Responding to Need. Acts 6.1-7

We are pleased to begin a new partnership with Spectrum, a community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. Spectrum publishes an annual series of six study papers called Explore designed for their network of study groups, and which Theology Everywhere will be featuring every other month. This year six different authors offer studies in the Acts of the Apostles, all occasions when the Early Church seized opportunities which arose at the time. In the ‘new normal’ age which stretches before us what kind of responses will there be to the challenges which present themselves?

  1. Responding to Need. Acts 6.1-7

by Richard Firth

One of the aspects of the mission of the Church lies in reactions to situations which arise. Opportunity knocks and we have to respond in such a way that there are favourable outcomes whether in active service or growth in discipleship.

In our study passage a few years have elapsed since the Day of Pentecost. Significant growth has occurred in the Jerusalem Church such that internal tensions arose. One in particular was between Aramaic speaking Christian Jews, original citizens of Jerusalem, and Greek speaking Christian Jews, who were incomers. The latter, a composite group, comprising of proselytes converted to the way of Jesus (ref. perhaps the outcome of John 12.20f) and later settlers, possibly from among the 3,000 who responded to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, which included people from Pontus, Phrygia and Crete. The Hellenist/Hebrew division was one carried over from Judaism into Christianity. Hellenists had their own synagogues where the Greek language was used.

Now, when all should be one in Christ Jesus, the Greek speaking Jewish Christians, particularly their needy widows, complained that they were being discriminated against in the daily provision of meals and cash handouts. It appears that the principle of ‘all things in common’ (Acts 2.44) was under considerable strain.

In order to resolve the dispute the apostles handed over the decision making to the whole congregation, which, after due deliberation, nominated seven men to administer the aforesaid charitable activities. This would leave the apostles free to continue their work of leading prayers and preaching the good news. Naturally they agreed with the suggested names and prayed over each one with the laying on of hands.

The qualifications required for the work are interesting. The men had to be full of the Holy Spirit, presumably manifesting its gifts and fruits, chiefly love; full of wisdom, possessing that kind of common sense which relates to the art of living; and full of faith, the kind of trust in Christ which showed that they were living His Way. If the church asked “Are they any good with money?” it does not say.

The men chosen were, diplomatically, all Greek speakers as their names suggest. We only ever hear of Stephen and Philip again, although it is suggested the Nicholaus may have become leader of a group of ‘heretics’, the Nicolaitans, in Ephesus (Rev.2.6). Stephen’s progress to martyrdom is well told (Acts 6.8 – 7.60) as is Philips work as an evangelist (Acts 8.4-8, 28-40; 21.8).

There is no suggestion here that the ‘ordination’ is anything other than to a local responsibility. The laying on of hands was a symbolic ceremony confirming the gift of the Spirit for a particular task not an induction into an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The outcome of these appointments was to encourage the apostles in their preaching ministry.  Church growth ensued including the conversion of some low level priests.

Historically the development of a Diaconate occurred with the emergence of the Church as an institution, and as a stage on the way to priesthood. In Methodism the Diaconate is an Order open to both women and men the role of a deacon being very much that of community service and pastoral care. David Clark in his book Diaconal Church: Beyond the Mould of Christendom (Epworth 2007) argues that the concept of the Diaconal Church is one that could liberate the laity. The idea of being a Servant Church after the pattern of Christ Himself is Kingdom based and community orientated and the only valid pattern for mission, especially one that is based upon the response to human needs.

The ideal of service to others is, of course, not confined to the Church as is forcibly evidenced by the selfless actions of so many during the coronavirus emergency, professionally, vocationally and voluntarily. The value of their work has been immensely recognised and appreciated as never before.

Several questions arise out of this passage –

  1. Consider experiences of conflict resolution and their outcomes and of responses to situations which have arisen. How should the Church respond post the coronavirus epidemic?
  2. Were the apostles right not to undertake the more ‘menial’ tasks? Is it the Methodist tradition to ‘let ministers be ministers’? How easy does this prove to be?
  3. Is our definition of ordination too strict?
  4. How may the ‘Diaconal Church’ become a reality?
  5. What qualifications do we look for in those who take on responsibility in the local church?

The Black Lives of History Matter Too

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

We’re pleased to welcome Catrin to the Theology Everywhere editorial team. In particular, she will be looking after our new Twitter account, which you can find here.

Yesterday was Racial Justice Sunday, and it has never felt more urgent – at least to those of us with the privilege of whiteness, who have been able not to notice its very real urgency until now.

A significant question over the last few weeks has been the appropriate way to mark and commemorate our history. A lengthy controversy over a statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford, and the dramatic toppling of a statue of Edward Colston into the harbour at Bristol, have focused attention on this issue. Despite arguments that to remove such monuments is to erase the troubling parts of our history, surely it is time for us to recognise that memory and celebration are different things. To remember is not necessarily the same as to honour.

