Changing the Ritual of Death

by John Lampard.

Anyone who has taken part in a funeral over the past year or so, as minister or mourner, will have experienced a very different ritual to ones they have previously taken part in. Restrictions enforced by the Covid crisis have led to limited and attenuated services and rituals, religious or otherwise.

Covid has hastened a steadily developing trend towards different forms of funerals and one of the biggest changes has been the development of Direct Cremations. At its simplest a body is collected from a home or hospital, it is cremated at an unknown time and place, with no mourners or ritual, and if requested ashes are subsequently delivered to the person who made arrangements for the cremation. There is no need for direct contact with a funeral director, no hearse, no service and no attendance by mourners.  It can all be arranged impersonally on line. It is then up to the person requesting the Direct Cremation to arrange or ignore any farewell ritual, religious or otherwise. In the last year these forms of funeral have increased from 14% of all funerals to 25% (or 33% of cremations).

One of the leading Direct Funeral providers recently carried out a survey of people who had signed up in advance for a Direct Funeral. Apart from the fact that such funerals are about 60% (£2,000) cheaper, the survey indicates a fundamental shift in attitudes towards death, how it is ritually marked and who should be in charge of that event. The focus has largely shifted to a secular celebration of the life that has been lived, rather than a Christian narrative of the next life, with a minimum or complete absence of traditional rituals.

The Christian churches lost their monopoly on the ritual and more importantly the interpretation of death early in the nineteenth century. Secular burial grounds were developed as churchyards were increasingly closed as ‘full’. This trend of ‘loss of interpretation’ increased with the rapid building of crematoria after 1945. Early crematoria had crosses on the outside (and often inside) and were designed to look like a church; modern ones have none of this.  

How will these trends affect Christian funerals? Of course they already have. When did you last see the word ‘Funeral’ on the printed order of service? Today church services use ‘Celebration’ or ‘Thanksgiving,’ with the past life at the forefront and the afterlife soft-pedalled. Increasingly a body is cremated before the service and a ‘thanksgiving’ service is held in church afterwards. Only recently has thought been given to the Christian burial of ashes, rather than a secular scattering.

Perhaps the church can only maintain a tenuous hold on its interpretation of death by being counter-cultural. The following suggested pattern represents a possible Christian funeral today.

1          Funeral service in church with the coffin present. If there is to be a eulogy, this should be early in the service, before Bible readings, sermon and Commendation etc. This pattern separates the ‘looking back’ from the Christian ‘looking forward.’

2          The coffin, perhaps accompanied by a minister (though this is not necessary), travels to the crematorium where it is cremated at a time suitable to its capacity, without a service. This is the preparation of the remains of the body for burial.

3          Meanwhile the family are able to meet and reunite with mourners for light refreshments and receive the blessing of support, affirmation and retelling of memories.

4          At an appropriate date (40 days after death?) mourners assemble for the final farewell when the ashes are buried (not scattered) in consecrated ground accompanied by prayer. It is a matter of individual choice if there is to be a memorial marker.

This pattern achieves the two major ritual aims of a Christian funeral. It enables the journey of the body of the deceased to be where it should be, and it enables the journey of the family and friends to be where they should be. These are, of course, both spiritual and physical journeys. Furthermore, a Christian funeral is an act of Christian witness.

The Resurrection Body

by Frances Young.

It’s funny how old long familiar things can take on new resonances. This Easter was a case in point. The set lectionary meant revisiting the Johannine story of Mary in the garden and the Risen Jesus’ insistence that she should not touch him. What struck me with fresh force, after recent months without hugs or handshakes, was how cruel that was. She had loved and lost, and the most natural thing in the world was to clasp the lost one to herself. And it was disallowed. Why?

Of course within the narrative of the Fourth Gospel it is possible to make exegetical sense of it. Jesus gives the reason: “I am not yet ascended to the Father.” He has not simply come back; things have not returned to “normal”; nothing will ever be the same again. Ancient and modern romances may have told of Jesus coming round in the cool of the tomb and starting a new married life with Mary Magdalen in Egypt, but the very idea is repudiated in this Gospel, whatever Mary might have desired. The message for the disciples is along the same lines: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” a word which surely signifies that there is to be a quite different relationship.

