Being Understood

by Andrew Pratt.

Early in January this year I watched a programme in which Gareth Malone (of Military Wives fame) went into a prison to draw together young men to form a choir. No one wanted to sing anything except ‘Drill’. Its themes were angry and violent. This music was new to me. It is an extreme example, but illustrates just how far I am culturally from many young people. Some years ago I read that there is no language that can be used in worship that can be understood by those outside the church. Such a change, it was suggested, would reduce worship to such an extent that it would no longer carry any value or make any sense.

I believe that that is a nonsense. But how can we enable worship to be understood? And is it worth it? Liberation theologians, pioneer ministers and progressive theologians have explored this. In every case there has been resistance. It will not be ‘authentic’, ‘it’s not like church’, that is ‘not like Our church’. At worst the theology is ‘faulty’.

Gareth Malone offers a lesson for us all. Working with the men in prison he had individual conversations with them. It took time, effort and a lot of listening. What happened was that the men began putting their life stories, reflections and feelings into poetic rhythm. Many of these were aggressive and violent. Malone encouraged them to wish and hope, to express in the same sort of verse their future expectations. Then he asked how they might want these expectations to change. He encouraged them to sing their own hopes in their own context with their own language. This was not translation of something foreign, but SELF expression. Malone had to move out of his comfort zone. There was something incarnational going on here. The musical tenor of the accompaniment changed. There was negotiation of the texts and music that the men were writing. The end product was still something that the men could own. They were not forced into a normative belief that they would find hard to accept.

So how could this affect our approach to our worship, hymns, liturgy? First, it starts outside the church. If people don’t come to our churches in droves then we shouldn’t be surprised. We don’t sing or speak their language and, too often, we haven’t listened, let alone learned from this. In fact we live in an alternative culture, but as Mark Kermode might say, ‘not in a good way’.

Worship asks us to answer existential questions and to express fundamental beliefs. If others are to join our worship they will need language which will express their deepest feelings, deepest fears. Our theological language may not work. It is no good saying that they will have to learn. Part of the message of the resurrection appearances of Jesus is that each person, be it Mary or Peter, Thomas or those on the road to Emmaus, was met where they were, grieving or in guilt, doubting or not understanding. No one was forced to accept something that they couldn’t. In our context that may well mean putting to one side some beliefs that we have accepted as fundamental. Much of our theology will be criticised as implausible, incredible. The crucifixion may resonate as divine child abuse to some people. Virgin birth may raise questions in relation to male power and the father-hood of God. But our fundamental question ought not to be do we believe this or that theological proposition, but can God love this person? If we believe in such a love then nothing ought to stand in the way of our communicating it. C.S. Lewis stressed that we must know the language of our audience. We must communicate in ways that our hearers understand, not what we think they ought to understand. He went on to imply that if we couldn’t do that it was not the fault of our hearers, but we who were confused. It is the difference between that image of God watching ‘from a distance’ and the presence of Jesus, born, living and dying in our midst as one of us.

Of course getting folk in inherited church to support a mission that won’t fill pews isn’t easy. But the bottom line is, do we value others enough to enable them to know that God loves them without forcing them to be like us? If we do, are we willing to allow them to teach us how to be church? All too often, it seems to me, our precious buildings, practices and creeds matter more.

Is Resilience Enough?

by Barbara Glasson.

As we walked around the airbase with the RAF chaplains we noticed that many of the staff were wearing green lanyards. They signified that the individual was trained in mental first aid. There had been a suicide earlier in the year. The realities of living on the edge of military action, day in and day out, managing ‘ordinary’ life at the same time puts incredible stress on personnel. A course offered by the chaplains was soon oversubscribed, so many wanted to help themselves and others find strategies for coping. The chaplaincy team told us that they were now an integral part of the training process. They offered a module on ‘Spiritual Resilience’ , enabling recruits to find values and meaning within the difficulties of their work. They are clearly a much valued part of the RAF.

Later in the day we went around the museum that houses the vintage planes of the air display team. We learned about the Spitfires and Hurricanes, looked up into the bomb-hold of a Lancaster and were regaled with stories which had been shared by the visiting veterans. I guess nobody had ever helped them to be resilient, they had just returned home and been expected to get on with it. Some talked, many didn’t, some cracked up, others bottled up.

