Life, the Universe, and Everything

“In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth, [everything] was a formless void and darkness…”[1]

by Sheryl Anderson.

It is hard to imagine a time when all that existed was darkness, when you could travel in any direction for millions of years and still see absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, this is the story that scientists tell us of the “dark ages” that gripped the Universe before the first stars ignited. Furthermore, they hope very shortly, to be able to show us that time, or rather how that time ended – how the cosmos ultimately became filled with light. What is commonly referred to as the ‘Big Bang’.

Along with many, I have been fascinated by the images of the furthest parts of the cosmos created by the James Webb Telescope, which is able to gaze further into the cosmos than any telescope before it; thanks to its enormous mirror and its instruments that focus on the part of the light spectrum known as infrared, allowing it to peer through dust and gas. This type of light isn’t visible to the human eye, but the telescope has no problem detecting it. In fact the telescope’s incredible features allow it to see deeper back in time to the Big Bang, which happened 13.8 billion years ago.

In his book Helgoland[2], Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist, tells the story of the birth of quantum physics and the bright young scientists who were to become some of the 20th Century’s most famous Nobel prize winners in science. He particularly focusses on Werner Heisenberg who, in June 1925, retreated to the treeless, wind battered island of Helgoland (Heligoland) in the North Sea in order to think. What Heisenberg wanted to think about was the physical properties of nature at the scale of atomic and subatomic particles. This was the beginning of quantum mechanics, an understanding of matter based on probabilities rather than certainties.

Heisenberg was fascinated by the relationship between subatomic particles. Many years later, reflecting on the theory, Heisenberg wrote, “Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection (between subatomic particles) though we can only speak of it in images and parables.”[3] Heisenberg was a devout Lutheran and appreciated that humans are able to give an account of the physical world only in as far as their language and experimental tools permit.

In his book Rovelli makes an extraordinary statement. He suggests that, at the subatomic level, particles have no properties in themselves, properties only exist in the relationships between the particles. He beautifully describes the world we touch as ‘a fabric woven by relations’; where we, as every other thing around us, exist in our interactions with one another.

For Christians, Advent is season of reflective preparation for the birth of Christ. A time of hopeful expectation of the arrival of Jesus ‘in the flesh’ as a new born infant. However, for many the idea of God taking on mortality in order to join in with God’s creation seems like a fairy tale. Many other faith traditions and the Greek and Roman myths are full of stories of the gods assuming human form, often to seduce or trick a particular individual. In Christian theology there are lots of plausible and sophisticated explanations about why God would do such a thing, and debates about how God might do such a thing greatly tested the Early Church, creating a theological crisis focused on the nature of Christ.  This culminated in the nuanced language of the Nicene Creed in 325, which seemed to bring an end of the matter. To the modern Western mind, much of this seems archaic and irrelevant.

But… what if Rovelli is right? What if particles (which is what everything is made of) have no properties (qualities, characteristics) in themselves but properties exist only in the relationships between the particles? That everything that exists does so, not in itself, but in its interactions with other things. In which case, how about this for a description of what God does in Jesus? How about this for a description of what the person of Jesus offer us – a connection with God that we can fully understand although we can only speak of it in images and parables. Perhaps the means for God to join in with God’s creation is built into the very fabric of the Universe.

[1] Genesis 1:1-2 NRSV translation, edited for emphasis.

[2] Rovelli, Carlo, Helgoland, Allen Lane; (2021)

[3] Heisenberg, Werner, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, Harper & Row; (1971)

The Gospel in a Material World: How do we Preach Good News in the ‘Immanent Frame’?

by Ben Pugh.

Understanding the Immanent Frame: How did we get here?

The Immanent Frame[1] is a way of looking at the world which limits itself to the immanent, to the down-to-earth and here-and-now. Those most caught up in it tend to be devoutly materialist since the Immanent Frame was created ultimately by the long-established conviction within Western philosophy that humans lack capacity for the knowledge of transcendent things. We must therefore limit our knowledge to the stuff of the world.

When it comes to these immanent things we have, by contrast, become immensely capable. Take cell theory. Cell biologists can literally describe what life is, and do so in eye-wateringly granular detail. They can describe all the organelles within a cell – chromosomes, mitochondria, nucleus – which work together to ensure that both the cell and its host are alive. They can describe the components and the electric pulses that make life happen. As believers, we might be quick to point out that biologists cannot say what life ultimately is, or what ultimately powers it along, but our voices echo out across a culture that has been habituated never to ask such questions and does not see the point of them. It is a world without wonder, and averse to mystery.

