A Stitch in time

So I have officially regressed thirteen years. Do you remember what you were up to in 2002?  I was in high school. It was great and awful in about equal measure. One of the great things that year was that in June, a little animated film came out that surprised everybody by being so good; that film was ‘Lilo & Stitch’.  Obviously this film was officially pitched at a much younger audience than my fourteen-year-old self, but I. loved. it. I bought it on DVD – it was one the first DVDs I ever bought. I made a t-shirt with Stitch on it. In the way of eccentric teenagers, I wandered around speaking as if I had a gob of spit at the back of my throat in imitation of the titular alien character.

Recently I re-watched the film (in a continuation of Herr Noak’s extra-German-cultural-education) and found myself captivated once more, identifying in a surprisingly strong way with a tiny blue alien. This is undoubtedly the reason that Disney has been so successful in America: their children’s films often have a layer of meaning that has been included specifically for grown-up children, too.

Also, building a bedroom-sized model of San Francisco and stomping all over it sounds excellent and cathartic.

Stitch is a tiny ball of destruction who’s prevented from exercising his destructive tendencies by (1) the sheer luck of crash-landing on a Hawaiian island and (2) the desire to avoid capture. Nevertheless, there’s an element of ‘wrecking everything he touches’ which propels the plot of the movie along. What adult could say that she doesn’t worry about wrecking everything she touches, sometimes? And that it seems that sheer luck, grace, or avoiding public embarrassment is the only thing that keeps us from this destructive tendency? In addition, Stitch, or Experiment 626 as he is known to the Galactic Council, was created this way by an evil genius, and it’s only by ‘finding a family’ that this tendency towards destruction is overcome. I could write an entire theological reflection on this (remarkably Christian) anthropology (alienthropology?) – but for your sakes, I won’t.  Just have a think.

Cue Erin weeping.
Cue Erin weeping. (I’ll be alright. Just give me a minute.)

If you’ve seen the film you’re aware it concerns themes of ‘what makes up a family’ and of families who are just trying to get by after serious trauma. In the case of Lilo, she’s been cared for by her older sister Nani, who struggles to hold down a job and prove to the social worker (one Mr Cobra Bubbles) that she shouldn’t be housed with a foster family.  It’s hard stuff, and the film deals with it directly through Lilo’s and Nani’s experiences and in the outsider perspective of Stitch, this family’s new ‘dog’.  It’s interesting to me how almost none of Disney’s protagonists come from anything like a ‘stable, two-parent family’. This film especially displays a realism about the conflicted, traumatic experience that many people have as a part of their childhood, and yet hopefulness about one’s ability to heal from this trauma and find friends that are as close as family, if not closer.

Although model citizenship has nothing to do with one's hips and/or ukulele skills.
Although model citizenship has nothing to do with one’s hips and/or ukulele skills.

In sum, there are many reasons to  love this film: its sci-fi quirks and in-jokes, delightfully unfussy animation, slapstick humour, and truly heartbreaking attempts to reconcile the dangers of growing up with the safety-obsessed world of adults, along which children and aliens find themselves walking a tightrope.  Or the attention that the writers and creators actually paid to Hawaiian culture in a sense that goes beyond caricature. Or the affirming body-imagery (no sylph-like Disney Princesses here).  It’s not perfect: it risks playing into notions of ‘ideal family’ by the lack of the same, and – lest we forget – it’s a children’s film, so the script is simple and sometimes lacks nuance. Also, I think we can be pretty sure that despite Lilo’s devotion to him, Elvis Presley was not a model citizen.

It’s not likely that I’m going to break out the Stitch t-shirt anytime soon, but I will warn those of you who have to put up with me on a daily basis that I may or may not force you to watch the film with me. Those of you who know me well know that my pretend-alien voice is never very far away, so don’t be surprised if you hear it from time to time.



Catholic church planting, take 2

‘Church planting was originally a catholic thing!’

‘All churches are church plants. And all priests should be planting churches.’

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 16.44.19
(You would not believe how few pictures of female priests there are on the internet.)

