Salt in the world, not of the world.

by Simon Sutcliffe.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectrum, a community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are writen by Prof Anthony Reddie and Rev’d Simon Sutcliffe on the theme ‘Being the Salt of the Earth (A look at some peace and justice issues)’. This is the first of six coming through the year

Salt in the world, not of the world.

Matthew 5:13 -16 & Matthew 13 vs 33

Jesus says that salt that loses its saltiness is of no use and should be discarded, trampled underfoot. It is also true that salt is not much use in a bag of salt, and, for that matter, yeast does not do much in a batch of yeast and light is pretty useless in a lit room.

These metaphors of salt, light and yeast assume one thing – that they exist in a larger system, a greater community. This has some interesting consequences for the church when it begins to think about mission, and particularly about its ministry of justice. It begs the question – what is the telos, the end game, of mission? What are we aiming for? Do we want the whole world to be Christian? Or does salt, light and yeast suggest that Christianity should always exist in a larger world that is not Christian?

As for justice, does that mean there will always be injustice to be challenged? Is the hope of a utopian future that we might call the Kingdom impossible? Is that what Jesus meant when he said, ‘you will always have the poor among you’ (John 12 vs 8)?

These are difficult questions for us to ponder, but are worth reflecting on when the church, be it local or national, considers its motivation for mission and ministry. Why are we doing this? And, how will we know we have done it well? are important questions for any church leadership team with which to grapple.

But it also asks another question of us, it asks us to consider where we are located? Mission doesn’t happen everywhere it always happens somewhere. Christianity is not everywhere or nowhere it is always somewhere. Knowing that we are located somewhere might seem obvious, but it’s a helpful reminder to notice our positionality, the place(s) we find ourselves. Noticing the larger spaces where we can be salt, light and yeast draws our attention to the world beyond the church – and that is always a good thing!

Positionality, of course, isn’t just about geography. It is also the space you hold in the world due to all those things that make you, you. Paying attention to the power dynamics at play due to our colour, wealth, education etc. helps to ensure we are the right kind of salt, light and yeast in the world. This, again, is a tough line of questioning for the church that often wants to do, or at least be seen to do, but to do appropriately is a fine line the church can sometimes step over, often unwittingly.

There are a number of ways to help a congregation or fellowship group think about their locatedness and positionality. One way is to draw a map of your local community. It does not need to be accurate, it just needs to show where the church or group is in relation to other key aspects of the area. For instance, where are the local schools, shops, pubs, health services and how do they relate to you? Are you en route to any of them? Do you share similar people? Which of them are you in relationship with? Another way to see where, as a congregation or group, individuals might develop their vocation as salt, light and yeast is to do a diary check with everyone. Draw a grid with each day of the week in it and ask people where they are on different days of the week. Are they in work? At the school gate? At the post office? In the park? This can often affirm where people see their vocation outside of the church, or can open up possibilities for new ministries and vocation.

Questions:

1.  What do you think the telos of mission is?

2. How would you describe your positionality, where are you located and what makes you, you?

3. Where, in the life of the church, do you get to reflect on these questions corporately?

Whither Mr. Wesley’s Preachers?

by Gill Dascombe.

As a local preacher, I was initially dismayed when the Methodist Conference of 2022 voted to revoke the Standing Order, in place since Methodist Union in 1932, that requires that candidates for the presbyteral ministry should first be fully accredited local preachers.1

This seemed to me to represent the end, or the beginning of the end, of the symbiotic relationship between lay and ordained ministries, which is so characteristic of Methodism, by diminishing and dismissing the lay calling in favour of promoting and facilitating access to its more celebrated ordained counterpart.

Preaching is integral to Methodism, which actually began as a movement of lay preachers within the Church of England. John Wesley, though at first hesitant about their non-ordained status, nevertheless eventually admitted that ‘I do tolerate lay preaching, because I conceive that there is an absolute necessity for it; inasmuch as, were it not, thousands of souls would perish everlastingly.’ 2

From the earliest days Mr Wesley’s preachers fell into two related categories: ‘exhorters’, who preached in their own locality, supporting themselves by their daily occupation, and itinerant preachers, who were identified from amongst the body of exhorters, and employed and paid by Wesley.3 Over the course of time itinerant preachers became presbyters and exhorters became local preachers.

The 2022 decision will no doubt have a long-term effect on the nature of ordained ministry in Methodism, but what will be the effect on the ministry of local preachers? On reflection, I came to the realisation that it could in fact be a new and potentially exciting opportunity; local preaching, freed from being but a steppingstone to greater things, could now develop and grow as a vocation in its own right.

It was a couple of phrases in the Conference report which sparked off this train of thought: ‘…the preaching of a presbyter is not the same as that of a local preacher. The presbyter …..preaches from a different place.’’4

The corollary of this, of course, is that the preaching of a local preacher is not the same as that of a presbyter, and that it too comes from its own distinctive place.

