A privatised faith?

by Christopher Collins.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, presided at an Easter Eucharist from his kitchen table, many went to social media to complain that the Church of England was becoming too domesticated or private. Many respond with the question “does it matter?” John Hull perhaps answered that question in his seminal work on missiology published in 2014, a year before his death. His book, Towards the Prophetic Church: a study of Christian mission,[i] presents an enduring challenge to the church which speaks as loudly in the response to Covid-19 as at any other time.

Throughout Hull’s published works there is a thread leading to the conviction that the church desperately needs to recapture a “prophetic faith” drawing on the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the prophetic ministry of Jesus.

For the prophets, faith was public (see for example Jeremiah 7.2). Yet, argues Hull, public faith has been privatised by the condition of modernity and imperialism (although we might want to argue this was happening before modernity). For the prophets, faith determined how to live in the public square, shown in their concern for life in community. In the mutual relationship formed in community there is the potential for justice and injustice. Given that God is just, God is found in justice so to have a right relationship with God, one needs right relationships in community which forms justice. We can only love God by loving each other.

Hull explores this using the spatial model of horizontal and vertical transcendence. Vertical transcendence – finding God solely through an individual relationship with God – is a privatised faith and offers little compulsion to live justly. Horizontal transcendence, on the other hand, suggests that the way to a right relationship with God is through our relationships with each other.

And this is where Hull’s work can speak to us living under the conditions of Covid-19 which has been described by Arundhati Roy as a portal through which we see injustices more clearly.[ii]

Firstly, Covid-19 made us more aware of relationships that we had painfully neglected until March this year. For example, our utter reliance on “key workers.” We quickly became aware of the injustices they faced given their roles often putting them on the “front line” at risk of Covid yet they also appeared to be economically expendable. Some have realised the extent of their “middle class cushion” with plentiful access to on-line resources, greater job security and a savings buffer. Further afield, we have seen how some countries don’t have the relatively vast resources of wealthy nations to tackle the virus. This gives us plenty to consider in our missiological response.

Yet Covid-19 gives us ecclesiological challenges too. How do we maintain relationships that enable horizontal transcendence when our gatherings are limited? Of course, we have all learned a great deal more since March about meeting together on-line. Crucial as it is, it isn’t the transcendent panacea. Not only do many people find on-line interactions good only to a certain extent, there are members of our congregations who become digitally marginalised. That isn’t because they won’t join in, it’s because they can’t. Not everyone has the resources to buy equipment or connections. For some people, the pandemic disruption is more than they can handle without having to learn a new language as well.

As important as it is to minimise the possibility of marginalisation, there is the question of what remote connectedness does to our rituals which depend on presence together and in turn the impact on the practice of our faith. Holy Communion is one example. Our celebration at Christ’s table is modelled on a presiding minister leading the people gathered in the Thanksgiving which includes the invocation of the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ for us. It is a communal act envisaged for a time when the prospect of the congregation being unable to gather was unthinkable.

As unthinkable as it was, it has had to become thinkable in the last six months. Pragmatists amongst us have reignited the conversation over “on-line communion” as well as developing models such as “drive through” Holy Communion. These practical theological developments should always be encouraged but crucially not at the price of our faith retreating into a privatised relationship where it only matters to me and God.


[i] John M Hull, Towards the Prophetic Church: A study in Christian mission, (London: SCM, 2014)

[ii] Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’.

Christ our Space

by Neil Richardson.

Some years ago a lorry crashed into the Methodist chapel of a village in Lincolnshire. Mercifully, no-one was in it at the time. But the chapel was damaged beyond repair. The circuit meeting urged the society, despite the loss of their building, to stay in fellowship. Sadly, they did not.

Covid 19, you could say, has crashed into church buildings across the world. In our country they were out of use for months; their future use – even perhaps their viability – is fraught with uncertainty. No wonder this crisis has been described as our Babylonian exile, echoing a time when Israel had to learn to survive without its temple in Jerusalem, destroyed as it was by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies.

It’s not easy to get our buildings in proper perspective. In a climate like ours, they are useful, to say the least. But as the house churches in St Paul’s day show, they’re not essential to worship, fellowship or witness. Comfortable, attractive premises, however,  can be important. (I come back to this at the end).

Anglican priest Christopher Rowland, in his fine commentary on Revelation,[i] observes that a building can be helpful in meeting ‘the human need for reassurance’. At the same time, he contrasts the absence of a temple from the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21.20) with the ‘extraordinary’ investment of the Christian church in its buildings down the centuries. ‘A special space or place has become central to our understanding of religion’.

