I feared, or it looked, and for the scramble I was grateful to follow a pair who stayed a helpful distance ahead. And then suddenly I was on the top, from the fairly lonely exertion with hands and feet pulling body over rock after rock, to a summit plateau populated with hundreds of walkers who had made their way to the top. Selfies proliferated, parents insisted children posed, sandwiches feasted on, water bottles quaffed.

Carn Mor Dearg Arete

Carn Mor Dearg did not have the remoteness of some of the other climbs I did, but it certainly had the difficulty, it was very hard work on the legs. And it called for slowness. Although not crowded, there were enough other walkers on it’s ascent to notice our respective speeds. It was with some smugness that I let people pass me on the early stages, and then keep on going as they had to stop to catch their breath. Towards the top a couple raced past me, only to fall back before reaching the summit. I knew that I might be walking slower, but I had the confidence it would enable me to get there first.

Somehow I was gaming it all. I was pretending not to hurry but perhaps had just learnt that it was the fastest course.

In life I hurry all the time. I like to move from one thing to the next and the on to the next, with each consecutive thing providing stimulation and excitement. I cope with solitude well, I cope with stillness appallingly. I also burn out. I run out of energy, I start to fall apart. At the end of three weeks of holiday I’m only beginning to feel rested. Each day I set myself tasks and the thought of waking up without anything to do fills me with borderline horror.

Loch Ossian at night

Going slow is not just key to getting up mountains, perhaps it’s a lesson for much of life. Sometimes I’m far too slow, too deliberative, too inactive, sometimes I’m paralysed by indecision. But I think there’s value in slow plodding, setting a course, and working your way towards it, step after step, even if each takes longer than the last. Eugene Peterson wrote a book, ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’, the title caught my attention long before I got around to reading it.

It comes from a section in Nietzsche’s writings, and he had to fight his publisher to use it for the title. The wider section in the original goes: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is … that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something that has made life worth living.”

What 1000 Foo Fighters’ fans can teach the church


In a field in Italy 1000 rockers struck a chord. A man had a vision, he wanted the Foo Fighters to come and play in his town. So he raised some money, appealed for fellow fans and got them together. Singers, guitarists, bassists, and drummers gathered to sing Learn to Fly together.#

There’s one line, in the bridge if I’ve got my musical lingo correct, that goes: “Fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone”. Sung by a thousand people who have come together for the very reason of not wanting to sing it alone, it has a certain unrestrained resonance.

At the end the guy behind it all stood in the middle of the throng of musicians to say:

“I guess that this video is going to be seen by a huge, a huge amount of people all over the world, but to be true it has been conceived to be addressed to just five people: Chris, Pat, Nate, Taylor and Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters. You know, Italy is a country when dreams cannot easily come true, but it’s a land of passion and of creativity, so what we did, and here is just a huge miracle, I’ve been working on this project for more than one year, waking up every morning thinking about how to make it real and this is all that we’ve got. 1000 people, 1000 rockers, that came from all over the nation at their own expense and they did it for one song, your song. So our call is to ask you, the Foo Fighters, to come and play for us, to come and play and give a concert to all of us in Cesena, what I’m asking right now is to make some noise for the Foo Fighters, come on!”

There are old rockers, young kids, there are men and women, those whose hair makes them stand out as it stands on end, others that are a little larger than life. There’s a crazy man who looks a bit like Steve Coogan conducting the whole thing.

There are 1000 people with one thing in mind, one thing which has brought together an eclectic bunch to sing with passion. They may have only been singing to five men in America, but after a few days over 18 million have viewed the official video. The world has watched a bunch of people singing like crazy to get the attention of their favourite band.

And this got me thinking about the big Christian summer festivals. There’s an element of rock concert about them sometimes, but I think this kind of event is a more like what we should be aiming for. Three reasons why:

1. It’s not about the band on the stage

Okay, so the point of their singing is that they want a band on stage, but the marvel of the video is that 1000 people like you and me got together to sing and play together: the audience became the band. There are probably a lot of videos of the Foo Fighters singing Learn to Fly but I doubt any of them has as many views as this one. What’s special is that this is about each and every one of the 1000. I doubt whether many, if any, of the bands playing at big festivals want to make it about themselves, but sometimes it can feel like the focal point of our worship are the men and women on stage. Our singing can be more like fans at a rock concert.

