A Political Epiphany

by Catrin Harland-Davies

I have the privilege of living next door to an Anglican colleague who is a specialist in liturgy. He still has his Christmas wreath hanging on his front door – but now, with a star in the middle, it has become an Epiphany wreath. He tells me that it is to remind his Methodist neighbours that Epiphany is (for many) a season, not a day, and that it still continues. His Methodist neighbours are only too pleased to have such authoritative justification for leaving our own wreath up for a few weeks longer!

Epiphany is concerned with the revealing of God in Christ; it is about the glimpses of glory that come in unexpected places. So it is both surprising and appropriate, then, that it is bound up with a story of political power struggles and the fragile ego of an insecure autocratic leader. Surprising, because such places are not where we expect to encounter God; appropriate, precisely because God delights in encountering us where we least expect it.

As the world holds its fascinated gaze on the inauguration, this week, of the 46th President of the United States, a part of the fascination comes from watching as that beacon of democratic idealism navigates its way between the right – so fundamental to democracy – to protest, and the temptation – so potentially damaging to democracy – to turn to violence in order to enforce one’s wishes and reinforce one’s privilege. And we hear the debates about damage, violence and death caused by differing sides in very different protests; how comparable are the Black Lives Matter protests to the storming of the Capitol? Is violence or damage to property ever justified in a political cause? Were the Trump supporters representative of white working classes, too long overlooked by the political élite, or of white entitlement, experiencing loss of privilege as persecution?

As Christians, perhaps we should be attentive to the season, and add into these questions and debates, another deeply important one – where does God make surprising appearances in the whole situation? And, indeed, where is God in our own political and public life?

The travellers from the East, that first Epiphany, were clearly men of great wealth, and, it seems likely, significant power. They were not Jews, nor had they any political part to play in the life of Judea. They were outsiders, and yet guests to be received with a measure of courtesy and caution; guests who felt in no way unworthy to arrive at the ruler’s palace in Jerusalem, and yet guests who were not above arriving at an obscure house in Bethlehem. They expected births written in the stars to take place in a royal setting, and yet were open to being directed to the least of the cities of Judah. They were Magi – people of standing within their own religious and cultural life, who yet were prepared to find divine action in a far-away land and a foreign religion. They were revered, and yet willing to pay homage to a young child, having been ‘overwhelmed with joy’ at finding him (Matthew 2:10; NRSV).

In contrast to these visitors stands Herod. He has power, privilege, authority, and yet he is driven not by self-confidence, but by fragility. He is motivated by the fear of losing his position, and driven to extreme measures in pursuit of a toddler.

How different these responses are, to God’s coming in Christ! On the one hand is joy, and a willingness to go to the ends of the earth in order to see and to worship. On the other hand, there is fear, hatred, denial, atrocity. Or, to put it another way, God’s coming asks of us a question: are we ready to find God at work in unexpected people and places, and to recognise in that encounter an invitation to know ourselves and others as God’s beloved children, of infinite value precisely because of God’s loving grace? Or are we afraid of the challenge that might follow, to set aside our cherished ways of measuring our value and that of others? Are we ready to be surprised by God, or do we look simply for a vision of God which reaffirms our place, our privilege, our sense of superiority? Does our response lead us to service, or do demand to be served?

This is not just a question for the citizens of the USA. This is a question which should open up every aspect of our lives – our political ideals, our unconscious prejudices, our sense of justice, our interactions with others, our use of power, our willingness to cede power to others…

And above all, it is a question which strikes at the heart of who we are: how do we value ourselves and others – by wealth, power, talent, privilege, or by the measure of God’s love, revealed in Christ?

Christian Aid

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

by Joyce Firth.

Acts 11: 19-30

It is easy to be impressed by the Church in Antioch which had matured so much in such a short time.  The persecution of the Church in Jerusalem led to some astounding events. People had packed up and fled. They took with them that which was precious, which included the Jesus story.  They went, at first, to their own people, other Jews who were living in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Others who had travelled from Cyprus and Cyrene went one step further and preached to the Gentiles of Antioch.

Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem Church to Antioch to investigate what was happening there. Rumours of untoward goings on must have reached them. The mother church would not be totally happy about accepting Gentiles so easily.  It was against their custom and tradition, for they were first and foremost still Jews, with all the inhibitions and controls on their lives that accompanied that grounding: “Don’t mix, don’t touch, and don’t share”.

But Barnabas was able to see what the possibilities were – he opened his eyes, his heart and his understanding to these Gentile believers. He then went to Tarsus to persuade his friend and colleague to join him in his Antioch venture. They were there for a year: teaching, explaining, preaching and serving.  When Agabus brought the news of the prospective famine in Judea, this was their call to action.