The New Testament starts from the glorious, simple truth: Christ is our Space. The language is unmistakable – especially in the writings of John and Paul. ‘Abide in me, I in you’; ‘I live, yet not I; Christ lives in me’. Life in Christ, with one another for the world, is the heart of Christian faith.

The origin of the conviction that Christ is our fundamental space seems to have been Jesus’ explosive remarks about the Jerusalem temple. Even if John’s version reflects later faith, its import is unmistakable: ‘Destroy this temple…. and in three days I will raise it up again’…… The temple he was speaking of was his body’ (John 2.19 and 21).

The geography of the New Testament tells its own story: out from Jerusalem, into the tenements of urban Corinth and Rome. Wherever the Holy Spirit created an ekklesia, there was the temple, (compare, e.g. 1 Corinthians 3.9-17).

Members of that Lincolnshire chapel seemed not to know that they were the temple: Christ in them, they in Christ. In fact, Christ our Space is the key to theology everywhere and always. The locative ‘Christ’ expressions in the New Testament run into hundreds: life in Christ, growing into Christ, Christ formed in you…..But this isn’t all. The panorama is cosmic as well as personal,  e.g. ‘ all things created in, through and for Christ, (Colossians 1.15-20).

This isn’t primarily a theology of the head and the study, but a theology of heart and life  and of the whole world, as Rowan Williams’ recent book, Christ the Heart of Creation shows. We live it, breathe it and walk it every day of our Christian life.

 Other verses in Scripture can be re-expressed in Christ language: for example, ‘In him we live and move; in him we exist’ (Acts 17.28); some Old Testament psalms anticipate the ascended and risen Christ: ‘If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there’ (Psalm 139.8).

This is why Paul teaches ‘Pray without ceasing’; the living Christ centres and enables our prayers every passing moment. The same metaphor of space applies supremely to the Atonement: at the cross, God the Father and God the Son moved sufficiently far apart to accommodate e the whole world in between.[ii] The imagery applies to life both on earth and in heaven: ‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling-places’; in other words,  there is room in the heart of God for all, (John 14.1).

 This is where we begin and end. The mystery of Christ – God with us and for us – is our fundamental ‘space’.

The present crisis prompts searching questions . What are our buildings for? What do they mean? The more fully we inhabit  our truest and deepest Space – the living Christ – the better our response will be. And that may  include painting the rusty iron railing and the scruffy notice board outside.


[i] C. Rowland, Revelation,  (Epworth SCM Commentaries 1993, p.157).

[ii] I owe this imagery to the Roman Catholic theologian  Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

Church Lockdown

by John Howard.

It has been said so many times in the last few months – ‘that we are in unusual times’, that there is the danger that we fail to appreciate just how unusual these times are. Amongst the things that have happened and that are easily passed over has been that the government said that faith communities should cease their communal worship – and we immediately did so. When has this happened before? I understand that historians are disagreeing on this – but they can agree that it was a long time ago!

Across all the Churches – as far as I am aware – communal worship ceased on the day the government said it should and for many it has yet to restart. Now I am not questioning the correctness of what the churches did – but I am asking the question – where was the biblical authority for this? Churches have faced persecution in some parts of the world rather than agree to the ceasing of public worship. Some would say it seems far fetched to say so but it is not beyond the realms of the possible, that at some time in the future we may as Christians find ourselves again as being at odds with government in the West and needing to consider carefully whether we recognise civil authority over our religious practices. We should be careful to be clear on what we have done and why.

The passage from the New Testament that at first sight tackles this question most clearly is Romans 13: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’. Other passages  can be found that take a similar line: 1 Tim 2: 1-2; Titus 3: 1; 1 Peter 2: 13-17. Paul goes on to justify this by the assertion that there is no authority but that which comes from God and therefore if the rulers are in authority – it must have come from God. There is considerable agreement amongst commentators that Paul here is consciously placing the church in a very different relationship to the Roman authorities than certain Jewish sects of the time. These argued for violent conflict with the authorities. Since the Roman authorities viewed the church as a sect within Judaism – it can be seen why Paul was concerned, when writing to the church at the capital city of the empire – to distance himself from such Jewish sects. Paul, and all the Apostles, make use of the order and stability of Rome in the spreading of the Gospel message. Travel can be undertaken in relative safety. Though in later letters Paul is imprisoned and suffering the inhumanity of the State, at this time Paul is hoping to travel to Rome and use it as a place to launch his mission to Spain. This plan is using the ordered, peaceful governance to enable the further spread of the gospel.