I was recently at a training event for new circuit stewards. In our buzz groups we were invited to discuss with each other what it was that we most valued about being Methodists. My group was in unison: it was local preachers, for the breadth, accessibility and variety of their preaching, and the way they weave together circuit relationships via their appointments on the plan.

Local preachers occupy a large proportion Methodist pulpits every Sunday.5 Thus they represent the public face of the church to many congregations. Unlike their ordained colleagues, they are not ’set apart’, and stationed to a circuit appointment, but ‘set within’ their home faith communities, serving sometimes for several decades in the same circuit. This can and does result in the establishing and maintaining of long-lasting relationships between preachers and the people they serve.

Like the worshippers sitting before them local preachers are, and have always been, a very diverse body, drawn from a wide range of educational, occupational and social backgrounds; the first women were admitted as preachers as early as the 1780’s,6 and there is no official retirement age! Their preaching establishes the link between theology and everyday life by testifying to the gospel as it is experienced in the factory, kitchen, laboratory, supermarket, university, nursery, boardroom and bus stop (and so on), and bears witness to the important fact that the Kingdom of God extends far beyond the confines of the institutional Church.

These things form the ‘place’4 from which the ministry of local preaching comes. The pastoral and missional possibilities are many and obvious…..

John Wesley conceded that lay preachers were essential to the spiritual wellbeing of the people of his time and place. Let us do the same for ours.

  1. Methodist Conference Agenda 2022, p178
  2. The Letters of John Wesley, Epworth Press 1931, p186
  3. Batty, M., in Workaday Preachers: the Story of Methodist Local Preaching, Methodist Publishing House, 1995, p14
  4. Methodist Conference Agenda 2022, p178
  5. Ministry in the Methodist Church, Methodist Conference 2020, Report 33, 7.3.1
  6. Graham, E., in Workaday Preachers: the Story of Methodist Local Preaching, Methodist Publishing House, 1995, p165

Hildegard, Hargitay and Hippocrates

by Jennie Hurd.

Like far too many people, I had Covid in April. Having tested negative on the Saturday, I was positive by Palm Sunday evening and not feeling good. It took another nineteen days to test negative again. For the first time since going On Note as a Local Preacher in 1984, I had to tell a congregation that I was not well enough to take their service the next Sunday – Easter Day! If I’d had enough energy, I’d have felt guilty, but I hadn’t, so I didn’t.

A fortnight later, once my voluntary self-isolation had ended, I was driven to Synod to chair it, and to church on the Sunday to lead worship. Both days I returned immediately to bed. I know I wasn’t nearly as poorly as many, but I felt rough, and I’m still not quite right. As I flopped about, I remembered something my mother used to say, an old nurse who trained in the very early years of the NHS, finishing to bring up her children just as disposables were coming in (she says): “The body wants to heal itself.” Obviously, the body can’t always heal itself in the sense of full restoration, however much help it is given, but I can see the sense: the human body, made in the image of God, whose will is health and wholeness, always wants to heal itself, even to what some refer to as the ultimate healing of death. With no medication to take but paracetamol, I reckoned it was only the wisdom of these words, coupled with rest and time, that was going to get me back up to full speed after Covid.

Since then, I’ve revisited a book called God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Dr Victoria Sweet[i].  It’s the remarkable story of Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, the last of America’s almshouses, modelled on the medieval monastic ‘Hôtel-Dieux’. In the narrative, the patients include those that no other ‘health care facility’ in the city will admit – people with long-term conditions and terminal illnesses, difficult or challenging patients, people with addictions, very poor people and patients with no one else to care for them. Inspired by the work of Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century German abbess, mystic, musician, theologian and healer, Victoria Sweet used some of her time working at the hospital to develop a project termed “ecomedicine”. Drawing on the understanding that the body is more like a garden than a machine in terms of its needs for its flourishing, Sweet writes about seeking to demonstrate her hypothesis of “Slow Medicine”, positing that time, minimal medication, care and “the little things” provide as effective a result as modern, scientific healthcare in such cases, while being more economical and “satisfying” for all involved[ii]. More recently, sitting in the waiting room at a local surgery, I noticed two quotations on display. The first, attributed to the American actress Mariska Hargitay, declares, “Healing takes time and asking for help is a courageous step.” The second quotes Hippocrates: “Healing is a matter of time but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” I was struck by the resonances from two such contrasting sources.

