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.

Walking with Micah along the road of institutional injustices!

by Paul Nzacahayo.

I smiled to myself the other day when I heard the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in conversation with Stephen King, referring to one of his predecessors, Michael Ramsey, who used to start his day by banging his head on his desk repeating ‘I hate the Church of England’. I couldn’t help it but ask: ‘What had the Church of England done to him? If he hated the church that much, why didn’t he resign and leave the church?’

Justin Welby was speaking about his predecessor in the context of a conversation about the church being a flawed institution. This coincided with something I had been grappling with since my colleague, Dr Carlton Turner, presented a paper in which he spoke about Christianity being toxic. This was in reference to its entanglement with abhorrent systems such as slavery, and colonialism which have left indelible and torturous mark on human history.  My colleague referred to the colonial Christianity and its impact on both the colonizers and colonized; and argued that missionary Christianity served and continues to serve the interests of the colonizers with terrible consequences on the lives of the colonized, who were marginalized and dehumanized by the process.

It has been argued that Christianity spread through the world as part of the colonial agenda, and there is ample evidence to support this. At the same time, I would want to recognize the good that many Christian missionaries sought to do. The church is able to share God’s love with people across the globe: educational facilities from primary schools all the way up to university, and health care facilities from small local medical centres to big hospitals, are good examples of this. For some of us, without missionary education we wouldn’t be where we are. I attended church primary and secondary schools; the cost of my theological training for ministry was paid by the church; and when I came to Edinburgh University for my master’s and doctoral studies I was funded by a German Christian organisation. On the other hand, I also know that within church institutions harmful or toxic attitudes, traditions and beliefs have become entrenched. Over a long period of time, such beliefs and practices have become accepted as ‘common sense’ or ‘normal behaviour’ even though they might marginalize and demonize certain groups of people. 

That is my dilemma; and I wonder whether Archbishop Michael Ramsey faced that dilemma every morning when he sat down at his desk. Perhaps he had in his office something that reminded him of where the church as an institution had fallen short. I am sure there was something there or within him that reminded him of the beauty of the gospel imperatives and the ideal of God’s kingdom that the church is called to live out. It is this capacity for the church to be a curse to some and a blessing to others; to be unjust to a group of people and to be fair and just to another, which calls for a dynamic theological discourse.

Micah asks the question: ‘what does God require?’; and he answers his own question saying: ‘to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’. I like the image of ‘walking with God’ which assumes a constant movement in which new insights and understanding lead to deeper faith and growth. In the context of my colleague’s paper, walking with Micah might mean being aware of how much colonial thinking has impacted us as both colonized and colonizers, has shaped our behavior today, and will continue to shape our thinking in the years to come. This is what some scholars have called inherited coloniality in which the former colonized continues to unconsciously feel psychologically bound to the colonizer with behavioral signs to prove this.

Inherited Christianity or inherited church or even inherited theology is flawed and toxic with potential to damage as well as potential to be a blessing which can heal and bring new life.  Therefore, Micah’s focus on doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly is a challenging call for the church. How do you walk humbly as an institution? Methodists have been criticized for being obsessed with committees; but I happen to think sometimes that is the only way an issue can be considered in its angles and facets. I am thinking of the Methodist Church’s Faith and Order committee for instance, which scrutinizes established practices and beliefs to make sure they still stand up to the principles of God’s kingdom. If new insights and understandings are translated into action and not left to gather dust in minutes and reports, or hidden in the cloud of online storage, then this is also doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.  For leaders, if doing justice and walking humbly means you daily face the failings of the church in way that makes you bang your head on your desk, that is a price worth paying for institutional injustices to be dealt with.

Celebrating Easter when it still feels like Good Friday

by Will Fletcher.

The inspiration for this post came whilst talking with my father-in-law, a supernumerary minister, in the days following Easter Day.

For personal reasons, I’ve found myself this last year reflecting on, and identifying with, the suffering Christ. I’ve discovered great comfort being in churches with a crucifix, whether physical or in stained glass, on which to meditate. They stand in great contrast to the Methodist churches with, at most, an empty cross. Through this year in personal circumstance, national and world events, it has been reassuring to reflect upon Christ entering into the suffering of our world.

This made it easier to prepare for Holy Week and Good Friday as we journeyed with Christ on that path to the cross. The cry of ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ felt more natural, than the triumphant ‘It is finished.’

The jump from Good Friday to Easter Day felt, this year at least, far too short. The situations in my life and in the world, hadn’t changed in those couple of days, so how could we suddenly switch to ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen!’? We were celebrating Easter, but so much seemed to scream that it was still Good Friday.