But what, then, is the place of corporate memory, and how do we react to our history? Or, to put it another way, what is our responsibility for the sins of our ancestors? There tends to be a strong reaction against the idea of inherited guilt, and for good reason. Part of God’s gracious new covenant, in Jeremiah 31, promises that: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.”[1] We are responsible for our own deeds, but not the actions of those who have gone before. So then, the logic goes, apologies or public acts of contrition are out of place. We should not feel guilty about the past, because it was not, by definition, ours to feel guilty about.

And yet, within both the church and wider society, corporate memory of the past, as a lived experience of the present, is deeply ingrained. We gather (in ‘normal’ times!) around bread and wine, and, in remembering, experience the presence of Christ in our midst. We celebrate key events from our Christian or denominational history, with pride, gratitude and joy. In 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, many of us took the opportunity to congratulate ourselves on Methodism’s place in this. It spoke to us of the best of who we are – our heritage, charisms and honour. And yesterday, many clapped for the birthday of the NHS, and even those of us not born at its foundation felt pride not only in its current workers, but in the vision that created it.

Our history makes us who we are today. But if that is true of the best of our history, why would it be less true of the worst? If we are permitted – positively encouraged, even – to share in the glory of our predecessors’ achievements, why do we feel excused from sharing in the shame of their sins? A reason for the celebration and pride is to inspire us to follow in their footsteps, surely; no less, then, should we draw inspiration (of a different sort) from the pain and inhumanity that is so often a part of the historical mix – in our Church, as much as in our society. If we rejoice in the innovation and technical achievements of the industrial revolution, should we not also take time to remember that the wealth that enabled it was founded on imperial entitlement, enslavement, exploitation. And, for that matter, should we not remember that the structures of labour which fuelled it at home were also often exploitative. History is not just the stories of great men, but also of the nameless people who were trodden underfoot in the cause of such ‘greatness’.

And one more reason why we should, perhaps, feel invested in the less, as well as the more, glorious parts of our history: If our history has made us who we are, it should be no surprise that its effects are with us still. That I can go about my life, knowing that my skin colour will not be noticed and will not disadvantage me is not a coincidence. It is the product of centuries of prejudice lived out in slavery, apartheid, segregation, exclusion, marginalisation, overt and insidious racism. That I can live comfortably, in a nation that can afford health care for all, is not an accident – it is the consequence of imperialistic enrichment at the expense of nations whose resources we felt ourselves entitled to. The consequences of history are real now. We do not live in a fair society. Inherited privilege leads to inherited accountability. It is not enough not to discriminate; we need to work actively to dismantle the structures that privilege us. The guilt of our ancestors should set our teeth on edge, because we benefit from it still. It is therefore our guilt, too.

The consequences of our history are real now. The consequences of our present will be real in the future. So it is our responsibility to build a better present – one in which there is equality, generosity, a celebration of difference, but a celebration also of a shared humanity. We do this by remembering, acknowledging and owning our history, warts and all.


[1] Jeremiah 31:29-30

Colonial Logic and Progressive Christianity

by Aaron Edwards.

The logic of western colonialism in Christianity is often summed up via a pithy quote from Desmond Tutu:

‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.’

Whether the missionaries used the colonisers, or the colonisers used the missionaries, is another issue for another time. Whichever way one interprets the motivations of the missionaries, Christian theology rightly winces at the logic of colonialism, particularly under the aegis of Scriptural authority. Those Christians who felt able to justify colonialism theologically were able to do so because they believed they knew things that the colonised did not know, and that the imposition of such things would be ‘good’ for them, in the end. As many have since observed, such condescension was not unlike the way a parent makes decisions on behalf of young children.

Yet this logic is alive and well today, not only in the places you might expect to find it, but especially within the logic of ‘progressive’ Christianity. Any progressive Christian, of course, would recoil at being associated with colonialism. But that’s the thing about logic: wherever you hide from it, in deeds, intentions, statements, or hashtags, it will find you in the end. Indeed, it is quite possible to be so committed to ‘postcolonialism’ as to become guilty of colonialism 2.0.  I speak, of course, of the western reinterpretation (and exportation) of a positive Biblical view of same-sex relations.

I spent a delightful few days in Nigeria last year with twenty bishops and archbishops of the Nigerian Methodist Church talking about preaching. I showed them how many western Christian leaders and theologians now interpret passages of Scripture on sexuality. Most were aghast that it was even possible to believe that such views could be claimed as having come not from western secular culture but rather from textual exegesis. I tried to play Devil’s advocate for a while, describing the arguments about historical context, and the views that speak of the Spirit’s varied illuminations in various moments, etc., but it wouldn’t wash. These bishops were well taught to ‘continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2Tim. 3:14-15).

The Biblical hermeneutic that accompanied the first western missionaries was by no means infallible, but neither was it easily separable from the spiritual fruitfulness wrought in those churches, a fruitfulness which endured and now sends many impassioned African missionaries back to the west today, to reconvert what has long been forgotten. African churches legitimately ask why they should listen to any wholesale western reinterpretation of Scripture which requires new western commentaries which it would never have occurred to a non-western Christian to write.

