Uncharted Journeys – towards a future story
Contemporaneous notes from MODEM’s 2022 Conference, session 3.
Rt. Rev. Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, Bishop of Willesden, talking about the role he had in Leicester diocese, when he was trying to make the Church of England more representative of the community that it serves. How do we inhabit an emergent process of cultural change?
Keeping definitions of ethnicity and culture broad and expansive, not narrow.
Alisha B. Wormsley, an artist from Pittsburgh in 90s hired a billboard: ‘There are black people in the future.’ Non-controversial statement, but sparked a real tension in Pittsburgh, and she was asked to take it down. Art is an opportunity to disrupt our thinking and invites us to see the world differently. If there are black people in the future, then what does that say about the world as it is now?
What questions do the future throw at us? We journey in the direction of the question, so if the future asks us questions that we travel towards, as future-oriented people. As Christian people, Christ comes to us from the future – an eschatological perspective is a significant part of our worldview.
Prophets able to offer an analysis of the present in view of the future.
We have a view of time as linear, as a succession of events. Our identity is our interpretation of how those various moments in history manifest and impact upon us. We can spend significant time and resources in analysing those moments, from past, present, and future.
Bishop Lusa comes from a culture that does not have a linear notion of time. Without that linear notion of time, we are saved from the pressure of delivery of history as progress – the idea that over time we have to always keep improving. The problem with the idea of progress and development is that it can lead us into a cynicism or pessimism when we realise that progress doesn’t always develop the way that we expect or hope for. This cynicism / pessimism can lead to a loss of faith and hope, and a disengagement with reality.
For Bishop Lusa’s community, the same word means yesterday or tomorrow. Only the context will develop meaning. So every moment contains within it both the reality of the past, and the opportunity of the future, or both genesis and apocalypse. So we go through history under the gaze of those who have gone before us, and stories are integral to the way that we transmit culture and identity. We are forged and formed by the stories we hear, stories that are not monologues but dialogues, with their elements of call and response. The dynamic of the story was changed by the responses, so the story is fluid and changed by the telling of it. The quest for truth was not in the conveying of the fact of the story, but was in relational and emergent that came from the relationship between the story teller and the community that responds.
Ministry of the story teller, that captures the stories of those who come before us, and then offer them in a dialogical way with the audience, but never so caught up in the past that a story was not just looking back, but also a looking forward. If we are telling a story of who we have been, we are opening up a window into what we could become as a people. What we could become is not written, set or fixed – life is not fixed, but the future is always open and can be redirected. Not just an individual story, but a collective narrative, so the future is not crystallised around particular individuals, but only possible if it’s a shared narrative.
The existential anxiety of the CofE over the past few years have led us to ask certain questions. But do we need to pause and consider whose questions we are asking, and whose questions don’t get heard, and which might allow us to consider a different future.
Race – something by which we are still defined, even if many of us wish we could move beyond it. Lusa became black at the age of 8, when his family moved to Belgium, and he was denied the dignity of his name. Labels can be important, as they create our levels of differentiation and the stories / narratives / perspectives that we all bring, but they can also reduce our capacity and offering to the world, as they limit what we can hear. Can we redeem the way that labelling is used? Labelling is a biblical exercise – Adam in the garden of Eden, naming the creatures there. Only after naming / labelling them can he recognise that there is still something missing, and so Eve is created. Naming has the possibility of calling into life, and into a depth of relationship.
Categorisation is a part of our human experience, however when is done in a hierarchical way that assigns worth, can limit. Racial categories, which are relatively recent, assigned on physical features, have given people a place within a pyramid of worth, crushing some people at the bottom, and predicated on the idea that some lives are worth more than others. This is still deeply engrained in our societies, and so is seen in many ways that our shared lives are organised. The reality of fracture is not crystallised into individual stories, but is systemic. Within that narrative, no one is perpetrator and victim, but we are all caught up as victims, so how do we find a way of changing the narrative that heals our individual stories, and our collective narrative. We need a change of language, that affects the culture that we inhabit.
The culture of the church, not just in the past but in the present, has created fracture along racial lines – Martin Luther King, the worship hour is the most segregated in the week. We tend to be broken down along racial, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic lines. These are spaces where we feel seen, heard, and can flourish. So why would we want to change this?
If Christ comes to us from the future, the vision we get from the future is of a church that is reconciled across all these fractures – Revelation 7 where humanity is gathered in worship before God. So if that is the future we are called to inhabit, then there is an opportunity for us to reassess our fractured past, examine our memory and narratives that have shaped and formed us. In this analysis of our past we find values that directly contradict our future. We need to be really committed to examining our past not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a remedy of the ease of forgetfulness, which has the potential of leading us into a place where we rehearse and repeat the fractures of history, a place that obliterates and destroys the other. Our inability to remember has the potential to lead us to a place where we destroy the other, which is a threat to my own autonomy and identity.
Remembrance Sunday for someone who has no claim to British identity or history. This is a space that is advertised as a wrestling for peace and reconciliation, but becomes a place for nationalistic nostalgia. A risk of our wrestling with the past being marred with nostalgia and amnesia, which limits our ability to see our future. There is a prophetic task of wrestling with the present to create the future.
In Leicester, they took the task of re-writing their narrative, of telling the story of their past that had fostered gaps / chasms that had separated them, not just on Sundays but for the whole week. Even when there was intersection, this did not lead to integrated lives. Was there a better story to tell that could lead to embodying the potential future? The incarnation where God was enfleshed in the world, not just in the life of Jesus, but in the Christ that has been through all of creation through to the present.
How do we live so that our current lives become an embodiment of that future potential? Not a single moment of our lives that is separate from our past, or from our future. Our coming together opens a gateway into a future of healing, where fracture is not the sole narrative. (Cathy Ross calls it the Fellowship of the Unlikely).
In Leicester this was in the lives of Inter-cultural Worshipping Communities. ‘Curating spaces that recognised our shared ‘guestness’ around the eucharistic table, where each and every one of us has insight about who we are and about God, and as we come together, we open ourselves to each others’ wisdom, and are not simply defined by one group’s story.’ Seen in the lives of the New Testament churches, that managed to hold together the identity of Greek and Jewish Christians, not defined by fracture but held together the stories in a way that created the future.