Life and death

by Julie Lunn

As I write, the tragic case recently hitting the news headlines, of baby Charlie Gard, has drawn to its deeply sad conclusion. Charlie was born with a genetic defect; he had a rare mitochondrial disease that causes the body’s cells and organs to shut down, so that he had brain damage, was deaf, blind, and unable to breathe or move by himself. Earlier this week Charlie’s parents, Connie and Chris, conceded to Charlie being allowed to die in a hospice, and now baby Charlie has died: the close of a long journey, even if a relatively short one chronologically. This journey has taken the parents from a battle with the courts, seeking to permit them to take their son to the US for experimental treatment; to an agreement to allow Charlie to die when Charlie’s condition deteriorated and the treatment, which was always extremely limited in its possibilities, no longer offered a possibility of meaningful life; through the fight to allow him to return home to die, but because of the difficulty in providing the necessary ventilation requirements at home, coming to the agreement that Charlie would die in a hospice. Yet, even this was complicated, Charlie’s parents wanted him to be kept alive in the hospice for a week or so, to spend some final peaceful time with him, but there were financial and practical constraints – the need of finding and possibly funding a team who would support him during that time. It wasn’t possible and shortly after being moved to a hospice, Charlie died.

This case has given rise to emotionally charged, emotively expressed feeling and language, even as far as death threats being issued against staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital by some ‘supporters’ of Charlie. There have been numerous opinions expressed about the state ‘playing God’; about court and medical control overriding the wishes of parents; about suffering and the inability to cure all illnesses; about the right to life and the right to be able to die in dignity, without the prolongation of pain; about parental needs and desires, and what is best for the child.

The issue has been rife with ethical dilemmas and the difficulty is, it is possible to empathise with the various positions. Of course the parents wanted their child to live, and be well, and flourish; of course the needs of the child are paramount: was he suffering? What sort of life would he have lived, even if the hoped for treatment had enabled him to do so? Of course doctors are committed to doing what is best for each child they treat; and how hard for the judge to make decisions which determine the future lives of all those intimately involved. Many became involved in the debate – Donald Trump, the Pope, journalists, contributors to Twitter and Facebook with opinions on all sides.

For the parents, Connie and Chris, their reality is that much has had to be relinquished, and the decisions they have had to make have been from a place of deep grieving and loss.

It is a characteristic of our generation that we find such relinquishing, such powerlessness difficult. We want it all. We want to be able to control, to make things happen; and the advances in science, medical treatments, and understanding about living a healthy lifestyle, offer so much more hope for that generally.

But the reality of human life is that we can’t have everything the way we want it. We can’t have life without death. Death is a reality of our existence. We have pushed the experience of death as far away as we can. The Christian gospel, however, is about death and resurrection. Jesus does not avoid death. Indeed, his death and resurrection is the central focus of our faith, the means through which salvation comes to us.

We need to be able to relinquish; yes of course to love and to care and to fight for the best, but also, when it is necessary, to relinquish, to embrace death, and to grieve, trusting to the resurrection life God offers. The work of relinquishing is, according to Richard Rohr in Falling Upwards, the work of the latter half of life. The first half of life being about accrual, gathering to oneself; the second half is about letting go, relinquishing, simplicity. There are no set ages when these stages take place. For Charlie’s parents relinquishing their son has come very early in life. But the spirituality of relinquishing is something we all need to embrace.

Nothing can prepare us for the sort of relinquishment that faced Connie and Chris Gard. Yet, ultimately, we are all called to relinquish all to God. This spirituality of letting go of power, of the desire to control, of simplicity, lies at the heart of who we are and what we believe; ‘I am no longer my own, but yours.’

The Sacrament of Place

by Richard Clutterbuck

The Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!

After thirteen years living and working in Belfast I’m about to move back to England. Although Northern Ireland is within the UK it is politically, culturally and religiously a place apart. I have been an English ‘blow-in’ in the city of Belfast and in Irish church life. People often ask me what I’ll miss most about Ireland. My instinctive response is ‘places’. Landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, homes, churches, monasteries, concert halls, cafes, streets – it’s a long list.