2. They’re singing with a purpose

There is a reason behind their singing, it’s not just for fun, nor is it for their own fame, their singing has a purpose. When we come together to worship we sing with a purpose. When we sing it places passion in the words which might otherwise be dry phrases or truths we know and accept but don’t always fully own. When we sing, something about them comes alive.

But singing is not about just reciting words to music, especially not when we are worshipping God. Our worship is a speech act, our songs do something more than repeat truths or create a positive atmosphere. When we call on God to act, he does. When we cry out for God’s kingdom to come a little more of it does. Without wanting to get too eschatological, I believe that God’s kingdom has come, is coming, and will come. When we follow in Jesus’ words, praying or singing ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’, we are calling out for a little more of God’s rule and reign to be evident in the world around us. 1000 rockers wanted the Foo Fighters to come to their town in Italy, when we worship we call out for God to come to our world in our day.

3. They’re bringing our own gifts and talents and using them for that cause

The music from 1000 singers, guitarists, bassists and drummers sounded pretty good to me. I don’t possess many musical abilities – perhaps the sole one being a willingness to sing quite loudly (which, on reflection, is perhaps not a gift to those stood next to me in church). The 1000 men, women and children in a field in Italy brought their talents, they brought their instruments, they paid their fare and plugged what they had into what I can only imagine is a monumental PA system.

When we join together with thousands of others singing in worship to God are we reliant on the talents and abilities of the people on stage, or are we offering what we have?

Last week @God_loves_women wrote a blog on supermarket Christianity, and I think if we’re not careful big conferences and festivals can play into this tendency, that we go for an annual top up and we become dependent on what other people provide. At the other end of the spectrum is the danger of detaching ourselves from other believers, and becoming too focused on nurturing our own faith that we become isolated and the very faith we hoped to build ends up atrophying. Other people are essential to the development, sustenance and overflow of our faith.

I’m not going to any conferences this summer – it’s the first time in quite a few years. From people who have been at New Wine and Focus I’ve heard good things, to those who are going to others, I hope you learn, worship and grow. I have found that as I’ve gone to more events it’s become more about the people I’m with and the time in between the meetings than what’s said and done in the big tent – as valuable as that may be.

Having organised a very small conference a few weeks ago, the same was true. We organised content for the people taking part, but hearing the feedback from those who came reminded me that the programme may be what brings people together but it’s frequently not the most important thing.

I probably remember a handful of talks each year and over time maybe half a dozen that are really important to my ongoing walk of faith. There is a place for consuming. There are times when we need to receive. But we receive in order to go out, we take in in order to give out.

The irony of the Foo Fighers’ fans endeavour is that it wasn’t by accident that 1000 fans came together. This isn’t Field Of Dreams. It took someone’s vision and passion and incredibly hard work to make it happen. The things that bring us together and encourage us to act together are usually especially challenging, and there’s a significant lesson of leadership there. But that’s probably a topic for another day.

False Flags and Public Grief

Used under Creative Commons from

Used under Creative Commons from

On Wednesday evening nine men and women were murdered during a bible study at their church. No murder is normal, but this was less normal than most. It was the killing of nine black men and women by a white man, Dylann Roof, because of their race, and the church in which they were shot was of a denomination founded over 200 years ago when church officials pulled black people off their knees and stopped them praying. The shooting was about race, undertaken by a man who decided others shouldn’t live because of the colour of their skin – designed, the US Justice department said in a statement, ‘to strike fear and terror into this community’.

Many words have been written and many more will follow. I doubt any will carry the force of those spoken by the families of the victims who stood in the court on Friday and offered their forgiveness to Roof. Some of the words have been angry, some have been defensive, others dry, but most quenched in tears.

Twitter was ablaze with anger that two of America’s gravest indignities combined to orchestrate this horror. Gun crime in the United States is a travesty that should be indefensible. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had in mind the liberal gun laws advocated by second amendment defenders, and if they did it’s high time that amendment was struck from the bill of rights. In the last 6 years Obama has come to the podium 6 times to give speeches following mass shootings.

The second scar on America’s conscience is the deep racial tensions that pervade across the country. Those words do not do justice to the pain suffered and that continues to haunt America and is endured by men and women because of their skin. As Jon Stewart put it: “I honestly have had nothing other than sadness that once again that we have to peer into the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend does not exist.”

And as the words of forgiveness cut through the anger, one symbol continued to flutter and flaunt its obstinate recalcitrance in the face of fury.

