Rewilding the Church by Steve Aisthorpe

Steve Aisthorpe’s new book ’Rewilding the Church’ takes as it’s starting point the enduring fascination in contemporary society for rewilding, a process of returning large tracts of countryside to a more ‘natural’ state in an effort to bring back lost bio-diversity and species rich habitats. Aisthorpe lives in the Scottish Highlands, the Shangri-la of many rewilding devotees who see the mountains and glens as an ideal locus for their efforts. He also works for the Church of Scotland, a historic denomination which faces many of the problems that other denominations do – declining church attendance and challenging issues to do with ministerial recruitment and elderly buildings.  An accomplished researcher, Aisthorpe has done fieldwork among those who, while professing Christianity, no longer attend church. This provided the material for his first book ‘The Invisible Church’ and further research has been added to contribute to this one. Aisthorpe has found favour within the Fresh Expressions movement, which in some cases seems to me to serve as a thinly veiled attempt to get people ‘back to church’ – that’s not his approach though: ‘I am certainly not suggesting that anyone should chase after people with the intention of corralling them into homogenised congregations!’ He declares. Aisthorpe as a thoughtful and creative missiologist seems to recognise the opportunities posed by the changes in society that are reflected in this shift away from ‘how things have always been done’ as well as facing the challenges they present.

Interested in finding out more? Join Steve for a live chat session on Wednesday the 2nd of September 2020.

His book is a good read for those who like me are keen for Christianity to move away from it’s religious trappings and to return to a more fundamental focus on the teachings of Jesus, Steve and I may disagree on points of Christian doctrine, but we’re in full agreement there. He is what some would call a ‘loyal radical’ speaking uncomfortable truths from within the fold of his historical church home. This is recalled throughout the book, not least when he remarks that the church has many unloving critics, and many uncritical lovers, what it can always use, he remarks ‘is some loving critique’. Among other things, Aisthorpe calls for an approach that values simplicity over complexity, he also calls for a place to be found for doubt, questioning and journey ‘Churches perceived as standing for certainty, dogma and fixed practises are no place for pilgrims’ he notes.  A lifelong adventurer and outdoorsman, he calls for an ecclesial outlook which values adventure, innovation and exploration.

Watch Steve in discussion with the Church of Scotland moderator about his writing and research.

One of the things that rewilding is famous for as an ideology for its call to re-introduce apex predators as a way of dealing with pests. Aisthorpe stops short of this, but does call for the culling of invasive species like busyness and fear – perhaps this is where he could have gone further, there are other invasive species I’d like to see culled that are much more human than this. My feeling is that he has pulled his punches here a little, however his call for a more contemplative, inclusive and welcoming spirituality is certainly deeply welcome. The book is peppered with quotes which demonstrate the breadth of what I think is his own inclusive and open small ‘e’ evangelical Christianity. As well as frequent Bible references he draws upon a range of popular authors, from Henri Nouwen to Rob Bell, as well as new pieces of field research to make his point. He wants to see a church that is more Jesus shaped and effectively says that unless we loosen our grip on it and allow ourselves to be guided (or lured?) in a spirited direction we will continue to see catastrophic collapse in the church as in our natural environment. “If you want to rewild the Church” he says, “don’t promote mission strategy and teach church-planting tactics. Instead foster a trust in Jesus and nurture a deeper love for those he brings across our path.” Ultimately Aisthorpe believes that God is rewilding the church, the question is whether we try to resist this, or fall in step.

Steve Aisthorpe

Steve graciously agreed to answer a couple of questions I had about the book – or rather about the concept of rewilding as it applies to the church…

Q: One of the most enduring critiques of rewilding is that it fails to take account of lives and livelihoods in the current landscape. What do you say to those who like ‘church as it is’ and don’t want to see it change?

Authentic Church arises out of our responding to the call of Jesus, ‘follow me’. No blueprint or road map exists. Yes, we can discern certain trajectories and get fleeting glimpses of the destination, but his call is an invitation to join a holy adventure. So the Church is always ‘an interim Church, a Church in transition’ as Hans Kung put it. To go back to the rewilding metaphor, if something carries the label ‘church’ but is committed to remain unchanging I would suggest that it is time for a radical reintroduction programme! Just as the reintroduction of a keystone species impacts the whole ecosystem, individual disciples and any expression of the Church need to allow the one C.S. Lewis called ‘The Great Interferer’ to transform and regenerate the landscape.

Q: A significant barrier to rewilding is the question of ownership, which resolves to ‘money and power’. The church is home to the same issues, how do we tackle that? And how do you approach that personally from your position within a historic denomination?