Perhaps surprisingly, our culture’s immanentism has long been acknowledged to be an outworking of Christian beliefs, which explains why secularity has taken such firm root within historically Christian countries. The Bible itself presents us with a God who is distinct from creation, and a creation that does not emanate directly from him and hence, by implication at least, can be engaged with by itself with no reference to God or the transcendent realm. The Biblical authors ardently proclaim an anti-idolatrous distinction between the divine and the not-divine. This divide, according to some sociologists, was then further cemented by the way Protestantism emphasised the private study of the Word, separation from the world and personal conversion. These individualising moves further reinforced the hiving off of supernatural from natural, transcendent from immanent and private values from public facts.

Before Protestantism arose, the possibility of an exclusively immanent outlook was kept at bay for as long as people viewed the world in a basically Platonic way. Platonism had long reinforced Christianity’s view of the world as participating in the divine. Even in its fallenness, the world was understood to be the still-glorious product of God’s heavenly world of original forms that gave meaning, definition and substance to the earthly realm. Even without the aid of Platonic metaphysics, the Christian version of immanence was an immanence that participated in the transcendent at every point. It was an immanence within transcendence. And it is the possibility of tapping into a world beyond us that has been largely lost to the modern imagination. It crops up these days mainly in the far-fetched fictions of silver-screen superheroes whose earthly weaknesses can be spectacularly transfigured by an all-conquering force from beyond.

Where are we heading?

Commentators seem unanimous that people cannot survive within a purely flat, disenchanted universe. We instinctively believe that there is depth to it. Though the culture tells us that what we see is all there is to know, we are aware that the universe is full of impenetrable mystery. Even Karl Popper was sure that what we know is finite, hence our ignorance, according to him, is infinite. When people become aware of their ignorance of the unfamiliar, and of their boredom with a disenchanted universe, they find themselves asking that question, ‘Isn’t there more to life than this?’ For as long as people keep asking this, it is unlikely that the secular outlook will entirely cancel faith. It is even less likely that the long-predicted extinction of religion from modern life will ever happen, as most secularisation theorists now agree. In fact, the strange paradox is that many of those who do not attend church today want us who are devout to carry on being religious for them.

What do we do?

The task we seem to face today, as preachers and teachers of the people that God sends our way, seems to have a lot in common with previous generations of Christian thinkers whose task it was to proclaim the good news during previous episodes in the history of our culture’s rejection of transcendence. I think of the radical materialism of Hobbes and Bacon and the counter-moves made by the Cambridge Platonists, and later by George Berkeley. I think of the onward march of modernity in the nineteenth century and the alternative worldview offered by John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, and of modernity’s further triumphs in the twentieth century and the alternative perspectives offered by the literary outputs of the Inklings. Between them, these thinkers have opened our eyes to a speaking universe, a sacramental world, and a sanctified imagination within which a greater world, more real than this one, can be accessed.

None of this directly answers my question, ‘How do we preach good news in the Immanent Frame,’ but it suggests a strong New Testament ally in our task: the one who penned: ‘In the beginning was the Word . . .’ (John 1:1).

[1] A term coined by Charles Taylor

I’m scared…

by Elaine Lindridge.

I’m scared…

Another country’s government swings to the right.
Another newspaper headline spouts lies about refugees.
Another calamity linked to climate change.
Another foodbank runs out of food.
Another ‘warm space’ opens as if this were somehow normal.
Another change in the law erodes my rights to protest.
Another woman cuts her hair in Iran.
Another recession.

I’m content…

My home is warm and my belly is full.
My family are wonderful.
My diary has a holiday in it.
My work is fulfilling.
My budget balances.
My faith is in One who is faithful.

Now before you worry about me, let’s each be honest with ourselves. How many of us have emotions and responses to life that fluctuate frenetically from positive to negative? The writers of the Psalms obviously experienced this too. Many of these timeless songs start in dismay and move to hope. Then the next psalm, dismay, hope, and so it continues.

Panto season will soon be upon us, and I’m reminded of the slapstick character who fails to  see that someone is right next to them even as the audience shouts, ‘he’s behind you!’. We can look at characters in the Bible and see the ending of their story without really engaging in the trauma of the ups and downs they faced. A blasé approach that nonchalantly concedes that God will sort it out in the end.

