Being Interrupted – an alternative approach to mission
The last Diversity Lecture of 2021 may have shocked some people. It offered new perspectives on mission to those who believe that Christian mission means telling people something that you know and they don’t, giving them something that you have and they lack, and inviting them to meet you in places that you, not they, own. The two speakers, Rev Dr Al Barrett and Rev Ruth Harley, both Anglican clergy, spoke about ideas from their newly published book , Being Interrupted – Reimagining the Church’s Mission from the Outside, In.1
These two clergy people, sharing their faith in the Hodge Hill community of Birmingham, had come to understand the influence of the social and cultural movements represented by Windrush, Grenfell and MeToo. Looking at their community through the lenses of race, class, gender and inter-generational relationships offered Barrett and Harley new insights about power and privilege. It shaped their theology profoundly.
Barrett began by speaking about what they called ‘economies of mission’ in the church. These are “what is valued and what is not, what is placed at the centre of our work and what is relegated…..about the way we talk and think and act and interact – a bit like the air we breathe.” Barrett suggested that mission often arises in a climate of lack and scarcity reflected inside the church – “in the church’s concern for empty offering baskets and empty pews. If getting more money becomes the primary way we see people – as potential churchgoers and potential givers – that skews our relationships and the way we look at people.”
‘Scarcity in the community’ is another familiar ‘economy of mission’. Christians see their neighbours as “in need – hungry, financially poor, lonely, despairing, in need of the gospel”, said Barrett. By seeing service in terms of ‘giving out’ from the abundance we have, we ‘cast ourselves in the roles of givers’ and similarly deform our relationships with our neighbours.
Barrett focused on the temptations of mission in the three temptations of Jesus and under three headings beginning with P – providing, performing and possessing.2 The temptation to assume the power of the ‘provider’ who looks for hungry people offers the Christian the satisfaction of being the giver. The temptation to be a ‘performer’ is to focus on who’s watching our missionary work, who’s liking or admiring it. “Such a relationship can skew the performer and the watcher,” said Barrett. The third temptation is to be the controlling ‘possessor’ who’s always ‘in charge’, making things work.
“In our missional relationships”, said Barrett, “we Christians often position ourselves in the shoes of Jesus,– either as the busy ones or the providing ones. “Our neighbours are seen as… people with hands to receive what we Christians have to give.” These postures can be powerful and paternalistic. As a white male – Barrett had learnt this idea from a book about white supremacy3. “Identifying with the Divine is the last thing that a white person embedded in white supremacy structures needs,” he said.
As a less controlling alternative to these economies, Ruth Harvey offered, ‘The Economy of Being Interrupted’. This creative, transformative economy takes hold when we recognise that “we are not ‘bringing God’ but God is already there present and active in our neighbourhoods”. This economy avoids the church-as-a-business idea of ‘strategy’. “Strategies tend to have endpoints,” said Harvey. The ‘being interrupted economy’ talks about ‘tactics’. “Tactics are less about getting to somewhere and more about ways of travelling and how we do it,” Harvey said. Here the mission model refers to Jesus’ stories of seeking treasure and gifts among neighbours. Those gifts include people and skills and passions. They include the connections and relationships that may be hidden and may be found in the story of the community. “Seeking out gifts is one of the ways we have engaged with our community in Hodge Hill,’ said Harley.
The speakers went on to describe three characteristics of the ‘being interrupted economy’ which encourage Christians to ‘give up control’. The first was the importance of ‘dwelling in the bumping spaces’ – spaces are spaces that we do not possess, where people meet on equal terms. The post office queue and the school gates are ‘bumping spaces’.
The second space was one of ‘wilding and rewilding’. Harley emphasised the importance of letting go of the illusion of control of mission and leaving room for the Holy Spirit to change things as ‘She’ will.
The third place – a place of listening described by the theologian Nelle Morton4 is a place where we ‘hear others to speech’. This profound listening enables “someone to say something that they didn’t know they knew or thought,” said Harley. When we welcome interruption, interruptions become gifts.
Harley explored another biblical approach by asking the question, how might we discover Jesus in a different way that enables us to enter into the third economy? She also quoted Harvey who invites white Christians, oblivious to the power they wield, to come to a recognition of their profound identification with power structures. Harley suggested that for all Christians it’s useful to ‘disidentify with Jesus’ and imitate Zacchaeus the tax collector who recognised he was colluding with Rome. Doing this would reveal “a Jesus who has invited himself into our space, who has become the host at the table we thought was ours and has called us to betray the structures we find ourselves entangled in.
Harley went on to refer to five stories from Mark’s gospel where the always busy Jesus gets interrupted. Three of the ‘interrupters’ are women who remind the reader of what really counts in the ‘kingdom(sic) of God. The woman who anointed Jesus feet, for instance, interrupts a party where ‘the disciples have a rigid way of thinking about how things should be done…money should be spent differently’. She is revealing a different kind of economy”, said Harley. “Positioning ourselves with Jesus who is not always taking the initiative, but who is open to interruptions which speak something of God, speaks something transformative”, she concluded.
The final section of the lecture described the implications for this fuller picture of Jesus on how we speak about the cross and resurrection. At the cross, where do we position ourselves? Are we with the centurion – as a representative of a powerful kingdom in control of what was going on or with the women disciples who stayed when the male disciples had fled, saw him wretched and abandoned and knew what was really going on, as God did?
The Cross calls us, Barrett concluded, to four R’s
- Relocation – shifting to a ‘bumping space’ where you might encounter those who have been on the underside of the empire.
- Relinquishing – letting go and walking away from power and privilege.
- Receiving – being open to receiving challenges – because of who we are and what we have done.
- Repentance – working through our own histories, discerning ways of redistributing resources we have amassed…what might repentance have meant for the Roman centurion, what might repentance mean for us?
To conclude both speakers talked about what belief in the Resurrection of Christ offers this new view of mission. Using more metaphors they finished with a question for all Christians seeking renewal and commitment to mission, ‘what rigidity is there in my life which needs to die and find resurrection?’
A report like this can only give a glimpse of the riches of this evening’s discussion. The full recording can be viewed here.
Written by Helen Pearson
9 November 2021
2. Quoted from Bishop John Taylor
3. Harvey, Jennifer et al (Eds) Disrupting White Supremacy from Within, Pilgrim Press, 2008
4. Nelle Morton, The Journey is Home, Beacon Press, 1985