Theology… where?

by George Bailey.

I have been the moderator of this blog since July 2016 – I am immensely grateful to all who have contributed, to those who have let me know that this is a helpful activity, and to those who have offered ideas for improving the way things work. I want to invite some methodological conversation about the way ahead.

We have claimed to be engaging in “theology everywhere,” under the tag line, “discussing theology today to transform tomorrow.” I drafted this line, but have grown increasingly unsure about one aspect of it. I think we should hold onto the assertion that theology is transformative. However, the first clause is more ambiguous – to what extent is “discussing” a helpful way of characterising what we do here?

What are we doing when we discuss theology? Here are three possible ways of answering this (there are others!)[i]. Perhaps each of the three ways is primary for different contributors to this blog, though for many of us several methodologies overlap. I am concerned that the word “discussing” too strongly invites only the first interpretation.

Theology Constructed…

Is theology a body of knowledge that is constructed by Christians, to which we contribute through our discussions? This is the model which I think is most clearly hinted at by the current description of the site, and one which it is easy to assume if we look at what actually happens – one person does some thinking and publishes it; others read and discuss it, online or in their daily encounters. Within this understanding, “discussing theology everywhere” is a helpful impetus for encouraging many people to join in with the construction of theological understanding and progress. The key problem with this understanding of what is happening is that it is very human-centred. At the heart of most Christian theology has not actually been the combined effort of the followers of Christ to describe who Christ is and what following Christ means, but rather the heart has been, and I argue continues to be, Christ himself, and our relationship with Christ. The logic of 1 John 4:19 can be appropriated here; we can talk about God, because God first talked to us.

Theology Revealed…

Is theology, then, knowledge which is revealed to us? In this way of thinking, the primary aim of “discussing theology” is to encourage one another to receive it more fully rather than to add to it by construction. Theology is the result of experience of God, revealed in Christ, enabled by the Spirit. We can learn from one another of the diverse ways that people receive and interpret the experience of God in our lives, but the primary locus of theology is revelation rather than construction. This implies a dynamic relationship with Scripture and with the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Theology is the continuing revelation of Jesus Christ through the life of the Spirit in the followers of Christ, as described in John 16:12-13a: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” However, this begs the question of how truth is known and expressed. Is the truth we receive a written description or is it more of a lived reality?

Theology Performed…

Is theology, primarily, neither the result of a constructive process nor reflection on an experience, but rather an activity in itself – a performative art which one practices in order to develop ability and potential, and which one then exercises in order to communicate with and to serve others? On this view the most important locus for theology is the practice of church life, and the interface between church and the surrounding communities and cultures. To “discuss” theology is to inhabit a role similar to the critic or commentator – it is unhelpful to muddle the critic or commentator with the people taking an active part in things. Great footballers do not necessarily make great commentators, or journalists great politicians, nor vice versa. Is this blog for active performing theologians or for critical commentators on the theological action of the Church? I think both are welcome, and through reflective practice we often inhabit both roles, though they do have the potential to get confused. Does the concept of “discussing theology” too readily encourage commentary and remove us from the real action? The real theology of this blog does not happen in the published articles or discussions, but in the changes they provoke in the practice of those who read them. I can testify personally to this process for many weeks’ articles; notable in my recent memory are my practice of the Covenant service, my desire to seek Christology for a new technological age and my attitude to meat at the dinner table.

I suggest we drop “discussing” from the description, leaving it as “theology today to transform tomorrow,” not to discourage discussion, but in order to encourage each other both to experience revelation and to practice theology in our daily lives.

Please comment – do you agree with this subtle change? Can you explain how the blog relates practically to your own theology?

[i] I have not included references to the many texts which have in some way informed this particular categorisation of theological method. Two which organise their analysis in different ways to this, but which I have found especially helpful recently have been Graham, E., Walton, H., Ward, F. (2005), Theological Reflection: Methods, London: SCM; and Allen, P. (2012) Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed, London and New York: T&T Clark.

Finding rest in the wrestling

by Gill Newton.

One afternoon recently, as I was ironing, I watched a couple of quiz shows; it somehow helps the task along and makes the time pass more quickly! I was both surprised and intrigued to hear two very different contestants on the consecutive shows declare their love of wrestling when asked about their hobbies and interests!  Both wanted to use any money won to fund a trip to the United States to watch professional wrestling.  Personally I couldn’t think of anything I’d like to do less!  But then I guess wrestling these days has moved on a little from my memories of the Saturday afternoon sport my Dad occasionally watched which involved the likes of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy!

But whilst I may not be a big fan of wrestling as a sport, it did set me thinking about how much “wrestling” I do every day.  Wrestling with an e-mail inbox that never seems to be empty and an ironing basket that provides the same dilemma.  Wrestling with how to respond to the political developments both in our own land and across the pond.  Wrestling with getting the right balance between work and family life.  Wrestling with difficult decisions that need to be made within the District I serve or in our own family setting.

Inevitably, perhaps, my mind went to Jacob’s encounter with God (1).  He was making a journey home to meet his brother Esau; a meeting that was undoubtedly going to be challenging given the manner in which they had parted some time before.  He’d also just left behind him a recent falling-out with his father-in-law Laban (2) so, here he is, sandwiched between these two difficulties, and Jacob finds himself wrestling.  With himself?  With a man?  With God?  And why?

Well, there are no easy answers to those questions, but through the wrestling, Jacob somehow gained a deeper understanding of himself, and of God, and of course ultimately knew God’s blessing.  But, the blessing wasn’t achieved at his first request.  According to Gerhard von Rad, “this clutching at God and his power of blessing is perhaps the most elemental reaction of humanity to the divine.” (3)  We long for the blessing and to find the place of rest, but we don’t necessarily want the struggle that often needs to come first.

The question that I am left with though is, how much of my/our wrestling is really with God? In this story of Jacob we can readily recognise our own struggles with fear, self-worth, loneliness and so on.  Just as the apostle Paul before us, we are “harassed at every turn; conflicts on the outside, fears within.” (4)  But, when I look at that list above, much of the wrestling is with the church, with my own conscience, thoughts and feelings, with my sense of priority, with those in authority or even with members of my family.  So many of us wrestle with these things in the hope of arriving at a place of peace and rest when actually all we achieve is a brief respite before the bell rings for another round of the wrestling match!

However, wrestling with God may be a much more fruitful experience in terms of arriving at a deeper understanding of who we are in God, but it necessitates us facing up to and naming who and what we are.   Jacob was invited to declare his name and of course, in his culture, the name was thought to bear something of the character of the person behind the name.  So, for Jacob, it is in facing up to who he is that the wrestling comes to an end, and transformation takes place as he’s given a new name and the blessing is given.

Maybe individually we need to stop taking matters into our own hands as we wrestle with our feelings, our family or the church and maybe as a church we need to stop wrestling amongst ourselves and instead wrestle with God as we face up to who and what we are.  That way we might just discover new things being revealed about who we truly are, find the “rest” that is at the heart of “wrestling” and know God’s blessing in the days ahead.

(1)        Genesis 32

(2)        Genesis 31

(3)        von Rad, Gerhard (1972).  Genesis.  London: SCM Press Ltd

(4)        2 Corinthians 7 v 5

‘Put me to doing, put me to suffering’

by Andrew Lunn.

In the older version of the Methodist covenant prayer the phrase ‘put me to suffering’[1] has sometimes been a problem.  Surely we do not ask God to cause us pain, to ‘suffer’ in that sense?  The phrase is open to misunderstanding because of the way the word ‘suffering’ has changed its meaning.  There is an associated risk: that the content of the older meaning is diminished, because we no longer have a single simple word with which to express it.  That older meaning which allows us to pray ‘put me to suffering’ lies in the idea of dependence—of ourselves as creatures who depend on each other at many critical points in our lives.  Such dependence can also be understood in terms of vulnerability.  Those on whom we have been, are, or will be dependent, are also those to whom we are vulnerable.  Each of us cannot but be those who ‘suffer’ in that sense—we cannot but be those who are dependent on others.  Needless to say, as creatures we are also utterly dependent on God.

In his book Dependent Rational Animals[2] Alasdair MacIntyre argues that to deny such dependency, such suffering, is to turn aside from a central resource by which we are enabled to live the good (that is, the virtuous) life.  Even while we seek to become ‘independent practical reasoners’, our dependent beginnings in infancy, and the recurring possibilities for dependence in sickness,  emotional turmoil, or old age, shape the experience of our whole lives.  ‘In order to flourish, we need both those virtues that enable us to function as independent and accountable practical reasoners and those virtues that enable us to acknowledge the nature and extent of our dependence on others.  Both the acquisition and the exercise of those virtues are possible only insofar as we participate in social relationships of giving and receiving.’[3]

For MacIntyre, this provides the basis for our empathic connections with all other people, even strangers who might find themselves in dire need before us.  He explores the central virtue of ‘just generosity’[4] the exercise of which involves responding to need which echoes our own experiences of dependency.  Being in places of ‘suffering’ in this sense equips us to respond to others who suffer, provided we are embedded in relationships of giving and receiving which help us to learn such virtues and exercise them as ‘independent practical reasoners’.  In this sense ‘doing’ and ‘suffering’ belong together.

MacIntyre’s work might be seen as offering a philosophical counterpoint to the theology of the Gospels.  The story of the incarnation, of Christ entering into human vulnerability and dependence, displays for us the tension between God’s impassibility and God’s freedom, a theme explored in Vanstone’s extended reflection on Christ’s waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane.[5]   In other places the vulnerability and dependence of the disciples comes into the foreground.  In Matthew 10, as Jesus sends them out to minister (‘doing’), he reminds them repeatedly of vulnerability (‘suffering’), yet also places value in that vulnerability for ‘you are of more value than many sparrows’ (v. 31).  While in verses 40-42 those who respond to the needs of the vulnerable are identified as those who will be rewarded.

These themes provide us with theological and philosophical bases for our mutual relationships for life in the church.  We should be consciously echoing both the practices which Christ taught his disciples, and the virtues which he embodied himself in his passion.  The cup of cold water offered to ‘little ones’ which is rewarded, elevates the importance of responding to the needs of those ‘little ones’—a phrase open to a variety of interpretations, but which certainly encapsulates the idea of vulnerability and dependence.

As we create communities of Christian practice from the basis of our common dependent humanity many aspects of pastoral practice will be found at the theological heart of our life together:  from care of the bereaved, to messy church; from safeguarding practice to the political response to refugees.  It is not that we do these things because we have been and will be vulnerable and dependent in the same way as those to whom we minister—not, that is, in exercising benevolent self-interest—rather, we do them as those whose practices are shaped from the beginning by our dependence on each other, and as those for whom ethical action takes its shape and meaning precisely from our common patterns of vulnerability.  We do them also as those whose faith is shaped by God, revealed in Christ as a God in whom vulnerability is not just protected, but embraced in the mystery of the incarnation.

To pray ‘put me to doing, put me to suffering’ is to acknowledge both doing and suffering as essential parts of being Christian, and being human.

[1] ‘The Covenant Service’, The Methodist Worship Book, (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1999) 290.

[2] MacIntyre, Alasdair, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (London: Duckworth, 2009).

[3] MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 155-156.

[4] MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 121 ff.

[5] Vanstone, W.H., The Stature of Waiting (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1982).

Music and Spirituality

by Ian Howarth.

In the Oscar nominated film musical ‘La, La, Land’ at a particularly poignant moment when the couple at the centre of the film see each other after a long break, rather than say anything the character played by Ryan Gosling sits at the piano and plays. It is incredibly moving. It is moving because it is the tune he played when they first met, but it goes further than that. Even though it is not a ‘great’ piece of music it is moving because in that context it seems to be infused with meaning. However, if you were asked ‘What meaning?’ it is a meaning that is impossible to put into words except in the most general terms.

Those twin abilities of music, to be able to move people emotionally and to be deeply meaningful without being specific about its meanings are key reasons why music has been so significant in many religious traditions. The combination of speaking deeply to people’s feelings and being ambiguously meaningful for many people enable music to be a symbol of the ‘other’. A symbol that can be simultaneously immanent and transcendent, seemingly reaching deep within us while at the same time offering the sense of being in communion with something/someone beyond.

The power and the ambiguity of music has led to both enthusiasm and caution among spiritual writers as to its use. St Augustine and John Wesley both loved music, but were keen to link it to words that were doctrinally sound, so that its power did not move people in the wrong ways: ‘Attend strictly to the sense of what you sing. See that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.’ writes John Wesley in his Rules for Singing. St. Augustine may or may not have said: ‘Whoever sings, prays twice’ (it is nowhere recorded in his writings). What he did write in Book 10 Chapter 33 of his Confessions, feeling that his passion for music was potentially dangerous is:  “I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.”

The Methodist tradition is more enthusiastic about the custom of singing in church, and it has perhaps become a key way in our tradition of our worship speaking to people’s deepest feelings, and of offering meanings that go beyond words.

However, for that to happen effectively, we not only need to be careful of the words we sing, but we also need to recognise the potential meanings in the music itself which go beyond both the meaning of the words and the sounds being created and heard. Music, like our worship, exists in a cultural context. In many cultures and sub-cultures music serves as a powerful indicator of identity. Different genres of music relate to different cultural identities.

The type of music that an institution uses will say much about which social groups it can relate to effectively. There are stereotypes in people’s thinking about the fans of different musical genres. A recent article by social psychologists suggests that ‘people have very similar stereotypes about the psychological and social characteristics of most music fans – particularly fans of classical, rap and heavy metal music. For example, fans of classical music are believed to be white, wealthy, hardworking, introverted, physically unattractive, intelligent and artistic, whereas rap  music fans are believed to be extraverted, relaxed, athletic and to drink beer and smoke marijuana. When the content of these stereotypes were compared with the psychological characteristics of actual music fans, the results revealed that many of the stereotypes have some validity.’[1]

I wonder what that would say about the music we use in Methodist churches and who are most likely to relate to it?

Our Christian heritage reminds us that music is potentially a powerful spiritual tool for the reasons outlined above. However, in practice its cultural significance, and the way it helps people define their identity, means that we need to be far more thoughtful and aware about the way we choose and use music in church, so that we can enable it to fulfil its potential to enable people to reach the heights and the depths through which God is encountered.

[1] “The structure of musical preferences: A five-factor model,” by Rentfrow, Peter J.; Goldberg, Lewis R.; Levitin, Daniel J., in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 100(6), Jun 2011, 1139-1157. author’s manuscript version available to read here.

Incarnation or illusion?

by Barbara Glasson.

The animated film The illusionist (2010), directed by Sylvain Chomet, is based on an un-produced script of the French mime, director and actor Jaques Tati. The film, set in Scotland, tells of the relationship between a young girl, Alice and an impoverished magician. Initially Alice believes the Illusionist to be a real magician and is in thrall to his ability to conjure up a different world, as time goes on, and as she grows up, the illusion is revealed. The Illusionist is a poignant and sad film, capturing all the hope and sparkle that magic promises in childhood, the possibility of defying nature, of making wishes come true, of enabling a new world crack open the mundane world of everyday. The sadness is, that it’s ultimately a trick.

The idea of magic is a seductive one. From Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, we all easily enter into a story of make-believe where good overcomes evil, where elderly chaps with long white beards have our best interests at heart and where Cinderella’s get interrupted in their drudgery by fairies in sparkly frocks able to rock up in a trice with some new shoes. I wish!

We are particularly enthralled with this magical scenario at Christmas. From Santa who seems to act as a cross between a benevolent grandfather and a mystery shopper, to the ridiculous world of pantomime we are sucked into the tinsel-garnished potential of another story with glimmers of stardust sprinkled on the everyday. In a last ditch attempt, we begin to make new year’s resolutions in the hope that they at least might help our daily lives be sprinkled with fairy dust. We sit down at our desks again, find the papers just where we left them, and the time-lapse of Christmas has not brought about an office filing system let alone peace on earth.

Christmas is not magic.  Christmas is not about God squeezing himself into human form, or disguising himself as someone and being prepared to pop out and surprise us in some Divine Pantomime. Christmas is emphatically not about waving a magic wand and sorting out the world. Incarnation is God showing us what it means to be human, the cost, struggle and complexity of our lives. Prayer and worship are our response to this, but not a call to shut our eyes and hope for a magic wand to be waved. Incarnation, is about relationship with the God who, in Jesus, enters fully into the human predicament and takes it on.

A reminder then, at Epiphany that the Magic Men from the East,with gifts for the baby, lay down their powers to bring symbols of the stuff of life, that within life there is suffering, that the journey to the stable is also a journey to the cross.

At a recent gathering of Scriptural Reasoning, where people of different faiths discussed their Scriptures, there was an wonderful conversation I overheard between a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim cleric concerning a passage from the Psalms. The conversation went along the lines of whether or not we should argue with God. The Muslim, explained that his faith is about submission to God, that obedience to the will of God is at the heart of Islam, that to argue with God would not be a humble response Allah. The Rabbi laughed, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, ‘Argue? That’s what Jews do! We argue all the time, two Jews and five opinions!’ They then turned to the Christians in the room, ‘Do you Christians argue with God?’ they asked.

I suspect the answer we should have given is ‘Not enough!’ If we are in relationship with the incarnate God, who, through Jesus, shows us how to be human, then we need to argue more. Incarnation is emphatically not ‘being nice’ or ‘trying to be good’, or  ‘hoping for something better’. Incarnation is an invitation to enter into the contradictory and troubling nature of what it means to be human – to take it on. In this endeavour we are called into a robust relationship with God, one in which we rail at the inequalities of the world, where we are called into political engagement. A relationship in which it simply isn’t good enough that some earn megabucks whilst others are sanctioned for being late for a Job Centre appointment. To make relationships with people of other faith is a vocational imperative, not a lifestyle option, because peace-building is about making relationships with people that some call ‘enemies’ and praying for them as we wrestle with our differences and non-negotiables. Being people who argue with unjust systems who engage with people different from ourselves, who keep on believing that God is with us in all the mess and muddle of life, is our only New Year’s resolution.

It is said that ‘The Illusionist’ is a film about the relationship that Jaques Tati longed for with his estranged daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel although the truth of this seems to be shrouded with some mystery. The hopelessness of the film lies in the fact that when it was revealed that there was no magic then there was no relationship.  As Christians we are not magicians, but humans, called to live life in all its fullness, complexities and worries. It is only through such engagement that we offer any hope to the world.


by Graham Edwards.

While I was visiting a member in a care home I noticed that above each resident’s door was a photograph of the person who lived in that room.  These photos were not recently taken, they were 30, 40 or 50 years old, and showed the resident in their “prime”.  My first reaction was to smile at these photos, then as I drove away later I wondered whether a photograph which seems to say “this is who I was” undermines the intrinsic value, as a human being and a child of God, in “who I am now”.    However, I have come to appreciate these photographs as part of a significant reflection on identity.

Our sense of identity does not simply “exist” in a simple and easily accessible format.  The sense of self we carry is complicated and multi-layered.  Steph Lawler (2008) argues for an understanding of identity as something to be “done rather than owned”(p. 121).  In her understanding forming a sense of self is an ongoing process in which the experiences of life are integrated into the way we perform our identity to, and with others.  This understanding is also seen in the work of Judith Butler (2004) and Erving Goffman (1990) who accept that identity is performed, but they importantly challenge any perceived distinction between ‘being’ and ‘acting’, arguing that the two cannot be separated.  Lawler characterises their position as one which accepts that “there is no other way to be than to act” (p. 121).   What others see of us therefore, is dependent on the context in which they see it, yet that “performance” is not all that we are, it is not the sum of our identity, rather it a piece of a much bigger jigsaw.   In 1995 Pope John Paul II (p. 12) argued that human beings are “called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of [their] earthly existence”.  That “fullness” is not limited to a phase in our lives in which we have particular abilities or capacities, but in God is given throughout our existence, and is an essential part of our identity.

How then do we begin to hold all this together and find a way to understand who we are, and for Christians who we are in God?  In the late 1970s Louis Zurcher (pp. 175 -222) suggested four “modes” in which a sense of self is formed: Physical, where the self is understood solely as a physical entity.   Social, here a sense of self is grasped through a variety of roles and functions. Reflective, in this mode the self is appreciated though reflection on personality traits and predilections.   Finally, Oceanic, where the self may be understood through abstract or transcendent ideas and a mystical or spiritual awareness, the notion of the self here is ‘bigger’ than a physical or social role.   I understand Zurcher’s oceanic mode as providing a framework in which his other modes can be appreciated.   In my experience the life of faith or the “fullness of life” John Paul II describes, gives this same kind of coherence the way my identity is formed.  My “self”, is always held within my sense of being a child of God, however life changes for me and whether I am young or old.

The photographs above resident’s doors in the care home don’t deny the reality of who the residents are, but recognise something of the complexity of our human existence.  Those photographs remind me that who I was is who I am, they are not separate things but part of a much greater whole where all that I am – my beginning and my end is held in God.

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.

Goffman, E. (1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.

Lawler, S. (2008). Identity. Cambridge: Polity.

Pope John Paul II. (1995). Evangelium Vitae. Boston: Pauline Books.

Zurcher, L. A. (1977). The Mutable Self. London: Sage Publications.

Methodists and Other Animals: Time to Reclaim a Legacy

by David Clough.

In 1760, Horace Walpole is said to have remarked that a man was ‘turning Methodist; for, in the middle of conversation, he rose, and opened the window to let out a moth’ (cited in an article by Philip Sampson). Perhaps this reputation Methodists had for being concerned about animals comes as a surprise to you, but it was well founded. John Wesley wrote an essay on the souls of animals, referred to them frequently in his journal, published the book A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation that discussed animals, and preached a famous sermon on Romans 8 called ‘The General Deliverance’ in which he stated that the Bible was clear that animals would be redeemed by God, and that Christians should be concerned about the cruelties inflicted on them daily in the streets. Walpole’s comment indicates that this concern was widely shared among Methodists, and early Methodist magazines regularly included articles opposing cruelty towards animals.

This Methodist history of concern for animals finds a place in a wider history of broader Christian concern particularly among evangelicals. Most Christians are now unaware that Christians were responsible for campaigning for the first legislation against cruelty towards animals, and founded the RSPCA in the first part of the 19th century. Later, Christians were at the forefront of campaigns against the cruelties of vivisection, seeing it as a clear example of the weak being exploited by the strong contrary to Christian teaching. This activism in defence of animals was in strong continuity with long Christian traditions of being concerned about animals: John Calvin preached that ‘God will condemn us for cruel and unkind folk if we pity not the brute beast’; an early 15th century English commentary on the Ten Commandments stated that ‘men should have compassion on beast and bird and not harm them without cause and have regard for the fact that they are God’s creatures’; and many early stories of Christian saints include examples of their compassion towards animals.

These roots of Methodist and wider Christian concern for animals comes as news to most Methodists, and most Christians. We tend to see concern for animals as a secular concern, sometimes even to the extent of thinking Christianity gives us divine permission to exploit animals without being concerned about them. There are atheist perspectives on animal rights that reinforce this message and identify Christianity as part of the problem in relation to cruelties inflicted on animals. But it’s a historical mistake to think that concern for animals is not deeply embedded in Christian faith.

But those who have come to associate Christians with a lack of concern for animals could take the ways the animals we eat are treated as evidence. Most of us are unaware or insufficiently concerned that most chickens raised for meat in broiler sheds are bred in windowless sheds to reach slaughter weight in only 35 days. All commercially produced eggs requires the culling of all male chicks after hatching. Most pigs are raised in crowded bare sheds that give no opportunity for their diverse natural behaviours. Dairy cows are often now also kept indoors, have their calves taken away immediately after birth, and are culled for beef after three or four pregnancies. Sheep and cattle raised for beef usually do better, but we kill lambs at only a few months of age, and still inflict painful procedures such as castration on calves and lambs without anaesthetic. And all this isn’t good for humans, either: it contributes to obesity, diabetes, human food and water insecurity, and climate change. What we are currently doing is very clearly bad for humans, bad for animals, and bad for the planet.

Here’s a proposal: as Methodists we could reclaim our legacy to join with other Christians to be in the vanguard of a modern movement against cruelty to animals, starting with what we are doing to farmed animals. We could make clear that raising animals in this way is contrary to our faith, and commit to reducing our consumption of animal products and choosing higher welfare options in our church catering and our own homes. Jesus taught that not a single sparrow is forgotten by God (Mt. 10.29; Lk. 12.6). Who’s in for remembering our Methodist legacy, and our Christian responsibilities towards other animals?

If you’re interested in practical action in relation to the intensive farming of animals, my project CreatureKind has resources for churches to think through the issues and act in response. Do get in touch if you’d like to discuss ideas for how to take this forward in your church.

If you’re interested in learning more about early Methodists and other animals, the 2015 Fernley Hartley Lecture I gave on the topic is available online. A recent article I published on the ethics of eating animals is available online. If you’d like a longer read about how animals figure in Christian understandings, have a look at one or more of these books.

I am no longer my own but yours…

by Roger Walton.

The Covenant Service is surely the heart of Methodist Spirituality.  As a service following close on the heels of Christmas, and often in or around Epiphany, it is perhaps the best expression of our response to the love of God made known in the Christ-child.  Like the Magi, we open our treasures and lay everything at the feet of the one who has come among us in vulnerable love.  We give ourselves totally, we hold nothing back, we submit everything to the God who has gently and lovingly placed His divinity into our hands.  It was suggested to me some years ago, that before you say the covenant prayer you should imagine the words on the lips of Jesus speaking to God for the sake of the world he enters.  “I am no longer my own but yours, put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will, put be to doing, put me to suffering…” takes on a new depth of meaning, if you hear these words as the self-surrender of God’s Son to the task before him.  Then, when we say the covenant prayer, we are mirroring what God has done.  ‘We love because he first loved us’.

What is striking in the liturgy, however, is the sudden switch from third person language to the first person at the point of the covenant prayer.  Up to that point, ‘we’, and ‘our’ are the norm and worshippers are reminded of the covenant God made with the people of Israel.  Even at the invitation to make the covenant prayer, the words are ‘we are no longer our own but yours.’  Yet as we make the prayer, it is unambiguously in the first person.   Although the words are said together, we say them each for himself or herself.

This can be both understood and justified.  Wesley took the basic idea from the Puritans, Joseph and Richard Alleine, who penned the words for individual, personal response to God.  Interestingly, in the Wesleyan liturgy of 1897 there were three forms of the covenant service, one of which was for individuals making a private covenant, not in corporate worship.[1]  It is not surprising that this individual orientation survives.  Moreover, the theological justification of first person language may be that we each need to own the response.  It is an expression of the (grace enabled) freewill for all, for which the Wesleys battled against Calvinists.  To take our place in the covenant people of God, we each express our individual desire and willingness and thus step up alongside others.  Just as communion received in individual glasses – a practice with an odd ancestry – can express both individual response, as we eat the bread and drink the wine put into our hands, and solidarity in Christ as we stand together as a table awaiting dismissal, so first person covenant prayer language does not necessarily undermine our corporate identity as the body of Christ.  Indeed, it might strengthen it, provided we see that our solidarity with each other is concomitant with our covenant with God.  The covenant prayer binds us together with God and with each other for the work of God, for which we are to watch over one other in love.

We use covenant language in many parts of our church’s life but one of the most remarkable is that we have Covenants of Care for convicted sex offenders who wish to remain part of a worshipping community.  Recognizing the way that we have failed those who have been abused in the church and seeking to make a safer church, it is surprising that we allow for this possibility.  Most institutions would not entertain it.  In order for it to succeed, it requires the individual to own the danger he or she poses to others; and a pledge to abide by a set of rules that will keep the person out of temptation and others safe, as well as the commitment of the group to be vigilant in guarding all involved.  Oddly, this may speak to us of the individual and corporate nature of the covenant we are about to enter into this January.

[1] Chapman, D. M. (2006). Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britian. Warrington, Church in the Market Place, p176-177.

The Physical, matters

by Gareth Powell.

In the not unreasonable concern about the consumerism that has so come to define swaths of Christmas celebrations there is the striking truth that ours is an incarnational faith.  This is a festival about flesh and blood.  This is a festival about the divine in human form.  This is a festival that makes clear to any and all that the physical matters.  Take away stable, shepherds, precious gifts and human DNA and there is little, on the surface at least, left.  In the remembrance of God’s loving purposes recorded in any service of Nine Lessons and Carols we recall the form of the world created out of God’s own goodness.  In celebrating these twelve days of Christmas, we celebrate the ‘matter of eternal praise’ as Wesley puts it, in very human, physical form.  This we do with sight, sound, smell, and of course thought.

Some of our discomfort about the nature of popular Christmas celebrations rests in the uncomfortable fact that the community of Christians has, in its daily round, the responsibility of using God’s gifts, such that we may deploy the resources we have to proclaim the gospel of a child in a stable – and amongst other things, respond to the refugee family that flees an intolerant zealot (Matt 2:13).  How we use the material things of life says something profound about God, or rather how we encounter God and then respond to God’s love.  So, we may absolve some moderate gluttony by a larger donation to a charitable cause, because that is looking after our neighbour.  We justify an unnecessarily expensive gift (even to self) by holding a line about wanting to offer the best so that we can express how valuable a person (or self) is.  The dangers here should be all too obvious. Physical, human matter, matters a very great deal, but not simply for the sake of taking care of the physical.  The physical matters because it plays such a significant part in our response to the word made flesh.  That the word is made flesh at all offers us something of the challenge.  Divine beings manifested in clouds and pillars of fire is one thing.  People can be sent up to mountain tops to talk to that sort of God.  Keeping your distance enables you to avoid all manner of truths.  Now things are very different and the whole creation encounters God in a rather unexpected way.

What the donkey saw

No room in the inn, of course,
And not that much in the stable
What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary,
Joseph, the heavenly host –
Not to mention the baby
Using our manger as a cot.
You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in
For love or money.

Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
U A Fanthorpe (1929-2009)

The mixture of those who entered that crowded stable touches upon the bringing together of humanity, each aspect of humanity having some awareness, however vague, of the enormity of the encounter.  While at the other end of the story, it is not the ill-prepared couple who failed to find a room in a crowded city that should tell us something about migration.  More pressing is the flight from a tyrannical leader murdering the innocent.  In that is the stark (or is it disturbing?) message of our God contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man.  And the Christ child is heard; in Aleppo; in the desperate cry of a seemingly comfortable but helpless mother in suburbia; in the whisper of a Coptic Christian; in…

And we celebrate the incarnation by our response – don’t we?

In the tradition of the Roman Church nativity scenes are kept on display until the presentation of Christ in the Temple (2nd February). We might do well to do the same, searching our hearts and, as Herbert McCabe puts it, realising that ‘We matter, not first because of what we have made of ourselves, but because of what God has made of us.  And that includes what we make of ourselves.’[i]

How then do we respond to this Child, who is taking us to places, together?

[i] McCabe, Herbert. God, Christ and Us. London: Continuum, 2003:136

… and Jesus was baptized

by Martin Ramsden.

‘… and Jesus was baptized.  All at once, as he came out of the water, suddenly the heavens were opened, and he saw God’s spirit coming down like a dove and landing on him. Then there came a voice out of the heavens.  ‘This is my own beloved one,’ said the voice.  ‘I am delighted with him’.  (Matthew 3.16-17)[1]

First of all, let me apologize.  On this publication day, the last Theology Everywhere article before Christmas, I really should be writing something more explicitly connected with the incarnation.  However, we are still in the season of Advent and, as Tom Wright’s recent guide to Advent readings makes clear, the baptism of Jesus does have relevance here.  In addition, the liturgical Sunday on which we focus on the  Baptism of Jesus comes very soon in 2017.  Indeed, Matthew 3.13-17 is the Gospel reading which is set for 8th January.

Quite a few years ago now I led worship in a semi-rural church on the outskirts of Doncaster.  My opening hymn was God is here as we his people.  The second verse of this hymn says:

Here are symbols to remind us
of our lifelong need of grace;
Here are table, font and pulpit;
Here the cross has central place.[2]

 Before the service began I had a look to make sure that we did, indeed, have table, font, pulpit and a central cross.  We almost had a full set – all except for the font.  I asked the stewards if it might be possible to display the font.  Panic ensued.  Eventually the font was found at the back of a cupboard.  It was dusted off, placed upon the table for the duration of the service and then was promptly returned to its place in the cupboard.  I was reminded of this experience recently when a Local Preacher came to lead worship at my home church.  She chose the same opening hymn and as I sang verse 2 I looked for the symbols of our lifelong need of grace.  Again, I could see almost a full set.  Table, cross and especially pulpit were clearly visible.  The font, I later discovered, was hidden behind some hymnbooks on the front pew.

Have the Methodists of this land forgotten that our baptism is a sign of our lifelong need of grace and also so much more?

In 2015 27% of the 7,633  baptisms of under twelves in the Methodist Church were conducted in 2.7% of the 4,541 Methodist churches.[3]  This means that a very small number of churches are conducting a very high proportion of Methodist baptisms.  Whilst it may be that those churches which hardly ever have a baptism, like my first example, may have forgotten that baptism is a sign of our lifelong need of grace it also could be true that those churches which have one or more baptisms each week have also lost sight of the connection between baptism and Christian discipleship.

29 of the 123 churches that reported 10 or more baptisms in 2015 are in the North East.  Needless to say this is a big issue for a significant number of presbyters and deacons in the North East of England.  At a recent reflective practice session for baptismal practitioners in the North East of England that I facilitated I was asked a question, ‘to what extent does the number of baptisms for those outside of the regularly gathering church prevent the regularly gathering church from seeing the treasure of their own baptism?’  A good question!

In the early church, baptism, if not regarded as a treasure or a sign of our lifelong need of grace, was regarded as significant for the life of discipleship.  Indeed, in the early centuries in Syria and Alexandria, baptism was deeply significant for the Christian disciple’s understanding of Christian identity, vocation and ministry.  This is because Christian baptism was very much interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own baptism. ‘“This is my own beloved one” said the voice. “I am delighted”’.[4]  The resonances with Is.42.1 and Ps.2.7 notwithstanding, I wonder what it would mean for us to grow into the Lord’s delight?  I wonder if a helpful understanding of holiness might be growing into the Lord’s delight or, put another way, growing into our baptism.  For, to be sure, the Lord sees much more in us than we are able to see in ourselves.  As Ephesians 3. 20-1 puts it, ‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen’.

This Christmas, throughout 2017 and through all of the years to come, may we grow more fully into God’s vision for us, into the Lord’s delight.  To put it another way, may we grow more fully into the grace of our baptism.

[1] As translated by Tom Wright in Advent for Everyone: A Journey Through Advent: A Journey Through Matthew (London: SPCK, 2016) p.36

[2] Back then I chose this Fred Pratt Green hymn from Hymns and Psalms no. 653 (London: Methodist Publishing House, 1983) now I would find it in Singing the Faith no. 25 (London: Hymns Ancient and Modern, 2011)

[3] I am very grateful to Alan Piggot from the Methodist Church Statistics for Mission Team for providing this data for me

[4] See Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999) pp.47-50 and 56-7.

%d bloggers like this: