Communion in Diversity

by Anne Ostrowicz.

Reflecting back over this last academic year teaching RS in a secondary school in Birmingham, my mind is drawn to all I have been learning in my endeavours to chair the school’s new Diversity Forum promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion[i].

Seeing a pupil reading Malcolm X’s autobiography[ii], got me reading his story, too, and it turned out to be the most significant book for me of these last twelve months. As a teenager I had only heard of Malcolm X as a dangerous thinker. Why four decades later was I so captured by his story?

On the one hand there was a driving cause-and-effect necessity about his life-story: the environment he was born into stacked up pain and rejection including the early death of his father when he was just six years old (some believing he was intentionally run over by racists) which brought disintegration to his family, but also the downplaying by his schoolteachers of his academic talent. Both created a deep anger towards white people. Yet at the same time there seemed present a golden thread of grace running through his life, a vortex inexorably drawing him in closer to the hope that is Love. At 21, finding himself in prison, he began to read widely and voraciously, so launching his intellectual journey. When released, he expressed his new faith and philosophy in passionate dedication to Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam. However, after his expulsion from that organisation, it was the Islam he met on hajj in the Middle East, and then in Africa, which drew him to embrace the family of all human beings, a growing revelation cut terribly short by his assassination.

So now alongside Martin Luther King Junior, Malcolm X is in the ‘canon’ of thinkers whose pictures wend their way around the top of my classroom walls. And whenever a new face goes up it doesn’t take long before a pupil will notice and ask, “Who is that, Miss?”, eagerly hoping to hear their story. Ideas get passed on powerfully to teenagers when they come ‘wrapped’ in the life story which produced them.

Seeking reading advice on theology and race, Professor Anthony Reddie encouraged me to read black liberation theologian James Cone. I began with his inspirational, The Cross and the Lynching Tree[iii], where the crucifixion is movingly interpreted as the identification of Christ with the oppressed of this world. I introduced Cone to my (mostly BAME) GCSE RS pupils who found his approach inspirational: now he regularly surfaces in classroom discussions and in written work.

Malcolm X’s autobiography led me to the autobiography of Martin Luther King Junior[iv], and then to another of James Cone’s books where he synthesizes the thinking of these two civil rights activists: the one who had a dream, the other a life which he described as a nightmare[v]. James Baldwin writes, “As concerns Malcolm and Martin, I watched two men, coming from unimaginably different backgrounds, whose positions, originally, were poles apart, driven closer and closer together.”[vi]

Whilst James Cone’s focus is theology, black theologian Willie James Jennings[vii] writes on all that has been lost not just in theology but in wider education in the West by the years and years of de-valuing the voices, wisdom, experiences and cultures of those not white and western, challenging those of us in education to steer the rudder of this heavy ship into new, deeper and rich waters.

My pupils teach me much, too. Listening to an assembly on how religion can be pro committed gay relationships, I was surprised to notice a pupil who I thought would be delighted by the content, looking stony-faced.  What was wrong? He pointed out that the assembly presented a binary approach to gender and sexuality, instead of his own experience of gender as a spectrum. The assembly had made him feel that who he is was not being acknowledged, his existence not worth including. I heard profound pain and frustration. Later he eloquently channelled his thoughts into the creation of an informative booklet on sexuality and gender which the PSHE department will be using in lessons this term.

As a new academic year begins, I look forward to communion with those I will meet. Listening to the tragic news about Afghanistan and of the refugees who will be coming to live in Birmingham, I wonder if there might be some way in which my school can be a part of welcoming them into our community.


[i] Begun Summer term 2020, a direct response to the death of George Floyd in the U.S.

[ii] The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Penguin Books, 1965

[iii] The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone, Orbis Books, 2013

[iv] The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr, Abacus, 1999

[v] Martin and Malcolm and America, James H. Cone, Fount Paperbacks, 1993

[vi] I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin, p.37, Penguin Classics 2017

[vii] After Whiteness, An Education in Belonging, WJ Jennings, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020

Illuminating darkness: where is God in all this?

This is the second of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. This month the article is by Inderjit Bhogal.

In this presentation I explore a model for ministry.

If I asked you to give me a summary of the Bible in a couple of sentences, what would you say?