I find myself, then, trying to reach towards a theological understanding of all this, rooted in my own experience of Covid and ongoing recovery, the medieval theories of Hildegard of Bingen, the more recent experience of Victoria Sweet and the ancient wisdom of Hippocrates. I think it speaks of rest, working in harmony with nature and, above all, with God’s time, not ours. That is challenging, given that time for many people today is a luxury: how can you take time off to recover if you are trying to hold down two or more part-time jobs and feed a growing family? I wonder also about the possible relevance of this for Christ’s body, the church, hard-hit by Covid (as is the whole of society) and seeking to recover. Should we be resting, taking time, allowing God’s healing power to work in us? If so, how? We’re familiar with timetabled periods of rest in the practice of our faith – Sabbath, sabbatical, Jubilee, even – but what about the unstructured, sudden need for rest that can come upon us without notice? How should we respond? I sense the Methodist Covenant Prayer may have some relevance here, and invite comments, contradictions, criticisms and conversation!


[i] Riverhead Books, NY: 2012

[ii] Page 351

Diverse performances of one script

by George Bailey.

‘The Methodist Church affirms both understandings and makes provision in its Standing Orders for them.’

The Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church, Standing Order 011A (1)

As a Methodist presbyteral minister, I have been both excited and challenged by this addition to Methodist Standing Orders in 2021. I do not want here to invite debate on the questions of marriage, human relationships and sexuality. I am not saying that talking about the main issues should not continue – indeed I am arguing precisely the opposite – but I have been reflecting on what it might mean for the Church to ‘affirm both understandings.’

I am in relationship with local churches that have differing attitudes to marriage and are in differing states with regard to decisions they have taken or will take – some registering to hold same sex marriages, and some not. The conversation in these congregations varies due to local context, theological convictions, cultural traditions, ecumenical relationships, and many other factors. It is also true, of course, that this diversity between and within congregations is apparent on many other aspects of Christian faith and practice. On this particular issue, we have stated an affirmation of two understandings (though in reality I perceive that there are at least several varied understandings), and I hope that our subsequent exploration of what that means might help us to better have integrity with regards to many other diverse attitudes.

For some years I have been influenced by two models for how scripture, doctrine and practice interact – the cultural-linguistic model of George Lindbeck[i] and the canonical-linguistic model of Kevin Vanhoozer.[ii] Vanhoozer critiques Lindbeck’s post-liberal model from a more evangelical perspective, but does acknowledge his indebtedness to Lindbeck’s core idea: the church embodies theology by learning a language and practices which are developed in response to the narrative of scripture, and church doctrines act as grammatical rules to structure this. Put simply, and somewhat hyperbolically, for Lindbeck the church is the culture which is the primary interpretative context for scripture, whereas, for Vanhoozer it is scripture which is the primary interpretative context for the performative theology of the church. However, Vanhoozer notes that Lindbeck actually ‘vacillates’ on this issue, and later in his career adopted a more open attitude to the sense of the text having priority over the interpreting community.[iii] Although it might be tempting to see these two sides of the debate as related to the two understandings affirmed by the Methodist Church, I hope that, what we could more helpfully strive for would be to keep them in tension (a healthy vacillation? or, better, a reciprocity?) and to explore a multiplicity of shapes for discipleship and congregational life.

Vanhoozer’s performance metaphor does recognise denominational diversity and invites extension to include diversity within a denomination. This is only a very brief sketch of the metaphor from his summary chapter, and I realise that our conceptions of possible range of diversity within the Christian Church may differ, but I still think the idea is helpful. He proposes different levels of performance in theatres of Christian theology. ‘While the Holy Spirit is the primary director who oversees the global production, it is the ‘pastor’ who bears the primary responsibility for overseeing local performances.’[iv] The pastor is supported by ‘creedal theology’ (i.e. based on the recognized early creeds, primarily the Nicene Creed) which acts like ‘masterpiece theatre’ – it seems he has in mind the idea of acclaimed directors and actors interpreting the script in different contexts across time – ‘to direct the local church into the way of the Scriptures and to relate the local church to previous great performances.’[v] Confessional theology is conceived as ‘regional theatre’, and several varieties may exist side by side. This may be seen as a divisive hindrance, but Vanhoozer insists that it helps ‘by mediating between the universal (catholic) and particular (local):[vi] ‘The confessional traditions are performance traditions, bearers of theo-dramatical rationality that combine elements of stabilization with elements of innovation.’[vii] This ‘unity-in-diversity’ is a strength ‘not only because it is the condition of theology’s being able to address different kinds of situations but also because it is the enabling condition of creative theological understanding.’[viii]

Are pastors (including in this term ministers and preachers) being called to ‘direct’ and support several congregations with distinctively different interpretations of the same script, and which relate in different ways to their contexts? Within the world of theatre this could be an exciting project with the potential to enhance everyone’s understanding of the one script as well as the varied contexts in which it is interpreted. So, might it be like that in the church? There is an even further level of unity-in-diversity to be added, which is within each congregation. Vanhoozer’s metaphor is based on an idealised single congregation with one pastor. Diverse congregations with diverse congregational characteristics, but served by the same minister, is a more realistic model in the British Methodist context. Rather than diversity leading to division, can we strive for unity-in-diversity, with mutual critical appreciation of, and mutual learning from, our multiple performances of the gospel?


