The Great Divide

by Ben Pugh.

Sociologists of religion often seem unable to break free of an understanding of secularity as the absence of something. They proceed on the assumption that diminishing recourse to supernatural means entails the subtraction of a social behaviour – going to church – and their task, therefore, is to account for this subtraction. Philosophers tend to ask a different question: what has been added that makes belief in God seem so superfluous? What ideology, what belief system is this? It is in these philosophical reflections that I find the most help as I look out across a culture that, by and large, remains resolutely indifferent to faith.

The more I look at what secularity is the more I am struck by how utterly dependent it is for its existence on dualisms. It survives by declaring that there is a division between two realms. The one it carves out for itself as the ‘secular;’ the other realm it leaves all around the edges and calls it the ‘religious.’ It thrives by being able to police this boundary. Blur the boundary between the sacred and the secular, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, or, worse still, launch a forceful invasion of the realm of the secular, in the manner of Islamic extremism, and secularity suddenly gets a new lease of life. It sets to work developing new bureaucratic systems such as the Prevent strategy which exist to keep the secular realm sanitised of religious delusion.

Once I unmask secularism as a coherent belief system I might feel that I have it licked, and I sneer at it. But then I soon feel powerless: it is so utterly pervasive, and so a degree of frustration sets in. But lately I am thinking it might be better to approach the secular world in a spirit of repentance. And I think the need for this humility becomes apparent when we look at history.

The high Middle Ages saw the Church reach the very peak of its power: it was as powerful then as secularism is today. But the more the Church’s power became threatened, the more violent it became. The crusades against the Muslims were soon followed by the internal crusade against heresy: the Inquisitions. Then the Reformation happened. This might have brought to an end such terror, but it actually resulted in further violence: the Wars of Religion. These wars were ended at the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and were really the last straw for those who longed for a more tolerant society.  Religion’s association, in the European mind, with violence and contention runs very deep. After Westphalia, rational, secular government was hailed as the bringer of peace, and religion was put into what one historian has described as a “punishment corner,” [i] which is where it still is. The stage was set for secularism to take over the roles of Christendom piece by piece with a set of like-for-like replacements which kept God out of peoples’ thinking.

Meanwhile, long before the Peace of Westphalia, some subtle theological shifts had been taking place. First, William of Ockham’s philosophy led to the separating out of all earthly tangible things from heavenly transcendent things. He encouraged the notion that this earthly zone was the proper sphere of secular government while the mysteries of theology and religion were the business of the Church alone. Other theological developments gave us an all-powerful, overwhelmingly wilful deity who was utterly sovereign and inscrutable, a God removed from intimate involvement with his world, making deism, agnosticism and then atheism look more possible. Despite the efforts of Aquinas, the worlds of faith and reason had split asunder within Christianity itself.  

Over the following centuries, the Enlightenment project finished the job. Tragically, the push of Enlightenment naturalism was accompanied by the pull of supernaturalist Christian counter-cultures that preached the importance of true faith, of being holy and separate, or of being able to offer the dramatic counter-claim of supernatural gifts and signs and wonders. ‘Such a dualism,’ said Henri de Lubac, ‘just when it imagined that it was most successfully opposing the negations of naturalism, was most strongly influenced by it, and the transcendence in which it hoped to preserve the supernatural with such jealous care was, in fact, a banishment.’[ii]

Both of these factors: political and theological; deliberate and unintended, perhaps give some clarity to the unique situation we have in the West where religion is privatized. And, perhaps now more than ever there is a wide consensus that the convictions of religious people are best kept as a strictly private affair. It is assumed, in any case, that the true destiny of historic Christian morality is today’s tolerant, humanistic utopia governed by secular reason.

And so, I am wondering if the first step in reaching out is to recognise that, even though parts of this story I have told may involve forms of Christianity with which we would not personally identify, it is Christianity itself that is largely to blame for secularism’s triumph. Maybe our reluctance to say ‘sorry’ to our culture is precisely because it is always somebody else’s Christianity that is culpable, not ours.


[i] William T. Cavanaugh, “’A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House:’ The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” in Modern Theology, vol.11, issue 4, Oct 1995, 410.

[ii] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 313–314

Childlike faith

by Elain Lindridge.

I was sitting in park recently, trying to keep warm on a bench whilst reading my book. The unmistakable ‘clip-clop, clip-clop’ noise made me look up and notice two horses with their riders approaching. Apparently they too were out for their daily stroll. Ten minutes later I heard them again as they returned from the end of the park – only this time they had company! A young girl, I would guess around 9 years old, joyously running behind them with her younger friend trying to keep up. She turned to her friend and shouted,  ‘I want to go horse riding so I’m just going to hop on’. Her enthusiasm made me smile – as did her belief that she could just catch up, hop on and become a horse-rider.