But when we are in the midst of rapidly changing times and we’re trying to navigate the turbulent seas of life, our view of God might sometimes be obscured. Maybe on the days when we’re not sure where God is, we need to remember that there’s a cloud of witnesses shouting, ‘God’s behind you….and beside you, and all around you.’ (Hebrews 12:1)

This is going to sound incredibly obvious, but at either end of these emotions is the need to breathe. The pioneer community that I am part of has weekly zoom prayers and we use a liturgy we have written ourselves. A refrain that runs through it is this,

Rooted in the mystery,
wonder and power of the Great Creator
who shows us how to breathe.

So on the days that are good, when the sky is blue and I’m living my best life, I pause and breathe deeply, remembering that I am rooted in the mystery, wonder and power of the Great Creator.

And on the days when the News is overwhelming and debilitating, and fear creeps into my soul, I pause and breathe deeply, remembering that I am rooted in the mystery, wonder and power of the Great Creator.

Take a moment right now.
Don’t rush.



Acknowledge your fears.
Relish your contentment.
Listen as the crowd of witnesses point to the God who surrounds you.

And know deep in your being that you are rooted in the mystery, wonder and power of the Great Creator who shows you how to breathe.

Bargaining with God

by Philip Sudworth.

In a poll for Time magazine a third of USA Christians surveyed agreed with the statement – “If you give money to God, God will bless you with more money.” This is a response to the message of some popular preachers who suggest that, if you are generous to God, he will be generous to you.  Your business will flourish, or you’ll get a better job, or you’ll be healthier.  We may dismiss such bargaining with God as materialistic and self-centred, and a long way from the teaching and example of Jesus.  Yet a more subtle form of bargaining with God is found in the style of Christianity which focuses primarily on how we get to Heaven – the everlasting benefits of being a Christian. Here the major payback is deferred until the next life or until the new earth is established, but the motivation is much the same – the emphasis is on the rewards that faithfulness to the right beliefs will bring. 

Of course, there are tremendous advantages from being a Christian. In addition to the eternal blessings, studies show a significant increase in spiritual and psychological well-being, which comes from knowing that one is loved and accepted and also from a sense of purpose, and this impacts positively on physical health.  We should celebrate the gifts of faith. Yet, if people become Christians in order that God will protect them, heal them, forgive them or reward them; if it’s all about them and how they’re going to benefit, then is it really faith? Surely, faith is about entering into a relationship with God without self-interest.  That may seem rather strange in our materialistic society, where so many people want to know – “What’s in it for me?” 

However, it’s easy to understand the truth of it, if you’ve been in love.  Love is about wanting the well-being of the one you love.  It’s about putting the other first.  You’ll collect your teenager from a party at 2 am because you put her/his safety above your sleep.  You’ll stand on the touchline on a cold, wet day to support your child in her/his sport.  You’ll take your spouse to a concert of music which s/he loves but you hate.  Love is for the hard times as well as the easy ones.  Loving makes you vulnerable.   You hurt when your loved one hurts; you open yourself to rejection and to grief.  The more deeply you love, the more you open yourself to being hurt. 

Jesus’ message to us about what is at the heart of faith is also far more about offering than taking.  There is a large element of self-sacrifice involved.  “If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.”  (Matt 16:24).  That’s hardly the most popular saying of Jesus.  You don’t find it very often on wayside pulpits!  It’s not a very good recruitment slogan.  We much prefer to stress the positive; what we get out of being a Christian.  So we talk much more often about the power of God to solve our problems; the riches of God to supply our needs; the love of God to care for us and look after us. Yet we are called to follow Christ, and following Jesus is at least as much about being spent as being saved.  Being “cross-centred” should not just mean turning our back on the world as we gaze in wonder at the cross.  We have to place ourselves by the cross, at the heart of our hurting world, and see what Jesus saw and loved in people, even as he suffered.

Faith is about far more than assuring one’s own survival and salvation and/or gaining God’s favour during this life.  We are not called to be slaves of God who respond out of fear of the consequences if we don’t obey.  Nor are we called to be servants who look to the rewards we are promised if we fulfil our role satisfactorily.  We are called to be children of God, called to a relationship of love – firstly with God and then with our fellow human beings.  Self-sacrificing love has its costs, and we can get hurt. We might have to give up something we really want. If we care for people, they may still reject us or take out their frustration and hopelessness on us. Challenging injustice and proclaiming freedom can mean confronting vested interests and that can be dangerous.  Opening ourselves up in self-sacrificing love is a risk but it means that we are also open to receive all the love that can flood into us. 

John Wesley saw wholeness and harmony in the lives of those who have “a faith that works by divine love in the crucible of everyday life.”[1] ‘Shalom’, with its sense of complete peace, wholeness, well-being and harmony, isn’t something we’ll find by bargaining with God or by striving for it.  It will find us when we focus on working with God to bring peace and blessing to others.