The Antioch Church was a community of faith- they had learned to follow the way of Christ and they lived out their faith in society.  It was NEWS that called them to action – news of famine and need.  We know from reading about Cornelius in Joppa, that some of the Gentiles who showed an interest in Christianity in the early days were generous, kindly people.  Cornelius was renowned for giving alms generously.  This is mentioned three times in his story before he joined the Church (Acts 10:2, 4, 31). It is not just Christians who know the meaning of sacrificial giving.

The famine did happen and Josephus wrote of a severe famine that hit Judea in AD 45-47 and we know also from Josephus that Queen Helena of Adiabene (modern day Turkey) was a convert to Judaism and sent figs and grain to Jerusalem to relieve the suffering there.

 It was news of what was happening elsewhere in their known world that led to the decision to send aid to where it was needed and the Antioch Christians rose to the occasion, even though they were barely acceptable to the Jerusalem Church, as there were still those who regarded them as second class Christians. But they responded with graciousness and generosity to the need as it was made known to them. They didn’t hold a grudge and were authentic in their thinking and acting.

Antioch was an out-going, liberal and generous Church and it is where the disciples were first called Christians.  So they did not hide their allegiance.  It was obvious to all, who they were following and why.  They were not only capable of sharing their money, but also of sharing their faith abroad as well as locally.  So in Acts 13: 1-3, we read of Saul and Barnabas being sent by the Church in Antioch on their first missionary journey to Seleucia and Cyprus.

This was a Church able to respond when they heard of the need for food, and they responded, too, when they recognised the need for sharing God’s love in Jesus.

They put their faith to work (see James 2:14). Giving, in this way, lies at the heart of a Christian community and it is broad in its intent. It is seeing beyond ourselves and recognising what needs to be done:  Here, There and Everywhere and How, Which Way and to Whom.

Questions to think about:

Q1. What does the term “to those less fortunate than ourselves” say and should we use it?

Q2. How do we decide if, when and how we give?

Q3. Should we put restrictions on what our giving should be used for?


Neil W   The Acts of the Apostles       Oliphants   1972
Crossan J D The Power of Parable     SPCK  2012
Borg M  Days of Awe and Wonder    SPCK  2017

A New Year Fit for Christmas

by Gary Hall.

We’re half-way through the Christmas festival and New Year comes around. In these quarters of the city, fireworks have been lighting up the sky and alarming the cats since early evening, and auld acquaintances are feeling more distant than usual. A time of recollection and anticipation has a peculiar poignancy this time around, and I’m thinking about how New Year fits with ongoing Christmas celebrations. After all, the blending of Christmas and New Year is an almost incidental outcome of the mashup of Roman civil arrangements and shifting calendars, ecumenical and imperial assertions, Egyptian and Greek and who knows what other influences, sun and moon and deep-rooted pagan instincts. Along the way, the January 1st celebration has been sometimes outlawed, and New Year has sometimes been on Christmas Day. Or in March. Or Easter.

The near-concurrence of Christmas and New Year may mean little more than a bracketing of extended winter holidays for folks whose lives are not mapped onto a Christian religious calendar (and who don’t need to work the in-between days). So it may not strike many people as odd when Christmas joy and festivity is dissipated, long before we get to Epiphany, by all the toning-up, dieting-down, sorting-it-out compensation for supposed or actual festive indulgence. For those of us who sense the disruption, however, it may be wise to sit lightly to the more punishing forms of new-start, clean-slate rhetoric loaded onto the idea of New Year.

Opting for January deprivations not only curtails Christmas celebration, but runs contrary to an instinctive need for warmth, rest and comfort in the midwinter darkness of these northern isles. I can still be startled by how quickly some people want to dismantle and hide away Christmas decorations in what seems like an urgent dress-rehearsal for Spring cleaning. Perhaps Springtime would be the better season for a New Start celebration. Certainly the Easter resonances make sense, from a Christian perspective. Christmas does, however, bring its own resonances: divine birth, new beginnings, the connection is not complicated. In which case, taking a cue from the baby in the manger, our New Year might be better marked by nourishment, sleep, nesting – or, from another perspective, protecting those who are vulnerable – rather than restricted diets and new gym regimes. Right now, I hazard a guess that we could all do with as much comfort and joy as we can find. Personal excesses and distractions can be dealt with some other time.

As it is, New Year habits break into Christmas festival with all the associated babble of clean slates, new brooms, fresh starts, taking back control, and so on. Surely there are better metaphors for a Christmastide festival. Some are quite central to Christian tradition, such as St Paul’s notion of being transformed by the renewal of our minds.