Above the South Carolina State house flies three flags, the state flag, the US flag and the old Confederate flag. On Thursday the first two were lowered to half-mast out of respect.

First, the technicalities: unlike the other two flags which are on a pulley the Confederate flag is fixed and can therefore only be removed and not lowered, and the removal of any of the flags flying from the building requires a vote of the state legislature.

Second, what was always going to be about race and gun crime is now also about a flag.

For some that’s a distraction from the grief experienced by the families and close ones of those who died. Others say it’s politicising a tragedy.

Russell Moore, president of the ethic and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has written perhaps the most important post of the past few days. Important because of his role in one of the largest evangelical groups and one which has a significant public voice that is associated with religious and moral conservativism. Important because he is the descendant of a Confederate soldier. Important because it is unexpected. Important because it is timely, prophetic and unequivocal. And important because it recognises the importance of symbolism.

Others have been far more equivocal and refused to comment. I’m not asking everyone to have an opinion, but if you’re going to write this, then you deserve all the flak you get.

To say that this is a time for grief and a time to leave politics to one side is to sanitise grief and partition politics. When anger is burning it offers a clarion call, when pain is raw it exposes the wounds we might otherwise try to deny. When tears and fears are all we have to offer they etch deep a testimony that politics is always personal.

Because if it isn’t, what is politics about? Is it about the maintenance of faraway institutions or managing systems and structures? Because if we take people out of the equations – people who cry and shout, and experience joy and happiness, people who, this week, are asking not just ‘why’ but ‘why again’ – all we are left with is a faceless, soulless set of bodies that serve no one but the inertia of political gridlock.

Grief can make things happen. Aged 13 I walked into church one Sunday morning with my family, we were late and the announcements had begun. As we pieced together what the pastor was saying it became clear a member of the royal family had died, the Queen Mother we first supposed, then realised it was Princess Diana who had died in a crash in a Paris subway in the early hours of the morning.

On that occasion a flag mattered too. The royal family, and the Queen in particular, were away in Balmoral, and protocol until 1997 dictated that when the Queen was in residence the Royal Standard flew, when away no flag was displayed, and never was a flag flown at half-mast. Even when a monarch died the flag of the next most senior royal in residence at the palace is flown.

But combined with maintained distance and what the royals presumably considered dignified silence, the empty mast became the may-pole around which the British tabloid press strung the Queen. “Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?” cried the Sun, “Has the House of Windsor a heart?” proclaimed the Daily Mail.

Protocol be damned. The rules were changed. A nation was in grief. The Union Jack – which now flies whenever the Queen is not in residence – was flown at half-mast on the day of the funeral, an act now repeated when members of the royal family die or on significant moments of national mourning such as after the 5 July 2005 bombings.

I’m an outsider, and one who has already told Americans to rescind the second amendment. But the Confederate flag is more than historical memorabilia – if that was all it was it would be in a museum and not flying over a government building.

Like the empty pole on Buckingham Palace, the Confederate flag flying is like defiantly sticking a middle finger up at those in pain. It’s like revelling in the memory of wounds inflicted on others.

And it’s also just a flag, just a symbol, just a piece of cloth with colour, stripes and stars. But the arrangement of those colours, stars and stripes matter. Taking it down is not going to solve race relations in the United States but it would be a significant symbol, one which empathises with pain.

I’m a Brit who doesn’t get the obsession with flags. I don’t get why it’s such a matter of importance, I don’t get why churches drape their alters with flags. But I do get symbols, and Christians the world over should know better than most their role, after all at the centre of our faith is a symbol.

Symbols can become rallying points, in fact they often are. The Confederate flag is now a focal point and not a distraction. The question is, which way will it blow?

The 27 stages of Christian controversy on the internet

With huge thanks to Hannah Mudge, Raquelita and Stuartmwrites on twitter this evening…