There is some resonance here with our situation. Chaos and widespread instability was – and remains a danger in the present crisis. In March the repeated cry of the government was ‘protect the NHS’. The prospect of the health services being overrun in Britain was an indication of the very real danger of chaos, if the public didn’t follow what the authorities were laying down. For the churches to oppose this would have meant that the churches were risking chaos. However this is an argument that needs to be handled with care – it would not, for example, be wise for the churches to accept an argument from Government that bad governance is better than none at all – and so allow church support for a corrupt regime. If the church ultimately answers to a higher authority than national government, then obeying the dictate, ‘to avoid chaos’, is at the very least dangerous, as the early church discovered.

Is there then a ‘non authority’ justification for the willingness of the churches to close at the call of government? I think that there is. It was about what was best for the people, and best for each other, a need to do as you would be done by. Matthew’s ‘Golden Rule’ in chapter 7 verse 12 arguably can be taken to say that  since there was a known risk of illness – for which there was no treatment and no vaccine – then the actions were justified as a response of care. Do act with prudence, so that others can be as safe as you yourself would want to be. Not meeting in church was then an act of prudence.

I feel that there is a lot more to say on this subject – in what circumstances should the church obey government in the practice of religious life? The present case is, I suggest, ultimately as a responsible means of care in the situation. However again it would be a dangerous principal to take too far, and again an easy principal for governments to abuse if they wanted to do so.

The issues of church and state might well be ones we need to return to in this very secular society we now live in.

Ordination 40th Anniversary

by Inderjit Bhogal.

On 1 July 2020 it was 40 years since I was ordained. I want to share with you some key lessons and wisdom I have learned in ministry.

  1. First, Image and Body matter

We are all made in the Image of God, and we are all members of the Body of Christ. These two themes are absolutely core to Christian discipleship. Young and old, women and men, gay, lesbian, transgendered, whatever our sexuality, whatever our body shape, whatever our ethnicity or skin colour, we are all made in the Image of God and we all belong equally in the Body of Christ.

This leaves no room for discrimination in Christian discipleship.

I have tried to live by this theology.

I delivered the Beckly Lecture this year. Some of the thinking on this is expanded in the lecture. You can listen to it here.

2. Second, you shall not live by bread alone

Deuteronomy 8:1-4
…the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness…that you may know that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord…

In the wilderness it is not possible to travel with speed. It is important to travel at a steady pace, not go too far ahead of others. God walked and worked with the people for forty years to teach them that one does not live by bread alone.

Don’t rush. Don’t be greedy. You are a spiritual being as well as a physical being. You are flesh and blood, spirit and soul. Nourish your spiritual self too.

You do this by dwelling on the Word of God, and Worship/Witness with the people of God.

      3.  Third, you shall also love the stranger

To “love the stranger” is the most repeated commandment in the Bible. I have preached on this theme more than any other over the last 40 years. See more below.

4. Fourth, love God, love your neighbour as yourself

I will come back to this later too. But first let me go back to the beginning.

I recall a newly retired senior colleague making a speech at my very first Synod. He said he had served 40 years. After Synod I talked with him, and asked him how he had survived and kept going and to be still standing after 40 years in ministry. I have arrived at this stage of my travels and ministry, and am still in reasonably good shape.

In every appointment, whether I have been welcomed and valued or not, I have served with utter dedication and commitment, and given of my very best attention, effort and prayer.

I’ve always had my critics of course, but I’ve always encouraged myself with the words of Jesus, “woe, to you if all well speak well of you”, and followed the advice “let us not grow weary in doing what is right”.

The most fruitful development in my experience of ministry has been in the corner of my life, namely, City of Sanctuary. This is my interpretation of the oft repeated ethical requirement “you shall also love the stranger”. It is about building cultures of welcome and hospitality and safety for the most vulnerable among us, especially those who come here from war and danger zones as refugees seeking sanctuary.

There is now a network of over 120 cities, towns, villages, and areas around Britain and Ireland working with the vision of City of Sanctuary, and I am working with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to develop churches of sanctuary.

If you would like to know more about this, and read more of my reflections on this visit my website at www.inderjitbhogal.com

I remain a follower of Jesus Christ, with roots in the Sikh faith and respect for all faiths. I have always and will continue always to point people to Jesus Christ in whose life and teaching and example I find direction, and tools to interpret and make sense of my life and all life around me.

In his words “inasmuch as you did it to the least important you did it to me”, I find one answer to the question where is God, and how should I prioritise and shape my life. These are the words by which I believe we are to judge the morality and spirituality of individuals, groups, communities, congregations, organisations and nations. How do they treat those who are hurting the most, and least able to be independent.  

So, how did I survive for 40 years? By following this simple wisdom:

Love God, love your neighbour, as yourself”.

I read and use that in reverse. First, Love yourself. It is not selfish to say or do this.