Back to my book, I zoned out the activities of the park in order to read. I was reading Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. An excellent book in which Rachel does not shy away from the texts that have caused her to struggle. She shares some of her big questions and her journey back to an appreciation of the scriptures. I was particularly enjoying chapter 6 which asks ‘what is the good news?’ Rachel writes,

              ‘To the Galilean children who annoyed the disciples by asking Jesus for a         blessing, the good news is that Jesus is the kind of king who laughs at     their jokes and tousles their hair’.

A few minutes later, I saw the little girl walking back through the park.  I’d seen that she’d managed to catch up with the horse riders and she’d been talking with them. I’ll never know why she chose to approach me…there were plenty of other people around. Despite the fact that I hadn’t waved or even smiled she walked up and with a big smile on her face she simply stated, ’I’m going horse-riding tomorrow’.

I smiled and couldn’t help but think about Matthew 18:1-5

              … the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like  little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

At times, this passage has been used to encourage people to believe and not doubt or question their faith. In the same book, Rachel Held Evans has something to say about this;

              “I’ve often said that those who say having a childlike faith means not asking        questions haven’t met too many children.” 

As a 13 year old who was new to faith and new to church, I distinctly remember being rebuked when I came with all my questions. Fortunately a wonderful, older woman called Joyce took me under her wing and shared her answers alongside her own questions too.

To see this girl in the park with enough innocent conviction to believe that she could simply hop on a horse and become a rider was totally refreshing. Whilst I hadn’t even entertained the notion that she might be allowed to go horse-riding, her abundance of honestly, boldness and natural faith spilled out of her as she ran after the riders and presented them with her request.

In recent times my faith has been lacking. I’ve had far more questions than answers, and at times I’ve been afraid to even address those questions never mind look for any answers. How will we as a church cope as this pandemic continues? What will be left? How is my calling changing? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus when you can’t go anywhere? How do I share faith and demonstrate the love of God when I don’t see anyone beyond my household? What next? How will our Methodist structures cope under the strain? Should our structures cope or is it time for them to implode?

These are just some of my questions – please don’t judge me for my lack of faith. But in the dead of night when it is dark and still and sleep has hidden itself, questions circulate like a vulture and consume my thoughts. Perhaps you experience this too and could list the questions you dare not address.

So I am very happy to be reminded that it’s good to question. Like children perhaps we can come boldly before God and be honest about our uncertainties, doubts and unanswerable (at least for now) questions. It’s okay to humbly acknowledge, ‘we just don’t know’ and live with unresolved questions because God is still faithful, especially in times of uncertainty. But if we’re going to be like children then let’s also come before God with exuberance, innocence and expectant faith.

Oh Lord help me to be like the little girl – to expect, have faith, and received.

Love in a time of coronavirus

by Jonathan Pye.

In Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Fermina says, ‘nothing is more difficult than love.[i] Márquez somewhat bleakly characterises unrequited love as a kind of disease often fatal to those people infected by it – love in a time of often fatal disease has unmistakable resonances for us in this time of global pandemic.

Over the past months, when most of us have, by necessity, spent more time in our homes than out and about, one of the (few!) positives is that I have had more time to read those things that would otherwise have had to wait. One such is Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti[ii] – a document of some 43,000 words. While it focusses on contemporary social and economic problems, in this time of Covid-19 (which Francis sees as exposing the failure of the world to work together during the crisis) its breadth is truly exhausting – immigration, racism, social inequality, economic deprivation, international co-operation and relationships, individualism, the free-market and the common good, inter-religious dialogue.

What holds these themes together can be seen in the encyclical’s sub-title: ‘on fraternity and social friendship[iii]. Its central message is a call for greater solidarity between people and nations, and especially with the most vulnerable in society. Whilst I do not propose to summarise the encyclical, I want to select a few passages and to apply them to our current situation, admittedly in an undoubtedly nuanced way.

The notion of ‘neighbour’, a word which Francis uses frequently, especially with reference to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is an important thread that runs through the encyclical. What it means to relate to our neighbour, especially when the neighbour is perceived as ‘other’ to us, has been a key theme of our relationships both locally and nationally.