What if we celebrate a Christmassy New Year with attention to the renewal of our collective minds rather than our bodies or budgets or personal ambitions? If the idea is appealing, and if there is any substance in the adage that we are what we eat, then perhaps we can subvert the seasonal diet-controllers by giving attention to the feeding of minds rather than stomachs, in anticipation of the kind of transformation which tends to come by surprise rather than by programme. Whether or not we are grappling with regret about over-eating or lockdown inactivity, we can decide that this year will be enriched by our ingesting the kind of life-giving narratives, ideas, images, visions and perceptions miraculously captured and passed on through text, film, music and conversation. We can wallow, venture, become immersed in life-giving ideas and stories, poignant drama and joyful comedy through which minds might be renewed, and transformation kindled. As the Spirit blows where she will, daring us to think bigger than post-Christmas diets and premature Spring-cleaning, she may show us the way to loosen our reliance on such insufficient morsels as the desiccated remnants of Second World War ideology or imperial backwash which have too often stifled our collective imagination and distorted our life together. Perhaps we will, after all, be born again, and again, and again. Perhaps this is what happens when Christmas collides with New Year.

Inequality Kills

by David Clough.

Inequality is lethal. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by Michael Marmot and colleagues. It asks why the UK had one of the highest mortality rates from COVID-19 in the world, and concludes that a key reason is pre-pandemic inequalities that left particular groups of people vulnerable. We were not all in this together: you were much more likely to die from COVID-19 if you had a previous health condition; lived in a deprived area; lived in poor or overcrowded housing; had a high-risk job; or were Black, Asian, or from another ethnic minority.

In the past, Christian thinkers have disagreed about whether inequality as such is a bad thing. Some have seen the practice of the early church where everyone sold what they owned and gave according to need (Acts 2:44–5; 4:32–34) as an endorsement of socialism or communism. Others have claimed that Christianity affirms the individual economic liberty of capitalism. But these disagreements seem quaintly irrelevant when confronting the extraordinary economic inequalities that confront us today.

At a global level, we tolerate increasing levels of extreme wealth inequality. Oxfam reports that the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population own more than twice as much as 6.9 billion other people. Just 22 of the world’s richest men have more wealth than all the women in Africa put together. This inequality has grown rapidly since the 1980s. The reason for this is not mysterious: we give assent to economic systems that redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich and allow these gains to accumulate. This results in the scandal that some enjoy obscene affluence while others suffer from malnutrition. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the richest have increased their wealth further: billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter between April and July 2020.

Inequality is growing within the UK, too, where the richest 10% of the population own 44% of the wealth, while the poorest 50% own just 9%. This impacts not just standard of living, but health and life expectancy. People in more deprived areas have shorter lives and spend more of them in ill-health. No wonder they were disproportionately vulnerable to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) have identified poverty and inequality as a key priority, and have reported on the impacts of Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, food banks, and poor housing.

One key academic contribution to the debate about inequality was the 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. It argued that societies as a whole do better when there is less inequality: there is more mutual trust, less anxiety and illness, and less excessive consumption. The findings of the book are very likely to be confirmed in relation to the relative performance of countries responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Private property is hard to justify theologically. I still recall a childhood walk in the company of my grandfather, Rev. J. Leonard Clough, who represented the Primitive Methodist Hartley College at the Uniting Conference of 1932. Walking through a wood not far from our house, we were challenged by someone who told us we were on private property. My grandfather roared the opening of Psalm 24: ‘The earth is the Lord’s!’. He was agreeing with early Christian theologians who held that God was the only proper owner of land, that the goods of the earth were for the common good, and private property was a consequence of the fall. The 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, who does not have the reputation of a radical, agreed and argued that taking goods from the rich that were not being used for the common good to meet urgent human need was not theft. The only final theological justification for private property is that it serves the common good. Where there is both abundant wealth and urgent unmet human need, nationally and internationally, it is clear that it is not serving this purpose. There is then a strong argument for redistributing surplus wealth to provide the poor, reversing the current direction of flow.

The question that follows is how Christians can help to shape policy on taxation, public services, and benefits that address the lethal effects of the inequalities we confront. The work of JPIT and Oxfam are important in raising awareness of these issues nationally and internationally, respectively, but their work needs much wider reception among the churches to enable change.

Are you looking forward to Christmas?

by Josie Smith.

It seems that many people have been doing so since about September, with an added anxiety this year about whether or not it could happen normally.

