What does the British Methodist Church have to do with slavery?

by David Clough.

I find it a good rule of thumb to avoid writing in public about things I don’t know very much about. But a recent blog post by my friend and colleague Ben Fulford has reminded me of the question in my title, and I’m keen to pursue it. Ben reports on attending the Sam Sharpe Lecture, which is named after an enslaved Baptist deacon who was executed by British colonial authorities in Jamaica for his part in the Baptist rebellion of 1831–1832. The lecture series is part of a wider project of the Jamaican Baptist Union in partnership with the British Baptist Union and others with the aim of encouraging church engagement with racial justice.

This year’s lecture was given by Professor Verene Shepherd who spoke about the enslaved women who responded to Sam Sharpe’s call to rebellion and the punishments they suffered in response. She also challenged her audience with the case for the payment of reparations to address the continuing consequences of the legacy of enslavement in Caribbean nations. In response Professor Robert Beckford remarked that it’s no surprise that the Church of England fails to attract black and brown people when it fails to apologize or make reparations for its participation in genocide.

The British Baptist Union is not alone in taking steps to engage with its history in relation to the practice of slavery: in the UK Glasgow, Cambridge, and Bristol Universities have begun work to investigate their institutional complicity. Ben notes the uncomfortable challenge to the Church of England. I’m prompted to ask how far the British Methodist Church has examined its legacy in relation to slavery.

There’s some good news to tell here. Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797) was a freed slave who converted to Methodism and was the first political leader of Britain’s black community. He was the author of the influential work The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) and spoke widely in England on the need for the abolition of the slave trade. Equiano’s story is summarized in Paul Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press, 2010), and elsewhere. Fryer also reports the story of Francis Barber, who was born around 1735 in Jamaica, brought to England at the age of 15 or so, was freed and became secretary to Samuel Johnson. Barber’s son Samuel, named after Johnson, became a Primitive Methodist preacher in Staffordshire.

John Wesley met enslaved people for the first time when he visited Georgia in 1736–7. In 1774 he published ‘Thoughts on Slavery’ describing the cruel ways in which slaves were treated and calling for slavery to be abolished. He preached against slavery in Bristol — one of the leading slave ports — at the height of the abolition movement and had to be protected from the disturbance that followed. Decades later, the abolitionist commitment was still evident in the church: in 1860, English Wesleyans protested to their American counterparts against their holding of slaves, after the holding of slaves had led to the split of the American Methodist Church in 1844.

Beyond these snapshots, I’m aware that I’m not well-informed about how the Methodist Church in Great Britain engaged with slavery. Perhaps there is more to celebrate; perhaps there are more complex and compromised parts of the story. Whether one or both of these is the case, I’m convinced that getting better acquainted with our history in this area is an important part of what is necessary for the church to work to resist the racism that unhappily is still a feature of our church life. If you’re aware of places where this conversation is happening, or resources to inform the conversation, please respond in the comments. It seems to me that there’s work to do here.

Labyrinth

by Josie Smith.

There was an opportunity to walk a labyrinth in a local church building recently.  I have done this many times before, but this time I embarked on the journey with no idea what I was going to do inside my head as my unshod feet moved softly forward, in a big room empty except for one other silent pilgrim.  I am deaf, so wasn’t even aware of the gentle background music until I was half way round.  We were invited to pick up a pebble at the start, carry it with us, and add it to the cairn when we reached the middle of the labyrinth.  There were suggestions for using the time in the labyrinth, but what happened to me wasn’t triggered by any of them.

Entirely unasked, what came into my mind and heart, and what I found myself doing, was retracing my entire life during the next forty minutes.  I found myself at the start in the church in which I was baptised, surrounded by the happy shadows of the people (saints, if you like) who had surrounded me then.  My immediate family (long dead) materialised in my mind, and then – as the child I was at the time began to develop and become more aware – my wider family, people at church and in Sunday school.  I found myself again remembering Jean Fisher at my first primary school – a pretty little thing with blue eyes and golden curls, all the things I wasn’t and would have liked to be.  Another step, a corner turned – and there were the neighbours around my first home.  I could see them all, and name them all, and commend them all to God, wherever they are now.  All dead.   Step followed step, and memory followed memory, except that I didn’t experience it as memory because in some strange way I had become that little girl who was relating to life as it was then.

