John Donne – ‘No Man is an Island’

by Stephen Wigley.

It’s now 400 years since John Donne, the celebrated poet and preacher was appointed Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. Not long after this appointment, and shortly after the death of his daughter Lucy, Donne himself was taken seriously ill, quite possibly from typhus. For many days in late 1623 he was perilously close to death, before recovering to serve as Dean until his death in 1631.

Throughout this time Donne was determined to reflect and write about his illness, a task undertaken with such commitment that his book was actually registered for publication on 9th January 1624 and published later that year as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and several steps in my Sickness.

The book itself is structured in 23 chronological sections, one for each day of Donne’s illness, with in turn a ‘meditation’ describing a stage in his illness, an ‘expostulation’ containing his reaction to that stage, and a prayer for that day. But while much of it is not widely known, the Meditation for Day 17 includes one of the most famous passages in English, albeit in the gendered language of his time.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were…’

Why come back to this piece, some 400 years after it was written? It seems to me that Donne’s words, and particular his reflections in this Meditation, resonate with so many of the concerns with which we have been wrestling with over the last 18 months of coronavirus and restrictions.

Donne is careful to observe the spread of the illness across his body, not as a disinterested observer but as someone assessing how serious the situation is. In the same way, we have been watching and waiting on news, first of infection rates, then more hopefully of vaccinations, and in recent months once more with nervousness about rates of new variants.

Donne is properly interested in his own situation, but he knows himself dependent on the care and attention of others. Given his own crisis, he knows that he cannot ignore the bell which tolls for him, but equally he recognises that it may call on others, differently; ‘as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all.’

Donne sees in this mutual need and interdependence upon others as a sign of the ‘catholicity’ of the Church, a recognition that in each individual action the fullness of the sacrament can be observed.

‘The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me…  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me.’

All this speaks to us in a world where we recognise that the virus knows no boundaries and safe zones, and we reflect that no-one can feel secure in the vaccine until everyone has the vaccine available.

Finally, throughout his illness, Donne is concerned to find out what God may be saying in this crisis, what there is of purpose to be found in all this suffering. His conclusion is that God’s hand can be found in every page if we are willing to look; ‘some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.’

Across the centuries scholars have wondered why Donne rushed to get these devotions out so soon after his illness. Was it to challenge the dominant Puritanism of his time and reassert a more open, Arminian, welcoming theology? Or was it a coded message to a new King not to isolate himself from the wider body, both politic and religious? We cannot know – but in this time of uncertainty, when we have been challenged by our mutual vulnerability and interdependence in ways we could not have imagined, there is something about Donne’s words that commands us, above all, to listen.

‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

Methods of Birdwatching

by George Bailey.

During the lockdowns I have increasingly appreciated the birds. Paying closer attention to my local environment has led to extended reflection on what the birds might teach us about the ways of God and our life together. I have written about some of these ideas and images for churches I minister with, and recently for the Methodist Recorder – unfortunately not available online, but read the article here if you would like a taste of my thinking.

That piece discusses herons and swans, and the shape of those two arguments are examined below, but there have been many similar reflections about woodpeckers, pigeons, blackcaps, goosanders, geese, grebes and so on – all spotted as I gazed at the garden or walked in the park. How do these reflections work theologically? What methodology is in action here, and how does it function?

Since writing in the Methodist Recorder I have found John Stott’s book, The Birds Our Teachers (1999), in which he coins the wonderful term, ‘orni-theology’ to describe this spiritual practice. Reading his explorations has added examples alongside my own upon which to reflect methodologically.

The practice of learning from the birds begins from Jesus’ invitation to compare their simple relationship with God against our own struggles. Matthew 6:26 invites those who worry about food to consider how the birds are fed without practicing agriculture and storage. Stott points out that the birds are though not passive recipients of creation’s bounty, but active in finding food – for many this is their primary daily activity – and from this he draws the wisdom of balance between faith and works in our discipleship and practical living (though not in our salvation which is by faith alone).[i] A similar negative comparison is to be seen in Jeremiah 8:7 in which the migratory instinct of storks, turtle-doves, swallows, and cranes, who know their way back home and do not fail to follow it, is contrasted to the stubborn ignorance of the people who do not repent and turn to God. The pattern of these scriptural arguments is that the natural world, here specifically the life of birds, is in tune with God’s ways, but humanity is behaving outside of its own potentially divinely orientated shape and rhythms.