An example of this is the longstanding divide between North and South, which is in reality a divide between rich and poor, the socially advantaged and the socially disadvantaged, with its deleterious effects on education, health and life expectancy, which has in the current crisis become even more starkly delineated. It is seen in the damaging political disagreements between central government (based in the South) and many in local leadership (based in the North) which led, at least in some cases of regional ‘tiering’, to lockdowns in Northern cities and communities being imposed with no dialogue and often little notice. In such circumstances Francis’ statements that, ‘Destroying self-esteem is an easy way to dominate others…’[iv] and ‘the best way to dominate and gain control over people is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values’ [v] resonate poignantly.

And if such people ‘push back’ then we need to remember that, ‘often, the more vulnerable members of society are the victims of unfair generalizations’ [vi] and that such reactions arise out of a long history of scorn and social exclusion.Francis makes it clear that even when the ideas themselves may be good or well-intentioned, they are likely to be rejectedif they are ‘presented in a cultural garb that is not [peoples’] own and with which they cannot identify.’[vii]  Indeed, Francis goes so far as to liken the radical individualism and lack of social cohesion which consciously or unconsciously underpins such insensitive attitudes themselves to, ‘a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate’.[viii]

In the end, for Francis, everything depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles (what the New Testament characterises as metanoia) and the recognition that all people are our sisters and brothers, demonstrated, not least politically, in the exercise of self-giving love.

Having begun with a quote from Márquez’s novel, I end with another – words spoken by Florentino that distil the prolixity of Fratelli Tutti to a sentence: ‘Think of love,’ she says, ‘as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.’[ix]


[i] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).

[ii] http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html October 3rd 2020.

[iii] The title of the encyclical has attracted some criticism for its gendered language of ‘fraternity’, unfairly perhaps, because the title is a direct quotation from St Francis of Assisi and because, in the body of the text, Pope Francis speaks throughout of ‘all brothers and sisters’.

[iv] Fratelli Tutti, 52.

[v] Ibid., 15.

[vi] Ibid., 234.

[vii] Ibid., 219.

[viii] Ibid., 105.

[ix] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).

An Inclusive Church

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

by Tony Buglass.

Acts 10.1-33; 15.1-35

The church may either be inclusive of different types of people, or it may try to make everyone conform, excluding anyone ‘different’.  Following Jesus involves a journey, but that creates a tension between ‘God is leading us into new ways of living and believing’ and ‘we’ve always done it this way!’

The disciples were Aramaic-speaking Torah-observant Jews.  After Pentecost, the church began as Hebraic Torah-observant Messianic Jews with their own assembly, but also worshipping in the Temple. As the faith spread, it included not only converts from Pharisaic Judaism, more conservative regarding the Law, but Hellenistic Jews, who were generally more liberal.  The community into which the faith was spreading was mixed.

  • Hellenistic Jews spoke Greek, used the Greek version of the scriptures, and were more influenced by Greek culture.
  • Palestinian Jews spoke Aramaic, were more conservative, successors to the original Jews of the Promised Land.
  • The wider Gentile population was Hellenistic in culture, including pagan cults, alien to the ethics and practices of the Jews.  Galilee had seen an influx of Gentiles in its population.

This was the mixed ground over which the Christian faith spread, adapting as it went.  Terms like ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’, which made sense to Jews, were meaningless to Gentiles; words like ‘Lord’ made sense to both, so one of the first major creedal statements was ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Cor.12:3).

There were cultural tensions from the start as the faith spread into more diverse communities.  The persecution under Saul of Tarsus scattered believers into Samaria and Galilee.  Peter and John touring the area met God at work in cultures far removed from their own. Both Peter and Cornelius had visions, leading them in the right direction.  Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who worshipped with the Jews, but not prepared to undergo circumcision.  Peter had just seen God at work among Gentiles, so felt able to accept the hospitality of Simon the tanner, an unclean trade which no ‘good Jew’ would normally accept.  His vision was triggered by hunger, and probably a memory of Jesus’ words about ‘unclean food’ (Mt.15:11).  He thus felt able to enter the house of a Gentile, which a Jew would see as making him unclean.  The scene was thus set for an outpouring of the Spirit and the experience of God working beyond the hitherto accepted boundaries.

Not all could accept the new understandings.  Conservative Jewish Christians insisted that Gentiles coming into the faith must be circumcised.  The Council of Jerusalem took place under the presidency of James in about 50AD: the claim that all should be brought under the Law in that way was answered by the experience of Peter with Cornelius, and of Paul and Barnabas seeing God at work in the Gentile community of Antioch.  The conclusion was compromise: Gentiles need not be circumcised, but certain laws should be observed.  Some are general ethics and morality, while those concerning blood and sacrifice would avoid alienating the Jews. They in turn were expected to accept the uncircumcised as fellow-believers.  The compromise was in time overtaken by events: the church became more Gentile as it spread, and the Jewish community less willing to accept believers in Jesus as Messiah.  Diversity happened, sometimes leading to schism, sometimes contained within the different traditions.  So it has continued, to the present day.

