Category Archives: culture

Welcome to the new Archbishop

The appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury marks the ascendency of bold, socially engaged evangelical faith within the Church of England. In some ways Justin Welby has the background that has marked many primates of the Church before him. He studied at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge and is related to a former prime minister. But Justin Welby is a different kind of educated gentleman from those of a previous generation. His faith is rooted in Christ who came to serve, not to rule, and while his background has opened doors, his ambitions have been for the growth of God’s kingdom, not for personal aggrandisement.

Welby’s previous experience in the oil business and in the world of high finance has marked him out as the man for the job, but it is his worldly-wise gospel commitment that continues to encourage many in the Christian community. What has been mentioned less often is Welby’s international role as a peacemaker – particularly in central Nigeria where he was a major factor in the successful peace negotiations between fighting factions. And don’t forget that the Church of Nigeria is now second only to the Church of England in the size of its membership of the worldwide Anglican Communion of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head.

Justin Welby’s appointment also marks the rise and rise of the influence of the Alpha Course. When he worked in London, Welby was a member of Holy Trinity Brompton, and is still close friends with Nicky Gumbel, whose work leading and promoting the Alpha Course has made such a mark on British Christianity. The faith that arises from Alpha is unashamedly evangelical, founded on a belief in the Bible. It is also charismatic, depending on the Holy Spirit’s works and gifts. It is at the same time socially engaged, taking seriously the material needs of the world and the place of Christian faith in the political and economic structures of society.

Welby lives by what he calls a “confidence in the gospel”. The gospel he bears is the gospel of personal salvation and the gospel of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit and the gospel that can speak into the problems of the whole of society.

Welby prefers words to music, but the music he does enjoy demonstrates the breadth of his experience and spirituality, from Handel to Wesley to Matt Redman and Stuart Townend.

Another reason that Justin Welby is the right man for the job is his ecumenical experience. His strong working relationship with Roman Catholics in Europe and in Liverpool will encourage those who want to see the Church of England retain its ties with Rome even as it sets itself apart with the appointment of women as bishops.

On a personal level, Welby has a knack of relating to everyone at their own level, a skill he has found very useful in Durham and one he will need to draw upon as Archbishop. He has recently become a grandfather and is “acquainted with grief”, as the first of his six children was killed in car crash in 1983.

Twelve months ago, when he became Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby said that his first priority in the new role was “to listen”, and then to encourage the work of the church in its worship of God and in its growth in numbers. As Archbishop of Canterbury he will need to raise his sights again to a wider role in the nation, but it is likely that he will be more interested in leading the church to growth and working behind the scenes, and will feature less in the media that his predecessor has done.

Welby’s appointment will not please everyone in the Church. He represents a move to an open evangelical position that some at the liberal end of the Church will not be delighted about. Neither will he please the most conservative of evangelicals. But he stands in a strong place to represent mainline evangelical opinion in the Church and may just be the man to hold the Church of England and the whole Anglican Communion together.

Christians of all denominations and none should now get on their knees and pray for Justin Welby – pray that the job won’t squeeze him into its own mould, and that he will have the strength to be the Lord’s man for this calling and for such a time as this.

Beyond 400 – the book

Bookcover150x229

A group of British Baptists have been engaging in a web-based conversation on what the future of Baptist life in Britain might be, beyond the 400th anniversary of the first Baptist church in Britain.

That conversation has now been published as a book. You can buy the book from here: http://www.beyond400.net/buy-the-book1.

I’ve written one of the chapters on bivocational ministry, first seen here on this blog!

Neil Brighton, another of the contributors, says of the book: “Not only does the book give a snapshot of contemporary hopes and dreams for the future but it also captures the breadth of thinking. A number of the entries could easily be used as discussion starters in home groups, church meetings or in sermon preparation.

Call me Wayne

“Can I call you Wayne?”. The man at the other end of the phone was from a major power company, and I was agreeing to pay him lots of money, so he was being nice to me. He had clearly been trained to call customers by their first name, with their permission. I was happy to give it: “yes, please call me Wayne”.

The conversation continued, with frequent use of my first name. I needed to tell him that the house I was living in belonged to a church and that I was employed by the church. “Oh, so you’re a reverend are you?” he said. “Yes”, I replied “I’m a Baptist minister”. “Oh, I understand, Reverend Clarke”, he said. From then on I was no longer Wayne, no longer the matey first-named customer I had said I wanted to be. Now I was “Reverend Clarke”. And as the conversation ended he said, “Thank you, Reverend”. And he was gone.