Another corner of the labyrinth turned – another home, a new school, other friends, other influences, other pleasures, but also painful and sometimes tragic experiences.   At each stage I recalled individual people and groups who had been important to me, and held them for a moment before God.  Many of them will be dead too, but I am still in touch with a few people from those far-off days.   Teachers I knew, ministers I recall (though no detail of what they said, except for one whose children’s addresses were all built round a little boy called Bob), places I loved and people who shared them with me – all these things unwound in silent procession through my mind as I moved slowly forward with the help of my stick.

At each corner there was a little candle (electric, for safety) and as I turned to face in a new direction, a new scene revealed itself.  I lost count of how many people had been involved in the making of me, and reflected that perhaps I had been involved in the making of them in ways that I could not be aware of.  I do know that the longer I live the more aware I am of the oneness of all God’s creation.

Then growing up, marriage – God-given, beautiful, and enabling us to use our home once or twice a week for the local teenagers (it wouldn’t be allowed now, but Safeguarding hadn’t been invented then!) while bringing up our own children in love and safety.  I’m still in touch with some of those youngsters, now grandparents.   More moves, more friends, new opportunities and challenges.

Then more people came to mind – I recalled all the jobs I have done and the colleagues I have worked with.  All the ministers I have known, congregations I have worshipped with, groups I’ve belonged to – such riches!    And now, living alone and with the river of my life widening as it approaches the sea, what more?

All this happened without my volition – I went with the flow of my thoughts, and at the end of the journey back into the here and now I felt a profound sense of gratitude for the opportunity to walk that path into and out of the labyrinth.    There was no Minotaur waiting to consume me in the middle – just God, and the Communion of Saints, and my own inner self.

 

(Thank you, Judith, for that hour.)

On not always being euphoric

by Clive Marsh.

I made a short contribution to a major, regional Christian event recently at which I suggested that one of the challenges to those gathered together was how to ‘come down’ from the euphoria of the event, and re-enter the humdrum world of the local. Whilst it is nice, from time to time, to get a real ‘high’ from a celebratory event at which there is much singing, considerable joy, a bit of mind-stretching perhaps, but almost always much spirit-uplifting, there is the mundane to be returned to. Christian faith and practice cannot solely comprise a catalogue of peak moments. I was challenged immediately afterwards very directly and bluntly by a man who had heard my contribution. He was indignant that I had been so presumptive about the euphoria that people would experience. He was, of course, right that I could not guarantee that all would feel joyful as a result of their participation. It had, though, I felt, been a fair assumption that at a ‘celebration weekend’ people might, on the whole, be more positive than negative and that there would be an issue about ‘coming back to earth’.

Be that as it may, there are two practical theological challenges at issue here. First, how are we to deal with the fact that no human being can be joyful all of the time? Christianity has to be able to handle the negative aspects of life, and accept that despite the hopeful message it carries, not all can be consistently hopeful. Second, how are the positive aspects of Christian theology and practice to be presented in appropriate ways? Whilst Christian faith has not had much of a good press for its jollity, it is not unreasonable to recognise – even if with some irony – that a message of ultimate salvation should be able to be enjoyed and communicated with some verve. Friedrich Nietzsche has not, though, been the only thinker that has suggested that Christian faith might be more attractive if those who espouse it were a bit happier now and again.

The first challenge can perhaps be addressed more easily than the second. Christianity does, of course, address the negative aspects of life. If anything, it is (or has been) more prone to address these than the positives. Sin is real, after all. To deny sin as a basic aspect of the human condition – even if it does need closer definition than the references to it, or to ‘sins’ in daily speech and lazy journalism – is to fail to respect what human life is actually like. Frailties, shortcomings, limitations, deviousness and downright evil all have to be acknowledged and addressed. If the simple message of Christian faith in response to the question ‘but how do we deal with all of this?’ is ‘we can’t!’ (as in ‘we can’t’), then let’s work out how we are to unpack that answer now, in contemporary terms. Whether or not my critic was suggesting my support of joy and euphoria was overlooking this negative stuff I’ve no idea. But he’d be right that gathering a bunch of spiritual ‘highs’ – even weekly via worship – doesn’t necessarily get to grips with grasping how to face, with God, as God is known in and through Christ, the reality of daily life and the human condition. It’s also why sloppy handling of prayers of confession, and declarations of forgiveness, underplays the depth of what worship achieves, both spiritually and psychologically.

Perhaps, though, because of a Christian reputation for sometimes being really down on joy we do need to work harder at spelling out the positives. Faith doesn’t automatically make people happy. Nor should it. There may be very tough things that individuals have to face which aren’t simply ‘dealt with’ in faith, but have to be lived with and through. The companionship of God will surely prove profoundly supportive. But it may not inevitably lead to unqualified joy. That said, Nietzsche’s cheeky observation is well-made. Christians really could, at times, be a bit happier. Whatever our own particular take on salvation – have we been saved already? will we be saved (at the end of time)? are we in the process of being saved?…let’s get Luther, Calvin and Wesley in the room to see what they say on that – if it’s to do with our ultimate standing before God, and we know that God wants the best for all, then what greater joy could we possible want to claim? To answer the question more fully, in a more contemporary way, when life expectancy is greater in many (though not all) parts of the world we do, of course, need more than three White male Europeans round the table. Personally speaking, Grace Jantzen challenged me to think of salvation more in terms of flourishing than on what we are saved from (though I want notions both of what we’re saved ‘from’ and what we’re saved ‘for’ in my understanding of salvation).[1] Latin American Liberationists got me thinking much more urgently about the material dimensions of salvation, lest any sense of joy and euphoria become solely an inward thing (much easier to focus on when you have enough food to eat, a roof over your head, and a stable, largely peaceful, society in which to live).[2] But can salvation and happiness be equated? Perhaps not; perhaps the latter term is just much too weak. Joy, contentment, flourishing, health, well-being, peace are all words we need to try and get to grips with, though, in relation to salvation’s many dimensions.[3] Even if we cannot be euphoric all the time, we can try and articulate in positive ways what living with God actually feels like.

 

 

[1] Grace Jantzen, ‘The gendered politics of flourishing and salvation’ in Vincent Brümmer and Marcel Sarot (eds.), Happiness, Well-being and the Meaning of Life (Kampen: Kok Pharos 1996), pp. 58-75.

[2] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1973/London: SCM Press 1974); Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings (London: SCM Press 2011); Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Salvation and Liberation: In Search of a Balance Between Faith and Politics (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1984).

[3] I’ve had a bash at this in A Cultural Theology of Salvation (Oxford University Press 2018), esp.pp.  219-227.

Comparative Divinity

by Andrew Stobart.

In his sermon ‘On Zeal’, John Wesley notes that very few people know anything at all about ‘comparative divinity’.[i] What Wesley means by that rather obscure expression becomes clear in the subsequent paragraphs, where he sets out ‘a sketch’ of how the ‘parts’ of our discipleship ‘rise one above the other’. Comparative divinity, for Wesley, is best described as nuanced differentiation in practising the Christian life; it sets out for comparison various aspects of ‘religion’ (not a negative word, for Wesley, as it is so often for us) and encourages us to pursue the best rather than just the good; comparative divinity is a topographical map of grace, on which there is a clearly marked centre of divine activity, and a set of contours that rise towards it; in short, comparative divinity is a systematic expression of Wesley’s practical spiritual advice: ‘focus your attention here’, ‘do this’, ‘don’t spend all your energy here’, ‘keep going on to perfection’.

Unconvinced that we in our churches know anything more about ‘comparative divinity’ all these many years later – either theoretically or practically – I suggest that reading Wesley again on this matter is a dose of wisdom. Our egalitarian sensibilities tend to flatten the landscape of ‘religion’, so that all things are seen with equal value. But in practice, such spiritual egalitarianism produces bland Christianity, bored and boring disciples, and heart-less faith. While aware of the lurking dangers of fanatical excess, Wesley wanted to use ‘comparative divinity’ to engender true zeal and fervent love in himself and the early Methodists. Here is an invitation to press on from the lower to the higher slopes; to earnestly focus on what is really pleasing and excellent in God’s sight (Phil 4:8). Here is a way to avoid spiritual stagnation and social apathy and, as Wesley puts it, ‘make…considerable progress in religion’ and ‘do…considerably service to our neighbour’.

