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?

In Defence of Darkness: In pursuit of a theology of balance

by Catherine Bird.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectrum, a community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are writen by Inderjit Bhogal and Catherine Bird on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. This is the first of six coming through the year, by Catherine Bird…

 Isaiah 45:3                                    

‘I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
So that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
Who call you by your name.’

I love darkness and it has always troubled me why, if darkness is so wonderful, is it associated with evil? Darkness is after all, necessary for life. All life begins in the total darkness of the womb, darkness nurtures the seed beneath the ground before it bursts into life, our bodies need darkness in order to release the necessary hormones for sleep, a whole world of creatures live and thrive in the dark and in the night. And think of how we cultivate darkness to create that cosy intimate atmosphere in which we gather with those we love. We dim the lights and shield our eyes from the sun when it gets too bright and dazzles us. Leonardo da Vinci used to paint after the sun went down because it enabled him to see a wider range of tones in the colours he was using. Yet, everything, or so we think, in our Christian tradition tells us that darkness is bad, evil, to be overcome and banished.

In order to explore this apparent contradiction I decided to go to the darkest place on earth! Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, which lies some 400 miles north of the mainland and deep within the Arctic Circle.  Between October and February Svalbard experiences a ‘Polar Night’ when the sun does not show its face above the horizon at all, and the landscape is plunged into a constant state of lightlessness. To live in darkness 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a remarkable thing.  Day is as dark as night and night is as dark as day. Whilst there, I had to learn to see things in new ways, and I soon realised that if I wanted to see the details of things in the dark, I had to move closer in. Darkness does that – it makes us move closer in.  Light scatters, darkness gathers, and it’s in that need to make us move closer in that I believe much of the beauty and power of darkness lies.  But I am not advocating getting rid of light! This is about balance. Light and dark together, both necessary for life, both evocative of relationship, both capable of leading to death.  Light is to darkness as breathing in is to breathing out. In this ‘spirituality of balance’ we can change our way of speaking and thinking to acknowledge that not only is light a wonderful thing, but also that darkness is also necessary for life, and at the heart of life and in the heart  and very nature of God.

But it’s about even more than this. Not only is this about wanting to redeem darkness as a better experience for people, it’s actually something to do with opening up new ways of thinking about God and Christian Mission. I have always hated a model of mission which uses the language of taking light into the dark places in which light represents what is good and right and true, and darkness represents ignorance and basically anything or anyone which isn’t Christian. Personally, I’d rather say that there is nowhere from which God is absent – perhaps sometimes there is work to do to reveal God’s presence, but that is not taking light into darkness; that is about partnership and finding balance. If we see that both light and dark have positive and negative qualities then we can think of it differently, saying perhaps, ‘let me bring the light and dark of my tradition and faith to meet the light and dark of yours and we can learn from each other and grow together.’ If we can somehow find a way of undermining our traditional dualistic way of thinking – not light and dark as good versus evil, but rather a balanced God who seeks the restoration of a balanced universe, perhaps then things might look a little different.

For reflection:

  • How do you feel about darkness?
  • Try and recall times when physical darkness has offered you a safe and healing place, and light has been problematic.
  • How do you feel about darkness being used as a positive metaphor for that which is Divine?

Space, Place and Faith

by Graham Edwards.

The last year has been a strange one, to say the least. It has often been a frustrating and confusing time, but it has also been a fruitful time for reflection.    Much of my reflection in this period has centred around understandings of space and place.

Space and place are not the same, yet they are connected because it is impossible to speak of place without first speaking of space.   I understand space as a physical location in which people interact in community, it is, as Tim Cresswell (2015, p. 16) explains, “a realm without meaning … which produces the basic coordinates for human life”.  Place is not necessarily physical or visible but “become[s] vividly real … by dramatizing the aspirations, needs, and functional rhythms of personal and group life” (Tuan, 1977, p. 178).  When an individual’s ‘space’ becomes a way of enabling interpretation and reflection, it allows their “seeing and knowing [of] the world” (Cresswell, 2015, p. 18) and becomes ‘place’. Reflecting a similar understanding, John Inge notes, “human experience is shaped by place” (2003, p. ix), and for those of us who have faith, that faith experience is shaped by place.   The spaces we inhabit as Christian people – churches, chapels and so on, can often become a kind of sacred ‘place’ for us.  A space might become sacred or holy when an individual’s experience, or their perception of it, moves them to name it as a place where an encounter with God could occur. 