As I have begun reflecting on this (and this is only an early reflection, rather than a more rounded conclusion), I have appreciated more those early Easter experiences. The possible original ending of Mark’s Gospel in 16.8 with the women, having heard from the men in dazzling outfits that Jesus is risen, fleeing in terror and saying nothing to anyone; Luke’s account of the women being disbelieved by the eleven disciples, and then Peter looking in the empty tomb before going away to ponder what he had seen. As the disciples woke on that first Easter Day, they were still trying to process all that had happened on Good Friday, and a joyous Easter Day celebration hadn’t been on their radar. Maybe there needs to be more space within our Easter celebrations for that wondering and processing that isn’t all ‘Alleluias’ and smiles.

I value having a season of Easter. We don’t have to cram the whole of our Easter celebration into one day; making that huge shift from Good Friday lamenting, to Easter celebration in one go. It acknowledges that there may be different stages of the journey through this season, and things may not all be magically resolved at the end of it.

Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus from the cross in Mark’s Gospel, begins with that cry of despair – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It doesn’t sound very appropriate for Easter, but may provide a pattern for how we travel through this time when we don’t feel the full force of Easter joy. Those faithful people of God who heard Jesus’ cry would likely have known that the psalm doesn’t remain in such a desperate tone. Instead, the psalmist continues to believe, despite their current circumstances, that one day God will respond and rescue, and that they will come again to praise God in the great congregation. They remember God’s action in the past, and trust in that memory for future hope. In rediscovering the form of lament in our worship, we may find ways of expressing hope even in the midst of despair, and acknowledging the new life of Easter, even in the midst of feeling the trouble of Good Friday.  

Finally, I wonder whether an adaptation of another Christian tradition may help those who struggle at this time. Christians have been encouraged to see every Sunday as a ‘mini-Easter,’ celebrating that new life of Christ each week of the year. However, I wonder whether in a similar spirit, we might consider marking each Friday as a ‘mini-Good Friday.’ There are some Christian traditions who fast every Friday to remember Christ’s Passion. We may not go to that extent, but we may wish to use each Friday in some way to mark the pain, suffering and brokenness in our lives or in the life of our world. This can remind us that it is okay not to be okay, or not to be full of happiness all the time.

The empty crosses and focus on the resurrection speak a powerful message to all who come into our churches or join us in worship. But maybe we need to make more space to remember the suffering Christ, and to acknowledge the realities of Good Friday in our lives and in our world, even as we take part in our Easter celebrations.

Puzzles

by Frances Young.

The first time I met the man who has been my husband for over 50 years he and a friend were doing a Guardian cryptic crossword. I sat on the touchlines making somewhat caustic comments – to my linguistically-trained mind the tricks and conventions were just ridiculous! But then I had never been any good at puzzles, outshone by younger siblings, fearful of failure – though I suppose some would have thought I was doing puzzles all the time as I struggled to read and write Greek and Latin. No – I was never a puzzler! Yet late in life I’ve discovered Sudoku and Codewords and have to discipline myself not to get addicted and waste all day on them… They are definitely therapeutic, certainly a distraction from pressures and anxieties, a better accompaniment than reading to listening to music – you really can listen… And they say, there’re a possible antidote to dementia, a serious consideration in one’s 80s! Puzzles are to be celebrated.

But should we treat Scripture as puzzles deliberately set for us by the Holy Spirit? Believe it or not that is exactly what significant Christian theologians of the third and fourth centuries did think. I wonder if they might be onto something.

Augustine, the great theologian of the Western Church, whose life spanned the fall of the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, composed a treatise On Christian Teaching. It was essentially about interpreting and communicating scripture. He knew all about teaching classical literature – professionally he had been a rhetor, an educator, before his conversion. He had been one of those cultured despisers of the scriptures – they lacked style, being written in awful translationese, and were thoroughly alien and strange. But once a priest and bishop he devoted himself to making sense of them. He could then exemplify their natural eloquence and wisdom, while admitting that in places it was hard work to find it. Problems and ambiguities of many kinds were presented to the casual reader, “so thick is the fog created by some obscure phrases.”

I have no doubt that this is all divinely predetermined, so that pride may be subdued by hard work and intellects which tend to despise things that are easily discovered may be rescued from boredom and reinvigorated.

