Alison Webster “Collectives: our Hope for the Future”September 28, 2023
Watch back: Confounding the Mighty with Luke Larner, Alex Frost and Victoria TurnerNovember 9, 2023
‘First, though, I want to step out into some fresh morning and look around and hear myself crying out: “The house of money is falling! The house of money is falling! The weeds are rising! The weeds are rising!’
(Mary Oliver, ‘Evidence’)
‘“The end of the world as we know it” is not the end of the world full stop. We’re living through the unravelling of a whole lot of stuff on different levels. And there’s a lot of fear around because of that. And there are good reasons for some of that fear. But there is a danger, that if we think that this unravelling, this end of the world as we know it, is the end of everything, we end up trying to defend the world as we know it, to save it at all costs. And maybe the world isn’t the kind of thing that needs saving. And maybe there are things about the world as we’ve known it around here lately, and our ways of knowing the world, that need to end, that need to be given a good end, so that something that we can’t fully see the outlines of yet can be born, among the ruins.’ (1)
We have different names for it. Mary Oliver calls it ‘the house of money’. Audre Lorde named it ‘the Master’s House’. bell hooks spelled it out more explicitly as ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’. Recently, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira has introduced the term ‘modernity/coloniality’. Christian writers as far back as the gospels themselves have used the slippery, ambiguous shorthand of ‘the world’ – helpfully qualified (as Dougald Hine does in the quote above) with ‘as we know it’.
But what do we do about ‘it’? The ways in which we act are entangled with the kind of stories that we tell. We can tell stories in which the world as we know it needs saving, and stories in which it all needs bringing down in a revolutionary moment. But what if we told a story which both acknowledged something of the power and resilience of ‘the Master’s House’, but which also pointed to where it is already falling, crumbling, breaking down, dying…?
It is the kind of ‘already’ from which Mary sang the Magnificat: ‘[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:52-53). It is the kind of ‘already’ from which the writer to the Ephesians says that Jesus ‘has broken down the dividing wall, … the hostility between us’ (Ephesians 2:14).
One of the profound temptations for Christians, however, is to imagine that ‘the Church’ of which we are a part (in its myriad of local forms, and its wider more institutional structures), is somehow a pristine part of God’s ‘new creation’, and not in fact utterly entangled in ‘the world as we know it’. But the briefest of looks at it reminds us that the reality is otherwise. All too often, ‘the Church’ names but one proud, unapologetic wing of the sprawling, toxic structure of the Master’s House, with all the racist, colonialist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal, ableist and ecocidal power that that structure still wields. And all our ever-innovative institutional strategies for ‘development’ and ‘growth’ are just more ways of anxiously trying to save and sustain ‘the world as we know it’.
And yet. God is, we discover in Jesus, a God of dyings and death. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…’ says Jesus the story-teller (John 12:24), not too long before he enters into the flesh-and-blood consequences of his own parable. Resurrection, when it comes, is not ‘carrying on where we left off’ or some clever, innovative, ‘strategic development’; neither is it a ‘rebooting’ of the operating system so that it can run more smoothly and efficiently this time. Resurrection is an utterly ‘new thing’, a wholly Other reality quietly emerging, while the stench of death still hangs in the air, and in the ruins of the already-crumbling empire: ‘something that we can’t fully see the outlines of yet’, as Dougald Hine puts it.
And so what if we tell a story that ‘it’ (the house of money, the Master’s House, the world as we know it, the Church as we know it, etc. etc.) is already in the grip of death…? What might it mean for us to be involved in ‘dismantling’ and ‘decomposing’ those crumbling structures, while knowing that that also involves much of our selves being ‘dismantled’ and ‘decomposed’ too? What might it mean for us to look for God among the ruins, and somehow, together, to keep company with the God we find there? And, sitting in that place for long enough for the dust to begin to clear, what other world might we begin to see more clearly, touch more tenderly, love more fiercely that, with Mary Oliver, we might cry out with joy, “the weeds are rising!”?