In my own context, as a Methodist Presbyter in a circuit appointment, when we entered lockdown in March 2020 the particular physical spaces in which churches I serve had met and worshipped, the spaces that had been formational in creating place, and in our continuing expressions of faith, were no longer accessible. We, like so many others, were forced to explore new spaces in which we were able to connect and therefore offer ways of creating place using digital resources, including video podcasts and Zoom. To some surprise, we found that people were finding new ways of connecting in all these things.  We began to see new places forming, these places could still shape and sustain particular modes of identity, offer some kind of connection to God that enables the “seeing and knowing” of the world that Cresswell speaks of.

As I reflect on these new connections, I am drawn back to Avery Dulles’ work on the nature of the church.  One of the marks of the church that Dulles identifies is Mystical Communion.  In this model, Dulles (1974, p40) argues that the church is “not an institution but a brotherhood [sic]”.  There is, he claims, a kind of Christian DNA that allows believers to recognise one another, this creates an almost intangible (mystical) connection which shapes the interaction of members within a church and affects its practice.  The institution of the church, its physical presence and practice, enable us to know the ‘real’ church – which is community sustained by the mystical communion.  The problem, I think, is that much of Dulles’ understanding requires a traditional understanding of the physical presence of Christians which reveals the mystical – a group gathered in one space, the meeting of eyes followed by a knowing nod, or a congregation meeting to worship on site in a church.   Whatever the ways in which we create connections, the digital experience challenges them – it does not remove our physicality from meetings, or study groups, or worship – it changes it, and in the same way it does not remove our sense of connection (mystical communion) from our digital engagement – it changes it.  So perhaps we need a new reading, a larger understanding, of mystical communion which allows us to see that “on site” gatherings, the bricks and mortar of our church buildings, the pews, the chairs, and whatever else we might list, are not the only things that allow us to glimpse the true church. Watching a podcast on our living room sofa, sharing in worship, or study and fellowship through Zoom (other web conferencing software is available!), reading worship materials prepared by a local preacher or minister, or whatever else we might come up with, might actually enable us to know true community and glimpse the true church that God calls us to be.

My understanding of place has shifted in this last year, that mysterious invisible digital space, has the power to become place – place that allows seeing and knowing of the world, enables us to find and take our place within that world, and encounter the God who calls us onward.

Cresswell, T. (2015). Place: An Introduction. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

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

Inge, J. (2003). A Christian Theology of Place. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Tuan, Y.-F. (1977). Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Paying Attention

by Julie Lunn.

I’m currently reading Spring Cannot be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy by David Hockney and Martin Gayford.[i]  It’s a wonderful, joyful, uplifting book; a biographical text about David Hockney’s recent work during lockdown.  In 2018 Hockney visited France and decided that he would create work on the arrival of Spring in Normandy in 2019.  This was delayed until Spring 2020, however, in preparation, he visited Normandy, bought an old Normandy farmhouse in four acres of ground, and set up a studio within it.  During lockdown, he spent the time iPad painting 116 pictures of the gardens in which his house is set, particularly focussing on the trees and their changing appearance as Spring emerged and progressed.  And all this when he had recently turned 80.

There are numerous quotes of Hockney’s in the book, and one which struck me talks about how important it is to notice.  Hockney refers to the colour of the roads in his native Yorkshire,

When I was first in Yorkshire, I was driving along with a friend and I said, ‘What colour is the road?’  He said, ‘I see what you mean. When you really look at it, it’s a violet grey or a pink grey.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is, but you have to really look. Most people don’t, so they just see grey tarmac in front of them with green stuff at the side, but not that many different greens.’ (p166)

You have to really look.  You have to notice, though most people don’t really look, and don’t notice.  The dustjacket says Hockney ‘is utterly absorbed by his 4 acres of northern France and by the themes that have fascinated him for decades: light, colour, space, perception, water, trees. He has much to teach us, not only about how to see… But about how to live.’  There’s something about the complete absorption of Hockney in his art and in nature, in stillness and in noticing, in focusing on the trees, the sunrise, the beauty of nature, which is so deeply appealing. 