Yet the apparently contradictory invitation to Thomas to touch will guarantee that the Risen one really is Jesus – the flesh-and-blood now wounded teacher they had known and followed. The old debates about whether the resurrection was literal or spiritual are surely way off beam: the stories show it was mysteriously “both-and.” This was not a resuscitation but a transformation; nor was it a ghost but a spiritual body – to borrow Paul’s phrase for the utter paradox of this abnormal normal. And when he has ascended to the Father, his presence with them, his relationship with them, will indeed be real but different: bread and wine will communicate his presence and life, the Church will be his body on earth, and blessed will be those who have believed without seeing or touching. Yet the first Epistle of John will testify to hearing, seeing and touching “with our hands.” (I John 1.1) The incarnation is about physical contact and the creeds affirm the resurrection of the body.

The Church down the ages has found this difficult, preferring to think of the soul going to heaven. “I’m tired of this old body,” said my mother in her nineties …

And yet it is through our bodies, our physical senses, that we have our identity, that we interact with the world – through our bodies others recognise us, through our bodies we cement relationships with handshakes, hugs and kisses. Zoom just doesn’t do it! And the notional brain in a vat surely has no thoughts or feelings! We are constituted as psycho-somatic wholes – embodied souls, ensouled bodies – indivisible if we are to be genuinely human creatures, a point constantly emphasized by the orthodox thinkers of the early Church. Indeed, it was affirmation of creation, of the material, physical reality of earthly life, as good and as God’s, which distinguished early Christianity from most other ancient religions and philosophies, and despite the pull of the culture and the pressures of ascetic and celibate ideologies, leading Christian writers always recognised that incarnation demanded that affirmation, so also the sacraments, and resurrection too required real continuity between our whole selves here and our whole selves in any future beyond death – Augustine even speculated on the purpose of gender differences in heaven where there would no longer be procreation.

Mary was not to touch – not to cling to the past, not to try and possess the Jesus she had known: for everything was changed. But Thomas was invited to touch, to prove it really was Jesus, the Jesus they knew, the Jesus who had suffered and died – to recognise and know that physical reality. Perhaps our longing for handshakes and hugs can challenge our thinking, hard though it is to envisage what it means.

Maybe an analogy can help our puzzled pondering. Music is profoundly physical: nothing without airwaves and ears, vocal chords, mouths to sing or blow, fingers to pluck strings or play keys …  And yet it is perhaps one of the most spiritual things we experience. I was visiting my dying mother back in 2005 when the death of the Pope had just been announced. I mentioned it and added, “I expect there was rejoicing in heaven when he got there.” She drifted off. Some minutes later she opened her eyes and said, “The music was wonderful!”

The Art of Persuasion

This is the sixth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme from the book of Acts…

Acts 25.13-26.32

by Tony Barnes.

The candidature form for the Methodist ministry which I filled out in 1965 included the question ‘How many souls has he (we were all ‘he’) brought to Christ?’ This caused me to me worry whether my offer to serve could be accepted. I had with teenage hubris argued the case for Christianity on many occasions, but without any sure sign of having made any immediate, positive effect on my interlocutors – perhaps the opposite! My preaching had always been directed at the faithful with track records of Christian discipleship far longer and stronger than mine. Many of them by their acceptance of me over several years had more than ‘almost (persuaded) me to become a Christian’ (cf Acts 26:28) by simply receiving me by social inclusion into the ways of Christian living. That pattern included worship, Bible study, and love for other people which was sometimes conditional but more often of grace.

Neil Richardson tells us that we can be sure of two things about the apostle Paul, that as Saul the Pharisee he persecuted the early Church, and that he had a life-changing experience, which he and his ‘biographer’ Luke, believed was an encounter with the risen Christ (Paul for Today, Epworth 2008 p26). The significance given by Luke to Paul’s ‘conversion’ is evidenced by its inclusion three times in Acts, through Paul’s own testimony (cf Acts 9:1-22, 22:1-21, 26:4-23). In Acts 26 Paul makes his defence against his Jewish accusers from Jerusalem and before King Agrippa, in the presence of the Roman Governor Festus at Caesarea. Festus is apparently unimpressed, maybe feeling that he is out of his depth culturally and intellectually before a verbose, if harmless, Jewish scholar talking about a suffering Messiah rising from the dead. Agrippa as a Jew and therefore more in tune with the religious categories in the discourse, and possibly sensing that Paul is acting as apologist for the Way of Christ, interjects, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ Paul unapologetically prays that Agrippa and indeed all present ‘might become as I am – except for these chains’. The episode does not conclude with a dramatic conversion of some or all of those who have listened to the apostle’s testimony. That fact that we have read it – for the third time! – is what matters. Who knows how Paul’s audience have been affected? We note something of his ‘art of persuasion’ in these elements.