Questions:                                                                                                                                     

1. There is a tension between “we’ve always done it this way’ and “God is leading us into new ways”. How far can a church change without losing its original vision?

2. Ecumenical relations have come a long way in the last few generations. How far is it possible to accept one another and work together while disagreeing on what we believe?

3. “There are some churches where LGBT people are welcome, and some where they aren’t.  As long as there’s somewhere in the church where everyone is welcome, that’s all right.”  So said an LGBT member of their experience of the church.  Is it possible for the church to contain such opposing views, and still live together as one fellowship?

Identity in Christ

by Tom Greggs.

We live in an age in which our identities shape so much of our engagement with the world. Even covid-19 seems to differentiate in relation to identity with certain groups being more liable to contract it in a dangerous way than others—groups, indeed, not based on any medical conditions but on other factors of identity (such as gender and race) or else in terms of material wealth and social privilege.

The fight for personal privileging at the expense of the other is as old as humanity itself.[i] Indeed, the fall narrative indicates a horizontal fall (in relation to the self-preservation of the individual over and against the other) even before a vertical one: humans fall in relation to each other before they fall (narrativally) in relation to God. Humans become ashamed of each other (Gen 3:8-10) and they divert blame from each other (Gen 3:12,14). They become prepared to sacrifice the other for the sake of their own privilege: ‘It wasn’t me, God, but Eve – the woman you gave me,’ says Adam, while Eve diverts the blame to another creature in the garden (the serpent).

In salvation, through Christ and the ongoing work of the Spirit, we are put right with one another as well as with God. Rather than privileging each of themselves, the early church was called to hold all things in common, and to privilege the widow and the orphan (Acts 2:44-45, 4:34-35; 1 Tim 5:3; Jas 1:27 cf. Deut 10:18, 15:4; Ps 146:9). And in salvation we are told the differences we have are rendered subservient to the most profound identity we share in Christ (Gal 3:28).

In baptism, we lose our old identities of privilege and hierarchy, and discover who we are in relation to one another in Jesus. To deny this on any side or to fail to uphold it in any way is to deny the gospel, to deny our baptism, to deny who we are in Christ and who the Spirit is making us in redemption. Indeed, it is not just the case that there is no longer ‘slave’ in Christ, but there is also no longer ‘free’ (Gal. 3:28): to be in Christ abolishes that way of being ‘free’ that requires somebody else to be a slave. To be in Christ abolishes, we might say, a competitive polity of privilege.

We need to rethink in radical ways what it is to find a fundamental identity in Christ which undermines social, material and relational injustice, transforming not only the sense of who we are, but the very practice of our humanity in the communities of which we are a part. This is not a psychological fulfilment of inclusion but a practical and living practice of belonging: we belong fundamentally to Christ in whom the privileged find themselves often outcasts and the outcasts find themselves privileged.

Put personally, I am not foundationally male or white or from a working-class background, any more than I am foundationally a person with black hair (in fact, it’s greying). No! I may well be shaped inevitably by all these identities, but I am foundationally and fundamentally made in the image of God, a participant in Christ, a child of God, a human who shares Christ’s humanity, a Christian baptised by water and the Spirit. All other markers count as nothing in relation to this high calling and high identity: at best, these identities subsist in the identity I have in Christ. This asymmetry of the fundamental and the subsistent should shape my theology and my method, but more profoundly my life, my ethics, my discipleship. It is not the privileging, then, of those like me (whoever that ‘me’ is!) which is should be my concern in my dealings with society, but the reality of encountering the gospel and its absolute claim on my life through the resurrected Jesus and the power of the Spirit. This absolute claim involves a transformation of my patterns of life and behaviour, my sense of who I am, and my desire for a piece of the privilege pie.

It is not only our identities which we must consider in relation to these matters, but also issues which are more broadly social and economic: social sin and evil, including structural injustice, poverty and vast material inequality. Scripture does not consider justice to be about fighting for a piece of the privilege pie for me or those like ‘me’. Instead, Scripture repeatedly talks prophetically about issues of justice, of righting injustice, and of finding God in the outcast, the least and the last. Meanwhile, those who presume their place of privilege and fight for it (as the Pharisees and Sadducees did – Mt 23:6; Lk 11:43) find themselves in a very precarious place. The Prophets resound with calls for justice and care for the poor and the needy. In comparison even to liturgical worship, the God of Hebrews (of the Hapirus, the slaves) calls forth for justice, and it is God’s call we should heed in our divided world, especially at this time of crisis, as we hear Christ encounter us as the Great Prophet echoing the words of His predecessors:

I hate, I despise your festivals,

    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

    I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

    I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-4)


[i] I have discussed this in other places at length before: most notably, my overly large Dogmatic Ecclesiology Vol 1: The Priestly Catholicity of the Church, but also my more digestible The Breadth of Salvation and even on this forum before.

