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Pleasure, piety & politics – Clive Marsh Vice-President of Conference address

2nd July 2019: WMC
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Below is the text of the address given by Clive Marsh, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, to the Conference on Saturday 29 June 2019.

So What's the Story...about 'the Three Ps'?

There could, of course, be no God. We might be mistaken. We could be living in a fantasy world of our own making. Hopefully, even so, what we have been doing as church for nearly 2000 years has been valuable nevertheless, even if it does rest on a mistake. But that's not what most of us in this room believe. Even though I can guarantee that we do not all believe exactly the same thing about God, most of us here do believe that God is the reality 'in whom we live, move and have our being'. We don't think that God is simply a necessary fiction. That being so, what we all make of God is very important indeed: to engage in any God-talk at all is a risky and responsible thing to do. For what we make of God affects the whole of who we are, what we believe and practice, what we think, and what we do and say.

Now this is not the sort of thing you perhaps wanted to be thinking about late on a Summer Saturday afternoon. It sounds a bit heavy for a Vice-Presidential address. But I can do no other. I've been involved in education for so long now. So in introducing myself to you, what I want to do is share something of my discovery that God-talk really is important and that digging around in God-talk and its implications – doing theology, if you like – is actually a very exciting thing, as well as an important thing, to do. I want to get you excited about theology as a practice, whilst also telling you a bit about how I ended up thinking what I think, and doing what I do. I shall use three headings: On Playing; On Being Rooted (and Grounded); and On Raging (Righteously). These three headings will (eventually) become the three Ps of my title.

I want to begin by letting you know of some of my enthusiasms. I really like sport. I liked football and cricket in my youth, and now enjoy football and tennis in particular. Sport is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Like many of you, though, I get exasperated when famous sportspeople are interviewed after some major triumph and they say something like: 'I am evidence that you can be anything you want to be if you just believe and try hard enough'. It isn't true, even if I know what they're trying to say. Ultimately, such a comment devalues sport. Sport is an arena of human activity in which life can be enjoyed fully whatever level you play at, and however good you may or may not be at what you want to play. That's precisely why it is so crucial. It is about enjoyment and exhilaration at whatever standard you play at.

I also like films, TV, newspapers, books and music... – all sorts of music. One of the features of this Conference will be, if all goes to plan, that different kinds of music than members of Conference may be used to will be played before and after the business sessions to remind us of the wider cultural world within which we meet and do our work.

Why do I mention such enthusiasms?: because they are examples of what make life enjoyable and pleasurable, at the same time as being really important as channels in and through we discover more about who God is and what God is doing. As some of you may know I've spent much of the past three decades exploring and researching the ways in which theology and the arts and popular culture interweave. The reason is simple: I needed to understand why and how the deeply enjoyable cultural worlds of sports, arts and media connected to the faith in which I was brought up. There was, I must admit, in the church culture in which I grew up, a strong sense that 'the world out there' was quite a dangerous place. In some ways this was a helpful and healthy word of warning to 'be careful' in daily life. Sometimes, though, the warnings got a bit much. The fact is that the God to whom I was being introduced seemed to me very interested in 'the world out there'. And the music, art, sport, novels, TV, films which I began to enjoy didn't all seem to be wholly hostile to God. So the seeds of what I would end up exploring for most of my professional life had a personal, spiritual, faith-related dimension from the start. From teenage years on I was asking: where is God in the world, and what is God up to, and how am I, and how are churches, part of that?

Playing was, then, never just playing. Don't get me wrong: I didn't start doing things purely for their theological pay-off. I enjoyed sport as sport, and wanted to see films and watch TV because everyone else was, and because they were interesting and entertaining. I played and watched sport for the fun of it. I watched TV and films, and listened to music, not simply for their pay-offs for faith. I wanted enjoyment, and I was uplifted, stretched and consoled by all sorts of music. It's just that my faith gave me a whole world into which my artistic and sporting activity fitted. And vice versa: what I was learning about the world and myself, about history and about the culture of others, both challenged and enriched my faith. The experience of God became all the more scintillating and energizing the more of the world of the arts and culture I encountered and engaged with. I was able to see later much more clearly that this was, and is, simply because of the ways in which God is entangled, enmeshed, incarnate in the world. But it did take time, and more life experience, for me to appreciate all of this.

It's not, though, possible to do any sort of God-talk unless there is some sort of God-talk around you to begin with. That's for two reasons. Those of us who believe in God hold to the view that God is before there is anything else. So whatever God-talk is, it's only possible because God is first. And then we can only do God-talk by latching on to what those before us, and alongside us, have made, and are making of God. Otherwise, we'd be inventing God for ourselves. In my own case I had the good fortune to be brought up in a Christian home, in a setting which trained me to have good antennae, if you like, to what was valuable in life, how to live in a considerate way, and above all how to get to know Jesus. The language used in my evangelical youth was that it was made clear to me that it would be a good thing if I got to know Jesus as 'my own personal saviour'. Within that world I made a clear commitment at the age of 13, within the Christian Brethren assembly to which I belonged, and was baptized. It has taken me the remaining 46 years of my life so far to grasp more fully what I was doing. I used the language of conversion to describe what happened to me at the age of 13, because that's the Christian story-telling tradition I was living in at the time. But, of course, I wasn't being converted so much as making my own the faith world in which I was growing up. I was saying 'yes, this sounds right to me; let's go for it!'. With hindsight, what the Brethren was providing for me was lots of other things too, alongside that commitment to Jesus: a deep grounding in the Bible; some insights into what prayer was and how you do it; a spiritual discipline of learning how to read and think faithfully; and above all – and this became a big challenge for me when I moved into Methodism – the value of silence, and what you do spiritually in and with silence.

What's become clear to me over the ensuing four decades is that it's valuable to do lots of other exploring, and listening, and probing, and encountering in order to make sense of, and get more from, what my evangelical young self called 'a personal relationship with Jesus'. I have come to own, for example, the African-American Spiritual (especially in the version sung by Eric Bibb) – 'I Want Jesus to Walk with Me' – in a way and at a depth that it is difficult to describe. I've only known it as a song for about 15 years, but I don't think I'd have been able to own it as a teenager in the way I can now. Life-experience and faith-experience has enabled me to make it mine at many levels. And music in so many forms feeds me spiritually in a way I cannot quite express. The journey from my teenage self to now also meant that I studied the Bible (a lot!) – and not only within the community of faith. Years of academic study of both Bible and theology, far from destroying my faith, enriched it no end. I did detailed study of the Gospels and went in search of the historical Jesus, noting and examining the relationship between the Jesus of history, the different portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels, and the many interpretations of Jesus as the Christ throughout Christian and world history. It was exhilarating. If you've never made that journey then I encourage you to do so. It's not only presbyters, deacons, preachers or worship leaders who can do that. We all can.

And then I went exploring what it means when people are 'in Christ', because I began to see that this couldn't possibly be confined to the forms of human life that we call 'church'. Jesus was not, after all, a Christian himself. He was more interested, it seemed, in the Reign of God than in organised religion – though never ceased to be a loyal Jew. I needed to see how the experiences I was having through and beyond student days were causing me to re-think my faith, and to work out the many ways in which faith could not possibly be just to do with my own religiosity and my own spiritual development, even whilst it would include that.

That brings me to my third heading: On Raging (Righteously). It may seem an odd thing to say but there is a clear sense in which I had to learn how to be angry. My Mum might tell a different tale, of course, having had experience of my adolescence. But what I mean is that through the 60s and 70s you were, of course, taught to be polite and kind and good, especially if you were brought up in a Christian household. And that's right and proper. But it was only later that I began to rumble the fact that there was also a whole strand of Christian history which would bear witness to the political side of the life of Jesus, and the political side of the justice sought by God for and in the world. Jesus got angry, so we need to be angry too. Of course, the Christian world of my youth had not been unpolitical. It had simply been rather quietist. Being encouraged to be polite and kind also meant not rocking the boat. So the general tenor of the politics of the Christianity which accompanied my early life was rather conservative – with both small and large 'C'. Many people helped me, either in person or through their writings, to ask hard questions about supposedly a-political Christianity. I began to appreciate that there's an appropriate anger that's part of Christian faith. To be consistent with the Jesus who turned over the tables in the temple you have to know what it is you stand for, even what you're willing to fight for, whilst also recognising that simply because you want to rant about or against something doesn't necessarily make you right. It's vital that you're doing your background work as you rage, as only righteous raging is of God.

