Making a Difference: Situational Analysis

by Anthony Reddie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions:

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

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

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

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

Icons to love

by Anne Ostrowicz.

For this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, British-Guyanese artist Hew Locke had wrapped the city’s statue of Queen Victoria with a huge boat carrying the Queen and five slightly smaller Victoria replicas[1]. In the past, statues of Queen Victoria were shipped all over the British Empire, declaring British interests, including one placed in 1894 in front of the law courts in Georgetown, Guyana[2], which Hew Locke passed each day as a boy on his way to school.

Hew’s powerful art installation brought to my mind the explosive words in Genesis[3] where humans are declared to have within them the potential to become images or icons of their Creator, each in their uniqueness and own sphere of life.

As I write, the news is full of the recent death of Queen Elizabeth 2nd, many journalists and commentators referring to her as an icon representing the best of our nation.

A new academic year has just begun. Working in Religious Education in a secondary school in Birmingham, I am constantly reflecting on the direction in which we want to ‘grow’ our teenagers – and thence our communities. How can the curriculum I teach, in content and method, and my own way of being, help to move my pupils in this direction?

Black American writer James Baldwin describes the impact of some of his icon-teachers. As a boy, when his home life was characterised by poverty and tension, Baldwin lists a number of teachers who pointed the way forward for him, giving him both hope and inspiration. In particular he describes the artist Beauford Delaney as “my principal witness”[4] whose very gaze the young James used to follow to “see” what this man saw. ‘“Look again!” Delaney would challenge him. And “then he noticed!” [5]These teachers set Baldwin on his literary journey and career at a very young age.

Having re-read Malcolm X’s powerful autobiography this summer for teaching purposes, I can’t help wondering whether he would have reached his inclusive conclusions long before he did if only he had had similar helpful teacher-icons. In contrast to Baldwin, a pivotal moment for Malcolm X’s life was when his English teacher poured water over the flames of his fourteen year-old very-evident talent and aspiration to become a lawyer. Instead what was ignited was the anger and alienation which characterised so much of his youth, continuing into his adult life until his ‘enlightenment’ on Hajj when he experienced beautiful people of all colours. In his autobiography he adds to his recounting of the incident at school: “Lansing certainly had no Negro lawyers – or doctors either – in those days, to hold up an image I might have aspired to.” [6]

Given a sabbatical this last summer term, I worked on the year-long course I teach to young teen-agers on the life and teaching of Jesus. After an introduction to historical background and to the gospel writers, pupils are immersed in just a few texts, ‘going deep’ in trying to understand what Jesus stood for, including drawing on perspectives from black liberation and feminist theologians. Religious, ethical and philosophical issues are raised for discussion, and woven throughout are references to art, literature and contemporary events. Sitting at my desk for those months made me even more convinced that everything Jesus says and does seems to be directed towards illuminating what it means to love; that Jesus is the Supreme Icon of Love. And in the classroom, year after year, I am unfailingly moved by teenagers from every religious and secular background who are invariably gripped by Jesus: they see, but more than that they embrace, the beauty and inspiration expressed in his life. Truth is indeed beautiful. On my classroom wall this Autumn is a phrase from Giles Fraser in a recent Thought for the Day[7]. He beautifully described God as “a metaphysical anchor in an ever-changing world”. Many of our icons change but Jesus holds up to me an image of an unchanging and unfailing metaphysical anchor to love.


[1] The installation was in Victoria Square in front of the Town Hall and Birmingham Museum and Art gallery.

[2] The statue was installed in 1894, dynamited in 1954 by anti-colonialists, restored in Britain and is now  -controversially – back in its original position in front of the law courts in Georgetown.

[3] Genesis 1v.27: “So God created human beings in God’s image… male and female…”.

[4] David Leeming, James Baldwin, a Biography, Arcade Publishing, 2015, p.33

[5] ibid, p.34

[6] The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Penguin Books 2007, p.112

[7] Thought for the Day, Radio Four, Tuesday September 6, 2022

Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest.

by Tom Greggs.