Points to Ponder:

  1. How do you explain to non-believers why being a Christian is so worthwhile?
  1. What does “Take up your cross” mean in your life?

[1] Dieter, Melvin, Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p.12

Towards a Postcolonial Methodist Church in Britain

by Raj Bharat Patta.

In September 2022, I attended the Church of South India’s Platinum jubilee celebrations in Chennai to represent the Methodist Church in Britain as a mission partner.  When the Church of South India (CSI) sent an invitation to the Methodist Church in Britain to join them at their platinum jubilee celebrations, they were expecting a White English British person. But when I landed in Chennai, it was a total surprise for the hosts to see yet another Indian who was speaking a native South Indian language representing the Methodist Church in Britain. A participant asked me whether I ‘really’ represent British Methodist Church? I had to reply with a smile, ‘certainly yes.’

The reason for their surprise was, how come an Indian Lutheran minister now attending a CSI celebration representing the Methodist Church in Britain? All I had to say was that the Methodist Church in Britain today is a postcolonial church seeking to be relevant for our times by celebrating multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilinguistic identities, for which I, as a person with multiple-belongings stand as a testimony. However, that made me think to reflect what does it mean for the Methodist Church in Britain to be postcolonial today?

Clive Marsh while reflecting on theology in a postcolonial key, identifies domination, privilege and power that needs contestation along with a critique of imperialism and colonialism, celebrating the perspectives and theologies ‘from the underside.’[1] The project of postcolonialism in the context of church is an attempt to de-imperialise liturgy, doctrines and practices of the church. And in our quest for a postcolonial Methodist church in Britain today, the call for us as a church is to recognise the ‘undersides’ of our society and to be a ‘church of the undersides,’ contesting all forms of oppressive powers that discriminate and subordinate people.

On my trip to India, my friends have asked me how do I cope serving my current congregation in the UK whose membership is only 40 in comparison to the 400 people who were on my membership when I served the local congregation in India? I had to reply to them saying, “I might have only 40 people in my local church, but God has called me to serve and minister to the 40,000 people who live in my neighbourhood in the UK, and that keeps me busy meeting to their demands.” Colonial Christianity has defined church and ministry with membership and has emphasised the primary call of the church is to meet to the needs of its members alone. However, postcolonial church is not bound by the membership of the church, rather it is called to reclaim Wesley’s ecclesiology of “the world is my parish and every street corner is my pulpit,” and work with and in the public sphere. This is to engage in doing public theology and public theological mission, working with the world around us, striving towards transformation of the society, which is a mark of Christian discipleship.

The other area for us to be a postcolonial church is with regards to the understanding of partnerships as mutual sharing. If the Methodist Church in Britain and the CSI have been working as mission partners for the last 75 years, what are the new hymns and liturgies that the Methodist Church in Britain have learnt from the CSI and have used them in their local congregations to celebrate the global relationships between the two churches? This is where I am suggesting to affirm in the reverse missional engagements of the people from the global majority heritage in the UK. The colonial understanding of partnerships thrived on the binary of donor and receiver, where the church in the West worked as a donor, with the churches in the global south as receivers. A postcolonial Methodist Church in Britain should mutually learn from their mission partners on mission and theology and consciously sing the vernacular hymns/songs in our churches, for mission is about ‘singing the (strange) Lord’s song in our strange land.’

To celebrate October as Black History Month, I wanted my church to sing ‘we shall overcome’ and ‘this little light of mine’ the two most famous freedom songs from the civil rights movement. I was surprised that none of these songs are found in any of the hymn books that we use in our church. Perhaps, in our movement towards being and becoming a postcolonial church in Britain, my dream is to see freedom songs from different contexts incorporated in our hymnary. 

A postcolonial Methodist Church in Britain is about being prophetic and justice seeking by contesting the evils of racism, misogyny, patriarchy, classism, secularism, poverty, hunger, climate change, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia. It is about celebrating inclusion of all people, where love is the common denominator.

Let me conclude with the words of an Indian theologian Vinayaraj as a call for us as a Methodist Church in Britain to be a postcolonial church in the 21st century British society:

“A church that finds its life only in prayers and sacraments and liturgical acts and that which do not reflect its responsible faith in the world of injustice and exploitation is a failed church. It never fulfils its call and commission to be the sign and sacrament of the coming kingdom. In such a situation, faith gets fossilised, practice becomes imperialised, and the community becomes closed and triumphalistic. A creed that is closed for ever becomes idol and will make the worshipping community stagnant and saturated.”[2]

Help us O God for us to be a church relevant for our times by being a postcolonial church with love as our public witness.


