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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

settlers and nomads...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

In preparing for the 'Faith without church' seminars at Greenbelt, I've been gathering some stories (and story tellers) of faith journeys outside the structural church. Mandy Wright has written part of her story and submitted it to the SE UK web site (you can read it in full 'here'). In it she speaks of having a waking dream in which she saw 'huge fortified cities' in the desert; one for those who call themselves Evanglicals, one for Catholics and yet another for Liberals. Alongside these were smaller cities for those who held to a particular doctrine or way of believing. Occassionally the cities would exchange hostile fire over the walls, but generally they looked safe and secure for those living in them.

Mandy continues...

However, I noticed I was carrying a tent as I walked and I realised that my nature was not that of a city dweller but of a tent dweller. Although the cities were attractive in many ways, they were also static - rooted to where they were. I, on the other hand, was free to wander where I chose. It is a very insecure feeling to be a tent dweller - you were never quite sure where your path was going to take you or who you might meet along the way. I wasn't even sure of my destination. However, as I walked on I realised I had companions - or guides with me. One was Jesus and although I couldn't always see or hear him, I knew he was there, guiding me on my journey. Others included people like Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh.

And there were other tent dwellers I met along the way, all, like me, searching for God, for
wisdom and for truth. I found myself sharing with them my experiences of the journey and listening to theirs. And sometimes we introduced each other to our guides...

These reflections seem to touch on the discussions about 'conjunctive church' (see my posts 'here' and 'here') - it seems that, in Mandy's waking dream at least, the conjunctive faith community (that operates beyond the old polarities represented by the cities) is the nomadic one; the community/ies of tent dwellers. Such communities will necessarily be transient, as people feel the need to pack up the tent again and travel on, but they are no less genuine because of this. I guess this connects with my post on longevity 'here' too.

One of the oft-cited marks of genuine community is an ongoing sacrificial commitment to one another in the Acts 2 sense or that of Bauman's 'ethical community' (see my post 'here' for more on this), so the question naturally arises... are nomadic communites capable of this? For my part, I would argue that yes they are, and maybe in even more significant ways than the settled (citadel) type communities. If you've ever been back-packing then you will be aware of the sense of community that can exist amongst nomadic people. Several years ago when I was travelling in India I was staying in a back-packers shack on the roof of a tower block in New-Delhi when, one night, I developed pneumonia. It was great to see how people who I didn't know helped in that situation, giving me advice about how to deal with it (sometimes from personal experience), where to go for medical help, how not to get ripped off when doing so, and so on. I can't even remember the names of some of these people, and will probably never see them again, but, for that night at least, I felt like I was in some significant relationship of community with them.

Can the 'Church', whatever we understand that to be, take the risk of moving out of and beyond its citadel strongholds, be they those of tradition, theology or whatever, and facilitate genuine community for the spiritual nomads? What will this look like? Where will it lead us?

While on the subject of community, Paul Fromont has posted an interesting article 'here'.

(sorry for the numerous links in this post - have a good time travelling around them!!)

Labels: ,

posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 11:08 AM


I'm a bit tentative about posting these thoughts here - should I not post them on my own site? Especially as they are 'raw' - first attempts to probe, as Hardy once said, 'another fine mess I've got me into'.

But three reasons why I have:
1. To me they resonate with this particular post;
2. They're about GB06 - food for thought for those of us who look to GB as part of the manifestation of 'Faith without Church';
3. Sometimes I wonder, should nomads own their own camp-/web-/blog- sites at all? (I'll leave that one hanging!)

So, the bare bones. On Monday I set off to Greenbelt as a visual arts volunteer - a week on site exhibition-building followed by entry to the festival itself. As last year, I pitched my tent, and with the campsite virtually empty, ate supper, and went to bed with my thoughts. Early on Tuesday I decided to come home again, paid the train fare, and on the journey North let my wife Emma and the visual arts team know. I may be back for the festival itself - Emma is keen for me to return. But I wasn't anticipating this as an option when I left.

Emma, who isn't a Christian, is particularly upset that I made the decision to leave. What point was the journey? Am I running away from something? Doesn't GB exactly embody the perspectives I claim to value? Who have I hurt by my actions? And she's right. What a weird, immature thing to do! Except that maybe I am right too - which is the terrain I'm exploring here.

My first thought is that I have made a habit of leaving (church included). But because I've always found God where I leave to, I've come to trust He is with me everywhere. It is the plus side of the insecurity of being a tent dweller. Once you're outside the church you are in a lawless terrain, but 'if God is with you, who can be against you?' Your only signpost is the continuing presence of God - and you've learnt to trust He is with you even when you cannot sense Him. Eventually you learn that where there are no rules you cannot make a bad decision. And that frees you to make some really risky good ones.