In my view the first two verses of the Bible provide the key to unlock the rest of it. These two verses are a summary, and what follows in the rest of the Bible illustrates this summary. Use the wisdom of these two verses to reflect on where you find yourself now. I offer a few thoughts.

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2)

This is the beginning, not the end.

There is a formless void, darkness, and what is termed “the deep”. God does not create this. It is just there. But God dwells in the midst of it all. This is where the spirit of God is, creating something new.

The “deep” is described elsewhere in the Bible as a trembling, a disturbance, a stirring, or a storm within a person, in the mind, in circumstances or in the environment around us. It is a stirring, which can also be scary, but in which new things happen. See for example, Jeremiah 23:9, Daniel 7:2 and John 5:2.

In Sanskrit the word is “vritti”, which signifies a whirlpool. 

This is what is being described in the two opening verses of the Bible. And such scenarios are real throughout the Bible.

The stories of the Bible are reflections of a people, their journeys in life, and how they experienced and interpreted God in the midst of the harsh realities of their meanderings and troubles, conflicts and hurts, and the points at which they found meaning and hope.

The Word of God is discerned by the people of the Bible as they reflect on their often terrifying and troubling experiences. Their reflections reveal God who is with them in their travel and travail as the still and secure and creative presence at the heart of it all. When everything seems out of control the love and presence of God holds firm. Biblical witness illuminates and unfolds this insight.

The life of God flows in the “deep”, and is the ground of all creation. God weaves darkness and the deep into all creation, makes new and beautiful things, and calls human beings to share in this work, to protect and take good care of life and all created things, and to do all things with wisdom (Genesis 1:26-28).

The work of any true guru, and ministry, is to model exactly that. To be prepared to dwell in darkness, to accompany people in darkness, and to do all things with wisdom. A true guru will not lead people from darkness to light. A true guru will sit in the darkness with people and help them to find wisdom from the deep, and stillness within the stirring of life and the whirlpool of the mind. A true guru does not say there is a silver lining to every cloud, and does not speak of light at the end of the tunnel.

A true guru is tuned in to the attendance and echo of God in the storm, points to God in the shadows, and helps people to see darkness as a place of sacredness. So, a true guru will not hurry people out of darkness, or speak negatively of emptiness, and will be healing not hurting, hospitable not hostile, holding out hope not despair, modelling holiness.

This is a model of ministry I have found helpful.

Questions:

  1. What does the concept of ‘darkness’ mean for you?
  2. What do you envisage, positively, will emerge from the pandemic experience?
  3. What is your ‘model of ministry’ as a Christian disciple today? 

As much a guest as a host

by Tom Wilson.

When I take a group of Christians to visit a Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, the topic of hospitality invariably comes up. Gurdwaras always offer langar, a “community kitchen,” which makes a vegetarian meal available free of charge to anyone who comes in. There are certain expectations; that you’ll remove your shoes, cover your hair, and won’t be under the influence of any intoxicants. But beyond that, questions aren’t asked, so whether you’re in desperate need of a hot meal or coming for your lunchbreak to save buying a sandwich, that’s perfectly fine. It is all part of the tradition of sewa, of service that is part of any Sikh’s expression of faith.

In my experience, some Christians find free langar slightly uncomfortable, perhaps because they’d much rather be the host than the guest. There is a trend in Christian circles to talk about the importance of hospitality, and don’t get me wrong, I think we need to be hospitable. But rather than just being hosts, don’t we also need to learn to be guests?

The Gospels show us that Jesus himself was as often a guest as a host. Whether that was because he invited himself, as with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) or he was invited, as with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36), Jesus was very happy to cross boundaries and go to where the other was comfortable. Sometimes, of course, his presence at what was expected to be a safe space was itself disturbing; the Samaritan woman in John 4 arguably goes to collect water in the heat of the day to avoid talking to anyone.

I am by no means as skilled, as prophetic, or as courageous as Jesus at saying and doing the right thing to bring a glimpse of God’s kingdom wherever I find myself a guest. But I have learnt a lot through taking the risk of being a guest. In my own line of work as Director of the St Philip’s Centre, a Christian foundation interfaith training and resourcing organisation, that invariably means spending time with people from different faith communities.  Here are five things I have learnt from being a guest in these circumstances:

First, you don’t necessarily have to wait to be invited; in the pre-pandemic world, I would sometimes ring someone up and say, “I haven’t been to anything at your mandir / gurdwara / mosque / church / synagogue for ages. What’s coming up that I can come to?” Invariably people are delighted you’re interested and want to welcome you.