In their book When Blood and Bones Cry Out the father and daughter sociologists John Paul and Angel Jill Lederach discuss the importance of resiliency. They say that no matter the difficulty of the terrains faced by the traveler, ‘they stay in touch with a core defining essence of being and purpose and display a tenacity to find a way back as a way forward that artistically stays true to their wellbeing.[i]  The Lederachs posit that this resilience is the way to social healing. Indeed, in my own book A Spirituality of Survival, I have drawn on the importance of resilience in relation to abuse survivors.[ii] I can see the validity of being rooted and grounded in a bigger and more sustaining story than the immediate disruption of trauma. I can see the need to find coping strategies, set appropriate boundaries and resist self-destructive abuse of power.  And yet, I wonder.

In his Pastoral letter following the Brexit Bill of 2020 Rev Dr Jonathan Hustler, the Secretary of the Methodist Conference, wrote that our nation needs to find ways to ‘depart in peace’, a sentiment I echoed in an accompanying prayer. Whilst many have expressed their appreciation of both letter and prayer, others have criticised its apparent message of compliance to the status quo. They urge us to resist an attitude that may cause us to hunker down and accept our lot, and challenge us both to lament and continually to campaign for a different way. In other words it is lament not resilience that will change the social order.

Of course, all this is nothing new! The Bible itself shows us both paths. There are those that keep their heads down and find strategies for coping in exile or oppression, and those prophets that resist – and generally get into trouble! We feel this particularly within the Psalms where we hear the guttural cries of those in anguish, and the ‘and yet’ of holding onto God’s bigger vision.

I want to say ‘Yes’ to resilience. I want us to claim the power that keeps us centred and whole. But I also want to affirm that we cannot simply survive, we need to lament the atrocities that surround us and cry in anguish at those things that dismember and disfigure the world. Maybe we need to depart in peace, but not in pieces? Chain ourselves to the fence of the airbase whilst supporting those within it?  Hold fast to that which is good, whilst naming that which is structurally or individually destructive?

Maybe resilience isn’t everything? I’d like to know what you think!

[i] Lederach, John Paul and Angela Jill, When Blood and Bones Cry Out (Oxford University Press, 2011), p.70.

[ii] Glasson, Barbara, Spirituality of Survival (Continuum, 2009).

Doctrine, diversity and dialogue

by George Bailey.

It can help to think of doctrine as a drama which the church performs so that we, the actors as well as the public audience might grow in understanding of what faith in Christ is about.[i] I am starting this piece of doctrinal musing by breaking the fourth wall…

First, for fans of alliterative three point sermons, the other possible title for this is ‘Creeds, Compromise and Conversation.’ More seriously, this is prompted by the Methodist Church’s consultations about marriage and relationships. The ideas here are not about the central issues, about which I assume we have varying views, and are simply part of my own current dialogue, external and internal; definitely personal and not on behalf of any body I might represent. I offer them gently, and hope you will receive them gently, and, from whichever perspective, respond gently.

Now, on with the show.

I am one of the ordained people working with an Anglican-Methodist partnership congregation which began in 2013. After much dialogue and growing together, at communion, we have two wines on the table – an alcoholic chalice and non-alcoholic small cups, reflecting the traditions of the two churches that form the partnership. I am aware that for both this is a compromise and is not theologically ‘neat’ or ‘correct’. Sometimes we are troubled that this is demonstration of our disunity at the heart of our worship. More often we rejoice that this is a sign of the way we work together and embrace each other’s differences. As we seek to be most close to Jesus in communion, we remain aware of the diversity between us – unity in diversity. A further question we ask ourselves is what this says to newcomers. It brings complexity to our proclamation of the gospel, and the truth it reveals about us is a long way from the ‘homogenous units principle’ of church growth theory.[ii] We are, in all sorts of ways, diverse in how we understand what it means to follow Jesus, yet we do follow Jesus together. Perhaps it says, ‘however different your experience might be, we invite you to join in and expand our dialogue’.

Rowan Williams’ stripped down definition of church is very helpful: ‘church is what happens when people are touched by Jesus’.[iii] We do well to remember that even this most basic starting point for Christian doctrine is not about a uniform spiritual experience nor based on a single interpretation of scripture. Just last, week with a group embarking on a study of church history, I looked at three images of Jesus and considered the vast diversity of experience and interpretation which they represent: Christ Pantocrator on the dome of Hagia Sophia, Byzantium (c.1261), Jesus and Mary on the dome of the Sacre Coeur in Paris (built 1871-1914), and The Deposition painted by Graham Sutherland (1947). Each reveals ways that people have been touched by Jesus, yet they are vastly different because of the varying historical and societal contexts. All these experiences are held within Christian doctrine, though each of the complex church contexts within which the images were produced include differing doctrines on key issues. After a century of ecumenical dialogue we are learning new insights into the importance of doctrine holding space for diversity of interpretation and emphasis, and how with listening and humility we can move towards this. Across the sweep of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions the churches largely remain separate, but in many doctrinal matters have moved much closer, and we can definitely recognise the touch of Jesus in each other.