On an aeroplane flight the first message is, in case of emergency a gas mask will drop down. Put your own mask on first before you help others. If you don’t put your own mask on first you are not going to help anyone else because you will not survive. If you can learn to love yourself, you can better love your neighbour as yourself. If you can love yourself, and your neighbour well, that goes a long way towards what it is to express your love of and for God.

Theology’s Relevance to Today’s Teenagers

by Anne Ostrowicz.

It was probably twenty-five years ago when I taught a most wonderfully eager, bright, eleven-year-old pupil called Nathaniel.[1] Now a philosopher of race, he contacted me several years ago about his work and I invited him back to the school to speak at Agora, our Philosophy and Religion Society. Nathaniel proceeded to deliver what was probably the most hard-hitting talk I have heard at the society in twenty years. His topic was exposing the “white-washing” of the curriculum, the heart of his professional work. He told us that he had initially focused his challenge towards universities, very aware that what gets taught in schools is what teachers have learned on their university courses, but that now he was beginning to speak directly to school teachers also. And his message certainly spoke to me that day, as I looked up at the pictures of the mainly white, male philosophers and thinkers which encircled the tops of my classroom walls, with just a few exceptions like Desmond Tutu (Ubuntu Theology). Who was I listening to and learning from? Whose perspective do I take?

The seed Nathaniel sowed in my mind that day has grown ever more persistent. Initially it led me to sign up to a series of evening classes at Queen’s Theology College on Black and Asian Theology, taught by Mukti Barton.  Going home one evening from listening to her revelatory teaching, I began to create a series of lessons with a whole new take on the Abraham story, now from Egyptian Hagar’s perspective, interspersed with heart-stabbing art of Hagar from down the ages. Pupils eagerly grasp the idea of a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, and embrace the task of searching the text for evidence of God’s amazing interactions with this Egyptian woman in stark contrast to some of the extremely harsh treatment she received from the household in which she worked.

Mukti’s lectures also transformed my teaching of Matthew 5: 38-42, the passage which contains Jesus’ challenge to turn the other cheek! I now get pupils to come to the front of the classroom to act the three scenarios Jesus presents, and I show them how, in the context they were delivered, rather than a call to meek submission, Gandhi’s careful analysis of Jesus’ words suggests a powerful call to dignified Peaceful Resistance to oppressors, an interpretation pursued by Martin Luther King.

Such approaches to religious texts in a classroom demand sufficient time to allow for depth of study and exploration. But the outcome for pupils seems to justify the time spent: pupils’ imaginations are fired and their dedication to the subject as one with profound relevance to life is cemented.

The challenge to further reading has led me to read writers like Jain Satish Kumar[2], Christian theologian Choan-Seng Song[3], and more by Martin Luther King Junior[4].

The death of George Floyd provoked fiery debate on social media amongst pupils in my school (the majority from BAME backgrounds) with various outcomes including the establishment of a new staff Diversity Forum charged with creating proposals in response. Pupils themselves have led virtual assemblies, started a new African-Caribbean Society, and held discussions including on the History curriculum in the school and in the UK. Knowledge of the issues has increased rapidly.

Perhaps the most moving and inspirational talk of last academic year for me was given by South African Letlapa Mphahlele[5] who spoke in assembly and in lessons about his life as a freedom fighter in apartheid times, later unexpectedly finding friendship and reconciliation with individuals in the white community through the forgiveness he received from Ginn Fourie, whose daughter had died under his command.  A new academic year has begun, albeit strangely with covid 19 restrictions. Enthused by a “Tools for Changemakers”[6] conference I attended on zoom this Summer, I am intent on creating more opportunities to hear more deeply both from BAME pupils and from adult BAME speakers and writers. As I write, the face of one of my last year’s sixth form pupils is on the front of the day’s Times[7], along with a double page spread of his story as a survivor of the Peshawar (Pakistan) school shootings. This young man is off to Oxford at the end of this month to study Theology and Philosophy, already speaking out in our society as an ambassador against extremist ideologies. Like Nathaniel Coleman, he is another voice from the British BAME community who brings inspiration and challenge. Yet another young person who has found the study of Theology and Philosophy utterly relevant and key for inspiring their passion to help create a better world.


[1] Nathaniel crosses out his surname because it was given to one of his ancestors by a slave trader.                           “Why isn’t my professor black?” – a link to a talk Nathaniel delivered at UCL in 2014. http://www.dtmh.ucl.ac.uk/videos/isnt-professor-black-nathaniel-coleman/

[2] Satish Kumar, You Are Therefore I Am: A Declaration of Dependence Green Books, 2002, and The Buddha and the Terrorist, Green Books, 1990

[3] Choan-Seng Song, Third Eye Theology, Orbis Books, 1979

[4] Martin Luther King Junior, Strength to Love, Fortress Press, 1963

[5] Beyond Forgiving, thirty minute film from https://www.iofc.org/beyond-forgiving-film A full feature film of Letlapa’s life is being planned.