What is it about being an ordained minister that robs me of my identity as an individual, and ends up defining me by my profession? Although I am comfortable with my calling as an ordained minister I didn’t want to be called “reverend”, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is just incorrect to call someone “reverend”. The honorific “reverend”, unlike “doctor”, is an adjective, not a noun. The title, if it is to be used, should only be used with a first name (or initial) and surname.

Secondly, I’m not comfortable about what “the reverend” implies. The word means “worthy of honour”, but my calling is to be a servant, not to have dominion over people.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the title places a barrier between me and those I’d like to meet and get to know and share Christ’s love with. Being known as “reverend” sets me apart as “religious” or even “holy” in a way that prevents people from seeing me as a person like them, a person who is a sinner saved by God’s grace.

So simply “Wayne” will do nicely, thank you.

The leaving of Liverpool (and the BBC)

This week I’m leaving the BBC. For the last eleven years I have worked for BBC Radio Merseyside as Religious Producer. I have presented the Sunday morning programme “Daybreak” more than five hundred times. Before that I worked for five years as a programme volunteer, and before that I worked with BBC Radio Cleveland and BBC Radio Oxford. I’ve been part of BBC Local Radio religion programmes for more than twenty five years in all, but now I’m leaving.

I’m leaving for good reasons. As well as working in radio I’m an ordained Baptist minister, and I have been called to be full time minister at New North Road Baptist Church in Huddersfield. It’s an exciting new challenge and I know the hand of God is on my calling to go there and work alongside the church to see his kingdom grow.

But I’m also leaving at a time when BBC Radio is struggling with real faith broadcasting. On one level “religion” has been affirmed by BBC Local Radio. Every station has a Religious Producer (now more often called Faith Producer) and a Sunday morning programme with “faith” content. But fewer of those faith producers and presenters have any personal Christian faith and the broadcasts are moving from being an insider’s view of what it means to believe and becoming an outsider’s commentary on faith.

Most of those broadcasters are doing an excellent job in the few hours they are employed. They manage to produce a weekly programme full of variety in the face of pressure from BBC management which is itself under pressure from an embarrassment in society to proclaim personal faith. And if there are fewer believing Christians then the blame lies with the Church who have not reached out to creative communities and have not urged their best people into creative roles and the media.

My new calling is to help to equip the Church to serve the world in workplaces and local communities. My task, and yours, is to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send workers into places of service and influence. We are sent to be salt and light. My prayer is that our loving Lord will answer the call to make his people saltier and shinier in the world.

As the bright shiny Brian Houston sings: “Who is willing to be broken, who will love me enough that when I call your name, you will go where I send and hearts will be changed. Here I am, send me” (from “Spirit and Truth” on the album In the words of Dr Luke).

This article first appeared in Inspire, the bulletin of themedianet.org

Going Viral with The Doctor

I attended the Church and Media Conference in Swanwick last week. As together we enjoyed the good food and convivial atmosphere, we shared in sessions about the future of the Media.

Our opening keynote address was from Elaine Storkey. Among other encouraging words, she reflected on the way people use social media, and the sheer scale of the thing. One statistic stuck in my mind – that one in twelve of the world’s population is a regular user of Facebook.

Tweets

I had my own taste of the power of social media as the Conference came to an end. Our speaker Danny Cohen, the controller of BBC One, covered a wide range of topics in conversation with Andrew Graystone. He promised that Songs of Praise would still be around for its sixtieth anniversary in ten years’ time. He also revealed some news about Doctor Who, that there wouldn’t be a full series of the sci-fi favourite in 2012 but there would be more for Who fans in 2013. I was one of several people in the hall who had been tweeting through the Conference, sending out short summaries or comments on what speakers had said. So I tweeted what the controller said about Doctor Who. I hadn’t realised just what I’d done.

My tweet was retweeted by a hundred people, whose retweets were then retweeted hundreds more times. I received responses from other Twitter users, some grateful, some mocking and some insulting. Then the BBC’s entertainment correspondent wanted to speak to me, and then the story started appearing on dozens of blogs and fansites. My tweet was made a “top tweet” by Twitter. Eventually Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat commented on the story, a story that had started with one comment at a Christian conference and one tweet.

To my mind there were two more significant stories in what Danny Cohen said, which I had also tweeted about. One was Songs of Praise and the other was to do with the representation of Christians on television in everyday situations, but sadly it was the Doctor who grabbed the time and space.