To make sense of this theologically, I want to highlight the sacramental nature of place. In sacraments, the stuff of creation becomes both a sign of God’s grace and the means of conveying that grace to us. If that’s true of bread and wine in the Eucharist, and of water in Baptism, it can also be true of places, the physical environment of where we are. A theology of place encourages us to see God’s interaction with the particular: this field or wood or lake or street, or room; these people, this accent, this culture, this story. Some years ago, John Inge wrote A Christian Theology of Place, in which he argued for a recovery of the theological – the sacramental – significance of place. Modern Europeans – especially Protestants – haven’t sufficiently appreciated this theological significance of place and it’s taken living in Ireland to bring it home to me. But, as I look at the biblical narrative, it’s the same God who encounters Jacob at Bethel, Moses on Sinai, Elijah on Mt Carmel, Isaiah in the Temple and Ezekiel by the river Chebar. However, in each case the specifics of the place shape the way the encounter develops.

To start a conversation, here are some facets of a theology of place as Ireland has presented it to me.

Places of Revelation

It’s easy to succumb to a romantic cliche of meeting God in nature. Nevertheless, the ancient Irish Christians sought out the dramatic, the isolated, the peaceful and the windswept places for their monasteries and places for prayer. More recently, the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote of how specific places in his native Monaghan mediated the divine presence, even saying ‘…that beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God, was breathing his love by a cut-away bog.’ (The One)

Places of Prayer and Pilgrimage

There are places made holy by the prayers and intentions of those who visit them. In Ireland there are still holy wells in rural areas, still well-worn pilgrim paths up mountains like Croagh Pádraig. Traditionally, Protestants have not been so responsive to this – though the recent interest in pilgrimage suggest this is changing.

Places of Evil

Just as a place can be holy, the sacramental vehicle for conveying God’s grace, so it can be evil, resisting God’s power and drawing us away from God’s love and grace. In Ireland that evil is most often associated with violence. The ‘troubles’, with their bombings and large-scale loss of life are largely (though not entirely) in the past, but they have left behind a trauma that is associated with places where human dignity was defaced.

Places of Conflict

Part of Northern Ireland’s story is that many places have conflicting narratives of ownership and significance. This is reflected in disputes about the routes for marches and the names of streets (or of a city, in the case of Derry/Londonderry). Often these narratives have a theological underpinning that demands careful listening and sensitive critique.

Places of Healing

That evil and conflict can inhere in places suggests the need for places of healing where reconciliation and forgiveness can flourish. This, too, is sacramental. There is only space to name a few examples: Corrymeela, Clonard Monastery, (a place for counselling and spirituality in inner city Belfast).

Places of Encounter

The arts journalist, Susan Mansfield, developed a ‘Passion Walk’ in Belfast. It involves downloading a set of audio files onto a phone and then listening to them as you follow a mapped route across the city. The result is quite remarkable: you listen to the passion story, with accompanying music and reflection, as you navigate the landscape of the city centre and harbour. As you take this journey, the familiar story of Christ’s trial, suffering and death takes on a fresh resonance as the narrative is set within these local places. The opposite is true as well: Belfast becomes a different place as you see it through the lens of the biblical story.

A heightened theology of place would make us more attentive to the presence of God in the specific situations we inhabit. And with that would come greater respect and care both for the created uniqueness of each place and for the human environment that develops there. It would also help us to appreciate the spiritual loss people experience when they are dislocated from the places that have shaped their lives, when they are displaced or have to emigrate. Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land depends on being enabled to meet God in new – and challenging – places.

Pilgrim people

by Jennie Hurd

According to the July 2017 issue of Country Walking magazine, pilgrimage is the fastest-growing sector in the European tourism market. Similarly, more than two million people participate in a recognised pilgrimage in Scotland every year, and over 330 million people across the world make a pilgrimage of some kind annually. Pilgrimage in Britain has possibly not seen such popularity since its fourteenth century heyday, when Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gave insights into pilgrims’ motivations and the kind of activities they got up to as they travelled the medieval roads.