In the tent, on my own, I felt water seep through the groundsheet and into my sleeping bag. But it was the sense of vulnerability that shook me. I felt very alone and ill-prepared for the week ahead. Shy, unconfident and unwilling or unable to fit in, I felt a huge pressure to leave. In the early hours of the morning I took the risky decision to uproot and face the consequences.

The big question is, why such a response at Greenbelt? Surely if the churchless are to come anywhere, they'll come here? The truth, I think, is that whilst GB is a temporary gathering of nomads for some, it can feel just the same as a city for others. Or to use another metaphor, if it lies at the edge of the known Solar System, I wonder what lies beyond? Which nomads are exploring there?

On a personal level, leaving GB06 before everyone else has arrived hasn't severed my links with it. I might say the same for all the churches I have ever left. Indeed my passion and prayers for all these places are stronger than ever. Never leave a place without blessing it! That is probably of the nature of the 'ongoing sacrificial commitment' made by the nomad - the staying together, but also the parting of ways in the hope, but not certainty, that paths will cross again.

Perhaps I will see you this weekend after all? If I do, I'll buy you (and the Visual Arts team - I owe them big time) that beer.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 3:00 PM  


thanks so much for posting this here - I think you've hit on something (through your own experience) really important about the sense of vulnerability in a nomadic faith, whilst reflecting a deep confidence in God's faithfulness when you write "Your only signpost is the continuing presence of God - and you've learnt to trust He is with you even when you cannot sense Him."

I also totally appreciate your comment, "The truth, I think, is that whilst GB is a temporary gathering of nomads for some, it can feel just the same as a city for others." In fact what you've written here is so pertinent I'd really like your permission to share it in the Saturday session (if appropriate) when we hear some of the stories of church leavers.

Even better... if you do make it to Greenbelt, you could share it yourself!!

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 3:55 PM  


Thanks for being so encouraging. I'm really glad that what I've written makes sense to you. If I'm not at the seminar, do please feel free to use the story any way you see fit.

But just to say that I do plan to be around this weekend. After talking with Emma and reflecting for a day (commenting on your blog was an important part of that) I checked with Liz Spicer to see if I was still wanted as a volunteer and bought the relevant train ticket.

So the organic beer won't have to wait till 07, and I will make attending the seminar a priority. I'll be at the clay city project for some of the weekend but will also try to get to the Dream worship session to say a brief hello before the seminar.

Now I ought to finish packing (emotional baggage and all!).


commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 9:12 PM  

There is a coversation taking place on Maggi Dawns blog called 'does individualism kill the church' which is very much linked to your post. Against the backdrop of our Western individualist culture which nutures an exaggerated sense of self-importance and individual rights do we forget our responsibility to live in community as the body of Christ when we walk out on the church?
I am very undecided about this!

PS hoping to have drink at greenbelt - I will come to sat seminar!

commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 11:04 PM  

Having read Steves 2 comments my last post could be taken as insensitive and inappropriate.
I do not mean any criticism - I was just thinking about the thoughts being expressed on Maggi Dawns blog. I very much appreciate Steves honesty in his comments!!


commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 11:22 PM  

Steve... great news - looking forward to catching up with you (and that pint) after all!

Rodney... thanks for the link to the discussion at Maggi's blog, it's a good read! From my experience, many of the people I've spent time with who have walked away from the church have done so with a heavy heart - sometimes out of the 'religious guilt' type feeling, but more often because they do want to remain in community - it's just that the church community they've been a part of can no longer identify with their journey, and they can no longer identify with its (if that makes sense).

One of the instantly noticeable things about such as Spirited Exchanges groups is the sense of commitment to journey together - not necessarily in the same direction but accompanying and assisting (and often challenging) each other in being real and finding their own path.

The conversation about nomadic faith is more about the desire to travel into the unknown (which will often mean travelling alone as others may not want to go there with you) rather than simply remaining in the tightly defined 'city'.

I think the challenge for such people is precisely the challenge of where community and mutual obligation is found. Communion/Eucharist/Mass/The Lord's Supper (whatever you want to call it) stands as a central worship experience in the Christian tradition - one that is intensely physical, communal and focussed around presence. It stands, for me at least, as an indication of intent on God's part - he wants us to be in community with himself and with others. However, that doesn't necessarily mean we have to be in the structural Church (indeed, often the community found in churches is much more like Bauman's 'aesthetic community' than his 'ethical community'). But... if faith community is not found in a 'church' (in the traditional sense of the word) the question remains... 'where am I finding it?'

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 11:07 AM  

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