The internet is a big scary place, but it’s a place where we can all make a difference. Our unconsidered tweets and status updates, our blogs and podcasts can influence people. Our responsibility is to make sure our influence is for godliness, for righteousness, and for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

One and Many

My final thought comes from my recent readings in John’s gospel. In John 6 Jesus speaks to many thousands of people in one big crowd. But in the preceding chapters his dealings are with individuals: a woman at a well in Samaria, a royal official with a poorly son, a disabled man at the pool of Bethesda. Sometimes we reach the many, but more often we speak to individuals, and individuals matter. Whether we broadcast or write for millions, or speak to one colleague or one person in need, every word we say matters and can be for the blessing of the ones that God loves.

Review of “The Way”

Before Christianity was called Christianity it was simply “The Way”. It was not a religion, not an organisation, not a set of doctrines, but simply a path to walk.

As someone said in a talk I heard recently, I set out to be a follower of Jesus, not a professional purveyor of religion. Now the film The Way has reminded those of us who follow Jesus that it’s about the journey.

The Way tells us the story of Tom, an American ophthalmologist, whose only son Daniel is killed as he begins to walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route from France across northern Spain, ending at Santiago de Compostela. Tom decides to walk the 800km of the Camino himself to complete what Daniel never achieved. On the Way Tom joins up with two men and a woman who all have their own reasons for walking the Camino.

None of the four companions is walking as a Christian pilgrim, but each walks to find answers and to change their lives for the better. As with all pilgrimage, the purpose is not the destination but the journey.

The film is the work of writer and director Emilio Estevez and his father Martin Sheen. Sheen himself plays Tom, and Estevez appears as Daniel, mostly in flashback and in Tom’s imagination as a companion on the walk. The film is an exploration of the relationship between father and son In addition to the on-screen father-son relationship,  the film is dedicated to the memory of Sheen’s father and was inspired by Estevez’s son, Taylor. 

In every so-called talent programme and casting show these days the story is in the “journey”. Each person we meet has to be weak, talentless and timid at first, progressing through their limited ability to a triumphant climax and launch into superstardom. Of course this is entirely artificial, an invented narrative to fulfil the requirements of a TV format. 

In fiction “the journey” is a narrative device used in much great writing from Canterbury Tales to Huckleberry Finn, and a hundred road films. As the three ragged men and one woman of “The Way” followed the Camino I was reminded of four others who followed the Yellow Brick Road, and was I was delighted to read later that The Wizard of Oz was in the mind of Emilio Estevez as he made the film.

Recent films made by Christian writers and directors have also been road movies. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is, like The Way, a journey of characters thrown together on a quest for salvation. And Africa United, the story of five children walking from Rwanda to South Africa for the football World Cup, has similar themes. 

For Christians The Way is the Way of Christ, and this road movie takes us on that journey, a journey of faith and transformation. It is an inspirational film without any artifice in its emotional appeal. The magnificent scenery, the hardness of the travelling and the purposeful journey of the main characters inspires us to find our way, our way home.

The Way is on general release in the UK from May 13, 2011, and in the US from September 30, 2011. Thanks for the preview tickets go to Premier Christian Radio, official Faith Media Partners with Icon for The Way

Stories that feed your soul

I was sent a copy of Tony Campolo’s book “Stories that feed your soul” by the good people at The Ooze through as one of  their “Viral Bloggers”.

Campolo is one of my favourite Christian speakers. No, I’ll correct that, he is my number one favourite Christian speaker: radical and challenging and engaging, magnetic and hilariously funny. With Campolo humour is the way to soften up the listeners, to relax them, so that the point is driven home so much harder and more memorably.

“Stories that feed your soul” is the second collection of Campolo’s stories, drawn from his storehouse of illustrations. Some are interesting, some are engaging, some are delightful and some are just good jokes. I don’t know why, but when I read them sometimes the voice I’m hearing in my head is Tony Campolo and sometimes its Woody Allen. Either way the story is well told and always has a point to drive home. The stories are not new – one of the stories here (“A Father’s Blind Love” on page 30 if you’re interested) I first heard Campolo tell in a sermon at the Spring Harvest conference in 1989. But that same story is one that stayed with me then and I have re-told it myself in churches and schools ever since.

The book is helpfully divided into sections based around Romans chapter 8. Each section starts with a  few verses from the chapter and a short reflection. This is a clever device, sending the reader back to God’s Word and reminding us that these are stories to illustrate scripture, not just entertaining anecdotes.