[i] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984.

[ii] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

[iii] Vanhoozer, p.166

[iv] ibid., p.449

[v] ibid., p.451

[vi] ibid., p.452

[vii] ibid., p.453

[viii] ibid.


[i] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984.

[ii] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

[iii] Vanhoozer, p.166

[iv] ibid., p.449

[v] ibid., p.451

[vi] ibid., p.452

[vii] ibid., p.453

[viii] ibid.

Proclamation

by James Blackhall.

One of the sessions we lead at the St Philip’s Centre for Methodist Churches is ‘Hospitality, Service and Proclamation’. The title is taken from Revd Dr Tom Wilson’s book of the same name.[i] This session raises interesting questions about what we do when we do interfaith work that also has wider application for everything else we do as Christians. One question I particularly enjoy exploring as I lead this session is around when proclamation is appropriate. This to me is not just a question of good interfaith relations, although in the context in which I work that is the primary discussion, but it is also a discussion about the core of the Christian faith. We are called to make disciples and to spread the message- yet there are times when direct proclamation is not appropriate. One of the questions that often comes up as people think about this is about the ethical implications of proclamation in settings of providing service such as “is it appropriate to share our faith when running a foodbank?”

The Methodist Church is committed to being a ‘a growing, evangelistic, justice-seeking, inclusive Church of gospel people who speak of, listen for, and live out the goodness of God so that more people become disciples of Jesus Christ, and already committed Methodists experience a deepening of their faith’[ii]. This gives a broad definition of evangelism that includes social action, hearing others as well as directly proclaiming the faith. Yet, without proclaiming the faith we could end up answering Paul’s questions,  ‘how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?’ (Romans 10:14)… with a blank look.

Whatever our view of interfaith relations and whether we should call people to believe in Jesus or celebrate their own faith we can all agree that ‘Christianity is a faith that has a message of good news to share, which includes speaking out the good news of Jesus Christ, sharing what he has done in our lives’[iii] This is something I am passionate about- this is why I am a Local Preacher. I believe that ‘The Lord has done great things for us,  and we rejoiced’ (Psalm 126:3) and I want to share that with others. Yet, when I’m in an interfaith setting learning about others’ faith, and celebrating what can be seen of God in their lives, it can be very inappropriate to proclaim a message in any great detail.

I do believe that we are constantly proclaiming when we speak of our faith. When I join dialogues with people of other faiths, just as they proclaim what is good from their faith, so too I naturally proclaim my faith that Jesus is Lord. I also naturally proclaim what my faith means to me and why being a Christian is such an important part of my life- just as their faith is an important part of theirs. Yet true Christian proclamation should never come from a place of ‘superiority’[iv] as it is important that there is mutual respect and sharing which is foundational to being able to share faith together. For the Christian this proclamation will always point to Jesus.[v]

I often ask groups if proclamation in an interfaith setting is acceptable and many will often say no. This is because of a wish to avoid offence, wanting to show respect and a reluctance. When I discuss what proclamation is to me, and how we can share our faith in a way that is mutual, then some groups review their response and agree that we do often proclaim even if we would not consider ourselves evangelising. Perhaps that is why Nkuna concludes that ‘evangelism and interfaith dialogue are distinct but interrelated as authentic evangelism takes place within the context of the dialogue of life’[vi]. This evangelism is recognised to include words and proclamation.

I wonder whether as Methodists we are good at hospitality and service but perhaps not always as good at confidently proclaiming our faith? As our God for All strategy takes its place it is hoped that we will become more confident at sharing our faith and what that means for us- whatever our theological positions. Sometimes we will need to think seriously about the appropriateness – interfaith dialogue has taught me to think about when it is right to make certain truth claims and when it is right to listen; thinking about foodbanks has helped me to think through when it is right to serve and when is it right to speak. Thinking about hospitality, and especially being a guest, has made me think about when is it rude and counterproductive to proclaim. Yet, we do ‘have a gospel to proclaim’ as the hymn said and I hope that all Christians will feel confident enough in their identity to be able to share it.


[i] Wilson, T., 2019. Hospitality, Service, Proclamation. Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd.