I recall a few years ago walking through a local garden centre in early November with our then minister in pursuit of a quick lunch in their café.  It would have been difficult to find gardening gloves, secateurs or planters, let alone rakes, watering cans and wheelbarrows among the tier upon tier of Christmas-themed objects, twinkly lights, life-sized nodding illuminated fibreglass reindeer and artificial trees.

The minister mused ‘There are twelve days of Christmas, and none of them is in November.’

I remembered this in October this year, in the garden centre again during a lull in the lockdown.   They were busy setting up the Christmas display, with newly-built wooden partitions and shelves making a sort of maze to negotiate, arrows indicating permitted direction, signs on the floor at two-metre intervals, and sanitizer on the counter.   (I recalled a cartoon I saw once, inspired by this sort of premature celebration, with the caption ‘But she hasn’t even told Joseph she’s pregnant yet!’)

The papers and the broadcast media have been speculating since September about what Christmas would look like this year.  On the 19th November in the ‘i’ newspaper Gaby Hinsliff wrote ‘Demanding a Christmas suspension of pandemic hostilities, as if the virus could be trusted to do the decent thing and respect a religious holiday, sounds horribly like an attempt to maintain the illusion that we’re in charge – when the truth is that the virus is sliding back into the driving seat.’   This year has been like no other (though the Black Death and later manifestations of the Plague had none of our medical knowledge or pharmaceutical resources so were much worse to live through or more likely die in) and attitudes range from those who want a ‘normal’ Christmas, whatever that is, to those who say that as other faiths were not able to celebrate their festivals ‘normally’ why should we?

We are almost at the end of the season of Advent, the time of waiting.   What are we waiting for?   What’s Christmas about, really?    Do you ‘love it or hate it’ as though it were Marmite?    When I was a little girl, long ago before the explosion in consumerism, I quite liked (some of) the presents, though when everyone decided to give me boxes of handkies one year I was disappointed.   All I wanted was a kitten.   But the routine demands – that I perform for the visiting relatives, which I am sure they disliked as much as I did, that I dress up in a red dressing-gown and pretend to be Father Christmas, and then, after tea in my great-aunt’s icy dining room, that I help to wash up (my brother being excused on account of being a boy) – made me determine never to subject my children to such expectations.  

Doing Christmas Differently edited by Nicola Slee and Rosie Miles (Wild Goose, 2006) is a compilation arising from the thoughts and experience of a group of eight single people who could not, or would not, be part of an idealised, but often fraught, traditional ‘family’ Christmas.   They met for a week at Holland House, Cropthorne, to create a way of marking Christmas that went against the grain of mainstream social custom.   One anonymous piece, late on Christmas Eve, is from someone planning to spend the day alone, from choice.    Well-intentioned friends and family had pressed invitations, but had met with cheerful refusal.    The day would be spent with the cat, the radio and TV, good food and drink, and a nice warm bed at the end.    It concludes ‘I have seized the day, Jesus!   Happy birthday, God!’  

It’s all right to be different.

For some weeks, the mechanics of the 25th December, and the days before and after, were left to us to interpret, and now new stricter restristions are disrupting the plans many people had recently made.   Many of us have distant family members we can’t meet – and many of us don’t want to take our foot off the brakes in any case, knowing that mixing will inevitably increase the risk of more illness in January.

But as we reach Christmas on Friday, may you enjoy whatever it is you are able to do.   We welcome again, as we do every year, the eternal God, gift-wrapped as a human baby. Pandemic or no, God is with us.  That’s what Christmas is about.

An undeserved Christmas

by Andrew Stobart.

‘After all we’ve been through this year, we deserve our Christmas!’ The lady on the news was from a town not too far away; the strength of her feeling is echoed by many and is reflected in the efforts being taken to relax lockdown restrictions in time for the festivities. This is the Christmas that we need; or, as she put it, that we deserve.

The trouble is – for her, and for us – Christmas is precisely not what we deserve. Our economies and social calendars – even in the church – might have become so reliant on this annual celebration that we find it hard, twenty centuries later, to grasp what was straightforwardly obvious to the favoured few who were privy to the birth of Christ. As they were drawn into the divine arc of incarnation, those first witnesses of God’s ‘grace upon grace’ (John 1:16) understood it as the very definition of mercy.

So Mary, in responding to God’s implanted Word, sings with amazement that God has chosen her as an instrument in the fulfilment of his promised ‘mercy’ (Luke 1:50, 54). When old Elizabeth gives birth to John, the neighbourhood erupts with joy that God had shown her ‘mercy’ (Luke 1:58). And father Zechariah, full of God’s Spirit, speaks of the deep significance of these astonishing events: ‘Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors…by the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.’ (Luke 1:72, 78)

Christ comes, in other words, not because we deserve it – no more us now than them then – but because God is merciful. This is foundational to the Christian story.

