‘Darkness Fell Over the Whole Land’ (Mark 15.33)

by Neil Richardson.

What has Brexit got to do with the wrath of God – if anything? Whatever the answer, the UK is in the throes of the greatest crisis of my lifetime. Of course, we should normally avoid the expression ‘wrath of God’; it is easily misunderstood. But what the Bible means by it, and the effects of that wrath are urgently relevant in this crisis.

Let’s start with its effects – darkness. That is the biblical symbol for the effects of the divine wrath.  St Paul writes of ‘darkened hearts’ (Romans 1.21 – compare 11.10),  ‘Isaiah’ of the Lord hiding his face (64.7), the very opposite of the Aaronic blessing: ‘may the Lord make his face shine on you…’, (Numbers 6.25).  The Biblical sequence is clear: idolatry leads to our dehumanization, which, in turn, leads to  dysfunctional relationships and disintegrating communities, (Romans 1.18-32, Psalm 115 etc).

Unlike the Bible – especially the Psalms – we prefer not to speak of false gods.  Yet we create false gods when we give our hearts (thus Luther) to something or someone other than our Creator. (There is plenty of room for other affections and passions within the love of God). In the life of a nation, a false god can be identified as that which is above criticism and question (1). Half of America worships its gun laws, and the constitution which underwrites them. In Britain, money and property come close to divine status, as do ‘Efficiency’ and ‘Economy’ (2).

Psalm 82 has been described as the most important passage in the whole of Scripture. And this from a distinguished, if controversial New Testament scholar, (John Dominic Crossan)! The psalm doesn’t use the word ‘wrath’, but that’s what it’s talking about: both its meaning and its effects. False gods can be distinguished by their oppression of the weak and the needy (v.4); false gods ‘walk about in darkness’ ; ‘meanwhile earth’s foundations are all giving way’ (v.5).

Isn’t this a bit ‘over the top’ – theology in the service of melodrama? Well, consider the contemporary scene: the neglect of personal relationships, a national ‘epidemic of loneliness’ (thus a recent headline), a dysfunctional political system (national and local), and the erosion of the common welfare through savage cuts in public spending. (As usual, the poorest people bear the brunt).

To quote a famous hymn, ‘the darkness deepens’, even though, thank God,  there are countless people in whom the light of compassion and love still burns. But this is the effect of ‘wrath’ – the consequence of marginalizing our Creator and setting our hearts on other things. In the gathering gloom, we can no longer see what matters most, or clearly distinguish truth from falsehood and illusion. (A society which has set its heart on false gods will happily settle for ‘fake news’).

In this growing crisis, the outline of a Christian programme for action becomes clearer:

  • A silent waiting on God which alone can give us the poise, the discernment and the wisdom we need.
  • A commitment to truth – the Truth which alone sets human beings free.
  • A commitment to our Creator’s ‘kingdom’ of love, justice and peace.

And the meaning of the divine wrath? Love – that is its meaning. The hour of the crucifixion of the Son of God was the hour of judgement and of atonement. For the Creator of the Universe, the mysterious ‘I AM’, the Heart of our own hearts, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is love.

The meaning and the effects of the wrath of God are the ‘flip side’ of God’s non-coercive being – the very meaning of  our own creation. When the divine DNA is stamped all over us (Genesis 1.27), how can we humans and our communities thrive when we turn our backs on love, justice and compassion?

As for Brexit, it’s time to stop the shouting, the posturing, the soundbites, and listen to each other – within the Church, within the UK , and in Brussels, too.

And listen to God, ‘Heart of our own heart’. Where is God in Christ leading us? ‘The world has not left Jesus behind; it is getting to the point where it can just see him, far ahead, blazing the trail’(3).

 

  1. Richardson, Who on Earth is God? Making Sense of God in the Bible (Bloomsbury 2014), pp.223-5).
  2. John Austin Baker, The Foolishness of God, (DLT 1970), p.348.
  3. Baker, cit. p.331.