I confess to having contributed to these figures within recent weeks. With a group including some Methodist District Chair colleagues, I walked a version of the Peak Pilgrimage from Ilam to Eyam over two days in May. On the way there, I found myself making an unplanned visit to Englesea Brook Chapel and Museum, which turned out to be an almost-accidental pilgrimage of great blessing. In addition, as I write, I have today made a pilgrimage to the chapel of St Peter’s-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. I have wanted to visit St Peter’s for many years, and spending an afternoon there in glorious weather to think, pray and reflect on ministry and vocation has been humbling and inspiring. I cannot imagine it will be too long before I go on some kind of pilgrimage again. I am a child of the age. I am one of the 330 million.

Given that an intention of pilgrimage is to spur the pilgrim forward on her spiritual journey of life and faith, it seems ironic that it almost always involves travel back in time to an historic site, a place of significance because of its heritage and what has happened there in the past. It seems illogical and counter-intuitive that something that is intended to inspire forward-movement and looking to the future should have such a strong characteristic of retrospection and revisiting times gone by. Wouldn’t it be better to go on pilgrimage to a place where God is doing completely new things, where the visionary and the innovative are taking place?  The very resurgence in the popularity of pilgrimage could be seen as retrospective, resonating with the growth of new monasticism as written about in these pages recently by Roger Walton. Why this looking to the ways and places of the past, and what are we hoping to gain by it? Is it of God, and if so, what is God wanting to give us through it?

Andrew Jones reminds us that Rowan Williams speaks of the importance of “remembering for the future”[1] and of how “memory is central in moving on, with hope and expectation…”[2] Every Sunday in worship, and especially in every celebration of Holy Communion, we look to reconnect with our roots and origins and to be strengthened and renewed for travelling on. So with pilgrimage: it is not merely a nostalgic, sentimental journey but, rather, travel to review our life’s story and to meet again with God in Christ, anticipating that same but deeper encounter at our ultimate destination. The journeying can be important for its own sake, as for the Celtic missionary monks who set off simply as an act of witness with no particular destination in mind. However, the place to which we travel usually holds deep significance: as Jones says, the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim is that a tourist passes through a place, but a pilgrim allows a place to pass through her[3].

If it is paradoxical and ironic that pilgrimage involves travelling back in time in order to move forward, there is further irony in the way in which it ends back where the pilgrim started – at home, dealing again with the ordinary stuff of life. Yet this is where the true value of pilgrimage is seen and where its worth and impact is proven, when the healing, renewal and resurrection born of the pilgrim encounter with God makes a difference to the daily routine. It is a continuous process of looking back in order to move forward, participating in a way of life where “Getting to where we need to go often means finding a new language for where we’ve already been.”[4] Renewed by looking back in order to move forward, God’s pilgrim people travel on.

[1] Williams, Rowan 1994, Open to Judgement: DLT quoted in Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF: 33

[2] Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF: 33

[3] Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF:35

[4] Lane, Belden C 2015, Backpacking with the Saints: OUP: 15

Forgiveness, and growing through our mistakes

by Anne Ostrowicz

In the week of the Westminster attack I found myself marking a set of year 8 (12-13 year-olds) exercise books, responding to questions on John 8:1-11, often entitled, ‘the woman caught in adultery’.

A few weeks earlier we had been studying Jesus’ parables of the lost and I was surprised at just how many in the class, from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds, were really quite indignant about the forgiveness which the younger son received, including that offensive party; it seemed so unjust to the hard-working elder son!

Studying John 8 together, me more-or-less acting what happened in the outer court of the temple, we imagined this woman being dragged, terrified and shaking, by a crowd of men who cared little for her. We focused on Jesus’ silent, measured response, as he knelt and ‘wrote’ in the ground, trying to imagine the effect of this action on the atmosphere, and what Jesus might have been up to.

As I talked I was very aware that in the class was one who has suffered severely for a misdemeanour in his past. And I wondered what he was feeling about Jesus’ response; I know the pain is lodged deep in this young boy’s heart. And there are pupils in the class whose home background, or religious upbringing, can be very harsh when it comes to responding to misdemeanour.