And so to Wesley’s ‘sketch’ of concentric circles of increasing value:

  • The outermost circle is the church. Wesley speaks of the necessary zeal a Christian should have for the church in general and their own society in particular. Our prayer should be that this circle is ever growing, enlarging its border to embrace more and more of God’s world.
  • But while the church is good, the ‘ordinances of Christ’, in the next circle, are better. These are what Wesley refers to elsewhere as ‘works of piety’, instituted means of grace such as the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fasting and searching the Scriptures.
  • Works of piety are good, but ‘works of mercy’ are better. These are, says Wesley, ‘real means of grace’. Works of mercy are not just kind charitable acts that express our faith, but are rather means through which we – and others – encounter God.
  • The next concentric circle (moving inwards and upwards) is what Wesley calls ‘holy tempers: long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fidelity, temperance’. Whatever is part of the ‘mind that was in Christ Jesus’, that we should love and earnestly desire to imitate, praying constantly for ‘these proofs and fruits of living faith’.
  • And finally, at the heart of all, is love: ‘love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival.’

A couple of observations about Wesley’s comparative divinity. First, these concentric circles do not, for Wesley, describe a retreat from the physical world to a mountain-top spiritual experience. The love which is at the centre of Wesley’s map is not a disembodied, mystical experience: it is love of God and humanity, God and neighbour. We cannot, therefore, draw the conclusion that Wesley wanted his followers to become more and more ‘spiritual’, if by spiritual we mean less ‘earthy’; rather, he wanted them to become more and more loving, full of love and ruled by love.

That helps to explain, secondly, the fascinating placement of ‘works of mercy’ nearer the centre of the circle than ‘works of piety’. Of course, there is Scriptural warrant for this: for instance Hosea 6:6, where God desires mercy not sacrifice. Even the methodical practising of prayer, Scripture reading and church attendance, so important to Wesley’s movement, ‘are to be omitted, or to be postponed…when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.’

Furthermore, thirdly, the placement of church at the outer edge of Wesley’s comparative divinity is instructive. On the one hand, in Wesley’s scheme the church is furthest away from the centre of love. In challenging times for the institution of the church, we can be tempted to think that if only we could ‘get church right’ or ‘make it better’ then all would be well. But the gathering of the church is only, for Wesley, the outer edge of love. We would do better to bemoan the loss of love (for God and neighbour) in our world, than the weakness of the church. Having said that, the church is the outer edge of comparative divinity, the circumference of which should be continually expanding, in order to bring more and more to journey inwards through piety and mercy and holy tempers to perfect love. The church is neither to be obsessed over nor to be dismissed; rather, it is simply a porous boundary of grace, which is never more itself than when it is embracing the unembraced and calling to be God’s people those who thought they were not.

‘Proportion your zeal to the value of its object’, instructs Wesley. Please God, give us this differentiated discipleship, this practical wisdom, this comparative divinity – that we might love what is good, and love better what is best, and in so loving, be renewed at our centre and broadened at our circumference, and so find ourselves full of love for God and all. Amen.

 

[i] Quotations are from Sermon 92: ‘On Zeal’, pp308-321 in The Works of John Wesley Volume 3, edited by Albert Outler (Abingdon Press, 1986)

Thinking about a new method for doing practical theology

by Ben Pugh.

David Tracey, Seward Hiltner, Don Browning and Gordon Lynch, between them, addressed the deficiencies in Paul Tillich’s ‘correlational’ approach to relating theology to culture. They replaced Correlation with ‘Revised Correlation,’ the method that facilitates a two-way, mutually critical conversation between a particular cultural phenomenon and the Christian tradition. The one-way conversation of Tillich in which the culture asks all the questions and theology must give the answers, is here counter-balanced.