No one disputes that it is much more pleasant to learn lessons presented through imagery, and much more rewarding to discover meanings that are won only with difficulty… In both situations the danger is lethargy. It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organised the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscure ones. Virtually nothing is unearthed from these obscurities which cannot be found quite plainly expressed somewhere else.
(De Doctrina Christiana II.6-7)

This kind of attitude did not come out of the blue. In the East the first great biblical scholar, Origen, had, more than a century earlier, suggested that the aim of the Spirit was to conceal the truth:

The word of God arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted in the midst of the law and the history… for the sake of the more skilful and enquiring readers… By giving up themselves to the toil of examining what is written [they will discover] a meaning worthy of God.
(De Principiis IV.2.8)

He thought the prophecies “are filled with riddles” and the aporiai (puzzles) were intended to move readers into seeking deeper meanings.

All this may seem rather surprising, but in fact it helped to get a hearing in the culture of the time, and eased acceptance of this “barbarian” collection of books. How it helped is illuminated by the essays of Plutarch (a pagan thinker) discussing oracles: philosophers attributed such prophetic phenomena to the workings of providence, but also recognised they were often very enigmatic. Plutarch suggested that the god deliberately posed problems in the form of riddles or puzzles so as to create a craving for knowledge of the divine. The culture encouraged the idea of revelatory concealment, of hidden mysteries. No wonder then that the entire Old Testament was treated as a system of prophetic symbols and riddles pointing to Christ, if only you worked hard at teasing them out.

So to my questions for today: how do we find a way to encourage contemporary “cultured despisers” to try reading the Bible? And do puzzles have a theological purpose?

Take Art: Light Emerging from Dark and Dwelling

by Inderjit Bhogal.

The story of creation in Genesis affirms the place of both light and darkness (Genesis 1:1-5).  The light that God creates does not eradicate darkness. In fact, a new day begins, in Hebrew understanding, with evening, with darkness. I like that. Life begins in darkness. Day begins with darkness.

This presentation flows from my passion to achieve justice for refugees. Around 1000 refugees a day are coming in to Italy and Spain. At least 1200 of them died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2020, and over 1800 in 2021. There are many refugees who want to return home when it is safe to do so.

Before colours were developed and used in art, artists worked with black to make all art. This is certainly true in India. A friend in India taught me to draw, using Indian Ink only. All images emerge from black. (a number of short films on YouTube illustrate this). As you read, I suggest black line drawings to illustrate my words.

My favourite word is “dwell”. In my view “dwell” sums up, and is the key to unlocking the message in the Gospel according to St John. It is a frequently used word in the Gospel. It will repay close study, beginning with the use of the word in Chapter 1:14 where we read, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us”.

The word translated “dwelt” is the Greek word from the root skenos which gives us a picture of a tent (here, draw a tent). It is translated as “shelter” in Revelations 7:15. It is the word we find in the Septuagint text of Exodus 25:8 where we read God’s request to Moses.

“Have them build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them”.

So, John 1:14 literally speaks of God pitching a tent in the midst of humanity. God wants to take sanctuary among people. A tent is a good image. It shows God travelling and pitching with people in all their travels. It is intriguing that Churches use the image of a boat as an image of Church.

Many years ago I read a book called Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann where the author gives two images of Church. A Boat and an Arrow. There are, of course, many other models or images of Church.

The Boat image is used in the logo of many church organisations (draw a boat). Where does the idea of a boat to symbolise church come from? Noah’s Ark which is focussed on salvation resulting from getting into the ark. The mission of the church is to rescue people from the choppy waters of life for eternal salvation. Only those who get into this boat will be saved. The Arrow image speaks more of a movement, and direction. (draw an arrow)

Images of Boats are very much in the news. Creaky, leaky, overcrowded boats carrying refugees desperate for safety and sanctuary. Many boats overturn. Many people perish. Many refugee people crossing seas have drowned in the last year.

Overturned boats give a different image to contemplate (draw an overturned boat). It looks like the roof of a house or shelter. This is the plea of people escaping danger and threat to life.

The word ecumenical comes from the word Oikumene (from the root Oikos, house) meaning household of God. The household of God includes all people, all created order. This is what God wants to save, according to the image of the covenant we read in Genesis 9 in the story of Noah.

This brings me to the logo of City of Sanctuary which shows two people standing beside each other, holding hands which are raised between them to head height making an arch or a roof of a shelter, a dwelling (draw the City of Sanctuary logo).

This logo brings us back to the image of a tent, a shelter, a sanctuary. There is an Irish Celtic proverb which reads, “it is in the shelter of each other that the people will live”. This is the heart of the City of Sanctuary idea and movement.

I am trying to encourage churches to explore this idea, and to develop and promote the concept of Church of Sanctuary. This includes a commitment to ensure communities and congregations of worship work and pray together to build, embed and promote cultures of welcome, hospitality and safety for all. And to do this with pride.