The progressive view is underpinned by a belief that the colonial imposition upon land/rights also entailed the imposition of particular approaches to Biblical interpretation (and thus, to sexuality). When I have challenged postcolonial missiologists on the fact that the vast majority of African Christians willingly accept such Biblical interpretations, I have actually been told that such beliefs are merely a kind of ‘mimicry’ of what the colonial missionaries once told them. I once observed a conversation where a West African woman was passionately opposing the progressive western view on same sex marriage and was met with barely concealed wry smiles and bitten lips by her western counterpart, as though this person was just waiting for the penny to finally drop. This is not an unfamiliar recurrence. The assumption is that once the African churches have encountered the books that we have read, imbibing the deeper nuances of postcolonial contextual hermeneutics, they will be liberated from their childish reasoning (cf. 1Cor. 13:11). The implicit assumption is that African Christianity is founded upon a form of ideological brainwashing, and generations later has yet to realise this for itself. The logic is precisely this condescending, and precisely this shocking. The end-goal of colonialism has always been to civilise the uncivilised.

The curious notion of ‘living in contradiction’ has been much touted in recent years to suggest that there is, of course, no such imposition implied by the progressive view. Today, the progressive Christian calls for unity and genuinely respects the conservative’s right to disagree. Tomorrow, however, the logic will begin to catch up: perhaps some ‘further education’ would improve the quality of this unity? The day after that, it may be realised that such unity is only truly possible if there is mutual agreement over the Scriptural validity of both views, thus gradually removing the possibility of genuine opposition.

As Tutu demonstrated, the genius of colonialism was managing to achieve large-scale conquest whilst avoiding large-scale conflict. There was no war, but there was a very definite victor. To adapt Tutu slightly, this is what the vast majority of African Christians rightly fear when unity is spoken of in contrast to functional submission to Scriptural authority:

‘When the missionaries came back to Africa they had the hermeneutic and we had the Bible. They said “Let us interpret.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the hermeneutic and they had the Bible.’

Would you trust this man? Genesis 12:10-20

by David Bidnell.

The continuous lectionary cycle currently invites us to explore some episodes from Genesis, taking us through the stories of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. There is much ground to cover here, and so there is a certain inevitability that some narratives are omitted. The frustrating aspect to this, however, is that we are left with what are deemed to be the major stories, while others, which are perhaps equally significant from the point of view of human relationships and human society, are not given quite the same prominence.

This, then, is an opportunity to look at the narrative of Sarah and Abraham in a foreign land. When we meet them at the gates of Egypt it would seem that Abraham’s world is at collapsing point. Having previously been told that he is to be handsomely blessed (Genesis 12:1-9) famine has now struck, and Abraham, Sarah and Lot have travelled to Egypt in search of survival. Anxious about the impact of Sarah’s beauty on his own future, Abraham attempts to disown her as his wife, leaving us to try and work out what exactly his intentions are, for there are at least three possibilities.

One approach is to take Abraham at his word and to acknowledge in part at least what may be a very genuine fear. We might struggle with his attitude to his wife, prepared, as he is, to abandon her to her fate in a land and culture which is not her own. We can almost hear him saying to himself: “It’s your fault for being so beautiful.” But what lies before them is a struggle to survive in a highly precarious situation, and perhaps Abraham believes this is the best way, possibly the only way, to secure a future for them both.

A second approach suggests that Abraham is concocting a cunning plan in order to enrich himself. He is not at all concerned about Sarah and what might lie ahead for her. His priority is to ensure not only his own survival, but his future prosperity. Sarah ends up in Pharaoh’s house and Abraham does very well out of it. Life is looking good for Abraham, even if it is at the expense of his wife’s honour, dignity and well-being, and we are left to wonder how Abraham actually feels about losing Sarah.

A third approach proposes that Abraham sees this as an opportunity to dispense with Sarah. He may even think that this is a necessity. He has been told that he is to be a great nation, that he is to have many descendants, but how is this going to happen if Sarah cannot have children? Perhaps Abraham senses some responsibility for the fulfilment of the promise made to him, and the only way he can see of realising this is by freeing himself to take a new wife, with whom it will be possible to have children.

However we choose to understand Abraham’s motives, the outcome is clear. Sarah now belongs to Pharaoh, and Abraham is a wealthy man. But our uneasiness about this situation stems not only from Abraham’s abuse of Sarah, but from his lack of honesty. After all, as Pharaoh points out, it is Abraham himself who has lied to the Egyptian ruler (Genesis 12:18-19). Can we trust Abraham?