But the pupils began making links with others Jesus treated in similar fashion: Matthew the tax-collector, Mary Magdalene, Peter…  We remembered, too, that forgiveness, compassion, are lauded in all the major religions as the ‘higher way’.

Returning to reading their written homework thoughts, I was deeply moved. Several had been sufficiently interested to go to the internet to research further on what Jesus had been doing ‘writing in the ground’. One turned up the historical detail that this was how verdicts were delivered – in writing first. Another, that it was the older men who had the right to start a stoning. Even more moving was the sensitivity shown to Jesus’ concern for this woman, the power that his grace, this undeserved kindness, would most likely have had to effect a change of heart, possibly a significant change to her whole life. And they were remembering the times in their own lives when grace had had a deeper positive effect than a harsh response of punishment would have done.

And I felt that there had been significant movement in the minds of these young boys: movement towards the beauty and power of forgiveness and grace over judgment and punishment. The possibility of embracing that ‘higher way’.

This time round only one individual was critical of Jesus’ response…

It is a privilege to read my pupils’ thoughts. Their writing also re-ignites in me the awesomeness of Jesus’ teaching.

I have been re-reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. He writes about the less black-and-white attitude many of us enter in middle-age. But why shouldn’t the less black-and-white, often paradoxical truth possibilities, be put to our young people? In my experience, they ‘get it’ and deeply appreciate depth and complexity of thought, provided we give sufficient time to explain and to explore.  John 8 teaches that infringement does not have to be punished, that justice does not necessitate punishment, for the goal is a changed heart, surely the greatest of all achievements.

Rohr suggests that spiritual growth is perhaps not so much avoiding sin, but growing through it. My supposition is that the woman of John 8 became a far more beautiful person, having sinned and so had that encounter with Jesus and herself, than if she had never made the mistake in the first place. Isn’t that just the truth about us humans? Mary Magdalene, Peter, Matthew, Zachaeus…

This week, teaching about Islam to the same class, we listened on-line to the imam at Finsbury Park Mosque who, in the most tense and violent of moments, spontaneously spoke and acted forgiveness and peace. I watched as the Muslim pupils sat a little taller, as they so often do when I draw out the beauty in their own religious traditions and community.

This month I lose my upper sixth, many deeply thinking individuals: Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, atheist, agnostic. My deepest prayer is that they, along with the many other thoughtful teenagers we have in our country, will be ‘yeast’ in the communities in which they find themselves in our country, aware both of the beauty that can be found in religion, and its complexities.

Giving ourselves away

by Sally Coleman

I like going to the hairdressers. I must admit that that was not the opening phrase I had anticipated opening a post for Theology Everywhere with, but I like going to the hairdressers. The time is booked, and I usually anticipate being there for an hour, wash, cut, blow dry, coffee, being pampered, but for me that is not the key thing. The real and lasting enjoyment comes not from a new haircut but from a deep engagement, and conversation with someone who I might not otherwise encounter.

Over the years, talk over the mirror has been about many things, from motherhood and daily life to deep spiritual things, especially when people find out who I am (I was going to write what I do, but I won’t unpack that now, that would probably be the subject for a different post). I have been asked about ghosts and angels, whether I believe in the supernatural, about multi-faith issues, politics, justice, sexuality and so much more. The space is not my space; it is a commercial space where people come and go, a space I must respect and honour, and where I must win the opportunity to engage in conversation. Very often though, I find that those I have met over the years, who have held the power of scissors over my head, are hungry for spiritual engagement and want to talk.

I have found the same in other contexts too, in coffee shops, in placing stalls into town festivals, music festivals, and into Mind Body Spirit Exhibitions, not in order to win people to the church, but to meet with them where they are and to offer a space to talk. Perhaps the best thing about all of this is that each of these encounters has pushed me to think more deeply about the God that I do and don’t believe in, and to encourage those I meet to do the same.

As I reflect upon the Gospels in the light of this, I notice the way that Jesus simply encountered people where they were, how he encouraged them to drive the conversation, to express their needs, voice their doubts and ask questions. His responses were given in parables which again offered those with the desire the opportunity to delve deeper to seek out the meaning, and those stories, simple though they seem, are so nuanced that they still speak to us today.