As the Methodist Church in Britain consults about marriage and relationships we are considering the proposed addition to Standing Order 011A of the phrase, ‘The Methodist Church affirms both understandings’. The report God in Love Unites Us recognises diversity of understanding but does not fully explore the issues raised. This phrase was not in the resolutions the report argues for, but was added by the 2019 Conference, so I hope that consultations are going well beyond just discussing the report. This phrase says something important about the way Methodist doctrine deliberately includes a diversity of experience and interpretation. I do not think this is an innovation, as the church has always held diversity together. The roots of the church in the 18th Century revival are of diverse groups, mostly but not exclusively within the Church of England, coalescing into an organized network of societies. Doctrine was forged centrally in a way that held together these societies. I appreciate Henry Rack’s description of John Wesley, who persuaded all sorts of groups into his connexion, as the ‘great cannibalizer’.[iv] This challenges romantic notions about the homogeneity of the revival. Wesley was carefully negotiating for diverse groups to come together under a single doctrinal umbrella. Following the complex divisions of the 19th century, the Methodist Union of 1932 was also a carefully negotiated compromise through a decade of conversations which were not always easy. In 1998 the Methodist Church acknowledged a range of understandings of scripture to be held within its doctrinal breadth: all seven of the interpretive stances named in the report A Lamp to my Feet are authentic ways to be touched by Jesus through scripture.[v] The affirmation of two understandings of marriage which is now under consultation could represent a further recognition of the way that our doctrine includes an embrace of diversity through dialogue.

Like the two wines on the table, the phrase, ‘The Methodist Church affirms both understandings,’ has potential to cause difficulties. However, I think it also offers an opportunity to tell the truth about our unity in diversity, and to celebrate it as integral to the way that we invite all people to meet Jesus and be transformed – by joining our careful conversation about what that means.

[i] See Kevin J Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christen Doctrine, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005)

[ii] Most clearly exemplified by C. Peter Wagner in Our Kind of People: The Ethical Dimensions of Church Growth in America, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979)

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjtIS5cBmu8

[iv] Henry Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, (Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2002, 3rd ed.), p.214

[v] A Lamp To My Feet and A Light To My Path: The Nature of Authority and the Place of the Bible in the Methodist Church (1998) – https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/1987/fo-statement-a-lamp-to-my-feet-and-a-light-to-my-path-1998.pdf

‘Thus saith the Lord.’

by Josie Smith.

Who saith that that’s what the Lord saith??

I don’t believe half the things the Lord is supposed to have ‘said’ in the Old Testament, where ‘The Lord’ comes across too often as a cruel, vengeful deity.    Not at all the sort of Being one would want to approach, and closely related to those mythological pagan gods who had to be appeased and placated all the time, preferably with the sacrifice of a few cattle, sheep or unravished maidens.

What deity in his right mind would first promise descendants without number to an old man and his wife who was recognised as being past childbearing age, then a few years later demand that he take the improbable resulting child up a mountain and kill him as a sacrificial offering?   No number of convenient rams in thickets are going to convince me that this is the God I should worship.  ‘The promise’ was to make a great nation from Abraham’s descendants.   How was this to happen if God then demanded that Abraham kill Isaac and thus invalidate the whole scheme?   If Isaac did not live to adulthood how could the promise be kept?   What a terrible dilemma for Abraham.   Was he to disregard God’s earlier promise, and thus change the course of history by doing as God was ‘telling him’ to do this time?    Isaac would be removed from his abusive parents by Social Services and placed in safe keeping if this were to happen here today. (Abraham had of course done a bit of procreating elsewhere, which complicates the story but does not I think invalidate my argument or ease Abraham’s agony.)

And what about the bereaved wives and children of those Egyptian charioteers who were drowned to protect the escaping people of Israel from being caught?    Didn’t God make Egyptians too? Did he not make the people of Canaan who were so ruthlessly ethnically cleansed when the Israelites reached the Promised Land?

Many of the Psalms need to be approached with caution also – too often we read of a deity who will allow us to suffer all sorts of harm, but it will be all right in the end because of course God is on OUR side and will smite the enemy most horribly and painfully and thereby save us.

I just can’t cope with this sort of understanding.