[6] “Tools for Change-Makers”, Initiatives of Change, Caux, Switzerland. One of the speakers, delivering input on the principles of Dialogue, Professor Keyes, runs an MA course at Winchester University on Reconciliation and Peace-Making.

[7] Ahmad Nawaz in The Times, Saturday 5th September, 2020

Strange Gospel

by Richard Saunders-Hindley.

The most recent book by the historian Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, has received wide critical acclaim.[i] With characteristic elegance and thoroughness, Holland argues that all Western cultural assumptions and values are entirely rooted in the social revolutionary claims of Christianity. Part of his purpose is to demonstrate the shocking and strange nature of the claim that a crucified criminal is somehow the world’s true lord, arguing that this remains essential to Christianity:

‘Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.’[ii]

Holland writes with the passion of an evangelist as much as an advocate, sitting throughout on the cusp of secular historian and zealous apologist. Interestingly he is not (yet) a confessing Christian himself, although he has admitted in various interviews that he wishes he were. One of the main things that holds him back is the lack of confidence of Christians and the church in the strangeness of the gospel message. His critique is scathing:

‘I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft‑left liberal, because everyone is giving that. If I want that, I’ll get it from a Liberal Democrat councillor. If you’re a Christian, you think that the entire fabric of the cosmos was ruptured by this strange singularity when someone who is a god and a man sets everything on its head… and if you don’t believe that, it seems to me that you’re not really a confessional Christian… If it’s to be preached as something true, the strangeness of it… has to be fundamental to it. I don’t want to hear what bishops think about Brexit. I know what they think about Brexit and it’s not particularly interesting. But if they’ve got views on original sin, I’d be very interested to hear that.’[iii]

This is a major challenge to the Western church and its mission. Some will think that Holland’s charge is unproven; but the fact that he, as a seeker, perceives this as the fundamental problem with the church’s proclamation of the gospel must surely lead the church to re‑examine itself. In the New Testament, the strangeness of proclaiming the cruciform gospel is front and centre. There was no question about the shocking absurdity of proclaiming a crucified man as lord: ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1.23-24, NIV).

If the church is to meet Holland’s challenge, it must reconnect itself to the shocking and strange nature of what it proclaims. Christians must also be prepared for the fact that doing so will bring Agrippa’s accusation to Paul on themselves: ‘You are out of your mind!’ (Acts 26.24)

Part of the reason why Christians shy away from telling others about the strangeness of the gospel is because they don’t discuss it among themselves. The only way to address that is to start talking about it: unashamed talk of the criminal execution and astonishing resurrection of Jesus must be reintroduced at the heart of Christian discourse and worship; strange phenomena like angels and demons must be openly discussed; the place of miracles, the hope of bodily resurrection and the mystery of prayer must be clearly taught and lived out. Importantly this must become a common currency among all Christians, transcending ecclesial subcultures.

From an evangelistic point of view, then, the question Christians must ask of themselves is not whether they believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord of heaven and earth, but whether they are prepared to be fools for Christ, ready to be open about the strangeness of their message, and willing to take the consequences of sneering ridicule and scepticism, personal attacks, discrimination and possibly worse. If Tom Holland is right, if they are thus ready and willing, then there will be those who will listen.


[i] Tom Holland, 2019, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (London: Little, Brown). The U.S. edition is subtitled How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

[ii] Holland, Dominion, 524-5.

[iii] ‘Tom Holland to Christians: Preach The Weird Stuff!’, Speak Life interview 25/10/19, accessed September 2020.

A SCATTERED CHURCH

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

Acts 8:4-17 & Acts 20:1-3

by Tom Stuckey.

Luke’s motif of ‘journey’ permeates his two New Testament books. In his Gospel, Jesus ‘sets his face to go to Jerusalem’ (Lk 9:51). In Acts the journey is from Jerusalem through Samaria to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Jerusalem is not forgotten. As Robinson and Wall comment ‘The Holy City remains in the reader’s rear-view mirror, always in sight but now left behind’(p.111).

The first of our two study passages tells of Philip’s outward bound journey from Jerusalem (8:4-17) while the second speaks of Paul’s proposal to return to Jerusalem (20:1-3). The theological contexts are very different. The focus of this study will be on the former.