1. Paul’s apologia was targeted at Agrippa whose cultural and religious background he understood. To Festus’ ears it was pure, academic babble. Paul knew that whilst aiming to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 19:22), you have in specific contexts to be clear who you wish to reach, and to tailor sympathetically how you present your case.   

2. This necessitates a clear grasp of and confidence in the core message which does not alter with context, and is always that God raises the dead (Acts 26:8), demonstrated for all time in God raising Jesus Christ who calls people to follow him and tell others about his life. This is Paul’s own, personal testimony, his story.  

3. Effective persuasion means a change of direction is set in motion by the Resurrection story recounted in the light of the raconteur’s own experience…. ‘Are you so quickly persuading me…?’ Agrippa is not lambasted for being a wicked person, nor is he preached at by someone pretending moral or hierarchical authority. Paul is powerless in the world’s terms. God’s story in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and exemplified in the teller of the story, is all.

For Discussion:

1. When and how in the past have we been persuaded by argument or the story of another Christian or other Christians?

2. What is our discipleship story? How has it changed over the years?

3. What is the intellectual case for Christian discipleship?

4.  How can we tell the story of God raising the dead so that it makes sense in many and various contexts today?

5. Stuart Murray writes that in ‘post-Christendom’, evangelism means ‘Searching for multiple contact points with the gospel in a culture no longer dominated (as Christendom was) by guilt, employing the full range of New Testament imagery, and learning to relate the story to contemporary angst and yearnings’. (Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. 2nd edition. SCM Press 2018, p 169). Discuss…

Insects… God in the here and now

by Will Fletcher.

Thick legged flower beetle (photo by Will Fletcher)

I write this piece as I begin my sabbatical. Due to the current restrictions and ongoing uncertainty about what the next few months might hold, I have had to scrap part of the plan to travel round the country visiting various cathedrals. Instead, I have broadened the other part of the plan to spend as much time outdoors as possible. This maybe feels a bit of a cliché after countless stories over the last year about the benefit of the outdoors, but after spending so much of this year in front of a computer screen, I’m certainly ready for it.

There are a number of things I hope to do, from walking and gardening, to developing birdwatching skills. However, one of the things I love most in the outdoors is looking at insects and other invertebrates. Maybe it is the little boy within me still wanting to get out and dig in the mud. Maybe there is something about taking time to stop and pay close attention to something that would be so easy to miss. I find them and their often-overlooked world fascinating. In all these activities, what I hope for the most is to make space to be far more attentive to the world as I am living it at this moment, and, in that frame of mind, to be more attentive to God with me.

One of the challenges I find as a minister (though I’m sure this experience isn’t limited to ministers) is that I rarely feel able to live in the present, always thinking of what will be coming up in the future. I get to the autumn and I have to start thinking about Christmas; before the Christmas decorations are down, the thought of Lents studies begins; as I try and journey through Holy Week, I’m also preparing worship for Easter Day – Jesus isn’t crucified yet, but in my mind, he is already raised to new life!

 It feels like this last year has sometimes been like that – as a nation (and, indeed, a world) we are always looking ahead. This has been particularly the case since the beginning of the vaccine rollout. We’ve all been starting to wonder when life might start to include some of those aspects we have been longing for. The various roadmaps from the four nations of the UK have come out, and dates start getting put in the diary. Plans begin to be made for May, June, maybe August.

After the horrendous events of the last year, I don’t begrudge anyone looking ahead to a brighter future which involves those people and activities that we have had to do without for so long. However, the danger can be that we spend so much time looking ahead, that we miss life now, miss seeing and experiencing the things that are here for us now, miss encountering God, even.

As the psalmist faced a world in uproar and change, they were encouraged by God to ‘Be still and know that I am God!’ It appears for them that it was in stopping, maybe in being attentive to their present moment, that they could realise that ‘The LORD of hosts is with us.’ (Ps 46:10-11). Equally, when he was addressing the crowd who were clearly worried about their future, Jesus encouraged them to, ‘look at the birds of the air’ and, ‘consider the lilies of the field.’ (Matthew 6:26, 28) It seems that long before the scientists of today, the ability for nature to give us a different perspective on life had been realised.

Therefore, my hope and prayer for us all as we look to move out of lockdowns and restrictions, and as we make plans for what our summer may hold, is that we don’t end up missing the potential for experiencing the joy, life, and presence of God in the here and now.

Hoverfly (photo by Will Fletcher)

Responding to the Bible

by Philip Sudworth.

