Theology’s Relevance to Today’s Teenagers

by Anne Ostrowicz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Gospel

by Richard Saunders-Hindley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[ii] Holland, Dominion, 524-5.

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

A SCATTERED CHURCH

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

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

by Tom Stuckey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions:

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

 

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

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

Saying Yes and Saying No

by Ed Mackenzie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Spirituality in a hard place

by James Morley.

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

Hild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hild for today

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

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

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

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

A prayer

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

 

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

What do we ‘celebrate’?

by Angie Allport.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergence

by Tim Baker.

Much has been said or written over the years about the emerging church.

Perhaps the Biblical image that most clearly comes to mind when we hear the word ‘emerging’ is that of the flood in Genesis 11. In that flood, Noah, his family and his ark emerge from the floodwaters, floating on an ark. These few people are then tasked with a rebuild, with reimagining a new world, a new-normal.

What is emerging from the floodwaters of coronavirus in 2020? We have seen our way of life, our societies, infrastructure, and our whole world submerged under this pandemic flood. And perhaps it is shocking to us that our church was not granted an ark to float above the waters of the pandemic, but rather we found ourselves submerged with the rest of the world.

Many of us have lost friends, family, or are left grieving. Everything is changed and we have found these new circumstances immensely challenging and difficult. Perhaps too, we have learned that all is not well with our world and our church. In this time of coronavirus, as a virus has swept the globe, we have had brought home to us the injustices that underlay much of our society, and indeed our world. There are many cushions and barriers that I have been able to put up against the virus: a comfortable, safe house with a decent WiFi connection, supermarket deliveries, Amazon Prime (I’d like to say other next-day-delivery superstores were available, but they are not really are they?!) and the reassurance that the amazing NHS will be available if I or my family do fall ill. Many in our society, and all around the globe, do not have the same luxury. The very fact that death rates have been higher amongst black communities – alongside the structural and violent racism that has been revealed by the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement – demonstrates just how far we are from an equal society.

In my lockdown-experience, one of the things that emerged from the waters has been a much more online, digitally savvy church. Yes, there have been mistakes, plenty of cringe-moments and lots of things we’ll chalk up to ‘learning on the job’. But, alongside that has come a whole host of remarkable experiences. The miles have disappeared as I’ve joined prayer meetings in Dubai and shared with a congregations in Exeter, Glasgow and the Isle of Man without leaving my study. The boundaries of self preservation have been submerged by the flood waters (in some places!) and we’ve seen collaboration across circuits, districts, regions and nations. Change begins in a crisis.

What will emerge?

What will be submerged?

What do we need to preserve, protect and promote?

What do we need to grieve well and let go of?

What – like structural racism – do we need to find ways to banish altogether?

These are not questions with easy answers, and the rebuilding will be messy. The chapters of Genesis that follow the Great Flood are not smooth. There is shame, there are family feuds, there are power-struggles. We have to expect all of that too, in the days and weeks to come.

In this new world, may a new church emerge, as its has kept emerging for 2,000 years – a new church for a new normal.

Waiting expectantly and unseen footprints

by Ruth Gee.

In the Methodist Conference in 2013 I introduced the theme that was the focus for my year of service as President of the Conference, “Waiting expectantly for glimpses of glory.” I believed then and believe now that the expectation that God is with them in every part of life and death is distinctive and foundational for followers of Jesus. Such an expectation can only exist when a person knows God so well that, in the best of times and in the worst of times, the presence of God can be discerned or sometimes is simply believed. This knowledge of God is rooted and grounded in scripture, tradition, reason and experience and is nourished through worship, prayer, bible study and fellowship.

It was my intention to unpack this theme through the year so that, by the opening of the Conference in 2014, we would have explored the deepest dimensions of waiting expectantly and glimpsing glory in the most unexpected places. There was some opportunity to explore this dimension as I reflected on walls in Jerusalem and Belfast, met people in the districts and overseas and challenged injustice. However, the presidential year is not linear and it is difficult to develop a theme when every encounter is new.

I now find myself drawn back to the theme of expectant waiting as we live through pandemic and face the acute question, where now do I glimpse the glory of God?

I am writing this whilst on leave and separated from my library so I am drawing on memory, lived experience and two books published as an immediate response to the pandemic: Virus and Summons to Faith (Walter Brueggemann), God and the Pandemic (Tom Wright).

Brueggemann points to Psalm 77 and identifies the progression of the psalmist from self-concern (vv1-9) through recognition of new questions (v10) to dependence on God (vv11-20). In the final verses of the psalm we are reminded of the ways in which God has been known in the past and of the inscrutability of God. I reflected further on the penultimate verse in which the psalmist declares,

Your way was through the sea,
your path through the mighty waters:
yet your footprint was unseen. (v.19)

The waters and the storm represent the chaos that threatens to overwhelm and annihilate, the void before God’s presence and creative work (Gen 1:1), even here the psalmist affirms that God is present, though unseen.

In Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45-51) Jesus walked through the mighty waters of the storm and curiously “intended to pass them by” (Mk 6:48). They were struggling against an adverse wind, they were in danger from the storm, but the real danger was that they would fail to recognise that God was with them, would fail to glimpse the glory of God as Jesus passed by[1]. The disciples needed to realise that God was with them even in the storm and even when it was difficult to recognise God.

In this time of pandemic, this time of mourning, fear and righteous anger, the glory of God is passing by, God is with us and can be seen in the glimpses of glory. Those glimpses though are not necessarily what we or those in our community can be tempted to expect. Divine intervention to dramatically end the pandemic so that it disappears one day like a miracle (as implied by Donald Trump) is unlikely not only because our reason and experience suggests this but because those who know Christ know that this is not the way in which God works.

God does not intervene from afar, picking times for dramatic effect. God moves among us and in and through us. God weeps with us as Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus and in Gethsemane. Both Brueggemann and Wright remind us of the theme of groaning with particular reference to texts from Romans chapters 6 and 8. To summarise briefly and inadequately and offering my own reflection, groaning and travail is inescapable and cannot be explained away or glossed over with clichés about good that results from disaster. Pain and disaster are painful and disastrous, and this has to be recognised. We who follow Jesus are sent as he was sent (John 20:21). We are sent to suffer alongside, to be with others and in that suffering, sharing and companionship to be living examples of the love of God in Christ so that the world may glimpse the glory of God as it passes by. We are called to be alongside and we are called to challenge the many injustices that have become even more clear at this time. This is how God works, by being among us and with us, and through us working for all things to hold together for good.

I glimpse the glory of God in the midst of the pandemic in the prayers of others for me in my bereavement, in the daily lives of Christians working in their community, in those who weep with others and hold their hands, in those who challenge injustice because in all these things and others God comforts, consoles, weeps and challenges.

Sometimes the footprints are unseen but we can wait expectantly and with confidence for those glimpses of glory.

 

 

[1] One reference to the Glory of God passing by as an indication of the real presence of God is found in Exodus 33:17-23

And are we yet alive?

by Carolyn Lawrence.

The opening hymn at the annual Methodist Conference begins with the words, ‘And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?’  This hymn held extra poignancy at this year’s conference as most members were meeting via Zoom and we didn’t see each other’s faces very much at all!

The question in this verse is a good one to ask ourselves as individuals and as churches.  ‘And are we yet alive?’  These words got me thinking about what it means to be alive.  The theme for the Presidential year 2020-2021 is about growth, personally and corporately, and in order to grow, something, or someone needs to actually be alive!

According to the BBC Bitesize website there are seven characteristics of living organisms and I think they can help us reflect on whether or not we and our churches are alive.

Living organisms have the following characteristics in common:

Movement

The name, the Methodist Movement suggests something that is not standing still.  John Wesley didn’t intend to leave the Anglican Church but Methodism gradually evolved into a distinct denomination.  This pattern has been repeated throughout the history of the Church as groups beginning as a living, moving entity, soon settle and become as set in their ways as the group from which they tried to escape.  Wesley is quoted as saying:

‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.’

Within our churches and as individuals, I wonder if we have the form of religion without the power of the Holy Spirit to help us move and pulse with life?

Reproduction

A few years ago the Methodist Council recognized that the greatest risk to the church was its inability to reproduce by new making disciples and that the church would cease to exist.

My heart is very much that of an evangelist and I love to encourage people to share their own faith with others.  I believe it’s possible for ordinary Christians to share the love of Jesus in ways that are not cringy, embarrassing, weird or dogmatic and that we need to learn to be natural in the way we share our faith.

As churches and individuals, do we feel able to naturally share Jesus with others?  When was the last time someone became a new Christian in our churches?

Sensitivity

Living things have the sensitivity to detect stimuli and respond to them.  Often as Christians and as churches we can lack sensitivity to the needs of others and can become so focussed on our own lives and the practical issues around running churches that we can miss the needs of those around us.

I wonder if as individuals and churches we are inward looking or are we sensitive to those we meet and prepared to listen to their stories and show God’s love to them.

Growth

Before the lockdown I had the great privilege of visiting the Methodist Church in Brazil where the church is growing at an amazing rate – from 167,000 members in 2010 to a current membership of 275,000 and still growing.  The key principles of growth in Brazil are lessons that I believe we need to learn in the church in the UK and I hope to share some of these in the coming months.

Living things naturally grow, so I believe that if our churches are alive and thriving we will see spiritual and numerical growth.

Respiration

As Christians and churches, are we open to the breath of the Holy Spirit to cleanse, energise, empower and enable us to live in a way that brings honour to God and extends his Kingdom on the earth?

Excretion

Often in our churches and our own lives, there are unwanted, waste products that we need to get rid of in order to be healthy.  We need to regularly come before God and allow the light of the Holy Spirit to show us where we need to repent and ask for forgiveness so that we don’t carry these harmful thoughts, words and deeds and through them cause damage to ourselves, others and the cause of the Gospel.