Philip’s mission, unlike Paul’s, is exclusively to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. Driven from Jerusalem he finds himself in Samaria. What once had been the focal point of worship now moves to the edge. Henceforth the ‘edge’ will become the new centre. Will the effects of Covid 19 permanently shift the pattern of church life from buildings to Christian homes?

Philip, full of the Holy Spirit and faith (6:5) was a deacon, not an apostle. In their ‘new normal’ however he breaks the rules and becomes a preaching and miracle working deacon. In a changing and changed situation fixed roles and understandings of ministry slip and slide as the Spirit leads. As Bishop John Taylor once remarked ‘The Holy Spirit does not appear to have read the rubrics’ (p.120). But not only this, the theology also shifts. At the beginning of Acts you become a believer when you have been baptised ‘in the name of Jesus’ but rather strangely you do not receive the Holy Spirit until hands are laid upon you by an apostle from Jerusalem. Paul, who is not a recognised and regarded apostle, simply goes ahead and lays his hands upon the Ephesian believers. There is a further baptismal anomaly here because these believers have only been baptized with John’s ‘baptism of repentance’ (19.5). Although against the rules, the result is another explosion of Holy Spirit power. There is theological untidiness here; but this is only to be expected when traumatic events force the Church to move from a traditional centralized system of control to the new norm of a scattered church.

The Jerusalem connexional team were able to gain back control (11:22f, 15:12f) over Philip’s Samaritan mission by sending the apostle Peter to validate the work. Peter’s presence also serves to affirm the ‘come to us’ theology of Israel’s restoration (Matt.10:5f) traditionally believed to be centred on Jerusalem. Paul pursues a different theological narrative. For him the new centre is the edge, though being a Jew he never forgets the significance of Jerusalem. The actual Acts history of mission is peppered with unresolved tensions and dichotomies in practice and theology. Luke, however, in his narrative airbrushes out these anomalies and presents us with a sanitized story of an advancing united church.

Luke’s account of the interaction between Simon Peter and Simon the magician raises additional questions about power and authority. Simon the magician clearly had a high status in the city (8:10) but this was overshadowed when Philip arrived demonstrating greater ‘powers’ (dunamis) (v.13). Simon wishes to know the secret so when the apostle Peter arrives he makes his request. The word which he uses for power is exousia (authority) (v.19). He wants his status back.

Questions:

  1. Where is the true centre of the Church? With regard to its authority?  With regard to its mission? Should this be the same post Covid 19?
  2. What happens to people when they lose authority or status? Have you ever experienced such a loss?
  3. Is theology something you make up as you go along or is there more to it than that?

 

A.B.Robinson & R.W.Wall, Called to be Church, Eerdmanns, 2006.

John V.Taylor, The Go Between God, SCM, 1972.

Saying Yes and Saying No

by Ed Mackenzie.

‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age…’ (Titus 2:11-12 NIV)

How does the ‘yes’ of the gospel – the good news that God’s grace has appeared bringing salvation – relate to the ‘no’ it invites to the ‘ungodliness’ of the old life?

It’s easy, I think, to lean to one side or the other.

Perhaps in previous generations, or at least as we imagine it, the emphasis tended to be on the ‘no’, the turning away from ways of life that the gospel excluded. And while this is an important part of the response to the gospel, sometimes this led to an unhealthy inflation of what ‘worldly passions’ involved, ranging from styles of clothing to exuberant dance to particular styles of music. Even worse, at times an appropriate response to the gospel was merged with the gospel announcement itself, and a kind of ‘salvation by godliness’ replaced ‘salvation by grace’.

In more recent generations, the emphasis has perhaps tilted towards the ‘yes’, the wonderful truth that God’s love comes to us in Jesus. And while the church does indeed live by this truth, at times we have muted the call to discipleship that follows. In our rush to be welcoming and inclusive, it’s possible to tone down the cost of living for Jesus, promoting what Bonhoeffer described as ‘cheap grace’, ‘grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.’[i]

As the reading from Titus shows, the good news of God’s work in Jesus involves both a yes and a no. The ‘yes’ is that wonderful announcement that God is for us in Jesus, that God offers salvation to all people, that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.

But the grace of God also involves a ‘no’ to those ways of life we pursue apart from God. The grace of God ‘teaches’ us and ‘transforms’ us. It does not leave us as we are but shapes us to live like Jesus. Being a Christian involves submission to a divine pedagogy, an education that transforms us inside and out.

An ongoing challenge for the church is to hold together the yes and the no in a way that’s faithful to scripture and fruitful for discipleship and mission.  How might we do this?