I don't, of course, know that where I've ended up politically is the correct position – but that's because there's no single correct Christian position. As we know well, Christians disagree at times. What's vital, though, is that those of us who are Christian handle not just respectfully, but always 'in, with and under Christ', the contradictory convictions we may hold as a Christian body. If we can't justify theologically the convictions we have, then we shouldn't hold them. But we can't dodge politics. And we can't always agree.

Those, then, are my three headings – three angles of approach to faith which have emerged from my life experience and which, I hope, I have presented to you in such a way that you have learned something about the Vice President you have elected for the year ahead.

But so what? And where are those 'three Ps' that I said this address would be about? Let me now translate those three headings into three Ps and see where we end up. Because – being both a preacher and an educator – I want you to go away thinking about something for yourselves, and not just to have heard something about me.

My three headings can be summed up simply by three words beginning with 'P': hence, 'On Playing' becomes 'Pleasure', 'On Being Rooted (and Grounded)' becomes 'Piety'; 'On Raging (Righteously)' becomes 'Politics'. All I want to suggest is that the whole of our life-experience can be contained in the relationship and tension between these three aspects of experience: pleasure, piety and politics. The trick is to ensure that all three are present in life and that each is informing the other two. But before we consider the relationship between the three circles, let me just say a bit more about each, because all three of these terms are not without their difficulties.

Let me start with 'pleasure'. Pleasure is a really difficult term, as it may easily imply self-seeking, individualism, frivilousness, indifference to others, excessive sensuality...many of the things that various forms of Christianity have not been much in favour of over the years. Christians are much more comfortable with words like 'enjoyment' and 'joy' and 'bliss'. Even 'happiness' may get a better look in than pleasure. Now there's no doubt that pleasure can imply rampant self-interest and hedonism. But I am supported by the words of the hymn-writer Isaac Watts who reminded us that 'religion never was designed to make our pleasures less'. Admittedly, Watts might not have written those words in quite the same way now, 300 years on, given the various forms of pleasure-seeking which become too easily part of Western lifestyles. But even so, as they stand, his words are important. I receive them as a reminder that faith does not squeeze the pips out of life. On the contrary, faith allows us to enjoy life to the full. It gives us a measure of, and ways of discerning, what is genuinely life-enhancing. Even if a particular pursuit of pleasure may need reining in at times, pleasure is a welcome part of life.

Now what about piety? For faith to play a role we need to be rooted and grounded in some kind of faith tradition, and to be carrying with us a working, usable spirituality. Christian faith roots us in the Gospel, supports us within a firm and rich doctrinal tradition, and invites us to participate in a range of practices which keep our faith buoyant. Keeping all of those elements living is what it means to be 'cultivating piety'. As I'm sure you're all fully aware, though, 'pious' is not what people usually want to be called. I've been taking note over the years of uses of the terms 'pious' and 'piety' in newspapers and in online columns. The adjective 'pious' usually comes to mean 'holier-than-thou', stand-offish, supercilious. The noun 'piety' can sometimes be more descriptive or neutral, though often carries the same overtones too. So, clearly, it's a tricky term to use.