Over the centuries the bible has profoundly influenced billions of people.  God has worked through it to transform both individual lives and also societies. Alongside its message of redemption and salvation, of reconciliation and wholeness, it has afforded comfort and solace, and also challenge. Its message of love, hope, reconciliation, and social justice has been the inspiration for social action and reform.  Sadly, there is also a long history of texts being used to oppress and to exclude.  The bible has been used to justify slavery, to discriminate against women and minorities, and to silence innovative thinkers. Nonetheless, the multi-faceted messages of the bible have the potential to be life-enhancing for a wide range of people in a variety of situations.

Origen, who pioneered bible study in the third century, suggested three levels to reading scripture:- ‘simple or literal’ (taking the plain meaning); ‘moral’ (appreciating how it affects the way we live) and ‘spiritual’ (gaining insights into our relationship with God).1  That is helpful in understanding how one approach to the bible might differ from others, but the assumption that ‘spiritual’ only applies to the third level is clearly wrong.  Those who only know the bible through passages that priests tell them about, clearly can experience deeply spiritual insights that have a profound impact on their lives. Some use the term “allegorical” for the third level.  However, much of the bible cannot be read in that way. The term “interpretative” gives a wider scope.

Origen’s approach, as innovative and insightful as it was, is only one dimension of the way we approach the bible. The impact made by any writing depends on the interplay between the original event or idea, the way the writer expresses it, and the very important contribution of the readers and their responses.  Indeed, the reader’s interpretation is what will determine the effect it has on the person. A great step forward is made when we move beyond simply accepting what we have been told faith is about and what others tell us the bible says and begin instead to interact with the bible ourselves and to explore its meaning for our personal lives.  It is as we wrestle with the questions and challenges that we begin to move from a second-hand faith to a personal faith. Our responses will engage with all the factors which make us who we are as people.

What we each bring to our bible reading is as unique as we are as individuals. We are rooted in a culture. That doesn’t just relate to a particular country, time period, and prevailing philosophies, but also to local influences which include regional customs, class, age and ethnicity. Our families exert a special influence in the way we see things. Our education will also have a significant impact. All aspects of our personal backgrounds interact to produce the influence on our approach.

As we mature, our experiences and relationships will shape us further. We acquire beliefs and values. These develop over time but our current views and attitudes profoundly affect the way we perceive and respond to the ideas and principles we take from the bible and how we interpret them. What we find in the bible will be determined also by why we are reading it and what we are looking for.

Our personalities, and our hopes and fears, our dreams and our prejudices all colour what we see in the bible. This is why Oscar Pfister, a Calvinist pastor and psychoanalyst, maintained: ‘Tell me what you find in your bible and I will tell you what sort of person you are.’ Against this backdrop, the depth of our knowledge and understanding will determine the extent to which we see a passage in its context, how we evaluate its connections to other passages and derive meaning from it.

One of the reasons the bible is such a rich source of spiritual inspiration is that individuals can derive from it the meaning that they personally need at that moment, can be comforted, encouraged or challenged in their own particular situation and helped to understand the role to which Christ is calling them.  Rather than expecting everyone to share our personal responses to the bible, it is important that we respect interpretations that differ from our own, always provided that those other responses are life-enhancing, inclusive and reflect Jesus’ message. As Hans Küng pointed out: ‘The question of whether and how far the bible is inspired word is far less important … than the question of how humans allow themselves to be inspired by its word.’ 3

References

1  Origen (230)    –  De Principiis IV 3.1

Pfister, O. (1948)  –  Christianity and Fear. [Allen and Unwin]

3  Küng H. (1974)  –  On Being a Christian.  [Collins – Fount]

Violence, Love and the Keys

by Charity Hamilton.

It began with Eve and it is still dangerous and visceral and real today. It began with Eve and it is still silencing and diminishing today.

It began with Eve and it is violence, specifically gender-based violence.

If you don’t think that Eve was a victim of gender-based violence think for a moment about the kind of woman she has been mythologized into and the kind of violence that such mythologizing inflicts upon the human soul. Violence isn’t limited to a physical action but rather there are violences inflicted upon our souls, psyches and bodies every minute of every day; gender is often a key stimulus for such violence. Every discriminatory word uttered is an act of violence. Every hushing up of the truth is an act of violence. Every misuse of scripture to justify a lack of equability is an act of violence. Every patronization is an act of violence. Every lingering look at our bodies is an act of violence. Every attempt at power-over is an act of violence.

Some weeks ago a woman called Sarah Everard walked home. It was neither a provocative act nor a reckless act she simply walked home. Sarah Everard did everything that each and every woman has been conditioned to do, she did the ‘right’ things. She wore brightly coloured clothing – visible, she wore trainers – able to move quickly, she spoke to her partner on the phone – contact. Despite doing all the things we are ‘told’ to do, Sarah Everard was not safe: she was kidnapped and murdered.