[ii] The God for All Strategy found at https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/19181/conf-2020-4-evangelism-and-growth.pdf

[iii] Wilson, T., 2019. Hospitality, Service, Proclamation. Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Pg 2

[iv] Nkuna, V G. ” Convergence of Evangelism and Interfaith Dialogue:A Missional Refection.” E-Journal of Religious and Theological Studies (ERATS) 7, 10 October 2010: pp178-179, available at https://www.academia.edu/67664475/Convergence_of_Evangelism_and_Interfaith_Dialogue_A_Missional_Reflection, pg182

[v] Ibid pg182

[vi] Ibid pg 187

Rules

by Graham Edwards.

About ten years ago, I led an assembly in a Primary school; the theme I was given for this assembly was “rules”.  After I had done my bit, the Headteacher stood at the front of the hall and said, “remember, rules hold our community together”.  There are, of course, rules in the life of the church – rules that govern all Methodist churches, and rules that are particular to local churches.  In my experience, those local rules can range (at least pre-covid) from how the offering is taken (am I supposed to hold the big plate to collect the bags?), to who bakes the Victoria Sponge or the Scones for a church event, to how we express the Good News of God where we are placed.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu talks about these kinds of rules, which he calls Habitus (1977, p. 95).  Habitus is a social process in which groups of people construct a set of ‘rules’ which govern their practice.  These ‘rules’ become internalised enabling members of a cultural group or community to know how to act within that context.  Habitus is produced by experience, which Bourdieu suggests gives a ‘feel for the game’, that is the life of the community, and gives – a meaning and a raison d’etre, but also a direction: an orientation which enables an individual to know how to act within their community (1990, p. 66).  Bourdieu understands Habitus as an unconscious second nature or “enacted belief” (1990, p. 66), where the unconscious habitus becomes the way the community is structured and shaped.  When an individual enters a particular social field, for instance, the scientific, political, artistic, or religious fields, says Bourdieu, they must learn the appropriate habitus (1991, p. 176).  This helps members of such groups to know which practices are correct and which are not, the habitus in a community becomes an “embodied history” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 57). 

Habitus as described by Bourdieu is not without criticism, some suggest it is too restrictive and does not allow for the possibility of growth, or that it creates endless structures which create the same kinds of community (Alexander, 1995; Jenkins, 1982).  In my experience, however, Habitus can allow for creativity and change.  A few years ago, I did some research which asked people to reflect on their church life.  Lots of memories were shared about change.  In one church, members talked about candles; Rebecca remembered, “we wanted to use candles…and Mr. James [the Steward] went absolutely ballistic…we weren’t having candles in our church…he was absolutely beside himself, and there was no way would we have dared to light a candle after that”, but, since then, candles have become important in their worship.  Another member talked about bringing her son to church, “he would be about eighteen months [old], and he used to go in the back pew…I used to bring his slippers, and a book, and we used to sit there at the back…[we] used to get all these tuts and people looking”.  This memory led Irene to explain how much that experience made her enjoy the noise and busyness of children in her church now.  In both memories, something had happened; something had changed.  The Habitus had not kept things precisely as they had always been, rather the lived experience of community had shaped the Habitus.

The shared, lived experience of a church community is a powerful thing; it can encourage us, challenge us, rebuke us, liberate us, and everything in between.  A church can be transformed by that shared experience, as it is enriched by all that various members of the church community bring, by the world outside the church, of course by study and prayer – and more.  Habitus helps us hold on to the crucial things in the life of our community and explore new ways of living them in the world; a church grows and changes with its members.  The question is, I think, for the church to ask, both nationally and locally, how do we work with all the lived experience and wisdom we have, to allow our shared life to shape and reshape the church, as we seek more and more to be a growing, evangelistic, inclusive, justice-seeking Church?[1]  Our Habitus – our rules, help us not to throw everything away and start again, but to hold on to the core of who we are, as our shared life shapes us.

Alexander, J. C. (1995). Fin de Siecle Social Theory: Relativism, Reduction, and the Problem of Reason. Verso.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power (G. Raymond & M. Adamson, Trans.). Polity Press. Jenkins, R. (1982). Pierre Bourdieu and the Reproduction of Determinism Sociology, 16(2), 270 – 281.


[1] https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-work/our-work-in-britain/evangelism-growth/

with you

by Karen Turner.

You may have seen in the news last week the sobering results of a study showing that almost a quarter of University students feel lonely most or all of the time.    Of course, isolation can affect all age groups and demographics but it seems particularly acute among young adults at the moment, and this is despite there being hundreds of shared-interest groups and societies on most campuses, as well as countless on-line opportunities to connect.  What are people looking for?

Today, out of the blue, a student asked me what it felt like to be part of a Christian community.  She said, ‘I assume that you all feel an individual connection to God and that you all have that in common with one another and that must be quite nice.’ 

I replied that it was, but that it wasn’t the whole of the experience.  What I tried to explain was that when when church is at its best there is a sense of being part of a ‘found family’ more than a group of people with something in common.  In that context of difference there is a sense of something more bubbling up amongst us that is hard to explain:  creativity, deeper understanding, profound love, prayer.  A sense of God with us.