Second, don’t presume you’re important. As Jesus reminds us (Luke 14:7-11), don’t take the place of honour, take a humble place and be content there. I once inadvertently spent an hour sitting on the floor with a group of local Muslims about to break their fast. I’d completely failed to notice that the VIP iftar, which I’d been invited to, was taking place in the community hall next door.

Third, be prepared to share your faith appropriately. In interfaith encounters in particular, some Christians are reluctant to say anything that is distinctively Christian. But people of faith are expecting to hear what is personal to your faith. So long as you share with gentleness and respect, from your own personal perspective (1 Peter 3:15-16), this is unlikely to be offensive in any way.

Fourth, have boundaries, but be flexible. I am a vegetarian, which is normally no issue at all in interfaith visits, and indeed can sometimes be an advantage. But if I’ve forgotten to tell someone, and they’ve cooked meat for me, do I have the right to refuse what they have made for me with love? I personally would eat the food but would not take part in the worship organised by another faith community. Know what your boundaries are, and where there is flexibility.

Fifth, don’t take yourself too seriously. As a guest its perfectly possible that you’ll get something wrong somewhere, most probably because you misunderstood what was happening. Take mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow. Whether that’s a reminder you need to tell people what your dietary requirements are, or discovering that Orthodox Jewish women generally don’t want to shake hands with a man, getting something wrong tends to be a valuable lesson that helps me understand someone else better.

When I look at the ministry of Jesus, I see him taking the risks that come with being a guest, and through doing so, gaining opportunities to share the good news with people who would not otherwise have had a chance to hear it. If we stay in our safe spaces waiting for others to come to us, we will miss out on opportunities to bring the love of God in Jesus to those who would not otherwise have had the chance to encounter it. Will you join me in being as much a guest as a host?

Metal Methodists

by James Morley.

Last time I wrote for Theology Everywhere I reflected on my sabbatical trip to Whitby during the summer of 2020 and learning about the Abbess Hild (c. 614-680 CE).  What I didn’t write about was Hild’s encouragement of the goatherd Caedmon. 

The community at Whitby Abbey would gather round the fire in the evening to share stories and song.  Caedmon was asked to contribute but left because he didn’t have anything to contribute.  That night a song came to him in a dream.  Hild discerned that maybe this was a gift from God and encouraged Caedmon to continue composing.  Caedmon went on to become the first English poet whose name was known and is regarded as the father of English sacred song.[i] 

I also didn’t write about Whitby as a place of pilgrimage for Goths[ii] as well as Christians (and Christian Goths).  Engaging with the story of Hild, Caedmon and Whitby helped me remember what makes me a key part of who I am and the confidence to also see this as a key part of who I am in God.  I am a metalhead.  I love heavy metal music.  It makes my soul sing.  I love many of the aspects of the associated subculture – people looking how they want to and not how the latest trends say they should look.  One can never wear too much black in my opinion.  But my experience on occasions (as well as the experiences of other Christian metalheads I’ve listened to) has been that, for some Christians, all this metal and darkness is all something that is either ‘of the devil’ or certainly should not be let anywhere near an act of worship.  Yet, if we believe that darkness and light are as one with God (Psalm 139:12) then maybe there is a place where metal and Methodism meet – even if, like Caedmon some may feel who we are in our music; identity; and way of life, has nothing to bring to the party.   

Out of these reflections emerged Metal Methodist and Metal Compline.[iii]  A place where people who like heavy music; people interested in spirituality; people looking for mutual support (or maybe all three) could gather regularly as part of seeking to live out The Methodist Way of Life[iv].  It’s been really encouraging to join with people in the UK, Europe, the USA and South America; to construct heavy metal liturgy; to share testimony; and to know we’re praying with and for each other in the reality of the ups and downs of life.  It’s also been a journey of discovering other metal ministries such as the Metal Bible[v] (a copy of the New Testament in various languages with testimony from secular and Christian musicians) and Nordic Mission[vi] (a record label, festival and online store in Norway which began as a response to the church burnings linked to the Norwegian Black Metal scene in the 1990’s[vii]).