I wonder whether the lockdowns have enabled us to slow down a little and notice more – as George Bailey talked about last week in his very helpful piece about watching, noticing birds.

Simone Weil’s words have long been significant for me: ‘The capacity to give one’s attention…is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it.’[ii]  Her words are challenging and true.  In ministry such attention is essential – the giving of attention to another in pastoral care, in spiritual accompaniment, in supervision.  Yet such dedicated attention is also essential in the life of every Christian – attending – to the other, to the world, to ourselves.  Noticing, seeing, discerning the subtle shift in hues, the nuanced tone-shift in a conversation, the movements of our own hearts and thoughts and desires.

Spiritual authors, John Wesley included, remind us of the need to attend to ourselves and our inner life.  Thomas à Kempis, for example, emphasises the need for the ‘recollection’ of ourselves: ‘If you cannot recollect yourself continuously, do so once a day at least in the morning or in the evening. In the morning make a resolution and in the evening examine yourself on what you have said this day, what you have done and thought…’ [iii]  Pay attention each moment, each day, he is saying, to what you say, do, think.

But watchful attentiveness is also to be given to others and to the world which is God’s creation; an exterior insightful attention which notices, gives time to, discerns.  The sort of attention Jesus gave when he asked ‘Do you want to be made well?’ (John 5:6b); or when he said, ‘Zacchaeus … I must stay at your house today’ (Luke 19.5); or, ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near’ (Matthew 24.32).

There is an exhibition of Hockney’s 116 iPad paintings currently at the RA.  Unfortunately tickets are sold out.  The introduction to the exhibition says, ‘In the midst of a pandemic, David Hockney RA captured the unfolding of spring on his iPad, creating 116 new and optimistic works in praise of the natural world.’[iv]  His detailed attention gives praise to the natural world.  Our intentional, comprehensive attention gives praise to God – the Creator of the world, each other and ourselves.


[i] New York: Thames and Hudson, 2021. 

[ii] Simone Weil, Waiting on God (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), p. 53.

[iii] A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ Thrift books p15

[iv] https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/david-hockney

John Donne – ‘No Man is an Island’

by Stephen Wigley.

It’s now 400 years since John Donne, the celebrated poet and preacher was appointed Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. Not long after this appointment, and shortly after the death of his daughter Lucy, Donne himself was taken seriously ill, quite possibly from typhus. For many days in late 1623 he was perilously close to death, before recovering to serve as Dean until his death in 1631.

Throughout this time Donne was determined to reflect and write about his illness, a task undertaken with such commitment that his book was actually registered for publication on 9th January 1624 and published later that year as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and several steps in my Sickness.

The book itself is structured in 23 chronological sections, one for each day of Donne’s illness, with in turn a ‘meditation’ describing a stage in his illness, an ‘expostulation’ containing his reaction to that stage, and a prayer for that day. But while much of it is not widely known, the Meditation for Day 17 includes one of the most famous passages in English, albeit in the gendered language of his time.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were…’

Why come back to this piece, some 400 years after it was written? It seems to me that Donne’s words, and particular his reflections in this Meditation, resonate with so many of the concerns with which we have been wrestling with over the last 18 months of coronavirus and restrictions.

Donne is careful to observe the spread of the illness across his body, not as a disinterested observer but as someone assessing how serious the situation is. In the same way, we have been watching and waiting on news, first of infection rates, then more hopefully of vaccinations, and in recent months once more with nervousness about rates of new variants.

Donne is properly interested in his own situation, but he knows himself dependent on the care and attention of others. Given his own crisis, he knows that he cannot ignore the bell which tolls for him, but equally he recognises that it may call on others, differently; ‘as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all.’

Donne sees in this mutual need and interdependence upon others as a sign of the ‘catholicity’ of the Church, a recognition that in each individual action the fullness of the sacrament can be observed.

‘The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me…  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me.’

All this speaks to us in a world where we recognise that the virus knows no boundaries and safe zones, and we reflect that no-one can feel secure in the vaccine until everyone has the vaccine available.

Finally, throughout his illness, Donne is concerned to find out what God may be saying in this crisis, what there is of purpose to be found in all this suffering. His conclusion is that God’s hand can be found in every page if we are willing to look; ‘some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.’