[2] Y. T. Vinayaraj, Faith in the Age of Empire, (New Delhi: ISPCK/CWM, 2020) P. xxiii

Towards a Re-Discovery of God in Critical Times

by Neil Richardson.

Is the Church weighing us down? A conscientious Methodist told me once that she needed a Sunday off! When our churches are numerically declining, we easily forget that supporting the Church and keeping it going isn’t our job; it’s the Holy Spirit’s.

But that decline continues, and it’s tempting to go for growth (to coin a phrase currently fashionable). Yet evangelism with church growth as its aim isn’t really evangelism; it’s proselytizing.

Many people in our churches seem reluctant to talk about God. Money-raising events often attract greater numbers than services of worship. Church-centred Christianity struggles on when something deeper is needed.

I once asked a group of students which words are indispensable if we’re explaining the Christian faith to someone who doesn’t share it. ‘Jesus’, ‘love’ and ‘life’ certainly, but also, I think, ‘God’. That word is so misunderstood we can’t avoid it. But there is another reason. Our President and Vice-President are reminding us that the first commandment is to love God with all our hearts. How can a person who has fallen in love not talk about the love of their life?

But what or who are we talking about? Certainly, a Mystery. The name of God in the Bible is a verb rather than a noun:

‘I will be what I will be.’[1]

The future tense is appropriate to the story the Bible tells. God’s covenant with all creation (Noah), and with Israel (God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) , and then, through Jesus, with all humankind, runs through the whole of Scripture. This future perspective, the divine promise, is especially important as we face the existential threat of climate change.

The Christian faith in our day is changing. Many factors have contributed: two world wars, twentieth century genocides, the accelerating pace of history and much more. We should not be alarmed by this change. Both change and continuity are built into our faith because of God’s coming amongst us in Jesus.

The Incarnation wasn’t a mere episode in the life of God. God ‘took up residence’ amongst us (John 1.14). In this incarnation the cross and resurrection of Jesus reveal the eternal suffering and triumph of the Creator God, who dared to bring homo sapiens into being, with all the grief that would entail. (Genesis 6-8 tell the story).

We need to re-discover this story for a world threatened with self-destruction. Two themes, especially, need to be recovered and shared. First, God’s providence at work in our human history which the prophets perceived. But, second, the refreshing of our belief in what we used to call ‘the Second Coming’ of Christ. ‘The day of Christ’ is more biblical. It means the coming together of heaven and earth, as the final chapters of Revelation show. The Apocalypse, like the New Testament as a whole, is about the climax of God’s creative purposes which began with the incarnation.

We easily miss how Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Son of Man develops in Paul’s writings: first, we have Jesus coming ‘with all his saints’ (1 Thessalonians 3.13), and, later, ‘the revelation of the sons and daughters of God’, (Romans 8.19), which ushers in the healing of all creation (v.21).

We can’t imagine the final coming together of heaven and earth, this merging of time and eternity. But the New Testament teaches that this ‘day of Christ’ is the climax of what the Church came to call the incarnation. Whenever, in the providence of God, that comes about, there will be ‘life in all its fulness’, as God promised through his prophets. And, as St Paul explained to the church at Thessalonika, no previous generation will be left out.

For now ‘Babylon’, the kingdom of Mammon, is still with us, hell-bent on destroying God’s creation. But already, as the early Church’s addition to the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, ‘Yours is the Kingdom, the power and the glory’ (compare Revelation 11.15).

 Disciples of Jesus can join others who are resisting Mammon’s malign influence. In these crisis-ridden days, we are called to be as ‘wise as serpents’, and never ‘lose heart’, (Luke 18.1). Re-discovering, waking up to God is vital.[2]

[1] The future tense probably reflects the Hebrew better than the more familiar ‘I   am what I am’.

[2] See my Waking Up to God. Re-discovering faith in post-pandemic times, (Sacristy Press, September 2022).

What is happening around us?

by John Howard.