Jesus’ use of the Old Testament

by John Howard.

Working in the Holy Land the question of the biblical understanding of the “Land” is a very significant one. In Naim Ateek’s latest book “A Palestinian Theology of Liberation,”[i] he draws attention to the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28 10-17) and the use Jesus seems to make of it in John 1 verse 51.

In the dream the writers of Genesis describe a ladder stretching from heaven to earth with angels going up and down. The story leaves Jacob conscious of the holiness of the place. Of at least equal significance is the words God in the dream says to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your father, the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring….” It is a very familiar passage, a part of the Jewish identity with the land of the western Levant.

In John 1 verse 51 Jesus says to Nathanael “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God descending upon the Son of Man.” There does seem here to be a conscious echo of the Jacob’s ladder image but there is a very unexpected difference. Where as the ladder has its “top,” heaven and its “base,” the earth, in Jesus’ words the place of the “land,” so special and sacred to the people Jesus is speaking to, is taken by “The Son of Man.” The ladder to heaven, or rather the ladder between heaven and earth is now the ladder between heaven and Jesus – not the land.

I leave aside the question of whether the change above, and the one looked at below are those of the Gospel writers or of Jesus himself, I would accept the arguments that these are very likely passages that go back to Jesus – but don’t have the space to argue that here.

Another place where Jesus adapts the Old Testament is in the passage in Luke 4, 16-19. This is the passage sometimes referred to as Jesus’ manifesto. In it Jesus is fundamentally quoting Isaiah 61verses one and two. He makes some slight changes of emphasis towards the ending of verse one, very likely conflating Isaiah 58 verse 6 with the word from 61 1. The structure of the passage is however clear – as his direct quoting of the beginning of verse two “to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favour,” makes clear. What is remarkable here is where he stops. The flow of the verse in Isaiah continues with the words “and the day of vengeance of our God.” This is a very well known passage to Jesus’ listeners. They could have quoted it to Jesus, and no doubt were doing so in their minds as Jesus read it to them. They would have continued beyond where Jesus finished – and the absence of these words from what Jesus spoke, would have spoken much more clearly than the words said themselves. Jesus it surely seems – consciously missed off the words “and the day of vengeance of our God,” as it didn’t fit into his self understanding – it was not “a part of Jesus’ manifesto.”

The common ground in these two passages is the way that Jesus seems to use two passages, very well known by his audience but adapts them for the sake of communicating his own message. He clearly feels free to change quite fundamentally what these passages mean, in the first example by placing himself – or rather “the Son of Man,” in the place of the “Land,” and by omitting the ending of the passage from Isaiah reshaping the very nature of the God the people are dedicated to – not a God of vengeance (so often this seems to be the Old Testament character of God), but it seems Jesus is having no part of it. If we have any doubt about this then we have an echo again of this a few chapters later in Luke, when in chapter 7 verse 22 Jesus again goes back to Isaiah 61 (this time in response to the questions John’s disciples ask Jesus) and again he avoids the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God.”

There is, of course, much more to study in Jesus’ use of the Old Testament, and such more extensive studies are available. My issue in this essay is the ability of Jesus to take well known passages, adapt them and as a result make very different theological points than the original passage indicated, while at the same time asserting an orthodoxy through associating with the passages at the heart of the orthodoxy of the faith. Is there here perhaps a lesson for us in the use of Scripture for issues such as same sex marriage – that seem to need a radical departure from the understandings of the past without a loss of the orthodoxy of the subject?

 

[i] Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict (2017, New York: Orbis Books)

 

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something monastic…

by Tim Baker.

There is something in the air at the moment – something connected to the New Monastic movement, something to do with a way of life, a community gathering, an opportunity to grow closer and deeper. It’s something very Methodist (though clearly borrowed from elsewhere too), entirely ancient, and yet as fresh as the sunrise. A brief glance at our monastic heritage might show us something of why it is experiencing a resurgence.