Across the centuries scholars have wondered why Donne rushed to get these devotions out so soon after his illness. Was it to challenge the dominant Puritanism of his time and reassert a more open, Arminian, welcoming theology? Or was it a coded message to a new King not to isolate himself from the wider body, both politic and religious? We cannot know – but in this time of uncertainty, when we have been challenged by our mutual vulnerability and interdependence in ways we could not have imagined, there is something about Donne’s words that commands us, above all, to listen.

‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

Methods of Birdwatching

by George Bailey.

During the lockdowns I have increasingly appreciated the birds. Paying closer attention to my local environment has led to extended reflection on what the birds might teach us about the ways of God and our life together. I have written about some of these ideas and images for churches I minister with, and recently for the Methodist Recorder – unfortunately not available online, but read the article here if you would like a taste of my thinking.

That piece discusses herons and swans, and the shape of those two arguments are examined below, but there have been many similar reflections about woodpeckers, pigeons, blackcaps, goosanders, geese, grebes and so on – all spotted as I gazed at the garden or walked in the park. How do these reflections work theologically? What methodology is in action here, and how does it function?

Since writing in the Methodist Recorder I have found John Stott’s book, The Birds Our Teachers (1999), in which he coins the wonderful term, ‘orni-theology’ to describe this spiritual practice. Reading his explorations has added examples alongside my own upon which to reflect methodologically.

The practice of learning from the birds begins from Jesus’ invitation to compare their simple relationship with God against our own struggles. Matthew 6:26 invites those who worry about food to consider how the birds are fed without practicing agriculture and storage. Stott points out that the birds are though not passive recipients of creation’s bounty, but active in finding food – for many this is their primary daily activity – and from this he draws the wisdom of balance between faith and works in our discipleship and practical living (though not in our salvation which is by faith alone).[i] A similar negative comparison is to be seen in Jeremiah 8:7 in which the migratory instinct of storks, turtle-doves, swallows, and cranes, who know their way back home and do not fail to follow it, is contrasted to the stubborn ignorance of the people who do not repent and turn to God. The pattern of these scriptural arguments is that the natural world, here specifically the life of birds, is in tune with God’s ways, but humanity is behaving outside of its own potentially divinely orientated shape and rhythms.

From this scriptural pattern comes the more general view that in the ecological relationships and behaviours of wild birds we can discern ways to understand God’s relationship with humanity. This is not ‘natural theology’ in the sense of seeing the natural world as a locus of revelation apart from scripture, but is a method by which a scriptural form of argument is deployed but now based on different observations about bird life. Are there then limits to this method? One methodological limit might be to insist that the conclusions of such an argument are in line with scriptural principles. Reflections on the relationship between individual herons and groups of herons (click the link to the article above!) would need to illustrate an authentically scriptural view of the church. However, we can be more optimistic about learning from the birds by employing Karl Barth’s later distinction between natural theology and natural revelation as described here by Keith Johnson:

‘…because Christ is the active agent of any revelation that occurs in and through the created order, the church must be willing to pay attention to this revelation and incorporate the insights it receives from it into the church’s own faith and practice. These insights may even serve to “illuminate, accentuate or explain the biblical witness” more clearly for the church within its own particular context, leading it “to preach the one Word of God in its own tongue and manner” better than it could otherwise (Church Dogmatics IV/3.1, p. 115).’[ii]

This relationship between the creation and revelation means that the birds might not just illustrate scripture but can assist the church to proclaim the gospel in context. I think this is particularly apparent when we escape a romantic image of the birds as purely ‘wild’ and instead see them in ecological relationship with humanity – a relationship that is, in our context, often harmful for the birds.

Growing understanding of the impact of human activity on birds offers insights which do not just prompt ecological action but also a rethink of the church’s self-understanding. My reflections on swans nesting in an urban park led me to ask how human response might be influenced by the ‘rewilding’ movement – a re-interpretation of ecosystems that lets natural processes lead rather than any desire to preserve a human-centred environment. Seeing ourselves not as agents of preservation, management or control but as assistants facilitating the work of nature, rather than our own agenda, might be an insight which enables the church to communicate the gospel in fresh ways. This way of thinking can be found in Steve Aisthorpe’s extended development of a metaphor calling for the ‘rewilding of the church’[iii], in which the Spirit is allowed to lead more freely. A similar example of environmental themes develpoing our theology, rather than the other way round, is Howard Snyder’s intertwining of ecology into the theologies of salvation, ecclesiology and mission:

‘…solidarity with the whole human family and all creation can be seen as a dimension of Christian community. Through communion with Jesus Christ in the Spirit and with the body of Christ, we enter into a relationship of mutual interdependence and responsibility with the creation that God has made.’[iv]

I recommend watching the birds, reflecting, and learning as a fruitful spiritual practice – one which I am realising can be based on careful and radical theological method.