Over the last year I have learnt that this isn’t about Christian alternatives to heavy music and subcultures or constructing Christianised versions of these things.  Rather, for me, it’s been about a deeper discovery of the Divine who is within us and ahead of us; out there; in others.  It’s been about discovering the God of the margins in people who are asking serious spiritual questions and offering critiques of mainstream faith; church history; and what was Christendom.

At a conference I attended recently, Reverend Dr Pete Philips[viii] helped me see all this is linked.  Whitby as a place of Goth and Christian pilgrimage; Caedmon as the ancestor of sacred song; Charles Wesley and the importance of music within Methodist spirituality.  Maybe all of this is also a challenge to me and to the Church about how our language and culture reinforces the notion of light as good and dark as of bad.   

[with apologies for late post today, George Bailey]


[i] Who Was Caedmon? What Are His Connections To Whitby? (thewhitbyguide.co.uk)

[ii] GOTH | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary

[iii] www.facebook.com/metalmethodist

[iv] A Methodist Way of Life

[v] Metal Bible International – Distributing the Bible for us who love Metal

[vi] NORDIC MISSION

[vii] The Story of Norwegian Black Metal – Life in Norway

[viii] Centre for Digital Theology : Rev Dr Pete Phillips, Director, CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology – Durham University

A Poetic God

by Tim Baker.

‘Words create new worlds’ is a fabulous four-word mantra often attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel. You can see that truth in Genesis 1: God speaks and worlds are created. This story is echoed at the beginning Tolkien’s Silmarillion – as the music gives birth to a cosmos – and in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia as creation is sung into being, and in many mythologies around the world. As words are spoken and sung, as poetry is recited and performed, new creations happen, and the heart of the divine is revealed.

I’ve been a lover of the dance and the mystery of poetry for as long as I can remember, and this love has fuelled and inspired my relationship with the divine. The history of poetry is littered with attempts to grasp at something of God’s nature, to seek to describe the Spirit of God. I’m thinking of the ‘dim and undetermined sense of unknown modes of being’ in Wordsworth’s The Prelude; of Shelley’s ‘everlasting universe of things’ that ‘flows through the mind’; of Christina Rossetti’s imagery, of reams of T. S. Eliot, snatches of Maya Angelou… All seeking to use the tools of their craft to describe something ethereal, perhaps even the very nature of God.

The apophatic tradition (sometimes called the ‘via negativa’) has suggested that we cannot say anything about God (i.e. it is not possible to say what or who God is, only describe what God is not). I wonder if the poetic tradition can help us build on the apophatics and argue that whilst you can’t say anything definitive about God, you absolutely can write poems about the divine. Because, in poems, meaning is slippery. Poetry allows words to collide, to clash, to contradict and the definitive eludes us. Poems are littered with oxymorons and ambiguity – and it’s this hermeneutical uncertainty that takes writer and reader alike closer to the mysterious heart of God. If you haven’t any idea what I’m talking about, read almost anything by Padraig O’ Tuama and you’ll see what I’m trying to say.[1]

I love poems because they grapple with the spiritual, because they have ambiguity at their heart and – finally – because of the sense of ‘play’. Poems are essentially a game we can play with words. When we dip into the canon, or we stumble across a hidden gem (as I did with the wonderful Grenadian poet, Merle Collins, 10 years ago and now her collections are scattered all over my shelves), we get to listen in and watch along with those who have attained mastery of language as they play with their toys.

You don’t have to be a poet to seek after the nature of God, but I believe that the world of poetry is trying to teach us to appreciate:

              Dancing over dogmatics,

              Metaphor over meetings,

              Essence over ecclesiology,

              Ambiguity over absolute certainty, and

              Poems over power.

Perhaps our worship, our discipleship, our evangelism – and certainly our church meetings – would be richer, and more in tune with the divine, if we could learn to dance like the poets.


[1] https://www.padraigotuama.com

All for One and One for All

by Yvonne Williams.

‘All for one and one for all; united we stand, divided we fall.’

These famous words, from the well-known book The Three Musketeers, by the French author Alexandre Dumas, are the motto of the three heroes, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, in a swashbuckling tale of chivalrous swordsmen who fight for justice.