As with any church at its best, the monastic movement was born out of a combination of abstract thinking about spirituality and the practical issues of the time.  The desert fathers and mothers in Egypt around 330-460 AD were responding directly to their own encounter with God in seeking solace and poverty, but they were also escaping and rejecting the excesses of the established church, the ‘career clergy’ and the dangerous alliance of religion and state.

Monasticism raises a variety of theological issues: the interplay between individual and communal faith, the dangers of excess, an earthly ‘poverty’, silence in worship (see, for example, the Benedictine rule chapter 52), a focus on prayer and the use of liturgy.  All these reflect a theological position which involves a withdrawal from the world in order to encounter the divine.  Not all monastics, however, remain in that mode of isolation. Rather, they took the experience of God back with them into the world with a clear sense of mission.

To touch on one of these ideas – intentional worldly poverty – shows us why monasticism is helping us to stretch, regroup and ‘emerge’ as a church today. A monk’s commitment to poverty was born out of a scriptural understanding of God as ‘for’ the poor, coupled with the recognition that material things can be an obstruction to our relationship with God. Jesus in the wilderness becomes the model to emulate here: turning away from worldly things, resisting the physical temptation of food and the more abstract vices of the world – the opportunity to show off and to claim power. It’s important to note, however, that this asceticism does not represent a rejection of the body, but a desire to rediscover the interconnectedness of body, mind and spirit. In Jesus, God becomes fully human and the monastic tradition understood something of the respect for the human body that this incarnation calls us all to live up to.

In the writings of Abbot Jamison (Finding Sanctuary),[i] Joan Chittister (Monastery of the Heart)[ii] and many others, we see an application of this idea of ‘lack’ for our times.  The twenty-first century version of capitalism is more rampant and more materialistic than ever.  The age of personalised and targeted advertising (particularly prevalent on social media) pushes its materialistic message into our eyeballs all the time, trying to sell us the next solution, the next product.

We are just beginning to understand the negative mental and physical consequences of the society we have built.  There is much temptation to eat luxurious high-calorie food, or satisfy hunger with fast food and ready meals, many of which are high in salt, fat, cholesterol and sugar.  As the expendable income of the average person grows, we seem to develop new and more dangerous ways of spending it.

In this context the church needs to apply the ideas developed by the monks over a millennium – that it is important to resist the temptation of the worldly things in order to experience the divine.  As we desire material wealth for ourselves, for our chapel, for our circuit, our Connexional funds, our multi-million pound mission schemes, to need to retain a theology of poverty too. As with early monasticism, and the monastic movement at its purest throughout history, perhaps this will remain a niche idea kept alive by a minority, but my instinct is that we need it now more than ever. How can we discover again the power in choosing to go without? What would a movement towards sacrifice, towards lack, look like in your community?

To conclude, Diarmaid Maculloch in his History of Christianity points out that Monasticism always contains an element of ‘silent rebellion’, against the church but also against the excesses of society in general.[iii]  There is a great deal of monastic theology and practice to which we need to return today in order to keep that rebellion alive.  The challenge will be to keep finding ways to learn from the often-rebellious monks and begin again the revolution of going without so that we might experience in full.

 

[i] Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic steps for Everyday Life (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2006)

[ii] Joan Chittister, The Monastery of the Heart: An invitation to the meaningful life (London: SPCK, 2011)

[iii] Dairmaid Maculloch, The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009)

 

[1] Dairmaid Maculloch, The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009)

Sadhu Sundar Singh

by Inderjit Bhogal.

I first came across Sadhu Sundar Singh when, aged twenty two [1975], when I came across a photograph of him. It showed him as a bearded man, wearing a turban, a full length robe, and sandals. I took it to be a photo of a Sikh gentleman.  I was staggered when I was told he was a follower of Jesus Christ. I determined to find out as much as I could about Sadhu Sundar Singh.