And yet some of the most powerful preaching comes from a study of the Old Testament, prayerfully set alongside the New Testament in countless studies and on countless kitchen tables, as preachers wrestle with the Bible and try to work out what the ancient history of another culture has to say to us in our culture.   We are not so different.   There are still tyrants getting their way because they can, still refugees fleeing for their lives and being harassed on the way.  Still people enslave other people.    There are still sick people, sick in body or mind or soul.   There are still those who go hungry at the doors of food banks.    And there are still rich people resisting paying their taxes, out of which others could be cared for.    Young men fear for their own lives and carry knives for protection which so easily turns to aggression.

But always there are counter-cultural people – prophetic voices, even if they do not actually say very much, and are not necessarily signed up to any doctrine or party – who remind us that there is another way of seeing the world.   We know them when we see them – people who put their own welfare on the line and stand resolutely (often alone) for what they know to be right.

Who would your list include?

They need not be people in the public eye.   They might not even be noticed.   They don’t thunder ‘THUS SAITH THE LORD’ at us.    They simply act as though what the Lord is saying to them is common sense.   They just get on with pointing towards a world run on love, not fear; on giving, not grasping; on serving, not enslaving.   And some of them are young (‘what can she know about real life?’) and some of them are very old, (‘it’s different now – he’s past it – he doesn’t understand’) and perhaps some of them live among you.   Doing justly, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

Thanks be to God.

Ezra, Nehemiah and the Band-Room Methodists

by Roger Walton.

I have never been too enthusiastic about the tone of the books of post exile rebuilding.[1]  There is, of course, much to admire in them: passion and hard work, moving moments of prayer and rededication, but the emphasis on religious and ethnic purity, wherein men have to give up their ‘foreign wives’ and commit to not allowing their daughters or sons to marry outside faith, rankles.  This seems especially difficult to embrace in our age, where we struggle to affirm diversity and resist racism.  These are not the books of the Bible we bring out to support our inclusive approach to church or society.  We much prefer to highlight the Book of Ruth, with its revelation that Ruth the Moabite was David’s grandmother; a point seemingly aimed at piercing the self-righteous bubble of zealous separatism.

What role, if any, should separation play in discipleship formation and mission?

John Bowmer’s account of Methodism in the period after John Wesley’s death contains the little known story of the Band-Room Methodists.[2]  This was a small secession from Wesleyan Methodism, which began when John Broadhurst started a meeting under this name at North Street Chapel, Manchester.  It was, as Bowmer points out, a harmless gathering but it had not been authorised nor did it come under the authority of the Circuit Leaders’ meeting.  When later the Circuit decided to have a united Covenant service for the town and close North Street for the day, an independent service was held at North Street in defiance of the plan and, more seriously, it admitted non-members.[3]  Covenant Services at that this time were not open worship events but restricted to those who held a Society ticket of membership. To hold a Covenant service open to anyone was a deliberate departure from the Wesleyan rule. The Band-Room Methodists also allowed non-members to attend band meetings. This led to a spirited defence of the closed meeting by the Wesleyan Methodists. A schism followed.

The breakaway of the Band-room Methodists was small and short-lived but the issue of when Methodism should be a society for members only and when it should be a church open to all remains a tension.

Methodist membership is now not connected to closed, confidential bands or classes and special ‘members only’ services but primarily to office holding and participation in the decision-making bodies of the church. I wonder whether we should rethink this.

For the last couple of years, I have been working on something called the Methodist Way of Life. This is a rule of life linked to Our Calling that sets out in practices and commitments how we might embody our Methodist spirituality in everyday life. It assumes, and provides questions for, accountability with a soul friend or in a small group.  Without a confidential, safe place for such accountability, it will not work.  It requires others who are equally committed to the accountable discipleship that the Way of Life provides.  The shared commitment generates the context for mutual support and critical friendship in the Christian journey, which in turn allows us to hear God’s call more clearly and shape our response.  In other words, it requires some kind of separation. Clearly, this may not be the same as that demanded of the returned exiles or of the early Methodist but without a closed and confidential space, it is unlikely to be effective.

Readers of the post-exilic narrative set out by the Chronicler, particularly in Ezra and Nehemiah, tend to justify the separatist stance as needed to recover and reform the character and identity of the people of Israel after the enormity of their religious and political catastrophe.  How could they be the people God called them to be, if they did not have a single minded and rigorous pattern of faith practice?   Only in this way could they be a ‘light to nations’ and provide the context for the Incarnation.

I see this, despite my unease as I read the books.  I recognise that there is a tension between the requirements of deeper discipleship for those who have started the journey and an open, hospitable house that declares God’s love for all. We may need to work more on when each is needed and how to make the tension between them creative and empowering.