It has occurred to me in recent weeks, while reading and contributing to the very diverse comments in this online discussion, that all who believe in any kind of deity would do well to adopt this motto for themselves. The one thing that unites us, with each other and with most of the secular world, is a social conscience and the desire for all human beings to be treated with dignity and respect.

When I was studying to be a local preacher, we were trained in theological reflection, using the Word of God to inform our thinking on our life experiences. Being of a somewhat contrary nature (some would say argumentative, but I like to put a positive slant on it!) I have a tendency to look at things from the opposite angle, so I have often reflected in reverse and used my life experiences to inform my thinking about God.

Here is an example:

My father had five children. When he died, many years ago now, my siblings and I each wanted to write our own individual tribute for the obituaries, rather than do a joint one.

The eldest daughter wrote of his unconditional love. If we were in any kind of bother, and however badly we messed up, we could always go home, and Dad would welcome us back with open arms and a shoulder to cry on.

The second daughter mentioned Dad’s passion for gardening. He loved growing vegetables, which appeared fresh on our dinner plates most evenings, even if we didn’t appreciate them much at the time!

I was the third daughter, and I recalled his spirituality. Though he rejected his Catholic faith, his spirituality shone through in his love of nature and the way he greeted everyone he met with sincere cordiality.

My younger brother, the only son, remembered their close friendship and the daft sense of humour they both shared, usually over a few beers in the local Labour Club.

My younger sister, the baby of the family and the one most like Dad in looks and in nature, simply said she had ‘treasured memories of a wonderful father’ which she chose to keep private.

My Dad was no saint. He was a product of the patriarchal and patriotic culture he grew up in. As a result, he was quite chauvinistic and even a bit racist, but the humanitarian in him over-rode his own prejudice and made him the much-loved husband and father whose spirit lives on in us all today. While protecting and providing for us as a family unit, he took time to nurture and develop a unique bond with each one of us.

So, which of his offspring could claim to have the only authentic relationship? Wouldn’t it be both ludicrous and arrogant for any of us to say “my Dad is the true Dad, and yours is a flawed version”?

I fully appreciate that not everyone has been blessed with such a loving father/child relationship, and so cannot relate to God as a father figure; all the more reason for us to allow others the freedom to seek and discover their own special connection with the Divine. We should hold loosely to our beliefs, because Almighty God is bigger than any religion and bigger than all religions combined. He is bigger than all our acts of worship and acts of mercy. There are as many facets to the nature of God as there are species of insects, flowers, birds or butterflies. Every expression of life on earth is a manifestation of God.

Chivalrous heroes we may not be, but our humanity is our God-given opportunity to know and love him in our own unique way, and to make our own small contribution to the well-being of the world and its inhabitants. One God for all people, and all people for one God. I feel a song coming on!

‘One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright.’ 😊
(Bob Marley)

Measuring Up: Living by a Rule of Life

by Angie Allport.

A rule of life is not a rhythm of life, although the terms are often used interchangeably, but a tool to enable a balanced way of living.  It is not a rule in the sense of being something we must do (a law), but rather in the sense of being something against which we can measure ourselves (a tape measure).  Indeed, a rule of life is not about rigidity but about change.  Living by the spiritual practices set out in a rule opens us up to the transformative work of God; measuring ourselves against a rule enables us to identify unhealthy behaviours and make the necessary adaptations in our living to address those.

Although rules of life tend to draw on the monastic tradition, they are as much about living in the world as withdrawing from it, albeit living it differently.  In order to be effective, a rule requires personal responsibility.  If living by a rule is merely a tick-box exercise or about the outward appearance of conformity, there is something wrong.  Indeed, just as God did not want the sacrifices of those who offered them with unclean hearts, God does not want us to pray because we have to, but wants us to pray of our own free-will, preferring us otherwise not to pray.  There will be seasons in our lives when an aspect of the rule which we took for granted as something at which we excelled trips us up.  Measuring ourselves against a rule is not figuratively an act of self-flagellation, but rather an opportunity to identify the means of growing in faith and deepening discipleship.  It is the human condition to get things wrong, and getting things wrong with a rule is a reminder that it is upon the grace of God we depend.