The days that followed Sarah’s murder were particularly hard for me, my social media was full of an outpouring of grief, anger, shock and experiences from thousands of women. The fact that the alleged perpetrator was a serving police officer added to the vocalization of thousands of sites of deep-seated embodied pain and I didn’t know if I could respond adequately. Whilst equally full of grief and anger, there was no shock for me. Men have been perpetrating unimaginable violence against women since Eve and the very people we should be able to trust are often complicit in such violence.

I love Methodism to its bones; it is my weird, dysfunctional, beautiful family but it is also a family that is laced with and in many ways grounded in a deep form of violence[i]. It is the violence of a male church steward at a female probationer’s welcome service using sexualized language in his words of welcome and the apology from the female chair who was too afraid to call it out. It is the violence of male colleagues telling her she is “too much” borne out of their own inadequacies. It is the violence of a senior male leader inhibiting her flourishing in the life of the Church because of her gendered experiences. It is the violence of a hundred angry men raising their voices in church councils. It is the violence of power-over and control. In parts of the life of our Church that violence is displayed as a coercive control of women, LGBTQI+ people, black and ethnic minority people, disabled, chronically ill and neurodiverse people; coercive control practiced under the banners of paternalism, well-being and good order.  I love Methodism to its bones but those bones are imbued with violence.

It began with Eve but it moves on to Tamar and Bathsheba and Hagar and the Levite’s concubine and Mary Magdalene and on to Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry and Sarah Everard and on and on and it seemingly never ends. However, amongst the anger, grief and shock is a place for communal shame, a place for real embodied repentance. Repentance, redemption and resurrection are intimately linked in the Divine narrative, the thread that holds them together is love. Love is not an easy task; love is a radical, painful, confronting inhabitation of the embodied journey toward the kingdom of justice and joy, a setting right of all that is wrong, a breathing of life into all that has become death.

I, like many women, have been walking with keys grasped between my fingers for 25 years whilst simultaneously reaching for the keys of the Kingdom. Keys that would see justice for the oppressed, fill the bellies of the hungry, bind up the broken hearted. Those same keys are in between our fingers and I pray that one day it will be safe enough to let our grasp relax.


[i] Such violence is sometimes referred to as the patriarchy.

Easter in Order and Chaos

by Karen Turner.

In the last couple of months I’ve been facilitating a Zoom book group for some students who wanted to explore what the New Testament says about women.  They are from diverse backgrounds and often don’t agree with one another and so the conversation has been rich.  The students from more conservative churches speak about their belief that God created a universe of order, and this applies, for them, to pattern of male headship that was pre-ordained for human flourishing.

We’ve learned to listen well to one another and so I’ve tried to sit with their conviction that, not only does God create order, but God rejoices in a particular kind of order. Even without knowing anything about Bach’s musical rules of composition, or without deep knowledge of maths or science,  I can see that creation is delicately balanced, creatively woven with relationships, and that it miraculously is, when it might not be, held in God’s hand.

But I find myself resisting the idea that God is quite so orderly.   And, although I want God to bring peace to places of conflict, reconciliation to broken relationships and forgiveness to the chaos of my own sin, it’s hard to see ‘order’ as God’s motivation.

Perhaps another student story expresses something of God in this.  I attended a student-organised vigil about sexual violence this week where there were hundreds of students and strong language and emotions as people went up to the open mic to share their pain and their anger.  I’d spotted a quiet Christian student I knew in the crowd and asked him later about his experience.  I was astonished by what he said. ‘After you left, I decided to go up to the mic and to pray for everyone.  There was so much hurt; I wanted them to know that God cared.’

I’ve been remembering another vigil this week – the first Easter vigil I attended, in my early 20s, living in a Christian community.  So many things were new to me: the Easter fire, the paschal candle, the epic readings, the alleluias, the incense.  But I think it was the jarring congregational bells that made the biggest impression – the jangling signalling a new reality that felt slightly terrifying. 

We generally keep the startling part of Easter out of greeting cards and songs, preferring instead a picture of calm after disruption, life beginning again.  We are quick to put the chaos of Holy Week behind us and move on, everything back in order, even if that order is actually a totally new reality.

I wonder if Judas’ betrayal was an attempt to bring on the new world order he’d heard Jesus talking about?  Perhaps following Jesus was more chaotic than he could cope with; crowds, healings, confrontations, moving from place to place, impossible to predict or budget.