  1. Obscure Christian blogger writes a post on why girls wearing flip flops are acting immodestly and causing their Christian brothers to stumble by flagrantly displaying toe cleavage.
  2. One of his regular readers agrees and posts a comment, the other disagrees and says so.
  3. Several weeks later blogger who no-one actually knows, but is considered semi famous (in the Christian world, which means 17 people subscribe to their updates) finds anti-flip-flop tirade while searching for other bloggers to exchange guest posts with (because that’s what you do to build your platform). He quotes said obscure blogger suggesting that he’s actually got a reasonable point which is worth considering.
  4. Secondary blogger thinks this will be a good opportunity to generate discussion around healthy boundaries and respecting one another. And also get lots of hits. Tweets the most outrageous parts of the post he’s quoting.
  5. A Christian social media gatekeeper sees the post. Doesn’t realise it’s a quote, comments at length and starts tweeting (with the hashtag #flipflopfallacy) to get their followers to comment as well.
  6. Traffic hungry Christian organisation blog site hosts a piece entitled: ‘This girl wore flip-flops to the six o’clock service. You will not believe what happened next.’
  7. Secondary blogger (who has been at work all day) finds hundreds of notifications, and posts clarification piece explaining clearly that it wasn’t his comments, that he’s sorry if it caused any offense, and then goes onto say – in his own words – why flip flops are probably, on balance and for the sake of unity, best avoided.
  8. An American Christian tweeter with a book deal picks up on the attempt at justification and tweets their outrage. He follows this up with a post written in 10 minutes explaining all the reasons he is simply outraged. Outraged he says.
  9. Christian collective posts an investigative piece on whether flip flops and foot fetishes are the latest front in the flirt to convert battleground: ‘How beautiful ARE the feet of him that brings good news?’ The speed this is posted with makes one suspicious they’ve been waiting for such a scenario and may even have engineered this one.
  10. Original poster points out he never said people couldn’t wear flip flops, but just to be careful because they could cause people to stumble.
  11. Unknown tweeter, thinking he was being witty, said that flip flops always caused him to stumble (when he wore them). He was immediately pointed in the direction of an online accountability group by well-meaning but slightly dim follower.
  12. Prominent theologian posts extended comment (3000 words) below both blogs as well as on their own site explaining the theological significant of displaying feet and why it is likely to be important across all times and cultures for women to cover their feet. Something about the dust of a rabbi’s sandals.
  13. Response to the blog saying that if you can’t put it simply you’re obviously wrong. Refuses on those grounds to read theologian’s post.
  14. Lots of sub tweets issued. Mostly to avoid the attention of Secondary blogger, American celebrity, Christian collective or verbose theologian. But THEY STILL HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT IT.
  15. Think piece written with a call for unity between those who wear flip flops and those who don’t, and why for the sake of the gospel we should learn to live and worship together.
  16. This does it for secondary blogger. He cannot believe the tenacity of think piece author to be willing to set aside theological principles for a weak unity where no one stands for anything.
  17. Various mainstays of the Christian twitter world unfollow him. Some ‘farewell’-ing him, others passive aggressively doing so silently and a few brave souls hitting the block button.
  18. Tweeters on the #flipflopfallacy hashtag start demanding big names say something about this, and if they haven’t wonder aloud ‘why so-and-so are strangely silent on this’ and if they perhaps are secret foes of the flip flop.
  19. Initial post mysteriously vanishes, suggestions abound that he came under pressure to take it down otherwise he wouldn’t be invited to live tweet next month’s conference. Contrite apology appears on his site (and never posts again).
  20. High profile blogger (without a book deal but after one) writes an open letter calling for everyone to accept the apology in a spirit of grace.
  21. Previously silent famous speaker takes to twitter for the first time in 7 months to express disappointment original blogger was forced to take post down, adding that he thought it important that where necessary Christians were able to speak boldly but in love the truth that they hold dear.
  22. Christian clothing brand (which includes flip flops) issue a press statement which has taken 17 people 4 and a half days to write. They say they like flip flops but think modesty is also important so people should be free to buy them if they want but for the sake of peace will be discontinuing current line.
  23. Boycott of clothing brand ensues (boycotters refuse to buy anything if they’re stopped from buying what they want) with placards carrying slogan ‘my feet, my flip-flops’.
  24. Church press cover boycott. Andrew Brown writes column for the Guardian on the politics of flip-flop gate. Christian Today sends reporter to Soul Survivor to count how many people are wearing flip flops.
  25. Secondary blogger declares that he’s going to take a break from social media to concentrate on his family and church. Shortly after new account appears which seems suspiciously like him.
  26. Weather takes a turn for the worse and everyone stops wearing flip flops and stops caring if they’re immodest. Also, Rob Bell has a new book out which they either have to staunchly defend or snarkily mock his departure from the mainstream.
  27. No one can ever look at their shoe rack quite the same again.