It is most probably impossible to get a true perspective upon history that is happening around you. However, the years we are living through might well look like a highly significant time when viewed from a later age. That is of course assuming that a later age does ever exist! The COVID pandemic has had a huge impact upon human life across the world. The war in Ukraine has brought conflict back into the continent of Europe for the first time in many years and Russia’s threat to use weapons of mass destruction suggest that boundaries are about to be crossed that have never been crossed before. Dwarfing even those challenges remains the threat to the environment that human abuse of the planet is bringing about. We live in troubled times. “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars….” (Mark 13:7 NRSV)

Reflecting upon the chaos that seems to be everywhere around us in the world, Jesus’ dialogue with the disciples in Mark 13 came to mind. The background was of course that Jesus himself lived in pretty unstable times and clearly saw the prospects of the destruction of Jerusalem, and temple worship there, as likely, indeed seemingly inevitable. Most commentators upon this chapter[1] suggest that it needs to be looked at with a consciousness that sections of the chapter refer to differing things, and indeed differing periods of history, verses 1-8 considers the uncertainties of the future, 9-14 looks at coming persecutions, verses 14-23 predicts the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Other sections of the chapter focus upon differing questions and attempting to bring them together is perilous. The writer of Mark’s Gospel has brought into the one chapter a disparate set of sayings of Jesus.

It was however the later verses in the chapter – from verse 28 onwards that had caught my attention recently when I was looking over a liturgy for a service conducted at Greenbelt. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branches become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” The author of Mark is clearly reporting Jesus as saying to his listeners – you can read the signs of the seasons around you – then likewise read the signs from the world around you. The chapter continues with the parable of the absentee landlord with its warning: “and what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The signs of the times are around us everywhere we look. Signs of the deterioration of the environment, signs of increasing willingness to achieve national ambition by force of arms, signs of humanity’s vulnerability to disease. We might well say that it’s not a lack of signs that is the problem, it’s how to read them! What does this chaos mean? How should Christians respond?

Christians seeking to predict the future have used Mark 13 and other passages of a similar nature to claim an association between events around them in history and these apocalyptic passages. A cool biblical examination of such attempts have always indicated the false nature of such attempts – and I have no intention in engaging in such practice now.

However I do want to ask the question “Given the time we are going through – how should we respond?” A verse from the middle of chapter 13 seems to give a clue – in verse 13 we read “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Tom Wright in his commentary “Mark for Everyone”[2] comments of this chapter “The resulting command then is not ‘sit down and work out a prophetic timetable – always a more exciting thing to do – but ‘keep awake and watch.’ The little church in the first generation cannot afford to settle down and assimilate itself either to the Jewish or the Pagan world.” The church of today has many more resources and many more members but the warning echoes out across the years to us – we too cannot afford to assimilate ourselves into contemporary society either in the materialism that has been a major factor in leading us to where we are today, or the despair and hopelessness that characterises many people’s response the chaos around us. We need to hear the assertion of the chapter and hang on in there. The times may be hard – and they may well get harder still – but the theological response to the chaos around us is the cry from this chapter – “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Or we could say in the words of a well known hymn….’Trust and Obey!’

[1] See for example Eduard Schweizer The Good News according to Mark, (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1970)

[2] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, (London: SPCK, 2014)

Friendship and Ecumenism

by Ruth Gee.

On 3 October 2022, Boris Johnson was appointed President of the Conservative Friends of Ukraine. President Zelensky has described Mr Johnson as a “big friend” of his country because he offered support to Ukraine. The model of friendship seen here is that of a relationship developed in response to need in the context of a threat to both parties and complicated by power dynamics.

Why hast thou cast our lot
In the same age and place,
And why together brought
To see each other’s face,
To join with loving sympathy
And mix our friendly souls in thee?[i]

The lot of Mr Zelensky and Mr Johnson is cast in the same age and place, but the relationship described by Charles Wesley is more profound that their power laden friendship.

Charles Wesley is describing Christian friendship, grounded in a relationship with the God of truth and love. Such friendship is not transient, it is costly, formative and enables each to grow in understanding of themselves, the other and God. I suggest such friendship is the most fruitful basis for ecumenism and that it works well as apologetic for ecumenism within the ethos of British Methodism.

Here is an outline of some supporting points.

  1. The biblical basis for an understanding of friendship between followers of Jesus as rooted and grounded in the relationship with the God of truth and love is found in the fourth gospel and particularly in John’s gospel, chapters 15:1-17 and 21:15-19.

Jesus calls his disciples friends. They are servants no longer, servants merely obey, friends share a common purpose and understanding. They are Jesus’ friends invited into a relationship with him that enables them to participate in the relationship of Jesus with the Father. Here is a common vision, a binding of hearts, friendship within which the greatest love can be expressed in the laying down of life. In the context of such friendship agape and philia, often distinguished as self-giving love and friendship, are so subtly distinct as to become interchangeable.