Firstly, we can begin by ensuring that we teach and talk of the grace of God as a ‘transforming grace.’ Grace takes us as we are but does not leave us there; it aims to transform us by the Spirit. Happily, there is plenty in Scripture that offers ways of describing this, whether in the imagery of new birth (John 3:5-8), being ‘clothed’ with Jesus (Rom 13:14) or becoming ‘citizens of heaven’ (Phil 3:20). The Sacraments of the Church – Baptism and Communion – offer powerful moments when we can describe the transforming grace that these images signal.

Secondly, in evangelism we can talk about the cost of faith as well as the gift of faith.  Jesus spoke about the cost of following him constantly – not least in his strong words about taking up the cross (Matt 16:24-26) – and that too is part of the message we proclaim. In a context where people know less about our faith, it’s important that we sketch out the shape of life to which God calls us. To become a Christian is to become the servant of a new Lord, the citizen of a kingdom that opposes the ways of this world.

Thirdly, we can depict discipleship as an ongoing journey to deepen our ‘yes’ to God and ‘no’ to ungodliness. The Christian life is not a gentle stroll through fields of delight but a battle that involves intention and effort. But as Paul pointed out, it’s in our struggle that the Spirit works and moves (Phil 2:12-13; Col 1:29). One of the treasures of the Methodist tradition is the attention it pays to this process, whether in its call to ‘scriptural holiness,’ its stress on the means of grace, or its emphasis on accountability in community. Drawing on these and other treasures, churches can find ways to help young and old grow in faith, and so say an ever louder ‘yes’ to the God of grace.

 

 

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press, 1959), p. 4.

Spirituality in a hard place

by James Morley.

For a recent sabbatical I went back to Whitby, somewhere that is a spiritual ‘thin place’ for me.  The context of COVID-19, as well as my reading about Hild and her ‘spirituality in a hard place’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 18) gave me this question: “What, if anything, might the ‘spirituality in a hard place’ of Hild say to us in our ‘hard place’ today?”

Hild

Hild (c. 614-680 CE) was a princess in Deira in what would become the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.  After her father was killed and her uncle hunted as threats to the throne, Hilda entered exile (not for the last time) in East Anglia with her sister and her widowed mother.  Perhaps these early experiences began Hild’s ‘spirituality in a hard place’:

‘In our story we have three royal pagan women, battered and bowed in a fractious kingdom … Some of us are born into a hard place; all of us at times find ourselves in a hard place … Hilda’s story gives us hope that nothing is too hard for God.’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 18)

Eventually, it was safe enough to return her home.  Hild’s uncle, Edwin, was now ruler and converted to Christianity (at least in part for political reasons to form an alliance with Kent) and, as was the custom, the whole family therefore converted.

At age 33, perhaps having been married at least once, possibly to a Pagan (Bede likes to call the female saints ‘virgins’ whereas he refers to Hild as a “devoted woman of God” – 1999,p, 154), Hild seeks to become a nun.  Discerning Hild’s gifts as a spiritual leader and as a literal ‘God mother’, the Celtic missionary Aidan takes responsibility for her training as there was nowhere for women to train at the time.  This was a pragmatic response by Aidan to present need and gifting and is perhaps not too dissimilar to John Wesley ordaining people himself for mission in America.

A key part of the ministries of Aidan and Hild were the creating of community based on the example of the first followers of Jesus in Acts 2:42-47 as ‘colonies of heaven’ where all were equal and everything was held in common.  All those involved in community life – from royalty to shepherds; monastics to blacksmiths – would gather around the fire of an evening to share food, stories and songs.  Rather than the Roman model of being ‘in church’, the Celtic Christians went outdoors, alongside people and seem to have had a more ‘earthy’ quality about their way of being church and their involvement in God’s work:

‘The elements, for the Irish Christians, were expressions of God.’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 46)

Having completed her training, Hild became abbess of Hartlepool in 649 CE before going on to establish the double monastery (for women and men) at Whitby in 657 CE.  As with her exile experiences, Hild seems to have sought to make the best out of whatever context she found herself in:

‘Hild did not choose to go there [Whitby] – she was appointed – but she bloomed where she was planted.’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 58)

It was at the ‘colony of heaven’ at Whitby – with the royal visitors, blacksmiths, scholars and the monastics she would send out into the villages – that a cowherd, Caedmon, ran away from the evening gatherings around the fire because he couldn’t sing.  The next day he was sent by his boss to tell the abbess Hild about a song that had come to him in a dream.

‘Hilda, joyfully recognising the grace of God in him, instructed him to leave his farm work and take monastic vows, but as a lay brother who would not be weighed down with Latin and the theological studies that would distract from his unique calling.’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 92)

The encouragement of Hild nurtured Caedmon’s creative ministry so that, as Bede observes (1999, pp. 216-217), he enabled others to hear about God in their native tongue through his songs.