From this scriptural pattern comes the more general view that in the ecological relationships and behaviours of wild birds we can discern ways to understand God’s relationship with humanity. This is not ‘natural theology’ in the sense of seeing the natural world as a locus of revelation apart from scripture, but is a method by which a scriptural form of argument is deployed but now based on different observations about bird life. Are there then limits to this method? One methodological limit might be to insist that the conclusions of such an argument are in line with scriptural principles. Reflections on the relationship between individual herons and groups of herons (click the link to the article above!) would need to illustrate an authentically scriptural view of the church. However, we can be more optimistic about learning from the birds by employing Karl Barth’s later distinction between natural theology and natural revelation as described here by Keith Johnson:

‘…because Christ is the active agent of any revelation that occurs in and through the created order, the church must be willing to pay attention to this revelation and incorporate the insights it receives from it into the church’s own faith and practice. These insights may even serve to “illuminate, accentuate or explain the biblical witness” more clearly for the church within its own particular context, leading it “to preach the one Word of God in its own tongue and manner” better than it could otherwise (Church Dogmatics IV/3.1, p. 115).’[ii]

This relationship between the creation and revelation means that the birds might not just illustrate scripture but can assist the church to proclaim the gospel in context. I think this is particularly apparent when we escape a romantic image of the birds as purely ‘wild’ and instead see them in ecological relationship with humanity – a relationship that is, in our context, often harmful for the birds.

Growing understanding of the impact of human activity on birds offers insights which do not just prompt ecological action but also a rethink of the church’s self-understanding. My reflections on swans nesting in an urban park led me to ask how human response might be influenced by the ‘rewilding’ movement – a re-interpretation of ecosystems that lets natural processes lead rather than any desire to preserve a human-centred environment. Seeing ourselves not as agents of preservation, management or control but as assistants facilitating the work of nature, rather than our own agenda, might be an insight which enables the church to communicate the gospel in fresh ways. This way of thinking can be found in Steve Aisthorpe’s extended development of a metaphor calling for the ‘rewilding of the church’[iii], in which the Spirit is allowed to lead more freely. A similar example of environmental themes develpoing our theology, rather than the other way round, is Howard Snyder’s intertwining of ecology into the theologies of salvation, ecclesiology and mission:

‘…solidarity with the whole human family and all creation can be seen as a dimension of Christian community. Through communion with Jesus Christ in the Spirit and with the body of Christ, we enter into a relationship of mutual interdependence and responsibility with the creation that God has made.’[iv]

I recommend watching the birds, reflecting, and learning as a fruitful spiritual practice – one which I am realising can be based on careful and radical theological method.

[i] John Stott, The Birds Our Teachers: Essays in Orni-Theology (1999: Candle Books, Carlisle), p.16.

[ii] Keith L. Johnson, ‘Barth on Natural Theology’ in George Hunsinger, and Keith L. Johnson (eds), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Karl Barth: Barth and Dogmatics Volume I (2020: Wiley Blackwell, Chichester), p.106.

[iii] Steve Aisthorpe, Rewilding the Church, (2020: Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh).

[iv] Howard A Snyder and Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace: Overcoming the Divorce Between Earth and Heaven). (2011: Cascade Books, Eugene, OR.), p. 214.

Serendipitous encounters – when what’s happening isn’t what you are doing.

by Barbara Glasson.

Ahead of the day following my second Covid jab, in anticipation of feeling under the weather, I had cleared my diary of anything that required my brain to function. Anticipating being under the weather is enough to make a person feel under the weather, so I decided to busy myself with some other things and went to get my watch fixed. As it was going to take half an hour, I sat in the warm sunshine in the courtyard outside the market and bought myself a cup of coffee and the wagon serving bacon butties. Before I knew it I had struck up a conversation with a biker who was getting his breakfast. By the time half an hour had gone by, I knew about his motorbikes, his two marriages, his six children and his three dogs. Turns out he tests pipes in nuclear power stations for leaks in radioactivity, I learned some technical things too.

Later, still feeling perky not peaky and with the sun still shining brightly I decided to walk the dog, As I got to the furthest point from home it began to spit with rain and very swiftly it began to bucket down. I was cursing my stupidity at not taking a coat when I noticed the shape of a person trying to squeeze through a gap in a wall and clearly stuck. Coming closer, I discovered he was an elderly man wearing a full waterproof kit and carrying a huge rucksack, hence his inability to squeeze through. As he tried to traverse the gap and as I got increasingly soaked, he told me about his friend’s dogs, his wife’s illness, his grandson’s achievements at University and his autistic grand- daughter.  On returning home, changing out of my soggy clothes I pondered what it was about me that caused random people to tell me their life stories.