However, within Revised Correlation there seems to be a reluctance to pin down what aspects of culture qualify for theological reflection and what aspects of Christian tradition ought to be selected for dialogue. Don Browning unapologetically described Revised Correlation as a dialogue between the ‘Christian classics’ and “‘all other answers” from wherever they come.’[1] There is a problem at both ends of the process: the culture end and the theology end: a lack of criteria by which we are supposed to choose the thing to reflect upon, and a similar carte blanche as to what aspect of Christian tradition is best selected.

What I’m proposing tries to address both ends of the problem by offering clearer selection criteria. I am calling my new approach ‘Correlative Retrieval.’ This approach looks for actual vestiges of the gospel within contemporary Western culture that are selected for retrieval. Genealogical links to the original source for the phenomenon are traced historically as a first step. But, of course, even the original will be found to be flawed or otherwise not straightforwardly translatable back into contemporary culture. So, as a second step, the methods of biblical theology are used to help clarify or even correct the historically Christian thing that was discovered to be the source of the modern vestige. However, even once the biblical renovation work is done, a third step will be needed. Humility requires me to acknowledge the way the modern vestige has kept much better pace with developments than many of its Christian counterparts. So I make full use of these modern adaptations wherever they might be found to chime with the findings of biblical theology. In this way, the two-way mutually critical dialogue between culture and faith still happens, but it happens within clearer methodological parameters.

For example, an early experiment of mine was in the area of addiction recovery programmes. 12-Step recovery programmes are a classic example of a gospel vestige. The de-Christianisation process is not yet complete, so many of the signs of AA’s originally Christian impetus still lie close to the surface. Indeed, they are so obvious that Rick Warren’s team have already gone down the route of simply naming the ‘Higher Power’ and the ‘God of your own understanding’ as ‘Jesus.’ Thus their Celebrate Recovery is a straightforward reclaiming of AA for Jesus. But what I wanted to do was a bit more subtle. Historically, 12-step approaches are traceable to the Oxford Group of the 1930s. This was a Christian discipleship programme aimed at all Christians, founded by Frank Buchman, a Lutheran. The core concept of turning your life over to the care of God, of ‘letting go and letting God,’ was certainly influenced by the Keswick teachers whom he loved but was probably also deeply embedded in the Lutheran tradition from which Buchman originally came. Luther’s theologia crucis centred upon the importance of casting ourselves in faith upon the mercy of God, humbling ourselves profoundly before him, and then receiving the free gift of grace. But perhaps the genealogy does not stop there, since Luther’s main inspiration was Galatians and Romans. Indeed, the best place to go to reflect further on that core concept of, if you like, defeat-overcome-by-surrender, is Romans. There, the world of endlessly repeated defeat at the hands of ‘the flesh’ in chapter 7 gives way to the sunny Spirit-led life of chapter 8, with chapter 6 already having given the key to walking in this newness of life: present yourself to the new master, to God. However, even with the core ideas biblically renewed and clarified, I also needed to acknowledge that newer recovery programmes have kept pace with new developments in addictionology which the founders of AA could not have known about. Indeed, new programmes such as SMART Recovery and Rational Recovery are now beginning to supplement the 12-step approach and are proving effective. So, a new faith-based programme would need to not only biblically renovate 12-step recovery but also incorporate the newer insights that have been gained by secular research wherever this can be found to chime with the biblical insights – and I found some very exciting resonances.

So, with the help of two experienced practitioners in the field, a new faith-based programme was developed. It took the form of a book: Beyond this Darkness,[2] which was published in 2017. Since then, my friends and I have not exactly revolutionised recovery, but hopefully some people have been helped. As I further refine my method I hope it will be useful as a way of connecting gospel and culture in many other ways too.

 

[1] Don Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1991), p. 46.

[2] Ben Pugh, Jason Glover and Daniel Thompson, Beyond this Darkness: A Faith-Based Pathway to Recovery from Addictive Behaviors (Eugene: Resource, 2017).

It seems that marriage and relationships have always been complicated.

by Sheryl Anderson.

In May this year, as part of my sabbatical I travelled to Savannah in Georgia, USA. I wanted to find out what happened to John Wesley when he was there 284 years ago, and especially the curious matter of his relationship with Sophia Hopkey. What follows is a little of what I discovered.

