Naming (in)justice: women’s voices from the global South

by Caroline Wickens.

Walking with Micah: ever since the days of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, shared journeys have been enriched by listening to the stories of fellow-pilgrims. What stories are being told by women theologians from the global South, specifically Africa?

The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians has produced a growing number of books reflecting on the situation of women in Africa. Many of these consider specific difficulties African women face, and offer theological reflection which challenges injustice and demands better outcomes. Kenyan theologian Philomena Mwaura identifies lack of access to and control of resources, particularly land, along with insufficient labour[1]. Direct ownership of land is important because it gives the woman security for herself and her family which cannot be threatened by her husband or his family (a particular risk if she is widowed). The story of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1 – 11) is a key resource here. As Moses is creating a definitive list of the men of Israel, five sisters confront him to challenge structural injustice. Their father is dead and they have no brothers; it is unjust that they should have no place in the list and therefore no property. Moses consults the Lord, who is unequivocal in supporting the women: ‘they are right in what they are saying – you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance’. God affirms their identity and gives them the security they require to flourish.

A second Kenyan author, Ruth James, describes gender injustice in health provision[2]. Women and, crucially, growing girls sometimes receive less food than male members of the family if food is short. They are more often the subjects of violence, vulnerable either at home or outside fulfilling traditional female roles such as fetching water or collecting fuel. Constance Shisanya[3] notes that women have limited control over their sexual and reproductive lives – for example, it is not culturally acceptable for women to insist on protected sex, which leaves them very vulnerable to HIV infection. Pregnancy and childbirth are much more risky than in the global North. Pauline Otieno[4] comments that in some cultures, FGM is still a normal part of a girl’s growing up. Where health care comes at a cost, male-dominated families are less likely to opt to spend money on treatment for a woman, especially if she experiences difficulties with her mental health. Women experience danger from their bodies to a greater extent than men. In responding to this litany of woes, women theologians make particular use of Mark’s pair of stories about the woman with the flow of blood, who is healed and made safe in her community, and Jairus’ daughter, whose life is returned to her. Jesus’ focused attention to these two women enacts his concern that women should have life in all its fullness, and his words to Jairus’ daughter Talitha cum! have become a rallying-cry for African women theologians[5] – the will to arise is passionate.

Ruth James[6] also describes gendered injustice in access to education. During the colonial period it was unusual for girls or women to receive much formal education. Colonial expectations about women’s roles coincided neatly with cultural practices. Matters have improved to some extent since, but there are still marked disparities between numbers of girls in school and numbers of boys, particularly in secondary school and university where fees are payable. Parents often prefer to educate sons, who will stay in the family and repay their investment; girls are sent to work to pay for their brothers’ education. Women, made in God’s image, are thus denied the opportunity to develop their God-given abilities and find their voice. One of the most exciting Circle projects creates spaces for young women theologians to contribute to books around particular themes, such as a recent volume from Zambia, Chikamoneka: gender and empire in religion and public life.

Mercy Amba Oduyoye, mother of African women’s theologies, sums this up and sets it in a more explicitly theological perspective[7]:

Happy and responsible in my being human and female, I shall be able to live a life of doxology in the human community, glorifying God for the gifts I receive in others and for the possibility I have of giving myself freely for the wellbeing of the community while remaining responsible and responsive to God. It is only thus that I can say I am fully human.

This is the second article in a series – also see Naming (in)justice: an exploration of some conversations from the Global South

The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project.  Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit

[1] Mwaura PJ, The Impact of Globalisation on Women in Africa, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:12

[2] James MR, The Impact of Cost-Sharing in Health and Education on Women’s Welfare in Kenya, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:20 – 22

[3] Shisanya CRA, The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Women in Kenya, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:61

[4] Otieno P, HIV/AIDS Awareness and Women with Disabilities in Kenya, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:66

[5] Nyambura Njoroge and Musa Dube Talitha cum! Theologies of African women Cluster Publications: Pietermaritzburg 2001

[6] James MR, The Impact of Cost-Sharing in Health and Education on Women’s Welfare in Kenya, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:27

[7] Oduyoye MA, Hearing and Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa Acton:Nairobi 2000:137

A Season to Confront the Cracks to Find the Light

by Sandra Brower.