As a member of a church that is asking deep questions of its future, what challenges me, and what I learn from Jesus’ itinerant ministry, makes me wonder how we might create safe spaces for the type of conversation that I have been describing. How might it look if instead of being curators of Methodism and what it stands for, if we were to become chaplains, meeting people along the way and daring to journey with them. How might it look if we were able to find a way of making the most of our resources, relinquishing buildings and using those that are fit for purpose to their full potential. I know this has been an ongoing debate, and that it has its own problems, pains, and frustrations but we can’t cling on to what is not the answer, and never was. The story of the people of God has always been one of journey/ pilgrimage; even the exilic accounts can and should inform our sense of who we are, and while there are encouragements to settling down (Jeremiah 29: 4-9), they are set in the context of blessing the people that we find ourselves amongst, which may again demand a new thing of us.

Yet none of this is new, these are questions that we have been returning to repeatedly, but so often with the underlying assumption that this is about the survival of Methodism and what it means to be Methodist, and while the theology of the Methodist Church is what has won my heart to Christ and the Christian walk in so many ways, I want to ask what would happen if we were to give ourselves away. To ask not what Methodism is for the present and future age, but to learn from the encounters that we have with those around us. I leave you with the words of Jesus.

Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10: 39)

A Methodist rule of life?

by Roger Walton

New monasticism is a term widely used to describe the emergence of various communities and groups who express their Christian faith through patterns and practices that resemble the rules and rhythms of earlier monasteries. Sometimes these communities are people living together in a physical space or location, often identifying with those who live in poverty or who are homeless. Others are dispersed, held together by a pattern of prayer, a series of commitments and a rule of life.

There is, currently, much talk of new monasticism in Methodism. The Methodist Diaconal Order, as a religious order, lives by a rule of life. A number of Methodists are members of the Iona Community; some belong to the Northumbria Community and a few are third-order Franciscans. Several ‘fresh expressions’ of church and pioneer groups have adopted this language and developed simple patterns of daily, weekly, monthly and/or annual commitments. In the discussion initiated by the Faith and Order Committee, we are to explore whether Methodists other than deacons might share in a rule of life. My impression is that many would welcome such an opportunity.

This may be a good moment to reflect on what new monasticism might offer for Methodism.

Just as Anthony, and later Benedict, pioneered monasticism as a response to changing times for both church and culture, so new monasticism is seen as a response to the end of Christendom, postmodern culture and growing hostility towards Christianity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, credited with coining the term ‘new monasticism’, wrote his famous and widely quoted note in the face of the rise of Nazism and corrosion of the church in colluding with the regime.

‘The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism, which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Jesus.’[1]

This particular failure of the church, identified by Bonhoeffer, seems to many to have been prophetic in relation to the end of Christendom. Stuart Murray writes:

‘New monasticism: rules of life and rhythms of worship may be essential to sustain communities of resident aliens in post-Christendom.’[2]

In relation to culture, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) was significant. Writing, as he saw it, in the context of the breakdown of moral discourse in modern society, MacIntyre ends with a call for a ‘new Benedict’. Jonathan Wilson developed this idea in Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (1998). All writers on this subject emphasise the need for Christians to be counter cultural in the face of corrosive consumerist culture.

So new monasticism offers Christians a way of living out faith in Christ in a radically changed and sometimes hostile culture.

Methodism developed at a time of change for church and culture. There is much evidence (but not enough space here) to argue for early Methodism as a form of new monasticism. John Wesley’s rules and aphorisms gave shape to the societies. Their watchnights, love feasts, preaching services and annual covenant service, alongside attendance at band or class, supplied the rhythm. Together these formed communities of Christian disciples. Those early Methodists lived by a rule of life and a rhythm of worship and witness.

What might a modern Methodist rule of life be like?

We could develop one from the Our Calling statement, emblazoned on our membership tickets. My sense is, however, that this is more of a reminder of the breadth of our discipleship than a rule of life, and we have no inbuilt accountability structure for how we are attending to it. More could be done.