But I want to claim a positive use of the term 'piety' simply as a signal that as we support people's finding and holding a spirituality, a structure for living, a way of keeping in touch with God as a grounding Reality, it's totally appropriate to try and live a good, fulfilling life. 'Piety' at its best is about having a balanced, grounded, nourishing approach to daily life. In speaking of piety and its cultivation I am fully aware that, personally speaking, my move from the Brethren to Methodism, via Lutherans, kept me in touch with three different kinds of Pietism. There's no time to go into the history of all that now. But digging around in Pietism as a movement leads me to conclude that the cultivation of piety means supporting people to develop a healthy, structured spiritual lifestyle which takes life seriously – whilst still enjoying life – and doing so always in the company of others. The piety we all need is warm, emotionally satisfying, intellectually stretching, and grounded in deep friendships (whether in our local church or beyond). Christian piety will entail always being able to point out where our own personal 'in Christ-ness' is located; where it is rooted and grounded. For that is where God in Christ continually and consistently meets us. The piety cultivated is the basis on which we are able to make prayerful evaluations and hard choices about both the pleasure and politics which make up our life.

My third heading is, ironically, perhaps the most straightforward of 'the three Ps'. 'Politics' simply refers to the way that human communities organise themselves, acknowledging in the process who has power and authority, and why, within an organisation or group. There is a politics of the church, a politics of the family, and politics in community life and working life as well as politics in the way that government locally, nationally and internationally takes shape. All of these types of politics relate to faith. What we believe about God, who we believe God to be, and how we believe, in faith, that we relate to God affects how we participate in, and make decisions about, all of the structured forms of human community in which we participate. And because politics is about setting up structures which do not just relate to ourselves, then it is crucial for us to think in and from faith about whose interests are being served in the forms of political life we support, and the political decisions we ourselves make. Whatever our political convictions are, they relate to our faith commitments in some way.

With all that's been happening in recent years – in this country and elsewhere – it's understandable, of course, why people have become disillusioned with political life. Brexit hasn't exactly encouraged British citizens to feel confident about the world of politics. Christians must not, though, become detached and distant from political processes. Human life has to be organised somehow, and it's vital that we know who is pulling the strings and why. We cannot let our lives be a simple amalgam of pleasure and piety. And when you put it like that it's clear how limited such a human life would be. Pleasure and piety without politics would always be in danger of being individualistically self-serving, even if spiritually well-intended.

Pleasure, piety and politics provide a framework, then, within which we can understand more than just our own lives. It's a framework which we can also use to commend Christian faith to others. It seems some distance from encouraging people to accept Jesus as their own personal saviour. But I don't believe it is. It's simply a different way of demonstrating how the figure of Jesus relates to the practice of everyday living. Jesus is a politically inspiring figure. As the Christ in and through whom we can relate to others, and experience God now, we can seek to cultivate a piety 'in Christ' which nurtures us and develops us spiritually. And as the figure in relation to whom we are able to adjudge what is, and is not, of God in the world we are helped to make wise decisions about how to participate in the whole of cultural life.

As I conclude, just a few thoughts on the weighting of and relationship between the three elements. How are we to understand the relative weighting of the three Ps? What if the world of politics took over? This could mean that the immediate demands and needs of human communities took up such space, that there was little room for fun and laughter, but also little opportunity for important theological considerations to be able to critique how human societies are being organised. 'God' would then be being controlled by political ideologies. Or when pleasure takes over then piety is providing little constraint on a life-style of potentially quite selfish experience-gathering. Unconstrained by politics, too, it might mean, for example, that all our foreign travel would all be being undertaken by air, on a regular basis, without any thought of carbon emissions, and little attention to ethical dimensions of tourism. I'm guessing that we may be prone to think that, of the three, piety should predominate. We do, though, have to be careful. If the cultivation of piety were to make us too religious, then we might spend so much time cultivating our religiosity that we might not be doing what's necessary in the world as a whole. It may, then, be safer to return to a sense of equal balance between the three, even if their inter-relationship will always be contested. I must leave you to make your own judgment on that.

So that's my story, in the sense of it being where I've got to thus far in life, and the interim conclusions I've been able to draw. Pleasure, Piety and Politics are all necessary, and God's wrapped up in all three. Piety needs cultivating; politics really does matter; and 'religion never was designed to make our pleasures less'. In the midst of those three dimensions of life, God enables us to live life to the full.

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