Living where I do now, I’m a little closer to my ‘home and native land’ of Canada. Last September we took a road trip across the border to give our son a whirlwind tour of Canadian universities (which offer home student fees to citizens regardless of residency!). Montreal was our first stop, and aside from visiting McGill, our top priorities were to find the best bagels (Fairmount Bagel – at 74 Fairmount West if you’re ever in the neighbourhood) and the home of the great poet musician (and McGill graduate), Leonard Cohen.

I’ve also been taking a literary trip back to Canada. Over the Christmas break, as I devoured the second book in the Inspector Gamache series by Canadian author Louise Penny, set in the fictional town of Three Pines just south of Montreal, I was reminded of one of my favourite Cohen song poems – ‘Anthem’with its famous refrain: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’[1] Clara, one of the characters, is describing one of her paintings to Gamache – ‘The Three Graces’ – depicting Clara and her two closest friends. He asks if it is finished, noting that there seems to be space for another. She directs his eyes to Cohen’s refrain, written behind the figures, as she explains that all her works have vessels of some sort. As he steps back, Gamache sees that the vessel, ‘like a vase’, is formed by their bodies, and the space he had noticed is the crack letting the light in.[2]

There is, of course, another painting where three bodies form the shape of a vessel – Andrei Rublev’s The Hospitality of Abraham (better known as the icon of The Trinity). The three figures (angels visiting Abraham and Sarah) gather around a cup containing a feast prepared for them by Abraham’s servant. By the 19th century, the icon was interpreted as representing the Trinity. Like Clara’s painting – the icon has space(s) for another. The three figures – in their respective outward gaze – each make room for the other. But more than that, their hospitable posture makes the same shape as the cup around which they sit. The Eucharistic overtones are hard to ignore as one considers the central feast through which the hospitality of God is extended ever outward, a feast forged through pain and brokenness…cracks making room for light.

In his October 2016 profile of Cohen, four days before the release of the album, You Want it Darker, David Remnick of The New Yorker touches on Cohen’s links to Bob Dylan (both discovered in the 60s by John Hammond), commenting on their shared ‘penchant for Biblical imagery’. Remnick’s assessment that Cohen’s lyrics were more liturgical resonates with Dylan’s comment that ‘Cohen’s songs at times were “like prayers”.’ Of ‘Hallelujah’ Dylan ‘recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and profane.’[3] Cassie Werber, writing the day after Cohen’s death (just three weeks after the release of You Want it Darker), recognises this marriage in ‘Anthem’, in the Christian imagery of bells and doves.[4] Whether or not Cohen would recognise the Eucharist as a ‘perfect offering’, he certainly understood the imperfection of our own efforts. In his own (rare) explanation of his lyrics, he states: ‘“Forget your perfect offering” that is the hang-up that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution of perfection…The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together…But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.’[5]

Reflecting on her painting, Clara says to Gamache: ‘Mother is Faith, Em is Hope and Kaye is Charity. I was tired of seeing the Graces always depicted as beautiful young things. I think wisdom comes with age and life and pain. And knowing what matters.’[6] Cohen was certainly wise, a wisdom that came with age, life and pain. Penning this reflection on 6 January has made me consider the marriage of the sacred and profane, pondering these secular Canadian texts as I greet the Feast of Epiphany. Instead of transforming myself through making New Year’s ‘perfect offerings’ (otherwise known as ‘resolutions’), I think I’ll look for the Epiphanic light in the contemplation and confrontation of the cracks. As Cohen wisely notes, repentance is where we find resurrection. Let’s start this new year by lifting up our brokenness to be blessed and restored by God’s radiant light.

[1] For the full lyrics, see

[2] Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2006), pp. 228-229. NB Published under the title of Dead Cold in the UK, and A Fatal Grace in Canada and the USA.

[3] You can read the excellent profile here:

[4] You can read her reflections in ‘Light in the Dark’ here:

[5] This quote, cited in numerous places, is from an interview with Cohen in 1992. For the full quote, see: Emphasis mine.

[6] Penny, p. 228.

Covenant Theology for the Covenant Service

by George Bailey.

For many Methodists, New Year is Covenant time – there are spiritual perils brought to the surface by the Covenant Prayer…

An ecumenical mentor once commented on my excessive efforts as a Methodist student minister with something like, ‘The problem with you Arminians is that your theology makes you vulnerable to the spiritual temptation of thinking it’s all down to you personally to save the world.’ It’s often noted that Methodists inhabit an ‘activist’ spirituality – great for getting on with things but can lead to stress. This was the engine of early Methodist evangelism – people may freely choose to receive God’s forgiveness and new life, if only we can help them understand this good news – and then it became the driver of Methodist social action. However, all this can lead to being so busy as to overlook the actual work of God in our midst. Some people are deeply uncomfortable with the Covenant Prayer’s heavy commitments, and too easily the Covenant Service opens the door to forms of spiritual pride – maybe we slip into thinking that, ‘it’s all down to us doing our duty’… ‘we have a very important part to play’… or ‘God ought not to leave us out this year’… and so on. The Covenant Prayer makes clear that we are not dictating what role we have, but nevertheless, even subconsciously we take on responsibilities which it would be wiser to leave with God.

The issues are actually related to the debates swirling around the 18th century revival, out of which a Wesleyan understanding of the gospel and salvation were forged – questions about faith and works, repentance and sin, what it means to become a Christian, and what it leads to. An excellent book by Stanley Rodes’ demonstrates how much John Wesley’s responses were shaped by the ‘covenant theology’ he inherited, and which was framing the issues of the time. This goes far deeper than simply borrowing a Puritan covenant prayer: ‘Wesley’s engagement in the debate—and thus his soteriology—continued to be overtly shaped by covenant theology as surely as the rock walls of a canyon dictate the course of the river flowing through it.’[1]

‘All Reformed theology involves attending to the nature of God’s covenantal life with humanity,’[2] and so ‘covenant theology’ is at the heart of Reformed understandings of Scripture and salvation. Contemporary Wesleyans must note that what came to be known as ‘Arminianism’ was itself a type of Reformed theology. Indeed, there was wide diversity of covenant theology in the 18th century, but few people saw the need to stop and explain all the basic terminology, Wesley included.

I have a growing sense that it is worth reconnecting the Covenant Service with the covenant theology tradition, to help me negotiate it with spiritual wisdom. For now, I will raise a few questions based on features of the service in the Methodist Worship Book (1999):

  • What covenant is this, and how does it relate to Scripture?

The description on p285 carefully refers to just one covenant, made first with the people of Israel, and then ‘renewed in Jesus Christ our Lord’. For John Wesley, the first ‘covenant of works’ (God makes the rules; humans obey) ended when Adam sinned, to be succeeded by this second ‘covenant of grace’ (God makes the rules; humans disobey; God mercifully helps). It is offered to all people through a series of ‘dispensations’ by which God makes the one covenant of grace more accessible (debates on this through the 16th-19th centuries are complex!). This covenant of grace gives expression to the Wesleyan emphases that salvation is available to all people – e.g., through the ‘moral law’, and then the Mosaic law – but also available in a fuller way through Christ. Wesley frequently expressed this as the distinction between the ‘faith of a servant’ and the ‘faith of a child’ (Wesley usually uses ‘son’ here). How do I relate to these different dispensations within the covenant of grace?

  • Is the covenant a transaction?

The opening rubric on p281 implies we are coming to a communal negotiation: ‘The covenant is not just a one-to-one transaction between individuals and God, but the act of the whole faith community’. This is reinforced by the role that we have in making the covenant: ‘For our part we promise to live no longer for ourselves but for God.’ (p285) How can we contribute anything when we rely entirely on God’s grace? However, our freedom to respond is upheld by that very grace (p.289), and so we do have responsibility to work in partnership with God as best we can, even knowing that we will somehow fall short. How do I understand my own contribution to this covenant?

  • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in this covenant?

The Holy Spirit could help with the problem of our human contribution to the covenant. Other key moments in someone’s journey with God focus on the Holy Spirit – baptism is in water and the Spirit, confirmation is by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit is ‘sent upon’ a person being ordained. However, the Holy Spirit does not feature so directly in the Covenant Service. In the older prayer B it only appears in the final doxology (p.290); in the newer prayer A we accept God’s purpose and call ‘by the help of the Holy Spirit’ (p287), which is a helpful addition. The only other roles for the Spirit are in the Trinitarian opening prayers, based on the Creed, and in the Eucharistic prayer as we ask that we ‘may be united by your Spirit and grow into perfect love’ (p294). This is a good description of life within the covenant of grace, and perhaps more of this earlier in the service could help with exploring what some Wesleyans have called the ‘dispensation of the Spirit’?

Through Covenant Services this January, I will be thinking more about covenant theology and seeking the help of the Spirit with my own covenant spirituality.

[1] Stanley J. Rodes. From Faith to Faith Book: John Wesley’s Covenant Theology and the Way of Salvation, The Lutterworth Press, James Clarke & Co. (2013). p.134

[2] Allen, Michael. Reformed Theology, Bloomsbury Publishing, (2010). p34

How contextual can theology really be?

by Clive Marsh.

Just how many theologies can there be? In one sense, of course, there’s a simple answer: there are as many theologies as there are people wishing to articulate what God means for and to them. But putting it like that makes the meaning of the word ‘God’ too subject to human control. If God is the reality – the one basic reality – in whom we (all living things, not just human beings) live, move and have our being, then it’s not up to us to decide who God is. That said, it’s important to recognize that no-one has the definitive definition. From within a particular religious tradition it is inevitable that claims are made that what believers in that tradition are saying about God are true. But caution, reserve, humility usually goes along with such claims. If that doesn’t happen then dominance, arrogance, even supremacy, quickly get in the way.

I’ve been wrestling with this a lot recently, noting the extent to which much theological exploration at the moment (rightly) emphasizes the significance of ‘context’ and, alongside that, ‘experience’.[1] My recent wrestling has been with the inevitability of the relative significance of particular experience and particular contexts. Both aspects are crucial to the theological task so that whatever is said of God is real, rooted, grounded, connected to the everyday, and to the actual experience of living, but it can never just be an expression or articulation of subjective, human experience presented in the form of God-language. Such a ‘theology’ may end up not speaking of God at all. But specific experience and contexts do need identifying and naming, otherwise dominant (often hidden) experiences and contexts prove decisive and the contributions of multiple voices to the theological task just don’t get heard. It’s why the so-called ‘dismantling of Whiteness’ is underway.[2]

How does all this take shape in practice? Let me give some examples. When I was in Zimbabwe some years ago working within a multi-ethnic team with a group of 13 postgraduate theology students from across 8 different African countries, a few sharp insights came to light. The openness of the group was wonderful. The Europeans in the tutor team were able to voice their (our!) hesitations about speaking of ‘African experience’. The students themselves both laughed, and were self-critical enough, to acknowledge openly that they were quite happy to speak of ‘African experience’ over against whatever may be considered ‘European’. But as soon as any further digging was done, then Kenyan, Nigerian, Liberian, Mozambiquan and Zimbabwean experience would of course become significant. In similar ways in the UK, when working with Black colleagues in theology, it is appropriate for me to recognize the importance of references to ‘the Black experience’ even though I am fully aware (and am made aware of!) the many different kinds of Black Experience (within multiply different British, Caribbean and African life-experiences).

The distinctions and nuances which are needed are not, of course, just to do with ethnicity, nationality or geography. Feminism has been challenging male dominance in Christian theology for fifty years and more. Explorations of sex and gender have now pressed much further than over-simple binary assumptions about male and female/masculine and feminine have implied. Attention to ableism and classism have come more to the fore of late. In short, the multiple voices representing the diversity of human experience in all its various forms are to be respected both locally and globally, not least because ‘all of life is here’ in any local church by the very fact that God is present.

At this point there is a real irony. As a would-be systematic theologian I remain interested in seeing how the different bits of Christian faith all fit together, inform each other, critique each other and generally enable us to get a better understanding of the God in whom we say we believe. It’s vital to hear how people of different backgrounds, with diverse experiences, and working out of differing contexts speak of Spirit, Christ, Church, Human Being, Trinity, and so on. The problem, I discovered years ago, is that it’s often assumed it’s only men (and usually White ones) who try to be systematic about faith and theology. We can, though, dispense with the word ‘system’ whilst being respectful about what systematic theologies have been trying to do. At their best they’re saying: we have a responsibility, within the constraints of all our collective human experience/s, to do the best we can to express who we think God to be. Contextually and experientially responsible Christian systematic theology is none other than the Church’s attempt to be true to the God in whom we believe and letting everyone contribute to that endeavour. Everyone may indeed have their own theology, and no-one has the definitive Christian systematic theology. But between those two extremes – what I earlier called the ‘theological task’ – is the collective effort of doing justice to the God who speaks and acts in and through all manner of different people and contexts. Articulating that is both an act of basic Christian sense-making and a form of mission.

[1] Fairly recent contributions to this site from Ed Mackenzie and Tom Greggs are relevant here.

[2] Just as an aside: I have some reservations about the actual language being used here, whilst wanting to support what is being identified and undertaken.

Incarnation and Embodiment

by Ed Mackenzie.

During this Advent, many of us will spend time reflecting on God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus. We’ll no doubt hear again the words of John 1:14 – ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ – and sing carols celebrating God’s presence in the manger at Bethlehem. Over against docetic approaches to Jesus which deny his embodiment, we might recall that the incarnation affirms the goodness of the body of Jesus; ‘Jesus Christ has come in the flesh’ (1 John 4:2b).

The incarnation also has implications for our approach to human nature. If Jesus’ body is good, we can extrapolate that bodies as such are good, created by God as the form in which our humanity exists. Such a theme resonates with the beginning of the biblical story in which creation is declared ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31) as well as end of the biblical story with its anticipation of resurrection, that is, future embodied existence (1 Cor 15). How might such a biblical view on humanity shape our approach to the body today?

Firstly, affirming the goodness of the body can lead us to be grateful for the wonder of creation and how God has made us. In today’s context, we are especially privileged in having a huge amount of insight into the inner and outer workings of the body, with Bill Bryson’s recent work on the Body offering one recent reflection on its amazing nature.[i] As the Psalmist says, we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14), knit together by God’s own hand.

While it’s possible to be grateful for bodies as such, it can be harder to be grateful for the bodies we inhabit – or rather, the bodies we are. Many of us look down on our own bodies and our gratitude for embodiment is certainly curtailed when illness, pain or ailments afflict us. But despite the weaknesses of the ‘jars of clay’ we inhabit, it’s through these vessels that God’s light and goodness can be made known (2 Cor 4:7-12). Perhaps thanking God for our bodies is a small way of honouring the God who has made us.

Secondly, the goodness of the body might lead us to spend time looking after our bodies. Such a posture is not selfish or self-centred, but rather a matter of rightly stewarding our lives. We know too that much ill-health – physical and mental – can be attributed to ways we use or misuse our bodies, and so finding ways to eat or exercise more healthily are ways to attend to our bodies. This is not a matter of pursuing a particular look or a specific size, but rather of moving and living in ways that lead us to flourish for the sake of God our service in the world.

While focusing on bodily wellbeing might form a part of many New Year’s resolutions, it’s something that we can return to as part of the rhythm of our life in every season. It might also feature as part of our conversations with others, certainly not to bring guilt or shame but rather to frame caring for the body as a way of caring for the self and so encompassed too by the love of God.

Thirdly, the goodness of the body means that it is as bodies that we seek to love God and love others. In Jesus’ reworking of the traditional Jewish practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matt 6:1-18), each practice requires bodily involvement – stepping inside our ‘closets’, resisting our desire to eat, and reaching out to help those in need. At a key juncture in Romans, Paul also invites Christians to offer ‘bodies as living sacrifices’ to God (Rom 12:1), with each of our individual bodies playing a role in the larger body of Christ (Rom 12:3-8).

Our bodies, then, are the means through which we move towards God and others in love. We are not our own, we’ve been brought with a price – and so Paul calls us to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). Just as Jesus gave up his body in love of God and the world, so too our bodies can be shaped in service in and for the kingdom.

[i] Bryson, Bill, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Doubleday: 2019)

Making a Difference: Theological Reflection

by Anthony Reddie.

This Spectrum paper is a reflection, written by Professor Anthony Reddie, on a lecture he gave at the Spectrum conference in May 2022.

In Anthony’s second session, participants engaged in a Bible study entitled ‘Theological Reflection’. Once again, he started with some reflections based on personal experience. The theme was one of how societies and faith communities deal with the challenge of engaging with issues of sameness or homogeneity and difference, or questions of pluralism, i.e. do people need to be the same or have some unified perspectives in order for them to live together and be one?

When is it right that we affirm difference or when is better that we ignore our differences and rather affirm the things that make us more or less or very similar?

 After an initial introduction participants were split into groups and asked to look at Acts 2: vv. 1-11. They were encouraged to reflect on how the dynamics of sameness and difference were played out in the biblical text. After the groups had reflected on the text, on coming back together, they shared their differing perspectives with each other. Then Anthony shared his reflections on the text and how it offers an important mirror to the continued challenges of sameness and difference in contemporary society, where the dangers of nationalism and populism have been exemplified.

The key aspect of Anthony’s reflections was the challenge as to what difference did religious faith make in terms of how we see those who are marked as ‘the other’. How does faith in Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, impact on our social values? This is especially the case when issues of empire and whiteness are deeply embedded in how we see people, especially those of ethnic parentage or who themselves were born beyond the shores of Britain.

Anthony said, ‘In using this text, I would say that my lifelong commitment to social justice, and liberation from oppression for all people, has emanated from the inspiration gained from this text. I continue to believe that the narrative of the first Pentecost has much to teach us as we struggle with the continued challenge of embracing and affirming difference in our contemporary life in 21st century Britain. For a Black Liberation theologian, much of whose work has been critiquing and challenging White norms and assumptions of superiority, I love the way in which Pentecost demolishes any notion of cultural superiority or Government inspired attacks on multiculturalism in favour of the mantra of sameness and integration’.

Pentecost has a special resonance for our increasingly plural and complex world, because any materialist reading of this text affirms notions of difference and particularity. If physical differences are themselves part of the problem for our post modern, differentiated world, then what are we to make of a text in which difference is visibly celebrated?

In the Pentecost narrative, we hear of people speaking in their mother tongue. There is no presumption of pre-eminence in terms of language, culture or expression. The ability to have visions and dream dreams are the preserve of all human kind, irrespective of class, ethnicity or culture. The God of all, in Christ, has called all humanity into an unconditional relationship with the Divine, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

For Methodists, the inclusivity of Pentecost is a reminder that our founder John Wesley was committed to a gospel that spoke to and was available for all people, irrespective of rank or social status. The ‘Four Alls’ of Methodism is a radical restatement of the availability of grace for all peoples and that this prevenient spark calls us into relationship with God and most crucially, with one another.

Inspiration for social justice emerges from the God who challenges us to seek the good of our neighbour and encourages us to find human fulfilment in radical hospitality, in community with others and communion with God, revealed in Jesus.

Liberation Theology often speaks of ‘Base Communities’  and the term is often associated with Marxism or Communism, but one can argue that the roots of this form of simple, faithful living and the following of Jesus’ message can be found in Acts chapter 2.

This text counters all our bourgeois notions of Christian faith as an expression of self-centred, middle class, consumer style individualism. The transformation brought about by the Holy Spirit does not lead to self centred notions of individual blessing and notions of ‘cheap grace’ as we have been admonished by the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather, living in the spirit leads to a renewed commitment to live for and to serve others in the name of Christ.


1.  Does Acts chapter 2 really have a socio/political dimension?

2. Where is the Holy Spirit at work ‘on the streets’ these days?

3. How may the Church, your church, speak the language of the people 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 third of six coming through the year.

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

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