This tale features two techniques of Hebrew story-telling. First, it alludes to a much larger narrative, in this case the overarching chronicle of Israel’s relationship with Egypt and the Exodus. There are frequent reminders of this defining plot of slavery and liberation through multiple connections – Israel ends up in Egypt as a result of famine in Canaan; Egypt is a place of threat; Moses is taken to Pharaoh’s house; there is conflict with Pharaoh; there are plagues, Israel is ordered by Pharaoh to leave. With this in mind, if we then interpret our present story in the light of Moses, we unearth a potential fourth motivation for Abraham’s action. In similarly precarious circumstances the vulnerable Moses is cast adrift on the water, his sister and mother hoping that he may be taken by Pharaoh’s daughter to be brought up in security and privilege, close to the seat of power. Is it not possible that this is reflected in Abraham’s intention? In Pharaoh’s court of power, the vulnerable Sarah has secure and privileged status – and her brother, Abraham, too!

The foiling of this attempt highlights the second technique, the deliberate leaving of gaps in the story, inviting questions. The gaping silence for us to ponder here is this. How does Pharaoh know to blame Abraham for the plagues? Who tells him the truth? There must be every chance that it is Sarah who has disclosed this. Amid Abraham’s deceit, Pharaoh’s power and the narrator’s silencing, still we are able to hear Sarah’s voice, which refuses to conceal her true identity and is persuasive enough to convince Pharaoh of a connection between the plagues and her predicament. It is Sarah who secures freedom.

But why would she ever trust Abraham again?

Repentance

by Tom Stuckey.

When Covid-19 is over will Methodism revert to business as usual?  Over the past ten years I have been arguing that if Methodism in Britain is to thrive, a complete sea change is required. I have used the word ‘repentance’ to describe the radical nature of this shift. I mentioned it first in my Presidential Address of 2005, repeated it in 2006, spoke of it in study days across the connexion, alluded to it in Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land (2017), addressed it directly in Methodism Unfinished (2019) and reflected on it in a series of short articles in the Methodist Recorder throughout the months of March, April and May 2020.

One of the motivations for this decade of repetition has been my growing awareness of a ‘paradigm shift’ taking place. Back in 1962 the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn first propounded this concept. It describes how a dominant framework under which normal science operates is rendered incompatible with new phenomena. This necessitates the adoption of a new interpretive framework to make understanding possible. My former theological teacher, Prof. Thomas Torrance, introduced me to this idea in a theological way by using the word metanoia – ‘repentance’. Since then I have come to believe that a universal kairos event would occur making it clear that our usual ways of thinking and doing have come to an end. Only repentance will enable us to cross over from the old to the new. I suggest that Covid-19 is that liminal event.

I have been taken to task, sometimes quite severely, for saying that Methodism must repent. My suggestion of a paradigm shift has similarly been dismissed. These negative reactions have puzzled me.  I now see that Methodists interpret the word ‘repentance’ in a personal way. As followers of Wesley we readily appreciate his words ‘he has saved my from my sins, even mine’. Is this preventing us from thinking about what repentance might mean for an institution? Ecclesiastical institutions obviously sin. We have examples of this in the recent revelations of clergy abuse, the Church’s anti-Semitism and its discrimination against sections of society: women, black people or those with different sexual orientations. In such cases these ethical sins can be named and addressed but what of the more subtle spiritual and theological sins?

The author of the book of Revelation diagnoses the failure of six of the seven churches. Each must repent of their particular spiritual/theological sin. Paul in Colossians, writing to the churches of the Lycus Valley, does not hesitate in naming their corporate theological sin. These Churches have absorbed into their life features of the prevailing culture which are having a toxic effect upon their witness. Sin in these cases is corporate and institutional. When Churches become national establishments or are linked in some way through an Episcopal or Connexional system does not sin, whether ethical, spiritual or theological, affect the ecclesiastical culture and distort their structural processes?

While governments in a ‘post-truth’ culture often resort to denial or self-justification, the Church does attempt, sometimes reluctantly, to address the sin within. One solution is to list the ‘sins’ (failures?) on the agenda to be dealt with through the usual channels. ‘Lament’, which is a fundamental feature of repentance, is largely avoided. Another approach is to initiate a review, identify mistakes and learn from them. ‘Lament’ may figure in this but still lacks the radical renewing power which Walter Brueggemann alludes to in his expositions of the Psalms. ‘Lament’ as he describes it, drives us to our knees in desperate petitionary prayers which seek to motivate God into action!

Why do institutions find it so hard to repent? According to Michael Polanyi the interpretive framework or paradigm which enables us to hear and understand is buried deep within our minds and subject to our passions. Institutions are reluctant to admit that they may be getting things wrong because this raises questions about trust, integrity and power. In order to comprehend ‘the new’ the current way of thinking and doing may have to be abandoned. Polanyi describes this move into a new understanding as a ‘heuristic’ act of non-rational discovery. In Christian terms he is describing renunciation and faith which takes us back to the Gospel imperative ‘repent and believe’. If we are indeed where I think we are in the history of the Church, we cannot revert to business as usual. The old is passing away and the new is coming.