[1] Ezra; Nehemiah; and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

[2] Bowmer, John C.,  Pastor and People, Epworth 1975 p71-74

Portrait stories

by Barbara Glasson.

With a couple of hours free on one of my increasingly frequent trips to London, I resolved to visit the National Portrait Gallery. I had forgotten just how engaging the place is and was drawn to a portrait of the physician of immunology Edward Jenner painted on 1803 by the artist James Northcote. The picture shows Jenner in a ponderous pose seated at his desk on which are placed his papers, a book on the origin of vaccines and, if you look very carefully, a cow’s hoof. As in many portraits, the fall of the light onto face and hands, the detail of the background and the expression in the eyes indicate not only the story of a life but the significance of the subject in the course of a wider history; a significance I called to mind again when accompanying my youngest grandson Oliver for his three month ‘jabs’. Thanks to Jenner and his work Oliver and his contemporaries in the U.K. have little fear of contracting the smallpox that killed nearly 20% of their forbears.

Unlike a CV or a passport photo, the art of painting a portrait is not simply a documentation of facts but an engagement in an empathetic relationship. Portraiture seeks to express the essential nature of the subject, not simply through the pose but also in the demeanour and surroundings in which the subject is described. In the case of the Jenner portrait we see a man who has apparently turned aside from his work for a moment with the artifacts of his research around him. We are given an insight into a particular moment in history, an ink pot standing to hand for the real work to resume at any moment.

During the first six months of our Presidential theme ‘So What’s the Story …?’, the Vice President, Professor Clive Marsh and I have heard a lot of stories! We have also begun to ask some follow-on questions, ‘Is God in every story?’, ‘Are all stories of equal value?’, ‘Do we need keepers of stories and story-tellers?’  and crucially for me, ‘What do we do with the stories we hear?’ Being entrusted with a story is a precious thing, is it sufficient to simply receive a story or are their further responsibilities in the light of what we are hearing?

In an academic context, ‘Portraiture’ describes an ethnographic research method that enhances the analysis of narrative. Portraiture seeks to offer an in depth understanding of the subject in relation to all other aspects of their lives, history, environment, faith or other influences. It also takes into account the ‘painters’ or ‘hearers of the story’.  In our context, we might say that the story teller is the subject, the Methodist church, faith perspectives, political environment, historical insights provide the ‘background’ , Clive and I and any other ‘hearers’ are the portraitists.

Pioneer in the research method of portraiture, Lawrence-Lightfoot says:

“In the process of creating portraits, we enter people’s lives, build relationships, engage in discourse, make an imprint….and leave. We engage in acts (implicit and explicit) of social transformation, we create opportunities for dialogue, we pursue silences, and in the process, we face ethical dilemmas and a great moral responsibility. This is provocative work that can disturb the natural rhythms of social reality and encounter; this is exciting work that can instigate positive and productive change. We need to appreciate the benign, generous impact of portraiture, even as we recognize the huge ethical responsibilities weighing on the portraitist.”[i]

This insight from the academic study of portraiture is helpful in our understanding of the further responsibilities that come from hearing stories. Portraiture offers a method for ethnographic research which not only enables us to listen to a story but for a story. In the case of the Jenner portrait the artist has only one story in mind, the invention of the vaccine for cowpox, and yet in the depiction of the scientist himself we see a depth of interaction between the man and the work. We see historical content, in costume and artifacts, we see his hands and eyes intent on the task. In listening ‘for’ the story of the invention of vaccine the portrait painter has produced a rich, deep and strong ‘story line’. This reflects back to another of the questions we are asking about God’s presence within the story – are we listening to somebody talking about God or are we listening for God’s presence? Is the God story in the lips of the teller or the ears of the hearer?

Portraiture is a way of capturing a deep and rich narrative and helps us to interpret what we hear with greater insight. Portraiture offers the possibility of nuance and complexity, we literally see the subject differently. And portraiture not only tells us about a person but helps us to question other things too.

So, half way through this Presidential year I see that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of our story-telling theme! I wonder how we are to listen to and for stories, how we are to capture the richness depth of all that we are hearing and what this means for us in relation to the transformation of us as the Methodist Church.

And on that note, I think it’s time for me to go and see Oliver and not just be the nasty person that takes him for his jabs.

[i] Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis, The Art and Science of Portraiture, San Francisco: John Wiley, 1997

The Meaning of Christmas

by Jimmy Dunn.