There are various ways for measuring oneself against a rule of life.  One could read through the rule on a regular basis and make a true assessment of how it is going.  Another option is to keep a journal and read back through it regularly, noting patterns of behaviour which are consistent with the rule, those which are not, and being particularly mindful of those which do not feature at all – Is that because they are so embedded or is there something to be addressed?  Having identified any areas for improvement, come up with some concrete plans for doing things differently but do not set unreasonable expectations, and be open to modify them as the realities of day-to-day living come into play.

As well as personal responsibility, there is also a need for accountability, which might be found through a spiritual director or a prayer partner.  It might also be found in a small group.  In creating space for accountability, the aim is not to judge but gently encourage honesty and perhaps suggest different approaches.  Reviewing oneself against a rule, whether alone or in the company of others, requires truthfulness about how daily life is lived.  Being able to discuss how you are getting on with your devotional life helps you review and adapt it if necessary, but also helps to try to keep to a rule.

Because we are all different (extrovert/introvert; creative/logical, etc), a rule should not be about particular methodologies.  In requiring the followers of a rule to pray, for example, the type of prayer (daily office, meditation, etc) should be open to the individual.  A rule of life should be holistic.  It should include aspects of living in the wider world, making time for our relationships, our physical and emotional well-being, as well as spiritual matters like prayer and Bible study.  Again, depending on personality type and or household circumstances, the follower of a rule might prefer a set time for reading the Bible each day, for example, and to follow a particular reading pattern, such as the lectionary.  For others, the time of day might be floating and Scripture reading might take the form of reading someone else’s reflection on a text for the day.  Again, it is about consciously making time for God in a way in which takes account of life’s realities.

The word rule has the disadvantage of not sounding dynamic, which is possibly why the word rhythm tends to be substituted, but just as it is a rule for living, it is also a living rule.  We are never ‘done’ with a rule and if we make the mistake of thinking we are, our spiritual lives will shrivel.

Note

Numerous books have been written on the subject but the following are good starting points:

Harold Miller, Finding a Personal Rule of Life. Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd., 2012 (reprint).

Margaret Guenther, At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated., 2006.

Whither the Eucharist?

by Josie Smith.

When my daughter was a very little girl she was once quite frustrated at some Circuit event – probably a Garden Party – because in the crowd she couldn’t for the moment locate either parent to say grace for her, so she couldn’t eat her fish paste sandwich.

Thanksgiving was for her a necessary prelude to food, even just a fish paste sandwich, and great was the relief when a parent appeared and the necessary words had been said.

She was on to something, as children often are.

We grown-ups have had similar frustration since Covid-19 struck, when we have been unable to receive Holy Communion in a church building.  If we can’t physically attend church because of the necessary restrictions, what are the implications for the Eucharist – Holy Communion? How has our practice (and more profoundly our understanding) been modified by these external events?

I was in Canada in the late 1980s as part of a British Council of Churches exchange visit, and at that time there was great deal of work being done there on understandings of the Eucharist, particularly by more far-sighted Roman Catholics.  One question being asked in that country of vast distances, was (and I probably paraphrase – it was a long time ago!)  ‘If it is considered theologically O.K. for trained lay people to take the consecrated wafer, as is the practice, to housebound people, would it be in principle any different if we were to send the wafer by post or dog sled, once it has been consecrated?’

My own interest arose partly from my involvement in religious broadcasting.    Frank Pagden, who was in ‘other appointments’ as a radio producer for the BBC in Leeds, introduced a Radio Eucharist many years ago in which listeners were invited to take a piece of their own (ordinary) bread and some (ordinary) wine – or more probably a proprietary blackcurrant drink as he was a Methodist minister – and share in the Communion service.    This was revolutionary and controversial, and caused much heated argument in church circles.  

Many questions here – Can radio or televised Eucharist be real?   Do people need to be physically together in order to constitute a congregation?    Then, once you allow that people can be genuinely sharing in an activity though not physically in the same room as the rest of the people or the celebrant, does a broadcast Eucharist lose its efficacy if it is pre-recorded?

Does the Holy Spirit have problems with time and space?

And what constitutes consecration?   What are the implications for the ‘Ministry of the Word and Sacraments’ if anyone at home can take their own bread and wine which haven’t had the words properly spoken over them?