Harvest in a world of hunger

by Raj Bharat Patta.

The recent announcement of the 2020 Nobel Peace prize to the World Food Programme (WFP), is a wakeup call to the world to recognise the grave reality of the global food crisis. Millions of people today suffer from or face the threat of hunger. The Norwegian Nobel Committee (NNC) praised the WFP, “for its push for international solidarity and for multilateral cooperation, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.” In 2019, the WFP provided assistance to close to 100 million people in 88 countries who are victims of acute food insecurity and hunger. Especially in the face of the global pandemic this year, the WFP has demonstrated an impressive ability to intensify its efforts to address hunger, starvation, violence and conflict. WFP has stated, “Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos.” In awarding this peace prize to WFP, the NNC has also exposed the intrinsic link between hunger and armed conflict and explained this link as “a vicious circle.” It further said, “war and conflict can cause food insecurity and hunger, just as hunger and food insecurity can cause latent conflicts to flare up and trigger the use of violence. We will never achieve the goal of zero hunger unless we also put an end to war and armed conflict.”

As the world this year is taken over by the global pandemic, WFP receiving this award under the category of peace has some theological significance. Firstly, we need to recognise that hunger is the deeper translation of conflict. Secondly, it is time to acknowledge that ‘hunger triggers violence, and violence leads to hunger.’ Thirdly, it is food that has the strength to fight against the present chaos.

It is reported by the UN that 690 million people in the world are undernourished, which is about 8.9% of the world population in 2019. In the UK it is reported that 8.4 million people are struggling to afford to eat. 4.7 million of these people live in severely food insecure homes. This means that their food intake is greatly reduced and children regularly experience physical sensations of hunger, explains Fairshare, an organisation in UK fighting hunger and tackling food waste. Children from Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic group communities in UK are more likely to be in poverty: about 46% compared to 26% of the rest of the communities. India is one of the world’s largest food producers, yet ironically, the country is also home to the largest population of hungry people and one-third of the world’s malnourished children. It is also reported that hunger could kill more people than the COVID pandemic in 2020, pushing another 132 million people into hunger than projected for 2020. Not to forget the number of children going hungry during holidays in UK has been rising. Covid has exposed that today we live in a world filled with inequalities, including between who can get food and who cannot.

What do all these numbers show? Hunger is a reality in our localities, and it raises an alarm to know that there are many people who are going hungry every day in our communities.

Our new context has forced churches to find new ways to celebrate harvest this year, but the new context has also highlighted the significance of hunger as we give thanks. Harvest should remind us that we are called to build bridges by sharing our fruits, harvest, gifts and care with those on the edges and address this conflict called hunger. As a faith community, we need to ensure there are sufficient local food programmes providing food for the poor, the stranger, the migrant and the refugee. Building bridges of peace is God’s activity in Jesus, and the divine invites us to join with Jesus in building peace bridges with those on the edges.

Harvest demands a preference, a provision and a practice of sharing food with the poor and hungry. Harvest calls for a just compassion. Harvest should challenge us to ensure that there should be food for all. Food serves as an important factor in community building, and harvest demands an unequivocal pledge and commitment in addressing hunger and food insecurity.

In the context of climate change, celebrating harvest invites us to pledge to care for our planet overcoming all those ‘dominion’ narratives against the creation. As churches we are called to be with our local communities in challenging poverty and in making our government accountable for ensuring the welfare of all people and not just the few. With nearly 6 million people in UK struggling to pay their household bills during this period, the call for #resetthedebt is a campaign which as a church we must join in with. In my reimagining of church, I envision churches to be hubs serving food for all, addressing poverty, tackling hunger, sharing our resources.

A privatised faith?

by Christopher Collins.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, presided at an Easter Eucharist from his kitchen table, many went to social media to complain that the Church of England was becoming too domesticated or private. Many respond with the question “does it matter?” John Hull perhaps answered that question in his seminal work on missiology published in 2014, a year before his death. His book, Towards the Prophetic Church: a study of Christian mission,[i] presents an enduring challenge to the church which speaks as loudly in the response to Covid-19 as at any other time.

Throughout Hull’s published works there is a thread leading to the conviction that the church desperately needs to recapture a “prophetic faith” drawing on the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the prophetic ministry of Jesus.

For the prophets, faith was public (see for example Jeremiah 7.2). Yet, argues Hull, public faith has been privatised by the condition of modernity and imperialism (although we might want to argue this was happening before modernity). For the prophets, faith determined how to live in the public square, shown in their concern for life in community. In the mutual relationship formed in community there is the potential for justice and injustice. Given that God is just, God is found in justice so to have a right relationship with God, one needs right relationships in community which forms justice. We can only love God by loving each other.

Hull explores this using the spatial model of horizontal and vertical transcendence. Vertical transcendence – finding God solely through an individual relationship with God – is a privatised faith and offers little compulsion to live justly. Horizontal transcendence, on the other hand, suggests that the way to a right relationship with God is through our relationships with each other.

And this is where Hull’s work can speak to us living under the conditions of Covid-19 which has been described by Arundhati Roy as a portal through which we see injustices more clearly.[ii]

Firstly, Covid-19 made us more aware of relationships that we had painfully neglected until March this year. For example, our utter reliance on “key workers.” We quickly became aware of the injustices they faced given their roles often putting them on the “front line” at risk of Covid yet they also appeared to be economically expendable. Some have realised the extent of their “middle class cushion” with plentiful access to on-line resources, greater job security and a savings buffer. Further afield, we have seen how some countries don’t have the relatively vast resources of wealthy nations to tackle the virus. This gives us plenty to consider in our missiological response.

Yet Covid-19 gives us ecclesiological challenges too. How do we maintain relationships that enable horizontal transcendence when our gatherings are limited? Of course, we have all learned a great deal more since March about meeting together on-line. Crucial as it is, it isn’t the transcendent panacea. Not only do many people find on-line interactions good only to a certain extent, there are members of our congregations who become digitally marginalised. That isn’t because they won’t join in, it’s because they can’t. Not everyone has the resources to buy equipment or connections. For some people, the pandemic disruption is more than they can handle without having to learn a new language as well.

As important as it is to minimise the possibility of marginalisation, there is the question of what remote connectedness does to our rituals which depend on presence together and in turn the impact on the practice of our faith. Holy Communion is one example. Our celebration at Christ’s table is modelled on a presiding minister leading the people gathered in the Thanksgiving which includes the invocation of the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ for us. It is a communal act envisaged for a time when the prospect of the congregation being unable to gather was unthinkable.

As unthinkable as it was, it has had to become thinkable in the last six months. Pragmatists amongst us have reignited the conversation over “on-line communion” as well as developing models such as “drive through” Holy Communion. These practical theological developments should always be encouraged but crucially not at the price of our faith retreating into a privatised relationship where it only matters to me and God.


[i] John M Hull, Towards the Prophetic Church: A study in Christian mission, (London: SCM, 2014)

[ii] Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’.

Christ our Space

by Neil Richardson.

Some years ago a lorry crashed into the Methodist chapel of a village in Lincolnshire. Mercifully, no-one was in it at the time. But the chapel was damaged beyond repair. The circuit meeting urged the society, despite the loss of their building, to stay in fellowship. Sadly, they did not.

Covid 19, you could say, has crashed into church buildings across the world. In our country they were out of use for months; their future use – even perhaps their viability – is fraught with uncertainty. No wonder this crisis has been described as our Babylonian exile, echoing a time when Israel had to learn to survive without its temple in Jerusalem, destroyed as it was by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies.

It’s not easy to get our buildings in proper perspective. In a climate like ours, they are useful, to say the least. But as the house churches in St Paul’s day show, they’re not essential to worship, fellowship or witness. Comfortable, attractive premises, however,  can be important. (I come back to this at the end).

Anglican priest Christopher Rowland, in his fine commentary on Revelation,[i] observes that a building can be helpful in meeting ‘the human need for reassurance’. At the same time, he contrasts the absence of a temple from the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21.20) with the ‘extraordinary’ investment of the Christian church in its buildings down the centuries. ‘A special space or place has become central to our understanding of religion’.

The New Testament starts from the glorious, simple truth: Christ is our Space. The language is unmistakable – especially in the writings of John and Paul. ‘Abide in me, I in you’; ‘I live, yet not I; Christ lives in me’. Life in Christ, with one another for the world, is the heart of Christian faith.

The origin of the conviction that Christ is our fundamental space seems to have been Jesus’ explosive remarks about the Jerusalem temple. Even if John’s version reflects later faith, its import is unmistakable: ‘Destroy this temple…. and in three days I will raise it up again’…… The temple he was speaking of was his body’ (John 2.19 and 21).

The geography of the New Testament tells its own story: out from Jerusalem, into the tenements of urban Corinth and Rome. Wherever the Holy Spirit created an ekklesia, there was the temple, (compare, e.g. 1 Corinthians 3.9-17).

Members of that Lincolnshire chapel seemed not to know that they were the temple: Christ in them, they in Christ. In fact, Christ our Space is the key to theology everywhere and always. The locative ‘Christ’ expressions in the New Testament run into hundreds: life in Christ, growing into Christ, Christ formed in you…..But this isn’t all. The panorama is cosmic as well as personal,  e.g. ‘ all things created in, through and for Christ, (Colossians 1.15-20).

This isn’t primarily a theology of the head and the study, but a theology of heart and life  and of the whole world, as Rowan Williams’ recent book, Christ the Heart of Creation shows. We live it, breathe it and walk it every day of our Christian life.

 Other verses in Scripture can be re-expressed in Christ language: for example, ‘In him we live and move; in him we exist’ (Acts 17.28); some Old Testament psalms anticipate the ascended and risen Christ: ‘If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there’ (Psalm 139.8).

This is why Paul teaches ‘Pray without ceasing’; the living Christ centres and enables our prayers every passing moment. The same metaphor of space applies supremely to the Atonement: at the cross, God the Father and God the Son moved sufficiently far apart to accommodate e the whole world in between.[ii] The imagery applies to life both on earth and in heaven: ‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling-places’; in other words,  there is room in the heart of God for all, (John 14.1).

 This is where we begin and end. The mystery of Christ – God with us and for us – is our fundamental ‘space’.

The present crisis prompts searching questions . What are our buildings for? What do they mean? The more fully we inhabit  our truest and deepest Space – the living Christ – the better our response will be. And that may  include painting the rusty iron railing and the scruffy notice board outside.


[i] C. Rowland, Revelation,  (Epworth SCM Commentaries 1993, p.157).

[ii] I owe this imagery to the Roman Catholic theologian  Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

Church Lockdown

by John Howard.

It has been said so many times in the last few months – ‘that we are in unusual times’, that there is the danger that we fail to appreciate just how unusual these times are. Amongst the things that have happened and that are easily passed over has been that the government said that faith communities should cease their communal worship – and we immediately did so. When has this happened before? I understand that historians are disagreeing on this – but they can agree that it was a long time ago!

Across all the Churches – as far as I am aware – communal worship ceased on the day the government said it should and for many it has yet to restart. Now I am not questioning the correctness of what the churches did – but I am asking the question – where was the biblical authority for this? Churches have faced persecution in some parts of the world rather than agree to the ceasing of public worship. Some would say it seems far fetched to say so but it is not beyond the realms of the possible, that at some time in the future we may as Christians find ourselves again as being at odds with government in the West and needing to consider carefully whether we recognise civil authority over our religious practices. We should be careful to be clear on what we have done and why.

The passage from the New Testament that at first sight tackles this question most clearly is Romans 13: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’. Other passages  can be found that take a similar line: 1 Tim 2: 1-2; Titus 3: 1; 1 Peter 2: 13-17. Paul goes on to justify this by the assertion that there is no authority but that which comes from God and therefore if the rulers are in authority – it must have come from God. There is considerable agreement amongst commentators that Paul here is consciously placing the church in a very different relationship to the Roman authorities than certain Jewish sects of the time. These argued for violent conflict with the authorities. Since the Roman authorities viewed the church as a sect within Judaism – it can be seen why Paul was concerned, when writing to the church at the capital city of the empire – to distance himself from such Jewish sects. Paul, and all the Apostles, make use of the order and stability of Rome in the spreading of the Gospel message. Travel can be undertaken in relative safety. Though in later letters Paul is imprisoned and suffering the inhumanity of the State, at this time Paul is hoping to travel to Rome and use it as a place to launch his mission to Spain. This plan is using the ordered, peaceful governance to enable the further spread of the gospel.

There is some resonance here with our situation. Chaos and widespread instability was – and remains a danger in the present crisis. In March the repeated cry of the government was ‘protect the NHS’. The prospect of the health services being overrun in Britain was an indication of the very real danger of chaos, if the public didn’t follow what the authorities were laying down. For the churches to oppose this would have meant that the churches were risking chaos. However this is an argument that needs to be handled with care – it would not, for example, be wise for the churches to accept an argument from Government that bad governance is better than none at all – and so allow church support for a corrupt regime. If the church ultimately answers to a higher authority than national government, then obeying the dictate, ‘to avoid chaos’, is at the very least dangerous, as the early church discovered.

Is there then a ‘non authority’ justification for the willingness of the churches to close at the call of government? I think that there is. It was about what was best for the people, and best for each other, a need to do as you would be done by. Matthew’s ‘Golden Rule’ in chapter 7 verse 12 arguably can be taken to say that  since there was a known risk of illness – for which there was no treatment and no vaccine – then the actions were justified as a response of care. Do act with prudence, so that others can be as safe as you yourself would want to be. Not meeting in church was then an act of prudence.

I feel that there is a lot more to say on this subject – in what circumstances should the church obey government in the practice of religious life? The present case is, I suggest, ultimately as a responsible means of care in the situation. However again it would be a dangerous principal to take too far, and again an easy principal for governments to abuse if they wanted to do so.

The issues of church and state might well be ones we need to return to in this very secular society we now live in.

Ordination 40th Anniversary

by Inderjit Bhogal.

On 1 July 2020 it was 40 years since I was ordained. I want to share with you some key lessons and wisdom I have learned in ministry.

  1. First, Image and Body matter

We are all made in the Image of God, and we are all members of the Body of Christ. These two themes are absolutely core to Christian discipleship. Young and old, women and men, gay, lesbian, transgendered, whatever our sexuality, whatever our body shape, whatever our ethnicity or skin colour, we are all made in the Image of God and we all belong equally in the Body of Christ.

This leaves no room for discrimination in Christian discipleship.

I have tried to live by this theology.

I delivered the Beckly Lecture this year. Some of the thinking on this is expanded in the lecture. You can listen to it here.

2. Second, you shall not live by bread alone

Deuteronomy 8:1-4
…the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness…that you may know that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord…

In the wilderness it is not possible to travel with speed. It is important to travel at a steady pace, not go too far ahead of others. God walked and worked with the people for forty years to teach them that one does not live by bread alone.

Don’t rush. Don’t be greedy. You are a spiritual being as well as a physical being. You are flesh and blood, spirit and soul. Nourish your spiritual self too.

You do this by dwelling on the Word of God, and Worship/Witness with the people of God.

      3.  Third, you shall also love the stranger

To “love the stranger” is the most repeated commandment in the Bible. I have preached on this theme more than any other over the last 40 years. See more below.

4. Fourth, love God, love your neighbour as yourself

I will come back to this later too. But first let me go back to the beginning.

I recall a newly retired senior colleague making a speech at my very first Synod. He said he had served 40 years. After Synod I talked with him, and asked him how he had survived and kept going and to be still standing after 40 years in ministry. I have arrived at this stage of my travels and ministry, and am still in reasonably good shape.

In every appointment, whether I have been welcomed and valued or not, I have served with utter dedication and commitment, and given of my very best attention, effort and prayer.

I’ve always had my critics of course, but I’ve always encouraged myself with the words of Jesus, “woe, to you if all well speak well of you”, and followed the advice “let us not grow weary in doing what is right”.

The most fruitful development in my experience of ministry has been in the corner of my life, namely, City of Sanctuary. This is my interpretation of the oft repeated ethical requirement “you shall also love the stranger”. It is about building cultures of welcome and hospitality and safety for the most vulnerable among us, especially those who come here from war and danger zones as refugees seeking sanctuary.

There is now a network of over 120 cities, towns, villages, and areas around Britain and Ireland working with the vision of City of Sanctuary, and I am working with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to develop churches of sanctuary.

If you would like to know more about this, and read more of my reflections on this visit my website at www.inderjitbhogal.com

I remain a follower of Jesus Christ, with roots in the Sikh faith and respect for all faiths. I have always and will continue always to point people to Jesus Christ in whose life and teaching and example I find direction, and tools to interpret and make sense of my life and all life around me.

In his words “inasmuch as you did it to the least important you did it to me”, I find one answer to the question where is God, and how should I prioritise and shape my life. These are the words by which I believe we are to judge the morality and spirituality of individuals, groups, communities, congregations, organisations and nations. How do they treat those who are hurting the most, and least able to be independent.  

So, how did I survive for 40 years? By following this simple wisdom:

Love God, love your neighbour, as yourself”.

I read and use that in reverse. First, Love yourself. It is not selfish to say or do this.

On an aeroplane flight the first message is, in case of emergency a gas mask will drop down. Put your own mask on first before you help others. If you don’t put your own mask on first you are not going to help anyone else because you will not survive. If you can learn to love yourself, you can better love your neighbour as yourself. If you can love yourself, and your neighbour well, that goes a long way towards what it is to express your love of and for God.