“Stories that feed your soul” is worth getting hold of, reading, and then reading again with a highlighter pen and creating your own index. Many of these stories will find their way into my preaching and burrow their way into my soul. This is soul food, and worth a place on anyone’s menu.

“Stories that feed your soul” by Tony Campolo is published by Regal in hardback and retails at £12.99 in the UK.

Rob Bell interview

Rob Bell interviewed by Wayne Clarke

Rob Bell being interviewed by Wayne Clarke

Here’s the mp3 of my full interview with Rob Bell. An edited version of this was first broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside on Easter Morning, April 24th 2010.

Rob Bell interview

On meeting Rob Bell

Rob Bell & Wayne Clarke

Rob Bell & Wayne Clarke

I met controversial American pastor Rob Bell last night. To say there’s been a lot of fuss about Rob Bell lately is an understatement. He’s a superstar to many, the epitome of the cool, relevant communicator. But recently he’s been rejected and reviled by evangelical leaders in the States. He’s been on the news bulletin of major US networks. He’s on the front cover of Time magazine.

All because of one book. He’s written controversial books in the past, but his new one “Love Wins” deals with heaven hell and eternity, God’s love and God’s judgement. What has upset so many people is his claim that all or nearly all the people who ever lived will be embraced by God into heaven, a very earthy heaven of perfect love and justice. Not everyone knows that heavenly state in this life, but those who have rejected God’s love, or simply never heard it, will get multiple second chances to respond after they die. This idea of “post-mortem conversion” is a not a new one, but for many evangelicals it has aroused anger and the outright rejection not just of Rob Bell’s views, but of Rob Bell as a person and a brother Christian.

I had the chance to meet Rob Bell last night in my role as a BBC radio presenter. I had a full fifteen minutes to interview him, longer than the cursory three minutes most “celebrities” allow interviewers like me. I then heard his talk to a full house of 1,200 people at Liverpool Cathedral and the lengthy Q and A that followed.

So what’s he like? As a person he is very likeable. He was comfortable enough to make jokes and to laugh at my jokes. He talked to me about people from Liverpool being called “scousers” and what that meant. He is also surprisingly tall.

He has clearly been hurt by the recent criticism. It has affected his wife and family and his church congregation and that has not been pleasant, though he sees the critics as a symptom of the problem in the Christian church that he has been addressing for years. He mentioned the Yorkshire web designer who has the Twitter name “Robbell” and has received vile insults and threats from Christians, thinking he was the preacher. Rob Bell the preacher conveyed an honest vulnerability and sadness at the way the world is and the way the Church is.

He is clearly a gifted communicator. Like the best preachers, he told stories and included many telling illustrations. But he also quoted the Bible, passage after passage, reference after reference, with deep conviction and respect. If he is a liberal, he is the most Bible-loving liberal I’ve ever met. Very much of what he said rang true for me and seems to be a crucial message for our time. His insistence that people need to urgently heed a call to turn to Jesus and his teachings, his desire to see the world changed and to see hurts healed and sins forgiven, are both timeless and timely.

Rob Bell is not a universalist, not in the way most people understand that term. He believes that salvation is only found in Jesus. He believes that some will resist the love of God and be finally in a place apart from God we call “hell”. And his view of hell is not as heterodox as some are claiming. Leading evangelicals of our day are questioning the standard “everlasting conscious torment” view of hell that many of us have inherited. On some matters it is okay to agree to disagree.

On reflection there are two things that Rob Bell teaches that I can’t agree with. One is the way Bell sees no distinction between “judgement” and “justice”. Our God is a God of justice and righteousness, and his heart is to see a world filled with his righteous ways. This making of righteousness is something he calls us his followers to do as well.  God is also a God of judgement, which is something he tells us not to do. As our maker, God imposes right judgement on those who continue to oppose his kingdom of justice and joy. Bell writes and speaks as if the God of judgement is merely a God of justice, but that takes from God an essential part of his character.

The second thing I can’t agree with is the question of turning to faith in Christ after death. This notion of an evangelical purgatory where Hitler and his like will be continually offered the opportunity to repent and have faith in Jesus seems to be without scriptural basis. I’m not denying a rich tradition of people being judged by God on the basis on the revelation they have received. I’m sure heaven will hold some surprises and people we never expected to see will be there. But that’s not the same as Bell’s view of a nearly empty hell.