And yet, I note, the term ‘mercy’ has all but dropped from our theological lexicon. You won’t find it in the index of many books of theology, and while we use it in our prayers of intercession (Lord, have mercy), frequent repetition does not equate with understanding. Maybe I speak only for myself, but I feel I have preached and prayed and counselled much and often about grace, but very little about mercy. It is perhaps time to do something about this.

So what can be said about mercy? A few thoughts:

First, mercy is not so much a divine attribute as it is a divine activity. Or, perhaps better, we ‘attribute’ mercy to God (saying, ‘God is merciful’) only because God first performs mercy. In saying this, I of course give away my conviction that we understand God’s identity only by way of God’s exertions, which locates me some way along the theological trajectory of Barth, Jenson and others. It is far less interesting, in my view, to say ‘God is merciful’ than it is to say ‘God shows mercy’. While Mary, Zechariah and others may have confessed God’s merciful nature many times in worship, the event of incarnation revealed God’s mercy to them as a transformative encounter. The birth of John, the foetus growing in Mary’s womb – these are the merciful God at work, in specific, if quite astonishing, ways.

Christmas is not so much the declaration of an eternal truth about God (though it is, retrospectively, possible to say that the God who acts to incarnate in Christ must always have been just so); it is, rather, the celebration of a particular, unique, energetic exertion of God, to perform mercy and so to keep his promises. In short, mercy is not a characteristic simply possessed by God, but rather achieved, and supremely so in Christ. In giving himself to us in Christ, God’s mercy is ‘done’.

Secondly, mercy is the contextualisation of grace.I grew up with the definitions of grace as ‘God giving us what we don’t deserve’ and mercy as ‘God not giving us what we do deserve’. Understood this way, it’s obvious why we might prefer to talk about grace. Grace is gift – the free, superabundant extravagance of a God who loves without measure. Grace affirms us as recipients of divine favour. Mercy, on the other hand, in this definition, feels rather less positive, even if it is entirely accurate. We really ought to have been excluded from God’s favour, but by God’s mercy, we are not.

The trouble with these definitions is that they draw far too sharp a distinction between grace and mercy, as if they are different aspects of God’s activity. We would do better, I suggest, to see mercy as the character that grace has, given that grace is being shown to us. Grace – the abundant overflow of God in life-giving relationship – can only ever be experienced by us as mercy, because no matter how close we think we have come to God, it is always, only and ever the case that we have a place in Christ at all because of God’s choice to be faithful to his promise, rather than any faltering movement on our part.

Christmas is therefore not just gift; it is mercy. While Jesus is born a tiny, innocent baby, there is nothing naive about incarnation. While the Son’s eyes may be closed in the manger, the Father’s eyes are wide-open. This baby, this birth, is not a divine miscalculation about the willingness of humanity to enter into a deal. It was Mercy that was born that night – because the humiliation of the Lord of the universe in nappies is as nothing compared to the next necessary episode in the performance of grace: the sinless Son of God bearing the sin of the world to its tomb in his broken, crucified body. That is not what he deserved; neither is he what we deserved. But it is what happened. It is what God did, for us and for the world. It is mercy.

Charles Wesley, as ever, sums it so well, in an almost forgotten Christmas hymn:

O Mercy Divine,
How couldst Thou incline,
My God, to become such an infant as mine?

‘We deserve our Christmas’? Lord, have mercy.


by Sheryl Anderson.

It has always struck me as odd that the cycle of the Christian year begins with Advent. Surely, Christmas, or Epiphany, or Easter Day would be a more suitable time? Scholars are divided as to the exact origins of the season of Advent. It appears to be a western invention, but there are also eastern traditions analogous to the western themes associated with the incarnation – the coming of God among us in human form.

There is evidence of the observance of Advent as early as the fourth and fifth centuries in Gaul and Spain, largely through fasting, prayer and meditation. The season was not observed in Rome until the sixth century, but it took some time before (under a variety of influences) Advent gained its dual character of a penitential time of preparation for Christmas and of looking forward to the second coming of Christ. Consequently, although Advent may denote the beginning of the Christian year, when and why this started is shrouded in mystery. This seemed to me to be somewhat ironic, and caused me to reflect on why and how the way we begin ‘things’ matters.

The start of Advent also marks the shift in the Revised Common Lectionary. In 2020 we move from Year A to Year B readings, the most noticeable difference being that the Gospel readings come primarily from Mark. On the second Sunday of Advent the beginning of Mark is the set text.