The full script plus references can be found on www.tomstuckey.me.uk

Honesty

by Chris Roe.

Towards the end of March this year, I was sat in the living room of one of the L’Arche community houses in Preston, next to a person with learning disabilities who I support and live alongside, and another assistant, watching telly. As our programme ended, a newsreader appeared on the screen. He began to inform us of the latest news regarding Coronavirus – the rapidly developing crisis, the Prime Minister’s message, the new restrictions imposed on our lives…

The person with learning disabilities leant forwards, took a breath and shouted “Oh shut up!”

We all laughed, and, on my part at least, felt a little bit of unacknowledged tension lift. For though I would never have verbalised it, there was a part of me that wanted to yell too. The harsh reality the newsreader conveyed was painful. It was good to hear someone say so out loud.

There has been a lot of advice around keeping ourselves mentally well during this time, not to mention a plethora of activities and video meet-ups organised by so many communities and organisations across the world. In my own experience of this crisis, all the best mental health advice I’ve heard (and I’ve heard this said in many different ways by many different people) has essentially involved expressing ourselves honestly, be that through writing things down, talking to someone, or just, well, shouting at the telly.

In this time of crisis, I’m more aware than ever of the power of honesty. There is something very cathartic about saying what we truly feel, when so often we cover those feelings up out of necessity or habit. Being honest involves opening ourselves up, to God and to other people, and therefore being vulnerable in some way.

I have found the Psalms to be a real gift at this time. They express a whole spectrum of emotions towards God- love and fear, longing and pain, peace and anger, and so much more. Their comfort lies in their expressiveness and openness towards God, which somehow permits us, too, to be equally open and expressive in our relationship with God.

It’s worth pointing out that being honest is not the same as being miserable! One of the traditions we hold in L’Arche when celebrating birthdays, whether for people with or without disabilities, is to “pass the candle”. A candle is passed around those who have gathered to celebrate and in a few words each person tries their best to sum up what they value and appreciate about the person whose birthday is marked. It can be a powerful thing to be a part of, a powerful thing to hear about yourself.

Of course, we do not mention the things we do not like about someone, their weaknesses and faults, at their birthday party. That would not be much fun.

Honesty is powerful and it can be painful. Which truths do we share with each other? What does the right time to share a difficult truth look like? Where do we do that? When is it appropriate or inappropriate? Is it easier for some people to be honest than others?

One of the most painful honesties in L’Arche recently has been news about Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier created and helped grow a global network of communities of people with and without learning disabilities, sharing life together. But this year, an independent investigation commissioned by L’Arche determined that he had sexually and spiritually abused at least six women.[1] A man who was considered by many to be a saint was anything but.

What do we do with such news? Where do we go from here? How do we even share it? One example of this, from L’Arche London, was widely circulated at the time and has much power in the way it does not shy away from telling difficult truths to vulnerable people, in as safe an environment as possible.[2]

There is a long way for L’Arche to go, but it seems to me that the honesty expressed by the organisation I am part of gives us a chance to grow up, to be honest about the past and not romanticise it.

The power of honesty has become all the clearer through lockdown for me. Honesty, and the vulnerability that comes with it, seems to allow us to enter deeper relationships with one another. This blog will be published the day after Trinity Sunday, a day when we recognise that the very being of God is, in some mysterious unknowable way, relational. Can church communities do anything more than aspire to reflect that?

We read in Acts of the first disciples sharing their lives together following the coming of the Holy Spirit.[3] They shared their possessions, broke bread and praised God together. That commitment to one another must have required a certain bravery, and a certain willingness to relate to each other in loving honesty and vulnerability. It seems to me that, knowing your brothers and sisters in such a way, you may, in a way we too easily take for granted, realise that we are all children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.

[1] https://www.larche.org/news/-/asset_publisher/mQsRZspJMdBy/content/inquiry-statement-test

[2] http://www.tuffrey-wijne.com/?p=767

[3] Acts 2: 42-47

A good laugh

by Barbara Glasson.

I told my suitcase that we couldn’t go on holiday this year – now I am living with emotional baggage…

One of the more curious features of lockdown is the plethora of jokes about our shared situation. Some of these jokes are simply a chortle and the way we negotiate the current landscape, others are more barbed, like the one of a plane taking off and the caption ‘Dominic Cummings popping out for a newspaper’.

Religion on the other hand, it appears, has taken itself very seriously. Maybe we can trace this back to Puritan roots? To be a believer has been a rigorous thing, requiring discipline, concentration and obedience. The General Rules first laid down by Wesley for the societies, discouraged ‘such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus’. Protestant restrictions go on to name a lot of things one is advised to avoid, like comedic theatres and circuses, but they don’t mention a good belly laugh at the totally absurd nature of human existence itself. After all, what is more ridiculous than finding yourself walking around on the surface of a large lump of rock floating about in a universe that is apparently bouncing off the edge of time?