In A Nazareth Manifesto[i], Sam Wells explores in depth the idea of God with us, and how we are called to be ‘with’ one another.  We can so easily get caught in a pattern of doing things for other people that we forget that being with them is really what love is about, as the ministry of Jesus shows us in encounter after encounter.  

As part of his exploration, Sam Wells puts forward a minority reading of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.  One way of understanding Jesus’ story is to see it directed at Israel.   It is Israel who has been robbed, beaten and is lying in a desperate state in the gutter.  Who will help it?  Will the priests and the teachers of the law?  It is Jesus, as the despised Samaritan in the story, who offers practical assistance, healing and hope and takes Israel into the city, at considerable risk to himself, promising to return at a later time.

The way that we normally read this story and teach it to our children is about being a good neighbour and being kind to strangers, putting our faith into action, unlike the priest and the Levite. It is this reading that gives me a nudge every time I walk past someone begging, and plagues me the times I see myself ‘just walking by’.

Before coming across this reading, I don’t think I’d ever considered putting myself in the story as the person desperate and vulnerable, lying on the side of the road.  That changes things  considerably.  Although in global terms, we may be rich, we are also needy; longing for relationship, forgiveness, reconciliation, life.

“…we would be happy to accept these things from the priest or the Levite…  They have security.  They have social esteem.  They have resources.  But the story is telling us those people cannot help us. They cannot give us what we so desperately need.” [ii]

The person walking down the road to help us is the last person we would expect; and not someone we would ever have anything to do with.  The answer to the  question of ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ is not a moralistic story about avoiding hypocrisy, but instead a recognition that we are desperate.

“Open your eyes to the form Jesus takes in coming to save you. Swallow your pride and accept that your salvation comes from the ones you have despised.  And let your heart be converted and your life be newly shaped to receiving the grace that can only come from them.” [iii]

If what people are most looking for is the knowledge that they are not alone, it is in God’s ‘found family’ of real relationships, shared meals and honest conversation that they might have the courage to reach out and  take Jesus’ hand.  This isn’t a community that has chosen one another.  It isn’t a a shared-interest society (or assumed-ideology) group. It’s just people who know they’re desperate enough to be ‘with’ one another, believing that God is with them too.


[i] Samuel Wells  A Nazareth Manifesto (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015). See a previous Theology Everywhere article also including comment on Wells’ interpretaion of the parable – Who is the Good Samritan?

[ii] p. 93

[iii] p.97

Biblical Justice

by Ken Howcroft.

What is justice? What is a just person, and what does it mean for that person to live and act justly? What is a just society or community, and what does it mean for it to organise itself justly? People have argued about these things from ancient times to now. Yet somehow the answers to the questions remain elusive.

Interestingly, Aristotle thought that it was easier for us to recognise injustice than justice. So we could say that we need to pay attention to our rage. If we think about what sort of things cause us to rage we shall start to get an idea of what injustice is, and if we flip that on its head we shall start to see what justice is.

The Old Testament prophets, amongst other things, are good at rage. Since they present themselves as mouthpieces of God, it could be said that God is as well, and so, by extension is Jesus. [Let us be honest and call it ‘rage’ not ‘righteous indignation’!]

So what can the Bible tell us about justice? The answer may be ‘not much’ unless we are clear about what we are asking. ‘Justice’ in English has become a very wide portmanteau term which carries all sorts of things in it. To get more precision we add all sorts of adjectives to the term. So, for example, we talk of ‘social justice’, ‘economic justice’, ‘tax justice’, ‘racial justice’, ‘gender justice’, ‘political justice’, and ‘legal justice’ – to mention just(!) a few. All these things are justifiable(!) concerns for followers of Jesus to have. Yet we must beware of reading back into biblical texts modern understandings which are foreign to them, and of missing some prompts or clues in those texts as a result.

Prophetic rage is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament book called ‘Isaiah’. The opening chapters in particular set up the theme. As the scholar John Goldingay has summarised, they claim that

  • God’s people are living as if they can ignore God’s demands on their life, collectively and individually;
  • God will therefore take action against God’s people; but
  • God will restore and turn the community into what it should be.

The parable in Isaiah 5:1-7 then describes how God’s people are not producing the ‘fruit’ for God that God is expecting. The second half of Isaiah 5:7 succinctly explains that idea. God is looking for mišpāṭ and finds only miśpāḥ; for ṣĕdāqâ, and finds only ṣĕ‘āqâ. The first of each of those pairs of terms are often translated ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ respectively. Yet mišpāṭ more narrowly applies to government and the discernment needed in the exercising of authority and the making of decisions; whereas ṣĕdāqâ refers to being upright and faithful and doing the right thing in relation to God and your community. Taken together the two terms point towards a faithful exercise of power in the community.  