For a long time, until in fact it became so tatty that it was falling apart, a postcard sat above my desk. The title of the postcard was God’s Filofax, and it was a diary page which followed through Monday to Sunday with the different things God created on each day – night and day; sun and moon; plants; animals; and so forth. On the last day in the same pen and handwriting was written ‘every lasting peace and happiness’. In a red pen, it was crossed out and the word ‘REST’ was written, circled and underlined.

It’s quite a remarkable thought to think that God rests. The world is such a busy place. A place so filled with all kinds of competing demands on us. It is a place where we can rush to fill our time with all kinds of good, well intentioned, activities. But rest and not work is the climax of creation.

We tend to behave as if creation is made for work—as if that is its purpose. Perhaps we have seen the t-shirts, mugs and badges, saying ‘Jesus is coming! Look busy’? Or else, we’ll have seen the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ brand. Life, at the moment, is all about getting the most out of people–optimal engagement with work—prime efficiency. Everything is ordered towards a busy life and saving time. We use dishwashers and food-processors. Everything is about how quick we can get something done in a fast food and microwave culture. To help us keep calm and carry one, we shove other jobs off to other people or technology. There are even robotic vacuums and even robotic lawnmowers. Our vague attempts at getting rest come from shifting work away, but usually so that we can fill the time with something which we perceive to be more profitable.  

Working, being busy, becomes almost a part of our identity – perhaps especially as Christians. But I am really struck by the fact that rest is something we should not squeeze in when we have earned it and completed it, but something that we are given by grace and should receive as a gift. It might be tempting to think that rest is the thing we get when we have finished our work – and when the work isn’t finished we don’t get any. But for Christians, this is key: even if in the seven day creation account rest follows the six days of God’s work of creation, in Christianity the order is reversed. We celebrate Sunday as our day of rest – the first day of the week, not the last. It is not that we work to receive the Sabbath, but that we have Sabbath rest as a gift before we work; it is a grace to us.

All well and good in theory, we might say; but that’s like telling a person swimming to shore they need to stop! We need to get to the shore first, and only then can we rest. However, we are wrong when we think rest comes from stopping and simply doing nothing. True rest is about coming to Christ. It is rest that can be found when we feel like we are drowning because it is a rest that looks to Him who walks to us on the water in the storms of life. Rest involves finding space and time to be with Christ who takes away our burdens, who lifts our yoke. We will never find rest if we work at finding it for ourselves; but only if we seek rest in Christ. We are to share in the rest of the One who gives His rest to us as a gift and as a grace.

St Augustine famously said: ‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.’[1] Stopping from the chores of daily life one thing; but the chores will be there the next day. Stopping from the chores of daily life and spending time with Christ, in His rest, is a different thing altogether. He is the One who enables us to be perfected through His power in our weakness. He is the One who enables us to see the world differently. He doesn’t a take a yolk away; instead, He gives us His own. He makes us see what true work is—an act of love that flows from the grace of rest. Teresa of Avila talks of how ‘love turns work into rest’.[2] Learning to love again in the assurance of the love of Christ, regardless of our works, enables us to work in His strength, to see all we do as an exercise motivated by love as a free response to unearned grace.


[1] Augustine, Confessions 1,1.5.

[2] Teresa of Avila, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila: Volume 1 (ICS Publications, 1976), 448.

What can we learn from the Aunties?

by Barbara Glasson.

I have been pondering the notion of pastoral care. ‘That’s good’, I might hear you mutter, ‘she does teach Pastoral theology after all!’. But the pondering has taken me on a slightly different path, provoked by a lively moment in the classroom last year and remembering my aunties.

The classroom moment came when we were making our way neatly through  the curriculum about the human lifecycle when a number of students of African heritage began to tell stories that began to re-configure our understanding. We had been working with the notion that pastoral care within church communities was the responsibility of individuals pastors – Presbyters, Deacons, pastoral visitors – but what these students were describing was the role of the community as a whole. They told stories of their villages, their extended families, their churches that showed clearly how pastoral care is the role of everyone, not simply individuals.