I’ve been teaching Pastoral Theology for almost a year now, and I have worked students steadily through a process of theological reflection on the human lifecycle, we have discussed what makes for good pastoral practice, we have talked about boundary setting and well-being, we have had input from a funeral director and completed our safeguarding course, all of this on Zoom with the aid of break out rooms and powerpoint. But what we haven’t done this year is bump into random people along the way and listen to unsolicited disclosures of human life. In my experience these sort of encounters usually happen outdoors, or at least in doorways, and are not scheduled.

In the Persian fairy tale of the Three Princes of Serendip a King sends his three sons on a voyage to be trained by the scholars of the day in order to attain wisdom,  The irony of the story is that in order to fulfil their commitments to Serendip the princes must leave it and go wandering along unknown roads and amongst common people. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that it is not the scholars that are going to impart the wisdom they need but the random encounters with a variety of ‘common people’ the princes mingle amongst along the way.  In his book, The Moral Imagination Jean Paul Lederach refers to this serendipity as a way peace-making: ‘Serendipity describes the fascination and frustration of sideways progress that constitutes the human endeavor (sic) of building peace ….for constructive social change is often what accompanies and surrounds the journey more that what was intentionally pursued and produced.’[i]

I don’t think Jesus kept a diary. The gospel accounts seem to reference him subverting any sort of organised plan to keep an appointment. He appears to spend his life bumping into people, or being summoned when he is in the middle of something else. He didn’t organise a conference or a rally or have an executive council to discuss strategy, and quite clearly that was quite annoying to those disciples that were trying to get a grip on what in heaven’s name he was up to. And yet, it was in the cracks that those life-giving, life-transforming encounters were given space to happen. There was a serendipitous space between what he was doing and what was actually happening into which the spirit could breathe new life.

Thing is, I did manage to get my watch fixed, have my jab and walk the dog yesterday, but what happened was much more engaging, fascinating and – I believe – the essence of pastoral encounter. And, as Lederach reminds all those who seek peace, this attention to our peripheral vision enables a ‘panorama of the possible’.[ii]

[i] Lederach, John Paul, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press (2005) p.114

[ii] op cit. p.121

Wesleyans in Wales

by Jennifer Hurd.

Happy Wesley Day! Today, Methodists (and others) remember how, on the evening of 24th May 1738, John Wesley went “very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street”. There he heard a reading from Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and, as he wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[i] The rest is history. From then on, under the leadership of John and his brother Charles, the Methodist movement grew and changed the face of eighteenth century Britain. Among other gifts, Wesley’s tireless commitment to preaching and his genius for organisation secured his place as a great Christian leader. When, in 2001, the BBC and the National Portrait Gallery conducted a poll to name 100 ‘Great Britons’, John Wesley came in at number 50.[ii]  I wonder if that position would have pleased him or not!

Committed Methodist as I am, I have sometimes felt uncomfortable in ecumenical circles about our occasionally almost hagiographic approach to John Wesley. When I was an Authorised URC Minister in the West Midlands, we didn’t make any special celebration of Richard Baxter. George Fox Day is 13th January, but how many of us actually know that? Wesley Day, however, is enshrined in the Methodist calendar, and John is remembered all year long – with good reason, of course. Yet I have found I shrink into myself a little when John Wesley is ‘bigged up’ (technical term!) at ecumenical gatherings. At least, I did until I was appointed to serve in Wales among Welsh-speaking Methodist congregations. Living and working in Wales has given me a new, deeper appreciation of John Wesley, his theology and its impact on society. If anything, we need Wesleyanism more than ever.

John Wesley didn’t speak Welsh. His languages included English, Greek and Hebrew, but not Welsh. While he was leading the Methodist Revival in the English language, a parallel movement was happening in Wales through the medium of Welsh, primarily under the leadership of Howell Harris. At first, Wesley was pleased to support Harris’s evangelistic work, leaving him and his colleagues to preach to the Welsh speakers, while he continued in English. However, rifts appeared over theological differences. Harris was a Calvinist, in contrast to Wesley’s Arminianism, and the Methodist movement through the medium of Welsh developed under Calvinistic theological influences. While Wesley preached that all can be saved, Harris took a more selective approach, teaching that salvation was reserved for an elect predestined group of people alone. The two leaders parted company. It wasn’t until 1800, when Thomas Coke sent Welsh-speaking preachers to Wales, as he had he established missions to other nations, that Welsh-speakers heard the Wesleyan message in their own language.