At face value, we can’t really look to Jesus for help here, we know he wept but at no point do we hear of him sitting down and cracking a good joke (camels and eyes of needles possibly excepted) and yet, if we believe he was truly human, then surely he had a lighter side? Can we not imagine a twinkle in his eye or a twitch at the corner of his mouth? I think so.

Sara of course can give us hope. She was told in her ripe old age that she was going to have a baby and laughed out loud and even named her son Isaac after that outburst of merriment – thank you Sara for seeing the ridiculous side of Divine action. And if we poke around we find all sorts of satire, irony and whimsy embedded in the stories and antics of the Old Testament. There is an earthed and holy narrative to the way the stories are narrated, that maybe is too often mislaid in their reading as texts rather than telling as stories. Poor old Jonah being guzzled by a passing fish, the subversion of the earthquake by a still small voice, Daniel shouting out of the fiery furnace…

We do know that laughter is good for us. Sometimes we ‘have to laugh or else we’ll cry’ and sometimes we have to laugh or else we will sock someone on the nose, and sometimes we simply laugh at the ridiculous nature of things, like being shut at home for ten weeks because of an invisible virus that prowls around pulling the rug from under human certainties and crashing economies in its wake. And uniquely I think we have to laugh because we are passionate, and human, fearfully and wonderfully made, and that is a merry mystery and a liberation in itself.

Laughter isn’t the opposite of seriousness it’s just that sometimes life is too important or tough or annoying to be taken seriously. Laughter is a defiant expression of human spirit  and, as Reinhold Niebuhr expresses, laughter is also the beginning of prayer.[i] Personally I think God knows this and in the unlikely event that one day I should rock up in front of the pearly gates, with or without my emotional baggage, I trust that God will take one look at me and we can both hold our sides and nod our heads at the comedy as well as the tragedy of it all.

[i] Niebuhr, R., ‘Humor and Faith’ in Hyers, C., Holy Laughter (1969) p. 135

Reclaiming Ritual

by Graham Edwards.

On Thursday night I went into the street outside the house and applauded the NHS, most of my neighbours were out there too.  We have done this for several weeks, I expect we will do it for some time to come, and week by week it has become a bigger event in the neighbourhood.  At first it we clapped, now there are pans being banged with wooden spoons and tambourines being played.  Neighbours have shouted conversations across the road, nod to each other over fences and hedges, and wave to those further down the street!  It is right that we applaud the NHS in these strange days, but I wonder if it is becoming or has become something more, I wonder if it has become a ritual.

A ritual can be defined as a repetitive pattern of symbolic behaviour (Rambo, 1983, p. 509), which Knott (2005, p. 101) argues become a “central creative process by which people make a meaningful world they can inhabit”.  That is, rituals do something, they are not simply a language to be interpreted  they are, as Davies (2002, p. 113) notes, and end in themselves.  Rituals are a way of communicating or, as Edmund Leach (1976, p. 45) states, sending “collective messages to ourselves”, these messages might concern our values, priorities and our self-understanding.  Indeed, one television advert currently running has the narrator describing “clapping for carers with neighbours after a really wobbly day” as “the unity you needed to remember”.  Rituals communicate to individuals, those sharing in them, and beyond us to society as a whole.  In the 1960s, Victor Turner describing rituals among the Ndembu of Zambia, realised that rituals were often concerned with times of crisis or transitional moments in the life of the village.  Society, he argues (1969, p. 103), is a process in which change is expected and inevitable.  Ritual, therefore, offers the opportunity to participate in the moments of change and transition, by granting a ‘voice’ within the changing world.

The ritual and symbolic language we ‘speak’ has an important place in our world, and of course it has an important place in the life of the church.  In recent weeks, however, the rituals we have been accustomed to have been unavailable to us – physically attending church services, shaking hands, sharing the peace, celebrating Holy Communion and so on.  The great surprise in many places has been that, as new kinds of ritual have emerged, we have maintained a new form of connectedness.  We have taken part in worship using Zoom (other video conferencing software is available!), shared recorded sermons and prayers, and have sent worship materials in the post.  We have connected to people who have not been part of our churches before and realised that the connectedness we value is not simply a physical ‘thing’.  Though, in truth, this is not a new revelation, perhaps the experience of lockdown has forced us to remember.  When Victor Turner describes his understanding of ritual he argues that they operate in transitional or liminal places where the shared experience allows ‘relationships of immediate, direct, heart to heart experiences’ (Davies, 2002, p. 125) to form.  I suggest that church communities exist in a kind of liminal transitory space, as the shared experience of faith shapes, and is shaped by, our life in the world.  This shared life forms relationship that might be called Communitas, but I prefer the description Avery Dulles provides, mystical communion.  Dulles claims the church is “not an institution but a brotherhood [sic]” (2002, p. 40).  Drawing on work of the sociologist Ferdinand Tӧnnies and Arnold Rademacher, Dulles maintains that

the church is in its inner core community (Gemeinschaft): in its outer core, however, it is society (Gesellschaft).  The society is the outward manifestation of the community; and the society exists in order to promote the realisation of the community.  The community is the ‘real’ as contrasted with the phenomenal, church (2002, p. 41).