But maybe we are no longer in a top-down culture. Even if we could develop a rule of life for all Methodists, our natural non-conformity would resist it. In any case, it may not go far enough to touch our daily activities and individual sense of calling. Perhaps what we need is rules of life around particular callings – local preachers, pastoral visitors, youth workers, those who exercise their discipleship in the health service, industry or the home. They could be developed by those who sense this calling and devised not individually but together with others, so that there is prayer, support and accountability for all.

Perhaps we could work at both levels, so top-down and bottom-up might inform each other.

[1] Bonhoeffer, D., et al. (1995). A testament to freedom : the essential writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. [San Francisco, Calif.], HarperSanFrancisco.

[2] Murray, S. (2004). Church after Christendom. Milton Keynes, Paternoster.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence

by Jill Baker

Writing about silence is almost as ironic as speaking about silence. If the heart of silence is an absence of words, then a blank sheet of paper (or screen) might be the best way in… but a few observations, none the less.

This week the 2017 Methodist Conference is meeting in Birmingham; a gathering of around 300 people, with many reports to debate and decisions to take. Not a natural arena for silence, and quite a contrast to the setting where I drafted these thoughts; during a “Five-Day Community for Spiritual Formation”[1] in Northern Ireland just a few weeks earlier. As the name suggests, around thirty of us lived in community for five days, hoping to be spiritually a little more formed by the end of it – time will tell. Alongside teaching, worship, listening time and wonderful Irish hospitality, one of the tools for the formation was silence. After each presentation, morning and afternoon, we kept an hour’s silence, and following Night Prayer remained silent until Morning Prayer next day.

This could be a delight but could also be a challenge. Silence can be threatening; we often use noise and activity to distract ourselves from our deepest emotions and from an encounter with ourselves. Silence can break down the defences and make us vulnerable. Silence can also be abused; whilst it may be a tool it must not be a weapon. If a person has been silenced by others, they have been violated. Too often in the power struggle which has never been far from the history of Christianity, bible texts have been used to silence women and other groups.

Silence is not our natural state and has to be learned. We do not come into this world in silence; a silent baby would struggle to survive. Susanna Wesley may have been able to teach her children to cry softly[2], but that is not a widespread practice! Indeed, the idea of “suffering in silence” in adulthood has about it a stoic quality which, whilst it may be commendable at times, also suggests a martyred attitude, an unhealthy repression which will, in time, bear bad fruit. The psalmist seems to agree,; “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long”.[3]

So why might we consider silence a practice worth learning? There are around a hundred references to silence or keeping silent in Scripture, many of them occurring in the “wisdom literature”. Perhaps that affords a first reason; Proverbs reminds us; “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.”[4] Silence can save us from speaking hastily, rashly, hurtfully, selfishly. Monks living permanently in community have been known to reflect that it is the silence which enables the community to survive.

Perhaps the most famous Bible reference to silence is Elijah’s encounter with God at Horeb5. Elijah is expecting God to “pass by”. Wind, earthquake and fire all fail to reveal God’s presence, but then comes the “still small voice”[5]. Almost the only thing I remember from three years of studying Hebrew at Durham is our professor’s own translation of this almost untranslatable phrase, “a rarefied, audible silence”. Elijah certainly recognises the presence of God in this silence, for he covers his face as he goes to the entrance to the cave. The voice follows, but the silence comes first.

So silence has two directions (at least); we learn to be silent before God – sometimes waiting for God to speak, but often rather learning to hear God in the silence. In human relationships silence is often used to express disapproval, anger or indifference. Sometimes it may simply mean that our interlocutor is no longer present to us. But at other times, silence in conversation may itself be a language. Barbara Brown Taylor’s little gem of a book, “When God is silent – divine language beyond words” explores this idea very helpfully. Silence may not mean absence, but may be a deep communication; the silence of lovers, the silence of those who are communicating without words.

The final biblical reference to silence comes in the book of Revelation[6]; after the seventh seal has been opened by the Lamb, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. A fascinating thought!


[2] Susanna Wesley. Thoughts on Raising Children, July 24, 1732.

[3] Psalm 32:3

[4] Proverbs 17:28

[5] I Kings 19:12

[6] Revelation 8:1