Nutrition

I’m often astounded by the lack of Bible knowledge within our churches and even amongst some of our leaders and amazed at how few people have actually read the whole Bible during their lives.  In Brazil and in churches in other nations I have witnessed a real hunger for the feeding from God’s word and I pray for this appetite within our own nation.  My prayer is that we will hunger and thirst after righteousness and allow Jesus to have the throne within our own lives and within the lives of our churches.

So these are the seven characteristics of living things and I close with the question with which I began, for your reflection and meditation: ‘And are we yet alive?’

Universal Design for Church Life

by George Bailey.

I have been interested in the concept of Universal Design since first encountering it when learning about Higher Education course design. The basic idea is that whereas, previously, design began with some supposed ‘normal’ person in mind and then adjusted things if necessary for other people (or too often, failed to adjust), instead everything should be designed with everyone in mind. Since appreciating this, I have aspired for the background colour of all my slides to be maximally helpful for as wide as possible a range of both visual and cognitive diversity – however, usually I just have to settle for a certain shade of cream. Universal Design is an intuitively sensible idea, but the challenges and complexities both of its development and its application defy simple analysis and undermine merely enthusiastic unsophisticated efforts, as illustrated by my inadequate struggles with cream…. or is it ivory?

These complexities are comprehensively uncovered by Aimi Hamraie in a book which explores the history of the concept from the mid to late twentieth century and then the various ways it has been appropriated into mainstream discourse in the USA.[i] Universal Design was originally intended to bring disabled designers to the fore not just of accessible design adjustments or ‘retro-fits’, but of better design for all from the outset. However, the appropriation of the concept for consumer markets has seen it repositioned to focus on the spectrum of (dis)ability which all people experience, and particularly to assist all with the challenges of aging. This has limited the scope for hearing the voice of people with disabilities and prejudiced design for wealthier and healthier sectors of the population who are more likely to experience longer periods of old age. The widely disseminated Principles of Universal Design (1997)[ii] do not even mention disability and advocates have claimed that ‘through the design of thoughtful environments – ones which anticipate and celebrate the diversity of human ability, age, and culture – we have the capacity to eliminate a person’s disability.’[iii] This attitude does not make it easy for the voice of people with disabilities, who continue to find themselves excluded by design solutions, to be heard and heeded. What might easily be accepted as ‘common sense’ can become oppressive and unjust.

We face similar issues when applying our theologies of disability and inclusion. Amos Yong has argued that not only should the church include people with disabilities, but following the logic of 1 Corinthians 12, they should be at the centre of our ministry: ‘the body of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit are constituted by many different members, each with his or her own spiritual gifts; none of the members or their gifts are more or less valuable – and, if anything, those deemed less worthy of honour are more indispensable.’[iv] The church can easily accept as ‘common sense’ theology the call to be inclusive, but then fall short of critically exploring what that inclusivity might mean if taken more seriously. It would radically alter our life together and our self-understanding. ‘We’ would become a bigger and more complete concept than in the potentially divisive idea that ‘we are called to include others’. The church’s ministry and witness would look different if those on the edge were brought to the centre. Benjamin Conner poses the question in this way: ‘Do we acknowledge that people with disabilities are members of the body of Christ who enable a more credible witness in a world of people with differing abilities?’[v] Rather than resulting in a transformation of our witness by people with differing abilities, if applied in an incomplete or fractured way, ‘inclusivity’ can itself instead become oppressive and unjust. As a simple example, when the church sings ‘All are welcome’ (Singing the Faith 409), unless the questions of who is in the position of host offering the welcome, who is the stranger being welcomed, and why, are explored honestly, then the power imbalance between those two positions will not easily be addressed and the new community of the body of Christ cannot be realised.

These reflections on Universal Design and the challenges of transforming church community are relevant as churches plan for the easing of the lockdown. If we can resist simply reacting to circumstances and the impulse to try to return to what we knew before, then in many cases we are presented with opportunities to design church life in new shapes. The pandemic has opened new experiences of ability and disability as unexpected people and sectors of our communities have found their lives restricted and struck by tragedy. There is a new sharing of the experience of disconnection, loss and exclusion. At the same time, some people who were previously unable to connect to much of church life have found that through post, phone, email, Zoom, and so on, they are now more at the centre than usual. Some, who had been unlikely to visit a church building, are investigating our ministry online, and some find themselves the wrong side of a digital divide. How do we shape ourselves to witness to God’s kingdom of inclusive healing love? How do we truly listen to the voices we have previously struggled to include – and not just listen to them but bring them to the centre so that the body of Christ can be enabled to become a ‘more credible witness in a world of people with differing abilities’?

 

 

[i] Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

[ii] Ibid. p.224-5. As published by the Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University

[iii] Ibid. p.223; citing Josh Safdie, quoted in Susan Szenasy, “Accessibility Watch: Q&A with Josh Safdie,” Metropolis magazine, February 2011.

[iv] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p.116.

[v] Benjamin T. Conner, Disabling Mission: Enabling Witness (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2018), p.60.