There are therefore two traditions of Methodism in Wales – Calvinistic (later the Presbyterian Church of Wales) and Wesleyan. Welsh-language Wesleyanism has never been numerically strong, yet there are those such as Tad (Father) Deiniol of the Wales Orthodox Mission (himself the grandson of a Welsh Wesleyan minister), who believe that its influence has far outweighed its size, both theologically and socially.[iii]  The open, inclusive approach of Wesleyan Arminianism may have been the salt and light that helped church and society in nineteenth century Wales to maintain a more generous, open approach. The Arminian influence of the ‘Wesla’ – however small – has enriched Wales, and the denomination’s contribution to Welsh life and culture has not been insignificant, in spite of its size.

John Wesley preached in a time of great social and political change. He proclaimed an all-embracing, all-encompassing gospel of love in a period of enormous division, discrimination, injustice and unrest, and encouraged and practised an activism that embodied it. This resonates with our own time. Part of me wants to cry out, “John Wesley, where are you now?” Part of me knows that the same Spirit of all-inclusive love that inspired and motivated Wesley is with us still, and the work is ours to do. A relatively small group of Wesleyans who believed that Christ died for all helped to change nineteenth century Welsh society. There is no reason why the same cannot happen anywhere today.

[i] P.L. Parker, Wesley’s Journal (abridged), (London: Ibister & Company Ltd, 1903), 43 

[ii] John Cooper, Great Britons: The Great Debate, (London: National Portrait Gallery), 9

[iii] Opinion expressed in informal personal conversation

Changing the Ritual of Death

by John Lampard.

Anyone who has taken part in a funeral over the past year or so, as minister or mourner, will have experienced a very different ritual to ones they have previously taken part in. Restrictions enforced by the Covid crisis have led to limited and attenuated services and rituals, religious or otherwise.

Covid has hastened a steadily developing trend towards different forms of funerals and one of the biggest changes has been the development of Direct Cremations. At its simplest a body is collected from a home or hospital, it is cremated at an unknown time and place, with no mourners or ritual, and if requested ashes are subsequently delivered to the person who made arrangements for the cremation. There is no need for direct contact with a funeral director, no hearse, no service and no attendance by mourners.  It can all be arranged impersonally on line. It is then up to the person requesting the Direct Cremation to arrange or ignore any farewell ritual, religious or otherwise. In the last year these forms of funeral have increased from 14% of all funerals to 25% (or 33% of cremations).

One of the leading Direct Funeral providers recently carried out a survey of people who had signed up in advance for a Direct Funeral. Apart from the fact that such funerals are about 60% (£2,000) cheaper, the survey indicates a fundamental shift in attitudes towards death, how it is ritually marked and who should be in charge of that event. The focus has largely shifted to a secular celebration of the life that has been lived, rather than a Christian narrative of the next life, with a minimum or complete absence of traditional rituals.

The Christian churches lost their monopoly on the ritual and more importantly the interpretation of death early in the nineteenth century. Secular burial grounds were developed as churchyards were increasingly closed as ‘full’. This trend of ‘loss of interpretation’ increased with the rapid building of crematoria after 1945. Early crematoria had crosses on the outside (and often inside) and were designed to look like a church; modern ones have none of this.  

How will these trends affect Christian funerals? Of course they already have. When did you last see the word ‘Funeral’ on the printed order of service? Today church services use ‘Celebration’ or ‘Thanksgiving,’ with the past life at the forefront and the afterlife soft-pedalled. Increasingly a body is cremated before the service and a ‘thanksgiving’ service is held in church afterwards. Only recently has thought been given to the Christian burial of ashes, rather than a secular scattering.

Perhaps the church can only maintain a tenuous hold on its interpretation of death by being counter-cultural. The following suggested pattern represents a possible Christian funeral today.

1          Funeral service in church with the coffin present. If there is to be a eulogy, this should be early in the service, before Bible readings, sermon and Commendation etc. This pattern separates the ‘looking back’ from the Christian ‘looking forward.’

2          The coffin, perhaps accompanied by a minister (though this is not necessary), travels to the crematorium where it is cremated at a time suitable to its capacity, without a service. This is the preparation of the remains of the body for burial.

3          Meanwhile the family are able to meet and reunite with mourners for light refreshments and receive the blessing of support, affirmation and retelling of memories.