Then I began to think of aunties. In my growing up there were various categories of aunt. There were those aunts that were part of the family and rocked up at Christmas bearing gifts that could be anything from a dress  you’d always wanted but your mother said was frivolous, to a scratchy embroidered handkerchief in a flat box smelling of mothballs. These aunts were unnegotiable relatives whose wet kisses needed to be endured or could be a source of endless mischief. Then there were the ‘aunties’ that were women who were around the neighbourhood, no blood relation but kept an eye out for you. Some of this category of aunty were known by their first name, ‘Aunty Ethel’ but the posh ones were only known by their surname ‘Aunty Crosswell-Jones’. These aunties at best would give you jammy doughnuts or free reign of their gardens whilst they chatted with your Mum. But then, in my case anyway, there were the church aunties, who had mysterious and sometimes tragic stories  and it was those aunties that more often than not offered pastoral care.

Last time I encountered a whole cohort of aunties was when I was in Pakistan. In the extended families those women hold a great deal of influence. They arrived in bunches to organise weddings, gossip over chai or have opinions on how people were behaving. They commanded both respect and fear but are also a source of solace and wisdom.

These seemingly random musings caused me to Google ‘aunty’ in the Bible and I have to say I drew a bit of a blank – references to the household of faith or what not to do with your brother’s sister soon defaulted to discussing ‘ants’ which it has to be said feature much more prominently than aunts! It’s not that the aunts aren’t there, it’s rather that they are not described as such, they are simply part of the family group.

Maybe the phenomenon of ‘the aunt’ was a Western construct where we individualised relationships within a nuclear family and gave each other specific roles? Maybe the aunties of my generation were those whose marriage prospects had been blown apart by war or whose sexuality remained hidden? However, whatever those untold stories, I would like to say a rather belated ‘thank  you’ to that random group of women.

Meanwhile, I wonder how we might learn from those of different cultural heritages as to how pastoral care could be re-configured so that all care for all?  How could the church embody a place of sufficient safety for all to flourish, not simply as individuals but as and for the community? And what more do we need to learn from the aunties?

Completion and Condemnation in Matthew

By Tom Wilson.

I am currently working on a book, provisionally entitled “His Blood Be Upon Us”: Completion and Condemnation in Matthew’s Gospel. There are two reasons why I decided to write this book. The first is it provides me with an opportunity to reflect at length on one of the most complex sentences in Matthew’s Gospel, the cry of “all the [Jewish] people” that “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25). The second was seeing a photograph of a pro-Palestinian demonstration, held during May 2021, when conflict was raging across Israel-Palestine. One of those present at that demonstration held a placard with a drawing of Christ on the cross accompanied by the words “Don’t let them do it again.” The “them” referred presumably to Israelis or Jews or Israeli Jews. This is the charge of deicide, the killing of God, which has been levelled at Jewish people by Christians for centuries. The incident at the demonstration indicates that the charge is still present today. But is it justified? Was it ever justified? And how do we respond to both the long history of Christian persecution of Jewish people as well as the rise in contemporary antisemitism? Are there any plausible links between the “blood cry” of Matthew 27:25 and the so-called “blood libel” that began in 1150, and still resurfaces today? Exploring these issues is the task I have set myself in writing this book.

In a sense, the key question this book discusses is who does Matthew think is responsible for the death of Jesus. My answer is that it is Jesus himself, because three times he predicts his own death (16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) and he acts provocatively and makes deliberate claims that invite his audience to conclude either he is divine, or he is blaspheming. Jesus does this knowing that the punishment for blasphemy is death. Jesus also sets himself up as a rebel against the authority of the Roman Emperor and of Rome, and the penalty for such treason is also death. But ultimately, within the interpretative framework of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the fulfilment of the Jewish messianic hope, and he brings God’s plan for the redemption of humanity to its intended goal through his own life, death, and resurrection. It is Jesus who chooses death so that others may have life. Any charge of deicide is misplaced if it does not focus on these facts.

 

Yet this interpretation remains contested; the charge of deicide and the arguably associated blood libel, have become enduring cultural tropes and excuses for discrimination, hatred, and murder. Numerous Jewish scholars whose work I have read in preparation for writing cite their own, contemporary experience of this accusation. To give one example, when Levine was seven, she was accused of deicide:

‘A friend on the school bus said to me, “You killed our Lord.” “I did not,” I responded with some indignation. Deicide would be the sort of thing I would have recalled. “Yes, you did,” the girl insisted. “Our priest said so.” Apparently, she had been taught that “the Jews” were responsible for the death of Jesus. Since I was the only one she knew, I must be guilty.'(2006, 2)

Whilst we may not go around accusing Jewish people of killing Jesus, how confident are we that we are not perpetuating antisemitism? When we presume Christianity is a religion of grace, but Judaism is one of legalism and pointless works, we are guilty of stereotyping and misinformation. Taking the polemic of Matthew 23 as if it were an objective description of all Pharisees for all time is another mistake preachers might make. I could go on, but then I’d share the whole book, which I hope will be out by the end of the year.

 

At the conclusion to her discussion of Jesus as “the misunderstood Jew,” Levine tells the story of Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov (1745-1807), who told his disciples that he had overheard a conversation between two villagers which taught him what it meant to love his neighbour. The first said, “Tell me, my friend, do you love me?” and the second replied that he loved his fellow deeply. The first responded, “Do you know what causes me pain?” and the second said that he did not. The answer came, “If you do not know what causes me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?” The rebbe’s point was that to truly know what causes another pain is to truly love him (Levine 2006, 116-17). As a Christian, if I am to truly love my Jewish sisters and brothers, I must endeavour to understand how the faith I follow has caused them pain. That is my real purpose in writing this book.

 

Reference:

Levine, Amy-Jill. 2006. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York: HarperOne.

Naming (in)justice: an exploration of some conversations from the Global South

by Caroline Wickens.

What does justice look like through someone else’s eyes? That question engaged me when I worked as a mission partner in Zambia and Kenya, teaching alongside African theologians as they explored what justice meant for them. Over the years since, I’ve continued to benefit from listening in on conversations which begin from places outside my own experience. I hope these voices may help us in British Methodism to reflect on justice, injustice and walking with Micah.

Almost all African countries experienced colonial take-over by a European power. The mother of African women’s theologies, Ghanaian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, comments:

In practice, racism was central to the relationship between African and European. The chief reasons for this were ethnocentricity and greed.

The colonial past is still with contemporary Africa. Memories of violence are keen. Colonial languages continue to dominate. Western styles of clothing are popular, often via trade in second-hand clothes which threatens local enterprise. There is capacity for extracting raw materials but still very little to process it into manufactured goods, and in recent years the same economic approach has fuelled a complex relationship with China.

Independence brought celebration but also fresh injustice. A senior Kenyan theologian, JNK Mugambi, describes how the Cold War was fought by proxy in numerous African states. More recently, the Bretton-Woods institutions imposed ‘structural adjustment programmes’ on states with unmanageable levels of Western debt. The impact on basic health-care and education was appalling. Mugambi sees globalisation as the latest version of the West’s attempt to dominate Africa. Technological advances promote a Euro-American way of life and glorify white Western culture, sometimes described as Cocacolanisation.

And then HIV/AIDS struck. From Rwanda, Michel Kamanzi provides statistics from 2006: 24.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa; some countries in south central Africa with prevalence above 20%; children infected or orphaned. ARVs have improved the situation, but HIV/AIDS continues to wound society. Despite this, African governments find themselves under pressure once again to pay debts to the West rather than spend on health and education.