How the different Gospel writers start their accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is significant. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the words ‘Biblos geneseos Jesou Christou…,’ which can be understood as a bit of pun – ‘The book of the Genesis of Jesus Messiah.’ As the Torah begins with Genesis, then this book will too. The Gospel of Luke begins with a prologue, introducing what follows to, the ‘most excellent Theophilus’. The honorific language here is the language of patronage, so the work that follows is being written for a benefactor and a social superior. The Gospel of John also begins with a prologue. The opening Greek words ‘ἐν ἀρχῇ’ (In the beginning) would be recognisable to all readers of the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures as the opening words of the Book of Genesis. It appears that all these different ‘beginnings’ are significant. If you are going to tell the greatest story ever told, then how you begin matters.

However, beginning Advent with the Gospel of Mark is singularly unhelpful, because none of our Christmas stories come from Mark. There are no references to Jesus’ conception or family background, no birth narratives, no childhood incidents. If we are looking for ways to begin getting into the Christmas spirit, then Mark is useless.

Nevertheless, Mark’s beginning has the same purpose as all the other Gospel writers. He wants to establish right from the start credibility and authority for the account to follow. His opening line – ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ – form the title of the work. The Greek word euangelion, translated as good news or gospel, is perhaps better rendered here as ‘proclamation’. At the time Mark was writing, public proclamations often announced news intended to be understood as of benefit to the populace; a new ruler granting an amnesty, a ruler’s victory in war, the birth of a royal child, and the like. In the Greek version of the Hebrew scripture, the term euangelion referred to God’s intervention on behalf of God’s people. Thus, Mark’s opening words announce ‘the good message of Jesus Messiah,’ and immediately raises for any 1st Century Mediterranean reader the question of Jesus’ authority to claim such a title. In that society public authority was derived from one’s status or honour rating. That rating in turn, was usually dependent upon the standing of one’s family, particularly one’s father. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark provides no genealogy for Jesus; instead he openly identifies Jesus as ‘Son of God,’ giving him both status and authority. In the beginning, the reader may not be entirely convinced by these claims, but hopefully will be sufficiently intrigued to continue with the narrative.

Then Mark does a clever thing. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures, notably selected verses from Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40. In oral societies, honour and esteem is given to writers and speakers who can recite the tradition, especially if they can do so imaginatively and persuasively. Using this device Mark both establishes his own authority and supports his case. By verse four we are hooked.

Most James Bond films begin with the hero engaged in some dramatic battle against impossible odds. In the course of the first five minutes anyone unfamiliar with the genre will learn everything they need to know about the character of the hero. The Gospel of Mark begins a bit like that. We are in for a treat!

The Great Divide

by Ben Pugh.

Sociologists of religion often seem unable to break free of an understanding of secularity as the absence of something. They proceed on the assumption that diminishing recourse to supernatural means entails the subtraction of a social behaviour – going to church – and their task, therefore, is to account for this subtraction. Philosophers tend to ask a different question: what has been added that makes belief in God seem so superfluous? What ideology, what belief system is this? It is in these philosophical reflections that I find the most help as I look out across a culture that, by and large, remains resolutely indifferent to faith.

The more I look at what secularity is the more I am struck by how utterly dependent it is for its existence on dualisms. It survives by declaring that there is a division between two realms. The one it carves out for itself as the ‘secular;’ the other realm it leaves all around the edges and calls it the ‘religious.’ It thrives by being able to police this boundary. Blur the boundary between the sacred and the secular, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, or, worse still, launch a forceful invasion of the realm of the secular, in the manner of Islamic extremism, and secularity suddenly gets a new lease of life. It sets to work developing new bureaucratic systems such as the Prevent strategy which exist to keep the secular realm sanitised of religious delusion.

Once I unmask secularism as a coherent belief system I might feel that I have it licked, and I sneer at it. But then I soon feel powerless: it is so utterly pervasive, and so a degree of frustration sets in. But lately I am thinking it might be better to approach the secular world in a spirit of repentance. And I think the need for this humility becomes apparent when we look at history.

The high Middle Ages saw the Church reach the very peak of its power: it was as powerful then as secularism is today. But the more the Church’s power became threatened, the more violent it became. The crusades against the Muslims were soon followed by the internal crusade against heresy: the Inquisitions. Then the Reformation happened. This might have brought to an end such terror, but it actually resulted in further violence: the Wars of Religion. These wars were ended at the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and were really the last straw for those who longed for a more tolerant society.  Religion’s association, in the European mind, with violence and contention runs very deep. After Westphalia, rational, secular government was hailed as the bringer of peace, and religion was put into what one historian has described as a “punishment corner,” [i] which is where it still is. The stage was set for secularism to take over the roles of Christendom piece by piece with a set of like-for-like replacements which kept God out of peoples’ thinking.