Hild for today

Today, as we have discovered and continue to discover new ways of being church and joining in with the missio Dei as we do so, not because we have chosen to, but because of the COVID-19 context we find ourselves in.

Perhaps the example of Hild can encourage us to be open to God even in hard times and places.

Like Hild, perhaps we might seek to go out, to be alongside and to create ‘colonies of heaven’ where we are – online, in cafes, in the park, on the green…

Like Aidan, perhaps we might feel nudged by the Spirit to break with our conventions and constructs in order to respond in a pragmatic way to the present need and giftings we find.  In doing so, who knows if we might discover God at work in and through the twenty-first century equivalent of another ‘pagan’ who really shouldn’t have anything to do with church and certainly should not be in charge of anything because of their gender and life experience…

A prayer

God,
when we are in a hard place,
remind us that you can break through our brittle shells,
our false conditioning and group mindsets that have no place for you.
You reveal yourself through visions and visitors;
you come in dreams and intimations of the heart;
and we will respond.
(Simpson, 2014, p. 19)

 

 

Bibliography

Bede (1999).  The ecclesiastical history of the English people.  Oxford: Oxford University Press

Connelly, Roland.  Saint Hilda and her abbey at Whitby.  Middlesbrough: Quoin Publishing

English Heritage (2020).  St Hild of Whitby (Online).  Available at: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/whitby-abbey/history-and-stories/st-hild/ [Accessed on 16.08.2020]

Simpson, Ray (2014).  Hilda of Whitby: a spirituality for today.  Abingdon: BRF

What do we ‘celebrate’?

by Angie Allport.

“This monument stands in memory of all children who died …”

So begins the inscription on the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima, Japan.  The words perhaps bring one up short in the same way that these words do at the end of the ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ psalm:

“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9; NRSV)

Really!  Commentators tell us that this and similar uncomfortable expressions we find in the Psalms are examples of the authors being honest with God about their feelings.  Today’s blog is not an apologetic for so-called ‘texts of terror’, however, but rather a call to reflect upon whether things have really changed.

15th August marked the 75th anniversary of VJ (Victory over Japan) Day.  Some of the language around that (as it was with the VE Day anniversary earlier this year) was celebratory. Many of the materials produced to commemorate VJ Day did not mention the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The inscription with which I began goes on to read:

“… as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The monument was originally inspired by the death of Sadako Sasaki, who was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb at the age of two. Ten years later Sadako developed leukemia [sic] that ultimately ended her life.”

The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at 8.15 a.m. on 6th August 1945, instantly claiming the lives of 150,000-200,000 people (the exact number is unknown) and turning the city to ashes.  (Nagasaki was bombed a few days later on 9th August.)  Today, the Genbaku Dome, the epicentre of the explosion in Hiroshima, is a World Heritage Site as a historical witness to the suffering caused by the first atomic bomb in human history.  The memorial for the atomic bomb victims reads:

“Mourning the lives lost in the atomic bombing, we pledge to convey the truth of this tragedy throughout Japan and the world, pass it on to the future, learn the lessons of history and build a peaceful world free from nuclear weapons.”

I can understand the language of victory being used at the end of the war and in the immediate aftermath, but how appropriate is such language 75 years on, particularly when Japan, Italy and Germany are no longer our enemies?  The language could be changed to that of celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war, but personally I would also question the appropriateness of that when war continues.  When we’re reminded so starkly by such things as the Children’s Peace Monument of the cost of victory, do we still want to celebrate?

It’s true that there’s a lot in the Old Testament about warfare, but I’ve always been struck by the account of the Aramean attack of Israel in 2 Kings 6: 8-23.  We’re told that Elisha prays for the Arameans to be struck with blindness and that he leads the blinded men into Israel’s capital, Samaria.  God then answers Elisha’s prayer again and opens their eyes.  The king of Israel asks Elisha if he should kill the men, but Elisha tells him to give them something to eat and drink and let them return to their master.  The king does as Elisha advises; more, in fact, because we’re told that the king prepared ‘a great feast’ for them.

The upshot of this magnanimous act was that the Arameans no longer attacked Israel.  I like to think of that as an early manifestation of Micah’s prophecy:

“He [the Lord] shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:3; NRSV).

At the time of writing, the UK was looking to seal a trade deal with Japan.  What might it feel like for those with whom we are reconciled to be at ‘a great feast’ where the language of ‘victory’ is used about them?  Let’s hope, pray and work for the way to which Jesus calls us:

“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44; NRSV)