Make your place of worship a sanctuary where all are treated with warm welcome, generous hospitality and protection from harm. A Christian symbol of this is Holy Communion, (draw a picture of Rublev’s Trinity of Holy Communion) a revelation of the world as it is meant to be, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where all are welcome and valued equally, and where no one is excluded or made to feel like an outsider.

There is more of this line of thought in my book Hospitality and Sanctuary for All (available from me or CTBI).

Questions:

  1. When and how does the day begin for you? With the dark or with the light or even another time?
  2. What do you think of the notion of ‘sanctuary’? How may our churches become places of shelter and sanctuary for people post the pandemic?

Good and Bad Theology – and Why They Matter

by Richard Clutterbuck.

It’s fifty years since I first ‘caught’ theology. In 1972 I failed some university exams, dropped out of my biology course and began the journey that would lead to ordained ministry and a lifetime as a student and teacher of theology. I can still remember the buzz from first reading John Macquarrie’s  Principles of Christian Theology. I settled on systematic theology and Christian doctrine as my main areas of study and teaching. In other words, I’ve been interested in reflecting on the main affirmations of Christian faith, the ways we hand these on from generation to generation and the connections we can make between different affirmations and the world we live in.

This means that I see things rather differently from Andrew Pratt (The illogicality of faith, March 28th).  He worries that an over-emphasis on creeds and faith-as-affirmation has blunted Christianity as a way of living out the lordship of Christ in the world. I think I see what he means, but from my perspective, creeds and doctrines do matter, not least because they have a profound effect on the way we understand the world and act within it. Bad theology is one element in the perversion of human behaviour, prompting and underpinning evil deeds with divine sanction. By contrast, good theology, sound Christian doctrine, helps to underwrite a way of life that models itself on Christ. Two contemporary examples illustrate this.

The first is very close to home. In an essay in The Guardian[i], to mark the recent Netflix documentary on Jimmy Savile, Mark Lawson wrote about Savile’s distorted theology of salvation and its part in his horrendous catalogue of sexual abuse. Savile, a life-long committed Roman Catholic, believed in a God who judges us according to the balance of our behavioural accounts. We are admitted to heaven if our tally of good deeds is longer than our list of sins. His frantic charity work, fund-raising, sponsored runs and cycle rides, were all part of a desperate attempt to compensate for the abusive actions that he knew were wrong. He really seemed to believe that he could earn his place in heaven by – as it were – bribing God to ignore the many sins he had committed. Repentance, mercy and grace do not seem to have been part of his theological vocabulary.

The second example is even more current. Several observers have noted that Vladimir Putin’s hostility towards Ukraine is at least partly driven by a theology and spirituality that legitimises aggression. According to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine[ii], this theology combines a belief in the divine inspiration and vocation of the Russian nation with a Manichaean mindset, setting a virtuous, godly Russia in opposition to the dark and evil West.  While there may be an element of political expediency in Putin’s religiosity, it does seem that this mystical nationalism is a genuine conviction. Once again, bad theology is linked in with disastrously immoral and destructive action.

Now, I don’t want to argue that believing in the traditional creeds will guarantee a life of righteousness and responsibility – there are far too many counter-examples for me to do that. But they are part of the story of faith, which is always a combination of belief and action. Last Saturday – Easter Eve – I joined the congregation in my local parish church for the Easter vigil. As part of the service we re-affirmed our baptismal vows, confessing our faith in the words of the historic creeds, and at the same time we renounced evil and promised to follow Christ.

Let me briefly mention two authors who can help us see the relevance of doctrinal affirmations. The first is the American theologian, Ellen Charry. In By the Renewing of Your Minds [iii](one of my all-time favourite books on doctrine) she takes examples of doctrinal controversy and developments in each stage of Christian history, from the New Testament to the present. In each case (for example, the trinitarian theology of St Augustine) she shows how doctrine is presented in order to promote a vision of the Christian life, not simply as a form of abstract speculation.

My other example is a contemporary British Methodist theologian, David Clough. Clough (a fellow contributor to Theology Everywhere) has made the focus of his work the Christian approach to non-human creation, particularly animals.  In On Animals[iv], he takes some of the central affirmations of Christian doctrine, creation, reconciliation and redemption, and helps us see how they can direct our attitudes and behaviour towards animals.

So, let’s not abandon the creeds, or water down the key affirmation of Christian faith. Instead, let’s make sure that we don’t separate doctrine from discipleship. They really do belong together.


[i] The Guardian, April 1st, 2022.

[ii] https://risu.ua/en/russian-world-20-and-putins-spirituality_n126473 , accessed 16-04-22.

[iii] Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds, The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, New York, Oxford, 1997.

[iv] On Animals: Systematic Theology: Volume I: London, T&T Clark, 2012

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