Little did Judas know that further disruption was coming: earthquakes, angels, bribes, heavy objects moved, ‘unreliable’ witnesses, lack of recognition, apparent ghosts, walking through walls, fear, and of course, lots of doubt. Doubt, everywhere you turn.  But also belief. 

Our lives together can be messy, but maybe there is a way of seeing this as a sign of life.  Ian Mobsby recently summed up for me the whole purpose of rules for community life by saying ‘we create structures to stop people from hurting one another’. [i]

Christian community isn’t about controlling people nor is it about creating order for the sake of it.  It’s certainly not about establishing power roles. We can’t guarantee that people won’t be hurt, but order might help us to be kind, and to protect the weak, and that’s the only reason for rules; choosing to live in a way that isn’t blinkered by our self obsessions.

The household codes in the New Testament, and the references to the ways that worship should be conducted show that order was a concern of the early church. However, I wonder if these statements say more about the enthusiasm and life of those communities, rather than, as we might see it later, a need to exercise control. If there is an emphasis on order, it’s only because there is so much apparent life in the chaos. There would be no need to talk about order if what they were experiencing was a traditional hymn sandwich.

We have plenty of order. I wonder if what our churches might need most, post-pandemic, is less fear of chaos?  As Mike Pilavachi says, ‘It’s messy in the nursery but it’s neat and tidy in the graveyard’. [ii]  Jesus greets his friends with peace after the resurrection, precisely because this is what they don’t have, and this is where we can meet him, too. 


[i] www.ianmobsby.net/category/new-monasticism

[ii]www.youthandchildrens.work/Youthwork-past-issues/2016/November-2016/Q-A-Mike-Pilavachi

Hymns beyond COVID

by Andrew Pratt.

On July 31st 2020 Prof Whitty (Chief Medical Officer for England) said ‘The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong’. It made sense. We had reduced the constraints with which we had learnt to live but, at this point the virus was still reaching a growing number of people. This suggested that the release of lockdown was enabling the spread. It indicated a need for further limitations. The Government’s response was to put a break on some proposed further easing of restraints.

In the Church many were still trying to return to ‘normal’ – to things as they were. But life was already changing. Love of our neighbour as well as preservation of ourselves, demanded that we act quickly.  Churches are not very good at swift change. Sociologically they are predicated on maintaining and promulgating the institution, rather than on loving the individual.

As far as worship was concerned, singing was off the agenda. What does this say to those of us who see hymns as integral to our spirituality?

In 2014 I wrote that, hymns had given voice to our fears and been a vehicle for our hopes. Echoing Don Saliers, I affirmed that they have enabled the exploration of humanity’s ‘Amen!’ to God’s initiative in the world, in a way that music or words alone could not encompass. They have been dependent on politics, culture and experience, as well as scripture and the traditions of the church. Sometimes they have expressed ‘wonder, love and praise’, at others they have cried to God ‘out of the depths’.

I believe that hymns are still a useful – a lively and relevant component of Christian liturgy. They can form theology as well as being a vehicle for its expression. If we lose them what can replace them? Or how could they evolve to at least fulfil something of their original function?

Over time I have written hymns to both reinterpret scripture, and as a lens through which to focus on the breadth of our growing human understanding of the world. I have been seeking to make sense of God for myself. This is even more necessary as the church seeks to enable worship which does not require us to suspend any connection with the twenty-first century world in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. Yet so much religious song labelled ‘modern’ uses archaic language and shows little evidence of having been edited with any degree of aptitude or skill.

For hymn writers to work in a contemporary manner it is helpful is to know how others work  in similar genres. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Simon Armitage, Dylan Thomas, Carol Ann Duffy and Leonard Cohen are all worthy of our attention.

If we are to begin with words which will offer something of the inspiration that others have found in hymns in the past, and if we are not simply going to rely on what has already been written, how should we write and what should we sing? I want to set out some guidelines for our further exploration of the medium:

Hymns should be beautiful. That does not mean they should describe things that are beautiful, but they should be aesthetically pleasing, elegant. This should apply even in a hymn of lament, or one that identifies with pain in the reader/singer.

Rhyme, rhythm and pattern are still helpful tools which enable memory.

Honest. The words we sing should be true to our own experience. Life is rarely ‘all sunshine’ even for Christians.

Theologically honest. For instance, as we approach Easter it is unhelpful, on the one hand to think of ourselves as ‘children of God’ while singing of the greatness of a God who ‘His son not sparing / sent him to die’. The language of Trinity often pushes us towards uncomfortable compromise in terms of incarnation and, in this instance, is resonant of ‘cosmic child abuse’. We need to be theologically literate.