[i] John Stott, The Birds Our Teachers: Essays in Orni-Theology (1999: Candle Books, Carlisle), p.16.

[ii] Keith L. Johnson, ‘Barth on Natural Theology’ in George Hunsinger, and Keith L. Johnson (eds), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Karl Barth: Barth and Dogmatics Volume I (2020: Wiley Blackwell, Chichester), p.106.

[iii] Steve Aisthorpe, Rewilding the Church, (2020: Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh).

[iv] Howard A Snyder and Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace: Overcoming the Divorce Between Earth and Heaven). (2011: Cascade Books, Eugene, OR.), p. 214.

Serendipitous encounters – when what’s happening isn’t what you are doing.

by Barbara Glasson.

Ahead of the day following my second Covid jab, in anticipation of feeling under the weather, I had cleared my diary of anything that required my brain to function. Anticipating being under the weather is enough to make a person feel under the weather, so I decided to busy myself with some other things and went to get my watch fixed. As it was going to take half an hour, I sat in the warm sunshine in the courtyard outside the market and bought myself a cup of coffee and the wagon serving bacon butties. Before I knew it I had struck up a conversation with a biker who was getting his breakfast. By the time half an hour had gone by, I knew about his motorbikes, his two marriages, his six children and his three dogs. Turns out he tests pipes in nuclear power stations for leaks in radioactivity, I learned some technical things too.

Later, still feeling perky not peaky and with the sun still shining brightly I decided to walk the dog, As I got to the furthest point from home it began to spit with rain and very swiftly it began to bucket down. I was cursing my stupidity at not taking a coat when I noticed the shape of a person trying to squeeze through a gap in a wall and clearly stuck. Coming closer, I discovered he was an elderly man wearing a full waterproof kit and carrying a huge rucksack, hence his inability to squeeze through. As he tried to traverse the gap and as I got increasingly soaked, he told me about his friend’s dogs, his wife’s illness, his grandson’s achievements at University and his autistic grand- daughter.  On returning home, changing out of my soggy clothes I pondered what it was about me that caused random people to tell me their life stories.

I’ve been teaching Pastoral Theology for almost a year now, and I have worked students steadily through a process of theological reflection on the human lifecycle, we have discussed what makes for good pastoral practice, we have talked about boundary setting and well-being, we have had input from a funeral director and completed our safeguarding course, all of this on Zoom with the aid of break out rooms and powerpoint. But what we haven’t done this year is bump into random people along the way and listen to unsolicited disclosures of human life. In my experience these sort of encounters usually happen outdoors, or at least in doorways, and are not scheduled.

In the Persian fairy tale of the Three Princes of Serendip a King sends his three sons on a voyage to be trained by the scholars of the day in order to attain wisdom,  The irony of the story is that in order to fulfil their commitments to Serendip the princes must leave it and go wandering along unknown roads and amongst common people. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that it is not the scholars that are going to impart the wisdom they need but the random encounters with a variety of ‘common people’ the princes mingle amongst along the way.  In his book, The Moral Imagination Jean Paul Lederach refers to this serendipity as a way peace-making: ‘Serendipity describes the fascination and frustration of sideways progress that constitutes the human endeavor (sic) of building peace ….for constructive social change is often what accompanies and surrounds the journey more that what was intentionally pursued and produced.’[i]

I don’t think Jesus kept a diary. The gospel accounts seem to reference him subverting any sort of organised plan to keep an appointment. He appears to spend his life bumping into people, or being summoned when he is in the middle of something else. He didn’t organise a conference or a rally or have an executive council to discuss strategy, and quite clearly that was quite annoying to those disciples that were trying to get a grip on what in heaven’s name he was up to. And yet, it was in the cracks that those life-giving, life-transforming encounters were given space to happen. There was a serendipitous space between what he was doing and what was actually happening into which the spirit could breathe new life.