Meanwhile, long before the Peace of Westphalia, some subtle theological shifts had been taking place. First, William of Ockham’s philosophy led to the separating out of all earthly tangible things from heavenly transcendent things. He encouraged the notion that this earthly zone was the proper sphere of secular government while the mysteries of theology and religion were the business of the Church alone. Other theological developments gave us an all-powerful, overwhelmingly wilful deity who was utterly sovereign and inscrutable, a God removed from intimate involvement with his world, making deism, agnosticism and then atheism look more possible. Despite the efforts of Aquinas, the worlds of faith and reason had split asunder within Christianity itself.  

Over the following centuries, the Enlightenment project finished the job. Tragically, the push of Enlightenment naturalism was accompanied by the pull of supernaturalist Christian counter-cultures that preached the importance of true faith, of being holy and separate, or of being able to offer the dramatic counter-claim of supernatural gifts and signs and wonders. ‘Such a dualism,’ said Henri de Lubac, ‘just when it imagined that it was most successfully opposing the negations of naturalism, was most strongly influenced by it, and the transcendence in which it hoped to preserve the supernatural with such jealous care was, in fact, a banishment.’[ii]

Both of these factors: political and theological; deliberate and unintended, perhaps give some clarity to the unique situation we have in the West where religion is privatized. And, perhaps now more than ever there is a wide consensus that the convictions of religious people are best kept as a strictly private affair. It is assumed, in any case, that the true destiny of historic Christian morality is today’s tolerant, humanistic utopia governed by secular reason.

And so, I am wondering if the first step in reaching out is to recognise that, even though parts of this story I have told may involve forms of Christianity with which we would not personally identify, it is Christianity itself that is largely to blame for secularism’s triumph. Maybe our reluctance to say ‘sorry’ to our culture is precisely because it is always somebody else’s Christianity that is culpable, not ours.

[i] William T. Cavanaugh, “’A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House:’ The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” in Modern Theology, vol.11, issue 4, Oct 1995, 410.

[ii] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 313–314

Childlike faith

by Elaine Lindridge.

I was sitting in park recently, trying to keep warm on a bench whilst reading my book. The unmistakable ‘clip-clop, clip-clop’ noise made me look up and notice two horses with their riders approaching. Apparently they too were out for their daily stroll. Ten minutes later I heard them again as they returned from the end of the park – only this time they had company! A young girl, I would guess around 9 years old, joyously running behind them with her younger friend trying to keep up. She turned to her friend and shouted,  ‘I want to go horse riding so I’m just going to hop on’. Her enthusiasm made me smile – as did her belief that she could just catch up, hop on and become a horse-rider.

Back to my book, I zoned out the activities of the park in order to read. I was reading Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. An excellent book in which Rachel does not shy away from the texts that have caused her to struggle. She shares some of her big questions and her journey back to an appreciation of the scriptures. I was particularly enjoying chapter 6 which asks ‘what is the good news?’ Rachel writes,

              ‘To the Galilean children who annoyed the disciples by asking Jesus for a         blessing, the good news is that Jesus is the kind of king who laughs at     their jokes and tousles their hair’.

A few minutes later, I saw the little girl walking back through the park.  I’d seen that she’d managed to catch up with the horse riders and she’d been talking with them. I’ll never know why she chose to approach me…there were plenty of other people around. Despite the fact that I hadn’t waved or even smiled she walked up and with a big smile on her face she simply stated, ’I’m going horse-riding tomorrow’.

I smiled and couldn’t help but think about Matthew 18:1-5

              … the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like  little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

At times, this passage has been used to encourage people to believe and not doubt or question their faith. In the same book, Rachel Held Evans has something to say about this;

              “I’ve often said that those who say having a childlike faith means not asking        questions haven’t met too many children.” 

As a 13 year old who was new to faith and new to church, I distinctly remember being rebuked when I came with all my questions. Fortunately a wonderful, older woman called Joyce took me under her wing and shared her answers alongside her own questions too.

To see this girl in the park with enough innocent conviction to believe that she could simply hop on a horse and become a rider was totally refreshing. Whilst I hadn’t even entertained the notion that she might be allowed to go horse-riding, her abundance of honestly, boldness and natural faith spilled out of her as she ran after the riders and presented them with her request.