An eclectic review of 2014

Usually a mainstay of the few days between Christmas and New Year I’m getting in early with my review of 2014. I often intend to write about the year about to come to an end but writing time around Christmas is rather sparse. This is a slightly eclectic review of the year and some of the things that have stood out.

It might be considered the year of the #icebucketchallenge, or the rise of UKIP, or some celebrity doing something they shouldn’t. I’m not really covering any of that. Let’s start with food.

Best baked good

1010214_10153680690410364_1304191195_nFrom fairly early in the year these blueberry and cream choux buns are probably my favourite baked good of the year, although making focaccia for the first time was also a lot of fun.

Best newspaper column

Next year’s general election will be mired in disenchantment and discord. The public are unhappy with politicians and conflate that with a disdain toward politics. Minor parties are on the rise and the share of the vote going to the two major parties will likely be the lowest ever. Internet memes go crazy, whether it’s Ed Miliband pointing at things, airbrushed posters of David Cameron, or spoof UKIP twitter accounts. And they just add to the disconnect between politicians and the public.

At the heart of this is a paradox of what the public want, they want politicians to be special and they want them to be like them. Dan Hodges, a Marmite columnist, put this brilliantly in the summer in which he basically called for more boring politicians.

Dan Hodges: Want to rekindle faith in politics? Remember most MPs are like Annette Brooke

Best talk


At the end of November I returned to Trent Vineyard – where I went to church while a student at Nottingham – for the national Vineyard Cause To Live For conference. One of the draws was Simon Ponsonby speaking. I’ve got his tome on Romans with me over Christmas and hope to get started on it. When he spoke at a student conference I went to in 2004 on ‘more of the Holy Spirit’ I was scribbling faster than I thought possible. This time I didn’t take any notes, I just sat and absorbed his 65 minute one point sermon on learning to love the bible. I had hoped to link to the talk but it’s not online yet – I’ll definitely be sharing it when it is.

Honourable mention: as I can’t share my top talk of the year, here’s one that deserves a mention. I’ve been away at weekends quite a lot this year so tend to listen to as many sermons as podcasts as sat in the comfortable theatre seats. One Saturday I set off to walk to a friend’s flat, fairly normal except this was seven miles away – which made it a three sermon walk. The last of these made me walk up and down the street before arriving to catch the last few minutes. Take a listen, it’s really quite brilliant and beautiful – especially as on a topic so often preached about.

Hannah Elwyn: Who is my neighbour?

Best Walk

For the shear ridiculous nature of it’s endeavour attempting to climb Slieve Donard on a rainy Janury afternoon could grab this award. I wrote about what not to do when walking in the Mourne Mountains after that particular failure.

The prize, however, has to go to the Yorkshire 3 Peaks which I walked in July. Up and down Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in 10 and a half hour, leaving me aching for the next couple of days, in love with the Yorkshire Dales and with an appetite to even more insane single day walks in 2015!


Best film

I loved the latest instalment of the Hunger Games, I was unimpressed with the final Hobbit movie. I was moved by 12 Years A Slave, and I’ve watched Frozen more times than is appropriate to mention.

But a couple of weeks ago I watched The Imitation Game, which is definitely my film of the year. It’s a beautifully acted and shoot work and captured the haunted genius of Alan Turing in exquisite detail. He knew what he needed to do and couldn’t cope with the distractions and tangents others insisted on pursuing. A goal kept him focused.

Some have objected to the film for its use of the story to campaign and promote homosexuality. Yes, there is a campaigning edge to it, and I probably wouldn’t subscribe to all the associated goals of those who use it as a campaign tool. But in the midst of debates over sexuality and marriage the church often ties itself in knots. I think Christians, in an attempt to protect the view that marriage is only ever between a man and a woman, are sometimes passively coerced into supporting or opposing more than they should. The treatment of Alan Turing was shocking, and should never have happened, and Christians should not be afraid of denouncing cruel treatment wherever it occurs. What’s often lost in such debates is that the Church of England was one of the leading voices calling for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the 1950s, insisting then (as it does now) that such a position can be consistent with not endorsing them.

There’s sometimes a spill over effect with beliefs and attitudes, if I believe this then I must also believe that. It happens in the United States where policy positions on taxation, gun control and the environment become rolled into a basket of political positions that become ever more tangentially  connected to their original beliefs. We have to be on guard for why we stand for or against certain things and not axiomatically assume one thing leads to another, or that because we oppose certain people on certain issues we should oppose them on other issues as well. That’s the way you end up with culture wars and Christians need to be more intelligent than that.