In his book, At Work in the Ruins, Dougald Hine offers an ‘unfinished’ list of at least four kinds of ‘work’ that might be done among the ruins. The first is ‘to salvage the good that may be taken with us’, the ‘gifts that we would not gladly leave behind’ from the ‘tangled legacies’ of that which is dying. The second is ‘to mourn the good that cannot be taken with us’, which might include telling stories of loss that ‘may turn out to be seeds’ of something new. The third involves ‘notic[ing] the things within our ways of living that were never as good as we told ourselves they were’, and taking the opportunity to let them go and walk away from them. And fourthly, he suggests the work of ‘look[ing] for the dropped threads’, ‘the skills or practices or knowledges’ from earlier in the story that had been forgotten or discarded along the way, ‘dropped threads that can be woven into the onward story’. There are more kinds of work, of course. Hine nods, for example, to ‘the work of resistance’. I would want to add the work of mutual care, of attending and tending to the wounds of those who are both harmed by the structures that are crumbling, and harmed in the processes of the crumbling itself (as the same people and more-than-human kin are likely to be harmed by both). And also the work of paying attention – and opening ourselves up – to those ecological processes of decomposition and detoxification that are, sometimes painfully slowly, ‘making good’ something of the devastation wrought by the world as we know it; a work that might, sometimes, perhaps, resemble what Jews and Christians have often called ‘repentance’ and ‘repair’.
All of this is just one way to sketch out something of the story behind the series of talks and conversations that Hodge Hill Church is hosting (onsite and online), sponsored by Modern Church, over Lent 2024: ‘God in the ruins – doing Christian theology at the end of the world, for justice and the flourishing of all creation’. Over six Wednesday evenings, from Ash Wednesday (14th February) to 20th March, and with a concluding conversation on the evening of Palm Sunday (24th March), we will hear from a collection of widely acclaimed UK-based theologians (writers and speakers), exploring intersecting issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ecology, disability and mental health, looking for life and hope, wholeness and justice, faith and love, amid the ruins of the world – and the Church – as we know it:
Anthony Reddie & Carol Troupe (TBC), ‘Deconstructing Whiteness, Empire & Mission’, Wed 14th Feb (Ash Wednesday)
Luke Larner, ‘Confounding the Mighty: Stories of Church, Social Class and Solidarity’, Wed 21st Feb
Charlie Bell, ‘Queer Holiness: The Gift of LGBTQI People to the Church’, Wed 28th Feb
Anupama Ranawana, ‘A Liberation for the Earth: Climate, Race and Cross’, Wed 6th Mar
Marika Rose, ‘Theology for the End of the World’, Wed 13th Mar (TBC)
Isabelle Hamley, ‘Struggling with God: Mental Health and Christian Spirituality’, Wed 20th Mar
Rachel Mann & Carlton Turner in conversation, exploring ‘the darkness of God’, Sun 24th Mar (Palm Sunday)
These won’t just be ‘talks’ to listen to. In each of the sessions, there will be an opportunity for conversation with others (onsite or online), and an invitation to contemplation and action. We’re also hoping to offer a weekly online follow-up session, a few days later, with the opportunity to explore the theme further with others, grounding it more deeply in your own context, and facilitated by some experienced practitioners.
Our contributors are all thoughtful, brilliant communicators, and wonderfully diverse in many different ways. Don’t expect to come away with a single, coherent framework to make sense of the world we’re living in, through, and into. Do expect to be challenged, provoked, unsettled, encouraged, inspired, and drawn deeper into the mystery of life, with God, in the ruins of the world as we know it. Save the dates in your diary, and join us on the adventure!
Tickets for each session (both online and onsite) will be available on Eventbrite soon. Ticket sales will enable us to cover the travel expenses of our speakers, and the hosting costs (and the wider work) of Hodge Hill Church. We will be offering tickets on a pricing ladder, to allow those who are able to contribute a little more, and to not exclude those for whom cost might be a barrier.
- Dougald Hine in conversation with Nathan Maingard, ‘Finding hope at the end of the world’, We Are Already Free podcast, 13 April 2023, from 5:45.
Revd Dr Al Barrett
Rector, Hodge Hill Church