On 14th October 1735, John Wesley sailed for Savannah in the Province of Georgia in the American colonies. He went, with his brother Charles, at the request of James Oglethorpe, who had founded the colony in 1733. Oglethorpe wanted Wesley to be the minister of the newly formed Savannah parish.

The sea voyage took four months. Among his fellow passengers was one Sophia Hopkey, whose mother employed John to teach her daughter French. A friendship arose between the couple and, after arriving in Savannah, their affection for one another grew. It appears that Sophia believed Wesley’s intentions were honourable and would lead marriage.

The brothers reached Savannah on February 8th 1736. Charles was appointed ‘Secretary for Indian Affairs’ and his duties included being chaplain at Fort Frederica, which was a small settlement full of gossips and people contending for position and power. Charles became caught up in various quarrels and disputes and lost the trust of Oglethorpe. After less than four months in the colony, Charles sent his resignation to Oglethorpe stating that his duties conflicted with his clerical functions. Oglethorpe persuaded him to stay a little longer, but in July 1736, Charles was sent to England to deliver dispatches to the Trustees of the Colony, and never returned.

Meanwhile, John and Sophia’s relationship continued, although Wesley was ambivalent about matrimony and, in the absence of Charles, sought guidance from a trusted friend, Bishop Spangenberg of the Moravians. Spangenberg counselled him that female admirers should be avoided, as they would interfere with his calling. Wesley took this advice and, without any explanation to Sophia, stopped seeing her.

The local Chief Magistrate for Savannah was Thomas Causton. He was smart, had a little education, and a keen eye for business. As he prospered in his position, he gained political power and threatened Oglethorpe’s authority as governor. The Moravians, who had befriended Wesley on the voyage from England, provided work in Savannah in exchange for their supplies. As chief magistrate, Causton oversaw these arrangements, but applied the credit of the Moravian’s work to his plantation and did not credit their account with the Trustees. Wesley discovered Causton’s dishonesty and reported it. He was subsequently removed from office. Causton was Sophia’s uncle.

In March,1737, Sophia Hopkey, tired of waiting for John, married William Williamson, a clerk in her uncle’s store. Williamson subsequently forbade his wife to have anything to do with Mr Wesley, including attending church. When she did eventually return Wesley refused to give her holy communion. The following day, a warrant was issued against Wesley by Williamson alleging that he had defamed Sophia by refusing to administer her the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in a public congregation, without due cause.

According to the “Court of Savannah, Grand Jury Record”, on August 22, 1737, a Grand Jury was called in the Court of Savannah by Thomas Causton, Recorder and Magistrate, to investigate charges against John Wesley. The allegations intended to show that Wesley “deviated from the principles and regulations of the Established Church.” They included such charges as: changing the liturgy; altering passages of the psalms; introducing hymns “not inspected or authorized;” baptizing infants by total immersion, denying communion, confessions, and other sacraments to those “who will not conform to a grievous set of penances, confessions, [and] mortifications;” administering the sacraments to “boys ignorant and unqualified;” “venting sundry uncharitable expressions of all who differ from him;” “teaching wives and servants that they ought absolutely to follow the course of mortifications, fastings, and diets; […] searching into and meddling with the affairs of private families.” Wesley asserted that these were ecclesial matters and outside the jurisdiction of the secular court. The outcome was recorded as a mis-trial.

Nevertheless, Wesley’s reputation was ruined and he could no longer exercise ministry in the colony. On December 22, 1737, he escaped in secret and fled back to England. Wesley was 34 years old and this was his first experience as a parish priest. He lasted less than two years. The good news is that Wesley did get better at it. Although his relationships with women were always complicated, he did learn from the experience and became significantly less highhanded, interfering and judgemental in his dealings with others.

In the preface to the report ‘God in Love Unites Us’ we read the words, ‘Relationships, sex and marriage are important issues for everyone. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. As part of its calling and mission the Methodist Church must engage with the reality of how people are living today.’ If we are to benefit from the experience of Mr Wesley, we too must learn to do this with humility, sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

The Bible is a Library

by Clive Marsh.

Over the next 9 months or so there are to be lots of conversations happening within the Methodist Church in Great Britain about marriage and relationships. Spurred on (required!) by the decisions of the 2019 Methodist Conference, local churches and groups of churches are to talk together about the recommendations that the Conference made.