During lockdown there have been many responses to the questions.    At my own church we have enjoyed a streamed service every Sunday morning, pre-recorded during the week in an otherwise empty and thoroughly sanitised building.   We are more than usually blessed in having a musical director who is also a sound engineer, cameraman and still photographer, and who has produced a seamless whole each Sunday morning.   The preacher, together with those responsible for Bible reading and intercessory prayer, recorded their parts wearing masks except when actually speaking, and the music was recorded so that we could join in at home without breathing on anyone outside our household. 

When Holy Communion is part of the service we are invited to take bread and wine wherever we happen to be watching.  The Communion table is in full screen, the bread and wine are there, the candles are lit, and the minister is presiding, with a modified form of words. When we began online services it was made clear that the bread and wine or juice which people consumed in their own homes were not technically consecrated.

We can access the service at 10.30 on Sunday.  But it is possible now by the marvels of modern technology to tune in at any time thereafter.    Is it still an act of worship, is it still Eucharist, are we still a congregation, if we happen to watch it, prayerfully, at noon or in the evening?

That’s the real question – Does the Holy Spirit have problems with time and space? Or even with Words?

Dialogue and faith

by James Blackhall.

For many years I have been trying to articulate what it is about interfaith encounters that enhances and encourages my own discipleship. This has been brought into a sharper focus since beginning work at the St Philip’s Centre in February in a role where I aim to equip churches to have interfaith dialogues whilst also having a range of encounters on a weekly basis that have led to my faith strengthening. Perhaps this should not be a surprise given that Called to Love in Praise states ‘Christians may enter such dialogues in the faith that God will give them deeper insight into the truth of Christ’.[i] This leads to many questions that I could explore such as the varying theological positions around interfaith engagement[ii] and in particular the relationship of salvation to our faith positions but I am leaving that aside.

Called to Love and Praise expresses our Christian ecclesiology primarily but it does state that ‘[people] of other faiths can hardly be said to belong to the Church. But the Church has to be understood in a way which does not deny the signs of God in their midst’.[iii] Our Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace means that we understand the grace of God can be at work in anyone so it should not be a surprise to see the signs of God in our midst. Jesus dialogued with people outside of his faith community. Indeed, he said of a Roman centurion that he had never met someone with so great a faith (Matthew 8:10). I felt similarly the first time I went to a Mosque and could feel the atmosphere of worship from the men and boys in the room that I was observing as I met them for a first-year university project. How could I deny the depth of faith and commitment that I could see and sense from the men I talked with afterwards? This challenged the faith position I held at the time which was clearly salvation by faith in Christ alone and no hope of salvation without it.  

In my final interview to become a Local Preacher I chose as my Wesley sermon The Catholic Spirit. One of the questions I got asked was how it could relate to interfaith dialogue. Wesley wasn’t looking at the interfaith landscape in the same way we are today but there are some parallels we can make by his open-handed approach. Wesley goes on to say that dialogue is not truly of the catholic spirit if the person discussing is devoid of any conviction. As I talk with people of other faiths I find similarities and differences that we can discuss with honesty and integrity. Sometimes that can lead to parts of my theology being challenged or strengthened. In the first lockdown I attended a Hindu-Christian dialogue group and found that discussing verses from the Bhagavad Gita really illuminated my understanding of what revelation is and of specific verses in the Bible that resonated with them. It was in that place of challenge and mutual honesty that I grew and my understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life was broadened.

Perhaps it is because ‘In Jesus, we find a role model of peacemaking that has significant implications for dealing with people of other faiths collectively and individually’[iv] that we are able to enhance our discipleship. We know that ‘our present world is filled with injustice, violence, and other social problems. Religions of the world should not contribute to these problems, but to correct them’[v] As Methodists we are called seek justice. Working together with people of other faiths is part of this. By As we do that we see more of the love of God and can feel our discipleship deepen in dialogue with others as we aim to speak up for justice and serve humanity.

There is so much I could have touched on but I would like to end with two questions to reflect on. I wonder how your encounters with people of other faiths have impacted your relationship with Jesus Christ? How do these encounters challenge or strengthen our theological positions?