Thing is, I did manage to get my watch fixed, have my jab and walk the dog yesterday, but what happened was much more engaging, fascinating and – I believe – the essence of pastoral encounter. And, as Lederach reminds all those who seek peace, this attention to our peripheral vision enables a ‘panorama of the possible’.[ii]


[i] Lederach, John Paul, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press (2005) p.114

[ii] op cit. p.121

Wesleyans in Wales

by Jennifer Hurd.

Happy Wesley Day! Today, Methodists (and others) remember how, on the evening of 24th May 1738, John Wesley went “very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street”. There he heard a reading from Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and, as he wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[i] The rest is history. From then on, under the leadership of John and his brother Charles, the Methodist movement grew and changed the face of eighteenth century Britain. Among other gifts, Wesley’s tireless commitment to preaching and his genius for organisation secured his place as a great Christian leader. When, in 2001, the BBC and the National Portrait Gallery conducted a poll to name 100 ‘Great Britons’, John Wesley came in at number 50.[ii]  I wonder if that position would have pleased him or not!

Committed Methodist as I am, I have sometimes felt uncomfortable in ecumenical circles about our occasionally almost hagiographic approach to John Wesley. When I was an Authorised URC Minister in the West Midlands, we didn’t make any special celebration of Richard Baxter. George Fox Day is 13th January, but how many of us actually know that? Wesley Day, however, is enshrined in the Methodist calendar, and John is remembered all year long – with good reason, of course. Yet I have found I shrink into myself a little when John Wesley is ‘bigged up’ (technical term!) at ecumenical gatherings. At least, I did until I was appointed to serve in Wales among Welsh-speaking Methodist congregations. Living and working in Wales has given me a new, deeper appreciation of John Wesley, his theology and its impact on society. If anything, we need Wesleyanism more than ever.

John Wesley didn’t speak Welsh. His languages included English, Greek and Hebrew, but not Welsh. While he was leading the Methodist Revival in the English language, a parallel movement was happening in Wales through the medium of Welsh, primarily under the leadership of Howell Harris. At first, Wesley was pleased to support Harris’s evangelistic work, leaving him and his colleagues to preach to the Welsh speakers, while he continued in English. However, rifts appeared over theological differences. Harris was a Calvinist, in contrast to Wesley’s Arminianism, and the Methodist movement through the medium of Welsh developed under Calvinistic theological influences. While Wesley preached that all can be saved, Harris took a more selective approach, teaching that salvation was reserved for an elect predestined group of people alone. The two leaders parted company. It wasn’t until 1800, when Thomas Coke sent Welsh-speaking preachers to Wales, as he had he established missions to other nations, that Welsh-speakers heard the Wesleyan message in their own language.

There are therefore two traditions of Methodism in Wales – Calvinistic (later the Presbyterian Church of Wales) and Wesleyan. Welsh-language Wesleyanism has never been numerically strong, yet there are those such as Tad (Father) Deiniol of the Wales Orthodox Mission (himself the grandson of a Welsh Wesleyan minister), who believe that its influence has far outweighed its size, both theologically and socially.[iii]  The open, inclusive approach of Wesleyan Arminianism may have been the salt and light that helped church and society in nineteenth century Wales to maintain a more generous, open approach. The Arminian influence of the ‘Wesla’ – however small – has enriched Wales, and the denomination’s contribution to Welsh life and culture has not been insignificant, in spite of its size.

John Wesley preached in a time of great social and political change. He proclaimed an all-embracing, all-encompassing gospel of love in a period of enormous division, discrimination, injustice and unrest, and encouraged and practised an activism that embodied it. This resonates with our own time. Part of me wants to cry out, “John Wesley, where are you now?” Part of me knows that the same Spirit of all-inclusive love that inspired and motivated Wesley is with us still, and the work is ours to do. A relatively small group of Wesleyans who believed that Christ died for all helped to change nineteenth century Welsh society. There is no reason why the same cannot happen anywhere today.


[i] P.L. Parker, Wesley’s Journal (abridged), (London: Ibister & Company Ltd, 1903), 43 

[ii] John Cooper, Great Britons: The Great Debate, (London: National Portrait Gallery), 9

[iii] Opinion expressed in informal personal conversation