Isn’t it interesting – and, truth to tell, both inspiring and depressing – how the two sides of Christmas hang together, despite their clashing and inconsistency?  There’s the celebration, of course – family gatherings, cracker-pullings and generous meals, inspiring church services.  And there is the often gross (over-)expenditure, as people hunt for bargains and that something which will make this Christmas especially memorable.  But there is also the other side so easily forgotten and quickly overlooked – the loneliness of the single person, the heartache of looking after older family members unable to do anything for themselves, the wayfarer trying to find peace in a doorway with only a well worn sleeping bag for comfort.

It’s so easy for Christmas to be dominated by what 1 John 2:16 describes as ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches’.  What is it that we most seek to express and to fulfil at Christmas?  I suspect that 1 John 2:16 is a more accurate expression of our wishes for Christmas than we care to admit.  Is it the case that we allow our self-discipline to slip quite as much, not least because we are conscious that Lent will soon be at hand when we can repent and make amends?

But what we are celebrating is not symbolized by a fat turkey weighing down our dinner plates.  It is not expressed by Christmas glitter and brightly decorated Christmas trees.  It is not indicated by generous glasses of Christmas ale and canapés.  It is expressed rather by a baby lying in a hastily cleaned but still rather grimy crib.  And were there animals present – not presumably squatting and looking in devotional awe, but, if anything chewing loudly and noisily farting?

And what about the shepherds leaving their flocks and the wise men from the East bringing their gifts?  They provide wonderful scenes for Christmas plays and services.  But are they in fact primarily the beginning of the elaboration of the Christmas story, an elaboration which has been continually developed until now – an elaboration which obscures as much as celebrates what actually happened?

Is it then, sadly, the case that our celebration of the Christmas story obscures rather than highlights the wonder of that first Christmas?  A young woman pregnant she knew not quite how.  A husband at best puzzled by what was happening.  An enforced journey at a highly inconvenient time, from the north to little known Bethlehem.  The lack of a place to go – why had they ever set out in the first place without a clear destination?  No room at the inn!  Only a stable in which to give birth – no doctor or midwife.

Is it the case, then, that we have allowed the way we now celebrate Christmas to hide the reality of what it is we celebrate?  The reality and wonder of the incarnation – not in a gorgeous palace, not in a military institution – and not in a famous place of worship.  But in a stable!  And not to be announced with blasting trumpets, royal pronouncements, fantastic military manoeuvres – though the retellings of the story in early Christendom pulled in shepherds and wise men to provide something of the glitter which human society would regard as appropriate.

The problem (is ‘tragedy’ too strong a word?) is that the historic elaborations of the Christmas story tend to obscure rather than to celebrate the impact made by Jesus.  We too quickly forget that it is the bare bones of the original setting which best typify the impact which Jesus made by his life and ministry.  For he did not stay in palaces or see his first priority as ministry to the nobility and well to do.  When he first preached it was to quote the words of Isaiah 61: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . .’ (Luke 4.18).

Interestingly, it is Luke who gives special attention to this focus of Jesus’ ministry.  In his version the first of those declared as ‘Blessed’ are ‘you who are poor’ (6.20).  He alone records Jesus’ instruction to those who want to give a feast that their priority should be to ‘invite the poor’ (14.13).  And only Luke records Zacchaeus’ penitential vow to ‘give half of my goods to the poor’, drawing from Jesus the response, ‘Today salvation has come to this house’ (19.8-9).

Which poses the uncomfortable question:  Do we celebrate Christmas appropriately?

“The Angels Are Coming”

by Gill Newton.

During the first week of Advent, I joined hundreds of other people standing outside Sheffield Cathedral to experience “The Angels Are Coming.”  This show had been billed as a “lights and sounds spectacular telling the story of Christmas” and prior to the five days over which the event was held, over 9000 tickets had been sold.

The experience consisted of a 15-minute light show on the outside of the cathedral building which was watched from the Cathedral forecourt.  It included animated images of contemporary Christmas symbols as well as images of angels.  It also contained a mixture of dramatic music and familiar Christmas carols and tunes.  This was followed by an opportunity to enter the cathedral itself.  Once inside there was more light and sound to be enjoyed with the major focus within the cathedral being the famous Sheffield Steel Nativity.  Prayer cards were being distributed by cathedral volunteers and many visitors took the opportunity to light prayer candles.

So, what drew thousands of people to such an event in a building that they may not consider entering at any other time?  Was it just another Christmas extravaganza for all the family to enjoy?  Or is there a genuine fascination with angels?

There’s a huge range of ways and places in which angels are portrayed in the world today and it’s never difficult to find art, jewellery, clothes or decorations for our homes and gardens adorned with cherubs or winged creatures.  And of course, in this season of the year there will be countless nativity plays being performed up and down our land in which young children are robed in white with tinsel-covered coat-hangers for wings and halos!