In all meeting Rob Bell was a delight. I’ve worked in broadcasting long enough not to be star-struck when I meet people who have some measure of celebrity. So it’s not just the pleasure of meeting the man who is courting so much publicity. It’s the joy of meeting a brother in Christ whose endeavours I respect even if I don’t agree with everything he says. God bless you Rob Bell and keep on shaking up the church, we need it.

My interview with Rob Bell will be on BBC Radio Merseyside at 8am on Easter Sunday. I’ll post the full audio here after it’s been broadcast.

Exploring the Bible together with the “Essential 100”

I’ve always found it hard going to stick with a Bible reading programme. I’ve tried different kinds of Bible reading notes from Scripture Union and others. I’ve tried various versions of the Bible in a year. But I’ve never quite kept up with them. Then comes the guilt and the shame.

I’m also someone who uses the Bible in my ministry as a pastor, preacher and broadcaster. When you’re constantly looking for inspiration for sermons, talks and group studies, it’s difficult to read the Bible for your own enrichment without constantly thinking of how you can make use of it for teaching and encouraging others. It’s not easy to allow God to speak to your heart without making it into a teaching point for that Sunday’s message.

This year our little church, Dovedale Baptist Church in Liverpool is taking the Bible seriously. Don’t get me wrong, we do take the Bible seriously every year. But this year we’ve decided together to read the Bible, study the Bible, get to know the Bible, and to act upon it. And we want to do it together. We looked at various options to support our intention and decided upon the E100 Challenge.

E100 is a programme of Bible reading from Scripture Union, The Bible Society and Wycliffe Bible Translators based on a pattern developed in the US. The Challenge is to read a hundred essential (that’s what the E stands for) passages from the Bible. These hundred readings, 50 from the Old Testament and 50 from the New, have been chosen to cover the full story of the Bible. The 100 readings are arranged into twenty “weeks” of five readings each, and each week is grouped together to cover a sensible section of the Bible. Over twenty “weeks” you discover the full scope of the Bible’s story and message.

The choice of the hundred readings is rather idiosyncratic. But if you were asked to choose fifty daily readings from the Old Testament and fifty from the New Testament, which would you choose? The Old Testament choices place an emphasis on “salvation history” with nearly a third of the readings coming from Genesis and most of the rest from the historical books. Only five readings come from the Psalms and Proverbs and only five from the prophetic books. The New Testament selection has a similar emphasis on narrative, with thirty of the fifty readings coming from the Gospels and Acts, fifteen from the epistles and five from Revelation.

Some will argue with the choice of readings, but it can’t be denied that if you read all 100 passages you gain a “wide-shot” understanding of the Bible that isn’t gained from spending five weeks in a detailed study of the Letter to the Galatians. The readings can be enhanced with the various resources on the E100 website and in bookshops. There’s a cheap and helpful card listing the readings, and a book that introduces each section and provides a reflection on each reading. This is helpful and balanced, though for my taste is too often about personal holiness and church, and hardly ever applies the reading to real-world living.

One hundred readings in twenty weeks are well and good, but how do you make use of them as a church community? The E100 website has some helpful ideas but we decided on our own way of going about it. Over the year we’re encouraging each other to read ten passages each month (using August and December as catch-up months). So we’re challenging one another to complete just two “weeks” of reading each month. This allows people to take it at a slower pace, which should make it manageable for everyone. We’re supporting the personal readings with a sermon series, so the preacher is asked twice each month to speak on the theme from one week of the readings in our main worship service. As a church which doesn’t use a lectionary this provides us with a structure, without stifling the spontaneity we’re used to.

Group studies are also vital to our approach. We meet in weekly term-time study groups to look through the readings from the E100 and ask each other questions about them. The idea here is not to get all the answers right but to let God speak through the Bible and through each other. We’re only a couple of months into the E100 Challenge but we’re finding it helpful and inspiring.

We’re also using new media resources to support the readings. We’ve set up a page on our church website which reminds us of the passages we’re reading that month. There are also audio recordings of our E100 sermons to download and listen to for those who missed out on church that Sunday. Some of us are tweeting or sending regular Facebook updates to encourage one another. Some of us are using mobile technology. I’m doing all my E100 reading on my Android smart phone using the YouVersion app which has the E100 readings as one of its Bible plans.

For us, E100 is proving to be a hit. Some people who have never previously read the Bible are now doing so with enthusiasm and some jaded old-timers like me are finding a new joy in the Bible, which is good for all of us.

This post was originally written for the Big Bible website