4          At an appropriate date (40 days after death?) mourners assemble for the final farewell when the ashes are buried (not scattered) in consecrated ground accompanied by prayer. It is a matter of individual choice if there is to be a memorial marker.

This pattern achieves the two major ritual aims of a Christian funeral. It enables the journey of the body of the deceased to be where it should be, and it enables the journey of the family and friends to be where they should be. These are, of course, both spiritual and physical journeys. Furthermore, a Christian funeral is an act of Christian witness.

The Resurrection Body

by Frances Young.

It’s funny how old long familiar things can take on new resonances. This Easter was a case in point. The set lectionary meant revisiting the Johannine story of Mary in the garden and the Risen Jesus’ insistence that she should not touch him. What struck me with fresh force, after recent months without hugs or handshakes, was how cruel that was. She had loved and lost, and the most natural thing in the world was to clasp the lost one to herself. And it was disallowed. Why?

Of course within the narrative of the Fourth Gospel it is possible to make exegetical sense of it. Jesus gives the reason: “I am not yet ascended to the Father.” He has not simply come back; things have not returned to “normal”; nothing will ever be the same again. Ancient and modern romances may have told of Jesus coming round in the cool of the tomb and starting a new married life with Mary Magdalen in Egypt, but the very idea is repudiated in this Gospel, whatever Mary might have desired. The message for the disciples is along the same lines: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” a word which surely signifies that there is to be a quite different relationship.

Yet the apparently contradictory invitation to Thomas to touch will guarantee that the Risen one really is Jesus – the flesh-and-blood now wounded teacher they had known and followed. The old debates about whether the resurrection was literal or spiritual are surely way off beam: the stories show it was mysteriously “both-and.” This was not a resuscitation but a transformation; nor was it a ghost but a spiritual body – to borrow Paul’s phrase for the utter paradox of this abnormal normal. And when he has ascended to the Father, his presence with them, his relationship with them, will indeed be real but different: bread and wine will communicate his presence and life, the Church will be his body on earth, and blessed will be those who have believed without seeing or touching. Yet the first Epistle of John will testify to hearing, seeing and touching “with our hands.” (I John 1.1) The incarnation is about physical contact and the creeds affirm the resurrection of the body.

The Church down the ages has found this difficult, preferring to think of the soul going to heaven. “I’m tired of this old body,” said my mother in her nineties …

And yet it is through our bodies, our physical senses, that we have our identity, that we interact with the world – through our bodies others recognise us, through our bodies we cement relationships with handshakes, hugs and kisses. Zoom just doesn’t do it! And the notional brain in a vat surely has no thoughts or feelings! We are constituted as psycho-somatic wholes – embodied souls, ensouled bodies – indivisible if we are to be genuinely human creatures, a point constantly emphasized by the orthodox thinkers of the early Church. Indeed, it was affirmation of creation, of the material, physical reality of earthly life, as good and as God’s, which distinguished early Christianity from most other ancient religions and philosophies, and despite the pull of the culture and the pressures of ascetic and celibate ideologies, leading Christian writers always recognised that incarnation demanded that affirmation, so also the sacraments, and resurrection too required real continuity between our whole selves here and our whole selves in any future beyond death – Augustine even speculated on the purpose of gender differences in heaven where there would no longer be procreation.

Mary was not to touch – not to cling to the past, not to try and possess the Jesus she had known: for everything was changed. But Thomas was invited to touch, to prove it really was Jesus, the Jesus they knew, the Jesus who had suffered and died – to recognise and know that physical reality. Perhaps our longing for handshakes and hugs can challenge our thinking, hard though it is to envisage what it means.

Maybe an analogy can help our puzzled pondering. Music is profoundly physical: nothing without airwaves and ears, vocal chords, mouths to sing or blow, fingers to pluck strings or play keys …  And yet it is perhaps one of the most spiritual things we experience. I was visiting my dying mother back in 2005 when the death of the Pope had just been announced. I mentioned it and added, “I expect there was rejoicing in heaven when he got there.” She drifted off. Some minutes later she opened her eyes and said, “The music was wonderful!”

The Art of Persuasion

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

Acts 25.13-26.32

by Tony Barnes.