Best photo


In March I was thrilled to go to Cambodia with Tearfund. As part of their bloggers trip I got to visit several projects close to Phnom Penh where they work with local organisations to mobilise churches and communities to deliver long lasting development. I was awed by what I saw. I saw people resilient even with the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge still lingering – like the fragments of bone that occasionally surfaced at the Killing Fields, the destruction he caused was not far from view. The pastor who walked miles home after losing his parents. The guide to the torture and execution prison who as a teenager was a forced labourer and whose body still suffers because of it.

I saw land that was beautiful, people who were thriving, and opportunities that were being taken. As well as writing about what I saw I took a lot of photographs. For several of the pieces I wrote I offered a selection of photographs, this one was used quite a few times. If you want to support the work Tearfund do in Cambodia you can.

Best graph

That disenchantment with politics I mentioned above, well this graph shows all the polls of the past four years along with a 15 poll rolling average. It’s going to be an interesting election.


Best new discovery

This was the year I discovered Alissa Wilkinson’s film reviews. She’s the chief film critic for Christianity Today, and writes about film and culture and its intersection with Christianity. As someone frequently frustrated with sycophantic Christian reviews, or kowtowing to movie studios by dancing to their tune and unquestioningly promoting films with a vague Christian link, her writing is a breath of fresh air.

This, in defence of the magazine’s one star review of Left Behind, is among her best. And this about the upcoming film Unbroken was a fascinating read as well.

Most annoying feature on a website

Having said that, the multipage articles on Christianity Today really frustrates me. Never do I just want to read the first few paragraphs of an article before changing page, or another couple before clicking again. Maybe sometimes I do only read a little but surely they should want readers to view the whole piece.

Band of the year

Not a new band, but another discovery. Over the Rhine have dominated my playlist this year – this was the track that first hooked me. They also have a new album out.

I’ve given up on…

Controversies. Whether it’s Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, I’ve not had the energy nor the inclination to engage with them. I’m over trying to find a way to write strong enough words to make my disagreement heard, but in such a winsome way to command respect from those who I disagree with. Often I’ve thought about writing something only to be glad not to get around to it.

I’ve fallen in love with… 

The church. The local, known, accountable, seen body of Christ which I am a part of. The controversies that rage on twitter, fought out in vying blogposts have nothing on the long hard work of forming a community of disciples striving to make new disciples. In a time of celebrity commentators tied to nothing but their own appearances and likelihood of success it is reassuring to be known and to know others.

I was aware while in Cambodia that development agencies come and go but the church remains.

I’ve also thought quite a lot this year about authority. A verse in John 19, where Jesus before Pilate responds that Pilate only has authority because it has been given to him by the Father, has resonated with me time and time again. This is freeing, liberating and reassuring, especially at times when I most unsure of what I’m doing. But that freedom isn’t just an individual thing, it helps us in relationships, and helps us become part of the community of believers working out our faith. Being a part of a church is where that dance of freedom and authority works itself out – all with the realisation that we’re not going to get  it quite right just yet.

What I’m ready for

Peace. It’s Christmas, we talk about it as a time of harmony and joy when often it’s one of rushing and frustration. I’m ready to stop for the year and spend some time with my family. With four small children under four around it won’t be quiet, but I’m not entirely sure that’s all peace is about.


But there’s a wider peace that I’m looking for, searching for, desperate for. The hurting of the world is manifold and impossible to ignore. Whether school children murdered in their classroom in Pakistan or families grieving for loved ones killed by a truck in Glasgow while Christmas shopping. There is pain in this world, sometimes almost too much to bear.

There’s war that refuses to cease, violence that does not end, and we can seem powerless in the face of its relentless advance. The most powerful of the Christmas words for me is Emmanuel: God with us. It’s not a panacea, it doesn’t remove pain, but it reminds us God became human, became known, came to earth and suffered. He doesn’t run from pain and hurting, from what we’ve done and been done to us, he stands with us and takes the pain.

While I’m ready for peace, I’m glad for the Prince of Peace while I wait.