The second term in each pair describes the reality of what God finds. miśpāḥ points to vicious oppression that results in bloodshed, and ṣĕ‘āqâ to the cries of indignation and pain that arise when people are treated unfairly and oppressively. There is a very thin dividing line between the two terms in each pair. The former almost too easily becomes the latter, a fact re-enforced by the close wordplay between them.

The first term in Isaiah 5:7, mišpāṭ, also occurs in Micah 6:8 where it has the same sense of discernment in exercising authority and making decisions, although it is often translated as ‘doing justice’. The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament perhaps began this trend. It uses the word krima which means a formal, often legal, discernment and judgement. The same version uses a related word krisis for mišpāṭ in Isaiah 5:7 and then dikaiosune for ṣĕdāqâ.

dikaiosune is a major term in the discussions about ‘justice’ in Greek and Roman philosophy.  Jewish and later Christian discussions began to be influenced by those traditions, and the term and related words became important in the New Testament and later, where it is often translated as ‘righteousness’. Unfortunately, translation of it into the Latin term justificatio (‘justification’ in English) has often skewed our understanding of it in the direction of quasi-legal judgements of whether an individual is to be ‘saved’ or not. That loses the emphasis on the communal and societal aspects of ‘justice’ in the Old Testament and also in the New.

The Gospels and Paul in particular are concerned with how the community of God’s people is organised and behaves in a godly way, and then how individuals behave within it. They are rooted in an Old Testament understanding that ‘what God is, God does’.  So, for example, because God is holy, God seeks to make things holy. Because God is love, everything God does is an expression of love. When Paul writes of the ‘righteousness of God’ he means both that God is ‘(up)right’ and that God also seeks to put everyone right in relationship to themselves, to others and to God’s own self.

That takes us back to the opening chapters of Isaiah, and the idea that God seeks to restore the community of God’s people, and to turn it into what it should be: in other words, ‘redemption’. Rage and redemption are two signs of the same coin. That is true of God, of Jesus and of the community of God’s people, the body of Christ. The point of raging against injustice is to redeem. The passion to redeem and create ‘justice’ necessarily involves identifying and raging against injustice. Jesus shows that that is what God is like, and we perhaps learn more from the stories about him then from sayings and statements.

The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project.  Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/

Nostalgia

by John Lampard.

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee offers the nation an opportunity to indulge in a burst of nostalgia, from remembering the 1953 Coronation (for older readers!) to ‘it was better then than it is now’ etc. What is the role and place of nostalgia when it comes to re-calling our church history or in theological thinking?

A recent book, Rule Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, by Hannah Rose Woods, examines the use of nostalgia as a means of critical analysis.

She argues that we use nostalgia primarily as a means of fuelling or bolstering modern debates. To illustrate this, she reminds us of the wonderful words of William Rees-Mogg, spoken after June 2016, that Brexit was ‘Magna Carta! It’s Waterloo! It’s Agincourt! It’s Crecy! We won all of these things!’ Only the most ardent Brexiteer might spare a blush.

The problem for me is that history and nostalgia are almost inextricably linked once one tries to use historical knowledge to critique the modern world. My interest is obviously in the matter of church history and the situation faced today by almost all the churches of the western world (it’s not just Methodism!). We can look back to the time when bishops ruled the roost across the land. Or we can look back to the great church-going period of the mid-Victorian era when about half the population were in church on a Sunday. Or the practice of family prayers and Bible reading at the beginning of the day – or even saying grace before meals. Or I can look back on the 1950s crime-free Eden of my youth, with lively Youth Clubs and when the church was packed on Parade Sunday with uniformed organisations. Each of these memories or recollections can be used as a means of criticising what is going on in the church and world today. Is the Christian faith, the church or society in a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ state today?

Nostalgia can be a very selective means of criticism. When the bishops ruled the land, people were punished in unspeakable ways, apart from a lack of any human rights. In the ‘Christian’ mid-Victorian era there were estimated to be 80,000 child prostitutes in London alone. Family prayers could be a means of harsh family control, and seventy years ago two boys attempted to rob me at knife point in a ‘respectable’ part of London. As soon as we draw from the nostalgic past to contrast how things have deteriorated today, we urgently need to find other facts which suggest that such a picture is incomplete.

Thinking on Woods’s book draws me to two further reflections.

How much does nostalgia, particularly for the life of the early church as depicted in the Bible, affect our reading of it today? Apart from the ‘communist’ ideal of having everything in common in the early Jerusalem church (which may have led to near famine and the need for the first example of ‘Christian Aid’ from other churches), the life of the early church depicted by Paul offers little material for a nostalgic view. I suspect that our Methodist Discipline Committee would be overwhelmed by life in the Corinth church. A rosy view of the Primitive church offers little to appeal in a current world of human complexities.