While we can explore the society of the church, the community is where the bonds of mystical communion exist, these are beyond physical and continue to connect us.  Lockdown and its effects have forced us to remember this connection, and express it in new ritual, and ‘speak’ it into the world.

As we continue to experience the life of the church in these uncertain times, I wonder what rituals we will need to allow us to participate in the changes to our society and speak hope and love with the voice of faith.

Davies, D. (2002). Anthropology and Theology. Oxford: Berg.

Dulles, A. (2002). Models of the Church. New York: Doubleday.

Knott, K. (2005). The Location of Religion. Durham: Acumen.

Leach, E. (1976). Culture and Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rambo, L. R. (1983). A New Dictionary of Christian Theology A. Richardson & J. Bowden (Eds.),

Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process (Vol. Ithaca NY): Cornell University Press.

Coronavirus and Climate

by Julie Lunn.

Coronavirus leaves me feeling conflicted.

On the one hand I am deeply sad about the number of those who have died and continue to die from the virus and those who have contracted it.  I feel for the families who have lost loved ones, and whose loss and grief is compounded by not being able to say goodbye in person, or to attend funerals. I feel for those who are our front-line NHS workers; who risk their lives daily through their deep faithfulness to their work, and commitment to bring healing, to preserve life, and to help others whatever the cost.  I am so thankful for them and I wish they did not have to go through it.

I also feel frustrated that in the UK we did not act more quickly to deal with this virus.  I watch the daily update on the BBC news app – tracking the very gradual decline of infections and deaths, and, although I know it’s going to be slow, I long for the numbers to plummet, for the decline to be rapid, for the virus to be gone.

And on the other hand I am conflicted because I love the streets being quieter, I love the air being cleaner, I love the more frequent visit of birds – and an increasing variety of species – to our garden (probably because we now have time to feed them each day).  I like the quietness, I like being at home, and not driving to work each day, navigating traffic queues, breathing petrol fumes.  And I am very glad about the decrease in global carbon emissions – that’s a chink of light in the dark place of this pandemic.

So what are we to do with all that?  As Christians where is God’s call to us?  God’s movement is always towards redemption.  It seems to me that we are called to work in tandem with God to redeem the loss, grief, suffering, danger, death, and pain, and to make those chinks of light a permanent outcome for the whole of God’s creation.

The Carbon Brief website states:

Pre-crisis estimates of GDP growth suggested CO2 output might rise by around 1%  … in 2020. But even if this previously expected growth is deducted from the estimated coronavirus impact, the … effect is so large that it would still result in the largest annual fall in CO2 emissions ever recorded, in records going back to the 18th century.[i]

A recent Guardian editorial put it like this:

It’s too soon to say with any confidence what impact coronavirus will have on the climate emergency. The brakes placed on economic activities of many kinds, worldwide, have led to carbon emission cuts that would previously have been unthinkable: 18% in China between February and March; between 40% and 60% over recent weeks in Europe. Habits and behaviours once regarded as sacrosanct have been turned on their heads: road traffic in the UK has fallen by 70%. Global air traffic has halved.[ii]

That’s a chink of light.  I am convinced that God’s redemption is for the whole world and not just human beings.  ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…’ (John 3:16).  Is this drastic reduction in carbon emissions a tiny rebalancing of the relationship of humanity with the environment? A hint of Jubilee?

But it isn’t all sweetness and light.  It comes with a warning.  The trend has to continue.  Unless carbon emissions continue to decrease, any gain will be lost.  Each year we need a similar drop in emissions until, says Glen Peters from Cicero, ‘net-zero emissions are reached around 2050’.[iii]

There are a number of theological themes which emerge from this danger and possibility.  There are chimes here with the prophetic warnings of the Old Testament.  Jeremiah (9:10-14) connects the destruction of the land with the faithlessness of God’s people.  ‘Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness, so that no one passes through? And the Lord says” “Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, or walked in accordance with it…”’.  Northcott comments on such prophetic warnings, ‘The devastation of the land is not only seen as the judgement of a vengeful God.  It is also interpreted as the consequence of the human rebellion against the created order and wisdom of nature.’[iv]  There is a disconnect between humanity and the rest of the created world, which should not be, which is not God’s intention.

Theological themes emerge from the New Testament too.  The Guardian editorial cited earlier continues, asking, ‘Could the renewed shock of human vulnerability in the face of Covid-19 make way for an increased willingness to face other perils, climate chaos among them?[v]  As Christians we know about vulnerability.  It is at the heart of our understanding of the Incarnation and Atonement.  We’re not afraid of it, but respectfully embrace it, because God has been there.

So how do we catch up with those who are going before us, and help lead the way in facing the perils of climate chaos?  This is arguably the biggest challenge and witness the church faces in this generation.  How do we pray, work, act for governments, institutions and individuals to decrease carbon emissions, turn to green energy, reduce consumption and change our lifestyles?  What will we do?  What will you do?  What can your church do to decrease carbon emissions?  Can we use our video-conferencing that we have become suddenly familiar with, more?  Can we use less car travel? Less air travel?  Produce less waste?  Do more working from home?

I’m going to make my own oat milk (Google it) and get on my bike.

[i] https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions.

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/12/the-guardian-view-on-the-climate-and-coronavirus-global-warnings.

[iii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52485712.

[iv] Michael S. Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics. (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), 171.

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/12/the-guardian-view-on-the-climate-and-coronavirus-global-warnings.

Which world?

by Richard Clutterbuck.

I’m writing this in the week I would usually have spent at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Theology, three days of mind-stretching presentations, renewed friendships and convivial conversation. But not, of course, this year. SST 2020 is one of the countless casualties of the Covid-19 crisis and ‘Theology and Borders’ will have to wait until 2021. I can’t claim that a cancelled theological conference compares with the many personal tragedies and financial hardships that surround us. Nevertheless, I’ll miss something that has been an annual stimulus to my thinking for over thirty years. Instead, I’ve been trying to get through some of the books I bought at previous conferences and somehow never got round to reading. Perhaps theology will, after all, have something to contribute to life after lockdown and its new normality.

One book that seems especially relevant to our present situation is Kathryn Tanner’s Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism. Based on her Gifford lectures of 2017, this is a short but densely-written work that deconstructs the current phase of finance-driven capitalism and offers a Christian alternative to its destructive and dehumanising processes. She begins with a reference to Max Weber, who famously coined the phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ and linked the ideals of Protestant Christianity with the spirit of early capitalism. Weber’s argument may have had something in it, but contemporary capitalism, says Tanner, is very different; rather than producing goods or supplying tangible services, it is primarily concerned with extracting profit from financial markets. It is entirely dominated by decisions made in buying and selling stock, basing its value on the confidence of the market rather than on any intrinsic worth. What is needed now is a Protestant anti-work ethic to counter capitalism’s dire consequences.

In a series of chapters Tanner introduces the effects of this ‘new spirit of capitalism’ on the humanity of those who work for it and who live within its financial sphere of influence. Her charges are well-researched and damning. Contemporary capitalism expects the total commitment of those who work within its institutions. They are asked to shape their own ambitions and desires to those of the company, whatever the cost. Finance-based capitalism also distorts our relationship with time. It collapses both past and future into the present. The past is something we cannot escape. Companies and households burdened with debt can never be free of the obligations imposed by a system in which debts are repackaged to become a new financial product. As a result, we are chained to the past. Similarly, the future has no open reality. It, too, only exists as an aspect of the present. Risks are managed by the market to ensure that, whatever its future peaks and troughs, those who have assets now will continue to prosper. The result is a world that combines a herd mentality (in which everyone follows the market trends) with a radical individualisation in which human beings are pitched against each other as they compete for jobs, promotion and bonuses.

It isn’t difficult to see how inadequate this financial capitalism has proved in the Covid-19 crisis. Only the intervention of central banks stemmed the meltdown of financial markets and only the social contract between people and governments can mitigate the crisis in health and the threat to livelihoods.

Which brings me to the other side of Tanner’s book. Besides critiquing finance-driven capitalism, she sets out the way in which Christian faith can point to an alternative world and to an altogether better account of human flourishing. She takes some of the building blocks of traditional Christian theology: sin, conversion, forgiveness, resurrection, salvation, and fashions them into a hopeful and challenging vision. Christian faith frees us from a past of debt and sin and offers a future shaped by God’s promise of salvation. In place of capitalism’s insistence that nothing truly changes, Christianity can face the radical discontinuities of human history with a faith that embraces both death and resurrection. And in place of capitalism’s claim to shape our identity and make us compete with each other, Christianity gives us a shared identity in Christ. Because of God’s grace, we are not justified by our work, nor damned by our lack of it. As Tanner says,

“Christian beliefs about a shared origin and fate entail, in sum, a refusal of the privatizing of risk and reward at the heart of finance-dominated capitalism. One fails, morally and otherwise, in the company of others. And one gains salvation by God’s grace alone.” (p. 205)

Or, as we are constantly being told: ‘we’re all in this together’.

Of course, there is a wide gap between a somewhat abstract theological treatise and the practical outcomes that everyone is looking for in this time of crisis. Nevertheless, Tanner gives a fine example of what Christian theology should be about. She has made a serious and disciplined study of the economic world that she critiques. She has, without embarrassment, taken the traditional framework of Christian faith, and demonstrated its relevance for the situation in which we live. And she has made the grace of God in Christ the lynchpin of human flourishing. A post-Covid 19 new normal will require us to follow her example.