In his recently published commentary on the fourth gospel, David Ford argues that the use of two Greek words for “love” in chapter 21 is a deliberate device to point the reader back to the identity of the followers of Jesus as friends abiding in love.[ii]

2. The nature of friendship has been explored in a number of ancient  texts. Gabrielle Thomas has paid particular attention to Aquinas in an article published in “Ecclesiology.”[iii]  Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that friendship must include benevolence and reciprocity which is only possible where there is some kind of equality. Human friendship with God is only possible through God’s love, Jesus calls his disciples friends so through the incarnation we are drawn into friendship with God. We offer friendship grounded in the love of God to one another. Crucially this is how we can offer friendship to those with whom we disagree, because God’s love is for all.

3. Friendship that is gracious and reciprocal necessitates an openness to learning from one another. There is vulnerability in friendship as we accept that we are not perfect and may need to change as we receive from the other.

4. Friendship is a motif that is embedded in British Methodism, for example in our understanding of connexionalism.

“Relationship is at the heart of connexionalism. Methodist structures and practice seek to express and witness to “a mutuality and interdependence which derive from the participation of all Christians through Christ in the very life of God” (Called to Love and Praise, §4.6.1).”[iv]

The connexion is diverse, at its best Methodism seeks to learn from the experience and insights of others.

David Chapman has written about friendship as ecumenical method in Methodism in his essay in The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies.[v] The way in which this method has been worked out has varied over the years as the emphasis in ecumenism has changed.

These points are neither fully explored nor exclusive but I suggest that  the call to friendship, a call rooted in the command of Jesus and the love of God, cannot be denied. Friendship is life enhancing and life changing, it brings joy and challenge and it is the beginning and the goal, the source and the summit of ecumenism.

Through our ecumenical relationships we offer and receive friendship, and model the depth of Christian friendship possible for those who accept the friendship of Jesus. Such friendship is of a different quality from politically expedient and power laden friendships however genuinely they are offered.

[i] Singing The Faith 620

[ii] David F Ford , The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, Baker Academic (2021) 426

[iii] Thomas G, ‘Mutual Flourishing’ in the Church of England: Learning from St Thomas Aquinas, Ecclesiology 15 (2019) 302-321

[iv] and this is expressed in the Conference report, The Gift of Connexionalism (2017).

[v] Chapman David M, The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, OUP (2020), 101-120

Oaks of Righteousness

by Inderjit Bhogal.

Isaiah 61:1-3 (See also Psalm 1:3; Jer 17:7-8; Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus cited this text as the basis of his life and ministry (Luke 4:18-19). He prioritises those who are excluded and hurting. Here is a basis of our life and ministry, as followers of Christ.

I am intrigued by the way Oaks and righteousness are brought together in Isaiah 61:3.

Righteousness is central in Hebrew understandings of God.

In God’s first instruction to people within the two covenants (Genesis 9 and 12), justice and righteousness are linked, the “way” of God is revealed as “doing what is right and just” (Genesis 18:17-19). This is what brings about the completion of the will of God. Fairness and impartiality in the rule of law, and sharing of the benefits of belonging together is what is held together here. Justice in law. Justice in love. Retributive justice. Restorative justice. This is a constant thread in the Bible, and in the words of Isaiah, God is “laying a foundation stone…and…will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet..” (Isaiah 28: 16,17). Jesus understood and practiced this tradition (Luke 4). 

Righteousness is clear. What does “Oaks” refer to? The Hebrew text of Isaiah 61:3 speaks more of a leader of a flock. The word translated “Oaks” also speaks of a projecting pillar, which perhaps is why a tree comes to mind, a lofty, strong, enduring tree. This is what a good leader is, like a tree planted by God, displaying the glory of God.

Oaks have been special in human existence for centuries. They have been a source of food, shelter, healing properties, holding things (like soil) together. Bringing Oaks and righteousness together speaks of the deep rootedness, and robustness of righteousness and justice. Like Oaks, righteousness and justice, and good leaders withstand the test of time and trials.

The idea of “oaks of righteousness” is significant, a metaphor for living how God wants us to be and live.

What is to be a leader, and to live as Oaks of righteousness, reflecting the glory of God?

  • Walk with those who mourn
  • Be good news to the poor/disadvantaged/excluded
  • Bind up the broken hearted
  • Bring liberty to the captives, the oppressed, and release to the prisoners
  • Seek the Kingdom of God and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

Those who live and serve like this are “Oaks of righteousness”. They are pleasing to God, and a delight, a model for others. They are “Oaks of righteousness, a planting of God for the display of his splendour”. Biblically, “Oaks” are symbols of the angels and prophets of God (Genesis 18:1; Judges 6:11; 1 Kings 19:4,5).