[i] Called to Love and Praise, pg19

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

[iii] Called to Love and Praise, pg19

[iv]  Thorsen, D., 2012. Jesus, Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations: A Wesleyan Perspective. Wesleyan Theological Journal, [online] 47(1), pp.59-71. Available at: https://wtsociety.com/files/wts_journal/WTJ%2047-1.pdf  pg63                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

[v] Thorsen, D., 2012. Jesus, Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations: A Wesleyan Perspective. Wesleyan Theological Journal, [online] 47(1), pp.59-71. Available at: https://wtsociety.com/files/wts_journal/WTJ%2047-1.pdf  pg63                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Which Jesus do you choose?

by Philip Sudworth.

In the earliest known version of Matthew we find, “Which would you like me to release to you?  Jesus bar Abbas or Jesus called Messiah?” (Matt 27:17) – “bar Abbas”, of course, means “son of the Father”.  The choice put to the Jewish people then was between a violent man who thought that freedom would come from defeating the Romans militarily and the one who said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is due to him,” and who saw true freedom as a spiritual issue.  But it’s not just about the choice a crowd of Jews made 2,000 years ago.  At a spiritual level, the story transcends the particular time period. Today we find ourselves still faced with the challenge of the choice that in the story is put to the Jews.  It’s not just “Do you choose Jesus or the way of the world?” but also “Which Jesus do you want?”  “What kind of Saviour do you seek?”  “What relationship do you want with him?”

Many Jews have claimed that Jesus could not have been the messiah, because he didn’t free them from Roman oppression, nor bring universal peace, justice and righteousness.  One Christian response to this has been to predict that Jesus will come back – this time with an army of angels.  He will conquer evil, set up a thousand-year reign of righteousness and establish a new Earth.  There is a triumphalist note to this.  Jesus is the “mighty conqueror”, at whose name “every knee shall bow”.  We will “reign with him” and “share his glory.”  Yet this is the one who rejected the temptation to rule the world by force and to enjoy all the trappings of universal power (Matt 4:8-9).  The way of physical sovereign power was the easy option that Satan offered as the third temptation; but it would have meant deferring to the values of materialism, self-importance and might is right.

Instead of the expected heroic, victorious messiah-king, we find one who was prepared to undertake menial tasks like washing feet, and to suffer personally, and very painfully, in the cause of justice and righteousness.    There was no question of him forcing everyone to obey God or imposing a righteous kingdom.  Instead, he challenged them to reform their own lives, get themselves right with God, and help him to change the world.   The power he sought to use was the power of love.

Which Jesus represents God for us?  – The Christ reigning triumphantly in Heaven after his ascension, or the wandering preacher, who, amidst his agony on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them” and who told his followers to “Take up your cross and follow me.Does he embody a transcendent God of majesty, authority and justice, who manages the world and judges people from on high, or an immanent God of love we can find in those we meet?  Do we expect God to reveal himself in acts of power or is he a God who empowers others? Do we look for him in great miracles or in simple acts of love?  We might expect to find God in great cathedrals but are we just as likely to find him in an unsanitary hovel in a shanty town?  Will we find him where and when we need him most, and where and when he most needs a response from us?

Do we see ourselves primarily as supplicants asking for his forgiveness and help, and hoping to join him in Heaven one day in the future, or as disciples answering the call to service and hoping to work alongside him to make one small part of this world a little bit better to-day?  Are we looking forward to eternal life or are we enjoying that inner peace, joy, sense of fulfillment and fullness of life already?

I suspect that most Christians will want to hold onto something of all of these ideas of God seen in Jesus, despite some inherent contradictions.  They have a vision of Jesus that contains something of both the humble teacher, who saw himself in the role of suffering servant, and the all-powerful, triumphant king who reigns above.  The balance will vary from person to person and possibly change for individuals as their faith develops and their situation alters.  It might actually change for us according to the position we find ourselves in at any given moment.

Our view of Jesus is probably revealed in the way we share our faith and how much emphasis we place on the Heavenly rewards of being a Christian, as opposed to the commitment it demands and the challenges it poses.  Pre-occupation with our personal salvation is a form of self-love.   The commandments to love God and others, place the focus away from ourselves.    Comfortable Christianity is a contradiction in terms!  We know what Jesus had to say about the self-satisfied religious folk of his day. Which images of Jesus challenge you most and which make you want to have a relationship with him?