The candidature form for the Methodist ministry which I filled out in 1965 included the question ‘How many souls has he (we were all ‘he’) brought to Christ?’ This caused me to me worry whether my offer to serve could be accepted. I had with teenage hubris argued the case for Christianity on many occasions, but without any sure sign of having made any immediate, positive effect on my interlocutors – perhaps the opposite! My preaching had always been directed at the faithful with track records of Christian discipleship far longer and stronger than mine. Many of them by their acceptance of me over several years had more than ‘almost (persuaded) me to become a Christian’ (cf Acts 26:28) by simply receiving me by social inclusion into the ways of Christian living. That pattern included worship, Bible study, and love for other people which was sometimes conditional but more often of grace.

Neil Richardson tells us that we can be sure of two things about the apostle Paul, that as Saul the Pharisee he persecuted the early Church, and that he had a life-changing experience, which he and his ‘biographer’ Luke, believed was an encounter with the risen Christ (Paul for Today, Epworth 2008 p26). The significance given by Luke to Paul’s ‘conversion’ is evidenced by its inclusion three times in Acts, through Paul’s own testimony (cf Acts 9:1-22, 22:1-21, 26:4-23). In Acts 26 Paul makes his defence against his Jewish accusers from Jerusalem and before King Agrippa, in the presence of the Roman Governor Festus at Caesarea. Festus is apparently unimpressed, maybe feeling that he is out of his depth culturally and intellectually before a verbose, if harmless, Jewish scholar talking about a suffering Messiah rising from the dead. Agrippa as a Jew and therefore more in tune with the religious categories in the discourse, and possibly sensing that Paul is acting as apologist for the Way of Christ, interjects, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ Paul unapologetically prays that Agrippa and indeed all present ‘might become as I am – except for these chains’. The episode does not conclude with a dramatic conversion of some or all of those who have listened to the apostle’s testimony. That fact that we have read it – for the third time! – is what matters. Who knows how Paul’s audience have been affected? We note something of his ‘art of persuasion’ in these elements.

1. Paul’s apologia was targeted at Agrippa whose cultural and religious background he understood. To Festus’ ears it was pure, academic babble. Paul knew that whilst aiming to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 19:22), you have in specific contexts to be clear who you wish to reach, and to tailor sympathetically how you present your case.   

2. This necessitates a clear grasp of and confidence in the core message which does not alter with context, and is always that God raises the dead (Acts 26:8), demonstrated for all time in God raising Jesus Christ who calls people to follow him and tell others about his life. This is Paul’s own, personal testimony, his story.  

3. Effective persuasion means a change of direction is set in motion by the Resurrection story recounted in the light of the raconteur’s own experience…. ‘Are you so quickly persuading me…?’ Agrippa is not lambasted for being a wicked person, nor is he preached at by someone pretending moral or hierarchical authority. Paul is powerless in the world’s terms. God’s story in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and exemplified in the teller of the story, is all.

For Discussion:

1. When and how in the past have we been persuaded by argument or the story of another Christian or other Christians?

2. What is our discipleship story? How has it changed over the years?

3. What is the intellectual case for Christian discipleship?

4.  How can we tell the story of God raising the dead so that it makes sense in many and various contexts today?

5. Stuart Murray writes that in ‘post-Christendom’, evangelism means ‘Searching for multiple contact points with the gospel in a culture no longer dominated (as Christendom was) by guilt, employing the full range of New Testament imagery, and learning to relate the story to contemporary angst and yearnings’. (Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. 2nd edition. SCM Press 2018, p 169). Discuss…

Insects… God in the here and now

by Will Fletcher.

Thick legged flower beetle (photo by Will Fletcher)

I write this piece as I begin my sabbatical. Due to the current restrictions and ongoing uncertainty about what the next few months might hold, I have had to scrap part of the plan to travel round the country visiting various cathedrals. Instead, I have broadened the other part of the plan to spend as much time outdoors as possible. This maybe feels a bit of a cliché after countless stories over the last year about the benefit of the outdoors, but after spending so much of this year in front of a computer screen, I’m certainly ready for it.

There are a number of things I hope to do, from walking and gardening, to developing birdwatching skills. However, one of the things I love most in the outdoors is looking at insects and other invertebrates. Maybe it is the little boy within me still wanting to get out and dig in the mud. Maybe there is something about taking time to stop and pay close attention to something that would be so easy to miss. I find them and their often-overlooked world fascinating. In all these activities, what I hope for the most is to make space to be far more attentive to the world as I am living it at this moment, and, in that frame of mind, to be more attentive to God with me.

One of the challenges I find as a minister (though I’m sure this experience isn’t limited to ministers) is that I rarely feel able to live in the present, always thinking of what will be coming up in the future. I get to the autumn and I have to start thinking about Christmas; before the Christmas decorations are down, the thought of Lents studies begins; as I try and journey through Holy Week, I’m also preparing worship for Easter Day – Jesus isn’t crucified yet, but in my mind, he is already raised to new life!

 It feels like this last year has sometimes been like that – as a nation (and, indeed, a world) we are always looking ahead. This has been particularly the case since the beginning of the vaccine rollout. We’ve all been starting to wonder when life might start to include some of those aspects we have been longing for. The various roadmaps from the four nations of the UK have come out, and dates start getting put in the diary. Plans begin to be made for May, June, maybe August.

After the horrendous events of the last year, I don’t begrudge anyone looking ahead to a brighter future which involves those people and activities that we have had to do without for so long. However, the danger can be that we spend so much time looking ahead, that we miss life now, miss seeing and experiencing the things that are here for us now, miss encountering God, even.

As the psalmist faced a world in uproar and change, they were encouraged by God to ‘Be still and know that I am God!’ It appears for them that it was in stopping, maybe in being attentive to their present moment, that they could realise that ‘The LORD of hosts is with us.’ (Ps 46:10-11). Equally, when he was addressing the crowd who were clearly worried about their future, Jesus encouraged them to, ‘look at the birds of the air’ and, ‘consider the lilies of the field.’ (Matthew 6:26, 28) It seems that long before the scientists of today, the ability for nature to give us a different perspective on life had been realised.

Therefore, my hope and prayer for us all as we look to move out of lockdowns and restrictions, and as we make plans for what our summer may hold, is that we don’t end up missing the potential for experiencing the joy, life, and presence of God in the here and now.

Hoverfly (photo by Will Fletcher)

Responding to the Bible

by Philip Sudworth.

Over the centuries the bible has profoundly influenced billions of people.  God has worked through it to transform both individual lives and also societies. Alongside its message of redemption and salvation, of reconciliation and wholeness, it has afforded comfort and solace, and also challenge. Its message of love, hope, reconciliation, and social justice has been the inspiration for social action and reform.  Sadly, there is also a long history of texts being used to oppress and to exclude.  The bible has been used to justify slavery, to discriminate against women and minorities, and to silence innovative thinkers. Nonetheless, the multi-faceted messages of the bible have the potential to be life-enhancing for a wide range of people in a variety of situations.

Origen, who pioneered bible study in the third century, suggested three levels to reading scripture:- ‘simple or literal’ (taking the plain meaning); ‘moral’ (appreciating how it affects the way we live) and ‘spiritual’ (gaining insights into our relationship with God).1  That is helpful in understanding how one approach to the bible might differ from others, but the assumption that ‘spiritual’ only applies to the third level is clearly wrong.  Those who only know the bible through passages that priests tell them about, clearly can experience deeply spiritual insights that have a profound impact on their lives. Some use the term “allegorical” for the third level.  However, much of the bible cannot be read in that way. The term “interpretative” gives a wider scope.

Origen’s approach, as innovative and insightful as it was, is only one dimension of the way we approach the bible. The impact made by any writing depends on the interplay between the original event or idea, the way the writer expresses it, and the very important contribution of the readers and their responses.  Indeed, the reader’s interpretation is what will determine the effect it has on the person. A great step forward is made when we move beyond simply accepting what we have been told faith is about and what others tell us the bible says and begin instead to interact with the bible ourselves and to explore its meaning for our personal lives.  It is as we wrestle with the questions and challenges that we begin to move from a second-hand faith to a personal faith. Our responses will engage with all the factors which make us who we are as people.

What we each bring to our bible reading is as unique as we are as individuals. We are rooted in a culture. That doesn’t just relate to a particular country, time period, and prevailing philosophies, but also to local influences which include regional customs, class, age and ethnicity. Our families exert a special influence in the way we see things. Our education will also have a significant impact. All aspects of our personal backgrounds interact to produce the influence on our approach.

As we mature, our experiences and relationships will shape us further. We acquire beliefs and values. These develop over time but our current views and attitudes profoundly affect the way we perceive and respond to the ideas and principles we take from the bible and how we interpret them. What we find in the bible will be determined also by why we are reading it and what we are looking for.