It seems that much of what we see or hear about angels in our 21st century culture would seem to be based on speculation or good old-fashioned fantasy!  So, how do we separate fact from fiction and what does scripture have to say about angels and their part in our lives today?

“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”[i]  These words from the writer to the Hebrews encourage us to believe that angels are still among us but are they really just the comforting guardians which the world would have us believe they are?!

The notion of a guardian angel has become quite prevalent in our society and there is no doubt that there are accounts in scripture of God sending angels to protect and guard.  Daniel in the lions’ den[ii] and Elisha in a besieged city[iii] both experienced the protection and guidance from angels that God promises.[iv]  There are other examples of God sending angels to those who were struggling and needing strength.  When Elijah was running for his life an angel provided food and water for the journey[v] and when Jesus himself was praying and wrestling with what was to come whilst in the Garden of Gethsemane, an angel appeared.[vi]

However, there are other accounts in scripture which would encourage us to see that encounters with angels might bring us much more than comfort and strength!  Their very name means “messenger” and scripture is full of examples of God sending angels to bring specific messages to people.  It’s the way Abraham and Sarah discovered they would be parents[vii] and it’s how Gideon knew that God was with him when facing the might of the Midianites.[viii]  And in this season of the year we are reminded of the numerous occasions when angels bring surprising news to Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds.[ix]

God may also use his angels to fight on his behalf, deliver his judgement and strike terror in the hearts of those who act against him or his people as King Hezekiah discovered when fighting the Assyrians.[x]  However, significantly, it seems that angels spend most of their time worshipping God – “Day and night they never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”[xi]

So, is their major purpose to draw our attention to God?

A poll conducted in the year 2000 suggested that 81% of the adults consulted believed that “Angels exist and influence people’s lives.”[xii]  But does that mean that they are expecting to encounter the cherubs or winged images that our society so often portrays or do they recognise the smiling neighbour, or the bent old man or the person of a different culture as the angel sent from God with the help or the comfort or the challenging word that they need?

Will the angels really have come to Sheffield in these recent weeks?  Will there have been encounters that visitors to the cathedral find hard to explain?  Will there have been messages relayed that have surprised the recipients? Possibly so!  Why should Sheffield be any different to Nazareth or Bethlehem or any other place where angels have appeared with important or surprising news?!

God undoubtedly still sends his messengers today with words of hope and challenge. Whether through sound and light spectaculars or other means, how do we best help those with stories of angels to recognise and know the God who sent them?

“Him the angels all adored, their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled Lord they now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty, of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be, and God himself is born.”

Charles Wesley (1707-88); Singing the Faith 199

[i] Hebrews 13 v 2

[ii] Daniel 6 v 22

[iii] 2 Kings 6 v 17

[iv] Psalm 91 v 11

[v] 1 Kings 19

[vi] Luke 22 v 43

[vii] Genesis 18

[viii] Judges 6

[ix] Luke 1 and 2

[x] 2 Kings 19

[xi] Revelation 4 v 8

[xii] Barna Research Group

Come Emmanuel

by Andrew Lunn.

The ancient ‘O Antiphons’, which we know through the hymn ‘O come, o come, Emmanuel’, provide a series of reflections on the One we wait for.  The text, which came to be associated with the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve, and used as the antiphons for the Magnificat, goes back possibly earlier than 500 AD.  Through the various titles of Christ the tradition formed as acrostic, another shorter text hidden within the Antiphons.  The acrostic was a poetic form used in a number of the Psalms.  In this case the playful hiding and revealing is apt for these seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Advent as the time of waiting for that which is not yet fully known; Christmas, and especially Epiphany, as the season of revealing.  God remains for us one who is revealed, known and intimate, and at the same time, one who is hidden, mysterious and numinous.  In this case the hidden text has to be read in reverse: Sapienta (Wisdom), Adonai (Lord of might, law-giver), Rex gentium (King of the nations), Clavis David (Key of David), Oriens (Morning star), Radix Jesse (root of Jesse), Emmanuel (God with us).  This spells Ero Cras, meaning ‘I will … tomorrow’, with the verb for us to insert, possible ‘I will come tomorrow’, or ‘I will be with you tomorrow’.  For my main reflection I’m offering my own acrostic poem, sparked off by reflections on the ancient hymn.

Come Emmanuel

(inspired by O come, o come Emmanuel)

Entropy: as deep space, hard and cold

to human sense, yet sparked with stars and light –

millions on millions – yet only one can hold

or harbour life.  A jewel in the dark, bright

mirrored, receives a gift, a life, a child.