In the middle of all this, the place of the Bible in Christian reflection will keep cropping up as an issue. Positions taken up about issues of human relationships and sexuality obviously have to relate to the Bible in some way. For some Christians it is clear: the Bible condemns all forms of homosexuality (and so we should too). The voice of God is heard plainly in Genesis 1-2 and the model of human partnership is a marriage between one man and one woman. For others it is equally clear: the Bible is of its time, and some of its views are a bit opaque anyway. Better to acknowledge the fact that the Bible is essentially a record of the dealings of a God of love with humanity and work out from there. Things change. Get over it.

British Methodism is not alone is wrestling with ‘use of the Bible’ issues. But its own recent history has found it recognising that there are seven ways in which the Bible’s authority can be understood. The 1998 Conference report A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path presents these, acknowledging that they ‘are not precise definitions’ and ‘are intended to illustrate briefly the range of views which are held, and the reasons for holding them’ (7.9).[1] The report also recognises that ‘most, if not all, of these positions are compatible with’ the Deed of Union’s ambiguous statement about the Holy Scriptures (7.10). There are also those who would disagree that the Deed of Union’s statement was ambiguous, and therefore with the Faith and Order Committee’s report, as received/adopted by the Conference!

The Bible is a very rich book. More accurately, it is, of course, a rich collection of books. The Bible is a library and we forget this at our peril. There may have been sifting and sorting (weeding out texts which didn’t make it into the canon) but there wasn’t a single, structured process by which this happened. Despite this, and despite the emerging authority of smaller collections within the collection at different stages in history, and in relation to two related, but distinct, religions (Torah and Prophets relating to Judaism, Torah, Prophets, Gospels, Letters, relating to Christianity) the Bible is a very diverse collection indeed. Different genres of writing, different levels of authorial authority, different historical settings, different scales of historical reliability all come into play as we wrestle with the texts before us. Women are under-represented, political biases abound, cultures clash. It is representative of life – warts and all – even as it has become a decisive text (in its Two Testament form) for the Christian Church. But it is a library, and so we should not expect it to be able to deliver the single knock-down rules, regulations or opinions that we might sometimes wish for. Better, then, not to hope for such knock-down verdicts and to carry on wrestling responsibly, as a community, with this motley collection of texts.

For some readers this verdict will amount to the usual liberal ‘cave-in’ to worldly ways of reading. Biblical authority has been given up. God’s Word has been reduced to human words. Such a view is one, though, that I simply don’t accept, both on experiential and intellectual grounds. Experientially I want to vouch for the personal discovery of just how exciting and enriching the Bible becomes when read analytically and critically (more so, in fact, than when it is read uniformly and all too narrowly as containing words which are all seen as equally ‘God’s words’). To read the Bible ‘critically’ doesn’t mean being straightforwardly critical of any of its contents. Nor does it mean idolizing the powers of human reason. It means acknowledging what can be done with the God-given gift of reason. Intellectually, recognising the need to sift and analyse what the Bible contains, so that it be read better, here, now, in multiple contexts, by Christian communities in different public locations, addressing many and diverse ethical and political issues, is a matter of simple honesty. We are more likely to be taken seriously as a church in wider society if we accept what the Bible actually contains, how it has been used and misused, and which bits of it really are better than others (and why). Churches have always worked, in practice, with ‘canons within the canon’ (chunks which are seen as more significant than others). Let’s not pretend otherwise. The practice continues, and will continue. It’s why different denominations need each other. It’s why Christian readers need Jewish (and even atheist) readers, so that we are challenged in our thinking.

So let’s hear it for the Bible: as a divine, authoritative, rich, compelling, influential, and still hugely important collection of texts. And let’s read it critically, creatively, constructively and with rigour and wisdom together. It really will enhance all our faiths, whatever detractors may say.

 

 

[PS. sorry for late post everyone – an am/pm mix up occurred! George]

[1] A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path: The Nature of Authority and the Place of the Bible in the Methodist Church (Methodist Publishing House 1998); accessible at: https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-a-lamp-to-my-feet-1998.pdf