Who comes to your mind as we think of Oaks of Righteousness? We remember those who have been Oaks, and pillars of strength to us and in Church and society, and who have died.

What are the values of being Oaks of Righteousness?

  • Strength: In the confidence God is with us
  • Healing: reflecting the ministry of Christ, binding the broken hearted, what is good for communities and individuals, upholding equality and diversity and inclusion, working for forgiveness, peace and reconciliation, non-violent, all this is “good news”
  • Passion: embracing the cost of such a ministry, bearing the cross
  • Hope: always keeping hope alive, liberty, upholding Kingdom values

When we live like this, we direct our decisions and life by the values of God, and honour God, and grow into who/how God wants us to be and use our lives to make life better for all, to make the world a better place for all. We are inspired by those who are and have been Oaks of Righteousness.

“Oaks of Righteousness”, this is the framework of our lives, these are the values in which we are rooted and grounded. These values help us to endure storms and droughts as we seek to serve God.

Making a Difference: Situational Analysis

by Anthony Reddie.

This Spectrum paper is a report on a talk given by Professor Anthony Reddie at the Spectrum conference in May 2022.

In Anthony’s three talks participants were encouraged to engage in Bible studies in which they were challenged to think critically around how scripture can provide a means of interpreting the world.

In this first talk participants engaged in a Bible study entitled ‘Situational Analysis’. Anthony began by sharing some stories from growing up in working class Bradford. He reflected on the role that the church as a whole, and Methodism in particular, played in helping him to dissect the world and to see how issues of power, politics and preference were played out in terms of how societies were organised and who was affirmed and who was not.

The Bible study was based on Matthew 25: vv. 14-30 – the Parable of the Talents. Participants were split into three groups (each one identifying with a character in the story) and were asked ‘Why do you do what you do?’ When the participants returned from their group discussions, they were asked for their reflections. Then, offering a postcolonial hermeneutic, he encouraged them to connect their reflections with his, in order to challenge the more spiritualised reading of this text.

A postcolonial, materialistic reading is one where the socio-political perspectives in which the text was located (in this case, Roman imperialism of Judea, and a reminder that it is the Romans who crucify Jesus and not his fellow Jewish people) are put to the fore and they are taken into account when compared to our contemporary experiences of empire and exploitation.

It goes without saying that most of the participants in character, did not love the master. In fact one might even say that perhaps the actions of the third person of the three different characters (servants or slaves depending on which translation we read) towards him are more honest than those of the other two. For whereas the other two do not give any great indication that they love him, nevertheless they still go along with his wishes and seek to operate within the framework of his expectations and power. But the third servant does not hide his or her lack of affection for him. Instead, he simply gives him back his money and asks him to be happy with it.

Well! We all know what happened to him for daring to question the master’s authority.

The critical question posed by Anthony was why countless generations of believers had been convinced to see this parable as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God?

Why is a cruel and greedy master seen as a synonym for God? Why do we believe that the Kingdom of God has anything to do with the final verse which states ‘To those that have much, more will be given to them, but to those who have little, even the little they have will be taken from them’. This sounds more like a critique of neo-liberal capitalism that has invariably underpinned the modern incarnations of empire as opposed to the generous and loving kindness that underpins the Kingdom of God.

When the participants were asked to inhabit the characters of the three servants in this biblical text, that was an opportunity to go beyond the spiritualized ways in which the reading and interpretation of these stories have often been taught and into one that asks you to live the reality of the people at the centre of this narrative. When the real, lived realities of these characters are placed alongside the historical experience of Black peoples, and then interpreted in light of these experiences, suddenly a new interpretation of the text emerges. Black theology is a form of Christian-inspired reflection on the ways in which life should be lived under the guidance and sustenance of God, for the purposes of full life and liberation for those who are exploited and oppressed. It is informed by those who have been and continue to be exploited and cheated of their full rights, reflecting on the realities of their marginalization and using that as a means to reinterpret the basic meaning of the Christian faith.


1. How do you respond to this post-colonial way of interpreting this parable?

2. Are there any other of Jesus’ stories which need re-interpretation?

3. Reflect upon the context in which you feel we are situated today.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectruma community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are from talks by Prof Anthony Reddie and Rev’d Simon Sutcliffe on the theme ‘Being the Salt of the Earth (A look at some peace and justice issues)’. This is the second of six coming through the year.

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