In recent times my faith has been lacking. I’ve had far more questions than answers, and at times I’ve been afraid to even address those questions never mind look for any answers. How will we as a church cope as this pandemic continues? What will be left? How is my calling changing? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus when you can’t go anywhere? How do I share faith and demonstrate the love of God when I don’t see anyone beyond my household? What next? How will our Methodist structures cope under the strain? Should our structures cope or is it time for them to implode?

These are just some of my questions – please don’t judge me for my lack of faith. But in the dead of night when it is dark and still and sleep has hidden itself, questions circulate like a vulture and consume my thoughts. Perhaps you experience this too and could list the questions you dare not address.

So I am very happy to be reminded that it’s good to question. Like children perhaps we can come boldly before God and be honest about our uncertainties, doubts and unanswerable (at least for now) questions. It’s okay to humbly acknowledge, ‘we just don’t know’ and live with unresolved questions because God is still faithful, especially in times of uncertainty. But if we’re going to be like children then let’s also come before God with exuberance, innocence and expectant faith.

Oh Lord help me to be like the little girl – to expect, have faith, and received.

Love in a time of coronavirus

by Jonathan Pye.

In Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Fermina says, ‘nothing is more difficult than love.[i] Márquez somewhat bleakly characterises unrequited love as a kind of disease often fatal to those people infected by it – love in a time of often fatal disease has unmistakable resonances for us in this time of global pandemic.

Over the past months, when most of us have, by necessity, spent more time in our homes than out and about, one of the (few!) positives is that I have had more time to read those things that would otherwise have had to wait. One such is Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti[ii] – a document of some 43,000 words. While it focusses on contemporary social and economic problems, in this time of Covid-19 (which Francis sees as exposing the failure of the world to work together during the crisis) its breadth is truly exhausting – immigration, racism, social inequality, economic deprivation, international co-operation and relationships, individualism, the free-market and the common good, inter-religious dialogue.

What holds these themes together can be seen in the encyclical’s sub-title: ‘on fraternity and social friendship[iii]. Its central message is a call for greater solidarity between people and nations, and especially with the most vulnerable in society. Whilst I do not propose to summarise the encyclical, I want to select a few passages and to apply them to our current situation, admittedly in an undoubtedly nuanced way.

The notion of ‘neighbour’, a word which Francis uses frequently, especially with reference to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is an important thread that runs through the encyclical. What it means to relate to our neighbour, especially when the neighbour is perceived as ‘other’ to us, has been a key theme of our relationships both locally and nationally.

An example of this is the longstanding divide between North and South, which is in reality a divide between rich and poor, the socially advantaged and the socially disadvantaged, with its deleterious effects on education, health and life expectancy, which has in the current crisis become even more starkly delineated. It is seen in the damaging political disagreements between central government (based in the South) and many in local leadership (based in the North) which led, at least in some cases of regional ‘tiering’, to lockdowns in Northern cities and communities being imposed with no dialogue and often little notice. In such circumstances Francis’ statements that, ‘Destroying self-esteem is an easy way to dominate others…’[iv] and ‘the best way to dominate and gain control over people is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values’ [v] resonate poignantly.

And if such people ‘push back’ then we need to remember that, ‘often, the more vulnerable members of society are the victims of unfair generalizations’ [vi] and that such reactions arise out of a long history of scorn and social exclusion.Francis makes it clear that even when the ideas themselves may be good or well-intentioned, they are likely to be rejectedif they are ‘presented in a cultural garb that is not [peoples’] own and with which they cannot identify.’[vii]  Indeed, Francis goes so far as to liken the radical individualism and lack of social cohesion which consciously or unconsciously underpins such insensitive attitudes themselves to, ‘a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate’.[viii]

In the end, for Francis, everything depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles (what the New Testament characterises as metanoia) and the recognition that all people are our sisters and brothers, demonstrated, not least politically, in the exercise of self-giving love.

Having begun with a quote from Márquez’s novel, I end with another – words spoken by Florentino that distil the prolixity of Fratelli Tutti to a sentence: ‘Think of love,’ she says, ‘as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.’[ix]

[i] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).

[ii] http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html October 3rd 2020.

[iii] The title of the encyclical has attracted some criticism for its gendered language of ‘fraternity’, unfairly perhaps, because the title is a direct quotation from St Francis of Assisi and because, in the body of the text, Pope Francis speaks throughout of ‘all brothers and sisters’.

[iv] Fratelli Tutti, 52.

[v] Ibid., 15.

[vi] Ibid., 234.

[vii] Ibid., 219.

[viii] Ibid., 105.

[ix] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).