We cannot indulge in talk about the Glory Days of C19 Anglo-Catholic church planting in the East End unless we are willing to resume that same confident, evangelistic, entrepreneurial spirit. That was basically the thrust of the recent ‘Catholic church planting’ day held at All Saints Margaret Street, London, which had been organised by Anglican Catholic Future.  This is the second of two such discussion days that ACF has held, somewhat beyond the organisation’s original remit (which was to ‘do something about catholic vocations’).  Both days have had moments of being thoroughly encouraging, practically minded, and generous. Some of the highlights of yesterday’s discussion, in rather disorganised bullet points:

* Emphasis on generosity in practice as well as in ecclesiology. Catholics may well believe that ‘the mass makes the church’, but when it comes to planting, a trajectory towards the fulness of the sacramental life is what we are aiming for, rather than refusing to start something new because that fulness isn’t present, or present in precisely our own style. If we truly believe that being church means this fulness occurs, we will have faith that new plants, or new expressions of church, will start showing signs of this fulness: asking for baptisms or for communion, people feeling led toward ordination, individuals feeling they should make confessions, etc.  Sacraments, after all, are not ‘the outward sign of an inward grace’; those outward signs point to the sacraments, which are when Jesus shows up.

* What constitutes ‘church’ in our plants might not be precisely our cup of tea (aesthetically speaking), but if it brings people to Jesus, then what are we waiting for? There is simply no time for preciousness amongst people interested in seeing people deepen their faith in Christ. It is a Jesuit insight that we all ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’, and perhaps the same should be said for Catholic (and indeed evangelical) church plants as well: if either our dry-ice-and-drum-kits OR our incense-and-NEH are getting in the way, chuck ’em. And listen for how God might more fruitfully be worshipped in that community.

* The recent church growth report offers 10 ‘models’ of planting: everything from re-invigorating an 8am BCP service to going whole-hog ‘we give you a massive budget, a new-old building and three years off your parish share’ planting.  That’s a lot of breadth, and there are many, many new ‘plants’ in churches of all sorts across the C of E that need to be celebrated. Let’s do the celebrating and the story-telling.

* A reminder that statistically speaking, churches tend to grow (numerically) the most during the 7th to 10th years of an incumbency. This shows something important about priestly presence, stability, and trust to be central to growth/planting – something that can never be instant, and something that can keep church planting from being a contemporary form of cultural imperialism/gentrification.

'You're not using that right.' 'Oh yeah? That's what she said.'
‘You’re not using that right.’
‘That’s what she said.’

* Preserving what’s unique about Catholic Anglican understandings of church can be very important indeed. Speaking as a foreigner to ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ in more ways than one, and yet as one who has grown to love it, I can say that if there were nothing unique about these ways of being a Christian, I would have not begun exploring! If Anglican Catholicism did not offer other ways of understanding the atonement besides penal substitution, if it did not celebrate those holy women and men who have gone before us, if it did not insist that ritual is good and yet never ossified, if it did not engage my body and my senses, if it did not make affirming space for my sexuality, if it did not know how to laugh, if it did not deeply value prayer and silence, if it did not claim an ecclesiology very different to the ‘ark of salvation’…I would not have bothered with it.   All this is to say: confidence in our theology as well as in our practice must be the corner of any planting and any renewal.

* The decline in organised Christianity as a whole, and the C of E in particular, in the last several decades has in fact given lay and ordained Christians a tabula rasa when it comes to sharing the good news. Fewer and fewer people in England today have ‘Jesus Baggage’; fewer and fewer will have ever been into a church; fewer and fewer will have massive church-y expectations.  Tabula rasa – good or bad or a bit of both?

* There was a lot of talk about sluggish or resistant PCCs or congregations. How do people ‘catch a vision’? We discussed the fact that most of the time, only 10-20% of people need to really get completely on board with the vision of planting or revivifying a congregation; the rest just need to agree not to be blatantly obstructive! This seemed to be a manageable percentage. It was also brought up that the official ‘job description’ for a PCC member is ‘to cooperate with the all concerns of the minister: pastoral, social, evangelistic and ecumenical’. All of those things, not just one, and to cooperate. It was brought up that church councils need to be growing together as a faith community within the church in order for this vision to spread.

* The open table.  Fewer and fewer people these days will have had any contact with Christianity before they (maybe) walk in our doors, or meet us in our ‘cafe church’, or come along to our prayer/liturgy as part of a political demonstration, or bring their kids to be baptised. It is crucial that we really practice table fellowship, opening up to all whom Christ is calling. The church’s (relatively recent) fuss about confirmation and first communion is shown to be increasingly pointless, and – some people in the cold back room at All Saints Margaret Street even said – inimical to the gospel.

There were many more things, but those were the points worth taking away. As you can tell I found the day full of good, challenging discussion.