A more complicated question arises over the extent to which our study of and expressions of theology today is overlaid with nostalgia. Our language and symbolic thought structures still hark back to a ‘biblical’ understanding of the universe. I struggle (as did John Robinson in the 1960s) with phrases such as ‘God sent…’, ‘come down from heaven’, or ‘Jesus came…’, on any occasion other than when we quote the Bible, rather than expressing what lies behind the words, in a sense of revelation and discovery. Too much theology is based on a nostalgic world view created by still taking the Bible too literally, in a world which is being revealed by the Hubble telescope and the Large Hadron Collider. Am I alone in getting spiritual excitement and sustenance in the exploration of the amazingly complex and wonderful world around us discovered by scientists looking at either the indescribably massive or infinitesimally small? Our understanding of the nature of time revealed by scientists must surely impact on ‘eternity’ and ‘everlasting life’. I get more visceral spiritual excitement from the discoveries of scientists, almost lost for words by the sheer wonder of what they are revealing, than wading through the dull, endless attempts by worthy theologians to ‘re-create’ an outdated world view. A nostalgia for a simple ‘up’ and ‘down’, which we hark back to by our overreliance on what we might have grown up with, will not enable relevant theological thinking. It is all God’s world, but our nostalgia for the past hinders us from trying to re-think our theology in terms for today.

So, I will wave my flag and remember 1953, but I will not be nostalgic! And I hope theologians will be limbering up for the reign of King Charles III.

God of love, Creator of the food chain

by Josie Smith.

I observed my cat one recent morning ruining a newly-planted flower bed in the course of pursuing a frog near the adjacent pond in my garden.    This is the nature of cats, I realise, but seeing her doing this raised questions in my mind, not for the first time.   She often suggests questions to me which are also both simple and profound.

(We have had a few simple yet profound Monday morning questions of late in Theology Everywhere, where the only possible answer was ‘both / and’.)

Can anyone tell me how to reconcile the concept ‘loving God’ with the predatory hierarchy, AKA food chain which appears to be a necessary part of the design of the created order?   

I know about that rather charming word picture about lions lying down with lambs, but lions and lambs have different digestive arrangements and neither could be sustained by the other’s diet.    The whole of nature, it seems, is designed so that the stronger, faster, cleverer or more toxic beasts live by killing and eating those lower down the food chain.  (Though there are enlightened cultures in which hunters will apologise to the animal they have just speared to death and ask its forgiveness, showing respect to their prey before consuming its strength to maintain and enhance their own.)  

How do we differ?  Genetically we, lions and lambs, cats and humans alike, are all made of the same stuff of life.

Are we in fact different from the rest of the natural world?    My football team has to be capable of beating yours, our child needs to have better exam marks than yours, and so on.    In international relations it would seem that the food-chain principle has always applied.   A diplomat would put it more delicately perhaps, and a dictator in other terms, but recent world events have furnished many examples – one could express it as ‘My tribe is stronger and better than yours so I propose to gobble up your land if I have to kill your population in the process.’

My generation was taught to believe that the human race (then known as ‘Man’) differed from all other created beings in having a soul, and more words have been written on this theme than ever angels have danced on pinheads.    But we now know that trees can communicate with other trees, that all sorts of creatures have recognisable language, and only recently someone with very sensitive recording equipment has picked up sound communication from a living mushroom. 

The more we learn about other living things – the close family relationships of elephants, communication systems of bees, design and construction skills of ants, birds and beavers, navigational skills of butterflies – the more we respect and marvel.    I am a cat person, but dog lovers will tell you of the devotion a dog will give its owner.    (Cats don’t have owners – it is cats who have humans, but they too are capable of a genuine relationship with another species, often us.)   And   crows, for example, are very good at problem solving.    As are some squirrels.

What is the soul, and why do we think we are alone in having it?

We have faith in a creator God, otherwise why are we reading – even writing for – Theology Everywhere?    And our mythical ancestor whom we call Eve was born with a silver question mark in her mouth, thus giving rise to the sciences which grew alongside theology.     Wondering ‘What if?’ leads to experiment, which may lead anywhere and sometimes in unexpected directions.

So I worship God, and (not ‘but!’) I also ask a lot of questions.

I am not able to answer – or find answers to – many of the questions I meet every day.    The best questions don’t have answers, but lead to deeper questions.   A Catholic priest I used to know turned questions aside by using the word ‘mystery’, but I prefer to understand life by the both/and principle.     My theology is not ‘systematic’, but proceeds by flashes of insight and by niggling doubts.  

And perhaps especially by walking with those who have also encountered the God whose name and nature is Love.

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