Yet the conversations focus on hope, not despair. From the DRC, Ghislain Tshikendwa Matadi writes on Job in the time of HIV/AIDS. He discerns the possibility of justice even in a pandemic:

‘In the midst of absurd suffering, we are invited to maintain just and loving relationships with our fellow human beings and with God who identified with human weakness by adopting human form precisely in order to save the human race’.

From Benin, Valentin Dedji comments that African leaders’ first step is to collaborate to reconstruct African people’s broken human dignity. From Botswana, feminist theologian Musa Dube writes about mama Africa, a princess with a palace at Great Zimbabwe and a summer residence in the golden sands of Egypt, who finds herself sick and bleeding after the years of colonial imperialism. She turns to Dr.Neo-Colonialism and Dr.Global Village for help but finds none, then finds herself struck down by HIV/AIDS, burying her children. Her story ends like this:

When she called out, “Who is there? Who is there?”, she was told, “Jesus Christ, the healer of all diseases, is passing by.” She heard that Jesus is on his way to heal a little girl who is already dead, the daughter of Jairus.

Mama Africa is standing up. She is not talking. She is not asking. She is not offering any more money – for none is left. Mama Africa is coming behind Jesus. She is pushing through a strong human barricade of crowds. Weak and still bleeding but determined, she is stretching out her hands. If only she can touch the garments of Jesus Christ…

African theologians give voice to a passion to rebalance life away from deep injustice. The reflections above help in naming injustice:

  • When economic or military power removes agency from indigenous leaders
  • When human flourishing is restricted through lack of access to resources that are widely available elsewhere, ranging from COVID-19 vaccination to reliable food supplies and clean water
  • When local or global cultural assumptions identify some ways of life as valuable and right, while disparaging others and despising those who live in those ways, whether or not by their own choice

Naming injustice in this way clarifies the challenge: what needs to change so that we can walk with Micah and do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God?

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/

Coming to love the Psalms

by Angie Allport.

I have previously had a love-hate relationship with the Psalms; all those references to smiting enemies being at odds with my pacifist sensibilities.  Yet if, like me, your heart has been broken by the violence and tragedy we have seen over recent months, reading the psalmists’ complaints can give us the freedom to express ours.

All of life can be found in the Psalms.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann[1] breaks down the psalms into three categories: what he calls psalms of orientation when all feels right; psalms of disorientation lamenting before God hurt, injustice, alienation, suffering and death, and psalms of re-orientation when God delivers us from our disorientation.  Real life is about movement between orientation, disorientation and re-orientation.

Our western culture struggles to cope with grief and suffering, but they cannot be avoided.  They are part of the human experience, regardless of whether one is a Christian or not.  The psalms allow us to express negative emotion to God: honest feelings of grief, sadness, doubt, confusion, anger, frustration and questioning, but they also point to healing.  There is something cathartic in the way that we get a sense of healing just by being honest about our suffering, even if the situation does not change.  The lament psalms, before they ever sound a note of hope, spend a long time lamenting in pain, anger and tears.  This should teach us that even though we certainly do have great hope in Christ, we must not move to hope too quickly.  Whilst Christ does have the victory, we must not forget the necessity of lament if we are to avoid letting our anger, hurt or fear fester and paralyse us or, worse, undermine or destroy our faith.

I have recently returned from a Benedictine retreat at Worth Abbey.  Most of the daily offices are taken up with reciting the Psalms, such that they are all recited during the course of the week.  I found this emphasis on the psalms a little odd at first, until it was explained to me that it is seen as sharing in the words of Christ because Jesus would have recited the psalms.

Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:43; Matthew 27:46) is a quotation from Psalm 22:1.  There are seven reported sayings of Jesus from the cross, two more of which can be related directly to the Psalms.  When Jesus is reported as saying, ‘I thirst’ (John 19:28), he could be saying ‘my throat is parched’ from Psalm 69:3.  His ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46) is to be found in Psalm 31:5.  It is feasible, therefore, that Jesus was using selected psalms to contend with God.  Rabbi Anson Laytner[2] includes Psalm 22 in his list of examples of laments and explains that they have a prayer-like quality in that they are uttered in the expectation that God will respond because God is a just and compassionate judge.  Whilst much has been made of Jesus’ sayings from the cross, I think that there is a credible case for arguing that he was doing no more than reciting the psalms as a devout Jew and that we only have snatches because of his state of delirium.