What I’m waiting for

On New Year’s Eve I fly to New Zealand, actually to China before jumping on another plane. I’m away for most of January, a mix of work and holiday, about which I’m incredibly excited. In some ways it has distracted from the lead up to Christmas, only confirmed a fortnight ago I’ve not had time to enjoy the anticipation and put it to one side and get on with what I’m up to right now. Instead it dominates at the moment, and as much as I’m ready for the Christmas break, looking forward to the food and my family, and some much needed rest, I’ll be looking forward to New Zealand throughout.

And I wonder if there’s a bigger lesson in that. The excitement of the greater thing distracts from everything else. It’s there in Exodus 33 when Moses turns down a blessing from God if he doesn’t get his presence. It’s then that Moses is placed in the cleft of a rock as God passes by.

What I find myself constantly waiting for and reaching after is that overarching thing that dominates what I’m doing and gives me purpose in pursuing everything else. There are plenty of things that keep me occupied and excited but one thing gives way to the next and then the next.

In 2015 I’m looking forward to a year that will no doubt be busy when I want quiet, boring when I thirst for action, crowded with people when I want time alone, and without company when I am lonely. I am sure there will be excitement and frustration, joy and disappointment. But with it I hope it is also a year of purpose. Quite what that purpose is, I’m not quite sure.

Can we crowdsource theology?

This is more or less what I said in my session on social media and theology at the Christian New Media Conference:


This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the American Southern Baptists held a large conference on the subject of marriage.

This commission isn’t some minor technical meeting but one of the most significant Christian pressure groups in the states – their endorsement can make or break the fortunes of political candidates.

And as is the norm with most conferences these days many outside the room were following along through the hashtag, and on this occasion able to watch a livestream as well.

There were two different conversations going on. What was spoken on the stage and received by the audience. And what was being discussed on twitter. The conversations were different, and often seem detached from one another.

The ERLC takes a position on marriage which angered many viewing online, who made clear their dissent and opposition. This was not a discussion nor a debate of the position, it was a broadcast of one position from the stage, and the broadcast of opposition from the internet.

This is not to comment on the validity of either position, but to point out that debating points of theology and doctrine via social media is rarely a productive exercise and more often an excuse for restating entrenched positions to those who view things differently.

Even when the lines of opposition are less clear cut social media can still aggravate rather than unify. On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at my church, he was funny and winsome, and at one point quoted from Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire, reflecting on the comment that all religions are equally useful he stated that “we’re not to be useful, we’re to be transformed and transforming”.

Someone tweeted that, and almost immediately got the response: “hashtag false dichotomy patrol”. To his credit, upon clarification the reply was removed.

In reducing the comment, and removing the context of the sermon the archbishop’s words were easy to misunderstand.

Too often social media stimulates dissent as if it was the oxygen that gives it breath.

Dissent is healthy, it is essential, and in social media we find opportunities to explore different views and opinions that were never previously open. Where previously ideas were not questioned, they are now relentlessly scrutinised. There has been a democratisation of ideas that enables new voices to be heard.

This has transformed the context in which we talk about theology, and that’s what I want to explore briefly.

There is a responsibility upon Christians to understand what they believe and why they believe it, and breaking down the walls of traditional authority enable an exploration of theology and the doctrine of the Church.

Social media offers a opportunities for new voices to examine beliefs, and to do so in new contexts without the traditions and orthodoxies that can sometimes silence questions.

My concern is that we run the risk of moving from a priesthood of all believers to a priesthood of the loudest voices. And we end up having conversations, debates and arguments online about theology without thinking about the framework that we’re working within, or that those we’re talking to are working from.

There’s something in Christian identity that sees opposition as a validation of belief: if people are disagreeing with me, it means I’m standing for something worth standing for. This entrenches disagreement where it doesn’t need to be entrenched and it builds walls between Christians and everyone else, and between different groups of Christians,

The problem with the democratisation of ideas on the internet is that someone somewhere will take just about every possible position. It means that if you want support for a point of view you will find it. If you want to go into bat on one side of an argument you can find reinforcements. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

As Thorin says in The Hobbit: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Christians cannot isolate themselves from critics, or people who think differently, but we should think about the frame within which we’re having a conversation. If I’m going to debate theology online first of all the ground rules need establishing. Are we talking about the meaning of scripture, or its pastoral implications, are we trying to work out what our sources of authority are in the first place?

These questions matter, because while there is nothing intrinsically valuable in being opposed there can also be a false goal of seeking agreement where that just isn’t possible. Sometimes we will disagree.

Because there are opportunities for new voices on the internet does not mean all new voices are equal. There are gatekeepers on the internet, and they marshal their authority very differently than traditional sources of church teaching, but they are still powerful.

In the online discussion surrounding the ERLC’s conference two key gatekeepers were Rachel Held Evans and Justin Lee. They both strongly disagreed with what was being spoken and curated a lot of the opposition being voiced. But their postures were different. Justin Lee was at the conference, and while tweeting comments was also having conversations. He was trying to move beyond the broadcast opposition.

Just this week Philip Yancey wrote in an article on the Huffington Post: “Writing for the Internet, I’ve learned, is a bit like taking on the hecklers at the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. The normal rules of civil dialogue do not apply. Especially if the topic is religion – any religion – you’ll likely provoke a reflexive verbal blast.”

Many of the conversations we have online about theology and doctrine aren’t new. That’s why although I think it’s transformed the context in which we discuss it I don’t think it transforms our doctrine. When we wade into an argument about how we read the Bible think about the arguments that have gone on throughout history on this very point. Most of the internet’s controversialists are not original.

Christian doctrine may not have been formed in the crucible of social media, but the arguments have frequently been battled through time and time again. In the novelty of fresh discussion we cannot forget the centuries of conversation the church has gone through.

When we talk about theology online what do we take our cue from? Are we looking to the Bible, are we looking to creeds and church leaders, to favourite bloggers and authors, are we weighing what they say carefully?

And are there some things we opt not to write about? Are some topics too controversial, too likely to be opposed or misunderstood? When thinking about theology and the internet we often look to the States and see the debates that take place online there. We forget that our context is different even if we read their posts and they read ours.

The internet is open and accessible it also operates in circles. I can write something popular and approved of because of who is reading what I write. Someone else can write the very same words and it is viewed as outrageous.

A couple of years ago when the General Synod didn’t vote for women bishops I asked a friend to write a piece for Threads about the vote. She takes a traditional complementarian position and views church leadership as reserved for men. Her article wasn’t inflammatory, and the comments were fairly kind even if mostly disagreeing. But it was a bruising experience. A school of thought held by many in the church had become hard to speak in support of online.

I don’t want everyone to agree with her, I don’t myself and she knows that. But when the internet is a hard place to talk about certain issues we have to question its value as a forum for debating and determining church doctrine.

That’s because we simply don’t know the perspective and background that many we discuss with come from. We don’t know the frame from which they’re arguing, and we very rarely are able to take time to establish some ground rules.

If I’m going to talk about the role of women in church leadership I not inclined to do it with someone who takes David Cameron’s view that the church simply needs to get with the programme.

I’ll do my best to articulate a biblical position for those who don’t hold to the authority of scripture but I’m not going to get too worried about trying to convince them to come over to my side, our frameworks are different.

And this is the problem with the priesthood of all. And it means we can’t just crowd source our doctrine. Or at least we can’t unless we’re able to agree the ground rules first. And that raises the question of who gets to decide what those ground rules are. There’s an infinite loop of complexity here that ends up with someone always having authority, power and influence over other people.

There’s an important caveat to all this. When we talk about doctrine I want scripture to be central, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we should listen to. I want to use my reason, I want to see what it means in real life, and I want to hear from people’s experience.

The church has to have its eyes open to the world it is walking through, it does not exist in isolation. It is also the reality of our situation that discussion about doctrine and theology take place in the open – just look at the Catholic Church’s recent synod on the family. Even a meeting that was supposedly taking place behind closed doors had the full glare of the media exposing its twists and turns.

The daylight built into our social media infused world is healthy, it gives us a scepticism that causes us to re-evaluate and debate the things we believe. That’s a good thing. But it can also lead to a level of doubt and uncertainty that means everything is always up for grabs. And that’s not a healthy thing. We can be so bewildered by alternatives that we end up not having a clue what we believe.

I firmly believe that some things are true and other things are not. Some of those things we can know clearly, others we will struggle with, and yet more we will know but find difficult to apply.

Christian doctrine isn’t easy. It’s not the conclusion of what’s popular at any point in time. It’s determined neither by what’s trending, nor what we’ve always believed. Doctrine shouldn’t be inflexible, but social media increases the complexities of how it flexes.

Social media prioritises polarisation, and when it comes to working through doctrine we need less polarisation and more patience. And social media isn’t very good at patience.