Full and Fulfilled

by Josie Smith.

I have just celebrated – or endured – my ninety-third birthday, in faith and in constant pain.   I am in the mood to share a few thoughts, both frivolous and serious, before the surgeon’s scalpel or the Grim Reaper’s scythe get me.   I await events with interest.   
As my late husband said as he (a mere 85 at the time) endured the final stages of colorectal cancer ‘Dying doesn’t worry me – it’s just that getting there is so difficult.’

The first Thought is frivolous.   I realised when I became ninety-two that had I been the Biblical Sarah I would now have been living with a small boy in the Terrible Twos, without my mother to guide me in coping with his ever-changing needs, moods and demands.  That thought alone would be enough to cure biblical literalism.    

But as a cradle Methodist I never had much time for frivolity.   We were brought up in a sound Wesleyan tradition of church twice every Sunday, plus Sunday School in the afternoon.   There followed the then traditional pattern – Youth Club, teenage conversion, Church Membership with the very grown-up permission to receive Holy Communion, Sunday School teaching.  By the age of thirty I was Superintendent of a Sunday School with twenty-five teachers and a hundred and twenty-five children.   My family included a Circuit Steward (one of whose friends was an ex-Vice-President of Conference, no less) a Mission Secretary in one of the big city missions, a couple of church organists, a Women’s Meeting president – though I was the first in my family to be a regular member of Methodist Conference.    It would have taken courage to opt out of all that.    But I never wanted to…….

In the fifth church I attended, counting the one in which I was baptised, I became aware of the ecumenical element, when we lived in a small rural village and attended the too-large and crumbling Methodist church and the venerable village C.of E. alternately, and the vicar drafted us in (I married a local preacher, naturally, and son of the manse, inevitably!!) to run the combined Sunday School in our house.

And now, in the tenth church (you can get through a lot of churches in ninety-odd years and in a few house moves around the country) I am a member of both the Methodist Church and the Anglican Church in an ecumenical partnership.    And where I live now we work together with other local faith communities.   Leading prayers recently (I no longer take services but this is something I can still do) I said something like this:

‘Enable us to respect the faith of others and to be strong in our own.    We try to put our faith into words, creeds, expressions of belief – and we fail, because language is not rich enough, words are not big enough, to say what we mean.   But we can speak our faith by what we do and how much we love.   Help us.’

I have had a full and fulfilled life, one way and another.   I ought to have reached the years of wisdom, and be uttering profound theological statements wrought during years of wrestling (with angels, Superintendent Ministers and others) but all I want to do today is to send you Love and Peace (I sign off my emails that way now) and my prayer that you find the love of God and your faith in God to be your motivation, and become the saint you were designed to be.

Meanwhile I await the surgeon, or the chap with the scythe, and of course death, which is the culmination of earthly life for all of us.    My final experience.    Bring it on!

King Gizzard, AstroTurf, and John Wesley!

by Kerry Tankard.

Let me invite you to peer, quickly, into the Gizzverse. This is the realm, theoretical and experiential, inhabited by invested fans of the Australian band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. In 2022 they celebrated 10 years together and released 5 records in one year, for the second time! Their last offering of 2022 was the album Change, featuring 7 tracks which were initially birthed 5 years before. The band realised they did not have the musical capacity to complete the album then, but 5 years of growth finally enabled them to do it. The whole album is an experiment in music, each song structured around two chords and scales, D and F#. I am not sure if by now you are bemused, disengaged, or intrigued, but please hang in there.

AstroTurf[i] is the third track on Change and is about, well, AstroTurf! It is an environmental lament. The band have taken increasingly seriously the environmental crisis we find ourselves in. Individual tracks on albums, multiple tracks on their 2019 album, Infest the Rats Nest, explore environmental change and crisis, and it does not end there. They regularly press records on recycled material; have dispensed with shrink wrap covers for their albums, in favour of carboard envelopes and in one case reclaimed denim. They were awarded a £20,000 prize (which they donated to the environmental charity The Wilderness Society) for the song and video of If Not Now, Then When?[ii], (from the album L.W.). A persistent refrain in that song wonders what it will take to change our behaviour. The song AstroTurf is another of their environmental protests. It portrays the mentality where control and the pursuit of an artificial (im)perfection overwhelms natural beauty, and to counter this it offers the lament of butterflies.

AstroTurf, the product, appears to solve the intrusions of the natural world for the human speaking in the song:

Everything’s dead here
Covered with plastic
Everything’s fluoro
Evergreen matter. . .

When it don’t matter
Everything’s better
Throw-away plates are
Better for business
Everything’s easy
Better for the earth is AstroTurf. . .

Suitable texture, suitable colour
Miniature forest, better than nature
Make me feel better knowing I won’t go
Out on my lawn and see an animal
Everything’s sterile, even infertile
Proud of my monster, never been straighter. . .

But at the same time creation is given a voice, a lamenting voice in the butterflies:

Six butterflies fluttered by
Looked horrified
“I just hatched from chrysalis
I’ve only hours, . . .
And this is where I will die
Heart-breaking way to end
I will cry on AstroTurf”

This is not a direct dialogue between the parties, but two monologues. The voice of power mistaking domination for dominion, and control for beauty; the voice of vulnerability seeing beauty in the created cycle of life and in the natural order of being.

The persistence of some human beings to dominate creation, to eradicate natural beauty in favour of artificial (im)perfection, is wanton and devastating. Our arrogance is such that we can presume the only voice we will listen to is our own, but King Gizzard pose an alternative voice and invite us, through song, to listen in. Convenience and control define some of our ways of relating to the world and the response is the sigh of creation (Romans 8.22). This is what Pope Francis highlighted at the beginning of Laudato Si’: ‘This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. . .This is why the earth herself . . . “groans in travail”’.[iii]

What I think the song does is elevate the voice we don’t hear, the groan of creation. I am not saying I believe human beings and butterflies are equal, or the same. Human beings are uniquely “capable of God”.[iv]  They are, for me, created in the image of God. In the Wesleyan tradition, they have been given the natural, moral, and political image of God to serve God’s purpose for all creation.[v] All life participates in God, but human beings have a greater ability to enjoy or frustrate the relationship than any other form of life. That distinct place we have is not one that should cause us to ignore God’s voice, grace, and presence, as it is mediated in other parts of creation.

For John Wesley, the political image of God in us is significant for the whole of creation, because it relates to our call to be for God, in our being for the world. In his sermon The Great Deliverance he writes of how humanity ‘was God’s vicegerent upon earth . . . all the blessings of God flowed through [them] to the inferior creatures. [Humanity] was the channel of conveyance between [their] Creator and the whole brute creation’.[vi] There is an intention for humanity to act for creation. It is a purpose and call to live for creation in such a way that we tend it with the Divine intent, that we act for it in a way consistent with God’s love. It is a call to listen to the lament of creation in the songs of butterflies and abandon AstroTurf and all it symbolises.


[i] Michael Cavanagh & Stuart Mackenzie, AstroTurf, from the album Change. The whole song can be found here: https://genius.com/King-gizzard-and-the-lizard-wizard-astroturf-lyrics

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntbNRUycbD4

[iii] Laudato Si’: 2

[iv] Sermon 60: “The General Deliverance”, Works: 2:441.

[v] The natural and political image are inferred by John Wesley’s opening comments in “Salvation by Faith”, Works, 1:117-118 and this threefold image is outlined more completely in Sermon 45: “The New Birth” Works 2:188ff.

[vi] Sermon 60: “The General Deliverance”, Works 2:440

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 www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/


[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 https://genius.com/Leonard-cohen-anthem-lyrics

[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: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker

[4] You can read her reflections in ‘Light in the Dark’ here: https://qz.com/835076/leonard-cohens-anthem-the-story-of-the-line-there-is-a-crack-in-everything-thats-how-the-light-gets-in

[5] This quote, cited in numerous places, is from an interview with Cohen in 1992. For the full quote, see: https://www.leonardcohennotes.com/doc/interview.1992_11_24_interview_1992_from_the_future_radio_special_a_special_cd_released_by_sony#on_anthem: 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

If Mary had said no…

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

If Mary had said, “No! 
Ain’t no baby going to grow 
inside my womb –  
find some other woman to give house room 
to the Son of God.” 

If Mary had said, “Hey! 
You’ll have to find another way. 
Keep your Spirit off of me 
and find a meeker woman to be 
the mother of God.” 

If she’d sent that angel back to the sky 
I guess young Mary would have passed us by, 
cos be she ever so gentle and ever so good 
I’m betting that without motherhood 
she’d never have made it into Scripture. 
If she wanted to be in the biblical picture 
she’d have to get healed to find her fame, 
and chances are we’d never know her name. 

If Mary had said, “Oi! 
I don’t care what you’re calling the boy, 
he don’t belong in my family –  
he ain’t coming between my Joseph and me, 
that child of God.” 

If Mary had said “No”,  
Gabriel would’ve had to just go 
if God is a God who honours free will 
and doesn’t force co-operation just for the thrill. 
I wouldn’t blame Mary for getting lairy –  
the task ahead must’ve looked proper scary! 

But… 

Then would God have found another virgin – 
someone meeker, weaker, with the urge 
inside of her to bear the child, 
someone obedient, gentle, mild – 
if Mary wasn’t willing enough, 
if she’d summoned her feminism, told God “tough”? 

Or would God have reviewed the situation, 
put on hold the incarnation, 
powered down the special star, 
sent the wise men back to lands afar, 
cancelled the booking for the animals’ manger, 
leaving Bethlehem with nothing stranger 
than shepherds warming round a fire –  
a night off for the angel choir, 
a silent night in the Little Town, 
nothing much really going down? 

Perhaps it was good that Mary was mild 
and couldn’t say “No” to bearing the child. 
If she’d had the guts to stand up for her right 
would there be no miracle that Christmas night? 
If she’d stood her ground for womankind, 
would there be no salvation for humankind? 

Or… 

What if Mary’s ‘passive humility’ 
was really an act of proud femininity? 
What if she willingly claimed her place 
in God’s awesome, astounding act of grace? 
What if her role in that first Advent 
was a confident, assertive act of consent? 
What if she wasn’t being passively ‘good’, 
but striking a blow for the sisterhood? 

Maybe Mary understood 
that God had a plan and the plan was good, 
but that if God was going to save the world, 
what God needed most was a kick-ass girl. 
If earth was going to receive its King 
God needed things only Mary could bring. 
No use coming top in any meekness tests – 
What was needed was a womb and a pair of breasts, 
and a woman’s courage and a hell of a faith 
and a rough, tough, female kind of grace. 
At the most amazing moment in history 
God needed Mary – this is her story! 

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.

Questions:

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)

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