Understandable. Theological language, or outdated metaphors, may confuse more than clarify the Biblical material which we are seeking to communicate.

Contemporary words and concepts make texts accessible and this should be of greater concern than hoping for perpetuity. Let this be our pattern for the future, in and beyond COVID-19, that we may serve the age in which we live and, when we can, in which we sing. We are writing for today, not tomorrow, nor yesterday, not seeking for posterity, as more than ever we have been reminded that we do not know what tomorrow might bring, what testing of faith it may assert, what new expressions of fear and wonder initiate, what images of God will be drawn from human minds to meet our needs and those of our contemporaries.

(a longer version of this article can be found in the Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Winter  2021, 306, Vol. 23, No. 1, p 9-24 – a draft of the article can be viewed on my blog)

‘I could drink a case of you’: Joni Mitchell, Charles Wesley and the Renewal of Sacramentalism

by Richard Clutterbuck.

In recent months I’ve been chairing a Faith and Order working party on the question of online communion. I won’t say more on that topic, as the work is ongoing, but working with the group has made me reflect again on the centrality of the Eucharist for my own Christian experience, my journey in ordained ministry and my theological thinking.

 Of course, as a theologian, I turned first to Joni Mitchell!

Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh, I would still be on my feet

Fellow baby-boomers will recognize these lines as coming from Blue, arguably the greatest singer-songwriter album of all time. Joni Mitchell’s genius shines through them, intensifying the pleasure and suffering of a love affair by linking it with sacramental wine. Charles Wesley, in what is (unarguably) the greatest-ever collection of eucharistic hymns[i], works the imagery in the other direction, from the experience of drinking wine in Holy Communion to a sense of joyful, passionate union with the crucified and risen Christ. To take one of many examples:

With mystical wine, He comforts us here,
And gladly we join, Till Jesus appear,
With hearty thanksgiving His death to record;
The living, the living, Should sing of their Lord.

The fruit of the wine (The joy it implies)
Again we shall join To drink in the skies,
Exult in His favour, Our triumph renew;
And I, saith the Saviour, Will drink it with you.

My first experience of receiving communion was in a marquee at Cliff College, during a teenage visit to Derwent Week; an intense (and, in retrospect, rather adolescent) emotional high. It set my Christian journey on a course that would be resolutely sacramental and shaped my future ministry as an enthusiastic leader and advocate of sacramental worship. To share bread and wine, confident in the mysterious presence of Jesus Christ, has been my greatest privilege. So, it’s not difficult for me to identify with the strongly affective communion hymns of Charles Wesley – or, for that matter, with the sacramental metaphors in Joni Mitchell’s love songs. But while the Wesleyan tradition gives ample scope to the experiential, affective, dimension of communion, it has, in the generations since Wesley, been less successful in linking this to the divine presence at the heart of the sacrament. When Christian experience loses its anchorage in ontology it easily becomes merely subjective, detached from the reality it represents. We need a sacramental theology that can affirm presence without dissolving mystery and that can reflect passionate joy without becoming self-indulgent.

The best recent example that I know of a Protestant sacramental theology comes from Hans Boersma, J I Packer professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, and very much in the tradition of evangelical Reformed theology. Through his study of the French Catholic ressourcement theologians who prepared the way for Vatican II, he has come to the conclusion that Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, needs to recover a lost sense of what he calls the ‘sacramental tapestry’ that was present from the patristic period till the late Middle Ages. Heavenly Participation[1] traces this ‘great tradition’ (as Boersma calls it) from the New Testament, through the writings of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas. From the Platonic tradition Christianity inherited a sense that God was the supreme reality and that all created beings derived their existence from God and, to a degree,  participated in God’s being.  The supernatural was not alien to nature, but infused it. Symbols, such as the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the water of baptism, were not to be contrasted with the reality to which they pointed; on the contrary, they both participated in that reality and conveyed it to Christian worshippers. The church, as it celebrated the Eucharist, participated in the reality that was the body of Christ. Towards the end of the Middle Ages (to cut a long and contentious story short) this tradition was undermined by the nominalist insistence on the separation of nature and the supernatural, by a creeping separation of scripture and tradition, and by a new emphasis on the univocity of language and being rather than on the analogy between them. The result, says Boersma, is a cutting of the sacramental tapestry and the impoverishment of Christianity.

I guess this debate can seem an esoteric irrelevance compared with the many crises and injustices facing humanity. But actually, it gets to the heart of some of our most important questions. How does our creaturely existence relate to the reality of God – and how can we live in a way that honours God’s love for and presence within creation? How can God’s transforming presence be mediated through the stuff of creation: bread, wine, community? And if our deepest, most intimate, human relationships are channels for divine encounter, what does that tell us about our call to love and respect the other? Living more sacramentally would make a big difference.

What is the solution? Not, of course, to return to the early Middle-Ages. That would be impossible. But if Boersma is right, we can recover something of the great sacramental tradition by drawing water from the deep well of Christian reflection. If we do, we shall find that Charles Wesley’s wonderful eucharistic hymns convey more of their true depth. We might even arrive at a greater appreciation of Joni Mitchell.


[1] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).


[i] Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. I am using the text as printed in J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley, (London: Epworth Press, 1948).

A Methodist, but not the praying type

by Philip Turner.

As a chaplain in an acute hospital, I encounter a wide variety of people who are facing trauma. I never cease to be amazed by the resilience, honesty and complexity of each patient I meet.  One recent encounter with a patient has stayed with me.  She had not asked to see a chaplain but, on arriving on the ward, I noticed her smile and introduced myself.  During our conversation she revealed that she was a Methodist.  My heart cheered and I admitted that, I too, was a Methodist.  She then quickly but resolutely added, ‘yes, but not the praying type.’  I took this as a hint that she was curtailing that part of the conversation, but wondered later how the conversation might have gone further.

20 years ago I know what I might have said.  Straight from theological college, I would have been frustrated by, what I would have seen as the bizarre juxtaposition of the words ‘Methodist’ ‘but not the praying type’.  I suspect I would have offered an apologetic for prayer, perhaps even highlighting how John Wesley saw prayer as Jesus’ ‘express direction’ and the first ‘Means of Grace’.[i]  And there is much to be done – and much benefit to be gained – by Methodists digging deeper into their doctrinal standards.  However, I suspect that this would have neither changed her conviction nor enabled the pastoral relationship to develop.  I say this because of my journey over these last 10 years exploring holiness.

Particular among Christian denominations, British Methodism thinks it has a vocation ‘to spread scriptural holiness through the land’.[ii]  Yet in my research I discovered that, while many Methodists knew about holiness, very few wanted to be associated with holiness, let alone to share it with others.  The reasons included a generalised sense of not wanting to be seen as ‘holier than thou’ or in having a particular stance on human sexuality but, more poignantly, there were many who had direct experiences of hurt that the word ‘holiness’ triggered.  One woman spoke of an exclusive sect that she grew up in and then left, leading her to associate holiness with fanaticism.  Another spoke of her daughters who lost their Christian faith after encountering their university Christian Union. Others spoke of the complexity of their relationships, whether with the church, or with specific people.[iii]  It did not matter that their response to ‘holiness’ seemed to be, on the surface at least, in opposition to the vocation of their Methodist Church, or even that it was contrary to the Biblical theme, ‘be holy’.[iv]  This is because, I learnt, the theology a person holds – however informal or an at an angle to authorised church teaching – is likely to be influenced far more by their life experience. ‘Spiritual formation does not take place primarily in small groups’, James Wilhoit argues, ‘instead it mostly takes place in… everyday events of life.’[v]  This does not diminish the importance of theological colleges, preaching and Connexional initiatives.  Yet any programme which seeks to align people with formal doctrine, without acknowledging that people already have a powerfully embodied theology, and without drawing alongside people in their ongoing theological journey, is unlikely to bear much fruit.

So, could I have taken the conversation further with the patient who was ‘Methodist’, but ‘not the praying type’?  And if so, how?  Assuming that she was physically able to continue to the conversation, and that our relationship was developing so that she might risk trusting me, I might have asked her to tell me what it was like for her to be a Methodist.  I would have listened to her story, attending particularly to her experience of prayer.  In my listening I would want to embody God’s unconditional love for person she is today.  I might use the metaphor of family, that Wesley used, to portray prayer as a daughter listening and speaking to a parent who loves her completely.  At the outset, I could not assume that we would arrive at this point.  However, as we go on caring and growing in God’s grace, and journeying with people who, like us, carry their own experiences and pain, we might embody more fully Christ’s presence in the world.


[i] ‘The Means of Grace’ in The Works of John Wesley, volume 1, ed. by Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), p.384.

[ii] ‘Deed of Union, Section 2 Purposes and Doctrine’ in Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes, The Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church, p.213.

[iii] For greater details of the conversations I had, see forthcoming issue of Holiness: An International Journal of Wesleyan Theology.

[iv] See Leviticus 19.2; 20.26; 21.8 and 1 Peter 1.15.  See also Matthew 5.48.

[v] James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p.38.