Mothered: eternity’s day-star would write

a letter on her soul, (and when he smiled

or cried, she knew his face, his voice, echoed

nature’s source) who she would see reviled,

racked as he took to heart our human load.

Utterly weak he comes into the world,

rich in humanity.  This true child showed

each one of us that we are known, heard,

owned, our longings met in deepest giving.

Love’s language is revealed.  Hope is the Word.

When he comes our ends become beginnings.

Whither the Ecumenical Pilgrimage?

by Ian Howarth.

Reading Israel Selvanayagam’s recent history of the Church of South India, ‘The Greatest Act of Faith,’[1] with his passionate advocacy of the importance of organic union if the church is to have any credibility in a secular world, I am led to reflect on the ecumenical journey as I have seen it over my lifetime.

Dr Selvanayagam finishes his book with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.,  ‘who at the heart of his struggle with the nexus of evil forces, declared: “We, the Roman Catholics, Orthodox and the Protestants, either come together as brothers and sisters or die as fools”,’[2] and I am left almost with a feeling of guilt that I cannot generate the enthusiasm for pursuing the goal of organic union between God’s people that I had in the early days of my Christian faith. Dr Selvanayagam is adamant that coming together ultimately must mean organic union, but his book also outlines the danger of dominant partners using organic union as a means to assimilate smaller units into the larger, for which he cites the assimilation of the CSI into a province of the Anglican Communion, without discussion with the other partners as an example.

When I was confirmed in 1969, it was at one of the first joint Anglican/Methodist confirmation services, even if the school where it happened did have to import a retired bishop of a diocese in the Middle East, and we were actually confirmed in two queues one going to the bishop and the other to the Methodist school chaplain, who was standing in for the President of Conference whose train had been cancelled! It was the comments that it was a good job it was the President’s train that had been cancelled and not the bishop’s, that gave me one of my first insights into a key difference in our ecclesiology!

I began my presbyteral training at the ecumenical Queen’s College, in 1982, and our first guest lecture was from David Edwards, the Anglican lead for the proposed English Covenant, which despite support from the Methodist Church and URC, had recently been voted down in the house of clergy of the Church of England, thus effectively bringing to an end the processes that might lead to an organic union between the churches. There was much wringing of hands and a sense that a dream had died.

Throughout my ministry the quest for organic union has gradually slipped off the table, and the Covenant with the Church of England was seen by many as an end of the process. On the ground ecumenical co-operation has been patchy. Some flexibility in Anglican Ecumenical Canons has allowed joint work and worship in LEPs and across particular areas. Yet, I have become acutely conscious that ecumenical working at a local level relies far too much on the personalities and outlook of local church leaders – usually the ordained ones!

As I approach the end of my ministry, I have to say that I react to the current proposals of ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’ with a deep sense of tiredness. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I think this is at the top of the list of our priorities. The sense of banging a head on a brick wall is too strong.

As I look back over the story I have told above, I am conscious of how church based it all is. For all the talk of mission the discussions have become increasingly institutional, and the issues seem to resemble arguing about the number of angels you can get on a pin head. The things I thought important and exciting forty years ago, now seem echoes of a past age. They also speak of a world where the church was a much more powerful influence in society and the thought of coming together organically could have made a significant difference to the Christian voice.

So what do we do with that statement of Martin Luther King? And perhaps more important, what do we make of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that ‘they may be one as you, Father and I are one, and they may be one in us?’

We can argue that that does not mean organic union but another sense of oneness, but meanwhile the church becomes more divided. The issues around sexuality threaten our oneness in a very different way from questions of episcopacy and church governance. The rise of independent churches with a congregationalist form of governance has in many ways sidelined the smaller denominations like Methodism.

The question of whether we can be in unity with those with whom we profoundly disagree with theologically is a pressing one, that Methodism is currently struggling with on its own, let alone across denominations.

If I am honest, I think that organic unity will probably have to wait for the eschaton. However, I believe we have to find a new way of demonstrating our oneness across our divisions, and that can be a key witness to a divided nation.

That starts within Methodism. If we can show we truly can express what it is to be one in Christ with contradictory convictions around marriage, then we can have something to say to our fellow Christians in other traditions facing similar challenges, but above all, we can offer a witness to a world that sees disagreement as inherently leading to division, and we can truly preach a Christ, in whom there is ‘no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’[3]

[1]  The Greatest Act of Faith: The First Organic Union of the Church of South India, by Rev Dr Israel Selvanayagam, Christian World Imprints

[2] Ibid p 246

[3] Galatians 3: 28