Our personalities, and our hopes and fears, our dreams and our prejudices all colour what we see in the bible. This is why Oscar Pfister, a Calvinist pastor and psychoanalyst, maintained: ‘Tell me what you find in your bible and I will tell you what sort of person you are.’ Against this backdrop, the depth of our knowledge and understanding will determine the extent to which we see a passage in its context, how we evaluate its connections to other passages and derive meaning from it.

One of the reasons the bible is such a rich source of spiritual inspiration is that individuals can derive from it the meaning that they personally need at that moment, can be comforted, encouraged or challenged in their own particular situation and helped to understand the role to which Christ is calling them.  Rather than expecting everyone to share our personal responses to the bible, it is important that we respect interpretations that differ from our own, always provided that those other responses are life-enhancing, inclusive and reflect Jesus’ message. As Hans Küng pointed out: ‘The question of whether and how far the bible is inspired word is far less important … than the question of how humans allow themselves to be inspired by its word.’ 3


1  Origen (230)    –  De Principiis IV 3.1

Pfister, O. (1948)  –  Christianity and Fear. [Allen and Unwin]

3  Küng H. (1974)  –  On Being a Christian.  [Collins – Fount]

Violence, Love and the Keys

by Charity Hamilton.

It began with Eve and it is still dangerous and visceral and real today. It began with Eve and it is still silencing and diminishing today.

It began with Eve and it is violence, specifically gender-based violence.

If you don’t think that Eve was a victim of gender-based violence think for a moment about the kind of woman she has been mythologized into and the kind of violence that such mythologizing inflicts upon the human soul. Violence isn’t limited to a physical action but rather there are violences inflicted upon our souls, psyches and bodies every minute of every day; gender is often a key stimulus for such violence. Every discriminatory word uttered is an act of violence. Every hushing up of the truth is an act of violence. Every misuse of scripture to justify a lack of equability is an act of violence. Every patronization is an act of violence. Every lingering look at our bodies is an act of violence. Every attempt at power-over is an act of violence.

Some weeks ago a woman called Sarah Everard walked home. It was neither a provocative act nor a reckless act she simply walked home. Sarah Everard did everything that each and every woman has been conditioned to do, she did the ‘right’ things. She wore brightly coloured clothing – visible, she wore trainers – able to move quickly, she spoke to her partner on the phone – contact. Despite doing all the things we are ‘told’ to do, Sarah Everard was not safe: she was kidnapped and murdered.

The days that followed Sarah’s murder were particularly hard for me, my social media was full of an outpouring of grief, anger, shock and experiences from thousands of women. The fact that the alleged perpetrator was a serving police officer added to the vocalization of thousands of sites of deep-seated embodied pain and I didn’t know if I could respond adequately. Whilst equally full of grief and anger, there was no shock for me. Men have been perpetrating unimaginable violence against women since Eve and the very people we should be able to trust are often complicit in such violence.

I love Methodism to its bones; it is my weird, dysfunctional, beautiful family but it is also a family that is laced with and in many ways grounded in a deep form of violence[i]. It is the violence of a male church steward at a female probationer’s welcome service using sexualized language in his words of welcome and the apology from the female chair who was too afraid to call it out. It is the violence of male colleagues telling her she is “too much” borne out of their own inadequacies. It is the violence of a senior male leader inhibiting her flourishing in the life of the Church because of her gendered experiences. It is the violence of a hundred angry men raising their voices in church councils. It is the violence of power-over and control. In parts of the life of our Church that violence is displayed as a coercive control of women, LGBTQI+ people, black and ethnic minority people, disabled, chronically ill and neurodiverse people; coercive control practiced under the banners of paternalism, well-being and good order.  I love Methodism to its bones but those bones are imbued with violence.

It began with Eve but it moves on to Tamar and Bathsheba and Hagar and the Levite’s concubine and Mary Magdalene and on to Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry and Sarah Everard and on and on and it seemingly never ends. However, amongst the anger, grief and shock is a place for communal shame, a place for real embodied repentance. Repentance, redemption and resurrection are intimately linked in the Divine narrative, the thread that holds them together is love. Love is not an easy task; love is a radical, painful, confronting inhabitation of the embodied journey toward the kingdom of justice and joy, a setting right of all that is wrong, a breathing of life into all that has become death.

I, like many women, have been walking with keys grasped between my fingers for 25 years whilst simultaneously reaching for the keys of the Kingdom. Keys that would see justice for the oppressed, fill the bellies of the hungry, bind up the broken hearted. Those same keys are in between our fingers and I pray that one day it will be safe enough to let our grasp relax.

[i] Such violence is sometimes referred to as the patriarchy.