Most of the lament psalms follow a general pattern: they begin with a short cry for God to listen, they have an extended period of lament, they plead with God for deliverance and they often, though not always, end in praise.  In the psalms, there is something that Michael Card[3] calls the “Vav adversative”.  “Vav” functions almost as a “but”, but is better understood as an “and” “though” moment, or a point of turning and praising.  Whatever besets us, we must remember the “Vav”.  Through the Psalms, we can be honest with God about the pain of life because we know God loves us, welcomes hearing our struggles and cries, and will reach out to us in mercy.

Whilst some of the psalms are challenging, many of them are reassuring.  Psalm 62 is one of the reassuring ones.  Try and find time today to say Psalm 62 (or another Psalm) as a prayer.


[1] Brueggemann, W. The Message of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.

[2] Laytner, A. Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2004, p. 27

[3] Card, M. A Sacred Sorrow, Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005.

Withness

by Tim Baker.

How present are you?
Right now. Are you fully present to this blog, or are you skimming it while trying to do something else?
Are you reading it whilst you really should put your phone / tablet / computer down and be present to something – or someone – else? Should you be listening to the conversation happening over there? Or noticing the flower poking through the pavement? Or spotting the goldfinch hopping along the fence? If so, feel free to put it away, right now…

We live in a world littered with distractions. It is difficult to be present, to be alert to the people around us, the people we are connected to all over the world, the natural world, to the Spirit of God, flowing through all things. When our phones are designed to draw our attention elsewhere, when our TVs, billboards, radios and podcasts are always filling our ears and eyes with content, when there is always another email to read, and the inbox is piling up behind you: how do you stay connected, stay present?

It might be difficult, but my sense is that presence is at the beating heart of the gospel. Jesus is so good at presence – at being aware of the people around him. We see that when he notices the woman touching his cloak in a crowd, how he always seems to know the question to ask, how he comforts the suffering and challenges the comfortable. Jesus is with people. It’s the great miracle we celebrate at Christmas, but it’s also the most exciting part of the Jesus story – that God is here, God is close, God is with us. And God invites us to ‘withness’. To practice what it means to be with people.

Withness isn’t a word and my phone – thinking it knows everything –tries to autocorrect it to ‘witness’, but that’s probably another blog… It’s not a word, but it is an important principle in Jesus’ ministry: Sam Wells uses Jesus’ words in the synagogue in Nazareth to demonstrate that Jesus is interested in being ‘with’ people.[1] With those in poverty, with those experiencing challenge and oppression and, ultimately, with us all.

At All We Can, where I work, we talk a lot about this gospel idea of ‘withness’. It is at the heart of the way we are seeking to tackle poverty in places like Zimbabwe, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda and Sierra Leone.[2] In these – and other countries – All We Can’s speciality is listening: listening to the stories and ideas of people who live in communities affected by poverty.  All We Can doesn’t provide miracle cures, or white-saviour ideas exported from the West, but works alongside local people and enables them to fulfil their potential, to become all that they can. That’s about staying with people, over the long-term (not simply running a ‘project’ for a year or three, but committing to partnership) and about working hard to overcome the power imbalances where those who have the money get to make the decisions.

To close, here is a poem about this idea of withness – which I hope you will see as an invitation to practice presence in your own life, and in how you play your part in addressing injustice, in Jesus name.

Withness is not a word, not really,
And yet it ever-so-nearly does sum up
The feeling
Of following Jesus,
The one who sees us, who frees us,
And who is right here with us.

O come, o come Immanuel, we sing
But the thing is, he’s already here,
O so near, whispering ‘do not fear’.

Sometimes, you just have to sit with the nearness,
Enjoying the nearness of feeling the love.
But it’s kind of perverse to just sit in neutral,
Or put yourself in reverse,
When others have got it much worse.

So, although withness is not a word, not properly,
It’s an invitation to do something about poverty
And injustice, to step up and step out,
Into a new way of being,
A new way of seeing,
Where we are kind of guaranteeing
That we want to get past all this colonialism,
All this structural racism,
All this charity tourism,
Where we have the answers and the big chequebooks.

Withness says no,
Go slow, but together,
Whether it’s hard or it’s easy,
Partnership is what matters.
So, when it seems like the world is in tatters,
And voices of division get louder and louder,
The borders and boundaries stand prouder and prouder,
When the narrative is turning even more hateful,
We’ll still be here, and we’ll still be grateful
That withness is a word,
Yes really: the kind of word that can – ideally –
Help us to see more clearly
That when we love each other sincerely,
Withness can change us,
And change ‘I’ and ‘them’ and ‘over there’
To us, and us, and here, right here.


[1] Sam Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2015)

[2] allwecan.org.uk/what-we-do

Salt in the world, not of the world.

by Simon Sutcliffe.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectrum, a community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are writen 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 first of six coming through the year

Salt in the world, not of the world.

Matthew 5:13 -16 & Matthew 13 vs 33

Jesus says that salt that loses its saltiness is of no use and should be discarded, trampled underfoot. It is also true that salt is not much use in a bag of salt, and, for that matter, yeast does not do much in a batch of yeast and light is pretty useless in a lit room.

These metaphors of salt, light and yeast assume one thing – that they exist in a larger system, a greater community. This has some interesting consequences for the church when it begins to think about mission, and particularly about its ministry of justice. It begs the question – what is the telos, the end game, of mission? What are we aiming for? Do we want the whole world to be Christian? Or does salt, light and yeast suggest that Christianity should always exist in a larger world that is not Christian?

As for justice, does that mean there will always be injustice to be challenged? Is the hope of a utopian future that we might call the Kingdom impossible? Is that what Jesus meant when he said, ‘you will always have the poor among you’ (John 12 vs 8)?

These are difficult questions for us to ponder, but are worth reflecting on when the church, be it local or national, considers its motivation for mission and ministry. Why are we doing this? And, how will we know we have done it well? are important questions for any church leadership team with which to grapple.

But it also asks another question of us, it asks us to consider where we are located? Mission doesn’t happen everywhere it always happens somewhere. Christianity is not everywhere or nowhere it is always somewhere. Knowing that we are located somewhere might seem obvious, but it’s a helpful reminder to notice our positionality, the place(s) we find ourselves. Noticing the larger spaces where we can be salt, light and yeast draws our attention to the world beyond the church – and that is always a good thing!

Positionality, of course, isn’t just about geography. It is also the space you hold in the world due to all those things that make you, you. Paying attention to the power dynamics at play due to our colour, wealth, education etc. helps to ensure we are the right kind of salt, light and yeast in the world. This, again, is a tough line of questioning for the church that often wants to do, or at least be seen to do, but to do appropriately is a fine line the church can sometimes step over, often unwittingly.

There are a number of ways to help a congregation or fellowship group think about their locatedness and positionality. One way is to draw a map of your local community. It does not need to be accurate, it just needs to show where the church or group is in relation to other key aspects of the area. For instance, where are the local schools, shops, pubs, health services and how do they relate to you? Are you en route to any of them? Do you share similar people? Which of them are you in relationship with? Another way to see where, as a congregation or group, individuals might develop their vocation as salt, light and yeast is to do a diary check with everyone. Draw a grid with each day of the week in it and ask people where they are on different days of the week. Are they in work? At the school gate? At the post office? In the park? This can often affirm where people see their vocation outside of the church, or can open up possibilities for new ministries and vocation.