I live in a valley where the owners on one side manage the land as traditional sporting estates. The land there is managed to ensure that optimum numbers of a very small number of species (deer and grouse) are available at key times of the year. In contrast, the landowners on the opposite side of the valley have entered into a shared commitment to a 200 year plan to rewild the landscape. Ownership makes a huge difference, but it can work in different ways. There are real choices and occasionally owners make courageous, personally sacrificial and radical choices. When it comes to the Church, this is the time for such courageous choices.

Having said that, whether in land or church, I am convinced that ‘small is beautiful’. See below! In my first book, The Invisible Church, there is a cartoon by Dave Walker which pictures a huge ship named ‘The Church Unchanging’. It is sinking and surrounded by a haphazard host of small vessels, life rafts etc. To me, this sums up the current situation. Where ‘ownership’, power and money are centralised in large institutions, this is the time for divesting, decentralising, refocusing resources on the emerging etc.. Personally, working in ‘a historic denomination’ I want to be part of God’s rewilding: subverting traditionalism (not to be confused with tradition, as explained in the book), fear of change and the veneration of things that have ‘always been this way’ wherever I find em – and encouraging and celebrating the faithful rhythm of listening and responding to the one we follow – whether that looks ‘traditional’, innovative or whatever.

Q: Rewilding really requires scale in order to take hold. Just making a hole in your garden fence may encourage biodiversity but it isn’t the same as ‘rewilding’ – how do you address the problem of scale when you’re encouraging people to think ‘small’?

The question of scale is an interesting one. My observation is that God’s rewilding of the Church is reflected in a simplification, a flourishing of the small and simple and the rapid decline of the large and the complex. While the increasing interest in cathedral worship is one of many indicators that large institutions will continue to be part of the overall biodiversity that is the Church, there is no doubt that the overall balance is shifting towards the small and the simple. Rewilding the Church will involve a revolution of small things. The Church (and that includes us, because we are the church) needs to recapture a sense of its identity as the global body of Christ, but also foster the small and local, where Christian community can be sufficiently agile to respond to the Spirit’s life. If all you are able to do is the ecclesiastical equivalent of making a hole in your garden fence, do it! Who knows where it’ll lead!

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A short break from the usual light hearted blog posts to let you know about my lent series on ‘deconstruction’ which starts on the 26th of Feb. I will be using my regular ‘weekday meditations’ email series to explore the idea of deconstruction, what it is, why people go through it, what to do if you find yourself in the middle of it, all that good stuff.

Touching on issues of social control, power, loss, love, failure and other good stuff. You can sign up here, (it’s free and I won’t misuse your data) I’m also aiming to produce some supporting material to go with it as we go along…

I hope you can join me!

file000606541737.jpgThere comes a point in most people’s lives, when things have to be taken apart. Beliefs, world views, ways of understanding yourself, and what life is all about.

This is because the structures we build up become too restrictive. We reach the point where they no longer holds us properly, and that chafes.

The things you know, the experiences you’ve had, the stuff you’ve learned… you need a new framework to hold it all.

Its like in the old days when they used to keep wine in bags made from the skins of animals, called ‘wine skins’: you couldn’t keep new wine in old wine skins. Because they would split, they were only good for the old wine.

New wine had to go in new wine skins. New ways of seeing the world, require a new structure.

The same process is true of us when we are conscious of our religious or spiritual beliefs. The structures we built up, sometimes from childhood, will eventually need to come down in order to accommodate our new, wider, more mature understanding. That doesn’t mean our old structure was bad – although it can feel that way, because the restriction is uncomfortable. Really though, it just means that it doesn’t fit anymore. Like the yellow jumper I begged my parents for when I was about twelve. I loved that jumper. It doesn’t fit me now, and anyway I’m no longer convinced yellow is my colour.

The process of deconstructing a religious or spiritual world view is often difficult, sometimes very painful indeed. If you’re lucky, it’s easy. But we’re not all lucky, because these things have built in defences against deconstruction, often involving feelings of guilt, doubt, and existential dread.

For various reasons, conscious deconstruction is way better than unconscious deconstruction – (when you just go “this is all b*llocks”, and chuck the lot). The problem is that sometime later you will find yourself wishing you had a certain part, and then you have to go looking in the bins. And there’s always disgusting stuff in the bins. Much better to take it apart carefully, being aware of where the bits are, and what they do. Conscious deconstruction for the win.

I’m running a deconstruction retreat in November to help people do just that, find out more or book here. I’m planning on it being a small affair – intimate. Because this stuff is personal, and I prefer to work with small groups.

I’m also in the process of setting up a number of house conferences on the same kind of theme, a house conference is a conference… in a house. A bit like a house concert, but without a band, and fewer hairy roadies. If you’ve got a house (or other nice, friendly space), and you know some people who might like to come, then let’s talk about doing one at your place.

 

file1951346280860.jpgRecent reports that show a growing number of young people identifying as having ‘no religion’ are evidence not of growing secularism, but actually of a society which post secular.

New research, by Prof Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, details percentages of 16–29 year olds across 22 countries who identify as having ‘no religion’. Of the countries studied, only eight had a majority of young people who self–identify has having a religion.

In the UK, the figures are clear, and follow a common narrative: Seventy percent of British young people identify as having no religion. This is not, contrary to some press coverage, a shock statistic. The movement in societal terms has been clear for some time, Brits, particularly young ones, have increasingly identified as having no religion.

The Church of England records what it describes as the ‘Usual Sunday Attendance’ at its churches, and noted by 2013 that the percentage of English residents who attend church had halved, from three to 1.5 per cent of the total population over a period of forty years. Similar trends are to be found within various contexts, including in America, where church attendance has historically been high, and where a growing proportion of the population are now reporting that they have never attended a church service.

But not attending church, or having ‘no religion’ is certainly not the same thing as having no beliefs, as other studies have shown: According to one report, approximately 30% of those who belong to no religion at all, claim to believe in life after death (something that not even all church going Christians necessarily believe).

Further to that, 7% of self-professed atheists believe in angels; and approximately one in four of the UK population believe in reincarnation, including one in seven atheists.

This social change has occurred during a period of time in which British culture has become notably more diverse, with a growth in the number of religious and cultural identities reported in surveys. Some of the ‘new’ religious identities are ‘joke’ or ‘parody’ religions, but not all. Some of the new religious identities, even the more playful ones, that have come into existence, have at their core a sense of Tillichian ‘ultimate concern’, making them genuine in a theological sense.

At the same time as this change has taken place, social attitudes have altered to become more tolerant and accepting of diversity, with an acceptance of, or preference for, spirituality over religion: other research has shown that ‘nones’ are generally ambivalent towards the church, regarding it perhaps as more inconsequential than negative. Its not so much that the church has been violently rejected, or rebelled against, just that it has been found to have little meaning. It may be useful in certain times (major tragedies etc.), but on the whole it has little of importance to offer, and certainly doesn’t endow the attendee with the kind of symbolic capital that it used to.

This social climate, which allows for or encourages a liquidity or plurality of belief, underlayed with a marked decline in the size, scope and power of the mainstream religions (particularly Christianity), rather than being purely secularist, is indicative of post secularism. Within a postsecular society, religious thought continues to play an important part, actively shaping ‘social life at different levels and in a variety of forms’ (Habermas) but no longer acts as the dominant or defining narrative.

Rather than seeing the total destruction of religious activity and belief as one might expect to be the result of the process of secularisation, what we are actually seeing is the changing shape of belief, and its movement away from the contained or institutionalised form. For Christians, this may pose a challenge, but should not necessarily be unwelcome.

TLDR version: Theodicy is the question of why evil exists when God is supposed to be good. There are lots of approaches to this question, I’ll be pursuing one of them in the next article.

Over the next few weeks I plan to publish a number of blogs looking at some important questions of Christian theology, and giving what might for some be a new perspective on them.

I’m always keen to acknowledge that my own perspective is forever evolving, I know I’m wrong about some things, and I’m in a constant process of learning. I think of this as a ‘grounded mind’ approach: its an acceptance of our flawed humanity, and that we’re not in a position to know or understand everything. My opinion is that this is the most healthy approach any of us can take, in fact I distrust any other approach.

Certainty is too much of an idol for most of us. Doubt and faith make much better bedfellows than certainty and faith, a combination of the first sort produces humility, the latter tends to produce arrogance. Tweet this!

On that basis, I hope some of these thoughts develop into conversations, genuine discussions of perspectives on truth. But for that to happen we need to share some conceptual language. One of the most important concepts in theology, is that of ‘Theodicy’ – so what does that mean?

The word theodicy is not particularly old, only a few centuries, it was developed by a theologian looking at one of the most fundamental issues for any one who accepts the idea of ‘God’ – whatever form that may take. The question is: ‘How can a morally good God exist in a world which is so clearly full of bad things?’

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If a good God exists, then how do we explain the bad things that happen?

Since it’s coining, theodicy has been explored by various theorists and writers, not all of them theologians. For instance, Max Weber, the sociologist, considered theodicy to be a human response to a world in which many things are difficult to explain. Perhaps the most common reframing of this kind of concept, is ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ (Personally I prefer to ask the opposite question.)

But in a theological sense, theodicy concerns the question of why a/the God would ‘allow’ or ‘permit’ suffering. What is the meaning of evil in the face of an ultimate goodness? It does require a starting point of an acceptance of God as in some way objectively ‘real’ – although precisely what that means remains debatable.

Various answers have been formulated to address this question, they include ideas about the purposes of evil, and the nature of God’s will. All of these arguments have strengths and weaknesses, which are well addressed in relevant pieces of literature. In the next few posts I will ask some of the fundamental questions about the nature of God which help us get to the root of this problem – in particular I will ask if God should really be understood as ‘all powerful’ and ‘in control’, and also whether God can be said to be ‘unchanging’.

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Ford’s Model T began the mass availability era in cars, which are now in the market era.

Medical services, education, churches, and a variety of other institutions are experiencing a kind of existential crisis in the UK, and despite their obvious differences, there’s a common underlying cause for all of them.

Before the inevitable objection: yes of course the picture isn’t exactly the same everywhere: some places demonstrate the crisis much more distinctly than others, churches are an easy example, some have dwindled to next to nothing, others burst at the seams.

Across the board, proposed remedies abound, most of them involve resource, usually money, some of them seem to work, others demonstrably don’t – the same is true across the sectors.

What appears to be missing in some areas, perhaps most obviously the church, though, is a recognition that all of these institutions are dealing with the same set of problems. This set of problems arise from the fundamental paradigm shift from elite, through mass, to market. An easy way to demonstrate that shift is with education, even recently, education was very much something by and for the elite. That’s not to say that ‘ordinary’ people didn’t participate in education at all, of course they did. Ordinary people often learned to read and write, and some reaped the rewards of higher education to an extent, but fundamentally it was about the elite, they were the best educated, they had access to the best schools and the best universities. They had the capital (in all its various sorts).

With the era of industrialisation however, came a new need for mass education, and a new means of delivering it too – most notably it began to be made widely available free of charge. Slowly this filtered all the way through the education system, eventually becoming fulfilled only, I would say, in the second half of the 20th century. People like me, and others roughly categorised as Generation X, certainly experienced mass education, as did some of the Baby Boomers. But arguably, and this is a moot point I suppose, elite education was still phasing out for most of the 1960s, obviously it remains in pockets, as some private schools and ‘top tier’ universities demonstrate.

Mass education was very much seen as education for the common good, in part it was ideologically driven, just as the NHS was set up according to a common good ideology, and just as Bibles (long before) had begun to be made widely available in languages which could be read by the ordinary person, and eventually distributed free of charge. There was then a very rapid transition from mass education to marketised education, which is very much where we are now. Since the late 1980s in the UK, education has become branded and competitive, some providers appearing to lose a sense of the common good as they fight for market share and league table placement. In some places this is much more pronounced than others, you may have experienced it yourself.

In the same way other institutions have also transitioned from elite, to mass, to market. The mass era had everything to do with industrialisation, and much of what we did or do reflects that, even down to buildings that look like factories (as opposed to ‘elite’ era buildings which bore a resemblance to palaces or mansions). But while the transition into mass from elite took a long time to happen, and then worked its way though over a reasonably considerable period, the movement to market has happened with astonishing rapidity, leaving many confused and unable to keep up.

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Successful megachurch ‘brands’ such as Hillsongs exemplify one form of the marketisation of church.

This movement too has been shaped by technology, in this case the birth and growth of the internet: all of a sudden choice is massively enhanced, and availability is entirely different. Our high street shops are dealing with the same issue, while they operate ‘as’ market, they are ill equipped to compete in a truly ‘marketised’ era, they struggle to compete with online competitors. Hence we see an increasing amount of ghost high streets, and empty shop fronts.

The other big factor of course has been a move towards a greater embrace, from Thatcher onwards, of neo-liberalism, and its prioritisation of the market. Education, healthcare, spirituality, all these things have become understood primarily as consumables, just as is the very act of shopping itself.

As institutions struggle to realise, accept and adapt to this, the existential crisis they experience (notwithstanding the individual differences) will certainly continue.

Did you like this post? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and don’t forget to share it on your social media platforms – let’s take the power back.