Popularly known as The Sadhu [the term Sadhu means holy person], Sundar Singh wrote a number of books, and many books have been written about him. Most of the books about the Sadhu have been written by western theologians interpreting him as a great Panjabi and Hindi speaking evangelist who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was God’s gift to help hasten the “evangelisation of the world in this generation”.

My interest is in who Sadhu Sundar Singh was, what defined his spirituality, and what he had and has to say. I am intrigued by the fact that some writers have questioned whether his background and upbringing was Sikh or Hindu. An element of this puzzle entered into my mind too. His name, especially his middle name Singh is clearly of Sikh derivation. Singh is the name every Sikh male has.  It means “lion”, and goes back to the seventeenth century and specifically to the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. Singh designates Sikh.

I am researching the life of Sadhu Sundar Singh. My research has included visiting the village of Rampur, in Panjab, where Sadhu Sundar Singh was born and brought up. His descendants still live there. I like to meet with them. Most significantly I met with Harpal Singh Mangat, the great grandson of Channan Singh Mangat, the brother of Sadhu Sundar Singh. I discuss with Harpal, my primary source, whether Sadhu Sundar Singh was a Sikh or a Hindu.

Rampur is almost hundred percent populated by the wealthy Mangat family who are all Sikhs and farmers. Harpal has no doubt that Sadhu Sundar Singh was a Sikh, who was deeply influenced by his mother who respected the Sikh and the Hindu faiths, and related well to Hindu and Sikh religious leaders. His immediate family now are “Amritdhari Sikhs” [baptised Sikhs]. A photo of Sadhu Sundar Singh hangs in his family home which has become a place to visit for pilgrims like me. His family hold important memories of Sadhu Sundar Singh. They are “neutral” to Sadhu Sundar Singh, “neither proud nor embarrassed” but honour the fact that “he served Christ, and that is good”.

Sadhu Sundar Singh’s description of himself is clear. “I was born in a family that was commonly considered Sikh but in which the teaching of Hinduism was most essential”. He was familiar with the scriptures of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. He was a Biblical theologian. The reluctance of some scholars to accept his Sikh heritage may be rooted in their reluctance to acknowledge that there are people of Sikh background who have been prepared to follow other Gurus than the Ten Gurus, and the Guru Granth Sahib [the Holy Scriptures of the Sikhs acknowledged as the ultimate living Guru].

The inspiration I find in Sadhu Sundar Singh is that he followed Christ in his own way, refused to be institutionally reduced by the established Church of the western mode, courageously chose to be himself adopting a distinctively Indian spirituality and demeanour, and that he reflected Christ. The Church throughout the world was fascinated and inspired by him. His contemporaries, like his friend Rebecca Parker, commented “how like he is to Christ”.

Sadhu Sundar Singh is remembered as one of the great followers of Christ by the Church in India. He is listed among the commemorated saints and honoured on his birth and baptism date 3rd September [born 1889, baptised 1905].

In the forty three years since I first came across the photo and story of Sadhu Sundar Singh, I have found that one of my biggest challenges in church, ministry and personal life has been to be myself while many people have wanted me to be someone else. The loneliest part of my journey over the years has been that I am the only Sikh born and Panjabi Presbyter in the Methodist Church in Britain. I describe myself as a follower of Christ with roots in the Sikh faith. Sadhu Sundar Singh has been a good companion. I remind myself that Jesus’ first disciples followed him as Jews. Paul found confidence and pride in being a “Hebrew of Hebrews” [Philippians 3:5].

Thinking Teenagers

by Anne Ostrowicz.

Having just started one-to-one Theology lessons with a pupil considering studying Philosophy and Theology at university, we found ourselves discussing the first chapter of “Proverbs of Ashes” [1] which outlines six different theologies of the cross, the authors explaining the difficulties they have with some of them. For each approach I asked him what sort of God was being presented, and what sort of people it assumed we are and should be becoming. This pupil started life in a village in China to which Christianity had only newly arrived, embraced by some of the older villagers and expressed in a theology mediated by individuals with limited learning, and which endorsed the existing patriarchal social structure.

“When I came to England”, my pupil said, “I thought how very rational everything here is in contrast with life in my village. However, when I go to the Christian Union [he identifies as an atheist] I find reason, science, human experience, all sometimes abandoned. I have great trouble with the idea that two people sinning thousands of years ago somehow affects each of us today, and that God wants ‘atonement’ for our sins. Some of these other interpretations of the cross make more sense to me, but my Christian friends seem unaware of them.”

He went on to say that he was delighted to study religion at school in England but it wasn’t the intricacies of kosher, or variations in practices like eucharist, that teenagers needed to learn about. Far more meaningful to them are the fundamental ideas asserted by religion and philosophy which underly these practices, like the one we had been discussing, ideas which require deep consideration, with potentially major possibilities both for individuals and societies.

At the risk of being controversial, I mention that in the last two years there has been a government-led change in focus in RE in schools, more to learning the facts about “what people of a particular faith believe and do”, less on engaging with what I would regard as a more in-depth study and discussion of theological, ethical and philosophical concepts and issues. In many schools, numbers of pupils opting to study the subject at exam level have suffered.

Much of my own thinking has been engaged in asking, If we focus in RE on deep discussion of central ideas in religion, which concepts and ideas are really significant and of value and interest for our teenagers to study? My own list includes exploring what faith might be; where theists ultimately get their ideas from; why people believe and disbelieve; modern movements in theology to realise it is an ongoing , organic, exciting area of study, responding to political and social conditions; the  reality of the range of interpretations of a text within any one religion; some of the significant overlaps between religions; understanding the idea of what a personal, living faith might entail as well as engaging with the idea of the possibility of God as a Mover in history and in what sense this might be; exploring the concepts of forgiveness and of non-violence. As long as these concepts are grounded in a specific text, individual or event, they become something young people can understand, find genuinely stimulating and are keen to discuss.

Turning to our religious communities, I wonder if we need to think carefully here, too, on what our teenagers really need from us. Do we create an environment where they feel able to ask their deepest questions? Are we aware of how interested they are in the possibility of the existence of a spiritual reality and in what that might consist? Can faith and reason co-exist? Do we have serious study and discussion of a range of views and interpretations of issues? Do we realise how very much they are able to understand, and often need to understand in order to find enduring faith in a world with so many contrasting beliefs? Do we come alongside for a time, ultimately trusting to God’s ongoing work in their lives?

A few weeks ago I found myself with some of my sixth-form pupils in Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie, standing in front of Rembrandt’s powerful painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel at Jabbok [2]. This ‘wrestling’ with questions of spirituality and morality seems fundamental to humanness, to the way we acquire understanding, appreciation and eventually wisdom. And that includes teenagers!  Satish Kumar writes, “There is no destination outside the journey” [3].   Wherever we encounter teenagers, may we give them the best spiritual journey possible.

 

[1] Proverbs of Ashes, Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Beacon Press, 2001

[2] Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Rembrandt, 1659, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin

[3] Earth Pilgrim, Satish Kumar, Green Books, 2009, page 23

Stillness

by Roger Walton.

Methodist Conference is often known for interspersing its debates and conversations with exuberant singing.  In recent years, we have added video, dance, drama and, what one liturgist has named, ‘generous silences’.

This year’s Conference included several invitations to enter into a period of silent prayer but, once the noise of people talking and the shuffling of papers, bags and chairs ceased, we discovered that rather than entering into silence, we become aware of a background wind-like sound, whistling gently around the hall.  It was probably something to do with the ventilation but was interpreted by some, metaphorically, as the breath of the Spirit among us.  This was an evocative thought but it made me realise that silence was not an accurate description of what we were doing.  We were not in silence; but we were still.  We were practising stillness.

Stillness is not an easy concept in Methodism.  John Wesley was distrustful of the ‘doctrine of stillness’ or Quietism, which he encountered in the Fetter Lane Society around 1740.   This was the notion put forward by the Moravian preacher, Philip Molther, urging members to wait passively for the gift of faith and to abstain from the means of grace until they had received it.  Wesley rejected this idea believing that the Lord’s Supper and other ‘means’ were converting ordinances and accepting the earlier advice of another Moravian, Peter Böhler, to ‘preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.’  Molther’s view of stillness caused John Wesley to separate from the Fetter Lane Society and, despite some lines in Charles Wesley’s hymns advocating waiting on God, the implicit ecclesiology forming in the 18th century fresh expression of Church called Methodism was activist.

Methodists are perceived as being activist in social, political, ecumenical and evangelistic spheres.  Our churches are often busy places.  Our ministers are busy people. Our Calling delineates discipleship in activist terms – worship, service, learning and caring, and evangelism.   Even our prayers are activist – we want things to happen.  As a result, stillness does not come naturally to us.  A two-minute silence, in a regular act of worship, is hard for us to hold and most preachers ‘bottle out’ before the time is up.

In Hebrew, there are several words translated into English as ‘silence’ or ‘stillness’.  The two texts that are most often translated as an exhortation ‘to be still’ are Psalm 37.7 and Psalm 46.10.  Two different Hebrew words are used.   In Psalm 37, the word means something like ‘motionlessness’. It is used to describe the sun standing still in Joshua 10.12.  It conjures up the experience of staring at a beautiful scene or gazing at a work of art and losing track of time.

In Psalm 46, the widely quoted phrase ‘be still and know I am God’ uses a different Hebrew word.  This too means being still but it has a slightly different set of connotations.  It carries a sense of being at ease, even being lazy, relaxing or sinking into the reality of God, because all things are safe in God’s hands and God is at our side.  Imagine sitting quietly in the presence of someone you love, with no need to speak, and you get the idea.

Both texts invite us to focus on and wait on God.

The other place where we find ‘stillness’, is 1 Kings 19, the famous passage about Elijah on Mount Horeb.  Following God’s absence from the wind, fire and earthquake, there is something else.  The preferred translation of v10 currently is ‘the sheer sound of silence’.  Previously it was rendered ‘a gentle breeze’, ‘a quiet whisper’ or ‘a still small voice’.  The truth is that the verse is difficult to translate.  The word at the heart of it is a word that speaks of calm after a storm or stillness when all sound is removed.  You might translate it ‘an intense stillness’.  Interestingly, at this moment of stillness God speaks again and Elijah know exactly what he has to do next.  The action becomes clear.

When I taught student ministers in training in Durham alongside Roman Catholics, my Catholic colleagues would recognise and admire our activist spirituality but described their own in terms of ‘contemplatives who take action’.  In other words, those who wait on God are shaped by that contemplation and then, as a response, take action in the world.  Quakers takes a similar approach.  In the spirit of receptive ecumenism, we might have something to learn here.

Spirit clothed with humanity

by George Bailey.

I did not know anything about Samuel Chadwick (1860-1932) until I joined Cliff College four years ago. He was a prominent Wesleyan minister with a passion for evangelism, stationed for 16 years in Leeds, and influential principal of Cliff College from 1913 until his death.

Chadwick’s theological focus was the Holy Spirit – how does the Spirit empower us for prayer, holiness and following Christ? The way he saw the life of the Spirit in individuals provokes questions about our collective church experience of the Spirit.

Chadwick called for rediscovery of the Holy Spirit as the focus of personal encounter with God and the essential agent in our transformation by grace towards holiness. One of the ways Chadwick often does this is unusual. Novelty in theology may be problematic, or may be fruitful… I am not completely sure about this one, but I am enjoying its suggestive possibilities. Chadwick promotes an unusual reading of Judges 6:34, based on a marginal note in the 1885 Revised Version translation: “the Spirit of the Lord clothed Himself with Gideon.” This is referring to a possible reading of the Hebrew which is usually disregarded in favour of a more normal English rendering, hence: “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon” (KJV, cf NIV), or, reflecting both perspectives, “the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” (NRSV).

Chadwick applies this clothing image to the life of ordinary Christians. The Spirit is, on this reading, a primary mover in the life of the person whom the Spirit takes as clothing. In the life and lifestyle of the Christian, we see the Spirit. He also applies this wearing of humanity by the Spirit to understand the incarnation, and so, through Christological models, maintains distinction between the Spirit and the individual. His theology of the incarnation goes together with his theology of Spirit-led sanctification.

“Spirit clothing itself with humanity is the miracle of the Incarnation. A body is as necessary to the Spirit as to the Son. For the Son a Body was prepared by the Spirit; for the Spirit a Body is made possible by the Son. The Spirit lived in and through Gideon. The life of Gideon became the life of the Spirit. The man was endued and the Spirit was clothed. The Spirit thought through Gideon’s brain, felt through Gideon’s heart, looked through Gideon’s eyes, spake through Gideon’s voice, wrought by Gideon’s hands, and yet all the time Gideon was still Gideon and the Spirit was still the Spirit.”[i]

Just one significant aspect of this argument is the ecclesiological implications. We know the Holy Spirit by looking at each other – the Spirit is in the church. Great expectation is placed upon church life – the way we live together has the potential to reveal the Spirit at work; equally, we could quench the Spirit (cf 1 Thess 5:19). As each person is able to be open to the Spirit, diversity and equality are central principles. Yet church life, if Spirit-led, also has divine direction and purpose. How is direction discerned? 1 Corinthians 12 helps – though all are equal before God, not all receive the same gifts; some gifts of the Spirit to particular people help guide and shape the church’s direction.

Such issues will be in Methodist minds this week as Conference meets; how do we select people for leadership positions, what authority do we give them and how does the Spirit work through them? The life of the Spirit in the church includes both the sum total (or is it multiplication?) of the relationships between the Spirit and each individual, and also specific endowments of gifts for leadership (cf Eph. 4:11) which offer direction to the church. Our structures need to recognise, encourage, and control each of these impulses; both hearing from everyone and also listening to Spirit-given counsel. British Methodist ecclesial structures are generally weighted in favour of collegial democratic listening and less towards “personal aspects of oversight.”[ii] There are legitimate concerns that maintain this position, ably expressed in this blog by Roberta Topham a few weeks ago. However, can the anticipation that our leaders will be indwelt as if the Spirit was wearing a garment, as the Spirit put on Gideon, encourage us to seek new ways to ask the Lord to guide through appointed people? God did not give the same gift to all the Israelites and then hold a vote to decide direction, but chose one person to be led, and so to lead, by the Spirit. Discerning those being enabled to lead by the Spirit is a task for the whole Spirit-filled church and needs to be a process which listens equally and without prejudice to all voices – but it also needs to then release and empower people to exercise Spirit-gifts of leadership for the good of the church and the world.

Chadwick was president of the Wesleyan Methodist conference in 1918-19, a year dominated by recovery from the war, and the discernment of social action and evangelism sensitive to that context, led by the Spirit. Perhaps his call for the church to deepen engagement with the Holy Spirit could help us in our context?

“It is for the Church to explore the resources of the Spirit. The resources of the world are futile. The resources of the Church within herself are futile. In the fullness of the Spirit there is an abundance of wisdom, resources, and power; but a human-managed, world-annexing, priest-pretending Church can never save the world or fulfil the mission of Christ.”[iii]

 

[i] Samuel Chadwick, Way to Pentecost, Sheffield: Cliff College Publishing (1996), p.51

[ii] The Mission and Ministry in Covenant Proposals §39c

[iii] Way to Pentecost, p. 18 (altered: “human-managed” replacing “man-managed”)