Questions:

1.  What do you think the telos of mission is?

2. How would you describe your positionality, where are you located and what makes you, you?

3. Where, in the life of the church, do you get to reflect on these questions corporately?

Whither Mr. Wesley’s Preachers?

by Gill Dascombe.

As a local preacher, I was initially dismayed when the Methodist Conference of 2022 voted to revoke the Standing Order, in place since Methodist Union in 1932, that requires that candidates for the presbyteral ministry should first be fully accredited local preachers.1

This seemed to me to represent the end, or the beginning of the end, of the symbiotic relationship between lay and ordained ministries, which is so characteristic of Methodism, by diminishing and dismissing the lay calling in favour of promoting and facilitating access to its more celebrated ordained counterpart.

Preaching is integral to Methodism, which actually began as a movement of lay preachers within the Church of England. John Wesley, though at first hesitant about their non-ordained status, nevertheless eventually admitted that ‘I do tolerate lay preaching, because I conceive that there is an absolute necessity for it; inasmuch as, were it not, thousands of souls would perish everlastingly.’ 2

From the earliest days Mr Wesley’s preachers fell into two related categories: ‘exhorters’, who preached in their own locality, supporting themselves by their daily occupation, and itinerant preachers, who were identified from amongst the body of exhorters, and employed and paid by Wesley.3 Over the course of time itinerant preachers became presbyters and exhorters became local preachers.

The 2022 decision will no doubt have a long-term effect on the nature of ordained ministry in Methodism, but what will be the effect on the ministry of local preachers? On reflection, I came to the realisation that it could in fact be a new and potentially exciting opportunity; local preaching, freed from being but a steppingstone to greater things, could now develop and grow as a vocation in its own right.

It was a couple of phrases in the Conference report which sparked off this train of thought: ‘…the preaching of a presbyter is not the same as that of a local preacher. The presbyter …..preaches from a different place.’’4

The corollary of this, of course, is that the preaching of a local preacher is not the same as that of a presbyter, and that it too comes from its own distinctive place.

I was recently at a training event for new circuit stewards. In our buzz groups we were invited to discuss with each other what it was that we most valued about being Methodists. My group was in unison: it was local preachers, for the breadth, accessibility and variety of their preaching, and the way they weave together circuit relationships via their appointments on the plan.

Local preachers occupy a large proportion Methodist pulpits every Sunday.5 Thus they represent the public face of the church to many congregations. Unlike their ordained colleagues, they are not ’set apart’, and stationed to a circuit appointment, but ‘set within’ their home faith communities, serving sometimes for several decades in the same circuit. This can and does result in the establishing and maintaining of long-lasting relationships between preachers and the people they serve.

Like the worshippers sitting before them local preachers are, and have always been, a very diverse body, drawn from a wide range of educational, occupational and social backgrounds; the first women were admitted as preachers as early as the 1780’s,6 and there is no official retirement age! Their preaching establishes the link between theology and everyday life by testifying to the gospel as it is experienced in the factory, kitchen, laboratory, supermarket, university, nursery, boardroom and bus stop (and so on), and bears witness to the important fact that the Kingdom of God extends far beyond the confines of the institutional Church.

These things form the ‘place’4 from which the ministry of local preaching comes. The pastoral and missional possibilities are many and obvious…..

John Wesley conceded that lay preachers were essential to the spiritual wellbeing of the people of his time and place. Let us do the same for ours.

  1. Methodist Conference Agenda 2022, p178
  2. The Letters of John Wesley, Epworth Press 1931, p186
  3. Batty, M., in Workaday Preachers: the Story of Methodist Local Preaching, Methodist Publishing House, 1995, p14
  4. Methodist Conference Agenda 2022, p178
  5. Ministry in the Methodist Church, Methodist Conference 2020, Report 33, 7.3.1
  6. Graham, E., in Workaday Preachers: the Story of Methodist Local Preaching, Methodist Publishing House, 1995, p165
%d bloggers like this: